SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of dark black night.

-Blackbird, The Beatles



PART ONE: SCENES FROM A BUS

The Crater Formerly Known As Sunnydale, May 20, 2003 – 2:04pm

"What do we do now, Buffy?"

The wind ripples through the Slayer's hair and she loves the way it feels; clean, alive, free. She squints against the afternoon sun, a tiny smile upon her lips as she considers the question.

Free. She's free. The world is full of Slayers, and she can go anywhere, do anything she wants.

She gazes her fill of the destruction below her, cement and metal and rubble one of the most lovely sights she's ever laid eyes on.

She can go anywhere, do anything. Have a normal life.

She takes one last look into the chasm, still smiling, and toes a rock over the edge. She turns away before it hits the bottom, spinning slowly around on one heel to face the group.

They look at her expectantly, and for a second, she thinks—I don't have to do this anymore, I don't have to lead them—and then she's in motion, walking back toward the bus.

"LA's nice this time of year," she offers.



On the road, 5:33pm

Her glow of peace and satisfaction lasts all of a couple hours or so, before the needs of reality come calling with loud, teenaged voices.

"Did you see Vi cut that thing's head off? That was way cool!"

"Can you believe how many Turok-han she took out?"

"Do you think Rona's going to be okay?"

"I feel so different! The same, you know, but like… I'm all tingly and stuff!"

"Do my muscles look bigger? They look bigger, don't they?"

"Hey! Xander! Quit eating all the tacos!"

"I asked for mild sauce!"

"Watch where you're waving that stake!"

"Buffy, can I drive next?"

"Now I know how you used to feel," Buffy says with a thin, sideways smile at Giles.

"They are rather… wound up, aren't they?"

"I think they lost the ability to speak without exclamation points."

But that wasn't entirely true. Buffy's eyes travel to where Vi sits alone now that Rona has been safely delivered to the hospital. Her face is pensive and closed, her arms folded over her chest as she stares at the inside of the bus, and Buffy doesn't think she's said a word since they got back on the bus from the hospital. For the first time since she met the girl, Buffy sees no fear in her. What she does see is a determination that makes her proud despite herself, and a weight on those fragile shoulders that she recognizes all too well.

She remembers the first time she felt that weight settle on her shoulders. She'd been hopelessly young, dressed in white, her hair pulled up, tiny sprigs of baby's breath woven into honey blond tresses. She'd already known more about killing and destiny than any girl her age should have a right to, and that night, instead of going with some handsome boy to the Spring Fling dance, she'd gathered up her crossbow and gone to dance with death instead.

Yes, she knows that look on Vi's face. It's the same one she'd worn all summer long after she'd killed the Master.

And for the first time, she wonders just how good of an idea it was to activate all the potential Slayers. How long before hundreds of other girls felt this weight settle on their shoulders? How long before they lost their first friend or family member? How long before they had to kill someone they loved? How long before they died, now that their days were numbered?

"I hope we did the right thing," she murmurs to herself.



5:35pm

"You should have stayed at the hospital," Faith says, pointing a finger in the direction of the bandages around Robin's mid-section. "Wouldn't have killed you. This might."

"I've been through worse," Robin says with a shrug.

"You look like a mummy."

He looks down at his stomach, and then looks back up at her, nonplussed. "I'm fine."

"Typical," she snorts. "Thought you were trying to convince me that you're not like other men?"

He tilts his head at her, hazel eyes narrowing. "You sure you're worried about my health, or are you just put out because you didn't get to dump me off at the hospital?"

The verbal dagger lands as it was intended, and Faith feels fleeting anger course through her veins. She catches it fast and wraps it up in sardonic humor, her mouth twisting up in a not-altogether-pleasant, teasing smile. "Well, that one orderly was pretty hot…"

"Which one?" he asks, brows rising in disbelief.

"The one who came in the room while they were bandaging you? You know; 6'2, dark hair, killer eyes, tight butt?"

"The gay one?" he asks, eyes innocent.

"He was so not gay."

"Was too."

"No way! He was totally checking me out."

