Interim | Epilogue to Becoming

Willow stopped thrashing and sat up, weeping, her bedclothes terminally twisted in a heap in the middle of her bed. It was the fifth bad nightmare in ten days. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face was pale and pinched.

She looked at the phone, reached for it with a trembling hand, then froze, remembering, choked down a sob and threw herself back down wretchedly on her pillow.


*******

"Are you sure, because I can cancel?"

Willow shook her head. "You can't do that to the guys. Besides, you haven't played Fresno before. I'll be fine."

Oz looked at her fragile face and the dark smudges beneath the beautiful eyes and worried. It had been nearly three weeks since her world had fallen apart. Buffy had vanished, Xander had gone to ground, and Cordelia had gone away with her parents. The only constant continued to be Giles, either at the library or at home. It was the only reason he was willing to go to Fresno at all.

He touched her face with gentle fingers. "Okay, but you take care of yourself. Don't try to do too much, and look after the Gilesman…okay? I'll be back tomorrow about noon."

Willow smiled a little and nodded before lifting her face for his kiss when he bent his head.

Then she was opening the van door and sliding out. "See you tomorrow, then."

"The moment I hit town," he promised.

Willow knocked and waited.

The door opened a few seconds later to reveal an unshaven Giles, sans glasses, in a black sweater and grey slacks. He blinked at the brightness of the morning sun and opened the door for her.

"Is everything all right?" he asked as she sat on one of the stools at the breakfast bar.

She turned. "Oh, sure. Fine. I just thought you might need a hand…" She indicated his damaged hand. "You know, because you're left-handed and all. Oz has gone to Fresno. The Dingoes got a gig."

He tilted his head and gave her his 'I know better' frown. "Willow?"

She sighed. She never had been able to fool Giles. "Giles, do you know anything about nightmares?"

She didn't see the pain lance across the green eyes before spoke. "A little, yes. Why, have you been having nightmares?"

Willow shrugged awkwardly. "Too many. I know that Buffy's dreams sometimes come true, so I was wondering…"

Giles nodded. "Occasionally, but those are special circumstances…"

She looked up at him with frightened eyes. "I know, but I kinda figured the last few weeks were special circumstances too…I mean, Acathla, Kendra…Buffy, me almost dying, you almost…dying. Xander; the hellmouth, always…"

"Not enough to give you visions if you are not the slayer," he replied gently. "You still haven't heard from Xander?"

She shook her head. "Only when I call his house to see how he is. He says hello, asks if I'm okay, how you are, if there's been any word, and then he hangs up."

Giles exhaled loudly. "This has been a difficult time for all of us. We'll just have to give him a little more time. Now come and help me make a tray, and we'll talk about these dreams of yours."

*******

"Then this shadow figure drags Buffy into the Hellmouth…?"

Willow put down her tea and nodded. "And you try to follow and it kills you. And then Xander tries and it eats him."

"And where are Oz and Cordelia at this juncture?"

"Oz is behind me. I can feel his hands on my shoulders, holding me back…Cordelia isn't there at all."

Giles sipped his tea then balanced the saucer on his knee. "And you have the same dream each time?"

She nodded. "Almost. Sometimes I get eaten too…and sometimes it turns Buffy into a vampire first.

"And you don't know what this creature is?"

She shook her head. "It kind of morphs a lot…one minute it almost looks like a—a man…the next, well, it's huge and it eats people."

He put the tea down. "I don't think your dreams are a portent, Willow. Dealing with loss, and trauma, and even the vulnerability you might have felt after being injured are often manifest in dreams…or nightmares. Buffy and Xander and I concern you the most and we're all at risk in your nightmare. But Oz and Cordelia, about whom you apparently feel secure, are in no danger whatsoever."

Willow smiled. "You really think that's all it is? There isn't going to be another horrible monster?"

He shook his head. "No. No horrible monster, other than fear itself. It's up to you now to rationalise those fears. Xander is not in danger and nor am I…and as long as there is no word, I have to believe that Buffy, too, is safe."

"Giles, it's not that easy. I'm scared, okay. I'm so scared about Buffy I don't even want to talk about it…a—and I'm scared that there's no one out there patrolling, that people are gonna die. All right, I know demon activity was almost at a stand still in the first couple of weeks, but there were three more unexplained murders in Sunnydale this week…I'm scared that there's something really wrong with Xander. He's acting really weird, and you…" She got up restlessly and went to the fireplace.

"I'm also 'acting weird'?" he ventured, wandering across to join her.

She shook her head and looked up at him with old eyes. "You're acting too normal. I worry about you most of all."

The gentle green eyes stared at her, then grew very bright. A moment later he sat down on the sofa.

"Giles?"

He shook his head, but she moved quickly to sit by him.

"What is it? Are you sick?"

He touched her hand and shook his head again. "I'm fine. You…It's…sometimes honesty is the most acute weapon of all."

She frowned and leaned her head to one side, then her face cleared and her eyes were lighted by affection. "Bulls-eye," she said softly.

He flicked a surprised glance at her, found himself smiling back, then chuckling.

