I didn't actually see Merrick die, of course.
I didn't see it because I wasn't there. I didn't see it because he'd told me to leave. I didn't see it because I left him.
He was my watcher: I obeyed.
"Xander, if you're going to be my Watcher, you have to take less risks," I say. He cocks his head, looks through me with his missing eye. In these moments, I feel like he's seeing me twice, and I watch him doubled in turn: looking at my friend, looking at the man he's become.
If I were being honest, I'd probably mention the whole part where I'm constantly afraid I'm going to get him killed and might prefer his Watchery goodness be a bit more auxilary, if you please. But the words stick in my throat as he gives me his "new traditions" pep talk. I wonder if it sounded as pat coming out of my mouth, even though I know that he's earnest, that he believes this, believes that we're changing everything.
It's true, there have been changes. Xander has a fresh scar on his face (tanned under the African sun) and his frame is newly lean and muscled. He lost two Slayers in Kenya, but sent five back to train with Giles in England before he returned. Maybe I shouldn't be so skittish. He can handle himself.
I never knew or loved Merrick like I do Giles. He was pretty standard issue as Watchers go: stuffy and British and surprisingly helpful when crisis situations emerged. (I hear that even Wesley, over time, got a bit more efficient.) For a while I suspected all the talk about my destiny was just cover for him being a creep, given that I was a teenage girl and prime perving material and all. It was a lot easier to deal with than the part where I had a destiny.
I'm not a big fan of destinies, if you haven't picked that up by now.
I blink and realize that he's still waiting for me to reply. The rack that holds most of my weapons is suddenly engrossing.
"I had a Watcher before Giles," I say eventually. "Merrick. He was my Watcher when I was at Hemery. He died."
I sit down next to Xander and lean my head on his shoulder. He smells reassuringly familiar: same sweaty boy smell that I've known for years. When he's my Watcher, I'll lose some of these uncomplicated moments when he's by my side. He's the last person I have left who's just my friend.
When he puts his arm around me, I straighten, turn to look him in the face "He made me leave. He said I wasn't ready to fight. So he killed himself so he wouldn't be turned into a vampire."
I'm surprised at what a relief it is, to tell someone after all this time.
"Buffy." For a moment, I close my eyes, so I can imagine him whole. Xander tugs at my shoulder, not too gently. "Buffy." I open them again. "I've been fighting with you since we were fifteen. Forget about that? Still here?"
"I know," I say miserably, my shoulders slumping. Doesn't he get that?
"Haven't been turned into a vampire yet," he says, cheerfully. Then, thoughtful: "At least not in this dimension." A brief pause. "Haven't been devoured or sacrificed by any of the women I've dated. Haven't gone evil, aside from the hyena possession, and I don't remember that, okay? Haven't... turned into teenaged me and had sex with your—"
"Xander!" But he's made his point, and despite my concern, I can't help but laugh. "Look, it's not about that, okay. It's just— I want to protect you. What if I leave you to watch my back and then you get ambushed by Zarlax demons and their heads grow back when you decapitate them and what will you do?"
For a moment, he's quiet, and I'm not sure if he's going to respond. "...I throw salt at them?"
Oh. "Oh. You knew that?"
Xander stands up, looks down at me, face thrown into the shadows by the light behind him. "I've been a Watcher for a while, and I've been learning along with you for a lot longer," he reminds me. "Did you forget that I've lost two Slayers?"
I lower my head. Briefly, yes.
"And there was that one time that you died," he continues. "Wait, two times. I can't protect you, either, and I know that. We have to be a team. We've always been strongest that way. Remember?"
"And, you know what? You aren't the one girl in all the world anymore. You don't have to be responsible for everyone. I realize I'm not a witch or super strong or super... Giles, but I know what I'm doing. You can rest a little of that yoke on my shoulders."
It's funny, how I never quite felt how heavy it was, the weight he's talking about. When Giles left after I came back, it felt like I was losing my only parent and my only guide all rolled up into one. But I didn't just lose the mentoring. I lost the security of knowing that I wasn't the only who could make the big decisions.
I forgot why I listened to Merrick. I forgot how I trusted him.
I don't trust Giles now, not the way I did. But I trust Xander.
With his life.
"Let's get back to working on that kicky combo thing you were showing me," Xander says, turning back toward the training room. "Because I have to practice to kicking your ass, for the next time you start getting all worried about me."
My best friend just smiles and folds his arms. "Time to get cracking, Slayer."
I get up and stretch, pulling my right arm over my head, then my left. Maybe I'm never going to stop worrying about him, and maybe I'm always going to struggle with pulling anyone close to me further into the line of fire. But this— I flip over backwards onto the mat, catching myself on my hands, and he follows after me— this, I might be able to get used to.