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Independent 27 - Friends with the Monster

Chapter Text

Original base art by KatrinaMariee
Adapted by SRoni

Friends with the Monster
(the Same Old Flame Remix)
by Aadler
Copyright September 2017 (finished December 2017)

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

This story is a remix, done for Round 7 of the Circle of Friends Remix (here and here) of “the Monster” by DragonsPhoenix.

Life had a rhythm, and that suited him. Day after endless day he sat in the unfurnished cabin and watched the sun come up, watched it sweep over the tree-line and across the grassy meadows before fading finally behind the ridgeline. Sometimes there were storms, short and sharp and fierce, or days of gray, drizzling rain. Sometimes he walked out into the woods and sat, settling into stillness, and gradually the life around him would resume its own tempo in disregard of his presence, birds and small creatures (or the occasional badger, deer, or bear) crossing his field of view without taking notice or alarm. Every month or so he would pick out clothes that were relatively unrumpled, and walk into town to have a root beer and a slice of pie in the solitary local diner. He didn’t speak with anyone, past the bare minimum of giving his order, but a part of him still welcomed — still craved — hearing and letting himself soak up the conversation around him. The semblance of human contact.

Human. Right.

He paid with the single debit card he still carried. Somehow, despite the Magic Box going defunct, Anya had managed to leave a ton of money in their joint bank account in the weeks before Sunnydale’s collapse. Sometimes he wondered where it had all come from. Mostly, he didn’t think about it, as he put considerable effort into not thinking about anything, ever. That made it all easier, or at least as easy as it could get.

He needed nothing, took and gave nothing, made his existence — except for the occasional spasmodic trip to town — as closely as possible a matter of not existing at all.

Life had a rhythm, all but empty, all but meaningless, the very next thing to nothing. That suited him.

It couldn’t last, of course. That, too, was his life.

*               *               *

He heard the sound, and didn’t want to pay any attention but did anyhow. Though never seeking him out, people came out this way now and then, passersby in ATVs and rattling pickups and four-wheelers. This one was a motorcycle. Without his will or desire, his hearing focused on it: a working machine, built and used for rough service rather than for any extremes of speed or performance. It could use a tune-up, and one of those valves would be a problem within a few thousand miles. Most significant was the pattern of acceleration: not gunning across the countryside, not screwing around cutting doughnuts or using the rolling swells of land as jump-ramps … no, this was controlled, systematic, purposeful. Like a search.

Searching for him? He hoped not. Anything like that would call for a response, and he didn’t want the annoyance. The whole point of being out here was to be alone: detached, disconnected, undisturbed, remote. He simply wanted to be alone, and anything that disturbed it roused a reflexive, unwilling resentment.

He didn’t want this. Not-wanting it didn’t stop it.

He left the cabin and moved in the direction of what he could hear. Speed didn’t matter, because there was no urgency; if the interloper left before he could catch up and intercept, problem solved. He just wanted to get it settled, done, over with and behind him so he could return to the near-nothingness in which he had so carefully cocooned himself.

No such luck. The search pattern of the distant motorcycle held steady, the sound sometimes farther and sometimes nearer but always falling within the same general area. Gradually, in fact, drifting faintly toward him. He walked steadily, orienting toward the rough midpoint of what he could hear. Just as he was unconcerned with speed, so with concealment. His solitude had lasted for so long, he simply couldn’t bring himself to care about details. If the search was for him, he wanted to know; if not, likewise. What he would do in either instance … well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. It simply wasn’t important enough.

He reached a point, and stopped. The motorcycle was just on the other side of a low hill, and moving in his direction, barely seconds away. He waited, the first vague stirring of actual interest beginning at last to manifest. What he would see, he didn’t know. Whether or not it would matter in the least, he didn’t know. It would be done, though, one way or another. There was that, if nothing else.

It came into view, veering wide to give the rider at least a few seconds to react to anything (such as himself) waiting unseen, and he took in all the details in the first glance. The bike was a workhorse, loaded with packs and saddlebags; a short rifle was secured in a scabbard along the right side (one of the AK models, from the shape of the stock), and protruding up from the left side was the handle of a sword, similarly secured (claymore, maybe, or a bastard sword allowing a two-handed grip). The rider was female, in jeans and a denim vest, aviator-styled sunglasses, and the inevitable red bandanna folded into a headband. She wore a pair of holstered pistols, and a strap across her chest was almost certainly the sling for another weapon behind her back, perhaps another sword but more probably a pistol-grip pump shotgun. A woman, alone, loaded for battle and on the hunt, all the things that together all but automatically meant “Slayer” —

— but not this time. Because of the outfit and the partial concealment of the sunglasses, recognition was delayed for an extra part of a second, but no more than that. It was Dawn — Dawn, here — and she had seen him in the same moment, braking with one hand while the other fell to the handgun on her left hip. Identification was almost as quick for her, though; the hand stopped, remaining on the pistol but not drawing it, and her mouth set in a hard line.

“Xander,” she said, as if the word tasted bad. And then: “What the fuck are you doing here?”

There were new creases in her face, looking to be more the result of stress and anger than age, but even so it took time for something like that to get set, how long had it been? And, though he would have thought his repartee reflexes to have been atrophied to nothing by now, he heard himself saying, “Oh, just hanging around, chillin’. How about you?”

She glared at him, making no move to take off the sunglasses. “You left us, you son of a bitch. We thought you were dead!”

It was too long since he had dealt with people in any depth, normal conversation too complex and bewildering for a mind honed to solitude. ‘Left’ he could understand, that part was totally and unambiguously true, but the rest of it … He studied her where she sat astraddle of the bike, and ventured, “So — demon-hunter, huh?”

Dawn’s face might as well have been a mask. She took her hand from the pistol and returned it to the other hand-grip of the motorcycle. “This is not you and me talking here,” she told him flatly, and then gunned the bike away from him, roaring across the grass of the undulating prairie in a long, sustained burst of acceleration rather than the methodical approach she had used till now. He watched her until she was gone behind another of the low hills — yep, pump shotgun, all right, and she had her hair back in a Lara Croft braid — still working internally to adjust to this unexpected turn.

Dawn. Older, harder, more competent. Anger, rather than fear or revulsion. Here, now, and following business of her own rather than seeking him out or even having any notion he was anywhere near.

It was just too much, his mind didn’t know where to begin to take hold and work at it. In the distance, he heard the motorcycle slow to an idle, and a minute later it resumed the same deliberate, systematic pattern as before.

With a sigh, Xander began walking again toward the faraway sound.

It didn’t take as long this time to catch up with her. First, because she hadn’t really gone that far; second, because she had returned to her earlier practice and was on a basic scouting grid, doggedly checking out places of possible concealment and pausing at vantage points from which to survey the surrounding areas. And, though he made no effort to hide his approach, she stuck to her predetermined course, stubbornly refusing to veer away either to approach or to avoid him.

In its fashion, it was another form of rejection. It was a form that allowed him to approach her, though, so he’d accept it and be glad. Once he was close enough, he broke into a light run that brought him alongside her. She ignored him, and from the side he could see enough of her eyes to tell she was still checking out various terrain features (he didn’t yet know for what). “You said everyone thought I was dead,” he said. “Why did they think that?”

She still didn’t look at him, or answer, and at first he thought she would just pretend he didn’t exist. After several seconds, though, she finally said, “The First came to visit Buffy. As you, to taunt her with one more person she hadn’t been able to save. And … we had already found your arm.”

Oh. Right. The arm. That had taken months to grow back — well, maybe only weeks, he hadn’t actually been watching the calendar around then — but it was so long ago by now, he’d forgot all about it. Frowning, he said, “The First? I thought Buffy waxed his demonic ass when she brought down Sunnydale on top of him.”

