Xander was beat.
He'd put in a full day working on the renovation plans, after Giles and Buffy ran him ragged in training starting at 6:30 a.m. Time he learned to fight like a slayer, they'd all decided. He hadn't gotten that far in the weeks he'd been training, but he was up to the get-your-ass-kicked-like-a-regular-guy module. There was a lot of material to cover in that one.
It was close to midnight now, and he and Faith were winding up patrol. Nothing much had happened all night, so it was more about the cutting through the graveyard to the car than finding something that needed killing.
"How do you think this is gonna work?" he was asking. "Are all the slayers who were called somewhere around potential age, or could we have a ninety-year-old slayer show up with her pointy-ended cane?"
"Who knows? Guess we'll find out when they start coming."
Xander pointed at the biggest mausoleum in the cemetery. "Check that out over there. A little late for an open house, isn't it?"
Faith started across the grass and Xander kept pace with her, adjusting his grip on his stake. They were halfway to the mausoleum when two vamps came barreling out. Faith held out her stake and the momentum of the lead vamp carried him right into it, exploding him into dust. A palm-sized object dropped to the ground as the dust scattered. The second vamp lunged for it and Xander dove to the ground to reach it first. He'd misjudged the distance (goddamn depth perception) and his fingers grazed the surface just as Faith went to her knees and grabbed for it.
Then a thunderclap, and Xander was thrown back by some force. It slammed him into the marble wall of the mausoleum, every synapse sizzling like he'd been Tasered again. Then everything went dark.
When he came to, his nerve endings were still on fire. The grass he sprawled in felt like a bed of nails on his exposed skin. Lucky he was wearing the leather jacket.
Huh. He didn't own a leather jacket.
He closed his eyes again, trying to keep the earth from rotating quite so rapidly.
"Faith? Are you okay?" His voice sounded strange. The explosion must have done something to his hearing, made it go all cottony. He moaned, and even that didn't sound right.
Remembering the second vamp, Xander made himself take a look around, fighting dizziness. If it had been planning to hurt them, there'd been plenty of opportunity while he and Faith were out. If, in fact, Faith was knocked out too. "Faith!"
There was a denim-clad form sprawled by the mausoleum, just now beginning to stir. Okay. Disoriented now. He should be lying over there, not here -- where, exactly? -- on a freshly sodded new grave.
"Aw, shit. Xander?" Now that sounded like his voice.
"Over here." Could he just go back to unconsciousness and get a do-over? Because something was really wrong.
The figure in denim sat up, turned his way. It had Xander's face -- hell, his body, his clothes -- and the same thunderstruck expression he no doubt wore on his own -- well, no. But whose? He looked down at his body, his hands. Tight leather, impressive cleavage. He could use a manicure -- the blood-red polish was chipping.
He looked up just as Xander-over-there finished his -- her -- own inventory. And said, in unison with him -- her -- "Oh, shit."
They combed the area for the palm-sized thing, which Faith said was an amulet on a cord. "Your typical ugly-ass hippie-shop costume jewelry." No luck.
"The second vamp must've got it." No time like the present for stating the obvious.
Faith obviously agreed. "We've got to get that goddamn thing back."
Xander was seeing in 3-D again, which was a little disconcerting after the adjustments he'd made. The whole world had gone all House of Wax. Not that he couldn't get used to it. The cleavage -- that was another matter. "How are you doing, Faith?" He gestured vaguely toward his own eye -- or hers, actually -- the one attached to the body he was in.
She shrugged. "You should know. You haven't been a pussy about it, so I got no right to cry. I'll cope."
Xander nodded. "I say we get to Giles. That vamp is long gone. Maybe Willow can do a locator spell on him, but I don't think we'll have much luck here."
They headed back to the hacienda, as Faith called it, the brownstone that had once been a bed and breakfast. It took a bit of pounding on Giles's bedroom door before he appeared, putting on his glasses and blinking at Xander. "Faith."
Xander pointed. "That would be Faith. I would be Xander."
More blinkage. "Oh dear."
"Oh fuckin' dear is right," Faith said. "Let's get hittin' the book-- Shit."
No kidding. Xander had thought it was a damn shame about Giles's library being buried in a California sinkhole, but the situation had just been upgraded to a fucking tragedy. He'd been fairly calm at first, but now it was starting to slip.
Giles pulled on his bathrobe and led the way to the kitchen. True to form, he put on water for tea and then told them to tell him everything.
Faith finished her sketch of the amulet and handed it over. "It looked nothing like the little joy buzzer the Mayor gave me. There was kind of a blue flame when we both touched it and wham! We were both tossed into the next county."
"Could you tell what it was made of? Bone, wood, some type of stone?"
"It felt more like stone," Faith said, "but it seemed like there was some kind of glaze. Light wasn't good, but I think it was blue."
"Faience, perhaps," Giles murmured.
She shrugged. "There were some markings too, but I didn't get a good look. Felt like a piece had been broken off the side. It was old. I could feel that somehow. The cord, not so much."
"You'll need this thing back to reverse the spell, right?" Xander heard his voice go all high and tight on reverse the spell. He actually wanted to grab Giles by his bathrobe lapels and scream those three words a few dozen times.
"I don't know anything yet. Stay calm. I'll rouse Willow and see what she can find."
Xander raked his hands through his hair, which just kept on going. He was just ten seconds away from a total wig-out. "Books, Giles. It's books we need, not her friggin' laptop."
"She may be able to access some of the old library. Remember the scanning project?"
"Oh, yeah, that worked out so well."
"Yes, well. But it's a beginning."
"I'm getting the vapors. Jesus, Faith, how do you breathe in this getup?"
"Breathing's overrated." She took him by the arm. "Come on, Xander. You'll want me to take good care of your eye. Show me what to do."
He let her drag him off to the bathroom. He shut the door behind them, leaning against it, trying to get a grip.
"I've been through this," she said. "It feels strange, but just relax into it. Talk to me. Tell me what I need to do."
He took as deep a breath as he could in Faith's bustier. "It's a lot less maintenance than you'd think. Rule number 1: If it doesn't bother you, leave it alone." Okay, yeah. He could concentrate on this. His breath evened out some. "If it's windy out, or the eye feels dry, there's special drops I use. They're in my shirt pocket, make sure you always have them." He went to the shelf containing the individual plastic bins that Andrew had marked with one of those lettering gizmos, and pulled the one with his name on it. "Here's where I keep my spare bottles. It's good to lie down or tip your head back a few minutes if you can when you use the drops, but don't sweat it if you can't always do that. If it really bothers you a lot, come to me. It'll probably just need a cleaning and a saline rinse. I'll do that for you. Probably won't be needed. Some people go a year between doctor visits and leave it in the whole time, and that's cool."
She nodded, making the serious, attentive Xander-face.
"That side'll tear more. Sometimes a lot. Don't worry, that's totally normal. If you have a screaming urge to rub your eyes, do it from the outer corner toward the nose." He demonstrated. "You don't want to pop it out. That's pretty much all, as far as taking care of it goes."
Faith leaned in close to the mirror, studying her -- Xander's -- eyes, checking herself from different angles. "This is really good." He leaned in behind her, studying her studying herself.
"Yeah, it is."
"I didn't know they could make 'em look so real. Tiny blood vessels and shit." She cut him a glance in the mirror. "I've been dying to get a good look like this, but I didn't have the nerve."
"What, Faith lacking nerve?"
"I'm not fuckin' crass!"
"No. Sorry. I know what you mean. I never would've told anybody this stuff. It's different like this. A step removed." Yet this was as intimate as he'd been with anyone, including Anya. There was a tingle that rose up between them that was just too weird to contemplate. He took a step back. "So that's all, really." He turned for the door.
"Wait. There's something I need you to take care of, too." Faith found the bin with her name on it and removed a plastic compact, which she opened to reveal rows of birth control pills. "Every night at bedtime. If you forget a night, tell me, or you're in a world of shit. You want incentive to remember, just know that if you miss a couple of nights you'll need these." She held up a small box of tampons.
She laughed. "Yeah, I thought so. Listen, feel free to make yourself at home. I will."
"What -- what's that mean?"
Oh god. That grin. He knew what that meant; he'd worn it thousands of times. "I've always wondered what it would be like drivin' a stick. I thought I'd go for a test drive. You wanna do it too, no harm, no foul." She flashed a box of Trojans from her bin. "Just don't do anybody I wouldn't do."
"Ah, come on. Haven't you wondered what it'd be like? Had dreams about having different equipment?"
He shook his head. "When guys have that dream, it's a whole other thing. That's nightmare territory."
"That's too damn bad." Faith dropped her -- his! -- hand to the crotch of her jeans. "I'm making the most of it."
"Faith. No. Keep your hands off my dick."
"I'm gonna need to pee soon. You want to do the honors?"
"Come on, Xander. You've got your own personal set of breasts here, and I'm giving you permission to play with 'em. I'm giving you permission to find a guy and let him play with 'em. Giles will get us fixed right back up, and you'll lose your only chance to see what it's like from the other side." She kept advancing, backing him up against the door and bracing her hands at either side. "They're damn nice breasts, Harris, and I'll be insulted if you don't even give 'em the time of day."
She leaned in so close he could feel her breath fluttering against his lips. "There's always Plan B," she whispered. "We do each other. No worries about some stranger walkin' up on the street afterward. No embarrassment, because hey, we've both done exactly the same thing."
"Faith, for god's sake, we're in a serious situation here--"
"All those vamps who've told you to go fuck yourself? Here's your once-in-a-lifetime chance."
He leaned into her, stopped her talking with his lips.
At least one of them had obviously learned something about kissing since the last time. Because: there was a kind of hum down below that was building to a throb and at this point there were no hands below the belt. Faith dove a hand down into the bustier and liberated a breast and as Faith said it was a damn nice breast and miraculously it was attached to him (and there was another one where that came from) and attached to the other end was Faith, tweaking and teasing with tongue and teeth until his breath rasped in and out in fevered gusts. Then her fingers were unfastening the fly of his leather pants and that alone was enough to send him shuddering into orgasm. He was just about to apologize profusely when he remembered that he was a girl and there was nothing, nothing to worry about, especially when Faith's hand dipped inside the pants, slipping past damp curls and suddenly he was riding wave after wave and Faith was whispering I know what you like and that, her breath in his ear and her assertion of her mastery of the situation, made him buck against the door and cry out and not care who heard.
Giles obviously heard, because in a short while he was outside the bathroom door asking if everything was all right. Faith answered that they were both five by five, struggling to keep her voice even. Xander made no reply, having been taught never to speak with his mouth full.
After Giles cleared off they moved the party to Xander's top-floor room. This was where things got disorienting, almost dizzying. "Look at me," Faith kept saying. When he closed his eyes, she stopped whatever she was doing, always leaving off at the point of maximum torment. "I want you to see me."
But he saw himself. Saw his own face, dark hair tumbling onto his forehead. Looked into his own eyes, one natural, one artificial -- his image reversed from the way he was used to seeing it. Not the mirror image he knew, but what the world saw. Completely familiar. Utterly alien. Him. Not him. This was the body moving inside his female one. It was the sexiest thing he'd ever done. It was the scariest thing he'd ever done.
And done and done. They did everything Faith liked, and everything Xander liked. They tried some things neither had done before, once the ice was broken. They went wild and rough, slow and reverent. Finally their limbs would just not move anymore. Xander wanted to ask Faith if it had been the same for her, making love to her own body, gazing into her own eyes, but between the opening of his mouth and the speaking of actual words, he fell asleep.
He awoke feeling feverish, his head a little achy. He'd had some very strange dreams. There was hair in his mouth, kind of a lot. He pawed at it, finding it was very long and connected to his head. Okay, maybe not dreams. The breasts: still there too. He'd had a very strange ... something. Someone was spooning him from behind -- someone who happened to have a penis. Xander turned and found himself looking into his own sleeping face. That's right. Faith was in there.
She was out for the count. He remembered a couple of women in the house on Revello joking about her, that she slept hard. He felt a welling of tenderness looking at her -- himself -- that was too weird for words. Tears had leaked from the left eye as she slept, and Xander brushed at them with his fingertips. He'd never been this gentle in wiping them from his own eye, smearing them into his skin with an impatience bordering on anger, careful only not to dislodge the prosthesis. He propped himself on his elbow, allowing himself to look at Faith and feel this strange mix of emotions.
Sometimes when he awoke he'd find Anya watching him this way--
At the thought of Anya, the peaceful mood shattered. How had he done these things when he was supposed to be mourning her? Which was bad enough, but he'd told himself it was the Hottest!Sex!Ever! How could he have thought that?
He slipped out of the bed and found Faith's leather pants. The bustier involved more effort and mental energy than he could muster right now, so he found one of his own t-shirts in the dresser and pulled it on. He'd have to find something to pull the hair back before it drove him crazy and he went for a buzz cut.
Xander shambled out to the kitchen. He was sore in new places -- really new places. Giles and Willow huddled at the table, while Vi and Kennedy washed the dishes.
"Tea," Xander croaked, and dropped into a chair. "Hey, Will."
Giles shot him a reproving glance, but it transformed before he spoke. "My god, you look dreadful." He rose and started fussing with the tea things.
Willow studied him, trying to find the Xander buried in all that wilted Faithy goodness.
"It's really me," he said. "Want to give me the Pocky test?" They'd agreed on this some years ago in their Scooby life -- that Xander's favorite Pocky flavors would be their code word in case of demonic possession, robot substitute or other potential hellmouth weirdness.
"No, it's not necessary," Will said. "Giles told me last night; I'm just trying to get my mind around it. And by the way, you do look like holy hell."
"I bet. I'm planning to die later on, if I can fit it into my schedule. Is there any reason it has to be so cold in here?"
She put her hand on his forehead. "Xan, you're burning up. Vi, could you bring me a blanket?"
Of course he was burning up. The logical outcome of Hottest!Sex!Ever! when it wasn't with your vengeance demon. "Remember the Thanksgiving we had at Giles's place, your first year in college? How special and fun that was for me? That's how I feel right now."
"Oh dear," Giles said again.
