Xander stands on the wall, looking out over the landscape below, trying to see. Still hasn't quite gotten used to how dark it is without civilization, how bright the stars are. The moon's a quarter full - waxing, he knows without having to think about it. He's more aware of the cycles of the moon and the position of the stars than he's ever been, even when they had Oz around to remind them.
It's the first day of December and she's not back yet. He knows that worrying doesn't do any good but he still spends way too much time on top of this wall watching for her, time he can't afford.
He sees movement out of the corner of his eye, but when he looks it's just Spike, turning the corner as he walks the wall. In the old days, he'd be lighting up a cigarette at this moment, but, well, they don't have cigarettes anymore. How Spike manages to keep his hair peroxided is a mystery no one has solved, but even he can't keep himself supplied with the cancer-sticks indefinitely.
"No sign of her," Spike asks, but it's not exactly a question.
"No," Xander says.
"How long's it been now?" Spike asks, sounding bored. "Three weeks longer than it should've been?"
Xander glances down at him, wanting to glare but not able to summon up the energy. "More or less."
"Getting cold, these nights," Spike comments. He leans against the rampart beside Xander and looks out across the trees. "Haven't seen anything moving out there since before All Hallow's." Spike usually takes the night watch, walking the walls of their compound. "Good time to get yourself home."
"She'll be all right," Xander says. "Willow can take care of herself."
"If you say so," Spike says.
Xander's ears are pink from cold, and he worries. They cannot afford to lose Willow. They have lost so much already.
December 4, 2003
He is awoken by pounding on the door of his and Anya's tiny room. That's the thing about living in an old monastery - small rooms, few furnishings, the simple life. Anya groans and tries to bury her head in his shoulder at the knocking. But he is awake and alert immediately, half sitting up and calling for whoever it is to come in.
It's John, looking like he's been back from the hunting expedition for no more than five minutes. He's got blood smeared on his shirt but doesn't look frantic, just tired.
"Sir? We've found someone. You should probably come hear this," he says and Xander is already out of bed and reaching for his jeans. "I'll wait outside," John finishes, ducking his head and shutting the door behind him.
"It's too early," Anya complains sleepily.
"Sun's up," Xander says. There is pale wintry light coming through their one small window, high up on the white-washed wall.
"Barely," Anya replies. Then her face drains of color. "Oof, hand me the bucket." He passes it over quickly and she holds it, looking like she might be sick at any moment and breathing raggedly. He strokes her hair. "I hate morning sickness," she says, after the surge of nausea seems to have died down. "I should be sleeping with Spike. He wouldn't have impregnated me."
"Sorry," Xander says, looking around for his shirt. "And please don't."
"It's okay," Anya concedes. "I know you didn't mean to."
Xander finds his shirt and holds it in one hand as he leans over to kiss her stomach, his own chest bare and pale, leaner now than he's been in years. He rubs his hand softly over the slight bulge of her tummy. "Love you, Ahn," he says, kissing her lightly before turning. He pulls the shirt on as he goes out the door, and John falls into step beside him, heading towards the hall.
"What happened?" Xander asks as they cross the courtyard between the living quarters and the other buildings. A few grubby children are playing near the chapel as the rest of the complex is beginning to awaken. Xander nods at one of the older women, carrying buckets of water from the well to the kitchen. She smiles at him tiredly.
"We were camped about a day north-east of here when we heard screaming. Found a gang of vamps attacking some people."
"Travelers?" Xander asks, already knowing. There are no other living humans within 50 miles of their compound.
"Yeah. We only managed to save one, a middle-aged guy. His wife and son and friends were all already dead. But he said they were traveling from California, so I figured you'd want to talk to him as soon as we got here."
A surge of adrenaline hits Xander's bloodstream and he starts walking even faster. "Thanks, John. How many vamps?" John quickens his pace to match Xander's.
"Looked like around five. We dusted two, but the others took off running and we couldn't keep up. In the morning we tracked them to Woodburn and we're pretty sure they've nested in one of the warehouses on the east side of town."
"Woodburn? That close, huh? You'd think they'd know better by now."
