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No. 2

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1

She picked up the phone. Dialed, knowing what she'd say, where she'd stutter. She hated that, and knew how to use it, too.

She knew how to use a lot of things. They beat against her dreams at night, like the patter of moth-wings drawn to an unknown flame. She thought about that, losing herself in almost-words while the phone rang. And rang. And rang.

"Not back yet?" said Oz. He sat on the edge of her bed, leaning forward. Anyone else would think him relaxed. She knew better. She thought she did. It was hard to tell.

"I don't get it," she said. "I-I mean"--there was the stutter--"I know airplanes don't always run on time. Or--or he might have stopped for a cappucino on the way home. But you'd think he could get an answering machine. I mean, hello, twentieth century. He probably doesn't realize there are computers behind it." Computers handling the myriad pulses of conversation from coast to city to country, their tangled, fungal connections. It was the kind of thought that came to her more often, these days, even without the influence of crystals or incense or...things. Eye of newt sorts of things.

"Man's got a lot on his mind," Oz said. His eyes upon hers were warm. Worried.

"Yeah, because school librarians have so much reshelving to do over the summer."

That's not what I meant, his eyes told her.

She lowered hers. Picked up her stuffed frog, the one that kept away the bad froggy fears at night, and clutched it close. If she couldn't get rid of the big bad fears, she'd settle for the small slimy ones.

She knew what Oz meant, and why she wouldn't pick up the phone five minutes after he left for the night to recount everything they did and didn't do, everything she imagined, in breathless detail. She knew why Mrs. Summers called her mom every weekend.

And she thought that what was going on with Xander was something else entirely, crazy as it sounded. Like the whispers, like the way she could hear the secret heart of stone exposed and screaming beneath the sidewalk. No explanation was going to sound sane and daylight-sensible.

"I have to tell someone," she said. "Someone who can do something."

Oz was quiet for a time, cool and considering. She had grown accustomed to this, the pebbles of thought dropping into a deep well of calmer reason. Sometimes she wished she had that for herself.

She realized she did, and ducked her head so he wouldn't see her blush.

"Man's gotta think sometimes," Oz said at last. "I'm not saying the things he thinks are good. But they gotta be thought. Alone."

She sat down next to him. Not too close, not too far. Just right, the way almost nothing was anymore. "You're probably right," she said.

As his arm went around her, she thought of Xander. Which made it too awkward to bring him up again. Talking about your last crush was in the realm of faux pas, wasn't it?

She couldn't help remembering how happy Xander had been about that Leatherman on his--tenth birthday? eleventh? Scratching his initials (minus the despised middle name) into a picket fence, shaving pale curls from twigs, green-brown sticky spirals of sapling bark, even something that might have been construed as a small curled cat. How he'd said, a month later, that he'd lost the Leatherman. She had developed suspicions about who had lost it for him.

Xander hadn't whittled since then. Until now.

No matter how worried Xander was about Buffy, or vampires showing up, she couldn't think of a reason that anyone, even a platoon of Slayers--she flinched from the word--needed to whittle so many stakes.

*

Who needs a pencil-sharpener, he thought. The ones in the classrooms were always foxed anyway. It was like a conspiracy to ensure that no one would have an unduly sharp pencil.

He had pencils now, enough pencils for a lifetime of SAT flunkage. Among other things.

Newly-woken vampires--

don't think about that

--were the easiest to stake. And most still got away. But they were getting better at the staking, all of them.

In his dreams--

no don't think about the dreams either

--he saw her, the shining hair and the arc of her hand, the lean violent figure. The strength of her. The absolute surety with which she struck the heart's red geographies.

not the heart never the heart

He didn't have that. He'd never had anything like that. Hell, he'd almost flunked P.E. once.

He had hands.

don't think about what else you have

And with the hands, he had a hundred hundred stakes. And meant to keep whittling until he had a hundred hundred more.

*

She knocked on the door, once, twice, tentative polite raps.

The door opened. Giles blinked at her. She caught the flicker of disappointment behind the glasses. "Willow," he said. "Ah. Come in."

"She's not with you either," she said, just to hear it. Just to see his outside flinch to match her inside one. To make the truth solid.

Giles stepped aside. She entered.

"I did sort out a matter of demons," Giles said. Then: "No. Have--have you--"

She was beginning to regret her need for solidity. But all the anchors of her world were unraveling, falling into dark waters. Giles. Buffy. Xander. Sometimes she dreamt she was drowning, and the shapes she glimpsed through the slow fall of light through water, through waves, the great and terrible gears--no. That wasn't why she'd come.

"No," she said. "It's s-something else. I did try to call you--" Stop. He was the Watcher. She assisted. It wasn't the same. "Giles. I think something's v-very wrong with Xander."

His gaze snapped to her. "With Xander? Has he done violence to the English language again?" He fumbled his glasses off, then looked at her. Really looked at her, and the way she was folding and unfolding her hands, the narrow worried line of her. Willowy, willowy. "If it's about the bruises--"

She stared at him. Thinking of the lost Leatherman, and Xander's voice, too light in talking about things dark.

Who knew what Giles thought of her expression, but he said, "Well, yes, it's to be expected."

"Bruises? Expected?"

"Oh." The glasses resumed their usual perch. "Ah. I can see that it would be alarming. He asked to train, because of, of the patrols. To have a better chance, you see. You should see the bruises that--" He looked away.

She could finish that sentence, all grammatically perfect and properly spelled: that I used to get with Buffy. "That's good," she said. Realized how unhelpful it was. "I mean, really good. It's great." Hesitated. "Does he have a chance?"

"No worse than any other adolescent male keeping to a regimen more vigorous than that of the idiot box," Giles said, with asperity.

"That wasn't why I came," she said. Her nerve was going to dissolve if she didn't say it soon. And, horribly, she knew how it could happen in a literal way, how the body's arcs and lines could unbone themselves into something growing, grasping, unsolid. She was going to have to talk to Giles about that too, before it got scarier. But first things first. "I think he's possessed."

She couldn't read his face, and it scared her in ways she hadn't realized remained possible. How many books did he keep closed to her, inside the recesses of his memory? How many ways might he guess the burgeoning power-knowledge-secret inside her, and how much of it did he share?

She fished the index cards out of her pocket, which drew a quirk of amusement--appreciation, even?--from his lips. Well, no one said study skills had to be confined to mundane matters, did they? She laid it all out, the irregularities and the evidence, the strange brusqueness, all the times she should have seen more of Xander than a moment's muttered greeting and halfhearted witty riposte. The ways that hyena-possession might have made him susceptible to other arcane influences, without incantations beating through his blood to ward them away. She hastened over that point, remembering her dreams.

"Willow," Giles said at last. His voice had lost its earlier edge. He sounded gentle, almost avuncular, and she knew. She knew he didn't believe her. "Willow, we've all been through a tremendous stress. And we know that--that Xander cared for Buffy deeply. He must be working through a great many things, and it's quite natural for his behavior to be, ah, erratic."

"Giles, I've known him since we were both wearing bunny outfits to bed."

"Willow," he said again. His eyes were faraway, grim, oddly yearning. "You've never known what it is to be a seventeen-year-old boy in love. I appreciate your sense of responsibility in all this--"

Of course. She was always the responsible one. Which was why everyone came to her for the trig assignments.

"--and I'll keep an eye on him, I promise. But it's--" His voice caught. "--it's nothing more than that. We're all worried." And your worry is leading you astray, was the implication.

She nodded and sighed, and left the index cards on the coffee table on the way out, just in case they might change his mind.

*

She was coming home. She didn't know when the word had changed for her, when home came to mean not her parents' old house (when her parents could still be said to own something together) and the charred ruins of the gym, but Sunnydale. Home of no miniature golf courses and the Bronze and the overflowing library.

And the Hellmouth. It was hers. And it owned her, and she had given up trying to fight it. It made the dreams worse, but everything did. Had.

She had stepped out of her name for a time, and for a while it had worked. For a while, she had remembered permutations of menu items (Will would have been proud of her, remembering the word out of math class) and learned the supernatural black art of counting her tip without looking at it and never wore sandals because of workplace safety regulations. For a while she had been just another girl.

It hadn't lasted. She should have learned that from long ago, and not so long ago: that parents quarreled into the night and divorced, that Slayers were called and died and called again, that boyfriends lost their souls. Inconstancy. Will had been reading to her out of something called the Mutability Cantos, to which she had needed footnotes to the footnotes. Strange that she should think of it now, here in the bus, the wheels lingering over every pothole and crack in the road.

