Buffy was fast. She knew that. Somewhere in the rational part of her brain, she knew that.
But as she raced up the stairs and down the hall, she had the sensation, inescapable and taunting, that she was moving too slowly. She could see herself, as if outside of her body, moving in slow motion, her footfalls a sluggish percussion. The hallway seemed to stretch on forever like a funhouse illusion, Giles's room becoming more distant with every step. Distantly she heard herself breathe—was she gasping for air?—as she pushed herself down the corridor. As the door came closer, finally, impossibly, she realized she had no weapon. It didn't matter. She didn't need one.
She threw the door open, not knowing which of the men she loved she'd have to battle.
"—is not irony," Giles said testily.
"Close enough for me," Spike dismissed, not looking up from his magazine.
"No doubt," muttered Giles, looking disgruntled. He caught sight of her in the doorway, and the expression of relief on his face was cartoonish. "Buffy? Oh, thank god. I've had quite enough of Spike for the day."
Buffy leaned against the wall, giddy with relief. When her brain started working again, she'd be upset with Willow. Probably.
"Don't think you're such a prize, Rupert. Wouldn't be up here if the Slayer didn't know how to sweeten the pot. First, she—"
"That's quite enough, thank you," Giles said hurriedly.
There was the pounding of footsteps in the hall, and the others crowded in the doorway. The lack of gore seemed to reassure them.
"So now what?" Buffy asked Willow. "'Cause they both seem very un-Firsty."
Willow peered at the two Englishmen. "Okay, maybe not everything's going according to plan, but it worked, I know it! That box may not have slammed shut on it, but something did, I can feel it. The First is contained—we just have to find out where."
"So—ooo….?" Xander prodded.
"Oh! I know just the spell for this!" Willow exclaimed. Behind her someone groaned, but in the interest of harmony she pretended she hadn't heard it.
"Anybody else have an idea?" prompted Cordelia.
"No, it's good! Anya and I did it last year when everybody was invisible. Well, I was invisible too. Well, we were all invisible at different times. I mean, at the same time, but just to each other. Umm, I guess it's hard to explain. It was like—"
"Wait, the rest of you were invisible, not just Buffy? They invisi-rayed people without me?" Andrew demanded, his voice rising in distress as he contemplated the possibility of his former cohorts creating mischief without him.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Nobody was really invisible this time, we just couldn't see each other. And I lost control of my body, and Anya kept posing me like a giant Barbie or something, and finally—"
Cordy wasn't listening. She wasn't even looking at Willow anymore, or Dawn.
She was looking at Xander.
They didn't notice when Xander left the group. Did they ever? wondered Cordelia. The others followed Willow down to the living room as she yammered about spells—Great choice, guys! Awesome track record!—and Xander slipped away, silent as a ghost. Drifted off to his room, the one he shared with his dead girlfriend. One day he'd go in there and just never come out.
"No, I didn't know. There was no way I could—sorry. I'm sorry. I just didn't—"
He didn't hear Cordelia open the door and step inside, too busy apologizing to a memory.
"She's not there, Xander. Nobody's there."
Xander turned to look at her, anguish on his face.
She'd tried. She'd tried to believe it was a ghost, that it was anything but what it was. She knew what ghosts were. She'd lived with one; one had done its best to kill her. She'd helped Angel and the others exorcise spirits. And what was haunting Xander was no ghost. Cordelia was too intimately acquainted with death to believe that. She'd spent too much time in the shadow world between life and death to be that naïve.
"Yes, she is. She's right there, same as always," he returned, his voice hopeless.
"She's nothing. She's an illusion—delusion," corrected Cordelia.
"Are you going to let her talk about me that way?" demanded Anya, hands on her hips and outrage on her face. "I shouldn't even be surprised, should I? Typical."
"She's dead and gone. She can't do anything to you if you don't let her."
"She's right there," he repeated.
Cordy was silent a long moment. She couldn't do this for Xander. No one could do it except him. "What does she want?"