"Dangerous but not that bright, I guess."
"We'll send out a patrol this afternoon."
They reach the door to the hall, the large room used for meals and assemblies and decisions. It's furnished with rough wooden tables and backless benches, all in the dark, somber wood that characterizes the old monastery. Sprawled in the middle of it is the rest of the hunting party, sitting wearily on the benches and edges of the tables, though they stand when Xander enters. He strides towards them, sizing them up. Everyone who left has come back; Marshall has a bloody bandage on one arm, but otherwise seems sturdy enough, so it must be a minor injury. Other than the nasty-looking bruise on Beth's cheekbone, the rest of them look all right. A successful outing, then. Xander waves at them to sit down, and they do.
His eyes rest on the stranger, who is ragged, skinny and malnourished, with a cut above one eye and a bandage on his neck.
"Hi," Xander says gently. "Xander Harris. Welcome." He reaches out his hand to shake and the man stares at it for a moment before taking it, clearing his throat awkwardly, looking nervous and shaken.
"Um... Karl. Karl Lundin." His voice is hoarse.
"You were traveling from California?" Xander says, sitting down across from him. He is keeping very steady, but his heart is pounding. Willow, Willow, Willow.
"Yes," Karl says. "From San Francisco."
"Ever go farther south?" Xander asks. Karl actually shudders at this.
"No. I've heard... horrible... no one goes farther south. The rumors alone...," he trails off, looking troubled.
"What have you heard?" Xander asks, his voice more intense than he intends.
Karl looks at him warily. "I don't know. That that's where it all started. That around L.A. there's evil you've never imagined. That... they say it's the mouth of hell."
"Ah," Xander says, and sits back, thoughtful. "Yeah." He looks at Karl steadily. "Have you heard anything else? Or seen anyone? Like a red-haired woman, traveling south? She's small and pretty and looking for books and old texts."
Karl thinks, then shakes his head slowly.
"Nothing at all?"
"No," Karl says. "Nothing. I'm sorry."
Xander sighs, letting his shoulders slump. "It's okay."
Karl looks down at the table, rubbing it absently with his thumb. He looks very tired.
"Why were you traveling?" Xander asks. "The roads are dangerous. But I guess, uh, you know that."
"They're less dangerous than staying in San Francisco would have been. We heard that there were people up north, fighting off the demons. People who know what they're doing and how to fight. We decided it'd be better to die trying to get there than die where we sat."
"There are people fighting up north?" Xander asks. Karl looks at him like he's crazy.
"Uh... yeah. You."
Xander is taken aback. "Oh. Right." He looks away for a second, then turns to Marshall. "Have we gotten Doc Hopkins to look at Karl here yet? That vampire bite can't be good."
"He's on his way over," Marshall said.
"Good. Get your arm looked at while you're at it. The rest of you, get some rest. You earned it. John, can you help me get together a patrol to go after that nest? Get however many people we can spare - not you, you need a day off, but whoever else has experience and nothing pressing to do." John nods. "Thanks," Xander says, getting up from the table, disappointment sharp in his muscles. "I'll head it up myself this time. Could use some action today."
December 9, 2003
Xander cuts behind the chapel on his way to the barns, passing the memorial wall with its carved rows of names, the dead and missing. He stops, as he always does, to trace three particular names. Buffy Summers. Dawn Summers. Rupert Giles. A splinter catches his finger on the 'L' of Giles, and he automatically winces and sticks the finger in his mouth, tastes blood. They never found Giles's body.
Turned out that not even Buffy could defeat a god. It had been a beaten and broken remnant of the Scooby gang that had made it out - him and Anya, Willow and Tara, such as she was. Spike. Not enough to really be a gang, anymore. Just the battered leftovers, holed up in a walled monastery compound in Oregon, waiting to take their last stand. That they've made it through two and a half years still seems like dumb luck to Xander.
He runs his hand along the shapes of the names one more time before walking on. Outside the closest barn, a couple of boys are pushing wheelbarrows full of hay and bellowing out "Jingle Bells" at the top of their lungs.
