Wherein we start to see the aftermath
: Thank you once again to all my lovely reviewers. Though I have to admit I was very surprised by the turnout for the last chapter – where did you all come from?! Not that I'm complaining. It was a very pleasant surprise.
To Xander it felt like ripping a band-aid off everywhere at once; a sharp, sudden sting all over his skin that lingered in unpleasant tingles until fading completely.
When it was gone he found himself hunched over on his knees, the heels of his hands pressing hard at his temples with his fingers fisting into his own hair – and no clear memory of how he got there. He dropped his hands, and the dull throbbing in his head that he hadn’t really been aware of flared white-hot for a moment and then just sort of shifted
a bit as it ebbed. Without the self-inflicted pressure and hair-pulling it settled into a sullen, pervasive ache, and a single, tighter knot of pain just behind his left eye.
Dehydration, he knew. The headache and the way his tongue felt thick and fuzzy-gross and how his joints ached like Christmas morning after a cold, uncomfortable night in the backyard. Same as he knew it was only a symptom of his entire metabolic structure turning itself inside-out for the second time in three hours, twenty-four minutes, and eighteen seconds. He had a muzzy sense of a similar pain hitting right when the spell started, but Time Lords are more resilient than humans so for the Doctor it had been a brief, momentary annoyance, forgotten almost instantly once the urgency of the situation registered.
And then suddenly he realized, with all the hard and painful abruptness of slamming head-first into a brick wall, that there was absolutely no way on Earth he should have known that.
He didn’t have time to process that though, because a sudden crash off to his left startled him right out of his sense of looming dread. He looked up in time to see Buffy going at Spike with what had to be Angel’s discarded hunk of rebar. The display was pure violence, no sharp-edged banter or the sense of a cat toying with its prey. Angel was standing off to one side, tense, muttering encouragements to Buffy under his breath but not actually doing anything to interfere. Letting the slayer reassert her dominance, he realized – another thought he shouldn’t have.
Well, Buffy seemed to have the situation well in hand – and Angel was right there if she didn’t – so Xander dismissed them for the moment, and looked around for the others. The lights were flickering though, and the little twinkling auras that were dancing in front of his central vision suddenly congealed. He had to blink hard, several times in fact, before they dispersed again. The Oncoming Migraine, he realized dully, and he very carefully did not giggle.
As soon as his vision cleared again his eyes found Cordelia. She was crouched down in the center of their would-be army, now just a clutch of frightened and teary-eyed children – sixteen of them, all told – and just like that, the undulating tide of white noise that Xander had been mostly ignoring this last little while resolved itself into sixteen high-pitched and distinctive voices: some mewling, some sobbing outright, others peppering Cordelia with questions or begging brokenly for their mothers. And above all that was the crisp, clear alto of Cordelia’s voice, commanding a truly bizarre mix of frustration and gentleness, assuring them that they were fine, that they were safe, that they would all be going home soon. “Pathos” wasn’t even a word
, as far as Xander knew, but still he was struck by it anyway.
It was only when he turned to ask Willow what it meant that he realized there was no way she would have been off to one side. She’d either have been with Angel watching Buffy, or – much more likely – she’d have been right alongside Cordelia, helping the children, or maybe even she’d have been down with him, making sure he was okay, because he rather got the feeling that he’d been down on all fours for a while, but – she wasn’t here.
She wasn’t here, she wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere inside that he could see. It was like she was just—
Willow was gone
, and with a sudden, sick wash of ice-cold horror Xander knew exactly what had happened to her.
Well. Not exactly
, exactly, but when the spell was broken either her projected consciousness get suddenly and violently wrenched back into her body, or—
Or her corpse was still laying where it dropped and her soul, no longer trapped here by whatever magic Ethan had used, didn’t have anything to tether it to this world anymore, and had moved on.
Alive and well (and was she well? Where had she left her body? What if something happened to it?) or dead and gone. She was Schrodinger’s Willow at the moment, and that thought bloody terrified him.
And somewhere in the back of his mind, whatever part of him that wasn’t flailing in panic over Willow’s fate was wondering how the hell he knew who Schrodinger was and why he was suddenly using “bloody” as a swear word – and what the hell they were going to do about the corpse in the Summers’ kitchen and how exactly Giles broke the spell and whether or not Clarke’s Laws applied on the hellmouth and how the hell he knew what Clarke’s Laws even were
– and that was entirely too many parts of him otherwise occupied for him to do anything else except sit around and gape, and maybe let whatever little bits and scraps of him were left get on with wondering why he wasn’t dead yet.
