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Part three of three

Episode Three: Breaking Ground

by adjrun and cousinjean

***
No pain, no gain, they told him in boot camp. But as far as Anderson was concerned, pain was your body’s way of saying, “Knock that shit off!” He’d never been fond of it, personally. And he’d always laughed at those idiots who thought that high pain tolerance proved how macho they were. High pain tolerance meant you were a moron who kept damaging your body to make up for a small package.
Besides, pain hurt.
It wasn’t like he avoided situations just because he could get injured. But when he did get hurt, he was damn well gonna recuperate, and not hurt himself worse. So when Faith took him home, Anderson plopped himself down on the sofa, elevated his messed up ankle, took two Vicodin, and read a James Lee Burke novel waiting for the damn stuff to kick in.
Five chapters and half an hour later, he realized something. He hadn’t eaten. And pain pills on an empty stomach were a guaranteed ticket to Loopyland. He pushed himself off the couch, enjoying the way standing made the world do that swoopy little quarter-turn to the right. Definitely time for a ham sandwich. Hell, just the ham, straight out of the package. Bread and mayo seemed just a bit too complicated right now. Anderson shifted some weight to his right foot and winced. Great. He couldn’t feel his toes, yet any pressure sent hot jolts of pain up his leg.
Anderson lived in a dinky one-bedroom bungalow with a red tile roof and lemon trees in the front yard. Bigger than a postage stamp, but it was a close call. Still, that made it pretty easy to chart a course from couch to TV to doorway to kitchen table to fridge. Hopping all the way, and with a sense of balance that made the floor sway like a ship in choppy water.
“Whee. Fun,” he muttered, clutching the door of the refrigerator. He swung it open and pulled out a package of deli meat and another of cheese. Then he collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table.
The old man’s dog had curled up on the far corner of the couch: Anderson could tell it wanted to be around people, but that it didn’t quite trust him yet. Now it stood on the couch, whining a little and shifting its weight like it wanted to jump down.
“Hey, Dog?” Anderson called. “Want some ham?”
The dog trotted into the kitchen, careful to check out the corners of the room. “I’ve got some nice ham for you, here.”
He rolled up a slice and the dog took it delicately from his fingers. “Yeah, Dog, that’s right. You’re a good boy, ain’tcha.”
He shoved a slice of ham in his own mouth, and then a piece of cheese. The dog finished its piece and watched him eat, following the food from the table to his mouth. Anderson grinned and rolled up a piece of cheese. They alternated back and forth, Dog getting one bite for about every four of Anderson’s, until they’d demolished both packages. Then he held out his hand, tentatively, and Dog gave it a couple of licks.
“Yup,” Anderson said softly, as he scratched behind Dog’s left ear, “we’re gonna be buddies in no time, you and me.”
Anderson balled up the wrappers and got up to toss them in the garbage. This time, the room did a full 180° whirl and slowly bounced back into place. The food hadn’t hit his stomach soon enough to slow the full-on rush of Vicodin into his system.
Great. Next stop, Loopyland.
He stood for a minute, considering his options. Sleeping this off for a few hours sounded more and more like a good idea. The couch was pretty comfy too, though; and that way he could fall asleep watching baseball.
Dog whined suddenly.
“Wha—?” Anderson’s head was getting all muzzy. “What’s wrong, puppy?”
The Jack Russell started growling. It ran into the living room, back into the kitchen, and again into the living room. Barks and yips punctuated its growling, which got louder and louder. Then Anderson heard a banging out front, like a garbage can had gotten knocked over.
His breath caught in his throat. “’S probably nothing. What are the chances that freaky pink Clayface thing’d turn up here?”
Didn’t help. His heart pounded like a triphammer; he felt frozen in place, caught hard in fight-or-flight response. Fine. Fuck it. He’d fight. Gritting his teeth, he hobbled through the living room into the bedroom, each step on his right foot making him wince and hiss. He grabbed his gun off the dresser. No clip. Right. Where’d he put the damn clip? Think. Think, dangit…
Gym bag. Floor of his closet. Anderson dropped to his knees. Well, he planned to drop to his knees, but once he got that far he kinda fell on his ass. He pawed through the bag, tossing dirty socks and tee shirts on the floor behind him. He could hear Dog yipping and barking, shrill enough to bust an eardrum. Shoe. Toothbrush. Pit stick. There! The clip. He fumbled it into the gun, shoved on it until it clicked, and thumbed the safety off. Now if he could only get to his feet without blowing off a toe…
Standing meant clinging to the edge of the dresser and chinning himself up. Then getting his working foot underneath him and heaving himself upright. Even then, he overbalanced and banged into the closet door. The damn thing boomed like a kettle drum – he had to close his eyes while the sound shook through his skull and the room dipped and swayed around him.
When he finally felt steady enough to release his death grip on the door frame, he paused. It was quiet. Dog had stopped barking. Stopped whining, stopped growling. The place was dead quiet.
