Living History

Chapters 58 -70

Author: Lizbeth Marcs <vblackheart[at]>

Summary: Some people have come a place far, far away and a time far, far ahead to ask for help on an urgent matter. The time? February 2008. The place? Moscow. The problem? They're in Cleveland, September 2003. And that's just the beginning of the trouble…

Author's Note: This is based on a challenge issued by Uncle Rand on the XanderZone list, so you know, right away, that it's Xander- centric. Beyond that I'm not telling.

Disclaimer: Is this necessary? I own nothing. ME/Fox owns everything. Deal.

Pairing: Kinda, sorta, depends on how hard you squint. Mostly friendship/adventure/humor rule the day.

Feedback: As always, thoughtful feedback is welcomed. Since this is a WiP that may take a looooong time to finish, I look forward to seeing what people have to say.

Archiving: On XanderZone is automatically granted since the challenge came from there. Everyone else please ask.

There's a glossary at the end of the story.

For the latest parts look at LiveJournal


To recap Uncle Rand's Challenge:

I've read a lot of stories on this group about Xander being the quiet hero, doing what he does without any thanks and I had a thought. What if a group of people, maybe a new group of Slayerettes, came from the future, via a spell that would send them to the time they needed to be, to save the world and were awestruck at meeting Xander, but thought Buffy was nothing special?


1) Set immediately after series finale.

2) No B/X or W/X! Story must be F/X or D/X.

3) No incredible inventions from the future for killing Vampires from a distance!

4) (Optional) Does Xander and whoever he is involved with go to the future with them when they return?

Judging by some discussion on this challenge, I'm adhering to the letter of the challenge, but probably not the intent. Heh. Typical.

Liz ;)

Latest addition

Chapter 58
Here's the Spanner in the Works…

Buffy stood on the periphery of the mud fight with Giles and shouted encouragement while the girls giggled and tumbled with the last of the dirty creatures. She felt the high of a decisive victory where no one got killed. God she missed that feeling.

She was covered in dirt and grime, she could feel the bruises and scrapes, she was pretty sure she pulled something in her back, and not one whit of it mattered. Right here, right now, it was all good.

Plus, she called dibs on the first shower. Heh. Being and moldy oldie had its advantages and she damn well was going to use it.

"A most excellent job, I think," Giles nodded.

"I'm passing on the nonfat yogurt and going straight for a huge banana split," Buffy announced. "I think I could stand to have some extra-fattening goodness, especially if it comes with really gooey fudge."

"Perhaps we should hold off that oh-so-American tradition of over-consumption to mark this milestone and wait until our compatriots get to the surface?"

Something in Buffy deflated. "Don't you even dare suggest that…"

"Perish the thought." Giles seemed to be feeling as loopy as she was, if she could judge by his grin. "I best go check on the others to see how they are doing."

"No, I'll do it."

Giles placed a hand on her shoulder. "You've had a hard fight of it, so I do believe you should rest up a bit. Besides," Giles rolled his shoulders like a prize-fighter, "I still feel quite invigorated."

"Gonna take on some mud monsters?" Buffy asked.

"Not if I can help it." If anything, Giles's smile grew wider. "I'll be off. Stay here and enjoy your well-deserved bask in glory."

Buffy watched him disappear through the trees before turning her attention back to the still-wrestling girls. *Watch me bask, world! I'm a basking Buffy to end all basking Buffies. You might say I'm a regular basking case.*

Sadly, it didn't last.


Buffy jerked around at the sound of Faith's echoing voice. She saw the other elder Slayer propping up an apparently wobbly Robin while Charlie stood behind her with a hand on Willow's shoulder. They all looked the worse for wear, worse than the mud-covered Slayers in fact.

"I DON'T BELIEVE THIS!" Faith probably would've been jumping up and down in fury if Robin weren't using her as a prop. "WE'RE GETTING OUR ASSES KICKED AND YOU'RE DOING MUD WRESTLING NIGHT AT HOOTERS? I OUGHTTA…"

On "asses kicked," Buffy was off and running to get to Faith. *No, no, no, no…* her mind circled even as her stomach sank.

"Yo! B! Not so close! Stay right the fuck where you are," Faith ordered.

Buffy stopped a few yards from the bedraggled group, but protested about it anyway. "You said…"

"Trust me. We got ourselves a situation. Let me get over there to explain," Faith said as she awkwardly set Robin on the ground, positioning him so he could sit upright against the crypt wall. Once she was sure Robin was steady, the dark-haired Slayer jogged over to Buffy's position.

*She looks like she just crawled out of a blender,* Buffy thought as she felt her chest squeeze tight. *I should've gone with. I shouldn't've let them down there without me.* "Where's everyone else?" she demanded.

Faith winced as she came to a stop; a move that caused every scrape, cut, and bruise to stand out in the dim light of her headlamp. "There's some wacky shit up with the Grail that Catherine's still gotta sort out, so they might be a bit. Plus, Xander and his Fantastic Four were making plans to off the Grail's guardian, so they're pretty much tied up."

Buffy's nerves started singing a warning. "You left them all by…"

"I had wounded to get out," Faith clipped.

Robin was definitely out of it and now that she was closer Buffy could see he was sporting a good-sized gash right over his left eye. Willow, on the other hand, seemed just fine even if she was acting like…like…

"Her eyes," Buffy breathed. "Oh, god. Faith? What happened?"

"That's the situation I was trying to tell you about." Faith's head snapped up and she hollered over Buffy's shoulder, "All of you stay the hell back or I will kick your asses! Got me?"

"Do as she says," Buffy ordered without bothering to look behind her.

Faith gave her a surprised look before quietly saying, "Thanks for the back-up, B."

"Willow's gone black-eyed, which means big badness," Buffy said tightly. "So spill. Everything. Right now."

"Willow touched the Grail and it fried her noggin," Faith explained. She held up a hand the moment Buffy opened her mouth, "Lemme finish. Charlie thinks she's seeing stuff from the future."

"What?" Buffy choked out.

"Before you go getting any ideas, no one can make heads or tails what any of her weird ass mumbling means. Bonus, she hasn't lost none of her punch."


Faith waved at her face. "I'm pretty sure I'm looking damaged. Hell, I can definitely feel the damage. Courtesy of a temper tantrum your good bud pitched against things that weren't there. She tossed all of us around like we weren't nothin'."

"Anyone hurt? Dawn?"

"Dawn was way safe and out of the way. Me 'n Xander took the brunt.

"Xander was hurt and you left him there!" Buffy's voice climbed the scale.

"Hey, yo, chill, he's got it all under..."

"Control?" Buffy could feel the rising panic. Dawn was in the hands of complete strangers. Xander was hurt and protected by nothing more than four newbies. And Faith.... "I can't believe you!" She snaked out a hand and snatched the light band off Faith's head and took off for the crypt.

"B! Buffy!"

Buffy paid no attention as she dove into the crypt's interior.


Faith moved to chase the other Slayer, but Charlie stepped in her way.

"You can't go," he said in a voice that brooked no argument.

"She's got no idea what's waiting for her down there," Faith protested.

"You're needed here," Charlie crossed his arms. "You have to keep the other girls away from Willow until I finish titrating her dose."


Charlie sighed. "I have to start with a small dose of sedatives and work my way to a larger dose..."

"Until she's knocked out. Got it." Faith looked over to the increasingly restless group of girls. "You gonna be okay if I turn my back on you for sec?"

"It's gotten so dark. So dark," Willow muttered as she wrapped her arms around herself. "I feel cold."

Charlie tossed the witch a worried glance. "The neural shut-down is still holding, but the best way to make sure it stays that way until we can get her back to your household is to put her under. We should be fine. If not, I'll let out the loudest scream you've heard this side of a blood vid."

"Blood vid?" Faith waved her hands to stop him from answering. "Forget it. Get going doc."

Charlie gave her a curt nod and immediately turned his attention to Willow. He was muttering something encouraging while Willow shivered. She was repeatedly apologizing in a weak voice and trying to fall into a crouch while the doc held her. The look on her face…

*Tragedy. It looks like a fucking tragedy.*

Faith stepped slowly away as her formerly fuzzy feelings finished evaporating. She'd reached her limit and hoped like hell that she wouldn't be hearing any more future talk from Willow. She slid over to Robin and did a quick check. He was still out of it and trying to close his eyes for that nap.


Faith stood up and jogged over to the group of filthy girls. They were all focused on Willow and whispering amongst themselves. There was a definite "on edge" feeling. Terrific. Hell of time for them to remember just how witch-y Willow could be.

"Yo! I need one of you ladies to keep an eye on Robin here." Faith kept her voice as level and as business-like as she could. "He got whacked on the head and we need to keep him awake until we can get him to the hospital."

"What's wrong with Willow?"

"Andrea? Right?"

The girl nodded.

"Nothin' you have to worry about. She ran into some bad mojo and the doc's gotta get her home before he can fix her up right." Faith hoped she sounded reassuring. "Robin's the one who needs an eye. Andrea? Think you could do that for me?"


"Don't make me issue an order. I got a lotta crap to cover before B gets back. I can't watch Robin and help everyone get their shit straightened out. Capece?"

Andrea looked around. "What do I need to do?"

"Keep him awake. Make sure he don't wander off. We'll get him off your hands as soon as we can get wheels to the hospital."

"Why not just call an ambulance?" Tammi asked.

Faith held up a finger, "One, we might have more wounded, and if we call start calling a whole buncha ambulances to this cemetery, someone might start asking real uncomfy questions. Two, if there are more wounded, we'll have to spin the right lie to explain why so many people are bleeding. If we only got Robin to worry about, we need to come up with a mugging story before we can get him help. Three, we need time to get everyone not wounded out of here because…"

"We're all a little hard to explain," Tammi finished for her as she waved a hand around. "Have I mentioned that this sucks?"

Faith grinned. "Welcome to the big leagues. Anyone know where Kennedy is hiding?"

"Probably with one of the other groups," Jeanne answered. "We're kind of scattered."

"Right. If she ain't tied up in a fight, get her here. I'd think she'd want to be with her girlfriend," Faith said.

While Jeanne took off and Andrea headed for Robin, Faith tiredly rubbed her face. B had no business charging belowground like she did. If anything that was her job. She should've just dumped the wounded and turned right back around to go help Catherine and Xander. The last thing she wanted to do was play drill sergeant and get everyone organized so the group could clear out of the cemetery without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Faith took a deep breath in an effort to clear her head and said, "Right. You, you, and you. Know where everyone is? Good. Go get 'em and bring 'em here. And each of you should grab a partner just in case anyone is still fighting what-the-hell-ever it is you guys were fighting so you can lend a hand. You and you, make sure we've got all our weapons, even the broken ones. Last thing we need is someone tripping over a sword or an axe tomorrow morning. Once everyone's here, we do a headcount and find out if anyone else needs to chat with Charlie or head to the hospital with Robin."


"Finished," J'Nal announced as he wearily stepped back.

"Well, I definitely don't want to go near that thing. Then again, I saw what it did to Willow, so I'm not too sure if that's a good test," Dawn said.

"Any ideas?" Catherine asked.

Dawn grinned, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and let out a piercing whistle. "Andrew? Can you come over here? I need your help."

Andrew jogged over with a pleased grin on his face. "As my lady so orders, I will hack and slash…"

"No hacking and slashing required. I just need you to read something," Dawn interrupted with an eyeroll.

"I was, of course, talking metaphorically." Andrew's hands waved in bird-nervous movements. "I've been talking with Ruda…"

Catherine groaned.

"Well, more like I've been bouncing ideas off her because, y'know, Ruda's bound by the Temporal Prime Directive and can't actually offer advice about…"

"I really wish someone would explain this 'temporal prime directive' to me," Tikri complained. "For a civilization that doesn't even have interstellar travel, I really don't see how anyone came up with a rule with that kind of title."

Andrew puffed up his chest. "Well the Great Bird of the Galaxy…"

"Andrew," Dawn warned.

"Great Bird of the Galaxy?" Tikri asked. She nudged Catherine, "Do you remember anything from ancient mythology about a…"

"Nudge me again like that and I'll remove your hand at the elbow," Catherine growled.

Tikri raised both hands in the air. "Touchy."

"Definitely grouchy," J'Nal agreed.

"I'll, unh, explain later then," Andrew said. "So, like, what do you need me to translate?"

Dawn indicated the Grail's pedestal with a wave of her hand. "It's on the other side and I can't read it, which means it's probably demonic. If you could…"

"But of course! Happy to serve the empire!"

"Whatever." Dawn gave him a painful smile. "Ummm, could you hurry? We're on a schedule."

"Right." Andrew walked past her, but the closer he got to J'Nal, the more his steps slowed. He was still out of arms' reach of the Grail when he stopped and began looking around the cavern. "Uuuunnnhhhhh, is it me, or do you have a feeling something's watching us?"

"Why, no," Catherine brightly replied. "But we'll keep an eye out, so don't worry. We really need the message translated."

"Unh-hunh," Andrew said absently. His head jerked around so that he was looking in another direction. "There's deinitely something watching us. I think…"

"Andrew, there's nothing there," Dawn assured him.

Andrew began to slowly back away from the Grail's location. "My spider-sense tells me that there's a definite very bad thing around. Maybe I should get Ruda."

"Very impressive," Tikri said.

"Look, I'm not making it up!" Andrew shouted as he spun around, ran a few steps, and then tripped over his own feet, landing on the ground with a thud.

"Andrew, are you okay?" Dawn asked.

Andrew sputtered and sneezed. "Just some gravel up my…" He paused. "Hunh. The feeling we're being watched is presto-chango-gone-o."

Dawn winced and held out a hand to him. "Sorry about that. We had to test the repel spell and since I watched J'Nal do it I wasn't a really good candidate."

Andrew blinked at her with hurt, watery eyes. The look was quickly replaced with gormless good cheer. "Oh, of course! No point in doing a Jedi mind trick unless you know it works."

"And how," Catherine agreed. "Put it on a little heavy, didn't you?"

"Better too heavy than too light," J'Nal sniffed.

"There wasn't a message, was there?" Andrew asked

"I really am sorry, Andrew," Dawn said as she helped him to his feet. "If there was anyone else, you know I would've used them."

"It's okay," Andrew patted her arm. "Glad I could help."

"Well, now that we know, we have to get going," Catherine ordered. "Let's everyone stick together. The sooner we reach the surface, the better I'll feel."

As everyone began making their way to the cavern exit, Catherine paused and touched J'Nal on the arm. When the witch turned to look at her, Catherine asked, "How are you holding up?"

"Tired," J'Nal responded with a wan smile. "You're right. I may have overdone it and put more energy into the spell than was strictly necessary."

"Can't blame you." Catherine shivered. "Will you be able to work with Charlie?"

"As long as I hold off casting any spells until we get back to the household, I'm sure it won't be a problem," J'Nal nodded. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's taking longer for me to recharge after spell casting than I like. I'm not used to working with the energy on this planet."

"If it makes you feel any better, I think even the natives sometimes have a problem dealing with the energy on this planet," Catherine chuckled as she turned to follow Tikri, Dawn, and Andrew.


Xander clambered over the rocky uneven surface. He was scurrying as fast as he dared, but he had the sinking feeling that it wasn't fast enough. Their scaly friend was lightening fast despite its size. Besides, it managed to wriggle its way out of one trap, what's to say that it didn't have some massive monster mojo that allowed it to get out of tight spaces?

He tripped for what felt like the millionth time and let out a yelp as his knee came in contact with a hard, jagged surface.

Jesus, how long had he been running?

He rubbed his knee with a wince, grateful that he didn't pitch headfirst into the ground. If he landed just right and cracked his head....

*Stop thinking about it.*

He turned and looked behind him, wondering how far he'd gotten into the tunnel. He could still hear echoes of the fighting, so he couldn't have gotten far.

*Hunh. I don't even see the cave entrance.*

Oh, shit.

Vi wouldn't.

Would she?

That pinball smile...

Shit. She most definitely would.

He felt that familiar sense of rising panic that he got when things were about to go spectacularly wrong, or even more wrong in this particular case. Vi was going to take on that monster alone and he was willing to bet good money that she didn't have to try that hard to talk the other three into going along with it.

"Goddamn it!" He growled as he turned around to head back the way he came. "What is it? Is thinking they can kill any scaly ugly a macho Slayer thing? Jesus! That snake is going to eat them alive!"

He hauled back the way he came, ignoring the bumps and bruises along the way. He had to get there before...


He pitched forward, feeling his ankle twist and a sharp pain shooting up his left leg. Out of reflex he brought up his arms fast enough that his forearms absorbed the jarring impact. His teeth sharply clicked together and he lay on the ground stunned and trying to draw breath. After a moment, he attempted to haul himself upright.

It was then he realized that his situation had rocketed from I-am-a-clumsy-idiot all the way up to I-am-so-very-screwed.

His foot had managed to get wedged in between the rocks. It didn't help that he was trapped in a face-down position, so if he wanted to free himself he'd have to do it by touch since no one thought to give him eyes in the back of his head to replace the eye he lost in front of it. He might--just might--be able to get into a kneeling position and then do a little contortion number that would probably involve bending over backwards, adding four inches to his arms, and developing a third joint in his fingers.

*Suuuuuure. This'll be eaaaaasy.*

"Well," he muttered, "looks like I'm not going anywhere any time soon."

Chapter 59
A Good Idea This Isn't

"Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap."

The sounds of fighting echoed and bounced off the cavern walls, encircling one very muddy, tired, and annoyed Slayer.

Buffy glared at some of the smaller tunnels branching off from her current path. She was pretty sure she remembered Willow saying that the largest cave was the main one and would take her to the grail's location. The problem was that Dawn and Xander could be anywhere down here.

*Okay. Think. What do I actually know?* Buffy winced. Maybe stopping to ask Faith a couple of questions before she took off might've been the smart thing to do in this situation.

What she knew was that Dawn was with Catherine and that they had found the grail, but there was some sort of problem. Xander was actually involved with a fight and working with four of the Slayers. *So, assuming Dawn didn't get mixed up with whatever it is Xander and the others are fighting, she could already be on her way to the surface.*

That left one option: find the fight and she'd at least find Xander.

Buffy concentrated on the echoes to see if she could guess which of the branches might take her to the battle. She thought she had it narrowed down to two options: straight ahead to the grail or a tunnel to her left.

"Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a monster by its toe, if it hollers stake it good, eeny-meeny-miney-mo, the one I choose is you." Buffy grimaced as her pointed finger landed on the tunnel to her left. She could tell that it was going to be rough going over the rocks. From this angle, she just couldn't see how there might be an epic battle going on between a monster, four Slayers, and Xander in that direction.

The again, maybe the tunnel was a short cut?

*Yeah! I bet that's it! HAH! Slayer hearing strikes again. Can't fool me!*

Feeling much more confident about her decision, Buffy hauled herself over the rocks partially blocking the entrance. It wasn't until she managed to stand upright and begin the arduous task of going forward that it hit her: she was completely unarmed.


Catherine very quickly figured out the little drawback to J'Nal's spell: Andrew and Dawn couldn't get anywhere near her without getting an attack of the screaming paranoias.

Taking off her coat and wrapping it around the Grail helped only a little bit, but given that they'd just spent the past five standard minutes trying to organize themselves enough to leave through the narrow tunnel, she was willing to accept "a little bit."

Catherine was forced to hang back while Ruda accompanied Dawn and Andrew down the tunnel.

"Perhaps I should take it," J'Nal offered apologetically, "I might be able to take the edge off the spell until we get back to their household."

"Would you have to exert your magical abilities to do it?" Catherine asked.


"Then the answer is no. I keep it."

"Besides, I know I'd feel better if your hands were free," Tikri said nervously. When J'Nal and Catherine finally spared her a glance, she added, "In case someone needs to cast a spell to get us out of trouble."

"She's got a point there," Catherine grudgingly allowed.

J'Nal and Tikri entered the tunnel, leaving Catherine to take up the rear. She hunched over her precious burden as she clutched the cloth-covered Grail to her chest. The sounds of fighting were still going strong, which meant they'd probably have to fight their way out. Terrific. Fighting while holding on to the Grail was not going to be easy. How something as simple as bringing along a knapsack to carry the Grail slipped everyone's mind was anyone's guess.

When she stepped out of the tunnel and into the fight arena, the reaction to her arrival underscored just how much of a problem J'Nal's spell was.

A Slayer to her immediate left whipped around to face her with a snarl before turning white, dropping her sword, and crabbing away from the Watcher Honoria as quickly as possible. The escaping Slayer nearly ran over her teammate in the process.

Violet, who was nearby engaging a monstrously large snake, became distracted. "What just..." Violet began as she turned to look at Catherine. Her question was cut off when the snake took the opportunity to strike by trying to swallow the girl whole.

Violet let out a bloodcurdling holler as she jumped back fast enough to prevent herself from becoming a snack. The snake's fangs still managed to catch her sword arm, leaving behind a bloody trail that ran from shoulder to wrist. Needless to say, Violet lost her weapon in the process.

Catherine desperately scanned the open ground, trying to find a spot that was absent of present-day people. Although there were plenty of those, getting to them was going to be another matter entirely. Furthermore, even if she could get clear of people who'd be affected by J'Nal's spell, she was still in the middle of a fight, which meant sooner or later someone was going to get close enough to her to cause problems.

"Xander!" Dawn was screaming at the top of her lungs. "Where's Xander?"

Catherine's eyes widened as she desperately scanned around her. "Alexander! Alexander where are you? Alexander!"

The other three Slayers, seeing that their companion was wounded, charged the snake to drive it away from Violet. With a distinctive war cry, Ruda joined the fray. Catherine's Slayer struck with smooth precision as her weapons flashed through the darkness. The other Slayers were clumsy by comparison only because they were still learning; a point that was driven home by the sheer terrible beauty of a Ruda loosed on an enemy she could hurt.

Catherine jittered with indecision. Instinct and training told her to help Violet get out of harm's way and then to join the fight. Reality told her that the last thing she should do is let go of the Grail. Through the chaos, she saw J'Nal raise his hands in a threatening manner.

"J'Nal! Wait!" Catherine screamed.

The Prima witch froze.

"Get Dawn and Andrew to safety!" Catherine shouted. "Do not use magic unless you absolutely have to!"

J'Nal nodded.

Catherine trusted her witch to know that he wouldn't cast spells unless someone was threatened with immanent death.

"But Xander!" Dawn yelped while that weasel Andrew cowered behind her.

"I'll find him!" Catherine yelled back over the din.

In the meantime, Violet managed to clear the fight, landing close enough to Catherine that the Watcher Honoria wondered why the Slayer hadn't gone fetal on the ground.

"If you're worried, Xander's playing bait," Violet explained.

"Bait?" Catherine asked. She was treated to the odd sight of Violet moving toward her at a snail's pace. The girl looked like she was fighting every instinct to run like hada. *Founders, she is a brave one,* Catherine thought.

"Yeah," the closer Violet got, the more she began to shake, "the plan was for the snake to chase him and get trapped in one of the tunnels so we could kill it without getting eaten."

Catherine could only watch in sick fascination as Violet inched forward. The Slayer was trembling so hard that she looked like she had the shimmy-shakes. "Maybe you should stay there," Catherine said.

Violet nodded, but took that one step closer.

"I'm going to make a wild guess," Catherine said loud enough to be heard over the noise of battle, "someone decided to change the plan."

"If the snake catches him he'll be killed," Violet protested.

"As opposed to four Slayers being killed?" Catherine snarled back. "Let's get one thing clear: Watchers are expendable. Slayers are not."

"But..." Violet protested.

"Don't you get it? He was doing his job when he attempted to lure your enemy to a place where you could more easily kill it." Catherine glared at Violet. She whirled around and faced the battle scene. Things were not going well. The snake still seemed to have the upper hand, despite its wounds. The girls were clearly tired. Ruda's attempt to help was for naught.

Catherine looked down at the cloth bundle in her arms. She had just the ticket to cow that snake right into submission.

She unwrapped the Grail and charged forward, holding it out in front of her like a cross. The snake saw her and froze.

ROWL?*(*What the.)

Catherine stood pat and held the Grail above her head. If this snake was from this time, it should fall apart like the present-day Slayers.

HISSSSSSS!*(*My shiny thing! What are you doing with my shiny thing?)

The snake feinted in confusion, forcing Catherine to retreat. *The hada! It should've retreated by now!*

GROOOWLLLL!*(*That's mine!)

Either the snake was immune to magic, or it wasn't from this time. *Right. Change of plans.* Catherine shook the Grail at the snake and bolted for one of the tunnels, screaming as she ran, "Get everyone out of here now!"

"Wait!" one of the Slayers shouted.

RRROOOWWLLLL! GRUUUUUL!*(Get back here with my shiny thing! Stop! Thief!)

"That's an order!" Catherine shot back as she disappeared down a tunnel.

The snake was busy untangling itself in preparation to go after Catherine.

Lisa ran over to Vi's side and began pulling the struggling Slayer away.

"We have to stop her!" Vi shouted as she saw the snake begin to slither after the Watcher Honoria.

"You're wounded. We have to get Dawn and Andrew out of here," Lisa said firmly. "We'll come back after we get you and the others to the staircase."

"But don't you see?" Vi argued. "She went down the same tunnel Xander did."

"Then you better stop fighting me and start running for that staircase," Lisa grimly replied. "Because we're going to need all the help we can get."


"Fan-fucking-tastic, Xander Harris. How do you do this to yourself? Geee, Howard. It's simple. I'm an idiot."

Xander had placed the crossbow within easy reach and managed to shed the quiver. Throwing axe was likewise discarded, also within easy reach. Sweat poured off his forehead in rivers as he fought to remain balanced on his knees despite the uneven ground. The tips of his fingers were sore from scrabbling against the rocks holding his left foot captive and his back ached from hyper-extending backwards to reach those rocks.

And dare he mention the pain? Because right now it was pain-a-palooza. He wasn't a hundred percent sure, but his ankle and his leg hurt so much he was willing to bet that he broke something.

"See, the thing is, Howard," Xander grunted as he stubbornly attempted to arch his back and reach for the rocks holding him fast, "someone in our happy little group needs to be the damsel in distress. As it so happens, I am that damsel. Why, Xander Harris, don't you resent your constant need to be rescued? Sometimes Howard, sometimes. It just would be nice if I could switch off with the others, you know? Maybe one week Willow needs to be saved, the next week Buffy. While we're at it, let's throw Dawn and Giles on the rotation. But I'm not bitter. Noooooooo. Well, maybe a little bitter. Know what would make me less bitter? If the woman saving me would help me up onto her white horse and carry me away to a place where we could live happily ever after with lots and lots of orgasms."

He stopped his rant. Closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Yeah," he added quietly, "so much for that plan, right Anya?"

Talking, even talking to himself, was definitely of the bad. He should stop it right now.

One more mighty effort only resulted in more sweating and heavy panting. He stopped stretching, an action that had a spring-back effect that pitched him forward. His reflexes were fast enough that his hands stopped his face from mashing into the ground.

"Now what?" he asked.

Rhetorical question got him an echoing growl.*(*Ooooh, no. Not falling for that trap again.)

Xander shook his head in irritation. The four girls were probably holding the line, but how long before one of them got killed?

He looked up at the cavern ceiling and said, "I could use some serious ass-saving right about now. So if you could just hurry up?"

Right on cue, Catherine burst around the bend like several hellhounds were hot on her heels. Xander yelled as Catherine nearly trampled him and then cowered as an overwhelming sense of fear overpowered him.

"Alexander!" Catherine shouted happily. "You're all right."

About all he could do was try to curl into a ball and cover his head with hands. *Magic, magic, magic, magic, magic,* something inside him sang a warning. *Hurts, hurts, hurts. Makeitgoaway.*

"Oh. Sorry. The Grail."

Somewhere in his overwhelming panic he could hear Catherine retreat. His blind fear eased to a simple feeling of niggling worry and he peered up.

"J'Nal cast a spell on the Grail to keep people away," Catherine said apologetically. "He, unh, went a little overboard."

"Oh, wait. Let me guess," Xander struggled to get to his knees, "he whammied the grail so we'd all turn into a quivering mess if we got close? How not smart, considering, oh, we were in the middle of fighting a huuuuuge snake."

Another growl* prompted Catherine to look over her shoulder. (*I think I'll try this way. Cut you off at the pass.)

"I don't think it's following me," she said absently.

Xander glared. "Let me get this straight: you decided to play bait? Are you out of your mind?"

"Hey! Look who's talking!" Catherine began her protest, a protest that was cut short by Buffy's entrance, which featured a yell and a pratfall that would make Jim Carey proud.

Good thing Xander provided her with a nice, safe, soft landing spot.

Xander yelped and again was forced to catch himself with his forearms before he pitched headfirst into the rocky floor. This resulted in a stream of invectives as his already battered body parts became more battered.

"Hey!" Buffy swatted playfully at him. "Is that any way to treat the girl who's here to help?"

"You know, any more help and I'll be dead," Xander complained. "Get off!"

Buffy rolled to her feet with a giggle. It quickly died down when she got her bearings. "Where is everyone? And does anyone else feel like something's watching us?"

"Xander tried to draw off the snake," Catherine quickly cut in.

"I'm telling you," Buffy looked around, "I'm a little uneasy."

"I tripped and fell and got stuck," Xander interrupted. "My foot's wedged."

"You're stuck?" Catherine asked as she moved to kneel next to Xander. "Why didn't you didn't say anything?"

"Could be because someone tripped over me with a grail enchanted to cause people to turn into piles of scaredy-cat goo," Xander said.

"Good thing I'm immune, hunh?" Buffy asked as her eyes scanned the cavern. "You know? I think we should be going, as in right now."

"Immune, hunh?" Xander shot Catherine a glare.

Buffy grimaced. "I'm guessing not so much." She took a deep breath. "Okay, where's everyone else?"

"Dawn, Andrew, Tikri, and the four Slayers are being evacuated under J'Nal's protection as we speak," Catherine said. "My guess is that they'll bring back help."

"No! Bad idea!" Buffy said. "They'll get lost if they come down here."

"Buffy's right," Xander agreed. "Bonus, I think you should get out of here, too."

"We're not leaving you," Catherine said.

"You heard her," Buffy said with crossed arms.

"Fine! Buffy can save me, but you have got to go!" Xander shouted in frustration. "We've fought too damn hard to get that stupid grail."

"No!" Catherine said in the voice of someone who was not used to being contradicted. "I'll just help."

"You are not going to help. You are going to get your ass and go." When Catherine opened her mouth, Xander exploded, "For Christ's sake, we don't have time to argue. You got the grail, so Move. Your. Ass."

"I don't leave my people behind," she said flatly.

"Hey! I'm going to be here!" Buffy protested. "No one's getting left behind."

"That's not the point," Catherine said.

Xander's arm quickly snaked out and he grabbed Catherine by her collar, pulling her down so they were face-to-face. "Let's get one thing straight. I am issuing you a fucking executive order to run like hell. You don't have a choice because technically speaking I'm your fucking boss. Got me?"

Two pairs of furious brown eyes glared down into an equally furious living brown eye and a matching glass one.

To Xander's amazement, Catherine broke first. She closed her eyes. "Yes, Harris-rah."


She gave a curt nod and scurried to scoop up the Grail.

"Better go out the way I came in," Buffy said. "I think it's a short cut."

"Better take my crossbow while you're at it," Xander added.

"Oh, but leave your sword, pretty please?" Buffy asked. "I've got nothing on me."

Catherine nodded unhappily as she took off the sword and scabbard slung crosswise across her back and placed it on the ground. She took a deep breath and charged past the pair, stopping just long enough to grab the crossbow and quiver.

As she passed, a feeling of dread paralyzed Buffy and Xander. The feeling only began to fade when Catherine began clambering over the rocks behind them.

A low growl* echoed through the caverns. (*Well, well, well. What's this I smell? Walnut Brain?)

Buffy grabbed the scabbard and slung it over one shoulder. She returned, dropped to her knees, and began worrying at the rocks holding Xander fast. He could hear her fighting to keep her breathing under control while she worked.

"Great, just great. Way to go all noble there, stupid," Xander snarled to as he peered into the darkness in front of him. "I hope it bites our heads off, because then I know we'll be able to keep on living since we don't actually have brains."

"Ummmm, can you hold off on that hope? Because I really, really don't feel like carrying my own head under my arm," Buffy said with a grunt. There was a sound of a clattering rock and just like that, Xander was free.

"Can you stand?" Buffy asked.

Xander slowly got to his knees before forcing himself to stand on his right foot. Using Buffy like a makeshift crutch, he slowly put more weight on his throbbing left leg. The results were less than impressive. "Yeah. Ouch. Oo. Oo," he groaned through clenched teeth.

SNARL*(*You and me, Walnut Brain. Then I get my shiny thing back.)

"Broken?" Buffy asked.

Xander was again standing on his right foot, keeping his left leg bent and his left foot elevated. "I-I-I don't think so. Hurts like hell, though."