There were holes and cracks in her existence, and what could she do but keep rolling.

The bus stop was all but deserted when she got off. She set her bag down, and ducked around a corner to stretch discreetly, muscles protesting the hours of sitting and stillness and secret pain.

Strange how quickly her feet knew the way into the city, once she let them begin to move one in front of the other, always forward. Threading the labyrinth.

When you find your way to the center of the maze, what is the most interesting thing there? You are. Who had said that to her?

If she'd known the rest of the legend, what Theseus had done to Ariadne--but she didn't. It was just as well.

So dark, the sky, yet not dark enough. What had she expected, that everything in Sunnydale would be bleaker, winds like knives and dark like ashes, after the sword and the mouth and the door to hell? That the very streets would be overhung by the maws of gargoyles, and the lights faint and flickering like an altar's last candle?

The street was just a street. The lights overhead were in good working order. A city could work from a worse tax base than Sunnydale's. And the scream was just--

A scream. She was running before she knew it, her bag o' slayage thumping against her hip. Small pain, welcome distraction. Of course. Her feet had taken her to the cemetary. Reminder that she was home, and there was something to slay, and someone to rescue. That maybe this time there would be a happy ending, a small bright story.

The scream again, footsteps, a clatter and clutter of noise. Voices, perhaps.

Her feet carried her faster, closer.

Vampire, all right. Her senses tautened as she saw the battle. Someone had gotten there before her; another's footsteps, fast and fading. Someone had escaped.

She counted four without counting. Four was the threshold for the human brain's ability to recognize quantity before resorting to numbers, Giles had said once. For any more than four, you couldn't trust; you had to count.

She closed the distance. Too far, far, just right. One of the three humans had been flung aside, was stirring. "You all right?" Oz's voice. With the particular inflection that meant the fallen figure, now sitting up, was Willow.

Her throat closed at the recognition. She didn't have time for this, though. She still had a vampire to slay--

The whiplash figure in the once-upon-a-Sunday suit was the vampire. She flung her stake. Missed. Reached for another.

The third wannabe caught the stake and lunged with it for that single special center, the heart, the concentrated death inside every vampire. She recognized that direct violence, that reliance on strength. Where had she seen it before? Something was wrong, some juxtaposition of angle and speed, something didn't fit.

Yet she'd seen it before.

Dust. Swirling away, over poised hands, motions she knew. The recognition became certainty. She stopped; the word escaped. "Angel," she said.

He jerked upward and stared at her through the dust. The face was Xander's.

2

Ambushed--by a Willow-hug. She liked the feeling. Found her vision blurring and blinked away the salt. She had forgotten the warmth of hands-upon-hands, the ability to relax. "Will!" And the others. Wait. Other, singular. "Oz!" It was easier to feel the warmth than to think about Xander's precipitous, silent departure, the fading quiet footfalls.

She had run away because it hurt to think, or to feel, and it was good to have at least one of the two back. She could breathe easy, now. "Hey," she said, and: "Hey. It's been a long night." A small apology, to forestall the larger one she would have to make.

"Long night for everyone," said Oz. He nodded to Willow, who, thankfully, appeared to have suffered nothing worse than bruises.

Bruises, and the knowledge of the shapes of things at night. She had to remind herself that the Hellmouth had been here before No. 2 pencils and high heels and traffic lights. It would have breathed darkness over Willow's life, and everyone else's, even if her mom hadn't brought her here. "Oh!" she said. "I'd better get home. My mom." She bit her lip. "How's she been?"

Yes, think about her mom, and maybe she could talk to her dad on the phone--he had to have been worried, those grey weary months of summer--and oh God, Giles was going to look at her the way he did, and it was too much to think about, on the heels of her return.

It was better than thinking what she was thinking now, the stillborn hope. She couldn't bring herself to look after that retreating figure, because he might look back, and anything in her face would be a lie.

"Your mom's been calling my mom," said Willow.

"Wonderful," she said. "I'll be grounded through the afterlife. I should--I should go home. And see all of you. Tomorrow. If I'm not totally grounded."

"We could come see you," Oz said. "The mountain came to Mohammed, after all."

"I don't think I'm a mountain," Willow said, but she was smiling, that small sideways smile. Oz slipped his arm around Willow's waist, as natural as anything, and returned the smile.

She ached, seeing it. Her friends. Home.

She finally wrenched her gaze away and stared after Xander, noticing the hunched, tense shoulders. Not walking briskly, not exactly walking slowly, either.

Oz and Willow were looking at her, clearly wondering if she'd go after him.

"Tomorrow," she said, more firmly than she felt. It had been a long bus ride, and a long summer before that, and the long terrible eternity of running him through with a sword.

Her inner eye drew and redrew that moment of motion, Xander striking with Angel's assured violence.

She had imagined the juxtaposition. Wishful thinking. Undercooked hamburger. After all summer working at that wretched fast food joint, she should have known better. But what all-American vampire-slaying teen could get by without the occasional greasy burger?

Her mind drew and redrew, and would not undraw, all the way home.

*

He hadn't meant to be sitting outside the window, the edge of one sneakered foot washed in its path of light. He angled his head away from the glass, from the girl-woman-Slayer inside. Climbing roofs--by this time, he was surprised that every hoodlum and wannabe in Sunnydale hadn't picked up the pastime. Maybe the fact that he was doing it made it automatically uncool. Besides, this was the Summers' neighborhood. Bad stuff only came when Buffy brought it home, didn't it?

She should be sleeping, he thought. And thought again: She's used to staying up nights. No doubt part of the package was a supernatural need for less sleep. Was she unpacking the detritus of her journey, or laying out her arsenal on the bed, lingering over every point and edge and well-honed curve? Telling Mr. Gordo a bedtime story? He bet it involved wolves and bacon.

He'd skipped dinner. It wasn't like his folks had noticed. The thought of bacon should have urged him home, to the land of milk and Velveeta. His stomach suggested its revulsion.

The night hung above him, rich and deadly. He felt himself surfacing to meet it.

The windowlight snapped off, abandoning him to the darkness.

He could reach out, rap on the window, make his explanations. Let her run him through over and over, unbelieving--no. At some level, she already knew. Angel, she had said. Tell her what burgeoned inside him, what he hadn't been able to articulate to Giles or Willow. Especially Willow.

He could hold her again, taste her sweet, sweet breath.

He could fuck up her life.

He couldn't do it.

*

Over the past months, her mother had shared with her countless studies on runaway teens. She had traipsed up the stairs, or stared at the TV, or doodled valencies and Valentine's Day limericks in her trusty notepad, without absorbing any of it. There had once been a time when she had looked at the charts and spreadsheets and statistical regressions with eagerness, one more demonstration of the way that you could take the world and put it into numbers and the numbers would tell you about things you wouldn't see otherwise.

It was another matter when your best friend was one of the numbers. She had looked at her mother sometimes when she wasn't watching, looked at those bright abstracted eyes. And she had wondered: Is that you ever saw Buffy as? Another data-point in your normal-adolescent-progression charts of your daughter, the obligatory girl friend not girlfriend?

Sometimes she felt--older than her mother. She was pretty sure that the cracks in the asphalt and the grubs burrowing in the tree out back never murmured to her mother at night, part of that growth-decay tapestry of awareness most humans never penetrated. She knew things now, things her mother, with her stacks of journals and symposium agendas, had never imagined except as aberrations to be chronicled and measured. And hadn't she taught Miss Calendar's class for the rest of that year? Her mother had said, "It should be developmentally appropriate for her to take on more responsibility," and smiled her absent-minded smile, and left it at that.

She wasn't sure she liked being older in this way. And it had been a relief, after all, to hear her mother picking up the phone late last night--yes, it was good that Buffy was back, yes, yes. A welcome-home celebration at--oh, yes, the librarian, yes, yes.

It was appalling how much information grown-ups let slip like that, as if they thought no one listened. Perhaps she should be feeling guilty about eavesdropping. She figured it wasn't any kind of secret though, was it? Because her mom had passed on the same information this morning, minus all the agreeable meaningless Rogerian-therapy repetitions.

And she felt like a total party-pooper shuffling and reshuffling all her Xander-notes. Buffy was back. And everything would be better, wouldn't it? Except that, that, that one anomalous data-point. Angel, Buffy had said.

"Mom," she called upstairs, "I'm heading out now." And closed the door behind her, on the way to Xander's, before she heard the response. Grown-ups. Sometimes you had to take things into your own hands.

