I have to go to BFF's tonight for the cheer-up thing. It's her birthday, the first after hubby walked out on her, and I think there's no prezzies. So, I go armed with ice wine and aged cheddar and the promise to watch the Jaws DVD with her.
I'm thanks for the FB on the ship_manifesto piece I did on Xander-Faith. Feel free to pass the link around and get people to comment. I've been trying to keep up with comments there, but haven't gotten around to answering email of the comments here. I promise to get to it this week.
In the meantime, new Living History. As an interesting side note, I've been sitting on the bulk of this part for approximately 10 months.
Up to part 58 is found here.
Continued from part 59 here.
Xander gamely tumbled over the rocks as he leaned on Buffy for support. The trek wasn’t noiseless by any means. Xander’s symphony of sharp intakes of breath, growls, and soft swearing leavened with the occasional whimper made Buffy nervous. She could only hope the monster’s hearing wasn’t sensitive enough to pick up the noise Xander was making.
They finally broke into the main tunnel, an act that was capped by Xander stumbling with a yelp as he transitioned to the relatively smooth sailing the main tunnel offered. Buffy managed to catch him before he landed face-first on the ground.
“Thanks,” he said through clenched teeth.
Buffy stood still and let Xander straighten up so he could at least sling an arm around her shoulders. Out of reflex, she grabbed his dangling hand and wrapped her free arm around his waist.
“You ready to run?” she asked, not liking the fact that he was pale and sweating.
“Make it a hobble and you’ve got a deal.”
They set off for the staircase. Buffy could hear sounds of movement echoing somewhere through the tunnels, but she was having a hard time pegging the source. The fact that whatever was hunting them was smart enough to not make any other noises that might give away its position did not make the Slayer feel at all comfortable.
Although they were moving faster than they had been in the small side tunnel, Buffy felt they were still moving too slow. While Xander awkwardly leaned on her for support as he limped along, she had to fight the urge to impatiently surge forward and drag him with her. If Xander were shorter, Buffy would’ve just thrown him over her shoulders and hauled ass out of there just to be done with the escaping routine.
“How’s the ankle?” she whispered.
“Hard to tell,” Xander grunted back.
There was a sharp clatter of rocks ahead. Xander reflexively hugged her closer, forcing Buffy to come to halt.
“What?” she asked.
“Wait,” he grimly replied.
After a few moments of their headlamps scanning the darkness and finding nothing, coupled with no more scary rock-moving noises, Xander relaxed enough to allow Buffy to move forward.
They had walked-hobbled only a few feet more when a loud roar echoed through the tunnel followed by an explosion of rock and dust that drove them both to the ground. Buffy scrambled to her feet and saw the second-biggest snake head she’d ever seen in her life.
The snake did some sort of coil-y thing so that its eyes could fix on her. One sibilant hiss was all the impetuous she needed to grab Xander by the collar of his shirt and start dragging him away.
(*Goody! You brought a friend!)
Xander yelped and managed to pick up adrenalin-fueled speed despite his injured ankle. Although there was no way he could possibly keep up with a Slayer, even if that Slayer was weighted down by one Xander-sized package, he managed to avoid being strangled by his own clothing while Buffy dragged him along.
Knowing there was no way the two of them together were going to outrun a snake even in these close quarters, Buffy took a sharp right down a branching tunnel.
“Let go!” Xander managed get out as Buffy pulled him after her.
“Just take off and I’ll distract…”
“Shut up!” Buffy shouted back as she ducked down yet another side passage to her left, dragging the loudly protesting Xander along with her. Behind her she could hear the snake rumbling through the passage as loose rocks clattered a warning of its advance. She tossed Xander in front of her so that she’d be able to turn and face the snake if it caught up with them. She must’ve yanked too hard because she heard the sound of cloth ripping and Xander was freely stumbling forward.
He brought his arms up over his head and yelled, “Oh, shi—” He crashed into a barrier and crumpled to the ground.
