Beauty Effulgent

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

Part Fifteen

Xander opened the door to the apartment quietly, glancing toward the place on the sofa where he found Spike most afternoons. Reading. Watching TV. Or sprawled out, wearing only his, “why, yes, a shag would be lovely, thanks for showing up,” grin. But the sofa was empty, and Xander exhaled a breath hadn’t realized he was holding as he closed the door behind him and went to place his hardhat on the table.

As he set the hat down, he rubbed his hand distractedly over its hard plastic shell. He’d told Spike he was going in today, some Saturday grunt work for the extra money. He wasn’t sure when lying had started coming so naturally to him. Possibly when waking up wrapped around a naked vampire had become the norm, but he knew it was probably earlier than that. Saying the lies out loud was the recent thing.

And if the Saturday grunt work had been dropping Dawn off at Janice’s and slipping her $50 to forestall any questions before heading back to the Summers’ house to sit on the sofa with Tara and watch Willow fact-check and re-fact check, that wasn’t so much lying as implying, right?

Xander looked up as the bedroom door opened and Spike walked into the room, fully dressed in jeans and t-shirt. Spike paused, his hand on the doorknob, and then he narrowed his eyes, frowning.

Xander felt guilt twist in his gut and his fingers clenched around the hardhat, his nails scraping the plastic. He knows! He knows!

When Spike said nothing and just headed for the kitchen, Xander relaxed a bit, rolling his eyes at himself. He was so tired of feeling that white hot flash of fear every time Spike frowned or grimaced or looked like his jeans might be too tight. Sometimes it was all he could do not to blurt out, Look we’re bringing Buffy back, so you just go ahead and steal some flowers and brush your blood breath, or whatever you’re gonna do, and I’ll go hold the urn for Willow and we’ll get our Slayer back, okay? By the way, she’s never going to want you back in a million years, and I’ll be damned if I’ll stand around and watch you chase after her while I… But then Spike would grin or the jeans would come off and Xander would forget he’d ever thought Spike was thinking of anyone but him in the first place.

Xander rapped his knuckles thoughtfully against the hardhat as he listen to Spike bang around in the kitchen. Okay, if Spike still didn’t know and – yeah, hello, paranoia, my old friend – what’s with all the silent?

“Got something in the post, pet,” Spike said, his voice silky soft, and then a postcard was flipping from his careless fingers toward Xander’s head.

Xander ducked, his hand coming up quickly and catching the card as it fluttered to the table. He looked down at the card, puzzled at the image of white horse carved into a hillside, the printed script beneath it reading Westbury White Horse.

Xander frowned, flipping the card over. He drew in a breath as he looked at the postmark and the neatly written signature, and looked back up at Spike.

“Did you read it?” he asked, rubbing a thumb over the glossy front of the card.

Spike shrugged as he opened the microwave, turned the mug, and set the timer again.

Xander turned the card over, looking again at the shape of the horse, stark white and filling an entire hillside. “Does this mean something?” he mumbled.

“Could mean she still thinks you’re her white knight,” Spike answered, his back to Xander, his arms braced on the countertop, the muscles in his back and arms rigid. “Could be that, since that horse was carved to signify a battle victory, she feels she’s the winner now. Or it could just mean that she’s in sodding Westbury. Read the card, you git.”

Xander slowly turned the card back over, staring at the neat, evenly spaced printing until the marks formed actual words.


Giles said I should write and let you know that I am well. I am well. I had hoped when Giles told me that you thought that he and I had…Xander, how could you? I’d hoped that you’d figured out what you want, but it obviously isn’t me, as the lack of phone calls and incredibly illogical cards like this one suggests. Despite everything, I hope you’re happy, Xander. You can be a good man, you just have to stop being so afraid, and yes, I mean afraid, and I’m not talking about slaying. I’m still more angry than sad. I thought you’d like to know.


Xander let the card drop to the table and looked up at Spike, who still stood with his back to him, the mug lifted to his lips.

“You read it.”