"Probably wondering where he could get a pair of leather pants like yours."

She cocks her head to the side and thinks about that for a second. "Come to think of it, he would look pretty hot in leather."

"Are you always this catty, or is it only when I'm injured?" he asks, and he sounds like he's teasing, but she's not entirely sure.

"Only when you're injured and don't have enough sense to stay in the hospital 'til you heal because you've got something to prove."

"Aw, Faith." His face widens in a grin and she's immediately on guard. "You're a regular mother hen, aren't you? Florence Nightengale in leather. I had no idea you were such a big softie."

"Screw you," she spits, offended.

"Well, I'm definitely looking forward to a rematch on that," he says with a wink and a grin so wide that he breaks her anger and Faith can't help but laugh.

She flops down onto the seat next to him and sighs, taking in the surroundings. "Soon as we get off the Partridge Family van."

He nods, and she watches his face change, moving from easy and smiling to thoughtful. "Been thinking about that. You know, I overheard there's a Hellmouth in Cleveland. Lots of vampires, plenty of places to set up shop." He's looking at her oddly—actually, he's kind of skirting her eyes from the corners of his—and there's a strange, questioning tone to his voice.

She's not quite sure if she believes what she thinks he might be asking, and she's definitely not sure what to think of it.

"I better check on B, see how she's holding up."

She rises from the seat and walks down the aisle, leaving Robin behind to stare after her.



5:42pm

"Was she… was it quick?" Xander asks, and Andrew has to swallow and look away.

The gleaming sword falls through the air, slicing through her slender upper body like it was made of tissue paper. It cuts diagonally from shoulder to belly, nearly cleaving her in two, and the look on her beautiful face is one of ultimate surprise and pain. And then she's falling to the floor, face frozen in that terrible expression forever, and she'll never laugh with him or make fun of him or talk to him like he's an equal ever, ever again.

The lump in his throat is thick, so thick it nearly chokes him, and it takes all the strength he has not to burst into tears and melt down right here. He doesn't understand why she had to die. He doesn't understand why he got to live. He doesn't feel like he understands anything, anymore, but he knows he has to be strong now. Has to be strong, for Xander's sake.

He can do this.

"It was really quick," Andrew forces out the words. "She probably didn't even know what happened."

Xander closes his eyes in pain, and though Andrew's heart is breaking and his throat is full of tears, he can't even begin to imagine the pain that Xander feels. He looks away from Xander's bowed head, uncomfortable.

After a moment, Xander clears his throat and whispers, "I guess that's all I could ask for."

You could ask for her back. The words rise to Andrew's lips, hot and unbidden, almost angry. He looks up, meets Xander's eyes, and just as quickly as they came, the words slip away, righteousness sliding away with them. Andrew knows what comes of trying to raise the dead. Hadn't the others told him often enough? And Xander, Xander of all people. If Xander had thought there was any chance of bringing her back right, he would have done it in a heartbeat.

He wonders what it's like to love someone that much.

"She loved you, you know," Andrew says after a moment. It's all he can think to offer.

A sad, bitter smile curls one corner of Xander's mouth, and he nods once.

"I know."



5:43pm

"How's it hangin', B?"

Buffy glances up, her mouth curled in that familiar sardonic way that says she appreciates the question if not the phrasing, and shrugs.

"Okay, I guess."

Faith hadn't really expected the truth. She knows that Buffy never lets on anymore. Not even when she's dying inside. Buffy's become one of those people who acts like they're cut from stone—the way Faith wishes she could pull off convincingly most of the time.

She isn't sure how to begin—she's never been good at this—but she leans in, body hedging uncomfortably as she lowers her voice.

"Look. B… I got a pretty good idea of what happened down there. And I wanted to say… I'm sorry he's gone." She lifts her shoulders and smiles a little with the memory of admiration. "Sucker-punching bastard or not, he had balls. I liked him."

"Great," Buffy deadpans, and Faith can see her mentally adding those words to the long list of reasons she should never have gotten involved with Spike. Reason 200 million: Faith liked him.