“Oh no,” Buffy said as she raced to his side. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw he was stunned, but conscious. His headlamp was cracked, but at least still working. “Are you…”
“Ow. My arms haven’t had enough abuse today.” Xander blinked rapidly as if he was trying to clear his head. “Next time you throw me, can you please make sure there isn’t a rock wall in the way?”
“Well excuse me for trying to keep you alive.”
(*Hide and seek. I liiiiike this game.)
Xander slapped a hand over her mouth and dragged her to the ground. Buffy shot him a glare, but gave him a curt nod. She suspected that this quiet-as-a-mouse routine wasn’t going to be at all helpful, but it was worth a shot. He removed his hand from her mouth and reached up to fumble with his headlamp until his light snapped off. She quickly followed suit.
Xander remained on his back keeping as still as possible. Buffy slowly worked her way into a crouching position, ignoring Xander’s irritated huff telling her that she was making noise. Given the fact that the snake—it must be huuuuuge if its body matches its head—was making plenty of noise as it navigated the corridors, she figured it probably couldn’t hear her.
An echoing growl* startled both of them.
(*I can smell you, you know.)
Buffy quietly unslung Catherine’s sword and put it on the ground. She kept one hand on the hilt and the other on the scabbard. As the sounds of movement got closer, she knew that all she managed to do was trap both her and Xander in a neat little box. If they were going down, she was going to make damn sure that snake was going down with them.
(*First I eat. Then shiny thing.)
The sound of movement stopped. Buffy held her breath, hoping that the snake lost them. I hope it worked I hope it worked I hope it worked…
With a suddenness the defied belief, the snake’s head thrust into their hidey hole.
(*I win Walnut Brain!)
Buffy launched from her position with a scream, drawing the sword as she went.
“Buffy!” Xander shouted.
The snake’s jaws opened wide just as Buffy got into swinging distance. Given her speed, there was no way to avoid getting bit, so Buffy charged straight into the snake’s mouth.
Using every ounce of Slayer strength at her disposal, Buffy grasped the hilt in both hands and struck upward, driving the sword at an angle, which miraculously prevented the snake from closing its jaws. There was a roaring sound in her ears accompanied by the sharp sounds of something breaking. When she withdrew the sword, there was a surprising amount of blood that gushed from the wound. Around her she could feel the snake trying to work its jaws, which left her with only one option: keep stabbing at roughly the same angle.
She was blinded by the flood of blood and deafened by the noise. She wasn’t sure how long she stabbed at the roof of the snake’s mouth and how long she fought to keep her balance as the soft footing beneath her violently undulated in agony. At some point, she felt her collar go tight and she wondered if she got caught on the snake’s fangs. If that was the case, she was in trouble for sure.
She was shocked when she realized that she was actually getting dragged past the monstrously large fangs, a point driven home by the fact that a sharp point had nicked her cheek, and backwards into the relatively open air of cul-de-sac. She stumbled, still off balance and still disoriented by her sudden change in environment. Unable to re-capture he equilibrium, she was dragged to the ground as her rescuer tripped with a very male curse.
The snake was convulsing and screaming, causing loose rocks to scatter and clatter around them. Buffy and Xander scrambled as quickly as they could away from the dying creature before landing hard up against the opposite rock wall. They crouched on the ground in an effort to make themselves smaller targets for the snake’s unthinking death throes. For good measure, Xander yanked the half-stunned Buffy into a hug, curling around her in an effort to shield her from the dust and debris kicked up by the battle’s aftermath.
Buffy wasn’t sure how long the dying drama lasted as she and Xander cringed together on that cavern floor. All she knew was that eventually the snake stilled, the rocks stopped rumbling in a threatening manner, and even the echoes faded away.
There was a cool rush of air across her cheek as Xander lifted his head. “Are you okay?” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Buffy whispered back.
“Got your headlamp?”
Buffy bit back a sarcastic retort and gingerly touched her head, wincing at the tacky clumps that now passed as her hair. “Gonzo. I bet it’s in the snake’s stomach right now.”
Xander stifled a chuckle. “Wanna go get it?”