Buffy looked worriedly around. "Can you move?"

GRrRrRrRrRrR.*(I think I'll try this way instead.)

"Do I have a choice?" Xander asked. "Where do we end up if we follow Catherine?"

"It dumps us back into the main tunnel."

"Let's go that way then."

"You sure?" Buffy asked doubtfully. "I mean, it's really rough doing and I don't know if you'll be able to make it."

"I'll make it because I have to," Xander said grimly.

Chapter 60
Today is a Better Day To…

Xander gamely tumbled over the rocks as he leaned on Buffy for support. The trek wasn't noiseless by any means. Xander's symphony of sharp intakes of breath, growls, and soft swearing leavened with the occasional whimper made Buffy nervous. She could only hope the monster's hearing wasn't sensitive enough to pick up the noise Xander was making.

They finally broke into the main tunnel, an act that was capped by Xander stumbling with a yelp as he transitioned to the relatively smooth sailing the main tunnel offered. Buffy managed to catch him before he landed face-first on the ground.

"Thanks," he said through clenched teeth.

Buffy stood still and let Xander straighten up so he could at least sling an arm around her shoulders. Out of reflex, she grabbed his dangling hand and wrapped her free arm around his waist.

"You ready to run?" she asked, not liking the fact that he was pale and sweating.

"Make it a hobble and you've got a deal."

They set off for the staircase. Buffy could hear sounds of movement echoing somewhere through the tunnels, but she was having a hard time pegging the source. The fact that whatever was hunting them was smart enough to not make any other noises that might give away its position did not make the Slayer feel at all comfortable.

Although they were moving faster than they had been in the small side tunnel, Buffy felt they were still moving too slow. While Xander awkwardly leaned on her for support as he limped along, she had to fight the urge to impatiently surge forward and drag him with her. If Xander were shorter, Buffy would've just thrown him over her shoulders and hauled ass out of there just to be done with the escaping routine.

"How's the ankle?" she whispered.

"Hard to tell," Xander grunted back.

There was a sharp clatter of rocks ahead. Xander reflexively hugged her closer, forcing Buffy to come to halt.

"What?" she asked.

"Wait," he grimly replied.

After a few moments of their headlamps scanning the darkness and finding nothing, coupled with no more scary rock-moving noises, Xander relaxed enough to allow Buffy to move forward.

They had walked-hobbled only a few feet more when a loud roar echoed through the tunnel followed by an explosion of rock and dust that drove them both to the ground. Buffy scrambled to her feet and saw the second-biggest snake head she'd ever seen in her life.

The snake did some sort of coil-y thing so that its eyes could fix on her. One sibilant hiss was all the impetuous she needed to grab Xander by the collar of his shirt and start dragging him away.

ROAR!*(*Goody! You brought a friend!)

Xander yelped and managed to pick up adrenalin-fueled speed despite his injured ankle. Although there was no way he could possibly keep up with a Slayer, even if that Slayer was weighted down by one Xander-sized package, he managed to avoid being strangled by his own clothing while Buffy dragged him along.

Knowing there was no way the two of them together were going to outrun a snake even in these close quarters, Buffy took a sharp right down a branching tunnel.

"Let go!" Xander managed get out as Buffy pulled him after her.


"Just take off and I'll distract…"

"Shut up!" Buffy shouted back as she ducked down yet another side passage to her left, dragging the loudly protesting Xander along with her. Behind her she could hear the snake rumbling through the passage as loose rocks clattered a warning of its advance. She tossed Xander in front of her so that she'd be able to turn and face the snake if it caught up with them. She must've yanked too hard because she heard the sound of cloth ripping and Xander was freely stumbling forward.

He brought his arms up over his head and yelled, "Oh, shi--" He crashed into a barrier and crumpled to the ground.

"Oh no," Buffy said as she raced to his side. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw he was stunned, but conscious. His headlamp was cracked, but at least still working. "Are you…"

"Ow. My arms haven't had enough abuse today." Xander blinked rapidly as if he was trying to clear his head. "Next time you throw me, can you please make sure there isn't a rock wall in the way?"

"Well excuse me for trying to keep you alive."

GROWWWWL.*(*Hide and seek. I liiiiike this game.)

Xander slapped a hand over her mouth and dragged her to the ground. Buffy shot him a glare, but gave him a curt nod. She suspected that this quiet-as-a-mouse routine wasn't going to be at all helpful, but it was worth a shot. He removed his hand from her mouth and reached up to fumble with his headlamp until his light snapped off. She quickly followed suit.

Xander remained on his back keeping as still as possible. Buffy slowly worked her way into a crouching position, ignoring Xander's irritated huff telling her that she was making noise. Given the fact that the snake--*it must be huuuuuge if its body matches its head*--was making plenty of noise as it navigated the corridors, she figured it probably couldn't hear her.

An echoing growl* startled both of them. (*I can smell you, you know.)

Buffy quietly unslung Catherine's sword and put it on the ground. She kept one hand on the hilt and the other on the scabbard. As the sounds of movement got closer, she knew that all she managed to do was trap both her and Xander in a neat little box. If they were going down, she was going to make damn sure that snake was going down with them.

Ruuuuuuuuuur.*(*First I eat. Then shiny thing.)

The sound of movement stopped. Buffy held her breath, hoping that the snake lost them. *I hope it worked I hope it worked I hope it worked...*

With a suddenness the defied belief, the snake's head thrust into their hidey hole.

ROOOOAAAARRRRR!*(*I win Walnut Brain!)

Buffy launched from her position with a scream, drawing the sword as she went.

"Buffy!" Xander shouted.

The snake's jaws opened wide just as Buffy got into swinging distance. Given her speed, there was no way to avoid getting bit, so Buffy charged straight into the snake's mouth.


Using every ounce of Slayer strength at her disposal, Buffy grasped the hilt in both hands and struck upward, driving the sword at an angle, which miraculously prevented the snake from closing its jaws. There was a roaring sound in her ears accompanied by the sharp sounds of something breaking. When she withdrew the sword, there was a surprising amount of blood that gushed from the wound. Around her she could feel the snake trying to work its jaws, which left her with only one option: keep stabbing at roughly the same angle.

She was blinded by the flood of blood and deafened by the noise. She wasn't sure how long she stabbed at the roof of the snake's mouth and how long she fought to keep her balance as the soft footing beneath her violently undulated in agony. At some point, she felt her collar go tight and she wondered if she got caught on the snake's fangs. If that was the case, she was in trouble for sure.

She was shocked when she realized that she was actually getting dragged past the monstrously large fangs, a point driven home by the fact that a sharp point had nicked her cheek, and backwards into the relatively open air of cul-de-sac. She stumbled, still off balance and still disoriented by her sudden change in environment. Unable to re-capture he equilibrium, she was dragged to the ground as her rescuer tripped with a very male curse.

The snake was convulsing and screaming, causing loose rocks to scatter and clatter around them. Buffy and Xander scrambled as quickly as they could away from the dying creature before landing hard up against the opposite rock wall. They crouched on the ground in an effort to make themselves smaller targets for the snake's unthinking death throes. For good measure, Xander yanked the half-stunned Buffy into a hug, curling around her in an effort to shield her from the dust and debris kicked up by the battle's aftermath.

Buffy wasn't sure how long the dying drama lasted as she and Xander cringed together on that cavern floor. All she knew was that eventually the snake stilled, the rocks stopped rumbling in a threatening manner, and even the echoes faded away.

There was a cool rush of air across her cheek as Xander lifted his head. "Are you okay?" he whispered.

"Yeah," Buffy whispered back.

"Got your headlamp?"

Buffy bit back a sarcastic retort and gingerly touched her head, wincing at the tacky clumps that now passed as her hair. "Gonzo. I bet it's in the snake's stomach right now."

Xander stifled a chuckle. "Wanna go get it?"

"Not for all the coffee in a Starbuck's. You?"

"Not for all the Krispy Kremes on the planet."

"Please tell me you have yours."

Xander sat up. Buffy could just barely make out Xander's blind expression in the overwhelming dark.

"It's around here somewhere. I took it off before…you know. Ummm, I don't suppose superior Slayer-y eyesight could find it?"

"Where'd you put it?"

"Somewhere along this wall, but that's about all I can tell you."

"Right." Buffy began feeling along the wall to her left while she sensed Xander trying to do the same as he moved to his right. She maybe crawled a foot when her hand came in contact with something metallic.

"Got it!" she sang out. She fumbled a bit before finding the switch and snapping it on. She shined the light around her, picking out Xander in the darkness.

A hand flew up to shield his face as he protested, "Hey!"

Buffy swallowed hard and pointed the beam away. "You look like an extra from a horror movie."

"Do I look like 'Carrie' post pig-blood bath?" Xander asked.

Buffy considered him a moment. His face and hair was dark with blood, which caused his eyes--one fake and one real--to stand out in startling relief. If anything, he looked like he took a swim in a pool of blood with his clothes still on.

"Worse," she finally replied.

"Terrific. I rank as an extra in 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. No offense, but you don't look much better."

God knows her clothes felt sodden and tacky and her skin felt itchy and sticky. She really didn't need confirmation. "C'mon, let's see if there's a way out."

"Keep the light," Xander said as he painfully crawled to his feet. "I'm betting you're going to be moving around more than I will."

"Actually, that's a good idea." Buffy marched over to him and firmly guided him to small outcropping that was just high enough for him to sit, but low enough that he could just get on his feet if he needed to. "Off the ankle. I'm betting it's hurting."

"The pain is singing in an aria-like way, yeah," Xander agreed wearily. "Remind me that I'm not a Slayer and I shouldn't act like one as in ever."

Buffy gave him a friendly tap on the arm as he sat with a wince. "I'll let it slide this time, but one more move like that buster and I'm telling Willow. And you know what that means."

"She'll make me drink her scary herbal tea?" Xander deadpanned. "No. Anything but that. I beg you to be merciful." He took a deep breath and asked, "Did you see her?"

"Willow? Yeah. Faith mentioned that something happened." Buffy kicked at the gravel under her feet. "She had the black eyes, Xander. How bad?"

Xander looked away. "Bad enough."

The tone in his voice made it pretty clear she wouldn't get more information from him. She turned and wearily inspected the snake-blocked entrance. Her sword, like her light, was somewhere in that mess, so hacking and slashing their way out was not an option. That left inspecting the shadowed rock walls in hopes of finding a crawl space that would get them to a neighboring, snake-free tunnel.

"A splinter." Xander's voice echoed.


"It can only be killed by one of the splinters lodging in the roof of its mouth," Xander said dully.

"I don't follow."

She could see Xander staring at the snake. He looked like all his hopes had been shattered.

"You stabbed it in the roof of its mouth, didn't you?" he asked.

"Unh, yeah."

"Yeah," Xander said quietly. He looked back at her and offered her a weak smile. "Then again, I didn't exactly mention Robin and Willow getting hurt, so maybe it's not what I think, right?"

Maybe she was just too exhausted, but Buffy couldn't quite grasp what Xander was trying to say. "I'm not…"

"What I'm saying is that it's still possible that the future isn't the future." He shook his head. "Forget it. I'm just babbling."

*Ahhhh, the joy of post-battle,* Buffy thought as she began exploring the promising shadows and dips in the rock walls of their prison. Usually she was cranked after a good fight, but this was a night of getting battered so what she really wanted to do crawl into a hot bath and soak. Although there was a good chance that a rescue party was coming, god knows how long it would take for the others to find them. 0 Buffy snorted. *Yeah, because I have to be the big hero, right? Gotta not only kill the snake, but I have to prove I don't need anyone else. Talk about missing the point of sharing the power, which is sad on this epic scale since it was my freakin' idea.*

Buffy-thoughts, bad. Rock search, better.

*Quiet Xander, on the other hand? Just wiggy. Shouldn't he be saying something annoying right about now? Quippage?* He wasn't saying a peep. Without looking over her shoulder, she just knew Xander was staring at the dead snake and thinking…what? She had no idea.

Then again, she very rarely had any idea what Xander was thinking.

"Do you know what today is?" Buffy blurted out.

"I'd say Labor Day, except I think that was a couple of weeks ago."

"You think?" Buffy asked incredulously as she turned around to look at him.

He hesitated a moment, his eyebrows drawing tight. "Sorry. I'm stupid when it comes to dates since Sunnydale and Anya…I mean, I kind of register when the Andrew turns the calendar page, but I don't want to think about it."

"Four months ago to the day Sunnydale died with…" she couldn't quite bring herself to say that Spike was dead, mostly because on some gut level she didn't believe it. Or maybe she just didn't want to believe it. It seemed that even in dusty death Spike left her as conflicted as he did when he was undusty and undead.

Xander's face clouded over with guilt and he looked away. "Says a lot about me, doesn't it? Just call me Harris-Ass-Hole. Jesus." He scrubbed his hands through his hair, which caused it to stick up in tufts. He bowed his head as he added in a whisper, "It slipped my mind. I lost track and…scratch that, I didn't want to know."

"Sorry." Buffy wasn't exactly sure what she was apologizing for.

He opened his eyes and Buffy could see he wasn't trapped in a cave with a dead giant demonic-like snake at one end and a rock wall at the other. "Guess we know who won the who loves their dead ex most contest. Surprise, surprise, it wasn't me."

"Hey!" Buffy strode over to him and grabbed his upper arm with a blood-covered hand. "Stop that! Everyone deals…well, I'm over-focus-y about that kind of thing and you're always avoid-y."

"I can remember the anniversary of what should've been my wedding and I can't even remember this?" He angrily asked as he stood. Correction, attempted to stand. He fell back against his perch with a very loud "Ow!"

"You were going to storm across the cave and hit the rock wall, weren't you?" Buffy asked. "Can I just point out how so good an idea that's not? The last thing you need is a broken hand to go with your sprained ankle."

"You're probably right." Xander seemed almost grateful to get off the subject of dead towns, dead Anyas, and especially the threat of discussing dead Spikes. He lifted his leg in the air and gingerly swiveled the foot as he hissed in pain. "It's actually getting better, believe it or not."

"Are you going to be okay?"

"I think Charlie packed miracles in his medical thing-y, so yeah."

"About Anya, I mean."

Xander let his leg drop. "Buff? I love you. Really, I do. But I think your smartest move as a Slayer would be to tiptoe away from this subject as fast as Slayerly possible. You do not want to start poking at me with Mr. Pointy."

"I don't mean about the anniversary." Buffy kicked at granular soil. "I mean about everything."

Xander gritted his teeth as if he were biting back the first through tenth comments that went through his head before his shoulders slumped. "You're just not going to let it go, are you? Fine. Let's hear it. Whatever is on your mind. Open season. Sunnydale. Spike. Whatever. I'll sit here quietly and make the right sympathetic sounds since that's what you're looking for, right?"

*Okay, that stung,* she thought. She was really wearing a trench in the soil. Some part of her wondered if she could tunnel her way under the walls. She could run and get the others and then they could free Xander. Or maybe she could dig a trench big enough to get him out, too. She immediately rejected the thought since she didn't have a shovel.

"I envy you." The words popped out of her mouth.

Whatever he was expecting, he wasn't expecting that. He went from watching her out of the corner of his right eye to looking at her with a living one and a dead one. The fact that the left eye looked realish enough to show a flash of disbelief? Scary. Made her wonder about eyes being the window to the soul because if that was the case, at least part of Xander's soul was now synthetic.

"I mean, why should you remember the date? Why should you even care about it?" Buffy asked. "You have proof that you'll fall in love again."

Buffy saw Xander's nostrils flare with honest-to-god irritation. She knew Xander was capable of flash-fire anger, but usually that came out of nowhere and disappeared almost as quickly. She didn't recall the anger riding this close to the surface or him even trying to keep it in check.

Now that she thought about it, what with the clashes with Robin and the near-fight with Catherine, he'd been kind of like this since Sunnydale.

*Oh boy. I think he thinks I'm accusing him of…* "Look, it's not that I think you don't care about Anya or that you didn't love her or that you'll forget all about her," Buffy quickly explained. "But think about this, someday you'll…"



"Buffy, so help me god, if you start channeling Celine Dion, I'm taking out a restraining order the second we get out of this mess."

The blonde giggled despite herself. "I'm trying to have a serious heart-to-heart about…"

"What a coincidence. I'm trying to avoid a serious heart-to-heart," Xander said absently. "Hey, trench digging girl, think you can keep with the mission of getting us out of here?"

"Sorry. Got distracted," Buffy admitted.

"Well?" Irritation back in full force.

"I'm not sure I'll find something big enough for me to squirm through, and even if I do, there's no guarantee you'll be able to get through it and I don't want to just leave you."

Xander looked to the heavens and muttered before saying, "How about this: if you find something big enough for you, feel free to pull a Lassie to my Timmy and bring the reinforcements back to rescue one Xansel in distress. Believe me, I'm not a proud man. I'm a man who wants to live. Specifically, I'm a man who wants to live out his remaining days where I won't be forced to smell eau de rotting giant snake."

She headed back to the wall to continue her search. "Why don't you want to talk to me?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Xander pinch the bridge of his nose in one of the scariest imitations of Giles that she'd ever seen. "Buffy, I will talk to you about anything you want, but right now Anya is a subject that is of the off."

"Well what about…"

"OR Catherine," Xander interrupted. "And no, for the last time, I do not read minds. I just know you well enough to know this is a Slayer-sneaky way to find out what I know about the future."

Buffy physically stuttered and whipped around to face him. "You mean there's more?"

"More what?"

Buffy narrowed her eyes and studied Xander's profile in the light of her headlamp. "What do you know?"

Irritation turned cautious. "Pretty much what you know."

*Right. Sure.*

Searching forgotten, she glided up to him. "You're in the know about the else that's the who in the picture," she guessed.

Xander's eyes narrowed. "Either I've been talking to people who speaka the English too well or I've been out of California too long for the good of my own brain, but hunh?"

Buffy stopped in front of him, arms crossed. "Who's your better half?"

"I have no idea what you're…"

"Yes you do. Your left eye's twitching."

"Is not."

"Is so."

"Is not."


"You know, I'm thinking escaping is more important than talking about the fact my left eyelid is twitching because my glassy left is feeling very dry and I don't know where my eye drops are.


"Ah-ha? What's the ha about the ah all about?"

"I thought you said it wasn't twitching."

Xander dropped his head in his hands and let out a low, frustrated growl. "Can you please be Lassie-Buffy? Sometime this century? Before our friends declare us dead and start dividing our worldly possessions amongst themselves?"

"You can tell me. I can keep a secret."

Xander let his hands drop. "That you can."

Buffy kicked at the soil. "Yeah. It's a problem. I'd like to try to change it, especially if I want to…"

"It's not you if that's what you're worried about."

Buffy froze. "Oh." She wasn't sure what she thought of that or the tired sound in his voice.

"Don't tell anyone?"

Buffy settled on the rock next to him. "What bothers you more? The fact you get a life? Or the who that's in it?"

He was quiet a long time, long enough for Buffy to wonder if she'd get an answer. Finally he said, "Both. Equally, I think. Sometimes one bothers me more than the other. My bothered is bothered to give you an idea. If Giles and Dawn hadn't laid the whole 'you're needed' trip on me I wouldda been out of here the second Catherine the Great and crew leave. Maybe head back to Califon-e-i-a or check out Florida or Texas before winter hits."

Buffy felt her heart drop at that. "Are you leaving?"

Yet another long, thoughtful silence. "Probably not, but only because my reasons for leaving are slightly less good than my reasons for staying. The who that's the else is actually on my 'why I should head for Badlands and change my name' list."

Buffy sagged. "Don't tell me. Another demon or ex-demon, right?"

Xander looked at her in surprise.

"Xaaannn-derrrrr, Anya was totally one of a kind," Buffy said. "She was…well…okay I didn't always like her and, well, she could be weird, and, umm, I never did get her love affair with money, until I was dead broke I mean, plus the imagery she'd put in my ahead about you and her having…no, no, sooooo not going there…and the less said about me trying to kill her the better--and I never did quite make it right with you over that, but I did apologize to her, sort of, in case you didn't know--but she was your weird and your heart and I know you miss her and I'm sorry you're hurting and…"

She felt an arm go around her shoulder and her body pulled into a hug just as she realized she was bawling her stupid eyes out.

"Shhhhhh, it's okay," accompanied by a kiss on the top of the head followed by a cheek rested on the X that marks the spot. "Yeah, it's a bad day all around isn't it? We've not only got a dead snake, we've got ghosts. Not a good combination."

"I'm not crying for me," Buffy weakly protested.

"Yes you are, but that's okay. You can cry for both of us." In a softer voice he added, "I appreciate the attempt and what you're trying to say. Don't be afraid to talk to me, okay? Despite the fact… well…it's just that right now…right now…"

Buffy sniffed and swiped at her eyes, trying not to think about the fact that she was smearing snake guts all over her face. "A better place to do this would be sitting down in actual chairs and actually having a real talk instead of trapped in a cave where the only thing we can see by the light of our single light are the creep-o shadows on a dead giant snake?"

Xander removed arm and cheek and bent down to loosen the laces on his right boot to release the pressure on the swelling. "You read my mind."

His voice sounded a little too thick and Buffy knew damn well that it had nothing to do with the effort of fiddling with bootlaces. She rested her hand on the small of his back for a moment to try and somehow communicate that she understood, and went to back to the wall to continue her search.

Talk would happen later, once Catherine was gone and the house went back to its regularly scheduled insanity. Frankly, they both could use the chat if only to finally exorcise the shadow of Sunnydale from their friendship, now showing signs of life even if it was still on life support. It gave her a small hope that she could start repairing her relationship with Giles, Willow, and Dawn. After that? Well…best to focus on one step at a time.

She was just re-starting her search when she heard a shout of surprise echo through the tunnels.

"We're in here!" Xander shouted.

"Xander!" That voice definitely sounded like Faith's. "Where the fuck are you, Cyclops? Is B with you?"

"Yeah!" Buffy shouted. "We're a little on the trapped side."

There was a chorus of giggles accompanying Faith's voice. "Way to understate there, B. We can kind of squeeze around the snake--fuck me this thing is wicked huge--but we got ourselves a classic cork situation."

"Buffy's looking to see if there's a crack she can squeeze through," Xander shouted.

"Keep on that. Meanwhile, we're going to try and slice and dice our way to you," Faith said, this time to a chorus of 'ewwwwww.' "Hey, cut the squeamishness guys. At least it ain't trying to bite your ass while you do it. We got a hardcore deadline, got me?"

There was a girlish chorus of, "Yes, Faith," followed by metallic sounds.

"Yo! Cyclops! How you feelin' in there? Some of the girls have been buggin' my ass about you."

"Ankle sucks, but otherwise okay." He shot Buffy an amused look. "I have to warn you though, me and Buffy look very, very ugly, so be prepared."

Faith guffawed. "What? Like I don't see your ugly mugs every day? Gimme some new news sometime."

Xander and Buffy exchanged grins. If Faith was tossing out smart-ass funnies, things were going to be okay.

*Someday I'm going to die, but thank god that today is not the day,* Buffy thought as she once again began inspecting wall.

Chapter 61
It's Always What You Don't Know

Faith wrung the excess water out of her hair before glancing down at her clothes with a feeling bordering on despair. Everything on her back was ruined beyond salvaging. She knew there wasn't enough Simple Green, Shout, Goo Gone, or detergent to get snake guts 'n blood out.

It was beyond stupid. Replacing the stuff wasn't even an issue and no one was going to scream at her for wrecking her clothes in the line of duty, but years of her mother giving her shit for getting so much as grass stain on her jeans had become part of her DNA. Hell, even after the Boss gave her the apartment and the closet full of clothes, she still ended each night scrubbing shirts, underthings, and pants in the bathtub.

The Boss didn't know, because if he did he would've told her not to worry about it. He probably wouldn't understand why she felt she had to do it, especially since he was following through on the promise to take care of her.

She plucked uncomfortably at her shirt. About the only thing she could do was burn the motherfucker. She just wished she could stop feeling so goddamn guilty about it. It shouldn't even rank on her guilt parade, yet it still did with a nagging that sounded suspiciously like mommy dearest's voice.

Faith gave her face the once-over in the passenger-side mirror of elderly SUV and noticed that Charlie's drugs had worked like a charm. There wasn't even a hint of a bruise or scrape to prove that she'd been scrapping all night.

*Not scrapping. Getting tossed around, abused, and then running away all night you mean.*

"Fucking useless," she declared.

"I certainly don't think so."

Faith spun around to come face-to-face with Giles. "Give me a heart attack why dontchya?"

"I apologize. I thought I'd let you know that Robin is on his way to the hospital with Tammi, where I suspect she will be spinning a tale of woe involving a mugging and fisticuffs."

"He'll be okay, right?"

Giles nodded. "I can almost guarantee Xander and I have gotten it at least as bad on more than one occasion. While I cannot speak for Xander, I believe all my brain cells are still functioning normally despite that." He paused. "Although I've been known to, on occasion mind, have the urge to take an early morning constitutional wearing nothing more than a smile and a fig leaf."

Faith exploded with laughter.

"I'm glad you're amused," Giles said dryly. "What you did this evening was not 'fucking useless,' as you put it. You showed quite a lot of courage."

"Yeah, by running away with my tail tucked under my ass," Faith said bitterly.

"Do you know what I saw?" Giles asked. "I saw a young woman put in impossible situations. I saw a young woman who, when faced with a series of unpleasant choices, put the safety of others above her own pride as a Slayer. I also saw a young woman who kept people focused and organized even though she would much rather be doing something else."

Faith stared dumbfounded at Giles for a few moments. "Unh, Tweady? You sure you're talking about me?"

Giles waved a hand around. "Look around you. Because of you, Willow and Robin were delivered safely out of harm's way. Because of you, we were all here and waiting when the others on your team reached the surface. As a result, we were able to organize a search party, which you led, to go and find Xander and Buffy. Finally, because of you, we will be leaving in a mere 20 minutes instead of scrambling around this godforsaken cemetery half the night."

Faith felt gob smacked. She honestly had no idea what to say.

Giles reached out a hand, squeezed her shoulder, and gave her a pleased smile. "Sometimes being the one who gets left behind to clean up the mess and bind the wounds is the hardest position of all. You get to shoulder the heavy burden, but you don't get any glory for it. Trust me on this, I know. I just wanted you to know that I saw and I give you a great deal of credit for doing what you did. You showed real courage and leadership." He dropped his hand to his side as his smile disappeared. "I only wish I could take credit for teaching you that."

Faith felt like her brain was about to cave in, so she dealt the only way she could: by focusing on something else. "I, unh, better go round up the others." Faith backed away.

Giles let out a sigh. "Of course. I best make arrangements to prepare the bed of Xander's battered pick-up truck for Catherine's people. Also, I best find a tarp for the minivan's seats for those of you with befouled clothes. Xander will be driving the lot of you, since he's one of the two licensed drivers still capable of taking the wheel."

"Unh, you're gonna have to find at least one more since Robin's down for the count. We need a driver for the truck or the SUV," Faith pointed out.

"I'll be driving Catherine and her people in the truck. I suppose I'll have to trust Dawn not to attract the attention of the police while driving the SUV."

"Dawn's not the problem."

"Yes. That blasted spell on the Grail." Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "I imagine getting home will be quite the adventure. I'm hoping that since Catherine will be outside and not on the passenger seat next to me I'll somewhat shielded, but I'm not counting on that to be the case."

"Maybe you better have Charlie and J'Nal go in Dawn's group because they gotta…"

"Prepare for Willow's healing spell, yes, I know," Giles said. "Agreed, then. I best find Dawn and let her know."

"Yeah, she'll be thrilled to finally use that learner's permit of hers." Faith said. As Giles was about to turn away, she added, "Ummm, sorry. About the clothes. I know that buying all new stuff for all of us isn't going to be…"

A look of incredulity crossed Giles's face. "Good lord, Faith. Don't worry about it. I daresay it's not the first time a Slayer has destroyed her clothes in the midst of a fight and I'm fairly certain it won't be the last."

Faith could feel the grin on her face. "Thanks."

With a quick nod, Giles moved off, once more leaving Faith at loose ends. As she glanced around, she could see that if she waded in and started barking orders she'd only get in the way. Considering the size of their group, the other Slayers were managing to keep organized just fine without her.

The girls who had hacked their way through the snake to get Buffy and Xander out and helped them through the bloody mess to freedom were finishing their hurried clean up. Like her, their clothes marked them as members of the Lizzie Borden sisterhood, but at least the excess gunk on their skin and in their hair was washed off. Buffy was helping Vi wrap up her gash, but judging by the way Vi was grinning, the wound was probably already starting to heal. Other girls were completing the boring task of loading the weapons--both whole and broken--in the ancient minivan. Catherine stood apart from the crowd as she miserably guarded her Grail while Ruda, Tikri, and J'Nal kept everyone a safe distance away.

At some point she finally spotted Xander standing still and alone in the rush and hurry of Slayers on the mission of a quick evacuation. Like her, his clothes were a complete loss, but at least his face didn't look like a blood-covered mask. Her Boston blood trained her to be somewhat resistant to cold, but even she felt the night chill thanks to her soaked clothes and hair. She figured with his California blood that he must be absolutely freezing.

She followed his glance and saw that he was watching Kennedy hold Willow tight while Charlie fussed over the unconscious witch. Too soon her eyes were drawn back to him and she realized that he looked something like a toy that had been tossed aside because its owner had found something a little shinier.

Faith screwed up her courage and approached. She was almost on top of him when she realized that she was on his blind side. "Hey, you okay?" she called out in warning.

He startled and turned. When he saw who it was, he gave her a tired smile. "Don't you mean oogie?"


"You know, what Cath--I mean, what our future friends say instead of okay."

"You hear oogie? I hear ooky, you know, like, ummm, 'Adams Family' ooky."

Tired smile turned into full-on grin. "Wow. Pop culture reference. You're getting assimilated. Resistance is futile."

"And you're avoiding the question."

Xander looked away. "The ankle's almost as good as new, so Charlie's drugs are still working. Don't ask me to run marathons. Well, not that I could run a marathon before. Or ever will. I'll leave that to people who are actually crazy."

"Who needs a marathon when you've got monsters?" Faith grinned.

"How's Robin?" Xander asked.

"Already on his way to the hospital. Tammi's going with so she can spin some sob story about getting mugged," Faith answered. "Since she's got bruises too, they'll probably buy that crap."

"Good. That's good." He shuffled on his feet a little more, eyes once more locked on Willow and Kennedy. When he spoke again, his voice sounded hesitant, "Faith?"


"Thank you. For Willow."

Faith shrugged, feigning an air of nonchalance to cover her surprise. "What the gig's about right?"

Xander turned to face her. "Thank you anyway," he insisted.

Charlie finished whatever he was doing with Willow and jogged over to them. "If you're interested, we still have four standard hours to get you to a bed, so you're safe."

"No. We're not safe," Xander said. "No one's safe until we get home and lock the door behind us."

The doctor grinned a relieved grin. "Point taken. Still, we're a little closer safety." He nodded his head down at Xander's feet. "How's the ankle?"

"I went from 'I think it's broken' to 'I can walk with a slight limp.' We should just call you Miracle Max and get it over with," Xander said with a little more cheer than was really necessary. "You need the girls to line up with their ouchies here? Or do you want to wait until we get back to the house?"

Charlie's grin disappeared. "I can't."

"Why not?" Faith asked.

"I'm going to be using a lot for Willow," he tapped his scanner meaningfully, "plus, no one here is injured beyond what Slayer healing--or human healing in the case of Giles--can handle. I've got a limited supply of pharmaceuticals and I need to be more conservative, especially if it turns out we can't get home."

"What are you talking about?" Faith asked.

"In case they screwed the timeline, remember?" Xander reminded her.

"Oh, yeah."

"Look, I promise that if we're still here in 30 or so standard years, I'll break this out to help relieve the symptoms for any of the Slayers who get the shimmy-shakes, but beyond that I think…"

"Shimmy-shakes?" Xander sharply interrupted.

"Polgar Syndrome?" Charlie prompted.

Xander shook his head.

Light dawned on Charlie's face. "Oh, that's right. You probably know it by another name, don't you?"

Xander nonchalantly shrugged. "Why am I shocked if that's the case? Oh, wait. I'm so not. Describe the symptoms and I'll be able to tell you what we call it."

Faith's eyes snapped to Xander because she had no idea what Charlie was talking about. Xander obviously did, if she could judge by the expression on his face.

"Hmmmm," Charlie rubbed his chin in thought. "Okay, I won't bother describing the genetic markers for it since you probably don't have the technology to detect it and probably wouldn't know what I'm talking about. So, I'll describe the end-stage symptoms."

Xander nodded. "Probably right there. Lay it on me."

"It's when a Slayer starts exhibiting signs of nerve damage," Charlie explained. "You know, they start shaking so hard that they can barely hold anything, let alone a weapon. They eventually develop trouble swallowing and speaking. Eventually, the nerves misfire so rapidly that every muscle in the body simply fails, including the heart."

