Rays of an early morning sun filtered through the blinds into a darkened bedroom, dappling pale light upon the array of framed 50s and 60s B-movie posters that lined the walls. A desk by the window was littered with stacks of comic books in the process of being bagged and boarded. By the door was a large corkboard, covered with fliers, handwritten notes of various measurements, assorted movie ticket stubs and a vast collection of other bibs and bobs, including several snapshots.
Almost every inch of available surface space had been used to display photographs: Dawn who, judging by the embarrassing hat perched upon her head, had been celebrating her 18th birthday; Xander instructing Tara on how to work a power saw and Tara apparently none too confident about the whole thing; Faith raising a can of beer to the camera in a perfunctory toast; Xander flat on his back as Chrissie straddled him, arms held high in triumphant victory; a fully-grown Willow getting a piggyback ride from an equally fully-grown Buffy, although their delighted expressions were anything but adult in nature; a picture in the original Sunnydale High library depicting Xander with Buffy, Willow and a self-conscious Giles; a shot of Xander and Anya hugging each other.
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, soon drowned out by the voice of an overly-perky announcer.
"Time to rise and shine, Trillium," he said with chirpy, please-beat-me-in-the-face enthusiasm. "There's a world out there waiting! It's seven-ay-em on a gorgeous Thursday morning and I just know you don't wanna waste it."
From beneath the sheets came a sleepy groan of protest.
"The weekend's a bit of a ways off yet," continued the buoyant message, "but never fear – yours truly, Zakk Zapp, and the rest of the 101.5 WWWA team will help you get there. Stay tuned throughout the hour as 3WA announces the winners to last night's Santa's Little Helpers contest, and for your chance to win tickets to—"
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 lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling and then glanced toward the small table on the other side of the unshared bed. It held a lamp, a glass of water, a couple of well-thumbed paperbacks and an eye patch. Retrieving the latter, Xander slipped it over his head, settled it in place and then went back to staring at the ceiling.
"There's a world out there waiting," he echoed, and his delivery held little of the same exuberance.
"Beggars Would Ride"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Ultrace and Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Monday, 25 October 2005, 8pm ET
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.
Anya winced away from the screaming and didn't look especially pleased at the need to do so.
"Stop that," she demanded. "It's piercing."
Xander was not stopping, and Anya's glare narrowed. "Mrs.-Breckenmeyer-in-23-C," she said, as though that were the woman's full and complete birth name, "will report us for excessive noise again if you don't stop."
"As if it was our fault the Rythnal demons attacked," she complained with an impudent toss of her head. "Or the Wanren beasts. Or the lost creatures of Ugpugbir." Anya folded her arms decisively. "This clearly is not a very safe neighborhood."
Xander's screams had continued throughout Anya's miniature tirade. In fact, he was still screaming.
Without warning, Anya's hand lashed out, and she slapped him with much gusto.
"AAHHH—" The scream died abruptly. "You hit me!"
"Yes," Anya readily agreed. "It's the preferred method for dealing with screaming hysterics."
"No, I mean, you hit me!" Xander rubbed his cheek painfully and blinked both of his eyes, multiple times. "Really hard," he added with a hint of accusation before getting back to the point. "But- But you hit me and I felt it."
While this seemed quite a revelation to Xander, Anya did not share in the discovery. "I should hope so."
"That would mean ..." Xander blinked again. "But Ahn, you're ..."
He gave up. Clearly there was only one possible conclusion that could be sanely reached.
"I must be dreaming."
"No, you're not," Anya immediately refuted. "I've seen you dream. You twitch more. And sometimes there's kicking."
But Xander had found something new that demanded complete and immediate attention. He squinted at Anya, craning his neck forward and back with a puzzled frown. Curiously, he brought a finger up to his whole, completely-there left eye. He stared at the finger for just a moment before touching the eye's surface. Immediately he recoiled, as might be expected from a person poking themselves in the eye. Anya watched this entire production, but her expression hadn't yet shifted into concern for his well-being.
"Ow," Xander muttered.
"What are you doing?" Confusion and irritation were in a life-or-death struggle for control over Anya's tone.
Xander rubbed at the self-inflicted injury with the back of his hand. "Checking my eye," he explained. "It's there."
Anya could only sigh. "I told you not to go drinking last night. Now you're all hung-over and strange." She glanced at her watch and, if possible, became even more impatient. "We have to open the shop in less than two hours."
"The shop," Xander repeated, trying desperately to follow along.
"Yes, the shop. Our shop. The one where I sell the things you make by cutting up trees that were chopped down in the prime of their lives. It's a very efficient partnership.”
Xander was still stuck on the first point. "We have a shop."
There was another sigh. "Yes, and we have a lot to do before we can open it today. Like getting out of bed, followed by bathing and dressing, breakfast ..."
Rather than expend precious brain power on a to-do list, Xander was looking at his room. His completely unfamiliar room. It was a bit larger than his usual place of rest and a partially open door to one side indicated a connecting bathroom. The mess and clutter were gone, and there were even plants. Green plants, not brown and dying ones at that.
Xander took all this in and audibly swallowed. "I ... I need a moment here."
"You were asleep for at least six hours, Xander Harris," Anya chastised. "That's already a lot of moments, how many more do you need?"
Again, Xander looked at Anya, but without squinting or screaming this time. She had settled on blonde again, at least for the moment, and her hair had been meticulously curled. She was wearing a simple but attractive dress, suitable for the business she was very keen to open. Xander double-checked. She was breathing. She was real, and she was standing right there.
"I'm not dreaming," Xander said with wonder as everything began to sink in.
"No, you're not. We covered that part already." Her expression was finally beginning to shift, as it became increasingly apparent that Xander wasn't simply being difficult. "How much did you drink last night?"
As Anya's concern grew, however, Xander's was rapidly dissipating and he began to smile. "Exactly the right amount."
"Never mind." He reached out and, grabbing her by the hand, began to tug her toward the bed. "We're not going to the shop right now," he informed her.
"We have to," replied Anya, although she didn't pull away.
"But there's money to be gotten," she insisted. "Money for rent. Money for food. Money for sniffing because it smells like money."
Xander's smile grew, as did his determination. "There'll always be money out there, but there'll never be another right now."
There was resistance – however token – but Xander would have none of it. As he flopped back against the pillows, he pulled Anya with him. She landed on top of him with a high-pitched little noise of surprise, but it quickly turned into something a bit different as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and kissed her. Whether it was the propositioning or the talk of money, Anya needed no further persuasion and she matched his kiss, passion for passion. After a few breathless moments, however, she broke away and looked down at him admonishingly.
"As co-owner, I object to this behavior. It's very unprofessional."
"So schedule a coaching session for later."
There could be no kissing while talking, and this was a travesty that Xander was quick to remedy. He pulled Anya toward him once more and picked up right where they'd left off.
A few seconds later, she pulled back again.
"God, you're sexy when you talk business."
And this time, she didn't need urging. Anya surrendered, and for a while, there was no more talking.
The door closed quietly, followed by the click of a light switch which dispelled the darkness of the bathroom. The sink area had only one faucet, but the counter was lengthened somewhat to accommodate a second person. Xander glanced around at the items surrounding him – typically bathroomy in nature, although mostly doubled. There were two towels, two toothbrushes, two different types of shampoo. All evidence pointed to two adults sharing one sink-and-shower space.
Xander turned his attention to the mirror. He was naked from the waist up – the only visible part – and he stared at himself. Himself stared back.
"Okay. Calm. Stay calm," he instructed firmly. "Calm is good. You've got two eyes. This is not a problem. You passed out last night and woke up to find your dead ex-girlfriend in the apartment you both apparently share. You just made love to her. This is definitely not a problem. Don't even think about problems."
Leaning forward, Xander started opening and closing one eye at a time, carefully examining each as if to ensure their authenticity. He continued to talk to himself, but his inspection did not cease.
"You're thinking about problems," he accused himself. "Fine. I see your problem and raise you a rational explanation." There was a thoughtful pause, during which first the left eye would close, then the right, and then the left again. "You've been abducted by demons who are trying to trick you into revealing some vital world-destroying information with magic hallucinations." There was more thinking. Left. Right. Left. "You're going crazy and none of this is actually happening." Right. Left. "Or—"
Abruptly the blinking ceased and Xander snapped his fingers.
"Sucked into a parallel universe. That has to be it. Okay, so what's good for parallel universes? Uh, uhm ..." Frantically, Xander searched his memory. "Avoid yourself at all costs, because you can't occupy the same space and— No, wait, that's time travel. Think, McFly!"
Indeed, Xander thought with all of his might, but his mind was on a racetrack, and try as he might, he couldn't catch up.
Another tact was clearly required. "Alright, let's stick to the basics," he coached. "You've seen enough 'Star Trek' to know that not only is there a goatee-wearing evil double of you out there, if anyone finds out you're not their Xander, then reality spirals into flaming death." Once again, he looked himself in the eye. "You don't want that, they don't want that, chances are good nobody wants that. So nobody can know. If we do this right, maybe we can ..." He shook his head, not finishing the sentence. "We play along. Agreed?"
From behind the door, Anya's slightly muffled voice could be heard. "What are you doing? Are you talking to yourself?"
Xander jumped at the sound and hurried to cover. "Yeah, uh, it's just a little Tony Robbins. You know, to help me get my day back on track."
"Well can't you do that in the shower? Incredible sex notwithstanding, we're running late."
"Yes, dear." Grouchily, he turned to mirror-him. "Correction: play along with everything and not sound like an idiot. That would be best." His voice became cool and soothing. "It's just a nice normal day. Open the store, sell a few things, and while you figure out what to do, you can build stuff."
Once he'd spoken the words, he couldn't help but dwell on them for a moment.
"Unless you've landed in some weird dimension where you can only cut things using marshmallows and they brush their teeth with acid."
Xander glanced nervously at the tube of toothpaste on the counter. With an almost frantic lunge, he grabbed it and wrestled off the cap, accidentally squeezing out a long stream in the process. Part of the toothpaste landed unceremoniously in the sink, while the remainder dangled perilously from the end of the tube.
It was at this moment that the door opened and Anya peered inside. Her expression had again returned to peevish curiosity. Xander turned to look at her, just as the dollop of toothpaste submitted to the superior forces of gravity and plopped into the sink.
"Random toothpaste check," Xander explained. "I feel confident that four out of five dentists would agree our teeth are safe."
If there was any spare mirth to share, Anya did not partake. Xander hastily screwed the cap back on the tube and gingerly set it to one side.
"And now I'm showering."
Anya disappeared behind the closing door, and Xander spared one final look at himself in the mirror.
"Good job not sounding like an idiot," he chastised. He began to walk away before jabbing a finger at his reflection, adding, "And stop talking to yourself in the second person."
Xander seemed content to sit next to Anya as she drove. His still-damp hair threatened occasionally to drip onto the collar of his olive green shirt, but Xander didn't seem to notice. He couldn't take his eyes off Anya and kept reaching out to touch her – caress her neck, rub her shoulder or gently squeeze her knee. Anya almost purred at the open display of affection.
"So, what's on the schedule?" asked Xander, attempting to fish for information as nonchalantly as possible.
"The same as usual," Anya told him with a smile. "First, we stop by headquarters to check in on Giles and Faith, see how things are going."
"Giles and Faith," nodded Xander. "So, we won't be seeing Buffy, then."
"Not there, no," Anya replied. "She's still on her—" Momentarily removing her hands from the wheel, she made air quotes "— 'vacation'. I'm sure if she came back, we'd have already heard about it."
"Right," conceded Xander with a frown.
"Then we need to double-time it over to the shop for a day of productive building and selling. With an emphasis on the selling," she added decisively before continuing in a casual fashion. "Did I mention that new speaker system I want for our TV? It's a KR-7000 with 7.1 Dolby surround sound."
Xander chuckled to hide his confusion. "I'd, uh, forgotten what a big fan of audio technology you are."
"Don't try to be cute, you're only marginally successful," said Anya. "I read in Consumer Reports that they work amazingly well, and they have a lot of numbers in their name, which is typically a good sign." She glanced sideways at Xander. "I think it's about time I was surrounded with my sound, don't you? Listening to only two speakers is antiquated. Besides," she said, nodding her head firmly, "they're impressive and fancy-looking and I want them. We work hard for our money, we should be able to splurge."
"I agree." He smoothed a few wayward strands of hair from Anya's forehead.
"Good." Anya brightened considerably. "Then we'll pick them up tomorrow."
Xander hand froze and he blinked. "What? No, I agree to the idea of splurging as a general, sort of fuzzy principle. I didn't say we should buy speakers."
"But you didn't say we shouldn't," Anya quickly countered.
"Okay then, maybe we shouldn't," Xander amended just as quickly.
Anya's jaw set stubbornly. "Well I say we definitely should. Add that to your 'maybe not' and we have 'probably should'." Anya shrugged dismissively. "Also, since I handle all of the finances, soliciting your support was only a token gesture, anyway."
"And they said the new math would never catch on," puffed Xander good-naturedly. "Is it just me being hung over, or am I not commanding much respect here?"
"If you'd prefer, I can just embezzle the money out of the shop," Anya told him in all seriousness. "As co-owner and accountant, it would be surprisingly simple."
Xander's expression indicated he knew he was fighting a losing battle and was beginning to wonder if it even mattered anyway. "Would that make you happy?" he asked.
"No," said Anya narrowing her eyes. "Because that's like stealing from myself, which no self-respecting criminal would do. I'd much rather have the money awarded to me as a bonus for exceptional sales performance." She favored Xander with a dazzling smile.
He accepted defeat with a good grace. In fact, he seemed to embrace it.
"Seconded," he declared. "All opposed, say nay."
Of course, there was no opposition and Anya's smile instantly transformed into one of absolute delight. Xander basked in its warmth and happily returned the gesture.
