Living History

Chapters 1 - 25

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 1

*When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.*
*--Hunter S. Thomson*

A low moan issued from the pile of bodies in the alley.

There was some reflexive twitching and tics in the pile.

"Whose elbow is in my eye?" an irate female voice asked.

"Better not be the same person whose foot is firmly placed on my wedding tackle," a decidedly British male voice spat.

"Was it supposed to be like this?" a second female voice whined. "I don't remember anyone saying…"

"Enough!" A third female voice ordered.

There was some movement amongst the bodies and a tall, brunette woman emerged. The mouth, which always seemed ready to burst into a sunshine grin, was turned down into an uncharacteristic frown. She glanced around the alley with distaste, as if not sure she wanted to believe her nose.

"J'Nal," she snapped. "Get your ass over here."

"My head," the British male voice complained.

"Suck it up. We don't have time for this horsha."

A male crawled out from under the pile and, staying firmly on hands and knees, wormed his way to the woman's side. She sighed and hauled him to his feet, supporting him as he wavered unsteadily back and forth.

"Well?" she demanded.

"Gimmie a moment," J'Nal complained. "The spell is still…"

The woman sighed and in a softer voice urged, "Look, I know the portal spell took a lot out of you, but you have to get your bearings. You know the rules: if we're not in the right time or place, we have to zip out of here before we interact with someone from this time period. The minute a human sees us or we do anything that might affect anyone, it's too late and we have to make do or go home empty-handed."

"I know, I know." J'Nal sounded apologetic. He peered around with eyes narrowed to slits, a sure sign he had a screaming headache to end all headaches. "Well, I can tell you that we're nowhere near a warm climate."

"Oh?" The woman shoved her unruly hair out of her eyes in an aggravated move. Somewhere along the way she lost her customary barrette to tie her mane back and the resulting trip across time and space had caused it to take on a Medusa-like life of its own. Wind tugged at and tussled with the strands, making the image complete.

"The wind, plus the fact that it's cold, means that we're definitely not in what the Taras call 'La-La Land.'"

"But are we on Tara?" the woman hissed.

"I'd guess so," a second male voice said from behind them. J'Nal and the woman turned around to see a slight girl with long jet black hair bearing the insignia of a Faithist help the speaker to his feet. "This construction just screams Tara architecture," he added.

The woman snorted. "Looks like a blank brick wall to me. Get knocked unconscious in enough alleys and they all start to look alike."

The second male held up a scanner, touching the screen at different points. "Spectrometer indicates that the gases infused with the brick match perfectly with early twenty-first century Tara."

The woman, who was clearly in charge, let her face relax. "Well, at least we're in the right timeframe then. The question is, are we in the right place and the right year?"

"Aren't you being a leeeeetle overcautious?" the third woman whined as she crawled to her feet.

"Catherine, why did we have to bring her along?" the Faithist asked.

"Ruda, I know you're not in love with the idea of the press…" Catherine began with another ineffectual swipe at her hair.

"Hey, what the Slayer Corps does is infor and this is infor," the third woman had her hands on her hips, sharing her angry glare between Slayer Ruda and Watcher Honoria Catherine. "I came along to get a story and this is the story of the century. Hell, the brass at UNS is willing to pay my bar bill, so that has to tell you something."

"Calm down Ms. Tikri, no one is going to rob you of your story. You're here, so by definition you have an exclusive," Catherine soothed, fighting hard not to roll her eyes. "But we need to make sure that we're," here she reverently pulled out a small book and gently rubbed the surface, "in Moscow during 2008."

"Well, that I can't tell you until we get a look around," J'Nal said. "The spell can't be exact on the first try."

"Well, we're in the right time period, so there is that," said the scanner-bearing man. "I have to check everyone's translation implants, make sure we have both twenty-first century Russian and English programmed properly."

"Do it," Catherine ordered with a nod.

Scanner man, known as Charlie to the rest of the group, went to everyone in turn, checking the slim metal disc fitted behind everyone's left ear. On unspoken agreement, Catherine was left last, mostly because her standing orders were thus: the Slayer first; witch second; medic, meaning himself, third. Ms. Tikri got attention before Catherine herself simply because, in this working band, the Watcher Honoria always went last, whether it was for basic equipment checks or urgent medical treatment.

Once he was finished, Charlie nodded happily. "Rodger, dodger old codger. Good to go."

"Old codger?" Catherine's face exploded into a grin. "You need glasses."

"Look out!" Ruda's voice snapped through the alley.

The others looked up, eyes wide. "Oh futch," Catherine muttered before shouting. "Ruda! Leave the hostile. Leave the hostile!"

Too late. Said hostile--known as a vampire to you and I--launched itself at Ruda with a hiss. Too fast for the eye to move, Ruda's sword was out and flashing through the dark, beheading her attacker in a single smooth swipe. The creature exploded into dust.

There was overwhelming silence in the alley, broken by a single word from Ruda. "Oooops."

"A common, garden-variety vampire," Charlie smiled. "Wish I had the opportunity for a closer look."

"You have got to be jossing me," Ms. Tikri said. "Those things are pests. Better to kill 'em now before they have a chance to make more."

"Yes, but this is a Tara vampire," Charlie explained, "the original of its kind. That makes all the difference…"

"Charlie," Catherine warned as she fingered the tiny pin bearing the symbol of the Watchers Honoria intertwined with her own family crest. She turned towards the alley's entrance, teeth worrying her bottom lip. "Well, wherever and whenever we are, we are now here to stay."

Chapter 2

Xander sat on the stoop, head resting on his hands as he surveyed the empty street. September was coming with a vengeance and his newly transplanted California blood was already freezing in his veins.

*Why the fuck am I even here?* he wondered. *I've done nothing but fix things and prop up people since we fucking got here. If I'm going to be reduced to handyman and all-around security blanket, I damn well can do it where the weather's warmer.*

He ran his hands through his hair, momentarily hesitating at the halfway point before allowing himself to continue to the nape of his neck. He'd gotten the glass eye a month ago, but he could still feel the ghost of the eye patch band in his hair and the patch itself on its skin. Some residual part of him still worried about dislodging a protective covering he no longer had.

He was being unfair to the others and he knew it. He had been included in a lot of the Slayage side of the business, maybe more than he'd been since before senior year. Robin was making everyone in their merry band go through formal fight training, including one very normal human who spent a lot of time on his ass when hanging out on the practice mats.

Giles had been pulling him in to help with research and relying on him to help deal with all the contractors needed to whip their new headquarters into shape. Buffy was insistent that Xander be part of the regular Slayage and patrol rotation. Although Buffy had taken a step back from a lot of her former self-imposed responsibilities, she forcefully pointed out to Robin that Xander had seven years' worth of field experience that should be put to good use, whether the Woodster thought he was combat-ready or not.

Willow didn't involve him in the actual use of magic, mostly because Xander and magic were not two mixy things. However, she was quick to grab him for help in research--there's the dirty word again--and for help in gathering supplies.

It seemed like the handful of baby Slayers with them had all decided he was the most approachable of the "in crowd"--being the only normal human around--and were constantly asking him for help, a shoulder to cry on, or advice on this, that, or the other thing. Usually it boiled down to the fact that they were uncomfortable approaching Buffy, Faith, Willow, Robin, or Giles with problems they were afraid might get dismissed as stupid. Xander, on the other hand, seemed always ready to lend a sympathetic ear.

Dawn, thankfully, wasn't yanking him in a new direction as she had managed to settle in and adapt to their new locale faster than anyone else. With the beginning of school, Dawn's educational and social life had notched up to insane levels, no doubt because her California roots made her cool in the eyes of the locals. She was rarely around before 10 p.m. curfew, and when she was back at the compound she was all chattery about boys, school, boys, homework, boys, school trip, oh, and before he forgot, boys.

Xander's stock seemed to be going up in the world, at least among this particular group, but some corner of his mind wondered if there was a more well-meaning but sinister purpose: keep Xander busy and can keep his mind off his troubles. If that was the goal, they were failing miserably, not that Xander was inclined to disabuse them of the notion.

He could never admit it to them, but he had to, for once, be honest with himself. He'd lost something. Once the adrenalin high of surviving Sunnydale retreated, he felt dead inside, utterly incapable of thinking beyond the next step. Frankly, he was exhausted. Every day an ever-larger part of him just wanted to walk away from the weird world and go hide in a nice, normal life in some sunshine state.

In short, he just didn't want to care any more.

"Behind you."

Xander looked up and saw Faith standing at the top of the stoop. The Slayer grinned when she was certain she was out of Xander's blind spot. "Mind if I sit?"

Xander waved at the empty spot next to him.

She hopped down--making sure to keep to his right where he could see her--to the place he indicated and sat with a plop. She drew out a pack of Camels and a lighter. "Mind?" she asked.

Xander shrugged.

She lit up and drew deeply, releasing the stream of smoke with a relieved sigh.

"Buffy still on ya to quit?" he asked. He actually didn't care. He just was making with the small talk since it was better than sitting in silence.

"Shit, yeah. You should hear Robin bitch, too. They don't get tobacco is fucking evil." Faith drew hard, causing the tip to glow brightly, possibly as an illustration of her point.

"Yeah, Slayer healing or no, I can't imagine that's helping." There wasn't a whole lot of heat or condemnation in his tone.

"Yo! I've cut back," Faith protested with a smile. "Down to less than a pack a day. Gotta take it slow. Last thing you need is a Slayer-sized nicotine fit on your hands."

"Guess not," Xander agreed with a tight smile.

They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. Had anyone familiar with the pair been watching, they would've put the smart money on Xander breaking first. They would've lost.

"So what is your deal?" Faith asked.


The Slayer waved her cigarette up and down at him, as if dousing him tobacco-flavored incense. "You. You've been living in a different universe since we muscled our way into this town. S'up with that?"

"Faith," Xander gritted. "Last I checked, I've been yanked in a million different directions since I got here. Sorry if you think I've been distracted, but the reality is that I'm a little busy."

"Not saying that," Faith stated with another drag. "When people try to have a real personal conversation with you, you start talkin' business just to change the subject."

"Like I said…"

"Bullshit," Faith stated. "Your head ain't here and that's asking for trouble with a capital T, for you and for us."

Xander stood in a sudden motion. He wished he could say he was enraged or even a little angry. He wished he could say he felt any damn thing. However, standard operating procedure indicated that he should get indignant, so he put on the show everyone would expect. "Sorry I don't come up to the level of Woodman…"

"Hey, that's not what I…"

"…but not all of us can be the perfect demon-hunter guy like your sweet baboo…"

"Sweet baboo? What are you, *Peanuts*?"

"…I'm just Xander and I'm doing the fucking best I can while everyone decides they fucking need my ass involved in every aspect of this fine new Slayerish world we live in..."

"Not saying you're not doing the best you…"

"…but most days I feel like I should ask Willow to make three of me so I can handle everything…"

"Maybe you need a vacay," Faith commented. "Maybe get the old juices recharged and give yourself time to heal."

"Or maybe I just need for people to stop worrying how I'm doing and leave me the hell alone," Xander growled. He spun into the house, legitimately annoyed, not much, but a little. "Enjoy your smoke," he shot over his shoulder before he disappeared into the house.

Faith held her cigarette like a match, as if blaming it for the direction the conversation took. "Well, I think that went really well."

Chapter 3

Ruda leaned forward in the tree, her eyes shining, a beatific smile on her face. She was simply lost in the moment. True, she couldn't hear the conversation, but she could see them. It should be enough, considering the mess they were in, but it wasn't.

"Ruda?" Catherine stage-whispered from below.

The Slayer looked down, her smile growing broader. Her Watcher Honoria would never admit it, but this had to be as exciting and as nerve-wracking for Catherine as it was for her. Ruda, after all, was just an adherent. Catherine had the bloodline, not that it seemed to make a difference to her.

"You saw one of them," Catherine stated calmly.

"Both," Ruda slithered down the tree. "They were talking, so maybe we got lucky."

"Not so much," Catherine said in an undertone. She jerked her head in the direction of J'Nal and Charlie. "They managed to dig a newsie from a disposal. We're not in Moscow."

"Where are we?"

Catherine answered with a sigh. "Cleveland 2003."

Ruda blinked. "Did I mention that I was really sorry?"

Catherine clapped a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not going to say that everything's peachy, but that hostile wasn't going to go away if we asked nicely. Chances are, we would've been stuck no matter what, so stop kicking yourself. We've got bigger problems."

"We have to go home empty-handed," Ruda glumly said.

"Like hada we are," Ms. Tikri said, "do you know what this means? We're at the beginning! Where it all began! We can ask questions, we can get the straight dope, we can get answers! We get the story that you just can't find in the historical record."

"Or we can leave these people in peace," Catherine stated. "They have their lives to live and right now they're under a lot of pressure. The last thing they need is for us to dump our troubles on their doorstep."

"Our troubles are pretty big," Charlie said, trotting up to the knot of women. "Besides, last I checked, they were pretty resourceful, so maybe they can help."

"They can't," J'Nal flatly stated, his face appearing over Charlie's shoulder. "We know what the historical record says. They were approached for help in Moscow 2008."

"Except we know that's not possible," Charlie protested. "You said yourself, the moment we interfered or interacted on even the tiniest levels, we couldn't just insert ourselves at any other point in the time stream because of the Domino Effect."

"That's right," J'Nal said tightly.

"Yet, Catherine's family records and the Council Honoria's archives are pretty clear: we as a group spoke to them in Moscow 2008." Charlie crossed his arms. "So we had to interact with them at some point. It was written and it was done."

Catherine sighed. "We were not named as individuals. It could've been another team that approached them."

"C'mon, Catherine. How many times have you read that entry? How many times has the Council Honoria read that entry? Hell, they even sent it to the Council Educationary for a second opinion, and you know what the relationship between the two can be like," Charlie insisted. "You and I both know that there are enough clues that point to every single one of us here."

"What?" Ms. Tikri exclaimed. "Are you telling me…"

"That we had another reason for inviting you." Catherine winced. She was hoping to keep it a secret. This mission was falling apart faster than callin in water.

"Are you telling me that I'm futching part of the story?" The reporter sounded enraged. "You know that goes against every witnesser principle there is! We do not take sides and we do not get involved! We observe!"

"And if someone kept their mouth shut, that's all you'd've been doing," Ruda glared at the medic.

"Besides, it's too late now," Catherine added. "You're as stuck as the rest of us. No one's asking you to make a real contribution…"

This comment got a round of appreciative chuckles and a glare from Ms. Tikri.

"…but we are right now in a bit of mess and we have to figure out what to do."

"Well, since we're now rooted here, we're stuck for at least a week before I can even attempt to spell us home," J'Nal said.

"And they are here," Ruda's voice had a near-pleading tone. "I want to talk to them. I want to really see them. Catherine, tell me you don't want the same thing."

"And they are resourceful. Maybe they can help us," Charlie mused. "Maybe the place and year don't really matter."

"My bosses are gonna kick my ass if I present them with a bar bill and no futching story," Ms. Tikri mumbled.

"What about your principles?" Charlie asked with amusement.

"On hiatus until I get home," the witnesser replied.

Everyone in the group fell silent, waiting for Catherine to render her opinion. She bit her lip, looking around her group. They were ill equipped to survive on Tara in the ancient past, at least not without help. In the end, concern for the people under her care won out over her instinct to keep to the original timeline intact.

She had a feeling she was going to be sorry.

"We go with Charlie's plan," she said with more assurance than she really felt. "Problem is, we can't just walk right up, ring the front doorbell, and ask to speak to Mr. Harris or Ms. Lanoire."

"So what are we gonna do then?" J'Nal asked.

Catherine smiled. "You are gonna put on a sound and light show."

Chapter 4

Xander sat and stared at the book's contents, letting the murmur of planning and consultation wash around him. He'd read the same paragraph ten times and he still couldn't quite absorb the context. He glanced up at the clock, some second-hand Salvation Army special that Buffy had unearthed, and sighed. Not even 9 o'clock.

"Robin, I really think you may be overworking yourself," Giles said. "Between your job teaching science at the middle school and your training schedule, you'll burn yourself out. You might want to cut back to every other day, or at the very least let Faith and Buffy take over part of the schedule as teachers."

"I'd feel more comfortable if I could supervise," Robin insisted.

"You mean if you were in control," Xander muttered.

All voices stopped and a certain ex-Sunnydaler just knew he spoke a little louder than he intended. He looked up to see Giles and Robin looking at him with open mouths. Hell, he might as well go for broke.

"You can be a bit control freaky," Xander calmly stated. "Lately it seems everyone has to do things your way and you pitch a fit if someone has the gall to tell you to take a chill pill."

"Where is this coming from?" Robin demanded.

Giles was busy hiding a smile while he polished his glasses with an intensity of someone who planned on keeping his big mouth shut.

"Where it's coming from is you insisting that training schedule be like it is, you creating the chore schedule, you deciding who should 'specialize' in what tasks, you insisting that only you could possibly tell everyone where their bedroom is located and dictating everyone's roommate…" Xander ticked the points off on his fingers.

"You're just pissed because you have to put up with Andrew," Robin said.

"Not a happy situation there, no," Xander allowed. "But I noticed you get a co-habitory-type roommate while no one else will ever get the opportunity unless they plan to move out and pay rent on non-existent salaries."

"I don't see you involved with anyone. Unless there's a special little lady you want to steal from the cradle. Like to discuss it with…"

Xander stood up so quickly that the harsh scrape of the chair drowned out whatever Robin was about to say. "My sex life, or anyone else's, is not the point. The point is you're going all Al Haig on us. Yes, we needed that in the beginning because, really, no one was in any condition to be the Mr. Big when you stepped in. But right now? It's getting on my fucking nerves."

"So, who do you think should be in charge? You?"

Xander gritted his teeth. "Let's make that a no-fucking-way. I don't want to be in charge. I don't need the goddamn headache. But I am sick and tired of the shit running downhill. We are not a goddamn army; we are a house full of very, very tired people who've been running our collective asses off since Sunnydale turned into the Grand Canyon."

"So are you saying we should kick back? Rest on our laurels? We saved the world so we should take it easy?" Robin waved at the window. "I don't know if you've noticed, but we got a world full of new Slayers to find and Watchers to recruit and we are nowhere near ready."

"And you pushing and shoving until we're all sick and tired of the sound of your voice is going to make it sooooo much better." Xander stepped forward, fists clenched.

"Now, I think we need to calm down." Finally Giles was getting involved. He turned to Robin. "Xander makes an excellent point. Several good ones, actually. Perhaps we all need to take a step back and review our roles within the group, maybe take a look at our numerous problematic scheduling issues, and rethink."

"There's nothing wrong with our schedule," Robin said, glare not leaving Xander.

"Correction. There's nothing wrong with our Slaying and patrol schedule," Xander said. "And that's only because Buffy and Faith were the ones in charge of that."

"With your help," Robin said in a sarcastic tone.

"I don't know if you noticed, but I was a tie-wearing type boss at my last job and I know how to put together a work schedule."

"Of a construction crew," Robin pointed out. "How is that like demon-hunting again?"

"Lemmie grab a hammer and nails and I'll demonstrate on you," Xander spat.

"ENOUGH!" Giles shouted. "This is quite enough. We are all tired and we could all do with a rest. Robin, you and I will speak tomorrow."

Robin looked up at the clock. "Faith and I have plans for a late dinner tonight anyway. G'night, Giles." It goes without saying that he left without giving Xander the same courtesy.

A female voice spoke up. "Well, that was fun for the whole family."

Giles and Xander looked in the direction of the voice, only to see Buffy emerge from the mostly empty shelves. "I was coming to say goodnight and caught the floorshow," she explained with a shrug.

"I lost my temper," Xander said.

"Hmmm, was waiting for someone to snap," Buffy said thoughtfully. "Although I think you might have some Buffy issues mixed in there. Not that I blame you since I was all paranoid-y, General Patton-y back in the bad old days."

Xander took a step back while Giles blinked in surprise.

"Don't everyone disagree with me all at once," she sighed as she plopped into a chair.

"Gimmie a minute." Xander inwardly cringed that his reflexive comfortador personality was taking over. "I'm working on a good comeback."

"Just that you've lost it somewhere to your left?" Buffy asked.

"Buffy…" Giles began.

"The truth is an ugly thing," Buffy slumped lower in her chair. "I've had an awful lot of time to do the thinking thing instead of the knee-jerk reaction thing. Let me tell you, my reflecting time hasn't resulted in a pretty face in the mirror. I'm thinking I should change my hairstyle or something just so I can pretend I'm not me."

"Well, that certainly explains why you weren't going out of your way to assert your authority over Robin," Giles said.

Buffy shrugged. "Authority? I don't know if you noticed, me not being the one-and-only anymore…"

"Except for Kenda. And Faith," Xander interrupted.

"Except for Kendra who died an ugly death and Faith who was in jail," Buffy corrected. "I don't know. I feel like I've lost my bearings. I'm totally rudderless girl." She grinned at Xander. "I envy you, you know. At least you know how to do stuff."

"I'm an expert at fixing windows." Xander gave a mock bow while his stomach knotted.

"Which is more than I can do," Buffy sighed. "You know? My resume is way too thin. Doublemeat Palace. One summer as a waitress in L.A. One year of college. Potential employers are not impressed."

"Ahhh, your confidence will be back up to its ol' Summers-time level in no time," Xander said. "In the meantime, someone needs to sit on Robin before I commit murder."

"As you so diplomatically put it," Giles dryly said.

"Okay, okay, sorry I put it that way, but not sorry I said it." Xander shoved his hands in his pockets. "Can someone please tell me how in hell he hooked up with Faith? And why Faith hasn't killed him yet?"

"Maybe she likes it tough," Buffy giggled. When Xander shot her a sidewise glance, she cringed. "I'm thinking I need duct tape. It'll keep me from saying things like words."

"Must be twu wuv," Xander said.

"Love makes you do the wacky," Buffy agreed. "But even still, I think he's beginning to drive Faith up the wall. I can always tell when the two of them have a fight because she goes all Dirty Harry on whatever nasty gets in her way."

"Speaking of which, how are you doing what with the Spike-related guilt?" Xander asked in a desperate attempt to get away from any more discussion about Faith and especially Robin.

Buffy gave him a small smile. "Probably about as well as you and your Anya-related guilt. You usually don't explode like that until all your buttons are well and truly pushed."

"Harris temper," Xander uncomfortably dismissed.

"Which means we need a group hug and a vow never to tell each other nasty truths again," Buffy joked in a tone that indicated that there was more than a little truth to her statement.

Xander was working on a comeback when the big boom happened.

Chapter 5

The first hint something was wrong was a bright light. Somehow, don't ask him how, Xander managed to dive for the closest person, in this case one Buffy Summers, and drag her from her chair to the ground.

Step two was something that sounded like a thunderclap followed by a shockwave that pressed all three of the room's occupants to the ground.

Buffy was, naturally, the first on her feet, while Xander and Giles grabbed on to the closest chair and dragged themselves upright.

"What just…" Xander began. He stopped and regarded the odd assortment of people tangled in a heap in the center in the room.

"I'm really getting sick of this," a female voice whined.

"Why is it I always get the foot in my waist packet? Why?" a British male voice complained.

"I can't see! Did we make it?" a youngish female voice asked.

"Anyone hurt?" a male voice asked.

"Only any hope of impressing them. No worries," a female voice assured everyone.

"Ummm, they kinda look human," Buffy said.

"I think they shop from the dark side of the *Twilight Zone* though," Xander said. "What the hell just happened?"

"My guess is a dimensional portal." Giles's glasses were askew as he desperately rubbed his temples. "Ahhh, yes. I can tell summer vacation is at an end. I've been conked on the head good and proper."

"I understood that." A head belonging to a brunette female popped out of the pile. She spotted the three of them and grinned. "And I just heard the concussed battle cry for Watcher Honorias everywhere. Alexander Lavelle Harris I presume?"

Buffy and Giles jerked their heads around to face one very confused looking young man.

"Lavelle?" Buffy asked.

"Ummm, I'm Xander, I mean, Alexander Harris," the guy in question volunteered. "I didn't get the head injury. Giles did."

"Lavelle?" Buffy insisted.

The brunette female's grin disappeared, as if upset the wrong man got injured. "Oh. Unh. Hi! 'Scuse me." She struggled to pull free from the group. "Heh. You're probably wondering, ummm, about my team here." She tripped and fell flat on her face.

"Lavelle," Buffy commented with a puzzled frown.

"Enough with the middle name already," Xander hissed.

"Well, you certainly seem to be…" Giles stuggled for the right word.

"Futched up?" a man volunteered as he yanked free of the group, scanner clutched firmly in his hand. He bent over the brunette woman as she struggled to her feet, but she slapped him away and jerked her head to the rest of the moaning people.

Buffy, Giles, and Xander exchanged glances.

"I'm not going to ask," Xander said. When Buffy and Giles raised their eyebrows, he added, "Aww, hell. Yes I am. 'Futched'?"

A youngish girl with long black hair and shining dark eyes exploded out of the group and ran a few steps before stopping short. "Wow!" she exclaimed with glee. "Wow! Wow! Wow!" She turned to the confused trio. "Is Faith here, too? Can I see her? Can I see her?"

"Well, let me see, we have a group of very, very…" Buffy's voice trailed off. "Well, people here asking for you and Faith. By name." She looked at Xander, amusement twitching her lips. "Friends of yours?"

"There is an explanation for this. Really, there is," the brunette woman said as she finally got to her feet. She grinned a please-don't-kill me smile. "And as soon as I make sure my people are…ummm…" She leaned aback and whispered to a man holding his head, "What's the word again?"

"Ookee," the consultant gritted back.

"Right. As soon as I make sure my people are ookee, I'll be able to think of something that actually resembles sense in a way that it's probably not going to make any sense whatsoever…" her voice trailed off. She looked back at the hyper young girl backed by a grumbling group struggling to find its feet. She looked forward to the speechless, stunned people in front of her and smiled a very weak smile. "Ummm, I've seen vids from ancient Tara, for training purposes, you know? So I think at this point I either say, 'We come in peace' or 'Take us to your leader.' Does any of that make sense to you?"

"Great. Just great," Xander folded his arms. "We're being invaded. Only we attract the gang who can't shoot straight."

"Thank god," Buffy said. "I don't think I could handle a guest spot in a serious episode of *The X-Files*."

The young girl walked slowly up to the native trio, stopping short when she sensed Buffy tense. She tilted her head, as if trying to figure the three of them out. "You know, Harris-rah-sen, sir, no offense or anything but, well, I've seen likenesses of you and, well, I guess going by those I thought you'd be taller."

Chapter 6

This, Faith decided, was shaping up to the weirdest night of her life.

It started normal enough: two vampire stakings; a patrol-like stroll around town with Vi and Rona; a random incident involving a mischievous gremlin; and back to the compound for a late dinner with Robin. Things started falling apart when she trundled up to the main entrance and found a muttering, furious Robin on the stoop complaining about Xander's attitude.

Any last hope of normalcy got blown of the water by the sound and light show.

Which brings her to the here and now.

The Cleveland crew--which numbered a little over a dozen people--was stationed around the perimeter of the library. Half appeared amused, half appeared worried, all of them had no idea what to make of the visitors clumped together in the middle of the future home of the library and resource center.

"Everyone is here," Giles announced. "Andrew? Do settle down."

"Can't help it. This is soooo exciting," Andrew enthused as he fiddled with his ever-present camcorder.

"I really don't feel comfortable…" the woman began.

"Tough," Buffy stated as she crossed her arms.

Faith could swear she heard the kid next to the speaking woman snarl. Probably not her imagination since she saw Buffy's eyes widen as the brunette female placed a calming hand on the girl's shoulder. The older woman bent down and whispered in the girl's ear in a tone that was too low-pitched for Faith to hear. The kid slumped her shoulders and nodded.

The woman straightened and tilted her head in a show of respect. "My apologies Summers-rah. Ruda can be very protective. She promises to be civil from now on since no one is here to pick a fight."

"Ummm, just Summers, not Summersra," Buffy stuttered.

"-Rah is a title," said the man bearing a thing metal thing that flashed a profusion of lights.

"Charlie," the woman warned.

"Ra," Willow muttered. Her eyes opened wide. "Do you mean –rah?"

"That's what he said," the Ruda kid said with a puzzled frown.

"Guys, we really can't get sidetracked into…" the woman began.

"*Watership Down!*" Willow interrupted with a shout.

"Water-wha? Wha?" said a second woman wearing a red pants-suit number that might be considered sleekly chic among the Paris crowd, provided the Paris crowd was now basing its designs on patterns created by designers living on Uranus.

"Too late," the brunette woman sighed.

"*Watership Down.* It's a book," Willow quickly explained. She turned to Xander. "You remember, right? Ninth grade summer reading?"

Xander brow crinkled in thought. "Is that the one about those weird rabbits? The one I wouldn't let Anya read? I kinda remember that because I had to read the actual book since I couldn't find the Cliff Notes."

"What's a rabbits?" Ruda asked as she bounced over to Xander with excitement. "Oh, and what's a klif notes?"

"Is anyone listening to me?" the brunette woman asked, knowing she was heading into rhetorical question territory. "Or am I talking to myself? I know. I'm just flapping my gums at the air. Don't anyone pay me any mind. I'll just prop myself up in the corner over there and you can call me when you find a lexicon."

"Oh, sorry, I had a wa-wa moment," Willow explained.

"Don't anyone dare ask," the woman warned her crew. "Next one who interrupts will need Charlie to fix their broken jaw."

"Better behave guys, I think she's getting annoyed and I don't feel like setting broken bones," metal thing-bearing man, who was apparently the Charlie in question, stage-whispered to his companions.

"Okay, in this book, -rah was a title, like you were saying," Willow was vibrating with excitement. "So, I think it might mean something like big chief, right?"

The woman tilted her head, as if puzzling out the redhead. "Umm, is that like 'one in charge'?"

"Yeah," the witch replied.

"Yes, then, yes. Close enough. Good guess," the woman nodded, hair flopping in her face. She shoved it out of her eyes in an irritated move.

"Hey, they called Xander something similar," Buffy said. "Rahsen, right?"

"Ruda did. Not me. I wouldn't…I'm not…look, we need to stop…I think I need to get introductions out of the way." The woman sounded terrified that she was going to find herself in yet another verbal maze.

Faith silently sympathized. More than once she felt like the Scoobs all spoke an alien language. Although the instances were getting less and less, she was still amazed how Xander, Buffy, Willow, Dawn, and even to a certain extent, Giles, would ping from one point to another without stepping on any logic lurking in between.

"We should stop interrupting the woman," Robin said.

The woman jerked her head sidewise, but didn't quite turn around to look at him. Faith could swear she saw the woman's mouth narrow slightly, as if she had tasted something bad, but the expression soon smoothed out into a professional mask.

"Go ahead," Robin urged, "we're all listening."

The woman hesitated a few moments as if she resented having to accept permission to explain herself.

The silence gave Faith the opportunity to really study her instead of focusing on what she was saying in that untraceable accent. She stood nearly six feet, almost as tall as Xander in fact. The Slayer noticed that she was dressed somewhat casually compared to the rest of the group, as if she was more a frontline fighter than a leader. While you couldn't rightfully call her get-up blue jeans, t-shirt, and a long, black canvas coat, it looked close enough to the equivalent that you could call her clothes by those names. A silver ornate pin that looked like a series of swirls and knots glittered as the edge of the unbuttoned coat moved.

To someone less observant than the dark-haired Slayer, she seemed calm and very much the person in control, an image supported by the fact that her heavily booted feet were in something resembling a defensive stance while the rest of her crew crowded behind her. The attitudes of the others made it pretty damn clear in Faith's mind that she was in charge, regardless of how she was dressed.

However, Faith noticed an air of nervousness and a barely suppressed physical jitter as the woman shoved her hands in the pockets of her voluminous black coat. The woman glanced around, as if trying to read the mood of the room based on the expressions on the faces surrounding her. At least twice she hesitated in her scan, as if loath to quite move on to the next face. The first time was when her gaze met the Buffy-Xander-Giles knot and the second time when her eyes landed on the Robin-Faith-Vi-Rona knot.

"Thank you," the woman said very carefully after her moment of silence in a cool, overly polite tone. "Before I let you know about the where and when we're from, let me get the introductions out of the way." She waved to a dishwater blond man wearing a grey uniform with the universal entwined serpents that announced he was a doctor. "This is our medic, Dr. Charlie Ravensgood, of Haphaestus Colony."

He smiled tightly and waved the thin metal thing in his hands. "Just Charlie," he said in an accent that wasn't entirely traceable, either.

She pointed over to a brown-skinned, white-haired man wearing all black, complete with a black pouch hanging from his belt, and announced, "This is our witch, J'Nal ca-J'Veb of the Prima."

J'Nal gave a curt nod, winced as if even that much hurt, and returned to rubbing his temples as if he had a monster headache.

"You have a witch?" Willow piped up.

"We have a hurting witch," J'Nal answered in an accent that sounded very upper crust British. "Someone got an asper? My head feels like it's going to explode. Teach me to expel extra energy to impress the Ancients."

