Title: Xander's Labyrinth
Disclaimer: Not mine. Wis.... er... um.... would love if they were mine. Buffy and crew belong to Joss Whedon, The Labyrinth is a creation of Jim Henson and Brian Froud, though I would hope they wouldn't mind my little games.
Summary: You know what they say, third time's a charm. Be careful what you wish for.
A/N: Buffy / Labyrinth crossover.... begins sometime after the death of Sunnydale...
* * *
When would she learn? Wishes were bad – especially those done out of anger. And it was true – she'd been angry. He had been pestering them, wanting to talk about something, interrupting her time with her girlfriend – disrupting their movie.
So she'd said the words, just like in the movie. And just like in the movie, his yammering and knocking had stopped. But unlike the movie, the sudden cessation had not garnered her immediate attention or guilty concern. She was only grateful that he'd finally given up and left her alone.
Stumbling out of her room the next morning in desperate need of the bathroom, Willow didn't notice the crystal sphere lying in the hallway next to her door.
Dawn Summers crept down the hallway toward Xander's room. Lately, it was unusual for the carpenter not to be up at the crack of dawn, a habit from his stint in Africa he couldn't shake. The fact that the younger Summers girl was awake first was something to treasure and gloat over. But in order to gloat, she had to have the individual she had surpassed to gloat to.
At his door she listened intently, but didn't hear anything. A sly grin crossed her lips as she carefully opened the door. “Xander! Boo!” she called loudly, flipping on the lights, ready to bounce onto the bed and tickle the recalcitrant sleeper, only to find the bed empty. “Well, poop,” the teen groused.
Sulking, she turned the light back off and dejectedly headed down the hall. Brows drew together in a frown as a gleam of light shone from near the floorboards near Willow's and Kennedy's room. Moving closer, she saw what appeared to be a clear glass ball about the size of a peach. Stooping to pick it up, she was surprised at how light it was. “Not much of a paperweight,” Dawn muttered to herself.
“Morning, Dawn. What do you have?”
Dawn looked up. “Oh, hey, Willow. Um... I found this on the floor. Is it yours?” She held up the crystal.
A strange look crossed the older girl's face for a moment before turning puzzled. “No. I haven't seen it before.”
“Oh. Maybe it's Xander's. Have you seen him? I thought he was still sleeping, 'cause his truck's in the driveway, but he's not in his room or anywhere in the house and I want to torment him a bit for not letting me know he was up and about.”
A look of annoyance crossed the witch's face. “No, I haven't, and I really don't care where he is at the moment.”
Dawn's mouth hung open in surprise as Willow swept past her into her room, shutting the door firmly. “Geez, Louise! What's got her knickers in a twist?” Absently, she pocketed the crystal, not noticing the gentle glow emanating from it. “Xaaaander? Where aaaare you?” she singsonged as she checked the house once more.
* * *
Lunch time, and still no Xander. None of the slayers-in-training seemed to know, or particularly care, where the young man was. They were enjoying the day off from the rigorous schedule the ex-carpenter had them all following. Giles and Buffy were out of town, looking in on one of the Slayers who had chosen to stay at home. Dawn didn't want to call and bother them, if it turned out the young man just needed some time to himself. On the other hand, it just wasn't like Xander to take off without telling anyone.
Willow was no help – she and Kennedy hadn't emerged from their room yet – and Dawn couldn't help her growing anger at the older girl's earlier dismissal of Xander. Sitting on the porch swing, Dawn sadly rocked back and forth, the panic that had taken root earlier blossoming in her chest.
* * *
Less than an hour later, Dawn had finally broken down and called Buffy. “He hasn't been home all day. No one's seen him, his truck's still here, and I found his cell in his room. He's never taken off like this before. There wasn't even a note on my door like he usually leaves if he's going for a run or to the store.” Dawn paced the living room, ignoring a couple of the Slayers who were urging her off the phone so they could make a call. She gave them the evil eye, smirking slightly as they backed off, Cordy's lessons paying off.
“See if Willow can do a locator spell. You're right, this doesn't sound like Xander at all.” Buffy's voice crackled with static. “I'll try to hurry Giles and we'll head back as soon as possible. Two, three hours, max.”
“I can't. She and Kennedy went out. I don't know when they'll be back.”
An angry sigh sounded over the line. “I'll try to call her. Call Faith, see if she can stay with you till we get back.”
Dawn agreed, not bristling like she normally would at the idea that she still needed a sitter. Another friendly face would make her feel so much better. “Kay. See you later.” She hung up and dialed another number. “Faith? It's Dawn. Can you come over? Xander's missing.”
* * *
“What do you mean he's missing, Niblett?” Both Spike and Faith perched on the counter in the kitchen facing Dawn who was pacing back and forth. The rest of the house was eerily silent since Faith – in a fit of pique at the Slayers' attitudes – had sent them off on a fifteen mile run around the Cleveland downtown area. They wouldn't slack off either, if they knew what was good for them.
She related everything she knew, which didn't amount to much, but neither vampire nor senior Slayer doubted the girl. “It's just not like him. I know something terrible must have happened.”
Faith hopped down and gathered the girl in her arms. She too felt something had gone horribly wrong. Xander was fast becoming a good friend and she didn't want any more harm coming to him. She spotted the lump poking from the girl's pocket. “Whatcha got, kiddo?”
The girl shrugged. “Found it in the hall.” She pulled out the crystal and showed it to them.
Faith merely blinked, but it was Spike who reacted the most. “Bloody Hell!”
Startled, Dawn dropped the crystal, which would have shattered into a million pieces. At Spike's startled “NO!” Faith caught it mere centimeters from the tiled floor.
“What? What is it?” Dawn's nerves were almost completely shattered at this point with worry, she didn't need a hysterical vampire on her hands, too.
“Where did you get that?” Spike's gaze was fixed firmly upon the sphere in fascinated horror.
Dawn stomped her foot and determinedly suppressed tears. “I told you. I found it in the hallway this morning. I thought it was Willow's but she said no. What difference does it make, anyway? We need to concentrate on finding Xander!”
“If I'm right, that little bit of glass holds the key to where Xander's gone off to. What made you think it was Red's?”
“It was outside her door on the floor, on the side closest to Xander's room.”
“What was he doing last time you saw him?”
Dawn took a breath to calm down and think. “I was heading for bed and gave him a kiss goodnight. I think he said he was going to talk to Willow before going to bed himself.”
“What are you thinking, Spikey?” Faith interjected, having released Dawn and returned to her seat, idly rolling the sphere between her palms.
“When I was nineteen, I wished away my baby brother. He'd been cryin' and whinin' all bloody night and I couldn't take it anymore. He was taken by the King of the Goblins and a crystal sphere,” he pointed, “just like that one was left in his place.”
Faith and Dawn froze in shock. “What happened?”
“Well, I was a fright mess, now wasn't I? Bloody well buggered. The Goblin King made me run through his Labyrinth – solve it in thirteen hours or he would turn Terrence into a goblin.”
“Did you solve it?” Dawn asked softly.
Spike shook his head. “No. Don't know how close I was, even. But I wasn't one to give up. And I really loved Terrence, the little blighter. The King gave him back – told me I should always remember how precious my brother was.” Spike's countenance darkened. “Shoulda let him be turned inta a bleedin' goblin.”
Faith caught his eyes, her own expression surprisingly understanding. “You killed him when you got turned, didn't you?”
Spike nodded, haunted eyes returning to the sphere. Dawn threw herself into Spike's lap with a cry, arms wrapped tightly about him. Hesitantly, he returned the embrace before clearing his throat in embarrassment. “S'alright, luv. What's done is done. Let's focus on Xander.”
Dawn nodded, sniffled, wiped her eyes, and returned to her seat.
The front door could be heard opening. “That better not be the baby slayers,” Faith growled.
Spike inhaled. “Nah, it's Red and her girl. Good. We need to talk to her anyways.”
Willow pushed open the kitchen door, Kennedy behind her, and Dawn was pleased to finally see worry and concern in the witch's green eyes. “Buffy called. Xander's really missing? I thought he was just giving me some space after saying all those hateful things to Kennedy.”
“What?” Faith blinked. “No way. Harris has too much class.”
“Explain.” Spike snapped.
“We had been watching a movie and I'd gone down to the kitchen to get drinks. I thought I'd heard someone knocking upstairs. When I got back to the room and asked, Kennedy said Xander had really hurt her feelings.” The witch wrapped her arm around her girlfriend's shoulders. “I was so mad, I was going to ream him a new one, but Kennedy convinced me to not waste my time on someone who was just jealous. This morning, when Dawn asked me if I'd seen Xander, I was still upset and was glad I hadn't seen him. I was afraid I'd do something drastic.” She sniffled, her voice cracking. “If I hadn't been so angry, I would have talked to him and he might not be missing now. He probably thinks I hate him and I don't - I was just angry at the way he treated Kennedy.”
Spike whipped his head around to stare at the baby slayer – shame and nervousness rolled off the girl in waves. “What did you do?” he growled, eyes flashing yellow.
Willow looked shocked, Kennedy was slowly backing away from the incensed vampire, creating distance.
“What. Did. You. Do?” Faith bit out, her voice and posture every bit as frightening as the Master Vampire's.
“I ... I ... I just wanted him to leave us alone!” The girl's eyes scanned each face frantically, filling with tears at the shocked expression in her lover's eyes. Sobbing, she ran out of the room – the slamming front door let them know Kennedy had left the house.
Willow whirled, eyes bright with tears, but slowly darkening in anger. “What is going on!”
