"With all respect for the Slaying, Buffy, I don't think even your best battle-axe will make much headway here. I'll bring one of the bulldozers up and take care of it."
"Good idea," Buffy said, staring at the thicket of black thorny bushes that had grown sometime in the last week, up on Kingman's Bluff.
"Are you guys kidding?" Dawn asked. "They're obviously magic, you can't just-"
"Why not?" Xander said belligerently. He glared at the bushes like they were a personal affront.
"No, Dawn's right," Buffy said. "We should ask..." Not Willow. Not Tara. "Anya? Or even call Giles in England..."
The wind blew, and the bushes bobbed and rustled. They were so black they seemed to eat the light that fell on them. It made them hard to look at; the eyes couldn't focus, the brain couldn't turn them into three dimension. They were a constantly changing optical illusion plopped down in the middle of the expanse of dirt where Willow had stood to end the world.
"Okay, I'll call Giles," Xander said. "And then I'll take care of it."
"You don't have to-" Buffy began.
He spread his hands. "I know. I just...I want to fix this for Willow. It's her mess, and I want to clean it up. I got her through Tara's funeral and then she was gone, off to England with Giles, and I miss her, okay? When she comes back I don't want there to be any evil bushes..." He set his jaw.
"You don't have to do it alone," Buffy said.
Dawn added, "We're her friends too."
"But I'm the one who saved the world - from her," Xander said. "I feel responsible. I need to do this."
"I'm not going to fight you for the chance to spray magical weed killer," Dawn said. She didn't actually roll her eyes, but it was a close call. "Bushes are not exactly the most exciting threat ever. They're not even mobile..."
Buffy put her hand on Xander's shoulder. "It's hard when there's nothing more to save, isn't it? No reason to be strong, but you still need to be, because otherwise..."
Xander looked at Buffy and grinned weakly. "Okay, you can help. Just stop being so insightful."
"You're gonna let me put the dark magics back in the books?" Dawn asked, and there was a definite squeal in her voice.
"Do you remember when we were that innocent?" Buffy said to Xander.
Xander shook his head tolerantly. "We're not that ancient, Buff."
"So you're saying you do remember?"
"I remember being terrified a lot, does that count?"
"I'm not innocent, I'm still getting over being overprotected," Dawn interrupted. "See, this is why you should always let me help, eventually I'll get to be terrified too."
"You say that in such a chipper voice," Buffy said.
"Overprotected," Dawn said, and nodded wisely.
Buffy let out her breath - almost a laugh. "We'll start tomorrow."
Dawn had secretly been afraid that the de-bushing spell would be too hard for her, but the real problem turned out to be patience. Willow might have absorbed over a hundred books in seconds, but they'd gotten scrambled inside of her, and mixed with the other magics she'd absorbed. The bushes that had grown where the magic drained out of her were part words, part plant, and part pure earthy coven magic. Untangling all that wasn't flashy, it was just very basic methodical magic. It took patience and delicacy.
Dawn's hands glowed with magic, moving steadily to pluck a tendril of prickly words from where they dangled loose at the end of one of the branches she'd already unraveled. She tugged it down to the base of the branch, ripped it free, and held it up to the light. "Greek," she reported to Xander. It was just her and Xander; Buffy was sleeping in as usual, and had promised she'd come out later.
Xander nudged the cauldron where they were storing all the Greek toward Dawn. Dawn flicked the words in; they hit the side of the cauldron and were absorbed. She reached for the next loose tendril.
"Tara would have been really good at this," Dawn said.
Xander sighed heavily. "Yeah. She would." He didn't look up; his hands were deft and he was twice as quick as Dawn, even though big hands ought to be a disadvantage at this fiddly work.
"She was always there when I-" Dawn bit her lip- "when we needed her."
