First off, I want to give props to Lori Bush, who is sadly not on LJ. She's actually a fanfic writer who writes some sweet Buffy-Xander stories that put me in mind of Nora Roberts. Waaaaay back when I first started posting Living History on the test list (in *gulp* early August), she came up to Boston on a business trip and we got to meet.
I was still seething about "Chosen," my Buffy-lurve was not exactly at an all-time high (something which broke my heart because I lived S1-S5 Buffy), and I was generally letting the rampant Buffy-hate in fandom get to me.
Anyway, we were talking about characterization in general, especially how different characters are expressed in fanon vs canon. (Side note: why is it when fanfic writers get together in real life, we talk about plotting and characterization and bounce plot points off each other?)
Lori had come up with an interesting fanwank on Buffy's inconsistent behavior in S7 (as opposed to inconsistent writing): stress.
Buffy was stressed to the breaking point because she'd "bought into" the myth that the Slayer stands alone and felt that she was alone. Worse, Giles waltzes back into her life and throws everything on her slender shoulders. Given the year she'd had previously (pulled out of heaven, nasty relationship, financial troubles, friend being murdered, friend going evil, and worse, and apocalypse where she was nothing more than a distraction while Xander had to carry the load) it's no wonder why she was snapping under the stress.
Works for me.
Anyway, the end result of that conversation was a subtle change in my attitude about Buffy. That resulted in Buffy getting a much bigger role (rather than being a shadow-y figure in the background) and, as it turns out, she's kinda crucial in the battle scenes ahead. She even gets her own "C" plot. In a lot of ways, writing Buffy for Living History (a task I dreaded because I feared I wouldn't be able to capture her character) has helped me get in touch with the reasons why I liked Buffy way back in the day.
So here's to you Lori, even if you're not reading this. I just wanted to give props where they are due.
Another interesting side-note from when I ran this on my test list: Someone commented that using Buffy as the POV in this part was an "interesting choice," given how distant she is from the action and how little she knows about the cross currents between various characters. The interesting choice basically boiled down to me trying to challenge myself. Could I write something where the speaker has no clue what's happening, but the readers get it 100 percent?
That's what made this section so hard to write and so much fun in the end. It also gave me an excuse to create my own nifty little Buffy Living History icon.
Up to part 46 can be found here
Continued from here
Buffy inwardly winced when she realized that she was the last one to arrive for the house meeting. Actually, second to last. Xander was still AWOL from the house’s general battle planning festivities.
She slid next to Giles. “Did I miss anything?”
The Watcher startled as he looked up from a piece of paper he had been studying with a frown. “What? Oh. Buffy. Glad you’re here. Robin’s worked up a short list of where he believes various members of our household will be able to contribute the most to retrieving the grail.”
“Oh. Umm. That’s good. I guess,” Buffy fumbled. Then Giles’s statement hit her. “Wait a sec. Did we already get plan-y? Because if we did…”
“No, no. There was some preliminary chatter with Xander about some of the traps he thinks might await us, but no actual planning,” Giles assured her.
“Traps? What traps? No one said anything about traps. I knew about the cemetery scouting, but traps?” Buffy could feel her arm hairs stand attention. “I mean, I didn’t expect just to waltz into wherever and pick up this grail thingamajig, but traps? We’re knowingly walking into traps? Plural?”
“I do believe you’ve made something of a career out of it,” Giles said affectionately. When he saw Buffy cartoon wince in response, Giles’s expression quickly shifted to chagrin. “I was thinking more of your battle with the Master when you were 16, not…”
“Caleb,” Buffy said softly. She looked up into Giles’s face and saw the sympathy there, which somehow made her feel even worse.
“Rest assured, Xander does not believe these traps are anything approaching that level,” Giles said quietly. “He believes if there were any real danger his future self would at the very least come out and say so. If nothing else that should be reassuring.”
“You’re right,” Buffy felt her spine relax into the comforting notion, “I’m freaking over nothing.”
“God, I hope so,” Xander’s voice interrupted. When Buffy squeaked and spun around at the unexpected interruption, he added with a grin, “because I would sooooo hate to become Snyderized.”
“Snyderized?” Buffy asked.
“Eaten by a giant snake.” Xander frowned. He looked like a soldier standing at parade rest with his hands clasped behind his back. “At least I’m pretty sure there’s a giant snake. And it lives underground. And it hates walnuts.”
“Snake. Underground,” Buffy repeated with a nod. Her eyebrows drew tight. “Walnuts?”
“Walnuts,” Xander confirmed.
“Well, that’s pretty random,” Buffy remarked.
“No kidding,” Xander agreed.
“Why would you mention walnuts?”
“No clue,” Xander shrugged.
“Just in case, we will be arming the party going belowground with walnuts,” Giles interrupted. When Buffy and Xander looked at him, he added, “I do believe the plan was to throw the walnuts at the snake, if indeed there is a snake.”
“Oooooh, this gets better and better,” Buffy said with a disbelieving voice. “Your plan?” she asked as she nudged Xander.
“A really rotten plan,” Xander glared at Giles as the Watcher fought to keep a straight face. “Let’s just say I made a joke and certain other parties agreed it was worth a shot. Personally, I say we dump the walnuts and find an even bigger mongoose to help us out.”
“I am comforted to know that you didn’t sleep through all your literature classes,” Giles said.
“Hunh?” Buffy and Xander asked in unison.
“Rudyard Kipling?” Giles prompted.
More blank looks.
Giles expression indicated that there was a monster headache in his immediate vicinity. “Dare I ask how you know about the noble mongoose?”
“There was this cartoon called Riki Tiki Tavi…” Xander began.