He glanced through the window as Anya pulled into a miniscule parking lot outside of what appeared to be a somewhat small warehouse, perhaps the size of a five or six bedroom home. Taking the key from the ignition, Anya removed her seatbelt and grabbed a white paper bag that had been sitting between her and Xander, She opened the door, but Xander didn't move. He continued to stare at the exterior of the building with much curiosity.
"Aren't you coming?"
Her question jolted Xander from his scrutiny. "Inside?" he queried, suddenly realizing this must be their destination. "Sure! I was just admiring the architecture. I think the early morning light really does justice to this neo-industrialist style."
A tiny furrow appeared on Anya's brow as she tossed him an odd look, but Xander swiftly exited the car, thereby avoiding any further explanation. With an expression of mild confusion, he followed Anya toward the heavy double doors.
The interior of the building did little to alleviate Xander's sense of uncertainty. This was certainly not a large structure. Indeed, when compared to the winding hallways and seemingly infinite potential of Slayer Central, it appeared almost lilliputian. The layout was functional but compact. Makeshift walls and movable dividers indicated the presence of half a dozen or so small rooms. There was an open area with equipment designating it as a place for working out and training, and an isolated section populated with books and other research materials. Further along the narrow corridor, a row of tiny individual rooms had been erected. Peeking through the open doors, Xander took note of the furnishings identifying the rooms as dormitories – simple bedframes and two-drawer dressers, along with a few randomly scattered personal items. Next to that hallway was a room somewhat larger than those he had just passed. However, the door to this room was closed.
As Anya strode confidently toward the end of the corridor, Xander straggled gingerly in her wake, his eyes registering surprise every step of the way.
"It's not so much a Slayer Central as an overstuffed closet," he murmured to himself, but it was loud enough for Anya to hear. As she regarded him over her shoulder, he hastened to clarify. "I know it must feel that way every time we come in here ... I just can't help but notice."
Anya nodded. "Giles is doing the best he can with what he has." She sighed. "I don't know what he'll do if that Slayer in Harrisburg joins. They've only got beds for twelve people, and that's with Faith staying off-site."
"Twelve people?" echoed Xander, visibly stunned.
"Well, sure, you can add in Buffy and that makes a total of fifteen, but you can't count her, of course."
Upon reaching the door, voices could be heard issuing from inside the room. They hadn't yet reached yelling proportions, but were unmistakably raised and it was obvious that tension was running high.
"Just in time," said Anya. She rapped and then listened. The heated discussion came to an abrupt halt and there was a moment of silence. Then, Giles' muffled command rang through the door.
Anya entered the room with Xander trailing nervously afterward. Sitting behind a desk littered with papers and stacks of research volumes was Giles. Apparently, this was his office – although it was rather spartan and in untypical disorder. Features drawn and haggard, the Watcher appeared older than his 50 years. There were dark smudges beneath his eyes, at least a day's growth of stubble on his jaw and it was doubtful whether his disheveled hair had enjoyed the rake of a comb that morning. In front of the desk sat Faith, one leg dangling over the arm of the chair. Xander noted thankfully that she at least seemed unchanged, although she did seem to carry an odd note of restraint.
Simultaneously, Faith and Giles gave what could have been best construed as a sigh of mutual relief at the arrival of Anya and Xander. Anya closed the door before turning back to the ongoing meeting.
"About freaking time someone sane showed up," said Faith, waving a hand in Giles' direction. "One a'you two tell him that he's nuts."
"Giles, you're nuts," Anya dutifully complied. "And I'm saying that because Faith is a Slayer and could tear our arms off and beat us to death with them, and Xander's too proud to admit that." She then addressed Xander. "You can thank me for saving your pride later."
"And I don't even have to ask pretty please with a cherry on top?" queried Xander with a faltering grin.
"I will have you know that in spite of everything else, I am still in complete control of my mental faculties, not to mention in control of this facility," announced Giles. "The scheduling I've laid out is entirely rational."
Faith jabbed angrily at the paper she was holding. "You've got Marissa pulling doubles three days in a row," she protested vehemently. "She's too new, she can't handle it."
He peered at Faith over his glasses. "And you propose...?"
"Hazel's been here six months longer, and she's tough," Faith defended briskly.
"Hazel?" questioned Xander in puzzlement. "Hazel's—"
He consciously stopped himself from going any further. Anya and Giles treated him to a cursory glance apiece, but Faith's gaze was penetrating and expectant. Xander took a moment to collect his muddled thoughts.
"Hazel's a good choice, and apparently very lively," he finally concluded. "You could trust her."
With an approving nod, Faith refocused on Giles who apparently remained unconvinced.
"I always value your input," he told Xander with a weary sigh, "and I'm certain Hazel would appreciate your support, but this simply isn't an acceptable way of laying out our resources."
"They're not resources, Oxford," Faith reminded firmly. "They're girls. Girls who signed on to help us fight the good fight, or whatever the hell we're sellin' here." She swung her leg to the floor and leaned forward. "They all got strengths and weaknesses. You don't use that, you're gonna keep losin'—"
Abruptly leaping to his feet, Giles slammed both palms on the surface of his desk. Behind the lenses of his glasses, his blazing eyes fixed piercingly upon Faith. She didn't flinch.
"That's quite enough. Now, you listen to me—"
Anya took a fearless step further into the room. "Time out!"
Stunned into silence, both Faith and Giles turned to look at Anya who, to her credit, had managed to produce a dictatorial shout and authoritative expression despite the pervading atmosphere of chaos and unrest. After a moment of meeting her direct and stony stare, both grudgingly backed down, although they continued to glare at each other with animosity – much lessened, but still present nevertheless.
Obviously well-pleased with her achievement, Anya smiled amicably. "Now, when does this 'schedule' have to be finished by?" she asked in a business-like manner.
Giles irritatedly shuffled papers. "It's the revised patrolling schedules to account for recent ... changes in the team. It's quite important and must be finished by tomorrow afternoon."
Snatching the sheets from his fist, Anya deliberately placed them to one side. "Good. This isn't tomorrow afternoon yet. Finish it later."
"But the girls—" interrupted Faith.
"The girls will do what you tell them to," said Anya with conviction. "They respect you, in spite your criminal background." Faith didn't react to that, which was just as well because Anya didn't give her pause to. "Tell them you'll have the schedule tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, you need to unleash your bottled-up violence and then sleep before yet another of your triple shift patrols, which we all know good and well you'll be taking."
Given her narrowed eyes, Faith was obviously contemplating an argument. She looked to Giles for support, but he'd already conceded. Sensing she'd get nowhere, Faith inhaled deeply and bit her tongue.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay," she acknowledged with a mutter. She looked to Giles again. "We finish this later."
At Giles' nod, Faith stood up and exited the room. Anya didn't wait for the door to close before tossing the white paper bag unceremoniously onto Giles' desk.
"As for you: breakfast," she stated. Giles opened his mouth to object, but Anya never afforded him the opportunity. "I know you haven't had anything since at least last night, if then."
Giles eyed the bag with some suspicion. "I don't have time for breakfast."
"You're going to make time," Anya informed him. Her tone brooked no debate. "These girls follow your orders and won't keep doing that when you shrivel up into a withered old shell of a man who can't remember what day it is."
"It's Thursday," returned Giles indignantly.
"It hasn't been Thursday for nearly ten hours now, but thank you for proving my point," said Anya curtly. Again, it appeared as though Giles might interject, and again Anya didn't give him the chance. "Also, you're going to make time because these are from La Patisserie on Twelfth and they're blueberry."
Giles pondered the proposition. "No lemon poppy seed?"
"No lemon poppy seed," Anya assured.
Giles had the good sense to know when he was beaten. "I'll admit that following an aborted attempt at dinner last night, I am a bit peckish," he told her, reaching for the bag. "Thank you, Anya." His tone was sincerely grateful.
"You should've sent one of the Slayers out for Chinese or something," said Xander. "Tell 'em they can keep the change if they get it back in under ten minutes and watch 'em book." He grinned.
"My position hasn't changed, Xander," Giles said with a sigh as he unwrapped one of the muffins. "We are not the Council. What little time our Slayers have left after combating the evil of three Hellmouths must be spent on training and studying, not on being my handmaids."
Xander's features registered surprise – just a little – at the revelation that the building in which he was now standing was not the Council. But he was gradually becoming accustomed to the unexpected and didn't say anything to contradict Giles' statement.
"There are two jumbos in there," said Anya, pleased as Giles began eating with obvious relish, "so it should last until lunch, but then you need to eat something else." She crossed her arms and gave him an appraising stare. "You also need to shower and shave. You look like you've been living in the middle ages. I was there. Trust me, this isn't a favorable comparison."
"Yes, well, thank you for that unabashed appraisal of my condition," Giles said dryly before taking another bite.
"We need to go open the shop now," Anya told him. " Promise me you're not going to go talking to Faith until you both have a few hours to take care of yourselves."
Giles pulled the crown of the muffin free and tilted his head to one side. "You know, you sound remarkably like my mother when you say that. Except quite a bit younger and blonde. And of course, she was never a demon." He pondered that for a moment. "At least not in theory ..."
"Promise me," insisted Anya severely.
Giles rolled his eyes. "I'm not a child, Anya."
But her austere expression didn't give one inch, so Giles did. "Oh, all right. I promise."
The terse mood evaporated immediately and Anya turned to Xander with a bright and beaming smile. "With this good deed bolstering our karma, I expect we should make lots of money today!"
Thrilled by the prospect, she left the office with a jaunty step. Xander trailed behind, his mind continuing to churn and process while his gaze lingered on the claustrophobic office.
With an expert hand, Anya navigated the car into the assigned parking space of a small strip mall located in downtown Trillium. The stores occupying this location were mostly nondescript in appearance and modest in decoration. Lacking undue fanfare, "The Wooden Nickel" meshed nicely with its surroundings. An unlit neon sign in the window awaited the opportunity to announce that the establishment was open for business.
On the stone steps leading to the front door sat Tara. She wore a full-length woolen coat, but seemed otherwise oblivious to the cold. As Anya and Xander approached, she scrambled to her feet.
"Tara. Hey," called Xander, obviously pleased to see her. "Glad you're here and looking relatively normal."
"Hey," nodded Tara, returning the greeting.
She flicked ash from the cigarette dangling between her fingers and then brought it to her lips, inhaling the smoke deep into her lungs before expelling it in a long, trailing plume. Despite enforced schooling in maintaining a neutral expression recently, Xander couldn't help but register an open display of utter shock at the sight, but it went unnoticed.
"Opening late today, huh?" queried Tara.
"There was unexpected but very enjoyable morning sex," Anya replied.
A little embarrassed by the candor, Xander shuffled uncomfortably, but Tara took the news in stride and nodded. "Good for you."
"Then we had to go stop Giles and Faith from killing each other."
"And make a muffin run, apparently," added Xander.
Tara's response was blasé. "Business as usual?"
"Unfortunately," Anya acknowledged. "He skipped dinner again last night."
"I tried to have him over last week." Tara sighed. "Every time I ask, he makes up some reason why he can't come."
Anya was instantly sympathetic. "He's just ... Things are hard for him."
"I know." Tara's expression was one of regretful resignation. She took a long pull on the cigarette as Anya made a valiant attempt to lighten the oppressive mood with a change of topic.
"How are you?" she asked with a friendly smile.
Tara shrugged. "I'm alive."
"Always a good thing in my book," remarked Xander cheerily, trying to lend a shoulder to the mood-boost.
Tara observed him from the corner of her eye for a moment, but her expression didn't change. "There's always the alternative," she said.
"Exactly," stated Xander emphatically. "Think positive."
Whatever reaction he might have been expecting from the statement, he certainly didn't receive it. Instead, he was treated to a mild mixture of confusion and glowering. His brow furrowed, but Tara didn't linger on him long.
"The thing with Giles," Anya persisted, "it's nothing personal. You know that, right?"
Tara turned to blow the smoke away from the others. "He won't see me," she replied in a near-monotone. "I have to wonder how that can not be personal."
With a frustrated frown, Anya tried again. "Just with the Slayers and everything. He hardly has time to live."
"You know, he hasn't s-seen me since ..." But she couldn't seem to get the words out. Her gaze dropped to the cold, wet pavement as, almost subconsciously, she wrapped her arms around herself.
Not in the least bit happy with Tara's obvious distress, Xander made an immediate effort to come to the rescue.
"You could always tell him you an' Will need some special coaching for the mojo, right?" He prompted expectantly. "You know he'd make time for that."
Tara's head instantly whipped toward Xander. For a brief moment, it appeared as though she didn't know what to say and then her eyes narrowed scathingly. "That's not funny."
There was no way Xander couldn't know he'd made a mistake. He didn't know how or what, but that wasn't as important as trying to make it better.
"I know the magic's a serious thing for you two and I'm not saying take advantage of it," he hastened to assure. "But maybe just, you know, make a reasonable excuse to get together. Like his birthday last month." Given Tara's expression, he wasn't making things any better. "Talk to Will," he urged. "I'm sure she'll go along with it."
He smiled hopefully, but the smile crumbled in the face of Tara's angry glare. Initially, she maintained her silence, choosing instead to drag heavily upon the cigarette and exhale with a bitter snort.
"I came over to ask you both to join us for dinner tonight," she informed quietly. "If you can leave the 'humor' at home, the invitation's still open."
Xander's jaw worked soundlessly, leaving Anya to pick up the slack.
Tara looked to Anya, not radiating quite so much fury since Anya wasn't the focus of her ire, but still unable to dispel it completely. "Let's make it six-thirty," she said, her tone short and sharp.
Drawing a final puff, Tara ground the glowing tip of her cigarette against the metal lid of a nearby trashcan before tossing the butt inside. Without uttering another syllable, she walked away. Lost in befuddlement, Xander watched her leave.
