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

Episode Eleven: Walking Wounded

by adjrun
Somewhere by Tom Waits

Love Is Stronger Than Death by The The

Shoutouts: To cousinjean, fenwic, georgevna, and Aurelio, for service above and beyond the call of duty. You are brilliant, amazing women, and I am truly in your debt. Seriously. If you ever need a kidney, I am so there. To my husband, for his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. To Pablo Neruda, for one of the most beautiful poems ever. And to all our readers, for caring about the work.

[Webmaster's note: Special props to Aurelio for help with the coding on this one.]


*
Ow. Bloody - ow. Spike slowly regained consciousness and instantly regretted it. He was lying facedown, half-buried in a pile of...broken stuff. Damn. He'd gotten his ass kicked, he could tell. And a lot of other parts kicked in the process. No permanent damage, he thought, but some serious temporary ow. His mouth tasted of sawdust and broken glass. Blood. His own - more's the pity.

Buffy. The Master was here. Fighting. Lots of minions. Impossible odds. She could be hurt she could be-

A jolt of panic pushed Spike to his knees. His vision spun, the room swirling around his focus point. Buffy. Buffy sitting on the floor. Alive. Spike shook his head, trying to clear it. She was unhurt. Relatively unhurt. That was the most important thing. Buffy was awake and alive and in one piece. He could hear her sobbing - huge, great, rending sobs. But Spike could only feel gratitude, because she needed to be breathing to sob.

Okay, who else was semi-upright? Spike looked quickly around the shop. Crap. No one. Giles was splayed across the bottom of a display case. Spike let his focus linger a moment to confirm that Giles was breathing, and that nothing was too obviously crooked. Anya...

Spike looked away. Willow lay in a crumpled ball on the floor. She looked like a coat that someone had shucked off and dropped by the door. Xander was still puddled in a heap by the counter. Faith was flopped on her side, unconscious. Blood trickled down her face from a gash in her forehead.

Go to Buffy. That was his first thought. Cradle her in his arms, rock her back and forth and murmur in her ear that everything was all right. But it wasn't. So for a minute - but only a minute - he would let her cry, while he made sure nothing was worse. Spike pushed himself to his feet. Good. He was right; he hadn't broken anything. But his skin was probably more purple than pale right now. Bloody hell, he hurt everywhere. Still, standing. There's a good lad. Now, who was closest? Wait. No. Who was needed most?

Spike hobbled over to Giles, flinching a little each time he put weight on his right foot. The Watcher had been hit hard above his left ear, and was developing a serious lump. The skin was split, and blood trickled down his ear and neck. Spike swore. He'd lay odds that the blood was superficial, but he couldn't be certain while Giles was unconscious.

"Giles," he whispered urgently. "Giles, come on, I need you to wake up now."

Giles moaned something incoherent. Spike grabbed his shoulder, and gave it a hard shake. "Up, Watcher. I've no smelling salts, so in ten seconds I'll be slapping you awake."

"You slap me and you'll be eating that hand," Giles replied softly. His eyes opened. Just a touch, but enough for Spike to know he was awake.

"You injured?" Stupid question. "Badly? You're needed."

Giles looked up at Spike, finally alert. "The Master. What happened? How can we--?"

"Later." Spike shook his head. "Don't know how long everyone's been out. If you can move, I need you to check on Faith. She's bleeding. Head wound. Could be really hurt."

"Of - of course. Buffy?"

"She's with Anya." He would leave it at that. "I'll get Willow."

"And Xander?"

"Still out. Let him rest a tick." Spike smiled, hating himself a little for the evasion. Xander had to be awakened last, because Xander would need them all. And it wouldn't be enough. So let him have a minute or two more of not knowing. Before his whole bloody world got blown to hell.

Giles watched Spike limp to the front of the shop, and then scanned the room for Faith. Buffy knelt at Anya's side, obscuring her from Giles's quick glance. He wondered briefly what Buffy was doing, but let the thought fade. He'd just gotten whacked on the noggin again, after all. Coherent thought was a lower priority than the status of his Slayers. He stumbled over to Faith. She was already waking up, moving her head from side to side and stretching out her legs. Giles knelt down, using his handkerchief to blot the blood from her forehead.

Faith looked up at him groggily. "Did we win?"

"I've no idea," he replied. "We're still here, which argues for at least a stalemate."

"He won." Buffy's voice rasped, raw from crying. She still knelt at Anya's side, her back to Faith and Giles. "He didn't kill us all because Willow set him on fire."

"So he is dead?" Giles asked.

"I didn't see him dust, so I'm assuming no." Giles heard a dark humor in Buffy's voice, a sarcasm that didn't quite make sense. "We aren't that kind of lucky."

Faith sat up. "Well, shitty shit."

Giles nodded his head, fighting the twitch at the corner of his mouth. "I think that's the prevailing sentiment, yes."

"It's worse than that," Buffy said. Why did she sound so hollow, so numb? She stood up and turned to face Giles, then took a step to the side. Their view of Anya was now clear. "It's horrible."

Giles didn't understand. Anya just looked like she was sleeping. She was lying on her back, legs crossed loosely at the ankles. One hand reached out towards him a little. The other rested on her belly. Her eyes were closed, and her face looked peaceful. Happy, even.

Then he saw. It took a moment to process, but he saw. He put the back of his hand to his mouth, fighting the urge to vomit. "Oh dear lord," he whispered.

Anya. Her neck was -- broken wasn't the right word. Not crushed, either. It was flattened. The Master had stomped on her throat, shattering the vertebrae, smashing the trachea and esophagus. The skin of her throat wasn't broken, which made it somehow worse. It was as though her neck was flattened Silly Putty, tinged slightly lilac from postmortem bruising. A three-dimensional Anya with a two-dimensional neck.

Faith stared, horrified and sickened. She wrapped her arms around her knees, a physical attempt to hold herself together. Vaguely she could hear Spike across the room, muttering something to Willow. "Come back to us, Red, come back, that's right, we're here, you can come back now." It didn't make sense to Faith. Nothing made sense. Especially not what she was staring at. She sat there, staring. Maybe if she stared long enough it would make sense. There wasn't any blood on her. How could it be so awful when there wasn't any blood?

Someone let out a sort of strangled whimper. Oh, hell. Xander. Why hadn't she seen him? Nobody had. Nobody could look away from Anya. Xander stood a few feet away from Giles. Faith hadn't noticed him waking up, hadn't noticed him moving. Hadn't seen him as he looked around to find Anya, to reassure himself that the Master hadn't hurt her. Hadn't seen the shock on his face as he realized his beloved was far beyond hurt.

