Chapter Thirteen: Things That Do Sound So Fair

An awkward silence hung for several long seconds.

Then, all at once, the research table erupted into a mind-numbing explosion of chaos as seven excited voices fought for top billing. On pure reflex, Xander flinched, and as his body braced itself defensively, he felt—he somehow knew what was happening, too—the essence deep within him called up.

Time slowed.

Well, it didn't really slow, per se. His perception just sort of...sharpened, separating the activity around him into easier-to-manage chunks of information. Like a giant Xander-shaped transistor radio, able to tune itself between the different sounds and smells and movements.

Dawn's voice registered first. "Why can't you ever be serious, you goober?" she screamed, punctuating it with a notepad chucked at Xander's head.

A small shift to the left of that was the deafening clang of Spike's palm on the metal desktop. "Ha! He's off 'is bloody rocker!" the vampire howled. "I knew it! I knew it!"

A trifle in this direction came Giles' polished, "Good lord." He glared at the animated Spike, yanked the glasses from his nose, then repeated the imprecation a second time. "Good lord!"

A tilt away from that was a nails-on-chalkboard screech of Buffy shoving her chair back. She reached toward Xander's forehead, but before she made contact, Dawn's notepad came spiraling out of nowhere, rebounding off the Slayer's fingertips. She spun angrily. "Goddammit, Dawn!"

"Oh, c'mon, Xan," Willow's tired voice lamented, just a small shift over in this direction. Then the notepad ricocheted off Buffy's fingers, smacking the redhead square on the cheek, and her somewhat moanier "Ow!" joined the Slayer's irritated expletive.

An itty bitty shift behind that was Tara's gentle voice. "Xander, what are—oh, goddess! Willow!" And as she reached for her girlfriend, her hand met the mug in front of her, upending it with a tink. A fragrant river of amber liquid spilled over the rim and onto the table.

Anya's shrill voice was only a bit to the left of that, and from the seat nearest the cash register, she wailed, "Alexander Harris, what did you do this time?"

It all happened at once, in a roaring barrage—the jibes, the exasperation, the concern, the questions, the fucking flying object—seven different reactions on seven different layers. And he could fan them out and study them like seven different playing cards.

Well, that's kinda cool.

He abandoned this particular dealt hand, though, the moment Buffy returned to his side—done knocking Dawn upside the head, no doubt. She reached out to test his temperature, touching a soft palm to Xander's forehead, and he vaguely heard her mumble, "Well, you don't feel warm," before a stream of consciousness blinked to life behind his eyelids.

It was just a brief snippet at the forefront of her mind—the memory of a sterile hospital room, Willow clapping Glory away, and his scruffy ass appearing. One part of his brain acknowledged the weirdness of viewing it from this different angle. Another part struggled to justify this version with its not-quite-identical predecessor, three years before it in Xander's memory. But the biggest part of him concentrated solely on the anomaly of the world inside the Slayer's mind.

There was a pervading feeling of one-ness to Buffy, covering him with emotions he hadn't experienced inside Giles or Anya. He felt lonely and forsaken, loved and cherished, weak and helpless, powerful and chosen, and he felt all of the emotions all at the very same time.

Damn, she was strong. A warrior through and through, aware of everything...from Dawn's steady breathing behind her, to the twitch in Glory's nose when the glittery potion hit her face, to the increase in the room's magical energy preceding Xander's reappearance.

And her slayer sense was positively abuzz, a low and incessant vibration with Spike so near. His presence...comforted her with its strength and its familiarity. It would be years still before she'd admit that. Xander had no idea it had started this early.

The sheer magnitude of Buffy very nearly overwhelmed him. He was really gonna have to learn how to control this shit, and fast, because these emotional head-on collisions—one right after another—were exhausting.

"Wow," he repeated his inner monologue, breathing out the word on a long sigh once she'd pulled her hand away. "That was a little intense."

He looked up into emerald eyes that were studying him dubiously under deeply furrowed Buffy brows. He'd have only seconds before she started in on the questions, he just knew it.

