Special thanks to physicsteach for catching the typo in this on the test list.
In theory, up to Part 65 is here, but Fan Fiction Dot Net has been acting like Live Journal did yesterday, so it appears it's still invisible.
Part 66 is here.
Ruda was one of those people that, no matter what, woke up in a good mood and went uphill to happiness for the rest of the day.
Some people might call that shallow, which only goes to show that some people don’t know what they’re talking about.
Ruda was just one of those people who have a basically honest temperament and a good disposition. To her way of thinking, life was too short, especially if you were a Slayer, to worry about every little problem. That was Catherine’s job and she was welcome to it as far as this Slayer was concerned.
Ruda genuinely believed that she had the best life in the best of all possible worlds. She got to travel. She got to help. She had the best Watcher ever—although most Slayers when asked would argue that their Watcher was the best, even if yours was pretty good—and the coolest friends in the universe.
And she got to travel back in time and see how it all began. Not too many people could say that and not be called a liar.
There were some problems. No one could say there weren’t, not even Slayers with a generally upbeat view of the universe. But problems could be solved and there was always the fun in winning just one more for the good guys. Problems, in Ruda’s mind, were not problems so much as a minor bump in the road.
The source of Ruda’s good nature was simple. She had unshakeable faith—the small ‘f’ as opposed to the capital ‘F’—in certain things.
Ruda believed that life was a grand adventure and anyone who didn’t see it that way needed to get out of the homestead so they could make more friends.
She believed that people were generally good at heart, even if they could sometimes be misguided and do bad things.
She believed things that didn’t go out of their way to hurt people didn’t need to be Slayed, but things that hurt people were fair game.
She believed the Grail existed and that it would be the key to beating back the Great Darkness threatening everything she held dear.
She believed the First Slayer was the beginning and end of all wisdom.
She believed that Hero Knowles embodied everything a Slayer was supposed to be, even if Hero Knowles was still just Violet.
She believed that Lanoire-rah-sen was the One True Slayer from whom all Slayers were descended, even if she suspected Faith didn’t believe it herself.
She believed that Harris-rah-sen was the other half of Faith’s soul, even if Alexander didn’t realize it yet.
She believed that the Seven were true heroes, even if they sometimes did things that didn’t seem hero-like, because they always managed pull through when things were darkest.
She believed in this time and this place as being the source of all that was good and noble in her universe.
And there wasn’t a single futching thing she saw that had proved her wrong yet.
Holding all of the above to be true, an objective observer might wonder why happy, bouncy, shiny Ruda was in a foul mood as she guarded the Grail in a dusty corner of the brownstone’s attic.
In Ruda’s world there was only one unforgivable sin: boredom.
And Ruda was bored. She was bored squared. She was the picture of bored. She was the very definition of bored. If she were Andrew, she might even go so far as to admit to being Episode One bored. Although being Ruda, she probably would think that all of Star Wars, including the classic A New Hope, were comedy vids so she might’ve actually liked Episode One and Attack of the Clones had she a chance to see either one.
Viva la difference between the cynical people of today and the more innocent people living 834 years from now.
But to get back to the subject at hand: Slayers and boredom.
Anyone who has any familiarity with the world of Slayers would know that boredom equals trouble. If luck held, boredom might lead to something good. If not…
Best not think about it.
The point is that boredom was the reason why Ruda was tossing a priceless relic like the Grail from hand-to-hand in time to a nursery rhyme:
“Doctor, Watcher, Slayer, Witch
Which would be, if you could pick?
The Prima is spelling without any hitch,
India’s ease proves her soul isn’t sick,
The Key heals wounds with a simple stitch,
Cat’s watching and asking all with a stick:
What would you be, if you could pick
Doctor, Watcher, Slayer, Witch?”
This was all rendered in her native Indrian language, so the above doggerel is as close as to English as anyone could get if they asked for a translation. Which no one was. Which meant Ruda was alone. Which meant Ruda was bored, in case anyone missed it.
She hit the hundredth repetition without any problems, so Ruda should be excused if her mind was wandering and she was feeling vaguely hypnotized by the time she hit repetition 101.
Right on the line, “India’s ease proves her soul isn’t sick,” she missed the Grail on the downbeat. It crashed to the floor and began rolling for the closed trap door.