Willow and Kennedy exchanged a glance, and Kennedy drifted away then too.
"Giles, do you think it's Anya? That this could be a vengeance thing?"
Giles poured boiling water into his new pot, stirred the leaves around and replaced the lid. "Not at all," he said, as firmly as you could say something and still make it gentle.
It only made his misery worse. "But Giles, I--"
He cut it short when Vi brought in the blanket. Willow took it from her and by the time she'd tucked it around Xander, Vi had vanished.
Giles pulled a chair up by Xander. "Xander, she wasn't a vengeance demon when she died. She had no reason to want to inflict something like this on you." Giles put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "You have a right to mourn in whatever way makes things make sense to you."
"That wasn't mourning," he spat.
"Many things are, whether they seem so or not. Whether you finally decide it was one night's foolishness or the first step in moving on, it's all part of the process."
Xander felt a snarl rising in his throat -- what the fuck would you know about it? -- but he caught himself in time. He saw Giles register both the impulse and its squelching. "Maybe."
Giles poured him some tea and Xander held his hands as close as he could around the cup. Nothing would ever warm him up. "So if this isn't Anya's revenge, what is it?"
"I believe it's another side effect from what happened last night. While you and Faith were ... conducting your independent research, Willow found something on what we believe is your amulet."
Will handed him a computer printout of an illustration. "Is that a match?"
"I think so. Faith got a better look, so check with her to be sure." He touched a curve on its right side. "This bit was broken off, I think."
"If this amulet is what I believe it is, it explains the fever as well as the spirit transfer between you and Faith. This could be the Hand of Imhotep, dating back to the New Kingdom of Egypt."
A fresh wave of chills hit. "So on a scale of one to doomed, this is an eleven, right?"
"What makes you say that?"
"I saw The Mummy. Imhotep -- badass vengeful dead Egyptian, flesh-eating bugs, human sacrifice--"
Giles rolled his eyes. "Oh, do let's get a section of cretinous horror films for the new council library."
"Hey. The Karloff version's a classic."
"Still, it's something akin to making a film with Michaelangelo lurching about Renaissance Florence and killing people."
Xander actually liked this idea, but thought it might be a bad time to say so.
"Imhotep was an Egyptian god, yes, but in the late 19th century it was discovered that he was not a myth but an actual man. There are those who believe him to be the father of medicine, as well as the first true architect. He created Zozer's Necropolis in Saqqara, a terraced pyramid. He was a priest, as physicians of his time were, and a poet."
Xander tried to keep his fevered attention focused on all this. "Okay, he's a paragon. So why is he screwing around with Faith and me?"
"I don't believe he is. The amulet was most likely created by a worshipper. He was deified as a god of medicine centuries after his death. The powers of the Hand of Imhotep don't seem to have a real connection to the historical Imhotep, but it doesn't matter. What it does is reactivate dormant magics. Such as the Indian curse that afflicted you that Thanksgiving. And, theoretically, any spell that has ever affected you."
The chills amped up another several notches. "Can we skip the oh dear and go straight to fucking hell? Because, not a particularly enjoyable history of spells and witchcraft here."
Giles sighed. "I know."
"I mean, it's not like anyone's ever cast a spell on me to make me irresistible to women -- Oh wait, they did. And it sucked."
"I do recall that, yes." He took off his glasses for a polish, and Xander thought oh great, kill me now. "There is one more thing. The amulet is said in later reports to be highly unstable, perhaps because of the damage. All this could shift and then shift again with no warning at all."
Xander pulled the blanket tighter around him and rose. "Magnificent. I'm going back to bed." And then he fainted.
Soft click of computer keys, murmur of male voices across the room.
Head full of broken glass. Everything -- sound, motion, light -- makes it worse.
"You're certain?" says one of the voices. A Brit.
"Yeah. Apart from the Mayor's little toy, Faith's been a spell-free zone." Faint tang of working class Boston. "Remember, I haven't put in nearly the hellmouth time the rest of you have."
"Well, that's a mercy, anyway. So it's just Xander we'll have to watch. Which is daunting enough, considering his history."
"Well, at least he's not goin' anywhere for awhile. So the rest of us just need to find this damn piece of junk jewelry so we can get this thing fixed."
"Not only for Xander's sake," the Brit added. "Consider the damage it could do in the wrong hands."
"Hey, he's awake." A female voice, close by. A cool hand on burning skin. "Xander, how're you feeling?"
"You mean me?"
"Xander, what can you tell us about the second vampire?" The Brit. "Do you remember anything at all?"
"He's a little out of it still," says the girl.
"I told them about the mullet and the black metalhead t-shirt," says Boston. "Which describes half the goddamn vampires in Cleveland, I know. Is there anything--"
"What are you people talking about?"
Looks are exchanged overhead.
"Why are you holding me here? I need to be at a hospital. Who the hell are you?" And why do they keep saying "he" when they talk about me?
"Fucking hell," mutters the Brit.
"It'll be okay," the girl says. "This is Dr. Giles."
Blackness hovers within reach. Seems like a safer place than this.
Xander wrestled his way out from under a half ton of blankets, his clothes and hair plastered to him. Willow was communing with her laptop at the end of the couch, all innocence. "Very funny," he said.
"Hey, you're awake. How do you feel?"
"News flash: I feel hot. What's the deal with the blankets?"
"No, really," Will insisted. "How are you?"
He noticed Giles, then, hovering. And their voices brought Buffy into the room, followed by Andrew. "Why are you all looking at me like you're waiting for me to have a litter of kittens?"
"Xander?" Buffy asked.
"Last time I looked." He looked down at himself for effect and got a sudden jolt. "Christ, I'm still Faith, aren't I?"
"Yep," Buffy said. Always had a talent for the softening of the blow.
Willow felt his forehead. "The good news is, the fever's gone."
"You don't remember waking up with amnesia?" Giles asked.
"Now why would I remember that? Wait -- you're saying -- shit. At least tell me it was cool commando-guy amnesia, not don't-know-my-ass-from-a-hole-in-the-ground amnesia."
"Sorry. It was kind of the second," Buffy said.
"Why am I not surprised? At least I'm better now. The Indian curse festival of diseases is gone, I've got a solid grip on who I am, except, of course, for the totally wrong body problem. So that should be clearing up any time now, right?"
Giles harshed that mellow before it was even fully formed. "We just don't know. As I said before, the Hand of Imhotep is notoriously unstable."
"Whatever. I'm ready to get back to work. I've got a supply run to make, permits to apply for. How much time did I lose, anyway?"
"No, Xander. I must insist you stay here until we know the spell is broken."
"Giles, I feel fine. More than fine." In fact, he felt like he'd claw his way out of his skin if he didn't get out of here, burn off some energy.
"It's too dangerous."
"What if I went with someone?"
Giles's patience snapped. "Stop and consider everything that could go wrong. It will be good training, if you ever hope to be of any use to the Council."
He blinked. "That's pretty harsh."
"Welcome to my world, Xander." Giles turned on his heel and left.
Buffy took pity on him then, and offered to train with him. They went down and watched Faith working with the new slayers. It hadn't been her who'd gotten the slayer strength in the swap, that was clear, but it didn't really sink in that he had, not until he sparred with both Faith and Buffy. God, this was amazing. And the raw energy that flooded him was only kindled by the workout. Was this how Faith felt all the time? It was no wonder she'd so frequently found herself in trouble when she was younger. How could you control this and hormones?
He tried later on to work on building plans, but couldn't focus. After dinner he persuaded them to work out with him again, but it still didn't burn off this jittery sugar-rush feeling. They wouldn't let him come on patrol. It made sense, he guessed. And they needed to find that amulet. No sense distracting them with worries about what could happen to him.
Sometime close to midnight it occurred to him that Home Depot was open 24 hours. He could at least get some supplies, and maybe that whole hardware zen thing would kick in, settle him down some.
Home Depot. How dangerous could it be?
Now that he wasn't all malarial or wiggins-bound, Xander had to admit he was beginning to enjoy walking around in Faith's skin. Not in any weird sexual way, mind you. But the power and energy that flowed through him were incredible. Just cruising the aisles at the Depot was a fucking trip.
Maybe, some rational part of his brain said, this excursion wasn't the brightest idea he'd ever had. There'd been another little incident before Faith went out to patrol with Buffy. A song, more than an incident. "Watch out for Curbs (Dominant Eye)," if he had to assign it a title. It had been so much less embarrassing bursting into song back when everybody was doing it. One thing he was grateful for -- he'd been alone with her when it happened. And there'd been this expression that came over her, a softness he had never seen in Faith. At least he thought so -- it was hard to tell for sure with her wearing Xander's face.
He'd swallowed his misgivings and slipped out of the house anyway, dressed in Faith's most subdued skintight jeans and cleavagy shirt. He'd dropped a handful of Starbursts into her jacket pocket. If the urge to sing an aria about drywall overcame him, he could at least weld his jaws together and keep it to a hum. He hoped.
No one much was around at this hour anyway. Xander had to wonder at the wisdom of doing business 24 hours a day in a vampire town, but it was working out all right for him. The only other customer he'd seen was a guy at the far end of his aisle, considering several kinds of miniblinds. Xander had given him a furtive once-over -- would vampires really troll the Home Depot? -- but he had a healthily unhealthy-looking tan. Sunnydale vamps had never hipped to the sunless tan, and that was a sun worshipper's town. He doubted Cleveland's undead were bronzing from a bottle either.
Now the guy looked his way. "Miss? Would you mind giving me a woman's opinion?"
Christ, one of the oldest lines in the book. And brother, was he barking up the wrong tree. Xander waited, giving no indication one way or the other.
"The white or the off-white? The walls are, ahh, what's that color?" The guy snapped his fingers a couple of times. "Seafoam. Yeah." There was something faintly familiar about the guy. Must be a regular at the Starbucks, or maybe Xander had seen him here before.
"You don't think the white--?"
"The off-white. It's less harsh." This was something he'd heard Willow and Buffy and Dawn talk about. The extrication. How do you hit that balance: pleasant enough, but not encouraging anything? Did women have to think about this crap in every exchange with a man they didn't know? "Have a good night." Xander consulted the piece of paper he'd scrawled some notes on, then walked purposefully toward the front of the store.
The guy let it go, and after he'd selected a starter assortment of tools, Xander had forgotten him. But when he headed to the car, there was Miniblind Guy loading his purchases into the side door of a van parked next to Xander. He looked up and smiled. "Find everything you needed in there?"
Seemed innocent enough, didn't it? Yeah, fine, but he'd just stand here behind his own car until this guy got that door closed. Xander pulled a stake out from his jacket, flashed it. "Well, I'd been kinda hoping to find more of these tent pegs. There's so much you can do with these things."
"I bet," said a voice from behind, but before he could turn, massive arms pinned him from behind.
"You really don't want to do this," Xander said, keeping his voice even.
"Oh, I really do, bitch" said the voice.
He'd seen Buffy do the double kick a million times. He was just launching his feet off the ground to take out Miniblind when the guy behind jammed something in his back. Xander's whole body seized, synapses frying to a crunchy popcorn shrimp crisp. The bag of tools slipped from his hand, but what echoed in Xander's head was the bright tink! of the stake striking pavement.
Miniblind grabbed his legs and together they tossed him into the van. The other guy hit him again with the stun gun for good measure, and when he emerged from the fog Xander was bound hand and foot and the van was moving.
Miniblind was out of view, presumably driving; the one in back with Xander, he figured, was the guy who'd grabbed him from behind.
"You can still walk away from this," he said when he could string a coherent thought together. Goddamn stun guns. He hoped he was keeping his voice calm, even. So hard to tell when it wasn't his own voice. "Just let me go now."
"Hey, Egan," said the guy in back. "She thinks we should let her go."
"Says we can walk away if we do. What do you think?"
"Huh. I dunno. What do you think?"
He eyed Xander, smiling a little. Sadistic fuck. "I'm thinking no." Yeah, he'd gotten that. He also got a particularly bad feeling from this guy's willingness to name his partner.
Egan spoke from up front. "I think it's funny that a whore like her takes us for a pair of scumbags."
"That is kind of a laugh. We've been looking for you for a while, Faith." Okay, this just descended into a whole different area of bad. Not random bad. Faith-based bad. "I'm guessing we're going to hang onto you. There are some people in Cali anxious to have you back."
"Not that we haven't enjoyed getting to spend quality time in Cleveland," Egan said. "Ain't that right, Finch?"
"Always wanted to see Cleveland. Been a dream of mine."
"We owe you a debt."
"I'm looking for a way to say thanks," Finch said. Xander was still worrying at the name. Something about it--
Finch showed him the stun gun, wearing his tight little smile. Then jammed it into his ribs and fired.
He couldn't tell how long it took his head to clear. Maybe he'd been unconscious this time, but he wasn't entirely sure of that. He'd been trying to remember something just before that last jolt, trying to figure something out. Hadn't he?
The guy who zapped him -- the name refused to come to him just now -- was staring out the window at the blackness outside, looking bored. That was so not a good sign. Xander tested the ropes as discreetly as he could, but even that small movement drew the man's attention. Shit.
"Egan, what do you say we make a recreational stop? Work the kinks out of our muscles. Faith here is looking a little cramped up." He prodded Xander with a toe. "Isn't that so?" He addressed Egan again. "Flip for who gets her first?"
"Neither of us gets her. We've been over this."
"Yeah, well tell me again, because it wasn't too convincing."
"DNA, asshole. We rape her, she talks, they test, we go down."
Jesus. He couldn't believe this was a discussion. Xander opened his mouth, hoping the right words would come to be all Voice of Reason. No words came. He was the voice of nothing.
"So then it's the talking part that's a problem," said Egan's partner. "Let's try this plan. We rape her, we kill her, we dump her, we're good. I don't care if she goes back to prison or not. As long as she pays."
He tried again. What the hell had happened to him? Oh god. Another old spell. The Gentlemen. He was as good as dead now.
"Is that what you've become?" Egan asked. "Is that what being on the job in that place made you? Christ, Finch."
