Home is the Hunter
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, its characters, settings, and other minutiae are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended. Later chapters will include various crossovers and the appropriate disclaimers with them.
Author's Note: I actually wrote this, not my brother. It is set post S7, but there are some non-canon adjustments I've made. It's in the same universe as my BtVS/L&O:SVU crossover, "Shadow's Waiting," and takes place afterwards, so Kennedy is dead.
There is backstory on Jenny – where she came from, how she got there, and what the ramifications are – but that's for another time.Home is the Hunter
“Okay, so the listings Mahoney gave us match up pretty well with the directions Willow pulled off Google maps,” Xander said, trying to sort out several stacks of papers between two hands. “We should be able to walk past most of these in an hour or so.”
Giles looked over his shoulder, sipping a cup of something hot and strong. The weather had turned into a perfect crisp fall day. Leaves were beginning to turn, and someone in the area had a fire going. Between that and the fact that they’d left a far too small house filled to the rafters with adolescent and post-adolescent girls, the day was a blissful heaven.
“These will be within our price range?” Giles asked. “Only Ms. Mahoney seemed to be rather gleefully rubbing her hands together when I mentioned we were paying cash.”
“Oh, yeah,” Xander agreed. “Especially since I lowballed you. Jenny says we can go twice the amount I told you and still be comfortable.”
“Twice the amount?” Giles sounded a bit outraged. “Is that really advisable?”
“I promise you, Giles,” Xander answered, folding up pieces of paper and putting them into the messenger bag he’d slung from his shoulder, “it won’t cut into your book acquisition budget. Jenny’s very protective of that.”
“Oh,” Giles adjusted his glasses, “Well. That’s…quite all right, then.”
“Okay, first on the list, we have an unrestored 1930s Craftsman house…”
As they regarded different properties from the sidewalk, Giles mused on just how odd circumstances had grown. Cleveland hadn’t been a huge leap of logic. It was, of course, the one other location in North America that had its own Hellmouth. But the combination of a growing entourage of newly activated Slayers, the problems inherent in living in a much larger city than Sunnydale, and the inevitable mystic convergence of coincidence, Fate, serendipity, and kharma that their group encountered had made the last two months something of a rollercoaster.
And then, there was Xander – still completely in denial about his grief over Anya’s death, still cracking terrible jokes about the loss of his eye – happily engrossed in eighty year old architecture.
“Charming as it is,” Giles said, after they’d walked past the sixth or seventh house under consideration, “it has the same failings as all the others we’ve seen. It’s too small, the grounds are tiny, it’s far too close to its neighbors, and it would be impossible to enlarge.”
“Giles, even if we look at building our own place, we’ve got to have something for a temporary basis. We’ve practically got Slayerettes sleeping in dresser drawers and baking pans. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time remaining stoic about giving up my last shred of privacy.”
“Yes, I completely agree.” Giles scratched the back of his head. “But it doesn’t appear to me that any of the houses we’ve seen will make the situation any better.”
“We could split the girls up into two houses,” Xander repeated his earlier advice.
Giles shook his head. “With Faith still in Los Angeles with Robin and all the business there, I’m very reluctant. I want a senior Slayer in each abode.”
“There’s that, but we could always…” Xander trailed off and stared across the street.
There, between two houses of much younger lineage, was an old, decrepit mansion of gables, turrets, tiles, bricks, mullioned and bay windows, chimneys, and shutters. The trees around it were naked before their time. The iron fence around it had once been stout but was now a rusted ruin. Weeds cluttered the lawn, and a few halfhearted dandelions let parachutes loose into the autumn breeze.
“You see a house number on that?” Xander asked.
“No, I don’t, but….” Giles paused, surveying the homes on either side. “How very strange.”
“Well, the number of the house to the left is 1084, and the one to the right is 1086.”
“Which would make this one 1085, right?”
“In England, certainly, but most American addresses have the even numbers on one side of the street and the odd on the other.”
They glanced behind them at the Tudor style cottage they’d both dismissed. It was numbered 1085.
“Huh,” Xander made a face. “Let’s go check it out.”
With a sigh for difficult youngsters, Giles followed him across the street. Xander stood on the sidewalk, thumbing through the maps he’d put in his bag. Finding the correct one, he unfolded it and checked the orientation, turning the page ninety degrees counter-clockwise.
“Weird,” he muttered.
“Yes?” Giles asked patiently, taking another sip of what laughably passed for tea on this continent. He really was going to have to take another holiday back to England.
“Usually Google’s right on the nose,” Xander said, inspecting the inkjet printout he held. “Not like Mapquest. And you can switch between street map and satellite photos.”
“Oh? Were you able to get satellite photos for this area?”
Xander shook his head, still studying the map. “One of the few spots Google doesn’t have pics for. Something about the government not releasing GPS photos. Probably the Hellmouth. Sunnydale was the same way for the longest time.”
“Yeah, except,” and now he looked up at the house, puzzled, “the street map doesn’t have this lot on it. It skips from 1084 to 1086. And this lot has got to be a hundred feet across.”
Perhaps it was because with only a few months in residence on this new-to-them Hellmouth, neither had assumed the standard low level paranoia that was part of life in Sunnydale, where anything odd was looked at with great suspicion. Whatever the cause, neither Giles nor Xander did anything more than consider it a strange bobble of the Internet resources Willow was so fond of.
“It’s a great house,” Xander said, looking it over.
Giles shot him a look. “It’s a mongrel is what it is. I’ve seen manors in England built over four hundred years with more stylistic consistency.”
Xander shrugged. “Yeah, but look at the carving on the cornice, and the medallions on the fence. Someone put a lot of craft into this.”
“Before abandoning it,” Giles answered. “This house has been empty for years.”
“Looks that way,” Xander agreed. “Which means it would be awfully easy to pick up for taxes from the county property office.”
The young man with tousled hair and a rakish eye patch glanced over his shoulder and then to the other side with exaggerated care. There was no one else on the street, for it was a school day and just chilly enough that few people wanted to sit outside. Seeing the coast was clear, he opened the gate and grimaced at the loud grind of rusted metal on rusted metal. Flakes of orange and crumbling black fell to the brick at his feet.
“You’re trespassing,” Giles noted.
“Come on, Giles,” Xander whispered, as if someone might hear him, now that he was no longer on the public sidewalk. “Live a little.”
With a brief appeal to the heavens – denied – Giles stepped across the threshold into the yard, and took the gate from Xander, closing it with an appalling creak. He almost tripped on Xander when he turned back.
“Sorry, G-man,” Xander said, unapologetically, “just checking out the brick work.”
“Herringbone pattern, and whoever did it really knew there stuff. Look, there’s no buckling, no tree roots pushing through. The bricks are in really good shape too.”
Giles glanced down and saw that Xander was, of course, correct. The bricks were solid, the space between them filled with a bright green moss of velvet texture. One could even see a stamp imprinted on each brick. He leaned closer, but the bricks were blurred with age, and he couldn’t make out much more than the outline of a tree with spreading branches, and a stylized circle beneath it. When he glanced up, though, it was the nearest tree that took his attention more than the bricks.
“Well, I never…” he whispered, and stepped off the brick path to look more closely.
“Whatcha got?” Xander asked, dusting his hands off as he got to his feet.
“I’m not sure, but…” Giles glanced down at the spotty lawn, a few struggling blades of grass escaping from a carpet of leaves and fallen nuts. “It is. I’m astonished.”
“By a tree,” Xander gazed evenly at him. “Rupert, man, I don’t care what kind of fun you’ve been having with Jenny. We have got to get you out more often.”
“It’s an American Chestnut,” Giles smiled with a sweet gladness. “They were virtually wiped out about the time this neighborhood was built. A blight. Since then, most chestnuts die before they’re five years old. This one must be, oh, a hundred years old or more.”
“Okay.” Xander nodded in appreciation. “Yay, tree.”
“I can’t think of another fully grown chestnut tree east of the Mississippi. The blight is endemic now.”
Without much more discussion and only a little gathering of chestnuts, Giles and Xander walked the perimeter of the house. By the time they reached the back, Xander was looking around, confused.
“This house is a hell of a lot bigger than it looks,” he surmised.
