by M. Scott Eiland

XANDER: Faith, you may not think so, but I sort of know you. And I've seen you post-battle. And I know firsthand that you're, um... like a wild thing. And half the time, you don't know what you're doing.
FAITH: (snidely) And you're living proof of that, aren't you?
XANDER: See, you're trying to hurt me. But right now, you need someone on your side. What happened wasn't your fault. And I'm willing to testify to that in court if you need me.
FAITH: You'd dig that, wouldn't you? (gives him a sexy look) To get up in front of all your geek pals and go on record about how I made you my boy toy for a night.
-- from "Consequences"

COMBAT, TRIAL BY, method of adjudicating legal disputes by personal combat between the litigants or by their appointed champions. The practice apparently originated among primitive German tribes about the 1st Century AD and spread to many countries of Europe, notably to France, where trial by combat was a recognized legal procedure after the 10th Century. The last judicial duel in France was fought in 1547.
Trial by combat was one of the French customs imported to England in the 11th Century by King William I of England. From 1133 to 1189, under King Henry II, no other legal means was recognized for the settlement of a suit involving recovery of land. By the end of the 16th Century, the custom was virtually obsolete.
-- Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99.

The Sunnydale chapter of the Elks' Club had a large meeting room that was available to be rented for private events: over the years, it had played host to bridge tournaments, public debates, and hundreds of other rather mundane events. Tonight would be a little different: the sign out front announced a meeting of the Anglo-American Rare Birdwatching Society, but the tweed-clad men who walked into the room past the sign which read "By Invitation Only" had little interest in birds. The Judicial Branch of the Council of Watchers had come to Sunnydale to deal with the matter of Faith Stevenson, Slayer, who had caused the death of another human being less than a week before. The Council, which rarely acted with such dispatch, had acted quickly when it heard the news. Traditionally, Faith would have been taken back to England for questioning, then the appropriate actions would have been taken; however, Buffy Summers had effectively changed the rules for this event, also, as she had in many other areas during her time as the Slayer. When Wesley Wyndham- Pryce and his group of "helpers" had come to apprehend Faith, they had been met by Buffy, Giles, Xander, and Willow. Buffy calmly informed them that any procedure that the Council wished to hold would be held in Sunnydale, where she could keep an eye on it. Noting the forces arrayed against him, Wesley placed a call to England, where the Council agreed to send its Judicial Branch to examine the matter on site. None of the leaders of the Council were thrilled at being dictated to, but they recognized that stepping incautiously could cost the Council both Slayers at a time where apocalyptic activity seemed to center around Sunnydale.

When the last Watcher entered the hall and sat behind the large oak table that had been brought in for the occasion, the doors were closed and locked. Five Watchers sat behind the desk, their faces grim. Quentin Travers sat at a smaller desk on the right side of the room: he would handle the prosecutorial duties, and the cold expression on his face strongly suggested that he would greatly love to do more to make the "misfits" from Sunnydale even more uncomfortable than his visit the last month had. Faith sat at a similar table on the left side of the room, and Willow-acting as her counsel-sat beside the visibly uncomfortable Slayer, giving her hand a squeeze now and again.

Faith had not been thrilled with the thought of Willow being her legal representative. "Why can't Giles do it? He's got to know the rules better than Willow, no matter how smart she is." Giles had explained that since he was a material witness, he could not serve in the capacity of her counsel, and that Willow had carefully read up on procedures and received extensive coaching from Giles: she was the best available person to do the job. Faith still looked uneasy, and Willow decided to lay it on the line: "Look, Faith, we've never been particularly close, and I wasn't too happy to find out in the same afternoon that you'd tried to frame Buffy and slept with Xander. But three of my best friends in the world have asked me to do this for you. . .and I don't think you meant to kill Mr. Finch either. I'll do my absolute best for you, I promise." She had extended her hand, and after a moment Faith had clasped it and met Willow's gaze, seeing the resolve there and visibly taking comfort from it.

The Watcher sitting at the center of the desk banged a gavel three times and announced, "This session of the Judicial Branch of the Council of Watchers is hereby called to order. The matter before us concerns charges that have been issued against Faith Stevenson. Mr. Travers, will you please read the charges."

Travers got to his feet and began reading from the sheet of paper in front of him: "Count One, that Faith Stevenson did cause the death of Alan Finch, a human being. Count Two, that Faith Stevenson did attempt to frame Buffy Summers for the actions of Count One. Count Three, that Faith Stevenson did deceive and attempt to deceive her Watcher in relation to these matters. The prosecution will prove that Faith Stevenson is indeed guilty of all of these offenses, and will bow to the wisdom of this body in setting sentence." Travers looked at Faith coldly, then sat down.

The presiding watcher, whom Giles had identified as Daniel Masters in their pre-trial briefings, nodded and commented, "All right then, Miss Rosenburg? Do you have any opening comments?"

Willow rose and replied, "Yes, your Honor. At this time, the defense moves for dismissal of counts two and three on the grounds that the prosecution cannot meet its burden of proof."

Masters raised an eyebrow, and replied to Willow, "Miss Rosenburg, that generally is a motion made after the prosecution has finished its case in chief. Would you care to explain why you are making it now?"

Willow smiled and replied, "Of course, your Honor. According to Article V, section 6 of the Judicial Branch's Code of Laws, the charge of framing an individual for a crime cannot be sustained if the alleged victim declines to seek justice."

Masters frowned and commented, "In other words-"

"-I've decided to forgive and forget." Buffy's voice carried clearly from the back of the room, and all eyes were on her. Faith met her gaze with a look of mild discomfort, and she saw the expression in her fellow Slayer's eyes that said Don't make me regret this. Faith nodded slowly and turned around as Masters nodded and replied, "Very well. Unless the prosecution can state contrary law-" he looked at Travers, who turned back from glaring at Buffy and shook his head briefly before Masters continued, "-very well then, Count Two is hereby dismissed, subject to refiling if Miss Summers should change her mind. What of Count Three, Miss Rosenburg?"

Willow shifted her papers around, then replied, "You all have copies of the statement of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, Faith's Watcher at the time of the events in question. Could the members of the court please read the sections relating to Faith's conversations with him that concerned the event in question." Curious, the Watchers did so, and a few moments later, they looked up with a look of understanding on their faces. Willow nodded and elaborated, "I'm sure the honored members of the court are following my line of thought here. Article VI, section 8 of the Code requires that to sustain a charge of deception, the alleged deceit must constitute a direct lie to a question asked, or a lie told without being asked. All Faith did was agree to look for Finch's killer: she never was asked if she killed him, nor did she volunteer a lie."

Travers leapt to his feet and snarled, "What difference does that make? She came in and lied directly to Gi-" Buffy laughed sardonically from the audience, and Masters had to bang his gavel to restore order before looking at Travers and pointing out, "She's got you there too, Quentin. Giles was no longer her Watcher, therefore the charge of deceiving one's Watcher does not apply. Count Three is dismissed, although," and he gave Faith a stern look at this point as he continued, "Your conduct in both of these matters does not speak well of you, even though they are technically not crimes under our code." Faith nodded in understanding, and Masters looked over at Willow and asked, "You're not going to try to get a homicide charge thrown out in that manner, are you Miss Rosenburg?"

Willow shook her head, and replied, "No, your Honor. The defense will show that the death of Alan Finch was accidental, and that there were complicating and extenuating circumstances that caused her to mistakenly kill him. However, since the defense has stipulated to the fact that Faith did indeed strike the fatal blow and hid the body, we would ask that the prosecution be limited to presenting any evidence it has on Faith's state of mind when she killed Finch, since that is the sole issue before this body."

Masters considered this for a long moment, conferred with the others, and replied, "Your request seems reasonable, Miss Rosenburg. Quentin, do you have any evidence to present on state of mind?"

"Not other than the question of acts of concealment constituting consciousness of guilt, your Honor." In other words, whether Faith's actions in hiding the body and attempting to frame Buffy were proof of criminal intent in the murder.

Masters nodded and replied, "We're perfectly qualified to judge that without you dragging in a psychologist, Quentin. I'd say your case in chief has been handled by the depositions and stipulations . . .wouldn't you?"

Reluctantly, Travers nodded and announced, "The prosecution rests its case." He sat down, and Masters smiled at Willow and asked, "I assume you won't be making a motion to dismiss at this time?"

Willow smiled softly and replied, "No, your Honor. The defense calls as its first witness Buffy Summers."

Buffy walked up to the witness seat and was sworn in, then Willow began to question her gently about the events of the evening. Buffy described how the two women had fought their way through the alley, staking vampires, only to be surprised by Finch: ". . .and he popped out and grabbed my arm. I shoved him hard against the wall without even thinking about it, and Faith went in for the kill. At the last second, I recognized him and saw the pulse in his throat. I yelled, 'Faith, no!' but it was too late. Faith had stabbed him in the heart with her stake. . .I tried to save him, but the wound was too bad. He was dead in seconds." She looked haunted, but firm. Willow nodded and asked, "How did Faith look after Mr. Finch died?"

Buffy replied, "She looked shocked and horrified. . .she kept saying she didn't know. . ." Her voice trailed off, and Willow nodded and called out, "No further questions. Your witness, Mr. Travers."

Buffy looked up and glared at her former tormentor, waiting for a flood of hostile questions. However, Travers seemed calm and contemplative as he walked over to Buffy and asked, "Miss Summers, was Mr. Finch wearing clothing similar to the Eliminati vampires?"

Buffy frowned and replied, "No, he was wearing a suit. . .a modern one." Travers nodded and continued, "About how much time elapsed between the time you shouted 'Faith, no!' and the time the stake struck home?"

Buffy thought a moment, then replied, "Less than a second. . .probably a half second." Travers nodded again and asked, "Could you have stopped in that period of time?"

