A/N: Thank you all for your reviews! This is the penultimate chapter!


Chapter 7: Return

- - What do you say when tears are streaming down your face in front of everyone you know?
What do you do when the one who means the most to you is the one who didn't show? - -

Quailing at the feet of the massive demon, Anya shakes her head, utterly perplexed by his accusation. Behind her, pandemonium reigns, Buffy still desperately yelling through the microphone at the bigoted Harrises and affronted demons.

"Who are you?" the bride demands, earning an exasperated glower from the monster.

"Remember Chicago? South side, 1914?" Off her blank look, he growls venomously. "Stewart Burns, philanderer! You'd think you'd remember. I remember you. But then again, you ruined my life!"

"You were a… I punished you."

"That's right!" he snarls. "Some hussy I'd been taking around summons you. Next thing I know, I look like this and I'm being tortured in another dimension."

"I forgot," she murmurs.

"Well I didn't!"

Its huge clawed arm lashes out, knocking Anya backward.

"Anya!"

Above the uproar, Buffy finally notices the aggressor and runs from the dais, fighting her way through the crowd.

"Every day I remembered," the demon continues, looming over his chosen victim. "And every day I thought how I would somehow get here and ruin your life like you ruined mine. It didn't take much either. I scared off your fiancé with a couple of phony visions."

"Visions of what?" asks Anya, trembling and near tears.

"Your future. Or his nightmare version of your future."

"That's it? Th-that's all you did?"

"Yeah," the monster chuckles, "it was easy. Look at that… you're crying. Oh, I like that."

Anya wipes feebly at her eyes. "Stop it."

"Oh, cry, Anyanka, cry. I love to see you cry. And now… I'd love to see you scream!"

He swipes his claws toward her again, slashing her arm and knocking her to the floor. Finally free of the mob, Buffy grabs the nearest folding chair and hurls it at the creature. It shrieks and growls, snatching up Anya and holding her before his body like a shield. Buffy tries to rush him, but her dress hampers her, so she reaches down for the hem and tugs a long slit up the side of the skirt.

"Come any closer and I'll kill her!" the demon threatens, shaking Anya.

The door to the Bison Lodge's lobby bursts open, making Buffy, Anya, and most of the guests gasp and turn to stare. Spike runs in, his leather duster smoking in the sudden sunshine, and just behind him stands Xander, thoroughly drenched. The wide-eyed groom gapes at the scene before him – his Anya in her stunning dress, and the fiend holding her viciously.

"Anya!"

"Xander!" she calls back, quaking in the demon's grip.

"GGGRRAAGGHH!"

The monster yowls as Buffy uses the distraction to kick him hard between the legs. Snarling, he drops Anya and cringes under the Slayer's onslaught of punches, Spike rushing up to help. Anya runs to Xander, who catches her in the tightest hug of his life.

"Are you alright?" he pants, half smothered by her veil and curled hair.

"I'm so… I'm so glad you came back! It was all lies, what he showed you… it wasn't true! He just wanted to break us up!"

"I know, Ahn. I know. It doesn't matter now."

"So we'll be okay?"

"Spike! Veil!" Buffy hollers, jabbing the beast in the ribs so strongly that he keels over onto his face on the floor. From the pocket of his burlap robe, the tiny glass orb slips out and shatters, sputters of pale purple light emanating all around it. As Xander stares, glimpses flash through his head, unseen by any others in the lobby…

… Twenty years from now, a bright morning in an upscale Sunnydale home. Setting off for his job as project manager for his successful construction company, Xander kisses his beautiful wife as she hands him his coffee and bids him "a great day bringing home the money!" At the door, he's mobbed at the knees by two happy, healthy, human children, both with his dark locks and Anya's coffee-colored eyes…

… Thirty years from now, a holiday gathering, the Scoobies and their progeny filling three squished-together tables at the best restaurant in town. Xander sits beside Anya, still lovely at fifty, with their immaculately dressed son Josh and hipster daughter Sarah on either side. Across the table, Dawn and her Navy Seal husband fawn over giggly twin boys, and Tara's redheaded daughter sits adoringly between her two moms. Spike, looking very 'Randy Giles' in a rust-colored suit, stands and toasts his wife, the longest reigning Slayer in history, to which a blushing Buffy hisses, "Oh, sit down, Master of Sunnydale"…

