liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
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Water Hold Me Down (Part 15)

Here I was all set to bitch about the nor'easter that dumped 10 inches of snow on my head. I had to tunnel out of my house (the snow drifts were up to my waist) so I could dig my car out. I was ready to complain about the windchill factor and the 21 degrees F that left me shivery and cold while digging out.

Then I read about the death toll of 22,000 in Southeast Asia. On second thought, I'll cheerfully keep my nor'easter and send mental sympathy to everyone with friends and family in the region along with sincere hopes that you and yours are safe.

Today I muck out the apartment since it's suffering from house-a-tosis (sort of like halitosis, only for buildings). All my previous apartments had drafty windows, so I'm not used to house-a-tosis until the end of January or so. I'm doing a little airing out in a couple of rooms coupled with some awesome incense. Hopefully I'll finally get to my backlog of email tonight.

I also started tackling Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England Vampires, which is a study of folkloric belief in vampires in Southern New England at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I had originally bought it to research for the (now abandoned I think) Where Fools Go series, but now I'm in the mood for a little folklore and folklife reading. Quelle Surprise! Like the Salem Witch Trials, there appears to be a class, religion, and ethnic component to this. I'm just at the beginning of the book, so this is only based on the first two chapters. So far it's a cracking good read if you're into folkloric belief. Bell, the author, started with an interview with a surviving relative of Mercy Brown's, the last person in the U.S. to be disintered on suspicion she was a vampire. The "evidence" recovered from the corpse prompted the locals to remove her heart and liver and burn them on a rock. This happened in 1892.

Wheeeeeee! People who think New England is boring hasn't been reading our history. (See: Bambino, Curse of the)

On with the show.

Part 14 is here.

 

Xander had a timeline by 4 p.m.

Any sense of accomplishment he might’ve felt about it was drowning in despair.

The good news? Zihuatanejo was not on top of a Hellmouth, which was easy to tell because the pattern of problems didn’t even come close to Sunnydale levels. The bad news? There was something, or maybe even a lot of somethings, rotten in Zihuatanejo.

Xander stared dumbly at G.I.D., aka the graphical interface display. The detailed rendered map of Zihuatanejo looked like a quilt of many colors, each color representing whatever trouble Xander had dubbed “weird-worthy.” His ‘personal timeline’ following the Harrises’ trek from Sunnydale to the town was rendered in a glowing green bar across the bottom of the screen.

The full research suite was a technological wonder to behold and he could practically hear the ghost of Willow squeaking in geeky excitement over system. He was sure that if she were here instead of him, she’d be cataloging all the computer-y details and memorizing them so she could get a custom-made system just like this installed in the Mother House.

Useless dope that he was, it was all he could do to get it to work. An overly polite and obsequious librarian, who was obviously impressed with whatever Anya’s card represented, spent an hour walking him through the system. Once he caught on it was easy to use to the point of intuitive, which made sense since it was his dream, right? Too unbelievable that he’d catch on just by looking at it, although he thought it stretched credulity that he caught on at all. The fact he could use it was putting this whole experience on the ‘you’ve been poisoned and are hallucinating delusions of competence’ side of the debate, rather than dream or nightmare.

Using the research suite, he was able to pull information from something called the media analytical graphics information compiler, or M.A.G.I.C. for short, an acronym that would’ve had Willow making her joy noises. M.A.G.I.C. pulled information from every available public source as well as some proprietary databases.

As each piece of information from M.A.G.I.C. yielded yet another question, Xander was able to plot what he knew on G.I.D. before going off on a tangent to answer his new mystery using M.A.G.I.C. It was a lot simpler than it should have been, as in ridiculously Star Trek simple, but if his fevered brain was trying to tell him something it couldn’t have picked a better method.

Although, in his humble opinion, his brain’s timing sucked.

When we blew Sunnydale, I think we may have caused a lot of problems. Xander was clutching the desk so hard that his knuckles were white. Are we sure we actually won?

The information he was looking at…well…there was a very good bet that he’d probably been wondering about this subconsciously and now his dream-fevered brain was spelling it out for him because he was too stupid, too busy, or too something to get the hint.

God, if he stared at the display any harder his lone working eye was going to spontaneously start weeping blood from the strain. As it was his left eye socket wouldn’t stop tearing up in the dim research booth.

