[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part two of two

Episode Two: Terms of Engagement

by adjrun
Everlong (acoustic) by The Foo Fighters

Amado Mio by Pink Martin
(The Date)


Shoutouts: To the entire DL crew for the inspiration, and for letting me play. To the newbies, for sharing my fear. Special thanks to cousinjean, for the support, Luke, and the suit; and to fenwic, queen of constructive feedback -- she lets me know what's working, and helps make the iffy stuff come together. Also thanks to my husband, for letting me be obsessed with this the last few weeks, and for understanding that the obsession isn't over.


***

It was about the middle of the afternoon, and Xander had passed test after test. Xander was a little surprised at himself: the Mysticism test was actually easy, the profile had been a joke, and he was pretty sure Spike had gone easy on him on the Combat Skills assessment. Even the essay had gone smoothly, and was probably the best thing he had ever written. It really shouldn’t be going this well, Xander thought to himself. That just wasn’t the way his life worked.

“Ready for the next phase?” Giles had a note of forced cheer in his voice, which instantly set Xander on alert.

“Next phase? Is this the ‘horribly unpleasant’ phase? Why can’t one of these trials be eating too much ice cream?”

“Xander…”

“What? Brain freeze hurts, it’s a fair test.”

“Xander, unfortunately, this is a more difficult hurdle. It is, well, it’s extremely difficult, is what it is.” Giles looked pained, and a little concerned. “The Ritual of Phobos involves facing fears.”

“Oh. No biggie. I’ve faced lots of fears. Usually while I’m backing away to get distance to run, but I’ve faced ‘em.” Xander laughed a little at his own joke.

“All your fears. In order, ending with your worst fear. It is – well there’s no other way to put it, it’s horribly unpleasant.”

“Sounds bloody god-awful.” Spike winced a little, thinking of the possibilities.

“Yes, that may indeed be a more apt description,” Giles nodded. “I cannot overstate the seriousness of this ritual. Most initiates cannot get through it their first time, and some are so traumatized they never attempt it again.”

“Great…” Xander was starting to look slightly nauseated.

“And, then, there are those driven permanently insane…” Giles muttered, thinking Xander couldn’t hear him.

Following Giles’s precise instructions, the men set up for the ritual. A protective salt circle, with four beeswax candles marking the four directions. Xander’s eyes, temples and palms were anointed with a pungent-smelling oil, and with a reddish powder. Xander took his place in the center of the circle, and Giles handed him an unstoppered flask. The liquid inside was viscous and yellow-green; it reminded Xander of the syrup used to make a lime Italian soda. He tilted the flask, watching the liquid ebb and flow.

“Giles?”

“Yes, Xander?”

“Did you have to do this test?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t answer if you don’t want to, or, hey, if it’ll freak me out even more, but, what was your worst fear?”

Giles froze for a moment. Then: “That something that I had done when I was young and foolish would result in the destruction of the world.”

Xander thought for a moment, then grinned. “Nope! Haven’t done anything that stupid. Cool!”

Giles had maintained his focus off into the distance. “Of course, now the fear would be different…”

“Yeah? What’s topping the fear chart, now?”

Giles said nothing. The silence lengthened.

Spike whispered, “Buffy dying. And that you fight as hard as you can, but you’re not strong enough to save her. So all you can do is watch her die. That’s the fear.”

“Yes…” Giles looked at Spike, in recognition of their shared horror.

Xander closed his eyes, and took a few deep breaths. “If it’s too much, if I can’t bear it anymore, what do I do? How do I stop it?”

“Break the circle, or put out a candle. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.”

“And to start it? Do you have some spell to chant, or something?” Keep asking questions, Xander, he thought to himself, just don’t give yourself time to get scared about this.

“We light the candles, you drink the potion. That’s it. The images should start coming almost instantly.”

Xander nodded his head slowly. “Okay. Let’s light this candle! Umm, candles.”

He took a second and waited as Giles and Spike lit the candles. Then, before he could think about it, he drank the potion.

Frogs. Mold. Getting hit by the baseball. The high jump bar. Jellyfish. Maggots…

What is this, Xander thought, in a brief moment of lucidity, the five hundred hats of Bartholomew Cubbins?

…Speaking in public. Speaking naked in public. Clowns. Being laughed at. Being laughed at, naked. Being laughed at because he is naked in public. Naked clowns…

It wasn’t too bad, so far. Okay, yes, it was awful. But so far, he could handle it.