"No..." Xander moaned. He sagged to his knees at her side. "No, honey, please, no. No." He touched her face with the tips of his fingers. Again, and again, almost afraid to touch her but not able to stop. He kept crooning, a litany of broken, disbelieving pleas. Touching her lips, her cheek, her hair. Telling Anya that she was all right, that everything would turn out just fine, that she shouldn't worry, shouldn't be scared. Begging her to get up. To open her eyes. To breathe. To be not --

He heard Buffy's voice. "Xander..." Felt Buffy's hand on his shoulder. Shook it off, hard. Breathed. Stood up. The horror, the pain, the loss overwhelmed him; so he rejected it. Anger was easier, clearer. Anger hurt less. Xander took a step back - he couldn't even look any more. People were talking to him. He knew he heard words: his name, her name, grief or reassurances or platitudes. He didn't let them register. They didn't matter. What mattered was the car parked halfway inside the building. He could use that. He pushed away from the people around him. Someone grabbed his arm. Xander knocked the person to the ground, hard. Didn't matter. He jumped into the convertible. Keys still in the ignition. He started the car, slamming it into reverse. The car careened backward out of the shop. Then, Xander shifted into drive and the car shot off into the night.

Faith bolted back to her feet and ran after the car. "Xander!" she screamed. "Xander, no! Get your ass back here!"

Willow struggled back from the darkness just in time to see the car leave. She took a minute to process the room around her. Spike knelt at her side. Buffy stood staring out the front of the shop, a look of frozen numbness on her face. Giles crossed to what remained of the counter, and picked up the phone. Anya lay across the room, her throat smashed in.

Calmly, rationally, Willow leaned over and threw up.

"Lovely," Spike muttered. "You concussed too?"

Willow shook her head. "Anya. She's - she's dead. Isn't she?"

"Yeah, Will," Spike replied softly. "She's gone."

She looked over at Giles, who spoke quietly on the phone. She listened to him as he gave information quietly to the emergency operator, "No." He swallowed, hard. "No need to hurry."

Faith walked back in through the hole in the front of the Magic Shop. "No luck. He really gunned the thing. I couldn't keep up."

Willow's face twisted with grief, and tears welled in her eyes. She rubbed her sleeve across her face, scrubbing the tears away. She couldn't lose control now. He was gonna do something. Something that would get him killed.

"Buffy..." Willow said.

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "We have to go after him. Spike. Faith. You mobile?"

"Not a hundred percent, but I'll pass muster," Spike said.

"I just got conked on the head," Faith added. "Not much damage to do there."

"Good. Go after him. Check the places he'd go. His apartment, hers... " Buffy pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. "God, I can't think. How the hell did we let him get out of here?"

"Shh. You're exhausted, and Xander's jacked up on adrenaline." Spike pulled her into a quick hug, and kissed the top of her head. "We'll find him. Won't stop 'til we do."

The reassurance worked. Buffy took a deep breath and continued. "He'll need weapons, so check Giles's house too. Riley. Detective Grant. I'll call them. Get them to pair up and start searching. The Initiative caves, the army base. Anywhere he can get his hands on something destructive. Spike. Faith. Stick together. And report in. If you find anything, any sign of him. Call - why the hell don't we have cell phones? Call my house. We'll all check in there. I'll make sure Willow's okay, then we'll join the hunt."

Willow broke in. "Don't worry about me. Make the calls, and we can go."

"DeSoto's out front. I'll drop you off at the house." Spike pulled his keys out of his pocket. "You can put Dawn on phone duty, and grab the SUV."

"Good. Yeah. That works." She looked over at Giles. He sat at Anya's side, holding her hand gently. He didn't seem to notice the tears streaming down his face.

"Giles." Buffy choked, and started again. "Can you wait here? Go with her?"

Suddenly there was only one thing in the room. An empty shell of meat and bone and blood that was once a woman named Anya.

"She shouldn't be alone."

***

Spike snarled in frustration. He and Faith were on a continuous loop. Xander's apartment, Anya's place, Giles's, Summers' house for a check-in. Repeat ad nauseam. No change. No sign of Xander. Spike pulled up in front of the Summers' home and honked. Seconds later, Dawn opened the front door and, careful not to step outside, shook her head. Nothing.

He slammed his hand into the dashboard. "Bloody. Buggering. Hell."

"Let's do another circuit," Faith said. She was biting a hangnail again. He could smell new blood - newer even than the scabbed wound on her forehead.

"Yeh."

He drove quick and sloppy, cutting corners, running red lights. It was oh-dark-thirty, after all; if by some freak chance there was another car on the street they could just get the hell out of his way. Faith sat in the passenger seat and scanned side streets, alleys, parks. The streets were empty. Spike swore and drove even faster.

A few minutes later they pulled up in front of Xander's apartment. Faith grabbed Spike's arm.

"Hold up," she said.

Giles's car was parked on the curb, halfway on the lawn. Spike pulled up behind it and threw open his door. He took three steps toward the BMW and then looked back at Faith. She had her door open, ready to follow him.

He shook his head. "I'll keep Xander here. You go for help."

"Why don't you get help?" Faith shot back.

Spike picked up an automatic rifle out of the back seat of the BMW. "Because if he shoots me twenty, thirty times, I'll recover."

She looked at the gun for a moment. "Point."

"Go. Get Willow." He tossed her the keys, and Faith caught them one-handed. She started to ask a question, but stopped. Of course. It had to be Willow.

Spike took a moment to watch as Faith peeled off in his car. Then he took another glance in the back of the BMW. The rifle was not alone. He knew neither jack nor squat about Army ordnance, but even he could tell there was some serious destructive capacity here. Xander had paid a midnight visit to the Army base again.

"I've got a bad feeling about this..."

Spike entered the building. Too quickly he found himself at Xander's door. He'd gotten an invite all of a week ago. For an instant Spike wished he hadn't. He could lurk about outside the door, tackle Xander when he left. Maybe sucker punch him; he could have a nice nap 'til the cavalry came.

Spike shook his head. Enough with the wishful thinking. Xander could blow himself up in there. Spike slowly pushed open the door of the apartment. He could see green canvas duffel bags. Metal canisters, wooden crates. Guns. A big metal drum that smelled like gasoline. How the hell had he gotten that up here? Must've nicked a handtruck, too. Big rocket-looking things. More guns. Xander stood in the center of the room, shoving bullets one by one into a rifle clip.

"Xander?" Spike worked to keep his voice calm. "What the bloody hell is all this?"

"It's napalm. The old stuff - seriously flammable." Xander continued to load the clip he held. "Incendiary grenades, some mortar shells. Plastic explosives. Detonators. Brand spankin' new rocket launcher."

"Ah. And were you going to share these toys with the other kiddies?"

For the first time, Xander looked at Spike. His eyes were cold, hard, and he smiled tightly. "I'm gonna find the Master's lair. And then I'm gonna make me a big old fireball."

Spike carefully, deliberately placed himself in front of the door. "No. You're not."

"Get out of my way," Xander snarled. He dropped the clip, and took a step towards Spike. Good, it was working.