Ruda scurried after it and scooped it up with a sigh of relief. Even though the trap door was closed, she thought it best to keep it far, far away in case proximity was enough to trigger paranoia in the rooms below. She quickly checked it over and allowed herself a small smile when she saw it wasn’t dented.
As she up-ended the Grail to check the bottom, her heart froze in her chest. The base was hollow.
It wasn’t hollow before.
It was flat and felt a little like clay and was a vaguely brownish color.
She knew this because she’d spent a lot of time tossing around that Grail.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no…” Ruda mumbled as she began to desperately scan the wooden floor. It didn’t take her long to spot the missing bottom piece. She snatched it up and tried to make it slot into place.
No go. It was as if the sealant had given away.
“I can’t believe I broke it.” Ruda was very, very close to tears over this. If the Grail failed to work when they got home, it would be all her fault.
She dropped to the floor in a cross-legged position and tried to force the bottom to remain stuck, but it wouldn’t work. She suspected she’d have to exert a little more force, but that meant she’d be in danger of harming the Grail, or rather, harming it even more.
Realizing that she was flat-out stuck, she gingerly put the Grail down and pondered how she was going to break the news to Catherine.
Then she saw it out of the corner of her eye: fluttery, yellowed sheets of paper.
Hunh. That wasn’t there before. Since Ruda had spent a lot of time in the attic since getting back from the tunnels, she knew that this was the case.
Afraid of causing even more disruption than she already had, she carefully stalked the paper until she was almost on top of sheets. After a few moments of uncharacteristic hesitation, she picked them up and began scanning the writing on both pages.
What she saw there caused her mouth to drop open and her eyes to widen as one thought happily danced in her head: We’re going home.
She quickly weighted the paper down with the Grail and scurried out of the attic to retrieve her teammates.
Catherine was incredulous. “You’re asking us to lie?”
“I’m not asking you to lie. ca-Rosenberg and myself are asking you to lie,” J’Nal corrected.
“One small problem: I’m not exactly sure it’s going to work,” Charlie pointed out. “After telling them about Polgar Syndrome, they’d have to be delusional to buy it.”
“We might be able to fool some of them,” Tikri opined. “I think we’ll have a hard time fooling Giles or Dawn.”
Catherine frowned at her. “What makes you say that?”
“Who’s been doing the interviews?” Tikri asked.
“That’s not answering the question,” Catherine countered.
“Giles seems to have a habit of cutting through the schitzka,” Tikri pointed out. “And he’s very, very good at connecting dots.”
“Talk high enough above his head, not necessarily,” Charlie countered. “And let’s be honest: this time travel stuff is above our heads. What chance does someone who knows nothing about it have?”
“Exactly,” J’Nal nodded.
“Wait. First you say there’s no way we can fool them, now you’re saying it’s possible?” Catherine asked.
“I’m just playing opposite to the end,” Charlie said with a shrug. “I don’t think it’s real likely that Giles will be the littlest bit fooled, especially since I practically danced a jig in his office earlier today, but even I can see why he might find the idea attractive.”
“You’re asking me to lie to…” Catherine began.
“…your Founders,” Charlie finished for her. “But they’re also human and very young. You’re asking them to carry a lot, maybe more than they’re ready to carry right now.”
“They’re stronger than you think,” Catherine muttered.
“Actually, I’m willing to bet that most of the people here will be willing swallow the lie,” Tikri interrupted. “Who wouldn’t in their shoes? I’m not sure I’d be happy if someone who I knew was from the future walked up to me and started telling me about things that hadn’t happened yet.”
“I’m just curious why you think Dawn might not swallow the lie along with everyone else,” J’Nal said.
Tikri gave him a half-smile. “Dawn strikes me as one of the people who see a lot more than they’re willing to admit to. She also has a tendency to see people, including herself, with fairly clear eyes. That’s a deadly combination in anyone.”
“But you think Alexander, Faith, Buffy, and that Robin will just go along?” Catherine asked.
Tikri shrugged. “Alexander and Faith seem to be good judges of character, at least based on what I’ve seen. The problem is they’re too emotionally tied into this situation. Give them even a small out, they just might take it.”