Dawn grabbed Willow's hand and dragged her to a chair. She plucked the crystal from Faith's absent-minded grip and plopped it into Willow's hand. “Spike thinks Xander's been wished away. Something about a Goblin King and that this sphere is important.” She sat across from the witch, eyes somber and alert, studying her.
“Wished? Wished! Goddess!” Willow's face paled as a flash of remembrance lit her eyes. “I wondered why this look so familiar.” She looked at the other two. “Have a seat. I'm going to try something.”
“Like what, Red?” Faith was wary.
“It's kind of like a locator spell, but it should let us see and hear Xander, too, through the sphere. I need about fifteen minutes to prepare, and something of Xander's.” Dawn scrambled up the stairs to Xander's room, while Willow arranged candles and salt. Both Giles and Buffy arrived just as Willow was about to begin. The six sat around the table, grasping hands, the sphere in the center of the table.
~ Reveal the one I wish to see / Reveal the one who's close to me /
Be they far or be they near / Let me now both see and hear. ~
* * *
One minute, Xander was knocking on the door of his used-to-be-but-lately-not-so-much best friend, the next, he was in a large throne room. A magnificent throne engraved with strange designs and sigils sat centered against the farthest wall. Off to one side a set of steps led to a semi-circular pit, for lack of a better word. Cushions and pillows lined the edges creating a comfortable, less formal seating arrangement. The room was empty, but recently cleaned – keeping it from having the same feel as the abandoned mansions that existed on the outskirts of Sunnydale. With a soft sigh – half of resignation, half fondness – Xander drifted over in bare feet to an expansive window, already knowing what he would see.
A small village with a ramshackled look – crooked buildings leaned upon each other in support like old friends – old, but well cared for. The streets ran this way and that, turning back upon themselves, some times dead-ending, but orderly and clean despite the disorganization. And beyond the gates of the city lay the Labyrinth. For as far as the eye could see, corridors twisted and turned, changed and defied the laws of man. Small alcoves and hidden gardens appeared and shifted. Small and not so small figures darted here and there on one errand or another. The Labyrinth.
A pair of boots whispered across the flagstones behind him. Knowing who approached, Xander remained in place, half leaning against the windowpane, arms unconsciously wrapped around his middle, taking in the view with his one eye.
“Xander,” the smooth tone brought a curious mixture of panic and peace. For a heartbeat, Xander remained silent, collecting himself, ignoring the fact that he was dressed in his sleepwear – a pair of sweats and a long sleeved tee – then he bowed his head. “Your Majesty.”
Jareth, King of the Goblins and Guardian of the Labyrinth, stopped just behind him, one hand grasping his shoulder. As the two's eyes met in the glass reflection, a spark jumped from King to mortal and the horrible aching that throbbed where his eye used to be faded away completely. “This makes, what, three times I've been graced with your presence? If I didn't know better, I'd think you missed my company.”
A laugh, or possibly a sob, caught in Xander's throat – both at the healing and at the affection he caught beneath the sarcasm. “Who says I didn't?”
A small smirk graced the King's features a moment before changing to one of concern. “We need to talk. Come have a seat.” Jareth turned, heading for the cushioned pit. With a shuddery breath, Xander pushed away from the window frame to follow.
* * *
Fae and mortal sat across from each other, goblets of mead in hand, trays of bread and cheese at their knee. Xander sat cross-legged, staring into his goblet, watching the light shimmer off the liquid. Jareth was watching the boy – man, now – struck by how many things had changed over the years – the eye, the sadness – as well as by how many had remained the same – the spirit, determination, and loyalty.
Jareth leaned back against a cushion, idly rolling a sphere from one hand to another. “Do you know how rare your first trip to my castle was?” At the questioning glance, Jareth continued. “To wish someone away, you have to have some kind of familial bond – usually blood, though step-family works as well. Yours was extremely unusual.”
A soft smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “We were five, hanging out in Will's backyard. Wills had just read us The Labyrinth earlier in the week and we'd been playing out parts of it. Jesse wished the goblins would take me as part of the game,” he shrugged.
“Non-family wishes are almost unheard of and once I realized the age of the wisher – well, I couldn't very well make him run the Labyrinth, now could I?”
“He'd have done it, though. Same as me if our positions had been reversed.” Xander grinned, his eye lighting up in memory. “'Course, before you could return me, you had to find me. I remember being pretty spooked by your goblins and hid in one of the spare rooms.”
“The most hair-raising five hours I've ever encountered. I had no idea you were so proficient at 'hide-and-seek'.”
“I am the Hide-and-Seek Master,” the solemn look belied the grin.
“Yes, I can imagine.” Jareth was equally solemn.
* * *
The six sat in stunned silence. “That what you meant when you said it looked familiar, Red?”
Willow blinked back tears, focusing on Spike's face. The blonde vampire looked shaken – a rarity for “the Big Bad.” She nodded. “After Jesse made the wish, Xander just disappeared, leaving a crystal lying on the ground where he'd been standing. We freaked.” Her lips quirked in remembered sorrow. “I remember picking it up and running to Xander's secret place, praying he would be there. Jesse and I clung to each other for what seemed like forever, crying, terrified we'd never see him again. The sun nearly set before he reappeared.” She grinned, “We pounced on him and hugged him so hard I don't think we even paid attention to the fact that he never told us where he'd been. I was just so glad to have him back.”
Dawn moved to wrap her arms around the Wicca. Buffy drew their attention back to the crystal.
* * *
“Your second visit should have been more permanent.”
Xander nodded absently, crumbling a piece of bread between his fingers. He brushed off his hands. “Never figured out how mom knew the words. She was never much of a reader, and she never would have watched a children's movie.”
The Goblin King stretched his legs out in front of him, sinking deeper into the cushions. “To those who would most likely use them, the words are whispered by a few of my goblins. Then, as per the rules, the wisher is given a chance to win back the child by running the Labyrinth.”
“Mom never even attempted it, did she?” a wry, self-depreciating smile twisted Xander's lips.
“No.” Jareth's mismatched eyes softened in fondness. “I would have liked to have kept you. According to the rules, she forfeited all rights to you, and there were no other adults with a strong enough connection, and who I would have been willing to return you, to make the offer to. By rights, I could have kept you.” He gave a bark of laughter. “But you confounded me. Only eight, and you stood up to me, fearlessly, and explained why you had to go back. Three days, by the stars you were persistent. I admired your determination. There was nothing I could offer that could replace that which you already had.”
A lopsided grin graced Xander's face, erasing harsh lines caused by time, heartache, and pain. “I know my 'rents didn't want me, but I had to go back for Jesse and Wills. They needed me. I needed them, too.” He stared hard at the Goblin King, his whole demeanor serious. “Thank you for sending me back.”
* * *
“He was gone for three days? How'd nobody miss him?” Faith's brow wrinkled.
Everyone turned to Willow, who's own brow was creased in thought. “Eight. Eight.” She blinked, remembering. “We thought he had the flu. He was gone most of the week. Mom wouldn't let me go see him for fear he was contagious. By Monday he was back at school.”
Spike stared at Willow, his face unreadable. “The three of you had something bloody incredible, Red. Not often the delights of the Fae are turned down.”
“He's a good friend,” Buffy stated.
“The best,” Willow enthused.
Giles was staring at the crystal, his gaze pensive.
“What's the sitch, G?” Faith asked.
“There is something I read, dealing with the Fae. I just can't seem to recall the specifics.”
Dawn broke in, “They're talking again.”
* * *
“Things are different this time, aren't they?”
Jareth smiled fondly at the mortal, “Always were a clever one.” The smile faded. “Normally, I would have no trouble sending you straight home, but this is your third time here and to the Fae, and more importantly, to Magic, three is an extremely potent number.”
“So, is there another way to send me back? Not that I have anything against your hospitality, but I'm needed at home.”
Jareth nodded, not expecting any other type of response. “There are a few other exits deep within the Labyrinth itself, but for some you are no longer eligible, and for others .... well, we would have to research.” He paused, head tilted to one side as he studied the mortal. “There is a certain amount of urgency. Due to your age, several of the easier exits are unattainable to you. The Magic here will cause problems for you after three days.”
“What happens after three days?”
“Either the magic kills you or your body has to be changed to accept the Magic. And if that occurs, there is no way home.” He rose smoothly to his feet and motioned for Xander to accompany him.
* * *
Giles darted to his feet and scurried out of the room, Dawn close at his heels. The others stared blankly at one another, perplexed. Within moments, Dawn had returned with her laptop. She had it plugged in and powered up just as Giles returned with an armload of books. “The Fae are capricious creatures, some moreso than others, but even they have to abide by certain rules. Interestingly enough, the Goblin King is one of the few whose dealings with mortals is not malicious. Yes, he 'steals' babies, but only upon request. Yes, he makes the culprit run the Labyrinth, but there are different tests within to allow each to prove their worth, to demonstrate whether a child should be returned. According to records, though, children who remain behind are not turned into Goblins – it's merely a threat. Goblins are an actual race; highly prolific, though on a whole, not too terribly bright. Those who lose their children are returned to the Human World with no memory of the incident and are generally found guilty of child abandonment or endangerment shortly thereafter. The children themselves are fostered out among other Fae and raised in very loving and caring environments.”
“They didn't get changed?” Spiked asked, “like the King just told would happen to Harris?”
“A child goes through so many natural changes as they grow, that the Magic simply becomes a part of them. Adults no longer have that ability.”
* * *
Jareth led Xander into the castle's Library. The room was easily four times the size of the old high school's library, with wall to wall, floor to ceiling book shelves. The room was criss-crossed with several stand alone shelves, creating a small maze with the stacks themselves. A large, solid oak desk with antique lanterns took up the center of the room. A stack of books sat waiting upon the table, along with a quill and parchment. Xander whistled in appreciation, “Giles would give his eye teeth to be able to check this place out.”