Zihuatanejo was—and still is if you ask the locals, Xander bet—one of those charming California communities that was a haven for the rich and merely well-off from the big cities. It had started as something of a resort town for white folk who wanted the southern Pacific waters but didn’t want to cross the border into Mexico where they might have to deal with actual Mexicans.

Questionable reasons for its founding aside, the point was that it was founded for human reasons and not demonic ones, unlike, say, Sunnydale. Like most resort towns it eventually became a year-round place of residence and for most of its history actually had very little by way of crime or violence.

That all changed in early 2003, he noticed, right about the time that things were getting hairy in Sunnydale. When the trickle-ish crime wave turned into a full-bore crisis by the beginning of 2004, the residents cheerfully blamed the rising tide of murder, disappearances, mysterious sudden deaths, and general mayhem on shadowy gang bangers coming south from L.A. or north from nearby San Diego to set up satellite offices for drugs and crime.

Between bouts of the citizenry’s self-righteous rage in the local papers about “those people” moving into town and causing problems, there was much breast-beating and calls for the powers that be to Do Something. Not surprisingly, that is if Xander guessed right about the real source of the problem, there was very little progress in stemming the rising tide of blood.

He couldn’t help but think that more than a few demons and assorted other nasties fled Sunnydale along with most of the human population. Hell, he already knew for sure about one demon that skipped town rather than face the First. Not much of a stretch to believe that Clem wasn’t the only one that ran a safe distance away to wait and see what would happen.

While the timeline of Zihuatanejo’s woes was not exactly a resounding proof of a demon exodus from Sunnydale, especially since Zihuatanejo was nothing more than a figment of his imagination, there was enough real life circumstantial evidence that seemed to support the idea. First on the list was the fact that most of the Slayers who ended up at the Mother House reported that they had already weathered at least one attack before Giles, Buffy, Willow, or he made contact.

Amazingly, they’d always shrugged it off and filed it under ‘Slayer business as usual.’ That wasn’t to say they didn’t have theories, although in light of Zihuatanejo’s map, all their guesses were starting to look so very wrong.

Willow’s pet theory was that the Devon Coven was more likely to find the Slayers with the greatest need; therefore they simply weren’t finding Slayers who were going about their lives with no supernatural nasties waiting to pounce of them. She’d gone into great detail that it had something to do with a mystical something or other, an explanation that Xander had tried his damnedest to follow even though he kept getting lost in the nit-picky details. Despite the fact that a lot of Willow’s theory sailed over his head, he could boil it down to the basics: when the Slayer was ready or needy, something in the universe gave the Devon Coven a heads-up.

The other theory, one aggressively favored by Buffy and Faith to the point of breaking things, was that Slayers eventually attracted trouble, period. Any and all mystical explanations for both Senior Slayers began and ended with the joys of Slayer mojo.

As far as he knew it never occurred to any of them that there was nothing mystical about the problem; that it might simply boil down to one simple fact: the displaced Sunnydale demons were bumping into the increased Slayer population while looking for new bases of operation. The left open the very real possibility that Slayers were getting killed before the Devon Coven came even close to finding them.

Not even Robin brought up ‘homeless demons plus excess Slayers equals chaos’ as a theory when he called in from Europe for the teleconferences. Why none of them ever considered the simple explanation—especially Robin who was way more alarmist about this kind of thing than any of them—Xander just didn’t know.

I bet I’m right. The shivers in the spine don’t ever lie. I wonder if this is happening to some real little town in the real world. God, if you actually exist, not that I think you do, do me a favor and don’t get back to me with a definitive answer, ’kay? I’m not sure I’ll be able to live with it.

Xander had learned over the years to try not to think too about hard about the times people died because he, Buffy, Willow, or Giles fucked up royally. Although he couldn’t speak for the others, he could speak for himself. If he ever stopped and thought about what it meant every time a vampire got away he wouldn’t even be able to breathe, let alone get up the next day and try again.

The first ghost that fell victim to this ruthless, albeit subconscious, repression on Xander’s part was Jesse and his entire family. The mental tactic had become so second nature over the years that he was to the point where he could effortlessly employ it without so much as a twinge of conscience or any realization that he was doing it.

Until today.

When he finished with his map of Zihuatanejo and realized what exactly it meant, the eight-year delicate balancing act blew up in his face. It was like that joke on Red Dwarf after Rimmer “saved” an entire planet for “freedom” and “democracy” by melting down the entire waxdroid population—including the ones fighting for freedom and democracy—and declared victory.

