Faith lets herself into the back garden, drenched even though it's not that humid yet. "Damn new shoes gave me a blister," she says.
"C'mere." Xander holds up the first aid kit he brought with him when he carried his coffee and paper out here to the table. Not that he's prescient -- on the first part of the run, while he was still with her, she said "damn new shoes are giving me a blister" about every five minutes. She approaches, bending down to kiss him -- not just a peck but a slow, delicious promise.
She spots the box he's neatly drawn in red ink around one story. "Something interesting?" She sits and slips off her shoe and sock.
Xander loves this part of the day.
Their life feels all normal-couple-y in the early morning. (They have a life, how cool is that?) This is their routine: the pre-breakfast run, which he bails on when he hits his limit, then the Plain Dealer and his Americano with an extra shot and a splash of cream. She brings her own coffee and a couple of pastries when she's through.
"Yeah, actually," he says. She plops her leg into his lap and he checks out the blister on her heel. "It's already popped. Not too big, though." He tears open an antiseptic wipe and gets to work. "So there's this girl in SoCal. On her way home from softball practice after school. Some mope --" there's a word he's picked up from Faith -- "tries to pull her into a van. She gives him a good-night kiss with her aluminum bat. They've got enough other stuff against him he's probably not gonna see daylight for a few years."
The slightest shadow passes over Faith's face and he wishes he'd chosen his words better. She's finally lost her prison pallor, but Xander's sure it'll be a long while before it fades from her mind.
"Good," she says. "So yeah, she sounds like one. How old?"
"Fifteen." He smoothes the Band-Aid over her skin, but keeps his hands on her foot, massaging it, staying well away from the blistered area. In a few seconds her other foot is bared and joining the first.
"She's about ready, then."
Ready to have her entire life turned upside down? By the likes of Xander?
He feels this crazy surge of protectiveness toward this girl whose name he doesn't even know. Keep your life, kid. Enjoy it. Saving the world's not all it's cracked up to be.
He knows, though, he'll be showing the clipping to Giles.
"So how did you know who your slayer was?" He asks Giles after they've taken a look at the clip file Xander's building. "How'd that all happen?"
The stifling has now settled in on this mid-September day, but that doesn't stop Giles from making with the boiling water and the tea leaves. "You must remember that my experience was very different from what yours will be. I was assigned to the one-and-only Slayer, while now there are many girls who are more than just potential slayers."
"The operative word here is assigned."
"Yes, the Council made that decision. And don't forget that I was not her first watcher."
He knew that. Wait -- did he know that? Well of course. Slayage in L.A., school gym burning down and all. But Buffy never talks about the guy before Giles. "So they pulled you off the bench when this guy died."
"For lack of a more sensitive way of putting it, yes."
He waves off the apology. "It's true. But -- to extend your analogy -- it's an entirely different game now. We are the Council. We don't have to keep doing things because that's the way they were always done. I was prepared my whole life to take on this work. We don't have the luxury of demanding that now." He sips his tea. "You have a strong feeling about one of these girls, don't you?"
"If it doesn't make me sound like a guy who needs a baseball bat in the teeth, I kinda do."
"It seems as valid a way of pairing a slayer and watcher as any right now. It's this latest girl, isn't it?"
"Perhaps you should go there, look into it."
"So how's all this done? I mean, Buffy's mom knew nothing about any of this until all hell broke loose. But Kendra -- it seemed like her parents gave her over to the Council. And Faith -- I'm not even sure what the deal was there. I can't just move out to this kid's town and become her new best friend. If her parents don't clock me with a bat, she will."
"You'll have to assess the situation on scene."
"That's what this guy who approached Buffy did? He decided Joyce had to be out of the loop and that's how it went?"
Giles's expression grows shuttered. "Merrick was known to be ... something of a maverick. An eccentric, as well."
"Uh-huh." He hopes Giles will be as kind to his questionable decisions, screw-ups and personality defects when the time comes.
My god, this kid is intense.
Xander stands behind the chain link, watching. All studied casualness, just a guy in a suit (yeah, he bought a suit for this) passing by, drawn into the game.
The papers got it wrong, which never surprises him anymore. Not softball, baseball. She's on the junior varsity, playing center. The only girl.
She can cover ground, this kid. Got an arm on her. He takes a low seat in the bleachers, not too populated for an intramural game. Shrugs out of his jacket and lays it on the bench next to him, like this is all a spur of the moment decision. Waits for her turn at bat.
She spots him from the dugout, where she sits in silence, cracking her knuckles. Dark bangs spiking from under the batting helmet she jams on her head. She stares at Xander, unsmiling. Great. She's made him as some kind of pervert, will be dealing with him after the game.
She comes off the bench, gets her bat. Okay then. He'll stay for this at-bat and then do a fade. Just a business guy who has somewhere else to be.
The count is 0-and-2 when she jacks a fastball over the fence.
That's it, game over. Xander grabs his jacket to leave, but she walks straight up to him. Doesn't have to fend off her teammates' congratulations, he notices. He briefly considers diving under the bleachers, but she has lost the bat.
"Are you a scout?"
Not what he expected. "Kind of."
"The only guy on varsity you should really bother with is Davis. Number 13. He thinks everything should come easy 'cause he's got so much talent, but if he ever gets over that he might be something."
Xander suppresses a smile. "Thanks. I'll keep an eye out."
"I'm going to make the majors," she tells him. "Keep watching me. You could get famous as the scout who signed the first woman in the major leagues." She has her chin up in the air the way Willow would when she was getting all resolve-y.
"Famous, huh? Name me a famous scout. Who signed Jackie Robinson?"
She gives him a well, duh look. "Clyde Sukeforth. I wrote him a letter when I was eight."
This kid, she will be a pain in the ass of whatever poor schmuck becomes her watcher.
Xander likes her a lot.
She asks for his card and narrows her eyes when Xander says he doesn't have one. He introduces himself as A.L. Harris and says he'll be swinging back by in a couple of days.
Her name is Jenny Grimaldi.
He gets out of there before she asks his affiliation. (Cleveland Slayers. It's, um, an all-woman team--)
Xander finds the town library and asks for the back issues of the local paper. It doesn't take too much paging through this glorified shopper to find a feature on her. There's steely-eyed Jenny in uniform, glaring into the camera like Ty Cobb reincarnated. The article describes how she wanted to play baseball her whole life, how her family uprooted from Wisconsin to settle in California when she was ten. Just to get her a good long baseball season -- it's no secret that a lot of major leaguers grew up in the warm weather states, her dad's quoted as saying.
The story also talks about her mysterious shift as a player last spring. She'd been playing shortstop -- a gifted fielder, respectable contact hitter, but nothing resembling power. Until May.
He thinks about her, how he's going to approach her family, as he drives the rental northward. Aimlessly, he'd thought, but after a while he realizes he's pointed straight toward Sunnydale. He doesn't know if it's smart, but he keeps driving. Ignoring the last exit for the new bypass, he pulls the car to the side of the old highway just before the warning signs.
He walks up to the barricade across the road, hooks an arm over it. This is actually closer than he came to the lip the day it happened. Edges. Heights. Not a combination he loves. Now he lets himself feel the dizziness as he stares down into the crater that used to be Sunnydale. That used to contain his life.
His past is buried here, the last 23 years of his life. All tangible proof of those years is pretty much gone, too. Yearbooks, transcripts, medical records, photo albums. Action figures documenting his long-lost geek obsessions. The Twister game that allowed him to cop his first fairly innocent feel (Willow's knee). Pretty much any sign of who he is and where he came from.
Xander can now be boiled down to the contents of his wallet. Driver's license with the vital statistics (still the Sunnydale address, no mention of visual impairment), a couple of credit cards. His punchcards for the Espresso Pump (he'd been just two Americanos away from his free one), the video store, the sandwich place. A couple of pictures of Anya, the only evidence in the wallet that matters at all.
They never talk about the past. They never really did, though, did they? This Merrick guy, for example. Xander never knew the watcher's name until Giles said it today. And how many times in the past seven-plus years have they uttered Jesse's name?
A maroon minivan eases over the rumble strip and stops on the shoulder. The side-panel door slides back (a sound that sends a wave of nausea rolling through him, riding on memories of his hellish trip to Stockton in the back of a van) and a family piles out. Laughter, shrieking, loud talk. Three kids come pelting up to the barricade as the mother calls out to be careful. Nothing about being respectful. The dad's got a camcorder, which he pans across the immense hole in the landscape. The kids are exclaiming (coooooool!), one of them is climbing up the barricade. Xander half hopes he falls in. Yeah, they're just kids, oblivious to the meaning of all this. But what the fuck is wrong with the parents?
"Hey, fella," the dad says. He holds out the camcorder. "I'd like to get a shot of all of us in front of the crater here. Would you mind?"
Briefly Xander considers pitching the thing into the pit. But, well, police would no doubt be involved, and he could live without seeing any of the local finest. He takes the camera, backs up to get everyone in the shot. Puts on his best Ken Burns eyewitness-to-history voice, low enough that none of them hears, but he knows it'll come out clearly on the vacation video.
"My name is A.L. Harris, and this is where I lived for the last 23 years. My mother and father died here last May. So did the woman I loved, and ... a friend. So have a good time waving for the camera, you asshat."
He hands the camcorder back, all smiles, then heads back to the rental, hating himself. Not for the petty passive-aggressiveness, but for handing these people a piece of his soul to make them feel bad.
They won't. Not enough to make it worth this.
A wind kicks up and flattens a small rectangle of paper against the fender of the car. If those little shitheads are throwing their candy wrappers on the ground here, he will say something to their old man. He bends to retrieve it, and the texture of the paper tells him instantly it's not a wrapper. Xander flips it over and sees smeary Xeroxed artwork that tickles at his memory. A pair of disembodied hands clasped in prayer under a domed sky blazing with stars. Readings by Serafina, reads the scrolled font at the top. Speciliazing in Psychic and Tarot Card Readings. A grin teases at the corner of his mouth. He saw this tacked to bulletin boards all over Sunnydale for as long as he can remember, and she never fixed that typo on "Specializing." But the best part is the line below: 99% Accurate. He and Willow thought it was hilarious and used to riff on it all the time. What, you weren't abducted by aliens and made king of their planet of transvestite lizard taxi drivers? Oh, that must be one of the 1% of predictions that don't quite work out.
Funny, how this scrap has been buried in the crater for four months only to be kicked up now.
Xander stuffs it in his pocket. He'll have to show this to Will when he gets back to the hacienda.
Xander finds a motel between Sunnydale and Jenny Grimaldi's town. He checks the time, calculates the hour in Cleveland, calls the hacienda. Someone will be up.
Andrew gets Faith on the phone, and Xander tells her what he's learned so far.
"I'm going to try and get a sense of her parents, but right now I'm planning to bring them into it. At least they'll understand having a kid on a mission. One that's gonna leave her battered and bruised and lonely."
Faith snorts. "It's just baseball."
"I did a little research on that too. She won't be the first girl trying to break into the club. It's not that nice a history."
"Think she'll give her plans up to become a slayer?"
"No way of telling until I ask. Though she took the powers when she was offered the choice." He wonders again if he should walk away, leave her to pursue the life she has planned. There are plenty of fifteen-year-olds -- most of them, he'd bet -- who don't have their lives mapped out. (Is a single one of them a girl who accepted what was offered back in May?)
He won't walk away. Xander already knows that. Just as he knows, if she accepts, he'll always wonder if he should have.
He asks Faith what's going on at the hacienda, then they engage in a little filthy talk. All these big questions make him too distracted to do it much justice, and he breaks it off, apologizing. "I can't wait to be home. I miss you."
As he's drifting off to sleep it's not Faith who's on his mind, but Jenny.
He tries to imagine how that will be for Giles, having the namesake of his lost love constantly underfoot.
Funny. He remembers hearing the name Jenny Calendar far more often than the others who are gone.
Xander wonders why that is.
He fights the drugs, struggles to surface. No, go back.
Pain so intense he can't locate where it's coming from.
Yet at the same time everything's muffled, cottony.
His fingers twitch. A hand closes around them, a thumb stroking the back of his hand.
A murmuring voice, too distant and small to make out.
Xander's vaguely aware of the dream when he awakens. Something about the hospital, he thinks. What he gets for feeling all sad about his past dropping into a sinkhole. Some of it belongs there. Possibly most of it. It's barely past five o'clock, but he rises. The sooner he puts Sunnydale far behind him, the better.
In fact, he'd like to wrap this whole thing up as soon as he can, get back to Cleveland. He misses Faith and their mornings together. (It's after eight there, and she's back from her run.) Misses the controlled chaos of the hacienda, the family feeling that's beginning to develop now that the apocalyptic wiggins has abated. He misses the guidance of Giles, doesn't like the uncertainty of his mission now. Not that he doesn't recognize its meaning -- it's huge. Giles trusts him to trust his own instincts. Against all odds, Xander has become a grownup in his eyes. (Sometimes, though, on his not-better days, he wonders if it's less because of who he is now and more that he's joined the League of Bereaved Gentlemen.)
His original plan was to check in with Angel's people, see what he could find out about the Grimaldis. But their pissant hometown paper provides him with Jenny's parents' names and places of work, and the local white pages offer the rest. First he takes a drive through their neighborhood -- distinctly middle class, well-kept, not a lot of toy-strewn yards or small kids bouncing around.
The Grimaldi house fits the pattern. Not shabby, not ostentatious, grass mowed and weed-whacked to just the right degree. The only thing that makes them stand out is their lawn ornament of choice, one of those gazing balls on a pedestal. What little he can see of the backyard indicates there might be a batting cage back there.
An elderly woman next door (who looks like her own yard decoration, one of those fat-woman-bending-over cutouts stuck in her flower patch) gives him the hairy eyeball and takes up her hose, so Xander puts the car in gear and leaves.
Okay, so these weren't parents with buckets of money to push their kid into some mold that had more to do with their egos than with her wishes. Sacrifices were probably made to move halfway across the country for their daughter's dreams. He wonders how growing up with parents like that would be. Xander wants to like them as much as he likes their girl.
The father's a history teacher and soccer coach. There's no way that comes to mind for Xander to make a casual approach to get a sense of the man. The mother, though, is a real estate agent in the next town over.
Xander walks into her office just as she's hanging up the phone, managing to steer himself to her desk before any of the other agents get their hooks into him. He introduces himself as Alex, doesn't give a last name.
"Maria," she says, but he already knows that. She's dark-haired, with thick black lashes and pale blue eyes. Bordering on tall, like Jenny. "What can I do for you?"
He takes the chair she gestures toward. "I'm not quite sure. I'm out here on a business trip, and, well, I got to looking around. I'm getting tired of the midwest winters" -- close to the truth. He's tired of hearing about them, anyway -- "so I thought I'd ask about living out here."
She grins, and he sees a little of Jenny in her eyes. He isn't sure why, since Jenny never cracked a smile during their conversation, or any time while he was watching her. "I know exactly how that feels. I moved here with my family four years ago from Wisconsin. Not for that reason, exactly, but I don't miss the winters. Where are you from?"
"Lake Effect. Big winter fun."
"Yep," he says. "I could tell you stories." No he can't. God, please don't let her ask.
Maria reaches for a legal pad and pen. "Well, what's your situation? Are you looking for a family house, schools?"
"I'm single. But there's someone I'm hoping would come too."
She favors him with a warm smile. "Are you thinking more an apartment or condo or townhouse, or a starter home?"
"A house, I think. Though I can't really do any serious looking until I talk to her. Just tell me about this area."
"Why don't we do the nickel tour?" Maria says. "I could stand a little time out of the office."
She leads him to her red Saturn and transfers her satchel into the back seat, which is scattered with a couple of bats and loose baseballs.
"Got a ballplayer in the family, huh?" Xander remarks. "What's his name?"
"Ah," he says, working the clueless for all it's worth. "Softball."
Maria's smile gets a little strained. "Baseball. She's fifteen. On the junior varsity. She's hoping for a sports scholarship, and then pro ball."
