Thank you to people pointing out typos in some previous parts (no, I'm not being sarcastic; I'm being serious). I haven't gone back and fixed anything yet or explained why I used the word choice I did in one or two instances, mostly because I'm sort of working along a strange challenge for myself and because I need to get a little more ahead. I swear I'll get to the fixin' in a little bit.
Anyway, here is the new part.
Continued from Part 4.
The gruesome twosome were at least willing to let him make his phone calls in private, although he really wished they let him use some other room. He just wanted to know what they were thinking when they ushered him to their bedroom. Yeesh.
He picked up the cordless handset next to the bed and stared at the numbered keypad, which was just about the only familiar thing on it. It also had a row of function buttons, the purpose of which were a complete mystery to him. Considering he was a regular connoisseur of wireless gadgets and gewgaws, he felt that the fact that the phone had functions he couldn’t figure out pointed to the ‘world without shrimp, Back to the Future edition’ theory.
Great. He had a phone. Now who the hell was he supposed to call?
He began to pace, hoping that movement would help him order his tangled thoughts, an action that very quickly turned into an exercise in morbid curiosity as his eye landed on evidence of Anya’s and other Xander’s life together. There were hairbrushes, and jewelry boxes, and a neat pile of bills. There were perfumes and lotions and a box of Kleenex.
And there were pictures.
He tried not to look. Really, he did.
There was other him holding a red-faced baby in his arms and grinning like a loon. There was Anya dressed like she was about to attend a ball. There was a snapshot of the happy couple in front of what looked like an empty storefront.
The picture of other him and a girl that looked to be about ten flanking a young woman in a Dodger’s baseball uniform brought him up short. After studying it a moment he decided the woman in uniform had to be a team ower’s daughter since, as far as he knew, women didn’t play pro ball. Although why he’d be giving his best geek-out smile over a baseball team owner’s daughter, he had no idea.
His eye drifted over to the girl in the picture. She was smiling, but in a solemn shy way that reminded him more of Willow than either himself or Anya. She had dark hair and hazel eyes like his, but an Anya-shaped face. He put it down and turned away, only to come face-to-face with a family portrait.
Anya had a pleased smile. Other Xander had a proud smile. The girl, who looked about the same age as she did in the baseball shot, had that shy smile.
I’ve got to stop doing this to myself. I’m not doing me one bit of good. Besides, it didn’t prove a damn thing. Not really. He could be dreaming this all up or he could be in another reality. Nothing he saw gave him evidence that one option was any more likely than the other.
He slumped on the bed and stared helplessly at the handset cradled in his sweaty palm.
Hold on! Maybe Sunnydale still exists if we’re talking world without shrimp.
So, if he had to call Sunnydale, who would he call? Anya was here. Buffy and Dawn were dead. Willow was locked up in England somewhere. Chances are if Giles was alive he wasn’t in Sunnydale, although Xander had no idea where he might be if he wasn’t. And god knows he wanted to avoid talking to his parents if he could help it.
“Great. I can’t even think of one person,” he grumbled.
There was always information. He supposed he could always ask for the number of his former workplace since it was owned and operated by locals.
He punched the number for information with a shaky finger and ignored the fisting sensation in his gut when the automated operator came on line demanding city and state.
There was a series of clicks.
He jumped when a live operator came online.
“I’m sorry, sir. But can you repeat that?”
“I’m looking for a number in Sunnydale.”
Silence. “What state?”
Longer silence. “Sir, there is no Sunnydale in California.”
“Sir, I do not have a listing for town called Sunnydale in California.”
“That’s impossible,” Xander insisted. He was already on his feet and restlessly pacing again. “I grew up there so don’t tell me it doesn’t exist.”
“Oh. Have you been out of the country, sir?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“The town was destroyed more than 12 years ago,” the operator’s voice on the other end sounded sympathetic. “An earthquake, sir.”
“It was all over the news when it happened. I guess they couldn’t rebuild.”
“I, unh, I was in Africa 12 years ago,” Xander lied. “So I didn’t know.”
“Can I help you find another number, sir?”
“No. Thanks.” Xander cut the connection.
Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe. Right. Still not proof of anything. Sunnydale sinking into nothing was a Big Deal. It could have happened even in another reality, so it still didn’t prove anything.
Cleveland, the thought rose unbidden. Now there was an idea. If he dialed the Mother House in Cleveland and got a Slayer on the line, it was one big barrel of proof that this was all a dream. He was instrumental in choosing the building in sane-land. If he got the exact same set-up here in crazy-melty land it could only mean one thing.
And if you get a wrong number, what then? Then he’d know it’s the world without shrimp and he’d deal. Simple. He hoped.