“Stop. Please. Stop right there,” Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. Buffy couldn’t quite make out Giles’s mumbled follow-up, but she definitely heard “bloody” and “educational system” and “philistines” somewhere in the mix.
Xander crossed his arms with a grin. “Now there’s the Giles we all love and annoy.”
What the… Buffy grabbed his right wrist and pulled his bandaged hand to her. “What happened?”
Xander shifted uncomfortably as Giles focused on the pair of them. “I, uh, cut it.”
“On what? Ginsu knives?” Buffy asked.
There was a flash of something that resembled embarrassment in his face as he tugged at his captured hand. Buffy took the hint and let go as he answered, “Just some broken glass. It’s nothing.”
“Nothing? Good lord, Xander, your hand looks downright mummified. You should get it checked,” Giles remonstrated. “Regardless of your assurances, it’s fairly certain we’ll be in for some sort of struggle tomorrow, so…”
“Look, it’s fine.” He held his injured hand up to his chest, left hand ineffectually covering the white bandage. “A little Advil and I’m good to go.”
“When did this happen?” Buffy asked.
“Yesterday. Just drop it, okay?”
Buffy looked away and focused on the chattering group in the library. She was surprised to see Faith leaning back in her seat studying the three of them. The other Slayer gave no sign that she even noticed Buffy looking back at her.
Damn, damn, damn. So much for the familiar Xanderism of driving Giles nuts. He was covering. Three guesses on why Xander didn’t want to talk about what happened and she was pretty sure the calendar told her everything she needed to know on that score. Great. Distracted and injured. Can we keep him out of the fight? Right. Like Catherine or Xander was going to let that happen. Robin may be nominally in charge, but this grail mess was their show near as she could tell.
“I would feel better if you had a doctor check you out,” Giles insisted. “You don’t have Slayer healing, so leaving it…”
“Who’s injured?” Catherine materialized at Xander’s right elbow.
The unexpected intrusion resulted in Xander looking increasingly trapped and—Buffy could relate a little to this—guiltily ashamed. Oh, yeah. He knows the date all right, Buffy thought.
“It’s just minor. Why are we building a drama?” Xander asked.
“That doesn’t look like ‘minor.’” Now Charlie was joining in the fun. “Let me look.”
Catherine gave Charlie a questioning look while Xander attempted a protest.
“That wasn’t a request.” Although Charlie’s voice was mild, there was no mistaking the order. Xander held his hand out for inspection and allowed Charlie to turn it this way and that as he gently manipulated wrist and fingers. “Whelp, whatever you did, you did it up right. This needs to be fixed,” the doctor huffed.
“Oh for god’s sake,” Xander yanked his hand out of Charlie’s grasp with a wince. “I’m fine.”
Charlie mouth ticked in disapproval as he looked at Catherine. “Oh yeah. Definitely one of your relatives.”
“Bullying him into seeing a medic is not going to help, Charlie,” Catherine said.
“Helllooooo, standing right here,” Xander interrupted.
“Charlie is the professional,” Giles cut in. “Perhaps you should…”
“Oh for Christ’s sake! Will you drop it already?” Xander’s exasperated voice echoed a little louder than he intended and he winced as ambient noise dropped to silence and all eyes fixed on him. He slowly turned his head, biting his lip as he did so. “Umm, hey. I’m here. So, if we’re taking attendance, mark me down as tardy and let’s just do whatever it is we’re gonna do.”
Robin got to his feet. “Now that we’re all present and accounted for, let’s begin.” He cleared his throat. “First, as you may or may not know, Willow and Xander were able to determine that the grail is not in Moscow, but right here in Cleveland.”
“Actually, that was just Xander,” Willow interrupted, “I was a little too blue to think about anything.”
“Did I mention that I was really sorry?” Xander asked over a round of giggles.
“Hey! I seem to remember reading it was my idea, too,” Willow cheerfully waved while a couple of Slayers moved from giggling to chuckling. A few even gave her friendly pats on the shoulders. “’Sides, once I got used to the look, being blue for a few hours was kinda fun.”
“She’s thinking of trying it for Halloween,” Kennedy grinned.
Robin knocked on the table to get everyone’s attention. “Well, it doesn’t matter who figured it out, the point is, the grail is here in Cleveland. Thanks to clues left behind in the journal, we were able to determine that its location is in the Erie Street Cemetery. We sent Kennedy with a small team to scout the area. Kennedy?”
Kennedy stood. “Well, first, I want to give credit to Susan for the successful start of the mission. She was the one that suggested we check the Web to see if there were any burial records before we headed out. We were able to find out that Highland Park Cemetery had the records. Even though they only take mail requests, we knocked on a few doors at City Hall and using our ‘class genealogy project’ cover, were able to obtain a list and map of Erie Street Cemetery.”
Susan blushed scarlet as Buffy heard Xander mumble quietly, “Willow’s having a good effect on her. I couldn’t imagine her giving credit to someone else back in Sunnydale.”
Or maybe the ghost of Chloe haunts her on a regular basis, Buffy thought.
“Despite that, it did take us a few hours to find the grave in question,” Kennedy continued. “There were several Vasliks buried there, but only one with an Angel statue as a grave. The left wing pointed directly at a crypt, so we investigated. The interior of the crypt was dark…”
“As crypts often are when the resident vampire isn’t stealing electricity from the city grid,” Xander mumbled next to Buffy, forcing the blonde Slayer to stifle a nervous giggle.
