Dusk Over Pompeii
Copyright October 2005
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
"When did you know?" she asked, her gaze focused inside the oversized coffee mug she held. They were seated at a sidewalk table (more accessible avenues of motion from there), but the cool February air was lighter and more refreshing than air conditioning could have provided, and the canvas awning offered more than sufficient shade from the afternoon sun.
"How quickly they forget," he observed with mock lament. Like her, his eyes were elsewhere, in this case scanning the street around them. She might rely on Slayer instincts; he put his own trust in active paranoia. "C'mon, Buf. Belly-roll over the railing? Yours truly diving to kiss the pavement, right in front of you? Ringing any bells here?"
"I didn't actually see that," she reminded him. "And I'm not talking about full glandular alert, you did the same thing with Ampata and Cordelia and even Faith. I'm asking, when did you know?"
He thought about it, glancing at her as she continued to try and read the future from the bottom of the coffee mug. This was harder on her than it was on him, but that only meant he had to treat her with even more care. "The night you died," he said at last. "That was the first time I knew for sure."
That brought her eyes to him. "Why, Xander, you do know how to make a girl feel special." Dropping the affected lilt, she added, "You waited till after I was dead to decide you loved me?"
"Not after," he corrected her. "Just that night. The prophecy said you'd die if you went looking for the Master; so, naturally, you had to go after him. And I just …" He waved his hands, fumbling for words. "You were right, I wanted you the first time I ever saw you, but that was wanting. When I knew you were going out to get yourself killed … I let go. I would have died for you, if it would have helped, but it wouldn't have, so I went to Angel. When I did that, when I decided I'd let him have you, if it would keep you alive … that's when I knew."
Buffy sighed. "You really hated him."
Xander nodded. "I really did."
"But after all that, it wasn't him who saved me." Her eyes rose to his. "It was you."
Characteristically, he tried to deflect it. "Hey, mouth-to-mouth with the girl of my dreams? No way was I gonna pass that up." His expression was one of studied lecherousness, but his voice held a tone of something else; and she reached for his hand, but he was already standing up, saying briskly, "Shift line."
They had paid in advance for their cappuccinos, in case of just such an eventuality, so they abandoned the sidewalk table on the instant, walking quickly to take themselves from the path of the rippling wall of reality change. It swept past them twenty-five yards away, and it wasn't until then that he realized she was gripping his hand with a force that threatened to fuse the bones.
"Buf?" he said. She looked to him, and he gave the captured hand a twitch. "Massive pain here."
"Oh!" She let go. "Sorry."
"De nada." He shook out his fingers. "Nothing that can't be fixed with a little TLC and a slug of morphine."
They had continued to walk, and now she asked, "So what now?"
"Wide open spaces," he said promptly. "You saw what happened with Willow: too close in on the sidewalk, she couldn't see far enough around the corner. A clear line of sight is our best friend."
She nodded understanding. "Weatherly Park."
"Ah," he said cheerily. "More memories."
"Yeah," she said. "For as long as we can keep them."
~ – ~ – ~
They stopped at a picnic table, and he waited until they were settled into place before saying, "So how about you?"
"Huh?" She looked at him. "What about me?"
"When did you …" He faltered, embarrassed. "You know … know?"
She gave it long consideration, enough that she could see him growing uneasy. "Xander, I can't really say. I didn't want to see it, so … so I didn't see it. I can only tell you when I got to where I couldn't keep pretending any more."
He sat back, nodding. "Okay, sure."
"It was when Riley told me that Parker Abrams had filed a restraining order against you, tried to get you banned from campus. He took care of it — Riley, I mean — but when I heard about that …" Her eyes were searching. "Did you really sucker-punch Parker?"
Xander shrugged with overdone nonchalance. "I'd have been happy to punch him straight-on, but he was talking to somebody else. It just wasn't worth the effort to step around where he could see it coming."
"With …" She hesitated. "With how you feel, I'd say he got off pretty easy."
Xander's eyebrows went up. "A little different angle, I coulda broken his jaw. Should I have?"
"No!" She shook her head. "I just mean … You're kinda protective of me. That I've always known. So you let him off pretty easy."