"And you're letting her go on thinking that's possible? I mean, fifteen's a little old for--"
"Mr. -- Alex, who's to say what's possible? Why should I impose my imperfect reality on her when she might be able to create a better reality if I just leave her to it? Besides, I think if anyone can do it, Jenny can. You haven't met my daughter."
"Hey, no offense intended."
She's just a little bit slow in offering her "none taken."
Xander suppresses a grin. He likes this Grimaldi, too. They settle into talking about neighborhoods, amenities, commute times, a little about schools "just for future reference." After awhile, he asks, "So what about earthquakes and whatnot? Isn't there some kind of faultline around here? I saw that Sunnydale thing on the news. It's not all that far away, is it?"
A look crosses her face like she's just bitten into something rancid. She chooses her words carefully. "There were ... things underlying that town that made it unstable. It was an entirely local phenomenon."
He lets that go by and they lapse into smalltalk as she winds up the tour. As she cuts off the engine, Xander says quietly, "Maria, I want to tell you why I'm here."
She stops midway in her reach for the seatbelt release.
"If you and your husband will allow it, I'd like to speak with Jenny about her future."
"You're the scout. Alex -- A.L. Harris. She told us about you."
"I'm not exactly a scout. Not the way she thinks. I represent a private school back in Cleveland. We think there's something we can offer Jenny, and something she can bring to us. I'd like to talk with her privately at first, then if she doesn't send me packing, the three of us will have a lot to discuss. However you want to arrange things so you all feel comfortable about this. But I'd like to start with her. If she's not interested, I won't waste any more of your time."
"What's this private school?"
"We're new. We haven't even thought of a name yet. Our headmaster, though, Mr. Giles, has been involved in this kind of education for decades. I've worked with him personally for nearly eight years."
Her gaze narrows, assessing his age.
"As a student, in the beginning." Xander's neck is beginning to twinge. She sits to his left, and he has to twist his body and neck uncomfortably to meet her eyes. "You'd be welcome to call him. After I've explained a bit about what we do."
"Which you won't do until you talk to Jenny. Alone."
"I know. It could hardly sound screwier. Guy you never met before, asking you to trust him. We'll be in plain sight the whole time -- your backyard, say. Just out of earshot. If she says go away, I disappear. If she wants to know more, all three of us talk." The twinge turns into a sharp twang and he rubs at his neck, muttering a curse. "Sorry. I'm blind on the left. The side-by-side conversations get hard on the neck."
It stuns him how easily that slipped out: I'm blind on the left. How matter-of-fact his tone was. Not a shattering revelation, just a simple fact.
She may not recognize the trust he's offered her, but she responds to it. "Let's talk more another time, then. Come to dinner tomorrow. One thing, though. If my husband doesn't agree to this, dinner is all it is."
"Fair enough," Xander tells her. He lets her give him her address although he already knows it, then shakes her hand and steps out of her car.
This is longer than he'd hoped to be stuck here with no forward motion on the mission. It's 2:37 p.m. and he's got nowhere to be until 5:30 tomorrow evening. Back in a small town where people eat dinner pretty much as soon as they get home from work. Then, he presumes, they sit down in front of the television for the evening. Here, in this town. Instead of going out with stakes and crossbows, looking for something that needs killing.
Does he know how to do that anymore?
He tries it, but he doesn't see how it's possible without a bottle of something. For all the awestruck press HBO gets, ground-breaking, blah blah, at three in the afternoon it's just painfully bad movies, and it's still better than the rest of the channels he surfs. He thinks about getting in the rental again, but fears he'd just find himself drawn back to the crater.
Is this who he wants Jenny to become in five or ten years? Someone who doesn't know how to sit still with herself, a person who's twitchy unless she's out killing something?
Is that really who he is, or is he being unfair to himself? (Probably the latter. He always has been, given the chance.)
Tomorrow, he thinks, he'll drive in to the city early and see Angel. He'd like to take a look around Wolfram & Hart, get a sense of what's going on there. Something about that whole deal unsettles him. Asking for their help springing Faith from prison left him with a deep queasiness that he hasn't completely shaken off. He hopes it doesn't come back to bite them all in the ass. Despite all that, though, he'd also like to see Angel to say thanks. There's too much history between them to ever be pals, but they could declare a truce.
So that's what he'll do tomorrow.
But there's still this afternoon. Tonight.
Xander sits through a couple of movies at the local discount theater. First movies he's gone out to see since all this From Beneath You It Devours shit started. He can't say he's impressed with the summer crop, but maybe he's just jaded by the real-life special effects he's seen lately.
After the first movie he finds himself the Home of the Merely-Okay Steak Dinner at Premium Prices, and after the second he stops for a beer. That part turns out well, but he holds himself to one and goes back to the motel in time to call Cleveland. He fills Giles in on how it's going so far.
Giles suggests he buy a journal tomorrow and get it all written down while it's all fresh in his mind. Shit. He feels a twinge of sympathy for the generations of watchers to come -- his watcher's diary will read like Ball Four squeezed on the shelf between the Roger Kahn and the Roger Angell. (Then again, if some of those journals had read more like Ball Four, maybe he wouldn't have fallen asleep so many times in the library.)
Once Giles gets off, Faith takes the cordless phone into their room, where she, well, gets off. And so does Xander. They exchange some sleepy chat for a few minutes afterward, every bit of it domestic and mundane. It makes him happy.
His thoughts more settled than they've been in days, he falls asleep moments after he shuts off the light.
He surfaces again.
There aren't words for the pain. It's less hazy this time. Focused. The left side of his face. His eye.
He wants to sink under again, but this time he can't.
A hand gently rubs his chest, comforting strokes accompanied by a soft murmur. Intimacy there -- it wouldn't be Willow. Anya, then.
His left arm is strapped down. He reaches across with his right to touch the bandages. Discovers they cover nearly the whole left side of his face.
This isn't how it--
"No, babe." A hand intercepts his, so tenderly, lifts it for a soft kiss. "Don't touch." A smoky voice. Faith?
His good eye is sticky; he struggles to open it. Yeah, it's her. "--isn't how it was," he mutters. He's not sure she understands.
"Shhh, lover." She reaches across him, grasps something clipped to the sheet by his pillow. Pushes a button. Not a nurse call. Some kind of pump. She rubs an ice cube over his lips. He takes it into his mouth.
Things go all cottony again.
This is not how it went.
He comes awake and his hand flies to his face. It's damp from sweat, the beginnings of a trickle from where his eye is watering, but no bandages. No pain. He touches two fingertips to his eyelid, the gentle curve beneath -- feels normal there, for all that it's not.
What the fuck is happening?
It's a dream, it's okay, just a dream, he tells himself. He's always had vivid dreams, but they've always had that surreal, skewed quality. This one -- well, he would never have thought something could be vivid and clouded at the same time, but this was -- like something actually happening, but obscured by a drug haze.
Xander thinks of the vision he had on his wedding day. Vision is really a poor word -- he had experienced every compressed moment of it. He'd suffered the electric dance of muscle spasm in his back, tasted the sour tang of too much alcohol. Felt the twining of rage and hopeless grief that he was married to this harpy while Buffy--
He shakes it off, throwing himself out of bed and pulling on his clothes. Alcohol doesn't seem like such a bad idea at the moment. He'd noticed a liquor store just half a block from the motel; if he hurries maybe it'll still be open.
He downs a couple of stiff ones before good sense ventures back out of hiding. He's got enough of an uphill battle ahead of him, approaching Jenny and her family to talk in all seriousness of vampires and demons, to invite a fifteen-year-old girl on an all-expenses-paid trip to the entrance of hell. The last thing he needs is to show up red-eyed, trailing a cloud of alcohol fumes like some boozehound version of Pigpen. Xander caps the bottle and switches the light off.
This one takes him deeper, holds him longer.
The painkiller haze has lifted, and so has the pain.
Tension sours his stomach, which still hasn't recovered from the carpet-bombing of antibiotics in the first few days after the injury. (Injury -- sounds so clean for what was a mauling. Demon came from his blind side one night on patrol, laid him wide open. If it hadn't been for Faith....)
The plastic surgeon is talking about outcomes. The one he hopes for, other possible ones. Faith's asking most of the questions, scrawling notes. Xander has trouble tracking the whole discussion, but it sounds like he won't be wearing his prosthesis anytime soon. Not that it'll do for him what it did before -- he'll never look normal again. In time -- a long time -- the scar slashing from eyebrow to cheekbone will look less angry, but it'll never fade completely.
He keeps thinking about that Twilight Zone ep. Everyone knows the one, with the horrifically disfigured woman getting her bandages off after the last-chance surgery that might leave her fit to live in society. Mostly what he remembers is the doctor's endless yap, when all Xander cared about was the reveal. This feels much the same to him. He knows this is all important information, facts he should be following even more closely than Faith does. But there's only one question, ultimately, that he wants answered.
How bad is it?
Get to the reveal, already.
Finally it comes. The surgeon rises, gets his assistant in, bringing a tray of sharp, shiny objects. Xander's stomach does a slow roll and he wishes he'd laid off the big IHOP breakfast.
"Faith," Xander suggests, "why don't you wait outside?"
The look she gives him would strip paint off a painted thing. "You want me gone, you can pick me up and set me out the door. Otherwise, I'm staying."
He reaches out his hand instead, and she laces her fingers through his.
Xander flinches as the cold stainless steel of the scissors slides in next to his skin. The sound of the blades cutting through the fabric of the bandage seems unnaturally loud. He grips Faith's hand harder, without meaning to. No Lisa Lopes jokes this time. Funny, how unfunny he feels.
The bandage falls away into the hands of the assistant. She steps in with dampened gauze, gently dabbing at the eye socket and cleaning up the scar. Then she moves aside for the surgeon. "This is good," he says. "It's healing very nicely."
Xander hears Faith's breath rush outward. "So the prosthesis--"
"It could be as soon as after the next surgery," the doctor tells her.
His own breath hisses and he closes his other eye. Faith tightens her grasp, rubs her other hand along his arm. "You're doing good, babe. It takes time, is all."
What it takes is everything he's got, just to keep from lashing out at her. He knows she's trying, but fucking platitudes are not what he needs.
"When you're ready you can have a look," the surgeon says. "Take as long as you--"
Startled, the surgeon hesitates a moment, then steps to the expensive custom wall unit housing his medical journals and the pre-columbian knickknacks he favors. He touches a hidden catch and a wooden panel slides back to reveal a mirror with its own light source.
Xander stands and faces it as Faith rises behind him. He takes in the sight of his ravaged face.
Faith's arms slip around him from behind. It's several moments before he can shift his gaze from his face to hers, to the horror and pity he knows must show there. When he does, he sees nothing but love. She murmurs something that she said to him once before, something that cut him deep. But now--
She says it again.
"It's just skin."
He bolts upright in bed, switching on the light. Can't stop himself from bringing his hands to his face. Unscarred, of course, but tears slick his cheeks, just as they had in the dream.
Not a dream.
Xander recognized the scar. Same one he'd seen in the vision the Hand of Imhotep had stabbed into his brain.
He cracks open the bottle, pours a strong one.
It's nearly noon when Xander's roused by the chambermaid. He flinches from the light and from the realization that he's made an epic screw-up. (You can take the boy out of Sunnydale, but you can't take the Harris out of the Watcher.)
He tips the maid to go away, downs aspirins and plenty of water, then heads out for a run, hoping to sweat any remaining alcohol out of his system. It's a good thing he's alone; Faith would be kicking his ass like a drill sergeant to see him running like this, like an old man. He puts on a burst of speed at the thought of her.
God, he loves her. His Faith. And the one in the vision. Are they one and the same? He has to stop the rest of this from coming to pass somehow. (Why not all of it? Though it feels like he's lived through the mauling, another maiming, it hasn't yet happened. He doesn't even know if it will. The vision of Anya never came true.) Can he bring himself to work with Giles on this, to tell him everything he's seen? He hasn't told anybody. Never gave anyone the full story on the Anya vision, for that matter.
Maybe it's not the future, but some parallel reality. Spock with a beard. If there can be a universe out there where Willow's a vampire -- where Willow can pull off a leather ensemble -- anything can happen. Christ.
Xander staggers back to the motel for a long shower and a good hard look at himself. He thinks he'll pass as a functioning member of society. At least until the Hi, kid. Vampires are real and you're gonna kill 'em speech.
He's got to get out of this room. Xander heads for the mall to buy himself a journal. After lingering over the full line of Sanrio stationery goods an unconscionably long time, he rejects the Badtz Maru diary for one that will give him an even bigger laugh over the long run (though it won't, unfortunately, piss off Giles). Then he heads to Starbucks and begins writing in his faux leather 7 Habits of Highly Effective People journal.
By the time he rings the Grimaldis' doorbell, Xander has tried four different clothing approaches. The suit? Too somber for dinner. Charcoal pants, white shirt and tie? Very supermarket manager. No tie? Nah. No reason, he just doesn't like it. Finally he settles on a pullover and jeans Faith bought him.
It's Vince Grimaldi who greets him at the door. Cordial, but reserved, and Xander can't blame him. He offers Xander a beer, which he declines.
Dinner conversation, while steering clear of anything of substance, isn't as difficult as he expected. Vince asks about Cleveland, and Jenny wants to know about the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. He's glad she's not so focused on baseball that she can't take an interest in anything else. Xander hadn't seen that much of the Hall the time he was there, but he could make a decent story of it by cobbling together the comments of his friends. "I like the auditorium," he says about the one thing he does remember clearly. "They've got such a killer sound system that you feel like you're hearing some of these tired old songs for the first time in your life. Even the bands you never liked that much suddenly sound brilliant." He asks her what her favorite music is, and she's all about the Clay and Ruben.
"Don't think I know them."
"You're kidding. American Idol?"
Xander shakes his head. "I had kind of a hectic spring. My finger slipped off the pulse of American pop culture." He redeems himself a little by knowing something of what's gone on in baseball, and chats with her about the Indians. Her team is the Cubbies, she informs him, and he offers his condolences. "You know, for their imminent swan dive and the next ten years in the cellar."
"Oh, ha ha," she says. "Look where your guys are." They wrangle a little about American League versus National League, and he thinks it would be fun having someone else around the hacienda who gives a shit about baseball. Willow and Kennedy won't even conform to the softball-player stereotype.
When they've finished, Maria starts to clear the table and suggests Jenny and Xander go out on the deck to talk, and they'll all have dessert after that. Yeah, that'll happen. They'll park him in a chair with the pineapple upside-down cake while they wait for the guys with the big nets to arrive.
Jenny follows him outside, sliding the back door closed behind them. "I'm usually on cleanup duty, so I owe you." She sits on the glider just below the kitchen window, all sprawled out like a ballplayer on the bench, arms and knees spread to full span. Xander leans against the deck railing, shoves his hands in his pockets.
"Your mom told you, I guess, that I'm not a baseball scout."
"Sure," she says. "I figured, anyway. Your suit was too nice. She said you're from some school. They'd better have a baseball team, or you're wasting your time."
He smiles. "Let's start with this past May. Something happened around the end of the month, right? Something that changed you as a player. Do you mind telling me about that?"
She shrugs. "I was in the middle of an at-bat. Meaningless game, we really stank last year. I had a 2-and-1 count on me, and all of a sudden, I just knew."
"That I was different. Next pitch, I knocked the cover off that ball."
Xander resists the urge to ask if that's meant literally or figuratively. "Tell me how you're different."
She eyes him, weighing how much she wants to say. "Stronger, faster, more flexible. Better reflexes. I haven't been hurt much, just real minor stuff, but it seems like I heal faster. My senses seem sharper, too."
"Do you know where it came from?"
"And one minute it wasn't there, the next it was?"
"More like one second. There was--" she breaks off.
"It sounds nuts."
"Believe me, I'm used to that."
"I felt this sort of ... tickle in my mind. Almost like a question, but no words."
"Just before you felt different?"
"What, have you heard that before?"
Xander smiles again. "I can honestly say I haven't. Any other ways you feel like you've changed?"
She gets that shuttered look Giles does so well. "Can't think of anything offhand."
