Pairing: Spike/Xander
Rating: NC-17 eventually
Feedback & concrit:   Yes, please
Disclaimer:   Don't own them, never will.  Just playing with them for awhile.
Warnings/Squicks:  nothing major, chapter with explicit sex & violence will carry warnings
Spoilers:  Anything from Season 1 on.
Summary:   Xander doesn't deal well with Jesse's death and everything changes from there.

Notes:   Based on the plot bunny posted on Bloodclaim by [info]wickedchocolate.  I took the first part of the bunny only:  Xander never got over Jesse’s death. After he dusted Jesse, he was never the same. Xander isolated himself from Willow and wanted nothing to do with Buffy.





Nothing the Same


by
Orchidluv



Prologue

He’d finished filling in the small hole and was carefully folding the sod back over it when he was interrupted.

“Isn’t that sweet?” The intruding voice dripped with sarcasm. “Just when I was thinking about breakfast.”

Xander stood up quickly and turned to face the speaker, wiping his hands on the back of his jeans and surreptitiously checking that the stake and cross he carried everywhere with him now hadn’t dropped out. Except for the fangs, yellow eyes and bumpy forehead, the vampire who’d spoken looked like one of the frat boys who sometimes hung out at the Bronze - a little older and better dressed than the high school crowd. Perfect.

“What’s it like to be a vampire?” Xander asked sincerely, casually edging towards the shovel he’d left resting against the bench. Just in case.

Astonishment looked weird on a vampire’s face. “What’s it like?”

“Yeah. You know, what do you do when you’re not actually killing people? I mean, do you hang out with other vampires, watch movies, or do you do demony things that humans don’t know about?

“This isn’t a date, moron. We don’t do small talk before I eat you.”

Xander rolled his eyes. “Please, do I look like I dressed for a date? Believe me, you are so not my type. I just want to know what vampires are like. So,” he gestured hopefully, “anything you feel like sharing is good.”

“What are you - some kind of freaky Oprah fan?”

“Nah, hate daytime talk shows. Give me a good sci-fi show or something with explosions any day.”

“Well, explosions yeah, but not that geeky sci-fi crap. Oh, god, you’re a Trekkie, aren’t you? I should eat you just for that.”

“Not me, Aliens and Babylon 5 are more my thing. So, you watch tv a lot?” Xander brought the conversation back to the vampire.

“Well,” the vampire said defensively, “sometimes. The days get long cooped up inside, waiting for sunset.”

“I can imagine,” Xander agreed sympathetically. “So, do you have friends among the other vampires?”

“And again with the encounter group. You know, I’ve changed my mind. You are too weird to eat. I’m gonna find someone who’ll scream and try to run like a proper meal. I don’t like a lot of talking while I feed.”

Xander watched in disbelief as the vampire moved off, shaking his head and muttering about how weird humans were getting these days. “Hey!” he yelled at the retreating back, feeling vaguely insulted. He sighed and leaned down to pick up his shovel, “I don’t want to hear it,” he muttered to the small grave. “You sure were willing to talk about what it’s like - ‘worms in the earth’, man? Way to sell people on how good it is.”

He hesitated, almost as if he thought there’d be an answer, then shook his head sharply, dispelling the idea. “See you, man,” he said quietly and winced at the silence that was the only response. “Later, dude,” he whispered Jesse’s signature farewell to himself and walked away.





Part One

Xander heard the phone ring and his father swearing loudly. He opened his door a crack and listened, hearing his father yelling into the phone: “How the hell should I know where that stupid kid is?” before slamming down the handset.

He waited until his father’s heavy tread passed by and he heard the door to his parents’ room close, then he slipped out to the kitchen. Without turning on the light, he dialed Jesse’s number, not surprised when the phone was picked up on the first ring and an anxious voice answered. He kept his own voice low so his father wouldn’t hear. “Mrs. McNally? It’s Xander, sorry about my dad.”

“Xander, have you seen Jesse? He hasn’t come home yet.”

He was able to answer calmly because he’d been practicing, expecting this call. “We missed each other at the Bronze tonight, I got there after he left. Someone said they’d seen him leave with a girl.” It was all true, which helped, but he hated lying to her. On the other hand, if Jesse was ok, then Jesse could deal with his mom grounding him when they got him back. Telling Mrs. McNally that Jesse was missing and last seen with vampires wouldn’t go over well. Better for her to think Jesse was sleeping with some ‘ho than to try and explain what was really going on. Especially when Xander wasn’t sure he believed it himself.

“What girl?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. McNally. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, Xander. Go back to bed before you get in trouble with your parents. If you see Jesse before I do, tell him he’ll be lucky if he’s allowed out of this house by the time he graduates. And tell him to call me immediately.”

“I will. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Xander. Thank you for calling.”

Xander set the phone down quietly, hoping he’d done the right thing and headed for bed. First thing tomorrow, he was getting a whole lot more information about what the hell was going on. Then he was going to find Jesse and…and actually, that was probably enough for a school day.


~*~*~*~*~


It had proved to be more than enough. He’d followed Buffy down into the tunnels, despite everyone telling him not to. But he just couldn’t stay in school like it was a normal day when Jesse was in trouble. Sure, Buffy had promised to find him, and she seemed cool and all, but he didn’t know her at all hardly and she was asking him to take a lot of stuff on faith. Ok, yeah, he pretty much believed in vampires now and she seemed to know how to deal with them, but hey, how bad could it get?

That kind of thinking had gotten him where he was now. Yes, they’d found Jesse, but now they were trapped in a dead end and Xander was really starting to panic. “What do we do?” he asked desperately.

“I’ve got an idea, you can die.” Turning, Xander stared in disbelief at Jesse’s face. The bones had shifted and the familiar planes were altered until he could hardly recognize his best friend. He shook his head, denying the evidence of his eyes, this wasn’t happening.

Too bad he was fast losing the ability to deny the evidence of his own eyes. “Jesse, man, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? I feel good, Xander. I feel strong. I’m connected, man, to everything.” Jesse’s voice was subtly different and his head tilted up slightly in an unfamiliar gesture. “I can hear the worms in the earth.”

“That’s a plus.”

“I know what the Master wants. I’ll serve his purpose. That means you die.” He moved closer. “And I feed.”

Xander wondered later if he would have just stood there and let Jesse kill him if Buffy hadn’t shouted at him to use the cross she’d given him. His hand moved without conscious thought in response to her shout, bringing the cross up between them, and Jesse stepped back slightly, flinching away from it. Xander couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the changed features of the friend he knew better than he knew himself. “Jesse, man, we’re buds. Don’t you remember?”

“You’re like a shadow to me now.”

And then Jesse was gone, thrown from the room by Buffy, and they were scrambling through the ducts and out into the sunlight, leaving the tunnels, and Jesse, behind.


~*~*~*~*~


Afterwards, Xander was grateful that they had to put all their energies into stopping the Harvest. It kept him from thinking, kept his body moving and doing. If there had been time to think, to let himself feel, he never would have made it through that night.

