Every member of the household, save for Xander who had yet to put in an appearance, gathered in the kitchen for breakfast. In a show of ultimate bravery – or perhaps something less – Dawn had been allowed to assume cooking duty and stood in front of the stove. Hovering by the toaster, Willow was happily arranging golden brown slices on a large platter. Tara had taken up position near Dawn, presumably just in case assistance was required, but she was mainly focused on Willow's laptop, which was open on the island counter. Buffy had been assigned juice patrol and was busy filling five glasses. The tip of her tongue protruded as she tried to make all the levels match. With an irritated frown, she topped-up two glasses, assessed the relative quantities and sighed.
"This cooking thing is a snap!" said Dawn, sounding extremely chipper.
She tapped an egg on the rim of the frying pan. Except that it wasn't so much a tap as it was a smash. The fragile shell shattered and its gloppy contents trickled down the front of the oven to plop wetly onto the floor. Dawn glanced over her shoulder, but nobody seemed to have noticed her little faux-pas. Promptly taking advantage of their ignorance, she grabbed a nearby dishtowel and quickly tossed it over the mess nestling at her feet.
"Uhm, the cooker doesn't do the cleaning, right?" she asked with as much nonchalance as she could muster.
"I got clean duty," said Buffy, pouring juice from extremely full glass into another that was less bountiful.
Dawn smiled sunnily and scooted the dishtowel under the stove with her toe. "Cool."
"Grape?" questioned Willow, looking to Tara for a response.
Willow nodded and spread a liberal spoonful onto a slice of toast.
"Cooking's good," Buffy told Dawn, abandoning the impossible chore of liquid equality and taking a seat. "You should join a school. A culminary school."
"Culinary," corrected Willow.
Buffy nodded. "A one-of-those."
Blinking, Tara regarded Buffy as though the Slayer had suddenly and inexplicably gone completely insane.
"You think Dawn should cook?" she asked dubiously. "For other people?"
Dawn immediately shot Tara a look normally reserved for small wounded animals. It did not go unnoticed by Tara and she hastened to amend her doubting query.
"Which she could do, absolutely. No doubt. Chef Dawnie. I'm practically shopping for overly large white hats already." Tara smiled reassuringly in Dawn's direction.
Somewhat mollified, Dawn returned to her pan of sizzling eggs and Tara promptly refocused on Buffy with an 'Are you crazy?' arch to her eyebrows.
"It's a perfectly valid career choice," insisted Buffy, her jaw setting stubbornly. "Respectable. And, as Food Network tells us, glamorous also."
Willow popped two more slices in the toaster and turned around. "I dunno," she pondered. "I always thought a- a doctor, or a lawyer." She carefully considered her words. "Only, lawyers, sort of evil. Two siblings, fighting on opposite sides of a never-ending war. Good for television." She shook her head. "Not so good for family gatherings."
"No ruining Thanksgiving!" ordered Buffy.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Like I even want to be a lawyer. Hello, seen 'Ally McBeal'."
"Doctors, though. They heal. That's good, right?" said Tara.
Willow nodded her agreement. "Plus that expert carving action when it comes turkey time! So what'd ya think, Dawnie? Johns Hopkins? OHSU?"
"The Trillium Institute of Cooking Arts?" Buffy proposed.
That earned her everybody's instantaneous attention.
"What?" she defended with a healthy dose of defiance. "It's a good school! And ten minutes away by bus. It's like fine dining with the convenience of home."
"I am so very on to you," warned Dawn, brandishing her spatula.
After sharing an amused glance, Tara and Willow returned to their respective tasks, leaving the Buffy versus Dawn debate to reach its own natural conclusion.
Buffy looked insulted. "What, I'm not supposed to take an interest in your education now?"
"No, not when it makes you all weird," returned Dawn with a disdainful sneer.
"There's no weird," said Buffy. "I want you to have a good career. At a good school. Within walking distance. Making crepes and other foods with funny names." She sniffed. "So okay, maybe a little weird."
"They say the first step is admitting you have a problem." Dawn turned to the others with a frown. "Is the second a quiet implosion followed by a rigorous course of 'never talking again'?" She grinned. "Cuz that would rule."
"Sorry, you lose," Buffy informed matter-of-factly, "but you do get this lovely consolation prize."
Getting up from her seat, she moved toward Dawn. Dawn unconsciously tried to move back, but sadly, the stove was in the way.