"Except-" Xander slammed his mouth shut, looking embarrassed. "I liked Tara," he mumbled instead of whatever he'd been going to say. "She was...nice." He seemed to realize this was inadequate, and cleared his throat loudly. "And I'm once again confronted with the fact that I barely knew her. Just like at the funeral. Did you see the look of sheer unadulterated panic on my face when Willow asked me to say a few words? All I could say was that she was good for Willow."
Dawn decided that was an invitation to keep talking. Or maybe Dawn just needed an invitation to keep talking, and anything would do. "She gave me a spell for sleeping, for when Buffy stayed out Slaying and I couldn't get to sleep. And she had work and school and money to worry about after she moved out, but she still came around to visit me. She was more like a friend than anyone..."
Dawn tugged a thick knot of words free, and the whole plant collapsed. Words flopped along the ground; Dawn batted them back with more enthusiasm than science. The optical illusion hurt her eyes and she couldn't see exactly what she was doing, but she could feel the tendrils recoiling from the spell on her hands. She pounced, and squeezed. The wordy tendrils surrendered to the spell.
"I should have been more like her. She was scared and lonely sometimes, but she knew how to handle being alone." She didn't look up. She was stuck; if she moved, the inky mess of squirming words would get free.
Xander reached over and grabbed the words, battered them into shape and stuffed them into the appropriate cauldron. Dawn sighed with relief.
"You doing okay, Dawnster?" Xander asked.
"I'm fine," Dawn said automatically. But Xander wasn't Buffy, he wasn't looking at her like he was afraid he was doing something wrong. Dawn smiled at him, grateful for that. "Really. I'm really fine," she said.
"It's okay if you're not," Xander said seriously. "Willow, and Tara..."
"And Buffy, and Spike and Buffy, and you and Anya, and the poor Magic Box. I'm not happy but I'm fine. I brush my teeth and go to sleep at night without spells, and I don't know how any of this could happen but I'll deal. I'm not going to turn to magic, or shoplifting, or anything. I'm going to deal, because that's who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be Tara."
Dawn bent her head and steadily untangled strands of words and dropping them into the appropriate cauldrons. "Did you know she bought us toothpaste? Buffy kept forgetting, and I kept reminding her every day and brushing my teeth without toothpaste - I know, gross, right? Just using mouthwash and a toothbrush isn't really okay, but I was being stupid and I wanted Buffy to buy toothpaste-" Dawn's voice was getting choked, so she talked faster- "I was going to make her notice with bad breath, but it never worked. And then Tara bought us toothpaste."
Xander slid an arm across Dawn's shoulders. "It's okay if-"
Dawn started crying. She didn't mean to, it just happened.
Instead of being disconcerted, Xander dropped his arm just enough to pull her closer, and Dawn turned and threw her arms around him, and buried her face in his shoulder. "I just want things to stay the same," she sobbed. "No one leaves, or does horrible things, or... I'm going to deal, I'm going to remember how to love and live in this world, but right now I just don't want to."
"It's okay," Xander said, and he was solid and warm and it was lucky Dawn didn't have a crush on him any more, because if she did, she'd have to be uncomfortable about this, and she just wanted to be comforted. "It's going to be okay," he said.
He was good at being there too.
As the days passed, they fell into a rhythm. Dawn and Buffy worked together most afternoons, and then Dawn stuck around with Xander into the evening while Buffy went home to prepare for patrol. Every night they had dinner together at the Summers house around sunset.
"It's good for Dawn," Buffy told Xander one evening. "She knows what to expect." She hesitated, then added, "And it's good for me. I'm wholesome suburban Buffy, with a schedule for dinner and Slaying and no surprises."
Xander couldn't help it; he looked to the heavens. Surprises like Spike, he thought, but he didn't say anything. Spike hadn't been around lately, and the less said the sooner that disgusting excuse for a vampire would be forgotten.
But Buffy saw his look, and her mouth pinched up and she hurried on, blocking the comment he wasn't going to make. "We're just a happy fake family," she said. It was a joke, but Xander froze. "Mother Buffy and Father Xander and little Dawnie playing house together. No stress, nothing to worry about, everything's settled and who needs anything more, when you've got movie nights?"