That drew an exasperated pfaah! From Dawn. “It’s the First Evil, Xander. It’s older than the human race, and it’s incorporeal, you can’t just kill something like that.” She braked the bike again, swung in the saddle to face him. “What you pulled, though, that almost killed Buffy. You let her think you were dead, you let her think she killed you.” Her mouth twisted like she wanted so spit on him. “Faith … I thought we were going to lose Faith. She had the crazy idea that she owed you, that she’d failed in a debt to you by not having your back when you needed it. That’s what you did to us, you bastard!”

This was more conversation than he’d had in total over the last however-many-years it had been. Disuse tangled his tongue, he had no idea how to respond. The best he could manage was, “I’m sorry.”

“I hate you,” she said in reply. Then she gunned the motorcycle away from him again … and, again, after some seconds of hesitation, he moved to follow.

He had never considered what the Sunnydale survivors might have thought of his rather violent disappearance. He had worked hard not to think about it, banishing it from the forefront of his mind as ruthlessly as he had removed himself from their lives. They weren’t really his friends at all, simply because he wasn’t the person his lying memories tried to insist he was. He had made it work, he had shut it all away and put it behind him … but now the wound had been opened again, and he couldn’t let it go until he had at least a bare minimum of answers.

Not that he deserved anything of the sort. He still was going to pursue it till he had it.

Once more Dawn let him come up on her as she rode, disdaining his presence even to move away from it. For a minute or two he jogged beside her, watching as her eyes searched ceaselessly for any sign of … something. He wanted to ask about those so-long-forgotten people who still mattered to him (even if that concern was only an illusion), but couldn’t find the words. Instead, he said, “So what are you looking for out here?”

And, again, there was a long silence while he wondered if she would continue to ignore his words just as she didn’t deign to look at him. At last, however, grudgingly, “Pikorieff. Small group of them, if reports still hold true.”

Pikorieff. Xander thought about it. “Can’t remember ever hearing of that one.”

“They tend to keep to themselves.” Dawn’s tone was brusque, clinical, and low enough that Xander wasn’t sure strictly human ears could have made it out over the thrum of the bike’s engine. “And they’re usually nocturnal, so it’s easy not to notice them or know about them. This bunch, though, rumors are that they’re willing to hire out as mercenaries to other crews. We don’t need that right now.”

Which made it sound like something was starting to heat up somewhere. Xander didn’t ask: because the effort to frame the question was more than he was willing to spend, because he feared letting himself be pulled back into something he had put far behind himself, because — when you came right down to it — he wasn’t entitled either to the information or to take part in the larger cause. Frozen away from what he wanted to say and couldn’t, he went with, “I really am sorry.”

Her lip curled, and the side-eyed glance she gave him was scornful. “Don’t pretend you care,” she said to him, stony-voiced.

He did care, that was the problem. No: the problem was that the ‘he’ who cared wasn’t the person she acted like she was speaking to, wasn’t the person he remembered being even if he knew better. He wasn’t Xander. He didn’t even know for sure when he had become not-Xander.

In all likelihood, he had killed Xander.

*               *               *

From that point on, they barely spoke; Dawn continued to guide the motorcycle in the pattern she had chosen, with Xander trotting more or less beside her. Several hours in, she gave him a brief glance, then turned her head back to look more closely. “You’re not sweating,” she observed; then, “Do you sweat?”

Xander actually thought about that. “I probably could if I needed to,” he finally said in answer. “But I haven’t needed to.”

She considered that. “Why would you need to?”

He shrugged. “To pass for normal.”

She nodded at that, just a bit. “Do you even get tired?”

“Not so far,” he replied. “At least, not for as long as I’ve known what I am.”

She took off the sunglasses for the first time. He had forgotten just how blue her eyes were, but her expression revealed exactly nothing. “So what do you think you are?”

There were any number of answers he could have made to that. Imposter. Replicant. Human-demon cyborg. Monster. “Adam,” he said. “The 2003 model.”

She started to say something, then cut it off and went back to her search grid.

She kept at it till the sun dipped below the horizon: not full dark, but once visibility fell below a certain threshold. Maybe she needed a specific minimum of light to make out the necessary detail, maybe she just felt like she’d been at it long enough. Regardless, she picked a spot on the bare plains and stopped, took down a roll of cloth strapped above the saddlebags, and opened it out to reveal a collection of pickets: thin plastic rods nearly a yard long, like the kind of driveway markers that usually supported a red reflector, only these were topped by what looked like small, inscribed copper coins. She began placing then around the motorcycle in a radius of about fifty feet, so Xander figured they must be basic mystical alarms of some type. “I have a place,” he said to her. She stopped to look back at him, and he went on. “Not that far from here, actually, you’ve covered a lot of ground but it wasn’t straight-line travel.” He shrugged. “Not much to it, but it’s a roof.”

Dawn shook away the suggestion. “This is good enough.”

She laid out a bedroll. She made a small fire. She pulled out provisions, but didn’t bother heating them over the fire. Halfway through the first part of whatever it was, she glanced over at Xander. “Do you still eat now?” she asked.

It seemed more like an inquiry than an offer. “I still can,” he said. “I still like the tastes sometimes. I don’t seem to need it, though.”

Dawn accepted that without reaction, and went back to her meal.

The pattern they had fallen into was that she ignored him unless she actually had something to say, but didn’t try to pretend he had no existence. That was workable. Xander waited till she had finished eating, waited awhile longer while she sat silently, looking into the fire; she didn’t seem to be worried about losing her night vision, so apparently she felt the warning pickets would be sufficient. “So,” he said at last. “How’s everybody doing these days?”

She didn’t respond immediately. He knew full well that she might not answer at all. At length, though, she said, “We got over it. We lost people — and then you — but we coped. We had to.”

“Okay,” Xander said, and then waited again.

“Buffy’s doing better at the leader thing now,” Dawn went on, after another long pause. “Still gets a little preachy sometimes, but I got used to that growing up, and she really is doing better.” She sighed. “She had a girlfriend for a while — a really short while, but then she’s really short — but I guess that actually was just a phase, ’cause she’s totally back in Het-Land now.”

A bit surprising, but not stunningly so. “Okay,” Xander said again.

“And, speaking of girlfriends, Willow broke up with Kennedy about a month after Sunnydale came down —”

“Yeah, I think most of us saw that coming,” Xander observed.

“— but then they got back together. And then broke up again. And then got back together.” She shook her head, still looking at the fire rather than at him. “The last I heard, they were split again, but that was a couple of weeks ago, so it’s anybody’s guess as to what’s on right now.”

Xander felt his face wanting to form a smile. It was an unfamiliar sensation. “That actually sounds a lot like me and Cordelia.”

“Oh.” Even though she was in a seated position by the fire, Dawn’s body language visibly changed. “We … we got reports from Los Angeles. Cordelia is dead. I’m sorry.”

At first the words didn’t register, and then when the meaning sunk in, it was like a contradiction of reality. Cordelia … it should have been impossible for all that life, all that force of personality, to ever go out of the world. He floundered for any kind of meaningful response, and what came out was, “You mentioned something about Faith.”

“Right.” Some of the tension went out of her. “Like I said, we coped. She coped. She actually seems to have it together now. And —” She hesitated. “Okay, this part isn’t even gossip, just a weird little feeling I’ve been getting, but I think … I think there might, just possibly, be something going on with her and Giles.”

There was a sustained silence. Then: “Faith and Giles, I just can’t see it. But Faith and Ripper … well, that doesn’t seem so impossible. Scary, yes, but not impossible.”

“Yeah,” Dawn said. “That was pretty much my thinking.”