"A sister who, yes, puts the 'over' in overprotective, but who loves you very much. Weird and all." She planted a kiss on Dawn's cheek.
Willow's face crumpled at the sight. "Aww," she cooed.
"Eww," sputtered Dawn. The delivery was sincere but her tiny smile might have betrayed otherwise. "And anyway, I thought you wanted me gone," she continued loftily. "Need I mention the eBay incident?"
"A) That was a long time ago, and B) Mom made me delist you."
Willow was immediately curious. "How much?"
"She was up to $36.71," Buffy said with a shrug, obviously unimpressed.
Willow appeared to share Buffy's sentiment.
Insulted, Dawn treated both of them to an icy frown.
"Again I emphasize the 'long time ago'," reiterated Buffy. "It's different now. You have nice clothes that I can borrow right back, and ... you're tall, so you can reach stuff on the top shelf." Her expression grew serious. "I like having you here. But whatever you do, I'll support you." She gave Dawn another kiss, accompanied by a hug this time.
Dawn beamed. "Thanks, Buffy."
"And now I'm back to 'Aww'," sighed Willow contentedly.
"Provided it's within a thirty-mile radius," added Buffy.
"It's gone again," blinked Willow. "That was fast."
With a chuckle, Buffy retrieved the five glasses of varying measure and, employing a feat that could only be attributed to Slayer powers, managed to carry all of them into the dining room without spilling a single drop. Dawn turned her attention back to the pan of eggs, more than a little burned and distinctly charred around the edges by now. She scraped them – literally – into a nearby bowl. Unplugging the toaster, Willow went to stand by Tara, who was leaning over the laptop monitor, eyebrows knitted together.
She laid a hand on Tara's shoulder. "How's she doing?"
Tara looked up with a worried frown. "It's hard to say. You know how she gets."
Willow nodded. "'Me Kennedy, me heap big Slayer.' Only too well."
"I think she's really hurting," said Tara, glancing from the laptop to Willow and then back again.
"Big surprise there," said Willow. "She likes everyone to think she knows exactly what she's doing, like, always, but something like this ..."
"At least she's talking," replied Tara, trying to find the bright side.
"E-mail talk," snorted Willow. "She makes up excuses not to talk talk." She gave a shrug of resignation. "But I guess it's a start."
"Starting is good," Tara confirmed with a small smile, which Willow returned.
"I'm really glad she has you to help her."
"I'm really glad she has us both," responded Tara, taking Willow's fingers and squeezing.
Reentering the kitchen, Buffy started to gather plates and silverware. Meanwhile, Dawn had cracked another half dozen eggs into the pan. Luckily, each of them had reached their destination without incident. She regarded the sizzling batch contemplatively.
"You know when I was little, I used to think about how eggs are pretty much baby chickens," she pondered, "and it's like the yellow stuff is baby chicken blood, and that some day I'd find a foot or a beak just pokin' out."
For a long moment, everyone, save Dawn herself, rode a large and disquieting wave of nausea.
"Toast?" Willow quickly proposed.
Tara nodded enthusiastically. "Toast is good."
"God, yes," breathed Buffy, clutching her stomach.
Much to Dawn's dismay, the trio clamored around the platter near the toaster. Buffy in particular was cramming slices into her mouth with impressive speed, as though the bread might somehow seep into her brain and soak up all the unpleasant mental images.
"So, you seen Xander yet?" mumbled Buffy, spraying crumbs.
Willow reached for the jar of grape jelly. "Nope. I waited up a while, but no joy."
"Well the car's here, so he must be upstairs," Dawn dutifully reported, peeking through the kitchen window looking out onto the driveway. Uncertainly, she turned to the others. "Is that a good sign or a bad sign?"
Willow pondered for a moment. "Could sorta go either way."
"Well I think he and Paula hit it off swimmingly," announced Buffy. "Whatever that means."
Tara smiled warmly. "That'd be nice. I just hope you guys aren't pushing him too hard."
"Oh pooh," dismissed Willow, brushing the notion aside with a wave of her hand.
"Exactly," Buffy said with confidence. "This is good. We are all social creatures and Xander must heed the call. Besides, when it comes to blind dates, I owe him BIG time." Her voice dropped to a mutter. "At least I made sure all my friends were interested in guys first."
