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The Geometry of Innocent Flesh on the Bone

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He goes underground this time of year. Packs a bag and disappears for a couple of weeks, then he comes back, and for a couple more weeks he's fairly quiet, then things go back to normal. At least as normal as they've been.

Six years since everything changed.

Five since Anya died.

Funny how he'd missed that one. Can't see 'em all coming. Not even the freakin' oracle gets it right 100% of the time.

He thinks Lorne knew. There's life beyond the point where you think your life is over. And it'll be sweet, if you stay open to it. Xander had never gotten a straight answer from him on that one, but he's fairly certain.

He keeps waiting for the sweet.

He's worked his way up to bearable.

***

The others try extra hard to keep him engaged in his work once May comes around, but the restlessness won't be denied. He doesn't talk about it, but he knows when the time comes nothing will stop him from slipping out in the dead of night. The others know too.

This year Dawn tries something different. Toward the middle of May she tosses out the idea of taking a vacation. Xander and Dawn and Buffy, or maybe just him and Dawn. Whatever he prefers, she says. (Whatever makes him stop with the thousand-yard stare, he thinks.) She comes up with some ideas: Mexico, New York City, Toronto. Maybe a road trip.

As she chatters away about the road trip idea, Xander thinks about the one she took with Buffy six years ago. That's when everything had fallen apart. Buffy and Dawn were seeing the country, Willow and Giles were off in England trying to fix her, and Xander was just realizing he'd been broken. Nobody knew just how badly until the others had come back.

"A road trip sounds like a great idea," he tells Dawn. "I'll swing by after work tomorrow with an atlas, and maybe we can go buy some guidebooks."

Dawn, a cool 21-year-old now, squeals like she's 14 and throws her arms around him. He snugs his arms around her but doesn't let himself hold on too long.

He doesn't want her to realize this is an early goodbye.

He says goodnight, heads home and packs a bag. He writes her a note, says he's sorry.

He's over 300 miles away by the time he stops and gets a room.

***

Xander never consults the atlas to determine his destination for these walkabouts, at least not after the first year. He relies instead on instinct. Usually that means following a route on impulse, taking random off ramps and turns until something tells him to stop.

This year's a little different. As he sips his coffee in a diner the next morning in Joliet, he hears a mother in the next booth trying to maintain some control over her small child. Austin, don't touch that. Austin, don't kick the booth. Austin, put those down.

Austin.

It's surprising he hasn't thought to go there before. Not that it has anything to do with the things that happened that dark summer when he became a killer. (You saved the world. Again. Whatever.) But the postcard Buffy sent from there had helped send him down this road, made him realize he couldn't sit on the fence and watch an apocalypse crash down when he'd seen it coming.

There's a bell tower at the university where some guy took a bunch of guns sometime in the 1960s, and started picking off people down below. Half the people in the state with a deer rifle showed up to try to take him down. Can you imagine that in S'd?

He'd seen himself as a regular Joe with a deer rifle. Buffy, at first, had thought him a mass murderer in a bell tower. She had come around eventually, but not exactly to his point of view. Xander's had to change too.

Not a murderer, but not a regular Joe, either. Lorne had first delivered the news, and Giles had broken through Xander's denial. He was a demon.

Is a demon.

Apparently the friendly, intuitive kind. Like Lorne, who Angel relied on as a friend and associate in the whole supernatural P.I. game. Xander had stayed around to do the same for Buffy, moved with her to Cleveland to set up a new version of the Council with Giles. But every May the dreams came back, and he had to get away for a while.

The image of the killer in the bell tower and the regular Texans who'd showed up to try to bring him down had haunted Xander all through that terrible time. He'd envisioned the scene, dreamed of it, but he'd never thought to go see it for real.

He finishes his breakfast, digs out his atlas and looks for a route to Austin.

