liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
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Water Hold Me Down (Part 20)

Yay! New part!

Yes, I'm still working on No Myth, but there's a fight secne in the next part and I always have a devil of a time writing them. So please be patient on that one.

So, YAY for more Water Hold Me Down. Just warning you: it's a long part.

Continued from here.

 

Part 20

Sunday. I love Sunday, Xander thought as he sleepily snuggled into Anya’s back.

Later, probably right around noon, Anya would stir awake. The two of them would go play in the shower and then breakfast featuring Anya’s awful coffee (“You’re getting better and better at this coffee thing, hun. Unh, maybe we should try the Kenyan AA next week for that actual coffee taste.”); orange juice (“One of these days we should get a juicer. I know, I know, waste of money since you like the Tropicana box, but I figure fresh-squeezed orange juice might be nice to try for a change.”), and those super-sized muffins from the bakery near the Magic Box that Anya liked and always bought after her Saturday shift so they could heat and eat them the next day (“Ooooo, chocolate chip! Thanks, hun. One of these days I should try making an omelet to go with.”).

Had anyone asked Xander what he loved most about being with Anya—not that anyone did, but if they had asked—he would’ve answered unequivocally and without reservation that it was the sleepy Sunday mornings where he’d be half-awake and Anya’d be doing that half-breathing-half-light-snoring thing she did. He’d keep his eyes closed and just relish the idea that he made it one more week without getting killed or seriously hurt, luxuriate in the warmth of the sun through the window, and just enjoy the feel of Anya next to him.

Sunday morning was the thing that defined their relationship in Xander’s mind; the very thing that he wouldn’t trade for anything. It topped the time he finally broke down and told her that he actually loved her. It beat his proposal in the Magic Box by a mile and when he finally announced to his friends they were getting married by a good half-mile. It sure as hell beat the wedding, but then again, getting stabbed in the gut by his last date beat—

Xander’s eyes snapped open. Oh, shit!

If he could remember the wedding that wasn’t, he damn well could remember that there were no more lazy Sunday mornings with Anya after that. It was one of his biggest regrets after Anya…

Don’t move, don’t move! his brain screamed at him.

Thankfully, the fake eye was pillow-side, which meant he could sort of see where he stood out of the corner of his good one. The limited view through Anya’s sleep-tussled hair was not pretty. This was the spare bedroom in his hallucinated not-a-funhouse. Judging by the quality of sunlight, not late morning, but more like mid-afternoon.

Oh, fuck. Our clothes must be spread all over the frigging house!

Here’s hoping Haley or nightmare him didn’t come home for lunch and see the mess because they’d jump to conclusions and that would be bad. Not that the conclusions would be wrong, which had the real potential to make this scene worse than bad.

And did he mention? He was so very screwed, and not in the him-and-Anya way. Well, yes, in a him-and-Anya way, but that was more the cause than the end result, which would make him doubly screwed with a side of becoming a party to one hell of a domestic dispute, which would definitely cause lots more trouble if the local law got involved and got an eyeful of his look-alike status because even though it was his hallucination he seemed to constantly land on the losing end, which was yet more confirmation that his brain hated him and wanted him to just die already, assuming he wasn’t already dead, which he…

Calm down! You’re not helping by going all run-on sentence! his brain jumped up down. Breathe. Just breathe and then think of a way out of this!

Oh, sure. Easy for the ol’ brain to say, since it was 100 percent at fault not speaking up back in the kitchen when his penis started hogging all of the blood supply. Plus, he was now convinced his brain was actively conspiring against him, so he wasn’t inclined to listen, even if calming down was good advice. Impossible in this situation, but still good advice.

Okay, first thing’s first. First, wake Anya up. Second, deal with drama, because you know it’s coming. Third, hide the evidence. Fourth, hope like hell fake me didn’t come home and see the mess. Five, if fake me ever finds out, run like hell because he’s going to kill me.

Right. He had a plan. Time to get started.

Any time now.

Any time…

So much for the journey of a thousand miles. You can’t even bring yourself to wake Anya up, let alone get out of bed.

Jesus, what time was it? It might be helpful if he knew whether certain death was driving home or if certain death was still at the shop working on the latest masterpiece for a client.

Could he see a clock from his obstructed view?

Nope. No can do. Could be 10-minutes-to-death or 3-hours-to-death. Ooooo, not feeling comfy not knowing.

Anya suddenly yawned and began stretching, sparing Xander from making any decision. On the one hand, good, because it was now out of his hands. On the other hand, not good, because he and zero time to mentally prepare.

Anya suddenly froze. Xander got into a mental crash position.

With a quick twist out of his arms, she landed on the bedroom floor with two feet and spun around to face him. Her mouth was moving, but she seemed unable to express the combination of confusion and panic on her face into words.

Xander did what he almost always did when faced with an overwhelming situation that pointed up just how inadequate he was in dealing with drama. He latched onto a small detail that had nothing to do with anything. “Unh, when did you get a rose tattoo on your left breast?”

The non sequitor opened the floodgates.