Finch sat back in a sulk. "You're going all Ethics Program on me over this whore? After she beat you down? That did something to you, that beating. I haven't said, but you ain't been the same since."
"Don't try that shit on me."
"No harm in touching, though, is there? No DNA there." Finch reached for Xander's thigh, hand slipping around inside, moving higher. He tried to scrabble away. In came the other hand, with the stun gun. "Whore."
Q: How long does it take to drive from northeast Ohio to northern California?
A: When you're trapped in a sweltering van with a guy with a hard-on for torture, a long fucking time.
Xander eventually figured out the groping and the rape talk were more about terrorizing him -- Faith -- than a real desire for that kind of action. He couldn't decide whether that was something to be relieved about or not.
He couldn't decide much of anything, actually. What with getting the bug zapper treatment every time the mood came over Finch, his brain had settled into a more rudimentary level of functioning. God, make it stop was the longest sentence he'd put together in a while. That was only inside his head. He was still powerless to speak -- or even make a sound.
Finally Finch took over the wheel while Egan slept, which finally allowed Xander enough recovery time to start having thoughts more complex than a status report on what his nerve endings were doing at any given second. He even managed a little spell of sleep, though it was unpleasant and wracked with tremors and twitches.
Eventually they switched over again and Finch came back refreshed, with a new idea. Apparently he'd retrieved the stake Xander had dropped when they'd first attacked him. He fondled it idly as he settled in for a chat with Xander.
"The name Allan Finch mean anything to you?" Finch -- he'd known there was something important.
Shit. The deputy mayor that Faith had accidentally staked. This guy was some relation.
Finch saw the light dawn in his eyes.
"Yeah, that was my kid brother. Can't say I thought he was worth much. Pussy in a suit piloting a desk, but he was blood." He touched the point of the stake to Xander's -- Faith's -- left breast. "And you punched this thing right through his heart. Maybe I should do the same to you. What do you think?"
Don't, he tried to say, but there was no sound.
"Nah," Finch said. "No use killing you. I need closure, as a family member of the victim. I need to hear you say you're sorry you took him from the people who loved him. And like somebody said, an eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind." He took the stake away from Xander's chest. "Hey, though, that's an idea." The point hovered over Xander's right eye. "Are you sorry about what you did to Allan? I guess I need to hear the story, how it all happened."
Xander stopped breathing. Part of his mind was yammering, pleading not to be blinded. Part of him did not want this to happen to Faith's body, but part of him cared only for himself. After a terrible moment, he drew in a shuddering breath. Fuck this. He wouldn't beg. Nothing he did would satisfy this maniac.
"Knock it off, Finch," Egan said. Bored. "Leave her alone and get some sleep. You're due to take a turn soon, and I don't want you ramming into a bridge abutment."
"Yeah, you're right." Finch chucked the stake into the front seat, then rose and worked his way past Xander to the far back of the van. He rearranged some of the clutter and lay down. He was out almost instantly, sleeping the sleep of the psychopathic.
This time when Finch took over the wheel, Egan stayed awake and sat in the back. He had almost as little to say as Xander. They stopped at a gas station in the middle of the night, and as Finch got out of the van he passed the stun gun to Egan.
"Finch is an asshole," he said, "but we're partners. Ya know?"
Xander just closed his eyes.
Egan left the subject alone. He remained silent until his partner returned, handed over a bathroom key attached to a chunk of wood. Finch drove the van around the side of the gas station as Egan untied Xander. He parked close enough that Egan could hustle Xander into the restroom with minimum exposure.
He leaned against the door and told Xander to do whatever he had to do and be quick about it. When Xander was finished he bundled him back into the van and rolled the side door shut.
"You did good," Egan told him as Finch ran the key back to the clerk. "Perfect execution." Then casually, for the sweet fucking hell of it, he flicked the hand with the stun gun into Xander's side and let him have it.
He lost track of time. Time wasn't necessary to measure more of this. The constant sense of motion that seeped into his bones. The fear that didn't really throttle back now that he knew he was at the mercy of two psychopaths. Random shocks, still as debilitating as the first. Rare piss breaks, each accomplished like a commando raid. Power bars, dry as dust, choked down with a few swallows of tepid water.
They didn't even bother tying him up now. He lay curled on his side on the floor of the van, consumed with difficult tasks like remembering his name and drawing the next breath. His skin felt like it was on fire. During the times it was possible to think in complete sentences, he prayed they'd just kill him.
He knew when they crossed into California, because Finch announced it by singing that old song: California, here I come, right back where I started from.
It seemed impossible. Hadn't they just left the Home Depot lot a couple of hours ago? Or had it been a couple of months?
Faith's return to prison wasn't at all what he'd expected. Egan and Finch didn't swagger in like a pair of bounty hunters with their prize catch. They took no credit at all. After pausing a few blocks away to pull the license plates off the van, Finch drove by the front gate in the dark of night. As he slowed down a hair, Egan rolled the door open and pitched Faith -- Xander -- out onto the sidewalk.
Faith was taking stupid chances. She knew that, but there wasn't time to be all Giles about it.
Three fucking days since they'd found the car in the Home Depot lot.
Faith refused to believe Xander might be dead.
Buffy had hung it up for the night, but Faith had gone back out to catch closing time in the Flats. She spotted one in the shadows and detached herself from her own piece of the dark. Put on her Who me? I'm not drunk sub-stagger, singing some Bad Company piece of shit as she made for an alley, apparently nothing more on her mind than a piss.
Vamp took the bait.
She fumbled with the buttons of the 501s. Had to make it look convincing without being caught in a battle with Xander's unit hanging out. It was hard to imagine anything he'd hate more. She looked over at the vamp as he moved into the mouth of the alley. Short hair, not a mullet. Damn.
He kept coming, flashed teeth. She spun, kicked, elbowed. Had a couple of beautiful opportunities for a staking, if that was what she'd wanted. It wasn't -- not yet.
This was not her slayer's body. It surprised her every time, how training and smart fighting took her only so far before she found herself slammed against the limitations of a normal human body. Or against a Dumpster.
Her head ringing, she hooked a foot back and swept the vamp's foot from under him. She was on top of him a split second after he hit the ground.
"The Hand of Imhotep. What can you tell me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Its an amulet. Wicked old. Got a piece of it broken off. One of your buddies has it, a mullethead in a Metallica t-shirt. Know anything?"
"What about the dark-haired slayer? What have you heard about her?"
"How about if I promise not to dust your ass? Does that help your memory?"
He shook her off, got her beneath him. "How about if I just kill you instead? Or maybe I should turn you, so you can go back and tell those slayer bitches to go back where they came from."
One thing she loved about vamps -- they never expected dirty fighting. Faith got a good fistful of nuts and bought herself enough time to stake the bastard. It had been too close, though. She had a thin trickle of blood dribbling down her neck as she rose unsteadily.
This scattershot search was not working. They needed to find the demon hangouts, like Willy's Place. They'd tried to get a line on them, but so far with no luck.
Had he been killed? Had he been turned? Had he just taken a long walk into Lake Erie?
That last possibility seemed to haunt Willow. Faith could tell by the way she pushed the magic to tell her where he was. It wouldn't be pushed, though. It just shoved her back, hard.
Faith refused to believe any of it, but especially that. He'd never do it. Not while he was wearing her body. She knew that.
Three fucking days.
He was half catatonic through what came next, and still mute. They threw him into a tiny cell until morning, when they hauled him before the warden, his hands manacled to a chain around his waist, chains at his ankles forcing him to shuffle. He knew he smelled foul, days of fear-sweat still layered on his skin. His hair was greasy and tangled. He kept his gaze on the floor until one of the guards grabbed him by the hair and made him meet the warden's eyes.
They tried to force him to speak, too, but no physical punishment would shake that spell loose. He got a speech, little of which penetrated, and an offer to make his one phone call. Like winning the lottery once you're dead -- what could he do with it? He couldn't speak. Couldn't even hold a pen to write down who to call and what to say. Besides, the names of anyone who might help kept slipping from his grasp.
Then they hauled him off, stripped him, searched him, scrubbed and flea-powdered him. He fugued out on the whole thing, leaving just enough of himself behind to respond to orders. Enough to feel gratitude for the baggy prison blues, something clean next to his skin. They put him in a cell and got him unchained, and as soon as the door clanged shut behind the guard, he checked out completely.
One part of the warden's lecture settled in after the fact. Solitary. One month. He couldn't keep track of how much he'd already done, how much was left. Time kept sliding away from him. Meals appeared through the slot in the door and were later taken away untouched. Periodically -- once a day? once a week? -- he was taken outside to a small yard, more like a larger cell with no roof. Asphalt below his feet, walls so high he could see nothing but bleached-out sky. No other people. At first he couldn't handle the sky. He'd squat on his heels and stare down at the ground and wait for them to take him back.
A couple of things changed. One of the guards told him if he didn't start eating he'd be force-fed, so he began picking at his meals, stashing away the packaged chips and cookies. And one day he came back from the yard to find a rubber-banded stack of black-and-white covered composition notebooks on his bed, along with a couple of National Geographics. A square piece of memo paper had been slipped under the rubber band.
I saved these when you bolted.
I know they're important to you. Any books
you need, just send me a note through the guard.
I'm praying for you. S.
A brief flicker of curiosity about who "S" was, quickly buried under wonder at the appearance of these notebooks. Faith's. For the longest time, he just held them, still bound together, brushing his fingertips over the battered cover of the top book.
Did he have the right to read them?
Would he read them?
It depended. He would do anything to survive, whether or not he had the right. Faith's notebooks could help keep him alive, he was sure of that.
If he decided after all that he wanted to survive.
He thought maybe he was broken. He still could not speak. Maybe his brain had been irreversibly fucked by the Taserings. Or maybe all that juice charging his synapses had permanently set the effects of the amulet. He would always be stuck in Faith's body. He would always be mute. He wondered if he was going crazy. Had there been a spell that made him insane that he might be flashing back to? He couldn't remember.
The first night he just slept with the notebooks cradled in his arms.
After breakfast the next morning he took the rubber band off, but that was as far as he could go. There were six of them, and he arranged the books in a neat row on the bed. He leaned against the opposite wall just four feet away and looked at them.
They took him outside, where he paced the length of the small courtyard until they brought him back to his cell.
Once the door shut behind him, he gathered the notebooks back into a pile and sat on the bed. He opened the top one.
It wasn't Faith's diary after all, but poems she had copied in tiny and careful lettering. They weren't even written by Faith, but by someone named Mary Oliver. Disappointment bloomed inside of him, something close to rage following on its heels. He snatched up the other notebooks, which turned out to be more of the same.
He loathed poetry. He could never find his way in. Hope is the thing with feathers -- what? I saw the figure five in gold -- huh? He could follow "Casey at the Bat" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," but the galumphing rhythms annoyed him. He hurled one of the notebooks across the room. No fucking joy in Mudville.
Looking at it lying open, face-down on the floor, he felt bad. Faith had copied it so painstakingly. It had been, as this "S" said, something important to her. He knelt to pick it up, brushing non-existent dirt from the surface of the paper, smoothing out the corner where a page had bent.
She'd scrawled a star in the top right-hand corner of the page, above a poem called "At Blackwater Pond." Just ten lines, none as long as ten words. He read it where he knelt, a clear and simple poem about drinking from a pond. The words settled into him like the cold pondwater in the poem, and the next thing he knew he was cross-legged in the middle of the floor with notebooks spread all around him, his dinner sitting stone cold inside the meal slot.
He suddenly realized he was hearing his own voice, raspy, almost a whisper.
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
Xander read until his eyes burned, until words flowed together and refused to make sense. Still he kept turning pages, liking the crisp sound of paper densely inked on both sides -- a different sound than the blank sheets at the very back made. He absorbed the careful loops of Faith's handwriting, not at all what he'd have expected from her. He wondered at the tiny water stains on some pages, smears smaller than a dime, and touched his fingertips to them. Finally, at lights-out, he fastened the rubber band back around the books and again he slept with them clutched in his arms.
The next morning he awoke to the sharp odor of blood. Strong, close by. Overlaying it, the fainter scent of cinnamon. Clatter of meal cart down the cellblock. Xander shifted on his bunk, felt a stickiness at his thighs.
Carefully setting the notebooks on the shelf above his head, he rose to investigate. Blood soaked the prison-issue underwear, smeared his inner thighs. Panic shot through him as he tried to remember what had happened, how he'd been hurt. Had he started losing time again? He'd thought--
He closed his eyes, made himself take a deep breath. He'd lived with Anya a year and a half, for crissakes -- he knew what this was. Faith had told him it would come if he missed enough pills. And he'd missed them all. The bleeding should have started sooner from what she'd said, but he guessed the treatment he'd gotten over the last several days had thrown off Faith's schedule. Anya used to complain that all kinds of things threw her body out of whack.
Xander hurried to clean himself at the tiny sink before the guard got to his cell, then he stuffed some toilet paper into his underwear. He was back at his bunk by the time the cart rattled up to the door and a breakfast tray was shoved in the meal slot.
The combined smells of cinnamon and eggs and meat made him almost dizzy with hunger. He waited for the guard's cursory morning check through the opening in the steel door. She shifted the covering, eyed him impassively. It was the guard who always looked at him with the slow-blinking lizard eyes, exuding disdain.
"Guard. Ma'am." Okay, here was an interaction he maybe should have practiced in these last minutes. All that came to mind was Anya's bluntness. "I'm bleeding. I need ... supplies."
"It speaks," the guard said flatly. "Hallelujah, it's a miracle." Another slow blink. "When I come back for the tray." The little door started to close.
"Wait. Please. The warden said I get a call. Who do I talk to about that?"
"You talk to me. I get the word upstairs."
"Okay. When will they let me call?"
Blink. "You'll know when I tell you. It's Sunday, so the warden isn't in. I'll let him know tomorrow, and you'll get your call when he damn well feels like it. He didn't think much of that game you been running."
"You're in solitary. Enough fucking chitchat." The little door closed.