“Don’t use the word dead, dangit,” he whispered. “Don’t even think it.”
Anderson eased himself to the bedroom door. Took a long, shuddery breath. Then he swung around the doorway into the living room, gun clutched in one hand and braced with the other.
The door was open. He’d shut the damn door, and the door was open.
He sidled forward, swearing a blue streak in his head. His ankle throbbed. His head felt heavy and floppy, like one of those bobble dolls. He had to work to see straight. And there was a big fuckin’ monster in his kitchen.
A few more steps, that was all. Then he whirled to face the kitchen, gun ready, eyes scanning the room—
And fell flat on his ass.
Which was good. ‘Cause he almost shot his girlfriend. She stood in the middle of his kitchen, looking mad and scared and happy and surprised all rolled into one sexy little ball. The relief, or the ridiculousness, or the drugs got to him, and he lost it. Started laughing. Couldn’t stop. Rolled onto his side and curled up in a ball, giggling. Faith put her fists on her hips and glared at him.
“Hey, Baby!” He grinned up at her, still snickering. “Dang. You’re hot when you’re pissed.”
“Where were you?” Faith demanded. “I called. Where were you?”
“Oh, I…” He knew the answer to this one, didn’t he? “Turned the thing off. I took some stuff. Was gonna sleep.”
“Smooth,” she said. “C’mon, get up.”
“I thought you were Naked Melty Plastic Man.” He snorted. “Coming to ki-i-ill meee…”
“So you were gonna shoot it?”
“That. Or give it a stern talking-to.” He busted into another fit of giggles.
“Great.” She grabbed his arm, and pulled him to his feet. Well, one foot. He yelped when the other one even touched the ground, and started to topple over. Faith propped him up against the wall, pushing his hair off his face as she talked to him. “We need to get you in the truck. That thing is coming after you.”
“That’s cool, Baby. You’ll kick its ass.” Anderson waved his hand, forgetting that it still held a gun. “’N then I get to watch you fight. You – you are so damn sexy when you fight.”
“Great. Pickup lines for the seriously stoned.” Faith pressed a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth. “You’re sweet. Now get your sweet ass in the damn truck."
“You aren’t gonna fight it? Why not?” he protested, disgruntled.
Faith slung his arm over her shoulders and walked him out the front door. “Call me crazy, but I wanna get you to a safe place first.”
“Pshaw,” he muttered. “You can take it. Biff. Pow. Smacko!”
She helped him down the front steps and towards the passenger side of the pickup. “So far, this thing’s four-for-four, undefeated.”
Anderson interrupted. “With one draw, ‘cause I took a header through the window ‘n’ got away.”
“Right. But Giles and Lydia think it wants a rematch,” she said.
“Oh. Dang.” He pushed himself into the seat hauled in his legs. Faith shut the door, leaning in the open window for a second.
“It’s after you. I don’t want to worry about fighting Mudman while it’s trying to kill you.” She poked him in the arm, pretend-scowling. “And I don’t want you dead.”
“Well, when you put it like that…” He let his head fall back against the seat and gave her a sleepy smile. She fought a smile herself – totally blew it, too. She crossed around to the driver’s side, got in, leaned over and kissed him again. Somehow, when she pulled away, he had his seatbelt on.
Anderson gazed bleary-eyed out the window as Faith backed the truck out onto the street. He knew he should be scared and shit, but couldn’t quite manage it any more. All he really wanted to do was conk out. Come on, what were the chances a big, scary monster would be—
Right outside the goddamn window.
“Um, Faith?” he asked. “Honey?”
“Yeah?” she replied, shifting the car into drive.
“It’s here.”
The monster stood at the passenger door, framed in the window. It reached one of its big paws at him; he yelped and threw himself sideways, hard as he could. Which was not very far – damn seatbelt pinned his lower body – and the thing felt its way up the front of his shirt towards his face.
“Shit!” Faith yelled. She looked around and hit a switch on her door. The power window rose, pushing the monster’s hand up, pinning it between the window and the frame. The creature kept oozing through that narrow gap – part of its arm peeled off in a fat curl against the window. Its fingers fought towards his throat. The mechanism whined and whirred as the window worked its way up, digging itself deep into the clay. Finally the edge cut through its wrist. The severed hand fell into his lap, where it kind of slumped and broke apart.
“That’s right!” Anderson whooped. “We’re gonna make ashtrays outta you, bitch!”
Faith gunned the engine. The truck peeled out. But the monster grew a new hand and grabbed the tailgate as it passed. The truck stopped cold, throwing them hard against their seatbelts. Faith swore again and stomped on the gas. The tires screeched, climbing to a higher and higher pitch; he smelled rubber burning and the weird barbecue tang of overheated engine. The howl of the tires climbed even higher. Anderson watched the thing’s arm stretch a little. A little more. Its arm pulled like taffy as the truck inched forward.
Suddenly the truck leapt forward and rocketed down the street. Anderson kept peering out the back window, hoping to see the creature standing armless in the street. Instead he saw it crawl into the truck bed, stand, and take slow steps toward the cab.