Jereth smirked briefly and gestured to a chair as he opened one of the heavy tomes.
“There's a way home, it'll just take some time to figure it out.”
Xander nodded. “Good to know. Now what?”
Jareth watched as the mortal massaged his temples, noting the fatigue lining his face. “Have you slept recently?”
“Actually, I was headed for bed just before I was sent here.”
“Get some sleep. We'll begin researching in the morning. You won't be able to concentrate for much longer.”
“I'll contact them. Get some sleep. I'll have someone bring you back here once you've rested.”
Xander rose, bowing respectively to the monarch. “I appreciate your concern and help, Your Majesty.”
Jareth nodded regally in response and watched as the youth left the throne room. Turning, he waved his hand, producing a crystal. “I assume you have some thoughts on the matter?”
* * *
The six around the table gasped as Jareth, King of the Goblins, turned and addressed them. “How...” Willow began.
“Come, come. You don't honestly believe that I would be unaware of scrying being done on me? Using one of my own crystals, no less?” A brow arched wryly as they were studied by mismatched eyes. “Give your friend four hours for rest. I'll contact you once he's awake. Perhaps then we can discover how to get him home.”
* * *
Once again in the Library, Xander munched on some bread and cheese as he sat across from Jareth who was once again enthroned behind the large oak desk. “I spoke with your friends and arranged for their help.” A large mirror stood against one wall. The Fae waved one hand, almost negligently, and the face of the mirror clouded. When it cleared, Xander could see his friends crowded about the research table in Gile's office.
“Xander!” A cacophony of well wishes and concerned questions rang for a few minutes as Xander attempted to assure them all that he was fine.
“Shall we begin?” The calm comment cut through the clamor. He muttered something suspiciously like a spell and Xander felt a bit lightheaded for a moment. “What?”
“It's an assessing spell,” Willow explained.
The Goblin King studied him for a long moment, mismatched eyes narrowed in concentration. “Humn. This may be more difficult than I originally expected.”
“I don't like the sound of that,” Faith and Spike echoed Xander's comment.
“Indeed, you should not. I've explained that Three is a potent number to the Fae. You have more than one set of threes working against you. You being born and living on a Hellmouth complicates matters.”
“Of course it does.” Xander groused.
“What are the sets?” Giles asked, opening one of the heavy tomes in front of them. “And can any of them be negated?”
“Being here for the third time is the first. The second is a set of 'nevers' for the Labyrinth. We've never had someone wished to the Labyrinth more than once, never had a wished child negotiate their way home, which, by the way, caught the attention of many among the fosterlings and the Fae,” he grinned sardonically, “I was informed more than once that I was a fool to let you go. And we've never had an adult wished here.
“The next two sets are interlinked. You effectively had three families, and someone from each wished you away with the linked set of range of intent: completely by accident, completely on purpose, and an honest desire for you to be gone, just not in the manner in which it happened.” Jareth opened a book at his elbow, a slight smile appearing. “That one can be counteracted.”
“How?” The group perked up eager to lessen the damage.
“You'll need someone in each family to donate a drop of blood.”
Xander slumped. “My blood family didn't make it out of Sunnydale.”
“What about your uncle Rory?”
Xander shook his head. “He came to visit the day before. No one would listen to me when I told them to get out of Sunnydale.”
Jareth tapped a slender finger upon the yellowed page. “The spell could work with a potential, or future, family. How about a serious girlfriend or a child?”
The entire group winced in sympathy at the defeated sigh, “Anya died a few years ago.” His face twisted.
“Xander?” Willow asked cautiously.
“Anya had been pregnant.” He folded in on himself. “Excuse me.” He rose from the table and left the Library.
The group watched the heartbroken man walk away. Jareth sighed, a heavy sound. “We'll let him alone a moment.”
“Should he be alone?” Giles asked.
“I have someone watching him. Fear not.”
“Why didn't he tell us?” Dawn sobbed.
“I've been able to note that Xander is not one to place unnecessary burdens on those he's chosen to defend.” Several minutes passed as each argued that it would not have been a burden to help their friend.
Spike noticed that Willow was curiously silent. “Red?”
Eyes bright with tears, Willow's lips quirked in a wry smile. “Just... Xander always does this. He buries things, especially if it means someone else will hurt more if he shares them. He's done it for as long as I can remember. It saddens me that he didn't tell us about Anya – but it doesn't surprise me that he kept it to himself.”
“Let's continue ... According to the assessing spell. Xander has three power signatures attached. One I know to be the Hellmouth he was born on, but I don't know the other two.”
“Here's a Hellmouth here in Cleveland,” Faith stated.
“That serves well. And the third?”
Buffy blinked and spoke up tentatively. “Alcatha? It was a literal mouth to hell. Xander was in the same room when it opened. So was Giles.”
Jareth studied the Watcher and nodded. “That fits as well. As well as from three worlds he has had three spirit possessions.”
“The Hyena spirit during his Sophmore year,” Giles mentioned.
“The Soldier at Halloween,” Willow nodded
Dawn's brow wrinkled in thought. “There's this world, Earth, and the Fae world...” she trailed off.
“What's the third?” Buffy asked.
“Vampire,” came the low response. Turning, all spotted Xander standing in the doorway to the library, he looked calmer, though the signs of grief were still visible. He moved slowly to a chair on the far side of both Jareth and his friends in the mirror and sat heavily.
Spike scoffed, “Sorry, whelp, you ain't never been no vampire. Count on it.”
“Yes, I have, in the Wish Universe.” At the blank stares, he sighed. “The one Anya got Cordy to create when she was angry at my betrayal.” His voice was flat and he kept his gaze locked upon the table before him.
“Mine, too, Xander,” Willow said softly.
Giles interrupted, “How is this possible? We had the Vampire version of Willow show up in our world - that would indicate a separate version of people, so Xander couldn't possible have been a vampire.”
“I woke screaming from a nightmare once and after discussing it, Anya explained it to me. The Willow Vamp walked in our world only via a spell – the Wish Universe was a segment of an alternate reality that Anya gained access to due to the Wish. It dead-ended after her power base was destroyed. Since she became mortal at that point and in that universe, once back in this one, the segment tried to maintain its reality since there was a mortal that vividly remember it. Yet, it couldn't stay solid, so it attached itself to those who were affected the most. Us. But it could only remain within the subconscious of certain individuals. Willow, Giles, and Buffy because of their inherent magical natures.”
“But why would you remember?” Spike asked.
“Because Hyena decided to hang onto it. It thought it was amusing and wanted them as a reminder of me as an alpha personality.”
Pandemonium reigned. “What do you mean Hyena?” Willow yelped.
“I thought you didn't remember any of that?” Buffy shrilled.
“Do you mean it's still around?” Giles leaned forward, brows furrowed.
“What exactly does that mean?” Faith interjected.
The friends grew quiet, focusing on the Goblin King.
“That's seven sets against thee.” Jareth raked his gaze across them all, noting who gazed back and who flinched away. Xander stared steadily back, no apology within his demeanor.
“You can discuss the Hyena aspect later – right now, we need to figure out how to get Xander home. We have to figure out how to negate the sets, even more so now that there are seven – which is an even more potent number than three.”
“Good Lord.” Giles took off his glasses and began polishing them, a habit that actually had the group relax to see the familiar motion.
“Okay, yeah, Xan's parents are no longer here, but is there a way to negate the 'family' set. You know, go around it somehow, because they are no longer around to say no?” Dawn asked a bit timidly, she didn't want to set Xander into a depression or anything.
Jareth raised a brow. “Perhaps,” he murmured. “Hand me the red bound book at your elbow, Xander.” Paging though, he finally came across what he was looking for. “Yes, here it is. A drop of blood and a hair from seven true friends.”
Xander chuckled. “There's six,” he pointed at those seated on the other side of the mirror. Both Faith and Spike looked shocked, but were pleased to see the truth in Xander's expression.
“Would one of the S.I.T.'s work for a seventh?” Dawn asked.
“No. They're family because I claimed them, but I don't know any of them well enough to be friends, let alone a true friend.”
It was Buffy who answered. “Cordelia.”
“Cordelia?” Willow yelped, her tone incredulous.
Xander nodded. “Past three years have gone a long way in soothing ruffled feathers. We regularly email and call each other.” He glanced at them all, a wry grin on his face. “Dawnie, would you call Cordy? I figure, she won't hang up on you or tear into you like she would the others.”
With a beam, Dawn slipped out of the office, glad to finally be able to do something constructive.
“Okay, so with Queen C, we should be able to knock out one set. How about the others?” Faith propped her feet up on the corner of the table, ignoring Giles' pained glance. They spent a couple of minutes batting ideas around.
Dawn slid back into the room, her smile undimmed. “Cody'll be here sometime tomorrow morning. She said, and I quote, 'Someone's gotta rescue the dufus, if only so I can kick his ass for scaring me like that.'”
“That's my girl,” Xander's demeanor had lightened and his smile was one of fond pride. “You better hope Cordy doesn't find a simpler way to get me home, or when she's done with you, a head first dip into the Bog of Eternal Stench will seem a pleasant alternative.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” the Goblin King assured, amazed once again at how quickly mortals could adapt to situations.
* * *
Jareth continued reading, a frown forming between feathered brows.
“Problem?” Giles asked warily.
“This will take care of the 'intent' set – the givers have to have a pure and true desire for their friend – Xander – to be returned, however, this will not take care of the 'family' set.”
“So, what will?”
“Which one are they working on?” Dawn whispered to Spike.
“The 'Family' set, Niblett.” Spike absently carded her hair with his fingers.
