liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
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Water Hold Me Down (Part 36)

For people who are interested: The Megaupload links for the top five songs I've been listening to is still live. So you can still download all of them, at least as of 7 p.m. tonight.

Speaking of which, I just realized that I really, really need to organize the Water Hold Me Down soundtrack into something coherent. I already have at least two CDs worth and my folder is not only a mess, it doesn't even contain all the tracks. If I didn't love inflicting my taste in tunes on you so much, I probably would've given this particular element up.

Anyway, new part.

For all previous parts, go here.

Continued from Part 35.

I've spent so long firmly looking outside me
I've spent so much time living in survival mode

This won't work now the way it once did
Cuz I want to deside between survival and bliss
Now I know who I'm not
I don't I still don't know who I am
But I know I won't keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head did not let me down
When I was defenseless
And parting with them is like parting with invisible best friends


It took willpower that Xander didn’t even know he had to stop crowding the passenger side door. He fully expected other him to pick up where they left off in the backyard, or at least snipe at him, or make pointed comments. Instead, other Xander calmly—too calmly, Xander thought—was running through everything he knew about the area where Xander was to search.

Okay, that’s a shock, Xander thought as he dumbly nodded along with the information. Makes him a better guy than I am right there.

It still creeped him out on a fundamental level. One second, other Xander was piling accusation on top of accusation. The next, other Xander was acting like it never even happened and Xander was just one of the team. While Xander could honestly say that he worked with people he really hated in the past, he was pretty sure he loudly bitched about doing it, often to the faces of the very people he hated.

In short order, other Xander had confirmed everything Faith said. The entire area was abandoned, boarded up, and part of it was torn down. The town’s big plan was to bulldoze the area and put up year-round, high-priced, residences. There was even talk to turning a section of the beach into a private beach for the townsfolk.

“That must’ve cost the town a pretty penny,” Xander remarked.

“Not really,” other Xander responded with a shrug. “They just declared it blighted property and paid bottom dollar. The town figures the taxes from the property improvements will more than make up for it.”

Xander frowned. “Unh, they can’t do that.”

Other Xander quickly glanced at him.

“C’mon,” Xander began. “I worked in construction. Only the reason the second high school got built on top of the Hellmouth again was because they couldn’t find a big enough piece of property somewhere else to build it. They even looked at the whole eminent domain thing, but it would’ve been too expensive. If they could’ve just pointed at a part of town and slap a ‘blighted’ label on it, they would’ve. The Sunnydale Town Council probably didn’t know about the Hellmouth, but they knew something was wrong about that spot.”

“Yeah, that was in the planning stages back when I still lived in Sunnydale,” other Xander said casually. “I guess I forgot they haven’t changed the law in your time yet. Cities and towns can do that now.”

Xander quickly thought of some of the neighborhoods and Cleveland. While not some of the world’s best places, sometimes people lived in the only places they could get, like the basements of their parents’ house. “Yikes.”

“I agree and don’t.” Other Xander maintained the business tone of the conversation. “I can definitely see the yikes factor if you live in a place like Cleveland, but the old Boardwalk and Pier was trouble with a capital T. During the summers it was a vampire all-you-can eat buffet and probably the worst place to tangle with the sons of bitches. Close quarters, crowds of people day or night. Strictly hand-to-hand down there only.”

Xander could feel his jaw tighten. “How often did you go down there alone?”

“Not as often as I should have,” other Xander responded with a tight jaw of his own. “I went down when I had to or when it got bad enough. If I was up against vampires that weren’t as familiar with the area as I was, I had a few places I could lure them to and I’d take them out there. But there was a 50-50 chance I’d get one that did know the area pretty well—local kids that ‘ran away,’ if you get my meaning—and then it was pretty much a fight to keep my neck intact.”

Xander bit his tongue to prevent himself from making a nasty comment about other Xander going out without backup. He was pretty sure he could taste blood in his mouth.

“The only good thing about the locals that get turned is that they usually don’t stick around,” other Xander continued. “Don’t know why, exactly. Probably like every other kid they want to do the On the Road thing, which I probably don’t have to tell you is overrated.” Other Xander glanced at him again. “Or do I?”

“No,” Xander said shortly. He didn’t trust his temper enough to elaborate.

