Chapter One: Knight of Infinite Resignation
He woke to dull pain. Beeping. His sides ached. His head felt like someone had tried to drill a hole through it. Xander wondered what he'd done now.
The light wasn't bad, once he got his eyes open. He was in a small, bland room--must be the hospital, judging by the IV drip taped to his arm. And if he was in the hospital, there should be--yes, he could hear her soft snoring now. Willow. Bestest of buds, fierce guardian of the defenseless. Where would he be without her?
He slowly rolled his head to one side, and saw Willow sitting slumped in a chair by his bed. A little drool was gathering on one side of her mouth. If only he had a camera! He'd started a collection of blackmail photos with Jesse back in fifth grade. Still, she was sleeping on the job.
"Wil--low," he whispered.
She shifted, and made that familiar little grunting noise.
"Gah!" There was some very satisfying flailing of limbs before Willow gathered her dignity about her. Willow and dignity had an on-again, off-again type relationship, and it was always funny to watch.
"Xander! You're awake, I'm so glad you're awake. You made us very worried, Mister I-want-to-be-Batman-for-Halloween." Her face began to crumple.
"The doctor said you had a subdural hematoma, and that they would have to drill a hole in your skull to relieve the intracranial pressure and suck out the hematoma. And if, if you hadn't fainted right after Batman-you smashed the Janus statue and started twitching, we wouldn't have taken you to the hospital, and if we hadn't taken you to the hospital, they wouldn't have done a CAT scan, and if they hadn't done a CAT scan, they wouldn't have found the subdural hematoma in time and done surgery and you would have died!"
"Whoa, slow down, Will. Stop with the panic and the big words. I'm still chillin' with d'living. Somewhat painfully. What happened? The last thing I remember was the principal we all know and hate ordering us to escort small impressionable children on their quest for sugary goodness."
Willow sniffled. "You went as Batman, you poopy head. That's what happened. Remember Ethan's? Well, it turns out the man who gave us a discount on our costumes wasn't just some nice, friendly guy. He was a wiggins-worthy evil guy—who used to know Giles, oddly enough—who turned us all into our costumes. Oh yeah, not Cordelia, but she got her costume at Partytown."
"You mean I became Batman? Me, Batman? Ye gods and mini-skirt goddesses. I was cool for a day. Night. Period of time."
"And I was a real ghost. I was all ghosty. I could pass straight through people and walls and everything. And Buffy became an eighteenth century noblewoman. She screamed and fainted as soon as she saw you."
"That's flattering. Not."
"You didn't know who I was. That was really scary. And when Buffy woke up again, she called you a demon and ran away and got hit by a car before we could stop her and broke her arm. We didn't have a Slayer, and there were all these monster kids running around. You were gonna kill them with your Batarangs, Xander. I didn't know what to do.
"But Batman was amazing. He figured out that he wasn't really Batman as almost as soon as I told him he was you. He took charge right away. And the way he could fight! He was like a dark, growly Buffy, except not a girl. And had pointy ears. And a utility belt. And he was so serious.
Willow looked down at her hands. Xander let out his breathe softly, watching her.
"He carried Buffy after she fainted again, and defended her from four vampires at once. At first he tore right through them, and then they started getting punches in, and I had to tell him how to kill them. I told him not to get you hurt. I told him he was only renting your body, and it didn't belong to him. And that he just better not, buster."
Xander had to smile at that. It was just so…so Willow. Fearless when she forgot to be afraid.
"He said he was sorry, Xander. But he also said that if you," Willow screwed her face up in concentration, and her voice deepened, "if you were friend enough to inspire such loyalty, if you were brave enough to be Batman in public, you were strong enough to bear the consequences."
"Anyway, we went to Buffy's house, and left her upstairs with Angel guarding the door downstairs. And that's when Cordelia showed up. Being all Cordelia, and not in a cat way. Batman asked us all where we got our costumes, then wanted directions to Ethan's, and then told me to go get anyone I knew who might be able to unravel the spell. And Giles and I got there just in time to see the end of it."
She paused. "I'm glad he was on our side, Xander. He was, it's hard to explain. Brutal. Terrifying. Comforting, all at once. And then he was gone, armor and all, and you were left behind in your Batman costume. Having a seizure. Making me worry so much I felt like my insides were burning."
She poked him in the arm.
