disclaimer in part 1
Cernunnos returned to the center of the circle with the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations following after, curious and confused.
The grass and flowers had spread beyond His hoof prints, until almost the entire floor of the dell—minus the fire pit—was now carpeted with soft green. What was more, the grass was starting to spread up the trail. Moss had completely covered the original rock he had leaned against and spread to others. Out in the darkness, animals hunted, and mated, and fought. All of nature felt the presence of the Stag King.
The Heroes felt it, too. They’d no sooner returned to the circle than their shoes started to feel too tight, too hot. Itchy. They had to take them off.
Remove your sandals, for the place where you stand is holy ground.
They didn’t question whatever deep, still part of themselves had said that. They just obeyed, and then they were barefoot, and they felt the soft grass tickling their feet.
But that wasn’t all they felt. As before, the night was alive around them, and they felt…something. They felt what the coyote and the rattlesnake and the rat and the gila monster felt. Something was waiting. Something had been suspended, put on hold while Cernunnos had tended to Faith. But it still hung over them, an enormous, irrational power like a dam, cracking and leaking and ready to break. Or a thunderstorm ready to burst, the clouds stacked up high and the air heavy, ready to erupt into electrical fire.
The hairs on their arms stood up in the charged air. Something was waiting. Waiting to happen.
Cernunnos crossed the circle to a boulder, where He sat. "You need to go out into the desert," He said as He settled down. "That’s where it’s going to happen."
Buffy considered asking if that was necessary, if He couldn’t just do it here, then thought better of it.
"Don’t worry," Cernunnos said with a wry grin that caused buds to swell on the flowers that were poking up out of the grass. "It won’t be for forty days and forty nights. In fact, it shouldn’t take long at all. Leave your robes and your weapons. Just the clothes you stand up in."
Willow reached for her shoes as the others were shucking their robes, but found that she couldn’t lift them. "Don’t worry about your shoes, either," Cernunnos said as she braced her legs and back for a mighty heave.
"But—" Willow started to protest, before remembering who had spoken and cutting herself off.
"Hmm?" Cernunnos prompted, cocking his head at her.
"Scorpions?" She asked sheepishly. "Rattlesnakes?"
"Will give you a wide berth," he assured her. Then he waved them in the direction of the gap in the stones that he had come through. "Now run along."
"Will we be able to get out?" Faith asked. "I don’t want to hit the wall again." She rubbed her forehead.
"Of course you will," He replied. "I’m telling you to, aren’t I?"
The snakes and the scorpions did indeed ignore them, but there were still plenty of rocks, uneven terrain, and plants that seemed downright hostile to make them wish that they still had their shoes.
The cold also came as a surprise to most of them. A desert is a place that lies naked, without the protective blanket of clouds that most places wear. In the day, the unimpeded heat of the sun blazes down. But in the night, all of that heat evaporates directly into outer space
"Does anyone—ow!—know what we’re supposed to be doing out here?" Xander asked as he stubbed his toe for the third time.
"I assume we’re going to meet our greatest foe—unless someone else here received instructions I didn’t," Wesley said, looking around at his companions. His question was answered with shaking heads and negative grunts.
"Without weapons," Anya added. "Suddenly I’m wishing that I’d taken off last week after all."
"Come on, Anya," Buffy said. "You’ve just been given an order by a genuine, straight-up god. Try to have a little fai-aaaiiith!" She leaped back. If her reflexes had been anything less than supernatural, the sword that suddenly flashed out of the darkness would have taken her head off.
The wielder of the sword emerged from the darkness like some sea monster from the depths.
It was Buffy.
Dressed all in black leather, bedecked with spikes and chains, wielding a sword—but Buffy.
"What—what’s this?" Buffy asked. "What’s going on? I’m our greatest enemy?"
"Well, you do put them in constant danger," The Dark Buffy answered. "Only God knows how many times you’ve gotten them hurt or nearly killed. And sooner or later, they’re going to figure that out, and they’re all going to abandon you—just like everyone always does. But—" she continued before anyone could interrupt, as several were opening their mouths to do. "Even you couldn’t fuck everything up as badly as it’s gotten fucked up over the years."
