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Part three of eight

Episode Fifteen: Into the Breach

by georgevna, fenwic & eep

***
Leaving Buffy to finish the tree, Dawn went upstairs to get her camera. On her way back down, she glanced into Buffy's room. Spike sat on the bed with papers spread out in front of him. Not battle plans, but official-looking papers. Passport, other ID, and something else... she didn't get a good look at what, because he shoved it all back into a folder and looked at her.
"Nosey parker." He started it.
"Posey narker."
"Huh?" Then, "Squealin' boy-band groupie."
"Scruffy-lookin' ner-"
"Who's scruffy-lookin'?"
"Look at you!" She laughed. "Have you looked in a- Never mind. You got dirt on your face. You been fightin?"
"I've been winning. And I thought you and Buffy were decking the halls."
"They're decked." She took a step toward him. "What'cha got in the folder?"
"Porn."
She let that go and he laughed. "Will there be anything else, Miss Summers? We gotta go soon."
Dawn looked at him for a moment, then made up her mind. "Yeah. Wait a second."
She went back to her room. When she returned, she sat down next to him and held out a present.
He blinked as he received his second gift of the day. This one came wrapped in the Sunday funnies and topped with a red bow.
"Dawn, I-"
"Open it."
He looked at her, saw the anticipation and pride in her face, and did as she asked.
A sketchbook. Black, spiral bound. It was smallish and square, like a CD, but thick, like a paperback. She knew he wrote poems on the phone bill, on magazines, on gum wrappers. Now his poetry had a home. Sweet of her, really.
But he opened the cover to a surprise. Not a blank page. A face. Himself in living color, with Buffy in the Magic Shop. He decided that they looked good together. Then he focused on his own image and felt an odd sense of wonder. He hadn't seen a real picture of himself since... well, since before the hair. His hand drifted to his eyebrow, confirming that yes, the scar was still there. He turned the page. Sparring with Buffy in the training room. Camera caught her dropping that shoulder again. Sparring with Xander. Since when was Harris the bigger guy? Next page. Arguing with Giles. And winning, from the looks of it. Stocking shelves with Willow. Smoking on the porch. When had she taken that one?
She watched as he took it all in. "I thought you should have them," she said. "I thought you'd like to see."
"I do. I mean I'm glad. I mean... They..."
They were awful. They were too light, or too dark. They were off-center. (The child really had no sense of composition.) In half of them, she'd lopped off part of his head! They were out of focus, they were crooked, they were... there. All of them. This was his life now, these snapshots. They were everything. He looked at her. Everything.
"I-" He didn't trust his voice, so he stopped.
"Do you-"
He cleared his throat. "I like it."
She smiled, pleased with herself. "Really?"
"Yeh. I..." He looked down at the gift in his hands, cleared his throat again, and again. When he could finally speak, he looked up at her and grinned. "I forgot what a good-looking bloke I am!"
She laughed. "You wish!" Then she jumped up and flounced off, calling over her shoulder, "Your crazy face cracked the lens!"
His laughter followed her out of the room.
Then, alone with his book, he paged through it again, slowly this time. Blurry pictures of an ordinary day. Neat.
***
Willow hesitated outside Xander's doorway. She felt grateful, again, that her friend had invited her to spend the last hours before the battle at his apartment. Everyone else had gone home for a little while, and home was the last place she wanted to be. She took a deep breath. She had put on a brave face all day, but she didn't know if she could pretend around Xander. She didn't want to burden him, though. He had been through enough in the past month; he didn't need her coming in and weeping all over the place. Especially not before the battle. Especially not on Christmas Eve. Finally, she knocked.
"Willow! Just the wacky Wiccan I was waiting for!" He grinned as she walked into the apartment. It still seemed so empty to her; she shuddered to think how it must feel to him. "How'd it go with Dawn?"
Willow turned around as she took off her coat. "Pretty well. I think we figured out a way to do this; I have to sort of stay inside her head and walk her through it, but she'll be fine." She leaned against the arm of the sofa. "Hey - how are your parents, Xander?" As he sat down in the middle of the sofa he gave her a look that confirmed just how odd that question was. She started to apologize, but he stopped her.
"It's okay, Will. Last I heard, they were five-hundred dollars down and drunk out of their minds, so I'd say this is a pretty good Christmas for them." He noticed her confusion. "I sent them to Vegas, about a week ago. I guess I couldn't deal with the thought of anything happening to them, so I just got them out of town. They were pretty stunned. Mom kept saying it was too much, but Dad told her to shut up and get on the fucking plane. Ah, another merry Christmas memory." He frowned for a moment, but then he seemed to shake it off. He jumped up. "Oooh, speaking of which - I have a present for you!"