Don’t you see? The deranged menace that once threatened this world is vanquished!

No it isn’t, pal. You’re still here.

In one instant of recognition, Xander felt the weight of all that pent-up guilt crash right onto his human-strength shoulders. Had he not been sitting, he would’ve stumbled and fell.

He fought his way through the mental fog and tapped the G.I.D. screen in an effort to force himself to concentrate on the here and now.

He already knew that other Xander and Anya left town in March 2002 and headed for the City of Angels. M.A.G.I.C.—thank you proprietary databases—pretty much confirmed Anya’s story. Since he knew his social security number and even remembered Anya’s, he was able to check employment and credit records. Anya held a series of retail jobs, although given Anya’s people skills at the time Xander was willing to bet she was a serial firee as opposed to a serial quitter. Other Xander, in the meantime, seemed stuck with daywork for almost six months until managing to land a regular gig as a construction worker. A little over a month after other Xander landed the job, L.A. got its rain of fire and everything went to hell.

Other Xander and Anya finally escaped L.A. in December 2002 and moved west to some trailer park in Anaheim. Other Xander was making ends meet by falling back on daywork. A little quick math told him that Anya had to be pregnant with Haley right about that time.

Xander could feel the internal wince as his father’s voice looped through his head. How many times have I told you not to slam the fucking door? We don’t live in some low-rent trailer park like your mother’s worthless family. We’ve got a real house and you treat it like shit. Maybe we should pack you off to your Aunt Patty’s so you’ll learn what a real shithouse looks like.

While he supposed some of those places might be okay, he had a deep-seated dislike for doublewide trailers and a serious prejudice against people who lived in them. His relatives and their neighbors were the very definition of “trailer trash” and his parents avoided them almost as much as Cousin Rigby’s family avoided his.

Yikes. No wonder why other me went for the big ol’ house even though it was near a cemetery. He probably felt all kinds of humiliated being stuck in a trailer with a pregnant wife. Talk about living down to low expectations.

Which, no doubt, Tony was more than happy to expound upon if other Xander bothered to keep in touch with the homestead. Christ, he could almost hear the son of a bitch crowing with glee over the fact that his son wasn’t half the man he was. That had to be oodles worse than Tony calling him whenever he and Jessica were short on cash. Why he didn’t stick to that promise of his to cut Tony and Jessica out of his life, he’ll never know. He only tracked them down in a moment of post-Sunnydale weakness because he’d lost everything else and needed to know if they were still alive. He should’ve never compounded the stupidity by telling either one of them where they could reach him.

Exhibit A in the Xander Harris gallery of “I’ll never learn.” I really need to pretend I’m dead next time either one of them call, which might not be so much pretending as actual if I don’t wake up really soon.

According to the Harris timeline, right after Sunnydale blew—which he was able to confirm did happen in his dream world—other Xander finally got a steady construction job. Late in 2004, they rented the current storefront and launched Harris Custom Furniture and Installation. According to what he could glean, the Harrises stayed in the trailer while other Xander worked full-time construction and Anya commuted almost an hour and half each way to Zihuatanejo, probably to attract clients.

Okay, that means other me was working two jobs for a while. It made a lot of sense. He remembered snippets from Anya’s long talks about building a business—he was ashamed to admit that he usually tuned out because the subject bored him half-to-death—and how if it weren’t for Giles’s Watcher salary the Magic Box would be bankrupt. The same reasoning was probably applied in this case. Other Xander’s salary was basically gambled on building a family business.

Obviously it paid off, so maybe not such a stupid gamble on other Xander’s part.

The interesting bit was that even after the business took off two years after it was founded, other Xander and Anya commuted from the trailer park for almost another year. Given Anya’s dislike of credit cards—hell, she did con his parents into paying for most of the wedding by crying poverty because she didn’t want to owe that much money—it was a good bet they were saving up for a down payment on a house.

Since they both were dealing with a three-hour round-trip daily commute, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they probably missed all the warning signs that Zihuatanejo was far more dangerous than it looked. The hell with “probably;” make that “definitely,” because he knew that if he were in other Xander’s shoes there was no way he’d move his wife and daughter to this town if he had the whole picture.

