Beauty Effulgent

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

Part Sixteen

Spike watched as Dawn carefully turned the key in the deadbolt and then jiggled the doorknob a couple of times for extra measure. She paused, her hand on the door and Spike shifted impatiently, his eyes sweeping the dark, empty streets.

“Maybe we should wait,” Dawn said hesitantly, as she turned to look back at him. “They’ll be back soon, and we can just…”

“We can just what?” Spike asked harshly and then softened his tone at her look of surprised hurt. “They’ll only lie to us again, Dawn, and this time – ” Spike broke off, shaking his head. “I’ve done enough sitting around, waiting to be led a merry dance. Besides, not really my style.”

She looked back at him silently, and Spike dropped his head, sighing. “Maybe you shouldn’t go, though. Not a bloody good idea, dragging you through the midnight streets of Sunnydale...”

“Why?” Dawn asked, matching his previous tone. “Because Willow and Xander might get mad that you didn’t lock me away and lie to me, too? No,” she said firmly, shoving the keys into her front pocket and marching down the steps. “I’m going.”

She stopped at the end of the walkway, looking uncertainly to her left and right. “So is the library on the Magic Box side of town or the mall side of town?”

Spike snorted, chuckling despite himself. “We really need to broaden your horizons, ‘Bit,” he said. He jumped the steps and walked over to join her, lighting a cigarette as he came. “After all, when I was your age - "

Dawn rolled her eyes. “When you were my age, a ‘mall’ meant getting gnawed on by bears.”

Spike nodded slowly, his eyes on her as he exhaled. “Yeah, those vast hordes of bear gangs plaguing lower London. I can still taste the fear.” Dawn glared at him and Spike’s smirk softened into a bitter smile. “Do you really think they’re at the library, love?”

“Maybe?” Dawn asked hopefully, her voice catching, and Spike’s eyes narrowed as a thought occurred.

Whirling away from her, he strode quickly around the house, his boots thudding as he broke into a run.

Dawn gasped a startled, “Spike?” and then sprinted after him.

In the dark behind the house, Spike tore open the shed door, and they both stared at the lawn mower, cold, clean and there.

“Well, now we know someone’s bloody well not where he’s supposed to be,” Spike muttered, fingers clenching around the thin door until it creaked. He looked back at Dawn, his lips drawn and tight. “So what do you think first? The Bronze or the magic shop?”

Dawn’s eyes lit up. “The Bronze,” she said immediately, a gleeful half-bounce accompanying her answer even in the face of Spike’s barely repressed fury.

“This isn’t a day trip with Uncle Spike, love,” Spike said, flinging the door away so that it wrenched against its hinges and slammed into the side of the shed, the wood shuddering and splintering. “We’re supposed to be pissed off.”

Dawn sobered, looking down at the lawn mower that leant truth to every suspicion. She drew her foot back, kicking it viciously. “Getting there.”

Willow’s fingertips brushed against the jagged edges of the broken urn, uncaring as blood welled behind each touch. She lifted her hand, staring but unseeing, and then reached down and curled her fingers in the grass. The red fluid fell against the green, shining in the low light and then darkening, losing its luster as the earth absorbed it.

“The urn’s defiled,” she said flatly, her eyes on the ground.

“Willow,” Tara said cautiously as she knelt down next to Willow.

“Defiled,” Willow said louder, her hand reaching back to scatter the pieces over the grave. “Broken.” She stared at the shards as they spread out in a meaningless pattern. “By Xander.”

Tara reached out, her hand soothing against Willow’s arm. “Willow, we can -”

“Get another one?” Willow laughed sharply, the sound grating and harsh as it was forced from her sore and swollen throat. “There isn’t another. You know that.”

Tara’s hand retreated. “I was going to say still catch up with Xander.”

