Pearls Before Swine: Epilogue -

"So if you should see me, say hello (I won't invite you in)" -

Thursday September 17, 1998; Chase Manor, late afternoon/early evening.

Cordelia pulled the Vision XLR into the driveway, stopping at the gate. Pushing in the clutch, she set the gearshift to neutral and engaged the parking brake before reclining her seat back and unbuckling the safety belt.

"Hoo boy," blowing out a breath, she turned in her seat to look at Xander, her eyes bright.

"I'll see your 'hoo boy' and raise you one of Giles' 'bloody hells'," Xander said. Reclining his own bucket seat back, he stretched tiredly before turning back to her and taking her right hand in his own. Intertwining his fingers with hers, he turned their hands over to look at the mated rings, side by side.

"'Vous et nul autre'," she remarked.

"You, and no other," Xander's lips quirked up at the corners. "I was afraid I was losing you."

"You almost did," Cordelia said, looking pensively out the windshield. "A part of me kept wondering why it was taking you so long to notice," she looked back, capturing his eyes. "But you did, didn't you." It wasn't a question, not really.

"Yup. It was kinda hard to miss," Xander admitted. "Figuring out 'to what' and what to do about it took longer."

Cordelia nodded, rubbing the back of his hand in slow strokes with her thumb. "I couldn't really think well enough to figure that out. And I kept losing more all the time."

"Yeah. Quiet, shy Cordy was kinda scary," Xander said. "I wanted mean, bitchy, feisty Cordy back."

"Hah! Flatterer," she stuck her tongue out at him.

Xander laughed, his expression sobering abruptly. "Are you really ok?"

"No." Cordelia shuddered. "I feel... unclean. And like I don't fit in my own skin any more. It wouldn't have been so bad if all of that came from whatever spell Hideyoshi was using... "

"But it wasn't," Xander agreed, looking away.

"And you'd know that, wouldn't you." That wasn't a question either, and Xander answered it with a terse nod.

"Willow is so going to freak," Cordelia remarked. "We may never get her back."

"And you guys were doing such a good job of un-Willowing her, too," Xander laughed. He shook his head, "I'll bet she blames part of it on the fashion makeover."

"Probably," Cordelia snickered, and cut it off abruptly when it threatened to turn into an ugly, broken sound. "Did you guys ever figure out why he picked us for play toys?"

"No. Never," Xander shook his head. "Too busy trying to unscramble 'what and how' to worry about 'why'." His eyes narrowed and he added, "Oz and Jonathan came up with the Circe thing. Not sure if that explains it any."

"I'll ask Giles," she said. Cordelia laughed again, "Poor Oz - he's never going to be able to go back to being Mr. Slacker-Underachieving. Too many people know he's brilliant now. And poor Jonathan: he's managed to get dragged in with the rest of us freaks." She grinned, "How did you get Tamara involved?"

"She involved herself," Xander grinned back at her. "Her and Amy barged in demanding to know what was up and why we were sitting around with our thumbs up our butts."

"Oh, man! I'll bet Giles' expression was priceless," Cordelia snickered, starting to laugh harder.

"Oh yeah," Xander said, laughing. "We thought he was gonna have a very tweedy cow, right there on the research table."

"I'll bet," Cordelia said. "I'm not all right, but I will be. Thanks." Xander nodded, and she added, "A part of me desperately wants to open the gate and drive in, drag you into the pool house, and frantically make some good memories to scrub all this crap out of my brain."

Xander's eyebrows went up, and she shook her head. "And the parents are home, so that wouldn't fly."

"They are?" Xander glanced up the driveway to the house.

"Lights are on in Daddy's study and den. No one else goes up there," Cordelia said, nodding. "So... I'm going to settle for a long, hot bath, and putting on my pajamas and curling up in bed around that idiotic shaggy stuffed dog you won me at the Pier."

"Instead of around the shaggy, doglike idiot?" Xander asked, his mouth quirking up into a half grin.

"Yup. Instead of," she agreed. Cordelia frowned, her eyes troubled. "Faith."

