“Proserpexa ... let the cleansing fires from the depths burn away the suffering souls and bring sweet death. “ Willow called as lightning crackled between her and the statue. The ground began to shake and the wind got even stronger. Bolts of green magic shot from Willow's body toward the statue. Wind swirled around them, filled with dirt and debris, etc. The statue glowed bright yellow-white. Suddenly the stream of magic was interrupted and the glowing subsided, as Xander appeared in front of the statue. Willow stared at him in surprise.
“Hey, black-eyed girl. Whatcha doin'?” Xander asked without moving away.
“Get out of here.” Willow commanded, hair and eyes still black.
“Ah, no. You're not the only one with powers, you know. You may be a hopped-up uber-witch, but ... this carpenter can dry-wall you into the next century.” He shifted slightly, getting ready to move if necessary.
“I'm not joking, Xander. Get out of my way. Now.” She sent a bolt of magic at him that lifted him off his feet and threw him to the ground in front of the statue. Xander slowly sat up at the base of the temple, holding his ribs. He staggered to his feet and blocked the flow of magic again. The magic stopped flowing and Willow glared at him.
“You can't stop this.”
“Yeah, I get that. It's just, where else am I gonna go? You've been my best friend my whole life. World gonna end ... where else would I want to be?” Xander told her, letting go of his ribs.
“Is this the master plan? You're going to stop me by telling me you love me?” Willow scorned and Xander shrugged.
“Well, I was going to walk you off a cliff and hand you an anvil, but ... it seemed kinda cartoony.” He admitted with a small smile.
“Still making jokes.” She glared again.
“I'm not joking. I know you're in pain. I can't imagine the pain you're in. And I know you're about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid, and hey.” He paused to spread his arms out, completely blocking the statue.
“I still want to hang. You're Willow.”
“Don't call me that.” Willow snapped angrily.
“First day of kindergarten. You cried because you broke the yellow crayon, and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You've come pretty far, ending the world, not a terrific notion. But the thing is? Yeah. I love you. I loved crayon-breaky Willow and I love ... scary veiny Willow. So if I'm going out, it's here. If you wanna kill the world? Well, then start with me. I've earned that.” Xander demanded, standing firm against her magic.
“You think I won't?”
“It doesn't matter. I'll still love you.” He told her, taking a step closer.
“Shut up.” Willow demanded angrily. She gestured with her hand and Xander’s head jerked to the side as if he’d been hit. Three parallel cuts appeared on his cheek, bloody as if scratched. He put his hand up to them, looking at his fingers.
Willow watched, panting and looking a bit nervous. Xander looked back up at her and smiled slightly.
“I love you.” He stated calmly, taking another step. Willow made another slashing gesture and Xander doubled over, falling to his knees. Panting, he got up again, and his shirt is ripped open over the heart, more scratches visible on his chest. He panted and grimaced from the pain but faces Willow again.
“I ... love y-“ he panted out.
“Shut up!!” She screamed. Willow threw a blast of magic at him, and he staggered backward but didn’t fall down. Willow still held her hand out, a little bit of magic crackling around it but not as much as she expected. She looked surprised and anxious. Xander moves slowly toward her.
“I love you, Willow.”
“Stop!” She sent another magic blast, but it was weak and barely hurt Xander at all. He continued walking toward her. Willow continued holding out her hand and making the magic gesture, but nothing happened. She started to get teary.
“I love you.”
“Stop.” Willow started to cry and, as Xander got right up to her, she started hitting him with her fists. Xander just stood there and took it. After a moment she stopped hitting and started to cry for real. She fell to her knees and Xander knelt with her, putting his arms around her and holding her while she sobs.
“I love you.” He whispered into her hair. As Willow continued to cry in Xander's arms, the veins faded away from her face and her hair returned to its usual red.
Xander shaded his eyes as he watched the plane carrying Willow and Giles to England took off. Once it was out of sight he closed his eyes and sighed. He was tired, so tired of being the one to hold them all together, of being the one to pull the others back from the edge. Who held him together when he needed it? He snorted, no one, not since Jesse had died anyway. He had had Anya for a while but he was honestly glad that they had gone their separate ways. He needed a partner who would stand beside him and support him, not someone who clung to him and took everything he made. And Anya needed longer to learn what it meant to be human again. Giles and Willow would be gone for months at least and frankly he wasn’t sure he wanted to see her again. Yes he loved her, that would never change, but at the moment he didn’t like her all that much. His Willow had become a junkie, so much like his parents. Buffy had Dawn to take care of plus her classes and they just weren’t all that close, never had been if he was completely honest with himself.