Spike turned around, his eyes on the mug in his hands. “Did not.”

“Yes, you did,” Xander said, irrational anger filling him as he rounded the table, stopping a few inches from Spike. “You read that, when you knew it was from her, that it was personal.”

Spike lifted a brow and shrugged lightly. “Thought we didn’t have any secrets, anymore, love,” he said, his voice bitter, deepening as he lifted the mug to his lips again.

Xander’s throat tightened and he shook his head, turning away.

Despite everything, I hope you’re happy, Xander,” Spike said, his voice lilting, sing-song as he approximated Anya’s voice.

“Shut up,” Xander muttered, his back to Spike, muscles tense, hands shaking with anger. Fear. Guilt.

“Sweet girl,” Spike murmured, his voice close as he neared, easing behind Xander, his hands lifting and then gliding over Xander’s shoulders, down his arms. “Just wants to make sure you’re happy.” His head tilted thoughtfully as his fingers measured the tension in Xander’s body. “Noticed she pointed out that she’s not getting up to anything dark and damp with old Rupert,” he glanced down at the card on the table, “Printed her address all nice and legible like, too. Lettin’ you know where she is, where she’ll be waiting when you stop,” his voice lowered, the words just breaths against the back of Xander’s neck, “getting,” his mouth opened, his teeth just grazing skin, “scared.”

Xander spun around, his eyes wide. “You’re jealous.”

“Am not,” Spike countered, his eyes cutting away.

Xander stopped, frozen by a flash of something he couldn’t identify, something that straightened his spine and made him feel… it was satisfaction. Spike was jealous and Xander could see it in his posture, in his face, in the way slim, pale fingers were clenching at his sides. Xander paused, and thought about what he was going to say. Time was short, and events were going to start accelerating soon, like a snowball at the top of the hill, gathering momentum. This could be the last…something.

He reached up and caught Spike’s chin, feeling the ivory curve of bone under the skin against his fingers. “Not scared right now, Spike,” he said. It was a lie – he was scared. Scared of being found out, scared of what was going to happen when Spike saw Buffy, scared that whatever was between them was going to melt away in the heat between Slayer and vampire and normal humans were going to get left on the fringes again. He was scared of words he couldn’t and wouldn’t say, feelings he couldn’t express, loss he couldn’t imagine. But if Spike saw the lie, he gracefully ignored it and neatly changed the subject with a searing kiss.

Xander parted his lips, letting all of the fear and anger, regret and doubt, be swallowed in the kiss. His eyes slid closed as he reached for that warm, safe place where there was no pride, no uncertainty, just this white hot feeling. But everything was still so real, the blood tang of Spike’s tongue, the rasp of their cheeks against one another, the light filtering through blinds and his own closed eyes.

Desperate, his fingers tightened on Spike’s jaw, sealing their mouths together and then running his hand down Spike’s back in a rough, restless rhythm, nails scratching one moment, fingers stroking the next.

And Spike arched to meet the surge of Xander’s body, hardness meeting hardness in a way that was everything it should be, and in a way that was no different than any time before. But behind Xander’s closed eyes, beneath lips that hid their tremble in the unforgiving way they ground into Spike’s, there was no rest in mindless want, no escape from the words he tried to sear into Spike’s flesh with every brush of his hands. I’m sorry.

Spike's hands rose up to grip Xander's shoulders, and the restrained strength there just made Xander shake harder. It made Xander feel like a puppy confronting a German Shepherd - he wanted to lower his head and roll over and show his belly, wanted to submit to Spike's strength. He wondered if Spike felt it, if his instincts were screaming at him to take as loudly as Xander's were telling him to give. And he wondered if Spike could read his mind when he unsealed their mouths and dropped his face down to Xander's neck and closed his teeth against the warm, sweaty skin there.

Xander’s head fell back, his eyes still closed, hands easing slowly up Spike’s back to his neck, closing around smooth skin, pressing Spike’s lips deeper into his flesh. He swallowed, feeling Spike’s mouth open around his skin, feeling the way they just sort of…danced around each other, hesitant, both asking, neither answering.