Willow turned to face Tara, her eyes wide, tears falling faster. “For what? Tara – we failed. Failed. There is no going back.” She swiped her hand across the grave, and the pieces scattered further. “I can’t fix something that was broken when everything’s broken.” She looked down at her hands, at the scratches, the cuts, that made everything real, able to feel the pain for the first time as she clenched her fingers together. “We failed,” she said again, seeing if she could make herself feel that, too.

“Maybe we were supposed to,” Tara said, her tone even but her hands shaking in her lap as she clutched them together, held away from Willow. “Maybe the fates set all of that in motion, stopping us from invoking forces that we have no right to.”

“The fates,” Willow repeated dully. “Working through Xander.”

“Because they should only work through you?”

Willow’s head jerked, her lips falling open, trembling. “Tara! You’re saying this was my fault?”

“No! I…” Tara moved closer, wincing as her knee landed on one of the broken shards. “I’m saying…what Xander said, a lot of it made sense. A-a-bout why we were doing this. The reasons – it doesn’t matter if it was about Buffy or The Slayer – maybe our reasons weren’t what we wanted them to be. Don’t you think…”

“Think!” Willow cried as she jerked from Tara, her hands splaying out on the grave. “I can’t think Buffy out of this hell, Tara. I couldn’t reason her out. There was only one thing I could do – and now it’s gone. Because Xander thought it was wrong.” The final word grated as she said it, flakes of obsidian; cutting deeper than slivers of glass beneath her hands.

Tara stared at Willow for a moment and then slowly got to her feet. “Because it was wrong.”

“Why is it wrong?” Willow asked helplessly, and then her voice quieted, becoming small and lost. “What kind of world worth dying for asks for that kind of sacrifice? Where were the fates to stop Glory? Oh, wait,” Willow said with a dark smile, “they had Buffy for that.” Her smile trembled away as she bit her lip and then looked back at Tara. “In a world that allows vampires, and demons, and death, why is trying to do one good thing so wrong?”

Tara looked down at her sadly. “Because witches aren’t allowed to alter the fabric of life for selfish reasons. It makes us no different than them.” She crossed her arms over herself tightly. “But what we were doing didn’t have anything to do with witches. It was all about being human. About needing and wanting something we couldn’t have any longer. It was … selfish, Willow.” Tara looked surprised at her words, though her tone was unyielding. “It hurts. And it’s awful. But we aren’t children, and you know why this is wrong.”

“But there are precedents!” Willow said desperately. “If something shouldn’t be done, then it couldn’t…” Willow stopped, her voice breaking. “God.” She stared at her hands for a long moment and then said, “All this time I thought I was doing everything right. I studied every text, referenced and cross-referenced every ritual, every ingredient.” Her mind flashed back to another green meadow, daylight hanging like gauze while she stained her hands red. “But I didn’t do any of it right.” She looked up, her eyes large and dark. “Not even you, Tara.”

We failed, Willow,” Tara said, stepping closer. “You didn’t trust me enough to tell me, and I didn’t trust you enough to ask. Because my first loyalty was to you.” She raised her hand, her fingers trembling as they curved around the headstone. “Xander’s was to Buffy.”

Tara heard Willow’s choked gasp at that and fell to her knees again, taking Willow’s hands. “I made my choice, and I have to live with that. Xander couldn’t.”

Willow looked up at her. “I don’t know if I can, either.” Her fingers clenched on Tara’s, blood wet and slippery. “I thought if I could find the right answers…” Her voice dropped. “There are always answers, and I can find them. It’s so easy for me, always, and if I did, then we wouldn’t have to face…I wouldn’t have to face it. But I can’t. She’s gone. I lost her, really lost her, and now…” Willow’s voice broke as Tara’s arms went around her, “now I’ve lost Xander, too.”

“You haven’t lost Xander,” Tara murmured into Willow’s hair. “He helped you do this for…for Buffy, but he stopped it for you.”

“No,” Willow said, pressing her cheek against Tara’s, “even if he understands that I get that, I said all of those things about him…and Spike.” She took a deep breath, her body shaking. “He doesn’t forgive so easy, Xander. And I meant everything.”