"I know it's bossy and pushy and lots of other really negative adjectives ending in 'y'," conceded Willow, "but if there's anything I know in this crazy mixed-up world, it's Xander. He needs this. Without help, he's just gonna sit there forever feeling lonely a-and guilty and still more negative 'y' adjectives." Her expression grew melancholy.
Tara couldn't completely hide a small smile at the explanation. "That's a lot of bad."
"It is!" declared Willow with some energy. "And even if none of these work out, it'll help him get back in the swing. They're like- like training wheels."
"So as soon as I take 'em off, I'm gonna fall flat on my face?" came an amused query from the doorway.
"Not exactly what I meant," amended Willow hastily as Xander entered the kitchen.
"Which is why it's so funny," said Xander wryly before addressing the room at large. "Top o' the mornin'." His eye widened with delicious anticipation. "Oo, eggs!"
Snatching a plate from Buffy, he made a beeline for the bowl near the stove and, much to Dawn's delight, began to help himself to heaping spoonfuls. Some went on the plate while others went immediately into his mouth. He glanced over his shoulder.
Without even bothering to consider, Buffy, Willow and Tara emphatically shook their heads. Xander shrugged, content enough that their refusal just meant more for him. Dawn piled the contents of the frying pan onto his plate as well and with a grin of gratitude, Xander skillfully navigated a path through the kitchen traffic toward the dining room, snagging several slices of toast along the way.
Exchanging a meaningful glance, Willow and Buffy hurried after him. Dawn and Tara were not far behind.
Willow prodded his shoulder. "So?"
"La, ti, do?" suggested Xander, looking around for the butter, knife poised at the ready.
Buffy nudged the tub in his direction as everyone claimed a seat around the table and watched Xander expectantly.
"How was it?" Buffy asked, as she leaned her elbows on the table. "Was Paula nice?"
"I bet she was nice," twinkled Willow.
"She's totally nice," said Buffy with crisp nod. "She let me borrow her notes when I fell asleep in class."
Xander was applying a liberal helping of butter to his toast. "Oh good, then maybe she'll let me borrow the notes from last night when I fell asleep on our date."
Tara nearly coughed on her orange juice, but recovered nicely. "You fell asleep on your date?"
"Mostly just my higher brain functions," replied Xander, licking the knife. "They weren't doing anything anyway."
Buffy's lower lip extended in an impressively pouty way. "I was sure you'd like her."
"I did," he agreed. "As previous stated, she was nice."
"Nice, and...?" prompted Dawn.
"There is no 'and'. Therein lies the issue."
"Well ... okay. That's okay," reassured Willow. "One tiny little failure—"
"One?" questioned Xander, arching an eyebrow.
Willow openly disregarded the implication and blithely continued. "—does not mean defeat. Tonight you'll meet Asia for dinner and I'm sure you'll—"
"I don't think so," replied Xander, sprinkling salt on his eggs.
This was a statement Willow couldn't ignore, implied or otherwise.
"I'm done," said Xander conclusively. "Finished. Kaput. Throwing in the towel. Holding up the yellow card. Whatever means 'stopping', that's what I'm doing."
Willow looked to Buffy for support. Buffy was prepared.
"Look, Xander, I know these dates haven't exactly been ideal ..." she told him.
Xander held up a restraining hand and Buffy reluctantly closed her mouth.
"I get what you guys are doing and I appreciate it. I really do," he said with all sincerity. "It's just not working out."
Willow was not so easily dissuaded. "Okay, so- so maybe we're not finding the best people, but that doesn't mean we should give up. We could try ... someone else. You could always—"
"But you have her number," persisted Willow, "if you'd just—"
An obstinate gleam crept into Willow's eyes and she seemed about to protest again when Tara laid a hand on her arm. Gently but firmly, Tara shook her head. Against her better judgment, Willow held her tongue.
"Okay," promised Buffy, however reluctantly. "No more fix-ups, no more nagging." She looked to Willow. "Right?"
Willow fidgeted in her seat. Obviously, she didn't think it was the wisest move, but she nodded in agreement. "Only can we start stopping tomorrow?" she asked. "Asia's really been looking forward to this all week and I hate being Mr. Bad News Guy."
Xander gave the proposition due consideration. He frowned and then sighed. "Fine. But this is the last one."
His penetrating gaze traveled from Willow to Buffy until he was satisfied with their compliance. Only then did he return to his breakfast. He ate in amicable silence for a minute or two and then, Willow reached out to rub his upper arm. He tossed her a questioning glance.
