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Fic: Behold, Little Padawan! (BtVS; Gen; Part 16/16)

This is it! It's completely and totally done! Yay!

All previous parts can be found here.
Continued from Part 5D.

Part 6: And Then They Lived…

The room was a little crowded, but LaTisha didn’t mind. She scanned the faces of her girls as she waited for the whispering to die down.

“So, now you know everything me, Susan, and Terri have figured out,” LaTisha said. “Any questions?”

“Are we sure D’Hoffryn is after Harris?” Helen asked.

“Sure as we can be,” LaTisha said. “What we don’t know for sure is when it started or how, but between Suze’s dream and the memories Terri absorbed from Harris, we know he’s the demon we’ve got to target.”

“D’Hoffryn? We’re going to go up against D’Hoffryn? How on earth are we going to do that?” Kristin asked. “I mean, how does this work? So far we’ve got, step one, go after D’Hoffryn, the big, bad leader of all vengeance demons; step two, we don’t know so we’ll leave that as a question mark; and step three, profit. That does not exactly constitute a plan.”

“As I explained, that big ol’ question mark before we see profit is getting enough information to figure out how to get to D’Hoffryn without getting ourselves killed,” LaTisha said.

“Tish, I’m on board with that plan, but what makes you think that we can do anything?” Helen asked. “Xander’s got friends in really high places, starting with the world’s most powerful witch. If they can’t get to D’Hoffryn, no one can.”

LaTisha leaned against the wall and crossed her arms. Helen wasn’t saying anything that she hadn’t already told herself. Yet, as impossible as the whole mission seemed, Susan was the one that got the Slayer dream about Harris, and not some other random Slayer. That meant one thing: something out there had fingered her and her crew for the mission to save Xander and take down D’Hoffryn. A tall order for sure, but they wouldn’t’ve been given the high sign if they weren’t the crew with the best shot at victory.

“I know I’m laying a lot on you guys,” LaTisha said. “We’re aiming to do something that no one’s ever done before: take down one of the biggest, baddest, most destructive demons on the planet. But you wanna know what? We can do it. Wanna know why? Because this crew, right here in this room, is the best Slayer crew in the world. Hell, I’d stake my soul on it. And if I know how good we are, then you surely know it too.”

LaTisha surreptitiously glanced around the room to see what effect her words had. Terri looked grimly determined. Cheryl beamed with pride as she smiled. Susan was nodding to herself. Kristin was glancing around as if she were seeing her teammates for the first time. Helen still looked doubtful, but she also looked hopeful.

“I’m no fool,” LaTisha said. “I know it’s going to take awhile for us to get our ducks in order. No less than a year, for sure. Maybe even a couple of years. But when we go in, we’re going in armed with everything we need. Here,” she pointed at her head, “here,” she pointed at her heart, “and here,” she finished by pointing at her gut.

“There’s no way we’ll be able to stay together for years,” Helen said with a frown. “A year maybe. A year-and-a-half at the outside.”

LaTisha had a plan for that, too. “But think about who we are,” she said. “I’ve got experience as a Lead Slayer already, don’t I? That means that no matter what, I’ll always have access to resources and be able to game the system. Terri’s got plans to make it big as a choreographer on Broadway. Know what else is in the Big Apple besides Broadway?”

“One of the biggest Slayer houses outside of Cleveland,” Terri said. “Imagine being able to plug into that when the time comes, hunh?”

“And the Council’s already begging Suze to go to London for some special training in the Council’s computer networking and electronic surveillance operations,” LaTisha continued.

“Which means I’ll be networked to everything the Council’s got,” Susan quietly added. “If it works out, I’ll have so much security clearance that I could probably access just about any bit of information that isn’t nailed down with Mr. Giles’s personal security code.”

“Helen here is on track to start her own bodyguard business,” LaTisha began, “So—”

“I don’t know about that,” Helen interrupted. “I’ve been thinking that maybe being a private sector Slayer is pretty questionable. Ethically speaking.”

LaTisha was shocked speechless and she blinked at Helen. Helen had joked more than once that there was gold in them thar Slaying skills. Her sudden reversal on her plans to become a high-priced bodyguard to the rich and famous as soon as she cleared her Council obligation was news of the stop-the-presses variety.

Helen uncomfortably shrugged. “I’ve been thinking of maybe doing it as a front for the Council. Y’know, start up the business, take on some non-supernatural clients for my cover, but really have the Council as the biggest client. Bonus, maybe I could convince the Council to fill the employee rolls with Slayers. It’s got some kinks, but I think I could work it out.”

LaTisha could feel the grin spread across her face. Somehow, someway, Helen got turned around and decided to fly the straight and narrow. “Well, there you go,” LaTisha said with a note of pride. “Even more potential firepower.”

“Don’t count the chickens, yet,” Helen said. “I don’t know if the Council will go for paying for my MBA, let alone me starting a personal security business as a Council front and a Slayer employment plan.”

“Considering that we’re up against an octopus called Bifrons LLP that’s using no less than two security companies as a front, I can’t imagine the Council will think that’s a bad idea,” Terri said.

Helen uneasily shrugged. “The whole thing with Ani, Carna, and Bifrons is what gave me the idea, actually.”

“See?” LaTisha’s hand swept over the room. “Sure, Kristin and Cheryl haven’t figured out what they want to do yet, but I’m sure they’ll land in positions that’ll do us the most good. Either way, it doesn’t matter if it takes a year or two to figure out what’s what. By the time we’re ready to go, we’ll all be in a good position to contribute our share to take down D’Hoffryn. That’s why we were picked to do this job.”

“Amen,” Cheryl said with a beatific smile.

“We’re going to do this and we’re going to pull it off,” LaTisha said. “Harris needs our help, whether he knows it or not. That man put it all on the line for us in fighting the Emokillsus. What’s more, he’s been putting it on the line for Slayers going back years to Buffy herself. The way I see it, the man’s earned the right to be called a Sister. And the Sisterhood doesn’t ever leave a Sister behind. Not now. Not ever. Understood?”

All around the room, LaTisha could see her girls nodding. They were all on board.

She grinned.

