Act Four

The battle continued to rage fast and furious, with no indication that it would end any time soon. Indeed, it appeared to be only now hitting its stride and Xander's small troop was not faring well. Although he tried valiantly to keep his eye on everything at once, Xander's girls were rapidly losing momentum. The demons were large, nasty and on a definitive winning streak. Even worse, their numbers never seemed to decrease.

Although the Juniors fought like tigers, for every monster that fell, it seemed that another materialized in its stead. Scanning the area, Xander soon discovered the reason why. Close to the slide in the nearby playground was an opening in the earth. For every demon slain, a replacement clambered out of the pit. Xander stiffened. There was no way his army could claim victory under such circumstances.

Without further hesitation, he dug deep into his pocket for the cell phone he was carrying. Quickly punching the appropriate number on speed dial, Xander waited impatiently, unwavering gaze fixed upon his fast-fading Juniors.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon ..." he urged into the mouthpiece, visibly brightening when the insistent ring tone was finally answered.

Xander wasted no time. "We need backup, and lots of it." He paused only momentarily to listen to the question. "Hutchinson Park," he responded without missing a beat. "Those demon things from—" He lowered the phone and swiftly attracted the attention of one his girls, barking out an urgent order. "Lynn! Help Melanie!"

With a nod of acknowledgment, Lynn rushed toward the struggling Slayer.

Xander returned the phone to his ear. "—from yesterday. They had so much fun, they brought friends." The ensuing pause was just long enough to convey the urgency of the situation. "I don't wanna rush you? But hurry."

Sharply flipping the phone closed, he stuffed it back into his pocket and refocused fully on the now desperate scramble for supremacy. Although plainly worried about his battle-weary Juniors, Xander's fearful expression also displayed a modicum of pride at their courageous efforts. These were girls who refused to go down without a damn good fight.

Breaking concentration only to steal the occasional glance over his shoulder in search of the much-needed backup that had yet to put in an appearance, Xander began to pace anxiously to and fro. The Junior Slayers maintained a tenuous hold but were flagging badly and becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of continuous assailants. Hovering on the brink, Xander peered into the darkness for the expected cavalry to arrive.

From the slopes of the hill, the girl watched. Eyes sparkling with anticipation, she leaned forward expectantly. "The moment approaches," she whispered into the night.

Faltering, Xander took a step toward the battle arena and then hesitated. Despairingly, he looked into the distance for any sign of approaching support. There was none. He ran tense fingers through his hair, lone eye snapping from the vacant darkness behind him to the heroic scenario being played out to its inevitable conclusion in front of him.

"Screw it," he muttered darkly and with sword held aloft, charged into the fray.

Keenly, the girl observed his attack. Her sharp ears caught the faint clash of metal on demon, but as she watched her expression began to change. The eagerness gradually melted until it had evaporated entirely, leaving only the same inscrutable countenance she seemed to habitually exhibit.

"He is not the one."

Surprised and shocked to his very core, Marcus physically started.

"Lady?"

"He is not the one," she repeated serenely, waving a dismissive hand toward the scenario taking place below. "See how he fights?"

Marcus blinked and followed the direction of her pointing finger. It was obvious that Xander possessed no particularly notable combat skills. He was not as efficient or capable as the Juniors around him, but it wasn't for lack of trying. In addition, he exuded an air of muddled confusion in his attempts to see everything at once, be everywhere at once and lend aid to as many girls as was humanly possible without neglecting one who might possibly be in more serious trouble.

The girl on the slope shrugged. "He fights because he must. He fights to protect. He has no special abilities." She tilted her head appraisingly. "He is not especially proficient."

For a long while, she simply studied Xander. "His motives are pure," she concluded with absolute conviction. "He is not the one."

Totally taken aback, Marcus' response was sadly lacking in aforethought. "You must be mistaken."

He withered visibly beneath the abrupt look of derision tossed his way and shrank from the expression of unbridled astonishment at such foolhardy audacity. Immediately, he bowed his head.

"My apologies, Lady," he offered sincerely. "I mean no disrespect. But I have studied our enemies extensively and—"

Extending a delicate finger, the girl stayed any further excuses. "And yet still, you are incorrect." She seemed to puzzle momentarily over such an implication. "What does that say for your best efforts, I'm forced to wonder?"