"I just don't want you to be alone," she said quietly.
He looked around the table – Willow, Buffy, Tara, Dawn – and a tiny smile crossed his lips, followed by a little shrug.
"Do I look alone to you?"
Faith and Giles had commandeered one of Slayer Central's larger conference rooms. Sitting behind the table, a well-groomed Giles appeared refreshed as rested as he sipped from a steaming cup of tea. He frowned occasionally at Faith, who had actually taken up position atop the table, but had apparently decided not to pursue the matter, albeit grudgingly -- at least as long as she kept her boots off the surface. Between them was a box of doughnuts, from which they both heartily indulged.
"Progress is going slowly," said Giles, taking a bite and being very careful not to get jelly on his tie, "but nevertheless there is progress, so I find that hopeful. Our current goal is to have a facility in Wuhan within two years."
"Sounds good," returned Faith, a doughnut clutched in each hand. "Just don't stick me there. 'Bout the only Chinese I know is 'egg roll'."
Giles tossed Faith something of an odd look, but pressed on regardless.
"That shouldn't be a problem. I intend for the Trillium branch to remain the focal point of the Watcher's Council." As well-mannerly as possible, he licked powdered sugar from his fingers. "Still, these expansions will allow us to maintain a global presence, as well as near immediate reaction to any world threatening activity, regardless of location." He looked around for a napkin, but there were none.
Faith eyed her fistfuls of doughnut and unable to make a choice, chomped into both with astounding speed. "You sound real happy about that," she mumbled, "so ... good. You go."
"Indeed," acknowledged Giles, pulling out a handkerchief. "However, acquiring land and autonomy from the Chinese government is only the first step. The second is where I need your help."
"S'why I'm here," said Faith, waving away Giles' proffered makeshift napkin and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She peered into the open box. "That, an' chocolate glaze."
Rolling his eyes, Giles left the handkerchief within easy reach just in case.
"I need a detailed analysis on each Slayer – physically, mentally, emotionally," he told her. "Between the Slayer perspective and the Watcher perspective, we should have a well-balanced profile on each individual from which to begin making decisions." Picking up a pencil, he began to tap rhythmically and thoughtfully. "With both you and Buffy remaining here, we'll need to select a leadership hierarchy and begin training and preparing them immediately. This is, of course, in addition to splitting our forces most effectively between the three regions."
"I nominate Chao-Ahn," said Faith instantly and with an emphatic nod. "I'm sure she'd like to finally say somethin' understandable to everyone else besides 'Is it time to kill the monsters?' and 'Cheese is the devil's fungus'."
"Yes, that was something of a given," acknowledged Giles wryly.
"The leadership training thing ..." pondered Faith questioningly. "Watchers handlin' that one?"
Somewhat regretfully, Giles deliberately inched the box of doughnuts away with the tip of his pencil. "There will certainly be Watchers involved, but not solely. Watchers can provide structure and guidance, but are lacking in direct experience." He glanced at Faith. "Those experiences can come only from a Slayer."
"Yeah, sorta what I figured you'd say. Look, I'm happy teachin' the girls what I can, an' you'll note I didn't even kick up a fuss about all the paperwork we both know is gonna come outta this. But me turning the next generation into a bunch more little me's ..." She arched an eyebrow in Giles' direction. "Not sure that should be plan A."
"How do you mean?"
Faith swung her legs back and forth. "When it comes to some stuff, I'm good. I'll kick the crap outta anyone you put me up against. But these girls're different." She blew out a huff of air. "The first ones from the new Council flyin' solo. It's been easy. They practically been coddled. They got no idea what it's like to take it on their own, and most missed out on the fun in Sunny D."
"Perhaps it's the tea or some vitamin deficiency," said Giles, obviously puzzled, "but I don't follow you at all."
"Whatever Slayers you want in charge at the new place, they're gonna need all the skills we can give 'em," Faith clarified, helping herself to another doughnut. "I think they're gonna need more'n what I can teach."
Giles nodded slowly. "I see."
"How to fight, how to plan, how to lead – like bein' all inspirational and crap – an' how to pass it that on." Tip of her tongue deftly caught raspberry filling before it plopped onto the table.
Giles nudged the handkerchief again, but met with no more success than before. "What do you suggest?"
"Pretty obvious," returned Faith without missing a beat. "These girls need Buffy. She's a perfect fit."
