When they were little and it was just two little boys and one little girl, there used to be fantastical stories about gods and monsters and the men who lived with them.  The little girl told her tales with a deft skill that neither little boy could understand, caught up in the worlds she spun for them.  They were transported to mythical times where the impossible was real and they wanted to stay there.  Eventually, the little boys added their own stories to the mix.  Actions had consequences, sometimes dire, but they got to nod their head and pity the poor character, safe in the real world.

Crying hurt like hell.

The saline burned along torn flesh, sliding down membranes that never should have been exposed to salty liquid.  The bandage was heavy around his head, pulled taut to stop the sluggish bleeding.  His hair was matted with blood, despite several attempts to clean it, pulling at the skin and making his sore face feel dirty.

Willow’s hand was wrapped around his own.  Thin bones, delicate skin, a hint of myrrh.  Strength a slender form shouldn’t have.  He supposed he was lucky it was Willow, not Buffy. He couldn’t afford a broken hand.

The little girl’s voice in his head told tale after tale, but he couldn’t really decide which one he was.  He could be blind Teiresias, the Seer of Truth.  Definitely not Oedipus himself.  Or maybe he was someone he couldn’t remember her stories about.  Maybe he was a new story being created.

Or maybe he was just an old wives’ tale.  A stupid, cautionary example of how horrible life was.

“Xander, you have to stop.”  Her voice wasn’t little anymore, rough with tears and pain.  “The nurse said crying only makes it worse.”

“You try not to cry,” he bit out.  The words sounded broken before he said them.  Hollow and fragmented.

“Xander. . .  Please.”

“Sure, Wills.”  His throat ached from not sobbing.  “I’ll stop.”

Stop breathing.  Stop living.  Stop trying.

Listen to your mothers, boys.  They’re right.  Okay, it’s only really serious if they’ve got a psychopathic preacher with superhuman strength on hand.  But, you know.  Otherwise.

His mother once told him she should have gotten an abortion.  She’d been angry about something else, but he was there and easy to blame.  She’d bought him a skateboard not long after that, her way of apologizing.

He still thought she was right.

“Hey, Xander.”  Another little girl, lost now that her grand plan had backfired so spectacularly. Her voice was rougher than Willow’s, worn down to a gravelly tumble.  “You okay?”

“You’re gonna get me a cool patch, right?  With leather?  Not plastic?”  The rhythms were instinctive, his conscious mind already sifting through remembered stories, trying to find the one that fit.  Pain first, then joke; joke first, hide the pain; his mouth already had the words before his mind could think them.  He always knew.  It’s what he did.

The bandages were getting sticky.

“Sure.  Gonna shiver me timbers?”  The waver in Buffy’s voice was unexpected—she hid herself better than that—but only he heard it.

“God.  You’re disgusting.”

Rona, her name was.  Outspoken and forthright.  They’d clashed wills before, over coffee and cream cheese.  How to put a good edge on a blade.  She was stubborn and willful, but she was smart, too.  He liked her the best.


Shields up and holding, Captain. I’ve got the Engineers working to fix the problem.   We won’t let any emotions get through again.

“No, not enough,” Rona snapped back.  “My arm is dislocated and broken and probably worse that you’re not telling me.  And he—god, he defended you.  He made us all believe in you.  He—he—”

“He is lying right here, thanks.  And he doesn’t regret anything he said.  Or think he was wrong.”  He didn’t need to see her face to know she was looking at him wonderingly.  That’s what Buffy came for, of course.  The blame she was shouldering for him.  Not for the girls, who would follow after her.  For him. 

Maybe stay home tonight, Xander.  Get me the donuts, Xander.  Cool weapons chest, Xander, but I need to patrol alone tonight.  I love you, Xander, but I need you to be safe.

He was the thing that kept her whole.  The average Joe, the Jimmy Olson he’d cracked jokes about so long ago.  So long as he was safe, then the world was okay.  The job was well done.  He was her reward.

No wonder Dawn was following in his footsteps.

Buffy inhaled slowly: confession time.  “I know I made a mistake—”

“No.  You didn’t.”  He wished he could sit up, wished he could—the flare made him tense, face twisted as pain battled pain.

Rona’s snort was jaded.  “Says the man with only one—”

“Shut up.”  If they didn’t say it, maybe he could stop thinking about it.  “We got hurt.  Some of us got dead.  It’s bad.  But we didn’t lose.”

“I’m really sure,” Kennedy muttered, still resentful and self-righteous, “that Sara and Molly think it’s great we—”

“No!”  The shout caught them all off guard.  Chunks of him felt sprayed around the room, blood and phlegm and pain and soul.  “You’re young and you don’t understand and you know what?  That’s good.  Because sometimes you need that more than experience.  But sometimes experience counts, too.  So listen to the voice of experience, lying here on the bed next to you, without Slayer healing to help him recover the eye that got pushed into his brain saving you!”

Machines beeped and hummed quietly.

“Father Psychopath didn’t win.  We didn’t lose.  Right now, that’s what matters.  It’s bad that we’re hurt, it’s worse that they died.  But don’t you see how much worse it could’ve been?  At least we learned something.  At least we can try again.”

At least, once the swelling fades, you might be able to live again.  Maybe.  Once you get used to it.  Learn how to compensate.

“Xander’s right.”  She was quieter, now.  There wasn’t energy left for one more inspirational speech.  “This is bad, but we got off lucky.  Caleb is—we have to find out what he is.  And how he’s doing what he’s done.  Giles and everybody at home are researching right now and as soon as we know—”

“More of us can die?”

“I didn’t ask for this anymore than you did.”  Shields weakening, sir.  The anger’s too strong to contain!  We’ve got to do something!  There’s bitterness and—oh, damn, I think that’s hopelessness coming through!  “This is the life we have, now.  There’s nobody else but us to do it.”

“Life sucks and then you die.”  Spike had been so quiet, leaning up against the wall.  His low, bitter words were a shock.  “You’re Slayers.  This is what you do.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Buffy agreed.

“So, what, we just give up hope?”  No idea which girl that was, but she sounded scared to Rona’s belligerent.

“No.”  Bird-bone fingers tightened around his, silently lending support as he forced himself to a sitting position.  There had been strict orders against this, but he didn’t care.  They needed what only he could give—and that’s what made it worth it.  Always.  “You fell down.  Time to pick yourself back up again.”

“Do you know anything but sappy, inspirational cliches?”

The lid felt gummy and raw, muscles straining overtime to deal with bruised and swollen flesh.  The light was glaringly bright, wavering and as a single pupil attempted to focus on a room already too white and too glaring.  Girls, bruised and dying, turned their faces up to him.  Crushed lilies in the sun.

“Why are you here?”

“Because of the Bringers—my watcher—that Giles—”  The words melded with the cacophony of moving light.

When they faded, he could almost see shapes again.  “Okay, let’s try again.  Why are you here?”

The answers came slower, this time, eyes focused on him.  The girls were open books, fear and worry slowly dissolving as his question began to make sense.  The rest were shuttered windows, but he knew how to find the cracks.  Tears and pride eased better than morphine ever could, respect and companionship a healing balm.

“To save the world.”

“To help people.”

“To stop the First.”

“To do what’s right.”

“To be a Slayer.”

“To be a girl.”

He hoped it was Teiresias.