Buffy hesitated, not wanting to hurt Faith, before replying, "I think I might have been able to, but I'll never know. It was a frantic situation. . .things get messed up."

Travers nodded dismissively and called out, "No further questions." Willow stood up and announced, "No re-direct, Your Honor.", and sat down, as Masters ordered, "Thank you, Miss Summers. You are excused." Buffy got up, glaring at Quentin Travers, then went back to her seat and sat down.

Willow reviewed her notes, then looked up at Masters and called out, "The defense would now like to call Alexander Harris to the stand."


"The defense would now like to call Alexander Harris to the stand."

Xander stood up, swallowed hard, and walked over to the witness stand, feeling Faith's eyes on him as he did so. He sat in the witness chair and locked eyes with Willow as he was sworn in to avoid having to look at anyone else. He saw concern and determination in those eyes, and he relaxed a bit as Willow walked over to him and requested, "Could you state your full name for the record, please?"

Xander saw the flash of impishness in his old friend's eyes, and resolved to get even with her later as he recited flatly, "Alexander Lavelle Harris. . .but I go by Xander."

Willow nodded politely, as if this were mildly surprising to her, then continued, "Mr. Harris, could you briefly describe the nature of your acquaintance with Faith Stevenson up to January of this year?"

Xander quickly recounted meeting Faith and their contact over the first four months he had known her, concluding with Faith coming back into town just before the Sisterhood of Jhe arrived in Sunnydale. Willow nodded and commented, "Thank you, Mr. Harris. Now, would you tell us about your encounter with Faith on January 26, 1999?"

Xander cleared his throat, turned apologetically to the Watchers to his right, then began, "I had just outdistanced a bunch of pissed-off zombies in my Uncle Rory's car when I saw Faith fighting one of the Apocalypse demons we had run into the other day. From where I was, I could see that she was having problems: it looked as if it was going to take her out. I waited for Faith to get in a good shot and knock the demon back, then I ran into it with the car. It was stunned, and I yelled at Faith to get into the car. She did, and we took off."

Willow nodded and continued, "Mr. Harris, what was your evaluation of what you saw of the fight between Faith and the Apocalypse demon?"

Travers' voice cut off Xander's answer: "Objection. What would a teenager without formal training have to say about the battle performance of a Slayer?"

Masters raised an eyebrow and looked at Willow as he commented, "A fair question, Ms. Rosenburg. Your response?"

Willow smiled and replied, "Xander Harris has seen three different Slayers in any number of combat situations over the past three years. . .possibly more than some of the members of this honored tribunal." She paused as the Watchers nodded at the truth in her words, then continued, "Also, thanks to the mischief making of Ethan Rayne, Xander Harris possesses the knowledge and training of a combat soldier, including the ability to tactically analyze combat situations. If you have any doubts about the level of competence represented by those abilities, I direct your attention to Appendix C of the defense brief." The members of the Judicial Branch leafed through their copies as Willow continued, "The document in question describes the complete activities of Mr. Harris on the night in question."

The Watchers leafed through the pages quickly; then, to a man, they turned and gave Xander a respectful look as he squirmed in his seat. He dared a look out into the audience, and saw Angel giving him an enigmatic smile, and Buffy, Giles, Joyce, and Oz all looking at him with profound gratitude. Faith settled for a wink and a nod, which actually made him feel less uncomfortable with the whole thing. Masters looked at Travers, who was finishing the document and shaking his head, and commented, "Quentin, your objection is overruled: Mr. Harris, you may answer the question."

Xander started to speak while still looking into Willow's eyes; however, an instinct within him caused him to turn to Faith and met her own curious gaze as he responded, "She was totally caught up in the fight. . .she was clearly losing. The demon was stronger and faster than her, and it was clearly overpowering her, though she was occasionally able to force it back. . .or I wouldn't have been able to help her. She should have retreated, either to seek out an effective weapon or to gain assistance. She did neither until I arrived on the scene and stunned the demon using the car."

Faith blinked hard at that, and Xander gave her an apologetic look before Willow continued, "So, what you're saying is that Faith was so caught up in the fight that she wasn't able to rationally decide to withdraw, even to save her own life?"

"Objection. Whatever Mr. Harris' abilities as a tactician, he is not a psychologist." Travers' dry tone caused Willow to give him an annoyed look, but this time Travers was nodding in agreement as he responded, "Sustained. . .though we see where you are going with this, Ms. Rosenburg, and the point is well taken. Move on, please."

Willow nodded, allowing only a brief look of annoyance to cross her face before moving on to the next question. "Mr. Harris, are your observations of that night consistent with what you have observed at other times Faith has been in combat?"

Xander nodded and elaborated, "Yes. She gets totally into it. . .to the point where she sometimes passes up chances to finish things quickly. She's in a frenzy when she's fighting. . .sometimes it's not to her benefit, though she's still an incredible fighter." He spoke the last words looking Faith straight in the eyes, and he saw acceptance there, though he had the feeling that they would be having a long conversation about all of this when this was all over.

Willow nodded, and Xander relaxed, thinking that he was finished. He was startled when Willow looked sadly at him and continued, "Mr. Harris, what happened after you drove Faith back to her motel room?"

Xander blinked twice, and stared in disbelief at Willow. He temporized by replying, "I'm not sure what you're asking, Willow."

Willow walked right up to him and replied, "I'm sorry, Xander, but you know exactly what I'm talking about. Please describe what happened after you and Faith arrived back at her motel room."

A burst of anger shot through Xander as he glared at his best friend. After a long moment, he looked at Faith. She met his gaze with complete calm, then nodded once, and gave him a brief, forced grin. Xander turned back to Willow, and answered in an icy tone: "We went into the room, and Faith asked me to hold her while she dealt with the dislocated shoulder she had suffered in the fight. After that. . .she indicated to me that she was in the mood. . .and asked if I wanted to help her deal with it. . .and I did." He spoke the last words while spearing Willow with his gaze: only his long experience with her allowed him to perceive her intense discomfort as she continued, "So, you were intimate with Faith on that occasion?"

Xander nodded and replied, "Yes, I was."

Willow nodded and continued, "So, after that time, did Faith ever show any interest in resuming intimate relations with you?"

Xander flushed, then replied, "No. She gave me the cold shoulder after that, and I found out why after Buffy told us about Mr. Finch having been killed. Buffy said-"

"Objection, hearsay, move to strike. What Miss Summers might have said is not relevant here." Travers jumped in, relieved at the opportunity to interrupt a line of questioning that he had a sinking feeling would not be in the prosecution's best interests.

Masters looked at Willow and raised an eyebrow. Willow hastened to explain, "It goes to the state of mind of the witness, Mr. Masters, and I was also informed that the strict rules of evidence would not be applied in these proceedings."

Masters frowned and replied, "True, Ms. Rosenburg, but the hearsay rules are well-established and proven to be of great utility. . .but the objection is overruled. You may continue, Mr. Harris."

Xander nodded, feeling ambivalent about being allowed to continue, as he responded, "Buffy said that Faith. . .didn't think much about the guys she slept with. . .it was just a big joke to her. I knew that Buffy wouldn't say that just because she was upset with Faith. . .I believed her."

Willow nodded, and Xander could see the sadness in her eyes as she asked, "How did that make you feel, Xander?"

Xander paused for a long moment. He could feel the scrutiny of all of his friends, and he could see that Faith was watching him intently, a curious expression on her face. He took a deep breath, then replied, "I was angry. I've tried to be a good friend to Faith. . .she's had a rough time of it, and she's been a big help since she arrived in Sunnydale. Maybe I should have shown a little more restraint that night. . .but I'm only human, and she's an extremely desirable woman. . .I just wish she had trusted me a little more. . .let me have a shot at showing her that not all guys are jerks. . .but, it was her call, I guess."

Willow nodded, and continued, "So, if you were angry at her, why did you go to her room to try to get her to come back?"

Xander swallowed hard, then snapped, "Because she deserves a chance, damn it! Because she's been on the edge, risking her life to keep all of us alive. She didn't kill that guy on purpose, and she did all of that stuff because she was scared. Sure, I was pissed off at her. . .but I didn't want her to die, or disappear. . .we've all screwed up more than once. . .and I wanted to give her the chance to make things right."

Willow nodded, and called out, "No further questions. Your witness, Mr. Travers." She walked back to her seat, and Xander braced himself for a flood of hostile questions from the Watcher.

Travers stood up, and Xander could see the abject frustration in his eyes as he briefly responded, "No questions, Your Honor," and sat down.

Masters turned to Xander and commented, "You are excused, Mr. Harris." Xander stood and began walking back to his seat, his thoughts racing. Willow knew that Travers knew I had slept with Faith. . .and that he'd use it to make me look biased. . .by bringing it up first, she was able to show that I was pissed off at her. . .that, if anything, sleeping with her had made me less friendly to her, not more. . .still, I'm going to make her pay for that little experience He communicated that thought to Willow with an annoyed glare as he sat down, and Willow winced visibly before calling out, "The defense calls Rupert Giles to the stand."

Giles' testimony was brief and to the point: Faith was formidable in combat, but she did have a tendency to get caught up in the moment, causing her to get into trouble on occasion as a result. He had attempted to train her to overcome the problem, but had not yet been successful when he had been relieved of his duties by the Council. Willow nodded and sat down. Travers stood up, gave Giles a contemptuous look, and called out, "No questions."

Giles stood up and walked back to his seat, studiously ignoring his tormentor as he did so. Masters looked at Willow and asked, "Did you have any other witnesses, Ms. Rosenburg?"

Willow looked up and replied, "Yes, I do. The defense would like to call Faith Stevenson to the stand."