It stings, and Faith's glad, because that makes this conversation so much easier. She's not comfortable with sympathy, but anger—that, she knows how to shape.

"He died for you, B. For all of us. That ought to mean something."

Buffy rolls her eyes up, and Faith can tell she's already gone too far with this. She always goes too far. Never knows when to quit. Doesn't know how to. And she hates it, but sometimes she thinks maybe that's why she's still alive.

Buffy eyes flash as she meets Faith, and her lips are thin and taut as she speaks. "I really don't—"

"Want to talk about it," Faith cuts in, finishing Buffy's sentence. "I know. You never wanna talk about it, B. But maybe you need to."

"And maybe you need to mind your own business," Buffy snaps, temper flaring.

Faith feels just the ghost of a smile on her lips as she answers. "Never been very good at that. I know I'm the Helen Keller of etiquette when it comes to saying what's on my mind, but I figure it this way: You just won the Slayer Jackpot in the lottery. Seven years of feeling the burden of Slayerdom, seven years of whining and moping about how you're the only one, and now you're not anymore. And you're not dancing in the aisles? There's gotta be something wrong there."

Buffy freezes, and for a second, Faith isn't sure if the older girl is going to come up swinging on her or collapse into pensive defeat. Then her eyes stutter away from Faith's and she lowers her head, her arms creeping up onto her shoulders, and Faith can see the anger drain out of her body as she slouches back against the seat.

Pensive defeat it is.

"I guess… I don't really think it's all sunk in yet." And for Buffy, Faith recognizes, that's a pretty far way toward admitting some real feelings.

Faith nods, pausing a moment to show her respect for Buffy's response. "I get that. It's gonna take all of us some time to sort out everything that's happened. I just wanted to make sure you didn't miss the point."

Buffy shakes her head, and her voice is like bright knives of sarcasm. "What? That I can stop whining and moping now because there's a world full of Slayers? I got the memo, thanks."

"No."

"Then please, tell me the moral of the story," Buffy snaps with exasperated contempt.

"That Spike died so you could live. So we all could."

Buffy looks up and meets her eyes, about to say something—something snide, most probably, given their track record—and Faith cuts her off, determined to finish.

"Don't let it be the reason you can't."



6:15pm

Kennedy's eyes flutter open to a bright flash of light that makes her pupils recoil in pain and sets her Slayer senses on fire. Before the message of danger can get all the way to her fist, her eyes adjust and her brain notes that it's only Willow standing before her, a lop-sided grin spread over her face.

"I got it in the gift shop at the hospital," Willow says, eyes bright and voice excited as she holds up a disposable camera.

"And you're risking your life snapping pictures of me while I'm sleeping, because...?" Kennedy asks, still slightly annoyed at being woken off-guard.

"For the new scrapbook," Willow says, as if it should have been obvious. She pauses, looking at Kennedy, and a slight frown creases her brow. "Weren't you listening earlier?"

"Guess I must have spaced out on that one. Sorry, sweetie."

"Oh." The frown hovers for a moment, and then is forgotten as Willow pushes on in the wake of her giddy excitement. "Well, yeah. I mean, we lost most of our stuff in Sunnydale, except for a few pictures and stuff, and I thought it'd be cool, you know, if we got a new album going for memory's sake." She turns and lines up a picture of the younger Slayers, who grin and stick out their tongues, making silly faces for the camera.

Kennedy rolls her eyes at the spectacle and pushes herself upright in the seat as the flash goes off again.

Willow smiles, evidently pleased with the shot, and turns back toward Kennedy to share her joy.

"Sweetie?" Willow asks, her smile fading as she takes in Kennedy's disgruntled expression. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Just… grumpy," Kennedy hedges.

Scrapbook. Chronicling, one supposes, the new adventures of the Scoobies. And Willow's head of the yearbook crew, obviously.

Kennedy really doesn't want to think about why that grates on her nerves so much.



