Acid Test

by Yahtzee

The characters herein are the creations of Joss Whedon and the property of Mutant Enemy Productions and Warner Brothers. This story is written without permission, intent of infringement, or expectation of profit. Illegal drug use is referenced within; while this is not portrayed as positive behavior nor as a habit of Xander's, you should know that this is included. Also, this story contains descriptions of a m/f sexual encounter; it's not NC17, but those who are underage should use their best judgment. This story takes place in the fourth season between the episodes "SomethingBlue" and "Hush". Send praise or flames to

Part One

"You want to copulate with her."

"Anya, no." Xander held his hands up in front of him. "Most of the time, the jealousy thing is cute. But I am finding this very uncute."

"YOU'RE getting angry with ME?" Anya's eyes went wide. Her hands were balled into fists, and Xander had the sudden sure knowledge that he could end up ontheir receiving end.

"I'm not angry. I'm just saying that this being human deal is a little new to you, and you might be jumping to the wrong conclusions --"

"New to me?" Anya stepped close and Xander unconsciously flinched. "I spent over a thousand years working vengeance on unfaithful men. I putrefied the entrails of unfaithful men. I extracted the livers of --"

"Got the picture by now, Anya."

"Well, wouldn't you agree that I can recognize an unfaithful man when I see one?"

"I've never been unfaithful to you."

"You were unfaithful to Cordelia," Anya pointed out. "So I should have known better. I should have known you really wanted Willow all along."

"Anya, we're not gonna get anywhere if you drag Cordelia into this. Where Cordelia is, sanity is not," Xander sighed. "I was hanging out with Willow. Talking. That's all. That's fair, right?"

"Talking is fair. Talking and wanting to copulate is not fair."

"Anya --" Xander was out of breath, out of words. Because she had him, dead to rights. Sure, it had been a while since he'd last thought of Willow that way. But she was still pretty, still sweet, still closer to him than just about anyone else. And lately Willow seemed to be making more time for him; she seemed to get a lot out of being together. He got a charge out of it. She did too. Maybe his thoughts wandered -- that way -- from time to time. Like this afternoon. No problem, not really, at least not until Anya walked up on them in the ice cream place and started making a major scene.

"We were having a good time," he admitted. "But she's my friend. You're my girlfriend. Even if that could change, I wouldn't want it to."

Anya looked at him for a few minutes as she weighed that. Then she shook her head. "I don't believe you."

"Then I can't help you."

Anya's face softened as her jaw dropped in shock. "So this is breaking up?"

"No, it's not," Xander said, taking her hand. "Come on, Anya, think this over--"

She pulled her hand back. "It is too breaking up. I know all the signs. My eyes are getting watery, and I want to hug you and hit you at the same time, and there's this weird craving for chocolate that I don't understand, but it's there." Anya's voice choked off in a sob, which seemed to surprise her. "I don't like this. I hate this! It hurts!"

"So don't do it. Let's skip the breaking up and move right to the making up --"

"You mean sex," Anya said, eyes narrowing again. "That's what they all mean."

"No," Xander said, trying hard to pretend that wasn't what he'd meant.

"No wonder I used to get so much work," Anya said. With that, she ran up the basement steps. A few moments later, Xander heard the front door slam shut.

He slumped down on his bed, exhausted and upset and wishing vaguely for a time machine; he could just pop back to, oh, 4 p.m., say, "Hey, I'm not your evil vampire twin; I'm just telling you not to split a double-scoop of Daiquiri Ice with Willow," and come back to find Anya happy and waiting for him. Maybe even in the same bed where he was now lying alone except for a Pop Tarts wrapper from breakfast. Surrounded by basement walls that leaked when it rained and sometimes when it didn't. Where the smells of mildew and All-Tempa-Cheer were locked in a perpetual battle for dominance. With Uncle Rory overhead, sleeping off his latest hangover or earning another one.

"This officially sucks," Xander declared to the Pop Tarts wrapper. "I am not hanging around here."

His first impulse was to call Buffy for some serious moping. Then again, lots of things had changed, but Buffy was still the honorary grand marshal of Xander's failed love affairs. Besides, calling Buffy's room meant calling Willow's room, and that was probably a bad idea at the moment. She would still be washing Daiquiri Ice out of her sweater.

Spike was -- NOT an option.

Giles, maybe? Although Xander had never made a habit of confiding in Giles, he knew he could if he needed to. But then, he'd feel like a sadistic loser complaining to Giles about a girl walking out on him. He couldn't do that, not when Giles had lost the woman he loved so tragically; better to suffer alone than remind Giles about that time.

"But not here," Xander muttered, grabbing up his jacket from the foot of the bed.

Despite popular belief, there were places in town to go besides the Bronze. Most of them were scary as hell, even by Sunnydale standards -- but Xander had a feeling they were just about right for tonight.

"Are you new here?" said the girl with safety pins through her eyebrows.

"You're sharp on the uptake," Xander said. He was relieved to see her smile, though not to realize she had an actual spike through her tongue. Sure, a bellybutton ring was kind of sexy, but wasn't it possible to take this piercing thing too far?

Nobody in the club would agree, he suspected. Xander felt like the freak in his plaid shirt and jeans, but he was willing to stay on the freak side of the Force. Besides, nobody was giving him a hard time about it; as long as he kept dancing, he was making the scene.

Safety Pins shrugged over toward a nearby table. "My friend's got some stuff," she yelled over the cacophony of the band. "You want to party with us?"

"Stuff?" Xander said. Safety Pins pointed at her shoulder; what Xander had believed was a tattoo of a bleeding heart was running and fading already. Temporary tattoos? What the hell. "Sure, fix me up."

She led him over to the table, where a thin, Goth-looking guy turned to smile at Xander. "Been wondering when you'd get over here."

"You black eyeliner types are much less hostile than I had been led to believe," Xander said. Nobody paid him any attention. "So, got something kinda Betty Page?"

"I know what you need," Goth Guy said. He pressed a small patch of white paper to Xander's forearm. It stuck to the faint sheen of sweat he'd worked up while dancing; Xander peered down to see the design showing faintly through the paper.

"A little squiggly thing. With some foreign language on it. Not what I was looking for --"

"It's the eternal curve," Goth Guy said, with a silver-lipsticked grin.

"Okay, then, that's great --"

"You've got to dance," Safety Pins said, tugging him back out onto the floor. "It won't take if you don't dance."