Xander considered that a moment before cautiously saying, "Sort of like Parkinson's Disease."

"Is that Slayer-specific?" Charlie asked.

This time Xander was firm in his reply. "Yes."

That's when Faith knew that Xander was playing the doc. He had no more fucking clue than she did.

"Hold up. My Watcher told me that it was a rare condition. It was, like, one in a million Slayers got it," she said.

Xander's head whipped around to look at her. He managed to cover up his surprised reaction by ladling on another lie. "Giles said that every Slayer will get it if they live long enough. He could point to something like three Slayers that got it."

*Goddamn he's good.* If they were conning for shits and giggles, this little game would be a beautiful thing to behold. She looked Xander straight in the eye and threw in her own lie. "Wes told me that there was a difference of opinion on that and that I shouldn't believe anyone who said it was inevitable. I mean, he could point to something like four Slayers that lived to the same age and never got it."

Xander nodded slowly. "I guess we'll find out in another 20 or 25 years," she noticed that Xander picked numbers under Charlie's 30, "it's just that I wish we had time to research that point before Willow cast the spell, but…well…I don't have to tell you what Sunnydale was like at the end, right?"

"Shit. I didn't even know you guys were looking at that." Faith shrugged through the building tension in her chest. "I could've put your minds at ease."

"Or irritated Giles. Your pick." Xander's eyebrows comically crunched before he turned back to a fidgeting Charlie. "Oooops. Sorry."

"No problem," Charlie said. "I better get to Catherine and…"

Xander reached out and grabbed Charlie's arm. "Hey, I know you can't tell us anything future-y, but, ummm, see? It's just that if you could answer this much, I would be really grateful." He leaned forward and dropped his voice. "I have to be honest. I've been losing a lot of sleep over this, you know? The guilt," he shook his head, "I mean you tell yourself that you're doing it to save the world, but at the same time you know, or you think you know, that every Slayer's got this ticking time bomb inside them and that they're going to die a really awful death and…" Xander let out a shuddering breath.

*Give the man a fucking Oscar,* Faith grimly thought.

Charlie blinked owlishly at Xander, whose face was radiating something akin to guilty sadness. Faith knew that Charlie didn't stand a fucking chance when Xander broke out the violins.

Charlie leaned forward and dropped his own voice low. "It's not rare, but it's not common. Something like one in 1,500 Slayers develop it. We don't know why it happens or what causes it, even in my time. It's not heredity. We've got entire lines of related Slayers where one will develop it, but no others. But we do know it's something genetic. The only thing we can do is run tests to look for the genetic markers that only show up in activated Slayers. The disease symptoms begin manifesting approximately 30 standard years after they become Slayers."

Xander gasped. Faith knew he wasn't faking this time. She tried her best to keep her expression neutral, but she really wasn't sure how successful she actually was.

Charlie gave them both pitying looks. "I know this doesn't make either one of you feel better, but developing the disease is not a foregone conclusion. Most Slayers never get it."

"Assuming they live that long." Faith's lips felt numb as she said it.

Charlie leaned in and grabbed her arm, dropping his voice to a whisper. "You will live long enough and you won't get it. You're safe." He suddenly let go and practically ran into the crowd of busy Slayers.

"Oh, god," Xander prayed.

Faith looked up at him. "We didn't know. We had no fucking clue. So stop…"

"How many people here do you think'll get it?" he interrupted.

Faith looked around her. "He said one in something like 1,500, right? So no way to know that either."

"We have to tell Giles. We have to tell Giles as in yesterday," Xander said.

"We gotta wait."

Xander turned his whole body around to give her an incredulous look.

"I think he pretty much told us all he could tell us," Faith kept her voice low, forcing Xander to lean down so he could hear her better. "Besides, if they can't do shit-all about this shimmy-shakes even with all their geek technology, I really don't see how us getting even more information is going to help us right here and right now."

"Maybe Willow or Giles…" Xander began.

"Maybe, maybe not," Faith said, "but think about this for a sec. We tattle. Giles jumps all over his ass. He clams up for good not just about this, but everything. We'll never be able to pull the shit we just pulled on him or any of his buds ever again because he'll just assume we're lying. If they're actually stuck here? That'll spell trouble in the long run."

"If they're stuck here, this'll come out anyway," Xander pointed out.

"Let's deal if it comes to that."

Xander hesitated a moment before giving her a slight nod. As he straightened up, he looked around him. "You know what this means, right?"

"That we just sentenced a whole lotta girls to death who might've never had to deal with this shit if they didn't become Slayers?" Faith responded quietly. "Yeah, I think I got that part even before we found out about the shimmy-shakes."

Chapter 62
Making the Connection

Only two things had gone right the entire night: getting to Erie Cemetery and leaving Erie Cemetery. Maybe that's what really counted at the end of the day.

Buffy grabbed shotgun in the SUV and spent the entire trip home jabbering and talking in a way that Faith hadn't seen since she'd first met the blonde menace back in the day. She and the other Slayers talked about the fight with the mud people and Buffy filled in the blanks on how she killed snake-breath. Xander, by contrast, said not a word the entire time.

Faith noticed that every once in awhile Buffy'd toss the guy a worried look. She braced herself, ready to hear the inevitable question: *What's wrong with you?*

Thank Christ the question never came. While she doubted Xander'd spill the nasty secret, she had no idea how he'd react to that question right now.

Hell, she wasn't fucking sure how she'd react if Buffy asked.

They landed at the Motherhouse with everyone tumbling out the SUV. Xander weakly protested when Faith grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and without a word frog-marched him to one of the three full baths in the house.

"Shut the fuck up," Faith hissed at him when weak protest turned into a louder one. "You are on a schedule. You pass out like you are in your bed, you're cleaning up the mess." Not exactly diplomatic, but it won her that argument.

The hour after that was a blur of messy Slayers-blood--soaked ones first--lining up for the showers. Some inspection of cuts and scrapes to check the healing while the girl in question babbled about how fucking awesome wicked cool kick-in-the-head great Slayer healing was.

A few things stood out: Charlie and J'Nal ascending the stairs to Willow's room talking in low voices that didn't sound at all good. A couple of Slayers carrying the still unconscious Willow upstairs. Catherine racing through the house curled around that goddamned Grail while everyone scattered out of the way. Giles following shortly after, pale and still shaking, muttering apologies for needing to pull over once on the way home because it got to be too much.

Considering what she heard from Dawn and Andrew, and taking into account the feeling of suffocation she felt as Catherine passed her, Faith concluded that Giles had balls of steel if he only needed to pull over the once. She definitely didn't begrudge him when he said that he needed to get to bed because he was exhausted from the strain of keeping his shit together all the way home.

At some point she even got the chance to hit the shower, get in clean clothes, and chuck her ruined clothes in the garbage can outside.

When the craziness was starting to subside, Kennedy, fresh from her own shower, silently went up the stairs.

"Don't go interrupting Charlie and J'Nal," Faith snapped at her back.

Kennedy looked over her shoulder, showing Faith a catalogue of worry lines etched around her eyes and mouth. "I won't. I just want to wait… I mean…I…I need to…"

Faith interrupted the other Slayer with a silent nod and watched Kennedy finish her ascent.

A few other Slayers were drifting to bed. A few others stayed up and talked in hushed, excited voices about whatever fight they were involved in. Faith found herself studying each and every girl. Is that one getting a little too tired? Is that one maybe not as steady as she should be on her feet? Is that one a little too clumsy?

Much as she didn't want to answer the question--*Is someone here going to get this shimmy-shakes?*--she couldn't help it. Her eyes ached with the effort of trying to find some clue. She could feel the threat of a headache just waiting to pounce and the overwhelming urge to punch her fist through the wall in frustration.

Just when she was about to throw that punch, Vi's voice stopped her.

"Hey, anyone know where Xander is?"

Faith looked around and realized that Cyclops was among the missing. She'd seen him earlier, helping to get the girls organized and checking injuries, but now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen him in awhile. *One of two options: He's either hanging with Kennedy or he actually did something smart and went to bed before he passed out,* Faith thought.

Buffy materialized at Faith's left shoulder and hesitantly said, "He, uhm, he kinda needed a little alone time."

Back when Faith made her not-so-welcome return to the SunnyD, all the girls made fun of B's speeches and habit of hogging all the attention for herself. Okay, they did it behind B's back, but still they did it. Every time B opened her trap you could see all the girls and, hell, even the little Scoobs bracing themselves for the shit. About the only time she had their undivided serious attention was when she proposed that goddamned spell to make them all Slayers.

*Well, well, well. I've gone from wanting to punch the wall to wanting to punch B.* Some mean little part of her hoped that Buffy would get bit by that fucking disease Charlie talked about. Then again B was always the lucky one, so it probably wouldn't happen.

Hell, Charlie told her she was in the lucky boat and she definitely deserved to get it as much as B. Shit. She knew the real deal about being a Slayer even without the 411 from the future and she fucking went right along for the ride like it was no big deal.

As if sensing Faith's unspoken hostility, Buffy looked down at the carpet and uncomfortably shuffled, her damp hair hanging in her eyes. For a moment, Buffy looked so lost and young that Faith wondered if Xander had spilled the beans.

The other girls fell silent, watching and paying attention to Buffy in a way they hadn't since Sunnydale fell into the center of the earth.

"You see…um…" Faith tensed while Buffy tripped over her own tongue, "Four months ago to the day Spike and Anya died."

Faith snapped her head around to look at the other girls and saw that they seemed as shocked as she felt. They'd all forgotten. Only four months ago they were fighting for their lives, convinced they were going to be crushed like ants, and they still forgot. They forgot about Anya. They forgot about Spike. Hell, they forgot about their friends that didn't make it out.

She had a feeling that she wasn't the only one who was going to have trouble sleeping tonight.

"Oh god. Poor Xander," Lisa said. "And with Willow…"

"Yeah," Buffy agreed quietly. "I'm…um…sorry to bring it up, but you kinda asked and…"

"Why didn't no one mention anything?" Faith asked.

Buffy looked at her and hesitated a beat before giving Faith a tight smile. "We didn't want to say anything because we had this big thing and," she waved her hands uselessly, "we didn't want to jinx it."

Faith wasn't entirely sure she bought it, even if the explanation sounded about right.

"Should we do something?" Vi was sitting straight and looking guilty.

"Like what?" Barbara asked.

"I dunno. Just something," Vi said.

"Not tonight," Buffy said in a tired voice. "With everything…maybe tomorrow we'll do something. Chip in on flowers or…or…" she brightened "…breakfast in bed?"

"What about you?" Faith asked. "You need something?"

Buffy looked at Faith with surprise and then was startled by a chorus of soft 'yeah's of agreement from the other girls. She looked down again, blushing around her sad smile. "I'm okay, believe it or not. I mean, I'm not okay, okay, but I will be. Okay I mean." She looked up again, smile turning up an extra wattage point. "Thanks for asking, though." She yawned. "I'm going to sit with Kennedy a little and then I'm turning in."

As Buffy turned to leave, Faith reached out and halted her with a touch. "I'm sorry, B," Faith said quietly. "I wasn't exactly a fan, but Spike did right by you and everyone else in the end and no one can say he didn't."

"Thanks," Buffy said quietly. Then she left.

Faith drew a deep breath and looked back at the girls. They were sitting there, all lost in their own thoughts. It was right about then that Faith figured there was one thing she could do--no, scratch that--should do before the night was over.

She quietly crept away with her mission firmly in mind. The first thing she did was check Xander's room. Andrew was already in bed and out cold, but Xander was nowhere to be seen. Then she started a systematic search, sneaking through the halls like a thief, stealing peaks into various rooms, and checking with Kennedy and the yawning Buffy to make sure they didn't see him.

She was going to find him hell or high water and according to the clocks in the house she still had two hours to do it. The brownstone had plenty of hidey-holes if he was serious about disappearing, but this conversation couldn't wait. She had to do it now or she'd never do it at all.

*Sooner or later you will have to come to grips with it. My advice to you is that you best do it before circumstances forces you to do so or removes the possibility altogether.*

Tonight came close enough to too late. Next time--and she knew there'd be a next time--too close might become too late.

No shit she'd be intruding, but on some level she knew this was her last shot.

Ironically enough she found him on the front stoop of all places, sitting stiffly, with his back to the door. She could dig it: he didn't want to be alone, but he didn't want to have to deal with other people. *Been there. Done that. Have the goofy-ass t-shirt,* she thought.

"Hey," she quietly called.

Xander's shoulders squared, the only sign he heard her.

"Coming down," she announced, keeping to his right as she walked down the stairs, stopping when she hit the sidewalk. She turned and leaned against the wrought iron handrail so she could look at him.

There was a pause before Xander spoke in an exhausted voice. "No smoke?"

Her fingers reflexively twitched. "Nah. Lost 'em. Trying to see how long before I give in and cough up the cash to buy a new pack."

There was another deadly silence before Xander spoke in that monotone. "Oh. Alone time. I'll go back inside so you can…"


Xander checked himself, although this time he did look at her, cocking his head to the side in that odd way he'd picked up so she was firmly in his line of sight. He was getting good at manipulating the fake left eye so it looked like it was tracking to where his right eye was looking, but when he was tired like this she noticed it tended to wander blindly. People who didn't know the real deal would probably find this illusion of him peeking under his bangs charming, like he was some shy puppy that desperately wanted you to like him but was afraid you'd kick him instead.

*Now when the hell did I notice all that about him?* she wondered as her mind scrambled to find the words. To be honest, she just had a plan to find him; she didn't actually have a prepared speech.

"I, unh…heard. From Buffy. About…ummm…are you copasetic?" *Smooth. That's right. Prove you're anything resembling sincere by stuttering. Oh, and by not talking about what you want to talk about.*

He closed his eyes and turned away. Faith just wanted to kick herself.

After an eternity, he dredged up a response. "I'll go back in. Give me a few…"

"S'okay. People pretty much understand." Faith kicked at the pavement. *Just say it already!* "See, they figure if you want to talk, you'll, like, talk to someone. But you ain't built like that so I figured one of the mountains should get off their ass and check it out."

"Mountains?" There was a flash of amusement there.

"You know, that shit about Mohammed and mountains."

"I've heard the expression." More amusement. "I'm just wondering…"

"One of my cellmates found God," Faith said. "Well, more like Allah, if you get my drift. You ever notice that? Some people start wanting to hang with God, Allah, Jesus, or what have you after they've fucked up their lives? I mean, what the fuck is up with that?"

Xander's eyebrows comically drew together and she could see him fighting a smile. "Ooooh-kay. It's official. You're beginning to talk like a Scooby."

"Am not," she reflexively disagreed.

"Faith? You're dancing so fast around whatever it is you're dancing around that you're making my head hurt," the smile disappeared, "so whatever it is, get it the hell over with because I'm not in the mood."

*Right.* "You scare the piss out of me, you know that?"

That was enough to get Xander to look at her full-on, surprise stamped on his features.

"You-the fucking idea of you-scares the shit right out of me. You, Alexander Harris, are the scariest motherfucker I've ever met, and since I went toe-to-toe with Angelus, had Buffy after my scalp, and screwed with some pretty dicey people, that's gotta tell you something, right?" Funny how that now that she said it, she knew it was true.

He remained silent, but his face fell into no expression at all. He had no idea where she was going, so he was playing it the only way he knew how: don't feed the fire, keep his mouth shut, and wait to see if she threw a punch at him.

Yeah, she knew what that was like, especially since she wasn't sure where she was going either. Time to go with the gut.

"See, I could get where everyone was coming from. But you?" She waved a hand at him. "I don't get you. Not at all. See, if you were like, I dunno, wanting something from me? Or wanting a piece of me? I could get that. Hell, I'd even deserve it. I got shit from B when I showed up in Sunnydale, little sis gave me her share, Giles couldn't see me past Buffy, Spike spent time staring at my tits before smacking me around, the Potentials wanted me only because I wasn't Buffy, and I walked out of Sunnydale with Robin's dick in my hand. But you? Nothing. I just got nothing. I got no shit, but I didn't get anything else out of you either."

A bubble of irritation gave itself away in his voice. "I really don't see…"

"Look, all I'm trying to say is…Christ…that's why I haven't…that's why I've been such a…" Faith gritted her teeth and tried again. "What I'm trying to say is that it was easy to say sorry to everyone but you because with them that shit wasn't personal. Playing with Angel back in the Dale was all about Buffy. Screwing over Buffy wasn't so much about her as it was about me wanting what she had-like the cool mom, and the friends, and the still-breathing Watcher. Torturing Wes was all about him ratting me out to the Council back in the day."

"This is supposed to make me feel better. Just business with everyone else but, hey, I'm special because…" Xander cut off his voice, clenched his jaw, and looked away. "So, you're saying it's all my fault so you don't think I deserve an…"

"No…I mean…yeah, what I did with you? That was personal. I was trying to kill you when I, you know," she took a breath and weakly added, "tried to kill you."

His head wobbled in disbelief. "Thanks. I feel sooo much better listening to that dashboard confession."

"But don't you see?" she dropped onto the step at his feet. "It's because you scare the piss out of me. I'm not saying it was your fault. It's wasn't. And I'm not tryin' to say it was. It's just that saying 'Yo! About the bruises! Sorry. At least they healed, right? So, we're good?' is just weak shit to say, especially because the whole fucking thing was personal for both me and for you."

Xander looked away, staring vacantly down the sidewalk, not saying anything. On the good side, he wasn't telling her to shut the fuck up and storming away. On the bad side, he wasn't about to help her through this. She was well and truly on her fucking own.

Fair enough. No point in being a pussy about it. She was never one for croc tears anyway.

"See the thing is, of all the people I've hurt, I think I hurt you the most. I didn't just use you as a fucking dildo. I kicked you in the nuts and then made you feel like shit I scraped from the bottom of my shoe just because I could."

He looked back at her, once more off balance because she stated her list of crimes in such a cold light. "This is all about power, isn't it?" he asked, just a trace of sarcasm.

She kicked back and leaned against the wrought iron, staring at the tip of his steel-toed workboots. "Power is funny shit. You got it, or you don't. The screwy thing is you got the power, always did even if no one saw it because it wasn't knock-you-on-your-ass power. Now me? I could break you in half, but all I'd be doing is breaking you in half, right?"

"Would still be just as dead," Xander grunted.

"Yeah, but think about the shit I pulled on you. In your fucking shoes, I'd be steering clear of me, leaving town, calling in a hit, anything to make sure I was gone. But you're not. You're sitting there actually talking to me. Hell, past few days you've been telling me where to get off. You might be nervous as hell, but then again you might not. I don't know because you don't treat me any different from anyone else." She looked up into his confused expression. "You want to know power? That my one-eyed friend is power and that's power you can't kill no matter how hard you try."

"I don't understand."

It hit her just then. The only reason why Xander was still sitting there instead of telling her to go to hell was because she bought a moment of grace by carrying Willow out of the maze. So she took a deep breath and ordered herself, *Don't blow this.*

"What I'm trying to say is if you were just like everyone else? I could deal. If you were a little less on the up-and-up in dealing with people around here? If you were looking at the newbies like they were a hole and a heartbeat? I could rest easy knowing you weren't any different from any other guy with a dick. Then I could hand you that weak-ass apology and walk away clean feeling all fuzzy about myself."

"So again, my fault because I'm not a complete asshole?" There was a trace of amusement in the question. "If I slapped your ass when you walked by would that help?"

Faith barked a laugh because it was so unexpected. Xander was throwing her a rope. A slim rope true, but he did it even though he didn't have to.

"Thing is back in the day, you know, when I threw you down on the bed, did the tease, and then strangled you," it seemed easier admitting it now that someone had finally mentioned the elephant in the corner, "I really did figure you were looking for an easy score off desperate, damsel-in-distress me. I honestly did. I still believed it when Willow came to pick me up from LA, following?"

Xander's face was back to serious and he nodded.

"'Cept I show up in the Dale and I get nothing from you, like I said. Plus, shit just started piling up the second I pulled up to B's door, so I really didn't get a chance to catch you. Anyway, you get hurt, things blow up with B, then I get blown up, then we got right to the big battle, then we're running our asses to Cleveland. Next thing you know, one day in the Dale turns into four months later in Cleveland. All that time I see you keeping your shit together, helping other people keep their shit together, and not asking for a fucking thing in return."

"Which you've said, so I don't get where you're going."

*Damn. He really is listening, isn't he?* Faith took a breath. "So it hits me, because I'm slow on the uptake, that maybe, just maybe, you were being something like sincere when you showed up in my room that night with an offer to help or be my friend. That you weren't looking for another taste and that it was exactly how you said. Which means I'm 100-fucking-percent at fault. I fucked up. Not you. I fucked up because for a minute back in the Dale I believed you and that scared the piss out of me so I dealt by trying to obliterate you. It still scares the piss out of me that despite all that, you'd fucking throw your life away to save anyone in this goddamn house, including me. It scares the piss out of me that you're actually the real deal and I was the one that almost made you a memory before I had a chance to see it."

"One of many, actually," Xander said thoughtfully, hand subconsciously touching his left cheek. "I've got a dangerous job, remember?"

"Yeah, but I don't want to be just Faith-the-chick-who-tried-to-off-me to you. I want to be Faith-we've-had-our-problems-but-she's-one-of-the-good-guys to you." She started picking at his shoelaces. "Does that even make any fucking sense?"

"Yeah," he quietly said.

"Good. Because I've got no fucking clue why that's important to me, but there you go." She took a breath and once more looked up into his face. He had an expression, but she could be damned if she could figure out what it meant. "So here goes: I'm sorry. I fucked up when I fucked you over. I know you'll never trust me, and I don't blame you for that. I just want you to know that I know that I blew any connection I could've had with you and blew it but good."

Something relaxed around his mouth and he studied her. He was quiet long enough for Faith to start squirming, so she jumped a little when he finally spoke.

"You know how they say there's some things you can't ever apologize for?" He gave her a small smile. "They'd be wrong. Thanks."

She dropped her eyes and was back to playing with his bootlaces. While not a rousing vote of confidence in her sincerity, it was at least a start. More than she expected to get from him if she were being brutally honest, so she'll take it.

"This isn't because of Catherine, is it?" he asked.

Her head shot up at that and she recognized the sly, sarcastic amusement on his face.

"Nope. When I came out the other day on this here stoop I was trying to, you know, make it right somehow between us and…"

"I told you where to get off." His body language relaxed. "Look, don't take this wrong way, but I'm relieved to hear it because, no offense, me and you? Sitting where I am right now I just don't see it."

Faith gave him a dimpled grin. "Can't argue with that." She stood, brushing off her ass as she did so. "I'm going in."

"I'll come with," he said as he stood. "I'm getting cold and I can wait for news about Robin and Willow inside as well as outside."

They entered the house without another word, just in time to see Catherine stealing out the backdoor looking several shades of troubled.

"You don't think Willow…" Faith began.

"No," Xander cut her off. "If they were losing Willow, there'd be more noise and it's still pretty quiet. It's something else."

Faith stopped and rubbed her neck. "Want me to get this one?" she asked.

"Nah. I've got it. I think I know what's bothering her." Xander moved past Faith and followed Catherine.

Faith hesitated a moment and without knowing why stole after him. She hit the kitchen and peered out into the backyard. There was Catherine sitting dejectedly on the bench, and there was Xander, hands in pockets, approaching all casual-like.

She watched as he sat down and began talking to her. Somewhere in there, Catherine's spirits seemed to perk and at one point she started giggling. Faith felt the corners of her mouth tug upward in sympathetic relief that the storm passed with no drama.

The whole scene was enough to make her stop and think. Back in the Dale on that night she was dealing with Xander-then, before he knew exactly how to get to someone. If Xander-now went back and dealt with Faith-then? There was no doubt in her mind that the outcome would be a very different thing, complete with her taking him up on that wasted opportunity to call someone a friend and mean it.

Yeah, she's willing to cop to it, he still scares the piss out of her.



Catherine's head twitched, but she didn't say anything.

Xander responded by shoving his hands in his pockets. "So, where's the grail?"

"Tucked up in the rafters, " Catherine waved at the roof of the house, "Ruda and Ms. Tikri are standing guard over it."

Xander looked up at the house. "Sure it's far enough away to prevent people from going fetal?"

"We checked with some of the Slayers before they went to bed. They get a little nervous when they go near," Catherine frowned as she reached for the right word, "you know that hole in the ceiling with the ladder?"


"When it's open and the ladder is down they get nervous. Otherwise, they all said they felt fine." She hunched her shoulders. "Sorry about that. We got a little carried away."

Xander took a deep breath and plopped down on the bench next to her. "I saw Willow, remember? Believe me I understand." He paused, teeth worrying his bottom lip. "I guess I'm just surprised that you're not up there with them. I mean, what's with the disappearing act? Hiding in the backyard? I may not know you that well, but this doesn't strike me as you."

"I left you."

He shrugged. "Didn't have a choice."

"I had a choice," she turned around to face him. "I could've…"

"Stayed with me, let the big ugly eat you, me, and Buffy and leave your Slayer all alone?" Xander asked in all innocence.

"One, you and Sumers-r…I mean Buffy are just fine. Two, Ruda's not alone. That's what the team is about."

"But she relies on you," Xander interrupted. "I don't know if you noticed, but you're on an alien world, so it probably would've been a pretty dumb move to trade yourself for me. Dumb's my territory not yours."

"I hate that."

"Hate what?"

"I hate it when you put yourself down." She looked away and added in a softer voice. "It's not right."

"Because it's kinda like putting you and your whole family down?"

"No, because it's you."

Xander sighed. "Not much of a -rah or a -sen in me, hunh?"

"But that's the point, there, well, kinda is. Sorta."

"Way to boost my ego."

"Okay, look, the whole -sen thing is as uncomfortable for me as it is for you," the Watcher Honoria admitted. "That's a Slayer thing, which I'm definitely not, so…"

"But you could have been," Xander stated as he studied her profile. "Why turn it down?"

"I told you…"

"The real story."

Catherine's mouth twitched. "I wasn't chosen."

"I don't understand."

"Look, I know any Slayer from my time would tell you that they chose, and they did to a certain extent. But it goes two ways. Just because you have the Potential, doesn't mean you should do it."

"Sounds like hiding your light under a bushel."

Catherine turned to face him, as if she were pleading for him to understand. "Or maybe because I knew I'd make a lousy Slayer. I mean, look at Ruda. She loves being a Slayer and wouldn't have it any other way. It's just a part of her personality. Me? I tasted the power and just knew it'd be a constant fight to strike some balance between the Slayer and the girl and I just didn't want it."

"What are you talking about? You're smart, you've got leadership skills, you know how to…"

"But I'd always be wondering where Catherine ended and the Slayer began," Catherine interrupted. "At least this way I know it's all me, all the way. If I screw up, it's because I screwed up. If I do good, it's because I did good. I didn't even want to be a Potential."

"You always wanted to be a Watcher, sorry, Watcher Honoria?" Xander asked.

"Didn't even want that," Catherine chuckled. "My family, see, has always been involved as either Watchers Honoria or Slayers or researchers or weapons-makers or Prima, or something. There isn't one of us that didn't go into the family business. I just wanted to try something different. Be someone different."

"You probably pulled a Giles right after the vision quest, right? Went a little wild, made with the bad magic, came back older and wiser with a serious tweed addiction?"


"Forget it," Xander chuckled.

Catherine sat in silence for a few moments. "Thing is, I got sent out on the Vision Quest, saw the First Slayer, got asked the question, and when I looked in her eyes, I knew."

"Bet she wasn't happy when you said no."

"I knew I wanted to be a Watcher Honoria. I knew just like that," Catherine snapped her fingers. "Don't get me wrong, I love power funnies and sometimes I think it would be nice to leap tall structures in one jump, but I like being Catherine even more. So I told her: I wanted to be a Watcher Honoria and she couldn't make me be a Slayer, even if she killed me."

"So what happened?" Xander was hanging on every word.

"You know? It's the strangest thing because she gave me a personal message even though I said no. She smiled, kissed me on the forehead, said 'You do your family great honor,' and then she was gone."


"Wow," she agreed.

"Kinda sad, though," Xander said.

"How so?"

"Still got stuck in the family business instead of doing your own thing. I'm sorry about that."

Catherine smiled what was fast becoming a too-familiar grin. "I'm not. I like my job and I like my people. Besides, I got to do it my way, which in the end is what counts." She giggled. "You should've seen how everyone in the family reacted."

"Why do I get they were thrilled, except not."

"Horrified. My family has been populated with Slayers since you and Faith…" she cleared her throat. "Well, there've been a lot and not one has ever turned it down, well, at least since Potentials got the ability to turn it down. Along comes me, the first girl in the family to say no thanks."

"Let me guess: there was much yelling and breaking of glass?"

"Oooooh, yeah," Catherine giggled again. "They're over it now. Hada, even my mom agrees I probably made the right decision. Hard as it may be for you to believe, I am good at my job."

"I know you are." When Catherine looked at him in surprise, he added with a shrug, "I can tell by the way your team reacts to you. They like you, but they respect you, too. It's kinda like us and Giles, or at least that's the way it was in the early days. The last two years have been, well I probably don't have to tell you, bad. Really bad. But I'd like to, I dunno, I kinda miss the G-man." Xander looked around and conspiratorially added, "But don't tell him that. I think he likes being under appreciated."

"Secret's safe with me," Catherine grinned.

Chapter 63
Do Or Not Do

Morning, or rather early afternoon, was a cornucopia guilt. Xander crawled out of his drug-induced sleep only to discover that the baby Slayers had pulled together a brunch for "no particular reason."

Needless to say, he wasn't buying, especially since he spotted Buffy and Dawn peaking into the kitchen while the newbie Slayers fluttered around him with food and an endless stream of coffee. Xander could pretty easily guess the why behind the whole shebang.

Welcome to guilt trips numbers one and two: Anya and all things Sunnydale.

The breakfast was excruciating--and not just because the toast was burned, the eggs were runny, and the coffee was bitter. Anxious Slayers seemed hell-bent on watching him yum up every bite and pour just a little too much cream and sugar into his caffeine not-so-goodness. While they grinned and jabbered at him as he ate, he could feel his one good eye ache with the effort of trying not to stare at the girls around him. He really, really, really didn't want to find some telltale sign of an impending case of shimmy-shakes.

Just the same his mind kept ticking over, *Is it you? How about you? seem clumsy, well clumsy-ish for a Slayer. Wait, wait. Is her hand shaking just a little too much?*

Meet major league guilt number three: the shimmy-shakes and the fact that he blithely went along with a plan that sentenced a countless number of Slayers to something that sounded like a pretty horrible way to die.

Then again, as Faith pointed out last night, he should've known that even without the shimmy-shakes in the equation. How many years did he watch Buffy fight things that were bigger and badder than she was? Hell, how many times did he see her almost die? How many times did he see her actually die?

While he stomach churned around runny eggs and his mouth chewed the burnt toast, he really hoped his smile didn't look too fake or his voice sound too strained.

At some point Andrew sailed into the kitchen smiling a pleased-with-the-world smile that triggered Xander's reptilian urge to cruelly swipe it off his face.

"They did this all by themselves," Andrew said proudly as if he thought breakfast was the rousing success it really wasn't. "They didn't want any help from me."

"Better watch out then," Xander thought his voice sounded just a little too happy, "you might get replaced as the house cook if you keep letting the Slayers use the stove." And yes, some mean little part of him did a happy dance while Andrew's smile dimmed slightly, even if the girls protested that no one could top Andrew's mastery in the kitchen.

Ahhhh, right on schedule, guilt trip number four: the fact that he can't get over the fact that Anya died and Andrew was still drawing breath. He knew he was being unfair, but the sad thing was he couldn't even bring himself to care, hence the guilt.

"I, unh, actually came in to tell you that Willow's awake," Andrew was stumbling over his words now, "I mean, I figured you'd want to see her but she's been sleeping on and off. Kennedy says she's been asking for you and J'Nal says it's okay if you want to…"

"I'm on my way," Xander interrupted.

As he stood, guilt trip numbers five and six took a bow: Willow and Robin. They both got hurt and he did nothing about it. Well, not him, but future him. What kind of son of a bitch was he going to turn into if he didn't bother to drop some sort of hint about either one?

*Is it wrong if I don't ever want to know the answer to that question? * he wondered as he got to his feet, thanked the beaming baby Slayers, and trudged up to Willow's room carrying enough guilt for three of him on his back.

He pushed his way into the room to see Willow looking pale and tired as Kennedy held her hand. On his entrance, Kennedy stood up and gave him a tired smile of her own.

"Hey, you finally made it back to the land of the living," the Slayer said.

"Yeah. Whatever Charlie pulled out of his magic kit did a number." This was easy. Just slip into the banter. Try not to stare at Kennedy to see if she was shaky.

"Not too long," J'Nal interrupted from a shadowy corner. "Willow needs more rest."

"Gah!" Xander jumped at the unexpected presence of the J'Nal. "Where did you come from?"