***

The only other time he's set out with any sort of agenda was the first year he did his midnight disappearing act. He'd gone to L.A. to find Lorne, sing for him, get some idea how he was supposed to be a regular Joe demon who knew things. That and ask Angel if the job offer still stood.

That was another magnificent failure of his oracle powers. He already knew Angel and company had cleared out of the old hotel and into their de-luxe apartment in the sky. But he hadn't seen the rest of it coming. The destruction and death and brimstone, almost a year to the day after the destruction of Sunnydale. Angel and Spike, dusted; Wes dead, along with the young black guy he'd met, Gunn. The brown-haired girl, Fred, had died weeks before. Lorne had disappeared, and none of the informants who willingly told him the rest could give Xander anything on him.

Just his proximity to the ruins of Wolfram & Hart made the old invisible scars on his face and chest burn.

Still, he'd lingered for three days, telling himself it was to give Lorne a chance to turn up. But finally he had to admit he was just punishing himself. He'd driven up into Canada for a couple of weeks, staying far enough from any cities that the yammering oracle was stilled.

He wasn't sure if the time away did him any good, but each year the need to be gone came on, impossible to ignore or refuse. After that first year he traveled by impulse, without any agenda. Lorne would turn up or he wouldn't. Xander had come to the conclusion that poking an intuitive demon who'd gone to ground could be a less than brilliant idea.

There's life beyond the point where you think your life is over.

Maybe that's prediction enough.

And it'll be sweet, if you stay open to it.

It's more than most people get.

***

This time he's got a destination, but still no agenda. That's the way he prefers it; he's got agenda enough during the rest of the year. Lost slayers, the latest rising Big Bad. He makes himself useful. Even fixes broken windows now and again.

He'll go see the campus and the bell tower, stick around for an evening to hear some live music, then get the hell out, head for somewhere a lot more sparsely populated.

Someone's forgotten to tell his dreams about the no agenda thing. He has a resurgence of the kinds of dreams he had during that summer, deer rifles and the things that looked human but weren't. The Catalyst. Caleb's dead, he was human, so he's not coming back. Xander reads these dreams as old stuff that's being kicked up by this trip and the time of year.

There are other dreams, though. A woman swallowed by fire. Vampires, demons, clouds of something black boiling in the sky, like ash or billions of wasps or every evil thought in the world somehow made visible. Blood on his hands, his jeans, the asphalt below his knees, all lost, every person I've loved, why the fuck don't I wake up?

He wakes up.

His heart hammers in his chest as he jackknifes up in bed. He scrubs his hands over his face, then looks at the clock's red digital readout. 2:45.

Xander knows he won't get back to sleep -- he doesn't want to. Stumbling into the shower, he stands under the hot spray for a long while, then finds himself an all-night diner for a huge go-cup of coffee.

He drives south.

***

Bullets from the sky.

Xander sits on stone steps, watching students crossing the UT campus, lost in conversations, enclosed in iPod bubbles, or just rushing to the next class. He wonders what it must have been like for the people on campus and the street nearby 40 years ago, watching people fall without warning -- or being cut down themselves -- before it even occurred to them there could be someone high above picking them off with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition.

It was unthinkable back then, not so much anymore. You're walking along, immersed in your life -- shopping, walking to class, thinking about an assignment, a job, a girl -- and the next instant, there's a torrent of bullets coming from above.

Xander knows this feeling: being sure your life is progressing the way it's supposed to, or more or less sure, as sure as anyone is when going for a big scary change like getting married. Then without warning, it's all changed, all shattered. The first shot was the demon who crashed the wedding. The thing was, Xander didn't know that he'd been targeted at all, much less who'd done it.

The demon had just been the bullet. It had been Giles behind the sights. All for the greater good: He'd needed Xander in place to reach Willow if things went seriously bad -- yeah, Giles had seen that coming long before the rest of them, and he had a contingency plan. Xander couldn't be off having a honeymoon if things got apocalyptic. He'd orchestrated the saving of the world by Xander. The shit that happened to Xander, well, that was just collateral damage. Couldn't be helped.