So Xander danced. He hoped Safety Pins wasn't planning on dragging him back to her lair, but he didn't think so. It was enough to keep moving to the music, along with the lights -- and the colors --

Something is strange here, my friend, Xander thought to himself. This blue light is actually going through me. At least it feels like it. It feels great. And I think I am in serious trouble.

The words "blotter acid" floated up in his memory a few minutes too late. "This is the price of naiveté" he muttered as he put a hand on a nearby table to steady himself. He glanced down at his arm; the piece of paper had fallen away. The inked spiral -- along with the drug -- had already been soaked up by his body. Was the spiral moving? No, no, that was stupid. It was the tiles on the floor --

"Is this trip really necessary?" Xander groaned. Not that there was going to be much he could do about it at this point --

And he was dancing again -- no, dancing before, the paper still on his arm, Safety Pins still grinning at him. Had he hallucinated taking the paper off? Freaky --

And he saw fire -- green fire, sure, but fire -- and beyond that fire he heard a roar that reverberated through his very bones. Someone was screaming, someone who sounded a lot like Willow --

And then he was back at the basement, curled up in his bed. How had he gotten there? No matter -- at least he was home, and apparently not tripping anymore, and oh dear lord Jesus not alone --

Xander winced as he looked at the tiny figure on the far side of his bed; sure, he'd entertained a little curiosity about whether Safety Pins left those things in at night, but he'd never actually wanted to find out. But he realized it wasn't her lying next to him.

It was Willow. Fast asleep, totally and completely naked, just as he was, and frowning slightly even in her sleep.

"This is not the memory I want to lose," Xander muttered. "Think, man, think--"

And he was running. Running like hell itself was behind him, which in Sunnydale was always a fair possibility. He half-turned to see what was behind him, and wished he hadn't. Whatever was chasing him looked like the offspring of an unlikely affair between a gila monster and Crash Bandicoot. It also looked hungry.

"Xander!" Buffy yelled. "Move your ass!"

He looked ahead once more; Buffy was standing at a small door -- to where? Where were they? -- through which Giles was scrambling.

"Buffy, what's happening?" Xander said as he reached the door.

"You couldn't have picked another night to turn on and drop out?" she said, glaring at him. "You're no help now. Follow Willow and Giles. Now go!" Buffy pushed him through the door --

And he was back at the club, leaning against the table as Safety Pins stared at him, wide-eyed. "What's the problem? Bad trip?"

"I'm thinking that's a yes," Xander said. "What the hell did your friend give me?"

"It's good stuff," she said defensively. "Relax."

"These are not relaxing things I'm seeing. Not at all."

"What's happening, man?" Goth Guy said.

"It's like I'm here, and then I'm not here -- this is not gonna make any sense," Xander groaned. "Sometimes I'm here before I'm here -- like, sometimes this thing's on my arm and sometimes it isn't yet --"

"You're out of sequence," Goth Guy said. "Your brain is processing events in a different order than they happen. Weird trip. Takes about two days to come out."

"Oh, great. Just great," Xander said.

"Nothing to do now but enjoy the ride," Safety Pins said --

And he was at Giles' house. Xander glanced at the nearby clock; just after ten. Willow was asleep on the sofa; one of Giles' blazers was draped over her and she clutched it close, her hands tight even in sleep. Giles did not seem to be anywhere around. Xander heard his stomach growl; if this was all a dream, it was a very real one. Regardless, he might as well get something to eat. As he stepped in the alcove leading to the kitchen, he saw Spike; the vampire was sitting on the floor, his back against the bathroom door. The look on his face -- it wasn't like anything he'd seen from Spike before --

"Spike -- you can't be -- sad?"

Spike slowly looked up at Xander as his expression shifted to a glare. "Tell anyone and I'll welcome the migraine I earn kicking your ass."

"Hey, I didn't see it," Xander said. "I hallucinated it. Actually, I probably did."

Xander began sifting through the disappointing contents of Giles' refrigerator; had this man never heard of junk food?


"Yeah, Spike?"

"What happens to me now?"

Xander frowned and turned back to answer Spike --

And orange sunset light was streaming through stained-glass windows. Xander heard the chapel doors shut behind him; he took a moment to glance around in confusion. Had he converted or something? "Better this than the Moonies," Xander muttered.

He was definitely dressed for an occasion; he had on his good suit and his least-scuffed shoes. The only question was: what occasion?

Lots of people he knew were there, all standing around speaking softly --Jonathan, Devon, that cute girl who lived in the dorm room next to Buffy and Willow's, what was her name --

The cute girl stepped aside, and Xander's stomach seemed to drop.

At the front of the chapel was a coffin.

More than anything, Xander did not want to walk up there and discover who had died. But he started moving anyway, as if pushed by something beyond his own volition.

Thank God, Willow was there; she was sitting in the front row, talking quietly with that guy Buffy had been talking about, Riley what's-his-name. Giles too -- Giles was standing in the corner of the room, his hand on Mrs. Summers' shoulder.

Xander stepped a little closer. He could see into the coffin now, just a little, enough to catch a glimpse of black cloth, of slim, folded hands, of sun-gold hair --

"No. Oh, no," Xander whispered. "Not Buffy."

Part Two

"This can't be real," Xander said.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Willow. She was not looking at him, but down at Buffy's dead body. "I feel that way too," Willow said softly.

"That's not what I mean --"

And he was in an alleyway. Two bad things were at work here: it was really dark and, from the sound behind him, Xander was pretty sure he wasn't alone.

"Xander? What are you doing here?"

He froze for a moment, then turned around to see Buffy -- alive, well and vaguely pissed off at him, which was troublesome but really nothing compared to the alive and well part. "Oh, man, am I glad to see you."

Giles and Willow came jogging around the corner. "You found him," Willow said.

"At the last possible second," Buffy muttered. "We've been looking all over for you, Xander. There's some serious stuff going down tonight. Did your Uncle Rory give you the messages?"

"That would be a no."

"I'm not really sure he understood them all that well," Willow said helpfully. "Goldschlager again?"

"Schnapps, I think. What's the deal?"

"The Son of Verruth is awakening tonight," Giles said. "He awakens once every three hundred years and inevitably brings forth a tide of destruction and chaos."

