Xander stood in the doorway watching Willow work, her brow furrowed in concentration as she inventoried her spell ingredients. He was so proud of her. He knew she was concerned about the other night, when she had to borrow power from Kennedy in order to get Buffy back from the Shadow Men, but he wasn’t worried about her getting out of control. She was a completely different person now than she had been a year ago.
“Hey there, witchy woman.”
Willow gasped in surprise and spun around. “Xander!”
He grinned, sheepish. He should know better than to sneak up on people these days. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. Who knew I was so stealthy?”
Willow tried to return his smile, but it was kind of shaky. “It’s okay. I’m extra jumpy today.”
“So say we all. I was just about to venture out on my shopping, aka looting, expedition. Need anything? Eye of newt? Toe of frog?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’m sure you’ll have enough to worry about, trying to find food for the teenage masses.”
He nodded. “That, and we’re out of diet coke. Buffy’s starting to get a little twitchy.”
She laughed, but he could tell her heart wasn’t in it. “Jumpy, Twitchy...we’re starting to sound like the seven dwarfs, if they were, you know, in the middle of an apocalypse.”
Xander stepped a little further into the room. “You okay, Will?”
She shrugged. “Sure. I mean, my girlfriend is afraid of me, and I’m worried that I’m going to go off the magical rails again and kill someone – again. But other than that, I’m peachy keen.”
“You’re not going to go off the rails again. You did what Buffy asked you to do. We’re in the middle of a war, Willow. You did what you had to do to get the job done.”
She bit her bottom lip to stop it from trembling. “But what if I…Xander, you of all people know how bad it can get. How bad I can be. You were there! You pulled me back. If it wasn’t for you…”
He smiled and put his hands on her shoulders. “First? Breathe. Second? You are pretty much the strongest person I know. And think about it - that’s saying something. You can handle this, I know it.”
“But what if I can’t? All that power I’m tapped into, it can be very…seductive. What if I need talking down again?”
He shook his head. “You won’t. You're past all that.”
“But if you ever do, I’ll be here. You're my best friend, and I love you. I’ll always be here for you. You know that.”
Willow wrapped her arms around him and smiled up into his face, a real, genuine Willow smile this time. “I know. And I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
The grocery store two streets over was pretty much a wasteland, so he decided to try the Mega Mart on Falcon. The route he chose coincidentally – or maybe not – went right by his parents’ house. They’d headed out a couple of weeks ago on an extended “vacation” to visit his perpetually drunk Uncle Rory in Arizona. He’d found out the day they left when his mother snuck a call to him to say goodbye. That they hadn’t asked to him to go with them stung a little, he had to admit, even though he couldn’t say he missed them, or even that he hoped they’d come back. The people he was out here risking his life for were the only real family he had.
He slowed down to a crawl as he passed his old house. Ye Olde Homestead looked even more tired and rundown than it had before. The whole street seemed like a ghost town, which was kind of appropriate when you thought about it. The denizens of Sunnydale where pretty much the kings and queens of denial, but even most of them had gotten the hell out of Dodge by now.
Not just the people, but most of the demons had been smart enough to leave town too, and he supposed that should make him feel safer. But yeah, not so much. He reached across the seat and wrapped his fingers around the stake laying there, enjoying the feel of the smooth wood against his skin, the weight of it in his hand. There was a large, sharp knife in a leather sheath strapped to his belt, and an axe on the floor within reach. He was as well prepared as he could be, under the circumstances.
The Mega Mart parking lot was Mega Empty, except for a couple of cars covered in bird droppings that seemed to be abandoned. He pulled up as close to the entrance as he could, turning off the truck’s engine before hopping out, tucking the stake into his waistband and grabbing the axe. He was a little nervous being in unfamiliar territory, several miles from home, and he knew Buffy would ream him out for being reckless when he got back. She’d wanted him to take someone with him, but everyone had been busy doing important, battle prep kind of stuff. Taking them away from that to go grocery shopping had seemed really…lame.