Things got a lot more fun—and by ‘fun’ let’s assume I’m being just a wee bit sarcastic—when other Xander and Anya finally moved to town in early 2008. Six months after they arrived, a huge fire wiped out several blocks—blocks that became blighted during the town’s downward spiral after 2003—along the waterfront.

Am I shocked that the official ruling was arson? Do I look shocked? Do I sound shocked? Do I even remotely resemble shocked? So, Mr. Harris, where were you the night that a good chunk of Zihuatanejo burned to the ground?

Xander read everything he could find about the fire, milking as much subtext out of the text as he could. Roughly two-dozen bodies were found in the mess, most of which were never identified.

What do you want to bet those unidentified bodies were demon instead of human? Xander grimly thought as he read that the intense heat of the fire had, and he really loved the quote, “twisted, warped, and in some cases melted, the skeletal bones rendering it impossible to get an identification using dental or medical records, according to officials. DNA records were also inconclusive, according to sources close to the investigation.”

The reporter’s science skills obviously sucked more than Xander’s did because even he knew that there was no way any regular building fire could ever “melt” human bone, unless other Xander had pulled a Willow and cast some funky spells to do maximum damage. Given that other Xander was some twisted nightmare version of himself, he could pretty much file that option under: “Not a chance, even if I’m high on Guzhunteit-whatever-its-real-name-is demon stabbage.”

There were four bodies that did get identified, which meant some humans were killed during the night’s fun and games. Christ, what a trade. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be the one to decide between a saving town and killing four people.

The media coverage of the fire made one thing very clear: if the arsonist or arsonists were ever caught, there’d be hell to pay. There were even some rumblings from the state D.A. that the death penalty would be under serious consideration should the culprit or culprits ever go to trial.

Xander bit his lip to keep from nervously giggling. He’ll never be caught. If you didn’t find him when he was almost a nobody in this town, there’s no way you’re going to find him now that he’s community pillar-like and a ‘genuinely American artisan’ for people with way too much disposable income.

Right after the fire, murder, mysterious deaths, and disappearance rates dropped like they’d been shoved off a cliff. Mayhem leveled off to the point where big social events were once again happening after dark. It didn’t drop down to pre-2003 levels, something Xander doubted would ever happen, but it was manageable if the population was willing to ignore the problems and declare themselves a community back in the winner’s circle.

The self-congratulatory newspaper articles about “turning the corner” and “a bright new future” literally made him ill. The townsfolk blamed all the wrong things on past problems; they refused to acknowledge that there were still problems; and they didn’t accept that the problems were going to continue for a long time to come.

It was all clear now: the fence of stakes, the stash of weapons, the cross over the workshop door…hell, he was willing to bet there was even a hidden stash of canned goods and bottled water in the basement. Someone definitely knew there was still a problem and had taken a page from only the best survivalist manuals to make sure his home and family was safe.

Xander tapped the G.I.D. display with a worried frown. Speaking of invisible problems, he was looking at a perfect graphic display of a coming a trend.

The murder, disappearances, mysterious sudden deaths, and crime rates remained somewhat steady between the 2008 fire and this year. According to the statistics, however, murder rates started increasing almost two months ago. While the bump up was small, it was a noticeable bump. According to M.A.G.I.C., the increase had not really hit the local media. Sure, the deaths were reported, but not really in any coherent fashion, and certainly not in a way that pointed to a trend.

Speaking as someone whose job it is to keeping track of stuff like this through the media, I know I’d definitely miss it. He’s got a business and a family, so there’s no way he’s nearly as obsessive about it as I am.

The only reason he saw it was because M.A.G.I.C. had access to proprietary law enforcement stats for something called “domestic security issues,” whatever that meant. Which meant only one thing: other Xander may have prepared against the day that this would happen, but there was a very good chance that he had no clue the day was coming up fast, if not already here.

“I’ve decided,” Xander said quietly, “my brain hates me. If it didn’t my hallucinations would be a hell of a lot more fun.”

***

Buffy’s arms were crossed as one foot tapped an angry staccato beat that echoed through the temporarily empty library. Willow had finally collapsed from exhaustion and had crawled to bed for a quick nap before restarting her search. The kidnappers were tucked in their room under Slayer guard and wouldn’t be let out until Willow was ready to deal with them.