Other figures started to emerge from the darkness.
Riley, carrying a taser and wearing a black Nazi uniform, stepped out of the dark grinning. "Yeah, but I was just following orders when I fucked up, wasn’t I?"
"As was I," Wesley said, emerging from the night wearing a very similar uniform.
One by one, nightmare versions of each of them emerged from unnaturally dark corners of the desert night, corners that the moonlight somehow didn’t reach.
A street-hooligan Giles with a Hitler Youth armband, accompanied by Gunn wearing gang colors and a hollow-eyed shadow of Faith with track marks on her arm.
Angelus, complete with his familiar leather pants, wine-colored shirt, and leather jacket.
Joyce, dressed in a June Cleaver outfit and waving a torch.
A slavering, foam-dripping werewolf with matted, mangy, clumped fur.
A cloven-hoofed Tara with gleaming cat’s eyes and a forked, flickering tongue by the side of a Willow whose eyes were pure black and whose hands were wrapped in gauntlets of crackling electricity.
Cordelia, dressed in something that had surely come directly from a Paris runway, her eyes like ice, followed by Anyanka, in full demon-face and cracking a scourge.
Finally, a huge knight in spiked black armor, gripping a massive axe.
"Wait a second," Xander—who had been keeping count—exclaimed. "How come my guy looks like doomsday walking?"
His question was largely ignored. Everyone else was staring in horror at their own opposite number.
"Doppelgangers," Giles said, mostly to himself. "This must be some sort of test. No one fight your own double!" He called out. "They’re a precise match for you."
"How is that a precise match—" Xander began, but once again he was ignored.
"Switch with someone else!" Giles called and, matching deed to word, he stepped out and looped a right hook into the face of the prowling Willow-thing. She did nothing to defend herself, but her head snapped back instantly, grinning and unharmed. At the same time, Willow cried out and fell to the ground. She lay there, stunned and bleeding from her nose, as Oz and Tara hurried to help her.
"How did you do that?" Giles demanded, his face ashen.
"I didn’t do that," The Willow-thing said in a slow, teasing voice that reminded them all chillingly of the vampiric Willow that had come through from Anyanka’s alternate dimension. "You did."
"What the bloody hell are you talking about?"
"You don’t get it, do you?" Not-Willow taunted. "We’re not just some shape-shifting fakes. We are you."
"Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and seeing someone there in your room with you," Not-Buffy said.
"You go to investigate, and you see that it’s you!" Not-Joyce said, punctuating "you" with a jab of her torch.
"While you were sleeping, someone came into your room and set up a sheet of black metal," Not-Wesley explained.
"A black mirror," The demonic Tara whispered, her forked tongue teasing at her razored teeth.
"You’d been frightened of nothing more than your own dark reflection," Not-Giles said.
"For this little exercise, we’ll have to pretend that you’d reflect in the Black Mirror for some reason," Angelus grinned at Angel.
"But then," Anyanka said, "Your reflection raises its hand and reaches out for you…while your hand stays at your side."
"That’s us," Not-Willow finished, smiling maliciously. "We’re your Black Mirror. We’re you, seen through the glass darkly."
"We’re everything you hate about yourself and refuse to admit," Not-Cordelia said.
"We’re what tears you down from the inside," Not-Riley added.
"What makes you hurt yourself," the hollow-eyed Not-Faith said, tugging at her stringy hair.
"And those you love," Not-Joyce finished, raising her torch.
"So why does mine look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Darth Vader costume?" Xander demanded.
"I hate Angel," The massive, armored figure said, his voice echoing hollowly within his visor. "I hate him more than anyone else in the world. I hate him for being a vampire, I hate him for what Angelus did," Then the Black Knight lifted a gauntleted hand and raised his visor. Xander’s young face was behind it, as they’d all known it would be. But now, without the echoing, distorting effect of the visor, the things that Not-Xander was saying were that much more chilling. "And I hate him for stealing Buffy away from me. But most of all, I just hate him. He’s like Larry and Percy, only worse. He’s every cool guy and pretty boy who ever kept me down and made me a clown. I could have been somebody important in the Scooby Gang, even if I never amounted to anything else. I could have been the hero, gotten the girl, but he had to show up and steal all that away from me. That’s why I take every opportunity to make his life more difficult. If Buffy had found out that he’d come to visit while he was still there last thanksgiving, they might have been able to talk it out right away. If Riley had found out about the True Happiness clause while Buffy was there to calm him, they might not have fought when they met. Too bad that didn’t get Angel in more trouble…"
Xander’s face had gone white. "No," he denied. "That’s not true. Those were mistakes. Slips."