Marcus was given no opportunity to react, either positively or otherwise. In a blur of celerity, the girl reached out, one hand digging into his skull. With no more effort or strain than a human would devote to turning a doorknob, she twisted, reliving the body of its head. It crumbled to dust within her grasp, closely followed by the collapsing torso. Brushing stubborn particles from her fine leather glove, the girl surveyed the pathetic heap of gray ash with an arched eyebrow but it failed to hold her interest.

"Nothing worth contemplating, it seems."

She refocused on the battlefield just as Buffy and Faith entered the arena, a company of fresh Juniors in tow. Curiosity peaked once again as the girl took stock of the new arrivals. She watched intently as Buffy immediately honed in on Xander, who was only a heartbeat away from being cleaved in two. Without hesitation, the blonde hurled a hand axe with fatal accuracy. Blade buried to the hilt in his throat, the demon dropped like a stone and Buffy allowed herself a small smile of gratification. The girl nodded appreciatively and then turned her attention to Faith.

Like a supremely well-oiled machine, the dark-haired Slayer operated flawlessly and smoothly. Apparently born and bred for the killing field, she was well nigh unstoppable. Little, if anything, appeared to phase her. She displayed no fear and actually seemed to draw power and strength from the threat of imminent danger.

With the added support of energized Juniors, the horde of demons soon found themselves on the losing end. Buffy and Faith alone were largely responsible for the speedy depletion of numbers and even the increased productivity of the pit failed to turn the tide. Ostensibly, victory was now a foregone conclusion.

Eyes narrowed, the spectator on the hill continued to evaluate the relative merits of the two Senior Slayers. Then apparently content with her observations, she nodded with satisfaction before being absorbed into the night.

——————————

"Gitchi Gitchi, ya ya dada."

Sharing a single microphone, the female quartet on the pocket-sized stage poured heart and soul into their performance. The heart had a strong beat but unfortunately, the soul sadly lacked rhythm. Nonetheless, if enthusiasm were the yardstick for talent, then this would have been a stellar act.

At a small table in the middle of the darkened and smoke-filled karaoke bar, Kennedy slouched in her chair. With crossed arms, she glowered directly ahead, as though she were trying to channel its not inconsiderable power. Above her head, a miniature disco ball revolved slowly, reflecting tiny images of the sullen Slayer from every angle.

"Gitchi Gitchi, ya ya here."

Breaking away from the group, microphone in hand, one of the young singers launched into the next verse. A somewhat stiltedly flowing rap, it served to undeniably identify the song in question as the remake version.

Kennedy's expression remained the same except that now her left eyelid began to twitch involuntarily.

A Junior at the next table leaned over to Kennedy and nudged her elbow. Unwittingly, the girl had become a prime target for Kennedy's sour mood, but she seemed oblivious to the challenging glare. Glass held unsteadily in one hand, the Junior treated Kennedy to a huge grin. Her eyes were glassy and when she spoke, her words were slurred.

"Sho thish thing you're doing," she confided with a bold wink. "Wicked."

Kennedy pursed her lips. "That's one adjective."

The girl dragged her chair closer and Kennedy's frown deepened. "F'real," gushed the unwelcome intruder. "I think it's ... it's ..."

She struggled for a suitable synonym.

"Wicked?" supplied Kennedy.

"Exactly!" The Junior toasted the brilliant observation by raising her glass. The contents sloshed dangerously close to the rim. Planting a solid foot on one of the legs, Kennedy firmly pushed the girl's chair from her immediate vicinity, but it only served to delay the inevitable. The girl scooted back almost immediately.

"Hangin' with the rest of us, showin' you don't always gotta be boss." The Junior nodded approvingly. "Keep it up, an' you'll be like ush any day now."

Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Oh, to dream."

The blatant sarcasm was a lost cause. The girl's grin became even broader as she turned to the company of Juniors sitting at her former table. She jerked her head in Kennedy's direction. The implication was clear – she and Kennedy had just bonded. With a heavy sigh, Kennedy stared at her boots, obviously hating every second.

˜˜˜

"'It took a bit longer than it probably should have, but it eventually hit me: what the hell am I doing here?'"

Sitting at the desk with her laptop open, Willow read from the screen. She smirked and looked over to Tara. The blonde lay on her stomach across the bed, taking notes from a thick textbook. Both were in their comfy sleepytime clothes: boxers and tank top for Tara, a pair of PJs for Willow.

The redhead turned back to the monitor and continued. "'The Twinkie had a point, it was like I was trying so hard to be one of them. But hey, newsflash! I'm not here to buddy around and make friends – I'm here to whip their asses into shape.'"

Tara tapped her teeth with the cap of her pen. "I still say she needs a friend, though."