… Faith, with her hands undoing his pants. Faith, with her hands around his neck. Being killed in a plane crash. The First Slayer, showing him his heart. Being killed in a fiery explosion at the school. Becoming a fish boy. Being killed by a demon, by a giant mantis, a giant snake, a zombie, a vampire. Being killed. Being killed. Being killed…

The images began to get more specific, to take longer. Image after image, he was pulled into a world that horrified him.

…Anya, leaving him. Sharks. Giles dead. Buffy dead. Willow dead. Anya dead. Angelus, standing over the bodies of all his friends. Buffy, in vamp face, walking towards him. Willow in vamp face. Anya, a vengeance demon again. He is a vampire, standing over the lifeless bodies of his friends. He is a vampire, watching his friends rise to join him.

There was a pause. Maybe it’s over, Xander thought. Please, please, please let it be over. Then the final image took him.

He was sitting in an overstuffed recliner, watching television. Watching a football game. A can of beer in his hand. This was weird, Xander thought. Shouldn’t this be scary? What, his worst fear was being lazy, or getting a beer gut?

“Goddamn it!” he yelled. Whoa, where did that come from? “It’s seven thirty! Where the hell is dinner?”

“Look, asshole, I don’t see you getting off your lazy ass to make it.” Was that Anya’s voice? “You’ll eat when it’s ready, and bitching about it just makes it later.”

Xander stood up, walked over to the doorway to the kitchen. It was Anya’s voice, all right, but this wasn’t the Anya he knew. This Anya was soft, overweight, bitter. Her face held a pettiness and anger that he somehow knew was its permanent expression. Just as he knew that his face looked the same.

“Come on, it’s not like we’re talking some fancy gourmet meal here.” His voice was sneering, belittling. “It’s just another variation on the pig swill you always serve.”

“Well maybe if you weren’t drunk all the time you could actually taste it.”

“Baby, if I wasn’t drunk, I couldn’t even eat it.”

Anya turned, and threw the wooden spoon she was holding at him. It smacked against his pants, spattering them with some vaguely brownish liquid. Instantly, he threw his beer can at her. It missed, and caromed off the edge of the counter. Beer sprayed everywhere, across the counter, in Anya’s face, on her clothes. A puddle of beer began to form on the floor.

“God, I wish I were a vengeance demon again. You’d pay for this, you bastard!”

“I know why you’re not. You thought it would be more fun to make one man’s life a living hell!”

Xander became aware that they were being watched. Anya was yelling at him, he kept yelling at her, but someone was watching. Where? There, in the hallway.

A little boy stood in the hallway. He was beautiful, maybe five years old, with dark hair and dark eyes. The boy’s face was a mixture of hope and heartbreak as he watched Xander and Anya scream at each other.

“And just what the hell is your problem? What are you staring at?”

The boy quailed, and Xander could see that his eyes were starting to glisten.

“Jesus God, are you crying? What are you, a girl? You pee sitting down now?” He looked back at Anya. “I hope you’re happy, now, bitch. We can put him in a dress. Get him ballet lessons.”

“Shut up! Just – shut up!”

Now the boy was crying. He was fighting to stop, but the tears kept trickling down his face.

Xander walked over to the boy. “STOP! CRYING! NOW!”

“Yes, daddy…” The boy wiped his face with the back of his hand, but he couldn’t stop.

“That’s it. Until you can stop your blubbering, I don’t even want to see you. Goddamn little baby.” He grabbed the boy by his upper arm and pulled a little, so that the boy had to lift himself up on the balls of his feet. Then he yanked the boy down the hallway, and shoved him into his room. “You stay there. You stay there until I tell you to come out. You hear me?”

“Yes, daddy…”

Xander slammed the door.

“There. I think he’s coming around. Xander? Xander? Can you hear me?”

Xander opened his eyes, slowly. His gaze shifted, settling on nothing. Then his disorientation faded slightly and he whispered, “Is it real? Am I back?”

“Yeah, mate, you’re back.” Spike couldn’t help it; he smiled at Xander reassuringly. “You all there?”

Painfully, using muscles clenched in terror for hours, Xander pushed himself up to a sitting position. His torso began to shudder rhythmically, and Giles and Spike shared a look of discomfort at the thought of consoling a weeping Xander. But no; he lifted his head, and he was laughing. Noiselessly, and bitterly, laughing.