"He's been there since they finished healing Willow." Kennedy shot J'Nal an unhappy look. "He's been growling at everyone who's stopped in for a visit."

"He's just making sure I don't go all blooey again, which I don't blame him if there might be more blooey. Better to have someone to stop the blooey before blooey causes gooey," Willow said.

"You must be tired. You're trying to rhyme," Xander joked.

"She's a trooper. That's my girl." Kenney bent down and gave Willow a quick kiss on the forehead. "I'll leave you two nutcases to do whatever it is you two do when I'm not around to keep an eye on you."

"Please tell me you're going to do something resembling sleep," Willow said as she smiled up at her girlfriend.

Kennedy let out an irritated sigh. "Gotta do something first then I promise I'll be back here to take a snooze."

J'Nal began, "I believe that it's best if you sleep else…" His mouth snapped shut mid-word when Kennedy leveled a Slayer death glare at him.

"Wow. You have to teach me how to do that," Xander said.

"Spoken like someone who's never seen your if-looks-could-kill face," Kennedy said.

"You're confusing me with Giles."

"Plus there's a way around that," Willow said, "just wave a Twinkie under his nose and, poof, instant happy and a Snoopy dance to go with."

"Very funny," Xander groused.

"Whatever. Later alligators." And on that, Kennedy exited to do whatever it was she had to do.

Xander shuffled uncertainly at his position near the door. *Please, Wills, don't start asking questions about what happened. Please don't.*

"So, are you going to talk to me? Or are you just going to act like you've just ripped the head off my Barbie and buried the body in the backyard?"

"Some sins can never be forgiven," Xander intoned as he slid into the now-empty chair.

Willow winced. "Sorry."

"About what?"

"I didn't mean to…I mean we were, what? Five? Six? I shouldn't've…"

Xander was genuinely mystified. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, about the fact that…"

"Hold on, Wills." Xander turned so his one good eye was on J'Nal. "No offense, but I don't suppose you could leave?"

"No." J'Nal sounded pretty firm.

"Xander, it's okay," Willow said.

Xander ignored her. "Seriously. I'd like to talk privately with my friend. So if you could…"

"No. You remember how fast she…" J'Nal stopped himself from finishing the sentence as he gave Willow a meaningful look.

"Well, that's subtle," Willow grumbled.

"As in Klingon subtle," Xander agreed.

"Which leaves me to wondering what happened." Willow was giving him a deadly two-fer: resolve face with a heaping dose of questioning right on top. "Kennedy said she heard it was bad and…"

"Not so bad," Xander interrupted.

"Unh-hunh." Willow definitely had cynical written all over her voice. "The truth, Xander. Because if you don't tell me, I'm sure someone else will if I ever get out of this bed and start asking questions. I'd rather hear it from you than walk out there and find out that I turned someone into a pink elephant and subjected them to a plague of purple mice. Ummm, I didn't did I?"

"Do what?"

"Turn someone into a pink elephant. Or a purple mouse," Willow swatted at him.

"There were no pink elephants or purple mice injured while filming this movie," Xander promised as he took her hand.

"Okay, so no elephants and no mice. What about people?"

"Are you sure…" Xander began.

"I need to know." Willow squeezed his hand. "I mean, if I walk out there and people are going to be acting all weird around me, I want to be prepared. Please, Xander. I trust you to tell me the truth."

*Since when?* "What do you remember?"

"Does it matter?"

"Yes. I mean no. I mean…"

"If you get any more avoid-y you're going to disappear while I'm watching you."

Xander looked to J'Nal.

"I'm not helping you," J'Nal said.

"I didn't ask you to."

J'Nal leaned forward and studied Xander a moment before issuing his verdict. "Yes you were." He leaned back against the wall. "Catherine's given me that look a few times, so I know it when I see it."

"Xander," Willow warned. "I may not remember anything. You may not want to tell me anything. But there are plenty of people who have good memories who will tell me if I asked. Well, except for J'Nal. He won't tell me anything."

*Gee. Thanks a whole hell of a lot pal,* Xander thought.

J'Nal responded with a soft snort, as if he could read Xander's mind.

Willow clutched his hand and stared hard into his face. "Xander? How bad was it?"

*She's afraid.* He could see it in the way she hunched her shoulders, as if waiting for a crash landing. The thing was this: she was right. If he didn't tell her right here and right now, someone else would.

"There were some problems," he said carefully while his mind scrambled to find the right way to tell her the truth without tossing on the hurt. "Your, unh, your mind it…ummmm…sort of went for a walk. Faith told me it happened after you touched the Grail."

"That sounds about right," Willow said at a whisper.

"And you were kind of mumbling stuff, but it was mostly harmless. Totally harmless, actually. Completely and absolutely harmless in a freaky sort of she's-talking-to-herself kind of way, not that I knew what you were talking about. Or that anyone knew what you were talking about. I mean, clueless. Totally clueless. So, it was mostly harmless mumbling and, ummm, there may have been some naughty grabbing…" *Shut up shut up shut up!*

"Naughty grabbing," Willow deadpanned.

"I think you confused me with someone else."

"Do I want to know?"

"I didn't get a name. I mean, it definitely wasn't me, but I don't know who I was supposed to be either." Xander was just relieved he didn't have to sugarcoat that answer. "Although in the future? If you're going to grab and rub Junior, I beg you to warn me first so I can start running. Kennedy would kill me if she found out."

Willow began giggling. "I didn't."

"You did. And you were really good at it, too. If Faith wasn't watching, boy oh boy…"

"Xander!" Willow squealed as she slapped at him.

Xander ducked his head and grinned. *Yes! Did it again! The distract-o boy has his mojo on.*

Willow's giggles faded out with a series of trying-not-to-laugh coughs, which was probably why the next statement took him completely off guard. "If you're talking about naughty public touching like you enjoyed it, I must've done something really horrible."

Xander looked up and saw from Willow's face that she knew what he was trying to do and she wasn't about to let him get away with it.

"I know you, Xander." Willow wasn't wavering. "You were dying of embarrassment when it happened, so for you to go all 'was it good for you baby' I know that I must've gone evil."

He was in a corner and he knew it. She left him one option and one option only: unvarnished truth. So, with a final despairing glance at J'Nal, he took Willow's hand and laid out the bare facts. She thought he and Faith were monsters that were killing children. She attacked them. She literally ripped his mouth off his face. He kind of blacked out while Faith desperately tried to talk her down. From what he understood, Charlie probably saved everyone when he charged to the rescue with sedatives and doped her to the gills.

He tried to be matter-of-fact about it, but the words stumbled and bumbled. He could almost imagine the taste of blood in his mouth as the truth ripped at his tongue before escaping into the now-stuffy air. He couldn't even look at her, focusing instead on her small, white hand clutched in his stupid, clumsy large one.

"So that's how you got hurt," Willow said quietly. "Buffy said Charlie had given you meds and that's why you were out cold this morning, but she didn't say why."

Xander shrugged. "I'm not sure if Buffy even knows. We, unh, really didn't get a chance to talk last night or this morning."

"They're going to be afraid of me again, aren't they?" Willow asked in a small voice. "Every time I think they've forgotten or at least were willing to sort of think I'm one of the girls I do something stupid to remind them. Sometimes I wish…"

"Don't." The interruption was reflex. Anya was pretty adamant about never saying the 'w' word to the point where he'd gotten almost paranoid even thinking it.

Willow winced like she could read his mind. "No wishing. Gotchya."

"Besides, this is all my fault, so if anyone should be beating themselves up, it should be me."

Willow's forehead crinkled with confusion. "Now you've lost me."

"I should've realized…I mean, we're going into a situation, right? So it makes sense. Something's going to go wrong because, hey, it always does. Well, not always, but usually. Sometimes. But, okay, no way to know it was going to go as wrong as it did."

"Xander? Did we get the Grail?"


"So, not seeing the wrongness here. I mean, we got the Grail. Grail is safe. No one died. So, no problem, right?"

"People got hurt."

Willow froze. "Hurt? Who else did I…"

"Not you. Me."

"Whoa. Back up mister. You hurt people? How?"

"I should have known," Xander admitted. "I mean, it makes sense. When people fight, people get hurt. I knew there was going to be some kind of fight with a big ol' snake. I didn't even think…"

Willow yanked on his hand to get him to look at her. "You're not making any sense. Besides you, who got hurt?"

"You did."

"Me not so much. I mean, I'm not tip-top and I probably won't be busy bee-ing for a few days, but I'm a one-piece Willow with no missing parts and…" Willow winced. "Which is a really stupid thing to say about missing parts so just ignore me and pretend in your head that I said something cool and suave that convinced you that I'm fine-ish, okay?"

"Robin got a concussion. A pretty bad one. They had to keep him overnight at the hospital for observation."

"Oooooo-kaaaaayyyyyyy," Willow said slowly. "But Vi told me that Robin hit his head while you and he were running from your snake. So, unless you whacked him, I don't see how…"

"And then I found out…" Xander quickly stopped himself.

"Found out…" Willow began.

*Don't tell. Don't tell. Don't tell.* Christ, it was bad enough he knew and Faith knew but if he told Willow it would kill her. "Vi got hurt."

Willow studied him a moment as if she just knew he was hiding something. "I saw Vi earlier and she seemed fine," she finally said.

"Ummm, yeah. Slayer healing. But she kind of messed up her arm pretty bad, not that you'd know it today. I guess I'm not used to…I mean it was bad enough knowing some of them died in Sunnydale, and things have been quiet-ish here so I sometimes forget that they're basically playing Powerball with their lives."

"Yeah. Sooner or later their number's up. Trust me. I think about it a lot."

"You do?"

"Yeah." Willow shook her head. "But that still doesn't tell me why you think that you hurt people."

"The journal," Xander said.

"The journal," Willow repeated in a flat voice.

"I should've warned you, I mean me, I mean…what I'm trying to say is that I should've known this would happen."

Willow leaned back against her pillows looking incredulous. "How? I mean, it's not like you knew, knew. I read the journal too and I don't remember anything like, 'Hey! Look out for that Grail! The first touch is a doozy!' Or, 'Hey, Robin! Don't forget to duck!'"

"Which is my point. That's exactly my point."

"Xander," she was taking on that tone she used to get when she spent an hour explaining a math problem and he still didn't get it, "If you didn't warn you, then how are you supposed to know?"

"Because I should have warned me. I mean, it's the least I could do, right?"

Willow chewed that over a bit before her face brightened. "Unless you couldn't!"


"Think about it. This whole Grail thing was supposed to happen somewhere else with only you and Faith. Right, J'Nal?"

"That would be correct," J'Nal volunteered.

Xander startled a bit at the mention of J'Nal. The other witch was so quiet that he'd forgotten that there was someone else in the room with them.

"And, you know, you couldn't exactly go warning people to be careful if they're not actually supposed to be there, right?" Willow asked.

Oh, it would be so easy to accept it and let it slide. But he just couldn't. He had to be a man about this and take the lumps he deserved. "Nice theory. One problem. You remember the second entry, right? The one that basically said I was right in thinking that the Grail was right here? I couldn't warn me then?"

Willow's expression collapsed slightly as she chewed her lip. She then repeated: "Unless you couldn't."

"Not seeing the why not."

"Well, what if it was kinda important, right? What if those big ol' mumbles from me you heard made no sense but turns out to be important? Or," she began to wave her hands as her expression brightened, "maybe it was important, like life-savage important, that things had to happen the way they did otherwise things would go all higgledy piggledy."

"Hig-el-dee pig-el-dee?" J'Nal asked.

"Shush you," Willow said. She turned back to Xander and said, "Or maybe, just maybe, it didn't happen the way it happened the first time it happened. It could've happened completely different for future you so you couldn't warn you since you didn't know about it. I mean, we don't know if we've messed up the timeline or not."

"You know, if you're trying to cheer me up? You're not. This is not cheering to me at all," Xander said. "'Cause then we're all in big trouble if the timeline has gone wrong."

"Agreed," J'Nal said grimly.

"Look, I'm just trying to say that there may be a very good reason why you couldn't warn yourself about what happened. It's something to think about, right?"

Xander rubbed his face with his hands. He wanted to believe her, but…

"Maybe," he grudgingly said. "I'm not onboard with the excuse train, but maybe you've got a point."

"Of course I do!" Willow grinned. "Because, I know you and if you could lay down the warn, you would've had that journal sending up flares and big flashy lights and all sorts of red alerts."

"Or maybe my future self really is an assface."

"Stop it!" Willow swatted at him. "No more painting yourself a bad guy. There will be no bad guy painting here, well, at least over this. Besides, we don't have all the facts. Right now we don't know enough, so time…"

"If you say, 'time will tell,' I'm gong to sic the cliché police on you."

Willow sighed. "Xaaaan-deeer. Will you at least think about what I said?"

Xander reluctantly nodded. "Fine. I'll think about."

"That's the best I'm going to get, isn't it?" Willow asked.

"'Fraid so."

Willow let out a yawn.

"Oh, man. You're tired. I'm…"

"You apologize I'm going to hurt you," Willow threatened. "And I'm only a little tired."

"Which is why you're yawning and all pale-like, right?"

"Okay, maybe more than a little," Willow admitted. "But I don't want you to think I'm kicking you out."

At least he could smile at that. "Nope. Don't feel the kick." He leaned over and kissed Willow on the forehead. "Just get some rest, okay? I'll see you in a bit."

"You better. I'm thinking a game of gin later?" Willow threw puppy eyes on top of the question.

Xander stood. "I'll bring the cards." As an afterthought, he gave J'Nal a quick nod before leaving the room.

When he closed Willow's bedroom door behind him, he stopped and leaned against it. Typical. He'd gone to do the cheer-up thing and ended up making Willow cheer him up. Selfish. No other word for it.

Still, there was some food for thought there. If he really wanted to believe that he didn't warn himself about people getting injured because it didn't happen the first time around that meant the future was wide open.

And if it was wide-open, maybe that meant he could warn someone who might be able to do something about a certain shimmy-shakes, or at least get the research ball rolling.

*But what if Willow's wrong and...*

No. Stop. Don't think.

"There is no think. There is no try," he said quietly to himself. "As Yoda says, 'Do or do not.' So, what are you going to do?"

Only one thing to do, really.

Xander forced himself to stand on his own two feet. After a brief, unsteady moment, he squared his shoulders and started walking to Giles's room.


Part 64
The Future Is Now

Willow leaned back against her pillows with a sigh as soon as the door shut behind Alexander. "J'Nal?"


"C'mere," Willow indicated the chair Alexander had vacated, "we need to talk."

J'Nal did as requested, not particularly pleased with this state of affairs. Willow had been passively-aggressively asking him questions off and on between naps and visitors, as if testing to see if she could get information out of him.

Willow watched as he took the seat next to her bed. Her jaw line was hardened and her expression was set in determined stone. "I'm guessing that you guessed I wasn't exactly being entirely truthful. Well, not truthful at all. I mean, that I was lying. Completely and totally lying. Not because I'm a bad person. No sir. I mean, I was bad, but I'm trying not to be and, wow, guess I feel a little guilty. About lying. And being bad, too. But right now about the lying."

"You were much more coherent when Alexander was here. Maybe I should get him to translate?" J'Nal made a move to get up, but Willow's hand grabbed him by the wrist.

She studied J'Nal a moment, took a breath, and said, "I remember you know. Everything I saw. I remember it."

J'Nal swallowed hard. *Oh, hada. It's bad enough that Alexander and Faith know as little as they do, but she knows more and that can only lead to…* He didn't even want to think about it.

It was times like this that he wished he could call on the various gods and goddesses for minor parlor tricks like spells to make people forget, because he suspected nothing less was going to wipe this woman's memory.

"Thought that would get you all at attention-y," Willow let go, looking mightily pleased with herself. "Don't worry. I don't know exactly what any of it means because it was like looking at all these little filmed bits like you see in those cheesy clip shows on sitcoms." "I don't understand."

"Right, maybe they outlawed cheesy clip shows. Or sitcoms. Or sitcoms and clip shows. Maybe it's all reality TV all the time when you're from because FOX owns all the media outlets."

"I, ummmm…"

"Whoops. Sorry," Willow grinned sheepishly. "Do you have plays?"

"Live actors performing on a stage," J'Nal nodded quickly, relieved that he understood something.

"Okay," Willow's face screwed up in concentration, "have you ever walked into the middle of a play and not known what was going on?"


"Okay, now imagine that happening every ten seconds or so." When Willow saw he understood her gist, she continued, "So, all I've got are these scenes, but I don't know what's going on, what happened before, what happened after, or even when it happened. Just these disjointed scenes that don't make a lot of sense."

J'Nal stiffened. "I'm not going to explain them to you."

Willow looked a little hurt. "Not asking you to because I'm not sure I want to be all knowledge future girl." She looked at the door and bit her lip. "Besides, I think I've got a taste of what Xander's been going through and it's making me a little nauseous. If I knew knew? I'd be yaking everything I've ever eaten in my whole entire life."


"I'm gonna ask you something and I want you to be honest," Willow said, ignoring his question.

J'Nal raised an eyebrow. She didn't want to know about the future, she told him she remembered her glimpses of the future, she all but promised she wouldn't tell anyone that she had seen the future, so what could this woman possibly want with him? "How sure are you that you didn't mess up the timeline?" she asked. "I won't know until tomorrow," J'Nal admitted.

"Oh. Unh. Wrong question, I guess. What I mean is, if you find out that your timeline is a-okay, does that mean that everything remains the same between our time and yours?" Willow asked.

"I am fairly certain that would be the case," J'Nal replied dryly.

Willow nodded, not at all surprised or disappointed by the answer.

"That's what I think, too." "I really don't see…"

"Now, you and me, we're pretty sure, but would anyone else be sure? Say, Xander-shaped people, or say, any other past-shaped people? If, for example, you mentioned that just because you guys are all set doesn't mean we're set in stone, would anyone be able to say you're wrong?"

"Well, my teammates might."

Willow waved her hand. "Take them out of the equation."

"No," J'Nal said slowly. "A lot of the mystical and temporal mechanics are somewhat advanced…"

"Too advanced for primates like me?" Willow's eyes twinkled in amusement. "You're probably right."

J'Nal swallowed nervously.

"But if you came up with a believable, techno-babbly explain-y story, everyone here, as in like now-here, would buy it hook, line, sinker, fish-in-the-skillet? Right?" Willow insisted.

"I wouldn't even know how to…" J'Nal began. He shook his head. "Why are you even asking this?"

Willow's eyes went to the door, mouth set in a firm line with that hardened expression back on her face. "You and me. We're going to give Xander's future back to him and put it in his hands right where it belongs." She looked back at J'Nal, voice going flat. "We're giving everyone their future back. It doesn't belong to you. It belongs to them. And by the time you, Catherine, Charlie, Ruda, and Tikri leave, the ball is back in their court one way or the other."

"But if the timeline is maintained it will be a…"

"Lie," Willow finished for him quietly. "But if the truth comes out, every time something goes wrong between now and 2008 Xander's going to blame himself for not knowing."

"That's illogical."

"Xander in a nutshell," Willow agreed. "C'mon, J'Nal. You saw him. He was blaming himself for me and Robin getting hurt when had no way of knowing it was going to happen."

"Shouldn't you be upset that he didn't warn you?" J'Nal was curious. "Hello! Clip show!" Willow reminded him as she pointed at her head. "Plus, I kinda blued myself with that spell on the journal, so since I was all help-y about blocking the journal, that probably means I'll be talking him out of warning me about the temporary insanity with sound and lights."

As J'Nal wavered, Willow pressed her point.

"We have to do this. We have to. I won't watch Xander suffer over this or have anyone blaming him when things go wrong because he wasn't in the know. Give him back his future and let him live his life on his own terms."

"That will leave you alone, you know," J'Nal pointed out. "You'll never be able to tell anyone about your 'clip show' or the fact that the future will be what it was."

Willow looked down at the pattern on her bedspread. "I know. It'll be hard, but…someone has to and that someone has to be me." She looked at J'Nal. "I owe it to Xander, to all of them really. It's okay they'll never know, but they'll be safe from the future and that's what counts." J'Nal could feel a smile full of wonder stretch across his face. This woman was going to protect her friends and family from the mystical forces that might destroy them without a thought of what it might mean for herself. Why he was surprised by this revelation, he had no idea. After all, this is what Primas did.

And make no mistake, Willow ca-Rosenberg is a Prima, even if there are no Prima to be had in the here and now.

"Tell me how I can help, ca-Rosenberg," J'Nal said.

Willow's eyebrows twitched a question, but that question remained unasked. Instead, a grin exploded across her face and she began to lay out her plan. "What do you know about the concept of 'alternate realities'?"

"You can't turn your own past into an alternative reality," J'Nal pointed out.

"I know that. You know that," Willow gave him a mischievous grin. "Think anyone else knows that?"

J'Nal hunched forward and listened as Willow began talking.


Faith leaned against the wall and stared at Giles's door opposite from her.

How long had she been standing here? Felt like hours, but was probably more like minutes. She couldn't tell.

She was exhausted to the point that she could practically feel the bags under her eyes growing to massive proportions. She wanted to knock on Giles's door, but Christ she had no idea how. Well, she knew how. Take the two steps needed to cross the space, lift up fist, and knock. Easy.

Except not so much.

All she could do was just lean against the wall, clenching and unclenching her firsts because…

*Admit it girlfriend. You're scared shitless. This is too fucking big.*

She's afraid that Giles didn't know about shimmy-shakes. She's afraid he did know and didn't tell anyone when Buffy came up with her crazy plan. She doubted Buffy knew, because then there would've been no way Buffy would've even proposed it. Probably. Maybe. B was running a bit on the weird side back in the SunnyD so there's no telling what Buffy would've decided to do if she knew about the shimmy-shakes.

Just the same, Faith knew her in her gut that B didn't know, but she didn't know if Giles knew.

Awww, hell. She's way too tired for this bullshit. She's not making sense even to herself. And if she couldn't sort it out, how the hell was she even going to talk to a smart guy like Tweedy?

What she needed after the fun and games of last night was sleep. What she got was a mess of nightmares. If there was any good thing in this, it was that the nightmares didn't feel like Slayer dreams. God knows she was an expert at telling the difference.

*They're all over the house. She walks from room to room, stepping over the bodies of Slayers. Some of them are already dead. Some of them are bleeding from every orifice. She can't stop. She has to find one (just one god please) Slayer still standing to help her deal with the dead and dying.*

*Their weak hands are crabbing at her ankles, but they can't keep hold. She can see them shaking so hard that it's no wonder she can shake them off.*

*She walks into the kitchen and sees Buffy in a corner. She's vibrating so fast that (just like a cheesy horror movie special effect) her body's a blur.*

*They moan through the house: Your fault…your fault…your fault…*

Faith jerked her head upright. Shit. She drifted off. "Not my fucking fault," she insisted quietly. Except if she were being honest with herself--and fuck, doesn't she hate the fact she is--she's just as much at fault as B. She may not have come up with the big plan to make 'em all Slayers, but she went right along with it and didn't say a peep.

*Christ, at least Xander pointed out that the idea was insane before we all ran with it and he ain't even a Slayer.*

She could hear the soft tread of footsteps climb the stairs. Too heavy to be one of the girls, too clumsy to be a Slayer.

*Why speak of the devil.*

The footsteps stopped and out of the corner of her left eye she saw Xander cross his arms and lean against the wall. She's not surprised to see him here. She knew he'd cave and go running to Giles. What surprised her is that he didn't seem at all surprised that she was here.

"Don't fucking start," she said.

"Not saying anything."

She really wished Xander would stop looking at her. She wished even more he had something resembling an expression on his face.

She had nothing. She couldn't read a thing off him. He's a blank sheet.

"You're bleeding," he finally said.


He reached out and tapped her left arm hanging down by her side. "Your hands are bleeding."

She lifted her fists and started when she saw that there was blood leaking out of them. She unclenched both her hands. Son of a bitch. Her nails had been digging into her palms and she was staring at one hell of a mess. *You'd think that would hurt.*

A large hand closed around her left wrist and tugged. "C'mon," he said.

She let Xander lead her to the third floor bathroom by her wrist. He let go to close the door behind them and to start the water in the sink. About all she could do was stare dumbly at him.

When the water reached a temperature that Xander obviously thought was good, he said, "Give me your hands."

And fuck her if she didn't do just that.

She was somewhat surprised by his matter-of-fact gentleness while he cleaned her hands and inspected the damage. *What the fuck are you doing? I can do that shit,* she wanted to say. The words got stuck somewhere in her head and didn't actually reach her lips.

Faith looked up at the mirror and winced. She looked like shit on a stick. Xander finished, looked up, and asked her reflection, "Want me to put something on the cuts?"

"What?" Jesus, she really was stuck on that word, wasn't she?

Xander reached over, snagged a towel, and began drying his hands. "The cuts. On your palms. I'm sure they'll heal in no time, but they're still bleeding."

"Leave it." Halleluiah. New words. Any minute now she'll graduate to full-on sentences.

"It's your hands." Xander was back to talking to her reflection again. He didn't look all that hot either.

"It shouldn't be us, you know," she said.

Back to no expression again. "Nope. It really shouldn't."

"Should be Willow, or Robin, one of the real braniacs going to Giles with this shit."

"Yup. It really should."

"We're the wrong people for the job."

"I know I am, but you're not."

She shot his reflection a glare. "You bailin' on me?"

That earned her reflection a tight smile. "No."

Xander turned, opened the door, and let her through first. She took the lead down the hall. Without looking over her shoulder she said, "You know Cyclops, you could pretend to be surprised that I welshed on the not telling thing."

"Can't pretend because I'm not. Surprised I mean."

*Hunh.* Apparently Xander thought she was a better person than she actually was.

She reached Giles's door, lifted her hand, got ready to knock, and froze. She couldn't do this. If she did this, everything would change. Well, more than they already had. Fucking Catherine. Fucking Charlie. Fucking all of them. She really didn't need this shit. She could walk away right here and right now and leave this shit for Xander to deal with.

Except Xander's standing right behind her and not at all fucking surprised that she was going to do this.

Xander leaned over her left shoulder to knock, but she stopped him. "No. I can do this," she said. When he stepped back, she gave the door two sharp raps.

"Who is it?" Giles's sounded somewhat distracted.

"Faith and Xander," she said.

"Come in." Giles sounded somewhat surprised.

Faith opened the door, let Xander through, and followed him.

"Oh, unh, we didn't mean to interrupt," she heard Xander say as she turned to shut the door.

"I'm merely recording what happened last night in my journal. Old habits you know. Although I suspect we'll have to destroy all the evidence that our visitors' were here to keep the narrative intact for the future. Speaking of which, you're going to have start doing this yourself soon enough."

"Hey, you didn't tell me you were invited into the tweed-is-good club," Faith said.

"No time." Xander gave her a meaningful look.

"Right. Later," Faith agreed.

Giles was sitting at his desk, hands folded under his chin. He had one of those blank books open on his desk and from where she stood, Faith could see that one of the pages was filled with Giles's neat, close handwriting. The expression on his face was so pleased and amused by their presence that Faith wondered why the hell he thought they were there.

"Giles? We need to know…" Xander began.

There was something in Xander's voice that Faith could hear but couldn't quite put a name to that caused Giles's expression to dim into worry.

"Know what?" Giles asked.

Faith dove in. "You ever heard of something called the shimmy-shakes?"

"Shimmy-shakes?" Giles asked.

"Polgar Syndrome?" Xander clarified.

"Polgar…what on earth are you two talking about?" Giles was obviously confused now.

"It's a Slayer thing that we heard about from Charlie," Faith explained. "And trust me when I tell you, it's not good."

Giles sat up and regarded them a moment with alarm. "How bad?"

"Ever hear of a disease that attacks only Slayers?" Xander asked.

There was no faking the look of shock on Giles's face. "That's impossible."

Giles had no more fucking clue than they did. She could see Xander's body language relax next to her, relieved because he wouldn't have to deal with the idea that Giles knew it was possible and kept his trap shut while B laid out her plan. As for her, the spring in her gut wound tighter. If Giles had never even heard of such a thing, they were screwed beyond screwed.

"It's possible. Think Parkinson's for Slayers and that gives you the idea," Xander said.

As Giles leaned back in his chair and fought to keep his expression under control, Faith wondered if they did the right thing by yanking Giles into their exclusive little club.

"Tell me everything," Giles said. "Start from the beginning."

Part 65
Spotlight on Kennedy

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Kennedy Sunocci, occupant of Taran United Watcher's Council building, pre-founding, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*History tells us that Kennedy Sunocci was one of the Potentials present in Sun'dayl at the time of the Empowerment Spell who went on to become an important member of the surviving band during the early years of the Cleveland household. She was one of the leaders in training the younger Slayers, helped with recruiting, and formed close relationships with many of the Founding Lights, most notably Willow ca-Rosenberg who took the young Slayer under her wing as a confidante and lover.*

*Despite her significance behind the scenes, Sunocci did not particularly stand out in the field. She occasionally took the lead in various battles, but more often than not seemed relegated to a lesser leadership role because of the significantly greater experience of Buffy Summers-rah and Faith Lanoire-rah.*

*What makes Ms. Sunocci stand out for historians is that she was the only person who was present at Sun'dayl who actually quit active service as a Slayer, which she did at the beginning of 2008. Her reasons for doing so remain one of history's great mysteries. Some historians have argued that the death of Violet Knowles-sen a few months before inspired Ms. Sunocci to re-evaluate her life. Other historians, who are less inclined to be sympathetic, have argued that she walked away from her duty when it became clear that she would not attain the same regard in the eyes of her fellow Slayers as Summers-rah and Lanoire-rah.* *First-hand accounts of the time-period are muddy. The only thing the records are clear about is that the leaders of Cleveland household were grooming her for greater things and that her sudden decision to leave took them by surprise. However, Alexander Harris-rah and Lanoire-rah in their separate journals expressed sympathy for her decision, the proof many historians cite when arguing that the death of Hero Knowles-sen was the impetus for her departure. Summers-rah and Robin Wood-rah were significantly less understanding, which has served as fuel for those historians attributing more selfish reasons to her resignation.*

*What is known is that after Ms. Sunocci left the confines of Cleveland, she joined a Taran global relief organization called Doctors Without Borders where she served as an escort for physicians and medical supplies slated for war-torn regions.*

*Although she was no longer officially associated with the Cleveland group, she did unofficially serve as an informant for the Cleveland headquarters. Whenever she found any undiscovered Slayers or discovered useful information and objects of note, she would inform the household, using ca-Rosenberg as an intermediary to do so.*

*Everything we know about Ms. Sunocci after leaving Cleveland comes through references in the journals of others. During her "wandering years," as Wise Rupert Giles-rah phrased it, she kept a very low profile. Her decision to stay out of the spotlight is perhaps understandable, since the existence of Slayers were not common knowledge among the broader population during that period in Tara's history.*

*Ms. Sunocci remained active in global relief for ten years, until her convoy was attacked by unknown persons during a mission in a country called Ch'chenia.*

*There were no survivors.*

*While perhaps there is no official record of the impact her life had on others, one can't help but wonder how many people alive today are here because one Slayer walked away.*

*Was it an act of selfishness? Was it an act of cowardice? Or did it require an act of strength and courage to leave the relative safety of Cleveland and brave the world alone?*

*We may never know the answers to those questions, but perhaps Ms. Sunocci herself can give us a clue in this exclusive UNS interview.*

KS: Hey.

UNS: Unh, 'hey.' So how are you feeling today?

KS: Bruised. Very bruised. And tired. And relieved. It's a very long list.

UNS: So, how do you like being a Slayer?

KS: The juice is nice but…[shrugs]

UNS: You don't like it?

KS: Why would you assume that?

UNS: You sound like you're not sure.

KS: Look, you have to understand, the Council--I mean the old Council--caught me really early. I was something like 10 when I was told I was Potential and started training for the big day. Anyway, I've known half my life that I was going to get here, so it's not like a huge shock for me like it is for some of the other girls.

UNS: [confused] That's a little old for identification.

KS: Maybe where you're from, but I remember it was like this huge deal for the Council. I mean the old Council. Sometimes they could identify a Potential and sometimes they couldn't. But they almost never identified them before they got their period.

UNS: I, unh, I didn't know…I guess…so how did they find a Slayer when she was activated? Scratch that. How did they find Potentials because it's pretty obvious there wasn't a screening system in place.

KS: [thinking] My Watcher…I mean, the Watcher I had back in New York before he was…[shakes head] Sorry. It's hard to talk about him. He was in London for a meeting when they were all slaughtered. I still miss him. It's not bad like it once was but sometimes I just want to turn around and ask him…sorry. [smiles] That wasn't your question. You question was: 'So what makes you so special Kennedy Sunocci that they picked you out of the pack so early?' Right?

