Title: Totem
Author: gleefulmusings (formerly xanzpet)
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, post-Chosen AU, comics disregarded.
Rating: T
Warning(s): Spoilers for the entirety of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, particularly the mentions of canonical character deaths. If you do not like Xander, you will not like this.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, lyrics, etc. are the property of their respective owners. Snippets of dialogue may be incorporated from the original canonical episode(s) and belong to their respective authors/creators. The original characters and plot are the property of the author(s). The author(s) is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended, nor should any be inferred. No profit is being made.

Summary: He carries with him the strength and wisdom of the women who saved the world.

to•tem(tō′təm): 1. a. An animal, plant, or natural object serving among certain tribal or traditional peoples as the emblem of a clan or family and sometimes revered as its founder, ancestor, or guardian. b. A representation of such an object. c. A social group having a common affiliation to such an object. 2. A venerated emblem or symbol.

He was three years old when he met Willow Rosenberg and knew, from that day forward, his life would be defined by exceptional women.

During naptime, he withdrew the pair of blue safety scissors he had pocketed during arts and crafts after telling the teacher he had broken the yellow crayon. He crept over to Willow's blanket and carefully snipped a tendril of her long red hair, pausing to marvel as the muted sunlight illuminated the prize clutched in his tiny little fist, setting it ablaze and highlighting tones of colors for which he had no names. Even were it black as a crow, it would still be beautiful, because it was hers. When he returned to his house, he stashed his trophy in an old pencilbox he had long since abandoned.

After, he carried in his heart her sweetness and optimism, and in the darkest moments of his life, it was her smile which guided him safely home.

He was sixteen when Jenny Calendar was murdered and he learned that psychological warfare had very real physical casualties.

While Buffy and Willow consoled Giles at the morgue, he had made the identification of the body, and when the attendant turned to make a notation on his clipboard, he quickly brought out his Swiss Army knife and lopped off a lock of her hair. When he returned home that night, he dug out the pencilbox from beneath his bed and spent the night weaving Jenny's hair to that belonging to Willow. He noted that the combined strands didn't quite wrap around his wrist, and he knew Jenny wouldn't be the last.

When she was put into the ground three days later, he reminded himself never again to take for granted his friends, a lesson he thought he had been taught by Darla the year previous. The supporting cast was always more likely to fall than the lead, CPR aside.

Sweet Sixteen was also the year he met Kendra the Vampire Slayer and realized that titles were perfunctory: sometimes the runners-up succumbed before the crown ever had a chance to be passed.

When he came to in the wake of Drusilla's ambush, he called the police after discerning Willow was breathing, praying Cordelia had escaped to safety. While he waited for the ambulance, he rested Kendra's head in his lap and understood that she was a Slayer he was not meant to save. He cut off a chunk of her hair with a piece of broken glass and made his farewells. That night as he added it to his growing chain, he again wrapped his totem around his wrist, finding that it was now shy of making two complete turns. He wondered who would be next.

Her funeral was notable more for its lack of certain mourners than an oppressive grief. He learned that survival did not belong to the fittest, but to the luckiest. When he charged into battle – mindlessly, some would argue – it was her dedication to her Calling and her human fragility which both spurred and humbled him.

He was twenty when the woman he considered his mother was stolen from him. The death of Joyce Summers taught him that sometimes there was no one to blame, that there was no one to be held accountable save yourself for every missed opportunity to tell people how much you love them, of what they mean to you and the difference they've made in your life.

He learned that doctors were no more infallible than anyone else, and that medicine was a practice and not a science. He learned that the manner of death was, finally, unimportant; the absence was just as acute, and mourning didn't distinguish among circumstances. From her passing he gleaned that fortitude could be quiet yet still effective, that the unconditional love and support of family was the greatest gift afforded to anyone, and that the loss of a parent was when one finally became an adult.

As Buffy and Dawn fell apart, as he watched Giles plummet into a grief both new and familiar, as Willow leaned on Tara and not him, and as Anya realized that there were some things which were simply not meant to be understood, he learned that loss could not be shared; it was as unique as a fingerprint and as personal as emotion. Before he added Joyce's hair to his icon, he paused to run it over the apple of his cheek, the tickling sensation her kiss goodbye.

He was fifteen years old when he met Buffy Summers and discovered that evil was real, and the face of its greatest enemy had a weakness for mochas and guys taller than him.

He was still fifteen the first time he lost her, and twenty the second time. The first time he had brought her back; he brought her back the second time, as well, a little later and with a lot of help from his friends.

It was he who accompanied her body to the morgue, after entrusting Anya to Willow and Tara, and Dawn to Spike and Giles. He requested a moment of solitude, and when he was alone with her, he wondered if hers was the death which would finally incite his defeat, render him insane, or both. He then realized that the death of a hero didn't signal the end of her cause, and that honor could continue to be paid posthumously.