Taking advantage of the breather in the search for Xander, Giles insisted on meeting with Buffy and Faith about re-arranging the patrol schedule. Although the household was still in chaos, Giles had pointed out that demonic activity still needed to be monitored and that vampires weren’t going to Slay themselves. Since the population of Slayers was far greater than one or two, there was no reason for patrols to stop, crisis or no.

His proposal on how to organize the personnel was first met with incredulity by both Buffy and Faith before the discussion devolved into an argument.

“C’mon, G. I’m with B on this one,” Faith said. “I should be the one who’s leading the regular patrols and…”

“Faith, please do stay out of this.” Although Giles was talking to her, his British death glare was reserved for the fuming Buffy.

“I know Xander better than Faith does,” Buffy stated. “I’ve got a better chance of figuring out the ‘one universe is not like the other’ thing-y than she does, so making me the scout leader is not a good use of me.”

“What she said,” Faith agreed. “Besides, I’m getting all itchy. I need me a good Slay and…”

“Faith,” Giles turned his death glare on her. “You were the one with the Slayer dream about Xander, so I do believe that…”

“Whoa. Still not sure it’s a Slayer dream,” Faith protested.

Giles let out a huff of irritated breath. “Be that as it may, your dream, regardless of its source, indicates that you are already somehow involved.”

“You can’t seriously be basing this on a stupid dream,” Buffy argued.

“It’s hardly the first time we’ve taken action based on a Slayer’s dream,” Giles calmly reminded her.

Buffy threw up her hands in frustration. “That’s just weak like a…like a…well, it’s weak like something and as soon as I get a weak thing to compare it too, you’ll be hearing about it.”

“G? Andrew knows a hell of a lot more about Cyclops than I do, and that’s even with that man-crush he’s got going, and I don’t exactly hear you clamoring to get him involved,” Faith said.

“Obviously Andrew will be asked to contribute,” Giles waved off Faith’s protests. “But we must tackle all the possibilities in an orderly fashion. We can’t have half the household randomly shouting ideas Willow and myself all at once, otherwise we risk getting side-tracked.”

“Like I make tea!” Buffy shouted.

Faith and Giles turned to look at the blonde Slayer.

“Your idea to have me oversee all the regular patrols while Faith gets pulled off rotation for Xander-helpage is weak like I make tea.” Buffy looked very pleased with her analogy. “See? Because you’re always complaining that I don’t let the leaves steep long enough in the pot and…”

“We do get the picture, Buffy.” Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please understand, I am not asking you not to get involved. I assure that we will pick your brain for any notion you might have. However, it seems to me that Faith has been singled out for involvement. Given the delicate mystical nature of the problem, I feel it best that Faith be fully engaged with this situation.”

“Still in the room, so could ya try addressing that to me?” Faith piped up.

“I didn’t mean to be rude.” Giles gave Faith a nod by way of apology. “However, I do have other reasons for believing you might be the better Slayer for this situation.”

Buffy coughed something that sounded like, “Bullshit.”

Faith shot Buffy a glare in response.

“Need I remind you again that you are the only one who isn’t tripped up by past emotional history?” Giles asked Faith.

“So?” Faith shrugged.

“You might consider some less-pleasant possibilities that all of us,” Giles waved to include himself and Buffy, “would automatically discount as ‘not being Xander.’”

“Like what?” Buffy bristled.

“Betrayal, for one thing,” Giles calmly stated.

Buffy’s hands closed into fists. “Xander would never…how can you even pretend that…”

“Bet you never thought Xander would help toss you out of your own house and vote to put me in charge back in the SunnyD,” Faith quietly interrupted.

Buffy’s head whipped around to face Faith as her eyes got wide. “That was a different situation. We were all stressed. And Xander was hurt. And on pain meds. And there was a lot of other stuff going on that happened before you showed up.”

“Still did it,” Faith said. “You can come up with all the excuses in the world. Hell, re-write history for all the fuck I care, but don’t tell me you saw Cyclops ever doing that to you. Hell, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather when he went against you and didn’t say boo about it afterwards. I always pegged him as so far up your ass that you’d never be able crowbar him out.”

Buffy looked away and didn’t say anything.

Faith realized that she couldn’t have found a more painful example of what Giles was talking about even if she tried, and lord knows she wasn’t even trying. Looks like G may have point. B can’t even face things that actually happened, how the hell is she gonna face a maybe if it makes Cyclops look less-than-good?

