At the top of the ladder in the middle of the room, Xander Harris paused in unwrapping the miniature Tootsie roll, rolled his remaining eye, sighed, and said in a conversational tone, "Here, Faith." He knew quite well the sardonic Slayer would be able to hear him, despite being several rooms away on the ground floor and shouting for him at the top of her lungs. Heightened senses had their good points.
As he waited for Faith to show up, an evil grin suddenly appeared on Xander's face, shifting the protective eye-patch covering his left eye, as he finished taking off the paper from the candy. Looking at the door into the main dining room of the Cleveland Slayers House, the man counted down in his mind, and at the proper moment, he tossed the piece of chewy goodness towards the door in a high arc that almost hit the ceiling. Xander watched as the candy began its descent to its true target.
Abruptly pulling the door open, Faith Lehane stalked into the dining room, and without looking up, her left hand blurred upwards to snatch out of the air the small scrumptious cylinder that would have bounced off the top of her head. She brought her hand back down to pop the candy into her mouth, mumbling around it, "Thanks, stud."
"Anytime, Faith," amiably said Xander, descending from the ladder, and then bending down to pick up from the floor the Halloween 2007 banner with multiple happy pumpkins and glaring black cats shown along it, as if these latter creatures had been offended by their sign being dropped from their former position hanging from the ceiling of the room as part of last night's celebration.
As he straightened up and began to tidily fold the banner, preparing to put it away along with the rest of the Halloween decorations, Xander looked questioningly at the brunette Slayer. "What's up, Faith?"
"Ya expectin' any visitors today, Xander?"
The Head of the House blinked at the woman standing gracefully in her normal daywear of sneakers, jeans and her treasured souvenir t-shirt of 'BOSTON RED SOX - 2004 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS.' His head tilted in thought, and then Xander uncertainly shook his head. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"Just had a call. Guy said he was droppin' in, wanted to see ya, but only if it was okay. He'd be cool if ya said no, just check out the Hall of Fame, and then split. He'll call again in 'bout a hour, so whaddya think?"
The former Sunnydale resident looked baffled, and tentatively said, "Uh, Faith, it'd help if I had a little more information. Like, say, the name of the guy?"
Faith shrugged, enjoying how Xander's gaze was drawn to the sway of her braless breasts under her t-shirt. "That's what's kinda weird, which is normal for here, ya know? Anyways, he wouldn't tell me who he was. Just said you'd know, once I told ya what he said to me."
After a few moments, in which Faith's smirk met Xander's puzzled stare that gradually changed to a look of exasperation on his face, with the man finally admitting defeat in his annoyed, "What?"
"He just said, 'Halloween, nineteen-ninety-seven, and…." Faith's voice trailed off as she brought up her right hand holding a small slip of paper, and the woman then began to read off an eight-digit number. Once she'd finished this, Faith shot a curious glance at the man before her. Her inquisitive expression promptly changed to one of sheer shock.
Xander Harris, survivor of numerous unable-to-decide-the-plural-of-apocalypse, the man who had stared down Angelus, Scourge of Europe, the White Knight, able to calmly deal with the simultaneous PMS manifestation of a dozen teenage Slayers during a Cleveland blizzard while learning at the same time the House's emergency chocolate supply had run out, had now gone pale, and he was swaying on his feet, with his nerveless fingers dropping the Halloween banner to softly thud onto the floor.
In the Gulfstream executive jet, a man who'd celebrated his sixty-second birthday a month earlier placidly drank a bottle of water. After all, his mama had told him, "Don't worry your head over nothin' you can't help."
The man finished his drink and put away the empty bottle. He looked around the luxurious passenger area of the airplane a few minutes away from landing at Cleveland, and he had to admit, This beats all hollow havin' to wait for them pretty airline ladies to get 'round to you. Guess I was right not hurtin' my fambly's feelin's, turnin' this fancy plane down. It does get me round the country at a right clip, for lookin' at my places.
His kindly face slowly turned into a frown, as he thought of an objection he should have made back then. Still, I liked talkin' to folks on the plane with me. They was always right in'rested hearin' what my mama tole me.
As his eyes teared up, the man pulled out a crisp handkerchief from his front shirt pocket and dabbed at his face. Oh, mama. Wish you was here. You'd know the right thing to say. Can't figger how to tell somebody 'bout a certain Halloween.