Faith glanced in the rearview mirror. “Shit!” She floored the gas and fishtailed the truck back and forth, trying to shake it off. No luck. Its weight shifted slightly from side to side, but it kept coming.
Anderson felt pretty clear again – maybe the adrenaline rocketing through his veins was helping his ability to string two thoughts together. He was just kind of disconnected. His mouth felt all mushy, and he couldn’t get his body to do what he told it. He couldn’t feel the gun in his hand; he had to see it to remember he could shoot this monster. It took forever, fumbling at the latch, to open the rear window.
He didn’t aim – the thing was too dang close. He just pulled the trigger, again and again, emptying the clip into the fucker. It barely knocked the thing back. Just made holes in it that closed up, like water dripping in slo-mo. He yelled and, in a moment of full-on stupid, threw the gun at it. It stuck for a second, then fell to the bed of the truck, leaving a perfect imprint in the thing’s chest.
The creature staggered towards the cab.
“Get down!” Faith said. Anderson scrunched down on the seat as best he could. She drove with one hand and shoved the back window closed with the other.
He could see the monster’s legs through the rear window. It stood over them, pushing on the roof. The metal dented, with a sound like a crumpling soda can. Its hand stretched down the windshield in front of him, its fingers pressing against the glass -- probing for a way in. It pushed at the windshield. The glass moaned, and then cracked in a star pattern. The hand tested the break with a delicate touch. Anderson saw clay seep through into the cab. The monster raised its fist.
That very second, Faith slammed on the brakes. The monster lost its grip and momentum sent it flying in front of the truck. It rolled down the street, leaving streaks of pink clay every time it scraped asphalt. Anderson leaned against the dashboard, holding his breath.
The thing stood up. It sort of… gathered itself together, the clay on the street flowing back into the creature, the divots and dinks and scratches filling out and smoothing over.
“Shit!” Faith said. “Shit shit shit!”
It lifted its head and took a step back toward them. Faith gunned the gas and popped the gear into drive. She hit the monster going 40 miles an hour. It slammed into the left front of the truck, one arm squooshing into its body and its head slapping wetly against the hood. The truck jolted to the right. He heard something snap, and then the grind of metal on asphalt.
Anderson shot a look behind them. A fat pink leg lay in the center of the street, one end squashed into tire tracks.
“I can’t see!” Faith yelled. “Get this thing offa my windshield!”
He turned back around. The thing had crawled up the hood and plastered its body across the windshield as it reached for the break in the glass.
The truck swerved. Faith swore, and overcorrected. The truck balanced for a moment on two wheels. Then it flipped. Over and over and over. The roof crunched in. Glass shattered – some came at his face, and he threw his arm up to shield his eyes. The truck kept rolling. He felt dizzy, disoriented. He wanted to puke. Metal screeched and sparks flew in bright arcs.
Finally the world stopped cartwheeling. They were upside down, hanging from the seats. Faith unbuckled her seatbelt, and fell to the mangled roof. She crouched in the cab and scuttled over to him, putting a hand to his cheek.
“You okay? Anderson! Talk to me! Are you hurt?”
“I’m…” He fought to focus on her. “Your forehead is bleeding.”
“Yeah. You’re kind of a mess yourself.” She unlatched his belt and lowered him to what used to be the roof. Then she grabbed his collar, dragging him from the truck. The moment he was clear she ducked her head back in the wreck.
“What’re you… Faith, get outta there!” Anderson tried to pull himself farther from the wreck. She crawled back out and showed him: a great big sword, a katana, which she pulled from its scabbard.
“Might come in handy.” She unclipped what was left of her cell phone from her waistband and tossed it on the ground. “But I think this thing is terminal.”
“Need to get up.” He grabbed her hand, and she pulled him upright. “Where are we?”
Faith looked around. “Coupla blocks from the Magic Box. I kinda hoped Giles had figured out a magic bullet for this thing.”
“Yeah. Regular bullets were— ” He shook his head. “Pffft. Faith?”
“Uh huh?”
“Where’s the monster?”
In unison they turned to look down the street. The creature was there, maybe fifty yards away. It had been shaken off the cartwheeling truck and then smashed into the road. Its leg was hundreds of yards further down the street. They watched the creature stand up. Chunks of clay scattered the length of the accident began flowing towards it.
Faith and Anderson took off running. He could barely get his feet underneath him. His ankle didn’t hurt, but wouldn’t hold any weight. He felt his legs buckle and fought against collapsing. Faith tucked herself under his arm and grabbed him around the waist, almost carrying him along. She clutched the katana in her free hand. He clung to her neck and concentrated on pushing off with his good foot.
The monster came after them.
***
For about the dozenth time Lydia picked up the daggar and held it next to a picture on the computer screen. With a small frown and a shake of her head, she set it back on the desk and clicked on a new link. She took off her glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose as she waited for the next page to load.