So he’d found himself in the alley behind the Bronze, with Willow and Mr. Giles, trying to find a way inside. Vibrating with nervous tension, he wanted to get the librarian moving. “We have got to get in there now, before Jesse does something stupider than usual.”

“You listen to me.” Mr. Giles turned towards him, pointing a stern finger to emphasize his words. “Jesse is dead. You have to remember that, when you see him, you are not looking at your friend, you are looking at the thing that killed him.” He looked sternly at both Willow and Xander to ensure they were accepting what he’d just said.

Xander bit back a retort, knowing there wasn’t time for an argument. He needed to talk to Willow about Jesse. He wasn’t buying what Buffy and Mr. Giles were saying: that no trace of the human remained inside the vampire. Not after what he’d seen in the tunnels beneath the cemetery. He’d talk to Willow later. Right now, they had to stop the Harvest.

The familiar interior of the Bronze was a nightmare version of itself. People were screaming and running and Xander helped Willow and Mr. Giles get everyone moving towards the back door. All the while, his eyes were searching the shadows for Jesse. Finally, as the place began to empty out, he spotted Jesse near the dance floor. Jesse was pinning Cordelia down, bending over her threateningly and Xander ran towards him, dodging through the trickle of remaining people still trying to get out. He had to stop Jesse before he did something neither of them could live with.

“Jesse, man! Don’t make me do it!” Standing behind Jesse, Xander raised his stake threateningly.

Jesse turned his head to look over his shoulder at Xander without releasing his hold on Cordelia. Xander flinched as he saw the demonic features on his best friend. It was worse this time because Jesse was grinning at him, displaying a mouthful of fangs. “Buddy!” He leapt to his feet with a graceful strength alien to Jesse’s coltish, just post growth-spurt frame. Behind him, Xander was peripherally aware of Cordelia scrambling to her feet and running off through the chaotic darkness of the club.

Xander was still holding the stake up warningly. “Jesse! I know there’s still a part of you in there,” he said desperately.

“Ok, let’s deal with this. Jesse was an excruciating loser who couldn’t get a date with anyone in the sighted community. Look at me! I’m a new man!”

Jesse’s hands flashed out, grabbing Xander’s coat and spinning them both around, shoving Xander up against a metal support beam. Xander raised the stake automatically and it came to rest against Jesse’s chest. Jesse just looked down at the wooden tip resting over his heart and grinned. “Ooh!” he said mockingly, then looked up into Xander’s eyes and smirked. “Gonna put me out of my misery?” It was obvious he wasn’t worried about Xander actually staking him.

Xander stared searchingly at the changed features. Despite the yellow eyes and brow ridges, Xander could still only see his best friend standing there. The feeling that it was still Jesse was so strong that he found he was waiting for Jesse to laugh and tell him what an idiot he was for believing in vampires, that it had all been an elaborate joke. For a long moment, they both just stared at each other, Xander seeing fifteen years of friendship. Seeing Jesse, who shared his love of science fiction and comics. Jesse, who let him climb in his window and sleep over when Xander’s parents got too drunk. Jesse, who traded mock insults with him, wrestled with him, laughed with him, who’d been there for him for as long as he could remember. 

You’re like a shadow to me now.  Jesse leaned in closer, ignoring the stake, hands still fisted in Xander’s jacket, pinning him with a strength he’d never possessed before. “You don’t have the g-”. He jolted forward suddenly, shoved from behind and Xander didn’t have time to drop the stake. For an instant, Jesse looked completely shocked, then the shock, and his face, faded into dust.

The stake vanished with Jesse and Xander’s whole body began to shake. He leaned back against the pillar for support, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the far wall. No way was he going to look down and see what was left of his best friend.

His avoidant gaze was caught by the sight of Buffy posed aggressively on the stage. Moving on automatic pilot, he found himself joining Buffy, Willow and Mr. Giles at the base of the stage. He looked back towards where Jesse’s ashes lay, barely registering the quiet conversation among the other three. 

You’re like a shadow to me now.  A shiver ran through him at the silent echo of Jesse's words.  "One thing's for sure, nothing's ever going to be the same," he said, more to himself than to the others.


~*~*~*~*~


Buffy offered to walk Willow home and Xander nodded and set off towards his own house, lifting a hand in silent farewell. He could hear the two girls talking quietly, their voices fading as the distance grew. When he couldn’t hear them anymore, he ducked into the shadows outside the arc of brightness from the streetlights and looked back. Once he was sure they were out of sight, he changed direction abruptly, heading back towards the Bronze.

Getting back inside was easier than he’d feared, apparently neither fleeing employees nor saving-the-day heroes do a good job of locking up behind them. The back door was only closed, not locked, and it yielded easily to his pull.

Stepping inside, he listened carefully for a long moment, his eyes scanning the dim interior for any movement. Finally, sure the place was empty, he walked slowly across the room to one particular small scattering of dust, stopping well outside the pattern and forced himself to look down at it this time.

Tears burned in his eyes and he dropped to his knees, one hand reaching out to touch. He stopped short of actually touching and his hand lingered in the air, ghosting over the dusty remains. You’re like a shadow to me now. Jesse’s words burned inside him and he snatched his hand back, bowing his head to his knees and let the grief take him.

It was the cold that finally penetrated and broke him out of his now silent mourning. His eyes were red and swollen and every muscle protested as he uncurled. Stiffly, he climbed to his feet and found a janitor’s closet, rummaging inside until he found a broom and dustpan and a small box that had once held some sort of cleaning supplies. Returning to the spot, he looked down one last time. “I’m sorry.” The quiet words sounded loud in the empty space. There was nothing else to say.

It felt wrong to sweep up the remains of his best friend like litter from a walkway and renewed grief clutched at his heart and burned in his eyes. He bit his lip and refused to think about what he was doing, using the broom with short, slow strokes, trying to get every speck. He tipped Jesse’s remains into the box and cradled it to his chest, again fighting back tears.


~*~*~*~*~


The vase was short and round and dark blue. Jesse would have laughed himself sick at the sight of it. Or he would have if he hadn’t currently been residing in it. It was cheap looking and wrong, but at least it was better than a cardboard box marked “Industrial Strength Hand Cleaner”. It was hidden in the back of Xander’s closet in case his mom decided to do one of her infrequent cleanings of his room or his dad came looking for stuff to pawn.

It was just temporary, he told himself, until he could figure out what to tell Jesse’s mother. No way would she buy that Jesse’s body had been accidentally cremated and that he had somehow ended up with the ashes. And that was the best story he’d come up with so far. He really needed to talk to Willow about what to do, and that meant telling her what had happened at the Bronze.

Tomorrow, he decided. He’d have to go back to school, he couldn’t stretch being “sick” more than two days, and he had to figure out something to tell Jesse’s mother. He’d talked to her twice more and she was frantic. She was a nice lady and he hated lying to her and telling her he didn’t know anything but he didn’t know what else to do. He’d talk it over with Willow and they’d decide.


~*~*~*~*~


“Jesse’s dead.”