“Here’s the immediate plan: information gathering. The plan evolves as we shed some of our ignorance, life circumstances change, and any new dreams Suze gets about Harris and D’Hoffryn,” LaTisha said. “Susan? Kristin? You’re going to start making virtual friends online with other Slayers in other houses who’ve dealt with Harris. Get them to talk about anything they’ve seen, heard, or just think is plain weird. Play whatever role you need, whether it’s giggly girl with a crush or girl who doesn’t think he’s all that. If you have to, create some hand puppets if necessary.”

“Sock puppets,” Susan immediately corrected. “You create sock puppets if you’re pretending to be more than one person online.”

“Whatever,” LaTisha airily waved. “I leave the technical details up to you. Just don’t get caught.”

“Right-o,” Kristin saluted.

“Helen? I want you to one-on-one schmooze…Suze? Who is that girl who worked with Harris in Sunnydale? The one you found out about who’s the acting Lead Slayer in Cleveland,” LaTisha said.

“Rona. Her name’s Rona,” Susan said.

“Right. Rona,” LaTisha nodded. “Helen, schmooze her good. I’ll lay odds that since she served under Buffy in Sunnydale she’s got a rolodex you’d kill for. She probably knows squat, but chances are she knows someone who knows something. She’s our best lead to figuring out the whole story, so I want you to become her new BFF by any means necessary. Got it?”

“Networking is my middle name,” Helen said.

“As for me, I’m going to make sure the Watchers don’t get wise to what we’re doing,” LaTisha said. “And I’ll make sure you’ll get the resources you need to execute the plan. Extra time on the computers. Airfare for plane tickets to make personal visits to potential sources of information. Personal time off. Whatever. I’m your Auntie Tish, and I’m here to smooth the road.”

“What about me and Terri?” Cheryl asked. “What are we going to do?”

LaTisha grinned. “You guys get the hardest job of all. You’re going to pump Andy for information.”

“Goody! I love Andrew’s stories,” Cheryl cheered.

“Objection, your honor,” Terri said. “Why me? I know a lot of what Andrew says is just plain wrong. I knew that even before I got a dose of Xander’s memories planted in my head.”

“Some of what he says is true,” Cheryl said. “Not everything, but I think there’s a lot of truth in there. It’s just all mixed up.”

Everyone in the room looked at Cheryl with something akin to wonder. Their littlest sister was growing up and getting less naïve.

Cheryl hunched her shoulders, and looked embarrassed. “But I still like his stories, even if he is exaggerating a little bit,” she defensively added.

“Only a little?” Terri asked. “Your definition of ‘little’ and my definition of ‘little’ obviously come from different dictionaries.”

“Listen, Andy’s known Harris going back to Sunnydale. It’d be stupid not to make use of the potential goldmine under our own roof,” LaTisha said.

“Yeah, but there’s a very, very tiny pony under Andy’s barn-sized pile of shit,” Terri said. “We could go at it for years, and still not find the pony.”

“Good thing we’ve got time, then,” LaTisha firmly said. “Besides, we need you on this. Cheryl’s gotta be the one to pump Andy for information because she’s always bugging him to tell new stories. Now some of us can pitch in on that, but even Andy’ll be able to figure out something’s up if Cheryl’s not the one who’s bugging him the most.”

“Well, that’s pretty obvious,” Terri said as she lightly punched Cheryl in the upper arm, eliciting a giggle from her target. “Still not hearing why me.”

“’Cause someone’s got to ask the hard-nosed question, and you’ve been pulling that job for as long as Andy’s been telling his stories. If Cheryl starts playing Doubting Thomas it’ll be out of character, so it’s got to be you,” LaTisha said. “Besides, you still got Harris’s memories inside your head. You’ve got a bullshit detector built right in, over and above your existing bullshit detector.”

“But Harris’s memories are kind of jumbled up,” Terri protested. “They don’t make any sense unless I hear something that puts them in context, like the thing with D’Hoffryn. Besides, it’s a total invasion of Harris’s privacy and,” here Terri shuddered, “there are some of his memories I’d really like to forget. Remind me to pass on any job that’ll put me on top of a Hellmouth.”

LaTisha crossed the room, crouched in front of her lieutenant, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know. What I’m asking you to do is ethically questionable, but…it’s for a good cause. I’m asking you because this could not only save Harris’s life, but a whole lot of other lives in the form of future vengeance demon victims. Using those memories could save us a lot of time in sorting out fact from rumor. Instead of starting at square one, we could potentially be starting from square 10. I can’t just let that slide.”

Terri frowned at LaTisha before closing her eyes with a sigh and shaking her head. “Okay, okay. I’m in.”

“That’s my girl,” LaTisha quietly said as she stood. She gave the room one last scan before stretching out her hand with the palm down. “So, are we all in?”

One by one, each of the girls got to their feet and placed a single hand on top of LaTisha’s. The giggling started when everyone tried to get their second hand in and started fighting for space in the hand pile.

When everyone had settled down and everyone had both hands in place, LaTisha beamed at each and every one of her Slayers in turn. They each beamed back at her with bright smiles. Whatever doubts they may have, they were willing to put it aside and strive to do whatever it took to take D’Hoffryn down.

That’s when LaTisha knew: They were going to win.

She could see it. She could feel it.

“For the Sisterhood,” LaTisha said as if she were making a toast.

“The Sisterhood,” the others chorused in response.

***

Xander paused with his hands on his face and let the water leak through his fingers. He was still dehydrated enough that he was half-tempted to cup his hands under the running tap and suck up the grimy water. God knows he drank far worse and far more questionable liquid substances in his more than two-year-long not-at-home edition of The Amazing Race.

Instead he dropped his hands, shut off the water, and raised his face to the grimy rest stop mirror. The reflection that looked back at him was old, far older than his 25 years. He looked 60 going on 100, truth be told. All he could see were deep lines around his mouth and on his forehead and a set of exaggerated crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes that so changed his appearance that he couldn’t quite see himself in the mirror.

“So this is On the Road. For reals. Kerouac, eat your heart out,” he muttered at the reflection as leaned on the sink.

Behold the ugly truth, staring him right in the face.

It may have taken him years, but he finally got all that travel he so desperately wanted for his post-high school years; only he got it in the worst possible way. Life was so full irony that it was no wonder that he saw his very short future like it was an I-beam heading right for his Xander-shaped nose.