"To your conscious mind," Not-Riley said, pointing at the Black Knight. "But he knew what you really wanted."
"It’s funny that I go to so much trouble over Buffy, ‘cause I hate her, too," Not-Xander continued.
"That’s a lie!"
"I hate her for choosing an undead monster over me, and I hate her for failing us so many times. But hey, let’s not stop there: the list goes on. I hate Oz for stealing Willow away from me—she was always supposed to be mine, but she chose to go with that murderous animal instead. I hate Cordelia for a lifetime worth of crap, and above all—first and foremost—I hate my father for being a drunken, abusive scumbag and my mother for taking it like the coward she is."
"Shut up!" Xander screamed, launching himself at his dark image.
The Black Knight’s visor slammed back into place and he swung his axe. Xander, his sense of self-preservation overriding his fury, leaped back out of range. The Black Knight advanced, his axe held high and ready.
As if that was a signal, the other shades began to advance as well, raising their weapons. Even the Not-Cordelia pulled a stun gun out of her purse.
"But you have to understand, it’s not about hate for all of us," Joyce-the-Inquisitor said. "I’m just trying to make it all work. And I will. I’ll create a perfect home—" She leveled her torch like a sword. "Even if I have to kill my own wayward daughter to do it."
"For me, it was a question of duty," the Nazi-clad Wesley said.
"Just following orders," Not-Riley chimed in gleefully.
Unarmed, the Scooby Gang backed away, Oz and Tara hauling Willow to her feet and pulling her along with them as they went. Fighting themselves on even terms obviously created a stalemate. But these weren’t even terms. Their opponents were fresh, rested, and armed, and they couldn’t fight the Dark Reflections without hurting their friends. Even the Warriors couldn’t conquer under such circumstances. What kind of test was this? What was it trying to prove? Some, such as Giles, were wishing that Cernunnos had at least given them some clue what they were supposed to accomplish. It might have given them a hint what to do.
Others, such as Anya, were simply considering bolting.
It was only then that they realized that the Reflections, advancing in a semi-circle, were backing them into a rock face.
As the grinning Reflections closed in, the Heroes were herded closer and closer together.
Xander, backing away from his massive double, brushed his elbow against Angel, who was crouched and snarling and retreating from a confident-looking Angelus, who held a glass vial in one hand and a stake in the other.
I don’t blame you for hating me Xander but if you only knew that I actually envy you
Envy me for what
For being alive for seeing Buffy in the sunlight for not messing up as badly as I have or even as badly as I had by your age
Snap! One of Not-Xander’s armor-straps suddenly split, flapping loose from his shoulder as he advanced, startling Xander and Angel into moving again. They had been standing frozen.
For the second time that night, Xander had an Understanding. Although perhaps it was more of an Insight, or even an Intuition. Regardless, he suddenly knew what they had to do. "Grab hands!" He shouted. "Everybody grab hands! That’s how we beat these things." Hoping it wouldn’t be taken the wrong way, he reached out to Angel with one hand, and to Anya with the other.
Each hand grasped was like a tumbler falling into place in a lock, or a switch closing in a circuit. Yes, that was it, a series of switches clicking to ON one after the other, gaps closing—
The power they had felt before was back, that titanic, wild power from the dell, only it was in them now, in them, and with each gap that closed, it grew. It hummed through their bodies like high-voltage wires, growing, building like—
The Dark Reflections had backed them into an outward-facing circle, so all that Cordelia and Wesley had to do was reach out across the gap and—
The circuit closed.