The Council must have been proud.

Now Giles has recreated the Council, talking a lot about how they're doing things differently. Xander lends his help when he can, but the old comfort around Giles is long gone. He uses Buffy or Faith as an intermediary when he can, stays at the edges of the group when that's not possible.

There's no way of knowing when it might suit Giles's purposes to have Xander in his cross hairs again.

Though the day is humid, bordering on hot, Xander shudders. He can't be here in this open space, under the Tower. Anyone could be up there, drawing a bead on him.

High above, an explosion of sound. Heart thudding, Xander dodges behind a tree before he even realizes what he's hearing is music from a carillon in the Tower.

***

Xander nurses a beer, listening to a hot rock band with a Latin flavor, watching the crowd. Later on he plans to get fairly drunk, but he'll save that for the safety of his motel room. The feeling of danger, of being watched, hasn't left him since he left the shadow of the bell tower.

It's just the weirdness of walking on that once-bloodied ground, he tells himself. Especially since he'd attached such personal meaning to what happened there, used it as a metaphor to make sense of what had happened to him and what he'd been asked to do. It's the time of year getting under his skin, that's all.

He recognizes this for the bullshit that it is.

Giles had made it clear to him just how adept he was at knowing things he shouldn't know, rattling off a long list of "coincidences." It's taken a long time for him to accept the source of his instincts (maybe he hasn't yet), but he's used them well these past six years.

He watches the crowded dance floor. There's a couple at the near edge who haven't quite worked out the difference between dancing and dry humping. Xander keeps an eye out for a sudden departure. It's frustrating -- the usual vampire tells aren't working for him here. He wouldn't know the difference between this year's western wear fashions and those from 1947. And all the men and a few of the women are wearing cowboy hats, which isn't helping either. Any faces that would show up unnaturally pale in the neon-washed light are shadowed by Stetson brims.

He watches body language instead, scanning the crowd but always returning to the couple groping each other. Xander can't put his finger on it, but there's something that feels one-night-standy about them. He's willing to bet it'll be last-standy for one of them. When they come off the dance floor, arms around each other as they head for the door, Xander abandons his beer and follows.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he fingers the stake, but something tells him to wait. The girl tells the guy her place isn't far, if he'd like to come up. "I never do this," she says. "But I've never met a guy like you before."

Cheesy cliches? One of the most reliable vampire tells. Xander hates killing females, but that's not what's staying his hand. He's not sure what is, but he trusts his instincts, as he always has.

Hanging back just enough to be ignored, he follows.

***

The man sings and weaves his way down the street. The female vamp leans into him, playing cheerfully drunk as well, while holding him up. "Whoopsie!" she giggles as he stumbles into a street lamp. "Come on. It's not far."

She guides her companion (lures her prey) down a street that's residential mixed with businesses like small beauty parlors and garages. Xander spots the dimly-lit house before she coaxes the guy through the broken down gate out front. Years ago he might've taken it for a home meth lab, but now he makes it as a nest. Weeds, peeling paint, sagging porch, but the pull-down shades look to be in perfect condition. He wonders how many unwary drunks have spent their last night inside.

Xander moves to close the distance as the vamp steadies her victim up the front steps. She spins toward the sound of Xander's running approach, snarling as her game face emerges. She grabs her prey by the head, elbows rising in a way that says she's prepared to snap his neck rather than feed. But before she can apply that merciless twist, she explodes into ash.

The drunk guy is reeling with the sudden loss of her support. Xander grabs his shoulders to right him and shove him back away from danger, but a buzz of alarm jolts through his body, unpleasant as hell but attention-getting. Releasing the guy, he spins and throws up his left hand just in time to absorb the blow that was meant for his heart. He lets out a yell and staggers, and his attacker grabs him by the shoulder and yanks back the stake he's just buried in Xander's hand. Stumbling against the porch railing, Xander holds up both hands, "Human, I'm human." What's a little lie among friends? The blood streaking down his arm must be convincing enough, since the attacker wrenches the door open and in seconds there's screeching and shouting and cursing. He looks around for the drunk guy, but he's apparently sober enough to haul ass. He's halfway across the street when Xander spots him.