Such a thought was enough to make him give himself a mental slap to just stop it stop it stop it as he pushed off from the sink and turned away from the mirror. Since he figured it was time to leave anyway, he made his way to the men’s restroom door on unsteady feet. He wouldn’t put it past Faith to come marching into the urinals to make sure he was still upright.

All in all, getting into that screaming match with Buffy and then running the hell away from her when she started insisting that she was going to bodyguard him was shaping up to be a massive mistake. Thanks to his bullshit noble-martyr-friend move, he gave up the lady and found himself living with the tiger.

He had no clue what Faith’s game was or why she was playing it, but he had no illusions about what life was going to be like with Faith — however temporarily — playing protect-the-Xander-at-all-costs. One thing he was very sure about: any attempt to run was going to earn him a knock over the head before she dragged him to some secure location, tied him up, and then ripped out his spleen to teach him a lesson.

All he could do now was dig in and wait her out. Faith would get sick of the constant running and dancing with death gig sooner or later. On that blessed day when Faith would decide that enough was enough, he’d be minus one tiger. Tigers were absolutely the last thing he needed in his life, what with all the demons that kept invading it.

The cold slapped his wet face the second he stepped outside. While the all-over body shiver wasn’t welcome, the attendant wakefulness that came with it was.

“About time,” Faith called over to him from where she’d parked herself in front of the vending machines. “I was about to trot on in to see if you drowned in the toilet or somethin’.”

Oh, yeah. He called that one right.

There was nothing left to do but to walk over to the tiger and let her rip his head off.

“Gatorade,” she announced as he approached. She held up the bottle full of blue liquid for his inspection. “You still look like shit and it seems to me you need a little more of whatever in this crap.”

Xander wrinkled his nose. “Glacier Freeze?”

Faith glared down at the bottle and for a moment Xander thought she was annoyed at him.

“Yeah. Not too hot on the glow-in-the-dark blue myself, but they were out of the yellowish-green one. That color’s not too bad, which is probably why the machine’s out,” Faith said. “Frankly, just looking at this makes me want avoid putting anything in my mouth, and I’m what you might call an orally fixated girl.”

Xander choked to cover the nervous laugh as really inappropriate images sprang to mind, including some full-color, full-motion Faith-shaped memories. Oh, God. Between his will-powered suppressed libido and Faith’s sex on legs act, living with the tiger was going to be pure hell. He hoped that Faith was going to be okay with separate hotel rooms.

Faith’s dimpled grin sprung to life, a sure sign that she knew damn well that her statement could be interpreted any number of ways, most of them downright dirty.

“Drink up, sport,” Faith said as she thrust the bottle at him. “There’s plenty of shitcans like the one you just left between here and Boston if you need to pee.”

“You’re not giving me a choice, are you?” Xander grumbled.

“Fuck, no. I want you tanned, rested, and ready by the time we hit Boston,” Faith said. “By the way, G scored us a room Ritz-Carlton on the Common. Could’ve knocked me over with a feather when he texted me that the Council’s got a friggin’ expense account with the joint.”

“I take it it’s a good hotel?” Xander asked as he pried off the cap and doubtfully peered at the blue liquid within.

“Lemme put it this way: security’s gonna be insisting on a pat down of my ass the second I shimmy up to the check-in desk. Then when I whip out the Council’s platinum AmEx, they’re gonna call the cops,” Faith said with a note of pride. “I’m thinkin’ of changing into my tightest jeans just for the occasion. Might as well show off the camel toe when they ask what a bad girl like me is doing in a good hotel like that.”

Xander groaned. “So much for low profile.”

“I figure you’re going to have to save me,” Faith added with a broad wink. “When they ask, tell ’em I’m an expensive chick and worth every penny, so they better let me slide at least for the night so you can get your money’s worth.”

“Faith!”

“Hey, it’s that or your gonna have to tell ’em that I’m your wife and we’re role-playing man-with-no-name meets a strange skank in a bar,” Faith cheerfully said as she perused the drinks selection in the vending machines.

Xander’s shoulders sagged. “We’re going to be sharing a room?”

Faith’s expression was deadly serious as she spared him a glance. “Until further notice.”

What she didn’t say, even though Xander heard it loud and clear, was, “And until I’m sure you’re not going to take off on me in the dead of night, because then I’ll have to hunt down your useless hide and do that spleen-removal thing.”

It appeared the tiger had him by the throat and wasn’t about to let go. If this was Dawn, or Willow, or Buffy, or even Giles he’d be able to negotiate his way out of this. He simply didn’t know Faith well enough to try negotiation, and he suspected that his usual default mode of blustering until he got his way would get him absolutely nowhere. Most people didn’t know him for the loser-boy he really was and would back down in the face of one blustery Xander made-to-order, but Faith was very familiar with his loserdom, which meant she wouldn’t give an inch no matter what he did.

It looked like he was in for a very long series of nights where he’d be covering his eyes with a blindfold when it was time for bed and a long string of days where he’d be taking cold showers. Yeah, sure, this was Faith he was dealing with, but Faith or not, she still oozed sex. It said something that Xander couldn’t decide whether Robin was very smart or very dumb for letting the Slayer slip away from him.

Let’s vote dumb. Very, very dumb. Because if Faith was still hanging loose with Robin I wouldn’t be in this situation, Xander decided.

Xander sipped from his Gatorade and made a face while Faith began pumping quarters into a Coke machine. He stared out into the parking lot and tried his best to put the future out of his head. Even without Faith dogging his every step, his future was too depressing to contemplate. He just needed to get back into the pre-Chicago headspace where he kept his head down and put one foot — or in his case, one airport — in front of the other.

In an effort to force his overactive thinky-thoughts into non-thinky mode, he concentrated on the cars dancing in and out of the parking spaces. The lot was crowded, with more than a few cars idling while the drivers waited for a parking space near the tourist stop or bathrooms to free up. Since it was approaching dusk, the fact that the parking lot was busy wasn’t all that much of a surprise. No doubt most of those cars belonged to commuters pulling over to take a break from the rush-hour traffic or tourists looking for information about area greasy spoons where the food was cheap and fast.