“…and contained only one sarcophagus and some stone statuary with carved designs,” Kennedy shot Xander a look, a clear sign that she’d heard his comment. “We were unable to find any entrances or exits to the crypt other than the door we broke…I mean opened by force. Andrea,” Kennedy’s slightly harder tone indicated that she wasn’t at all happy with the younger Slayer in question, “decided that the answer was with the sarcophagus and shoved the cover off. That revealed a set of stone steps heading down.”
“Good thinking,” Robin nodded.
“Except that if she’d investigated the statues like we were, she would’ve known that designs included words that would have told us that,” Kennedy said while Andrea’s eyes shot daggers into the speaking Slayer’s back.
Wow. Kennedy sounds really angry, Buffy thought while she sensed Giles and Xander preparing for crash positions on either side of her.
“I have a reeeeeeeally bad feeling about this,” Xander said sotto voice. He cleared his throat, “Ummm, Kennedy. No offense, but I remember Giles and me digging up and jumping into a few graves before thinking while Willow and Buffy watched and ate popcorn back in the day.” Giles opened his mouth to protest, but Xander shot him a look that was enough to get the Watcher to close his mouth. “Seems to me it was a pretty reasonable guess, so aren’t you being a little hard…”
“The ground shook,” Kennedy interrupted.
Oh crap! Earthquake! Buffy hugged herself even as her heart sank.
“What happened?” Catherine asked.
Kennedy took a deep breath to collect her thoughts and continued her report. “I’m no expert on earthquakes, but I know it when I feel it, so we decided to get out while the getting was good. We got about as far as the door when the shaking stopped.”
“And…” Xander prompted.
Kennedy turned to Robin. “You didn’t tell them?”
“I only just got your sketches five minutes before the meeting started.” Robin picked up a sheaf of papers, looking slightly embarrassed. “I apologize in advance for springing this on everyone. I was a little distracted by…well, my mind wasn’t on the game. It’s no excuse, but I did speak to Giles before the meeting.”
“The fault is entirely mine since it seems many of us are distracted of late and several of our company did need rest,” Giles smoothly cut in. “Think of it this way: you’ll be spared having to repeat the story several times since everyone is here.”
Xander seemed irritated, but Buffy could see Giles’s point, especially since she was definitely in the distracted column.
As Robin began passing the sketches around, Kennedy continued, “Well, we saw these…geez…I’m not sure how to describe it. They looked human-shaped, but they were made of dirt.”
“Great, more sand-made objects,” J’Nal grumbled. “Is there nothing on this deities-forsaken planet that isn’t made of sand?”
Kennedy blinked a little at J’Nal’s interruption, gave her head a hard shake, and continued. “Anyway, they just ringed the crypt and stood there.”
“That’s it?” Ruda asked. “They didn’t try to attack you?”
“Only when we tried to leave,” Kennedy said.
“So how’d you get away?” Dawn asked.
“Actually, we didn’t,” Kennedy tossed Andrea another furious look while the other Slayer maintained her own angry stare. “We all got captured, patted down, searched, tossed around, and generally swatted like we were chew toys. Then they frog marched us to just short of the cemetery gates and threw us over the fence.”
“They were searching for the grail,” Xander said with wonder. “What do you want to bet?”
“So, in short, you triggered a trap and they’ll be just waiting for us to go walking in on their turf,” Faith said. “Teeeeeerrific. Fan-fucking-tastic. Way to wake these things up from their dirt nap for nothing.”
“Well, at least we know what the first trap is,” Xander pointed out. “We didn’t even know that much, so maybe Andrea doing what she did is not as bad as it looks.”
“So let me get this straight,” Buffy interrupted, “Any of us could’ve just walked into this crypt and retrieved to the grail without getting challenged on the way in? As traps go, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The idea is to keep you away, not let you in.”
“But think about it: we’re getting challenged after we leave,” Xander interrupted. “Plus, getting in the crypt is just the start. We have to deal with a probably giant snake and god knows what else before even getting to the grail. Can you imagine getting involved with a long fight and then coming out to face that?”
“Snake?” Kennedy’s head whipped around to face Xander. “What snake?”
“And not all of us are superheroes with the strength, speed, and stamina of an X-man,” Andrew piped up.
“I hate snakes,” Kennedy stated.
“And there’s no guarantee that we’re bagging the grail without a scratch,” Faith tossed out. “Slayer or no, if we get into a serious rumble, I’m not going to be wicked happy about fighting my way back out. ’Sides, for all we know, these things might get really mean if they’re able to sense that one of us has this grail.”
“What they did to us wasn’t mean?” Susan asked.
“They let you go without rearranging your face, right?” Faith pointed out. “If we go rob ourselves a grave, we might not be as lucky.”
“Got bit by a copperhead when I was kid,” Kennedy muttered ignoring the exchange.
“Someone has snake issues,” Vi sing-songed.
“People!” Robin shouted, but the room ignored him as people began talking over one another.
“I’m not afraid of snakes,” Kennedy insisted.
“Care to go to the pet store and prove it?” Tammi asked with a snicker.
“Well, that explains that,” Xander commented.
“Explains what?” Dawn asked. “Kennedy’s fear of snakes? I didn’t even know she was…”
“Enough about the snakes!” Kennedy shouted.
“I’m soooo glad you weren’t the resident Slayer at my high school graduation,” Willow said.
“Are you following this?” Catherine asked J’nal asked helplessly.
“I have it recorded if he isn’t,” Tikri held up her memepad.
“Hey!” Kennedy shouted. “Can’t you remove the bit about me and snakes?”
“What I’m trying to say,” Xander’s voice rose above the din, “is that it explains the whole ‘the ground rises to protect the entrance’ clue.”