"Oh totally," nodded Willow in agreement. "But I'm not telling her that. You can. She doesn't know your tickle spots." She favored Tara with an eyebrow quirk.

"No, true," replied the blonde with an impish smile. "That's sort of a, uhm ... a restricted trade secret."

Willow's response was a sly grin. "Membership has its privileges." The couple took a moment to exchange a heated look, then Willow cleared her throat and refocused on her monitor. "'It was a momentary bout of crazy,'" she continued reading. "'I don't know how to get through to these girls, but the way to not do it is to be something fake. I'm sitting there, pretending (at least marginally) that we're all just hanging out – like tomorrow I'm not gonna be on each and every one of them twice as hard because we had a night off.'"

A crease appeared on the redhead's forehead. "Maybe she missed the point of doing this."

Tara wasn't so sure. "Actually ... I think she got it just right."

"'I don't know who they want me to be, and honestly, I don't care. I'm Kennedy. And I'll be damned if I'll start worrying about what that means to anybody else now.'"

The e-mail completed, a hush fell. Both witches seemed to be seriously pondering Kennedy's statement. It was Willow who broke the silence.

"Now there's a woman with ... no identity issues whatsoever." She stared at the screen.

"Must be nice," admitted Tara to herself. She glanced at Willow. "Did she say any anything else?"

Willow shook her head. "Not really. Except: 'P.S.: Don't ever karaoke "Defamation Innuendo". It doesn't go over as well as you'd think.'"

Willow turned to Tara questioningly but received only a shrug, neither of them able to fully appreciate the revelation. Willow decided to let it go. She closed the programs and then lowered the cover of her laptop with a click.

Getting to her feet, she yawned and stretched luxuriously. "It's getting late. Beddiebye?"

"Mm," Tara responded noncommittally.

That was good enough for Willow however, and she climbed into bed, switching off the lamp on her side. Closing her eyes, she snuggled into the downy comforter with a smile on her lips, one arm thrown invitingly across Tara's pillow.

The blonde made no move to accept the open gesture. She continued to lay on her stomach, facing the foot of the bed. Willow waited for the arrival of the expected warm body. When it failed to materialize, her smile faded to a frown. Cracking open one eye, she peered curiously at Tara.

"That 'mm' didn't mean what I thought it meant, did it?"

"Am I keeping you up?" asked Tara anxiously. "I can go downstairs."

Willow shook her head. "No, no, that's not the ..." She glanced at the clock, its digital numbers glowing with a soft blue. "It's gone midnight, and you've got class early tomorrow."

"I know," sighed Tara. "I just ... I don't feel like going to bed right now."

Willow's tiny furrow immediately deepened to a full-blown ditch. She raised up on one elbow.

"Because of the nightmares."

It wasn't a question, it was a declaration and Tara was in no mood to debate the issue. Swinging her legs off the bed, she began to gather her books together.

"Just go to sleep, Will," she urged. "I'll be there soon."

"No." The refusal was deliberate in its delivery. "No, I think sleep is a place I don't really want to go at this particular moment. Oh! I've got a better idea, though: let's try You Talk To Me Land!"

With a sharp intake of breath, Tara replaced the cap of her pen with a purposeful snap, obviously struggling to quell the mounting irritation. Composure in check, she addressed Willow in a level tone.

"Fine," she admitted quietly. "Yes, it's the nightmares. I was hoping maybe if I could read enough of this stuff," she glanced pointedly at the books cradled in her arm, "it'd just send me off. That's it."

Willow's eyes narrowed and the timbre of her voice lacked Tara's equanimity. "That's not it. Tara, this has been going on long enough." Purposefully, Willow grabbed her pillow and shoved it behind her back, sitting up in a position that would not welcome sleep any time soon; she was settling in for the long haul. "You don't want to talk to someone else, fine. I think you should, but I won't push it right now. But this is me. And ..." Her expression began to wilt. "A-And I don't understand why you won't talk to me."

"It's not you," Tara immediately replied. She gazed at Willow's expectant expression, but despite the redhead's obvious desire for some sort of explanation, none was forthcoming. Tara's eyes dropped to the floor. "I don't want to think about it," was the best she could manage.

Confronted with Tara's obvious distress, the remnants of Willow's anger seemed to evaporate, but she was no less determined to press for an answer. "Yeah, well, no offense?" she began gently, hoping a touch of levity would improve the situation. "The enforced silence bit doesn't really seem to be doin' you much good."

A ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of Tara's mouth. "No," she admitted, "probably not." Yet she offered nothing further.

