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Orpheus in the Underground (Dark Minuet)

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The thing about the 24-hour news cycle is that there’s actually not enough news to fill up all that time. The cable nets just replay the same images over and over and over again — interspersing talking-head shows stuffed with publicity hounds — until you want to scream.

Or shoot your T.V.

After this latest round Xander’s beginning to think that Elvis had a point.

The images from L.A. — well, they’re just really special aren’t they? The heartbreaking stories told by weeping survivors, the courageous stories of people selflessly risking their lives to save others, the near-miss stories from people who left town only hours before because of a ‘gut feeling’.

The pictures of the missing, who are more likely than not dead. Really dead, and not dead-but-still-kicking dead.

If the images he’s seen thanks to the near-continuous loop on CNN, MSNBC, BBCAmerica, and FOXNews look like an awful lot like a near-miss of an apocalypse to society at-large, that’s because it is. Or not so much a near miss as it is a direct hit for the dead and the people stuck with survivor’s guilt.

He knows way too much about how those lines blur between wide-scale destruction and personal loss than is entirely healthy.

Except that he can’t see those images or those people as clearly as he’d like. Overlaying the tragedy of moment are images from another that happened the year before. But unlike charismatic L.A., Home to the Stars, weird misfit town Sunnydale had only a cycle or two of the full sideshow barker treatment before it sank into the memory hole. Now it lives on among conspiracy theorists, assorted crackpots, and survivors. Polite people have already forgotten it.

When he’d come stumbling in from patrol with some of the new girls in the wee hours, the T.V. was on and already drawing a crowd. The images playing across the screen showed that L.A. looked less like the L.A. of Entourage and more like the L.A. of Escape from…

He had been numb at first, trying to take it all in and thinking, Oh, no. Not again.

Eventually, a new thought emerged. “Damn it, Angel. What the hell did you do?”

Turns out he said that thought out loud. It was loud enough to reach Willow’s ears, who was standing next to him lost in whatever thoughts she had about the scenes of carnage, but not loud enough — thank God — to reach Buffy’s ears.

Willow shot him a poisonous look and hissed at him through her teeth, “We don’t know what actually happened. Maybe Angel actually saved the day and it could have been worse.”

At least he’d gained enough maturity since high school to feel like an absolute shit heel when Willow put it that way because, yeah, the saving-the-day-scenario was totally possible. He vaguely remembered Buffy and Giles saying that Angel had called for help, but they both blew him off due to the whole he’s-heading-an-evil-law-firm-now deal. Or maybe Angel was speaking in some kind of weird code — if "please help me save the life of one of my evil employees" can actually be considered a code. Maybe once someone got there, Angel would've told them that his people had an apocalypse calling in on Line 2 and that a little muscle from the Super Sorority would be a real nice-to-have.

Buffy managed to make his guilt over his reflex damn-it-Angel even worse when she whispered to him a few hours later, “You and Willow were right.”

He remembers startling out of his hypnotic stare at the continuous loop showing the the destruction of a good chunk of L.A. “Right? About what?”

“Both of you said me and Giles were making a mistake. You said we should probably check it out.” Buffy threw a final, heart-broken look at the T.V. screen before fleeing the room.

Did he? He honestly doesn’t recall. He pretty much focuses on the daily side of things — finding properties to stow their new students, hunting for multiple weapons suppliers so their bulk purchases doesn’t bring the full might of the Feds down on their heads, working with Robin on building training and patrolling schedules, and actually training the new girls — that he really doesn’t get involved in the big decisions anymore.

He likes it fine that way. While sudden death is always possible, it seems easier to deal with when the threat is one-at-a-time instead of on a massive scale. For one thing, the names and faces of the dead have meaning in a way they don’t when large-scale destruction is involved.  If there’s one thing he’s desperate to find right now — a little too late, true, but better late than never — is a reason for it all. Hell, he’ll settle for a reason for some it. Or maybe even a reason for just one thing.

This day is particularly bad. The T.V.’s been blabbering non-stop for a week about L.A.-this and L.A.-that, so much so that he can’t even think clearly. There’s something that keeps niggling at the back of his mind like a half-forgotten melody that he heard once with half an ear, but he can’t quite make it come to the fore over the big drama rendered hi-def, flat-screen glory.

When he starts speculatively eyeing a crossbow with the half-formed idea of waving it at the T.V., he knows that he needs to get the hell out before he really does pull a for-reals Elvis maneuver.  He grabs his coat and makes a break for the door, not bothering to tell anyone he’s leaving, let alone where he’s going.

Not that he knows where he’s going himself.

He walks quickly down the front walk. When he hits the sidewalk, he starts a gentle jog. By the time he’s at the corner he’s sprinting.

He’s running blindly before he’s a block-and-a-half away.