"Asper?" Xander asked. "Ancients?"

The woman's jerked around as she fixed Xander with an unreadable look.

"Sorry," Xander quickly amended. "No more stupid questions until you're done."

"But there are no stupid questions, right Catherine?" Ruda bounced on her feet like an overcharged rubber ball as she asked this. Like the leading lady, she was also dressed for fighting, complete with an ornate scabbard slung crosswise across her back, a holster that strapped a very cool throwing knife to her right leg, a second holster that strapped a throwing axe to her left leg, and some sort of arm contraption on her right forearm that seemed to be a spring-loaded mechanism that hid some other weapon in its recesses

Faith decided that the hyper kid looked like she could really hurt someone in a fight. Despite the girlish excitement, something in this Ruda's eyes announced that she was a Slayer.

The woman, who was apparently the Catherine in question, favored the girl was a relaxed smile. "Our perpetual motion engine here is our Slayer, Ruda Jawal of New Indra."

That introduction was enough to get a murmur out of everyone while Faith smiled. *Hah! I was right, the kid is a Slayer,* she thought with some satisfaction.

The kid bounced up to Faith's group and gave a perfect, graceful curtsey that stopped just short of genuflection. As Ruda straightened back up and Faith swore the kid looked directly in her eyes before saying, "It is an honor to meet you, Lanoire-rah-sen."

Faith's brow crinkled in confusion while she felt everyone swing their focus to her, as opposed to keeping them on the very strange guests. The kid backed away, shy smile not dimming one jot, while her silver pin winked at the room as if attempting to share a secret joke.

"Rahsen," Faith muttered.

"Same thing Buffy said they called Xander," Robin whispered back. Faith looked up and saw that his jaw was clenched tight, as if preventing himself from saying anything more.

When Ruda returned to Catherine's side, the older woman pulled her close in a one-armed hug. Although Faith didn't see the woman so much as look at her younger charge, the way the Ruda leaned into the embrace showed the newest Slayer on the block trusted the dark-haired woman completely.

"The lady in red," here Catherine grinned and waved at a chic woman, "is Camlin Tikri, a witnesser for UNS."

"This is…words fail…I have no idea how I'm gonna write this lead," the woman stammered.

"Better call her Ms. Tikri," Catherine added. "She tends to get riled if you get overly familiar."

"Hada, you can call me anything you futching want, as long as you give me the whole story about the First Battle of Sun'dayl," the woman cheerfully contradicted.

Faith saw Xander look around the room while everyone's face reflected unified confusion. She watched him sigh.

"Okay, since no one else is willing to play dunce today, I'll ask," he said. "If you're talking about a sundial, why would there be a battle over it? I mean, it's not like you can't buy them in a garden supply shop. You gotta clear this up, because right now I'm thinking that landscapers are armed wherever you're from. And just for the record that picture is giving me the serious wiggins because I'm the guy who has to deal with the greedy bastards."

The visitors looked at each other in consternation.

"You mean there was no battle in Sun'dayl?" Ms. Tiki practically liked her chops as she asked the question. "You mean the crater was a natural formation and not the result of a mystical convergence collapsing in on itself?"

"Sundial probably means Sunnydale," Giles murmured.

"Sun-ee-dayil," Ms. Tikri did not have an easy time getting her tongue around the word.

"Ms. Tiki? Later," Catherine warned.

"And what's your name?" Xander asked.

"Mine?" Catherine nervously licked her lips.

"You went through the whole line-up but left you out. Do we call you Catherine, Cathy, Ms. Guisewite, what?" Xander asked.

Faith noticed the woman pause, as if she were thinking over the answer. She could swear that she saw everyone else in Catherine's group hold their breath as they watched their leader out of the corner of their collective eyes.

Catherine scrubbed her free left hand through her hair as if thinking something over before finally answering, "I'm the Watcher Honoria, Catherine-rah, from New Providence Colony."

Faith saw the visitors cast questioning sidewise glances at each other while Catherine added in an almost dismissive tone, "Everyone just calls me Catherine. Our group isn't much on the official titles."

"Watcher Honoria?" Giles asked, as his eyes flitted back and forth between Catherine and Ruda. "I don't…"

"Ooooh, watch out. You're gonna get a broken jaw," Charlie snickered. "Sick 'em Catherine the Great."

"Look, I'm certain you have a lot of questions, a lot of questions, but we probably won't be able to answer all of them, in fact, we probably won't be able to answer any of them," Catherine said, fixing her medic with a frown. "Because this is where things get a little complicated."

"Like they're not complicated now," Xander grumbled. "Am I the only one catching about half of what they say?"

"You can follow half of it?" Buffy asked. "You're doing better than me."

"That's what you get for lending Xander the Scooby brain cell," Kennedy chuckled. When Willow, Buffy, Xander, Dawn, and Giles turned to glare at her, she added, "Joking. Just joking. Sheesh. Stop taking it personally."

"That's not it," Xander said. "Usually, Giles has ownership of the brain cell. If I had it, I'd probably just get it dirty."

"That's because you and Willow are in the room next to Xander's and mine," Andrew volunteered. When everyone looked at him, he protested, "Well it's true."

Xander leaned towards a horrified Willow. "I swear the kid doesn't have a filter between his brain and his mouth."

"We'll be quieter from now on," the redhead promised.

"Please don't. I need to get my entertainment from somewhere since the Woodman doesn't believe in cable."

Willow looked askance at her friend. "Andrew isn't the only one who needs a filter."

Catherine delicately cleared her throat. "You know, I'm trying to make a dramatic announcement here and I get the feeling that you're not focusing. I feel like I should find a spotlight and stand in it just so I can get your undivided attention."

"Ahhh, now I know you're a Watcher," Giles nodded.

"They're worse that we are," Charlie cheerfully agreed.

"Take that back," J'Nal protested with a headache-filled moan. "I refuse to give up my short attention span crown to a group less technologically advanced than we are."

Catherine let her face drop into her hands. "Why do I bother? Why?"

Ruda nudged her in the ribs. "You wouldn't have it any other way."

"But it is irritating when the children keep nattering on and on when you're trying to interrupt with an 'oh dear'," Giles said sympathetically.

"That's because it takes an 'oh good lord' before we know you mean business," Xander said.

"Are we going to let Ms. Catherine speak or not?" Robin asked irritably.

"Catherine," the woman in question said between clenched teeth. "Just Catherine."

"Quite right," Giles said. "Please do carry on Ms…I mean, Catherine."

"As I was saying," she shot a glare at her posse, as if expecting an interruption. When it was clear none was forthcoming, she continued, "As I was saying, we might not be able to give you all the information you want. You see, we come from other planets and we're from 834 years in the future."

"You're from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?" Andrew squeaked. He looked down at his camera with a tragic expression, "Please tell me I remembered to put a videotape in this."

"I think you mean a long, long time ahead in a galaxy far, far away," Xander said. Even though Faith could hear the joking tone, she noticed his expression revealed a mix of disbelief coupled with worry.

"Ummm, same galaxy, actually," J'Nal corrected. "It's a big place, see, and it would take…"

"Besides, they can't cross the edge of the galaxy," Andrew said with a look of disgust at Xander, as if Xander was the one who first suggested that their guests came from outside the Milky Way. "Remember when the *Enterprise* tried it in *Where No Man Has Gone Before*? Bad things happened. Very bad things. Clearly they're from the Delta Quadrant."

"What's he talking about?" Charlie asked. "Delta quadrant? The hada?"

"Andrew? You really need to read that book I lent you," Willow said.

"*A Short History of Nearly Everything*?" Andrew whined. "But it's not nearly short enough."

"Now my head is beginning to spin," Xander complained.

"Can anyone follow this?" Catherine plaintively asked. "J'Nal?"

"No idea," J'Nal said.

"Everyone, please!" Catherine ordered, exasperation showing in her voice. "Look, long and short: We are from the same galaxy; yes, we are human; yes, we are from the future; and yes, none of us are from Tara."

"Tara?" Willow whispered with wide eyes.

"I don't want to ask, I really don't," Dawn spoke up. "But Tara? What's a Tara?"

"This planet! The one we're standing on! Right here!" Catherine shouted in aggravation. "This. Is. Tara."

"No, this is earth," Xander corrected her. "Sure you have the right planet?"

"Didn't think of that," Charlie muttered.

"Don't go there," Catherine warned.

"Oooh, now that would be a story," Ms. Tikri cooed. "Crack Slayer Team gets lost in time and space and winds up asking the wrong people for help."

"We are not…we did not get lost," J'Nal said. "We know exactly where we are. Cleveland 2003."

"But we meant to hit Moscow 2008," Ruda reminded him. "I mean, it's possible we didn't even hit the right planet." She turned to Xander and pleaded, "There is a Moscow here, right?"

"Yes," Robin answered.

"I wasn't asking you," Ruda sniffed, eyes not leaving Xander. She repeated her question, "Moscow?"

"There is a Moscow," Xander assured her. "But it sounds like you guys are really lost."

"Hey! You try hitting a target on the first try when you've got to account for the time/space Big Bang drift," J'Nal complained. "It's like trying to kill a rat on a planet located a light year away from you with a spatula. Not going to happen."

"But we're on the right planet." Ruda sounded as if Xander's word alone was good enough for her.

"Of course we're on the right planet," Catherine sighed. "Alexander Harris is here. Faith Lanoire is here. Buffy Summers is here. And the gentleman wearing the metal contraption on his face…"

"Glasses," Giles said.

"Gulahsssez," Catherine repeated, "must be Rupert Giles." She looked between Dawn and Willow. "Which one of you is Willow Rosenberg?"

"That would be me," Willow seemed taken aback that Catherine, who'd managed to recognize several complete strangers, didn't know who she was.

"Ahh, yes," Catherine peered closely at her. "Usually you're pictured with white hair."

"Oh." Willow sounded very relieved.

Catherine turned a smile on Buffy's sister, "And you must be Dawn."

"People know me. Cool," Dawn grinned. "I'm famous."

"Not that famous," Buffy said in an awed voice. "She didn't even know who you were."

"Well, her claim to fame is that she's just your sister," Ruda said.

"No need to be rude," Catherine said with disapproval.

"Sorry." Naturally, Ruda didn't act like she was sorry in the least by her dismissal.

"We're in the right place," Catherine stated firmly. "There are enough people with names that match those listed in the archives that I feel very comfortable stating that it's the right planet."

"Still wrong timeframe, though," Ms. Tikri said. "This story is going to be…"

"Not now," Catherine ordered.

"I'll have you up on charges for squelching freedom of the press," Ms. Tikri huffed.

"My defense is that I'm squelching your mouth," Catherine shot back.

"Same thing," Ms. Tikri replied.

"See? There's nothing wrong with us. They do it, too," Dawn said with satisfaction as she crossed her arms.

"You might want to inject an 'oh dear' here," Giles offered. "Perhaps an 'oh good lord,' since I've been informed by reliable sources that's the only way anyone knows I mean business."

Catherine scrubbed a hand through her hair so hard that everyone thought sure she was going to have a handful of the stuff when she was finished. "I can't win," she said with an edge of despair. "I just can't win."

Chapter 7

Their guests were locked in the training room and guarded by all available Slayers not named Faith, Buffy, or Kennedy. The three Slayers who did not pull sentry duty were in the partially renovated kitchen with Xander, Willow, Giles, Robin, Dawn, and Andrew discussing the situation.

Originally, Andrew wasn't supposed to be involved, but he insisted on joining the Kitchen Cabinet since, according to him, he was an expert on all things aliens. He added that because their five guests claimed to be aliens, he should be the brain trust.

"You're not an expert," Xander countered. "You've never even seen the original *Battlestar Galactica.* That makes you a amateur at best and a poseur at worst."

"Hey! I plan to watch the new mini-series on SciFi," Andrew insisted.

"You mean that travesty? The one where Starbuck is a woman? Nooffenseladies, but you've got to be kidding me," Xander said with a dismissive wave. "Besides, you can't watch it because we don't have cable. Someone thinks TV rots the brain."

"One word," Andrew said with irritated display that included crossed arms and a twitchy left eye, "Kazaa."

"I love it when you two serve as Exhibits A and B to bolster my 'no cable' stance," Robin dryly said.

"Besides, they're not technically aliens," Willow pointed out, "They said they were all human. They even look it. Although I think I need to dig up a crystal so I can read their auras to be sure. I still haven't gotten the hang of the whole squint-and-look-for-the-colors deal."

Kennedy hugged the redhead. "That's my girl. Tell her to activate every Potential in the world, and she can do it with a giggle and a wink. Ask her to do something any two-bit carnival fake claims she can pull off with ease, and she fumbles in a clinch."

"We're not focusing on the crisis at hand," Robin interrupted. "They could pose a threat."

"Robin? Did you meet the same people we did?" Buffy asked.

"Robin's right," Xander said.

"Robin's…" Buffy began. She looked suspiciously around. "Is it me, or did the temperature just plummet in hell?"

"When you're right, you're right," Xander said with absolutely no trace antagonism. "I don't know if you noticed, but it seems like their group is organized like a military squad."

"Okay, see? I don't get where you're seeing that," Buffy delicately said. "Speaking of someone who's actually dated a soldier as opposed to getting possessed by one, I'm pretty damn sure that if anyone in Riley's squadron acted the way our…our…prisoners…guests… whatever they are…did, they'd be fed to the subterranean hostiles."

"She's right," Robin said. "I don't see the military angle. Frankly, I was thinking they could be demons in disguise."

"Look, I know you guys think I'm bordering on nuts," Xander firmly said, "but think about this. Everyone in their group has a specialized, assigned task and titles to go with. You've got a Watcher, a witch, a Slayer who's armed to teeth…"

"Shit! We forgot to take away her weapons," Faith interrupted.

Xander sighed. "Can I finish? 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."

"And where are we going to recruit this doctor?" Robin asked.

Xander shrugged. "Beats me. I'm just saying maybe we should think about it."

"This is all well and good," Giles interrupted, "but that leaves that Ms. Tikri woman. Care to explain what mysterious purpose she serves?"

"Oh-oh, Giles dislikes one of 'em already," Dawn commented.

"Look, I can't figure out where she fits in, either," Xander admitted. "And all their bickering aside, I bet you ten-to-one that when the chips are down, they could be one dangerous crowd."

"And we all know that if Xander the Great agrees with me on their threat potential, I'm probably something resembling right," Robin said.

Xander flushed at the man's tone, looked down, and said nothing.

"Actually Robin, that is correct," Giles cut in while Xander looked up in surprise. "Both you and he do tend to tackle problems using different methods and if the both of you have concluded that they could pose a threat, albeit for different reasons, then it is highly likely that they do."

"Freezing. I'm telling you, absolutely frigid," Buffy commented. "Bet there's snowball fights going on right now."

"Frankly, I find Xander's reasoning quite impeccable," Giles continued as if Buffy hadn't spoken. "In addition, he certainly has more circumstantial evidence to support his supposition." He held up his hand to prevent Robin from interrupting. "Note that I didn't say you were wrong, just that we have no evidence that you're right. It is possible these are demons and it is possible they are using the promise of revealing the future to lure us into a trap."

"Whoah, hold up," Faith said. "I don't know about you, but I definitely heard that Catherine-rah chick say they weren't going to be telling tall tales out of school. Seems to me that they've instituted the good old 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."

"This should be good," Kennedy remarked. "Can you see it now? 'Hi. We need your help but, shhhhhh, we can't tell you with what or, shhhhhh, how bad it is, but in fact, we can tell you…wait, wait, can't tell you that either. Sorry. Now about that helping hand.'"

"Or they could drop 'hints' about the future and make it sound like a slip of the tongue or an inadvertent revelation," Robin countered. "They could lay out all these tantalizing tidbits…"

"Like Reece's Pieces in *ET*," Andrew nodded sagely.

Robin shot Andrew a glare, "As I was saying, they could use those hints to encourage us to take certain actions or make certain decisions that we wouldn't normally do or make."

"So what are you saying? We should just kill them?" Dawn asked.

"What if they're legit?" Faith asked.

"I can't believe you're even entertaining the idea that they are," Robin said.

Faith rolled her eyes. "Look, I don't know what the hell I think, but I do know this: I'm not in love with the idea of repeating past mistakes, if you get my drift. I'm not about to lay the Slay on them until I get something resembling proof one way or the other."

"All in favor of Faith's motion to figure out the real deal? Raise your hands," Xander announced as he put his hand in the air. "Do I get a second?"

"Since when do any of you follow *Roberts Rules of Order*?" Robin asked.

The response was hands from the three Slayers, Dawn, Giles, and Andrew joining Xander's in the air. The former high school principal sighed. "Fine. A reluctant unanimous, then. But I still say we need to keep a very close eye on them."

"So? We just schedule a Slayer honor guard," Xander said. "Make sure we've got three of the girls on 'em at all times."

"Xander? Given your earlier arguments, I'm rather confused by the overkill," Giles said. "Three? Wouldn't two be more efficient?"

"Giles? Did you see Ruda? I don't know about you, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to fight her if she got pissed at me," Xander said. "Then again, I'm not a Slayer, so maybe we should ask the experts."

"Overkill," Kennedy stated. "Ruda's young. I could take her."

"Three's good," Faith said. "That many weapons? My bet is she knows how to use 'em. And personally, I don't think she's going to be wicked happy if we try to take 'em off her, either. So I say we let little Ms. Hyper keep her shiny toys and watch her for trouble."

"Lucky me. I get to be the tie-breaker," Buffy frowned. "I think three's overkill, but I'll go with better safe than sorry. Bonus, if Robin's right, three is going to be a hell of a lot better than two."

"Actually…" Giles began thoughtfully. He shook his head. "It's rather foolish. Forget it."

"What?" Robin asked.

"Well, it seems to me that our new Slayer friend seems to be somewhat, how can I delicately put this? In awe of Xander and Faith."

"She is? Me?" Xander asked.

"It could be an act," Robin stated.

"Thanks a lot, hun," Faith said sourly. "Love you, too."

"Look, I know we all saw her practically fall to her knees in front of you," Robin said. "But you have to see that's pretty unlikely that people from the future would be worshipping you."

"Not really," Faith said with a licentious smile. "You fall to your knees in front of me every night."

"Well, now there's a mental image I really wanted in my head," Xander groused.

"Right there with ya," Willow agreed.

"The fact is, we don't know what is likely or not likely at this point," Giles corrected. "Both Xander and Faith were addressed by the same title of '-rahsen.' Given that we know the -rah half of the word means leader, we can safely assume that -rahsen means something similar."

"Oooo, look at that. I can just feel an ulcer coming on," Xander said uncomfortably.

"If, as you suggest Robin, they are putting on an act, they have to play those roles to perfection," Giles said. "Which means they will most likely show Xander and Faith, and to an extent Buffy…"

"Not sure that Ruda girl likes me," Buffy interrupted.

"Which is why you won't be paired with her," Giles said. "But, it seems they are inclined to show the three of you respect, if only to cement any lies they might be telling."

"Giles? Are you suggesting somewhere in all those nice big words that Buffy, Faith, and I are on permanent babysitting duty?" Xander asked.

Giles fought a smile. "Why yes, I do believe I am. We'll leave the Slayer honor guard for those that aren't in your tender, loving care."

"Have I mentioned that you've come up with a bad plan?" Xander asked.

"Amen," Robin said.

"Hell's now at absolute zero," Buffy said. "We should pack our ice skates and go visit."

Chapter 8

Catherine sat on the training mat and surveyed her people. J'Nal was flopped on his back, still muttering that one more mass transportation spell like that and they'd be mopping his brains off the closest wall. Charlie fussed over him with the scanner, although everyone within listening distance knew the only thing that was going to make the witch feel better was a good night's sleep.

Ms. Tikri was crouched in a corner and furiously scribbling on her MemePad. No doubt she was finding the right suitably flowery words to puff up the occasion to even greater legendary heights. Either that, or she was sharpening her verbiage to do a more thorough job of knifing everyone in the back.

Ruda bopped around the room, stopping to oooh and aaaa over every piece of exercise equipment and weapon. "Do you think they touched this? Do you, Catherine? Do you?"

"I'm sure they did," Catherine said. "It's their training room."

"Do you think they'd mind if I touched this?" the Slayer asked, hand hovering over a long wooden pole.

"Knock yourself out," the Watcher Honoria said dully. She thought about it and quickly added, "I don't mean that literally."

Ruda already had the staff in her hands and was executing an elaborate thrust-and-parry exercise, twirling the weapon so fast that it was a blur. "Do you think they'd let me train with them? Do you?"

"I don't know." Catherine looked at the basement stairs with a worried frown. "I really don't know what they're going to do."

"They're going to help," Ruda said firmly as she bounced to Catherine's side with the staff still in her hand. "Of course they're going to help. How can you believe they won't? You of all people…"

"Key word is people," Catherine pointed out. "This isn't the history books. This is not legend. They're people, real people."

"But it's Harris-rah-sen and Lanoire-rah-sen," Ruda said as if this was all she needed to know.

"And they're that, too," Catherine agreed with a smile. "But right here, right now, who knows who they are. And who knows how we've changed that. Gah! If things weren't so desperate…"

"We wouldn't be here in the first place," Charlie interrupted.

"How is he?" Catherine asked with a nod to the witch.

"I gave him a mild sedative, so he's sleeping," Charlie said. He sat on his haunches next to the Watcher Honoria. "You should get some rest, too."

"Not until we get an answer," Catherine said.

"Look, they have to figure out whether they're willing to even trust us before they hear our case," Charlie pointed out. "If we got faced with a bunch of people claiming to be from the future and from places we've never heard of, we'd be doing the same thing."

"I know, I know," Catherine winced and waved her hands.

"She just lacks faith," Ruda giggled. "Well, actually, she doesn't lack Faith, just…"

"We got the pun the first time, little girl," Catherine chuckled as she playfully swatted her Slayer on the arm. "Maybe I'm a little disappointed."

"Why?" Charlie asked. "As you pointed out, they're as human as we are."

"And that's the problem," Catherine admitted.

"Why's that a problem?" Ruda asked.

Catherine drew out the book again and sighed as she despondently studied the cover. "You hear stories, you read stories, and you get certain ideas. Family history. Council Honoria archives. Hada, even the futching Council Educationary archives. There are even artistic likenesses that were created long after everyone here turned to dust half-a-galaxy away that shows them as bigger and better than real life. So you develop this picture in your head about these people you've never met and, if you're anyone but me, will never meet. Then you meet them and you can't get reality to match up."

"You've read too many power funnies," Ruda stated. "You think powerheroes should be perfect like ScoutWoman."

"I don't," Catherine protested. "And, hey, you can do worse than read ScoutWoman, who is not perfect for your infor. At least she tries to do the right thing."

"And they'll try too, which is what you told me is the point," Ruda said with crossed arms.

"It is the point!" Catherine exclaimed. She deflated. "I'm not sure what I mean. I'm not even sure how I feel right now."

"I vote confused," Charlie said. "I can see where you're coming from, though. I guess I expected we'd be asking a pair of tough, grizzled experts for help and we got…well, what we got."

"Whatever we got," Catherine glumly said.

"What are you talking about?" Ruda asked. "We got the real deal. Of course they're going to help." And on that note, she was back to replace the staff, firm in the belief that Harris-rah-sen and Lanoire-rah-sen wouldn't let her down.

Catherine found herself fervently hoping they wouldn't.

Chapter 9

Catherine was drifting in and out of half-sleep when she heard the door open and the tread of two people walking down the stairs. Her eyes snapped opened as she jumped to her feet and turned to face her captors.

Her breath caught.

"Harris-rah, Lanoire-rah," she greeted calmly, "what's the infor?"

The pair looked at each other. "Infor?" Lanoire-rah asked.

"Probably something like 'What's the 411'." As he said that, Harris- rah shoved his hands in his pockets, a comforting move that nearly brought a smile to the Watcher Honoria's lips.

"We've been talking and we're willing to listen," Harris-rah continued.

"Told you," Ruda said smugly. "Harris-rah-sen and Lanoire-rah-sen wouldn't say no. Not to us."

"Again with the –rahsen," Harris-rah muttered. He cleared his throat. "Look, I'm sure the –rahsen doesn't mean smeghead, or anything like that, but it's definitely making me uncomfortable."

"Sounds like we're a kind of sushi," Lanoire-rah agreed.

"Or extras in a Bollywood flick," Harris-rah added.

"Don't ask," Catherine ordered her group. "We got what we want, just let the nice, strange words go in one ear and out the other."

"Look, can you guys do me a favor?" Harris-rah asked.

"Anything Harris-rah," Catherine said.

"Don't call me Harris-rah," he said. He quickly fixed Ruda with a look, "Or –rahsen, whatever that means."

"Put me in the 'no' camp on that one, too," the Cleveland-transplant Slayer added. "Whenever someone uses my last name for anything I have flashbacks."

"So what should we call you then?" Charlie asked.

"Xander's fine. Alexander if you absolutely have to. Harris if your mouth will catch on fire if you even attempt to use my first name," said Harris-rah…Xander…Alexander…Harris…figuring out how to think of him was going to be harder than Catherine thought.

"I don't have fancy nicknames," his Slayer companion shrugged. "Faith. Just Faith. No Lanoire shit. I got issues, like I said. Start calling me Lanoire and I'll start raising my hand to ask to go to the bathroom."

"Why would you…" Charlie began.

"Don't start," Catherine said. "Please, don't start."

Chapter 10

The motley crew entered the kitchen behind Xander and Faith. Waiting for them was the Cleveland tribunal, which was crowded behind Giles.

"First off, we've decided to hear your case," Giles said.

"Harris-r…I mean…Alexander already told us," Catherine said.

"However, it is quite late and we are quite tired, so we think we all need a good night's sleep before we hear details of your problem."

"Good idea," Catherine agreed.

"But what about…" J'Nal began.

"You're half-zonked out on drugs, Catherine is ready to drop, and I could do with a day or two with or sleep," Charlie interrupted.

"I'm not tired," Ruda said.

"We don't have an internal fission engine that keeps us going," Charlie said. "Besides, I think the moment your head hits the bed, you'll be sleeping."

"Too excited to sleep," Ruda insisted.

"Hey, kid. Tell ya what. I'll tell ya a bedtime story," Faith grinned.

"Faith…" Robin began.

"Really? About you?" Ruda bounced.

"Unh, sure. Why not?" She grinned at Robin. "I'm not objecting."

Robin sighed. "Giles? I really could use some sleep. Much as I love kids…"

"That's quite alright, Robin. If you wish, we could make other arrangements," Giles said. "My room is your room, as they say."

"So, tomorrow then?" Buffy asked. "Great. I have to battle the bags under my eyes."

"Just one moment. I am curious about something," Giles interrupted.

"I'll answer if I can," Catherine said.

"Well, we understand the meaning of –rah, but I am intrigued by – rahsen," Giles said. "It indicates another level of, well, leadership if you will, so…"

"Unh, we really don't need to get into this, do we?" Xander interrupted.

"Shush. I wanna hear this," Faith said.

"Well, I don't…" Catherine began. She looked helplessly back to her crew, who all responded with a shrug. "I suppose…"

"Okay, if I'm gonna get burned, I'll start," Xander said. "Harris. That's me. Right?"

Catherine's group solemnly nodded.

"-Rah means leader," Xander said.

"Yes," J'Nal said.

"Ooooh, boy. You got the wrong guy," Xander insisted.

"Not to mention the wrong gal," Faith added. "I'm allergic to leadership. It makes me go all 'boom.'"

"Boom?" Catherine asked.

"Big boom," Kennedy elaborated. "I was there."

"Interesting reaction," Ms. Tikri said as she scribbled with a stylus on a slim object that looked like a translucent plastic square.

"That's what it means," J'Nal insisted.

"Fine. Won't argue." Xnader's voice sounded strangled. "Your language. You should know what the hell it means." A moment of silence. "You know, that makes me really afraid to ask the next question."

"No net cast, no catch found," Catherine said.

"Riiiiight. Guessing that translates to: 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained.' Got anything that equals curiosity killed the cat?" Xander asked.

J'Nal's eyes looked like they were going on tilt while he translated the question. "Not certain. Perhaps, bearbies seeking nectar get stung?"

"Sounds good. I'll go with that," Xander nodded.

"So what does -sen mean?" Faith asked.

"Oh god, you had to ask, didn't you?" Xander groaned.

"Yes, well, that is difficult to translate," J'Nal frowned. "It's only used by adherents to Slayer religious sects to designate a spiritual as well as temporal leadership."

"Slayers have their own religion?" Giles asked "Are you sure that's wise?"

"You want to tell them no?" Catherine asked.

"I'm going to be sick," Xander commented.

"Hoooo-leeeee shit!" Faith exclaimed with a raucous grin as she elbowed Xander in the ribs. "I think we're patron saints or something."

"I vote 'or something,'" Xander said. "Please?"

Faith held her spread hands up, as if picturing her name in lights. "St. Faith Lanoire, Patron Saint of Hot Chicks With Bad Attitudes and St. Alexander Harris, Patron Saint of Carpenters Who Can Wield One Mean Hammer."

"You frighten me," Xander said with awe.

"You're frightened?" Buffy asked. "Does this mean that I have to light a candle and pay you a dollar every time I need you to fix something?"

"If you did that, you'd burn the house down and I'd be rich," Xander said.

"Lanoire-rah, sorry, Faith is not wrong, though," J'Nal pointed out. "Or, rather, it's as close as a translation as you can get without an extensive background in Slayer religious belief."

Faith gulped. "I'm right?"

Xander blinked. "And both me and Faith get these fabulous, shiny titles."

"Well, the -rah is for everyone, but -sen to only a blessed few," Ruda reverently said.

Three hours later Faith and Xander were still laughing.

Chapter 11

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Faith Lanoire-rah, known as Lanoire-rah-sen to the Slayer Faithist and Unitan sects, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting:*

*Faith Lanoire is as fierce as her reputation. A true lioness, even among the Slayers she lives with. She strides into the sunlit room with a confidence that most would envy, her long, dark hair streaming behind her, her intense, brown-eyed gaze not missing anything.*

*She doesn't just sit in the chair. She takes possession of it, claims it as her own. Her body language screams that she is confident and sure of who she is and her place in the world. Her manner is at once insolent and attentive. Yet, the full face, the pouting lips, the bedroom eyes betray a hint of vulnerability behind the facade.*

*She is fabulous personified. She would be as electric wearing sacking or wearing the latest fashions from New Parisiar. The ease in which she takes over a room, the way all eyes draw to her, would put her in the same league as the greatest, most charismatic vid stars of our day.*

*And yet, this woman, this legend, is a Slayer. Although, as we shall see, a Slayer with a troubled past. Yet, as dark as the road behind her is, history tells us that her future burns as bright as the Twin Suns of Almeda.*

UNS: Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

FL: You wouldn't stop bugging me until I said yes. What's the deal? They paying you by the interview or something? You've got Giles hiding under a fucking bed to get away from you.

UNS: Your exploits are legendary…

FL: No shit? Which ones?

UNS: {heh} Ummm, I can't tell you the most outstanding examples that come to mind…

FL: Oh, right. Andrew mentioned something about a Prime Directive thingy. [studies UNS] If you break it, do they toss your ass in a cell? Or is that an automatic death sentence? He wasn't really clear on that point.

UNS: I'm not sure what a Prime…

FL: Something about not interfering in primitive societies.

UNS: Oh, no. We don't have anything like…don't you take offense at being called primitive?

FL: [wide grin] Haven't checked out the bars around here, have you?

UNS: Actually, I was more interested in getting some background on you and your early life. We've had some tantalizing hints, but prior to the First Battle of Sun'dayl the record isn't clear.

FL: [squirms] What have you heard?

UNS: That your first Watcher was killed and that your second Watcher was removed from Council Service. In fact, your current Watcher is the first one that sticks, for obvious reasons.

FL: I don't have a Watcher.

UNS: Unh? You don't. [UNS pauses to check Bio on FL stored in MemePad.] I, unh, the record isn't entirely clear when you get your third…but it does happen around this time.

FL: Who is it?

UNS: I can't…since it hasn't happened…I really don't think I can…

FL: Gonna hurt yourself.

UNS: Right, on to other matters. What can you tell me about Alexander Harris?

FL: It's because of that whole –rah and –rah-sen shit, right?

UNS: Yeah. Sure. Right in one. Are you two close?

FL: Close? Compared to what?

UNS: Well, you are friends.

FL: [looks confused]

UNS: Do you think your relationship could grow into something more?

FL: [bursts out laughing]

UNS: Are you saying that there's nothing between you?

FL: [falls off chair still laughing]

UNS: I take it that as it stands now there's not a chance in hada, is there?

FL: Whoah, boy. If I knew that a one-night stand…

UNS: One-night stand? You're telling me…

FL: Look, lady, I may have popped his cherry and gave him the best seven minutes of his life, but me and Xander sleep in separate rooms. [smile splits FL's face] Well, at least as far as everyone else is concerned, dig?