Putting back the handkerchief into his shirt pocket, the man's hand brushed against a rectangular metal object pinned to his suitfront. He unconsciously stroked it, his face once again crumpling in misery and then firming. When he'd last worn the honor itself that the object symbolized to a funeral at Arlington several months ago, the man had realized then that it was time to make a decision that he had been putting off for a decade.
The man's thoughts drifted to a certain night in an Asian jungle forty years ago. I knowed right after that it wasn't no dream. It was real. But I couldn't talk to nobody 'bout it 'cause it was just too crazy. Who'd believe monsters were real and in a small Californy town?
Even now, decades later, the memories were still sharp. Fighting in a suburb against creatures of the night, meeting a red-haired girl ghost who called him a name different from what he'd been born with, and protecting another girl all spiffed up in one of them fancy dresses, and frankly, who was as dumb as a rock. All my life, I been called thick in the head, and lemme tell ya, I was a zillion times smarter than her.
But the most important part of it all was the boy.
The man looked unseeingly out of the airplane window. He was as scared as me, not knowin' what was goin' on, but he kept tryin' to help. He tole me to lissen to the tree-girl, take care of the other, the one with the funny name. Woulda done it hisself, but he couldn't, so he trusted me to do it. Nobody 'sides my fambly ever trusted me that much. Couldn't let him down, so I done it.
A sigh was heaved by the man. I never even found out what happened to 'em all. Woke up in Veetnam, back in my head, which I 'most burst thinkin' 'bout it all. Still, that wasn't all bad, considerin' what came after.
His face tightening, the man remembered a sudden ambush, the crack of bullets going past his head, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, frantically firing at the enemy, retreating as ordered, and then realizing he'd left behind his buddies, running back to carry the wounded to safety over and over again, until when he was taking the last one out, he got hit.
Of his best friend dying, when he couldn't do anything.
Allus wondered if the boy was with me, then. Would I done it all, if him and me hadn't been together that night? I knowed he had lotsa hurts in his life, but he wasn't beat down by it. He woulda died to protect his own. Anythin' thrown at him, he stood on his feet and faced it. Never gave up, no sir.
Well, after that, I got on with my life. Stopped thinkin' 'bout it, 'cause there was nothin' I could do. Didn't know where that place was, exactly, or even who I was with. Just heard first names and things that didn't mean nothin' to me, at least 'til thirty years later, when I saw cars and other stuff that looked right for that place.
The man looked downcast, recalling justifications for doing nothing back then that still applied but continued to bother him. Even if you coulda found the place, you was fifty-two years old, with bad knees, lotsa folks dependin' on you for their jobs, and your own boy who needed lookin' after. What was you gonna do anyways, dumbass?
So, for the next decade, he'd only wondered. Until finally the death of his former commanding officer that had turned into his closest friend and the upcoming ten-year anniversary of that holiday caused him to come to the realization that he needed to come to terms with perhaps the most disturbing event of his life.
Okay, maybe you don't haveta run full out right at this, but you gotta do it.
His mama would have said that much more properly, but then, she was Mama.
Once his mind had been made up, things had happened a bit faster than he had expected. He had called into his high-toned office one of them clever fellas working for him, taking care of those computer thingies, and asked if that guy could find for him a place and people living there, even if he wasn't right sure about their names. Once assured it was indeed possible, as long as there was enough information, he had turned over a short list of scrawled names:
Sun-somethin' for the town.
Gils or Guys, maybe.
All in Californy, somewhere, 'bout ten years ago, with somethin' really strange happenin' on Halloween.
Well, smack him in the ribs and call him gravy, but it didn't take much more than a few hours, including lunch, for the guy to come back looking as if he'd taken a punch between the eyes and holding a few sheets of paper, that was promptly handed over, with the guy right there leaving the office like his pants was on fire.
Reading the papers, the man now in the executive jet could see why his employee didn't want to know more. That Sunnydale place….phew! So many people dying that the undertakers musta been working faster than a one-armed paperhanger, and ending with the whole place going under in the biggest gosh-darned sinkhole that even the whole South couldn't match.
Well, at least some of the people on his list had lived through that, scattering 'round the entire world. It had turned out that who he wanted to talk to the most was the closest. In Cleveland, of all places.