Despite all his practicing, the words still stuck in his throat, his chest so tight it was hard to breathe. He’d finally been able to find Willow alone, without Buffy around, and all she could talk about was cheerleading practice and Buffy trying out and how they should go watch and support her. In another life, he would have been all for watching cheerleaders do their thing, but right now, Willow’s interest in it felt like a slap in the face. He’d finally had to just come right out and say it.

Willow gave him a peculiar look and answered gently, “I know, Xander. You and Buffy told me when you got back from the tunnels.” She was blinking back tears as she spoke and Xander struggled to keep his own in check.

“No. I… He was killed at the Bronze.” He’d finally said it. It didn’t matter that the words came out in a choked whisper, he’d finally said it. Things had to get better now, didn’t they?

Willow looked, oh, god, she looked happy? “You mean, the vampire got staked at the Bronze? That’s a relief.”

“What!? How can you say that? He was our friend.”

Jesse was our friend. The thing at the Bronze was a vampire. I’m glad it was staked. I don’t like the idea of a vampire walking around in Jesse’s body. It’s ookie.”

Xander was reeling. He’d practiced this conversation a hundred times and it had never gone this way. “It was still Jesse. He was in there. I could tell. When…when we found him in the tunnels, it was still Jesse.” How could he explain to her the instinctive recognition? Jesse had hugged him, had talked to him, and it was Jesse. There was a monster in there with him but his friend had still been there.

“Xander,” Willow was giving him her patient, you’ll-solve-the-equation-even-if-we-have-to-study-all-night look. “remember what Giles told us. It wasn’t Jesse, it was the demon that killed him. Jesse…” her voice faltered but she managed to finish. “Jesse died when he was turned into a vampire.”

“No.” He shook his head stubbornly. “Either Mr. Giles doesn’t know what he’s talking about or he’s lying. A demon animating a corpse, a..an empty shell, wouldn’t have the person’s memories, their mannerisms, wouldn’t talk the same, walk the same, be the same. He was different, but he was still Jesse.”

Willow bit her lip, her eyes worried. Xander had been distant, quiet, and not himself when they’d talked on the phone since that night at the Bronze. It had only been two days, and she knew he was grieving - they both were - but she had let herself get caught up in the excitement of the new world that had been opening up for her.  It had been easier to bury her grief in learning about demons and vampires and Hellmouths than to actually think about Jesse’s death.

She had been spending too much time with Buffy and not enough time with Xander. She’d known he hadn’t really been sick and she should have gone to see him after school instead of hanging out with Buffy. She’d never had a best girl friend and they had been getting to know each other, spending practically every free moment together. A wave of shame swept over her, how could she have let Xander down like that?

Maybe she could get him interested in researching demons with her. She put a comforting hand on his arm. “Why don’t we go to the library so Giles can explain it to you,” she suggested. “It hurts that Jesse is gone but we should be glad the thing that killed him is dead.”

She was completely unprepared for the glare that Xander shot her. “I don’t trust Mr. Giles.”

“Xander -!”

He cut her off before she could say anything else. “Look, Willow, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” He took a deep breath, and pushed back his anger. “I need your help,” that always got Willow’s full attention. “I don’t know what to tell Jesse’s mom. We have to tell her something.” Xander looked at her pleadingly and Willow’s eyes filled with tears again.

“Xander, we can’t tell her the truth. She’d never believe it.”

“I know. But I’ve spent two days trying to come up with a good lie. I need your help because I haven’t come up with anything even halfway believable.”

“Maybe we should let her think that Jesse ran away.” Willow looked away, fighting to control her tears, then continued quietly. “If we tell her anything else, she’d want to know how we knew. There would be a lot of questions, maybe even from the police. It could get back to Buffy and cause trouble for her.”

Xander couldn’t believe it. “I don’t care if Buffy has to answer a few questions. We can’t leave our best friend’s mother hanging like that without any idea that her son is dead!”

“Xander, what Buffy does is important. And…and maybe it’s better if Jesse’s mom has some hope that she’ll see him again some day,” Willow said, struggling for optimism.

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great life you’ve got planned for her - spend the next 20 years looking for someone who’s dead.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do either. But we can’t cause Buffy trouble, what she does is too important.”

He glared at her. “Jesse used to be important to you, too. Tell you what, you go to your world saving cheerleader practice and I’ll figure this out on my own.”

“That’s not fair, Xander.”

“Guess what? I learned three days ago that life isn’t fair. Deal with it.” As angry as he had ever been at Willow, he turned and stalked off, ignoring her calling after him.





Part Two

“I’m really worried about Xander.” Willow set her books down on the table and looked at Giles and Buffy, who were leafing through books at the library table. Well, Giles was leafing. Buffy looked like she was just turning pages. Which, she supposed was leafing, but somehow “leafing” seemed to imply actually looking for something…

Bringing her wayward thoughts back on track, she continued: “He’s been skipping a lot of classes, and he hasn’t been doing any homework. I usually help him and…” she faltered, not wanting to say Jesse’s name knowing how guilty Buffy felt about his death, “and he hasn’t been coming over to study lately,” she finished lamely.

Giles spoke reassuringly, “It’s not unusual for people to have a hard time dealing with supernatural encounters. Most prefer to pretend it never happened. I know that, at first, Xander was very interested but the second encounter at the Bronze appears to have been too much for him. The bigger surprise is that you have continued to remain interested and helpful.” He gave Willow a warm smile, really she had proved most helpful with her computer skills. From what little Giles knew of him, he doubted that Xander would have been able to bring anything useful to their work. It was probably for the best that the boy obviously couldn’t deal with the reality of the Hellmouth.

“I don’t think that’s the problem.”

“Giles is right, Willow. Xander has barely even spoken to me since that night at the Bronze. I’m sorry we haven’t become friends, but it’s probably for the best. I know he meant well but it was pretty stupid of him to go charging down into the tunnels after me without any weapons or any way to help. He could have gotten us both killed. You’ve been much more helpful with your computer and researching skills.” She gave her friend a wide smile. Willow actually liked all the research stuff and having her helping with that end of things really cut down on how much Giles got on her about needing to learn more about demons. She already knew everything she needed to know about vampires and with Giles and Willow to fill her in on what she needed to know about the various demons and other weirdities, she was good to go.

Willow was torn. She didn’t want to bring up Jesse and hurt Buffy, but she didn’t want them to misjudge Xander that way. It was Buffy’s argument that finally swayed her. If she brought Xander into their little club (the “Slayerettes” as she secretly thought of herself and Giles, although she would never tell Giles that) he would insist on helping. Xander had never won a fistfight in his life but he had gotten into several, defending her or Jesse from someone. He’d be like that as a Slayerette. And while Larry or Kyle wouldn’t kill him, vampires would. Willow sighed. Maybe she needed to figure out how to have two separate sets of friends, who didn’t overlap. “So” she said brightly. “What’s the demon du jour? You guys look all research-y.”