"Again, no."

"Don't think I won't take you out, Spike." He sneered. "Hell, right now, I'd enjoy it."

"Quaking in my boots, Harris," Spike replied. "Still not letting you leave."

Xander walked up to Spike, and pushed him hard. Spike was knocked back a step, but stayed in front of the door. "What's the matter, Spike? You got a problem with me killing vampires?" Xander shouted now. "Still got a soft spot for your old girlfriend? Trying to protect that freakshow family of yours? Well, tough luck, Junior. They're all gonna burn."

"And if they're holding innocent people down there?" Spike asked. "Vamps are known to do that, you know, especially the Master. Likes to have some snacks close to hand. You fine with that? Torching people?"

"Shut up!"

"Ah, what am I saying? Nifty gadgets be damned, those vamps'll take you in a New York minute."

"Shut up!" Xander swung at him. Punched him solidly in the mouth, splitting his lip and rocking his head back.

Spike laughed. "But maybe that's the point. That it, Xander? You looking to get dead?"

"Shut! Up!" Xander screamed, hitting Spike in the ribs. "Shut up shut up SHUT UP!"

Xander swung wildly, hitting Spike again and again. Spike concentrated on moving with the blows, absorbing the impact. Blocking the occasional punch, but letting Xander connect more often than not. He didn't have to worry about blocking the door any more. Xander wasn't thinking. He just lashed out.

"You don't understand," he gasped. "They have to die. He has to pay for what he did. For what he took."

Adrenaline and stubbornness fueled Xander far past the point where he should've dropped. Spike had no clue how long he played punching dummy. Fifteen minutes? Three hours? Xander kept swinging, the punches sapped of all strength by exhaustion. He refused to stop, now landing maybe one punch in three.

Willow ran into the room, Buffy and Faith a few steps behind her.

"Xander!"

Xander froze. He looked confused, as though he'd woken up in a strange bed. Slowly, he turned to face the door.

"Willow?" he asked, his voice childlike and lost.

She took a few steps toward him. "I'm here."

"Anya's dead." He let out a long sigh, which choked into a sob. "What'm I gonna do?"

The dam broke. Willow caught him as he crumpled to his knees. He began to cry: great, ugly, rending wails that shook his whole body. Willow sat on the floor, holding Xander like a mother holds her boy who has grown too big to fit on her lap. He buried his face in her shoulder, and she stroked the back of his head. He rocked a little in her arms, or she rocked him. Just holding him, letting him cry. Making soft, nonverbal soothing noises. Crying with him.

Buffy cried with Xander, too. She sat down near him, close enough to touch him but not touching him. Spike sat beside her, trying to comfort her with his presence. He could feel tears welling in his eyes, let them spill over down his cheeks. For the first time, he let himself mourn for Anya.

Faith stood in the doorway, worrying a hangnail with her teeth. Her eyes never left Xander. She didn't say anything. Just watched him as he cried.

"What'm I gonna do?"

"I'm so sorry, Xander." Willow kissed his temple, then rested her cheek on the top of his head. "I don't know."

***

Xander shouldn't sleep at home that night. Everyone knew this, though nobody said it aloud. So they brought him to Buffy's house and put him to bed in Joyce's room. He was almost catatonic from exhaustion, but wouldn't let go of Willow's hand. Willow just shook her head, kicked her shoes off, and climbed in on the other side of the bed. Xander was asleep in mere moments, and Willow soon followed.

Faith made a quick call to Giles, filling him in. He had taken a cab home from the hospital, where they insisted upon patching up his head. She was relieved to hear he didn't have a concussion; as was he, as it meant he could take some lovely prescription pain medicine and go to bed. Faith didn't want to leave Xander, but she said nothing about it. Still, by the time she was off the phone, a sleeping bag and a pillow were spread out on the couch for her. It wasn't safe for her to drive home alone, Buffy rationalized.

Dawn sniffled a lot, hugged everyone goodnight, and went to bed.

Spike and Buffy made sure everyone was comfortable, and then retreated to her bedroom to patch up their wounds. They had done the lion's share of the fighting that night, and had the injuries to show for it. Buffy dabbed hydrogen peroxide on a huge scrape that ran down the outside of her left thigh. There was a nice mottled contusion forming on her shinbone, and a six-inch slice in her right calf.

Spike sat on the edge of Buffy's bed, watching her. "Ouch, luv. How'd you get that one?"

"Would you believe I haven't a clue?" She looked up at him. "I fought so much tonight it's all kind of a blur. Need the peroxide?"

"Nah." He touched his tongue to his upper teeth, a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood. "Having too much fun watching you with your pants off."

She pointed a finger at him. "Liar. You're stalling. Let's see it."

He glared at her, but then pulled his shirt off over his head, wincing slightly. Buffy gasped. His ribs were a solid mass of purple bruise.

"Wow. You're violet, Violet."

She knelt in front of him, and ran her fingers lightly along his ribcage. "How much of this is vamp attack, and how much is Xander?"

"Split lip, and-" He pointed to a spot on his left shoulder. "That's your buddy. Everything else was the brawl."

She couldn't hide her concern. "You're not fibbing again?"

"Nah." Spike smiled to reassure her. "He didn't hit me hard. Just in the same spot."

Buffy held his chin in one hand and swabbed at his lip with a cotton ball. "Why'd you keep letting him hit you?"

He shrugged, strangely embarrassed. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Yeah, brilliant. You're known for your brains..."

He grinned. "Plus, I'm dead sexy."

"Yeah, you're one of those, all right." She sighed. "So why didn't you just knock him out? Don't get me wrong; I'm glad you didn't. But I don't understand."

"Not in the mood to punch things. My hands're already beat to hell." They were. His knuckles were split and bleeding; the only places that weren't bruised were where the skin had been scraped completely off. But it was an excuse. It wasn't the reason.

She took his chin in her hand, forced him to look at her. "Stop it. You could've taken him out with a punch or two. You could've immobilized him, or, I don't know, sat on him until we got there."

"I-" Spike sighed, searching for the right words. "Couldn't. He's in so much pain. I couldn't hurt him more. Couldn't hit him. "

"And letting him whale on you?"

He shrugged. "Made him feel better. Kept him there."

Buffy suddenly found it hard to talk past the lump in her throat. "Wow. When did you get all noble?"

"Been trying to figure that out." He scowled. "Don't get it. Don't much like it, either."

She kissed him, a sweet, soft kiss. "Thank you. You saved his life tonight. You know that, right?"

"I guess," he said. Then Spike shuddered. "Oh, God, Buffy. What he's going through. I can't even think -"

The realization hit her. She stared at him, shocked. "Spike. Tonight. We were dead. We should be dead. If not for the Willow ex machina the Master would've killed us all."

"Yeah." His eyes mirrored the horror she felt. "If something happened to you..."

"If he killed you..."