As he lost himself in his one-eyed view of normal life, a movement under a puke-green Ford of undetermined vintage caught his eye. He shook his head as he took another sip. His eye could be playing ticks on him. He was still recovering, which meant he was exhausted beyond the telling of it. Lord knows he slept most of the way from Chicago to wherever they were now, and chances were he was going to be out like a light the second he got into the passenger seat. He and clear judgment were not on speaking terms at this very moment.

Except…

Two red eyes popped open underneath the Ford.

A chill crawled up Xander’s spine. It could be animal and that could be light reflecting off its eyes.

The red eyes blinked.

Xander squinted his own eyes in a desperate attempt to focus as he dearly (and silently) wished his fake left eyeball could kick in with some eyesight to help out.

A hand closed like a vice around his bicep. “And where the fuck do you think you’re going?” Faith’s voice was light, but there was a definite threat underneath.

Xander snapped out of it and looked around. He’d taken a half-dozen steps away from where he’d been standing without realizing it. “Look over there. Do those eyes seem wrong to you?”

Faith’s expression was suspicious as she turned her gaze on the parking lot with a frown. “What eyes?”

“The ugly green car at your 11 o’clock.”

Faith let go of his arm and she scratched her cheek in thought. “Probably an animal and the light’s reflecting off its eyes,” she said, echoing his earlier thought. “Christ, it’s probably a rat. I hate rats.”

“Rats come that big, hunh?” Xander asked as he took one more step closer to the car and tilted his head in an attempt to see something that might resemble a shape in the darkness of the Ford’s undercarriage.

“Some of ’em get big enough to menace a toy poodle,” Faith said.

A young college-type woman in ripped jeans was heading for the Ford. Her attention was focused on fiddling with her keys.

The chill of this-isn’t-right wouldn’t go away. “We need to check it out,” Xander said.

The woman reached her car and put the key in the lock.

“It’s a rat,” Faith firmly insisted. “You’re so tired that you’re being para—”

Xander was off and running to get to the woman. He didn’t get more than a dozen steps before she screamed and went down. Something large and with dark fur oozed out from underneath the car and crawled up the screaming woman’s fallen body.

“Fuck!” Faith exclaimed behind him.

The echo of Faith’s yell was still in his ears when she passed him at Slayer speed. She paused in her forward momentum just long enough to turn around and toss the car keys at him. “Trunk! Weapons!” she ordered.

Xander skidded to a halt as he attempted to catch the keys, but owing in large part to his one-eyed-ness, coupled with Faith’s unexpected move, he missed. He scrambled a bit in the growing dusk to find the keychain in the dirty slush. After a few moments, during which he could hear the woman’s screaming stop and the sounds of a fight start, he found what he was looking for.

As he straightened up with the car keys clutched tightly in his hand, he could see people scrambling this way and that. Some were running to their cars, some were running toward Faith, who was desperately clinging to the back of a large, furry, rodent-looking thing with impossibly long, sharp claws.

As Xander oriented himself towards the rental, red eyes popped to life underneath more than half the cars all over the parking lot, including the one he and Faith was using.

Adrenalin kicked in and wiped away all trace of exhaustion as Xander raced for their car while fumbling with the remote control that would disengage the locks and pop open the trunk. That action accomplished, he steeled himself as best he could. He didn’t dare get close enough for whatever was lurking under the car to get at him. That meant he was just going to have to jump into the trunk and rummage around for swords and crossbows.

When he judged himself close enough, he threw himself from the ground into the open trunk in the same way that he’d flop face-first onto the bed when he was little kid. As he landed with a crunch on top of the bags, he realized just a little too late that he took a serious risk of knocking himself out of the trunk’s hood or impaling himself on something sharp. Luckily, he angled his throw just right that he didn’t come into contact with anything that could give him a concussion, even if his shins came in sharp contact with the edge of the trunk. His thick coat, plus the fact that the fact that the weapons were stashed under his and Faith’s clothes-stuffed duffle bags, spared him from any injuries worse than that.

The sounds of screaming hit his ears and he looked up. The fury things were out in full-force now. Those few brave souls that had run toward Faith were in full retreat to their cars or the rest stop building. Some of them, however, got unlucky and were even now getting munched on or clawed apart by what looked like extremely large rats with foot-long claws.

Xander started digging down and tossed their duffle bags to the ground outside the car. He heard a snarl and rip. He paused just long enough to peer over the edge, and saw a paw with long claws snaking out from underneath the car to tear at the bags.

Oh, thank God. They’re stupid. Or that thing could’ve attacked the bags based on them smelling human, so they could be blind, but really smart. Actually, let’s hope for stupid and blind, Xander thought as he hauled the weapons bag towards him.

“My clothes!” Faith yelled.

Xander paused again to look up. Faith was covered in blood and scratches and hopping mad. “I gotta replace everything thanks to your rabies-infested spit!”

“Hey, I had to get them out of the way to find the weapons!” Xander protested.

“Not talking to you! And gimme a sword! I’m killing that thing’s rat ass!”

Xander carefully reached into the weapons bag and grabbed the first thing that came to hand. He drew out was a long-handled axe. Close enough. He yanked the weapon free, tossed it at Faith, and yelled, “Head’s up!”

Faith easily caught it by the handle in mid-air and charged for the fuzzy thing, which had oozed out from under the car and was now viciously tearing apart the duffle bags with its claws and teeth.

Yay! Blind and stupid! Xander, my man, today is your lucky day, Xander giddily thought as he pulled out a crossbow and a quarrel of bolts. First, he checked the crossbow to make sure he didn’t break the thing in his rough landing. Satisfied that it was in working order, he slung the quarrel over his shoulder and loaded the crossbow.

He heard the familiar ker-chunk of an axe cutting through flesh and looked up again to see Faith looking grim. The fuzzy creature was dead on its side and its head was separated form the rest of its body.

“The good news, they’re easy to kill,” she announced. “The bad news, that woman was dead by the time I pulled the first one off her.”

Xander didn’t have time to let that statement sink in, because one of the giant rats was approaching Faith from behind. He lifted the crossbow and ordered, “Get down.”

Faith ducked and scuttled to her left, giving Xander a clear shot. He pulled the trigger, the bolt landed right between the eyes, and the creature went down. No telling if it died right away, or if it was going to take a little while for the creature bleed out. Either way, he had a new piece of information to add to the pile. These things were basically meat, which meant he could fight them on a normal human level.