Faith stood up, and all could see the uncharacteristic nervousness on her face as she sat in the witness chair and was sworn in. Willow walked up to Faith with a compassionate expression on her face, and started by asking, "Faith, could you tell us how you came to be in Sunnydale last October?"

Faith took a deep breath, and told of how Kakistos had killed her first Watcher and driven her into flight, until she arrived in Sunnydale with the ancient vampire at her heels. She next described her early fights with Buffy, including the nearly disastrous fight with Kakistos' minions that almost cost Buffy her life. She was meticulous in detail, and Willow could see that the Watchers were taking notes and nodding. She waited for Faith to finish, then asked her to describe the events of the night that Finch was killed.

Faith paused, blinked twice, then began: "We were going after that Balthazar demon. . .his goons were coming at us, one at a time out of the shadows. Stupid, but they kept coming, and Buffy and me. . .we had a rhythm going. Stake and move, stake and move. When that Finch guy came out of the shadows, it never even occurred to me that it was anything other than another vamp. Buffy threw him down, and I moved in to stake him. . .at the last split-second, I heard Buffy yell, 'Faith, no!'. . .but it didn't really register, you know? I got him with the stake. . .and then it registered. . .he wasn't a vamp."

Faith paused at that moment, and Willow waited for a moment before prodding her: "Faith, what were you thinking after it happened?"

The Slayer blinked again, then haltingly continued, "I went numb. . .nothing seemed real any more. I told Buffy that I didn't know. . .then I just had this overwhelming urge to get the hell out of there. . .I dragged Buffy away. . .then we were separated. Afterwards, I went back and just looked at him for a while. . .I kept wanting to wake up. . .to know it was just a dream. . .but it wasn't happening. After a few minutes, I took the body, weighted it, and dropped it in the river, then went back to my room."

Willow waited another moment, then asked, "Faith, why did you do that?

Faith looked down, and replied, "I think that I thought that if there was no body. . .it would all go away, that I wouldn't have to deal with it. . .but, even as I did it, I knew better. When Buffy showed up at my room that morning, I was trying to get a stain out of my shirt. . .a stain that was long gone: I just couldn't stop scrubbing."

Willow nodded again, and continued, "Faith, when Buffy confronted you about Mr. Finch's death, you told her you didn't care. . .that one life lost wasn't that important with all of the good that you and Buffy have done. . .do you really believe that?"

Faith laughed bitterly and replied, "I wanted to. . .she wouldn't let it go. . .and I really wanted something to help me deal with it, you know? But it doesn't work. . .I kept seeing his face, and the blood. . .I didn't want to kill him. . .but I did, and now I have to live with it. . .and nothing I do or say can change that." She paused again, and when she continued, her tone was softer than it had been at any time Buffy or her friends had heard from Faith before: "For most of my life. . .I really didn't matter much to the people around me. . .except that occasionally someone would yell at me or hit me, I might as well as been a piece of furniture. When I found out I was a Slayer. . .it opened up a new world to me. . .I mattered. Sure, it meant going out and maybe dying a nasty, bloody death in the near future, but I was willing to deal with that. . .but I wasn't ready for this. . .I didn't have a clue about what to do. . .and it made me stupid." She turned to the quiet Watchers sitting and observing it all and whispered, "I'm sorry. . .I want to do what's right."

Willow paused for a long moment, then quietly spoke: "No further questions, your Honor. Your witness, Mr. Travers." She sat down, and Masters looked at Travers, raising an eyebrow as if to invite him to speak.

With a deep sigh, Travers stood up and scrutinized the Slayer as he gathered his thoughts. What is there to ask her? She's admitted the crime, acknowledged hiding the body, admitted her incriminating comments to Ms. Summers. . .it's not as if she's going to jump up and announce she's been lying. . . He looked at Masters and replied to the non-verbal invitation, "No questions."

Masters nodded to Faith, and she walked slowly out of the witness chair and returned to her seat, looking numb. Masters looked at Willow and asked, "Do you have any further witnesses, Ms. Rosenburg?"

Willow shook her head and replied, "No, Your Honor. The defense rests."

Masters nodded and replied, "Then we will have a ten minute recess, and then hear closing arguments." The Watchers stood up and walked over to the nearby refreshment area, while Willow returned to her seat and asked Faith quietly, "Are you all right?"

Faith smiled gently and replied, "Five by five. . .but I hope I never have to do that again. . .what do you think, Willow? Are they buying it?"

Willow frowned and replied, "I don't know, Faith. I'm pretty good at the whole presenting the argument thing, but as for reading judges. . .well, there must be some reason they make people sit through three years of law school." She heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see the familiar figure of Giles moving up to them. She motioned for him to lean down and asked, "What do you think, Giles? How are they reacting to our arguments?"

"You've done an excellent job, Willow. . .being up front about everything has neutralized a lot of what Travers could have done against you. . .and Masters is a fair man. . .but, I just don't know. Closing arguments will be important. . .and I have utmost confidence in your abilities." He squeezed her arm in support, and locked eyes with Faith to indicate his continued support before returning to his seat.

Faith and Willow turned and locked eyes: they had never truly been comfortable together. . .but, at this moment, Willow had been moved by Faith's testimony, and Faith had been impressed by the quality of Willow's arguments on her behalf. For the first time, there was true mutual respect between them, and they watched the Watchers return to their seats with a sense of serenity in their hearts. The moment had arrived, and they were ready for it.


"All right. . .we will hear closing arguments now. . .Mr. Travers?" Masters calmly brought matters back to order, staring intently at the balding Watcher who was fumbling with his notes in a last minute frenzy of preparation.

After a moment, Travers stood up, met Masters' gaze without flinching, and began: "Gentlemen, we all know of the difficult circumstances that Miss Stevenson has faced in life. . .abusive parents. . .life on the streets of Boston. . .and inadequate instruction after the tragic death of her first Watcher." Buffy, Giles, and their friends (excluding Angel, naturally) flushed angrily at the casual insult, but said nothing as Travers continued, "But we cannot ignore the evidence. . .Faith killed a man, hid the body, then made grandiose speeches to her fellow Slayer about how she should be held blameless because she was better than everyone else. . .before she tried to frame Ms. Summers for the crime she had committed. While Ms. Summers unfathomable compassion prevents us from judging her for that offense, it certainly speaks to her guilt for the offense that we are dealing with here: she was guilty. . .she knew it. . .and she tried to put the blame on an innocent party. . .a young woman whose conduct has been exemplary." He paced, then continued, "Her conduct clearly reflects a consciousness of guilt of the crime and a desire to avoid responsibility for it. We should take no pleasure in doing what must be done. . .but it must be done nonetheless." Travers added one more dramatic pause, then concluded, "I ask that this body take the appropriate actions against Faith Stevenson for her offense." He sat down, and Masters nodded to Willow.

Willow stood up, and was silent for a long moment before commenting, "I've read up on the way that the Watchers have trained potential Slayers over the years. . .so that they would be ready for their sacred duties. The preparation is important, of course. . .what would be more difficult than for a young woman utterly unaware of her destiny as the Chosen One to have that duty thrust upon her without the slightest preparation? Yet, this has happened twice in the span of four years. . .Buffy Summers. . .and now Faith Stevenson. Buffy Summers had the benefit of a loving home for the years before she was Called. . .and the help of two Watchers: one who surrendered his life to save her, and the other who-whatever this Council might think of him-has repeatedly risked his own life for the same purpose. Faith had a harder road. . .as Mr. Travers was kind enough to point out, her life was difficult before she became a Slayer, and she had to watch her first Watcher being killed in front of her when she was helpless to prevent it. All of these things have undoubtedly contributed to the way she has approached combat. . .ruthless, all- out, not wanting to risk letting the enemy have even a moment's respite. . .for fear that someone else she wants to protect might fall prey to her foes." She paused and took a deep breath, then continued, "Unfortunately, that approach had a tragic consequence in this instance: Alan Finch was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was killed. No one has alleged that Faith took any pleasure in his death: she was clearly devastated by the event, to the extent that she behaved irrationally. The Council would certainly not be amiss in carefully examining her to see what the long term consequences to her psyche have been, and her training should be amended to try to rid her of her tendency to shut out the rest of the world when she is in battle in order to avoid future tragedies. But as for simple punishment. . .Faith is punishing herself far more effectively than this august body could ever hope to. . .she will have to live with the price of her lapse for the rest of her life. . .we should try to help her get past this tragedy and learn from it, not slap her in the face for it." Willow sat down, visibly drained, and Faith leaned over and squeezed her arm in thanks, provoking a gentle smile from Willow.

Masters looked out at the room and called out, "Thank you, Mr. Travers. . . Ms. Rosenburg. We will now adjourn to consider our decision." The five men walked out into one of the side rooms in the hall as Giles, Buffy, Joyce, Xander, Oz, and Angel moved over next to the defense table to talk with Willow and Faith, while Travers disdainfully walked over to the refreshment area and Wesley, ostracized by the others in the audience, polished his glasses and brooded. After a few moments, the Watchers filed back into the room, and the little group broke up, Faith and Willow standing to face the tribunal, and the others settling into the first row seats, as Masters sat down and banged his gavel once to call the hearing back into order.

Masters carefully looked at the grimly waiting Slayer for a long moment before beginning: "Faith Stevenson, I must begin by stating that, as I have stated before, your conduct, regardless of the circumstances, does not reflect well upon you. You attempted to conceal the evidence of a homicide, lied about it to persons in positions of authority, and attempted to cause another person to receive the blame for your actions. Though no formal punishment will be meted out for these actions, the Judicial Branch hereby reprimands you for them, and notes that they will be taken into account should this body have to refer to any future misconduct on your part. Do you understand?"

Faith nodded and replied, "Yes, I do."

