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Chapter Thirty-Two: Aiming to Misbehave

MONDAY, JUNE 10, 2002, 1:35 PM PST (9:35 AM GMT)
LOS ANGELES

-Xander-

Almost exactly forty-eight hours after walking into a hotel lobby in London, Xander Harris walked into a hotel lobby in Los Angeles, stifling a jaw-cracking yawn. Despite having the Orbs of Nezzla'khan to ease the way, his internal time sense was way out of whack after two intercontinental flights in three days with a major boss fight between them.

He wasn't the only one feeling it, either. The people who'd stayed behind in Los Angeles were industriously moving or unpacking all over the lobby, emptying and inventorying boxes labeled in a mixture of Buffy's hurried cursive, Tara's more elegant handwriting, and Spike's emphatic scribbles. But the folks who'd been with him on the flight back from London had mostly just draped themselves over various pieces of furniture, eyelids sagging at half-mast. Even the Slayers looked pretty wiped.

"Anyone get around to picking up some Mountain Dew?" he asked around another massive yawn.

Whether by accident or design-- with her, it could go either way-- Anya was the person nearest the main staircase as he descended, feet tucked beneath her in one of the comfy red chairs while she idly sorted through the contents of a box. She looked up at him, expression half-defiant and half-defensive the way it had been a lot lately, then looked away with exaggerated nonchalance.

"No one's gone shopping for non-herbal supplies yet, but I asked Fred to get you something when she ran out for tacos earlier. She wasn't kidding, either; she really did run. It should be on the counter."

Xander took a deep, scenting breath, and felt a smile curl at one corner of his mouth as the aromas of spiced beef, crisp tortilla, and sugary neon-yellow caffeine tickled his palate. The tacos were still warm enough that the oil in the meat hadn't started to congeal yet, according to his sensitive nose, so there was probably even still ice in the Dew.

"Anya, you're a lifesaver," he said fervently, drifting toward the counter with his nose still in the air. In the weeks since Giles' wish had left him with supernaturally amplified senses and the inability to ignore inconvenient reality when it stared him in the face, the way it enhanced his appreciation of food had been one of the few side-effects he'd had no qualms about.

His ex went still in his peripheral vision as he passed her, shooting another one of those conflicted looks in his direction. "Nice of you to say so. Even if I'm not sure why I still care what you think," she muttered, quietly enough that he probably wouldn't have heard it if not for those same enhancements.

Xander stopped in his tracks at that, drawing his hand back from the thirty-two ounce prize awaiting him at the hotel's check-in desk to stare at her. He wasn't clueless enough-- at least, not anymore-- to think that her comment had been about the fast food, too. But what else could she mean?

He thought back over the long hours that had passed since Anya had flashed in with Giles and Ethan to roll up Travers' plan, and realized with a cringe that he'd been so distracted by the house falling down, the 'still a demon but no more vengeance' thing, and the inability to shut his threat assessment instincts off on the plane that he actually hadn't said anything positive to Anya about her part in the rescue efforts.

Had it really only been, what, a day and a half ago that he'd whined to Buffy that he and Anya just didn't seem to have compatible priorities? And then she'd gone and done this massively huge thing, giving up her powers to help save a woman she hardly even knew, for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. Xander didn't believe for a second that D'Hoffryn hadn't given her some out clause, after what she'd said about her boss accusing her of upsetting the balance on the Slayer's behalf.

Yeah, Xander didn't know why she still cared what he thought, either. This, on top of the whole being ashamed of her in public thing-- he still hadn't managed to man up and apologize for that, even though that had been the original point behind the reconciliation coffee date he'd asked her on a week ago. He still loved Anya, and for the most part found her forthrightness and lack of shame pretty charming when it was just the two of them together. But somewhere in his screwed-up childhood he'd picked up the belief that he shouldn't love a woman who didn't fit a particular socially acceptable mold... and that was the ugly tip of an iceberg of issues he'd have been happy to go on ignoring for the rest of his life. He'd choked at the altar because he'd been afraid of failing her, but the truth was, he'd been failing her ever since he met her.