Sixteen days till Christmas and no sign of Willow. The nights are long and it is remarkably cold. He doesn't want to carve another name on the wall.
December 15, 2003
Almost everyone goes along to cut down the big Christmas tree for the hall. Xander has the axe and walks up front, Anya on one side of him and John on the other. Kids run alongside, throwing snowballs and pushing each other into drifts. Someone in the back starts up singing "Joy to the World" and it catches on, jolly and festive. Anya squeezes his hand and he looks back at the group, slogging through the snow, old and young, men and women, everyone looking reasonably happy. But those he designated guards are carrying crossbows and swords, walking alongside and looking warily into the forest around them. And in the back is Tara, vacantly following along with some of the women. Xander quickly turns back to face forward.
They find a good tree, a big one, twelve feet. Xander does the symbolic first chop, but after that he lets a couple of the guys usually on firewood duty finish it off. Everyone stands around watching, singing and chatting while they wait. A few people find holly berries for wreathes and the red and green stand out against the snow. When the tree topples everyone cheers, and there is a scramble for who gets to help pull it back.
Spike is in the dim hall when they get back, languidly leaning against the wall near the big fireplace. The whole tree-cutting party spills in, red-cheeked and alert, shouting cheerfully as they wrestle the massive tree through the door and stand it up.
Someone has made tea from their meager stores, a rare treat, but Xander doesn't get a cup. Just the smell of the tea reminds him too strongly of Giles, of researching at the library or at his apartment, and he misses him with a renewed pang. Giles, with his stable, sturdy adulthood, always knowing what to do.
He goes over to lean beside Spike, wall cold at his back.
"Have fun?" Spike asks, tone a little bitter.
"Yeah," Xander says quietly. "We did. Sorry you were stuck here, but we can't really take everyone out into the forest at night."
Spike shrugs dismissively. "Not much for celebrating the birth of our Lord and savior anyway."
"Right, because you're evil," Xander says, watching the kids start to string tinsel on the tree.
"Very," says Spike dryly. "Behold my evil works."
Xander waits for a minute, but Spike doesn't say anything else. "Isn't this the part where you say, 'If it weren't for this chip in my head, I'd eviscerate you all and use your guts as mistletoe'?"
"Hmm? Oh yeah. Right," Spike says. Wreaths and holly branches are being put over the windows and around the walls. The tree is already covered with homemade ornaments, and someone has found a way to attach candles to the branches so that it is covered in light. Spike shifts. "We always used to have oranges at Christmas. Down in the very toe of our stockings. So bright and they'd fit in your palm like so and the smell of them.... Haven't seen an orange in years, now."
"Yeah, I worry that we're all going to get scurvy," Xander says. Spike glances at him, amused. Xander shrugs sheepishly. "Well, it's low down on the list of worries."
Tara walks by them, flapping her hands and grinning childishly. Xander sighs.
"You think Red's ever going to find a spell to cure her?" Spike asks.
"No. But I'm not going to tell her to give up," Xander says.
"Someone should," says Spike. "'Fore she gets herself killed. If she hasn't already."
"Well, it won't be me," Xander says, glaring at him. "But if you want to be the one to, you know, crush her spirit, I'm sure she'll be back by Christmas."
"Yeah? Only ten days left."
"And isn't she Jewish?"
"If I knew what day Hanukkah was this year, I'd be counting down to that, too."
December 18, 2003
Xander spends the afternoon watching Anya bargain with a party of Grebna demons for odds and ends they've managed to acquire. The Grebna, it seems, are natural traders and have taken it upon themselves to caravan along the coast, trading between demons and humans. They're good at what they do, but Anya's better and she's clearly taking them to the cleaners. It's a beautiful thing to watch.
Anya laughs derisively. "Don't be ridiculous - that's not worth a sick sheep that died yesterday. I'll give you half a bushel of wheat if you throw in that tub of salt."
Thank goodness for Anya, who knew how to plow and how to grind grain into flour, how to take care of livestock. Without her they'd never have become self-sustaining - when they'd looted the last grocery store between here and the state line they'd have just had to move on or starve. Instead they have a reasonably prosperous farming community, with the orchards and vegetable gardens of the old monastery and the fields around the complex.