He lets that go for now, pulls his hands from his pockets and claps them together. "Okay," he says.
That's one of those conversational openers that sounds really stupid when there's no ensuing conversation.
Another one is: "So."
He switches back to "Okay." Takes a deep breath and pushes the next sentence out. "Here's where I start to sound like a wackaloon." But he really doesn't have a sentence in mind to follow that one.
She comes to the rescue. "So A.L., does this have anything to do with vampires?"
Jenny is enjoying the shocked look on his face far too much.
"What do you know about vampires?" he says, once he can speak.
"Nothing, really. Well, aside from the sort of crap you get from scary stories and movies. I just know I've been having dreams about them. That's another way," she admits. "I'm having dreams."
"Okay, well, I can tell you that vampires exist. And that there's one girl born in every generation who's destined to fight them and the other nasty things in this and other worlds. One of my best friends is that girl. Her name is Buffy."
"See?" Xander says. "I must be telling the truth. If I were making this up, I'd come up with a much better name. Anyway, that's how it's always been, the one-chosen-girl-in-every-generation thing. Until Buffy changed things."
"In late May." She's a sharp one, this girl.
"Yeah. Things got a little apocalypsy, and she found a way to spread the power around. That's when any girl who had the potential to be a slayer got the power, if she chose it. You did. We don't know how many others did, or how we'll find them yet, but we're creating a school to train them."
"You and this Buffy."
"Yes, and the man who trained her, Giles. And Faith. She's one of the slayers, too. That part gets complicated." He yammers on, not sure how she's taking all this. Her attention is focused on his left eye, which is unnerving him just a bit. He realizes this means nothing, that when people make eye contact, they pick one or the other (something he never knew, in fact, until he started doing a lot of 'Net research after he lost the eye). But it still weirds him out, considering he's out here on a limb talking crazy talk while her parents are just a shriek away.
He finishes the Vampire Slaying for Dummies oversimplification. "So how are you doing so far?"
"I'm not saying no, not just yet."
"Because you want to watch me try and explain this to your parents, right?"
Jenny grins. "Could be."
"Have you mentioned the dreams to them?"
"What, are you nuts? Of course not." She gets to her feet. "Let's go get dessert, A.L. Shake 'em up some."
There are those occasions when cliches say it best, Xander thinks. Out of the frying pan. He follows her inside.
He decides to take a page from Giles's book. Tells them all he doesn't want an answer tonight, to give it time and let everything sink in. "Take a few days, write down all your questions. Bring them to me, and to Rupert Giles, who's overseeing all this."
Xander's come to that fatal pause again. He leans forward on the sofa, elbows on his knees, his fingers laced together. His dessert and coffee sit untouched on the coffee table. His stomach, in fact, is already a little sorry about dinner.
"I just realized that nobody in my circle of friends has ever told anyone what I'm getting ready to tell you. Not coming to it cold like this. We tell this stuff when somebody's seen something they can't rationalize away, something crazy and beyond belief. I learned all this by overhearing a conversation I wasn't meant to hear. Truthfully, I don't know how you tell this to nice, normal people in their nice, normal living room. It is going to sound crazy and beyond belief. So bear with the pauses. This is really uncharted territory."
He looks at Maria and Vince. He hasn't lost them yet, anyway. His gaze returns to his hands.
"Cleveland is where I'm living now, Maria, that much is true. But most of my life I lived around here. In Sunnydale."
It's almost inaudible, but he hears Maria's sharp inward breath.
"Sunnydale's a place where, if you don't shut yourself down to it, you start to see that more might be possible than what shows on the surface. A lot of it is not all that good." He looks at Maria now, holding her gaze for a moment before moving to Vince, and then on to Jenny. She offers him a little smile. "Here's the part where Rod Serling would say, 'Next stop: The Twilight Zone.' We're done with the careful phrasing." Xander takes a deep breath. "Vampires exist. Demons exist -- Giles could give you a number on how many different recorded species, but all I can tell you is there's a lot. There are many different dimensions layered right alongside ours, and a good few of them are what we'd call hell. Some places, the membrane between dimensions is particularly thin, and some really horrific stuff slips into our world." He smiles. "My friends and I -- we're a little like the border patrol. We kill demons and vampires."
Maria and Vince are right now doing very good impressions of people who've been clocked with two-by-fours. He's not sure whether that means he should go on, or pause. The principles of momentum and inertia seem to apply to this conversation, though, and he decides he'd better keep going, because once he stops the sheer weight of the craziness of all this will keep him from starting again.
"Historically, there's been one girl in every generation who's the vampire slayer. She has kind of a mentor, a watcher. There's a council of those guys, or there was. Sort of the guardians of the history of all this. Ultimately, though, it's the girl alone who fights. She has no friends, can't talk to anyone about what she does. Historically. Buffy Summers -- she's been the slayer the last eight or nine years -- she kind of broke the mold. She has a group of friends -- I'm one of them -- who help out."
Vince cuts in. "Why are you telling us all this top secret mumbo jumbo that's never been told before? Why us?"
"That's a good question." God, is it a good question. He hopes he has an answer that makes sense. "There's been a radical shift in the slayer line. Back in May. The whole line opened up, tapped into the power that normally goes only to the one slayer. Every girl was free to take it or not. We don't know yet how many girls did, but I believe Jenny is one of them."
"You know what happened to me in May, Dad."
"And how did you find us?" Vince asks.
"We've got a number of ways we're trying. The old council was destroyed last spring, and so we're, uh, half blind. We've been monitoring news reports, looking for girls who've shown remarkable strength or resourcefulness. Saving someone's life, fending off an attacker, things like that."
Vince's eyes go cold. "So you read about my daughter in the newspaper, and you thought you'd come and attach yourself to our family for whatever reason with this bullshit story."
Maria puts a hand on his arm. "Vince--"
"You're no better than that guy who tried to grab her. You're worse."
Xander rises. "Look, I'll go--"
Vince stands too. "I don't think so. I think the police should have a talk with you, find out what all this is. Maria--"
"Daddy." There's steel to her tone. "He's not some weird stalker. I -- I dreamed about him."
They all turn and stare at Jenny now.
"I've been having these dreams, since May. About vampires and other stuff, monsters. He was in some of them. I don't know what it means, but I don't think he's some nut who scours the newspapers for girls to bother. I mean, he could just bother girls in Cleveland."
"Did you know about this?" Vince asks him.
"She said she's having dreams, but this is the first I've heard about me guest starring in any. Prophetic dreams are a slayer thing."
"Do they always come true?" Jenny asks.
"Not always. If you can read them right, figure out what needs to be done." He shifts his feet. "I'll tell you what. I think this is all the information any of us can handle tonight. I'll give you a day to think all this through, check in with you the day after tomorrow." This time Vince doesn't make a move to block him as he turns for the door. Xander stops, his hand on the knob. "Thanks for dinner, it was terrific. And for your time." He smiles at Jenny. "Good luck with the baseball."
"I'll walk you to your car," she says.
"No," Vince says.
"Dad. I need to ask him something."
He opens the hall closet, takes out a bat, hands it to her. Jenny rolls her eyes, but takes it.
"Your dad just wants to protect you," Xander says when they're out on the sidewalk. He's aware her parents are listening from behind the screen door -- hell, he would be too. "What do you think about all this?"
"I don't know," she says. "It's so weird."
"That pretty much nails it. So what did you want to ask?"
"If I went with you, could I still play baseball?"
He leans against the rental, pushes his hand through his hair. "Probably not. Buffy had a more regular teenaged life than any slayer before her, but there were some things that were beyond her. This all takes up time and focus. Jenny, I did a lot of questioning, from the minute I learned about you. I really admire what you're doing, and I don't know if I should take that possible future away from you."
"You wouldn't be taking it, though. I'd be giving it up. Right? You said this is my choice, right?"
Xander nods. "If you walk away from this, I fully expect to be reading your name in the sports pages. If that's what you want more than anything else, maybe you should stick with it."
"Think the dreams will let me?"
"I don't know."
"You look so different. Than in the dreams. Younger." Her hand drifts up toward the left side of her face. "You had a scar--" She cuts off as she sees his face.
"I've got to go." He nearly tears a fingernail off getting the car door open.
"Hey, what-- A.L.--"
He's got the rental in gear and pulling away from the curb even before he yanks the door closed.
Xander clears out of the motel early the next morning, arriving hungover at the departures desk. And on the flight back to Cleveland, he puts away far too many of those little bottles.
Faith's waiting just past security, as she'd promised when he called from the airport that morning. Xander had spent a while wedged into the lav on the plane, trying to pull himself together. He hadn't thought he'd done that bad a job, but she fixes him with a look as soon as she pulls back from their embrace. "Didn't go well?"
"I'm not sure how it went. I just had to get away from there." Now that he's out of range of Sunnydale's influence, the dreams should stop. Drunk as he'd gotten the night before, he still found himself slammed back into this other life/parallel universe/future self, if only for brief flashes. One, much too short, of making slow, dreamlike love with Faith. The other, much too long, of bracing a hand against the bathroom wall as he puked up the contents of his still-ravaged stomach.
She hands him the keys and the parking garage ticket as they step out of the garage elevator. "So is she or isn't she?"
"She's the real deal," Xander says. "The slayer strength and reflexes, the prophetic dreams. She just has to decide now what she's going to do with it."
"Funny thing, having a choice," Faith says.
"Do you wish you'd had one?" He throws his carry-on into the back seat of the car, gets behind the wheel and starts it up.
"I was too stupid then to know what to do with it. Later on, I had plenty of choices. You saw what a great job I did with them all."
He reaches over, puts his hand in her hair. "You've paid your dues."
Faith leans closer to him (she's never fastened her seatbelt in all the time he's known her) and they kiss. Xander shuts off the engine and hits the seatbelt release, shifting toward her as she shimmies to his side and finally manages to throw a leg over him.
Slow and dreamlike it's not, but it brings him out from under the shadow of Sunnydale, pulls him out of the strange double life he's inhabited and makes him whole.
Giles is preoccupied with the new ancient text that's just come from overseas. Robin. He seems to have found his calling, too, as the library acquisitions expert. He's based in London now, traveling all over Europe and Asia as needed. Xander doesn't mind Giles's divided attention; it cheers him to see his spirits lifted with each book added to the collection.
"She's a pretty persuasive kid," he tells Giles. "Knowing her, the parents may be on board with the whole thing by now. I thought I'd check in with Maria late tomorrow afternoon, see where things stand."
"Very good." Half a minute goes by before Giles looks up from the book, wearing his old aren't you gone yet? expression. Finally he takes in Xander's general bleariness. "Xander, are you quite all right?"
"You know how it is, sleeping in motel beds. I'll be all right after a good night's rest."
"Yes," Giles says drily, "and I'm certain you'll get a great deal of rest tonight."
Xander swallows. Is he losing it, or did Giles just make a crack about Xander's sex life?
"Do try," he goes on, his voice softened. "You look terrible."
"Well, you know I--" Xander looks down at his hand, picks up a pen and starts tapping it on the desktop. "I went back to Sunnydale. Probably not the smartest thing I could've done."
"It's only natural that you'd want to do so. It might have been a little easier had you gone with someone else."
"Oh, I had company. It's quite the tourist attraction."
Giles takes off his glasses, squeezes the bridge of his nose. "People are idiots. There's no getting around it."
"No argument from me." His fingers twist both ends of the pen, startling both him and Giles when the halves separate and the ink tube and spring fly out. "Sorry." He corrals the pen parts, except the spring, which he can't find. "We never talk about this," he says while his hands are still busy.
"About what?" Giles inquires.
"The people we lose. Our dead." He meets Giles's gaze. "We replace them and we move on and never speak of them again."
"Xander, I hardly--"
"Jesse dies, Buffy steps right into our circle, smooth as glass. I can count the times his name's come up on the fingers of one finger, with enough left over to play pinball. That started a trend. Tara died, and Willow found Kennedy. Anya's killed, and now I've got Faith. We've got our own little council, Giles. Lose a friend, a lover, and another one gets called. It's seamless, just like the slayer line. No one's irreplaceable." He sees the longing on Giles's face to refute this diatribe, but he holds back and allows Xander to let the bitterness pour out. "Our hometown is a fucking crater, people we knew and loved are dead, and we never speak of it, of them. We just went out and got ourselves a new hellmouth." Xander rubs with the heel of his hands at the tears which are leaking. "You're the only one, Giles. You never replaced Jenny."
"You never let her name die. You're the keeper of the flame."
"My being alone is hardly a sign of virtue," Giles says firmly. "Nor is your finding love again a sign of callousness. We have our ways of coming to terms with death, because we've seen so much of it. It's useless to blame ourselves for that."
"Sure," he says. "Whatever." He'd hoped for more from Giles. Acknowledgment of what everyone else dances around. So Giles is a dancer too. "My head's pounding. I'll be up in my room."
Giles hands him another mint. "You look fine," he says with infinite patience.
Sure. If your definition of "fine" means your eye patch matches your new black suit, which is not fitting as well as it did last week when you bought it. And let's not even discuss the pink lightning bolt of a scar. Xander tugs at his tie. "That's better, don't you think?"
Giles sighs and tugs the tie back to where it was. "That's better."
Xander pats his pockets. "Fuck. The rings."
Another sigh. "I have the rings. That's my job. That and telling you you look fine. Which you do."
"What if I throw up in front of everyone?"
"I believe everyone in attendance has already seen you throw up." This is not untrue. His stomach lining is still on strike after the mauling, and talks have broken down. They've just brought a hotshot nutritionist from the Cleveland Clinic to the negotiating table, but so far all she's done is eliminate everything from Xander's diet so he can add it back one thing at a time.
"That's some world-class reassuring there, Giles."
"You'll do fine."
"What if I chicken out again?"
"If you do, I'll cold-cock you and drag you to the altar. I have mad wicked ventriloquism skills, as Faith would say, and you will be married before the minister leaves."
Xander can't suppress a grin. Okay: feet warming up.
There's a knock at the door of Giles's room. Giles opens it a crack. "He's obsessing, isn't he?" Jenny's voice. "Let me in."
"No, it's bad luck," Xander says.
She steps around Giles. "Number one, we're not getting married. And B, you're not the bride." She looks so pretty, her hair all piled up like that. So grown up. "A.L., you look so dashing." She picks an eyelash from his lapel. "Make a wish."
He does, and then heads downstairs to make it come true.
It's a lot smaller congregation than his last wedding. Just his housemates and a handful of others. Jenny's parents, who are practically residents of the hacienda anyway. Angel's made the cross-country trip, and Wes has come too.
The minister in her burgundy dress beams at him from the little altar space they've made in the dining room. He actually knows this one, the hospital chaplain who visited every day after the mauling.
The pocket door to the parlor slides open, and out comes Jenny. She can see the spike of nerves on Xander's face and she winks as she walks down the aisle they've created. Then Faith appears, and he forgets everything. Nerves, nausea, doubts, all explode into dust.
She's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. Her dark hair all done up, a few tendrils curling beside her face. The simple cream dress, sleeveless, classic. She takes two long Faith-strides down the aisle, then stops and remembers to take it at a bride's pace. He sees the bouquet tremble a little in her hand, and he passes along Jenny's wink.
Faith reaches the altar and though it's not time in the ceremony for Xander to take her hand, he offers his and they clasp hands as they turn to face the minister.
Xander snaps awake, disoriented. He feels the weight of an arm flung over his chest, hears the deep breathing of a sleeper. Faith, he's sure, but which Faith? He curls his left thumb in toward the base of his ring finger. It's bare. Not Mrs. Harris Faith, then. Waking-life Faith.
He feels a strange tickle of disappointment. Not because this is his Faith instead of the dream version. But because he'd wanted the wedding to go on and on. To feel the nerves and doubts dissolve and know that he could do this, take the next step without fucking it up. Standing there at the altar with Giles and Jenny as Faith took her place at his side. He feels like Tony Shaloub's stoner in Galaxy Quest: That was a helluva thing.
Another part of him fends off panic. The dreams were supposed to stop once he got home. They were supposed to be a side effect of his proximity to Sunnydale. (And where did that expert opinion come from?)
