After All By Mike930
The quiet darkness of early morning had always been slow to lift in the sleepy town of Sunnydale. The dry air seemed to retain the cool, regenerative night feeling longer here than other California towns and the sun seemed reluctant to show it's face. Today wasn't any exception to this unspoken rule as the line between day and night slowly blurred.
But just like every other day here, nature inevitably won over its prodigal star and light began to heat the cool night air to it's full temperature. Like a specter edging toward its victim, a solid wall of light washed across the half-awake town. Peeking over the eastern sky, its rays first fell upon the outskirts of the little city and a sign reading, ironically, "Now Leaving Sunnydale. Come Again!"
The unstoppable illumination continued its march across the town, giving light to a new high school and an un-impressive town hall, a big building with a neon sign bearing the town's name, a magic store, a neighborhood. Street upon street and house upon house lit under the dawn glow until, finally, the light came across a big new house at the edge of town. The newly resurrected sun, having completed it's job (for now), could breathe easy.
The occupant of the big new house could also breathe easy under the blanket of sleeps. The shades were shut tightly in a (futile) effort to prolong sleep for as long as possible. Although neatly organized and a little sparse, the room had the homey, lived-in feeling of someone who'd spent a lot of time inside. It wasn't small—the house itself was massive—but the room's decorator had managed to avoid the cavernous air of a big empty room.
A dresser and desk dominated the outskirts of the room while a queen-sized bed sat happily in a corner. The panda-bear covers were completely drawn over a sleeping figure in the bed, drowning out all noise and light. The little table beside the bed held a lamp and—surprise!—an alarm clock.
The single ray of sunlight that had penetrated the dark room now fell upon the clock. It was a fashioned after a large, green frog with green neon numbers scrolling across its chest. An instant later the numbers changed to read 6:30 and the frog sprang to life.
The prone figure literally jumped out of bed. "GET 'EM OFF ME!! GET 'EM..." Realizing that her bed was not under siege by an army of vicious bullfrogs, Willow trailed off. She placed a hand over her heart, trying with all her will to stop its pounding. She looked at the clock with a mix of revulsion and acceptance, picking the time out from its chest. She screamed again.
"Damn!" The curse was pitched at much higher than normal as she frantically reached for a shirt and jeans resting idly across a chair. The redhead pulled them on quickly, cursing again as she noticed that the shirt was inside-out.
Stumbling down the stairs in a just-woken-up haze, Willow snagged her purse from its resting place on the hand-rail. She slipped on a pair of thong-sandals and shuffled towards the house's spacious garage.
Her eyes darted from one car (an archaic but beautiful black '75 Corvette) to the other (a blue Mini-Cooper). "Speed... fuel efficiency... fast... reliable... save time... save the earth... speed... fuel efficiency..." she trailed off desperately as the pressing time constraints took hold. "Speed," she finished hollowly, pulling the corvette's door open and reluctantly firing it up.
Willow pulled out quickly, clicking the garage shut and shifting gears with an unexpected familiarity. The engine red-lined before she popped the beast into first. Willow switched the radio over to the local NPR station as she raced along the mean streets of Sunnydale.
"In other news, the discovery of a previously unknown burial chamber at the dig site in Teotihuacan, the City of the Gods, has led to a massive international feud over the rights to the artifacts inside. The American team, led by Doctor..." Willow smiled, switching over to a hard rock station.
"Next for you early people, we've got a little music from Ozzy Osbourne next. Yes, the Prince of Fuc... yeah, boss, I know I can't say... fine. The Prince of F-ing Darkness is coming back to the Sunnydale area, and we'd like to touch it off with a little old school."
Willow laughed with a kind of dramatic irony as the opening strains to "Mama, I'm Coming Home" began pulsing from the Vette's speakers. She turned the volume up as she roared onto the highway (get the number) at 95 MPH. Cops were never a problem around here... but then she'd never been pulled over, either, so it was with some trepidation that Willow put more pressure on the gas.
Traffic was always bad in California, Willow knew that. She'd expected that unchangeable rule to remain... well, unchanged for her trip out to the airport. Again, though, the cosmos threw another surprise her way.
The road was empty.
Well, not empty in the sense of post-apocalypse Mad-Max empty, but still very, very sparse for southern California. Willow's watch buzzed as the digits ticked over to 7:00. She whimpered, punching the gas even more as the speedometer raced upwards.
"Sorry... sorry... sorry..." Willow's face fell into an approximation of desperation.
The Corvette pulled rapidly into the 30 min. parking lot at Sunnydale International Airport and Willow stepped out. Almost an hour late. Well, he could forgive her that.
Willow sprinted towards the circular terminal entrance, groaning in frustration as the security checkpoint line crawled forward at the (normally) agonizing pace.
Her turn finally came. With pleading eyes and the slightly pouting lips she knew the guards loved, Willow innocently said in a ditzy-shy girl air "Yes, I know I've gotta check in but... I'm kinda late." The balding white guy (Cordelia had once noted that they seemed to flock to the security profession) behind the counter made a clicking sound with his tongue... but nodded her through.