“They’ll figure it out when they end up right where we said they would,” Catherine said.
Tikri deflated. “You have me there.”
“Buffy and Robin?” Charlie prompted.
Tikri took a deep breath and thought about it. “Buffy will grab it like a lifeline. She was very disturbed by what little she discovered and I suspect she’ll use it as an opportunity to try and change things.”
“Which may end up resulting in her getting that —sen title whether she wants it or not,” Catherine said. “I still don’t think this is going to work.”
“As for Robin, well, he strikes me as someone more focused on resolving immediate problems, so he’s not likely to think too hard about the distant future one way or the other,” Tikri said. “He’s a very intelligent man, but he’s also a very goal-oriented man. Everything he does is geared to winning today, so I highly doubt that our lie is going to factor into what he does at all.”
“What about the others in this house?” Catherine asked.
“The others in the house know nothing about themselves in the future, so it’s moot point,” Tikri pointed out. “They have no reason to believe us, but then again, they’re not trying to escape the future either.”
“Is what we are that bad?” Catherine asked.
“No,” Charlie said as he sat down next to the Watcher Honoria. “Of course not. But look at it from their point of view. How would you like it if you got a letter from the future telling you bits and pieces about yourself, none of which you can ever see happening to you? You wouldn’t like it one bit.”
“Except for the part where it’s proof we survive the Great Darkness,” Catherine pointed out.
“Except for that part,” Charlie agreed.
Right on cue, Ruda burst through the door and began bouncing around the room. “Hey guys! Guess what, guys! You’re not going to believe what I found! Guys! Are you listening?”
Catherine recovered from Ruda’s sudden appearance and inserted herself in the way of Ruda’s happy dance. “Who’s guarding the Grail?”
“Pfffffft,” Ruda waved a hand. “If someone wants it, they’re going to have to fight their way through three floors of Slayers. This is way more important.”
“Important?” Catherine asked. “What could possibly be…”
“I got a leeeeee-tterrrrrrr,” Ruda sing-songed.
Charlie raised a hand. “Anyone else confused.”
“Actually, I got two letters and it’s from the future and it’s so weird Catherine you’re not going to believe it because one of them tells us that everything is going to be all right and tells us how we have to tell everyone here that the future isn’t the future and how we can get them to believe it and then there’s another letter for everyone else that tells them that the future isn’t the future and guess what Catherine they’re both from you!”
Ruda expelled this news without a pause for breath, although she did attempt to stand up straight and deliver it in something resembling a professional manner.
It took a little bit for Catherine’s brain to catch up with Ruda’s words, but when it finally all sunk in she was ready to drop to her knees and praise the Founders that Ruda was speaking Lingua Commonality instead of English.
“Show us,” Catherine ordered.
Ruda bounced out of the room with Catherine moving fast behind her. The confused trio of J’Nal, Charlie, and Tikri followed.
“Did anyone understand what she said?” Tikri asked.
“Catherine’s the expert on Ruda-speak. Me? I just let the words roll off me until she calms down,” Charlie commented.
In short order, Catherine’s team was assembled in the attic and Ruda was shoving two sheets of paper into the Watcher Honoria’s hands.
A quick glance was enough to signal that there was a problem. “Ruda, when did you learn Provincia?”
“It’s written in Indrian,” Ruda corrected with a sniff.
“I see High Prima,” J’Nal said as he crowded in from Catherine’s right.
“I’m seeing Haphaesian,” Charlie said as he crowded in from Catherine’s left.
“You can’t all be seeing your native tongues,” Tikri said. “It’s one or the other.”
“Yet here it is,” Catherine said.
She could feel a slight prickle of fear along her spine as she recognized her very bad handwriting scrawled across the pages. One page was simply an open letter to whoever happened to see it. A quick scan seemed to outline J’Nal’s plan, only with a few adjusted details here and there that, in a perfect world, made Willow’s web of deceit that much more plausible. She noticed that it was merely signed with her first name.
“Catherine?” Charlie’s voice sounded unsteady. “You haven’t read the other letter yet, have you? Scratch that. I know you haven’t because you’re actually smiling.”
Against her will, her eyes were pulled to the second letter, this one addressed only to the people on her team.
