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He'd thought he was going to do okay with this.

He'd thought it was going to be the same. No, not that, but consistent. Predictable. Like a gentle slope, a tapering-off. He would grieve, but time would make it better. Wasn't that how it was supposed to go?

What it was like, these last weeks, was a seismograph reading. Peaks and valleys. Maybe the earthquake experts can get a handle on when something's coming, but to Xander, it's always a surprise when the earth begins to shift beneath him. One second he's okay, he's talking to someone, or out with Giles scouting places to live, train, do their work. The next, it's all blackness. Whatever sentence he's in the midst of remains unfinished. He goes off into another room leaving Giles with the real estate agent.

Right now the others are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was the reward they'd all chosen. For making it through another apocalypse -- this one with far more apocalypsy goodness than ever before. For closing the hellmouth. (So why have they come where there's another one? Xander hasn't yet gotten this straight.) For getting through the trek out here and beginning a lot of the shitty tasks that came with setting up this new life. Paperwork out the ass to settle the old one.

Cool museum, really interesting. But from the start he was having a hard time with the place. The bottom floors of the pyramid are all about the sensory overload. Music coming from half a dozen directions and too much to look at, people pinballing from exhibit to exhibit. He hadn't been in a place this crowded, this busy since he lost the eye. All the visual stimuli and the random movement disoriented him, threw him off balance.

He was determined not to let on, not to be the funsucker. He could do this, god knows he'd stood up against plenty worse. As they climbed, he'd heard, the floors would get smaller, the focus more narrowed. Just make it through the first couple of levels, he told himself. It would be okay.

Then he caught the driving rhythm of a Rolling Stones song, laced with sitar. I see a line of cars and they're all painted black-- And he had to get out, that minute.

He wandered through the park next to the Hall of Fame, up the rise that left him standing here now, overlooking the lake. It's one of the Great Lakes, though he can't remember which. Water to the horizon, almost making him forget he's a thousand miles or more from the nearest ocean. This whole Ohio thing -- he just doesn't know. From what people tell him, this nasty humid summer weather will give way eventually. Then there'll be winter fun to be had. Lake effect snows, black ice, whiteouts on the interstate -- the natives love bringing the tales of cheer to the California newbies, the Okies in reverse. Worse than, actually. Shit, at least the Joads had some belongings to pile on top of their car hauling ass from the dust bowl. Xander -- all of them -- left Sunnydale with just the clothes on their backs.

There are concrete steps set into the lake side of the hill. Cut deep and high, more made for seating than for comfortable climbing. They overlook a wide stone promenade along the waterfront. He finds this vista doesn't give him the heights-wiggins he gets from steep dropoffs, so he sits on the top step, looking out over the lake, the people strolling along the path.

Erie, that's it.

Suddenly he laughs. Jesus God, life doesn't get any more anvilishly ironic than that.

Fuckin' eerie is what it is.

How's he supposed to do the hellmouth thing again without Anya?

I could not foresee this thing happening to you--

Funny thing is, he had and he hadn't. Foreseen this. They all paid lip service to it, how they could all die in any fight, ranging from the next apocalypse to just a routine patrol. Sure, yeah. But he'd thought it would be him, Astounding Normal-Abilities Guy. Or maybe Buffy or Faith. Despite their strength and brilliance as fighters, they take more risks than the rest of the Scoobies put together. They buy a fistful of tickets for the big Powerball every night, and on any given night, their numbers might hit.

But it had been Anya. And no, he hadn't seen it coming. Hell, when your girlfriend is a thousand years old, you expect her to be around for the next apocalypse. The next birthday. The next video-store run.

He glances around; no one's close by, so he gives in. Nothing dramatic, he doesn't even bury his face in his hands. It might be broad daylight, but this is still the hellmouth. He'll keep whatever advantage an overly-observant one-eyed guy can have, even with the tears slipping down his cheeks.

He hasn't been at it very long when he hears a voice. "Xander, on your left." Willow. She always tries to approach him directly or from the right, but when she can't, she never fails to give him a heads-up. He's noticed who remembers this not-so-small courtesy (Giles, Faith, Kennedy), who tends to be hit-or-miss (Buffy, Andrew, Robin), who almost always forgets (Dawn, the other girls). Without turning toward her, Xander reaches his left hand out. She takes it, gives it a squeeze, but keeps moving, circling in front of him to sit at his right.

"It's crazy in there. Took us a while to miss you."

"I just--" His throat tightens before he can say more, and he knows he really doesn't have to. Willow's arms go around him, and he relinquishes guard duty to her. He's kept the grief under wraps so far, even when he's vented a bit, but when she begins to stroke his hair, he lets it go.

"I don't know how to do this," he says once he can speak again.

"Just like you're doing," she tells him.