“Not for all the coffee in a Starbuck’s. You?”
“Not for all the Krispy Kremes on the planet.”
“Please tell me you have yours.”
Xander sat up. Buffy could just barely make out Xander’s blind expression in the overwhelming dark.
“It’s around here somewhere. I took it off before…you know. Ummm, I don’t suppose superior Slayer-y eyesight could find it?”
“Where’d you put it?”
“Somewhere along this wall, but that’s about all I can tell you.”
“Right.” Buffy began feeling along the wall to her left while she sensed Xander trying to do the same as he moved to his right. She maybe crawled a foot when her hand came in contact with something metallic.
“Got it!” she sang out. She fumbled a bit before finding the switch and snapping it on. She shined the light around her, picking out Xander in the darkness.
A hand flew up to shield his face as he protested, “Hey!”
Buffy swallowed hard and pointed the beam away. “You look like an extra from a horror movie.”
“Do I look like Carrie post pig-blood bath?” Xander asked.
Buffy considered him a moment. His face and hair was dark with blood, which caused his eyes—one fake and one real—to stand out in startling relief. If anything, he looked like he took a swim in a pool of blood with his clothes still on.
“Worse,” she finally replied.
“Terrific. I rank as an extra in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No offense, but you don’t look much better.”
God knows her clothes felt sodden and tacky and her skin felt itchy and sticky. She really didn’t need confirmation. “C’mon, let’s see if there’s a way out.”
“Keep the light,” Xander said as he painfully crawled to his feet. “I’m betting you’re going to be moving around more than I will.”
“Actually, that’s a good idea.” Buffy marched over to him and firmly guided him to small outcropping that was just high enough for him to sit, but low enough that he could just get on his feet if he needed to. “Off the ankle. I’m betting it’s hurting.”
“The pain is singing in an aria-like way, yeah,” Xander agreed wearily. “Remind me that I’m not a Slayer and I shouldn’t act like one as in ever.”
Buffy gave him a friendly tap on the arm as he sat with a wince. “I’ll let it slide this time, but one more move like that buster and I’m telling Willow. And you know what that means.”
“She’ll make me drink her scary herbal tea?” Xander deadpanned. “No. Anything but that. I beg you to be merciful.” He took a deep breath and asked, “Did you see her?”
“Willow? Yeah. Faith mentioned that something happened.” Buffy kicked at the gravel under her feet. “She had the black eyes, Xander. How bad?”
Xander looked away. “Bad enough.”
The tone in his voice made it pretty clear she wouldn’t get more information from him. She turned and wearily inspected the snake-blocked entrance. Her sword, like her light, was somewhere in that mess, so hacking and slashing their way out was not an option. That left inspecting the shadowed rock walls in hopes of finding a crawl space that would get them to a neighboring, snake-free tunnel.
“A splinter.” Xander’s voice echoed.
“It can only be killed by one of the splinters lodging in the roof of its mouth,” Xander said dully.
“I don’t follow.”
She could see Xander staring at the snake. He looked like all his hopes had been shattered.
“You stabbed it in the roof of its mouth, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Xander said quietly. He looked back at her and offered her a weak smile. “Then again, I didn’t exactly mention Robin and Willow getting hurt, so maybe it’s not what I think, right?”
Maybe she was just too exhausted, but Buffy couldn’t quite grasp what Xander was trying to say. “I’m not…”
“What I’m saying is that it’s still possible that the future isn’t the future.” He shook his head. “Forget it. I’m just babbling.”
Ahhhh, the joy of post-battle, Buffy thought as she began exploring the promising shadows and dips in the rock walls of their prison. Usually she was cranked after a good fight, but this was a night of getting battered so what she really wanted to do crawl into a hot bath and soak. Although there was a good chance that a rescue party was coming, god knows how long it would take for the others to find them.
Buffy snorted. Yeah, because I have to be the big hero, right? Gotta not only kill the snake, but I have to prove I don’t need anyone else. Talk about missing the point of sharing the power, which is sad on this epic scale since it was my freakin’ idea.
