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part one

She'd said yes. She'd said yes; when they were alone together, dreading the inevitable and he'd stammered out his graceless proposal. It hadn't been how he'd planned it. He knew better than to wait for the perfect moment. Life on the Hellmouth had taught him that love and the people you loved were too important to wait for everything to be perfect to tell them how you felt. But he had hoped for a lull in the action - maybe not moonlight and roses but some breathing space, just a spot of serenity, without a hell god trying to not only kill them, but also to destroy the world. With Glory and Dawn and, *oh God* Joyce.... And hadn't he tried to explain - looking into Anya's troubled eyes - that no, there isn't a handbook on life. Not knowing what to do, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to feel, feeling too much, feeling you're not feeling enough, being confused, being frustrated, desperate to hold on but afraid to want, need, love because it slips away, people slip away like sand gripped in a tightly fisted hand, but he couldn't. Couldn't find the words. Couldn't voice his thoughts. So he held her, trying with his body to say all the things he wanted to say. Say he needed her. That she wasn't the only one who was confused, scared, doubting life, fighting the persistent slide into inertia which seemed to embrace every adult he knew. How could he explain what it meant to be human when he hadn't figured it out for himself yet? The helplessness - the flat out risk of loving and living - of letting someone close enough to hurt you, when the simple truth was that they would; no matter what they did or how they tried, just by being, they offered up potential and inevitable pain. How did he tell her it was worth the pain, now that he was being to doubt it himself.

They had all been going full tilt. Ever since Glory had first kicked Buffy's ass with her size six designer stilettos, they hadn't marshalled a single offensive move. They'd lost ground length by length. Glory had confronted Buffy in her own house and they had actually packed up and run, not that it had done any good. Glory had Dawn, and desperately, grasping at straws, they had thrown everything they had at her. The seven of them who had stumbled into the magic shop in the gray morning light were as much in shock at being alive and that there was still a world to be on as they were at the loss of the Slayer. Spike had ceased sobbing, and hadn't that been disturbing. Xander wasn't sure if he was bothered more by the sight of one of the fiercest creatures he knew being wracked by open and obvious grief or the guilt he felt for the way he had misinterpreted the nature and depth of the vampire's feelings for Buffy.

Dawn, still in her sacrificial wear, looked like an enchanted princess in a fairy tale. She sat in one of the chairs at the research table, remote and unmoving, her eyes focused on nothing as tears streamed down her face. She was eerily quiet, not a sob or a sniffle breaking her silent heartache. Willow fussed over Tara and flitted about the room checking on Giles and Dawn, anything to keep moving and to keep from thinking about how much they had all lost. Xander set Anya on the research table and knelt down in front of her. He took her ankle in both hands. He was examining it for swelling when she jerked it back and said, "No!"

"What? Honey, it's sprained. We should..." he trailed off looking at her. She was shaking her head from one side to the other as she sobbed out another soft 'no'. He realized how he looked to her, down on one knee. She thought he was proposing again. But why didn't that make her look happy, and why did she say....?

"No, Xander... I can't. I know after the Ascension, when I came back.....I...." she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and looked away.
"Anya? Cupcake?" That usually made her laugh. They had watched an Ally McBeal episode where Ling had given her approval for pet names only if they were based on food. He had spent the rest of that evening going through the Hostess and Dolly Madison product lines while he nibbled on Anya to make her shriek and giggle.

"I...Xander....Buffy's the Slayer, I'm not...I meant it, you know, you really are a good boyfriend." She forced a smile while sniffing and widening her eyes in a failed attempt to stop her tears.

"You're not making any sense. I don't..." Before he could finish she stood, favoring her bad ankle but looking up at him with her frank brown eyes which had always before grounded him but now just added to his confusion. "

I'm sorry. I.....I have to go." She left the shop, the bell ringing as she exited. He took a step to follow her, but stopped. It was daylight, she was safe. This was all too much for him and for her. He would give her time, and give himself time. They could talk later. She would go home and take a shower, get some sleep, and make more sense later. Right now, he should take care of his friends. He smiled at the thought that the term 'friends' now included Spike, but if that was what Buffy wanted, well then, so be it. The smile felt unnatural on his face; in just the past hour the whole world - *his* whole world - had changed and it would never be the same again. He hadn't felt this empty, this lost, since Jesse had died. When that had happened he had had the luxury of disbelief. There had been someone to hold off the monsters while he dealt with the consequences of a changed worldview. No more. Buffy had been the guardian at the gate; without her they were going to have to pull themselves together, clean up Glory's mess and patrol for the usual Hellmouth activity.

* * * * *

It was late when he got home. He'd left Dawn with Giles. Giles, Willow and he had talked quietly in the practice room while Tara had tried to get Dawn to drink some tea. She had said Dawn need something hot inside her to combat the shock. Xander figured Tara knew what to do, but thought Spike quietly taking Dawn's hand calling her 'nibblet' had more to do with stopping the tears than the tea. He was exhausted. Being grown up and discussing Dawn's custody now that her only 'relative' was an absentee father, whom she remembered but had never met, was not something for which he was prepared. Another hushed conversation with Willow about how they were going to take care of Giles and Spike in the aftermath of losing Buffy just made him feel old. His apartment wasn't overly large. It took only moments for him to check every room and determine Anya wasn't there. He really hadn't expected her to go to her place. He started to phone her, then on second thought picked his keys up from the table and left.

Minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of her building. Her car wasn't in its usual spot but he went up to her floor, taking the stairs two at a time. He let himself in, turned on the lights and quickly headed for the bedroom. Drawers were open and empty, the closet door stood wide. The pictures she kept on the dresser were gone, all her make-up and toiletries were gone, everything was gone. There was no sign of a struggle. His heart was screaming that something had taken her. Surprisingly, his brain was calm. *You always knew this would happen, she's not a demon any more, no right-thinking person would stay here, and live this life.* After pacing around the apartment and checking to see if there was any sign of where she went, or at least a note - something - he stopped in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He took out the carton of pineapple juice and leaned back against the closed refrigerator door feeling numb. He slid down to the floor, wishing he had the strength for tears but so much had happened he just couldn't. Couldn't think, couldn't cry, couldn't imagine the future without her.

He shook the carton, removed the screw top and drank straight out of it. He riffled though his pockets and pulled out the ring. He had bought it the day after Riley left. All that time, carrying it around, waiting for the world to be safe enough for two people to be in love. He had daydreamed often about a simple ceremony, had planned to ask Joyce if they could have it in her garden. He would ask Willow to stand up for him. He figured Giles would walk Anya down the aisle, Buffy would be her maid-of-honor, and Dawn would have been the flower girl. Everyone he loved would have been part of the happiest day of his life. The tears finally came.


part two

Routine was good. Routine let him get though the day without thinking. Routine helped the days slip by, blend together, until one was so much like another that you could lose a week without realizing you had lived through it, or at least survived. It had been two weeks since Buffy died; two weeks since Anya left. Xander wondered if he would measure the rest of his life in relation to That Day. When he was sixty, would it be forty years since That Day? Who the hell was he kidding? He wasn't going to see sixty. He'd be lucky to see twenty-five. That was why Anya had left. His routine started at 5:00 A.M. on weekdays now. He was showered, shaved and on the site by 6:00 A.M. every morning. He had been surprised at how quickly everything had changed.

One day he had met with his boss, to apologize for missing work; yes, another funeral, yes, his family. Then he'd stopped and looked the man in the eye, and told him everything. Not about the Key, not about Glory, but about Joyce, about Dawn and Buffy. About what it felt like to be looked up to as a big brother, by a girl whose whole existence had been shaken to its very core. About how lost he felt without Buffy, how strong she had been when they had watched Joyce slip through their fingers. How he felt he had failed her. How he had to be there for Dawn, he owed it to her, to Buffy, to Joyce, to himself.

He hadn't expected the promotion. He hadn't expected anything and had wondered when the words were pouring out of his mouth why he was burdening this man with his grief, his shame. Now Xander opened the site every morning. His first four hours were spent at a desk, in front of a computer - Willow was so proud. He managed the crew, the supplies, tracked the progress of the work, prepared reports for payroll and by the time the boss made it in from his morning meetings had up-to-date information for him on every aspect of the job. As someone who had hated school, Xander was amazed at how quickly he had mastered the spreadsheets and databases. But the best part was that he was off by 3:00 P.M. every day. Just in time to swing by the school and pick up Dawn. Dawn wasn't having problems in school anymore, now that she was going. And hadn't that been surreal, Xander Harris at a parent teacher conference with Dawn's guidance counselor. Well, Spike was out, 'cause sun, duh, and the nasty tendency to attack anyone who appeared to threaten the Dawnster. And Giles, well, they all were walking wary with Giles; he would have done anything for Buffy, even died for her, but living without her was an entirely different matter for Rupert Giles. Willow said he just needed time. Willow had also deemed that letting Ripper get his hands on any school staff, other than Principal Snyder, to be not of the good. Since Xander remembered that this was the counselor that had used to the threat of Child Welfare to blackmail Buffy into becoming Control Freak Slayer, he took the meeting. After all, he had a secret weapon; he had clocked a hell of a lot of field time in that office or the one like it in the old school. Even if she recommended removing Dawn that day, he knew the Sunnydale social services were just as blind as everyone else in this hellhole and Dawn would probably be eighteen before any action was taken. Case in point - somewhere in the debris of the old high school - which he had rigged the explosives on, and wouldn't the overly concerned lady have loved that piece of information - was a thick file on Alexander L. Harris, which had started to recommending his removal from his home in, what was it, seventh grade? So he said he would field this one.


That afternoon, instead of waiting in the car for Dawn, he had gotten out and leaned against the door. Arms folded across his chest, eyes cast down at the ground he wondered if he should have worn his suit. No, the only time he had recently had been the funerals. Dawn didn't need that. He had worn black jeans and a black tee shirt, after taking off the work shirt he had worn over it he figured he was clean and presentable. It would have to do. He was brought out of his ponderings of the fashion do's and don'ts of the parent part of the parent/teacher conference by a burst of giggles from a flock, *gaggle? herd?* of teenage girls. *God, was I ever that young?* Dawn broke off from the group, looked both ways *good girl* and crossed the street to where he was parked.

"Is something wrong?" She worried her bottom lip between her teeth.

"No! No. Nothing bad, just have to meet with your GC, you know, just standard stuff." He gave his biggest smile. He also resolved to point out to said GC that she was putting undue stress on Dawn at a time when life was doing that all by itself.

"Is this about... ? She told Buffy...I don't... oh, Xander..." Dawn blinked rapidly, in an attempt to dry her tear-filled eyes. Xander put both hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. He leaned forward and until their foreheads almost touched.