"The usual, then," Xander said, taking a deep breath. He felt dizzy, out of breath -- the one dim light at the end of the alleyway was strangely haloed in a shimmery rainbow --

"Wait a minute. If you weren't out looking for us, what are you doing here?" Willow said, wrinkling her nose. "This is really not such a great part of town, Xander."

"Given that we have vampires and demons and Sons of Vermouth in even the very finest neighborhoods of Sunnydale, I don't think a mugging is our biggest worry."

"Son of Verruth," Giles corrected. "And we can help you with supernatural problems. Purely mortal hooligans are generally beyond our ken."

"I think I could kick a purely mortal hooligan's ass," Buffy said. "But Xander's avoiding the question."

"Anya and I broke up; I don't want to talk about it; I decided to go out someplace with no memories attached to it, which this place definitely is; this guy gave me some acid; I did NOT know it was acid but I've taken it all the same; I am seeing some seriously weird things," Xander said. "I'm hoping you guys are real. If not, don't tell me."

"Way to go, Xander," Buffy sighed. "This thing is going to be hard to kill, and I need all the help I can get."

"Not much help with the big, nasty Son of Verruth? Darn, I guess I'll have to go home."

"You're in no condition to be roaming the streets by yourself," Giles said. "Just stay close to us."

"And try not to get in the way," Buffy added.

"The warmth of your welcome moves me," Xander said. But he was so relieved to be near Buffy, to know the image of her funeral was only a dream, that the scolding didn't bother him overmuch. Maybe he sort of deserved it --

And he was in Buffy's house. It was daytime again; he sat on the sofa with Willow, who was sitting on the cushion farthest from him. They were both looking up at Mrs. Summers, who looked like hell.

Her hair was pulled back severely, her face was devoid of makeup, and her expression was flat and blank. She was holding a pair of black shoes.

"She didn't need these," Mrs. Summers said. "They thanked me so nicely for the dress and the headband, but then they told me she didn't need shoes. They don't put shoes on the people they bury; did you know that?"

"No," Willow whispered. "No, I didn't."

"I wish they hadn't told me," Mrs. Summers said. "Why couldn't they just take the shoes? It was hard enough -- picking out something for her to --" She clapped a hand to her mouth for a moment, then let it drop, as if even that strength had been robbed from her. "But riding home with just her shoes there on the seat --"

She started sobbing then, and the sight of her anguish was almost too much to bear. Not for Willow; she got up quickly to take Buffy's mother in her arms. But Xander couldn't find it in himself to comfort her.

It was only now occurring to him that at some point during his two-day trip, Buffy had actually died. He was living this out of sequence, sure -- but it was real. All of it --

And it was sunrise at Giles' house. Why wasn't he asleep? Xander felt more tired and confused than he'd ever been; when was this? He was wearing the same clothing he'd worn to the club; the spiral was still clearly inked on his arm. The morning after he'd taken the drugs, then?

Giles stood next to him, pale with his own exhaustion. "I should go," Giles said. His voice was so rough and scratchy it was almost unrecognizable.

"Go where?" Xander said.

Giles looked at him strangely. "To Los Angeles. To speak to Angel. I don't suppose I'm the proper person to -- to tell him Buffy's gone." He swallowed; saying those words had cost him. "But it's got to be done. And better done face to face, don't you think?"

"I guess," Xander said, the words sounding hollow even to him.

"Stay with Willow," Giles said as he squeezed Xander's shoulder. "She needs you now. You need each other."

"I'll do that," Xander promised. "But Giles -- before you go --"


"The drugs I took -- they're still affecting me. And the way they're affecting me -- Giles, I'm experiencing events out of sequence. Like, I think I've seen Buffy's funeral. And I saw her alive after I saw that."

Giles sighed. "Xander -- based on my not-inconsiderable experience with hallucinogens, I can tell you that they don't work in that manner. You might have disorientation, to be sure, even some loss of continuity; still, there's no means by which you could have seen an event that has yet to take place."

"But Giles, if I did go back again, back before Buffy died, maybe I could stop it --"

"Xander," Giles said, his voice gentle. "Even if we accept your account of events, we know that you have been to Buffy's funeral. Anything you have witnessed would have to come to pass. Do you see?"

"You mean, there's nothing I can do?" Xander said, feeling his throat tighten. "Nothing any of us can do? She's really gone?"

"She really is," Giles answered. "I've had to say that too many times already; how am I going to say it again?"

Xander shook his head, grief and guilt washing over him --

And he was making love to Willow.

He gasped with shock and paused, trying to gather his thoughts. It was astonishing and, yet, not so strange; hadn't he fantasized about this often enough? Being with her felt natural, in a way. As though they'd been lovers for years.

Willow looked up at him, her eyes puzzled. "You okay?" she whispered.

"Better than okay." Xander kissed her deeply and tasted the soft salt of tears on her skin. He knew how this had happened, now; their loss had driven them together, pushed them past their reluctance and confusion. Was this what he had really wanted, all this time? He didn't know and didn't care. For the first time in all this madness, he felt centered, collected, whole. He didn't have to think about anything, or say anything, or do anything other than what he felt --

And he was in a park. It was still nighttime -- a different night? Yes, he decided, the first night; he was wearing his clubbing clothes.

Giles were pacing around the edges of a circle, inside which an elaborate pattern had been created out of white powder. Spike leaned against a nearby tree, smoking a cigarette. "So, that's what you're after, then?"

"Right," Giles said. "Where's my spell book?"

"Where's my spell book? That's the thanks I get for risking my hide being out here in commando-boy land while you lot are off stealing jewelry?" Spike shoved a heavy, leather-bound tome into Giles' arms with a little more strength than was necessary, then winced slightly.

"Thank you, Spike," Willow said, rolling her eyes skyward. "It's perfect."

"More like it."

"What's going on?" Xander said.

"Xander, I know you are disoriented and confused, and you will just have to trust me when I tell you the best thing for you to do is shut up," Giles said.

"And stay out of the way," Willow said as she shook out a small brown sack; something gold and green tumbled into the center of the circle. "That's two best things."

"You'll be wanting a third, you know," Spike said, almost nonchalantly.

Willow glanced back at him. "Another best thing? Oh -- oh! You're familiar with this spell?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm an expert, seeing as how this thing rolls around every third century," Spike said. "The point is, I've cast spells before, and I think I'll do you better for focused energy than high-as-a-bleedin'-kite over there."