“Anyway,” other Xander continued, “once the place got shut down, I guess there was no point. Why hang there when there’s plenty of other places to find dinner?”

Other Xander’s van reached the area in question and Xander’s lone eye was nearly overwhelmed by block after block of piled of rubble and silent machinery.

“Doesn’t mean they’re not still here, though,” Xander said nervously.

Other Xander seemed amused by that.

Xander had to wrestle with his growling inner Daddy Harris. Other Xander was seeing the funny when there was nothing funny about this. He was waltzing into unfamiliar territory that was a known vampire haunt in the past with no back-up, a few stakes, a cell phone, and a lot of experience that told him that vampires had zero problems with co-opting abandoned property for a daytime snooze.

“Before you think I’m being a wuss, I’d just like to say one thing here,” Xander said when he thought he could speak without yelling.

“The old mansion on Crawford Street?” other Xander asked.

“Bingo.”

Other Xander shook his head. “Not even close to the same situation. They’re tearing up things down here pretty fast so they’ll be all set to start building in the spring. A few weeks ago, you’d have a point. But most of what you see here was done just in the last two weeks. Besides, I’ve been keeping an eye on the place, y’know, looking for any reports of dead bodies and checking for any pattern of trouble. There’s nothing going on even close to here. About is close as it gets is Swan Point Cemetery, and that’s up near me.”

“That’s less than three miles from here,” Xander said as other him turned down the street that was crowded with boarded up and dilapidated summer cottages. “Not a problem for Speedy Gonzales vampires. And if they’re California born and bread? Hello? Vampires can still drive, maybe not legally, but operating a De Soto and running over town signs? Completely within the realm of the possible.”

“Do you see any cars in the area?”

“Weird in and of itself, because there’s a beach,” Xander countered. “Okay, a really boring beach with nothing to do and it’s winter, but there are snowbirds who don’t care about that.”

“Now you’re just looking for things to get worked up about,” other Xander said with even more amusement as he turned onto the waterfront road and headed for the far edge of the abandoned area.

The buildings along the waterfront were larger, effectively blocking the cottages behind them from any view of the ocean. Peeling signs advertised the presence of all kinds of now-shuttered tourist traps and entertainment. Marquees sadly announced that the venues were closed for the season, as if someone forgot to mention to the owners that there would never be another season. The motels looked like high-priced resorts that had fallen on bad times and were now forced to allow “those sorts of people” to rent rooms. Although the van’s windows were closed, Xander could almost imagine the eerie echo of ocean waves drowning out what would otherwise be a silent memorial to happier summers.

The only reason why the street wasn’t cast in shadow was because the waterfront was open to the beach’s western sky. Xander had to admit, even though he was looking at the beach during the winter doldrums, it was a nice stretch of sand. Rundown pier and boardwalk or not, this place must’ve been the place to be during the summer.

No wonder way Faith was freaked. Now that he’d seen it, Xander was feeling the threat of a freak himself, and he hadn’t even gotten out of the van yet.

“I’m not looking to scare myself. I’m just pointing out that I don’t trust your ‘nothing to see here, people, just move it along,’ thing you’ve got going.” Xander noticed that other him’s face turned red and that his lips had flattened into a thin line. “Look, I’m not calling you a liar. If you say nothing bad is going on down here, I believe you. But just because you haven’t seen bodies, doesn’t mean that this area’s free and clear. I’m just sayin’ that a lot of vampires have a thing against shitting in their own nest and you know it.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” other Xander angrily asked.

“Do you want me to be honest or diplomatic?” Xander immediately slapped a hand over his mouth. He couldn’t believe he just said that. It was like some mischievous little demon momentarily took control of his tongue just to see how much damage it could do.

He wasn’t at all surprised when other him braked so hard that he was thrown against his seatbelt.

Other Xander turned to glare evilly at him. The amazing disappearing lips were now in full-on invisible mode and the normal swampish color of his hazel eyes had shifted into pissed-off light brown.

Xander coughed delicately as he carefully removed his hand from his mouth. “That came out a little wrong,” he said with embarrassment.

“Unh-hunh,” other him said flatly. “Any way for that question to actually come out right?”

“Has anyone ever told you that you are not attractive when you’re angry?” Xander winced. He obviously had an undiscovered death wish, because his mouth had taken on a life of its own.