Maintaining his silence, Giles simply sipped his tea with a small smile.
Faith shrugged in disgruntled fashion. "Man, I hate it when you get that look."
"If asked to describe Buffy," began Giles, "there are a great many things I could say. 'Perfect', however, would not be among them."
"Preachin' to the choir, G," Faith readily agreed. "Not what I meant. Just sayin', you want these Slayers trained up best they can be, you gotta give 'em the best of everything. I can't be everything."
Giles leaned across the table. "This may come as something of a shock," he confided with a twinkle of amusement, "but neither can Buffy."
"Aww darn," came Buffy's voice from the doorway, "and here I was planning to be a racecar next week. You know, just because I could."
She threw them a sly 'gotcha' smirk and turned to Xander, who was still in the hall behind her.
"Wanna meet for lunch?"
"It's a date," Xander instantly replied, before adding, "one of the pleasant kind."
The pair parted ways as Buffy entered the conference room.
"Sorry I'm late," she apologized. "Dawn remembered literally at the last minute that she had a report due today that she hadn't printed out yet." Her eyes widened as she spied the box. "Hey Xander, doughnuts!" she called before refocusing on Faith and Giles. "So what'd I miss? Besides my lack of omnipotence."
But before either could respond, Xander skidded to a halt on the threshold.
"Jelly?" he asked hopefully.
At Buffy's nod, Giles succumbed to temptation and quickly snagged a doughnut, fearing that Xander would abscond with the entire supply. Faith, however, kept a firm grip on the carton.
"Oh, Xander, while you're here," began Giles as Xander rooted around inside the box, supervised by a watchful Faith. "I was wondering if you could help us with a demonstration later. We're going to show the Junior Slayers how to kill a man in two blows."
With a vaguely bemused expression, Xander brandished his prize. "Me and my doughnut are going to go away now," he announced grandly, "to places where we aren't asked scary questions."
And he promptly departed.
Giles looked first to Buffy and then to Faith.
"You're right, Faith," he affirmed, but not unkindly. "You can't be everything. It would be foolish to expect that of you, of anyone." His gaze traveled to Buffy before returning to Faith. "In order for these Slayers to be as successful as we can possibly make them, I will need you both to lend your expertise." He smiled at the duo. "You're far stronger working together than you ever are apart."
The pair exchanged an uncomfortable look that teetered on the verge of abashment.
"Do you think you can do that?" he pushed gently.
Neither said anything for a long moment.
"Sounds like fun," admitted Buffy eventually.
"Feel sorry for whatever gets in their way," added Faith.
Giles beamed. "Excellent."
He scooted his teacup and saucer to one side and made ready to get down to business. "Now, I thought we'd start with the oldest girls first ..." he said, shuffling through a stack of papers in front of him.
Faith hopped off the table, taking the box of doughnuts with her. She offered it to Buffy, who grinned and promptly snared a chocolate glaze. They gathered at Giles' shoulder to begin work.
In Slayer Central's recreation room, Andrew lounged comfortably on the middle cushion of a couch. On either side was a Junior Slayer and two more were seated cross-legged in front of them on the floor. One of the girls who, like her three comrades, was probably no more than about 12 years old, was talking in animated fashion. Everyone around her, including Andrew, listened with rapt attention. At some distance from the group, virtually unnoticed, Xander was busily patching a wall marred by several cracks and holes, no doubt courtesy of wayward air hockey pucks and errant pool balls.
"And so the fairy princess and her knight returned home and told everyone all about all their adventures and how they'd tricked the dragon and saved the kingdom," the yarn-spinning Junior concluded. Her dark eyes, almost the same color as her skin, sparkled. "The king and queen were so excited that they planned a wedding the very next day, and Princess Morning Starr and Prince Viggo lived happily ever after." She clasped her hands beneath her chin and sighed contentedly.
A most agreeable ending having been successfully achieved, the little storyteller acknowledged the warm applause by throwing wide her arms and, even while still seated, executing a delighted bow. The most enthusiastic member of her audience was Andrew himself and the Junior reveled in his approval.
"That was just great," he told her with a broad smile. "It had everything – drama, adventure, romance ... A really wonderful job."
The object of his praise positively glowed.
Glancing in the direction of the small gathering with an amused expression, Xander gave a tiny shake of his head.
Andrew rubbed his hands together expectantly. "Okay, who's next?"