She started to protest. "Xander, I didn't bring my present over. Shouldn't we wait until tomorrow?" But it was too late. He reached into the hall closet and rooted around inside a big shopping bag.
"Okay, I didn't get around to wrapping it yet. And I have something else for you that you'll get tomorrow, but... Happy Hanukah, Will."
Willow smiled and took the proffered videotape. "'A Charlie Brown Christmas.' Awww, Xander!" She hugged him tight.
"Yeah, well I figured this way you won't have to sneak around and lie to your folks just to watch it." She still clung to him, and he felt her begin to shake. He drew back, and saw tears welling in her eyes. "Will? Willow? What's wrong?"
"It's just... this was the first lie I can remember telling my parents." She sat down in the corner of the couch, staring at the videotape. She fought back tears. "And after a while, I realized I didn't even have to lie. I could just not say anything about my life, and they wouldn't ever ask, and now..." She broke down. She felt him sit and put an arm around her; she took the roll of toilet paper he offered with his other hand. As she wiped her tears, she remembered that she wasn't going to burden Xander with all of this. He had enough to cry about - why else would he keep tissue on the coffee table?
Still, it took her a few minutes to pull herself together. "Come on, Will, what is it? Is it Tara?"
She shook her head as she blew her nose. "No - well, yes, always but..." She wiped her eyes again, and stared at the enormous wad of toilet tissue she'd just gone through. "My parents were at the meeting yesterday. They finally got it through their heads that I'm a witch. They are 'very disappointed' in me."
"Wait - I thought your mom found out back in high school, that time when Amy..." He stopped himself short, remembering Amy's fate.
"She forgot. Just like they always 'forget' anything they see that doesn't fit into their image of their perfect brainiac daughter with the brilliant career ahead of her and the perfect marriage to the perfect Jewish doctor... " She trailed off. "At least your parents knew Anya was your girlfriend."
"Ah yes, I remember it well. I introduced her to them, and my mom got all nervous and kept offering us food. Dad just took one look at Anya, turned to my mom and said, 'Well, at least he's not gay.'"
Willow stiffened, then laughed. Xander relaxed a little, and continued, "So - your parents know you're a witch. What happened?"
Willow scootched back into the corner of the couch. As she spoke she pushed her tennis shoes off with her feet. "Big showdown at the Rosenberg house over dinner last night. They want to know why I'm playing around with this stuff when I'm supposed to be doing early applications for graduate schools. They're still bitter that I didn't go to a better college. They're threatening to stop paying for my tuition unless I 'focus.'" She brought her feet up onto the couch and curled up even further into the cushions. "So I exploded. I told them - everything. All about Buffy, and the Hellmouth, and apocalypses and monsters and vampires and Hellgods and Tara - everything."
"Everything?" He gaped at her.
"Yeah. Mom just said that I was 'going through a phase' - that it was nice that I was so 'extro-empathetic' but that I need to 'realign my priorities'." Xander rolled his eyes. "And Dad said I was wasting my time, and was all 'it's time to get serious' and focus on my future." She sighed, and looked up at her friend. "The worst part is, they're right."
"What?" He looked at her, confused. "Willow - we're talking about the end of the world here. Everybody dies, except that they don't, because we stop it from happening. That's pretty 'serious' if you ask me."
Willow smiled bitterly. "You ever do that thing in December where you look back at everything that's happened in the past year?" Xander nodded mutely. "Well, I did that last night, after they went to bed. And I realized they're right. I'm wasting my life. I'm going nowhere."
Xander opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. "Last year at this time? I was happy. I had Tara, and I was getting better and better at magic, and everything was moving forward. And now? I'm halfway through my Junior year of college, and I haven't declared a major. Me! Willow Rosenberg! I used to be all 'Yay! Homework! Let's study!' and now I - okay, well I still study all the time, but it's like I don't even know why!"
She clutched a throw cushion to her chest. "And Tara's dead. And part of me is too. And all that I have left is magic, and that almost got you killed." She stood up and started pacing, still hugging the pillow. She knew Xander wanted to interrupt, but she had to get this out. Her voice rose and tears flowed down her face again, but this time she didn't try to stop them. "And now vampires have taken over the town, and the Hellmouth is about to open and y'know what? I don't really care! Maybe I'll do better in Hell. Maybe I won't have to think about a future, and a career, and my parents' expectations, and the whole friggin' world if we all go to Hell!"
"Wanna go to London?" Xander stood in front of her, his hands on her shoulders.
That brought her up short. She had ranted and raved and felt like she was losing her mind and that was the very last thing she expected him to say. She looked at him, bewildered, and finally managed to squeak out, "What did you say?"
"I said - wanna go to London?" Xander smiled at her. "Giles has been trying to get me to go, to finish my training. Once all this is taken care of, of course. And he thinks you should go too. The Council has some classes for witches."