… Forty years from now, evening in a modest apartment complex. Now that all their children have flown the coop, the four couples sit in lazy-boy chairs around a game of Risk. His arm around Anya, Xander points out with amusement the fact that Spike has dyed his platinum hair silver to complement his sixty-year-old wife. Everyone but the vampire is a little older, a little heavier, but still bright-eyed and glowing with life and energy and the immeasurable happiness of having a partner who will be by your side, come what may…

All these images flood Xander's brain in the time it takes Spike to hear Buffy's instructions. The vampire turns, dashes around Xander and Anya, rips the length of sheer white tulle from the bison's head on the wall, and rushes back to Buffy. She hooks a loop around the creature's neck and pulls, while Spike holds the monster down, grinning at the sight of the slit up Buffy's skirt.

SMASH! Xander brains the demon with the base of a white pedestal, and the wedding crasher goes totally limp. Slamming the pillar down once more for good measure, Xander stares at the monster that spun his life into twisted lies and nearly ruined his chance at happiness.

"It's dead," he assesses after a few moments of silence.

"Yup," says Buffy, giving the creature's ribs a verifying kick. Willow and Tara break free from the cheering crowd and join Anya, all staring at the demon's corpse.

"You thought this ugly bastard was you at eighty?" Spike snorts. "Harris, even you aren't this homely lookin'."

"He looked different earlier," Xander protests.

"Is anyone else waiting for it to go poof?" asks Willow dubiously. "Maybe we can cover it with flowers."

"Look at all this damage," grumbles Xander's father, waving his hands at the scattered chairs, floral arrangements, and tulle. "I'm not paying for this, you freaks!"

"Stop calling us freaks!" Krelvin, the pustule-covered demon, gives Mr. Harris a good shove, and the fighting resumes instantly, humans and demons flailing at each other, total mob complex.

"STOP IT!" Anya yells at the top of her voice, and the fighting throng pauses, staring mutely at the bride. "Everyone SIT DOWN! This wedding WILL go on, so get back in your seats!"

Chagrinned, Harrises and demons alike straighten the rows of while folding chairs and demurely sit. Anya turns around and slips her hands into Xander's large ones, while Buffy, Spike, Willow, and Tara step aside to give them privacy.

"You know, it's bad luck to see me in my dress," she reminds her sopping groom, a little shaken but still smiling.

Xander gazes at her, eyes shimmering with moisture. "Ahn, I'm so sorry…"

"Hey. It's okay. It's all over now. He's dead, and it was just smoke and mirrors."

"I know, honey."

"So… we're ready now. Let's get married."

"Ahn…"

He remains holding her hands, keeping her by the door when she turns to head towards the aisle.

"I… I messed up, Ahn. He knew right where to hit me. I was so scared…"

"It wasn't real," she insists, clutching at his hands. "What he showed you, it wasn't real. He wanted you to hate me, Xander."

"It wasn't you I was hating. It was me. I had all these thoughts and fears that I couldn't be a good husband to you. I was scared I would hurt you, and that's exactly what I saw. It shook me up… and I freaked… and I left."

"And I tracked your soggy ass down, told you what a wanker you were for jumpin' ship, an' brought you back," Spike mutters, barely audible. Buffy elbows him but is smiling too much to be irritated.

"Leaving you was… it was the biggest mistake of my life," Xander says sorrowfully.

"B-but, it's okay now," Anya insists. "We'll start over. You'll dry off, and I'll… Oh!" she suddenly laments, indicating her dress. "I knew it was too tight! Look, all these roses fell off!"

Beaming, Xander pulls her into another embrace. "You're perfect, honey. C'mon. You're right. We're ready now. Let's get married."


To be continued…

Author's note: I was trying to come up with a tactful way of saying that for the thirty-years flash-forward, Willow and Tara got kids through a sperm donor, like in the film 'The Kids Are All Right', but then I realized, "Wait a sec. They're witches. They could probably get around that…" Regardless of the medical possibility, I decided to assume that Tara – whom I've always thought would make a fantastic mother – could have a child for both of them. Sort-of a small detail of the chapter, but one that I anguished over.

I love reviews, so please tell me what you think of how I've altered the episode. The next and final chapter will be up as soon as I can manage.