liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
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Water Hold Me Down (Part 23)

Glad I waited until I was less doped up before putting up this part. There was some pretty sloppy writing. (Looks at previous part and winces.) Remind me never, ever to post a story part when I'm sick.

nwhepcat will be pleased to know that Jenny shows up for a second and last time in this story. (I did promise to at least use Kallie and Jenny in passing. Whee! I even worked it so you can see the her story parts in order!)

You know, this birthday fic of hers is going way longer than I expected. *headdesk*

The entire story is here.

Part 22 is here.

 

Tweedy was digging through Robin’s special delivery boxes as he mumbled to himself. Watcher-man just refused to go get some sleep, although god knows he needed it. Faith sat in a chair and tried to rub away the beginnings of a headache. She’d been at this for hours and felt wiped, which probably shouldn’t have been a big surprise. She was never one for the bookwork. Give her a big ugly and a stake, and she could go at it all night. Wave a leather-bound book at her with words that weren’t English, and watch her head explode.

The way she figured it, if she was tired, Tweedy had to be on the point of collapse, book lover or no.

Even though Faith had already mentioned ten times in the past three hours that Giles should at least take a nap, she figured she should try again. “Yo, G? Maybe you oughtta—”

“I’m fine,” Giles snapped.

“Unh-hunh. Think you’re gonna be helping Cyclops if you pitch headfirst into the box and start snoring, do ya?”

Giles picked up a book and glared at it like it called his mother fat. “That’s bloody well not it.”

“What say you hit the sack after you open those last two boxes?”

“Oh do shut up, girl!” Giles spit at her.

Faith froze with her mouth hanging agape.

Giles didn’t notice Faith’s non-reaction as he jerked an unopened box to him. He paused a moment as he stared the address label.

Faith stood up. “I’m splitting. I don’t need—”

“Stupid boy,” Giles said to the box.

“Hunh?”

Giles brought a fist down onto the box. “You stupid,” he brought his fist down again, “idiotic,” and again and again and again, “boy! What did you think—”

Faith wasn’t entirely sure how she ended up dragging a flailing Giles away from the box. She put the instinctive move down to the shock of seeing Tweedy lose his shit. As she shoved him in a chair, she said, “I think you need sleep. Now.”

“I never asked for this,” Giles said like he didn’t hear her. “Do you understand? I never asked for this. ‘Just worry about the girl,’ they said. ‘Just worry about—’ Bloody girl had friends. It’s not my job to—I ask you! Where were their parents? Willow’s? Xander’s? Where the bloody hell were they when their children were out all hours of the day and night?”

Faith took a step back. She wasn’t entirely sure Tweedy wouldn’t take a swing at her and she was afraid she might hit him back just out of instinct.

“Xander was easily the most…the most annoying child.” Giles’s shoulders slumped. “Drove me around the bend with his stupid jokes and utter inability to…” Giles paused. “I tolerated him and sometimes barely at that. He could be rather foolhardy, not that the foolhardiness didn’t save more than a few people, including myself, but I honestly…” his voice trailed off.

“You don’t like him,” Faith said.

“I like him. Now.” Giles took off his glasses and dropped them onto the tabletop. “I didn’t dislike him then, mind. I just…I simply didn’t understand him. Didn’t understand the way he thought. Still don’t, truth to tell. At least now I appreciate it.”

“Hey, you know what? I think maybe you should be havin’ this conversation with B. Or maybe even Cyclops when he gets back, so maybe—”

“How did I end up being the one thing, Faith? The one element? In all the realities that can possibly exist, every time a Rupert Giles showed up on the doorstep of a Xander Harris and asked for his help, that Xander Harris went. Except for this once. He’d turned down Buffy in multiple realities. Willow. Any number of people. But me? Only once.” Giles seemed lost. “What am I to him? What was I to him?”

Faith figured the only reason why Tweedy was dumping on her was luck of the draw. If B were here when he finally snapped under the pressure, B’d be getting the earful instead of her. But B was out on patrol, so she was stuck and left with nothing to say.

Giles watched her with his overtired eyes. “Yes, I suppose I am asking the wrong person.”

“You know, you’re getting all shook up over nothin’,” Faith said. “You’re just so wasted you ain’t thinking straight. I mean, c’mon. Most people’d take it as a big ol’ compliment. You’re like the one person he can almost never say no to.”

Giles slipped his glasses back on. “Yes. Yes, I suppose it is.”

“So, why are you acting like it’s the end of the world?” Faith asked.

Giles stared dejectedly at the box. “It appears I have a responsibility I never asked for nor desired.”

“Cyclops ain’t your responsibility and he never was,” Faith said firmly. “Don’t know if you noticed G, but Cyclops is a big boy.”

“Wasn’t always,” Giles said as he got to his feet. “Once upon a time he was foolish 16-year-old boy who didn’t know vampires and demons were anything more than horror movie staples. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if his antics were a bid for attention.”

“You’re feeling guilty?” Faith asked.

“What? Good heavens, no. I had no way of knowing and even if I did, I’m not entirely sure I would’ve reacted at all well. So best for all concerned that it never came up before now,” Giles said. “But given, ahh, how tetchy my relationship with Xander could be at times, I find it to be a rather heartbreaking state of affairs.”