Masters nodded in acknowledgment, then continued, "In the matter of the death of Alan Finch, the Judicial Branch rules that it was accidental in nature, and that you should not be subject to any formal punishment as a result of said accidental death." Willow squeezed Faith's arm in support at this point, but Faith's expression remained somber as Masters continued, "However, it is clear that you do need some help to avoid repetition of this tragedy. . .and this body rules that you shall receive psychological counseling and additional training to try to alleviate the problems you have had in controlling your emotional state in combat. . ."

"And how in the hell is she supposed to get that training with Wesley the Weasel playing at being her Watcher?" Buffy's angry voice snapped across the room like a whip, startling everyone present. "Faith deserves better. . .and for that matter, so do I, damn it!"

Visibly shocked, Masters banged his gavel and responded, "Miss Summers, you are completely out of order. It is the responsibility of the Council to provide appropriate personnel for the purpose of Faith's evaluation and training, and you have nothing to say about it."

"Mr. Masters, please excuse Ms. Summers' outburst." The request came from Quentin Travers, and all present turned to him as he unexpectedly defended the older Slayer, "Though she is remarkably capable, she's been under a great deal of stress recently, and she's obviously suffered from the inadequate supervision she has received over the past two years-"

"That's quite enough, you bloody fool."

The voice of Rupert Giles echoed through the room with a clear air of menace: Buffy thought with a chill that it was the voice of Ripper, magnified by two decades of experience and confidence. She watched Giles as he walked up to the table where the five elder Watchers stared at him with expressions varying from irritation to concern. Giles looked over all of them and continued, "This fiasco has gone on long enough. The Council relieved me of my duties and put an incompetent quasi-adolescent in my place, which contributed greatly to this disaster. All because it chose to accept the word of one man, Quentin Travers, rather than allow me, or Buffy, to present our own version of events. The Council of Watchers' foremost duty is to serve the well being of the Slayer so that she might defend all of us from disaster. Removing me without a detailed hearing was an intolerable breach of that trust."

Most of the Watchers found they could not meet the accusing stares of Rupert Giles and Buffy Summers, but Daniel Masters was made from stern stuff, and locked eyes with Giles as he replied, "Rupert, you know the rules of the Council are clear on this matter: the recommendations of the Supervising Watcher conducting the Cruciamentum are to dictate the Council's actions. . .to prevent situations where a Slayer might be corrupted by undue influence from the Field Watcher, or vice versa. I'm sorry, Rupert, but you have no recourse here."

Rupert Giles smiled coldly, then replied, "With all due respect, sir, you are wrong. I do have one avenue left to me. . .I call for the Test of Honor."

There was a stunned silence in the room as the Watchers, including Wesley in the audience, stared in surprise and disbelief, and most of the others looked on, uncomprehending, except for Angel, who smiled in amusement at the sheer nerve of the friend he had so wronged, and Quentin Travers, whose eyes twinkled with hidden menace. Faith, ever ready to leap in where angels feared to tread, voiced the question that several others would have loved to ask: "Uhh. . .what in the hell is the Test of Honor?"

Masters blinked, cleared his throat, and replied, "Under ancient Council law, any person subject to the jurisdiction of the Council of Watchers, with the sole exception of the Slayer herself, may seek justice from the Judicial Branch in the form of trial by combat, to take place no more than twelve hours after the request is made. If the person prevails, his position in the matter in question does also." He looked at Giles in disbelief and commented, "Rupert. . .you can't be serious. The Test of Honor has not been invoked in over three centuries. . .it's a archaic throwback. . .a barbaric ritual holdover-"

"Like stripping a Slayer of her powers and throwing her into mortal combat with an insane vampire?" Buffy's sardonic interjection drew snickers from her friends and winces from the Watchers in the room.

Masters gave Buffy a dirty look and replied, "Miss Summers, whether you choose to believe it or not, there are important justifications for the Cruciamentum. . .but in an sense, your point is well taken. The Test of Honor, though long unused, is a valid part of the Council's laws, and may freely be invoked." He looked carefully at Giles and commented, "Under the rules of the Test, Rupert, you have choice of weapons. . .am I correct in remembering that you were twice the champion saber man at Oxford in the late seventies?"

For once, Giles dispensed with the hemming and hawing that usually accompanied an admission of great ability on his part: "You are, sir."

Masters nodded and continued, "Hmm. . .there is no one here who could come close to matching that, Rupert. I take it you would not waive the twelve hour rule to allow an appropriate opponent to be flown in from England." Seeing Giles' enigmatic smile, Masters continued further, "Well, Rupert. . .you appear to have us over a barrel. . .may I prevail on you to suggest an honorable compromise?"

Giles nodded and replied, "Certainly. . .I have no wish to see such an important issue settled by a technical default or a one-sided brawl. I ask that this body re-open the question of the propriety of my behavior during Buffy's Cruciamentum, accepting testimony from all relevant witnesses, and giving that testimony the weight it would be given in an ordinary judicial procedure. I am content to depend on the unrestrained honor of all of the individuals on this body to come to a fair conclusion in this matter."

Masters and the other Watchers huddled for a long moment as Buffy, Faith, and the others stared openly at Giles as he patiently waited for the conference to conclude. After a moment, the discussion ended, and Masters moved back to his seat and commented, "Although we are less than pleased with your tactics here, Rupert, you appear to have the advantage, and-to be quite candid-your request is not unreasonable. The Judicial Branch of the Council of Watchers here-"

"Not so fast, Daniel." Quentin Travers' voice was smug as he interrupted the head of the Judicial Branch. Masters gave him an annoyed stare at the interruption, but Travers was unhurried as he elaborated, "The governing rules of the Test of Honor allow the senior Watcher present to, at his sole discretion, determine that allowing the challenging party to participate as his own champion would not serve the interests of justice, and may thereby require that party to designate another champion of his choice." Smiling broadly, he concluded, "If I'm not mistaken, that senior Watcher is me. . . and I so determine and require."

Masters glared at Travers and responded, "Yes, Quentin. . .but you are the opposing party. . .it would be an obvious conflict of interest to allow you to make such a ruling."

Travers grinned ferally and replied, "True. How unfortunate that the drafter of the original laws was so sloppy. . .you could take it up with him, had he not been dead for nine centuries. Nonetheless, the law is the law, and I exercise my rights under it. . .Rupert will have to designate a champion. . .or, since I'm feeling generous, he can come back to England with us and face our designate over there."

Buffy and Faith grinned at each other and started to rise as Travers continued, "Yes Rupert, you may designate a champion. . .who must be male-" , Buffy and Faith started, then sat down, with Faith quietly swearing while Buffy snarled in frustration, "--, human-" Angel glared at the smug Watcher as he resumed his seat, "-and not subject to any supernatural diseases." Oz had begun to rise, then dropped back into his seat, irritated. Travers noted all of the reactions and smiled sadistically, then concluded, "Young Walters here will serve as a suitable champion for the Council." A young man, well muscled and apparently in his early twenties, stood and looked over at Giles with a smug expression of his own.

Giles' thoughts raced as he contemplated the dilemma. Damn. . .Quentin was lying in wait for me. . .hoping I'd try this. Oh well, it was worth a shot to do it the easy way. . .the only recourse now is to go to England and hope I can defeat their champion. . .as unlikely as that may be He entertained no illusions. . .he had no doubt that, given time, the Council could recruit a champion that could defeat him with any weapon he chose to use. . .but there was no choice. He looked contemptuously at Travers, then turned back to Masters and began, "Since Quentin has no honor, I will be forced to defend my own honor in England. I hereby-"

"Not so fast, Giles."

The voice was calm and determined, and all eyes turned onto the speaker: Alexander Lavelle Harris. He walked up to Quentin Travers with a look of utter disdain on his face, then turned to Walters and gave him a once over before turning away dismissively and announcing, "I volunteer to serve as champion for Rupert Giles. . .his cause is just. . .and I will be proud to serve it."

The room went into chaos, and as Xander watched the commotion his simple announcement had caused, a single thought burned itself into his consciousness:

Oh, crap. . .I've really gone and done it this time.


Chaos reigned for a long moment before Masters banged his gavel again, restoring order. All eyes were on Xander as Giles walked over to him and pulled him to an unoccupied corner of the room. He took a deep breath, then asked the first question that came to mind: "Have you completely taken leave of your senses?"

Xander took a deep breath, then replied coolly, "Maybe. . .but I'm your best shot, Giles. I've got a pretty good read on that bastard Travers, and he wouldn't agree to let you go back to England if he thought that you'd win there. He's counting on you refusing to let me fight. . .he knew damned well that I'd be the only one here you could recruit as a champion, and that you'd never ask me. Well, you don't have to. . .I'm volunteering. . .and I like my chances of beating Lance Beefcake over there than you having to beat the best of Europe. . .am I making any sense here, Giles?"

Reluctantly, Giles nodded and replied, "I see your point. . .but Xander, this won't be pistols at sunrise, or with any other modern weaponry for that matter. You have to choose an archaic weapon, and the fight will go on until one party yields or is rendered unconscious or dead. Walters is young, but he has been trained with all of the ancient weapons. . .and you haven't. Despite your acquired talents, I don't see how you could possibly prevail."

Xander grinned ferally and replied, "I've got a few tricks up my sleeve. . .and I can win for the best reason of all, Giles." He looked over at the anxiously watching Slayers for a long moment, then looked back at Giles and elaborated bluntly, "I can. . .I will win. . .because I have to."

Giles looked at Xander, and briefly considered the two years he had known the young man. Xander was exasperating beyond words at times, and his missteps had occasionally led to near-disaster. But he was fiercely loyal to his friends, and Buffy would have been dead several times over if Xander had not put his life on the line for her, and the recent incident with the Sisterhood of Jhe proved that Xander could help greatly even when all of his friends were trying to keep him out of the fray for his own good. He looked into Xander's eyes, and he could see the intense determination burning there. After a long moment, he nodded, and they walked back to the waiting Watchers.