"Is going to be freaked on a Willow level of freakage, I'm afraid," Xander said, his own eyes darkening.

"That bad?"

"That bad," Xander said, not volunteering anything further. Cordelia searched his face for long moments, then nodded.

"You should go after her and find her," she said, finally.

"Thought you said she needed alone time?" Xander's eyebrows drew downwards.

"She's had alone time," Cordelia stated. "And if it's that bad, now she needs friend and partner time." She locked his eyes, not breaking the gaze, "What was it your friend told Giles?"

"Not a 'friend'," Xander stated, his voice emphatic. Nodding, he finished with, "We take care of our own?"

"Yup. That." Cordelia's lips quirked up at the corners in a half smile. "And I'd go with, but I'm not really hanging on too good here myself."

"All right," Xander drew a deep breath, and leaned over to kiss his girlfriend throughly. "I'm glad you're back," he said, leaning back to open the passenger door.

"Uh, how's the hip?" Cordelia examined him carefully.

"Heh. Funny - since Hideyoshi put his whammy to us, it hasn't hurt a bit," he said. "Go figure." Closing the door, he leaned over it for a second, drinking her in with his eyes before turning away. "See you tomorrow. Get better."

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From the personal Journals of Rupert Giles, Watcher:

And so the rather intense three day affair of our altered compatriots draws to a close, finally. And, best of all, with a successful resolution that did not entail losses amongst any of those afflicted by Mr. Hideyoshi's sorcery.

(Please refer to the appended lengthy description of the course of events, my own observations, and description of our resolution of the nasty business in the latest section of my technical personal log for details - this personal journal is not the place for those notes.)

In all due honesty, it is only fair to note here that the resolution of this crisis owed very little to my own efforts and inputs, as much as I am chagrined to admit this. Rather, it was resolved through the efforts of those encompassed increasingly complex network of personal relationships surrounding my Slayer and her network of friend and partners - some of which predate Faith's arrival and can be traced back directly to Buffy Summers' impact upon these environs. I must commend Xander Harris and Daniel Osborne for taking it upon themselves to make competent and inspired use of the varied talents as they were presented with them.

I must also note that a great deal of that usage was accomplished despite my reservations. I find myself with more than a bit of consternation at the fact that I can see our small and tightly knit circle widening before my eyes to include new compatriots of unknown merit and uncertain discretion. There is nothing about this development that meets with the approval of my 'Inner Watcher', as it were, the part of myself that was thoroughly trained in the means and methods of supporting a Slayer in the field.

A pity. I had rather thought that I strangled that little bastard in its sleep some number of months ago. By now, one would think I should be rather well used to the fact that in practice, there is nothing about the practicalities of providing field support and guidance for a Slayer that is envisioned within the confines of traditional Watcher's training.

Or so one would think. I must also admit that I meet these developments with a jaundiced view at best. Four teenagers plus a young Slayer were more than enough without adding additional teens to the mix.

It is with even deeper regret that I must also note here my deep disquiet stemming from my final conversation with two of young Xander's associates. 'Conversation' being an inadequate descriptive for the exchange, as it were...

Despite my best efforts, I continually encounter the indisputable fact of the matter that my efforts to break from my Watcher's indoctrination and attempt to meet with the requirements of the Hellmouth on its own terms are wholly inadequate, at best. At this writing, I cannot divorce myself from a feeling of deep shame and regret when recalling the words of Tor Hauer and Ms. Barrie to me upon my casual attempt to suggest my availability for discussion with them regarding lingering effects of their former hyena possession.

A great length of time may pass before I am able to rid myself of the unease engendered by Tor Hauer's flat and chilling tone as he rebuffed my overture. Longer before I may forget the flat, impersonal, and casual dismissal in Ms. Barrie's eyes as she allowed that the time for such overtures had long since died aborning and they were no longer welcome.

The shame enters when I realize that I cannot deny that there is indeed merit to their flat contempt regarding my belated inquiry. At the time of the occurrence, it had simply not entered my mind that outside of the confines of our group, there were four other children who might be in need of some overture of assistance in dealing with their own fallout from those events. Nor did it occur that such an offer was well demanded by my professionalism as a Watcher, if not by mere, basic humanity. I allowed my distaste for the circumstances of their actions while possessed to stand in the way of my duty as both Watcher and man, abandoning them to their own resources to deal with the after effects, and that is something that is simply unforgivable.