The first thing she noticed was the seals of all three major Slayer sects arranged across the top, followed by a second row with the seals of the Watchers Honoria and the Watchers Educationary.
It was the single, unfamiliar seal between the two Council seals that gave her pause. It said: “United in Hand, Heart, Head, and Hope.”
She wanted to stop reading, but her eyes were drawn down the page.
You’ve probably read the other letter by now. That’s the “message in the base” that Alexander promised in his false journal entry about Moscow.
Make sure you present the open letter when you tell everyone in Cleveland the Big Lie. They’ll doubt you at first, but when you show that letter, they’ll come around very quickly. I think holding this letter you’ll begin to understand why it’ll work.
The Grail comes from our time and for a brief moment it came home to us. I am writing these two letters in preparation for another team to go back in time to when that area was sparsely populated to put both Grail and guardian in place. The Primas have a stasis spell that will keep the guardian asleep until triggered by the presence of you, Charlie, J’Nal, Ruda, and Tikri. The placement team includes stone masons that will carve the necessary information into the walls.
Although in looking at the legends of old Tara in a new light, I suspect there might be an accidental detour in a country located across one of the planet’s oceans before they land in the right spot. For purposes of keeping the timeline intact, we’ve opted not to tell the team.
That reminds me. When you get home, make sure you ask dad to open the family vault. You might be very interested in reading several journals hidden there. The existence of these journals is a centuries-old secret that has been passed down from one head of the Family to the next. When you get back, they’ll finally see the light of day and the truth about Cleveland 2003 and Moscow 2008 will finally be known. The Wood-Stewarts also have several journals from the same time period and I recommend you ask to see those as well. Keeping these records hidden is maybe the only thing on which the Two Families have ever agreed.
Try not to break too many things after you read all of them.
(Side note: Cling-On is a fascinating language by the way. Be sure to look for similar “doodles” in Alexander’s and Faith’s journals. I don’t want to give away more, but I think you’ll be pleased to read them.)
“Wow,” Charlie breathed.
“I’ll ask for a translator lexicon for this Cling-On language before we leave,” J’Nal agreed.
Don’t ask where the Grail came from. To be honest, we’re not entirely sure ourselves. Don’t try to think about it too much. It’ll only make your head hurt. Maybe when all is said and done it doesn’t really matter where the cycle begins. The point is that it continues and that’s all we need to know.
You’ve made it this far and that’s good, but there’s more work to do. It’s not always going to be fun, it’s not going to be easy, and a lot of things are going to have to change if we are going to survive. Those six seals at the top of this letter are not there for show, but represent something real, something good that came out of this. Remember that when things get difficult and you don’t think you or your team will be able to survive.
But I can promise you that it’s going to be all right.
There’s so much more I want to say, but I can’t. There’s so much more I could say, but I won’t. To quote what a wise man once told himself in Cling-On: that would be cheating.
The letter was signed:
Catherine Anastasia Harris-Lanoire-Wood-Stewart
—Rah de Honoria vu Consul
Senscha de Unitas vu Commenseal
“Catherine? Are you all right?” Tikri asked with a slightly panicked edge to her voice. “Catherine?”
“I think she’s in shock,” J’Nal said
“She’s in shock? I’m in shock,” Charlie said. “What are you doing with the Wood-Stewart last name attached to you? Your families can’t stand to be on the same planet with each other.”
Catherine let out a sound that may have been a half-giggle or may have been a hiccup, although none of the others were entirely clear about that.
Then she passed out.
Despite all the assurances they had that the future was going to be just the way they left it, Catherine still insisted between bouts of fury and depression that J’Nal do the pathfinder spell to make sure.
All in all, the other members of the team thought it was a very good idea if Catherine stayed away from everyone in the house, especially Robin Wood since they could all envision a nasty incident involving Robin, Catherine, a pair of scissors, and his bloody penis bouncing across the carpet.
Since they all suspected that even Alexander might take offense to such an attack, they insisted she stay in the attic with Ruda. The letters were spirited away by Charlie and J’Nal made sure to cast a sealant spell on the attic trap door just in case Catherine decided to “stretch her legs.” This was done because Charlie and J’Nal were pretty sure that “stretching her legs” would involve stretching them in the direction of a certain tall, dark, bald, and bearded Watcher of their very recent acquaintance.