“Don't families give you names?”
Giles smiled. “Brilliant. Names are very powerful. It's believed that to know someone's true name is to have power over them.”
Jareth pulled open another tome. “In this case, we can use them to create a connection to your world – to draw him back to where the names originated.” He put up a warning hand, “The names cannot be just any old nicknames, but must actually be a label or marker of that person. Something with an emotional impact for the one who gave the name initially.”
“How do you establish if a label is still valid? I've been called many things, but I don't think all of them apply.” Xander looked both curious and pensive.
“The spell is best cast once all your friends are here. It will search out the names that connect you to Earth and your friends will speak the name aloud. Three names are needed to at least neutralize the family set; more is best, but most people don't have more than two. We won't know the results until the test is over.”
“What are the side affects.”
Jareth smiled thinly at Xander. “I always knew you were clever. Yes, there's a 'side effect.' You'll experience the reasons or events and emotions behind a name.”
Xander was thoughtful. “What about them?”
“Only flashes. But you'll get the full effect – especially if the name resonates strongly.”
“That's two.” Spike rose from his seat and began pacing the room.
Giles gave a half shout of triumph. “Here. This ritual could negate the 'world' set.” There was a knocking on the door downstairs. The sextet ignored it, letting one of the other slayers take care of it. “If, as you say, the Hyena spirit held onto the Vampire memories, then those two worlds are merged. All that would need to be done is merge the Fae world, and as its your realm, you could easily set up safe guards for a safe merging that won't keep him there.”
Before Jareth could reply, one of the girls shouted out, “Heads up, people. Ms. Chase is here!”
With a squeal, Dawn dashed out of the room. The others started at each in astonishment as they heard the young girl chatting with their new guest. Several rose to their feet as Cordelia Chase entered the room. She was greeted with hugs, smiles, questions and laughter. The young woman took it all in with grace, then locked gazes with Xander who had moved up to his side of the mirror, one hand lightly pressed against the glass, a small smile playing upon his lips. “Hey, Cordy.”
She walked over and mirrored him, palm to palm, taking her first real look of him in almost three years. No longer a gangly, callow youth – now stood a hardened warrior with the scars to prove it. Yet the warmth in his eye told her he was still the open hearted, generous boy she had come to know and love. “Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I? When I said I wanted to see you again, this isn't what I had in mind.”
“You know me, Cor. Can't do anything by halves. How'd you get her so fast?”
“Had a client who owed me a favor. Transportation spell set me down on the front porch instead of inside like he planned. I tried to tell him the place was warded, but would he listen?”
She turned to address the others, not taking her eyes off Xander. “I'm guessing you have some ideas as to the problem as well as some possible solutions. Bring me up to speed.”
Ten minutes later, Xander had returned to his seat and Cordelia was ensconced between Giles and Dawn directly across from the mirror. For the first time she addressed Jareth, her tone a touch more deferential due to his status as Royalty. Inwardly, Jareth smirked, this girl impressed him. She could definitely give many Fae a run for their money when it came to sheer determination, acerbic wit, and “snootiness.” “You think you can do the merge to negate the 'world' set?”
“Once the spirits are fully assimilated, yes.”
Buffy blinked, “I thought they were? I mean, aren't they, since he has access?”
Xander sighed, “No. I received more skills from the soldier during that fiasco with the Judge, you know, when we broke onto the military base and stole the rocket launcher?” Cordy nodded, grinning in memory. “But I can't consciously tap into the memories, it's mainly instinct. The Hyena stayed locked in the back of my mind until about eighteen months ago when I ran across some Lion Primals. Hyena came out a bit and I honestly didn't think I would have survived that encounter without it, but I still don't have full access.”
“Why didn't you say anything?” Giles wondered.
“I was afraid if I told you, you would have pulled the assignment. I was doing good work and no one you would have put in to replace me would have been accepted. They would have been dead within a month. I already had a routine and a reputation. I couldn't blow that for the girls I was trying to help.”
Giles let that sink in and finally nodded his agreement of the situation. “But we're going to discuss this further once you get back here.”
“So, the vampire's not assimilated, either?” Spike asked, he'd resumed pacing the room.
“No, I'm just getting bits and pieces. Flashes of images in my dreams. They're ... not pleasant.”
“What happens when you get all of them to finally join up?” Faith rocked her chair back on two legs, dark eyes serious.
Xander shrugged and glanced over at Jareth. The Goblin King raised a brow. “I would assume you would have access to all their memories and skills. Though, as you're human, the more esoteric abilities may be sublimated or gone all together.”
“Will it change the whelp?” Spike paused in his pacing, giving the Goblin King a penetrating glare.
“He will still be himself – just more. Especially since he's been unconsciously tapping into them for some time now. There's really nothing 'new,' just memories. Once it's done, the other spell to negate the three worlds will be quite easy to deal with.”
The group was silent as they tried to wrap their minds around the revelation. “That leaves three sets.” Willow broke in.
“What happens when a set can't be negated somehow?”
“Then we find out what is needed to counteract. It's usually quests for special items, negotiating with certain beings, that sort of thing. It can be done – it's just harder. Though, you only get one chance at each quest. If you fail, then you're through.”
“The 'Fae' set?”
“Traversing from the castle to the front gate will suffice.”
“Not as simple as it sounds,” Xander chimed in.
“No, it's never been done. So if you succeed, you'll effectively negate the 'nevers' set as well. Unfortunately, there are other Fae that would like to see you fail. They would love to keep you here. They have no access to the Labyrinth, though, so they will not be able to sabotage your journey. I have to admit I'm interested in knowing how the magic will change you if you're here beyond seven days.”
“I'm not,” Xander said, flatly. The sentiment was echoed vehemently throughout the other room.
“Why are you helping Xander leave, anyway?” Cordelia was as blunt as ever.
Jareth sighed. “As a child, the power Xander could potentially harness would have been maintained through wards. As an adult, and with the power he has access to now, he could conceivably cause a power shift within the Realms, and as fascinating as that could be I simply don't wish to risk it if at all possible.”
“Then why not just kill him?” Giles seemed mildly distressed at the suggestion, but everyone else just looked curiously at the Goblin King.
“Now where's the fun in that?” the Fae grinned toothily.
Xander shrugged and tapped the parchment with the sets listed. “Last one is the three mouths of hell. Suggestions?”
Willow flipped through a book. “Is it because they're hell dimensions or just alternate dimensions? What I mean is, is it the negative energy we're trying to negate or just the energy itself?”
Jareth held a hand over Xander's head, as if feeling for energy. “It's the demonic – the negativity that you need to rid of or balance.”
“What produces positive energy?” Cordy asked, one perfectly manicured nail tapping her lips.
“Especially near a Hellmouth?” Faith grabbed an apple from a bowl on the table and bit into it.
“It appears we'll have to find something on this side to complete the negation.” Jareth had conjured a crystal and now rolled it idly across his hands. “It would be some encounter in the Labyrinth, but even I have no knowledge of how that encounter shall appear. The realm knows what to work against and will do so of it's own choosing.”
“Great. No cheat sheets.” Xander shifted in his seat, stretching his back. “What should we start with?”
* * *
Desks were shoved away from the mirrors. Xander sat cross-legged facing the mirror, a half circle of candles surrounded him, the other half of the circle encircled his friends who stood in a half circle facing him.
“This shall bind you to where your name originated – Earth, in this case.” The Fae paced along the outside of the circle, the final syllables of the spell falling from his lips.
/awe – pride – nervousness/ “It's a boy. What shall you name him?”
“Alexander LaVelle Harris.” Giles spoke first, pride evident in his voice.
/friendship – happiness/ ~Two children sitting beneath a tree.~ “My name's Willow. What's yours?” “Alexander.” “Um...S...”
“Xander.” A fond smile crossed Willows lips.
/contempt – surprise – grudging respect/ ~Angel, no, Angelus, facing down Xander in a hospital corridor. “Buffy's...”
“White Knight.” Amazement lit Buffy's face.
/concern – love/ ~Tears and desperation.~ “No one sees who I am.” “I see you, Dawn.” “You really are ...”
“The One Who Sees.” Dawn gazed upon the one who had always been there for her.
/respect – paternal amusement/ ~A witch doctor studies him, deciding on whether this man should have access to his daughter. He nods.~ “I have heard much about you Tafiti.” “What does Tafiti mean?”
“Knowledge Seeker,” Faith grinned.
/fear – respect – hatred/ ~Images of death – by sword, ax, wood, and fire. A whispered name among the evil demons in Africa.~ “Beware of Kifokivuli.”
“Death's Shadow,” Spike's voice held a note of respect.
/surprise – gratefulness – camaraderie/ ~Cordelia received a near deluge of images, her time as a seer allowing her to sort them out – several which she recognized from high school – some from when the First was around – then areas and situations of Africa. Whispers of~ “Siri-wekwa.”
The candles flared up, pure white. Jareth nodded, pleased. Seven was a powerful number.
* * *
Hands flat against the floor, he braced himself. Xander kept his eye closed, willing the vertigo to subside and letting the memories slide back to their places. “Whoa.”
“Xander?” the concern and love were evident in Willow's voice.
“An unfortunate side effect to the spell. It will pass.” Jareth moved about behind him. The scent of smoke telling him the candles were being put out one by one. “What do you feel?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, 'hungry,' but he knew from the monarch's tone now was not the time for frivolousness. “Warmth. Concentrated right here,” his hand drifted up to cover his heart. “And almost like a ... tugging?” Xander turned to glance questioningly at the king.
