Graknor attack aside, Sunnydale was experiencing the usual post-apocalypse lull. They found a couple of vamp nests and some random demons but, Hellmouthly speaking, things were quiet.
Less so on the home front. Tara stepped into the role of den mother without complaint. Xander maintained the yard and kept at the list of household repairs but he noticed there seemed to be a lack of participation from Willow, Dawn and their melanin-deficient lodger. Spike was hardly a surprise but he expected Willow and Dawn to pull their weight.
It was Saturday morning and Tara was trying to open the door to the basement while balancing a massive load of laundry on one hip. Breakfast was sizzling on the stove. Xander took the basket away from her.
“You don’t have to do everything, you know.” Xander told her.
“I don’t mind.” She released her grip on the laundry basket but didn’t move away. “It’s how I help.”
“You do too much. Where’s Willow?”
Tara immediately went into defend Willow mode. “Oh, she’s upstairs studying. She’s researching some really powerful combat spells. To hold the Hellmouth without a slayer, she’s got to be at the top of her game.”
“Tara, Willow does not have the whole Hellmouth resting on her shoulders. If it wasn’t a good enough excuse for Buffy to get out of chores it’s not good enough for Willow either,” Xander insisted.
Left to her own devices, Willow tended to obsess. She also wasn’t really used to having chores. Someone needed to put their foot down with her and he hoped it wasn’t him. So he picked on the nearest available person.
“You need to get Willow and Dawn to help you out. But for now.” He took the laundry basket from her. “I’ll handle this.”
Tara smiled at him but didn’t protest as he took the basket and headed downstairs.
Xander easily balanced the basket, overflowing with towels and bedsheets, as he descended the bare wood stairs. He dropped the basket and started loading towels into the washer.
“Trying to sleep here,” said a gruff voice behind him.
Xander spun around, just barely clamping his mouth against a girly shriek.
He knew that came out more shriek-like than he would wish, but it was the only response to the apparition in front of him. Spike’s bedhead made him resemble a dandelion, while his sleepy blue eyes, especially with one fist swiping at them, made him look like a child got up too early. The fact that he was not a child was made abundantly clear by the fact that he was standing at the foot of the stairs stark naked.
“Not that anyone could sleep with you clomping about.” Spike continued his complaint as if Xander were not staring at him in gape mouthed shock.
With effort Xander focused his eyes firmly on Spike’s face. “You can’t wander around like that, Spike. What if I’d been Dawn?”
“It’s how I sleep. And I knew who you were.”
“Great, wonderful. Could you stop giving me the full monty now?” Xander begged in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.
Spike turned to the bed which filled up most of the space on the other side of the stairs and pulled a pair of jeans off the floor.
“Not as if I’d be able to sleep once that thing started banging away anyway,” he grumbled as he pulled on the pants.
“So sorry to inconvenience you,” Xander said, voice drenched in sarcasm, as he turned back around and loaded up the washer, “but four humans and an undead moocher generate a veritable mountain of laundry. Especially when one of them happens to be a teenage girl. I think there’s a law that says they must change clothes at least twice a day. It has to get done sometime.”
He started the washer and, now that he was no longer in danger of spying Spike in all his naked glory, took a good long look at the unfinished basement. The bedroom suite from his apartment looked out of place with the concrete floors and bare pipes. Black plastic covered the two high windows, a temporary measure that made the space look even more shoddy. Accumulated stuff had been shoved to one side to make room for the furniture. There was a lot to be done down here, but he knew where he wanted to start. He wasn’t sure if he was talking to Spike or himself when he said. “We need to get a lock on that door.”
Spike sat on the foot of the bed running a hand through his hair, possibly trying to get it to lay back down. “Got to keep me from corrupting the Nibblet.” Spike’s voice sounded resigned.
Xander shook his head, stood to reason Spike wasn’t a morning person.
“I’d say that was a high motivation, yeah.” He eyed the door speculatively. “I can pick up the stuff today, what kind of lock do you want? I’d think a sliding bolt would do, but if you want a deadbolt it wouldn’t be that much more work.”
When Spike didn’t answer he turned to him. Spike was staring at him like he’d just spoken a foreign language. Running over what he’d said, Xander couldn’t figure out what was so surprising.
Spike’s next words were tentative, as if he was sure what he was saying was wrong. “So, you mean to put it on this side of the door.”
Spike wasn’t usually this dense, what was the deal?
“Yeah.” He drew out the word like he was talking to an idiot. He never realized it took Spike so long to wake up. Then again, between staying up all night listening for Dawn’s nightmares and the human hours he tended to keep he knew Spike wasn’t getting much sleep.
“Tell you what,” Xander shut the washer off, “go back to sleep, I’ll do these when I get back from Home Depot.”
He headed back up the stairs but didn’t get past the second step before Spike said, “Wait.”
He turned his head to look down at the blond. “You decide on a lock?”
“Oh, uh, sliding bolt ’ll be fine. About the laundry. Can’t have you lot traipsing through my bedroom whenever you’ve a mind to. So, leave what needs washing outside the door up there and I’ll do it. Put it back all fresh and clean.”