The pathfinder spell was very quick and didn’t take a lot of effort, mostly because J’Nal was looking down the clear path from the past to the future…or rather his present. It was a good sign that the path back to the future was so clear, not just because it was final proof that history was lumbering along its well-worn groove, but because the anchoring spell was working exactly the way it should.
The team thought it best to wait until evening to make their presentation to the Cleveland household. J’Nal took advantage of the time by stripping both Grail and the letters of the spell that induced paranoia in the Cleveland inhabitants.
What was left unsaid was that the cool-off period would also allow Catherine time to recover her composure enough to face a room with Robin in it. Even so, J’Nal found it necessary to warn the Watcher Honoria that if she stepped out of line, he’d be forced to cast a puppet spell on her to make her behave.
With much grumping about how J’Nal didn’t trust her and long convoluted explanations why she was very sure that her future self was just playing a nasty trick on her, Catherine promised to be her wonderful self, unlike that mean astraface who wrote the letters.
“Just don’t kill him. Please?” Charlie begged on their way to the library. “We’ve come so far and I’d hate for our future not to exist because you decided to commit murder.”
It was on this plaintive note that Catherine entered the library. She fingered the letter—the one that was to provide proof for their very unlikely story—hiding in her pocket. She did her best not to look at Robin, who was sitting in a chair with a gauze bandage wrapped around his head. In truth, he looked somewhat pale and tired, like he wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed.
Willow, who also looked tired, sat in another chair while Buffy and Kennedy hovered nearby. Alexander stood slightly behind the trio of women looking like he was about to face a firing squad. Faith was in a corner, trying not to look nervous, although her twitchy body language screamed that she was half-a-step away from climbing the walls.
“The news?” Giles asked as the last of Catherine’s people settled themselves.
“It appears that we will be safely returning home tomorrow,” said J’Nal, who was acting as the group’s spokesman. “However, something rather interesting has come up.”
Alexander crossed his arms and Faith went very still, Catherine noticed. Willow, whose plan this was, didn’t react at all, which Catherine saw as a huge mistake. Willow tended to make comments and ask questions during group meetings, so the fact she wasn’t responding should have revealed something was up.
“It appears that you’re not our past,” J’Nal stated.
Alexander’s eyes narrowed with confusion as he opened his mouth, but Andrew beat him to the punch.
“That’s not possible,” Andrew said. “Everyone knows that you can’t change time because even the changes that happened were meant to happen. I know what I’m talking about and you are wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Oh, no. If Andrew Wells can see through this, how in hada are we going to fool anyone else? Catherine thought with panic. It didn’t help that quite a few people in the room seemed to actually take Andrew’s outburst somewhat seriously.
“Andrew, I think basing your whole argument on Z-grade science fiction movies is a little fallacious,” Robin said.
Catherine was introduced to a new sensation. She actually wanted to kiss Robin Wood.
“It is not based on movies, and those movies are classics by the way,” Andrew sniffed. “It is based on a long, proud body of work that includes movies, television, and comic books.”
“Days of Future Past,” Alexander said.
“Is that a code?” Charlie asked.
“It’s a story arc in a comic book called The Uncanny X-Men,” Alexander answered.
“Hold on. You’re basing your whole argument on whether we’re telling the truth on something called comic books?” Charlie asked.
“Comic books are power funnies,” Catherine hastily explained.
“That’s still pretty stupid ammunition,” Charlie said.
Catherine hunched her shoulders and silently willed Charlie to shut the futch up. If they won this based on the strength of some power funny story, she for one was going to take it.
“I didn’t say it was perfect match,” Andrew said. “Besides, that was a clear-cut case of old Kitty possessing a young Kitty who lived in an alternative dimension because they didn’t actually change anything. When old Kitty went back to her own time, everything was just the way she left it.” This explanation was punctuated with yet another sniff.
“Well, if I understand what you’re saying,” J’Nal dove in with just a little too much desperation, “you’ve very much hit squalamus on its bald head.
“Squalamus?” Kennedy asked.
“It’s this little furry animal with big sharp teeth and a bald head,” Ruda said. “They’re really cute and they’re really mean. I knew this one Slayer that faced off against one and it bit her arm clean off.”