She had set out a half-hour early, figuring to catch Xander on the way. Once upon a time, he would have waited for her. Or snuck up behind her, tiptoeing with exaggerated patience until he was practically breathing down the back of her jacket and she'd jump in startlement and turn around and see him holding his sides, laughing. Maybe it had been on one of those moments, when they were just old enough to start having moments of awkwardness if only he'd reciprocated, that she had first fallen for him.

She had an Oz now, of course; he said he might be a little late, coming in from practice. It had been a relief, really, because Oz didn't quite get this concern. Maybe Oz and Giles were right and she was imagining things. A Hellmouth could get to you that way.

Now? That was him, all right, walking with that not-slow not-fast unfriendly walk, the kind of walk that tells lost people to ask for directions elsewhere. Except--

She had to run to catch up. That was another of those unexpected Hellmouthy benefits. All that running. Great for the calves. Maybe she should submit a letter to the Sunnydale Chamber of Commerce for a billboard exercise campaign.

"Xander," she said.

He stopped. Turned slightly to look at her--no more than a five-degree angle, she estimated.

She stopped. Inhaled. Exhaled. "H-hi, Xander. You're on your way early."

"So are you," he said. Monotone. No humor. No bad joke. No chauvinistic remark. Nothing.

"And your, your clothes."

"Yeah?" He cocked his head and looked past her. "What about them."

"The, um, the colors." This was already not going well. When had she ever seen him in vampire-colors, though? I'm-not-actually-wearing-hand-me-down hand-me-downs were more his style. That, or the I'm-not-wearing-shirts-on-clearance-last-year shirts. Or...no, it was embarrassing to realize the thoroughness with which she had memorized and mentally categorized Xander's clothing.

Black, burgundy, black. If she half-closed her eyes she could almost see--

"You know, Will, some of us pick out our own clothes. And tastes change."

He didn't have the grace to look at her face as he said that.

She was drowning, drowning, watching the world through the water in her eyes.

She took a different route to Giles's house.

3

Plates, napkins in festive yellow, canapés, wholly non-alcoholic punch, streamers, confetti, balloons. He surveyed his domicile and worried that he had forgotten some essential detail. Oh, yes, music. There had to be something in his collection that wouldn't strike a group of teenagers as hopelessly Triassic. Maybe something in a nice Mixolydian mode. Anything that predated the Beatles, let alone Vivaldi, might be sufficiently old to pass for new and trendy. Or perhaps he should dig out that horrific galloping "Mongolian whoopee music" that Olivia had given him as a gag several birthdays ago.

The doorbell rang five times before he remembered that he ought to answer the door. And there was Buffy, not quite meeting his eyes. To be fair, it might have had something to do with the fact that she was laden with no fewer than five heaped dishes.

And behind her--"Mrs. Summers," he said, stepping aside so she and Buffy could enter.

Joyce flashed him an all-too-bright smile as she passed him with her own burden. "Hello--where shall we put these down?"

"The kitchen, or just on the table," he called after her. He hadn't expected the Summers to bring a seven-course banquet. Suddenly his canapés seemed inadequate to the occasion. And he'd spent the last several hours putting them together.

No complaints, he told himself. The Slayer had returned, after all. He had been gratified that Joyce Summers had contacted him with the news, despite his entirely unreasonable twinge of hurt that Buffy hadn't come to see him immediately. As if she could be expected to avoid her own mother. And when he offered to host the party, and Joyce agreed--they were adults, and they both understood the implied mutual apology.

He began to shut the door, then spotted familiar red hair: "Willow, do come in." Only when she'd entered did he realize her eyes were red, too. "Did something happen?"

Her voice was subdued. "Just Xander. He said something. You know, just being a guy. He should be here soon."

He folded his arms.

"I mean, not like that," Willow said hastily. "You don't count. You're not young and, um, obnoxious."

"You can say 'old' without offending me, you know."

Laughter came from the kitchen, if a trifle strained, and Buffy's voice as well: "--if no one eats the artichoke dip, you totally can't say I didn't warn you..."

He watched the way Willow's eyes lit, how her face relaxed--good Lord, he hadn't realized how strained she had looked all summer. "Go on in," he said. "I assure you I can withstand the smell of dinner a little longer if I put my mind to it."

"Oh! And I brought the ice cream, too." She fairly ran into the kitchen, clutching her bag.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and felt paper. No, index cards. The ones he hadn't reviewed last evening as he'd promised himself he would. Why had that been--oh, yes, Xander had come over for another bout, and it would have been a bit indiscreet to leave Willow's mini-presentation lying about. And just now Willow had mentioned--but it was true that boys this age were capable of hurtful remarks without the excuse of malign mystical influences.

Besides, the whatever-it-was the Summers had unveiled smelled heavenly, and he realized he hadn't actually had lunch. He walked toward the laughter, holding it to him like a candle to reassure himself that this was real and light had returned.

*

If the food didn't kill her, the warmth and light would. She hadn't felt this sated and home in months. Going for groceries with her mom, the reams and reams of ingredients, and being able to pull everything they needed off the shelves and into their cart without having to calculate to the penny what she could afford--that had been a revelation all by itself. Even if it had taken superhuman powers of stacking to fit everything into the cart.

Willow passed her another of the little sausage things, and she munched. So she was eating appetizers with no guilt whatsoever. That was what they were for, and when Willow held one out with those big eyes, how could she not chow down? They listened to Giles and her mom exchange grown-up pleasantries about the weather, as if that ever changed in Sunnydale, and let the words wash over them, in and out, low tide at last.

Then Xander came into the dining room.

Sometimes it felt as though her brain divided itself into segments so it could process different things at once. What had Willow called it? Parallel processing. Like Christmas tree bulbs, only not.

One part of her brain noticed that the thing he was carrying bore a commendable resemblance to a chocolate cake. With frosting and little sugar flowers and curlicues and everything. This segment of her brain registered instant approval because, well, chocolate cake.

Another part of her brain stopped in sheer astonishment at what the street lights by the cemetary had failed to reveal. Or maybe she had dismissed it as a trick of the light. He had been taller than she was from the first time they bounced off each other in the hallway, but he was taller than she remembered him. And gaunter in the face, as though he had renounced Doritos and Twinkies and all the things that made the school vending machines worthwhile. He could have had a late growth spurt, right? Guys had growth spurts all the time. Just not during the one summer you ran away from home.

The last part of her brain was trying to blot out color, flatten everything to a safe dreary grey. She knew those colors. Her pulse quickened in response, against her will.

She was imagining this, she told herself. After all, there he was, having deposited the cake on one of the few clear spaces on the counter. Slouching his usual Xander-slouch. Yeah. Imagination. Giles had spiked the fruit punch, that was it.

There was a little crinkle between Willow's eyebrows that looked like it was used to being there.

No, she wasn't imagining this. She pretended to be absorbed in her fruit punch--what had Giles put in it anyway? if the stuff got any fizzier it would launch itself through the roof--and watched Xander respond to her mom and Giles with monosyllables, then excuse himself to traipse up the stairs because, who knew, maybe the downstairs bathroom wasn't macho enough with all these girls around.

"Has he been like this all summer?" she whispered to Willow. "And where's Oz?"

"Oz has to practice chords and scales and stuff," Willow whispered back. "And--I don't know, Buffy. He took--he took it really hard when, well, you know." Her voice became softer. "I mean, I'm not saying this in a making you feel bad way. Although it probably does. But he's been giving me--"

"--the wiggins?"

"Yeah. Those. And Oz thinks it's just guy stuff, and Giles does too."

"That's because they're guys."

Oh, no, her mom was looking at her with that I-can't-believe-you're-back solicitousness. "Honey?" she asked. "Would you like me to get you some more punch?"

She refrained from pointing out that the punch bowl was two feet away and the bus trip hadn't been that strenuous. "Yeah. Thanks, Mom." She listened to the splash and fizz, and made herself smile at her mom. And at Giles. And at Willow.

Smiling was difficult these days.

*

Upstairs bathroom. Mirror. Unbearable. He caught himself looking askance at that strange moving shape in the reflection. Eyes, nose, mouth, hair. His face in fragments. Geometry. And the colors, the familiar reassuring colors, night and rust.

Maybe his face had always looked this way. He couldn't remember.

*

She excused herself from the movie when all three of them were laughing over some slapstick antic. She'd never thought that Giles, Willow, and her mom would share a sense of humor. Strange world. "Are you sure--?" she had asked, and Willow had said, "Oh, Oz has seen this before." Deliberately changing the subject. She knew that game.

