|These things will be clear, though not always in the order that they happened:|
Stupidly, crazily, he'll remember every boring, everyday word that they said about Slayer Spring Break 2002 as they sat in the back yard at Revello Drive: Xander, Willow, Tara, Buffy, Faith.
The in-flight movie on the way over had sucked. There was no water-pressure at the hotel in London, but there were rubber duckies in the bathtub which almost made up for Buffy and Faith having to play trained monkey for the Watchers' Council. At least they agreed that Faith didn't have to go back to prison, which Buffy was counting in the win column for some reason she'd get back to them with later. Giles was coming home tomorrow; he had business to finish up.
Faith's ears didn't un-pop the entire flight back so she couldn't say if that movie sucked, but then there was the thing on the way back from the airport with that loser Warren and his balls of power and that, she and Buffy kicking ass and taking toys away together, that did not suck.
Xander'll remember the grin that Buffy and Faith exchanged. He'll remember Tara's hand on Willow's knee, just that one little sign that maybe, maybe? Except maybe more than maybe, because it was morning and they'd shown up together, and there was that smile in return that Willow was trying so hard to hide and couldn't because it was almost exploding across her face. He'll remember Buffy leaning over to pour lemonade into Tara's glass, and waving towards a flash of pale hair through the basement window, and the slant of the morning sunlight across the lawn, warm on Xander's wrist.
Then, "You think you can just do that to me?" and Warren Mears in Buffy's backyard with a gun in his hand.
The sound of that gun firing three times is almost muffled in Xander's memory. It's Faith clasping her hand over her shoulder, cursing softly because she didn't have the breath to shout, that he'll remember of the first one. The second shot was Tara's voice, soft and confused, saying, "Your shirt," and the bright spray of red across Willow's white blouse, how the blood was brighter on her than it was in the center of Tara's chest, one dull purple circle soaking into a fuzzy blue sweater.
The third one just sounded like tinkling glass somewhere up above Xander's head, though he wouldn't know why until later, just like he barely noticed Warren dropping the gun to his side and running, Faith taking off after him but not getting further than the gate before the wound on her arm made her stagger and sit.
At the time, Xander was too busy staring at Willow's eyes. It was like none of them were there except her and the body slumped across her lap, for a moment, and then she looked up. He'd seen them cold and black before, and would again, but nothing was ever like that clear, liquid red, brighter than blood, darker than her hair. He was grateful in that moment that she wasn't looking at him, when she reached out to the sky and called for someone to bring Tara back, and the clouds swirled, and something laughed at her.
It was only hours later that the third shot would finally register. After Willow disappeared into thin air, red eyes turned black, Tara's empty body dropped to the ground. After they'd taken Faith to the hospital to patch up her arm. After they'd met Willow on the road chasing Warren down and been frozen in place while she walked away, hair black, face covered in veins.
When they came back to the house and Dawn called for Buffy from upstairs, and after a moment of silence Xander heard, horribly tiny like nothing that comes out of Buffy's mouth should ever sound, "Mom? Mom? Mommy?" -- that's when he finally heard the last shot hit.
One thing -- out of a lot -- that he'll wish he could forget is the blue-magenta-purple-burnt-brick color of muscles and veins, when they caught up with Willow again. Not the blueblack ones on her face, but the image of Warren hanging, tied up in vines, mouth open, eyes bulging, and then... Like a biology-lab dummy, only those are made of plastic and the muscles don't move. [Image cut for eww.] You can't see a pulse, though maybe Xander only imagined that in the split second before she waved her hand and Warren was gone, and so was Xander's breakfast. Then Willow looked over her shoulder, towards town, said, "He had help," and so was she.
Getting from place to place was mostly a blur. Once Willow turned his car into a crumpled heap of crap, they ran to the Levinson house. Crammed themselves, Jonathan and Andrew into the station wagon in the driveway and took off for the Magic Box. But the actual doing of all that folds into itself, stock footage of familiar Sunnydale landscape that Xander had seen a thousand times before. His foot on the gas pedal and Willow on the roof of a semi in his rear-view mirror - that alone was starkly real, tied to the adrenaline taste of copper in his mouth like he'd been biting on a penny the entire time.