Buffy-thoughts, bad. Rock search, better.
Quiet Xander, on the other hand? Just wiggy. Shouldn’t he be saying something annoying right about now? Quippage? He wasn’t saying a peep. Without looking over her shoulder, she just knew Xander was staring at the dead snake and thinking…what? She had no idea.
Then again, she very rarely had any idea what Xander was thinking.
“Do you know what today is?” Buffy blurted out.
“I’d say Labor Day, except I think that was a couple of weeks ago.”
“You think?” Buffy asked incredulously as she turned around to look at him.
He hesitated a moment, his eyebrows drawing tight. “Sorry. I’m stupid when it comes to dates since Sunnydale and Anya…I mean, I kind of register when the Andrew turns the calendar page, but I don’t want to think about it.”
“Four months ago to the day Sunnydale died with…” she couldn’t quite bring herself to say that Spike was dead, mostly because on some gut level she didn’t believe it. Or maybe she just didn’t want to believe it. It seemed that even in dusty death Spike left her as conflicted as he did when he was undusty and undead.
Xander’s face clouded over with guilt and he looked away. “Says a lot about me, doesn’t it? Just call me Harris-Ass-Hole. Jesus.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair, which caused it to stick up in tufts. He bowed his head as he added in a whisper, “It slipped my mind. I lost track and…scratch that, I didn’t want to know.”
“Sorry.” Buffy wasn’t exactly sure what she was apologizing for.
He opened his eyes and Buffy could see he wasn’t trapped in a cave with a dead giant demonic-like snake at one end and a rock wall at the other. “Guess we know who won the who loves their dead ex most contest. Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t me.”
“Hey!” Buffy strode over to him and grabbed his upper arm with a blood-covered hand. “Stop that! Everyone deals…well, I’m over-focus-y about that kind of thing and you’re always avoid-y.”
“I can remember the anniversary of what should’ve been my wedding and I can’t even remember this?” He angrily asked as he stood. Correction, attempted to stand. He fell back against his perch with a very loud “Ow!”
“You were going to storm across the cave and hit the rock wall, weren’t you?” Buffy asked. “Can I just point out how so good an idea that’s not? The last thing you need is a broken hand to go with your sprained ankle.”
“You’re probably right.” Xander seemed almost grateful to get off the subject of dead towns, dead Anyas, and especially the threat of discussing dead Spikes. He lifted his leg in the air and gingerly swiveled the foot as he hissed in pain. “It’s actually getting better, believe it or not.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I think Charlie packed miracles in his medical thing-y, so yeah.”
“About Anya, I mean.”
Xander let his leg drop. “Buff? I love you. Really, I do. But I think your smartest move as a Slayer would be to tiptoe away from this subject as fast as Slayerly possible. You do not want to start poking at me with Mr. Pointy.”
“I don’t mean about the anniversary.” Buffy kicked at granular soil. “I mean about everything.”
Xander gritted his teeth as if he were biting back the first through tenth comments that went through his head before his shoulders slumped. “You’re just not going to let it go, are you? Fine. Let’s hear it. Whatever is on your mind. Open season. Sunnydale. Spike. Whatever. I’ll sit here quietly and make the right sympathetic sounds since that’s what you’re looking for, right?”
Okay, that stung, she thought. She was really wearing a trench in the soil. Some part of her wondered if she could tunnel her way under the walls. She could run and get the others and then they could free Xander. Or maybe she could dig a trench big enough to get him out, too. She immediately rejected the thought since she didn’t have a shovel.
“I envy you.” The words popped out of her mouth.
Whatever he was expecting, he wasn’t expecting that. He went from watching her out of the corner of his right eye to looking at her with a living one and a dead one. The fact that the left eye looked realish enough to show a flash of disbelief? Scary. Made her wonder about eyes being the window to the soul because if that was the case, at least part of Xander’s soul was now synthetic.
“I mean, why should you remember the date? Why should you even care about it?” Buffy asked. “You have proof that you’ll fall in love again.”