"I want to protect you from things that are trying to kill you," Xander pointed out. "Parker was just an asshole."
"Oh. So you just gave him an … asshole smackdown."
He shook his head. "When you say it like that, you make it sound dirty."
She laughed, and he joined her. After a minute, she wiped her eyes and said, "But you never told me about it."
He snorted. "Tell you a guy you'd cared for was talking trash about you? Yeah, that'd make your day."
"Just like you never told anybody about Jack O'Toole and his little crew of zombie bombardiers."
Xander's face went slack, then he quickly recovered. "You got the scoop from Dawn, right? I'm gonna have words with her; I only gave her the whole story so she wouldn't tell you the parts she already knew —" He stopped suddenly, and looked to her with concern and uncertainty.
"That's right," Buffy said. "I learned about it from Dawn. So we owe her that much."
Xander slumped on the stone bench. "God, this sucks."
"Anyhow," she went on with bright, plastic cheerfulness, "finding out that you'd decked Parker reminded me of you jumping Spike when he had me on the ropes, right after stinky Parker gave me the brush-off …" The artificiality faded from her voice. "Spike had been around for more than a century," she said soberly. "He loved the kill, he must have killed thousands, including two Slayers. And you went straight at him, without even a weapon. What were you thinking?"
Xander's smile was easy and rueful. "Remember who you're talking to, here. Thinking didn't really figure into it."
"Whatever. It's just, that's what made me realize. Not what you did, not even why you did it. It was what was going on while you were doing it. You put me first, you put me ahead of everything else, for years you did that and all the time I was pushing you into the background and making sure you knew that's all it would ever be, and you did everything for me in spite of all that …" Her voice trailed off, and it was some seconds before she could again speak steadily. "I've messed up every relationship I ever had. There was no way I was going to do that with you. But it was happening anyhow, I was killing everything that could ever be between us, throwing it away without ever having it. I just couldn't stand to keep doing that."
"So here we are," he said.
"Yeah," she agreed. "I pushed you away because I didn't want to lose you. And here we are. Am I the Queen of Irony, or —?"
He looked up sharply; she had stopped with unexpected abruptness. "What?" he asked.
"Another one," she said, pointing with a tilt of her head. "There."
He looked in the direction she had indicated, and together they watched the shift line as it moved across the park. Small changes blossomed in its wake: different concentrations of wildflowers, chalk markings appearing on or fading from the sidewalks, metal mesh litter baskets assuming slightly different positions. It wasn't coming toward them, and even altered its course to move away at an angle; still, the sighting of it had underscored the somberness of their mood.
Minutes after the event had passed from view, Buffy broke the silence that had fallen on them. "Do you think Willow will be okay?"
Xander studied her. "Okay how? I mean, we saw her after the … after, so we know she didn't get wiped away. That leaves a lot of possibilities, and I don't know which one you're worried about."
"I know, we saw her." She made a little grimace of frustration. "And she didn't remember giving us the charms, didn't remember what she had been explaining before the change wall hit her, total disappointment there. But actually, it was her clothes that gave me a minor wig."
He thought about it. "Her clothes? Okay, so we've got used to seeing her in cargo pants and safari jackets. But Willow's worn dresses before."
"Not since Halloween." She shook her head. "Come on, Xander, her whole style was different, everything about her. Guys may not realize it, but there's a meaning behind a woman's appearance."
"She was different, yeah," he said. "Believe it or not, I could see that. Just, why is it a big deal?"
She looked to him. "I'm wondering if she's still with Riley, after she got, got altered. You know how much it hurt her when Oz left; it would have been ten times worse if not for Riley. What if that got shifted, too?"
"No," he said. "I won't believe that." Buffy sat back, surprised by the vehemence of his response, and he went on. "I love you, I'll never be able to tell you how much I love you, but I also know us getting together was about as likely as you and Faith going off to join a convent …"
He paused, his mouth still open, and his gaze went distant. Buffy waited a moment, then punched him in the arm, not at all gently. "Ow!" he said; and then, as his muscles began to feel the full effect, "Ow, ow, owww. What was that for?"