“Xander? What is it?” Giles asked.

“Well, whadda you know?” Xander looked at Giles, more as a response to stimulus than in an attempt to answer his question. “I’m Luke Skywalker.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

He was still laughing, the laughter somehow more painful than tears. “My greatest fear is becoming my father.”

Giles took a few steps away, and returned with a blanket. He slung the blanket around Xander’s shoulders, and Xander clutched it gratefully.

“Right,” Giles said cheerfully. “Well, now on to the next step in the initiation.”

“Giles, I…” Xander heaved himself, with help from Spike, into a chair. “I’m really not ready to go on with anything. I think I have to stop shaking, first.”

“This step is an essential,” replied Giles, as he crossed to the table with three glasses and a bottle of Glenfiddich. “Getting you thoroughly drunk.”

“Wow,” Xander murmured. “It is just like a fraternity.”

Giles poured a generous inch into each of the three glasses.

“Harris. Here’s to you,” Spike said, lifting his glass. “I hate to admit it, but you showed some serious stones there.”

Xander thought that he should make a nasty comeback in response, but he was just too tired. He raised his glass in response, as Giles raised his. Then, almost in unison, the three men knocked back their glasses of scotch. Xander put his glass back down on the table, and Giles refilled it. Giles then shot a quick glance at Spike, nonverbally asking if the vampire wanted a second glass. In response, Spike shook his head and stood up.

“Sundown, gotta dash.” Spike was already throwing on his coat as he headed for the door. “Date tonight. Buffy and I are gonna—“

“Go. Just go. Go.” Giles waved his hand, shooing Spike from the room.

“Don’t miss me too much.” And with that, Spike was gone.

***

Dawn was lying prone in the middle of Buffy’s bed, her chin propped up on her hands.

“So, you’re going out on a date?”

“Yep,” Buffy replied.

“A real, boy-and-girl, datey-type date?”

“Yep. No training, no slaying, not even a walk by the graveyard.”

“Cool.” Dawn thought a moment, then asked, “Where ya going?”

Buffy swung around to face her sister, and scowled. “That’s just it. He won’t tell me. He’s being all mysterious about it.” She sighed. “It’s probably just the Bronze anyway. Still, the guy says, ‘Put on a nice frock and be ready at eight’ and here I am in a swivet.”

“Well,” Dawn looked at her critically, “it is a nice, um, frock.”

It was. It was a red silk jersey, with spaghetti straps and a touch of a flare at the hem. Buffy turned to look at herself in profile, and then turned back to face the mirror.

Yeah, she thought. It’ll do.

“So, Buffy? How did you guys get trapped in the magic shop, anyway?”

Buffy sighed, and sat on the bed next to Dawn. “Willow was upset. She ran out of the shop, and didn’t want anyone to follow her. I don’t think she was even aware of what she did; but there we were, instant Magic Shop sleepover.”

“Upset about you and Spike?”

“That, and she’s still mourning for Tara. We didn’t realize how much she was hurting. Oh, Dawn,” she sighed. “Willow is still in so much pain.”

“Yeah.” Dawn leaned her head against her sister’s arm. “How long…does it take? For it to not hurt, I mean.”

“The loss of a loved one?” Buffy wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I don’t know. With Mom, I don’t think it will ever stop hurting. It’s like there’s a little corner of my self that is always sad, always mourning. Sometimes, I can forget it’s there…”

“And sometimes, it floods out, and all you are is sad and hurt…”

“Yeah.”

“But then, there was Angel. How long did it hurt, when you thought he was dead?”

Buffy sighed, remembering the past. “Until he came back.”

Dawn’s eyes widened. “Bummer.”

“No kidding. Hey, subject changy time, okay? Kinda don’t want to discuss the old boyfriend when I’m getting ready for a date with the new one.” When Dawn nodded, Buffy continued. In a falsely deep, serious grown-up voice, she asked, “So how was school today, young lady?”

“Surprisingly un-sucky, considering that the first day it was the economy-sized sucky.” Dawn tilted her head up, and grinned at her sister. “It’s a hoot. The teachers, okay? It turns out I have three that transferred from Sunnydale High. They read my name on the roll sheet, and then they look up with this kinda strangled expression and go ‘Any relation to, umm, Buffy Summers?’ And then, when I tell ‘em, they looked like they’ve been whacked in the head with a two-by-four.”