The images come unbidden while he runs. Sometimes the smoking hole in the middle of L.A., sometimes the smoking crater that was Sunnydale. Eventually the images of L.A. fade out and the ones featuring Sunnydale take over, but not images of that last terrible year. No. That would be too easy. It’s the images of the Sunnydale that existed Before.

One problem with those misty water-colored memories, though. They’re ringed in fire, covered with blood, and ultimately turned out to be completely pointless.

Because if you can’t save just one person you love from that mess, then you can’t save anyone.

Eventually exhaustion forces him to a halt. He bends over, hands braced on his knees, sobbing with the need for oxygen, and clothes sticking to him because of the sweat.

He can’t.

He just can’t.

He straightens up, still breathing hard, and starts to walk. He forces himself not to think. Every time a thought starts, he forces it down. Every time a memory starts replaying, he hums until it goes away.

It’s that damn melody again. What the hell is it?

It’s driving him crazy.

Crazier.

It’s full-on dark by the time he becomes aware of his surroundings. He winces at his own stupidity. He may have wanted to get away from the constant televised drone, but taking a mental vacation while walking around after dark? Stupid with a slice of suicidal.

And one thing he’s not is suicidal. Yet.

He looks around to get his bearings and barks a laugh.

For someone who wanted to get away, he didn’t get far did he? He’s maybe a mile away from where he started, if that. Considering he’s been walking around for — he checks his watch — five hours now, it’s pretty clear that he’s been walking around in circles.

He looks up at the dark sky as if seeking guidance.

He’s not ready to face the ever-present L.A. show. He’ll have to eventually, but he doesn’t have to right this second.

What he wants is to be someplace where people are alive and L.A. is a million miles away.

There’s a Starbucks around here. A few blocks that way, I’m pretty sure.

Xander huffs a laugh at his brain. Sure. Why not? Take a little comfort in good ol’ American consumerism at familiar little chain store that’s the same wherever he goes. He’s pretty sure that he’s in no danger of encountering any deep and dangerous thoughts in a place like that.

After a venti caramel machiatto, he’ll be riding a sugar high that’s high enough for him stop caring. Okay, he probably won’t get any sleep either, but he hasn’t been sleeping all week so that’s not exactly a deal-killer.

Xander feels giddy with guilt, like he’s breaking some kind of rule by escaping from the electronic memorial to L.A back at the house to snatch at life, if only for a little while.

He hums as he goes and resists the urge to do a two-step down the sidewalk.

That song. That song. What is it again? He knows he’s heard it, but he can’t remember.

The sound of a struggle breaks through his consciousness and he groans. Much as he’d like to he can’t ignore that, even for a little bit.

He wheels around in an effort to find a direction.

There. Across the street.

He pats down his forearm as he moves. Thank God. Packing stakes on his person is so second nature at this point in his life that he has one at hand.

He doesn’t want to think about what this says about him.

He skids to halt at the entrance, clutching his stake when he sees the fight’s already over. There’s a cloud of ash just clearing and a Slayer standing in the middle of it with stake in hand.

One look at who it is enough to get him to shove the stake into his back pocket to show he’s unarmed and not a threat.

Faith whirls around with a cry, stake raised. For a moment Xander’s pretty convinced he’s going to have to turn and run to escape certain death.

Faith freezes, stake arm in the air, her teeth bared at him like she’s a trapped wild animal.

Xander wonders how his picture would fit in all those images of death and destruction from L.A if Faith finishes that attack. He resists the urge to hold up his hands and back away. Instead he mildly says, “Good reflexes.”

Faith doesn’t move. “Fuck you,” she snarls.

Xander bites back the first thing he wants to say. Then he bites back the second. “Classy, too. That any way to treat a guy with a spare stake?”

Faith lowers her arm with a scowl. “If you ain’t the last person I wanna see, you’re pretty damn close.”

Xander can feel his temper start to rise. “Gee, just the sort of thing any guy would slay dragons to hear.”

“Let me guess. Princess B sent you?”

Xander keeps himself to shaking his head. It’s that or laugh in her face.

“Well someone sent you,” Faith spits. “Giles. Robin. Someone who actually gives a damn.”

“Amazingly enough, me being here is not all about you.” This time Xander does grin at her. He feels slightly manic. Now here is something solid he can push against. Better than all those ghosts that chased him all over the city over the past few hours. “It is, however, all about me getting a Starbucks caramel machiatto with all the fattening trimmings. And let me just add, this makes me very, very grateful that we’re in a city where there are highly caffeinated, highly sugared drinks available at all hours. God bless corporate America.”

Faith’s eyes narrow and she cocks her head. She couldn’t have shouted “liar” any louder if she opened her mouth.