Went up the stairs, counting them. Stopped halfway up, out of sight. Picked at some loose nail polish on her thumbnail. Bad habit. She should stop that. It was like Willow's stutter: cute when it wasn't you.

She caught the minute creaking of the floorboards as Xander emerged. He caught sight of her and stopped two steps down, poised, silent.

"Xander," she said. Quietly, over the movie's throbbing music and the animated chatter--who had done what to whom with a hatpin? "Talk to me. Tell me my lipstick's smudged. Anything."

"You're not wearing lipstick," he said flatly.

She rubbed her mouth with one knuckle and peered. "I knew I forgot part of my beauty routine before we left."

"You were gone a long time." His gaze remained steady. "I missed you." He was leaning against the wall now. Not the slouch exactly--oh, she'd seen that posture, arrogant and assured.

"Xander," she said, not hearing her own voice, not hearing anything but the white confusion inside her head, "why are you dressed like Angel?" Angelus, a voice whispered in the back of her dreams. Angelus. "Why are you--You fought like him." She couldn't stop talking. "Oh my God. You're not possessed, are you. Did I--" It couldn't be possible. Could it? The sword, the mouth, the gate to hell. Close your eyes. "We, Giles, you've been invited. You can't be a--" The sun had gone down before he arrived. And last night hadn't exactly been high noon.

Many things could have happened during her summer away from home. She'd never thought this would be one of them.

Her life was playing out in a terrible lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. A soul for a soul.

"I thought you'd gotten over the soul thing, Buffy." Downward, one step. "I thought our relationship had moved beyond superficialities."

Dead eyes, looking out from living ones. The mockery. It became difficult to see his face the way you were supposed to see things in art class, to discern what was really there and not what her heart expected. Dreaded.

A Slayer was never without certain things. Her hands moved. His remained by his sides.

Stake in one hand, cross hanging from the other, swinging like a demented pendulum. Light glinted off the 18k-gold chain, and lost its reflections in his eyes. She could hear him breathing, calm, unhurried.

Xander descended toward her. Reached out and stilled the pendulum. He held the cross suspended in his hand for one second, two, several. No smoke. He opened his hand; the cross swung free, spinning. No burn. No welt. Nothing.

Not a vampire.

She left the cross swinging before her. Her grip upon the stake did not relax.

"What did you think, that I was the new improved model vampire that could walk around in sunlight?" he asked. "And that Giles wouldn't notice?"

"What are you?" she asked. Her head hurt.

"Baby, I've sunbathed, I've swallowed shots of holy water--which would have benefited from a twist of lemon if you ask me--and I've held a cross. Your cross." Mine, his eyes said. The cross she had been given.

Her eyes stung. "Xander, why are you doing this to me? It's not funny." It transcended not-funny. "Are you mad at me?" She rushed past any response he might have made. "You don't understand. I--I had to go. You don't know how bad it was. I had to get away, I could hear Acathla whispering to me, and--it was bad. You weren't there. You're not the Slayer. You've never had to do anything so bad." And she couldn't tell him the breadth and depth and extent of it, the way a handful of moments had almost swallowed her resolve.

"Oh, no," he said. His tone had shifted from sarcasm to a hesitancy that she struggled not to recognize, to respond to. "I just had to close my eyes and let you do it."

She had never been good at separating motion and emotion. She grabbed his wrists; the stake and cross fell together. Score one for Newton. "Xander, what aren't you telling me?" Had he been watching somehow? Had he--

He kissed her. His mouth tasted of heat and hell and all the things she couldn't have except she could, and she was torn between relaxing against the dark solid mass of him and arching into his arms and groin and oh his hands and she knew those paths upon the map of her body, she had gone there before in that doomed one-way journey, and he wasn't the one except he was.

She stepped back. He let her. She knew.

"You have two." She swallowed. "Souls. Are you even human anymore?"

"Actually," he said, "it probably makes me twice as human as you are." His voice broke. "Oh, fuck, I'm so sorry." He bolted down the stairs.

She had never seen Xander move so efficiently before. She pressed her hands to her mouth, holding in all the words, holding in the dregs of that kiss, unseeing, blank.

*

Pencils were such a fragile invention on which to stake--ha--the salvation of the world. Forget those pathetic two-inch stubs in the library. Stick a pencil through a vampire, and poof. No more pencil. Wait, that would be the vampire. But given the surfeit of pencils in the US of A, who would want to use a pencil structurally damaged by hand-to-hand combat and smeared with bloodsucker dust?

There were other, slower, kinder ways to kill pencils. He chipped off the tip to form a precisely-chiseled edge. Pencils were good for all sorts of things besides staking and taking tests. You could write love letters and suicide notes and grocery lists, the marginalia of American suburban life.

You could draw.

You could sharpen and resharpen so many pencils as you tried to capture the uncapturable on paper. The color of her eyes in moonlight, under the scudding clouds. The fine arch of her nose. Her mouth as she, as he, as they--

The pencil tip broke. Again.

He passed his thumb over the powdery-oily graphite residue, smearing it over her face, the expression he had been about to draw.

He had never thought of himself as an artist. Sure, there had been the adventures of Dopey the Talking Marijuana Joint when he was in 7th grade. He had gotten out all of three issues of that hand-drawn comic with its parsimonious stick-figure style before Mr. Herrera confiscated them.

He stood up. Stepped back. Stared at the wall, taped over with his failed sketches: kaleidoscopic fragments of face and figure.

It should have symbolized something, but damned if he knew what, just then.

*

Oh, it was all her fault. She had no right to be caught up in the movie like that. "Shh, shh," she heard herself saying, holding her friend. She didn't know what those bleak broken eyes meant, but she knew what they meant. "What happened? What did he say?"

Buffy straightened her back. Stood. "We have to talk to him."

Giles's voice: "Are you girls all right?" A moment later, he peered up the stairwell. And took off his glasses.

She wondered what was on their faces. So many ways to read the world, and faces, well, faces were basic. Even little kids could read faces. "Giles, did Xander--"

"Yes, I'm afraid he must have slipped out.--No, Mrs. Summers, everything's quite all right; we just need a few moments.--I didn't think he would react so poorly." Giles looked grey, defeated. "He isn't taking any of this well at all. Perhaps he's feeling displaced." He replaced the glasses. His eyes widened. "Buffy, was there--?"

Buffy scooped up the cross in one hand and stuffed the stake into a pocket. She fumbled at the necklace's clasp. "Will, could you?"

She could, and did. The chain felt sun-warmed, skin-temperature.

"No vampire," said Buffy. "No fangs, no smoke, nope. A big fat zero on the vampire front. Except he just as good as told me he's. He's." It took her another few tries to get the words out. "Walking around with Angel's soul."

And she saw it, felt it, the answer sliding into place in the pattern she had puzzled over. Conjunctions, disjunctions, connections--like an XOR gate, now that she thought about it, a meeting of disparate circuits. Like she was going to try to explain that one to Giles.

Whose face had gone less grey. The sound he made was almost a laugh. "That's preposterous."

She looked at him, hurt. "Giles, did you even look at the notes?"

"What notes?" said Buffy. "Will, you took notes? During the summer?"

He fished them out of his pocket and looked sheepish.

The phone rang. "Yes, go ahead and get it," Giles called to Mrs. Summers. To Willow, he said, "It slipped my mind."

She looked at him.

He huffed. "He was doing quite well this summer, I should think, despite the occasional lapse in manners. Reading for once. I really think you two are overreacting to the normal adoles--"

It was too much. "You sound so much like my mom." She couldn't keep the disappointment out of her voice. "It's always adolescent development this and neurochemical that and charts and diagrams and timetables. Like anyone ever grew up to a schedule! 'Reading for once'? Giles, if he's not book-smart it's because--" She couldn't tell them what had happened to the first book Xander had really gotten into, the one she had slipped him out of her own collection. She thought its two surviving pages still lived at the bottom of his bottom dresser drawer; no way she was telling Giles that she knew what was in Xander's dresser, either. That was one of the bad days that she and Xander didn't talk about. And she had to modulate her voice, because it had been getting louder. Okay, loud. "It's not normal for him to be like he's been. And even if Buffy isn't right--"

"I'm right."

"--she might be, and we should listen to her."

Buffy held out her hand, and Giles dropped the index cards into them. "That is a lot of index cards."

"I wanted to be thorough," she said defensively.