Spike’s grudging tone made Xander smile.
“I won’t do any folding, mind.” Spike insisted, apparently remembering he had an image to maintain. “And ironing is right out.”
“Of course,” Xander imagined he could let him off with a little dignity in place and continued up the stairs.
In the kitchen Tara was just serving up breakfast to Dawn and Willow. He slid into his place at the table and gratefully accepted the scrambled eggs and bacon passed to him.
“Got you some help with the laundry,” he said around a piece of bacon. “Just dump the dirty stuff by the basement door and Spike will run it through the washer and dryer in exchange for a little privacy.”
Dawn boggled at him. “You got Spike to do laundry,” she said in a “yeah, sure” tone.
“Totally his idea, no folding or ironing but they’ll be clean.” He looked over his shoulder at Tara, “I’m pretty sure he’s figured out how not to shrink everything, or turn all our underwear pink, but maybe you should check the first few loads.”
Tara nodded. “Giles wants to have a meeting at three. Now that the trouble spots are mapped out, he wants to form a battle plan.”
“Do I at least get to sit in on that?” Dawn whined.
“Only if you promise to avoid all the areas marked in red,” Xander told her. Red marked all the locations where team effort seemed appropriate.
Dawn rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll just sit home with my babysitter.” She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I never get to go anywhere.”
“You could go to the hardware store with me.” OK, so it was boring, but it was what he was doing today.
“Yeah, right.” That’s about what he expected.
Tara was moving boxes and bowls on the counter, clearly conducting an unsuccessful search.
“Lose something, Tara?” Xander asked.
“I took off my ring before I started cooking, I was sure I put it right there.” She indicated a spot on the windowsill which was conspicuously blank.
“Maybe you left it upstairs?” he offered.
With the blindness of self-involved youth Dawn said, “When Spike comes up, tell him I need help with that history paper, OK?” and left before getting an answer.
Tara took the teenager’s desertion in stride. She abandoned her search and turned back to Xander. “Could you pick me up some rosemary? I want to add it to the garden.”
“Sure, Tara.” Xander wasn’t sure if they were growing cooking supplies or spell ingredients in that garden, possibly a little of both. “Anything I can get you while I’m out, Wills?”
Willow didn’t look up from the spell book she’d been buried in the whole time.
“Earth to Willow.” Xander chided. “Anything you need?”
“Huh?” She looked up for the first time. “No, nothing I need.”
“Researching spells?” he tried to peer over at the page she was studying. All he caught was a bunch of symbols he probably wouldn’t understand if they were right side up before her arm fell across the page.
“Yes, and I really need to concentrate.” She shut the book and left.
Tara and Xander shared bewildered looks.
Willow seemed to be getting more remote. He wondered if the spell she’d mentioned had anything to do with it, but bringing that up might constitute volunteering to be a magical lab rat, so he said nothing.
Errands took longer than he expected, and it was early afternoon by the time he got back. He heard Dawn’s high pitched voice complaining about having to write about some stupid battle, and Spike’s outraged tone declaring she had no sense of history.
He stuck his head in the doorway just as Spike was jabbing a finger at the textbook, “This battle reshaped Europe!”
Dawn flipped her hair in a way that communicated total disinterest.
The sight of Spike helping Dawn with her homework had to be one of the most surreal sights he’d ever seen. He wondered what the teachers thought of Spike’s, no doubt, blood-soaked version of history.
“Mind if I interrupt?”
Spike slammed the book closed in disgust and turned toward Xander, “What’s on your mind, Harris?”
A scandalized look crossed Dawn’s face, then it changed to teenaged pout. Xander ignored the mood. He only planned to take a minute then she could go back to beating on her vampire.
“Wanted you to look through these,” Xander tossed a Home Depot bag onto the table.
Spike pulled paint and tile samples out in confusion.
“I got to thinking, we always have overages at work. I can pick material up cheap and finish out the basement. You can have anything you want as long as it’s not too outrageous. No red walls and black carpet or anything like it.”
Spike blinked at him. He looked back down at the samples in his hands. “What’s the tile for?” His voice sounded dazed.
“We could really use another bathroom in this house so why not put it in at the same time? There are some nice layouts in there, look through and we’ll talk about it later.”
The response to this rather one sided conversation confused Xander utterly. Spike looked like he’d been hit by a truck, while Dawn glared at him. What could she be mad about, he hadn’t even spoken to her! Retreat seemed the wisest course of action so he went to attach the lock.
Giles seemed to be pulling himself together at last. His clothes were generally unrumpled and he didn’t smell like a distillery. There was still a puffiness about his face that seemed to indicate insufficient sleep. But he stayed focused as he outlined the top three trouble spots on the map.
A nest of yak-something demons had set up in the park where they had killed at least one kid. That was top priority behind the two, relatively small, vampire nests. The yak demons were big, pig-like and had hides that put rhinos to shame. Sounded like a party.