Jingling her keyring, Anya ascended the stone steps leading to the front door of the shop while Xander continued to observe Tara's departure. Once she was well out of earshot, he turned to Anya.
"So, what's up with Willow and Tara?"
Anya fumbled with the lock. "Nothing's up with them," she said with a frown. "You know that."
"Sure I know that," returned Xander somewhat fractiously. "But you saw how she reacted. It was like inviting Kerry to Bush's November 3rd victory party. Something's going on."
"No, really, Xander," Anya threw over her shoulder, "there's nothing going on between Willow and Tara. There is no Willow and Tara."
Eyes wide with realization, Xander ran a hand through his hair. "They broke up."
"Well, that's certainly one way of putting it," muttered Anya.
He reached out and seized Anya's elbow, grip strong and determined.
"I need to see Willow."
"But we just saw her on Sunday," returned Anya, opening the door.
"Ahn, please," pressed Xander. The request was almost desperate.
Her gaze traveled around the interior of the darkened store before wandering back to Xander's pleading expression. She reinserted the key into the lock and nodded with compassionate understanding.
Xander's shoes left no footprint in the close-cropped grass. A stiff breeze barely stirred the barren limbs of the trees that stood like vigilant sentinels. Given a sprinkling of imagination, it wouldn't be too difficult to picture how beautiful this wooded glade might look in the spring or summer, with sunlight dappling the leaves and birds chirping merrily as they hopped from branch to branch. But it wasn't spring and it wasn't summer. And Xander could find nothing but desolation in the winter chill of this bleak and uninviting place.
With an expression of shock, horror and disbelief – all rolled up into one stomach-churning, nausea-flavored package – Xander's gaze was riveted to the object only a breath away. He could do nothing but read, again and again, the etchings on the cold marble tombstone.
Willow Danielle Rosenberg, 1982-2004. Her magic lay in what she brought to the lives of others.
Carefully and methodically, Xander's eyes trailed over the deep grooves of the inscription. His consciousness obviously registered the significance, but still he refused to accept the reality. At his side stood Anya, cradling a small offering of flowers. She moved slowly and deliberately, separating the flowers into two sprays. While Xander watched in numbed silence, she placed one arrangement at the foot of Willow's marker. As she quietly stepped away, Xander emerged a little from his reverie.
His bewildered gaze followed her path to a nearby gravesite and he was visibly shaken once more. His breath hitched as he was struck by yet another overwhelming wave of grief. He scrubbed his stinging eyes, hoping perhaps that it was only an illusion. But the carved lettering leapt from the marble with stark clarity.
Dawn Elizabeth Summers, 1987-2003. She held the key to our hearts.
Setting the remaining bouquet in front of Dawn's headstone, Anya returned to Xander's side. Shaking his head, he resumed his study of Willow's resting place, not seeming to notice when he knelt and began ceaselessly arranging and rearranging the spray of flowers. It seemed that every muscle in his body ached, but still he maintained his position, whether from choice or inability to do otherwise, it was impossible to tell. Neither spoke for a few, endless moments. Eventually, Xander broke the silence.
"I don't get it. How could this happen?"
Anya was instantly sympathetic to his pain. "Each time we come here, I think it will be easier and suddenly all make sense." She shook her head. "It never does."
"I thought ... I thought it was better." He waved a hand as if to encompass the entire world. "Hazel, my eye ..." He looked up at Anya. "You."
She failed to comprehend the implication, but was eager to offer consolation regardless. "It'll be okay," she soothed.
Vehemently shaking his head, Xander crushed one of the flowers within a tight fist. "No, it won't. It can't be okay." He stared remorsefully at the mutilated flower and tried to smooth the delicate petals, but they were beyond repair. "Willow's my best—"
Xander's voice broke and he was unable to finish the declaration. Immediately, Anya was there, on her knees, enveloping him in a comforting embrace. Her expression revealed the depth of her concern.
"Let's go home," she murmured. "You need rest."
A bitter laugh forced its way through Xander's clenched teeth. "Sure, because that's what cures a trip to Bizarro World."
This odd proclamation made no sense to Anya, but she appeared content to simply chalk it up to a lingering hangover and overpowering grief.
"You'll feel better," she assured, helping Xander to his feet and slipping an arm around his waist. "We'll keep the shop closed today."
Despite his emotional state, Xander still managed to regard Anya with a touch of surprise and perhaps even awe. "Now I know I'm loved."
Anya dismissed the announcement with a shrug. "You're in no condition to use deadly metal tools anyway."
She started to steer him away, but Xander was reluctant to leave. He dragged his feet, hampering their progress, hoping perhaps that if he just stayed long enough and kept staring hard enough, he could put everything right.
But Anya was determined. "Come on," she coaxed gently. "It's for the best. You should trust me – I've had intimate experience with misery."
But Xander's probe trailed into nothingness. He couldn't finish the question, or was perhaps unwilling to hear the answer. He shook his head.
"Never mind. I— Let's just go."
With a final glance over his shoulder at the two gravesites, Xander allowed Anya to lead him out of the cemetery.
Anya opened the door to their apartment, a firm hold on Xander's hand, but her tight grip wasn't truly necessary. His fingers were entwined around her own as though he might never let go. He shuffled behind her, lost and bewildered, the assuredness of the morning now all but evaporated. She led him to a comfortable, over-stuffed armchair in the lounge and he collapsed into its depths with a heavy sigh. Exiting the room without a word, she returned almost immediately, toting several items with her, the most notable being an oversized chenille blanket. Setting the other objects on the floor, she knelt to remove Xander's shoes and then shook out the blanket. With tender care, she draped it around Xander's lower extremities, making sure to tuck his feet into the soft folds. Xander seemed somewhat bewildered by the attention, but offered no resistance or complaint. Nodding with satisfaction, Anya retrieved two books from the floor and placed them on a small table next to the chair before switching on the lamp. It emitted a subdued glow.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"The same thing I did on Sunday, and the time before that, and the time before that," replied Anya, her tone sounding almost bored. "Taking care of you. Someone has to, and I know you won't do it." She rolled her eyes. "You come back from the cemetery and get lost in those books, and don't eat or drink or notice your legs have frostbite and will likely contract gangrene and fall off."
Soberly, Xander regarded his swaddled limbs.
Anya nodded. "Well it gets cold."
"Thanks," Xander told her warmly.
She tossed him a tiny smile and then sharply snapped back into serious mode, gathering up the remaining items – a large accounting book and calculator – from the floor before getting to her feet.
"I'm going to go audit the ledger in our bedroom," she informed him with a pat on the shoulder, "so you can be alone when you cry."
Confusion struck Xander once more. "Thanks?"
With a 'you're welcome' inclination of the chin, Anya made good her departure, closing the door behind her. Cautiously, Xander eyed the books Anya had deposited on the small table. The spines bore no identifying titles. Although roughly the thickness of a slim paperback, the two books were longer and wider. They were both approximately the same size, though the covers were different colors. They appeared relatively worn, but were by no means ancient.
Hesitantly, Xander took hold of the maroon volume which lay on top. He flipped it open. The flyleaf bore a name and date: "Willow Rosenberg, May 20, 2003". "#6" had also been written on the same page, but had apparently been crossed out at some point and "#1" written next to it.
At first, Xander could do nothing but stare, his expression stricken. In his hands, he held the diary of his dearest friend – all that remained of those sometimes unfathomable, sometimes brilliant, but always amazing thoughts that had comprised the mind of Willow Rosenberg. The fact packed a heavy punch, and for a moment it seemed uncertain whether he would continue. But continue he did. Turning the page, he began to read aloud.
"'Here I am again, complete with new diary. A new book for a new life, I guess. Plus there's the part where the past, oh, three years worth of diaries are buried somewhere under Sunnydale, along with practically everything else I ever owned. Not that I'm complaining. Okay, I'm complaining. I shouldn't though, seeing as how I was one of the lucky ones. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Lots of holes need filling in. We've got holes a'plenty ...'"
Headed by Principal Wood, Buffy led the small army of young warriors as they filed into the main entrance of Sunnydale High.
"We had a plan for taking on the First. Not one of our best plans. Pretty much as desperate as we were feeling, but hey, it was a good bet the Big Bad would never see it coming, so we had that going for us. The teams were pretty well split – Faith, Buffy, Spike and the potentials in the basement where the Hellmouth was all Hellmouthy and waiting."
Faith, in the company of Spike and a stream of decently-armed young girls made their way to the school's lower level.
"Me in the principal's office with Kennedy there for backup in case things got ... nasty."
Taking possession of Willow's bag containing the scythe and other necessary items, Kennedy took her leave.
"Giles and Principal Wood guarding one exit against Bringers coming in and Ubervamps coming out."
Giles and Wood indicated the section they claimed as their own and Wood went to secure the area.
"Xander and Anya got the second—"
Pointing down a hallway, Xander glanced at Anya, who nodded her agreement, and she moved off with their weapons.
"And Andrew and Dawn took the last one."
Pulling out several index cards, Andrew began to speak, but with a roll of her eyes, Dawn snatched the cards from his hand and shoved him down the corridor ahead of her. At Buffy's call, Dawn turned and retraced her steps. Buffy started to say something, but Dawn cut her off, refusing to let her finish. The pair exchanged a small smile before Dawn hurried after Andrew.
"The fight ... We won. That's the most important thing, right? Yay us. We paid for it though. God did we pay."
The yellow bus came to a screeching halt on a barren stretch of desert highway. Buffy hopped down from the roof and stared in wonder at the damage left behind. She approached the crater as the other Scoobies slowly exited the vehicle and came to join her. Willow, aided by Xander with Anya hovering close to his elbow. Faith and then Giles. Glancing over her shoulder, Buffy greeted each of them with a smile, happy and relieved that they had made it through unscathed. Then, a tiny crease appeared on her forehead. She scanned the faces, searching for one that was disturbingly missing. Apprehensively, she questioned everybody present, but received only frowns and the shaking of heads in response. An air of mounting anxiety began to form like an ominous cloud above the small band of survivors. Buffy's eyes revealed her increasing panic as she spied Andrew standing alone on the shoulder of the road. His arms hung limply at his sides and his expression shell-shocked.
Buffy made a frantic beeline in his direction and asked a question. His gaze was fixed upon some point in the distance – the gaping cavity that had once been Sunnydale – and he didn't seem to hear her. She repeated the question, more demanding this time. His grief and regret were almost palpable as he looked at her and opened his mouth to speak. But the words simply wouldn't form. Shaking his head, he averted his eyes. And reality hit Buffy like a fist being savagely driven into the pit of her stomach.
Squeezing his eyelids tightly closed, Xander rested his head on the back of the chair for a second before continuing to read.
"'I thought she'd kill him. I mean, right there, I thought we'd see Buffy tear Andrew apart with her bare hands. We might've, if it wasn't for Faith and about twenty brand new Slayers. Even then for second there I wasn't sure they could hold her. But then she just ... collapsed. Everything seemed to go out of her. I guess the exhaustion and everything ...'"
He flipped to the next page, took a momentary pause and then resumed the narrative.
"'We didn't know where else to go, so we made for L.A. It turned out Angel had more than enough resources to help fellow apocalypse-fighters for a little while. Andrew just disappeared not long after we got there. He looked up to Buffy so much, I think he just couldn't stand to see her like that. I know how he felt.'"
Buffy stood before the window in one of the spacious offices located at Wolfram and Hart's L.A. branch. Occasionally blinking, she looked out over the city. She breathed. She swallowed. Her heartbeat was strong. She was functional. But there was no life, no vital spark. She was more dead than any vampire she had ever faced.
Softly opening the door, Giles approached with a steaming mug in his hand. The haggard appearance hadn't quite reached capacity, but it was well-defined and didn't have far to go. He regarded Buffy with undisguised anxiety and offered her the mug, urging her to take it.
She turned to look at him, expression several degrees less than apathetic. Her eyes were lackluster and distressingly vacant. Delivering a virtually imperceptible shake of her head, she refocused on the hustle and bustle beyond the window, but didn't truly see any of it. Giles' gnawing concern, already deep, reached a brand new low. He glanced despairingly over his shoulder at a figure standing in the doorway.
"Giles has been trying so hard. Day and night, every single second he spends on Buffy – trying to get her to eat and drink, or just to sleep more than maybe ten or fifteen minutes at a time. He's sure that if we just keep at it, we can get Buffy through this."
Willow lingered on the threshold for a long while. Her troubled gaze traveled from Buffy to Giles and then back again, her features locked in a picture of profound empathic pain.
"Me, I'm not so sure. He hasn't seen her dead before. Not like I have. I feel like everything's falling apart. All those Slayers, everywhere, because of us, but we're in no shape to even try and help them. Giles still doesn't completely trust Angel and his big law firm of evil, so that means we're it. Just us. And we can't even fix ourselves. Seven years. I'm just so tired."
As Willow's restless eyes continued to flicker between Buffy and Giles, a comforting arm slipped around her shoulders. Kennedy. Kennedy held her tight in a one-armed hug, offering consolation and support. These were things that Willow was only too grateful to accept.
"If it weren't for Kennedy, I don't know what I'd do. With Giles trying to help Buffy, and Xander and Anya working hard to fix their stuff, sometimes it feels like she's the only thing I've got left. She's my rock. I don't think I could do this without her."
Gently, Kennedy kissed the top of Willow's bright head. It was an intensely affectionate and fiercely protective gesture.
"I have to go now. We've been talking about heading to Ohio since it has the second-largest known Hellmouth, but I've been getting weird vibes about it, like something's pulling me in another direction. Gotta check that out. Maybe the universe is finally trying to give us something good. I definitely wouldn't say no."
With a heavy sigh, Xander riffled through the book waiting for something to catch his eye. It wasn't long before he found it and began to read once more.