~*~*~*~*~


He buried the little vase holding Jesse’s ashes in a small park on the outskirts of town. It had never been much of a park, just a scrap of moderately tended lawn and a few benches but he and Jesse had liked it because it was unpopular and they could hang out there and not be found. It was their place, not even Willow went there with them. They would lie on the grass and read their comic books and talk. It was their refuge when they needed guy time - wrestling and comic books and rude jokes that Willow didn’t approve of.

He didn’t even tell Willow what he was doing. He couldn’t. Not after she’d said she was glad that vampire-Jesse was dead. Maybe he was being unfair, Xander thought as his shovel bit into the turf. He knew Willow missed Jesse but she seemed to be forgetting him already and it hadn’t even been a week yet. Jesse’s death was still a raw, bleeding wound in his own heart and seeing Willow laughing and talking with Buffy infuriated him. The few times they’d talked, all Willow did was go on and on about was how great Buffy was and how cool it was to be learning all this new stuff about demons. It felt like he’d lost both of his best friends.

Xander discovered that his angry, racing thoughts had been matched by similar shovel work and the hole was already well over a foot deep. Surprised, he stopped and decided the hole was deep enough. Setting the shovel down, he knelt and picked up the vase, settling it gently into the hole.

“I talked to your mom today, Jesse. I told her that the girl you left the Bronze with that night was one of the gang members that took over the Bronze and killed those people the next day.” As he spoke, he was scooping dirt back into the hole with his hands, patting it into place around the little vase. The afternoon was fading and he shivered as a small breeze began to rustle the leaves nearby. “I told her that I was afraid that you were dead, because I knew you would have contacted either her or me otherwise. I told her there was no way you had run away, that I would have known if you were planning something like that.”

“Sorry, man. That was the best I could come up with. I really needed you on this one, you were always better than me at coming up with convincing lies.” A lopsided smile twisted his lips for a moment “Yeah, yeah, I know you could have done better, could have come up with something colorful. Hell, you probably would have just told my parents that I was a vampire and that I would be stopping by one night to kill them. You would have left out the part where I was dust and couldn’t hurt them. But your mom is too cool for that.”

He sighed, his hands still absently smoothing the dirt over the now-refilled hole. “She misses you, man. She’s really hurting. She’s not the only one.” The last part was added in a shaky whisper that barely reached the ears of the just wakened vampire heading for the warehouse district.


~*~*~*~*~


After his aborted attempt at conversation with the vampire, Xander walked home. Willow and Buffy were at the Bronze, he knew. He had turned down Willow’s invitation to join them. Right now, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to go to the Bronze again. The thought of stepping on a missed speck of dust near a certain metal beam made his stomach churn until he was sure that just walking through the doors of the club would cause him to throw up. Even home was better than that.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander entered the library with his excuse ready. His shoes sounded loud in the quiet and no one was obviously present. “Hello?” he called, “anyone here?”

There was no answer from the silent stacks and he headed towards the librarian’s office. “Just little old me,” he muttered to himself, “nothing going on here.” From what he had learned, the librarian generally ate lunch in his office most days but there was some sort of teacher’s meeting he had on Tuesdays during lunch period which kept him out of the library for most of the hour. Buffy and Willow always ate lunch together and he had been ducking Willow’s invitations to join them.

Until now, he, Jesse, and Willow had pretty much always eaten lunch together and he resented Willow including Buffy in their lunches. It felt like she was trying to replace Jesse and create a new threesome but it wasn’t the same. He and Jesse could talk all day, and Willow had always been right in it with them. Even when they were entering their teens and boys and girls usually started hanging out in same sex groups, they had remained the three musketeers. Willow would call them on their “boy stuff” and they would tease her about being “girly” but it had always felt like there was nothing they couldn’t talk about. Yeah, he and Jesse had their special “guy” times without Willow but for everything else, it had always been the three of them. Jesse’s loss felt like a part of himself had been amputated and there was Willow, cheerfully telling him that the artificial limb she wanted to graft on in Jesse’s place was just as good as the real one.

With Buffy in the mix, awkward pauses were more common than not. He could tell they were holding back, keeping things from him, and both Buffy and Willow were the worst secret keepers he could imagine. They used transparent “codes” and had unbelievably lame excuses and explanations to cover what were obvious references to Slayer stuff.

He’d gotten pissy about it, the second time Willow had conned him into lunch with her only to bring Buffy along as well. Xander was already tired of Buffy’s attitude - it wasn’t anything she said, really, it was more the way she said it. It was obvious that she thought he’d freaked and couldn’t handle the idea of vampires and the Hellmouth and he was pretty sure she thought he was a coward. Other than Cordelia, he didn’t think he’d ever met anyone who was so sure they were right about everything.

So, he’d called them on it. Told them both to stop acting like he was too dumb to know what they were talking about. That he was neither brain dead nor an amnesiac and he could remember the events of last week just fine. “Do you honestly think I’ve forgotten that vampires exist and that Buffy is the Slayer?”

“Xander!” Willow hissed. “Not so loud.”

“Look, I get that you’re secret identity gal, but the two of you talk about it all the time and then act like you think I don’t know what you’re talking about and, frankly, it’s pissing me off.” He’d left and since that day had been avoiding Willow around lunch time. She and Buffy were pretty much joined at the hip these days, so he spent less and less time with Willow. And did his best to hide, even from himself, the flare of hurt that Willow didn’t seek him out, that she was obviously choosing Buffy over him.

The library office was locked. Well, he and Jesse hadn’t had a cool, barely reformed, ex-juvenile delinquent as a Scout leader in fifth grade for nothing. In addition to some of the more normal scouting activities, he’d taught the troop to hotwire cars and pick locks. He’d claimed they were useful skills for when you lost your keys. They didn’t earn many merit badges and one of the parents got wind of the lessons and that was the end of the scout troop for several years. But he and Jesse had thought lock picking was cool and had practiced for months until they were both pretty good.

The lock on the door to the librarian’s office was child’s play.

Inside the room, were bookcases filled with old books, many of them leather bound. He scanned the titles quickly, those that had titles printed on the spine anyway. Terrific, there were at least 10 books titled “Vampyres” or something similar. Pulling one out at random, he opened it and checked for a table of contents. There wasn’t one. Nobody seemed to want to make this easy for him. He flipped through the book, reading a paragraph here and there at random and decided it would do. He shifted the books on the shelf so the gap wasn’t obvious and slipped out of the office, tucking the book into his backpack as he left.


~*~*~*~*~


“Xander, wait up.”

He turned at Willow’s call and waited for her, glad that for once she wasn’t with Buffy.

“Where’ve you been? I’ve hardly seen you in classes all week.”

He couldn’t tell her that he’d been cutting school to read the books he stole from the library, so he just shrugged.

“Well, you missed a lot. Poor Dr. Gregory was killed but I’m so glad you missed the crazy substitute teacher we had for two days, she was horrible.” Willow couldn’t help but be glad that Xander had chosen to skip the two days that crazy bug-lady Natalie French had been their teacher. Seeing Xander drooling over her like every other boy in class had been doing would have really bothered her. “But Xander, you’re going to flunk out if you don’t start going to classes again.”