"Well, some houses can be deceiving. Strange, really,” Giles looked up at another assortment of a tiny turret, windows of assorted sizes and compositions, and a double chimney currently being used as a nest, “this house strikes me as being quite old. Perhaps the neighborhood grew up around it.”
The backyard was far more expansive than the neighborhood should have allowed for, and it contained a garden of fallen splendor equal to the house itself. There was a fountain, clogged with years of fallen leaves and families of frogs. There were fruit trees, espaliered against fence and brick wall, rose gardens clotted with weeds and wildflowers, and a tiny creek, covered with weeds and straggling wild iris, ran at the very far end. Paths wandered hither and thon, hiding behind a willow, or lying quietly beside a patch of feral cabbage. Hedges grew at the very edges of the property, screening out the rest of the world. For a moment, in the late afternoon autumn sunlight, it was a very quiet, lonely retreat.
“It can’t have been abandoned for too long,” Xander said, staring about. “Things are in too good a condition. Even a neighborhood like this, someone with a spray can would have come along, or a kid would have thrown rocks through the windows-“
The bushes and trees moved in a creaking shudder, as though a tremor had rippled through the lawn.
“Uh, Willow did say there was no tectonic activity here, right?” Xander asked.
“No, she said there was no tectonic plate
activity,” Giles answered. “A crucial difference. If you’ve time enough, ask her about New Madrid some day.”
They walked through drifts of leaves to the side of the house and tried to peer in through one of the lower windows.
“Too dirty,” Xander decided. “Let’s try around front.”
After a walk that seemed longer than it had been the first time, they returned to the front, and Giles took a moment to stare at the chestnut tree. It certainly wasn’t looking its best, all the leaves gone early, but there was no sign of blight on it, and the figure of the tree stood tall and lovely against the blue sky.
There was a shallow porch with windows on either side of a very large front door. There was a fanlight over the door, a stained glass portrayal of the rising sun, and over that was an inscription in Latin. Domi nauta, domi mare, domi venator ab colle.
Giles murmured it under his breath.
“Once again for the dummyheads?” Xander asked.
“Stevenson’s ‘Requiem’. ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hills.’”
Xander gave a sad little smile. “That’s pretty nice.”
Giles sighed. “Of course, a requiem is the mass given for someone who’s just died.”
“Oooookay. Nice. And depressing. And strange.”
Not really knowing why, Xander tested the doorknob, but found it firmly locked. He glanced over at the side window and tried to look inside, but the glass was flawed, bubbles scattered throughout, and all he could see gave him the impression of dark wood and geometrical shapes. At the end of the small porch, he stopped to eye a creeping vine which had begun the long climb towards the roof. He picked up the leading tendril and pulled it away from the brickwork. It was tenacious stuff.
“What are you doing?” Giles demanded.
“Vine,” Xander answered, pulling two stouter strands away. “They look nice, but if they get into the tile, they just start pulling the whole thing apart. Really wouldn’t like it happening to this place.”
On the last word, he managed to get a good grasp, pulled, swore loudly, and dropped the vine.
“Son of a bi-! Grrrrrrr!” He shook his hand.
Giles gave him an inquiring glance.
“Thorn,” he explained, feeling silly. He’d stuck his thumb well and truly good. Blood welled up in bright, bright red, spilled over and ran down from the tip to the joint before dripping onto the porch. Three drops hit the brick and mortar just as the thought that “you know, this is
the Hellmouth we’re on” occurred to him. They stood out against the darker red brown for a moment, and then soaked in and disappeared.
“You’re all right?” Giles asked.
Beneath his feet, something stirred the tiniest amount, flexed, and stretched. The house paused and took a deep breath. Xander, holding his thumb so no more blood spilled, looked over at Giles, who had frozen in the middle of cleaning his glasses.
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Giles said in a quiet tone. “We should go.”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed.
They stepped carefully off the porch and backed up onto the walkway.
“Giles,” Xander said urgently.
“I see it,” Giles answered.
“I bloody well see it! Now move!”
Giles grabbed Xander by the collar of his jacket and hauled him along a walk that had suddenly gotten much longer. They reached the gate after many more yards of dashing only to find it closed, when they had left it open. Xander grabbed the handle and yanked it open, and the grind of metal on metal sounded much too much like a child wailing in pain. He pushed Giles through, followed himself, and closed the gate after him, wincing again at the uncanny noise it made.
Outside, back on the sidewalk, Xander and Giles stared at the house – the house that had just woken up and reached
for them – and didn’t quite know if they were even more disturbed to find that, from the sidewalk, it looked the same as it ever had. Xander rubbed the gate with his hand, leaving a smear of blood on it.
“Wait,” Giles said, pushing Xander’s hand away from the gate.
Set into the pattern of wrought iron vines and leaves was a medallion, the size of a man’s hand outstretched. Giles rubbed at it until bits of grime and corruption fell to the ground. It was the same pattern as the bricks’. At the bottom was an oval, above that a tree with outstretched limbs. As this was larger and clearer, it was easier to see the rising sun behind the tree and the crescent moon in its branches.
“I think I’m done with house hunting for today,” Xander said.
“The house reached for you,” Jenny repeated, dousing a cotton ball with hydrogen peroxide.
“Well, not as such.” Giles struggled with his explanation.
“Oh, I’d say as such.” Xander nodded emphatically.
Though they sat in the kitchen with Jenny, Buffy, and Willow, at least a score of girls sat just outside the doorway, where they figured they were safe. There was whispering going back and forth as comments were repeated to the girls too far away to hear first hand.
“Did it have arms?” Willow asked, trying to make some sense of their story.
“Not…exactly,” Xander answered. “But it was going for us. No doubt about that.”
“They say it’s a buyer’s market,” Buffy sighed and shook her head.
“Well, according to county records,” Willow looked up from her laptop, “that house doesn’t even exist. No photos, no appraisals, no ownership records, nothing on the property division maps, no mention in probate, nada.”
Xander hissed as Jenny applied the antiseptic to his thumb.
“How much blood did you spill?” she asked, checking to make sure there weren’t any bits of thorn still in his thumb.
“Three drops. Blip, blip, blip, gone.”
Jenny tutted under her breath. “Rupert, did you never talk to the kids about this? Spilling blood is pretty serious stuff.”
“Well, I thought they’d figured it out for themselves.” Giles blustered a bit.
She shook her head. “Left them to learn about it from schoolyard sorcerers, England. Not like you.”
“Well, he did tell us to just say no.” Buffy defended her Watcher. “To drugs. And…stuff.”
“Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever spill blood,” Jenny said, pulling a bandaid free of its paper wrapper. “But there’s a time and a place, and you need to be aware of the consequences. You should always take…precautions against the sort of thing that can make it go bad.”
“Oh, wait,” Dawn said, hopping over one girl after another to get into the kitchen. “I know this one. Mom gave me the talk right after the whole big ‘now I’m a woman’ bit.”
“Oh, dear Lord,” Giles murmured, “strike me deaf. Just for a little while.”
“Uh, well, that’s a good time to have the talk.” Jenny stumbled.
Dawn reached into the refrigerator, pulled out a soda, and seeing Xander perk up, tossed it to him. He caught it in his good hand, rested it on the table and popped the top. Jenny applied the bandaid to his injured thumb, wrapped it expertly around the last joint, smoothed it down, and gave it one last approving tap.
“Yeah, all the you can wait until you’re forty-five, and I’ll be fine with that, but make sure that he loves you and that he’ll take care of you. Make sure you’re protected, yadda yadda yadda don’t-get-pregnant-cakes.”
There was a moment when they all stared uncomfortably at each other. Dawn twisted the top off her bottle.
“I walked in at the wrong part of the conversation, didn’t I?” she asked.
“Which is okay,” Xander answered, “because then we can go back to the original topic, which bad as it was, is still less embarrassing than this.”
There was another long pause while everyone reset the conversation in their head.
“Look, all I’m saying is that spilling your own blood has some pretty potent magical symbolism, and we need to find out what the consequences are for Xander.”
“Especially with the house trying to eat him,” Willow said, her eyebrows raised almost to her hairline.
“Yeah,” Buffy agreed, looking at him, “what is it with you, Xan? First demons, now houses?”