Tara wound her fingers in Willow’s hair, mindlessly gliding and stroking. “Maybe we were wrong about that, too.”

Willow pulled back slightly. “But you said…when Buffy and Spike, and we thought, you said that was crazy; wrong.”

Tara smiled, her eyes thoughtful. “That was Spike – a vampire. But this Spike…we don’t know. We watched him almost d-die for Dawn, and grieve for Buffy, and fight alongside us, but none of us ever asked him why. We didn’t want to know, so we didn’t ask.” She looked at the grave beneath them. “And isn’t that h-how we ended up here?”

Willow took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. Her face smoothed, the creases disappearing into an expression that was almost shy as she looked at Tara. “Can we go home? Please?”

“O-okay.” Tara stood, pulling Willow to her feet and letting her lean against her. They started slowly out of the clearing, and then Willow turned back, looking at the grave. “I don’t think I want to come back here for a while,” she said quietly. “I never let it feel like a place of peace, and I don’t think I ever can.”

They walked away, easing carefully through dark and silent woods, and behind them, one of the broken shards rolled off the grave. Then another.

“Dawn!” Spike ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, cursing. He held his head in his hands, his eyes squeezed shut, and then opened them again as he looked left and right again on the darkened street. “Dawn!”

They’d left the Bronze; no luck there. Not that Spike had really expected luck, and the Bronze had seemed too bloody obvious, but sometimes the most obvious was…

The last thing he remembered her saying was a laughing, “Last call. Just like they say on TV.” Her voice had lowered as she sang along with the song blaring from the sound system, “You don't have to go home but you can't stay here…”

And it had been like a gnat in Spike’s ear, her voice, her excitement, in the face of his anger, too much to deal with. His eyes had swept the emptying club again and again, looking for a guilty smile, an easy explanation. And the refrain from that song had blasted again and again. I know who I want to take me home.

He had grabbed her hand, dragging her out into the night as he silenced her questions with a frustrated snarl. “Just…stop! I can’t bloody think!” And she had wandered away, hurt. But he didn’t have time for her hurt. He didn’t have time for her, as she wavered from anger and concern to excitement and glee at being out on the streets at night. Past midnight, and on a mission.

And he had been standing there on the street, realizing that after the Magic Box and the Bronze, he had no real plan and that he had dragged her out in the middle of the night. Because what had mattered had been being right. They couldn’t have sat in the house and waited and just jumped the others with their suspicions when they walked in. Catching them in the act, whatever that act might be, was what mattered. Being right, and proving it. It’s all that ever mattered.

With Xander.

With him.

And he’d been searching for the words to tell her they were going back. Words that didn’t admit defeat and didn’t invite argument. But he’d hesitated, thinking. His mind offering every possibility and discarding it, because he could search from now ‘til sunrise, but nowhere made any sense. And not a scent in the air to guide him in the press of beer misted bodies that brushed past them.

But his eyes searched the dark streets again, and he strained to hear a familiar laugh, because this is where Xander had to be; this time of night, this wicked little town. Not out somewhere in the deeper darkness, but here in the heart of things, the light. Where it was safe.

But there was no laugh rising over the sound of the crowd and no glimpse of broad shoulders swinging next to flipping red hair. There was nothing, here in the heart of things, which meant…

And then it was too quiet. He had stood there, too confused at first to be concerned, because she couldn’t be anywhere else. He was just missing something, not finding the gleam of her hair in the street lights in the shadow of that accursed tower looming over them, over everything. Blotting out the light.

And then he had chuckled. Because she had just wandered away. Not taken. Not dragged behind the Bronze, fangs at her throat. She had just wandered away.

“Dawn!” his voice roared, his throat aching. He tried them all: Bit and Niblet and Dawnie and Dawn, until they were just a muddle of words, and the few people on the streets turned and looked, but none of them were her.

All summer, the one thing he’d had that proved he was…and now she was gone. All summer, even through the nightmares of Buffy falling and dreams where he had caught her and then she turned into Xander in his arms and shoved him away. The one thing he could do, could keep safe and not fuck up; not fail. The one thing he’d done right.