After a long moment, Giles locked eyes with Masters and intoned formally, "I accept the offer of Alexander Harris to act as my champion in the Test of Honor." He turned to the fuming Travers and asked coldly, "Unless you have any further objections, Quentin?"

Travers glared at the former Watcher, then looked at the young man who had so upset his calculations. He hadn't counted on this. . .but, really, what was there to worry about? The boy might have acquired some fighting skills, but Walters had the benefit of years of Watcher's training with weapons, and was a good four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier. Besides, there was no valid reason to disqualify Harris. He looked back at Giles and replied, "By all means, Rupert. . .I just hope this doesn't lead to the boy being harmed. . .let it be on your head if it does."

"That's enough, Quentin!" snapped Masters, who turned to confer with the other Watchers for a moment before turning back to Xander and asking quietly, "Mr. Harris, this body has the utmost respect for you and your accomplishments on behalf of the cause. . .but are you sure you understand what you are volunteering to do? This fight is not necessarily to the death, but records show that individuals can and have died in the course of these judicial duels."

Xander looked down for a moment, then looked at the concerned face of Masters and replied, "Thank you for asking. . .but I understand what I'm doing. . .and I've risked my life before for far less. . .let's get to it."

Masters nodded and replied, "Given the time frame and other requirements of the test, I would suggest that the Sunnydale High school library is the appropriate location to conduct the Test of Honor. We shall reconvene there in one hour. This hearing is adjourned." The Watchers collected their belongings and departed. Quentin Travers stared contemptuously at Xander and Giles for a long moment, then walked out, Walters at his side.

Wesley, looking bewildered, walked out shaking his head as the rest of the audience crowded forward. Joyce reached Xander first and hugged him tightly for a moment, then broke away, looking into his eyes and whispering, "Be careful," before turning and rushing out the door in obvious distress.

Xander watched her leave, then turned to Buffy, who was watching him with an apologetic look on her face as she commented, "Sorry about that, Xander. . .she's just being Mom."

Xander blinked, thinking about the lack of attention from his own mother; indeed, that she probably would not note his absence from the Harris home that evening. . .assuming that he didn't come home in a body bag, of course. He smiled and replied, "Tell her thanks when you see her. . .you're not going to tell me I'm being crazy, are you?"

Buffy laughed and replied, "Since when has that ever stopped you? Master vampires, Incan mummies, Apocalypse demons. . .nothing stops Xander Harris when he puts his mind to something. . .and I'm not even going to try." At that, she walked over to him and grasped his hand, squeezing it tightly and looking into his eyes for a long moment before letting go and walking slowly out the door.

Angel quietly glided over and commented, "Well played. . .I don't suppose you'd like to let us in on how you're going to take out that no neck for Giles, would you? The rest of us could always use some pointers."

For once, Xander appreciated Angel's dark humor. He grinned and replied in a fairly good Irish brogue, "Ah, but that would be telling." Angel smiled and departed after Buffy.

Oz and Willow walked up, and Xander could see that Oz was concerned. He grinned and commented, "Oz, you're looking kinda worked up. . .I think you might even be about to complete a whole paragraph."

Oz smiled faintly and replied, "Watch your back. . .anyone that that Travers guy trusts is trouble."

Xander nodded and looked over at his oldest friend. Giles and Oz watched her intently, expecting her to be more upset than anyone at the prospect of Xander participating in the duel, but there was only a small smile as she called out, "Hey, Xander?"

Xander looked at her and replied, "Yes, Oh Great and Annoying Defense Attorney?"

Willow smiled more broadly, then replied, "Kick his ass." Without another word, she took the arm of a startled Oz and led him out of the room. Giles followed, shaking his head in bewilderment. Xander smiled and started to leave himself, only to remember that he was still not alone. He turned to see Faith watching him with a curious smile. He grinned at her and commented, "You're a free woman, Faith. . .you should head on out of here. . . join the others in preparation for my great gladiatorial moment."

Faith's face turned serious, and she asked, "What do you have up your sleeve, Xander? No way Red would be that calm if she didn't know something. . .and whatever it is, it's not a sure thing. . .you're still risking your ass on this thing. . .why in the hell are you doing this?"

Xander laughed and replied, "What, rescuing you and Buffy from the clutches of Wesley the Weasel isn't enough? He's going to get you killed, and without you guys around the life expectancy of everyone in Sunnydale will be about the same as that of a pack of condoms in Madonna's nightstand." He enjoyed her genuine laugh at that wisecrack, then concluded, "I owe both of you. . .and Giles. It's certainly worth risking getting my ass handed to me over, wouldn't you say?"

Faith frowned, then replied, "Maybe. . .but I think there's something else, Xander. If you're going to put your ass on the line, you owe it to yourself to be honest with yourself about why you're doing it. . .and to bounce it off of at least one person before you go ahead and do it. Since I'd be on the run or looking at life breaking rocks without you sticking your neck out for me. . .I'm volunteering."

Xander looked at her for a long moment and wondered at the contrast from the angry young woman he had confronted only three nights before. After a moment, he nodded in assent, then began, "I've decided that Cordelia might have had a point when she said I was the one in the group without anything special to offer-"

"Bullshit!" snapped Faith. "Weren't you listening to what those tweed types were saying? You saved my ass. . .hell, you might have saved the whole damned world by doing what you did that night! Isn't that enough for you to forget about what that bitch said because she was pissed off at you?"

Xander smiled involuntarily at the ferocity of Faith's defense, then replied, "Yeah, Faith. . .I know I did a good job that night. . .and I got my revenge on Cordelia. . .on several fronts." He smiled ruefully as he favored Faith with a mock leer, causing her to chuckle in spite of her concern. He continued, "But let's face it. . .it was nothing that you, Buffy, or even Giles couldn't have handled without breaking a sweat if the apocalypse hadn't been distracting you. . .hell, I bet Willow could have conjured something up to stop Jack and his buddies in their tracks. It's not like I wasn't scrambling to get help wherever I could. . .you just were all too busy. I was the last option. . .and I almost didn't pull it off. You could have died that night. . .you all could have."

Faith snorted and replied, "So what's your point? We've all had a lot of close calls. . .life on the Hellmouth, right? The point is, you came through. . .so what's to feel inadequate about?"

Xander met Faith's angry gaze unflinchingly and replied, "Faith, this is something that I can do that none of the rest of you can do: not the Slayers. . .not the Watcher. . .not Dead Boy. . .not even the witch and the werewolf. . .just me. It's about time that I really started carrying my weight around here. . .and if it means I get beaten to a bloody pulp in the process. . .well, it's nothing you guys haven't done plenty of times before." He looked down, then looked back at her and concluded quietly, "I can do this, Faith. . .I just need for you to trust me. . .I know that's tough for you."

Faith looked away for a long moment, then looked back and replied, "You know, I've been thinking about what you said on the stand, Xander. I'm not going to apologize to you for not throwing myself into your arms and declaring my undying love for you after our little get-together that night. I am what I am, and you've got issues of your own when it comes to the whole hearts and flowers thing." Xander winced as he remembered that Faith had heard the whole story about Willow, Cordelia, and Oz, and blushed as Faith continued, "I should have been more up front, though. . .you've always been straight with me, even when it didn't track with what you might have been feeling at the time." Xander nodded, thinking about how he had tried to stop Faith from going after Angel when he had concluded that the vampire had not been the one who attacked Giles, as Faith continued, "I didn't want to hurt your feelings. . .I'm sorry about that, O.K.?"

Xander started to reply, then stopped short when Faith gave him a pointed look and interjected, "I'm not finished." She took a breath, then continued, "Anyway, what I'm trying to say is. . .I trust you. You may seriously piss me off at times, and if you think I'm going to be your portable R & R from now on, you've got another thing coming, soldier boy." Xander could not restrain himself from laughing at this, and his reaction was mirrored by the smile on Faith's face as she concluded, "But, you've been up front with me, and that counts for a lot, as does pulling my reckless self out of some serious jams. So if you're determined to get beaten on for the greater good. . .go ahead, but watch your ass. . .we all want you to stick around." She nodded at him, then walked out of the room without looking back.

Xander let out the breath he had been holding, and felt pretty damned good about things for the next twenty seconds. . .before remembering he still had to go twelve rounds with the walking anatomy chart in the very near future. Suddenly feeling more than a little ambivalent, he left the room.


The small group had re-convened at the library, and most of the objects had been cleared from the main floor area, with the exception of the long reading table. Resting on that table were a remarkable assortment of medieval weaponry; in each case, a matched pair.

Xander and Walters stood waiting on the floor, glaring at each other. Masters walked down from the upper section, where the other occupants of the room were watching intently, and called out, "Mr. Harris, you may now select the weaponry to be used in the Test."

Xander nodded, and casually walked over to the table, where he first examined a razor-sharp broadsword that was easily four feet long. After a moment, he put it down and commented, "What, and mess up my carefully selected wardrobe?" A murmur arose from the waiting audience, only to die down as Masters gave all of them a hard look. Xander next picked up a huge flail: the spiked ball hanging from the chain had to be at least five inches across. He looked at it. . .hefted it, then dismissed with, "Naw. . .too Monty Python and the Holy Grail." He looked over his shoulder and noted the tense expressions on his friends' faces. . .except for the small, secret smile on Willow's. He next examined a pair of cesti, the spiked fighting gloves used by Roman gladiators, but quickly put them down with a shudder as he commented, "And Evander Holyfield thought he had problems." He reached out and grasped a six foot long quarterstaff, hefted it, and commented, "Well. . .I don't think I can live up to the standards of Gabrielle, but this looks all right to me. . .let's boogie, Watcher Boy."