“What? You…we…and…YOU’RE ASKING ABOUT MY TATTOO?”

Xander shrunk back against the mattress. Yup. I’m an idiot.

“Do you know what you just did? Do you have any idea?” Anya’s voice was hitting the shrill decibel that gave Xander a headache and caused neighboring dogs to howl, not that it wasn’t warranted.

Anya was so angry that she seemed to completely forget she wasn’t wearing any clothes. Forget fake him killing him. He suspected that fake Anya was probably going to beat other him to the punch.

“You led me astray with…with…your fake understanding and your…your…tongue in places where it didn’t belong and your penis! This is all your fault!”

“Hey! Wait! Hold on!” Xander yelped as he sat up. “Last I checked there was two of us and—”

“You made me!” Anya exploded.

The accusation was enough to get Xander’s blood boiling. “I made you,” his voice low and dangerous.

Anya missed the signs that he was leaving the I’m-a-screw-up merry-go-round of guilt and getting on the you’re-being-just-a-little-unfair roller coaster of annoyance. She jabbed a finger at him. “Yes. You did. You made me forget you were you and not Xander, so don’t get huffy with me you little—”

“Please correct me if I’m wrong,” Xander interrupted, “but I don’t recall hearing that little two-letter word come out of your mouth. Oh, wait! That’s because it didn’t. I did hear ‘again,’ though. Several times.”

“You started it! Stop muddying the waters!” Anya yelled back.

Xander got out of bed, yanking the sheet after him so he could cover up. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re both naked!

“I wonder why,” Anya spat. “Oh! Wait! That’s because you were thinking with your penis!”

Xander bit back the obvious retort that he wasn’t the only one who was thinking with the wrong body part and tried to focus Anya on the immediate problem. “I point it out only because our clothes are all over the house.” He fought to keep his voice calm. “Sooner or later someone is coming home and—”

“I take it back. There’s no chance in hell you’re Xander.” Anya hissed her interruption. “You’re already thinking about how to lie about what happened to cover your own dumb ass.”

Both our asses! And if we don’t hide the evidence, just how do you think your husband’s going to deal?” Xander argued back. “I don’t need to be a psychic to tell you that the answer is: not at all well! And if you think you’re getting off scot free if he finds out, then you better think again!”

Anya unsteadily laughed. “That’s right. Lie. Cover up your guilt about seducing me.”

“WHAT?”

“Be very, very glad that I’m on D’Hoffryn’s do-not-call list, otherwise your entrails would be all over town like the alpha-male wanna be you are,” Anya said darkly.

Xander froze at the threat. Jesus! I didn’t even think about that. Then he replayed what Anya said in his head and frowned in confusion. Considering D’Hoffryn was hanging around the edges of the wedding, he figured Anya’s old demon boss was going to offer her one free ride on the wish train as a wedding gift if the marriage didn’t work out. At least, that’s what he thought at the time and that was his big objection—albeit one he didn’t dare admit to anyone—against letting D’Hoffryn attend.

“That shut you up,” Anya said with a self-satisfied air as she yanked open a drawer and began fishing around for clothes.

Xander shook his head as yet another thought occurred to him. “Just curious, but are you the only one in the family on that do-not-call list?” Xander asked.

Given the way the color drained from Anya’s face, Xander was going to guess the answer was no and that this was the first time she even considered that fact.

Xander’s heart trip-hammered in his chest. Shit. Of course he could always find that lower place and the threat of his brain cooking up a vengeance wish culled from all of Anya’s gory stories was just about as bad as it could possibly get. The fact that his first fear was the threat of a domestic dispute was proof positive that he lacked imagination.

“Then I suggest that we start cleaning up our little mess, which, I repeat, is right now spread all over the house.” Xander fought to keep his voice calm. “From what I remember of D’Hoffryn, he likes getting back at people who piss him off. If he won’t help you, then I’m thinking you’re on his shit list. That means he’ll be more than happy to oblige if my evil twin lets loose with a wish.”

Anya yanked a large t-shirt from the drawer and held it against her like it was a shield. “You’ve turned me into the thing I hate.”

Xander flinched against that statement. It said everything he needed to know. There was no chance in hell she’d be able to hide that something happened from other him. Even though he knew he was going to be fighting a losing battle, he had to try to plaster over the cracks. If he didn’t, his hallucinated life was going to straight to hell.

“Look, I’m sorry. Really, I am,” Xander fumbled. “I don’t know how to…what I mean is we need to take care of immediate problems before we fix the really big one and pointing fingers is not going to help anything. It never does. You know this and I know this because we’ve both seen it before. So, let’s at least pick up the clothes and then try to—”

“I used to punish men who did what we did. I tortured them sometimes for centuries and laughed,” Anya’s quietly interrupted.

Xander felt a full blast of guilt to the gut because she sounded so lost, like he really had ripped away something that was important to her. It was one thing to go screwing the undead after he left her at the altar, even though the fact she screwed Spike on the table of the Magic Box rankled even now. It’s something else entirely to do the same thing while wearing a wedding band.