Now what? Hey, Giles, look what followed me home. Can I keep 'em?
And what exact species are they?
Fallout from the blaze of the Imhotep vision, that's all. Cinders fanned back to life to burrow into his mind. They burn like fuck, but that's all they are. Embers.
So why doesn't he believe that?
What else could it be?
He's gone all prophecy guy.
Because why else would Jenny see the scar in her dreams?
No. Something's fucking with him. Some echo of the hellmouth energies from Sunnydale. He's got to make it stop. Xander knows what's coming, and even if it's not his waking life, it's too real to endure again.
Everything's falling into place. The scar. The wedding ring.
How long does he have before Faith disappears? Before Xander is forced to dust her?
The vision -- again, that word doesn't do it justice -- is as clear as memory. The spindly crossbar he'd torn from the broken barstool, slippery in his bloody fingers. The dull thump it made as he rammed it into her chest, the shock of resistance there and then abruptly gone as she --
He cannot do this again.
"What's eating you, Harris?" Faith and Xander are on their morning run, nearing the point where he veers off for his cool-down walk to Starbucks.
"What makes you ask that?"
She snorts. "The number-one sign you've hit a nerve. 'What makes you say that?' How about that you've been on another planet since you got back home? Distillery World, from the smell of you yesterday."
He's surprised by how much this stings. "Flying, you know. I have a thing."
"You have a thing about not being able to lie worth shit."
Here's his corner, and let's hear it with a big rousing yay, corner! "This is me. We'll talk when you get back."
"This is me, too," she says, slowing her pace as she turns with him. "Blister's still giving me grief."
Cornered. Well, that's why she's the Slayer. "Okay then," he says, just to let her know he's going to answer her. There's a pause. "Let me ask you something. Do you have the prophetic dreams? Like Buffy has?"
"It occurred to me I never heard you mention them."
"B. and I have a philosophical difference. She and Giles are all about 'How do we shove this back in the future's face?' Me, my outlook is 'When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, unless of course life forgot to hand you any sugar, in which case you're fucked.'"
Xander glances at her, realizes she's not just being pointlessly clever. She's been handed damn little sugar over a lifetime.
She continues, "So to me the dreams say, 'Bad shit is coming -- brace for it.'"
"What are they like? Is it like, I dunno, a movie? The future kind of unfolding in front of you?"
Faith shakes her head. "They're like dreams. Weird. Jumbled. You wake up and think, 'What the fuck?'" She casts a sharp look his way. "Why? You think there's something I know that I'm not telling?"
It hasn't occurred to him until just this moment, but now he wonders. Jenny's dreamed about the scar. Has Faith? Buffy? "No," he says. "Not at all." He reaches the door to Starbucks, opens it for her. There's a line this morning. "I'm having dreams," he tells her.
"The proph--" She glances at the customers ahead of them, already in suits and toting briefcases. "Like mine?"
"Yes. And no. Not like yours."
"Are they like you said, like movies?"
"Not really. Like life. That real. I've had something like it twice before, but they weren't dreams."
"Hold that thought," she says. Starbucks is shorthanded today, and one of the baristas is a trainee, so more customers pile up behind them. After a minute or two, she tells Xander, "You've got two hands. Hold this one too." She leans into him for a kiss, teasing him with her tongue, nibbling at his lip.
"Um, you're up," says a businessman behind him.
Well, that's pretty personal, Xander thinks, even if-- oh. He disengages from Faith, gives their coffee orders. Finally, when they have their drinks in hand, they find a table away from the others on the deck.
"So," Faith says. "Dreams."
"Extremely vivid," Xander says. "Like I'm living another life. They echo this vision I had during all that Imhotep wackiness."
"Did I know about a vision?"
He shakes his head. "It was while you were on your way back from Stockton." He scrapes his thumbnail over the grease-pencil markings on his paper cup. "Giles and Willow were there when it happened, so they know, but I haven't told anyone what I saw."
"We gonna play a round of I've Got a Secret? Cause you know how fuckin' much I love that one."
She takes in the haunted look he knows he's wearing, and she softens. "Saying it won't make it real."
"You ever dream me with a scar?" He slashes a finger through his eyebrow, down his cheek.
Faith slowly shakes her head.
"I have. Jenny has." He opens his mouth to say more, but there's nothing more he's willing to tell. We were married is just likely to freak her out, he believes. Possibly worse than I punched a stake through your cold, dead heart.
She clearly feels the weight of what he's not saying. She rises. "Tell Giles, then. Maybe he can help you, since I can't."
Faith walks away, leaving him to follow or not.
Xander heads back with a second Americano, a couple pastries and the Plain Dealer, but the rhythm of the morning has been thrown off. He finds nothing in the paper but shitty news -- the same news that's been playing itself out over and over for years. Faith doesn't come into the garden to sit with him. The heatwave has loosened its grip, and he feels fall encroaching. Their mornings together out here are numbered, and he's sorry to lose one. He heads inside to train, partnering with Faith, who knocks him around a little more than usual. He's not sure if it's that he's distracted or because she's still pissed.
Giles took off early in the morning for a few days to meet with a string of potential watchers in Toronto. A little at loose ends, Xander puts in a few hours working on a special cabinet for the books Giles doesn't want the slayers-in-training messing around with. He's designed in a couple of hidden compartments for the really dangerous stuff, since he fully expects the lock on the cabinet itself to be popped. That's one of the advantages of having been a miscreant in his day -- there's a lot he can plan for because he's done it himself.
Finally he decides it's time to put in a call to California. He dials Maria's office number, hoping he doesn't botch this. "Maria, this is Xander Harris. Have you got a minute?"
"Xander. I started to wonder if we'd hear from you again." He's trying to gauge that on the warmth-o-meter, but he's not getting a good reading. "Hang on, I want to take this back in the office." She puts him on hold, then picks up again in about thirty seconds. "There. This will be more private."
"I'd wanted to give you all a couple of days' breathing space, that's all. It was a lot to take in. I thought I'd still be in town, but ... something came up and I needed to be back in Cleveland."
"I'll tell Jenny. She's been worried. She thinks she said something that drove you away."
Smart kid. "No, no. She can give me a call if she wants, after class or practice or whatever. I didn't mean to take off like that." He takes a breath, lets it out. "So have you all got any kind of feeling one way or the other about this?"
Maria laughs. "One way and the other. Vince's been halfway convinced you were gone forever, off to con some other more gullible family."
There's a slight pause. "Xander, I'll tell you. I've relocated some families from Sunnydale. They all have the same look, like refugees, and it's creepy. They started coming before the town caved in, and they still had that hollowed-out look. Vince doesn't get what I mean when I say that."
"Have they told you any stories?"
"Just a few. Very sketchy. It's not so much what I've heard that gives me the willies. It's what I can feel them not saying, you just know it's so much worse." She makes a dismissive little noise. "I know that makes no sense at all."
"Maria, you have no idea how incredibly much sense that makes to me." He lays out his offer then, hoping Giles's trust in his decision-making extends to the cost of three airplane tickets. The Grimaldis can have a look around Cleveland, check out the hacienda, the slayers, Giles. Maria says there'll have to be a family conference before she gives him an answer, but she's already voting yes, and is certain Jenny will too. Xander gives her his numbers and she promises to have Jenny call as soon as she gets in from practice.
When he hangs up he goes in search of Faith. He finds her out back, carving stakes with a knife that would give a sensible man pause. "Sorry about this morning," he says. "I missed you. And I really didn't need that second maple scone."
She stops whittling, puts down the knife and stake, turning her face away.
"Hey. What's wrong?"
"Nothin'." She catches sight of some mud in the treads on her chunky Harley-Davidson boots and digs at it with a stake she's already carved. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say."
"I'm sorry, honey, I don't get what you mean."
"That's what I mean. 'Sorry.' What's the comeback? 'You're welcome, gesundheit, thanks and come back again.' What's the 'sorry' drill?" Faith sounds angry, but he realizes she's embarrassed. Jesus, has no one ever offered an apology to her?
It makes Xander think of Anya, how hard she tried to know the right thing to say or do. It makes him want to try harder to be kind, knowing how often he failed with Anya. He reaches for Faith's hand. "Well, there's not just the one response. It kind of depends on the situation. For most purposes, 'I forgive you' works fine. Unless you don't, then--"
"--I forgive you."
He smiles. "I'm glad. I've felt off balance all day. You're right -- I shouldn't keep this stuff from you. It's hard to talk about, though, so bear with me. I had this vision once. On my wedding day with Anya. This demon who had it in for her planted this thing in my head, supposedly what life would be like if I married her. It wasn't like seeing the future in a crystal ball or something. It was like being sucked into another life -- everything that happened felt real, was real."
"What you saw, that's what made you freak and ditch her at the altar."
Nice to know how the story's getting told for the benefit of people who weren't there. (It's the truth, Harris. What else were you expecting?) "Yeah. So that's just background, really. The Hand of Imhotep dragged me through a replay of almost every spell that ever affected me."
"Which means you had another vision."
"That's the deal, yeah. And these dreams I've been having, they tie into that. They're like the Star Wars second trilogy, the after-the-fact prequel. So I know how things supposedly turn out, but I'm watching it all unfold."
"Watching what?" she says softly. "Tell me."
"I've been having them in chronological order, seems like. The dreams. After some demon catches me and rips the left side of my face open. So I've got this scar that I mentioned. And I'm back to wearing the eye patch. Some other details, all bringing me around to where I was in the vision."
She waits, and finally tires of waiting. "Tell me," she says again.
He looks away from her. "So in the vision. I'm in the Flats, on patrol, but I'm also looking for my wife. She's been gone for a few days, no word, nothing, and I'm going crazy. Then suddenly she appears and god, I'm so relieved she's okay. You see where this is going, don't you? Because she's not okay. She's been vamped, and she wants to take me with her. I have to --" The goddamn left eye is watering, spilling over. Faith reaches out and wipes the tears from his face. "I have to stake you."
Faith sits back in her chair, blinking.
"Faith, let's get the fuck out of here. We can move back to California, we can train Jenny there instead of dragging her to Cleveland. We can skip the whole winter thing."
"Skip the whole fate thing," she amends. "This vision you had about Anya -- did any of it actually happen?"
"No," he reluctantly says. "But there was the ditching and then there was the dying, so we'll never know." He looks away again. "The only part that came true was that I became a drunken asshole, but it seems that was temporary."
"Then what makes you think this vision is any different?"
His gaze returns to hers. "I don't know that it's different. I just know it's possible. We all know this is what we face anytime we go out there."
"Same's true of California. You ever heard this old story? I read it in the prison library. There's this rich guy in Baghdad -- few hundred years before we bombed the fuck out of Baghdad, like I said, it's an old story. The rich guy sends his servant to the marketplace, and he's cruisin' around doing errands, and suddenly he sees Death, who gives him this wicked fierce look and points his bony hand at him. The poor guy's all holy fuckin' shit, and he backpedals and tears home to the boss, tells him Death made this threatening gesture, and he wants to know if he can borrow the boss's fastest horse. He's always liked the servant, cheerful guy, good worker, so he says yeah, go, he's got a place in Samara where the servant can chill till things settle down. So the servant tears off, and the rich guy goes down to the market. He's a little pissed because he's gotta do all the errands now and because he's lost his best servant for a while. He sees Death's still hanging around the market, and this guy's got that rich guy 'tude, so he marches up and demands some goddamn answers. He's all What the fuck? My man said you threatened him. And Death's like No way. I was just surprised, that's all. I've got an appointment with him--"
Xander finishes along with her "--tonight in Samara. So you're in the you can run, but you can't hide camp." He picks up the half-finished stake, taps it several times against his palm. Suddenly realizes what he's doing and drops it like it's red hot. "You know how to make lemonade out of a pile of dust? You're all braced for being vamped and killed?"
"Xander, I've been braced for that for years. But no, we're not going with the lemonade approach," she says. "I thought we'd try the Buffy way, kick the future in the teeth. When Giles gets back, we should bring him in on this."
Dawn leans out of a dining room window, calling for Xander. "Phone."
He stands. "Probably Jenny. I might be a while."
Faith casts him a sidelong glance. "Married, huh?"
"Yeah." He smiles. "I saw the wedding. In my dream last night."
"Was it nice?"
"You were beautiful. It was nice." He brushes the back of his hand down her cheek, heads inside the house.
"A.L." She sounds almost bouncy, a typical teenager. "Mom said you called."
"Of course I called. I said I would."
"Yeah, but that was before--" Jenny bites that off.
"Before I freaked you out."
"You never freaked me out."
"I thought I scared you off for good, A.L."
Shit! Shit! What should he say here? What would Giles say? A Watcher doesn't let his Slayer know he's prone to wigging, he's pretty sure of that. "Okay, I freaked a little." Not what he meant to say. "The prophecy stuff is a bit much sometimes. I'm new at the watcher thing." He feels, in fact, a vast sympathy for the Starbucks trainee from this morning, fumbling her way through the simplest transactions. "I hope you'll meet Giles soon, he's the guy who's been doing this for years. He'll be advising me. If you decide to join us." So he doesn't make an epic fuckup of things. If she doesn't go the slayer route, though, he thinks he'll go back to drywall as a career. Drywall is simple. Drywall doesn't require explanations of the inexplicable, or have parents who need reassuring that you're not a wackaloon with extra loon.
"Mom said you invited us out there, but we have to see what Dad says. I hope we can come -- I'm dying to see everyone. Who was it that answered the phone?"
"Is she one of the slayers?"
"No. She's Buffy's sister. She's a good fighter, but not a slayer. She's developing her own specialties, though. Ancient texts and translations and that."
"What are the slayers like?"
It suddenly occurs to him that Jenny must hunger to know other girls like her. Things are happening to her that no one she knows can understand. Then again, she's had practice being the one girl -- if not in the world, certainly in her world. Maybe becoming a slayer, if she chooses that, will be less lonely for her than trying to make her way in baseball. It won't all be on her shoulders the way it's been on Buffy's. He thinks back to Faith's arrival, how at first her appearance pulled Buffy out of her orbit with Xander and Willow. Now he understands how seductive it must have been to find someone like herself, even though they were so fundamentally unalike. "They're all different," he tells Jenny. "Like any bunch of girls. Vi's quiet, Kennedy's kind of a tell-it-like-it-is person. I'm hoping you meet them all soon. So how was practice today?"
"Okay," she says, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "I did all right. But a couple of the guys on the team are shitheads. Oh. Sorry."
He smiles. "I'm the watcher, not the language police. Well, how are you feeling about all that, about maybe leaving that behind?"
There's a pause. "Part of me wants to stick with this, just to shove it in their faces when I make it, you know? But guys like that are a stupid reason to do anything, whether it's stay or go. I mean, it's my life."
"You just saved me the big wise speech. Are you always gonna make my job this easy?"
Xander laughs. "Good. I wouldn't want to be bored. How are the dreams?"
"Playing every night."
"Tell me about them. What are they like?"
"Creepy. You say they're prophetic?"
"Can be. Sometimes, though, a dream is just a dream." As Freud sort of said. "Do you get a sense that they're trying to tell you something?"
"I never thought of it that way, so I guess not."
"What are they like?" he asks again. "Like watching a movie, or like being in a movie, or just like a regular dream with an extra helping of creepy?"
"Like that," she says. "Weird and random, dreamy, but scarier." A note of anxiety creeps into her voice. "Is that how they're supposed to be?"
"I don't know that they're supposed to be any one way or the other. But that's how Faith says hers are."
She sounds relieved to fit in with the big-girl slayers. They chat a little while about the potential trip to Cleveland, about the Hall of Fame and a possible ballgame at the Jake, then she has to go to help Maria cook dinner. Xander checks the time and heads downstairs in the hopes that something similar is in the works here.
An eight p.m. dinner in Cleveland is not fashionable, it's just bad planning.
The lake wind is fierce tonight. The college boys shout profane exclamations of surprise as it hits them on exiting from the bars. Xander pushes his way through the knots of oblivious frat-boy types. They're too drunk even to notice. Vampire bait -- draining guys like these is like shooting fish in a barrel. Well, towns like Cleveland and Sunnydale are perfect labs for Darwinism in action.