Xander pulled his tray out of the slot and tore into breakfast. Sunday. Must be the reason for the bacon and cinnamon roll. He tried to make it last, but downed the roll in three bites. He'd never complain about Cleveland coffee again. This swill was paler than Giles's morning tea. He finished it, though. Finished everything, and ran his fingers around the sides of the tray compartments, licked them off. He followed that with a packet of double-chocolate brownies he'd squirreled away from one of the box lunches he'd not eaten.
By the time Lizard Eyes came back, he'd had to change the toilet paper three times, and a dull ache had settled low in his back.
He retrieved a small box of tampons from the meal slot. Peeled the paper wrapper off one to study it. How hard could this be? Twelve-year-old girls used these for the first time every day. (Yeah, but they'd all read that little booklet about the wonder of becoming a woman. Willow had let him have a quick peek at hers, way back when. And thanks very much, that had been all he'd wanted.)
There was a square of paper inside the box, covered in drawings and small print in French, Spanish and English. Good. He worked with schematics and blueprints all the time. He could get this. 45 degree angle (See image 1). Right.
This would never work.
Your first time?
You don't know the half of it.
Take a deep breath and relax.
He took a deep breath. Took another for good measure.
Waited for the relaxing part.
It's much easier to insert a tampon when you're relaxed. It takes practice -- most women need a few tries--
C'mon, this was better than sitting on a wad of toilet paper for the next few days. (How long did Faith usually go, anyway?)
Poussez le tampon dans le vagin.
Poussez -- okay, that made him snort like an idiot. From hysterical nerves or utter crassness, he wasn't prepared to say. That must've relaxed him, though, because he gave it the ol' college poussez, and it went right in.
The cramps were another matter. They started up around lunchtime and never let up. He spent the rest of the day curled up on the bunk, thinking this whole deal was invented by a god who had a lot in common with Finch and Egan.
The pain had eased off by the next morning. Xander rose and got the tampon box and took care of everything. The scent of his own -- Faith's -- blood was dark, complex, nearly dizzying. He couldn't believe he'd never noticed that before, with all the blood he'd seen (and shed) in his time with the Scooby Gang. After he'd finished washing up, another smell forced itself on his attention. The sharp tang of disinfectant, which he hadn't even noticed before today, curled into his sinuses, an irritant. He tried to escape it into Faith's notebooks, hoping to lose himself in the natural world translated into blue marks on lined paper.
There was a poem that had been tickling at him since after lights-out, one about vultures, and he flipped through the pages until he found it.
to eat it,
to make of it the miracle:
He got this, got why Faith thought enough of these words, all of them, in all six notebooks, to copy them so meticulously. They populated the world outside, what he knew now only as a square of empty pale sky, with birds and snakes and bears, ponds and mountains, predators and scavengers -- none of it judged, all of it loved.
There was nothing to see here but gray, nothing to smell but concrete and stainless steel, overlaid with an astringent wash of Lysol. Even his own scent got scrubbed away every three days. No room to move, unless he chose to pace the 8-foot length of his cell. And when the poems stopped countering his restlessness, he did that.
After a while, the little door opened, and the lizard-eyed guard ordered Xander away from the door. She entered the cell and searched him. He submitted (what else would he do?), ignoring this impersonal invasion by focusing on what it brought him: the scent of another human. Something earthy and elemental, buried under the perfumes of soap and deodorant and hair gel. He followed her scent so far that when she spoke, he could barely understand what she said. "Dietician's here for your consult." She told him where to stand, his hands in sight. Then she was gone, the door clanging shut once more. "Okay, Aviva," the guard said to someone he couldn't see.
A tall woman with a long rope of honey-colored braid stepped to the opening. "Faith," she said. There were a lot of complex shadings in the name that were zooming right over his head. "What have you done to yourself?"
What? Could she tell something? Could she see it wasn't Faith inside this body? He opened his mouth, but was as dumb as the spell had made him. What could he say?
"Why did you run?"
He felt the need to defend Faith. "A friend of mine was in serious trouble. I had to help him."
Aviva shook her head. "It's friends like that -- especially men 'friends' -- that get girls like you in places like this."
Even weirder, he had an urge to defend Angel. "No, it's not like that. He's not like that."
An eye roll. "Guys like that are always 'not like that.' I really thought you were going to do better for yourself, Faith. So did Marquita. She's been crazy worried about you these months."
He wished he had the faintest idea what she was talking about. But maybe he could keep her talking. He wished he could step closer to the door, breathe her in.
The guard said something he couldn't catch. Aviva muttered a curse under her breath, then said, "I have to stay on task. Are there any dietary concerns you'd like to discuss with me?"
"You know this, Faith." Exaggerated patience. "This is your opportunity to tell me what you need. I don't know if they'll let you work the kitchen again, so it might be your one chance for three months. I know you haven't been eating."
"I've been sick. I think I'm better now."
Aviva scrawled some notes on a clipboard. "No concerns, then." She bent to slide it in the slot. "Sign by the X and keep the yellow copy for yourself."
She was going? "Wait. The meat is overcooked. I can't eat it that way." Where had that complaint come from? It was true, though. All cooked until it bore no resemblance to what it had been.
"Faith. For Pete's sake. You of all people should know better. Come on, sign. I've got eight hundred dinners to make."
He signed the top sheet, shoved the clipboard back through.
"The yellow copy, that's yours." Aviva tore it off and put it back in the slot. "Please, Faith. Get yourself straightened back around." Then the little door closed again and he was alone.
When lunch came there was a second package of Oreos in the box. Tucked between the two was a folded note.
Baby, I can't stand to see you this way.
Be strong, and know I love you always. A.
Aviva? Down-to-business Aviva?
Why did he have a bad feeling about this?
When they let him into the yard, he stood stock still the first few moments, letting the rich smells of outdoors wash over him. Even here, in the outskirts of urban sprawl, life and death were everywhere, releasing their scents into the air. As difficult as it was to be caged where this was denied him, it was agonizing to be in this stone box where he could sense it but could not follow. He shook off the stillness, began to pace.
He needed to be around his own kind. Solitary had been a kind of refuge the first few days, a place of safety from more pain and torture. But now the isolation gnawed at him. He had to find his way back to the others. Run with them, hunt with them.
Xander stumbled to a halt. Shit. How could he have been so dense? All these quivering senses weren't some new sensitivity to the natural world --he'd gone all Hyena Boy. Revulsion shuddered through him. The meat is overcooked -- Jesus H. If Aviva had brought him down a raw chicken, would he have torn into it? (Would he still?) How had he let his humanity slip from his grasp that way, without even recognizing it?
He wanted his fucking phone call, wanted it now. He wanted to know what Giles and Willow were doing, if anything. Was anyone in Cleveland even looking for him? Had they made the first effort to find the amulet? Out of sight, out of fucking mind. That was true, it had been proven any number of times. Xander was expendable, forgettable.
He had to move, burn off this jittery energy. The pacing made him wig -- much too Sunnydale Zoological Gardens for comfort -- so he dredged up every exercise he could remember from his one-night Army hitch. Calisthenics, sit-ups, running in place. He let himself get so lost in exertion, his muscles trembling as he burned through another set of push-ups, that he didn't hear the guard call out to him, didn't notice until he pulled Xander up by the hair.
When he got back to his cell, there was a library book sitting on the bed. Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. He wasn't ready to move on to another poet yet. Wasn't ready to give up contact with the pages Faith had labored over. He tossed the book back on the bed, and a couple of pieces of paper slipped out. Xander reached for them.
Oh dear god. It was from the librarian, "S." No instructions on how to get a book this time, no I'm praying for you. This was two sheets covered front and back with very elaborate descriptions of just what she'd like to do with Faith. With -- till this whole body switch thing got straightened out -- him.
Dinner brought twice as much food as usual heaped on his tray, and more love notes.
Yeah, that was plural.
Aviva was moving to a Nothing says lovin' like an explicit note tucked under something from the oven tactic. While someone signing herself M. -- this Marquita? -- slipped her note inside a plastic bag under a mound of mac and cheese. Hers was somewhat more dignified, focusing more on her undying love than on a blow-by-blow preview of fun to come.
Reading them gave him a wiggins to the tenth power. But he couldn't not read them. He shoved them inside the Williams book and squirreled it inside his pillow case.
Holy hell on a stick. What was he going to do about this? He'd nearly been ripped limb from limb the first time this love spell thing had afflicted him. But now -- He. Was. In. A. Fucking. Women's. Prison. Now he had scary women in love with him. Were the three of them the extent of it, or were they just the only ones who had enough access to slip him a note?
He didn't sleep for hours after lights-out.
Something strange happens.
He finds himself in his own body, just for the space of a blink.
He beams down to Planet Xander in the middle of a fight. The sudden change makes him stumble in his follow-through, and a kick lands a glancing blow on the side of his head.
He sprawls in the grass by a recent tombstone.
He has to tell them. "Buffy, you've gotta help me--"
Then he's slammed back into Faith's body.
Vamp-dust gusted onto Faith as Buffy staked the last of them. Stupid, but that part always creeped her out worse than any of the rest of it. This time she was so wigged by what had just happened that she barely noticed.
Buffy knelt beside her. "Are you hurt?"
"I think I blacked out."
"I'm not surprised, after that kick in the head."
"No, I mean before. I didn't even know about the kick in the head." She put a hand to her temple. Yeah, sure enough: throbby and sore. "I was here one second, in the middle of the fight. Then -- I don't know. Everything went completely fucking black."
"You lost consciousness?"
"I don't know. I don't -- that's not how it felt."
"I don't like the sound of that." Faith wondered at the concern so plainly written on her face. It seemed to her that Buffy had come to like her more since she was in Xander's body. Buffy rose and held a hand out to Faith. "Let's get you back home to Giles."
She didn't tell Buffy the rest of it -- not yet. That she'd found herself lying on her back in a darkness so complete it felt like a living thing. Didn't tell her what she was most afraid of: that maybe she'd flipped back into her own body and it -- and Xander along with it -- was dead.
And what would it matter then if they finally had a lead on the Hand of Imhotep?
Xander didn't fall asleep for a long time after. He couldn't have been out for long when the guard came to his door.
It took him awhile to shake off sleep and realize anyone was there. Instead of the usual pounding and hollering, there was a quiet hiss. "Sssst! Faith! Faith!"
He sat up, blinking.
It was Lizard Eyes.
Reluctantly he approached the cell door. "Yes, ma'am."
"Ma'am." A little eye roll. "Please. It's Connie." Oh god. Oh no. She was a vocabulary lesson in motion: coquettish. Just kill him now. "Listen, I put in a good word for you with the warden about that call. He's awful mad at you, baby, but I'll keep trying."
"Thanks, um, Connie. I really appreciate it."
"Sugar, I'm happy to do for you. You know that."
Sure, that would last a long time. "Hey, I was just wondering something. That Aviva. How long has she been in?"
Connie scrunched up her face, bemused. "What's wrong with you, Faith? You know she's free staff."
"Free -- oh, she works here. Right." Xander laughed. God, that was a relief. "And the woman in the library, who sends me the books. Her too, right?"
"Baby, you better not be working up another run at that amnesia scam. I'm doing everything I can with the warden, but if you piss him off again--"
"No, no, I swear. Just humor me a minute, though. The librarian."
"Sally? Librarians are always lifers, everybody knows that. Three husbands -- or was it four? You go on back to bed, sugar. You're still half asleep. I'll come later on, maybe we can chat again."
Oh yay. He'd be counting the minutes.
This day's meals brought a half dozen more notes and double portions on almost everything. Xander stashed away the extras on whatever he could -- brownies, bread, chips. If the last time this spell hit was any indication, he might not have long before he should start worrying about being poisoned. He hoped to god Aviva and Marquita weren't chatting about their exciting new girlfriend while they worked.
He got back from the yard to find another book and an even longer note from Sally. Four husbands. He could at least be grateful she wasn't on kitchen detail.
It happens again that night.
He's asleep this time. One second muttering through uneasy dreams, the next he's sitting at the kitchen table with Willow, who's nursing a cup of the nasty tea she drinks for the magic headaches. He notices the signs of recent nosebleeds.
"--not you, Faith," she's saying. "It's just -- it's hard for me. He's my best friend, and here you are in his--"
He's blindsided by a huge, extravagant yawn, and suddenly he's sitting across from Pissed Willow. "How long have I been gone?" he asks.
"You know what?" Willow snaps. "Let's just forget it."
But he's gone, whiplashed again back into Faith's body.
He'd fucked up.
This was what went through Xander's head the rest of the night. He'd had, what, fifteen or twenty seconds to tell Willow exactly where he was and what the sitch was, and he'd let it dribble through his fingers.
This was so like him.
He wondered if Faith could possibly have figured out where she was in those few ticks of the second hand. She'd have been as good as blind down here, and deaf. There was no amount of time that would allow the eye to adapt to this kind of dark, and solitary at night was as silent as the tomb. Well. Silenter. He was, after all, one of the rare people who knew just how rowdy some tombs could be.
He couldn't put the burden on her to tell the Scoobies where he was, when he hadn't managed to get it done himself. Had she ever been in solitary, to know it when she was there again? He'd never bothered to find this out, never asked her anything about her years in prison. Xander had learned more about her from reading a handful of notebooks filled with words that weren't even her own.
Nah, he'd just laid some of his own grief on her willing shoulders, and he'd screwed her twelve ways from Friday, but, hell, talking to her? Asking her about her life? Hadn't even occurred to him.
This thought chased its tail all morning and into the afternoon. He pushed himself twice as hard during his hour in the yard and came back to his cell ready to collapse onto the bunk.
There was a surprise waiting for him there, though. Not a book bearing a note from Sally. That would not, at this point, be a surprise. He'd added another four to his collection at breakfast and lunch. The breakfast ones were the humdingers, when Aviva and Marquita had both had a whole night to think up extravagant phrasings and extremely vivid imagery.
No, the surprise was when the cell door closed, and Connie the guard was on this side of it. She'd gone back to blank-faced, lizard-eyed. He had the feeling the coming conversation was not about good words she had put in with the warden. She was holding a fistful of papers, and the stationery looked damn familiar.
"I conducted a random contraband search of your cell," she said.
