Sometimes he felt as if he would break from the strain of it. Like he was bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders-he'd never understood the saying before, but now it made perfect sense. He didn't think he could manage another minute of it, but he went on the same as always. He didn't have a choice.

When he left Anya, he'd felt terrible. Actually, felt wasn't exactly the right word; he was pretty numb at the time. Just certain that what he was doing was the right thing for both of them. The safe thing. The only thing. Which went to show how much he knew.

Pretty much par for the course. He was just surprised that he wasn't back in the basement. It was his natural home, wasn't it? He'd gotten out of it only with Anya's help. He felt that at any moment he might slide right back into it. De-evolution in progress.

It was only with her that he had gotten a steady job, one that didn't involved bartending or delivering pizza. Or worse. The substitute male dancer gig in Oxnard had been worse. Just being in Oxnard made it worse. He'd started going out with Anya, and suddenly he'd found a job. A career. Fine, it wasn't sophisticated; being a construction worker didn't impress anyone. But he had a good job, with responsibility, and was in charge of men with more age and experience. He told them what to do and they did it.

He wondered that it hadn't disappeared along with Anya.

She hadn't disappeared, of course. She was right there at the Magic Box. The whole place had been rebuilt. He'd gotten Giles to suggest that Xander be the one to do the repairs. He would have done it free, but Anya refused. Through Giles, she refused. She said she'd rather get someone who knew how to see a job through to the end.

It was for the best, really. He had enough on his plate, more than enough. Willow was back from that place and staying with him, and it was his job to make her feel better. His most important job, even more than supervising his crew or patching things up with Anya. Besides, patching kind of implied there was something left to stitch together. Anya had made it plain to him that there wasn't. He hadn't even been back to the shop after it was rebuilt. It had been his second home for two years, but now he didn't even know what it looked like inside.

He knew he wasn't wanted there.

But Will did want him with her. She needed him. Tara was gone. Oz was gone. For all intents and purposes, Buffy was gone, at least as far as Willow was concerned. She never asked Xander about Will, never let him mention her name. He'd tried often enough, when Willow was first in that place and desperate to make amends with Buffy. When she'd cried every time Xander visited and she saw Buffy wasn't with him.

Absently Xander grabbed a bottle of dish detergent from the drugstore shelf and dropped it into his shopping cart. He used to eat lunch with the guys at the site, but since Willow had come to live with him he'd taken to running errands at lunchtime. It would have been easier, really, to do it on the way home from work, but she spent enough time alone as it was. He could have taken Willow with him, but he didn't think she was that comfortable around people yet. He understood.

He understood, too, why Buffy was angry. He'd been there, he'd heard what Willow said to Buffy in the Magic Box. In the Magic Box, when she looked at Buffy and decided that she wanted to beat Buffy to death. It still frightened him. Will, his oldest friend. He loved her, she was more necessary to him than water. Than Anya. He had to know she was well. And standing there, her skin drained of color like a corpse-like a vampire-and her hair a dull black, she was nothing like the friend he loved. She looked at everyone she loved and decided to kill them because she was suffering.

And that wasn't Willow. He knew her better than anything in the world. More than Marvel Comics minutiae, more than how to carve a good stake, more than the music of Patsy Cline, which he'd had plenty of opportunity to appreciate over the last few forevers.

So he understood why Buffy was upset with Willow. He was, too. But he forgave. She'd been driven mad, and she'd broken. She was trying to get better now, and Buffy was not helping. Not being a friend.

What did it take with Buffy? Hadn't they forgiven her everything she'd done? All the times they'd nearly died because of her...or her boyfriend? Hey, boyfriends, now. Her and her homicidal honeys.

It had only been a few weeks before Warren shot Buffy and Tara, and everything got so bad, that she'd laid them out in her basement, trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys, and released a monster against them. Against them, her closest friends. Her own sister.

But he hadn't been there. She hadn't wanted him to die. Sure, they loved her. They made excuses for her attempt to murder them. She was under the influence of a mind-altering chemical. It wasn't her. But she hadn't wanted him to die. She'd been lucid enough for that. Enough to make an exception for him.

Of course, at the time Xander hadn't thought it was an exception. Why the hell would Spike be included? He didn't rate high enough for Buffy to consider him a hindrance to her imaginary life. He was just a pest. An annoyance. Sometimes he was useful muscle.

Xander hadn't realized just how true that was.

It hadn't been a one-time thing, she'd told him later. He wanted an explanation-a justification-but at the same time he didn't want to know any of it. He shouldn't have to hear it. It should never have happened. What had happened to her? She wasn't the same girl any more. The vivacious, quippy girl who'd turned away from the popular crowd to befriend him and Will. He couldn't remember the last time she'd been that girl.