Deciding to take her own advice, Willow continued in her quest for answers. "Is it ... Does it have anything to do with what Amy said?" Tara looked up at that, but Willow's mouth had seized control and wasn't in the mood to hit the brakes. "Because, I mean, she's crazy, you know that. Too much black magick, too many little gnawy wood blocks. Her wheel thingie's still spinning, but there's nobody's running, you know?" She illustrated the point by rotating her forefinger rapidly next to her ear.

That earned Willow a smile, but it was fleeting. "Amy didn't start this," Tara responded.

"That doesn't mean she helped."

Once again, Tara fell silent. Her reluctance to resume the topic was almost tangible.

Willow tugged at the coverlet, pleating the fabric with restless fingers. "Tara, please. I want you to talk to me. I need you to talk to me," she underlined. "I need to help you. We used to be able to tell each other anything ... remember?"

She looked at Tara wistfully but the blonde's expression remained sorrowful and even a little regretful.

"That was a long time ago."

While undeniably the truth, particularly from Willow's perspective, the redhead still appeared for a moment as though she didn't understand. Then as the meaning began to sink in, so did the pain it brought. But overlying all of that, completely dwarfing it, was Willow's desperate need to help. And the frustration that she couldn't.

Tara watched it all, and for a moment seemed furious with herself.

"Tara...?" Willow prompted.

"There's so much I don't know anymore," Tara tried to explain. "I used to think I had all the answers, but I think ..." Her eyes searched Willow's face with something akin to loving wonder. "I think you gave them to me."

Willow couldn't help but smile. However, now she'd found her voice, Tara seemed unable to stop until she'd said as much as possible.

"Why I'm here," she continued, "who I am. I've been hiding from it because I don't know if I'm going to like the answers." Tara paused, her tone uncompromising. "But I have to find them, Will. I need to know … I need to know who I am now."

"You're the woman I love," Willow answered, her voice threatening to crack. "Isn't that enough?"

The pair shared a wordless exchange for a moment. Then Tara set her books on the dresser and approached the bed. She pulled back the covers and began to climb in, which was all the prompting Willow needed. Happily throwing her pillow back into place, Willow scooted down into her original position as Tara switched off the light. But before Willow could complete settle into place, Tara was there.

Willow's eyes widened in surprise as Tara's mouth claimed her own, communicating in action more than she could with words. All shock melted in the rush of other emotions, and Willow began to return to the kiss in kind. Before things could escalate, however, Tara pulled away. She reached out and caressed the redhead's cheek, and Willow leaned into it instinctively with a happy smile.

It was a smile Tara didn't completely echo, and she stared down at Willow with eyes that were sad and so very tired. "Not anymore."

Willow said nothing. She simply wrapped her arms around Tara and held her close.

——————————

The windows of the bed and breakfast off Highway 15 gazed toward the distant horizon like vacant eye sockets from a naked skull. No lights twinkled invitingly from within this once popular tourist hideaway and the panes of glass were illuminated solely by the pale shafts of a sickle moon. Abandoned to the elements, the building stood cold, gray and desolate against a backdrop of skittering clouds in a starless sky. Even the bold flag still suspended from a pole in the open courtyard fluttered forlornly in the stiff breeze – a bleak testament to the promise of unfulfilled glory. Throughout the interior of the hotel, mounds of ashen dust lay undisturbed in the otherwise barren hallways.

High beneath the eaves, a red-cloaked figure stood still and silent in the center of a spacious attic. With an inscrutable expression, she carefully took stock of the fixtures and sparse furnishings: a four-poster bed; an antique dresser; an easel and artist materials seemingly forgotten in a far corner; wilting plants with yellowed leaves lining the baseboard of one wall. Pallid rays, gaining entrance courtesy of the numerous windows, patterned a silver parquet across the floor.

Her eyes narrowed with concentration, but otherwise she remained immobile - a life-size oriental statue, regal and stately in bearing. As her lids descended, obliterating the loft from her vision, she keenly probed the shadows as the muted clamor of phantom fighting reached her ears. Like the marble Galatea suddenly given life, she glided effortlessly across the floor, eyes moving rapidly beneath their hooded folds, head jerking from side-to-side as she followed in the steps of combat past.

As she moved, her arms raised as though clutching a weapon and she shifted her weight and balance to parry blow after blow, despite being under no assault. She was grace and form in motion, never missing a step, never failing to press an advantage that availed itself in the dance of her mind.