Xander held up his index finger. “This is not my fault. I was just admiring the architecture.”
“Could it be a vampire nest?” Jenny asked.
Xander paused and traded a glance with Giles.
“No,” Giles answered. “It didn’t have the…the…”
“Vibe?” Buffy offered.
“Je ne sais quoi?” Dawn asked.
“Creep factor?” Willow tried.
“Smell,” Giles finished. “It didn’t have the smell of a vampire nest. Hard to miss.”
“Weelllll,” Jenny drawled, “how about Willow and I work up a few contingency spells, and we go check it out tomorrow?”
“Yeah!” Willow smiled.
“By yourselves?” Giles voice hit the “outraged Englishman” register. “Certainly not.”
“I’ll play bodyguard,” Buffy offered.
“Hey, my blood’s involved here. I think I’m going too.”
“Well, someone has to stay and watch the girls,” Giles pointed out.
They all looked as one towards Dawn. “There’s forty of them!” she squeaked. “And three are older than I am!”
They kept staring.
“Okay! Fine!” She humphed. “But Andrew has to stay and do the dishes. And the laundry.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Xander assured her.
“How are you?” Giles asked, coming up behind Jenny and wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
After a fraction of a second, she leaned against him and turned her head so that her forehead settled against his neck. She put her hands over his.
“Getting better,” she answered. “It was a good idea of yours, putting me in charge of rebuilding the Council and figuring out the finances. Between that and sorting out our coterie of baby Slayers, I don’t have a spare moment to obsess.”
Obsess, he knew, about what had been, what might have been, and the strange differences their parallel lives held.
“You seem to be getting on better with Buffy and Willow,” he remarked.
She nodded. “I just keep expecting Buffy to hate me. She did, you know, after you died. Never forgave me. And Willow. I tried so hard, Rupert, but I just couldn’t bring her around.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he kissed her temple. “We very nearly lost her here, and the deciding point was Xander.”
She turned toward him, in his arms, and pressed herself to him. “I had to be so hard for so long. I can’t help but wonder if they’d ever have managed to close the Hellmouth as you did.”
“Jenny,” he kissed her again on her forehead. “You’re not to torture yourself. I’ve no idea why things turned out in the way they did, why you’re here now, and I find I simply don’t care. I’m only happy to be with you again.”
She nodded and let him soothe her with his hands, his voice, and his mouth.
“What about Dawn?” he asked after a long moment.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“She’s hurt, I think,” he told her. “She has very fond memories of you, and she can’t help but interpret your reluctance as coldness.”
“It hurts so much, Rupert.” She choked a little on her words.
“Perhaps if you told her?”
She shook her head. “Someday. Maybe. Later. I just…not now. I can’t.”
“Later,” he repeated, kissing her again.
In the month since Jenny had come into their lives again, she’d started to put on a little weight and lose the haunted darkness in her eyes. She still woke, in the middle of the night, panting in fear, and she still spent several minutes before sleep constructing elaborate wards to protect him and herself against the myriad dangers she’d faced after he’d died at Angelus’ hands. It didn’t help that while they had the bedroom to themselves, small as it was, it was stacked with boxes and boxes of Giles’ book collection. There was barely enough room to walk from door to bed, bed to dresser, dresser to bathroom. They really did have to solve their housing problem soon.
“In the meantime,” he said, hoping to turn her mood, “perhaps you could help me with this little mystery, connected to Xander’s house of this afternoon.”
He showed her a sketch of the medallion.
“I’ve seen it before, or at least some of the elements in it, but I’m having a rather impossible time remembering where.”
She took it from his hand and regarded it. In her own time, in her own world, she’d made use of both her own background as a daughter of Stregallae as well as the resources he’d left to her after his death. She knew, in her own way, as much of the occult as he did, and in certain areas, much more.
“It’s old,” she said, studying it. “Very old. The oval…it could be an altar or a hearth or something. The tree, with the sun and moon, that’s usually a sign of something spirit-inhabited. Not demonic, though. Something wholesome. I tell you, English, the vamps would hate this. There’s no nest there.”
“I’m please to hear my opinion confirmed. Where would you like to start?”
“I’ll pull up Tobin’s on my laptop. The online version is updated fairly regularly. You might check….oh, who was the Watcher with the thing for trees?”
“Oslin the Younger?” Giles asked.
“That’s the one. Check his diaries.”
“Jenny, I don’t have those in my collection.” He looked at her over his glasses.
She paused in the middle of logging onto her laptop. “You do. I ordered them for you off eBay. They came in three days ago. I put them in your ‘new acquisition’ pile.”
He looked over at the rapidly accumulating pile of boxes, reinforced envelopes, and other parcels, and then back at the light of his heart. “Have I told you lately, minx, that I utterly adore you?”
She flashed him a rare grin. “Keep it up, English, and I’ll make sure you have a chance to show me later.”
In the morning, long before the Slayers of middle teen years had stirred, Xander had made the daily run to the store for ten gallons of milk, three gallons of orange juice, five boxes of cereal, a variety of bagels, four dozen eggs, two pounds of bacon, a pound of sausage links, five one-pound jars of peanut butter, six loaves of bread, and three jars of jelly. That wasn’t to mention the boxes of feminine hygiene products that he’d lost the round of rock-paper-scissor to Giles over, the assortment of chocolate, the fresh flowers that Jenny requested – and like the other Scoobies, he’d have done his best to oblige her if she’d asked for a liver torn freshly from an IRS agent – another jumbo size package of toilet paper, laundry soap, person soap, shampoo, socks, a Sponge Bob coloring book, three People magazines (young Slayers simply did not know how to share), and anything else he could remember. He wasn’t really sure why, but he also bought a pound of sea salt, a bottle of red wine, and a loaf of bread.
He made a point of going to a different grocery store every morning, so as not to draw attention to his purchases. It was laughable, because attention was always drawn, but it kept them from speculating too much. He still hadn’t tried out his story of having been kidnapped by a sorority, forced to run their house and cater to their every whim. The reality was too depressingly similar, only without the fun pillow fights and occasional girl-on-girl jello wrestling.
Again, without really thinking about it, he left the regular return route. Part of him didn’t expect to see it, so he was a little surprised to find the house was there, just where he and Giles had left it.
Was it just him, or did it seem a little bigger? A little less dingy? A little more…awake? Give it a rest, Xan-man, he told himself. Houses aren’t awake. Well, except for when you’re building them, and you hit that day when it’s no longer a collection of studs and cement but really a house – then it’s awake. He reached into the back for the bag he’d asked the checker to put those last few items in and climbed out of the car. Was it his imagination, or did the tree’s branches tremble a little in a wind none of the other trees noticed?
He walked up to the gate. It really wasn’t his imagination; a good deal of the rust was gone, and the fence was standing up more. The shutters looked a little straighter. He found himself listing all the chores that would need to be done to bring the house back to its full glory – cleaning, painting, repointing some of the bricks, replacing some old woodwork, replanting the gardens, trimming the trees, reseeding the lawn, digging out the fountain and the tiny creek. It would take one man a solid decade of nothing but puttering. He, on the other hand, had a tribe of Amazon girls at his disposal.
“Hi,” he said, and then stopped as he realized he was talking to the house. He swallowed, thinking about all the far-more-foolish things he’d done and cleared his throat. “Hi, house. Sorry about running off like that yesterday. Just a little…uh…weirded out, is all. I’m going to be back later today with some friends. We just want to … check things out a little bit. Make sure nothing bad is going on.”
It really wasn’t his imagination this time. The house, the tree, the whole property, leaned towards him by the tiniest fraction. The tree was shivering just the slightest, the tiniest sounds coming from the branches rubbing against one another.
“Um…so anyway, I…uh…thought I’d just drop these off for now.”
He reached in the bag, took out the container of sea salt and passed his hand through the gate to set it on the brick walk inside. It didn’t seem right to open up the gate and go in just yet. He put the bottle of wine inside, and then the bread. He felt completely ridiculous, and at the same time, like he’d done something very right.
“So, I…uh…I’ll be seeing you later today, house,” he said. “I really like your windows.” As he spoke, he rubbed on of the wrought iron points on the gate with his thumb.