"Stop. Right now." His tone of voice was soft, as if he was afraid to frighten her. He gave her a gentle shake and continued. "I'm not Buffy. Buffy wasn't a troublemaker. Buffy was a good student who wanted to fit in; it was just the whole saving the world thing got in the way sometimes. You know, you're a lot like her."
That earned him a sniffle and a shaky smile. "Am not." But Dawn didn't sound very convincing.

"Are too." Xander followed that up with a mild head butt, forehead to forehead, to stop any further protest. "Just play along; agree with anything I say, and we'll deal with anything you disagree with when we get back to the magic shop. The important thing is to show a united front. This lady isn't going to know what hit her. We're Scoobies, remember?" He slung one arm across Dawn's shoulders and steered her back toward the school. Which oddly enough, earned another burst of giggles from the girl gaggle. *Well, what is that about? They couldn't have overheard our conversation from there.* He thought. Inside, Dawn led the way to the office. Xander was surprised he wasn't nervous. He had been last night, with Willow during her coaching/strategy session. He had been today whenever it crossed his mind. Right up until Dawn had come up to him looking all scared and vulnerable, like she was steeling herself for some fresh new horror. Maybe, as the Key, she had the super power to gift those around her with amazing adult-like abilities. He winked at her when she turned to look at him before opening the office door. She gave him back a conspiratorial smile. He shook hands with the nice guidance counselor, giving her the smile he used when interviewing people he knew were not qualified enough to get the position. He hoped the smile didn't say 'how soon can I get rid of you so I can get on to more important things,' but since her smile faltered when she suggested Dawn wait outside while they talked, maybe it did.

"She's not a pet. Don't you think it's cruel to expect her to wait outside when you and I are deciding her fate? I think her input on this matter is critical." Xander was proud. He hadn't cross his arms over his chest. He hadn't closed his stance. He had pitched his tone into the calm, reasoning tone he had developed for explaining bizarre human customs to Anya. If only Willow could have seen him. He had remembered all the nonverbal cues she had stressed.

"Don't loom Xander, and keep your body open, you want to appear accepting and willing to negotiate." Willow had been pushing his shoulders back and tugged him forward by his belt loop.

"Keep my body open? Will, that sounds obscene." Which had earned a Spike snicker, since the three of them were on patrol together. Supposedly, they were looking for vampires, but in actuality they had been scouring the town for any of Glory's left over obsequious little minions.

Willow, of course, ignored it and continued her instructions. "Don't cross your arms, and if you sit down don't cross your legs."

"Ah, Will, I'm a guy." He really hoped this wasn't news to her.

"I know that. I just don't want you to scare her, Xand." The witch looked up at him with an earnest expression of concern. That expression was becoming too familiar.

"Will? We are talking about me, right?" That earned him a small smile from the tiny witch. Willow smiles were becoming quite rare. Even small ones were worth major points. "It'll be just fine, you'll see." He reassured her.

"It had better be, whelp. No one is taking Dawn." Spike stalked ahead in a swirl of leather after lobbing his threat. Xander pulled Willow in under his arm and they had followed him through the dark back alleys of Sunnydale. Willow had keep up a steady steam of 'nonverbal message,' and 'red flag' words and negotiation techniques. Xander didn't tell her that he didn't intend to offer up a compromise. He wholeheartedly agreed with Spike. No one was taking Dawn, not now, not ever.

The interview with the guidance counselor lasted forty minutes. They both smiled. They both thanked each other for making the time for the meeting. Both of them lied through their teeth. Xander said he appreciated her attention to Dawn considering how many other students she was responsible for. She said that just meeting Xander was a weight off her mind in regard to Dawn. In politically correct language, couched in some of Willow's Psych 101-speak and various catch phrases gleaned from his company's human resource manual, he had told her to back off. That she was making a bad situation worse, and that he would not hesitate to bring her part in any damage to Dawn's recovery before a review board. Judging by the forced smile she gave them as they left her office, Xander was sure this woman would go to any lengths not to have to meet with him again.

Once they were in the car, Dawn said she wanted Chinese, so he told her to get the menu for Ling's Hunan out of the glove compartment. He knew Willow preferred Cantonese, but Ling's was near the blood bank, and it was Thursday. Thursday was the night Laura worked late at the blood bank. It was only five o'clock so Xander gave Dawn money and let her go into Ling's by herself. He told her he wouldn't be long and that he would be back to help her carry it all. Swinging an empty cooler by its handle he walked the two blocks to the office of the Sunnydale Blood Bank. There had been a bloodmobile parked across from the construction site about a month ago. He hadn't intended to donate, he'd just stopped by to see who was suicidal enough to staff a vampiric meals on wheels in Sunnydale. He had been at a loss for words when a tall redhead had tugged on his arm and said "C. O. T. H." almost like a cheerleader. Now wasn't that blast from the past? How many other graduating classes could boast the rallying cry 'Children of the Hellmouth'? She gave a throaty chuckle, which would have sounded evil to someone who didn't know Spike.

"General Harris, how the hell are you?" And he'd been good. Good as in his girlfriend was waiting for him to pick her up from work. Good as in he still believed that somehow they could make it through the Glory thing intact. So he had donated blood. How could he not, with Laura Brendon's full laugh punctuating her own view of life on the Hellmouth and her polite but disinterested questions about how everything was with his 'crew'? As he scanned the mandatory reading material, he had asked about what they did with the blood it mentioned they would not use if the tests were inconclusive.

"Thinking of changing your diet, General?" Her tone of voice was light, but he was reminded of the girl who had shown up at the briefing before graduation. It had been the first time he remembered seeing her without her nose buried in a science fiction paperback. She had been carrying a very large, very sharp katana.