“Are. You. Done. Being. An. Ass.”

Xander barely managed to stop himself from pointing out to other Xander that the Giles act just didn’t work on him, owing to the distinct lack of tweed or a British accent.

Other him violently threw the van into park as he suddenly leaned forward and asked in a dangerously quiet voice, “Well?”

Instinct took over and Xander cowered against the passenger side door as his eyes snapped down into his lap. It took his brain a few seconds to catch up to the body’s automatic reaction. He forced himself to look up at other Xander and was strangely gratified to see that other him seemed vaguely horrified.

“Sorry.” Xander hated himself just a little that he couldn’t seem to get his voice above a whisper.

Other Xander blinked a lot as he put his hands on the steering wheel. He seemed to be as disoriented as Xander felt.

“I’ll just get out here,” Xander quietly said as he reached for the seatbelt catch.

“Wait,” other Xander’s voice sounded rough.

Xander froze and warily watched other him.

“I checked.” Other Xander’s voice sounded normal, like what had just happened never happened at all. “Before they started tearing up the place, I came down here during the day and did a quick search. Everything’s boarded up nice and tight. There’s no sign that anything around here’s being used as a nest.”

“Okay,” Xander quietly agreed.

“For god’s sake, I swear I’ve been keeping an eye on this.” Other Xander now sounded like he was edging up to hysteria. “There hasn’t been anything for almost a year. Nothing. It went from buffet central to down to nothing. You’ve got to believe me.”

“I believe you,” Xander said in his best reasonable voice. Other Xander was falling apart in front of his eye. “I wasn’t even hinting—”

“If I thought for one second there was any danger, Faith would be the one checking the area out.” Other Xander desperately said as if Xander hadn’t spoken. “I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot of potential no-escape dead-ends down here and that if there was anything here a Slayer’s got the best chance. I don’t set people up.”

“It’s okay, I know that, okay?” Xander mentally scrambled to find anything that would diffuse other Xander and get him thinking straight again. That was what he did. He was good at it. He ended more arguments than he could count back at the Mother House between the baby Slayers because he had a better knack for it than anyone else.

Yet, no matter how hard he tried, he kept coming up disturbingly blank.

Other Xander was clutching the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles were white, but at least he’d stopped verbally freaking out. Mentally, on the other hand…

Xander took a breath. He had to take a shot. “Hey, this is me? Remember? Hard as this might be for you to believe, I’m one of the good guys.”

Xander didn’t like the fact that other Xander gave him a doubtful look. Xander plastered a smile across his face and mentally ordered himself not to show just how he insulted he was by it.

“If I’m one of the good guys, that makes you one of good guys,” Xander said. “We don’t seem to agree on too much, but I’m pretty sure neither one of us would deliberately put anyone else in a situation where they could be killed.”

To Xander’s immense relief, other Xander seemed to be relaxing a little bit.

“We’re all stressed out for a lot reasons, but right now we’ve got to fix one thing at a time, right?” Xander prompted.

Other Xander swallowed. “Right.”

“First we find Haley and deal with her sitch,” Xander kept talking, hoping like hell the other him was finally getting his head straight. “All the other stuff, we can talk about later. I’m stuck here for a week anyway, so there’ll be time.”

Other Xander’s attitude immediately snapped to guarded. Xander wasn’t entirely sure whether he should be frightened or impressed that he actually saw the moment when other Xander gave himself a mental bitchslap.

Xander bit the inside of his cheek. He suspected he was riding a moment of grace and could probably ask any question he wanted and would actually get an honest answer. If they weren’t in the middle of a lost Haley situation, he would’ve gone for it and be damned with the consequences. First question out of his mouth would’ve been about that car accident. Although he wasn’t sure when it happened, he was willing to bet that it happened before the Adam thing went down.

Xander closed his eyes and reluctantly let the moment of grace escape because now was not the time. “I know you don’t like it, but we have to talk. We’re both looking at each other all wrong and that’s not right. I’ve heard a lot of things since I got here that don’t match up with my memories, so I’m pretty sure that we know less about each other than you think.”

Other Xander studied him a moment. “No offense? But after everything that’s happened? I really don’t want to know.”

The sentiment stuck Xander speechless. He had no idea how to react because it just seemed like the completely wrong attitude to take.