He walked back to the curb, pulled his keys out, fiddled with them a bit and as he unlocked his car door, he glanced back up. The salt, the bread, and the wine were gone. Fascinated and a little bit scared, he scanned the grounds. Was the…were those buds on the branches of the chestnut tree? It was October. Even standing on the street in front of the house, he thought he could feel a deep, slow inhale followed by an exhale of similar magnitude and subtlety.
He drove back home, in time to watch the first shift of girls practice their katas on the back lawn.
“Hey!” he yelled as he climbed out. “A little help!”
He was swarmed with girls begging for Apple Jacks, milk, Post Toasties, and other parts of their complete breakfasts.
“HEY!” Buffy yelled, coming up to the car, “any marks on him, and the lot of you will be running to Chicago and back!”
The mob broke apart, and he stumbled free.
In the kitchen, where food preparation was allowed by no more than six girls at a time and all meals were to be taken to the back porch pending weather, Xander joined Giles and Jenny at the breakfast table, where only the most senior of residents were allowed to linger. Giles, who used to be the worst sort of bear in the morning, was now almost mellow in Jenny’s company. Jenny looked up with a smile.
"How's the house?" she asked.
Xander stopped. "Uh..."
"You are," Giles paused, glancing at his wristwatch, "a full half an hour later than usual."
"Right," Xander answered, continuing into the kitchen. "Remind me to stock up on supplies before I try anything on the regular grocery run."
Dawn bopped in and began digging through bags, tossing items to Buffy, who caught them one-handed and put them in the cupboard. A Slayerette, younger than most, slid stealthily into the kitchen on stockinged feet and reached for a box of Ho-Hos on the counter. Buffy smacked her hand without looking. The Slayerette slid back out of the room.
"Will said she'd be down in a few minutes. Putting together her bag of tricks," Buffy said, dragging the Ho-Hos towards herself.
"You have to promise me," Dawn said, "that nothing interesting can happen, okay? If it does, you'll just have to come back and get me."
"Certainly," Giles answered, nibbling on an English muffin. "Please do sit and wait for word to come join us."
Dawn stuck her tongue out at him.
"Okay!" Willow sang out, hauling a very large duffel bag with her. "I'm ready!"
They arrived back at the house, driving the SUV Xander had insisted on when he realized just how much hauling was necessary to keep thirty-nine teenage girls in t-shirts and notepads and hot chocolate. They parked directly in front of the house, or The House, as Xander had begun to think of it.
"It looks...different," Giles said, stepping out of the car and shrugging on his jacket.
"This," Willow breathed, "is a great
"I dunno, Will," Buffy answered. "It's awfully run down."
They stood for a moment. Xander looked over and saw Jenny looking back and forth and up and down without moving her head. He looked back and saw that the chestnut tree was well and truly blooming again. In October. In forty degree weather. The fence looked only neglected instead of truly disreputable. The grass was beginning to turn green again.
"This is very, very old," Jenny murmured.
"Well, yes, for America," Giles begrudged her. "You tend to hang plaques on anything more than a hundred years old."
She paused in front of the gate, kneeled, and brushed bits of dirt and grit from the medallion in the middle. The wrought iron had regained some of its long lost black luster. She rubbed it with her thumb.
"There's a fox," she said.
They all leaned in behind her to study the medallion. Sure enough, beside the circle which might be an altar or any other round thing, a fox looked over its shoulder.
"There's a bird," Buffy pointed out, putting her finger just under a shape in the tree.
"The flowers," Giles said, "I think they're bluebells."
Jenny stood abruptly, forcing the others back. She turned and took a deep breath.
"Okay, Rupert, when I said old, I didn't mean in recent history old. I meant old
. Whatever is here, it's been here for a very, very long time. There is some serious power here."
"Is it the Hellmouth?" Buffy asked, tersely.
"No way," Xander answered, angry.
The others looked at him.
"This place isn't evil," he insisted. "Look at it! It's run down. It's old. It's lonely and neglected, but it's not evil."
Like spectators at a tennis game, the others turned back to Jenny.
"I don't believe it's evil," she answered. "Originally. But things happen, and there is real power here. We need to find out more about this place. We especially need to know more about the consequences for Xander."
There was a moment when they all looked at one another.
"Well, okay then," Buffy announced. "Let's do this."
She reached for the gate, took the handle and pushed. It didn't budge. Frowning, she pushed again, and the gate did not move an inch.
"Okay," she said, gritting her teeth. "Let's just see about this."
She let go to push her sleeves back, and Xander stepped in.
He put his hand on the gate, and it opened smoothly with only a soft grinding of rusty iron on rusty iron.
Jenny and Buffy exchanged glances but followed him into the front yard. Jenny paused to look up at the tree.
"A chestnut," Giles agreed with her. "American chestnut. Yes."
"But there aren't any left." She tried not to argue.
"Oh, a few, here and there, in pockets the blight never touched," he answered.
"But Cleveland doesn't have any pockets," she replied.
He gave her an eyebrow raised look that said clearly he agreed with her, and yet.
"It's big," Willow remarked, turning around on the brick path to take in all of it.
"Geez, it's big," Buffy agreed. "Can you imagine how much easier it would be to run the katas if we had this much room?"
"Thirty-nine Slayerettes all in a row," Xander commented. "You could actually put them in ranks over there and have room left."
He felt strangely proud, as though he were introducing them to someone important he knew.
"It's big," Willow repeated, still turning slowly.
"Yes, we understood the first time," Giles replied patiently.
"No, I mean it's too big," she answered, pausing. "It's bigger inside the fence than it was outside."
"What?" Buffy demanded.
"On the outside of the fence, it was – what – about forty yards across? Xander, how far across is it now?"
He regarded the sidewalk that ran the length of the property on the other side of the fence.
"At least sixty yards," he decided. "And there's an extra storm drain. How come none of the neighbors ever noticed?"
"You lived in Sunnydale for how long and you need to ask that question?" Jenny asked.
"Larger on the outside than on the inside. Rather like the TARDIS, isn't it?" Giles said, bemused.
"Who?" Buffy asked.
"Exactly. Xander, why don't you lead the way."
So, Xander led, Buffy at his left elbow to guard his blind side, Giles on his right and back one step, and Willow and Jenny brought up the rear.
"Okay," Willow murmured as they made their way down the brick walkway which was now longer than it had been on the way out yesterday. "Magic house. Bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Also, tries to eat people."
"Maybe," Xander said. "It might have been going for a hug."
"Right. Plus, it's really old."
As Xander stepped onto the porch, the front door opened inward.
"And polite," Willow finished.
"Or hungry," Buffy disagreed.
"We'd be delighted to have you for dinner," Giles muttered.
Xander paused at the doorway, putting his hand on the doorjamb and looking inside.
"What?" Jenny asked, standing on her toes. "An inscription? Dead bodies?"
"No," Xander shook his head. "Just . . . weird architecture."
"Ah, yes." Buffy nodded. "Weird architecture. You know, I've fought some scary demons in my time, but weird architecture is just . . . weird."
Xander shot her a look of "you're not helping".
"No, it's just, the proportions are all off. Look, it's open to the ceiling, probably twenty feet up. The floor is stone – limestone, I think, and really high quality – and the wood paneling is . . . I mean, you just can't get real mahogany panels like that anymore, not at any price. But the foyer's only ten by ten. Doesn't make sense."
"Willow, do you sense anything?" Jenny asked.
"Nothing . . . off. There are a ton of ley lines going through the area, more than I would have expected. I don't think anyone's been here for a really long time, maybe a hundred years or more."
"I'm going in," Xander announced.
"Be careful," Giles ordered.
One foot at a time, Xander stepped through the doorway into the foyer, and the house twitched.
"I felt that," Willow said.
"We all felt that," Buffy answered.
"No, I mean I really
felt that. The whole place just moved like . . . like something sitting up."
"I'm fine," he answered, looking around him. He took another step and then a third further into the house.
Inside, the sunlight filtered through the stain glass of the fanlight and spilled onto the floor, illuminating columns of dust hanging in the air. The air smelled dry, stale, and sad.
"It's beautiful," Xander whispered.