Buffy saw Xander’s nostrils flare with honest-to-god irritation. She knew Xander was capable of flash-fire anger, but usually that came out of nowhere and disappeared almost as quickly. She didn’t recall the anger riding this close to the surface or him even trying to keep it in check.
Now that she thought about it, what with the clashes with Robin and the near-fight with Catherine, he’d been kind of like this since Sunnydale.
Oh boy. I think he thinks I’m accusing him of… “Look, it’s not that I think you don’t care about Anya or that you didn’t love her or that you’ll forget all about her,” Buffy quickly explained. “But think about this, someday you’ll…”
“Buffy, so help me god, if you start channeling Celine Dion, I’m taking out a restraining order the second we get out of this mess.”
The blonde giggled despite herself. “I’m trying to have a serious heart-to-heart about…”
“What a coincidence. I’m trying to avoid a serious heart-to-heart,” Xander said absently. “Hey, trench digging girl, think you can keep with the mission of getting us out of here?”
“Sorry. Got distracted,” Buffy admitted.
“Well?” Irritation back in full force.
“I’m not sure I’ll find something big enough for me to squirm through, and even if I do, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get through it and I don’t want to just leave you.”
Xander looked to the heavens and muttered before saying, “How about this: if you find something big enough for you, feel free to pull a Lassie to my Timmy and bring the reinforcements back to rescue one Xansel in distress. Believe me, I’m not a proud man. I’m a man who wants to live. Specifically, I’m a man who wants to live out his remaining days where I won’t be forced to smell eau de rotting giant snake.”
She headed back to the wall to continue her search. “Why don’t you want to talk to me?”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Xander pinch the bridge of his nose in one of the scariest imitations of Giles that she’d ever seen. “Buffy, I will talk to you about anything you want, but right now Anya is a subject that is of the off.”
“Well what about…”
“OR Catherine,” Xander interrupted. “And no, for the last time, I do not read minds. I just know you well enough to know this is a Slayer-sneaky way to find out what I know about the future.”
Buffy physically stuttered and whipped around to face him. “You mean there’s more?”
Buffy narrowed her eyes and studied Xander’s profile in the light of her headlamp. “What do you know?”
Irritation turned cautious. “Pretty much what you know.”
Searching forgotten, she glided up to him. “You’re in the know about the else that’s the who in the picture,” she guessed.
Xander’s eyes narrowed. “Either I’ve been talking to people who speaka the English too well or I’ve been out of California too long for the good of my own brain, but hunh?”
Buffy stopped in front of him, arms crossed. “Who’s your better half?”
“I have no idea what you’re…”
“Yes you do. Your left eye’s twitching.”
“You know, I’m thinking escaping is more important than talking about the fact my left eyelid is twitching because my glassy left is feeling very dry and I don’t know where my eye drops are.
“Ah-ha? What’s the ha about the ah all about?”
“I thought you said it wasn’t twitching.”
Xander dropped his head in his hands and let out a low, frustrated growl. “Can you please be Lassie-Buffy? Sometime this century? Before our friends declare us dead and start dividing our worldly possessions amongst themselves?”
“You can tell me. I can keep a secret.”
Xander let his hands drop. “That you can.”
Buffy kicked at the soil. “Yeah. It’s a problem. I’d like to try to change it, especially if I want to…”
“It’s not you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Buffy froze. “Oh.” She wasn’t sure what she thought of that or the tired sound in his voice.
“Don’t tell anyone?”
Buffy settled on the rock next to him. “What bothers you more? The fact you get a life? Or the who that’s in it?”
He was quiet a long time, long enough for Buffy to wonder if she’d get an answer. Finally he said, “Both. Equally, I think. Sometimes one bothers me more than the other. My bothered is bothered to give you an idea. If Giles and Dawn hadn’t laid the whole ‘you’re needed’ trip on me I wouldda been out of here the second Catherine the Great and crew leave. Maybe head back to Califon-e-i-a or check out Florida or Texas before winter hits.”
Buffy felt her heart drop at that. “Are you leaving?”
