WEL OME SENIORS
It's proof of his bone-deep exhaustion that Xander doesn't protest when Giles pulls the bus up under this sign. No one does. All they care about is the neon
buzzing and flickering below.
He feels like a senior. Everything aches: his ass, from several hours on the hard school bus bench; his shoulders, from swinging a sword; his throat, from calling for Anya as they made their way through the blood-slicked halls of the school.
Funny what living on the hellmouth can do: make you feel this ancient at twenty two.
As they all push into the aisle of the bus, memories crowd in on him. Xander reaches for the red hair in front of him, gives it a light tug. Willow turns and he smiles at her, taps her shoulder. "Cooties."
Does his smile look as sad as the one she's offering him now? He wraps his arms around her and they cling to one another, right there in the bus aisle.
No one stuck behind them makes a complaint.
He sees his mistake as soon as they reach the lobby, milling with dozens of high school kids in formal wear. Giles's mistake too, from the expression on his face.
Most of the kids ignore their bedraggled group as they sweep past to what passes for a ballroom. One couple turns to openly stare, taking in torn clothes, makeshift bandages, maybe catching a whiff of the smoke stench that permeates their clothing.
"Rock band," Giles stage whispers to them, causing their eyes to widen as they pull another couple into a huddle.
Xander ponders this change in the order of things. Giles joking -- he'd been the first, as they stood on the lip of the crater that used to be Sunnydale, to make with the witty remarks. The world has truly turned upside down.
Standing back as Giles deals with the front desk, content to let someone else be a grownup for now, he catches sight of Willow, standing apart from Kennedy. On the bus he kept finding his gaze returning to her. She's been quiet -- they all have, no big surprise -- but now and again he saw this look of wonder overtake her. Will's face shines with it now. What could have happened in the face of all that death and loss to light her up like that?
She catches his eye and makes a subtle gesture toward a couple strolling past him, the guy in a tux, the girl in a shimmery dress with all sorts of -- stuff -- hanging off it, her hair in an updo (a word he learned from Cordy). He can't get over how young they look, like children playing dress-up. Had he and his friends looked that young? They'd felt so sophisticated. All grown up.
Four years ago. A lifetime.
He accepts his room key from Giles and trudges across the lobby, acutely aware of his ratty plaid shirt, stained (don't ask) work boots and pants, the eyepatch.
The manager on duty in the morning has noticed the address on Giles's registration matches the name of the town that's been all over the news in the past 24 hours. She comps them all the breakfast buffet then sends them over to a charity thrift store, where the woman who runs it tells them they can each have two changes of clothes at no cost. Giles is flummoxed, stammering and glasses-polishing for all he's worth, while the Potentials -- no, Slayers now, all of them -- erupt in subdued glee. Even Xander feels his mood lift a little at the prospect of ichor-free clothing.
Giles says their funds will cover another two outfits apiece, precipitating a frenzy Faith says reminds her of somebody named Filene. Fortunately Xander's in the less populated section, cruising the racks with Giles and Andrew. He's gotten a good head start, with three dark t-shirts in his size, when Andrew holds up a plaid flannel shirt.
"What do you think about this?"
"Too small for me."
"I meant for me."
"No. Jesus! No." The last thing he wants is a mini-Xander with American Pie hair running around. "Buy stuff like you normally wear." He finds a blue plaid that looks like his size and pulls it off the rack.
Will's at his side, a few garments draped over her arm already. "Don't you think that's a little --"
"No, I was thinking --"
"I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay?"
"Hot, is what I was thinking. It's practically summer."
He grabs a short sleeved shirt in a bright print. "How about this?"
"Oh god, Xander, that looks like pre-An--" She cuts herself off, panic flickering across her face. Putting a hand on his chest, she whispers, "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," he lies. "Do me a favor, would you? Pick some things for me. Three everyday and something okay for job hunting." He shoves all but the t-shirts back on the rack, then heads for the jumbled bin of shoes. Crouching there, Xander spends a while sorting through them, even though he can tell by eyeballing that there's nothing near his size. By the time Willow brings him some shirts and pants for his approval, his breathing is less ragged, and he can manage a half-hearted smile.
