Xander gasped as he fought his way back to consciousness, his heart pounding in his chest. He knew it had only been a dream, but he felt the need to check, reaching down to his stomach and feeling the warm – intact – skin. He breathed a sigh of relief, telling himself what a fool he was, that he wasn't the one who'd ended up with his insides falling out, but his pulse didn't begin to slow until he’d double checked. His first thought had been that it felt strange not to feel metal links instead of skin. It was crazy, but he could swear that he felt Buddy's calming influence even now, but Buddy was lying across the back of the armchair, where Spike had laid him when he’d helped Xander out of the mail shirt last night.
Oh, shit. Spike was in the living room. He couldn't hear the TV playing, so hopefully Spike was asleep. It was early for a vampire, it wasn't even three yet, but Spike and he had been compromising on their training times – he stayed up late and Spike got up early, and they'd found a schedule that had worked for them both. If Xander was lucky, Spike had slept through the whole embarrassing thing, despite his heightened sense of hearing. Xander flinched as he got another flash of his gruesome nightmare. Some heroic figure he made. What kind of hero had nightmares?
Well, maybe they did. Spike was always telling him that heroes were normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances, so maybe they did have nightmares. Especially after nights like last night. He shuddered as the image of the Plautect demon dragging himself across the ground, entrails clutched in one bleeding hand forced its way into his mind again. He was never going to forget that image. Then, again, if he decided to stick with the hero gig, maybe he shouldn't. Maybe he needed to remember exactly how horrific death really was, no matter who it was that was dying.
He didn't know why this particular death had hit him so hard, he'd seen death before. He'd seen it over and over again for the last four years, and they hadn't all been vamps that dusted and left nothing behind but grit under your shoes. He'd spent a lot of time on clean-up detail; tossing bodies in dumpsters, shoving them under bushes and dumping them into sewers. It was easier when they died in graveyards. They'd realized early on that the scavengers would carry off the majority of what was left behind as long as their blood wasn't toxic or anything. There were a few demons that even the bottom feeders avoided.
Since he usually carried an axe when they were out for serious trouble, Xander had long since learned to stay well clear of the ones that had reactions to metals. Iron was a major culprit – it caused a very small but extremely vocal number of demons to melt down into goo right before your eyes. Both iron and silver would make a double handful of demon species explode gruesomely and very messily, even when the iron was mixed with carbon the way it was in steel. Fortunately, exploding demons were in the minority.
Most demons that left a body behind died the same way most other creatures did – with lots of blood and noise and thrashing around. The ones who looked like humans were the ones that had always disturbed Xander most. When a demon's only physical difference from a human was the color of its skin or a horn or two, pulling its body into the bushes of the local park was kind of on the creepy side, in a 'there's-a-serial-killer-on-the-loose-and-it-might-just-be-me' kind of way.
During their troubles with the Initiative, the Scoobies had felt the need to sit down with Giles one day, and talk it all out. Well, they tried to, anyway. Too many questions had been left unsettled; there were no easy answers. Xander understood the strategy behind the Watcher’s rule of not telling their Slayers about good demons. For the most part, the demons she came face to face with were out to do someone harm - most good demons stayed as far away from Slayers as possible. A Slayer’s life span was so short to begin with - introducing the concept of good and evil as it related to the demon population was likely to have her hesitating at the wrong moment. Before you knew it she’d be dead, and they’d be starting all over with a new Slayer.
Buffy couldn’t afford to hesitate; it could be the last mistake she ever made. But at the same time, killing innocent creatures that never intended to harm anyone wasn’t right, either. Giles had admitted that some demons were born with souls, and hadn’t that been a kick in the pants? It blurred the lines for all of them – despite Giles’ insistence on the tried and true policy of fight first, ask questions later. If Xander kept the hero gig, he’d have to make some decisions about how to determine who was good and who wasn’t, and he didn’t really have a clue as to where to begin.
His first reaction was to stick with the rules that had led the Slayers for centuries, but then, those rules had been laid down by the Watcher’s Council, which he had very little respect for at this point. Xander already knew that his main priority would be to humans, and surprisingly enough, Buddy didn’t seem to have a problem with that. The book Giles had been reading yesterday had made it clear that the one strict rule those who wore the armor were expected to live by was to harm no innocent, something Xander had no problem with at all. The only difficulty was figuring out who was innocent and who was not. Unfortunately, just because someone had a soul, didn’t mean they were good, and that included humans.