It was that last particular wonder that finally brought it all home to him.
He’d been the Doctor. Worse, he remembered
being the Doctor, every last yoctosecond of it. Yocto, from the Greek οκτώ, and he shouldn’t know that, hadn’t
known it before tonight, just like he hadn’t known “pathos” or Schrodinger’s cat or Clarke’s laws or what happened when a human suddenly gained all the knowledge and memories of a Time Lord, but he knew them now. Just as surely as he knew blood was red and water was wet and that in over ten billion instances neither of those statements was true, Xander just simply knew
And yet here he was, down on his ass in a not-so-abandoned warehouse, watching Spike run away from a triumphant slayer, overhearing her reunion with Angel, and wondering—
So many things. So many wonderful, terrible, impossible things.
Like if the pain in his head meant it was getting ready to explode.
Human brains weren’t built for this, to house the kind of knowledge that Xander felt lurking at the edges of his awareness, just there; or to store several millennia's worth – millennia's worth!
Holy crap! – of memories with such brutal, pinpoint clarity. They weren’t wired to perceive more than three dimensions at once, or to process input from more than five senses (well, seven, if you include the latent ESP that all humans had but very few could access, and the spatial sense of where one’s own limbs were that science was just starting to acknowledge in this day and time, but the point still stands) they really, really weren’t.
Not that his was, exactly; not really, but he remembered what it felt like, vividly, and now that he was aware of it he realized he could feel his human senses straining, trying desperately to compensate for the insurmountable difference in physiology. Suddenly he knew that all those specks and flecks of light that danced periodically across his vision weren’t migraine auras after all.
Synesthesia, he realized, the thought just suddenly and inexplicably there
, but Xander couldn’t focus on that. Literally couldn’t, not now that he knew what it was he was seeing. It was like time and possibility had seared themselves onto his optic nerves, the twining pattern, the intricate tapestry of personal timelines all merging and dividing along the probability spectrum flashed and sparked across his central vision in ribbons of intangible color that wove around everyone and everything, highlighting and backlighting, shifting to the foreground if he looked at them just so
or fading back into little more than a trick of the light as soon as he dropped his focus.
Concentrating on them made the headache bloom, but even as he realized that, he could tell the colors were fading out, the ribbons shriveling and shrinking, the light of them growing fainter and fainter until finally they disappeared completely, one final blink and—
Nothing. Just boring human sight again, plain old 3D perception. It left Xander feeling unaccountably bereft, even as he knew that wasn’t good. Hell it was so far from good he couldn’t even begin to quantify it.
Quantify. He was using words like “quantify” now. Correctly. In sentences. About synesthesia.
“Are you guys okay?” he heard Buffy ask, but the words sounded almost underwater, like he was struggling to hear them from the bottom of a well. He was shivering, he noticed; his hands were cold.
“Fine,” Cordelia snapped, loud and harsh; the voiceless labiodental fricative cutting straight across his senses like razors on piano wire, leaving him thinking in other f-words. “Now – you guys are the chaperones, so start chaperoning already! Crying kids are so
not my thing. There’s snot, and tears, and – and snot! Ew!”
“We should probably get them back to their parents,” Buffy said. Then she grimaced. “Somehow I don’t think they’re going to be happy with the whole volunteer trick-or-treater thing.”
“At least they’re safe,” Angel said. “That’s something.”
,” Xander insisted, automatically, but it came out on a cough, his throat trying and failing to use muscles that weren’t there to compensate for an entire vocal structure he didn’t have in order to render perfect 20th century English. So very, very not good.
“Hey,” Buffy said, grinning at him. “Welcome back.” The way she said it, it was like she’d only just noticed him. Somehow he wasn’t surprised. Somehow, the not-surprise helped to ground him, gave him something concrete inside himself to focus on; something inherently and unmistakably Xander
“Yeah,” he agreed, scrabbling to his feet at last. “You too.” His voice was still a little rough, but it was getting better. Once he was up he crossed his arms and shoved his hands under his armpits, trying to warm them up. Or at least to hide the trembling.
“Wait – where’s Willow?” And since Buffy only just noticed him, of course she only just noticed Willow wasn’t here anymore. Willow who may or may not be dead. Xander thought of Schrodinger again, and very nearly giggled. Hysteria, he realized. Not good, but oh so very tempting.
“Probably got sent back to her body when the spell ended,” Angel said, saving Xander from having to voice his own theories.
Theories that were just a bit too technical-sounding to pass off as something Xander himself could have come up with. Part of him was still waiting for his head to spontaneously combust, but he couldn’t focus on that now. Not when there were children crying and Willow was missing and there was a dead body on Buffy’s kitchen floor.