Here and there he spots some persons of interest, but he's not about the hunt right now. All he cares about is Faith.
He shoulders into another crowd, and one young stud yelps, "Watch it, asshole! You blind?" Xander turns and levels his gaze at the kid, who blanches when he sees the eye patch and scar. "Sorry, man," the kid says. "I didn't see."
She's consumed his thoughts since he woke up. She has to be here -- Jenny and Buffy and the others make their graveyard rounds earlier, but the Flats around closing time is prime Faith territory.
The crowds are starting to thin. Where the fuck is she?
He senses her before he sees her appear out of the shadows. His whole body hums with her nearness.
"God, Xander, I've been so worried. Where have you been?"
"I'm okay, I'm okay." He pulls her into her arms for a tight embrace, right in the middle of the sidewalk, a knot of loud twentysomethings parting to flow around them. "Get a room!" one male voice calls, and there are laughs.
"I'm good," he says. "Never better." He draws her toward him for a kiss that courses through him like a drug. He can't stand it, to be this close to her without taking her. He pulls back from the kiss, still so near he feels her breath against his lips. "You've been all I could think of." He steps back, taking her wrist and tugging her along with him, out of the stream of people and into an alley.
"Xander, where--" He swallows the question in another kiss.
"Shhhh. I'll take you there. In a minute." He backs her against a slice of brick wall hidden behind a Dumpster and unzips her jacket. He's met by a gust of warm air trapped inside the leather. It nearly makes him dizzy, he's so greedy for her furnacey heat, the feel of her heartbeat as he settles his palm on her breast. He wishes he could have this forever, her heat, her scent, the little gasps of her breath as his hand invades her jeans. There's only this one time, though, this last time with her intoxicating heat. There will be forever, but it will be something different. It will be good -- beyond good, he knows that, although he doesn't know how he knows -- but it will not have this amazing flavor. He whispers endearments against her neck as her gasps become soft cries. He lets the change overtake him, and sinks his fangs into her soft flesh.
If her kisses were a drug, this is the mainline rush. He smells her fear, swallowed almost immediately in an endorphin rush, potent chemicals mingled together in a high like nothing imaginable. Her heart surges her blood toward his mouth and he takes it while his hands work her. He tastes Faith's surrender, her desire to die in his arms, to be reborn to hunt by his side.
She thrusts him back then, her slayer strength lifting him off his feet, slamming him into the concrete wall across the alley. His head snaps back against the wall, but what he feels is her absence, pulsing in him like an ache.
Tears glisten silver tracks down her face in the dim glow of a street light. Blood spills black down the front of her white wifebeater. "Motherfucker."
"Faith, we can be together forever. Don't you want that?"
"I want Xander, you fucker."
"I'm here. Let me finish, baby. We'll never have to die--"
Her fist slams into his chest, a bright explosion of pain as the stake pierces him.
He'd always wondered
"Xander. Wake up, baby. I'm right here. Everything's okay, you're okay." When he comes to himself, he's sitting up in bed, breathing in deep, shuddering gasps. Faith rubs a comforting hand across his back.
"Oh Jesus. Oh god."
"You're here, you're safe. Was it another one of those dreams?"
All he can do is nod.
She lays her free hand on his knee. "Hope it's not the wedding that's so awful."
Xander can't quite respond to her attempt at a joke, but it makes him love her more. He covers her hand with his, clutches at it.
"Another piece of the vision?"
"Yeah. But not the same. You weren't the vampire, I was." He closes his eyes, trying to stem the nausea rolling through him. "Same outcome, only reversed. I tried to turn you, and you staked me." He focuses on her hand stroking his skin. "This is the first variation from the vision. What do you think it means?"
"It doesn't mean shit. It's a dream."
"It's not. I know the whole range. Dreams. Nightmares. I even had night terrors when I was little. This isn't like any of those."
"Night terrors, what's that?"
"They're like dreams, I guess, but different. Way scarier. I'd wake up screaming and screaming, and nothing my mom or dad did could calm me down. It'd be an hour, maybe two, before I'd settle down again. Next morning, I wouldn't remember a thing. Not the dream, not the big drama I caused. I only know this because my mom told me when I was older."
"It's one of those developmental things. Some kids get it around a certain age, then it goes away after a while. I don't think the medical geniuses understand it yet."
Xander settles back onto his pillows, draws Faith down to lie with him, her legs twined with his, her hand over his heart. "You know, I hadn't thought about it in years. Not until the hellmouth collapsed. After that, seems like all I do is think about the past. Obsessing about all the things between me and my old man that we'll never have the time to fix, or even to talk about. Questions about everything. Like what if I'd never had the night terrors? Maybe things might have been different with us. Cause, you know, the whole man thing about fixing stuff. He couldn't fix me. For three years, every few nights I'd just go off, screaming like a banshee. He'd come in my room, and still I'm howling and thrashing and nothing he does makes any difference. Maybe -- maybe that just feels like a big rejection to him, you know? So he pulls back. Decides I'm weak and fucked up, because it's easier than thinking he can't do his job." Xander strokes Faith's hair, but he's far away. "What if I'd slept through the night for all those years? Maybe he'd have been a whole different father, and I would have been a whole different son. Could be we'd have been all Opie and Andy, talking about important stuff instead of having yelling matches about bullshit like the length of my hair." A warm trickle against his chest brings him back to himself. "Shit. Baby, I'm sorry. Don't cry, honey, no."
"Don't be sorry," she says, her voice rough. It's over then. One silent tear and she's done.
"Too much thinking lately," he says, his fingers brushing over her damp cheek. "I didn't mean to put it all on you."
She raises up on one elbow, combs her fingers through his hair. "Remember the offer you made me, back when things got so fucked up? That it wasn't just sex, you'd be my friend. It's not just love, either. Xander, we've been through shit together that no one else will ever understand. Don't start this crap now, protecting me from what's in your head. That offer you made -- it was more than that. It was a demand, too. You wanted my trust, and that scared the shit out of me. Now that we're old enough to understand this better, I'm making the same offer and the same demand. Trust me. Don't apologize for showing me who you are. It's what friends do, isn't it?"
He doesn't know. It seems like so many of his friendships these last years have been about keeping secrets, hiding his insecurities. Xander had never understood Faith's rejection of his support all those years ago, but now it's clearer to him what a leap of faith he'd asked of her. And now here he is, on the other end of that demand.
He looks into her eyes and makes that leap. "Yeah," he whispers. "That's what friends do."
They talk until the pitch black of night begins to lift. He tells her more about his relationship with his father, and for the first time Faith talks about how things were between her and the mayor. He can't think of a revelation that would shock him more than this, finding out Wilkins was a surrogate dad to her, nothing else. "I wanted the same thing you did, Xander," she says, curled up against him with her head on his chest. "A regular dad straight out of a sitcom. Only mine was Father Knows Best. I wanted cornball old Robert Young. And that's what Wilkins was, every dopey detail, except for the part about being evil and planning to eat the whole town. It felt weird as hell, but I liked it. I got to be Kitten -- I always wished I was her when I was little. He nagged me to drink enough milk and sit with my knees together and watch my language and posture. Yeah, he was evil, but he loved me."
He and Anya had argued about this a million times during the whole Spike stalking phase, but this whole fatherly thing casts it in an entirely new light. He can't quite process it.
Xander asks her about prison, how she managed to survive for three years. She talks a little about Marquita and Aviva, working with them in the kitchen. "They were good friends to me," she says.
She talks around the thing he most wants to hear. Finally he brings it into the open himself. "I read your notebooks. The librarian sent them to me in solitary. I had no business reading them, but I'd be lying if I said I'm sorry I did. I think I would have gone crazy without them." This launches them into another long conversation, about the poems she'd copied into her notebooks, what both Faith and Xander had found in them. They talk about spending some time out of the city, sleeping under the stars in wilder country than either has ever seen before. They'll have to do it soon, Faith says, before the weather turns, or wait until next summer.
Xander feels the weight of the dreams pressing on him, wonders if he and Faith will even be here by spring.
Their talk grows sleepier, more disjointed, and finally they drift off, limbs tangled together as if they'd been making love. Faith's gone when he awakens sometime in mid-morning. She'd offered to let him sleep in, which he readily accepted after the last few nights. Not that it's done him much good -- his head aches and he feels tired and draggy.
He rises and pulls on sweatpants and a tee, thinking about the day ahead. He'll put in some work on the cabinet, maybe tackle something on the reading list Giles put together, his short course on watcher history. There's not much left in book form, but there's a good bit that's been scanned for the old library project. Xander breaks the reading up into short pieces, which works better with his attention span and the eye strain issue. Today he hopes to hear from Jenny's family, and to be putting in some time playing travel agent. He wonders if he should get his suit dry cleaned. Can't hurt to have something respectable to wear -- he's still got a long way to go, he's sure, to convince the Grimaldis he's not a tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjob.
As he's cleaning out the pockets, he finds the slip of paper that had blown onto his car. Good old psychic Serafina and her 99% accuracy rate. He sticks it in his sweats pocket to take downstairs and show Willow.
Xander shuffles into the kitchen and grabs a mug before he realizes the coffee's been emptied and no one's bothered to make a fresh pot. Is he going to have to start posting rules all over the damn house? They're all old enough to -- His arm freezes mid-reach for the coffee filters. Whoa. Channeling the old man. He wonders for the thirteen-millionth time whether he should go get a vasectomy right this minute, before he inflicts more of the Harris paternal style on the world. He shakes off the thought, finishes making the coffee.
As the asthmatic wheeze of the coffee maker fills the kitchen, Xander leans against the counter, mug in hand. He pulls out Serafina's flyer and idly studies it. The artwork is sloppily reproduced, but he notices for the first time that the praying hand in the foreground seems to be wearing a ring like the one Buffy got from Angel, with the heart and hands and crown. There's a name for those rings, but he's forgotten.
A memory surfaces, so clear that he can't believe he'd let it slide from his grasp for so many years. He'd actually gone into Serafina's tiny storefront, a year or so before he met Buffy. With Jesse. They'd been messing around after school, just the two of them. Willow had some extracurricular thing going on. They'd just left the Parks' candy store, Xander ripping into a box of Pocky, Jesse staining his lips blue with a popsicle.
For the five billionth time, they walked past the psychic's parlor, but this time Jesse stopped, suggested they get their fortunes told. Xander didn't really want to, but they rifled their pockets and came up with the five dollars it cost for the Walk-in Special. They laughed for a week over the stupid shit she'd said. Cleeeeeeeeeeeeeveland! they'd hooted. The lake wind, she is so co-o-o-l-l-ld.
The mug slips through Xander's fingers to shatter on the floor.
Actually, she'd dropped the accent well before she talked about Cleveland. She'd started into her come-on, all mysterious and vaguely European, and halted as she locked eyes with Xander. "Wow," she'd said, in a purely American accent. She was younger than he'd always pictured, prettier too. She sat him down at the little table in the storefront, laying down a Tarot spread, but talking about how some of the details just formed in her head when she looked at a person. Jesse edged around behind her chair to lean against the wall, making faces and smirking with his blue lips.
Someone's coming -- she will change everything.
Death and resurrection, not once but twice. Nothing will sever the connection between you.
You'll never really feel at home in the middle of the country. The lake wind cuts through you in winter. But there's where you'll find the fullness of your destiny.
Jesse was having a hard time stifling his snorts of laughter. He finally choked it back long enough to say, "Well, what about me? I was the one who came in to get his future."
Serafina turned to look at him then, her lips parting in shock before she rearranged her expression. "I feel a migraine coming on," she said. "I'm sorry. I can't do your reading." She handed their money back, even though she'd already done Xander. She ushered them out of the storefront and slapped the closed sign on the door as they left. The two of them burst out laughing even before they hit the sidewalk. Priceless, man.
Jesus God. She had seen Jesse's death.
She had seen it all.
Kennedy bustles into the kitchen. "Cool. Someone made some coff-- Xander? Are you all right?"
He doesn't answer. She charges over to him, shards of ceramic crunching under her shoes. She hooks a chair leg with her foot, brings it around to where he stands. "Sit. Before you pass out. Watch out -- don't cut your feet." She has to shove him into the chair.
He distantly hears Kennedy's feet thundering up the back stairs, her urgent shout. "Willow! Something's wrong with Xander."
He's just barely beginning to come out of the fog when Willow runs into the kitchen. She starts to kneel in front of his chair, saying his name, but Kennedy catches her by the armpits, hauls her back onto her feet. "There's glass. I'll get it cleaned up."
"Xander. Tell me what's wrong." Will pulls a chair up, perches on its edge. Her hand checks his forehead for fever, then pushes his hair from his eyes.
He thrusts the rectangle of paper at her. "Remember? We used to see this all over town. Remember how hilarious we thought it was?"
It takes her a moment. "Right. The 99% lady. Xander, what's going on? Do we need to get you to a doctor?"
"I went back. To Sunnydale, I drove out there when I went out to see Jenny, the new slayer. That's where I found this."
Kennedy's gone for a broom and dustpan, and now begins collecting the slivers of his coffee mug.
Will says, "I'm not sure I under--"
"We went there. Jesse and me. To Serafina's, to get our fortunes told. I haven't thought about this in years. We never told you, because we thought you'd give us crap, but man, we laughed ourselves sick. Especially over the stuff about me living in Cleveland."
"Whoa," blurts Kennedy.
"That just about begins to cover it," Xander says.
"Are you sure you're remembering it right?" Willow says. "Wait, what am I saying? I'm the one who had to put up with the whole 'Cleeeeeeeeeveland' riff, which you guys never would explain to me."
"That's not everything, Will. I'm remembering all this stuff she said that sounded completely bogus to me then. She saw Buffy. That she'd die and come back twice. Serafina looked at Jesse and went all pale, then wouldn't tell us any more. She saw his death, I know it."
"That's ... freaky."
"Yeah, well, the freaky's just getting started." He hesitates, wishing for privacy but not wanting to insult Kennedy.
Before there's much of a measurable pause, Kennedy straightens with dustpan in hand. "I think I got it all." She dumps the mug in the trash, stows the broom and dustpan, and disappears upstairs.
He tells Willow about the dreams. "It's like I visited this place that swallowed my past, and now it's spitting up futures. I've seen two, but who knows how many it's got for me? How do I sort them out -- which one's real? Is either of them real? Are they both -- all -- potential futures, or actual futures in different realities?"
She takes his hand in both hers. "I don't know. I'll do some research. And Giles--"
"Don't worry. I'll be all over him the minute he hits the door. Will--" He draws in a breath, then lets it go. "What if these dreams change what I do? This scar thing freaks my shit out. What if I make it happen by being too tentative in a fight? Or being too aggressive?"
"Maybe you should leave the patrolling to Buffy and Faith and the others for a while."
"How do I know there's not another shitty future waiting if--" The phone rings and he jumps. Andrew calls out from the parlor floor that he's got it. "Listen," Xander says, "don't tell Faith what I just said."
"About the dreams?"
He shakes his head. "About being afraid I'll make them come true. I'm good. I'll be all right." He just needs a little time to regain his equilibrium, that's all.
Willow eyes him doubtfully, and he opens his mouth to reassure her that he's really okay when Andrew calls down again that the call's for him.
It's Maria Grimaldi. The three of them are coming to Cleveland.
He's busy scrawling notes about Vince and Maria's schedules and possible travel arrangements when it slips, unbidden, from his mouth. "Hey, Maria, I was wondering if you could look into something for me. Someone who might've relocated from Sunnydale. Maybe you could check around with your colleagues and find out where she settled."
"I'd be glad to make some calls. There might be privacy issues, though."
"She had a small business. That's how I knew her, actually."
"That'll probably be easier, then. Let me grab a pen."
"I don't know about easier," Xander says. "All I know is the name she used on the business. Serafina. She had a little psychic parlor just off the main drag in Sunnydale. She's got a catchy slogan -- 99% accurate -- so someone might remember her."