"Yes, well," Giles muttered, drawing Buffy's attention away. "If by a little intense," the older man continued, "you mean that your skull is still reverberating..." His voice trailed off, and he rubbed his temple, shooting the vampire a glare that was rewarded with a two finger salute. The watcher sighed. "As for its cause, Xander. Surely you don't think you can make some monumental statement and simply be taken at your word?"

"I told you it was a long story," Xander said, then he flipped his thumb at the table. "If you could just get these yahoos to shut up, I'll tell it." As an afterthought, he smiled and added, "And don't call me Shirley."

Spike snickered.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Giles groaned.

"Look," Xander announced with a grin. "It's just like I said. I'm from the future. Up until last night, I wasn't in Sunnydale. Most of us weren't, actually. And it wasn't 2001."


Xander scanned the faces that surrounded him. "Okay.," he finally said, gesturing to Buffy. "You've spent the last couple months kicking demon ass at the Cleveland Hellmouth."

"Cleveland? Wait, there's another hellmouth?" Buffy asked, doubt on her face as she looked to Giles for confirmation.

"Several, actually," her watcher nodded. "Cleveland and Chile for sure. Possibly Romania."

"Romania's a bust," Xander said, shaking his head. "But there is one in France. City's called Loo-dan or Loo-dawn or...something."

"La bouche de l'enfer de Loudun," Spike recited in an oddly refined, definitely perfect French accent. When Buffy lifted her eyebrows in question, he added, "The Hellmouth of Loudun, pet."

Xander giggled childishly and repeated, "La boosh de lawn-fair. That always sounds so dirty."

"Damn right it's dirty," Spike replied. "It's French for a demon's wet dream. As for the Loudun Hellmouth, though...I'm pretty sure that one's been inactive for a while now."

"A few centuries," Giles agreed.

"At least for now," added Xander. The Loudun Hellmouth had gone — would go? — active a few days after Sunnydale fell — will fall? Whatever. Anyways, once Giles had taken over the Council, he'd sent a trove of slayers to stand guard over it. He'd considered making his way there eventually, after Africa and...well, whatever happened there. Anya had always told him France was beautiful. He wondered if it lived up to the hype. "There's this, uh, crazy movie that's set there. Y'know, in Loudun."

"The Devils," said Giles and Spike in unison.

"Uh, that was a little weird," said Dawn.

"That movie was cuh-razy," said Xander. "I never looked at a nun the same again."

"Heard tell it was even crazier in person," replied Spike.

"Oh, it definitely was," agreed Anya.

"Wait," Giles was taken aback. "The Loudun possessions were real?"

"Oui, oui," said the vampire. "Geez, Watcher, when're you gonna get it through your thick skull that the Council's not the end-all be-all? Ever read Aldous Huxley?"

"I certainly have," Giles replied haughtily. "And the possessions he wrote about were debunked. In reality, they were the result of political corruption. Sexual repression. attempt to convert a mostly Protestant population to Catholicism."

"Oh, the possessions were just as real as the corruption and the repression were," Anya confirmed. With a wave of her hand, she added, "And there was always someone those pesky Catholics were trying to manipulate." Mocking secrecy behind her hand, she said, "And anyways, back in those days, almost all the priests were sorcerers. That one was just dumb enough to get caught."

"See?" asked the vampire, smiling smugly as Giles glanced between him and Anya with his mouth open.

"Um, okay," Willow interjected slowly. "So, uh, lots of Hellmouths. Check. And you say it's not 2001 where you come from?"

"2003," Xander replied. "And it's, uh..." He hadn't so much as glanced at a calendar since he'd left Sunnydale. "September? Maybe October? I don't know, been a while since I looked...or cared."

His best friend's dubious glance was far more telling than any verbal response would've been, and a quick scan around the table told him the sentiment was shared. They all pretty much thought he was certifiable.

"Okay, look. I'm not crazy," he reassured them, palms up in pseudo surrender as he looked from one face to the next. "And yeah, I know that's the first thing a crazy person would say, but I'm really not. It's just—okay, it was a bad way to start the story. I just—"

His eyes landed back on Dawn and his train of thought suddenly stopped short.