Xander smiled as he turned back to his car and got in, starting his car but heading for the highway instead of back towards town. His last road trip had been cut short at Oxnard, maybe this time he’d get further. Work was between jobs and would be for several months yet so no worries there and everything he still owned was in the car, he’d broken his lease on the apartment he’d shared with Anya and had been looking for somewhere new. That could wait until he got back. For now it was time to hit the open road.
“See ya.” Dean said to the bartender, spotting Sam grabbing an empty table out of the corner of his eye.
“I talked to the bartender.” He told Sam as he sat down.
“Did you get anything? Besides her number?” He asked, looking up from John’s journal.
“Dude, I’m a professional. I’m offended that you would think that.” Sam just gave him a knowing look.
“All right, yeah.” Dean chuckled and held up a napkin with a phone number on it.
“You mind doin’ a little bit of thinking with your upstairs brain, Dean?” Sam asked him and Dean looked back at him.
“Huh? Look, there’s nothing to find out. I mean, Meredith worked here, she waited tables, everyone here was her friend. Everybody said she was normal. She didn’t do or say anything weird before she died, so—what about that symbol, you find anything?”
“Nope, nothing. It wasn’t in Dad’s journal or in any of the usual books. I just have to dig a little deeper, I guess.”
“Well, there was a first victim, right? Before Meredith?” Dean asked and Sam pulled out a newspaper clipping.
“Right. Yeah. His name was, uh—his name was Ben Swardstrom. Last month he was found mutilated in his town house. Same deal—the door was locked, the alarm was on.” Sam explained.
“Is there any connection between the two of them?”
“Not that I can tell—I mean, not yet, at least. Ben was a banker, Meredith was a waitress. They never met, never knew anyone in common—they were practically from different worlds.”
“ So, to recap, the only successful intel we’ve scored so far is the bartender’s phone number.” Dean smirked and then looked around as Sam seemed to see something across the room.
“What?” Sam ignored him and got up, walking away to stop at another table with a young woman sitting at it.
“Meg.” Sam called and the woman turned to him with a smile.
Ellen looked up as the door opened and a young man tiredly walked in. He was dressed in ratty jeans and a t-shirt and covered in dust.
“Please tell me you have a phone?” He pleaded when he reached the bar.
“Sure do. You alright?” She asked in concern.
“I should never try to leave home. Engine dropped out of my car a couple of miles back, did the same thing on my post high school road trip.” He explained as he slumped on a bar stool. Feeling pity for him she filled a glass with water and dumped some ice in.
“Drink this before you collapse. Phone’s over there.” She pointed to the phone attached to one of the walls.
“Got a room out back if you need to lay down for a bit, looks like the heat really got to you.” She offered but he shook his head.
“No thanks, I need to call a tow truck and see what the damage is this time. But thanks for the offer, I’m Xander.” He offered his hand and she shook it.
“Ellen, I own the bar.” She answered.
“That’s my daughter Jo.” She nodded to the girl about Xander’s age as she came in carrying a box of bottles.
“Nice to meet you. Thought this place was a mirage at first. I’m glad it’s not; don’t think I would have made it much further.” Xander admitted and Ellen nodded.
“Town’s another five miles down the road but there isn’t a lot of traffic. I know a good salvager if you want, he’s in South Dakota but he’ll do a better job than the local and for cheaper. Unless you need it to be local?” Ellen offered and watched him perk up a bit.
“You mean it?” She nodded and Xander grinned.
“Thanks. Local doesn’t matter, I’m not headed anywhere specific.” He told her and she nodded.
“Jo! Give Bobby a call for me.” She called out and her daughter yelled back an okay.
“Bobby Singer’s a good man, but he can be a bit abrupt with strangers. He’ll be able to fix it or at least give you your options.”
“I really appreciate it; you didn’t need to do this.” Xander stammered and Ellen shrugged. She didn’t really know why herself except the poor kid looked like he really needed someone willing to help and he did vaguely remind her of someone.
“Where are you from?” She asked.
“Small town California.” He answered absently.
“Tried to go on the all American road trip after high school, got as far as Oxnard and ended up washing dishes in a strip club for the rest of the summer to make enough money to fix the car and get home. Figured I’d try again.” He shrugged and Ellen smiled.
“At least you got further this time. Need to call anyone back home to let them know where you are?” She asked and Xander looked away.
“No.” Was the quiet answer and she found herself tossing him a pack of chips.
“On the house. Bobby in?” She asked as Jo wandered back in.
