Outside of the vast docking bay, rain was pounding down on the ground with the force of small pebbles, muddy puddles spreading out along the pock-marked road towards the main settlement of Nephthys.
The Captain had taken all but one of the crew towards the town to arrange lodgings for a brief stay on the small moon, leaving his first mate to keep an eye on the mechanic and his diagnostic check.
“I don’t know how this ship is still flying,” he said critically, replacing a long cable and locking the clamp in place. “Looks like a pile of rust glued together with spit and duct tape.”
“Could be your magic touch, Xan,” Buffy grinned. She was sitting on an upended crate, feet swinging back and forth. The mechanic wiped his oily hands on a cloth, peering into the recesses of the engine above his head. “Every time we leave, she purrs like a kitten.”
“And every time you bring her back, she wheezes like my asthmatic grandma,” Xander glanced at her suspiciously. “I’m getting paid this time, right?”
“You’ll have to ask the Captain about that,” the petite blonde said cheerfully. “He’s the one with all the credit. I’m just his dumb little second in command.”
“Dumb as in smart-enough-to-know-not-to-be-around-when-I-ask, right?” Xander rolled his eye. How he had lost his other eye, none of the crew of Sunnydale were entirely sure, but he always claimed it was in the line of heroic action.
Faith, on the other hand, frequently muttered that he probably rubbed his eye and forgotten he was holding a screwdriver.
“You got that right.” Pushing herself off the crate, Buffy leaned under the engine and peeked up into the rear bowels of the ship, her nose wrinkling. “Is it meant to smell like burning?” The look Xander gave her was response enough. “Okay... so why does it smell like that?”
Retrieving a bolt-winder from his belt and wrestling with a series of nuts for several minutes, Xander managed to free a covering panel then withdrew a mangled piece of half-melted metal. “Could be that this was jammed in your port vent release.”
Delicately taking the four-foot long twisted lump of metal, Buffy turned it over with a frown. “How would that get in there?” she demanded of no one in particular.
“Well, you can’t blame your pilot,” Xander replied, head and shoulders thrust through the panel, fiddling with some of the couplings within the heart of the engine. “So, maybe you ran through some kind of debris field or by a wrecked ship.”
“Yeah and that would force a Reaver’s pike into our engine hard enough to stick...” Buffy’s voice was a faint murmur, her expression hardening. She looked up from the twisted pike. “Xander, I need you to do a full check of internal and external covers of the engine’s casing. There’s no way one of these accidentally got caught in there. If something has been tampering with our ship, we need to know.”
“And if a Reaver toy got inside...”
“That means Reaver toys touched the outside and we need to know now.” Buffy’s voice was terse, hard with authority. “We got rid of them, but if they left anything on board that’ll let their gou cao de buddies know where we are, you gotta find and disable it or we are humped.”
“Gotcha,” Xander caught another tool from his belt and scrambled up through the trapdoor and into the engine compartment.
With his hands curled under a delicate teacup, Giles was inhaling the pungent aroma of the freshest of the teas of Nephthys, oblivious to the presence of all save the tea-maid and her glorious pot of sweet, sweet ambrosia.
Although he maintained his own selection of teas on the ship, very few tasted as sweet and pure as freshly-brewed tea made from water that hadn’t been sitting in a warm filtration tank for three weeks.
“Perfect,” he murmured, taking another sip.
Admittedly, he was a fairly low-maintenance person. His ship was well-made and well-maintained, small and light, running on the minimum fuel. His crew all had their... funds, which kept them well-stocked with weapons.
Yes, tea really was his only luxury and his last grasp of civilisation in a world that was otherwise thoroughly insane.
Placing the cup down, he bowed politely to the tea maid, who smiled and moved off, leaving him seated at the low table, enjoying the momentary peace, which was - all too soon - broken by a familiar cry.