Willow smiled broadly and stepped through the gate. The baggage claim was fifteen gates away, and the redhead took off in a sprint. She panted slightly as she reached the conveyor belt but didn't see her friend anywhere. A tap on the shoulder drew a yelp and caused her to whirl around, fists ready, only to see...
Xander laughing. Well, that was a welcome sight. Willow laughed lightly and examined her house-mate quickly. He was wearing the carpenter's pants and t-shirt he always seemed to wear at work, and he carried a rucksack over a shoulder. Willow hugged him tightly.
"Sorry I was late, Wills."
Willow looked at him confusedly. "Huh? Didn't you get in an hour ago?"
Xander laughed. "Nah, flight was held over in San Diego. Something about record rainfall." He raised his eyebrows comically. "I think someone saw a cloud and declared a state of emergency."
The redhead laughed, quickly covering the fact that she, too, had just arrived. "Well I suppose that's alright. You know I was on time at least."
"Gotta have the moral superiority, huh Willow."
"You know it. So how was Mexico, Doctor Harris?"
Willow had been quiet the drive back, sitting idly in the passenger seat as Xander rattled off the details of his team's discovery. "We were inside the Sun pyramid, Willow. It's gorgeous... but a little golden disc I'd found opened an entire sub-level below the city. I'm going back in a few days but... do you wanna come?"
Willow's face fell. "I thought you were staying for longer."
Xander sighed. "I just uncovered a burial chamber from the dawn of time and you want me to stay here?" He laughed. "How can I refuse?"
Willow's head snapped around. "Really? 'Cause I know Doctor Renneaux really needs you and you really love your work and stuff but that house gets really lonely without you around and so I thought that maybe..."
"Willow?" An amused air crept back into his voice.
"Were you planning on inhaling at some point?"
The redhead smiled as she took a gulp of air. "How long are you in for?"
Xander scratched his head. "The Boss man told me to, and I quote, 'Take as long as you want.' Which leads me to be very suspiciously grateful." He faced her. "My offer stands."
"I'm not really an outsidey kinda person..."
Xander looked her in the eyes, which immediately darted elsewhere. He shrugged. "Whatever you say. How's the screenplay coming?"
Willow had discovered a writing obsession sometime in her sophomore year of college, an obsession that had quickly led to some raised eyebrows from USD's film school. Now, seven years later, Willow had the credits on a series of brilliantly successful films ranging from a fluffy romantic comedy to a noir revival film to, most recently, two frighteningly insightful horror films. Of the four, the horror scripts had been the most fun (and, given her background on the Hellmouth, the easiest) to write. She'd been suffering from a massive period of writers' block for over a week now, but with the return of the man who provided plenty of her light (and, occasionally, dark) humor, Willow was hoping to give it another try. She shrugged.
"Stuck on the plot."
"Oh, so about normal then." His eyes darted from the road to her now annoyed face. Xander smiled and continued in a softer, more reassuring voice. "You'll get it. These things never last too long."
Willow smiled. Xander had a habit of being almost cruel at times, then erasing all the hurt with a smile and a soft word. It was one of his more endearing qualities, she thought, although not quite as endearing as the fun loving grin spread across his face while speeding.
"So what's on the agenda? Do I cook?"
Willow snorted ruefully. "Do I look crazy?"
"OK, then yes." Willow rolled her eyes, hating to admit to the fact that Xander actually was a good cook. Among other things. "Actually, Cordy invited us over. She and Oz probably have some big news."
"What do you think, some jewelry?"
"Probably. They're pretty much already there."
"Believe me, the way to Cordy's heard lies through expensive looking items. And, occasionally, flattery."
"Eh." Xander shrugged. "On the other hand, I also know how to turn that heart completely against me, so maybe I'm not quite the expert I claim to be."
"Then again... no, you're probably right." Willow winked at her easily distracted friend. "But hey, any guy who can play with that kind of fire and not get burned is probably alright."
"How did I not get burned, again?"
"Well, you're alive for starters..." Willow allowed the grin she felt to spread completely across her young features. "That's gotta count for something."
"Point. Every day is a gift after Cordelia." He smiled ironically before going on. "Maybe Oz can figure out what to do with her."
Willow wasn't really surprised at the wistful tone that crept into his voice. He'd dated a couple other women since high school, never really connecting with any of them. Well, except on a purely physical level. Rumor had it that he was quite good at that. On the other hand, she could sympathize with the loneliness she sometimes noticed in his dark eyes. Times like that made her wonder at the way their own friendship had managed, with some effort on her part, at least, to remain platonic. The relationship was safe as long as neither took that next step. Willow sighed dramatically. "I'm sure he can think of something" She looked at Xander. Xander looked at her.
The laughter echoed from their car the rest of the trip home.
"Xander! You came!" Cordelia hugged her friend eagerly as he, and Willow, walked through the threshold of their house. "And you're early!"
Xander grinned. "Glad to be back in Sunny-Dee. And even gladder to be seeing you." She kissed his cheek happily.