Everything in Xander felt rattled, unable to find that peaceful, easy feeling, but still reaching for it, and Spike’s mouth on his skin was so real, and he knew what it meant. What he was asking for, what Spike was offering. What it meant each time he tried to hide inside the very thing he was trying to run from. That being with Spike was feeling safe and hidden, but still stripping him down to the bone.

It was an insane sort of logic, but a reassuringly familiar one. The same sort of logic that lead to Slayer suicide; leaps away from emotional pain and into the comfort of physical ones.

He arched his neck slightly, encouraging the bite, encouraging Spike. Fangs descended and skin parted and then there was the rush of heat, of liquid, that hummed straight to his cock and muddled his head. But even that wasn’t enough, and he was still standing in his living room, a vampire in his arms, fangs in his throat, a hand roughly palming his erection as another stroked his cheek softly.

His lashes fluttered as Spike’s head lifted, a brief glimpse of blood flecked lips before Spike’s tongue flicked out, licking it away. Xander closed his eyes, pressing his forehead against Spike’s, breath shuddering in his chest.

“Xander?” Spike asked warily, starting to pull away.

Xander tightened his arms, holding them together. The biting was something new, and they didn’t do it often, and it was always over as soon as it began. Beyond their first realization that Spike could actually do it, if Xander offered, they’d never discussed it. The fact that it was never discussed was never mentioned. Why would it be? It was just the latest in a long line.

Spike was lax in his arms, which should have been distracting in itself, because holding Spike usually meant trying to hold Spike while he twisted and slithered beneath Xander, hands and mouth everywhere at once. Xander lifted his head, looking at Spike who stood still against him, eyes closed and jaw tight. Waiting.

Waiting for Xander to lose himself and give in, so that Spike could take control, knowing that he was wanted, that he wouldn’t be pushed away. Sometimes men just fuck, Xander thought, but never us. Too much between them to let it just be release, and too much unsaid to let it be anything else.

He felt Spike shift slightly in his arms, lips brushing against his jaw as Spike pulled back slightly, looking at him, face guarded but eyes questioning. Xander answered by dropping to his knees, and tugging Spike down to join him. He lifted a hand that was shaking only slightly to the middle of Spike’s chest and pushed, following him back until Spike lay on the floor with Xander above him.

Xander braced himself over Spike, looking down at him, eyes darting from Spike’s eyes to his lips and watched as those lips parted and Spike grinned lazily. “Wanted to top, love, all you had to do was say…”

Xander ducked his head, his mouth covering Spike’s. He kissed with eyes open as long as he could, and then when Spike groaned into his mouth, Xander let his eyes slide shut. He focused on the slide of Spike’s tongue against his, the hand that fisted in his hair, and then let himself give over to the kiss, holding nothing back. No thoughts of forgiveness or forgetting as he memorized each curve of lips, tongue and teeth. No thoughts of hiding as he gave in and let himself feel everything, the fear, the anger, and the pain, and then gave it over to Spike, who arched into it, accepting it as need, relishing it as want.

Xander lifted his head, looking down into eyes that met his fearlessly, and then he covered Spike’s body with his own, hands reaching to tear impatiently at clothes that were suddenly too concealing, too separating. Spike reached above his head, his hands impatient as they fumbled in pockets, and then they were joining Xander’s and rubbing slickly.

Xander leaned down and kissed Spike again, softly, without need or want, and then he eased back, joining their bodies as their eyes met again.

And he realized this was the one time he didn’t want to get lost.

“You know, this whole ‘babysitting’ thing is starting to get kind of old,” Dawn called from the kitchen. “Willow and Tara said they’d only be at the library for a couple of hours, and it usually doesn’t take Xander that long to mow.” Her voice got louder as she neared. “So you totally don’t have to stay. If you’re bored.”