“So, can I have a sword?” Dawn asked brightly. Xander was glad Tara was the one to shut her down.
“No honey, Mr. Giles is going to stay with you.”
“But why! It’s not like Glory can use me anymore.”
“She can’t use you to open a portal,” Willow chimed in. “That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want revenge. We don’t know when she might reemerge from Ben and …”
Xander noticed Giles’s lips whiten as he gripped the back of the dining room chair. “Ben’s dead,” he bit out.
All heads turned to him.
“Did Buffy …?”
“Nicely done, Rupert.”
“So good to have your approval Spike.” The chair was creaking ominously now.
“No, Giles,” Xander moved forward and laid his hand over Giles’s. Suddenly, mindful of the huge weight the older man had carried for all of them. “He’s right. Glory would have come back and killed us all.”
‘That’s what I tell myself but …” he faded off as if he didn’t believe the words.
“I’m glad you killed him.” Dawn’s voice rang out clearly from across the room. “He was a monster.”
“Dawn …” Tara reached out to run a hand over Dawn’s hair but the teen stepped away from her.
Spike reached out a hand and drew her to his side. She stepped closer to him but kept her spine straight as a plumb line. Spike didn’t hush her or try to calm her, just rested one hand casually on her shoulder. Silent support.
“No. You don’t know. We got away. He could have let me go, but she promised him she’d spare him if he brought me back. He traded the whole world to save his own skin. He deserved to die.”
“Desperate young men do not always make good choices,” Giles told her, “if we claim to be superior to the vermin we must show mercy…”
“Mercy is for the strong,” Spike ground out, he maneuvered Dawn a little behind him, as if a threat to her loomed in front of him. “And we, children, are wounded and hurting.”
“I will not let you rip the last shreds of their innocence away.” Giles got into Spike’s face, glowering down at him.
“Would you rather it was their guts, Rupert?” Spike didn’t back up an inch, if anything he pushed closer. “Because all this,” he waved his hand at the map with its color coded trouble spots. “is nothing. Glory left a big whopping power vacuum behind her, and it’s only a matter of time until the next big bad comes looking to move into it.”
It was a strange tableau. Giles and Spike squared off, acting as if they were alone in the room, as if the rest of them were too young to understand the harsh realities of life.
They got reminded real quick when Willow used her handy dandy separate spell to put them in neutral corners.
“Enough!” she declared.
Xander winced as Giles was flung into the sofa and Dawn had to dive out of the way as Spike was flung into the wall. Willow really needed to turn down the power on those things.
She eyed Giles with a speculative look, as if she was seeing him in a whole new light. There was a certain ruthless approval there. “You can’t always protect us, Giles. We may all have to get our hands dirty to defend this place.” Then she turned a disapproving eye on Spike. “And we will beat any big bads that come our way just like we always have.”
Giles straightened, visibly drawing that adult air of authority up to be polished like he did his glasses and put back on. “I suggest we concentrate on tonight’s endeavors rather than rehashing irrelevant matters.”
And that was that, British reserve fully clamped into place, topic closed.
Dawn seemed satisfied. Possibly the subject would need to be reopened with her; it couldn’t be good for her to hate so very much.
Tara was pained but accepting, which pretty much summarized Xander’s own reaction. Thinking about the members of their little monster hunting squad, Giles was really the only one of them emotionally equipped to put the greater good above their own squeamishness. Except for Spike, who would have reveled in it, but was currently physically incapable. He owed the man, Xander decided, and part of payback was getting him through the guilt.
It was disconcerting just how normal standing in a playground at night holding an ax felt.
Willow and Tara carried a few spell components, Giles and Spike were armed similarly to himself. With the revelation that Glory was gone, Dawn had the leverage she needed to insist that she didn’t need anyone to stay with her. They all feared what havoc a bored teenage girl might wreak unsupervised, but acknowledged that Giles’s help would be welcome. Besides, getting back on the horse could only help the Watcher.
Five of the beasts lumbered out of the bushes at them. They were the size of Shetland ponies, but hairless and splotchy with huge curved tusks jutting from their lower jaws. They had set up a nest here and would kill anything that wandered too close. No one wanted to see the next kid’s birthday party turn into a massacre. Well, maybe Spike, but his vote didn’t count.
Tara and Willow clasped hands and cast an immobilizing spell that caught two of the demons. Spike whooped and charged the nearest one that was still moving. He drove his ax into the back of its neck, the most vulnerable spot. Giles moved to dispatch the two immobilized beasts while the other two made a run at the girls. Xander imposed himself between them and the two chanting witches.
He searched around for a way to distract both beasts, a few seconds would be all it took for Giles and Spike to be finished. He swung at the lead beast and whacked it upside the head with the blade. It bounced off the tough hide. It changed direction to focus on him. He ran from it across the path of the second beast, which successfully diverted it’s attention to him. So now he had two demons barreling down on him. That was what he wanted, really it was.