Giles stepped through after him, followed by Buffy, Jenny, and then Willow. Once Willow was inside, the front door swung closed, and the house twitched again. Willow put her hand on the door handle, but it wouldn't turn.
"Maybe Buffy could force it open," Jenny suggested.
"No!" Xander nearly shouted. "You don't hurt the house!"
Everyone looked at him.
"It's . . . the door handle's an antique, okay? Show a little respect."
"Riiiiight," Buffy said.
"Come on," he ordered and stepped through the wide portal into the house proper.
Everyone followed, one by one, with Willow trailing last. As they entered the front hall, she put a palm against the inside wall. It was a rich, densely grained wood, dessicated and rough under her fingertips. It was silent.
"What kind of lighting have we got?" Buffy asked.
"It's not even wired for electricity," Giles responded. "And I'm sure any utilities to the house were cut off long ago."
"Are those gaslights?" Jenny asked.
"Yeah," Xander responded. "See, here's the key to open the air shutter. Huh."
"You keep saying that," Buffy said. "Why huh?"
"Shutter's wide open. The lamp must have been left burning until all the gas was gone."
"Somebody left in a big hurry?" Jenny asked.
"Or was rendered unable to leave or turn off the lamps," Giles finished for her.
"Here," Buffy interrupted, handing out equipment. "LED flashlights for everyone. Guaranteed to light the darkest corners of Mordor."
"Willow?" Jenny asked, taking an extra to give to her.
"Shhhh," Willow answered. "I'm trying to listen."
Long used to her methods, everyone fell quiet. Xander knelt to examine the rug, and underneath it, the wood floor.Hello?
Willow called silently.
There. No, it was gone. She pulled her focus back to herself and let it sink into the wood of the house.
The house had some form of inhabitation. That much was clear. But what was the nature of it? A haunting? A possession? The accumulation of decades of tame magic layered over with dust, now gone wild? One thing was clear, and that was that Jenny was right, more right than she knew.
This place was old.
Not this wall in particular, she felt. If she let her senses sink into the grain of the wood deep enough, she could read the summers and winters when it had grown, the hands of the men who'd cut, stained, and installed it, and the murmurs of many, many others who'd brushed against it.
"Xander?" Speaking was an effort when she was this deep. "How long ago did they use wooden pegs instead of nails?"
"For a wall?"
"For the . . . beams behind it."
He traded a look with Giles. "Uh . . . at least a hundred fifty years ago, unless you're Amish. Can you tell how big the beams are? What wood they're made of?"
She was quiet for a moment. "Oak. Single piece. It grew in a thick forest, so it went straight up. Eighty feet. The whole tree is here, in different pieces. The longest is . . . sixty feet long."
Xander's mouth dropped open. "A sixty foot long beam of solid oak?"
"Is that unusual?" Giles asked.
"You can't buy one of those for any money, unless someone took Windsor castle apart recently."
"Which makes it how old?"
"Two, three hundred?" Xander guessed. "I don't know."
"It's older than that," Willow murmured, her eyes closed. "Much older."
She leaned her forehead against the panel. Hello?
she called again. Are you here? It's okay. We want to help.
Old wood, old tiles, older stone. Stairs that were hollowed in middle from centuries of traffic. Twilight and the first stars coming out. A child crying.
It wasn't the crying of a child who'd stubbed their toe, but the long, tired, subdued wails of a child who has long lost hope of anyone hearing, a child who'd known no comfort for a long, long time.
"It's all right," Willow whispered. "Where are you?"
Sad. Lonely. And-
Willow fell back, stumbled, and sat down hard. Jenny and Giles immediately helped her back to her feet.
Frightened, Willow stared all around them.
"I think we should go," she whispered.
"Why?" Giles asked. "What did you see?"
"It's not hungry," Willow said. "It's starving
. And we look really, really good."
"That's enough for me," Buffy declared. "Let's head out. Willow, you and Giles and Jenny can whip up a good destruction spell. We'll be back home before lunch."
"Perhaps . . . " Giles began.
They all looked at Xander. He knelt with his back to them, but rose to an even-footed stance. Then he turned so they could see his profile, eye patch blocking his expression. He scanned the wide hallway and faced them.
"You guys can go if you want, but you're not casting any spell. I'm staying."
"Xander, the last person who stayed in this house died here!" Willow announced. As she spoke the words, she knew they were true.
"What did you see?" Jenny asked Willow.
"It's starving," Willow answered. "It's been a hundred years since it last . . . fed. It wants life. It wants lots and lots of life. You're just the start, Xander."
"This house is not going to hurt me," Xander insisted. "It isn't going to hurt anyone."
He turned again, picked up his bag of supplies, walked down the hall, and turned into the first doorway on his right.
"Will, does this house eat people's brains from the inside?" Buffy asked.
"I didn't get that exactly," Willow admitted.
"Okay, so I'm sticking with Xander."
Buffy found him standing in the middle of the room he'd entered, an unfathomable look on his face as he stared down a horsehair chaise lounge. The room was crowded with furniture, sculpture, knick-knacks, paintings, and other odds and ends. Every piece in there was covered with something knitted, crocheted, tatted, or stitched. The piano legs had ruffled covers. It was a room of excruciating, suffocating propriety, covered in a half inch of dust.
"Wow," Buffy muttered. "Kind of like if the Spanish Inquisition was run by Queen Victoria."
Giles and Jenny entered, discussing the possibility of a psychometric spell.
"We'd need to find the geographic and temporal center of the house," Jenny said.
"There's no guarantee they're the sa- Oh, my god."
Giles stopped dead.
"Wow, this place is like a museum," Jenny said.
"Horrific," Giles whispered. "It's as though great-grandmother Myrtle were still alive."
"Is that an elephant's foot?" Willow demanded. "Being used as an umbrella stand?!"
"Those wacky British," Buffy said.
"Moving on," Xander announced.
They followed him through several rooms – a conservatory, a secretary's office, a butler's pantry, a room that housed an impressive collection of spoons, a lounge, and a billiard room. It took several more rooms for the others to notice what Xander already had.
"Why are the rooms too small?" Buffy asked.
They stood in the billiard room, where there was only a foot of space around the billiard table. Xander said nothing. The rest looked from one to another.
"What happens when a person starves?" Jenny asked.
"They lose a lot of weight," Buffy answered. "Until they're just skin and bones. And then, they die?"
"Anyone else get the feeling this house is just skin and bones?"
"But . . . there are curtains and knick knacks," Willow protested.
Xander left abruptly.
"What are you looking for?" Giles asked, joining him.
"I'm not sure," he answered. "I'll know it when I see it."
"There's more, right?" Jenny said. "I mean, these are just the public rooms, for entertaining guests. Where's the kitchen? The bedrooms? The nursery?"
"This house sprawls," Giles observed, shining his flashlight on the coffered ceiling of the main hallway. "I don't remember more than the one wing of the house when we walked around it."
"What if it's different on the inside than it is on the outside?" Buffy asked. "It was that way with the property."
It took a bit of searching. At the end of the hall hung an enormous tapestry. Behind it was an entrance to another part of the house.
"We really should take a few moments to study this," Giles protested.
"Later," Xander barked.
Giles kept his flashlight on the tapestry while the others ducked underneath.
"There's the tree," he muttered to himself. "The oval – it's not an altar, it's a well. Hmmm."
"Rupert!" Jenny hissed. "Let's go!"
It was darker in this next section of the house. The windows were smaller and fewer. The walls were no longer paneled in wood but bare plaster, sometimes covered with a tapestry.
"Look at the ceiling," Buffy said, pointing her flashlight up.
The ceiling was marked by soot.
"The gaslights don't extend this far back," Xander answered. "They were using lamps, candles, maybe even torches."
"Check out that rafter," Willow said, aiming her beam at it.
The rafter, just out of hand's reach, was heavily carved and painted with gilt.
"Sun, tree, oval, moon," Jenny recited, counting each of the symbols off.
The short extension of the hall opened into a much larger room, a great hall. The stone walls soared forty feet in the air, allowing mullioned windows to let in much more light. The floor was tiled in green travertine and white marble, creating a checkerboard pattern. At the northern end of the hall was a dais large enough to host a family dinner. Just below, on either side, stood two enormous fireplaces, and above those, carved into the plaster and stone of the mantle, elaborate coats of arms. To their right, on the southern wall was a third fireplace, flanked by curtained doorways.