“Now, I have a daughter to find,” other Xander said. “Are you helping or not?”

Xander couldn’t stop staring at other him as he tried to wrap his head around the fact that other him just dismissed any idea that they should have any discussion at all.

“Hello?” other Xander prompted.

Xander shook his head. “Unh, yeah. Sure.”

“If you run into anything that looks suspicious, call me,” other Xander was again all business. “I’m only a few miles away and I can get here quick enough.”

“Right. Call,” Xander mechanically echoed as he freed himself from the seatbelt.

“Chances are pretty good you won’t find Haley down here,” other Xander said as Xander reached for the door handle.

Of course not. You don’t want me anywhere near your daughter if you can help it, Xander thought wearily.

“But, she does know this area pretty good. We were down here during the day enough times, so you never know,” other Xander blithely continued as Xander got out. “So, you’re clear what’s what now?”

Xander turned and ducked down so he could get a look at other him. “Clear,” he confirmed. As other Xander put the van into drive, Xander couldn’t resist one final protest on his own behalf. “What you said. About not caring? You should, you know.”

Other Xander asked, “I should?”

“Yeah. I mean, c’mon. I’m you.”

Other Xander shook his head in a way that indicated he’d never heard anything so dumb in his life. “No, you’re really not.”

Xander swore his heart dropped.

Other Xander mildly said, “Close the door.”

Xander numbly did as he was told and stepped back. All he could do was helplessly watch as the Harris Custom Furniture and Restoration van pulled away from the curb and left him alone with the ghosts of lost summers.

***

Lady Haversham had chucked her shoes and was sitting curled up like a cat in one of Giles’s chairs. As Giles handed her a scotch on the rocks, she grinned up at him. “Thanks.”

“I’m afraid it’s not the good stuff,” Giles’s said.

“I’ll soldier through,” Lady Haversham held her glass up in a salute and took a sip. She almost managed to suppress a wince.

Giles took possession of the seat across from her with a glass of his own, only his contained Scotch neat. “Well, what do you think?”

“About what?” she mischievously smiled. “Your people? Your plans for a new Council? This situation with Mr. Harris?”

Giles couldn’t resist a smiling back. “So many irons in the fire. No wonder why all Council heads eventually go mad.”

“They have medication for that now, although my youngest coven member insists on calling all such concoctions ‘frog pills.’ I keep telling her that one cannot live by Pratchett alone, but she simply persists.”

“I cannot imagine your mother putting up with such nonsense, my lady,” Giles chuckled.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Rupert, please drop the niceties. You know it irritates me, you perverse old thing. It’s just you and I in this room. There is no need for us to be proper with one another if we are not in front of the children,” Lady Haversham said.

Giles fought back irritation. “Those are hardly children out there, Betina.”

“Mentally? You are correct. But aside from yourself and Mr. Wood, you do realize that the oldest person on your staff is Xander and he’s just turned 23. Buffy, the next oldest, will be 23 next month. And Willow will be the same age come July. These three, quite literally, round out the gang of revered elders that include yourself and Robin. Or would I be in error?”

Giles stared in his own glass at that. He so often forgot how damned young they all were. No. He had to be honest at least to himself. He didn’t forget; he just didn’t want to think about it. Whenever the thought occurred to him, he had to back away and ruthlessly wipe the idea from his mind. It broke his heart just a little to think on it overmuch.

“When we were 23 we were in the midst of our great rebellion, as you no doubt recall.” Lady Haversham put down her glass and stretched her upper body. Her hands were locked above her head, as her arms extended upwards like a ballerina working kinks out of her back. “I was sharing a flat with three of my best mates. I was working as a shop girl in that record store where we met. And I most certainly was not training to take my mother’s place as head of an eccentric Devon coven.”

Giles smiled at the memory of the now-indomitable Lady Haversham happily skittering around the crowded, narrow aisles while the Stones, Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, and the Who, interspersed by American R&B, blared from speakers overhead. Heaven knows that most of his late, lamented collection was the result of Betina forcing him to sit down after hours in that dusty corner shop and making him listen to everything outside of his comfort zone. She’d kick off her shoes and laugh while she awkwardly danced around the store, reveling in nothing more than the everyday magic of the common.