“How big are they?” Buffy gulped.
“Oh, about this high,” Ruda demonstrated by putting her hand down to knee level.
“Oh. So it’s a targ,” Andrew nodded sagely.
Alexander put his face in his hands, although Catherine wasn’t sure if it was because he was trying not to laugh or trying not to cry.
“Sounds more like the Tasmanian Devil if you ask me,” Kennedy mumbled.
“Targ? Tasmanian Devil?” Ruda sounded intrigued.
“Well, it’s this…” Andrew began.
“Pardon me,” Giles interrupted, “but before this goes too far a field into…ah…little furry animals one cannot keep as pets, perhaps we should hear J’Nal out.”
“Thank you.” J’Nal inclined his head in Giles’s direction. “What I was trying to say is that you are something of an alternative history to our own.”
“Yeah. We got that,” Dawn said. “But you haven’t said how you know this.”
Well, Tikri called that one right, Catherine thought.
“It comes down to simple laws of the universe,” J’Nal said. “Unfortunately quantum physics, Gropin’s Law, causality, Calivius’s Theorem, geometry, astrophysics, rotafulgum, and a complicated overlay of mystical energy all come into play that makes if very difficult to explain.”
Considering that Gropin’s Law was a about agricultural productivity yields, Calivius’s Theorum was a theory about economics, and rotafulgum was a made-up word, Catherine wondered if J’Nal was even trying.
“I didn’t ask you to explain,” Dawn stated. “I asked how you know.”
And once more, a lot of people were considering the idea that they weren’t being entirely truthful about the alternative history story. Catherine just didn’t get it. They were willing to take a leap of faith on the whole time-travel issue and in deciding to help them retrieve the Grail. You’d think they’d grab on to the idea that they’re an alternative history like a lifepod, but no.
True, she said from the beginning that no one would be fooled, but she didn’t expect the doubt to start so soon. She thought they’d at least have a chance to make their very wobbly case. She wondered if her group was somehow giving away physical clues that they were lying through their teeth.
In the face of such doubt, J’Nal veered from the well-practiced script. “I was able to communicate with people from my time. It turns out that, against all expectations, they were able to track us and the events that happened around us. By comparing the mystical energy of our own timeline and the mystical energy of our current location, they were able to conclude that there were some differences.”
“How big of a difference are we talking?” Willow prompted.
“Enough to register, but not so large that they can pinpoint that difference.”
Catherine suppressed a smile while Willow’s eyebrows raised in surprise. The original plan J’Nal presented was supposed to center on some huge event that would happen in 2008, but that they weren’t sure what it was. Willow knew they were lying since this mess was her futching idea, but now she was in the dark as to the nature of the lie. That meant she was as lost as everyone else, something that could only be put in the good column.
“It may be something large, or it could be something rather small, so small that it might not make any difference to the final outcome,” J’Nal said.
Willow’s eyebrows disappeared under her bangs.
“How. Do. You. Know,” Dawn emphasized.
“As I explained…” J’Nal began.
“We have a letter!” Catherine blurted out.
Her team turned to her, all of them with murder in their eyes. The letter was supposed to be the coup de grace, not the whole of their argument. However, Catherine knew if J’Nal kept piling lie upon lie, it was going to be hard to keep track. If they got caught out the situation could turn ugly.
“A letter?” Willow asked.
“A letter,” Catherine confirmed as she stepped forward. “It turns out that there was a message hidden inside the Grail’s base.”
Alexander paled and leaned against the wall. “I forgot about that,” he murmured.
“Forgot?” Giles asked. He shook his head. “Ah, yes. The message in the base that was supposed to be for us all. I quite forgot all about that as well.”
“Seems to me that kind of argues against the alternative history theory,” Buffy said.
“Yes and no.” Catherine tried not to raise her voice to counter the pounding in her ears. “The reason we were able to get here is because up to the point of our arrival your timeline and ours are in sync. The change, whatever it is, will happen after we leave. It could be something big, like you recruiting a new Slayer that you didn’t in our history. Or, it could be something really small, like you paint a room yellow instead of blue. We just don’t know.”
“Like the man said, could be something that makes our future wicked different or something that doesn’t really affect the outcome at all,” Faith said from her corner.