She laughed. "Hogwarts? You're kidding, right?"
"Not exactly. It's part of the Watcher training program." He grinned. "Apparently they have a few witches on the payroll too, so if you do this right, you might end up with a cushy job out of it, just like me."
At the mention of money, her face fell. "I can't. No way Mom and Dad would pay for this."
"I've already talked to the Council, Will. They'll pay your expenses, give you a stipend, even. You're good, Willow, they know that. They want you there. You have a real talent and real power. They can help you with that. You just need to study and understand it more."
She still hesitated, unwilling to let herself believe that this could be happening.
"C'mon, Willow! We'll be in school together again! Only this time it's not on the Hellmouth, it's in London!"
"All right..." She beamed at him. "All right." She hugged him and bounced up and down. "We're going to London!"
He laughed. "Not so fast! First we have to save Christmas!"
She giggled. "We're going to London! We're going to London!"
Laughing, he popped the tape into the VCR and they settled back onto the couch.
***
Bloody hell. Bloody, sodding hell. Bloody, sodding, buggering, bleeding hell.
There had, quite possibly, never been a more miserable vampire.
Spike stood in the bathroom off the training room. Barefoot, but clothed - neck to wrists to ankles - in orange. Really, the most impossible shade of orange ever committed to cotton.
"Please," he begged the heavens. "Somebody slay me."
Buffy knocked. "Spike?"
"Go away!"
"Aw, now don't be like that. Come on out, Honey. Doesn't matter how it looks. So long as everyone can see you."
"Yeh, like those sodding cones on the sodding street."
He looked down at his orange arms, his orange legs. This wasn't how the argument was supposed to end. He'd been winning! Why, even as he snatched the crime-of-fashion from her hand and shuffled off to put it on, he could tell she was weakening.
Uh-huh. She pulled that glistening doe-eyed thing and it was "Yes Baby, okay Baby, I'll put it on right now Baby."
He sighed. So very whipped.
"Spike, c'mon." That was Dawn.
"No. Never."
And that was Dawn and Buffy laughing.
"Stop that! You're mean, evil girls and I hate the both of you."
"Spi-ike," Buffy cooed. "C'mon, Baby. I've never told you this, but o-o-o-range? Whenever I see a man in orange, I just wanna jump him."
He growled. Dirty pool. The Slayer was more ruthless now than when they used to beat each other up. "I'll remember that the next time we pass a chain gang on the freeway."
"Ple-e-ease?"
An inch. The door cracked open exactly one inch and Buffy saw an eye, a cheek, a bit of jaw and a sliver of orange.
"Buffy." He lowered his voice, "When you said you got me something to wear with that other thing you got me to wear, I thought you went back for the cuffs, maybe a nice collar..."
She batted her eyes. "As if I need help restraining you."
"Nice try." He slammed the door.
She looked back at Dawn, who only shrugged. Like a good general, Buffy changed tactics.
"Hey!" She pounded on the door. "Too-Sexy-For-Your-Clothes! Get your orange ass out here!"
The door creaked open and Spike peered out.
"All the way."
He slouched into the room, tugging and itching at the jumpsuit. Pouting like a little boy shoved into church clothes.
Applause. Cat calls. He scowled at them.
Dawn raised her camera.
"You snap that and I'll snap your scrawny- Yow!"
A thousand suns exploded in his face. "Dawn!" He pointed at her and turned to Buffy. "Do something!"
She ignored his protest and walked a slow circle around him, whistling. Then she slapped his ass before coming all the way around.
He rolled his eyes, waited for it.
She looked him up and down and then said, wide-eyed, "Grandmother, what big feet you have!"
He leered. "All the better to-"
"Don't say it!"
He lunged for her, but she eluded him and flopped onto the couch next to Dawn. Both of them, laughing.
Spike shook his head. "Wicked, wicked girls. You mock. Mere hours before a war that'll probably kill us all."
"I wasn't mocking," Dawn chirped. "She's mocking. Me, I'm just wicked."
"Is there any part of this battle plan that doesn't make me look like a gormless prat? This is Xander's doing, innit? When I get my hands- "
"Giles, actually," said Buffy. "And he's already brought a truckload of these things over to Dracula. They're having a fashion show as we speak."
Spike grinned. Then chuckled. Then his lips curled and he laughed. Laughed and laughed.
"What?"
"I'll put this clownsuit on every Christmas for the rest of our lives long as I get to see Prince Special Dirt wear it just once."
Now they all laughed. And he was glad. No tension, no tears. There would be enough of that soon enough.
***
He's proud of me. He's proud of me.
Faith grinned as she walked towards the battlefield. She shoved her hands deep into her jacket pockets - it was pretty cold for a sunny day in California, even at Christmas time.
He's proud of me.