"Indeed," he confirmed ruefully, then became serious again, though there was warmth now in his eyes too. "I don't want you worrying about me. I've lived through a great deal more in my lifetime than I hope you will ever see. I won't lie to you and say that I'm all right, but I will promise you that I will cope."

Willow continued to stare up at him. They'd spent so much time together in the last two years she'd come to know him, without even realising it, rather like a well-read, well-loved book. Only now the book wasn't quite so familiar. The air of vulnerability didn't sit well with the self-sufficient Giles she knew.

Almost without thinking about it, she covered his injured hand gently with hers. "She's going to come back, Giles. I can feel it."

Giles ran his good hand over his face. "I wish I was as certain as you. If I could just be certain Angelus wasn't still alive…that he doesn't have her…"

Willow shook her head violently. "Oh, no. I don't believe that. If he had Buffy he'd be taunting us, you, with it constantly." She shook her head. "He's dead. I know it. Oz saw the statue—you saw the stature…and the sword was gone, right? Either the curse worked and Angel is back, or Buffy killed him to close the portal."

It was his turn to stare at her. "Of course…my God, you're right…she has to have killed him," he whispered hoarsely.

"She does?"

He nodded wretchedly. "If the curse worked soon enough, Angel wouldn't have opened the portal. The sword would still be in the statue…'

"But i…it was opened…which means Angelus…which means I was too late…or…"
Willow's eyes dilated in horror.

"Oh…Oh God, Buffy…"


*******

Giles looked up to see Willow and Oz come into the library. They looked relaxed and content to be together again. He supposed the trip to Fresno had been a success. Then he frowned. Still no sign of Xander…

He looked at his watch. Mid-afternoon…he'd forgotten to eat again.

"Hello you two. What brings you onto campus on a magnificent summer's day?"

Willow's soft brown eyes regarded him knowingly. "We were going for donuts and we thought you might be here again. Want some?"

He smiled back at her gently, deliberately ignoring the circles still under them and filing his inquiry about her nightmares under 'later'. "Splendid idea. Blackberry jellies, if you would."

"Sure. What are you doing?"

Giles put down the map he hadn't unfolded yet and flexed his splinted fingers. "Research," he said matter-of-factly.

Willow's eyes dropped to the well-known brand of road map and the long list of phone numbers next to it, in Giles' neat printing, mostly for hostels and YWCAs, hospitals and coach companies.

"Oh, okay. Well, don't let us interrupt," she said softly. "See you in about half an hour."

He watched them go, the weariness he'd painstakingly repressed on their arrival flooding over his features again, then picked up the map of greater Los Angeles and began unfolding it.

An hour or so later the sound of the library doors opening disturbed his concentration. He looked up, half smiling in anticipation of donuts and hot tea. The smile faded.

"I wondered when you'd surface again," he said quietly, noting the sunken eyes, the sharpened, haggard features, the clothes that were suddenly far too loose.

Xander shrugged, his hands thrust deep in his pants pockets, his cast pushing one side lower than the other. "I've been…busy."

"Is there something I can do for you, now that you've seen fit to grace us with your presence again?" he asked, testing the waters. "Willow and Oz will be back shortly with donuts, if you'd care to wait…"

He closed his eyes. "Giles, shut up."

The librarian's eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed. He pushed back his chair, came around from behind the study table. "Xander, what's wrong?"

Xander took a step back. "What's right?" he asked bitterly. "What the hell's right?"

"Very little," Giles agreed carefully. "But there are some things to be grateful for…We're still here, for example…and Willow…You're alive…and so am I, thanks to you…"

Xander looked away quickly. "Yeah, noble and brave, that's me. I'm a great guy," he sneered.

Giles came to stand next to him. "Brave enough," he said quietly. "And I saw you more than once, day and night…in the hospital."

The dark eyes flashed back to the older man's face. "I thought you were drugged to the eyeballs, and out of it most of the time from the pain, the concussion?"

"Drugs wear off. You, however, always seemed to be sleeping."

Xander half laughed. "Yeah well, sitting up half—" He stopped and cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, it was hard work, visiting you, visiting Willow, eating the chocolates, watering the flowers, bringing stuff, calling Cordy…" he cracked.

But the other man was watching him knowingly. "It wasn't your fault, Xander. You couldn't fight Angel for her, and you can't fight this battle for her. None of us could."

"Who said I wanted to?" Xander demanded angrily. "I tried to tell everyone, didn't I? I said he was trouble…"

"You wanted to believe he was. We both know why, but I know you would never do anything to hurt Buffy, no matter how you felt about—"

Giles stopped, stared at the moisture tracking uncharacteristically down the boy's face.

Xander lowered his head, trying to regain control. "Damn," he muttered.

The librarian spotted Willow and Oz coming through the doors, made gestures of silence and 'wait' at them, so that they eased the doors closed and stood just inside them.

"Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked gently and watched the thin shoulders shrug again.

Xander raised his head reluctantly. "It's my fault she ran away," he rasped. "I did it."

"You're taking a lot upon yourself, don't you think? A great deal happened to Buffy over a relatively long period of time, beginning with her last birthday and culminating in accusations of murder, the loss of friends, being expelled, and presumably, killing the man she loved…"

Xander strangled a sob at birth. "Why did she have to love that walking corpse?" he snapped. "He should have been staked three years ago."