“I know. Look, I’m here, ready to be all studious again.” Even to himself, his humor sounded flat.

“Do you want to get together after school? I can help you catch up with what you’ve missed.”

Xander smiled and Willow felt like cheering. It was the first time she’d seen him smile since Jesse died. “Be my study-buddy? That would be good. You’re right, I need to catch up.”

Willow continued cheerfully, “Why don’t you, me, and Buffy get together for a long study session this weekend? We can meet at my house and…” her voice faltered to a stop and she could have kicked herself as Xander’s smile died and his eyes hardened.

“Thanks, I’ll pass.” He turned to leave and Willow grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Why won’t you give her a chance? You’d like her, I know you would. Why won’t you even talk to her?”

“Because your wonderful Buffy damn near killed me the second day I knew her!”

“That wasn’t her fault! You followed her into the tunnels, she told you -”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. That night at the Bronze, she decapitated a vampire by Frisbee-ing a cymbal at it. Well, that vampire had me pinned from behind. She didn’t give me a heads up or anything. If I hadn’t turned and seen the cymbal coming at me and been able to duck at the last second, it would have killed both of us.” Xander hadn’t even realized how much that still bothered him until he heard the angry words spilling out of him. At the time, the incident had been forgotten immediately given what happened right afterwards.

“But you didn’t die. Buffy knows what she’s doing. I’m sure…”

“I don’t want to hear it. I don’t trust her and I don’t trust Mr. Giles and I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind about either of them.”

Willow watched him go with tears in her eyes. Why wouldn’t Xander talk to her anymore? Why couldn’t she fix things between them?


~*~*~*~*~


Xander had been sitting in the little park for some time, reading, or at least trying to. Reading implied comprehension, he thought with vague resentment, not struggling through paragraph after paragraph of long-winded boringness. Of all the books he'd borrowed from the library office, this one was by far the worst.

He'd taken to bringing the books to the little park and sitting on the grass near Jesse's grave while he tried to learn more about vampires. Sometimes, like now, he found himself talking casually to Jesse, like they were both sprawled on the grass, drinking sodas and reading comic books. Only, instead of debating the relative merits of Sabertooth and Wolverine, he'd argue out loud about Von Haupt’s theories versus McCafferty’s. After four of the librarian’s books on vampires, his head was spinning with words like fledgling, minion, and childer. The only thing the books seemed to agree on was that vampires existed. Other than that, the various authors disagreed on everything - how vampires were created, their culture, relationships, feeding patterns, you name it, he’d read at least two different theories on it.

He sighed, putting the book down. "I’m not getting anywhere with these books and Mr. Giles has like a thousand more. I’ve got to try something else. Plus, I really am going to flunk out if I skip any more school.”

Restlessly, he began plucking handfuls of grass and letting it trickle back down through his fingers. “I talked to your mom again. I offered to mow her lawn and stuff but I think seeing me just makes her feel worse.” Every time he saw her, Mrs. McNally looked like she was going to burst into tears. She tried to talk to Xander but she just ended up crying and that made Xander feel guilty, like he was making it harder for her by going to see her. Frustrated, he picked up the book and shoved it into his backpack. “I gotta go. I won’t be able to come by as often for awhile. There’s some stuff I’ve got to do.”


~*~*~*~*~


Later that afternoon, Xander stood in front of his closet. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice inside and most of it was unsuitable for what he planned on doing. He found himself yanking a lime green shirt off the hanger and tossing it onto the bed. One after the other, bright colored shirts and sweaters were thrown across the room to join it in a rapidly growing pile. When he was done, there were only a couple of things left hanging in the closet, all muted, dark colors.

He took off the light blue shirt he had on and added it to the pile, then pulled one of the remaining shirts out of the closet and slid into it. Buttoning it up, he studied the mess on the bed, wondering at the sudden revulsion he felt for all of his brightly colored wardrobe. None of it felt like something he would ever wear again, it felt wrong somehow, like he should be wearing mourning colors. As he went downstairs to get a garbage bag, he wondered if the thrift store would allow him to trade it all in for a couple of dark colored shirts.


~*~*~*~*~


He was waiting outside Buffy’s house as the sun set. He’d learned from Willow that, most nights, Buffy climbed out her window in the early evening and went vampire hunting. Since the books weren’t helping, and talking to a vampire hadn’t worked, he’d decided to follow her and see what happened. At the very least, he figured she would know where the vampires were.

An hour later, he was still waiting and thoroughly bored. He could tell she was in the house, because he caught glimpses of her and her mother through the living room windows. He was sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, fighting off sleep when he heard a soft thump of something landing on the grass not far away. Jerking upright, he saw Buffy straighten up from where she’d obviously jumped from the window of her second story bedroom. Straightening her clothes, she walked off down the sidewalk.

Xander gave her a minute before moving to follow. Staying a block behind her, he simply walked down the sidewalk at the same pace as her, not trying to hide. That way, if she spotted him, he could just say he was out for a walk and not following her.

She turned into the Restfield cemetery and began what appeared to be an aimless ramble through it. If she was following some kind of search pattern, he couldn’t figure it out as he trailed behind her, moving from tombstone to tombstone. They’d traversed at least half the cemetery when he heard voices and the sound of blows.

Moving closer, he saw that Buffy was fighting with a vampire. It was male, wearing what the books called its “true face”, “demon face” or “game face”, and growling as it attacked. Buffy settled into the pattern he remembered from the crypt that night: a flurry of blows, then a pause while insults were exchanged, then more blows. Watching, Xander realized what a dumb idea this had been. He wasn’t going to learn anything except that Buffy was stronger and faster than normal humans and he already knew that.

Buffy kicked the vampire again, then pulled out a stake and stabbed it cleanly in the heart. Xander gasped as the dark haired vampire vanished in an explosion of dust, pain twisting in his gut at the sight. The pain felt almost physical for a moment and he doubled over, clinging to the tombstone. After a long minute, he straightened up, still clinging white-knuckled to the tombstone for support. He looked up to find Buffy staring in his direction, her stake ready.

“You might as well come out and face me. If I have to come after you, it’s just going to piss me off. And you won’t like me when I’m cranky.”

He briefly considered trying to sneak away, but then stepped out into the open, joining her in the patch of moonlit ground.

“Xander? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Just out for a walk?”

“Are you following me?”

He shrugged. “Guess so.”

“Do you have any idea of how dangerous that is?” When he just shrugged again, she stalked towards him. “Why are you following me?”

“I wanted to see what you did for a living.”

“Go home, Xander. Personally, I think you’re an idiot but Willow would be really upset if you get killed.” She glared up at him, hands on her hips.

He crossed his arms stubbornly. “It’s a free cemetery.”

“I do not get you. You know vampires exist and you’re wandering through cemeteries at night like some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet.” She shook her head in disgust. “Go home.”

“Fine, I’m gone.” Buffy watched him leave, wondering what the hell that had been about. She tucked the stake back inside her jacket and set off for her own home.