Giles studied her from the doorway to his office, cup of tea in hand. Damn, but she was dedicated. So passionate about her job, and the Council. He tried to remember what that felt like. He stepped into the office and set the tea on the desk in front of her.
"Here," he said. "Take a break. I think you've earned it."
Lydia blinked at the cup, then put her glasses on and looked up at him in surprise. "Thank you," she said. "But I can't afford to quit now."
"I didn't say quit. Just rest a bit. The urgency's over. We know where it came from, and what it wants."
"But we don't know what it is." She shook her head, and picked up the scrap of paper with the Hebrew symbol. "I should know this," she said. "Something about all of this is awfully familiar, but I just can't put my finger on it."
"Which is why you should take a break," Giles said. "Perhaps the answer will come to you if you stop thinking about it for a moment."
Lydia opened her mouth as if to protest, but instead leaned back in her chair and sighed. "I suppose." She reached for the tea. "I am quite tired. I didn't sleep well last night."
"That would explain your crankiness earlier, I suppose."
Lydia's head snapped up. "My crankiness? I wasn't the one behaving like a petulant child!"
"Petulant child," Giles said, crossing his arms. "I suppose that's better than 'utter shit'."
"Mm," she agreed, "though you were that, too." She sipped her tea. "This is very good. It's hard to get a decent cup over here."
"So I've noticed," Giles said. "They think dunking a little bag up and down in hot water is all there is to brewing it."
Lydia smiled, and set her cup back down. "Perhaps we could make lessons in the proper way to brew tea a mandatory part of Slayer training?"
"Please. You think I haven't tried to show them both? In either case the response has been to roll her eyes and pop open a can of soda."
Lydia laughed, and Giles found himself rather pleased by the sound. She turned back to the computer, and clicked through to another page.
"Back to work, then," Giles said.
"Yes, well. The sooner we know what it is, the sooner we'll know how to kill it."
"Of course," Giles said. Then, "Sure you're not just trying to show me up?"
Her shoulders slumped, then went rigid as she turned to face him, clearly ready for another row. He raised his eyebrows at her, trying to keep his expression light so she would know he was only teasing. Mostly.
Lydia relaxed, then she actually had the grace to look guilty as she turned back to the screen. "I confess that I did hope I could solve this without you." She looked up at him. "But it really wasn't my intention to shut you out, Rupert."
Giles leaned against the desk. "I can certainly understand your desire to impress the Council."
She looked back at the computer, and kept her eyes on the screen. "It wasn't the Council I was hoping to impress."
Giles was taken aback. Surely she didn't mean ... He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid you'd have to be several inches shorter and have a great deal more athletic ability to impress Spike."
She gave him an exasperated look, even as she blushed. "I meant --"
"I know," he said. "Thank you. Though, I thought you said you weren't in need of my approval."
"I never said I needed it."
"I see. I stand corrected. Still, it strikes me as funny that you'd seek to impress someone who is... how did Wesley put it? Meddling and undercutting?"
"No, those were my words. Wesley said he thought you were a stubborn, interfering, self-righteous wanker."
"Of course he -- wait. Wesley said 'wanker'?"
"Mm-hm."
"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce?"
"He also said that I should listen to you, because whether they know it or not, you're the best the Council has to offer."
Giles didn't know what to say to that. "Um. Well." He grinned. "That's very --"
"Hello! We've got a match!"
"We do?"
"The Dagger of Solomon." She jumped up. "Of course!" She rushed out of the office. Giles followed her and watched her pace the floor, one hand on her hip, the other twisting in a lock of hair that had fallen loose from her bun. "I should have remembered," she muttered. "How could I be so stupid?"
"If you are then that makes two of us," Giles said. "What should you have remembered?"
"The Golem," she said.
"The gol-- you think this is a golem?"
"No, I think it's the Golem."
"But that's not possible. That story is nothing more than an urban legend."
"Most legends are based in fact, Rupert. I shouldn't have to tell you that."
Giles adjusted his glasses. "Yes, of course. But the Council sent someone to Prague a century ago to verify the creature's existence. They found no evidence that it was anything more than a story made up to frighten children and keep them in line. The searched the Altneu Synagogue where its remains were purported to be kept, and there was nothing there. What they did find were documents from Rabbi Loew himself, disavowing the creature's existence."
"Perhaps it was a cover-up." Lydia went over to the bookshelf and searched through the tomes. "Or perhaps the Council simply didn't conduct a thorough enough search --" She paused as she plucked a book from the shelf and opened it up. Flipping through the pages, she brought it over to Giles. She found the passage she wanted and pointed it out to him. "According to the legend, the Dagger of Solomon was the sacred blade used by Rabbi Loew in the ceremony to bring it to life. He carved the Hebrew word for 'truth' and 'life' into its forehead."
"Yes," Giles said, "I know the story. To take life away from it, he removed the first letter --"
"Which was written on that slip of paper the young bobby brought us."
"--changing the word from 'truth' to 'death.' But according to this same legend, the Golem was a protector. Not a killer."