"Hey Cordelia." Willow stood back a few paces from Xander, but Cordy crossed the distance instantly to hug her other friend.
"Willow!" The redhead hugged her friend awkwardly.
"What's up Oz?"
The guitarist smirked. "Brothers don't shake hands..."
Xander smiled widely, moving to the sumo position. "Brothers gotta hug!" The girls smiled in a confused, accepting way as the two made the stomping move before embracing.
"Welcome back my man!"
"You too. Tour's finished, right?"
Oz's band, now simply named Dingo, had just finished it's cross-continent tour for their hugely successful 5th album. Lullaby, the title of their newest and still #1 cd, had just gone multi-platinum. Now, after nearly a year of touring, though, Oz was home. And Cordelia couldn't have been happier.
After Willow and Oz's breakup in their second year of college, the newly single guitarist had sought out Cordelia for the rebound. Cordelia, then an acting major, had been lonely after her breakup with—of all people—Angel. She'd gone into the relationship with a hopeful, if cautious, attitude and had wanted to take things slow. That was fine for Oz. Willow knew just how patient the werewolf could be when something mattered to him.
That was almost six years ago, she thought. The way that her friends, her relationships, and the relationships between them seemed to constantly change... it never ceased to amaze her. Oz and Cordelia were very much in love, though, so the dynamic between the two had more or less remained constant.
"Oh yeah man. I'm on vacation."
"How long? With a find like yours, they'll need you back right away."
Xander shrugged. "I thought maybe a week, week and a half at the most. I wanted to bring Willow with me, but someone had other ideas." He cast an accusing glare at the redhead.
"Uh, hey! Work of my own!"
"Oh, go with him. It's not like you don't want to." Cordelia said.
"He'd understand if you were scared, of course," Oz chimed in. "Nothing wrong with being afraid of new places and things."
Willow glared at the happy couple. "Traitors."
"Oh, no," Cordy breathed.
"Of course not."
"We just want what's best for you."
"And dark basement screenplays, though brilliant, are not better for you than a little Latin heat."
Xander pulled out his wallet and slipped the pair an ATM card. "The PIN is 3151..." He stopped as the other three burst into giggles. Or, in Oz's case, a good natured snort of amusement.
Willow threw her hands in the air. "Fine, fine. Off to Mexico for me."
The front door opened, unannounced, as a short blonde rushed inside. Giles remained holding his hand out as if he'd been interrupted in the act of knocking. "Anya, it is always nice to let the home owners know we're here."
She turned on him. "They did invite us, correct?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"So they shouldn't be surprised."
He rubbed his head. "You've been mortal for almost a decade, dear, and yet politeness still seems to be a foreign concept with you."
"And you're just too anxious to give lessons, Rupert. Now, then..." She hugged Cordelia and Oz warmly in turn. "It's good to see you." She stuck her tongue out at Giles while embracing Cordelia. Her husband rolled his eyes.
Cordelia ushered the guests into the dining room. A high ceilinged room adjacent to the well-stocked kitchen, the dining room always felt a little... off. Almost too formal for a group of close friends like these.
Dawn Summers was already seated at the large round dinner table and waved to the newcomers. Then, with the boundless enthusiasm of a 21 year-old woman, she crossed the distance and gave first Willow, then Xander, a tight hug.
Xander noticed that she squeezed him during their embrace, a sign of the friendship the two shared. In a way, he was more of a sibling to her than Buff had ever been. When the blonde slayer had left town during college, Dawn had instinctively reached out to Xander for support and comfort. The bond they shared was close and treasured by both of them. Dawn had even decided (much to the unease of her long-suffering mother) that she wanted to follow in Xander's footsteps as an archeologist. In an effort to make this dream a reality, she'd been asking him about coming to the dig site when term was over.
But, as close as they were, Xander couldn't replace her sister, and had never tried. He and Dawn were friends. Much better friends than he'd ever been with her sister.
Xander idly reflected on the fact that he hadn't physically seen Buff in over a year. They'd talked a few times on the rare occasions when she called, but otherwise all his ties with the blonde were cut. Willow had flown to LA a few months before to visit the ex-slayer and had said she looked well. Xander had wished her luck when she'd left to become the personal trainer of the stars. She'd need it, he thought, living with the ex-vampire named Spike.
Now that was a match made in Hell. Oddly enough, it was due to their bond that they were able to attach the letters ex to their former titles. They'd saved the world more than enough; Xander had been the first to point out that, for once, the universe hadn't royally screwed them over.
But just because the blonde had earned her happy ending didn't mean that Xander didn't miss her.
The younger woman spoke. "Hey, guys... I've got a surprise for both of you." Behind the pair, Oz, Cordelia and Giles exchanged knowing winks as Anya idly stared at the ceiling. "You can come in now."
A soft knocking sounded from the kitchen door and in walked... Spike. Xander gave him a quizzical look for a moment before realizing, with wide eyes and open mouth, that where the bleach-blonde was, there followed...
"Hi, guys." Willow jumped as the purring salutation from her friend sounded behind her. Sure enough, there the former slayer stood in all her diminutive glory.
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