UNS: Well, not exactly…

KS: See, my Watcher told me that they kinda knew where the Slayer lines were. Not all of them because a lot of that stuff gets lost, you know? Families move, or you think families die out, wars happen and all information gets cut off, that kind of thing. Anyway, they had a pretty good idea about Slayer lines in, say, Europe. Less of a better idea in North America and Asia. None at all for real hotspots like some countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. So that's how they could sort of figure out who Potentials were, by tracking families. But once a Slayer got called, no more hiding even if they didn't know where she was when she was just a Potential. The seers would go a little ape and start pointing at maps. Next thing you know, one Watcher was winging their way to wherever to train the new girl.

UNS: That doesn't exactly sound like the best system they could've devised.

KS: Like our system is so hot now? We've got so many Slayers running around that seers, and covens, and other Slayers don't even know where to look first. Plus, the Council records--I mean the old Council--were all destroyed, so we don't even know where to start.

UNS: You'd think it would be easier now that there's so many Slayers.

KS: Willow tried to explain it once to me. She said it was like during the day there's only one sun. Everyone can see it. It's got no competition. When you say 'the Sun,' everyone knows what you're talking about. You don't have to call it Sol or some other specific name because there aren't any other suns around. But at night there are a million stars and while you can sometimes pick out a really bright star or a really interesting group of stars, you have a hard time picking out one particular star and unless you devote your whole life studying them you probably wouldn't be able to name all of them, let alone find them even with a map. Plus, you have to look really hard because sometimes the thing you think is a star is really a planet.

UNS: So what you're saying is that when there was one Slayer, she was the sun in this universe. Now that there's many Slayers, it's actually harder to find them because they can get lost in the crowd.

KS: Bingo.

UNS: Is that why you're ambivalent? Because you're just one of many instead of the one and only?

KS: [frowns] At first I thought that was it. But I look at Buffy and I don't think being the One was such a great thing for her, especially since she was all, 'I'm the only one who can do this!' back when I first met her. Looking back, I think she was being unfair. Seems to me that she had a lot of people around her who could do lots of things. Now, it was true there were some things only she could do, but you have to wonder if having it hammered into your head that you're the only girl in all the world isn't part of it.

UNS: But she wasn't entirely alone. There was Faith.

KS: Yeah, but think about how Slayers got the job before May.

Someone had to die if you wanted the job, right? Along comes Faith. She finds out that there's another Slayer that's blonder and richer than she is. Buffy, on the other hand, gets a constant reminder that she died just long enough for Faith to get the big nod. Oh, wait. I think there was someone between them. Anyway, the point is Buffy had to die for it to even get to Faith, see what I'm saying? That could not have been a whole lot of fun for either one of them.

UNS: But that's all changed now.

KS: I wonder sometimes, though. We're all Slayers until we die. It's just hit home, well, to me anyway, that 'until we die' probably isn't going to involve Social Security or collecting on the Slayer 401(k) plan.

UNS: Social security? For oh won kay?

KS: Retirement for the over-65 set.

UNS: Ahhh. Well, that's not always the case…

KS: Again, maybe where you're from. But we've got one Slayer who's died at least twice before she was 25. Another Slayer who's hit comaville and was out of action for awhile before she went off to lock herself up and stare at her navel. So, I gotta think that Slayers, as a group, probably have a pretty tight sell-by date.

UNS: [grudgingly] You do have a dangerous calling.

KS: See, the thing is, I knew this in my head. [taps finger to temple] Of course I did. From the time I was 10 I trained to fight, I was grilled in Slayer lore, I knew the whole thing backwards and forwards. I wasn't so hot on demon identification, but that's what a Watcher is for, right? To help you with the book stuff so you can do the Slay stuff.

UNS: You still haven't said why they identified you so young, I mean, at least by the standards of this time period.

KS: Part of it was because my grandparents, my mother's parents, were right off the boat. Straight from Italy. So they had a pretty good idea about my family, see? Also, the seers were 100% sure I was going to be a Slayer. I may have been a Potential, but according to my Watcher, I was voted 'girl most likely to stake' by the seers. They figured I was next in line right after Faith.

UNS: But Faith never died…

KS: And I just got older. By the time I ended up in Sunnydale, I was almost convinced that I never would be Called. Throw in that my Watcher had been murdered by those bastards and I was pretty pissed off at the world.

UNS: You wanted it that bad? Even knowing what you knew?

KS: Are you kidding? Half my life I kept thinking: 'When I'm the Slayer, things are going to be better.'

UNS: Things? What kind of things?

KS: [shifting uncomfortably] You know. Things. Just things.

UNS: That doesn't tell me anything.

KS: It's stupid. Even I know it's stupid.

UNS: Try me. I've heard some pretty stupid things in my career.

KS: [slyly] Including here.

UNS: Sorry. I can't reveal my sources to protect the guilty.

KS: Thought so.

UNS: You're getting off track.

KS: Okay. Fine. It's like this: my parents separated when I was young. My dad was a big ol' workaholic building up the fam business and mom wanted a husband instead of a mogul. So, it was one of those no-fault things. No good guy, no bad guy.

UNS: Must've grated. Slayers tend to like their battles black and white.

KS: [shrug] Maybe. I dunno. Faith does okay with grey, hell, she is grey. I mean, was grey. I'm not real clear on the whole story. And I have to admit, Buffy had a lot of people in her crew that did some pretty questionable things over the years, so I wouldn't say that's true when you look at the details.

UNS: But…

KS: Look, I know you think it's true, but you don't live with it 24/7, know what I'm saying? Do we like clear-cut bad guys if someone's getting Slayed? Hell, yeah. I don't know about you, but I can't think of anything worse than offing something that doesn't really deserve it. Or worse, someone getting killed in the crossfire, so, yeah, black-and-white for the Slay. Applying it to the rest of your life? Doesn't happen for people who aren't Slayers, so why should it happen for us?

UNS: Duly noted.

KS: As for my parents, well, happened when I was young. It was a good divorce, if there's such a thing. Shared custody. Mom stayed in the same town so I wouldn't be switching schools every six months. I could see my dad whenever I wanted and sleep over. So, it wasn't so bad. Even when dad got remarried and mom got remarried, still not so bad. Could've done without the stepsiblings, but, hey? What can you do?

UNS: [doubtful] So what would you want to fix?

KS: Looking back? No so sure about that. Looking back, it wasn't all that bad. I mean, there are problems and there are problems. I guess I was so focused on the problems that I thought they were problems when they were just problems.

UNS: Hunh?

KS: Mountains out of molehills.

UNS: Molehills?

KS: Ummmm, small piles of dirt?

UNS: Got it.

KS: So one day, while my parents are oooing and gooing over the respective stepsiblings who are still in tadpole stage, along comes a Watcher to tell me I'm special. I'm like, 'Hah! I knew it! I'll show them!'

UNS: Show who?

KS: Everyone! That I'm special!

UNS: Just a general announcement.

KS: Well, not as much, because you have to keep it a secret, right? Although my parents knew. This Watcher figured that combined with the fact I was so young and that my parents were sharing custody he should bring them in on the act. Man, you should've seen their faces when they were told! I was special! Certainly more special than the stepsibs, right?

UNS: [surprised] Your parents were happy about this? That's very enlightened of them. Even in my time not all parents are happy with the news. We've had some instances where parents try to sabotage…I should stop talking now.

KS: Hate to say it, but that's not a big reveal. That sounds a lot like human nature.

UNS: [surprised again] That's enlightened of you.

KS: Yeah. Hard won. Getting to that.

UNS: You will?

KS: It's been on my mind. But back to the 'rents. They were surprised, but I thought they were happy for me. I mean, my dad! My dad does nothing by halves. When he goes for something, he goes all out, which is where I get it from, I think. He brought in only the best gym equipment into my wing in his house and made sure that I always had the latest and greatest. He consulted with my Watcher to make sure he hired only the best trainers, y'know, for learning different fighting skills. This one time, he brought in a sword master from Germany to teach me. Another time, he brought in this monk from China to teach me hand-to-hand. Another time he hired this guy who trained the Olympic archery team to teach me to use a compound bow. If my Watcher said I needed it, I got it.

UNS: But that's great! Oh, wait. What about your mother?

KS: Well, she kind of agreed I should move my main address to my dad's since that was where all the training equipment was. I could still drop in anytime I want, so nothing changed there, except…

UNS: Except?

KS: I could see she didn't like it. Which got me all defensive because, hey! I was special! I deserved the best! [silence] I mean, I still love my mom, but we…our relationship isn't great. She couldn't really deal with it then, she definitely is having a harder time dealing with it now that I'm actually a Slayer. She dealt with me being a lesbian like it was no big deal, but I don't think she ever got the Slayer part.

UNS: So becoming a Slayer didn't fix things with your mother.

KS: [softly] No. It really didn't.

UNS: So you were close to your father?

KS: I wouldn't say that. I mean, he did everything he could to make sure I had the best and greatest, but still a workaholic. Sometimes I think he loved his damn construction business more than he loved anything. [chuckles] Man, you should've seen him when he met Xander, one eye and all. They just started talking drywall and they were yakking for hours.

UNS: [nods] So Alexander is like your father?

KS: [laughs] Not even! [thinks about it] Hunh. Maybe a little.

Except I think Xander's a workaholic when it comes to Slayers and not so much with building things, which is probably why…forget it.

UNS: So, your father really liked Alexander.

KS: Are you kidding? He thinks Alexan--I mean Xander--is a mini him. When he came to visit us when we first got to Cleveland he said to me afterwards, 'Kenny, that boy's got a head on his shoulders. Keep your eye on him Kenny, he's going to go far, just you watch. He may not have the book smarts, Kenny, but he's got the sense and the heart to go with it.' Then when I told him about how Xander saved my life back in Sunnydale, maaan. He's all about Xander. Always asks after him. He says, 'Kenny, if you had any interest in boys, I'd tell you to schtup him and get yourself knocked up before someone else realizes he's a diamond.'

UNS: [laughing] Oh dear.

KS: [grinning] That's my dad. Like I said, he never does anything by halves. When he loves you, he loves you all the way. [grin disappears] Funny how I had to become a Slayer to figure that out, hunh?

UNS: So one thing got better.

KS: Depends on how you look at it. See, Giles showed up on my doorstep when no one else was home. I was kind of moping, see? Because my Watcher and I had been talking and it was looking more and more that being a Slayer was just going to pass me by. My dad's all, 'Buck up Kenny! Your grades are good. We can get you into Harvard or Cornell. How about NYU? You'd like NYU. Don't you worry.' Except I didn't want to be just another rich girl from Long Island hunting for a degree. I wanted to be a Slayer. Period.

UNS: Your mother must've been relieved.

KS: Hard to tell. Like I said, my relationship with mom is not the greatest. I think she was, but being a Potential was something that we tended not to talk about.

UNS: I see. Go on.

KS: So, Giles shows up with other Potentials in tow and he gives me the lowdown. My Watcher's dead. There are Bringers on his tail. We gotta go. I leave a note, grab my cell, and take off with the clothes on my back.

UNS: How did your father react?

KS: I called him from the road. He's like, 'Kenny, come back. I know some of the best bodyguards in the business. What's this Giles guy going to do for you? Nothing. I can keep you safe.' And I'm like, 'Dad, I gotta do this.'

UNS: Sounds like your father wanted to protect you.

KS: Which was annoying. I mean, he spent years preparing me to be a Slayer, well, paying for it anyway. It wasn't like he didn't know, right? So, anyway, we get to Sunnydale and I do my thing. I'd call dad and mom every once in a while to let them know I was still alive.

UNS: They must've been relieved when you got out alive.

KS: Yeah. They were. I remember the first night after Sunnydale collapsed. We stopped in this hotel, so I called my parents to let them know they I was alive. They'd been going crazy trying to find out what happened. So, my mom's crying so hard she can't talk and has to give my dad the phone. My dad's, 'Kenny, come home.' Then I lay it on them. I'm a Slayer.

UNS: Why do I think this isn't a happy ending?

KS: Again, depends on how you look at it. My mom's still sobbing, so only my dad knows at this point and he goes really quiet. I tell him I'll call when I get settled, but it's looking like Cleveland right now. He makes me promise to keep in touch before then.

UNS: So what happened?

KS: We get to Cleveland and my parents fly out. Some of the other parents did too, I mean, the ones that survived any Bringer attacks anyway. My mom, well, you could see she was pissed off. She didn't like anything. She didn't like the other girls. She didn't like the fact we were still looking for house. She definitely hated Buffy and Giles. Xander she was convinced was a perv. And Willow? Fuhgeddaboutit. I mean, she did try. She tried so hard. I could see her trying. But she just oozed dislike ranging to hate about the whole thing.

UNS: What about your father?

KS: Dad was cool. He was checking out the whole deal. Spent a lot of time just talking to everyone to find out the long-range plan. He calls it due diligence.

UNS: He wanted to be sure you knew what you were doing.

KS: Exactly. Plus, I think he was worried that I was joining a cult.

UNS: So he came around.

KS: Even helped. He yanked some contacts back in New York who put him on to some real estate people here to help us find a place. Hooked Giles up with some lawyer pals of his to help track down Council funds. Helped Xander find some building inspectors to make sure the properties we were looking at were good. Talked to Robin about what he needed for training and helped pick stuff out. I know dad kicked in the down payment for this house since Giles was still fighting about the money at the time. He probably ponied up the money for the equipment we have. I know he stuffing money in Xander's pockets for some of our weapons purchases. Stuff like that.

UNS: Nothing by halves indeed.

KS: No kidding. Not that anyone complained. Faith and Robin took a gang of us and we gave dad a demonstration of what patrolling was like. Xander took him out for drinks a few times. Willow even gave him the 'my intentions are honorable' talk. Everyone made him feel welcome.

UNS: He must've been thrilled.

KS: I thought he was.

UNS: He wasn't.

KS: Well, I didn't get clued until the day he left, y'know? I was in his room while he packed just talking about this and that and he turns around and looks at me, y'know? Just looks at me, and he says, 'Kenny, promise me you'll be careful.' I'm like, 'Daaaaad.' He grabs my hands and gets on his knees in front of me and he says, 'I know you're a big tough Slayer now and you can break your old man in half by just breathing hard, but you're still my girl. I need to know you'll be careful.' It hits me right then what he's saying. He's telling me, 'Don't die.'

UNS: That's…

KS: Sad. I know. All these years…I'm an idiot. [shakes head] He didn't like the Slayer thing any more than mom. He was trying to buy my way out it. Give me the best, prepare for the worst, and hope like hell it passes me by. And when it didn't…

UNS: Worst nightmare come true.

KS: Worst nightmare come true. [pauses] Funny the things you see, you know? You work so hard to get something and when you get it, poof! It isn't what you thought. And you can't turn around and blame someone because, guess what, they told you all along it was going to be like this. Except, they didn't tell you that when you become a Slayer that affects more than just you. It's like finding out that Lois Lane stays up nights worrying about Superman. You can't look at being a Slayer the same after that.

UNS: So, things didn't get better.

KS: [shrugs] They didn't get better. They didn't get worse. It just got different. [pauses] My dad hugged me so tight at the airport when he left. I remember when he'd crush the breath right out of me when he'd do that, and then he'd give me a noggie while I complained. I didn't even lose my breath this time. It didn't even hurt, but I still complained about the noggie. Stupid the things you miss.

UNS: I don't understand.

KS: Maybe, deep down inside, I still just want things to be better.


Part 66
Giles on the Edge of Forever

The plan to get Charlie was simplicity itself.

While Giles sat there and tried desperately to absorb what Faith and Xander told him, the two of them were already debating a plan. Somehow they had reached an agreement without his intervention: drag Charlie in for further questioning. They even came up with a believable excuse.

While he desperately scrambled through his memory to find anything--*there must be something I'm forgetting, there must be*--that even sounded even remotely like this Polgar Syndrome, Xander was off to lure Charlie to Giles's sanctum using the excuse that Giles wanted an update on Willow's condition.

Faith stayed behind and nervously paced the room. She'd occasionally look at Giles with worried eyes, but didn't say anything.

After all, what could she possibly say? There were simply no words.

And he had nothing to offer. No comfort. No assurances. No nothing. He couldn't even pick up the phone and bother a non-existent Council to check its turned-to-ashes books for something in the record that hinted that such a calamity was even possible.

There was a knock.

Faith immediately positioned herself so she was out of sight as the door swung open. Against all reason, Charlie had bought the excuse. Giles wondered if the good doctor realized that Xander was looming behind him, standing in such a way that he could grab the man if he decided to bolt.

"Giles," Charlie nodded as he stepped over the threshold. "I understand you wanted to speak to me about…"

His greeting was interrupted by the sound of the door shutting behind him, which was Faith's signal to grab the doctor and roughly seat him in a chair. She easily held him in place by placing a single hand on his shoulder and squeezing slightly.

"Ow. Let go. What's going on?" Charlie protested. "What do you…"

"This shimmy-shakes," Faith stated lowly. "We've decided we need to know all about it. So spill or we make you spill."

"Faith," Xander said quietly from his position in front of the door, "he's not one of the bad guys here."

"No. No bad guy," Charlie fervently agreed with much vigorous nodding.

Faith didn't take her eyes off the doctor, nor did she let him go.

"He's got the goods, though. Good enough for me."

Giles snapped out of his surprised paralysis as he realized he needed to take control of the situation and quickly. "Faith, do let the good doctor go. I highly doubt he'll be able to escape with both you and Xander standing in front of the door."

Faith hesitated a moment before reluctantly stepping back and joining Xander.

Charlie rubbed his shoulder as he looked at Giles with a confused, hurt expression. However, he didn't say anything, which was probably his wisest move.

Giles folded his hands and leaned forward onto his desk. "I heard some most disturbing news from my esteemed colleagues and I am very much hoping you might illuminate the dilemma I find myself wrestling with."

Charlie's eyes narrowed into a glare.

"It appears that Faith and Xander are under the mistaken impression that there is a disease that exists that is specific to Slayers."

Giles kept his voice even.

"There's no mistake," Xander flatly said.

"Harris," Faith hissed.

Xander pursed his lips and squared his shoulders, but didn't add fuel to fire by saying more.

Charlie's glare collapsed into confusion. "But you know about this."

"I assure you, I know no such thing," Giles said. "Although I am not blessed with the resources of the Council, I am well aware of most poisons, toxins, and spells that are capable of killing a Slayer.

However, to my recollection, there is no bacteria, virus, or genetic disease that can attack a Slayer and win."

During his speech, Giles watched the expression on Charlie's face transform from a look of confusion to one of out-and-out revelatory wonder. "You know about this," he repeated.

"As I explained, no we don't," Giles replied. "According to the information I received, this illness does not strike until 30 or so years after a Slayer is called. As far as I am aware the oldest Slayer on record was 32-year-old Jane Smythe and she was killed during the Blitz. According to my math, that is a mere 17 years of active duty."

"Day-um. Thirty-two," Faith echoed with admiration.

Giles could see the information soaking into Charlie's brain.

What he didn't expect was the doctor's reaction.

Charlie laughed.

Faith furiously took a step forward but was held in check when Xander placed a hand on her arm. The Slayer whirled to face him, only to see her temporary partner shake his head in an emphatic, "No."

"I fail to see the humor in this situation," Giles said tightly.

"No, no I don't suppose you would," Charlie said between guffaws.

"Feel free to share the joke. I am certain both Xander and Faith would be most appreciative."

At the mention of their names Charlie stood and bowed in the direction of Xander and Faith. "Well played, you two. Very well played." He was soon chuckling again.

"I am pleased you're amused," Giles said dryly.

Charlie waved it off as he brought himself under control. "Entirely my fault." He gave Xander and Faith a look that could actually be described as affectionately exasperated. "I forgot who I was dealing with. I should've realized."

At that statement, Xander went white as he leaned back against the door. Faith merely crossed her arms and scowled.

Charlie took his seat again and crossed his legs. Giles had the distinct impression that the doctor had taken stock and was now firmly in control from here on out. Even so, Charlie added with a sardonic grin, "That'll teach me to match wits with Catherine's Founders."

Giles cast a quick glance at the Founders in question--and yes, even he heard the capital 'F.' Faith had finally gone pale herself and her dark eyes glittered dangerously by contrast. Xander was standing ramrod straight, as if it took every ounce of willpower to stay in one spot.

"Actually, I have to be honest," Charlie said as he regarded Giles was amusement. "I thought you always knew about Polgar Syndrome."

"Why on earth would you even think that?" Giles asked.

"Ahhhh, you see, I am a proud member of the Key Medical Order, which means my area of expertise is Slayers and the people who work with them," Charlie explained. "That means I know everything there is to know about Polgar Syndrome."

"I don't follow," Giles said.

Charlie leaned forward with a conspirator's air. "You see, when the first case post Sun'dayl was reported, no one at the time seemed at all surprised by its existence. In fact, it was merely duly recorded that a Slayer had it. Polgar Syndrome is the name it was given in that very first report."

Giles lost the ability to breathe. He didn't dare look at Xander and Faith to see if they'd picked up on the possibility hinted in Charlie's confession.

"Yet, here you are saying that, as far as you know, there's no such thing." Charlie was clearly about to hammer it home, in case anyone in his captive audience missed it. "Well, you had to learn about it from somewhere, didn't you?"

Giles kept his eyes locked on Charlie.

"It appears, Wise Rupert Giles-rah, that history is right on track." Charlie relaxed into his chair with a confidence that Giles had not seen in the doctor since his arrival. Charlie added in a professional tone, "You ask the questions. I'll answer everything I can."


Three hours.

They'd held conference for three hours.

Faith and Xander were silent as Giles pelted the doctor with every question he could think of. Charlie answered everything completely and fully, even pausing long enough to let Giles take notes.

When Giles had finally run out of questions, Charlie stood and made the most astounding offer: any more questions about Polgar Syndrome and Polgar Syndrome only, he would be more than happy to answer them. He then excused himself since, as he put it, he needed to check on Willow, and swept out of the room.

Which left Giles and Xander and Faith staring shell-shocked at each other.

Xander was the first to speak. "We can't tell Buffy."

"It'll fucking kill her if she finds out," Faith agreed.

"She may find out about it if…" Giles couldn't bring himself to say, "If she lives long enough."

Faith's expression softened. "We'll deal if it comes to that." She bit her lip as if she knew she that what she was about to say would result in a battle. "We gotta tell Willow, though."

"No." Xander was emphatic.

Faith turned to look at him. "I know you want to protect her, but Jesus, we need every brain on this we can get and they don't get brainier than your bud."

"At the very least, we need to reach the Coven in Devon to see if they can help," Giles said.

Xander pinched the bridge of his nose and winced as if he had a massive headache. "If the Coven knows, it's a matter of time before Willow finds out."

"Perhaps not. Perhaps we can avoid it if we stress that she is not to know," Giles offered.

"Don't matter if we tell 'em or don't," Faith insisted. "We need her too much to let just her slide."

Xander wavered a moment and, to Giles's complete surprise, he relented. "Fine. But we wait until she's stronger. Telling her right now might not be the best thing we can do."

Faith nodded, as if she realized that this was the best she could hope to get. "You don't get to decide that alone, Cyclops. I know you.

You'll be digging up excuses from now until Gabriel blows his horn to put it off."

"Fine." Xander sounded defeated. "How about we let Giles decide."

"Well?" Faith asked the Watcher.

"I'll inform the Coven first," Giles said. "I think it's best if we put off telling Willow until Catherine leaves, that way we'll be certain she's completely healed from her ordeal."

"But we need to get her on this as in yesterday," Faith insisted.

"I understand your urgency," Giles said calmly. "However, a day or two is not going to set back our efforts. Furthermore, I do hope you're not suggesting that the Coven, a Coven I might add that taught Willow the proper use of magic, will be unable to collectively come up with more questions for Charlie."

Faith looked mutinous for a moment before something in her gave in. "Fine. But if they got questions…"

"I assure you, I will be pestering Charlie," Giles promised.

"Fair enough. Fuck. I need to get some shut-eye. I slept maybe five minutes last night."

"By all means," Giles said.

Faith gave him a nod and she was out the door. Xander hesitated a moment.

"Giles," he sounded uncertain, "I'm sorry."

"About what?"

Xander looked helplessly around the room. "For dumping this on your lap. I…we…didn't know what else to do."

"I would have been furious if you didn't come to me with this," Giles assured him quietly. "You did the right thing."

Xander half-smiled at that. "You'd think that would make me feel better, but it really doesn't." He shook his head. "I gotta go."

Which left Giles alone.

He wasn't entirely sure how long he sat and shuffled through his notes, hoping against hope that he could find that one question that needed asking. The clock told him that it was too late to call the Coven, given the time difference.

Eventually the need to get up and just move drove him out of his room.

The change in scenery wasn't much better.

As he wandered the house, he couldn't resist studying the girls. Charlie had assured him that none of the Slayers would show any signs or symptoms so soon after being Called. At best they wouldn't see hints of who'd be hit for another 25 or so years, with full onset at 30 years.

He studied all the young Slayers just the same, hoping against hope that he could prove Charlie wrong.

During his wanderings he was able to hear someone making a lot of noise in the basement as they trained. A quick inquiry with some of the worried younger Slayers yielded a most unsurprising answer: "Faith."

His path also took him past Willow's room just as J'Nal emerged. For a brief moment he could hear the witch's clear giggle and how it was cruelly muffled as J'Nal shut the door. He nodded tiredly at Giles. "She'll be fine. She's playing some kind of game with Alexander and Buffy."

"Thank you," Giles said absently.

As J'Nal moved off, Giles could hear Xander's muffled voice say something. There was the sound of a sharp thwack, Xander's "ow" of protest, and Buffy's scolding response while Willow's giggle threatened to get out of control.

Giles leaned his forehead against the door, absorbing the sounds from the other side. He often forgot that the three of them were barely out of their teens. People their age should be just out of university and living in crowded cold-water flats with their forever-friends. There should be raucous parties with loud music and just a little too much weed available for the toking. There should be casual jobs until they stumbled into well-paying careers and even more casual intimate partners to share nights of open promise.

Yet, they had been somehow crammed into the roles of adults and leaders before their time by circumstance and--much as he hated to give credit to it--fate. And yes, he was now including Xander in that select company.

It truly wasn't fair that so much had fallen on their young shoulders, but then the world is rarely fair, he reflected. Yet, despite all that was asked of them, all three had borne it. Perhaps not well at times. Perhaps grudgingly at other times. And he certainly remembered kicking and screaming when insurmountable odds seemed poised to overwhelm them all.

But still they did it.

Because they had to.

Because there was no one else who would.

He stepped back and listened to jokes where he couldn't hear the words and pictured the laughter he couldn't see. They all needed this too brief moment to be children again. The adult world would be waiting for them when they opened the door and that would happen soon enough.

He turned down the hall, fully intent on going back to take another look at his notes, but as he passed by the room where their guests were staying he was brought up short by a soft, musical murmur that could be heard through the slightly ajar door. He hesitated a moment before inching it open and peeking in.

Catherine seemed to be in a world of her own, her eyes focused on some midpoint between herself and eternity. Her eyes were narrowed and her chin rested atop her folded hands she continued to murmur to herself. For a moment Giles froze, transfixed by the silver language rendered in a near-alto voice. It was a language that promised that humanity's golden age was not in the past, as so many cynics might suggest, but in a distant time yet to come. It was almost enough to make him forget that the future, no matter how bright, still had its share of shadows.

Then again, he knew that. Everyone single one of Catherine's people told him that was the case. That was why they were here, after all. But the genuine happy nature of this merry band was enough to distract from that and focus everyone on the good.

*Or maybe we're so bloody desperate for the good that we've chosen to believe in a happy ending.* He must've made a noise because Catherine's head shot up and she ceased speaking.

"I do apologize," Giles stepped into the room and closed the door softly behind him. "But I heard and…your language is quite beautiful." He could see Catherine's mind mentally switch gears to English before she answered, confusion evident on her face. "It's just Lingua Commonality."

"Just?" Giles asked, unable to grasp that something so lovely could ever be "just" anything short of extraordinary. "I am curious about what it means, that is if you don't mind telling me."

Catherine slowly blinked as she thought about it, before giving up in a shrug. "I don't think there's a direct translation to English but it sort of means, 'I lay this upon you and your children and your children's children from now until beyond the end of time.'"

Giles leaned back against the door. "Sounds like a curse."

"Or a charge," Catherine leaned back, teeth worrying her bottom lip. "Honestly, though, I'm not sure anymore. I'm trying to work it out, but…" she shrugged. "I thought remembering to the Founders would help me figure it out, but it's just made it more confusing."

"'Remembering to?'" Giles asked. He shook his head with a chuckle as he recalled just who Catherine's Founders were. "I suppose you could ask Xander and Faith and see what they think."

Catherine's eyes widened. Her mouth opened--probably to protest, Giles thought--but only a slight squeak escaped.

"Don't worry. Xander's connection to you is public knowledge," Giles quickly assured her. "Unless Faith's connection also becomes public knowledge, I promise to say nothing. You'll find that I am very good at keeping secrets."

Catherine continued to blink rapidly as she rendered a shaky, "Thank you." "'Remembering to,'" Giles mused. "Is that like praying?" To be honest, he wasn't entirely comfortable with the notion that someone in some distant future might be praying to anyone in this house.

"What? No. Oh, no. No," Catherine shook her head. "Nothing like that. I think. I'm not sure."

*What we have here is, once again, words not meaning what they're bloody well supposed to,* Giles thought. "Why don't you explain 'remembering to' to me and I'll tell you."

Catherine frowned in concentration. "Not sure I can, but…" She brightened. "I know. How about I give you an example?"

"Are you sure that's wise?" Giles asked. "I don't think you should be giving away the future to the likes of me."

"I'm not because this has already happened to you," Catherine grinned. The smile quickly disappeared before she added, "Maybe. Given what I know now? I'm not really sure. So how about a deal: I give you an example, and you tell me if it's true. Is that fair?"

Giles crossed the room and sat next to her on the loveseat. "Provided it's not about something that hasn't happened yet, then, yes, I believe it would be eminently fair."

"Right," Catherine said softly. She gave Giles a look that telegraphed that she still wasn't sure this was the smartest thing she'd ever done, before saying, "This is remembering to. It's about the First Battle of Sun'dayl."

Giles nodded and waited.

The Watcher Honoria took a deep breath and began: "And the day came to pass when the Seven sent They-Who-Wait into hiding, along with the sister of Summers-rah and the one who was beloved by Harris-rah, for in those days, the Darkness was stirring in its power to erase the Slayer bloodline from humanity's memory.

"Once those under their protection were secure in a secret place, the Seven in their desperation engaged in ritual to call forth the First Slayer to petition Her for Her strength to save not just They-Who-Wait, but humanity entire."

Giles's eyes narrowed as he listened to the almost singsong nature of the recitation. This story was not familiar to him in the least. The Seven? Who were the Seven? And if They-Who-Wait were the Potentials, he didn't recall Buffy ever sending them into hiding. If anything, she tended to push them very hard on learning how to fight on the front lines. As for Dawn and Anya, since she was the only person who fit 'beloved by Harris-rah,' they most certainly weren't cowering in some secret bolthole while everyone else did the heavy lifting.

"And in the fire the First Slayer came unto them and She was greatly angered. 'Who be these foolish mortals that rouse Me from the Life After? Are not all answers to your ills in the land of the living? "And the Seven were afraid, but they kept their backs straight and refused to show fear. 'The Void is upon us and the Darkness would consume us. Your Children shalt be killed and Your Life After shalt be for naught. You shalt be forgotten and Your Bones be left to dust.' "But the First Slayer was not mollified and She thundered at them for their foolishness, for playing with forces unseen as children would play with a toy. 'The answer, if answer there be, lie amongst those who yet live, not in the Life After. It is not fit that you call Me forth and demand of Me My aid. I shalt not help you, for it is your world to save or not."

Giles shivered, remembering too clearly the spell that linked Xander, Willow, Buffy, and himself. He could still feel the murderous fury in the dreams that followed and how he couldn't escape the notion that the First Slayer was offended by the fact that three out of the four of them tasted power they had no right to taste.

Catherine didn't seem to notice and she kept speaking. "As the First Slayer laid Her refusal before them, Harris-rah protested, 'Then it is right Your name is forgotten and that Your Children be wiped from the face of the Tara. Let the living die. What are they to You? Let Your Children cease, for they are nothing before Your eyes. Let it be known henceforth that we are braver than You for standing before the Darkness. We fight, while You scold from the sidelines like a fishwife. We've no need of You, for You are nothing but shadow and dust." *Now that,* Giles mused, *sounds exactly like something Xander would do, complete with moving his mouth without thinking because he's furious. Although I'm fairly certain that there'd be copious amounts of swearing mixed in with a protest that would be very much less poetic.* He had a feeling that 'Harris-rah' was going to dearly pay for that outburst and was curious about the price.