"Yes, until someone forgot to turn it off."
Giles nodded. "But even then it rampaged mindlessly, destroying everything in its path. It was left without purpose."
Lydia stopped pacing and folded her arms. "Well, we already determined that it has a purpose."
"Jonathan said that he and Faith found the remnants of a spell. Those women must've altered it before raising it, imbuing it with the ability to know its target on sight."
"And to not stop until that target is dead." Lydia shook her head in disgust. "I should have made this connection as soon as I saw the Hebrew. What else could it possibly be?"
"Perhaps," Giles said, "but I fear I wouldn't have made the connection at all. Very impressive."
Lydia looked at him, surprised. Then a wide smile broke across her face. Just for an instant, then she was all business. "Well, at least now we know how to stop it. Do you want to ring Faith and tell her?"
"You're her Watcher," Giles said.
"Yes. Quite right." The smile crept back into the corners of her mouth as she went to the phone and dialed; but as she listened, it faded into a frown. "It says that number isn't in service."
Giles tried not to look worried as he went to the phone. "Are you sure you dialed correctly?" He punched in Faith's number, but he was met with the same message. He set down the phone. "Bugger."
"What do we do now?" Lydia asked.
Giles retrieved his cane from behind the counter and dug his keys out of his pocket. "Now, we go find her."
"Wait!"
Already halfway to the door, Giles turned to look at her. "I realize you've probably never been in a potential combat situation before," he said patiently, "but if you're going to be a Field Watcher it's something you're going to have to get used to."
Lydia actually rolled her eyes at him. "It's not that, you arrogant twit."
"Am not!" he said. "And I thought we were past the name calling."
She sighed. "I'm quite confident that I can hold my own in a battle, should it come to that."
Giles peered down at her. "Somehow I don't doubt that."
"You, on the other hand, have no business getting in this creature's path."
He put his free hand on his hip. "What makes you say that?"
"Because you're walking with a bloody cane, for one thing!" She pointed at the stick in question.
Giles shrugged. "It's nothing. An affectation, really."
"Oh, please. Who do you think you're trying to fool? You limp in here day after day, you leave all of Buffy's physical training to William --"
"They happen to enjoy training together. She doesn't have to worry about injuring him."
"--you become exceedlingly dour whenever Faith and I train ... Rupert, I don't need to hear what the doctors are telling you to know that you are in no condition to fight."
Giles stared at her for a moment, wanting to protest, but knowing she was right, and hating her for putting it all together despite his best efforts to keep it from her. She stared back at him, hands balled into fists on her hips, unwavering determination on her face. He sighed, and looked away.
"Fine, then. What do you propose?"
Lydia relaxed and went to the weapons cabinet. "I'll go," she said, slinging a crossbow over her shoulder and taking down a battleaxe. "She said she was going to Anderson's. I'll begin there."
"Right." Giles didn't bother to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "Good plan. Do you know where Anderson lives?"
"Um ..."
"And are you planning on lugging all of that on foot? I'd loan you my car, but you've said you can't drive on the right."
"Damn."
"I suppose I could drive you," he said. "I promise to stay in the car. Unless of course you think I'm too feeble to manage even that."
"I didn't say --" She stopped, and sighed. "Fine. Come on." She marched out the door. Giles found himself smiling as he turned the sign and locked the door behind them.
***
Faith and Anderson fled down the middle of the street. She hauled more and more of his weight along; his feet didn’t do much more than drag on the road. He still managed to keep his arm around her shoulder but could barely hold his head up, and his breath came in little gasps and whimpers.
She shot a glance back at the monster. Shit. For something that moved so slow, it sure caught up fast. They’d had a hundred yards on the thing. Now it was more like twenty. And closing.
Anderson wasn’t gonna make it. She was gonna have to make a stand. She took a quick look around – shops. Storefronts. About two blocks from the Magic Box. The alley off to the left might work for a battleground. Brick walls and Dumpsters. No people, no stuff to destroy. Just mano á mano. Well, Faith-o á Thing-o.
“Come on,” Faith told Anderson. “Almost there.”
“Need…” he moaned.
“I know.” Faith pulled him into the alley and propped him against the far brick wall. “Here. Don’t conk out on me, ‘kay?”
“Yeah,” he whispered. He leaned his head back against the wall and tried to smile at her. “Watch you fight.”
“Right.”
Faith took a few steps back towards the monster, shifting her grip on the katana. A couple of idiots stood at the corner, gawping.
“Get outta here!” she yelled. “Off the street! Go!”
They scattered down the street. She watched the last one head out and then looked back at the monster. It headed right at Anderson like a big dirt guided missile.
She walked out to meet it, deliberately getting right between the thing and its target. It got nearer, nearer. With a yell, she rushed the thing and buried the sword in its chest. It rocked a little from the blow but didn’t stop – just pushed past her, like she wasn’t there. She darted in front of it to pull the sword free, then got in an elbow strike and a chop to the neck. Nothing – some gouges in the clay and crap all over her shirt.