"I don't think so. Because I start to think I'm going to be okay, that it's been a few days since I last felt all hollowed out, like I'm going to die. Then I turn around and I'm back to square one. Or square minus-fifty, because the lows keep getting lower." Willow starts to touch his hair again, but he thrusts up a hand. "Don't. I'm sorry, Will, but--"

"It's okay, it's okay," she croons. Her fingers knot in her lap.

"No, no. I want--" He reaches for one of her hands, takes it in his. "It's all right if you touch me. I just-- The hair thing. She--"

Willow rubs her other hand along his arm. "This is the way it happens for everyone, Xander. You feel like you're getting stronger -- and you are, mostly. But then you remember something you did together, or something she said. Or think of something you'll never get to have again." She leans her cheek against his shoulder. "That's all I should tell you, I think. As far as grief goes I'm less good example than horrible object lesson."

"Do you still miss Tara sometimes?"

"Oh, Xander. Every day. Mostly in this very gentle way."

"Like her."

She smiles. "Yeah. But still sometimes I feel torn in two."

He rubs at his face again, and his hand comes away wet. "I hate this. It's stupid and mortal--" His throat closes again and it's a while before he can go on. "Remember that day? When Joyce died? She tried so hard to understand what happened, what was going to happen to Joyce's body." He laces his fingers with Willow's. "What good did that do her? None of that was done for her. She's in a fucking mass grave."

Xander stares off over the lake, taking in the dance of sunlight on the water, the slow movement of boats, the wheeling birds near the shoreline. He hadn't expected to see seagulls here so far from the ocean. He can't bring himself to look on the promenade, at the couples and the kids and even the solitary strollers. At this moment he hates them all.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes--

"She tried so hard to understand how to be human. Even when we were snotty to her about it." Even when he was snotty about it, which, for a guy who said he loved her, was quite a lot. "She didn't even ask to be human, didn't want it, but she tried. And then the second time, she did ask for it. Despite knowing what a lousy deal it could be. Despite knowing what it would cost her. She didn't do it for me, but because that's who she decided to be."

"I wish I'd given her more of a chance," Willow says softly.

"Wish I had too."

She encloses his hand in both hers. "Xander, anyone could see how much you loved Anya. And still do."

"What good does it do, loving her now? I can't go back and treat her better. Guess I could leave flowers on her grave every day, like Joe diMaggio and Marilyn -- oh, hey, wait. No grave. And here I am in Cleveland. All I can do, Will, is have a private nightly screening of every mean and shitty thing I ever said or did, ranging from my habitual snarkiness to leaving her at the church in front of all her friends and my family. It's a long damn movie. Remember Meet Joe Black? How fucking endless we thought that was? It seems like two minutes of coming attractions next to this."

Willow murmurs reassurance to him, but there really isn't much she can offer, and finally she lapses into stillness. They both look out over the lake, neither speaking. There's no silence, though, at least not in Xander's head, where the sitar intro to "Paint It, Black" uncurls in an endless loop. He knows it will be drilling a hole in his brain for many nights to come.

Finally, to drown it out, he abruptly announces, "If I'm staying in this humid shithole, I'm getting the glass eye. Once I get the whole COBRA nightmare all straightened out. It's too hot for this thing." In fact, right now he longs to shove the eyepatch up and rub his hand over his sweaty skin. But he would never do this here in the park, even with no one nearby. He would never do this in front of Willow. "The goddamn band gives me a headache after the first hour I have it on -- you know how I am, Will, I don't even like wearing a hat." He's tired of the physical irritations of it, but more than that he's tired of the looks he gets, tired of standing apart. There's enough that separates him already -- distances him, Normal-Abilities Guy, from his friends. Isolates him from real normal people.

"That's good," she says. "I think that's what you should do." She strokes his arm, trying to soothe this sudden agitation.

"And if I stay here, I have to have a role. A real one, not just as the guy who fixes everything that gets busted. If I'm going to be useless, I'll go somewhere where I can be useless in peace. Where the weather doesn't suck year-round."

He's not so sure, even then, if he wants to stay here. Here in Cleveland. Here on the planet.

"All right. Yes. We'll talk -- you and Buffy and Giles and I. And Faith. We'll get things clear."

He didn't ask for this. The feel of the sun on his skin, the lake wind that ruffles his hair (Anya, he thinks. Her fingers moving through his hair the last night she was alive.), the breath that jerks in and out of his lungs. Isn't convinced he wants it.

But he decides he'll try.

Not for her reasons, no love or longing for being human and alive. God knows not from any kind of courage.

He'll try for Anya, for no other reason. To be worthy of her.

He gets to his feet, holds a hand out to Willow. "So, you think they'll let us back in, or will we have to pay all over again?"