"As he shouted his defiance in the face of the First Slayer, Summers-rah and Lanoire-rah attempted to pacify him. 'Leave it be before She strikes you dead. We shalt find another way as She hast abandoned us in our hour of need.' "The accusation angered the First Slayer and with a wave of Her hand, She sent the Seven hurtling to the ground, forcing them facedown in an attitude of supplication. Her eyes blazed at the challenge and great was Her fury. 'I have attempted to spare you the price of dealing with Me, but as you insist upon a Bargain, then Bargain I shall, but My price is not small.

"And the Seven trembled at the tone of Her voice and the force of Her power.

"'What is it you demand of Me?' she asked."

"Frankly, I'm rather curious about what we wanted myself," Giles murmured. Catherine's eyes widened. "You mean you don't even know?"

Giles winced. "Not really, although I might hazard a guess."

"The Empowerment Spell?" Catherine prompted.

"Ahhhhh." Giles nodded. He was wondering what Catherine thought happened. Now he was about to find out. "Please, do continue."

Catherine's voice was less sure as she began again. "And Summers-rah said, 'We wish for an army of strong right arms.' "And Lanoire-rah said, 'We wish that Those-Who-Wait be strong.' "And together Summers-rah and Lanoire-rah said, 'We wish for Many where once there were Two.'"

*Interesting, both Faith and Buffy are presented as making the same request, even though the idea was Buffy's alone.* Giles couldn't help but wonder if the details of the story changed, depending on who told it. "The First Slayer considered their request, moving amongst their still-prone bodies. 'If I grant this to you, what shalt you give Me?' "'Our lives,' the Seven vowed, 'We offer our Spirits, our Minds, our Hearts, and our Hands.'"

*Bloody hell! That damn well sounds like the spell we used to defeat Adam,* Giles thought.

"And thus the First Slayer walked amongst the Seven and She laid Her price upon them. Of Wise Giles-rah…"

Giles started at the mention of his name.

"…she said, 'I charge you to use your Wisdom in service of Me, to be the Guiding Light for all who come after, but though you be the One Who Unites, you shalt plant the seeds of Division amongst all those who come after you and yours.' "Of, "here Catherine paused with a look of distaste before continuing, "Wood-rah she said, 'I charge you to use your Intelligence to bring forth and train Mine in the ways of Righteousness, but though you may give them knowledge, your heart shall evermore be hardened to humanity within my Children.'"

*Well, that explains the dislike,* Giles thought. *As far as Catherine's concerned, Robin has no heart. I suspect that makes him very much the bad guy in her mind.* "Of ca-Rosenberg she said, 'I grant you the Knowledge to awaken the Power within They-Who-Wait when the time comes, but henceforth you and all who follow you shalt be bound to the service of Me and my Children, wheresoever they may be.'"

It was then that Giles realized that he was going to find out who the Seven in this story were. So far, he had Buffy, Faith, Xander, Willow, Robin, himself, and one mystery member. The First Slayer was giving them something, but was taking away something in return. Truthfully, he was half-afraid what his own reward and price meant.

It was then that he realized that he well and truly didn't want to know. "She stopped before Summers-rah and ordered Her Child to her feet. 'As you stand before Me, I give you My Weapon,' here the First Slayer held out Her hands and a Scythe of great power appeared in Her fists. 'With this Weapon you shalt awaken the Power and wield it in service of Me…'" "The Slayer's Scythe," Giles interrupted.

Catherine's answering smile seemed to telegraph so much relief that Giles knew what she was talking about that he simply didn't have the heart to tell her that the First Slayer had nothing to do with the Scythe or its creation, that is, if Buffy got her facts right about where the weapon came from.

Cahterine continued, her voice a little more sure "'…but you shalt never be the source of the Power, for that is reserved to one of My choosing. And be warned: Should this Weapon be lost, I shalt retrieve it back to Life After and your life is forfeit.'"

*Now that sounds like a prophecy,* Giles felt his blood run cold. He half-suspected that this 'price' for 'Summers-rah' was much like showing the gun in the first act just so no one was surprised when it was used in the third. *I think we may well lock the blasted thing up on the off chance this actually happens.* Why did he have a feeling that locking the Scythe away would ultimately do no good? "Next She ordered Lanoire-rah to stand before Her. 'I give you your strength, I grant you the gift of a true heart. As you have never been One, you shalt be known as leader and mother to the Many. From you they shalt draw their strength, from you they shalt see their example.' "At this Lanoire-rah laughed, for she was greatly amused. It pleased her to hunt alone and it pleased her to stand solitude. She looked not at all favorably on the gift the First Slayer saw fit to bestow upon her. "Her laughter angered the First Slayer, and She laid upon Lanoire-rah this curse, 'You shalt never wield My Weapon and thus there will always be those who doubt your fitness. You and your children and your children's children shall be bound to Me, but they shalt always remember that I saw fit to deny you My Weapon in your hour of need.' "'And what is it to me? Let the Other have Your Weapon, but let me use whatever weapon I see fit,' Lanoire-rah said with good cheer. 'Give me a strong right arm, give me an enemy to fight, and I shalt see victory yet.' "The First Slayer relented in the face of such spirit, and granted her one blessing, 'You shalt find allies in surprising places, and generations yet will bless your name. Use your gifts and you shalt never again walk in Shadow.'"

Giles couldn't help but notice that there was more emphasis on what Faith and Xander were doing than on anyone else. So far, Xander and Faith were the only two allowed to defy the First Slayer in the story, although near as he could tell such defiance was pretty much in character for both of them. *And once again, I find myself wishing to find out what someone who didn't share Catherine's beliefs would tell me.* "And so She came to William, the one they called the Bloody for his prowess in battle…"

"Spike!" Giles exclaimed.

Catherine frowned. "Yes, of course it is. You sound surprised."

"No, no, I'm not. It's just that he was better known as Spike and to hear him called 'William the Bloody' took me by surprise," Giles explained.

"Really," Catherine sounded intrigued, "I understood that he didn't take on the mantle of Spike until after Sun'dayl."

"After?" Giles swallowed hard. That could only mean one thing: Spike was still out there somewhere.

Catherine's eyes narrowed. "You're still sounding surprised."

"I'm just surprised at where you're placing the name change," Giles covered. "By the time we met him, he was simply 'Spike.' The moniker William the Bloody was reserved for musty Watcher's Chronicles. He was so known for several reasons, one of which he'd killed two Slayers before he met up with Buffy."

Catherine looked positively flabbergasted. "You're joking! He was a vampire without a soul with Slayer kills under his belt? And he was working with you? How? Better yet, why?"

"Well, by the time we started fighting the First Evil he had a soul," Giles weakly explained.

Catherine shook her head and muttered. "But you worked with him before he got…how did he get the soul? It was always assumed he received it at the same time as Angel and Drusilla."

"Drusilla?" Giles was shocked to his core.

"The Triumvirate?" Catherine prompted. "The Three with Souls?"

"I…perhaps we should not follow this line of questioning." Giles could feel his heart pounding. She knew about Angel, but he'd fallen into the arms of Wolfram & Hart so it was difficult to tell where Angel stood. He could easily deduce that Catherine believed that Drusilla had a soul, which meant…he didn't even want to contemplate what that meant. And, she knew about Spike, she knew he was a vampire with a soul, but knew nothing about his past.

He very much could see the appeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.'

"How Spike got the soul is a very long story but…well it does appear you know about the mystical ensouling," Giles weakly explained.

"Well, that explains…" Catherine began before she snapped her mouth shut. There was a flash of understanding in her eyes that communicated Watcher-to-Watcher sympathy. She wasn't going to give Giles any cause to say anything about William-who-was-known-as-Bloody to anyone. "I'm really…you know? I think I better stop right now because…"

"I won't say anything," Giles promised urgently.


"You've already given bits away about the future, you know," Giles interrupted. "And I want to see how this story ends. After all," he suddenly couldn't resist a wry smile, "it appears I sow the seeds of dissention. Perhaps this is it."

Catherine opened her mouth and drew a deep breath. In that moment, Giles could see that Catherine was desperately curious. So much of what she believed was right turned out to be wrong and she wanted--no needed--to know if this one story, the story of how her world began, was what really happened or if it was a pack of lies.

So far Giles was coming down on the 'pack of lies' side of the equation, but something in him also needed to know how the story turned out.

"Or perhaps Spike has nothing to do with my 'price' at all," Giles gently pressed. "But the thing is, I really don't know, do I?"

Catherine looked down and studied her hands.

"Somehow I suspect that your story will not solve the riddle, and to be blunt, I'll be very relieved if it doesn't. But perhaps I can solve your riddle." Giles mentally crossed his fingers and hoped the dangling promise did the trick.

"I did make a deal," now it was Catherine's turn to smile wryly, "so I better stick to it."

Giles let out a breath. Catherine's curiosity won out over caution. He wasn't sure if he should be worried or relieved.

Catherine picked up where she left off: "And so She came to William, the one they called the Bloody for his prowess in battle, and She laid this charge upon him, 'You who have walked in Shadow shalt be My strong right arm, but who you were shalt be forfeit in the burning Light of the Sun. For in Shadow you have walked, and in Shadow you shalt fight to keep Night from claiming victory over Day.'" Catherine cleared her throat and added apologetically, "Ummm, that's kinda why we thought he changed his name from William the Bloody to Spike after Sun'dayl."

Giles looked up at the ceiling, "Perhaps he did change dramatically. We shall see, won't we?"

Catherine nodded. "I have one more."

"Yes. Xander." He resisted the urge to pull his off his glasses and pinch his nose. He felt unaccountably guilty about looking forward to hearing about 'Harris-rah's' punishment for telling off the First Slayer and accusing her of cowardice. It was too easy to forget that, as far as this story went, 'Harris-rah' and Xander were one and the same. "And so the First Slayer came upon Harris-rah, and She ordered him to his feet. 'As you see fit to look Me in the eye and accuse Me, so I shalt see fit to look upon your face and as I pass judgment upon you.' "And Harris-rah looked upon Her and refused to bend his spine, although he was sore afraid. 'If blood You want, then blood You'll have, but I refuse to say that You Destined that it be so. My death will be my own.'"

"Well, that very much sounds like Xander," Giles laughed. "Although I'm fairly certain he'd be saying the Yank equivalent of 'get stuffed.'" Catherine giggled. "Having met him? You are definitely right." She settled down. "Right, I have to get through this part."

Giles nodded for her to continue.

"The First Slayer said, 'Your death is nothing to Me, and so I order you thus: Live, even if you would die. You believe you protect those around you with honor, I tell you that you have not yet begun. Only after you walk through the fire shall you be a weapon pleasing to Me. Your blood and the blood of your blood is now Mine to use as I see fit. You, and your children's children, shall evermore be bound in service to Me, as heart, hand, mind, or spirit, as I so desire. I lay this charge upon you and your children and your children's children from now until beyond the end of time.'"

Giles closed his eyes. He hoped he was reading more into it than was already there, but he couldn't escape the notion that this mythical charge of the First Slayer would be Xander's worst nightmare come true. In essence, the First Slayer just claimed not just his life, but the lives of all of his descendants, and demanded that they'd all be moved around some mystical chessboard.

Right then he knew he'd never tell a soul about this story, especially since according to Catherine's tale, all of them will be forced to pay the butcher's bill in ways that not one of them could ever anticipate or easily accept.

Frankly, according to Catherine, it sounded like none of them walked out of Sunnydale unscathed.

But then again, he already knew that.

"Her charges finished, the First Slayer became one with the fire and She challenged the Seven thus: 'Do you think Me still unkind? Do you believe I have turned My back on you? Thus is it ever when you Bargain with those in the Life After. Tell Me yea or nay that My price is acceptable in your sight.' "And the Seven assented, agreeing to pay the price as She so dictated, submitting themselves to the Bargain She demanded.

"'Then go forth with My blessing, but mind this: I shalt hold you to your promises. I bind you now and ever more to Me and in exchange I shalt never abandon my Children again. Fear not, for what is curse shalt be blessing, and the price shalt be your wealth now and ever after. And when we meet again in the Life After, such tales you will tell Me of wonder and awe.' "And with that final benediction, the First Slayer clothed Herself in flame and faded from their sight.

"The Seven could only stand in wonder and dread, pondering the meaning of Her left in their hearts. For now they had a chance at holding the line against the Darkness, even if victory was not yet secured in their uneasy minds.

"And so ends the Remembering. I tell this Remembering to you, so that you may tell it to others, that all may understand what once was and how we came to be."

Catherine and Giles sat in silence for a long time after that, each lost in thought.

'Rembering to' was nothing more than telling a story over and over again until you knew it by heart.

*I was there at the beginning and here I am listening to the end,*Giles thought. *How many changes were made to meet an agenda? Or how many details forgotten and replaced with details that seemed to make more sense? Would someone else tell the story in the exact same way? Or would it be radically different? Would there be villains or would someone be made to look villainous? Too many questions. Just too many.* It was enough to make him doubt every single thing he'd ever read in a Watcher's journal or in a history book. It was like someone had yanked the carpet out from underneath his feet and left him fighting for traction on a polished floor.

Amazing the changes 834 years can effect on something he was so intimately familiar with.

"That story," Catherine finally said, "is supposed to explain not just how the battle was won at Sun'dayl, but also why my family has always been so intimately involved with Slayers. Everything we've all done over the centuries." She chuckled ruefully. "I told Alexander that no one in my family has ever not been involved with this," she waved a hand around the room, "but I didn't tell him that it's because we've always believed that it was because the First Slayer chose us to do it." "Maybe you're not entirely wrong," Giles said, desperately scrambling for something to make Catherine feel better, even if he couldn't find it in himself to lie. "Maybe we've all been marked by Sunnydale dying. Maybe all of us who were there were chosen to a certain extent, just not in a way we can see from where we are. Maybe it's something you can see only in 20-20 hindsight."

Catherine was back to studying her nails.

Giles knew that she just didn't have the courage to ask: *Is it true?* He wasn't sure how long he sat there before he realized that every part of his body and mind felt numb because of the sheer weight of the future pressing down on him. He was bone tired and right now he wanted nothing more than to escape.

He stumbled to his feet and headed for the door, but Catherine's voice interrupted him.

"Giles?" she asked.

The Watcher turned around and saw her familiar-but-not-really face. He could see Faith's surprisingly expressive eyes and Xander's desperately wanting-to-smile mouth. The lost expression really had no place there.

"Giles," Catherine began again. "It really didn't happen at all like that, did it?"

Giles realized that he shouldn't have been surprised that Catherine did find the courage to ask after all. She was a Harris and a Lanoire. If nothing else, both Xander and Faith had a habit of calling bullshit on things that didn't seem quite right to them, even if they both could cheerfully hide in delusion when it suited them. The only difference was that Catherine wasn't sure what to think and, Giles suspected, she probably faced reality slightly better than her Founders. He thought long and hard before settling on what he believed was the real answer.

"Factually, no, it didn't happen like that at all. But I do believe you have the truth of it."

Part 67
The Oroborus

Ruda was one of those people that, no matter what, woke up in a good mood and went uphill to happiness for the rest of the day.

Some people might call that shallow, which only goes to show that some people don't know what they're talking about.

Ruda was just one of those people who have a basically honest temperament and a good disposition. To her way of thinking, life was too short, especially if you were a Slayer, to worry about every little problem. That was Catherine's job and she was welcome to it as far as this Slayer was concerned.

Ruda genuinely believed that she had the best life in the best of all possible worlds. She got to travel. She got to help. She had the best Watcher ever--although most Slayers when asked would argue that their Watcher was the best, even if yours was pretty good--and the coolest friends in the universe.

And she got to travel back in time and see how it all began. Not too many people could say that and not be called a liar.

There were some problems. No one could say there weren't, not even Slayers with a generally upbeat view of the universe. But problems could be solved and there was always the fun in winning just one more for the good guys. Problems, in Ruda's mind, were not problems so much as a minor bump in the road.

The source of Ruda's good nature was simple. She had unshakeable faith--the small 'f' as opposed to the capital 'F'--in certain things.

Ruda believed that life was a grand adventure and anyone who didn't see it that way needed to get out of the homestead so they could make more friends.

She believed that people were generally good at heart, even if they could sometimes be misguided and do bad things.

She believed things that didn't go out of their way to hurt people didn't need to be Slayed, but things that hurt people were fair game.

She believed the Grail existed and that it would be the key to beating back the Great Darkness threatening everything she held dear.

She believed the First Slayer was the beginning and end of all wisdom.

She believed that Hero Knowles embodied everything a Slayer was supposed to be, even if Hero Knowles was still just Violet.

She believed that Lanoire-rah-sen was the One True Slayer from whom all Slayers were descended, even if she suspected Faith didn't believe it herself.

She believed that Harris-rah-sen was the other half of Faith's soul, even if Alexander didn't realize it yet.

She believed that the Seven were true heroes, even if they sometimes did things that didn't seem hero-like, because they always managed pull through when things were darkest.

She believed in this time and this place as being the source of all that was good and noble in her universe.

And there wasn't a single futching thing she saw that had proved her wrong yet.

Holding all of the above to be true, an objective observer might wonder why happy, bouncy, shiny Ruda was in a foul mood as she guarded the Grail in a dusty corner of the brownstone's attic.


In Ruda's world there was only one unforgivable sin: boredom.

And Ruda was bored. She was bored squared. She was the picture of bored. She was the very definition of bored. If she were Andrew, she might even go so far as to admit to being 'Episode One' bored.

Although being Ruda, she probably would think that all of 'Star Wars,' including the classic 'A New Hope,' were comedy vids so she might've actually liked 'Episode One' and 'Attack of the Clones' had she a chance to see either one.

Viva la difference between the cynical people of today and the more innocent people living 834 years from now.

But to get back to the subject at hand: Slayers and boredom.

Anyone who has any familiarity with the world of Slayers would know that boredom equals trouble. If luck held, boredom might lead to something good. If not…

Best not think about it.

The point is that boredom was the reason why Ruda was tossing a priceless relic like the Grail from hand-to-hand in time to a nursery rhyme:

"Doctor, Watcher, Slayer, Witch Which would be, if you could pick? The Prima is spelling without any hitch, India's ease proves her soul isn't sick, The Key heals wounds with a simple stitch, Cat's watching and asking all with a stick: What would you be, if you could pick Doctor, Watcher, Slayer, Witch?"

This was all rendered in her native Indrian language, so the above doggerel is as close as to English as anyone could get if they asked for a translation. Which no one was. Which meant Ruda was alone. Which meant Ruda was bored, in case anyone missed it.

She hit the hundredth repetition without any problems, so Ruda should be excused if her mind was wandering and she was feeling vaguely hypnotized by the time she hit repetition 101.

Right on the line, "India's ease proves her soul isn't sick," she missed the Grail on the downbeat. It crashed to the floor and began rolling for the closed trap door.

Ruda scurried after it and scooped it up with a sigh of relief. Even though the trap door was closed, she thought it best to keep it far, far away in case proximity was enough to trigger paranoia in the rooms below. She quickly checked it over and allowed herself a small smile when she saw it wasn't dented.

As she up-ended the Grail to check the bottom, her heart froze in her chest. The base was hollow.

It wasn't hollow before.

It was flat and felt a little like clay and was a vaguely brownish color.

She knew this because she'd spent a lot of time tossing around that Grail.

"Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no…" Ruda mumbled as she began to desperately scan the wooden floor. It didn't take her long to spot the missing bottom piece. She snatched it up and tried to make it slot into place.

No go. It was as if the sealant had given away.

"I can't believe I broke it." Ruda was very, very close to tears over this. If the Grail failed to work when they got home, it would be all her fault.

She dropped to the floor in a cross-legged position and tried to force the bottom to remain stuck, but it wouldn't work. She suspected she'd have to exert a little more force, but that meant she'd be in danger of harming the Grail, or rather, harming it even more.

Realizing that she was flat-out stuck, she gingerly put the Grail down and pondered how she was going to break the news to Catherine.

Then she saw it out of the corner of her eye: fluttery, yellowed sheets of paper.

*Hunh. That wasn't there before.* Since Ruda had spent a lot of time in the attic since getting back from the tunnels, she knew that this was the case.

Afraid of causing even more disruption than she already had, she carefully stalked the paper until she was almost on top of sheets.

After a few moments of uncharacteristic hesitation, she picked them up and began scanning the writing on both pages.

What she saw there caused her mouth to drop open and her eyes to widen as one thought happily danced in her head: *We're going home.*

She quickly weighted the paper down with the Grail and scurried out of the attic to retrieve her teammates.


Catherine was incredulous. "You're asking us to lie?"

"I'm not asking you to lie. ca-Rosenberg and myself are asking you to lie," J'Nal corrected.

"One small problem: I'm not exactly sure it's going to work," Charlie pointed out. "After telling them about Polgar Syndrome, they'd have to be delusional to buy it."

"We might be able to fool some of them," Tikri opined. "I think we'll have a hard time fooling Giles or Dawn."

Catherine frowned at her. "What makes you say that?"

"Who's been doing the interviews?" Tikri asked.

"That's not answering the question," Catherine countered.

"Giles seems to have a habit of cutting through the schitzka," Tikri pointed out. "And he's very, very good at connecting dots."

"Talk high enough above his head, not necessarily," Charlie countered. "And let's be honest: this time travel stuff is above our heads.

What chance does someone who knows nothing about it have?"

"Exactly," J'Nal nodded.

"Wait. First you say there's no way we can fool them, now you're saying it's possible?" Catherine asked.

"I'm just playing opposite to the end," Charlie said with a shrug. "I don't think it's real likely that Giles will be the littlest bit fooled, especially since I practically danced a jig in his office earlier today, but even I can see why he might find the idea attractive."

"You're asking me to lie to…" Catherine began.

"…your Founders," Charlie finished for her. "But they're also human and very young. You're asking them to carry a lot, maybe more than they're ready to carry right now."

"They're stronger than you think," Catherine muttered.

"Actually, I'm willing to bet that most of the people here will be willing swallow the lie," Tikri interrupted. "Who wouldn't in their shoes? I'm not sure I'd be happy if someone who I knew was from the future walked up to me and started telling me about things that hadn't happened yet."

"I'm just curious why you think Dawn might not swallow the lie along with everyone else," J'Nal said.

Tikri gave him a half-smile. "Dawn strikes me as one of the people who see a lot more than they're willing to admit to. She also has a tendency to see people, including herself, with fairly clear eyes.

That's a deadly combination in anyone."

"But you think Alexander, Faith, Buffy, and that Robin will just go along?" Catherine asked.

Tikri shrugged. "Alexander and Faith seem to be good judges of character, at least based on what I've seen. The problem is they're too emotionally tied into this situation. Give them even a small out, they just might take it."

"They'll figure it out when they end up right where we said they would," Catherine said.

Tikri deflated. "You have me there."

"Buffy and Robin?" Charlie prompted.

Tikri took a deep breath and thought about it. "Buffy will grab it like a lifeline. She was very disturbed by what little she discovered and I suspect she'll use it as an opportunity to try and change things."

"Which may end up resulting in her getting that --sen title whether she wants it or not," Catherine said. "I still don't think this is going to work."

"As for Robin, well, he strikes me as someone more focused on resolving immediate problems, so he's not likely to think too hard about the distant future one way or the other," Tikri said. "He's a very intelligent man, but he's also a very goal-oriented man.

Everything he does is geared to winning today, so I highly doubt that our lie is going to factor into what he does at all."

"What about the others in this house?" Catherine asked.

"The others in the house know nothing about themselves in the future, so it's moot point," Tikri pointed out. "They have no reason to believe us, but then again, they're not trying to escape the future either."

"Is what we are that bad?" Catherine asked.

"No," Charlie said as he sat down next to the Watcher Honoria. "Of course not. But look at it from their point of view. How would you like it if you got a letter from the future telling you bits and pieces about yourself, none of which you can ever see happening to you? You wouldn't like it one bit."

"Except for the part where it's proof we survive the Great Darkness," Catherine pointed out.

"Except for that part," Charlie agreed. Right on cue, Ruda burst through the door and began bouncing around the room. "Hey guys! Guess what, guys! You're not going to believe what I found! Guys! Are you listening?"

Catherine recovered from Ruda's sudden appearance and inserted herself in the way of Ruda's happy dance. "Who's guarding the Grail?"

"Pfffffft," Ruda waved a hand. "If someone wants it, they're going to have to fight their way through three floors of Slayers. This is way more important."

"Important?" Catherine asked. "What could possibly be…"

"I got a leeeeee-tterrrrrrr," Ruda sing-songed.

Charlie raised a hand. "Anyone else confused."

"Actually, I got two letters and it's from the future and it's so weird Catherine you're not going to believe it because one of them tells us that everything is going to be all right and tells us how we have to tell everyone here that the future isn't the future and how we can get them to believe it and then there's another letter for everyone else that tells them that the future isn't the future and guess what Catherine they're both from you!"

Ruda expelled this news without a pause for breath, although she did attempt to stand up straight and deliver it in something resembling a professional manner.

It took a little bit for Catherine's brain to catch up with Ruda's words, but when it finally all sunk in she was ready to drop to her knees and praise the Founders that Ruda was speaking Lingua Commonality instead of English.

"Show us," Catherine ordered.

Ruda bounced out of the room with Catherine moving fast behind her. The confused trio of J'Nal, Charlie, and Tikri followed.

"Did anyone understand what she said?" Tikri asked.

"Catherine's the expert on Ruda-speak. Me? I just let the words roll off me until she calms down," Charlie commented.

In short order, Catherine's team was assembled in the attic and Ruda was shoving two sheets of paper into the Watcher Honoria's hands.

A quick glance was enough to signal that there was a problem. "Ruda, when did you learn Provincia?"

"It's written in Indrian," Ruda corrected with a sniff.

"I see High Prima," J'Nal said as he crowded in from Catherine's right.

"I'm seeing Provincia, too," Charlie said as he crowded in from Catherine's left.

"You can't all be seeing your native tongues," Tikri said. "It's one or the other."

"Yet here it is," Catherine said.

She could feel a slight prickle of fear along her spine as she recognized her very bad handwriting scrawled across the pages. One page was simply an open letter to whoever happened to see it. A quick scan seemed to outline J'Nal's plan, only with a few adjusted details here and there that, in a perfect world, made Willow's web of deceit that much more plausible. She noticed that it was merely signed with her first name.

"Catherine?" Charlie's voice sounded unsteady. "You haven't read the other letter yet, have you? Scratch that. I know you haven't because you're actually smiling."

Against her will, her eyes were pulled to the second letter, this one addressed only to the people on her team.

The first thing she noticed was the seals of all three major Slayer sects arranged across the top, followed by a second row with the seals of the Watchers Honoria and the Watchers Educationary.

It was the single, unfamiliar seal between the two Council seals that gave her pause. It said: "United in Hand, Heart, Head, and Hope."

She wanted to stop reading, but her eyes were drawn down the page.

*You've probably read the other letter by now. That's the "message in the base" that Alexander promised in his false journal entry about Moscow.*

*Make sure you present the open letter when you tell everyone in Cleveland the Big Lie. They'll doubt you at first, but when you show that letter, they'll come around very quickly. I think holding this letter you'll begin to understand why it'll work.*

*The Grail comes from our time and for a brief moment it came home to us. I am writing these two letters in preparation for another team to go back in time to when that area was sparsely populated to put both Grail and guardian in place. The Primas have a stasis spell that will keep the guardian asleep until triggered by the presence of you, Charlie, J'Nal, Ruda, and Tikri. The placement team includes stone masons that will carve the necessary information into the walls.*

*Although in looking at the legends of old Tara in a new light, I suspect there might be an accidental detour in a country located across one of the planet's oceans before they land in the right spot. For purposes of keeping the timeline intact, we've opted not to tell the team.*

*That reminds me. When you get home, make sure you ask dad to open the family vault. You might be very interested in reading several journals hidden there. The existence of these journals is a centuries-old secret that has been passed down from one head of the Family to the next. When you get back, they'll finally see the light of day and the truth about Cleveland 2003 and Moscow 2008 will finally be known. The Wood-Stewarts also have several journals from the same time period and I recommend you ask to see those as well. Keeping these records hidden is maybe the only thing on which the Two Families have ever agreed.*

*Try not to break too many things after you read all of them.*

*(Side note: Cling-On is a fascinating language by the way. Be sure to look for similar "doodles" in Alexander's and Faith's journals. I don't want to give away more, but I think you'll be pleased to read them.)*

"Wow," Charlie breathed.

"I'll ask for a translator lexicon for this Cling-On language before we leave," J'Nal agreed.

*Don't ask where the Grail came from. To be honest, we're not entirely sure ourselves. Don't try to think about it too much. It'll only make your head hurt. Maybe when all is said and done it doesn't really matter where the cycle begins. The point is that it continues and that's all we need to know.*

*You've made it this far and that's good, but there's more work to do. It's not always going to be fun, it's not going to be easy, and a lot of things are going to have to change if we are going to survive.

Those six seals at the top of this letter are not there for show, but represent something real, something good that came out of this.

Remember that when things get difficult and you don't think you or your team will be able to survive.*

*But I can promise you that it's going to be all right.*

*There's so much more I want to say, but I can't. There's so much more I could say, but I won't. To quote what a wise man once told himself in Cling-On: that would be cheating.*

The letter was signed:

*Catherine Anastasia Harris-Lanoire-Wood-Stewart**--Rah de Honoria vu Consul**Senscha de Unitas vu Commenseal*

"Catherine? Are you all right?" Tikri asked with a slightly panicked edge to her voice. "Catherine?"

"I think she's in shock," J'Nal said

"She's in shock? I'm in shock," Charlie said. "What are you doing with the Wood-Stewart last name attached to you? Your families can't stand to be on the same planet with each other."

Catherine let out a sound that may have been a half-giggle or may have been a hiccup, although none of the others were entirely clear about that.

Then she passed out.


Despite all the assurances they had that the future was going to be just the way they left it, Catherine still insisted between bouts of fury and depression that J'Nal do the pathfinder spell to make sure.

All in all, the other members of the team thought it was a very good idea if Catherine stayed away from everyone in the house, especially Robin Wood since they could all envision a nasty incident involving Robin, Catherine, a pair of scissors, and his bloody penis bouncing across the carpet.

Since they all suspected that even Alexander might take offense to such an attack, they insisted she stay in the attic with Ruda. The letters were spirited away by Charlie and J'Nal made sure to cast a sealant spell on the attic trap door just in case Catherine decided to "stretch her legs." This was done because Charlie and J'Nal were pretty sure that "stretching her legs" would involve stretching them in the direction of a certain tall, dark, bald, and bearded Watcher of their very recent acquaintance.

The pathfinder spell was very quick and didn't take a lot of effort, mostly because J'Nal was looking down the clear path from the past to the future…or rather his present. It was a good sign that the path back to the future was so clear, not just because it was final proof that history was lumbering along its well-worn groove, but because the anchoring spell was working exactly the way it should.

The team thought it best to wait until evening to make their presentation to the Cleveland household. J'Nal took advantage of the time by stripping both Grail and the letters of the spell that induced paranoia in the Cleveland inhabitants.

What was left unsaid was that the cool-off period would also allow Catherine time to recover her composure enough to face a room with Robin in it. Even so, J'Nal found it necessary to warn the Watcher Honoria that if she stepped out of line, he'd be forced to cast a puppet spell on her to make her behave.

With much grumping about how J'Nal didn't trust her and long convoluted explanations why she was very sure that her future self was just playing a nasty trick on her, Catherine promised to be her wonderful self, unlike that mean astraface who wrote the letters.

"Just don't kill him. Please?" Charlie begged on their way to the library. "We've come so far and I'd hate for our future not to exist because you decided to commit murder."

It was on this plaintive note that Catherine entered the library. She fingered the letter--the one that was to provide proof for their very unlikely story--hiding in her pocket. She did her best not to look at Robin, who was sitting in a chair with a gauze bandage wrapped around his head. In truth, he looked somewhat pale and tired, like he wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed.

Willow, who also looked tired, sat in another chair while Buffy and Kennedy hovered nearby. Alexander stood slightly behind the trio of women looking like he was about to face a firing squad. Faith was in a corner, trying not to look nervous, although her twitchy body language screamed that she was half-a-step away from climbing the walls.

"The news?" Giles asked as the last of Catherine's people settled themselves.

"It appears that we will be safely returning home tomorrow," said J'Nal, who was acting as the group's spokesman. "However, something rather interesting has come up."

Alexander crossed his arms and Faith went very still, Catherine noticed. Willow, whose plan this was, didn't react at all, which Catherine saw as a huge mistake. Willow tended to make comments and ask questions during group meetings, so the fact she wasn't responding should have revealed something was up.

"It appears that you're not our past," J'Nal stated.

Alexander's eyes narrowed with confusion as he opened his mouth, but Andrew beat him to the punch.

"That's not possible," Andrew said. "Everyone knows that you can't change time because even the changes that happened were meant to happen. I know what I'm talking about and you are wrong, wrong, wrong."

*Oh, no. If Andrew Welles can see through this, how in hada are we going to fool anyone else?* Catherine thought with panic. It didn't help that quite a few people in the room seemed to actually take Andrew's outburst somewhat seriously.