UNS: So what you're saying is that…

FL: [holds finger to her mouth] Ixnay on the Anderxnay exsnay. [leans back] We're keeping it hush-hush.

UNS: Interesting. Why is that?

FL: Well, [looks around] thing is there's a lot of tension around here.

UNS: So I noticed.

FL: So we all have to, ahhh, get it out of our system. Which means some of us older kids have playtime together, sometimes three or four of us at a time. Do you get my meaning?

UNS: I…unh…

FL: Thing is, Robin? Not so big on the group fun so we don't invite him. It's getting to be a problem because, you know, more and more people want in on the games, but we all have a no under-18 admitted rule. [leans forward] But Xander on the other hand, whoah. I mean, who knew back in the day, right? Shit, Willow can't get enough and she's fucking gay. Hell, the other night I was watching Xander pound into Andrew and that little boy was squealing like one happy little pig. Fuck. I'm getting all wet just thinking about it.

UNS: {cough, cough}

FL: [leans back] Xan-the-man is a total horndog. Can't get enough sex to make him happy. Can't get enough cash to make him happy. Can't get enough food to make him happy. [smiles angelically] Makes us a perfect pair. But if the two of us went exclusive? With each other? There'd be lots of bitching and moaning since, like, we service the most people in the house.

UNS: [strangled voice] I see.

FL: I'm telling you, nothing like spreading a little Faith. Share- and-share alike. [looks UNS over, licks her lips] Want a piece?

UNS: I'm not supposed to get involved…

FL: Your loss.

UNS: On to other matters. We have a blank in our records between your disappearance in L.A. and your re-emergence for the First Battle. What were you doing at that time?

FL: You don't know?

UNS: Like I said, many of the records before the First Battle of Sun'dayl were lost…

FL: I think you mean blown up or swallowed by a gaping hole in the ground.

UNS: Yes, we'll get to that…the fact is…

FL: Oh, the usual. Mayhem.

UNS: Mayhem?

FL: Sure! I was into picking random fights in bars, robbing banks…

UNS: I don't know what a bank…

FL: Place where people store the cash.

UNS: OH! Central depository. [silence] You were a criminal?

FL: I had everyone in the fucking world after me. I made *America's Most Wanted*, newspapers were covering my every exploit, rock 'n rollers were writing songs. I was Public Enemy A-Number One with a bullet. I was a star. Then it all fell to shit and I wound up in prison for a few years.

UNS: How did you get caught?

FL: Cops tracked me down. Shit, I had to escape through the goddamn hotel window buck naked to escape. I would've made it too, but they had the CIA, FBI, ATF, KGB, and every cop in California patrolling the streets.

UNS: CIA? FBI? What are…

FL: Oh, yeah. It was bad. I made it to this water tower, see? Climbed the ladder and figured no one would think to look for me there.

UNS: Obviously someone did.

FL: [bitter tone] Oh, yeah. NASA was covering all the high ground using these spy satellites. Technology bit me in the ass. So, everyone converges on this water tower and they corner me.

UNS: Go on.

FL: So there I am, naked, standing on top of this water tower screaming, "Top of the world Ma! Top of the world!"

UNS: "Top of the world?"

FL: It's a, whaddyacallit, mantra. Cagney is my god.

UNS: Cagney? Is he one of the Tara deities?

FL: God of Tough Guys, Mobsters, Molls, Rum-Runners, Bank Robbers, and Song-and-Dance Men. Oh, sometimes people who harvest grapefruit worship him, too.

UNS: A most interesting god.

FL: [shrugs] Takes all kinds to make the world go around.

UNS: So how did the standoff end?

FL: They wired explosives to the base of the water tower, see? And I didn't think it would be a great idea to get blown up, so I turned myself over to the courts and they locked me up.

UNS: If you were that bad, why did they let you out?

FL: Escaped. Had to bide my time, though. Didn't want anyone to know I was a Slayer and needed to be locked up special. Then when they were least expecting it? WHAM! Off and running. I ended up back in Sunnydale and in exchange for helping them out, a lawyer pal had my record expunged, so technically I'm not a criminal any more.

UNS: Quid pro quo.

FL: Gotta get something if you're gonna give.

UNS: Surely you've learned the error of your ways and you plan on living an exemplary…

FL: I'm bored off my tits.

UNS: But…

FL: So I've been thinking about knocking over a bank. Just to keep my hand in, y'know?

UNS: Is anyone else aware…

FL: Fuck no. [thinks about it] Well, actually, Xander helped me come up with the plan, so I guess he knows.

UNS: Xander is a…

FL: Worships Catwoman. Chaos Goddess of Thieves, Robbers, Burglars, and Women in Tight Leather. [grins] Probably why he loves me so much.

UNS: So the two of you are planning…

FL: First National gets hit. Next month. [taps finger to nose] Watch the news. It's gonna be big. Remember: "Top of the world!"

Chapter 12
What goes with the color bruise?

This was the part that Catherine absolutely hated: the part where she got to sit around while her team of experts did all the work. Times like this the Watcher Honoria desperately wished someone would hand her a sword and point her at something dangerous just so she could feel useful.

Charlie had sequestered himself with Giles to explain their situation. It was decided that it was best to talk to the senior Watcher Honoria--*no, just Watcher here,* Catherine reminded herself, *and the Council Educationary claims him too, so stop being territorial*--to feel out what they could and couldn't tell the others. Catherine couldn't help but be amused by the Slayers that just happened to drift by Giles's closed door as they tried to look like they weren't at all on sentry duty.

J'Nal was trying to get a handle on the real level of technology their guests had access to or had knowledge of. Willow was targeted to serve as J'Nal's tutor in all things technology, although Catherine was surprised that Kennedy sat in on the session. As far as she knew, Kennedy wasn't a technology expert, that's assuming she remembered her history correctly. *Probably another very poorly disguised attempt at guard duty,* Catherine mused.

Ruda was invited to do something called "hang" with the masses of other Slayers in the central room. Catherine wasn't entirely sure what "hang" entailed, so she urged Ruda to keep her eye out for trouble and her mouth firmly shut about the future while getting to know the other girls. If they were hanging clothing and pictures, fine, pitch in. But if "hang" was this era's version of Slayers competing to see who was the toughest on the planet, she was to stay very much out of it.

Such an admonition earned her a pout from Ruda, who almost always managed to land in the top five of any I'm-Tougher-Than-You-Girlie contest. As usual, pouting quickly gave way to bouncing when something shiny distracted her. The shiny thing, in this case, was Faith showing up and offering to train with Catherine.

Her team scattered to the four corners of the house, Catherine did her best to hide her nervousness while her mind squeed at her, *You're right next to her. She's right there. And she's going to train with you. YES! No one is gonna believe this when I tell them. No one. Mom and dad are gonna…*

Well, ask for a very, very detailed report, no doubt. First the verbal report, which would be encoded on crystal and enshrined on the family estate, followed by a written report that would be filed in triplicate in every single archive between here and Colony Prime.

Her hand was already aching thinking about it. Didn't help that quaint Watcher Honoria and Watcher Educationary custom demanded that handwritten reports were to be filed along with any report generated by a MemePad. Plus, her handwriting was bad, as in really bad, as in bad squared.

Throw in that just about everyone who is anyone in the realm of Slayerdom was going to be watching her and her team very closely when they got back, and she just knew she was in for a nerve-wracking time. No doubt her family was unintentionally going to cause the most stress. This wasn't just about the family business; this was about the family pride.

And walking right next to her was one completely oblivious Slayer who simply had no clue that a simple invitation to spar was causing so much tumult. At least Catherine hoped it was the case. She liked to think she was presenting a very calm, cool, and collected face to the world. Provided she didn't talk. If she opened her mouth, she was pretty damn sure she was going to say something stupid.

Faith stopped short of the closed basement door, held a finger up to her lips, and listened intently. A slow smile spread across her face as she lowly remarked, "The boys are beating on each other."

"The boys?" Catherine was especially proud of the fact that she managed to keep her tone even. *Not one trace of nervousness to be found. No, sir. Keep those sentences short and sweet and you just might get out of this without making yourself look like a complete astra.*

"Xander and Robin."

"I take it they don't get along?" Catherine almost managed to squelch the satisfaction she felt at asking this question. *Of course Alexander and that awful Robin Wood were, I mean are, mortal enemies,* she reasoned. *What I don't understand is that Faith, Faith, of all people seems to be with that…*

"What gives you that idea?" Faith asked, cutting off Catherine's train of thought.

"You said they were beating on each other," Catherine pointed out.

Faith studied her, as if trying to see the truth behind the noncommittal statement. "They don't see eye-to-eye on some things, if that's what you mean. They haven't done any male-bonding bullshit, if that's what you're wondering."

Catherine could feel a jitter coming on underneath Faith's close scrutiny, so she covered with a question that technically was a white lie. "What's male bonding?" she asked as she fought very hard to get images of Alexander and that Wood creature actually socializing out of her head.

Faith shook her head. "Forget it. Their time's almost up anyway." A sly grin crossed her face as she added, "Let's sneak in and make it real quiet. I'm up for some sweaty man-on-man action and I don't want to break the mood."

Catherine nodded, not sure how she felt about the salacious innuendo inherent in Faith's statement. Faith, for her part, had inched the door open and was already creeping down the five steps necessary to get a clear view of the action on the mats without needing to duck below the basement ceiling. Catherine took a deep breath and followed, stopping on the fourth step. Unlike Faith, she needed to crouch her taller frame to get a good view.

What she saw caused her eyes to open in shock.

Alexander was in mid-air, very obviously because his opponent had tossed him.

Catherine immediately relaxed when she saw him manage to land with a grunt and then roll smoothly to his feet.

"Very good," Robin nodded. "At long last you've figured out how to recover from a fall."

Alexander turned to face him with a grin. "I'll have you know I've been doing good on the fall-and-roll thing. By this time next week I'll be able to avoid beating on headstones with my forehead by pretending I'm dead." He stretched with a wince, the smile disappearing from his face. "Which might not so much be pretending and more like me being actually dead. Throw me a little harder next time, will ya?"

Robin immediately crossed his arms. "This is nothing and you know it. Our opponents are bigger and stronger than you are and they don't care if you get an ouchie when they try to kill you."

Alexander shook his head and sighed. "Hello, fighting seven years on a Hellmouth, remember? I got the memo back when I was fifteen."

"Then act it," Robin ordered.

"Hence the nonstop training," was the muttered response.

"You really should reconsider going out on patrol," Robin said as if Alexander hadn't spoken. "The real fighters are the Slayers…"

"…and you," Alexander shot back with irritation. Catherine could see the dark-haired man reign himself in as he added in a much calmer tone. "The fact is, you're also going out on patrols, so what applies to me has got to apply to you, I figure."

"I'm a much, much better fighter than you are. I've been doing this…"

"Since you could barely walk, yeah, I got the memo on that one too, Big Man," Alexander snapped. Catherine could see a slight wince cross his features. "Look, I'm not going to argue about this because, hey, you're right, you are the better fighter…"

Robin looked as surprised as Catherine felt by this admission. *Robin Wood a better fighter? Considering his philosophies, I find it pretty futching hard to believe that bistardo ever got his futching hands dirty,* she thought furiously.

"…hence the fact that I'm training with you, with Buffy, and with Rona," Alexander continued, with a hint of anger. "Plus I'm training with every distance weapon I can get my grubby mitts on--and I'm doing really very well all things considering, thankyousoverymuchforasking--so I won't have to get into hand-to-hand unless I have to. I know you don't want to believe it, but I've actually put some thought into what I need for training and even double-checked with Giles to see what he thinks."

"Have you? You don't strike me as the thinking or planning type."

There was an edge to Robin's statement, an indefinable tone that caused Catherine to bristle. Something told her that this was either a very old argument or a new twist on a currently running one. The fact that Alexander's eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned seemed to be confirmation of the fact that there was something a little more to the give-and-take than the words. Unable to resist, Catherine stole a sideways glance Faith and noticed that the Slayer seemed troubled by the exchange.

The tense moment dissipated as quickly as it sprung up. Alexander closed his eyes with a sigh and shook his head. "Look, I really don't want to get into a pissing match, okay? All in this together, remember?"

"Just so long as you remember that, and lately you don't seem to be remembering that."

"I haven't forgotten, but it seems to me that I'm not the one gunning for top dog in the kennel around here," Alexander commented as he stalked over to a towel.

"Really? All for putting Generalissimo Buffy back in charge?" Robin said as he slowly turned and began moving to join Alexander at the edge of the mats.

Catherine thought Robin was moving very oddly. The taller man was almost gliding as he moved to Alexander's left, as if he was doing his best to stay in the younger man's peripheral vision.

"Hell, no. Especially right now. Buffy's got a lot to work out and even she agrees that taking on any leadership responsibility is a bad idea right now," Alexander replied as he began casually folding the towel. "As for me, just accept that I'm on Team Slay until I figure out something resembling a plan for my future."

Robin stopped three steps away from his sparring partner, fury stamping his features. "How nice that this is so convenient for you," he commented in a hard tone.

Alexander jumped and spun around as if he didn't notice that Robin was standing so close. Surprise gave way to shock as Robin's fist flashed out and hit the younger man square on the temple, sending him sprawling onto the mat. For his part, Alexander managed to maneuver so he could avoid some of the blow's force, although he still landed on his back.

Catherine opened her mouth to say something about the sucker punch, but a hand on her arm stopped her. She glanced over and saw that Faith looked positively livid as she studied the scene below through narrowed eyes.

Alexander continued to blink owlishly up at the ceiling while Robin towered over him. "This is not a game," Robin hissed. "This is deadly serious, more serious now than ever before. And you treating it like it's a hobby spits on the grave of every Slayer that's walked the earth. This is not just some fun extra curricular activity for you to do until you land a real job. This is a vocation, a calling. You either commit to the mission, or you commit to getting gone."

On that pronouncement, Robin spun on his heel, not bothering to check on his felled opponent, and began taking the steps two at a time.

Faith loudly cleared her throat, which brought the departing man to a halt. He glanced up, and on seeing two furious glares, he shortly said, "Here endeth the lesson."

"And what lesson would that be?" Faith replied, voice dripping in sarcasm.

"About the need to commit," Robin said as he brushed by Faith and Catherine on the stairs and retreated into the house above.

Faith looked over the banister. "Yo! Cyclops! You okay down there?"

"Don't call me that." Alexander's voice was steady, although the response lacked heat.

Faith seemed torn a moment before her expression settled into a furious decision. "Look, you go down and check on him. Me 'n Robin need to have a fucking chat." On that, she shot up the stairs into the house, leaving Catherine alone in the basement.

The Watcher Honoria hesitated for what felt like years before creeping down the stairs and walking over to the fallen man. "How are you feeling, really?" she asked.

Alexander didn't move, although he did respond when Catherine leaned over him. "Just peachy, thanks. The bruises will go nicely with that new shirt Willow made me buy. I kept telling her, 'Wills, you're not exactly a fashion plate yourself, so why in hell should I listen to you when you tell me to buy a deep purple button-down shirt?' But she wouldn't listen and next thing you know, I've got a deep purple button-down shirt hanging in my closet. She kept going on and on about how I'm a winter and should go with some nice solid colors. Right. Like Wills even knows what a winter is. Aren't lesbians supposed to have sucky taste in clothes? Don't answer that. I know, I know. It sounds all stereotype-y and wrong. But I guess I should thank her because, really, it's the only thing that'll go with all the multicolored boo-boos all over my body."

"Ahhhhh…" Catherine began.

"You're right. Next time, I make Buffy come with us clothes shopping. At least she knows fashion and how to coordinate outfits with bodily wounds. Because Buffy? Slayer and Jedi Shopper all rolled into one tiny blonde package."

"How about taking Faith?" Catherine squeaked out.

The suggestion was enough to get Alexander to lift his head off the floor and fix Catherine with a disbelieving look. She noticed that his left eye seemed to be furiously tearing, which mystified her. He didn't look like he was crying or even about to cry, but the tears were gathering on his lashes just the same.

His head thunked back onto the mat, as if holding it up was too much effort. "Oh, riiiiiiight. Let's see where Faith would take me. Let me think. Not the mall. No. Too tame. Oh, wait! I get it! Bubba's Biker Emporium for all your tight leather clothing needs. Take advantage of our special: pants that leave nothing to the imagination, buy one, get the second one half off. Because at Bubba's, if you got it, we know you wanna flaunt it. No thanks. I still have nightmares about wearing Speedos in public. The absolute last thing I want to do is wear something where everyone will be pointing and laughing at the package between my legs."

"Biker? Bubba? Speedos?" Catherine's head was spinning.

"Forget it," Alexander said shortly as he got to his feet. "Christ. I hate it when he's right."

"Right about what?"

Alexander looked at her, but something seemed to break down in him and his shoulders slumped slightly as he scrubbed a hand through his hair. "It's not so much that he's right, it's just that he's not wrong, either. He really hasn't been telling me anything I haven't been telling myself since Sunnydale started doing its impression of the Grand Canyon."

"You can't mean that," Catherine said with horror. "All those years you've been fighting and training and…and…consulting with…with…Giles and…"

"Any minute now you're going to hurt yourself. You're new to babbling, I take it?" Alexander asked with a grin. He sobered. "Look, Robin just gave me one hell of an object lesson. He walked right up to me on my blind side and I didn't even see him coming. Now imagine me fighting on patrol and the same thing happening. I'd be dead and maybe so would the people I was with."

Catherine shook her head. "Wait. Back up. Blind side?"

Alexander blinked at her, while his left hand drifted up and self-consciously touched his left cheek. "The eye is fake," he explained, his tone expressing that he wouldn't say anything more.

"It's what?" Catherine swooped in to take a closer look while Alexander took a reflexive step back. That explained the tearing. "I didn't…I mean…I don't remember reading…"

"I'm guessing that history missed the bit about me getting my real left eye poked out?" He seemed strangely amused by this.

"No. At least I don't remember…maybe there were some vague references I missed or something got mistranslated along the way." Catherine rubbed her jaw with a smile. "Fake eye, hunh? Well, once you get used to it, it'll be better than the one you lost."

Alexander blinked and shook his head. "Better? How can a fake eye be better?"

"Are you kidding?" Catherine exclaimed. "Okay, learning all the muscular movement to activate the eye functions can take awhile, but once you do? It's amazing. One of my colleagues had to replace his eye and he got top-of-the-line. Split screen, microscopic settings, direct wireless linkage to scanners and cameras, X-ray, and, of course, zoom. Saved his astra on more than once on a mission."

Alexander looked like he was trying not to laugh. "Umm, my eye doesn't do anything like that."

Catherine stopped cold and considered that statement. No matter what angle she looked at it, that didn't sound good. Her translator chip must be on the blink. She better check. "So no wireless linkage?"


"Split screen?"



"Definitely not."


"I wish, but sadly, no."

"You've got to have zoom. You've got to at least have that. That's even in the most basic replacement eyes."

"To quote the great Dave Lister, if I want to zoom on anything, I move my head closer to the object."

Catherine didn't know who Dave Lister was, but she did understand 'no' when she heard it. "So your eye just gives you regular vision then. Hunh."

"No vision at all."

Catherine stood upright. "What?" she demanded.

"The eye," here Alexander waved at his face, "doesn't see anything at all. It's all for looks and because I got sick of wearing an eye patch."

"You're blind on the left side?" Catherine was horrified. This was simply barbaric! Good god! If technology in this time period was that low, she shuddered to think what would happen if someone broke a bone. They probably were still using gamma-powered bonefusers to heal fractures.

"Completely," Alexander confirmed, "which is why Robin was able to get so close without me seeing him. Like I pointed out, object lesson for one Xander Rabbit."

Catherine could feel her face scrunch in anger. "Hasn't he been teaching you how to compensate?"

"Nope. We've been doing the Xander toss for the past six weeks."

Catherine gave a firm nod. "Right. We're going to fix that right now. You and me. Sparring."

Alexander looked like he was about to beg off, but one look at the Catherine's determined face seemed to drive the idea right out of his head. Instead, a slow, delighted smile spread across his face as he remarked, "I'm all yours, Yoda."

*Yoda?* As Catherine swept onto the mats, she decided she liked the sound of that title.

Chapter 13
Spotlight on Xander

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Alexander Lavelle Harris-rah, known as Harris-rah-sen to the Slayer Faithist and Unitan sects, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*Alexander Lavelle Harris is about as humble and as unassuming as you would expect. He seems confused by the fuss and attention made about him. Even during questioning, he remains elusive and disarming, often deflecting attention off himself.*

*He slouches into the room, as if certain that no one is paying attention. He quickly greets everyone in the immediate vicinity, but stops to talk to anyone that needs to discuss business with him. He doesn't seem to live by the clock, content to let events unfold as they may. The outward relaxed attitude is deceiving. His eyes don't miss much as they sweep the room and a keen, native intelligence lurks behind a face that seems built for smiling. The thoughtful frown as he takes a seat seems out of place.*

*He is dressed for comfort and fighting, loose clothes that could easily hide any number of weapons and there is no doubt that he is armed. Broad shoulders and a sturdy frame are built for battle, even if it lacks the lithe power of a Slayer. Unruly, dark hair falls in his eyes and he often brushes it away. For some reason, his left eye has a tendency to tear, even when there's no discernable reason. He brushes the wetness away with the same irritation that he uses as he tries to tame his dark locks.*

*When he looks at you, you get the impression that he is really looking at you, as if trying to find the thing you don't want anyone to know, to strip away the mask you show to the world. This is the legendary perception on which his reputation is built and it is both disarming and frightening to see it at work.*

UNS: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to…

AH: You saved me from research. I'm thinking I should be thanking you.

UNS: I'm very interested in how you became a Watcher since it's clear you were not part of the original Council.

AH: Watcher? I'm not a…

UNS: [quickly checks Bio on AH stored in MemePad] Oh, unh, sorry…

AH: Where did you get the idea…

UNS: Getting a little ahead of myself.

AH: Just to let you know? Not comforting when someone from the future says something like that.

UNS: So you're still in training?

AH: Look, I'm not…there's no Watcherness here. Not a Watcher bone in my body.

UNS: Why would you say that?

AH: Being a Watcher requires actual reading of books. And writing. Writing bad…

UNS: I don't understand.

AH: Have you ever tried to read my handwriting? I leave a note that I've gone out for milk, and people think I've got a mike. It's really bad. Bad squared.

UNS: Well, there are some passages that can be difficult to decipher in your…oops. I mean, what is your role here in the house?

AH: Ummmm. I fix things.

UNS: And?

AH: Sometimes I put up shelves.

UNS: What else?

AH: I randomly pound nails in the walls? Irritate people? Try not to kill Andrew? I don't understand…

UNS: Ms. Lanoire indicated that you and she collaborate on, ummm, morale-boosting activities.

AH: Andrew does the morale bit. Faith does the Slaying bit. I do the pounding bit.

UNS: Unh. Oh. Yes, she mentioned…so you and Andrew…he was… ummm…"boosting your morale"?

AH: Sounds like someone who doesn't have to live with him.

UNS: So you share a bed.

AH: I think you mean bedroom.

UNS: Oh. Yes. So, he's part of your regular circle, then.

AH: No. I avoid him if I can. Which is really hard since he's the roommate from hell. This one time I'm trying to get some sleep and he's going on and on about who is cooler: Batman or Superman. I was ready to find the duct tape, slap his mouth shut, and hog-tie him to the bed.

UNS: I, uh, see. Does this happen often?

AH: Almost. Every. Single. Fucking. Night.

UNS: {cough cough}

AH: Want me to get you some water?

UNS: No. No. I'm ookee. [rechecks notes] So the two of you don't talk when you interact.

AH: Have you tried talking to Andrew? No? Try it. You'll be looking for the duct tape.

UNS: [quickly] I don't get involved.

AH: It'll all go out the window once you have the Andrew Experience.

UNS: So you're saying his, umm, "morale boosting" activities are more, ahhh, active than yours.

AH: He's everywhere if that's what you mean.

UNS: And you're not jealous?

AH: Hunh? What? Why?

UNS: Of his, ahhh, activities, with, ummm, the others in the house.

AH: [blank look]

UNS: His, unh, amorous activities?

AH: Activi…[deep frown] Are you telling me he's sleeping with one of the new Slayers? She better be over eighteen or I will kick his ass.

UNS: Yes, Faith mentioned that there was an over-18 rule in the house.

AH: What over-18 rule?

UNS: For your, ummm, morale boosting activities. Which you and she are involved in, but where Andrew is apparently not following the rules.

AH: Moral boos…

UNS: She mentioned that you and she are very busy providing all the necessary, ummm, stress release for the adults in your group. But I got the sense that it could be quite trying when everyone wants to…I mean, when it's everyone in the water…ummm…help me out here…

AH: I'll kill her.

UNS: Don't worry. I won't tell Robin since he doesn't want to be involved with…umm…the situation.

AH: She is dead. Faith burgers.

UNS: I understand that it's an open secret and that you're…

AH: [waving hands] Don't tell me. I don't want to know.

UNS: But she had high praise for your, ummm, performance and your willingness to, hunh, go through any lengths to…

AH: [stands up] Excuse me. I have to commit cold-blooded murder.

UNS: But…

AH: [shouting as he strides out of room] FAITH!

UNS: But what about the bank robbery plan?

Chapter 14
And Now For Something Serious…

Faith stormed into the living room and ran right smack dab into the middle of what looked like a giggly Girl Scout meeting, minus the cookies and the green uniforms. Her entrance must've set off a mental red alert because all talking ceased as every girl fixed her with a wary look.

"Robin," she snapped.

Ruda hopped to her feet as the others exchanged knowing looks. "What would you like us to do?" the Slayer from the future volunteered.

"I want to know where he went." Faith fought to keep her temper in check.

"Probably where he always goes after sparring," Rona shrugged.

"Which is?" *Jesus, how dense are these girls?* Faith thought.

"The shower?" Vi ventured.

Faith gave a curt nod. "Right." As she made her way up the stairs she heard one of the girls giggle, "Someone's in deep shit now."

The furious Slayer made it to the second floor bathroom and quickly ascertained that her target hadn't even made it yet. She stomped to the bedroom she shared with Robin and flung open the door just in time to see him wrap a bathrobe around him.

He jumped and spun around, the robe falling open. Under normal circumstances, Faith would've been giving Robin an appreciative snarl, however, she was seeing so much red that the fact that Robin was letting it all hang out didn't even register.

On seeing Faith standing in the doorway, he clutched his heart and sagged. "Don't do that. You nearly gave me a heart attack."

"What the hell did I see down there?" Faith demanded.

"Faith, for heaven's sake, I'm naked under the robe." Robin said as he gathered the terrycloth around him.

"What? Like I haven't seen it all before now?"

"The door, Faith. You may have seen it all, but not everyone has."

Faith stepped into the room and tried not to slam the door shut. "I'm asking you one more time: What the hell was I seeing down there?"

"A teaching moment."

"You mean a goddamn sucker punch. What's next? Beat downs for all? Or is it only for the special few who get mouthy with you?"

Robin sighed and closed his eyes. "I lost my temper," he admitted.

"Lost your temper." Faith could feel her jaw tighten. "Do you always hit people when you get mad at them? I'd like to know because, for the record, you hit me like that? You are going down."

"I'm not proud of what just happened." Robin clenched his jaw as if just saying it physically hurt. "But to hear Xander just dismiss…"

"Xander didn't dismiss shit. You were just waiting to lay down a 'teaching moment.'"

"Did you even listen to him, Faith? He basically said that he's only sticking around until something better comes along."

Faith threw up her hands. "That was Xander just talking shit, just like he always talks shit. He doesn't mean a fucking word of it, no matter how much he wants to believe he does. Jesus. If he was gonna take a hike, he sure as hell wouldn't be training his ass off and doing all the heavy lifting he's doing around here. Scratch that: If Xander were even capable of walking away, he would've taken a powder looooong before you met him."

Robin face collapsed into a thoughtful frown. "Why are you defending him?"

"I'm not defending him," Faith said. "What I'm pissed about is I just saw me a Grade-A case of schoolyard bullying. And don't give me that bullshit that his smartass mouth pissed you the hell off. I saw you hiding on his blindside and sneaking up on him when his guard was down. You were looking to throw that punch. Now, maybe in your world he was asking for it, but that response? Who the fuck do you think you are? Judge Judy?"

Robin's expression hardened. "The fact is, Xander is blind to his left and he cannot let his guard down for one moment if he wants to continue patrolling and fighting."

"Which is where you are supposed to fit in. You are supposed to help bring his fighting skills up to your damn standards, which means you fucking teach him how to compensate, not demonstrate the fact you can play hide-and-smackdown," Faith snarled. "Jesus. I had a grand total of less than one year between two Watchers and even I know that."

"What is this all about? Really?"

Faith took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. The fact is she really did want to give her-and-Robin a try, but what she just witnessed in the basement put a capper on a lot of things that had been bothering her about the Robin half of the equation in the past few weeks. "Look, I understand that you feel that we need a strong leader-type to kick the new Slayer party off the ground. I get it. I do. But you're beginning to slip into Bitchy Buffy mode and that's not too cool."

"Excuse me?" Robin asked with a raised eyebrow.

"C'mon. This is me here. Not only have I seen you naked and know you always announce when you're going to cum, I've also listened to you bitch about everyone in this house."

"I do not bitch…"

"What have you said? Wait, wait, let me see," Faith said as she dreamily tapped a forefinger against her chin. "Buffy's shirking her duties because she wants to kick back and take it a little easy; Giles doesn't know how to reign in all his little Scoobies and keep them focused; Kennedy needs to be reminded that just because she's screwing Willow doesn't mean she's better than anyone else; Willow needs to get a goddamn job; Andrew needs to wake up and smell the reality; Dawn's turned into a typical high school airhead; and Xander? Well the list of his problems is longer than my goddamn arm."

"I don't put it like that."

"And I'm not sayin' that some of what you're saying ain't legit, because it is, but the 'tude of 'my way or the highway'? Is not winning you any friends around here."

"This is not about making nice, this is about the mission…"

"And what mission would that be? Pissing on people if they don't toe the line? Because, I gotta tell ya, when Buffy went Heil Fuhrer like that and pushed everyone to the breaking point, she got her ass tossed out of her own goddamn house."

"Even though it turned out she was right all along," Robin quietly countered.

That stopped Faith and she felt the anger drain from her body. "Don't tell me you're feeling guilty about…"

"A little. Maybe," Robin admitted. "Maybe if we listened to her, we would've moved sooner and Anya and some of the Potentials would still be alive."

"And Spike."

"Fuck Spike. He was a murdering prick and I'm sure he's enjoying his stay in hell," Robin snarled.

Faith felt like she'd been slapped. "I'm a murder, too. Should I be feeling the flames?"

"What? No. Of course not," Robin said as he moved to embrace Faith. He tried not to act hurt when she shook him off. "What you did was a very different thing than Spike's orgies of…"

"What you mean is that I didn't kill your mother so we're cool," Faith said.

"That's not…"

"Except the people I killed had families and friends, right? So maybe they should get in a few licks to teach me a lesson."

"You're human. And Spike was a vampire. Two different things."

"Personally, I'm with you on Spike being a prick, but he did right in the end and there's no getting around that. Besides, what you did back in the Dale wasn't exactly on the up-and-up either." Faith tossed up her hands when it looked like Robin was about to argue the point. "I'm not getting into it right now. The thing is, you've got to lay off the power tripping. Lately, it just seems like no one can do anything right. You act like you're the only one who really understands just how fucking long the odds are for those new Slayers wailing in the dark. Never mind that almost everyone in this house has just lost every-fucking-thing they ever had, including people they cared about. We've all hit the ground running when we finally landed in Cleveland and we've been running without a damn break. We are all tired. Every one of us."

Robin flinched. "Have you been talking to Xander?"

"About what? Your shitty attitude? Nope. Xander doesn't do the gossip deal. This conversation is strictly between you and me."

"My shitty attitude," he deadpanned.

"Look, I get that we've got a lot of work to do. Hell, everyone in the damn house gets that we have a lot of work to do. But lay off the 'Everyone-Sucks-But-Me' act. It was old when B pulled that shit back in Sunnydale and it's not getting any better just because it's spouting out of your mouth."

"So, you think I should just kick back and let events take their course?" Robin sounded defeated. "Do you know how many Slayers may wind up dead for every day we delay? The clock is ticking on their lives, Faith. If we don't find them, if we don't at least tell them we're here to teach them, the consequences will be catastrophic and it's all on our heads. You've got to see that."

"We're talking in circles and this is getting nowhere. I keep telling you that we all see it and it's like you're not even hearing me." Faith shook her head. "Look, all I'm asking you is to make some allowances, you know, give the people around here a chance to do what they do without you constantly reminding them how fucking dire the situation is."

"Yeah, well, if Xander's flippant attitude about what we do is any indication of the popular opinion in this house, maybe you all need someone to remind you of that," Robin said as he snatched at his towels.