Xander’s grin broadens. “The fact of the matter is if I knew you were here I’m pretty sure I’d already be elsewhere. But, there you go. Accidents happen.”

“That’s it? Just out for a walk?” Faith bares her teeth, as if realizing that Xander’s all but laughing at her. “Not trying to recapture our little ‘connection’? What do you want from me, hunh? A comfort fuck?”

“Considering how well the pity fuck went last time? No. And hell no. The whole hands-on-neck thing? Not a turn on.” Xander’s grin disappears. “On the upside, I suppose I should thank you. I leaned that auto-asphyxiation is not one of my kinks. It very quickly resolved some let’s-try-it discussions with…” He chokes to prevent Anya’s name from escaping his lips.

No, no, no. Faith doesn’t get to hear about Anya. Not from him. Not ever.

Faith takes a sharp breath, as if he has somehow managed to score a hit. She shivers as she looks down at her free hand as it curls into a claw.

When she looks back up at him she looks frightened. Lost.

Broken.

Now it’s Faith’s turn to score a hit. Any desire to push against Faith evaporates and Xander feels like a complete shit heel. Again.

He’s making this a nasty habit.

Before he can apologize, Faith mutters “Sorry” and turns to walk away.

Xander hesitates. He’s caused enough damage for one night. One week. One lifetime. He should let this go because Faith’s right. He’s not the one who should be here. Someone who actually gives a damn on a deep personal level should be.

But they’re not, and he is. Much as he doesn’t like her, much as he still bears the scars of the whole humiliating one-night stand and the sexually charged murder attempt that came after, she’s still one of the team.

What’s more, she’s still a face with a name.

He’s fast running out of those in his life. He really can’t let the ones he has go to waste.

Not sure what he’s trying to prove, he follows her down the main drag. He even manages to stick with her when they turn down a side street to one of the cemeteries, despite the fact she picks up her pace. It’s not fast enough to force him into a jog, thank God. The way his muscles are protesting, he’s not sure he’d manage.

By the time he catches up with her at the cemetery gate, he’s back to humming that damn song he can’t get out of his head.

He’s losing his mind. He has to be.

Faith’s hand is on the lock when she turns to glower at him. “I’m pretty damn sure there’s no Starbucks in here.”

Not wanting to force yet another exchange of dim-witticisms, he shrugs. “Detour.”

Faith snarls, more out of frustration than actual threat, before she turns to examine the padlock.

Xander starts humming again, trying once more to place the song that’s been haunting him since he woke up this morning. He’s tapping his ear as if it will help him solve the mystery when Faith breaks the padlock with a sharp yank.

“Keep humming like that and you’re gonna scare away the vamps,” Faith says as she marches through the cemetery gates.

“What? And you breaking the lock didn’t?” Xander absently answers. He again picks up the thread of the tune as he leans against gravestone.

Faith circles in front him, like a bloodhound on the trail. She startles, momentarily breaking Xander’s concentration, before launching herself across the graveyard. She stops mid-stake and hisses. The exchange ends with the flash of something small and furry streaking away.

“He’s swell/she’s sweller/he’s something-something-something,” suddenly pops out of Xander’s mouth.

His heart sinks. Of course. He should’ve realized.

The guilt is as immediate as it is painful.

“Arrgh!” Faith turns. “What the hell is that?”

He’s glad the cemetery’s dark enough and that she’s far enough that she can’t see him. “It’s my song.”

“What? You wrote that?” Faith asks.

“I…don’t know,” Xander admits. “But it is my song. Mine and Anya’s. Literally ours, by which I mean we made it up spontaneously thanks to a demon and, ummm, my stupidity. I’ve had the tune in my head all day, and I only just now remembered what it was. I can’t even really remember the words.”

Faith’s not about to give any quarter, not that he deserves any. “Yeah. Well. It’s annoying.”

Xander rubs his temples. “At least you haven’t been playing it in your head all day. It’s been the earworm from hell.”

Faith cringes. “But it’s going to be in my head if you don’t shut up.”

“Maybe if I can just remember all the words, it’ll go away.” Xander closes his eyes — both real and fake — and concentrates. “She’s swell/he’s sweller/there’s something I should…I should…tell her? Damn. It’s never getting out.”

He hears the sound of a boot hitting a headstone and opens his eyes.

“You know, I didn’t ask you to come along.” Strangely enough, Faith’s glaring at the ground and not at him.

Xander shoves his hands in his pockets. What is he doing? He feels pain, so he inflicts it on someone else? How is this helpful? To anyone? Sure, it might make him feel better for a little bit, but it doesn’t actually solve anything.

And right now he’s got a problem that needs solving right here and right now. He can’t save Anya, and while he wouldn’t go so far as to say he can save Faith, he can at least shove her in the direction of someone who can.

“I know,” Xander admits, when he finally finds his voice. “I wasn’t invited. I’m kind of used to that.”