Xander shook off dark thoughts of the family he could have had with Anya. The surprising and stressful family he wasn't read for. Fake families were more his speed. "Movie nights with pizza and doughnuts," Xander said. "How about tonight? Take a break from the Slaying, have some good clean family fun watching things blow up." Speaking of which, he glanced around. "Where is the Dawnster?"
"Quit tempting me," Buffy said. "Besides, Dawn's not gonna be around, she's sleeping over at Janice's. She said she'll be back in the morning in time to join me here. That's good too, isn't it? She's not trying to get away, but she's not clinging anymore either. She trusts me to be here for her tomorrow."
"It's good," Xander confirmed, and crouched down next to her and poked at the nearest mass of barbed blackness, hoping to find a free end to start working from. They'd worked through the outer thicket, and what remained was smaller, shrunk down to a dense core of darkness clustered around a featureless pool of deepest nothing. Even Dawn, who had recently overtaken Xander as their champion untangler, sometimes had to resorting to begging Buffy to rip through the bendy branches. Sometimes you had to beat the crap out of the darkness so you could chain it up in books later, according to Buffy. Xander wasn't about to argue.
But he was about to reconsider the bulldozer approach. Or maybe... "Hey, got any garden shears?" he asked Buffy. He moved his fingers like scissors. "Where's Edward Scissorhands when you need him?"
"Here, move over," Buffy said, smiling perfunctorily. "I'll break it up for you."
Just then, Xander managed to slide his hand into an invisible hole. He flexed his fingers, digging in deeper, and shook his head. "I've got a grip on this side," he said. "Direct line into the heart of the tangle. You pull over there..."
Buffy shrugged and forced her hands into the knot. "I think this is the heart of the matter," she agreed as her hands found purchase, disappearing up to the wrist. They'd shred it between them, the spells on their hands in balanced opposition.
"Aim for the heart, Ramon," Xander said.
Buffy nodded. "Ready? Let's be heartbreakers."
Anya, Xander thought, and in that moment of anguish and confusion Buffy pulled. The heart of darkness slipped between his fingers.
Where Buffy pulled, the tangle stretched, and stretched farther, gaps opening in the darkness. Buffy snatched deeper into the tangle for balance, and a whole bush - roots and all - pulled out of the ground. The bulging mass of thorns spread across her like a lacy dress, wriggling like those traditional grubs and burlap Anya'd threatened for the-
Xander caught the sneaky tendril extending from Buffy's knee between his glowing hands before it could penetrate his leg. He scrambled back, but Buffy reached out to the remaining bushes like they were a campfire and she was warming her hands. They strained toward her.
"Hey, don't feed the bushes," Xander said. "They're bad enough without you feeding their dark...dark menace with your Slayery admiration. Evil bushes, remember?"
He tugged at the tendril in his hands. It popped free of Buffy's knee, working up her thigh, ripping through her jeans. Buffy grabbed it and effortlessly stopped him. "Can you feel it?" she asked.
"Feel what?" Xander met Buffy's eyes and saw only black.
"I can feel Willow," Buffy said with chilling intensity. She tugged the black tendril out of his hands. Xander had to let go before she pulled him into the thicket. "Willow as she was that day."
"I love you, Buffy," Xander said, showing her his empty hands just in case. See, no threat. "But before this goes any further, I want you to know that I'm all out of kindergarten crayon stories. So do you want to go with the funny sophomore year stories, or would you rather - Hey!"
The thicket moved, uprooting itself and flowing toward Buffy. From within her, thorny extensions resurfaced, reaching to rejoin the main mass. Xander dodged back, but Buffy stayed still. He barely paused, he dug in his feet and tackled her, carrying her past the line of bushes, rolling over and over until they were out of range. Tendrils snapped. Buffy wasn't fighting, not the tendrils, but luckily not him either.