And here she was, essentially hinting that he still had a chance. So. He could choose to kick up a fuss over the demon thing again, despite the fact that she was still the same person he'd had a hard time imagining the rest of his life without; or he could finally get over himself and suck up his pride. So maybe the future held no guarantees. So maybe neither he nor Anya were exactly normal. So what? If the last few months-- hell, the last few years-- had taught him anything, it was that you had to seize the moments of joy as they came, or risk missing out entirely.

"Did I say lifesaver? I misspoke," Xander said, abandoning the food to approach Anya's chair. He sank to one knee in front of her, reaching up to touch her chin when she refused to meet his gaze. "I meant to add: you are the caffeine in my soda, the subtitles to the foreign-language film of my life, and probably the best thing that's ever happened to me. And I should have made that clear to you a long time ago."

Anya looked up at him then, eyes widening with surprise, reminding him of the day he'd signed for his first apartment and invited her over for a celebratory picnic. He'd told her then that he'd done it all for her, because he'd known she wanted it... and he'd meant it, even if it had taken a demon with a glowstick of doom removing his weak side first to give him the motivation to do so. Pity he'd fallen down on the job after they'd put him back together.

Which-- huh! Now that he thought about it, that incident was probably at least as responsible for the whole 'frayed aura' thing Tara had mentioned as the soldier and hyena possession incidents. Could that have been what Anya had been thinking about when she'd granted the wish? 'Suave Xander' rearranging his life again, in more ways than one. He was definitely luckier than he deserved.

"Do you mean that?" she said, searchingly.

He nodded, dropping his hand to rest over the fingers linked in her lap. "Yeah, I really do."

A frown line gathered between Anya's brows, a familiar signal of exasperation with his incomprehensible humanness. "Then why didn't you just say all that three months ago?"

Xander gave an awkward, sheepish shrug. "Because sometimes I can be an idiot?"

"Only sometimes?" she scoffed, but her expression softened too, backed by a dawning hope that he couldn't help but reflect back at her.

"I guess this means I get the cookie-dough fudge mint chip all to myself?" an amused voice broke in, and Xander abruptly remembered that yeah, they were having this intensely personal conversation in a very public place.

He refused to be embarrassed though, and grinned unapologetically up at Buffy. The Slayer was carrying another box full of the same kind of bric-a-brac Anya was sorting, dressed in old, worn jeans and a Carpe Noctem tee shirt that had probably come out of Dawnie's wardrobe. She looked oddly younger herself, as though she'd settled a few of her own thorny issues in the middle of the world falling in on them that weekend. And given what little he'd heard about what had happened in LA while they were gone....

"Sorry, Buff. But somehow, I don't think you'll have a problem finding someone else to share it with. Just because things can't be the same as before doesn't mean they can't be a different kind of good."

She rolled her eyes at him, but Xander didn't miss the glance she immediately sent in a particular bleached blond vampire's direction, either. He still never wanted any details, but he couldn't help but remember the conversation they'd had when she'd finally admitted to dating Spike in the first place. The look on her face... yeah. And given everything with Anya? He wasn't going to be that guy; not anymore. It wasn't like they'd even be the only members of the 'tangled up with not entirely human reformed murderers' club in the hotel. Or even, and how sad was it that this part was equally notable, the only ones rekindling something with an ex.

"Thought you were all Mr. Worrywart?" Buffy replied, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, well." His knees were starting to complain, so Xander got to his feet, squeezing Anya's hand and shooting her a warm look as he did. "Suddenly finding my priorities aren't what I thought they were, either. Life's too short for 'shoulda', Buff. Plus, Deadboy Junior got the thumbs-up from the resident psychic; he's made his choice, and I guess I can respect that."

"Yeah." Buffy's expression went soft and a little distant; she didn't elaborate, and he didn't really expect her to, because this was Buffy. But something in the angle of her smile said yeah, he'd probably have to deal with the occasional attack of Oh God, I Didn't See Anything, Moving Along in her vicinity again sometime soon. Sigh.

"I guess we've all had some pretty big choices to make lately," Anya commented.