Now, it was time to see if Alexander LaVelle Harris would meet him. And maybe, during everything else, he could find out just why the heck that guy had that middle name.
The man pulled out a cell phone from his jacket and tapped the re-dial button for the Jenny Calendar Memorial House for Gifted Women.
Xander ignored this order, continuing to pace back and forth across the four occupied chairs in front of him in the main living room of the Slayers House.
That command, delivered in a perfect Joyce Summers mom-voice, bypassed the man's brain, going right down his body to make his knees bend at the exact moment he was by an armchair, causing him to abruptly fall into that seat, knowing a single second before or after this was uttered would have had him collapsing in a quivering heap of sweating guilt right down on the floor.
Buffy Summers smirked, enjoying the admiring glances from the seated others at her sides, and directed her next comments to the man across from her.
"Xander, no matter how much fun it's seeing you having a nervous breakdown, I want to know RIGHT NOW just why you called a 'Scooby Gang Code Blue', making us all rush here as fast as possible, even if that code means there's nothing really apocalyptic about to happen right at this moment."
The Slayer watched the one-eyed man's features shifting into their most stubborn cast, and the woman sighed.
"Okay, just remember you forced us to do this. Now, I could pout, Giles could polish his glasses at you, Willow could deliver her Resolve Face, and Faith could lick your ear….Say, Faith, does that really work in making him open up?"
"Nah, I just like doin' it," grinned the other Slayer lounging in her own chair at the far end from Buffy.
Buffy smiled at her former enemy and now friend, as the others chuckled. Switching her gaze back to the obstinate man, the blonde glowered, and called out, "Dawn, you're up!"
The door to the kitchen burst open, and a young woman with disheveled hair and an insane face rushed right at Xander Harris, waving an extremely long and sharp butcher knife in her right hand and holding something behind her back in her left hand. Skidding to a stop in front of an alarmed ex-carpenter, Dawn Summers blurred her arms in a course of actions that ended up with these in front of her, pressing the tip of the butcher knife against the wrapping of the colorful short cylinder held steadily in her other hand, the point of the knife dimpling the packaging and clearly ready to commit an atrocity against a classic snack food, as she shrieked, "TALK, OR THE TWINKIE GETS IT!"
A few moments later:
"Mmmff. Mfffmm. Muuurfmlmf."
Everyone's head turned to Willow, including Dawn now in her own chair and ostentatiously testing the edge of her knife, as they waited for the witch to translate what had passed through Xander's mouthful of golden sponge cake with creamy filling. Shrugging, the redhead said, "He either said 'Aardvarks acquire ants' or "At least I got a Twinkie out of it.'"
There was a gulp from the man, as he swallowed, and then his steady voice spoke. "Guys, Soldier-Boy is coming here."
This came from Buffy, Willow, and Giles, with Faith and Dawn remaining quiet but looking confused.
"Are you sure about this, Xander?" Willow said, beating out the others.
The man nodded, his face grave. "Absolutely, Wils."
Xander then pointed to Faith, who blinked at the others' attention. "When she passed on the message from the caller, it couldn't be anyone else."
"Huh?" Faith now looked totally lost. "What does a coupla numbers have to do with alla you gettin' your panties in a bunch?"
"Xander is referring, if I have this correct, to the person who possessed his body during the Halloween incident when Ethan Rayne" at the mention of the magician's and his former friend's name, Rupert Giles' face puckered as if he'd drunk a bad cup of tea, continuing, "cast a Chaos magic spell that caused all the costumes he sold to his customers take over their identities."
"Yep," nodded Buffy. "I wore an eighteenth-century noblewoman's costume and turned into a scared lady who had no memory or powers of the Slayer. Willow wore a ghost costume and became a real spirit, able to walk through walls."
"Oh, yeah!" said a wide-eyed Dawn. "It happened exactly….ten years ago, right?" Her voice had trailed off at the end of that sentence.
"Uh-oh," said Faith, looking around at the others' apprehensive faces. "Anniversaries in our line'a work aren't a good thing, you betcha. I got to Sunnydale after that, think I heard somethin' 'bout this a coupla times over the years, but you never really talked 'bout this. 'Cept ya guys don't 'zactly celebrate Halloween, just hang around and let others have fun."