***

Giles swore that it took forever for the guards to finish with their protective spells. By the time they were finished, he was fairly certain that he was glowing from an overdose of magic. Lady Haversham forced a protective talisman in his hand and urged him to be careful.

“You only say that because I’m the devil you know,” Giles grumbled.

“I say it because I do genuinely like you, Rupert,” Lady Haversham said. “Now watch yourself in there. I don’t have to tell you that she’s quite the clever one.”

Giles took a deep breath to center himself before he opened the outer door to Willow’s cell. Through the glass window of the inner door, he saw Willow look up expectantly. He took another deep breath, this time to force his beating heart into a normal rhythm, before he opened the second door.

“Giles,” Willow said with a hollow-sounding cheeriness.

“Willow,” Giles coolly acknowledged back.

Willow hopped out of her chair and next thing he knew, she was holding both his hands in hers. Her hands were still sticky from the syrup.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you,” Willow said with a ghastly grin.

Giles fought a wince. Willow’s attempt at chirpy sounded wooden, like she had memorized the tone, but had forgotten what it meant. It grated against his eardrums, much like hearing nails scratching on a chalkboard.

“Please. Sit down. Oh, do sit down,” Willow insisted in a tone that tried for light, but completely missed the mark.

Giles freed his hands from Willow’s grip, which caused her to frown. “Your hands are dirty,” he said by way of an excuse.

Willow stared at her palms, like she hadn’t seen them before.

“Perhaps you should use the napkin to clean them?” Giles suggested.

“Did you know,” Willow said, “that your left palm is the fate you were born with and the right hand is the fate you create? Tara told me that.”

Giles swallowed. Since that awful day in Sunnydale thirteen years ago, he hadn’t once heard Tara’s name cross Willow’s lips. Granted, he had heard few words cross her lips in the intervening years, but Tara’s name was the last thing he expected to hear.

“Look,” Willow held up her palms for inspection. “The left shows it all clearly. A strong headline, indicating a life full of intellectual pursuits. Not much of a heart line, which means love is non-existent or exists only as something external. A very light fate line.” She dropped her left palm so she could look at it. “A life trapped. Nothing special. Just plain old Willow following in the footsteps of dear ol’ mum and marrying someone like dear ol’ dad.”

“What are you saying?” Giles asked.

Willow’s smile showed all her teeth. “This is not what I was born to. Not at all. If it weren’t for you and Buffy, I’d be less than nothing.” She waved her right hand around the room. “I even have my own castle.”

Giles refused to rise to the bait. Although Willow sounded and acted saner than she had since before she murdered Buffy and Dawn, he didn’t trust it one bit. Willow always was and always would be a clever girl. She knew how to play the rules in her favor, even when her circumstances were reduced and her sanity in doubt. After all, she managed to extract a promise that only the head of the Council could kill her, and even then it had to be done with his or her own two hands. Willow had rightly guessed that it would take years, if ever, for Giles, as head of the Council, to do the deed. Although she had no assurances that the next Council head would hesitate to kill her, what she bought was time and for a witch as powerful as Willow, time was all she needed.

Willow’s lips quivered with obvious disappointment in the face of Giles’s stony silence. “I’m so pale,” she said. “I never see the sun. Is it still there? The sun? How about the sky? I’m very concerned. What if the sun and sky disappears and I can’t stop it because I’m in my castle? All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men can’t do the queen’s job.”

“Is that what you want? Your freedom?” Giles asked.

Willow stared into her right palm. “The lines on this hand are changing while I watch. The web that binds us all is being tangled and tangled until all the threads break. The Erinyes are spinning and spinning, and weaving and weaving, and snipping and snipping to make it right, but they’ll never put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It’s already lost. The world begins anew and you’ll never guess what happens next.”

“What do you know about this?” Giles asked.

Willow laughed with genuine delight. Giles shivered and waited.

“He’s here you know,” Willow said. “And when he finds me in my castle, you won’t be able to stop him.”

“Who? The creature causing this disruption?” Giles asked.

“He’s dirty. Very, very dirty. He’ll see and he’ll be angry. When he sees my castle, he’ll destroy the Council, he’ll break the Scythe, he’ll make the Slayers turn against you. He’ll stop at nothing to make you pay and pay and pay.”

“This creature is dangerous,” Giles said.

“Passionate,” Willow said absently.

“You seem rather certain this creature is your ally.”

“Born on a Hellmouth, there when it died. Like recognizes like. He’s scarred. Filthy. Deliciously stained.” Willow licked her lips. “All it takes is a push and he’s mine.”

Giles’s eyes narrowed. “You’re overplaying your hand, Willow. If you really wanted the creature here, you wouldn’t be so forward about your desires.”

Willow pouted.

“Perhaps we should bring it here and introduce you. I’d be very curious as to how it would really react,” Giles mused.

Willow flounced to her bed and dropped on it. “The old man is too clever for me. Yes, he always was too clever,” Willow muttered. “Can’t tell him. Can’t.”

“You’re worried,” Giles grinned. “Now what on earth would worry you?”