"If she's that good she must've gotten out, then," Maria jokes. There's a weird little pause, then she adds, "I hope that didn't sound insensitive. Did you -- did everyone you know get out all right?"
The urge to pass off a reassuring lie is strong, but this is a relationship he hopes will last for the long haul. If Jenny becomes his slayer, she'll learn the truth. "I lost some people." He leaves it at that.
"Xander, I'm so sorry to hear that. And what I said--"
"Please," he says. "Don't give it a second thought. I had the same reaction, if you want to know the truth. If all the people who ignored what went on all those years caught the vibe and got out of town, the local psychic must've figured it out too."
Maria promises to check into it while Xander's working out the travel stuff. Xander hangs up, wondering why the hell he asked and what he'll do with the information if he gets it.
Xander loves this -- watching Faith work her territory. She's found herself a good piece of shadow near an alley, keeping watch as the doors fly open, belching groups of drunken youths and gusts of music. The bar band in the closest joint is tearing through a handful of rocked-up Sam Cooke songs, and she switches her hips to the rhythm. She knows he's watching.
Me and my baby, we're out here on the floor
He loves seeing her happy, being the person she was meant to be. Those furrows between her brows erased and her dimples flashing. Her laughter. These last few weeks have brought her alive, and she's brought the same life to him. A fierce joy pulses through him when he's out in the Flats with her, and physically he feels better than he ever has, his ravaged stomach calmed and the scars fading.
Cause I'm having such a good time dancing with my baby
She makes a connection, a guy on his own who spots her in the shadows. She lets him make the approach, but shows herself open to his attentions. Laughing softly at his opening line, cocking her heel on the wall behind her and touching her own thigh. It doesn't take long before she's got him, moving in as if for a kiss and then retreating, drawing him back into the darker shadows of the alley to make the kill.
Xander looks to see if he can make one of his own. He spots a trio on the sidewalk, breaking up. Two girls, one hanging on a guy's arm and apologetically saying goodnight to the other. The old hook-up-and-dump-your-friend routine. The one who got lucky hasn't got it as good as she thinks. The guy she's leaving with is a vamp. Xander waits for the group to split into two, then makes his move.
"That was pretty cold," he says to the girl who's on her own.
"Piss off." She lets out a stream of cigarette smoke.
He shows his palms. "Sorry. Didn't mean anything by it. I was just going to offer to get a cab for you."
"I can get my own cab." Her voice has softened just a bit, though. She's eying him, finding him not bad to look at.
"Sure," he says. He reaches into his jacket, brings out a pack of smokes. "Could I trouble you for a light? Damn Bic gave out."
She steps in close to offer him her cigarette to touch to his, but he strongarms her into a recessed doorway. She doesn't take long to drain, and he leaves her sitting on a wire stand full of copies of the Free Times, looking for all the world like a girl who's had too much to drink. Her skirt's hiked up, her knees apart. He laughs. Her luck wasn't so hot -- or her friend's, for that matter -- but Xander's is running pretty high.
He crosses the street to Faith's alley, where she's let her kill drop at her feet. "What took you so long, lover?" she asks, but a kiss is his only answer, offering her the fading heat of his victim's blood.
"Mmm, baby," she murmurs when they break the kiss. She traces her fingers lightly down the left side of his face, from brow to the corner of his mouth. "My sweetheart's all pretty again." Faith brings her lips back to his and her cool hands fall to the fly of his jeans. He parts his lips and closes his eyes.
We're having a party. Everybody's swinging--
Suddenly the weight of her body against his vanishes and dust swirls into his mouth. His eyes fly open to the sight of Jenny at the entrance of the alley. Her hands shake as she tries to fit another arrow into the crossbow.
He screams without words, purest rage and loss and bloodlust, and launches himself at her even as she comes toward him. They tumble onto the hard brick pavement, and distantly he hears the crack of a bone. "Youbitchyoubitchyoubitch," he howls. She tries to ram the arrow into him, but he seizes her wrist. His other hand winds into her hair and he says, "You die for that. She was my wife." Tears streak down Jenny's face and she speaks his name. Xander, she says. Not A.L. His own tears fall on her neck as he drains her life away.
Cupid, draw back your bow and let your arrow go
Straight to my lover's heart for me, nobody but me--
He'd always thought slayer blood would be something special, but it's not.
It tastes like ashes.
Since Giles isn't here, he goes for the next best thing, and shuts himself in Giles's study with Giles's scotch. He should call the airline, cancel the Grimaldis' tickets. He can't do this to her, can't bring her into this life. Nothing but death and killing and loss. She's fifteen fucking years old. She should have a normal life. Hell, not a normal life, but the extraordinary one she wants.
Will's laptop is in here, and he fires it up, hoping to find something on prophetic dreams. Xander doesn't have any research skills, not when it comes to accessing the texts stored on her hard drive. He tries anyway, stumbling around to no effect -- a process not helped by the quantity of scotch he's been putting away -- until his eyes burn and water. He shuts everything down and curls up on the leather couch, lights still blazing. All he wants is to rest his eyes a few minutes.
Xander sits in front of the tv, workboots kicked off, feet propped on the coffee table. He sips a can of store-brand cola -- fairly decent, if you drink it straight from the can. The aluminum flavor gives it a little extra bite.
Swiiing and-a-miss. Strike two.
Jessie is sprawled out on the sofa beside him, head in his lap. Her soft adenoidal breath suggests she's drifting. She never has trouble falling back asleep, so he rubs his hand along her arm. "Muffin, you awake? Jenny's in the on-deck circle." It's way past her bedtime, but this is a special night. The All-Star game. The National League is two runs ahead after a rally in the fourth, sparked by Jenny's steal of second and then third.
Jessie rouses herself, sitting up propped against him. "Mom, you're gonna miss it," she calls out softly, so she doesn't wake the baby.
Faith emerges from Macon's room, easing the door closed. "She's up?"
Faith plants a kiss on the top of Jessie's head, then perches on the arm of the sofa next to Xander, kneading his shoulders. "What's the score?"
And Paulsen skies it to center, Davis in for the catch ... two away.
They fall silent as the announcers start talking about Jenny -- J.J. Grimaldi, as everyone knows her. It's all gossip -- about the fast company she's keeping, the Hollywood nightclubs she frequents, her ongoing dispute with Dodger management.
"I worry about that girl," Faith says, her voice low.
"She's crowding the play," Jessie points out.
"The plate," Xander corrects. "Yeah, she could get hurt that way," he says to them both.
"That anger's gonna eat her alive," Faith says. "Why don't you try calling her again? Maybe we could meet up with her somewhere on the road."
Lanford, the Americans' pitcher, is a well-known redass, and he's not surrendering his territory without a fight. He lays in a brush-back pitch that sends Jenny sprawling.
"He knocked Jenny down!" Jessie howls in outrage.
"I'll give it a shot," Xander tells Faith. "She never answered the last couple of messages."
Jenny rises, glaring at Lanford. She doesn't slap the red dust out of her uniform, just knocks her bat against her spikes and steps in, hanging over the plate. The announcer barely has time to predict another brush-back when the next pitch sails behind her head. She nearly ducks backs into it but bails in time, sprawling again in the dirt.
"Daddy, he tried to hurt her." Jessie doesn't grasp a lot about baseball yet, but she has a keen eye for what's fair and what's wrong, and for Xander's reactions -- she already knows throwing behind a hitter's head is playing dirty.
"I know, sweetie." He strokes her hair, then settles his arm around her thin shoulders. "He's like that, this pitcher."
Jenny regains her feet, taking a step toward the mound before the umpire working home heads her off, warning her. Lanford gets his official warning. Jenny adds her own, jabbing a finger toward Lanford. He's yelling back. It takes a moment before she lets herself be coaxed back to the batter's box, while boos rise up in the stadium, the American League home turf.
"You gotta be kidding me," Faith says when she realizes the boos are for Jenny.
The next fastball hits her in the shoulder blade, which she's turned in self-defense once she realizes she can't evade the pitch. The sound carries over the tv, and Faith makes a soft grunt in sympathy. Jessie's fingers dig into Xander's thigh, and he's sorry he woke her to see this.
Onscreen, Jenny starts toward first, the plate umpire sheepdogging her down the baseline as she points at Lanford, talking shit. His mouth is running too, and whatever he says presses her buttons, because suddenly Jenny shoves the umpire aside and charges the mound. Lanford, chickenshit that he is, starts to backpedal but she bowls him over, slamming him onto the infield grass. He lands wrong. He screams and thrashes and this incredible sound of dismay is torn from 40,000 throats in the stadium as it's clear that Lanford is seriously fucked up.
Faith's breath hisses through her teeth and Jessie makes a thin, high noise of distress as Jenny kneels over Lanford, aiming a punch. It takes three players to peel her off of him.
"Oh god," Xander hears himself say, his voice shaking. Faith's hand is in his, squeezing tight. He's not sure when that happened.
"You have to get to her," Faith says.
"You know how that's likely to turn out."
"Yeah." Sadness laces her voice. "But you have to. You never know when the things you say will finally sink in."
He smooths Jessie's hair back from her face. "What d'you say, Muffin? Enough baseball for one night?" He brushes the tears from her cheeks. "Why don't we head for bed, talk a little while." Xander rises, gathering her into his arms, and he and Faith head for the bedroom with the pictures of J.J. Grimaldi plastered all over the walls.
Xander wakes to Faith's hand on his shoulder, shaking him. "You had another one?"
He sits up, fighting dizziness. Wishes he hadn't drunk so much. "Got the two-for-one special tonight."
"And you go crawl off into a hole? I thought you'd decided you could talk to me." She grabs the scotch bottle, screws the cap on. "And this shit, it's been working so well for you."
She's right about that. He needs to find something else. Maybe something that will help him stay awake. "Sorry," he says. "I figured one of us should have a full night's sleep. It's not like this is an occasional thing."
Faith sits on the sofa, one leg tucked beneath her. She reaches out to wipe off his face, the way he'd done with their daughter in the dream. Both sides, not just the one that habitually leaks. He hadn't even realized. "They were bad?" she asks.
"Yes and no." He catches her hand, kisses the palm. "The first one was the worst thing I've ever seen. We were both vamps, hunting in the Flats. Jenny killed you. I killed Jenny." She curses softly under her breath, but he pushes on. "The other one -- Jenny was playing pro ball. You and I were in a regular house, having a regular life. We had --" Two kids, he wants to say. A boy and a girl. But he's afraid she'll wig. "We had a really nice life. Jenny, though. She was full of rage, unable to contain it. I think I saw the moment when she wrecks her career."
"You keep doing this thing," Faith says. "You'll be telling me one of these dreams, but you cut out on me. Just for a second, and then you're here again. But not all of you. You're holding something back. Something you'd rather tell a bottle, looks like."
"No -- it's not that." He looks down at their hands, tracing his thumb over the back of hers. "We haven't been together that long. Some of this stuff I'm seeing is far down the road -- a road. I don't want you to feel crowded. I know -- I think I scared you, when we first ... got together, years ago. I wanted it to mean more than you did. Then things moved really fast when you and I were jumping back and forth between bodies. I don't want to rush this. That's all. I want you to feel okay with it."
"So it's not some dark, terrible secret you're keeping from me."
Xander shakes his head. "The terrible shit I'm telling you. It's -- it's good."
She snorts. "So it's the good stuff you don't trust me with."
"It's not about trust," he automatically protests, but he suspects she's just giving him a hard time. "I don't know if I can explain it. Maybe it's not something that would seem good to you right now. When I'm in the dreams, I'm right there -- I'm not watching myself in the future, I'm me, ten years on. So things that might scare the bejeezus out of me if someone said, 'This is what will happen' seem perfectly natural, because I'm ready for them. Is this making any sense?"
"Sure," she says. "So are you gonna hit me with it, or do I have to wait ten years?" Without warning she rises to her knees and straddles him, sliding her hand to his crotch. "Because if I gotta wait, I'm going to need something to help pass the time."
His breath goes ragged as both her hands wander over his body, her lips nipping at his ear, his neck, his mouth. Suddenly it all stops. "A book, ya think?"
"What?" His voice has gone hoarse.
"To pass the time." She does a little grind on his lap, and the sound that escapes Xander is half yelp, half moan. "Or maybe you should just tell me now."
"Has anyone ever told you you're evil?"
"Not recently. C'mon, Harris. What's ten years down the road?"
"Kids," he says.
She drops her full weight onto his lap, her lips parting in shock. "Kids?"
"A girl and a boy."
"But I'll fuck 'em up," she protests.
"No you won't. You'll do fine."
Xander touches her face. "I don't know how. You just do. I saw Jessie at six. She's going to be a great kid." If she happens at all. How can he tell which of these threads is actually connected to the future and which just spins out into nothingness?
"Jessie," she repeats.
"We name her after a friend of mine who died right about the time I met Buffy."
"What about the boy?"
"Our baby," he says. "Macon."
Faith draws in a sharp breath.
"The first friend I ever had as a kid was named Macon. Pretty much the only friend I had."
He pushes back a lock of her hair. "Makes it real, doesn't it? How are you doing with this?"
"Freaked," she says. "How can I possibly not fuck them up?"
"I was scared too," he says. He's not sure how he knows this, but he's absolutely certain of all of it. "I didn't know any more than you how to be with a kid. But they come, and you just love them. It'll be fine," he tells her, then draws her to him for a kiss.
God, he wants it to be fine.
How can he possibly not screw this up?
This is his mantra during the punishing run Faith puts him through to sweat out the hangover. He hasn't got much time to figure out the answer -- the Grimaldis arrive tonight. Giles doesn't get back into town until tomorrow. Brilliant planning, there, Harris. But he hadn't had much choice -- Vince and Maria's schedules were what they were.
How can he possibly not screw this up?
Everything: the Grimaldis' visit and their introduction to the other slayers.
If by some miracle he doesn't blow that much, her training.
Her inevitable rebellion against her training -- he hasn't spent eight years as Buffy's friend to develop some warm and fuzzy notion that Jenny will accept his every word as law. He's also put in enough time as Buffy's partner in crime to know rebellion was a lot more fun from her end than from Giles's. Now he's Giles. Only without the whole wisdom thing.
If they both make it through that, there's her life as a slayer.
If he fucks that up, it'll be a short one.
How can he possibly live with that?
He's got a crew cleaning the brownstone and Faith and Andrew are out buying groceries for tonight's dinner when the phone rings. It's Maria, calling on her cell on the way to the airport.
"Took awhile," she says, "but I finally found your Serafina. None of the real estate agents I knew could help, because she didn't resettle around here. A friend of ours is a claims adjustor, so I asked him if he could get me something to go on. So guess what he tells me."
"I couldn't begin to guess."
"She's moved to Cleveland."
It's all he can do not to drop the phone. When he can finally speak, he says, "Everyone's doing it, I guess."
"I guess. Well, the word is she's opening a little storefront down where the tourists go." She gives him the name of a street in the Flats. "I hope that helps."
"Me too." What the hell is he going to do with this? He can't say. Cleveland. Fuck. There is no such thing as coincidence, not on the hellmouth. "Thanks a lot, Maria."
"No problem. Jenny wants to talk to you." He hears the sound of the phone passing from hand to hand.
"A.L.!" she chirps. "Am I gonna meet some slayers tonight?"
"You sure are," he tells her.
"Cool. Will you take us to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while we're here?"
"Sure," he says, his mind more on Serafina than on what Jenny's saying.
"How about a ballgame?"
"Yeah, sure," he says again. Xander snaps back into focus, realizes he'll apparently agree to anything when he's distracted. That's a tendency he'll have to squelch before Jenny catches on. He gets off the phone and returns to the preparations for the Grimaldis' visit, but the street name Maria gave him lingers in the back of his mind, an irritation, like an itch he can't reach.
Everything's different down here in the daylight. The way the buildings look, the people, the vibe.
Okay, the vibe is different because he's not looking for vampires (or, in his visions, trailing human prey). Well, he is hunting for one human (he presumes she's human), but all he wants to do is watch her for a bit, try to get a sense of her.