The other three members of the original Scooby Gang had on their faces sour expressions that matched Giles' own. Xander tried to explain, "It was a record high point on the Sunnydale Weirdness Meter, Faith, and not something that we really enjoyed. It kinda spoiled the whole holiday for us, so we aren't that enthusiastic about celebrating Halloween."
Dawn grumped, "I never really had a good Halloween time after that. They just wouldn't do anything but stay home, not dress up or have a party."
Faith looked surprised. "Uh, what were you doin' on that Halloween? Were you…."
She was interrupted by Dawn shaking her head. "I was the Key then, remember? When the monks shoved all the fake memories into my head, all I got was an innocent night of trick-or-treating in another part of town with mom, with nothing happening."
"Oh." Faith looked a little uncomfortable, as the whole Dawn-not-existing-thing still weirded her out a little, despite knowing about it for years. Shifting back her gaze to Xander lost in his own thoughts and memories, she frowned and asked, "Say, on that night, you turned into a….soldier, right? And you think he's a real guy, and he's comin' here, to this house? How come?"
"You remember those numbers he gave you, that you told me? That was his Army serial number."
Giles was the first to overcome his astonishment that was shared by the others due to the man's answer. "Xander, I thought you didn't retain anything at this point from sharing your body with that….person."
"Now, yeah. I haven't even thought about it in years, much less tried to remember anything Soldier-Boy knew. They pretty much faded away, after---" Xander abruptly cut himself off, turning his face away from Faith's stiff features. The others were quiet, as they recalled an explosion that ended the Mayor's existence and destroyed a high school. After a few moments, the man continued, "Uh, well, for some reason, that one memory of his serial number really stuck in my head."
Willow gave her friend a serious Resolve Face, firmly asking, "Xander Harris! Why didn't you tell us about that? We could have researched him using those numbers, maybe finding out if he was still alive and remembered anything about that Halloween!"
"I, uh…" Xander looked shamefacedly at his friends, and then fumblingly continued. "I guess….I just didn't want to….bother him." Looking at the bogglement on everyone's face, he sighed. "He was, I could tell, a really okay guy. And….he got thrown right into the whole Sunnydale mess, and he helped us. All of us, then and later. I….liked him. So, I really didn't want to find out he was dead, either in combat or a normal end, or if he was still alive but screwed up because of what he went through in my hometown."
At that, Faith got out of her chair, walked over to Xander, and kneeling down by his own chair, she put her arms around him and gave him a soft kiss on his cheek. Xander put his own arms around Faith and hugged her back, hard. After a few moments, they pulled apart, the engaged pair looking at each other lovingly.
Finally, they heard the polite and unique sound of an upper-class Englishman clearing his throat, and both turned their attention to the quartet smiling at them, these four people enjoying seeing two of their family about to join their lives together despite all of the obstacles in their pasts. A beaming Willow cleared her own throat and allowed her face to become a bit more serious, as she took out a slip of paper from her skirt pocket.
"Xander, one of the reasons I got everyone here right after you called us was something that happened just before that. My technomage computer search engines spotted someone asking questions about us --- or rather, our names. At least, like our names." At that, she passed the slip of paper along the line of people, with varying expressions of shock and concern made by most of those there.
Dawn, however, had an entirely different reaction, happily spelling, "B-U-F-F-E-E. If you'd really been named that, you'd had no choice in your whole life except to give in, find friends named Muffy and Cookie, and star in Mattel Barbie and Burger King commercials as a child actress."
Buffy Summers stuck out her tongue at her hysterically giggling sister.
Rupert Giles ignored the byplay, instead studying the slip of paper as intently as any ancient tome prophesying the doom of the world, and slowly saying, "This seems to be the work of someone who never saw any of these names written down, only hearing them."
"Sounds right to me, Gils."
The Englishman closed his eyes and said with dismay in his voice, "You just now decided to call me something other than G-man for the rest of my life, didn't you, Xander?"
Smirking at his adopted-in-heart father, Xander opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was cut off by a sudden soft chime that resounded throughout the room. The man's face sobered into nervous worry, as he looked around. "That's the wards on the turnoff from the main street to the road here. It's about the time the guy should have gotten here."