“Your tie to Earth and to your friends has been – reinforced so to speak. Listen to your heart,” Jareth placed a hand on the mortal's shoulder and looked deep into his eye. “Merging your spirit and your worlds can only be done in the Wise Man's garden – the halfway point between the castle and the entrance. It will take up to a day to cast and for you to recover.”
Xander nodded. “Rules? Taboos?”
“Survive, but don't kill anything. Other than that, pretty much anything goes.” Jareth conjured a small pack and handed it to Xander. “Water, and 'safe' food.”
“How about a guide?” Xander asked cheekily.
“You have one,” Jareth replied. Xander nodded his understanding. “You'd better be going. It's further than you think and time is short. You have six and a half days before the magic changes you and you end up staying with us, forever.”
“Thank you,” Xander bowed, grateful. He cast a smile and wave toward his friends. “See ya in the garden, guys.” He shouldered his pack and left the room.
“Good luck, Xander!” “Be careful!” Well wishes were shouted after him.
“What did he mean he'd see us in the garden? Are we going to the Labyrinth?” Dawn bounced in her seat, excitement and trepidation in equal measures.
“No, I've set another mirror in the Wise Man's garden. If he makes it that far, we'll do the spells of merging.”
“Why 'if'?” Buffy was indignant. “I though you gave him a guide?”
“No, he has a guide – he always has,” Jareth stared coolly at the small girl. “But mortals find it so easy to lose heart.” A small smirk appeared at Buffy's downcast, half-guilty look. “Xander is a remarkable human – for his sake, I hope he makes it. Though I would be honored to have him stay in my realm.”
“You won't do anything to make Xander lose, will you?” Dawn's voice was timid.
Jareth smiled at her. “No, my dear. He will succeed or fail without any help or hindrance from me.”
* * *
Xander ghosted through the Goblin City – keeping to the shadows and out of sight of the residents. He wasn't sure why, but both Soldier and Hyena agreed it was the right thing to do. The fewer who saw him, the fewer interruptions. He slipped out the front gates and headed North, skirting the large group of Pack Goblins that made their slow, ponderous way toward the city, picking through the mounds of junk that littered the landscape. A flash of light on metal caught his attention and for a brief moment he considered checking to see if it was anything of value, but he stopped himself before he'd even taken a step. He had no time and there was nothing out there he needed to complete his quest. In fact, looking around would keep him from all he held dear. With a determined nod, he turned his blind eye toward the junkyard and made for the wall that encompassed the Center.
* * *
He could smell it before he saw it – the stench bored into his pores, clogged his nostrils, and near-choked him with a scent that was worse than any rotting corpse. The Bog of Eternal Stench. He'd hoped to avoid it and prayed none got on him. He could do without smelling like 'that' forever. The old wooden bridge was gone, instead there were a series of stepping stones that spanned the bog.
A small figure stood before the bridge, a lance held negligently in one hand, the other on its hip. Xander could make out the tufted ears and snout of a fox, one eye covered with an eyepatch.
“Halt. Who goes there?”
“My name is Xander. Who do I have the honor of addressing?” It never hurt to be unfailingly polite before you knew what or who you were dealing with.
The tiny being drew itself up to its' full height, which could be no more than three and a half feet, and proudly announced, “I am Sir Didyimus and it is my duty to defend this bridge with my dying breath.”
“And what is thy business, noble lord?”
“I'm supposed to traverse the Labyrinth and find the entrance. Though, first, I need to arrive at the Wise Man's Garden.”
Sir Didymus blinked. “Don't you mean you're tying to get to the castle at the Center of the Labyrinth?”
“Nope.” Xander smiled, trying to breath shallowly.
“How odd. Everybody else who comes by here is trying to get to the castle. I've never had anyone trying to find their way out.”
“Do you happen to know how to get to the Wise Man's Garden, and could you tell me the directions, please?”
Sir Didymus eyes him shrewdly. “You sound as if you've had experience in things of this sort. 'Mean what you say...'”
“...And say what you mean.' I do my best.”
Sir Didymus studied him for a long moment. “Answer if you can. 'It is better to be blind...'”
Xander locked gazes with the diminutive Knight, “...then to lose heart.' I've been reminded of that of late.”
With a flourish, the Fox Knight swept his hat off and bowed. “Noble Sir. It would be my honor to assist you. Cross the bridge. Take a left at the tree with the twin forks. Head straight for the wall – it'll lead you to the garden maze section of the Labyrinth. I fear you'll have to find someone there to help you further, my knowledge of that area is somewhat sketchy.”
“Thank you ever so much, Sir Didymus.” Xander bowed in response and quickly crossed the bridge, ignoring as best he could the strange and disgusting noises coming from the bog. Turning left at the tree, he faced the wall, closed his eye, and stepped forward.
After half a dozen steps, he felt a branch brush his face. Reopening his eye, he saw a long corridor created from tall shrubs. Behind him was a dead-end – he knew he wouldn't be able to leave in that direction, even if he was inclined to do so. Gripping his walking staff firmly, and readjusting his pack, he moved forward.
A few hours of wandering and Xander knew he was hopelessly lost. He had seen no one in the garden labyrinth, though he'd heard plenty just the other side of the hedge-walls. He stopped, took a deep breath and let his heart guide him to some help. Senses open, Xander ignored the first three openings, but stopped at the fourth Something or someone lay in a crumpled heap next to a large marble fountain. Moving swiftly, he knelt by the figure, gingerly checking for injuries or a pulse. “Hey! Are you okay?” The long gown was damp and the skin was clammy and pale. “Can you hear me?” Moving the locks of ever-so-slightly tinted green/brown hair, Xander noticed the elegantly pointed ears first, and then the gills. A swift glance spotted the webbed hands and flippered feet. With a curse, Xander hoisted the being into his arms and rushed to the fountain. He heard the sounds of angry chittering behind him. Too close. He practically tossed the mer into the fountain before whirling to see a large bug-like creature advancing at him from a side alcove. He readied his staff, wondering how to make the giant beetle leave.
“You ... took ... dinner!” Came the stilted speech amid high pitched chittering.
“Didn't anyone tell you it's not polite to eat people?” Xander backed away, trying to draw the bug away from the fountain in case it got the idea of grabbing the mer again.
“I thought beetles ate leaves and plants?” He pointed at the leafy walls. “There's plenty about. No need to eat anything else.” Somehow, Xander could make out a disgusted look upon the bug's face.
“Taste ... Nasty!”
“Yeah. Okay. I can see that. The Goblin King wouldn't want you eating holes in the Labyrinth.” Xander knew he was babbling, but couldn't help it – the insect was as high as his chest and very scary looking.
“Okay. Okay. Look, I'll give you some of the food I've got if you leave me and mer alone. Okay?”
The creature stopped it's advance. “What ... you ... got?”
Xander opened his satchel and rummaged through it. “Turkey sandwiches, bread, cheese, apples...”
“APPLES!!” came the excited shout.
“Apples it is.” Xander side stepped toward one of the exits and drew out two apples. He blinked when two more appeared in the satchel and he gave a quiet thank you to Jareth for supplying him so well. Soon, a small pile of apples lay on the ground. The large beetle chittered happily and pounced on the fruit, nearly knocking Xander over in the process. Gathering them into its mouth, it made a hasty retreat.
“Oookaay. Your welcome,” Xander shrugged, staring after the bug.
He whirled to see the mer peering at him over the lip of the fountain. Blue/green eyes stared solemnly at him. Absently, Xander noticed the being's skin no longer looked so gray. “Oh, hey. Are you okay?” Xander moved closer, but stopped a respectful distance away – both for the mer's sake and his own – one never knew how people would react.
“Better,” the mer's voice sounded like drops of rain upon a windchime. “I would not have lasted much longer out of water.”
“Glad to have been some help.”
The mer glanced curiously at the mortal. “You are not a fosterling, yet you do not fear me. How is this so?”
“Read about your kind in a book once and took a chance.” Xander shrugged. “Besides, I'm not a big fan of sentient beings eating sentient beings.” He did not say that he'd had to deal with much stranger and scarier beings before.
“You have saved my life. I grant thee a boon. I could heal you, if you wish.”
With a start, Xander realized the mer meant his eye. Oddly, he wasn't tempted to take the offer. “Thank you, but actually, I'm more in need of reliable directions to the Wise Man's Garden. I'm lost.”
The mer blinked in surprise, brushing a strand of kelp – er, hair – out of it's eyes. “I've been there. It has a lovely fountain with a sunning ledge. However, I don't know how to get there over land.”
Xander nodded his understanding. “Okay. Well, I'm glad you're alright.” He turned to leave the garden.
“I could take you,” the mer offered.
Xander turned back, frowning slightly. “I can't breath underwater.”
A quicksilver grin and a liquid laugh. “I didn't expect so. How long can you hold your breath?”
“Minute and a half if I'm panicked. Nearly three if I'm calm and actively swimming.”
“And if you're not actively swimming?”
“Perfect. I can pull you. We can make it in four minutes, if you trust me.” The mer held out a hand.
Xander placed his hand in the mer's.
* * *
Xander gasped for air as he broke the surface of water. Apparently, he had not been as calm as his exterior had indicated when he began the trek. It hadn't been the length underwater that had made him nervous, just the blackness of the water. It had not occurred to him that the mer would not need light to navigate through the system of underwater tunnels. Not being able to see their progress – and,more importantly, not able to keep an eye out for potential threats – had nearly unnerved him.
He felt a steadying hand upon his shoulder. “We are here.”
Xander knuckled water from his eye, slicking his hair back from his face. “Thank you.” A past memory of something he'd once read tugged at him. “Um... the debt is discharged between us. Go in peace.”
The mer nodded solemnly, though a glint of amusement and respect shone in it's eyes. “You as well. Good luck in your endeavors.” With a small splash, the being ducked beneath the surface and swam away.