Xander took the first doorway.
"So, here's the kitchen," Jenny remarked.
"Anyone else feel like Robin Hood should be strolling in with a deer over his shoulders?" Buffy asked.
"We do seem to have regressed to the Middle Ages," Giles agreed. "Thirteenth century at the latest."
"Xander?" Jenny asked softly, touching his shoulder.
"I can hear her," he answered. "She's crying. I need to find her."
"Who is she?"
"I . . . I don't know. Maybe whatever scared Willow has her. I just know that she needs me. She's at the end of her strength."
The kitchen was also too small for all that it held. The pantry was crowded with only a few barrels, and the stairs down to a tiny wine cellar were almost too narrow to allow Buffy to explore. An exterior door opened on the kitchen garden, where rosemary, sage, and other pot herbs sprawled, thin and untended.
"Let's go back to the great hall," Jenny said. "We'll see where those stairs above the dais go."
Xander allowed himself to be led back in.
From the dais, a set of stairs climbed to a landing, split, and climbed again to the second story. The first branch took them a dark, cozy room filled with chairs and stools. The room's far wall was lined with five doors which opened onto tiny, empty rooms, each with a window of its own.
"Is the house running out of furniture?" Jenny asked. "There aren't any rugs on the floor up here, either."
The floor was wide, thick planks of wood, long ago polished by foot traffic, but now dry as dust.
The second branch of the stairs allowed them onto the balcony over the dais.
"Musicians would have sat here and played for the family," Giles explained to the rest of them.
On the northern wall, behind them, gothic arches were cut to allow more light to enter. On the other side of the gallery was a thick oaken door bound with iron.
Xander rested his hand on the door latch, opened it, and pushed the door open. It took work, and the hinges groaned with a near human voice.
The room beyond was the darkest yet. Using her flashlight to find the curtains, Buffy pulled stiff, heavy, dry rotted fabric away from the windows, letting light in for the first time in decades. Several of the curtains tore away from their moorings and fell to the floor in clumsy folds.
"Whew!" she yelled, waving clouds of dust away. "What I wouldn't give for a swiffer."
No one answered, and when she turned, she saw why.
The room was lined with bookshelves, clearly built and installed long after the original room was created. In the center of the room, on an Oriental rug of great intricacy and antiquity was an enormous desk of heavily carved ebony. At the desk was a large, comfortable leather upholstered wingback chair, and in the chair was a very old body.
"I guess we found the last guy to stay here," she observed.
Giles knelt beside the chair, Jenny beside him.
The corpse was remarkably well preserved. White hair grown several inches long was combed back on his head. He wore a Victorian smoking jacket. His jaw hung open, as though he'd fallen asleep and snored through his last moments.
"There's no obvious cause of death," Giles said, gingerly checking the skin on the corpse's neck and around the head. "No trauma to the head or neck."
"None to the hands either."
"Hey, he was writing something," Buffy said.
There, on the desk, was a journal, left open to the last written page. Beside it was an inkwell, long dry, and a pen. She picked up the volume, blew the dust off, and turned it around.
"Saturday, April 9, 1910," she read. "He has not arrived. I fear he will not, not in time. She will wither and die without the life of a new champion, and it is my fault. I could not make him understand. I should have . . ."
She blew more dust off and wiped off the page.
"His handwriting gets really bad. I can't read it. Wait. Down here he wrote "terrible headache.' There's some more that I can't understand. Then it stops."
Everyone exchanged looks again.
"It could very well be that he died of a stroke, alone here, and whomever he expected never did arrive," Giles suggested.
"Yeah, but that 'life of a new champion' bit?" Willow grimaced with doubt. "That sounds an awful lot like human sacrifice to me."
"This could be the center of the house," Jenny said. "It's older than all the other rooms. The ceiling's a barrel vault, and the walls are bare stone."
"No, it's older than this," Willow disagreed. "Much older."
The house stirred again, like a fretful child unable to sleep.
"Did you hear that?" Buffy asked.
"No, what?" Giles asked.
"Like . . . like when Dawn got really sick as a baby and cried for days. Mom had to take her to the ER, and she was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. She was only three. She would cry, but she was so tired, it was just these long, drawn out wails."
"I have to find her," Xander announced.
"Dawn's back at the house," Buffy protested. "What are you-"
"Not Dawn," Jenny answered. "Xander, she may be a ghost. She may already be dead."
"She's not!" Xander snapped at her. "She's not dead, but she could die if we don't get to her soon enough."
"It's been nearly a century," Willow said. "Whatever's going on, she can last long enough for us to be safe about this."
"No, she can't," Xander answered. "She was sleeping, but now she's awake, and she's got nothing left. We have to find her. I
have to find her."
"Xander-" Giles began.
"I am not walking away from this. Not this time. If there is one single thing I can do to save her, I will do it. I am not going to find out that I wasn't there in time, not like last time. Not again."
"The house-" Willow insisted.
"The house is not going to hurt me, and I am not going to hurt the house," he said. "Whatever made you think that, Will, you're wrong."
"Uh . . . Xander, Will's kinda cornered the market on this stuff," Buffy said, uneasily.
"Look, every time you were sure about something, every time Willow was sure, I backed you up, didn't I? Now it's my turn. I know what I'm talking about. I think it's time for a little payback."
For a long moment, no one said a thing. Giles was the first to break the silence.
"What do you need, Alexander?"
Xander glared at the others, daring them to back down. No one did.
"There's got to be a third part of the house. Something even older. I need to find a way in."
Jenny took the journal from Buffy and looked at the spine. Then she scanned the bookshelves.
"There's a whole shelf of these," she said. "Let's see how far back they go."
There was, it turned out, far more than a shelf of journals. Most of the library was dedicated to volumes of paper, bound in leather or cloth, with words written in black ink. Those went back, by Giles' calculations, nearly two hundred fifty years, and were replaced by calf-bound volumes of parchment and vellum. Those went back another twelve hundred years before being replaced by various accordion folded or rolled scrolls.
"How old is
this place?" Buffy demanded.
"Older," Willow answered. "These are just the written records. It was here before writing."
"I think we should check the kitchen again," Jenny said. "That's probably the oldest part of the building. Maybe the wine cellar has something."
"No," Xander answered. "No, it's here. I can hear her better here than anywhere else."
"Willow, Jenny, check the walls," Giles instructed. "Buffy, you and I will take a look at the floor."
They broke apart. Xander stood near the corpse in its antique chair. It took less than five minutes.
"Here!" Jenny called. "There's something behind the shelves."
They cleared the shelves, and Buffy made quick work of the planks, tearing them free from the uprights. Behind them was a small door, no taller than Willow.
"Yeah, this is it," Xander said. He tugged at the door handle, but it broke away in his hand and crumbled.
For a moment, he stared at the pieces. Then he looked at Buffy.
"Can you get this door open?"
"Yeah, no problem."
"Make it . . . make it quick, so it hurts as little as possible," he said.
She gave him a look but set her foot against the stone doorway, found enough space to put her fingers between door and stone, tested it, and gave it a sharp, hard tug. Half the door broke off and came free, and the wood shrieked
"It's okay. It's okay," Xander whispered. "It's okay. I'll fix it. I promise. We had to open it. I'm sorry it hurt."
Buffy gave another heave, tearing the rest of the door free, breaking it off its hinges. This time, the shriek lasted longer than the damage, and the stone walls shivered.
Beyond the door was a steep, straight stairway down. The steps were so old and had been traveled so many times, they were worn in the center. There was no light except for their flashlights. Xander changed the configuration on his to a lamp, shining in all directions.
One side of the stairs had no wall but opened onto the room below. The light illuminated a space of ten feet by twenty. The walls were stone, plastered and painted long ago and now crumbling. There were no windows in the walls, only a waist high altar of white stone.
"A temple?" Buffy asked.
"I think a very early church," Giles answered.
"I don't see any crosses."
"No, but there are fish symbols." He pointed at a carving on the front of the altar and then to a painting on the wall. "The fish was used as a symbol of Christ long before the cross."