In truth, she could appreciate the music on some fundamental level that his mates back then never did. To them, the transistor was nothing more than a soundtrack for their lives. To Lady Haversham, it was the stuff that gave people a soul. Oz would have adored Lady Haversham for that alone. Giles could imagine the two of them excitedly talking for hours about musical artists both famous and obscure.

He wondered if Lady Haversham still had her record collection. He wondered if she still listened to it, or if it was quietly gathering dust in some corner of her estate while real life concerns delayed her reunion with the sounds that Giles thought made Lady Haversham fundamentally Betina.

“Those were good days,” Giles allowed as he sipped from his drink.

“Indeed they were,” Lady Haversham agreed. “It couldn’t last.”

“Pity.”

“You think so?” Lady Haversham tilted her head. “Maybe that time is all the sweeter because it couldn’t, not for people like you and I.”

Giles stared guiltily into his drink. “If only it didn’t end as badly as it did.”

“A tragedy for all concerned,” Lady Haversham agreed. “But perhaps a blessing in the long run.”

“People died, Betina,” Giles said.

“And set us both on the right path as a result.” Lady Haversham waved a hand around his office. “Consider the alternative. Had you not been so boneheaded at just that time, had you not called up Eyghon, had Randall not died, you might not even be here now. Lord knows I wouldn’t be.”

“Had you not helped when I showed up on your doorstep soaking wet and terrified, Eyghon would have cut a swath through the city and more would have died,” Giles pointed out.

“But you did and I felt compelled to help, even if it meant using the knowledge and skills I had sworn never to use again. And to help take a life, no less.” Lady Haversham picked up her glass and stared into its depths. “I must confess, Rupert, it took quite awhile for me to forgive you for that.”

“I haven’t yet forgiven myself, especially since Eyghon did come back and nearly succeeded in wiping the rest of my old compatriots out.”

Lady Haversham’s eyes widened. “No. How did you stop him?”

“Those children out there, with the assistance of Angel.”

“Your vampire with a soul?”

“The same, although I’d hardly call Angel mine.”

“Who survived?” Lady Haversham asked.

“Myself and Ethan only,” Giles quietly admitted.

“Ethan,” Lady Haversham’s tone hardened, “like a cockroach that one.”

“One might say the same of myself,” Giles said.

“The fundamental difference between yourself and Ethan is that you bloody well learned your lesson. Ethan,” Lady Haversham snorted, “remains now and evermore a petulant, selfish child. He bows before Chaos simply because he believes that when all the rules are suspended he will get everything he wants.”

“I’m not entirely sure Ethan wants anything in particular,” Giles said.

“In my professional opinion as a witch, I’m fairly certain Ethan wants. All us old magic hands do, really, although our wants may differ. That is why there are rules. Some wants, no matter how benign on the surface, should never be reality.” Lady Haversham sighed. “Rest assured, Ethan wants. What he wants, on the other hand, I cannot say.”

“Well, he shan’t be bothering us for some time,” Giles leaned back. “He is currently the guest of the U.S. government in a special facility designed to hold his sort. At least, last I heard. Although I confess my intelligence is some years out of date.”

Lady Haversham stared glumly into her drink. “Ethan may be a child, but he is an intelligent child. He’ll be back.”

There was a moment of silence as they sipped from their drinks as they considered that last statement.

Lady Haversham interrupted the silence. “What is it like, I wonder.”

Giles looked questioningly at her.

She answered with a strained smile. “To choose to be here.”

“I don’t believe I follow.”

“You and I are of a kind, Rupert.” Lady Haversham’s gaze tracked to window and she watched the light snow falling outside. The subdued light in the office highlighted her thoughtful, handsome face in such a way that it seemed both younger and older than she actually was. “Duty. Obligation. Tradition. Destiny. Even before we were told the truth about ourselves, it was carved into our DNA and branded on our souls. There never was any escape, no real hope of ever choosing our own paths. We are as our parents were, and their parents, and those that came before them. Deep down, we always knew the world was much more than it appeared to our childlike eyes. Magic was real, monsters were real, and creatures both great and small seek to crush humanity and bring back the Old Ones to rule over a ruined earth. To be told all this on the eve of being sent off to special boarding schools that would train us to our obligations may have come as a surprise, but you can never convince me that it came as a shock.”