This was a classic best-case scenario. He’d worry about the dead later. Right now, he and Faith had to make sure the still-living could get to their cars.

As he stumbled out of the trunk, Faith said, “Don’t look now, but I think we got our hands full.”

“No kidding,” Xander grumbled as he loaded a new bolt into the crossbow and looked up.

The carnage was terrifying to behold. Almost two-dozen people were down and getting munched on or clawed to pieces. The rat-like things were chasing after the stragglers making a desperate run to their cars or the rest stop building, fighting over their meals, or — God help him — frolicking playfully around the edges of the chaos.

Xander lifted his crossbow, aimed, and fired. He nailed the closest giant rat right in the ear. It staggered a bit, looking just a little bit too much like a classic Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head-wild-and-crazy-guy routine, before going down.

“Hell, yeah! That is what I’m talkin’ about!” Faith whooped as she charged forward with axe held high.

Xander reloaded and calmly followed in her wake.

By now he knew the drill.

Don’t lose your head.

Lift up crossbow, aim, and fire at the rat-like thing that was sneaking up on Faith while she added another two demon scalps to her belt with one swing.

Make note of all your possible escape routes.

He shoots, he scores! One more dead demon to his name.

Don’t let yourself get cornered.

Look around to make sure that none of the rats were sneaking up on him. Reload crossbow.

Make mental notes of everything you can about the new demon.

Lift up crossbow, aim, and fire, this time at a rat-like thing as it chased a man running for the rest stop building.

Be especially attentive to their physical appearance. What unusual physical weapons do they have? Do they use tools?

This one squealed as it went down and running man got to safety. Its claws twitched and the naked, fleshy tail slashed around, but it didn’t get back up.

Note how they move and how they attack.

Reload crossbow. Look for more targets.

Notice how they react to threats and how they retreat from danger.

Faith was cutting a bloody swath through the pack, and he was afraid of hitting her. Instead, he aimed for one on the edge of the crowd around her before letting loose with a bolt.

Kill as many as you can.

This one screamed, but didn’t go down.

If things get too dangerous, retreat to safety as calmly and as quickly as possible.

The injured creature took off for the wooded area that ringed the rest stop with the crossbow bolt firmly embedded in a rear flank. Its ambling running gait could be because it was in pain, or because those long, razor-sharp claws made it awkward to run.

And for God’s sake Xander, remember the number one rule —

Reload crossbow. Look around to make sure he was still in the clear. Look for a new target.

— whatever happens, no matter what the cost, no matter how great the danger to other people, do not do anything that puts you in mortal danger.

Faith swung her axe, beheading yet another creature. What few were left finally clued in that this meal was fighting back, and that their best bet was to make a run for it.

I can’t stress this enough: Do Not Die.

Xander kept the crossbow loaded and ready to fire, just in case. Faith, for her part, turned and fled for his position.

“We gotta go, now!” she ordered. “The Staties are probably already on their way and we do not wanna be here when they show!”

Xander snapped a nod, fired his final bolt at the retreating pack, and ran for the car without bothering to see if he hit something. He paused just long enough to toss the crossbow into the trunk and to slam it shut.

Faith yanked open the driver’s side door and dove inside while Xander settled himself in the passenger seat. She tossed the axe into the backseat and reached for the ignition.

“Shit! Keys! I don’t have the keys!”

“I got ’em,” Xander said as he rummaged around in his coat pockets.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Faith chanted.

There was a moment of panic as the idea popped into Xander’s head that they fell out of his pocket either during his leap into the trunk or while he was taking potshots at the rat-thingies before his hand closed around the comforting shape of the keys.

“Found them,” he announced as he handed them over.

Faith jammed the key into the ignition. The engine was still roaring to life as she threw the transmission into reverse. She squealed out of their parking space, spun the wheel fast enough that the car made a half-donut, and then slammed the transmission into forward gear.

To say Faith left skid marks as she raced out of the parking lot would be an understatement worthy of Giles.

As soon as they hit the highway and merged into traffic, however, Faith dropped down to the speed limit.

“What are you doing? What’s with the drop in speed?” Xander asked as he nervously twisted around in his seat so he could watch the scene out the rear window. In the distance he could see the flashing blue lights of state cops heading for the scene of the carnage.

“I’m following the Polish mine detector,” Faith said.

Xander snapped his head around to look at Faith. “Unh, what?”

Faith doubled her concentration on the road. “I’m stayin’ in the middle lane, and tucking myself nice ’n tight behind the car in front of us. By the time the cops figure out from the witnesses that two people were chopping those things into bits, we’ll be past the next few exits and just another car in the traffic. I figure no one got our plate number, so we’re probably in the clear.”

“Polish mine detector? What the hell is that about?” Xander said returned his attention to the view outside the rear window. The blue lights had disappeared, probably because they had pulled into the now-invisible rest stop.

“Just a sayin’ from back in the day. You know, you’re tooling down the Pike and the radar detector starts whooping, so you get behind someone going faster than you and let them take the fall and collect the ticket,” Faith explained. “Now shut up. I’m trying to be invisible.”

Xander clenched his jaw and resisted the urge to go, “Hunh? What? You realize I understood nothing you said, right?” Instead, he maintained his gaze out the rear window, even though both cops and rest stop were long out of sight. He figured that any second there’d be flashing blue lights racing down the road on a mission to find them and pull them over.

After maybe 10 or 15 minutes, Faith finally asked, “You ever seen something like those things before?”

Xander spared her a glance. She still looked tense. “No. You?” he asked.

Faith shook her head. “Saw hellhounds once, but those ain’t the same thing.”

There was a beat of silence.

“So, what are you gonna name ’em?” Faith asked.

Xander kept his eyes trained on the rear window. “I’m hoping the Council already has a record of them.”

“And if they don’t?”

Xander spared Faith another glance. She looked a little more relaxed, but still tense. He wasn’t sure if it was because they were putting distance between themselves and some awkward questions, or if it was because the conversation was helping her calm down. He shrugged, and turned back to the rear window.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not the Council knows they exist. Either way I still have to write up a report,” he said.