*Whoa. Flippant attitude? Maybe I misread the situation. This could be a something that's been going on for awhile and Robin could've just been pushed too far,* Faith thought. Then again, Xander may be big on the flip comments, but judging by the conversation she had with Xander yesterday, he was definitely taking a good, long, hard look at where he stood post-Sunnydale and, if anything, probably agreed with Robin that he wasn't up to snuff.

"That's just Xander's way of dealing," Faith heard herself saying. "Just ignore what comes out of his mouth, take a look at what he's doing or trying to do, and you might change your mind. Besides, alienating Xander isn't the smartest thing you've ever done."

"Because he's got Buffy's ear?"

"No, because he's been with Buffy, Giles, and Willow a hell of a lot longer than you have. Plus, Kennedy digs his shit because he saved her ass from Caleb, Andrew's got a serious man-crush on him, and I've noticed he's one of the few people around here actually talking to the new Slayers instead of at them, so, in short, he's likeable. You? Right now? Not so much."

"You're afraid he's going to paint me as the Big Bad Wolf in some popularity contest?"

"Xander won't paint you as any fucking thing, but if the others see you treating him like he's an idiot? That is not going to go over well." A thought struck Faith. She debated half a heartbeat before adding, "Plus, we got a houseful of people who claim to be from the future who practically worship him, so I'd say doing what you did in front Catherine of all people makes you look like the bad guy twice over. Be glad Ruda didn't see it."

"I'm supposed to let that affect…"

"Just apologize to him, already. Be the big man in the house, explain that you think he's being ass, that you lost your temper, and that you're sorry for letting the fist do the talking. Do it for the team, right? Because if the team ain't good, the mission's gonna fail."

Robin let out a huff of breath. "Okay, fine. When we get through this whole mess with our mysterious visitors…fine…I'll apologize."

"Make sure you do. Because if you two start going at it, someone is going to wind up with a knife in the gut."

Robin stepped back in shock. "Are you threatening me?"

Faith, for her part, was stunned. She had no idea where that remark came from. "N-n-no. Just that…high pressure, lots of tension…I don't want to see either one of you turning on the other. That's all."

Anger was now creeping into Robin's features. "I don't think it'll get that bad. I can't believe you think so little of me."

Faith felt utterly numb. "I don't…look…said my peace so…" Her voice trailed off as she robotically turned, left the room the room and Robin without a word, drifted down the hallway, and out of the house. Once she made it to the backyard, she allowed her knees to give out, and she sagged against the brick façade as a hand clutched the scar on her stomach.

Chapter 15
Spotlight on Willow

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Willow ca-Rosenberg, revered by the Prima for her pioneering role in bringing True Magic and Slayers out of the Taran shadows, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*The most shocking thing about Willow ca-Rosenberg is that she doesn't look like the Prima or her portraits. Her hair is a burnished red that gleams in the sun, as opposed to the snow white sported by her spiritual descendants. Her skin has a milky white luster and her green eyes shine with friendly welcome.*

*Much of her story is shrouded in mystery and jealously guarded by the Prima. She bears no ?rah or ?sen after her name, as Prima positively forbid it, but she is held in reverence by all who came after her.*

*But in the here-and-now, ca-Rosenberg is as far away from her historical portrait as one can get. There's no reserve, no smooth grace, no cool superiority, no quiet knowledge dancing behind her eyes that one would expect in personage cited as a founding influence of the Prima order. Instead, what you see is a beautiful young woman, full of life and hope, who is by turns funny and sweet, caring and warm, graceful in her clumsiness, and so very, very involved with the rush and hum of everyday life.*

*Of all the people in this intrepid band, the difference between reality and legend is no more pronounced than in the person of this one young woman. Perhaps the Prima and other admirers might be disappointed in the portrait presented here. Perhaps ca-Rosenberg would be no less disappointed to discover that the future has stripped her of her humanity, leaving her as nothing more than a mysterious whisper on the wind.*

*It's long been speculated about the exact nature of the life-long relationship between Harris-rah and ca-Rosenberg. The Prima have steadfastly refused to release her journals and the Council Honoria and Council Educationary archives contain competing explanations. Some say they were brother and sister, or at least close blood relatives. Others have said they were lovers. The issue has never been clarified to anyone's satisfaction.*

*But the truth is somewhat more pedestrian than that, which makes it all the more extraordinary. So, in an exclusive UNS interview, ca-Rosenberg herself solves the mystery without knowing that there's a mystery to solve.*

UNS: So I understand that relationships among your people are complicated.

WR: Oh, boy. You got that right.

UNS: Care to explain?

WR: Well, take Buffy, for example. First there was the whole Buffy-Angel thing, but then she wound up going for a Buffy-Owen thing. Then there was Buffy-Angel again, Buffy-Scott, then back to Buffy-Angel for a third time, then Buffy-Poopyhead Parker, followed by Buffy-Riley, and then Buffy-Spike, which I totally didn't get.

UNS: Sounds like she's been busy.

WR: You're not kidding. Right now, the only guys around are Robin, Giles, and Xander. If I were them, I'd totally be afraid. [pauses] But that's not a criticism. It's not. Against Buffy, I mean. She has every right to go with anyone she wants, so I…just forget I said anything.

UNS: But couldn't she "be with" Robin, Rupert, and Alexander?

WR: Unh, well, actually…I guess. Except Robin. I think he's off-limits. I'm not sure the way things are going these days. You'll have to ask Faith about that.

UNS: Faith was very complimentary about everyone's open relationships.

WR: She was?

UNS: Yes. She said herself that everyone shared-and-shared alike.

WR: Makes us sound like a commune. Not that we don't share. No. We do share. But, you know, there are, like, limits. Me and Kennedy, that's who I'm living with right now, have a really small room. Really small. Not too sure if I'd want to share that with a third person on a regular basis. [pause] Although Xander did sleep with us this one night because Andrew had pushed him to the breaking point over the Superman-Batman debate.

UNS: So you and Alexander share a close relationship.

WR: We grew up together. We're like brother and sister, you know? We've known each other since we were toddlers, so, like…well. [sighs] I gotta be honest. We haven't always been close. Sometimes you drift apart for really stupid reasons, like, over relationships and personal issues and magic addition and the threat of immanent death and getting devoured from beneath. But, you know, we're working on rebuilding our friendship. It's taken a lot hits, not the least of which was when I tried to kill him. But, hey! Thank god for yellow crayons and Xander's memory, right? But, we're making the effort to hang out and talk. We're not back to what we were but…not that I want us to go back to what we were. More like I want build on…well, I don't mean that either. I just want is for us to be able to be really close like we once were, but without the illicit smoochies because that way lies the way of stomach-churning guilt and metal rods through the stomach and no touching rules and broken Pez witches.

UNS: I'm really confused, what did you just…

WR: Oh god. I'm babbling. I don't mean to babble. It's just that when you're writing down every word I say I get nervous and I don't know when…

UNS: Let's backtrack. You and Alexander were involved in [checks notes] something called "illicit smoochies."

WR: I wasn't the first! Xander and illicit smoochies just go together. I mean, he spent more time in dark closets with Cordelia's breasts than most people spend watching TV in a lifetime.

UNS: Ah. I. Umm.

WR: Now if you want someone with a really strange love life, you gotta look at Xander's record. Crush on Buffy. Bug lady flirtations. Smoochies with Inca Mummy Girl. Cordelia's breasts, like I said. Illicit smoochies with me, like I admitted. Sex with Faith. Then non-stop sex with Anya, which she told everyone about all the time. I really didn't want to know about spanking fun, let me tell you. Oh, and he went out on a date with this one woman who turned out to be a demon looking for a blood sacrifice. That one was so bad that he asked me to turn him gay.

UNS: Did you?

WR: Unh. No. He was kidding, I think. Wait! I forget. He once had a love spell cast and it went all haywire and every woman in town fell in love with him. When they all couldn't have him, they tried to kill him. I went after him with an axe, but the thing that really wigged him out was when Buffy's mom hit on him. Although I remember hearing something about Buffy being dressed in nothing but a raincoat and a smile before Amy turned her into a rat.

UNS: [tapping MemePad] I hope you're getting all this.

WR: But don't you want to know about the big battle with the First? And activating the Potentials?

UNS: Yes! Yes! Good idea! The less I hear about…it's just that the less I hear about the complicated interpersonal relationships, the better off…I'm not sure my readers…I mean…I really don't know how to adequately describe the activities in the house.

WR: [confused] It's not that complicated. We research. We train. Some of us go outside to work. Some of us work around the house. Some of us go to school. We come back. Dinner is served. We patrol. We come home. We sleep.

UNS: You make this [waves around room] sound very routine.

WR: Yeah, we're finding our rhythm. But we still get some surprises, like we find a new Slayer or some bigger-than-average threat comes up, but summer just ended so, things are probably going to change for the not-so-routine.

UNS: Why do you say that?

WR: My theory is that Evil goes on Summer vacation. Thank god. I don't think I could handle battling Evil during an ozone alert. And have you felt the humidity around here? I think people born in Cleveland have gills. It's the only way you can breathe.

UNS: Have you seen the gills?

WR: [mischievous grin] Nope. I'm waiting for Faith to bring one of the natives home and get them naked. I'd say Xander, except with his luck she really will have gills and try to eat his head.

UNS: So you're open to bringing new people into the, ummm, picture?

WR: [confused] Not too many people would accept the life we lead. Can't blame them, though.

UNS: So, you do agree that standing on the thin line between good and evil does affect your overall morality when interacting with others?

WR: [winces] Yeah. Sometimes. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in the big things that the little things trip you up. Or sometimes you get so focused on yourself and what you're going through that other people cease to count. It's a constant battle, but you have to work at it. It's not easy, but at least I know it's there so I can do better and be a better friend, a better person, and a better all-around Willow.

UNS: Very wise words. Very wise.

WR: So, do you want to hear about Sunnydale or not?

UNS: Oh, yes. Please, please do…

Chapter 16
Beginning of a Beginning

Faith could still feel the shakes in her knees when she returned to the kitchen, driven inside by the fact that she'd wasted two hours leaning against the brick wall trying not to think. She screwed up. She massively, massively screwed up.

Worse, she may have just screwed everyone. All because she was trying to head off a confrontation she could see coming like a freight train.

*Fuck it. Let Xander and Robin beat each other to death. I wash my hands. I tried.*

The stomach scar blessed her with twinge, just to remind her what her gut thought of that idea.

She stumbled into the kitchen on shaky feet and nearly ran over Rona. "Don't you have bow training with Xander?" she snapped.

Rona quickly backed up, hands raised. "I didn't bail. Xander did."

Faith rubbed her face with her hands. Great. Xander was probably tucked in some corner of the house pouting, moping, or doing some such childish shit because Wood smacked him one.

"Catherine's down in the basement with him teaching him some moves," Rona said, not noticing that Faith had dropped her hands and that her face was scrunched with surprise. "He looked like he was having such a good time that I didn't wanna pull him away. So I told him I wasn't feeling so hot."

"Xander is…"

"Training with the Great Catherine."

Faith cleared her throat. "Unh, Rona? I'm not trying to…it's just that…" She shook her head and tried again. "You're always bitching about how much training you do, so I'm thinking you'd be psyched about the break. So why the hell are you acting like you've been ditched?"

"Am not," Rona sullenly replied.

"Yeah, because when I get a few hours' free time to do what the hell I want, I spend it moping in the kitchen," Faith dropped into a chair, eyes not leaving Rona's face. "Spill it."

"It's nothing."

Well it damn well was something. "You're crushin' on cyclops, aren'tchya?" When Rona looked at her like she had three heads, Faith tried again, "Or maybe something's bothering you? Look, there are other people around here you can talk to if there's a problem. Last I checked, no one died and made Xander house mother of the year."

"I don't see you volunteering."

Great. Somehow, don't ask her how, but someone had voted Faith onto the island of people who pretended the holiday kids' table didn't exist. Maybe she wasn't so hot on giving the advice, but she did have a perfectly good set of ears. "This is me volunteering."

"You won't tell Robin?" Rona sounded impossibly young as she asked the question.

And bingo, the something was big enough that Rona was willing to spill to her despite her relationship with Robin. *Jesus, I wonder how much I'm not hearing because I've become 'the girlfriend,'* Faith wondered. "Nope. You and me only."

Rona sat delicately in a kitchen chair.

"I don't understand why you think Xander's the only one you can…" Faith began.

"He calls me Rona Lisa."

"Okay, so what does that…"

"The only other person who ever called me that is my brother." Rona looked down at her tapping fingers. "My brother's even the same age, you know? They're actually kinda a lot alike."

"Xander reminds you of your brother." And really, she was trying not to laugh because she was pretty damn sure that there wasn't a single person in all of Cleveland who'd ever assume lily white Xander and Nubian princess Rona were at all related.

"They're both funny and the both know how to cheer me up," tap-tap- tap-tap-tap with the fingers, "and they're both soldiers. Well, Xander's not one officially but he is a soldier even if he isn't wearing an Army uniform."

"Your brother's in the Army." Faith's stomach dropped. Without asking she could see where this was going. She wasn't big on the news, but, hell, you'd have to be pretty self-involved to not notice the newspaper headlines.

"He finally got official word on when he gets rotated to the fighting," Rona quietly said. "I found out this morning."

"Xander knows that this has been hanging over his head?"

"I've been kinda dumping on him, yeah," Rona admitted.

"While you guys train with the bow and arrows."


"Does he know about…"

"I was waiting to talk to him about it." Rona's mouth ticked and Faith could see it in her eyes, *I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry…*

"Look, I won't tell anyone, 'kay?" Faith promised. "I'm pretty sure if you grab Xander after he's done in the basement, he'll make the time to listen."

"I know, but I've been really crying on his shoulder and he's probably dealing with his own problems. But seeing him training with Catherine…he looked happier than I've ever seen him, you know? Maybe I shouldn't bring him down just because my life really sucks."

Faith shook her head. Rona needed someone in her corner and it seemed that all the emotional support functions had been abdicated to one person. And if she thought about it, Rona probably wasn't the only one running to Xander with all sorts of boo-boos. "Look, maybe you need to…I dunno, maybe you shouldn't be keeping this under your hat. Talk to Giles and tell him you need to get away to see your brother off."

Rona gave her a disbelieving look.

*Are things this bad? Are things so bad that…* Faith killed off the thought. She really and truly was out of touch, although she wasn't sure how much of it was because she was wrapped up in playing house with Robin and how much of it was because the other Slayers had stopped seeing her as one of the girls.

Faith got to her feet, her mind made up. "Look, I gotta interrupt Xander anyway with something, so I'm pretty sure you two can still make it to the range before sunset. Tell him you're feeling better when he gets his ass up here. I've got a feeling he'll know you need to talk."

"I don't want to…"

"I think he needs to help and knowing him, he'll run interference so you can clear out for as long as you need," Faith said. Without quite knowing why, she reached out and grasped Rona's restless hands in her own and softly added, "It'll be okay, me and Xander'll see to it."

Rona's face fought to maintain control. "Thanks."

A final tight nod and Faith propelled herself out of the kitchen and headed through the house, paying no mind to never-ending mill of people, cursing herself the entire way.

She hadn't been paying attention.

That was going to change.

No more stars-in-the-eyes for this girlfriend.

It was well past time for her to start sniffing for the bullshit because if Rona was anything close to a representative sample they were up to their eyeballs in trouble and no one at the top had a clue. This little venture was going down in flames if everyone started hiding out from everyone else.

*But ya gotta wonder: Why are all the little girls running to Xander, hunh? Think he's filling their heads with something? Before I step my foot in, I better suss the real deal, see if maybe a one-eyed someone is talking out-of-school.*

She eased open the door to the basement training room, stole down the stairs on cat feet, and made herself invisible in a corner at the base of the stairs.

"That was so cool!"

Not that she really had to try all that hard, given that certain parties were severely distracted.

"Show me how you did that." Xander was bouncing on the balls of his feet like some little kid who saw just what he wanted for Christmas, a sharp contrast to the livid bruise on his left cheekbone.

Faith knew how much that had to hurt, especially because a human hand gave it to him.

Catherine swiped her escaping hair out of her eyes. "Are you sure? I kicked you very hard."

"Awwww, I've been hit lots harder." And now he was sounding like an over-stimulated little kid.

"Okay, okay. But you have to stand still. You're futching worse than Ruda!" Catherine laughed. As Xander complied, even to the point forcing his face into a stiff, serious look, Catherine took the measure of him. "Okay, remember what we said about your center of gravity."

There was some shuffling, and Xander was in full-fighting stance. Faith could feel her head nodding in silent approval as she quickly cataloged how he shifted his weight, balanced on his feet, positioned his shoulders, and kept his limbs loose.

"Good, good," Catherine nodded to herself as she made the circle around him. "We need to work on this stance becoming second nature, but this will do. Now, remember what I said about waiting for an opening. Don't come charging in just because I'm coming at you swinging. And don't just go charging in because something big and ugly is bearing down on an ally. You've got to pick your shot and sometimes one shot is all you've got."

"Right." A grim tone. Xander was listening and concentrating

*Damn, she's good. Can we keep her?* Because near as she could tell, Catherine just worked a fucking miracle on a Cleveland Street. If she could do this with Xander in two hours, imagine what she could pull off with every single Slayer in the house within the freakin' week.

With no warning Catherine lunged an attack right from Xander's blindside. He must've been expecting it because he managed to avoid contact by dropping and rolling to his feet. The move left him enough breathing room to maneuver himself so Catherine was very firmly in his line of vision.

Approval, disapproval, nothing penetrated Catherine's face as she tried a new charge, sweeping out a leg in a kick.

Once again, Xander dropped into passive mode, crouching low. At the last possible minute, his own leg shot out and connected firmly with the back of Catherine's left knee.

The woman went down with a yell as Xander spun up into a standing position facing her. "I did it! Yes! Score one for the X-Man!" he whooped.

"Yeah, great for you," Catherine gritted between her teeth, holding her left knee in a hug to her chest.

"Oh, man!" Xander's eyes widened with horror. "I'm really, really sorry."

"No you're not," Catherine whimpered.

"Hey, look. Let me help you up."

Faith just knew where this was going and she leaned back against the wall with her arms crossed, impish grin lighting up her face. Catherine, in her humble opinion, was seriously rocking the house. When she saw Xander reach down to help the felled woman, Faith called out just for the hell of it: "Watch out!"

Xander's head whipped around to find the source of the warning just as Catherine's 'injured' leg shot out, catching him square in the chest. He landed on his ass with a whump and whoof of breath.

Catherine flipped to her feet, in full on grin mode. "I love pulling that horsha on my students."

"Way to make a guy not trust you," Xander complained good- naturedly. "Okay, I had that coming. Object lesson: never trust a felled opponent. Go for the kill. I shoulda just cut off your head and then started running like hell because Ruda would've torn me into little itty bitty bits."

"Very good," Catherine nodded. She winked at Faith and added, "And don't think for one moment I'm helping you to your feet. You learn much too fast."

Faith raised her eyebrows in surprise at the compliment. Catherine had obviously forgotten that she just knocked a frigging legend in her own time on his ass.

It probably helped that said legend was acting less like a legend and more like a guy who was thrilled to pieces that he got knocked on his ass.

Xander clambered to his feet, grinning like a loon. Which matched the really loony look on…

The brakes screeched in her brain as she looked from the familiar face to the not-so-familiar one.

"Faith? What is it?" The smile on Xander's face disappeared and he was all intense concentration.

It wasn't so much that Catherine looked like the man standing next to her. She was shorter and slighter, her face more heart-shaped, eyes sleeper, and the hair not quite as dark and wilder with its insistent escape attempts from the elastic tying it back. But there was something about the way the smile lit up her face and the way it disappeared when something not-quite-okay was in the vicinity.

And it was the stubborn ghost of that smile that remained even when the face wasn't smiling at all.

*This is stupid. A lot of people have the kind of smile that pulls in the eyes.* Faith shook her head. But the odd notion worryingly stayed put.

Matched perfectly with those odd looks their invaders got when Catherine only gave them with one name.

She could stop thinking like this any time now, because this was insane.

Still, there was that sniffing the bullshit promise, and right now Catherine was looking like she was covered in it.

"Faith?" Xander's insistent voice broke through. "You're in thousand- mile stare mode."

"Is everything all right?" Catherine inquired.

"I need to work some energy off." And could she sound any more hesitant?

"Oh, I am sorry," Catherine apologized. "Charlie's probably finished consulting with Rupert. I should sit down and knock heads with my people so we're all plugged together when we discuss our situation later."

"I think you mean your people need to put their heads together," Xander grinned. "And I think you mean 'on the same page' instead of plugged together."

"Put our heads together?" Catherine looked confused. "How do you do that? And, what do pages have anything to do with…"

"I'll just assume that you've got it right and I'm an idiot," Xander interrupted with raised hands and wide eyes. "Has anyone told you that your colorful language is a barrel of confused monkeys?"

"Monkeys?" She shook her head. "I'm stopping right now, otherwise I'll be here all day and I'll have to listen to Charlie scold me for playing when I should be working." She nodded at the Slayer, fighting a smile, "Faith." And then she disappeared up the stairs.

"Very weird woman," Xander said approvingly.

"Takes one to know one," Faith muttered.

"Wow. That is perhaps the nicest thing you've ever said about me," he chuckled as he checked his watch. The good mood evaporated. "Oh shit. Rona." He scurried around the room, straightening used equipment, snatching up towels, and collecting discarded water bottles, all the while muttering under his breath. Faith heard "stupid" repeated a few times, along with "selfish" and "bastard."

"Catherine must've been quite the inspiration." Step carefully. Feel the real deal out.

"Faith, I don't have time…"

"You've been tossed around like a chew toy all morning and now you're all hot to have Rona kick your ass at archery. Talk about commitment to the mission."

Xander froze and he turned to face her, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"Talked to Rona, by the way." Keep it casual. Make him wonder what Rona said. "She's all kinds of upset."

Xander closed his eyes and shook his head. "Aw, hell. No. Poor…" He swallowed the rest of his words.

Well, she wasn't going to get more out of him unless she let out a little rope. "Said she got a message about her brother." Significant pause. "Didn't know she had a brother, let alone one in uniform."

Xander's face sagged with relief. "Thank god. She finally told someone else. This has been killing me keeping this secret, but I promised and that's that. I kept telling her that she should talk to Robin, or hell, if she didn't feel comfortable with that, to at least talk to Giles, because…"

"I think right now Rona needs to first talk it out with the guy who's got the straight dope." Faith relaxed. Whatever the source of the problem, Xander turning rotten snake-in-the-grass wasn't it. "Look, given this morning, charging up there like you can fix everything may not be the best move."

Xander winced. "Yeah. I'm sure my diplomacy skills are really impressing the hell out of everyone. Sometimes my temper…" he shook his head. "Forget it."

There was no way she could phrase this question without making it sound like she was putting him down, but she needed to know if Rona was the only one worried about talking to people not named Xander. "Color me all curious, but why are you such the hot commodity?"

"Look, I really have to…"

"Spare me a few tics."

Xander's shoulders slumped. "Probably because I'm not a threat. I'm just the guy who fixes things, fires a mean arrow, and watches backs on patrol."

"So, why am I getting frozen out?"

"You're sleeping with the guy in charge."

Faith kicked at the basement floor. "Pretty much what I thought."

"Plus, you haven't really been 'one of the girls' since we voted you Queen for a Day back in the 'hood, right?" Faith looked up at that question and saw the intense concentration was back. He added, "Why does it bug you so much? I mean, Jesus, I figured you'd be happy that you weren't getting pulled into some of the drama."

"Rona's drama is pretty huge."

"Rona's is, but not everyone's," Xander shrugged. "Well, it's a big deal to them. Throw in the fact that they got a load of Slayer mission statements dumped in their laps and that it's beginning to dawn on them what being a Slayer actually means? Eggshell time to be had by all."

Faith crossed her arms and leaned back against the wall in thought. "You're seriously telling me that you're the only one who understands that? Even more than me or B? I'm not buying."

"Faith, think about this. Not one of the newbies really know any of us," Xander pointed out. "When the Sunnydale Potential brigade showed up, we were in full-blown crisis mode and none of us were exactly on our best behavior. Look at it this way: Giles is the mysterious guy who helped drag them into this mess in the first place, Buffy is the bitch who didn't care whether they lived or died while fighting in Sunnydale, Willow only has time for magic and her girlfriend, Robin stabbed people in the back because he wanted to off Spike for whatever reason, and Dawn's the hanger-on little sis who's not even a Potential."

"And you're just the veritable saint," Faith sarcastically replied.

"The worst you can say about me is that I kissed Buffy's ass, managed to convince a bunch of them that walking into a Caleb's lair without a plan was a good idea, and served as overall useless sidekick whose main contribution to the big fight was fixing the picture window on a regular basis. Oh, and getting stabbed in the gut by a demon woman. We can't forget that all-important contribution."

Harsh words with just enough truth. If anything, Robin and Xander were so on the same page it was crazy. "You don't actually believe any of this crap, do you?"

Xander rocked a hand. "Yes and no, I guess. I'm just trying to look at it from their point of view. Bugs me as much as it bugs you that I got elected the go-to guy when I was out of the room. Hence me actually trying to figure out 'why me' and that's what I've come up with. Trust me, none of this is giving me the big happy."

"This has got to stop."

"Oh, yeah," Xander emphatically agreed. "I mean, sure, some of it is just drama, but some of the problems are real problems and it's going to get real ugly if I don't get at least some of the girls to at least start talking to someone other than me or each other." Xander scowled. "Probably why I've been snapping at Robin so much lately. It's getting to me in a bad way and I feel like I can't do anything about it."

"Cause you're the guy who fixes things. Windows, people…" Faith chuckled. "Tell me how you're gonna fix the problem you've got waiting for you upstairs."

Xander looked at the basement ceiling. "I don't suppose you could talk to…"

"Can't. Promised I wouldn't spill."

"Great," Xander muttered. "Way to put it back in my court there, Faith. You're the woman with an in."

"Right now Robin and me in the same room is gonna spark a fight, so I don't think I can do shit."

"Oh, crap. Faith? What the hell did you say? Because your timing sucks." He scrubbed his face with the fistful of towels. "Damn. Forget it. I'll fix it. I'll go and apologize to Robin for being a smartass before I head out with Rona. Get the scoop from her, and then…"

Her hands clenched into fists. "No."

Xander looked at her. "No?"

*Why the hell is this pissing me off? I want to stop a big blow up and this is the best way to…* "Grow a fucking spine. Let him apologize. Last I checked you were the one that got bruised just for talking shit."

She watched his body language change from casual to defensive as the expression on his face shut down.

"Wouldn't be the first time."

She wished she could say the comment came as a surprise.

Without another word, he swept by her and walked up the stairs. As she watched his retreating back, she noticed his body language begin to transform halfway up the steps.

Amazing how he could go from coiled spring to bumbling cheerful in nearly a blink of an eye.

When he reached the top, she winced against his easy, upbeat tone. "Hey! Rona Lisa! Think you're getting off easy, hunh? I need me an ego boost. You, me, bows-n-arrows. Get 'em locked and loaded in five. I'm wiping the floor with you, baby!"

Chapter 17
Computers, and Witches, and Time…Oh My!

Catherine bounded up the stairs two-at-a-time humming the most obscenely cheerful tune she could think of. And was it her imagination, or was the sun really bright on Tara? She could practically feel her skin tan every time she walked by a window.

As she passed one of the bedrooms, she could hear Ruda jabbering excitedly. She poked her head in and realized that the jabbering involved a certain amount of swooning and drooling over a likeness portraying something that was almost too pretty to be male or human.

Since swooning and drooling was definitely conversation of the safe variety, Catherine backed slowly away and continued her path to the bedroom set aside for her team's private conferences. A Slayer, Catherine couldn't recall the name, was trying to make it look like that sitting in a heavily trafficked hallway reading a book was the most natural thing for her to do.

The fact that she was sprawled uncomfortably near the reserved room was only the merest of mere coincidences, Catherine supposed.

The girl looked up at the Watcher Honoria's approach and rolled her eyes. "The guy with the white hair, Geennall, right? Well, he's already in there. Your doctor is still with Giles."

Awww, the girl wasn't even trying. "You're absolutely no fun, you know that?" Catherine asked.

"My ass is sore, my eyes are tired, and I've been stepped on all afternoon," the girl snorted. "And it's Andrea, by the way."


"My name. Is Andrea. In case you care about us nobodies."

"If you've got a name, that makes you somebody," Catherine said. Okay, she sounded like a walking platitude but she just didn't care because she had a good workout, a willing student, and team's screw- up was turning out to be a grand adventure. "I'm pleased to meet you, Andrea. Want me to get a pillow to make you more comfortable?"

Andrea gave her a bit of the evil eye before huffing, "No thanks. A pillow and I'll probably fall asleep. Then my ass will really be grass. Robin'll make me run extra laps or something stupid like that."

*Robin.* Her good mood turned down a notch. "Oh, right. Sorry. I didn't mean…"

"Yeah, nobody means anything." On that note, Andrea buried her nose in her book, a clear indication that she was so very done talking to one of the creatures responsible for keeping her indoors on a beautiful day.

Catherine's mouth ticked in confusion, but a quick shake of her head and a shrug was enough to get her concentrating. Surprising that Charlie was still in discussions with Giles, more surprising that J'Nal was already finished. She figured she'd have to drag J'Nal kicking and screaming away from Willow and her ancient technological toys.

She was probably reading more into it than was really there.

She swung open the door and immediately spotted J'Nal staring dejectedly out a window.

Then again, maybe not.

She quietly closed the door and stole up to the witch's side.

"Don't," he said.

"Don't what?"

"Don't infect me with your good mood, otherwise I just might have to find out whether you like the taste of insects."

"Random threats involving improper magic use?" Catherine asked with raised eyebrows. "Isn't that against one of the three thousand Prima regulations governing the proper etiquette for interacting with mundanes like me?"

"I'd think messing about with the timeline is against the rules as well, but I don't see you preparing any disciplinary reports."

"J'Nal, what's wrong?"

"They are utter barbarians. Do you know what she did? Do you? She used her fingers to retrieve information from her ai. No, wait. It's not an ai. She called it a 'computer.' Do you know what a computer is? It's a dumb machine that's as useful as a toaster in the bath. No. Wait. Forget I said that. That's too insulting even for a toaster."

"Me not technology guru. You technology guru. I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Their level of technology is about even with rubbing two stakes together to start a fire," J'Nal complained. "No wait. It's more like watching primates playing with sticks of dynamite."

Catherine's lips squished mightily as she discarded the first and second things that popped into her head. The third thing sounded somewhat more comforting. "We're looking at technology that's 834 years out of date. I really don't see how any of us could possibly expect anything better."

"Did you know that they use only inorganic matter for their knowledge systems?"

The Watcher Honoria mentally thumbed through her limited knowledge of technology. She knew how to turn something on, use it, and then turn it off. If it worked, she was rolling in the flora. If it didn't work, she asked J'Nal or Charlie to fix it. "This is bad?" she ventured.

"Where are the neural networks? Where is the organic linkage? Nowhere, that's where," J'Nal grumbled. "She didn't even know what a touchloop was. That's the most basic component of any ai."

"Touchloop. That's the pink stuff that falls out of the walls when a ship gets shot out from underneath you, right?"

"No, that's the neural tubing for the roughrout," J'Nal said shortly. "Honestly, Catherine, at some point you need to retrain on this. What'll happen if…"

"Oooooh, let's not have this argument," the Watcher Honoria pleaded. "Or I might start talking about how you need to learn how to use a sword."

"That's not the point." Catherine was treated to a sight she never thought she'd see: J'Nal almost waving his arms in frustration. "The point is the most basic component of all their technology is sand."

"Sand," Catherine said slowly. "Well, at least it's plentiful, you have to give them that. And points for creatively using something that…"

"These computer ships or is that chits? These things? Sand. Optimum fibers? Sand," J'Nal ranted, not heeding Catherine's words. "I bet they eat sand."

"Don't be ridiculous. They don't eat sand," Catherine cut in.

"Oh really," J'Nal's eyelids twitched with the horror. "Have you asked them where eggs come from? From a bird's bum, that's where."

"See, now I know you're overwrought."

"I'm not overwrought. It's.All.True."

"Take a deep breath. It can't be that bad."

"It's worse," J'Nal whimpered. "ca-Rosenberg…"

"Yeah, I admit the red hair kind of threw me," Catherine admitted. When J'Nal fixed her with a glare, she quickly added, "Not that I know anything about Prima beliefs and mythology and history. No sir. Not me. Nothing at all. Just because I had some fabulous se--…I mean, just because I almost sealed with a…he didn't tell me anything. Nope. No way."

J'Nal's jaw ticked. "I'm going to pretend to believe you."

"Thank you," Catherine sincerely replied.

"I'm going to pretend you know because all portraits of our Founding Light show her with white hair," J'Nal said.

"Yes! Of course! You know that's…umm…stop me before I hurt myself."

"It's not just the red hair. Oh no. It's more than that." J'Nal gestured for Catherine to step closer. When she did as asked, he leaned up and whispered, "She's cute." The witch stepped back with a shiver.

