Anya shuddered as the door settled shut after Willow. She'd almost shrieked in a most undignified way when she'd looked up to see the redhead walking towards her purposefully. Not that dignity mattered at the moment, since her heart was still all sore from Giles stomping on it in that dim, polite English way he had of not noticing because he was too busy cleaning his glasses to see what was right in front of him, even when it was making him fistfuls of money and he was bringing it flowers like he really cared about it in ways other than as free labor to help him prepare his new house for his real girlfriend, who was not Anya.

Willow didn't look very good. It was the first time Anya'd seen her since that day at the Magic Box. The old Magic Box, of course-the ruined one the current shop rested upon. Willow had used Anya to free her from the energy cage Giles had placed her in, and then she had completed the very important work of destroying the shop and almost killing Giles. Anya knew why Willow hadn't concentrated more of her effort on Anya-she just wasn't important enough. Once she was unconscious, she didn't much matter. The others Willow was angry at; Anya was just a gnat, beneath her notice.

God, she was sick of being a gnat.

She was nothing to Willow. Nothing to Xander, in the end. Nothing to Giles, ever, no matter what she'd thought. She didn't care what they thought of her, any of them. Not really. It just hurt that it was so little. Not because she'd been their friend, and helped them again and again, and hadn't screamed like a madwoman when they told the 23,984 stories of their high school adventures, over and over and over again in a way designed to make anyone who was not them go insane. And it didn't bother her that Xander was supposed to love her and left her instead, and that Giles was more interesting in procuring a steady supply of Bovril than looking at what was right in front of him in stylish '40s-inspired work fashions and Golden Apricot hair with Sunny Blonde highlights.

What hurt was that she'd fallen for it, all of it, and she felt like a fool. She thought they meant it when they'd told her nice things, which wasn't often enough, and...and...she couldn't think of any other reason, but she had them. They just were not yet making themselves apparent.

God, who was she kidding? She'd been closer to Xander and the rest of them than she had been with anyone since she was first mortal a millennium before. They'd known her for years, seen her every day, lived with her. And at the end of the day they hadn't really cared about her at all. What did that say? Not about them. About her. They'd known her that well, and they didn't love her. They didn't even like her.

She wasn't someone people loved.

Furtively Anya wiped away a tear. She didn't know why she was being furtive; there were no customers in the shop, and she felt like she couldn't summon up a profit-increasing professional smile to save her soul. She didn't believe in closing the shop during regular business hours, but maybe it was time to admit defeat, go home, and examine her stock portfolio.

The thought of her portfolio didn't do anything for her at the moment, though, and that just made her feel worse.

God, was this really all there was to being human? Loving and getting hurt and feeling like garbage and then dying? "Being human is stupid," Anya muttered, wiping both cheeks with the heels of her hands.

Xander felt his heart contract. She'd forgotten she wasn't human. That was his girl.

"Anya," Xander said softly, laying his hand on her shoulder.

Anya jumped and shrieked. "My god, what are you trying to do? Scare me to death?" she exclaimed, using the movement to disguise the hasty blinking she was doing. Blinking because she had allergies, that was all. She'd told Xander often enough, he had to know.

"An-"

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she demanded.

"I wanted to see if you were-to see how you were," he answered. What could he say? That he knew that Giles wasn't interested in her, so he came to help pick up the pieces? Because even if she didn't want him, he didn't want her to sit there feeling like crap about herself? Because he wanted to make her feel better, even if it made him feel worse?

They were all true, even if he couldn't bring himself to say them.

He remembered a couple of years ago, the spell the four of them had cast to defeat Adam. Him and Willow and Buffy and Giles. They had come together and Buffy was the hand, the physical power. Giles was the mind, Willow was the spirit, and Xander was the heart. Together they were a whole; they made each other complete. They were fragmented now, and he didn't even have the courage to follow his own strength.

A moment, months before, seared its way to the front of his mind. Anya, standing in her wedding dress, in the doorway of the clubhouse, as he strode away in the rain. No umbrella, no raincoat. They didn't matter; he couldn't feel anything anyhow. He'd ruined his life, and ruined hers, because he didn't have the courage to stand up to his fears. That was the beginning, wasn't it? Everything had fallen apart after that. He'd become afraid and stepped back, and his life with Anya had fallen apart, and then everything around them fell like dominoes.

"It's my fault," he whispered.

Anya looked at him in puzzlement. "What? What's your fault?"

"All of it. Everything," he muttered, his eyes darting around blindly. It was insane, them being without each other. All of them. It wasn't right. It couldn't be supported. He couldn't let it go on.