Willow's hand stroking Dawn's hair, that was an image that stayed clear. She'd been almost worn out, drained from chasing them, so they left the geeks at the shop and found her where they'd guessed she'd find more power: the same place she got it when she'd gone after Glory*. And she had; Rack's body hung upside down behind her and magic crackled across her face when she reached for Dawn.
Then there was the cold, scornful sound of her voice as Spike threw himself at her, then clutched his skull. "Aww, does that thing in your head think I'm still human? I hate defective technology. Here, lemme help." And then Spike screaming, something Xander will be oddly happy he can't re-create the sound of, and Willow's hand, empty, and then not, red glinting on a tiny, shiny piece of metal. Spike launching himself at her again, and a ball of sunlight exploding from that hand.
Ten years from now, if you ask Xander Harris whether he knows what it's like to be sprawled on top of a wriggling, squirming mass of compact but well-muscled male vampire, he'll turn interesting colors and change the subject. (Said compact but well-muscled vampire will not turn interesting colors, but only because he's physiologically incapable of it.) And if you ask Xander what he remembers of Willow moving them all from Rack's place to the Magic Box without twitching an eyelash, all he'll be able to describe is the utter cold of it.
Bits and pieces. Willow throwing Buffy and Faith across the shop like ragdolls. Laughing, telling the rest of them to run.
Something came flying after them, and it was on fire, but Buffy caught up just a tiny bit faster than it, and then *boom*.
And then he was rubbing his head where it hit the gravestone, which might explain the bits and pieces, and peering down into the hole where Buffy, Spike and Dawn had fallen, Jonathan and Andrew fleeinated off into the night somewhere. Xander's pocket played "We were drawn from the weeds, we were brave like soldiers," into the silence of the cemetery as the sun rose behind him, and they all cracked up not because it was funny, just because if they didn't, they'd crack some other way.
Faith's voice on the phone -- then, unexpectedly, Giles. Words: Proserpexa, temple, Kingman's Bluff. Xander processed them when he heard them, but by the time he slept that night, the sounds had faded to the dullness of something that happened to somebody else. They were just words. Giles laboring for breath in his ear because of whatever Willow had done to him -- Xander only saw the bruises and the broken ribs later, not the look on Giles' face when she hurt him, and he's grateful for that too -- that's what sticks with him.
That, and what happened after that.
Willow stood before a statue of what clearly had won that year's Most Satanic Looking Architecture contest, what with the snakes and the trident and the pentagram and the pointyness and the demon woman and pretty much everything an evil world endy cult could want in a temple once they covered the basics like walls, ceiling, floors, and a "Have a soul, leave a soul" dish on the counter.
Lightning and wind swirled around the sick, photo-negative looking version of Willow. Except this wasn't a version of Willow, this was Willow, hurt and all, and that was quite possibly the worst of it.
For her part, Willow was making with the chanting. "Proserpexa" was a word that was recognizable thanks to the phone call. Others, not so much. Though if Xander had gone to Hogwarts with Willow he might've recognized magic words that Hermione would've classified as unforgivable, and not just because Willow didn't say please or thank you before casting them.
Like a lot of things that had sounded snappier in his head over the years, "Hey, black-eyed girl," was possibly not the best entrance line Xander had ever used. He was figuring if the world got destroyed, it wouldn't matter, though, and if it didn't, somebody would make up better dialogue for him in the TV movie version. All he cared about was whether it got her attention.
"Get out of here," Willow immediately replied.
"Or what, you'll kill me?" Xander fought just to stand upright as the ground shook under him and clouds of dark smoke still billowed around his feet. He pointed at the statue behind him, then back at her. "Funny thing about the Big Scary -- once you pull it out, not dirty, it's kinda hard to scare people with anything else."
