Promise

by Jessie

Summary: Buffy leaves town. Spike follows. Xander picks up the pieces.

Rating: PG-13 (for character death and general darkness, though, really, nothing you wouldn't see on the show)

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not mine, nor are its characters and situations. Joss is a God.

Setting: A little less than a year after "Tabula Rasa"

Author's Note: Feedback has got to be one of the ten greatest things on the planet. I live for it. Hope you enjoy the story.

Italics mean that the words are being read, though not aloud.

***

Xander,

I'm okay, you know. You don't have to worry about me. I take care of myself. I slay the bad guys. Typical life of the chosen one.

I think it's fitting. That I'm alone, that is. That's what slayers were made for, right? Death and destruction. Those things are easier when you don't have people who care about you around.

There's a lot of evil in this world.

You wouldn't like it.

-Buffy

*

She was gone when they went to wake her up that morning. She'd done it once before, but then returned soon afterward. So they held out hope.

Two months later, he was gone as well.

Xander was reluctant to say anything about it. But he didn't like the pain in his gut that he got at keeping secrets from the rest of them. He was supposed to be the loyal, trustworthy type. The one who didn't keep secrets.

So, he'd finally surrendered to his better nature; and, under ragged gazes and good intentions, stood up a little straighter in the Magic Box. He didn't have to tell them everything. Just… enough. He swallowed. In his mind he pictured that night before they had discovered her missing: a loud pounding on his door at a quarter after two, and Anya mumbling at him to make it stop before rolling over and falling back to sleep.

He should have been used to unexpected night visitors at that stage in his life. But, damn it, he liked his sleep. And he wasn't very eager to give up the luxury, even if all those years of creatures of the darkness and spells by moonlight had tried to prepare him for it.

He'd cursed under his breath and flung the door open abruptly, ready to begin yelling the moment after doing so. But he never got the opportunity. He so rarely did.

A blur of shadow and leather burst through the door, and suddenly he was staring blankly, anger faded away into surprise, at the only vampire on the planet cocky enough to show up on his doorstep and expect to be happily greeted.

He knew he never should have invited the creature in. A moment of weakness on his part, but he had been paying for it ever since.

Hadn't he learned his lesson with Angel?

He silently reminded himself to talk to Willow, once the sun was up, about that de-inviting spell.

A moment passed before surprise, at last, faded to bewilderment; and Xander shut the door and turned to look at his unwelcomed guest. The vampire, every inch of him itching to move, was even more restless than usual, and Xander had to hold in his awe of the mere idea.

The creature, even in the darkness, looked angry enough to cause him to take an unintentional step back.

Shadows rolled over the vampire's stiff form as he paced back and forth across the short distance of carpeting between the wall and the dining table. The night had, suddenly, become much more interesting,

though Xander was certain he'd rather be in bed.

"What the hell…" He began to question the man who he could only, with a shudder, refer to as an 'ally'. 'Acquaintance' would be accurate. 'Friend' was pushing it. But, before he could finish speaking, he was interrupted.

"She left this." The British accent was sharp and unyielding in the shadows of the living room. Xander stared at its owner as the vamp stopped pacing for a moment to shove a crumpled piece of paper forward. The moment he took it, the demon was moving again.

"Who?" Xander glanced down at the paper, but was reluctant to open it.

"Who do ya think, git?" The vampire spat. His hands shook and he reached into his coat pocket for a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. Xander didn't bother asking him not to light up. Instead, he stared at the wad of paper in his hands, hesitated, and turned on a lamp.

He opened the paper suspiciously, then read with a heavy heart, his eyebrows furrowed in an expression of bewilderment.

The note consisted of a single line, in rushed, blue ink.

"You made me a promise once. I trust you to do the right thing."

He looked up at the vampire again.

"She bloody trusts me?" He seemed to be reading Xander's mind, and was angrier about what was going on there than he was. "Me? To do the right thing? When in my entire bloody unlife have I ever done the right thing?" The vampire was still furious, though more than a little puzzled as well. Ash from his cigarette fell to the floor as he used his hands to accent his words.

Xander couldn't say anything. His thoughts raced and so did his heart as he realized just what this meant.

She was gone.

It took him a moment to realize that the vampire had stopped pacing and was now staring at him silently. It made him uncomfortable to be looked at like that by such a creature. But he understood the pain that was reflected in those cold, blue eyes. And, for a moment, he felt a very real connection between himself and the monster before him.