A couple of vamps make it out onto the porch and Xander uses his own stake to dispatch them, then he plunges into the house.

He dusts two more before he finds himself facing the guy who perforated his hand. Lightheaded, he tries to stay on his feet, but his knees are rubbery. "Did we get 'em all?"

The other man -- damn tall guy with massive shoulders, he suddenly notices -- says, "A couple ran out the front." He's got the kind of baby face Larry would've loved punching in -- at least until the growth spurt.

"I got those," Xander says, and finds himself down on one knee. "Sorry. I just--" Then he finds himself on his ass, his vision going gray and his lips going numb.

***

When the gray lifts, Xander finds himself in a moving car. Not good, is the most useful thought his brain will supply. "Whoa," he says, but it doesn't come out the way he meant, forceful and no-nonsense. It sounds all cottony and tentative. "The hell you taking me?"

"Motel. That hand needs some attention."

"That's not the word," he says.

"What?" Hard voice. Xander starts to look toward its source, but his head swims.

"Motel." There's a word for the place you go when there's a lot of blood. He doesn't think it's motel. "It'll come to me." Everything goes gray again.

The movement of the car changes, and Xander emerges from the haze, at least part way. They slow to take a turn, and Xander squints at the bright red neon overhead. Motel. Vacancy. He was wrong, this is the word.

There is something heavy on the end of his arm, something that's pressing a hot coal into his hand. It's all wrapped up in some kind of cloth. Black in the moonlight. Wet. Xander tries to unwind it.

"Leave that on," the voice commands. "Wait till we get inside."

The motel people will take care of it. White coats. No, something's still off.

The car stops and the driver's door opens. This doesn't feel right. He shoves his door open, steps out but stumbles, falling to hands and knees. A white-hot poker drives into his hand and up through his arm, and the pain makes him puke.

"Jesus." Boots scurry toward him. "Hold on. Let me help."

He finds himself hoisted to his feet, where he sways dizzily. His companion (abductor) gives him a moment to clear his head a little, then guides him to a door.

No white coats inside. But there are hospital corners. Xander knows what those are supposed to look like, though he never managed the technique.

"In here."

Hospital, that's the word. "I thought of it," he mumbles.

"Just relax." The guy guides Xander into the bathroom and parks him on the toilet lid. "Hang on. I'll be right back."

Xander supports his left arm in his right, and things start making a little more sense. The thing at the end of his arm is his hand, wrapped in a sodden towel. Blood drips from it onto the tile floor, spat spat spat. He gets a flash: bright arterial blood on his hands, his jeans, the asphalt below his knees. Why the fuck don't I wake up?

The other man comes back, a first aid kit in hand. It's not the sort most people have, smaller than a sandwich, with a scattering of Band-Aids, two gauze pads and a roll of tape. Like its owner, it's damn big. He unfolds it on the sink.

"Sorry about the blood," Xander says. "Bad memories."

"I've seen wor--" His head comes up and he stares at Xander for a moment.

Xander says nothing more.

His host shows a bottle of booze just like the one Xander has stashed away in his own motel room, which he'd planned to crack open later tonight. "You'll probably want some of this before I get to work." Without waiting for an answer, he unscrews the top and pours a healthy amount into a bathroom glass and offers it to Xander.

Xander downs it in two swallows and extends his wounded hand.

"You're a hunter," says the big guy as he gingerly unwraps the towel.

"No. I don't like guns."

That earns him a glare. "You're not talking to a civilian here." Civilian? Is this guy a cohort of Riley's? It might explain the field medicine. "You were out hunting vampires."