“Oh good Lord.” Half-rising, his impatience vanished like mist in the sun at the sight of Faith’s face, her hair slicked to her cheeks and her clothing soaked. Outside, the rain was thundering down even more heavily. “What is it?”
The young girl jerked her head in the direction of the repair store. “We gotta go.”
Nodding, Giles followed her rapidly out of the tearoom, not even pausing to fasten his shoes. He was unsurprised to see Kendra already bringing the mule to life, her expression as grim as the younger Slayer’s. “Do you have any details?”
“One of them gou cao de bastards tagged us,” Faith replied, scrambling up onto the quad. “B says Xan found a transmission rod jammed inside one of the thrusters. Don’t know if it’s still transmittin’ to anyone, but if we wanna leave this place intact, we gotta get out.”
“Yeah,” Faith muttered, strapping herself on as Kendra hit the accelerator, the mule roaring to life, tossing up a spray of muddy water. “They just get more interestin’ every time, don’t they?”
“Did they disable it?”
The girl gave him a look. “B said she stomped on it,” she replied. “That count for somethin’?”
“That’s the best we could hope for, I suppose,” Giles murmured, clinging onto the grips on either side of his seat as Kendra took a sharp turn through the town gates, the car skidding on the bend.
“Hold on ta sometin,” the driver grit out between her teeth.
On the back seat, Faith and Giles exchanged glances, shifting towards the edges of the seats. White-knuckled hands gripped the security bars and the Slayer floored the accelerator.
The half-hour ride from the main settlement took less than fifteen minutes, Captain and the two girls scrambling down and racing for the garage, which the nose of the ship was emerging from.
“Anythin’ new?” Faith demanded.
“Nothing more than we told you before,” Xander replied. One of his hands was wrapped in a strip of linen, though which, blood could be seen. “Dug it out of there and checked the rest of the old bucket, but we couldn’t find anything.”
“Oz and Willow are on their way back in as well,” Buffy added. Her overalls were peeled down to her waist and - like Xander - her knuckles scraped and bruised. “What do we do, Giles?”
The captain looked around at the expectant, worried and - above all - young faces around him. “Did you find out if the beacon was still transmitting before you let Buffy...” The look on Xander’s face spoke measures. “Before Buffy stamped on it?”
Xander nodded once. “It was pretty beat-up, but there was still a faint signal. Don’t know what kind of range it would have, though, so unless there are any Reavers in the area, I doubt it’d reach them.”
“But if dere are...”
“Then we’re humped five ways from Friday,” the mechanic replied simply. “They’ll be on their way, even if it’s just to check why a beacon stopped transmitting suddenly. If a beacon breaks down, it’s probably usually them doing the breaking.”
Rubbing his jaw, Giles nodded seriously. At least the delay provided by Willow and Oz’s absence gave him a moment to think about it.
“How long has it been in there?” he turned and spoke quickly to Xander. “Would it have been from the last assault, three days ago? Can you tell?”
“Hard to say,” Xander answered, holding up the narrow board of seared circuits as proof. He had been tinkering with it from the moment they’d walked in, seated at his worktable. “Casing was burning away from engine radiation, but it couldn’t have been in there longer’n a week and a half. It would have burnt through the cases and fused to the engine plates if it had. We got to it in time to just tug it out.”
“Right...” Removing his glasses, Giles rubbed his eyes with his other hand. “We have a few options,” he said, sitting on the edge of a crate and replacing his glasses on his nose. “The first is that the beacon went unnoticed, in which case, we rushed back here for no reason. Unlikely.” He looked around at each face. “The second is that the signal was too far out for anyone to get a full lock, which is more of a possibility. But the one I’m most concerned about is the chance that they might have spotted us and be sending a little party to entertain us.”
“Niao se de duguei just love a juicy settlement,” Faith muttered, wrapping her arms around herself with a shudder. “Bet they’d be real hungry after their trip.”
“Faith, there’s a chance they didn’t notice.”