"It's not what you think. Well, it is what you think. But it's complicated." At the time he hadn't even know why he asked. He looked into her gold-green eyes and wondered for a moment if he was about to be doused with holy water. "Do you trust me?" He'd asked.

After a pause that felt as if she was measuring the weight of his soul against a feather she said, "Yeah, I do. It's just medical waste. How much do you want?"

"Can I let you know?" It had been that simple. She had given him her card. He called her after Buffy died. And now Thursday afternoon was part of his routine. He stopped by the blood bank and gave the cooler to Laura and she gave it back filled with bags of human blood. Some of it had minor drugs that donors had overlooked, nothing serious; diet pills, allergy medicine, just enough to make it not good for other humans.
"Kelly, Xander. Xander, Kelly." Laura nodded the introductions as she brought the cooler back. Xander thought Kelly, a dark hard man about his height with a full goatee, would have appeared less threatening if he wasn't holding a two-handed broadsword *Sci-Fi geek meet Ares, Ares meet sci-fi geek. Talk about a match made in heaven.*

"Thanks. This means a lot." And it did. The steady diet of human blood was making a real difference in the speed of Spike's recovery from the repeated poundings he had endured.

"Just promise you won't carry that stuff around after dark," she said as she held the door open for him. How she managed to convey concern for his safety while still implying 'get the hell out, Kelly is going to show me his sword' was really quite impressive. He should take notes, but not tonight.
In half an hour he and Dawn were back at the magic shop. Xander of course was carrying dinner of the Chinese and the bodily fluid *eww* variety. Dawn carried her knapsack. She bounced into the shop ahead of him and ran over to Spike, who was waiting as he did for her every day. "Xander made her cry!" Her voice conveyed awe, and he wasn't sure if he was more disturbed by the pleasure that awe gave him or by the fact that she really seemed to believe he had made someone cry.
"I did not!" Where had this come from, she hadn't mentioned the meeting in the car? He thought, now that it was over, she hadn't even been thinking about it. So much for his ability to read the adolescent female.

"Did too." She started to clear the research table. They had brought enough food for Giles, and Willow and Tara when they stopped by.

"She was not crying." Xander tossed a blood bag to Spike and took the rest to the refrigerator in the back. This too had become part of their routine. Dawn and he would run errands and end up back at the store. Spike, of all people, would make sure she did her homework, helping with anything language or history related. Willow and Tara would stop by, and Willow would field any math or computer-related questions. While Dawn worked on homework, Xander worked around the shop. He cleaned up, made minor repairs and was even helping the witches transfer the inventory onto a database. Giles hadn't replaced Anya yet so they all pitched in to see that he wasn't overwhelmed.

"Her hands were shaking." Dawn was still recounting the battle of the guidance counselor to Spike when Xander returned to the front room.

"Dawn, I just reasoned with her." He handed Dawn a cold BlueSky ginseng ginger ale to go with her spring rolls and dumplings.

"Tell it to Willow. You had her so scared." Xander rolled his eyes, not sure if it was at Dawn's exaggerations or Spike's snickering. He didn't score Spike snickers as high as Willow smiles, being that there was a higher supply of said snickers, but it felt oddly good seeing that Spike wasn't as broken as he had seemed That Day. As the three of them sat down at the table, he thought ,just maybe they would make it through this. Not back to where they had been, but if they could just hold on to the routine, maybe they would be all right.


part three

Bronzing. With Spike. Xander had spent his life since Jesse died drowning in estrogen, so the whole beer and pool after the Friday night sweep was new. Odd, he would never have pegged Spike for the male bonding type. Although the only people - in the loosest form of that word - that he had ever seen Spike interact with, outside of the gang, were either dead or dust. Not counting Deadboy, and Dru, and, *snerk,* Harmony. Whoop; not wise to snerk when the vampire misses a shot. *And, hello, William the Bloody.* Luckily, even under Spike-glare Xander made a fairly complicated bank shot. Not that he was into the game, but the shot would pass the inopportune snerk off as comment on how Spike had set up the shot for him and not a shot at his romantic entanglements. Guy speak. A grunt or a nod covered most topics. You didn't have to take out the broken pieces of your life and poke them around. There was much to be said for the unexamined life when the wounds were so raw. No need to pick at the scabs with Spike. Not that they didn't talk, they had some spooky parental-like conversations about Dawn when she wasn't with them.

He hadn't really had a guy friend since Jesse. G-Man didn't count. Not that he wasn't a guy. Well he wasn't. He was an adult. Someone you could go to if you needed to know how to kill a Cltari demon or break a spell, but Xander was pretty certain they would never have a belching contest while watching 'Pinky and the Brain'. He had tried the whole bonding thing with Riley, but they hadn't been able to fool each other. Xander had been wrapped up in Anya at the time and Riley had pretty much fallen into the category of 'this guy makes Buffy happy so I'll be nice to him'. Like Tara, who, having survived the trial by fire was now part of the pack, Riley had started out as a friend's accessory. Riley had fallen by the wayside, like Cordy, like Oz, like Anya. That wasn't really fair to Cordy. Willow had told him about the vision thing. So the alpha female had gone off to form her own pack. More proof that once your life was touched by the Hellmouth there was nowhere to run. He felt bad that Willow had made that trip alone. It couldn't have been easy for her, telling Deadboy; Willow could never bear to cause anyone pain. He hadn't counted Angel in his list of former fringers, because he had never considered him even a fringe member of the pack. He had been alone in those feeling, so once Angel left, the issue hadn't been worth crossing his alpha. *Whoa, gotta stop the hyena thoughts.*