Spike settled back into the sofa, looking up and forcing a smile as Dawn walked back into the room. “I’m not, and I do.” He cleared his throat, fingers drumming as she stared down at him. “So, what do you fancy, Bit? Game of Rummy?”

Dawn made a face. “Not unless you promise no cheating.”

Spike’s eyes widened, the picture of innocence. “Taught you everything I know about cheating. You should be able to suss out when I’m…”

Dawn rolled her eyes, dropping down on the sofa next to him. “Holding cards, yeah. Using vampire senses to hear my heartbeat speed up when I have a good hand? Unfair.”

Spike smirked, reaching for the deck of cards. “You’re the sneaky one. ‘M sure you’ll figure out a way to get a better poker face.”

Dawn stared at him. “It’s Rummy.”

Spike shrugged. “Rummy face, then.”

Dawn shook her head. “Nope. Not tonight. Tonight, I have,” she leaned forward, gesturing to the coffee table in front of them, “pizza you won’t eat, soda you won’t drink, and,” she said, lifting a tape box and waving it, “a movie you won’t watch.”

Spike grabbed at the box she was waving in his face and turned it over, looking at the title and smiling slightly. “That’s where you’re wrong, love. Rebel Without a Cause.” He looked up at Dawn, “I think somebody planned this.”

Dawn shrugged lightly, grinning.

Spike looked back down at the movie. “James Dean,” he murmured, rubbing a thumb over shiny plastic of the case. “Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse. Not the most original idea, you know, but he was on to something, there.”

“Willow and Tara said he’s like, some kind of gay icon.”

Spike dropped the movie onto the seat between them, looking away from her. “Yeah?” he mumbled indifferently as he reached for his cigarettes.

“Wouldn’t know it to look at him,” Dawn said, not taking her eyes off of Spike. “He’s all tough with his…jacket and his cool hair and his cigarettes…”

Spike dropped his lighter onto the table, turning to look back at Dawn. “Something you want to tell me, Niblet?”

“Something you want to tell me?” she answered, blinking at him.

Spike reached for the movie cassette, smiling tightly. “Not a bleeding thing I can think of,” he said, standing and walking over to the television. He bent over, muscles tense as he punched the buttons on the VCR and watched the lights blink as it came on. He ripped open the case and slid the tape into place, hitting play and then standing there, staring as the title screen came up.

“Wow,” Dawn said, “look at you, working the technology.”

“Yeah,” he said, turning to grin at her, “Xander’s got…” he stopped abruptly, jaw tightening as she grinned at him.

“Xander’s got what?” Dawn asked, her grin widening. “Big, poofy lips?” she asked, puffing her own lips out. “Long, swoopy eyelashes? Totally squeezable a -…”


“Abs?” she giggled, giving him a leer with a lifted brow that was just missing a scar.

“Think I liked you better when you were all weepy and mopey,” Spike muttered. Dawn’s face immediately darkened, her eyes falling to her lap. Spike closed his eyes, sighing. “Didn’t mean that, love. I just…” he walked back over to her, perching on the edge of the sofa. He reached out for her, and then drew his hand back, shaking his head and looking away. “Just can’t believe they told you, is all.”

Dawn snorted, lifting her head. “Oh, yeah, that happened. Willow and Tara so sat me down and gave me the ‘sometimes two guys like each other in a special way’ talk. Right.”

Spike looked back at her, frowning.

She shrugged, leaning back and crossing her arms. “I might have been outside their room the other day, looking…”

“Lurking,” Spike interrupted pointedly.

Looking,” she said with a quick glare, “for my shoes, when Willow was telling Tara that she saw you and Xander. Kissing. Each other.” She stopped, looking at Spike uncertainly.

“Yeah?” he said, slowly.

“Kissing,” she repeated firmly. “Each other.”

“Huh,” Spike said, reaching for the remote and turning up the volume. He leaned back against the cushions, staring at the television.

“Well?” Dawn demanded, grabbing the remote from his hand and hitting mute.