“Uh, Buffy? Why don’t you and Cordelia take the kids back to the school? Angel and I can do a sweep of the area, see if we can find any more. We’ll meet you there.” It was a good plan; an excellent plan, really. This many kids really needed two chaperones, and if they were going to split up it made sense that each pair had someone with superpowers.
“Uh, we can?” Angel asked, hesitant in a way that suggested he thought Xander was joking or something.
Well, of course he would. Since when did Xander start volunteering to spend time with Deadboy? Well, other than that one time he still occasionally had nightmares about, but right now they were all still alive and probably as safe as they ever were on the hellmouth at night, so he had to explain.
“We should. If you go with Buffy then us wimpy humans will have to fend for themselves. All the same to you, I’d rather not get eaten tonight.” Which really wasn’t the explanation he wanted to give, but then he wasn’t about to speak up in front of Buffy and Cordelia. That would very much defeat point of splitting up in the first place.
“Right,” Buffy agreed, but he could tell she wasn’t happy about it.
So they split up, and the part of him that was still inherently Xander
took a moment to berate himself for dividing the party inside the dungeon because of course he knew better than that and had since he was twelve. Then another part of him was cautiously poking at the dark dense mass in the so-obviously-not-the-middle-but-yay-human-analogies part of his brain that was the Doctor’s memories, fearing he was about to stumble on the magic door that would unlock the full force of the Time Lords and fry his brains to cinders, but even still it sat in his awareness like the hole where a tooth should be and he couldn’t not worry at it despite the promise of pain.
That and maybe the Doctor – any of them – had some sort of reference for what he should be doing now. Wasn’t like a human in his position was new territory for him, after all, but each time he tried to remember the metacrisis clearly it – well, it hurt
, like how forgetting Jesse was dead used to hurt before reality finally settled for him. Did the pain mean he was about to die, or was there a sadder, simpler truth to it? There was very little about his tenth life that wasn’t
pain, after all. All hail Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds
“I don’t see any kids,” Angel said, suddenly disturbing Xander’s rather disturbing thoughts.
“Let’s hope that’s a good thing.”
“We’re not really looking for any, though, are we.” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course we are,” Xander said, aghast. Lost children on the streets of Sunnydale at night? Of course they were looking. “Well, we’re keeping an eye out. Four eyes. Whatever.”
“On the way to Buffy’s house.”
“Better us than them,” he said. “Or Mrs. Summers.”
“And if we come across any stray kids between here and there?”
“Then you take them back to the high school.”
Angel practically stumbled. “Me? Why me? I’m—”
“The one who’s been living off the grid all this time and has no real address to give to the authorities?” Xander neatly cut him off. “Not to mention Mrs. Summers doesn’t even know you, and no offense but you look a bit old to pass as Buffy’s boyfriend without raising some serious eyebrows.”
“Have my greasy, undead fingerprints all over the murder weapon? Yes, I know. Makes that whole off-grid thing actually work in your favor.”
This time Angel stopped in his tracks. “Will you stop that
Xander halted with him, just slightly ahead, and turned back to face him. He caught Angel staring at him, frustrated and confused and maybe just a little bit angry, and it occurred to him that Angel probably hadn’t been expecting him to use actual logic
in his arguments. Or that he’d even have a plan that needed arguing in the first place. It was a reasonable expectation, too. That was the worst thing.
“You know I’m right,” he said, utterly calm.
Angel frowned at him. Hard. “You still sound like him,” he said. “Sort of.”
Xander grimaced. “Don’t remind me,” he said as he turned back around, started walking again. “As it is I am so very never living this down. I need to hurry up with the repressing.”
Angel caught up to him in three long strides. “What was it like?”
“Didn’t Buffy tell you? It was like watching a movie with actors who looked just like people I knew. Cordelia probably felt like Dorothy.”
“No, I mean… what was it like?”
Right. Because Angel was a Whovian. Of course he was, and tonight one of his favorite TV heroes had come to startling life. Hell, they even fought side by side there for a bit, for certain values of “fighting,” anyway. No wonder Angel was still a little star-struck.
Xander found he really couldn’t fault him for his curiosity, no matter how much he’d like to. The Doctor had been intrigued by Angel, and apparently some of that quasi-fond feeling got left behind. It made all his intrinsic Xander-bits reflexively recoil, but on the other hand he also had what sounded uncomfortably like Jon Pertwee’s Three grumbling about xenophobic prejudices in his other ear, and that made him want to give Angel something of a proper answer, something just Doctor-ish enough to placate him, get Angel off his back and keep him from asking twice.