"You deserve so much more," Xander suddenly said, looking right at her.

Anya looked at him warily. "I probably agree with you," she said gingerly. "But I'm still not sure what you're talking about."

"We need each other. You and I. You deserve to be treasured. And Buffy, and Dawn and Giles. And Willow. God, Willow."

"She's fine," said Anya crankily. "They're all fine. Giles is one step away from marriage and Buffy is all happy with Spike, and Willow seemed just fine to me, and except for the someone trying to kill Spike thing, everyone's fine except me. And possibly Dawn, I don't know about her. She's not stealing from here anymore, which is progress."

"What?"

"She's not taking Magic Shop merchandise without payment, which is a definite good thing. I don't think people give me a lot of credit, because-"

"What do you mean about Willow? When did you see her?"

Anya shook her head briefly, startled by the abrupt and inexplicable change of subject. "Earlier tonight-an hour or two ago," she said finally, glancing at the clock.

"What was she doing? She didn't try to buy any magic supplies, did she?" Xander asked, worry gathering on his face.

"No, she just wanted me to make a phone call for her. She said she couldn't do it herself."

It was irrational. There was no reason for him to start breathing faster. Stop it. Nothing's wrong. "Call who?" he asked carefully, trying to keep himself calm.

"Buffy. She said there was a Nosredna Laup demon in town, and that Buffy should be notified. And since they're really quite huge, unpleasant creatures, I had to agree."

"Why didn't she call herself?"

"She said it would be better if Buffy didn't know anything about her being the one to find out about it. I didn't see what difference it would make, but having her around my elixirs and herbs and amulets made me uneasy, so I agree in order to facilitate her departure."

Xander shook his head. "She's not supposed to be out and around," he muttered, mostly to himself.

"Why not?"

He blinked at Anya. "She's not ready to do more."

"How do you know?"

"She's tried. It usually ends with Buffy threatening to kill her, so staying in seems of the good."

"Why does Buffy threaten her?"

Xander looked at Anya, his eyes exhausted. He didn't want to discuss it any more. He couldn't stand to think of it. "You know why," he said tiredly.

"Just the trying to end the world thing? You and Gi-you still talk to her."

"Apparently I don't demand ridiculous standards from my friends."

Anya made a disapproving click with her tongue. "Most people would not consider refraining from global annihilation a ridiculous standard. Have you ever thought that you hang around with the wrong people?"

Xander shook his head. The conversation was rapidly getting out of hand. "Friends don't turn their backs on each other," he insisted. Anya just looked at him steadily, and he began to chafe under her examination. "What?" he said finally.

"I can't understand why you're so forgiving about one friend's reasonably good attempt to end the world and so inflexible on the matter of another friend's choice of boyfriend."

"That's different," he muttered.

"Well yes, of course it's different. In one scenario the world would have ceased to exist and in the other you'd be eating popcorn with someone you don't like on movie night. I don't think there's anyone who'd argue that those situations are similar in the least, at least not someone who hasn't consumed large quantities of one of the lesser intoxicants-possibly wood-grain alcohol."

Xander opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again. He was so tired of fighting with everyone. He just wanted his world, his friends back. He had his pride, and his standards, but they felt so cold after the warmth of the friendship between all of them. He'd learned from his parents to keep people at a distance once they'd hurt you, but the only thing that happened was that he was turning out just like them.

That was the thing he'd never wanted.

"Maybe you're right," he said softly.

He turned to leave, then turned back. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Anya nodded. She'd be fine. Xander, at least, was seeing the wisdom of her words. It felt good.

It was about time.

***

"You wouldn't believe what he the things he was asking," Spike ranted. "He wanted to know crap I didn't pay attention to even when it was happening, and then recount it in perfect detail."

Buffy rubbed his arm soothingly. "There, there," she crooned. "That's all over, and you won't have to do that again." He quieted down. "Until tomorrow."

"Oh, Christ," muttered Spike. "He seems to think that if he can't come up with a steady stream of the most absurd questions ever asked he's a failure as a Watcher. And then half the time he gives me a funny look, like he thinks I'm yanking his chain."

"Aren't you?" challenged Buffy.

"What?" Spike protested.

"I heard some of those questions, and I heard you tell him the demon who returned your soul was named Lou," Buffy pointed out dryly.

"It was Lloyd," Spike insisted. Buffy looked at him skeptically. "Well, I thought I heard someone call him Lloyd, but I was pretty out of it. I also thought I saw my old classics master serving tea and biscuits to a walrus, though, so I could be wrong."