“Yeah, B, and there’s a big gorram chance they did,” Faith snapped, eyes flashing. “I say one of us has to be realistic here, kay?”
“Is she always so optimistic?” Xander’s eye flicked from one face to another.
“All di time,” Kendra replied, ignoring Faith’s glare and approaching the captain. “Captain, you know dat if we leave and dey did track us, den we have led dem right here. We can’t leave dis place witout protection.”
“How long would we wait, Kendra?” Buffy put in. “There’s no knowing how long it would take a raiding party to get here and we can’t stay in one place too long in case the Feds are around.”
“So we leave dese people to die, because we have ta run and hide?” Kendra’s voice was hard, though there was an underlying tremor. “After we led de Reavers here, we just leave dem ta do what dey want?”
“That’s not what she meant and you gorram know it!” Faith exclaimed. “You wanna see us humped by the feds cos we wanted to play heroes? Wanna risk getting taken back there because there might be a raiding party hereabouts?”
“You are di one sayin’ dat dey probably will send a party,” Kendra countered coolly.
“Look, we can’t fight about this,” Buffy interrupted, raising her hands. “It won’t help anyone, unless we can find out what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” Faith muttered. “Like the Reavers’ll put out a message on the cortex for us sayin’ they’re headin’ towards Nephthys for a snack.” She glared at the blonde. “B, you know we ain’t gonna know they’re here until they start rainin’ down on us.”
“You want to stay then?”
“We have to help dese people!” Kendra’s eyes flashed angrily.
Faith’s hand contracted around her upper arms, her expression tight. “We don’t even know they’ll need help, K,” she said tightly. “Way more settlements got et all over the verse because we didn’t know where the hell those bastards were gonna be.”
Turning the transmitter over in his hands, Xander’s eyes flicked between it and the women who were arguing increasingly heatedly. Picking up a narrow wire-divider, he started carefully moving the twists of metal.
On the crate, Giles was rubbing his chin and staring at a point on the ceiling, clearly familiar with the ongoing argument, lost in his own thoughts. Occasionally, he looked back at them, adding a reprimanding “now, ladies”, but for the most part, he seemed to be working through their options.
With Buffy placing herself between Kendra and Faith, the blonde’s temper seemed to be fraying more with every push that Faith shoved at her back, the dark-haired Slayer’s voice rising.
“You stay then. I’m sure they’ll all be real grateful when nothin’ shows up and you’re hangin’ around.”
“At least I care what happens to dem.”
Faith looked like she was on the verge of spitting bullets, her face scarlet with fury. “You think I don’t care?” she snarled, lashing out over Buffy’s shoulder. “Ni ta ma de! You got no idea, you crazy whore!”
Kendra’s brow arched, her upper lip curling. “Den why do you want to run and hide from di alliance instead of carin’?”
The youngest Slayer’s savage lunge was intercepted by the blonde. Buffy caught her wrist and twisted, bringing Faith down onto one knee, holding her there. “Faith, don’t make me break your arm,” she whispered, her voice tightly controlled. “You know we can’t fight this out.”
“Faith,” Shifting her grip, the blonde restrained Faith’s other arm with one hand. “I know she made you mad, but remember what happened last time we had this kind of fight. We should be fighting them, not each other.”
Sagging in the blonde’s arm-lock, Faith stared bitterly at the ground. “Still don’t tell us what we’re gonna do,” she mumbled. “K’s wantin’ to stay and be noble, but we stay, we get caught and then, the rest of the verse we’d’a fought for is humped.”
“Not necessarily,” Xander interrupted casually, bent over his work table, flashes of light sparking from the transmitter he was tweaking at. “If I rewire and kick-start this thing, you can ditch it out in the middle of space, somewhere. It’d give them a new target, if they are coming, and get rid of it, if they aren’t.”
The three girls stared at him in silence, making him look around.
“And you didn’t think to say this before?”