"Your lethality has been replaced by a certain pragmatism, Spike," Giles said. "Quickly, now, both of you. Buffy doesn't have much time."

"Buffy's still alive," Xander whispered. The others did not hear him or paid him no heed; they were all sitting at the edges of the circle, their hands facing outward as though they were pushing against something unseen, which possibly they were. Giles' spell book was in his lap, and he looked down frequently as he read off the words of an incantation. Xander was no expert, not with his high-school Spanish, but he didn't think this was Latin or Romani or any of the usual weird-magic languages. It sounded -- older. Scarier.

As he continued his chant, an eerie orange light began pulsing in the center of the circle; it illuminated the leaves above their heads, creating a strange, shifting canopy. The thing Willow had shaken from her bag -- Xander could see now that it was some kind of amulet or medallion with a green jewel in the middle -- began to rise from the floor. It spun in place, rising higher and higher, suspended in the light that pulsed with every syllable Giles spoke.

Was it the language, or was Giles' voice shaking? Willow was used to spells and stuff, and even she looked a little freaked out, Xander thought. And Spike's face -- well, he looked less bored than usual, anyway.

The medallion spun faster and faster, making a strange whirring sound as it did so, until suddenly it exploded. Xander flinched as Willow screamed; he heard shards of metal thudding into the trees and earth around them. The orange light vanished as quickly as if someone had flipped a switch.

"Damn," Spike swore, looking at a nasty-looking bit of shrapnel in his arm. "Should've let Xander take this shift."

"This means the Son of Verruth is dead, right?" Willow said. She was still a little shaky; Xander thought she was out of it until Spike moved to pull the metal from his flesh. "Spike, don't! It'll burn you!"

"It's not exactly comfy now, love."

"It's all right, Willow," Giles said. "The Son of Verruth dies with his medallion. And the metal has no special properties now. We can touch it without harm."

"Okay, quick update for the trippy guy in the corner," Xander said. "Destroying this medallion means destroying the Son of Verruth." When Giles nodded, Xander continued, "So Buffy is out of danger."

"Assuming she was able to trap him as we planned," Giles said, frowning slightly. "But that should be fairly easy work for our Slayer. I imagine she'll be back with us in a few minutes."

Xander breathed a sigh of relief --

And he was hugging someone who, when she leaned back from the embrace, turned out to be Cordelia. "Cordy?"

"I mean it, Xander. I'm really sorry," Cordelia said, her voice softer than Xander had heard in a long time. His heart sank.

They were standing in the chapel, and Xander did not have to turn to know that Buffy's dead body lay behind him in her coffin. Night had fallen, and nothing had changed. Nothing could change. He would spend the next two days watching Buffy die in bits and pieces, and the only thing for him to do was accept it.

"Cordelia, thanks for coming. I know she would have appreciated it," Xander said, although he knew no such thing.

"I blew off an audition," Cordelia said, in the voice of one who has made a noble sacrifice. "Anyway, if he was going to get to the wake on time, I had to drive."

Xander frowned for a moment, then understood. He slowly turned around.

Angel stood by Buffy's side; Xander could not see his face and was, for one sick second, grateful for that. "How is he?" Xander whispered.

"Not good," Cordelia said. "When Giles told him -- Xander, he just fell. Like he didn't have anything in him. He didn't faint, just -- I don't know. Angel pulled himself together pretty fast, but it's all on the outside. You look in his eyes and nobody's home."

"You don't mean -- grrr?" Xander whispered, making fangy gestures.

"That whole losing-the-soul thing depends on him being happy, right? I think we're safe from evil Angel for, like, ever." Cordelia sighed.

Out of the corner of his eye, Xander could see that Angel remained leaning over Buffy's casket; he did not turn away or even look up, but remained fixed on her pale, still face. He wasn't crying, wasn't speaking -- just frozen there, hunched over slightly as if in pain.

And then Xander realized that Angel had no choice. At the front of the chapel was an enormous cross; being so close to one so large had to be painful for the vampire. But he would not let it keep him from her. "He ought to step outside. Get away from that thing for a minute," Xander said.

"God, Xander, I know a dead body's just a body but, a thing? That's way cold."

"Cordelia, I'm talking about the cross, okay?"

"Oh. Yeah, make him get some fresh air. Angel could probably use it, after an afternoon in the trunk."

"Me? Why me? Angel and I are not the closest."

"Well, Giles is trying to take care of Mrs. Summers, which is one big job. Willow is trying to score with this very delicious man, for which I must say I cannot blame her."

"Willow is not trying to score with Riley," Xander said, surprised at how much the mistake annoyed him.

"Whatever. I've been trying to get Angel to talk to me for a while now, and it's a no-go. That leaves you."

Xander still held in his heart many, many annoying memories of dating Cordelia; however, until this moment he had forgotten her infuriating habit of often being right. He squared his shoulders and walked up to Angel. "Hey there," Xander said.

"Hi, Xander," Angel said quietly, glancing over his shoulder with only a slight wince.

"How're you holding up?"

"Don't ask me that. Not here," Angel said.

"Then let's go outside and give you a break from the crucifix, okay?" When Angel didn't move, Xander continued, "You don't have to talk if you don't want to."

Angel looked back at him again, his eyes unfathomably dark. But after a second he nodded and quickly walked to a side door. Once outside, Angel took a deep breath; the last pale tinges of sunset marked the western sky. Xander watched Angel studying the horizon, looking after the lost light.

"I lost a friend just a few days ago," Angel said, "and I thought that would be the worst I'd feel for a long time. If there's anything these centuries should've taught me, it's that there's no end to pain."

Xander had always hated Angel's brooding, but for once, he couldn't argue with it.

"I thought I was doing the best thing for her," Angel continued. "Giving her freedom. A chance at a real life. Instead I put her through a miserable breakup while we both loved one another, only to have her die. I might have saved her the anguish."

"Angel --" Xander was at a loss. What could he say? Why wasn't Willow out here, or somebody who had could respect how Angel was feeling? Xander had never liked Angel --

And why not? He considered his reasons for few seconds before he spoke again. "Angel, leaving aside for a second the whole losing-the-soul period, I have given you a lot of grief over the years."

"I've got it coming," Angel said.

"Not for the reasons I dished it out," Xander said. "I resented you because I thought you cost me my chance with Buffy. Like she belonged to me, and you stole her. But she wasn't mine to lose or to keep."