Xander hauled himself out of the fountain, grimacing as his clothes clung to his body. He sat on the edge of the fountain and took off his boots, pouring water out of them. He took off his shirt and socks, wringing them out and laying them on the ledge to dry. He checked the pack, pleasantly surprised to find the contents still dry. He pulled the blanket he'd snagged from the castle and toweled his hair and torso dry. He thought about wringing out his pants, but since he didn't know when or where the Goblin King would appear, he didn't feel comfortable being caught with his pants down. Literally.
The garden was about the size of the quad at Sunnydale High. The fountain took up most of one end of the square. Near the center stood a chair that looked carved from the stump of a tree. No one sat there currently. At the far end was a glimmer of what looked to be glass. Perhaps a mirror.
He put his socks and boots back on, grimacing only slightly at the feel of his feet squishing. He slipped the shirt back on, then wrapped the blanket about his shoulders as a breeze cut through the wet cloth, chilling him.
“Aren't you the resourceful one.”
Xander pushed away from the fountain, turning fluidly in a defensive posture, the blanket dropping to the ground. With a gasp, Xander dropped his stance, bowing in apology. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. You startled me.”
Jareth arched a perfect eyebrow as he studied the mortal. He rose from his indolent crouch upon the fountain's sunning ledge and walked along the edge of the fountain before stepping gracefully onto the grass. “The mer folk are notoriously shy – rarely seen, and even more rarely heard. Yet this one willingly touched you. Why?”
“Gratitude?” Xander shrugged. “I kept it from being some bug's snack and in return it brought me here.” He smiled. “Said it owed me a boon. Since I was hopelessly lost, I definitely think we're even on that score.”
“Indeed.” The Goblin King was silent for a moment, then motioned for Xander to follow him. “The mirror to your friends is over there. I'll join you momentarily.” Without explaining, the Fae disappeared.
Xander shrugged and walked the length of the Garden.
* * *
Giles sat at his desk, his attention alternately upon his paperwork: there was a lot involved now that there were so many Slayers in the world and a new Council to be set up – and the mirror that still showed an empty garden. The Goblin King had set up the mirror communication at the place where the next set of spells to counteract two sets of threes were to be performed if, 'When, not if,' Giles admonished himself, when Xander appeared.
Though informed that it may take some time, the entire group had initially settled in to wait – occasionally leaving to deal with personal matters as well as with the concerns and fears of the other slayers-in-training. But as hours passed uneventfully, the group's natural tendency to snap and snark at one another had finally driven Giles to divide them into watching pairs. “We'll watch for Xander in two hour shifts while the rest of us deal with everything else that unfortunately cannot be put on hold due to our current emergency – namely the Hellmouth and the other girls. You will keep close by in the duration, so we can call upon everyone at a moment's notice.”
With palatable relief, they had agreed. Dawn had immediately claimed Cordelia as a partner, “Cause, I never get to see her anymore.” Buffy and Willow paired up, natural since the two had known Xander the longest. Faith initially opted to go solo with the watching, but, surprisingly, it was Spike who nixed that idea. “The whelp and I might be friends, but it don't mean me and Rupert are. Two of us can pair up, pet. Exchange embarrassing stories about the whelp. Whatcha say?” She agreed.
Two days had passed. Giles was concerned, though not unduly; Xander was a clever young man and the Watcher had no doubt he would make his appearance shortly.
A timid knock at the door caught his attention. 'One of the girls,' he thought. None of the others would have bothered to knock. “Come in.”
The door opened and Kennedy peered nervously in. The young Slayer had begun apologizing profusely once she understood exactly what the consequences of her angry words were. Willow and Buffy had understood and forgiven the girl – though not without a severe scolding for making wishes in anger. Spike and Faith were both cooly dismissive – Xander was family, and you didn't shut out family – not without a better reason than 'he's bothering me.' Kennedy would have to make things right with Xander before they would contemplate forgiving her. Giles found himself torn between wanting to forgive the girl – after all, she was young, and obviously remorseful, and wanting to see how Xander dealt with her before making a decision. Dawn refused to talk to the girl at all, angry almost to the point of incoherence; but it was Cordelia's cold wrath that had the girl shuddering in fear despite all her Slayer abilities. If Xander was somehow lost to them, Giles shuddered to think what the seer would do to Kennedy.
“Could ... could ... maybe, I could watch with you? For a while?” Hope and despair flickered across her face as she nervously chewed on her lip, her eyes flickering from the floor, to his face, to the mirror, and back again.
Nearly an hour passed in companionable silence before Kennedy pointed excitedly. “Oh. Mr Giles. Look!”
Giles smiled, his chest loosening as he took in the sight of his surrogate son. “Excellent.”
The idea came to him as Kennedy uncoiled from her position on the floor beside the mirror. “I'll call the others.”
“No, stay here. I'll get them.” If it hadn't been so important, the wide-eyed look of fear would have made him give her a break – but it was important. “You've asked for forgiveness from everyone except the one you wronged. Now's the time.”
A rare smile blossomed on Giles' face as he faced the mirror. “Xander.”
“Hey, Giles.” Xander looked tired and was soaking wet, but otherwise intact.
“I'm glad to see you safe, son.”
A smile, small but heartfelt, lightened the young man's countenance. “Good to be seen, G-man. Where's everybody?”
“I sent them to rest. I'm just about to call them.”
The smile transformed into a lopsided grin. “They were driving you crazy, weren't they?”
“Bloody bonkers,” Giles agreed readily. “Miss Reynolds would like to speak with you, if that's agreeable to you?” If not, Giles had no compunction about showing the girl out – he refused to do anything that would distress the young man.
Xander blinked, then nodded. “Yeah. That's fine.”
“I'll be right back.” he cast a warning glare at the Slayer. She had better not do anything to hurt Xander further.
Kennedy tentatively inched into Xander's view.
“Hey, Kennedy. Mind if I sit?” Without waiting for a reply, the ex-carpenter lowered himself to sprawl upon the grass, groaning a bit as a knee popped in protest. “No need to stand on my account. Take a load off.”
Once seated, Kennedy kept her gaze locked firmly upon her knees – knowing Xander couldn't help but look her straight in the eye from his position. She opened and closed her moth a few times, but nothing came out. A soft sigh had her jerk her head up to look at him. Apologies poured from her mouth, disjointed and nearly frantic with relief when she'd seen only a weary acknowledgment instead of the hatred she'd expected to see in his eye. “I'm so sorry, Xander. I so didn't mean to wish you away. I was just ... just ..,” she struggled to put her feelings into words.
“Yes.” She stared at him in surprise.
She nodded mutely.
Her mouth dropped open. “How... how did you know?”
A small, self-depreciating smile tugged at his lips. “I know the feeling.”
“I ... “
“It's okay, Kennedy.”
And she could tell, by the look in his eye, that it really was.
* * *
Cordelia shot a look at Kennedy's retreating back but decided to ignore her in favor of Xander. The young man sat in the grass before the mirror, legs stretched out before him, ankles crossed, leaning back on his elbows. She studied his face. He looked tired, but happy. Her gaze narrowed and her voice cut through the others' chatter. “You're soaking wet.”
Xander nodded, knuckling water out of his eye. “Met a mer. It was kind enough to bring me here. Sort of a short cut. I'd gotten kind of lost.”
“But you're doing okay?” Willow asked anxiously.
“Yes, Willow. I'm doing okay.”
“It's time.” Jareth appeared within the mirror's scope of vision.
Giles took his glasses off and polished them furiously with a handkerchief.
Xander tilted his head backwards to look upon the Fae, the shift in perspective not bothering him. “What do you want me to do?”
“You'll want to be prone once the spell is begun. Spirit merging can be disorienting in general, but with three, you won't be able to remain standing. There are certain sigils that need to be painted upon you, first. Remove your shirt.”
The Fae smirked. “Just your shirt will be sufficient.”
“Oh, ha ha.” Xander shook his head in mock dismay. He rose to his feet, a grin flashing at Faith's wolf whistle as he slipped the garment off over his head. Muscles rippled beneath the surface, whipcord lean, there wasn't an ounce of fat on his body.
Spike growled softly to himself. “Oi, whelp, looks like you've been busy.”
Numerous scars adorned the young man's arms, abdomen, upper torso and back. Some were silvered with age, others still the red raw of recent wounds only a few months old.
“Xander?” Giles asked, tone demanding an answer; none of the more obvious, serious injuries had been reported to him during their infrequent check-ins.
Xander sighed, ignoring Jareth as the Fae painted the necessary sigils upon his chest. “Africa – for all it's beauty – is not a safe place. Human or non-human, the entire continent is in near perpetual war. You'd literally find yourself running to 'civilization,' only to race right back out by what was going on in the towns.” Xander stared at his clenched fist for a moment, slowly relaxing it. “I lost as many girls to the humans as I did the demons.”
“Lay down,” Jareth commanded.
With only a brief hesitation Xander complied, he started to cross his arms over his chest before remembering the sigils and resting his arms beside him. “Will this hurt?”
“You're not helping.”
“I'm merely being truthful. Merging them all together is going to be painful and traumatic.”
“How can we help?” Willow's voice was laced with fear for her friend.
“Think good thoughts.”
“Hey!” Buffy was indignant at the flippant remark. “We're serious here.”
The Fae stared out of the mirror with his mismatched eyes and each felt a shudder run down their spines at the sheer power in that gaze. “As am I. You are already connected to Xander through the first spell and your love for him. He can draw strength from you if you allow it simply by thinking good thoughts.”
* * *
Jareth was right. It hurt. A lot. Pain crashed over him in endless waves. Dimly, he could hear himself screaming, screaming, screaming.