If he could be a hero here in Sunnydale, he’d be more comfortable with the whole idea. He could help Buffy fight apocalypses, and battle demons and warlocks that wanted to open the Hellmouth like the idiots they obviously were. He’d love to be able to free Buffy up to attend college and not have to worry so much about slaying. And he’d have Willow and Tara on the witchy front and Giles and Anya on the research end, keeping track of prophesies and stuff. He could even keep his job, and keep the heroing for after sunset and weekends.
According to the book, though, those who wore The Companions always went on heroic journeys, slaying dragons and fighting evil sorcerers and despotic rulers. How was he supposed to know who to help? Was he supposed to go somewhere in particular, or just wander around randomly helping kittens out of trees and little boys who fell down wells? It seemed like the hero always came across some important task, and when they finished it, they went home, but what would be considered important enough to qualify? Who decided? Would Buddy tell him when his journey began and when it was over?
And he’d be alone. All the time he’d been fighting on the Hellmouth, he’d never fought alone. Even when he’d faced Jack O’Toole and his bomb down in the high school basement, he’d still been part of the team. Everyone had done their part that night – he’d gotten Jack to disarm the bomb while the rest of them were fighting the Sisterhood of the Jhe. They’d each had a task to do, and together they’d saved the day. If he went on a journey, the only company he’d have would be Buddy. Which was not to be frowned upon. Buddy was a formidable ally, as well as a friend. But still, Buddy was a shirt.
Xander was not a loner; he needed someone he could talk to, someone he could trust. As much as he was fighting the instincts that told him he was nobody, he didn’t think he could handle this on his own. He needed help, and the only one he was allowed to take with him was a squire. He grinned as he thought of the way everyone had joked yesterday, calling Spike his servant and generally pissing the vampire off. If he could take Spike with him, that wouldn’t be so bad. Spike wasn’t necessarily the best at planning, or at least with carrying through with his plans, but Spike could kick ass like – like a demon. If he had Spike with him, he’d at least know someone had his back.
He wondered when he’d started thinking of Spike as someone he could trust. But he did. Spike was fun to hang around with, and he even laughed at Xander’s jokes. If he could convince Spike that he’d like to go wandering around the country with Xander, that would be perfect, no matter how unlikely it was to happen.
The sharp buzz of his cell phone startled Xander out of his rambling thoughts. He found his phone on the floor, wrapped up in his pants pocket, and scrambled to get to it before his voicemail took over.
He recognized the number. “Hey Buffy, what can I do ya for?”
“Where are you, Xander?” That was her Pissed Off Slayer’s Voice – patent pending. “I’ve just left Spike’s crypt – he’s not there. I thought you two would be training today.”
“Nope. Not yet, anyway. I was just about to grab some breakfast and ask the peroxide wonder vamp if he wanted to get in some Xander-bashing before we headed over to Giles’ tonight.”
“Spike is at your apartment?”
Xander laughed at Buffy’s scandalized tone. “Yeah, he’s here. He helped me out last night, Buff, so I offered him the dubious privilege of sleeping on my lumpy couch.” Xander slumped down onto the edge of his bed, yawning. “At least I think he’s still here, I haven’t been out of the bedroom, yet.”
“It’s two forty-five in the afternoon, Xander!”
“Hey,” he defended himself, “if you’d been living on vampire time all week, you’d just be getting up now, too.”
“Well we need you over here as soon as possible. Can you give Spike a ride over in the trunk of your car? We need you both. It looks like the Plautects are gone and Giles wants to take advantage of the fact to check out the sorcerer’s lab and see if we can figure out anything about that green crap he threw all over you.”
“Yeah, alright.” His stomach growled loudly, and he realized there were some things that needed taking care of soon, like a trip to the bathroom. “Let me wake up and grab some breakfast and we’ll be right over. Okay?”
Spike wandered into the doorway of Xander’s bedroom, sleepy-eyed and blinking, his hair sticking up all over the place, jeans hanging low on his hips. Xander almost missed Buffy’s words as he took in the disturbingly sensual image.
“Well, hurry up. This might be the break we’ve been looking for. Hopefully we can sort this all out, and get you back to normal again. See you there.”
The line went dead with a click, and Xander put the phone down on the bed with a frown.
“What the hell does she mean by that? ‘Back to normal again’?” Spike’s eyes were flashing between gold and blue; obviously he was as unhappy about Buffy’s remark as Xander was. “Does she think you’ll go back to being the same old Xander you used to be?”