Spike and Buffy had been training potentials, Willow, of course, had been doing her witchy things. Giles, Dawn and Anya had been doing research, and Andrew had been…baking. Xander was no good at any of that, and he’d already fixed all the windows that needed fixing. The only thing left to do was make a food run. All of those teenage girls, they were like locusts. And food was important, right? He got a certain satisfaction from being the provider, the guy who fixed things around the house and brought home the proverbial bacon – and he knew that if he could find actual bacon? He’d be more popular with the potentials than Justin Timberlake.
He paused when he entered the store, looking around and listening for any activity. It seemed deserted. Eerie as that was, the fact that only every third or so light panel was lit, leaving the store in deep shadow in places, made it even creepier. The place must be on generator power, he figured. He forced himself to shake off the heebie jeebies, grab a cart, and get started. There wasn’t much fresh produce left, but there were a few apples and oranges. All of the good cereals were gone, but there were some boxes of the healthy stuff left, so he snagged all he could. When he turned the corner into the freezer section, only some of units were lit. More creepiness. Who knew what was in the ones that weren’t? He decided to head to the meat department to see if there was anything left – and maybe find some blood for Spike – when he turned a corner and practically ran right into Buffy. He pulled the cart back quickly.
“Buffy! What are you doing here?”
Buffy beamed and shook her finger at him. “I thought I told you not to go out alone. Everyone’s supposed to be on the buddy system! I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, Xander.”
Of course she’d check up on him. She’d never go out after Spike or Willow. “I’m fine, Buff, really. I can take care of myself.”
She smiled, but there was something...off about it. “I’m sure you can, what with all of your amazing super powers. Oh, wait.”
“What?” A literal chill went down his spine.
“You’re pretty much helpless out here all by yourself, aren’t you Xander?”
Oh, great. He was more annoyed than scared at this point. Even so, his hand instinctively went to the axe that was resting across the child seat of the cart. “Gee, that doesn’t really sound like you, Buffy.”
Buffy drew closer, looking up at him with those big, hazel eyes. He would’ve thought she was flirting with him if he didn’t know better. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be so critical, Xander. You totally can take care of yourself. It’s not like you had a slayer, a witch, and a vampire to protect you all of this time,” she said softly. “Oh, wait.”
Xander swallowed hard, his suspicions confirmed. “You’re not Buffy,” he said.
“Ding, ding, ding! Good for you! You’re not as dumb as you look.”
“What do you want?”
She was close enough to touch now, except she – it – was untouchable, of course. It gazed up adoringly at him with Buffy’s face, and he felt sick to his stomach.
“What do I want? It’s simple, really. I want you dead. Willow’s kind of on the edge lately, don’t you think? The poor thing doesn’t know what she’d do without you. Let’s find out!”
“Willow’s stronger than you.”
“Maybe, but she seems to think she needs you. Though for the life of me – pun totally intended – I can’t imagine why. They seem to think you’re the heart of the group – or is it the eyes of the group? I can never keep that straight. Seriously, though, what difference does it make? What difference do you make?”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” Xander said, “but your stupid insults can’t hurt me.”
“Maybe not,” Buffy said, smiling prettily and nodding at a spot over Xander’s shoulder, “but what do you think those guys might break?”
Xander turned around slowly to find a half dozen Bringers closing in on him. He turned his head and found more now standing behind the First. There was nowhere to run. Seeing, knowing, that was supposed to be his power. That’s what Dawn had said. But he hadn’t seen this coming. He gripped the axe tighter and stepped forward into the fray. He could hear Buffy’s laughter behind him.
It lounged in the doorway, watching Willow work. She was still pouring over her spell books and ingredients. Her hands caressed the grimoire lovingly before she pulled away, frowning. She was still worried, poor thing. Still scared of herself and what she was capable of. Good. It could work with that.
She looked up and grinned at him when she saw him, relieved. So happy to see him. So trusting.
“Xander! There you are. I’m so glad you’re here!”
It grinned back at her. This was going to be fun.