“Well, what?” Spike sighed, looking at her. “Sounds like you already got the story. I’m sure Red painted all the strokes broad enough,” he said bitterly.

Dawn didn’t answer for a moment, her fingers fiddling with the hem of her skirt. “So why didn’t you tell me?” she asked finally, her eyes on the movie playing silently in front of them.

“Not the sort of thing we talk about is it, pet?” he said, giving her a wry smile. “And not something we’re gonna start,” he added, turning his attention back to the television. He could watch it silently if she could.

“Do you…love Xander now?” Dawn asked carefully, all traces of teasing and teen curiosity over vampire/Scooby kisses gone from her voice.

Spike’s head jerked, and he closed his eyes, his fingers tensing on his knees, digging deep and grinding bones together. “Dawn,” he sighed finally, “sometimes it’s not about love.”

She paused, tilting her head to look at him closely. “It usually is for you.”

Spike stilled, looking at her, and knowing that anything he said would let her into places she didn’t need to be, and places he didn’t need to revisit. The memory of Xander’s lips still burned on his, and it was a feeling he didn’t want to lose by sharing it. Even with himself. He shook his head slowly; then turned away from her.

“So you don’t love Buffy anymore?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last, and Spike stiffened at the pain in her voice. He swallowed, knowing that he had to answer that, and finding the words for her when he wasn’t sure of the answers himself was just the first in the long line of wrong with this conversation. Cursing the fact that he couldn’t hit her or kiss her to make her shut up, he turned and looked into her eyes, his voice quiet.

Nothing will ever change how I felt about Buffy, Niblet. But you know how that was, what that was. Nothing in it for her, nothing real, anyway.” He winced at the dull tinge of pain that always accompanied that admission, whether spoken or not, but the edges were blurred, somehow, and its acknowledgement somewhat easier to swallow.

“But you and Xander, that’s real?” her voice still quivered, but her eyes were dry, as if she had determined to be the grown up in this situation, and see it through until her questions were answered.

“It’s…complicated, Bit,” Spike said, reaching for his cigarettes again and suddenly wishing that Willow kept something stronger in the house than herbal teas.

“Complicated,” Dawn laughed shortly, nodding. “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t get complicated, since the rest of my life has been so easy. I just dream every night about memories that never really happened and get pissed off at a dad I’ve never really met and spend the day with a robot that looks just like the sister who died… for me. For me: the key that doesn’t fit anything. Yeah, you’re right, Spike – complicated. Not something I’d ever understand.”

Spike stared at her, mouth working silently. Well, that was…eloquent, he thought, if sarcastic and cruelly honest and vaguely reminiscent of…hmm, seems someone’s copying more than the brow lift.

Dawn shrugged, falling back against the couch and lifting the remote, clicking the sound back on. “Whatever. If you’re not gonna tell me about illicit Xander smooches, we can just watch the movie.” Neither of them turned to look at the television, though, and then Dawn drew a deep breath. “Or you could always tell me what else is going on.”

Spike blinked, frowned, and then blinked again, looking at her. Dawn’s teenage rapid-fire mood swings were second only to Dru’s, and he was a few years out of practice following those. “You’re losing me, Bit,” he said, shaking his head. “Could have been the use of ‘smooches,’ but, again, we’re not goin’ down that road. There’s an ‘else’?”

Dawn rolled her eyes, and Spike watched, confused, as her entire body seemed to vibrate with an unspoken, duh. “You know, the conversations that stop the minute I walk into the room? Those looks that Tara and Willow give each other that aren’t anything like the ones they give each other before they sneak upstairs and turn the stereo up really loud. The way Xander looks at Willow sometimes and then sees me watching him and says, ‘gotta go’ immediately and walks out without saying goodbye? The way all of you…”

“Careful with who you include, Dawn,” Spike interrupted, his voice low. “Kinda persona non grata myself around here, you know?”