Walters flushed and walked over to get his own weapon while Giles and Buffy looked on in shock. Admittedly, the weapon Xander had chosen was less likely to inflict fatal damage, but they had never seen him so much as pick up a quarterstaff, much less fight with one. Giles knew that it was a subtle and difficult weapon to master, though Buffy had picked one up for the first time and thoroughly trashed him with it. . .Slayers were always a special case. He looked over at Willow and saw the smile there. . .had she taken leave of her senses? He looked at Xander, and saw the clumsy attempts to get the feel for the weapon. His face fell, and he wondered, Is Xander going to get badly hurt. . .only to lose anyway and hopelessly tangle up the whole thing with the Council. . .I should stop this. He looked at Xander, and the young man met his eyes. While his body language remained disjointed and uncoordinated, Giles could see the confidence in his eyes, and-against his better judgment-Giles held his tongue and waited for the Test to begin.

Masters watched Xander with misgivings, then looked over at the arrogant pose of Walters and sighed, then called out, "This is to be the Test of Honor, on behalf of Rupert Giles and the Council of Watchers. At this time, either combatant may withdraw without loss of honor." He waited, and after a moment, Xander slowly shook his head. Walters remained mute, and Masters nodded and continued, "So be it. . .the Test begins. . now."


"So be it. . .the Test begins. . now."

As Masters spoke, Walters moved forward and quickly performed an overhand thrust with his staff, trying to strike Xander in the collarbone. Xander stumbled back and deflected the thrust with a clumsy looking sweep of his own staff: he staggered for a moment, then regained his footing while the annoyed Walters recovered his own bearings and began to circle his opponent. Xander held his staff at the ready, but made no move to attack. After a few seconds, Walters became impatient and began a series of probing attacks, gradually increasing in force. Xander gave ground and deflected all of the attacks with what appeared to be unsophisticated defensive moves. All watching could see the frustration on Walters' face as he continued the attack; suddenly, he aggressively moved in with a series of sweeping attacks. Xander sidestepped the flurry and exploited an opening to swat Walters on the rump with his staff, causing the larger man to stagger into a wall and allowing Xander to get around him, giving him new room to retreat. He smirked and commented, "So this is the great Watcher's training I've heard so much about. . .doesn't seem too different from what you could pick up watching 'American Gladiators.'"

The crowd murmured at Xander's bravado, and Walters flushed angrily. He moved in on Xander again, and began a furious sequence of swings and thrusts. Xander was unable to completely block all of them, but the hits that occurred were glancing blows. . .they would bruise, but do no other lasting damage, and he was able to keep his footing. As time went on, Xander's moves appeared to become more sophisticated: the more knowledgeable members of the audience recognized several classic defensive sequences that were beyond even what standard Watchers' training with the quarterstaff would allow. Faith, Buffy, and Giles realized this at about the same time and turned to where Willow was watching the action with an expectant smile on her face. She looked up to see three annoyed people glaring at her, and Buffy spoke for all of them when she demanded, "All right, Willow. You've been holding out on us. . .spill."

Willow looked over at Buffy, her expression innocent: "What? I'm just watching the fight like the rest of you. . .what makes you think I know anything?"

"Because you've been too damned calm about this whole thing. . .and none of us have seen Xander even pick up a quarterstaff." Giles' tone was even, but the undertone of irritation was evident. He met Willow's eyes with determination and pressed, "I must concur with Buffy, Willow. . .spill."

Willow smiled ruefully, then replied, "Oh. . .did I forget to tell you? Xander's Uncle Rory used to take us to the Renaissance Faire every year. . .since we were nine. It was a big event for us. . .and Xander was always caught up in watching the mock duels that would be fought to entertain the visitors. He wanted to take part, but the only weapon that they would let a youngster train with even under carefully controlled circumstances was the quarterstaff. Xander practiced at home regularly. . .Jesse and I used to tease him about it: we called him Xander of Sherwood Forest. . . but he didn't care. He wanted to be really good at it, and by the time he was thirteen, he was beating the adult fighters in the matches at the Faire." She paused, smiling at the memories, before continuing, "He still practices for a couple of hours a week. . .I remember Cordelia complaining about coming into his room unexpectedly one day and nearly getting her head taken off. . .Xander had to cough up some serious bouquets to make up for that one."

"Excuse me, Willow, that's all well and good, but how come we didn't know this?" Faith's tone was as irritated as the others, and exacerbated by the thought that Xander had been holding out on her.

Willow shrugged, and replied, "It was something he was proud of, but he knew that it was nothing compared to what you two or even Giles could do with weapons, so he didn't see any point in bringing it up. Besides, a quarterstaff isn't exactly an ideal weapon for dealing with vampires and other demons."

Buffy frowned as she realized Willow had a point. A Slayer could use a quarterstaff effectively to stun a vampire or most demons, but normal human strength was inadequate for overcoming vampiric resistance to blunt trauma. . .although it had possibilities when cooperating with other fighters. She sighed and commented, "We need to talk with him about that. . .it might be useful when we go out together on patrol. . ." She looked back at the action, and noted that Xander was still operating in a completely defensive posture. Buffy shook her head in annoyance and commented, "O.K., Xander obviously knows one end of a quarterstaff from the other, but he can't win unless he attacks eventually. . .what in the hell is he planning to do?"


The comment came from Faith, and Buffy, Willow, and Oz blinked in bewilderment as they tried to figure out what she was talking about. To their further surprise, Giles chuckled and commented, "Of course. . .brilliant."

Buffy glared in annoyance at Giles and Faith, then whispered, "Do you want to provide closed-captions for the fighting lingo impaired?"

Giles and Faith looked at each other, then Giles turned back to Buffy and replied, "Do you know about the career of Muhammad Ali, Buffy?"

Buffy blinked, then remembered watching the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta on TV, and the shaking hand of the once- great athlete who lit the huge torch looming over the main stadium. Her father had been there with her, and he had spoken at length about the accomplishments of the man of the hour. She frowned, then replied, "Oh yeah. . .I remember now. Ali fought George Foreman in the mid-seventies, when he was past his prime. Foreman was considered unbeatable. . .this was a few thousand cheeseburgers ago, of course. . .and Ali had to figure out how to beat him. He just covered up for the first six rounds. . .let Foreman tire himself out beating on his arms. . .then when Foreman was dead tired, he moved in for the kill. . .nasty." She smiled and commented, "Not bad. . .so he's just going to wait for him to get tired, huh?"

Giles nodded, pleased that Buffy had processed the situation. "The approach has the advantage of protecting Xander from a physically stronger opponent until the moment that he can attack with minimal risk of being hit by a devastating counter-attack. The drawback of classically based training is that it is not geared towards processing new innovations. . .after Xander prevails, I will have to have a talk with the training Watchers about incorporating counter- measures to the tactics that Xander is employing." Buffy, Faith, Oz, and Willow noted that Giles said "after" instead of "if", and all of them took great comfort in it as they watched the fight continue.

Walters was visibly slowing down. A boxing match incorporates minute long rests after every three minutes of fighting: there was no such relief here, and the sweat poured freely down Walters' forehead as he desperately tried to find an opening in Xander's defenses that would allow him to finish the younger man off. No such opening was forthcoming, and Walters could see the cool confidence in the eyes of his opponent as he continued to try to breach his defenses. Xander was visibly bruised in several places, but his movements remained as fluid as ever, and he occasionally laughed out loud as the fight continued, causing Walters to flush angrily and redouble his efforts to penetrate Xander's defenses. Xander took a few more glancing blows in these barrages, but nothing disabling, and he continued his careful defensive efforts, noting that Walters was slowing more and more by the minute. He continued to watch, then, abruptly, Walters left a huge opening in his defenses as he prepared to deliver a crushing attack.

Xander suddenly changed his tactics, lunging forward with a thrust to Walters' jaw that sent him staggering back fifteen feet. Walters realized that he was in trouble and changed to a defensive stance, but his fatigue betrayed him, and Xander easily penetrated his defense with his probing thrusts, bruising Walters on the body and arms and disrupting his planned attack. Walters desperately tried to block the incoming barrage, but he was nearly exhausted, and his opponent seemed possessed by some terrifying martial demon as he delivered a blow to the chest, another to the jaw, and a sweep that knocked him into a supine position, from which he stared up at the sight of Alexander Harris holding his weapon in position to deliver a knockout blow.

Xander paused for a long moment, then asked quietly, "Do you yield, sir?"

Walters stared up at his opponent, disbelieving. After a few moments, Xander shrugged and drew his staff back, only to be startled into pausing by the voice that unexpectedly came from behind him:

"Well, isn't this interesting."

Everyone in the room turned to where Mr. Trick had walked into the library, followed by what appeared to be about fifteen vampires. Trick grinned and looked around the library, taking in the large audience as he commented, "We just came here to deal with a couple of spying Slayers. . .who would have thought that we would run into such a fine collection of stuck-up Brits from the Council of Watchers. . .some days it just pays to get out of bed. " He gestured to the vampires waiting behind him, and at once a frenzied battle broke out.

Buffy tossed Faith a stake, knowing that the Council had disarmed her in preparation for the trial, and the two Slayers moved into the crowd of vampires, fighting with grim determination. The Watchers reached into their coats, pulling out stakes and holy water as they faced the rushing mass of undead.

Walters had recovered somewhat, and he moved over to the table where the weapons were resting and picked up one of the broadswords, which he quickly brought to bear on the vampire who was pursuing him. With a vicious swipe, Walters decapitated his hapless foe, reducing him to dust.