"As far as the interview suit," she says, "I can't really tell if you're a pinstripe guy or a tweedy guy."
"I'm neither guy. Not really suit material."
"That's complete bull. That blue client meeting suit you had, you looked kickass in that. Not to mention you in a tux."
Best not to mention him in a tux. The formal wear doesn't really flatter him. Makes him look like the kind of guy who'd make out with a friend's girlfriend, behind his own girl's back. Or the sort who'd jilt his fiancee at the altar. He looks rotten in a tux.
When he gets his turn in one of the two dressing booths, he tries both the tweed and the charcoal pinstripe. Willow makes him take the pinstripe. "You look sharp," she insists.
He feels like a dork.
Tonight's motel is a replay of the night before, but Xander feels a little less like a refugee. The new clothes have made a difference to all of them -- well, maybe that and some sleep and a full day without terror and death. Kennedy's the only one who doesn't seem buoyed by having something new to wear -- then it occurs to him that however gently used these clothes are, they aren't new, and maybe that's the trouble. It's hard for him to believe there's someone walking the planet who's never in her life worn hand-me-downs -- other than Cordelia, maybe. Kennedy's manner is so different from Cordy's that he forgets sometimes that she's a rich girl too.
That's not all he notices. As Scoobies and Poten -- Slayers -- mill around the lobby, they're more fanned out, claiming more space than last night's sadass remnant. There's more space between Willow and Kennedy, too, he sees.
Their number is smaller today. Robin's officially left behind, dropped last night at a hospital over his protests. He's in no danger and he insisted on the rest of them going on, but Xander hates abandoning one of their soldiers. Rona's gone too. No surprise there -- he'd always pegged her as Most Likely to Say "Later for This Shit."
He takes his key, heads back to the room and takes an unconscionably long shower. It eases the residual tightness in his shoulders and relaxes him for sleep, yes, but mostly it's the only place where he doesn't have to hear Andrew yammer. Finally he emerges and by the time Andrew finishes his own shower, Xander pretends he's asleep.
Pretense is as close as he gets. Last night he'd fallen into a dark hole of dreamless sleep, so deep he'd had to be physically pulled out of it. Tonight, all the things he'd suppressed crowd in on him whenever he closes his eye. The battle. His frantic search for Anya. Watching the crater open up behind them, swallowing everything he's ever known. Caleb.
He can't lie there with his eye closed, not after that last flashback. The blackness is too much like blindness. Xander slips out of bed, dressing in the dark, flicking on the bathroom light just long enough to get the eyepatch arranged and finger-comb his hair.
Slipping out of the room, he eases the door closed behind him as quietly as he can. It takes a moment to orient himself in the half-light of the hallway, but he sets out toward the hall that crosses his, where the carpet color changes. Surely that means something.
He rounds the corner and finds the doors that lead to the deck and pool. The pool itself is closed, but the surrounding area has been taken over by spillover from the prom. Their voices rise and fall, punctuated with laughter. He stands for a moment watching them through the glass, listening.
The scene triggers memories, but he's not quite sure if they're happy ones. Mixed in with the senior fun was the tension of wondering if there'd be carnage. Mixed with the weird appeal of dancing with a sexy vengeance demon was ... the weird appeal of dancing with a sexy vengeance demon. Xander wonders why he can remember Cordy's dress and hair, but has only a sketchy recollection of what Anya wore.
He turns away from the pool doors, finds Willow standing nearby, watching him. "Hey," she says.
"Couldn't sleep," she says. "Too many thoughts."
"Thoughts really aren't such a good thing, are they? I hear beer counteracts that."
She smiles. "As long as it's not Clan of the Cave Beer."
"We'll ask if it's cursed before we imbibe."