The soldier was brought forward first – the easiest to merge. Memories of battles and skirmishes he'd never been in hammering his brain as fresh as if they'd only occurred moments ago. /Death. Fear. Determination. Loyalty. Loss. Anger. Victory. Defeat./ The skills slipped in easily, since he'd been using them subconsciously. /Determination. Loyalty./ Xander clung to those attitudes – feeling them echo strongly. Using them to maintain his link to ~self~. He felt his soul open to welcome the Soldier spirit.
Then came Hyena. /Hunger. Ruthlessness. Restlessness. Strength. Pack. Alpha./ Out of its cage it rushed forth, mad for freedom. Angry at captivity. Uncertain of its place, but knowing it was never going back into the dark. It battled for supremacy, refusing to yield. Xander let the Soldier help – hooking into the Pack mentality. /Loyalty. Pack./ Letting Hyena feel the support from his friends. Calming. Accepting. Joined.
Xander paused a moment, catching his breath, settling the new sensations. With some trepidation, he reached into the dark corner of his soul where the Vampire resided. It was himself, only not. All his dark thoughts and desires manifest and gleefully acted upon. /Death. Drinking/Feeding. Sadistic Joy./ At fifteen, Drusilla had turned her dark kitten. Almost immediately, she had left the vicinity of Sunnydale – leaving behind her childe. He'd learned to survive on his own. He'd slaughtered his parents after nearly a week of torture – payback for fifteen years of hell. Then, he had fooled, killed and turned his best friend, Willow – his demon remembering his love for her and taking for himself the only one who had cared for him unconditionally. The two were inseparable, only pretending loyalty to the Master out of self preservation. This Xander gleefully murdered old school tormentors – it's last one being the Queen C herself.
Xander's body jerked and shuddered at he relived the demon's “death.”
The Vampire roared, confused and angry. It was drawn to Hyena – both dark spirits – and hissed at Xander and the Soldier, disliking the “White Hats.” It remained like that for what felt like an eternity, the Vampire refusing to join, determined to be in charge or not a part at all. Xander pulled on his link with Willow, showing the demon the connection it could once more have. /Loyalty. Pack./ With what was close to a sob, the demon rushed forward, being surrounded by the others. Joined.
* * *
As the last word of the spell fell from the Goblin King's lips, Xander's form was engulfed in a hazy maelstrom of magic that partially concealed his form from his friends' concerned gazes, but did nothing to muffle the screams that tore from the young man's throat.
Dawn whimpered, burying her face in her sister's shoulders. Buffy held her close, smoothing her hair and whispering reassurances into her ears. “Remember the good times, Dawnie. Send them to Xander. They'll help.” The girl nodded, but didn't move from the embrace. She herself remembered all the times Xander had made her smile – even during the darkest of times.
Cordelia remembered the times she and Xander would sit in her car, talking for hours on end, being themselves without the pressures and expectations of their friends.
Spike looked back to when they first became friends, real friends, and not simply tolerant allies. Their snarking and bickering had changed to friendly banter, and Xander had truly enjoyed the stories the Vampire had about his experiences – sans bloodshed.
Faith smiled as she remembered discovering that Xander had truly forgiven her for her dark period and everything she had done to him and the other Scoobies. It had taken a long time to run up the courage to talk to Xander, but it had been worth the risk.
Giles polished his glasses, letting his mind focus on how proud he was of Xander's many accomplishments and his warm caring nature.
Tears streamed down Willow's face, outshone by the brilliant smile upon her face, remembering how much she loved her best friend and knowing he loved her in turn.
A howl and a flash of light that momentarily blinded those who had their eyes open shook everyone out of their thoughts. Willow leaped out of her chair and dropped to her knees before the mirror, peering in worriedly. “Xander?”
Jareth examined the mortal. “He should be fine. The spell took a lot out of him. He'll sleep for a few hours.”
No one left the room, waiting for their friend to waken. The man in question didn't move for nearly five hours.
* * *
A hoarse groan sounded, and after a long moment, Xander painfully levered himself into a sitting position, face buried in his hands as he limbs shook. Soft curses fell from his lips in several languages as the young man scoured the tears of pain from his face.
Cordelia knelt beside Willow, her face a mixture of worry and concern, but her voice pure Queen C. “It can't be all that bad. You've been certifiable for as long as I've known you, I doubt too much could have changed.”
Willow shot her an angry, horrified look, but Xander chuckled to everyone's relief. “That's my Cordy.” He fumbled for his canteen, drinking deeply.
“How do you feel, Xander?” Giles studied his surrogate son closely, noting the lines of weariness and the slightly gray pallor.
Xander shook his head, uncertain how to answer. “Shit. I never want to have to go through something like that again. Pain so isn't my friend.” He ran his hands through his hair, stretching his neck. “It's quiet.” The statement was made with some surprise.
“How d'you mean, whelp?” Spike asked, trying not to show his own considerable worry over how the boy would react to the Vampire memories.
“I never realized – but all this time, I could 'hear' the others. Now. I can't.” He glanced up at Jareth.
The Fae nodded. “You're no longer separate entities, but joined.”
Xander shuddered a bit, but resolutely met his friends' gazes. “I can remember ~everything~.” Combination of fear and awe clearly heard. He wondered what lovely new nightmares he was going to be dealing with.
“Do you feel any different, X?” Faith asked softly.
Xander started to shake his head, paused, frowned, then tentatively nodded. “Um. Yeah. I think ... I think my senses are stronger. Course, I feel like one big bruise, so I can't tell if anything else is different just yet, or not.”
“Whatever changes, know we're here for you, Xan,” Buffy's blue eyes were filled with determination. She was echoed heartily by the others.
“Thanks.” A genuine smile, one that hadn't been seen in ages, crossed his face, lightening his countenance. He slowly rose to his feet, stretching sore muscles, feeling he'd gone ten rounds with the heavy weight champion of the world. The sigils had disappeared and Xander wearily dragged on his shirt. “What next?”
Jareth raised a brow at the mortal. “I'd advise a short rest. Sustenance. Then you should be on your way. You have only three and a half days left.” The Fae vanished to the surprise of everyone but Spike and Xander.
“You get used to it or you go crazy.”
“I hated it when he did things like that,” Spike admitted. “But having the pathways change on you was the worst.”
Xander rested a bit, ate a sandwich and an apple, chatted with the others over what everyone had done the last few days – got the story about how Spike knew about the Labyrinth. He took a last drink from his canteen, capped it, and sighed. “Gotta go.”
“See you home soon, Xander.”
* * *
Xander walked away from the mirror, ignoring for a moment that his friends were still watching. The box garden had four exits that led into more of the hedge maze. Off to his right was a tall, wide-mouthed urn propped up nearly a foot from the ground by four blocks of tiles. With a grin, he walked over and looked into the urn. Sure enough, a ladder led downward. He swung a leg up over the lip, grasped hold of the top rung, sent a jaunty wave toward his friends in the mirror, and climbed down.
“Holy moley,” Dawn whispered, a bemused look on her face. She turned to the others. “That place is screwy.”
“Dawn!” Buffy automatically censored.
“You don't know the half of it, Nibblet. Nothing is as it seems in that place.”
“Then Xander ought to do just fine,” Cordelia's entire posture indicated steadfast faith in the young man. “Cause neither is he.”
Nobody could dispute that.
* * *
Xander meandered through the underground tunnels, the maze beneath, letting instinct guide him. He took turns seemingly at random and a full day had passed. He looked forward to being topside again.
There was no life down here, no friendly animals, no lichen with fearful eyes, he hadn't even seen a goblin! It wasn't silent, though. He listened to the 'False Alarms' spout their warnings. After a bit, he started responding, if only to hear his own voice.
“Beware, for the path you take leads to certain destruction.”
The stone face in the wall froze – mouth open in shock. “What?”
Xander patiently restated his question, pleased with the change in pace. “What kind? Is it a general, everyday kind of destruction, a personal destruction, an end of the world as we know it destruction, or some other type?”
It blinked stone gray eyes, slate colored brows drawing down in thought. “You know, I'm not sure. I was just told to tell people that.”
“Good enough.” Xander started to walk off. “Nice meeting you.”
“Did you mean it?”
Xander blinked, then nodded. “You mean if it was nice to meet you? Yeah. Why not?”
“It's ... it's just ...” the False Alarm stammered. “No one's ever told me it was nice to meet me before. Let alone ask my opinion. Either I get ignored or cursed at.”
“Doesn't anyone come talk to you?”
“No,” the gravelly voice sounded sad. “It gets so boring sometimes. No one to talk to, nothing interesting to see.”
Xander spotted another False Alarm a little further down the hall. “How about him? Don't the two of you talk?”
A frown formed out of tiny crack and ridges between the brows. “It's just an automated alarm. Proximity triggers it. It has no mind of its own.”
A cold knot formed in Xander's belly. “Does the King know you're down here?”
The knot tightened. “How long have you been here?”
“I'm not sure. Years. The last two people I saw was a human girl a few years younger than you with long onyx hair, and a rude dwarf who insulted me and then walked off. That would have been over a decade ago. They quickly followed a crystal around the corner you just came around and left me alone. I haven't spoken to anyone since then.”
Xander felt his face drain of blood as the stone golem spoke. Compassion and sympathy for the lonely being welled. “Jareth!” he called loudly, his voice echoing off the stone walls.
“What are you doing?” The golem asked curiously.
Before he could respond he heard a familiar voice. “My dear boy, surely you realize I am incapable of helping you. Why do you call upon me?” The Fae was half amused, half irritated.
“Are you aware that one of your False Alarms is alive?”