He heard Giles shout something but couldn’t hear what it was through the pounding in his ears. He had just begun to cut back around toward the group when he felt himself flung forward. He toppled to his side and saw one of the beasts tumble away from him. The other one was almost on top of him. He scrabbled for his ax just as another ax embedded itself in the creature’s neck.
“Don’t think I want the ears and the tail,” Spike said as he took another swing that took the demon’s head off. The other demon was being dispatched by Giles. The military strategist that lived in the back of his mind yelled that they were getting in each other’s line of fire, but as the guy whose role in the battle had been to run away and fall down, he didn’t feel like pointing this out.
They dragged the carcasses into the bushes, decided they were then someone else’s problem and headed home.
Xander thought it was odd that he hadn’t seen Willow cast anything new. Where were the snazzy new combat spells?
They found out the following Saturday morning, when Willow cornered them in the dining room.
“What’s the deal, Will?” Xander asked, turning to face her.
Willow had the most excited look on her face he’d seen there in a month, and he dared to hope she was about to deliver good news.
“I’ve been researching and I’ve found a spell to bring Buffy back. We can get her back.
If she was expecting her enthusiasm to be contagious she was disappointed. “Didn’t we talk Dawn out of doing this with her mom, why was that again, oh yeah, because it’s wrong,” Xander growled.
“It is wrong, it’s against all the laws of nature and practically impossible to do,” Tara interjected.
Sensing a need to rally the troops, Willow went into explaining mode. “Buffy didn’t die a natural death, she was killed by mystical energy.”
“I hadn’t really thought about that,” Tara allowed. “Her life force was drained by the portal before she ever hit the ground, which means resurrection is possible.”
As opposed to being crushed by several 100 pounds of cement, Xander thought. No mystical loophole for Anya.
“It means more than that,” continued Willow, “it means we don’t know where she really is.”
“We saw her body, Will. We buried it.”
What a fun filled night that had been, laying his hero and the love of his life side by side in the cold earth, in a hole he and Spike had dug.
“Her body, yeah, but her soul, her essence, I mean that could be somewhere else. She could be trapped in some kind of hell dimension like Angel was, suffering eternal torment just because she saved us, and I’m not gonna leave her there.” She looked back and forth between the two of them. “It’s Buffy.”
“Willow, I really think we should check first,” pleaded Tara.
“Buffy died saving the world. They don’t send you to hell dimensions for that,” Xander said with as much kindness as he could muster.
“But dimensional doors were popping up all over, she could have ….”
“Willow, she’s dead.” Xander’s fragile control snapped as a sore point he’d avoided for weeks was pressed repeatedly. “She and Anya are both dead, and there isn’t anything any of us can do about it. If you have some kind of proof that Buffy’s in some hell dimension I’ll do anything you say. Otherwise, please, don’t put me through this.”
“Sweetie, I think I know where to find a soul location spell, I think it would be for the best.”
“But I can do this, I know I can,” Willow whimpered as Tara pulled her away.
Xander sank into a chair and buried his head in his hands.
All afternoon he tried to put it out of his mind. It was a pointless exercise, but he did try. Images of the freaky lightning striking all around them, opening little glimpses into various hell dimensions, wouldn’t leave his mind. He was actually glad when it was evening and time to convene for patrol. Tonight they were taking out the second vamp nest.
They still didn’t like leaving Dawn alone, even though nothing terrible had happened the last two times she’d been left alone while the full team conducted an assault. Well, Dawn’s sulking had reached new heights at not being included, but they could deal with that. So the five of them against just under a dozen vampires, most of them fledges, should be pretty close to a cake walk.
The vamps had set up in one of the larger crypts. They set up around the entrance to the crypt right after sunset. Two vamps emerged and were summarily dusted with crossbow bolts before the rest even knew they were under attack. The remaining vamps came boiling out, and only one more got hit with a bolt before it was hand to hand.
One vamp charged Xander, intent on tackling him to the ground. Xander brought his stake up, and it slipped into the fledge like a spatula shoved into brownie batter. Just like it felt the first time he’d ever staked a vampire. When they were this newly turned it took very little pressure to plunge the stake home. His assailant disappeared in a cloud of dust.
It was too easy, the cloud dispersed leaving nothing in its wake to mark that a human shaped being had been there. There should be something left behind, some acknowledgement that Jesse had been there. Something that caused that much pain shouldn’t be so very quick and clean.
Somewhere in his mind that first loss merged with the most recent ones, and the desire to rip and tear with his bare hands overcame him. No tidy pile of dust to blow away on the evening winds; he wanted to feel flesh tear and bones break.
Just then, another vampire obliged him by tackling him from the side, and his anger had a focus. He drove his elbow into his attacker’s gut and, when it loosened its grip, turned and began pummeling it with his fists.
Distantly, Xander was aware of the vampire clawing at his sides but he couldn’t feel the pain. He poured his own anguish into the body below him via his fists, striving to inflict as much damage as possible. Soon the vamp wasn’t doing anything except trying to defend itself, but he didn’t stop hitting. He felt like some mechanical pile driver, incapable of controlling his own arms. That being the case, it was probably a good thing that Giles wrapped his arms around him from behind, stilling him, while Spike staked the beaten vampire. Swirls of dust were all that was left of his opponent, and he sagged in Giles’s hold, his adrenaline surge fading rapidly.