Until inevitably she faltered, and the sounds of a fateful cry echoed in her ears. She winced as though she herself had been pierced.

"You know this will not kill me."

"Bet it hurts, though."

As the last vestiges of every vampire's final death cry faded into the shadows, tiny fists became rigid. An expression of profound sorrow injected its unspeakable grief upon the normally reserved features. The display of emotion vanished as soon as it had appeared, leaving the question of whether it had ever been present at all. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked down upon the small pile of ashes nestling at her feet. Captured in a lunar ray, it sparkled with an inner radiance and she bowed her head reverently in honor of the beloved remains.

Removing her gloves, she knelt down and gently scooped a small amount of the treasured residue into her palm. Heedful not to spill one single molecule, she painstakingly deposited her prize into a leather pouch, worn and ancient, produced from the lining of her cloak.

"My sister," she whispered, eyes lowered as a token of her esteem. "Their suffering will be without end."

Securing the purse by its slender strap, she kissed the soft leather and raised her face to the moon. Bony protrusions marred the smooth flesh of the forehead and the contorted lips were pulled back to reveal wickedly-pointed cuspids, starkly white and perfectly formed. She held the pouch tightly in her hand.

"I will see to it."

——————————

Behind his desk, pen poised, Giles worked diligently on the spreadsheets that covered every square inch of the surface. Frowning in intense concentration, he didn't hear the door open and failed to notice the presence of Xander until the younger man spoke.

"Rough day at the office?"

Looking up, Giles' was plainly startled by the spectacle standing before him. Xander was indeed something of a mess: blackened eye, bruised cheek, busted lip, torn shirt.

"Know the feeling," Xander confided with a wry smile.

Pushing back his chair, Giles leapt to his feet. "Good lord. Are you all right?"

Xander dismissed the concern with a casual wave. "Yeah. It's mostly surfacey flesh wound stuff. Little iodine, a band-aid or two, good as new." He peered at the scattered papers. "So what'cha workin' on?"

Still distracted by Xander's appearance, Giles answered on automatic pilot. "A schedule. We have new Slayers arriving from the Covens, and— Are you quite sure you're all right?"

"Yup," assured Xander with an emphatic nod. "Buffy and Faith did the hero thing, arriving just in the nick of time. The girls did great, nobody got too badly hurt, and I didn't have to worry about reattaching limbs. All that adds up to a good night in my book." He chewed on the admission for a moment. "It's funny how my qualifications for that seem to change every other week."

Tossing down his pen, Giles rested his hands on the desk. "Were you attacked?"

"Nope," denied Xander and then bobbed his head. "Well, yes. But not until I jumped in, sword a'swingin'."

Giles' expression was instantly disapproving. "Xander ..." he began in a strongly admonishing tone.

"Don't engage the enemy, I know," Xander parroted, ticking the point off on his finger. "Stay back and observe, command from a distance." Proudly, Xander displayed all three fingers before dropping his hand. "I listen."

Frustration crept into Giles' face. "And yet, you ignore my instruction."

"Well only because it sucks," Xander quickly returned with a shrug. "Oh, but? Turns out I can multi-task with the best of 'em. while I was struggling for my life, I managed to pick up a few things. Like say the fact that they were brought in specifically to fight us?" He favored Giles with a sunny grin.

Giles carefully processed this crucial scrap of information. "To fight us?" he echoed.

Xander nodded. "It's what one demon said to the other demon. Not the most creative of punchlines, but hey."

"This was planned," mused Giles, eyes glittering with realization behind his glasses. "We're being ... tested? Studied?"

"The whys are still a bit fuzzy. They went back to the hole they crawled out of – all clichés aside – and the sucker sealed right up." The report was given with a odd note of cheer, but Giles was far too occupied on the substance to pay much mind to the delivery.

"Still, this tells us we're facing more than a random attack," Giles concluded aloud, exhibiting more animation than he had in some time. "This could be vital." He favored Xander with a small but genuine smile of approval. "Well done."

Rocking on the balls of his feet, Xander accepted the praise amicably. "Thanks," he replied. "I quit."

As is the nature of a nonsequitur, Giles had not been anticipating that response, and he blinked in confusion. "What?"

"I quit," came the reply, delivered in the same bright tone. "The Watcher thing. I'm done."

For a moment Giles could only stare. He removed his glasses and placed them gently atop a planning chart, but his eyes never left Xander. "I know I've- I've been hard on you, Xander, but I only do it to ensure that you're fully prepared for the work we must do."

"Though not me so much," came the pleasant rebuttal, "since I just quit and all."