Xander didn't have the enhanced senses or the drive to hunt thrumming through his body anymore, but he did remember. Remember how simple it had been to divide the world into pack and not pack. You protected pack. Everyone else was prey or predator. He had been surprised how well that had carried over to his life after the demon had been banished. The only difference was you didn't hunt the prey, you protected it. Giles had never told the girls that Xander still had the memories, so he never talked about them. Buffy had thought that the mating urge was fueled by human-Xander's attraction to her. Attraction had nothing to do with picking her as a mate. Hyena-Xander was only concerned with what was best for the pack. She was the strongest female. She would have been perfect; the best hunter, and the best protector for the pack. He shook off that line of thought. They turned the pool table over to the guys waiting for it and sat at the bar.

"Just say it, whelp," Spike snarled, leaning over the counter and helping himself to a beer and stealing one for Xander as well.
"Huh?" Oh, I should probably pay for those, Xander thought, and pulled a ten out of his wallet to appease the bartender.

"You've been doing an impression of the Poof all night. You're in a snit over my giving the Watcher what for, so spit it out." Spike flipped the top of the beer back over the top of his head. It bounced off a light, hit a moving waitress in the head and landed with a 'plunk' in a pitcher of beer on a table over eight feet away. It didn't set the chip off, and the people at the table were looking in the wrong direction due to the numerous banks. Cool. *Oh yeah, Spike, Giles, major blow up, multiple 'sod offs'.*
"You mean all that bugger, wanker, piss off and other English-type slang you two were hurling when Dawn and I showed up?" It hadn't occurred to Xander to ask. One thing his parents had taught him, although he doubted they knew it, was the advantage of keeping your head down and pretending you didn't know what was going on. Spike just snorted and drained half his beer. Using both his vast experience in ducking his friend's menstrual cycles and his inborn guy-speak knowledge, Xander interpreted that to mean that maybe Spike needed to talk. "So what was that all about?" *There, that was vague enough, encouraging him to talk while not taking sides. How much worse could this be than a Slayer after the whole Parker debacle?*

"Xander." Exasperated Spike, so not good and he was using Xander's name; he never used his name.

"He's really hurting, Spike." Suddenly, he didn't want the beer and set it down on the bar.

"We're all hurting; we all loved her." Xander wondered if Spike said we to see if he would call him on it.

"No, we loved her; Dawn loved her. Giles was responsible for her." Xander held up both hand to stop Spike and continued.

"You know what he's been doing every day? Besides trying to pickle himself in single malt? He's been reading his journals. Every line, and between the lines. He's examining every action, every word to see how he let her down. He's trying to find what he could have done different, which time he wasn't hard enough on her, when he missed the opportunity to pass on that one piece of knowledge that would have saved her life." Spike's eyes had never left his, but where they had been the cold eyes of a merciless killer when he started, by the time he finished Xander thought they were starting to gloss over with tears. *Oh God, please don't.* He hadn't seen Spike cry since That Day. If Spike started crying Xander would lose it, and they would have to scrape them both up off the floor in wet little puddles. "I promised her..." Spike's voice was low and he was obviously fighting the need to cry.

"I know." Xander spoke equally softly, and hoped he wouldn't choke on his words. "When we were sixteen, and were told how short a Slayer's life was, I promised Buffy if anything happened to her I would look after the people she loved. I never thought I would have to keep that promise. I mean, she always seemed so indestructible." Xander's eyes had been anywhere but on Spike while he spoke, thinking that that would keep him from bawling like a baby. But as he ended his eyes met Spike's and he said, "Let's get the hell out of here." About a block form the Bronze, Xander said. "That's not all."

"All that you promised?" Spike had his emotions back under control and sounded like his old self.

"All that's got the G-Man courting disaster. The whole Ben thing. I mean, I don't think I could have done it. Not that I'm condemning him but, you know, wow." They had cut across the park and were almost to the playground. The trees were cut back and since it was a clear night the area seemed bright with moonlight.

"What are you babbling about?" Spike stopped, with his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his duster.
"I guess you were up protecting Dawn at the time." Spike nodded, so Xander continued. "Well." This was the first time they had spoken of That Night. Xander turned and walked over to the swings and sat down. Spike followed and sat on the next swing. Briefly, Xander flashed on that peculiar nightmare after Adam with Spike as a Watcher. It was enough to break the mood. He could do this. He could talk about That Night. "Well. I said that already didn't I?" He took a deep breath. "After Buffy pounded Glory into a fine red paste, she changed back to Ben. Buffy left him there bleeding and gasping for air, and went to rescue Dawn." *Did my voice just crack? God I can't even just say it, poor Giles.* "Giles knew. He knew even if Glory couldn't complete the ritual, once Ben recovered, there would be no stopping her. She would just make this world into another hell dimension. Giles, he just did what had to be done."

"How did he do it?" He wished Spike sounded gleeful or ruthless, but he just sounded tired. Tired the way Buffy had seemed before the final battle. Tired the way they had all seemed since Buffy died.

"Quiet. He just clamped his hand over Ben's mouth and held his nose shut. One handed." Was he expecting one of the Scourges of Europe to understand what killing an innocent had done to a good man? Maybe. "God, I suggested it, there in the shop and hated myself for it. His life's work is protecting people."