The storm broke. The dam broke. The power erupted at last and—
…like an orgasm. Yes, of course, what else had they expected a miracle from Cernunnos to be like? Peace and quiet white light? That was for other faces of God. His was the power of the Earth, of the flesh, of life and death themselves and it exploded through them hot and wild and rushing, dripping with blood and sweat. Maybe a chord crashed out on a thousand electric harps, or maybe that was just the power bursting in their ears, turning their very bones into tuning forks. Maybe a column of light shot up into the night sky, and maybe that was just the power saturating the veins and fluids in their eyeballs. But there was no question that Angel and Oz suddenly roared out into the desert night, that Anya started screaming in a language that had been dead for a millennium, that Buffy’s hips thrust three times so hard that she nearly fell, pulling Faith and Riley with her.
The first surge lasted for a full minute, and during that minute their bodies whipped and lunged and leaped, they screamed and laughed until tears ran down their cheeks. Life pulsed through them and the men grew rock hard and throbbingly erect while the women found themselves saturated-wet and Angel gasped for air as he felt his heart trip hammering in his chest for one brief, wild moment.
Through it all, they never let go.
After that minute, they fell silent, still standing in their circle, still hand-in-hand. In that moment, the miracle they had been promised occurred. In that moment, in the silence after the storm, they became One. Fourteen souls joined. Fourteen hearts laid bare, all of their wounds—the old, aching scars; the fresh, bleeding cuts; and the infected, rotting sores—exposed to each other.
Fourteen of them shared Buffy’s losses—her abandonment by her father, by Angel, even by her mother and her friends who had turned away from her when she had failed them. They learned of her fear of losing them again—of losing them to violence, or of being abandoned once and for all.
They shared Cordelia’s cold empty life. Spending Christmas with mountains of gifts and Maria, the maid. Ski trips to Aspen that were business trips for Daddy and cocktail parties for Mom. Friends who were not friends, but a snapping, snarling wolfpack of followers who would pull her down at the first sign of weakness. The cruelty she showed to the weak in the name of hiding that weakness in herself.
Willow’s lonely helplessness—parents who only noticed her when she didn’t meet expectations, the cruelty of the popular girls—a desperate need not to be helpless anymore, a hunger for power, for the ability to shout loud enough to make others listen to her that was already setting her feet on a dark path.
A dark path Giles had walked. Of all the forms of rebellion he could have chosen, he chose the most foolish conceivable: using the knowledge that a Watcher should wield against the darkness to dabble in it instead. His friends had paid the price of his stupidity. But even when he had returned to the fold, determined to accept his destiny and be a good Watcher, he hadn’t stopped hurting the people he cared about, because he didn’t learn in time when to be a Watcher and when to be a man: Jenny, Buffy…
Joyce’s failures: a coldly perfect mother who accepted no imperfection in her sight, who stopped calling after Joyce married an "unworthy" man, who offered no comfort but a cold reminder that divorce was adultery was a sin when the marriage ended. Her good daughter gone delinquent—she would make it work, she would…but even when she found out the truth, she kept failing…
As did Wesley. Never good enough, never smart enough—not good enough at school, not good enough on the sports field. A refined brute of a father. The belt and the closet under the stairs. Finally becoming a Watcher—the Watcher of the active Slayer—both of them! A chance to finally prove himself. Determined to do it right, to do it by the book, and that led to his greatest failure. His greatest sin and shame.
Riley’s shame: his mindless following—had he allowed innocent beings to be tortured? Was he a good Nazi, just following orders? And his failure to lead, that had left so many of his band of brothers rudderless and doomed.
Oz: a life of peace disrupted by the intrusion of the Beast, but his greatest sins were committed as a man: betraying Willow, murdering Veruca.
Gunn’s desperate life of violence and need. Never enough food, never quite safe, fighting off both human and inhuman demons. Every member of his posse that he lost was another piece of his heart—and then he had failed Alonna…
Anya: the woman she had once been in a country whose name was forgotten in all but the most thorough of histories. The half-remembered reason she feared rabbits: the beloved pet who was boiled alive by a husband who wanted to hurt her more than a mere beating could. Would Xander betray her or harm her as her husband had? The slowly-growing guilt that was building under her bravado: many of the men she had punished had been deserving, as her husband had been. But how many had been simple fools like Xander? What had become of the women that had been left behind? Gods of field and sea, she’d been a demon. What had she done?