The room fell silent and everyone turned their attention to Xander. Buffy figured ants were attacking his ankles because he nervously fidgeted under the undivided attention.
“Clues?” Vi asked, breaking the silence.
“Unh, yeah. Clues,” Xander hesitated under the increased laser-like focus of the gathered Slayers. “The first was the ground rising to protect the entrance, which, if I think about it, was soooo wrong. More like rising while we’re trying to leave, but it kinda fits. The good news is that it explains why we probably will need to split up.”
“Split up?” Catherine asked. “Is dividing our forces such a good…”
“When there’s four people, probably not,” Xander cut in. “But look around, we’ve got, what? Almost three dozen people here. We can’t all go into the caverns cause that’s a recipe for confusion if I ever heard one. If we split up, our welcoming committee will be kept busy fighting the aboveground team which would give the grail retrieval team a chance to escape with the goods.”
“Assuming they don’t throw us over the fence. Again,” Susan huffed.
“In the meantime, the belowground team will be retrieving the grail,” Robin cut in. “As Xander explained, we will, at minimum, be faced with a snake, possibly of monstrous proportions. Besides getting past the snake, we will have to navigate unfamiliar territory in near pitch-black conditions. While there is no indication of additional traps, we could still be tripped up by loose rocks, stones, geological formations, etcetera. These little things could make the difference between success and failure.”
“Oh, this is so like a D&D game it’s not funny,” Andrew nodded as he took notes.
“Just so long as I don’t get turned into a bloody dwarf…” Giles grumbled under his breath.
“Actually, that might not be far off the mark,” Willow agreed as she gave Xander a wink. “I was research girl today and managed to dig up a partial map of Erie Cemetery that includes the caverns.”
“Like to know how they did that without having the dirt pounded into them,” Kennedy grumbled.
“I think you mean the snot pounded out of them,” Faith corrected.
“Spoken like someone who didn’t have actual dirt pounded into them this afternoon,” Kennedy remarked.
“Actually, they didn’t,” Willow interrupted, as she stifled a smile. “When the local spelunking club went for a look-see back in the 70s, they got attacked by ‘hippie gang members’ as they were leaving. I found some newspaper articles online that mentioned it. What really seemed to confuse the police was that they were searched, but nothing was stolen. I mean, how do you call it a mugging when no one actually got mugged?”
“Notice how it never changes?” Xander asked rhetorically. “Hippie gang members, PCP gangs. Makes you wonder what they’ll come up with next.”
“May I present ‘ecstasy fiends?’ It’s the latest in the long line of ‘I-did’t-see-that-did-I’ excuses,” Dawn offered.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Buffy said.
“What? I’m thinking it’s a great excuse,” Faith grinned. “Mind if I use that some time when dealing with the seriously freaked out?”
“Whatever,” Dawn shrugged as she took her seat, not seeing or caring to see the ghost of a frown line appear between Faith’s eyebrows at her dismissive tone.
“So we have a map from the spelunking club?” Xander asked.
“Partial map,” Willow corrected. “They got in through a sinkhole that appeared near our crypt.”
“What happened to the sinkhole?” Robin asked.
“Appears the local cemetery commission had it filled in.” Willow flashed a mischievous grin before adding, “Turns out there were some shady characters that started using the sinkhole as a hangout, so it was done to discourage trespassers.”
“Of the skanky, horny, tailed, scaled, toothy, bad-hair day, in-desperate-need-of-a-manicure-and-faci
“I refuse to take a sucker’s bet,” Faith replied.
“Here, here,” Xander agreed.
“What can we expect when we do down there?” Giles asked.
Buffy snapped her head around to look at Giles as next to her Xander shifted uncomfortably. Looks like I’m not the only who thinks risking Giles is an idea of the bad. We’ve lost too much already and losing Giles…She didn’t dare finish the thought.
“A cavern network that isn’t so much network-y as it is twist-y, at least near our crypt,” Willow said. “In the part where they did map, there appears to be a main tunnel or ‘road’ with smaller tunnels that branch off and loop back. Even the branches off the branches loop back to where they started to give you an idea. There are a couple of dead-ends, but they don’t go very far off the main tunnel.”
“So a labyrinth, then,” Giles said.
“Pretty much,” Willow agreed.
“At least as far as they got. Still don’t know what’s waiting for us and it’s still not exactly a clear roadmap to wherever the grail is,” Xander pointed out.
“Ahhhh, but you wrote that the tunnels would take us straight to it,” Robin replied. “So it seems that if we stick with the main tunnel, we won’t get lost.”
“Got one word: snake,” Xander grimly countered. “Seems to me that it won’t be that easy sticking to a ‘safe area’ if we get into a fight.”
“This gets better, and better, and better,” Kennedy sarcastically said as she passed the sketches over to Giles without sparing the papers a glance.
“I dare say, this does resemble a golem,” Giles remarked as he adjusted his glasses and peered at the rough pictures only just now reaching his hand.
“A golem?” Catherine sat up, an edge of excitement in her voice. “A real golem? Really?”
“Oh-oh. Catherine wants to make friends,” Ruda mock shivered.
“I’ve got it covered if that’s the case,” J’Nal said with a self-assured nod.
“Don’t you dare,” Catherine warned. Her voice recaptured its wonder as she added, “Imagine! A real golem.”
“That’s a real pain in my ass,” Kennedy huffed. “Literally since I landed on a rock when I got tossed out of Erie earlier. A big rock.”
“Those things aren’t even close,” Willow sniffed. “Those things look like gingerbread men without the icing smile goodness to go with. I know from golems and that’s not it.”
“You’ve seen a golem?” Robin asked with rising excitement.