"Tell us about the fight!" insisted one of the Juniors from the floor.
Andrew looked into the chubby face peppered with freckles. "Oh, not that old thing again," he chuckled. "Don't you girls have stories of your own?"
"But you tell it so good!" coaxed the Junior to his right, blonde curls bobbing hopefully.
"Yeah," insisted Dark-Eyes "We wanna hear about the Battle of Sunnydale!"
"Weeeeellll ..." Andrew wavered.
"Tell us! Pleeease?" begged Freckles.
"Okay!" agreed Andrew with no little excitement.
The quartet of girls shuffled closer, obviously keen not to miss a single word. Settling his shoulders against the back cushions, Andrew began his tale.
"The years had well prepared Buffy, Slayer of Vampyres," he said with a reflective gleam in his eye. "She had faced vampyres, yes, but also demons, a god and three of the greatest criminal minds this side of Lex Luthor. Yet still she remained standing." He waved dismissively. "But all of this was simply a prelude, the opening act to her greatest challenge yet, for Buffy's new enemy was evil ... incarnate."
There was a universal gasp followed by excited murmurs.
Xander's amusement heightened a notch, but he continued his appointed task without comment.
"Night after tireless night, Buffy worked with her closest generals—"
"Like you, Andrew!" interrupted the Junior on Andrew's left, who bore a striking resemblance to the pre-teen Brooke Shields.
Andrew gave an indulgent chuckle. "Yes, youngling, like me," he said sagely. "We each devoted ourselves, mind, body and soul to finding a way, some weakness we could use to drive back the first, original evil. Finally, we found that weakness, and a plan was formed." He leaned forward with a conspirative stage whisper. "To take the fight directly to the First in the place where it would last expect – the Hellmouth itself."
"You must've been so scared," said the Brooke Shields look-alike, fingers twisting in her lap.
Andrew pondered this statement for a few seconds.
"I was," he finally replied. "I just knew that I was going in there to die."
"So then why'd you go?" asked the blonde with all due respect.
"Because he's a hero!" declared Freckles with authority. "That's what heroes do!"
But rather than be chuffed by this shining recommendation and wallowing in the adulation, an expression of wistful sadness invaded Andrew's features. He seemed almost pensive.
"I wasn't a hero yet. I'd done ... stuff," he said hesitantly. "Really bad stuff. I wanted to make it right and that's why I followed Buffy. Why I lived ..." He shook his head slowly, as though dismissing a hovering tangent. "You know what else though?" His expression brightened somewhat and the girls scooted even closer, anxious to miss nothing. "I went to fight because someone showed me just how important it was."
Tilting his neck a little, Xander's spackling began to slow. He didn't directly observe the group on and around the couch, but he heard every word nonetheless.
Andrew rested his elbow on his knees, seriously regarding each of the young and expectant faces in turn. "You guys've heard all about me before," he said softly, "so I'm gonna tell you something different."
In unison, the girls nodded, eager for the promise of a new slant.
"This is a story of fierce battles and tragic endings," began Andrew. "About one woman finding and embracing the humanity she'd thought lost for a thousand years. This, my dear audience, is the tale of Anya Jenkins."
And as Andrew wove the fabric of his tale to the enraptured assembly, Xander stood and absorbed – removed, silent and overlooked. He was not a member of the captive listeners, but was at one with them all the same.
"And that, my dear audience, was the tale of Anya Jenkins," concluded Xander with an affirmative nod.
He was seated on a stool at the counter of a bar. The establishment was tastefully decorated and rather busy, but not oppressively crowded. A short blast of cold night air penetrated through the open door with the entrance of every new patron, but otherwise, the interior was cozy and warm. One of the bartenders, a young man with curling chestnut hair and charitable eyes, had listened to Xander's saga, on and off, when he hadn't been attending to other customers. He had dutifully displayed the type of polite interest publicans were trained to exhibit, but seemed truly intrigued by the story.
"I'm not gonna pretend I followed the whole thing," said the barkeep, polishing the counter, "but I think I got the gist."
Xander appeared to be satisfied. "Then my work here is done. I speak figuratively, of course." He tapped his empty glass. "Hit me."
The bartender was a little reluctant. "You sure? You've been puttin' 'em away pretty hard."
"Trust me," assured Xander. "I can take a lot of punishment."