It cannot help but occur to me that a part of my unease at widening our circle stems from the fact that young Amy Madison is yet another stark reminder of my failures. She also is another young individual that I left abandoned to her own devices following what surely had to be a traumatic experience with dark magic at her mother's hands. That she appears, outwardly at least, to seemingly have escaped without great maladjustment is entirely due to no efforts of myself - the supposed 'professional' at these matters within our group.

Bear in mind that I speak here of my personal sense of professionalism, as opposed to the professional ethic ingrained into a Watcher - there is a difference.

By the professional ethics of the Watcher's Council, I have done no wrong in any of these instances. I repeat: no wrong whatsoever. A Watcher is dedicated solely to the protection and enabling of his Slayer: to make certain that she is able to fight, and that she is unimpeded in that fight by interference from outsider's awareness of her struggles. It is a Watcher's task to assist in the maintenance of that secrecy at all costs,regardless of what that assistance my entail, nor how personally repugnant the Watcher may find those tasks. We are not charged with the protection of innocents in this war, merely with the preservation of the world and life through the destruction of that which threatens it.

Quite simply: my avocation does not permit me the luxury of providing aid and succor to those innocents swept into the fight or damaged by it via the actions of forces not under their control. It is merely my ethic as a man that seems increasingly to demand that of me.

And, to be honest, my intelligence and a rather remorseless sense of logic: if we who make this our avocation and profession do not attempt to salvage those touched by the darkness, then we potentially leave behind us the seeds of new enemies if those tainted become drawn deeper into its influences rather than finding within themselves the strength to withdraw on their own. There can be no clearer evidence than the two former Pack members and Ms. Madison themselves: it is apparent to the casual eye that Tor, Heidi, and Amy Madison have the potential to be very dangerous individuals. Turned to the path of an Ethan Rayne, for example, by lack of other influences, at some point they could prove to be deadly danger to both Slayer, Watcher, and bystander alike. Of what use is the Council's dedication if its ethic enables and encourages the breeding of new threats wherever its agents have pursued its letter?

However, be that as it may, my supposed personal professionalism seems to have been nowhere in evidence these past two years. I do quite wonder where it wandered off to, and if it may be possible to retrieve it before its loss becomes irrevocable. It is my earnest hope, no matter how futile it may prove, that I shall fare better at the tasks of helping those children who are directly under my care to deal with this latest of traumas. I wince upon considering what effects these past three days events must be having upon the minds and spirits of my Slayer and those associated with her - of all people, I am intimately familiar with the disquieting nature of possession effects.

Being locked within one's own body, watching while something Other moves you about to its will is more than merely disquieting. 'Disquieting' is a soddingly inadequate term.

I shudder to consider how my somewhat fragile Slayer is currently coping with the memories of whatever things passed between her and young Harris, in addition to the actions she was forced to commit whilst in combat. (I am aware that a great number of things were left unspoken in Xander's terse description of the events at Hideyoshi's residence.)

And, as if that were not sufficient, we still have the small matter of Dacascos' assassins to consider and deal with. I suppose that it says something remarkable about perspectives that, at the moment, I do consider it a 'small matter', at best.

We potentially have much darker demons to potentially grapple with than mere assassins. May the gods help us.

- Rupert Giles, Watcher; In this Year of Our Lord 1998, September the 17th.

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"It's always nice to see you, dear (I really haven't many friends)" -

Thursday September 17, 1998; the Pier at Sunnydale Palisades, night.

"Hey."

For a long, long moment, he didn't think that the dark haired figure sitting cross legged at the end of the pier was going to acknowledge his soft spoken comment, or him. She hadn't acknowledged his approach as he'd slowly and casually made his ambling way down the long dock to the end.

Studying her, it struck him once again how startlingly small a girl Faith was when you really looked at her, especially when you had to look past the larger than life impact she projected on your mind's eye.