"You've got to resist," Xander told Buffy. Now there were plenty of free ends sticking out of her. He grabbed one and started tugging. "Power of darkness, bad, okay?"
"All I feel is the love," Buffy said, pushing him away. "I've never felt anything like it..."
"Buffy, it's twisted," Xander said, gathering more darkness in his hands. "It's the kind of love that causes hurt-"
"No!" Buffy insisted. "Love, real love, is pure. It's everything else that causes hurt. It's the world that causes hurt, but you have to let it hurt, you have to feel-"
"You've got to resist," Xander said, panicked. "Black magic and Slayer power together are surefire doom. Unless it's boom this time." He pulled even harder, and winced when a thorn grazed his skin just below the protective glove of the spell. His skin crawled, but it was only a scratch.
"Xander," Buffy said calmly. "You don't have to protect me from power. I'm the Slayer. I'm used to it."
"Then why are your eyes black?" Xander asked. A thorn sank into his arm, but it barely hurt. Then more hooked in. Creeping like caterpillars, prickling and burning.
"Because...I want to pretend that love could take me that way. That somewhere out there, there's a guy I might be able to love, really love, love so much that nothing else in the whole world matters..." Buffy's eyes snapped into focus. They weren't quite black any more. "But I can handle it. The big question now is whether you can."
The thorns in his skin throbbed, and the branches connecting him to the rest of the thicket were engorged. "I meant to do that," Xander said. He didn't feel any different. He was disappointed; even pure power couldn't make him feel powerful. "Don't worry about me, I'll just be over here using my superpower, which happens to be-" Xander waited. "Anyone?" He started humming the Jeopardy theme.
"Xander, you're covered in thorns. You don't want your superpower to be bleeds well on others."
He ignored Buffy, and hummed louder. Duh dee duh duh...no, he'd done that part. He stopped humming abruptly. "Time's up. And the answer is extreme normalness. I'm so normal the only thing I can do is neutralize the powers of evil with my extreme powerlessness. That's me, always there for anyone who needs it, you and Willow, Anya...and the one time I wasn't, I tore everything apart for Anya. You want to talk about love, try to figure that one out."
"I've got better things to be doing," Buffy said grimly. She grabbed hold and ripped. Xander screamed as the thorns dug deeper, and black lightning flashed out and knocked Buffy away.
"Did I do that?" Xander asked.
"If you have to ask..." Buffy said, bouncing back to her feet. "The only other option is the plants. Congratulations, this is the most pathetic thing you've been controlled by yet."
"That's not funny," Xander said. "Because I did that. I'm through being evil's cross-eyed servant, this time it's not going to be like that."
Buffy narrowed her eyes.
Xander hesitated, but then the perfect plan fell into his head. "No, this time I know exactly what to do. I'm going to fix everything."
"Xander, if Willow-"
"I'm not going to do anything bad," Xander said. "No killing. No ending the world. I'm just going to make a happy ending. I've never had the power to change anything before. It's easy for you-"
"It's never been easy for me. When has it been easy for me?"
"There's always something you can do," Xander said. "Go, fight, win. Me...notice how I'm alone?"
"You're not alone," Buffy said. She reached out and touched Xander's arm. "I-" But she couldn't say it.
"Don't strain yourself, Buff," Xander said. "I know I'm the problem. I'm the one who needed an ex-demon to lead me into having a chance of a normal life outside of my parent's basement, and I'm the one who hurt her. And now I know how to fix it." He waded into the thicket of thorns. They weren't so bad once you got used to them.
Buffy tried to follow, but the thorns didn't want her. Lightning flashed again, and once again the Slayer fell back.
"I'm going to make things right," Xander said, raising his arms. A black arch formed above him. He grinned at Buffy. "It's a time machine. I'm going to go back and fix my parents so I have a normal life. Then I'll really be-"
"Someone else. Xander, stop it. You've got more thorns than a thorncushion, you're not thinking straight. You're thinking dark, and I don't blame you, but pretty soon you're going to realize that you're messing around with the dark side of the force. Anger and suffering..."
"Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they," Xander rattled off.
"Are you sure? I thought it was anger and suffering-"
"This calls for research in the form of-?"
"Wait a second. Do you really think you can keep someone from fixing everything that's wrong with them by offering movie night?"
"Not someone. You, Xander. I trust you. I trust you to do the right thing. You, Xander Harris who used to live in the basement. You're the one who's my friend, and you're the one who knows deep down that using Willow's anger and vengeance magic isn't going to get you anywhere."
Xander gritted his teeth. He could see his perfect childhood so clearly. The one that taught him how to be the kind of guy who could get married without hesitation- "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Buffy said, and waited.
Through the arch of his time machine, his parents were soundlessly screaming at each other. It made his gut curdle. It made him furious, that's all they ever did-
Anger, fear, and aggression.
"I trust you to do the right thing," Buffy said, emphasizing the word 'trust'.
Xander sighed. He always did the right thing. He did the right thing every time with Anya, wanting to marry her - and realizing that he couldn't. Neither was wrong, but look at where that left him.
Still trying to do the right thing. "Only if I get to choose the pizza toppings."
Buffy shook her head. "Never. Half and half, just like always."
"You mean I almost went evil and I don't even get my choice of pizza toppings?"
"If you want, I'll buy you a t-shirt," Buffy offered, and tackled him.
"Ouch!" Xander shouted as they rolled free of the thorns.
"Two thousand years later, and we're still cursing those crazy Babylonians and their ancient but powerful curses," Xander said. He ripped the last strand of ink out of the ground. It formed into part of an engraving of a clay tablet before he crumpled it and dropped it into the pot. "Damn. And now we're done cursing."
"I can't believe we're done," Dawn said.
"Is that regret in your big blue eyes?" Xander asked.
"No," Dawn said. "Because now we've got to get started on putting it all back in the books." She looked at the other two. "It'll be fun, right?"
"I was thinking, now that we've got it contained, we just just leave it for Willow when she gets back," Buffy said.
"Giles says she's doing well," Xander agreed.
"But-" Dawn spluttered. "But-"
"But if you'd rather spend the rest of the summer inside poring over the musty old tomes, no one's stopping you," Buffy said to Dawn. "Xander and I thought we'd take on that hole in the graveyard next. Rumor has it giant rats have moved in. That's life on the hellmouth for you."
"Giant rats? You mean Rodents of Unusual Size?" Dawn eyed Buffy, then Xander. "You're joking, right?"
"I don't think they exist," Xander said breezily.
"I don't either," Dawn said, crossing her arms and frowning at Buffy. "And if they did, you wouldn't be telling me about them. Aren't they dangerous?"
"About as dangerous as being unprepared."
"Which means only boy scouts are allowed to fight them," Xander said.
"Shush, you," Buffy said to Xander. "I'm trying to initiate Dawn here."
"Aren't you done yet?"
"No, I haven't got her to agree to do all the laundry in return for lessons in using a sword. She's got a natural talent, but nature only takes you so far. Usually about half way and then leaves you stranded, and that's not good enough for my sister."
"All the laundry?" Dawn said. She couldn't quite stick the frown though, the corners kept slipping upward.
"You need to learn responsibility. Did you realize that we're almost out of toothpaste but you didn't put toothpaste on the store list?"
Dawn's eyes widened. Unabashedly smiling now, she said, "Oh yeah, well, I put sardines on the store list and you didn't buy them."
"There's a reason for that."
"How about half the laundry, and sardines when I want them?"
"You stink. Half the laundry, but I'll do all the weird demon stains too."
"Done. We'll start tomorrow."
"Because tonight, ladies and...ladies," Xander said in his best announcer voice, "Is movie night!"