He needed to touch her. To feel her skin, warm and whole and alive. To kiss her throat and sense the vital throb of her pulse. To feel the heat of her breath on his body. The clothes between them were a sacrilege. And then they were gone, and she was the only thing in the world. Spike sat on the edge of the bed, and Buffy wrapped herself around him: her arms encircling his shoulders, her legs around his waist, her ankles locked behind his back. They held each other so tight that he could barely move inside her.

Spike's ribs throbbed as Buffy clutched him tighter. She felt him flinch, and started to pull away.

"No," he whispered. "Don't let go."

Buffy moaned a protest. "I'm hurting you."

"I don't care."

He nuzzled the side of her face, kissing her again and again. He knew she was crying; he could taste the tears on her skin. He felt her tremble, and heard her breath catch, then release in a soft sigh. Buried his face in her shoulder and clutched her tighter for a moment. And then he just held her.

Moments later, or maybe hours later, Buffy lifted her head from his shoulder to look at him. She ran a finger over his cheekbone, traced his jaw. Then something in her expression changed. She made tight fists in his hair and held his head immobile. Her gaze was fierce, angry, desperate. "Don't ever leave me. If you died, I couldn't-don't you ever - "

She didn't need the truth now, that the world was a dark and dangerous place, and that they had a critical battle ahead of them. If they survived, there would always be other battles, hordes of unnamed, unknown enemies. They could face further losses, and one of them could fall. She knew that. He didn't need to tell her. And the fact was, he felt the same way she did. Her mere presence could transform Hell into paradise; but a world without her in it was no world at all.

"Never. I swear it. I will never leave you."

***

The Master sat in a deep metal tub filled with blood. Burns covered his upper body and ran up one side of his face. The left side of his head was blackened and charred, the ear almost burnt to a stub. He hissed, trying not to move. The damaged skin was tightening, and even small movements caused it to tear. Drusilla sat at his side and ladled blood carefully over the burns.

His eyes scanned the cavern around him. Interesting. Factions were already forming around Dracula and Darla. Darla stood on one side of the room, watching him. A private little smile flickered across her face. Probably assuring herself of her place at his side. The Master smiled. She was so needy, which made her predictable. She surrounded herself with vampires - muscular, but newly made - and told herself she was more powerful now, though she was merely a minion. Dracula sat in an ornately carved wooden chair on the other side of the room, one of his brides in attendance at his feet. He had fewer vampires around him, but they were older and more powerful. Dracula drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair, the only indicator of his mood. He was furious that the Master had attacked so quickly, and had almost died in the attempt.

The Master considered. He had been foolish. He thought the Slayer would be the girl she was five years ago, and that her friends were gnats to be swatted. Even the witch that he had come so close to possessing was stronger than he knew. He would have to be cautious. Especially so, now that he was weakened. He would hang back in the shadows and regain his strength. And his children? Dracula and Darla? Were the two to reconcile their differences they would be stronger than him. He would play them against each other. Weaken them by pitting one against the other until he was strong enough to crush them both under his heel.

Drusilla crumpled herbs into the bath. She stirred the blood with her hand, brushing against his legs and lower body.

"This will help the nasty burns go away." She giggled. "But it'll hurt worse while it works. Lovely, delicious pain."

The Master watched her as she licked the blood off the back of her hand, like a cat grooming herself. She noticed his attention, and reached her hand out to him. "Want some? While you're healing, you'll need to drink lots of fluids."

He grabbed her arm and drew her hand to his mouth. He sucked the blood off her fingers, one by one, watching her as he ate. She wriggled when he licked her palm, then moaned as he bit into it. He drank from her, savoring her taste. Relishing her arousal. When he saw her begin to sway, he stopped and placed a quick kiss on her palm.

"Thank you, my dear," he said. "You were... intoxicating."

"Anything to make you better." Drusilla's eyes widened as she touched her tongue to the wounds on her palm. "Master."

Excellent. Dracula would be on edge because he favored Darla's grandchild. And Darla's vanity was wounded because he did not drink from her. Both were unsettled.

"Master." Dracula spoke from his seat across the room. "If you are ready, we need a plan of action."

"What do you suggest, Vlad?"

Dracula leaned forward. "We take hostages. The Slayer's loved ones. If she attempts a rescue, we kill a friend. If she tries to stop us from opening the Hellmouth, we kill another friend. We render her vulnerable. Powerless."

"No," Darla said. "We have to kill them all. We go in hard and fast, and overwhelm her with numbers."

Dracula scoffed. "Yes, because the frontal assault has been such an effective tactic for us."

"The Master killed one of them. Better than you've done, Vlad."

"Yes, he killed a human. One. Human." Dracula stood up, his anger forcing him into movement. "And the attack cost us dozens of minions."

The Master waved his hand. "Cattle."

"They were resources," Dracula argued. "Resources that we shall need to replace. And although admittedly, they were young and weak, Sire, we are unlikely to find better in the quantity we need."

"On the contrary," Darla said. She gestured to the uniform-clad vampires behind her. "You needed an army, Master? I've made you an army."

"Mummy told me to stay away from soldiers," Drusilla crooned from her seat at the Master's side. "Steal your heart and your treasure and march off to the next town."

"Dru. Shut up." She turned her attention back to the Master. "You wouldn't believe how easy it is to sneak onto an Army base. All those sentries, standing alone, thinking they're so tough with their scary little guns. All together, I have close to a thousand turned soldiers. Each highly trained at killing humans."

"They are brainless automatons." Dracula said. "She has defeated soldiers before, you know."

"And what's your big plan?" Darla asked, walking over to him. "Make googly eyes at her for a few nights and hope you get lucky?"

The vampire bride moved to stand in front of Dracula and snarled at her. Darla smiled back, pleasantly.

"Vlad. I told you that I wouldn't put up with your girls being surly, didn't I?"

"She's protective." Dracula looked smug. "She exists only to serve me."

"Really?" Darla's hand shot out, and she snapped the offending bride's neck. The vampire crumpled to the floor. "Well, now she serves as a doorstop."

The bride whimpered, unable to move.

"Oh, get over it. You'll heal, eventually. And I think we've all learned a valuable lesson." Darla ran a disdainful glare over the far side of the room. "Don't. Piss. Me. Off."

"Darla," the Master called, his voice light, almost conversational. "Do me a favor. Don't piss me off."

In an instant, she was cowed. "I apologize, Master. It is only that - that I am eager to do your bidding. And I hope to convince you to a course of action."

"I am well aware of your intent, Darla." He smiled. "I would merely warn you that actions have consequences."

Drusilla moaned. "Such pretty pictures..."

"Drusilla?" The Master asked. "What do you see?"

She put her hands to her temples. "Perils ahead, perils behind. Traps and pits and dead hands clutching. Ooh, such lovely darkness..."