Giles waited. Whatever was on Lady Haversham’s mind would not be rushed by questions.

“What is it like, I wonder,” Lady Haversham looked at him with her wide, dark eyes, “to not be born into all that. To view the world as nothing more than it appears. To think the world is no larger than a bothersome American suburb and the most horrific thing you can imagine is surviving a gauntlet of bullies and the most wonderful thing you can dare hope for is dating the prettiest or handsomest creature in your school. And your future, while perhaps not bright in your own eyes, is still a beckoning road not yet traveled.”

Giles looked away and stared at his office door, but he couldn’t drown out her voice.

“Then, one day, someone crashes into your life and changes everything,” Lady Haversham continued. “Suddenly, vampires are horrifically real and Slayers kill them to keep them from killing us. The imaginary monster under the bed cannot compete with the real monsters in the streets. Magic is no longer confined to the children’s stories you’ve set aside, books are more precious than gold, and the night has claws and teeth. All the nightmares are true, but so are all the fairytales.”

“You make it sound almost poetic,” Giles accusingly said.

“In its own way, maybe it is.” Lady Haversham smiled back. “I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to suddenly wake up one day and realize that the world is far more terrifying, and far more wonderful, than you ever dared suspect. It must be something to look upon a map and realize, down in your bones, that there are still uncharted territories and the world can still be discovered anew. And in that moment, whether you realize it or not, you decide of your own volition to protect this fragile place even if it costs you your life to do so. And yet, the moment goes unremarked, if it registers at all, without pomp and ceremony, without making the ancient oaths that you and I did.”

Giles bristled. “It’s no less legitimate for all that.”

“I would never suggest that it does,” Lady Haversham said. “But I can’t help but wonder if it means more.”

“What brings this on?” Giles asked.

Lady Haversham took a deep breath and said, “I must admit to a certain fascination with both Willow and Xander.”

“Oh?” Giles asked.

“Both of them, for good or ill, chose,” her voice seemed tinged with wonder. “No sacred calling, no family tradition, no noble blood of a Slayer mother coursing through your veins. Just a choice, or maybe a lot of little choices, that brings you to this place. One day you’re 16 and you’ve settled in your mind what the world’s about only to discover just how wrong you were. Seven years on, you are one of the most powerful witches on the planet or a Watcher embroiled in a war without end. And whatever role you play in that war, it’s a war that will ultimately claim your life if it doesn’t claim your soul first.”

“I did attempt to warn them off,” Giles quietly said.

“And for their own reasons they didn’t listen. For their own reasons, they chose to stay, even after their initial reasons for doing so long disappeared.” Lady Haversham shook her head. “I cannot imagine choosing such a path, and yet I find myself hoping I would, even if I suspect that I would not. I keep circling back to the same question: What is it like? What is it about that moment of revelation that changes you so thoroughly that you can no longer close your eyes to what is?”

“Frankly, I’m rather afraid to ask,” Giles admitted.

Lady Haversham looked askance at him.

“It is not something we ever discussed, not because we were avoiding the issue, but because the situation as it was in Sunnydale simply just,” here Giles shrugged, “was. It never occurred to me to ask. Our current troubles have brought home to me most painfully that perhaps I should’ve.”

“I wonder if we’d even understand the answer if we asked,” Lady Haversham remarked.

“Assuming they even understood what we meant by the question,” Giles replied. “I can almost guarantee that Xander would make some half-witted crack about impressing the ladies and Willow would dissolve into a confused babble about friends and books. If we pushed the issue, they’d both get nervous about why we were asking because they’d most likely think they’d done something wrong and we were now questioning their abilities.”

“You sound rather sure of that,” Lady Haversham said with amusement.

Giles raised his glass in a salute. “I may not know why they do what they do, but I’d like to think I have a fairly good idea of what their reaction would be to such a question.”

Lady Haversham sighed. “I envy both of them more than I should, and yet, I can’t help feeling bad for the pair of them.”

“While people their age are footloose and fancy-free, they’re responsible for more than just the lives of the people in this house,” Giles agreed. “The lot of everyone here is to grow up far too fast, it seems. Making even a typical, youthful mistake results in a tragic backlash, sometimes even a deadly backlash. I’ve witnessed too many instances to count.”

“And yet you stand by them,” Lady Haversham said.