He was grateful neither Spike nor Giles questioned him on his out of control behavior. Only vaguely aware that Giles silenced Willow when she began to ask what had just happened, he staggered away from his friends. There may have been vomiting.
The rest of the night passed in a fog. Somehow he ended up back at the house. He had a vague memory of the gashes in his side being treated, but the pain was distant and somehow irrelevant. Dimly he recalled waving off all questions and insisting he was fine. He was fairly sure he hadn’t been believed. Not that that mattered either.
The house was silent. Everyone had finally gone to bed and left him to his brooding. He wandered into the kitchen and noticed that the light was on in the basement, and the door was open. Looked like an invitation. Grabbing the entire case of longnecks out of the fridge, he headed downstairs.
Spike sat in the armchair, looking up at Xander as if he’d expected him. He didn’t say anything, just took the beer and steered Xander so he sat on the foot of the bed.
Xander downed the beer in his hand in two gulps, and Spike immediately took the empty and put another in his hand. Xander stared at it, trying to make sense of his surroundings, this alien landscape he’d found himself in.
Life just didn’t make sense when he was in this much pain and couldn’t talk to Willow. Having a girlfriend none of his friends liked had always been a problem, but now it was a crisis. When Spike was the most comfortable person he could be around, something had gone seriously askew in the universe.
Then again, the way things were now, the universe being that hinky was just about par for the course. The world felt like a jigsaw puzzle with half a dozen critical pieces missing. It only made sense that it would get put together in weird ways.
He took another swallow of his beer, then stared at the bottle. “Anya hated beer. She liked anything frozen and sweet. Margaritas, piña coladas, that kind of thing. She’d call them alcoholic slushies.”
“Perversion of good whiskey, I call it,” Spike smirked. “Course she never cared what anyone else said about such things.”
Xander cast a glance at his grinning companion and said, “She expected the world to make sense, always got frustrated when it didn’t. She could make you wonder, really wonder, about why things were the way they were. Stuff you just never questioned, you know.”
Spike raised his bottle and clinked it with Xander’s. “To Anya, a damn fine woman of pure heart and kinky mind.”
Xander gave a half smile at the toast, probably the best description of his Anya he’d heard, and downed half his bottle.
“I figure we’ve got something in common, mate,” Spike said.
Xander tried to remember if Spike had ever called him “mate” before, didn’t seem likely. “Don’t see how.”
“We both lost someone precious out on that field, maybe Buffy didn’t return my love the way your girl did yours but --”
“Not what I meant Spike.” Of everyone, Spike seemed the most likely to have some understanding of what he was going through, and with that realization came a burning need to make him understand. He drained his second bottle.
Spike lifted a questioning eyebrow at him.
“Buffy died saving the world. The whole world Spike! Hell, the way Giles describes it she saved whole other dimensions! I miss her, but I’m so damn proud of her. It’s such a perfect send off. Anya died because she saved me. Me!” He threw his bottle against the wall and watched it shatter. Apparently, he still had some anger left, and it was all focused on Anya. “Why did she do that to me? My life is worthless without her. I’m nothing without her, and no one understands.”
Sitting was impossible. He started pacing the basement in jerky strides as if he was on a ship in a choppy sea. “The whole thing was so stupid! She should have been hundreds of miles away, somewhere safe.”
He stopped at the wooden pillar in the center of the basement, digging his fingers into the rough wood until he could feel the splinters embed themselves in his flesh.
“But moron boy here.” He pounded his head against the pillar. “Told her it was all going to be all right, that the world wasn’t going to end. Hell, I even proposed!” He leaned his forehead against the pillar, tears streaming down his face. “I wasn’t even looking up, I didn’t see. The earth starts shaking, and I don’t even look up. But she did. She saw, and she pushed me out of the way. How could she do that? How could she leave me?”
“You’re being a selfish git.” The harsh words startled Xander, he’d all but forgotten he wasn’t alone. A comforting hand on his shoulder softened the words. “How do you think she’d feel, being the one left behind?”
A picture of Anya, alone in their apartment, his friends, her only social contacts, ignoring her pain, ignoring her, filled his mental landscape. It was a horrible picture to be sure, but nothing compared to the image that replaced it. Where was she right now? What was she suffering?
He’d been holding this inside ever since Willow had told him things he hadn’t dared let inside his brain for fear they would drive him mad. “They want to bring Buffy back,” he said into the post. “Willow says she could be in a hell dimension somewhere. That all the dimensions popping in could have sucked her soul into hell.”
“Rot.” Spike spun him away from the pillar. Xander felt the sting of Spike’s nails indenting his biceps. “White hats like Buffy and your girl don’t go to hell dimensions.”
He sounded like he felt he could make it true with the force of his words. But Xander couldn’t rely on his conviction. He grabbed Spike’s t-shirt in one fist.