“We have?” Buffy asked. “Only one I saw was in a college film class.”
“Had one described to me something like a million times,” Willow said, the sniff was definitely more pronounced. “Tell ’em Xander.”
“Ahhh, yes. Granny Rosenberg’s traveling collection of stories to scare the kiddies. Every time she pulled up for a visit, I didn’t sleep for a month,” Xander agreed as he peered over Giles’s and Buffy’s shoulders at the paper. “Yup, gotta concur with the Willster. These guys aren’t even in the same area code.”
“How would you guys know…” Robin began.
“Hell-ooooo! Rosenberg. Rosenberg. Sheesh,” Willow crossed her arms.
“Ahhhh, c’mon Wills, cut Robin some slack,” Xander soothed. “Half the time you forget you’ve bat mitzvahed. Of course,” he added with a sheepish grin, “my family probably made you wanna forget. The ol’ Harris family charm and parties…not a good mix.”
“Hey!” Catherine protested. “I’ll have you know that one thing my family knows how to do is throw a damn fine party.”
Xander paused a moment, teeth worrying his bottom lip. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Why would you be afraid of that?” Ruda asked.
“If you have to ask? Then I’m not so afraid,” Xander relaxed.
“And they have the best antique liquor collection in the outer system,” J’Nal added with a smile almost reaching beatific. “I must say the 2656 skatch your father broke out to toast to the success of this trip…music for the pallet.”
“And now I’m back to be afraid again,” Xander tensed.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the last thing that went right for this mission,” Charlie remarked.
Xander looked helplessly at Charlie. “Nope. Still not with the relief. ‘Skatch’ sounds like something you’d siphon into jugs and sell to kids in alleys.”
“Ooooh, don’t let Catherine’s father hear you say that,” Charlie snickered. “He’s a little bit of an epicure when it comes to his vintage collection.”
“I don’t think it’s the same for her, Xander.”
Faith’s soft voice snatched at Buffy’s hearing and she looked across the room to see Faith’s attention sharply focused on Xander. Xander must’ve heard it too, since he looked up only to meet Faith’s odd expression. He quickly looked away and down at his shoes, as if he wasn’t entirely sure how or even if he should respond. As for Catherine? She seemed puzzled by whatever nonverbal exchange had occurred as her eyes tracked back and forth between pair.
Buffy didn’t even want to try to analyze Faith’s deal. What surprised her was that somehow Faith knew the why behind Xander’s discomfort. How that happened, she had no idea, except it seemed to point to the fact that the two actually had some sort of personal conversation sometime after they all washed up in Cleveland.
She really wanted to offer the extra push, do the friend thing, shake the man next to her, and point out: Look, look. Catherine doesn’t get it. That’s good, right?
Except she’d never acknowledged Xander’s situation before, not even when it stared her in the face at the wedding that wasn’t. To be honest, she wasn’t entirely sure she had the right to say anything since she’d been clueless for years and later willfully blind to the reality of Harris family life.
I hate this. One of my oldest friends and I have no idea what to say to him. How sad is it that Faith is doing my job? She reached out to place a comforting hand on Xander’s back and let it drop just short of her target. Yet another thing she wasn’t sure she had a right to do anymore.
Somehow the rest of the room had missed that slender moment in the growing din as Willow loudly insisted that no way, no how was that thing in the sketches a golem; Kennedy argued with Vi and Lisa about her most-definitely-not-a-snake phobia; and Giles handed Charlie the sketches before marching over to Robin with a paper in his hand.
In short, the nice, orderly meeting was descending into chaos. Not that it didn’t get seriously off the track three exits ago, Buffy mused.
“Enough!” Giles’s concentrated exasperation shut down every conversation in mid-word. “Now is the time to focus and not one of us is doing that. There are a lot of us here and it’s very easy to get distracted. But we must concentrate. Feel free to continue with this aimless prattling once we are finished with the business at hand, but right now is not the time.”
Catherine’s group uncomfortably shuffled, but kept silent. Some of the Slayers looked somewhat abashed, mostly because they’d never seen Giles snap. Xander, Buffy, and Willow exchanged glances, doing their best to hide their smirks. Giles snapping over raging short attention spans felt a lot like old times.
“Now that we have your attention,” Robin said while Giles continued his not-another-word glare, “Let’s recap: We obviously have creatures made of dirt that are supernaturally strong stationed at the entrance of our crypt. The crypt contains a set of stairs that will take us to the caverns. In the caverns we most likely have a giant snake that fears walnuts.”
“Not fears,” Xander corrected. “Hates. Big diff.”
“We’re armed and ready,” Andrew practically saluted. “I went to the grocery store today and laid in a supply of Diamond Walnuts.”
Xander rubbed his face in frustration. “This is not going to work,” he said through the hands covering his face.
“You wouldn’t’ve mentioned it if it wasn’t important,” Robin gleefully pointed out.
Xander peeked at Robin between over his fingertips before letting his hands drop. “It also could’ve been a joke.”
“Reeeeeeaallllyyyy?” Robin grinned. “Why would you say that?”
“Because Assface has a very twisted sense of humor,” Xander countered.
“At last you feel my pain,” Robin nodded.
“Both of you…” Giles warned as he glared between the two men.
“Sorry,” Xander muttered.
“Be that as it may, we do know that the main tunnel should take us directly to this grail. We don’t know if we’ll have to fight our way to it, or our way away from it,” Robin continued. “Either way, there will be a fight.”
“On two fronts,” Willow dispiritedly pointed out.
Xander smacked his forehead with his injured hand and yelped, “Ow!”
“That’s one way to get attention,” Vi giggled.