Willow’s nostrils flared as her cold, black eyes bore through him.

“You sent Faith to California to kill it, didn’t you?” Giles asked. “The threat to your old acquaintance was a ruse.”

“Say his name,” Willow hissed.

“No.”

“Say his name,” Willow hissed more insistently.

“He’s not in any danger at all, is he?” Giles felt even more certain. “Although I wonder why you thought Faith would even bother after he abandoned us to our fate. She certainly was never fond of him even before that point.”

Willow glowered.

“Perhaps you were holding the threat of payback over her head?” Giles inquired. “It would be in character for Faith to not admit you threatened her.”

“Didn’t threaten,” Willow said sullenly.

“Am I to take your word?” Giles asked. “I think not. She may not care, but you could certainly give the illusion that you do. Send her to Zihuataneo under the cloud of a threat to ‘save’ your old acquaintance. She just happens to stumble across this creature and then kills it, which solves your problem admirably.”

“Doubles and troubles,” Willow muttered. “He brings chaos to whatever he sees. Can’t stop him, can’t, can’t, can’t. His order is not this order. His rules are not these rules. We will drown in his blood if we fail. She will down us and won’t stop until we all pay and pay and pay. The Erinyes are on her side. The binding goes both ways.”

“Who will drown us?” Giles asked. “Willow, what have you done?”

“Relentless,” she said as her eyes darted around her cell. “He won’t give up. He won’t stop. He has reasons now. If he succeeds, he’ll come here and…” Willow whimpered and curled into a ball.

Giles stepped back. What on this sorry old earth could frighten her so much? “This creature is more powerful than you.”

“He has no power,” Willow spit. “None. No power. I have the power. He does not have power.”

“Really? Because that’s certainly not what I hear,” Giles said.

“He’s the one who sees,” Willow whispered. “In the elsewhere he dreams, but here he sees what is, even if he doesn’t see that he sees”

Giles frowned. “And he’ll see you for what you are.”

Willow fixed her black eyes on him, but didn’t say anything.

Her silence was all the confirmation Giles needed. Willow may claim it had no power, but this creature clearly was strong enough to give her a scare. Then it hit him. The creature wasn’t tied into the web of life, which meant that the geas to keep Willow alive didn’t apply to it. If it saw Willow and perceived her as the threat she was, it could act when others’ hands were tied. And it just might take that final step that he had failed to take.

Dear god, it’s a loophole in the geas, one not even Willow foresaw, Giles thought.

“He’ll listen to you,” Willow said.

Giles shook his head. “What?”

“He’ll listen to you. He’s looking for you. He wants to find you. He needs to find you. He won’t listen to anyone, but he’ll listen to you. He trusts you. Yes, trusts you more than he should because he thinks you’re someone else. He thinks that you are the you in the elsewhere,” Willow said as she curled tighter. “Only you. It has to be you.”

Giles stepped back and considered this new wrinkle. It wasn’t beyond the pale for Willow to lie about her fear and the fact that he was the only person who could stop it if it suited her purposes. Although to what end? His death wouldn’t benefit her. In fact, it could place her in mortal peril if the next Council head believed her to be more trouble than she was worth.

No. Keeping him alive and safe was in Willow’s best interests. There was no chance she’d send him out to face the creature if there was even a potential threat to his life.

Willow suddenly sat up and looked around. “She’ll be calling soon.”

“Who?”

Willow blinked and fixed her eyes on him. “You have to go. You have to be ready.” She smiled. “It’s happening. All those threads, all that spinning. It’s happening.”

“What’s happening?” Giles asked.

“Go!” Willow screamed as she jumped to her feet. “Go go go go go go go!”

The door opened behind Giles and there was a rush of people around him to get to Willow. She didn’t put up a struggle and let them wrestle her into bed.

The last thing Giles saw before he was pulled out of the room was the smile on Willow’s face. It was almost, dare he say, beatific.

“Are you all right?” Lady Haversham’s voice cut through the chaos of the outer rooms.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Giles said as he shook off his rescuers.

“Well, that explains that then.” Lady Haversham frowned at the door to Willow’s cell. “Her waking up and this disruption are most certainly related.”

“Yes. If only we knew what to do about it,” Giles said.

“I would think it’s clear. Stop it by any means necessary before it causes even more damage,” Lady Haversham said.

“Oh, it must be stopped. Make no mistake there,” Giles agreed. “But Willow is clearly worried about this creature. It behooves us to find out why before deciding on a course of action.”

***

The town center was so quaint it made Xander’s brain ache. While the Harris family wasn’t big on vacations, there was a period when his parents were sober enough to attempt daytripping. Zihuataneo’s downtown looked just like every other downtown of every tourist trap California seaside resort he’d seen.

There was the ever-present place to buy “homemade” fudge and candies. For every high-end, one-of-a-kind retail shop, there was a store that specialized in tacky kitsch. And for the piece de resistance, there was an overabundance of restaurants and bars that would never survive without the tourist trade. Since it was the Christmas season, everything was still open. Xander suspected the owners hoped the holiday shopping would net them that last drop of profitability before business dropped to a trickle until colleges went on spring break.