The youngest Summers was sprawled on a wooden chair, all gawky legs and long arms, and she was staring back at him with eager doe eyes, a slight flush coloring her cheeks. This was the Dawnie at the tail end of her Xander crush, before the abandonment issues, the shoplifting, the lying, the self-harm. Back when her fear of Glory was still somewhat tempered by the security of mom, a big sis, a bevy of older friends.

This Dawnie had yet to be accepted into the inner circle. Over the next couple of years, she'd become a treasured and respected confidante...with plenty of secrets he wouldn't have otherwise known now.

The gears started turning in his head.

Ooooh, she was gonna be pissed.

"You know," he said, drawing the words out slowly as his gaze lingered over the girl. He fought the sinister urge to rub his hands together. "I'm pretty sure I know how t' prove it to you guys."

Under his extended attention, Dawn's blush deepened further and her blue eyes flickered nervously around the table.

"I'm sorry in advance," Xander started.

"Sorry?" she asked.

"It's kinda weird to see you so young," he told her instead. "The Dawnie I know is a senior in high school. She has a ton of friends, a part time job…." He winked. "A new car."

That last bit piqued her interest, as he knew it would, and she raised her eyebrows and sat up straighter.

"Last time we talked," he went on with a smile, "you said you liked all your classes. Especially Latin. Although you said they should be paying you to teach it 'cause the real teacher's a nimrod." He chuckled. "Hardly any wonder, though, since you've been teaching yourself all those ancient languages for, like, ever. Right?"

He paused, watching her head avert as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. One more Dawn bomb to drop, he thought, and that should just about do it.

"I mean," he continued smoothly, "you've already started collecting all those books under your bed, haven't you?" Her head suddenly popped up, and he saw the anxiety in Dawn's pupils as he went in for the kill. "You know, the ones you sneak from Giles' bookshelves?"

Dawn's sudden gasp—Yep, that did it, he thoughtsounded like it probably hurt, and her eyes gaped out of their sockets as she swiveled her head frantically between him and the elder Brit.

"Wha-? How-? I don't-! I-! " Dawn stuttered.

Xander laughed, instantly taking pity on the girl. "We had to replace the wall between your bedrooms after Spike pulled Andr-" He caught himself, though not in enough time to prevent the confusion on Spike's face. Xander chose to ignore it. "We had to move your bed to fix the wall, and you must've had, like, twenty books hidden under there. Giles nearly killed you."

"As I might still," warned the watcher, glaring at the girl. His voice was stern when he asked, "Which books, Dawn?"

"Uh-" she stammered.

"Well done, Lil' Bit," cheered Spike.

"Oh, you would encourage her," muttered Giles. Then to Dawn again, this time more sternly, he said, "Which books, Dawn?"

"Oh, lighten up, Giles. Don't listen to him, Dawnie," Xander chuckled. "He's all bark. The Giles I know brags about you all the time." He snuck a peek at the grumpy ex-librarian, taking aim for his next direct hit. "He always says you remind him of his Grandma Edna."

The look of shock on the watcher's face was more than worth the trouble. Nailed part two as well.

"Who's Grandma Edna?" Tara asked from across the table.

"Hmmm? Oh, uh, my father's mother," Giles answered, shocked eyes still fastened on Xander. Softer, he mused, "I don't believe I've ever told you about her."

"Probably another stuffy watcher type," Buffy guessed in a stage whisper. "Giles hails from a long line of tweed."

"She was a watcher, yes," Giles affirmed, breaking his gaze at Xander to look at his slayer with a smile. "With a rather prominent Council role, in fact." And with a flick of his head, he added, "But stuffy may be a bit imprecise. Grandmother was remarkably clever and quick-witted, as any good watcher should be, but she loved nothing better than a good challenge to the Council's status quo."

"An anti-Council watcher, huh?" asked Willow appreciatively.

Happy to have the focus off her, Dawn poked her sister in the back and added, "Sounds right up your alley."

Giles removed his glasses and wiped them again, nodding with a smile. "She definitely kept the Council on their toes...the rest of us as well," he added, placing his spectacles back on his nose. "She was always going out of her way to make a statement. At the Farewell Tour in '68, she flashed Eric Clapton for backstage tickets." He grinned at the memory. "What a bloody amazing night."

"Royal Albert Hall?" Spike asked.

"None other."