Darla crossed her arms. "Yeah. Big help there, Dru. Master. Sire. We are talking about a handful of humans. Sure, they're powerful - some of them. And they're too damn lucky. But they're finite. If we throw enough at them, they're sure to fall."

"I disagree," Dracula said.

Darla shot a glare at him. "Oh, there's a shocker."

"This Slayer is clever. We must use intellect and cunning to defeat her. That is," he looked at Darla, and his voice dripped with derision, "if we have any intellect."

Darla smiled sweetly at Dracula, and walked slowly over to his immobilized bride. With a quick thrust, she slammed her heel deep into the vampire's chest. The bride crumbled into dust.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Were these heels wood?" She held a hand to her cheek, pretending dismay. "Oops. I wasn't thinking."

Dracula snarled and sprang at her. Darla's newly vamped army boys leapt to defend her. They were puppies. No match for a vampire such as himself. He ripped one's head off. Then he grabbed the second and held his face to a torch in the wall. Held it there until he dusted. He grabbed the torch off the wall and staked a third lackey.

"Children!" The Master's voice, harsh and compelling, stopped them instantly. "These petty squabbles are amusing, but counterproductive."

Dracula sighed, and dropped to one knee before the Master. "What is your will, Sire?"

Darla hastily followed. "Sire, we exist only to serve."

Better. "For now, we wait. Dracula, I will think on your idea. Holding the Slayer's loved ones - it has possibilities. Potential benefits less obvious than handicapping the Slayer."

He turned to look at Darla. "You. For now, I need you to gather humans. For food, not to turn. After all, they say an army marches on its stomach. Understand?"

She nodded.

"Oh, and Darla? You will make reparations to Dracula for the loss of his bride."

Darla looked up, furious. "He killed three of-"

"Do not question me!" the Master shouted. "You will make reparations."

"As you command, Sire."

Darla stood. She shook with rage, barely able to control her anger. She had to get out of there before she exploded. "Master. I request permission to leave your presence."

"Permission granted."

Dracula watched her leave, his eyes seething hatred. The Master was wrong. This wasn't a squabble. This was a war.

***

A day had passed, and a night, and another day was now upon them. And, Giles thought, nothing had changed. Anya was still dead. The pain of her loss was still sharp: a fist clenching and twisting in his chest.

It was Thanksgiving Day. Irony of ironies.

He looked himself over in the mirror. Dark suit, conservative tie, neat hair, nails trimmed. Giles sighed. As usual, he was ready with time to spare. He hated the moments with nothing to do. He was too scattered to read or research. Too edgy to stare blindly at the idiot box. For a brief moment, he considered going downstairs and pouring himself a good three fingers of Scotch. No. He would have to be strong today, responsible, parental. Which left thinking. And he was trying to avoid thinking.

"Faith?" he called. "We should leave for the funeral home in about an hour."

No response. Odd, that. He was certain she was in her room. Still, it was easy enough to check, and saved him the indecorous bellowing from the top of the stairs. Giles descended the stairs and knocked at her door.

"Yeah?"

Giles slowly pushed the door open. "I called from upstairs. We need to leave in about an hour."

Faith stood motionless in front of her closet. "Not going."

"What?"

"I got nothing to wear."

Giles spluttered.

"Look," Faith said, anger creeping into her voice. "For a funeral, you wear a nice black dress, black panty hose, and black pumps. I got none a those things."

Giles shot an incredulous glance at her closet. "With the preponderance of black in your wardrobe, you don't have a dress of that color?"

She turned to face him, one hand on her hip. "Yeah. I got a black dress. It's got spaghetti straps, fits like a sausage casing, and ends about two inches below my ass. Think it'll do?"

Giles blinked. "No, I imagine not."

She shrugged a shoulder, defiant. "Besides, I'm just gonna sit around and feel useless. And pissed off. 'Cause, y'know, useless."

"You're right, Faith." Giles sighed, and leaned into the doorframe. "There is, really, nothing we can do to help. Except-- to be there for Xander, and to let him know that we wish we could make it better."

"And maybe sing a nice round of Kum-Ba-Yah?" She scoffed. "Pass."

Lord, this was difficult. "It's - I'm explaining this poorly. If you don't go, it looks like you couldn't be bothered. Like you don't care." He smiled, trying to tease her a little. "And I seem to recall a conversation that directly contradicts that impression."

"Yeah, yeah, I care. I just-" A flash of panic crossed her face. "Look, I hate funerals, okay? I've done 'em, I hate 'em, and I..."

Giles waited.

"I can't do this," she pleaded.

"Yes," he replied, his voice stern and authoritative. "You can do this. And you will. You have a responsibility to Anya, as her friend. To your friends, to be there when they need you. To Xander."

"Hell. Xander." Giles could see her fight the urge to punch something. "It hurts just to look at him. Makes me feel like I'm gonna hurl. Like seeing a bone break and pop out of someone's arm. And I shoulda been able to - I shoulda stopped it."

"Faith, we all fought as best we could." He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "None of us, though we might feel frustrated or guilty, are responsible here. The Master is to blame for this. It was the Master who - who killed Anya."

He could feel himself start to choke up again.

"You..." She stretched out a tentative hand and patted his sleeve. "You okay?"

Giles's smile was sad and tired. "I miss her. I miss her terribly."

Faith paused. "Yeah."

"Now," he said, attempting a tone of cheerful briskness, "the dress dilemma is easily remedied. You have changed your mind about attending?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I'm in."

"Then go get in the car. We have less than an hour." He realized something. "Bloody hell, it'll have to be Target."

Faith looked at him, puzzled. He needed to clarify.

"God help me, I'm going to take you shopping."

***

Rain poured down outside, which felt appropriate.

The funeral home was a nightmare. An infuriatingly unflappable man in a dark wool suit informed them that they would need to be finished in an hour. Because of what he referred to as "an exceptionally high volume of those needing our services," this time allotment would be strictly enforced. In addition, he stated, according to a city ordinance which came into effect during "periods of excessive mortality rates," Anya had to be cremated. This cremation was scheduled; and the schedule, or the unctuous little toad who made the schedule, was inflexible. They could return in two days time to retrieve the ashes, but he would prefer that they called ahead. When asked about the reverend who was to attend, the funeral director shrugged his shoulders. The man hadn't shown this morning. They would have to do without.

"Well," Willow said, the instant the man left, "let's fix this. Giles, could you go grab that little table just outside the door?"

Giles took the table, setting the cheesy floral arrangement it had held on the floor, and brought it into the room. He set it in carefully in front of Anya's coffin.

Willow pulled candles - thick white tapers - from her purse, and handed one to each person in the room. She then set a pillar candle on the table, and lit it with Spike's lighter. She gestured to everyone to gather in a half-circle around the table.

"We don't need some stranger to say a eulogy for Anya. We can do it ourselves." She smiled. "Just say something about her, or tell a story. Anything, really. Okay?"