Listen dumbkoff, this isn’t real, remember? Ahhh, the brain was finally taking over. Did it ever occur to you that your Anya-shaped hallucination feels bad because you want her to feel bad?

He could see why this scenario might be wishful thinking on his part, especially since after the not-a-wedding Anya seemed to enjoy blaming all her bad choices on him. She stopped only after he called her on it; or rather, she stopped saying it to his face. Yeah, this was definitely his fevered brain throwing him a bone.

“Anya, I totally appreciate your situation. I get what you’re saying. I do,” Xander said in what he hoped was a sympathetic voice.

“Do you?” God, the way she was looking at him broke his heart. “I turned my first husband into a troll over something like this. So believe me when I tell you that you have no idea what this means to me.”

“Well, actually…” Xander’s brain screeched to a halt as what Anya said finally sunk in.

“Now you get it,” Anya said as she pulled the Xander-sized t-shirt over her head.

“Husband?” Xander asked, as if testing the word. “First husband? You mean you were married before you became…does my evil twin know about this?”

Anya hugged herself and looked away. “Of course he does. I told him after my trollish ex got out of his crystal prison because Willow wasn’t paying attention to her ball of sunshine spell.”

“But you said you just dated Olaf,” Xander interrupted. “You lied to me? Why? Wait, what am I saying? Why would I think you lied to me about Olaf?”

“How do you know about Olaf?”

Xander looked up and realized that Anya’s eyes were boring holes into his forehead.

Oh, shit.

“I knew it,” she said in whisper.

Xander desperately tried to find a way to backtrack, but couldn’t think of a single thing. He had told fake-Anya that she was long gone before Olaf happened; in fact, he denied Olaf was even involved with his troll experience. He could see Anya doing the mental bookkeeping and he was definitely coming up in the deficient column.

“I knew it.” She charged across the room at Xander, who was so stunned by her sudden movement that he didn’t even try to get out of the way.

“I knew it!” she yelled.

The slap across his cheek stung, but the shock more than anything else is what nearly knocked him on his ass.

“I knew it! I knew it! I knew!” Anya hollered. “I would’ve never left you when you said! Not when you had just lost everything and all of your friends wouldn’t lift a finger to help! Oh, they were all with the sympathy, but when you needed someone to help you straighten the mess out, who was the only one who stuck by you and helped you every step of the way? Me!”

“We were all falling apart that year,” Xander weakly said as he backed away, hand still affixed to his injured cheek.

“There was no excuse! All they had was stupid words! Just words!” Anya screamed at him. “What really happened, hunh? Did Willow start using those lesbian lips on you? Did Buffy actually notice you had a working penis? Did Giles take pity on you and find a way to put you on the Council payroll until you found your feet? Or did you screw that up so much that he found some other way to give you money?”

“Hey!” Xander protested.

“I know how it is,” Anya picked up a picture and threw it at him. Xander was forced to duck and it crashed against the wall behind him.

Anya picked up the digital clock at whipped it at him, although its progress was impeded by the fact it was still plugged in. “Up until the car accident you always believed they’d be there for you when you really needed them. It wasn’t until you were really alone that you finally believed that you were just their errand boy and that I was the only one who was really on your side!”

“Now wait a second!” Xander shouted back as he ducked another flying family portrait.

“So what was different in your little world, hunh?” Anya flung a hairbrush at him. “Did they actually do something besides yap at you? Did Giles decide to do something besides put you up for a month? Or maybe he failed to complain while he did it. Did they call you good boy while you wagged your tail and went on pizza runs?”

“Where is this coming from?” Xander helplessly asked. “I mean, yeah, things weren’t always great, but you make it sound like…hold on, I lived with Giles for a month?”

“Get out!” Anya yelled. “Get out right now!”

Xander was trying to piece together Anya’s incoherent yelling, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. “Back up! I think…”

“I SAID OUT!” Anya picked up another picture.

This time her aim was true, mostly because Xander was distracted, and it hit him square in the chest. Xander stumbled back from the impact and landed against the wall with a thud.

“Go! Leave! Don’t come back!” Anya yelled.

Xander looked down and saw picture’s metal frame had left a nasty cut on his chest that freely bled. “Clothes,” he feebly protested.

“Here’s your clothes!” Anya yanked open drawers and flung the ragged collection of sweats and t-shirts onto the floor. “You want clothes? All the clothes you want! Don’t even try to come back. Don’t even try. I’m giving you 10 minutes to leave. If I even see a shadow of you after that, the police are going to get a call about you stalking and harassing my family. And who do you think they’re going to believe? Me? Or you?”

Before he could even react to the threat, Anya slammed out of the room.

Xander shook as he ran into his evil twin’s bedroom to grab clothes that offered more protection than the sweats strewn about the spare bedroom.

If I get arrested by the dream police and locked up in a jail cell, is that some mental warning that Willow can’t wake me up? Or does that mean I’m dying? Or maybe that I’m already dead?