Although Catherine was a little surprised that Faith seemed to be the first to come around, she did her best not to show it. “Exactly. According to this letter,” here she drew out the folded paper, “it’s impossible to actually land in your own past. We should have realized it before we got here since all those things J’Nal mentioned, especially Gropin’s Law, tells us this is the case.”
“Then what was the deal about keeping the timeline pure?” Alexander asked.
There was a chorus of “yeahs” accompanying the question.
“We know it in retrospect. We just didn’t realize it at the time,” Charlie jumped in. “How’s your agricultural yield this year?”
“Charlie,” Catherine growled.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Robin asked.
“Charlie’s making a joke since the theory uses agriculture as an illustrative example,” J’Nal smoothly explained.
“Did anyone ever tell you guys that your idea of pop culture is just scary?” Alexander asked.
“They don’t even know what a sitcom is,” Willow said.
“And this is bad how?” Faith asked.
“Hardly seems to have crippled their ability to confuse the living daylights out of us,” Giles dryly said.
“The thing is,” Catherine raised her voice to get everyone’s attention, “thanks to our trip back to the past, we have a new theory.”
“I can’t wait to hear this,” Dawn said with folded arms.
I’m really going to have to revise my opinion on Tikri’s ability to read people. Everyone is on the edge of coming around except Dawn. Catherine kept cool as she said, “The Grail has been circulating between the past and the present for…actually, we don’t know how many times. Every time a team comes to retrieve the Grail from Cleveland 2003, they cause a change.”
“A change that can either be large or small,” Giles said.
“Precisely. At some point in the future, we will send another team back in time to put the Grail back where we found it and install the snake,” Catheirne said.
“So, why doesn’t that cause a change?” Thank the Founders, Willow was finally getting into the spirit of things by asking questions.
“Because the team manages to find a time when this area was sparsely populated and is able to avoid interacting with anything sentient,” J’Nal answered.
Holy hada! This is going to work! Catherine thought as she saw the Cleveland group giving this very serious thought.
“From what we understand,” J’Nal continued, “these changes, at least at first, result in very little discernable change in the outcome that results in all of us,” he waved at his group to illustrate his point. “However, there is a cumulative effect.”
“One change builds on top of another change,” Giles explained.
“Okay. I guess I could see that,” Andrew grumbled. “Maybe it is an X-Men situation.” He brightened. “Actually, it’s probably more like a Crisis on Infinite Earths situation.”
“Crisis?” Catherine asked. “No crisis! There’s no crisis involved.”
“Let me explain for the geek-impaired.” Alexander gave Andrew an exasperated look, “The general idea is that all these changes are creating all these alternate realities. At some point there’s alternative universe overload and they all collapse into one another and form a single reality again. Sort of like the Big Bang in reverse.”
“It’s the right idea, but not entirely correct.” If Catherine didn’t know better, she’d think J’Nal was actually enjoying the give-and-take he had going while spinning their tall tale. The witch smiled as he continued, “The alternative realities will not collapse one into another since they can easily coexist side-by-side without causing so much as a ripple. However,” here he held up a finger, “eventually the cumulative effect will reach such a point that one particular reality will entirely break free and result in a future that would be unrecognizable to all of us.”
Everyone exchanged confused glances, except for Dawn, whose cynical eyes were fixed on J’Nal. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but Catherine swore she saw a flash of bright, electric green in them.
“Because we don’t know how many times the Grail has cycled between Cleveland 2003 and our time and because we don’t know what changes occurred during the other cycles, we don’t know how your future will change from what we know or even if it will change,” J’Nal continued, seemingly insensible to the doubting Dawn. “Furthermore, this could be the reality that truly breaks free and results in an unrecognizable future.”
“It’s all here in the letter if you want to read it,” Catherine said.
Giles held out his hand, forcing Catherine to cross the room to give it to him. She jittered nervously as the Watcher unfolded the letter.
“This is in English,” Giles said as he peered at her over the top of his vision correction apparatus.
“We all see it in our native tongues and no, we really don’t know the technology or mystical principles behind it,” Catherine hastily said.