“If they’re newbies on the block, you got a name in mind for ’em?” Faith repeated.

“Haven’t thought that far ahead,” Xander said. “Tell you what. You name them.”

“Me?”

Xander shrugged again but didn’t take his eyes off the rear window. “I’m kind of running out of ideas. I’m pretty sure Rats of Unusual Size isn’t the way to go here, and it’s the only name I can think of. Besides, you killed the first one, so I’m thinking you should name it.”

“Unh, sure. I guess.”

Xander glanced at her.

Faith was biting her lip and looking very unsure. She glanced at him just long enough to say, “I’ll think of something good.”

The conversation fell into awkward silence as Faith navigated the car into a cluster of traffic, all the better to get lost in the crowd Xander supposed. As for him, he kept obsessively watching for cop cars. If they got pulled over, they were going to have a hell of time explaining Faith’s beat-up and bloodied condition, not to mention the gore-covered axe in the back seat. Best to keep the eye peeled for trouble so they could concoct a Sunnydale-sized story before they were pulled over.

God knows how long he kept a tense watch, but eventually the post-battle energy drained from him in a sudden rush. He slowly and painfully righted himself in the passenger seat as every muscle screamed at him, his shins began to throb with the memory of their contact with the car’s metal, and a roaring headache sprang to life.

The world outside was dark now, and God knows how many exits Faith had put between themselves and law enforcement, but it looked like she was right. They had managed to escape.

Before Xander could allow himself to relax, he had one thing he had to do.

“I can’t reach my laptop in the backseat. Pull over,” Xander said.

Faith glanced at him. “That can wait until we stop for the night.”

“It is night,” Xander pointed out, “And I have to get everything down about the latest demon before I forget.”

“Yeah, well, I want to put a few more hours and miles between us and the scene of the crime before we check into a motel,” Faith said.

Xander turned his head to look at her and so he could take stock of her messy condition. “I think you mean me. You walk into a motel lobby and people are going to call the cops. You look like a walking domestic.”

Faith looked down and swore. It was almost as if she forgot that she was covered in blood, bruises, and scratches. “So, I’ll just sneak into the room after you’re done with business and clean up,” she said with irritation.

“Unh, we don’t have clothes to change into.”

Thanks to the dashboard light, he could see Faith’s knuckles tighten around the wheel. “Oh, fuck. All our clothes are ripped to shreds. Shit. You’re gonna have to go shopping for a change of clothes first thing tomorrow, ’cause you’re right. I can’t wear these rags in public.”

Xander groaned as the thought hit him. “And probably getting sniffed at by police dogs.”

Faith hunched forward, as if she were trying to double her concentration on the road before her. “Please tell me you don’t have anything in your bag that could lead them to us.”

“I know better,” Xander said. “Anything identification-like and import I keep on me or in the computer bag, since that’s with me at all times. I’ve been in enough places where losing your stuff is part of the deal. The duffle’s always expendable. So’s the decoy wallet I carry.”

“I’m pretty sure I don’t have anything to worry about,” Faith said. “Not 100% percent on that, though. There might be some stray papers or something that might lead them to us. Fuck. We’re gonna have to call the Council and tell ’em to keep ears and eyes open for an APB on us just in case.”

Xander suppressed a sigh. If Faith was going to be following him around the planet, she was going to have to learn a few street smarts.

“I know there’s a pen and notebook in the glove compartment,” Faith said.

“Hunh?”

“You know, to take notes and shit like you need.” She said without looking at him. “I took some notes while casing the godfather. I know I threw it in there after I read off what I had to Bernie. Always good to have it, y’know? In case you get lost and need to jot directions down.”

Xander opened the glove compartment and, lo and behold, there was a pen and notebook. He didn’t want to interfere with Faith’s driving, so he hunched forward and used the light from the glove compartment. He scribbled down as much as he could remember. He read his notes to make sure that he could at least make sense of his half-illegible scrawl before shoving pen and notebook back into place and shutting the compartment.

His one important task done, he slumped back into the passenger seat and reached for the seatbelt.

“Sorry,” Faith’s voice floated out of the blind darkness to his left.

Xander paused in his belting operation and fuzzily regarded her face in the light of the passing headlights. “For what?”

She shifted in her seat, but didn’t look at him. “For not listenin’ to you. You said there was something screwy about those eyes, and I fluffed it off.”

The belt clicked into place, and Xander leaned back. Against his own volition, his head lolled backwards against the headrest. He simply had no energy left to keep it upright. “Yeah, well, I was thinking the same thing as you. I thought that I was so tired that I was just being jumpy.”

“Don’t erase the fact that you were right.”

Xander rolled his head so he could look at her. He was so used to traveling alone that the stream of chatter from his blindside was unnerving. Even though her eyes were nailed on the road ahead, and her expression around her mouth seemed troubled.

“Forget it,” he finally said. “I honestly don’t blame you. I was bit spacey back there, so I’d question me in your shoes. Like I said, I was questioning me and I was wearing my shoes.”

“Stop tryin’ to make me feel better.”

The sudden harshness in her voice made Xander wince. He honestly wasn’t trying to make Faith feel better about anything. He was only stating the truth.

“I didn’t listen and that woman ended up dead,” Faith quietly added.

Xander tiredly blinked at that. “Faith, Slayers move fast, but they don’t move that fast. You could’ve never gotten to her in time even if you believed me right away.”

Faith bit her lip. “Maybe.”

Xander rolled his head against the headrest until he was staring at the upholstered ceiling. They left behind more than one dead person. While he could see why Faith was focused on that one, the truth was that she wasn’t the reason that one person was dead. She wasn’t the reason why a whole lot of people were dead.

“Welcome to my world,” he muttered.

“Way I understood it, this whole thing of yours doesn’t create demons out of thin air,” Faith said.

Xander rolled his head against the headrest so he could look at her. She spared him a glance in response.

“It doesn’t. No one’s sure how it works, actually,” Xander said. He shivered with exhaustion and out of instinct gave himself a hug to stop the shaking. “They think the way it works is that I’m like a dinner bell. The demons come running to check me out, and people around me get munched, sometimes fatally. Sometimes I get munched, but usually not because I’m almost always surrounded by Slayers. Innocent people tend to pay, but me not as much.”