He managed to still the tremor in his hands just enough to throw on underwear, socks, jeans, a t-shirt, a loose-fitting sweatshirt, and a pair of workboots. He hightailed it back to guest room to retrieve the two hidden stakes, because there was no way he was staying outside after sunset without something resembling a weapon, especially given the even darker turn this hallucination had taken.

He barely registered the sound of the shower or Anya’s muffled sobbing behind the closed second-floor bathroom door as he fled from the house without a backwards glance.

***

“I know I’m right!”

Faith jerked awake, fell off her chair, and landed flat on her ass.

Giles and Buffy paused whatever argument they were having and gave Faith a dose of fish-eye.

A yawn exploded out of Faith’s mouth.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Buffy remarked. “Did you know that you’ve got this weird breathy snore?”

“Been told that,” Faith grumbled as she crawled to her feet. “’Course I had a habit of getting cranky after I was told.”

“We didn’t want to wake you,” Giles said with a touch of sympathy. “I know you’ve been running yourself rather ragged…”

“Nah. I didn’t sleep because I didn’t want to sleep,” Faith said as she retook her seat. She glared at her coffee cup for failing to do its job.

“Why not?” Buffy asked.

“Dreams?” Giles quietly asked.

Faith shrugged as she sipped from her cup. Yuck. Frigid. How fucking long was I in the land of nod?

“Faith?” Giles asked.

“Nothin’ like that,” Faith said. “Just keep feeling pissed off whenever I close the eyes is all. Probably stress.”

Buffy and Giles exchanged looks that Faith didn’t have the energy to try and decipher.

“How are you feeling now?” Giles inquired.

Faith frowned at him. “Tired, but better, I guess.”

“But not feeling put out?” Giles pressed.

“Getting there,” Faith answered.

“As much fun as I’m having playing the twenty questions game with Faith, we really need to be using that skill for Xander-finding.” Buffy’s arms were crossed.

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. “We are no closer to finding our target than when you first proposed your idea.”

“You two are still looking at Xander taking a powder?” Faith asked. She peered half-sleepily at the wall clock. “You’ve been at this for more than a day.”

“I’m just saying that we haven’t hit on the right circumstances yet,” Buffy stated.

“We’ve covered just about ever nuance known to man or beast. At best our results are mixed,” Giles said testily.

Faith yawned again and stretched. As her vertebrae rewarded her with a series of very satisfying pops, she said, “How about a scenario where he walked away, you asked him back, and he told you to get lost?”

“Actually, that was exactly the scenario we were exploring,” Giles answered.

“Ahhh, knew I heard that somewhere,” Faith nodded. “Musta been listening with half-an-ear.”

“I think we’re heading in the wrong direction,” Buffy grumbled. “Besides, I think we’re asking that question wrong anyway. I really don’t believe for one second that if Willow gave him her cancer-of-the-goldfish look he’d turn her down. Plus, I got the highest score on the ‘get lost’ scale. I mean, bigger than even Angel. I don’t know about you, but that smells week-old fishy to me.”

Faith blinked at that in surprise. “So you sayin’ that there’s actually more than one universe out there where he’s kicked every little Scooby to the curb?”

Buffy looked like she was trying to fight one hell of a pout.

Someone’s had her feelings crushed. Bet she never thought she’d hit this particular number one in Xander’s life. Faith felt that she should be feeling a little guilty about enjoying Buffy’s discomfort, but she was actually kind of wasn’t.

“Have you tried non-Scoobs?” Faith asked.

Buffy gave Faith an evil-eyed glare.

“Holy shit! You mean I got a better score than you? That’s just fucking twisted.”

“It’s not funny,” Buffy grumbled.

“I ain’t laughing,” Faith said. “That’s just…well maybe it’s connected to what Buffy said: circumstances under which he left, y’know? B’s the queen of the clique, so more chances for her to really piss him off.”

“Good lord, I must be exhausted.” Giles fell heavily into a chair. “I’ve been so focused on finding the magic bullet that it never occurred to me to include the lone gunman on the grassy knoll in our calculations.”

“Hunh?” Faith asked. “What gunman?”

“You mean we might have to find a combination of culprit-y facts?” Buffy paled. “We might never find him at this rate. I don’t even want to think about all those combinations because that’s just…it’s a Rubik’s cube. And us without Zapruda.”

Faith fought the urge to raise a hand. “Zapruda? Who the hell is that? That someone who hung with you back in the day?”

“That’s assuming your theory is correct, and at this rate, I’m not entirely sure it is,” Giles said to Buffy.

“Hello? I got some questions here,” Faith insisted.

“What? No. Zapruda is that guy in that Kevin Costner movie that captured the magic bullet on film,” Buffy said.

“That’s not entirely correct,” Giles said.

“Oh, yeah. Much clearer now,” Faith grumbled.

“We’re rather getting off the point,” Giles huffed.

“So, G. What did you score?” Faith asked. Jesus, she was enjoying twisting the knife just a little too much into Buffy’s wounded pride. She’d have to watch that.

Giles waved a weary hand. “After we saw the number of universes where Xander turned Willow down, we didn’t bother with me and decided to try less obvious culprits.”