She gave him a pfft! "Don't even try to play innocent, buster! You SO just had me and Faith in a lesbian nun fantasy!"
"Did not," he protested, rubbing his rapidly bruising arm. "There's absolutely nothing sexy about those habits they wear. Not even when you add garter belts." He shrank back from the glare she directed at him, then rallied. "Anyway, my point is, I still can't really believe it happened with you and me. But Willow and Riley, the moment you see them together, you know that's how it's supposed to be, that there were never two people so right for each other. The two of us, that's a miracle; but Willow and Riley, that's destiny. No way even an apocalypse is going to mess with destiny."
She weighed what he had said. "You really think so?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, I do." He put his hand on hers. "She found maybe the only guy in the world who could appreciate her the way she deserved. That's no accident. You're looking at fate, baby."
Buffy let her head dip forward, her hair falling to cover her face. Xander watched her, and when her shoulders began to shake, he moved around the table to sit beside her, taking her in his arms and holding her wordlessly while she wept.
~ – ~ – ~
There was still over an hour of daylight remaining when they left the park. Not from necessity, they just felt like moving. "How much more time do you think we have?" she asked as they walked together.
He shrugged. "Anybody's guess. Thing like this, you don't exactly get an instruction manual."
"You'd expect it would take awhile, though," she insisted. "I mean, restructuring a whole universe isn't something you knock off in an afternoon. The speed that we've seen in the change walls, it could take months just to cover every part of Sunnydale, never mind the rest of the world. And what about outer space, huh? Where no man has gone before? That should be worth an eon or two —"
"Much as I regret putting the harsh in your realm," Xander said, "I really don't think we can count on James Kirk to stretch out our deadline. The way Willow explained it — at least what I think she was trying to say, things were moving kinda quick there — our timeline is being rewritten, retconned to make a place where Dawn will fit. So, we're talking fourteen years of fiddling with history —"
"Dawn's only thirteen," Buffy interrupted.
"Yeah, but you have to add nine months of pregnancy. So, fourteen or thereabouts. Thing is, something like that may change everything, but you don't have to change everything to get something like that. Yeah, you're looking at thousands of people; yeah, fourteen years, most of it in Los Angeles; but once you get outside California, how many things really have to change for this to have always been that way? And, since we don't actually have starships yet, the rest of the universe doesn't really get affected at all." He put his arm around her waist, leaving enough space between them that they could walk freely. "Wish I could offer a more cheerful theory, Buffer of Mine, but I don't think we should count on having much longer."
"I know," she said. Then she frowned, and added, "How'd you work all this out in your head? Willow only had a few minutes to give us the lowdown, in between being all chanty and getting our charms to align with our auras —" She gestured with the wire-and-feather bracelet on her wrist, matching the one Xander wore. "— and then she let herself get caught by that shift wall while I was still asking for details. You're talking like this is something you understand."
"Not remotely," he said. "But I have a few more years' experience than you at interpreting Willowbabble, and I spent a lot of time trying to follow Babylon 5 continuity. Compared to that, reality is tic-tac-toe."
"Oh," Buffy said; then, in an arch monotone, she added, "'Resistance is futile. Prepare to be assimilated.'"
"Okay, two things," Xander said. "First, wrong show. Second, apt to the twentieth power of spookiness."
"At least we're all right until we run out of maneuvering room," Buffy said. "What was happening before Willow got to us …" She shuddered. "I don't know which was worse: feeling my memories change, or having that done to me without me even knowing it was going on."
"Yeah, well, the charms keep that from happening again." He sighed. "I wonder if they're also what make us able to see the shift lines, or if she gave us Life-Warp Vision as an add-on?"