"Promise me something, Harris." The words- almost a whisper- came out of nowhere, and he couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement. He stared back, disbelieving.

"What?"

"If something happens… If I can't keep my promise. You'll protect the Bit?" His expression was pleading, though obviously going for hardened and cold.

"Yeah." Xander didn't know what to think, but answered anyway, knowing that he would anyway. Knowing that he would always be the loyal one. He would always protect the girl who he had come to think of as his own sister.

"And you'll tell big sis? Where ever the hell she got off to. You'll tell her the Bit's all right? That I kept my promise?" He nodded his head and swallowed. The vampire did the same. They stood there for a long moment in silence, trying to understand each other. Trying to understand what was happening.

She was gone.

"Bugger this." The vampire put out his cigarette on the table, took the paper from Xander's hands, and breezed out the front door, leather jacket trailing behind him.

*

The Magic Box was still and quiet when he finished telling them what had happened that night. No one thought to ask him why he hadn't told them before. He looked down at his feet and leaned against the counter awkwardly.

The vampire was gone now too. And he knew where he'd gone. A dozen different conversations since that night filled his head, and he *knew* where the vamp had gone off to. Because where else would he go? Who else would he break his promise for, but the one who had made him keep it in the first place?

They'd never talked about the note again after that night. Or Dawn, though the vampire had made it a habit, once again, to stop by the house and 'baby-sit'.

The young girl seemed to accept her sister's disappearance better than any one. It unnerved Xander. He assumed she was hiding her real emotions. She was probably just as good at it as the slayer was.

And, now that the vamp was gone, it was his responsibility to protect her. The girl was his job now. He'd promised her former protector, and he had, in his mind, promised her sister as well.

No one knew what to do. What to think. They, silently, decided not to talk about it.

A few days later Xander wrote a letter that he had no idea how to begin or where to send once finished. He wrote it anyway though. He'd made a promise. He was still the loyal and trustworthy type, after all.

A week after that, unexpectedly, there was a postcard in the mail addressed, very specifically, to him, with nothing but a P.O. Box on it.

He mailed the letter the next day.

*

It was odd the way that the world kept spinning. He knew it would; knew from experience that it didn't stop just because his life was suddenly vastly different and incomplete. But it felt strange regardless. His wedding loomed closer and closer ahead. Dawn's grades went up and down and back up again, as if on some roller coaster that he wished he were at least able to see.

But the only people with access to that ride were now gone.

Vampires and demons were few and far between. With the two people who had a fighting chance against them now gone, Willow had come up with idea of a protection spell for the entire town. Xander hadn't liked the thought of using magic, but didn't argue as it kept the vampire and demon population to a minimum.

Once in a while he'd sit and write out, long hand, some of the many misadventures of the straggling group. He'd accent the stories of Dawn's growing up with comments about what a wonderful student she was becoming, and how many friends she had, even if it wasn't true. He'd scribble out sentences about his upcoming marriage, and the success of the Magic Box, and his plans for the future.

He tried to keep the letters light.

And, sporadically - sometimes weeks between them and sometimes months - he'd get a postcard or brief letter in return. The thoughts written out on them were always disjointed. Random. It was like a diary. A document of her thoughts and of her new life.

He never told the others.

*

I'm waitressing now. Get up. Brush teeth. Work. Fight demons. Sleep. Days are pretty much the same. I don't think I can take it much more. Reminds me of home.

How's Dawn?

*

He tried to picture her waitressing. Tried to picture her living alone and doing nothing with her time but fighting demons, working, and staying hidden.

He wondered what it was like to not want to be found.

*

Moved again. It occurs to me that Faith used to do this. Live like this. I don't know what that means. Maybe I'm a better slayer now. Maybe I'm supposed to be alone.

He found me the other night. Stays out of my way. Prefers stalking I guess. But I know he's there.

Why didn't you tell me he left?

*

He had told her about the vampire in his first letter. But he hadn't told her everything. Told her that he had left the city, but that he'd gone on to go brood somewhere in Europe. Or to find Dru. Now that he thought about, he couldn't quite remember what his original story had been.

Whatever it was, he'd thought, at the time, that it would be best.

At the end of his next letter, below his name and barely able to fit on the page, he'd written, simply: "He kept his promise. Dawn's doing well."

He'd written her the same thing before, if worded slightly differently, but felt it needed repeating. She needed to know that the vampire hadn't just abandoned any of them, and hadn't abandoned his promise to her either.