And she had just wandered away.


Ambition is a good servant, but a bad master. And that was weird, because his mind seemed to be everywhere at once, voices overlapping, thoughts half-thought and crashing over each other, but that one thought kept rising above the rest. Something Giles had said a long time ago. About what, he couldn’t remember, and said to…had to have been Buffy. Couldn’t have been to him; not like he’d ever been going hell bent toward something – without thought, only purpose – and had to have Giles talk him down from the power trip.

Without thought. Hands reaching for Spike, lips crushing together because it stopped all words, all thought, everything. It’s Buffy, falling so easily from his lips, because they were just words, just agreement. His hand clenching around the urn, turning and smashing, no thought needed. Only purpose.

And no thought now as he walked, eyes on the ground, following the moonlight. The thoughts that he had left his car, his stake, his friends, alone in darkness buzzed hazily, but they were thoughts that led to others, so he left them alone. Just Giles’ half-remembered non sequitur humming pleasantly in his mind, the sound of leaves, sun cooked brown, crunching beneath his feet.

His hand stung, and he shook it impatiently, still trying to get the shape, the feel, of the urn out of his skin. The sound it had made wouldn’t go, either. It hadn’t been muffled at all by the grass and dirt it shattered against. Like it had hit something solid, something buried deep, and every crunch, every crackle, had sounded in the silence around them.

The sound had thudded in his ears, vibrating beneath his palm and crawling up, burying into the flesh beneath. Louder than the sound of Buffy’s body hitting the ground below. Funny how he couldn’t really remember that sound – didn’t know if he’d even heard it. Too fast, too much at the time. And those were the voices that cried loudest in his mind. Spike yelling, Buffy, as they watched her fall and Dawn sobbing, No, too far away for him to hear, but he was sure he had.

Then the urn had shattered in his fist and he’d been right back there, standing at the base of the tower, Anya a solid weight in his arms, the harsh sound of Spike’s tears somewhere behind him. None of it real as he had stared down at Buffy, her face blank and lifeless and his just…blank.

No thought that day, no decision, just trusting that, as one event bled into the next, things would work out like they were supposed to, like they always had. And they had - Buffy had beaten back Glory, and Spike had made it to the top of the tower and then…something had twisted when it should have flowed.

And just like Willow, he’d wondered. If there was some decision he could have made that would have stopped it…some thought that wasn’t considered that could have changed it. But unlike Willow, he’d known there was nothing they could have done, and he’d made himself deal with that.

He clenched his fist again, feeling them almost individually; the edges of the cuts and the slickness of the blood and the grit and the dirt and liking it, because at least that pain was real – as real as the hard, cold fact that ever since the day he’d breathed life back into Buffy down in the Master’s lair, he’d been tapped out as a hero. That was his big moment, and after that, he was old news. He couldn’t have saved her, not on the tower, and not from the grave. She’s dead, and he might as well have pushed her as watched her fall.

His feet stumbled, leaving the whisper of moss and the snap of leaves for the thud of concrete. Dazed, he lifted his head, blinking as he looked up and right into a street light. He was at the top of the guardian wall that separated the woods from the service alley behind the Bronze. He jumped down, wincing as he thoughtlessly reached to steady himself with his cut hand.

He walked through the alley for the first time in five years without reaching for a stake. Reaching the end, he turned the corner with an automatic glance at the dark and silent Bronze, and then started out into the street.

Seeing Spike wasn’t a shock. Xander wondered if you could even feel shock when you were in shock. At least he figured this was shock; he certainly wouldn’t say no if someone were to wrap a blanket around him and dial 911.

He knew the exact moment Spike was aware of him, too, and he wasn’t sure if it was the thud of his heart that even he could hear, or the blood that still dripped steadily down his fingers, or even something as pathetically human as the scuff of his shoes against the pavement; all that mattered was that had Spike stopped mid pacing and mumbled ranting and turned to look at him.