"And she was never mine," Angel whispered. "She belonged to something else."

Xander nodded; when he spoke again, he was surprised at how rough his voice was. "The way I acted -- I've been selfish for years. I put my feelings first, not hers. But you did."

Angel turned back to face him, which made it harder to continue. But he did. "She was hurting after you guys split, yeah. But Buffy always understood that you left because you cared about her. She knew somebody loved her that much. That's something a lot of people never know. It's something you gave her that I never could have."

"Xander." Angel spoke softly as he hesitantly put a hand on Xander's shoulder. "Don't sell yourself short. There's nothing you wouldn't have done for Buffy."

"We'll never know for sure," Xander said. "There's nothing more I can do for her now --"

And he was in the club, stumbling toward the door, the drug still heavy and thick in him. Xander shook his head to clear it -- a lost cause -- and tried to get outside to get some fresh air. But an arm was blocking the doorway. Xander blinked as he looked over to see whom this arm belonged to. Goth Guy was shaking his head and grinning. "Man, you are fucked up."

"All thanks to you, my friend," Xander said. "Now if you don't mind, I'd like to vomit in the relative safety and comfort of the alley."

"That's not what I mean. You're taking the trip, but you don't understand where it's leading you."

"What are you talking about?"

"You're wearing the eternal curve," Goth Guy said. "There's a lot of meaning there, if you can interpret it. A lot of opportunity."

"My universal translator is down. Make it simple for me, okay?" Xander said. He was annoyed and nauseated, and yet, for some reason, he could focus on Goth Guy. Only on Goth Guy. He was pretty sure this was important.

"You change the way things happen outside you by changing what's inside you. That's the message, man."

"You mean -- I really am moving through time," Xander said, grabbing Goth Guy's arm. "I can still save Buffy. Tell me how!"

"Just did."

Part Three

"Changing what's inside me?" Xander said. "What does that mean? I can save Buffy if I donate a kidney?"

"You're closer than you think," Goth Guy said.

"You're not just hanging at the club at random, are you?" Xander asked.

Goth Guy smiled. "You might catch on yet."

Xander didn't know whether to scream or cheer --

And he was in the shower.

The basement shower had been jury-rigged by Uncle Rory several years ago for reasons Xander could no longer remember. He did recall, however, that the tile had not always been green. As a result, he'd always avoided the basement shower back in high school. Now that he paid for the privilege of living underground, Xander had tried to reclaim the shower as his own; however, the mildew or mold or pod aliens infesting the tile had proven resistant to all commercial cleansers. The possibility of having Willow hex the mildew had been bandied about. In the meantime Xander made it a point to wear plastic flip-flops while showering.

As he stared down as his flip-flops, Xander tried to figure out what day it might be. "Okay," he muttered. "The first night, I take the drugs, I find the gang, we find the Son of Verruth, we leave Buffy and do the spell, but Buffy dies anyway. Next day, we start out at Giles' place. Giles leaves for L.A. Willow and I are hanging out there. Later that night, something happens that gets us horizontal. Next day we go to Mrs. Summers', then we go to the wake. And sometime during the wake -- that's my 48 hours. That's all the time I get."

None of this answered the question of what day he'd popped into now, but Xander was guessing this was not exactly a critical time period. He went ahead and shaved, considering. "Change what's inside me. What does that mean? When do I make my move?"

Further shaving and lathering offered no answers. Xander stepped out of the shower, kicked off his shoes -- and looked up to see Willow sitting on the bed, tugging on her shirt.

"Second morning," Xander said. Willow looked up at that, then quirked her mouth in amusement. Xander could feel his face turning hot as he grabbed a towel and tucked it around his waist.

"It's not really all that necessary after last night, huh?" she asked. But there was something a little sad behind her joke.

"Guess not. It's just -- new." Xander stepped closer. "Maybe we'll get used to it."

Willow looked him in the eyes for a long moment, and Xander sighed. "Or maybe not."

"Xander -- you and me, we have so much to work through. But this -- this is not the time to decide."

"You're right," Xander said. His momentary good cheer at having a chance to save Buffy was fast disintegrating in the face of Willow's dark mood.

"I never meant for this to happen," Willow said. "What am I gonna tell Oz when he gets back? He just barely believed that you and I were really over. When I tell him we slept together -- and I have to tell him, Xander --"

"Willow, Oz is a good guy," Xander said. "When he learns what happened to Buffy, I don't think he's going to judge either of us too harshly for what we did today."

"You think so?"

"I hope so. Otherwise, I'm gonna be on the receiving end of some pit-bull action." He was relieved to see Willow laugh --

And he was kneeling in a tunnel, watching Giles cry.

Willow and Spike were standing behind Giles; Willow clutched convulsively onto Spike's jacket as she sobbed. Spike was frozen in place, not comforting Willow, not wearing his usual smart-ass expression, not doing anything but looking down at the body in Giles' arms.

Xander had been horrified to see Buffy's corpse in her coffin. But compared to what he saw before him now, that image was peaceful. Buffy lay on the ground, dirt and blood smeared over her skin and in her hair. Her neck and arms were marred with deep gashes. Blood pooled around her -- more blood than he would have thought could be in a human body.

The funeral home had arranged Buffy's face into a semblance of sleep, of rest. She had not even that artificial dignity now; her eyes were glassy, her lips still twisted in the last agony she had known.

"But we killed it," Willow gulped between sobs. "Giles, we killed it."

"We -- we weren't fast enough," Giles whispered. "Or it was too fast for us."

"Holy shit," Spike said. Through his shock, Xander numbly thought that, for Spike, that was actually fairly respectful.

This doesn't have to happen, Xander reminded himself. What I'm looking at is just the worst-case scenario. I can stop it. I have to believe that I can stop it.

Otherwise, I couldn't take it --

"Buffy, I'm so sorry," Giles said. "All I ever wanted -- oh, God, I wasn't worthy of you --"

"Giles, don't," Xander said --

And he was back at the wake.

Xander glanced around; Angel and Cordelia didn't seem to be there yet, and light was still coming through the windows. Early evening of the second day, then.

"This is useless," he muttered. "Come on, switch already --"

But he couldn't move around at will; Xander was stuck in place for the time being. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall of the chapel; it was hard for him to be kind to everyone who came up to him -- people he hadn't seen in forever, people he hadn't realized knew Buffy -- but he tried. Otherwise, they'd get suspicious. Whenever somebody wasn't actually speaking to him, he just stared at the floor, which made him look mournful enough.