“Ah, the great Summers legacy. I’m flattered they remember.”

“Yeah, it’s like having an older sister who was the biggest brain in the school. Only more, y’know, violent.”

“And giving you less to live up to,” Buffy added.

“Yeah. Definite bonus. Plus, I have the cutest Biology lab partner.”

“Oooo, is he dreamy?” Buffy teased, but just a little.

“Not nearly as dreamy as Spike!” Dawn was giving as good as she got. “He’s just the bee’s knees, oooo…”

“But Biology boy is so super-nice, and such a dish!”

“Oh, Spike!” Dawn fluttered her eyelashes, and held her hands to her heart. “I think you’re just… swell!”

That did it. Buffy started giggling. Dawn looked up at her, and then she was giggling, too.

The doorbell rang, barely audible over their laughter.

“I’ll get it!” chirped Dawn, as she hopped off the bed. “You finish getting ready. Oh, um, the studs, not the hoops. The hoops are, well, kinda last year.”

“Thank you, oh pink-jeans-wearing fashion guru.”

Dawn had already left Buffy’s room, but she swung back around the doorframe to stick her tongue out at her sister. Then she smiled. “Buffy. You look really pretty. I’m glad.”

“That I’m pretty?” Buffy tilted her head, and looked at Dawn quizzically.

“That you’re happy again.”

“Oh. Yeah. It is kind of nice.” Buffy blinked. “But if you make my mascara run, you’ll pay for it.”

The doorbell rang again.

“Dawn. The door?”

“Door. I’m on it.” Dawn sprinted down the hall. Buffy could hear her clatter down the stairs, and toss open the door. Then there was a weird moment of silence.

“Oh my god!” Dawn yelped. “Spike!”

“Dawn? Dawn, what’s the matter?” Buffy called down. “Is something wrong?”

“Not really. Umm, it’s too hard to explain. You have to come down here. Now.”

“Fine,” Buffy sighed. “I’ll be down in a minute.” She took a few seconds to fasten her earring, and then looked at herself critically. Her hair was down, and straight, and she thought for a second about putting it up. Then she made a face at herself.

“Why am I nervous?” she said to her reflection. “It’s Spike. He’s seen me gross and sweaty and bloody and – and cobwebby. He’s seen me cry until snot ran down my chin. He’s seen me in that stupid white jacket that makes me look like a Yeti. And he still loves me. And besides, I look fine. I look – yikes, like I need to put lipstick on.”

Buffy grabbed a tube almost at random, opened it, and slicked color across her lips. She checked herself, critically, one last time before heading out her bedroom door. A second later she was halfway down the stairs. That’s when she saw him, standing in the middle of the foyer. Spike.

Spike was wearing a suit.

Scratch that. Spike was wearing a really nice suit. It was a four-button, single-breasted suit, dark gray, with a paler pinstripe. The shirt underneath was crisp and white, and his tie was a pewter-gray satin. The slim fit of the suit made him look lean and elegant, and somehow still dangerous. Absently, she noticed a cone of paper in his right hand. Flowers, of some kind? Flowers. Spike was wearing a suit.

“Hey, Buffy.” His smile was shy, and he looked tentative, perhaps a little embarrassed. “Umm, say something. Please.”

Buffy suddenly realized that she was sitting on the stairs. Somehow, without her even noticing, her knees had buckled.

“Spike!” She grabbed the banister and pulled herself upright. “You look… um, you look really…”

“Hot.” Dawn broke in. “That was the word you were looking for, Buff. And you do, Spike; you look really good in that suit. Right, Buffy? Come on, Buffy, repeat after me, ‘Spike, you look devastatingly hot in that suit.’”

“Dawn, go wait in the kitchen,” Buffy said, as she slowly finished walking down the staircase. Her eyes were locked on Spike.

“Yeesh, fine. Like I need front-row seats for the tonsil-hockey.” Dawn smirked, and then sauntered out of the room.

“Buffy?” Spike’s grin was a little wider now. “Do I pass muster?”

“Your tie’s a little crooked,” she murmured, as her hands reached for his collar.

“Bugger. Well, the tie’s a bit dodgy with no mirror.” Spike looked down, as best he could, to watch her adjust the length of silk.

