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Better Together

Better Together

December 2, 2000

Xander opened the door to a trio of mismatched party hats. Looking into the shame-filled faces to which they were attached, he did what anyone would do the morning after a forgotten birthday. He opened his mouth to offer a stinging, day-late, cake-short rebuttal. Unfortunately, that simply allowed the straw from the beer-hat he was wearing to plop onto his chest and bleed his t-shirt into a deeper shade of orange.

“We suck,” Willow muttered, a brightly polka-dotted gift bag held in front of her as a shield.

Dawn nodded to the straw dangling from above Xander’s ear to his mid-chest. “Looks like you do, too. And isn’t that the hat Willow gave Mom? But hey, Kool-Aid!”

Xander shook his head and pointed to the beer hat. “Fierce Melon. Gatorade was having a new flavor giveaway. And Will said Joyce wouldn’t be needing the hat for a while, so…” He nodded toward the discreet, brown paper packages in Buffy’s hands. “Whatcha got there?”

Buffy tilted her head and her Pocahontas party hat listed to the right. “Presents. For you. If you want ‘em?”

Xander grinned slightly. “Pretty sure my birthday was yesterday…”

Dawn shrugged, her Barbie Princess party hat worn sideways on her head and pointing toward Willow like an arrow. “It’s cool. It is yesterday – Willow bent time.”

Xander’s eyes widened.

Buffy’s eyes rolled. “She’s totally kidding.” Buffy shifted uncomfortably. “Right, Will?”

Willow shook her head and looked at Xander. “So…despite the Sixteen Candles treatment…can we come in?”

Buffy swallowed. “Xander, we’re so sorry. It’s just that with everything…Mom and the surgery and Glory and the…” she gestured helplessly.

“Killer snot demon,” Xander supplied.

“Yeah,” she said quietly. “We just sort of overlooked, and I know how bad that sounds, but…”

“Buff,” Xander said, reaching for her arm. “It was nothing. Really. Joyce was the first and last thing on all of our minds yesterday.”

Buffy smiled at him gratefully, and Xander stepped back, waving them into the apartment. He lightly popped the chin strap on Willow’s Care Bears party hat as she edged past him. “Not that I didn’t hint, though.”

“When?” she asked, retaliating with a quick yank on his beer-hat straw. “When you were running manfully away from meteor-induced sterility or setting up Giles to say ‘killer snot demon from outer space’?”

“Hello?” he asked as he slipped the beer-hat off of his head and set it on the table. “Calling the Queller demon’s Kal-El pod a festive piņata of evil candy? What was that, if not a sharp and pointy-stake of ‘You say it’s your birthday, nah-nah-nah-nah’?”

Willow struggled her large gift-bag into an upright position on the coffee table and dropped down on the couch next to Dawn. “I thought that was just you being you.” She shrugged. “You know.” Her head perked up and she looked around the living room. “No Anya?”

Xander shook his head. “She’s at her place tonight, uh, working on a project.” He turned quickly to Buffy. “No Riley?”

Buffy smiled crookedly and hugged her packages to her chest. “No answer. And no Giles, either. He said he’d sit with Mom while we were…”

Xander watched Buffy’s face darken and he smiled the smile of the desperate, clapping his hands together. “Making the merry! Which is probably for the best, since he’d only get that ‘another year older for them, another day closer to death for me,’ look on his face. Although, gotta say, really sorry we’re missing out on him in what would no doubt be a Rainbow Brite party hat of hilarity. What’s with the un-mixy themes, guys?”

Buffy straightened Pocahontas’s teepee on her head. “These are the fruits of Dawn’s many birthday parties, carefully saved by Mom in a moldy box in the basement. There was just one of each…”

“’Cause they were the fruits you wouldn’t wear at any of my parties,” Dawn glowered at her.

“…hence the slightly bent and crooked,” Buffy breezed over Dawn. She reached into Willow’s gift bag and turned back to Xander, tiptoeing up to slide his hat into place. “You lucked out - Blues Clues.”

“Ah,” Xander said, swallowing around the chin strap tightened by slayer-strength. “Yes, ‘cause let’s protect my manliness at all cost.”

Willow smiled up at him. “Let the party be started!” She glanced over at Dawn and then Buffy. “Sorry that we’re the whole delegation. Tara had a paper due, and we’d already been up all night with the snot-demon research…”

“It’s cool, Will, really,” Xander said as he dropped an arm around Buffy’s shoulder. “This works – just me and my girls. Old school, I think the kids call it.”

“Yeah, I’d so never say that,” Dawn grinned. “But it is kinda like that one birthday after you and Cordelia broke up and the three of us were the only ones still talking to you.” She looked down at her hands. “Except Mom made cake.”