He tapped his glass again and the bartender poured him a fresh shot. Then, with a slightly apologetic glance, moved down the bar to serve another customer. Xander didn't begrudge the abandonment – he simply sat there, nursing his drink and scrutinizing a twisty pretzel with undue concentration.
He didn't pay much attention when a man wandered over and claimed the vacant stool a few feet away. The new arrival was a relatively unimpressive figure. He was tall and skinny, perhaps in his 40s or a little older, although his balding head may have helped to age him unfairly.
"Vodka cranberry," the man told the waiting bartender. This publican was much older – short and squat, and sadly lacking in the 'charitable eyes' department. With a curt nod, the barkeep busied himself with the order while the man dug in his pockets, presumably searching for a wallet.
Xander was still mesmerized by the pretzel. "It's funny," he murmured.
The man looked to see if Xander might be talking to anyone specific, but such didn't seem to be the case.
"I'm sorry?" he ventured.
"These things," said Xander, waving the pretzel. "Pretzels," he clarified, probably unnecessarily. "The twisty kind, not the stick kind. You can just ..." He twirled his fingers, examining the pretzel closely from all sides. "Follow it everywhere. Around and around. It doesn’t matter what path you take. You always end up back where you started."
Pulling out a money clip, the man extracted a bill and handed it to the barkeep, who had now returned with his drink. He waved his hand, indicating that change wasn't required. The publican's face broke into a huge grin of thanks. Taking a sip, the man appeared to be amused by Xander's observation.
"Unless you get a broken one," he noted.
"And I thought I was negative today," returned Xander.
With a shrug, he popped the pretzel into his mouth and began to crunch loudly. Reaching over, the man snagged one from the communal bowl and held it aloft.
"These things hold the secret of life?"
"I'm not sure," said Xander, pondering the possibility. "I don't think my life is quite so salty."
The man chuckled. "Bad day, huh? I mean— Stupid question." He indicated the bar in general. "I guess none of us would be here if it were a good day."
Xander bobbed his head. "I've had better."
"I hear you," said the man with a wise nod. "I should probably be home right now."
"Well I should definitely be a on a date," Xander countered. "I won't tell if you won't."
"It's a deal."
Turning his head to get a better look at his companion, Xander asked, "So what're you in for?"
The man carefully considered for a moment.
"Loss," he responded. It was a simple and unadorned declaration.
"I'll drink to that," agreed Xander, raising his glass. And he did, downing every drop in one gulp. He motioned across the bar for another.
"Let me get it," interjected the man. Noticing Xander's questioning eyebrow, he added, "Sounds like you could use something good happening today." He smiled and followed it up with a shrug. "And I could always use the karma."
Xander wasn't adverse to the offer. "My old man always told me, never turn down a free drink." He wiggled his fingers in a 'feel free' gesture, and the man drained his own glass.
The height-challenged barkeep was there in an instant.
"Another round," the man told him.
"Thanks, uhh...?" Xander waited.
"Thanks, Dustin." He extended his hand over the vacant seat between them. "Xander."
They shook and Dustin glanced meaningfully at the empty stool.
At Xander's nod, Dustin shifted over one.
"So what'd you lose?" asked Xander, watching the ice melt in the bottom of his glass. "I'm hoping more than your keys."
Dustin chuckled again. "You could say that." However, his humor was short-lived. He paid for the round and the barkeep was equally delighted with the second tip as he had been with the first. He scuttled away with the dirty glasses – but not too far, just in case the generous gentleman was in the mood for another.
"It's my daughter," continued Dustin.
"Oh, man," said Xander, his sympathy surging to the forefront. "I'm ... I don't know what to say."
An expression of confusion momentarily crossed Dustin's face, but it didn't take long for him to get on the same page.
"No, no, not that kind of loss," he hastened to enlighten. "God forbid. No, she's just gone away for a while." He sighed mournfully. "I guess I have a touch of that thing. What do they call it? Empty nest syndrome."
Xander was relieved. "That's good then. Well, not good, but ..." Dustin nodded, indicating that he understood and Xander thankfully allowed the sentence drift off. "At least you had a nest, huh?"
"That I did," Dustin told him fondly. "I take it you've never had the pleasure?"
Ruefully, Xander shook his head. "I wanted it. I wanted it all. House. Fence. Wife. Two kids. Not the point-five though." He raised the glass to his lips. "That's just weird."
"I've been there," commiserated Dustin. "Can't find Mrs. Right, huh?"