And he knew he was pressing into the danger zone here, but he had to know. “What about you? How’s it all been for you?”

By the light of the campfire he could see the masklike immobility return to her face, and the words came out quiet, level, and devoid of anything that might ever have been mistaken for warmth. “None. Of your fucking. Business.”

Okay, not unexpected, even if it felt distinctly strange to hear that kind of language from ‘Little Dawnie’. Even without the Sarah Connor tactical kit, it was clear that she had changed almost as much as he had —

All right, not even close. But, yes, changed.

He hoped her current, entirely merited fury didn’t mean she was unhappy in the other parts of her life.

There was another hour with neither of them speaking. By now he was thoroughly accustomed to silence; silence while in someone else’s company, not so much. At last Dawn pulled off her boots, then unzipped and opened out her sleeping bag. Without looking back at him she asked, “You don’t need sleep anymore, do you?”

“I sleep,” Xander answered. Pretty much every day, something to do when there was nothing to do. “But you’re right, I can go without for a long time. I don’t even know how long.”

“I don’t want you here,” she said matter-of-factly, still not looking his way. “If I tell you to leave, though, you’ll just go out a bit, set up there, and sit up all night keeping watch on this camp anyway.” It wasn’t a question. “Go, stay, doesn’t seem to make much difference. Just don’t watch me while I sleep. That’s creepy.” She worked her way into the bag, re-zipped it, and settled herself onto her pillow.

“Sorry,” Xander said yet again.

“You should be,” she shot back. “Asshole.” Then she turned onto her side with her back to him.

Obediently keeping his gaze from her, Xander sat motionless in the deepening night, watching and listening but not truly on any kind of alert; if she trusted the alarm pickets, she probably knew what she was doing. She had been right about him, though, he couldn’t simply leave her unguarded, even if by all appearances she had ample experience in taking care of herself.

The impersonal notice she had taken of his present capabilities … that had disquieted him. He knew some things about himself by now, just from having noticed over time, but he hadn’t devoted any thought to the matter. In fact, not thinking about it had been pretty much his primary imperative over the last several … well, by now it was definitely years. The strength was obvious: kind of hard to miss, in fact, after what he’d done to Caleb when that grinning maniac had tried to gouge out his eye. Sure, Caleb came back after a power-boost from the First, amped to the point where Buffy’d had to go all Ginsu on his crazy ass to keep him dead, but Xander knew he’d broken some of the man’s ribs, and maybe an arm as well, when he threw him off that first time —

— and Xander had kept it all to himself. At first, he’d had trouble believing it had actually happened, and then he hadn’t trusted that this new, brute power would remain, and wondered if there might be an unknown downside (boy, howdy!) … It wasn’t till long afterward that it had occurred to him to wonder if some hidden programming might have compelled him to keep the secret for just a while longer.

Whatever the cause, the secret had pretty much vanished during the second raid on the winery. No regrets there, because there was no way of knowing how many girls would have died if he hadn’t been there, or if he hadn’t cut loose against the Turok-han besieging their stumbling retreat. All the same, when Buffy arrived to reinforce and protect their escape, she had seen what he had done — what he could do — and that had changed the game from there on out.

Maybe it all would have gone differently if the truth had come out sooner, if there had been time for Willow to mystically test him in depth or for the group to talk out various possibilities. Buffy had achieved some momentum in dealing with the First, however, and she wasn’t about to lose that by slowing down now. Besides, he’d already been through so many transformations by then — Hyena Xander, Soldier Xander, Frat-house Not-Really-There Xander, Syphilis Xander — that Sudden Slayer-Guy Xander was perhaps not as alarming or even remarkable as it otherwise might have seemed. (And there was the additional possibility, never investigated but still glowering in the background, that his altered physiology might have had a few “no problem, nothing to worry about here” spells layered into it.)

There just hadn’t seemed to be time to stress on details, and so much that had to be done. And so Xander had gone with Buffy and Faith and Spike and the Potentials, gone down into the massive cavern below the Seal, gone as an extra supernatural powerhouse to maybe tip the balance while Willow worked up the Slayer activation spell. Gone, and known at a glance that they were totally hosed regardless of any spell. Dozens against thousands … who was kidding who here? even unpowered humans could have rolled over them in those numbers, overwhelming the small party by sheer mass. And none of that mattered, they were committed beyond any possibility of retreat, so he just threw himself into piling up enough bodies to keep any from making it through to get at the unpowered rear-guard Buffy had set up to deal with stragglers.

Xander had killed before: accident, supporting role, desperation, even that terrifying exhilarating night when he had picked off Jack O’Toole’s zombie bombardiers one at a time. This was different, this was simply all-out slaughter, endless and horrific. He felt no pain and hadn’t a spare moment to think about it or even to recognize it, he felt no weariness or fear or doubt or hesitation, there was no time, his body was just a pitiless engine of smashing tearing crushing ripping kill and kill and kill and kill. His sword had been immediately snapped and torn away by the pure awful force of the demon horde hurling itself against him, and in moments he was reduced to fighting them with themselves, using Turok-han bodies as dead or dying bludgeons against other Turok-han, a self-replenishing resupply that showed no sign of faltering.

It still wasn’t enough. All the girls were fighting now, fighting as only Slayers could (touchdown, Wil!), and unbelievably Vi — Vi! — was wreaking more carnage than Faith or even Buffy herself, but the odds they faced were just too obscenely lopsided, they could inflict a thousand casualties to one and still lose. Then rays of dazzling light lanced out, searing through the ranks of Turok-han more terribly than any sunlight — more as if they were being touched by the surface of the Sun itself — and in a millisecond’s glance Xander saw that it was Spike, the amulet Buffy had given him had come to life and was wiping out the demon army like some horrendous (but selective) cleansing flame.

Buffy had almost given the amulet to Xander, he had seen her wavering on that (soul-possessing, but stronger than human? yep, standing right here), but in the end she had gone with Spike. Lack of trust, or willing to hand an untested weapon only to someone she valued less? There was no telling, Buffy loved her friends fiercely but was stunningly inconsistent, and she’d always been just a little nuts in anything concerning Spike. In this instance, though, she’d made a fortunate choice (or not), because a shaft of that light passed over Xander, and he screamed as half his body was seared with excruciating fire and all of him woke up —

— and Xander slammed those sudden new parts of himself back into unconsciousness, instantly, because NO. In that first split-second he had seen that he wasn’t human after all, he wasn’t even really Xander, he was an instrument with a mission and he wasn’t having it, not for one single fucking moment.

If he was a weapon made to kill Slayers, then the Slayers had to kill him. That was the only solution he could allow himself to accept, and so he had tried to put it into effect as soon as the Sunnydale survivors were out and safe.

That hadn’t worked out, they had refused to recognize that their friend was gone and the thing with his face and form was a deadly threat. And, when he tried to convince them of the threat by launching an actual attack, the unholy fury he had felt rising in him (when they still wouldn’t believe it, wouldn’t strike a killing blow!) had frightened him so much that he had used the chaos of the refinery explosion to just plain vanish.

Now, according to Dawn, he had hurt them with that. Hurt them badly, it would appear. In the last analysis, though, however much continuing pain they might still feel, just meant he hadn’t actually killed them, and he could live with that.

Or whatever it was he was doing.

Chapter Text

Dawn woke up just before … well, dawn … with the sun still below the horizon but visibility nearly at daylight levels. She came up on one elbow, glanced around, and turned her head back and forth a few times to loosen her shoulder muscles. Then she unzipped the sleeping bag, pulled on her boots, and stood up. “Look somewhere else,” she called to Xander over her shoulder as she headed for the picket barrier she had set. “I have to pee.”