Angel knew what he had done as a demon. And while the guilt was gone, the grief remained. His family, his village, Jenny—the suffering he had caused, even to his friends who had survived. But even more, he regretted the things he had done with his soul in place: how he had hurt Buffy—who he could never be with, never deserve—so. He could never be a good man—he had never been a good man, even when he was alive. He had been a lecher, a thief, and a layabout. A waste of a human being. As much as he wished for it, there was no real redemption for him.
Tara heard the voice of her father in the voice of Liam’s—a voice telling her that she was no good, never had been, never could be. That she was evil, a demon. That she was alone, that no one else would take her in. She had no one but her blood kin—who else would ever care for such a monster? It took more than a punch in the nose and a stand in the Magic Shop to change a lifetime.
Faith. Frank. Dark nights full of sweat, the smell of beer, and burning pain. Life on her own, a life of being taken from until she learned to take. The Mayor. Doing terrible things because she would do anything for anyone, if there was such a person, who loved her for her.
And Xander. Shouted taunts and bruising blows. Shoved to the floor, shoved up against the lockers. Mocking laughter, bellows of rage. The smell of beer and whisky and unwashed. Hey loser! You’ll never amount to anything, boy, you getting uppity? Think you’re better than your old man? The cool kids and his father, twin poles of torment, and his mother failing to protect him from either. Hurt turning to hate, a deep, spreading pool of venomous hate that was poisoning his soul.
Fourteen joined hearts shared, comforted, mourned, apologized, and reassured. Forgivenesses were exchanged, and truths that couldn’t be doubted as comforting lies in the soul-to-soul intimacy were told.
Perhaps it all happened in a heartbeat, or perhaps it took a long time and the Dark Reflections simply stood and bore witness. Time is hard to grasp in the desert night. But as it happened, the vial shattered in Angelus’s hand, which sizzled as the holy water ran down it. The demonic Tara’s cat-slit eyes and forked tongue were replaced by gray-green skin and a face covered with blue spikes. And the Black Knight’s armor grew rusty and fell apart around him.
The Heroes’ eyes, which had been staring into eternity, returned to the time and place in which they stood. Their hands broke apart, and they turned confident grins on their Reflections.
The Reflections’ own confident smiles were replaced by nervous looks, and they started to back away.
They didn’t get far.
Buffy caught her double by the hair and pulled off her spiked, chained leather jacket, leaving the Not-Buffy standing in a white tank top. She held her wiggling double at arm’s length for a moment while she studied the armorlike garment. A snatch of an old Billy Joel song was running through her head: You will never understand how the Stranger is inspired, but he is not always evil, and he is not always wrong. Maybe that was her case. Too often, she let her friends and loved ones off the hook while she was still angry with them, or while she still had issues to deal with. It wasn’t forgiveness, it was repression, and the difference between the two had left her vulnerable to Belial.
She shoved her double away with a muttered "Run along, kid, you bother me," not even bothering to watch as she fled into the desert. Instead, she pulled on the jacket. "Okay," she said as she felt its strength—that little bit of darkness that she needed, perhaps—settling onto her shoulders. "Time to kick a little more ass."
Joyce’s double tried to threaten her with the torch as she advanced, but she snatched it and stubbed it out into the ground. Without another word, the Marth Stewart Inquisitor ran off.
Anya advanced on her demon-faced double, who backed away but kept her scourge raised and ready. Anya kept advancing and Anyanka kept backing away, and it might have kept going like that for some time, except Anya noticed something at her feet. She paused, bent, and picked it up. Anyanka took one look at the jackrabbit that Anya was stroking in her arms, and fled screaming into the desert. Grinning, Anya set the rabbit back down. "Kill her, Hoppy," she commanded. As if it understood her, the rabbit hopped off into the desert in the direction that Anyanka had taken.
"You know," Tara said as she approached her double, who was waving her arms, clawing at the air with her pink-polished nails, and saying "grrr." "You’re actually kind of cute. Who wouldn’t want you?" With that, she gathered her blue-spiked Shadow into a tight hug. The doppelganger thrashed wildly for a moment, then quieted. After another moment of standing quietly in Tara’s arms as the gentle witch rocked her softly, she tentatively returned the hug.