As Xander leans against the side of his car, he can see her through the window of her storefront. It's a hole-in-the-wall space, oddly shaped, with a huge front window showing the bare interior. Serafina is working inside, repeatedly pressing a rag against the wall, freshly painted light blue. What she's doing gives the color a marbled effect, like sky laced with clouds.
The exterior of the shop has already been painted, a soft white with purple and gold trim. Her sign is up, though she's not yet ready for business. She moves purposefully, with little wasted motion. She works in her bare feet on the newspaper strewn floor, in paint-splattered cutoffs and t-shirt. He guesses her age now to be about thirty-five -- pretty, as he'd remembered. There's paint in her dark hair, but no gray.
She spots him as she pauses for a quick sip of her Coke -- about the third time she's noticed him. This time she comes to the doorway. "If you came for a reading, I can't do it now, I've got to finish the wall while the paint's still wet." Serafina grabs a rectangle of paper from a stack by the door and offers it to him. "Bring this back anytime after tomorrow, and I'll give you half price on any reading you want." It's one of her old flyers, with her Sunnydale address.
"Can I help?" That's a surprise -- to him as much as her. "Since you have to work fast. I could help."
"Um, sure. C'mon." She leads him inside, hands him a rag and shows him what to do. "I'm Serafina," she says, "which you might've guessed."
"Xander," he says. He can do the one-name-only thing, too. He's suddenly seized with the urge to shock her with some of his own knowledge, repay an eight-year-old debt that feels fresh as yesterday morning. "You got out alive," he says.
Her head whips toward him, the painting forgotten.
"Keep going," he says, "or you'll have a spot. I remember you from Sunnydale."
"You came looking for me here?"
Xander shakes his head. "I've been in Cleveland since early June. I just found out today that you were here."
"You know me?"
"I met you once."
"I'm sorry, I have the world's worst memory for faces."
"It was years ago." He reaches for a spot she's missed just as she does, and their hands bump.
Serafina's eyes widen and the rag falls from her hand. "I don't know what you could possibly want with me." Her voice has gone dreamy, faraway. "You're the one who sees."
Amazing how fast blind panic (blind is the word, isn't it?) can take hold. Xander stumbles back, stepping on the edge of the roller pan of blue paint, tipping it over. Somehow he finds his way to the door and charges through it, almost mowing down a couple of tourists. There's an alley a couple of doors down and he bolts into it, doubling over to puke until he empties his stomach. Trembling, he leans back against a Dumpster, mopping the cold sweat from his face.
"I've never done that to anyone before," Serafina says. She hovers near the mouth of the alley, having followed, Xander sees, his fading trail of blue footprints.
"Unfortunate word choice, that's all," he says. "Excuse me." He turns away and spits, but there's still a foul taste in his mouth.
"I've got a little bathroom in there, if you want to wash up a little."
"Thanks, no. I need to get home."
She offers a fresh rag, motioning to his foot, and he takes it, cleaning off his shoe as well as he can. "Are you sure you can drive?"
"I'm good." He hands her back the rag.
"Come back sometime," she says. "I'll gift you a reading."
"No offense," he says, walking toward his car, "but you couldn't fucking pay me enough."
He sits behind the wheel, raking unsteady hands through his hair. No problem. No problem. He's got a whole two and a half hours before he has to drive out to the airport to get Jenny and her parents.
He's never told anyone what Caleb said. In the chaos at the vineyard that night, he's not sure anyone else heard. Maybe Spike, but Xander will never know.
He's never really thought about what it meant. Has refused to think about that night at all, once he finally got the tape-loop replay of that moment out of his head. If that starts echoing in his thoughts again, he really will go crazy.
You're the one who sees.
Xander said something like it to Dawn, not long before the vineyard. Had Caleb meant the same thing he had, that his unique position in the Scoobies as the Guy with Nothing Extra had, after all these years, given him insight? Or had that malignant fuck foreseen this? Or -- this sent a fresh wave of nausea through him -- maybe it had been a curse. A time-release curse, just now coming to full strength.
It seems plausible. The visions of multiple futures feel a lot more like curse than gift.
The thought makes him wish he could go back to Sunnydale, find that fucker's pancaked corpse and kill him again.
Faith comes upstairs to their room after training, as he asked. "Ooh, look who's decked." She traces a finger down his tie, then slides her arms beneath the charcoal jacket, around his waist. "I like it," she murmurs. "I feel like I'm about to corrupt one of those missionaries." One hand wanders down to his ass.
"Hey. Hey. No corruption." Hard to say, with an extra tongue in his mouth. He pulls back. "Later for the corruption."
"There'll be corruption? Promise?"
"Two scoops. With fudge sauce. But later. I want you to come to the airport with me, if you would."
Well, that breaks the mood. She steps out of the clinch. "Me?"
"You. It would be nice if a slayer comes to meet them, you know?"
"Well, shit, Xander. I got nothin' to wear. I mean, if you're gonna wear a suit. Shit -- and that. I mean, I'll curse -- it just comes out. In front of her parents and all. Maybe you should ask Buffy."
Maybe he should ask Buffy anyway. The both of them. So there's no feeling that he's choosing one over the other. But he's nervous and the slayer he'd like to have with him is the one who's seemed to have no trouble thinking of him as a watcher.
"I want you," he says. "It doesn't matter what you wear. Well, maybe you can save the leathery second skin for later, once they feel a little more settled with all this. Jeans are fine. And that black shirt, with all the stuff on it."
"With the stuff on it. You mean the spaghetti sauce I spilled down my front?"
"You know what I mean. The silver stuff -- the threads."
Faith grins, kisses him. "Yeah, I know. All right. I'll come."
When she's finished dressing, they go downstairs and gather the slayers, Willow, Dawn and Andrew.
"Wow, check them out," Kennedy says.
Dawn smirks at Xander. "I'm sorry, we've already had our insurance needs assessed."
"Funny," he says. "Get it out of your system now. We've got a slayer and her parents coming tonight, and it would be great if this setup doesn't come off like The Real World: Hellmouth."
"Why are they coming tonight?" Willow asks. "Giles doesn't get back until late tomorrow."
"Giles isn't her watcher," he says. "I am."
"I know, but--" She clamps her mouth shut.
"I'm not just the recruiter," he says. "I'm not doing busy-work while I'm on retainer waiting for the next broken window. This is what I do now." He holds her gaze and she nods. "Buffy, we're going to need some kind of demonstration. I was figuring the safest thing would be taking them -- all three, I guess -- to the cemetery, find a vamp who's rising. One of the younger slayers can keep an eye on Jenny and her parents, keep them out of trouble. Buffy, would you give 'em the slayage seminar?"
"Sure, I guess. But--"
"You were out there close by L.A. One safe demonstration might have been getting them together with Angel. While you were all there. I was just wondering--" She catches a look from Willow, drops it.
Well, Xander is wondering too. Wondering why the hell he never thought of Angel. Why he -- or Giles -- thought he'd be any good at this. He scrapes up a response. "We've called on Angel and Wolfram & Hart a lot for favors lately. And he and I aren't on such great terms that I thought I should be asking him to do parlor tricks with his vamp face." Now he sounds like an asshole. He hates this.
"I guess you're right," Buffy says. "A rising it is."
"Great. Thanks. Before that, dinner. Faith says you've all got that under control. I just wanted -- you know, the Glad to Be Alive meal we had a while back was one of the best times I've ever had. But we got, uh, a little free-wheeling. This is all new to the Grimaldis, so if we could keep the table-talk gore to a minimum, that would be cool."
"I have a bell," Andrew says. "I could be in charge, give it a little tinkle if we start to go too far into the--"
"Thanks, but no," Xander says. "We'll just--" (freakin' pray) -- "rely on everyone's good judgment."
"So are all three of them in the guest room," Rona asks, "or will someone need to double up to give Jenny space?"
"That's a good thought," Xander says. "Tonight they're staying in a hotel. I don't want them feeling any pressure, and want them to feel free to discuss anything they need to without worrying we'll hear. If they prefer to stay put, we'll pay for that, but if they'd like to move over to the hacienda, get a closer look, that's what we'll do. If anyone would volunteer to room with Jenny, let me know."
He frantically searches his brain for anything important to add. He's sure he's forgetting something big that will come back and bite him in the ass, make him look stupid.
"I guess that's it," he finally says. "I think you'll like the Grimaldis. Jenny's a cool kid. I'd appreciate anything you do to make them feel welcome." He hopes he hasn't just handed Andrew carte blanche for weirdness, but he's not going to make a big deal of warning him off. "Thanks. We'll get back as soon as we can."
Everyone trickles out except for Willow. "Sorry," she says. "Sometimes I can't help seeing the kid who stole my Barbie."
"What's the statute of limitations on Barbie theft?" he asks. "Twenty years?"
"I know," she says sheepishly.
"I don't know that you do. Seems it's a lot shorter for nearly ending the world, because I haven't had to throw that up to you constantly when you try to become a different person."
Her mouth falls open, but no sound comes out.
"Open your eyes. We're not five. We're not even seventeen. Look at what's going on now -- all the cool kids are doing it."
He scoops the car keys out of their bowl in the entry and follows Faith out to the street.
He can't stop yapping.
All the way to the airport, he's vibrating with nerves. He pinballs between between obsessing about the Scooby meeting and worrying about Vince Grimaldi. Vince is still the skeptic, and ultimately agreed to come to Cleveland for the free trip and a chance to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Periodically Xander pauses for air long enough for Faith to slip in her own worries: that the dinner she planned is too institutional, that she's loused up the recipe by cutting it down drastically from hundreds of prison servings, that she's going to make the wrong impression and screw the whole deal.
Once Jenny and her parents arrive, it's even worse. He motormouths while they're waiting for the Grimaldis' luggage, while they're dragging it to the car, and on the drive into town. He's blathering on about the architecture of Jacobs Field and how the lightpoles look like smokestacks, meant to reflect Cleveland's industrial history, when Faith puts her hand on his knee. "Sorry," he says. "I'm a little nervous." He'd been so self-possessed before, the night of the vampires-are-real speech -- or at least managed not to sound like an idiot, despite the content of his talk. Where the hell had that gone?
Jenny's excitement bubbles up then, and she asks questions a mile a minute. Faith does a great job answering the ones aimed at her (and Jenny, he can tell, already thinks Faith is the coolest person alive), and Xander does okay with his, needing only a couple of knee-checks from Faith.
Once they get to the hacienda, everyone comes through with flying colors. There's a big sign in the entryway that says "WELCOME JENNY," with "and her mom and dad" squeezed underneath as an afterthought. Andrew circulates with a tray of hors d'oeuvres, whispering to the hacienda residents not to have any, because there's only enough for their guests. The new slayers are friendly but not overwhelming, and Vince even looks like he's warming.
Dinner goes well, too. This is a first for Xander. He can remember a time or two in his life when he braved inviting guests to his family's house, and begged his parents to be on their best company behavior. This is the first time he's ever gotten what he asked for. There's a nice give-and-take in the conversation, general chat and the right kind of questions. Andrew makes himself the hostess with the mostest, without descending into the bizarre. And the food is fine.
Gradually the talk grows more serious as Xander outlines some of the activities he has planned, including tonight's field trip. "One of the things Giles will tell you, when he gets here, is some of the history of the Watcher's Council. We're trying to rewrite it, to some degree, make some fundamental changes to how things work -- make it more accountable to the slayers instead of the other way around."
Buffy cuts in. "Well, there's some history I'd like to contribute that Xander would never think to give you."
Xander's stomach knots; he'd thought she'd gotten the whole point of that afternoon's slayerette meeting.
"He's too modest to think it's important, but it is," Buffy goes on. "The Scooby Gang has a history, too. We never really talk about it as a history, but really, it changed everything." She looks around the table. "Who started that, the Scooby Gang thing?"
"I blame all pop culture references on Xander," Willow says. "Did I say blame? I meant credit." She shoots a bashful look his way, her standard forgiven? look. Xander, whose gut is beginning to unclench, winks at her.
"I bet it was. So you've got the originals right here, except for Giles. The avocational Scoobies, Xander and Willow. Before I get into that, it helps to know some of the prehistory. The Cliff's Notes: me -- fifteen, slayer, still living in L.A. Deep, dark secret. I couldn't even tell my mom. She and my dad were fighting all the time, usually about me and my late nights and lousy schoolwork. They split up, I lost all my friends, got expelled. So we moved to Sunnydale, my mom and me. These guys here were my first friends at the new school."
Jenny is wide-eyed, taking it all in.
"Xander was the first to find out my secret. He overheard a conversation I had with Giles. Not surprisingly, he thought we were both complete wingnuts. But -- surprisingly -- the first time I needed help, he was right there."
"Well, yeah, but Willow was in trouble."
"You see what I mean with the too modest? So Xander and Willow both, they jumped right in to help me when they barely knew me. They've never stopped. They've saved my life. Saved the world. The Council hated the Scooby thing. It gave us power -- not just against the bad things out there, but against them, too. It's harder to treat someone like a tool when she's a tool with friends. Giles gets this. He was Council, but got to be a renegade in time. As Xander said, Giles is working to rebuild the Council, but as something new, using the things we've learned. Someday the Scooby story's going to be part of Council history."
He looks up from his hands, which have been carefully accordion-pleating his napkin during all this. "The life of Xander Harris," he says, "soon to be boring young watchers everywhere." His tone doesn't come out quite as light and casual as he'd intended.
Vince speaks up. "So why does this Council need rebuilding?"
"There's a lot I didn't get into when I came out to talk to you," Xander says. "I figured the basic story with the vampires and the demons would be overload enough. But last year we faced a pretty powerful enemy. It was out to destroy the whole slayer line, and one of the ways it set about it was to hunt down and kill watchers. Its people blew up the Council's headquarters. We're rebuilding everything -- networks, libraries, recruiting new watchers. That's where Giles is right now." His fingers start working over his napkin again. "In case I didn't get this across with the vampires and stuff, this is dangerous work we're doing. Don't lose sight of that while you're thinking this through. The hellmouth attracts a lot of powerful stuff, most of it bad. People die. We've won a lot of battles, but we've lost people we love."
Vince looks about like he's ready to pick up his women and go this very minute.
Andrew pipes up. "And if you think that's dangerous, you should be in a house full of slayers when their PMS gets all synchronized."
"Thank you, Andrew, for that TMI moment," Xander says.
"So where did you fight your first vampire?" Jenny asks Buffy.
"Pretty much the same place you will -- my first watcher took me to a graveyard where the new ones were rising."
"First watcher?" She looks at Xander. "Does that mean I'm going to get switched from A.L.?"
"Hopefully not," Buffy says gently. "I came to Giles after my first watcher was killed."
"Oh." Jenny looks at him with huge eyes.
"I've logged plenty of Scooby time, Jenny," he tells her. "It's gonna take a lot to budge me off the planet."
"Amen to that," Buffy says. "A.L., huh? What's the L. stand for?"
"It's kind of a baseball fan joke," Xander says. "Cause I'm following the American League team. Jenny's into the Cubbies."
That glazes her eyes over as quickly as he expected it to. He scrapes his chair back on the hardwood floor. "Why don't we go take our after-dinner constitutional? I know a nice peaceful graveyard around here."
She takes to this like she was born to it. Watching her, he feels like he's getting a glimpse into Buffy's emergence, into Faith's.
One minute she's walking with Buffy and Xander, trailed at a distance by her parents and Kennedy. She's been nervous but juiced, laughing at Buffy's jokes, asking questions, checking out Buffy's stake. The next, she's sucking in her breath as they see a hand come clawing through the mound of dirt on a fresh grave. "There you go," Buffy says. "One baby vamp, coming up."
That breath is not a fear-sound. "Look at his face," she breathes.
"They're not the most street-smart -- cemetery-smart, whatever -- opponents at this stage," Buffy continues as they watch him struggle to free himself. "But they're still dangerous. They need to feed when they first rise."
Xander glances at Jenny as the vamp pulls himself up and lunges at Buffy. She looks like a power hitter in the on-deck circle, watching the opposing pitcher serve up fat hanging curveballs. The look that says gimme some of that.