Xander dropped his eyes, staring at the carpet. "She never tells me."
"To punish me. Why else?"
"Why would she want to punish you?"
"For ruining her life. For lying to her. For humiliating her in front of all her friends and my family and everybody, and making people pity her, and leaving her there in her wedding dress to explain it all to everybody by herself. I should have done it, I should have done it. She'd still be here if I had."
"That's completely true," Anya assured him from her favorite spot in the corner. "I'm glad you finally realize that."
"So breaking up with her made the First go all apocalyptic and decide to end the Slayer line?"
"Don't be ridiculous—"
"Oh, you mean marrying you would have made her impervious to nutjobs with swords?"
Xander stared at her in disbelief. "God, what's wrong with you? Who says things like that?"
"People who know you're talking crazy, that's who! I mean, are you listening to yourself? You should have been a martyr and married her because if you had, of course she wouldn't have died in a battle so huge it destroyed a hellmouth? Are you serious? You were twenty years old! You didn't get cold feet, you came to your senses! Getting engaged so young—what were you trying to do, ruin you life?"
"It—it seemed like the next step—"
"To what? 1952?"
"Well, no, I—"
"Why did you break it off?"
He was silent for a long moment, but she wouldn't look away, that steady demanding gaze, and finally he cracked. "I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"What do you think?! That I'd be like my dad. That we'd have the exact same life my parents did."
"So, the same thing you've always been afraid of?"
Xander flinched at her casualness. "Yeah. But more. Worse. There was a demon, and it gave me a vision of the future. It was—" he broke off. "Maybe it was a lie. Maybe not. It was close enough that it didn't really matter."
"So you didn't just check your horoscope and decide not to get married? You had actual reasons?"
Xander shut his eyes and saw it like it was yesterday. The bitter arguments, the venomous undercurrents, the miserable children. The report of the skillet against Anya's head. "God, yes."
"Then it wasn't a mistake, was it?"
He didn't speak for a long time, didn't even think. He couldn't think about it any more; he'd thought about it for the last year. It was all he thought about. "It wasn't a mistake," he whispered finally. "I loved her, but it wasn't a mistake."
Anya got up from her chair in the corner walked over to stand in front of Xander. "Excuse me? What did you just say?" She put her hands on her hips, drawing his eyes to the damp-looking streak of blood across her blouse.
Xander shut his eyes tightly. Of all her guises, this was the one he hated most. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. But it wasn't a mistake." He braced himself for her inevitable rage, but she was silent.
When he opened his eyes to apologize again, she was gone.
The map was huge, tracking the entire city and its outskirts. If the First had really been trapped, it should be in the area the spell covered. Willow didn't want to risk using a more localized map and possibly just miss where it was being contained, because it was essential that they reach it before someone else stumbled upon it. That would be—okay, that would be something she really didn't want to think about. She cast the locator spell, held her breath for a moment—and sat back in puzzlement. The results were a little, uh, unexpected. Well, a lot unexpected. In fact, she was pretty sure she heard Buffy mutter "this can't be right" under her breath as she went to check it out.
"The First is in the backyard?" asked Dawn dubiously.
"Wait, could the shed be 'a vessel meant to hold it'?" suggested Andrew.
"Not unless 'it' is a lawnmower," countered Dawn.
"Well, what else is in the backyard?" probed Wood.
"There's a gazebo, but I don't think it could hold anything," Andrew said doubtfully. "I mean, it's just a couple of pillars and a roof."
"Why are we talking about this?" protested Faith, uncoiling herself from the couch and heading towards the back of the house.
Wood flushed. "What she said," he mumbled, following Faith sheepishly. He was usually alpha in a relationship, but Faith had that covered. Ultra-covered. It was still taking some getting used to, actually.
Wood hurried across the yard to see Buffy drag something from behind a hydrangea bush.
"What is it?" called Faith, running towards her.