Xander opened his mouth to agree... then paused as he felt the gears in his mind grind to an unexpected halt. Choices. Why did that sound so naggingly important? Beyond the obvious, anyway?

He cast his mind back over what had happened that weekend, then further back over the month or so since they'd first heard the Prophecy of the Rule, then further yet to his original reaction to the thing. He'd noticed from day one that the Prophecy didn't say whether the choices to be made were limited to the numbered Chosen. But there was something else about the wording bugging him now.

"Xander? Did I say something wrong?" Anya asked, breaking into his distracted thoughts. "I don't like it when your expression goes all vacant like that. It seldom leads to anything good."

"Uh, Buffy... did you ever get a good look at the wording of the prophecy? The new one? I mean, was it printed in a book, or hand written on a scroll, or....?" Xander hadn't been there when they'd discovered it, himself; he and Giles and the girls had been cleaning up after the Duo at the time.

Buffy's gaze sharpened on him again. "In a book, I think; Fred found it, right? Wes?" She turned, seeking out Wes across the lobby, where he and Faith slouched against each other on a couch, an ugly old piece of pottery on the floor at their feet the focus of their attention.

"Yes?" The Destroyer raised a brow in her direction.

"The prophecy, Wes; you remember where you put it?"

Wes turned his attention toward the weapons cabinet, where Angel and Spike were busy adding the more common swords and axes and such from Buffy's chest to the collection. "Angel? The book with the Prophecy of the Rule? Is it still in the office?"

"If you didn't take it with you. Why?" Angel frowned. "You think we missed something?"

"Not to my knowledge," Wes replied. "But Xander seems to have a concern.... Fred?" He raised his voice. "Could you bring the prophecy text out to the lobby? You know the one."

"Sure," the petite Texan called out. She was brushing taco crumbs from the corner of her mouth when she walked out of the office a moment later, sending Xander's stomach rumbling, but he ignored that in favor of the leather-bound volume in her other hand. "Here y'all go."

Xander reluctantly let go of Anya's hand to step forward and take the book. Its cover was nondescript, an earthy color with accent lines in gold, already crumbling around the edges even though it was less than three centuries old. When he flipped back the cover, though, the date written under the spidery script of the title sent a jolt of adrenaline through his veins. It hadn't been typed; it had been hand-written, probably by the prophet him or herself, the way the Watchers still did their journals. And if he remembered his years right, it had been written less than a decade after Holtz left his own century for their future. Not exactly what he'd been looking for; but somehow, the timing didn't surprise him.

He swallowed, then flipped hastily to the magnetic fold-over bookmark Fred had used to mark the prophecy.

"When the Thirteen take their stand 'gainst Devils' law
In the City that the angels gave their name
The Mouth of Hell shall gape and bring forth fire,
Called into focus by the Key of Blood.
Then shall the Chosen make their choices..."

Xander sucked in a sharp breath at the next word written in the text. Choices four? Everyone had said so; and he could see why they had. But the way the vowels were formed, scribbled so closely together, it could easily be another word entirely.

"Then shall the Chosen make their choices fair," he substituted carefully, "and ever after fight they for the Rule. Could it be fair, not four, or am I losing it here? I always thought it was kind of weird that it should group the Slayers and Wes together but ignore all the rest of us; it's not like they're the only ones with capital-D destinies."

"Are you saying it's thirteen choices?" Buffy replied dubiously, then snagged the book from him. "But that doesn't... there weren't even actually thirteen of us when the first part came true, and didn't Whistler confirm the rest was meant for the four of us?" She glanced back at Wes and Faith, who'd got up from the chair and begun drifting in their direction, then over to her sister, frowning in concern.

"No," Wes said, slowly. "As I recall... he called me bright for assuming I was among those to be given a choice; and spoke of a counterbalance. He didn't refer to a specific number at all."

"But what does that mean?" Dawn spoke up, indignantly. "Four I get; but fair? What's 'fair', in the context of a prophecy?"

"Defined as just, or, or favorable," Tara answered her wonderingly, turning to Willow. "It isn't a number, b-because it's a description. You become one of the Chosen by the act of making a Choice. F-free will over destiny."