7:55pm

Everyone is settling down for the evening, curled up in blankets and pillows, or sitting low in their bench seats talking quietly. Most of the young Slayers are out cold, eyes closed, one or two snoring slightly in an exhausted, peaceful slumber none of them have experienced since before going to Sunnydale. Buffy walks along the aisle, surveying them briefly as she makes her way to the back of the bus, and satisfied, slides into the seat next to Dawn.

Dawn's eyes are heavy, and she barely glances up as Buffy slides in beside her, snuggling up to her sister without a word. Buffy puts her arm around Dawn's shoulders, letting her little sister's weight lean against her, and settles in with a small sigh of relief. She's tired—bone tired, soul tired, she thinks, her eyes slipping closed.

Her mind is utterly blank except for one word that reverberates through the corridors of her mind, catching and echoing there.

Soul.

It's enough to keep her from drifting into sleep.

They sit like that for a long while, neither of them quite sleeping, Buffy hovering on the verge of consciousness. Time ticks by, passing without any visible measure, and it might be a few minutes or an hour later when Buffy feels Dawn's body stiffen slightly, hears her sister's deep intake of breath. She knows Dawn's going to speak, and she knows there will be questions, and she knows exactly which subject those questions are going to revolve around and she so doesn't want to talk about it. Her stomach tightens with dread, and she wonders momentarily if she can get away with pretending to be asleep.

"Did…" Dawn begins, then hesitates, uncertain. She clears her throat and tucks her head, and her next words come without any hesitation at all, matter-of-fact and edged with bitterness.

"Spike's dead."

The pain is still fresh, so fresh that Buffy is surprised how much it hurts to hear those words. She hasn't realized it yet. Hasn't actualized it. She knows in the back of her mind somewhere, of course, that he went up in a pillar of flame. But somehow, so far, she's been able to stop that message from getting all the way through to her heart.

I can feel it, Buffy. My soul.

Buffy nods in reply once, slowly, and squeezes her eyes tight against the admission.

"He saved us?" Dawn asks, and now she can feel her sister's eyes on her, can imagine them in her minds-eye, large and doe-like and brilliant green.

"He did." The words seem to creak from her throat, reluctantly given.

I want to see how it ends.

Dawn twists in her seat, uncomfortable, and Buffy can feel the question her sister is wrestling with. It's a natural question, an innocent one, even, and Dawn deserves to know. But Buffy doesn't want to face this yet. She isn't ready. In fact, 'never' might be a good time to talk about this.

"How did he… die?"

She can see it in her mind so clearly, memory so bright and vivid that it threatens to burn through her closed eyelids.

Body a halo, limned light like an angel, golden beams pouring from his chest—so near his heart, as if all the love that had suffused and sustained him had burst free all at once, dancing with joy along the air in its purest form, blazing from him like the fires of heaven itself. She remembers his blue eyes filled with vindication and triumph and wonder, pale skin bathed in warm tones of gold, and his voice, so raw, so real and visceral as he spoke to her in tones of reverence, discovering the beauty of his own soul. He had caught fire in that light, his body and soul consumed, in that moment, a single, perfect instrument in the hands of the Gods themselves, his body arched like a bowstring as the light played him, fire dancing over him like music. It had burned him alive from the inside out, and it had been the most beautiful, gorgeous, horrifying and terrible thing she had ever seen.

He had died with a smile on his face, she knew he had. He had welcomed death with the same relish he welcomed every experience in life; head on and heart first, arms spread wide. In the end, she knew he had been at peace, fulfilled and content by the knowledge that he was worthy. He had embraced everything he loved and held it close as he wrapped his arms around martyrdom, kissing it like a lover before he grinned into its wondering face. He had become a vessel, a laughing, avenging angel for the powers of good. In the end, he was good.

Good. He had been good.

Why hadn't she ever known how good he was?

