You know the drill:
Up to Part 61 can be found here
Previous (Part 62) can be found here
Morning, or rather early afternoon, was a cornucopia of guilt. Xander crawled out of his drug-induced sleep only to discover that the baby Slayers had pulled together a brunch for "no particular reason."
Needless to say, he wasn't buying, especially since he spotted Buffy and Dawn peeking into the kitchen while the newbie Slayers fluttered around him with food and an endless stream of coffee. Xander could pretty easily guess the why behind the whole shebang.
Welcome to guilt trips numbers one and two: Anya and all things Sunnydale.
The breakfast was excruciating—and not just because the toast was burned, the eggs were runny, and the coffee was bitter. Anxious Slayers seemed hell-bent on watching him yum up every bite and pour just a little too much cream and sugar into his caffeine not-so-goodness. While they grinned and jabbered at him as he ate, he could feel his one good eye ache with the effort of trying not to stare at the girls around him. He really, really, really didn't want to find some telltale sign of an impending case of shimmy-shakes.
Just the same his mind kept ticking over, Is it you? How about you? Maybe...you seem clumsy, well clumsy-ish for a Slayer. Wait, wait. Is her hand shaking just a little too much?
Meet major league guilt number three: the shimmy-shakes and the fact that he blithely went along with a plan that sentenced a countless number of Slayers to something that sounded like a pretty horrible way to die.
Then again, as Faith pointed out last night, he should've known that even without the shimmy-shakes in the equation. How many years did he watch Buffy fight things that were bigger and badder than she was? Hell, how many times did he see her almost die? How many times did he see her actually die?
While he stomach churned around runny eggs and his mouth chewed the burnt toast, he really hoped his smile didn't look too fake or his voice sound too strained.
At some point Andrew sailed into the kitchen smiling a pleased-with-the-world smile that triggered Xander's reptilian urge to cruelly swipe it off his face.
"They did this all by themselves," Andrew said proudly as if he thought breakfast was the rousing success it really wasn't. "They didn't want any help from me."
"Better watch out then," Xander thought his voice sounded just a little too happy, "you might get replaced as the house cook if you keep letting the Slayers use the stove." And yes, some mean little part of him did a happy dance while Andrew's smile dimmed slightly, even if the girls protested that no one could top Andrew's mastery in the kitchen.
Ahhhh, right on schedule, guilt trip number four: the fact that he can't get over the fact that Anya died and Andrew was still drawing breath. He knew he was being unfair, but the sad thing was he couldn't even bring himself to care, hence the guilt.
"I, unh, actually came in to tell you that Willow's awake," Andrew was stumbling over his words now, "I mean, I figured you'd want to see her but she's been sleeping on and off. Kennedy says she's been asking for you and J'Nal says it's okay if you want to…"
"I'm on my way," Xander interrupted.
As he stood, guilt trip numbers five and six took a bow: Willow and Robin. They both got hurt and he did nothing about it. Well, not him, but future him. What kind of son of a bitch was he going to turn into if he didn't bother to drop some sort of hint about either one?
Is it wrong if I don't ever want to know the answer to that question? he wondered as he got to his feet, thanked the beaming baby Slayers, and trudged up to Willow's room carrying enough guilt for three of him on his back.
He pushed his way into Willow's bedroom to see Willow looking pale and tired as Kennedy held her hand. On his entrance, Kennedy stood up and gave him a tired smile of her own.
"Hey, you finally made it back to the land of the living," the Slayer said.
"Yeah. Whatever Charlie pulled out of his magic kit did a number." This was easy. Just slip into the banter. Try not to stare at Kennedy to see if she was shaky.
"Not too long," J'Nal interrupted from a shadowy corner. "Willow needs more rest."
"Gah!" Xander jumped at the unexpected presence of the J'Nal. "Where did you come from?"
"He's been there since they finished healing Willow." Kennedy shot J'Nal an unhappy look. "He's been growling at everyone who's stopped in for a visit."
"He's just making sure I don't go all blooey again, which I don't blame him if there might be more blooey. Better to have someone to stop the blooey before blooey causes gooey," Willow said.
"You must be tired. You're trying to rhyme," Xander joked.
"She's a trooper. That's my girl." Kenney bent down and gave Willow a quick kiss on the forehead. "I'll leave you two nutcases to do whatever it is you two do when I'm not around to keep an eye on you."
"Please tell me you're going to do something resembling sleep," Willow said as she smiled up at her girlfriend.
Kennedy let out an irritated sigh. "Gotta do something first then I promise I'll be back here to take a snooze."