“Strange,” he said after a moment. “He really can feel the earth move. He sees time like, like we see color. It’s like, uh, like looking at a piece of wood. You look once and it’s just wood, right? But look closer and you can see all the grain, all the whorls and knots and stuff. Time’s like that for him; always there if he looks, and he knows it is, but he doesn’t have to be so consciously aware of it if he doesn’t want to.” And that analogy was absolute crap, but it was the best he could come up with. Hopefully it would be enough. He really didn’t know what else he could say.
No. That wasn’t true. He knew a whole host of things he could say, words he could use to describe the Doctor. “Brilliant” came to mind. So did “lonely,” “terrifying,” “ancient,” “alien,” and – did he say “terrifying”? Because he really couldn’t say it enough.Oh, you know, the Doctor’s probably got more innocent blood on his hands than all of vampiredom combined and he wasn’t lying when he told Spike he had no idea what he was capable of because the partial genocide of a chaotic evil race barely cracks the top ten in worst things he’s ever done.
Yeah – like that
would go over well. The Doctor was one of Angel’s heroes. Xander didn’t have the right to take that from him; didn’t have it in him to be that cruel.
Well, the Doctor didn’t, except under very specific circumstances. The family of Blood came to mind. Xander
on the other hand – well. He might have, if he was in a particularly vindictive mood, especially if the other person was Deadboy. And now he had the too-sharp focus of thirteen other lenses looking in on that ugly and all-too-human part of him and passing judgment. For better or worse (seriously; Xander honestly couldn’t make up his mind) he caught himself agreeing with them. The sudden, hot rush of shame was startling.
“Cool,” Angel said, and he sounded like he meant it.
Xander had to quickly backtrack, his thoughts having flown so far afield that, just for a moment, he had absolutely no clue what Angel was referring to. Nothing he’d been thinking had been anywhere even close to “cool.”
“It was, yeah,” he agreed, because what else could he say? From his limited, human perspective the way the Doctor saw – and fit within – the universe was absolutely mind-blowing. (Hopefully not literally, but the migraine that’d been slowly creeping up on him was looming ever closer. The auras were back, but this time they were just simply that.)
Of course, out the other side of it, it was like he’d been suddenly struck colorblind and tone-deaf and far too much like he was trying to grasp hold of things through thick rubber gloves that were three sizes too big. And he had a list of proper, better fitting ways of describing exactly how it felt, but he literally couldn’t say any of them aloud. He simply, physically couldn’t form the words.
Which didn’t exactly stop him, once they rounded the corner and Buffy’s house was suddenly right there in front of them, cordoned off with police tape and all lit up like Christmas. There were two cruisers parked out front and the coroner’s van was in the driveway, pulled all the way forward almost into the back yard; all the closer to the kitchen door. Several choice Gallifreyan words leapt to his lips then without conscious thought, though through his human throat they sounded more like a gurgly, throat-clearing cough than anything else.
Angel’s soft, sincere, “fuck
,” was a crude and oversimplified translation, if still an effective one.
Xander wholeheartedly agreed.
Just then the front door opened and Mrs. Summers walked out, followed by two plainclothes officers; detectives, probably. They were talking to her, and she was nodding, but she was pale and shaky to Xander’s eye, and the cops seemed either not to notice or not to care. This was Sunnydale so either was possible.
“Go,” he told Angel. “Head back to the high school. Tell Buffy her mom’s alright. She’ll want to know.”
“You have a funny definition of ‘alright.’”
Xander shrugged, said, “I’m from Sunnydale,” because it was infinitely better than the alternative.
“I killed someone in her house tonight,” Angel said, and Xander still heard everything the vampire thought he was hiding beneath that matter-of-fact tone. “I should tell her that, too.” But he really didn’t want to. That was obvious, too.
Part of Xander almost wished Angel wouldn’t, that he’d just say that he saw the cops at her place and her mom looked okay but maybe she should hurry home, and let Mrs. Summers tell the rest. It was an accidental death, after all, a horrible and entirely unnecessary tragedy he was more than happy to lay at Ethan’s feet. Angel would carry the guilt of it, of course, because that’s what having a soul meant
, but Buffy had so much on her plate already, knew so many things that teenage girls should never have been meant to know, that he really did wish he could spare her this, that it could stay between him and Angel, their little secret.
Stupid, of course. Cordelia had been there too and no one would ever count on her for discretion. And maybe Buffy had seen the attack and that was why she ran. After all Xander still remembered everything; it stood to reason that Buffy did, too. And too, the instinct to protect Buffy from just one more horror somehow butted up against the knowledge that some lies only made things worse instead of better, and that Buffy wouldn’t thank them for it anyway.