"Andrew, I think basing your whole argument on Z-grade science fiction movies is a little fallacious," Robin said.

Catherine was introduced to a new sensation. She actually wanted to kiss Robin Wood.

"It is not based on movies, and those movies are classics by the way," Andrew sniffed. "It is based on a long, proud body of work that includes movies, television, and comic books."

"'Days of Future Past,'" Alexander said.

"Is that a code?" Charlie asked.

"It's a story arc in a comic book called 'The Uncanny X-Men,'" Alexander answered.

"Hold on. You're basing your whole argument on whether we're telling the truth on something called comic books?" Charlie asked.

"Comic books are power funnies," Catherine hastily explained.

"That's still pretty stupid ammunition," Charlie said.

Catherine hunched her shoulders and silently willed Charlie to shut the futch up. If they won this based on the strength of some power funny story, she for one was going to take it.

"I didn't say it was perfect match," Andrew said. "Besides, that was a clear-cut case of old Kitty possessing a young Kitty who lived in an alternative dimension because they didn't actually change anything. When old Kitty went back to her own time, everything was just the way she left it." This explanation was punctuated with yet another sniff.

"Well, if I understand what you're saying," J'Nal dove in with just a little too much desperation, "you've very much hit squalamus on its bald head.

"Squalamus?" Kennedy asked.

"It's this little furry animal with big sharp teeth and a bald head," Ruda said. "They're really cute and they're really mean. I knew this one Slayer that faced off against one and it bit her arm clean off."

"How big are they?" Buffy gulped.

"Oh, about this high," Ruda demonstrated by putting her hand down to knee level.

"Oh. So it's a targ," Andrew nodded sagely.

Alexander put his face in his hands, although Catherine wasn't sure if it was because he was trying not to laugh or trying not to cry.

"Sounds more like the Tasmanian Devil if you ask me," Kennedy mumbled.

"Targ? Tasmanian Devil?" Ruda sounded intrigued.

"Well, it's this…" Andrew began.

"Pardon me," Giles interrupted, "but before this goes too far a field into…ah…little furry animals one cannot keep as pets, perhaps we should hear J'Nal out."

"Thank you." J'Nal inclined his head in Giles's direction. "What I was trying to say is that you are something of an alternative history to our own."

"Yeah. We got that," Dawn said. "But you haven't said how you know this."

*Well, Tikri called that one right,* Catherine thought.

"It comes down to simple laws of the universe," J'Nal said. "Unfortunately quantum physics, Gropin's Law, causality, Calivius's Theorem, geometry, astrophysics, rotafulgum, and a complicated overlay of mystical energy all come into play that makes if very difficult to explain."

Considering that Gropin's Law was a about agricultural productivity yields, Calivius's Theorum was a theory about economics, and rotafulgum was a made-up word, Catherine wondered if J'Nal was even trying.

"I didn't ask you to explain," Dawn stated. "I asked how you know."

And once more, a lot of people were considering the idea that they weren't being entirely truthful about the alternative history story. Catherine just didn't get it. They were willing to take a leap of faith on the whole time-travel issue and in deciding to help them retrieve the Grail. *You'd think they'd grab on to the idea that they're an alternative history like a lifepod, but no.*

True, she said from the beginning that no one would be fooled, but she didn't expect the doubt to start so soon. She thought they'd at least have a chance to make their very wobbly case. She wondered if her group was somehow giving away physical clues that they were lying through their teeth.

In the face of such doubt, J'Nal veered from the well-practiced script. "I was able to communicate with people from my time. It turns out that, against all expectations, they were able to track us and the events that happened around us. By comparing the mystical energy of our own timeline and the mystical energy of our current location, they were able to conclude that there were some differences."

"How big of a difference are we talking?" Willow prompted.

"Enough to register, but not so large that they can pinpoint that difference."

Catherine suppressed a smile while Willow's eyebrows raised in surprise. The original plan J'Nal presented was supposed to center on some huge event that would happen in 2008, but that they weren't sure what it was. Willow knew they were lying since this mess was her futching idea, but now she was in the dark as to the nature of the lie. That meant she was as lost as everyone else, something that could only be put in the good column.

"It may be something large, or it could be something rather small, so small that it might not make any difference to the final outcome,"

J'Nal said.

Willow's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs.

"How. Do. You. Know," Dawn emphasized.

"As I explained…" J'Nal began.

"We have a letter!" Catherine blurted out.

Her team turned to her, all of them with murder in their eyes. The letter was supposed to be the coup de grace, not the whole of their argument. However, Catherine knew if J'Nal kept piling lie upon lie, it was going to be hard to keep track. If they got caught out the situation could turn ugly.

"A letter?" Willow asked.

"A letter," Catherine confirmed as she stepped forward. "It turns out that there was a message hidden inside the Grail's base."

Alexander paled and leaned against the wall. "I forgot about that," he murmured.

"Forgot?" Giles asked. He shook his head. "Ah, yes. The message in the base that was supposed to be for us all. I quite forgot all about that as well."

"Seems to me that kind of argues against the alternative history theory," Buffy said.

"Yes and no." Catherine tried not to raise her voice to counter the pounding in her ears. "The reason we were able to get here is because up to the point of our arrival your timeline and ours are in sync. The change, whatever it is, will happen after we leave. It could be something big, like you recruiting a new Slayer that you didn't in our history. Or, it could be something really small, like you paint a room yellow instead of blue. We just don't know."

"Like the man said, could be something that makes our future wicked different or something that doesn't really affect the outcome at all," Faith said from her corner.

Although Catherine was a little surprised that Faith seemed to be the first to come around, she did her best not to show it. "Exactly.

According to this letter, "here she drew out the folded paper, "it's impossible to actually land in your own past. We should have realized it before we got here since all those things J'Nal mentioned, especially Gropin's Law, tells us this is the case."

"Then what was the deal about keeping the timeline pure?" Alexander asked.

There was a chorus of "yeahs" accompanying the question.

"We know it in retrospect. We just didn't realize it at the time," Charlie jumped in. "How's your agricultural yield this year?"

"Charlie," Catherine growled.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Robin asked.

"Charlie's making a joke since the theory uses agriculture as an illustrative example," J'Nal smoothly explained.

"Did anyone ever tell you guys that your idea of pop culture is just scary?" Alexander asked.

"They don't even know what a sitcom is," Willow said.

"And this is bad how?" Faith asked.

"Hardly seems to have crippled their ability to confuse the living daylights out of us," Giles dryly said.

"The thing is," Catherine raised her voice to get everyone's attention, "thanks to our trip back to the past, we have a new theory."

"I can't wait to hear this," Dawn said with folded arms.

*I'm really going to have to revise my opinion on Tikri's ability to read people. Everyone is on the edge of coming around except Dawn.*Catherine kept cool as she said, "The Grail has been circulating between the past and the present for…actually, we don't know how many times. Every time a team comes to retrieve the Grail from Cleveland 2004, they cause a change."

"A change that can either be large or small," Giles said.

"Precisely. At some point in the future, we will send another team back in time to put the Grail back where we found it and install the snake," Catheirne said.

"So, why doesn't that cause a change?" Thank the Founders, Willow was finally getting into the spirit of things by asking questions.

"Because the team manages to find a time when this area was sparsely populated and is able to avoid interacting with anything sentient," J'Nal answered.

*Holy hada! This is going to work!* Catherine thought as she saw the Cleveland group giving this very serious thought.

"From what we understand," J'Nal continued, "these changes, at least at first, result in very little discernable change in the outcome that results in all of us," he waved at his group to illustrate his point. "However, there is a cumulative effect."

"One change builds on top of another change," Giles explained.

"Okay. I guess I could see that," Andrew grumbled. "Maybe it is an 'X-Men' situation." He brightened. "Actually, it's probably more like a 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' situation."

"Crisis?" Catherine asked. "No crisis! There's no crisis involved."

"Let me explain for the geek-impaired." Alexander gave Andrew an exasperated look, "The general idea is that all these changes are creating all these alternate realities. At some point there's alternative universe overload and they all collapse into one another and form a single reality again. Sort of like the big bang in reverse."

"It's the right idea, but not entirely correct." If Catherine didn't know better, she'd think J'Nal was actually enjoying the give-and-take he had going while spinning their tall tale. The witch smiled as he continued, "The alternative realities will not collapse one into another since they can easily coexist side-by-side without causing so much as a ripple. However," here he held up a finger, "eventually the cumulative effect will reach such a point that one particular reality will entirely break free and result in a future that would be unrecognizable to all of us."

Everyone exchanged confused glances, except for Dawn, whose cynical eyes were fixed on J'Nal. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but Catherine swore she saw a flash of bright, electric green in them.

"Because we don't know how many times the Grail has cycled between Cleveland 2003 and our time and because we don't know what changes occurred during the other cycles, we don't know how your future will change from what we know or even if it will change," J'Nal continued, seemingly insensible to the doubting Dawn. "Furthermore, we this could be the reality that truly breaks free and results in an unrecognizable future."

"It's all here in the letter if you want to read it," Catherine said.

Giles held out his hand, forcing Catherine to cross the room to give it to him. She jittered nervously as the Watcher unfolded the letter.

"This is in English," Giles said as he peered at her over the top of his vision correction apparatus.

"We all see it in our native tongues and no, we really don't know the technology or mystical principles behind it," Catherine hastily said.

Giles grunted an acknowledgement, since he was already reading the letter. When he was done, he looked up with a small grin. "I can see why you're willing to give weight to your alternative history theory."

"Yeah, well, it is my handwriting and that is my name," said Catherine.

"Still no last name provided I see," Giles said.

"Maybe that's one of things that will change," she said evenly.

Giles gave her a nod as he passed the letter to Alexander, who crouched down next to Buffy. Buffy, Willow, and Kennedy crowded around Alexander as they read the letter. Catherine could see the beginnings of relief on Alexander's and Buffy's faces, although she wished Willow would stop smiling.

When the quartet was done, Dawn practically snatched the paper out of their hands. Andrew stood next to her so he could read it over her shoulder. Andrew occasionally let out a quiet "cool," but Dawn seemed still unconvinced. As she read, a frown line appeared between Dawn's eyebrows, almost as if she knew it was all a lie.

Faith was the next to get it, but her expression remained blank as she read it over. She obviously bought it, but Catherine had no idea if the Slayer viewed this as good news or bad. When she was finished, Faith did allow herself a relieved smile and, as she handed the letter to Robin, said to Catherine, "No offense."

"None taken," Catherine inclined her head.

"Looks good," Robin said as he read over the letter. "I have to admit this is a pretty solid case."

"I must admit that I'm rather surprised that you're willing to take our word," J'Nal said.

"Well sir," Robin said with a smile, "In the past few days I've met time travelers, looked for mystical Grails, and fought a giant snake using walnuts because someone mentioned the snake didn't like it…"

"Unh, sorry about that," Alexander said.

"So, really, my world? Not exactly on solid footing," Robin said without acknowledging Alexander spoke. "Swallowing one more impossible thing is not all that hard once you get used to eating your foot."

"Eating your foot?" Charlie asked. "Doesn't that hurt?"

"Hey, Andrew. What's a targ? Oh, and Kennedy? What's a Tasmanian Devil?" Ruda asked.

"Something tells me you're gonna be sorry you asked, kid," Faith said.

"I hope the MemePad recorded all this," Tikri muttered as she punched buttons.

Catherine allowed herself to relax. Whether or not they bought it a hundred percent didn't matter. The point is they were willing to consider it and act accordingly. Much as she hated lying, she had to admit that Willow was right to ask them to do this.

She turned around to say something to Charlie and came face-to-face with Dawn. She had no idea how the girl managed to get so close to her without realizing it.

Dawn's expression seemed to indicate that she had a million reasons why Robin's "solid case" was full of hot air, but the girl also seemed to know that she was outnumbered. Catherine saw Dawn's eyes track to her left. The Watcher Honoria followed the girl's gaze and realized that they landed on a knot consisting of Alexander, Buffy, and Willow as they talked quietly amongst themselves. She saw Faith standing the background bopping her head as if she were listening to her own music.

Catherine suspected the obvious relief on her sister's and Alexander's faces were the things that convinced Dawn to not put more voice to her serious doubts.

When Catherine looked back at Dawn she saw the girl was intently watching her again. Whatever lighting they were using seemed to bring the hidden green in the Dawn's eyes because Catherine could've sworn she saw another electric flash. For some reason she couldn't name, she felt her stomach clench at the illusion.

Finally, Dawn raised a single elegant eyebrow and gave Catherine a tight nod, a silent promise that she would stop arguing the issue. At that every muscle in Catherine's body relaxed.

Catherine watched Dawn turn on her heel and stride over to Faith. "What's with the quiet?" the girl demanded.

"Doesn't affect me, does it?" Faith shrugged. "Xander's the big mucky-muck."

Catherine covered her mouth to hide her smile.

"You aren't? I heard a --rah-sen after your name, too," Dawn sounded almost teasing as she said this.

"Unless that shit pays cash, I ain't gonna worry about it," Faith retorted with good humor.

Dawn gave Faith's shoulder a friendly bump. The Slayer startled as if she was surprised by this, but she soon melted into a grin and bumped Dawn's shoulder back. "Guess I ain't the only one relieved, hunh?"

"You might say there's a lot of it going around," Dawn said with a smile.

*Praise the Founders,* Catherine thought in agreement.

Part 68
A Final Word from Xander and Faith

*Selected items from UNS combined Q&A session with Faith Lanoire-rah and Alexander Lavelle Harris-rah, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

UNS: So, I was talking to Rupert…

AH: Unh-oh.

FL: It's all lies.

AH: [to FL] Little over the top, there.

FL: I'm a little defensive. I smell a hatchet job.

UNS: No hatt-chit job. It seems to me that you've, perhaps, overstated your interpersonal relationships.

AH: [picking at teeth] Wait. Wait. Something's stuck…

FL: Told you not to eat the chicken. Too stringy.

AH: [pulls something from mouth] Hunh. It's a hair.

FL: Whose? [peers at something in AH's fingers] Well, I know it's not Willow.

AH: Yeah. Curtain matches the drapes there.

UNS: Curtain? Drapes?

FL: It's brown. Could be mine.

AH: Nah. You and me were yesterday. Let me think…oh! It's Giles!

FL: Fuck. You and Giles! When?

AH: This morning.

FL: Doesn't he just rock the bed?

AH: You used a bed? What's wrong with the wall?

UNS: Excuse me…

FL and AH: What?

UNS: I know you're having fun with me. Rupert made it quite plain that there was no…

AH: Giles is Brit-boy. Tell him a fart joke, and he's all over it. Mention the S-word and he'll deny that anyone is having it.

FL: Makes you wonder where he thinks babies come from.

AH: Hell, I only just found out about him and Ethan.

UNS: Ethan? Who's…

FL: Yeah. Rupes gets all talky after the Big O.

AH: Pillow talk. Could listen to that accent for hours.

UNS: Excuse me! If you are not going to take this seriously, we'll end the interview right now!

AH: But don't you want to set the record straight?

FL: Yeah. What about searching out the truth and presenting it in a clear and reliable manner?

AH: She can't take the truth!

FL: Nicholson is my other god.

UNS: Look, the issue isn't me and the truth, it's the two of you and the truth.

AH: What about it?

UNS: All right. Fine. I'll play your little game. Bank robbery.

Rupert said Faith never robbed a bank.

FL: Bullshit. He's just trying to preserve my good name.

AH: But he's wrecking your rep. You should talk to him about that.

UNS: That's it. Faith told me that the two of you were planning to rob a bank. Something called the First National.

AH: You didn't.

UNS: See? He does not know about it!

AH: Actually, I'm just disappointed.

FL: Disappointed?

AH: You're so addicted to publicity. I mean, c'mon. We're planning to take down a bank and split with the money. What do you do? You go blabbing to the press before we do the job.

FL: Why are your panties in a bunch? It's not like she's going to sell the story to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

AH: That's not the point.

FL: [hangs head] I'm a media whore.

UNS: That. Is. Enough. [UNS glares at FL and AH] Here is your chance to be heard. This is your opportunity to speak to generations as-yet unborn. And yet here the two of you sit like it's a futching joke.

[FL and AH exchange looks]

AH: Ever see something called 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?'

FL: Great flick. Really great flick.

UNS: Is that like a vid?

FL: [shrugging] I think so.

AH: Anyway, the basic plot is this: a wild frontier town where the law is the law of the gun. This guy comes into town and he wants to bring the rule of law, as in real law, and civilize the town.

FL: He makes friends with this one cowboy who believes in the law of the gun, but he's a good guy. The town bullies don't like it and the worst one, Liberty Valance, challenges him to a shootout. It's going to be murder because the new guy doesn't know how to use a gun.

AH: Everyone in town watches this with baited breath and they see the new guy shoot Valance. Valance drops dead. New guy becomes a hero, he gets the girl, he becomes a political bigwig, and his view of the future comes about, complete with rule of law and no more law of gun.

FL: You following this?

UNS: I think so.

FL: Anyway, years later, the good cowboy dies and the new guy, who's now a bigwig, and the girl he won, who's now his wife, come back into town.

AH: Waiting for 'em is this newspaper guy and he wants the whole story on why these important people are going to the funeral of a nobody.

UNS: Well?

FL: Turns out the politician's whole life was rooted in a lie. He didn't shoot Liberty Valance. The cowboy did from an ambush point. No one ever knew. Hell, even political guy didn't know until much, much later.

UNS: So the truth comes out?

AH: Nope.

FL: Never does.

UNS: I don't get it? Why not? That's the scoop of a century if I follow what you're saying.

FL: No one would believe it.

AH: See, everyone had believed one story for so long, that the real story didn't matter any more. It wouldn't change anything that came before and might ruin lives in the long run.

FL: Great closing line from the reporter, though.

AH: "When the choice is between the truth and the legend, print the legend."

UNS: I don't get the connection between your, well, disrespect and…

FL: Point is, doesn't matter what we say. People are gonna believe what they believe.

AH: [stands] Look, I really don't have anything to say. I don't know what you're gonna ask, I don't know what you're going to write, and I really don't know if any answer I give is going to be giving anyone any weapons to beat each other with.

FL: [stands] People find all sortsa shit to fight about, so let 'em use someone else. Me? I call me Switzerland. Live and let live.

UNS: But how will people know who you are if you don't…

AH: What do you think, Faith?

FL: [shrugging] I guess we should let the record speak for itself.


Part 69
Childhood's End

*From 'Living History,' by Rona Goodkind-Alvarez, copyright 2072; published 2154. Reprinted with the permission of the Goodkind-Alvarez Foundation for Extraordinary Women, Cleveland, Ohio:* I am the last.

I never thought I would be, but I am. I suppose someone had to be last. Someone needs to stand up and bear witness to all that was, to tell people where they're from so they'll know who they are and figure out where they're going.

I am a poor representative of those Sunnydale survivors, and I'm not sure I can get it quite right. And even if I do, I'm not sure you'd even understand.

Let me tell you a secret: history isn't what you think.

What we read in books, journals, newspapers, magazines, any media at all is not history. Not really. It is just the end result of something that is written in the tiniest moments of life. History, real history, is when you spot someone across the room and fall in love. It's when a familiar face is caught in the light in an unfamiliar way. It's when Providence lifts you up on angel's wings. It's the blessing of grace, a brush of mercy, a grasp at hope, and faith that tomorrow can only get better if we but try.

History lies in the split-second decision, the stray thought, the caught breath, and the blink of an eye.

History is rooted in that greatest mystery of all: the beat of a human heart.

There is no all-seeing eye, no wisdom to understand, and no technology that can capture these fleeting moments that are forgotten by the human mind almost before they've registered. Yet the effect they have on us as those who lived them and the effect they have on everyone around us cannot be calculated.

What they tell you about history is nothing more than wish fulfillment; the human desire to weave a spellbinding story that imposes meaning on all those moments that got us this far. It's our attempt to find our place in the universe.

And here's another secret: everyone has a moment, the very moment where everything changes.

So many people--too many really--point to the day when Sunnydale died and the One became Legion as the moment when everything changed, when the history of our modern times began.


What happened in Sunnydale was the end result of a million little moments. Who knows where they began and when they happened, but that is the truth. Just as what happened in Sunnydale was the beginning of a whole host of new moments that ended with people doing great, wonderful things as they faced great, terrible dangers.

If I had to pick a moment, the moment where everything really changed, it would have to be a week after we moved to Cleveland into the old headquarters. Everyone was bustling around, unpacking our few belongings, dealing with the logistics of starting a new life. The world was balanced in that grey twilight where everyone still hugged tight to who they were even as who they were going to be tapped them on the shoulder.

Violet and I were sitting on our bunk, teasing Alexander that we wanted our room painted pink with purple polka dots. He ranted in mock horror at the very idea, wondering aloud if embracing our Slayerness meant we'd lost all sense of taste. Next, he was quite certain, we'd be wearing red shirts and purple skirts and little white boots with six-inch heels. We giggled into our insistence that we most certainly wanted that color scheme for our room.

What actually made it funny was that we knew that if we really wanted it, he would've done it, making sure that every dot was placed just so. Maybe you had to be there.

I don't rightly remember anyone else talking, just Alexander's voice rising and falling as he pled his case for sanity and our laughing, breathless voices adding ever-more details to the horrendous paint job we said we wanted.

Yet, I'm almost certain other people spoke. They had to. Robin was running around with clipboard in hand assigning rooms. Faith was sauntering through the rooms in that peculiar rolling gait she had. Buffy drifted through the crowd, her eyes not missing much even if she said very little. Dawn was working out the new neighborhood and her new school. Willow was setting up her new laptop. Giles had a phone glued to his ear as he followed up with his network about fixing Faith's paperwork in California and with banks on shaking loose the old Council's funds. Andrew was in the kitchen trying a new recipe that he promised would be more home-cooked and less institutional.

I'm certain we must've heard voices shouting, yelling, murmuring, sighing, giggling, saying all those things that people settling into a new life say, yet to this day I can't tell you what any of them said. What I can tell you is that the seeds of who they'd be were still dormant. Not the who they tell you they were in the official record, but the who they are in my still-beating heart.

This is who they really were: Giles asking both Alexander and Robin to be Watchers, knowing that they didn't get along, but trusting them both enough to fight for what was best for Slayers and Watchers alike, whatever their differences. Robin finding his true heart in Ondrea Stewart the moment she stepped into Cleveland to take up the position of Watcher; his sureness evaporating every time she looked at him with her brown eyes until the day he won her over.

Alexander, covered in blood and barely standing, charging a demon four times his size with sword drawn, determined to win because Faith's and Violet's lives depended on it, and the injuries he sustained to make that victory real.

A week later Faith begging Willow to tell her that she managed to find the antidote to the demon's poison that sent Alexander spiraling into violent fevered dreams. How Violet and I caught her when her knees gave out as Willow said yes and promised that he would live.

Buffy holding up her primary education teaching degree with a fierce, joyful light in her eyes while the rest of us hooted and applauded in the stands loud enough to shake the sky.

Andrew in his high-end, velvet-rope, L.A. restaurant wearing only the best clothes to greet his guests.

Willow finding a single slim volume while on vacation in Kenya that gave her insight into African legend and magic.

Dawn dancing through the house with her letter saying that she'd been accepted into the Cleveland Clinic's residency program.

And Violet, dear sweet Vi, hugging me close in those Cleveland sewers, on the verge of tears, whispering to me to stay safe and stay alive, even though she knew she was going to die.

These stray memories change everything about that one day with Violet and me and Alexander arguing about home décor. I know it didn't happen, but I can almost imagine Dawn checking our medicine cabinets to make sure we had everything we needed; Buffy riffling through a catalog of college courses; Giles keeping the peace with infinite grace and patience; Faith and Alexander trading good-humored barbs about their respective roommates, not quite daring to step from friendly banter to something more meaningful; Robin worrying about the need for more Watchers to lend a hand; Andrew theorizing about the perfect restaurant; Willow exclaiming over a forgotten book that had been packed in a box marked for the trash.

I know these things didn't happen, but I'd like to think that they did. And if I told you they did happen, you'd take me at my word because who are you to say they didn't? Yes, I am the last and when I die a piece of the world will die with me. Living history will become just history, another story in a collection of stories about the human race.

But let me tell you another secret, maybe the greatest secret of all: the end of the story is never the end. It's only the beginning. The story goes on whether it's remembered or not.

So long as a single human heart beats, history is never about the past. History, true history, is all about the future.


Xander woke up in an insanely cheerful mood. Andrew's nonstop chatter didn't shake him out of it, nor did the fact he had to wait to get a bathroom and shower. Hell, even the fact that his dirty laundry basket was holding all his most comfy clothes hostage until he got his ass in gear to do some washing didn't dampen his spirits.

He grabbed some clothes and changed while Andrew eeeeked himself out of the room, leaving him to bask in general happy solitude.

It was when he gave himself final look in the new mirror to make sure he didn't look like a guy whose blind mother dressed him in the dark that it hit him: *It's going to be okay.* He slapped a hand over his mouth to smother the laugh bubbling up his throat. He didn't want to jinx it.

*No, it really will be okay.* True, he didn't know all that much about him and what he did know? Best not to think about it. Stick it in a box for now and deal when the time comes, assuming it ever does.

The point was that they'd all managed to pull it together. They'd probably stumble, they'd probably make mistakes, and they'd probably manage to completely blow it on more than one occasion. But at the end of the day, they all managed to make it work. Correction. They will make it work.

Because they had to.

Because there was no one else who could.

There may be a few things about the future he didn't like, say a split Council or certain Slayer religious beliefs. And the shimmy-shakes? Yeesh. But J'Nal said the future, well, their future anyway, wasn't written in stone. Once they got Willow on the case, he had no doubt they'd find a way out of it. If there was anything he was going to work like hell to change, this was that thing.

Despite the bad, there was an awful lot of good to find, like the fact that the general population knew what Slayers were and they were okay with that, or that people in the know weren't always fighting alone in the dark, or that everyone--Potentials and normal humans alike--could choose what they wanted to be.

That's a world worth fighting and dying for, which means that maybe this world was worth it, too.

After all, the future had to start somewhere, right? Might as well start today.

As for him? It really wasn't that important. He'd find out eventually he supposed. That's what's called life, isn't it? He stepped out of his room to the strains of music. At a guess, it was Vertical Horizon, which meant either Lisa or Susan were cranking it up somewhere in the house.

*I'm all right, by the way**Everyone saves the day**Sometimes I feel it* He let a small laugh escape, not bothering to dim his smile. As Giles was wont to say: how very appropriate. He shook his head and bopped down the hall to the repeated refrain.

*Send it up**Ah, send it up now**Send it up**Send it up to me* And all was right with the world, even if only for the moment.

He resisted the urge to jump up, click his heels, and go on his merry way.


Faith was bibbity-bobbity-booing around her bedroom. Literally.

"Salacaboo and mishagaboo and bibbity-bobbity-boo. Put 'em together and what have you got? Bibbity-boobity-boo…" Hell she was pretty damn sure the words were beyond wrong, not that she really cared.

And while Faith would never, ever admit to digging classic animated Disney, in her heart of hearts she felt like she just scored one big-ass glass slipper. She was pretty sure the feeling wouldn't last, but it was a good thing to feel for the moment.

Even before she got stuck with the Slayer gig, the one thing she could always bet on was that most days were not going to be Cinderella at the ball. Although if she were truthful, once upon a time she never pictured herself as anything even resembling Cinderella. She didn't believe in Prince Charming for a start.

But now she got it. She finally understood. Okay, she was sorely lacking a few crucial details such as, well, anything about her life-and-times as a legend in the making or whether she was anything resembling happy or was merely grimly brooding her way to redemption. And she still wasn't all that sure how she felt about squatting out kids, plural. And she definitely wasn't sure how Xander could possibly fit into that picture.

As for the shimmy-shakes? They'll beat it. She knew it right down to her toes. All the braniacs were going to get in on the act, and when that happened there was gonna be no stopping them. It might take time, but they'd get there.

But the upshot at the end of the day is that she did good. Correction, she will do good. All she had to do was believe she could even when life dumped her into the suck.

Just accept that some days were going to be Snow White eating the poison apple or Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. Some days you're not going to win no matter what.

But some days--say a day like today--you win even when you don't deserve it.

And if someone like Catherine was standing at the other side of the rainbow, well, that's a kind of happy ever freakin' after, right? Or one she would be more than pleased to accept at any rate.

She swung open the door and poked her head out of her room to behold a vision of Xander's back as he dorked his way down the hall to some pop tune. She grinned and folded her arms as she watched him halt, get his bearings, and begin down the stairs.

*Oh yeah, I can't see it any more than you do, hun. But I bet it'll be a hell of a lot of fun finding out if we ever get from here to there.*


Buffy sat on her bed, for once not feeling oppressed by the sounds of people moving beyond her door.

In fact if she were being entirely honest, right at this very moment those sounds of life were…comforting.

Except for one thing.

This --senning thing, which it involved her, Faith, Xander, god knows who else…it had to stop. Ruda was a lost cause, a case of things going to far. Plus, she was going back to wherever she came from later today so there was no way to make it right.

But the girls in this house? They're not a lost cause.

This was one secret she was bound and determined to take to her grave because the last thing she wanted was to give anyone any ideas. No. She was going to do something else: she was going to make an Effort. She was going out there and she was going to get to know all those girls in the house and all the others out there in the world besides.

Besides, J'Nal said their lives were still theirs. All they had to do was grab the future with both hands and make it theirs.

Maybe if she were better about connecting faces to names, maybe if she knew something about all those Slayers, maybe they'd stop being just another crowd. Maybe they'd become people, fixed in her mind as individuals, the way they should've been right from the beginning. If she did that, she'd stop this --senning thing dead in it's tracks.

She's pretty sure Xander'll help.

As for Robin? She picked at her bedspread. She'll really have to make an effort there, too. Maybe she didn't always listen to Giles, Xander, and Willow, especially if they said something she didn't want to hear, but she knew she'd always automatically give them more credit for what they did because they were family.

Robin was someone new, an enigma and a riddle. She didn't agree with him all the time, which meant it would be good practice for her to actually listen to what he said. It was time for her to start doing that, and learning to do it with someone she didn't particularly like was a good start.

Yes, it was time to crawl out from out of the shadow of Sunnydale and walk with her friends and allies--her family--into the sunlight.

Faith was right: she'd been tragedy girl for far too long. Giving the old stink eye at being the Slayer as the cause for all her problems was her taking the easy way out.

Enough with hating life.

It was high time she started living it.


Robin was in the library and taking it easy just as the doctor ordered. Although a book was open in front of him, at this very moment he wasn't reading. There were too many thoughts in his head.

He hated waking up in his solitary bed in a room that had to be evacuated of Slayers so he could have a place to sleep. He felt bad that there were now two rooms housing three Slayers, but the girls seemed okay with it. Giles and Xander were already scouting the neighborhood for available properties to relieve the overcrowding. As luck would have it, the owner of one of the neighboring buildings seemed willing to negotiate a sale price, but even if the stars aligned just right the purchase would take months.

Part of his current problem was he got too close to Faith. Her loss gave him a deep ache that thrummed every time he saw her. Although he'd caught her several times looking in his direction, she didn't show any signs that the loss of what they had hurt her as much as it hurt him.

Then again, he wasn't letting her know that he was aching. No matter how often he told himself it was for the best, some part of him actually agreed with Xander. He made a mistake and he should go crawling back and beg forgiveness.

But he wouldn't. He couldn't. He knew that if things had gone on the way they had he was going to run up against a crisis point. He would hesitate for fear of risking Faith and that would result in a body count that could include Faith, other Slayers, or innocent bystanders. The price for his own happiness was just too high.

In some small way, he envied Buffy's willingness to buckle down and risk the people she cared about when circumstances called for it. Lord knows she proved she could in Sunnydale.

He knew himself well enough that he was too weak to do the same if he was ever put in her shoes. *That's why she's a Slayer and you're a Watcher, which is the way it should be,* Robin thought.

Giles was trying to track down magical books in Europe to help stock the library and having limited success. They needed someone to conduct transactions and investigate possibilities in person. The idea of volunteering appealed to him, if only because it would get him away from Cleveland for a minimum of six months. He hoped it would be enough time for him to move on from Faith and get right with his decision.

He knew he was doing the right thing. He knew it wasn't a mistake.

He just wished that right at this moment he really believed it.


Dawn swiped the bathroom mirror clear and studied her face.

Normal girl, going to a normal school, living a normal life.

It was a nice face, a public face, but not a true face. Even she had to admit that.

If nothing else, this little misadventure taught her one thing: she'd never be able to walk completely away. Not really. Someone had to remind all those Slayers what they were fighting for and Xander was no longer qualified. She saw that look Willow gave J'Nal and she smelled a rat of epic proportions.