Faith throws up her hands. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“You’re right. Wrong guy, or at least not the guy you want to talk to,” Xander says. “But maybe you should skip the guys and go straight to Buffy.”

Faith whirls on him. She doesn’t raise her stake, but it feels like it’s a close thing. “Why? So she can sob all about her never-ending love with Angel and how I fucked things up for them? So she can tell me that I have no right to—” Her voice freezes as if she honestly doesn’t know how to finish that thought.

“I’m pretty sure that Buffy’s at a point in her life where she’s not going to say that. Not to you, anyway,” Xander says. “Especially since she turned him down when he called.”

“I should’ve got on a plane and fuck Wolfram & Hart,” Faith says.

“He didn’t explain himself. Not to Giles. Not to Buffy. He just called out of the blue and asked for help, but didn’t bother to say anything beyond the fact that one of his evil employees was ill. Maybe if he said something about an apocalypse heading for L.A., things would’ve been different, but here we are.” Xander takes a deep breath, “And if he really wanted to call in any friendly face that was available, there was nothing stopping him from doing an end-run around Giles and Buffy and contacting you directly.”

“It was my responsibility to help him. Mine.” Faith is howling now. “I owed him. I knew about the call. That should have been enough. Fuck the reasons. I should’ve have trusted him that he wouldn’t be calling us in to do dirty work for Wolfram & Hart, but I doubted him. And look.

This guilt…

This he knows.

He knows it intimately.

He lives it with it every.fucking.day.

And he knows there isn’t a damn thing he can say that’ll make this better.

Faith makes a ‘pfft’ sound. “You don’t understand a fucking thing I’m saying, do you? You’ll just stand there with your thumb up your ass until the world ends.”

Xander fights down the spike of irritation. “Now who’s scaring the vamps away?”

“Let them run,” Faith hisses.

For just a moment, the two of them are frozen in that cemetery. It’s yet another image of destruction thanks to L.A., and maybe even Sunnydale, but this one’ll never make the evening news. It’s not big enough. It’s not important enough. It’s just a little bit of heartbreak fueled by survivor’s guilt. Xander knows if left to fester, it will drain the life away and kill the pair of them as surely as a vampire will.

“You’re wrong about Buffy’s reaction, you know,” Xander says into the silence. “Yeah, she can be a bit self-centered. More than, even. But then again, show me someone who isn’t when death becomes so in-your-face.”

“You just have to defend her.” Faith sounds tired.

“She’s my friend, but she’s also your friend, too,” Xander says. “Once you realize that, you’ll realize that she might be glad there’s someone she can talk to about Angel. And I think, if you just give it a shot, you might find the same thing, too.”

Faith looks doubtful, not that Xander blames her. This whole mess is so tangled, that it’s hard to predict how anyone will react.

Xander heaves sigh. Maybe he should start with baby steps. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“I told you. I had a caramel machiatto in mind before I bumped into you,” Xander says. “If we’re going to wrestle with life-and-death questions, maybe we should do it where the emo won’t get us killed. Plus, there are cookies.”

“Cookies?” Faith snorts. God help him, she actually sounds almost amused.

“Cookies,” Xander says with a sharp nod. “The sugary goodness puts things in perspective, especially if it’s chocolate chip. Hey, I’ll even be quiet on the way. That way, if something with big claws and sharp teeth is lurking in the bushes you’ll be able to hear it and kill it. Also, no singing. I think it’s finally out of my brain. Good riddance.”

Faith looks torn as she scratches her stake with her thumbnail.

“This is an invitation to walk the hell out of here and find a place where people are alive and there’s a lot of light,” Xander presses. “I’m just laying it out there. You want to come? Come. You want to stay? Stay. But me? I’m going to where the light is. You can follow. Or not. I won’t even look back to see if you’re there. Promise. But if I happen to bump into you later, I’ll treat you. Cookies. Hot drink. On me.”

He turns to walk away.

“I’m sorry about Anya!” she calls after him.

He stops, but he sticks to his promise and doesn’t turn around. “So you said. A year ago,” he answers when he’s able to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Yeah. Well. I’m still sorry.”

He looks down at the ground. “So am I.”

He starts walking again.

He turns out the gate and heads back to the main drag. He keeps his gaze sharp ahead of him, and pays attention to his surroundings. It wouldn’t do to get killed when he’s this close to escape, even if it is only a temporary one.

He’s on the main drag before he hears a set of footsteps behind him. There’s a hesitancy in the step, like the owner isn’t sure they should be following him.

Or that they can’t believe they actually are.

Xander sees the Starbucks ahead and the footsteps behind him pick up the pace, as if the owner of those feet has made a decision.

He smiles.

He has Faith.

He doesn’t need to turn around.