J'Nal began, "I believe that it's best if you sleep else…" His mouth snapped shut mid-word when Kennedy leveled a Slayer death glare at him.
"Wow. You have to teach me how to do that," Xander said.
"Spoken like someone who's never seen your if-looks-could-kill face," Kennedy said.
"You're confusing me with Giles."
"Plus there's a way around that," Willow said, "just wave a Twinkie under his nose and, poof, instant happy and a Snoopy dance to go with."
"Very funny," Xander groused.
"Whatever. Later alligators." And on that, Kennedy exited to do whatever it was she had to do.
Xander shuffled uncertainly at his position near the door. Please, Wills, don't start asking questions about what happened. Please don't.
"So, are you going to talk to me? Or are you just going to act like you've just ripped the head off my Barbie and buried the body in the backyard?"
"Some sins can never be forgiven," Xander intoned as he slid into the now-empty chair.
Willow winced. "Sorry."
"I didn't mean to…I mean we were, what? Five? Six? I shouldn't've…"
Xander was genuinely mystified. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, about the fact that…"
"Hold on, Wills." Xander turned so his one good eye was on J'Nal. "No offense, but I don't suppose you could leave?"
"No." J'Nal sounded pretty firm.
"Xander, it's okay," Willow said.
Xander ignored her. "Seriously. I'd like to talk privately with my friend. So if you could…"
"No. You remember how fast she…" J'Nal stopped himself from finishing the sentence as he gave Willow a meaningful look.
"Well, that's subtle," Willow grumbled.
"As in Klingon subtle," Xander agreed.
"Which leaves me to wondering what happened." Willow was giving him a deadly two-fer: resolve face with a heaping dose of questioning right on top. "Kennedy said she heard it was bad and…"
"Not so bad," Xander interrupted.
"Unh-hunh." Willow definitely had cynical written all over her voice. "The truth, Xander. Because if you don't tell me, I'm sure someone else will if I ever get out of this bed and start asking questions. I'd rather hear it from you than walk out there and find out that I turned someone into a pink elephant and subjected them to a plague of purple mice. Ummm, I didn't did I?"
"Turn someone into a pink elephant. Or a purple mouse," Willow swatted at him.
"There were no pink elephants or purple mice injured while filming this movie," Xander promised as he took her hand.
"Okay, so no elephants and no mice. What about people?"
"Are you sure…" Xander began.
"I need to know." Willow squeezed his hand. "I mean, if I walk out there and people are going to be acting all weird around me, I want to be prepared. Please, Xander. I trust you to tell me the truth."
Since when? "What do you remember?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. I mean no. I mean…"
"If you get any more avoid-y you're going to disappear while I'm watching you."
Xander looked to J'Nal.
"I'm not helping you," J'Nal said.
"I didn't ask you to."
J'Nal leaned forward and studied Xander a moment before issuing his verdict. "Yes you were." He leaned back against the wall. "Catherine's given me that look a few times, so I know it when I see it."
"Xander," Willow warned. "I may not remember anything. You may not want to tell me anything. But there are plenty of people who have good memories who will tell me if I asked. Well, except for J'Nal. He won't tell me anything."
Gee. Thanks a whole hell of a lot pal, Xander thought.
J'Nal responded with a soft snort, as if he could read Xander's mind.
Willow clutched his hand and stared hard into his face. "Xander? How bad was it?"
She's afraid. He could see it in the way she hunched her shoulders, as if waiting for a crash landing. The thing was this: she was right. If he didn't tell her right here and right now, someone else would.
"There were some problems," he said carefully while his mind scrambled to find the right way to tell her the truth without tossing on the hurt. "Your, unh, your mind it…ummmm…sort of went for a walk. Faith told me it happened after you touched the Grail."
"That sounds about right," Willow said at a whisper.
"And you were kind of mumbling stuff, but it was mostly harmless. Totally harmless, actually. Completely and absolutely harmless in a freaky sort of she's-talking-to-herself kind of way, not that I knew what you were talking about. Or that anyone knew what you were talking about. I mean, clueless. Totally clueless. So, it was mostly harmless mumbling and, ummm, there may have been some naughty grabbing…" Shut up shut up shut up!
"Naughty grabbing," Willow deadpanned.
"I think you confused me with someone else."
"Do I want to know?"
"I didn't get a name. I mean, it definitely wasn't me, but I don't know who I was supposed to be either." Xander was just relieved he didn't have to sugarcoat that answer. "Although in the future? If you're going to grab and rub Junior, I beg you to warn me first so I can start running. Kennedy would kill me if she found out."