"You think?" asked Buffy dryly.

"Okay, I didn't tell him about-" Ah, damn mouth!

"About?"

"About...." Come on, out with it, mate. "About the pain getting worse."

"Worse? When did they start getting worse?"

Spike attempted to shrug it off. "'While ago," he admitted.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded.

Spike ground his teeth. There was no answer that wouldn't get him in trouble, he knew. She'd had enough of her boyfriends pretending to be heroic manly men, and wouldn't want to hear him babble about not wanting to admit how poor he was feeling. And she sure wouldn't want him to tell her that he hadn't wanted to worry her. Actually, he was pretty sure he was screwed no matter what he said. Not in a good way, either.

"I...forgot?" he offered. She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I-didn't-want-to-upset-you-and-I-felt-bad-and-hoped-I-was-just-imagining-it," he mumbled in a rush, feeling the same way he had when his mum caught him in the corner of the pantry, shoveling jam into his mouth. Yeah, right nauseous then, too. "I'm telling you now," he pointed out hastily.

"Score one for finally coming clean," Buffy grumbled. "How much pain? Do you feel it right now?"

Spike shrugged. "Some."

"Some what?" Buffy said impatiently.

"Some pain, and I feel it most of the time. Not as much when I'm around you," he added, smiling at her ingratiatingly.

Ha! Thought he could flatter her a little and she'd be led off-track? He still had a lot to learn about her. "How bad's it gotten?"

Spike squirmed a little. "Pretty bad," he admitted. "One night I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it home. Thought maybe I'd ask Giles about it, see if he knew anything about what might cause it."

"That bad?" Buffy asked worriedly, touching his face. He turned his face into her palm, nuzzling it. She could feel him smile into it.

A year before, she would have jerked her hand away from the tender gesture. Now she wanted to fuss at him, make him go to bed-her bed-and stay there until she'd found what was hurting him and killed it.

A memory niggled at her, and she suddenly saw herself, painfully young, fighting Faith, desperate to heal Angel. What it is with people trying to kill my boyfriends? And who'd want to hurt Spike, anyway? He was a sociable guy, he had a lot of...well, not friends, really. More like poker buddies. Buddies might have been pushing it. Skeevy backroom acquaintances?

Yeah, he had plenty of those.

"So when was the last time you were in pain?" she asked.

"That would be...pretty much now," he admitted after a moment's reluctance. Pushy bint, she'd know if he lied.

"Now? I thought you said you didn't get them when you were around me?"

"Not usually," he muttered. Damned can of worms. "Guess tonight's a special occasion."

"Well, I'd like to know what you think you're-are you listening to me?" Buffy demanded, waving a hand in front of his face impatiently.

Spike was staring past her. "Jesus," he breathed. "Buffy, look out!"

***

Xander peered into the darkness at the edge of Sycamore Park and wished he'd thought to bring a flashlight. He'd parked his truck, because trying to find Buffy while driving would be useless, but without the headlights he could barely see a thing. And now he was becoming tense, for no reason. It was ridiculous. Willow had heard something bad was in town, and she'd made sure Buffy found out about it. It didn't mean a thing.

And it didn't mean a thing that she hadn't called him to handle it. It couldn't. But for some reason, the thought of Willow anonymously alerting Buffy disturbed him. Well, maybe disturbed was too intense a word.

No, it really wasn't.

Willow was calm now. Stable. She was the one who talked him out of dusting Spike. She soothed him about Buffy. There was no reason to think she'd do anything-anything more than slip away alone without letting him know, trying to catch a glimpse of Buffy, and apparently keeping an ear to the ground with god knows what supernatural sources to let her know scary monsters were in town.

Of course, she wasn't supposed to have supernatural sources anymore.

Jesus, where was she? Where-"Buffy!" Xander half-shouted, hastening towards her. Her clothes were torn, her face expressionless. Not like Buffy.

No, like Buffy, but the Buffy she'd been after she came back. Not the real Buffy.

She glanced up at his shout. "Is everything okay? Is it Dawn?" she asked, starting to tense.

"She's fine," Xander said automatically. He hadn't seen Dawn in weeks, he had no idea how she was. "You're-are you all right?"

"What? Yeah, I'm fine," Buffy replied, puzzled. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Xander flushed. What could he say? Hey, I know we're not talking and everything, but Anya happened to mention that Willow had her send you looking for some big monster, and I thought we could talk and then I had this sudden irrational fear?