Buffy seemed to shiver at that and Xander looked at her questioningly. She shook her head and then bit her lip in a half-smile. “Which, uh, we don’t have but…” she opened one of the packages in her hands. “If you squint, they’re like tiny, crunchy, individual cakes?”

Xander’s mouth fell open. “Cadbury Dark Chocolate Almond.”

Buffy nodded. “That would be the Giles part.”

Xander was too busy unwrapping and chewing to answer.

Buffy rattled the next package. “And what goes better with imported chocolate than cheap wine?”

Xander grinned at the bottle she shook at him. “Two-buck Chuck, my old friend.” He dipped his head. “But, ah, unless Willow bent time the other way, kinda think the twenty-first birthday’s still a year off for most of the people in this room.”

“And then there’s the thing where it’s a couple of years past that for Riley,” Dawn said. She sat up and reached for one of Xander’s chocolates. “Good thing Buffy’s still into to older guys. And that a sip totally buys my silence.”

Xander reached for the beer-hat and plopped it onto Dawn’s head. “Then here you go – hydratey goddness. Knock yourself out.”

Dawn blushed as Xander’s fingers brushed her chin. “Yeah, like I’d use the straw after you.”

Buffy reached for the right side of the beer-hat and popped the second straw into Dawn’s mouth. “Good thing there’s two.”

Willow broke the Cadbury into pieces and passed them around on napkins. “So where’s Anya, again? What kind of project’s worth missing your after-birthday snuggles?” She rustled the napkins nervously. “Not that other people didn’t miss that. The, uh, birthday, not the snuggles. Well, there could be platonic snuggles…”

Xander fidgeted. “Oh, she didn’t miss the birthday; it’s just that her present ran a little late. Something about the trim on the Bo Beep costume, and how there could maybe be a shepherd...” He laughed loudly. “Nevermind. She’s overboard with the presents, okay? I mean, just finding out about presents, and that there’s Christmas and birthday in the same month…”

Willow shook her head. “See, I don’t get that. She’s been around for like a 1000 years and yet gift giving and getting is this whole new thing?”

Xander shrugged. “So many eviscerations…so little time. Speaking of presents?”

“Ooo,” Dawn said, reaching for her gift bag. “Mine first.”

Xander tore into the gift and lifted out a plush stuffed Eeyore. He lifted a brow. “You know, I sorta knew the Blues Clues thing was gonna be the first and last nod toward my manliness tonight…”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “He is blue, that’s a boy thing, right? And, you know, he reminds me of you.”

Xander nodded. “Uh-huh. Well, you see I get that, ‘cause we both get our tails handed to us with a push-pin on a regular basis…”

“Yet, like tortured Sisyphus, you both soldier on and rebuild again, time after time,” Willow said with a smile. She shook her head at their blank looks. “You don’t even have to say it, I kinda out-nerded myself there.” Her grin widened. “And I haven’t been a nerd for a very long time! Hello, dating a hot chick?”

Xander gave Eeyore a squeeze and smiled at Dawn. “Thanks, Dawnie, and I’m sure Eyeore and I will find we have lots in common.” He lifted the stuffed animal to his face and spoke for him, lowering his voice morosely. “Oh, Bird!”

Dawn frowned at him. “That’s Snuffleupagus. Eyeore’s, ‘Oh, Pooh!’”

Xander glanced down at the stuffed animal. “Oh. Pooh. Well, I’m behind on my Disney Channel. You know, Anya. Snot-demons. Not jointly.”

“Here,” Willow said as she pushed her somewhat emptied yet still unwieldy gift bag toward him. “I think your references are fresher on this one.”

Xander tipped over the bag and a bright red fire engine rolled out. He reached a hand toward it and lifted the little white plastic ladder on the side and then had to blink hard a couple of times.

Willow reached out and pressed the red light on top, causing it to flash and setting off a tinny siren. “Yeah, I know, kinda cheesy and twenty’s a little late for all the kid stuff but…Buffy brought wine!”

Xander covered her hand with his. “Thanks, Will.”

“And this is me,” Buffy said, handing him a paper-towel wrapped square. “Sorry about the wrapping paper, but, hey, it’s BrawnyTM.”

“The most mustachioed of paper towels,” Xander nodded. He tore open the paper covering a buffed wooden frame and then turned it over to reveal a black and white photograph of himself with Buffy and Willow curved on either side of him.

“Buffy…” he said quietly.

She brushed her hair behind her ear and looked away from him. “Yeah, I know it’s re-gifted, but at least I took it out of the dancing ballerina picture frame.” She knocked on the side of the picture. “Manly. Strong like oak. ‘Cause it is.”

“Thanks, Buff,” he said, giving her a hug. “I know just where to put it.”