How scary is this? I still remember Anya’s rant about the post-Holiday business blues. Or maybe he wasn’t so much remembering Anya’s rants as he was Anya’s arguments with Giles about tactics to boost sales during the retail dead days of late January through early March.

Xander once more passed by the local branch of Bank of America and saw that it was just after five thirty, at least according to the clock out front. He’d managed to kill a grand total of a half-hour. “C’mon,” he grumbled, “Anya said her and the hubby are big wheels in this town. Are you seriously telling me that there isn’t one person around here that doesn’t recognize me?”

“Yo, Harris!”

Xander looked to the heavens and mouthed, “Thank you.”

There was a light punch on his upper arm on his blind side. It took everything Xander had not to take an swing at whoever did it out of training-honed instinct.

“Sooooo, shopping for the wife?” the voice floated from the darkness to his left. “Betchya she’s hitting you up pretty good this year. Women, right? Always want the bigger treasure chest.”

Xander casually turned his head so he could get a look at the guy.

“See, you should do what I do. Write a check and tell her to buy herself something nice.” The speaker was a short, balding guy who was on the pudgy side. His face was beet red, although Xander guessed the cause was high blood pressure instead of booze since he couldn’t smell anything.

“I like my teeth in my mouth, thanks,” Xander said. “Besides, writing a check isn’t exactly romantic.”

“I hear ya, I hear ya,” short-round nodded cheerfully. “Probably why my ex is the ex, right?”

Color me shocked, Xander thought as he plastered a smile on his face.

“Hey,” short-round leaned in. Xander’s smile turned genuine as his nose caught the faint scent of beer on the guy’s breath. “You’re looking different there, Harris. Did you have work done?”

Since this was the second time someone had asked that since he got here, Xander knew better than to try and deny it. “Anya’s idea.”

“Unh-hunh. Tell me another one.” Short-round landed another friendly punch on his upper arm. “You know, my other leg hasn’t been pulled today. Sounds to me like someone was getting sick of seeing the ol’ crow’s feet in the mirror.”

“Wow. That’s pretty blunt,” Xander deadpanned.

Short-round sobered a little at that. “No offense meant. Just joking. You know I kid because you’re my most steady customer, right?”

“Let me guess,” Xander said with a tight smile, “celebrating the holidays early?”

“Celebrating good news, you mean.” Short-round puffed up his chest. “Planning board okayed that new subdivision off Division Street. We’re talking twenty-four McMansions. That’s a lot of board feet, more than enough for everyone to get a cut of the action. I figure I’ll be beating off the subcontractors, and that’s even if I double my prices.” He elbowed Xander in the ribs with a wink. “You know the kind of crowd those houses attract. You just know they’ll be looking to spend wadges of cash to spruce up the showplaces for their trophy wives. You’ll be so busy that your wife will have to let you hire some help.”

“We’ll see,” Xander said.

“Damn, your wife’s a smart businesswoman, but she really does squeeze Washington’s nuts so hard that he sings soprano whenever she opens the wallet,” short-round said sympathetically.

That’s my cue. Xander hoped he looked sufficiently like he’d been kicked. “About that. I’d offer to contribute to the big celebration, but I don’t have my wallet on me.”

Short-round blinked. “So why are you Christmas shopping?”

Xander heaved a sigh. “Didn’t say I was. I’m just walking around until Anya forgives me.”

“Oh, man.” Short-round clapped a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “That’s just rough. Must be something if she threw you out.”

“Ummm, yeah. More like I stormed out and she slammed the door after me.” Xander knew he’d pay good money to listen in on the conversation next time the evil twin and short-round crossed paths. “Thing is, I left without my wallet, keys, or credit cards. But if I go back and get them…I just don’t want to think about it. We’ll be fighting even worse than before.”

Short-round shook his head. “If you’re spilling your guts on the sidewalk, that must’ve been one hell of a fight.”

“Yeah, well, that’ll teach me to bring up one of my ex-girlfriends,” Xander said.

“What possessed you to do that?”

Xander figured he just gave this guy the bestest Christmas present ever, given the way short-round’s eyes were shining. This guy enjoyed the idea of happily married Harris losing his composure in public after a nasty fight with his wife just a little too much for Xander’s taste. Nope. He didn’t like this guy at all. Good. He wouldn’t feel the least bit guilty about taking advantage of short-round for everything he was worth. He just had to resist the temptation to slap short-round for the jock-like kid-you punches and nudges.

Probably easier said than done.

“Well?” short-round pushed, obviously thinking that Xander was reluctant to spill the gory details for his amusement.

“A mutual friend contacted me. Turns out my ex-girlfriend from high school settled in Cleveland and ran into a little bit of trouble,” Xander shrugged as he recited the lie he came up with during his walk around the town center. “It’s one of those things, you know? I haven’t spoken to her since before I met Anya, but the story I heard…well, let’s just say it involved medical bills for her kid and leave it at that. I thought I’d give her a call; maybe see what we could do to help. Next thing I know, Anya’s going off the deep end.”

“Oh, jeez. And here you are trying to be a nice guy, and this is what you get,” short-round nodded in a show of sympathy.