"Anything's possible," Buffy said. "Before, Willow was treating magic and hacking like they were completely separate things, but ever since Riley got her into his research group, she's been doing a mix-and-match that has Giles pulling his hair out." She squinted at the bracelet. "I don't see any microchips …"
She was moving even as he shouted warning, whirling to block and counterstrike, and a scything leg-sweep took the feet out from under the second demon while she was still registering the appearance of the first. g'Nath — those were tough but slow — and she'd have to take the two Polgara without giving them a chance to use the bone skewers. Handspring and leaping kick, and Xander was shouting again and she threw herself into a single-axel to move out of the path of the where-the-heck-did-THAT-come-from? shift line that was suddenly among them. One of the Polgara took her apparent retreat as an opportunity to press her closer, but a long step to her left and in order to reach her it had to pass through the ripples it couldn't see, and winked from existence (or, more likely, to a different existence somewhere else in SunnyD) in the attempt.
Cheered — she had hoped that would happen — she smacked aside a creature of unknown type (except that it was making a really grating high-pitched screech, remember to ask Giles about Blackboard Chalk demons) and jumped to help Xander, who was keeping the g'Nath occupied with taunts and bare fists. The g'Nath wheeled to face her as she charged; she broke its elbows and its neck, grinned at Xander and was about to make a quip when he dived at her, knocking her from her feet and something crashed into the tree behind where she'd been.
"Okay, now I'm pissed," she announced, hopping back up. Unimpressed, the three surviving demons were converging on her, and their bad luck that the second Polgara was in front; she deflected the skewer as it shot toward her, broke it free of the Polgara's forearm, and — one! two! three! — stabbed her remaining attackers in a series of whirlwind flourishes that would have drawn bravos from D'Artagnan.
Quickly she looked around. "I don't see any more," she said. "Do you see any more?"
"Nope, you got 'em all," Xander assured her, pulling himself to his feet. "And fast, you're just the Sonic the Hedgehog of Slayerdom."
"Thanks," she said. "And thanks for pushing me clear of the Granola demon there, I don't know how he snuck up on me."
"Groeltisch," Xander corrected her. "And he came out of the shift line, we forgot that could happen." He surveyed the bodies strewn around them. "Okay, five demons of four different kinds, working together and coming after us. Spike?"
"Gotta be," she said. "I should have dusted him when I had the chance."
"And over here is Mr Sensitive, very not saying 'I told you so'." He brushed himself off. "Mostly because none of us knew that gizmo in Spike's skull wouldn't stop him from hurting unhuman things. And anything he can kill, he can order around."
"At least other vampires won't follow a guy who can't bite a living human," Buffy said. The attack had taken place in a small clearing at the edge of the UCSunD campus; she started away from it, and Xander fell in beside her. "He has to make do with a mixed crew of demon outcasts. Lucky for us the undead are such snobs."
"Yeah, 'cause it's so much easier fighting guys that don't go poof when you poke 'em with a sharp stick." He glanced back. "Not that it caused you much of a problem. The way you broke out … I've never seen anything like it."
"Nothing to lose." Her laugh was short and harsh. "Everything we remember will probably be gone by sunrise, and we won't even know it. I didn't have a reason to hold anything back."
"Well, I'm just letting you know that the Bufster unleashed is not a sight for the faint of heart."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "I'm Batgirl on angel dust when I actually have something I can fight."
He didn't respond immediately; at length, however, he observed, "You could fight this. You've done it before."
"This is not your normal, everyday apocalypse," she said. "Even if we could find a way to win, then what? What's at stake here … You've known Dawn since she was in footie pajamas, you were her best guy friend till she got a crush on you and then you turned all gallant and big-brothery. Could you do that to her? I can't."
"Look, Buffy, I understand how much she means to you —"
"Here and now, we aren't talking about me," she broke in. "What would you do, Xander? Let's say there's an über-wizard standing in front of us, and he could keep this from happening. Would you help him? or do absolutely anything you could to stop him?"
Xander drew a breath to argue, and then let it out. "Right. No way we can fight. Gotcha."
They walked in silence for several minutes. The sun was beginning to dip below the tops of the trees when Buffy spoke, in an odd voice. "You didn't look any different."
Xander cut his eyes toward her. "Huh?"
"I'm moving from one demon to another, I catch you maybe a tenth of a second at a time because I'm busy, but I'm reassured when I see you because everything's normal. Yep, I tell myself, no worries, Xander's holding his own, now I just have to kill this thing in front of me. I'm pulling out all the stops, and you're fighting like you always do."