Giles grunted an acknowledgement, since he was already reading the letter. When he was done, he looked up with a small grin. “I can see why you’re willing to give weight to your alternative history theory.”
“Yeah, well, it is my handwriting and that is my name,” said Catherine.
“Still no last name provided I see,” Giles said.
“Maybe that’s one of things that will change,” she said evenly.
Giles gave her a nod as he passed the letter to Alexander, who crouched down next to Buffy. Buffy, Willow, and Kennedy crowded around Alexander as they read the letter. Catherine could see the beginnings of relief on Alexander’s and Buffy’s faces, although she wished Willow would stop smiling.
When the quartet was done, Dawn practically snatched the paper out of their hands. Andrew stood next to her so he could read it over her shoulder. Andrew occasionally let out a quiet “cool,” but Dawn seemed still unconvinced. As she read, a frown line appeared between Dawn’s eyebrows, almost as if she knew it was all a lie.
Faith was the next to get it, but her expression remained blank as she read it over. She obviously bought it, but Catherine had no idea if the Slayer viewed this as good news or bad. When she was finished, Faith did allow herself a relieved smile and, as she handed the letter to Robin, said to Catherine, “No offense.”
“None taken,” Catherine inclined her head.
“Looks good,” Robin said as he read over the letter. “I have to admit this is a pretty solid case.”
“I must admit that I’m rather surprised that you’re willing to take our word,” J’Nal said.
“Well sir,” Robin said with a smile, “In the past few days I’ve met time travelers, looked for mystical Grails, and fought a giant snake using walnuts because someone mentioned the snake didn’t like it…”
“Unh, sorry about that,” Alexander said.
“So, really, my world? Not exactly on solid footing,” Robin said without acknowledging Alexander spoke. “Swallowing one more impossible thing is not all that hard once you get used to eating your foot.”
“Eating your foot?” Charlie asked. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Hey, Andrew. What’s a targ? Oh, and Kennedy? What’s a Tasmanian Devil?” Ruda asked.
“Something tells me you’re gonna be sorry you asked, kid,” Faith said.
“I hope the MemePad recorded all this,” Tikri muttered as she punched buttons.
Catherine allowed herself to relax. Whether or not they bought it a hundred percent didn’t matter. The point is they were willing to consider it and act accordingly. Much as she hated lying, she had to admit that Willow was right to ask them to do this.
She turned around to say something to Charlie and came face-to-face with Dawn. She had no idea how the girl managed to get so close to her without realizing it.
Dawn’s expression seemed to indicate that she had a million reasons why Robin’s “solid case” was full of hot air, but the girl also seemed to know that she was outnumbered. Catherine saw Dawn’s eyes track to her left. The Watcher Honoria followed the girl’s gaze and realized that they landed on a knot consisting of Alexander, Buffy, and Willow as they talked quietly amongst themselves. She saw Faith standing the background bopping her head as if she were listening to her own music.
Catherine suspected the obvious relief on her sister’s and Alexander’s faces were the things that convinced Dawn to not put more voice to her serious doubts.
When Catherine looked back at Dawn she saw the girl was intently watching her again. Whatever lighting they were using seemed to bring the hidden green in the Dawn’s eyes because Catherine could’ve sworn she saw another electric flash. For some reason she couldn’t name, she felt her stomach clench at the illusion.
Finally, Dawn raised a single elegant eyebrow and gave Catherine a tight nod, a silent promise that she would stop arguing the issue. At that every muscle in Catherine’s body relaxed.
Catherine watched Dawn turn on her heel and stride over to Faith. “What’s with the quiet?” the girl demanded.
“Doesn’t affect me, does it?” Faith shrugged. “Xander’s the big mucky-muck.”
Catherine covered her mouth to hide her smile.
“You aren’t? I heard a —rah-sen after your name, too,” Dawn sounded almost teasing as she said this.
“Unless that shit pays cash, I ain’t gonna worry about it,” Faith retorted with good humor.
Dawn gave Faith’s shoulder a friendly bump. The Slayer startled as if she was surprised by this, but she soon melted into a grin and bumped Dawn’s shoulder back. “Guess I ain’t the only one relieved, hunh?”
“You might say there’s a lot of it going around,” Dawn said with a smile.
Praise the Founders, Catherine thought in agreement.