*

New apartment. Worse than the last one I think. No more job, but slaying keeps me busy. It's hard to imagine a place with more demons than the hellmouth. But here I am.

He's still following me. Likes to stay a step or two behind. I leave a city and he enters it. I'd tell him to go away, but I can never find him. I'd kill him, but he slays his fair share of demons every night too. I find their bodies in random places.

He must know that I know he's there.

*

The marriage was only a month away. Dawn's grades were down again, and so was her mood. Tara was quieter than usual, and the others wondered if she'd had another fight with Willow, but didn't dare ask.

Xander wrote about the upcoming wedding.

*

I think about death sometimes. More often now. It keeps me awake at night. But I'm the slayer, right? Thoughts like that aren't good for me. I'm needed here.

I was going to get another job. The money I'd saved was running thin. I didn't though. There was an envelope under the door that morning. It was full of cash. It smelled like cigarettes.

He's still following me.

*

He liked that she confided in him. Even if, he suspected, the only reason was that she had no one else.

Dawn was too young. Willow was far too different from who she was a year ago to still be considered a close friend. And the slayer had never been very close with Tara or Anya. Giles was in Europe and seemed too distant and abstract because of it.

And the vampire no longer had a permanent address.

Xander wished he could be there for her. Was, at least, glad the other man was taking care of her. He had known that it was unlikely that he wouldn't. But it was reassuring to read her words telling him that the man was there. That he was doing his part.

And if Xander couldn't be with her, he was going to force himself to be glad that the other man was.

Even if the other man was a vampire.

*

New address. New city. Every time I think I've lost him, I find a cigarette on the ground near my apartment building. I catch a glimpse of his blond hair. I hear about a new vamp in town from the other demons.

He's not as stealthy as he likes to think.

I'm going to leave again soon. Quickly this time. Unexpectedly. I'll go to a place where he can't find me.

His presence makes me nervous. Reminds me of home. I wish he'd leave me alone. Let me take care of myself.

*

They were married on a Saturday. Simple ceremony. Friends and family. He thought he was going to throw up from nervousness, but made it through in one piece.

He wished she could have been there.

Once everything was settled again, he took it upon himself to track down Dawn's father. They didn't have the robot any more to cover for the young girl's sister. And she needed a legal guardian.

He wasn't about to let her father take her away. As soon as he found a semi-reliable address for him, he wrote and asked for custody of the man's estranged daughter.

Anya wasn't jumping for joy at the idea. But she was supportive.

Willow told him that he didn't have to go to all this trouble. That she could do a spell that would make it as if Dawn had always belonged to the newly weds. A simple spell, and it would be so much easier. Xander had held in his anger and fear at her words, and told her that he'd consider it as a last resort.

At the very least, he wanted Dawn's father's permission before he did anything. It felt only right.

A few days after the wedding, Tara became ill.

*

He found me again. I don't know how, but he did. It's a big city, but I can still sense him. You get to know a vampire, and it's impossible not to tell when he's around. The local demon haunts give him away. Every conversation starts with 'I heard he was the master of the hellmouth…' He should learn to lay low.

*

Whenever more than a couple of months went by without a letter, he'd start to worry. What if something had happened to her? What if she had been found out? Captured? Tortured? A thousand different scenarios would race through his mind and he'd start itching to go out and track her down so that he could somehow help.

But another letter always arrived. And, when it did, his fears were quelled. He'd breathe in deeply the moment the postcard or envelope was in his hands, and smile a little, telling himself that he'd known all along that she was all right.

He was Dawn's legal guardian now. As was Anya. The girl's father had been slow in responding, but, when he did, it was only to say that he wasn't about to give Xander any money to help raise her.

They'd gone through the pages upon pages of paperwork, and had succeeded. A little too quickly for Xander's liking, and he suspected Willow of using some magical influence on the courts. But it was over now. And it wasn't his place to teach his friend any sort of life lessons.

Tara was still sick. She'd spent a few agonizing weeks in the local hospital, and was now confined to bed at home where Willow took care of her as best she could. The witch had tried every spell she could think of to make her lover well. Nothing worked.

It tore her up inside that there was something that she couldn't do with magic.

*

I don't want you to worry about me. But I thought I'd let you know what I'm doing. Just in case you don't get any more letters after this and wonder why. Don't worry. I know what I'm doing.