Spike was working up a full head of steam, pacing across the floor, kicking Xander’s dirty clothes out of his way as he went. “Even if you do lose your strength, you’ll never be the same as you were before. What about the chainmail? Does she think you’ll just toss it in the nearest dustbin and call it a day? You’ve been Chosen! This isn’t just the prize in a bloody Cracker Jack box!”
“Spike…” Xander didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence; Spike kept talking right over him.
“Just because she’s the bloody Slayer doesn’t mean she gets to dismiss you like that. She’s not the only one who has a calling, here. You and that piece of mail there have bonded, you can’t just toss it away as if it doesn’t matter.”
This time he got Spike’s attention. He stopped pacing and turned to face Xander. “What?”
“Thanks.” Spike blinked at him in surprise, and Xander continued.
“For defending me, I mean. I’m glad you heard that, because I was wondering if I should be upset or not.” He shrugged. “I’ve been debating the whole hero bit, but to hear her dismiss it like that really bothered me, and made me realize something.”
“I want to do this. I want to keep training with you, even if they take away my strength. I won’t be as good as I am now, but still, I think it’s worth it, don’t you?”
Spike frowned at Xander, crossing to him as he spoke. “You may not be as strong physically, but you’ll still be a bloody hero.” He poked a finger into Xander’s chest, angrily, emphasizing each word. “Don’t doubt that.”
Xander was shocked speechless at the strength of Spike’s emotions.
“Besides, even if they do find the dope on that green stuff, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to reverse it. And if they figure out how to, you don't have to let them, do you? You could say no. You could keep the strength if you wanted.”
The idea surprised Xander. He really hadn’t considered that. Simply because they figured out what it was and how it worked didn’t mean he had to agree to let them try and counteract the spell. He could stay strong if he wanted to. If the spell lasted, that is.
“Yeah, well, we don’t even know if the spell will last. What if it’s only good for a week or something? I could lose it all tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. Hadn’t thought of that.”
“Anyway. We still need to try and figure out what it is. If it’s what’s causing my emotions to fly all over the place, then we may have to get rid of it, anyway.”
It suddenly occurred to Xander that his mood swings might have been to blame for his reaction to last night. Running the scene through his mind still caused him mental anguish, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as it had been.
In the end, he knew that no matter what happened, it wouldn’t change his decision. Whether he got to keep his strength or not, he was staying in the hero business.
Xander took a deep breath, fighting to keep himself as calm as possible. When he was nervous, his emotions were all over the place, and he couldn’t afford to have another wild mood swing right now. He loosened his grip on his favorite axe. Spike had explained more than once that if he gripped the handle of his weapon too tightly, his fingers would go numb and he’d lose whatever advantage the weapon gave him. Of course when Spike said it, there were a lot more bloodys and wankers involved, but Xander was pretty sure he’d gotten the gist of it.
He didn’t like being separated from everyone else – it was making him nervous. He understood the reasoning, though. Three entrances to the labs, three people guarding them, while the others went through the books and grabbed everything that might have the info they were looking for. At his back was the lab they had hid in while they were getting ready to attack the sorcerer in his main lab the last time they were here. There was only one door in, which Xander was currently guarding, and one door out, which led into the main lab. Spike and Buffy had the other two entrances.
He looked around uncomfortably, unsettled by something he couldn’t explain. He was still unhappy over the confrontation earlier this evening, when he’d explained to Buffy that if he had a choice, he’d keep the strength he’d gotten from the Plautect sorcerer’s spell. That hadn’t gone over too well, although Giles seemed unsurprised, and supported Xander’s right to make his own decisions regarding both the superhero strength and Buddy’s assistance.
Giles’ unwavering support had been a great relief. His only concerns were that they find a way to neutralize the mood swings and that they made sure there were no other side effects. Spike had accused both Buffy and Willow of being jealous of Xander’s new ‘attributes’, but Xander totally disagreed with that. Buffy had all the super strength she needed, and super healing, too. Willow had the witchy thing going, she didn’t need super strength at all. Whatever it was that they were upset about, they both needed to get over it and stop treating him like he was made of glass.
He kept getting the feeling he was being watched; a crawling sensation in the middle of his back, just beyond where his fingers could reach. Turning around, he stared into the lab – the one he’d found Buddy in. He didn’t see anything unusual, but it was the laboratory of a demon sorcerer – how would he know if it was unusual or not? As far as he could remember, it looked exactly the same as it had when he’d first found Buddy hanging on the dresser’s dummy in the far corner of the large room. There was nothing there now. He turned back to the corridor he was supposed to be guarding.