Xander had quickly dashed over to the table and grabbed a stake, discarding his quarterstaff in the process. The fatigue from his fight with Walters seemed to vanish, and he threw himself totally into the fight, quickly dusting one vamp and taking some nasty punches from another before dusting that one as well. He noted with pleasure that Faith and Buffy were both rapidly wearing down Trick's attack force, and he scanned the room, only to note with concern that Trick was moving in on Walters. Walters brought his sword to bear, only to have Trick move in with the speed of a striking snake and knock the weapon loose, sending it clanging to the floor. The vampire chuckled and commented, "You've got some spunk. . .maybe I should do some recruiting here." He moved in and seized the young Watcher, and Xander was enraged. . .sure, this guy was doing the bidding of that scumbag Travers, but he didn't deserve to be turned into a vampire! He moved quietly up behind Trick as the vampire prepared to bite Walters, only to have Trick whirl around and grab his arm. The vampire made a quick motion, and Xander felt his shoulder dislocate with a loud pop, sending the stake dropping from his nerveless fingers. Through the haze of pain, Xander saw Trick drop his limp arm and reach up to grab him by the throat. Unable to do more than blink, he waited to see what would happen.

Trick chuckled and commented, "Well well well. . .Xander Harris. The Mayor tells me that you've been involved in all kinds of annoying situations here. . .helping Angel save the Slayer and preventing the Master from emerging. . .killing vampires while the Slayer was out of town dealing with her issues. . .saving the world by keeping those idiot zombies from blowing up Sunnydale High. . .not a bad resume. . .makes me almost feel that I should start some kind of damned recruitment speech. . .but I can't think of one, and taking you out of the Slayers' 'plus' column will be good enough for me."

Trick began to lean in to bite deeply into Xander's neck, ignoring his feeble struggles, only to pause at the meaty sound of a stake biting through fabric and undead flesh. Xander saw the vampire look up, roll his eyes, and comment, "Oh, shit," before bursting into dust. Xander staggered for a moment, then looked up and saw Faith's concerned face looking at him. He smiled faintly and ordered half- heartedly, "Faith. . .I'm OK. . .get the rest of the vamps."

Faith grinned and replied, "Not a problem. . .they bugged out when I took out the clotheshorse who was about to make you a midnight snack." She quietly moved up behind Xander, then abruptly seized his dangling arm and slipped his shoulder back into place without warning.

Xander uttered a strangled scream, then turned and glared at Faith before grumbling, "Jeez, Faith, you could warn a guy before you do something like that." Some color returned to his features, but he was still very pale, and he did not argue when Faith led him to a nearby chair as the rest of his friends clustered around him. He smiled at the attention, but had a hard time making out some of the specifics as he hazed in and out of full awareness.

Masters walked over to the group, and they allowed him to make his way to Xander. Xander forced himself to concentrate as he looked up at the Watcher, who began, "Mr. Harris, you have proven yourself a worthy champion for Rupert, and a valiant fighter for the cause. By the power vested in me as head of the Judicial Branch, I hereby-"

"Aren't you forgetting something, Daniel?" The voice of Quentin Travers echoed through the room, causing all to turn his way as he smugly continued, "The Test of Honor doesn't end until one champion yields. . .or one opponent is rendered unable to continue."

Masters blinked, but said nothing, though his eyes flashed anger at Travers' heartlessness. Surprisingly, it was Wesley who stormed over to Travers and exclaimed, "That is absolutely outrageous, Quentin! Mr. Harris had clearly beaten Walters, and would have finished him off if the vampires hadn't shown up. . .not to mention that Walters would have died if Mr. Harris hadn't stepped in."

Travers looked at the younger Watcher who had the temerity to question him, and was visibly unmoved as he replied, "All true, Wesley. . .but none of that is covered by the rules. This Test is not over unless one champion yields. . .or is unable to continue." He looked pointedly at the pale, swaying figure of Xander, then over at Walters, who was standing alone and staring at the scene.

"All right, I've had it with you!" Faith began storming forward with the apparent intent of ripping Travers' head off and using it for a football, and none present seemed inclined to stop her. . .until a hand feebly reached out to grab her arm and a shaking voice called out, "Faith, no."

Faith whirled and saw Xander giving her a stare with intensity worthy of a Slayer. The message in his eyes was clear: If you do this, all of this will be for nothing. Faith looked at him for a long moment, then withdrew with a snarl as Xander stood up and glared contemptuously at Travers, then slowly staggered over to where his quarterstaff lay on the ground and painfully picked it up. Buffy began to protest, but a look from Xander silenced her, and he turned to where Walters was looking at him with a blank expression.

After a moment, the young Watcher picked up his own quarterstaff, and walked up to Xander and looked into his eyes. The bravado in the dark eyes was the same as before, but the younger man's deathly pale skin and his limp right arm that was barely managing to keep hold of the staff made it clear that it was just bravado. Walters' face went grim, and he raised his own quarterstaff as several in the crowd gasped. . .

. . .as he brought the quarterstaff down onto his raised knee, snapping the hardened wood with a sound that caused most of the crowd to wince. Holding the shorn halves in his hands, he met Xander's eyes again and intoned, "I yield to you sir, as a man beaten honorably by a better man."

Xander blinked at this, but could not manage a reply as Walters walked over to Travers, who was glaring at his champion with helpless rage. The younger man stopped in front of Travers, dropped the halves of the staff with a contemptuous gesture, then turned his back on him as he walked to an unoccupied corner of the library.

Faith, Buffy, Willow, and Oz rushed over to Xander, leading him back to his seat as Masters turned to Giles and commented, "Well, Rupert. . .you have prevailed. You are hereby reinstated as Field Watcher, and we will recall Wesley immediately. You have quite a team working for you . . .is there anything else we can do to help?"

Giles pondered the question for a moment, then noted that Wesley was quietly slinking away. He called out, "Wesley, wait a moment, won't you?" He turned back to Masters and replied, "I'd like to keep Wesley on as my assistant. He never should have been made the Field Watcher. . .he needs a lot of work yet. But his research skills are impeccable, and somehow in the last few minutes he's become more tolerable to me. . .I think he has potential."

Wesley blinked and looked grateful, and Masters nodded and replied, "I think that that can be arranged, Rupert. . .anything else?"

Giles nodded and replied, "Yes. . .I'd like the Judicial Branch to formally investigate the events of Buffy's Cruciamentum, under the parameters we discussed earlier."

Masters frowned, then asked, "To what end, Rupert? You have your position back. . .you can put that unpleasant matter behind you."

Giles frowned and replied, "The propriety and competence of other. . .persons are at issue." He pointedly looked over at Travers, who was standing nearby, ostracized by his peers and hearing the entire conversation.

Masters nodded, his eyes turning cold as he looked at Travers. He turned back to Giles and commented, "Point well taken, Rupert. . .shall we say three days from now, here?"

Travers' face fell: in the space of a few minutes, all had been lost. With a snarl, he turned and stormed out of the library. Xander blinked and turned to Giles, who had moved over to him with Masters at his side. He managed a faint smile and whispered, "So that's it. . .everything is taken care of?"

Giles turned to Masters, who hastened to reply, "Yes. . .Xander. . .it's all over. I declare you the victor in the Test of Honor. . .congratulations."

Xander smiled a little more broadly, then replied, "Good. . .I hate to miss important stu-" His voice trailed off, and his eyes rolled up as he slumped, unconscious. Buffy leaned forward and kept him from falling out of his seat, brushing a wayward lock of hair from his eyes and reaching down to check his pulse. She smiled and commented, "I think he'll be O.K. . . but we should get him to a hospital." She nodded to Faith, and with infinite care they carried him out of the library, with Oz following to provide transportation. Willow followed after giving Giles a congratulatory smile, though her face fell as she turned away as the immediacy of the crisis faded and her concern for Xander became the primary focus of her attention.

Masters came up behind Giles and put his hand on the younger Watcher's shoulder, commenting, "Well, Rupert. . .we will be going back to our lodgings to rest and prepare for the hearing in three days; also, we will have to track down Quentin. . .can't have him missing the party being held in his honor." With a chuckle, he nodded to the other Watchers, and they departed, except for Wesley and Walters. After a moment, Giles looked up and asked, "I'm sorry, gentlemen. . .is there something I can help you with?"

Wesley started to speak, then went silent. It was Walters who replied gently, "Mr. Giles, we would like to accompany you to the hospital, if that's all right."

Giles blinked and looked at the concerned faces of the other men for a long moment before replying, "Of course, gentlemen. . .my apologies for overlooking the obvious." He smiled gently and led the men out, leaving the library-as often was the case-a shambles.


"I need to talk to Buffy for a minute. . .could you wait for me in the lobby?"

Xander's mother nodded and departed, and Joyce waited for a few seconds before turning to Xander and commented, "I hated to lie to her like that. . .but I suppose you don't want her knowing what you were really up to tonight, right?"

Xander nodded and replied, "I'd have to answer a big yes to that question, Mrs. Summers." The painkillers had him in a mild haze, but he was otherwise alert, and the doctor had told him that he would be free to go home for a few days of bed rest in the morning. Mrs. Summers had immediately called Xander's mother when Buffy called her from the hospital, and had driven her over to see her son. Xander had been mildly gratified by the attention, though it was largely limited to complaints over how Xander had needlessly endangered himself by walking around at night where he could be mugged by gang members. He smiled at Joyce and continued, "Thanks for bringing my mom, Mrs. Summers."

Joyce smiled and responded, "I'm glad to do what I can to help, Xander. . .I'm sorry I couldn't be there myself, but-"

"I know," interrupted Xander. Learning that her daughter was the Slayer had been difficult enough on Joyce: the last thing she needed was to watch a medieval combat ritual that could have led to the death of one of her daughter's best friends. He smiled and commented, "At least no one wound up in a coma this time." He shuddered, thinking of how they almost lost Willow last May during the Acathla incident.

Joyce nodded, then continued, "Xander, what you'd done for Buffy. . .and for Faith. . .it's just wonderful. If I can do anything else for you. . .?"