~*~*~*~*~


Two weeks later and Xander was getting nowhere. He’d read five more books that he’d taken from Mr. Giles’ collection and watched Buffy stake another vampire but he still didn’t really know anything more about vampires than he had the night Jesse died.

On the school front, things were getting deeply weird. The whole school was still reeling from Principal Flutie’s death. Sure, Sunnydale had always had a high body count but three dead bodies on the high school campus in less than two months was bad even by Sunnydale standards.

He’d made arrangements with the guidance counselor to skip some class activities and use the time for make-up tests and extra study time, so he was caught up in all his classes and no longer in danger of flunking out. Ironically, all the time he’d spent reading books on vampires seemed to have improved his ability to focus on his school work. In the last few years, he’d gotten so used to studying with Willow that he’d gotten really lazy about doing his own work. Jesse and he had figured out years ago that, if they played dumb for long enough, Willow would give them the answers.

He’d found a balance that was working for now. He went to class, did his homework, and read the books he continued to take out of the library. He talked to Willow once in awhile, but they couldn’t seem to really connect anymore. The secrets they were both keeping from each other made a wall between them that they couldn’t seem to get past. He’d talked it over with Jesse - and how crazy did that sound? - but he couldn’t seem to resolve his conflicted feelings about Willow.

And then he overheard a conversation that shattered his fragile peace.

That afternoon, he fell into step with Willow as she headed home after her last class.

“Xander!”

He ignored her beaming smile. “I heard you guys talking this morning. Why is it that this Angel gets a pass? He’s a vampire, right? Buffy’s supposed to be a vampire Slayer. So how come she makes an exception for vampires she’s dating? Why him and not anyone else?”

Willow sighed. Well, at least he was talking to her. “It’s complicated, Xander. Angel has a soul.”

“What?”

“He was cursed by gypsies. They restored his soul.”

Xander laughed. “Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds?”

“I know it sounds weird, but it was like 100 years ago. Giles says there’s no record of him killing anyone since.”

Xander shook his head. Anger had been growing inside him all day, ever since he had overheard the conversation between Buffy, Willow and Mr. Giles about the vampire Buffy had been dating. It was one thing to accept the concept of a Slayer whose role was to kill all vampires. Somehow, learning that she wanted to make an exception for her boyfriend seemed wrong on so many levels. It was like she was setting herself up as God, deciding who lived and who died. They had all shouted him down when he told them he could reach Jesse. No, Jesse was a vampire, he had to die. But not, apparently, Angel.

“You know,” he began, quietly enough. “I’ve read almost a dozen books about vampires now. Mr. Giles is telling you only one theory about them. There are several writers who believe the human lives on in the vampire. Some even think the human and demon eventually merge, so that the demon becomes more like the human.”

“Xander, we’ve been through this. The demon takes over the body. The memories are still there, but it isn’t the person anymore.”

“Did you even listen to what Mr. Giles said this morning? He said that vampires have the movements, the memories, and even the personality of the human. How can all of that remain if the person is gone?”

“I don’t know, but the person’s soul is gone. That’s why Angel is different.”

“Ax murderers have souls, Willow. Hitler, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, they all had souls. Hell, my dad has a soul, not that he does much with it. As far as I can tell, having a soul doesn’t mean squat.”

“Ok, but Angel’s been helping us out. He’s warned Buffy about a bunch of things and helped save her life more than once.” She hurried on when it was obvious Xander wasn’t impressed. “Why don’t you join us in the library? You could help us research and maybe we could answer your questions. Maybe if you met Angel you could see how different he is from other vampires.”

“So, Buffy’s not going to stake him?”

“Well…, not as long as he’s not killing or doing anything bad. She’s going to let him prove himself to her,” Willow said hesitantly, she didn’t understand where Xander was going with this and she didn’t want to have another argument with him. He was always on the edge of anger these days. Moody and always wearing dark clothes, sometimes she wondered where her Xander had gone and if she would ever see him again.

Xander didn’t say anything for a long time, and Willow just walked quietly beside him. This was the longest they had been together in weeks and she would take what she could get. They were approaching her house before he spoke again.

“So, where does the souled vampire live, these days? A crypt like other self-respecting vampires?”

Willow shot him a suspicious look but Xander was gazing straight ahead, his serious expression belying his flippant tone. Willow couldn’t see the harm in answering, it wasn’t like she really knew where Angel lived. “He has an apartment somewhere near the Bronze.”

“Does he work? You know, night watchman, late night phone sex operator?”

Willow laughed at the idea. “I don’t think so. Even Buffy doesn’t really know much about him yet. He’s like 240 years old, isn’t that wild? I mean, imagine the history he’s seen.”

“Maybe Buffy can bring him to history class for show and tell.” They’d reached her house and were standing by the front door. Willow asked hopefully, “Do you want to come in?”

Xander smiled. “Let’s not push our luck. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Xander.” Willow stood on her porch watching him until he was out of sight, then went inside. Her parents weren’t home and Buffy would probably be out patrolling. Sighing, she switched on her computer. Maybe there would be someone fun in the chatrooms tonight.


~*~*~*~*~


“You know, you can back off any time now.” Buffy glared at Xander. Once again, Willow was upset and on the verge of tears because of something Xander had said to her and she was sick of it. Willow was fragile enough after the whole Malcolm/Moloch fiasco without Xander dumping on her too. And Giles had not been thrilled to learn that Xander had been reading his books and was now talking about moving all of the more sensitive volumes into the weapons cage for greater security and she just knew who was going to end up doing the moving.

“Everything is so black and white for you. Must be nice.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what it sounded like. You’re like: all vampires are bad, except for Angel, who’s 100% good. And that’s just idiotic. Way I hear it, Angel got cursed with a soul and sat on his ass for 100 years and didn’t do squat for anybody. The soul didn’t make him good, just because he stopped killing, it just made him useless.” Xander’s latest purloined book had been an old Watcher’s journal that had made some passing references to Buffy’s boyfriend.

“Leave Angel out of this. Vampires are evil, soulless demons. It is as simple as that. That’s why Slayers exist, to keep them in check.”

“Yeah, well that’s why wolves exist, to keep the deer population from overrunning the world. Doesn’t make wolves evil, it’s just what they do.”

“What vampires do is kill people. That’s different. When wolves start killing people, they’re hunted down and killed.” Buffy raised her eyebrows at him, daring him to keep the analogy going.

“Ok, good point,” Xander conceded. Changing tack, he tried again. “Look, vampires are people who are possessed by a demon. That’s how Mr. Giles explained it back when I learned that vampires are real.”

“For god’s sake, Xander, he was giving you the Vampires for Dummies version, just before telling you to butt out.”

“Buffy, I’ve read way more of his books than you probably ever will and the Watcher party line is just one theory, the one that best supports their ‘stake first ask questions never’ policy. Tell me, if all vampires are irredeemably evil, why do you have to protect the weekly blood shipment to the hospital? Why are vampires even interested in bagged blood if they’re all evil?”