"Anya told me that..." He paused for a moment. Finally he said, "That you were after some big monster, and I just wanted to make sure you're okay. That's all."

Buffy studied him. Xander had always been a good friend-except for the whole can't-keep-his-nose-out-of-her-love-life-but he hadn't really gone patrolling with her in a long time. Why would he? She could handle the big beasties on her own. And they all had their own lives to lead, right? They didn't have to babysit her, or help her, or check up on her, or do anything. She was the chosen one, not them. They didn't have that responsibility.

"What?"

"What?" Buffy repeated blankly.

"What responsibility?"

Buffy flushed. "I didn't mean to say that," she muttered. "You have your own life. That's how it's supposed to be."

He stared at her. "What if I don't want my own life?" he asked after a moment.

"What?"

"Buffy, it's been my life, too. For years now, it's been my life. And Giles', and Willow's. Not just yours."

Buffy looked at Xander cautiously. "You don't have to-"

"I want to. I know you were called, but the rest of us volunteered," Xander noted with a trace of his customary humor. "But before we wanted to help you fight, we wanted to be your friend."

The sudden hope in her eyes made him bitterly hate the way they constantly communicated around and over each other, but had so seldom connected in the last few years. He remembered the last time that had happened, in her garden, right before that maniac had shot her and Tara. The time before that...he struggled to think for a moment. Back after Riley had left? When he'd told her that Riley was the long haul guy for her, and she wasn't treating him right?

Dammit.

She would have weathered it. She always did. But he'd seen Riley as like him, somehow, a normal guy in a Buffy-verse of vampires and demons and superheroes, and empathized more with him than with his own friend. He was wrong. Riley wasn't his stand-in, and Buffy couldn't live her life to go along with whatever freaky standard he'd learned from his parents. He had to trust her. He had to because he loved her, and he'd rather have her here, with a man...pire he loathed, rather than where she'd been before he and Anya and Willow and Tara had performed their spell on the edge of town. He trusted her already. He trusted her with his life.

It was time he trusted her with her with her heart.

"Can I walk with you?" he asked her quietly. She studied him for a moment, then nodded.

They walked towards Revello slowly. They were heading home.

And that's how it felt.

***

He hurt like a son of a bitch. Wasn't that stupid demon-he'd been a weak sister; talk about your false advertising-it was the damn pain in his gut, all steady now that he was away from the Slayer and whatever magical hoodoo she had that kept him feeling good. Well, better.

Spike slowed as he reached his crypt. He'd thought a couple of times about the crystal he'd gotten from Anya. She'd said it would help, and he'd tossed it away, not wanting the Slayer to see him look vulnerable.

Which was stupid, since she'd seen him cry a bunch of times. If he wasn't hell on wheels in bed she might have gotten the wrong idea about him, thought he was some kind of nancyboy. But they'd been finding their footing, and he hadn't wanted to look bad, or like he was trying to gain her sympathy.

It wasn't really fair, was it? He hadn't even given the crystal a chance. Nothing wrong with giving it a good try. He owed it to Anya, really. She hadn't even charged him.

Anya's crystal had to be around her somewhere, right? He'd dropped it right about...here, Spike thought, shoving the dead leaves aside and finding exactly nothing. Which he'd normally think was just his luck, but since he was going home to his goddess afterward, his luck seemed to have changed. Except for an anonymous asshole trying to painfully kill him, of course. That was his old luck down to a tee.

Didn't matter about the crystal, really. He'd never believe that a bit of colored glass could keep a person well; that was the sort of rot Drusilla always held with, and what did it get her? Whatever she wants, mate, when she finds herself a sap willing to string the world up when she twitches her hand.

Well, that wasn't him now. Thank god. He gave the leaves a last, desultory kick and opened the door to his crypt. The crystal may not have been able to help, but it wouldn't have hurt. Right? And it wasn't like-

Fuck.

Someone had been there, in the crypt. And they'd left a package that couldn't be mistaken for something forgotten in a corner or under a chair. Instead, it was thrown negligently atop the bier on which he slept, taunting him.

He approached it warily. A burlap sack, faintly damp, as if it had been dragged in the night-dewed grass. He didn't like the feeling he was getting from it, but that was a little ephemeral, even for someone who'd lived with Drusilla. He didn't like the smell-that was concrete enough for anyone, wasn't it?

He pulled open the neck of the bag and jerked back in disgust. It was a cat, or what had once been a cat, when it had been in one piece. And he didn't have to sniff the soiled burlap to tell who'd left it. Her scent was all over the crypt.

Dawn.

 





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