"Not a bad show."

"Not their best either, but no...not bad at all," Giles agreed, his expression a million miles away for a few seconds. Then he shook his head and refocused on his slayer. "And Dawn's right, Buffy. You'd have loved her."

"When Edna was a student at the Watcher's Academy," Xander broke in, "there was this really old and powerful vampire they kept chained in the school's dungeons."

"They kept a vampire chained in the dungeons?" Buffy asked, a wry glance at Giles. "Initiative much?"

"But why?" Tara added.

"The older the vampire, pet," Spike said, "the richer the information. Just think what a valuable commodity that'd be for the ol' Council of Wankers, eh?"

"And the guy's name was Roche, right?" Xander asked Giles for confirmation. "The vampire?"

The watcher seemed frozen on the spot, his mouth hanging open as he stared at Xander.

"Yeah, 't's Roche." Spike volunteered information for Giles for the second time that day. "Ugly n' wrinkly as ol' Bat Face, got himself nabbed in the 20's." A bit louder than under his breath, he added, "Ponce owes me fifty quid."

Buffy sighed and rolled her eyes, "Do you name drop just to sound cool?"

Her question earned a smirk from Spike and a giggle from both Tara and Dawn.

"Spike's right," Giles murmured distractedly, still studying Xander. He shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs. "Uh...about Roche. Not the fifty quid."

"Right. So this one day," Xander continued, "a few teachers took Edna and some of the other students down into the, uh, listen to Roche"—Xander made air quotes for emphasis—"tell stories about other famous vampires. You know, a little afternoon story sesh with the big scary master vamp."

"Geez louise," said Dawn.

"What none of them realized, though," Xander continued, "was that Roche's sire was there to bust him out, and that she'd placed all these teachers under her thrall so they'd deliver Roche a nice, big buffet dinner. Build up his strength before he strolled out the front door."

"Like lambs to the slaughter, I'd wager," Spike guessed, and when Xander nodded, he responded in kind. "'T's a classic trick. One Dru was rather fond of, come t' think of it."

"And Edna totally figured it out," Xander said. "She trashes their plan, goes after the sire, tears into her teachers for bein' idiots...and then leaves 'em all down there in the dungeons to go flirt with Grandpa Giles."

Appreciative laughter surfaced from everyone but Grandma Edna's namesake. Giles simply remained motionless, staring back at Xander with that same look of studious surprise on his face. Very slowly, he drew his glasses from the bridge of his nose down into his lap, repolished them absentmindedly with the corner of his shirt.

"Well, how come you've never told us about her before, Giles?" asked Dawn.

"I...I…uh..." the watcher stammered. After a moment to collect his thoughts, he added, "Well, I suppose it's never come up."

Xander smirked.

"Oh, it will, Dawnie," he promised her, rolling his eyes. "Everything you do reminds him of her. He says so all the time. She was mondo badass. And you may think you're only the sister of the Slayer, but you'll find out that you're pretty badass, too."

Something was up with Xander.

And not just with the time travel-y stuff.

Buffy hadn't noticed anything weird last night or this morning, when he'd first said hello. And outside of the whole knowing everything sitch, he'd sounded pretty normal when he helped tell the princess story.

But when he'd announced he was a time traveler, Buffy had reached out to touch him, and the instant her skin touched his, it was there. A tiny spark. A little flare of sixth slayer sense, tickling the back of her neck to alert her that something demonic was close. And when she'd peered into his eyes, he'd looked at her with this weird sort of...reverence. As if he'd known what she'd been thinking.

Which was most definitely of the wig-some.

She had little time to consider it further, as the ding of the shop's front bell heralded the arrival of their pizzas. Buffy watched as Xander walked across the showroom to greet the delivery boy. Her friend didn't really look any different. Well, okay, maybe he held his head up a little higher...and his gait was a little more confident...but then again, she could've just been looking for connections where there really weren't any.

He returned to the table with four fragrant pies, a small paper bag topped the stack of pizza boxes. Xander grabbed it and tossed it to Spike.