When Willow had insisted they bring Buffy back, she said she knew exactly what to do. That Buffy would be herself. Happy. Happy and alive. But Willow was wrong, it was obvious from the start. Buffy came back all silent, her eyes unfocused and disinterested. And then getting involved with Spike....

That had ended about as well as could be expected, what with Spike being a monster and all. Attacked Buffy in her own house, tried to rape her, and then fled to god knows where. Too cowardly to face up to his actions. And he had mocked Xander for leaving Anya? Well, he'd left Anya for her own good. If Spike ever did anything unselfish the world would start turning backwards.

He didn't have to worry about Spike, though. He was gone. He was smart enough to realize he'd gone too far and that Buffy would stake him if he came back to town. And obviously he wanted to live more than he wanted Buffy. He was a demon. It was the only way he could be. It was impossible to go against nature.

Waiting in the checkout line, Xander glanced at the contents of his cart. It looked like he'd gotten everything they needed, but he'd forgotten to write a list. Maybe he'd ask Willow to write one next time, but she'd probably say she want to go, too. But she didn't, really, she'd just say it to make him feel better. So he wouldn't worry about her as much.

Buffy was back on track now. She had re-enrolled in college and gotten a better job, a job with a future. She was rid of Spike, thank god. She was making the house more her own, re-doing her mom's old room.

Which was necessary, of course. They'd both scrubbed the carpet more than once, but the blood stains wouldn't come out. Tara's blood, seared into the room in which she'd lived for such a short time.

It would be Buffy's room now. New carpet, new paint. She'd sold her mother's old bedroom set and new furniture was going to be delivered. She was moving out of her little girl room. It was a step forward. She was making a claim on adulthood.

But she was making it in the place that Willow should have been. Where she should would have felt comfortable and safe, in the room she had shared with her lover, with her closest friend in the next room and the girl she loved like a little sister down the hall.

That's where Willow should have gone after she left Goldenbrook, not to him. What did he know about taking care of somebody? Buffy had met his parents, she had to realize he didn't know how to do that. It went against everything he'd learned while growing up. He'd learned to destroy, not nurture. Everything he didn't ruin was an accident. He'd driven away the woman he loved, thrown her away. He couldn't heal anybody, even himself. Buffy and Willow had been inseparable for so long, and now Willow was just another taboo subject, like Angel and Riley.

"Buffy roadkill," he muttered. The checkout clerk looked at him curiously. Xander just averted his eyes and thrust some money at him. What could he say?

He hated himself for even thinking such a thing about Buffy. She'd given more than anyone ever would. Ever could. But he wondered again where that light-hearted girl had gone. She'd made everything better, and they all needed that now, more than ever.

***

Willow surveyed the pile of neatly folded towels and socks with satisfaction. She liked doing things like this, they made her feel normal. She wanted to get back to normal.

Willow laid the last folded dish towel on top and began putting things away. She knew where everything was; she'd rearranged most of the kitchen cabinets and all of the drawers since moving in with Xander. She needed something to do, and he seemed to just want her to sit in the couch all day, frozen in the position she'd been in when he left for work. She was ready to do things, all sorts of things. He just didn't realize it yet.

The Watcher's Council, of all things, had taken care of her. Placed a psychiatrist at Goldenbrook to help her. Not because they cared, of course, but because they were worried. A major supernatural threat that even the Slayer was helpless against must be dealt with. Contained. Neutralized.

After months of treatment the doctor was satisfied. She was soothed in mind and body. There was nothing left in her to cause the council concern; the magic had been burned out of her somehow, propelled by the dosing Giles had given her. She was cured.

The sessions with the Council's doctor had been interesting-at least once she had recovered enough to actually realize what was going on. She told him about her life. Her feelings of helplessness as a child and young teen, when her mother was sweet but disinterested and her father merely disinterested. Willow had actually preferred to spend her days at Xander's, which had to be the first sign of incipient insanity. She told the psychiatrist about her early forays into magic, holding nothing back. How the spirit of that gypsy woman had possessed her and she was able to restore Angel's soul.

How she'd never really felt like herself since.

It had been only a few months after that when she started behaving peculiarly. Cheating on her adored boyfriend with an close friend. Spending less time working on the computer and more time on her magic. Experimenting with a coven. She didn't even make valedictorian. And then the sudden attraction to Tara. She felt compelled, barely able to make her own decisions. The intense shot of magic Giles had given her had somehow brought her back to herself, cast out those strange impulses. They weren't bad, necessarily, but they weren't her.