"Cute." Catherine said slowly. "What's wrong with…"

"She acts like a little furry thing that waves her little paws whenever she gets excited. And the way her mouth moves and the sounds that come out of it when you mention something she's never heard of before…" J'Nal's voice trailed off as a blank stare took over.

Catherine fought a smile. "So your problem is that Willow has a real personality? That she's a real human being?"

"Says the woman who only last night was moping that her Founders didn't match up with legend."

"Reality is much more fun," Catherine airily waved.

"Reality? Do you want to know reality?" J'Nal asked. "ca-Rosenberg is a fraud. She doesn't know anything about magic. It's just a tool to her. She has absolutely nothing resembling a spiritual belief or wisdom. She couldn't even pass the requisite tests to apply for training."

"Hold up," Catherine ordered with narrowed eyes. "This Willow is the same ca-Rosenberg that cast the Great Awakening spell, past tense even at this early date. This Willow is the same ca-Rosenberg who will do more to organize the existing magical knowledge than any other witch of her time. You are being unreasonable."

"No I'm not." J'Nal looked lost. "Take the Great Awakening. Do you know why they cast the spell?"

"Because things had gone very bad in Sun'dyl and they needed all the Slayer help they could get," Catherine said with rolled eyes. "Everyone knows the story."

"Correction, they did it just because it solved an immediate problem. Not one of them thought about the long term. None of them. Not ca-Rosenberg. Not Harris-rah. Not Lanoire-rah. Not Summers-rah. Not Wood-rah. Not even Wise Giles-rah. I found out from ca-Rosen… Willow that they don't even have the most basic tools to find all the Slayers they Called. They have nothing in their technology and they don't have the magical knowledge to track these women down."

Catherine felt a chill go up her spine. "We know the Gathering took years to complete."

"It took years because they were using detective work to find the new Slayers," J'Nal said. "Oh, sure, they've got some help from a Coven, but none of the witches in this time period are powerful enough to find more than one Slayer at a time."

Catherine tried not to think about some of the Slayers she'd known about that had decided might made right. She tried not to think what would happen if the Slayer-run Judiciary Committee didn't exist to stop their Code-breaking sisters from taking whatever they wanted, including lives. She tried not to think about the Slayers in the distant past who may not even know they were Slayers and what they might do if they found out they were stronger and faster than everyone else.

In the name of the Founders…

"Now you see," J'Nal said in a defeated voice. "Now you understand what they did."

Catherine reached out and grabbed J'Nal's arm. "You have to show her. You have to teach her everything she needs to know."

"What?" J'Nal asked with shocked horror.

"Those Slayers…there are lives at stake. Their lives, other people's lives. Don't you see?" Catherine was doing her best to keep the panic out of her voice and probably failing miserably. "You know all the identification and tracking spells. You know it. The humane thing to do is to teach her. This is ca-Rosenberg. She'll be able to learn. I know it."

J'Nal jerked his arm out of her hand and stepped back. "Do you have any idea what you're asking?"

Catherine drew herself up to her full height and ordered, "I'm demanding that you do your duty, ca-J'Veb."

"All of those spells evolved over time. They were systemized and codified not today, but a generation from now," J'Nal swallowed hard as he said it, a sure sign that he didn't want to be giving Catherine an answer she didn't want to hear. "You're asking me to give tools to these people before they've developed the skills and without the ethical or knowledge framework to effectively use them."

"But…" Catherine pushed.

"You're also asking me to utterly destroy the timeline, which will utterly destroy our reality. If we do it, we'll be worse than the Great Darkness that's already threatening us," J'Nal added quietly.

"It may make things better," Catherine protested.

"Or it may make things worse. A lot worse," J'Nal corrected. "We have no way of knowing for sure and we don't dare risk it. As it is we may have done irreparable damage to the timeline just by letting them see us."

Catherine froze and whispered, "Or train with us."

"I have to meditate," J'Nal said. He obviously didn't hear her and for that Catherine was grateful because she really didn't want to see how he'd react. "I need to recover from…from…the spells yesterday and…" He stopped himself and gave Catherine a broken-hearted look.

"Go ahead," Catherine quietly said.

J'Nal nodded and retreated out of the room where, no doubt, a Slayer was waiting to escort him to a quiet space, leaving Catherine alone with her accusing thoughts.

Chapter 18
There's Something Happening Here…

The other girls were steering clear of Faith's position on the parlor couch, probably because she stank from the stress of inhaling four cigarettes in the past two hours. Willpower was all fine and good, until nerves started smacking you around.

Maybe she should go for one of those patches, because if she couldn't quit the cancer sticks there was no telling what other bad habits she might fall back into.

Faith pretended to read some dog-eared fanboy SciFi mag Andrew left on the coffee table while keeping an eye on the Caller ID's clock. She let the sounds of the house wash over her and for the first time since landing in Cleveland she made the effort to pay attention. The constant noise was full of the living rummaging around the kitchen, stomping around in their rooms, playing music, or running water in one of the bathrooms.

What she didn't hear a lot of was conversation, or rather, conversation that meant a whole hell of a lot.

Ruda and her honor guard of five Slayers burst into the room at the speed of full giggle. Someone forgot to give Ruda the memo that Faith was in the 'do not trust' camp, because the girl zipped over to her and asked, "Whatchya reading?"

Faith looked down at the glossy picture of a muscle-bound black dude wearing camos with a gold symbol on his head. "It's Andrew's."

Ruda twisted her head this way and that to get a better look at the picture before rendering her judgment in a sniff. "I don't know what he's supposed to be, but that man is human."

"Yeah, not very convincing if he's supposed to be," she bent her head down to get a better look at the caption, "a Teal'c. Or maybe that's a…"

She was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening and she turned her eyes to the parlor entrance, tense and waiting.

A red-eyed Rona appeared followed by a grim-looking Xander who kept a protective hand on her right shoulder. With no preamble, he said, "Rona, go upstairs and pack."

The girl nodded and disappeared.

"Vi here?" Xander called.

The girl in question moved so fast to Xander's side that Faith thought she'd teleported.

"You're her best bud and roomie, so you know the sitch, right?" When he got a nod, he added, "Go up to your room. Stay with her. Keep her there until I come get you."

Vi nodded and was gone.


And damn if she didn't feel herself pulled off the couch. She figured he'd ask her to deal with Robin while he spirited Rona out the door. Frankly, she thought Xander was being very unfair because Robin would definitely understand something like this, especially since it involved family.

Not that Xander had any reason to know that. Thinking back on their earlier conversation, Faith wasn't entirely sure that Xander knew how Nikki Wood died.

"Find Willow and get her to book an emergency flight. Texas. The sooner the better," he began. Faith raised her eyebrows in surprise, but kept silent. "Her brother's stationed at Fort Hood. Then get her to call the base. They probably have a family support office. Make arrangements for someone to pick her up at the other end. I want her trip smooth as glass because the last thing she needs right now is to worry about the little stuff. Got it?"

"What are you going to do?"

"Tell Giles that Rona's going on an indefinite leave of absence. Once her brother leaves, she might go stay with family for a while. Her parents managed to survive the Bringer attack on her home and they're staying with family up in Oregon."

"Good luck with that," Faith sighed.

Xander's jaw set in a determined line. "No luck involved. We're getting Rona out tonight no matter what and if that means she and I hang out on stand-by all night at the airport then we'll do it. I'll be giving the big meeting a miss, so have someone take notes and catch me up later."

"Will do." Faith gave a sharp nod and departed, planning to first check Willow's lair in the not-ready-for-primetime library before knocking on her bedroom door.

Her first guess was the right one. As Faith relayed Xander's message to Willow, it hit her: not one of the girls interrupted or questioned Xander while he asked Vi and Faith to help.

Did she say asked? Because now that she thought about it, those requests sure as hell sounded a lot like orders.

Chapter 19
I Can See Clearly Now…Sorta

Charlie was well on his way to pulling his hair out. It wasn't that Giles was a stupid man; it was that the translator chip couldn't translate words or concepts that simply didn't exist in this time period. End result? Most of the morning was eaten up by making sure both he and Giles were using the same definitions when they talked.

Then there was relaying what they were actually looking for, which was often interrupted by questions because Charlie failed to realized there were more words and concepts that didn't exist yet than he thought.

Then he had to repeat the story so Giles was clear about everything. Three times.

The first two times ended with an, "Oh, dear."

But on the third try Giles realized the ultimate goal involved travel to Moscow on short notice and that it had to be Alexander and Faith and no one else accompanying them. This resulted in an "Oh good lord" followed by much rubbing of his vision correction contraption.

Which meant Charlie had to launch into a fourth round of telling the exact same story with slightly more detail involving a lot of concepts and words for things that didn't exist yet that hammered home the need to keep the already screwed-up timeline as unpolluted as possible because Very Bad Things could happen if they didn't.

In fact, because they wound up where they weren't supposed to be and because a certain Slayer slayed a garden variety Tara vampire she shouldn't have slayed, they were pretty much stuck with working with what they had: Alexander, Faith, Cleveland, transport to Moscow ASAP, and 2003.

"Have I mentioned that this is an 'oh good lord' situation?" Giles asked. "There are passports involved and I'm not entirely certain we'll be able to get them for…er…all parties. You must admit, illegal aliens do not get much more alien than your lot." He chuckled as if he had made a great joke, although Charlie wasn't entirely sure what the joke was. "Furthermore, neither Xander or Faith have ever applied for a passport and getting the requisite paperwork together is going to take more time than you can imagine. Plus, they know nothing about Moscow. It could be quite, quite dangerous."

"You fear for them," Charlie nodded in understanding.

"I fear for the Muscovites."

Oh. Right. Back to the time travel problem. Charlie explained that his team couldn't try again and come back at a later date because of something involving something with the spell which could cause a logic feedback loop in the space-time continuum and that would be a Very Bad Thing. No he wasn't sure what the "something" was and he didn't know about the mechanics. Hada, they couldn't even leave this time period for at least another six days without killing J'Nal and maybe turning all of them into mush upon re-entry into their own time.

So, since they were in the neighborhood--"Yes, when interstellar travel is commonplace being the same planet as your target is considered the 'same neighborhood,'" Charlie said with exasperation while Giles sputtered about Moscow being just a hop, skip, and a jump halfway around the world--they figured they might as well try and retrieve it.

"But it's not completely hopeless," Charlie tried soothing. "The Arrow That Points the Way is right here in Cleveland."

Oh, futch. He forgot the bit about the Arrow. It had such a small role, really. All it did was point them in the right direction to the… right. The Arrow. No one really knows anything about it, except that it's a yellow color. Descriptions about what it looks like differ. Some reports are content to say that it's bright yellow and leave it at that. Other reports call it "screaming" yellow, but archivists and experts in ancient languages figure it has to be a mistranslation since colors don't actually scream. Unless, of course, the Arrow makes a screaming noise and turns yellow when it's in the general vicinity of…

"We don't have any mystical arrows, yellow, screaming, or otherwise," Giles interrupted, "unless Xander knows something about the status of our armory that I don't, which wouldn't be all that unusual now that I think about it."

So, one more time around the bend. This now made five repetitions. Five. This time he made sure to include everything he could think of that was pertinent, including the Arrow, while trying mightily to avoid words and concepts that don't exist yet, but being forced to once again explain about the whole time travel situation.

This was a conversation that was better suited to J'Nal's expertise, but Charlie feared involving J'Nal because that would mean even more exposition and definition-finding for words and concepts that didn't exist yet. Charlie hoped Giles was reading him loud and clear on the time travel bits and prayed that the Watcher wouldn't ask questions. He had a hard enough time dealing with the concept of time travel, mostly because it was only theoretical until they landed in Cleveland 2003.

Give him something he could lay his hands on. A broken bone, a bruise, a twisted ankle, emergency surgeries in raging blizzards, conducting blood transfusions on the battlefield during random demon attacks, and he was your guy. Give him something you could shove under a microscope or stuff in a test tube, and he was a futching genius.

Give him a concept you couldn't actually prove using science? Lost in space.

But time travel, he stressed to Giles as the Watcher's expression sunk into ever deepening horror when the realization dawned on just how bad the situation was in the merrie ol' future, had never been even attempted by anyone for one simple reason: causality is an uncontrollable bitch.

There were two reasons why his team tried it: one, because it had already been done. They had a Watcher's diary--no he wasn't going to say whose except that the diary was written by one of the Founders of Catherine's family line so the source is impeachable--that specifically spelled out that they'd done it and ended up in Moscow 2008. The second reason? Because the problem that needed solving was that horrific and the only item that could help them was in Moscow.

And since they had gone to Moscow and retrieved the item in 2008, it wasn't like they could wander into one of the massive vaults held by either of the two Watcher's Councils or the leading families of those Watcher's Councils and find what they needed.

Like he said: causality? A very unpredictable bitch. Plus, you always got a headache if you thought too hard about it.

Upon finishing his fifth repetition of the story and watching Giles's face sink into despair over the hurdle Charlie had put before him, there was a firm knock at the door.

"Not now," Giles snapped.

The door opened and Alexander strode into the room. "This can't wait."

"Xander, I am rather busy at the moment. So if you have a problem…"

Alexander drew himself up to his full height and stated, "I'll only be a moment, and you will spare me the time."

Giles narrowed his eyes, but said, "Make it quick. This conference is rather important."

"I'd rather not say in front of one of our guests," here Alexander nodded at Charlie in half-apology, half-acknowledgement, "I need to keep this in the family for now."

"It's all right Giles. I've explained everything I can possibly explain," Charlie said.

There was going to be no dissuading Alexander from interrupting and saying what was on his mind and Charlie knew that without even thinking about it. Lords know that he knew that look. Strange that Giles didn't know that.

On second thought, maybe it wasn't that strange at all.

"At least now I know how we can explain it to the rest of your team," Charlie continued, pretending not to notice that Giles was now glaring at Alexander. "Plus, I'm pretty sure Catherine's got to be wondering what happened to me and I really need to talk to her and the others before we make our presentation tonight."

There was a brief flash in Alexander's eyes. He knew exactly what Charlie was doing: making his job a little easier. The flash of understanding was gone and the jaw set in a hardening determined expression.

And right at that moment Charlie realized that he was staring right into the futching maw of history. Or as Ms. Tikri put it, right at the beginning of everything. In this room at this moment, Charlie sensed that a seed of a future had been dropped. It was both something less than he expected and something more than he hoped.

He resisted the urge to bow as he left the room.

As the door closed behind him, he heard Alexander begin, "I need to talk to you about Ro…"

The sound of the lock catching was enough to bring him to a halt. He looked at painted woodwork before reaching out and touching it. Somewhere in there was a Key Medical Order Award-winning paper about nature vs. nurture. All he needed to do was interact more with both Alexander and Faith and he would be well on his way to…


He spun around to see a dark-haired Slayer--Kennedy he thought her name was--suspiciously watching him with folded arms.

When she saw he had his attention, she added, "I'm pretty sure that you shouldn't be listening at the door."

"I'm not listening…"

"Look, I don't have time to shadow you all night. Don't you have a place to be? Your buds are down the hall, so if you don't mind? I really could use a snack and I can't do that until you're under guard in your own room. Making myself clear?"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're a charming woman who will win over the hearts and minds of men everywhere?"

"Have I ever told you that winning the hearts and minds of men is not exactly my goal in life?"

"And they say that some Slayers have no diplomatic skills," Charlie grumbled as he turned away and headed down the hall. "Such a charmless, little," he opened the door to see Catherine lying on her back staring dissolutely up and the ceiling, "cloud of depression. What happened?"

"I'm a futching idiot."

Charlie closed the door with a sigh. "What happened?"

She waved her hands at the ceiling. "No. No. No details. Just say, 'Catherine, you're a futching idiot.'"

"Is this because you let J'Nal talk to his precious Willow?"

"This is because I decided to train this morning."

"Well, that's good, right? Work off some of the tension that…"

"With Faith."

"Oh. Um. Technically speaking you shouldn't feel guilty if you landed a…"

"But I couldn't do it with Faith because there was an altercation."

"You got into a fight with…"

"No. Altercation involved Alexander and that awful man."

Charlie dropped his head in his hands. "Catherine? Please tell me you didn't hit…"

"No. I hit Alexander."

Charlie's head popped up. "You what?"

"See, that Wood person left after the altercation. Faith went to go talk to that bastardo. I checked on Alexander to make sure he was… what is that word again?"


"Right. Ookee. Because that…that Robin sucker-punched him. From his blindside. By the way, do you remember anything about Alexander being blind in his left eye?"

"He's what?"

"Well, technically, that's wrong. You need an eye to be actually blind in it."

"See, now I'm confused."

"So I decided to train Alexander in how to compensate."

Charlie stood there in silence for a few moments. "Let me get this straight. You took it upon yourself to teach Alexander Lavelle Harris-rah, the Lion of Tara, Founding Light of the Watchers Honoria, White Knight of the Faithists, Keeper of the Key Medical Order, co- Founder of…"


Charlie was fighting very hard not to laugh, he really was. "He soooo kicked your astra, didn't he?"

"I kicked his astra."

Charlie immediately sobered. "What?"

"I. Kicked. His. Astra."

"You're joking."

"Then I began showing off. I showed him the boogle-boogle move."

"You showed him the…Catherine!"

"What?" came the sullen reply.

"The boogle-boogle move only works in one-half standard gravities. You know that."

"I showed him the modified version."

"You…but…the modified version?" Charlie sputtered.

"The advanced modified version."

"The advan…Ohmylords." Charlie felt sick. Teaching someone--a someone who was angry and may be bearing a grudge--such a dangerous and deadly attack could only mean trouble followed by a dead body.

"Thank the Founders, and by that I mean literally since both Alexander and Faith were personally involved, I got interrupted before I could show him a couple of gee-han-jo moves. I only got to the first step where you slam your foot into the back of your opponent's knee."

"Oh. Well. At least he didn't look like you broke him or anything," Charlie fought to keep his tone light. "I just saw him and…although that might explain why he looked really, really angry. You didn't try to break him, did you?"

Catherine lifted her head off the floor and she gave Charlie a glare. "I did not try to break him. He's not a Slayer you know. And I resent the implication I've ever tried to break another human being. I have never broken a Slayer, not in all my time teaching hand-to-hand combat at the Academy, not in all my field time. Ever. Besides, Slayers don't break that easily. Half the time I keep Ruda from trying to break herself."

"Calm down. I'm just…"

"Plus he was really, really having a lot of fun. Training I mean. Even when I kicked his astra. Several times. So if he's angry, it's not at me. At least I hope not."

"Catherine? Do you have any idea what you've done?"

"Given Alexander to the right tools to kick Robin's astra?" she hopefully asked.

"Catherine," Charlie began through gritted teeth, "we're not supposed to be arming one side with smooth moves while sowing the seeds of discontent between…"

"I know, I know!" Catherine sat up and continued her moping glare at the carpet. "This guy is supposed to be a legendary fighter and Watcher and… This guy. Know what I found out? He's nothing more than a scrapper."

Charlie picked his way across the carpet and settled on the floor opposite his fearless and depressed leader. "Well, he's got to be more than that. He's still walking upright after, what, almost ten years of fighting demons? Means he has a healthy idea of how not to die."

Catherine snorted.

"Fine, you don't exactly have a high opinion of his hand-to-hand abilities. So why did you start teaching him? What possessed you?"

Catherine picked at the carpet. "He wanted to learn. Everything I showed him he just…just…absorbed it. But you'd think someone would've seen to formalized training before now, right? So why is he listening to me when…"

"You always did have the teaching knack," Charlie shrugged. "C'mon, I knew you back when you were teaching hand-to-hand at the Academy. Half the time I think you had a lot more fun than the Potentials and new Slayers did."

The Watcher Honoria scrubbed her hands through her hair. "Prefer teaching anyway. Not sure I like field work all that much."

"You're just saying that because of the mission," Charlie dismissed with a wave of his hand. "This is really getting to you, isn't it? You're usually Ms. Level-headed when everything gets emotionally odd."

"Oh, like you're surprised."

"I guess not. But you're forgetting, we're all going through the same thing."

Catherine gave him the raised eyebrow of doubt.

"Fine. Probably not Ruda. Hada, I'm pretty sure her Lanoire-rah-sen and Harris-rah-sen could sprout fangs and begin feasting on the hearts of innocent babies and she'd still have that unshakeable belief that they'll do right in the end. And maybe not me so much because I'm just the rube doc in these here parts. And Tikri…well…who knows what she thinks. But I'm sure that J'Nal…hey? Where is J'Nal by the way?"

"Meditating. He needed to recover from the spell, correction, spells he was throwing around yesterday and, if I heard him right, nonstop talking from his ca-Rosenberg and the stress of dealing with, and I quote, 'watching primates play with sticks of dynamite.'"

"I guess it didn't go well?"

"Let's put it this way, if you want a perfect picture of what preconceived notions splattered across a landscape look like, you definitely want to talk to our resident witch."

"Or look at you," Charlie added.

"That's just it, I don't know." Catherine grimaced. "I'm worse than Ruda. I want to believe, but I just can't see past reality."

A brief flash of the look on Alexander's face as he strode into Giles's room zipped through Charlie's mind. "And what exactly does reality look like to you?"

"Alexander's nothing more than a good-natured thug with street fighting skills that are passable against unsuspecting and untrained humans, but has nothing resembling a warrior bone in his body," Catherine moped. "Faith dresses like she should be picking up trade in the LoveRent districts on Karisa, she's playing futch-me-this with that Robin, and Tikri's hinting around that her interview is gong to blow the lid off her reputation."

"And once again, I've got to remind you that you're looking at them before they became who they are. Or is that will be?" Charlie squirmed. While he and Catherine were close friends, he was used to her being the person everyone could lean on. Usually if something bothered her he had to pull teeth after applying copious amounts of alcohol to get her to talk. The fact that Catherine was willingly admitting that she was less-than-fine while still sober? Not a good sign. His mind scrambled for something comforting. "We got what we got, but you know that they grow and change. Lords know of everyone here you've got more reason to believe that than even Ruda."

Catherine studied him a moment before saying, "One small problem."

"What problem is that?"

"The boogle-boogle move," Catherine said quietly. "A form of combat that doesn't even exist yet."

Charlie absorbed that statement a bit before the full meaning behind Catherine's eyes hit him square between his eyes. He didn't even consider the possible ripple effect. Oh, hada! He just knew there was a Very Bad Thing involving universal time-space continuum feedback loops just waiting to turn his trapped-in-the-past self to mush. He just knew it. "Futch," he said quietly, "your little teaching and training session may have changed…"

"Everything," the Watcher Honoria glumly finished for him.

Chapter 20
Spotlight on Andrew

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Andrew Wells, occupant of Taran United Watcher's Council building, pre-founding, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*Andrew Wells is a small man in more ways than one. He is physically tiny even compared to some of the petite Slayers living in the house. His dreams and wants seem to be equally small and he appears content to float on the surface of life as a witness to history in the making. It is, perhaps, no surprise that he remains a background figure with no true face or form, lost as he is among shadows cast by larger personalities.*

*What little is known about him comes down to vague, unconnected references in several journals penned by the legendary giants of the time. It isn't entirely clear how he became affiliated with this intrepid group or the reasons for his departure from the same. All that is known is that he was occasionally used as a source of information, even if he was not entirely trusted by his sometime allies.*

*The strangest notation on his contribution to the post-Sun'dyl world comes from a source located in what the Tarans call La-La Land, where it is believed Mr. Wells made his home after his departure from Cleveland, which said that he was "unbelievably expensive, why are we paying him again?" (TouchInfor References: Wolfram & Hart budgetary records, Indices 2571 inclusive through 29065, 2004-2031).*

*Some members of the Taran United Watcher's Council seem to view him in a benign light. Robin Wood-rah viewed him as "harmless," if "distracting" and later became his greatest defender by calling him "a victim of circumstance" and "misunderstood" in his famous series of letters. (TouchInfor References: Wood, R., Journal Indices 1532 circa 2003; 2823 circa 2004; 8752 inclusive 8907, circa 2010).*

*Wise Rupert Giles-rah called him an "inveterate storyteller" early on, but later considered him "a necessary evil" for the Council's sacred mission that had to be nurtured and protected (TouchInfor References: Giles, R., Journal Indices 1437 circa 2003; 2734 circa 2004; 7851 circa 2009; 8828 circa 2010; 11001 circa 2013).*

*On the other side of the divide stand the statements from the two senior Slayers of the time and Alexander Harris-rah.*

*Buffy Summers-rah has numerous choice words for him, including "helpless and hopeless," "a crocodile-tears redemptionist," and "a pimple on the chin of humanity, and not the cute blackhead kind, but the icky infected whitehead kind that eats half your chin," even if she allowed that he was "occasionally something resembling useful" and "not a complete waste of human flesh" (TouchInfor References: Summers, B., Journal Indices 2240 circa 2004; 4520 circa 2006; 8175 circa 2010; 9861 circa 2011; 14900 circa 2016).*

*Harris-rah claimed Mr. Wells was "out only for number one" and called him "the worst kind of opportunist, as in the kind of opportunist who gives opportunists a bad rep." Mr. Wells is also the subject of the statement, "a mercenary who'll sell his services to the highest bidder and I hope Angel gets a big old happy from Cordy and goes all Angelus on his ass," which archivists tell us is a clear indication of Harris-rah's deep dislike of the man (TouchInfor References: Harris, A., Journal Indices 3576 circa 2005; 7756 circa 2009; 8652 circa 2010).*

*Faith Lanoire-rah seems to, on the whole, concur with her sister Slayer's and Harris-rah's judgment of Mr. Wells's character. Her famous notation, "I hope Angel kicks his carcass to China and back using spiked boots and then lets me stomp on his head like it's a grape and I'm a wop that needs to make a gallon of wine," was written after what is known as the Yukon Flight of 2010 (TouchInfor Reference: Lanoire, F., Journal Entry 8409 circa 2010).*

*Readers and viewers might recall the story of the Yukon Flight in which Lanoire-rah and Harris-rah were forced underground in the country known as Can'da for nearly four standard months to avoid detection by a tribe of vampirized werewolves while trying desperately to save the human population living in the tribe's hunting grounds.*

*It is interesting to note that even though most of what we know about Mr. Wells comes from the flurry of reports around the otherwise well-documented Yukon Flight, history is not entirely clear what role he played, if anything. He was he was never officially accused of wrongdoing or commended for any rightdoing by anyone on the Taran United Watcher's Council and no mention has ever been made of him crossing either Slayer Code or breaking Human Law. It is, however, interesting to note that both Lanoire-rah and Harris-rah refused to have any interaction with or use information from _Mr. Wells_ following the Yukon Flight and the fight that nearly cost them their lives, a situation that occasionally hampered their activities in the years following.

As for what Mr. Wells is or isn't, what he did or did not do, there is no one left to say. He left no record, written or recorded, to explain himself or his role and his contemporaries have little to say about him beyond tantalizing tidbits. His mysterious future remains a mystery both in the present and the distant past. So, at long last, a silenced voice is finally heard in an exclusive UNS interview.

UNS: I'm curious about your view of the people in this house and the role you see for yourself in the years going forward.

AW: Don't you already know that? [slaps head] Whoops. Sorry. I know you can't tell me because of the Temporal Prime Directive. I don't want to get you in trouble with the Federation.

UNS: Temporal prime directive? Feder…

AW: You know. How you're not supposed to mess with the timelines 'n stuff for personal gain or revenge because that might alter the course of history and that could mean the earth ceases to exist and that the Federation will never be founded and the universe would be an unhappier place.

UNS: {clears throat} If I get the gist of…of…there's concerns that perhaps we might alter the timeline beyond recognition?

AW: Well, yeah, because that would mean I might die in an alien invasion or I might never be born at all.

UNS: I don't under…

AW: Besides, as a reformed supervillan I don't want to destroy the world anymore. Not that I wanted to destroy it in the first place. I just signed up to be a supervillian because Warren said we'd get rich and become chick magnets. Although I think just getting, like, a gagillian dollars would've been really cool, as in *Matrix* cool, because then we could still do anything we wanted, including the thing with the monkeys.

UNS: Supervillan? Monkeys?

AW: I really don't want to talk about it because it wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be, especially since Warren…{sniff} I don't want to talk about it. Being a supervillan is really hard work. Everyone thinks it's all fun and games and that you can MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA all day while rubbing your hands, but it takes a lot of planning and sweat and following orders and even then it might not turn out right because you can't figure out the jetpack controls or because Warren won't let you borrow his balls from his waist pack.

UNS: [hesitant] Balls?

AW: Besides, do you know how many "If I Was an Evil Overlord" lists there are on the Internet? It's very hard figuring out which one is the right one. So you kind of have to memorize all of them and that's a lot of rules. It's very easy to forget one and usually it's the one you need to get you out of trouble, like, what to do when you knock yourself out because you engage a jet pack while standing under a building overhang.

UNS: [quickly] Let's focus on the present.

AW: I've been redeemed from my evil ways and now I'm one of the good guys, sort of like when Jean Grey became the Dark Phoenix and then came back from the dark side and then had to die so the Shi'ar Empire wouldn't destroy earth. Except it turned out that it really wasn't Jean Grey, but…

UNS: [interrupting] So you're saying you're evil?

AW: But I'm not. I said I wasn't. I've shown I was really, really sorry about killing Jonathan, even though the First made me do it. Actually, I didn't know it was the First. I thought it was Warren. And I thought that by killing Jonathan I'd make him a god, so I didn't mean to kill him dead dead, just sort of dead temporarily. Then I found out the truth and went to Buffy and explained the whole situation and she brought me in as a trusted lieutenant to help lead the army she was building to fight the First since I had first-hand experience going mano-a-mano with It and came out alive.

UNS: Let me get this straight: You broke Human Law, specifically, you murdered someone, and…

AW: Being a murderer doesn't automatically disqualify you, you know. Some of Buffy's closest friends are murderers.

UNS: [taps translator chip] I have to be hearing this wrong.

AW: Nunh-unh. Take Willow. She killed Warren, but she killed only one person before trying to kill me and Jonathan.

UNS: She…she…I see. {clears throat} Aren't you angry about her killing this Warren and trying to kill you?

AW: Well, yes, but if I don't forgive her than I'm being hypocritical because I want people to forgive me. Besides, Willow cast the spell that turned all the Potentials into Slayers, so she's one of the good guys now, like me.

UNS: You mentioned that Summers-r…I mean Buffy, actually associated with other murderers? Plural?

AW: Faith killed at least two people. The first guy was an accident, I think. He stumbled in the middle of this fight were Faith and Buffy were fighting vampires and Faith thought he was a vampire and staked him. But then she went over to the darkside, although she didn't want to be an Evil Overlord, she just wanted to be the sidekick, which kinda makes sense because you still get a lot of perks without all of the superheroes going after you like the Evil Overlord. So she started working for this Mayor who was really a demon, see? And he made her kill a Vulcanologist.

UNS: [blinking] Wait, wait. Faith really was a…a…and what's a…

AW: Fans of Star Trek who dress up as Vulcans at conventions and stuff. I think this one lady who wore her Star Trek uniform at the O.J. Simpson trial was one

UNS: Star…

AW: Star Trek is how we know about the Prime Directive and the Temporal Prime Directive. [reaches over and pats UNS's hand] Don't worry, I told everyone about the Prime Directives so they wouldn't try to find out about the future. The only one I didn't have to tell was Xander because he already knew it, even if he told me that I was being…

UNS: Is Alexander a murderer?

AW: Xander is not a murderer. Someone would've told me if he was. Besides, he's always been one of the good guys. He's upright, loyal, and he's never, ever hurt anyone. Well, except Anya when they broke up and they didn't get married, but they really, really loved each other and I'm glad they found each other again before she died, even though it's made Xander very sad and depressed and angry. {sniffs}

UNS: [checks MemePad for bio on AH] Oh, I see here that she was someone Alexander was romantically involved with before Sun'dyl was destroyed. Tell me about her.

AW: She's like, the perfect woman. Ever. Or was. {sniffs} She was a vengeance demon who decided to become human because she fell in love with Xander. She was supposed to grant a wish that would curse him but she couldn't do it because his heart was too pure. So when the other vengeance demons were all, "Ooooh, you have to do it or you'll loose all your powers," she lost her powers instead of destroying an innocent man. Xander was so touched that he offered to help her understand what it meant to be human and she fell in love with him and he fell in love with her.

UNS: [choking up] That's…that's just beautiful. That's…

AW: {sniff} Their love was a beautiful pure love, but some of the other demons were jealous of their happiness. I think that's why Xander left her, because this one demon invaded their wedding when they were about to get married and did something to him. But I helped them find each other again by getting them to talk and stuff and Xander proclaimed his undying love for Anya and melted her angry, angry heart.

UNS: [softly] She died saving his life, didn't she?

AW: {sniff} No. {sniff, sniff} She died saving me. When we were battling the First's minions, she was like Xena. She was wielding her sword and they all got really scared when she let out this scary war scream, but they weren't afraid of me, so she was fighting to save me and couldn't watch her back and then…and then…{sniff} Xander will never love again.