"Whassis?" the bleached vampire asked, reaching out to grab the parcel in midair. With a quick tear of the paper, he upended the contents over an empty corner of the desk. Several see-through packets of crushed red pepper flakes tumbled out, along with a small plastic container of hot peppers and a sealed tub of something liquid and red. Hot sauce, she guessed, since she doubted the local pizzeria listed blood on the menu.

Spike studied the spicy condiments, confusion twisting his face, and as she watched him, Buffy knew he was just as puzzled about the contents as he was about the invitation it implied. She was, too.

When he spoke again, his voice was soft, uncertain, and—after that out-of-the-blue French recitation, dare she think it again?—almost refined. "Uh, thank you, Xander."

Buffy gasped, nearly choking on her own saliva, and when Dawn turned to pat her on the back, she noted the surprise in her sister's eyes as well. A quick survey of her friends and Giles told her the sentiment was shared.

"Oh, no problem," Xander said offhandedly as he went about opening pizza boxes with no regard—at least as far as Buffy could tell—for the enormity of what had just occurred. He'd either failed to notice or he was deliberately feigning disinterest. She wondered which it was.

"Pineapple for the super witches," Xander announced, holding out the first pizza box to Willow without looking up from the second. "Pepperoni for me and Giles." He opened the third. "Extra veggie, Ahn and Buffy." Xander handed the pizza to a stupefied Anya, then opened the last box, winced, and shut the lid with a cardboard bang. "Anchovies for Dawnie and Spike. And might I add, that is rank." He curled his lip in disgust as he shoved the final pizza across the table.

Wait a minute. Did he just—?

Xander was on his third mouthful of greasy, meat-and-cheesy goodness before he looked up and noticed that he was the only one eating. And then, knowing they were all just standing there staring back at him, he merely finished chewing that bite and took another, his face sort of relaxing around the bulge in his cheek.

What was up with him?

"Yeah….so, uh," Buffy began, "while I love a good pizza pigout just as much as the next anyone else feeling like….well, I mean..." At a loss for words, she gestured with both hands extended, one pointing at Xander, the other at Spike.

A wave of affirmation—Spike's voice more obstreperous than the rest—swelled and ebbed across the table.

"So, uh...Xander?" Buffy prompted.

"Yeah, Harris, what the bloody hell is this?" added Spike. When Buffy looked back at him, the vampire was holding up a handful of plastic packaging. "Innit usually you at the helm o' the SS We Hate Spike?"

"Oh, c'mon, guys," Xander grumbled. "I'm not always like that."

Spike's snort of derision got lost in a flood of the same.

"Okay, fine," Xander said. "Then how 'bout we just say that that ship has sunk, and I've had to circle back around for something with a few more bells and whistles. People change. It's 'bout time I did, too, don't you think?"

While they were openly wary, the gang seemed to settle at that, and Buffy reached for a slice of veggie as the rest of her friends began serving themselves. The store was quiet for a minute or two as they ate.

"Look," Xander continued after a few mouthfuls, "yesterday, I was literally out in the middle of nowhere, and we were on the verge of some pretty nasty, definitely final, end-of-the-world shit." Gesturing in a forward motion with his hand, he added, "I'm talking, racing towards hell at the speed of light in a pink, polka-dotted handbasket shit." Xander pointed the pizza-less hand inward toward his chest. "I'm afraid that this, my fine friends, was the only way to stop it."

Utter silence reigned, and for several long seconds no one even chewed.

Then Spike groaned and rolled his eyes. "Bloody hell, the world is doomed," the vampire lamented.

"You took the words right out of my mouth," added Giles.

It wasn't the first time Spike had ever heard someone say they'd traveled through time. He'd come across a number of demons who'd said they could—for all he knew, some may've been able to do it—and a few lunatic humans who'd been minimally convincing. When your unlife spans an eternity, you can pretty much bet the bank you're gonna see and hear some craziness. He'd gotten pretty good at deciphering between the barm and the bona fide. The Whelp, it appeared, was telling the truth.

From a purely physiological standpoint, Spike hadn't sensed any of the bodily changes that typically accompany a lie. Harris' blood pressure and pulse stayed pretty normal. There'd been no variation in his breathing. Instead of the slightly sour odor that indicated deceit and anxiety, the scent emanating from the boy's pores was its normal combination of artery-clogging junk food and lily-white guilelessness. That wasn't how Spike knew, though.