Xander obediently turned his face away from her, along with tuning his hearing down to merely human sensitivity. She was back a few minutes later, and made a quick breakfast from one of the meal packets, not bothering to heat it this time. Xander waited without speaking, keeping her in his field of view but not actually oriented on her lest it feel like he was staring. When she was done, she repacked her bedroll, belted on the pistols and slung the shotgun, and walked the perimeter gathering and bundling the warning pickets, which she likewise secured before mounting the motorcycle. Pausing with her hand on the throttle, she said, “I don’t need you here.”

“I know,” Xander said, and she shook her head, started the bike, and pulled out.

She followed the same pattern she had used the day before, with Xander pacing her in the same manner. By now it had long become clear that she was not directly searching for the Punxtatawney-whatever band but for any sign of their having passed through the area. He looked, too, sweeping with his more exacting vision for any details she couldn’t discern with human eyes, but leaving the search to her aside from that. She focused unrelentingly on her chosen task, just like yesterday, and Xander found himself wondering if this total concentration was normal for her now or if it was a way for her to shut him out.

About two hours in, she eased the bike to a stop. Still looking straight ahead, she asked, “Why?”

She could have been referring to any number of things, but it wasn’t that hard to narrow it down to the most likely. “You mean, why did I leave? or why did I … attack them, in the first place? or why am I hanging around now?”

Dawn snorted. “Oh hell yes why did you leave. And why did you push a fight with them when you didn’t really mean it, and why are you hanging around now if you don’t care, and if you do care then why did you fucking leave?”

The surprise wasn’t that she was asking, but that it had taken her so long. Xander sighed inwardly, because he had known this was coming — he had made it all but inevitable by his choice to come along with her — and even though he could explain his reasons, there was no way she would find them sufficient. Even so, she deserved the answer. “I left because I didn’t want to kill anybody. I tried to get them to kill me because I was afraid extra programming would kick in if I waited, and make me kill them … only they wouldn’t do it, they were fighting defensively and trying to talk me down and I was starting to get mad. I mean the kind of mad that turns into berserk rampage, and I really didn’t want to kill anybody, so I left.” This time the sigh was literal and audible. “And I’m following you around because I do care, even if the me who cares isn’t really Xander. I know I shouldn’t, I know I’ll have to let go of you eventually, but I’m … just not ready yet.”

“Why not?” she demanded scornfully. “You already did it once, it should be getting easier.”

“It was never easy,” he said. “And it isn’t now, either.”

Following the established pattern, this was the time for her to snarl something at him and then accelerate away. He saw her hand tense on the throttle, but instead she sat where she was, and after a minute she said, “Willow analyzed the arm.”

Xander smiled at that. “Yeah, she would. So you know I’m telling the truth on that part: demon-human-cyborg, not Xander.” He shook his head. “I remember you. I miss you enough that it hurts. But the memory isn’t mine, it’s an add-on to your basic customized assassin. You should keep that in mind. It’s what I’m trying to do, I’m just not having much luck there.”

Dawn studied him searchingly. “Assassin,” she repeated. “Is that what your … your programming, tells you?”

“Don’t know.” Xander shrugged. “I felt the routines starting to come online, and I shut them right the hell down. But what else could it be? I told you I have Xander’s memories, and those memories don’t mention any Etrigan/Deathlok upgrades. So there I am, planted right in amongst the good guys, looking like Xander so they’re not on guard, believing I’m Xander so I don’t give myself away. The perfect sleeper agent, ’cause I don’t even know I am one.” His tone was flat, remote. “Maybe they killed Xander so they could plant me in his place. Maybe I killed Xander, and then auto-erased the memory so I could start thinking I was him. Either way, I’m not your friend, I’m the reason he isn’t around anymore.”

Dawn’s expression hadn’t changed, but her mouth was so tight, she was white around the lips. “And after you tell me all this, I still should let you follow me around while I try to work?”

Xander shook his head without looking away. “No,” he said. “You shouldn’t.”

Minutes passed as Dawn sat without speaking, eyes unreadable behind the sunglasses. “I told you,” she said finally. “Willow analyzed the arm.”

“Yeah, well, it grew back, so that by itself tells you ‘not human’.”

“Not only human,” she corrected. “You’re right, there were all kinds of things in there, Willow said it was more like a chimera than Maggie Walsh’s graft-and-stitch approach. But the base that everything else was added to … it wasn’t just human DNA, it was Xander’s DNA.”

“Sure,” he said, shrugging again. “Use the guy’s cells to force-clone enough spare parts to make a Xander-shaped murderbot. Recipe’s not important, what matters is that he wound up with something that needs to be kept away from anybody Xander cared about.”

One eyebrow went up. “Like you’re keeping away right now.”

“Look, I know it’s dumb, I’m just saying —”

“Never mind, that’s not important. The main thing that stuck with me, Willow said the degree of telomere fore­shortening meant the original cells were old. Like ninety-some years old, a ninety-plus-year-old Xander. Nobody could figure that out, how it happened or what it meant. It bothered us, but we thought you were dead so we just … let it go.”

“Good,” Xander said, nodding. “That’s what you should have done, and what you need to do now.”

Dawn made an ugly sound in the back of her throat. “You are so full of shit, you slosh when you walk. You’re all ‘I’m so unclean, I’m so dangerous, you shouldn’t be anywhere near me’ … but you won’t leave!” She spat on the ground between them. “If you really believe you’re a threat to me, then go away. If you won’t do that, then shut the fuck UP about it!”

Once again she hit the throttle, spurring the bike away from him. Once again, after a few hundred yards’ distance, she slowed to her former speed and resumed the dogged search.

And once again, after a long, long hesitation, Xander moved to follow her.

*               *               *

Dawn kept going well past what would have been a normal lunch time, but she did stop eventually. After the most recent disagreement, Xander had trailed her by fifty feet or so rather than jogging next to her, and he waited now at a comparable distance while she pulled out provisions and began her meal. She ignored him at first, but once she had eaten and settled back to relax for a bit, with occasional sips from a canteen, she gestured impatiently in his direction and said, “Don’t be such a douche. Get on over here.”

Xander complied, and as he sat down next to her he said, “I figured I wasn’t really welcome.”

“And you weren’t wrong,” Dawn shot back. “But enough’s enough. So, what’ve you been doing over the last two years?”

Xander thought about it. “Walked until I didn’t feel like walking anymore,” he told her. “Fought whenever some big ugly just had to have a fight, or when I wasn’t willing to let some civilians die. Found a place where people left me alone, and stayed here.” He had been speaking to the distance, but he looked at her now. “I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything. So, mostly, I haven’t been doing anything.”

Dawn’s nostrils flared briefly, but she didn’t say anything immediately. At length she observed, with ominous steadiness, “You know, you used to have a reputation.”

Not me, he thought but didn’t say. The guy you’re remembering, not the guy dropped into his life. Aloud he answered, “What, the magnet-for-mystical-women business? Because that was never as big as —”

“You’re not the one talking here,” Dawn interrupted. “That’d be me. I’ve got a point to make, so you need to get your mouth to do that not-moving thing.”

Xander shrugged, nodded, and waited. Dawn watched him for a moment, then continued. “So, Xander. The guy who’d put his life on the line in a split-second if he thought somebody he cared for was being threatened. The guy who faced off against supernatural killers, Slayer-level threats, and not only kept surviving but actually beat them maybe one out of every five. The guy who was always there with a doughnut or a quip or a rom-com video or whatever it took to get you through whatever was wearing you down.” She raised her eyes to meet his. “The guy who, if you rubbed him wrong, would rip you to pieces by saying something totally vicious, totally horrible, and totally true.”