"'It's been almost two weeks now. Giles hasn't said so yet, but I think he's given up. Much as I hate to admit it, I think I'm about to join him. No matter what I try, I just can't hack the Council's systems. And believe you me, I've tried everything. Not even magick works. We're pretty sure someone – that'd be someone not us and someone with some serious magick-hefting backup – stepped in and snapped up everything Councily they could find. All the books, all the resources, all the money ... and the Slayers. We've been able to convince a few of them to join us here in Trillium, but it's not even a fraction of what we activated. Faith managed to get a potential recruit to confess she'd already been approached by another group, so I guess that's that. Giles pretty much gave up then and there. He said we'd just have to make do. Inspiring, huh?'"
At a table in The Common Grounds, Buffy and Willow sat across from each other, talking. Although, more accurately, Willow was doing the talking while Buffy listened. The Slayer was obviously on edge. Her eyes never stopped scanning the area, not even for a nanosecond, and every muscle was wired. There was no part of Buffy that could have even been remotely described as 'relaxed'.
"I met Buffy for mochas today. Sort of a thank you for helping me and Kennedy move into our new place. Which, by the way, is coming along pretty good. I was worried about the size, but I'm henceforth calling it 'cozy', which I think makes all the difference. And only being a few blocks away from Xander and Anya's apartment, I'm hoping for many nights of popped corn and bad movies. It'd be great if we could get Buffy in on that. I'll just have to try harder."
Willow delivered what was apparently meant to be a joke. She waited expectantly, complete with raised eyebrows and face-splitting grin, but Buffy didn't seem to latch onto the funny. It took a while for the penny to drop but then she realized, given Willow's anticipatory expression, that an amused reaction was in order. Anxious not to disappoint, Buffy provided one but it was a painfully token gesture at best. Both were well aware of the fact, but they put up a valiant pretense.
"Buffy ... It's amazing how much you can miss someone, even when you see them all the time. It's like whatever parts of Buffy I loved the most died there on the Hellmouth. I get that. It's hard to know how to deal with her though."
Glancing over Buffy's shoulder, Willow noticed a young man approach. He tossed Willow a warm smile accompanied by a wave of greeting. She returned the smile as he came closer and began to rise from her seat. His arms were extended, as though he were preparing to give her a hug. He never made it.
Before he could even lay a finger on Willow, Buffy had grabbed him by the throat and pinned him against the wall. Spluttering and choking, he scrabbled desperately at Buffy's constricting hold. An expression of sheer terror crept into his panicked eyes as he looked to Willow for some much needed assistance. Buffy's response to this audacity was to squeeze even tighter. Willow was horrified to see his tongue start to protrude as his face turned purple. Rushing to his aid, Willow worked feverishly to pry loose Buffy's locked fingers. She met with not even marginal success. Tugging on Buffy's wrists, Willow tried to pull the Slayer away, yelling that it was okay, that he was a friend, that she knew him. It made no difference. Buffy was fixated on the perceived threat and Willow's frantic entreaties fell on deaf ears.
"Luckily Craig was okay – some bruising aside – but I'm guessing he won't be coming anywhere near me again for the next, oh, EVER. I guess that's sort of default Buffy these days though."
Even as Buffy maintained her vice-like grip on the hapless Craig's windpipe, her expression remained neutral. Her eyes, lifeless and devoid of any emotion.
"It's like there's nothing in there but the need to protect everyone she used to care about. I don't think she even remembers why any more."
Xander thumbed through the pages. He was now close to the end of the maroon volume.
"I did it! Well, technically, Xander did it and I just helped, so ... We did it! I can't believe how much I've missed seeing both of Xander's eyes. When I was little, I used to wonder which of his eyes I loved the most. I never could decide, but now I gotta go with the left. Not even a contest. Hello again, Xander's Left Eye! I've missed you so much!"
In the center of the living room he shared with Anya, seated cross-legged on the floor and holding hands, Xander and Willow faced each other. Kennedy hovered close to Willow's shoulder – not exactly lording over her, but watching vigilantly with arms folded across her chest, ready for any emergency. Sitting at a nearby table, Anya kept an equally careful eye on the happenings. Her leg jiggled up and down in restless nervousness, but she said nothing.
The numerous flickering candles scattered throughout the room had burned down considerably, the flames dancing atop deep pools of liquid wax. Willow chanted softly, her expression one of fatigue. But as tired as Willow might be, Xander by comparison was exhausted. His brow was furrowed in extreme concentration. Around the perimeter of his eyepatch, a glow had materialized, gradually becoming increasingly radiant, as though something bright and brilliant were hidden beneath, just waiting for the opportunity to emerge.
"I'm so glad Anya finally convinced him to do the spell. Xander was being all Mr. Burden, saying how an eye was nothing compared to what some people lost, but Anya pooh-poohed all that. 'You're being noble and self-sacrificing and stupid. People died and I'm sorry, but you letting yourself stay maimed won't bring them back.' At first he wouldn't even talk about it, but you know Anya."
As the luminescence gradually faded, both Willow and Xander slumped forward and their hands broke the connection. Unable to contain herself any longer, Anya rushed to Xander. She stood, waiting and watching impatiently as Kennedy tended to the worn out but buoyant Willow. Gathering together, the three women focused on Xander. Tentatively, he raised a hand, almost afraid of what he might – or might not – see. With agonizing slowness, he removed the patch to reveal an eye, whole and perfect and fully-functional. His ensuing grin was wide and beaming as he blinked at the trio of expectant faces. Obviously delighted, Kennedy immediately returned the grin and Willow was so happy, she was nearly reduced to tears. But Anya displayed little emotion as she inched closer. Reaching out, she cupped Xander's chin in both palms, and forced him to rivet his attention solely on her. She examined the new creation from every imaginable angle, assessing and critically evaluating as though she were appraising a three carat diamond. Xander's grin just broadened as he pulled her toward him and kissed her instead. Kennedy and Willow exchanged a before Willow refocused on the exuberant couple. Kennedy's expression was one of supreme pride as her gaze remained locked on Willow's joyous face.
Shifting position in the chair, Xander probed the area near his left eye. It was indeed healed and whole. Thoughtfully, he closed the maroon journal and returned it to the table. He paused for a brief second before retrieving its blue-bound companion. Flipping through the first few pages, his fingers came to halt upon reaching an entry that was remarkable in its starkness. Of Willow's customary impeccable penmanship, there was no sign. These letters had been scrawled with a shaky hand, its author obviously in a heightened state of nervous excitement. There was only one line.
She's back. Oh god she's back.
Xander stared at the pronouncement for several seconds before moving to the next page. The following entry was of normal length and the handwriting neater, but still clearly indicated a condition of some lingering distress. Clearing his throat, Xander began to read.
"'Tara's back. You'd think writing it would make it feel more real, but nothing about this feels real. Except her. I've never in my life been so sure of anything. This is Tara. This is my Tara and she's come back to me'."
The small den was rather crowded – Willow, Kennedy, Xander, Anya, Giles, Buffy and Tara were all present. But far from being a pleasant gathering, the atmosphere was strained and tense. Having positioned herself between Tara and the rest of the room, Willow was all but screaming at Kennedy and Buffy. Kennedy was giving as good as she got, but Buffy simply listened quietly. When she did open her mouth, the words were delivered in a calm and unemotional tone. Nevertheless, her flat gaze remained fixed on Tara and there could be no mistaking her deadly desires. Acting as primary, although unsuccessful, mediator was Xander, assisted by Anya and even Giles, who plainly didn't trust 'Tara' one bit, yet recognized that the situation called for sound reasoning, rationality and above all, cool composure.
"Buffy wants to kill her. She already tried the first time she saw Tara. I keep trying to tell her that it's okay, but she doesn't listen. And what's worse is that Kennedy agrees with her. I thought that maybe Kennedy would ... I don't know, understand? Be on my side? God I wanted her on my side, but I can't trust either of them. Especially Buffy. I have to do something."
As the heated argument spiraled, Willow, face contorted with anger, yelled at Kennedy. Eyes blazing, Kennedy stormed away in disgust. But she didn't leave the room, simply retreating to a corner where she fumed in silent frustration and rage. Stepping forward, Giles had apparently decided this was a prime moment to forcefully intercede. Xander and Anya instantly supported him. Buffy offered nothing, either physically or verbally. Her gaze continued to be locked on Tara as she moved toward Kennedy. Upon reaching her destination, Buffy engaged Kennedy in muted conversation. Tilting her head, Kennedy listened to Buffy's words. She nodded and began to relax a little. Through eyes narrowed with suspicion, Willow watched the clandestine exchange.
"Soon. Before they figure out why she's here."
Only a breath away, Tara hovered behind Willow. Her body was rigid save for her hands which restlessly clenched and then unclenched again. Willow watched Buffy and Kennedy, while Buffy and Kennedy watched Tara ... but Tara was watching Willow. And there was no trace of fondness or affection in her expression.
Abruptly, Xander's head jerked upward, as though he'd suddenly unearthed the last piece to a mystifying puzzle.
"Tara," he whispered before hurriedly turning the page.
But it was blank, as was the one that followed and the one after that. Only empty pages. No more entries. Nothing.
Holding it by the spine, Xander frantically shook the diary. It surrendered no hidden secrets.
"No, no," he insisted despairingly, "don't clam up on me now."
"Are you talking to yourself again?" asked Anya, moving quietly into the room. "If you keep doing that, we'll have to enlist professional help. Although, inconveniently, that's not covered under our insurance, so please don't be insane."
With a wave, Xander indicated the journals. "Where are the others?"
Anya frowned. "There are no others."
A look of dismay invaded Xander's features.
"Are you better now?" queried Anya, kneeling at Xander's feet and chafing his ankles through the blanket. "You've been there for quite a while. It's almost time to be social and enjoy a meal cooked by others, but if you need more time to cry—"
Xander regarded Anya's upturned face and shook his head. "That's okay. Dinner at Tara's, huh?" His gaze traveled to Willow's final entry, still open on his lap. "Wouldn't miss it."
Not surprisingly, Tara's residence exuded a welcoming warmth that could be sensed even from the outside. Yet, there was something oddly sterile about the interior of the small house, as though the implied coziness didn't penetrate far beyond the surface level. Obviously, the dwelling was inhabited, but it didn't seem to fall within the classification of a home. The living room contained a large armchair and comfortable sofa, but it was difficult to picture anybody occupying the space, settling in for a pleasurable evening of watching television or playing a game of cards.
There was also a distinct lack of personalization. Some pieces of artwork hung on the walls, but appeared to be nothing more than attractive prints that been purchased pre-framed, rather than works specifically chosen for personal reasons. They seemed, to all intents and purposes, to be no more than peripheral enhancements to the décor. There was one notable exception, however. Lining the walls of the hallway were a collection of photographs – most of them, shots of Willow.
Upon hearing a knock at the front door, Tara hurried to answer it. Anya and Xander stood on the top step. Immediately, Anya thrust a bottle of wine into Tara's hands.
"Hello! Thank you for having us over!" she said. "Please enjoy this customary beverage."
Tara accepted the gift, but there was no smile of gratitude, not even a cursory one of politeness, and she was obviously not very happy. Frowning, Anya regarded her with an odd look.
"That's not particularly welcoming," she noted.
Apparently, Tara had been unaware of her glum expression. She shook her head. "Sorry."
Stepping aside, she motioned for Xander and Anya to enter. Both shed their coats and hung them on the nearby rack.
"Something wrong?" asked Xander, a little coldly.
Tara checked her wristwatch. "She's late. Again."
Turning on her heel, she made her way to the kitchen. Xander and Anya followed. Grabbing a small stainless steel bucket, Tara dumped the bottle inside and then went to the freezer for ice cubes.
"Is that a habit?" queried Xander.
Tara glanced over her shoulder "What's today?" Anya was about to supply the necessary information, but the question was rhetorical. "No, wait," continued Tara. "It doesn't matter because the answer is yes."
As soon as the words had rolled off her tongue, Tara realized she had been snippy and she gave a heavy sigh.
"I'm sorry, I—" She sighed again. "There are appetizers in the dining room, a-and you guys know where the glasses and stuff are. Help yourselves." Then, she muttered under her breath. "I need some air."
She grabbed the pack of cigarettes and lighter that lay within easy reach on the counter and exited through the rear door, closing it behind her. With a narrowed gaze, Xander watched her leave while Anya removed the bottle of wine from the bucket. It wasn't yet chilled, but Anya didn't seem to care.
"Would you like some?" she asked.
"Yeah, thanks," Xander replied distractedly.
As Anya began to root around the cupboard for glasses, Xander opened the door and stepped outside.
Tara was standing on the back porch, leaning against the railing on her forearms. Next to her was a plastic ashtray. It had been well-utilized and the porch was apparently its permanent resting place. Staring into space, obviously still extremely irritated and lost in thought, Tara failed to notice Xander approach. Given his expression, Xander's own fury was brewing just below the surface. He leaned against one of the upright posts, arms crossed over his chest.
"Got yourself quite the happy little home here."
Tara jumped at the sound of his voice, then gave a bitter laugh. "That's us. A modern day Ozzie and Harriet."
He arched an eyebrow. "I somehow don't think our lives would've made it past the 1950s censors."
"No," agreed Tara. "Probably not."
There was an uneasy silence as Tara continued to fixate on some point in the distance while Xander studied her carefully, not particularly concerned whether or not he was being covert about it. Clearly, he was attempting to reconcile the Tara he thought he knew to the Tara he now suspected was before him.
"I'm sorry about ..." apologized Tara, gesturing over her shoulder. "In there. It's just, she knew we were having guests over." Angrily, she flicked her ash onto the ground beyond the railing. "She did this on purpose."
"Gotta hate it when there's people you think you can trust, then it turns out," he gave an exaggerated shrug, "not so much."