Random. Sure. He said nothing, knowing anything could set her off.
She shook the papers at him. "Now I see why you're asking me questions about these bitches. You whore." Her voice was altogether too quiet. She blindsided him with a backhand slap that carried him into the wall, which was right there. "You fucking whore!"
She laid into him, and goddamn, she knew a lot of ways to put the hurt on someone.
Xander knew that if he shook off his workout fatigue and summoned Faith's slayer strength, he could take her. He also knew that if he rose up and fought, he'd be fucking Faith's whole future. So he scrambled back into the corner and raised his arms to protect his head and neck, and he took it.
Eventually Connie got tired and left him huddled on the floor.
"That went well," he croaked. But he wouldn't be altogether sure of that until he pissed a couple times and there was no blood.
It was maybe an hour before he could face the idea of moving enough to climb onto his bunk and stretch out. Dinnertime came and went, but he didn't move. It seemed like now would be a good time to stop eating the cafeteria food. Or anything. Connie had taken away his stash of extra food when she'd made her exit -- and the small tin full of drugs that had magically appeared in his cell while he was gone. That would be written up, and there would be additional punishment tacked onto his solitary time. Connie said she'd get back to him on that.
He couldn't wait.
For the third night in a row, not so much with the sleeping. His body ached and throbbed, and the hard mattress offered no comfortable sleeping position. Xander's mind was just as unyielding as the bed, conjuring up fevered half-dreams that made it impossible to relax. What he finally found was not so much sleep as collapse.
It didn't last long. He drifted back into consciousness while it was still dark, the window-blind slats painting bars of dim streetlight across his skin. A lone motorcycle ripped the relative quiet of the street.
Wait a minute. Sounds. Light. Lack of pain. Xander sat bolt upright, reaching for the lamp. Stared at his callused palm, his muscled forearm. He flung back the covers, ran full tilt to Giles's room. He hammered at the door but barged in before Giles could respond, flipping the light switch and throwing them both, flinching, into harsh incandescent glare.
"What's going on--"
"Giles, you've got to help her, help me. They grabbed me and took me back and Jesus they've got her in solitary you have to do something I don't care what but get her out of there."
"Faith, you're making no sense. Slow down and tell me from the beginning."
"There's no fucking time to slow down. I've been back twice already, and this is the longest I've had. She's in Stockton, I've fucked it up for her so badly, for god's sake Giles, get her out of there before something worse happens."
The light dawned. "Xander? What happened?"
"I don't have time for stories. I could be gone. Just -- you remember that talk we had about Angel's people? Call them, make them help her, Giles. I mean it, I will blow Wolfram and Hart. With my own personal mouth. If they just get her the fuck out of there."
"Thank you for that indelible image," Giles muttered.
"Now. Call Angel. They're beating her. Well, they beat me, but she's the one feeling it now. For fuck's sake, stop dicking around with your robe. Call."
Giles finally got it, bolted for the parlor phone. Xander dropped onto the bed, arms wrapped tight around his body, rocking himself. Waiting to slingshot back into Stockton, into Faith.
"I heard voices." Willow stood in the doorway, still dressed. She looked haggard. "And it seemed like there was something going on with the amu-- Xander?"
He rose to his feet, still shaky. "Um, the Tsubu-Tsubu Strawberry. With the little bits--"
She already had her arms around him. "Xander, it's okay. I know. God, I'm so glad you're safe."
"Faith's not, Will. We have to do something. And I could get pulled back at any--" Suddenly she was kissing him. She'd grown a lot more brazen since high school. He really wasn't in any shape for this. Xander pushed her off gently, tried to joke it off. "Is that your tongue in my mouth, or are you just glad to see me?"
A look came over her face that would have made him laugh, if he still had a sense of humor.
"You can rinse-and-spit," he said. "I won't be insulted." Much. "So -- you're not feeling you have to have me or die?"
"Xander. Gay now, remember?"
"As long as you do." His legs decided not to hold him up anymore. Xander stumbled back and dropped onto the bed.
"We've been so worried. Nothing I tried showed us where you were."
"You've been having those headaches," he said. "The nosebleeds."
"They're nothing." She lied. You didn't drink that nasty tea for nothing.
"Faith's still back there. She's in trouble, Will."
"Back where? What happened to you?"
"Prison, back in California. They put her -- me -- in solitary for a month, but it'll be more now. How long was I gone?"
"She's got two more weeks in there, minimum. She's fucked, and it's all my --"
"Xander. Shhhhhh." Willow sat on the bed, put her arms around him. "We'll help her. We know where she is now."
He hoped that would be enough.
"Giles, I want you to do something for me." Xander and Giles were in the kitchen now with mugs of tea -- Giles's, not Willow's. Will had finally been persuaded to sleep for a while, and no one else was up.
"What's that, Fa--Xander?" He hadn't been forthcoming with an ass-chewing yet, but Xander knew it was coming. Probably waiting to gather his strength, after that middle-of-the-night rousing.
"If Angel's Evil Avengers can't get things squared away for Faith, I want--" well, that was a lie. Want was so not the word. "I want you and Willow to send me back. Faith can do a lot more good here than I can, even without the Slayer strength."
He couldn't quite decipher the look that crossed Giles's face. "Xander, you never cease to surprise me."
"Is it the asinine things I say, or the stupid things I do? Because I astound myself sometimes, too."
"It's your courage and generosity. Not to mention an absolutely maddening tendency to underestimate yourself in every possible circumstance."
He dropped his gaze, the work-scarred hands around his mug surprising him yet again. "It's a talent." This pleased him. He had longed for Giles's approval these last seven years. The man didn't exactly scatter it around like Johnny Appleseed.
"As much as I admire your motives, Xander, I couldn't agree to it. Faith is much better equipped to survive in Stockton than you. It's much more her world--"
Xander set his mug down with a thump. "I can't fucking believe you'd say this. She's had a rough past, she's done things that landed her in prison, so now that's all she's suited for?"
"I'm not saying that at all--"
"It's sure as hell what it sounds like."
"Then listen more carefully." There was a steel edge to his voice. He held Xander's gaze for a moment, then went on, his tone softened a little. "Faith's a very smart girl. She knows the ropes there, the pecking order, and she's developed the necessary survival skills. She's safer there than you could be."
"I don't care how 'safe' she supposedly is. That's not acceptable. They'll fuck her over and she'll never get out."
"But you're willing to throw your own life away."
Nausea rolled through him at the thought. He tried a grin. "Hey, it's the male fantasy. Think of the showers."
Giles looked away. "How can you be so bloody thick?"
"Old family secret. It's the cornstarch."
"You're much too valuable to us, stupid jokes and all." He got to his feet. "This is a pointless argument. Very soon you'll be fellating Messrs. Wolfram and Hart, Faith's situation will be resolved, and we'll have you both. Get some sleep."
Giles flipped off the light switch, leaving Xander in the faint glow of the night light over the sink. He blinked. A joke. From Giles.
At least he hoped it was a joke.
"This library is a thing of beauty." Xander ran his hands along a thick cherry wood shelf, built to house law books.
"Yes it is," Giles murmured. It had to give him a pang that the cases were empty.
"The only alteration you could possibly want here would be your lockup for the dangerous magic books that you don't want those rebellious youngsters reading. You want me to make that cabinet easy to pick so they don't smash it every time they break in?"
Giles gave him a look. "I would hope the youngsters of the future are a great deal better behaved than you lot."
"A man must have his dream."
Giles consulted the notes he'd been scrawling. "So the love spell is the last of them." This was his purpose for accompanying Xander on his walk-through of the other two brownstones. He wanted a complete rundown of the Hand's effects. Xander had agreed only on the condition that they be in motion as he talked. He could not sit still yet with everything that had happened.
"Yep. Spell-free for -- nine hours." He rapped his knuckles on a bookcase. "Real wood. Comes in handy for the superstitious. You'll also want your extra-secure lockup for your werewolves, your hyena-possessed and your evil doppelgangers. I like the basement for that, since--"
He's whipped out of his body again, into bright glare bounced off white tiles. Hot spray. Steam. He's alone -- always alone -- except the bored guard at the far end of the shower room.
Hurry. Can't space out. A shower is something you only get every three days in solitary. He can't waste it for her. He shampoos his hair, the muscles in his shoulders screaming in protest as he raises his arms. Bruises flower along his arms and ribs, his hip -- already aged to green and yellow threaded with purple. The stun gun marks, in pairs, are still visible, but faded. This body heals fast, anyway. Something to be grateful for. He tips his head back to let the hot water and suds flow over his battered shoulders--
And then he was back, shaky and trying to rein in his emotions. Giles guided him to one of the deep windowsills, sat him down. "I went back."
"I know," Giles said. "What can you tell me?"
"Nothing to tell, really. Caught her in the middle of routine stuff. We just -- we have to get her out."
Giles's cell phone went off then. Xander turned toward the window to wipe away the tears that had leaked from his left eye, listening to Giles's half conversation, not relaxing until he heard the relief in his voice. It was Angel. His people pulled whatever strings necessary to get her out. She would be on a flight tomorrow with Wesley.
He gestured for the phone and Giles handed it over. "Angel, it's Xander. I appreciate this."
"Glad to help. And I still owe her -- this was a lot easier for me than what she did to help me out."
"Good. Because there's something else I'd like you to fix for her."
"I'll name two its. A couple of Sunnydale cops. Finch -- he's the brother of Allan Finch, the guy she accidentally staked -- and Egan. I don't know their first names. They need to know they're never to come near her. Whatever it takes to impress that on them."
"Do you know where they're based now?"
"No. They tracked her out to Cleveland, that's all I know."
"I'm sure we'll be able to trace them."
"Angel -- if something bad happened to either or both of these men? The world wouldn't be a worse place."
There was a pause. "I'll keep you posted."
"Thanks, Angel. I owe you."
"No you don't."
He handed the phone back to Giles, who'd been eying him steadily. "Do you want to tell me about these men?"
"They're bad news," Xander said.
"Faith believes you've been tortured."
"Faith wasn't there," he said evenly. Giles kept his gaze fastened on him. Xander rose. "I want to take another look at the basement before we go."
Xander had watched too many movies. Cop stories where some poor sap detective is one day away from retirement when some perp puts him in the ground. And don't get him started listing war films where the short-timer gets it right between the eyes. As the clocked ticked its way to Faith's release, Xander's tension level grew unbearable. Anything could happen.
Any shitty thing.
He tried concentrating on the work plans, but he needed to be moving. When Buffy went for her morning run, she invited him along, adjusting her pace to his without making a thing of it. Part of him wanted to open things up between them again, talk with her about what they'd both lost, say the things he'd been too deep in his own pain to say before. But his worry about Faith jammed all his neural pathways, leaving only enough room to squeeze out a monosyllable now and then.
She swung them by the hacienda when he'd had enough, and he went upstairs to shower while she went on to finish her run. Standing under the warm spray only reminded him of the bruises on Faith's body, how vulnerable she was every minute until she was out of that place.
Once he'd dried off and dressed, he squeezed some toothpaste on his brush, but it went forgotten in his hand as he stared at his image in the mirror. Aside from the bruise purpling his temple, he looked the same as he had since he got the new eye. But somehow he didn't feel settled anymore in his own body. He wondered if this sense of disconnect would go away once the danger of being yanked out of it was over. Would he ever again take his own body for granted? Or would he always have this slight sense of being outside himself? Finally he shook off these questions and finished in the bathroom, only to ghost around the house, unable to sit still or engage in conversation lasting longer than a minute or two.
Xander found Willow in the study with her laptop, the Hand of Imhotep and a mug of tea. He was relieved that the steam was wafting up Earl Gray instead of the fetid swampwater she took for the headaches.
She had to be sick of this question by now, but she turned the sweet Willow smile on him. "Just glimmerings. But I was on the phone last night with Wes, and he's hitting the books on this too. Lucky guy, huh? Actual books to hit. Speaking of which, he and Angel are going to see what they can do to get us started on the library."
"Sweet. Giles without his books is not a happy sight. Especially with that great library space we've got now." He found himself drawn to the desk to peer at the amulet.
"Don't touch," Will ordered. "I'm not even putting my hands on this puppy."
"God, no." But he kept moving closer to the desk, unable to take his eyes off the Hand.
Next thing he knows, he's bathed in white light, pulled out of himself and poured into another version of Xander. One who's back to wearing an eye patch, with a livid scar cutting a jagged path down that side of his face. A Xander who's flooded with relief as he sees Faith appear out of the shadows as he's patrolling the Flats and threading his way through knots of drunken students and tourists.
"Faith. God, I've been so worried. Where have you been?"
He pulls her into his arms for a tight embrace, right in the middle of the sidewalk, groups of loud twentysomethings now parting to flow around them. "Get a room!" one male voice calls, and there are laughs.
"I'm good," she says. "Never better." She draws him toward her for a kiss that courses through him like a drug. It's a raw night, the wind screaming down off Lake Erie, and her body doesn't generate its usual furnacey heat.
She withdraws from the kiss and absence pulses in him like an ache. He steps toward her and she steps back, on and on until they're out of the stream of people and into an alley.
"Where were you? What's going on?"
"It's been a trip, Xander. Let me take you." He doesn't want a trip, he wants Faith. Her kiss, her body, now. She pushes him against a slice of brick wall hidden behind a Dumpster and her lips and tongue are stopping his breath, her hands invading his shirt and his pants and he is moaning into her mouth -- which changes somehow as it is pressed against his. She pulls back from the kiss again, to let him see. Her beautiful mouth, pouty full lips, are distorted now by the fangs. He imagines he smells blood on her breath. She's hideous, but the sight of her makes him even harder. She strokes the side of his face with the hand that wears his wedding ring, then the caress becomes a steel grip as she turns his head to bare his neck for her.
If her kisses were a drug, this is the mainline rush. Spike of sharp pain and fear, but right after comes an endorphin rush that sweeps those other things before it, all mingled in a high like nothing imaginable. His heart surges his blood toward her mouth and she takes it while her hands work him and for a flash he wants nothing more than to die this way, to be reborn to hunt by her side.