"Xander?" The voice made him jump. When he looked up, Anya stood in front of him. She smiled awkwardly. "I brought a floral offering."

The chapel was filled with traditional, respectful wreaths of red roses or white carnations. Anya, however, had brought a bouquet of tiger lilies, vibrantly orange and yellow. It was weirdly out of place, and yet, somehow, it reminded him a little of Buffy. "Thanks, Anya," he said gently. "It's good of you to come."

"I don't know if you even want to see me," Anya said all in a rush. "But Buffy and I were sort of friends, without the whole liking-each-other part."

"Anya -- you don't have to explain yourself to me. Anyway, I'm glad you're here."

"I'm supposed to ask you if there's anything I can do, right?"

"You have successfully decrypted another aspect of human life," Xander said. "But there's nothing you can do right now -- wait, oh, hell, of course there is!"

Anya squared her shoulders. "This will involve a casserole of some kind, right?"

"Generally, but not today. Anya, is there any demon or spirit or elf or what-all that has the ability to move people through time?"

"A couple," Anya said. "You want to go back and help Buffy -- Xander, I don't know. Those guys are pretty strange. They do their own thing in their own time. So to speak."

"One of these things found me right after you and I -- well, two nights ago," Xander said. "I've been jumping around ever since. I just have to know that I'm moving through time for real. If I can get back again to before she dies, I might be able to stop it, right?"

"Don't see why not, except for the fact that this is the Son of Verruth you're dealing with. I mean, if he killed Buffy, he'll turn you into dog food."

"Find that silver lining, Anya," Xander said.

"I just mean -- be careful," Anya said. As always, when she said something soft and sentimental, Anya blushed a bit; considering the things she would say without blushing, Xander was always surprised to see her cheeks turn pink. And always charmed.

For the first time since their fight, he realized just how much he would miss her --

And he was climbing down metal rungs bolted into a cement wall; Xander took a deep breath and realized he was headed down into the sewer.

"C'mon, Xander. Get a move on."

"Buffy?" Xander looked down and saw her standing beneath him, her arms folded across her chest. She glanced over at Giles, who stood beside her.

"If his attention is going to keep wandering like this, I don't see how we can take him along. He's just gonna be looking at the pretty colors all night anyway."

"Buffy, we can't leave him up there helpless," Willow said. Her voice floated from above him, echoing dreamlike in the tunnel; Xander did have a pretty-colors moment but pulled himself together.

"Hey, here's a plan," Xander said. "Let's just not go. What say we head back to Casa de Giles and take a well-deserved night off?"

"That isn't an option," Giles said. "This creature comes forth and wreaks devastation upon the world for a month before settling back into its other-dimensional hibernation. We have but one chance to rid the world of it, not to mention save Sunnydale and the surrounding environs from complete destruction."

"Son of Verruth not good," Buffy said. "We kill. Xander stalling."

"No, I mean it," Xander said. "Buffy, this thing is a serious bad-ass. I mean, if we don't destroy this medallion right off, the Son of Verruth could kill you. Right, Giles?"

"Wait," Willow said. "You weren't there when we talked about the medallion --"

Xander ignored this. "Why do we have to run off to the park to do this spell, anyway? That takes a lot of time. Let's just do it here, huh? How's that for a plan?"

Giles was looking up at him with a very strange expression. "Putting aside for the moment the question of how you know all this -- how on earth -- never mind. You should also know that we can't just do this spell anywhere."

"Why not?" Xander asked --

And he was on the church steps, staring out at the night. "Dammit!" Xander yelled, not caring that several people walking to and from the chapel turned to look at him. Their eyes were so kind, though, so damn sorry for him --

Willow stepped outside. "Hey. Are you okay?"

"What do you think?" he snapped. Xander regretted his words immediately; Willow looked so worried, so uncertain. And she didn't even react to his anger.

"I know it's hard," she said, then smiled unevenly. "Angel and Riley are in there talking. We're missing out on some quality eavesdropping."

"No doubt," Xander said. He gentled his voice, disguising his impatience and his worry. But it was hard for him to concentrate on anything besides his abortive attempt to save Buffy.

What if he was already too late? What if he didn't get another chance to rescue her?

Devon walked out onto the steps with them. Xander wanted to groan; this was not the ideal time for a support group. But Devon was only focused on Willow.

"Hey, Wil," he said, holding out a cell phone. "You want to take this call?"

Willow breathed in sharply, then nodded and grabbed the phone. After a moment, she spoke, her voice breaking: "Oz?"

Devon and Xander shared a look and started walking away to give her a little privacy. Xander could still hear her, though, tearful and relieved all at once.

"You just now found out? -- It was so awful, Oz; I feel like we should've done something -- I know. No, no! You couldn't have changed anything. If I don't get to feel irrational guilt, neither do you. -- I -- I wish you were here too -- you will? You are? Oh -- "

Well, that's that, Xander thought. He didn't know why he should feel so surprised and disappointed. Of course Willow still loved Oz. Of course he would come back to be with her after something like this.

So I lost Anya over a two-year-old fantasy, Xander thought. And now I'm gonna have a pissed-off werewolf out for my head. Plus I still don't see how I'm supposed to save Buffy --

And he was back in his basement, with Willow in his arms. She was crying quietly, and as he breathed in deeply, he realized he had been too.

"It's not fair," Willow whispered. "She just wanted to have a normal life. And we would all pretend like she had one, like they weren't going to get her one day. I let myself believe it."

"I did too," Xander said. For the first time, he realized that, if he did manage to save Buffy from the Son of Verruth, he was only buying time. The futility, the injustice of it hit him all at once, and he clutched Willow a little tighter.

"I want out of Sunnydale," she said, her voice muffled against his shoulder. "Soon. I'll transfer out east. Maybe ask Giles if there's anyplace vampires don't go."

Xander looked down at her, hurt but not surprised. "Nobody to stick around for anymore, huh?"

"Oh, no, I didn't mean -- Xander --" Tears welled up in Willow's eyes again, and she pulled him close. This embrace was different than the others; it was still born of sadness and a kind of desperation, but where there had only been emptiness there was suddenly heat.