She shakes hands with the chief Grebna and ushers him out to the courtyard, where they've left their... well, they're not horses. Big green, fuzzy, horse-like creatures. With teeth. Xander's not a fan.
When Anya comes back in, she walks over to where he sits against the wall. "Don't you have big, important, ruler-of-the-community-type things you should be doing?"
"Yup," Xander says, and half-smiles up at her. She is beautiful in the dim light, even with her hair pulled severely back and the permanent worry lines etched on her forehead. "Couldn't keep away, though. Love to watch you work."
"It is stunning, isn't it?" Anya grins, pleased. "I acquired many useful items for very little cost."
"I count on you," he says. She is holding her left hand behind her back and suddenly looks shy.
"I got you something," she says.
"Yeah?" he asks.
"I'd save it for Christmas, but I think it'd be better now." He reaches up and threads his hand through her free hand, smiling. "You don't mind if you get your Christmas present now, do you?"
"Nope," he says, squeezing her hand. "What'd you get me?"
Looking a little nervous, she quickly holds out what's in her left hand. A Jell-o Pudding Cup Snak-Pak. Chocolate, the kind Xander always made his mom put in his lunches from first grade until sixth, when he suddenly decided all the cool kids bought their lunch. He hasn't had anything chocolate since... well, a long time. Whenever they ran out of supermarkets to loot.
A smile slowly creeps over his face and he takes it out of her hand wonderingly. "How did you find this?"
Anya looks pleased at his obvious delight and grins, plopping down beside him. "I don't know! They just had it, they wouldn't say where they found it. And it's still good, I think."
He leans over and kisses her. "You are amazing."
She smiles. "I know."
He holds it, looking at the miracle of it for a long minute before pulling the foil off the top. The scent of the chocolate is immediate and strong, and he is cast back to elementary school lunch period, sitting at the long tables in the cafeteria under fluorescent lights. The cheap red plastic trays and the lunch monitors yelling at everyone to shut up and sit down, and the taste of juice boxes and fruit rollups. Jesse next to him and his He-Man lunchbox.
He and Anya share it, and it tastes even better than he remembers.
December 20, 2003
He dreams of waking up to blood on the sheets, between Anya's legs. She is pale and weak, won't wake up, and she is miscarrying. He yells and yells and no one comes, and there is blood everywhere, on his hands and face, staining his clothes and the blankets. Finally Doc Hopkins shows up, but shakes his head wearily. "There's nothing I can do." The baby is dead and Anya is dead and everyone is dead and it is his fault. He didn't know what to do, how to do it, how to keep everyone safe.
He wakes abruptly, his heart pounding, and cannot get back to sleep. His mind keeps running over all the things he needs to do the next day, to check: make sure the vegetables are safely canned and stored, send a team to check their northern border, make up the lists for the next week of sentry duty, walk the wall to make sure there are no breaches. Back in Sunnydale he had never realized how much being in charge sucks.
After tossing and turning for far too long, he gives up on sleep, dresses quickly and goes up to the wall to make sure everything's all right. Dave and Stephanie are stationed on the west side, and he talks to them briefly before turning to the south wall. Spike is there at his familiar post, a vampire keeping guard over this lone enclave of humanity.
"You again," he says when Xander comes up beside him.
"Couldn't sleep," Xander says. Spike nods, face dim in the deep, moonless darkness. "Five days until Christmas," Xander says softly. "Or four, technically. It's after midnight."
"Hanukkah's already started," Spike says, unexpectedly.
"What?" Xander asks.
"Started at sunset yesterday. I found a calendar in the library that had Jewish holidays marked."
"Oh," Xander says. He feels hollow inside at that. "Geez." He looks out over the fields, but there's no movement.
"So after Christmas you send out a search party?"
Xander breathes in, rubs his forehead. There is a slight wind, and the air is bitterly cold against his fingers. "After Christmas I give up hoping."