"I don't think this started off as a church, though," Willow said. "There's been magic here. A really, really long time ago."
"Let's check for a crypt," Giles said.
Behind the altar, a stone door was set into floor. This one could be pulled entirely out by its handle, though it took most of Buffy's strength to shift the stone block by herself. Xander lowered himself through the opening first.
"Careful," he called. "It's really small."
He gave Buffy, Willow, and Jenny a hand down. Giles joined them without help.
"It's tiny," Buffy complained.
"Look at the rock," Jenny said. "The walls. They aren't mortared. The stones aren't dressed, just fitted together."
"This is pre-Christian," Giles said. "Possibly pre-Roman. I'd say . . . Celtic, perhaps."
"Okay, what's a Celtic rockpile doing under the basement of a house in Cleveland?" Buffy asked. "Even for the Hellmouth, that's pretty strange."
"This isn't the heart," Willow said.
"No, it isn't," Xander agreed. "But we're close."
For a moment, no one spoke, and in that moment, the wind sighed around the little stone hut and brought with it the sound of wordless crying, a child sobbing with exhausted grief.
Xander stepped up to the furthest wall. "This isn't stone."
Giles looked over his shoulder. "No, it's wattle and daub. Rather, twigs and mud. Can you move it aside without damaging it?"
Xander found two handholds within the crude surface and very gently lifted it aside. Beyond, the walls and ceiling of the hut continued, but they were now smooth limestone, polished by thousands of years of passersby touching the walls to keep their balance. At the very end of the cave was a crevice, and through the crevice came sunlight tinted green.
"That's the heart," Xander said.
He walked up to the crevice and stepped through.
But he was gone.
He stood at the bottom of a steep sided ravine, cloaked in the greenery of summer. But it was a silent summer. No birds sang. No squirrels crept. Nothing moved but the branches of the trees in a mild breeze.
"This is not Cleveland," he said to himself. "Wonder where I am."
He glanced back at the crevice, but it was so much darker, he couldn't make anyone out. He aimed his flashlight back to it, but the beam didn't penetrate. He turned it off.
"Hello?" he called. "I'm here. Not that I know where here is. Where are you?"
There was no answer, not even the crying. The whole forest held its breath. He took a few careful steps, looked down, and realized there was a very old path worn into the ground. On either side, bluebells grew in the shade of the trees. Moss marked the north side of the trees. Giles would know what kind they were. He could spot an oak when he saw one, but that was about it.
The path led him about fifty yards away from the entrance, to a tiny promontory. There, the trees held back and allowed the sun full access to the ground. Xander looked up and saw the sky, dotted with a fleet of sailing clouds. The glen was only thirty yards or so across, and at the other side stood the largest tree he'd ever seen in person.
It was like something out of a Tolkien novel. At its base, the trunk was thicker than a house, and smaller, but still enormous, minor trunks branched out from it. The canopy had to be a hundred fifty feet across, almost the width of the entire valley. The branches reached higher than the walls of the ravine.
At the base was an oval basin, wider than it was deep. It was the same as the sigil on the fence. He looked up and checked the position of the sun. It matched. To the right was a thin sliver of moon, almost invisible in the daylight.
Xander walked up to the lip of the basin and looked in. While it was nearly twelve feet from his side to the far side, and at least twenty feet across, the water was only a foot from the lip, and between the shade of the tree and the dazzle of the sunlight, he couldn't see into the depths at all.
So . . . now what?
Puzzled, he sat down on the lip of the basin. Was she here? Had he gotten here in time? It was just . . . he'd had no doubt at all that he had to get there. If he got there in time, she wouldn't die. If he was there, he could save her, protect her. This time, he would, and maybe it would make up for the time he hadn't.
He sat and thought, deliberately turning away from Sunnydale and the last battle there. The house. The house was incredible. It was alive. It needed a lot of work, but that work would pay off. It was, he realized, the ultimate fixer upper. The exterior of the house needed a lot of small repairs. The garden needed to be restored. The rest of the house had to be brought up to standards – electricity, plumbing . . . There was enough to keep him busy the rest of his life.
And, it was, he realized, the absolute perfect place for the Slayers, the Council, and the rest of his collected family. Oh, they might be sleeping in the great hall with camping gear at first, but clearly, the house could be added on to. The thought of thirty-nine teenage girls practicing their kata and arguing over which medical drama to watch or crowding into the bathroom so densely it took him and Buffy twenty minutes to dislodge one suddenly cheered him up. If the house needed life, that would certa-
Something tugged on his pants, and the only reason he didn't yell was because he happened to be inhaling.
She was tiny.
She only came up to his knee, and she looked like she must have been three or four years old. Her face was . . . human, but not. It certainly wasn't the beauty he'd half-expected. Her nose was the largest feature on her face, though her eyes came in a close second. Underneath that startling schnoz was a perfect bow of a mouth and a receding chin. Her eyes were grey and huge. Her hair was reddish-brown, very fine, and curled at the wispy ends. Her ears were tipped with very small points.
She was rail thin, clearly undernourished, and she wore what looked like a little girl's party dress in a size far too large for her. It hung on her tiny frame like a tent. It was gray with dirt, the hem tattered. She held onto his jeans and stared up at him with huge eyes, all serious inquiry and fear.
Very, very carefully, he lowered himself from the well and sat down on the grass beside her.
"Hi," he said.
She blinked and stared back at him.
"My name's Xander. Do you have a name?"
She only stared, frowning in thought.
He'd sat Indian style, and she took advantage of this by climbing onto his shoe, and then his leg, and then reaching up to his face. Her hand was so small, the palm covered only the tip of his nose. She squeezed it a little bit and broke into a wide smile, clearly laughing though she made no noise.
"Boop," he said with the next squeeze. "Boop boop boop boop."
She beeped his nose a few more times until satisfied that he would boop whenever she squeezed. Then she frowned again and touched his eyepatch. Before he could stop her, she lifted the edge away from his cheek and looked. When she let go of it and looked back into his good eye, her lower lip trembled.
She wasn't frightened. She was sad, sad for him. She pressed her lips to her fingertips and patted the eyepatch several times, as if to reassure him it would be okay.
"What are you?" he asked.
She tilted her head at his question, and she pointed at the tree. Then, she clasped her hands over her heart, smiled, and spread her arms open, as if she would embrace the whole world.
"I don't . . . are you a tree?"
She gave him a look that clearly said he was either crazy or stupid. She pointed at the tree again.
"Are you that tree?"
This time, her expression said he was close, but not quite there. He racked his brain.
"Wait, you and the tree, you're together?"
She smiled with joy.
"So you're a . . . what's the word. You're a dryad. A dryad!"
She jumped up and kissed him on the cheek.
"But . . . what about the house?" he asked. "How does that fit in?"
She pointed at the tree again.
"The house is the tree? It's a treehouse? Huh?"
She dropped her shoulders, looked up at him from underneath her eyebrows, and curled her upper lip in a clear "you're not crazy, you're just stupid" response.
"The house isn't a tree. Is the tree the house?"
She smiled and clapped her hands.
"But the house . . . the house is practically dying. No one's taken care of it for years. That guy back in the library was the last one, and he's dead."
And now she did cry, her lower lip trembling, tiny tears spilling out of her eyes. She dropped down onto his knee, wrapped her thin arms around her thinner legs, and sobbed.
"Oh, geez, don't cry. Please don't cry. I’m sorry."
He sat with his hands in the air, not sure whether he should touch her or not. He finally settled for stroking her back with two of his fingers. He could feel her vertebrae and ribs. She really was starving.
"What can I do?" he asked. "If your tree dies, don't you die too?"
She nodded without looking up.
"But . . . look at that tree," he said. "It's huge! It's like an elf condominium! And the house. Look, you can't die. Whatever you need, I'll get it. I promise."
She sniffled, wiped her eyes and looked up at him.
"Yeah, I promise."
She stood again, holding onto his hand, and then she took his index finger in her two hands and pushed back until she got to the tip of his bandaged finger – right where the thorn had drawn blood. She touched it and looked back up at him.
"The life of a champion," he repeated.
She nodded, scared and hopeful.
"Do I . . . do I have die?" There was no way he'd be able to explain that to Buffy, let alone Willow.