She spun and slashed it across the gut. It didn’t flinch, and the slice healed up in seconds.
Damn, this sucked. It wouldn’t swing at her or block her strikes. It wouldn’t even notice her. It kept moving right at Anderson. She couldn’t even slow the fucker down.
Anderson saw the creature coming. He pushed himself a few inches down the alley. But then he stopped. He got this weird look on his face, like pride, or like he knew something. Probably thinking some dumbshit die-with-dignity crap. Well, screw that. Faith was gonna kill this thing. If the damn thing could be killed, she was just the girl to do it.
The thing pushed its mitt into Anderson’s face. He tried to turn away, to keep his mouth free, but the thing smooshed over his whole head. She saw his chest heave once, like a hiccup.
“Leave him alone!” Faith yelled. She brought her sword high over her head and chopped straight through the monster’s arm. Its hand flopped to the cement. Anderson wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and took a shuddering breath.
The monster stood there for a moment, then raised its other hand. It didn’t even get to his face before she lopped the damn thing off.
“That’s right, Mudpie,” she taunted. “You touch him, and I slice your fucking arm off. Now whatcha gonna do?”
The thing froze. For, like, a minute. Faith began to think maybe the fight was done – that she’d short-circuited whatever passed for a brain in the monster. Then it moved forward. Not its hand. The whole creature. It pressed up against Anderson like it was gonna kiss him. And it kept pushing forward. Its body flowed around Anderson, covering him completely.
Faith lost it. She couldn’t take the sword and hack at the monster, because Anderson was in there. Hit it? Damn. No. That could hurt him too. She had to get him out.
She dug her fingers into the creature, pulling huge hunks of clay out of the thing's back. Throwing the gobs as far as she could. Tearing fistfuls, pushing goop out of the way. Hoping like hell that she could get through to Anderson. But the damn hole kept filling in. She had to work faster.
“Faith! There you are,” Lydia said behind her. Faith couldn’t stop to talk. Time was running short. “What – what are you doing?”
“Anderson’s in there. He’s inside that goddamn thing!”
“Oh, no. No.”
Thank God. Giles was there. Giles could fix this. She pulled away from the thing and turned to him, pleading.
“He can’t breathe, Giles.” She was crying. When had she started crying? “Please. We have to get him out of there.”
“We know how to stop it,” Lydia said. “It’s a golem.”
“No. No.” Faith shook her head, over and over. “I saw that movie. Gollum is some freak CGI monkey thing – not that pink piece of shit.”
“What? Oh…” Lydia said. “Different thing entirely. This is – well, nothing to do with Tolkien, I assure you.”
“Faith.” Giles grabbed her by both shoulders and gave her that patented you-can-do-this look. “There are markings on its forehead. Wipe them out – specifically the first marking – and the golem should deactivate.”
She looked back at the golem. “But—but it’s forehead is pressed up against a goddamn brick wall. How the hell can I get to the markings?”
At that moment, the golem pulled away from the wall. It peeled itself from the brick, slowly revealing more and more of the man it had enveloped.
Anderson leaned against the wall for one frozen moment. Then he crumpled bonelessly to the ground.
Faith screamed.
The golem turned to her. Its head flashed.
***
Faith dropped to her knees beside Anderson. "Get up," she told him. When he didn't respond she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook. "Get up!"
Lydia laid a hand on her shoulder. "Faith ..."
Faith threw Lydia's hand off, knocking her back. Giles caught and steadied her. Lydia went to Anderson's other side and knelt down. "Faith!"
Faith looked at her, eyes wide with panic.
"If you shake him you could damage him further," Lydia said. Faith dropped him and let her hands go limp in her lap as she stared at him in horror. "What... what do I ..."
"Let me," Lydia said. She placed her hand under Anderson's neck and tilted his head up, scooping the clay out of his mouth with her free hand. She glanced up at Giles. "Rupert?"
Giles gently moved Faith out of the way and knelt across from Lydia. Faith stood and watched as they began CPR. Lydia pinched his nose and breathed into his mouth, then waited as Giles pumped his chest. She lowered her ear to listen for breath, then shook her head at Giles.
"He's dead," Faith said as they began again. She shook her head and took a few steps back, never taking her eyes off of her unmoving lover. "Oh, God. He --" A clay hand clamped over her mouth.
"Faith!" Giles tried to get to his feet, but Lydia grabbed his arm.
"Rupert! You promised you wouldn't fight!"
"But she --"
Before he could finish, Faith executed a back flip, twisting the Golem's arm off.
"She's the Slayer," Lydia said.
"She's the bloody target," Giles said, pulling his arm free. "She needs help."
"Anderson needs it more!" Lydia shouted. "Faith is alive and fighting. Anderson -- if we don't act now ..."
Giles stared at her as this sunk in. Then he nodded, and focused on resuscitating Anderson. Lydia checked for breath again, then shook her head. "He needs an ambulance."