It was that deep-down feeling he'd gotten the instant he'd overheard the Scoobies' conversation, long before Xander had even uttered the words "I'm from the future." It was that soddin' king's name, and it had brought it all rushing back, compelling him up from the cellar and out onto the magic shop floor. Eighty bloody years since that night in Rome, and Spike could suddenly recall every second of it in the finest of detail, as if it was only yesterday.

It wasn't as if he'd forgotten. Not that night nor the year of nights he'd spent afterwards, poring through endless dusty reference books in search of a cipher to decode Dru's prattle. Somewhere along the way, he'd boxed it all up and put it on a shelf in the back corner of his mind. Moved on to the next tasty morsel, searched the world for the next bout of fangs and fisticuffs.

But now it was back, front and center, thanks to Harris. Memories of Dru and Alisher's folly and the destiny he was tied to. Reminding Spike just how much he hated playing pawn to the bloody Fates. He was the master of his own domain, and he answered to no one, most especially not some soddin' source of meddlin' mystical energy that was free to weave and clip the threads of his destiny into some massive White Hat tapestry.

Those sorts of ideals were much more befitting of the poncey William, whose comfort came in the form of an ever powerful Victorian God, creator of all things, able to affect as well as shoulder the fate of the world. Bugger that. And now, the fact that Spike's big, bloody destiny arrived out of nowhere, on the backside of the soddin' Whelp, in all his time travelin', wanna-be, sidekick glory? Well, didn't that just leave a taste in his mouth that was worse than a rancid, three-day-old blood clot.

"So let's say we do believe you."

Buffy's voice halted Spike's inner turmoil, and he gazed in her direction. She was chewing the inside of her lip, and he found himself aching to have a taste of his own. Quit staring, you prat.

"Does that, like, make you some kind of Xander McFly?" she asked, her green eyes wide and adorable. "Do you, like, have a fading photo in your back pocket? Maybe there's some unsuspecting couple you've been sent back to throw together?"

"Uh, well..." Xander stammered, his eyes glancing at Spike, then to Buffy, then to Spike, then back to Buffy again.

Giles wiped his mouth on a paper napkin, cleared his throat as he reached for his tea, and said, "And, uh, you say you were in Africa?"

It came out sounding more statement than question, but Xander nodded.

"What the hell were you doing there?" Spike asked, considering the perpetual sunshine and dusty sand, and thinking, Been there, done that, don't need the t-shirt.

The boy just shrugged. "Went to see a man about a girl."

It was the way Harris said it, and the way he studied Spike as if he was waiting for a reaction. It sent a chilling feeling of déjà vu down the back of his undead neck. Mingled with the knowing feeling deep down in his belly—though he had no idea what it was that he knew—Spike was rendered speechless.

"You, went to see a man?" prompted Giles, glancing uncertainly from Spike to Xander.

Harris nodded and chuckled. "Spent a few months traveling down the eastern coast of Africa," he said, ripping his crust into pieces and stuffing a chunk in his mouth. "Ended up in the Kalahari Desert, in a shaman's hut out in the middle of BFE." He swallowed, took another bite, and then tipped his chin at the watcher. "On the advice of a friend of yours, actually."

Giles' head tilted in curiosity. "Oh?"

"Yeah, Patrick something or other," Xander replied. "Ex-watcher and British like you, but the kind of British that's heavy on the blimey's and much less tweedy-sounding. Think he lives somewhere near Zimbabwe. At least that's where I was when you told me to call him."

The watcher's mouth dropped open as if to comment, then he snapped it shut. He opened it again, poised to speak. Closed it once more.

"Uh, Xander," Buffy remarked as her watcher floundered like a guppy. "I think you broke Giles."

"Havin' a Boo Radley moment, are we?" asked Spike with a smirk.

"A rather spectacular one, actually," Giles acknowledged. "Xander, I haven't spoken to Patrick Strum in more than a decade. Are you quite sure?"

Xander only nodded, shrugged, and stuffed another piece of crust into his mouth.

Giles looked around uneasily as the thought settled. "And this shaman...was it he who sent you back?"