But the dryad's gasp of horror and disbelief startled him out of that thought. She shook her head vehemently. No. Nonononononono! She let go of his finger and covered her mouth with both hands in shock.
"Okay, okay. No death. I gotcha. Nobody's dying. Understood."
She calmed down.
"So . . . what do I need to do?"
She stared at him, puzzled. Then she made a thoughtful frown. After a moment, she hopped down from his knee and began a pantomime.
She curled up on the grass and rested her head on her hands. Then, she stretched and yawned, got to her feet, and shook herself awake. Then, she made motions, bringing things to her mouth and chewing. Then she danced, spinning and jumping and throwing her hands up in the air. Then, she yawned, laid down, and pretended to sleep again.
After a moment, she opened one eye and looked at him.
"We couldn't play Pictionary," he said.
She glared at him.
"Okay, sleep, eat, party down, sleep again. What, live? Live here? You . . . want me to hang out, maybe move in?"
She jumped up, grabbed his jean leg, and nodded, grinning with happiness. She stared at him with eyes brimming with hope and love.
"That's it? You want a roommate?"
She bit her lip and nodded.
"Okay, if I move into the house, I'm going to do some work on it."
Her face lit up with joy.
"And my friends will be over. A lot."
She went wide eyed and her mouth dropped open.
"Is that okay?"
For a short moment, she stood that way, frozen. Then she started jumping up and down and clapping her hands. She spun on her toes, jumped again, even did a flip, and then climbed up on his legs and began kissing him all over his face.
"Okay! Okay! I get it! You like company!"
When she finally let him be, there were new tears running down her face, but she never stopped smiling.
"You like company," he repeated. "Wait . . . Willow said it was a hundred years since you last fed. She said you need life. You don't need life, you need people living around you, with you. And the last time that happened was the old guy who died waiting for his replacement?"
She nodded. He was appalled.
"That . . . that . . . that's bullshit! Some old guy who collected spoons
? That's not life! That's stuffy, airless . . . boring!"
She stared at him, fascinated and confused.
"You know what I'm going to do? Oh, jeez, by the time I'm done, you're never going to be lonely again. You'll beg me for some peace and quiet. Okay, okay. Hang on. I need to explain this. First . . . do you know who the Slayer is?"
She made a "you're not stupid, you're crazy" face at him.
"The vampire slayer. Been around forever, even longer than you."
It took a moment, but he saw when she remembered.
"Okay, here's the deal."
"Xander, wait!" Buffy yelled as he stepped into the crevice.
"Dammit!" She swore. "Willow, can you-"
"Hey, sorry I took so long," he said, stepping back in. "Had to do a lot of explaining. Everything's going to be okay, but we kind of need to get busy, and . . . what?"
Everyone looked at Giles.
"Uh . . . clearly there's some manner of temporal disruption," he managed.
"What?" Xander blinked. "How long have you been waiting? You didn't send out for food did you? 'Cause I'm dying for some Chinese."
Everyone exchanged looks and then looked back at him.
"Xander," Jenny started, "what exactly happened in there?"
"Oh, right. I should explain." He paused for a moment. "Nope. That'll take too long. I'll sum up: the house is actually a tree, in a metaphorical sort of way. The little girl we've heard crying is the tree's dryad. If the house doesn't have people living in it, it'll die, and so will she. She's been alone for a hundred years now. She doesn't want anyone to die. She wants company and friends. And, I sort of promised I would take care of her . . . for . . . probably the rest of my life. And I'm okay with that. Can one of you call Dawn and tell her to start busing the Slayerettes down here? And tell them to bring their sleeping bags, whatever board games they've got, and a couple of the laptops."
Everyone continued to stare at him.
In the end, what worked was taking them – one and two at a time – into the heart of the house and introducing them to the dryad.
Willow went first, wrapped in wards and protective spells. Xander gave her a hand as she stepped through.
"Huh," he said, looking down the path when she emerged.
"Huh, what? Oh!"
A fox sat in the middle of the path, some ten yards away from them. It swished its bottle brush tail and yipped at them. The left side of its face was slightly squinched.
"Xan, it's missing-"
"Yeah. Same one as me," he answered. "There was a fox on the medallion, wasn't there? And there weren't any animals at all when I came in the first time. So, what does your Wicca-sense tell you?"
Willow looked around, open mouthed. "This is . . . Xander, this place is . . ."
"Yeah, I know."
"I don't think there's ever been any pollution here," she said. "It feels like the stone circles back in England, only more so."
"Let's go meet her."
The little dryad peered round the bole of her tree before they sat down. Xander crouched down and held out his hands.
"It's okay. I want to introduce you to my friend, Willow."
Willow knelt beside him and waited as the dryad crept up to them. Before Willow could say anything, the tiny girl climbed on her knees to stare into her eyes.
"Oh!" Willow gasped. She reached out to Xander, who took her hand. "Xander, she can see all of me, everything!"
The child cocked her head a bit, staring deeper.
"No, no . . . that was a long time ago, and I'm so sorry," Willow whispered. "Yes. Yes, he is. My best friend."
A long, silent moment passed, and a tear spilled out of each of her eyes and tracked down her face.
"Yes. I loved her . . . so
much," and here Willow caught a sob in her throat. "I miss her. She would love this place."
Satisfied, the dryad gave her a kiss on the cheek and then bounced over to Xander, who picked her up and sat her on his shoulder.
When he brought Jenny and Giles through together, the fox waited for them, and beside it stood a doe with golden red fur and large, sensitive ears. Both sprang away and proceeded them into the forest.
The dryad took an immediate liking to Jenny and then pulled Giles' glasses from his face so she could look through the lenses. He watched, stifling a smile, while she staggered from side to side, looking up at the leaves of her tree and over at Xander. He then let her climb back up to put the glasses back on him.
The doe and fox were visible in the shade of the forest when Xander brought Buffy into the ravine. When they reached the tree, a pair of mute swans floated on the surface of the water, necks entwined.
"Oh, Giles is going to be so disappointed he's a swan," Xander laughed.
"Are you kidding?" Buffy asked. "You do not mess with swans. Mean critters. One of them once chased me and Dawn to our car after we ran out of bread to feed it."
"The Slayer? Beaten by a bird?" Xander asked.
"I was ten. Mom heard our screams from the other side of the park."
This time, the dryad tackled Xander's pant leg and used it to scale him all the way to his shoulder.
"Owowowowowowow," Xander muttered under his breath. At Buffy's look, he added, "she's got nails, and she's using them."
When she reached his shoulder, she settled in and gave him a pat on his ear as though to say "there, there".
"So what did Buffy's critter turn out to be?" Willow asked him as they stood at the gate, waiting for Dawn's first carload to arrive.
"An eagle," Xander answered. "No idea what kind. Not a bald eagle, though."
"Giles said all the critters were European."
"Lot of research in that," Xander said, smiling slyly at her.
"Oh, please don't throw me in the briar patch." Willow grinned back at him. "Dawn'll go crazy over those scrolls."
As speaking her name apparently summoned her, the van turned onto the street and pulled up to the curb. Piles had been strapped to the roof, and the doors were nearly blown off their hinges by the explosion of girls spilling out.
Dawn hopped out, strolled up to the gate, waited for Xander to open it, and put herself in front of him.
"Didn't I tell you that you weren't allowed to have anything interesting happen without me?" she demanded.
"Called you as soon as I could," he replied, spreading his hands out.
A fifteen year old Slayerette skipped past him, and he reached out and grabbed her by the collar, almost pulling him off his feet. She froze. He righted himself, and then led her back to the sidewalk.
"See this? The bricks and how they're laid out in a wide, long line that leads directly to the door? It's called a sidewalk. Stay on it."
"Sorry, Xan!" the girl squeaked.
"Go on," he answered. "See if you can give Jenny a hand in the kitchen."
The Slayerette scooted off. Xander and Dawn waited until the tide of excited, chirping girls passed them.
"So, do I get to meet her?"
"Absolutely." He nodded.
He put an arm around her shoulders and led her to the front door, which stood wide open. The curtains had been pulled back, and afternoon sunlight spilled into the entry way.
"We're home," Xander announced.
The trees sighed in the breeze, and the house creaked in welcome.