Where he gets the strength to shove her back, he doesn't know. Bright blood spills down his shirt, dizzying him. He gropes in his jacket for the stake, but she laughs and seizes his wrist, snapping it. The pain drives him to his knees, kneeling in his own blood surrounded by trash spilled over from the Dumpster. With his good hand he breaks a rung off a busted bar stool, and as Faith crouches beside him to finish what she started, he punches it into her chest and sends his wife exploding into dust.
He came back to himself as he slammed back into a wall, shoved there by Giles. Willow had yanked off her sweater and draped it over the Hand. Xander's whole body trembled as he touched his fingers to his neck, drew them away to look for blood. How could there be none?
"Xander." Giles. His voice too loud. "Tell us what happened."
"You went back?"
His knees gave way, and he would have fallen had Giles not kept him upright. Willow pulled up a chair and he fell into it. "No. No, not that."
Giles pressed Willow's mug of tea into his hands. "Drink this. What was it? What happened?"
"Vision." He couldn't bear this. It had been as real to him -- as felt -- as the vision he'd seen of his life with Anya. He couldn't do this again, couldn't let himself love someone and have her torn from him. Grief shuddered through him, raw and bitter.
"A vision about Faith?"
"Leave me alone."
Willow stroked his hair. "Was it -- was it like the one you had on your wedding day?"
"Yes." He touched his neck again, looked at his hand.
"Xander, that one was a lie. A spell. This one is too. It was the Hand of Imhotep. A flashback, that's all. It doesn't mean anything."
"It was the future."
"It was the amulet."
"Then make it stop fucking with me. I can't do this anymore. This is killing me."
He got up, still unsteady, and locked himself in his room.
Giles managed to talk him down during the drive out to the airport, making sense as usual about grief, life's uncertainties, moving on, opening yourself to happiness as well as loss.
Xander realized for the first time that Giles had been left to grieve pretty much on his own when Jenny Calendar was murdered. He'd still had a pack of teenaged demon-hunters to wrangle, all of them too consumed with their lives and with Angel's threat to Buffy to fully appreciate Giles's pain.
Giles brushed off Xander's belated apology. "I don't know what I would have done without the lot of you to look after. You dragged me into the land of the living, which was the best thing for me."
It was a lie, Xander suspected, or a half-truth at best, but a gracious one. He let it slide by.
The jitters overtook him again once they arrived the airport. The flight from Sacramento was late, and all those movie cliches crowded in on him again. He paced and checked the info monitors, pushing his hands through his hair, surprised a good half of the time to find close-cut Xander hair instead of Faith's past-the-shoulder locks. He drifted in and out of the newsstands and the kiosk that sold Cleveland souvenirs and Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame trinkets, not really seeing anything.
Sometimes Giles kept pace with him, sometimes he let him wander off ahead. Xander didn't really want him there, which he was sure Giles knew. He needed to see Faith alone. But once she got here, there'd be Wesley, too. The chaperone thing made sense considering the sudden violence of the Hand's effects, but he didn't have to like it.
"Something's happened," Xander said to Giles, who'd just shortened the leash and joined him at the bank of monitors.
"Delays are the norm these days, Xander. It's only twenty minutes off schedule."
"That's what they start out saying. Cat's on the roof and we can't get it down."
"I'm certain there's some dimension where that statement makes sense."
"It's a joke. A guy -- never mind."
Giles cleaned his glasses. "I'm beginning to think you've found your niche as a watcher. Your inborn pessimism makes you a natural."
He cast a sharp glance at Giles. "Didn't I just screw my watcher's council career by violating your direct orders and getting myself kidnapped at the Home Depot?"
"Xander, I'm not so foolish as to attempt to give 'direct orders' to Buffy, much less the rest of you. It was a strong suggestion at most."
"And the new council's so desperate they'll take someone dumb enough to ignore that strong suggestion?"
"Need you ask? You're a quarter of the current work force."
He raked his hand through his hair and began another circuit of the concourse, as Giles kept pace. "None of this -- well, none of the prison stuff -- would have happened if I'd listened to you."
"I don't believe that," Giles said firmly. "As you said, those men were tracking Faith. If they hadn't gotten her -- you -- where and when they did, they would have found her on patrol, or somewhere else. You only made it slightly easier for them, being alone and in a fairly deserted place. And made it somewhat harder for us to know what happened or where you were. But in no way was this your fault."
Xander stopped at the newsstand to buy some gum. He was surprised his hands were as steady as they were as he unwrapped three sticks and shoved them into his mouth.
Giles kept at it: "This experience, though it's not one you'd care to repeat, does make you a more valuable asset to the council, Xander. In fact, your entire sojourn in Faith's body gives you a kind of knowledge that my years of training and experience can't touch."
"Indeed. You've gained a sense of a slayer's power from the inside, and--"
Xander's voice hardened. "I gained jack shit. I let those two fucks take me, and then keep me incapacitated for an entire cross-country drive."
"Tell me about that. How did they do it?"
He so did not want to talk about this. He jammed his fists in his pockets, fixed his gaze straight ahead. "Stun gun. They fried me early and often. I didn't raise a fucking hand against either of them, the whole two days or whatever it was."
Giles let out a breath. "Good Christ."
"I don't think he had a lot to do with it."
"This was your Cruciamentum."
"You remember the test the Council required Buffy to undergo when she turned eighteen. When the Slayer is temporarily robbed of her power and must defeat an enemy using only her wits. It's a barbaric tradition, and believe me, I'm not going to allow it to continue. But it makes a valuable experience for a watcher."
"I've got news for you, Giles. I didn't defeat anyone."
Xander pointed down the concourse. "Here comes another flight. Looks like her gate, doesn't it?" Not waiting for an answer, he threw out his gum and strode off toward the gates, as close as security would let him get. Watched the flood of people who were not Faith heading toward him. Men and women with briefcases and garment bags, slow-moving families clogging the corridor. Suddenly she came into sight, threading her way through the mass of people, almost breaking into a run when she had a few yards of clear space. Where everyone around her carried a shoulder bag or rolling carry-on, she had everything she brought in a brown paper grocery bag. She wore a plain t-shirt, more shapeless than anything he'd ever seen her wear, but at least someone had gotten her some new clothes. He'd hated to think of her leaving prison in what he'd worn going in.
He waved an arm, calling her name, and she poured on the speed, dodging and pushing her way toward him. Then she was out past the security barrier, rocketing into his arms, both of them babbling at the same time God I'm so glad to see you are you all right are you all right?
They clung to each other like a pair of refugees, arms so tight around each other they could barely breathe. (Just like his vision of the Flats.) The crowd flowed around them (just like the vision), parting and then closing once they passed. He shoved down the panic that rose in him at those flashes of future-memory. Concentrated instead on the feel of her body against his, the warmth of her. She burned hot as always.
Faith was here, she was safe.
The drive back to the hacienda was excruciating. The only thing to recommend it -- and this was major -- was Xander's arm around Faith in the backseat. The two of them had a lot to say to one another, but wanted to be alone before they began. Giles and Wesley, it seemed, had the opposite problem. After some strained conversation about Angel and Cordelia and things in L.A., awkward silence descended inside the car.
Without being too obvious about it, Xander studied Wes's profile. Obviously there were stories to tell; Wes looked like a completely different person from the gung-ho, shiny new watcher they'd met back in high school. Didn't look like many of them were happy stories. Then again, Wes could be thinking a lot of the same thoughts about Xander.
Once they survived the car ordeal, there was the homecoming to be gotten through. Actually, there was nothing to complain about here. Faith's first return from prison had been greeted with reactions ranging from snark to indifference. It warmed him to see the response this time: hugs and expressions of relief, all accepted with awkward gratitude by Faith. She'd come so far in such a short time (yet he knew in a way it was not short at all). Xander laced his fingers with hers and drew her hand up for a kiss.
After this, the powwow about the Hand of Imhotep and how to counteract its effects. Wes had found no spell designed specifically to counteract it, and since its magic had destabilized, nobody knew if one would have worked anyway. Wes was all for trying a spell to call down the protection of a god against an enemy. He'd taken the liberty of ordering some rare supplies, which would arrive by Fed Ex tomorrow afternoon.
"But there isn't really an enemy," Buffy pointed out. "It's just an accident that Faith and Xander got caught in."
"However, the world view of the Egyptians would cast this as the work of an enemy," Wes said, "so the spell should be valid."
"'Should be,'" Xander repeated. "Why am I not loving the uncertainty? What happens if it goes wrong? Could Faith and I be worse off than we are now?"
"We don't know," Wes said. He'd lost the pompous air he'd once had, his assurance that he had all the answers. In a way Xander was grateful, but he knew he'd happily accept the irritations of Wes's former personality if he'd only have the answers for this one occasion.
"What if we do nothing? I've pretty much run through every spell that's ever affected me, and Faith's only had the one. You think maybe it'll just run its course?"
"Again, there's no way to know."
"Then what good are you?" Xander snarled. He took a deep breath. "Sorry. Sorry. Wigging a little here." That was an understatement. All at once he felt a wave of fear crashing over him, blind and unreasonable, but real. "I think we should consider waiting."
"But Xander," Willow said. "This morning was a bad one. You said it's killing you."
"Do we really want to piss off any Egyptian gods? I've been through the worst of this. I can't even think of any spells I haven't revisited already."
There was a thumping at the front door. Giles frowned and rose, warily checking the peephole. "Oh good lord." Was that better than oh dear, or worse? Xander couldn't remember. Giles swung the door open, and Xander stepped inside.
"Thanks a lot for waiting for me," Xander -- the other one -- snapped. "There's a cabbie out there. I'm short fifteen bucks."
A dazed Giles reached into his wallet and handed Xander a twenty. As Xander bolted outside with it, Giles turned to the room and said brightly, "There's one we forgot."
Finally Xander and Faith were alone, just the three of them.
That sounded wrong. It felt wrong. They scattered to different parts of Faith's bedroom, a pretty Victorian room that didn't fit her at all, the furnishings left over from the bed-and-breakfast. Faith sat on the edge of her bed, Xander perched on the window seat. The other Xander stood by the dresser, fidgeting with the knickknacks the previous owner had left.
"This room's bigger, but I like yours better," Faith said. "That's where I've been sleeping. So when you came back, you'd know where you were. And it smelled like you." She winced. "That sounds completely retarded." The Boston came out here: retaaaaahded.
"No it doesn't." One of the things that had hit him so hard about losing Anya was that he'd had nothing that carried her scent when he left Sunnydale -- no clothes, no pillowcase. He'd taken, in the beginning, to using her brand of shampoo, but he didn't like it on himself. It wasn't the same. He was surprised -- make that almost non-plussed -- that Faith had missed him in this same way.
Another awkward silence stretched out, and Xander didn't quite know where to look. Not at his double, still screwing around with the Victorian doodads. He had too much to say to Faith that couldn't be expressed under these circumstances to meet her eyes.
"I'm sorry about Cordelia," she said. "I remember you two were together when I first met you."
Xander was surprised to hear his voice in answer. "We lost touch after high school. I haven't thought that much about it, but now I feel bad about letting her drop completely."
Faith shrugged. "Happens. Well, anyway, you never can tell. The doctors supposedly said I'd never come out of that coma, and I popped up walkin', talkin' and kickin' ass. Cordelia was pretty tough in her way. Don't count her out yet."
The ticking of the antique replica mantle clock filled the room.
Faith abruptly stood. "Goddammit, we just have to get over this. Yeah, it's weird and awkward, but I've waited too long to get you alone. There's too much we have to talk about." She grabbed the bottom of her t-shirt, pulling it over her head. A hitch in her movement, a sharp intake of breath, then the shirt was off. She feathered two fingertips over a pair of burn marks from the stun gun, then down onto a bruise on her hip. "What's the deal with you two? Does just one of you remember this, or the both of you?"
"Both," both Xanders said in unison. It creeped him out.
"Who did this?"
He closed his eyes. I let this happen. "Not the same people."
"Faith, I'm sorry." It was the other one. He'd turned his back to the dresser, shoved his hands in his pockets. The bruise on his right temple was still pretty livid. Maybe Xander should get those shades the ocularist had pushed, have some additional eye protection. At night he might look like a pretentious shades-wearing asshole, but he'd be a pretentious asshole who still had one good eye. "I let you down."
"The hell you talking about?" she challenged.
The other one continued. "It was up to me to make sure nothing happened to your body while I was in it."
"If I hadn't gone out alone--" Xander said.
"You think I wouldn't have?" She reached down, pushed Xander's hair out of his eyes, then turned and met the gaze of his double. "You can't think I'm blaming you for this?"
"No," the other one said.
"I'm blaming me," Xander said.
"Whoever did this, that's who to blame. The stun gun marks -- they're older than the bruises, right?"
Xander waited for his double to speak up, while the other waited for him. He cracked first. "Yeah. Those are from before Stockton. A couple of Sunnydale cops -- Egan and Finch -- caught me out alone, hauled me back to California in a van."
"Finch?" Her voice was tight, almost alarmed.
He nodded. "Your guy Allan Finch's brother, he said."
"Shit." She dropped back onto the edge of the bed. "I remember him from the trial. The way he looked at me through the whole--" She touched her fingers to a set of twin burn marks, then another. "He did this?"
"Both did. He liked it more."
"They tortured you. All the way to Stockton, looks like."
Xander laced his fingers together, looking down at them. "I wouldn't call it that," he lied.
"I would," said the other one.
"What about the bruises?"
Xander glared at the other. "Why don't you get this one?"
"One of the guards," his double said. "Her name's Connie. She was under a love spell that flashed back on me. Can't say I think much of her, but she really wasn't responsible. Hell, Buffy's mom tried to kill me under the influence of that spell."
"I'm sorry, Faith," Xander said. "I didn't fight, I just let her do it."
"You did the smart thing. I got myself jammed up good, breaking out. What you went through came out of that, not anything you did. You kept your head, didn't make it worse for me. I can't imagine what you suffered because of what I did."