"O-o-kay," Xander said, eyes and voice showing his puzzlement.
She stopped walking and turned to face him directly. "You've never held anything back, have you? What I was doing just now: you do that all the time, every time. For as long as I've known you."
He tried to make it into a joke. "Hey, I'm Jack Tripper dropped into an Evil Dead jamboree. Giving it everything I've got was the only thing keeping me alive."
"Quitting would keep you alive," she said. "Moving to a place where the death rate was lower than the birth rate would keep you alive. Steering clear of Disaster-Magnet Buffy would keep you alive."
"Nope," he told her. "None of those things would work."
"No?" She flung the words at him. "Why not?"
He took hold of her hands, and the easy, familiar grin was an arrow through her heart. "'Cause they're things I could never do."
~ – ~ – ~
They rested on a bench by the fountain in the campus' central plaza. The sun still hadn't set completely, but some of the poled lamps were coming on, automatic sensors responding to the lengthening shadows. "Remind you of anything?" Xander asked, nodding at the fountain.
"What? You mean the courtyard at Sunnydale High?" She settled herself deeper into the curve of his arm. "I've noticed, but I've always thought this was more cheerful."
"Oh, I don't know." He smoothed back her hair with his fingers. "We had some good times at Hellmouth Central."
"Did we?" she asked. "Or do we just think we did? We can't really know how much of our history was retrofitted before Willow found us and got us warded."
He sighed. "Don't think it works like that, Buf."
"So how does it work?"
He gave her a doubtful sideways look. "Must be more of that hysterical deafness. It sounded like you just asked me to explain something. I mean, besides the deeper philosophical meaning of the double-popsicle."
"Try," she said. "It's not like we have any other really urgent matters at the moment."
"Well, you've seen what happens when a shift line passes." He took her hand, letting their fingers interlace. "Things change; things, not just memories. Probably it started with memories, but that would just be a quick patch till a better foundation could be laid. We know it has something to do with Dawn; Willow caught us just when part of our past was being redone, so we could remember both versions, and in one of them Dawn never existed. Besides, Willow said it was about Dawn, her being tied in with the power that's doing all this.
"Now, if your past is being redesigned, that means that whatever it's supposed to match is either now or in the future; I'm thinking future, 'cause our present is being changed, too. I've got this idea of Dawn appearing in the future, only she needs to have always been here, so a past is created for her; only, somehow it doesn't come around all at once, and things worked out in such a way that we got to see part of it happening."
"I guess," Buffy said. "What I can follow seems to make sense. Tell me again why you always had to struggle for a C-minus in History?"
"Well, let's see: our mayor was a demon wannabe, our principal was a mutant rat-troll, the teachers that weren't trying to eat us had a tendency to get eaten themselves, and every week the school newspaper had an obituaries list longer than the lunch menu. Think that might have something to do with it?"
"Right," she said. "Point taken."
More of the lamps were coming on, and they looked out together over the gathering twilight. "Cyber-nerd that she is," Xander continued, "Willow said this was like a computer hard drive being defragmented: the memory bits are spread out all over the place, so they get zapped here and there and everywhere, and rewritten into a nice, neat block. Me, I think of it more like somebody transplanting a tree; it's a whole tree already, but it has to put down a root system if it's gonna stay alive and solid in its new spot. So Dawn is the tree, and the roots reach back into the past. Or then again, maybe it's this, this creative energy pulse, and we have reverberations running back and forth between then and now and used-to-be, making changes with every pass …"
Buffy hadn't moved or spoken, but he felt something through her presence in his arms, and pulled himself to a stop. "Not that it really matters how it's happening," he concluded lamely. "What counts is, it's happening."
"Yeah," Buffy said. She was silent for a moment; then, abruptly and loudly, she began to sing, "It's the end of the world as we know it! It's the end of the world as we know it —!"
He drew back from her, shocked. "Buffy!"
"What?" she challenged him. "Are you gonna try and tell me it's not true?"
"Okay," he said. "First, grotesquely inappropriate behavior? My department. How would you like it if I started using lilac nail-polish and bench-pressing Toyotas? Second, I think bitter humor is maybe not the best use we could make of our time right now."