He stiffly got to his feet, with Faith standing by him and putting her hand on his shoulder. Startled, Xander looked down into his fiancée's face, as she softly said, "You want me there, stud?"
He gave her a gentle smile, but then Xander firmly shook his head. "I….think I have to meet him alone, at first. I'll wait at the gate, and you can watch from the porch, okay?"
Faith opened her mouth to object, until she saw the pleading request in Xander's remaining eye. She blew out an exasperated breath, and instead grudgingly nodded, keeping in the back of her mind that if anything went wrong, somebody would pay. Totally.
A few minutes later, as arranged, five people stood on the front porch of the large building at the outskirts of Cleveland that had once been a small private school and was now, as far as the world knew, again serving that function for scholarship females from around the world.
Faith, standing with the others, tilted her head and momentarily distracted, uttered a grunt of satisfaction as she felt through her Slayer senses that the other warrior women were, per her orders, staying at the back of the house and in their rooms. A thin smile went across her face as she remembered telling them all, "Yeah, the Scooby Gang's comin' here, and you can meet 'em, ask dumb questions, and get their autographs. But not now. Later. We're gonna do somethin', and if we need your help, we'll ask for it. Until then, you stay out. Or else. Got that? Good."
The second oldest Slayer in the world then directed her attention back to where Xander had finished his walk down the front compound to the main gate, at the same time a yellow cab pulled up outside that entrance. Faith tensed, as Willow began making mystical gestures with her hands and staring at the mature man now getting out of the back seat of the cab, with the woman muttering under her breath, "Nothing bad so far, totally human --- well, there's the faintest trace of magic on him, but it's really old, which makes sense, let's look deeper --- YEEP!"
At Willow's yelp, Faith and Buffy stiffened, and would have blurred into Slayer speed towards Xander in the next moment, until they were stopped by Willow's quick comment, "It's all right! Just got a real surprise!"
"WHAT?!" was simultaneously snapped by the two Slayers still on the verge of action.
"It's --- well, I'm not sure how to say this --- but, that guy there, he's….good. No, make that all in capitals --- G-O-O-D. Really, really good."
"Good at what?" asked a puzzled and alarmed Dawn.
"Not being good at something. Just being good. Noble. Decent. Virtuous. Look, you know one of Xander's nicknames is the White Knight? Well, that guy there is what Xander might turn into in a few decades. He's as close to a saint as I've ever sensed."
A baffled Buffy choked, "But, but, wasn't he a soldier? How can that make him a saint?"
Giles quietly said, "Buffy, from the highest ranks to the lowest, history shows that being a soldier doesn't necessary make a man less decent, despite the horrors of war. There have been military saints, among them Michael and George. Even a woman soldier saint --- Joan of Arc."
Willow nodded, her eyes closed as she took another look with her mystic senses at the blazing glory that was the man waiting patiently at the main gate. "He did his duty, and protected those in arms with him. He fought and even killed, but he didn't do it in hate."
As everyone on the porch considered this, they watched as Xander touched the button on the side of the left post of the main gate, stepping back as it swung open. A couple of seconds later, all of those on the porch watched with total disbelief at what happened next.
The man who'd gotten out of the cab walked forward a few paces, past the gate, and then he stopped short, looking stunned as the young man before him snapped into frozen attention and delivered a perfect military salute.
For the first time in forty years, a direct conversation took place between these two men, and it started with, "Shoot, son, I ain't a soldier no more, so you don't need to do that. 'Sides, you wasn't in the forces anyways, not like them young fellers a few months ago at the funeral, who 'bout had their arms fall off greetin' me like that."
Xander Harris remained totally motionless, holding his posture and his stiff hand at his brow. Only the younger man's right eye flickered towards the older man's chest, where a rectangular metal ribbon with a simple design of a blue background superimposed by an arc of five white stars was pinned to the front of his suit.
The older man's face twitched in faint amusement, and he shrugged, "Well, if you really wanna…." Much more slowly, and with distinct popping and creaking noises, the visitor also came to attention, and returned the salute, taking the acknowledgement he was owed from every member of the armed forces of the United States, from the lowest private to the Commander-in-Chief, as a bearer of the Medal of Honor.