A tiny frown creased Tara's forehead. She wasn't exactly sure she was following Xander's train of thought.
"I mean, it can be such a big leap, you know?" continued Xander, his upper lip curling. "You'd never see it coming. One second it's, 'hey, there's my best friend's girlfriend'. Who'd've thought one day it'd be, 'hey, there's my best friend's killer'."
Immediately, Tara recoiled at the harsh accusation.
"Xander!" admonished Anya severely from the open doorway.
It was doubtful Xander heard Anya call his name, but even if he had, it would have probably made no difference. Tara took a step backward, Xander's words having cut her more deeply than any knife. But Xander wasn't about to let Tara off easily and he pressed his attack.
"Yeah," he sneered. "I know why you came back. I know all about your 'mission'. I just can't— Even when you told us, I never believed you could've done it, not even for a second." His hands tightened into clenched fists. "It's Willow."
Flinching, Tara shook her head. "I don't—" she began tearfully.
"She trusted you. She loved you," Xander accused, thrusting his finger at Tara.
Anya squeezed his arm in a tight grip. "Xander, you need to come back inside now."
"Did she even see it coming?" demanded Xander, shaking off Anya's hold. "Did you look her in the eye? How hard did you twist the knife, Tara?" He took a threatening stride forward. "How long did it take for her to die when you—"
"That's enough!" ordered Anya, forcefully positioning herself between Xander and Tara.
Grudgingly, he stemmed his words, but was unable to control the physical seething as he glared at Tara over the top of Anya's head. Holding onto the rail for support, tears streamed down Tara's cheeks, but she met Xander's challenging stare with a formidable one of her own. Roughly shoving Xander backward, Anya hurried to comfort the distraught Tara, but her presence was barely acknowledged.
"Sometimes I wish I had done it," Tara spat back. "At least then I wouldn't have to live with the guilt of still being here without her."
Anya placed a protective arm around Tara's shoulders. "Hey, no more guilt," she soothed. "We made a promise. The least you can do is pretend when we're around."
"'No more guilt'?" Xander was stunned. "She killed Willow!"
Eyes blazing, Anya tossed Xander a look of disbelief. "She did no such thing and you know it."
He blinked and tried to process this news, running a hand through his hair. Bewildered, he shook his head.
"Ignore him," Anya appeased, giving Tara a consoling hug. "He's been like this all day. Personally, I think he's still drunk."
Xander remained in a state of confusion. "But ... but she was brought back to—"
"Yes, to kill Willow to stop her from going bad and losing her soul," said Anya impatiently. "I know all this, I was there."
Throughout the whole ordeal, Tara's redoubtable gaze had never left Xander's face, not even for a moment, and it didn't falter now. "I was ready to," she admitted. "Is that what you want to hear? I might've, I don't know. I guess we never will."
"What's going on?" came a demanding voice from the doorway.
Xander whirled to find Kennedy standing in the doorway. Her hair was damp, as though she'd recently showered, and pulled back into a ponytail. Her legs were astride and her arms firmly crossed. She wore a suspicious frown that encompassed everyone within its line of vision.
Surprised and a little confused, Xander could do nothing but stare.
"Oh, uh," mumbled Tara, sniffing back the tears and averting her face. She swiped at her wet cheeks with the palm of her hand and covered her actions by taking a long pull on the cigarette. She flicked the ash over the railing and took another puff before turning back to Kennedy.
By now, Anya had joined Xander, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, her previous anger at Xander set aside for the moment. She beamed brightly as if to say, 'aren't we just the perfect couple?'
"Just ... you know." Tara shrugged. "Talking about old times."
Kennedy's eyes narrowed as she moved to Tara and inspected the ravaged features. Tara couldn't look at her.
"You've been crying," accused Kennedy.
"Onions," lied Tara without missing a beat. "For the stew."
Plainly, Kennedy wasn't buying the explanation but in near apathetic fashion, she didn't push.
"You're late," frowned Tara.
Kennedy shrugged. "Yeah, well ..." She planted a quick peck on Tara's cheek. The gesture was almost automatic, as though it were something expected of her but didn't require much thought one way or the other. "Scary monsters to fight, a world to keep safe." Turning, she nodded a greeting to Xander and Anya. "Hey."
"Hello," returned Anya pleasantly.
Xander, still trying to come to terms with the idea that Kennedy appeared to be the new woman in Tara's life, responded with a half-hearted little wave.
"So you need to freshen up then?" Tara asked.
"Nah," said Kennedy. "I grabbed a shower at work."
Tara took another puff and breathed out the smoke. "You could've called and told me you'd be late."
Kennedy considered this for a moment and then shrugged. "I didn't." Her nose wrinkled with disgust as she noted the cigarette dangling from Tara's fingers. "I thought you told me you'd quit those things?"
Tara shrugged. "I didn't."
The two of them stared at each other for a moment, locking eyes in a type of unspoken challenge. Neither was the victor, both looking away at the same time. If Kennedy found any of this bothersome, she certainly didn't let it show. Instead, she headed back inside.
"Stew, huh?" she threw casually over her shoulder, as though nothing had occurred. She didn't wait for an answer.
As Kennedy disappeared, Tara ground her cigarette into the ashtray.
"It should be done by now," she told Xander and Anya as she passed on her way to the door.
But Xander and Anya didn't follow immediately, as Anya still had something she wanted to say. She got on tip-toes to whisper, and Xander obliged by leaning closer.
"Please try not to make Tara upset again tonight," she urged. "I would like us to keep some friends, and it's not like we have an infinite supply to draw on any more."
Much like Kennedy, she didn't wait for an answer, simply patting Xander's arm as she steered him into the kitchen.
Kennedy and Tara sat across from Xander and Anya at the dining room table. Two loaves of fresh-baked bread cut into neat slices and a large block of cheese occupied the center, together with an arrangement of winter flowers in a crystal vase. Before each of them was a bowl of stew and a glass of wine. The company ate in uncomfortable silence and Xander couldn't seem to stop staring at the existence of a Tara-and-Kennedy coupling.
"Could you pass the butter?" asked Anya, breaking the uneasy hush.
With a startled blink, Xander emerged from his reverie and slid the butter dish toward Anya, who promptly loaded her knife and liberally spread a slice of bread. She took a bite and then appeared determined to keep the conversation alive.
"Tara, what did you do after you left the shop this morning?"
Somewhat taken aback that anyone was talking about anything, Tara composed herself and pondered on a suitable answer.
"Oh, uhm ... I, uh, I went to the library and read for a bit." She swirled her spoon around the bowl. "Then there was the art show at the community center."
"You had an art show?" queried Xander, taking a sip of wine.
Tara shook her head. "I just went to look."
"There's a surprise," chuckled Kennedy with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
Instantly, Tara's eyes narrowed as she looked in Kennedy's direction, but Kennedy was busy with her meal and Tara made no comment.
Anya nodded. "It sounds like you had a very productive day."
Kennedy's derisive snort earned her another sharp gaze but again, Tara held her tongue and her attention eventually reverted to Anya.
"Well my day didn't revolve around killing and death," she noted crisply, "so I'd say it was meaningful."
Kennedy frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"What do you think it means?" challenged Tara, arching an eyebrow.
"There's nothing more important than what I do," Kennedy told her brusquely. "I'm fighting to keep people safe. To keep you safe."
Tara's eyebrow inched higher. "Oh, is that why?"
A worried crease appeared on Xander's forehead. "I think I liked it better when we were awkwardly non-talky."
However, Anya was taking everything in stride. "And how was the killing?"
Shooting Tara a parting glare, Kennedy returned to her stew and addressed Anya in a mildly cordial tone.
"Good. I found a nest of some sort of orange gloppy things on Sheridan. Bit dicey for a few minutes there, but Slayer skills win in the end."
"You're hurt?" queried Tara. Her expression dissolved from annoyance to concern for the first time since Kennedy had arrived home.
"Few cuts," said Kennedy dismissively. "They'll heal." She stole a sideways glance at Tara's apprehensive face and her defensive cloak of antagonism slipped a little. "I'm okay," she reassured gently.
Tara continued to regard Kennedy with some anxiety for a few moments, but all too soon, the mask of irritation was back in place. "You shouldn't patrol by yourself"
"Christ, not this again," declared Kennedy, throwing down her spoon. It clattered into the bowl.
"There are plenty of Slayers now," Tara told her through tight lips. "There's no reason why you—"
"They get in my way," returned Kennedy, pushing away her stew and resting her elbows on the table. "They don't know what they're doing, and that could get us both seriously dead."
"Of course they don't know what they're doing," said Tara snippily. "That's why you have to teach them."
"That's Faith and Giles' job," stated Kennedy firmly with a dismissive wave.
"It's supposed to be yours too, remember?"
Kennedy leaned back in her chair and rolled her eyes. "The last thing I need is a wacky sidekick."
Eager to alleviate the mounting tension, Xander leaned forward. "It doesn’t have to be like that. I remember when Buffy would—"
He recoiled, the words of advice dying in his throat, as Kennedy leapt to her feet. She slammed her fists on the table with such force that the dishes rattled and water spilled from the vase. Anya quickly grabbed her wine glass before it could topple over.
"You do not say that name in my house!"
Xander blinked in confusion. That he was totally floored by the outburst would have been a gross understatement.
"I was just—" he began.
But Kennedy was in no mood to listen. "I won't tell you again," she warned, tone deadly serious.
"Stop it," said Tara sharply. "It's not his fault."
Relaxing a little, Kennedy returned to her chair, but the death-glare fixed on Xander continued to linger.
"And ... And you should stop blaming Buffy," she added.
Kennedy's features transformed into a picture of total incredulity. Her mouth gaped as she swiveled to face Tara, shaking her head as though she couldn't believe she'd just heard such a statement.
"What?" she spat.
"It's not her ..." Sighing, Tara tried a different approach. "She's suffered enough."
Kennedy's upper lip curled contemptuously. "No! No, she hasn't! It'll never be enough!"
"And what will, Kennedy?" asked Tara, her own temper beginning to rise. "When will it be enough?"
"I don't know!" sneered Kennedy. "Maybe if she'd stop hiding like the coward she is, we'd find out!"
At Tara's angry shake of the head, Kennedy's ire climbed a few notches.
"You're pathetic," she told Tara scornfully before focusing on Xander and then Anya. "You all are. You, Giles, Faith ..." Her tone become intentionally whiney. "'Oh, poor Buffy. She lost her sister. Her 'Get Out of Jail Free' card never expires'."
"It isn't like that!" snapped Tara, eyes blazing.
"It's exactly like that," returned Kennedy. "If she was still here you'd have her over for tea and cakes every freaking day!"
Tara rose to the challenge. "What would you do? Kill her?"
"Is that all you are now?" asked Tara. "A killer? A murderer?" Her eyes raked Kennedy's infuriated face.
"Why not?" The smile that crept across Kennedy's lips carried a sardonic twist. "I'd fit right in with this crowd!"
Reaching for a couple of slices of bread, Anya put them on a napkin. Getting to her feet, she grabbed a fistful of Xander's shirtfront and hauled him upright also. He complied without protest, obviously dazed and yet transfixed in something of a train-wreck-watching state.
"Thanks for inviting us!" Anya nodded affably to both Tara and Kennedy. "We'll do this again real soon!"
Still holding tight to Xander's shirt, she began to drag him toward the door.
"We can't just—" he objected, looking over his shoulder.
But Anya was determined. "We can absolutely just."
Retrieving their coats, she shoved Xander into the night.
Neither Tara nor Kennedy showed any reaction to the departure of their dinner guests. Indeed, they didn't even seem to be aware the couple had left.
"What happened with Willow was not murder!" snapped Tara.
"Who cares?" Kennedy retorted. "She's still dead! Or did you forget that part?"
Tara pushed back her chair. "How can you even ask that?!"
Kennedy did the same. "I dunno! I guess it's just a special part of me." Her hands clenched. "The same part that wonders why the hell nothing sticks to Buffy just because her stupid sister—"
"Dawn!" Tara all but yelled. "Her name was Dawn!"
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "I don't care! She's just Buffy's little pity crutch to me!"
"God, I can't believe how heartless you are!" Fiercely, Tara tugged her hair away from her forehead in sheer frustration. "Willow would never have wanted you to act like this."
"Don't you dare tell me what Willow would want!" bristled Kennedy. "I knew her better than you ever did! Willow and I were happy before you came back and messed everything up!"
Both were standing now, only a few inches of hostile separation between them.
"If I hadn't gone away, there never would have been a you and Willow!" Tara shouted back. "You wouldn't have even gotten a passing glance and you know it!"
As Xander and Anya made their way, post-haste, to the car, the continuing tirade between Tara and Kennedy could easily be heard, a little muffled but still perfectly audible. Hesitant to leave things in such a deteriorating condition, Xander kept glancing backward to the front door, apparently contemplating a return to the arena complete with a flag of truce. Anya, on the other hand, was munching contentedly upon one of the pieces of bread she had stolen from the table. She offered the other to Xander.
"Would you like some? It's very good."
Xander declined in something of a stupefied fashion.
"Was that supposed to be dinner?" he asked bewilderedly.
"Don't worry," Anya consoled, squeezing his arm. "I have a casserole in the refrigerator. It'll be ready in only 20 minutes at 400 degrees." She smiled brightly.
"It's not that I'm not hungry," stated Xander uncertainly, "but— Actually, no, I'm not hungry now."
"You'll get over that later when you smell it," assured Anya. "It's hearty tuna. There's also celery."
"Sure," nodded Xander absent-mindedly, "but ... but what about...?" He jerked his chin toward the house.
Anya followed his gaze. "Oh they're fine," she dismissed. "You know how it is – the screaming and the hurting, followed by violent sex."
Xander could only rub his forehead.