"It's done." *Okay maybe, not.* "He has the rest of his life to examine his actions and motives. Xander, the bloody Watchers are coming again; he's going to need his full faculties to make sure they don't find out about Dawn." Spike took a swig from his flask, and offered it to Xander. "I don't trust them not to turn her into some sort of lab rat. I won't let that happen to her."

"When are they coming?" *The pack, protect the pack.*

"Monday, late." Spike was looking at him expectantly. One hundred and twenty-something vampire looking to a glorified bricklayer for a decision. Ironic.

"Let's go see the witches." Xander got up, and Spike followed. Another day, another battle.


part four

Monday afternoon, he picked up Dawn and they drove to the store. United front. He had told her the Watchers were coming, and that the whole Key thing was going to remain a secret. They had their stories straight. Spike had come up with some pretty inventive lies, and Willow had pretty much analyzed the angles to death. But in the end, Xander had pointed out that it was easiest to give them what they wanted. And since the Watchers wanted to believe that the Slayer did all the work, and that they were all there at the whim of Buffy's eccentricity, then they would just play along. Buffy had never told anyone what the Key was, and had taken that information with her to the grave.

"I thought they were the good guys. " Dawn was biting her nails, while Xander parallel parked across the street from the store.

"Most of them are, honey, but there are too many of them. We can't control who they tell or where they archive the information." Xander put the car in park, but made no move to get out. He wanted to be sure Dawn was okay before heading into the shop. They might not be there yet, but he remembered how quickly they had taken over the place last time, and they didn't have Buffy to fling swords anymore if they got out of line. "You're going to be all right with this?" Dawn's eyes seemed to take up her whole face, but she nodded. "Hey, you're a Summers. If they give you any trouble, hit them over the head with an axe."

"Huh?" Well, that was better - she had the 'Xander is so goofy' look instead of the 'I'm about to be sacrificed, again' look.

"When things get back to normal, ask Spike about the night he met Joyce." Xander said, tugging on her hair. Later, when the Watchers arrived, Giles was behind the counter. Dawn and the witches were at the research table surrounded by spell books and a trig text. Spike lounged on the metal stairs, as close as he could get to Dawn without hovering. Xander was above him sitting on the floor of the balcony. Apparently cleaning weapons; but if he just happened to have a couple loaded crossbows in easy reach that was all well and good. There were only four of them. The old bossy guy, who had threatened Giles; the nervous, nearly impaled, interrupting-Buffy guy; the lady Watcher, who was so not working the Scully look - if that was what she was going for, it was hard to tell - and the new guy, tall, blond, seemed to be embracing the European hit-man style rather than the fanatical, stuffy British academia look. There was no telling how it would have gone down if the Watchers had stayed true to form and started asking questions. But the Scully wannabe had to gasp out, "William the Bloody!" Xander couldn't tell if she was going to ask for his autograph or pull out a stake and he didn't care, not when he saw the hit man pull out a water pistol.
"Drop it now." Xander didn't even remember picking up the crossbow. *Damn, Buffy was better with this, if I miss...* The gun went flying one way. The guy went flying another. *Oh, of course, Willow and Tara had their hands clasped under the table.* Spike had moved forward and was standing in front of Dawn in game face, growling at all and sundry. Dawn clutched at Spike's bicep.
"Guys." She looked to Willow, and then to Giles. "Why don't we...?" She pulled harder on Spike's arm, until he tuned to glare at her. She giggled. He dropped his game face and laughed at her, or maybe at the cowering Watchers. Dawn had told Xander about that moment on the top of the tower, just before Doc tossed Spike over the edge. Dawn said the creature had said that there was no smell of a soul about Spike, but that after she met his eyes at that moment, she would never be afraid of him again. "Why don't we," she looked up at Xander, he could see her in his peripheral vision, but he hadn't lowered the crossbow, "order pizza?"

The British are not known for their reverence of pizza, but it broke the tension. They might have ended up sitting around, feeding the Watchers the 'we know nothing line' if at that moment the door hadn't opened and Laura hadn't entered. She stopped by hit-man guy and kind of nudged him with the toe of her boot. "Hey, General." Another nudge, "Human?"

"Ah, yeah. What's up." Xander kept the crossbow and picked up a small helm axe, and descended the stairs. This was not a place Laura would come so near dark.

"Monster. Oh, hey, Willow." She rocked back and forth on the heels of her well-worn riding boots.

"What kind?" Xander recaptured her attention.

"Dragon. Can we blow it up?" Xander blinked. *She really thinks I know what to do with a dragon? Geeze, you explode one giant snake into ground meat and suddenly you're the Dragonslayer. This isn't even funny.*

"Where is it?" he asked while Giles pulled out a large book. Spike had headed back to the training room and dragged Dawn with him, probably to get more weapons. Tara and Willow were huddled in a conference. The Watchers just watched. Like this was some play, or maybe they thought the gang was trying to get one over on them.

"Out near the paddock by White Cross Beach. You know, where they rent horses. Kel's keeping and[an not and] eye on it." She walked over to Giles and looked over his shoulder. "That's not it. It has four legs, and it has bigger wings, and Kel said it's not a reptile and that we should have at least two hours before it moves."

"There are no dragons." The lady Watcher said, as if that would make it so.

"Who's Kel? And what makes her think we have some time?" Willow asked.

"Kel's a he, and that thing killed four horses. It's fast but I doubt it will be able to fly right away once it finishes eating all that." Laura was beginning to show interest in the sharp shiny objects Giles kept away from the public. "Ooh, do you have an Ivanhoe, one not more than thirty pounds in weight?"