And then Spike was against him, their bodies slamming together, his hands curling around Xander’s shoulders with mindless strength, and only that strength keeping them on their feet as Xander stumbled back.

Spike’s mouth worked, his eyes meeting Xander’s and then darting away, closing tightly as a breath shuddered from his lips. You who have no breath, Xander’s own words whispered back at him through the steady hum in his mind, I’m making you breathe…

Spike swallowed and looked up at Xander again. “Dawn,” he choked, and then stopped, his jaw clenching.

Xander looked back at Spike mildly, as unfazed by Spike’s sudden torment as he had been by the apparition of him in the street. He shrugged one of Spike’s hands from his shoulder as he lifted his wrist, and then realized he’d lost his watch somewhere along the way. Didn’t matter; although this night was starting to feel endless, he could tell by the way the street lights still glared in the darkness that it was nowhere near day. Spike’s internal vamp chronometer must just be off, possibly due to the sudden psychosis that had him lurching against Xander again, his eyes wild, his hands clenching in a way that would have earned him an, Ow, quit it! had Xander been able to feel anything.

“I remember what I said,” Spike muttered, more to himself than Xander. He looked up, eyes on Xander’s as he tilted his head, nodding. “The promise. To protect her. One thing I could do, have done. Just a moment away, yeah? A moment, and then she was gone.” He shook his head, his gaze falling away from Xander’s. “Just a moment’s lapse – it doesn’t amount to betrayal.”

Xander jerked at hearing betrayal fall from Spike’s lips, and his mind cleared for a moment, Ladies and gentleman, I think we have a reaction! bursting forth from the saner recesses, and then the numbness came back as he realized it wasn’t his betrayal and therefore not worthy of notice.

He looked at Spike, his mind as expectant as his face was blank, content to wait in this bubble of numb to see what Spike did next, and if it would spark a reaction that felt like hanging around for awhile.

“Have to find her,” Spike said as his hands dropped from Xander’s shoulders. “Both of us now, we can – ” his hand had closed around Xander’s and slid messily away. Spike lifted his hand, knowing the red gleam against his palm by touch, by smell, before it even had a chance to glisten in the low light.

“Xander?” And then Spike’s attention was on him, for the first time really, all other worries, no matter what they might be, sliding away as Spike came back to himself and reached again for Xander’s hand, prying the fingers open. “Xander, what did you do?”

Well, there was no easy answer to that, was there? So Xander just looked back at Spike silently, as he eased his hand away and let it curl, closed, at this side.

“Xander?” Spike’s eyes were searching his, widening at what they found, or didn’t find, there.

Xander stared back at him, silent, realizing that this time it was completely possible to ignore the command in Spike’s voice, the insistence in his eyes. Oh, he could answer; it seemed that he wasn’t endowed with the ability to pitch a coma when things had spiraled out of his control. Of course, that would have pretty much made him coma boy most of his life if it had been possible, so probably a good thing…

“Xander!” Spike’s hands were on his shoulders again, shaking him, the leather swirl of the duster snapping against their legs.

The slap, when it came, wasn’t unexpected. He kind of had Spike’s modus operandi down; what Xander did find surprising was that the only reaction it received was just that – a mild bit of surprise at the lack of reaction.

“Christ,” Spike said, his voice sounding tired, lost, and then he was up close and personal again, his eyes boring into Xander’s. “I know you’re in there, Harris, and I don’t know what this is – something you did, or something that was done to you, but you’re not the only one lost tonight. So, gonna get you off the streets, get Willow to see if she can poke around and find you in there, and you better hope she can and doesn’t have to send me in after you, ‘cause you do not want me in your head.”

That earned Spike a slight twitch of Xander’s lips, which seemed to satisfy both of them, and then Xander let himself lean into Spike as he was led away. They were heading toward the Summers’ house, just as Spike had warned, but even that didn’t dredge up any worry. It seemed this whole disconnect thing just got easier as it went along.

Part Seventeen

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