“Like me,” Faith remarked. “That’s a little fucked up. You’d think he’d be more likely to me the bird.”

“Percentage-wise, you are correct,” Giles said. “But we thought the actual numbers of such incidences would be lower and thus we’d be more likely to hit on our one-of-a-kind situation.”

“Like in only one universe Angel knocks on Cyclops’s door for help and that happens to be the universe that Xander goes back. Gotchya,” Faith nodded. “Have you tried—”

A commotion at the library door interrupted Faith and she looked up. Willow was weaving her way into the room while Kennedy fluttered around her trying to convince her to go back to bed.

She looks like shit on a stick, Faith thought as she watched Willow barely make it to the table. The witch looked and acted like she just went ten-rounds with a Mack truck.

“I told her that we should bring you guys to her room, but she insisted,” Kennedy said.

“Can’t wait.” Willow’s voice sounded raw, like she was using what little energy she had to speak, let alone stay upright.

Giles quickly got out his seat and steered Willow to his chair, probably because he was afraid she’d keel over. “Kennedy is correct. You should have summonsed us to your room if your message was important.”

“Had to get away.” Willow swallowed hard. “Needed a change of scenery.”

“What happened?” Buffy asked as she handed Willow her bottled water.

“Someone was sending us a message,” Willow explained before she tore off the cap and gulped down the bottle’s contents.

“What kind of message?” Buffy asked. “Because from the way you look, I’d guess it’s not a good one.”

Willow slumped in her chair. “I have to start from…from…well not the beginning, but…um…see, when Xander got yanked through, there was a temporary path from here to there, see—”

“That’s good news, right?” Buffy asked. She turned to Giles. “It has to be, because then we can just find the path instead of—”

“Good lord, will you let Willow finish?” Giles asked.

“Right. Path. Temporary.” Willow said to re-capture the thread of her thoughts. “Anyway, won’t help us. Wouldn’t help us before, either, because it was pinprick size and really too small at our end even though it was lots bigger on the other side which is how this…ummm…being saw it.”

“Like a bullet wound,” Faith said.

Everyone stopped to look at her.

“Some bullets, hell, maybe all of ’em for all I know, when they enter they leave this tiny hole,” Faith demonstrated by pointing to her bicep. “But when they come out the other side, the hole’s a big crater.”

“Do I want to know how you know this?” Buffy asked.

Faith shrugged. “A few of the ladies back in prison had been shot. Saw the scars. Ain’t never shot anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. Never seen anyone shot either, which surprises even me given some of the shit holes mommy dearest used to not pay rent on.”

“Buffy wasn’t…Tara was…I mean Buffy was shot, so don’t take it the wrong way Faith,” Willow said.

Faith wasn’t entirely sure how she should’ve taken Buffy’s question, but it wasn’t worth arguing about right now.

“Anyway,” Willow continued, “this being sort of stuck their foot in the door to keep the path open a little longer to get a look-see and saw us.”

“A peeping thing-y? Well, that’s just creepy,” Buffy said.

“So this thing decided to send us a warning that bad shit was going down by sending big, flipping nightmares that freaked you out?” Faith asked. “They seriously thought this was a good idea?”

Willow bowed her head until her hair hung in her face. “Both of us, Faith.”

“Hunh?” Faith asked. “You mean that dream I had was—”

“Tailored to freak you out, yeah,” Willow said.

“So it ain’t real?” Faith asked.

“Didn’t say that,” Willow muttered.

“Willow,” Kennedy shot Faith a glare, “please, say what you need to so you can go back to bed.”

Buffy swallowed and looked down. “Why you and Faith?”

Willow tapped on the table with her fingertips.

“Willow?” Giles prompted.

Willow looked Buffy right in the eye and said, “This being kind of knows the Faith on the other side, which is why Faith. It kind of had some, um, weird ideas about me and thinks it knows me, too, so I got added to the list. That was pretty much the reason.”

“What kind of thing are we talking about? Demon?” Faith asked.

“Hard to explain,” Willow muttered. “So, it wasn’t because…Buffy it wasn’t because of anything you did. Faith and I were…unh…the devils it knew so it decided to get our attention so we’d go looking.”

“Yeah, right. Like I could’ve pulled a magic spell out of my ass and gone hunting,” Faith remarked.

Willow was staring at the table again. “You were back-up, in case it didn’t work out with me.”

“So what was the warning?” Buffy asked.

“No doubt Xander’s presence may be causing mystical problems on the other side,” Giles postulated. “After all, he’s the added element, whereas we do not have that problem. I suspect that his arrival in that other reality caused quite a disruption for this…well…very obviously powerful creature to feel it needed to contact us.”

“You’re kind of assuming it’s one of the good guys, G,” Faith said. “That dream I had and the shit Willow went through…I dunno about that.”

“Okay, so maybe not a total white hat,” Buffy dismissed. “But if it’s worked with other versions of you and Willow in the past, probably not big evil either.”

Faith’s gaze snapped to Buffy in surprise.

“What?” Buffy asked.