Time to wing it a little. “I don’t know,” Xander sighed. “Anya’s been acting off ever since I got the thingy done to my face, which she wanted me to get. I can’t even talk to a female customer without Anya accusing me of flirting. I just don’t get it.”

Short-round leaned in and said conspiratorially. “I swear it’s the water supply. The wives in this town just hit a certain age and next thing you know, they’re practically begging the husbands to go shopping for new wives by turning into harpies.”

“But I’d never do that!” Xander fought back a wince because he sounded just a little overdramatic to his own ears. So much for winging it. He really should’ve stuck to the script.

“Well, you say that, but the fight you had? It’s nothing. It’s going to get worse. It always gets worse.” Short-round obviously wanted to believe a Harris-marriage-on-the-rocks story, even though that was not what Xander had actually said. “It gets to the point that you just can’t take it any more and just want some peace and quiet, preferably with a sweet young thing that won’t bitch at you for every little mistake. That’s what happened to me.”

Xander prayed he wasn’t rolling his eyes. “You don’t say.”

“’Course I learned my lesson,” short-round said with a wink and a nod. “I’m taking my time this time. Have a little fun before I slip on a new ball and chain.”

It took everything Xander had not to burst out laughing. “Yeah, but not all of us are cut out to be Hugh Hefner like you.”

Short-round frowned, like it just occurred to him that Xander was making fun of him. “Hey, I’m trying to be a buddy for you.”

“Sorry, stress brings out the worst in me,” Xander quickly apologized.

“What you need is a drink,” short-round said.

“Why yes,” Xander cheerfully agreed. “Yes I do.”

“Whoa. Did you just admit you needed a drink?” Short-round seemed completely taken aback, a sure sign that the evil twin wasn’t known to be any kind of drinker.

“Hey, sooner or later, everyone has one of those days when they just need beer,” Xander said. “And after what happened this afternoon? I need one. I need lots of ones. Thing is I don’t have any money, like I said. Plus, I gotta find a place to sleep that doesn’t involve the gutter.”

“Can’t help you on the sleeping arrangements, but I can help you with the beer.” Short-round nudged him in the ribs. “Since you’re a regular customer, I can just write it off as a business expense, you know, good customer relations and all that. Besides, I bet if you call up your wife after a few rounds crying about how sorry you are, she’ll be right down to pick you up and all will be forgiven.”

Bingo! Xander grinned as he spread his arms wide. “I’ll let you lead me to the promised beer.”

***

Faith nearly whooped when she spotted Junior standing in front of Bank of America. Just when she was about to praise her luck, however, some fat slob walked up to Junior and started chatting him up.

She snarled in frustration. She needed to get Junior alone and she wasn’t all that hot on grabbing him in front of witnesses. At least she found him. If she kept him in sight, she’d eventually get her chance.

Damn, she hated waiting.

Fat slob clapped Junior on the arm and they both headed for a nearby bar. Faith didn’t know what to make of that. Maybe Junior knew the guy and was angling for a place to crash since he was no longer welcome at the Harrises’, assuming she heard right.

She took up position across the street where she had a clear line of sight to the bar’s front door. Seemed like a nice enough place. The crowd inside was big enough and sedate enough that there probably weren’t any vampires lousing up the joint. Vamps usually liked their hunting grounds confusing and loud because it was easier to separate a victim from the herd.

Junior was probably going to be awhile in the bar, so this was probably the best time to contact Rupes before she went and introduced herself. She didn’t normally touch base with the Council when she was out doing her thing, but the two-Harris situation practically demanded help of the tweed kind.

She peered at the Bank of America clock and swore. It was almost six and Rupes was something like eight or nine hours ahead. It wasn’t even the asscrack of dawn on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fuck it, she decided as she flipped out her cell and began punching in the numbers. Rupes is always bitching how I never reach out and touch him. Well, he’s about to get touched, but good.

She heard the beginnings of a burping ring and settled in for a long wait. She jumped when Rupes’s voice answered in the middle of the second ring with a clipped, “Yes.”

“You’re up,” Faith accused. “Ain’t it something like three in the morning?”

“Faith?”

“In the voice, Rupert.”

There was a muffled sound, like Rupert was covering the microphone on the cell. She could dimly hear him say something to someone before his voice came back loud and clear. “It’s not even two in the morning, by the way, and yes, I am up. Haven’t been to bed yet, in fact. We should’ve known you’d be calling us,” he said.

“Hunh? You knew I’d be—”

“I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m assuming you’re calling because you’ve stumbled across a strange situation in Zihuataneo?”

“How do you know?” Faith demanded.

“Let’s just say there’s been quite a mystical disturbance and you’re standing at ground zero,” Rupert said.

Faith trained her eyes on the bar’s door. “Mystical disturbance,” she repeated.

“It’s troubled the coven’s seers and it’s even drawn Willow into consciousness,” Rupert explained.

“That ain’t sounding so good,” Faith said.

“According to what little we’ve been able to get from the seers and Willow is that this creature—”

“It’s a him. And it’s human. I think,” Faith interrupted.

“You’ve seen it?” Rupert asked.

“Pretty sure,” Faith said. “What would you do if I told you that there are two Xander Harrises running around what should be a one-Xander Harris town?”

Two?”