“But what if Willow’s right? What if Anya’s there and there’s no way to get her out? What if there’s a fluffy bunny dimension, Spike? I don’t, I don’t….”
The capacity for coherent speech left him. His sobs made it difficult to breathe, let alone form words. He crumpled against Spike’s chest, soaking his t-shirt. His legs no longer supported him and Spike’s arm around his waist was all that held him up.
Spike didn’t say anything, other than a few nonsense phrases, as he pulled him back to the bed and held him close, practically in his lap. No cutting comments were made, no threats of blackmail, just a soothing rhythm of hushed words and the security of strong arms. Xander found he just didn’t have the energy to be strong anymore, and he collapsed into the offered comfort wholeheartedly
Xander woke up in his own bed. It was in Buffy’s basement, but it was his bed. He turned his face into the pillow, hoping to catch a hint of Anya’s lavender perfume. All he could smell was fabric softener and his own sweat. He hadn’t actually expected any different, but he was disappointed all the same.
He didn’t remember taking his shoes off but he was in his sock feet under the covers. He felt grimy and uncomfortable from having slept in his clothes, and he was stiff from the injuries he’d sustained in the fight. A glance at the clock told him it was definitely morning, and he groaned. He must have actually fallen asleep in Spike’s arms.
Since he wasn’t in evidence in the basement, Spike must be upstairs, preparing to mock him as soon as he emerged. He really should be dreading it more, but he’d needed the release so much last night. He found his shoes set neatly beside the bed, so he put them on and levered himself up. No use putting it off. With a laborious and heavy tread, he ascended the stairs to the kitchen.
Everyone was getting breakfast: Spike heating up a mug of blood in the microwave, Tara making pancakes and bacon. Small good mornings were exchanged but nothing else. Spike moved past him to the basement door.
“Think I’ll catch me a little shut eye, see you in a few hours.” He gave Xander a friendly nudge as he went past.
Mocking appeared to be off the menu today.
He eased himself into a chair at the table. Willow glared at Spike’s back until the basement door shut. When he disappeared from sight she returned to her breakfast as if she were searching for the answers to the universe in her plate, avoiding Xander’s eyes.
A plate of pancakes appeared before him.
“How are you feeling this morning, Xander?” Tara asked. She set the syrup in front of him.
“Like something big used me as a chew toy.” He smiled at her and hoped to get out of the concerned mother lecture.
“Let me take a look under the bandages after breakfast.” She moved back to the stove. Looked like she was postponing the lecture until she could punctuate it with a few well placed pokes to his injured sides.
“Where’s Dawn?” he asked, shoving pancakes into his mouth.
“Upstairs on the phone. Some of her friends are heading to the beach and she’s not speaking to us since we won’t let her skip school to go,” Tara said. Then she slipped into her place at the table. “She needed to commiserate about the injustice of it all.”
He nodded sagely. Make Dawn’s life miserable, check. They were officially parents. He eyed Willow again. She was pointedly ignoring him. He let it pass for a few minutes while he finished his breakfast, hoping she would break her silence. Finally he decided it was up to him.
“Willow, what’s the matter?”
She glared at him and her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been crying. “Since when does Spike get to know our business?”
He cut his eyes over to Tara for some kind of explanation, but she placidly sipped her coffee and said nothing.
“He loved her. He has a right to know.” The fact that he was saying that, and actually meant it, boggled the mind. Being talked to like an errant child rankled him and he asked back. “What reason could we have to sneak around anyway?”
“I trusted you to use discretion. I thought you could figure out that we shouldn’t go blabbing the plan to anyone and everyone.” Indignation rang in her voice.
The fact that Spike had given him comfort and support, things that his best friend had made impossible to seek from her, had Xander’s loyalties in a weird place at the moment.
“Spike is one of us, why shouldn’t he know?” Xander bit out. “Why would you want to keep it from ….” A light bulb went off over Xander’s head. “You haven’t told Giles, have you?”
“I thought you cared about Buffy. I guess I was wrong.” There was venom in her tone. He almost didn’t recognize it as her voice.
Before he could come up with a response, Tara laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come upstairs, I want to look at those gashes.”
Willow had returned her attention to her breakfast, stabbing at her pancakes. He allowed himself to be lead up to the bathroom without protest. Even with the confrontation with Willow he felt calm. It felt like all the fear and pain he’d been carrying around was emptied out the previous night. It wouldn’t last, but for now he felt capable of facing things.
He took his shirt off, wincing at the stretch of abused muscles as he dragged the t-shirt over his head. Tara pulled away the bandages gently, but it still stung. There were three long marks on each side along his ribs. Fortunately, only one was very deep.
“You’re going to need a new jacket,” Tara told him matter-of-factly. “Yours is trashed.”
“Died in the line of duty.”
“Well, without it you would have needed stitches.”
She rubbed something astringent on the scratches that burned like acid. At least, it burned the way he assumed acid would.