She tucks herself by his side, and he settles his arm over her shoulders as they head for the lounge. As they pass the conference rooms, zipped together like sleeping bags to make one big ballroom, a door opens and they get a gust of "Celebration."
"Is there a federal law that they have to play Kool & the Gang at every one of these things?" Xander asks.
"I think so. That song must be as old as we are." They walk into the lounge and wait to be seated. "I've just been remembering ours."
"Yeah, me too." The hostess comes to show them to a table, and they dutifully heel. After she leaves them, he adds, "Feels like a lifetime ago."
"Four years," Will says. "It hit me that if things hadn't gotten so strange, we'd all be graduating from college right now."
"Right," he says, trying to keep any sort of tone out of his voice, but obviously failing because Will gets this apologetic look on her face.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I do that sometimes, don't I? Make assumptions."
"That was more of a generalization. Yeah. You do." They've been friends long enough that he doesn't have to pretend she doesn't irritate him on occasion.
"I think a safe generalization is that things didn't turn out like any of us thought they would."
He ghosts a smile. "I'll let you have that much." The waitress appears and they order, and she vanishes again.
"How are you doing?" Will wants to know.
"Okay." Xander doesn't tell her he's waiting to stop, waiting for a soft place to land, where he can quietly -- or maybe not so quietly -- fall apart. It's not going to be a motel. It's not the bus. He's not interested in sorting through his feelings right now. Though they're curtained off from the others, they're transparent enough to him. He's more interested in what's going on with Will. "How about you? You had a lot of power flowing through you. Any hangover from that?"
"I wouldn't call it a hangover. It's funny, when I was speeding on the magics, I would have lows like that, but not this time. Just the opposite."
He debates whether to say anything, then decides he will. "You get this look sometimes. This light."
It's like a dam breaks, as if she finally has permission to feel that joy with someone else. "Oh, Xander, I've never known anything like it. I felt connected to everything, to everyone. It was like I was tapped into the wisdom and wildness of the universe, and I wanted more than anything else to give it away, to multiply it. When I was running on the dark magics, when I came down, all I wanted to do was get more. It took pieces of me along when it flowed through me, that's how it felt. Like I could only get those bits back by going and doing more. This is so different. I go along with my day, and now and then that light and energy seem to come back to me and fill me up."
"I was scared for you. I wasn't so sure you should do it."
"Same here. I was afraid it would crack me open, make me lose myself. I never dreamed it would be anything like this."
"I'm glad for you, Will." He wants to say something else, something to support that statement so it doesn't sound so much like a lie, but he can't think of anything else to say. It doesn't seem to matter, though, because Will laces her fingers through his, and they sit holding hands as they drink their beers. They used to do this so easily, and then the oh god we're going to die kiss happened, and the weirdness with Willow and Oz and him (Cordy took herself out of that equation), leading to the end of casual touching.
He's missed this.
"It separates you from the rest of us, doesn't it?"
"In a way. I don't feel like it's the right time to talk about it, not when everyone's lost so much."
"And you haven't?" Xander's whole past has been ripped away, every tangible reminder of his life before the hellmouth closed. He's never been anywhere else, except those few weeks in Oxnard. To have lost all that and to know the one person who shared most of that life doesn't share his sense of loss -- it makes it worse. "Or does having all that power running through you make it worth everything else?"
She squeezes his hand. "No, Xander." She says it so tenderly that he's surprised at the burst of rage that flares up in him. "I miss them too, but at the same time, I can feel all of that -- the people and places I loved -- flowing through me, along with that energy. I can't explain it, but in some way they don't feel lost."
"That's lucky for you, then." He disengages his hand from hers, finishes his beer. "I think I'll try to get some sleep."
He doesn't, not in the room or on the bus the next day. The seats aren't getting any more comfortable, especially over the blue highways they're forced to travel since the bus can't make it up to interstate speeds. The numbness is wearing off all around, tempers growing shorter. Andrew, of all people, the unofficial morale committee of one, gets into a shouting match with Kennedy over one blunt remark too many.