Mrs. Summers, no doubt deciding it was safe to speak again, looked around the corner. "Willow? Oz called and said he's sorry he's late because there was a mishap, and he's on his way now."

Buffy looked up from Index Card #7--yup, that was the one with the helpful conceptual diagram; teaching had taught her something about pedagogy and visual learners--and nudged her. "Hey, it's been good between you two?" She sounded wistful. "You have to tell me all about it."

She bit back the words, I would have, and I wanted to, and I looked at the phone every night, but you weren't here. They had more important things to deal with. Thing. Things? Things.

"I don't see how it's possible," Giles was saying, one hand worrying the rim of his pocket--the pocket in which he'd stashed her index cards, she noted, though all rancor had faded--while the other tap-tap-tapped a nervous little rhythm on the railing. "A poltergeist, or a possession by hyenas, or a demonic manifestation, that would be one thing. It wouldn't typically require any form of consent."

Buffy, now on Index Card #13, said, "You mean like those things you have to get signed when you go on a field trip?"

"I suppose, although you'd be signing the form yourself. Not your, er, parent or guardian. But a soul, a soul is a different order of thing entirely. It is the moral imperative. I can't see how a second soul could take up residence without a volitional act of consent."

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Xander and A-Angel didn't even like each other. Ever."

She decided not to tell Buffy about the tic in her jaw, belying the nonchalant tone.

"I suppose it's possible that some other agency--"

"No, Giles."

They blinked at her.

"It makes perfect sense." She took a deep breath. Deep breathing was good for meditation and presentations and explaining crazy things to sane people. "They didn't have to like each other. They just had to correspond."

"You mean like penpals?"

"Buffy, please," said Giles.

"Well, if Xander isn't around to make bad jokes, someone's got to."

She was losing them. Where was an overhead projector when you needed one? Or PowerPoint? "Look. Guys. It's like an isomorphism. They map onto each other. You know how sometimes people who are really similar can't get along? Like that." She didn't need PowerPoint, she needed to be able to sketch in three dimensions, Rorschach one personality over another. "I mean, the simple things. They both loved--" Oops. Moving on. "And they're both guys. And they were fighting for the same thing." Verbalizing was not going well today.

Giles said dryly, "And even Angelus had, shall we say, a certain sense of whimsy. Yes, I do see what you're driving at. We just need a way to verify this, some--"

"A Triluminary!" Blank looks. "Am I the only one who watched Babylon-5?"

Footsteps. "Hey guys," said Oz. Mrs. Summers waved apologetically over his shoulder; Giles waved an it's-okay-I-would-have-let-him-in-myself back. "Willow." He gave her a brief hug, too brief, almost peremptory. He was unsmiling. Not that she expected great flamboyant gestures from Oz. "Delayed even more. You know they have a posse of fire trucks down by Xander's? Along with the smoke and the roaring flames?"

"Oh, no," said Mrs. Summers. "That's terrible."

"Oh no," Buffy said in a stricken voice, at the same time. "It was the only one he didn't mention."

"The only what?" She didn't mean to sound so bewildered. It was such a bewildering night.

"Well, other than the beheading. Or the staking. But that kills humans pretty dead, too. He mentioned the holy water and the crosses and the sunlight. But not fire."

She was shaking. "Xander. And his mom and his dad." Especially his mom and dad. She lunged for the phone.

4

Coming home. All the night paths she had traveled, following not the lines and curves of the earth, but the meandering ways of scent and summer blossoms, the geodesics of desire.

She was in the city now, veering butterfly-light between its disproportionately many churches. The crosses' presence was like an ocean-tide of pressure against her awareness, the holy-unholy reefs she must navigate. This way, and that way, swimming through the intimations of pain.

Flood rising at the Hellmouth, and she was its deepest treasure, its vortex. She had starved herself of morsels coming here, made herself lean and feral. The wheeling stars, the configuration of leaves upon the branches and dew upon the petals, they told her to await the deluge.

She had been made to abandon family here. The dolls, even; how could they scream without her to remove the gags?

She would make of herself a fortress, and wall herself away from the world, and no one would separate her family again.

*

He wasn't sure how he had gotten here. He stood at the threshold, door open, looking in. His hands were shaking. He clenched them. He had had to get away from the upwards-rising smoke and the red-orange roaring blaze.

A bruise was swelling across his ribs. His shoulder was dislocated.

Voices had spoken to him. He had spoken back; who knew what he had said. Faces had contorted, their mouths opening and closing. He had looked at the faces, most of all at the owner of the hard-hitting hands, and wondered why he had spent so much time cowed. He had known about the blowtorch in the basement for years.

The mechanics of fire must have eluded him. He didn't remember where he had learned so much about the things that fire liked to eat, the ways in which it spread. Gasoline. Loose paper. Pillars of wood. He was an apt student. It took so little to nourish the fires in the ways that mattered and elicit screams from the one functioning smoke detector.

He thought maybe he had done this before. That would explain why it came so easily, once he got started.

He crossed the threshold. No invitation. Turned, crossed it again.

He could hear his heart beating, steady, vile. Strange.

He peered through the doorway. Paper screens. Paintings. Everything arranged with a logic bone-familiar. Everything arranged the way he was going to arrange his life until things matched up again.

He reckoned he had a little time left, to pack.

*

"I can't believe he'd do that," her mom was saying.

She stared at the inner surface of her eyelids, the afterimages of fire. She could still smell alcohol, gasoline, cocktails she hoped never to encounter again. "Yeah," she said in a small, dull voice.

Xander's father was in critical care. Smoke inhalation, alcohol poisoning, the works. His mother, stinking of soot and terror, had been in hysterics. Hysterics sounded good about now, when she couldn't afford them.

She couldn't believe it either. It was one thing to joke about blowing up the school boiler room when you had a test later that day that you had completely neglected to cram for. It was another thing to do it. And how many times had she even seen Xander get into a fight? Shoving matches, yeah, the usual male dominance rituals, but a fight?

Willow's eyes had been wide, shocky but not disbelieving.

She realized, then, how little she knew about Xander's family. And she wondered what Willow knew that she didn't.

Her mother's voice had risen. She lifted her chin out of her hands and blinked.

"--probably run away. Buffy, have you ever stopped to consider what kind of example you are for your fr--"

She slammed her hand on the coffee table. The Guatemalan figurines jumped and clattered. "Mom, I cannot believe that you are blaming me for this. Because, you know, my friends go psycho and do the Carrie thing all the--"

She stopped and held herself rigid. The gym, the falling rafters, the hissing and fangs and not enough stakes anywhere in the world for what she had to face. It was all right for the vampires. They didn't have a principal to recoil from their records; they didn't have parents who thought being a Slayer should be more like weekend soccer; they didn't leave bodies to be cleaned up and taken to the morgue and buried. They didn't have to live inside the boundaries of the world

"Mom." Her voice sounded funny. "I can't, I can't take all of this right now. Because what if he--he knew I burned--what if--he just snapped and--"

If her mother said anything reassuring, she didn't hear it as she raced toward her bedroom and the bag o' slayage.

*

Oz was sleeping on the couch. He looked weirdly nonchalant, comfortable, as though crashing at other places was nothing new. Which was probably true. She kissed his nose, because she wanted to, and resumed pacing. It made her feel like she was accomplishing something. She hoped Giles wouldn't notice the furrow in his carpet, come the morning.

There he came, bearing a sleek, precise construction of glass, graven with lines that went in and out and around and nowhere your eyes could follow. She grasped the significance: the lines would make visible that which the eye could not fathom. "Have you seen one before?" Giles asked abruptly.

"I don't think so, unless it's one of those Christian tree ornament things." Hmm. "Joke, Giles, joke."

Giles rotated the glass in his hands. It made a faint, subtle chiming sound. "You seem to recognize it."

Her heart clenched; her blood sang.

He didn't pursue it right then. "It's a Miao prism. It reveals--" He chose his words. "It reacts to certain properties of souls. Your, ah, 'Triluminary' comment reminded me I had one. It's not, unfortunately, very reliable for its intended purpose, but for ours, it should suffice."

She wondered if it violated Snell's law. Probably with gusto. "Giles, we so could have used this back when Angel was, you know, Angel. To verify the whole soul thing." She tried to remember if, in fact, it would have been all that handy. Things got blurred when you had to deal with apocalyptic prophecies, demonic assassins, and rat-transformations every other week.

His mouth pursed. "Also unfortunately, its proper operation requires sunlight."

"Oh." Given that simple windowglass nudged wavelengths, and sunlight through windowglass sufficed to set vamps on fire--"I get it. It shouldn't bother Xander, though, right?"