Spike glances at him sharply. It has begun to snow, and the flakes are a sharp white against the black of his coat. He is a colorless study in contrasts, the pale of his skin and hair, the dark of his coat and his eyes black in this light, nearly all pupil. "That'd make you the last of the Scoobies."
Xander brushes snow out of his hair. "It would. But I'm not a Scooby anymore."
December 22, 2003
It's the shortest day of the year and he begins to understand why every religion feels the need to have some kind of festival for it - a festival of lights preferred. The days are ridiculously short, and the few hours of daylight are pale and indirect, weak and shaky. The dark worries him, presses inward through the windows with its menace and threat of evil things outside.
Spike is cheery as they walk through the muddy cold of the courtyard. "Favorite night of the year, this. Me and Dru used to go out all night long and dance and have such a time of it.... One year we ran into this group of the tenderest...," he suddenly notices Xander glaring at him and stops short. Then shrugs. "Vampires have their feast days same as you."
"That's very disturbing," Xander says.
Spike rolls his eyes. "So what'd you ask Santa for this year, Harris? Been a good little boy, made it onto the Nice list?"
"You better believe it," Xander says, opening the door to one of their storage sheds. He begins rummaging around for extra candles and handing the boxes to Spike.
"So, you asked for... let's see. I know, a Red Rider BB-gun. Very all-American of you."
"A time machine," Xander says shortly. "To fix this stupid world. But I'd settle for Willow coming home."
Spike doesn't say anything as Xander piles another box on top of those already in his hands, putting it on the stack with a little more force than strictly necessary.
"Didn't know we could even have Christmas without the entire capitalist system behind it," Spike says lightly after a moment.
"Must be a true meaning of Christmas after all," Xander says distractedly, straightening up with the last box of candles in his hands.
"Yeah? What is it?" Spike asks as they turn to walk out of the storeroom.
"I dunno. According to every Christmas special ever, it seems to involve everyone joining hands and singing."
"Very profound, Harris."
A couple of little boys run across their path, shooting imaginary guns at each other and shrieking happily.
"Kids today," Xander says dryly. "I always want to stop them and tell them that in my day, we would sometimes spend the entire day inside watching cartoons. And then tell them to run along inside and play Gameboy for awhile like normal kids."
"Guess you should give them batteries for Christmas, then."
December 24, 2003
Christmas Eve and their lone surviving priest is holding a midnight mass in the chapel. Xander doesn't feel like going, though Anya does. Instead he goes up on the wall, to watch Willow not show up on the southern horizon one last time. It is very dark - no moon - and extremely cold. His breath fans out in front of him and he wraps his jacket around himself more securely before sitting in one of the nooks of the wall, back secure against the stones. He commands a view of the entire landscape from his position - the road winding up to the complex and the fields, now empty and stubbled after the harvest. Stars hang bright and clear in the sky.
He can hear faint singing coming from the chapel - Christmas carols. Spike is stalking around somewhere on the west wall, keeping watch, so Xander this time has the south to himself. Nothing moves on the horizon.
Despite the cold, his eyes occasionally drift shut and it is only with effort that he keeps awake, keeps watch over the silent landscape. It wouldn't be Christmas Eve if he weren't outside looking at the stars, alone and vaguely miserable.
They strike up "O Holy Night" in the chapel and the lyrics drift softly out to him. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, he hears, and it reminds him of made-for-TV movies and countless Christmas specials, of wishing his family had Norman Rockwell Christmases.
He thinks about A Charlie Brown Christmas and Willow and the Snoopy dance and feels worse and worse, missing her. He scans the horizon again, where she is not, then leans his head back against the wall, lets his eyes close. It is getting very late. Fragments of Christmas TV shows and movies drift through his head dreamily. You'll shoot your eye out... The Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day... Here's to my brother George: the richest man in town! ... Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown... God bless us, every one! ... Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings... Scrooge was better than his word.... And Linus's lisping child-voice, serious, ...shepherds watching over their flocks by night. And behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them...
"You hear that?" Spike's voice suddenly interrupts as he comes around the corner, face perturbed. Xander starts up, shaking off his half-stupor, suddenly wide awake.