Alarmed, Xander protested, “I never did that to you.”

“Maybe not, but I remember it, and you’re about to get a taste of your own medicine.” Dawn regarded him with a flat, pitiless gaze. “Okay, you decide you’re a danger to everybody you love. So first, you try to get them to kill you, ’cause that wouldn’t be the worst thing you could ever do to them. Then you pull away from everything, you try and kill yourself by pure zoning-out, by not-being. And you sit alone in your little shack, out here in the ass-end of nowhere, obsessing about how you’re not human and you don’t deserve to live and the whole world would be better off without you …” She stood with explosive abruptness, and glared down at him in blistering contempt. “You’re acting just like Angel, you dumb shit!”

Xander gaped at her, discovered his mouth was hanging open, and closed it. “Oh, Dawnie,” he said quietly. “That is low.”

“Fuck you,” she snapped back. “What he did to Buffy? you did that to everybody with your noble, self-sacrificing, shitty grand gesture, and now I’m supposed to be all understanding because you were thinking of us when you did it, it was for our sake, and you can absolutely kiss my ass!” She leaned down over him, eyes seething. “I believe you care for us. I believe that. But you did what you did because it was easier than staying and dealing, and that was Not. For. US.”

She was completely disregarding the reality of what he was, and Xander couldn’t blame her for that. He could manage it within his own mind, but talking with her here, now … his memories of her were Xander’s memories, and so he responded to her as Xander, making a muddle of both perspectives (Xander-as-Xander, Xander-as-replicant) without anything vaguely resembling consistency.

“Taste of my own medicine, huh?” He gave her the mildest hint of his old grin. “Gotta say you delivered on that one.”

“You deserve it.” She looked away. “You deserve worse.”

“Yeah, well,” he said. “You gotta remember, I haven’t exactly been myself lately.”

Dawn let out a little involuntary half-choking laugh that turned into something more like a sob, and then she reached over suddenly to jerk the sword from the motorcycle scabbard and wheeled to strike down at him in a lightning continuation of the draw. It couldn’t have hurt him — might not even have broken through his skin — but Xander didn’t want to see the blade damaged and so he pushed it out of line with the palm of his left hand, saying, “Dawn, hey, hey, take it easy —” She used a twist of her body to bring the sword back around in a reverse-loop, and even though he was quicker, she hadn’t given him a chance to get his feet under him, so he just ducked and then came back up outside the arc of her swing. She struck backward at his face with the sword’s pommel and this time he didn’t bother to dodge, taking hold of the blade with his hands even as the hilt smashed into his cheek.

He was still talking, trying to calm her, but she wasn’t paying any more attention to his words than he was, she let go of the sword and snatched the pistols from the holsters at her hips, leveling them and pulling the triggers at point-blank distance. This was bad, ricochets might kill her, and Xander had already grabbed her wrists and turned the weapons outward so that the first bullets went past him, “Dawn, for God’s sake, chill, you could get hurt here!”, and she used his own grip to yank herself toward him so she could drive her forehead into his face in a ferocious head-butt.

He let go, horrified by the impact he had felt, and she dropped stunned to her knees, the pistols falling from her slack fingers. Xander swept them off to the side with one foot and knelt next to her, steadying her while he looked for damage, this had been like that claymation Celebrity Deathmatch spoof that had Fiona Apple attacking the Blues Traveler guy, only what was funny on TV was no joke when it was Dawn slamming her head against fake-Xander’s cyborg skull. Her eyes were blank as he turned her face toward him, and then they came into focus and awareness. “Are you okay? Jesus, Dawn, you took a hell of a knock there.” And then, anger springboarding from relief: “What’s the matter with you? What got into you? Have you lost your mind?”

She stared back at him, still shaken physically but defiant and unapologetic. “I tried to kill you,” she said.

He brushed that away. “Doesn’t count, it never woulda worked and you knew it.”

“I still tried,” she insisted. “I didn’t give you any warning, I came at you when you weren’t expecting anything like that, all you could do was react.” Her gaze hardened into a glare. “And your reaction was defensive, just like you said about Buffy and Faith and the new Slayers. Everything in you, everything you had no time to think about, was about not hurting me.” She looked away from him. “You can’t hurt me. You could never hurt any of us, not by trying. No, you hurt us by walking away, letting us think you were dead, leaving us, and the whole thing was in your head.” Her voice fell to little more than a whisper. “It was for nothing. All of it was for nothing.”

It was nowhere near as simple as what she was saying, but that didn’t mean there was no truth to it. Xander looked for an answer, came back only with what had already proven inadequate. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Whether or not you believe it, I really am sorry.”

Dawn was still looking anywhere except at him. No anger in her voice now, only weariness, she said, “We spent two years grieving for you. ‘Sorry’ doesn’t take that away.”

She stood up, moving cautiously and visibly monitoring her own balance and stability. Xander watched with carefully masked concern; she’d hit him with the structurally strongest point of her skull, but that head-butt had been serious business, and he’d have to keep an eye out for concussion. She recovered her pistols and re-holstered them, retrieved the sword and returned it to the motorcycle sheath. “I’ll be done with my checks by the end of the day,” she told him, swinging one leg over to mount the saddle of the motorcycle. “I’ll spend one more night, and then I’ll be on my way.” She started the engine, her face still stubbornly turned away from him. “And you … you can go to hell.”

Xander nodded; another night would provide enough time for him to be decently sure she wasn’t carrying any lasting damage. Of course, her departure would also require him to make a decision. She might choose, for her own reasons, to not tell anyone about chancing across him, but realistically he had to assume that she’d pass the word upstairs. So: move out when she did, find a new place to try and preserve the isolation he had so long maintained? or just sit and wait for the inevitable, because there wouldn’t be anywhere TO hide once Willow knew he was still alive …?

He didn’t want to think about it, so instead he looked for a different subject. “I take it your Pikachu guys are allergic to trees?”

Dawn turned to frown at him, a substantial bruise already showing on her forehead. “What?” she said.

He couldn’t understand the blankness of her expression: not incipient brain trauma, just genuine honest incomprehension. “Well, you’ve been quartering the prairie for two days now, but you never bothered with the woods just half a mile east of my place, I’d have heard if you’d gone that way —”

Dawn’s eyes changed. Still not looking at anything, but focused now, where they hadn’t been a moment before. “Son of a bitch,” she said, and opened the throttle to zoom away, the drive wheel of the motorcycle spraying dust and sod in her wake. Xander followed, cursing, he could outrun a Slayer but it took him a bit to hit peak accel and Dawn was already breaking seventy, with only a few miles’ distance he’d be no more than a couple of minutes behind her but a hell of a lot could happen in very little time (as he knew far too well from hard and mortifying experience). He powered after her, head down and arms tucked to his sides, feet beating staccato on the crisp, dried grass.

The shots started a full thirty seconds before he reached the woods.

Chapter Text

He broke through the outer fringe of trees to find a scenario well short of “worst possible” but definitely bad enough. The Pocahontas-something demons, he knew them even if he hadn’t known the name, he’d tangled with them before, and they were domesticators; like a medieval baron with his hounds and falcons, they had trained clawed, bat-winged mini-gryphons and troupes of scuttling, badger-like ground creatures to attack on command, plus they threw foot-long darts with less range than arrows or even spears but an uncomfortable degree of accuracy. Not especially formidable in demonic terms (a squad of human infantry would have mopped them up with little effort), they had the advantage of Dawn in plain numbers, and the interference of the trees meant she had to expend her ammunition on the charging attack-beasts coming at her from every direction while their masters remained mostly concealed. She had already emptied the shotgun, now discarded, and was using her pistols (firing accurately with either hand, he noted approvingly) to hold back the onslaught. Even with combat reloads she could easily run dry before running out of opponents, and then it would be just her and the sword against multiple attackers —

Xander had taken in the situation in the first split-second glimpse, and his entry flowed into assault without a break in motion.