“So Willow’s trying to fly her whole resurrect Buffy plan under the radar, huh?” He asked, partially to distract himself. “Afraid Giles will shut her down?”
Tara nodded, smiling like Mona Lisa and daubed at the scratches. “I think so, but she’s mad about Spike because, after you fell asleep, Spike came up and had a little chat with her.”
“He said if she dared tell Dawn her sister wasn’t in heaven, he’d risk the chip frying his brain to rip her spleen out.”
Xander felt himself go pale, and cursed himself for the selfish git Spike had called him last night. “Dawn! I never even thought about that. She doesn’t know, does she?”
“I don’t think she’s told anyone but the two of us. I think she only told us because she needs us for the spell.”
She seemed satisfied with the scratches and began applying a fresh bandage.
“She’s dealing with forces that shouldn’t be invoked lightly. I’m glad Spike was able to give her reason to reconsider. She hasn’t been listening to me the last few weeks.” Frustration laced her voice, and Xander found himself worried about his favorite witchy duo.
“Willow gets like this sometimes. The whole ‘voyage of discovery.’ She means well, but she can make you feel a little bit like an experiment. She actually wanted to cast some kind of forgetting spell on me.”
At the horrified look Tara gave him he scrambled for a way to backtrack and came up blank. And exactly how had he forgotten about the fact Tara had been brain sucked by a hell god?
“She just offered, she didn’t do anything.”
Tara threw the debris from patching him up violently into the trashcan. “I’m worried about this spell, Xander. She won’t even let me see it, says she’s piecing it together from several different spells and she doesn’t know how to explain it. I’m afraid she’s playing around with some really dark magic. Why else wouldn’t she talk to me about this? We talk about everything.”
Xander considered his next words carefully. Willow was already mad at him. Did he really want to tick her off more by voicing his suspicions? Then again, if they didn’t start being honest with each other their secrets threatened to tear them apart.
“Tara,” he said softly. “I think I know why Willow’s being so distant.”
The hopeful look she gave him told him he’d made the right decision.
“She’s using some kind of spell to dull her pain over losing Buffy. She said it was so she could focus. I think she did it because she figured she’d get Buffy back, and she’d never have to go through the pain at all.”
Tara covered her mouth in alarm. “Doesn’t she realize how dangerous … never mind, did she mention what spell?”
“Even if she had, it would have all been chop suey to me. Just how dangerous is this stuff?”
“It’s hard to know for certain without knowing the specific spell. But likely she’ll have mood swings, and a callous disregard for those around her.” Tara looked like she was reviewing the past six weeks as furiously as he was.
“Well, that sounds familiar.”
The more he thought about it, the more obvious it seemed that Willow would consider Buffy’s death a grave injustice, one she had the power to correct. And if the means for achieving those ends were a little dicey she’d take the risk. She’d always take those risks for the people she loved.
“Tara, you may be right about the dark magic. When Glory attacked you, Willow broke into the heavy duty stuff to go after her. According to Buffy, she was pretty scary powerful against her too.”
Tara groaned and buried her face in her hands. “How could she?”
Xander stroked her hair, it seemed perfectly natural for her to end up crying on his shoulder. Seemed they all needed a little cathartic crying. “Grief makes you do crazy things. I mean, last night I apparently cried myself to sleep in Spike’s arms, you don’t get much crazier than that.”
The chuckle made any loss to his dignity worth it.
Eventually Tara pulled away, wiping her eyes. “I’ve got to get her to do that soul location spell. I think I can talk her out of this foolishness if she sees she’s wrong. But she’s so certain. I don’t know how to convince her.”
Xander considered everything he knew about the way Willow thought. Fifteen years of friendship should count for something. “She needs our help to perform the spell, right?”
“That’s a guess. If she thinks we’re against her she m-m- may try it w-w- without us.”
Tara was obviously terrified at the prospect. He could guess it was an exceptionally bad idea all on his own. The look on Tara’s face told him they could be traipsing into sucked into hell territory.
“Convince her it’s a necessary part of the spell. If she won’t believe she’s being stupid, show her she’s being sloppy.” An evil little part of himself gloated at how crazy he knew that word made her.
Tara brightened at the suggestion. “Of course! How can she bring her back if she doesn’t have a firm fix on her location? She’s planning on using the body as a focus, but I can persuade her that something might be holding Buffy that she’ll have to deal with first, and ….”
Xander was turning a little green. They were both assuming Willow was wrong. What if she wasn’t?
“Too much shop talk?” Tara asked. She laid a hand on his arm in comfort. “Don’t worry, Buffy and Anya’s souls are safe. We’ll perform the spell tonight and have proof of it.”
She gave him a half smile. “And if that doesn’t work, tomorrow we may have to stage one of our interventions.”
“Oh, because those always go so well.” Xander rolled his eyes but he returned her smile. “It’s a plan. We’ll get through this. It’s a lousy rotten situation but we’ll get through it.”
He was happy to realize that he actually believed it.
