Characters/Pairing: Ensemble, Xander, Angel, Buffy/Angel
Notes: I intended this as a warm-up to reviewing "When She Was Bad" (based on Willow's line about burying the Master and how they got to wear robes), but everyone's discussion on my post about "Prophecy Girl" led me to use it mostly for addressing some of the less satisfying character stuff in that episode. Thanks guys! FIWF - Fix It With Fanfic!
“Hey, Giles?” Xander was rummaging through the large plastic bin that Giles had placed on the library’s table. He had always had a personal policy of staying as far away from school grounds as possible during summer break, but Buffy’s arrival in Sunnydale had changed things in more ways than one. Here he was, of his own accord, and after sunset, no less.
Giles looked down from the stacks, where he was selecting a few more books and reshelving a few others, with Willow’s help. “Yes?”
Xander reached into the bin and held up a handful of soft, heavy cloth. “I can’t help noticing these are robes.”
“They are. The ritual requires that each of us be, ah, properly attired.”
Willow leaned over the railing for a closer look. “We all get to wear those? Cool! Are they different colors?”
“No, they’re quite uniform,” said Giles. “The light grey color is symbolic of the uncertainty of the afterlife. They’re also one-size-fits-all, Xander, so you can save yourself the effort of being the first to choose one.”
“I was counting them,” Xander objected. “It’s a trick Willow taught me for finding out the number of things.”
“Way back in sixth grade,” Willow agreed as she descended the stairs and joined him at the table. “Ooh, I call dibs on this one!”
“Five,” said Xander. “Is the point I was making. There’s five of them.”
Giles followed Willow at a more leisurely pace, three books in his arms and the top one
open. He nodded without taking his eyes from it. “The pentagram is the classic shape for the burial of the malignant undead. One person stands at each point, with the grave at the center. I’ll read this passage aloud--” he tapped the book “--we’ll consecrate the ground, and the Master should remain safely sealed in death.”
“But who’s we, besides us?” asked Willow. “Buffy’s not here, and Cordelia...well, we could ask her, but...”
“But she’s bad enough when you don’t owe her a favor?” Xander snorted.
“I know!” said Willow brightly. “Miss Calendar!”
If Giles blushed, it was very brief and barely noticeable. “I’ve already called her. She’s agreed to join us.”
“According to my expertise, that makes four,” said Xander.
“Yes.” Giles hesitated. He had never been even slightly susceptible to superstition, but he couldn’t always definitively pinpoint why he found something disturbing. He wanted to appear confident in front of the students, but privately he wished he had found another option. “The fifth is, ah, is Angel. The description of the ritual seems to indicate that the presence of another vampire won’t affect the process of burying one.”
Willow made another excited noise, but Xander grumbled, “Good work, captain. Found us someone who’s even worse company than Cordelia.”
The ritual was meant to be conducted at midnight during the full moon, but Angel had come early to the cemetery, and all the others came together, not much later. He watched them find their way to the fresh grave covering the Master’s bones, chattering and occasionally stumbling in the darkness. Jenny walked close to Giles, smiling up at him often; Xander guided Willow away from hidden obstacles without seeming to realize he was doing it. Angel felt a stab of envy, not his first. People who could count on each other were always hard for him to watch.
“Here we are,” announced Giles, and everyone stopped. Angel took that as his cue to emerge from the shadows.
“Whoa!” said Xander. “Look who’s punctual. Or did we just accidentally walk into your bedroom?”
Angel ignored the jibe, greeting the others and accepting a robe from Giles. He liked Willow, appreciated what little he had seen of Jenny, and had a great deal of respect for Giles, but so far he had been unable to find anything to enjoy about Xander. The last time they had seen each other had been the night of Buffy’s battle with the Master, when Xander had threatened him with a cross and insisted that they go together to do the impossible. Angel had wished at first to stay home and work out a way around the prophecy, and then that Xander had allowed him to go alone and die alone.
When it turned out that both of them were needed in the lair, Angel for his direction and Xander for his breath, the revelation had been staggering. Xander was right. Not only that, but Buffy had lived without thwarting the prophecy - trying to find a way around it had been the wrong approach all along, yet without Xander, she would have been facedown in a puddle of water while the Hellmouth devoured Sunnydale.
No amount of gratitude for Buffy’s savior was enough, but Angel hadn’t been able to bring himself to thank Xander. His own interest in Buffy’s continued survival had nothing to do with Xander’s efforts to find and revive her, he knew, and he couldn’t express his thanks without implying that he had some special claim on her. Instead, he thought he might talk to Buffy, tell her that he had been wrong to doubt her friends, that Xander had been brave and resourceful and stupid in all the right ways, and that she could do no better than to have him by her side for whatever came next.