Disadvantages: his prime goal was to protect Dawn, and he couldn’t do that against so many enemies, not in this environment; he was quicker than a Slayer but not as nimble, and the trees slowed and impeded him; he hadn’t seen or worked with Dawn in years, their operating teamwork right now was at zero baseline. Advantage: these assholes couldn’t hurt him, not really, and he wouldn’t have cared anyway, so he could focus completely on the immediate mission.

Okay. Couldn’t shield Dawn from attack, so end the threat right damn now, and he dodged around the larger trees and smashed through the smaller ones, finding and killing the Pokemon-types lurking in concealment. Two gone, five, nine, with the number of hawks-and-hounds there had to be dozens of masters, and he forged through the shadowed undergrowth like a homing thunderbolt. Twelve, sixteen, nineteen, darts failed to penetrate his skin or hung in his clothes and then one caught him in the eye and motherfucker that hurt!, he blinked away tears and blood and kept up the relentless blitzkrieg. Targets getting thinner now, he spared a moment to rush back into the semi-clearing where Dawn had been fighting alone, and shattered badger-things with lightning kicks and bludgeoned gryphon-things from the air, a bullet clipped his elbow and Dawn snarled, “Shit!” (not, he bet, because she’d hit him but because she’d wasted a shot on not-an-immediate-threat), and then he was back into the brush, seeking out and extinguishing the remaining beastmasters.

None left, and he’d heard something there, and back into the clearing in time to see Dawn cleave the sword through the collarbone of the last Portapotty and down into its chest, the falling body nearly dragged the sword from her hands and she went down on one knee. Two others lay dead a few feet from her, they must have tried a last desperate charge while Xander slaughtered their fellows in the underbrush … and, on cue, the last nine of the attack-beasts leaped at Dawn with now-purposeless ferocity, and Xander killed them all in a hair under three seconds.

In the new quiet, he looked back to Dawn. She was still on one knee, leaning on the sword; side-tendrils of her hair had escaped from the braid and fallen across her face, and she was sucking in air in huge gulps, seemingly exhausted from the exertions of the last few minutes. “You okay?” he asked.

“I’m just fuckin’ perfect,” she gasped back. “Thanks for waiting this long to give a shit.”

It had bothered him before, but now he felt a sudden sharp anger: did she think this new, bad language meant anything except that she was coarsening herself with bad language? Flatly he said, “That was really dumb, tearing up here without me. You should have waited till we could come in together.”

“We’re not partners,” she said after a few more gulps of air. “I don’t owe you jack shit.” She seemed to slump a little over the prop of the sword. “But, yeah it was dumb. They must’ve had some kind of notice-me-not thing over where they were clustered together — pheromone-based, maybe, or even a minor enchantment — and I guess when you made me realize I’d been suckered, I lost my judgment in the backwash.” She sighed. “Not to mention I’d just finished banging my head against yours. Which I’m not sorry for one bit, but still.”

Xander’s anger faded as quickly as it had come. “Well, all right, then.” He looked around at the bodies littering the small clearing. “I don’t hear anybody running, or trying to sneak away, so looks like we got them all. You can check off a big ol’ MISSION ACCOMPLISHED and get back to … I don’t know, whatever.”

“Something like that.” Dawn took off her sunglasses, used a sweat-sodden sleeve to blot other sweat from her eyes She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to push herself to her feet. “I’ll get on that in just a minute.” She sighed again, and sagged a little further over the sword. “Or … or maybe you could come over here and check this thing sticking out of my back.”

Xander stiffened. “What? What the what? Oh, crap!” He rushed to her side, circling her anxiously, afraid to touch her until he knew — Okay, yes, there: on her right side, just below the opening of the denim vest, one of the darts slanted downward-inward. Part of him was gibbering terror, the rest drily clinical, almost casual. No more than maybe five inches penetration, good (must have lost some velocity getting past/through the ribs), angle and depth just about guaranteeing a pierced lung but not enough (probably not. almost certainly not.) to break the pericardial sac. Heart would be bad, abdominal perforation less bad but much messier and more liable to cause complications … “How’s your breathing?” he asked. “Are you having any trouble, or are you just still coming down from, you know, the fun­thrilla­palooza of all-out battle to the death?”

“Right now, about half and half,” she said with just a bit of wheezing. “Hurts like a bitch, but I’m only a little short of breath. So you think it’s just the lung?”

Xander shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to bet my life on that,” he said. “Much less yours. But yeah, that’s what it looks like.” His mind was already spinning out to assess the larger implications of the situation: he didn’t know if there was even a doctor in the nearest town, and functioning surgical facilities were another matter entirely; he might need to transport Dawn an unknown distance, to an unknown location, with a wound of unknown severity; the motorcycle was not the best mode of travel under those circumstances, but it was the only one available just now —

“Saddlebag,” Dawn grunted. “Get the first aid kit and the blue pack next to it.”

Xander did as instructed; first aid wouldn’t be enough, but she sounded like she knew what she was doing. The ‘blue pack’ turned out to be a denim handbag folded over itself; still on one knee and still leaning on the sword, Dawn opened it and laid out three items, then took gauze pads, antiseptic ointment, a set of blunt-tipped scissors, and surgical tape from the first aid kit. One of the blue-pack items was a small tin of salve, which she rubbed onto her forehead and the backs of her hands; one was a bottle of murky liquid, which she upended and swallowed; the last, a cloth band, she had Xander tie around her neck while she muttered a quick incantation. “Okay,” she told Xander. “Use the scissors to cut away my vest and top.”

Xander obediently started in with the scissors, but couldn’t stop himself from protesting. “You’re going to try and treat it here? C’mon, Dawn, you need an ER team for this.”

“Yeah, well, don’t see one of those around anywhere, do you?” Dawn coughed weakly, spat out a bit of blood and sputum. “The potion kicks off quick healing, the ointment dials down the pain. I’d do this myself if it wasn’t in my back, and if you weren’t here I’d find a way regardless. You almost done?”

He was, the trickiest part having been cutting to and through where the dart protruded from the cloth, and he pulled the garments away from her now. She wasn’t wearing a bra, which made him feel a bit weird but meant he wouldn’t have to try and work around one. “Look, you’re wanting me to pull this out? I’m not sure that’s a great idea. If it’s holding a major blood vessel closed —”

“Then I’ll heal or I won’t.” She coughed again. “The neck band, it’ll send out a spell flare if my heart stops, and Willow will boom-tube here thirty seconds later. Mainly, I can’t stand having that thing inside me for as long as it would take to move me somewhere else. Get a good grip, okay?”

Xander took hold of the dart, four inches above where it jutted obscenely from her naked back. “I really, really hope you’re right on this. So, what, you want me to pull it out on three?”

“Three,” Dawn wheezed, and leaned far left-forward, the dart coming clear as her body tilted away from it. Xander gulped and cast the dart aside, snatching up gauze to blot the blood that welled from the ugly puncture. “Slather that with betadine,” Dawn gasped, “then lay a pad on it and tape it down. God, that hurts!”

“Well, no shit!” Xander blurted. “What did you expect? Damn it, Dawn!” Flustered and frazzled as he was, his hands moved with deft certainty, and the bandage was secured in under a minute. “Look, I’m all about respecting the whole ‘grll powr, tuff chik’ deal, but you were taking a huge chance there.”