“But I know there’s something,” she continued, waving that aside, “I might have been born almost yesterday, but I’m not blind. Or deaf. I’ve lived in Slayer central long enough to know ‘planning’ when I see it. The secret meetings, spell and research books everywhere, doors that close suddenly whenever I walk down the hall. And all of you…” her eyes widened. “No, not you.” She stared at Spike. “Not me, not you. Just them.”

Spike looked back at her, memories clicking. Xander’s silences, the strange looks that he’d just chalked up to the boy working his way through the new living arrangement. But he’d blather on about their ‘arrangement’ whenever Spike got him worked up into it. Then patrolling with Willow and waiting for her to threaten, to at least question, for fuck’s sake, but nothing. Like it didn’t matter. Like he and Xander weren’t worth her attention because there was something more.

The way Xander had been today, greedy and grasping, and not with guilt over demon girl like he’d thought. And that last kiss, wasn’t just giving in, or acceptance. It had felt…final.

He focused on Dawn, on those too old eyes in that too young face. He leaned forward, arms resting on thighs as his hands clenched together. Fear and anger warred, and his throat worked as he forced the words out, trying to let her know the anger wasn’t directed at her. “What else do you know, love?”

Xander walked in a slow circle in front of the grave, his hands pushed into his pockets, his eyes on the ground. He heard a rustle in the darkness and looked up, expecting Willow and Tara and fearing Spike, but there was nothing, only wind and expectation.

He lifted his hand, peering at his watch. 11:45. Fifteen minutes ‘til midnight, ‘til another day began. Another Sunday here in this place with its scents of grass and earth and week-old flowers that wilted and faded against the stone but never had a chance to die before they were replaced, whole and new.

He turned and looked down at the headstone, his breath tightening. “This is it, Buff,” he whispered. “No turning back now. Even if we wanted to,” he finished, his voice trailing off. He reached down, rubbing his hand over the top of the stone, his fingers curling around it tight. “Willow says all I have to do is show up and believe. Funny thing is,” he said, his voice husky, “I think this would be the one time I’d listen if you showed up and told me to leave before I got hurt.”


He jerked, turning around, heart in his throat and strangling the breath that tried to force its way out.

Willow and Tara stood in the clearing, their hands full of candles and jars and other things that said that this was no dress rehearsal, no game of ‘what-if,’ but the real deal, and things were about to play out whether he was ready or not.

Xander ducked his head, brushing the grit from the headstone off of his hands. He looked back at Willow, started to speak, and then really looked at Willow and let the words bubble forth, taking comfort in the lack of thought that it took to produce them.

“Wow, Will, workin’ your spellin’ clothes,” he said, nodding to her black and grey off-the-shoulder dress. He glanced over at Tara’s jacket and pink jeans, and then at his own button-down and jeans. “You didn’t say there was a dress code, but then, what is the dress code for a resurrection? I think the last recorded one had this whole robes and sandals motif, and I’m not really a sandal sort of guy. You know – hairy toes…”

His voice died away as Tara stared back him with a look of amused confusion and Willow’s face just reflected…hurt. Right, solemn is the tone we’re going for. You’d think he’d have figured out by now when the inappropriate funny was actually going to have the desired relieved laughter effect and when it was just going to make him feel even more useless.

“Sorry,” he muttered, walking over to take the candle Tara held out to him. He risked another glance at Willow’s face, and it was still closed tight, tension radiating from her, but directed away from him now. Believe, he thought, believe that Willow can bring her back, and that there’s nothing of the wrong in that. Dawn will be okay again, and Giles will come back, and everything will go back to the way it was, and I can go back to hiding in the mix again, hidden and unthinking and unthought of.

His hand trembled as he took the lighter Tara handed to him, lighting his candle and watching the flame sputter. He gripped the candle tighter, feeling like he was in a grade school Christmas chorus, in a time before candles had come to mean spells and vampires who couldn’t have light any other way and the way the light glowed against pale skin…

“Xander, do you have it?” Willow’s voice cut into his thoughts.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing, his mouth dry as handed the lighter back to Tara and watched her light her own candle.

“What time is it?” Tara asked suddenly.