“Look, B,” Faith shot Giles a worried glance, “I’m not trying to be a bitch here, but what if Willow or you or G were in a bad spot and Xander had to do something downright evil to save you? And what if that had some long-term consequences, like you guys not trusting him again or him getting all out of control because he stepped over the line? Can you look me in the eye and tell me that Xander betraying you guys is totally not a possibility? Because I don’t know about you, I think it could happen if he thought the reasons were good enough.”

Buffy shot Faith a bloodshot glare. “You’re cold, you know that? You work with him and you’re just getting right behind the idea.”

“Wait. No. That ain’t what I’m saying at all,” Faith protested. “I’m just saying that if the stakes were high enough, I think he’d do whatever it took. That’s a completely different thing than what you think I said.”

“And need I point out, it’s an idea that I proposed,” Giles reminded Buffy. “This is illustrative of what I’m talking about. You cannot even consider the possibility. I highly doubt Willow would, either. Andrew, I do believe, would be defending Xander’s honor far more aggressively than you are. I merely presented it as an example, although I must confess that it never occurred to me that anyone could take the possibility seriously.”

“Except I took you something resembling seriously. Thanks for making me the fucking bad guy, G,” Faith sourly commented. “I’m keeping my mouth zipped from here on out.”

“But don’t you see? That’s precisely why we need you fully involved,” Giles said. “I find your reasoning to be logical and plausible. Yes, something like the scenario you propose could have happened in another time or another place, much as I am loath to admit it. Right now we need your clear-eyed logic far more than we need spared feelings or protected reputations.”

“I don’t want to do it,” Faith said. “Pick someone else.”

“There is no one else. You’re the only one who can,” Giles said.

Just like that Giles dubbed her queen Slayer for the day, which left Faith unsure what she should do. Her gut instinct was to say ‘fuck this shit’ and stomp out of the room, but on another level she could also see that G was dead on. She didn’t have to like it, but there it was. At some point they might run out of options that included happy endings, which meant they’d have to look at some really ugly possibilities and she was stuck with the job of forcing the issue if it came down to that.

If she were really lucky, Cyclops and all his buds would only hate her a little instead of a whole lot by the time this situation was over.

“I gotta go. Looks like I’ve got a patrol schedule to look at.” Buffy turned on her heel and stalked out of the room.

“Hope you know what you’re doing, G,” Faith said as she watched Buffy leave.

“In all honesty, I’m grasping at straws much as anyone else,” Giles admitted. When Faith gave him a surprised look, he added, “I meant what I said. We desperately need your ability to go where we may lack the courage go. While some people may be unhappy with you, I want you to know that I, for one, will not get angry with anything you might say with regards to any alternate universes.”

“You ain’t heard what I’m going to say yet,” Faith said. “Shit. I’m not sure what I’m going to say.”

Giles gave her genuine, if tight, smile. “Just don’t be afraid to speak up if something crosses your mind, even if it might seem foolish to you. I’m fairly certain that all will be forgiven if it even gets us one step closer to getting Xander home.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that,” Faith said. “I better try to make nice with B before some baby Slayer crosses her path. Girl’s going to have her head removed and not know why B’s so pissed.”

“Just be certain that you’re back here when Willow is ready,” Giles said. “And Faith, once again, thank you in advance for your work on this.”

“Yeah, well, remember that when you’re ready to kick my ass later on,” Faith said.

A blood-curdling scream interrupted whatever new assurance Giles was going to say. For a beat, the Slayer and the Watcher froze as they stared at each other. Another blood-curdling scream, this one louder and more sustained, forced them out of the library.

A gang of Slayers was already charging up the stairs, leaving Faith and Giles to take up the rear.

“You know, I’m really sick of this shit,” Faith muttered angrily. “Next yell better be coming from the ground floor because these stairs are way too fucking narrow for the herd.”

It was utter chaos by the time they reached the third-floor bedrooms. The Slayers trying to get to the third floor were running right into the Slayers trying to get away from the third floor. Faith could pick up snippets in between the yelling and continued screaming as she shoved and kicked her way through the bottleneck.