Three loud I'm-going-to-bust-the-door-soon raps interrupted his response.

Oz stretched and said, "I'll get it. You guys keep talking."

"But you weren't awake!" She turned to Giles. "He wasn't awake, was he?"

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Quite. Ah, who is it?"

"Good, two people with cars," Buffy said from the entrance. She was breathing hard. There were dark smudges around her eyes, but her gaze was hard and focused. She tossed; Willow caught. A stuffed pig. Oh. Mr. Gordo. "I am probably never going to see my bedroom again, so someone should hold on to him. I have everything else I need. Oz, are you good to drive?"

She petted Mr. Gordo's snout. "But Buffy, drive where?" she asked as Oz said, "I'm good, the van's good."

She glanced at Giles, and wished she hadn't. She didn't need to understand that shape of anguish yet.

"Buffy," he said, "you're not leaving your mother again."

Buffy's answer was swift and savage. "You're not my daddy, Giles. If you won't help me, you're in my way."

Oz said, "We're moving a bit fast, aren't we? I got the wheels, but I gotta know where to go."

It figured he'd be the only relaxed person in the room. She didn't know how she did it, but if she could bottle it and--no, that wasn't a good thought. She was not going to follow that thought. Oz needed all his Oz-ness.

"We. have. to. find. Xander," Buffy said.

She had never seen Buffy look so much like--Kendra. A weapon. Sharp and ready and utterly unrelenting.

Giles said, very quietly, "There is a more usual avenue for these matters, Buffy. He may be quite confused, but he hasn't been gone--twenty-four hours, is it? I'm not convinced that going after Xander will necessarily help him in his current frame of mind."

"Is there a whole different frame of mind for burning down your house and knocking your old man unconscious?" said Oz. "'Cause I'd call that downright crazy."

She kept her face unmoving. She wasn't feeling protective of Xander because they had grown up together and he had been her first-ever sweaty-palms crush, was she? How was she supposed to be objective in all this? The whole situation was nausea-making. And it wasn't anywhere near time for her period.

Buffy had resumed speaking, her voice hard and clipped. "It's what Will said, Giles. What is his frame of mind? Imagine--imagine you wake up one day and your face, your hands, everything, it's not your own anymore. I mean not just Halloween Janus-tricks costume party not-your-own, I mean really not your own."

"Like Freaky Friday," said Oz.

"But worse. Well, if anything's worse than turning into your mom. So after two centuries and spare change you're human again, and it's the wrong human. I mean, what do you do? Where do you go from there? If he wasn't in the fire, where's he going and what's he going to do?"

What about Xander, she wanted to ask. It's all Angel, Angel, Angel. Which is understandable because he was your first and everything. But what about--

Hands, hands gripping her shoulders, keeping her upright.

"Willow!" Giles sounded alarmed. Through the vertigo, it seemed hilarious. She started to laugh and it turned into a choke into a scream into a whimper. "Willow, what is it?"

Oz, his hands cool and reassuring, grasping hers. "Willow. Breathe out. Tell us. What's going on?"

She was crying, and in the tears she saw the color of her eyes if she walked under forbidden conjunctions of stars and distant moons. She saw water falling, falling the way she was falling into outward otherworldly spaces. "Buffy, go. Find him. Now. It's going to swallow us. It's swallowing." Water and slow-moving gears and the machinations of dark desire.

She fell once more through unspeakable distances, and the world went away.

*

Scary how trusting people were in this town. Jigger a lock, hotwire a car, good to go. Except he'd driven past this intersection for the ninth time, and that was definitely not Euclidean.

Nine was three times three. If someone had told him about the mystical applications of the times table he would have been more diligent in 'Rithmetic 101.

His senses were all askew. He could hear the night breathing, the gathering movements of air and dream and stealthy vapor, but its voice was attenuated. He should have been able to unmaze the streets and scent the way out, away from that golden fall of hair and the heat of her eyes and the sure, sweet knowledge that she could kill him between one syllable and the next. If only, if only.

He wasn't about to let the number hit thirteen--a little healthy superstition never killed anyone--so he jumped out the car with his bag, hit the ground rolling, and let the doomed car head into that knot of wrong space. No lines were straight any longer.

And that storm-scarred tree, that was normally blocks away--

The world was shrinking, boundaries curling in upon themselves. Vortex. Centripetal, everything tending toward a moving center.

The merry-go-round, spinning and spinning, creaking. The unwoman of moon and shadow and broken lace leaning from it, spider-slim fingers trailing the ground, then unbending to greet him. "I knew you'd come back," she said. Her voice was so low, it was almost not-a-voice, an emanation from the bones of earth and throat of hell. "It's beginning, all of it."

"That right?" he said. He could smell the withered flowers in her hair. No blood. There wouldn't be yet. He stepped closer, taking his time, admiring the deceptive fragility of her expression. Her eyes looked delicious. He gave the merry-go-round a hard shove, let it spin her around and around.

"Ah," she said, and made a sound between a birdsong trill and a moan. She reached out as the spinning slowed, languid.

He pulled her into his arms. "Feeling neglected, is that it?"

Her lids were heavy, falling. Bright teeth. Pointed. "You've never worn something that new before." She went boneless in his grasp, supple and indolent and at balance with the fractures of herself. The pain of holding her was priceless. "Your heart, it drums the beat of war." She captured his wrist and licked delicately at the base of his thumb, tracing a tiny perfect circle, a spiral, a point. "Your blood. Human, human blood."

"Turns you on, doesn't it?" His voice tasted wrong in his throat. But this was right.

She danced in drunken spirals as he led her, or she led him. The damnation was mutual; the symmetry pleased him.

5

This had to top the long list of Stupid Ways to Pass a Slow Night. Or bottom it. Actually, given where he was, that was a bad choice of terminology.

the heat beneath you the cold above you

Sleep, Drusilla had bid him afterward. He had made the mistake of lingering upon her eyes, and so he had slept. She had grown in power; he had diminished.

rolling, the glide of skin on skin over silk

She would be hunting now in the world of streets and stop signs, the world that fed the gears of decay. He wanted to join her. He wanted to hear her familiar wicked croon. He wanted to let the night wash away the things he thought.

up and down, in and out, dichotomies, helltide rhythms

He stood, stretched, paced. Broken glass and cinders and smashed ceramics crunched underfoot.

His clothes didn't fit quite right. In its own way, that was right. He wasn't Cordelia with her legion of tailors.

He stopped. Shit, Drusilla was hunting. The drug of her presence was receding little by little, heartbeat by heartbeat.

The night loomed large--he could feel it, or imagine it, anyway, even underground--and he was a small, stifled thing too close to its perilous center. If she came back, he was fucked.

strands of gyring black, stretching through your fingers

He couldn't go back. Could he? There was something he was supposed to tell his parents, school starting in two weeks, forms to be signed. No. His parents were no good. He needed the big guns, the Slayer.

the widening red line of her mouth, yours

It figured. All those pencils and he couldn't remember where he had stashed them. The bag he had packed contained other implements, but nothing he'd trust on a moving, unrestrained target.

bright blood on brighter chains

There was a map in his mind. He was attuning himself to the spiral logic of the magic massing here. He knew where he had to go. The trick would be surviving the journey. He could make a plan. He could carry out the plan. Kind of like lab reports, minus the frog guts.

He knelt, careful not to rest his knee on the wrack of battles past, and picked up a fragment of glass, knife-slim. It would do.

He thought the first cut would be the easiest. He was wrong. The blood welled up so readily, hot and wet and inviting. He brought his wrist up to his mouth and sucked, unable to help himself. Unable to spit instead of swallowing.

Blood should taste rich and heady. It should rush through him like currents through the greatest seas. Not like this, weakly metallic. With an effort, he pulled his wrist away from his mouth.

He had never realized how addictive the mere habit of blood could be. He had to look away from the welling red.

He could have it back. He could wait for Drusilla and beg her to sire him as he had sired her. He could redraw himself onto the old, reassuring boundaries: fire, sunlight, holy water. Beheading.

Pencils.

No. He had a different purpose, no matter how broken a vessel he had become for its fulfillment.

sword in hand comes my love hunting

The glass stung his fingers. He kept cutting.

*

Giles had wanted to stay and perform some wardage over Willow, but she needed wheels, and under the circumstances, she couldn't ask that of Oz. "Too bad Cordy isn't back yet," she said, gazing intently out the window as they cruised down street after street in a haphazard search pattern.