“I cannot take credit for that, much as I wish I could.” Giles tapped on the rim of his glass. “I cannot think of a single instance when, upon realizing what they’ve done and the danger they’ve unleashed, they haven’t been sorry for it and done their best to make amends, albeit with very mixed results at times. Given the way I could get snappish with the pair of them over even inconsequential things, it’s a wonder I survived their teenage years without acquiring a broken nose. Lord knows they didn’t have to put up with me. I hardly was in any position of authority over either one of them, beyond being the school librarian.”

“Now you sound troubled,” Lady Haversham said sympathetically.

“I’ve made some disturbing realizations about my relationship with Xander and I confess I’m not entirely sure what it means or why such a dynamic exists,” Giles admitted. “It may well tie into your ruminations on choices.”

“And I’m certain they’ll make more bad choices ahead, or choices where there are no good options to choose from,” Lady Haversham said.

“At least in the second instance we can be of some guidance. I hope.”

“I had a very long talk with Willow about what her doppelganger showed her,” Lady Haversham suddenly said.

“Aaaah, so that’s what brought this on,” Giles nodded. “What do you think?”

“Disturbing, to say the least,” Lady Haversham said.

“I’ve gotten the gist of her visions, but I have not pressed her on the details,” Giles said. “I rather need her more focused on the task at hand.”

“I’ve urged her to write it all down before it fades, and have exhorted her to maintain honesty at all times as she does so,” Lady Haversham said. She tapped thoughtfully against her glass as she added, “You won’t like what you read.”

“I already don’t like it, based on what little I’ve heard and seen,” Giles said. “The most disturbing thing is that as much as it mystifies me, I can almost see how it’s possible. That, more than anything else, is why I plan to be so very careful about who we invite to work with us. I do not want to let that sort of poisonous thinking into the system. Once it starts, it has the potential to infect everyone. To see Travers wearing my own face…” his voice tailed off.

Lady Haversham’s eyebrows rose. “My lord, such distaste for your counterpart.”

“A rude, condescending man,” Giles grumbled.

“Not at all like your charming self when your dander is up,” Lady Haversham teased.

Giles glared in response.

“Willow has an intriguing theory about what her counterpart hopes to gain out of their bad bargain,” Lady Haversham said.

“Yes,” Giles urged.

“She believes that what her double wants is to escape,” Lady Haversham said. “She discussed with me a disturbing incident during their meeting when the other Willow used magical means to create a more human mask with general goal of aping our Willow’s behavior.”

“To fool people into letting her go,” Giles murmured.

“Considering that I am her jailer in that other world,” here Giles started at Lady Haversham’s revelation, “I suspect no one who is fully cognizant of her condition will be fooled. However, introduce someone who is not, someone whose memories of that other Willow predate her final descent, they could be easily be fooled.”

“Dear god,” Giles sat back. “She plans to use Xander’s other self to help her escape.”

“By convincing him she’s been poorly treated,” Lady Haversham agreed.

Giles shook his head. “But both Xander and Willow told me that she had killed Buffy and Dawn. I cannot imagine Xander, or any other Xander for that matter, simply overlooking that fact.”

“Willow seems fairly convinced she could persuade him,” Lady Haversham said.

“Willow’s major failing is hubris, always has been,” Giles stated. “She imagines that her influence is so great that she could even convince Xander to close his eyes to her crimes. I can tell you categorically that it’s not entirely true. When it comes to Willow, yes, I concede that Xander has a bit of a blind spot, but he is too well aware of her power. I have seen them interact since Kingman’s Bluff, and I’ve heard stories as well that seem to indicate that Xander is so hyperaware of what could go wrong during a spell that if something does go wrong, he’s already moving to diffuse the situation before anyone else realizes what’s happening.”

“No need to get defensive,” Lady Haversham said.

“I simply resent your implication.”

“Not mine. Willow’s implication,” Lady Haversham said. “And you forget, the Xander of this world may be well aware, or hyperaware as you put it, about the risks involved with magic, but there’s nothing to indicate that the other Xander fully understands any of this. Now, I do not know the young man in question at all, but can you honestly tell me that a Xander without the experience of Kingman’s Bluff can truly understand the danger that an unhinged Willow represents? And keep in mind, she’d be presenting him with a familiar, pleasant, and passably sane face.”