It was with an odd, muddly-unsettled sort of feeling that Xander acknowledged he didn’t know which sentiment was him, and which came from the Doctor.
“Tell her the truth,” he said. “That you didn’t realize the vampire that attacked us wasn’t real until it didn’t dust.”
“She’ll be angry.”
“More for the fact that it was her mom who found the body. If it helps, you can blame Ethan.”
“Oh, I intend to.” Again with the voice that had even the Doctor looking twice. Xander side-eyed him.
“Giles should be back to the school by now. He’ll have answers we don’t.”
“And you know that because...?”
“Because he’ll want to check on Buffy, and he knows she’ll head there first.” Still Angel hesitated, so Xander added, “Go on. Mrs. Summers knows me, but you’ll take more explaining than I think Buffy wants right now.”
“I should… go look for more kids,” Angel said after a moment, like it was just the excuse he needed.
“Do,” Xander agreed. “I got this.”
“I can tell her Buffy’s okay. That’s what she really needs right now. Though you should probably warn everyone she’s going to want to drive to the school personally to pick her up.”
Angel nodded. “Right. Good luck.” Then he was gone. Back-peddling on silent feet until he disappeared into the shadows. Xander almost – almost
– didn’t see him go.
Then, almost as if they’d choreographed it, as soon as Angel was gone Mrs. Summers look up – and saw her daughter’s friend.
Xander jogged forward, right to the edge of the police tape. Mrs. Summers ran forward to meet him, and he ducked under the tape just in time to be caught up in a surprising hug, a quick, desperate cling and then she was shoving him back out at arms’ length, her hands still firmly on his shoulders.
“Buffy! Where’s Buffy!”
“She’s fine,” Xander said, his own hands sliding down her arms, taking a gentle yet firm grip just by her elbows. “Buffy’s fine,” he repeated, a deliberate attempt to channel the Doctor at his most reassuring. “Right now she’s bringing her kids back to the high school, if she’s not there already.”
“You’re sure? Y-you’ve seen her?”
“I’ve seen her,” Xander assured her, nodding, speaking slowly and clearly to hopefully cut through Mrs. Summers’ full-on frantic mama-bear panic and get her to listen. “She’s fine. She’s with Cordelia.”
It seemed to be working. “And she’s fine? She’s okay?”
“Yes. She’s okay. Look – let me drive you over there. You can see her yourself.”
The words penetrated, and the meaning followed, and then Mrs. Summers’ face sort of crumpled, the sudden release of desperate tension giving way to involuntary tears. “Oh, thank God,” she said, and crushed him into a hug again, just quickly there and gone. Then she held him back again. “Uh, I’m glad you’re okay, too,” she added, awkwardly. She still had him by the shoulders.
“Same,” he said, smiling slightly. He squeezed her arms once, gently, and she let go.
“Can I get your name, son?”
They both turned sharply at the new voice. It was one of the detectives, standing just off to the side, notepad in hand.
“Alexander Harris,” he said. “Yes, of those
Harrises,” he added when he saw the cop’s eyebrows starting to climb.
“It’s okay,” Mrs. Summers said. “He’s a friend of my daughter’s.”
“Can we go?” he asked the cop. “Her daughter needs her.”
“Sure, sure,” the cop said, dismissive. “Though you might want to pack a bag first. The crime unit will be a while yet, and you can’t go back in until they’re done.”
“We’ll go shopping,” Mrs. Summers snapped, impatient. Now that she knew where Buffy was she really wanted to leave, like, yesterday. “Just give me my purse. And my keys.”
The cop complied, though his eyebrows did their little incredulous dance again. He obviously wasn’t a father, Xander mused – and then felt a sudden, visceral stab of pain, white-hot, momentarily blotting out all else. Audiences only got to see one of the Doctor’s granddaughters, and then only briefly.
Xander could see them all.
“Let’s go,” he heard Mrs. Summers shout at him. She’d already made her way over to her car. He followed, and dutifully climbed in on the passenger side when it became clear Mrs. Summers wasn’t about to let him drive. Honestly, he couldn’t have said which of them was more up to the task. Mrs. Summers didn’t look nearly half so broken as he’d first feared – actually, she looked a bit like she’d drive straight through an apocalypse if one dared stand between her and her daughter, and that was good.
Xander’s headache had returned in force, and his hands on the seatbelt clasp were shaking.
“Right. The high school,” Mrs. Summers said. “Hang on.”