Xander grinned and replied, "Well, there is something. . ." He paused, and Joyce waited for him to continue. After a moment, he concluded, ". . .you could make sure that the next time we have a sleepover at your place, we don't run out of Cheesy Chips at a crucial moment."

Joyce chuckled and replied, "I think I can guarantee you that, Xander." She reached out and gently tousled his hair, then commented, "I'd better get your mother home. . .it's been a stressful night for her too. Good night, Xander." She smiled and exited the room.

Buffy, who was standing quietly in a corner of the room, waited for about ten seconds, then called out, "All right, the maternal units have departed. . .everyone come on in."

After a moment, the waiting group began filing in. Willow and Oz came in first, followed by Giles and Faith, then Angel, Wesley, and Walters, followed by. . .Xander blinked at seeing the last person to enter the room, and he was speechless for a moment before softly calling out, "Cordelia?"

The former May Queen, who was holding a bouquet, flushed as she heard Xander call out her name, and she did not hesitate to reply, "Well. . .Willow called, and when I inexplicably didn't hang up on her immediately she told me that you had actually done something useful with that big stick you nearly knocked my head off with. . .and that you had managed to get yourself put in the hospital over it. Well, I figured that since you brought me flowers in the hospital when I really, really hated you. . .the least I could do was return the favor." She walked forward and put the flowers on the tray in front of Xander, then turned to leave.

Xander called out, "Cordelia?" The young woman paused and turned to face her former boyfriend, who was looking at her with a mildly amused expression on his face. There was only calm gratitude in his voice as he continued, "Thank you for coming to see me. . .see you in school next week?"

Cordelia snorted and replied, "Not if I see you first." The relief visible in her eyes belied the harsh tone of her voice as she left the room without further comment.

Xander chuckled and commented, "It's so gratifying to see that some people never change." Wesley and Walters moved over to his bedside, and Xander was moved to grin and comment, "I heard what you said, Wesley. . .thanks. So you're staying on here?"

The Watcher smiled and replied, "So it would seem. There is always plenty of research to be done around here, and Mr. Giles has been kind enough to request my services in that area. . .perhaps with time my other skills will meet his standards as well." He nodded at Xander and withdrew, and Xander looked at Walters for a long moment before commenting, "You're just not one for talking, are you Walters?"

The young Watcher laughed, then replied, "Mr. Travers never encouraged it. . .I've been his personal assistant for five years now, and he has never been one to be reluctant to let one know what he expects of them. . .it never occurred to me that he might be in the wrong in this whole matter, until he forced the continuation of the Test. . .loyalty is a cardinal virtue, but a man with no personal honor is unworthy of it." He smiled and continued, "I will probably be out of a job now, whether or not he is sacked over his conduct during Miss Summers' Cruciamentum. I was thinking of asking permission to stay on here. . .it seems that you could use another capable combatant here. . .or fifty, could the Council spare them."

Xander laughed and replied, "It's fine by me. . .I saw you with that sword: you were doing fine until Trick decided to take you out. One thing though. . .promise me that I'll never have to fight you again. I think that some of the bruises I got will be here for weeks."

Walters smiled softly and responded, "No more Tests of Honor for us. . .but I would like to spar with you in the future. . .it seems I still have some things to learn." He turned away, only to stop when Xander called out, "Hey, Walters."

The Watcher turned back and replied, "Yes, Mr. Harris?"

Xander paused for a moment, then asked, "Do you have a first name, Walters?"

Walters considered the question, then replied, "Yes. . .David."

Xander nodded, then replied, "My name is Xander, David. . .pleased to make your acquaintance." He carefully extended his undamaged left arm and hand, and after a moment, the young Watcher grasped the extended hand and shook it firmly. A long moment of unspoken communication passed between the two men before Walters released Xander's hand, nodded, and departed with Wesley.

Angel moved forward, chuckling as he noted, "Seeing as how you're making peace with people who were just trying to beat the hell out of you, I don't suppose you'd consider making peace with someone who hasn't lately?"

Xander snickered: between the drugs and the successful conclusion of the evening's events, even Dead Boy couldn't get under his skin right now. He replied, "You know I can't make peace with you, Dead Boy. . .it would just confuse the hell out of Buffy and make her life even more chaotic." Buffy winced at this as Angel laughed, and Xander continued, "However. . .it seems to me that the vamp traffic was rather light where I was, and that you were doing more than your share to keep them off of me and the Watchers. . .thanks."

Mildly surprised that Xander had acknowledged the assist, Angel smiled and replied, "All part of the service." He turned to Buffy and nodded, then glided out of the room in silence.

Giles moved over to Xander and commented, "You know. . .I almost called off the whole thing. . .you could have let me know about your gift. . .it would have saved us some unnecessary tension."

Xander smiled ruefully and replied, "Sorry, Giles. . .I didn't know whether Travers was in a position to call the whole thing off or not. . .I thought it was best to let him think that I would be a patsy." He paused and looked at Giles as he queried, "Gift? I've worked at it a lot. . .but I think calling it a gift might be a little much."

Giles frowned and replied, "Xander, your skills with the quarterstaff are formidable. . .I've been working with it for over twenty five years, and my skills are only marginally superior to yours. . .if we continue training you, you could actually use it offensively against most of the opponents you are likely to encounter in Sunnydale. . .in combination with a stake, of course." He smiled and concluded, "We'll discuss a training schedule as soon as you are fully recovered." He gave Xander a long look, and the younger man could see the gratitude in the Watcher's eyes before he nodded at Xander and departed.

Willow and Oz walked over to Xander, and Xander commented, "Did Willow keep you in the dark too, Oz?"

Oz smiled softly and replied, "She would have. . .but I thought something was up from the way she was acting, and. . .well, I had some favors to call in." Both Xander and Willow winced at that comment, but Oz was clearly in a friendly mood as he concluded, "Good job, Xander."

Xander chuckled: he was pleased that Oz was not holding a grudge over the whole thing with him and Willow. He looked over at his best friend, and saw that the worry that had been absent in her eyes during the whole crisis was visibly present now. He reached out and clasped her hand and commented softly, "Kind of silly to get all worked up now, Will: the docs say I'm going to be fine."

The redhead's eyes flashed, and she retorted, "Easy for you to say, you big dumb jerk! You almost got yourself killed tonight! How do you expect me to feel about that?" Tears came to her eyes, and she began sobbing, "I saw Trick grab you. . .and I thought that I was going to lose you."

Xander instinctively drew Willow to him, and held her as she cried for several minutes. At length, he leaned over to her ear and whispered, "You realize, of course, I'm going to get back at you for making my love life the subject of sworn testimony, Willow."

Willow stopped in mid-sob and started laughing, then pulled back from him, a puckish expression appearing on her tear-streaked face as she replied, "It could have been worse. . .I could have brought up Praying Mantis Lady. . .or the mummy."

Xander winced and replied, "Point taken." He reached out and squeezed Willow's hand, then continued, "Thanks for everything, Will. . .you did a good job tonight, too."

Willow smiled at him, then let Oz take her hand as they left the room. Buffy walked over to Xander, shaking her head as she commented, "You sure managed to stir things up tonight, Xander. . .is there anything we can do to keep you from nearly getting yourself killed?"

Xander tried to shrug, but found that the drug-induced numbness made it a difficult prospect. He settled for a rueful smile and replied, "Hey. . .it's not my fault this stuff keeps happening. . .zombie street gangs, Tests of Honor. . .suddenly English papers don't seem as traumatic as they used to." He met Buffy's gaze with a suddenly shy look and commented, "It wasn't anything you couldn't have done. . .if their stupid rules had let you. . .and I had a good role model. Buffy, things have been pretty strange here since you came to town, but it's nice to feel special for a change. . .and I have you to thank for it."

Buffy blinked, and tears appeared in her eyes as she leaned over and brushed the hair from his forehead as she softly kissed his brow. She leaned over to his ear and whispered, "You were special before I ever laid eyes on you, Xander." She straightened and left the room, and Xander found himself needing to compose himself for a long moment. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again to see Faith grinning at him.

The younger Slayer chuckled and asked, "Want me to come back later? You look beat."

Xander smiled and replied, "Naw. . .it's nice to talk to you, Faith." He looked at her earnestly and continued, "You saved me tonight, Faith. . .thanks."

Faith laughed and replied, "How many times did you save me tonight, Xander? On the stand, getting beaten on by Walters. . .not to mention keeping me from ripping that bastard Travers' head off." She looked away for a moment and mumbled, "You're making it kind of hard to keep up my idea that everyone in the world is out to get me, ya know?"

Xander reached across his body and clasped her hand, causing her to look at him. He met her eyes and responded, "You were worth it. . .say, all of this conspicuous heroism on my part isn't giving you any different ideas about whether I'm boyfriend material, is it?" His expression and tone made it clear that he was kidding, and he was surprised to see a contemplative look on Faith's face.

The Slayer laughed again and replied, "Maybe. . .but I'm retiring from the game for a while, Xander. . .if I'm going to give this trust thing a try, I'm going to have to give everything in my life some serious thought. . .including the whole 'use and discard' thing." She looked at him and continued, "Of course, you're not the only game in town. . .that Walters guy is kind of hot. . ."

Xander blinked and asked, "You're kidding, right?" He gave her a mock glare, looking for signs of deception, and only saw an enigmatic smile.

"Maybe. . .maybe not. Time will tell, won't it?" Faith grinned and winked at him, then departed, calling out, "Get some sleep, hero."

Xander looked around, examining his surroundings. Alone in a hospital room, nursing a damaged shoulder and looking forward to waking up in the morning in significant pain. Not great. . .but considering the alternatives. . .not so bad, either. He chuckled again, after which he turned over and was asleep in seconds.


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