“Yeah, he said he’ll come have a look. Should be here tomorrow.” Jo answered and then stole one of Xander’s chips, getting a small smile in return.
“Xander.” He answered, shaking her hand.
“Interesting name. Short for something?”
“Alexander. I had a friend who had trouble pronouncing that when we were little so it got shortened.” He told her and Jo nodded.
“You taking the backroom for the night?” She asked and he fidgeted.
“Take the truck and go get his bag for him, then show him the room Jo.” Xander turned to her, he eyes wide in shock. Did no one ever do anything nice for this boy?
“You don’t have to. Really, I’ll be fine.” He babbled and Ellen smiled.
“Humour me kid.” She shooed them both away and watched as Xander followed Jo outside in a daze.
She kept going over why the kid seemed familiar as the regulars and several hunters trickled in. She heard her truck pull in after about half an hour and then the back door open and shut so Jo had obviously shown him the back way in to avoid the crowd. A few minutes later Jo walked in and went about her usual work of cleaning tables. It was another thirty minutes before Xander crept back in, freshly showered so Jo must have shown him where the bathroom was. Ellen smiled at him and nodded him over to the bar. He took a seat and she shoved a plate with a sandwich over to him.
Ellen watched him tense more and more as the regular hunters stared at him. She felt sorry for him but hunters were paranoid for a reason. She didn’t think the kid was dangerous but there was still a sense of familiarity about him.
“Got any family out this way? You look familiar for some reason.” She asked and Xander shook his head since his mouth was full.
“Just my parents and uncle and we all live in California.”
“Huh, it’s really weird.” She said and Xander shrugged.
“My Uncle Rory used to travel a bit years ago maybe you met him or knowing him I have a few unknown cousins out there.”
“Guess so.” She answered, maybe Bobby would know something.
When Bobby arrived at the Roadhouse he walked in and then stopped to stare. Ellen was behind the bar and Jo was sitting with...Sam? But wasn’t he with Dean or at college or something? He looked again and shook his head; no it wasn’t Sam though the resemblance was there. The kid looked a bit shorter and closer to Dean’s build than Sam’s though he had Sam’s hair colour.
“Hey Bobby.” Ellen called and the two young people turned to him. Bobby swallowed as eyes identical to Sam’s stared at him curiously.
“This is Xander; his car is the one Jo called you about. Xander this is Bobby.” She introduced them and Xander smiled. Personally Bobby was beginning to freak out a little, because that smile? That was Dean right there, not his normal grins but the true smile that was rarely seen. Who the hell was this kid? Or maybe it should be what was he?
“Thanks for coming to see it sir. I’m kind of sick of the engine falling out and stranding me though this is nicer than the last place it happened.” Xander told him and Bobby recognised his accent as southern California.
“No problem kid, I’ll take a look for you and see what can be done. So where is it?”
“Hope you brought the tow truck Bobby cause it’s a fair way down the road.” Jo told him and Bobby nodded.
“Let’s go then. See you later Ellen, Jo.” Bobby headed outside and the kid followed after grabbing his bag. Bobby got into his truck and Xander climbed up into the passenger seat, sitting quietly as he headed down the road.
“Headed anywhere special?” Bobby asked after a while and saw Xander shake his head.
“Just on a road trip. Tried once before but didn’t get very far so I figured I have some spare time might as well try again.” Xander explained.
“So no problem with heading to my place for a bit while I work on your car?”
“Nope. Any okay motels in your area?”
“There’s one and they’re pretty reasonable.”
“That’s good. Any jobs going? I’m going to need more money.”
“What can you do?”
“I’m crew lead back home for a construction company, before that I did a lot of fast food jobs and bartending.” Xander told him and Bobby glanced over him again, noticing the muscles formed by hard labour.
“Not much of that sort of work going round at the moment. Know anything about cars?”
“I can change a tire.” Xander answered slowly.
“Want to learn? A man should know how to take care of his car and I could use some help round the yard.” Bobby hid a smile as the kid shot him a half suspicious, half grateful look. He pulled the truck over as he spotted the dilapidated car sitting on the side of the road. He whistled as he saw that yes, the engine had literally fallen out. Xander grimaced and shrugged.
“Please tell me it’s fixable.” He begged and Bobby sighed.
“Honestly? You’d be better off selling it for scrap and getting a new one from the looks of things but I’ll know more when I get it back to the yard.”