And the thoughts dance on her tongue, half formed by the vision in her mind, and she wants so much to give them, so much to tell Dawn how wonderful and horrible it was, and that it's okay that he's dead, even if it doesn't feel like it, because he had died happy and whole and saving their lives. She wishes she could explain all these things to her sister, that she had the words to make it all okay. But she can't. She can't because she isn't strong enough. Because it hurts too much to know all these things. And because it isn't okay. It's not okay because he's gone and it's too late to feel all these things and have all these thoughts and she should have known—all these years she should have known, but she never did because she couldn't see, wouldn't see, and oh, God. He was dead and she hadn't known how good he was.

"Dawnie…" Buffy whispers, shaking her head. "I… I can't…" she pleads, her voice catching as she begs her sister to understand.

Dawn draws a shuddering breath, and Buffy can feel the light tremble in her sister's limbs, body vibrating with unshed tears.

"Did it…"

Buffy doesn't dare open her eyes. She can't stand to see the hurt and compassion in her sister's voice reflected in her eyes. Seeing the cracked mirror of her own heart in Dawn's eyes would break her, and she can't break. Not here, not now.

"Did it… hurt?" Dawn finally manages.

And somehow, this question is worse.

Smiling. Burning.

"I don't think so," Buffy whispers, and tears gather, tiny liquid beads like jewels upon her lashes.

Dawn leans into her, and Buffy rests her head atop her sister's, fingers stroking Dawn's hair. A single tear falls on the crown of her sister's head and she wipes it away, wishing her feelings could be so easily brushed aside.

"You loved him," Dawn says, and it isn't a question.

I love you.

No you don't.

Buffy doesn't answer this time.



Los Angeles, The Hyperion, 9:28pm

It's been a long, bizarre day filled with fighting, death and indescribable amounts high drama, and it's not over yet. Buffy tries on a smile, and finds her face isn't quite so tired that she can't manage it, but it's a near thing. Hopefully he'll chalk it up to fighting, death, high drama and pure exhaustion.

"Thanks again for letting us stay here, Angel," she says. "And, Giles's wallet especially thanks you for letting us stay here," she adds. "A real hotel would have cost a fortune."

He nods, seeming terse—and really, how often has he not been terse around her after leaving Sunnydale?

There's a long, awkward pause, and for the life of her, she can't think of a single thing to fill it with.

"So, what are you going to do now?" he asks.

Buffy shrugs, smiles at him. "Go to Disneyland. I figure we're pretty close to there, anyway."

"Not quite the answer I was looking for."

"I know." She smiles again, can't help it. He really is still cute when he's brooding, even after all these years. And even cuter when he pouts.

"I don't suppose you're looking to move back to LA?" he asks, a small smile playing around his mouth. "We could use a Slayer on our team."

"We might be able to spare Kennedy," she replies, keeping her voice light and sweet. Too sweet.

He blanches and she has to chuckle. Trying to imagine Angel and Kennedy working together seems to end with Angel's hands wrapped around Kennedy's throat. And come to think of it, maybe that's not such a—

"I'm glad you're okay," he says, and he's looking at her with that look; the Angel patented "I Am Way Too Intense Look" that always makes her shiver right down to her toes.

"Yeah. I guess we should be thankful most of us lived through it, huh?"

He looks away, puts his hands on the back of the chair he's been standing behind, and gazes down at them in rapt attention.

"I'm sorry about Spike."

The words send a jolt of shock through her, and she stares, startled.

"He loves you. You're around me and he's not here, sniping and puffing away at me." He pauses, lowers his head a bit more, and his voice is so quiet she has to strain to hear it. "And you're still sad, even though you're free now. Doesn't take a genius to figure it out."

"You. You're sorry that Spike's dead?"

"We might have hated each other, and I might have wished him dead on more than, oh, a few thousand occasions. But I was with him for a hundred years, Buffy. He was family—the kind that visits unannounced, stays too long, eats all your food and trashes your place like a rock star in a hotel room—but family."

She takes that in, silent for a long moment that seems like eternity, and she can hear the clock on the wall tick by with the seconds of silence. She nods, not quite able to say thank you, then clears her throat.

"I should… really get to bed. It's been a long day."

Angel stands up straight, then comes around the chair and embraces her in his arms. And he still smells the same, always does. No matter how many times he hugs her, she's always sixteen again, fragile and young and hopelessly head over heels in love.