Buffy closed her eyes in disgust. "A pain in my ass."
They didn't need Spike now. Dawn had come up to take over with Rupert, and a few words with Buffy had gotten Spike up to speed on the results of the locator spell. She had everything under control nicely, so Spike took the opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge.
He stepped out onto the back porch, sucking the foam off a Tsing-Tso leftover from a few days before. Needed some time alone, he did, after babysitting the Watcher all morning and looking at Wood, the bruises around his throat reminding Spike of the bruises he'd put on the throat of the man's mother. Which was normal, and understandable. He was a vampire, she was a Slayer. He was just doing his job. Doing it very well. Exceptionally well. And relishing every minute of it.
It hadn't been personal, dammit. He'd been a vampire; what else was he supposed to do?
Vaguely he remembered his first Slayer saying something after he'd drained her, and for the first time wondered what it was. Probably cursed his existence, or her bad luck. He was still wet behind the ears and crazed with excitement at his newfound power, and if not for the distraction of the war raging around them she might well have ended him.
Instead his victory had made him ascendant as one of the most feared vampires of modern times, a slayer of Slayers, outshining his sire and grandsire, who relished easy victories. Her blood had been not merely an aphrodisiac but an addiction. Drusilla loved the sweet fear of children; Angelus luxuriated in despoiling the innocence of holy sisters. For Spike, it was the exhilaration of besting his equal, the one designed to destroy him, that electrified him. Who could blame him? What better could be expected of him? He'd done what he was created to do, no more. No one turned rose as anything except a monster. That was all they were made to be.
He'd defied his world, his every impulse and teaching, to seek his soul. He'd received it as a reward, but it was the most perfect punishment he could ever imagine. Despite the miseries he'd inflicted, he could do no more.
"Mind some company?"
Spike glanced up to see Xander, pulling the cap off his own bottle.
He raised an eyebrow. "You didn't want to stay for the big scene?" Personally, Spike thought it best just to let the Slayer have at it. She didn't need him for this, and he was feeling a mite queasy anyway. If she needed him she'd call, and if she didn't, he might have a nice peaceful evening of drinking himself into a stupor.
"Kinda feeling scened-out for the day."
"Yeah. Know the feeling."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, staring into the distance as the sky began to drag into dusk. Eventually Xander stirred himself enough to speak. "Ever feel like there was someone there staring at you all disapproving, reminding you of everything you've done wrong, every stupid thing you've ever said, until you're ready to blow your brains out?"
Spike gritted his teeth for a moment and wondered if Harris was starting to develop ESP. If he wanted to share, now would be the time to tell the boy about Wood's mother. Bonding experience and all that. Might be nice to get it off his chest, and—oh, bugger that. He might be human now, and he and Harris might not hate each other anymore, but he was damned if he was going to turn into a little girlie at a tea party. "Unreasonable guilt. Heard humans suffer from it."
Xander wasn't really listening anyway. "And then someone gives you a slap in the face, and suddenly the world makes sense again? Well, not sense, it's still the world, but suddenly things aren't that bad. The world is the world again."
Spike looked at him, skeptical and just a little hopeful. "You think so?"
The look he received back was calm. Clear. "Yeah."
Dawn was helping. Trying to help. Not trying to jolt his shattered collarbone as she assisted him downstairs, babbling about how "super pissed" Buffy was and for Giles to get downstairs immediately. He was relieved at the possible progress with their situation, deeply so, but as he felt as if his collarbone was re-breaking with every step, he also wondered if this momentous revelation couldn't have taken place in his room, which held both a bed and large bottle of Vicodin.
Yes, that's right. Because that attitude is quite the thing coming from someone who just tried to kill one of them. Excellent job, Rupert. Nicely done.
Then he saw the figure stirring on the couch, just regaining consciousness. "Dear god," he whispered.
Even dazed, Ethan could manage a malicious smile. "I must say, Rupert, you look appealingly helpless. Did you know I was coming?"