UNS: I don't know what to… [surreptitiously wipes eyes with sleeves]

AW: So, I've decided that in memory of Anya, I'm going to take care of Xander for the rest of his life. I owe him a debt of honor. He needs someone to help him. I mean, he's extraordinary and he does so much, but no one is good at everything. Sometimes he runs himself so low that he can't get up again, so I do my best to cheer him up, and keep our room clean, and make sure he eats properly, 'cause sometimes he forgets.

UNS: [frantically searches MemePad for bio on AW, makes note to find more infor about AW if/when UNS gets back to the office] What about the others?

AW: Robin and Giles are not murderers, either, but then again, I don't know them very well. They're kinda busy, too, although not as busy as Xander. Plus, I've never roomed with them, so I don't get a chance to talk to them like I do Xander. But there was Spike…

UNS: "Spike?"

AW: Yeah. I'm surprised you don't know about him too since he died saving the world. He was known as William the Bloody the baddest of all bad vampires until he fell in love with Buffy, but she's like, "No, I'm a Slayer," and he's like, "But I love you more than anything," and she's like, "But I can't love you because you don't have a soul," and he's like, "Then I'll get one to prove my love to you."

UNS: [disbelieving] A vampire fell in love with a Slayer? That's just, just amazing!

AW: Well, he fell in love with her after he got this chip in his head, see? It would really hurt him if he tried to hurt a human, except this one time he bit me because the First was making the chip go haywire and making him kill using magic even though he had a soul now. But Buffy agreed to help him with the chip and the First and he was able to become a hero that saved the world.

UNS: I'm really, really confused. I thought the infusion of the Slayer power to all girls capable of claiming it was what actually saved the world.

AW: No, the world was saved by Spike's undying love for Buffy because he was willing to sacrifice everything to make sure she lived on. Buffy's and Spike's love was full of passion and glory, but it was a forbidden love and doomed to tragedy. Destiny brought them together, but destiny tore them from each other's arms just as they were about to declare their undying love for each other after wasting so much time about labels. See, Buffy was a Slayer and Spike was a…

UNS: I understand that part.

AW: Plus, one of Buffy's allies, Angel, he's another vampire…

UNS: Wait, wait…another vampire?

AW: Well, he has a soul, too.

UNS: Which he got for Buffy.

AW: Which he got because of a curse. I think. I know when he doesn't have a soul, he's called Angelus.

UNS: [checks MemePad for bio on BS sees deadlink ref for AngelusAngelLiam Keaton (shanshu); sees deadlink ref for William the Bloody/Spike makes note that UNS really needs to get back to the office] Right. Thank you for clearing that up. Still, I have to admit that Buffy must be quite the amazing woman to bring two vampires to the side of the light. The story about Spike is simply… words fail.

AW: [nodding] Oh she is. Anyway, he gives her this amulet that'll help us defeat the First and Buffy gives the amulet to Spike because he's Obi-wan-her-only-hope to her Princess Leia and he wears it. Then Willow casts the spell, but it's not enough because the First is still winning and then this light brighter than a million suns comes out of the amulet and drives back the First, letting all of us retreat while the light eats him and all the evil creatures all up and closes the Hellmouth.

UNS: I, unh, see. So, if the Great Awakening spell didn't defeat the First, then why did…

AW: Because no one knew what the amulet actually did. So Willow cast the…you called it Great Awakening spell? That's soooooo kewl. I'll have to tell Willow that.

UNS: [quickly] Please don't.

AW: [nods knowingly] Oh. Right. Temporal Prime Directive.

UNS: [nodding enthusiastically] Yes. That's it.

AW: So, anyway, Willow cast the spell because all the new Slayers were going to fight the First and its evil minions, except they were losing. So the amulet must've been, like, a failsafe or something.

UNS: In case the battle went poorly.

AW: Yeah, which is soooo smart because it was like the perfect back- up plan.

UNS: But no one knew what the amulet did, you said.

AW: When I say no one, I mean, like, everyone, except Buffy and Spike. I'm sure they knew what it did because using something powerful like that without knowing what it would do would be really stupid, like, *Highlander: Endgame* stupid.

UNS: So why didn't they tell anyone else, you think?

AW: [rolls eyes] In case the First had spies and was listening to the plan.

UNS: I guess that makes sense. So, where do you see yourself going from here, given your troubled past?

AW: I'm going to work very, very hard to prove that I belong here by helping Giles, and Robin, and Buffy, and Willow, and especially Xander reach their full potential because they are just amazing people and they do extraordinary things, but, like I said, they're just human and sometimes even they need help to get through life's little trials. If I can make their lives a little easier, whether it's making sure dinner's on the table or helping to fight the latest evil, then I've truly made a contribution to the good fight.

UNS: That's a most interesting view…

Chapter 21
Well Met in Ambivalent Central

Buffy hated crowds these days.

Absolutely. Positively. Hated. Them.

It wasn't that she was in love with them before because, hello! It used to be just mom, her, and her sister. Well, technically that wasn't true. She was an only child. Since she really didn't remember life without Dawn that other life really didn't count. But tripping over frightened young girls in her home--a home that had plenty of room for family and whatever friends decided to crash, but was very obviously not designed to comfortably house much more than that on a semi-permanent basis--knowing that some of them were going to die pretty much cemented her spot in the not liking crowds sweepstakes.

Crowd-dislike turned into crowd-hatred somewhere between Sunnydale and Cleveland. Something in her just snapped. Was it the bus ride that first night put her over the edge? Squishing between overtired bodies and overextended emotions as they jammed into junky, barely running used cars like the homeless gypsies they were? Night after night in hotel rooms sharing a bed with Dawn while the other girls camped out on the floor?

She put her foot down when they hit Cleveland. She wanted her own room. Period. It was one of two times she stood up to Robin since the Sunnydale sinkhole drained her of her last emotional and mental reserves. The other was making sure Xander remained firmly on the patrol roster. Sure, Robin had a point that Xander wasn't the strongest fighter they had even before he lost the eye, and he also had a point that Xander had a blind spot half the side of his face, but still.props should go where they're due. And Xander was kinda due.

She lost on the room issue because there was a shortage of space and so Dawn was now her roommate, but she did win on the Xander issue.

She may have some small corner of her room to call hers, but she still felt the press of bodies even beyond her closed bedroom door. Funny how she went from the Chosen One, to the Chosen Two, to the Chosen Many. Funny how she just wasn't happy with any of those options.

Maybe being one of the Chosen Many would've been easier if she actually could learn to embrace the crowd, get over her trauma, dig the sisterhood vibe, and hire a very, very expensive therapist.

On second thought, therapist should be at the top of the list, preferably one who had never been taught by Professor Walsh or had heard of UC Sunnydale, because being treated for crowd-hatred by a therapist who had an evil professor? Too six degrees of separation for comfort.

Still, she at least had her friends. She thought. She wasn't sure. There were times since Sunnydale when she wanted to grab Xander or Willow or Giles and shake them while asking hysterically, "We're still friends, right? You still love me, right? Right?" The only reason why she didn't do it was because she was afraid one of them might come down with a case of honesty and shatter one of the few illusions she had left.

At least their faces stood out from the crowd, which made them less crowd-like and more people-like. She could talk to them, trade jibes with them, and be the Buffy they thought she was even when they were in a hemmed in from all sides. So she hid next to them because it was easier than dealing with the strangers that invaded her every waking moment. They could keep her from getting lost in the shuffle.

Buffy glanced at the bedside clock. The house meeting was in ten minutes. God, she hated house meetings if only because it involved putting her front of the crowd as one of the "inner circle," but she endured them because ditching them would be rude. *Oh, look. Buffy thinks the rules apply to everyone but herself.* So she showed and put on the smiley face.

Right on time, Dawn threw open the door, hands on hips, foot tapping, and a mom-like expression that made Buffy simply hurt. "C'mon," she said in her best little sis bossy voice. "We're going to be late and I want a good seat."

"Dawn, your seat's next to mine, so I'm pretty sure the view's going to be just."


The Slayer fixed her sister with a death glare while the girl giggled over getting under her skin. "You're planning to pop my eardrums aren't you? I knew it. You're plotting against me. You're going to make me deaf-Buffy so I don't hear you making plans to sneak out and meet boys in bowling alleys."

"No, I'm trying to make you deaf so you don't hear me working out a deal with my overage boyfriend to buy me booze so we can party at his friend's place where there'll be no adult supervision," Dawn sniffed.


"Heh. You are sooooo easy."

Buffy let out an affectionate growl and hopped off the bed.

"Besides, the party's at his house," Dawn said airily.

"I'm going to believe you're joking."

Dawn patted Buffy's head, trying her best to keep her face completely straight. "As long as it makes you feel better and his bones don't get broken because my enraged Slayer sister is defending my untainted purity, it's all of the good."

"Ahhh, now we're trying to kill me," Buffy verbally jabbed back as she headed for the library.

"And there isn't a jury who'd convict me," Dawn giggled. "Can you see it now? Manslaughter, reckless endangerment of human life through the use of words."

"You've been sneaking over to a friend's house to watch *Law & Order* repeats, haven't you?"

"I blame Robin for my wandering ways. He refuses to install cable."

"Maybe you, Andrew, and Xander should stage a hunger strike."

Dawn snorted with rolled eyes. "Oh, that'll work."

Buffy's response froze in her throat the second she hit the library threshold. *Gee granny, what a lot of people you have! All the better to swallow you up, my dear. Gee granny, let's not and say I went out on patrol to kill something icky.* She felt a poke in the small of her back and looked up into Dawn's worried eyes. Buffy could feel that her smile was strained as she said, "Just taking in the weirdness of it all. We're about to be briefed by future people. It's very science-y."

Dawn must've bought the nothing's-up-with-Buffy act because she snorted. "I think you mean science fiction-y. Or Star Trek-y. Geez, for someone whose life is one long replay of *Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula*, you'd think you'd get with the program by now."

"You've been talking to Andrew waaaaay too much," Buffy said absently as she forced herself to step into the room. She stopped. "*Abbott and Costello*?"

"Be glad I didn't say *Toxic Avenger*," Dawn giggled as she grabbed Buffy's arm and pulled her forward. "And Xander corrupted me long before Andrew ever showed up, so blame the mansome carpenter and not the nervous nerd. It's because of him I know who Toxie and Abbott and Costello are."

"Toxie?" Buffy asked. *Speaking of which*. "Hey! Where's Xander?"

"Probably one of the girls grabbed him for something," Dawn said as she scanned the room. "Hunh, not here yet." She shrugged. "He'll show." She thought about it. "Unless a future where people think he's god's gift has freaked him into hiding under a bed, which would be soooo him. I better go check."

Buffy held on tight to Dawn's arm, checking the girl in her progress. "He'll be here. Let's just.hey! Seat next to Faith!" She dragged her squeaking companion the rest of the way and tossed both herself and Dawn into neighboring chairs.

"Decaf. Check it out sometime," Faith remarked without looking at them as she did her best to drape every limb over the chair arms. "Damn these seats suck."

"Might help if you sat up straight," Buffy replied.

"Thank you Emily Post. Not like I'm gonna wreck my back."

"How do you know what Emily Post."

"Prison library. Reading about which fork to use for the salad helps pass the time."

"Oh, look! There's Lisa and Tammi," Dawn interrupted. "I promised them I'd score some info on getting a GED and the local community colleges from the guidance office at school."

Buffy again checked her sister. "Tell them afterwards."

Dawn gave Buffy a s'up-with-that look before carefully explaining, "The meeting might run late. 'Sides, I'm just gonna tell them the mother lode is on my desk and they can get it whenever."

"While you're over there, tell 'em I took the GED while doing time," Faith threw in, although this time she turned her head to look at Dawn. "Don't know if the test is different in this state or not, but I'm willing to spill for free."

Dawn flashed a grin at Faith, "Will do. Thanks." Then she bounded off through the bodies.

Buffy felt the cold rush of Dawn's absence and immediately mentally latched on to Faith. "You got your GED."

Faith was back to staring at the ceiling and pretending that she was very close to taking a nap in the stifling atmosphere. "Like I said, passed the time. Passed the test, too. Flying colors on the first try, believe it or not." Her head snapped upright. "Shit. Wonder if Angel erasing my prison record means I don't have my GED."

"Does it matter?"

"Fuck yeah. I earned that," Faith scowled. The expression smoothed out with a shrug. "Screw it. I'm not going to bug Angel to find out. I'll just take it again. And if I got me two GEDs? Then I know the first time wasn't a fluke. Besides, two's gotta be better than one I figure."

"You know, I've been thinking about college again," Buffy said wistfully.

"Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

Buffy looked up at the interruption and right into Catherine's coolly curious eyes and felt her voice freeze.

"Dawn's got dibs," Faith said. "Take a load off anyway, because she's social butterflying her way around the room so she might be awhile."

Catherine hesitated a brief second before saying, "Thank you."

Buffy noticed that Faith got the same curious look from Catherine, although there was an added element to the gaze that resembled something like warmth.

As the Watcher--*Honoria?*--folded her tall frame into the vacant chair, she remarked, "Not exactly the most comfortable furniture I've ever used."

Faith was now sitting up and actively watching the new arrival, as if trying to penetrate the mystery that surrounded the woman. She gave Buffy a light swat on the arm, "Toldjya the chairs sucked."

"I'm curious," Catherine cautiously began. "There seems to be a strange boy wandering around the room with something held up to his face. I don't seem to recall his name, although I'm almost certain I heard it last night.well, you understand that everything was very confusing. I was wondering what he was doing."

"You'd swear he's got spell on him that makes people forget," Buffy muttered. "Took me a year to remember who he was, which is really weird considering all the trouble."

"That'd be Andrew recording the meeting for posterity," Faith interrupted as she scanned the room for the current topic of conversation.

"Andrew," Catherine repeated. Buffy swore she saw Catherine's eyes shift to a darker shade of brown.

The tone was enough Faith for to switch her focus to Catherine. She hesitated for a brief second and, keeping her eyes on the other woman's face, deliberately added, "Andrew Wells."

Catherine's lips disappeared into a bloodless white line. God knows where--*What is his name? Oh, right*--J'Nal came from but he materialized behind Catherine and placed a firm, restraining hand on her left shoulder. The Watcher Honoria glanced up at her companion before stating, "I'm sorry. I don't recall the name from our archives. Did I understand that he's actually recording the meeting?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy could see Faith wasn't buying it either. "I take it that's on your 'do not let happen' list, hunh?" Buffy asked.

"J'Nal, if you would please ask Mr.Wells to please shut off his recording device." Catherine was back to whatever passed for everything's-normal-all-systems-go in her mind. "I'm certain if we mention the need to keep the timelines free of additional pollution."

The witch hesitated a moment before giving Catherine a slight nod.

"Make sure he didn't have a tape of you guys the other night," Faith added. "I think he was mumbling about hoping he remembered to stick a tape in the camcorder."

Now it was J'Nal's turn to go pale. "Thank you for letting me know," he said. As he turned away, he was halted by Catherine's voice.

"Make sure you keep your request polite," the Watcher Honoria mildly ordered.

"Polite" definitely sounded like a codeword to Buffy's sensitive hearing. She wondered if Catherine was unhappy with the presence of a camera or with Andrew himself. Honestly, she wasn't really sure what she saw in those eyes at the mention of Andrew's name, just like she really wasn't sure what Catherine really thought of herself.

"So, how are you doing? Fitting in okay?" That's right. Keep it light and polite. A little chatter never hurt anyone.

Catherine's gaze was dragged from J'Nal's back as he talked to an increasingly disappointed Andrew and she gave an almost-friendly smile to the blonde Slayer. "Fitting in isn't exactly the goal, but we are as comfortable as possible. Thank you, by the way. I'm not sure we'd be as accommodating in your position."

"Wills declared you all human and fit for mingling this morning," Buffy pointed out.

Catherine shrugged. "J'Nal would be the first to tell you that crystal-based readings can be fooled. And even if you do trust what it tells you, Willow didn't cast a spell to compel us to tell the truth."

"Burn!" Faith commented with a grin. "Want us to do it tomorrow? Cause I gotta tell ya, I got some questions about next week's Mega Millions numbers."

"Lottery goodness would definitely open up the piggy bank," Buffy agreed. "First thing I'd do? Mall. I'm sick of wearing Goodwill fashions. I'm telling you, they may call some of that stuff 'vintage clothing,' I just call it used."

"The main diff between Goodwill and vintage clothing is the price tag," Faith remarked, eyes not leaving Catherine's puzzled but amused face. Was it Buffy's imagination, or was Faith giving out the 'my- good-buddy-Buffy' vibes while Catherine was around? Weird if true, especially since Faith seemed to be The One in Catherine's eyes. "The deal is, you gotta buy from Goodwill, but claim you bought it from a snooty boutique near the college. No one will question."

"Until they see the $5 dollar price tag I forgot to remove."

"Ummm, this is all very interesting, but am I allowed to say no to the truth spell?" Catherine smoothly cut in. "The answers you get to questions in that situation can be very unpredictable and I don't want any of us to irreparably cause more harm to the time line."

Buffy's eyes widened and she joined Faith in studying Catherine's expression. "Wait. I thought."

"We landed in the wrong time, so right there we may have inadvertently caused changes." Catherine looked down and began picking at her faux jeans.

"Oh, shit," Faith breathed. Buffy turned to look at the other Slayer. The look on Faith's face indicated that something had happened already and that she was a witness.

"You see my problem," Catherine said. "Please pass on my apologies for any trouble I may have caused or anything I may have set in motion."

"How the hell can I do that?" Faith demanded. "And who am I supposed to pass that little nugget of go-to-hell to anyway?"

Catherine couldn't seem to meet Faith's eyes. "I'm sure we'll find out." She cleared her throat. "I see J'Nal is finished speaking to Mr. Wells. I should join my team. Ladies." She gave a nod, and vacated the seat just as Willow approached with the air of someone who'd just heard something too delish to keep to herself.

"Guess who's not coming," the witch said as she settled next to Buffy.

"That's Dawn's seat," Buffy said.

Willow waved her hand dismissively. "She's too busy getting the lowdown on what I just heard, so she might be."

"What do you mean Xander isn't going to be here?" Robin's voice said behind her chair.

"Aaaaand that would be it," Willow deflated.

"Not here?" Buffy asked as she twisted around.

Giles looked as irritated as Robin looked annoyed. "As I keep trying to explain, Xander had to leave for."

"For heaven's sake, this is an all-hands meeting and we need everyone here," Robin said.

Faith hadn't bothered to turn around, but that didn't seem to stop her from interfering. "I thought you didn't believe 'em."

"Part of the reason we need everyone here is to see if they notice anything suspicious," Robin tightly responded. "The more eyes we have on our guests while they're telling their story, the better."

"If you take a look at the attendees, I do believe that you'll notice that Vi and Rona are absent as well," said Giles in his best 'that's quite enough' voice. "As I have been trying to tell you, Xander had to leave for emergency reasons, specifically, to take Rona to the airport."

"What happened?" Robin asked.

"Her brother is being shipped into an overseas combat zone and Xander felt it was best to get her away as soon as possible," Giles said.

"So why is Vi." Robin began.

"Vi is Rona's closest friend and Xander was bound and determined that if Vi wanted to accompany them, then she was going," Giles explained.

"What did you say?" Robin asked.

"Well I certainly wasn't about to dissuade him, not that I could or was inclined to do so," Giles said shortly. "So you'll just have to accept that you'll have three less pairs of eyes."

"Unh, more like two-and-a-half," Willow corrected. When everyone looked at her, she added breathlessly, "Nevermindthreepairsitis."

"Did he say when he'd be back?" Buffy asked.

Giles gave a slight smile. "I do believe he said we shouldn't wait up."

Robin took a deep breath. "Well, I can't argue with the reasons, but he still should've informed me."

"I'm pretty sure today is the wrong day for you to be making that assumption," Faith said mildly, still steadfastly keeping her gaze on the jabbering girls.

Oh, yeah. Definite tension there. Wonderful. Faith had another fight with Robin. Buffy didn't have the energy to ask what it was about this time, although she was pretty sure Willow would be cornering her later with speculation on cause, subject, and whether this was the One Before the Big One that would blow the lid off the brownstone.

*I've become a sad little mini-Buffy,* Buffy thought. *Jeez, I hope Andrew, Xander, or Giles would get a love life already because I'm soooo sick of talking about Faith and Robin behind their backs. At least if something happened with them I'd get a whole new group of people to talk about behind their backs. Plus, bonus, if Xander gets a date, odds are I'll get to Slay her just before she tries to eat him, so, more fun for me and I get to perform a community service.*

".talk to him." Robin's resigned voice broke Buffy out of her own mind.

"And once again, you're misunderstanding the source of my being not happy with you," Faith said.

"Children, we are trying to present a professional front to our visitors and your infernal, nonstop bickering is not making matters any easier. Honestly, right about now I'm prepared to believe that Xander is the only adult in this house besides myself," Giles snapped. He turned to go, "Now if you don't mind? Robin?"

Robin hesitated a fraction of a second to say, "Faith, I thought we agreed not to air dirty laundry in public."

Faith finally deigned to look up at her partner. "I wasn't airing our dirty laundry, just pointing out that when you give attitude, you gotta expect it in return."

Robin held up his hands, "I'm not talking about this now." He then stalked off after Giles.

"What happened?" Willow half-demanded.

Faith kicked a foot. "Forget it. It's Robin's deal. Let him deal."


"Drop it." Faith emphasized her point with a glare.

Since Buffy mentally tuned out for part of the conversation, she immediately focused on the hint that someone just may have interfered in a bad way. "Faith? What happened with Catherine?"

The other Slayer's mouth twitched in irritation. "Leave it alone. It probably doesn't mean shit, so I figure the best bet is to just pretend nothin' happened."

"Faith." Buffy pushed.

"Look, it's nothing, all right?" Frustration and a physical attempt to stop more questions moved Faith to fling a leg over an arm of the chair so her back was to Buffy.

"I'll take notes for Xander," Willow volunteered.

"Jeanne's already got it covered," Faith commented without turning around.

"Jeanne?" Willow asked. "I'm about to show my powers of unobservation by asking this, but which one is she?"

"Dishwater blonde who was fighting with us back in the day," Faith vaguely waved in a distant corner.

Buffy followed her gesture and saw a knot of four girls goofing on each other. Only one was armed with a notepad and pens, one of which was stuck behind her ear and the other poised and ready to take notes. "How come she knew Xander had left when I only just heard about it?" she asked.

"She was there when Xander came in with Rona." Faith still hadn't turned around. "She came up to me and volunteered after. Said she knows shorthand and'll type the notes up soon as we're done."

"Why would she do that?" Buffy asked. "I mean, taking dictation doesn't exactly sound like something I'd want to do because."

A shrug from Faith. "Xander's off playing boy scout for Rona and Vi, so what's the big deal if someone wants to girl scout him a favor to show their appreciation?"

"That's just Xander being Xander," Buffy pointed out. "I'm pretty sure he doesn't see it like he's doing anyone a big favor so I don't get why you think it is."

"Didn't say I did," Faith said shortly. "Still, he didn't have to do it, right?"

"Look, I'm just saying he'd do it for anyone. I mean, I can understand Rona and Vi maybe doing something nice to say thank you, but why would Jeanne even care?" Buffy slapped her head. "Wait, Jeanne's friends with them, right?"

Faith strained her neck over her shoulder to look at Buffy and Willow. "B, I know Willow doesn't know who the hell she is, but do you?"

"I do remember her." When Willow raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question, Buffy protested, "I do. I just don't know her that well."

Something that looked an awful lot like amusement twitched in Faith's face.

"Faith, you have to admit that.well, does Xander even know who she is?" Willow asked.

"What do you want to bet that Xander not only remembers who she is, but he even knows something about her that none of us know?" Faith asked.

"Not a chance," Buffy said. "Andrew maybe, because he's practically one of the girls. But Xander? He doesn't do girly gossip. He might be connect-y with face and name, but I just can't see him doing the facials-and-girl-talk bit."

Faith licked her lips. Now she was definitely looking like she was trying not to laugh. "Anyone wanna take my bet?"

"I'll take it."

"Willow!" Buffy exclaimed.

"Buffy? C'mon. Faith's practically begging you to notice that she's pulling your leg," Willow said. "I'm game. I'm saving for memory upgrade for the laptop and I could use the cash."

"Twenty bucks," Faith said without hesitation.

"Thirty," Willow countered.

"Don't do it, Will," Buffy warned. "My Slayer sense tells me that Faith knows something we don't."

Willow's eyes narrowed into a glare at Faith. "I know Xander's not exactly in a noticing women frame of mind, so I don't appreciate what Faith's hinting."

Faith flipped to sitting upright and glared back. "Not hinting shit. Even I'm not that fucking crass that I'd say Xander's trying to score a piece of jailbait ass before the body's cold. I'm pretty sure he doesn't even notice that most of the people in this house have tits."

"Just so we're clear," Willow said evenly.

Faith gave Willow a slow-eyed blink and then shrugged it off, good humor back in place. "Nice guard dog routine. Good to know his sistah is watching out for his rep."

"Working on it," Willow admitted as she relaxed. "Bet still stands, though. I win if all he knows is face and name."

Faith grinned. "You're on."

Chapter 22
And That's Just the Beginning of the Story

The sound of someone loudly clearing his throat while knocking on a wooden tabletop interrupted any further betting between witch and Slayer. The ambient noise in the room died down as the girls shushed each other and found their seats. Dawn waved at Buffy as she settled next to Kennedy, an indication that Willow could stay put.

Buffy re-focused her nervous attention to her right and fought down the irritation that it was Robin standing patiently at the head of the room while Giles continued to quietly confer with the visiting doctor. *What right does he have? Giles is the Watcher, not Robin,* she thought with a stab of resentment.

Really, she needed to deal with the fact that things were changing, correction, had changed. If Giles didn't have a problem with Robin taking the lead on this meeting, then she should roll with it.

Despite the fact she was convincing herself to stop mentally building a mountain out of the anthill, she still bit her tongue so hard that it hurt as Robin called the meeting to order.

"As we all know," Robin began, "our visitors claim to be humans from the future."

Buffy sensed Willow shift uncomfortably in her seat.

".and that they are here on an urgent mission and apparently we here in the distant past are the only people who can help them."

*When you put it that way that sounds like a deep shade of impossible,* Buffy thought. Maybe she was just a little too willing to take their visitors at their word. Even Catherine pointed out that she'd be more suspicious in their situation. *Yeah, don't take the 'friendly advice' at face value. If these guys are feeding us a line, all that warning does is make the lies more plausible because the best lies are the one that have a little truth mixed in for flavor.*

Buffy narrowed her eyes and concentrated. Much as she may chafe at times with Robin as take-charge man, he did have a point. They all needed to pay attention and make like a Sherlock for those little things that don't add up. She noticed Catherine's expression was cemented into a detached mask. *Oh, yeah. She totally picked up that Robin thinks she's pulling a three card monte.*

Her attention was so fixed on Watcher woman that she jumped when the doctor began speaking. Sheesh. She was too concentrate-y on the leader that she didn't even see the other guy move to stand next to Robin. She needed to watch the tunnel vision.

"As you all know, my name's Dr. Charles Ravensgood," the man began. "You can all just call me Charlie. I'm the official spokesperson for tonight. I consulted with Giles," here the man nodded gratefully in the Watcher's direction which won him one or two points in Buffy's book, "to determine how we can best explain what we need in terms we can all understand."

A hand shot up from the crowd.

"Dawn Summers," Charlie acknowledged.

Dawn hopped to her feet so the room could hear her. "How are you going to ask for help without spilling the good stuff? About the future I mean. Because I think you're going to be giving something away that you shouldn't just by talking to us."

"Good question," Charlie nodded. "You're right. Some things are going to, ummm, get out. But we're doing our best to keep it to a minimum. Does that answer your question?"

"For now." Dawn took her seat with a thoughtful face.

"Any more questions?" Charlie asked. When he was met with a round of silence he cleared his throat and began, "As we explained, probably not coherently because everyone was a little confused, we're from 834 years in the future, we're human, and we live on colonies settled by our ancestors who were from Tar.I mean Earth. There are some similarities between our time and yours: there are multiple Slayers and there are Watchers who train them and work with them. There are other differences, but we won't get into that."

"Because you can't tell us even a single thing about the future," said an unidentified female voice from the back of the room.

"Exactly," Charlie nodded, clearly not understanding that the wit was making a weak joke. "Suffice to say one other thing is similar, Watchers and Slayers keep journals."

"Oh, man!" Buffy thought the girl who spoke was called Maria. "Now we gotta do homework on top of fighting and training? That royally sucks!"

This declaration was greeted with a round of titters and a few muttered comments that they were sure that someone was going to make them start taking Comp 101 classes so they could write perfect little diaries.

"Ladies!" Robin shouted through the noise. "Please let Charlie talk."

Buffy let out a sigh of relief as the noise died down. She was torn on the journal issue. She wasn't psyched about the idea of writing a diary just so other people could read it. On the other hand, there were times while reading the Watchers' journals that she wished she could get the Slayer's side of the story.

"Thank you," Charlie said as he cast a worried glance at his crew. They looked a little taken aback by the general outburst. Ruda's face registered confusion over the fact that these other girls weren't expected to write things down.

The doctor forged ahead. "Catherine has in her possession a journal," here the woman in question held up a leather-bound book over her head in what Buffy thought was a parody of show-and-tell, "that records time travelers visited two of your number in Moscow 2008 to ask for help. The entry lists a number of bare-bone facts about the visitors, why they were there, what they were looking for, and the end result. This one single entry has confused archivists for centuries simply because everyone knew time travel was impossible. It was assumed that the people involved were probably lied to by persons unknown."

"So how'd you figure out the real score?" Kennedy shouted her question from her seat.

"The first time someone made a 'Quantum Leap,'" Andrew answered before Charlie opened his mouth.

Willow leaned over and sing-songed softly into Buffy's ear, "Caaaaan you feeeeeel the Baaaaakula love?"

"Stop it," Buffy tittered back. "Way to ruin a perfect 'Lion King' moment, Will. Wait. That was from the 'Lion King,' right?"

"I, uh, ummmm, not sure what you're talking about there," Charlie said as he regarded Andrew with alarm. "We're actually the first to travel back in time."

"Anyone else smell a disaster movie in the making?" Faith asked in an undertone.

"Right there with ya," Willow agreed.

"Like the disaster movie we deal with every May isn't enough, we now get to celebrate with a whole new disaster movie every time we change seasons?" Buffy humphed. "I say we find a place where there are no seasons because I really don't want to do this again."

"Ladies," Robin's voice whip-cracked through the conversation.

Three heads turned and met Robin's glare.

Charlie cast Robin an unreadable look before continuing. "As I said, a lot of what we 'know' about the time travel is theoretical. In simplified terms, we were supposed to go back to Moscow 2008, interact with the people we needed to interact with, get an important mystical object, and get back to our own time to deal with a crisis. Now, since this is not Moscow, and since this is not 2008, you know something went wrong."

"You don't say," Jeanne piped up.

"To make this as simple as possible, when we landed wrong we still had a chance to rectify the situation provided we didn't interact with anyone or anything from this time period. Unfortunately, a vampire found us before we got our bearings."

"That's right. The vampire started it. Tell them, doc," Ruda nodded aggressively.

".aaaaaand Ruda beheaded it," Charlie needlessly added, although Buffy noticed he gave the Slayer an affectionate smile. "Which means we can't re-insert ourselves in this timeline and we can't leave for another six standard days because of, ummm, magic issues."

"Actually." J'Nal began.

"Magic issues it is!" Catherine interrupted. "Works for me."

"But that's not one hundred percent."

"J'Nal," Catheirne's voice sounded pleasant, but it had a pleading threat hidden in it, "is it basically correct? And can we make it any more clear without saying something we shouldn't?"

J'Nal's face twitched. "Magic issues. Good one. I'll go with it."

"What Charlie is trying to say is that our visitors were faced with an impossible task," Giles interrupted. "They could try to survive in a place they knew nothing about for another week and return home empty-handed, or they could ask us, or rather two of our number, for help."

"Thank you, Giles," Charlie said, grateful to be getting back on track. "We discovered two standard years ago that the questionable entry in this journal might have basis in fact when some of the events it listed came about."

He paused dramatically, expecting questions. He seemed disappointed when no one spoke up, so he dove into it. "The population of one our outer colonies seemed to simply vanish. When Central Administration sent investigators, they found that the most of the colonists were killed. The survivors." his voice trailed off in a shudder.

Buffy saw Ruda lean into Catherine for comfort as the girl's Watcher placed an arm around her shoulder. Catherine's hold seemed at once protective and possessive as she drew the Slayer tightly to her, her hand practically forming a claw as if she were afraid Ruda would be snatched away from her by forces unknown.

That one little act was enough to convince Buffy of two things: one, their guests were telling the truth, at least as much of the truth they could tell, and two, whatever was happening in the future probably made their battle with the First look like a Kindergarten brawl.