"I don't suppose I should ask for a kiss goodbye?" he asks, drawing back to look at her, and she can't stop herself from reaching out to touch his face.

"No," she whispers with a sad smile.

He nods, lowering his eyes. "Because of Spike?" And she marvels that there's no anger in his voice, no bitterness.

"No."

He looks back up at her again, dark eyes wide and surprised, unasked question so clear within them, and she's amazed again. He's changed so much. She remembers when she couldn't ever tell what he was thinking at all.

"Why, then?"

"Because I'm not saying goodbye."

"Just 'so long for a while'?" he asks with a tiny smile.

She nods, and he holds her tight in his arms again, and for a moment, she's actually comforted.



11:06pm

Xander's been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for exactly one hour and twenty-one minutes when the knock comes on his door.

"Xander?" The voice is muffled through the wood, but he recognizes it anyway.

"Come in, Willow."

She's dressed in fuzzy pajamas with kittens on them, and she smells like soap and plain good old Willow when she sits down next to him on the edge of the bed.

"Hey, you wanna hear my dissertation on the architecture of the ceiling in the Hyperion?"

"Not sleeping, huh?" Willow asks with a knowing smile.

"Not so much."

Her smile fades, and her brow darkens, and he knows what she came here to talk about. How could he not after knowing her for so long?

"I'll be okay," he says in answer to her unasked question.

"When—when Tara died," she begins, almost stumbling over the words. "Well…. you know how hard that was for me to deal with."

"Yeah, and I've still got the Technicolor surround sound nightmares of being flayed alive to prove it."

She blanches a little at that, and he feels a twinge of regret for saying it, but she takes a deep breath and pushes on. "I mean, even after… that. It was so hard… being without her. Knowing she was never coming back." Tears creep into her eyes with the admission, and she tucks her chin in, curtain of rust-colored hair tipping forward to cover her expression. It's an old move, one Xander knows as well as all his own, and it goes straight to his heart. He reaches out, puts his hand on one of hers, and her head comes up a little with sad, shaky smile.

He knows bleak hope and resignation when he sees it, but it's still hope of a sort, and it shines, a dull light beneath her sorrow. And somehow, that hurts him most of all.

"Sometimes I still think about her," she says. "Imagine that she's just in the next room, or waiting for me outside the store, and all I have to do is open a door and there she'll be, whole and smiling and happy and gentle and sweet and alive." She shakes her head as if to show she knows how silly it is, and wipes at her eyes. "I still miss her Xander. It's like a piece of me is gone forever and I'll never have it back."

He blinks, surprised. How could he not have known all this? How could he not have known she was still going through this? Had he been so wrapped up in his wedding and then the fallout afterward that he'd completely missed what was going on with Willow? Or had she just gotten better about hiding it? And when had they stopped talking to each other like this?

"Sometimes I don't think I'll ever love anyone like that again," she says withy a shuddering breath.

"But…" He frowns, not wanting to ask, but not able to help it. "I thought you and Kennedy were… That you, you know?"

"I do," she says hurriedly. "Love Kennedy, I mean." She considers for a second, then wipes away the traces of her tears and gives a tiny smirk. "At least, most of the time." She reflects for second, then shrugs mildly. "But she's different, you know?"

"That's one way of putting it," he quips lightheartedly, and Willow raises her chin, trying hard to admonish him with a stern look. But there's still the hint of a smile beneath her frown, and she can't quite carry it off.

She settles for a playful, "Watch it, mister," instead.

"It's just that…" He hesitates over the words, and then pushes them out anyway. They're true, after all, and they both know what she's really talking about. "Well, it's no secret that you never really liked Anya."

"I liked her," Willows says, her chin coming up with nervous defensiveness. "I liked her just fine." She fumbles for words, her eyes flickering back and forth with mild guilt. "Well, okay, maybe like is a little strong…. But, I mean, it's not like I… hated her or anything. It's just— She was— we didn't mesh well, you know?"