The psychiatrist had been delighted.

Two weeks later, Willow had been released. The doctor flew back to England, planning how best to tell the Council of his great success. They would no doubt be very pleased.

She didn't care if they were pleased. Willow loathed the Council, had ever since Buffy and Joyce were nearly killed during the Cruciamentum, when the Council had weakened Buffy and then set her against a crazed vampire. And when they came back, while Glory was looking for Dawn, they'd made Buffy jump through hoops just to tell her that Glory was a god-she hated them. They were smug. They were useless.

But the really terrifying part was how easy they were to fool.

They thought some dead gypsy made her do things? She made her own decisions. She'd told the doctor what he wanted to hear in order to get out of there. Her heart had been broken, but her mind was intact. She didn't belong there. They couldn't fix anything.

She was the only one who could do that, and she'd already set her plan in motion.

***

She didn't even know why she was friends with Janice. Dawn wasn't especially trying to stay out of mischief, but Janice...sometimes being with her was like sticking your hand in a blender. She had "trouble" tattooed on her forehead.

Actually, she had "trubble" tattooed on her forehead, because she thought it was funny that way. Also, it was on her hip, not her forehead. But the point stood.

For years Dawn had been in the habit of being her friend, and tried reflexively to impress her. Janice wanted to do this? They did it. Dawn usually did it more. Their friendship was more about Janice than it was about Dawn, and it was the only way she was really able to get her part in-the alternative being to simply listen and agree and be the number two in the friendship. More the number two than she was already. She'd been number two all her life, and she didn't want to be it any more than necessary. There really wasn't much to recommend the position.

But this afternoon, they'd met up with the two skankiest guys Dawn had ever seen, and Janice nudged her like that was a good thing. Look, Dawn! Yellow teeth! And holes in their jeans that showed they weren't wearing underwear. Dawn really would have preferred living with the delusion, thank you. And then Dawn thought: hey, Janice is the one who set us up with vampires. And then never even apologized about it. Dawn was supposed to apologize if she opened her mouth while Janice was going on about her new shade of nail polish, but the whole nearly-getting-Dawn-killed thing? Not apology-worthy.

When she thought that, it was suddenly, whoosh! She didn't want to impress Janice anymore. In fact, she didn't even want to speak with Janice again. Her mom was nice, but Janice was a creep. A little second-hand mom time here and there wasn't enough to make hanging around Janice worth it. Although maybe she could call if she felt bad, or something. Just to say hi.

To Janice's mom, that is.

She had to get her mom-ishness where she could. Buffy was all absorbed in...Buffy, and Dawn couldn't even remember the last time someone had kissed her cheek. Which was stupid, because she was too old for that anyway. But sometimes it was nice for someone to kiss you goodnight, to feel your forehead if you had a stuffy nose and hug you extra-hard when you were blue.

Buffy was better at arm-patting.

What had Buffy meant, anyway-"I want to show you the world"? It sounded like some made-for-Lifetime movie, one she wouldn't watch even if her only other choice was homework. Oh course, it didn't mean any more than Buffy's other big-time pronouncements. How many times had Buffy given her that I'm-better-and-everything's-going-to-be-fine-now spiel? Six or seven times, at least. Didn't mean a thing.

Dawn had stopped paying attention after number four.

Still, things were a little better than last year. Buffy had started making dinner regularly, and although she was a pretty bad cook, it was still better than anything Dawn could make, plus the benefit of her not having to make it. Actually, Dawn could tell that Buffy was trying, although she wasn't good at it. Buffy had bought her new school supplies on her way home from work, but that kind of pissed Dawn off, since she would have liked a say in the selection, thanks. Last year Spike had taken her, and let her get whatever she wanted. He'd paid for it, not shoplifted, which surprised her.

Humming, Dawn moved to her bureau and opened the bottom drawer, pushing aside her seldom-used mittens and knitted winter hat. She didn't know why she was even keeping them, they just took up valuable drawer space. She had other stuff she needed to keep tucked out of sight.

Beneath the winter gear, that's what she wanted. She pulled out the folded towel and carried it over to her bed, unfolding it carefully. Didn't want to damage it.

She smiled as she unwrapped the scarf inside to study the jumble of bones. Had Spike even noticed it was gone? Maybe he was drinking too much to see straight-there were bottles everywhere in his crypt. But he couldn't stay drunk forever. He'd sober up some time.

And then when he was sober...that's when he'd start to feel it. It might not bother him too much yet, but it would get worse. Dawn knew exactly how to make him suffer.

The bag of bones? Maybe it would upset him. But he'd realize soon enough that it was only the beginning.

 





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