Willow lit her candle from the pillar.

"So. I'll go first." She took a deep breath. "I didn't like Anya. For a long time. 'Cause Xander was a screwup. Not so much any more, sweetie, but you used to be. You, Mr. Ruled-By-His-Hormones, dating an ex-vengeance demon. What if it didn't work out? What if you messed up? Would she get her old job back? Wreak some freakish mystical vengeance on you if you dumped her? I just couldn't get past all the ways she could hurt you. And it freaked me out.

"Also, she looked at you, and saw something that I didn't see. And what did she know, anyway? I've known you forever, so I knew you best. This person she saw when she looked at you? That wasn't you. She wasn't seeing you. I didn't understand that she saw you more clearly than any of us did, that she made you a better man by believing that you were a better man. I'm-- I'm so glad she did, because she helped you be this cool, grown-up, wonderful person. And ... she was right, Xander. This is who you are meant to be.

"Plus, she went and made my best friend blissfully happy. She loved you, Xander. So, thank you, Anya. For loving my best friend with your whole heart, with all that you were."

Giles stepped forward and lit his candle. "She could make me laugh like no one else. Would say what no one else would say. Because she told the truth as she saw it. She didn't have time for the polite facades and tactful lies we tell. So her kindness was true kindness, because of its inherent honesty. And she had this - this wonderful combination of ancient knowledge and worldly innocence. I, I have to stop now, or I'm going to start blubbering."

Giles put his hand over his face. He took a few ragged breaths. "Please, someone else, I'm finished."

Faith spoke quickly as she lit her candle. "Sorry. Sorry I couldn't stop this from happening. You shouldn't be dead. It's wrong. It's -- I would have done anything to stop this."

The room was silent for a moment.

"I'll go," Dawn said. She stepped forward and carefully lit her candle. "For a long time I was jealous of Anya. 'Cause of the whole crush thing. So I just wanted to say this: Anya, I stopped being jealous of you a long time ago. And I was so happy for you. I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to tell you."

"Well. Guess I'm next." Spike dipped his candle to the pillar and waited silently until it lit. "Anya and I had a lot in common. Perhaps too much in common. Both coming from a place where we weren't human, and forced to be something we weren't. Something that felt foreign, and powerless. Slowly making ties to people, and to life, and to the world around us. We could understand each other. And because we knew how hard the struggle was, and how easy it was to lose hold of humanity, we didn't always trust each other. But it helped just to have someone who understood.

"Now she's taught me another lesson about humanity. About loss. God, I wish she was still here, and the lesson was still to be learned."

Riley spoke next. "Anya loved a man. And because she loved him, she made his battle her own. That shows incredible courage, and incredible strength. I will always respect you, Anya, for fighting against the darkness."

Buffy slowly lit her candle, trying to stall for time. Suddenly, she knew what to say. If she kept her eyes on Xander, she'd be able to say it.

"There are times when people fall in love and it messes them up. They hurt each other, or make each other weaker, or smaller. And then love is pain. For a long time, I thought that's what love was. Letting someone hold the handle of the knife in your heart and hoping that they didn't twist.

"Do you remember a fight we had, Xander? We were arguing about - something - I don't remember, exactly. But I said that Anya was nothing more than a convenience to you. And I want to say that I'm so sorry, that I was so wrong. I... I didn't understand, then, about the love the two of you shared. At first I didn't recognize it as love. It couldn't be real, or true, because it wasn't how I defined love. Sometimes you guys would say stuff to each other. Stuff that I thought was hurtful. But you guys weren't hurt. Because you loved each other. Not in spite of your faults, but including your faults. Maybe it wasn't dramatic, but it was warm, and caring. Honest. Doing things to make the other person happy. Thinking of your beloved, instead of yourself. And your love for each other helped you grow into better people.

"So thank you for that. If I hadn't seen it -- the love that you shared - I would have had such a narrow, misguided view of what love was. And I couldn't have recognized the love that I have now."

Now only Xander was left. He held his unlit candle in one hand, and looked around the room at his friends. "Thank you. For everything you said. I, I wasn't going to say anything. There's too much for me to say, and no words to say it. Well, I can't think of them anyway."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "So I'm gonna use somebody else's. Thanks, Spike. For the poem. Um, Spike gave me a copy of a poem yesterday. He didn't write it or anything."

Xander unfolded the paper with one hand, and lit the candle he held in his other. Then he read the poem.

"If suddenly you do not exist,
If suddenly you are not living,
I shall go on living.

I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.

I shall go on living."

Xander's eyes were full of tears, and his vision blurred. He stopped. "Sorry. I'm having problems reading."

He handed the poem to Willow, who continued.

"No, forgive me.
if you, my beloved, my love,
if you
have died,
all the leaves will fall on my breast
it will rain upon my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to march toward where you sleep,
but
I shall go on living,
because you wanted me to be, above all things,
untamable,
and, love, because you know that I am not just one man
but all men."

Willow stood for a while, holding the paper. The room was quiet. It took some time for everyone to pull themselves together. Then Willow blew out her candle, and others repeated her gesture. Each took a moment to say goodbye to Anya. To touch her hand, or kiss her on the forehead. Giles told her how much he would miss her. Willow assured her that they would take care of Xander.

They left Xander alone with her for one last farewell. The funeral director tried to push through them as they waited outside the door. He was spectacularly unsuccessful: Spike threatened to rip his arms off and shove them down his throat. In Sunnydale, nothing was a hollow threat. Xander stayed with her a long while; when he returned to his friends he seemed drained. Fragile. But he had started to let her go.

After the service they went back to Buffy's house. No wake or gathering had been planned. But nobody really wanted to be alone. So they sat around. Taking turns, crying and comforting. Falling apart and holding each other together.

***

The doorbell rang, and Buffy answered it. A man and a woman stood on the front porch. They were probably in their mid-forties, but sun and alcohol had aged their faces. The woman held a Pyrex dish and a sealed plastic container.

"Oh, hi. Come on in," Buffy said, holding the door open. The couple took a few tentative steps into the foyer, but then stopped.

The man looked down at his hands. "We can't stay."

"I just wanted to..." the woman said. "He is here, isn't he?"

"Xander," Buffy called. "Your parents are here."

Xander walked into the entryway. His face was guarded, as though he was waiting to know how to react. "Mom. Dad."

His mother smiled at him. "I just wanted to drop off some food. Didn't think you'd be doing a turkey or anything."

"Nope. Not too festive around here today." Xander replied.

"Let me get that." Buffy took the containers from Mrs. Harris. "Looks great. What is it?"

"Green Jell-O salad and that casserole Xander likes. The one with Vienna sausages and those crispy onion things on top."

"Sounds... great." Buffy looked slightly nauseated as she took the dishes to the kitchen.

Xander's father cleared his throat. "Damn shame, son."

"Thanks, dad."