Xander shook his head. "Like you just said to me. Finch and Egan carry their own blame. Nothing you did called for that." He leaned forward, reaching to brush her hair away from her face, then leaned in to plant a soft kiss on her lips. Faith wound her fist in his shirt, and he moved next to her on the bed.
Xander inhaled her scent, threaded his fingers through her hair. He drew in for a kiss, giving himself up to her silky heat (so different from the dry, cool kiss of the Faith in his vision). Then pulled back, close enough still to feel her breath fluttering against his lips, finally catching on to what had changed about her. "You taste different."
"I quit smoking. While I was in your body. I'll crap up my own lungs, but--" Faith shrugged.
She never stopped surprising him. He feathered his fingertips along her jaw, leaned in for another kiss.
"Hey, c'mon." Injured outrage from the other one. "Standing right here."
"Nobody says you can't come over here and join us," Faith said, amused.
"Whoa, wait," Xander said. "I say."
"Don't be such a chickenshit, Harris. It's not like he's gonna tell."
"Scram," he told himself.
"Sure, fine," the other said. "You can forget me at the airport. What the hell, I'm just the spare."
"--No--" Xander knew how that felt.
"And just leave me standing here to watch while you make out with the woman I--" A look of panic spread across his face.
"--love," Xander finished, wonder coloring his tone. He turned to her. "I do, Faith."
The other cleared his throat. "Uh. Look. I'll just check in on, um, something. I'm sure something needs checking on. It's probably past time. For checking."
"Don't be such a chickenshit," Xander said. "It's love, that's all. Nothing to be scared of."
Afterward, the three of them lay piled up together like puppies. Faith in the middle, of course. There was only so much weirdness either Xander could take. During was one thing. During, there was the novelty, the rising tide of sensation that swept you out of your head and into the moment. After was the problem. After was when the head got involved again, working overtime to make up for the long coffee break. The head didn't understand great job, why don't you take the afternoon off?
Up to a certain point, he'd gotten past the weirdness by pretending it was still Faith in that body. He just had an extra bonus girl-Faith, that was all. But as events progressed, it became pretty clear that the things the other one was doing were things Xander liked to do. And as they progressed some more, a few of those things slopped over from Faith onto Xander. Xander was a pretty good kisser, at least by Xander's standards. As for the rest, well, his head could just keep its opinions to itself.
He knew he'd never laughed so much in bed. He and Anya had enjoyed a pretty well developed sense of fun, but he still had thought about performance with her. This was giddy stupid oh-what-the-fuck fucking. Funny how it still got you to the same place.
The other Xander was dead to the world now, and Faith looked like she was fading fast. He brushed his hand lightly down the skin of her arm, lingering over the black lines of the tattoo.
"Man." Her voice was thick with sleep. "I could order a pizza right about now."
"You could try," he said. "This isn't the most 24-hour town. What do you like? On your pizza?" There was so much he still didn't know about her, a lot of it this sort of crap you'd normally learn on the first handful of dates. He mostly wanted to ask her about the notebooks, though, but she was too sleepy for that.
"No. Frickin'. Anchovies." She drifted into sleep, but pulled herself back a few seconds later, mumbled, "Sausage. Crumbled, though. Sliced is wicked gross. Pepperoni. Extra cheese."
"How about fresh mushrooms?"
"No goddamn vegetables."
She was waking up now. "Hello. Vegetables."
"Californian. You people are so obsessed with eating the green shit, you don't even realize when you are eating vegetables. I guess your idea of a good pizza is a frickin' salad on a crust."
"Is not. You probably think tobacco's a vegetable."
She laughed, and then suddenly descended into the late-night, sleep-deprived giggles. "Aw, for crissakes, stop talking to me."
He slipped his hand from her hip around to her lower belly. "Any better ideas?"
Faith shifted, signaling a welcome, but as he leaned in to kiss her another gust of laughter seized her, and then Xander. They fumbled at each other, but it was hopeless. Their smothered shrieks rendered them too helpless to finish what they'd started. At last they lapsed into dieseling hiccups and finally slipped into sleep, their limbs tangled together.
The other one was still sprawled asleep on the bed when Xander woke up, squinting in the bright morning sun. Strange, because he'd had a bizarre dream last night that he would have sworn meant they'd reintegrated. Fun was fun, but he was ready to be alone with Faith now. Where was Faith, anyway?
He popped his head up to look, but she wasn't there. Maybe she'd gone to the bathroom, or down for breakfast. She'd been hungry even before they'd fallen asleep. Or maybe she'd gone for an early run.
Maybe the L-word had made her wig, and she'd bolted.
Xander remembered the first time they'd slept together. Remembered gazing at her afterward, lying next to her stroking her arm. That flash of panic in her eyes, and three seconds later he was standing outside her door with his clothes in his arms. Yeah, intimacy issues.
He knew she'd come a long way since then, but he realized closeness still wasn't always comfortable for her. He'd seen it last night as Willow and Dawn and Vi had hugged her. Not that she'd wigged, or even come close, she just hadn't been at ease. But the intimacy she'd had with Xander -- not just sex, but the whole body-sharing package -- could make anyone freak. And then he'd had to go and blurt out that he loved her.
He should have taken it slower.
Wait. He was over-thinking. (The head was still on the job, gunning for Employee of the Month.) He'd probably been right the first few guesses. She was in the bathroom or downstairs in the kitchen. Out for a run. Not wigging.
Just in case, he probably shouldn't go searching for her. But he was getting the hell out of bed before the other Xander woke up. Because that would just be Awkward Morning-After Hall of Fame-worthy. He threw back the sheet.
Holy shit. Now he knew where Faith went. (If he were ever alert before his third cup of coffee, he might've clued in to the breasts and long hair a little earlier.) He waited for his own full-bore panic, but it didn't come. He was safe and so was Faith. Her body felt no more alien by now than his. If Wes's spell worked -- and he felt much less fearful about that now that his two selves had been brought back together -- this would be the last time he'd get to inhabit her body.
He rose, pulling on an oversized t-shirt, and closed himself in the bathroom just outside her room, gazing at himself in the full-length mirror on the door. Looked at his -- her -- reflected face, familiar and yet different. He wondered what part of the subtle strangeness was seeing a mirror image when he was used to seeing her as everyone else did. How much of it came from Xander being behind this face?
His fingers explored her nose, her mouth -- that tiny indentation in her lower lip that made it seem that much fuller. He touched her dimples, smiled to deepen them. Then his hands moved on to the rest of her body, pulling off the t-shirt. Examined the musculature of her shoulders and arms, and yeah, those damn nice breasts she'd told him to appreciate. His touch was gentle, almost reverent, as he took time over them, her belly and hips, her powerful legs. He felt a surge of tenderness for this body which had suffered so much lately at the hands of others -- and for his own, which he'd neglected to the point of abuse starting with Buffy's death.
The polish on Faith's fingernails and toenails had gotten pretty ragged. It had been a while since she'd gotten to shave her legs, too. If it had been Anya in this condition, last night would never have happened. She'd have spent a minimum of four hours in a hot bubble bath and then gotten a wax before he'd have even seen her.
Xander blinked. This may have been the first thought he'd had about Anya since her death that wasn't shrouded in the golden glow of sainthood. The affection was as strong as it ever was, but he could admit that she had her quirks without some other part of his brain leaping to her defense and painting himself as a big heartless bastard. This was one of those stages -- Dawn had shyly presented him with a book on grief a while back, and he'd sneaked a few looks.
This was good. This meant moving on, stepping out of the past.
This was healthy.
He didn't know why, then, there were tears streaking down his cheeks.
He let them flow until they stopped on their own.
Then Xander splashed water on his face and went back into the bedroom where Faith sprawled, still asleep, inside his body. He knelt on the bed, straddling her, leaning down to whisper in her ear: "Faith, wake up. I've got a surprise for you."
They didn't emerge until Faith's box of condoms was long gone and they were both in danger of collapse from starvation. Xander -- still in Faith's body -- got himself dressed, and then the two of them headed to Xander's top-floor room so Faith could change. "I hope you don't mind, but I got you a few new shirts," she said. "The lumberjack thing -- well, it's a look. It's just not mine. And contrary to evidence, you do have an ass, so I got you some jeans too."
Now this was getting complicated. Did the purchase of clothes mean Faith was in it for the long haul, or just that she wouldn't be seen in the stuff he wore? He told himself not to think too much or too far ahead. Fortunately, he liked what she'd bought, and found it was sexy as hell watching her change into the blue-gray pullover and tighter (but thank-god-not-too-tight) jeans. They got distracted a bit there, and by the time they made their way through the parlor floor toward the back stairs, it was past 12:30.
"What's up with this?" Faith asked when they reached the dining room. The big formal table had been set with what looked to be every piece of silverware and gold-rimmed china from the cabinet. No one was down here, though, and they hadn't passed anyone as they'd descended from his room.
They were all, it turned out, downstairs in the kitchen. It was Thanksgiving-style chaos in there, too many people working at too many tasks, at least half of them needing the same small bit of counter space.
Willow looked up from the salad she was making, and smiled at Faith. "Oh hey, Faith."
Xander started to correct her. "No, that's-- Hey, wait. How'd you do that?"
She scraped some chopped walnuts from a cutting board into the salad bowl. "Easy. I just--" Suddenly she was Flustered Willow, busying herself picking an allegedly suspect walnut from the bowl. "Y'know, her aura--"
Faith grinned. "Bullshit. It's because I'm slightly cockeyed. I haven't figured how to make both eyes look in the same direction."
Well, he'd noticed that. He found it endearing. Even more so that she'd so cheerfully admitted it. He'd probably have disappeared to his room for a week.
"So what's going on?" she asked.
Dawn bustled in from the pantry with several cans precariously piled in her arms. "Oh crap. You guys were supposed to sleep longer."
"Dawn--" Giles, in his warning tone.
"Why's that?" Xander asked.
"Because at one--"
"--Giles said I should come and knock you up." She erupted in giggles that Xander was sure had been an ongoing soundtrack for some time now, and Vi and Rona chimed in.
"In British usage," Giles began, ladling on the put-upon patience--
"It's a Brit thing," Wes said succinctly. "You wouldn't understand."
"If you're still tired, why don't you go back upstairs," Dawn suggested. "When it's ready I'll knock you up." Tee hee hee.
"When what's ready?" Xander asked.
"We're having a thing," Willow said. "Since Wesley's here, and you're both here and safe, and since we never exactly felt up to celebrating beating the First. Kind of a Glad to Be Alive dinner. Except Wesley has to catch a flight out tonight, so it's lunch. Everyone's making their specialty."
"That's so cool." His throat tightened just a little.
"What about us?" Faith wanted to know.
Rona shot them a wicked grin. "Oh, we know what you've been making."
"Children, please," Buffy said, but her tone was amused. She turned a smile on Xander and Faith. "You just enjoy. I think we'll have plenty."
And they did, though it was an especially hellmouthy combination of dishes, all available on short notice and not extremely time consuming to make. Besides Willow's mixed field greens ("Schmancy," Faith declared, "but I like it."), Dawn made a taco salad actually served in a cut-open Frito bag on one of the fancy china platters. Rona produced cornbread and Kennedy some peppery cheese biscuits, Vi made a meatloaf, and Andrew had come up with something all mounded and melted like nachos, only built on a foundation of Tater Tots. Rounding out the meal were Wes's curry and Giles's It's-a-Brit-thing-you-wouldn't-understand specialty, beans on toast. At least the toast rack that had come with the hacienda finally saw some use.
Xander was pretty sure it was the best meal he'd ever had.
It was every holiday he'd ever wanted, people laughing and teasing one another, exclaiming over the food. Conversations overlapping and morphing and diverging and coming back together. Even Giles and Wes managed to break the ice, swapping tales of the various demons the Scoobies and Angel's crew had fought -- at least the ones they deemed table-worthy.
Buffy brought out her contribution at the end -- two huge pans of Rice Krispy treats that were demolished before the tea and coffee even made it to the table.
Faith and Xander were chased out of the kitchen when they offered to clean up. He caught Buffy by the wrist and drew her away from the sink. "I want to get some air," he said. "Keep me company?" She tossed her dish towel to Giles and followed Xander outside to sit on the stoop. On their way through the dining room, he snatched up the basket with Kennedy's leftover biscuits, and as they sat, he placed it on the step between them.
"That was great," he said.
"Yeah, it was."
"I think maybe that was our first party ever that wasn't crashed by demons or zombies or vengeful Native American spirits."
"There was that one Christmas," she said.
Xander actually had to think for a moment. "The last one with your mom."
"Man. I still miss her, Buffy. Joyce was the first adult I ever felt totally comfortable around." More than that, she'd given him hope that adulthood wasn't a one-way ticket to becoming a brutal, drunken terror.
He touched Buffy's hand, and she turned her palm up and interlaced her fingers with his.
"Thanks for saying that, Xan. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who remembers. I think about her every single day. Maybe Dawn does, but she's got so much else going on, and she doesn't share it all with me anymore."
"We've been overdue for a talk about a lot of things," he said. "I haven't been much good to anyone for a while."
"Xander, my god, if anyone's had reason--"
"Shhh, no, it's okay. I need to say this. I've been in my own private fog of grief since we left Sunnydale. Since before, really. But I haven't forgotten that Spike meant something to you. I can't say I understood exactly what, especially toward the end."
"That's two of us. Maybe three."
"Well. I'm not the only person here who lost someone. It's time I acknowledged that. Died a hero. Who'da thunk?"
"He and Anya both. They came a long way." She leaned her head against his shoulder, their hands still laced together.
"There were even a couple of times I would've said we were friends. Usually alcohol was involved. And if not for him I'd have lost my--"
A kid -- sixteen, maybe -- riding by on his bicycle yelled, "Dykes!"
"Jackass!" Buffy hollered back.
"Get glasses!" Xander added. But it came out, of course, sounding like Faith.
"Don't tell me you forgot," Buffy said.
He started to his feet. "Somebody needs to set that kid straight--"
Buffy yanked on his hand. "Sit. No macho displays, please. We were having a talk."
Xander reluctantly sat back down.
"You really do feel all guyish in there."