“It’s an emergency supply thing,” Buffy said dismissively. “Who knows, maybe it’s their version of snack food.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that most of the vampires you deal with have just risen? Maybe they’re the demon equivalent of babies - interested only in eating and sleeping.”

“Babies don’t kill people when they eat.”

Xander sighed, the argument hadn’t helped clear up anything in his own mind and he could tell Buffy hadn’t really listened to anything he’d tried to say. And maybe she shouldn’t. It still came down to the fact that vampires killed humans, live and let live just didn’t work as a policy towards them. “I know,” he said finally. “I’m not saying I have any answers, I’m just saying that there are questions that someone needs to ask.”

“And who made it your job to ask?”

He looked away. Jesse did. “Got nothing better to do right now,” he shrugged.

“Well, find something better because you are seriously getting on my last nerve.” With that, Buffy spun on her heel and left.

Xander sat down at one of the desks and buried his head in his hands. What the hell was he trying to prove anyway? Buffy was right, who made him the advocate for no automatic death penalty for vampires? Ok, he did know the answer to that one but, if the theory was right, that the older a vampire was, the more control it had, he still didn’t have any solution. It wasn’t like they could let vampires kill anyone they wanted for however many years it took for them to stop killing indiscriminately. And how much better was a vampire who only killed selectively? If a vampire only killed one Hitler a week, did that make it ok? And who divvied out the scarlet V’s? Were there enough truly bad people in the world who deserved a vampire death sentence to support the vampire population?

Realizing that his thoughts had led him down a path where he was seriously contemplating the idea of a government agency appointed to choose vampire victims, worse, that his mind was busy coming up with acronyms for the new agency, he groaned and began beating his head against the desk. He’d known for a long time that he was unhealthily obsessed - not that there is anything unhealthy about a hobby of spying on serial killers with preternaturally sharp senses and twice my strength and speed - but he just couldn’t let it go. It was like the only way he could deal with Jesse’s death was to learn everything there was to know about the thing that had taken over his body. Because, god, he wanted so badly to be able to say, once and for all, that it had killed Jesse and that his hands were clean. Maybe then the nightmares would stop.





Part Three

Slouching through the halls, head down, Xander seriously considered skipping the rest of the day. He hadn’t cut any classes lately and was caught up and actually doing well in all of his classes. One missed day wouldn’t bring the wrath of Principal Snyder down on him. Probably. Hell, a good third of the kids in the class hadn’t come back after Wendall and his spiders this morning. He could claim he was traumatized by the sight of all those big, hairy spiders.

Still mulling over the eternal to skip or not to skip dilemma, Xander stepped into the math classroom and stumbled to a halt as he found himself in the familiar darkness of the Bronze. “What the…” he began when preternaturally strong hands grabbed his shirt, slamming him up against a metal beam. He gasped in pain and clawed at the hands holding him, only to freeze in shock at the sight of Jesse in full vampire face grinning at him. “Jesse!”

“Buddy!”

Xander just stood there, unable to form words as his nightmares became real. He could feel Jesse’s hands on him, feel the pain from the metal digging into his back, hear the screams and running feet all around him in the dimly lit chaos inside the club.

Jesse shook his head in mock sorrow. “Still the pathetic loser you always were, aren’t you, Xander? You haven’t even figured out that Jesse didn’t care about you. He was just so desperate for a friend that he was even willing to put up with you.”

“That’s not true.” Somehow, there was a stake in his hand and he was pressing it to Jesse’s chest.

“I have Jesse’s memories, remember?”

The iron grip relaxed and the vampire’s face shifted, the familiar human lines returning, the eyes darkening to Jesse’s brown. “Xander! Oh, god, help me! The demon’s trying to take over. I’m fighting it but it’s too strong. Please, you have to help me!” His dark eyes pleaded with Xander and his hands clung desperately.

“Jesse, what can I…”

Jesse lurched forward, shoved from behind and the stake plunged into his heart. His features dissolved into ash even as his lips formed Xander’s name.

“Xander!”

He staggered back, choking on the taste of ashes in his mouth, and fell. Someone grabbed his shoulder and he struck out wildly, his eyes blind to everything but the scattered dust on the floor.

“Xander! Xander! Snap out of it!” A slap stung his face, then another, and he finally was able to tear his eyes away from Jesse’s ashes and look up. Cordelia was standing over him, staring down at him, her hand raised for another slap.

Shaking, his breath coming in ragged pants, Xander looked around wildly, then back up at Cordelia. The sight of Queen C in a frumpy blouse and skirt, with frizzy hair sticking out like a bad cartoon character, didn’t help him with his reality issues. “What the hell is going on?” he managed to say.

“I don’t know. This is a nightmare! I mean, look at me! I was in the Chess Club, and they were saying I belonged there. Then all of a sudden I was here.”

“The Chess Club?” Reality was getting further away by the minute but focusing on Cordelia kept him from losing it inside his own nightmare-come-true. Xander would never have thought he would be grateful to Cordelia Chase for anything.

“Don’t ask. We have to find Buffy. As much as I hate to say it, this kind of thing is her turf. I have a date tonight, she has to fix this! She’s always around when weird stuff happens, so she should be able to fix whatever this is.”

Xander saw two vampires moving towards them and scrambled to his feet. “Way to set priorities, Cordelia. Let’s get out of here, then you can worry about your date.” Grabbing her hand, he set off running through the darkness, heading for the club’s back door. They joined the others fleeing the vampire-infested club and stumbled outside, only to find that the nightmare didn’t stop at the door. Surprised to find that it was dark outside, Xander hesitated for a second, then set off, still towing Cordelia by the hand. “Let’s try the school. Whatever’s going on, it was broad daylight only a few minutes ago. I’m betting everyone’s still at school.”

The whole town was going crazy. Monsters and panicking, sobbing people filled the streets. By unspoken agreement, they both ignored everything they saw, detouring around anything that looked threatening and blocking out everything else. They were halfway back to the school, when a wave of blinding light passed over them. They both cried out, and instinctively shielded their eyes, hearing others around them doing the same.

When they opened them, everything was normal again. Dazed, Xander looked over at Cordelia and saw that she was wearing her usual ultra-fashionable clothes, her hair and makeup perfectly done. All around them, people were looking around dazedly, as disoriented looking as Xander himself felt.

Cordelia looked down at herself. “Oh, thank god!” She pointedly snatched her hand free from Xander’s grip. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“What?” Ok, not the snappiest comeback he’d ever come up with but he was still reeling from the sudden transition from nightmare to normality.

“You are not someone I hold hands with, cave-man brain. Keep your distance.”

“Gee, I hate to burst your bubble, Miss Ego, but the only reason I was touching you was to try and save your worthless life. And I’m already beginning to regret it!”

“Oh, please. I saved your life!”

“Forget it, Cordy. You’re welcome and I’m gone.”

“Good!”

Watching Cordy spin on her heels and stalk off, somehow seemed an appropriate end to the day. Heading home, Xander decided that he and the Cartoon Channel were going to get up close and personal tonight. There was no way he was going to sleep after everything he’d seen today.