Xander loosened his death grip on the candle and checked his watch. “A minute ‘til midnight,” he said, his eyes going to Willow’s.

“Okay,” Willow said, kneeling, her fingers laced tightly around the urn she held in her hands. “Start the circle.”

Xander knelt at her side and started to point out that they were really in more of a triangle than a circle, but he’d gotten a D in geometry and figured that silence was probably his best option now. Believe.

“Osiris, keeper of the gate, master of all fate, hear us,” Willow began, her eyes on the headstone. Xander’s eyes widened as he realized they were starting. Starting starting, and shouldn’t Willow go through some sort of checklist and give Tara and him instructions? Was he really supposed to sit here and just believe? He squeezed his eyes shut, and then opened them again. He really needed something to do, something that would shut his brain up and distract him from…

He watched as Willow dipped her finger into the urn, lifting it to her forehead, her cheeks, painting bright stripes there. You didn’t fight with a Slayer and sleep with a vampire without recognizing the bright red that shimmered against Willow’s skin in the candlelight, dripped down her cheeks. Blood. Whose? And from where? And why did…oh, right, it always had to be blood. Fucked up Hellmouth logic? Check.

Willow kept speaking and his candle and Tara’s quivered along in time to her words. She poured the contents - blood - of the jar on the ground, her voice firm, commanding in the way it had echoed in his head, whispered in his dreams, all summer long.

“Accept our offering, know our prayer,” she said, voice gasping a bit on the last, and then her arms went rigid, her breath labored. Unseen blades cut into her arms, the flesh falling open, blood welling beneath.

“Willow!” Xander cried out, reaching for her.

“No!” Tara said, stopping him. “She knew she would be tested. This is what’s supposed to happen.”

Xander fell back, watching as Willow centered herself, her voice calm again, calling on Osiris, demanding that Buffy be allowed to cross over. And then her back jerked, her jaw lifting as these…things…began to rise up in her arms, under her skin, rising across her chest, her throat.

Oh, God, Xander thought. Willow…what have you done? How many lines did you have to cross, what kind of lies did you tell yourself to get…and the blood, the blood.

“She needs help,” he said, forcefully, looking at Tara.

Tara shook her head, her eyes wide. “She said not to stop, that once…”

“Tara – it’s killing her!” he said, the candle in his hands shaking, hot wax splattering across his fingers, unnoticed.

Willow’s body shuddered, and she fell forward, gasping, her fingers clutching at grass that was longer, unruly, this week, because there was no need for him to mow, to tend, anymore. Her fingers gripped harder, blades of green breaking off and clinging to her hands as her body lurched, shaking as she moaned.

And then her mouth was opening, opening wide, and in the darkness, something slithered out. Past her lips and winding its way over her tongue, falling to the ground as she gasped and choked.

Xander’s throat felt squeezed shut, and he silently thanked God for it, because it sealed the way against the bile that rose up in it. That was in Willow’s mouth, he thought, and choked again, looking down at the snake that blinked and then slithered away from them, unconcerned with the horror it left in its wake.

Willow suddenly lurched upright, her back bowing as she was bent almost in half, and then snapping forward again, a red glow, like fire, like blood, encircling her, surrounding her, separating her from them.

Xander stared at her, at the blood on her arms, her face, the light that glared from her, highlighting her closed eyes, her clenched jaw. He glanced over at Tara and saw the shock on her face, the tears on her cheeks as she mumbled to him, to herself, “Just a test, just a test,” over and over. She hadn’t known. All of this – and for what? And then something just…snapped.

Bringing Buffy back wouldn’t change anything or make everything all right again. His mind flashed to Buffy’s body on the ground, dead and broken, and to the look at Spike’s eyes as he had stared at her – dead and broken. Buffy wouldn’t have wanted this – any of this. If she had, if this was right, Giles would be standing with them, reassuring them, explaining why Willow had to go this way, take this path. And Spike would be next to him, his hand in Xander’s, at least for a while, both of them finding the courage in each to face Buffy’s return, no matter what it meant. United as before, like they had been, before Buffy had shattered them apart when her body shattered onto the ground.