It's just like a reality show, only there's the element of honest, unmanufactured surprise.
Willow barks one word that sounds like Latin, and both parties find themselves voiceless. A moment later, a horrified look twists her features and she undoes the spell. "God, I'm so sorry," she says, her voice shaking. The whole bus is pretty much shocked into speechlessness.
So much for the wild wisdom of the universe. Xander finds this oddly comforting, though he's never going to say so. He just reaches out to her where she stands in the aisle and draws her down to the bench next to him.
"God," she whispers.
"It's okay," he says softly. "We're all on edge."
"No, it's not okay."
"Consider it a harmless reminder of what you don't want to do, then. No wishing people into the cornfield."
Giles announces his intent to stop at the first motel they find, give them all an early night. Xander doesn't know about the others, but an early night is not going to cure what ails him. He says nothing.
Willow tips her head against his shoulder and they ride in silence.
The good news is, tonight's accommodations (a chain hotel, the first place they encountered) are not the home of promapalooza. There's an unusual number of well-dressed people milling around the lobby, but they're tending more toward Giles's age than the Slayers'.
"Why do I get the feeling the room assignments are going to change," Buffy says. Her gaze, like Xander's, is on Willow and Kennedy, off in a corner of the lobby. Willow's doing conciliatory, apologetic. Kennedy's doing pissed off.
"I don't think you're wrong," Xander says. The group's lobby dynamic has changed yet again, weirdly subdued though not as hangdog as the first night.
"What do you think? Bad sign?"
"Not necessarily. We're all in a weird place right now. Willow more than the rest of us. I don't think there'll be a second time."
Buffy nods, accepting his judgment. "How are you holding up?"
"Holding up. Holding on."
Her gaze catches his, acute and full of understanding.
"You?" he asks.
"Yeah. Holding up. If that changes -- with either one of us --"
"We'll let each other know."
Giles turns from the desk, distributing room keys. When he gets to Kennedy and Willow, Kennedy stays in the corner, arms crossed. Willow steps up, urgently whispering in Giles's ear.
"Yes. Yes, of course. Willow and --" Giles casts around for a volunteer, but everyone's suddenly got somewhere else to look. It's just getting intensely awkward when an ohhhhhhhh rises up from the well-dressed civilians hanging around the lobby.
Xander turns -- they all do -- and finds himself face to face with more formal wear. A tux. An elaborate wedding cake of a dress, taking up maybe twice the real estate that Anya covered in her sleek mermaidy gown. If he saw the bride's picture in the wedding announcements in the paper, he'd say she's plain. But at this moment, she glows.
Xander's unsure how long he stands there, staring. It feels like several days. At last he wrenches himself away and turns back to Giles, tugging the key from his hand and heading toward the elevator bank.
Either people had better start holding their formal occasions in higher-class joints, or the Scoobies and Slayers Road Show needs to start staying in crappier ones.
"Wait, don't go yet."
It's a female voice Xander doesn't recognize, and he's tempted to keep walking, but something makes him stop and turn.
The bride offers a quick, nervous smile. "Um, I hope you don't think we're crazy. My dad just said you're all from that town in California that caved in. We've got all this really nice food on the buffet, and a ginormous cake, and there'll be music. If you feel like joining us, you're welcome to."
They all stare for a moment, pole-axed. "We couldn't intrude," Giles finally says.
"You wouldn't be," says the groom.
"We don't have anything nice enough to wear," Xander protests.
"Strictly a come-as-you-are party," the bride says.
It's the new Slayers who settle the question, their weirded-out mood evaporating like smoke on the wind of free food and dancing. Giles accepts the invitation for them just in time to look like he's got a say in the matter. Chattering excitedly, the girls sweep into the reception room with the guests.
Buffy takes him by the hand. "You coming?"
"No. I think I'll just head to my room."
"There'll always be weddings," she says gently. "If you see yours in every one of them ... This'll be good practice. You don't even know these people. Plus I want somebody other than a teenaged Slayer to dance with."