"I was out listening to live music. Vampires happened. They're like shit in that way." The last layer of wrapping comes off and Xander sucks in a breath. "Jesus."

"You got in my way. Things could have gotten a lot worse."

Irritation keeps the grayness at bay. "I think the word you're groping for is 'sorry.'"

He's got a fistful of gauze, not just a couple of pads, gently dabbing the blood away to examine Xander's hand. "How long have you been hunting? Just started?"

"Try twelve fucking years," Xander says. "You're the one that staked a civilian." The examination gets a little less gentle. Sweat beads up on Xander's lip and neck. Damned if he'll let himself faint. "Do you have a name?"

"Rick Nielsen."

It rings false somehow, so Xander offers up a fake name of his own. Unfortunately only one has been on his mind lately. "Whitman. Charles, but people call me Whit." The name doesn't cause any reaction. This guy wasn't even born when the Tower shootings happened -- not that Xander was. And Whitman's been eclipsed, just a year ago, by someone who racked up twice the body count.

"Looks like a clean through-and-through. Bones and tendons look intact. You're lucky."

"I wouldn't call it that." Xander has escaped a lot of bad shit in his time, but he's found luck has little to do with it.

"Yeah." RickNielsen flicks a look at him. "Sorry. Nests make me twitchy."

Xander gets the idea a lot makes him twitchy, but he appreciates the apology. "With good reason. What about splinters?"

"I use cherry wood stakes. They don't splinter." He reaches for the bottle. "Another belt?"

He's pretty sure he knows what's next; he offers his glass. "I'm a fan of maple, myself." He drains the glass and braces himself.

RickNielsen takes his wrist and draws his hand out over the tub, pouring alcohol over the puncture. Xander convulses with pain, choking a scream back to a snarl as the white-hot poker rams up his arm once more. His torturer finally puts the bottle away and Xander sags back against the toilet tank. "Fuck," he pants. Everything's graying over again. He mutters, "He thought he was the dark one, didn't he? Surprise."

RickNielsen grabs a fistful of Xander's shirt. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"You begged for it to be over, but not like this. Not this soon."

Xander finds himself hauled upward and shoved face-first against the tiled wall.

"What are you?"

There's a click that he's heard hundreds of times on TV, and then the feeling of a gun barrel pressed into the base of his skull. His head clears fast. "Easy, Rick. I'm just a guy. I get a few psychic flashes, that's all."

The gun doesn't waver. "Tell me."

He gives himself to the impressions crowding in on him. "It's like an amputation, isn't it? Worse than all the others, because it never stopped happening. Until it did." Poor fucker, he thinks. Except this poor fucker might well leave his demon brains sprayed across a dingy motel shower curtain.

"What are you doing here? Is it me you've been hunting?"

"Shit no. I came down here to deal with my own trauma."

"How's that working out for you?"

"Well, Dr. Phil, let's say some things are being put in perspective. Would you get your fucking gun out of my skull?"

To Xander's surprise, RickNielsen does back off, but he doesn't put the gun away. "What do you know about my brother?"

Xander lowers himself to the edge of the tub, fighting wooziness. "You saw him die. Over and over again, in dozens of ways. Doesn't make sense to me, but I know it's true. He was the one --"

"What?"

Xander senses the flood of emotion encased in a hard shell. "He looked out for you." He looks up at the other man. "Now he's not there."

A twitch of his mouth, then his face settles back into its hard expression. The change makes him look even younger. "Better get that stitched up."

"Better disinfect it again," Xander suggests. "While $29.95 a night buys you a room for a night, I'm not counting on it buying surgical sterility in the john."

RickNielsen douses his hand again, and this time Xander bites his lips until they bleed to keep any random revelations from slipping out. Xander has another snort, and RickNielsen settles in to do the Betsy Ross on his hand. "How'd you come by the psychic abilities?"