As he dictated her epitaph, he thought of her hands, of their slightness and delicacy, and laughed inappropriately in the face of irony.

He learned that sacrifice could be both selfless and selfish, and that it was those left behind who dwelt on death, while its victims moved onto realms he hoped he might grasp when his turn to rest finally arrived. He was reminded that no one emerged from this mortal coil unscathed, and that the world's greatest champions often went unacknowledged, save for those who loved and remembered. When he threaded her hair into his collection, he noted with sadness, and not a small measure of incredulity, that it was not so different from the others; it was simply hers.

He was twenty-one when Tara Maclay was accidentally assassinated. He learned that death could be random, that innocence and purity were not safeguards against it, and that the phrase 'collateral damage' was perhaps the most offensive in the English language.

She had taught him that friends were the family you chose for yourself; that blood was not thicker than love; that forgiveness and compassion were more important than righteous indignation or perceived moral superiority; and that kindness was the greatest strength of all. He thought he had known these things, but the senselessness of her death made him realize that he in fact knew very little.

As he threaded her golden hair into his totem, he felt like that stupid gnome from that old fable, the one whose name he could never pronounce. Long past the bracelet stage, it was now a necklace, almost a lei. He fell atop his bed and rolled onto his left side, and the necklace slid down and covered his heart, which never ceased to amaze him by how many times it could break.

He was eighteen the first time he got a date for a school dance. He supposed he should have been grateful that it had happened before he graduated.

He was twenty the first time he moved in with a girl, twenty-one when he proposed, and also twenty-one when he abandoned her at the altar. He was twenty-two when he lost her for good.

Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins taught him far more about what it meant to be human than he had ever taught her; in fact, her four short years as a mortal had showed him that she had forgotten more about humanity than he had ever known.

She had taught him that every action – as well as every inaction – had a consequence; that naïveté could be as charming as it was exasperating; that life was a collection of experiences which should be tackled with enthusiasm; that censoring yourself for the sake of your loved ones was inauthentic; that challenging the status quo and the perceptions of others was part of being alive; that fear was not cowardice, but a mechanism for survival; that choosing yourself over another was not always selfish, unless it was during your wedding; and that heroes were made, not born.

He had none of her hair to add to the braid, so he settled for stringing the totem through her engagement ring. After all, diamonds were forever, and diamonds-in-the-rough sparkled just as brightly.

He was three years old when he met Cordelia Chase and decided that he loved her as much as he hated her.

While he went off to found clubs to boycott her existence, she built an army and an entire kingdom. While he hid from as many people as he could, she put herself on display as the example to follow. No matter how many times he tried to knock her off her pedestal, it never changed the fact that he was always beneath her in every way which mattered.

He was sixteen when she decided she loved him back, seventeen when he lost her, eighteen when he lost contact with her, and twenty-three when she died.

He snuck into her hospital room in Wolfram and Hart with the help of a strangely sympathetic Harmony, and when he saw her lying in that bed – which was way too small to contain her magnificence – he knew she would never walk out of that room alive. So he quickly snipped a piece of her hair, kissed her goodbye, and went on his way.

On the flight back to Africa, he slowly added her sable locks to his totem and reflected on everything she had taught him – lessons he wasn't sophisticated enough at the time to have appreciated or even understood.

The first was the prime directive by which she lived her life: you could say and do anything you wanted so long as it was true and truly felt, and thus you never had to apologize for anything.

That no one beneath you could offend you; that tact was a commodity which was ill-afforded when people were being stupid; that lying broke more faith than infidelity; that forgiveness was divine, but forgetfulness was idiotic; that wisdom did not always come from experience, but sometimes from insight – and visions or the loss of an eye had no impact on your perception; that matters of conscience were more important than those of the heart; that physical beauty was enhanced by the beauty beneath it; that sympathy was inherent, but empathy was learned.

And that having a Calling did not make a Champion, but answering your own did.

He finished braiding Cordelia's hair to that of Tara, and then closed the circle by joining Cordelia to Willow. He carefully placed the totem over his neck and secured it beneath his shirt, the weight of Anya's diamond cool against his skin and heavy on his chest. He turned his head to the side to look out the airplane window and sighed.

The White Knight. The Heart. The One Who Sees.

The first to sound the call to arms. The first to feel it all. The first to notice the patterns.

The next battle would see him guided by all of his girls, even those who hadn't known each other, those who hadn't liked each other, and those who had nothing in common but him.

He would carry in his mind the commitment of Kendra and the resourcefulness of Jenny; in his heart, the unsinkable hope of Willow, the benevolence of Tara, and the stalwartness of Joyce; and in his soul, the perseverance of Buffy and the ingenuousness of Cordelia.

Evil was toast.

End Note: Much comment has been offered that Dawn and Faith were not included in this character study. The simple truth of the matter is that, in this universe, they haven't died. And while Buffy too lives, as she herself pointed out: "Hey, I've died twice."