“Not under that poster of Heather Locklear,” Willow said around a mouth of Cadbury.

“Yeah, Anya already took that down,” Xander said as he reached past her to prop the frame against the sofa lamp. “Besides, my girls are living room material.”

Dawn frowned as she scrutinized the photograph. “How come I’m not in that picture?”

“It was a school day,” Buffy said quickly.

Dawn frowned harder and Willow and Xander turned confused looks toward Buffy. “It looks like it was taken in our backyard, so how come…” Dawn began.

“I don’t know!” Buffy said sharply. “I don’t know why there are some things…” She stopped abruptly and then lowered her voice. “I just don’t know, Dawn,” she said as she hurried into the kitchen with the bottle of wine and started banging open cabinet doors.

Xander frowned thoughtfully and then turned and followed after Buffy.

“Hey,” he said softly as he eased up behind her to rub her shoulders lightly. “You okay?”

Buffy’s head dropped forward and she concentrated on pouring wine into the few coffee mugs she’d found. “I’m fine. Mom’s out of the woods and everything’s fine. The doctors said she’d make a full recovery, so I get to stop being the mom and get to be a kid again and go back to living my own life.” She turned around to face him. “Of course, my life is demons and what-the-hell Glory is and protecting Mom from the non-tumor evil and protecting Dawn from everything else, but hey, that’s life…”

“Buffy,” Xander interrupted quietly.

Buffy looked up at him, her lips thin and tight, her eyes wide and forcing back tears. “What?”

Xander reached behind her and picked up a Batman mug of strawberry wine and pressed it into her hand. “Be a kid.”

Buffy laughed shakily into the mug as she took a cautious sip. “Mmm. Fresh.” She peered at the bottle. “Doesn’t list a year, though.”

Xander shrugged and took the bottle from her, sniffing the twist-off cap delicately. “I’m guessing 2000 – a good year.”

“Yeah,” Buffy grinned. “With you turning double digits and everything.”

Xander frowned. “Uh, math's not my thing, but pretty sure there’s two digits in 19, as well. Not to mention that your birthday’s in just a few weeks…people in glass houses…”

“As opposed to people with no glasses in their houses,” she said, frowning at what passed for his stemware. “I think we should have gone practical with the presents.”

“They’re practically awesome,” Xander said with a wave his hand. “Few more glasses of this, and we’ll be giving Eyeore rides on the fire engine. You know, kid’s stuff.” They grinned at each other over a couple more sips of wine. “You sure that was it, though? Same old same – worries about vamps and your mom and ways to add an s to apocalypse without lisping?”

Buffy looked down at her mug. “Xander…” she took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to…I mean, I don’t know if I can, or if I’m even supposed to, but there’s no one else I can tell, and I mean, I trust you…”

Xander watched patiently as Buffy looked past him to the living room where Willow and Dawn giggled as they drank out of both sides of the beer-hat. She turned back to face him and met his eyes steadily as she spoke. “About Dawn.”

Xander shrugged lightly. “What about Dawn? You know I’m totally stonewalling her if she asks me for wine, right? I can be strong, even if she begs. She’s your kid sister, you know? Which means I sorta inherited her, too,” he grinned.

Buffy looked at him for a moment and then smiled shakily. “Yeah. I know. What’s mine is yours. Lucky you.” She took a deep breath and shook her head, and then her smile became a real one. “And that’s the thing. Can she literally be yours tonight? Mom’s still gonna be in the hospital for a while, and Riley and I seem to keep just missing each other, and we really need some time together. So, Happy Birthday - it's a girl! I kinda hoped maybe you and Anya could Dawn-sit while we…?”

“Say no more,” Xander said, steering her toward the living room. “Especially if you were going to use any mention of you and Riley dressed as a shepherd or Little Bo Beep.” He coughed. “Yeah, that’s a thing. I’ll get past it. And don’t worry,” he said, knocking his shoulder against hers. “I’ll totally play it to her like Anya and I are just wanting some Dawnster time.”

Xander started across the room to hand Willow a Spiderman mug and then turned back to Buffy with a lifted brow. “All better now?”

Buffy smiled at him and then looked at the bottle in her hands and took a deep swallow. “Yeah,” she said softly as she watched Xander squeeze in between Willow and Dawn and reclaim the beer-hat. “Better together.”


A/N: Includes some dialogue references to "Listening to Fear" and "Doomed". Cheap wine, dark chocolate, Eeyore and the Jack Johnson lyric title due to the fact that they're in Adis723's favorites, along with many old school friends inside jokes. The beer-hat's from Tiny Jewish Santa to Joyce in "Listening to Fear." The shepherd thing is from "Blood Ties." 'Tortured Sisyphus' is from the wikipedia page on Eeyore. Really.


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