For a few moments, Xander didn't say anything. "I thought I had," he finally relayed. "Then I messed it up."
With an expression of bitterness, he swiftly downed his drink and motioned vaguely for yet another. Dustin regarded him with a great deal of empathy.
"On our wedding day, of course," continued Xander, "because what's the fun of a breakup if you can't do it in the most painful way possible?"
Dustin was somewhat at a loss for words. "I'm sure you had your reasons ..."
"Oh, I had reasons," Xander informed him wryly. "Lots of 'em. Just none worth a damn."
"Well ... Well maybe you can talk to her," Dustin suggested.
Xander stared into the depths of his newly-filled glass. "You have no idea how much I'd like that."
Dustin was encouraged. "You can tell her how you made a mistake," he advised, "that you'd like to try again."
"No," said Xander with a heartfelt sigh. "I don't think that one's a possibility." He paused and swirled his drink. The ice cubes tinkled merrily. "She's dead. She's dead, and contrary to popular belief, love doesn't always conquer all."
Given the circumstances, Dustin could find no appropriate response, and so he said nothing for a long while.
"What was her name?" he eventually asked.
Dustin nodded as Xander once more drained his glass, and the pair again lapsed into silence. Catching the eye of his 'charitable' bartender, Xander beckoned for a refill. Although obviously doubtful about the wisdom of order, the barkeep did comply.
"How did— If you don't mind my asking, how did she die?" The question didn't seem to carry any connotations of morbid curiosity, just genuine concern.
"It's a really long story," Xander replied with an increasingly noticeable slur, "and unless you've had a lot more'a those in you, you probably wouldn't believe me anyway. Let's just say that she died and I couldn't stop it. I wasn't there."
By now, emotion and alcohol were beginning to take their inevitable toll. Xander shot Dustin a sideways glance of abject misery.
"I didn't even get to see her. I looked. I think if they hadn't drug me away, I'd still be there looking. I wonder sometimes if it hurt." His voice dropped to a near-whisper, and Dustin had to strain to catch the words. "If she was scared. He said she was brave, but I'm not so sure. Anya hated pain. She'd get a paper cut and go to pieces." He scrubbed at his forehead and sighed. "If I'd been there, I could've said something. At least made her mad, so she'd focus on that instead of being so damned scared. But I wasn't there." He dragged his hand roughly across his face. "God, I wish I'd been there."
It seemed there was nothing left to add. The older man didn't appear to have anything by way of comfort or consolation to offer either. Instead, Dustin raised his glass in a toast.
Looking up, Xander managed to force the most meager of smiles. He too lifted his glass.
Rays of an early morning sun filtered through the pleated drapes into a darkened bedroom. On one of the night tables was a clock radio. As its dial flipped to 7:00 AM, the fading refrain of a song could be heard and then the voice of an overly-perky announcer.
"Hey hey hey, Trillium," he said with chirpy enthusiasm. "Time to rub those eyes and roll outta bed! Make it through today and the weekend is yours!"
From beneath the sheets came a sleepy groan of protest.
"Don't you worry though," continued the buoyant message, "because Zakk Zapp and the rest of the 3WA crew will help you speed through your workday with our no-repeat Friday, but first—"
Zakk Zapp was abruptly silenced as desperate fingers scrabbled for the snooze button and found their mark. Mission accomplished, the hand appeared to have now expended its paltry energy reserves and flopped limply onto the pillow nearby. There was another unintelligible mumble as the hand began to feel around the empty space, ostensibly searching for something. However, it was a fruitless endeavor and the quest came to an untimely end, fingers still curled but frozen. The immobility was followed by a heavy sigh.
The mattress bounced as the hand was retracted and its owner turned over, the arm draping across the left side of Xander's face. He looked to be totally worn out, completely drained and exhausted – the by-product of heavy drinking the night before. His expression made it clear that he'd like nothing better than to remain in bed all day. However, it also clearly indicated that such luxury was a pipe dream. There were things that needed to be done.
He glanced toward the small table on the other side of the bed. It held a lamp, a glass of water and a couple of well-thumbed paperbacks. Bleary-eyed, Xander began to fumble blindly around the items residing there.
"What are you looking for?" asked a familiar voice.
Abruptly, Xander's head whipped around to find Anya hovering over him with a perplexed and distinctly impatient expression. His mouth opened wide.