He left Tara to put the plan into action. As mad as Willow was at him, he could only get in the way at this point, so he went up to his room to change clothes. The remains of his jacket, lay on the bed. He’d really liked that jacket. With a resigned shrug, he emptied the pockets and tossed the rest in the trash, he’d need to get another one. One more expense.
He puttered about the room for a little while and emerged to a quiet house. The door to Willow and Tara’s room was closed, and he could only hope progress was being made behind it. He peeked into Dawn’s room. She was wearing headphones and gave him a death glare as she turned the music up higher. He beat a hasty retreat.
Weeks of losing himself in household repairs had reduced the mountain into a molehill. The only major project before him was the remodel of the basement. He was eager to start on it, but since Spike had gone to bed barely an hour before he doubted now was the time to go down there and start banging.
He and Spike had talked, in passing, about what might be done with the space, and Xander had made some initial measurements. He decided it was enough to start drawing up some plans.
He spent the next couple hours at the dining room table with graph paper, mapping out the dimensions of the proposed bathroom and assembling a list of the materials he’d need. The costs on the project were starting to look scary. He planned to do most of the work himself: he was really itching to do the cabinetry, but the wiring and plumbing would have to be contracted out, and that wasn’t cheap. He could get framing and drywall materials from the leftovers at their current site, but the fixtures were going to cost.
He fired up Willow’s laptop and spent another hour getting a good idea of just how much everything he needed would cost.
“Now, that’ll do very nicely.” Spike’s voice came from behind him and was accompanied by an arm pointing over his shoulder at the screen. Xander barely managed to not jump out of his skin.
He gave Spike a half-hearted glare then looked where he was pointing. It was the most expensive shower, naturally, complete with a large showerhead that would feel like warm rain and an eight setting shower massage head. Given his druthers Xander would like it himself.
“You don’t happen to have a grand or two lying around do you? ‘Cause that’s the only way we could afford it.” Xander looked up with a good natured grin on his face to find Spike staring hard at him. Xander was a bit puzzled, it was just a joke.
Spike left without another word, and Xander stared after him for a second before turning back to his searching. He doubted he’d ever understand the vampire.
He’d just gotten back into his price comparison shopping, when a large stack of bills appeared beside his hand. “Wha-?”
“There’s over $2,000 there, Harris. Put it away before one of the birds see it.” Spike whispered, nudging it closer.
Xander put a hand on the stack, flipping through the numbers with his thumb.
“Where’d this come from, Spike?” he asked suspiciously.
Spike wore a devilish smirk as he answered. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
Xander tried to fathom all the nefarious ways a chipped vampire could come by such a sum of money. It boggled the mind.
Spike clearly saw his help was about to be refused. “Listen Harris, you need the help. Niblet’s bits and bobs don’t come cheap. I didn’t steal the money from widows and orphans even if it wasn’t got strictly on the up and up.”
He put a hand on Xander’s over the money and leaned in close. “Our girl doesn’t go without.”
Xander looked into his eyes and saw determination there. Spike stepped back and Xander slipped the wad of cash into the folder he’d been filling with remodeling plans.
Neither of them mentioned it again.
Spike pulled up a chair and they took to discussing the remodeling project.
Dawn came down at lunchtime only long enough to make herself a sandwich. Willow and Tara were deep in spell consult mode and barely noticed. Xander was considering how to tiptoe through the teenage minefield, when Spike asked her if she’d finished her homework for tomorrow. She immediately headed upstairs with her sandwich.
Xander laughed at Spike’s confused expression. He laughed so hard that it was a full minute before he could take in enough air to explain the situation. Everyone was looking at him with varying degrees of confusion and amusement but he didn’t care. It felt too good to laugh again.
Just before dark, Giles showed up to organize the evening patrol. Xander was discussing what to order for dinner when Dawn finally emerged from her room to make sure her wishes were made known on the subject. A good sulk only went so far.
Chinese was gaining the upper hand on pizza when Xander heard Willow and Tara on the stairs. “Better weigh in fast ladies or it’s moo goo gai pan for you,” he said. Then he caught a glimpse of Willow’s face. Looked like everyone had a good cry today.
“We did the soul location spell,” Tara said, one arm supporting Willow who leaned heavily against her.
“Buffy’s happy,” Willow cried.
Xander thought he could hear a touch of resentment in that statement. Remembering his own resentment of Anya the previous night, he understood. It also told him Tara had talked Willow into removing the spell on herself. She was feeling all the grief she had suppressed all this time. Next moment he was at her side and hugging her tight.
“She’s surrounded by all this bright, loving light. She’s with her mom and she’s just so happy,” Willow sobbed into his shoulder.
Giles removed his glasses and surreptitiously wiped his eyes. Spike looked away to hide whatever emotion he was feeling, and Dawn covered her mouth in shock.
Xander’s eyes met Tara’s and she answered his silent question. “We found Anya in Valhalla as a valkyrie. It seems to suit her.”
Xander felt his breath catch, and then a smile spread slowly across his face. He supposed it would suit her at that. Something tight and painful in his chest finally released.
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