Willow began giggling. "I didn't."
"You did. And you were really good at it, too. If Faith wasn't watching, boy oh boy…"
"Xander!" Willow squealed as she slapped at him.
Xander ducked his head and grinned. Yes! Did it again! The distract-o boy has his mojo on.
Willow's giggles faded out with a series of trying-not-to-laugh coughs, which was probably why the next statement took him completely off guard. "If you're talking about naughty public touching like you enjoyed it, I must've done something really horrible."
Xander looked up and saw from Willow's face that she knew what he was trying to do and she wasn't about to let him get away with it.
"I know you, Xander." Willow wasn't wavering. "You were dying of embarrassment when it happened, so for you to go all 'was it good for you baby' I know that I must've gone evil."
He was in a corner and he knew it. She left him one option and one option only: unvarnished truth. So, with a final despairing glance at J'Nal, he took Willow's hand and laid out the bare facts. She thought he and Faith were monsters that were killing children. She attacked them. She literally ripped his mouth off his face. He kind of blacked out while Faith desperately tried to talk her down. From what he understood, Charlie probably saved everyone when he charged to the rescue with sedatives and doped her to the gills.
He tried to be matter-of-fact about it, but the words stumbled and bumbled. He could almost imagine the taste of blood in his mouth as the truth ripped at his tongue before escaping into the now-stuffy air. He couldn't even look at her, focusing instead on her small, white hand clutched in his stupid, clumsy large one.
"So that's how you got hurt," Willow said quietly. "Buffy said Charlie had given you meds and that's why you were out cold this morning, but she didn't say why."
Xander shrugged. "I'm not sure if Buffy even knows. We, unh, really didn't get a chance to talk last night or this morning."
"They're going to be afraid of me again, aren't they?" Willow asked in a small voice. "Every time I think they've forgotten or at least were willing to sort of think I'm one of the girls I do something stupid to remind them. Sometimes I wish…"
"Don't." The interruption was reflex. Anya was pretty adamant about never saying the 'w' word to the point where he'd gotten almost paranoid even thinking it.
Willow winced like she could read his mind. "No wishing. Gotchya."
"Besides, this is all my fault, so if anyone should be beating themselves up, it should be me."
Willow's forehead crinkled with confusion. "Now you've lost me."
"I should've realized…I mean, we're going into a situation, right? So it makes sense. Something's going to go wrong because, hey, it always does. Well, not always, but usually. Sometimes. But, okay, no way to know it was going to go as wrong as it did."
"Xander? Did we get the Grail?"
"So, not seeing the wrongness here. I mean, we got the Grail. Grail is safe. No one died. So, no problem, right?"
"People got hurt."
Willow froze. "Hurt? Who else did I…"
"Not you. Me."
"Whoa. Back up mister. You hurt people? How?"
"I should have known," Xander admitted. "I mean, it makes sense. When people fight, people get hurt. I knew there was going to be some kind of fight with a big ol' snake. I didn't even think…"
Willow yanked on his hand to get him to look at her. "You're not making any sense. Besides you, who got hurt?"
"Me not so much. I mean, I'm not tip-top and I probably won't be busy bee-ing for a few days, but I'm a one-piece Willow with no missing parts and…" Willow winced. "Which is a really stupid thing to say about missing parts so just ignore me and pretend in your head that I said something cool and suave that convinced you that I'm fine-ish, okay?"
"Robin got a concussion. A pretty bad one. They had to keep him overnight at the hospital for observation."
"Oooooo-kaaaaayyyyyyy," Willow said slowly. "But Vi told me that Robin hit his head while you and he were running from your snake. So, unless you whacked him, I don't see how…"
"And then I found out…" Xander quickly stopped himself.
"Found out…" Willow began.
Don't tell. Don't tell. Don't tell. Christ, it was bad enough he knew and Faith knew but if he told Willow it would kill her. "Vi got hurt."
Willow studied him a moment as if she just knew he was hiding something. "I saw Vi earlier and she seemed fine," she finally said.
"Ummm, yeah. Slayer healing. But she kind of messed up her arm pretty bad, not that you'd know it today. I guess I'm not used to…I mean it was bad enough knowing some of them died in Sunnydale, and things have been quiet-ish here so I sometimes forget that they're basically playing Powerball with their lives."
"Yeah. Sooner or later their number's up. Trust me. I think about it a lot."
"Yeah." Willow shook her head. "But that still doesn't tell me why you think that you hurt people."
"The journal," Xander said.
"The journal," Willow repeated in a flat voice.