Xander grimaced as he held his wrapped hand. “I just thought of something. We’re going to need people who can read languages that aren’t English.”
Giles and Robin exchanged looks while Buffy felt the blood drain from her face. Dear god, we’re going to have to risk Giles!
“Why do you say that?” Giles asked.
“There’s writing…” Xander began. He shook his head and backtracked, “With everything else, this slipped my mind. Future me mentioned something about messages. There’s one message around the edge that—oh crap, what did I say again—no one can translate. Wait. Wait. Not no one. No contemporary can translate. Contemporary. Yeah. That’s the word. Plus, there’s another message in the base that everyone can read.”
“Sounds like the writing is on the grail itself,” Robin said.
“But I don’t specifically say that,” Xander sounded distinctly worried. “For all we know, it could be around the edge of whatever it’s on, assuming the grail’s on something. The message in the base could also be talking about the base of whatever it’s on. We don’t know. Plus, we have no idea what it actually says. For all we know, it might say: ‘Warning: People from 2003 should not touch this grail as it might cause your head to explode.’”
“Yuck,” Willow grimaced. “Nice image there, Xander.”
“You may be over thinking this…” Giles began.
“If no contemporary can read it, that means we probably will be able to translate it,” Catherine calmly interrupted. “So I really don’t see…”
Xander looked at her, took a deep breath, and admitted, “Look, I know you mean well. I also know that you’re not one of the bad guys. But you’re also desperate. Guess what? Day’s going to come when we are too, because, hey, been there, done that a few thousand times. I’d feel a lot better if we had one of us down there translating along with you.”
Buffy was pretty sure the resounding thunk indicated that every single jaw in the room had dropped open and hit the floor.
Catherine’s hackles rose at that. “Are you suggesting that we’d deliberately put you or anyone in this house in danger?”
Xander raised his hands in a keep calm gesture. “I’m not saying you would and I don’t believe you would, but you’ve got a job to do and that’s to save whenever you’re from. We’ve got keep here and now safe.”
Buffy stiffened as Catherine’s eyes squinted into a hard brown-eyed glare while members of her team veeeeery carefully took one step away from her tense body. Oooooh, lookie! Appears Catherine inherited Xander’s temper, too! Having been at the other end of one pissed Xander and his tongue a handful of times over the years, she really did not want to see both Catheirne and Xander go at it. They’d be cleaning shredded body parts out of the floorboards for years.
God knows how it happened in the crowded room, but Faith managed to vacate her seat and suddenly insert herself between Catherine, whose jaw was setting in a manner that Buffy knew meant she was about to let fly with some choice words, and Xander, whose own expression had closed down in warning if Catherine even thought of voicing her opinion in any way that might resemble rude.
“Yo, everyone just chill,” Faith said as her face pinged between Xander and Catherine. “No need to show off what I’m pretty damn sure is one nasty-ass family temper. Don’t do this to each other. Stop it. Please.”
Buffy shook her head with surprise. Please? Did Faith just say please?
Xander started at Faith’s second unexpected friend-ish performance. As his attention focused on Faith, his face was a mess of confused emotions that Buffy couldn’t even begin to read.
What the hell? That’s weird. Faith is keeping Xander in check? What’s going on? Did I wake up in the world without shrimp this morning? She glanced at Willow, who seemed to be taking the whole business in stride like there was nothing particularly unusual going on. She was about to step in to offer vocal support for Faith’s own please—I can’t believe she just said ‘please,’ we’re so definitely shrimpless—when she caught the expression on Dawn’s face.
It wasn’t so much an expression as an utter lack of expression as Dawn studied the tableau. She seemed to be trying to read the tense situation, reminding Buffy of the no-she-didn’t-exist-then-yes-she-most-ce
Dawn must’ve felt Buffy’s eyes boring into her, because the younger girl switched her gaze to her sister, gave her a half smile, and raised one shoulder in a half shrug as if to say, “I don’t get it any more than you do.”
“C’mon.” Faith was continuing with her peacemaking attempt. “We’re all family here, right? Let’s, y’know, act like it.”
The sound of Xander’s one fake eye and one good eye rolling to heaven was practically audible as Catherine clenched her jaw and looked distinctly ashamed.
“Ooooor, not,” Faith lamely finished, suddenly looking surprisingly young and unsure, as if she had just realized what she was doing and had taken herself completely by surprise. She shook her head and turned to Xander. If Buffy didn’t know better, she’d almost say that Faith was pleading with him, “Whaddya say? Peace out until this shit gets settled?”
Xander uncertainly took a step back, eyebrows drawn tight with confusion. His mouth worked around what seemed to Buffy must be a million questions before he finally agreed, “Peace out.”
There was a twitch of relief in Faith’s face as she turned to Catherine and—almost as an afterthought Buffy thought—asked, “Peace out?”
Catherine wordlessly nodded.
“Good,” Faith said quietly. Instead of returning to her former seat, she took up a station against the wall. Buffy couldn’t help but notice that she stayed between Catherine and Xander, almost as if she were afraid a fight actually would break out between the two of them despite their assurances to keep their tempers in check.
“Catherine, please see Xander’s point,” Giles said. Buffy noticed that even though he was speaking to Catherine, he was looking at Faith with something approaching pleased surprise. “Would you do any less in our position?”
Catherine closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose before grudgingly admitting, “We probably wouldn’t let us anywhere near the Grail.”
“Then I hardly think our simple request to include our own translator is out of line,” Giles mildly said.
“It is fair,” Ruda agreed.
Catherine’s expression softened as she looked at her Slayer. “That it is.”