Instead, this secret, this plan had torn them apart farther than before, forcing its way between him and Willow, crawling into the spaces between him and Spike, causing Tara to turn a blind a eye to magic she couldn’t believe in and making the mission - if they even still believed in it - meaningless.

Without Buffy, they fought by rote, with trained responses, feet moving toward cemeteries and dark alleys because it was what they did, no thought to what any of it meant. There was no higher purpose, no greater good, nothing in their destinies that commanded them to do it. And bringing Buffy back changed that…how? Following a leader? Willow had lead a tighter team than Buffy had ever imagined, more equal, more even. If bringing her back meant restoring a friend, easing the pain…what right did they have to do that? How were they any different, any more special than others who had lost, others who had died? If it meant the return of the Slayer…what did it accomplish but counting the minutes until she died yet again, the victim of a violent life, a causality of her own destiny? And then…what? They brought her back again? Cycling over and over until one day, maybe, none of them cared anymore?

“Willow, stop.” And that was his voice, weary and resigned, and so quiet that she actually heard it over the roar of the light and her own groaning.

“Xander?” Tara’s voiced quivered.

“Stop, Willow. Now,” he commanded, tossing away the candle and standing, facing her as she shook and shuddered beneath the onslaught of magic so dark, so powerful it was ripping her apart.

“Xander,” she gritted out from clenched teeth, forcing herself to speak, “don’t. Need you,” she grunted, her body snapping again. “You have to believe…”

“I believe, Willow,” Xander said, swallowing, his eyes dark holes in his face, his hands damp and trembling as they reached out to her, “I believe you think you’re doing what’s right by doing something very, very wrong. You believe you’re not going to have to feel the pain if you can do this, if you can make yourself believe we didn’t fail that day. That you didn’t fail. But Buffy chose this, and you’re lying to yourself, to all of us, if you think that she didn’t.”

“Xander!” Willow cried, pulling back from his hands as they reached for her. “More important things now,” she gasped, jerking as the magic lashed around her. “Buffy. It’s Buffy…more important than…Spike. More real. Being…selfish,” she yelled through the pain.

“Selfish?” Xander said, staring, his heart seizing in his chest as he considered that, and then shook his head. “No. This isn’t about me, and whether you believe it or not, Willow, it’s not about you. Selfish was lying to Spike, to Dawn, to Giles about this. Why aren’t they here, Willow? Why can’t they take part in this beautiful,” he looked her up and down, the blood, the fire, “celebration of love?”

“Xander, stop,” Tara whispered behind him.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, not looking at her, his eyes on Willow. “Will, you know me, you know it’s killing me to see what you’re doing, and it’s killing me to say this. You’re calling me selfish, when you don’t know…” he broke off, shaking his head. “When I don’t know what I mean, what he means, what I feel. But this,” he said, waving his hand. “This isn’t love, this is control. And I didn’t saying anything, until it was too late, but I saw it, I heard it in everything, in all of us. This isn’t about Buffy and wanting her, or needing her, or missing her. This is you, trying to prove to yourself, to us, that no matter how much you say we need Buffy back to feel strong, to feel right, that, in the end, you can do the one thing Buffy couldn’t.” He stared down at her, his hand opening, grasping and then squeezing tight. “And I can’t believe in that.”

The urn was slippery in his fingers, blood and sweat mixing, and then it was grasped firmly and he watched it gleam in the bright light that surrounded Willow as he smashed it into the ground. Jagged edges burst away, cutting into his palm, the sound as it broke lashing into him. And then the light bled away, Willow slumped forward with a cry and he stared at the broken bits that clung to his fingers, the blood on his hand dull in the single light of Tara’s candle.

He looked up into Willow’s shocked eyes, and then back to the blood in his fist, the shattered urn at his feet, and heard the silence of the grave around them. “Oh, God.”

And then he ran.

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