There's a new demon in town. Showed up a couple weeks ago. He's gotten into the nasty habit of killing young girls. I hear he's started to grow a following too. Which is never good. You'd think he'd be an easy slay. But he's got some major muscle. Stronger than most things I've faced.

I'm going to kill him tomorrow night.

*

Xander worried over the letter for a few days before other, more immediate, problems suddenly reared their ugly heads, distracting him.

Dawn had dropped out of school. Had gone a whole week and a half before any one found her out. Anya tried to talk to her, but wasn't very good on the sympathy front. Tara was still sick, more so now, and Willow had sunk into a deep depression, her entire world having been turned upside down. Suddenly, magic wasn't any help. She didn't know what to do.

Thursday morning, Xander sat down with Dawn on her bed in the small room they'd made for her in their apartment. They'd had to sell her house, but he'd decided not to tell her sister.

He tried to reason with her at first. Tried to explain to her how she had to go to school, or else how could he continue to convince the government that he was able to take care of her? And what would she do with her life is she didn't have a decent education?

She didn't seem to care. She'd been like that for a while now. It scared him sometimes, and he wished he knew how to help. He felt like he had aged decades in the last two years. From goofy bachelor and member of the 'Scooby gang' to a married man, father of a teenager, and sole confidant of a renegade slayer.

She'd been close to tears and, truthfully, so had he, when, as a last resort, he pulled out the stack of letters he'd been hiding behind a novelty wall hanging.

The young girl gave him a look, as if suspicious of his motives. But then she read the first letter, and, though he had been expecting her to be furious with him for keeping the letters from her, she, instead, let herself cry.

He embraced her and whispered soothing things into her ear. Tried to tell her that it would be all right. That her sister was fine. That she would want the girl to go to school. Dawn had nodded her head in agreement, and spent the next hour reading over every letter twice.

He didn't let her see the last one.

Another month passed without a letter, and he started to worry again. He smiled for Anya and Dawn. Made breakfast for them each morning and cracked jokes over the dinner table. The sound of their laughter cheered him somewhat.

He visited Tara as often as he could find the time to. She was in the hospital again, and barely able to speak. But Dawn visited her everyday after school, and it put a smile on her face to see the teenager.

He visited Willow even more often. She hadn't used magic at all that month, which made every one around her happy. But then… she had also barely eaten.

Xander's first excuse for a genuine smile came in the form of a letter, written in a different hand than what he was accustomed to.

*

Harris,

Your slayer's fine. Took a couple, but she'll live. She asked me to write you and tell you that. She was half asleep when she said it - hasn't been fully conscious in a couple weeks - but I figured you'd want to know any way.

I expect you're keeping your promise. If not, I'd know about it. Believe me. You wouldn't live a day passed the moment anything happened to the little Bit. You know that.

She should wake up any day now.

*

Tara died on a Tuesday. It wasn't unexpected. The doctors said that the pain was minimal. That they should be grateful that she died in her sleep, and not under 'different' circumstances.

Dawn still spent the afternoon in tears though. Xander didn't know what to say to her. Tara had been her last great confidante. Her one solid part of that chaotic world, even when she was sick. With the vampire and the sister gone, Tara was the one Dawn had turned to.

Xander held her in his arms for a little while, then gave her some space for the rest of the day. At night, in a desperate attempt to cheer her up, he showed her the last letter he'd received. The one written in ancient yet messy script.

She'd grinned, her cheeks stained with tears, and chuckled a little.

"See," he smiled at her a little and tried to offer some comfort. "Things'll turn out all right. Just wait and see."

Willow was a wreck. It seemed nothing could bring her out of her depression. Frustrated and down right pissed off, Dawn had locked herself and the witch in a bedroom, and hadn't come out until Willow was right behind her, looking worse than ever, but now able to smile. To eat a full meal. To say more than a few words to any one person.

They'd all wondered what had been said between the two.

They phoned Giles about the tragedy. And he'd been, predictably, heartbroken, but busy with his own demon sacrifice or whatnot, and unable to fly back for the funeral.

Xander had trouble writing the letter about it. He started and abandoned a dozen different drafts. Wondered whether she'd even get the letter if he wrote it, as he hadn't received another one from her yet. He finally forced himself, after several minutes of pacing back and forth across the apartment in the same way that the vampire once had, to just sit and write what came to him.

The funeral came and went. He'd yet to receive another letter from the slayer. Dawn would graduate this year. Anya was pregnant with their first child.