"I'll go call," Giles said. "Keep working on him." He got to his feet and started for the nearest building, keeping his eyes on Faith's battle as he went.
Lydia sighed, and continued her own battle.
***
This fight was different. Now the thing noticed her. Now it was all about her. Swatting at her head, trying to get those big-ass nasty mitts on her face. With it waving those paws around, she couldn’t get anywhere near the head markings. Fine by her. She would kick the pink shit out of this golem thing.
She launched herself at the monster, punching and kicking and tearing. She slammed the heel of her palm into its face. Then a heel strike to the knee. Thing nearly fell over after that one, but glooped itself back together.
Faith unleashed a spinning back kick right into the golem’s gut, her foot punching deep into the clay. It stuck there. She heaved backwards, yanking on her foot. The damn thing wouldn’t pull free. She had to hop around, still ducking the golem’s swipes at her.
She launched herself off her stuck leg and kicked the golem’s face. The second her foot touched down, she kicked its chest. Again. And again.
Goddammit! Her foot stuck! Both of her feet were buried in this thing’s torso. Her abs got their best workout ever just keeping her face off the pavement, let alone blocking this thing. Still, she swiped at the monster’s forehead. She could almost get to the markings…
Then it grabbed her knee. And pulled her in.
***
Lydia straightened up to catch her breath. She looked down at Anderson. His lips were turning blue. In frustration, she pounded on his chest. "Breathe, damn you!" Still nothing. She wished the paramedics would arrive to take matters out of her hands. What was taking Rupert so long?
She couldn't give up. There was still a chance, and Faith would never forgive her if she let it pass. She'd never forgive herself. Again, she placed her hands on his chest and pumped. Then she leaned down to his mouth, and he coughed, spewing chunks of wet clay in her face.
Lydia sat back and blinked. Then she came to her senses and rolled him onto his side. He coughed again, and she smiled. Then laughed outright. She put a hand over her mouth, shocked at the sound. When she pulled it away it was coated with the gunk he'd spat on her. She wiped more of it from her face, and gave way to a fit of giggles as Anderson continued to cough and breathe, and relief washed over her.
In the distance, a siren wailed.
***
Quicksand. That was all Faith could think of. She remembered watching all these movies when she was a kid, where some loser would fall into a pit of quicksand. Someone would tell them not to fight, that it would only make them sink faster, but they'd always panic and fight anyway. Then before you knew it, they disappeared into the stuff.
Faith remembered screaming at the TV. "Quit struggling, moron!" But here, it didn't seem to matter whether she struggled or not. The thing was swallowing her, absorbing her. She couldn't pull free. It had her from behind, using its arms to push her in even as its body sucked at her, drawing her deeper. She was up to her torso in it. It constricted her chest, making it hard for her to breathe. Her vision was starting to go fuzzy around the edges. She still had one arm free, and with it she tried to rub out the letter on its forehead, but she couldn't reach. The Golem swallowed her up to her shoulders. She was getting dizzy. This thing was going to kill her. It killed Anderson, and now it would kill her. It knew its targets. Anderson was a mistake. A misunderstanding, just like the old cop; but she was here now because she deserved to be. Because she'd been the Mayor's hired gun.
"I'm sorry, Anderson," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
As it reached her neck, she heard a cough. Then she heard laughter. She tried to look around, to see where it came from, but it started to envelop her head. It covered her ears, her chin, her mouth. She squeezed her lips shut against it as it tried to force its way inside. It went up her nose instead. Then she saw Giles. She tried to catch his eyes, to tell him with hers that she was sorry. Her vision was fading. He became a blur. The Giles-shaped blur raised something and pointed it at her, and then he was gone.
***
As Faith disappeared inside the monstrosity, Giles aimed the firehose, braced himself, and turned it on. Water blasted the creature, knocking it backwards off its feet. Giles advanced on it, turning the pressure up as high as he could without knocking himself over. The Golem began to dissolve, and Faith emerged. Soon her arms were free enough for her to block the water from her face, then her legs were free. As she crawled away, gasping for air, Giles turned off the water, and surveyed his handiwork. A head-shaped lump of clay rested in the middle of a giant mud puddle.
Giles grinned. "Feeble my ass."
He dropped the hose and rushed to Faith, ignoring the pain that shot through his hip and down his legs as he helped her up.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded, despite coughing up water and mud. She looked very much like a little girl at that moment, drenched and bedraggled as she was. She also looked quite pleased to be alive. Giles put an arm around her to support her. "Let's go get you cleaned up," he said.
As they turned around, they were met with a mirror image as Lydia came towards them, dragging along a limping but very much alive Anderson. "Hey, Baby," he said. "Looks like you and me got the his and her special down at Penelope's Mud Spa." He flashed her a grin.
For a moment she just stared at him. Then she matched his grin with one of her own as she broke away from Giles and ran to Anderson. He made an "oof" noise as she threw her arms around him.
"Ribs, Babe. Watch the ribs."