Faith had no clue how to even begin answering that question.

“Can…can…we not talk about it?” Willow asked. “It’s, unh, well it thinks it’s a little bit beyond, ummm, being naughty or nice.”

“A balance demon?” Giles asked. “Well, that would make sense, although they’re usually not quite that powerful. They mostly nudge the powerful in what they perceive as the right direction.”

“And they have no fashion sense either,” Buffy agreed.

“I’m getting a little tired,” Willow said.

“Quite right,” Giles said, closing off the good-and-bad debate. “Please do continue. But I feel I must ask: is your balance demon entirely trustworthy? They are charged with keeping the balance between good and evil by any means necessary.”

“Totally and completely trustworthy,” Willow said just a little too quickly.

Giles obviously picked up on it, because his expression hardened.

Willow wilted under Giles’s gaze. “I…I had to make a deal to get the information. While we work to get Xander back, I can’t interfere with that reality in any way, no matter what I see or know.”

“But we can?” Buffy asked.

Willow opened her mouth and the quickly shut it. Faith could see Willow’s big, squishy brain considering Buffy’s question. Hell, she could practically smell the thoughts burning. Whatever the mental debate that Willow had, it ended with an answer that the witch didn’t entirely like.

Willow slumped even more and said, “You wouldn’t know what to do unless I told you, but if I told you that would be breaking the deal and…and…” She bit her lip and breathed hard through her nose a couple of times. “The consequences for us, well, definitely me, and most likely Xander, but it might affect other people, too, would be bad.” She looked at Giles, “I swore by the Furies.”

“Is this bad?” Kennedy asked.

Giles paled. “Good lord! Whatever possessed you to tie your hands like that?”

“I’m thinking yes,” Faith said.

Willow bent her head until her hair curtained her face off from the rest of them.

“I’m thinking really bad,” Buffy echoed.

“You let your emotions decide, didn’t you? Good lord, I can’t imagine that Xander would be at all pleased about your deal to save him if he knew about this and fully understood the import of what this means,” Giles said as he pinched his nose. “I can only hope that non-interference goes both ways.”

“Xander—our Xander—won’t be harmed and it…it will help from its side as much as it can, mostly because this thing really wants our Xander out of its universe,” Willow said. “So, yeah, the protection goes both ways. Besides, this, unh, individual isn’t really interested in us so much as it wants to tidy up its own backyard so it can be pretty just the way it likes it.”

“Even if it kills someone to do it,” Faith remarked.

The fact that Willow didn’t bother to contradict her pretty much announced the answer loud and clear to everyone in the room.

“Right,” Buffy said quietly. “So this is something we never, ever tell Xander, especially since he’s been there and we haven’t.”

“So, what information did your contact impart?” Giles said.

“His location.” Willow sounded relived to be getting off the subject of her fuck-up.

“And?” Buffy asked.

“It’s…it’s a universe where he walked away from us for good,” Willow said.

“Unh, Will? We’ve already looked at that and, well, there’s lots of those,” Buffy said.

“You didn’t let me finish,” Willow said. “In this universe, he was asked to come back and he just outright refused.”

“Hunh. Looking like you was right, B,” Faith said.

“Hunh?” Willow asked.

“The theory,” here Giles nodded apologetically to a pleased-looking Buffy, “that we were exploring involved just such a scenario. Although we couldn’t discover the singular underlying reason why this particular scenario was one-of-kind.”

“It had to do with who was doing the asking,” Willow said.

“But we covered everyone, so who is it?” Buffy asked.

Willow looked right at Giles.

“Me?” Giles’s voice shot up and octave.

Willow nodded.

“We never asked about you,” Buffy said as she stared at Giles.

“Me?” Giles repeated quietly, thoroughly befuddled by the revelation.

“Every time a Rupert Giles was involved in the asking, Xander agreed to come back,” Willow said. “Except this one time.”

“Why?” Giles asked. He gave his head a hard shake. “Doesn’t matter. Are you certain this information is correct?”

“Yeah, our, unh, being is really, really…it has power, see? Scary power. Scares-me power. But, it can’t do anything with it, physically anyway, so while everyone around it thinks it’s being mellow, what it’s really doing watching everything or thinking, which is not entirely good, even though it kinda worked out for us,” Willow said. “Plus, it was easier for it to figure out since it was at the receiving end of the transport spell. And it took a walk through my brain for…for…to compare notes, so, yeah. The information is right.”

“I see.” Giles slowly settled into an empty chair, looking for all the world like Willow had punched him in the gut.

“Buffy, I need…I need you to do me a favor,” Willow said hesitantly.

“Anything,” Buffy said.

“I need you to leave the room. Take Kennedy with you.”

“No,” Kennedy said.

Buffy was clearly hurt. “But—”

“It’s important…there’s…um…I have a special message for Faith from the…the…well it’s for her ears only and I kinda need Giles here in case there’s something hidden in it that we should know about.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Kennedy stated.

Willow reached up and grabbed Kennedy’s wrist. “Please. Trust me. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t really important.”