She almost skipped down the sidewalk - almost. She tried to make it look like jogging. She passed a few mostly empty shops that still hoped to tempt last minute shoppers. The owner stood outside of one, dressed as Santa Claus, announcing special prices on crucifixes and those little plastic spray bottles - only he called them "holy water misters." Some people never give up. Thank god for that. Faith smiled wider. Even hearing that stupid "Bell" song over and over blaring from the storefront didn't break her mood. Instead she found herself singing along in a goofy deep voice, even though she didn't really know the words.
"Here come the bells! There go the bells! Bells Bells Bells Bells! ...MerrymerrymerryMERRYCHRISTMAS! MerrymerrymerryMERRYCHRISTMAS!"
She cracked up laughing when she realized the guy in the Santa suit had overheard.
She rounded a corner and made her way around the sawhorses marking off the huge hole in the middle of the street. They were all over town - gaping pits where the roadways had been caved in to block off the underground tunnels. She had to hand it to Xander and Giles; they were pulling out all the stops this time. In two days, they had turned the town from VampCity, USA into a battlefield - their battlefield. So what if there were big holes in the streets, and the huge fight was yet to come - the bad guys were cornered, and the good guys were calling the shots. Cool.
Still, her smile faded as she thought about the battle. Usually that was her element, but tonight was different... Most of the Master's army would probably come up through the wreckage of Sunnydale High, but there was one other entrance still open - a manhole on Cyprus Street, at the far eastern edge of the battlefield. The others had all been welded shut. The Away Team - Dawn and Willow and some special forces guys, and Faith - would go underground there, once the vampires were all out.
There was no reason to go check on it, really. She just sort of wanted to see it again before it got dark. She had been about to leave the apartment an hour earlier, when Giles called to say he was coming home, and to suggest they eat an early dinner. She'd just eaten - Beef Noodle Hearty soup from a can. Still, she waited for him to come home. Made a pot of tea. Warmed the pot first, the way she'd seen him do it. Set out some Christmas cookies. She'd even had a cup herself, surprised at how good it was. Giles told her about his afternoon with Dracula, and she grinned now remembering it. Damn. Giles was such a mack-daddy. Do people even say that anymore? Doesn't matter. That's what he is.
And then she'd gotten ready to go, and Giles had played with his glasses, and stammered a bit, and then he'd said it. He'd said, "Faith, I want you to know that I - I am so proud of you."
Just that. Remembering it as she walked down the sidewalk she smiled again. Almost cried. She had hugged him. She had been meaning to do that for a long time, but the time never seemed right. She'd hugged him and said "thank you" and then got the hell out. It was too emotional and she was too tough and Giles was too British for the scene to go on longer...
"Thank you."
Thank you for saying something nice to me.
Thank you for rescuing me from prison.
Thank you for the Christmas tree.
Thank you for giving me a home.
Thank you for getting me a salary.
Thank you for not being scared to get close to me.
Thank you for the mirror even though it's not mine until tomorrow.
Thank you for letting me change.
Thank you for believing I had changed.
Thank you for not making me jump through hoops to prove it.
Thank you for saving me.
She wondered if he knew that she meant all of that, when all she said was "Thank you."
She turned right onto Cyprus Street. Damn, there were a lot of people here already. The sun wouldn't go down for at least another hour - why weren't they at home with their families?
About half a block down, the street ended abruptly where one of Xander's trenches cut across it. For now, a temporary bridge of planks had been laid across it. She stopped for a moment to watch the rushing water filling the ditch.
She made her way around the edge of the crowd. Everything was ready. Fire hoses unrolled, weapons, trenches. Xander was big with the holes in the ground. She wished she were going to be fighting up here. Fighting, she could handle. But this whole dimensional-mojo thing freaked her out. She hoped she would be up for it. This was Buffy's SISTER for pete's sake. If anything happened to her...
Behind her, the people started singing "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful." It reminded her of her grandmother, who had died when she was six... The hymn ended, and she heard a man reading. Father Sanchez stood on the stairs of Sunnydale High, with two other men, probably ministers of some sort. Christmas services. She paused. She didn't need to be at the Magic Box for almost an hour. She could hang out for few minutes.
For the yoke that burdened them, 
the pole on their shoulder, 
And the rod of their taskmaster 
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian. 
For every boot that tramped in battle, 
Every cloak rolled in blood 
Will be burned as fuel for the flames.
Peace. Just - peace. Faith looked at the faces around her, and realized that that was all they were hoping for. To throw off the burden of fear, to get past the battle, to go back to normal life with the people they cared about. That would be celebration enough. And then we'll beat our swords into plowshares, and our stakes into... handles for the plowshares? Faith loved a good fight. But the past months had changed everything. Now she'd love a good peace.

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