Bobby grinned as he watched Xander struggle with a wrench. The kid was a hard worker and a fast learner, he’d give him that. He’d been there two weeks now and it was working out well. Xander had sold his car and Bobby had helped him find one to fix up. He was even thinking of asking the boy if he wanted to use his guest room to save on motel fees. Xander hadn’t reacted to any of the small tests Bobby had administered so the boy was human and not possessed and yet little things he did would remind him of the Winchester’s. Maybe he was some long lost cousin or something. Wasn’t like he talked to John anymore and he wasn’t going to track him down just to ask.
“Well, you were right. It wasn’t very easy to find, but you were right. A shtriga is a kind of witch. They’re Albanian, but legends about ‘em date back to ancient Rome. They feed off of spiritus vitae.” Sam said as he read from the computer screen.
“Spiri-what?” Dean asked in bewilderment.
“Vitae. It’s Latin—it translates to “breath of life”. Kind of like your life force or essence.”
“Didn’t the doctor say the kids’ bodies were wearin’ out?” Dean asked with a frown and Sam nodded.
“It’s a thought. You know, she takes your vitality, maybe your immunity goes to hell, pneumonia takes hold. Anyway, shtrigas can feed off anyone, but they prefer—“
“Children.” Dean finished.
“Yeah. Probably because they have stronger life force. And get this—shtrigas are invulnerable to all weapons devised by God and man.”
“No. That’s not right. She’s vulnerable when she feeds.”
“What?” Sam looked at Dean and frowned, where had Dean picked that tidbit up?
“If you catch her when she’s eating, you can blast her with consecrated wrought irons, buckshots, or rounds, I think.”
“How do you know that?” Sam asked in surprise.
“Dad told me. I remember.”
“Oh. So, uh, anything else Dad might have mentioned?”
“No. That’s it. What?” Sam stared at him.
“Nothin’. Okay, so, assuming we can kill it when it eats, we still gotta find the thing first, which ain’t gonna be a cakewalk. Shtrigas take on a human disguise when they’re not hunting.”
“What kind of human disguise?” Dean asked.
“Historically, something innocuous—it could be anything. But it’s usually a feeble old woman, which may be how the whole witches-as-old-crones legend got started.” Dean dug a map out of his bag as Sam talked.
“What?” Sam asked.
“Check this out.” Sam walked over to see the map too.
“I marked down all the addresses of the victims. Now, these are the houses that have been hit so far, and dead center?”
“The hospital.” Sam whispered in shock.
“The hospital. When we were there, I saw a patient—an old woman.”
“An old person, huh?” Sam asked, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Yeah.” Dean answered.
“In the hospital? Whew. Better call the coast guard.” Sam laughed and Dean shot him a glare.
“Well, listen, smartass, she had an inverted cross hangin’ on her wall.” Sam’s smile faded and they got ready to move.
Bobby turned to go back out to the yard only to see Xander standing in the doorway, eyes wide as he stared at the books on the table. So much for keeping him from noticing Bobby’s side job.
“So nutjob, retired Watcher, occult buff?” Xander asked, body poised for flight. Bobby raised an eyebrow at the unexpected response and then frowned. A what?
“What’s a Watcher and why would these books make you think I’m one?” He asked and saw Xander tense even further.
Get in here and sit down Xander, I think we need to talk.”
“As long as you promise you’re not some crazy.” That made Bobby chuckle and he got up to get two beers.
“I’m not and I know you don’t usually drink but I think this talk calls for it.” He tossed the bottle and Xander caught it easily. His shirt moved and Bobby stared at a very odd looking scar at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. Seeing where he was looking Xander pulled his shirt up and opened the bottle to take a large swallow, without reacting to the holy water in it.
“No way, you first.”
“I’m a hunter.” Bobby answered and Xander choked on his beer.
“Guess I didn’t need to hide the stakes and holy water in my bag.” Xander commented once he’d cleared the liquid from his lungs. This time it was Bobby that nearly choked and then laughed.
“Nope. How long have you been hunting?”
“Since I was fifteen. My best friend was taken by vampires and after that I couldn’t go back to ignoring what was going on in town.” Xander explained.
“I’m sorry about your friend. But vampires? I thought they were pretty much wiped out?” Xander stared at him and then cracked up laughing.
“You’re joking right? Sunnydale’s pretty much overrun and I know they’re worldwide thanks to the local Watcher.” Xander explained once he’d stopped laughing.
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned a Watcher?”
“They’re this big organisation based in England. They are very big in supernatural research and fighting. They’re all over the world.” Xander explained briefly.
“Huh. You any good at research? I could use a hand.” Bobby asked and Xander grinned.
“Pass the books.”