Back at the porch, the incredulity of those watching all this was interrupted by Dawn's sudden squeal of realization. "I KNOW that guy! He was in all the restaurant commercials on tv, back in Sunnydale!"
Everyone else at the house turned to stare at the young woman hopping in glee and peering at the two men at the gate. Her sister dazedly asked, "What, you mean Dave Thomas from the Wendy's ads? I thought that guy's dead!"
"NO!" huffed Dawn in exasperation. "The other one! You know…." As her voice trailed off, she took a deep breath, and lowering her voice as much as possible, she delivered in a perfect Southern accent the following phrases: "Y'all come down. We got fine eatin' right here."
At that, both Willow and Faith started to say, their voices intermingling in recognization, "I remember that too, Dawn! --- Yeah, I been to those places in Boston as a kid, when I scored some cash---," only to be drowned out by Buffy's groan.
"Dawn, you drove me and mom just about crazy, saying that every time we sat down at the table! I hoped you'd forgotten about that forever!" The older woman's look of irritation slowly turned into a bittersweet smile she shared with her sister. They both had long ago decided that even if the memories were fakes, the opportunity for them to remember Joyce Summers made up for their falsity.
Faith was suddenly distracted from watching the Summers sisters recall their mother as her Slayer senses brought to her ears the pain in Xander's voice.
"They're gone? ALL of them?"
She turned, along with Buffy, and the others who couldn't hear what the two woman could easily do so but were able to watch the two men walk slowly towards them and the saddened expression on the younger man's face.
"It's been forty years, son. The first, just a coupla weeks after we met, when I done what got me this." A wrinkled finger nudged the medal ribbon, as the older man continued. "The last, he lived through that and he was my friend later when he finally thanked me for savin' his life, and he had a fambly of his own, 'til his heart finally gave out this August. He's now at Arlington in Washington Deecee, where his pappy and grandpappy are, too." The sorrowful look on the man's face was also in his voice as he gently said, "Son, people you love are gonna leave, even if you don't want 'em to. I kin see on your face that you been through it, too."
Xander looked down at the ground as they continued walking together towards the house, and whispered, "Joyce. Anya. Cordy."
"That girl in the cat costume?" At that, the older man's arm reached out to gently pat Xander's shoulder. "I 'member her. She had a real tongue on her, didn't she?"
A faint smile managed to appear on Xander's face. "Yeah, she did."
"My mama tole me people die, but love don't. It keeps goin' on. See, I got me a boy of my own." The older man's face changed from sadness to pride, as he went on. "And he got him a wife. And they got the two cutest babies ever borned --- I got lotsa pictures here ---" The visitor now had an actual spring in his step as he reached back for his wallet.
"Ah, right. Uh, how about later? I mean, I'd like to introduce you to my family first," hastily said Xander.
The older man beamed at his escort as they got near the house, and asked, "You got married? That's right fine!"
"Not yet, the wedding's in six weeks --- she wants it on her birthday because she never had a happy one and she wants something else besides bad memories on that day --- say, you're invited, if you want to come---"
"Well, thank you kindly! I'd be more'n proud to come. Uh, son, which of 'em is she?" At the last, the visitor had nodded at the four women waiting for them at the porch, whose moods were lightened by hearing Xander's genuine laugh.
"She's the brunette by the blonde, sir. Her name's Faith."
"Good as gold, that name."
At that last comment, the two men reached and stepped into the porch, with Xander opening his mouth to start the introductions. "Sir, this is---"
He was interrupted by a real Southern whoop, as the man exclaimed, "The purty red-haired ghost who kept callin' me Zander! I 'member you!"
Willow blinked at her enthusiastic greeter, and she began to grin back at him, her own memories of that Halloween night rushing through her mind, driving her into an unplanned action. Taking two quick steps forward, the witch threw her arms around the startled man and hugged him, beginning to babble, "Thankyouthankyouwewerereallygladforyourhelpandyoudidsuchagreatjobkeepingussafe---" She was soon cut off by the man's returned hug that squashed her against him, with the woman not minding it at all, as the man's simple kindness that shone through all his life reached into her very soul, curing and relieving hurts that had lasted since Tara's death.