"Fell off a ladder." He read a book when he was a kid, a battered old paperback his old man kept in the john, full of tales of the unexplained. There was a story about a psychic, allegedly famous, who'd fallen off a ladder and come out of his coma with the fully loaded psychic package, including all the options.

"Then you became a hunter?"

"Slayer," he corrects him. "Sort of. Non-ladies auxiliary." He sucks in his breath as the needle tugs, grateful for a reason to shut up. He doesn't understand why he's giving this guy anything approaching the truth.

"Ever wish you could walk away from it? Not know things you know, and live like other people do?"

Xander looks up and locks eyes with RickNielsen. He wonders if his look as haunted as this kid's. "Sometimes," he lies. More like all the time.

"I tried that. My brother never had that luxury."

"So now you can't ever give it up." Can't ever be happy or normal (which is not the same as happy, most of the time).

RickNielsen doesn't answer.

"There's life --" Xander's chest tightens, and he has to make himself take a deep breath. "There's life beyond the point where you think your life is over." He'd thought Lorne had been speaking to him, but maybe not. Maybe this was a message he'd been meant to pass on to someone when the time came. "And it'll be sweet, if you stay open to it."

He looks at Xander as if he's a lunatic. Which very likely is exactly what Xander had done when he first heard those words.

"Or not," he adds.

***

Once he's bandaged the hand, RickNielsen feeds him a couple of antibiotics from a giant bottle that looks like it's been boosted from a pharmacy, and gives him a fistful to follow up, wrapped in a twist of tissue. He shakes out some painkillers, but gives Xander fewer of those.

"You some kind of Calvinist?" Xander asks.

He ignores the question. "How are you feeling?"

"The phrase, I think, is feeling no pain. Except I happen to be in a fair amount of pain. Two and a half sheets in the wind may be a better way of putting it."

"You should eat something."

Xander shakes his head. "I've had dinner."

"You left it in the parking lot."

Oh. Right.

"You're too buzzed to be running around out there. I'll buy. Guess I owe you."

"I'm not exactly in my date clothes." Xander plucks at his shirt, which is caked with drying blood, as well as his jeans.

RickNielsen frowns. "We'll pick something up, bring it back. I don't want your blood on my hands."

"Any more of it."

He scowls. Not strong with the sense of humor. Well, Xander's lost his a time or two, so he can let it slide.

Buzzed though he is, when he emerges into the motel room, Xander notices things he was too woozy to see on the way in. Like the tri-fold panel with photos and maps and clippings, half traveling science-fair exhibit, half psycho killer wall of nutjobbery. During the time Xander had been doing his impression of a psycho killer, he'd avoided keeping anything like this purely because of the nutjob associations. The back of his neck prickles. "Hey, what's this?" he says, softly, casually.

"I'm tracking someone," RickNielsen says.

It's a someone, at least, not multiple someones. Minimally less worrisome. "Kind of weaselly looking. How long you been chasing him?"

"Over three months."

"He's here?"

"Was. I've lost the trail." He opens the door. "C'mon."

He's just the slightest bit unsteady heading to the car, and getting in without dragging his shoes through the remnants of his dinner proves to be tricky.

"Tell me, RickNielsen, have you got a real name?"

After a pause, he says, "Sam."

Xander nods. "Xander."

Sam fires up the engine and some fossilized rock song rumbles out of the speakers.

"Does this car create its own temporal force field?"

"What?"

"The car. The music."

"This is my brother's car," Sam says, his voice low and tense.

"Sorry." For an intuitive, Xander can still do a good job of sticking his foot in it. He decides to keep his yap shut for a while.

To his surprise, instead of pulling into a drive through, Sam turns into a parking lot jammed full of cars, a Tex-Mex joint that looks more dive than home of edible food, but Xander knows these are often the best places out there. Sam asks what he likes then leaves him to the car and the dinosaur rock.