In an instant, Buffy was kissing him. Her hands moved from his collar to curl around his shoulders. Startled, Spike let Buffy’s momentum back him up a few steps, until he was leaning against the wall. Buffy continued to kiss him, quick, soft kisses, her palms caressing the nape of his neck, fingers curling in his hair. Spike’s left hand curled to the small of her back, pulling her even closer. His right hand, the hand holding flowers, he held uncertainly at his side. Then Buffy nibbled at his lip. Spike tossed the flowers halfway across the foyer.

Long minutes later, Spike raised his head. “So you like the suit, I take it.”

“I like the suit.” Buffy nodded.

“Well, don’t get used to it,” Spike warned. “But I thought, for our first official date, it might be kind of… nice.”

“Very kind of nice.” She kissed him, lightly, and brushed her hands along the lapels of his jacket. “I only wish you could see how amazing you look in this suit.”

“And you…” Spike took a few steps away from her, and indicated that she should spin around. When she did, he nodded, seriously. “I’d tell you that you looked beautiful, but…”

Buffy raised an eyebrow. “But I don’t?” She challenged, grinning.

“It’s sort of like saying the surface of the sun is toasty. Too much of an understatement.”

She looked away, a little nonplussed. “Plus, now I’m all rumpled,” she added, trying to downplay her pleasure in the compliment.

He pushed a strand of her hair back, tucking it behind her ear. “Love, that’s a bonus.”

“Okay, that’s it.” Buffy stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

“What?”

“I have to kiss you again.” And she did: a long, slow, languid kiss. Finally, Spike broke away.

“Uh-unh. We have dinner reservations at 8:30.”

“Spike, please. It’s not like you need to eat.”

Spike took one of her hands in his. Then he bowed a little, and brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Is it possible that there may be other pleasures to be gained from eating in public with a beautiful woman whom I worship and adore?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

As they walked out the door, Buffy asked Spike, “Were those flowers?”

“Yep.”

“Huh. What kind?”

“Irises.”

“Spring flowers.”

“From a greenhouse.”

“They were lovely.”

“You didn’t even see them.”

“They were lovely.”

***

The smoke had grown. A thick murk of shimmering darkness roiled about eighteen inches above the bed. Beneath it, Willow lay on her back. Her eyes were open, and her gaze stared blankly, unblinkingly upward. One could almost think she was dead, except that she murmured. Her lips were constantly moving, constantly whispering things too low for anyone to hear. Anyone but the darkness that answered her.

From the cage on the desk, the rat watched the darkness writhe and swirl. The rat knew instinctively that she needed to be quiet. She needed to draw no attention to herself. But it had been a long time (she no longer had any real sense of time passing, but she knew that the room had lightened and darkened since the mist had appeared), and she was thirsty. Never taking her eyes off the mist above the bed, the rat sidled noiselessly to the corner of her cage. The water bottle was there, attached to the wire frame. It made a soft ‘sssh-chuk, sssh-chuk’ as she pushed the tube with her nose.

The swirling paused for a brief second, then resumed. A tendril of smoke moved towards the cage. It thickened to a rope, an arm, and stretched itself further. The rat was immobile, using innate survival instincts to remain completely still, hoping that this potential predator could not sense her without movement.

The pseudopod of iridescent smoke reached the cage and flowed through the wire. Tentatively, delicately, it touched the end of the rat’s nose. The rat pulled its head back violently as it skittered a few steps backward; the mist still clung to the rat’s nose, stretching like taffy. The rat tried to squeal; but the mist shot forward, engulfing the rat’s head. The rat’s back legs kicked hard, and kicked again. Its entire body spasmed, and froze in the middle of this contraction. The smoke lifted the rat slowly, turning it gently in the air as if it were considering something. The mist itself was diaphanous, translucent, but strangely, the rat’s head wasn’t visible inside. The murk languidly flowed down the rat’s body, and the rat kicked again, once, then lost its rigidity and sagged into lifelessness. The mist continued to envelop back, feet, tail, until the rat was completely consumed. Then it ebbed back through the wire of the cage, back to the dark burgeoning miasma swirling above the bed.

The rat was gone.

***

The restaurant was gorgeous, Buffy thought. The ceilings were probably twenty feet tall, and everything was cream colored, and indirectly lit. There were huge swags of fabric everywhere, so that the space seemed airy and open, but their table still felt intimate. There were even people on a dance floor in the back, slowly swaying to some lush big-band instrumental. She had just eaten what had to be the most amazing Caesar salad on the face of the planet, and now had a mind-numbingly good seafood risotto in front of her. And she and Spike were fighting. Fighting? Nope, too harsh a word. Debating? Discussing. That was it, Buffy thought. They were discussing their future together.