Jareth blinked at the unexpected question. “Excuse me?”
“Are you the King this human mentioned?” The stone golem rolled it's eyes to examine the new arrival.
“He says he's been here for years – the last people he spoke with was ten years ago, a girl and a dwarf. Can you do something?”
Jareth turned his mismatched gaze upon Xander. “And what would you have me do?”
“I dunno. He's sentient. And lonely. Could you, maybe, move him to a high traffic area, so he has people to talk to?”
“Oh, please,” the gravel voice begged. “I'm so tired of being alone.”
“Once again, Xander, you surprise me. I will see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Xander bowed low in appreciation.
An amused smile twitched at the Fae's lips. “It is I who should thank you. No telling how long Agate would have gone undiscovered otherwise.”
“Agate. Is that my name?”
“If you like.”
“I do. Thank you. I've never had a name before.” Agate turned his gaze back on the human. “Or a friend. Thank you, Xander.”
“Your welcome, Agate. And good luck.”
“You, too. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Xander grinned at Agate, formally bowed to Jareth, and continued down the tunnel, missing the pleased smile upon the Fae's lips.
* * *
He'd made it topside again and had been trudging along the stone corridors for over a day. He had only a day and a half left, and to be honest, he was getting a bit worried.
The sky was overcast – gray – matching the stone around him. Everything was dreary and bleak and Xander could feel the atmosphere drag him down. He was tired, not truly trusting his surroundings and afraid to get any real sleep for fear of losing more time than he could afford, he was existing off short cat naps, letting both Soldier and Hyena instincts wake him. He needed a break soon or something would snap.
He paused, eye closed, as he took a deep breath, calming himself. The breeze shifted, bringing a tantalizing scent to his nose. Eye still closed, he walked toward the scent, trusting his feet, and unaware as he passed effortlessly through two sets of walls. A change in surfaces brought him to an abrupt halt.
He was in a small alcove, the ground covered in pale yellow-green grass. An old, stunted tree grew in the center, its branches reaching upward in vain for light that the surrounding walls did their best to deny. Small, near whithered peaches dangled amid a few yellowed leaves that clung to the limbs.
A tiny smile graced Xander's face as he stared at the tree. “Ah, I know I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”
“What are you babbling about?” A face formed amid the cracks and knotholes in the trunk and glared at him.
“Just appreciating beauty where I find it.”
The dryad blinked, her voice skeptical. “Beauty?”
“Yes. I've seen nothing but gray stone walls all day long, nor spoken to a soul in all that time. I admit that you are a sight for sore eyes.”
“But,” she creaked incredulously. “I'm old. Withered. Ugly. How can you say such things?”
“You bring color in a drab world. Shelter from sun and rain. A safe place for the weary and a welcome companion for the lonely. In fact, I would be honored if you would allow me to sleep safely beneath your branches for an hour and then some conversation for a while afterwards before I have to move on.”
The Peach dryad studied him with dark knothole eyes, sensing sincerity. “Yes, you may.”
“Thank you, my lady. I'm called Xander.”
The dryad giggled – a girlish sound as she preened at the attention. She shifted her roots a bit, to give the young man room.
The mortal removed his pack and gingerly lay himself upon the ground. “I really appreciate this.”
“I'll see that you are undisturbed for an hour. But then, I wish to converse with you.”
“As you will, my lady.” And Xander fell asleep almost immediately, feeling safe.
Priscilla studied the mortal. She hadn't seen one since she had been a sapling, and that one had not spoken to her in its haste – indeed, it had taken one of her peaches without even asking her permission! The cheek. But this one treated her like a person, asked permission to sleep beneath her branches, complimented her!
Her pleasure at being treated with respect and clearly admired – despite her ragged appearance – had a dramatic effect upon the dryad. Her trunk strengthened, even lengthened a bit, allowing her branches to crest the wall. With more sunlight, her leaves unfurled a bright, healthy green and her peaches plumped out, sweet and juicy. Even the grass at her roots changed from dry yellowed stalks to lush green fronds. She adjusted her limbs so that she shaded the young mortal from the sun that had finally peeked out from the cloud cover, segments of blue breaking though the monotony.
An hour passed and Priscilla reached out and brushed a leaf across the mortal's cheek. “Awaken.”
The mortal's lone eye fluttered open – mahogany met peach. “Morning.”
Priscilla chuckled, “You mean afternoon, don't you?”
“It's always morning when I wake to such beauty.” He sat up, looking around, wide-eyed. “Wow! You've changed.”
“A girl always likes to be told they're beautiful.”
“It makes them glow, making them even prettier,” Xander agreed.
“Ah, my young mortal, you make it very difficult to abide by the King's edict with such flowery phrases.”
“Which edict is that?”
“Hinder briefly, but not forever.” She smiled at his wide-eyed look. “Don't worry. I shall let you leave after our conversation. Though I have to admit, I've never heard such compliments.”
“Only the truth.”
“Where are you headed?”
“I'm looking for the Entrance to the Labyrinth.”
“Not the Castle?”
Xander shook his head, eye twinkling – many beings had been confused, wondering if perhaps he was turned around.
“Huh. Well, if you head that way,” her branches waved, indicating a pathway. “And go past three intersections, you arrive at a T-section. Turn left and go straight for three hundred yards. You'll either see the entrance or someone who can tell you where it is.”
“Thank you.” Xander tilted his head. “How do you know so much of what's beyond this alcove? Are you capable of traveling yourself?”
She smiled wryly. “No. I'm pretty entrenched here. But some birds and pixies sometimes nest in my branches and they tell me what's going on.”
“Oh. I'm glad you get company.”
She smiled more openly. “Company, yes. But conversation? That's another story. Speaking of. Come, tell me your story, you promised me a conversation.”
“I'm always willing to spend some time in the presence of a beautiful lady.” Xander told her some highlights of his adventures in the Labyrinth, spending a pleasant hour with his hostess. “It's been an honor and pleasure to make your acquaintance, Priscilla.” He rose to his feet and bowed gracefully to the dryad. “But I fear that I must go. I am on a bit of a time-limit.”
One limb reached over and a plump peach fell into his hands. “Farewell, Xander. Shade and sweet water to thee.”
“Goodbye.” Xander smiled, pocketing the peach.
* * *
As Xander turned the corner, leaving the Dryad behind, he felt a rush of energy wash over him. “What the...” he paused, out of breath, one hand upon the stone wall. He blinked and blinked again, trying to stop the corridor from spinning.
“Alexander.” The soothing tones and steadying hand helped settle everything.
“Your Majesty.” Xander took a careful breath and let go of the wall. “What just happened?”
“You successfully negated a set.”
“I did? How? Which one?”
The Goblin King hid a smile. “Your inability to see any creature in pain and your loving nature negated the Hellmouth energies. Body, Mind, and Spirit.” The being sighed. “Are you certain I cannot convince you to stay?”
“Once more, I have to decline such a generous offer, Your Majesty. I'm anxious to return home and I'm sure my friends feel the same.”
“Such a pity.” The Fae faded away, a truly regretful look within his eyes.
Xander straightened up and continued following the Dryad's directions and subconsciously quickened his pace.
Easily twice his height, he could only marvel at the double gates ahead. Wrought silver curled upon itself in intricate designs allowing only tantalizing glimpses of the courtyard beyond. Tiny beings lay frozen, carved from the metal, so life-like he expected them to blink.
Wait a minute. One did blink!
A lizard-like creature cocked its head in his direction, eyes filled with curiosity. “Hello. May we help you with something?”
“I'd like to be on the other side of this gate and in the courtyard. I hoped you'd give me permission to open the gate.”
A winged, bird-like creature chirped, “We could. But what would we get out of it?”
A tiny insect with entirely too many limbs seemed to grin at him. “Gratitude is nice, but some food would be even more appreciated.”
Xander dug in his satchel. “I've got apples and turkey sandwiches, some water...”
“No,” the lizard said, regretfully. “We are naught but metal. Fleshy bits do nothing for us.”
“Guess you're outta luck,” the bird chirped snidely.
“Oh, hush,” the insect snapped back. “It's a wonder anyone will talk to us at all with the way you treat folks. Even Hoggle won't say anything more than necessary, anymore.”
“It's not my fault he's so sensitive,” the bird sniffed.
Xander had stuck his hands in his pocket, fingers brushing the soft velvet of the peach. His mind whirled. “How about stone?”
“Huh?” “Excuse me?” The beings exchanged confused looks.
“You can't eat fleshy bits. How about the stone pit of a peach?”
He could see the three practically salivate at the notion. “Oh, yes. That would be more than adequate.”
While Xander cut the pit from the peach, the tiny creatures watched in avid interest. He handed the stone to the nearest being and carefully wrapped the peach flesh in his handkerchief before returning it to his pocket – he might not be able to eat it, but it had been a gift, and you don't toss gifts. He watched, a half smile tugging at his lips, as the three creatures descended upon the peach pit, making little smacks and grunts of satisfaction.
The lizard blinked at the mortal in mid-mouthful as if just remembering him. “Pardon. So sorry. Please, forgive our rudeness. It's been ages since anyone's offered palatable nourishment.” The gates swung open with a whispered sigh. “Thank you.”
“Thank you, as well.” Xander waved goodbye and stepped across the threshold. Another rush of energy swept over him – nearly double in intensity as the sets of “three times wished” and “nevers” were negated. He'd succeeded. He was out of the Labyrinth. He could go home.
He recovered his senses and his footing just as he was engulfed in a flash of bright light.
* * *
* * *
(Does Xander return home? What of the Fae the Goblin King mentioned? He's no longer within the Labyrinth – does that mean Xander is now free game? Tune in next time for the answers....)