“Now that we have that settled,” Robin clapped as he shot Faith his own proud glance, “what I have is a list of who will be going where.” For whatever reason, he gave Xander a meaningful look, “Now, I made sure to run the assignments by Giles and we are in agreement. The teams are as follows…”
As the names got read out, Buffy noticed that all the heavy hitters and experienced fighters were going below while the less experienced Slayers stayed above to keep their new best friends distracted. Smart, actually, Buffy felt herself nodding.
She nodded her way through the list of the belowground team, which was topped by her own name, Faith, Kennedy, Vi, Susan, Lisa, Barbara, Sally, Xander, Willow, Robin…until she heard Giles’s name.
“No!” She shouted. Robin’s voice cut off and Buffy felt like crawling into a corner as everyone turned to face her. “I…I mean…what I mean to say…” she stumbled, took a breath and spit it out. “Wecan’taffordtoriskGilesbecausehe’stheo
Xander leaned over. “Buffy? Please start breathing now. You’re turning purple.”
“Good Lord, Buffy, it isn’t as if this is the first time I’ve been in the thick of things,” Giles said, his eyes blinking quickly behind his glasses.
Buffy hoped no one noticed she was beginning to panic. “But we can’t risk you because…because…well…just because…I mean…Hey! You got other things to do. Important things. Really important things. Like Watch. Yeah. And write. And ummm…supervise. You have to be supervisor-y Watcher-y guy otherwise it’s all higgledy-piggledy badness.”
“Do you just say higgledy-piggledy?” Willow asked.
“Buffy’s right,” Xander agreed.
“Now don’t you start,” Giles said with exasperation.
“We’re top-heavy going down as it is,” Xander said.
“It’s like an Away Team with Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov,” Andrew agreed to show his support.
Xander blinked at Andrew and then recaptured his thought, “Giles, you’re the only experienced Watcher around here, no offense Robin, so risking you is a pretty bad idea.”
“I’m suddenly not expendable?” Giles asked, angrily drawing up to his full height.
“You never were,” Willow quietly offered.
Giles’s eyes pinged between Willow, Buffy, and Xander. For a sliver of a moment Buffy thought he might argue, but he must’ve seen something in their faces that forced him to rethink.
“Giles? Buffy’s right. We need you,” Willow pressed.
“Now more than ever,” Robin heartily agreed. “You have the institutional memory of the Council and the expertise, and that’s too important to risk.”
“Not to mention you’re the only one who knows where some of the Council bank accounts are buried and that you’re the only one who can legally harass the international finance community to cough up the cash,” Xander volunteered. He nudged Buffy in the ribs and added with a wicked grin, “You get hit by a bus, we’re going to have to get real jobs and no one wants that.”
Robin rolled his eyes while Giles barked a laugh. “At last, the truth is out,” Giles said as he shook his head and added, “Agreed. I won’t go below. But,” he held up a finger and his expression got serious, “I will be helping the Slayers aboveground.”
Buffy opened her mouth to protest, but Xander cut her off, “Fair enough.”
“Well, that’s settled…” Giles began.
“Unh…actually, no. It’s not.” Xander nervously coughed. “We’re still too top-heavy for the belowground team and we have too many of the less experienced Slayers fighting by themselves above.”
Robin rubbed his forehead in frustration. “For heaven’s sake. This is the list Giles and I agreed on. All of our best people needed below to help retrieve the grail.”
Buffy saw something resembling hurt flick across Xander’s face a moment before she heard a sharp intake of breath from one of the other Slayers. Hunh? I don’t get it. Robin’s dead on in his assessment, so what’s everyone’s problem?
Xander swallowed hard. “We can’t send Buffy below either.”
“What? Why?” Buffy exploded.
“Buff, you and Faith are the most experienced,” Xander placed a slight emphasis on ‘experienced,’ “Slayers in the house. Having both of you fighting in the same spot is a bad idea. We can’t risk both of you at the same time if we can at all help it.”
“You seriously want me to be the little woman and stay home while all you big tough heroes go out and Slay the dragon?” Buffy crossed her arms with irritation as her mind piped up, Hey, stupid! Weren’t you just thinking that you and fighting right now is a bad, bad combination of the dead again variety?
Xander stepped back under the onslaught. “One of you needs to be with aboveground team. You know, to be the lead-by-example type.”
“So let Faith do it,” Buffy huffed. Suddenly she wanted to really, really kill that snake just to prove that she hadn’t lost the magic touch. If the snake wasn’t immediately available, Xander was beginning to look like a nice replacement.
“I can’t, B,” Faith interrupted. “I gotta go down because I’m supposed to be there.”
“Yeah, but if I’m hearing everything right, it was made up. I should…”
“Shouldn’t,” Faith crossed her arms in a mirror of Buffy’s own stance. “Since Cyclops pulled a Stephen King, he could’ve just as easily put you in Moscow and left me out of it.”
Xander’s head shot around and he was again regarding Faith with that unreadable look.
Faith saw and in response she squared her shoulders, looked right at Xander as if he were the one protesting, and said, “You’re following the script as close as you can for everything else. I gotta think that there’s a reason why I’m in ‘Moscow’ and B ain’t.”
“Oh?” Xander’s voice was tight with tension. “And what reason would that be?”
“Fuck all if I know. You wrote it.” Faith kept her voice even, but Buffy could swear she heard a slight tremor of nervousness there. “For all we know, maybe B saves everyone’s ass because she ain’t in the thick of things like me.”
Oh, look! No pressure! No pressure at all! Thanks a whole lot Faith! Buffy thought as she swallowed hard. Having a mindless battle with a giant snake was looking so very much more attractive than it did even twenty minutes ago.