"It would be nice to make it all the way through a meal one of these nights though," sighed Anya regretfully.
Frowning, Xander shuffled his feet as he walked. "It shouldn't be like this," he murmured.
Anya's gaze drifted back to the house, then she looked at Xander sadly. "It shouldn't. But it is." Shaking her head, she began to search for her keys. "Still, it probably would've been best if you hadn't mentioned Buffy. What else can you expect when you bring up the person who killed their girlfriend?"
Abruptly, Xander ground to a halt, immobilized by shock. Unaware, Anya kept moving for another few steps before noticing he was no longer at her side. She turned to look at him. He seemed rooted to the spot.
"What?" she asked curiously.
Footsteps echoing, Xander and Anya made their way along the quietude of the corridor's tiled floor. The walls were white, clean and sterile, barren of any adornment, save for a row of closed doors on either side. At the end of the hallway was a room. Its door was also closed, but there was a large window affording a view to the interior. It was this room that was the couple's ultimate destination.
Through the glass, Buffy could be seen, sitting in bed, propped by a pile of pillows. Her arms and hands lay still atop the sheets, which had been pulled up over her chest. Her eyes were open but unseeing in a face that was pale and ashen. She blinked from time to time, but was otherwise catatonic. It was a state of being Xander recognized. Buffy had been there before, when Glory had taken Dawn.
He reached out and touched the window, palms resting against the cool pane.
"You said she was on vacation," he murmured, focus never straying from the figure on the bed.
"Yes. 'Vacation'," agreed Anya, executing air quotes as she had in the car earlier. "I thought the sarcasm was implied."
"Ah. Sorry," nodded Xander. "I usually get it, but I must've left my sarcasm detector in my other universe."
Anya's face was lined with concern. "I know today's been hard, but—"
Slowly, Xander turned to her. "No, Ahn," he told her with a sigh, "you don't know. I don't even know."
"You've been strange all day," frowned Anya. "I thought at first it was simply the lingering effects of too much alcohol, but it's not, is it?" She regarded him questioningly, but his gaze traveled back to Buffy.
"I know that just asking is probably going to bend time or flip reality or send the whole thing whizzing down my leg," he said, "but I've oddly stopped caring. What the hell happened?"
Anya's anxiety mounted as she stared at his face. He looked at her with eyes that demanded an answer – eyes that begged for one. "Please. I have to know."
She sighed. Although failing to understand the need, Anya was willing to comply.
"Where do you want me to start?"
"From the beginning is a time-honored tradition," suggested Xander. But Anya appeared frustrated with that response, so Xander made the effort to clarify. "I know about ... about Dawn. Tell me about Buffy."
Crossing her arms, Anya leaned against the wall and took a semi-deep breath.
"Well, after Dawn and Sunnydale, Buffy was different. She wasn't Buffy anymore." She shrugged. "I mean, except that she was, of course. But she changed."
Xander nodded. "That's what Willow's diaries said."
"I've read them," said Anya, her tone flat. "She was sugarcoating it. Buffy was a freak. She couldn't work with anyone. She couldn't train. She was patrolling all the time, like a runaway train in one of those action movies when they pull too hard on the brake lever and it snaps. Giles could only barely keep a leash on her."
A flash of hope crossed Xander's features. "Giles," he repeated. "Can't he wake her up? Maybe magick, or an herbal supplement or something."
Anya glanced through the viewing window.
"Well you can ask him."
Puzzled, Xander followed her gaze to see Giles shuffling out of the adjoining bathroom. He moved slowly, almost painfully, like an old man. Lowering himself into a chair next to Buffy's bed, he gently took her hand into his own and stared absent-mindedly at the night sky, crisp with stars and a crescent moon. Ruefully, Xander noted that the Watcher's appearance had undergone no improvement since that morning. Indeed, if such were possible, he looked even worse.
"Though I don't think there's anything he hasn't tried," said Anya wistfully. "He even asked Tara to help him once, but they couldn't even get a flicker. Last I heard, he was all but begging some witches in England to help him, but they've apparently become partners with the new Watcher's Council and can't. Or won't." She paused for a moment. "They aren't. I guess that's all that matters."
As Xander watched, Giles chafed Buffy's hand, apparently trying to bring some warmth to the limp fingers. He said nothing, merely perched on the edge of the chair with bowed head and slumped shoulders.
"But I'm leaving out whole chapters of drama," said Anya, resuming her reclining position against the wall. "It actually looked like things were getting better. I think Giles was really getting through to Buffy. But then Tara came back, and so much for that."
"Willow thought Buffy and Kennedy were going to hurt Tara," acknowledged Xander.
"Willow was right," Anya confirmed. "At least partly. Buffy convinced Kennedy they had to 'incapacitate' Tara for Willow's safety. Kennedy said she didn't want to kill Tara outright, and I don't think she lied." She thought about that for a moment and then nodded confidently. "Anyway, Buffy told Kennedy to keep Willow back while she took care of the rest."
Xander swallowed hard. It wasn't easy to hear, but he needed to. "And then?"
"And then Buffy stabbed Tara," Anya replied. "Only Willow got in the way." She glanced through the window once more. "Buffy was going for a quick kill. She's very efficient."
Obviously playing the scene in his mind, Xander winced. When he next spoke, his voice was thick.
"Snapped, crackled and popped," Anya agreed.
She fell silent. Together, they stood at the window overlooking Buffy's hospital room. Giles, still cradling Buffy's hand, didn't appear to have moved a muscle. But his cheeks glistened damp from what could have been the tracks of tears. Anya's expression caved into one of deep sympathy. She turned to Xander.
"This isn't one of his easier nights. I'd better take him home before he goes out on the road and gets himself killed. Do you want to wait here?"
"Yeah, I'd ... That would be good."
With a nod, Anya opened the door. Giles didn't even notice her arrival until she spoke to him, and then he visibly started as though rudely interrupted in the middle of a daydream. At first, he shook his head, seemingly reluctant to leave but Anya was nothing if not persuasive. She also lacked little in the determination department and Giles had no choice but to eventually yield. Roughly scrubbing his eyes, he straightened his tie before allowing Anya to steer him into the hall. Silently, Xander observed their departure before entering Buffy's room. He stared at Buffy's pale face and vapid eyes for a long time. But she was, of course, apparently unaware of his presence.
"Hey Buff," he finally whispered.
There was no answer and although Xander presumably didn't expect one, an expression of disappointment crossed his features anyway.
"I woke up this morning thinking it was one of the best days ever," he told her with a wry smile. "Until the magical mystery tour that is my life decided to take a spin through the Ninth Circle of Hell. We should be circling the wagons, you know?" He paused and looked at her. "Assembling the Avengers. Only it looks like the Avengers became psychotically depressed and killed each other."
With a sigh, he claimed Giles' vacant chair.
"What am I gonna do?" he asked miserably. "I thought this was everything I wanted, but ... I don't think I can handle this. I need you. I need Willow." He glanced toward the door. "I need a Giles who can remember to shower and eat without reminders. I need a world where the Marquis de Sade didn't get to play editor-in-chief with my autobiography."
His gaze traveled back to Buffy. Still no response.
"Come on," he urged. "This catatonic thing – this has gotta be like wearing the same dress to two parties, right? Big medical fashion don't?" His grin was hopeful for a moment. Still nothing. "Give me something here," he said despairingly. "You know me, I'll take a little thing a long way, but'cha gotta get me started. I'll take anything. Please."
Nothing. Not even the most meager of flickers.
Running his hand through his hair in frustration, Xander pushed up from the chair and walked to the far side of the room, berating himself severely for the lack of success.
"Did you really think her hearing alterna-Xander would make it better?" he chastised with an angry shake of the head. "If only Willow was here, she could—" The ensuing sigh rasped in his throat. "If Willow was here, we wouldn't have this problem, would we? Now think."
Eyes tightly closed followed by silence indicated the presence of just such a thought process, but the few short moments were interrupted by the sound of an opening door. Turning, Xander found Faith halfway into the room. She had immediately stopped upon spying Xander already there and appeared taken aback to see him.
"Faith?" he greeted.
"Hey ..." she quickly returned. "I, uh ..."
He glanced toward the bed. "You came to see Buffy?"
Already in the process of leaving, Faith waved a dismissive hand. "Nah. I mean, yeah. But it's cool. You go ahead."
"You don't have to go," he told her.
For a second, it appeared that Faith would go anyway, but then she seemed to change her mind. Closing the door, she fully entered Buffy's room. The atmosphere grew a little uncomfortable.
"I am having ... a very weird day," said Xander eventually.
Faith chuckled. "You got a measure for normal?"
That brought a tiny smirk to Xander's lips as he conceded the point. Still, they continued to maintain their positions – Faith by the door, Xander by the wall and a silent Buffy somewhere in between.
"Gotta admit," remarked Xander, "I'm a little surprised to see you here."
Faith shrugged. "Yeah, well ... She never visited me in my coma. I'm lookin' forward to bein' all superior about that when she wakes up."
Immediately latching onto what he perceived to be a sliver of hope, Xander clung to the notion. "You think she'll wake up?"
It was clear that Faith didn't really believe that for a second. "Course she will," she said confidently. "Never give up, never surrender. That's the Buffy way, right?"
"Right," said Xander in a flat tone.
"She just needs someone to kick her in the ass," Faith assured. "Me, I'm only too happy to provide that service. Remind her how it's just rude, leavin' other people to clean up your mess."
Crossing to Buffy's bed, she looked down at the pallid face.
"All these Slayers you made," she reprimanded. "Didn't your mother ever teach you to take responsibility for your pets? Least you could do is walk 'em once in a while."
There was no reaction and Faith turned back to Xander.
"See that? No respect." She rocked on her heels and jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. "Saw your girl takin' Giles home. Tell her thanks."
Xander nodded. "I will."
"He comes up here every day," continued Faith. "Sometimes twice, if he forgets he's done it already." She refocused on Buffy. "An' you can't even say 'hi'. Breaks his heart." Her attention returned to Xander and she tilted her head to one side. "Don't much see you here."
Embarrassed and unable to provide a decent explanation, Xander averted his eyes. "I, uh ... With the shop, I guess I—" he stammered.
"Didn't mean that like it sounded," she said in something close to an apologetic voice. "It's good you got stuff outside all this. Must be nice."
"You don't? Have stuff?" he ventured.
"Sure," shrugged Faith nonchalantly. "I got five minutes all mine between 7:55 an' 8."
Xander frowned. "Well you should come over more. Tonight, maybe," he suggested. "There's tuna ..."
But Faith dismissed the proposal.
"Can't. Gotta patrol the northeast part'a town straight from here, then meet the fourth shift for a few circuits. After that, be about time for the morning meetings."
"Do you have sleep penciled in somewhere?" asked Xander with genuine concern.
She pondered for a moment. "Got a nap some time Monday I think."
Xander took a step toward her. "Faith, that's too much."
"Well it'll be a short nap," she reassured with a smirk.
"Not the nap," said Xander impatiently. "The everything that isn't a nap."
"Someone's gotta do it," returned Faith. She scanned the room. "Anyone else volunteering?"
Turning her head, she regarded Buffy pointedly and waited.
Buffy simply stared directly ahead.
"Didn't think so," concluded Faith.
"But you need more help," Xander told her. "You're like all the Slayers and the Watchers rolled up in a frazzled stressy package. You can't do it all on your own."
Faith didn't respond. Instead, her gaze returned to Buffy. Slowly but surely, Xander made the connection.
"That's why you're here."
Initially, Faith said nothing, simply continuing to focus on Buffy.
"Not a day goes by I don't think about runnin'. Just hoppin' a Greyhound to wherever," she finally admitted. "I'll still fight the monsters and crap, just some place where all I gotta do is look out for me. Few years back, I would'a. But he needs ..."
Her head swiveled in Xander's direction. He could see now how tired and truly wiped she was – never in his life had Xander ever seen her so depleted and worn out.
"He calls me 'Buffy' sometimes," Faith confessed. "He never knows he's done it. He'll just be talkin' about something, and out it'll slip. I tried correctin' him on it at first, but he looked at me like I was crazy." She shrugged casually. "I don't bother tryin' no more." She glanced down at Buffy. "You win again."
"I'm sure he doesn't ..." began Xander comfortingly. "Faith, I know Giles respects you and is grateful for you. You're holding that place together. Even I can see that."
"He needs Buffy," she declared, before staring down angrily at the unheeding woman in the bed. "He needs you."
"That's not what—" Xander hastened to amend.
"And me," Faith continued as though she hadn't been interrupted. "And the Council, and Watchers, and Slayers. He needs all that. So that's what I try and be."
Xander was momentarily dumbfounded by the Faith before him, someone he didn't entirely recognize. A Faith whose eyes were shining a little too brightly, a little too wetly and a little too vulnerably.
She shrugged and stretched her arms out. "But there's still just me."
Instinctively, Xander moved toward her, but she closed up and took a deliberate step away.
"Don't," she gritted. "Just ... just don't."
"Lemme alone," she snapped, turning her back.
For a second, Xander hesitated. But then, he gave a short nod.
"See you soon," he told Buffy softly, giving her a tiny wave of goodbye. The gesture went unacknowledged.
He lingered for a minute more, affording Faith the opportunity to come around, should she so chose. She didn't. He departed, closing the door behind him.
Faith stood rooted to the spot, unmoving and silent, though her shoulders trembled – just a little.
Opening the door to the apartment he shared with Anya, Xander virtually dragged himself inside. As he slowly removed his coat, Anya emerged from the kitchen, surprised to see him. For a second, his eyes sparkled at the sight of her and in that instant, it seemed that everything was alright with the world – they were together and nothing else mattered. But it was for just that instant.
"I thought you were still at the hospital," she chided. "You were supposed to call when you were ready for me to come get you."