After a few moments, she pulled back out of the hug and looked up with damp eyes at the man's face peering down at her in gentle compassion. He jerked his head at a smiling Xander who was standing arm-in-arm with Faith next to him, and confided to the redhead, "Lissen, li'l lady, you can take it from me, that boy over there, he loves you like a big brother and he allus will. Now, lemme give you this---" At that, the man fumbled out a crisp handkerchief from his shirt pocket and he pressed it into her hands, stepping back and looking around with a smile on his face as Willow dabbed at her eyes.
Buffy had been watching all this with a dumbfounded expression on her own face, until she suddenly became aware of now receiving a startled look from their visitor, who exclaimed, "You're the one who was wearin' that fancy dress and havin' that fun--- I mean, the strange name!" Once he'd said the last, a wary expression appeared on the man's face, who reached out to pick up her right hand and gently started patting it, all while speaking slowly and clearly, "I hope you wasn't too scared by all them nasty critters, missy. Never you mind, it's all a long time ago, and I 'spect all the bad memories are gone. You look right nice, and, uh, say, ain't it a fine day today?"
An open-mouthed Buffy gaped at the man treating her like she was some kind of idiot, only to feel her entire face heat up in an overpowering blush, accompanied by Xander's and Willow's uncontrolled sniggering. Ever since she'd become the Slayer, she'd done a lot of things that made her flinch in remembering them --- Angel, Spike, that pink and green sweater she'd worn in her first year at high school --- but one of the most embarrassing parts of her life was that Halloween night when she'd become a scatter-brained hysterical female who'd screamed and fainted at the slightest excuse. Even if it was all due to her costume, Willow and Xander had never allowed this excuse to alleviate the slightest their teasing of her actions then, and now to Buffy's horror, she realized that here was a third witness who remembered exactly what she'd been like back then.
Before Buffy could say anything to the man giving her an anxious look as if she was going to go to pieces at any moment, someone came to her rescue. Momentarily regretting the lost chance of totally savoring her sister's embarrassment, Dawn still concentrated on what was most important.
"Uh, mister, I know it's really impolite, but, um, would…could you please do the line? I would really, really like to hear it. Please, please, please?" The younger woman gazed at the bemused mature man with her best puppy-dog-eyes look.
Buffy closed her eyes and offered her soul, free of charge, to any specific god who would hit her with a lightning bolt right at this instant.
"Why, ma'am, I don't mind if'n I do. Here goes…"
Buffy Summers, the Slayer, defender of humankind, destroyer of monsters, the bravest of the brave, just….cringed.
"Y'all come down. We got fine eatin' right here."
Maybe it wasn't such a good thing the Master hadn't succeeded in his evil plan. As she remembered, being dead wasn't all that bad.
"Thank you sooooooo much! I'm Dawn, by the way. Dawn Summers. You didn't met me back then. I, um, wasn't….around."
Buffy allowed herself to open one eye to glower at her ecstatic sister, who was being regarded with great good humor by their visitor. Looking thoughtful, that man reached into a suit pocket to pull out a business card and handed this to a surprised Dawn, commenting, "Y'all go to any of my places, that'll get you a free dinner. Always a pleasure for someone who's thankful for shrimp and all that."
An amused snort came from where Faith was resting her head on Xander's shoulder. "You might lose money on that, soldier-guy. Little D can pack it away like nobody's business."
Smiling, the visitor stepped forward to look intently at the brunette Slayer standing before him, who slipped her arm out of Xander's to stand straight and return a steady gaze at her observer. After a few seconds of these two watching each other, the man slowly said, his face now serious, "You weren't there then, but….I kin see that you belong with him. Dunno why, but it just feels right." At that, to Faith's astonishment, the man reached out to take her hands, and said with absolute calmness, "You'll be there for each other, always and forever."
There was total silence among those there at this blessing, for that had been exactly what was bestowed onto the two young people.
A well-experienced clearing of someone's throat was made then, before anyone's emotions got totally out of control. The last of those to be presented to their visitor then came forward, his hand outstretched in a polite handshake, with the Englishman murmuring his greeting, "Pleased to meet you, sir. My name is Rupert Giles." Perhaps there was the slightest emphasis on the last name, along with the quickest-possible Watcher glower at Xander.
"Oh, you don't need to say sir to me, Mister Giles. My first name's Nathan, but nobody ever uses it. You can call me Forrest. Forrest Gump."