"Yeah." He paused. "We're late. I'm gonna wait in the car."

His mother explained, "We're off to your uncle's for Thanksgiving dinner."

"I figured."

"But if there's anything I can do, you be sure to let me know."

"Oh, yeah, absolutely."

"Or, we can stay, if you..."

Xander's dad stuck his head out of the car window. "Damn it, woman! We gotta go!"

Mrs. Harris went to the doorway. "I heard you the first time. Jesus Christ! Keep your pants on!"

"So help me God, if you make me late..."

"You shut your goddamn mouth!" she shouted. "I will get in that car when I am goddamn good and ready, and you are going to sit there and shut up and wait for me. You hear me?"

Xander just stood there.

She looked at Xander, trying to apologize. "He wants to be there by gametime."

"Yeah. Big football day. Understandable."

She patted his arm. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah," he shrugged. "Yeah. I'll be fine." Sometime this decade.

"Okay, so..." She gestured towards the car.

"Go. Have a good Thanksgiving. Thanks for the..."

"Yeah." She took a step towards him, then seemed to think better of it. He watched her as she got into the car.

Someone walked up to him and put her arm around his waist. Willow. She rested her head on his shoulder.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

They stood on the porch and watched the car drive off.

***

Dawn sat down next to Giles on the couch. "You're gonna need more help in the Magic Box."

"I really hadn't thought about it," Giles said. "Right now it looks like a cyclone hit it."

"But you'll need help. Putting it back together, dealing with customers." She looked up at him. "I'll do it. After school, I mean, duh. I'll come by and help. And you don't have to pay me or anything."

"Dawn." He was absurdly moved by the gesture. "That would be of great help."

"Good. I'll start on Monday."

***

Xander pulled a small manila envelope out of his coat pocket. The funeral director had handed it to him, and he had promptly forgotten it. Until now. He opened the envelope, and tilted it over his open palm. Out spilled only one thing: a diamond engagement ring. The envelope dropped out of his fingers and fluttered to the ground.

Faith watched him turn the ring over and over again in his fingers. He was rubbing the band with his thumb, as though the ring was enchanted and he was trying to access the magic. To make his wish.

She walked over to him. Stopped halfway there. Watched him for a moment. Then she shook her head and unclasped the chain from around her neck. In another second, she stood in front of him.

"Here."

He looked up at her, disoriented.

"Take this. It's not - I don't know if it's gold or valuable or anything, but you can use it."

He still didn't get it.

"Whatta ya know, shock does shut your brain down." She threaded the end of the chain through the ring he still held clutched in his hands. Then she held the ends of the chain out to him. "So you can wear it around your neck. Until you find a better chain. Or just keep it. Either way."

Good. He seemed to get it. He took the chain in slightly trembling fingers, and after a few attempts, fastened the chain around his neck.

"There. Now you have it when you need it." Faith moved back a little. "Looks good. Chain's not too girly."

Xander took a quick step forward and pulled her into a hard hug. Her face smashed into his collar, and she tensed up, making a half-hearted attempt to pull away.

"Whoa, Watcher-man, I'm getting lipstick all over your shirt."

He didn't respond. He just continued to hold her. She shot a panicked look over to Giles, who smiled at her. So she stood there, letting Xander hug her. Slowly, her arms came up to return his hug.

***

Buffy stood at the island in the kitchen, cutting up raw vegetables. Riley stood in the doorway, looking at her.

"Hey," he said. "Need any help?"

She smiled at him. "Nah, that's okay. Nobody will probably even eat this. But I needed to do something. So, chopping."

"Buffy." He walked over to her and touched her shoulder. "You look beautiful. I know, I don't have any right to say it. But you do."

"Riley..."

"Just. Don't say anything. I wanted you to know that my feelings haven't changed. All you have to do is snap your fingers. Or look my way. And I'm there."

Spike walked into the kitchen. "How's it hanging, Super-Soldier?"

"Were you listening in?" Riley asked, glaring at Spike.

"Nah. I'm after more of that Jell-O salad. That stuff is brilliant." Spike sauntered over to the refrigerator and grabbed the plastic container. He spooned a heaping portion of Jell-O into his bowl, and then used the same spoon to start eating. "Mmm. Yummy."

Riley started to walk out of the kitchen. "Well, if you need me, I'm here."

Buffy waited until Riley had gone. Then she turned to Spike and crossed her arms. "Jealous much?"

He looked at her, incredulous. "Um, yeah."

"You trust me, don't you? You do know that I-"

He rolled his eyes. "Pet. How do you feel knowing Drusilla is probably still in town?"

"I-" Try not too sound too defensive, Buffy. "Trust you."

He laughed. "Yeah, that whole thing a few months ago. That showed some serious trust."

"Well, I trust you now," she argued. "And I did see you kissing her, so one could argue there was some validity to the trust wobble. But now? Total, complete, one-hundred percent trustage. Of you. Drusilla? She's a seriously cracked nut who puts the 'ho' in 'ho-bag', and I wouldn't put anything past her."

"Same standard applies with you and Riley," Spike said. "Though perhaps not the same epithets. I trust you. But I can shot-put old Captain America there a damn sight farther than I can trust him."

"Riley's a standup guy," Buffy protested.

"Who's still in love with you." He gestured at her with his spoon. "Ergo, I don't trust him."

"Nuts. 'Cause I need you to patrol with him tonight."

Spike did a Jell-O spit-take.

"Well, him and Faith."

This time Jell-O came out Spike's nose. He coughed and spat, and she thought she heard the words "completely" and "deranged."

Buffy held up her hands, trying to explain. "I need time with the old gang tonight. I have to talk to them. Important, serious talking. Please, Spike?"

Spike shook his head, disgusted. "It's official. I am so bloody whipped..."

***

Riley and Spike were fighting. Nope, Faith thought. Not fighting. Bickering. Like two kids stuck in the back seat on a long car trip.

"Oddly enough, I find, if you want to kill vamps, you go where the vamps are," Spike snarled. "It's a simple concept. For most people."

"We need to vary the routes and times at which we patrol, or hostiles will learn our routine and avoid us." And that was Riley.

"Don't use the word 'hostile' around me, Sergeant Slaughter. And don't tell me how to patrol. I've been here, every night, while you were off chasing Cobra and Destro."

Faith stopped. Neither Spike nor Riley noticed; they just kept sniping at each other as they walked farther away.

"Yeah. Every night. Getting a little midnight snack, Spike?"

"As opposed to giving a midnight snack, Finn?"

That's it. This was gonna stop. "Girls, girls," Faith broke in. "You're both pretty."

They stopped, turned, and glared at her. She stared back at them, weight over one hip, arms crossed.

"Two questions. Easy. First: who's the Slayer?"

Spike pointed at her. Riley muttered a puzzled "You are."

"Right. So - who's in charge here?"

Big silence.