"How'd you find me?" Drawing up her legs in front of her, she wrapped her arms around them and leaned her chin on her knees, still looking out.

Xander took the calm question and the movement to be as much of an invitation as he was likely to get. Ambling the rest of the way up, he creakily took a seat on the dock boards next to her, a foot or so away.

"Oh," Xander made a vague gesture. "Followed my nose."

That got a sidelong flash of dark eyes, followed by a derisive sounding snort. No smile, small or otherwise.

"Ok, bad joke," Xander admitted. "Last place I looked. Went by your motel, the Bronze, Willy's, the diner, and all five main cemeteries," pausing, he added, "Then I remembered you liked the beach."

"Doofus." That came with another flash of dark eyes, followed by an almost inaudible, "How's Cordy?"

"Dealing." Xander shrugged. "I think she's more shook up than she's saying, but... what do I know about women?"

"Huh." That wasn't an agreement nor an argument. Xander sighed. Turning her head slightly, Faith met his eyes briefly. "Don't remember inviting you to sit."

"You didn't invite me not to," Xander pointed out. That got the expected snort, slightly better humored this time.

"Thought I said I wanted to be left alone," Faith remarked in a soft, casual tone. She might as well have been remarking on the quality of the waves beyond the pier.

"You did that," Xander agreed, nodding. "Only in the way that wasn't quite in those words, sorta." Turning his head to look at her directly, he stated, "I got to remembering that a couple of days ago, a friend of mind reminded me that partners and friends remember to take care of each other."

There was a long silence to that, followed by, "That was yesterday, goof."

Xander laughed softly, and ran a hand through his hair. He shrugged, "Yeah, well. It's been a really long day."

Faith's laugh was soft, and strained, but still musical. "That it has." She turned her head again to look at him, not meeting his eyes. "I don't see how you can want to look at me after all that. Much less be here."

Shrugging again, Xander was quiet for a long time. Finally, "I tried to rape Buffy, that time when I was hyena ridden. And I savaged Willow pretty bad."

Faith's eyes came up to his and she stared at him. Xander hunched uncomfortably. "You guys didn't tell me that," she said.

"Yeah, well," Xander's face was expressionless. "Not one of my finer moments."

After a long quiet moment, Faith nodded, still searching his eyes. "Right. So, how'd you stop?"

Shaking his head, Xander said. "Didn't. Buffy clocked me with a desk and locked me in the library cage."

Faith snickered, shaking her head. "That'd do it. You hit me with a refrigerator."

"It was a small refrigerator?"

"Right." Turning back to the ocean, she rested her chin on her upraised knees again. "It wasn't the possession. I wanted to do that - wanted you like that. I'd have done Cordy that way too, if she'd come there instead."

"No, it was the possession," Xander said, slowly. "And it was us, too. It kinda... dredged out things we wouldn't do, but maybe wanted, kinda, and did them for us."

"Like sitting inside your head watching yourself do something?" Faith's voice was quiet. At least she hadn't responded with 'bullshit', as Xander had half expected.

"And horrified because it might be something you wanted to do, but you wouldn't have done it like that," Xander said, just as quietly. "Would you?" He flicked his gaze sidelong to watch her.

"No." Faith's voice was hesitant. After a moment, she moved her head up and down against her knees. "No," her voice was more decisive this time.

"Right." Xander nodded. "There you go." Something caught his eye, and he reached out hesitantly to trace the purplish outline of a bruise at the side of her forehead. "Was that from the fight?"

"No." Faith shook her head gently. After a bit, she said, "Demon. With some kind of bony crap on his head. Jumped me outside of the beach front district - I left his head on top of his chest."

"Ah." Xander considered that. "Nice of him to provide you some stress relief."

Nodding, Faith uncurled from her sitting position gracefully, rising to her feet in one smooth motion. Putting down a hand, she grasped Xander's when he put his up and hauled him up to his feet. "Thanks. For stopping me." She slid her arm around his waist and fell in beside him, turning back to the front of the pier.

"Partners do that," Xander said. "Or so I'm told."