She kissed him, and it felt so fantastic that if he hadn't known exactly how it would all end, Xander could never have resisted her. He wouldn't even have tried. Instead, he ended the kiss and took her face in his hands. "Wil. You're upset. Don't do anything you don't mean."

"I don't know what I mean anymore," Willow whispered. "It just feels good being close to you."

"I know. I really do. But we've got enough to deal with right now."

"You're right," she said, then shook her head. "No, you're right. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Xander said. And then it hit him -- "I changed this!"

"What?" Willow looked confused, as well she might, but Xander was too thrilled to care.

"We were gonna sleep together, and it didn't happen. It didn't happen!"

"We just kissed once," Willow said, a bit defensively. "So you don't know that we were gonna -- anyway, you don't have to be so happy about it."

"That's not why I'm happy, trust me," Xander said. "But this is a good thing. A very good thing. I gotta get to Giles' place."

"What, now? Xander, Giles looked like he needed some serious crash time."

"This is more important."

Willow ran her hands through her hair as if to collect herself. "Okay. I'll come with."

"No, don't," Xander said. "You look kinda wrung out. In a cute way," he hastened to add. "It's okay. I'm gonna take care of Giles, take care of everything. Just crash."

He looked down at her tear-streaked face and bent down quickly to kiss her on the forehead, then took off for Giles' house at a run that would have put the Sunnydale High track team to shame. He could have just waited to see if and when he shifted back there, but he didn't want to take any risks. The next jump might be his big chance -- his only chance -- and he had to know what to do. Whatever it was, he knew he could do it.

Yeah, sure, Xander thought, something was probably going to get Buffy someday --

But not today, he thought. Or not yesterday. Whenever. Dammit.

By the time he jogged up to Giles' door, he was panting and exhausted; it seemed to take a whole lot of energy just to knock on the door. And to knock again. And then to start pounding. "Giles," Xander yelled. "You in there?"

Giles finally opened the door. He looked a little unkempt and smelled like Uncle Rory. "Xander. I wasn't expecting company."

"So I see," Xander said. "But you have to answer a couple questions for me real quick."

"This -- is not the best time --"

"It's the only time we've got." Xander pushed past Giles. Fortunately, everything was as he had expected it to be -- books and papers and sketches of the medallion still lying about. "You need to look in these books. You have to tell me some other way to kill the Son of Verruth."

"It's already dead, Xander," Giles said patiently.

"Not where I'm going."

"Are you still on about this time-traveling business? Xander, denial is a natural response to tragedy, but --"

"There's nothing natural about this! Giles, I know you don't believe me. But what if it's true? Just think about it. Even if it's just one chance in a million, don't you want Buffy to have it?"

Giles watched him silently for a moment. His eyes, which had been dull and dead, sparked with energy once again. "There's only one other way."

"So explain. There's no telling how much time we've got."

"The medallion is corrosive to human flesh; you know that much. But human touch is equally destructive to the medallion."

"You're telling me that all we had to do was pick it up?"

"It's not that simple. Even one moment's contact with the medallion is enough to cause painful burning. The kind of extended contact that would destroy the medallion -- Xander, whoever holds the medallion for that length of time will surely die." Giles put one hand on his shoulder. "If you go back, you must tell me what is to come and remind me that I told you this. And I shall then take the medallion."

Xander shook his head. "Come on. There's gotta be some other way. I want to save Buffy, but I don't want to lose you either."

"I appreciate that," Giles said with a ghost of a smile. "But I am an adult man. I've had my share of life's joys. Buffy didn't -- she hasn't. I want her to have that."

"Giles, this isn't right --"

And he was -- still at Giles' house, still standing near the door, but it was daytime. Willow was next to Spike on the couch; her body shook from an imagined chill even as she leaned on his shoulder. Xander breathed out in a sigh. "Not yet," he muttered, "not yet."

"What are you on about?" Spike snapped.

"What do you care?" Xander snapped back.

"I don't. But Red here seems to be having some trouble," Spike said. "Should I have a go at warming her up?"

"Most certainly you should not," Xander said. "Why don't you find someplace else to be in a big hurry?"

Spike raised his hands and his eyebrows as he moved away from the sofa. "Fine. Then you see to her."

Xander grabbed one of Giles' blazers and draped it across Willow's shoulders as he pushed her down on the couch. "Will, can you hear me?"

After a pause, she said, "Yeah. Xander, I'm cold."

"Pull the blazer around you. That's right." Xander remembered only then that he had seen her sleeping beneath this jacket before. Without knowing it, he'd recreated that event. Would he do the same thing to Buffy? He began to shiver himself.

"Thanks," Willow murmured. "You're so good to me."

A pang of guilt made Xander wince. He knew now, as he hadn't before, just how far he was capable of taking advantage of Willow's vulnerabilities. But he could do better from now on. For Willow, Buffy, Giles -- and Anya, if she'd still have him. "You're the good one," Xander said --

And green fire exploded around him. Xander screamed -- no other word for it -- and ducked down just in time. "Oh, God! Xander!" Willow cried out. "Are you okay?"

He looked up to see her running toward him. "I'm fine," he called, just as she ran past him -- and toward that butt-ugly creature he now knew was the Son of Verruth. "Willow, what are you doing?"

"Just get down, Xander!" Buffy yelled.

"Buffy!" Xander looked around wildly; Buffy was holding a torch, waving it about, passing it back and forth between both hands. The Son of Verruth, which was apparently not the brightest bulb on the undead Christmas tree, was too transfixed by the light and motion to notice Willow getting closer -- or Giles sneaking up from behind.

"Five minutes earlier would've been nice," Xander muttered. He crawled forward, hoping to get close enough to Giles to explain things as soon as they got that medallion. He was careful to leave the actual demon-baiting distraction to Buffy; he still didn't know if that thing was breathing the green fire or what and hoped to remain in ignorance.

"C'mon, big, scaly, spooky guy," Buffy crooned. She was fighting back a smile. Sometimes Xander forgot how much she actually relished slaying. "Isn't it pretty? Don't you want it? Because I'd love to give it to you."

Giles swung something silver and sharp toward the Son of Verruth. Xander heard the whir of metal through air just before he heard the monster scream, then saw the medallion, its chain severed, fall to the ground. The Son of Verruth roared in rage, but before it could wheel around to kill Giles, Buffy threw the torch. It plunged deep into the demon's flesh.

