Center, swing, release. Center, swing, release. It was a soothing rhythm, one she slipped into easily. There was power in the way her hands gripped the handle of the axe and the way her balance adjusted to the heft and arc as she repeatedly sank it into the block of wood.
Xander had been the one to suggest it. She'd scoffed at him at first.
"Xander, even centuries ago when it was impossible for anyone to be sneaky because they stank so much, I hated dirt and sweat. I'm not exactly the outdoorsy type."
"I think you'll like this, An," he'd replied. "Think of it as training with a weapon, like we'd sometimes do with Bu..."
He'd trailed off into silence and she just sat there, not knowing what to say. Neither of them knew what to say when her name came up. Not to each other, not to the others, not even in the private thoughts inside their heads.
She had wandered off to the kitchen, not sure if her presence comforted or hurt or angered him, or even if he noticed at all whether she was there most of the time. She wasn't sure herself how she felt being with him. And not just him; when she was around any of them her skin felt too tight and her eyes burned and she wanted to run away or throw something or hug someone or do something to break the godawful silence that never went away even when conversation about the Magic Shop's profits or Dawn's upcoming school year filled the room. But she never did anything but sit in the silence and wonder if they wished she were somewhere else or if she wished she were somewhere else or if everyone felt as uncomfortable and helpless as she did and didn't know how to say it.
She wasn't sure what had prompted her to ask him. "Show me what to do," she said.
He did. He made sure the goggles fit her comfortably and adjusted her stance and cradled her body as he helped her make those first tentative swings. She leaned into him briefly, savoring his closeness and the crisp, uncomplicated scent of him briefly. Intimacy had become a memory and she wondered exactly who was holding back. Too soon, he stepped away and gestured for her to continue on her own.
She swung clumsily at first, knocking the block off the stump several times before she found her balance and rhythm. Once she got it, she found it was surprisingly enjoyable and she was good at it. Xander matched her pace as he replaced each block with a new one in a seamless motion that allowed her to keep moving. At first, she worried she might hit him accidentally, but she quickly dismissed the idea. She trusted him; he trusted her.
Her back and arms ached and sweat slid down her neck and stained her shirt. Still she kept the rhythm. Underneath her breath, she chanted the mantra he had taught her when he placed the axe in her hands. Center, swing, release. Center, swing, release.
It became something else so quietly, so imperceptibly that she didn't notice when Xander stopped replacing the block of wood, when the axe swung faster, when her voice spiraled into a shriek of ecstatic rage and grief.
"Run, jump, die. Run, jump, die! Run! Jump! Die! RUN! JUMP! DIE!"
Finally, she slammed the axe into the stump so violently she couldn't pull it out, and she stood there panting, sweat and tears blurring her vision. She uncurled her fingers painfully from the handle and staggered. Xander was there to catch her and he lowered her gently to the ground, holding her as she caught her breath and a measure of control.
She twisted to look at him, unsurprised to see his own anger and grief stamped on his features. She touched his cheek, leaving a smear of wooddust, then twisted back to settle into him. He rested his chin on the top of her head.
She looked at the stump, marveling at the destruction she had wrought. "I did that?"
"Did you know I would do that?"
He clasped her hands in his. "Because I need - we need - for you to be you."
"I don't understand."
"You've always been the one to say what needs to be said. The one who will say what no one else wants to say. We need you to be you - fearless and challenging and often inappropriate."
She understood. "And you thought me beating the crap out of some poor, defenseless wood was going to knock me out of being - well, what we've all been like?"
He nodded. "Something like that."
She contemplated that for a long moment. She tilted her head to look at him, brushed the dust from his cheek. "Xander, Buffy died. She died. It's horrible and unfair and it makes me mad that I miss a girl who only really tolerated me because of you and I get mad at myself for being mad and I'm mad at her for dying before I got a chance to really know her as someone other than your friend and the Slayer, but she died. It's been weeks and we've been trying so hard to avoid thinking about her and pretending it didn't happen. She's dead."
She wasn't sure what to expect. Tears or the same kind of explosive mix of anger and sadness that was released in her when she was chopping wood or maybe she failed and he'd retreat even further. All he did was close his eyes and sigh heavily, his arms tightening around her as he seemed to expel everything that had been building in him since that day in one long breath.
He kissed her temple. "I love you, Anya."
"I know," she agreed. She took his hand and stood up, pulling him with her. "I'm filthy. There should be a way to get rid of all dirt. It's just...it's..."
"Dirty?" he supplied helpfully.
"Very," she declared. "I need a very long, very hot shower." She walked away, then stopped and held out a hand to him. She smiled. "Care to join me?"
Anya. Ecstatic. Axe.