Xander didn't respond with words. Instead, he wrapped Anya in his arms and held her tightly. Not fully understanding the impulsive gesture, she blinked but returned the hug. They stayed locked in the embrace for a while and then Xander pulled away.
"I walked," he told her. "A little alone time, the cool, sub-artic breeze ... We're just a roaring fireplace and two cups of sanity from the perfect evening, you know?"
Anya frowned. "Xander, that's almost two miles."
"It doesn’t matter," he shrugged.
But she wasn't convinced. "Yes, it does matter! You could have been killed! Painfully! Or if not killed then devoured from the waist down, so you had to drag your bloody torso all the way—"
"Anya," said Xander forcefully.
She relented, for the time being at least.
"There's something wrong." He rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Something I need to tell you."
"What is it?" she asked, immediately alarmed. "You don't have colon cancer, do you?"
"What? No, I— What?"
"I read an article a few days ago about how men your age are twice as likely to get colon cancer now than they were just ten years ago," she informed worriedly.
"I don't have colon cancer," returned Xander.
Anya's eyes widened. "It's not prostate cancer, is it? Because your odds of that are terrifying at best."
"It's not cancer," said Xander, holding out a restraining hand to stop the anxiety-ridden flow. "Would you stop with the cancer? I'm fine." Anya's posture relaxed a little. "It's everything else that's wrong."
She shook her head in confusion. "I don't understand."
"Anya ..." Gripping her shoulders, he steered her gently but firmly to the couch, making her sit down before he took a seat next to her. Tenderly, he grasped her hand. "Since I woke up this morning I've noticed that there's something wrong with the world. Very, very, very wrong. If you took all the wrongest things ever and combined them, you still wouldn't have enough wrong. This is wronger than—"
"I get it!" Anya interrupted. "Albeit in an abstract sort of way." She stared at his serious expression. "What kind of things?"
He squeezed her fingers.
"Well, you—" Then, he brought himself up short, realizing that the most prominent thing at that moment probably wasn't the best one to start with. "—you take for example, Willow and Dawn. I cannot stress enough their not-deadness." He glanced into her puzzled eyes. "When you talk to Buffy, she actually responds, and in ways that are mostly understandable. Giles both knows what a razor is and how to use it. We are the Council. Need I provide more wrong?"
"Whatever you drank last night?" Anya told him in no uncertain terms. "Never again."
Xander smiled – a sorrowful little smile. "I'm taking that as a yes. Tara doesn't smell like an ashtray and has a wonderful relationship with a fully-alive Willow. Kennedy is leading a Council branch in England. Faith—" He paused for a second. "Still has a lot of issues, actually, but they're completely different." He turned now to fully regard Anya. "And I still only have one eye."
"Well now that's just silly," retorted Anya. She extended a forefinger and moved to jab Xander's left eye but his reflexes took control and he recoiled immediately. "See? You have both eyes," she explained. "There was the meditating, the anxious waiting and then poof, no more disfiguring, ugly socket. I watched you regrow it with Willow myself."
He brought the offending finger to his lips and kissed it. "No, you didn't, Anya. It never happened."
"Then one of us is clearly insane," declared Anya, "and I have a very strong opinion on which of us I think it is."
"Let's just say, for the sake of argument," Xander attempted, "that I'm not insane."
Anya rolled her eyes. "Oh all right," she conceded, plainly humoring his whim. "The problem has been since this morning?" Xander nodded. "Well, what was the last thing you remember before then?"
Frowning, Xander concentrated. "I was in a bar," he recalled. "I was supposed to meet Willow's friend for a date, but I stood her up and—"
With a gasp of shock and horror, Anya smacked his upper arm with all the force she could muster.
"Okay, can we also say for the sake of argument that you're not gonna do that again?" he requested painfully.
Anya was prepared to bargain. "That depends," she said primly. "Do you have a whole string of hypothetical floozies waiting to date you in Crazy Xander Land?"
"No." Xander flinched as she raised her hand threateningly once more. "No, okay?" he insisted. Somewhat reluctantly, Anya lowered her hand. "And anyway," he muttered, "it's Buffy and Willow's fault."
"Sure, blame it on the dead and nearly-dead." Anya's tone was marginally sarcastic.
"Would you just help me out here?" implored Xander. "Without smacking?"
His response was a series of low grumbles, but at least she didn't appear to be resuming smack-mode. "Fine," Anya agreed, albeit ungracefully. "What else do you remember?"
"Not much," admitted Xander ruefully. "Whiskey by the quart has been known to have that effect. I was ... I was telling a story to the bartender. I'd had about five or six drinks by then, and this other guy walked up ..."
Anya was instantly suspicious. "This isn't an elaborate set-up for a terribly unfunny 'A man walked into a bar' joke is it?" She sniffed at the flat look Xander leveled in her direction and shrugged. "What did they look like? Did either have horns, or perhaps a tail?" She blinked expectantly. "If they had blue mucus, you could be dealing with a Chinktol curse. I hope you're not. They're very unpleasant."
"Thankfully mucus-free," he hastened to reassure. "They were both normal, everyday looking guys. Bartender listened, poured drinks, went on about his business. The other guy bought me a drink, we talked about some stuff."
"What kind of stuff?" asked Anya, eyes narrowing.
"Life. Loss. Pretzels," said Xander. "The usual kind of thing you would chat about."
He visibly wilted beneath the 'how could you be so stupid?' look that Anya tossed his way.
"You discussed your life with a complete stranger in a bar at the center of three Hellmouths?" She shook her head in total disbelief.
"Yes?" Xander replied in a small, high-pitched voice.
Her grip on his hand tightened. "Xander, listen to me. At any point did you ask for anything? Did you wish for anything?"
"No," Xander told her, not even taking the time to ponder that question. "Most emphatically no. Super-sized no with a side order of no. I would remember making a wish."
A tiny puff of relief escaped Anya's lips.
"I think," he murmured dubiously.
Anya's wide-eyed, incredulous stare returned in full force.
"Well you try half a dozen glasses of whiskey and see if you remember everything you say!" Xander defended, fidgeting uncomfortably.
Apparently overwhelmed by the sheer idiocy, Anya could do nothing but sigh and then sigh again.
"Okay," she eventually began, settling down to enumerate the possibilities. "Well there aren't that many male vengeance demons, seeing as how we women are just plain better at it. Tell me what he looked like, maybe I'll recognize him."
"Let's see," frowned Xander. "Kinda old, maybe forty-ish? Tall, dark eyes, not a lot in the hair department ..."
An indescribable flicker crossed Anya's face. "Did he look like he'd just finished a hard day of selling used cars?"
Xander nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, actually. That sounds right. He gave me his name, what was it...?" The frown deepened. "Dave? Donald?"
"No," refuted Xander, sure and certain. "I'd definitely remember that."
"It was D'Hoffryn!" Anya affirmed with undeniable conviction. "I should have realized. This is entirely his kind of thing – hard-luck businessman working the bar scene." She regarded Xander accusingly. "You had drinks and made a wish, Xander. And not just to a vengeance demon, to the Lord of vengeance demons!"
"So ... no chance of escalating this to his manager for a refund then."
His answer was yet another crushing blow to the arm. Snatching her hand from his grip, Anya got up from the couch.
"Hey!" protested Xander. "We agreed, no smacking!"
"Quiet!" commanded Anya sternly, making her way to the center of the room. "It's been a while since I've had to do this."
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, inhaling slowly. Then, with equal deliberation, she exhaled.
"Beatum sit in nomine D'Hoffrynus. Fiat ... Uhh ..." Her forehead creased in irritation as she struggled with the elusive chant, beginning to mangle the words. "Fiat hoc spatiun ..." She shook her head impatiently. "Blah blah blah, you know the rest, come on!"
For several long seconds, nothing happened. Then, courtesy of a momentary burst of fire, D'Hoffryn materialized in all his glorious majesty. He appeared tall, imposing – and thoroughly unimpressed.
"Honestly, Anyanka," he rebuked, "would it hurt you to follow tradition just once?" He turned to look at Xander. "Mr. Harris," he greeted in amicable fashion. "How good to see you again. Binocular vision suits you quite well indeed."
"Cram it, D'Hoffryn," snapped Anya. "What's the big idea of giving him a wish?"
"The same concept behind giving a wish to anyone, Anyanka," he replied cordially. He spread his hands and looked up to the ceiling. "I saw a soul crying out in pain and like a soothing balm, I—"
"And that 'soul' just happens to be my Xander?" inquired Anya, raising an eyebrow.
D'Hoffryn nodded. "His pain was considerable." He shrugged. "I'm equal opportunity."
"Not that my pain-scale isn't just a little skewed right now," Xander interrupted dryly, "but I think we both know this wasn't what I wanted."
"Isn't it?" D'Hoffryn appraised Xander critically. "Do you deny that this world has certain appeals? Your depth perception, for example. Or perhaps more importantly, your now-blooming relationship with Anyanka."
"Our blooming relationship?" echoed Anya with a frown, whirling to face Xander. "Our relationship doesn't bloom?"
"Ah," mused D'Hoffryn. "You haven't told her."
Anya's challenging gaze traveled from Xander to D'Hoffryn and then back again. "Told me what?"
The silence that followed was thick and awkward.
"Anya, there's ... In the other world ..." Xander tried to explain.
"We're not together," she concluded.
"Well that's no problem," she determined, kneeling at Xander's feet. "Just go find me and tell me that you're sorry for everything you ever put me through, and that you'll spend the rest of your life making it up to me."
She regarded him with eyes that were expectant and glowing with hope – albeit a guarded hope. Xander's wretched expression revealed everything. It was painfully obvious he would like nothing more than to be able to do that. It simply wasn't possible. Slowly, she got to her feet, awareness beginning to penetrate.
"I'm dead, aren't I." Her voice was flat.
Xander was unable to reply. With a simple nod, he averted his face, lips pressed together.
"You didn't tell me that part," she complained sulkily.
"Do try not to be too angry with him," urged D'Hoffryn. "After all, what good is making a wish to bring someone back to life, only to tell them they shouldn't be?"
"A wish to— Wait a minute, that's what this is about?" At Xander's nod of misery, Anya punched him in the arm. "Just how stupid are you?!"
"Well apparently stupid enough to think that 'no hitting' means no hitting," he returned, rubbing the sore spot.
"First of all, it was 'no smacking'," Anya promptly reminded, "and that was a punch not a smack, and second of all, you know better!"
"Okay," said Xander, becoming a little snappy himself now. "Let's just forget the part where I didn't know I was making a wish and jump right to the bit where we say, 'his heart was in the right place'."
"No, no platitudes for you!" she denied, throwing her hands out to the sides. "Were you not listening when I regaled you with many stories of horrible vengeance? They never turn out like they're supposed to!"
D'Hoffryn chewed on that for a moment. "Well there was that one time back in 1300-something. That little village in Bucharest?"
There was a short intermission in the tirade as Anya was forced to nod her agreement. "Yes, okay, that one time." The intermission was over. "But apart from that, never!"
She turned her full attention to D'Hoffryn. "Undo it," she demanded curtly.
"The wish is not yours to retract, Anyanka," he advised with superior huffiness.
So instead, Anya immediately refocused on Xander.
"Xander, you have to undo this. Take the wish back."
"But—" he objected.
She moved toward him threateningly. "No buts, no arguing." Each word that followed was punctuated by a savage poke to the chest. "You – take – it – back."
"I can't," he murmured fearfully.
Anya rejoined him on the couch. "Look around you, Xander," she urged. "You've been here less than a day and already you're all hunched over and miserable. You made this world, but do you really want to live in it?"
Xander didn't reply, neither to confirm or deny.
"Everything's falling apart," continued Anya. "Can't you feel that? I've been trying so hard, with Giles and Tara and Faith and Kennedy, but it isn't enough. Nothing we do ever makes any difference, and now I know why: This isn't how it's supposed to be."
"Maybe I don't care," whispered Xander, fumbling for her hand.
But Anya flounced beyond his reach. "Oh please."
"Maybe I don't!" he insisted, angrily pushing up from the couch. "Maybe it's my turn to be selfish, huh? Maybe it's time for Xander Harris to get the mojo workin' for him for a change." His fists were clenched at his sides. "Angel dies, but Buffy gets him back. Tara dies, but Willow gets her back. You die, and what do I get?" He chuckled harshly. "A pat on the back and job well done?" His lips twisted into a sneer. "To hell with that crap! I finally got what I wanted, and the world can go screw itself!"
Anya treated him to a long and hard stare.
"Well then congratulations," she replied sternly, "because you killed Dawn, and you killed Willow, and because of you, Buffy will never have another meaningful thought again."
Instantly, Xander's righteous fury crumbled around him and he hung his head. Anya's expression softened as she stood before him and stroked his cheek.
"Are you so sure you don't care?" she asked tenderly.
Seizing her hand, Xander pressed it against his face and held it there, leaning into the open palm with closed eyes. He seemed dangerously close to tears.
"You'll be dead," he told her in a quiet, broken voice.
"Yes," agreed Anya sadly. "That's my least favorite part as well."
Bringing her hand to his mouth, he kissed the palm and then the tip of each finger in turn. His lips lingered for a long while, delighting in the warm flesh as though trying to commit it to memory.
"I have to," he finally said. "I'm so sorry."
Anya nodded. "I know."
She didn't clarify which part of Xander's statement she was acknowledging, but maybe it wasn't important. Suddenly, Xander crushed her body to his in a close embrace. He buried his face in her hair, clinging tightly as if the merest relinquishment of his hold would mean losing her forever. Head resting on his chest, Anya returned the hug with equal ferocity. Tears spilled from her eyes, but she refused to succumb to the sobs which bubbled in her throat.
His eyes remained closed and he was unable to speak, but Anya wasn't necessarily waiting for him to answer.