"You've been under a- a great deal of stress lately," continued Giles, as though Xander hadn't just further hammered his point. "Take a few days, to- to think things through."

But Xander harbored not the slightest desire to reconsider his position. "I have, believe me." The announcement carried an air of finality. "It seems like all I've been doing is thinking lately. Came to a few conclusions, too, which was sort of neat." He returned Giles' probing gaze. "Why do you think I asked to become a Watcher?"

Giles seemed uncertain of how to answer. "Well, I ... I assumed because you wanted to help."

"Good answer!" congratulated Xander. "The bonus round: why now?"

Giles opened his mouth to supply a response, but nothing sprang immediately to mind.

"Don't feel bad," commiserated Xander, generously letting Giles off the hook. "I didn't really know either. But after the fight with the Super Slayers, I just kept thinking about everything, and ... I dunno." He clapped his hands together then spread them wide. "It seemed like what I should do next. That, you know, maybe with a title I'd get to stay in the thick of things, instead of being shoved to the side like a comfy chair you want to keep around, but hide in the corner when company comes over."

"We never—" Giles tried to defend, but it had little effect on Xander's momentum.

"So hey, here I am as Watcher Guy, right?" he briskly continued. "Got the field time, got the inside track, should be a breeze. I figure, 'I can be Giles to someone's Buffy'. But then I get in here, and it's like, what does being Giles even mean anymore?" Cocking his head to one side, Xander studied the older man intently. "Do you know? Cuz I sure as hell have no clue."

Almost reflexively, Giles fell back, giving up ground to remain in familiar territory. "As Watchers, it is our responsibility to keep the world safe," he replied by way of explanation.

"Even if it damns us in the process?"

Stubbornly, Giles stuck to his guns. "We must sometimes make the choices that others cannot. We are fighting a war, every single night, and it is a war that we can never truly win." He absent-mindedly shuffled a stack of papers. "Yet still, we fight, and yes – sometimes we die. Every war will have casualties, and it is ... insanity to think otherwise. You must learn this, Xander, or one day the weight of the decisions you make will destroy you."

Xander nodded, absorbing the words and the sentiment behind them. "This is all for my benefit. You're trying to help."

"Yes. Yes, absolutely." Giles allowed himself a sigh of relief. "I do know you, Xander, better than you think. Your heart is perhaps your greatest asset, but it is also your greatest weakness."

"That makes sense," conceded Xander. "It's twisted, Bizarro-sense, but it's sense. If I went out there, right now, and had to order a hundred Slayers into a fight to save the world and we lost fifty ... twenty ... Hell, even just one. I'd be ..." He shook his head. "Even if we saved the world. And god, if it was Buffy, or Will ... I don't know if I could handle that."

Giles looked as though a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

"I need to be stronger," Xander decided. "Tougher. More detached."

His lone eye affixed Giles with a penetrating stare.

"Just like you."

The shot was well aimed and undoubtedly struck the heart of its target, but there was little outward reaction. For an instant Giles seemed to deflate, but as he reached for his glasses and began to polish them, he betrayed nothing.

"And that," concluded Xander, "is the best reason I've heard yet for getting out."

Giles remained silent, choosing instead to settle his glasses in place.

"I know about death and sacrifice, Giles. I learned that the hard way at sixteen. But I learned something else, too, and it's that if people do die? I won't find out about it from my comfy office, waiting for a report. I'll know, because I'll be there doing every last thing I can to stop it."

Xander paused and seemed to be waiting for something that never materialized. Giles accepted the tirade without comment or interruption, and Xander took it upon himself to conclude the now one-sided conversation.

"I may not know who I do want to be, but I sure know who I don't. So in case you didn't entirely catch that? I quit."

Having seemingly said his piece, Xander made to leave, stopping only when he heard Giles' voice.

"I ask you to reconsider." The calm request was formal, perhaps even overly polite. However, the words that followed were nothing but sincere. "You have the potential to be an exceptional Watcher."

Turning back, Xander studied the older man. Giles waited patiently for a response, but took no further action to encourage one way or the other.

"Maybe," Xander acknowledged. "But I'd rather be a good man."

As Xander opened the door and closed it behind him, Giles sank heavily into his chair. The involuntary smile that crept over his lips was undeniably sad, but also betrayed an immense affection.

"You already are."

With a rueful sigh, he readjusted his glasses and retrieved his pen. Smoothing out the schedule he'd been working on, he drew a thick black line through "Xander Harris – Watcher".