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Buffy said. She dug a spoon into her risotto. “I just want to enjoy being with you. I want to be in love with you now. I don’t want to even think about the future.”

Spike reached across the table and took her hand. “Buffy. I am, by definition, at the core of my being, constant. I’ve loved three women in my existence. It took death to end one love, and you to end the second. I loved Dru for over a hundred years. What makes you think that I want some short-term shag-fest from you?”

“But, Spike, I’ve been here before. I’m not saying that this is exactly like my relationship with Angel,” she said, trying to forestall his protestations. “But we are going to face similar problems. How can we think about a future together, when I’m going to grow old, and you won’t? I want things like marriage, kids, at some point in the way-far-off future. You can’t have kids, obviously.”

“Not in the traditional sense, no.”

“And the legal status of vampires is kinda nonexistent, I would think. So marriage isn’t an option, either.”

“Well, I’m not Angel. I’m not going to duck out of your life when things get tough, or problems are hard to resolve. I’m not going to mince off into the sunset and pretend that I’m martyring myself to let you live a normal life.” With that, Spike ate a huge forkful of osso buco.

“I’ve pretty much given up on normal, but I do want a life, Spike.”

“So there are problems. I never said there weren’t, or that there wouldn’t be. But bloody hell, Buffy, look at the distance we’ve already come. Why should this other crap slow us down for a minute?”

“Spike, where did you get your suit?” Buffy asked. “You stole it, didn’t you?”

“Love, please. It wouldn’t fit this well if I nicked it.” Then Spike admitted, “Now, the money to buy the suit…”

“See? If I thought about it, I’d have major issues. Totally apart from the whole vampire issue, the fact that my boyfriend has no job, lives in a crypt, constantly steals stuff? Normally, any one of those would kill the deal.”

“Sodding hell!” Spike looked genuinely panicked. “You won’t be happy until you’ve turned me into a chartered bloody accountant!”

“No, you idiot. You have to give me some credit for loving you as you are, not as I want you to be,” Buffy said. “But, just being realistic, our time together has an expiration date. When, I don’t know – maybe months, maybe years. So I’m not gonna waste time thinking about it. I’m just gonna love you until it’s over.”

Spike leaned back in his seat. “Basically, you want to be all Andrew Marvell about it.”

She looked at him blankly.

“I thought you took a poetry class last year?” Spike asked, then shook his head. “All right, then:

‘Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, while we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.’”
“Umm, sure.” The corner of Buffy’s mouth quirked. “Or, to quote a slightly more modern poet, ‘Let’s get it on’.”

Spike grinned, and stood up quickly. He took Buffy’s hand, just holding it for a second as he looked down at her. Then he pulled her out of her seat and into his arms. "I love you, Buffy."

“Spike,” she said, cupping the sides of his face with her hands, “whatever the future holds, I want you to know this, now. These past few weeks, with you, I will never regret. Every day, I’m more in love with you.”

Spike’s smile dazzled her. “Come on. Let’s dance.”

***

Xander walked from his car to the Magic Shop, taking a moment to bask in the sun of the warm autumn day. He would’ve thought that yesterday’s ordeal would have given him some real first-class nightmares. But, no, last night he had slept really soundly. He wasn’t even feeling the aftereffects of three big glasses of scotch. Xander was looking forward to today, to whatever it held.

He pushed the door open, and walked inside.

Quentin Travers stood in the middle of the shop. Behind him stood other Watchers. Some he remembered from their recent appearance, but other faces were unfamiliar.

“Mister Travers?”

“Mister Harris.” Travers replied.

“What…what are you guys all doing here? Is there initiation stuff I screwed up on or something?” Xander could feel himself starting to babble. “Essays have never really been my strong suit, um – ”

“No, no, quite the contrary,” Travers assured him. “You have met the goals of the Council more than adequately. In fact, we are here to see you take your oaths. To witness your swearing in as a Watcher.”

Travers looked at him for a moment, something like humor glinting in his eye.

“That is, if you’re ready.”

Xander took a moment and looked around the room. Giles had an odd look on his face; Xander wasn’t positive, but he thought it was pride. Anya was smiling at him from behind the counter. He took a deep breath.

“I’m ready.”

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