"Please don't stand up any more of your trollops," she told him.
In spite of everything, Xander choked a laugh. "What?"
"You're paving the way for vengeance," she said morosely, "and that's just not very smart. Back in my day, I would have smote you three or four times over by now for abandoning those poor women." She hugged him tighter. "And also, I ... I believe you should date."
Releasing her, Xander pulled away. Swiping the back of his hand across his eyes, he regarded Anya as though he'd never seen her before.
"Okay" he said slowly, "did we undo the wish already, because there's no way you can be my Anya."
"I believe you should date," Anya reiterated. Insisted. Then she grimaced. "Saying that phrase gives me a strong urge to vomit, so please don't make me repeat it again." Noting Xander's perplexed expression, she began to explain, factually and to the point. "I don't want you to be alone. You need someone who'll make you do things on Sunday besides sit in your underwear and watch football. Someone who knows that you like that noxious grape soda. Someone who will wash your back in that spot you always try desperately and without success to reach, and who will throw the blankets back over you when you kick them off at night. Someone who ... " Her lips visibly quivered and her eyes shone. "Someone who will be able to do all the things that I wanted to do with you but never will."
Unashamed, Xander allowed his tears to flow. Taking Anya into his arms again, he showered the top of her head with kisses. "I love you," he whispered.
Xander's eyes traveled to D'Hoffryn, who had been standing, silent and waiting, throughout the entire episode. He arched an eyebrow at the sudden attention.
"I take it back," Xander muttered, face streaked with tears. "Undo the wish."
D'Hoffryn studied Xander for a moment before delivering a sage yet meager nod.
"A wise choice, Mr. Harris," he commended. "Wise, and painful." He paused for a moment. "No."
Apparently, neither Xander nor Anya had been expecting a denial. Stunned, Xander could only blink in disbelief.
"No?!" questioned Anya, voice muffled by Xander's chest. Pulling away, she quickly spun on her heel to face D'Hoffryn. Her expression was incredulous. "No?! What do you mean 'no'?!"
"I am under no obligation to reverse any wish, Anyanka," D'Hoffryn said with a shrug. "I choose not to reverse this one."
"You can't do that!" protested Xander. He looked to Anya for confirmation. "Can he do that?"
"It's not like he has a pretty amulet to smash," Anya replied, still glaring at the demon. "D'Hoffryn writes the book when it comes to vengeance, so ... yeah, pretty much."
D'Hoffryn regarded Xander with an even more generous amount of severity than usual.
"Are you aware, Mr. Harris, that Anyanka's soul was residing in one of the lowest, most tormenting Hell dimensions prior to your wish?" He nodded at Xander's horrified face. "I believe it was, as a matter of fact, most recently in the possession of the Circle of Vitreia. To break this wish will send her back there."
Anya was somewhat shocked and more than a little scared. "The Circle of Vitreia?" she repeated with a whisper. Then she tilted her head and a hint of something akin to pride crept into her eyes. "That's the big time. I had no idea I was so famous." She shook her head, lapsing once more into fearful mode. "But the Circle of Vitreia?"
"The now-humanized soul of a demon that brought forth a millennium of wrathful agony is a treasure unlike any other," pontificated D'Hoffryn. "You won't find that on the 'Antiques Roadshow'."
As D'Hoffryn spoke, Xander became even more stricken. If he'd ever envisioned Anya's ultimate fate, he had apparently never imagined anything even close to a hell dimension.
"Trading through the black market of the nether realms," D'Hoffryn ticked off, "utilization in various demonic rites, and, of course, the endless, abject torture ..." He nodded to Anya. "Yes, I daresay you were in the most unpleasant of places."
"Maybe because I deserve to be."
This time it was Xander's turn to be incredulous. "What?"
"You heard what he said," returned Anya. "A millennium of wrathful agony. That's really an extraordinary amount of agony. I should know. I inflicted it." She looked at Xander mournfully. "I've had a lot of time to think about pain lately, seeing as how everyone is in so much of it all the time, and this is really stunning work."
D'Hoffryn executed an elegant bow. "Thank you."
Acknowledging the gesture with a small nod, Anya continued. "Back in my vengeance demon days, this sort of constant, every day pain is what I strove for and, if I may say so, achieved on more than one occasion. But I never felt it. Even when I gave up being a vengeance demon to save those horrible fraternity people, I didn't think about all the things I'd done in the past that I couldn't undo. Not until coming here."
At some point, Xander had reached out to clasp her hand. She noticed that now and smiled.
"Now I've seen your friends – our friends – and I finally understand what it means to suffer. I get it." She shook her head in wonder. "A thousand years, Xander. That's worse than any person in all of human history. I watched people in torment and enjoyed it. A few good deeds can't fix that."
Anya took a step away from him, although their fingers remained locked.
"I'm sorry that I hurt all those people and I'd take it back in a second if I could," she confessed. "But I can't. This is my punishment, and I have to take it."
A hush enveloped the room. Anya smiled sadly but resolutely into Xander's apprehensive eyes. Only D'Hoffryn appeared unmoved, his dour expression firmly fixed like a mask.
"Very well," he announced briskly. "I'm convinced. I'll reverse the wish."
Xander was taken totally off guard. "Wait wait wait!" he objected. "A minute ago you're all, 'Sorry, Charlie', but now it's—" Xander's tone became a pompous mimicry. "—'I will reverse the wish'?" He shook his head in violent denial. "Now I hear all about evil hell circles, you wanna take her away?"
But D'Hoffryn spoke only to Anya. "I took you in, Anyanka, made you what you were," he said fondly. "I watched over you for a thousand years and every day I was amazed by what you accomplished and what you were capable of."
"Thank you for noticing!" returned Anya, obviously pleased with the praise. "I did work hard, and—" She frowned and waved her hands. "Hey! I just said I was sorry for all that! Stop confusing me with your flattery!"
"You were a legend," he continued, turning to Xander with more than a little pride. "Employee of the month for 219 consecutive years. Nobody's ever come close to touching that."
"The Renaissance was a very good time for vengeance," mused Anya quietly.
Again, she was the focus of attention. "I shaped you. I molded you. You were mine, Anyanka," said D'Hoffryn. "And then you chose to become human." He sighed regretfully. "One becomes accustomed to having something, and letting go is no small task." He tossed Xander a knowing look. "I suspect you understand, don't you Mr. Harris?"
"You knew I'd wish for Anya to come back," Xander realized slowly.
D'Hoffryn raised an eyebrow. "Well I didn't expect you to wish for a pony, no."
Xander was trying to make all the pieces fit and not making a very successful go of it. "So you get me to wish her alive again, but now you're willing to let her die?" Exasperated, he closed his eyes. "Why can't I ever meet powerful supernatural creatures that make sense?"
"Everyone dies, Mr. Harris," D'Hoffryn told him matter-of-factly, "and there's a great deal more to worry about than how or when it happens." He fixed Anya with an affectionate gaze. "I won't have your soul stuck in a realm of torment or used as a bartering chip in some paltry exchange." His eyes drifted to the ceiling for a moment. "Unfortunately, by you choosing humanity and me granting it, we sort of messed up the rules a bit." He shook out the folds of his robe. "I thought my claim to your soul would survive the process. As it turned out, not so much." He gave a perfunctory shrug. "Once you became human again, your soul passed on to more ... mundane and primitive methods of judgment. I attempted to reclaim it as my own, but you and your overpowered friends proved quite annoyingly proficient at defeating my minions."
"You mean you didn't send all those demons to kill me because you hated me?" asked Anya hopefully.
D'Hoffryn tutted at the notion. "Hate is such a strong word. Annoyed me, yes. Disappointed me, absolutely. But you're special, Anyanka. You always have been." He smiled dotingly. "I could never hate you."
Obviously deeply and genuinely touched, Anya moved to deliver a warm embrace, but D'Hoffryn threw up a restraining hand to bar her path and took a deliberate step backward.
"I don't hug," he insisted sharply.
Accepting this, Anya happily made Xander the object of her affection instead.
"I was still attempting to iron out the details when you were most regrettably killed by someone else," D'Hoffryn resumed, "but fortunately, Mr. Harris survived to wish another day." His expression grew quite cheerful. "This has turned out exceptionally well. I thought for a moment there that I might have to keep sending minions after you for the next ten or twenty years." He glanced at Xander. "It's not the expense, you understand, it's the time involved."
"No more demons?" queried Xander.
"Entirely unnecessary," D'Hoffryn reassured. "By recanting her previous misdeeds, Anyanka's soul can no longer be claimed by any of the lower dimensions."
Xander wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. "That's it? That's all it took?"
D'Hoffryn shrugged. "Mundane and primitive." His gaze returned to Anya. "I anticipate no trouble in laying full claim to your soul as its rightful owner."
But still, Xander wasn't entirely convinced. "No pit of torture?"
"None," agreed D'Hoffryn soberly. "They never match the décor."
Xander fixed D'Hoffryn under a piercing stare. "She won't suffer." It was a demand just as much as it was a question, but D'Hoffryn was unfazed.
"Not in the least," he guaranteed firmly. "Although I do admit a fondness for late night infomercials, so if that will be a problem ..."
"Oh I love those!" enthused Anya. "Matthew Lesko is an irritating little man, but his information is so valuable!"
D'Hoffryn favored Xander with a small smile. "No suffering."
Xander's gaze journeyed from D'Hoffryn to Anya and then back again.
"So ... So that's it?"
"Everything except the reversal," D'Hoffryn told him. "I do assume your decision regarding the wish has not changed."
Xander turned to Anya and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Anya had done so for him.
"No, it hasn't," she said with determination. "Because, Xander, you have to make this right for you again." Her smile turned devilish. "And if you don't fix it, I'll find a way become a vengeance demon one more time just to make you regret it."
"Must you tease so?" sighed D'Hoffryn wistfully.
Setting his jaw, Xander delivered a tense nod. "Alright."
D'Hoffryn regarded Xander critically before accepting and sanctioning the decision.
"Meeting you was good for Anyanka," he said approvingly. "It was a terrible misfortune that you were not fated to be together." There was a miniscule trace of sympathy in his voice. "Say your goodbyes now. You'll not see her again."
Swallowing the huge lump in his throat, Xander made a valiant attempt to blink back the tears as he turned to Anya, only too aware that this was the final chapter in their story. Straightening his back, he stepped forward and folded her into an all-encompassing embrace. She reciprocated willingly, eagerly – almost despairingly. Regardless of the fact that she had died once before, and even secure in the knowledge of what would transpire when she died again, there still remained a sense of fear and apprehension. She was thankful for the comfort Xander offered.
"Anya—" he whispered.
She placed a gentle forefinger over his mouth. "Don't say it, Xander. Whatever it is ... it doesn't matter. Just kiss me."
And he did.
Their lips met with passion and desire, longing and sweetness. So much sweetness.
Standing side-by-side, Dawn and Willow's tombstones kept each other company in the cold winter night.
In his office, Giles had passed out, a three-quarters empty bottle of scotch by his outstretched hand and some photographs of Buffy and the Scoobies scattered across the desk.
Tara and Kennedy had inched their way to opposite sides of their bed, clinging to the sheets with their backs turned away from each other. Neither slept.
In Buffy's hospital room, Faith couldn't bring herself to look at the figure occupying the bed. And she paid no attention to the blood dripping from her knuckles onto the floor, the by-product of a fist that had savagely punched and shattered the window.
Isolated within her self-imposed cocoon, Buffy blinked occasionally as she stared vacantly into the distance.
And still, Xander and Anya luxuriated in the glory of their kiss, desperate to make the most of their final moments together as the world seemed to fade slowly to white.
Rays of an early morning sun filtered through the blinds 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.
"Time to rise and shine, Trillium," he said with chirpy enthusiasm. "There's a world out there waiting! It's seven-ay-em on a gorgeous Thursday morning and I just know you don't wanna waste it."
From beneath the sheets came a sleepy groan of protest.
"The weekend's a bit of a ways off yet," continued the buoyant message, "but never fear – yours truly, Zakk Zapp, and the rest of the 101.5 WWWA team will help you get there. Stay tuned throughout the hour as 3WA announces the winners to last night's Santa's Little Helpers contest, and for your chance to win tickets to—"
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 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 lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling, curiously and contemplatively. He glanced toward the small table on the other side of the bed. It held a lamp, a glass of water, a couple of well-thumbed paperbacks and an eye patch. Retrieving the latter, Xander slipped it over his head, settled it in place and then went back to staring at the ceiling. A smile crossed his lips.
"There's a world out there waiting," he echoed before throwing back the comforter.
With a springy step, Xander came downstairs. The banisters had been decoratively wound with tinsel and in front of the living room window, a large tree had been lavishly trimmed, complete with stacks of festively-wrapped presents nestling beneath its lower boughs. He headed for the kitchen, but then stopped to savor the welcome sizzle of something frying in a pan and listen to the muted voices filtering in his direction.
"That'd be nice," Tara was saying. "I just hope you guys aren't pushing him too hard."
"Oh pooh," dismissed Willow.
"Exactly," came Buffy's voice of 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."
"I know it's bossy and pushy and lots of other really negative adjectives ending in y," Willow was apparently conceding, "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."
As he absorbed the words, Xander tipped his head to one side and thought for a second. Then, instead of continuing into the kitchen, he made his way to the hall telephone. Pulling out his wallet, he searched the contents until he found the scrap of paper he'd been looking for. Thoughtfully, he placed it on the small table which housed the phone. He paused, but the hesitation was brief. Removing the handset from its cradle, he began to dial. He tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the call to be answered, but he didn't have to wait long. He smiled at the voice.
"Hi, Serafina? It's Xander. Rumor has it that it's a gorgeous Thursday morning. I was wondering if you'd like to maybe get a cup of coffee and enjoy it with me ..."
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