"I should've warned you, I mean me, I mean…what I'm trying to say is that I should've known this would happen."
Willow leaned back against her pillows looking incredulous. "How? I mean, it's not like you knew, knew. I read the journal too and I don't remember anything like, 'Hey! Look out for that Grail! The first touch is a doozy!' Or, 'Hey, Robin! Don't forget to duck!'"
"Which is my point. That's exactly my point."
"Xander," she was taking on that tone she used to get when she spent an hour explaining a math problem and he still didn't get it, "If you didn't warn you, then how are you supposed to know?"
"Because I should have warned me. I mean, it's the least I could do, right?"
Willow chewed that over a bit before her face brightened. "Unless you couldn't!"
"Think about it. This whole Grail thing was supposed to happen somewhere else with only you and Faith. Right, J'Nal?"
"That would be correct," J'Nal volunteered.
Xander startled a bit at the mention of J'Nal. The other witch had been so quiet that he'd forgotten that there was someone else in the room with them.
"And, you know, you couldn't exactly go warning people to be careful if they're not actually supposed to be there, right?" Willow asked.
"Nice theory. One problem. You remember the second entry, right? The one that basically said I was right in thinking that the Grail was here and not in Moscow? I couldn't warn me then?"
Willow's expression collapsed slightly as she chewed her lip. She then repeated: "Unless you couldn't."
"Not seeing the why not."
"Well, what if it was kinda important, right? What if those big ol' mumbles from me you heard made no sense but turn out to be important? Or," she began to wave her hands as her expression brightened, "maybe it was important, like life-savage important, that things had to happen the way they did otherwise things would go all higgledy piggledy."
"Hig-el-dee pig-el-dee?" J'Nal asked.
"Shush you," Willow said. She turned back to Xander and said, "Or maybe, just maybe, it didn't happen the way it happened the first time it happened. It could've happened completely different for future you so you couldn't warn you since you didn't know about it. I mean, we don't know if we've messed up the timeline or not."
"You know, if you're trying to cheer me up? You're not. This is not cheering to me at all," Xander said. "'Cause then we're all in big trouble if the timeline has gone wrong."
"Agreed," J'Nal said grimly.
"Look, I'm just trying to say that there may be a very good reason why you couldn't warn yourself about what happened. It's something to think about, right?"
Xander rubbed his face with his hands. He wanted to believe her, but…
"Maybe," he grudgingly said. "I'm not onboard with the excuse train, but maybe you've got a point."
"Of course I do!" Willow grinned. "Because, I know you and if you could lay down the warn, you would've had that journal sending up flares and big flashy lights and all sorts of red alerts."
"Or maybe my future self really is an assface."
"Stop it!" Willow swatted at him. "No more painting yourself a bad guy. There will be no bad guy painting here, well, at least over this. Besides, we don't have all the facts. Right now we don't know enough, so time…"
"If you say, 'time will tell,' I'm gong to sic the cliché police on you."
Willow sighed. "Xaaaan-deeer. Will you at least think about what I said?"
Xander reluctantly nodded. "Fine. I'll think about it."
"That's the best I'm going to get, isn't it?" Willow asked.
Willow let out a yawn.
"Oh, man. You're tired. I'm…"
"You apologize I'm going to hurt you," Willow threatened. "And I'm only a little tired."
"Which is why you're yawning and all pale-like, right?"
"Okay, maybe more than a little," Willow admitted. "But I don't want you to think I'm kicking you out."
At least he could smile at that. "Nope. Don't feel the kick." He leaned over and kissed Willow on the forehead. "Just get some rest, okay? I'll see you in a bit."
"You better. I'm thinking a game of gin later?" Willow threw puppy eyes on top of the question.
Xander stood. "I'll bring the cards." As an afterthought, he gave J'Nal a quick nod before leaving the room.
When he closed Willow's bedroom door behind him, he stopped and leaned against it. Typical. He'd gone to do the cheer-up thing and ended up making Willow cheer him up. Selfish. No other word for it.
Still, there was some food for thought here. If he really wanted to believe that he didn't warn himself about people getting injured because it didn't happen the first time around that meant the future was wide open.
And if it was wide-open, maybe that meant he could warn someone who might be able to do something about a certain shimmy-shakes, or at least get the research ball rolling.
But what if Willow's wrong and...
No. Stop. Don't think.
"There is no think. There is no try," he said quietly to himself. "As Yoda says, 'Do or do not.' So, what are you going to do?"
Only one thing to do, really.
Xander forced himself to stand on his own two feet. After a brief, unsteady moment, he squared his shoulders and started walking to Giles's room.