“Okay,” Buffy said quietly. “But just answer me one thing, okay? What about the dreams?”

Willow began, “The path between our two realities are closed so—”

“Wait! That has to be bad, right?” Buffy asked. “How are we supposed to get him if—”

“We don’t need it and having it there wouldn’t make it any easier,” Willow said. “He got sent away using a yo-yo spell and that spell has rules, even though we don’t like it. It would’ve stayed open if we had Anya since she was the key, but without her it was going to close naturally anyway. The…the…my contact was exerting power to keep it open, so when it didn’t need it open any more, the spell just followed it’s natural course. We still have to find a spell at our end that’s powerful enough to get him back.”

“So you’re saying that it was using this opening as a conduit to haunt yours and Faith’s dreams,” Giles said.

“Now that it’s closed, we can sleep without fear. Or maybe Faith can. I’m pretty sure I’ll never stop having nightmares about…about…well…my dreams were bad,” Willow said quietly.

Faith silently called bullshit on that excuse, because she was willing to bet that Willow’s meeting was hell on wheels.

“I’ll be just outside,” Kennedy said. “You need anything—”

“I’ll yell,” Willow promised. “Oh, close the door behind you.”

Willow waited until Buffy and Kennedy did as she asked before she leaned forward and dropped her voice, forcing Giles and Faith to lean forward. “The reason why Faith and not Buffy is because she killed Buffy. And Dawn.”

Giles went even paler.

“She?” Faith asked.

“I need to know, Giles,” Willow said. “You set both of us up, didn’t you? Me and Xander. Back on Kingman’s Bluff. You set both of us up.”

Faith had no idea what Willow was talking about.

Giles looked down, “Lady Haversham was quite clear…”

“No one with supernatural power because they’d pose a threat,” Willow interrupted. “The question was never if I could I kill Buffy, who was all Slayer-y; but could I kill Xander, who couldn’t even defend himself.”

“Wait, you tried to actually…I mean I’d heard rumors, but I didn’t…” Faith shut up when Willow looked at her with haunted eyes.

“He knew you the longest,” Giles explained. “I had no time to tell him the plan and—”

“No harm was done, except what I did before that and…” Willow swallowed and looked down. “Thank you.”

Giles obviously didn’t expect that.

“Buffy and Dawn are dead because I…she…we…another me killed them. Xander wasn’t there because he married Anya, went on his honeymoon, and never came back,” Willow said quietly. “So you had to bring in just about the entire Devon coven to take me…her down.”

“I’m guessing the reason why that other Xander told G to fuck off is because he blamed that G for what happened,” Faith said.

“She’s crazy, Giles,” Willow said. “It isn’t that she’s more powerful than me, well, actually, she kinda is, but what makes her really powerful is that she just doesn’t care.”

“No wonder why you believed it safe to swear by the Furies,” Giles muttered.

“Unh, that’s not the reason why,” Willow softly corrected. “I thought I had her cornered and I didn’t, so it was more of a pride-y thing than anything else, so I guess I’m not so different.”

“I would disagree,” Giles said as he reached out and touched Willow’s hand. “Buffy and Dawn are alive and well, for a start.”

Willow took a shuddering breath.

“There a reason why I need to hear this?” Faith asked.

“The real reason why you got hit with that dream was a complete accident,” Willow said. “I was the primary target and…well…you’ve got another you over there. She’s the one that got hit with the Slayer dream about Xander and it slipped through to you since she was kicking that path wide open to send me a nightmare.”

“She told you all this?” Giles frowned. “Even considering your geas, it strikes me as rather foolish on her part.”

Willow’s fingers trailed up to her lips. “She…unh…kissed me and I saw all these images. I think, I think she was trying to convince me that I was wrong and she was right. About power, I mean.”

Faith shivered.

“And what do you believe?” Giles asked a little too casually.

Willow swallowed hard. “This kind of power? I don’t think the price is worth it. Which is kind of why I need Faith here.”

“I don’t see how I fit in,” Faith said.

“Just because I don’t think…I mean, what if I go black-eyed, black-haired scary again?” Willow pleaded. “I know that Buffy will think I can be saved, since I was pulled back from the brink before. I know Xander will try to stop me again, but he won’t do what needs to be done because it’s not in him to do it. I need to know that if I lose control someone will do what they have to.”

“You’re asking me to kill you if…hold on. No way. Just because I killed before doesn’t mean I’m all hot to be crossing that line again,” Faith said.

Willow winced. “Then you know, Faith. You know what it’s like to be afraid to lose control again, don’t you? You know what it’s like to be afraid that one day you’ll kill again because you have the power, right?”

That she did, but she didn’t have to like what Willow was asking.

“When this is over, ask Giles just how bad I was. He’ll tell you. I could match you big bad for big bad and then beat you at it.” Willow was pleading again. “No mercy, Faith. I need someone who won’t show any mercy.”

Faith looked at Giles, but he was zero help. If anything, he was struck speechless and the blank expression he turned on Faith scared her half-to-death.