Glancing up at him, Faith nodded, her face serious. Using her arm around his waist, she swung him around carefully and pushed him up against one of the pier uprights. Xander looked down at her, his eyebrows going up, and his expression startled as he grasped her gently by the arms.

Slowly, very carefully, Faith lifted herself on her toes and leaned in, her eyes very dark and very serious. Putting her hands on his shoulders, she pulled his head down to met hers, kissing him deeply, hungrily, and very intensely. Xander's hands jerked away from her as if she was scalding, his eyes wide and shocked as she pulled back.

"Whoa! Hey," Xander shrank back away as far as the pillar would let him. "Cordy... I... " Faith stopped him with a finger over his lips.

"That was me," she said, her eyes very bright, dark, and very intense. "Me. Not something riding in my head and playing fucking games with whatever it finds there. There's a difference." Her lips curling up at the corners, she cocked her head, watching him intently. "I had to know. Understand?" Dropping back down to her heels, she turned around slowly and leaned back against him, folding her arms under her breasts.

Very slowly, Xander brought his own arms back and wrapped them around her waist under hers. "Not a bit," he admitted. "But I'm kinda used to that by now."

After a long while, their heads turned to the sound of footsteps coming down the pier towards them, watching the approaching figure. Cordelia came to a stop next to them finally, wearing what had to be the brightest red blouse in her closet and a blindly white wrap-around sarong style skirt that revealed a long length of leg with every stride. She fixed them with a brilliant but slightly forced looking version of the megawatt grin, clutching a plastic bag casually in one hand.

"Hey."

"Hey, back," Faith nodded. "How'd you find us?"

"I uh, called her from the pier when I spotted you," Xander stated. Raising an eyebrow, he added, "Thought you'd be marinated and curled up in bed by now?"

Taking one of his hands and peeling it away from Faith's waist, Cordelia slipped into his arm on that side, bumping Faith with a hip. "Scoot over and share the Xander."

"Don't wanna," Faith grumbled, but she slid over and let Cordelia in, leaning against Xander's other side.

"Tough," Cordela stated. "Did. Then I decided I really didn't want to spend time alone in my head right now. So... "

"So." Faith nodded. "Whatcha got in the bag?"

"Movies," Cordelia said, leaning up for a long kiss from Xander. Breaking off from it finally, she added, "'Pretty Woman' and 'Thelma and Louise'. Still early - I figured we'd go over to Joyce's, eat leftovers and ice cream, and get some surrogate mothering."

Faith's lips curled up at the corners and she nodded. Xander snorted, "Pretty Woman?"

"Don't whine," Cordelia said. "It has nude Julia Roberts in a bubble bath. And there's violence, car chases, and explosions for the Y-chromosomes."

"I withdraw my pathetic whining," Xander said. "I thought you were going to call Mrs. S to cancel?"

"Did." Cordelia nodded. "Called her back and asked if it was ok." She grinned, "Figured Faith and I needed to get in touch with our inner girls and our inner bitches more than we needed to mope tonight."

"Hah!" Faith shook her head, snickering. "Sounds good. But I didn't know you ever lost touch with your inner bitch, Cordy."

"Well, it was touch and go there for a bit, but she yet lives," Cordelia allowed. Glancing up at Xander, she said softly, "It's like this for you all the time, isn't it?"

Xander's brows drew down for a long moment, then he puzzled it out and nodded. "Yeah."

Cordelia nodded, her eyes serious. Biting her lower lip gently, she said, "I didn't understand before." After a moment, she added, "Now I just wish I didn't."

Faith met her eyes across Xander's chest and nodded seriously as well, asking quietly, "Does it get easier?"

"No," Xander said after a long time. "But it gets dimmer."

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The End

To be Continued in the Alternate BtVS Season 3 Episode 3: "A Face in the Crowd"

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Author's Note: the chapter titles - and some section headings - are slightly filked versions of the lyrics to "Counting Flowers on the Wall" by Lew DeWitt of the The Statler Brothers. The warped mind of the Author decided he liked the contrast of the sentiments with the events in the chapters they're heading.