He felt a hundred years old.

Willow's protection spell finally hit a snag, and suddenly there were a few more vampires running around then usual. He did he best to patrol every night and keep the evil in check while still being a husband, a father, and trying to find a new job that would bring in more money for his growing family. Willow helped, but hadn't done a spell in months and didn't want to start now.

Dawn was the biggest help. He'd finally allowed her, mostly out of necessity, to go on patrol. It turned out she'd been doing some training, and was now better at staking vamps and beheading demons than any of the others.

The two old friends would stand side by side and watch the young woman slay, Willow smiling broadly and commenting that, "she takes after her sister."

The girl wasn't anything close to being another slayer. But she did her best, and it showed.

"At least she has a hobby." Anya had said over breakfast one morning as soon as Dawn had left for school. Xander forced a smile at the thought, but didn't think that the girl's new 'hobby' was something her sister would approve of.

A week later, unexpectedly, a letter arrived.

*

It's hard to keep track of the days sometimes. The months and years. Tell me how old Dawn is. Tell me if her life is working out the way she wanted it to. Tell me that you're taking care of each other. That you're happy.

Tell me that my friends are still alive.

*

It was a girl.

Of course it was a girl. They named her Tara, middle name: Anne. It seemed oddly fitting. Tara Anne Harris. Dawn had suggested it.

Graduation loomed closer, and Xander was reminded of his own, fateful commencement. Large 'snake-thing' and all. Life had seemed so much easier in high school. Not a whole lot easier, but easier none the less. He wanted things to stay simple for Dawn. Though, he supposed they never really had been for her. Her older sister was the slayer. And she had been the key. And now, her entire family gone, she was a young woman who knew what she wanted and went after it.

Simple wasn't a word she understood. 'Want' was a different matter all together.

She 'wanted' to slay demons. So she trained until she was ready, and she slayed demons. She 'wanted' to graduate high school, despite numerous absences and failed tests. So she studied harder, did her homework, took extra courses at the community college, and was assured graduation. She 'wanted' to be more responsible. So she helped with the baby, and with the Magic Box, and never broke a sweat.

She was amazing to watch sometimes.

Other times, Xander worried.

Not as much as he could have. She seemed capable enough, and he had a new baby in the house. His priorities didn't always include excessive amounts of worry over his seventeen - almost eighteen she liked to remind him - adopted daughter.

But he did worry occasionally. Every now and then he'd catch Dawn sifting through the still hidden stack of letters he'd been receiving over the past couple years. Nearly three now. It seemed like longer.

He'd catch her almost crying, but not. Holding it in. He was afraid that she held too much in. That she'd take after her sister in that respect. Keep it all bottled up until the worst possible moment.

Willow was doing well. She'd readjusted quickly enough, returning to classes at the university, though forced to stay on another year to make up credit lost during Tara's illness. She didn't seem to mind. She focused on schoolwork more. Computers. Books. Once in awhile he'd find her with a far away look in her eyes, but she'd smile and try to cover it up as soon as she noticed his gaze.

"Do you ever think about her?" She'd asked one evening as they sat around the store after closing, eating cold pizza. Anya was at home with Tara. Dawn was studying.

"All the time." He'd replied, once the shock at the question had passed. He sometimes forgot that no one else knew about the letters. He took in a breath and wanted to tell her. Willow deserved to know. After everything, she deserved to know.

"It must have been awful for her." He gave his friend a strange look, not understanding what she meant. Willow shrugged a little. "With everything that was going on, every one's problems. And nothing she could do about any of it. She must have felt so… helpless. Lost. I can't imagine the kind of pain she was in. Such pain that she would need to run away. I don't blame her, it's just… I wish I could have been there for her."

Xander sat back and swallowed soundlessly. Willow shrugged again, settled into her jacket, and left with a brief smile. He couldn't show her the letters. He wanted to, but that's not what the slayer would want. He was her confidant. So that's the part he was gonna play.

*

I sometimes forget the difference between night and day. I find myself trapped in awkward cycles. I sleep while the sun's up. I slay while it's down. I find death everywhere.

I wonder if slayers were always nomads. If they moved around as much as I do, or more. I wonder if slayers are supposed to be alone.

I'm never alone any more.

*

When Dawn didn't show up at curfew a few nights later, he felt something sharp twist in his gut. Tara cried from the other room. He could hear Anya's footsteps as she went to the baby. He stared at the front door from his seat in the living room and felt his heart beat race. Fifteen minutes past. Twenty.