"I know," he says, holding up a hand to stay her protests. "I know you never hated her. You guys were just…" He searches for the right words, and they come out with a helpless kind of humor. "Completely different in every single comparable way."

"Xander," Willow says earnestly, putting her hand on top of his. "I only ever wanted you to be happy."

"I know." He smiles. "But the truth is, most people felt a little uncomfortable around Anya, and she was… well, she could be really annoying sometimes. A lot. Even to me, sometimes," he adds, cutting off Willow's ready protest as he plunges on, the words coming in a rush like relief. "Truth is, she frustrated us and drove all of us nuts, sometimes. But I loved being with her anyway. Sometimes because of that."

Willows nods, still seeming nervous. "Yeah, I never really got that… but I… you know… You seemed happy. Mostly."

"Kennedy…" He lets the word trail, lolling his head to the side just a bit, almost dodging what he knows is about to come. "She's kind of like Anya that way."

"What?" Willow's head snaps up, her eyes wide with genuine surprise. "Kennedy's totally not like Anya! She's… she's…" Willow flusters, grasping for words.

"Aggressive? Tactless? Outspoken? Abrasive? Blunt to the point of pain?" Xander suggests, arching a brow at Willow, a smile playing around his mouth. "Are any of these adjectives working for you?"

"No." Willow shakes her head emphatically. "It's not like that at all. She's just… well, you know…"

Willow stops cold, her body and face stilling, face frozen in realization tinged with a note of horror.

"Oh my God. I'm dating Anya."

"Willow." He takes her hand in his and squeezes it, looking up into her eyes. "Are you happy?"

Her eyes dart away from him, searching the other side of the room as if for an answer, and she's so flustered now he almost feels bad for bringing this up.

"I… well, of course I…" Her hands come up and fumble through the air as she struggles for words, and suddenly, she stops again, her head dropping as she narrows her eyes on him.

"Hey. I see what's going on here. You're trying to distract me from talking to you about Anya, aren't you? And wow, look at me falling for it, all talking about Willow world when I really came here to talk about you."

"Now who's avoiding?" He asks with a smirk.

"Don't change the subject," she says with a stern shake of her finger.

"I almost bought that bit about Kennedy. That wasn't playing fair, Xander." She looks a little hurt, a little accusing, and her eyes demand that he make it right somehow.

His fingers slide from hers and he fiddles with the wrinkles in the sheets of his bed, not meeting her eyes. "Yeah… That part wasn't actually distraction," he says, clearing his throat.

"Xander!" she exclaims, and he can hear the anger and warning in her tone.

"But I was more relating it to Anya," he says, shifting away from the topic of Kennedy. "I… I really loved her, Will." The words come out like a slow realization, and he wonders if he'll ever stop being surprised by how much he cares about her. "She had the biggest heart, and the quirkiest sense of humor, and she was always so enthusiastic and unpredictable. I loved so many things about her…" He smiles faintly, remembering. "She had so much life in her, you know?"

Willow nods, and this time he can see that her sadness isn't for his loss, but for the loss of Anya herself. And it's sad and strange and a little bit weird to witness, but it's comforting, too.

He takes a deep breath, searching for the words. "But there were so many things about her that drove me crazy, too. We argued about as much as we got along, and sometimes I would just get… so frustrated with her." He shakes his head helplessly and then subsides with a sigh. "But without her in my life… it's like the sun doesn't shine quite as bright, you know? And I know that's cheesy and completely unmanly but—"

Willow was shaking her head, her expression completely serious. "No. It's not."

There's silence between them for a long moment, and it feels safe, comfortable. Cozy, even.

"I miss her," he goes on, more quietly now. "What you said about losing part of yourself? It's like that. Like I lost the better part of myself. The one with all the good things I don't have—and some of the bad ones, too—but mostly the good ones. And now…" his throat swells, and his voices chokes, but he doesn't care, because it's real, and it's for her and he won't hide it. He'd hidden too much of what he'd felt for her when she was alive, and he won't hide it from her memory. It's the only tribute he can give her.