Though it's an awkward reach with his right hand across his body, Xander puts his hand on the steering wheel. Buffeted by impressions and images, he curls his fingers around the wheel. Gathering dark. Ugly choices. His first impulse is to call Giles, tell the Scoobies and slayers to saddle up, but he sees this apocalypse is by invitation only. This one's all about destiny, just as his was.

He releases the wheel and sinks back into his seat, drained.

Sam stashes a pair of Cordelia-sized shopping bags in the back seat and gets behind the wheel. He glances over at Xander. "You all right?"

"Will be." He closes his eyes for the rest of the ride, letting the music wash over him. Old, but not Giles-old. Not quite as good, either.

When they get back to the motel, Sam spreads the food out on the desktop by the tri-fold panel. There's easily enough food for three.

Xander settles in to the intricacies of eating one-handed. He gestures toward the board. "What's the story with Lipless McWeasel here?"

"He's not someone you want to piss off," Sam says, as if the topic of conversation is right in the room.

"How's that?"

"He's a god," Sam says, as if expecting not to be believed. "A trickster. They can alter reality, loop time."

Which may explain the Groundhog Day cavalcade of death Xander reads in Sam. "Plus gods tend to have an enormous sense of entitlement."

Sam favors him with a sharp glance, trying to determine how much is sincere, how much is mocking.

Xander decides not to enlighten him. "How'd you piss him off?"

"We tried to kill him."

"That does tend to make them want to bring the pain. D'you have a plan when you do find him?"

"Kill him."

A guy who's all about learning from his mistakes. "You need a crew for that," Xander says. "And even then --" Stupid, trying to make light of that. He breathes until the tightness in his chest eases. "These tamales are really amazing," he says, and takes a huge bite to avoid having to say anything else.

"Anything I should know?" He's a hard one, this guy. Eyes on the prize, not wavering for anything.

"I wasn't shittin'. It's not a one-man operation. It's tough even with an army. You might want a god hammer. Norse. Scratch that. You need superhuman strength to even pick the thing up, and the most it'll do is stun him. If he's a trickster, why don't you just try boring the shit out of him? He's like a third grader with powers, he just fucks with you to get a rise out of you."

This, he discovers, was not the thing to say. Xander watches a muscle pulsing at Sam's jaw. "Where d'you need a ride to? Back to the bar, or where you're staying?"

"Motel's fine. I'll get the car after I've had a night's sleep."

Sam lets him finish his meal and asks him how the hand is, but it's pretty clear he's done. Xander knows pigheaded disregard for facts and advice when he sees it, so he thanks Sam for the food and says little else -- until the Impala pulls up to the door of Xander's room.

"Listen," Xander says, though he already knows Sam won't. "There's a darkness coming. You don't need me to tell you that. You don't want to let it inside -- you don't have to let it inside. Someone tells you otherwise, stop and think about what they stand to gain."

Jaw clenched, Sam stares straight ahead through the windshield.

"You can tell yourself the end justifies the means, but the problem is, there is no end. All we're left with is the world we made."

"Yeah," Sam says, which roughly translated means Why don't you shut up and go?

"You're important because of your humanity, even when you think that's the thing that's holding you back. Hang onto it. You lose it, you'll be sorry."

Sam shoots a sneer his way. "You think it's something I'd miss if it was gone?"

"I know it is." He opens the door. "Thanks for the ride." He doesn't know what else to say; good luck would be as useless as everything else he's said.

The old Impala is backing up even as its door slams shut. Xander watches its taillights join the stream of other red lights, then fumbles his way into his room.

Hang onto your humanity.

Or fake it, if you have to.

He washes down another pain pill, sits on the garish bedspread and hits the speed dial on his cell. "Dawnie, hey. It's me. I'm sorry for cutting out on you like that. I've been thinking, though. I would like to spend the anniversary with you. Buffy too."

Her squeal across the line makes him feel better than he's felt in a very long time.