Charlie gathered himself. "The very few survivors seemed to be under a thrall. They attacked the team of investigators. Some were killed, some came under the thrall when they were bit, one person, the Slayer on the team, escaped and managed to get a message to Central before she died from her wounds."

The temperature dropped in the room at this and Buffy realized she was hugging herself. She forced her posture to relax and her expression into neutral. *How many people,* she wondered, *how many were killed and how many enslaved?* And just how bad was it 834 years in the future that someone somewhere thought to give the impossible a try?

*Bad enough.* She knew that. God knows she knew that because she'd felt it herself when she was backed into a corner by the First, stressing herself into believing that she was the only one who could save the day, and feeling utterly alone and defensive when everyone but Spike began pointing out that her judgment may be the tiniest bit flawed.

The flash of insight gave her a mental jump. Maybe Robin was wearing her pair of Pradas when it came to his recent actions and attitude. After all, he also had something that no one could share: the horror of a Slayer mother being killed in a fight. She fought down the guilt over not twigging to that before and for maybe not being as understanding as she could've been when Robin tried to stake Spike. But Spike was needed, goddamn it, and her faith in Spike was not misplaced at the end of the day.

*Stop it. Concentrate. No point,* Buffy ordered herself as she refocused her attention on the present. She was surprised to realize that she was still enveloped in that deathly silence. Charlie looked like he was trying to find the words to say what he needed to say next. The room gave him its undivided attention.

"It happened again after that. And again. Something was taking over the outer colonies one colony at a time and there was no rhyme or reason to the targets." Charlie cleared his throat. "Thankfully, people under the thrall reverted to an almost animalistic state. They couldn't operate anything more technologically advanced than a rock, which meant they couldn't get off planet. Had that happened." Charlie's voice trailed off as he shuddered. "The way to think of it is like a disease? Plague?" He looked at Giles who gave him an encouraging nod. "Had the people under this thrall been able to leave, they'd be able to reach other planets and."

"Bite people like a vampire and turn them into demons like themselves?" Dawn asked as she hopped to her feet.

Charlie looked pained. "Not exactly. Central Authority, working with the Prima and Council Honoria and representatives from the Council Educationary managed to capture one of the thralls." Giles placed a water bottle in front of the doctor, who stared at it for a moment before taking it, twisting the cap off and taking a swig. "They weren't turned into demons. They're still human, no sign of a demonic presence."

Buffy sat bolt upright. *Wait! Did I just hear that there are two Councils?* Maybe one was to train Slayers and one was to send out field Watchers. But the way Charlie put it--one Council was totally involved and the other only sent reps to help them figure it out-- told her that whatever the relationship between the two was, it wasn't that simple. She looked around the room to see if anyone noticed the slip. Everyone was too busy looking horrified; their minds stuck on the fact that it was possible to be possessed without actually being possessed.

"Oh god," someone's voice whispered.

Charlie gave J'Nal and Giles a despairing look. "The best way to explain it is, ummm, a soul sickness?"

J'Nal didn't seem entirely comfortable with the explanation and Giles's forehead was furrowed in thought.

Giles finally volunteered, "As I understand it, and please do correct me if I'm wrong, that these people under thrall are somehow being controlled. It's as if their minds and souls were, how should I put it, locked away?" He looked to J'Nal for confirmation who seemed slightly more comfortable with Giles's explanation. "Whatever is controlling the bodies is doing so as if it's a puppet master. It is believed, and once again, I do beg you to correct me if I get this incorrect, that the individual is locked inside the enslaved body and unable to regain control."

The future crew looked to J'Nal who nodded with a little relief. "Very close. Very close, especially given that some of the magical and spiritual concepts are very advanced. It's more than sufficient. A most excellent explanation, Wise Giles-rah."

Giles stepped back in surprise while a murmur circled the room. Buffy resisted the urge to smile with relief. *Count on Giles to figure it out with his big brain of his,* she thought, *and good for him that he gets is own rah-rah section. And check it out, yet another slip of the future tongue.*

"I'm sure you tried this," Willow interrupted, "but I'd feel stupid if I didn't ask. What about simply breaking the soul or mind out of its prison? Or at least giving it a chance to regain control of the body? If magic is involved, there's always a counter-spell."

"Provided you know about the original spell and that a spell is involved," J'Nal answered. "We're still not entirely sure how the thralling process works."

"But we did try as you suggested," Charlie inclined his head in Willow's direction. "And don't feel stupid for asking because it's a fair question. The fact is we, or rather, the Prima have tried spells repeatedly on the few thralls we've been able to capture alive and nothing works."

"The only people immune to the thrall are Slayers and the Prima, which is why anyone in these two classifications are killed whenever this Great Darkness descends on a planet," Catherine added. "Everyone else is fair game."

Now it was Ruda's turn to put a protective arm around Catherine's waist.

"How many people are we talking about dead and wounded?" Kennedy asked.

"Does it matter?" Tammi asked. "One town is bad enough when you know not everyone got out alive."

Buffy fought the urge to slink down into her seat. Spike, Anya, Chloe, and Amanda right off the bat counted as four. She knew Xander's parents had high-tailed it to Vegas and that Willow's parents were out of town when the end came, but Tammi was right: no telling who decided to be stupid and stick around to the bitter end.

Charlie swallowed hard. "You have to understand, most of these outer colonies were rather small. Some consisted of little more than a few settlements. On average, maybe less than 500 million people per planet affected? I would guess by the time we left, you may be talking a ten or so planets with a total population of roughly 4 billion. At a guess, 75 percent of those people are dead."

Buffy felt her stomach drop. The numbers were huge, too big for her to understand. This was tragedy in the abstract, statistics that didn't make sense because when you start running out of fingers and toes when counting the dead they become a faceless and formless crowd. If whatever was out there eating planets was taking a crack at destroying real estate? Every one of those people would remain that way.

She chanced glancing around the room. More than a few of the girls had taken on a glassy-eyed stare, she saw Dawn blink owlishly in her seat, Kennedy's eyes were narrowed as she studied Charlie. She didn't dare look at Faith, especially since she was pretty sure the other Slayer had stopped breathing. To her left she could hear Willow's breath hitching.

*Oh, yeah. If anyone here knows what this really means, Willow does. She nearly wiped out the.*

"E-e-e-e-e-e-e-excuse me?" Willow's voice was tremulous strand of spider's silk in the silence. "Could this be caused by, say, a really angry witch running on Hellmouth juice?"

Buffy slowly turned her head to see her friend's expression. Willow looked deathly pale, her eyes wide with a suspicious shine of unshed tears, chin wrinkling with the effort to keep her expression from collapsing in on itself.

Catherine sat up straight, watching Willow with her too guarded expression through eyelids lowered to half-mast, while Ruda, Charlie, and Tikri exchanged confused looks. *Well, well, well, someone knows something about Willow,* Buffy thought. She reached out and grabbed one of Willow's hands in her own, keeping her eyes focused on the Watcher Honoria.

In response, Catherine inclined her head as if recognizing Buffy's protective gesture for what it was and relaxed, eyes not leaving Willow's face.

"We also thought of that," J'Nal said as he regarded the redhead with something akin to chagrin. Catherine didn't react, although the others on her team snapped their eyes to the witch, every expression registering shock.

"However, for a single witch, or coven, to pull this off, they would have to draw on and release enormous power with no guarantee they'd survive," J'Nal continued. His shoulders hunched under the continued gaze of his teammates. "The draw and the residual aftermath would leave an energy signature. The Great Darkness comes from nowhere and leaves without a trace."

Charlie's mouth opened and closed a few times as he tore his eyes away from J'Nal. When he finally found his voice, he said, "Think of it as null space. There's no energy, mystical or scientific, expelled or left behind."

"So you have no clues," Kennedy said from her seat, eyes still narrowed as she studied the guests.

Buffy had a sneaking suspicion that Kennedy was joining Robin on the "they're lying" side of the argument. It was hard to tell where everyone else fell. At a guess, she'd peg Willow as believing it and Giles seemed to be willing to give it a fair hearing. As for her? She had no idea what she should think. Saving one planet was hard enough, but more than one located god knows where? When there's already ten destroyed? What could she possibly do to stop it?

*The bigger question is do I not want to believe it because I don't think I can do anything about it?* Score one for the newish, slightly usedish Mature Buffy.

"Here's what we do know for fact: one moment everything is normal. Chatter traffic from the colony is flowing on all channels. Then everything cuts off, like someone throwing a switch, and the planet literally 'goes dark,'" Charlie explained. "There are no radiation signatures, no echoes of any radio waves, just," here he snapped his fingers, "nothing. And there are no survivors capable of communicating what happened."

"People must be panicking." Dawn was on her feet again. "You probably have a lot of people fleeing for what they think are safer planets or something because there's no way you're keeping this a secret. I bet you've got a huge refugee problem and between that and the panic that's got to be causing civil unrest."

Charlie sputtered a bit before admitting, "That's a good guess. How."

"I read the newspaper and it's kind of a pattern here on earth," Dawn pointed out. "Oh. And if this doesn't make me sound too much like a geek, repeated 'Babylon 5' viewings with Xander."

"Dawn and Andrew and Xander doing a threesome in a tree," Faith quietly singsonged.

Buffy snapped off her sharp comment before it reached her mouth. Faith's face was drawn and the patented amusement with everything not Cool Faith was missing from her eyes. She was half-tempted to ask the other Slayer if she'd been taking Bad Jokes as a Way of Dealing lessons from certain absent persons.

"In either case, this part we're all," here he indicated his group with a sweep of his arm, "taking on faith: the questionable entry in the journal Catherine showed you. When we started desperately searching the archives to see if this had ever happened anywhere before, this journal and its puzzling entry kept coming to researchers' attention because it said these suspicious visitors claimed to face a similar problem. Needless to say, the Ha.Honoria founding families were consulted extensively to find any supporting evidence that might not have made it into the official record."

"Unfortunately, we--I mean the Council families--didn't have much more than what was in the record," Catherine added quickly.

Buffy couldn't help rolling her eyes. The Slayer line may have opened up, but count on the Watchers to hold on to their place with a death grip. They were still apparently born to play the part and no Slayer's Scythe was ever going to change that it seemed. Even though finding the surviving Watchers was a distant secondary priority, this little slip of Catherine's tongue was enough to make her want to beg Giles to drop the idea and hand the job to people who actually did something to earn it.

"The short story is this," Charlie began, "According to this journal entry, we," he waved at his group, "went back in time to Moscow 2008 and met up with two members of this group. We explained about the Great Darkness and that it had never happened in human history before. We then told them that according to this entry there was only one thing that could save us: the Grail."

"Just like Camelot!" Andrew shouted.

"The comparisons to the ancient mythology of King Arthur have not gone unremarked," J'Nal said.

"Nice to know we've got something in common," Willow muttered.

"Since we can't actually show you the contents of the journal, mostly because there is information in it that may pollute the timeline even more, I can give you the highlights of what it says," Charlie began. "The first item we have to find is the Arrow That Points the Way. This is key because its sole purpose is to lead us to the Grail."

"What is it? Where can we find it?" Buffy asked.

Charlie shifted. "We believe it is a mystical weapon or compass that changes color and makes a screaming noise when approaching the Grail."

"Don't you know?" Willow asked. "What does your journal say about it?"

"That it's yellow," Catherine answered. "And it's located here in Cleveland."

Murmurs of surprise followed this revelation.

"Where?" Robin asked.

"We don't know," Catherine admitted. "Just that it's somewhere in this metrolocale."

So they have to find an arrow somewhere in Cleveland, a city that they were all still learning to navigate beyond knowing the shortest routes between the Flats, the Warehouse District, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the mall in Tower City Center, and all the cemeteries. Even better, no one knows what this arrow actually looks like--beyond the fact that it's yellow and screams--or how it actually works.

Piece. Of. Cake.


And her name is Lola and she's really a showgirl at the Copa.

"The real problem, as I understand it from Giles," here Charlie gave Giles a despairing look, "is the Grail's location."

"Back up," Kennedy ordered from her seat. "Tell us more about this Grail."

"According to our journal, the Grail can be used as a focus to reverse the effects of the thrall and give us a chance of fighting back against the Great Darkness," J'Nal answered.

"We have a sketchy description of what it looks like, but we need to find the Arrow first before we get into it," Charlie added.

"If this thing is powerful enough to do something about this Great Darkness of yours, why should we give it to you?" Kennedy asked. "Sounds like it's a trinket for massive mojo and you're basically asking us to believe that we don't need it so we should be handing it to you because you claim you need it more."

Robin gave Kennedy the kind of smile a teacher reserves for a class pet.

Buffy glanced at Willow and noticed her friend frowning at her girlfriend. *Oh, yeah. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall tonight when the two of them start talking alone. Then again: tongue piercing, so maybe not.*

"All the information we gave you is all the information we have," Charlie explained. "The journal."

"Which you can't show us," Kennedy interrupted.

"But." Charlie began.

"You can't blame us for being suspicious," Robin joined in.

"No, we really can't," Catherine agreed. The look on her face said it all: she really hated the fact that she had to give Robin anything resembling credit for brains. "As I said to Buffy earlier, we'd certainly be suspicious in your place."

"Is your agreement supposed to win us over?" Robin asked.

Catherine got to her feet, but instead of addressing Robin directly, she turned her face to the crowd of Slayers as if they were the only jury that mattered. "We are asking a lot from you, we know that. We're asking you to take a leap of faith, the kind of leap that requires you to trust strangers with outlandish stories who will never ever be able to offer proof that your faith is justified. We're asking you to help us in a scheme that even we are not entirely sure will work. If we were in your shoes, I guarantee you that we'd not only be asking the same questions, but would be testing everything that it would be in our power to test before we'd even let us make our case.

"But here's the point: we're mere mortals," she spread her arms slightly, her hands palm up in supplication, "and we don't have much to offer. We are weak and we are desperate. The only thing we have you: your kindness, your strength, and your bravery." Her eyes swept the room, including everyone in the glance. "You, all of you, are better than our suspicious mortal selves. You are what we aspire to. You who have fought on faith and hope for years, you who continue to fight in the belief that tomorrow will be better, upon you we build our hope. We believe--no--we know that we will succeed if you trust us enough to help us.

She looked down. "You're questioning us, that's smart. You're looking for holes in our story that would paint us as liars. That's smart, too. I understand if you don't believe in us, I wouldn't believe in us either. But do know this much: we believe in you."

Years later, Buffy would admit that the most awe-inspiring thing she'd ever seen were the looks on the faces of every Slayer in the house in the ringing silence that followed. Spines had straightened, shoulders had squared, and every girl--whether they were in Sunnydale at the end or not--looked like they were seriously considering Catherine's petition as if they were the only ones who could decide yay or nay.

And years later, after Buffy knew everything she was ever going to know about this singular event, she'd be able to point to this one moment as the moment where everything changed. Well, maybe not changed, but set to rights.

Maybe some things really are destined.

One by one, the girls got to their feet until most of the room was standing. Buffy realized she had joined them somewhere in there and that Faith was standing next to her. The quarter of the Slayers still sitting, which included Kennedy and Maria, looked distinctly unhappy once the movement stopped and pin-drop silence was regained.

Giles had an odd smile on his face as he scanned the room. Dawn remained seated as she looked around her in wonder. Robin seemed somewhat taken aback, but didn't speak. Willow also stayed in her seat with only a quiet "wow" giving away her thoughts. It made sense in a way: this moment wasn't for them.

Catherine's group looked tense.

"The ayes have it," Buffy said. God knows how she knew, she just knew.

"Yup, looks like you got yourself an army," Faith agreed. She turned to Catherine who sagged in relief. "But we're gonna be checking you along the way to keep you honest."

"Willow will help you find the arrow because she's research girl," Buffy said. "Throw Xander in with because he probably knows the city better than any of us."

"Once we find this arrow, we regroup and talk some more," Faith added.

"Not to break the mood here on anything," Dawn said as she remained seated. "But where is this grail? You said its location is a problem."

Charlie blinked at the assemblage as the girls began slowly taking their seats. "Oh. Yes. The Grail. It's in Moscow."

The repeated disbelieving question "Moscow?" spun around the room.

"But don't worry!" Charlie held up his hands. "Not all of you are required to go. In fact, because we're desperately, and I do mean desperately, trying to keep the timeline as unpolluted as possible, we can only take two of you."

Robin crossed his arms and casually asked, "Which two?"

Now it was Ruda's turn to stand up straight radiating pride. Catherine grinned and put a hand on the girl's shoulder.

"The first person is Faith Lanoire," Charlie said.

To her eternal shame, Buffy felt a flood of warm relief at that. This time the burden wasn't on her shoulders. She dared to turn her head to look at Faith.

The other senior Slayer had frozen, one leg thrown over the arm of her chair, face pale with shock, body language locked in the classic fight-and-fight-some-more muscle freeze.

Oh, yeah. There wasn't enough money in the universe to convince Buffy that she should be wearing Faith's Baby Docs. This tall order was just a little too tall for her taste and given that she dealt with the last eight or nine apocalypses, Faith could take this one and run with it in good health as far as Buffy was concerned.

Robin gave Faith an encouraging smile, uncrossed his arms, stood up straight and asked a question where the answer was pretty self- evident. "Who's the other person?"

Catherine's grin changed to what could only be described as a sardonic smile as Charlie answered, "The other person is Alexander LaVelle Harris."

"LaVelle?" Willow asked.

Buffy burst into nervous hysterical laughter at this, completely missing the poisonous looks half the younger Slayers glared at her.

The truly sad thing was that Buffy wasn't laughing because Xander was being asked to save a whole lot of planets and possibly the entire human race. It was the fact that he was being asked to do it with Faith, of all people, in a convoluted buddy-cop-movie kind of way.

And the other reason? She was snorting like a water buffalo in heat because the look on Robin's face was simply priceless.

Chapter 23
Three Faces of Xander Harris

Xander glanced at the dashboard clock, vaguely registered that it read 12:05 a.m., and killed the engine. As the day's events caught up with him, he resisted letting his head drop to the steering wheel with a resounding thunk. If he did that, he was pretty damn sure he'd fall asleep in the driver's seat still wearing a seatbelt.

*Note to self: spending almost six hours at an airport on stand-by is not the most relaxing way to spend your time.*

He initially relegated himself to shepherding Rona and Vi through Hopkins from a distance. At first, the girls leaned on each other as Vi tried mightily keep up Rona's flagging spirits. When it got to be too much for her, Xander had to step in with his own brand of chin-up reassurances.

At some point the three of them wound up sitting in a puppy pile on uncomfortable seats, one Slayer installed on each side of their teddy- bear-for-the-day.

The mental and emotional effort of keeping a stiff upper lip while Rona and Vi slowly fell to pieces really didn't hit him until Rona finally landed a spot on a Southwest flight to Austin and gave them a final tear-filled backwards glance before she disappeared through security. While Vi strained her neck to watch Rona's retreating back, Xander called Willow to give her the latest news and make sure someone would be waiting for Rona at the other end.

Miracle of miracles, Rona's brother would be the man to do it. Three cheers for something going right.

Frankly, if he didn't have to deal with Vi, he probably would've pulled up a corner table and catnapped before even attempting to drive home.

A sad sniff served to pull him a little more into alert status and he glanced over at his traveling companion. Rona and Vi were tighter than most sisters. They'd adopted each other after Sunnydale as Vi, who at least had a Watcher and some training before she ended up at Camp Summers, helped Rona adjust to the weird world of vampires and other things that go bump in the night. Rona, for her part, seemed hell-bent on inserting some kind of coolness gene into the sweet girl who pretty much thought that Jessica Simpson was the Next Hot Thing to shake the music scene.

A house meeting without Vi and Rona sitting in a corner giggling and whispering together was just not going to be a house meeting.

"You okay?" Xander croaked.

He sensed a slight nod.

"Once Rona gets in with her family in Oregon, what say we shake you loose for a visit?"

The offer was enough to get Vi to look at him, her expression shadowed in the dim light. He noticed she was still clutching the crumpled paper with Rona's email address in her right hand.

*Jesus, did I ever look that young?* Xander wondered. "Unless you want to visit your family instead? Scratch that. When our crazy-but- lovable visitors Dr. Who themselves back to whenever they came from, why don't we make arrangements for you to spend time on your homestead and throw a side visit to Rona in the bargain."


"No buts. Outside of a few days after Sunnydale went bye-bye, none of us have taken time off. We'll work up a schedule for vacay so everyone gets a shot at taking a break and I'll make sure your name's at the top of the list."

"But what about Robin?"

Xander squelched a curse. This iron-hand general business had to stop. First Buffy, now Robin. "I'm sure Robin won't have issues," he said with more certainty than he really felt. "Let me worry about it. We'll work it out, okay?"

"Okay," Vi whispered.

As Xander removed the keys from the ignition, Vi asked, "Do you think he'll be okay?"



Oh. Rona's brother. "I hope so," he said without thinking. Realizing what just came out of his mouth, he started babbling to cover up. "Hey, maybe he'll get lucky, trip and fall as he gets off the plane at a transfer point, tear a few ligaments, and then get himself Purple Hearted back to the good ol' U.S. of A. where he'll be flying a desk for the rest of his military career." And geez, could he sound any more like a jerk?

To his surprise, Vi giggled. "How about he meets Rona at the airport and while walking to her to his car, he falls, breaks his leg, and never leaves the U.S. at all?"

Xander relaxed. "I like your version better."

"Yeah, mine's pretty good," Vi gave him a crooked smile. "How do you do it?"

"Do what? Talking? I pretty much shut off my brain when I open my mouth."

"I don't mean that," Vi giggled again. "I mean.well.what I mean is, how do you do it? Night after night? Patrolling, walking around with that compound bow or a crossbow, making sure we don't do something too stupid."

*Hunh? Wha?* "Unh, Vi? I don't know if you noticed, but the Slayers are pretty much the soldiers around here, not."

"Yeah, but, we've got something 'special,'" Xander could hear the bitter quotes Vi put around 'special' as she said it, "which means we don't have a choice. Plus, it takes some serious whomping to take us out. You don't have that."

Xander shifted uncomfortably at the unexpected turn the conversation was taking. He really wasn't sure what Vi was getting at here, but the Slayer obviously needed to get something off her chest. "Yeah, but I've got myself a bevy of beautiful Slayers to cower behind. So my position? Not so bad."

"Like you cowered behind a gravestone in Erie Cemetery last week?" Vi asked. "Yeah, dusting one vamp with a bolt and then running up and whacking the other vamp silly with your crossbow so Kennedy could stake it really looked like hiding to me."

"Have mercy. I'm operating on brain dead. What are you saying?"

"Just that.well.I guess.I don't know," Vi stumbled. "I'm trying to figure out how Michael can seem so okay with walking into a war zone when he didn't have to sign on to the military in the first place, so I thought maybe you could explain it to me."

"Number one, I'm pretty sure he's not 'okay' with it. It's his job, sure, and he knew it was a possibility when he signed up, but doing your duty and being okay with it are two different things," Xander explained. "Two, me and Michael are nothing alike. He's gotta deal with guns and bullets and people shooting at him for a start. I'm basically 4F bait, so I'm pretty sure I'll never be wearing a military uniform. And he doesn't have a Slayer to hide behind when things get really hairy. Probably. Maybe. These days, who knows? Not that being a Slayer can protect you from a sniper. Aw, hell. You know what I mean."

"But you're both fighting on the front lines of a."

"Vi," Xander interrupted as he rubbed his temples to ward off a headache. He wasn't really connecting here and he wasn't entirely sure what the Slayer expected from him. Maybe if he were a little less tired he could see what she was getting at with the 'how do you do it' question.

"I guess I'm trying to figure out why."

"I don't follow."

"Okay, I get why Michael's in the military. ROTC. But I wonder if there's something more to it. Like, why people sign up to fight when they don't have to and there are other people who are willing, well, maybe not willing, but don't have a choice." Xander could see she was desperately trying to explain. "Which is why I'm asking you, since you don't have to be here and you could, you know, walk away at any time. Why do you do it? Because maybe it'll help me understand why he can do it."

*Why?* "I don't know." Jesus, he must be more tired than he thought because he had no idea where that answer came from.

"You don't know?" Vi sounded like he'd just let her down, but between his oncoming headache and aching muscles, he can't even begin figure out a way to explain himself.

So he went with honesty.

"Look, right now, I don't know why I'm here or how I do whatever it is I do around here." He steadfastly fixed his right eye on the streetscape through the windshield while wiping absently at his tearing left. "What I can tell you is that if you asked me last year, I would've had an answer. And that answer would've been different than the one I would've given you the year before that. I can't tell you what my answer will be a year from now or even tomorrow." He swallowed hard and dared to glance back at Vi again. "I'm sorry, but that's the truth. It's not much, I know," he shrugged helplessly, "but there it is."

Vi surprised him again by blessing him with her sweet, crooked smile. "Sounds like I'm not the only one who needs a vacation."

"Oh, yeah," Xander agreed, sensing this very weird conversation was coming to an end, "or at least some sleep, preferably lasting three days."

Vi nodded and opened her door. Whatever she was looking for, she obviously found it. He just hoped he didn't just give her permission to go postal somewhere in this discussion.

He hauled himself out of the car and began trudging to the front door, the two questions niggling at the back of his brain. *How? Why? * Had any one ever asked him those two questions? He scrambled through his memory and kept coming up with a blank.

"Thank you," Vi's voice said next to him.

*Thank you?* "For what?" he asked.

"For being you. For being here because I really don't know what Rona would've done if you weren't. For being honest and not giving me a PowerPoint presentation complete with bullet points on 'why we fight.'"

*Thank you?* If anything, Vi's little ode to Xander made him feel worse. He just couldn't escape the notion that the Slayer was giving him more credit than he deserved. "If you want the standard PowerPoint show, you'll have to ask Wills."

Vi grabbed his arm and held it. "You know what I mean."

"Vi? If you're having trouble adjusting to being a Slayer, I'm not the person to talk to," Xander said. "I'm not a Slayer. I never was, never will be. Wrong equipment. You really need to talk to Buffy or Faith, preferably both, if you want."

"So Buffy can give me a prepared inspirational speech about what it all means?" Vi snorted. "Faith'll just probably tell me to go talk to Robin because he's got the Slayer mom and all the answers."

Xander scrubbed his free hand through his hair. He really, really didn't want to get into explaining how Buffy in the last year wasn't the Buffy he knew back in the day, mostly because he knew that Vi would never, ever believe him. His friend may have done more long- term damage to her own credibility in the eyes of the Sunnydale Slayer veterans than anyone realized because of the way she treated people during the battle with the First. Worse, Robin was making the same mistakes.

"Give it a shot," he finally said. "Buffy'll surprise you. Faith probably will too. I promise."

Vi looked doubtful.

Xander sighed. "Fine. At least think about it, okay? If worse comes to worst, you know where I live."

She nodded and let him go.

He managed to fit the key into the lock to let them in as *How? Why?* and *Thank you.* circled the black hole in the center of his brain. He opened the door and with a half-bow let Vi walk in before him. "Night," her voice floated back to him as she merged with the post-midnight gloom.

He steeled himself with a deep breath before shutting and locking the door behind him.

"Catherine and Willow are waiting in the library to brief you."

Xander jumped and whipped around to his left. Damn it! Robin up on his blindside again! He's just walking into the goddamn house and.

Robin shuffled uncomfortably. "Didn't mean to startle you. I know you're tired."

Xander couldn't quite get his shoulders to relax or his heart rate to slow down. "Rona's off. I don't know when she'll be back since she needs to spend some me-time with her family. She'll be keeping us in touch. Vi's got her email, if you're interested."

"How's the bruise?"

Right on cue his left cheekbone gave a throb. He's been so tied up between Catherine training and Rona supporting that he'd literally forgotten about it. He clutched his left hand into a fist and hid it behind his back as resistance against reaching up and touching the sore area. "I'll live," he said shortly.

More uncomfortable shifting from Robin. "I'm sorry. About that. I overreacted to.and just.sorry."

*I'm sorry?* This night was full of surprises with its hows, whys, thank yous, and now sorrys. His poor, overtaxed brain was shorting out under the stress of applying these words to himself in any way that made sense.

He can't deal. He needed bed. Sleep. And a late wake up call. Maybe he'll be able to make sense of it in the morning.

*Aw, shit. What did Robin say? Catherine and Willow are waiting for me? So much for bed, although I can't see how anything they say is going to sound anything like English right now.*

Robin was still fidgeting in the hallway, which Xander thought was a pretty hilarious sight. Robin, the big, bad demon hunter with all the big, bad moves looked like he'd been caught doing the naughty by a little old lady in a candy store. Christ. Any minute now he was going to start giggling and blow the mood. "Forget it. Not the first time my mouth dug my grave."

Robin seemed relieved. "I'm glad you're aware of that."

*Last I checked you were the one that got bruised just for talking shit.*

Ooooh, look at that. With six little words, Robin not only managed to wake him up completely, but to completely piss him off. "Next time you have an issue with my mouth, say something. I'm not your punching bag, flunky, or sidekick," Xander said tightly. "Although if that's what you need, I'm pretty sure Andrew might be willing to fill that slot."

"Andrew's the only one around here even attempting to keep spirits up," Robin said evenly. "Your attitude and smart remarks are serving to damage the morale in the house. You're supposed to be an example to the others and you're not living up to your responsibilities."


"Keep your voice down. People are trying to sleep."

"So am I, but I'm pretty much still talking to you."

Something was slipping right through his fingers here. He could feel it along with his strained temper, but he would be damned if he could figure out what, exactly, he was blowing. He was exhausted, he was faced with yet another long meeting probably involving a lot of long words, an early bedtime if "early" could be defined as 4 a.m., followed by days full of trying to resolve the latest crisis. In between all of this, he had to deal unhappy baby Slayers, Andrew being Andrew, Robin being Robin, and him being him. It was enough to make him want to put his fist through a wall.

How the hell did Giles do it? Giles had even more responsibility since he was the Watcher man. *Yeah, but Giles only had to worry about one Slayer and everyone knew who she was. We get a planet full of 'em and we don't even know where they are,* his mind growled.

"You know I have a point," Robin stated.

Clenched right fist joined clenched left fist behind Xander's back, this time because he was afraid he'd take a swing at Robin. "Have I ever, and I mean ever, started a fight in a house meeting? No. Have I ever inspired any of the baby Slayers to rebel? Again with the no. Every time my 'smart mouth' has opened up with something resembling a criticism it has been when the 'adults' are alone and not in front of the 'kids.'"

"No," Robin allowed. "But the attitude you have in private spills over into your public actions, so maybe."

"I should just think happy thoughts, kill what's left of my brain cells, and let you do my thinking for me? No thanks. Last time that happened, I lost an eye," Xander gritted. "As for you? Last time you went alpha male you tried to off Spike. While that's a noble goal and I'm with you 100 percent, your timing sucked. What the fuck did Spike do to you, aside from existing, that you felt you had to off him right away? If this was about some personal vendetta from Spike's school basement days, you should've waited until after the big battle. On top of that, you lied to everyone about what you were doing. You're partly responsible for planting that big ol' wedge between Buffy and everyone else at just the wrong time. A wedge, I might add, that's still causing more problems than you can even imagine."

Robin went deadly still somewhere in Xander's rant. "You really shouldn't comment on things you don't know about, boy."

"Oh, really?" Xander's voice was dripping in sarcasm. "Here's what I got out of it: if that's how you come up with a plan and execute it, you are the last person who should be dictating anything to anyone."

He spun on his heel and stalked away from the eerily quiet Robin. *Stupid, stupid, stupid. I just made everything worse. I let my inner Daddy Harris do the talking. I'm no fucking better than I was in high school.* He just couldn't find it in him to go back and make peace, mostly because he had an unerring sense honed by years of growing up in the Harris household that he'd not only stepped over a line, he obliterated it.

He just wished he knew what it was he said that managed to kill all hope of he and Robin ever having something resembling a friendly conversation.

His subconscious directed his feet to the library instead of his bedroom, yet another surprise in a long night of surprises. He stopped right at the doorway and leaned against it, too exhausted to take even another step.

His arrival was still unnoticed by the room's occupants. Willow was sipping something, probably herbal tea, and watching Catherine who was engrossed in listening to Faith tell some tall tale. Faith's presence shouldn't be the surprise it was, especially since she was one of the designated babysitters. The surprising thing was that Robin failed to mention Faith was still up.

He couldn't help the smile. There was Catherine looking like she wanted to reach out and touch Faith to make sure the chatting Slayer as real. Faith was so lost in telling whatever story she was telling that she didn't seem to notice the way Catherine's dark eyes shined as the Watcher Honoria absorbed every single precious word.

In the dim light of the desk lamps, Catherine and Faith looked like they might be.well, not sisters exactly, but at least distant relatives. He suddenly frowned. The illusion had to be a trick of the light and his overtired eye. Sure, the shape of their faces was similar, especially around the eyes, and both heads of hair looked like the natural curl was going to fight any attempt to control them. He doesn't think he'd ever noticed Faith bothering to try, while Catherine did her best to keep it tied back and out of the way.

He snorted at himself in amusement. Right. It was official. He was in full meltdown.