"Cordelia?" Giles signaled left, turned left at a sedate, sane, maddening speed. "Oh, her car. Quite."

"I don't believe the Watcher's Council couldn't lend us a limo or something for times like this. I can't be the first Slayer whose mom won't let her take the driving test."

"Buffy," he said as they headed down yet another street, "if the Council were so generous with disposable funds, I should be driving a Rolls-Royce myself.--Do you have other suggestions for where he might be?"

She had dipped into the Bronze, nauseated by the pulsing music and lights; no sign of him there, or the other places they had checked so far. No surprise. She knew what it was like to be wanted for arson. Hanging out in dimly-lit but very public places wasn't the most tactically brilliant thing you could do on the night of.

"We could try the old hangouts," she said reluctantly. "The nests. The abandoned factory."

Giles was silent for a long time. Were it not for the movements of his hands, the car's smooth accelerations and decelerations, she would have thought he had fallen asleep at the wheel. "Yes," he said at last. "I can see why he might go there. The police know better than to probe certain areas too deeply."

"And I thought police corruption in L.A. was--Giles!" Too vampires, three staggering men. Down to two; one had broken free and was sprinting for cover. She poked her crossbow out the window and shot one vampire, trusting Giles not to make sudden changes in velocity. A figure in a long black coat emerged, head jerking upward in--recognition? of the car, and tackled the second vampire. The vamp recoiled. What had he done? she wondered.

She dropped the crossbow, undid the seat belt, and leaned backwards to open the rear door in a matter of seconds. "Get in!" It figured the crossbow would land on her toes. "Oh God. Oh God. Oh God."

She could see Xander's face in the rearview mirror. She could see the blood on his mouth and chin.

"Keep driving," Xander said to Giles. "Drusilla's back, and it's about to get worse. Keep driving."

*

Not to suggest that waking up next to an Oz was a bad thing, but she had expected more in the way of a chaperone. After all, librarian's house. "Hey," Oz said, and kissed her.

"Hey," she said. "What--" Floods and wheels and fire. "How long was I out?"

"A few hours, maybe. There's the clock."

Her stomach growled loudly. She blushed. Oz smiled. "The Summers left the leftovers," he said. "I've been munching. You need a good munch?"

"I need an excellent munch," she said. "Just--just not the chocolate cake."

"Done. Any other non-requests?"

"The Miao prism."

Oz cocked an eyebrow at her. "I don't know what Giles is gonna think of me letting you eat his--"

"Not to eat, silly. Please? Magic word."

"Your words are always magical."

She liked that.

He had good taste in munchies, and no moral compunctions about using Giles's microwave to return everything to its rightful temperature. A couple plates later, she felt prepared to face the Miao prism.

"Pretty," said Oz, steadying her wrist so she could turn it this way and that, appraising each unchancy angle and diffracted gleam.

"I'd try it out," she said, "except there's no sunlight." Then she thought of Giles's strangely equivocal description of the prism's function, and the wolf-shape slumbering behind Oz's calm, kind eyes, and decided that the lack of sunlight was just as well.

A key turned. The door opened. She sat straighter and licked her fingers clean. Oz chuckled.

"Willow, you're awake." Giles peered down at her, lines of concern briefly manifesting around his mouth.

"Did you find--?" There he was, and Buffy followed him in, tense and uneasy.

How was it that things got worse in ways you couldn't protect yourself from? Xander in evil-Angel's colors had been bad enough. Xander in evil-Angel's clothes--which fit better than they had any right to--that was too much. She was positive Xander didn't own that bag. And the blood--she hunched away from him. "Buffy..."

"We're here," Buffy said. To Xander: "Talk."

Xander shoved his hands in his pockets and didn't look toward Buffy at all. Or her. "Giles, you've got two problems. The first one is Drusilla. I didn't see Spike with her, but that doesn't mean he isn't here. The second one"--his mouth twisted--"is Drusilla. On top of everything else you'd expect from her, she's begun a Gordian knot. And we're already being sucked into it."

Giles's mouth worked for a second. "Two things for your two," he said. "How did you get this information? And, under the circumstances, I must ask you to explain the--" He gestured futilely.

"Blood on your chin," Buffy said. "Not to be confused with spinach in your teeth or lipstick smear."

Xander wiped his chin. Red streaked the side of his hand. As though he were unconscious of their appalled stares, he licked the blood away, then dropped his hand to his side. "We can go through the cross routine again, but it's only blood." His tone was almost level on the last word. "There's no other significance."

"Hold on," said Buffy. "I thought this Gordian thing was a history thing, not...not a thing thing."

"Alexander the Great," she said, and stopped. "Tell me this is all a coincidence."

The expression on Giles's face approached pity. "There are rarely coincidences when you're on a Hellmouth." He turned to Buffy. "A Gordian knot is actually a metaphysical construct of war. Conquest. You might term it a mystical arena." Behind the glasses, his eyes were stony. "It's an interestingly specialized piece of knowledge for you to have acquired, Xander."

"I told you, I ran into Drusilla." Were his inflections shifting?

"And how did you get away from a vampire who has shown herself capable of"--he closed his eyes--"killing a Slayer?"

Xander shrugged off the coat in one loose easy motion. Rolled up the left sleeve past the elbow. Held his arm out parallel to the floor. Rivulets of half-dried blood obscured the pattern of crosses carved into flesh. Some of the cuts had torn open again.

She closed her eyes, regretting everything she'd eaten in the past two hours. Closing her eyes made it worse. Her mind constructed the inner track of meridians and nodes, the logic by which each cut had been positioned. It had more to do with the night's burning eyes than anything human or holy.

"It's good for a temporary shock," he said. He lowered his arm and let the sleeve roll down again, rumpled.

"She still has to have let you live," said Buffy. Her eyes were bruised.

He didn't disagree.

"The bag," said Giles. "Is there anything else you need to tell us. That you brought with you."

"Go ahead, search it," Xander said. "You won't find any surprises."

Giles knelt and opened the clasps. One by one he drew out the meticulously folded shirts and boxers, the slacks, the leather pants. A muscle tightened along his jaw.

Then Giles reached the black case with its clamps and slender knives, coils of wire and other things she couldn't put a name to before Giles slammed it shut and stood up. His face was livid. "You dared to bring these--"

"I said, no surprises. If you're going to be picky, I can always go back for a chainsa--"

Giles hit him.

Xander staggered backward. He had made no effort to soften the blow. His eyes were vulnerable, no longer coolly distant. "I kept wishing you'd do that." Punishment, said his voice. Expiation.

Buffy nudged the black case with her toe. "Angel. This is what you used. When you." She swallowed and dipped her head toward Giles.

She could hear the clouds creaking in that awful silence. The first dovelike stirrings of rain.

Xander was pale himself. He walked closer to Giles, hardly more than breathing distance away. Giles's posture became rigid. "I am so sorry." It came out as a whisper, harsh and inescapable. He said it again in a normal speaking voice.

She wished she had never had to know that the adults in her life, the friends, could be so utterly wounded in so many ways. Oz squeezed her shoulder, but he didn't make the mistake of saying things were okay.

Xander fixed his gaze on some unreachable shadow. "I know things--I remember things--that you are going to need. All of you." His voice was retreating to that monotone again. "I know--I know for sure now--I know that I'm not sane. I can't begin to count all the ways I'm fucked up, and if I did begin I'd have to start over tomorrow and the day after that. I'm sorry. I can't fix things. And I need--" He closed his eyes, breathing hard. "I need help."

Buffy was crying silently, her eyes open too wide.

What could she do, when everyone looked shattered, but step in and say something? She didn't want them to stay encased in silence forever, and she had a notion that this was not such an impossibility as she might once have conceived. She said, "We are going to find places to sleep where the police aren't going to come after us." She felt foolish and peremptory and responsible, all at once. "And we are going to wait until morning, and deal with this when the sunlight comes."

"Yes," said Giles. "Yes. Excellent idea."

But she saw him glance at the Miao prism, and the expression that tightened his mouth was dread.

6

He was gone when she returned, unsated after the struggling morsels she had harvested from her web. She moaned her displeasure, swaying back and forth as she wove gossamer-air shapes with her fingers. Perhaps her daddy had heard her. Perhaps he would come home to punish her.

She chanted in Latin, hymnals of torment. Of course: he had left to show her the way. She could smell his presence athwart her own, the devouring stink of his passions.