"Um, well," Xander considered, then shrugged again. "Guess so, in a roundabout way."

"Harris?" Spike asked. "This shaman bloke...he didn't happen to offer you a bit o' Kool-Aid, did he? Give you a choice between a red n' a blue pill?"

The boy rolled his eyes, but then froze, tiny movements in his eyebrows indicating he was actually pondering Spike's question. "Actually, I guess I was kinda given a choice," he finally admitted. "A little less suicidal Morpheus, though, and more...I don't know...pre-boss power-up?"

"How much of a pre-boss power-up are we talkin' here?" Spike asked. "End-of-the-board boss or end-of-the-game boss?"

"Oh, I'd say this one was definitely end-of-the-game," the Whelp answered.

""I don't get it. What's the difference?" asked the Slayer, eyebrows askew with confusion.

"With the bosses at the end of a world or at the end of a level," interjected Tara, "you hit 'em a couple of times and they die. They're easy to beat...and you don't really need a whole lot of power to do it."

Willow glanced up at her girlfriend in surprise.

"What? I used to play Mario with my cousins." Tara smiled before continuing. "It takes a whole lot more hits to kill the big boss and beat the game, though, so you usually need a little boost at the end—you know, extra life, firepower, a mushroom, whatever. That way, you can finish the job without dying."

Buffy considered. "Okay, that makes sense. So your time jump...that was the power up?"

"No, not exactly," Xander said. "I actually got juiced a little before that. The jump was sort of a way to warp back to the beginning." Looking pleased with the analogy he'd chosen for his explanation, he added, "And I didn't have to give up the points or the experience we won beating all the bosses in between."

"All the bo— Wait. Hang on there, horsey," said the Slayer. She closed her eyes, raised her hand in a halting gesture. "You say you were in 2003, right?"

Spike watched Xander wait for Buffy to open her eyes before he nodded.

"And you jumped back after beating boss-ES?" She placed extra emphasis on the syllable pluralizing the word. "As in, more than one big bad, right?"

The boy nodded again.

"How many, Xander?"

"Oh, I don't know, five or six, give or take the handful of little guys thrown in between," he answered.

"Okay. And...we beat Glory?" Buffy's question ended on an upswing, laced with hopefulness.

"Yeah, we did," Xander affirmed. "And yeah, that means I know what she wants, and how it's all gonna go down. I also know a few things Glory's trying to keep secret that would poke some pretty big holes in her defense. The kinda stuff we didn't know about last time until it was almost too late."

That one surprised Spike, and he glanced at the Slayer. The expression on her face told him the thought of an easier Glory defeat was starting to eat away at her doubt in Harris' story. He'd known she'd come around eventually, and he didn't blame her initial hesitation. After all, he knew the Whelp was soundin' and actin' like a rat arsed lunatic.

But the more he thought about it….

Eight decades ago, a lucid Dru had warned him to be wary of Alisher's folly. Eighty years later, the Whelp suddenly promoted himself from carpenter to time traveler, spouting stories about Alisher's daughter making some big bad return.

The two were connected somehow, and it was enough to convince him that Harris was telling the truth about the rest.

To be sure, though, he asked, "And you're sayin' this somehow ties in with the Layla bird, eh?"

Xander nodded slowly, considering his words. "We made some...mistakes that we can't make again. Ones that started a chain of events that just kept getting worse and worse." He looked down at his lap. "I'm pretty sure it's the whole reason I was sent back to this point in time. This is where the change has to be made. I think if we can take what the shaman told me, and use it to tweak what I remember from beating Glory, we can probably avoid knocking over that first domino. 'Cause the one at the end of the line is the one that opens the door for Layla."

"Aw, look," said Spike, his voice all mock doting father. "Our wittle baby's all growed up and concerned about savin' the world. In't he cute?"

"Shut up, Spike," came Buffy's and Xander's voices in near-perfect unison.

Giles cleared his throat and pointed at the notepad in front of Dawn, nodding his thanks when the youngest in the group slid it across the table in his direction.

"Then I guess we had better get started," the watcher said. He drew a pen out of his breast pocket and put it to the paper. "Xander, what exactly do you remember about defeating Glory?"