"And now… I'll never get the chance to tell her. Never come home and see her bright, smiling face. Never see her do the money dance or bounce around in happiness or kiss that cute little twitch she gets around her lips whenever someone mentions bunnies." He blinks hard against the tears that want to come and shakes his head again, utterly helpless to stop the feelings inside him. "And there's nothing I can do about it, Will," he says, his voice verging on panic, laced tight with frustration. "I just have to go on living like this, with this… this hole in my life."

Willow reaches for one of his hands, and opens it gently, slowly, like a flower opens for rain. When that's done, she laces her fingers through his and holds tight.

"It gets better," she offers quietly.

"You just said a little while ago that it still hurts," he counters, as good-natured and teasing as he can manage through his tears.

"It does get better," she says more firmly, then sighs. "But it's… you know, only marginally better." She shrugs, as if letting go of the words, and then focuses all her attention directly on him. "But even if it never gets better, I'm here for you, Xand."

"I know, Will," he says with a trembling smile. "You're always there for me."

She smiles, and though she's still sad, it lights up her face in a way that cuts right through him and lays him bare with love, joy and comfort. He squeezes her hand and holds on to his smile.

"I'm really lucky to have you around, you know that?"

"We both are," she says, and leans down to hug him.

He holds her tight against his chest, letting his tears dry against her flannel and soaks in her scent. They don't do this very often—get this emotional or physically close—in fact, he could probably count the times, if he really sat down and thought about it, and he might run out of fingers, but would probably end up with a few toes leftover when he was done. It might be rare, but every time they hold each other like this, he feels comforted in a way that no one else on earth has ever made him feel. He guesses that's what comes from a lifetime of knowing each other.

They don't talk, they just sit there like that for a few endless minutes, him half-sitting up, her half-laying down. And though they're technically on a bed, nothing about this feels sexual at all. It feels like home.

The door to his room bursts open—and their arms fall away from each other suddenly. Both of them fumble to sit upright, scrambling in their hurry.

No, we don't look guilty, Xander thinks, straining to see through the shadows pooled by the door.

"Willow?" Kennedy's voice slices through the room like an arrow, sharp and grating.

Xander leans back on the bed with a sigh and rolls his eyes. "Jeez, Kennedy. Don't you knock?" he asks, annoyed.

Kennedy steps further into the room, and in the dim lamplight, he can see her dark eyes flash with fire as she puts her hands on her hips, upper body jutting forward in a challenging posture.

"Do I need to?" she shoots back, looking at Willow meaningfully.

"We were talking, sweetie," Willow says, only a slight bit flustered as she stands up from the bed.

"With your arms around each other?" Kennedy demands, attitude not backing down an inch.

"I was hugging him goodnight," Willow returns, her voice taking on a hard edge, and Xander thinks maybe he sees a little fire in her eyes, too. "You know, like lifelong best friends do, sometimes?" she adds with a sarcasm that's almost graceful. It's a tone that chides lightly and promises forgiveness for Kennedy's assumption, but also makes very clear that Willow's going to make sure her girlfriend gets the point, first.

Kennedy chews on that a moment, shifts from one foot to the other, then, reluctantly—very reluctantly—stands down. "You ready for bed?"

"Yeah," Willow replies, passing Kennedy with a slight peck on the cheek.

"Night, Xander," she calls over her shoulder, sending him a last condoling smile.

"Night, Willow."

Kennedy leaves without a word or a backward glance, and shuts the door just a little too hard behind her.

Hmm… looks like trouble in paradise.

He can't say he's sorry.



May 21, 2003 - 12:00am

The clock in the main hall of the Hyperion strikes midnight, and Andrew sets aside his pen with a smile.

"That's a wrap for day one, ladies and gentlemen."

He closes the journal and lies back on the bed, wondering what he will title this most excellent literary piece.

Later, on the edge between dreaming and reality, it comes to him:

"The Continued Adventures of the Vampire Slayer and Her Most Exceptional Companions"

He might have to shorten it for the movie, but for now, it'll do just fine.