Willow's eyes widened as she caught her girlfriend's gist. "You mean....?"

"I know what my Choice was," Tara replied softly, gaze still fixed on Willow's. "And I think you know what yours is, too."

"I'd kind of been thinking, uh, 'I will diminish, and go into the West'," Willow quoted sheepishly in reply. "You know? Like Galadriel. I think... I could handle it now, touch the magics without going right for the dark stuff. But I don't feel like I need them; not anymore."

Some part of Xander felt relieved, for her sake; but the rest was adding that thoughtfully to his speculations. They'd all faced crisis points of one kind or another since the events tangled up with the prophecy had begun to unfold, hadn't they? Anya's was just the most significant to him, the one that had brought the subject to his attention.

"Like Anya chose to give up her power," he nodded. "I don't think we all necessarily need to say what our specific Choices are, but-- I'm not spitting in the wind here, am I? Even the folks we left in England-- we've all faced up to something important, recently."

Buffy bit her lip, struggling with something, then reached out a hand to grasp her sister's and nodded. "I Chose to live," she admitted.

Xander's heart stung at the look on her face; and at the compassion on Fred's when she smiled warmly at them and added her contribution. "And I Chose not to be afraid."

Angel glanced between Buffy and Spike, then shook his head with a frown. "Isn't it possible this is all just a coincidence?"

Wes reached out and took the text from Xander, tracing over the words himself. "Somehow, I don't think so. Though that may be my own hope speaking, rather than impartial conviction. I have to admit, I'd find that prospect far more palatable." Then he offered the text to Angel.

The elder vampire stared at him, then carefully shut the volume without glancing at the pages and left it in his son's hands. "Then-- I Chose to let the past go, and accept things as they are," he said, ruefully.

"Oh," Faith blurted as if enlightened, staring at him, then Spike. "I get it now. The visions-- never mind. But I think you're right. I Chose trust. Fang-boy over there Chose love."

"Giles chose to be all of who he is, not just the Watcher; and I think my dad did too, though kind of the reverse," Jonathan added, thoughtfully.

He didn't elaborate on his own Choice; nor did Dawn, who was blushing, or a pensive Gunn, or Lorne, who'd joined the party as everyone gravitated to the center of the lobby. But as Xander glanced from face to face around the group, he didn't doubt that they were all in agreement, one way or the other. He was reminded again of the first time he'd heard the prophecy; of leaning across the table to ask Wes when he wanted the rest of them in Los Angeles; and later that night, Wes toasting them all as Grey Hats.

"We may not be perfect, but we do our best to make the world a better place," he quoted wryly, dropping a hand into his pocket to finger the deformed bullet he'd carried every day since it nearly killed him.

Xander didn't really need the reminder of how short life could be; the entirety of his life in Sunnydale had provided plenty of those, starting with Jessie's empty grave and bookended with Buffy's. But the ordinariness of it spoke to him somehow, like a talisman against taking even the weirdness of everything for granted. "Whether we were born with power, or cursed with it, or picked up later in life, or just figured out how to deal with it without any of those gifts...." he continued, nodding at each of the people in the room in turn.

"Here's to... us, I guess," he finished with a sheepish shrug.

Anya grinned at him, then reached for his free hand again, lacing her fingers with his. "Yes. Here's to us!" she said, raising their joined hands in the air. "Now, are you going to eat those tacos before they get cold? I'm still hungry too, you know, and it's a waste of food otherwise."

Startled, warm laughter ran around the group; then they all broke apart again, clapping each other on arms and shoulders before they scattered back to their corners of the room.

"Well said, Xander," Wes said. "And well spotted; I'll have to take the text along for further research when Faith and I go back to take up the Watch."

"No rest for the wicked, huh?"

"Whoever first said that had it all backward, according to Jonathan; but I'll take it as a compliment regardless," Wes replied, wryly.

"Probably a good philosophy for life in general, in this business," Xander smirked at him, then gently untangled himself from Anya. "Now, tacos; and then, I guess, on to the next challenge?"

"Together," Anya reminded him.

"I promise," he assured her, grinning. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."


Index | EPILOGUE >>
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