~*~*~*~*~


Maybe it made him a coward, but Xander had decided he was going along with the deaf, dumb and blind for once. He was clearly in the majority with that decision. At school, you would never know that anything even mildly strange had happened yesterday. Cordelia passed him in the halls without so much as a flicker of her perfectly-curled eyelashes to indicate that she remembered being trapped in a nightmare with him.

Probably that wasn’t a good example. Cordelia’s self-centeredness had been the stuff of legend since grade school and she might legitimately be suffering hysterical amnesia rather than let herself remember being seen looking like that in public. No one was even joking about the spiders, though and an entire class had seen them crawling around.

Nope. Denial was in full swing and the main topic of conversation was the upcoming dance and May Queen election, neither of which interested Xander in the slightest. Watching as posters were taped to the walls, Xander wondered if there was something about Sunnydale that made people actually forget the crazy things that happened and, if so, why he was immune. He couldn’t forget even when he tried to. Hours of cartoons and chocolate hadn’t succeeded in erasing the feeling of Jesse’s clutching hands or the sound of his desperate voice. He couldn’t be the only one whose worst nightmare had come to life in vivid detail but you would never know it looking around at the chattering groups of students.

So he was taking the coward’s way and jumping on the denial wagon along with everyone else. He wasn’t going to ask for explanations that would inevitably lead to describing what he had experienced while whatever-it-was was happening. As far as the world was concerned, he was a normal kid in a normal school. He wasn’t even going to read the latest book he’d “borrowed” from the library. Nothing going on in his head but math and English.


~*~*~*~*~


“Don’t touch me!”

Hearing the shout from inside the library, Xander stopped on his way out of school. It was late, he’d been studying for his upcoming exams, and it was easier to get intense study done in one of the deserted classrooms than in his house. His father was “between jobs” again and the blaring tv and his loud complaints about everything were hard to shut out. He hesitated, knowing it was almost certainly nothing, but decided he needed to check what was going on. Opening the library door quietly, he peered inside.

Buffy was arguing with Mr. Giles and another man and Xander frankly watched the entire confrontation, withdrawing only as Buffy headed towards the door. He ducked into a corridor and waited till her footsteps had faded from hearing, then entered the library.

“Are you two just stupid or are you trying to get her killed?”

Mr. Giles looked up and, under other circumstances, Xander might have felt bad for him, seeing the fatigue and worry in his eyes. Right now, he was too angry over what he had just heard to care.

“Please leave, I don’t have time for whatever your problem is.”

“Fine, I’m out of here. But let me just say this: I don’t even really like Buffy and I wouldn’t do to her what you two just did.”

“What are you talking about?” It was the other man, Angel probably, based on Buffy’s remark about him never going to die.

“I’m talking about elementary psychology that even a high school kid knows. You don’t tell someone they are destined to die and then expect them to win the fight. You guys just told her that an infallible prophecy says she’s going to die. Talk about setting someone up to fail. What the hell’s wrong with you two?”

“Would you have us lie to her?”

“Hell, yes. Give her some hope she’s going to win or she won’t. Haven’t either of you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Tell her you found a footnote that says if she fights the Master in a pink tutu she’ll win. Tell her something. Something that will give her some reason to try. Or you might as well kill her yourself.

“And that isn’t even considering the fact that those kind of prophecies are the oldest trick in the book. Ten to one if she never goes to meet the Master, he won’t go free! What kind of movies do you people watch anyway?” Disgusted with both of them, Xander stormed out, his low opinion of the librarian confirmed by what he’d overheard.

Giles and Angel looked at each other, more shaken than either cared to admit. Giles took his glasses off and began polishing them as he thought furiously. “The boy may have a point.”

“He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know anything about the Codex or the situation with the Master.”

“Yes, but he’s right that prophecies can be… tricky. They have a way of giving us only enough information to ensure we inadvertently bring about the events foretold. The original definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy was that it is a false prediction that creates new behavior which then makes the false prediction come true.”

Giles replaced his glasses and turned to the bookcases, continuing to ruminate out loud as he looked for a particular volume. “If we consider the Codex in that light…” He gave a small exclamation of satisfaction as he pulled a volume from the shelf. Opening it, he quickly found the page describing and illustrating the Harvest. “What we know of the Master is that he is trapped inside the Hellmouth. We can presume that it takes more than just a sufficient quantity of blood to release him, otherwise he would simply have his followers bring him enough victims to free him. During the Harvest, he created a link between himself and the Vessel so that he would draw strength from the Vessel’s feeding. That was a special circumstance that could only be created at that specific date and time.

So, considering those two bits of information together: the Master needs more than just human blood to free himself. It requires either a specific convergence of events or perhaps…”

“Blood that’s more than just human,” Angel finished grimly. “Like the blood of a Slayer?”

“Precisely. By facing him and being defeated, the Master feeds from her and is released.”

“Then all we have to do is stop her from facing him?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. His influence is increasing: vampire numbers are on the rise and they are becoming more aggressive. Eventually, the spillover will affect the town far more than it usually does. No, the Master has to be killed but we must find a way to defeat him while ensuring he cannot kill Buffy.”

“It’s not going to be easy.”

“I don’t expect it to be. However, I read a passage….” Giles shuffled through the books on the table for a moment. “‘The vampires will gather. They will know of his coming. They will be his army. They will go forth to do his bidding.’ I believe that means the Master will be alone, waiting for the Slayer to appear at the pre-destined time. Like all mythic confrontations, it would traditionally be one on one.”

“So, if Buffy doesn’t go, or at least doesn’t go alone…”

“Precisely. If the two of us go with her, adding our strength to hers, perhaps we can thwart this infallible prophecy and succeed in both stopping the Master and preventing the Slayer from dying.”


~*~*~*~*~


In the shadows outside the Bronze, Xander watched his classmates go in and out, all dressed to the nines. Music and light spilled from the open door but didn’t reach the fire escape where he sat watching, unseen, a quiet, dark figure in the shadows. In another life, he and Jesse and Willow would have all gone to the dance together. Jesse would have spent half the evening trying to get Cordelia to dance with him and the other half dancing with Willow and Xander in a cheerful threesome. Xander smiled as he recalled other dances, none of them were good dancers but they had had fun.

Those carefree days before he knew that vampires existed outside of movies, sometimes seemed so long ago. Jesse was gone and Xander had killed him. A handful of ashes in a hole in the ground were all that remained of his best friend. That was his reality now.

Across the way, where there was music and lights and laughter, Buffy and her vampire boyfriend, along with Willow, Mr. Giles and the computer teacher were heading towards the entrance of the Bronze. Mr. Giles, Buffy, and the vampire all looked a little worse for wear, somewhat rumpled and dirty, but they were joking and laughing. Bitterness filled Xander as he saw Willow joking with the vampire, walking beside him and clearly not afraid. Treating him like a person, like a friend.

Xander continued to watch, staring blindly in the direction of the club long after they had all gone inside. His anger at their acceptance of Angel was banked for now, as he settled down to wait for them to leave. He would follow Angel home and the vampire would tell him what he needed to know.




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