Yet another long, thoughtful silence. “Probably not, but only because my reasons for leaving are slightly less good than my reasons for staying. The who that’s the else is actually on my ‘why I should head for Badlands and change my name’ list.”
Buffy sagged. “Don’t tell me. Another demon or ex-demon, right?”
Xander looked at her in surprise.
“Xaaannn-derrrrr, Anya was totally one of a kind,” Buffy said. “She was…well…okay I didn’t always like her and, well, she could be weird, and, umm, I never did get her love affair with money, until I was dead broke I mean, plus the imagery she’d put in my ahead about you and her having…no, no, sooooo not going there…and the less said about me trying to kill her the better—and I never did quite make it right with you over that, but I did apologize to her, sort of, in case you didn’t know—but she was your weird and your heart and I know you miss her and I’m sorry you’re hurting and…”
She felt an arm go around her shoulder and her body pulled into a hug just as she realized she was bawling her stupid eyes out.
“Shhhhhh, it’s okay,” accompanied by a kiss on the top of the head followed by a cheek rested on the X that marks the spot. “Yeah, it’s a bad day all around isn’t it? We’ve not only got a dead snake, we’ve got ghosts. Not a good combination.”
“I’m not crying for me,” Buffy weakly protested.
“Yes you are, but that’s okay. You can cry for both of us.” In a softer voice he added, “I appreciate the attempt and what you’re trying to say. Don’t be afraid to talk to me, okay? Despite the fact…well…it’s just that right now…right now…”
Buffy sniffed and swiped at her eyes, trying not to think about the fact that she was smearing snake guts all over her face. “A better place to do this would be sitting down in actual chairs and actually having a real talk instead of trapped in a cave where the only thing we can see by the light of our single light are the creep-o shadows on a dead giant snake?”
Xander removed arm and cheek and bent down to loosen the laces on his right boot to release the pressure on the swelling. “You read my mind.”
His voice sounded a little too thick and Buffy knew damn well that it had nothing to do with the effort of fiddling with bootlaces. She rested her hand on the small of his back for a moment to try and somehow communicate that she understood, and went to back to the wall to continue her search.
Talk would happen later, once Catherine was gone and the house went back to its regularly scheduled insanity. Frankly, they both could use the chat if only to finally exorcise the shadow of Sunnydale from their friendship, now showing signs of life even if it was still on life support. It gave her a small hope that she could start repairing her relationship with Giles, Willow, and Dawn. After that? Well…best to focus on one step at a time.
She was just re-starting her search when she heard a shout of surprise echo through the tunnels.
“We’re in here!” Xander shouted.
“Xander!” That voice definitely sounded like Faith’s. “Where the fuck are you, Cyclops? Is B with you?”
“Yeah!” Buffy shouted. “We’re a little on the trapped side.”
There was a chorus of giggles accompanying Faith’s voice. “Way to understate there, B. We can kind of squeeze around the snake—fuck me this thing is wicked huge—but we got ourselves a classic cork situation.”
“Buffy’s looking to see if there’s a crack she can squeeze through,” Xander shouted.
“Keep on that. Meanwhile, we’re going to try and slice and dice our way to you,” Faith said, this time to a chorus of ‘ewwwwww.’ “Hey, cut the squeamishness guys. At least it ain’t trying to bite your ass while you do it. We got a hardcore deadline, got me?”
There was a girlish chorus of, “Yes, Faith,” followed by metallic sounds.
“Yo! Cyclops! How you feelin’ in there? Some of the girls have been buggin’ my ass about you.”
“Ankle sucks, but otherwise okay.” He shot Buffy an amused look. “I have to warn you though, me and Buffy look very, very ugly, so be prepared.”
Faith guffawed. “What? Like I don’t see your ugly mugs every day? Gimme some new news sometime.”
Xander and Buffy exchanged grins. If Faith was tossing out smart-ass funnies, things were going to be okay.
Someday I’m going to die, but thank god that today is not the day, Buffy thought as she once again began inspecting wall.