“Actually, Faith does make a very good point,” Robin capitulated. “Keeping one of the big guns in reserve is a good move. Nice thinking, Faith.”
“Unh, that was Xan…” Willow began.
“Maybe we should leave Kennedy upstairs, too,” Xander interrupted.
“What? Why?” Kennedy protested. “I will kick that snake’s ass…I mean tail…head…well, whatever a snake’s got, I will kick it.”
“Before or after you let out a girly scream?” Vi laughed.
“Can it Hattie,” Kennedy growled.
“Kennedy, think about this,” Xander pleaded. “You’re the only one who really knows the lay of the land and have actually gone head-to-head with a dirt guards.”
“Yeah, and it went soooo well the first time,” Andrea sarcastically said.
“You know about as much as the rest of us about the tunnels and our snake,” Xander pressed. “But you know more than the rest of us about what we’re facing aboveground.”
“Well, since Andrea and Tammi are aboveground anyway, makes no diff if I’m with ’em, right?” Susan asked rhetorically. “He’s kinda got a point, Ken.”
Kennedy looked mutinous for a moment, but Buffy could see her break when she made a very Willow-like ‘mu’ face. “Fine. But not,” she pointed a warning finger at Vi, “because I’m avoiding the snake.”
Vi held up her hands and beat back a smile.
“We’re still short a translator,” Robin pointed out.
“That’s where I come in,” Dawn was on her feet.
“No!” Buffy shouted. I should’ve thought of this. No Giles means…
“You weren’t on the roster,” Robin calmly said. “I thought you weren’t…”
Dawn made a face. “Not interested in breaking any bones, no. But I’m a better choice than Giles anyway because I got a better grasp of languages than he does. Besides, I know more languages than he does.”
“You do?” Catherine sat up at that, her attention focused sharply on Dawn. “I never read…”
“Family secret,” Dawn airly tossed out. She added with a wicked grin, “I’m a regular key to all languages.”
“Dawn!” Buffy snapped. “You are not…”
“Yes. I. Am.” Dawn fixed her elder sister with a glare. “I’m mostly on the retirement track, but this is too important.”
“I’m going to be 18 reeeaaaallllll soon, so don’t push it,” Dawn snarled.
“Girls!” Xander stepped between the sisters. “Dawn, Buffy’s got a…”
“You were the one who pointed out that we needed a translator.” Dawn vibrated with frustration. “I’m the only candidate, especially if it’s a language no one can read and you know it, Harris.”
“What if it’s demonic?” Xander asked innocently. “Last I checked, you were hot stuff with the human languages, not so much on…”
“That’s why Andrew’s coming with,” Dawn grinned.
“I am?/He is?” Andrew, Robin, Xander, Giles, Willow, Kennedy, Faith…aw, hell…everyone but Buffy asked at the same time.
“Yup.” Dawn looked very much like a woman who knew she’d already won. “Andrew’s the man for the demonic stuff and I’m the woman for everything else. If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll make sure we’re armed with swords and…”
“No!” Xander and Buffy shouted in unison.
“Why not?” Andrew practically whimpered. “If there’s danger, we need weapons.”
“No. Swords. For. You.” Xander spit.
“I don’t think you should be teamed up with Andrew at all,” Buffy said. Xander turned his entire upper body around to face her since she was standing on his blind side, mouth set in a grim line as if to ask, And why didn’t you think of this four months ago? Buffy felt something in her stomach curl up and die at the silent accusation.
“You don’t trust me,” Andrew said, his usually cheerful face radiating deep hurt. “Is it because of An…” As Xander jerked around to face Andrew, the younger man snapped his mouth shut.
Xander swallowed hard, but Buffy noticed a slight tremor in his hands. “You’ll be surrounded by Slayers and we’ll have Witchy Willow, Badass Robin, and Catherine’s whole team watching your back. We’ll all be armed. You should focus on any writing you might find instead of waving around a sword. Your job’s too important.”
“Oh.” Andrew didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“Dawn’s not going,” Buffy insisted.
“Buffy.” God, Dawn’s voice sounded so much like mom’s it hurt, “There is no one else right now. I’ll be fine. I promise to hide behind the Slayers, okay? I promise I’ll be back.”
“Buffy,” Robin cut in, “we all know this is hard for you, but Dawn understands…”
Buffy held up her hands to cut him off, unable to tear her eyes away from the principal’s face. He mercifully waited until she found her voice. It sounded rough to her own ears. “Take care of her.”
“No need to worry,” Robin said with assurance. “As Xander pointed out to me in private, if there were any real danger, he would’ve said something in the journal to warn us, isn’t that right?”
All eyes turned to Xander. He nervously looked around. “That doesn’t mean someone won’t get hurt. It’s still a fight and…”
“Overall, I have to admit, this might be a better line-up,” Robin interrupted as he scribbled on a notepad. “Okay, new teams…”
Buffy was far less relaxed as he read the rosters. Giles, herself, Kennedy along with her scout team, and a handful of the newer girls were now aboveground. Faith, Xander, Willow, Robin, Dawn, Andrew, Vi, along with a handful of Slayers were going with Catherine’s team below.
Don’t wig. Don’t wig. Don’t wig… Buffy’s mind circled the mantra. Robin’s right. If there were any real danger, Xander would’ve warned us.
She let the thought hang there as Robin mentioned a field trip to the cemetery so the house could get a lay of the land and see if their dirt friends were still around and plans to meet after supper so they could talk hardcore strategy.
As the group broke up, Buffy watched Dawn lean down and whisper something to Andrew. She added silently to herself, At least I hope Xander would.