Giles shook his head. “Much as I’m loathe to admit it, it may be possible.”

“Although I find it extraordinary that Willow seems to dismiss the idea out of hand that others could well stop him if such a thing came to pass.” Lady Haversham had a puzzled frown on her face. “And strangely, you have not even considered it, either. According to Willow, her other self is under guard heavy magical guard. I should like to think my people and I would be able to put a stop to any escape attempt.”

“For all the good it does,” Giles said shortly. “She was able to get to Willow and hinted she could aid in our quest to get Xander back. So it appears that whatever system is in place is far from perfect.”

“But even so…” Lady Haversham began.

“You fail to take Xander’s major failing into account,” Giles interrupted. “He’s extraordinarily stubborn, easily one of the most willfully obstinate men I have ever dealt with. He will have his way if he believes he’s right and has anything to say about it. He’s also extraordinarily good at taking advantage of the fact that he’s often underestimated, although I cannot say if this is a deliberate tactic on his part or if it’s merely a subconscious ability. If the other Xander somehow relocates closer to where that other Willow is imprisoned, if he is taken in by her, if he believes the cause is just, and if that other Giles underestimates him as badly as I suspect, he may well succeed in helping her escape, or come very close to it at any rate.”

“There are a lot of ifs in your reasoning,” Lady Haversham pointed out.

“True,” Giles admitted. “But you and I both know that the worst is bound to happen. I’m not comforted by the fact that so many threads need to fall just right for this other Willow to succeed. Willow is a very intelligent girl. If both Willows believe that it is possible, than I would argue that it is fait accompli and success hinges on that last piece to falling into place, assuming it has not already done so.”

“Like your man landing in their world?” Lady Haversham asked.

“By all accounts, his presence has caused quite the disruption,” Giles answered. “So much so, that my other self seems to be on the verge of panic.”

Lady Haversham slumped. “Dear god. Although, as mercenary as this sounds, better the other world than ours.”

“As mercenary as this makes me sound, I can’t help but agree,” Giles dully admitted. “It’s just vexing that it was not necessary. Had those bloody bastards come clean from the beginning, Willow would have never proposed nor agreed to such the scheme and it quite possibly would’ve made the other Willow’s quest more difficult. At the very least, she’d be able to warn them of what that her other self may be planning.”

“She does feel rather guilty about it, but I took care to remind her to stick to the deal she struck, no matter how ill-conceived it may be,” Lady Haversham said. “The consequences for following her instincts to fix the situation could be dire for all of us.”

“I’m certain she didn’t need reminding,” Giles said. “She’s too anxious to get Xander back whole and unharmed.”

“Thank heavens for that, at least for us,” Lady Haversham agreed. She then fixed Giles with a look. “This may not be the best of times for me to ask this, given this sorry state of affairs, but I must ask you a question.”

“Another?” Giles said. “It seems to me that you’ve been full of questions since you got here.”

“Why Devon? Why my coven? Why involve us in this brave new world of yours?” Lady Haversham asked. “There are other, more powerful covens, certainly better connected ones, that could do you far more good than we could.”

Giles grinned, put down his drink, got up from his chair, and went over to his depressingly small collection of CDs. He paused a moment, as if considering his choice, before pulling out one in particular. He walked back to Lady Haversham and, with due ceremony, handed her the jewel case.

Her confused eyes fixed on the artwork before she looked back up at him with broad grin. “Are You Experienced? That is your answer?”

“If my lady would indulge me,” Giles said with a bow.

“By all means,” Lady Haverhsam handed back the CD. “Your lady would be most pleased to indulge.”

After a few fumbling moments with the CD player, the opening strains of ‘Purple Haze’ crashed through the room.

Lady Haversham’s smile grew wider. “Now if my host would indulge me?”

“I wouldn’t stop you if I could.”

Lady Haversham rose from her chair and joyfully, if awkwardly danced.

Although it lacked the carefree abandon of days gone by, Giles could still see that dusty record shop, still feel the roll of a joint under his fingertips, and still remember the age of 23 when he fell just a little in love with ordinary, everyday, common magic.

 

Continued in Part 37

 

 

DOWNLOAD (Megadownload): Precious Illusions by Alanis Morrisette

 

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