With her fingernails, she scored the knot's tightening strands across her belly, shredding the snug satin. Oh yes, there he was, breathing in unconscious rhythm with her black heart's desire. Helping her pull in her intended warriors, champions to an unbidden, hidden moon.

*

He sat her down before the mirror in his upstairs study while Oz leaned against the doorway, an unobstrusive sentinel. "Willow," he said. "You've continued to study the black arts, haven't you." Yes, they all needed sleep. But sleep had to wait upon this. If he could not protect her from what she was becoming, he could at least set her straight upon that path.

She flushed, but her gaze in the mirror was direct. "Only a little. Giles, the files were there. Ms. Calendar wouldn't have done anything really really wrong. And if I can be a witch, I can help."

His shoulders sagged. She wasn't going to deny it. Good. Where had this sensible child been while he was drugging every sense with the worst esoterica he could devise? He felt odd and old, out of place.

He said, "I think recent events have shown that we need more of a magical arsenal. You're a natural choice." He set the Miao prism down next to her hand, careful although he knew it was sturdier than its appearance suggested. "You know this. What do you know about it?"

Willow's brow furrowed. She opened and closed her mouth, eyes abstracted. Searching for words, perhaps. "It's like it--I hear whispers, sometimes." She whirled on the chair to face him, relief unclouding her expression. "The roots in the earth, the rain falling. The lines of glass." She tapped the prism ever so lightly; an almost subliminal chime thrilled through the air. "When I look at it, I see things, I hear things, that aren't--all there? Like looking at a parabola and knowing its equation."

He had to smile at that. "Yes. Geometry, and your own intuition of magic. Which another witch might or might not recognize."

"Huh? But--"

"It's not a bad thing, Willow. There are many routes to--" He hesitated at the word, but there was no way, given what she had said, that she couldn't know. "To power. And most of them overlap. The incantations and the, the 'stinky herbs' aren't going away anytime soon."

"Oh, good," said Oz from the doorway. "I was getting used to all the rosemary and hellebore."

He decided not to mention that the rosemary was usually for baking. Although given all the leftovers, who knew when he'd do that again. "In any case, I should have expected this, given your scholarly inclinations."

"But you have scholarly inclinations, don't you? I mean, all the books and the things you know."

"We all read," he said dryly, "but that doesn't make everyone a librarian, either. It's more a question of the way you see the world, the kinds of structures with which it presents itself to you. Like Jenny"--he found he was able to say her name after all--"you have access to realms of knowledge that I have, not to say regretfully, neglected."

The glint in her eyes had to be mischief. "You mean like hacking and red-black trees and elliptic function encryption."

He wasn't even going to ask. "Like that. Yes. Now tell me what the prism whispers to you. I want you to understand its operation, in case."

Her eyes were too old and knowing, finishing the sentence: in case something happens to me. Which, with Angelus's presence inherent to every square foot of this room, he feared, and wished the fear were solely irrational.

*

Naked-Buffy was part of the general landscape of his dreams. He had tried to tell himself that through the end of that endless junior year, after she vanished. If his dreams were more anatomically specific than experience warranted, he could chalk that down to Playboy and wishful interpolation. If he knew what her skin tasted like, or the way he could feel the ridge of her spine shifting against his hands, never mind the nervous dryness of his mouth or the nagging realization that his hands had never possessed that simple steadiness.

It was his own heartbeat he heard during the recesses of sleep. Not hers. Not hers.

candlelit stairway

He hadn't realized how much worse his imaginings could become. How so many things he had instinctually regarded as forbidden could, in fact, be transgressed. How many of them he had, in fact, transgressed.

you know the words of La Bohème all of them by heart

He had strange twinned memories of certain moments. Self-touch, Willow had explained during one of her psychology mini-lecture series. Like touching your own face, sensation from both surfaces of skin, both sides. Fangs snapping toward his throat, and the utter oh shit, and at the same time the maddening awareness of the boy's accelerated pulse, the craving and the unconscious ease with which he constrained his--his own?--struggling weight.

roses and champagne, twin attars of desire

And if he'd known what would come next in the inevitable progression of perversion, he could have slit his wrists right there, except that thought turned him on, too. Because he remembered. You'd think virgin-eating Mantis Lady would have cured him of any extracurricular help teacher-fantasies.

upstairs

Tousling the gypsy's black hair, not too much, not too little. Eyes open, because the dead could bear witness, after a fashion. Her head at an angle that no protractor could adequately measure, that no amount of trigonometry could rectify. Lowering himself over that unmoving form to make sure she'd fit just right when Giles came up the--

Hands on his wrists, slim and strong. It was still dark outside.

He was awake. He had been chewing on his knuckles. The blood in his mouth was unmistakable.

"Stop that," Buffy said.

He should pull away from her. Couldn't. Was horribly aroused, and couldn't say what it was he wanted. A fast uncomplicated fuck, maybe. Not that any of those remained in his world.

The rise and fall of her chest, the slightly too rapid breathing, tormented him. Why had Giles--of course. He and Buffy were the fugitives. And after the black-case debacle, Giles didn't trust him--

upstairs

--and had set Buffy on watch downstairs with him, as it were. Oz and Willow would be in the guest room, away from him.

How could anyone leave me alone with her, he wanted to ask.

"Xander." Buffy's voice was precariously steady. Unstable equilibrium. "Angel. Who am I talking to here?"

"Am I talking to the Slayer or Buffy Summers here?" He hadn't intended to sound so harsh.

She abruptly released his wrists and switched on a lamp, just one. "Oh. Your hands. Let me see your arm again."

He angled his body away from her and rolled up the sleeve again. He laid his arm on Giles's couch. All scabbed over now, no worry of stains. Bemused, he watched Buffy's retreating back, her legs, all the way up the stairs. Which was probably a mistake, but it seemed a minor one.

Buffy returned with Q-tips and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. "I hope you're not already infecty. I--I assumed you'd heal."

The way vampires and Slayers did.

He submitted to the welcome burning sensation and thought about immersing himself in holy water. Did it count as drowning if you went up like a torch?

She dabbed intently, and the Q-tip's thoroughness told him that she wanted him to say something to her. He couldn't think of anything he trusted himself to say.

He wanted to capture her fingers and lick them, fingernail to knuckle to the sweet, steady pulse beyond the base of her hands.

"There's more," Buffy said. Her calm was crumbling. "You'll have to--to take off your shirt."

Oh, you're enjoying this, aren't you, honey. He bit back the words in time, tick-tock.

passion

He steeled himself and unbuttoned the shirt. He watched her watch him, her eyes unwillingly avid and not a little ill, as he took off the relevant sleeve. Arm bare to the shoulder, the way she'd wanted. The shirt hung across his back, silken and dark.

Buffy worked her way around with the Q-tip. Then she was behind him.

He heard the Q-tip drop, a soft, tiny sound.

She swallowed. Her breath warmed his back. "Where. Where did you get those scratches."

He made his tone careless. "Drusilla."

Her finger traced the outer edge of one deep scratch, then drifted over the rack of his ribs. "Drusilla did..." Her words, too trailed away. Her tone changed: "Drusilla."

He knew the moment realization sparked her eyes without having to look. Shut his own when she slammed him against the wall. He went limp.

She had always been the stronger of them, in all her incarnations. In all of his. In all the ways that mattered.

"Tell me what you did with her," she said, "or I swear I'll--"

"No need to bust your librarian's house, lover." Tell her the small awful truth, because the larger awful truths--

gypsy gypsy black hair black eyes and the snap of her neck

--would break her, as they were breaking him. As she would break him if she got any closer. "I slept with Drusilla."

Her grip remained sure, but her hands shook with a fine tremor. It had nothing to do with weakness. Or everything. "You came back. And the first thing. You do. Is sleep with." She flung him aside.

He slumped against the wall, unbreathing for a second. So many bruises. "I seem to recall," he said hoarsely, "that you turned me down first." Back when he had been Xander and no one else.

He wanted her more than ever. He shut his eyes, shut everything out.

Except there was no way to shut out the sensation of her hands and her hungry mouth across his chest, paralleling his clavicles, exploring divergences. Her voice came to him as if across a great chasm, distorted, thick. "I can't stop touching you."

The hot splash of tears. They burned.

"Is this wrong?" Her mouth descended for a moment. "I look at your face, and I know it and I don't know it, and I see Xander and I see Angel and I see--"

He tangled his fingers in her hair. His muscles protested as he reached out and switched off the lamp. Absolute darkness inside, outside, everywhere.

"Is that better?" he asked. Another question in lieu of the answer he didn't have. "Can you see me better now?"