She was never late from patrol.

He should have gone with her.

At twenty-five minutes past, he grabbed his coat and told Anya he'd back soon.

First stop was the graveyard and everywhere in between. The vampire's old crypt still rested there, more or less undisturbed as most creatures of the darkness were loathe to think of what the former inhabitant might do to them if he found them snooping about.

He knew Dawn went there sometimes. That she liked to just go there to study. Or watch TV. As if waiting for the day that the vampire would return and tell her to get the bloody hell outa his place before she broke something. Or caught cold from the draft.

Xander searched the upper and lower levels, the darkness not helping any as he cursed under his breath at not bringing a flashlight. After a moment his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the downstairs and he made out a lit candle in the corner. He followed its light into the next room. And there she was. Sleeping Beauty in that large and rather excessive four-poster bed. As tall as she had become, she still looked tiny in the middle of that massive thing.

He let out a small sigh of relief and moved to her.

Blood spilled onto the floor.

*

'What was it with Summers' women?' He asked himself in the lobby of the hospital, his body and mind completely numb. None of them could ever just stay alive and healthy, could they? First Joyce got sick. And, as if that wasn't hard enough to deal with, she had to up and die too. Unexpectedly at that. And then her oldest daughter… well, that girl had already died twice. And had runaway just as often.

He'd thought Dawn would be different. That, somehow, she'd always be healthy. Strong. Young. He held back tears as he watched the doctor come forward and explain to him how much blood loss there was and that he should be thankful that he had found her when he did. That they were lucky.

He didn't believe him though. If he was so damn lucky, than why had it happened at all? Why had any of it happened?

And what was it about Summers' women that made him love them so much?

He felt sick to his stomach when morning came and Dawn still hadn't woken up. "It'll last a few days at the most," they had told him, but how could they know? They hadn't been right about anything as far as he was concerned.

He wrote the letter to her sister while at the girl's bedside. Willow had gone downstairs for coffee. Anya had just left with Tara. He would call Giles the next day, he told himself. He wasn't ready to deal with the Englishman's excuses for why he couldn't come back. Sunnydale wasn't his home anymore. He had every right to stay away. But Xander was still bitter about it.

He wrote the letter quickly, scribbling it out on the first piece of paper he could find and then paying what was left in his wallet at the time to overnight it. He hadn't known what to say exactly, only that this was the kind of thing that he couldn't sugarcoat. And that she needed to know.

The next day, he made up his mind to call the former watcher. He tried to figure out the time difference in his head before hand, but had given up and figured it didn't matter.

Giles promised that he'd be on the first plane back that he could find. But he'd called back an hour later saying that something had come up. An evil curse or something that he had to stop. Xander hadn't followed most of the man's ramblings, but assured him that it was all right. He didn't need to come back. Dawn would be all right.

He hoped.

Her hospital room smelled like antibiotics and stale bread. She still hadn't woken up. The doctor said it wasn't unexpected. To be patient. Xander sat in the chair by her bed and itched to go out hunting for whatever had done this to her. Not a vampire - there were no bite marks on her neck - but a demon most likely. What kind of demon, he wasn't certain of, and was worried that, whatever it was, it knew the magical properties of the key's blood. But then, if that was the case, he figured something would have come up already. So he decided to focus on the problem at hand.

The next day was spent, again, back and forth between her bedside and the Magic Box. He bargained the school principal into letting Dawn graduate regardless of her missed classes. He smiled for Tara, and held Anya in his arms. The ex-demon wasn't as close to the girl as Xander or Willow was, but she'd grown attached to her. Had done her best to become a mother figure.

The whole thing hurt her in a way that she hadn't imagined it could.

"Wake up, Dawnie. Wake up." He whispered to her. To himself. To who ever might listen. The sun set and the lights in the hallway blinked on. He yawned and stretched and remembered that he'd told Anya that he'd come home for dinner. He didn't want to leave the girl, but it wasn't as if there was anything more he could do in that moment.

Another light flickered on somewhere. The air conditioning kicked in. The night felt empty and… wrong.

"Dawn?" Xander looked up at the sound of the hesitant voice, his eyes opening wide and his thoughts racing.

It had been three years since he'd heard that voice.

A small, blonde thing stepped froward, out of the shadows that hid her. Her clothes were darkly colored and simple. Trendy, but not eye-catching. Her expression was fearful, but there was a spark in her eyes.