"Listen," Spike says, intent, looking out into the distance as if he expects to see something.
Xander listens, and after a moment he hears it. The faint sound of a motor in the distance. The last time they heard the sound of motors it was a gang of some kind of red, scaly things on Harleys, and they lost nine people fighting them off.
"Shit," Xander mutters and watches for whatever it is to come in sight. A pair of headlights suddenly appears at the farthest point of the road he can see, driving towards them rapidly. No others follow.
"Just one," Spike says.
"Okay, we won't disrupt the service for just one car." Xander leans around the corner and calls to the guards on the east wall. "Justin! Mark! We've got a situation." The two come hurrying over. "One carload of unknowns. Go find the best archers - Tom, Dave, Erin, Jess and Lou - and get them up here right now. I want everyone with an arrow on the string and ready. And tell John what's going on and have him make sure the gates are bolted and everything else is prepared. Then get back here."
"Yessir," they say, and take off running.
Xander and Spike watch the car get closer. "What can you see?" Xander asks tersely.
"Looks like a Jeep. Can't tell what's inside."
Both of the men are tense, muscles tight and coiled for action, their weapons ready. Xander taps his fingers against his side rapidly, on edge. Within two minutes time, the archers he asked for are mobilizing on the wall - everyone has been trained for these scenarios and they take their places automatically, eyes fixed on the threat.
The Jeep gets closer and closer, until Xander can see a shadowy figure in the driver's seat and a slumped figure in the back. They look human, so far, but that doesn't guarantee anything.
They shout at it to hold, but the vehicle keeps coming towards them, though without presenting a threat. Xander is about to give the command to shoot when it suddenly stops thirty yards from the walls.
"Identify yourselves!" Xander calls. "Don't come any closer!"
The Jeep's top is open, and the figure in the driver's seat stands up, head sticking above the vehicle. It is female, Xander realizes, as it moves to take off its knit cap. As the cap sweeps off, it reveals a shock of bright red hair, visible even in the dim starlight, and something inside Xander gives a leap, a sudden wrench of feeling so strong it nearly knocks him down.
"Xander!" she calls out, in the voice he has been longing to hear for months. Joy hits him like a freight train, explodes in his chest like a firecracker.
He automatically bolts for the stairs, heading for the gate, when Spike grabs him by the back of the shirt.
"Could be a trick," Spike says coolly. Xander freezes, the fear of it immediately overtaking him, of a thing that looks and sounds like Willow but is not. He moves back to the edge of the wall in trepidation, the horror a chemical burn lodging in his muscles. The maybe-Willow is grinning a huge grin at him, her eyes full of love.
"The password is 'Lemon drop'," she says. "Which we made in case of shape-shifters or wizards or enchantment. It's from Harry Potter and I insisted on it even though you said it was lame and Spike made fun of Harry Potter for, like, an hour. And you're Xander and I'm Willow and it's Christmas Day now so you owe me a Snoopy dance and you'll never believe what I've brought you!"
But halfway through this speech Xander is down the stairs and at the gate, throwing the doors open (to John's bewilderment) and running full-speed at Willow until they are in a hug to end all hugs.
She is solid and warm and human in his arms and somehow a little smaller than he remembers. But alive and real and she smells like Willow and hugs like Willow and gives a little choky laugh like Willow.
Then another voice speaks raggedly from the back of the Jeep. "Xander," it says, hoarse but very familiar, and polished, and English. Xander looks up from Willow's shoulder, blinking his eyes rapidly to clear them, and stares.
"Turns out he wasn't dead after all," Willow says, letting go and turning so her arm is still around him and they are both facing the Jeep. And there is Giles, looking pale and weak and a lot older than he did two and a half years ago. But he is alive, living and breathing and smiling faintly.
Xander opens his mouth but finds he can't speak. Willow holds tight to his waist.
"Merry Christmas, Xander," she says. "Told you I'd be back."
And from the chapel drift the distant strains of continued song, of joy to the world and glad tidings and long-hoped for arrival.