He sat on the bed to relieve his unsteady legs and with a very shaky hand began dialing the number. It took him several tries. When he heard the ring, he held his breath.
Last night was all Slay and Play, which meant Faith was running hot and heavy with the typical hungry horrors that always marked the day after fun and games. Eat first and then bed was the order of the day.
So when the kitchen phone rang, she was waist-deep in the fridge. “Someone gonna get off their ass and get that?” she demanded.
The phone rang again.
“Christ almighty. Gotta do everything around here,” she complained as she slammed the refrigerator shut. She shoved her bangs out of her face as she glanced at the Caller ID and saw that the call originated from California. Wondering who it could be, Faith ran a hand through her short hair in a vague attempt to make herself look presentable, hit the video option on the phone, and barked into the speaker. “Yes?”
The tiny video screen remained stubbornly blank, although she could hear someone breathing on the other end.
“If this is a porno call, I better start hearing you talking. I don’t have all day,” Faith said.
“Unh, hi. I, ummm, is Giles there?”
“Giles?” Faith’s eyebrows crinkled with surprise. “You mean Rupert? He ain’t here. Far as I know he’s in Blighty with all the other Limeys.”
“Ahhhh,” the voice sounded shaky. The voice began talking to himself, like he forgot someone was on the other end of the line. “Okay. No Robin, he’s in Europe…”
“Who is this?”
There was more heavy breathing on the other end, only it sounded more panicked than someone about to ask whether she was wearing any underwear.
“Look, whoever this is, I gotchyer location in Zi-hu-atane-jo in California. So, I got your town. I got your state. You play games with me and I’ll…”
“Faith?” The other voice sounded distant.
Anther surprise. “Yeah. This is Faith. Now I’m only going to ask one more time. Who is this?”
“It’s…it’s…” a shuddery breath, “Xander Harris?”
That little fucker, Faith thought angrily. “Fuck off, Harris. How the fuck did you get this number? And whatever the fuck possessed you to think you could just call and chat? You in fucking trouble? Good. I hope it reams you right up the ass until you’re fucking bleeding out your eyes.”
Somewhere in the middle of her rant, he hung up.
He felt like a ghost, although he was pretty sure that ghosts didn’t suffer from the constant need to throw up.
He sat numbly while Anya and other him cooked up his cover story. He could feel his head nodding in agreement and reality slipping dangerously away from him.
Dreaming. I’m dreaming. Or I’m crazy. Could be crazy. Wouldn’t surprise me if I just finally snapped and went to a happy place. Although if this is my happy place, I sure as hell don’t want to see my unhappy place. Or maybe I got stabbed by one of those Gezhunteit demons that stabbed Buffy and I just have to wait for Willow to cook up an antidote. Assuming they can find the demon. Assuming I got stabbed by one because I’d think I’d remember getting stabbed by a demon, right?
He was half-tempted to ask what day it was, since neither Anya nor nightmare-him seemed to be in a rush to get to a job. Then again, if it was a dream, why not assume that Anya and other him were independently wealthy, just to twist the knife home? Sounds like just the thing he’d torture himself with.
Beautiful house. Beautiful wife. Beautiful daughter. Probably a beautiful car.
Sure. Might as well throw filthy rich right on top of that pile of perfection.
At some point he closed his eyes in an effort to block everything out. He must’ve fallen asleep, because next thing he knew the sun was slanting through the windows and Anya was shaking him awake so he could introduce himself as Rory Lavelle-the-cousin-who-just-got-out-of-t
Flesh-and-blood Haley was every bit as shy as her pictures suggested. She peered up at him from under her bangs and quietly said hello. Her bird-like mannerisms as she double-taked between him and daddy were so pre-Buffy Willow-like that he found himself retreating into an Oz-like silence.
And no, he didn’t check to see if she had floppy ears.
Okay. Maybe he did. But it was a quick look and he was pretty sure that Anya and other Xander didn’t know he was doing it.
Other Xander hovered protectively nearby and Xander could practically feel those two eyes burning holes into his forehead, a sure sign that other Xander may be willing to give him some benefit of the doubt, but only so much.
What was worse was the suppressed hostility other Xander silently directed at him for daring to invade his turf. There was passive-aggressive smiling and jokes that could be taken as funnies, but he could clearly hear the anger bubbling right underneath the oh-so-friendly voice. But what counted was that unspoken statement that lurked behind other Xander’s every word and protective gesture: You even think of hurting them and I’ll see you dead.
Christ, he really hated dealing with this kind of shit. He would’ve felt a hell of a lot better if other Xander just got in his face and let him have it.
Faith was busy beating on the punching bag when Giles gathered enough courage to invade the basement training room.
As he watched her slam into the bag with a roundhouse kick, he remarked, “It’s good to see you taking your aggression out on inanimate objects instead of us.”