Then she faded away, leaving Tara standing by herself.
Sparks leaped from the stun gun as Cordelia approached her shade, and she stopped.
"Stay away from me, you freak," Not-Cordelia commanded.
"Freak?" Cordelia cocked her eyebrow. "Better watch who you’re calling names, fashion victim," she countered. "I know your weakness."
"Oh, yeah?" The Ice Queen challenged, waving the sparking stun gun. "What’s that, loser?"
Cordelia started to advance again. "No matter what’s going on, no matter how important it is…" She suddenly hawked up a gob of phlegm and spat it on the Ice Queen’s pure silk, designer-original, one-of-a-kind blouse.
The Ice Queen stared at her in refined shock and horror.
"…you can’t stop worrying about your damn clothes."
"Ewww!" Not-Cordelia squealed, dropping her stun gun in the sand and waving her hands at her blouse, not quite daring to touch the yellowish goo that was oozing down it. Still squealing and waving, she turned and ran.
"Gross," Buffy commented, stepping up to Cordelia’s side. "But effective."
Cordelia shrugged as she turned to her new friend. "She’s a from-Hell version of me from back before I got used to being covered in demon slime every night. Of course I knew her weak point."
"Good distance on that loogie, by the way," Buffy complimented. "Where did you learn to spit like that?"
"Gunn and his boys," Cordelia answered. "If you can stand the grossness, it’s interesting what you can pick up from guys who aren’t trying to impress you."
Commandant Riley raised his taser, pointing dead-center at the original Riley’s chest.
"Holster that weapon, soldier," Riley barked.
Nazi Riley obeyed immediately.
The Reflection snapped to attention, its heels clicking.
"About face!" Not-Riley immediately obeyed, swiveling on his heel until he faced out into the desert.
And he did, goose-stepping away into the darkness.
Willow started toward her Reflection, as the others had, then stopped. Her Reflection, unlike the others, was grinning and stepping up to meet her. After a moment’s thought, Willow simply turned away and went to join Tara, leaving Not-Willow staring after her in shock. Not-Willow shook a fist at her and shrieked something soundless, then gave a few steps’ worth of chase before fading away.
Giles snatched the Nazi armband from the image of his younger self, then punched him in the face, sending him to the sand with a bloody nose. "Run along, boy," he warned as he tore up the armband. "Or I might decide I’m not finished with you."
"Same goes to you, street trash," Gunn said to his doppelganger. "I didn’t become you, and I’m not going to. That’s because you’re a loser with no future but a bullet in your head. Now get the hell out of here before I whup your ass."
Both street punk Reflections obeyed, without a word. Not-Gunn helped Not-Giles to his feet, and both fled out into the reaches of the night.
Faith, carrying her double by the scruff of the neck and the waistband of her pants, shoved her way between the ex-Watcher and the new boyfriend and hurled her doppelganger out into the reaches of the night after theirs.
Oz’s mangy doppelganger snarled and bristled as Oz advanced, but needed only one sharp-toothed snarl from Oz to send it yipping into the night.
Unlike most of the others, Wesley’s Gestapo doppelganger was advancing on him with a truncheon raised and a manic "let’s dance" grin on his face.
But like Cordelia, Wesley knew exactly what his opponent’s weak point was.
He unbuckled his belt, pulled it off, looped it, then gave it a quick tug to crack it against itself.
Not-Wesley’s grin was replaced by wide-eyed terror.
"I’ve outgrown my fear of this," Wesley said, holding up the looped belt. "Have you?"
It would seem not. Not-Wesley threw down his weapon and fled.
Angelus scuttled backward, frantically waving his stake and refusing to turn his back as he fled the advancing Angel.
Angel didn’t even bother to speed his walk. After more than 250 years of fighting, he knew someone who was already beaten when he saw one.
Before long, the inevitable happened, and Angelus tripped and fell to the ground. Angel paused for a moment, looming over his fallen opponent, who could only lay there, helplessly waving his stake as Angel prepared to pounce.
Then he saw something that froze him where he was.
Angelus was aging. The silver was eating the last of the black in his hair, and a spiderweb of wrinkles was spreading across his face. He was late middle-aged, trying for old.