"There are no dragons." *Useful piece of knowledge,[change , to ; ] ignoring Watchers pisses them off.*

"I saw one." Dawn said, coming out of the back room. Spike was hovering close but he didn't silence her. "I saw one the night Buffy died." Dawn looked at Giles when she said it, and her eyes watered but no tears dropped.

"Will, ideas?" Xander was hoping for a 'this is wonderful, now I can try out that dragon banishing spell'. Instead she gave him the 'It took you all this time to figure out smart chick were hot?' look.

"Giles, do we still have the rocket launcher?"


part five

Watcher panic did not ensue until they actually saw the dragon. Because, after all, dragons do not exist. Vampires, demons and the Hellmouth, they wrote papers about, but dragons sent them into a tizzy. It had to be a British thing. *Ok, that's not very PC, maybe it's just that normal British people don't join the Watchers and we get stuck with all the Principal Snyder types.* While the Watchers were arguing with Giles about the extremely large flesh rending beast a quarter of a mile away which did not exist, Kelly and Willow had moved on to the 'kill it now, we can't just kill it' argument. That was originally Tara's argument but Willow had taken over when Kelly had done the Ares scowl thing, doubly effective when you happen to be holding a broadsword, and Tara's voice had trailed off to a whisper. All Tara had suggested was that maybe they shouldn't kill the dragon, being it was one of a kind and all. But Willow now looked like she was going to change Kel into something icky, and so help him if that guy raised his broadsword to Willow, Xander would feed him to the dragon. Dawn was staying close to Spike. He was excellent Watcher repellent. The Scoobies hadn't wanted to bring her, but there was no way they were leaving her alone at the shop, and when they suggested dropping her at Giles' place she had said, "You're not leaving me. I'm coming with you." And that settled that.

"We're not going to kill it." *Hey did that come out of my month? Don't I sound sure of myself? I wonder what I think we are going to do with it.* Now Xander had Willow looking at him like, 'hey you have a plan,' and Kelly looking at him like 'I already don't like your plan.'

Laura said "Why not?"

"Because if it smells this bad on the outside, we'll probably all drop dead if we open it up." Which was an excellent point even if he hadn't realized he was going to make it. Dragons smell bad; really bad, eye-watering, nose-running and maybe even skin-peeling bad. Dawn had inched over to him, with Spike shadowing her, keeping one eye on the Watchers and one on the dragon.

"That's the one that came through the vortex, before Buffy..." She stood on her toes and pulled on his arm to lower Xander's head to her, her voice hushed. She trailed off, eyes big, looking at the Watchers, who were ignoring her. "It's not from here; can't we send it back? Like the troll guy."

Spike looked at Xander. Xander looked at Spike. They both turned to Willow, but it was Xander who asked, "Wills, you think we can use the 'Olaf Maneuver' on this thing?"

Well, that put an end to the discussions. The Watchers looked baffled. Giles looked pensive. Tara looked hopeful. Laura still had that 'whatever you say, General Harris' look, which was just wrong. Kelly looked suspicious, but that could be the whole Ares thing working for him. Willow, well, Willow just looked incredulous and said, "On something that size? Xander, do you have any idea of the mass we're talking about?"

"Mass? Um, Physics? Not really my strong suit. Couldn't you just use more of whatever you used before?" Oh well. That look just said Xander shouldn't even think about magic, let alone make suggestions. But on the plus side, it did spark a flurry of activity. The end result of which was that Willow and Giles taking Dawn and two of the Watchers back to the shop to get books and supplies, while Tara and the third Watcher established a sort of base camp to wait for them. Spike, Xander, Kelly and Laura were supposed to cautiously circle the area and keep the dragon in sight. *Do they really think we're going to lose something that size?*

'The Battle of the Dragon' was almost anticlimactic. Except for when they had nearly been eaten. Giles came back with about thirty disposable hibachis. *Yeah Wal-Mart!* The Watchers and witches began filling them with herbs and parchment, then sent the four who had been circling to lay out the braziers in a large circle around the dragon.

One second it was somnolent, the next it was there, roaring. It snapped at Laura, nearly taking off her head, but Kelly slashed it across the nose and it reared back and howled in pain. Apparently wherever it had come from, food did not fight back. It futilely flapped its wings, bottom-heavy from its recent meal. It didn't fly but sent great gust of air, full of hay and sand, swirling around the area. Xander and Laura scrambled to get the rest of the braziers lit. Crack. A tree snapped by its flailing tail sounded like a gunshot. Another crack, but it wasn't a tree.

One of the Watchers had pulled a gun. Not having thought to move away from the base camp before he started to fire, he was now drawing the beast's attention to their most vulnerable area. Giles, the witches, and the Watcher who Buffy had nearly impaled, were on their knees holding hands around a basin of water. Dawn stood well back, with the lady Watcher and the old guy. Xander, who had been running at full speed since he heard the shot, vaulted the Watchers' rental car, tackled Dawn and shoved her under Kelly's pickup truck; just in time to hear the lady Watcher's screams. Since the screams didn't cut off abruptly and started to be interspersed with "Bugger all" and "Fuck", Xander ventured a look at the carnage. *Can you be a Watcher and say fuck?* She wasn't dead, or maimed. She had been slimed by dragon goo, or ichor, or sap, whatever it was that wasn't blood. It was thicker, and smelled worse, a lot worse, and probably couldn't be removed from tweed. He hoped she wouldn't have to shave her head.