Faith leapt into the air and spun around into a fighting stance. When she saw him, she relaxed, but Giles could still see the tension trembling along the muscles in her arms. He knew how to deal with Buffy when she was in such a state, although his tactics didn’t always achieve the desired result. He simply had no notion how to deal with Faith.
Best thing to do was dive into the jaws. “I need to know that we can trust you to keep a level head this evening.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Really? You have not been acting ‘fine’ since we got the ransom note. If anything, you’ve been rather tetchy. No one can look at you without you blowing up at them.”
Faith’s mouth curled in a nasty smile. “Should I be getting all sad-eyes like, B? Is that how I’m supposed to react?”
“Quite the contrary. Emotions are running high for many of us, but I’m counting on you to be the one with clear thinking.”
The wind went right out of the Faith’s anger and her shoulders slumped. “Better call the four horses G, because if that’s the case we are in a lot of trouble.”
“You’ve proven on more than one occasion that you’re more than capable of doing so.” Giles was interested to notice that expressing confidence in her abilities seemed to go a long way toward calming the Slayer down. “I’m just rather surprised by your, shall we say, emotional reaction. I had no idea that you and Xander had grown close.”
“Nah. It’s nothing like that,” Faith said as she settled herself on a padded exercise bench. “We ain’t what you’d call drinking buddies.”
“But you do work together,” Giles pointed out, “so I supposed, judging by your reaction you understand, that…”
“We work well together,” Faith interrupted with a shrug. “We joke around on patrol. We got a good team thing in training the newbies. We got a few scams to draw the bloodsuckers out to play with us. But we ain’t sharing deep dark secrets if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You never spoke to him about your shared tricky past, have you?” Giles asked. “I did warn you to do so before it was too late.”
Faith shook her head with a half-smile. “Had that talk a few months ago, G. It’s cool. What gets me is you think he’d be working with me if we didn’t have a chat.”
“Xander’s been known to work with people he’d much rather avoid if he thought it was for the best for all concerned,” Giles said.
“Or because B told him he had to,” Faith added.
“Yes. Well. As I recall, no one was insisting he work with you,” Giles responded.
Faith shrugged. “Vi asked him to be her’s and Rona’s Watcher and asked to work with me. Maybe not B asking him, but same diff.”
“Be that as it may,” Giles said, “I don’t understand why the anger. No one here is at fault for what happened and we are doing the best we can with the information we have. Your displays of temper are not helping. So I’m hoping you can illuminate me as to the cause.”
“I assure you, I’ve dealt with Buffy, Xander, and Willow on a regular basis and they’ve all been known to do some rather foolish things with far less provocation. I hardly think that anything you say right now is going to sound stupid by comparison.”
“He thinks my holy snowball plan is worth a shot.”
“See? Told you. Hella stupid.”
“I simply fail to see your point. I’m merely asking for clarification.”
“Look, everyone around here thinks making a bunch of snowballs and soaking them in holy water before we go out on patrol is a stupid idea. People are laughing about it. Hell, even I know it probably won’t work, but you don’t know until you try. For all we know it might work like a holy hand grenade.”
Giles could feel his mouth twitching into a smile as visions of killer rabbits and frightened Pythoners in fake chain mail danced through his imagination.
“See? Even you’re laughing.”
Giles coughed because he could feel a chuckle tickling at the back of his throat.
“I ain’t saying Xander didn’t laugh his ass off when I said it, ’cause he did. But then he turned right around and said it wasn’t such a bad idea and that we should try it.”
That was when Giles got it. Now, he was going to use it.
“Faith, everyone needs you to remain calm and focused. Outside of Buffy, you’re the only with enough experience to set an example for the others. You have an objective distance that Buffy, Willow, Dawn, myself, and, much as I’m loath to say this, Andrew don’t have. You didn’t know Anya that well nor are you familiar with the trickier emotional aspects of this situation. If you fall apart, how can you hope the rest of us will be able to pull through?”
The transformation in Faith’s expression and body language was nothing short of amazing. Giles could almost see Faith mentally ordering herself to behave as she sat up straight and give him the most business-like nod he’d seen this side of the old Watcher’s Council.
“So, can I count on you?” he asked.
“Well, I best be going back upstairs. Willow is right now consulting with the Devon coven to fine-tune the spell and I suspect we’ll be rather busy very soon, so I suggest you relax. We’ll need you at your peak performance this evening.”
Faith gave him a dimpled grin. “Let me clean up down here and I’ll hit the showers.”
Giles was half-surprised she didn’t accent her sentence with a snappy salute.
Download (Good for seven days): Photograph by R.E.M. and Natalie Merchant
(Originally was going to be Photograph by Ball in the House, but this one just fit better.)