Gut instinct said that this wasn’t any of her business. Gut instinct told her that Willow was asking the wrong person. Gut instinct said she should refuse and walk out like it was case closed. Fuck it. Gut instinct insisted she run like hell and not stop until she hit a no-name village in Asia.

While gut instinct beat her between the eyes, Angel’s words finally hit home in a way they hadn’t before. Our time is never up, Faith. We pay for everything.

The look in Willow’s eyes, well, they told Faith that Willow knew it, too. Whatever she did, however bad it was, Willow knew it right where it counted. Angel wouldn’t abandon her when she really needed the kick in the ass. What Willow needed was her own Angel.

Faith figured she really wasn’t what Willow needed, but she was probably the best bet Willow had until that Angel arrived for her.

“As a last resort, Willow. I won’t do nothing unless all hope is lost, got me? When that day happens, no mercy. But until then, I’m helping B and Cyclops fight like hell to bring you back because you don’t get out of it that easy.”

Willow relaxed and damn if she didn’t smile. “Thank you.” She hauled herself to her feet and swayed unsteadily.

Giles was on his feet to help her, but Willow waved him off. “I want to at least look somewhat capable, otherwise Ken won’t let me out of bed for a week, missing Xander or no. I’m not going to be any good at spell research-y stuff right now, so I’ll be here in the morning, okay?”

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Giles warned her. “Your energies will be desperately needed to cast the spell when we find it. It wouldn’t do if you were too weak to execute it. I’m sure I can manage on the research front until you are better recovered.”

“I’ll be here tomorrow morning,” Willow insisted as she unsteadily made for the door. “G’night.”

Faith and Giles stayed put and remained silent as she shut the door behind her. The moment she heard the lock catch, Faith said, “I think I fucked that up.”

Giles looked at her, but his expression was back to being blank. “I’m not entirely certain that anyone could’ve handled that well.”

***

Faith’s rental car was a nest of scattered Slayer gear, clothes, Kwik Reuse takeout containers, recyc beverage cups, 1G flash drives full of her favorite mixes for the car’s stereo system, and scattered magazines she’d picked up during her travels from Cleveland to here.

While most people could find something resembling a distraction in the mess, Faith was too irritated to bother. She hated stakeouts and with the forced inactivity and utter lack of convenient bathroom facilities. Yet, she’d done two in as many days.

Reason 4,345 to kick Harris’s ass when I get my hands on him.

She supposed the stakeout wouldn’t have been so bad if something had actually happened after Harris senior got into his custom-made minivan and left, but she had nothing. Nada. Not even neighbors walking the dog or taking the kiddies out for a stroll. Once the cars left for work, the neighborhood might as well been a tomb.

Actually, tombs were more interesting if only because every tomb held the promise of a possible Slay.

It’s 3-fucking-30. Goddamn, I should just pack this shit in and leave.

Looking back on last night, Faith wasn’t entirely sure what she saw. Sure, she saw a younger guy that looked like Harris, but that was about it. The guy could’ve been a relative who was helping out. Plus, she wasn’t entirely sure that she was reading the younger guy’s expressions right while he watched Harris do his shit with the bow and arrow. It was entirely possible that her issues with Asshole Prime were clouding her vision.

Except that younger guy sure as hell didn’t want to be seen by Harris.

Still, he went into that house, so Harris had to know the guy was around.

Yeah, but he waited like he wanted the coast clear before he snuck into the house.

Truthfully, Faith didn’t know what the fuck to think, but her patience was wearing thin and she was not a single step closer to solving the mystery—assuming there was a mystery to solve.

“This fucking sucks the big one,” Faith grumbled as she dug through one of the pockets on the duffle for the rental’s key. “I’m thinkin’ there’s shit all to see here. Fuck it. Wouldn’t be here at all if the Evil One didn’t go fucking around with my head. I’m out of here. Let the Wicked Witch of the West go send some other Slayer to run her mysterious endings. I’m through with this scene.”

She slammed the key into the ignition, turned the engine over, and slid the car into drive. As she looked around to make sure it was safe to pull out, she spotted someone hauling ass down the sidewalk towards her.

She had just enough time to register that this guy looked just like the younger Harris-looking shadow she saw last night before she threw the car back in park and flung herself lengthwise across the front of the car.

Well, something’s finally broke at least. Now maybe I can get some answers.

She counted slowly to five—usually she’d make it ten but this dude was moving—before slowly sitting back up. She looked over her shoulder and saw the guy was making good time. Faith saw he was heading towards the center of town and away from the cemetery. While it was probably safe there during the day, going anywhere near the place once the winter afternoon started its downward slide to evening was a very smart move.

Faith tossed what gear she could find in her nest into the duffle and pulled it out of the car after her. Now that she had her mystery man in sight, there was no chance in hell she was going to lose him.

A few blocks down, mystery man turned the corner to the right, but didn’t slack off his pace one bit.

Whatever’s got him going like that, it must be a hell of a something, Faith thought as she picked up her pace. He didn’t even flinch last night when he was in a cemetery full of vamps.

 

Continued in Part 21

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