Faith sighed. "Duh. Same answer. I am. So why don't you put those things back in your pants before you trip over them, and we'll follow my lead this time out? 'Kay?"

Riley turned to face her. "Faith. I have military expertise. It makes sense to use that expertise to patrol more effectively."

"Roadblock wants to be Duke this time out," Spike taunted. "Sorry, Roadblock."

"Will you knock it off with the G.I. Joe cracks?" Riley yelled.

Arrgh. "Okay, let's look at this another way. Spike? Who would you rather take orders from? Me or him?"

"You in a flash, princess." He grinned at her.

"Riley? Me or him?"

"It's a tossup." He paused. "You."

"And between the two of you, I choose me. So I'm in charge. And you two ladies will stop bickering, or I'm gonna rip out your intestines and play double dutch with them."

Spike laughed. "Now, there's a visual."

"So we good?" Faith asked.

"We're good," replied Riley.

Spike saluted her. "Which way, fearless leader?"

Riley had wanted to go left, Spike right. Good. "Straight ahead."

***

Buffy sat at the dining room table, her legs folded up underneath her. She fiddled with a mug of coffee, as her friends joined her. Giles sat at the head of the table; Willow and Xander took seats opposite her.

"So, what's up?" Willow asked.

"Yeah," Xander added. "Riley, Faith, and Spike patrolling together? Not that I wouldn't pay to see what those crazy kids talk about, but you had to want us together for a reason. Something on your mind?"

"Sort of." Buffy took a moment to look at each of her friends. "I think it's time to consider getting you guys out of Sunnydale."

"Why?" Willow asked. "Research stuff?"

"There may be some texts on the Master back in England," Giles said. "But that will surely take only one of us."

"No," Buffy said. "Permanently."

Willow stared at her. "What?"

"I think you should all leave Sunnydale. Give up fighting demons. Go out and have normal lives."

Xander pushed himself out of his chair. "I don't believe you."

"Xander, it's for the best-"

"How dare you! I fought by your side for over five years! I fought a god with you! I helped save the world! A good half-dozen times! What does it take? How long before-- "

He paced back and forth across the dining room, his hands balling into fists. "I became a Watcher to help you! I even saved your life, Buffy! The Master killed you, and I brought you back. So I don't get it! What does it take? What does it take to prove myself, here?"

"It's not about being worthy, Xander." Buffy fought to remain rational. "You've proven yourself, time and time again. But that doesn't matter."

"Then what is this about?" Xander yelled. "Why now? Because your timing really sucks. Dammit! Why now? "

Buffy exploded out of her chair. "Because I'm sick of funerals! I'm sick of them. And I can't help wonder who's next!"

Giles whispered, "Oh, Buffy, no."

"I hate that Anya's dead. It hurts so much." She took a few steps toward Xander, struggling to explain. "Anya... We went looking for her wedding dress, Xander."

She choked, and started again. "We didn't find it. But I know what she wanted. She wanted a cream-colored sleeveless dress with a big tulle skirt. She wanted -- she wanted cream and lavender tulips for her bouquet, and lavender satin bridesmaid's dresses."

She looked up at him. With every word, her voice grew louder. "And now, she'll get none of that. She won't get buttercream frosting, or pearl earrings, or a first dance to ' So in Love.' And it's because of me. Because she bought into this stupid Chosen One destiny crap and she was only human and now she's dead."

Xander's knees shook. He wasn't sure if he could keep standing up. So he leaned against the table, grabbing its edge with both hands,

Now Buffy shouted at Xander. "You had it. You had your life together. And this stupid thing that I have to do came in and smashed it all to hell. Well I have to do it, Xander. But you don't. You can get out while you still have some chance at normal. Please. Get away while you're still alive. Because the price is too high. I don't want you to lose the people you love. Jenny, and Tara, and Anya. It's too much. And one of you could be next."

Buffy sank into a chair, spent . Even the anger had drained from her voice, leaving something broken and hollow. "I don't want you to go. I don't want to lose you. But I'd rather have you alive and not in my life than dead by my side."

They sat in silence. Long minutes stretched out, each second making the stillness harder to break. The people they had lost were an almost palpable presence in the room. Finally, Willow looked at Buffy.

"I miss Tara so much," she said. "But you didn't get her killed."

"They made a choice," Giles said, his voice quiet and reassuring. "They could have walked away at any time. People have. Time and again. But ... they didn't."

"Because they didn't know it could get them killed," Buffy replied. She pulled her feet up in her chair and rested her chin on her knees.

"Yes. They did," Xander said. "Anya was there when Glory-- She didn't know if I would ever get better. And she could have run away. But she stayed."

Giles took off his glasses, turning them in his hands as he spoke. "They recognized the importance, the value, of the cause for which we fight. To claim that you are accountable for them, or for their deaths, is to diminish their decision."

"And, Buffy, you're wrong. This isn't your fight," Xander said. He sat down in the chair next to hers. "It stopped being yours a long time ago. Now it's our fight. Okay, so I'm not Destiny Boy. I'm not fated to fight this battle. But it's my choice. And it's my life."

"Ditto for me," Willow added.

Giles smiled. "This was my life before you were born, Buffy. I chose it, knowing the potential costs. And I do not, for an instant, regret it."

"This is the most important thing I could ever do. Without this, what impact would I have on the world?" Willow leaned forward on the table. "Here, I know I'm helping people. I'm making the world better."

"So," Xander said, "you don't get to tell us to quit. Sorry, Buffster, you're stuck with us."

"But-" Buffy paused. "We have gotten lucky so many times. Willow, you only got into magic to help me. And it's come close to killing you."

"Oh, yeah," Willow said, rolling her eyes. "Yeah, you're definitely responsible for my stupid mistake. You're to blame for me acting out of anger, and getting myself semi-possessed. You're also responsible for the creation of Jar-Jar Binks."

"Hey," Buffy protested.

"What happened with my magic was my fault. Mine. I gave in to the dark side a little. I didn't think I needed to worry about limits." Willow shrugged. "So I got smacked upside the head with a limit lesson. I need to be cautious, and stay away from offensive magic for a while. Maybe forever. But I am still in this. I'm not going anywhere."

"There is one other salient point here." Giles leaned back in his chair a little. "You need us."

"Hey! Yeah! Remember?" Willow pointed around the table as she said, "Head. Hand. Heart. Spirit. All four of us together, making a whole. Making each other stronger. Making ourselves stronger."

"Still, nice to know you care," Xander said. He wrinkled his brow. "Though you've got a weird way of showing it. 'I love you guys, so go away.' Kind of bass-ackward, if you ask me."

"Okay. I get it, I get it." God, she loved these people. "Thank you. But promise me - promise me that if it ever gets too much, you'll walk away."

"Yeah," Xander said. "We'll walk away. When you do."

Buffy reached out and took his hand, and held it for a while. This time, the silence wasn't uncomfortable.

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