"Don't you ever do that to me again! You hear me? Never! I lost Jesse to Sunnydale, I'm not going to lose you too."
She was crying now, and Xander felt his own eyes begin to burn.
"Willow, Willow. I wanna say it will all be okay, but I can't. 'Cause you know what this town is like. There'll be a vamp, or a demon, or heck, even Jack O'Toole."
She sniffled, but smiled just a touch the way Xander knew she would. They had several running jokes about his complete and shameless fear of the school psycho.
"Hey, there's the sunshine. 'Here comes the sun, do-do-do-do, here comes the sun. And I say—'"
"'It's all right.' It's not all right. But I guess it's not entirely your fault."
"So, how's the rest of the gang? How's the Buffinator? She dealing well with the broken arm?"
"Buffy's a grumpy Buffy. She's complaining that she didn't break her right arm, so she can't get out of doing her school—oh! I almost forgot. Homework!"
"Thanks, Willow. It's what I always wanted," Xander said drily.
"I did all your homework for the weekend. It's already Sunday, and you won't be leaving the hospital for at least another five or six days. I'll take notes, and I'll go over everything with you, and—"
"Chill, Will. My academic success is in your hands, but there's never been very much of it. It's no big deal. But thank you. You know I appreciate it."
They chatted for a long time about nothing in particular. Giles dropped by, and assured him that he'd help Xander's parents foot the bill. Buffy came, making an awkward apology for not playing a more active role Friday night. Even Cordelia showed up, much to Xander's surprise. She was brusque, but the sentiment gave him a warm glow. Nurses came in and out, and his doctor too.
After calling his mother, and assuring that yes, he was fine, no, it didn't matter that she couldn't come visit because of her phobia, no, he didn't remember how he got injured, yes, he'd be home within the week, yes, the doctors said he would probably have a full and rapid recovery, actually, the bruised ribs would probably take longer to heal, yes, Willow would help him study, no, Tony didn't need to be bothered, yes, I love you too, Xander lay back feeling oddly calm.
He'd almost died the other night. Sixteen, and almost dead. Some part of him knew it was always a possibility, even expected it sooner rather than later, but still. He had a sudden resurgence of awe for Buffy. She'd faced the Master, she'd even died, however briefly, and she still went back out, night after night, knowing what it was like to die. Knowing that being the Slayer was a death sentence.
He'd found a dead sparrow once. Morbid curiosity had led him to grabbing a plastic bag, and picking it up. It had been so light, so fragile for something once so full of life. It was a terrible knowledge, the weight of death. Buffy had been heavier, but he'd refused to let her die, refused to comprehend or accept that same emptiness and fragility.
What did Buffy do? She lived. She had issues, but she lived. She bore up, she went on, she had more of a life than he did. She was strong, inside and out.
Batman said he was strong. Take that, Larry! Batman said he was a good friend like it meant more than just being the least of his friends. Batman said he was brave. That one, Xander had some serious doubts about. He'd always feared he was a sissy, no matter how much he'd bluffed and blustered. But maybe he could change. Maybe he could be worth something after all.
Batman said he was strong. It gave him a warm, full feeling, as if he'd just eaten a whole pepperoni pizza by himself and was now residing in happy food coma land. He'd been Batman for a night, and paid the price. He'd done something damn manly, and his friends knew it. All right, that part had been all Batman. But the wounds were his.
He touched his head bandages gingerly. It hurt more than last time. He should probably pull for the nurse. Would girls be impressed? He had a hard time figuring them out. Cordelia had screamed when he'd shown her his cool unbroken thumbnail that had fallen off back in third grade. Having it accidentally slammed in the car door had so been worth it. It had been a bit disgusting, and come to think of it, he had been hoping she'd scream. Was having a hole drilled in your head disgusting too? He thought it was pretty cool, but then again, he was a guy.
He almost died. Who would remember him? Who would care? What would they say at his funeral? Here lies the man who was Batman. He was born a sissy, but he died cool. He had good friends. He fought nightly with the forces of darkness, and thus did not have time for schoolwork. Even though his best friend continued to pull straight A's. He died of his wounds in a blaze of glory, rather than grow old and work at a drive-through window.
Or if Cordelia was saying it, Here lies a loser. He was brave in his own stupid way.
He could live with that. He knew she cared.