“She’s gone…”

“…Kennedy oh god…”

“…seen this before…”

“We’re next, we’re next…”

“…overreacting…”

“…just Willow, what are you…”

Faith fought her way through the panicky crowd to the open door of Willow’s room. She registered the image of Kennedy suspended in mid-air twisting at impossible angles and, with one final heroic effort, she broke through the crowd and into the bedroom. She froze when she realized that Willow was standing buck naked in the center of the room and screaming. The witch’s clawed right hand was up and aimed right at the trapped Slayer. Faith had no idea what to do. Having been at the bad end of one of Willow’s spells in the recent past, she knew tackling the witch would cause more problems, yet at the same time Kennedy looked like she was in a world of pain.

A body thudded into her back and she turned around to order whoever it was to get the hell out when she realized that it was Buffy who’d joined the fun. The other Slayer grabbed at Faith’s shoulders and held her in place.

“If you got ideas B, I’d like to hear ’em,” Faith shouted.

“Willow!” Buffy yelled so she could be heard over the chaos. “Willow, you’re hurting Kennedy!”

Willow’s screaming broke off and her head swiveled to face Faith and Buffy, revealing a pair of cold, black eyes. Kennedy continued to writhe in the air, her mouth open in a silent scream.

“Oh fuck,” Faith breathed. “We are in deep shit, aren’t we?”

“Willow,” Buffy stepped out from behind Faith and began to cautiously approach her friend. “Willow, you’ve got to stop. You’re hurting Kennedy.”

Willow slowly blinked. “Hurt? Kennedy? Hurt?”

“Willow, please put down your hand, okay?” Buffy continued her slow inching forward. “No one’s mad at you.”

“Liar,” Willow whispered. Her hand dropped, which resulted in Kennedy falling to the floor with a thump, and she began backing away from Buffy. “You’re all trying to stop me. I can see you. I can, I can, I can… But I’ve got him. I’ve got him now.”

“Who, Willow? Who do you have?” Faith could hear the Buffy was trying to keep her voice gentle, but the threat of Willow’s black eyes now fixed on her had forced the other Slayer to stop moving.

While Willow was distracted, Faith took the opportunity to crouch low and make her way to Kennedy. The girl was unconscious, but a quick check showed she was still alive, even if her heartbeat and breathing was unsteady.

Willow stopped backing away and started beating her own head with her fists. “Stop it. Get out! I said get out! Stop it! Leave us alone! Leave us alone!”

“Will?” Buffy questioned.

“Shit, Harris, where the fuck are you when we need you?” Faith said under her breath.

“No!” Willow whirled to face Faith. “You don’t get him! You don’t get him! Understand me? Leave him alone!”

“What the…” Faith began.

Willow collapsed in a crying heap muttering over and over, “Please leave him alone please leave him alone please leave him alone…”

Buffy quickly went to Willow’s side, gathered her in a hug, and began rocking her back and forth. Faith noticed that Buffy did a quick check of Willow’s face before allowing herself to relax.

Kennedy stirred with a moan.

“B?” Faith questioned.

“Normal eyes,” Buffy said with relief.

“Will…” Kennedy whispered.

“Yo, hate to go hard ass, but what the fuck happened?” Faith asked.

“Coming in to wake her up,” Kennedy coughed a raw cough. “Promised. Like I promised…”

“And she snapped,” Faith finished for her.

“No. Nightmare,” Kennedy struggled upright. “I don’t know. She just…”

“Okay, take it easy. Don’t try to talk.”

“Willow?” Kennedy asked.

“We got it covered,” Faith assured her.

Not that Kennedy was listening. The Slayer unsteadily crawled across the carpet to Willow’s side and joined Buffy in attempting to comfort the sobbing witch.

Faith was dimly aware that Giles had taken control of the situation in the hall and she sent a mental thank you in the Watcher’s direction. Right about now, she wasn’t all that sure she’d be able to deal with any of the Slayers, given the unease in her gut.

Willow’s had two nightmares that’s resulted in two freak-outs. If this keeps up, we’re going to lose her before we even get close to Cyclops and that’s gonna be problems on an epic scale.

She didn’t even want to think that Tweedy might be right about her nightmare and Willow’s being linked, because if that was the case she was going to swear off sleeping until Cyclops was safe and sound. It was bad enough she felt frustration and anger ever time she shut her eyes for a nap. The last thing she needed was to go ape because she made the mistake of getting a full eight hours.

TBC...here

DOWNLOAD (good for seven days): Walk on the Ocean (Live) by John Mayer
(Yes, I know the original was by Toad the Wet Sprocket, which I also love. But I like this one a little better.)

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