“Done is done.” Using the sword as a prop, Dawn pushed herself up to her feet. “Hoo-o-oo, I think I’m starting to feel that magic-potion rush. Or else I’m about to pass out from blood loss.” She stood where she was for a moment, swaying slightly. “No, I’m totally tripping balls. Hey, can you look through my stuff and grab a spare t-shirt? It’s getting a little nippy out here.”

It took Xander only moments to find a shirt, which he passed over to her. “One, I invented that line. Two, I’ll admit it has more punch coming from you. Look, we still need to get you to a hospital.”

“No, not really.” Dawn wriggled into the t-shirt, flinching as she pulled it down over her right side. Finished, she turned to face him, and put her hands on his shoulders as she staggered a little. “I a’ready told you I’m covered by the magic pick-me-up. ’Sides, any hospital’d go apeshit if they tried to test the stuff zippin’ through my system right now.” Her eyes were not only unfocused, but very slightly crossed. “Nah, I’m jus’ tired. Jus’ need some place ta lie down.” She looked around at the bloodied clearing. “Don’ like it here. Wanna lie down.” She sagged abruptly, and Xander put his arms around her, holding her to prevent total collapse. Eyelids fluttering, she murmured, “Zoomy.”

He measured her pulse rate, found it somewhat accelerated but steady. Even if he didn’t entirely agree, her insistence actually made things easier. To transport her any appreciable distance, quickly enough, would have required securing the two of them together somehow and taking the motorcycle. Getting her back to his cabin, on the other hand, simply meant carrying her.

So he did.

It wasn’t far, he could have made it in under a minute unencumbered, but he didn’t want to chance opening her wound so he went smooth and slow. Dawn lay slack in his arms, either semiconscious or content to float in a happy, buzzing daze. During the brief trip, she only spoke three times.

In the first, she stirred vaguely and mumbled, “Warm. I loved you so much, you were just so warm.”

Okay. Xander had no idea how to respond to that — it was by no means certain she even recognized that she had spoken — so he made no reply, and she subsided into her previous silence.

In the second, this time without moving, she said blurrily, “Kyle. Not Ernie, Kyle.”

Fine. Good for Kyle.

In the third, he had actually reached the cabin, and was only a few feet from the door, when her body started shaking, and with her words he realized she was crying. “Sorry, so sorry,” she keened faintly, while tears ran down her face (sideways, from how her head was turned) and dripped off her ear. “Should’a been me, ’stead’a Anya. I’m sorry.”

Damn it, Dawn!

He got her inside, settled her into the bed he still occasionally used. He’d brought along her bedroll and saddlebags, and now he unzipped the sleeping bag to lay over her as a cover. Even though he didn’t know the mechanisms of the healing spell she had activated, it seemed a good idea to keep up her fluid volume, so he fed her a bottle of Gatorade from her supplies, she swallowing the small sips he gave her but never fully waking. When that was finished, he put his hand on her throat, thumb resting on the right jugular and fingers over the left carotid, and centered all his awareness on her breathing, pulse, temperature, the hydration and galvanic resistance of her skin, the water-vapor content of her exhalations, anything that might carry the least significance.

She moved now and then in the bed as she slept, as the hours passed and the sun went down. He never did, except to maintain his contact with her and his focus upon her.

*               *               *

Traditionally, the long-awaited let-out-your-breath-in-relief awakening was supposed to happen after the night was over: maybe just before sunrise, maybe after, maybe well after, but daytime one way or another. Symbolism, circadian rhythms, whatever, that was how it was supposed to happen. Naturally, Dawn came awake around three in the morning, moaned, and leaned over the side of the bed to vomit on the plank floor.

Xander wasn’t alarmed, exactly — there’d been no temperature spike or blood-pressure plummet to announce disaster — but that didn’t mean he felt no concern at all. “You okay?” he asked. “Do we need to be worried?”

“Water,” Dawn croaked. He gave her the canteen; she took a belt from it, swished it around to rinse her mouth, spat that out, then took five or six long swallows. “Spell hangover,” she told him, a bit too clearly to qualify as a mumble. Her voice was deathly. “You get used to it. Usually doesn’t hit me so hard, but then I usually don’t get stuck so deep.” She worked her face for a bit, as if trying to decide whether or not to throw up again. “What time is it?”

“Oh-dark-thirty,” Xander answered. “Few more hours till sun-up. You can sleep a little longer if you want to.”

“Maybe I will,” Dawn said, but she took hold of the headboard of the bed and pulled herself up into a sitting position. Halfway up, she seemed to feel the wound catch; she stopped, then finished out the motion, more carefully, assessing. “Better,” she announced. “Breathing’s better, too. Probably gonna live, then.”

“Kinda looking that way,” Xander agreed. “You need anything?”

Dawn picked up the unzipped sleeping bag and wrapped it around herself like a blanket, took another few swallows from the canteen. Then she looked down at it, frowned for a moment. “You brought my stuff?” she asked him.

“Some of it,” Xander said. “What I could carry, along with you.”

Dawn nodded understanding. “So, not the bike.”

“No. Sorry.”

“Could …” Dawn bit her lip. “Could you go get it for me? I mean, I doubt anybody’s going to steal it from the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, but I’d just feel better if everything was here.”

Xander considered. He’d been following her condition for hours, without noting any danger signs; Dawn was awake, aware of her inner state, and apparently satisfied with it; he could be back with the bike in less than ten minutes; and, she was still wearing the neck-band to send out a Willow-alert in case she had one of those Help, I’ve died and I can’t get up! moments while he was gone. “Sure,” he said, standing. “Be right back. You just rest, okay?”

It wound up taking him the full ten minutes: only a few extra seconds to find and secure the sword and shotgun, but more than that to work out the operation of the motorcycle. (Clutches had never been his friend.) When he got back, Dawn was sitting in the cabin’s only chair, still huddled in the blanket. “All gear present and accounted for,” he reported to her. “Feeling any better?”

She shrugged. “Tolerable.” Her earlier angry attitude seemed to be on indefinite hold somewhere; she looked tired, and solemn, and much younger. “I … it’s probably as much psychological as anything else, but I could really go for some chicken soup right now.”

“Sure thing,” Xander said. “I mean, that’s if you have any in your supplies. Yeah? good. And I’ll have to make a fire to heat it up, so that’ll be a little longer, sorry.”

Dawn shrugged again. “I can drink it cold if I have to, but yes, I’d rather wait for hot.”

Her camp kit, while minimalist, was inclusive enough that he had no problem in preparing the soup. He brought it to her, watched while she sampled it and then began to eat in small spoonfuls. Her color was good. Everything seemed to be good. She did, however, appear to be not particularly eager to look at him.

“That last day in Sunnydale,” he said. She glanced up at him. “When we set everybody in place so we could start the big showdown. We had a reason for putting you and Anya where we did.”

Dawn’s mouth set, her nostrils flaring slightly. “Oh, hell. I said something, didn’t I? I was hoping I’d hallucinated that part.” She shook her head. “So, what was it? What did I let out when I didn’t have any better sense?”

“You said you were sorry about Anya,” Xander answered. “And you mentioned somebody named Kyle, and somebody named Ernie.”

“Er–…?” Dawn stopped. “Oh. Oh, I get it. And that was out loud?”

“Only a few seconds here and there.” The part about how much she’d loved him — assuming she’d been talking about him at the time — didn’t really need to be mentioned. “The thing is … we needed everybody, couldn’t spare anybody, but we still had two reasons for where we set the two of you. The main reason was the one we told you: last line of defense, hopefully enough to take out any stragglers that made it past the other lines.” He drew a breath. “The other reason, though, the one Buffy and I never said — but we looked at each other and we both knew that we both knew — was that it was the best chance we could give the two of you to make it out alive.”