As the Son of Verruth screamed again and began lumbering toward Buffy, Willow ran forward, practically beneath its feet. She had a bit of brown cloth in her hands. "The sack," Xander said, even as Willow used it to flip the medallion in the air and then caught it handily.

"Let's go," Willow yelled.

"Over here!" Buffy called, motioning toward a small door --

The same door Xander had run through earlier. Could he live through the same event twice? He couldn't find out. They had left Buffy alone once, and she had died. That was it for that plan.

Did he even have a chance to tell Giles what they'd talked about before? Probably not. And even if he did, it would just mean that Giles died instead.

"Oh, God," Xander muttered. "It's up to me."

Part Four

Xander ran toward Willow as fast as he could. She was too busy looking after the fast-approaching Son of Verruth to notice, which probably accounted for her extreme surprise when he tackled her.

"What are you doing?" she cried as they fell to the ground.

Xander didn't bother to answer; instead, he grabbed the sack and shook it. The medallion tumbled to the ground.

"Xander, what on earth can you be thinking?" Giles called. "Put that back in the bag and get out of here!"

"No time," Xander said. He looked up at Willow as he reached for the medallion. "This is the only way. Remember that."

"Xander -- Xander, no!" Willow screamed at the moment he took the medallion in his hands.

Giles had said it would burn, but Giles hadn't known the half of it. Agony screeched through his hands, his skin, his bones, his nerves. He was half-blinded -- the medallion? tears of pain? -- but could see enough to know that he wasn't actually on fire, no matter how much it felt like it. Willow's cries mingled with those of Buffy and Giles, but he couldn't make out the words through the chattering of his teeth and the weird humming that must have been his nervous system going crazy.

This is it, this is it, Xander thought wildly. I'm dying, and I never said goodbye, and I never did any of the stuff I meant to, and this hurts like hell but I have to hold on hold on hold on --

And he could feel nothing but pain, hear nothing but roaring -- the Son of Verruth's roaring --

"Xander!" He could hear Willow perfectly well. He could open his eyes and see the medallion, glowing now with the weird orange light that also circled his arm -- and the curly inked pattern on his arm, which glowed with that same light. Nothing hurt any more. Energy was still flowing through him, but it wasn't painful. In fact, it kind of felt good.

The Son of Verruth roared one more time as his body began to vibrate, then shattered into smoking gravel. The medallion also crumbled into dust.

"Ewww," Buffy said, as the tarry rocks showered down around them. "He's made out of cat poop."

"How very apt," Giles muttered. "Xander, what on earth were you thinking? And how did you survive?"

Xander stared down at the tattoo on his arm; it still glowed faintly. Willow touched it and gasped as it sparked slightly.

"Guys -- it's a long story."

"And you're gonna tell it," Buffy said. "As soon as we get back to Giles' place. Because I don't know about you guys, but I could do with some nachos."

Xander grinned at her as she pulled him to his feet.

"I didn't think you ate nachos, Giles," Willow said, as she refilled her plate. "Thought you were more of a muesli-and-quiche kinda guy."

"I consider myself to have a refined palate," Giles said. "But there is a certain value in variety. Bring that cheese sauce back in here with you."

"And some blood," Spike said. "As long as you're up."

Buffy was smiling softly at Xander; she wore the exact expression he once would've killed to see. Now -- well, it was still pretty good. "I can't believe you were willing to do that."

Xander shrugged. "You're the Slayer, Buff. You're pretty important around here. More important than me, anyway."

"That's for sure," Spike said. "And how about popping that blood in the microwave for a few?"

"Who's the prisoner around here?" Willow said. But she started heating up the blood anyway.

"The world can always get another Slayer," Buffy said, with an uneven smile. "Last time I checked, there was only one Xander. And we'd all like to keep him around."

"Hear, hear," Willow said.

"I'll provide the pointed silence," Spike said.

"What I want to know is why this time-shifter -- for lack of a better term -- gave you the ability to rescue Buffy without sacrificing your own life, yet failed to mention it," Giles said. "Seems rather like the sort of thing that would bear discussing."

"He wasn't a spell-it-out kinda guy," Xander said. "By the way, what was he?"

"I've no idea," Giles said.

"This loopy thing doesn't provide any clues?" Xander asked, holding out his arm for Giles to see. The pattern was still visible on his skin, although it was fading quickly. "It's not some Etruscan protection symbol, or some Druid magicks, or something?"

"Xander, that's a Fibonacci spiral," Willow said.

"Fibonacci demon?" Buffy said, wrinkling her nose. "That's a new one."

"No, no. Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician. He discovered what people call the Fibonacci series -- it's this recurring pattern that shows up everywhere. It's just a mathematical concept, but it predicts things like, say, the seeds in the center of a sunflower. Or, or the diameter of the rings of a tree. The spiral's drawn in those proportions," Willow explained. "Some people call it the eternal curve."

"That I've heard," Xander said. "So what's the writing?" The phone started ringing; Buffy went to answer it.

"I can help you there," Giles said. "It's Latin. Loosely translated, it means 'however things change, they are always the same.' Rather earthly, considering the nature of its protective power."

Xander shrugged. "So Betty Page would have worked just as well. I got robbed."

"Anya!" Buffy said, just a little loudly. As they all turned toward her, Buffy continued, "Thanks for the info, but we've actually got it covered. The Son of Verruth is off the active list. -- Believe it or not, it was our man Xander who took him out. Want to congratulate him?" Without waiting for an answer, Buffy held the phone out to Xander.

Xander took it right away. "You killed the Son of Verruth?" Anya was saying, even as he held the phone to his ear.

"And hello to you too. Thanks for the disbelief, but yes, I did. I had a little help, though," he said.

"Way to go," Anya said, her voice somewhat wistful.

"Hey, Anya, about earlier?"


"I don't think that was breaking up. I think that was fighting. Sometimes it's a subset of breaking up, but more often, it's just a big nasty mess. But it blows over, and life goes on."

Anya was quiet for a moment. "Okay, I can buy that. What happens next?"

"Well, I'm the one who screwed up," Xander said. "That means that I show up tomorrow with flowers or candy. Given my hefty stock options at Kwickie Mart, I think you should keep your expectations modest. But you do get to make me grovel." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Willow grinning at him. He smiled back. "After that, we're required to be revoltingly mushy about each other for at least a week. Public necking may be involved."

When Anya spoke again, he could tell she was smiling. "I like the sound of that," she said.


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