That had come to nothing too. He had joined the group at the Bronze after the Master’s defeat, mingling with humans just as if he were one of them, and found himself before long sitting at a table alone with Buffy. Willow and Xander were dancing, Cordelia removed herself from their company as soon as they were in the public eye, and Giles and Jenny were talking somewhere, a safe distance from the childish festivities. Buffy leaned against Angel’s arm, to his immense thrill, her inhibitions temporarily vanquished by her ordeal. She began to talk. She told him about her terror of the Master, how it felt to drown, how part of her still felt like it was happening and it would always be happening. She even described her conversations with her mother and Willow before the fight, and the one she’d had, early in the day, with Xander. “Not really relevant,” she said. “But I’d been stressing about it all afternoon, and then I opened my eyes and there he was...it was weird.”
Angel could find no response, but he took her hand under the table and she gave him the most beautiful smile he could imagine. His speech about Xander condensed into a mere, “He cares about you a lot,” and Buffy nodded, and the topic came to its end. She didn’t want to date Xander, and her friendship with him didn’t need any additional encouragement. Angel’s shame at being shown up by an obnoxious teenage boy would not be getting an outlet. That was alright. Buffy had lived, she was there, her fingers were entwined with his, and nothing else mattered.
“I wish Buffy were here,” said Willow, bringing him back to the present. He pulled on his robe and settled it over his shoulders, as the others were doing.
“Yeah,” agreed Xander. “Just doesn’t feel right to be up to shenanigans in the cemetery without her.”
Jenny rolled her shoulders a few times and held out her arms, adjusting the folds of her robe. “Has anyone heard from her since she left?”
Willow, apparently, had received a call a few nights ago, and she eagerly filled everyone in on what she and Buffy had discussed. Angel wanted to know how she was doing, but he was only half-listening. He had seen the movement of a person in the distance, nothing that any of the humans would have been able to pick up, and he was straining his senses to figure out if it was living or dead. He didn’t think that a vampire would want to stray too near a ritual of consecration so soon after the Master’s defeat, but if it did, he would be the one who had to fight it, and he wanted to be prepared.
“Angel?” said Willow, and he realized it was for the second time.
He blinked, losing the intruder’s shape in the darkness. “What?”
“I said, has Buffy called you? Or written?”
“No,” he said shortly. He considered telling Giles about the vampire - he was fairly sure it was a vampire - but it didn’t seem likely to come any closer, and he didn’t want to scare the teenagers. Maybe after they finished their work here.
It didn’t bother him that Buffy hadn’t attempted to contact him. He had been so careful to limit their communication through the year that she probably felt uncomfortable with the idea of speaking to him like one of her friends. The night before she left for Los Angeles, he had tapped on her window and they said their goodbyes, sitting together on the roof outside her room. They even kissed before she went back inside - so lightly, so briefly, that he wasn’t sure it had happened until she ducked her head and turned shy. “Keep an eye on Sunnydale while I’m gone? It needs a lot of looking after. You know. Firm hand.”
“Of course,” he said automatically, but later, it was this answer that would keep his mind busy, worrying at it like a dog with a rat. Of course? When had the protection of the town become automatic for him? He was here for the Slayer, but he had never thought that he could be the one to take on her job. Once, he had been able to destroy other vampires with hardly an effort, and would do so for no better reason than boredom, but he wasn’t Angelus anymore. Angel just barely trusted himself to take down a sole fledgling. He was no Buffy, of that he was certain.
But if not him, then who? As he and the others took their places at the points of the pentagram, he found himself studying Xander, across and to his left. The boy hadn’t known what he would face in the tunnels. He had no good reason to believe that he would be able to save Buffy from her fated death. Yet he hadn’t thought he would be sacrificing his own life, either. Angel was sure of that: Xander might have had nothing to offer but good intentions, but he had entered the playing field to win, not to make a symbolic and fatal gesture of loyalty. And by some unexpected turn of the game, he had won. He had ignored all reason and done exactly what he needed to do.
The demon inside him, Angel understood, could still be a danger. He couldn’t afford to let himself get jealous. But for a moment, as Giles spoke the incantation and the lone vampire lurked somewhere behind him, Xander looked up and met Angel’s eyes. Neither of them committed to an expression, but Angel knew a challenge when he saw one, and Xander was all too clearly aware that he had one victory behind him already. But I won, too, Angel thought. I came into the lair. I found her. She lived.
When the ritual was finished, Angel said he would go home the way he came, and the other four departed from the grave together, chatting innocently once again. Angel followed them with his senses for a minute, and then set off to find the other vampire lurking somewhere in the night. If Buffy’s friends were to make it out of here safely, he had a job to do.