She tried to hold the defiant expression, but it drained out of her as he watched. She turned half-away from him, and her next words were so low he couldn't make them out. "Um, run that by again?" he said. "With a tad more volume?"
"I said, it's not just about Riley." She looked back to him. "I love Willow, but it isn't about her and Riley."
"No," he said. "No, it's not."
"I felt it," she went on. "When Willow was fitting the charms to us, I felt myself change. Something in my history got a retro-makeover, and I remembered not … not letting myself know how I felt about you, not even thinking about you. It happened. It was true once, or could have been true once, and the whole world is changing and what's to stop it from happening again?"
"You said it! We're not destiny, we're a miracle! Are we supposed to just order up another miracle and expect the universe to say 'Sure, you want breadsticks with that?'"
Xander reached over to gently take hold of her shoulders. "Maybe I didn't say it right. You being with me, that's a miracle. Willow with Riley, that's destiny. But me loving you, that's not gonna be different in any universe where I'm alive. Reality may change, but that's one of the things reality is made of."
He had seen her break oak, crack steel, had watched her crush demons five times her size; but now she just looked like a teenaged girl, frightened and vulnerable, her eyes pleading. "You've always been there for me," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "But the way I've treated you … I was so stupid, for so long —"
"See?" he said, grinning hugely. "And people tried to tell us we had nothing in common!"
She smiled at him while tears spilled down her cheeks, and hugged him with fierce urgency. He held her, feeling her breath filter through the fabric of his shirt to warm his chest, rapture and pain at an almost perfect equilibrium inside him. If this was the end of the world, it was worth the cost; but the cost was almost beyond bearing.
Something changed in her body, in the tension of her arms. "Yeah?" he said; and when she didn't answer immediately, he prompted, "What is it? Another shift line?"
She sighed. "Two, actually."
He pulled away to look. "Two? We've never seen that before." Sure enough, he could see them: operating in seeming independence of each other, almost a hundred feet apart, but two at once, and their speed also seemed greater than he remembered. "Fun's just busting out all over. We'd better skip outta here —"
"Why?" she said.
He didn't pretend not to understand. "Buffy, c'mon. Giving up, it's … it's just not you."
"We can't fight this," she said. "We can't even try. Dawn … she wasn't, and now she is, and I can't make her not-be again. So that means letting it happen. No matter how long we keep running, it'll come to that sooner or later. And … I'm tired."
"So, what?" he said. "You want to just stand here and let those things have us?"
She looked at the shift lines, each one relentlessly chewing through the world around them (like a big, ripply Pac-Man, his gamer-geeker inner self insisted), and then at him. "No," she said. "I want to dance."
He hadn't consciously noticed the music before now, but yes, it was there; someone had a radio playing somewhere, car stereo or boom box or open dorm window, and the sound carried softly to where they stood, audible even above the splashing of the fountain. She slid back into his arms, and then they were moving together. She was right. This wasn't surrender, this was her doing what she had always done: facing fate on her own terms. The two of them, being what they were for as long as a crumbling reality would allow it.
There were more shift lines now, as if they were all beginning to converge on the last remaining section of an unconverted existence … which, come to that, might very well be the case. It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was in his arms, her body undulating against his. This was his reality, as it had been in every moment since she had crossed the sidewalk in front of the high school, bright in the sun.
"Xander?" she whispered. "Did I ever thank you? for saving my life?"
His throat closed at the memory. Yes, he wanted to say. Every day, every single day, by being alive. The words wouldn't come.
Her mouth was at his ear, her voice barely more than a breath. "I wish I had."
The lines had multiplied, churning around them in all directions. If there had been any possibility of escape, it was gone now. Fine. They would meet this together. It was far from being the worst outcome he could have imagined. He was a lucky man, he told himself, and knew it to be true.
He heard her again, as softly as before, possibly not even speaking to him. "I'll never forget," she was saying. "I'll never forget. I'll never forget. I'll never forget."
He put his face against her hair and inhaled deeply, holding her more tightly than ever; so that her scent, her voice, her touch, her all, would be the last thing that he knew.