Faith loosened her grip. "Sorry." She looked up at him. "If you ever die on me again I'll kill you."
Anderson opened his mouth to retort, but then he noticed something behind her. "Oh --"
"-- dear," Giles finished as he followed Anderson's gaze. The Golem was putting itself back together. Mud solidified, packing itself and reforming at the base of the creature's head. It already had shoulders, and was rapidly growing a torso and arms.
"You gotta be kidding me," Faith muttered.
"Its head is still intact," Lydia pointed out. "As long as it still bears the aleph on its brow it will remain alive!"
"I can fix that," Faith said. She strode over to the monster, which was now as high as her waist. In one fluid movement she spun around and brought a boot to its head, kicking it off.
"That's for Pomerance," she said.
As the head bounced in the street, the rest of its newly formed body seemed to melt into mud. Then it began again, moving towards the head. "Oh, no. I don't think so." She went over to the head. With her heel positioned carefully over the first symbol on its forehead, she ground down, crushing it under her boot.
"And that's for Anderson."
The rest of its remains dried up almost instantly, crumbling into dust.
Faith slowly backed away. When nothing happened, she turned and went back to Anderson. They embraced as an ambulance pulled up to the curb, then Faith helped him over to meet it.
As Giles watched them go, Lydia stood next to him. "We all survived," she said.
Giles glanced at her. "You sound surprised."
"Not really. Just ... grateful. It was close."
Giles nodded. "It's been closer."
"Does it get easier?"
Giles considered this. "This was easier." He turned to look at her. "Does that scare you?"
She looked from him to Faith and Anderson to the Golem's remains, then shook her head. "Though I see now how you've all lasted so long. What you did, with the firehose. That was ..."
"Foolhardy?" Giles removed his glasses and began to clean them.
"Well, yes," Lydia said, "but I was actually going to say it was fabulous."
Giles grinned and put his glasses back on. He glanced at her, and lowered his head. "It was, wasn't it? Guess I'm not so bloody useless after all."
She smiled. "Anything but, it would seem."
"Yes, well. You weren't bad tonight yourself. You saved Anderson's life. And we wouldn't have known how to kill it if not for you."
"Mm. Perhaps. Or perhaps we'd have figured it out sooner if I'd called you right away."
Giles nodded, then conceded. "Or perhaps not."
"So, do you think this town is big enough for the both of us, then?"
"I do." He looked at her. "For the time being, at least."
Lydia bent down to where he'd dropped his cane and picked it up. "Good." She handed it to him. "You're clearly in need of your own Watcher."
He raised an eyebrow. "And you think you're qualified for the job?"
"I do." She smiled, then headed back towards the shop. Giles cast one last glance at Faith and Anderson. He was receiving treatment, and they clearly didn't want to be disturbed. Giles followed Lydia, leaving the night's chaos behind him.
***
Anderson bitched in a long, steady, raspy stream as they loaded him into the ambulance. “Don’t wanna go to the hospital. I’m fine, dangit. Just take me home.”
“They’ve gotta take you.” Faith hopped in after him and the ambulance took off. “You stopped breathing. You died.”
He shrugged. “You saved me.”
“Lydia saved you.”
“Eh. She waited ‘til I was knocked out to slip me some tongue.”
“Ew,” Faith protested.
“I puked clay on her,” Anderson said, his mouth quirked into that sideways grin. “Real romantic.”
And then, boom. Serious face. He reached for her hand, his eyes soft but focused on her – like he couldn’t see anything else.
“But you – you took on that monster. Hell, I woulda got a lungful of mud in my own living room if you hadn’t come for me.” He shook his head, amazed. “What was that thing?”
“I dunno,” Faith shrugged. “Lydia called it a golem.”
“So what, it was looking for its precioussss?” Anderson snickered.
She grinned. “I thought the same thing. Probably ‘cause you dragged me to that movie three damn times.”
“Yup,” he said. “Now you haveta read the book.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She shifted her grip on his hand and looked down at their intertwined fingers. “It was – they figured out it was going after killers. First murderers, but then it got less picky. Like that cop? He killed someone in the line of duty. And you, after the thing in…”
“Oh,” he said. “So I was a target.”
“I wasn’t sure. Didn’t want to risk it.”
“Thanks, Baby. Like I said, you saved me. Hell, it’s your job, ain’t it?”
Faith used her free hand to brush some drying clay off his cheek. He turned his head and kissed her hand.
“Still can’t believe it came after you, though,” he said. “Someone shoulda told it the difference. You’re a Slayer, not a killer.”
No difference. She was both. No mistake at all, that thing coming after her.
He tugged on her hand. “Hey. Hey. Love you.”
Pulled out of her thoughts, she smiled down on him. “Yeah.”
“Stick with me? I hate the damn hospital,” he pouted.
She laughed. “God, you’re a baby.”
“I mean it,” he said. He squeezed her hand harder. “Promise me you’re not going anywhere.”
“I—Hey. I’m here. I’m right here.”

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