After a moment, Angel relaxed. "I understand now," He said. "I don’t have to fight you again. I’ve already beaten you."
Angelus, now at least an octogenarian, dropped his stake and began reaching out and clutching toward Angel. "Please…" He wheezed. "Please…"
Angel shook his head. "All this time…and you just…don’t matter anymore." With that, he turned on his heel and returned to the group, leaving Angelus to clutch and gasp after him, until he slowly crumbled to ash.
Dark Xander, who was now dressed in a garish, mismatched costume from Xander’s high school days, was backing away frantically, holding up the still-shiny axe in a warding gesture, rather than a threat. Contemptuously, Xander snatched the weapon from his hands and slapped him in the face. Not-Xander’s feet tangled and he fell to the ground, where he glared up with unconcealed hatred.
For a moment, Xander stood quietly, staring contemplatively at the axe.
"Xander?" Willow said. "What are you—"
With a single sudden, unstoppably swift move, Xander swung the axe up over his head and brought it down with brutal force, cleaving his double’s skull.
Shocked, the Heroes could only stand and stare as the body of Xander’s Shadow twitched and jittered out its last blind, idiot nerve impulses, then settle into the stillness of death.
"He was part of me," Xander said as he watched his Reflection slowly dissolve into the ground. "Like a limb with gangrene. He had to come off." He numbly tossed the axe to the ground that his doppelganger had dissolved into. "Maybe you all could accept them, or take something you need from them, or just reject them, but me…the fucker had to die."
Angel was the first to break out of his stunned paralysis. He stepped forward and laid a hand on Xander’s shoulder. "Sometimes that’s just what you have to do," he said. "Believe me, I know that better than just about anyone else."
"Yeah, I guess you would."
"Funny thing, Deadboy," Xander continued after a moment’s contemplation. "It wasn’t watching something with your face die that finally did it for me after all."
* * *
When they returned to the dell, they found Cernunnos laying on his back, watching the stars. He had returned to his former huge size, and the vegetation had grown lush and thick. Carpets of flowers—some as familiar as dandelions, some new to the planet—filled the dell, and their bare feet disappeared into the grass as they entered the circle.
"It was what you needed," he said before anyone could ask, not looking away from the sky. "I know it was hard on you, and I’m sorry about that. But sometimes even miracles come hard. In fact, the greatest miracles are always bought with blood, sweat, and tears." He turned his head toward them. "Isn’t that right, Joyce?"
An interesting fact about talking to divinities that few humans have had the opportunity to find out: if they want you to understand, you do. The understanding may fry your mind, but you understand. What’s more, that understanding has a force of its own. So it was that Joyce couldn’t stop herself from unconsciously touching her abdomen and glancing at Buffy before softly answering "Yes."
Cernunnos fell silent for a moment as he examined them. Xander and Anya were the only couple holding each other, or otherwise demonstrating warmth or intimacy. Faith and Gunn were holding hands, as were Oz, Willow, and Tara, but their grips were loose and tentative. Buffy, Riley, and Angel weren’t touching each other at all. Nor were Giles and Joyce. They were standing close to each other , casting glances that were carefully timed to avoid eye contact; some were even unconsciously reaching toward each other; but they didn’t dare to move.
Cernunnos sighed, and all the dandelions turned to fluff and blew away. "Even with your hearts healed, you’re still not sure of yourselves," He said. He sat up, shaking his head. "Mortals. Always making everything so difficult." He climbed to his feet, still muttering. "I suppose you had more important things to worry about when you were all soul-joined than making love connections, but still…"
"What do you mean?" Buffy asked. She’d disappointed Him somehow, and that was an awful feeling. "What did we miss?"
"The job’s not done," Cernunnos replied. "The healing isn’t finished yet."
"You mean there’s more?" Joyce asked plaintively. The last miracle had been hard enough.
"Look," Cernunnos said as he sat down between two stones that, strangely enough, formed the armrests of a throne whose back was the slope of the ridge. "I can do this for you, but I’ll still need your help. Are you with me?"
That brought a chorus of eager affirmatives.
"All right, then. Worship me."