"Well, yeah. I'm a guy. In my head, all the time, it's radio station K-Guy. It's a lot like Howard Stern, only without the commercials."
"Please. You're frightening me." She dove into the basket for a biscuit. "It's funny -- Faith doesn't seem all Girl-in-a-Xander-Suit."
"Well, she's not your standard girl, even when she looks like this." He looked at her. "How's this been for you?"
"What, that my Xander-shaped friend isn't? It's been weird. It's made me have to divorce myself from some of my uglier history with Faith. I guess that's of the good."
"She's on our side now."
He rubbed his thumb over the back of Buffy's hand. "There's a lot more to her than she may ever let us see. This whole thing has given me just a peek."
"You seem pretty gone on her."
He smiled. "Pretty much."
"I've gotta say I'm surprised."
"Yeah, I know. Named to the All-America Grudge Holding team four years running, that's me. We did some talking recently. Then this whole thing. Guess you never know what the future holds." Which reminded him of something. "Hey, how's it going with all the college catalogs and that?"
"Urg. It's overwhelming. Like high school career day, but worse."
She laughed. "Oh. Well. No assassins, true. But -- I don't know. I have to dig for every piece of information on my own, instead of having it all paraded in front of me. What if I miss something important? What if I settle for something that doesn't suit me, something I can't be passionate about, when maybe if I'd investigated one little alley half a block away, I'd have found the one thing I'm meant to do? The one -- other -- thing I'm meant to do."
The wind kicked up a little and Xander watched the high branches sway in the huge elm in front of the house. "I feel like I'm the worst guy you could ask about this kind of thing. Hell, I drove an ice cream truck. I did find what I was good at, but I just fell into it."
"Well, maybe that was less accidental than you think. Maybe that means I'll find what I'm supposed to be doing, too."
"Maybe." He fell silent, wishing he could offer the right piece of advice, but too preoccupied with his own uncertainties. Several minutes went by as they watched the flow of traffic, and Xander worked on a biscuit, then another. Not a soul on the sidewalks. Again it struck him how much Cleveland sucked as a people-watching town. "Has Giles said anything to you about me?"
"Yeah, about breaking this amulet spell, and finding you when you disappeared--"
"Anything else, though?"
Buffy eyed him. "No. Why?"
"He wants me to be a watcher."
A pause. "An actual Watcher? Not Carpenter to the Watchers' Council?"
Xander looked away. This should not have surprised him. Buffy had never really seen him, not as long as he'd known her. Why was it, he wondered, that he still let the careless cuts of his friends wound him so deeply? He rubbed at the grease on his hands, jaw tightening. "Yeah, imagine that." He had sacrificed plenty for Buffy's cause. Not because he was Chosen, or it was his destiny. He'd chosen this himself. Giles, of all people, had figured this out, but no one else could see. He stood. "I think I'll go find out what Faith's up to."
"Xander, I'm such a clod. I'm sorry--"
"It's no big." He turned to go up the steps.
She caught his wrist. "Please. Let's try that last bit again, okay?"
Xander looked at her for a moment. Her gaze was direct, intent. Maybe this was the beginning of something different. "Yeah, okay," he said. And he sat on the step beside her.
Much as he'd enjoyed the calm of the last few hours, Xander didn't trust it. Quiet on the hellmouth always had that "It's quiet -- too quiet" B-movie quality. The anticipation of some further disaster was a subtle irritation, like a raspberry seed caught in the teeth that he couldn't stop poking at with his tongue.
No matter what Giles had said -- and he was fuzzy on that, since he'd been half out of his mind with fever at the time -- Xander still expected to see Imhotep himself come shambling out of the woodwork, arms waving feebly like giant bug antennae, white strips of cloth trailing behind him like a toilet paper tail.
He wandered around the house, still new enough to him to feel like temporary lodgings. It was hard to believe he'd ever feel settled among all the Victorian flourishes, though he was pretty sure nothing would be changed for some time -- there was too much other work to do, and a house already furnished and stocked made so much sense for their ragged band of Sunnydale refugees. Well, whether it was his style or not, it beat 8' x 4' of cinderblock and stainless steel, and standing over an open toilet to brush your teeth.
He finally spotted Faith out in the back garden. It must be a soothing place to be, after all her time in Stockton. Enclosed, yeah, but with a wooden fence twined with ivy. Not an empty gray rectangle capped with bleached out sky -- it had been planted with flowers, dotted with chairs and a bench, and a round metal table, with a brick walk winding around them. A couple of trees for shade, but there were places to soak up the sun on those rare perfect days. Someone should make sure that this space wasn't neglected when they all got caught up in their work. Faith needed it -- they all did. Maybe Andrew would like to be put in charge of the garden. He loved being all morale-essential.
Xander was about to go downstairs and join Faith when he realized she was talking with someone out of his line of sight. She was serious, intent. None of his business, but he moved to another window anyway, to get a better angle. All he could see was a foot, the lower half of a khaki-clad leg. Wes. This was apparently the day for clearing the air, making peace. From what he'd heard, Faith had a lot of that to do when it came to Wes.
Xander had gotten a rough outline of what she'd done to him. At the time he'd been all about the bitter sense of vindication (TOLD you she was bad news -- as if anyone disagreed), without really thinking of Wes at all. Or of Faith, what dark place she'd gone in her head that made those things feel necessary or even possible. Xander had been outraged that Angel made her his project, deemed her worth saving. Angel had been right; he'd been wrong. Maybe someday he'd even find himself saying this to Angel.
He wondered if this conversation was easier for Faith -- or for Wes -- with her wearing Xander's body instead of her own. Much as he'd have liked to get closer, hear some of what passed between them, Xander moved away from the window and found Giles in the study.
"So what's the plan once the supplies are here?"
Giles removed his glasses, set them on the desk. "We call forth the god Ptah, describe your problem and--"
"Wait. Why aren't we calling on Imhotep, if he's as benevolent as you say? Is there something you've not been telling me?"
"Not at all. Ptah is the creator of the universe, the third most important god to the Egyptians--"
"He created everything, and he's only Number Three? What do you have to do to make Number One?"
He closed his eyes briefly, speaking with exaggerated patience. Okay, future watcher or not, the world wasn't totally nuts if Xander could still irritate Giles. "Ptah is also considered the father of Imhotep, and is the patron god of craftsmen and architects. He seemed a natural to hear your case."
"Yeah. Yeah, I like that. It's ... elegant."
Giles turned a smile on him then, as if Xander had said something that pleased him.
"So the package Wes is expecting from the Brooklyn Museum, that's got the ritual?"
"As I understand it, the ritual is outlined in general terms, but not precisely scripted. It's up to the magician to supplicate the god on behalf of his client, and the outcome is dependent on his powers of persuasion -- both to convince the god to lend his help, and to make sure the enemy knows who he's dealing with."
So Xander's fate -- and Faith's as well -- was dependent on the eloquence of Wesley and Giles.
They were so screwed.
All right, not so shabby with the powers of persuasion.
Things had started out quietly, though, and they'd stayed that way for a long time. Wes began by taking a reed to papyrus and drawing a representation of Ptah: a standing figure, wrapped like a mummy from feet to neck, with both hands outside the wrappings, gripping a staff. It was slow work -- Wes was an amazing draftsman, even with the reed -- and excruciatingly solemn. Drawing the god was like calling him into being, Giles told them. Just as Xander was about to start breathing again, Wes drew out another papyrus to create two smaller pictures for Faith and Xander to wear around their necks.
Then, the stuff he was more used to: brazier, pinch of herbs, ancient texts -- or in this case, copies of computerized reconstructions of ancient texts. These scrolls had been seriously crumbly -- Xander hoped nothing too crucial had powderized away to nothing. They were gathered in the dining room -- Giles, Wes, Xander and Faith, along with Buffy and Willow -- the pocket doors closing them in.
Giles made with the supplication. "O Ptah with the two crocodiles, first of all the gods, we beseech you--"
Beseeching was good. Xander would beseech, he would supplicate, hey, he would beg. Whatever it took.
"Master architect, builder of the framework of the universe, he who made all things through the words of his tongue and the thoughts of his heart, creator of divine order."
Good, this was good. Giles had been right, this was the heavy hitter he wanted on their team. Go, Ptah.
Distantly he heard the shattering of glass from the back of the house. That didn't sound good. He tightened his grasp on Faith's hand.
"Patron of craftsmen, of artists and architects--"
Sound of feet thundering down the stairs. Andrew's reedy voice: "Deeeeeemon!"
Hell. Willow's demon-magnet spell. Okay, Giles, maybe enough of the flattery -- get to the problem-solving.
Giles moved on, picking up the pace. Evil spirits that had contrived to break the amulet and warp its influence. Supplicants brought to harm.
The crash of splintering wood from the front. Damn, that double door would be a bitch to replace.
"Her flesh is your flesh--"
Buffy threw open the weapons chest and loaded up as Willow slid open the door to the hallway.
"--his bones are your bones--"
The ring of blades, hacking and rending, grunts and shrieks.
"Let the iniquitous depart, hiding their faces before your celestial fire--"
The slayer power quivered in him and it was all he could do to stand still with the battle raging just beyond the door. Just, uh, crashing through the door--
"Let the instrument of Imhotep's priesthood become whole again--"
Wes grabbed a battle axe and charged, yelling like a berserker.
"Let your servants be made whole again--"
Herbs. Brazier. Hurry up. Giles dangled the Hand of Imhotep by its cord, and Xander and Faith clasped their hands together around it.
A thunderclap tore through the air, and he was tossed against the corner of the china cabinet.
He came to under the sideboard.
Things were back to normal.
That thing, of course. Comfortable as he'd gotten in Faith's body, he still had made a quick check for his package before he'd even crawled out from under the sideboard.
And the demon horde had vanished the moment the amulet spell was broken, including the ones the Scoobies had killed. Apart from some cuts and bruises, no one had gotten hurt, and no new old spells had come back to torment him in the last three days.
Some things were a little too normal.
Because: here he was with Andrew, putting up a new set of doors he'd had to order custom (rush -- so not cheap) and then paint robin's egg blue to match the old ones. The back window they'd already replaced. Hadn't he said he wasn't going to do this anymore?
Giles had actually offered to hire someone, but Xander had refused. There was one carpenter in this town whose work he trusted, especially when it came to the security work. His next project, before he got down to the watcher business, was those window grates. Put ol' Window-Fixing Xander out of work.
"Okay, keep that steady." He knelt to get the hinges screwed in as Andrew held the door in place.
"You remember that old Trek episode, the one with the body switch?"
"Worst!Episode!Ever!" Xander said in his Comic Book Guy voice. "It's the 23rd century, and girls can't drive spaceships? No wonder she's fuckin' bitter."
Andrew laughed uneasily, like an altar boy finding himself in the company of very vocal atheists. "Right. Uhura's supposed to have this really great job, but actually she's kind of a secretary." This would seem daring coming from him, if it weren't lifted straight from one of Xander's own classic Trek rants.
"Yeah," Xander said, "Please hold, Mr. Terrifying Alien, I have a call from Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise." He didn't mind getting sidetracked onto a stupid rant, because he didn't particularly want to go where this was headed. "And how about Shatner as a chick?"
"I wonder why he, y'know, didn't make a play for Janice Lester after the switch."
Was that, y'know, what he was really wondering, or was Andrew trying to get at some question he had about Xander and Faith? "You mean, considering that Kirk's a complete horndog for every woman in the universe? Maybe it's the lack of blue eye shadow. Or maybe because she's certifiably insane, wanting to drive a spaceship and all." Maybe because it was still the sixties there in the 23rd century, in more ways than what kinds of jobs chicks could have. Willow could see all the subtext she wanted to between Kirk and Spock, but there were some places the captain sure as fuck was not boldly going.
"Oh. I guess so. I just always kinda wondered. Oh, not just now--"
Uh-huh. Xander stood, wiping below his eye. It was watering like a bastard today. "Okay, let's see how it looks."
He stepped out onto the stoop and closed the door, assessing his handiwork. He fingered the metal capsule he'd taken to wearing on a chain, with Wesley's Ptah scrolled tightly inside. Xander liked the idea of having a patron, and you could do a lot worse than Ptah. Once he'd made certain it wouldn't be a sacrilege, he was going to have Wes's precise design tattooed on his arm.
"It looks good," Andrew said.
"It does. Thanks for your work."
"Hey you! No slackin' on the job." Faith had returned from her morning run. Perspiration made a dark V below the neck of her shirt. She had her hair all ponytailed up with a rubber band -- she called them elastics, it was a Boston thing.
"Hey you yourself." Xander reached toward her as she climbed the steps. She moved right into his arms, turning her damp face up to his for a kiss. Another thing that would have grossed Anya beyond the telling of it.
"Andrew, that is one well-hung door," she said. He blushed furiously and announced he was going inside to squeeze some lemonade for them.
Another kiss, then Xander asked, "Got it all sorted out?"
She nodded. "Yours. We can get wicked rowdy up there without everyone in the house hearing us."
Xander liked her number one criterion. "You're sure? Because yours has more room for the rowdy."
"I don't need much space."
He supposed not, after the accommodations she'd spent her last three years in. And his own requirements had changed over the last few months. He used to be a collector of crap, but now that it was gone, he was happy to keep things spare. The two of them would manage in the top room just fine. But just in case, he asked again. "Don't you want it, though? Since you can?"
Faith shook her head. "The only things I want are the things I can't live without."
That was either the saddest thing he'd ever heard or the wisest. Xander couldn't decide which.
She put her hand to the side of his face. "I want you."
He lowered his mouth to hers, the kiss deepening until all at once he felt a little dizzy to be on this small landing. "Let's--"
Let's what? He didn't know.
"Are you sure?" Faith asked. "About the whole thing?"
"Yeah. Two, three weeks ago, I wouldn't have believed I'd be ready, not for another six months, a year. Funny how life has a way of making you ready."
She brushed her fingers over a tear that had leaked from his left eye. "Know what I'm thinkin'?" she said. "Maybe we should try out both rooms again. To be sure."
He grinned. "That's good. It's an important decision."
She helped him gather his tools, and they went upstairs.
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