The one-eyed mechanic grinned roguishly at them. “And miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see three hotties wrestling in my store? I might be half-blind, but I’m not dumb.” When it looked like those hotties might turn some of their unspent frustration on him, he held up a hand quickly. “And it distracted Buffy from grabbing it and stomping on it again when it started flashing.”
Giles was staring at Xander in disbelief and horror. “You let three angry women fight... as a diversion?”
“And as a nice sideshow,” Xander added amiably.
“Can I show him what I tink of his sideshow?” Kendra took a step forward, one fist raised. The amused sparkle in her eye belied the gesture, though Xander did have the strength of mind to edge around the table.
Ignoring the trio of Slayers, Giles was watching the younger man tinkering with the device. “You’re certain you could manage to achieve this?” he said, his tone deadly serious.
Xander shrugged. “I would have done it if Buffy hadn’t grabbed it and stomped on it the minute I pulled it out the ship,” he said. “Like I said, the signal’s weak, but I can tug some wires and boost it to make sure the right people get sent the wrong way.” The grin flashed across his face again. “But I guess I really would be getting paid this time, right?”
“You do this right and I think I’ll kiss you,” Buffy said warmly.
Xander regarded her as if deep in thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, rubbing his chin and smearing fresh oil across his stubble, “It don’t pay for food and rent, but I guess I can work with that.”
Faith snorted, massaging her neck. “Thinkin’ with your zhandou de yi kuai rou, huh?”
“And proud of it,” the mechanic laughed. “So, ladies... and captain. Can you do your refuelling, while I play with this? Everything else is prepped and ready to go when you are, all hauled over and picked clean.”
“You mean I have to get gross and dirty again?”
Giles steered Buffy towards the ship. “I’m sure we’ll manage,” he said.
Before too long, the ship was fuelled and stocked, the mechanic still working rapidly on repeating the signal code that had been programmed into the transmitter.
The pilot and his girlfriend had arrived back shortly after the Slayers, apparently unsurprised by the urgency of the imminent departure.
Still, twenty minutes in the settlement had been enough for Willow to snag several new components for her machine, which she had lovingly stowed on the ship, before returning to wait with the rest of the crew.
Over the sound system that was connected to his comm. device, irritatingly chipper music was playing, which Xander was tapping his toes to, apparently oblivious to the half-dozen set of eyes fixed on him expectantly.
“So... uh... is that thing gonna blow up if he does it wrong?”
“Actually,” Giles replied in a low voice. “I didn’t think to ask.”
The red-haired hacker nodded. “Right. So if we go boom, can we blame you and not the nifty mechanic-guy?”
“Much as I appreciate your faith in me,” Xander looked up. “It won’t blow up.”
“Oh, good.” Giles’s shoulders sagged in quiet relief.
“Just disabled it. If anything woulda set it off, Buffy stamping would have done it.”
Five sets of eyes rotated from the mechanic to the blonde Slayer, who raised her hands defensively, “Okay! Okay, I get it! I don’t stomp on things now! It’s not like it did blow up!”
Attaching a final wire, Xander placed his tools aside. “I think I’m done.”
“You think?” Faith echoed sceptically.
“From time to time,” Xander grinned at her. “Don’t look so surprised. After all, you trust me to keep that rust-bucket in the air for you.”
“Only because we haven’t got anyone else to go to who lets us pay in kisses instead of credit,” Buffy replied impishly, sauntering to him and leaning forward, pressing a warm kiss to his lips.
The screwdriver fell from his fingers with a clatter. The blonde drew back, grinning. A wistful look was directed at her from one puppy-dog eye. “One day, Buffy, you and me...”
“You can live in hope,” she replied, ruffling his hair fondly. “After all, you are our favourite mechanic.”
“Only mechanic,” Kendra corrected, approaching the worktable and bending to peer down at the transmitter, which was emitting faint beeps, a soft glow rising from the middle of the circuitry.