He considers for a moment, his gaze falling on Willow, standing alone, looking small and lost. "I don't know about the dancing, but I'm in for the free food," he tells Buffy. "C'mon, Will, you're our date." He looks around and there's Giles, wearing the tweed jacket Xander had put back on the thrift store rack, though it doesn't quite fit. "What are you waiting for, Giles?"
It's like being back in the Bronze on deejay night, except for the strange girl in the overdone dress. She and her new husband are gracious hosts, solicitous of the unfamiliar faces among them without prying into their story. Xander gives into the joy they're determined to share, and finds himself a popular dance partner with females from four to don't-ask-don't-tell. It's the eyepatch, he suspects. Nobody mentions it but a six-year-old named LaDonna, who asks if he's a pirate. "I used to be," he tells her, "but I get seasick, so I had to find another job." LaDonna nods solemnly. He tells her he's an international spy. She doesn't ask what brings him to St. Louis.
The deejay announces the next song is a request by the happy couple, clearly disavowing all connection to such an odd and undanceable tune as Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." Xander finds Willow and says, "I believe this is our song."
Grinning ruefully, she moves into his arms, and they sway a little awkwardly to the music.
"I'm sorry about Kennedy," he says.
"Me too, but I think it was coming. Maybe some part of me blew it up on purpose, I don't know."
Xander knows better than to run down an ex, no matter what the circumstances. "That doesn't make it any easier." He'd thought they'd do more talking, but they just sway together, their bodies so close he feels the heat from hers. It reminds him of that time in her bedroom when he was showing her she could dance, and the warmth of her body and the scent of her hair ignited this desire to kiss her.
Well. They're older and wiser now, and she's all about girls, and why is she looking up at him that way that reminds him so much of that day in her room and why are their lips suddenly on a collision course?
Things get a little tonguey before he breaks the kiss. "Whoa. What -- Is this champagne, or let's-piss-off-Kennedy, or good old-fashioned wedding horniness?"
"Do we have to know?"
He thinks a moment. "I have to know it's not about Kennedy. Otherwise, I've got no problem with ignorance. Except I thought -- well, you know. Lesbian."
"I'm beginning to think I'm not so much for sexual politics. I love who I love."
"This isn't about her. She left a while ago anyway."
That's all Xander needs to hear. He gives himself to the soft warmth of her lips, the lingering taste of champagne. Lets his fingers wander through the silky strands of her hair. The heat of their kisses has a different quality after all these years -- maybe, he thinks, because it's not stoked by guilt and the sense of the forbidden.
Well. Some guilt. (It's too soon.) He suppresses it. He's just had major proof that life's too short.
Just to get people back onto the dance floor, the deejay cues up Kool & the Gang, and Xander and Willow start to laugh. She raises her hand to his cheek. "I've missed you so much, Xander."
"I wish -- can we go?"
"Sure." They find Buffy dancing with the best man and wave goodnight, then stop and thank their hosts, Ron and Belinda. "Last wedding I went to had fistfights," Xander says. "This was better."
Belinda grins. "Well, I'm glad. We wanted to give you guys a nice evening."
"You did. Thanks." He hopes it's not over.
They pause at the door of room 219 for a little fevered necking. "Xander, I'd let you in, but you know, the roommate thing."
Xander fishes the card key from his pocket, slips it in the slot. "I am your roommate."
He switches on the low-watt lamp by the bed, the incandescent light casting a golden glow on her pale skin as she unbuttons her top.
"Do we want to do this? Are we sure?"
She puts a hand to his face again. "You'll have to speak for yourself. But I do."
He nods, watching as she slowly undresses, fumbling with his own buttons.
As her clothes fall away, some part of him that's still sharing yellow crayons with her babbles, "Oh my god, Willow's naked!" Strange, definitely. Inevitable, maybe. He's so not sure.
His own clothes slip to the floor, and he reaches for her.
End A Soft Place to Land by nwhepcat.
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