Faith’s eyes were back on the road. “That ain’t your fault. Seems to me you and your buds are doing everything possible to keep the bloodshed down to a medium roar, but the fact that it’s a problem you gotta wrestle with ain’t on you.”

Xander frowned as he picked through the cotton in his brain to find the right words to explain himself, because God forbid he just let anything go without trying to somehow smooth over the rough spots. “What I mean is the whole struck-by-lightening aspect. You know. You’re minding your own business and, wham, demons followed by injuries and sometimes dead bodies. That’s my life.”

Faith didn’t say anything to that and her expression didn’t give anything away. Xander was willing to bet good money that she was already reconsidering this whole situation. She’d probably stick around for the Boston gig, but after that she was going to find a good excuse to walk away.

Funny how the tiger turned out to be made of paper. He knew it would happen, he just didn’t think it would happen this soon.

Welcome to his life, indeed.

He closed his eyes as his gut squirmed. The squirming was probably because he was getting carsick. Or maybe it was because he exerted himself when he still needed healing time. God knows it wasn’t because he was disappointed. He honestly didn’t think for one second that Faith would tough it out for anything resembling the long term.

Besides, he wouldn’t wish his life on anyone. If he wouldn’t wish it on even Vi, he certainly wouldn’t wish it on Faith.

His brain nudged him with a dose of guilt. Gee, how fucking noble of you think that. Now why don’t you tell her.

He forced his eyes open. He focused his tired eye on her as he mentally scrambled to put together a coherent sentence. “All I’m saying is that you don’t need this crap. I don’t need this crap, but I don’t have choice. You do. After we’re done doing whatever in Boston, do yourself a favor and go back to your life. Like I tried telling you back in Chicago, if you stick around my life is pretty much yours, and trust me when I tell you that it’s no way to live. Do yourself a favor, and tell Giles that you changed your mind. Hey, you can even blame it on me, if you feel like you’d be letting him down by backing out. Tell him I was a complete ass and made your life a living hell even outside of the demon-attraction. He’ll definitely believe that.”

She didn’t look at him, and her face still gave nothing away. It was enough to make him wonder if he’d actually said anything or if all that was just in his head. He was tired enough that it was possible that none of that actually reached his mouth.

His eyes drifted closed again. He could just say what he needed to in the morning, because chances were he’d mess it up if he tried again right away. It was best if he made his position clear before they got to Boston so she wouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to bail.

“No,” Faith’s voice said in the darkness.

He slit open his good eye so he could see her. That ‘no’ was so quiet, that he wondered if his ears heard a word that wasn’t said.

She glanced at him, before turning her gaze back to the road. “I told you I got a get out of jail free card a long time ago from G, so I sure as hell don’t need one from you. The answer is no and it’s staying no,” she repeated in a quiet voice.

And that, it appeared, was all Faith had to say on the subject.

Xander could feel his forehead scrunch as he frowned. There was no bluster, no threats that he stop talking like that, no reassurances that he was crazy for thinking she should go, no — for lack of a better word — Faith-y-ness about her attitude. Just a calm statement that was so certain, so solid, that he could practically lean it like it was a brick wall. His life was all about the uncertainty these days, so he didn’t quite know what to do with something like this.

Yeah, it was Faith offering to be that wall, and yeah, she was going to eventually get sick of running from one crisis to the next and would eventually crumble into dust, but it was still something. After too long of making do with less than what he needed, something was a whole hell of a lot better than the nothing he had before, even if it wasn’t a forever kind of thing.

God forgive him, he’d take it and be thankful, for however long it lasted.

As he drifted off to sleep to the rocking of the car, he couldn’t quite shake the thought that maybe — just maybe — he might have a future after all.

***

Andrew heard the sounds of the argument between Cheryl and Terri long before he reached the kitchen.

“And I’m telling you that ‘justice demon’ is a stupid alternate,” Terri said.

“But they right wrongs,” Cheryl began.

“You mean they make mountains out of molehills,” Terri snorted.

“Now, now, now,” Andrew interrupted as he walked into the room. “What’s this all about? I could hear you guys upstairs, which, unh, tells you how loud you’re yelling.”

Cheryl immediately turned her pleading eyes to Andrew. “I’ve been reading up on vengeance demons and trying to explain to Terri why I think it’s the wrong name and she won’t listen to me.”

“That’s because you’re being stupid,” Terri snapped.

Cheryl’s blue eyes got wide and her lower lip trembled.

“Terri!” Andrew exclaimed. “That’s not a very nice thing to say to Cheryl. You should apologize.”

Terri hunched her shoulders and Andrew felt bad for snapping at her. He hated correcting his little lambs, but when they fought he had to stop it before it got out of hand.

“Sorry,” Terri muttered. “You’re not stupid Cheryl, but your idea really kind of is.”

Andrew sighed and shook his head. Much as he liked Terri, she sometimes was too stubborn for her own good. Whenever she was convinced she was right, she wouldn’t listen to anyone, even if that someone might know better.

Cheryl turned her wide blue eyes to him. “But it isn’t, right Andy? You were friends with a vengeance demon.”

“Anya was an ex-vengeance demon,” Andrew quickly corrected her. “Or maybe I mean an ex-ex-vengeance demon.”

Terri snorted. “Ex-ex-vengeance demon? What is that?”

“I told you the story,” Andrew huffed, “ about how Anya went back to being a vengeance demon. But it was totally temporarily and she was under a lot of emotional stress when she did, so the second time wasn’t like real or anything since no one died. Or maybe I mean no one actually stayed dead since she had her last wish reversed and everything.”

“Oooooh, I remember. This happened after Xander left her at the altar because he was afraid that he was playing into the hands of the First by marrying her,” Cheryl bounced.

“You mean after he got cold feet,” Terri sniffed. “I think the whole First thing was just an excuse.”

“It wasn’t,” Andrew huffed. “Xander was haunted by visions just before he was supposed to walk down the aisle. Anya told me that herself during one of our many, many raids where we’d supply our army with all the little things it needed. Like medical supplies. And food. And…and…other stuff.”

“It’s just so sad that they lost each other in the end, though,” Cheryl sniffed.