“Yeah. One’s the guy the told us to go fuck ourselves when we went on bended knee to beg for his worthless help in fighting the First. The other’s a hard core demon-killer, at least from what I’ve seen.”

“I’ve had quite enough of riddles for one night,” Rupert snapped.

“Yeah? Well if I’m sounding like a riddle, that’s because it is a riddle, which is why I called you,” Faith snapped back. “I’m telling you. This second Harris? He’s a pro. I watched him off three vampires in hand-to-hand combat without breaking a sweat. He found a baby Slayer for fuck’s sake and ran her through one of our old-style agility, strength, and flexibility tests.”

She could hear Rupert breathing at the other end.

“And before I forget,” Faith added with a nasty edge, “he’s looking for the Council. My bet? He’s looking specifically for you, since I heard him mention you by name to the baby Slayer.”

“Tell me everything you know,” Rupert said.

***

Xander tossed his third beer down the toilet and flushed.

Then he beat his forehead against the inner wall of the bathroom stall.

Short-round, whose name he still hadn’t managed to learn, was really getting on his nerves. He suspected short-round was spreading the story of the Great Harris Fight around the bar every time he went to the bathroom to flush another beer. Okay, he couldn’t prove it, beyond the fact that someone not short-round bought him this last beer and shared some sympathetic words of wisdom about how women just didn’t understand.

Christ, how long had he been here? He was getting nowhere. Sure, short-round was on his way to drunk, but he wasn’t drunk enough to give Xander a clear shot at his wallet. Although there were plenty of people leaving their cell phones on the bar while they drank, it was still too crowded for Xander to take a chance and palm one.

“I hate you all,” Xander mumbled. “Hate hate hate. It’s a wonder the evil twin hasn’t climbed the tallest building in town and started picking all of you off one by one with that bow and arrow.”

It wasn’t that anyone in the bar was bad people, per se, it’s just they seemed so…small. Well, not small, more like small-minded. Or maybe he meant small-town-minded. It seemed everyone out there kept focused on arguing all kinds of minutia while they downed yet another beer. Meanwhile, there were vampires running around town, an increasing number of mysterious deaths, a Slayer that desperately needed Council training, and him.

And yeah, he was pretty floored that not one person in that bar, including the handful of people that seemed to know the evil twin, had picked up on the fact that he had no fucking clue who they were or what they were talking about. He fit in with this crowd about as well as he was fitting into the evil twin’s clothes. From the outside, the costume fit if no one looked too closely, but wearing it was something else entirely. It pulled tight or hung loose in all the wrong places, it itched, and it smelled like some unfamiliar detergent.

No matter which why he looked at it, he didn’t fit in with the Zihuataneo crowd, which was kind of surprising. He remembered occasionally going out for a beer with his construction crew in Sunnydale after the Friday shift and fitting in just fine. Maybe it was because Sunnydale was home and Zihuataneo, well, wasn’t. Or maybe—and wasn’t this a scary thing to consider—it was because Zihuataneo was Hellmouth-free and on some subconscious level he was lost without the Hellmouth vibe.

Born on a Hellmouth, there when it died, now living on a different Hellmouth. I’m like a Hellmouth magnet. Man, I hope that’s not it.

Then again, maybe other him didn’t really fit in either. That’s probably why no one picked up on the fact that the pillar-like, small business-owner, happy family man Xander Harris was acting out of character.

Then there was always the easiest explanation: It was his hallucination, so if he didn’t want anyone to notice he was the wrong Xander, no one would notice.

Okay, let’s stop this. Right now. If I keep going in this direction, I’m going to blow a fuse. Just keep acting normal. Yeah. Right. Like this is even close to my normal.

Xander took a deep breath and steeled himself. He was pretty much committed now. He couldn’t leave until he at least scored a cell phone. At this rate, he was more than willing to give up on stealing a wallet or finagling an invitation for a place to stay, if he could only just get his hands on a damn phone.

“Try not to look too sober,” Xander reminded himself. Sure, he pretended to drink only three beers, but he really didn’t care if the other people in the bar thought he was a lightweight.

He opened the door and tripped over someone’s foot. “Sorry,” he hastily apologized.

“Got another beer waiting for you right here,” short-round yelled through the crowd. “Not sure I should give it to you after that.”

“M’good,” Xander yelled back as he pushed his way through the crowd to the bar.

“Looking a little red in the face there,” short-round commented, which was a laugh since the guy’s face was practically glowing.

“I’ve only had three,” Xander protested. “Not near enough to drunk yet.”

“You’re going to have to work to catch up, old son,” short-round said as Xander suffered yet another punch to his upper right arm.

Don’t hit back, Xander reminded himself as he fixed his glare on the television screen.

The tube was tuned to some sports channel. A clip was playing of a woman in a Dodger’s baseball uniform running up a wall to catch what should’ve been a fly ball into the stands.

She had to have climbed at least ten feet, Xander thought he watched another clip of the woman running backwards—just a little too fast, he realized—to catch a fly ball to center field.

The scene changed and the young woman was talking into a battery of microphones while lights flashed around her. He couldn’t hear what she was saying over the bar’s crowd noise, but she did look pretty angry. The caption read, ‘J.J. Grimaldi denies steroid use. Agrees to random urine tests.’