She was tempted to call Willow on it, but the look on Xander's face when he heard that his life was his--even if it was a whopper of a lie like she suspected--was enough to kill the urge. Maybe not kill it, but put a significant damper on it at any rate.

She leaned forward, pressing her nose against the reflective surface. Truth to tell, she probably wasn't qualified on the normal front either, but she was as close to run-of-the-mill normal as anyone in Slayer World was ever going to get.

So, she can't walk away. She can't stay put.

But there's always a third way, isn't there? "Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief," she sing-songed.

God knows Slayers probably could use good lawyers since she was pretty sure sooner or later they'd be crossing the local law, but it lacked…something. It didn't sit right in the pit of her stomach.

But a doctor, well, that idea had possibilities, didn't it? *They also have a medic. I don't know about you, but the fact that they've got someone actually trained to take care of the ouchies? Puts them one up on us. We've never had a doctor in our pocket, which is really stupid because it's a really good idea.* "Yeah," Dawn nodded at the mirror agreeing with the Voice of Xander in her head. "That has definite possibilities."

She drew herself up, gave her reflection a serious look, and practiced, "Good morning, Ms. Smith. I'm Dr. Dawn Summers. Let's what we can do to cure your cancer because I've discovered the secret to all healing in my research lab. You'll be dancing at your son's wedding yet, Ms. Smith. Just you wait and see."

Unable to hold her imitation of an 'ER'-type doctor face, she collapsed into giggles.

She tied her hair back, still laughing at her backslide into fantasies that only an 8-year-old kid can have when the world is an open book and the last chapter hasn't yet been written.

Yet, the moment didn't pass, remaining stuck in her mind as she gave herself a final check in the bathroom mirror.

"Heh. Make way for Dr. Dawn Summers," she good-naturedly grumbled to herself, as she opened the bathroom door. A blast of music from some male singer telling her that everyone saves the day brushed past her hearing.

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "But first I have to pass chemistry and that class sucks."


Vi bit at her nails and allowed herself second, third, fourth, and fifth thoughts.

But Rona's email was pretty clear. They had to get to him before anyone else did. She had to seize the moment.

She spotted Xander bopping down the stairs and quickly got to her feet. "H-h-h-ey!"

Xander gave a tiny, surprised jump as his feet hit the ground floor. The end result was him smacking against a wall while he clutched his chest. "You scared the hell out of me!"

Vi started giggling. "Sorry. Ummmm, you got a sec?"


Vi indicated the sofa and Xander complied. "S'up?" he asked as he sat down.

Vi took her seat. "I, unh, heard from Rona."

"How's she doing?" He's at attention now, concern creasing his features. "Good, I mean, good as can be. Actually, she said she'll be back in a couple of days since, you know, her parents were there too, and they kinda all talked. Her parents are still getting used to the idea that both she and Michael are heroes an' all. Although Rona said she and her brother don't feel like they're heroes, no matter what their parents say."

"Well, they are. Both of them," Xander said quietly.

Vi could feel herself blush, especially since she was pretty sure Xander'd say the same thing about her. "Well, you know how it is because, ummm, it's more about doing the right thing than being a hero, which is kinda what I learned from Ruda and it's kinda what Rona learned from Michael, although she totally credits her parents, too." Xander leaned back against the armrest looking genuinely happy that she and Rona came up with their own reasons for why they'll be fighting. "Rona shouldn't feel like she needs to come back right away." "She wants to," Vi assured him. "She had time with her family and they all got to sit down and talk, I mean really talk, about Michael going overseas and Rona being a Slayer. She feels really good about everything and…well…I guess she's just ready to come back."

Xander nodded. "Well, tell Rona to let us know about her flight so we can pick her up." He hesitated a moment and in a lowered tone, added, "Tell Rona not to worry. It'll work out okay."

Vi's eyes narrowed and Xander… He winked.

He honestly winked.

He did know something.

Michael was going to come home. She knew it in her bones. *Thank you Xander!* As he began hauling himself off the couch, Vi remembered why she needed to talk to him in the first place. "Wait, wait! Before I forget! Rona and me, we, ummmm, wanted to ask you something?"

He dropped back into his seat, but she noticed he was a little more guarded. "What is it?"

"Well, ummm…" Vi took a deep breath and somehow got out, "Ronaandmeweweretalkingandwe'dlikeyoutobeourWatcherifthat'sokaywithyou." Whatever Xander was expecting, he obviously wasn't expecting that. "I, unh, but…I mean…" There was definite blushing to go with the stammering. "Are you sure? I mean, don't you think someone else…"

"We both want you." Vi was surer than ever that this was the right thing. Xander squirmed. Maybe he didn't want to be their Watcher. "Vi, look, I'm game if you are, but I'm not sure if that's how it's supposed to work. I think one gets assigned and last I checked the deal is was one Watcher per Slayer."

"But right now there really aren't any Watchers, 'cept Giles and you and Robin." Vi was relieved. Xander was being logic man, not trying to say no thanks in a polite way. "So until we get more it's probably going to be one Watcher to however many Slayers in the house who want that person, right?"

"I guess," Xander agreed hesitantly. "But I'm pretty sure that you don't get to chose your Watcher."

"Why not?" Vi was curious. "It's not like we have a whole lot of people to choose from, and even if we did we both think that you're the best one for us. Just because it was like that before doesn't mean it has to be like that now. Plus, Ruda told us that it's the Watchers who are Called by the First Slayer to go into the field. The Slayers, I mean Potentials, get the choice. So, since we don't have a direct line to the First Slayer, why can't Rona and me pick you?" Xander blinked at her as a smile fought to break free. Then he did the oddest thing. He looked up at the ceiling and addressed someone unseen, "You're really not letting me get out of this, are you?" He shook his head with a chuckle and looked at Vi, his expression radiating amusement. "I know when I'm beat. Fine. You win. But," he held up a finger, "we talk to Giles first, see what he says. If he agrees, you've got yourself one Watcher. Deal?"

"Deal." Vi fought the urge to do a little victory dance.

"One more thing. I think I should team up with one of our resident don't-really-need-a-Watcher-unless-it's-on-paper-only senior Slayers to give you and Rona more one-on-one attention and work with me on combat training. I'll ask Buffy…"

"Faith," Vi blurted out.

"Faith?" Xander looked like the wind had been taken right out of his sails, "Why…"

"Well, it's nothing against Buffy. Sort of. But it's just as much me as anything else," Vi admitted. "It's just that I know Buffy isn't…well…she's not like she was in Sunnydale and all, but…see, the thing is I know every time Buffy'd tell me to do something I'd kind of resent it and I might do something stupid just to prove her wrong.

Next thing you know, I'm out drinking, smoking, carousing with strange men in bars, and getting tattoos just because Buffy said I shouldn't. "Xander blinked at her. "So you honestly believe going with the Slayer who actually drinks, smokes, has been known to carouse with strange men, and has tattoos is a way to avoid that?"

"Well, yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense if you put it that way," Vi admitted. "But the thing is, I never wanted to staple Faith's mouth shut just because sounds were coming out of it."

Xander rubbed his head like he had a monster headache. "Faith? As my official partner in crime? Faith?"

"I'll try to do better and get to know Buffy," Vi promised. "But I'd rather work with Faith for now."

"Faith." He sounded almost resigned. This time when he looked back up at the ceiling he said to the unseen someone, "You realize I'm going to fight you every step of the way on this one, right? And just for the record, this time I'm going to win."

"If you really don't want to do it…"

Xander sighed and looked back at her. "No. No. It's okay. I'll deal. I don't have to love your reasons, but even I have to admit they're good ones. Fine. We'll bring Faith in on it, but if she says no that's the end of it."

"Fair enough," Vi nodded.

Xander stood and brushed off his jeans. "Well, looks like we have a sendoff to get ready for. You coming?"

Vi saluted and hopped off the couch. This conversation went way better than she could've ever imagined. Rona will be psyched.

As the walked across the living room, Xander reached out and touched her shoulder. Vi turned around and looked up at him.

"Vi?" He shifted a little. "Thanks."

"For what?"

He shrugged with a smile. "Just thanks."


*Have you ever looked at your hand? I mean really looked at your hand and noticed that it was so hand-y?* Clichés are clichés because they're true, Willow reflected as she considered her not-at-all-blood-covered hand. It's one thing to watch some bad sitcom where all the characters ate the spiked brownies. You laugh in anticipation because you just know someone's going to be talking about the hand.

But she remembered her and Amy at Rack's expanding their minds using magics from a darker place. With the universe laid out in swirling patterns of color, what did they focus on? The tiny things. With borrowed power flowing through them, Willow remembered having that stupid hand conversation.

*What was I?* Bad enough.

*Who am I?* She thought she was okay. Not a saint, true, but she wanted to believe that she turned out okay, all things considering. But as to who she will be? That question still seemed open for debate. Waaaay, too open for comfort, if she wanted to be honest.

*Consider the hand and its tangle of lines. They're just tangle-y and line-y. Perfect for…* …capturing and holding the blood until it burned your skin like a scarlet letter.

She's walking a fine line here. She let J'Nal believe she knew more than she did, but she knew more than she ever wanted to about herself, the people she loved, and the future.

Her memories were all feelings and knotted thoughts punctuated with moments of clarity; swirls and colors that freeze for just a moment in crystal clear visions.

Like a blood-covered hand… …a moment of loss… …and Faith's pale face hanging over her as the Slayer said, "I remember this."

The true moment of clarity happened in that instant when the Faith's clean hands clutched her dirty one, when Faith's voice swore that it would be all right.

There are other pinpoints of clarity. A moment of rage with dark power flowing through her that felt something like hate and an awful lot like vengeance. A moment of pleasure with hands, lips, and tongues playing over her body. A moment of pure joy in seeing faces she'd never thought she'd see again. A moment of sadness as she clutched the most beautiful sword she'd ever seen in shaky, frail hands.

What it all meant, she had no idea. At least she told J'Nal that much of the truth: without the before and after, she's clueless. These moments of clarity are nothing more than points in some crazy connect-the-dots with no pattern and, very important, no numbers to tell her which point came first.

As for the rest? It was all a barely-remembered dream.

*God, poor Xander.* She understood--maybe even better than he did if only because she saw more--the real horror of knowing just enough without understanding any of it.

As she stared at the backyard, she saw Vi and Xander leaving the house. They were easily talking back and forth. They already had the kind of rapport that only the best Slayer-Watcher teams can hope to have. *Oh, god.* She just remembered something else.

Willow clutched the windowsill tight and swallowed hard. She could shout a warning. All she had to do was open the window and scream it: *Vi, don't go!* The problem was this: she wasn't sure where Vi wasn't supposed to go or what Vi wasn't supposed do. All she knew was that when the Slayer did it, she'd be dead. It was going to happen too soon, even if she didn't know the exact when.

Willow clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against the sunlight. She wasn't surprised to feel tears streaming down her face.

Back in England, the Coven taught her that the key to all magic was to live in the moment; to be aware and appreciate the now; to understand that whatever you did right at this crossroads could ripple out and have repercussions that you could never anticipate and might never see. The first time she heard it she thought it was 'neat.' *Neat. That's so dumb.* That's what Willow-then thought.

Willow-now understood it. She wished she didn't. She wished she never had to really understand it.

Willow opened her eyes in time to see Faith lining up some of the younger Slayers in the backyard for a little tai chi action. She focused on that image, mentally hugging it as close as possible to herself as she could. *I will remember this. It'll be all right.* All any of them really have is just this moment. Once it goes, it'll never come back.

*Just take a breath,* she ordered herself, *then take the next. And then take another…*


Giles basked in the morning sun and mused about the future. Not some far-distant time, but the future of a more immediate sort. Although their visitors were certainly a factor, especially since their cultural, and in one case familial, roots lead directly to this house.

He couldn't bring himself to even begin considering the shimmy-shakes. He didn't recall ever reading anything that sounded like it. Not for the first time, he cursed the sheer stupidity of the Council keeping all its precious records in one place. There was no back-up archive for him to consult and none of the old-timers were close at hand so he could ask.

Until they found something, all he could do was concentrate on one thing: the Council, or rather, the New Reformed Council. Or maybe he should call it Councils, plural.

He was dead certain that if his departed or scattered colleagues could read his thoughts at this very moment, they'd have him strung up faster than you could say, "Guy Fawkes."

Because no matter which way he looked at it, he couldn't help but think a split Council--correction, two different Councils with two different approaches--would ultimately prove beneficial for Slayers. Two competing Councils meant two adaptable Councils that put the welfare of Slayers first. The Slayers could ultimately choose not just their fate, but whom they wanted to train them, work with them, and ultimately serve as their allies.

He had long ago concluded that the Council's insistence on there being only one way to do things and its blanket condemnation of any method that didn't fit in was precisely the wrong approach. He was a convert, you might say, after being thoroughly proselytized by three very unique individuals for years. It helped immensely that the past year demonstrated quite clearly what happens when one individual decided that they knew best and what happened if one set of shoulders was forced to carry the weight of the world.

One Council or one person, it didn't matter. One way is not best way and no one had a lock on righteousness.

They were lucky in Sunnydale. He knew that. Next time? They might not be. Therefore it behooved him as one of the last survivors of the Old Way to think of a New Way, or to put a finer point on it, New Ways.

Specifically, two New Ways. Curious how Robin and Xander were at opposite extremes. Giles sipped at his tea deep in thought. On the surface, they would seem to be natural allies. In many ways they thought alike, agreed more often than not, and were normal men fighting in a world where women were the superior supernatural warriors. Yet, it was how they approached problems and the way they resolved them that made all the difference. Did nature or nurture make them different? And does it really matter in the end? Robin could see the big picture and plan for it. He understood the sweep of history, and destiny as it related to…how did he put it? Ah, yes. The mission. Very effective if you wanted to build an army capable of fighting over the long haul with eyes on the prize.

Xander, Giles suspected, would never be able to get beyond individuals. He would always worry about…how did he put it? The little people caught in the middle. Further, he suspected that Xander in many ways put Slayers, Watchers, and innocent bystanders in the "little people" column when it came to the threat of being crushed by history and destiny. A very effective approach, if you wanted to inspire loyalty and encourage people to live up to and beyond their potential.

Before Sunnydale passed into history, Giles knew which approach he would've seen as the one true way. Since Robin's approach was the devil he knew, although his own personal conduct mirrored Xander's more closely, he also knew with whom he would've sided.

Now he could see that it wasn't an either/or proposition. Both approaches worked, if one was to judge by the tantalizing hints, and both worked quite well. It just so happens that they got a sample of the Watchers Honoria. He dearly wished he could learn more about that other Council. What did Charlie call it? Watchers Educationary? Choices, Giles had finally realized, are the ultimate good in this sorry old world. True, choices could lead one down the wrong path, but without choices you couldn't ever strive for something better. Take Faith and Willow, as two cases in point. On second thought, the issue applies equally to all of humanity and, perhaps, a few vampires and assorted demons.

He spoke to Robin about formalizing the Council, New Reformed, although he must admit he was quite uncomfortable with Robin's immediate answer in the affirmative. He would've been happier to accept if Robin at least made a show of thinking about it. But Robin was who he was, a supremely confident and accomplished man, and for him to act any different would be disingenuous of him.

He gave Xander the same choice, although he was being quite honest in his conversation the young man. He truly did believe that Xander would make a fine Watcher, once he learned to temper some aspects of his personality. Certainly the new Slayers were already treating Xander as such. And he most certainly had faith that Xander would ultimately say yes. Frankly, Giles highly doubted that it was in Xander to say no. He also suspected that both Xander and Robin were going to fight like hell--even if it meant they fought each other--to make sure the Council stayed unified as long as either one of them drew breath. But after? There was the rub, wasn't it? All infant movements have a habit of splintering along ideological lines. He had the sweep of history on his side to prove that point.

Yes, Giles thought, the sweep of history and destiny was most certainly going to bite Xander more than a few times in his life and would ultimately define him after his death.

No doubt Robin and his spiritual descendants will be equally stung by individuals who insist against all reason that all it takes is one person to defy expectations and change everything.

He did his part and started the ball rolling for history, as it were. Now it was time to let it go.

*** Camlin Tikri stared at the MemePad in her hands and remembered the words an old perspectivist had told her when she was still a young witnesser. At the time she thought what he said sounded poetic and vaguely romantic, if somewhat typical for a man who'd seen it all through his long infor career.

Late in the game she could finally see it wasn't just fancy talk over bahris after a deadline. It was a hardcore truth wrapped up in pretty words.

And all it took was a trip back through 834 years to once upon a time for the scales to fall from her eyes.

She'll never be able to look at people the same way again. What that ultimately meant for her, she had no idea. But she wasn't afraid to admit to herself that this strange realization frightened her.

"Get everything you needed?" Tikri looked up and saw Catherine standing in the doorway. Her hair was tied back and every article of clothing was just so. Her identifying pin, the one that told people her family and her Council affiliation, gleamed in the sunlight. The Watcher Honoria was slipping back into that self-assured, competent, intelligent woman that Tikri had met when she was first contacted about this mad time-travel scheme, replacing the good-natured, sometimes in-over-her-head person that lead them through this mission.

She was honestly sorry to see that everyone was going to go back to their normal roles. It seemed wrong somehow.

"Yes," Tikri finally said.

"I'm only asking because you look like you forgot something."

Tikri placed the MemePad on the bed. "I did. But I think I remember now."

There was movement and Catherine was standing next to her, also looking down at the MemePad. "Not that I'm even suggesting we're remotely friends, but should I ask?"

"When a man speaks, all his ghosts speak with him."


"Something an old boss once told me."

"That's…unh, not to be dense, but what does that mean?"

Tikri looked at Catherine and answered, "He was trying to say that whenever you ask someone a question, their answers are colored by their experience. Although it wouldn't shock me if he were talking about literal ghosts, too."

"Ghosts aren't that uncommon," Catherine pointed out, "Although possession is rare."

Tikri laughed at that. She forgot what she was talking to. Yank the supernatural into a conversation and Watchers will take it at face value instead of hyperbole. Hazards of the job she supposed.

"Look at it, Catherine," Tikri waved at the MemePad, "take a good long look. All our ghosts made flesh. Yours, Ruda's, J'Nal's, Charlie's, hada, even mine. We have color image. We have sound. We have full-motion vid. We have the written word. All it needs is some TouchInfor links and some editing by a perspectivist to fact check--not that I have any clue how anyone can even futching begin to fact check this--and it's show time."

Understanding clicked. "You're worried people will be angry and shoot the messenger."

Tikri responded with half-a-shrug. "Some people will thank us. Some people will hate us. Means I did my job if they're split down the middle. Nah. There's always someone who wants to shoot the messenger. That's not it."

"Do all witnessers get like this at the end of a story?"

"When they finish stories that change their lives, oh futch yah."

Catherine let out a low throaty chuckle at that. "Well, even I can see that as far as infor goes, this story will be hard to beat."

"For you, too."

"I'm not a witnesser."

"No, but you are a witness," Tikri countered. "All of us are witnesses. No matter what any of us do from here on out people will remember that. We'll be rewarded for it and punished for it in equal measure."

Catherine went silent as she studied Tikri with her dark eyes. For a brief moment Tikri wondered if the rumors about her family was true: they were all blessed--some might say cursed--with the ability to see the behind public mask and find the person behind it.

Tikri shook her head. She was just full of the poetic, romantic world-weariness today. "Don't you get it?" she asked the silent Watcher Honoria. "For everything we now know about the people right here in this house, as real as they might seem to everyone and to us, at the end of the day they're still ghosts because we don't know who their ghosts are when they talk to us."

Catherine hesitated. "So you think you're missing the real story?"

"What I'm saying is that I don't think we'll ever understand the whole story. The scary part is I'm starting to think that's the way it should be. Maybe we're not really meant to know."

"Who are you and what have done with Camlin Tikri?"

"I'm just worried that someone is going to look at my infor and your team's reports and think they finally see the big picture. I'm just not that sure it's there to find."

Catherine's eyebrows drew tight. "Are you sure you're not possessed? Or under a spell? Because this isn't…"

"Maybe it's because I feel like a ghost myself," Tikri interrupted.

"You look pretty real to me."

Tikri looked down at the MemePad again. "You can't see it, but I can. We're part of the myth and the legend now. We're the ones who were here right at the beginning. We talked with them. Walked with them. Worked with them. We may have even made them into the people they will be. Someday they just might talk about us the way we talk about them."

Catherine's expression broke into a broad smile. "Wow. We're not in the least bit full of ourselves."

Tikri grabbed Catherine's arm. She had no idea why it was so important to make Catherine understand, but it was. "Don't you get it? We all become someone's ghost eventually. A stray word is all it takes sometimes. We did the impossible. We've made the ghosts seem real, and that means we've affected everyone, even people like me who aren't involved with what you do and have never been involved."

"Looks to me you're involved up to your neck." Catherine said kindly.

"Now," Tikri agreed. "The hada of it is people have short memories and busy lives. Other things will move to the front burner. The Great Darkness. Politics. The consumer report. Whatever. But what we bring back will change a lot of things. After this MemePad and your team's reports are put in the archives, historians will study them but they'll still be ghosts and we'll become ghosts. Why? Because people who look at the record weren't here and they won't understand. And even if we're still alive and able to answer questions, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to make them understand the truth."

Catherine tensed. "And what truth is that?"

"That everyone here in this house so much less than any of us expected and that just makes them so much more than legend can even hope to express."

Catherine relaxed and her grin was back in place. "Welcome to my world."

"Sorry it's just…I have to wonder why."


Tikri picked up the MemePad and tapped on its surface. "Their future is our past. Did it ever occur to you that our future is someone's past, too? So while we look at everyone here and ask, 'What happened? Why these people? Out of everyone in the universe, why were these people at just the right time and place for things to happen the way they did?' Think about this: someone in the future will look at us and ask the same questions."

Catherine's fingers reached out and touched Tikri under the chin, gently forcing the witnersser to look the Watcher Honoria directly in the eyes. Catherine's expression was so intense, that for a crazy heartbeat Tikri was almost certain that the other woman was going to kiss her.

Then in the space of a moment, she saw it.

Standing behind Catherine was 834 years' worth of ghosts, all men and women who fought and died in the dark so people like herself could leave Tara for the stars and walk under the suns of countless worlds.

"Why us, Camlin?" Tikri barely registered that Catherine had used her informal name. "The answer is simple. Because we're the ones who see."

Catherine dropped her hand and headed for the door.

"I don't want to," Tikri said to Catherine's back.

The Watcher Honoria turned around. Her head was tilted as if she were really seeing Tikri for the first time. "I wish there was a choice, but there isn't. Once you see you can't unsee." Catherine slightly smiled. "It's not so bad, you know, as far as powers go. Seeing. Knowing."

"So I should get myself a cape now?"

Catherine nodded. "A cape sounds good." Her eyes went to the MemePad. "Don't forget to pack it."

"The MemePad or the cape?"

Catherine simply said, "Both."

Part 70
In the End A New Beginning

The last day was a laid-back affair.

J'Nal managed to convince Andrew to let him have a Cling-On lexicon, making sure to stress how very important it was to have it since Cling-On may be the future's last, best hope to rescue the universe. Andrew was hooked, lined, and sinkered into turning it over, although J'Nal had to sit through a brief lesson in how to properly speak the language and use the book.

Willow and Giles managed to convince Catherine to part with her family journal and the letter--the one that was made public--so they could do something called "zerocks." Once they explained that "zerocksing" meant electronically copying the pages they could see in the journal and the letter explaining about the future for future reference, Catherine let them have both after she extracted a promise that she'd get them back.

Dawn showed up with something called "disposable kammerraz" and made the Cleveland crew and Catherine's team stand together in groups while she snapped away. She disappeared after she had consumed three of these boxes, only to return a few hours later and hand a stack of images to Catherine's people with a promise that she didn't make copies for the present-day people.

Catherine's team oooed and aaahhhed over the likenesses. Catherine knew she biased, but she thought the best one was the one with her in the middle grinning like a fool with Alexander and Faith on either side of her. Faith had her dimpled, cheeky grin and Alexander seemed on the verge of laughing.

Hunh. She had his smile. She never noticed that before. *Looks an awful lot like family,* she thought. Catherine's caution kicked in and she removed the picture from general view by shoving it in her pocket and hiding it until the images were packed away.

All in all, there was a lot of low-key happy natter and chatter, exactly the kind of thing she'd expect after a hard mission.

As the sun set the time finally came for the household to trudge back to the alley where Catherine and her people made their entrance. At first Catherine was a little nervous that the crowd would attract attention, but she decided that she didn't care.

Charlie had the Grail, the letters, the likenesses, and Catherine's family journal tucked in a bag that was slung over his shoulders.

Tikri had her MemePad up and recording the good-bye for posterity. J'Nal nervously paced as he concentrated on the spell back home.

"We need to say good-bye," Ruda said as she tugged on Catherine's coat.

"I hate long good-byes," Charlie good-naturedly grumbled as he approached the Cleveland group one last time to do the grip and grin. Catherine noticed he paused to exchange a few words with Alexander, Faith, and Giles, probably offering encouragement about their search for the Polgar Syndrome cure.

J'Nal was a little more reserved, opting to merely wave and smile, although he did make it his business to stand before his ca-Rosenberg, cross his arms over his chest, and bow deeply at the waist to show his respect and acknowledge her superior place in his universe.

Catherine bit her lip to keep from laughing when Willow blew Prima tradition out of the water by clumsily copying J'Nal's actions. She had no idea that the proper response was to simply accept it with a nod. The icing on the cake was when Willow hugged a shocked J'Nal, whispered something in his ear, and planted a kiss on his cheek.

As J'Nal dreamily retreated past Catherine, the Watcher Honoria couldn't resist. "Went well?"

"She bowed to me. She bowed to me," he said with wonder.

"What did she say?" Catherine asked.

J'Nal's white teeth flashed in his smile. "She said thank you. To me."

"Go get the spell started, you big old mush," Catherine teased.

J'Nal's head was obviously still full of cotton since he did what Catherine said without complaining that he wasn't a mush.

Tikri was busy glad-handing the Cleveland group when Catherine stepped forward. First she approached Alexander and shuffled, not quite sure what to say.

He surprised her by engulfing her in a hug. "It was nice meeting you Catherine," he said.

"It was good meeting you…Xander," Catherine said back.

He leaned back so he could look at her, but didn't let her go. She thought his smile would split his face in two and his hazel eyes seemed to sparkle in the dim light. "Xander. Much better."

She could feel her own smile as she answered, "Yeah. I think so, too." Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Faith standing with her hands in her pockets and fidgeting. She held out an arm to the Slayer and said, "Come here, you."

"You're a hugger, hunh?" Faith asked.

Catherine reached out and pulled Faith into the combined embrace of herself and Alex--no, Xander, she'll have to remember that--and said, "It was good meeting you too, Faith."

Faith stiffened for a moment before finally relaxing into the hug.

"Back atchya." she murmured.

*Looks like family. Feels like family,* Catherine thought as she allowed herself a moment to enjoy it.

She reluctantly broke away from them. While she wasn't all that surprised to see Xander blushing around his smile, the fact that Faith was blushing around her dimpled grin was a shock, a nice shock, but still a shock.

She turned to the next person in line only to come eyeball-to-eyeball with an amused-looking Dawn. "We all going to get one of those? Or do we have to be --rah-sens to get one?"

"Dawn!" Xander exclaimed.

"She's right." Catherine forced herself to look comically serious. "There's enough of me for everyone."

Which is how Catherine ended up hugging almost everyone in the Cleveland crew. When she finally reached Robin, she stopped.

He shook his head with a grin and said, "It's fine. You don't have to hug me."

Catherine studied him a moment. "I know your family. Well, sort of. I'll tell them I met you."

Robin started, although Catherine wasn't sure if it was because he was surprised he had descendants, or that she admitted to knowing he had descendants, or if it was because she said she'd contact them about him.

"Try not to be too hard on me, hunh?" he said lightly.

"I'll tell them the truth," Catherine promised. "I will say that you are a brave and honorable man who passionately believes in the mission."

A beatific smile spread across Robin's face. "Thank you. That's all anyone can ask for." He held out his hand for her to shake.

"You're welcome," she said quietly as she gripped his hand momentarily before turning away.

In the meantime, Ruda was engaged in a flurry of hugs with everyone in the Cleveland group, but when she got to Buffy she stopped short. As Buffy nervously shuffled from one foot to the next, Ruda drew herself up to her full height and, with as much dignity as she could muster, formally stuck out her right hand.

Buffy looked at it a moment, as if not sure what it meant. The gaze traveled from hand to face. Whatever Ruda's expression, it prompted a warm million-dollar California smile from the blonde Slayer as she just as formally reached out and grasped the proffered peace offering.

Since formality and Ruda were at the best of times nodding acquaintances, the dark-haired girl engulfed Buffy in a lingering hug before bouncing to Catherine's side. Through the whole business Buffy's grin didn't dim one jot and even widened when she saw the Watcher Honoria place an arm around her charge.

"J'Nal says everyone needs to back up a little," Charlie announced.

The Cleveland crew shuffled a few steps back.

Catherine could hear J'Nal's chanting rise in tone and pitch behind her until there was a distinct sound of a pop followed by a subsonic roar. She turned around and saw the swirling pool of pure light hanging in midair. She could swear that she could see home on the other side despite the glare.

J'Nal got to his feet. "I'll anchor us. Hopefully the ride won't be as rough as the last time." With a final wave at the Cleveland group, he stepped into the portal without looking back.

"C'mon," Ruda said as she grabbed Tikri. "I'll make sure we don't get too bruised."

"All systems ready, back to the future we go," the witnesser agreed as she stepped through the portal arm-in-arm with the Slayer.

Catherine Anastasia Harris-Lanoire-rah paused and took a final glance back, eyes searching the Cleveland group until she found the particular two people she was looking for.

She couldn't help it.

She wildly waved.

And yes, her heart skipped a beat when those very two people waved back.

"Will you miss this?" Charlie asked.

"No," Catherine firmly said as she turned back to the portal.

"Are you disappointed?" Charlie asked.

An illuminating grin--her inheritance from across a few hundred generations and a few hundred light years--spread across the Watcher Honoria's face.

"Never," she softly replied.

And then she stepped into the light.

The End

Previous | Next


Asper : Asperin

Buffista : Religious Slayer-only sect that believes all Slayer power derives from Buffy Summers since she was the longer-serving Slayer when the activation spell was cast. Buffy Summers is called Summers- rah-sen in this sect.

ca- : Prefix used before last name. Indicates the highest achievement for a Prima witch short of getting a -rah suffix.

Callin : Something that aparantly falls apart very quickly in water. (Hey! Didn't think of a definition, so shoot me.)

Council Educationary : One of the two Watcher Councils. Basic philosphy is that the Slayer must walk alone. Watchers in this Council educate and train young Slayers and record their activities. Will offer resources and advice to field Slayers, but do not interfere. Watchers in this council are called Watcher Archiver, i.e. Watcher Archiver Robin Wood. Tends ot have more influence in older settled worlds or worlds where the rights of the individual are upheld over all others. Split occured with the Council Honoria over philosophical differences before diaspora.

Council Honoria : One of the two Watcher Councils. Basic philosophy is that the Slayer should *not* walk alone. Watchers in this Council education and train young Slayers. They also serve as advisors to field Slayers and organizes and leads the necessary support network for that Slayer. Watchers in this council are called Watcher Honoria, i.e. Watcher Honoria Alexander Harris. Tends to have more influence in frontier worlds or worlds where teamwork is considered paramont for survival. Split occured with the Council Educationary over philosophical differences before diaspora.

Faithist : Religious Slayer-only sect that believes all Slayer power derives from Faith Lanoire (yes, I made up a last name for Faith) since Faith had to be the One True Slayer at the time of the activation spell because Buffy Summers had already died twice and no new Slayer was called after her second death. Faith Lanoire is known as Lanoire-rah-sen in this sect.

Futching/Futch : Fucking/Fuck

Hada : Hell

Haphaestus Colony : Frontier world and colony of New Providence.

Horsha : Horseshit

Infor : News.

New Indra : Older, more settled world.

New Providence Colony : Older, more settled world. Homeworld for the Council Honoria.

Newsie : Common slang applied to whatever carries infor, regardless of medium.

Ookee : Okay

Prima : Magic user sect. Tends to ally itself with the Council Honoria.

-rah : Suffix, title. Denotes leadership. For example, Harris-rah or Wood-rah. Sometimes used after a first name among close associates only when the last name is too complicated, i.e., Catherine-rah.

-sen : Suffix, title. Used exclusively by Slayer-only religious sects. Always used after a -rah designation. Denotes spiritual leadership. Never applied to a living person.

Tara : Terra/earth (Tara is being used purposely)

Unitan : Religious Slayer-only sect that basically says "it doesn't matter where the Slayer power comes from." Shows equal respect to Summers-rah-sen and Lanoire-rah-sen as both temporal and spiritual leaders.

UNS : United News Service

Witnesser : reporter