Xander gawked.

The young woman swallowed and took another step forward. Behind her, a man tilted his head a bit and swallowed as well. The both of them stared at the young girl in the hospital bed for several long seconds, before the blonde turned her gaze to Xander. He stared back and, hesitantly, stood up.

"Buffy." He breathed her name. As if, by saying it any louder, he'd cause her to disappear. Something inside of him broke at the thought that she might not be real. That he might dreaming this encounter.

"Hey." She whispered awkwardly, paused a moment self consciously, then moved to Dawn's bedside in two swift steps. She leaned over her sister protectively, and put a hand to the young woman's cheek. The two men watched her for a moment, then looked up to stare at each other.

"You did well by her?" The vampire asked, though he didn't really need to. There was something about his voice that seemed different. Maybe it had just been too long since he'd heard it. Maybe he was he one who was different. Maybe they both were.

"Yeah." Xander pursed his lips. The other man tried to offer him a sympathetic smile, but it wavered before it had even begun.

There was an eternity of silence in which none of them moved. The night still felt odd. Cold. The hospital was too dark in this wing.

"Thank you." He turned his head at the sweet sound of the voice he had been waiting to hear again ever since he realized it had gone. He looked at her seriously and nodded his head in response. She looked tired. Older. He wondered if he looked the same.

"She gonna wake up soon, then?" The vampire asked, his voice softer than it had been three years ago. He took a small step forward, as if wanting, so badly, to touch the young girl, but too afraid to attempt it.

"The doctors say any day now." Xander swallowed again. They all stood, awkwardly. It wasn't the reunion he'd envisioned. Though, admittedly, that fantasy wasn't very realistic as it tended to include a still living and breathing Tara senior, and a Giles who still wore tweed suits and managed a library.

"The baby?" She tried to make conversation. It was forced, though he appreciated the effort and could see, in her eyes, that she really did want to know. She really did care.

"Tara's…" He trailed off, trying to find words that would adequately portray his love for his daughter. "Tara's beautiful. Like her mother." She smiled at his answer. He could sense the vampire wanting to do the same, but holding it in.

"And Willow?"

The vampire reached into his pocket, then stopped. Reached again, then thought better of it and kept them there.

"Better." Xander fidgeted. He almost wanted the other man to smoke. It would, at least, make the scene feel more normal.

He offered the young woman the chair he had been sitting in. She declined.

"I wanted to come for… for Tara's…" She couldn't say it. The vampire relaxed a little and gave her a brief, supportive, glance.

"I know." He smiled at her encouragingly. She looked back down at her sister's face. The girl's eyelids fluttered, but only the slayer noticed.

"She's been doing all right in school, then?" The vampire shifted his weight, and Xander was about to answer, but was interrupted.

"Buffy?"

The two men turned their heads to look at the source of the voice, shock filling the void between them. Both smiled simultaneously. The same expressions of relief washed over them, and the air in the room suddenly changed.

The slayer stroked back strands of her sister's hair and gazed lovingly into the girl's eyes. The relief and pure joy on her face was unfettered. And Dawn, for the first time in a long while, seemed genuinely at peace.

The vampire sighed needlessly and tried to brush off his emotion with a shake of his head. "Better thank your lucky stars there, Harris. I might have had to come after you if she hadn't a' woken."

Dawn looked up at the British accent, and her smile turned into a sleepy grin. Endless hours of waiting in that crypt for him to return made tears form in the corners of her eyes, though they didn't fall.

"Spike." She looked happier than she had in three years.

The vampire blinked back tears himself. "Hey Bit. Long time no see, huh?"

Buffy smiled at the vampire briefly, then at Xander, then looked back at her sister. Dawn seemed as though she didn't quite know whether to believe it all or not. Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe all that hoping and wishing she'd been bottling up for the past few years had finally turned on her with this cruel trick.

She decided not to care.

A fluorescent light blinked on and off in the hallway. The night felt different. Painful, yet complete.

Xander breathed in deeply. A few of those hundred years that he knew were in him, washed away in the moment.

He didn't miss them.

*

Xander,

I'm okay, you know. You don't have to worry about me. I take care of myself. I slay the bad guys. Typical life of the chosen one.

I think its fitting. That I'm alone, that is. That's what slayers were made for, right? Death and destruction. Those things are easier when you don't have people who care about you around.

There's a lot of evil in this world.

You wouldn't like it.

-Buffy

*

The End.