Xander swallowed hard as yet another game clip played that highlighted just how super-athletic this J.J. Grimaldi was.

“Oh, yeah,” short-round said next to him. “I hope they nail her ass.”

“What?” Xander asked. His voice sounded distant over the roar in his ears. She’s one. Oh my god, she’s definitely one, he thought as the channel trotted out yet another example of J.J. Grimaldi doing something just a step over the line of humanly possible.

“C’mon. Look at that.” Short-round indicated the screen with a nod. “You’re telling me that she ain’t getting help in a needle?”

“I’ve known some pretty athletic women,” Xander half-heartedly argued as he continued watching the screen. With every step, with every move, the ball player revealed herself to whoever knew enough to spot her secret.

“Look, don’t get me wrong,” short-round said with a clap on Xander’s back. “I’m all for letting women play the big leagues if they get there honestly. Level playing field, right? But she’s gone and stacked the deck and that just ain’t right.”

Xander finally turned to look at short-round. “Would you be saying that if she was a guy who got caught with the needle hanging out of his thigh?”

“Of course I would,” short-round said with an insulted air. “What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. But those moves? It ain’t human, I tell ya.”

“Oh, it’s human all right,” Xander disagreed numbly.

“I ain’t buying that.”

“There was this one girl I knew. Buffy. She’d just center herself. Plant her feet really firm, like she got all her power from the earth. I mean, she could leave the ground, but I don’t think she ever really liked it. Even when she did the climbing thing, those feet were on a hard surface somewhere. But when she stood firm? There wasn’t a monster on the planet that could get past her,” Xander said.

“So, what? Was this Buffy into the martial arts?” short-round asked.

“This other girl I knew. Faith. She flew. I swear to god she actually flew, like she got all her power from the air. I saw her once swing up this tree and hop from branch to branch to go after this thing. A F’tua, I think,” Xander said. “It was like watching Crouching Faith, Hidden Demon.”

“Demon?” Short-round looked startled. “What are you talking about? Demons. Demons aren’t re—”

“This ball player is like a cross between them,” Xander said as he watched J.J. Grimaldi work her magic on the playing field. “Keeps her feet on flat surfaces like Buffy, but she goes for the height like Faith.” He looked at short-round. “Do you think they learn that? Or is it instinct? Maybe a personality thing?”

“Unh, we’re still talking about baseball, right?” short-round nervously asked.

“I think it’s training. Maybe it comes down to the Watcher,” Xander said as he fixed his gaze on the screen, which was now showing a boxer in a ring. “I’ll have to ask around.”

“Hey, Harris? You sure you’re not drunk? You’re not making any sense.”

Xander couldn’t hear him as his tangled thoughts whip lashed through his mind. What he just saw wasn’t possible. Willow cast the spell. Willow. No one else could do it. No one else had that kind of power. Using that reasoning, there couldn’t possibly be more than one or two Slayers running around. Except, there was J.J. Grimaldi, whoever she was, showing him through the power of television that there were at least three Slayers alive and kicking.

If there were three, there was a good bet there was a lot more.

Since he knew he was looking at the impossible, given the fact that fake, crazy Willow couldn’t cast the spell…

It was him. It had to be him. He was forcing this fake world into a mold that followed the real world. Was Sunnydale really destroyed in this fantasy? Or was it destroyed because he expected it to be destroyed? He needed someone who could help him get out this, so Anya was alive and well in this fake world because she was the “expert” on “multiple realities.” Because he blew it with Anya, he created a fake Giles as a back-up and a way to get in touch with him if he was willing to brave a fake Faith.

And he had to face facts: his life would be a lot easier if the Council not only existed, but knew how to deal with multiple Slayers in a way the old Council didn’t. He wouldn’t have to explain how a second Slayer was possible to that new Council. The reasons would be pretty obvious. Since he needed that Council, that Council was the one that existed here and Haley was his ticket to capturing its attention.

“Hey! You even hearing me?” short-round asked.

“I’m from Sunnydale,” Xander said numbly.

“Hunh?” short-round asked.

“I’ve done a lot of things in Sunnydale—since Sunnydale. I’ve seen a lot of weird things,” Xander said.

“Are you talking to me? Or to someone I can’t see?”

“I could be wrong. No. I could be. Maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong things,” Xander said to short-round.

Short-round leaned away. “What are you wrong about?”

“You’re right,” Xander nodded at short-round. “There’s is a way to find out for sure, isn’t there? There’s only two people in this hallucination who can answer all my questions. And know what? I already know how to find one of them.”

“Harris? You’re not looking so hot,” short-round said.

Xander grabbed short-round by the bicep and squeezed. “I’m going to walk out of this bar right now. When I walk out there, do you know what I’m going to find?”

“Hey, that hurts,” short-round protested loudly enough to draw the attention of several bystanders.

Xander started to giggle. “I’m going to find Faith.”

Short-round looked nervously around. “Oh, man. I never pegged you for a religious guy.”

Xander giggled harder. “And when I find Faith, do you know who she’s going lead me to?”

“God?” short-round asked nervously.