Xander motioned for Dawn to stay down and cautiously looked around. It was quiet. No sound of the wings flapping, no roars, even the Watcher was calming down. Tara was holding Willow and stroking her hair. Willow's eyes were closed and her nose was bleeding. Giles had removed his glasses and pulled himself into a standing position, but didn't look steady on his feet. The other Watcher looked unconscious, or dead. *Nope, definitely unconscious dead people don't drool, except for Spike when he's sleeping.* Spike, who was heading across the clearing toward Xander, had also been doused with dragon fluid, but not as bad as the softly sobbing lady Watcher. It had missed his head completely. "What happened?" Xander asked, meaning Spike's goo-covered Docs and jeans. Spike just shrugged and knelt down to look under the truck.

"You can come out," he said to Dawn.

The old guy, who was looking back and forth from the goo-covered lady to the paddock which still contained the remains of the dragon's meal, answered Xander. "He, he" the Watcher swallowed and Xander wondered if it was the smell that made him look like he was going to hurl. "He impaled it with a grounding rod." The stunned Watcher was back to staring at where the dragon had been. "It reared back into the circle and vanished." *I wonder what's got him more rattled, that William the Bloody saved their lives, or that they were wrong about the no dragons deal.* Xander didn't think it would be diplomatic to point out that Spike would have gleefully sucked out their eyeballs for putting Dawn's life in danger, or that it had been Dawn's location near them that had forced Spike to saved them, not any previously cut deal with the Scoobies.

Instead he commented on the vanishing part of the story. "Go super witches!" Willow opened her eyes and gave him a weak smile. Tara helped her to her feet and Dawn, who had rolled out from under the truck, brought her a juice box from her knapsack. Laura was bouncing beside Kelly, gripping his arm while telling him how wonderful he was, and how it was too bad they didn't have a video to show all the other Rennies. Apparently Kelly worked weekends at the fairgrounds up north for the Renaissance Festival. He was a knight, but just killed other knights, not dragons. He was surprisingly good with a broadsword for an actor. After the rocky start, Willow and Tara had warmed up to the Rennies. They were making plans to visit the fairgrounds with Dawn next weekend. Giles was speaking softly with the other Watchers. Xander really hoped Giles took the opportunity to point out that there were no such things as dragons.

Dawn came over and stopped about six feet in front of Spike. "Oh, you really smell bad." Spike snorted. Dawn giggled. "I saw a hose, follow me," she added.

The Rennies offered Spike and the goo-covered Watcher a ride back to town in the back of Kelly's truck. Xander wasn't sure what happened to the lady Watcher, but he got custody of Spike. After removing all the towels and the rug from his bathroom Xander showed Spike his clean-up supplies. Beside the first aid kit, which saw a great deal of use, he had a pile of rags and a row of refilled twenty-four ounce soda bottles all labeled with their contents: gasoline; turpentine; mineral oil; vinegar; bleach; salt; baking soda; powdered carbon.

"I've found that if you can't get something off with some combination of this stuff, it just isn't going to come off," he said in answer to the strange look that Spike had given him. He knew most people didn't keep this stuff in their bathroom, but most people didn't end up covered in dragon juice. "By the way, impressive move with the grounding rod. Not thinking of changing your name, are you?"

Spike snorted and started peeling off his clothes. Peeling being the operative word, since the dragon juice was no longer in a fluid state. It sounded like a very large band-aid being removed. Xander thought it was lucky Spike didn't have a great deal of body hair, because he probably wouldn't have any by the time he was naked.


Naked Spike.

*Is it warm in here? Ventilation. Fumes. Oh, I should probably do something about that.* Xander flipped the switch and the bathroom fan whirred softly to life. "You'll want to watch the fumes on most of that stuff..." Xander trailed off. Spike had just started to push the wet jeans down over his hips and had stopped when Xander spoke. Xander in turn was staring at the fine dusting of dark hair that seemed to form an arrow starting at Spike's navel and trailed down the pale skin revealed by his partially removed jeans. "Um..." Xander eyes almost audibly snapped away from the hypnotic flesh at the sound of Spike's snicker. *Well, you're not going to get me to acknowledge I was just checking out the semi-naked vampire; as if that would be the only reason you have to laugh at me.* "Right. Fumes. You don't breath. Stupid Xander. Just try not to set yourself on fire. I'll go make up the couch."

Xander had fallen asleep while Spike was still trying to smell normal again. He looked very clean and surprisingly young when Xander shuffled by the couch on the way to the kitchen the next morning. Spike hadn't left the bathroom a disaster area either. Which was unusually considerate, from what Xander remembered from when they were living together. He poured a large glass of milk and alternated drinking from it while peeling one of the three hard-boiled eggs he had grabbed from the bowl in the refrigerator. Hard-boiled eggs were cheap, portable protein; they were also the only eggs he felt safe sleeping in the same house with since the whole egg baby incident.

He hoped he wouldn't feel awkward around Spike after getting caught checking him out. Most of the guys he knew casually maintained that you couldn't find another man attractive and not be gay, but Xander had never hesitated to admit if a man was physically attractive, even if he didn't like him, like Angel. But he did like Spike, and he remembered the Willow debacle. He didn't want that estrangement with Spike, not when their friendship was so new. Hopefully, Spike, being a guy, wouldn't want to examine all the sticky emotionally feeling and talk about what was happening. With luck maybe they could both ignore it.

* * * * *

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