Dawn’s eyes brimmed with unfallen tears, but her voice was steady. “And I did,” she said. “And Anya didn’t. And … I’m not going into details here, unless you want me to, but she died saving me.”

“Good for her.” Dawn looked at him in startlement, and he went on. “I loved Anya, and I miss her, and I still hate myself some for all the time I lost with her by being stupid. But, if it had been her who lived, and you who died —” He couldn’t explain it, he knew it was true but he couldn’t find the words, so “That … that would have been worse.”

Dawn weighed that, and blessedly didn’t ask for clarification. She only said, “It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty.”

Xander nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ve all got something.”

Something happened with her face, and Xander was afraid she would actually start crying, which would infuriate her and make all this harder. Instead she yawned hugely, suddenly and literally trembling with exhaustion. He helped her get back to the bed, and swaddled her in the sleeping bag, and (again, and contrary to her orders from the night before) watched while she slept.

Well, except for the brief time he spent cleaning the section of the floor where she’d thrown up, because come on.

It was far into the morning when she woke the second time: well short of noon, but still far enough along that she needed more than the chicken soup she’d already had. She prepared and ate the meal without paying him much attention, not ignoring him but focused elsewhere. Likewise, Xander found himself with nothing to say. Their time together was about to end, and there was no avoiding it but he wasn’t looking forward to the return to solitude, no matter how much that was how it had to be. Finished eating, Dawn inspected her equipment and supplies, repacked some things and resettled them on the motorcycle (the sword and shotgun, for instance, were concealed rather than placed for ready access, and likewise with the pistols in their holsters).

“Okay,” she said at last. “That should leave enough room.” She looked at him directly for the first time since rising. “You’ll have to sit in front, though, which means you’ll be driving.”


“What?” Xander said. Then, “I … I don’t know how to work a motorcycle.”

“You got it back here, didn’t you?” Dawn dismissed his protest with a flick of one hand. “We’ll build on that. Get real; you can’t keep running alongside me, that’s okay for the boonies but eventually we’ll be passing through civilized territory. And I’m not sitting up front, with you hanging on behind me and twisting yourself into a pretzel to keep your hands from getting within three feet of my boobs. So that means you drive.”

“Dawn … that can’t happen.” He shook his head. “I can’t go back. You know why, I’ve told you why.”

“Yeah, and I’m calling bullshit on all that.” Dawn fixed his eyes with her own. “It wasn’t Ernie, Xander.”

“I know,” he said. “Kyle, not Ernie. I got that.”

“No, I mean it wasn’t Ernie.”

‘Makes no difference to me,” Xander said. “I don’t know who those guys are.”

“Yeah, you kinda do.” Dawn sighed. “After you … after we lost you, we couldn’t really talk about it. Those of us you mattered most to, it just hurt too much. Andrew, though, he kept coming up with theories to explain it, or explain it away, or just plain rewrite reality. Crazy stuff, straight out of Star Trek and comic books and all the different ways to make somebody not actually be dead anymore. And then when Willow got what she did from cellular analysis of your arm, well, he basically went berserk on that. Started going on about this old X-Men storyline, ‘Days of Future Past’ —”

“Yeah, I remember that one,” Xander said. “Back in the Claremont days, when Kitty Pryde was still pretty new; future-Magneto got future-Jean Gray’s daughter to send future-Kitty’s forty-five-year-old mind back into thirteen-year-old Kitty’s 1981 body to stop this big, looming disaster …” He shook his head. “Not my sitch at all.”

“Well, Andrew basically used that as a jumping-off point,” Dawn said. “I didn’t know that at the time, though, because Willow flat told Andrew to cut it out. Drop the subject, leave it alone, just stop talking.” Dawn seemed to draw into herself slightly at the memory. “She didn’t go veiny and black-eyed, nothing like that, but Andrew could remember back when she was like that, so he shut up. Last year, though, he and I were partnered on something, and he worked up the nerve to tell me he’d meant to compare the ‘Days of Future Past’ thing to a different story: a little sci-fi short about a man who sent his older, beefed-up body back in time for his younger mind to wake up in, so he’d be strong enough to save his wife from an accident that hadn’t happened yet.” Dawn gave Xander a raised eyebrow. “That’s the kind of explanation Andrew was trying to offer us, before Willow shut him down.”

“Sounds like Andrew, all right,” Xander agreed. “Except what we’ve got here and now isn’t a more muscular Xander, it’s a mechanical-biological patch-up, and sorry, popular culture offers a better example of one of those going back in time to change the past —” And then he stopped.

“And now he gets it,” Dawn mused. “That’s what I’m saying. You’re not the Terminator, coming back to doom the future, you’re Reese, coming back to save it. Kyle, not Arnie.”

The thought was stunning, seductive, dangerous. Xander shook it away. “My killer-cyborg body says otherwise.”

“Right, the thing that does a Jim-dandy job of killing demons and never kills anything else.” She leaned toward him. “Ninety-plus-year-old DNA, now, that’s the clincher. Somewhere in the future, an old, old Xander reworked his whole body so that what he sent back could kick the crap out of the First’s Turok-han army: save the world, and — probably more important to any Xander anywhere — save Buffy. If anybody, anybody could be that dedicated, that dogged, that obsessed, that purely damn stubborn, it’d be Xander.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but he couldn’t think of any argument, couldn’t think of anything to say, couldn’t think. His mind was blank, and full of whirling thought, full of fear and yearning and disbelief and a terrible need to believe. He’d shut it away for years, refusing even to let himself recognize the desire, but now there was no escape.

“That first day,” he said to her. “Out on the prairie, when you rode around that little hill and I was waiting there … you told me the First showed up as me, years ago, to jerk people around some more. Why didn’t you think I was the First, when you saw Dead Xander standing there looking dopey?”

Dawn’s expression went blank, and then shifted to intrigued. “Huh. You know what, it just plain never occurred to me. How about that. So, are you done stalling? you ready to go yet?”

Xander shook his head. “You’re not going to give me a choice on this, are you?” he asked, almost despairing.

She let out a little not-quite-hysterical yip of laughter. “You never had a choice in this, Xander, not from the first moment I knew you were still alive. Face facts here: you’ll come with me now, or Willow will come and get you herself as soon as she knows. And she would know, I couldn’t hide it from her if I tried, she’d know as soon she saw me. You cut yourself out of our lives, like a big dumb-ass, but now you’re back, and that’s not changing.”

Xander’s shoulder’s slumped. “What if you’re wrong?” he asked quietly. “What if, as soon as I’m among Slayers again, the targeting radar comes online and I start killing?”

“Then we’ll kill you,” she said promptly. He stared at her, and she shrugged. “We won’t need to, though, because there’s just no way Xander, any Xander, would ever let anybody hurt ‘his girls’.”

He wished he could have her confidence, but she was right about one thing: it was inescapable now. Fate had come calling, and it wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

“Well, okay, then,” he said at last.

“Right.” Dawn gestured at the motorcycle. “You’re in front, like I said. We’ve got a ways to go, and I need to be thinking about how I’ll tell everybody we’re on our way in. We don’t want to spring this on them without any advance warning, but letting them know what’s coming …” She tilted her head to one side, eyes narrowing in speculation. “Yeah, that’s going to be tricky.”

Xander moved as directed, straddling the motorcycle. A moment later, Dawn nestled in behind him, arms around him to overlap across his chest. The touch was shockingly intimate, but how else was she going to hold on? (And again she’d been right, he’d have gone insane trying to find a safe place to put his hands.) He hadn’t the vaguest idea of what route they would follow, but he knew where it would end —

He was resigned to doom. He was on fire with joy. He was exhilarated. He was terrified.

He was going home.