Buddy had been pretty quiet tonight; he hadn’t reacted to the argument with Buffy and Willow, and surprisingly, hadn’t given any indication that he realized they were in the home of the one who’d owned Buddy before Xander had found him. Xander didn’t really like that term. How could someone own a creature that had a near human intelligence? That was like slavery. Buddy didn’t belong to anyone. He had Chosen Xander to be his partner for a while, but that was all. When Xander died, Buddy would move on and find a new hero, maybe even someone who deserved the title.
He smiled to himself when Buddy popped up to remind Xander what happened when he put himself down like that. There he was. Xander gave Buddy a mental hug, which was a lot easier to do than it was to explain. He had a feeling Buddy knew he’d been manipulated into reacting to Xander’s thoughts, but he got the idea the mail didn’t mind all that much. He sank back below the level of Xander’s conscious thoughts again, leaving nothing but the low-level hum of energy that indicated his presence. Xander felt better for having had contact with him – this place was creeping him out.
They hadn’t found a single demon since they got here. Not that they’d expected to – Willow and Tara had cast their little witchy hearts out to ensure that not only were there no Plautect in the house, but none could get in, either. Of course, they’d still set up a guard – you could never be too careful. Besides, it wasn’t like either Buffy or Xander could help Giles and the others look for information on the green gunk. Xander had his suspicions about Spike’s ability to do research. He got the idea that Spike didn’t want them to know exactly how much education he actually had. Not that Xander blamed him. Most nights, he’d rather have a stake poked through his forehead than to read one more boring, old book.
Giles had located a Plautectian primer and they’d gone over the terms that seemed most likely to have something to do with their search, but despite all the upgrades Xander had gotten recently, the ability to learn new languages had not been one of them. They were better off if he stayed out of the way. That was in no way to be construed as an insult to his intelligence, Xander assured Buddy. He didn’t have an ear for languages, or the affinity for staying awake faced with page after page of boring text. He’d leave that to the scholars. Just point him in the direction of the nearest scuffle and he’d be happy.
He shrugged his shoulders self-consciously, trying to dislodge the insistent feeling that there was something behind him. He turned around for what seemed like the fiftieth time in the last ten minutes. There was something there, he could feel it. He could almost feel music or laughter or something, right below the range of his hearing. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but he knew it was important.
Taking one last glance down the corridor in both directions, Xander stepped into the room. He looked through the connecting door into the main lab, where Giles and the others were busy pouring over books and papers, trying to discern what could possibly have been involved in the spell that created that green gunk. Occasionally, they would add a book or stack of papers to the collection he could see growing in the large box on the floor. They all seemed quite engrossed in their tasks.
He couldn’t see the door Buffy was guarding, but he could see Spike’s. His back turned to the room, Spike leaned casually in the doorway, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. After spending the last week fighting with him, Xander could tell that he was focused on his job, despite his seemingly careless attitude. He could see the tension in Spike’s shoulders, the stillness of his body declaring his readiness for combat. The almost-sound grew louder and more insistent and Xander turned back to the room he’d been guarding, narrowing his eyes as he tried to figure out what was making that noise.
He wandered the room, slowly. If someone had been watching they might have thought his steps aimless, but he had a target, and before long, he’d figured out where he was going. The corner where Buddy had been hanging on the dresser’s dummy was dimmer than the rest of the room, as if the light wasn’t strong enough to penetrate that far. That was odd; he distinctly remembered that corner being well lit when he first saw Buddy hanging there gleaming copper-gold against the black velvet of the dummy. He narrowed his eyes, trying to focus on the mist that seemed to be seeping up out of the floor in the dim recess before him. Something was there, he could almost see it – something important.
He didn’t remember stepping forward, but suddenly he was surrounded by mist, and the dresser’s dummy was behind him. It was with a sense of resigned déjà-vu that he heard his name shouted in warning – this had definitely happened before. He turned to the voice in time to see Spike charging in his direction, coat flying out behind him as he ran. It was too late to warn him, Spike was already caught up in the force that had pulled Xander into the mist. Spike pinwheeled backwards, an astonished look on his face as he fought to avoid the collision that they both knew was inevitable.
Spike hit Xander hard, his momentum impossible to avoid, and the two tumbled over each other, the white mist whirling around them like a twister that sucked them up, and around, and away. As Xander spun, he saw glimpses of the others: Buffy running in their direction, Giles and Anya staring in shock from the doorway, Willow and Tara clasping hands and chanting. The room was full of noise – white noise like waterfalls or rainstorms, cascading and thundering.
The last things he saw were Spike’s eyes, filled with shock and dismay. Then the white swirled up between them and everything disappeared.