"You think that is the scariest thing here?" Willow replied, her features twisted with mockery. She unleashed another round of lightning, either not caring if a bolt accidentally went Xander's way, or possibly counting on that very possibility.
Accidentally or on purpose, it worked. Power slammed into Xander's shoulder and knocked him off his feet, sending him flying backwards into the statue. The back of his head hit with a painfully-familiar thud that made him see two Willows for a few seconds, when he opened his eyes and slowly pushed himself to his feet.
"No, that'd be you," he said, nodding and blinking until there was only one of her again. "But you can't make me deader than you can make anybody else. You're gonna take us all out anyway, why should I leave?"
"You want to die first?" Willow asked. "Is that it?"
"I don't want to die." Xander studied her for a second that seemed longer than it was, because he didn't think he had many seconds to spare. "But if I'm gonna, then yeah. I'd rather be with my best friend when it happens, than running away."
"Willow's not here anymore," she replied, and this time deliberately sent a bolt of magic right at him.
He'd duck, but there wasn't anyplace to go, and besides, he wasn't lying to her. If this was happening, and it was, then there wasn't anyplace else in this world or any other that he wanted to be. "Yeah," he gritted out, standing still and letting it hit him. "She is. If you...weren't Willow it wouldn't...hurt so much."
This got him a pause in the lightning attack, but it looked like she was only gearing up for another. "No! She's dead and gone and this is all that's left!"
Xander wasn't sure which 'she' Willow meant, or whether it mattered. He stuck with what he was sure of. "You're Willow. I've known you since before I could spell my own name, and by the way thanks for that tip on X versus Z, and I'll know you when I forget how to spell it."
"Shut up!" Another magic blast, but this time it was juuuuuuuust a bit outside the strike zone. Based on the quick look of frustration on Willow's face, that wasn't the result she'd intended.
"Ah, see, there's your mistake. I'm Xander, remember? I don't come with that function. Some people call it a bug; I say it's a feature." This was not a plan. Plans involve knowing what you're going to say next. Which apparently was, "Willow."
"Shut UP!" Another blast, this one striking the ground at Xander's feet. "You can't stop this! Nothing you do or say will help!"
Xander nodded. "I get that. You've got all the power here. You can fly, you can rip people apart, you can blow up the world, and I'm pretty handy with a circular saw. No comparison. But there's one thing you can't do."
Willow looked at him suspiciously. "What?"
"You can't make me stop loving you."
With an incoherent sound of rage Willow sent another blast directly for him.
The lightning ripped holes in his shirt and scorched his skin, and the wind of the blast sent pebbles from the ground whipping past his face, cutting into his cheek. He stood still because the only other option was falling, and when he could, he took a step forward.
"You can kill me," he repeated. "But you can't make me not love you. Done that all my life; too late to learn anything else, college guy or not."
"Stop it!" Willow shouted. She sent another blast at him, but for some reason it wasn't as strong as the others.
"No." He took another step toward her. "You're Willow. You're my Willow, and I love you."
"Shut up!" Willow said. She tried to send another blast at him but nothing came except crackles of light around her fingertips. She shook her hands as though to restart them and tried again.
He took another step towards her, and another, until he was standing in front of her. "No. I love you, Willow."
"No!" Willow said, as tears started to fall. Her magic failing her, she tried to hit him instead. "No! Stop it!"
Funny thing about being a foot taller and half a best friend heavier than your best friend. Doesn't make it hurt any less when she hits you, but it's a little easier to stand there and take it.
"Stop it!" Willow said. Then the sobs broke through, and her punches grew weaker, and she crumpled in onto herself.
Xander put his arms around her and held on tight, because he might have been winging everything else, but that, he knew how to do.
Willow clung back, sobbing.
And Xander took a breath, and for the first time, as the earth stopped shaking, thought that maybe he was going to be around in ten years to remember today.