The noise distracted Willow and the witch scanned the room until she met his gaze. "You look like hell," she stated.

"Remind me to pay you the same compliment after a long day in the very near future."

Somewhere in there Willow must've moved because she was in front of him shoving a warm cup into his hands. "Coffee," she explained, "you get yuck face when I try to get you to drink my Up All Night mix."

Xander bent low over the cup, letting the smell and steam wash over him. "Thanks."

"What happened here?" Willow reached out a hand to gently caress the bruise.

He desperately wanted to lean into the soothing heat of her palm, but backed off, forcing himself to stand upright. "I took a spill during training. No big." Too late he realized that Faith and Catherine were both actually there when he got his injury.

"How's Rona?" Faith asked from her seat while Xander silently thanked her for changing the subject.

"Good as can be expected."

"How are you?" Willow asked.

Sweet Willow. Good Willow. Best bud Willow. He reached out and played with a strand of her hair as he tried to answer that loaded question. *Let me see, I'm pretty sure I just said everything wrong to Vi and managed to get into a fight with Robin while he was apologizing, so all in all, it's not been a good night. What I need is some advice on how to fix it because, I gotta tell ya Wills, I don't know what I'm doing.*

"Xander?" Willow pressed.

"Sorry. My neurons are about to go on strike for more vacation time, preferably in a tropical climate with a lot of nude beaches populated by sexy young women."

Willow gave him a playful hit. "Hey! No talking like that unless you plan to take me with. So when do we leave?"


"Yeah. Leave. I hear Tahiti is just the place. I'm sure Kennedy won't have any problems with it as long as I take pictures."

Xander let his hand drop. If someone told him when he was fifteen and drooling after Buffy that the day would come when Willow would not only get possessed by the ghost of Anya, but would be offering to go trolling for nubile, young, and willing women with him, he'd've never believed it.

The future was definitely a scary place, sometimes even when you were living in it.

Faith cleared her throat. "While you two fantasize about finding your perfect woman in places not named Cleveland, we're still waiting. Xander's not the only one ready to drop."

Xander glanced around the giggling Willow and saw Faith with crossed arms and Catherine trying to look like she wasn't tasting something bad. "Sorry," he apologized. "I'm not firing on all cylinders right now."

"We could wait until tomorrow," Willow offered.

What a tempting thought. What he wanted to do was go to bed. What he had to do was walk in, sit down, and get the lowdown on what he missed.

"Nah. Let's get it over with," he replied as he drifted over to a seat. "Not sure how much I'll absorb, but." his voice trailed off in a shrug.

"Well, you are in luck," Willow skipped over to her seat, snatching a sheaf of papers off the research/computer table along the way. She presented the pile to Xander with a flourish. "Jeanne took notes and then typed them up for you. You know, Jeanne, right? She's the one."

".who was planning on become a secretary to support her poetry habit, worships Trent Reznor, and believes that Prince is right about all artists being slaves to society's corporate machine," Xander finished for her, completely missing Faith's 'toldjya' look of triumph at Willow's shocked expression. "She went into the battle with the First smuggling a copy of 'The Downward Spiral' in her back pocket. She was pissed that she lost it anyway."

"Unh, right. That's her. I think. Didn't know about the poetry. Or Trent Reznor. Or about the Prince thing. And did she really think a CD was going to survive a sword fight with Turok-Hans?" Willow asked.

Xander shrugged. "Said she wanted to be buried with it if she died in the battle, so I think that's why she had it. That's also probably why she hasn't replaced it yet. I've been noticing she's been leaning more towards Everclear these days anyway."

"Not that I understand anything you said, but how do you know this?" Catherine asked.

The source of the question was so unexpected that Xander was pretty sure he broke something when he quickly turned his head to face the Watcher Honoria. She was looking at him with something akin to respect topped by a healthy dollop of approval while Faith smirked mysteriously behind her.

He shook his head and shrugged. *Why the hell is this such a mystery? You'd think I read minds or something.* "We've talked?"

"Oh." Catherine leaned back in her chair, looking the picture of smug satisfaction.

The sense of unreality was just getting more unreal by the moment. He wondered how much he was missing because he could hear his bed forlornly calling to him. He needed to focus on something before they even started talking. Get the brain cells working on.

"Oh, wait!" He smacked himself in the forehead. "Hey Faith? Think you could kinda take Vi under your wing? With her soul sister out of town, I think she's a little out of sorts."

The smirk was replaced by a frown of surprise. "Well, I know they're best pals and all, but I really don't see how I can."

"What I mean is, keep her in your patrol group, maybe get her talking, you know?" Xander was trying to think of a way to tell Faith that Vi really needed a Slayer-to-Slayer chat without betraying the girl. "Maybe you could lend and ear, maybe two? Help her find her bearings now that her best bud is temporarily unavailable."

Understanding clicked in Faith's eyes as she leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. Xander discovered he couldn't quite sit still under the intense expression. "Happy to give it a shot, not too sure if I'm the best Slayer for the job, though. Get B in it too. I'd feel better if I had back up."

"You are the best Slayer for the job, at least in this situation. I'd ask B, I mean Buffy, except I'm not too sure Vi'd listen to her." God, this was killing him to admit it. "Besides, you gotta fly solo on this one. If the two senior Slayers are making with the girl talk over ice cream sundaes, Vi's gonna figure I said something out of school. Better if you just make yourself available and keep the ol' ears open, 'kay?"

Faith's expression didn't change, nor did her eyes leave his face. There was a long pause before she slowly nodded her assent. "I'll see what I can do," she promised.

Xander let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Thanks. And Willow?"


He grinned. "No blabbing. Not even to Kennedy. Keep it low key so we don't end up love bombing Vi."

"No love bombing. Check." Willow nodded as she dropped into her own chair. "Which means I better not talk to Buffy or Giles or Robin or Kennedy or anyone ever because I'm really bad at this sneaky keeping secret-y thing."

Xander gave her a dark look.

"When it doesn't involve me being naughty," she readily amended with a sigh. "I'll be zipped lip Willow."

"Thanks," he said, shoving as much sincerity as his scrambled brain could muster into the word. "Well, let's hear it."

The Faith smirk was back. "I can't wait to see your reaction."

Chapter 24
Two-Headed Babies and 20/20/20 Vision

"I am rather curious about what you think."

Xander held up a finger as a signal for Giles to wait while he finished chewing his last bite of his bagel sandwich. Faith yawned widely in the back seat, her face practically disappearing behind the open-mouthed yawp. The second her mouth was closed, she sipped from her coffee and flopped lengthwise on the upholstery, doing a very good imitation of a cat waiting for a stray sunbeam.

Xander tossed Faith an amused look. "I thought Slayers could take the punishment of three hours of sleep."

Faith shot him the bird before flinging her arm over her eyes, muttering about how they should wake her when she was actually needed for something. Giles noticed that she kept a hand around the coffee cup that remained precariously balanced on her stomach.

"Xander," Giles pressed.

"I'm thinking about it," Xander said as his cheerful expression transformed into a frown. This time his glance at the half-snoozing Faith lacked any trace of warmth. If anything, Xander looked distinctly unhappy about the prospect of going on a whirlwind tour of Russia with the dervish of a Slayer, not that Giles really blamed him. Frankly, he thought Xander was handling Faith's continued presence in the Cleveland house much better than anyone had a right to expect. Xander had most certainly suffered a blow inflicted by Faith's hand and near as he could tell they still had not settled accounts on that.

He idly wondered if they ever would.

"They're lying," Xander stated.

Now that was a surprise.

"Goes without saying, right?" Xander asked when he saw Giles's expression. "If they're really from the future, they're lying by omission. If they're con artists, they're lying through their teeth."

"So, you don't believe they're demons then?" Giles watched the automobiles dance in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot through the windscreen.


"I'm curious as to why not." Giles sipped at the watered-down swill that in an alternative universe might be called burnt coffee with vague hazelnut flavor.

"They lack the vibe." He shrugged. "I know Robin's still has to be thinking demon, but...jeez...this is going to make me sound like the stereotypical California airhead, but, I dunno. Everyone's got a vibe, right? Slayers got it. Witches got it. Vampires out of game face definitely have it. You ever notice that?"

"Yes and no. I'm just did you come to this conclusion?"

Xander gave his coffee a suspicious sniff, made a face, and rested it on the steering wheel. "Didn't notice in Sunnydale. Surprise, surprise I guess what with all the Hellmouth-y energy throwing everything out of whack, which is why I don't think the Cleveland Hellmouth is as powerful. Yet. I guess what I'm trying to say is that since May I've been picking up on that 'Whoa! Vibe!' thing."

Interesting. A more likely explanation was simply that everyone was stumbling around half-blind--in Xander's case somewhat literally-- forcing all of them to rely on hidden talents that might've otherwise gone unused. Given everything Xander had been through in the last year, it simply could be that the young man was tapping powers of observation he didn't know he had.

"At least that's what I'm hoping," Xander added, missing Giles's bemused expression. "Because the only other explanation that I've got is that I've got mystical radiation-like poisoning from the destruction of the last Hellmouth I lived on and one of the side- effects is vibeage. I'm so hoping that's not the case."

"Don't tell me you're afraid of having two-headed babies," Giles chuckled.

The stunned expression on Xander's face was almost worth admitting to a certain amount of familiarity with B-movie conventions. The smile that quickly followed--the first genuine one Giles recalled seeing on that very face since Xander announced his and Anya's engagement--made him realize why Xander sometimes came out with his non-sequiturs. Surprising a smile out of someone who'd seen too much was pure gold for the heart.

"More like afraid I might get a weird mystical cancer that turns me into a two-headed baby, although I bet I could sell my story to the Farrelly Brothers if that happened and, bonus, I'd have 20-20-20 vision instead of just 20 vision." Xander relaxed against the seat. "So, oh Wise One, why are we parked in a trash-packed lot instead of talking back at the Mother House?"

"Wise One?"

"Sorry." Xander's smile dimmed slightly. "Willow and Faith told me about what Charlie said. I guess I'm relieved that someone else gets stuck with weird titles that make my head go boom. At least you deserve it."

Giles sighed and tapped nervously against the Styrofoam. "Not terribly sure that I do. Besides, we have no idea what it is we have done or will do that puts you, me, Buffy, and Faith in that circle."

"Fun as the speculating is not, you still haven't answered the question."

"I wanted to get both yours and Faith's reactions without interruptions and before it was sullied by other people's opinions."

"I think you're going to have to wait on Faith."

"I'm awake," came the mumble from the back seat.

"No you're not," Xander countered.

Faith sighed a sleep breath and sank back into slumber.

"What's suspicious to you?" Giles asked.

"The big one is that they want to take a pretty powerful mystical object and disappear with it," Xander began ticking the points off on his fingers, "They don't actually know that much about said mystical object, not even its exact location..."

"Moscow is more exact than not knowing where it is." Giles could see where Xander was going, but found he was rather curious to follow the young man's train of thought. More than once since they left Sunnydale, Xander had taken him by surprise by what he did notice and how he acted on it.

"Yeah, but I gotta think that Moscow's bigger than Sunnydale," Xander countered. "And we've got to find this mystical arrow in Cleveland first before we can even think of using our yet-to-be-applied-for passports. Now maybe I'm spoiled, but how did the one thing that's supposed to tell us where this grail is end up halfway around the world? And on top of a Hellmouth, no less. That makes as much sense as wild dolphins in Montana."

"May I remind you that the Slayer's Scythe was in Sunnydale even though there was no earthly reason for it to be there?" Giles dryly pointed out.

Xander shrugged. "At least that makes some sort of sense. For all we know, that Guardian and the Scythe may have been blipped around the world for centuries so she and it were always close to the One and Only Slayer. That might explain why both Kendra and Faith ended up in Sunnydale at some point even though it didn't make a whole lot sense for them to visit. I mean, c'mon, there's no evil in Boston or wherever Kendra came from?"

Giles choked on his coffee. The convenient location of the Scythe and the Guardian woman Buffy claimed to have met always bothered him, but considering the task before them in Sunnydale and Cleveland, it became a low-level worry. He never considered the idea that maybe both were bespelled to be close to the active Slayer. Yet Xander just voiced the idea as if it was self-evident, or certainly a possibility. The most frightening thing about it was this: it was possible.

"Perhaps the Scythe could help us," Giles murmured. "Perhaps we could use it to find..."

Xander looked startled. "You mean you didn't think of using the Scythe to locate the new Slayers? I thought that would've been the first thing you'd look at."

"Perhaps if you were move involved with the hunting down Slayers..." Giles began.

Xander deflated and looked out the window. "Sorry. I'm getting pulled into a million directions by the Slayers we have. I'll...I' better. Sorry."

Giles shook his head. "I didn't mean for...what I mean is, I do understand and appreciate what you're doing. Frankly, I fear the atmosphere in the house would be far worse if you weren't lending your support to the girls and dealing with the everyday problems of running the household." He inwardly winced when he saw Xander's shoulders hunch defensively under proof that someone had paid attention to what he was doing. "Not to pull you in yet another direction, but I think you should be more involved on the search-and- identify mission, if only because it didn't occur to Robin, Willow, and myself to look more closely at the Scythe as something other than a mystical weapon and a focus for Willow's spell activating the Potentials."

Giles noticed that there was a slight jitter as Xander took a tentative sip at his coffee. "Probably won't work anyway," Xander mumbled. "Everything's probably all screwed up because we have god knows how many Slayers running around instead of just the one or two."

"Still, worth looking into. In any case, we're wandering away from the point: the fact that this mystical arrow is in Cleveland while its connected object is in Moscow, uncommon that's true, but not rare. That's not necessarily a point against them."

"Well, this next one is both for and against them," Xander said.

Giles scrunched his head in thought. Clearly, he had no idea where Xander was going or what his conclusions actually were.

"On the side of them being grifters, they're talking about dragging one of the senior Slayers to the other side of the planet at a time when we can't really afford for that to happen."

"You're thinking trap."

"Could be. Leave the house with only one experienced Slayer while the other one is lured god knows where in a country she knows nothing about? Anything could happen, up to and including an ambush that could get her killed or leave the Cleveland house vulnerable."

At this, Giles switched his gaze to Faith to see if the snoozing Slayer had any reaction. Their backseat passenger hadn't so much as twitched, an indication that she seemed insensible to the conversation taking place in the front seat.

"Then why not lure Buffy instead?"

Xander grinned. "Noticed you didn't ask why not lure both of them."

"Because if it is a deadly trap, two experienced Slayers are more likely to get out of a sprung trap alive than one."

"Yeah, what I thought too," Xander agreed. He turned his head slightly, putting Faith more firmly into his line of sight, which meant that he'd completely miss Giles's reaction. In a lowered voice, he added, "If I had to choose, losing Faith right now might be a bigger blow than losing Buffy."

Giles felt a stab at that. It didn't help that he suspected the admission cost more for Xander to say than for him to hear it. Faith remained stubbornly unresponsive in the back seat.

"Faith's involved with the boss, so right there that would cause problems if she died because we took a chance on these guys," Xander added in that same low tone. "And while neither Buffy or Faith are winning any popularity contests with the other Slayers, Buffy's got some Sunnydale-sized baggage to overcome where Faith doesn't. Plus, Buffy's been kinda playing keep-away of the self. I don't know what to do about it so I've been leaving it alone." He winced. "Sorry about that, by the way. I just don't...I don't want to intrude because...I don't know how to..."

"Xander, it's quite all right."

When Xander's gaze snapped back to him, Giles could see in the other man's expression that he was still fatally bleeding over the loss of both his home and Anya. *I am an idiot. Seven years and I've not yet learned that just because Xander acts like he's perfectly fine, doesn't mean he actually is perfectly fine. When is this bloody boy ever going to learn to trust people enough to ask for help?*

Because the only way Xander knew how to deal with setbacks was to help everyone but himself and make jokes. Giles knew that too, even if the "help" involved could be downright distracting and annoying at times.

"Buffy's situation is too close to home for you to be anything resembling objective," the Watcher said.

Xander frowned at that before looking away. Now it was his turn to study the pattern of leave-a-parking-space-take-a-parking-space. Giles could practically hear what he was thinking: Spike is missed and mourned by everyone because he died a big hero saving the world. Anya barely gets mentioned because she only got a sword in the gut saving Andrew of all people. Buffy and I have nothing in common.

"You are not responsible for helping Buffy overcome her grief when you have your own to deal with," Giles continued, ignoring the guilty waves washing over him from the other man. "It's up to her to reach out to either you, Willow, myself, or anyone else she chooses and she has made very little effort to do so. When she's ready to really reach out, she will. You have enough on your plate."

"The thing that's for them, believe it or not, is including me," Xander said as if Giles hadn't spoken. "They're grabbing one of the strongest people in the house and one of the weakest, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

"Strongest in the house doesn't always come down to fighting skill," Giles said quietly.

Xander turned his head and gave Giles a crooked smile. "Okay, then. We've pretty much spelled out why not Buffy, which also applies to Kennedy since she's had the full-package training. But Robin's an even better target since he's crowned himself our fearless leader. Hell, while we're at it, we've got you as the only experienced Watcher within a thousand-mile radius, Witchy Willow with her witchy ways, Dawn who can read pretty much any written language. Much as it kills me to admit this, even Andrew would make a better target because he can summon demons and read demonic languages. Plus, if he dies we all starve to death because he's the only one who knows how to operate a stove. So if they're setting us up for a big fall, grabbing me makes zero sense."

Giles resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration. "Are you seriously telling me that you think they might be telling the truth because you're the other person they want with them in Moscow?"

"Giles, c'mon, targeting me as someone who needs to be distracted and on the other side of the world where there may or may not be a trap is too strange for it not to be real."

"Of all the deluded, idiotic, twaddle I've ever heard you say over the years, this has to be the worst," Giles fought to keep his voice low. "Frankly, losing you would be a devastating blow whether you see it or not."

"But..." Xander began.

"Oh, do be still and listen," Giles cut him off. "We are all contributing to the best of our abilities and all of us are contributing things that no one else can. You included. Frankly, you're the only one who's shown any patience for the new Slayers beyond their skill with a stake and you, along with Robin to a lesser extent, have been instrumental in building our weapons arsenal. Furthermore, you've been almost solely responsible for getting our new home shipshape. Without you, we'd be still living out of a handful of boxes and probably sharing the single stake we had left when we departed California."

Xander's jaw locked and he looked away as if Giles's anger was a physical blow. His inability to accept a compliment remained one of the many aspects of his personality that continued to confound Giles at every turn. It was enough to make the Watcher wonder what Xander actually heard when he got one.

"To my way of thinking, the fact that you are 'targeted,' as you put it, is in their favor, but not," here Giles held up a finger to stop Xander from speaking, "because what you do is not worthy of note. You're right, it is not likely they'd pick you out of the crowd as someone who should be taken out of the way. That's because your contribution is too difficult for outsiders to easily identify. You outshine all of us behind closed doors on a day-to-day personal level."

Xander swallowed hard. "Which kinda leads to my next in their favor point. They get a lot of things wrong."

"Oh?" Giles asked with resigned sigh, again wondering if Xander had heard a single word he said.

Xander shook his head. "What I mean is, they're consistent about their wrongness." When Giles remained stubbornly silent, he added, "Okay, take their pronunciation of Sunnydale, or calling earth Tara, or screwing up slang, or facts about us. They're wrong, sure, but they're consistently wrong even after we try to correct it. When one of them lacks information, they all lack the same information."

"A nice cover if they haven't done their homework," Giles pointed out.

"Yeah, but it's consistent even after being here for two days, and the details of wrongability are still there even when none of the others are around," Xander countered. "They may be Oscar-quality actors, but no one is so good that they can keep it up 24/7 whether separately or all together. I haven't noticed any slip-ups. Unless you have?"

Giles was rather pleased with Xander's reasoning. It was fairly logical and based on solid observation. This boded well for his hopes that Xander would agree to accept a role as an official Watcher, as opposed to the unofficial capacity under which he was currently operating.

"I have to admit that I haven't. I fear that I was forced to play stupid in hopes of catching Charlie out but he remained unshakably consistent in his presentation." Giles chuckled. "The poor man had to repeat his story five times to me, although it turned out for the best because even he realized his caution was forcing him to leave out some very salient points."

"Find anything?" Xander asked.

"I believe that you and I have come up snake eyes," Giles answered. "All we can do is continue to watch them and see if we can find any cracks."

"Of course, the possibility that they might be telling the truth and might let slip about the ol' future isn't a draw," Xander grinned.

"I'm not greedy," Giles waved an airy hand. "A mere hint of a glimpse is good enough for me."

Xander started the engine and pulled out of the carpark, one hand resting on the steering wheel while the other clutched his coffee cup. "So the plan is to go along, find this arrow, and watch 'em for trouble."

"That about sums it up," Giles agreed.

"So, what happens after we find the arrow, assuming it even exists? Moscow ho or not?"

"Let's cross the bridge when we come to it."

The rest of the ride went on in companionable silence, punctuated by something that sounded like an occasional snore from the back seat. Once they made it to the brownstone, Xander killed the engine and let out a yawn. "I'll take today off from training. 'Sides, I need some more sleep."

"I'll wake Faith. You go on."

Xander gave a curt nod and exited the car. As soon as Giles saw the door close behind the younger man, he casually said, "Quite a good show you put on back there. Dare I ask why you thought it was necessary?"

Giles looked over his shoulder to spy Faith glaring at him over her protective arm covering. "I'm slipping," she commented.

"Not quite. Frankly, you had me fooled until Xander and I had our disagreement. I don't care how heavy a sleeper you are, sensitive hearing is not going to let you sleep through that."

Faith sat up, carefully placed her coffee cup on the floor, before luxuriating in a full-body stretch. "I had nothin' to add. Plus, you hauled me away from a warm naked body at the ass crack of dawn. You sure as fuck didn't need me here."

"I'm still curious about what you think."

Faith shrugged. "Robin's still has 'they're demons' at the top of his list. Human con artists is a distant second. He's still thinkin' distant possibility that they're telling anything resembling the truth."

"I know what Robin thinks since he was kind enough to tell me at length last night," Giles said with irritation.

"Now what I think is wicked funny is that B believes 'em 100 percent," Faith grinned.

"That I wasn't aware...she confided in you?" Giles could feel the hope in his chest as he asked this.

"Was sitting right there when she was talking to Willow after. She believes them because--and get this--she was watching Catherine and Ruda through the whole thing. She figures the way they hung together, they gotta be telling the truth." Faith rolled her eyes at this, which pretty much told Giles what the Slayer thought of this very thin piece of evidence. "Willow pretty much buys it too, but she's at least willing to admit they might be lying."

So much for getting an unpolluted opinion out of Faith. "What about what you think?"

"Gotta go with Xander and you. They could be lying, hell, I'm 50-50 on that one, but on the chance they're not?" Faith shrugged. "I'm willing to bet that no matter what, this arrow and grail they want is legit. So, even if they are con artists, we could get ourselves some powerful magic weapons out of the deal if we stay on the case."

"Rather what I thought," Giles admitted.

"Plus, I think Robin's reaching on the demon angle because I just don't see it," Faith continued. "Their story's too subtle for the smash-kill party and too complicated when an easier lie will do for anything smarter than that. Although I gotta admit you both used bigger words than I would in saying no way José. Jesus, I didn't know Xander was such a brainiac. Way he acted back in the day, I thought he was some pot-smokin' surfer dude scared straight by the evil undead."

Giles couldn't resist. "I fear Xander's going to continue taking you by surprise at this rate."

Faith studied him a moment. "Let's get one thing straight: I know people. Ain't no way he was playin' as an equal back in the Dale."

"You're perhaps right in ways you don't expect," Giles admitted.

"How fuckin' ironic is it that you're prepared to see him as an equal and he's still acting like you're the Nick At Nite dad." Faith yawned widely, giving Giles a disturbing view of her teeth. "'Course it's even funnier we got a house fulla girls that have pegged him as the Nick At Nite dad. If we get a new Slayer who calls herself 'The Beav' and starts following Xander around like a lost puppy I will laugh my ass off because that would be too perfect."

"So, you have no problems with the idea that you and Xander may be forced to play this out in Moscow without support from the rest of the house."

Faith's protective shielding closed around her and her face lost expression. "Not too hot about it, and not because I think he's dead weight."

"Yes. Your shared history," Giles said mildly.

Faith twitched. She clearly was not used to be on the other end of someone else's pointed observations. "Me and Xander teaming up? Going to be uncomfortable for me and you can bet he's not overly thrilled about the prospect."

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

"How? I've tried getting him alone a couple of times, but..." Faith let out a frustrated breath. "Let's just say every time I try to talk to him he shuts me down."

Giles offered the best advice he could. "Give it time. When he's ready to hear it, he'll hear it."

Faith studied Giles a moment before asking, "Given the little convo I just heard, do you honestly think he'd ever believe me?"

Chapter 25
Spotlight on Buffy

*Selected items from UNS Q&A session with Buffy Summers-rah, known as Summers-rah-sen to the Slayer Buffista and Unitan sects, circa September 2003. Camlin Tikri reporting.*

*Buffy Summers is an island of calm in the furious activity of the household. She keeps her own council as she moves with stunning grace through the crowds of younger Slayers here. This, her body language all but screams at us, is a woman who has walked through the fire and come out the other side not just alive, but stronger than before.*

*To the untrained eye she looks like the pretty blonde girl next door. Her tiny frame does not even hint at her raw power as a Slayer or her determination to successfully safeguard innocent lives. As history tells us, she was instrumental in the victory at the First Battle of Sun'dyal and was one of the forces behind opening up the Slayer Line beyond the Two to the Many who choose to accept the power and responsibility.*

*Her gentle stillness and her modest confidence are aspects of her personality that anyone who has read her writings already well know. Looking into her hazel eyes before her future becomes the past, you know that Summers-rah would be well-pleased by her simple epitaph: "Beloved Wife, Sister, Mother, and Friend: A True Hero in Heart."*

*What is most stunning about Summers-rah is her relationship with the electric Lanoire-rah. Both women seem content to live under the same roof, living their own lives, with no trace of antagonism, no hint of disagreement between them, and no tussling over leadership issues. Such a revelation borders on shocking, given the occasional verbal sparring and acrimony that sometimes exists between the Buffistas and the Faithists, despite the fact that both sects have readily join hands with each other and the Unitans on issues that involve safeguarding of human lives.*

*More stunning, there is no sense that anyone, not the Watchers, not the Slayers, not even Lanoire-rah or Summers-rah, truly understands the spiritual place some of the people in this household hold in the lives of the Slayers in our time. One can only wonder how things might have been altered had that been the case, as we find out in an exclusive UNS interview.*

BS: it ended with all of us standing there at the edge of crater trying to figure out what to do. But the victory wasn't without a price. Some of our people died. I really felt for Xan--I mean Harris-rah-sen...did I get that right?

UNS: Unh, yes. I'm just...well, I have to admit that I'm surprised.

BS: About what?

UNS: That you're referring to Alexander as Harris-rah-sen. It's just, well, unexpected to hear it from...

BS: Well, I'm trying to be accommodating, you know, for your audience. I mean, they probably don't realize that he's just 'Xander' to us. But since he turns out to be all leader-y and saint-y...

UNS: [quickly] For the record, I wasn't the one who told you that.

BS: [leans forward to speak clearly into MemePad] No you did not, so no punishing Ms. Tikri for breaking the Prime Directive thingy. [leans back] For the record, in case the punishment for spilling is really serious.

UNS: I thank you for your generosity. But back to your use of Alexander's Faithist and Unitan titles...

BS: Faithist? Unitan? What is...

UNS: [squirming] I thought the explanation was fairly clear that Alexander's -sen suffix was a title strictly tied to certain Slayer religious sects.

BS: [slowly] Religious sects.

UNS: It was...I mean, when it was explained...

BS: I heard it, but I don't think it sunk in because we were all treating it like a joke. You mean it wasn't a joke? About the saint part, I mean. I'm not sure that I'm all that comfortable...Xander and Faith? I mean, don't get me wrong. I can actually kind of see...actually I can't...I'm not sure...

UNS: Certainly you believe in something.

BS: Well, yes. Of course. I haven't thought much about it, though.

UNS: What do you believe?

BS: I believe there's a heaven. I believe there are hells. Multiple. I believe in a solid right hook, the perfect flying kick, and in the sound of breaking a demon's neck. I believe crossbows are great if you want a flying fatality, but nothing takes out hulking rampaging evil like a good explosive. I believe Giles is the smartest man I'll ever know. I believe Willow is mistress of anything with a keyboard. I believe that Xander makes the best wooden stakes in this or any other dimension and he should turn that talent into becoming a real artist instead of wasting it on stakes. I believe Dawn is really my sister, even though I know it's not true. I believe Andrew is the best cook in the universe. I believe Wood really is trying too hard to be perfect--and I should know because I tried it myself and it always ends badly. I believe that under that tough exterior, there's a part of Faith that weeps like a baby every time she sees Bambi's mother get shot. I believe that sex can be hot or it can be tender, but not both. I believe in true love, but I believe that there are lots of things that look like true love but isn't.

UNS: I was talking about a deity.

BS: Oh. I guess.

UNS: Well, it's just that, from what I understand, Faith worships a deity called [checks MemePad] Cagney.

BS: [deadpan] Cagney. Figures.

UNS: And Alexander worships someone called Cat Woman.

BS: Now that I'd believe.

UNS: What deity do you...

BS: Look, can we get back to this whole Slayer religious sect thing? Because I'm really not all that comfortable...

UNS: Who do you believe is the source for all Slayer power?

BS: The First Slayer. And, much as it kills me to admit it, the bastards responsible for chaining her down and making her become a Slayer.

UNS: I, unh, don't understand.

BS: [mutters indistinctly]

UNS: I didn't catch that.

BS: [irritated] I said never mind. Forget I said anything. I only got part of the picture, so I might be missing something. Or at least I hope I am because otherwise... Besides, there's no point arguing about it now. It's all said and done. Water under London Bridge. Or is that London Bridge has fallen down? Whatever.

UNS: [slowly] So you believe the First Slayer is the source of all Slayers?

BS: Duh.

UNS: Even all the Slayers who came after the Great Awakening?

BS: Great Awakening?

UNS: The spell that allowed all adolescent Potentials to at last claim the Slayer power for themselves?

BS: Oh! The empowerment spell. [silence] I don't understand the question.

UNS: Who do you believe served is the source of Slayer power for newly activated Potentials?

BS: Your question makes no sense.

UNS: {sigh} You said the source of all Slayers is the First Slayer. Right?

BS: [suspicious] Yeeeeeeeessssss.

UNS: So, during the Great Awakening, did you or Faith serve as the link between the First Slayer and the new Slayers?

BS: [stunned silence]

UNS: Buffy? Buffy? Hello? [tentatively] Summers-rah?

BS: Summers-rah? [mutters indistinctly] Catherine called me mean to say

UNS: What?

BS: [gets out of chair and starts pacing] Are you telling me that somewhere out there that there's a -sen after my name? Just not in this particular crew because Ruda is a...what did you call her? Unitan? Faithist?

UNS: Well, there are different sects and...wait. No one has called only found out about Alexander and Faith by accident and no one told you about you. [quickly adds] I didn't tell you about you so if you're leaping to conclusions you did it all by your futching self. Not my fault if you guessed...I mean, you didn't guess. I mean...

BS: Sonofabitch.

UNS: Look, we're getting off track here. Who is the source of...

BS: Neither. I mean, there's the First Slayer and that's it. Faith and I, we...well, we're not the source of anything. We're not.

UNS: Are you about to tell our audience that everything the Slayers of my time believe is a load of horsha?

BS: What? No! I wouldn't do that! Everyone has the right to believe what they believe and...I think...I mean...someone's wires have gotten seriously, seriously crossed. Faith and I didn't do anything. I mean, okay, I came up with the plan, and Willow did the spell, which she couldn't do without the Slayer's Scythe, which I found, even though everyone said I was wrong to go looking for it. Not that I knew there was an 'it' to find. And, well, I can't blame them in retrospect because we did get our butts soundly kicked when we first went looking for 'it' before we knew there was an 'it' that was or an 'it' to find.

UNS: Wait. I'm confused. So you're saying that you are the link?

BS: No! Look, all the Potentials that got activated by the spell already had the potential to be Slayers. We didn't give them anything. The power was already there and just waiting to be awakened. All we did was wake it. That's it. That's all. I swear. There are no links, missing or otherwise.

UNS: But it was your idea.

BS: That's not the same question! You're talking about a power source, and missing links, and who's right in the holier-than-thou sweepstakes. I'm just taking credit for an idea. Two. Different. Things. Where the hell do you people get this stuff?

UNS: The two theories have been with us since before humanity left Tara.

BS: What? No...

UNS: Wait. You're taking that wrong. I mean...if it's any consolation, you sound like a Unitan.

BS: [edges for the door] I have to go. I can't...I mean...I don't want to hear any more because it might...the Prime Directive thingy. I think...Igottago...[BS flees interview room]

UNS: Wait! I don't understand your answer! You didn't explain whether Faith or you are the link!

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