“And while this chit-chat is all very well,” Giles straightened up from the crate he was on, making a gesture of dismissal with one hand, “Since we need to lose this little object as soon as possible...”
With grumbles and protests, the crew scattered up into the ship, leaving the captain and the mechanic alone in the dock, Xander tightening some wires into place with a wire driver.
“Xander, I can’t help noticing you have shrunk somewhat since our last visit.”
“Do I pass comment on your size-issues?”
“Xander,” Giles repeated softly.
The mechanic shrugged, picking up a smaller tool. “Works short out here, Giles,” he replied, not looking up. “We take what we can and when we don’t have the choice, we wait until we do.”
“And you’ve been waiting quite some time, I imagine.”
The brown eye rose. “If this is where you tell me you’ll pay double, forget it.” he said flatly. “I get paid for the work I do, no more.”
“No,” Giles said, leaning his palms on the table. “This is the part where I offer you a permanent job on my crew.”
There was a perfect moment of stillness, then Xander’s eye lifted to him, confusion rife on his face. Laying down the wire-cutter and the transmitter, he cocked his head. “What?”
“Like the girls said, you are the only mechanic in the ’verse that we can count on, knowing what you know about our operation,” the captain replied quietly. “And it’s a damned big universe. With the work we do and the places we go, we do run into a lot of trouble, moreso of late. We need a mechanic, in case there are any more incidents like this one.” Xander continued to stare at him in disbelief for several minutes. “I know it is abrupt...”
“Hold on,” Xander raised a hand, a grin creeping onto his face. “You’re telling me that I’d get paid to get off Nephthys, work on a ship I helped pull together from the scrap pile and hang out with four of the hottest girls I know?”
“Payment would be... less than you could expect here, but you would be welcome to shares of salvage and food. And, of course, a bed.”
“And the hot girls, right?”
Giles’ shook his head, chuckling. “I’m beginning to see why you might not have enough credit to keep yourself well-fed.”
Xander’s grin was sheepish. “I’ve got a bit of a problem with appreciating the sights, yeah,” he agreed. “Plus, I owe the boss here about three months back-rent on this heap. He’s probably waiting until you ship out so he can come and grab what I got paid.”
“Which, I take it, means you’ll be joining us imminently?”
“Sure!” Rising from the table, Xander grinned. “I live out my sack anyway.” He hesitated, frowned. “But don’t you only have five bunks onboard?”
“That matter has been discussed already, on the way here,” Giles replied. “Faith will be sharing Buffy’s bunk. It’s one of the ones with a double in it and will suffice until you can clear out the remaining unit above the hatch and create another.”
“So I clear that, I get a nice big bunk and the company of the four hotties?” Giles nodded, smiling a little too innocently for the younger man’s liking.” Isn’t that the storage locker for...”
“The girls’ weapons, yes, I’m afraid so.”
Xander went pale. “I’m gonna die.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Giles replied, scooping up the transmitter. “A mild maiming will be quite sufficient.” He glanced at Xander again. “So, will you be joining us?”
Dragging all his tools off the table, into a box, Xander reached under the scruffy-looking bed in the corner and hauled a hefty sack full of overalls up with his other hand. “You promise you won’t let ’em beat me to a bloody pulp?”
“On my mother’s grave,” Giles indicated broadly towards the hatch of the ship.
Xander was already halfway through, when he turned suspiciously. “Giles, is your mom actually... y’know... dead?”
A hand in the small of his back pushed him firmly the rest of the way into the hold, the captain stepping in after him, far more lightly and swiftly than a man his age had any right to.
“I fear you thought about that too late,” the captain drawled with a smirk, striding towards the staircase up towards the bunks and cockpit.
As the hatch hissed closed behind him, Xander groaned. “Always forget the small print,” he mumbled to himself morosely, swinging his sack onto his shoulder and heading towards the stairs after the captain. “I hate smart people.”