"Nevertheless you do understand that it wasn't your fault?" Giles pressed.

"No," Xander retorted. "It wasn't my fault Buffy didn't know about Willow's spell. It wasn't my fault she didn't know there was a chance she didn't have to kill him. I just happened to walk up to her and tell her to go right ahead and do it," he finished, trembling like a leaf and pale as a ghost.

Behind them Willow was biting her lip, eyes flashing, hands clenched into fists.

Giles' eyes narrowed. "When was the last time you slept? Ate?"

Xander swayed. "Does it matter?" he muttered. "Don't you get it, Giles? I'm pond scum…I'm the slimy thing that sucks up the pond scum…" He stopped, blinked at Giles' resolutely calm, gentle green eyes, colour suddenly flooding into his wan face.

"God damn it, why don't you ever get angry, you stupid Limey bookworm!"

Giles stepped forward but before he could respond Willow was there.

"Xander!" she shouted, storming at him. "That's enough. Don't you think you've done enough? How could you? I trusted you!"

He swayed again. "How could I? How could I not?" he demanded bitterly. "Somebody had to make sure he didn't come back from this one. Good guy, bad guy…in the end it makes no difference…because in the end the good guy is only as good as his misery. One happy and its bad guy time again. Well, I for one have watched enough friends die," he turned to Giles, "enough friends suffer." And then his eyes were rolling up in his head.

Giles caught him as he slid toward the ground, grimacing at the pain in his damaged fingers and arm, but able to hold him. And then Oz was there too.

"Willow, bring those donuts…then go into my office…there's a carton of orange juice. Why the hell didn't his parents see this coming?" Giles yelled as he and Oz headed toward the library doors.

"They're out of town. They went to his Aunt's on vacation. Xander hates her. Besides, he would never leave town while…" But the doors were swinging closed. Willow sighed.

Giles and Oz settled Xander on one of the couches in the student lounge and Giles sponged his forehead with a clean handkerchief and bottled water from one of the machines.

Willow handed him the donuts and the juice. "Should we take him to the hospital?"

Giles shook his head. "I don't think so. He needs to eat something. Lack of sleep, no food, and unrelieved misery are the cause of this."

"Yeah, but you're still on your feet…" Oz interjected before he could stop himself. And when Willow and Giles turned and looked at him: "Sorry—it just kind of slipped out…I worry," he added uncomfortably.

Giles' expression softened, and he nodded. "If he doesn't come around in the next few minutes we'll have to consider taking him to ER for his own good, but I expect—"

A hand pushed the handkerchief away. "No hospital," Xander muttered.

"What happened?"

Giles looked down at him. "You passed out. Low blood-sugar, I'm assuming. When did you last eat?"

Xander's brows came together. "Pop tart. Breakfast…yesterday," he recalled reluctantly.

"Well you're going to eat something now, hungry or not. Willow—"

Xander ate seven donuts and drank the entire pint of juice before lying back on the couch again, still pale and unsteady, but wide awake now.

"Man, I didn't know I was that hungry," he said softly and closed his eyes. A moment later they opened again, looked for and found Giles' green gaze and Willow's dark one. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly.

Willow knelt at his side and took one of his hands in hers. In all their years together she'd never seen him laid so bare before. "What you did was wrong, but it wasn't just you," she told him. Tears spilled over the thick black lashes and her voice trembled. "There was just too much…If I was wanted for murder…expelled. My God, if I had to kill Oz…It must be so lonely…" Her face crumpled. "…Where ever she is."

Xander gently withdrew his hand and drew her head down onto his chest as she wept, oblivious to the two droplets of moisture trickling down the sides of his own pale face.

Behind them Giles closed his eyes for a moment, then turned and left.

Oz watched him go and wondered when the hurting was going to stop.


********

There was a sound behind him. Giles put down the cup of tea he'd barely touched and turned his office chair toward the door.

"Xander…feeling better?"

He nodded. "Yeah…some. Willow and Oz have gone. Rehearsals or something at the Bronze."

"Willow is all right, I take it?"

"Not dancing on the ceiling, but okay," he confirmed flatly.

"And you? I assume you parents did actually leave you provided for in their absence?"

Xander half smiled. "Mom's trusty list of Take Out numbers is on the refrigerator."

Giles raised his eyebrows.

Xander grew serious again. "You aren't going to get mad at all, are you?" he asked quietly.

"Why? Do you want me to?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. I can't believe I didn't tell her. It just seemed so easy…say nothing and it'd be over…but it isn't, is it?"

Giles rose from the chair and shook his head. "And it won't ever be…not until she comes home."

Xander looked away, unable to face the demons in that green gaze.

The older man sighed and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I'm finished here for the day. What say we find some nourishment? Perhaps something one actually eats with a knife and fork?"

Xander laughed in spite of himself as Giles turned off the light. "I'm game…that is…who's paying?" he shot back as they headed out of the library.

"Isn't it about time you got a job?" Giles voice echoed back as the doors swung closed…



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