“Giles,” Xander corrected.

“God’s name is Giles?” short-round asked.

Xander thought about that. “Maybe Giles is a stand-in for whatever god or demon is responsible for this mess.”

“Again with the demons,” short-round tried to joke.

“I think he’s on something more than beer,” said one of the bystanders.

“Explains the trips to the bathroom,” said another voice.

“But there are rules, you know,” Xander explained to short-round. “And the rules are that Giles has to help me. He has to help Haley too, assuming she needs helping.”

“Haley? Your kid?” short-round asked. “Is something wrong with—”

“Giles has to answer my questions. He’s got to help me find the answers. Because that’s the rules.” Xander nodded. “If Giles doesn’t follow the rules, the whole illusion breaks down and I’ll finally see what’s really going on. So, I’m thinking it’s a win-win for me. What do you think?”

“Unh…” short-round began.

A hand landed on his shoulder on the blind side. “I think we should call your wife to come get you.”

Xander immediately swung his upper body around and twisted away from the offending touch. Somehow he ended up in the center of a space staring at some schmoe. Schmoe guy was holding his hands up to indicate he didn’t mean any harm as he gibbered a string of apologies.

“I’m on to you,” Xander said evenly as he looked around. A ripple of silence fell over the crowd. “I’m on to all of you. I’ll play your rules because I don’t have a choice. But the second I spot a way to get around those rules, you’ll be really sorry. You can’t do this to me. You can’t torture me like this. I won’t let you. I’m done. So when I say Faith is out there waiting for me, I know she’ll be there. Because I’m the one in control. Not you.”

“Let’s calm down, okay?” short-round nervously asked. “Hey, I know. Why don’t I let you crash at my place? Let you sober up a little. I think you’ve had too much to drink or…or…something.”

“I’d say he’s had too much to sniff,” one of the bystanders opined.

“Don’t bother calling a cab,” Xander said quietly. “My ride’s already outside.”

The crowd parted to let him leave, but Xander barely noticed. The one corner of his mind that dared hope he was wrong was too busy praying that he’d step out onto the street and not find any familiar faces.

He shoved open the door.

Then he stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the bar.

***

“No, she did not threaten me,” Faith insisted. “I’m telling you, this dream was freaky-ass enough without threats, got me?”

“Be that as it may, I’m still making arrangements with the Coven to get sent over there to meet you,” Giles stated.

“You’re what?” Faith shouted into the phone. “You don’t trust me to deal with this?”

“Willow seemed quite clear—”

“Since when do you trust the Wicked Bitch of the West?” Faith demanded.

“You backed up almost everything she said,” Giles argued back. “This creature is looking for me, according to both you and Willow. He is causing quite a lot of disruption, according to Willow and the Coven. He must be stopped. If we can stop this without causing more harm to—”

Junior stepped out of the bar.

“Unh, Rupert?”

“Will you please stop interrupting me?” Rupert snapped.

Junior was staring right at her.

“Our boy just spotted me,” Faith quickly explained.

“Oh, Lord. Don’t approach it until I get there.”

“Too late. He’s crossing the street,” Faith said. “I’ll call ya back.”

“Faith!” Rupert shouted into the phone.

With a snap of her wrist, Faith cut him off, and then powered down the phone. By the time Junior stepped on to the sidewalk in front of her, she had shoved the phone in her coat pocket.

“Hello, Faith,” Junior said.

Junior acted like he wasn’t at all surprised to see her. There was no chance he spotted her while she tailed him, so maybe he saw her through one of the bar’s windows and decided to check her out. Even so, his attitude made her uneasy. “You got a name, Junior?” she asked to cover up.

Junior smiled, but that smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Xander Harris. But then you already knew that, didn’t you?” The smile disappeared as he reached up to wipe away something under his left eye. “Your hair’s short. I didn’t expect that.” He shrugged. “Then again, it would be a little much to expect you’d look exactly the same. It’d wreck the illusion, right?”

“Illusion?” Faith frowned.

“So, how’s Giles?” Junior asked. “I’m guessing that was him you were talking to on the phone.” He glanced around. “I’m going to bet that he’s talking to the Devon coven right now to get a magic transport over here. An airplane would be too slow.”

Oh, Jesus, Faith thought nervously. This fucker can read minds.

“I also bet you’ve got a car stashed around here somewhere.” Junior sounded like he was talking about the weather.

“Near where Harris…I mean that older version of you lives,” Faith answered despite herself.

“Good. I guess we better get to it.” Junior nodded. “I seriously need clothes that actually fit. Ten-to-one we’ll have to leave town to hit a Wal-Mart or something. I don’t have any money or credit cards, so you’ll have to foot the bill.”

“Why not?” Faith asked rhetorically. “That’s almost fucking normal compared to whatever we’ve got going on here.”

“I’m a big fan of normal. The sooner I get back to it, the happier I’ll be,” Junior said with a stone face. “Oh, and next time you talk to Giles, remind him to bring his passport. Last time he got transported across the Atlantic by Devon express, he forgot it and the headaches we all suffered while filing paperwork to get him another one so he could go back to London was a bitch.”

 

Continued in Part 24.

 

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