Terri threw up her hands. “See? I think this is where the problem is. Vengeance demons are demons. Your head’s full of Anya, and that’s why—”

“It is not,” Cheryl hotly interrupted. “I told you. I’m reading up on them.”

“Girls, girls, girls,” Andrew smoothly intervened.

Cheryl and Terri paused in their argument to look at him.

“Now, Cheryl. Terri’s right. Vengeance demons are demons and they do bad things to people.” Andrew felt a twist in his gut as he said this, because he really did hate admitting it. He felt like he was spitting on Anya’s grave. “But, Terri, Cheryl’s right, too. Vengeance demons only do what humans ask them to do, and they can only grant wishes if the person making the wish really does believe that they’ve been wronged.”

“I don’t care,” Terri huffed as she crossed her arms. “If I see one, it’s open Slay season as far as I’m concerned.”

“Weeeelll, they’re not that easy to Slay,” Andrew hesitantly corrected her. “The only way to defeat a vengeance demon is to take away her power center, which could be a piece of jewelry or an item of clothing or something like that. Once you do that, they become human, which means they’re off Slay-limits because we’re not supposed to kill humans. So, unh, vengeance demons are not exactly a clear-cut, black-and-white, Darkside of the Force-Light Side of the Force kind of thing.”

“Andy, you know a lot about vengeance demons, right?” Cheryl asked.

Andrew couldn’t resist puffing up his chest. “Anya told me a few things on our little midnight raids around Sunnydale.”

“And she would never, ever whitewash what a vengeance demon is,” Terri sarcastically said.

“Anya was very honest person,” Andrew said. “Some might say she was too honest, but there’s no such thing as too honest. But if it was possible to be too honest, Anya was that person.”

Cheryl leaned on the table as she smiled widely at Andrew. “Hey, maybe you can tell me more about vengeance demons. I’m trying to really understand them and—”

“Anya fixation,” Terri sing-songed.

Cheryl stuck her tongue out at Terri. “I’m just curious, that’s all. So how about it, Andy? Will you help? I want to really impress Bernie and show her that I know how to help with research and stuff.”

Andrew rolled his shoulders. Help? He lived to help. “Anything you need. Fire photon torpedoes, Number One.”

Cheryl giggled. “Well, I’d love to hear how Anya became a vengeance demon. No, wait! Maybe how she stopped being a vengeance demon. Oh, hold on. I think you already told us that story, so maybe not that one. I guess maybe you can tell us about her most creative wish?”

“Geez, why not just ask Andrew if he knew what Anya’s typical day at work was like?” Terri rolled her eyes. “I bet it’s just like The Office, only instead of Michael Scott, it’s D’Hoffryn and instead of Pam, it’s Anya or something.”

“I must admit, your pop-culture referencing is sooooo much better than when I first came here,” Andrew said with a nod at Terri. “However, my little padawan, you have not yet become a true Jedi Master. Clearly it’s more like being on the Death Star with D’Hoffryn as the Emperor Palpatine and Anya as Anakin Skywalker, the innocent who was tragically drawn into becoming the evil Darth Vader before true love rescued her and brought her back to the Side of Light.”

“Can you tell us about it?” Cheryl asked with excitement.

Terri groaned, but she wasn’t fooling Andrew for one second. She wanted to hear everything. If she didn’t, she would’ve declared the argument over and would’ve been already heading up to her room.

Andrew grinned and he leaned toward Cheryl. “I could tell you all about it.”

“How about something about D’Hoffryn?” Cheryl bounced on the balls of her feet.

“D’Hoffryn?” Terri exclaimed. “Why d’you wanna hear about him?”

“Because we’ve never heard any D’Hoffryn stories,” Cheryl sniffed. “And because I’m interested.”

Andrew startled. “Cheryl, you’re not planning on asking D’Hoffryn to make you a vengeance demon, are you? Because—”

“What? No! No, of course not!” Cheryl looked so horrified at the very idea that Andrew immediately believed her. “I just want to be the first Slayer to hear a D’Hoffryn story, that’s all.”

“I suppose I could tell you a thing or two. Maybe even a dozen things,” Andrew airily said as he looked to the ceiling. Already his mind was flipping through every scrap of information he ever heard or read about D’Hoffryn. What Cheryl was asking posed quite the challenge. He was more than ready to answer it.

Yes, indeed, his little ducklings were growing up. It was time to navigate out of safe waters and to guide them through the rough seas of life that were the true challenge for any Slayer. The hero’s path, Andrew knew, was never an easy one. If his stories helped make that path a little easier, than he could go to his grave knowing that he had served humanity well.

“Well, we’re waiting,” Terri said. Her arms were folded, her frown was in place, and Andrew new that she was already cooking up a thousand questions in her head.

Good. That’ll make it a lot more fun, Andrew thought.

Andrew took a breath and began, “Well, during one of our midnight raids, Anya told me the most amazing story about the time D’Hoffryn invited her to attend a gathering of demon clans as his escort.”

“Escort? Do you mean date?” Cheryl squeaked.

“No, no. Nothing like that. It’s because Anya — or Anyanka as she was known then — was his high scorer on the wish-o-meter,” Andrew explained.

“High scorer,” Terri said slowly. “You make it sound like a videogame.”

“It’s not a videogame. Believe me, it’s not and I know it’s not,” Andrew said with as much seriousness as he could put into those words. “If you want to know the truth? All vengeance demons kind of have the same story, at least according to what Anya told me.”

“And that is?” Terri prompted with her raised eyebrow of doubt.

Andrew looked Terri in the eye and said, “A vengeance demon’s story is all about what happens when humans and demons cross paths.”

Terri startled a little bit at that, like she didn’t expect Andrew to say that. Then she seemed a little bit sad.

Andrew was about to ask Terri why she was upset when Cheryl’s voice interrupted.

“So life and death, then?” Cheryl eagerly asked.

Andrew nodded. “Life and death. Always,” he solemnly confirmed. “Now, here’s what Anya told me about D’Hoffryn….”

 

15<<( 16 )>>Start Over at Part 1

Tags: character: andrew, character: ensemble, character: faith, character: oc, character: xander, fanfiction: 2007, fanfiction: behold little padawan, fanfiction: buffy the vampire slayer, fanfiction: fic-a-thon
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