This is a slow-lumbering vamp. Buffy aims a couple of punches, a kick, and then he's dust.
Jenny's lit up like Christmas. "Oh yeah."
Xander glances back at her parents. Maria and Vince -- especially Vince -- look a little green.
"Can I do one?"
Buffy hands her a stake, shows her the best grip. "Let's see what we can find."
Xander briefly wonders if he should drop back and see how her parents are doing, reassure them that she'll be fine in Buffy's care. But there's not a chance in hell he's going to miss this. They set off toward another recent grave.
He spots a vampire, already risen and shambling toward the walking buffet parading around his turf. "Jenny," he calls out. "Vamp -- ten o'clock."
She whirls and launches into an attack mimicking Buffy's. Her kicks are a little awkward, her punches sloppy, but she adjusts as Buffy calls out suggestions. When she pulls the stake and slams it into the vamp's chest, there's no technical improvement necessary -- put a piece of lumber in the girl's hands, and she knows what to do.
As the dust settles to the ground, she jumps up and down like Carlton Fisk willing that home run ball to stay fair. "A.L.! Did you see that?"
"You bet I did." He ruffles her hair. "You're a natural."
She tears off toward her parents. "I got one!"
Buffy grins at him. "Well, A.L. Looks like you've got yourself a slayer." She slips her arm through his, and they cross the dewy grass to join the others.
He gives himself to the movement of their bodies, the harsh sound of their mingled breath. Her hands, her voice, are gentle, offering comfort.
He refuses it. He doesn't want comfort, doesn't deserve it.
He thrusts harder, and her soft cries change from an offering to a demand.
He gives himself to the softness of her lips, the heat of her mouth. Her lips taste faintly salty.
Erase everything. Emotion. Memory.
But the moment he collapses on the mattress beside her, it all comes tumbling back.
"Why don't you stay tonight," she suggests.
She already knows he won't. (99% accurate.)
"I can't." He finds his black suit draped over the back of a chair, dresses in the dark.
How did Giles keep going after Buffy took that header off the tower? Why didn't he blow his brains out?
Serafina turns on her side, reaches toward him. "You shouldn't be alone."
Doesn't she fucking get it? She's wasting her compassion on him. She's just a thing he needed, and now her moment of usefulness is over.
Just like his slayer.
Just like him.
"It's all right," he says. He stuffs the tie into his pocket. "Thanks for everything." The door clicks softly behind him. There's no moon tonight and it's a long way, but he decides it's a good night to walk home.
He rises and dresses in the dark, pulling on sweatpants and tee.
Faith turns on her side, reaches toward him, her voice smoky with sleep. "Another dream?"
He takes her hand, squeezes it briefly. "Just a regular one this time." He can't bear to tell her any details. "I'm going to head down to the kitchen, make like Giles."
"'Kay. Put on some water for me, too. Be down in a minute." She turns onto her other side, making a soft noise like the sigh of a cat, and Xander knows she's fallen back asleep. He slips out of their room.
He sits in the kitchen, lit only by the gas burner and the lurid Virgin Mary nightlight Vi bought by the crateload at the odd lots store.
Another shitty outcome. He tries to figure out what it means. Why Serafina?
Faith has been in every one of the others. So what is this latest dream telling him? He remembers being aware of the ring on his left hand as he reached for Serafina, but Faith herself -- he draws a blank. Is she part of what he was trying to erase? Still his wife, but dead? Vamped? Driven away by what he's become?
What good are these fucking visions? They're useless as warnings if nothing says how things turn out the way they do.
He flashes on Caleb again. Punching his curse straight into Xander's brain. The goddamn visions aren't supposed to do him any good, just sour his life, make him crazy. Why? Why not -- Xander's a man who's surrounded himself with women, made them the focus of his life, given Buffy help in any way he could. All it takes to make the grade as an abomination to someone like Caleb.
The kettle shrieks and Xander turns off the gas. On an impulse he dumps another two spoonsful of loose English breakfast into the teapot before adding the water. If he has his way, he's not sleeping again tonight.
While he waits for it to steep, he rehearses what he'll tell Giles. "I made a big mistake," he'll say. "I can't do this. You be her watcher. All I'm going to do is get her killed."
Just because the visions are a curse doesn't mean they won't come true.
Jenny's spending the morning training with Faith and Buffy and the others, while Xander drops off her parents downtown for some shopping. Later he's to bring Jenny and meet them for lunch and the rest of the day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Vince and Maria seem like they're doing okay with last night. They look a lot less freaked out than Xander feels. He'd love to know what the conversation was like back at the hotel, but he had sworn he wouldn't make them feel pressured. An old Marvin Gaye line shoots into his head: I ain't gonna hurry, I ain't gonna push -- so come on come on come on come on come on darling, stop beatin' around the bush.... Yep, that pretty much describes his patience level.
Once they make with the synchronizing and the rendezvous-point setting and the thirteen-hundred-hours-ing, he pulls away from the curb and finds the car pointed toward the Flats. Serafina's finished her blue-sky wall, adding some glints of gold paint to the cloudy parts. It came out nice, not cheesy at all. The rest of it looks set up now. Table with purple and gold tablecloth, a couple of chairs, a few fortune tellery tchotchkes. He notices a brass statuette that's a dead ringer for the one Giles had -- Kali, he thinks it was.
He doesn't see her until he's at the door. She's sitting on the floor in front of the small bookcase, unpacking books from a liquor store box. She looks up, smiles. "Hi, can I help -- you came back."
"Yeah. And yeah, you can tell me what the hell is going on."
Serafina gets to her feet. "I can try. Would you like some tea? It should be ready."
"Thanks, but I'm a little overcaffeinated just now," Xander says.
"Back in a second." She steps behind a curtain for a moment, comes back with her mug of tea. "I didn't think I'd see you again."
"That's two of us."
"So something's going on that's even more disturbing to you than what I said." She gestures to a chair, sits in the other. "Like I said yesterday, I'm not used to freaking people out. Usually I do the Tarot and I get a vague sense of things on top of what the spread tells me. Certain people, though, I just get a flash -- sometimes on sight, more usually when I touch them. It's only happened a handful of times in all the years I've done this. Believe me, I'm not that good."
"You saw my friend's death. Told me I'd be living in Cleveland."
"Wait. I'm way confused now."
"Maybe eight years ago. In Sunnydale. I came in with my friend. We thought you were full of crap. But everything you said came true. He's dead, I'm in Cleveland."
"I've never told anyone they would die."
"No, you didn't. You just went all pale and made us leave. Said you had a migraine. He died about a year later, but by then I'd forgotten the whole thing. I just put it all together a couple of days ago."
"That's why you came?"
"No." Why did he come? How does he know he isn't sitting here talking to the big bad? He stands. "Y'know, I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Sorry I wasted your time."
"There's something you need to know, or you wouldn't be here."
Xander shakes his head. "Just -- stay the hell out of my head." He pushes out her door, the little bell jangling behind him.
This visit to the Hall of Fame goes better than his first. He's better adjusted now to the whole one-eyed thing, more prepared for the overstimulation of the place. He's actually grateful for the assault on his senses. That's about the level of distraction it takes to pull his thoughts away from the dreams, from Serafina and this disaster of a meeting with her.
Vince is a read-every-placard sort of guy, and Jenny's a pinballer. Xander and Maria fall somewhere in the middle, casually cruising the exhibits, stopping to read when something catches their attention, letting themselves be dragged off to look at something Jenny wants to show them. Xander notices that Jenny runs to him at least as much as to Maria or Vince, and he sees that Maria's aware of it. He can't tell if Vince has realized yet.
She's mostly nuts about the costumes and the psychedelic-looking car. And extra delirious when she stumbles on Little Richard's "Jenny Jenny." Xander suddenly recalls it from his All-Star vision, played by the stadium organist when Jenny came to bat. It takes him awhile to shake the sadness that rises in him.
After a few hours, they stagger out of the place, Jenny loaded down with new music and merch. Xander has not been able to resist the lure of the new Clash compilation. He drops the Grimaldis off at the hacienda for dinner and heads for the airport to get Giles, cranking "Career Opportunities" while downing a piece of fast-food dreck engineered solely for its one-handed portability.
As he's waiting out the inevitable flight delay, lack of sleep catches up to Xander. The chairs aren't particularly nap-friendly, but he finds a window with serious ledginess out in the waiting area, and claims a piece of real estate in a corner. He stretches his legs out, tips his head back and tumbles into a vision.
He's not drunk, he doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks.
Yeah, he's had a couple -- a few? -- to make it possible to be here. Too many funerals, these last several years. Mostly, Xander doesn't bother going. This one, though -- this one's different.
He stays to the back. No reason to go up front -- it's not like he'll get one last look at her. "We don't do the open-casket thing," Will always used to say. He went to a few family funerals with her when they were younger. Same as she went to some of his. The body on display thing used to creep her out. She'd make a quick appearance up front for the family's sake, but mostly hover in the back. So he's fine back here now. He feels her spirit.
Back here he doesn't have to pretend he's listening to the yap up front. This guy didn't know her, he's just filled in the blanks in a one-size-fits-all eulogy. Mad Libs for the dead. Xander snorts, and a couple of people turn to look.
Fuck 'em. He's not drunk. Takes a lot to get him where he's feeling no pain.
He's feeling plenty of pain right now.
Buffy and Dawn are here, sitting in the front with their husbands and kids. He spots a couple of Will's ex-girlfriends. She was good at that, staying on friendly terms with her exes. Xander's never managed that, not since Anya. Giles is present, of course, suppressing emotion in the best manly English tradition.
Fucker. He's got no right to be here, much less pretend he's some innocent mourner.
Next thing Xander knows, he's on his feet, steadying himself on the folding chair in front of him. No way he's allowing this travesty. "Why don't you tell them, you sonofabitch?" He moves out into the aisle, stumbling over some woman's purse on the floor. He points a finger at Giles. "Takes some nerve to show your face here."
A guy he doesn't know rises up from a row ahead. "C'mon, buddy, this isn't the place," he says softly, putting his hands on Xander's shoulders.
Shawn leaves his seat at Buffy's side. "Xander, c'mon, man. Why don't we get some air."
"Yeah, I need some air," he announces to the congregation at large. "Something stinks here." Shawn steers him toward the exit, but Xander manages to turn toward the front before he's shoved out the doors. Again he points at Giles. "Don't think we aren't going to talk, motherfucker."
"Christ, Xander," Shawn mutters once they're out on the sidewalk. "What was that supposed to accomplish?"
"I'm not drunk," he says. Adds softly, "Not nearly drunk enough."
The hearse idles under the portico, waiting to swallow Willow up. He strides toward it, punches his fist through the front passenger window.
Xander surfaces, gasping like a swimmer just saved from drowning. He was drowning.
He looks around the brightly lit space, trying to remember where he is. Right -- airport. Waiting for Giles. He draws his legs up, circles his arms around his knees, turning his face to the window. Baggage carts like little trains go zipping around on the tarmac, planes taxi slowly to dock at the jetways, other planes roll back and away. What if he got on one of them? Would the dreams stop if he got some distance from the hellmouth?
"For god's sake, Xander, I've been wandering around--" Giles's complaint comes to an abrupt halt as Xander turns toward him. "Xander, what's happened?"
He rubs his hands over his face. "One answer would be 'every shitty thing you can imagine.' Another would be 'not very much.'"
"You're not making sense," Giles says gently. He dumps his garment bag at his feet, sits on the ledge. "Tell me what's going on."
Xander realizes his hand is drawn into a fist. Let it go, he tells himself. Will's fine, you saw her this morning. "It's all right," he says. "Everyone's all right. Jenny's here, and her parents. Just to check us out, officially, but she's already killed her first vamp. She's great, Giles, I can't wait for you to meet her."
"That's wonderful. But that doesn't explain why I found you looking--"
"Like I've lost my best friend?" Again, he has to unclench his hand. "Maybe because I've lost my best friend. And my wife. Couple times, on that one, maybe three -- there's a little ambiguity there. My slayer, my soul. All in the last few nights."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"I know. You're giving me the Boy, Interrupted look -- which is good," he says, over Giles's protestations that he thinks nothing of the sort. "I'm glad you have some idea of the seriousness of this. Because I am going to go crazy if someone doesn't help me."
Will it really do him any good? "I'm having visions. Dreams. Every night, sometimes twice a night. I've got futures coming out my ass, Giles, all of them different, and nearly all of them rotten."
"This is really quite extraordinary."
"...Yeah.... Though that's not exactly the word I've been using." He sees Giles getting that look, the research hard-on. "Is this something you know about? There's a book somewhere, with just the information we need--?"
"There may be. I want to hear more, then see what I can find. Are you able to leave? We can talk more freely in the car."
Xander gets to his feet and follows him through the airport, numb. It's too much to hope that Giles can help him, but he feels slightly better in motion.
"Where, exactly, does 'this is quite extraordinary' fall on the scale?"
"The scale?" Giles asks. The evening is warm after a few chilly days, and they drive toward the city with windows rolled down.
"The Oh Dear/Good Lord Scale of Watcherly Understatement. Am I going to have to learn this, by the way, or is it required only of the Brits? What's 'extraordinary'? 'Oh my god we're all going to die but keep a lid on it, we're in a public place'?"
Giles smiles, shakes his head. "No."
"It's not 'oh my god Xander's going to die but don't tell him,' is it?"
"You know, the watcher candidates I met on this trip were all very earnest young men and women, terribly respectful and worried about saying the right thing."
"Bored, were you?"
"Out of my fucking skull," he says, in such a dry Gilesian way that Xander can't help laughing. This is a new thing: Giles making with the wiseass to lighten a heavy mood. "No," he goes on, "I'm afraid there's no looming apocalypse connected to your dreams. I'd like to hear more about them. Describe them to me. When do you get them?"
"As a rule, when I'm asleep. Atypical for dreams, I know." Giles shoots him a look. "Hey, just helping you move past the days of boredom. Well, mostly I've been asleep awhile. This one I just had was the first one I've just dropped straight into. I've had them in several different places. The motel out in California, my bed here, the couch in the study, just now on that ledge. Like I said, every night since they started. Usually one a night, but a couple of times I had a second. I, uh, think booze was involved both times."
With prompting from Giles, he describes the visionlike quality of the dreams, their content, how they started with the Imhotep vision as a launching point, but splintered off into a half-dozen different directions.
"Do you have any theories?" Giles asks.
"Oh god. This has turned into a teaching opportunity, hasn't it?"
"To look on the bright side, it means you have to endure fewer long lectures from me."
Xander gets a sudden picture of himself in the future, droning on like a gasbag for Jenny's benefit. As if his life hadn't taken a weird enough turn just by being an amateur demon-hunter the last seven years.
"I have been kicking some ideas around," he admits. "Number one on the mental hit parade is some kind of curse. Caleb's my number one suspect."
"Caleb? It's been several months now since your encounter with him. Why Caleb?"
"Something he said, just before--" There are some words he still cannot say out loud, to anyone. "Before he fucked me up." He finds himself fidgeting with the climate control levers and buttons. "He said, 'You're the one who sees.' So yeah, some time has passed. But maybe this all was triggered by some particular thing. Maybe going back to the old home-hellmouth."
"Caleb had access to a great deal of power. Do you think perhaps what he said could be not a curse but a recognition of power, or the potential for it?"
Power? The jetlag has truly arrived to whip Giles's ass.
Before Xander can express his skepticism, Giles comes up with another question. "You said that was your favorite theory. What's the next one on the list?"
"Well, if you take Caleb out of the equation, there's still the idea of Sunnydale as the trigger. After the first few of these things, I remember thinking that the crater had swallowed my whole past, but was spitting out futures with a vengeance. Maybe that's a little too poetic for real-world supernatural shit, I don't know. Then there's another piece of weirdness that you could either layer on Theory #2, or make it a stand-alone #3."
Xander bypasses the turnoff for the hacienda and Giles makes no comment.
"There's this fortune teller, Serafina. She used to have a little storefront in Sunnydale. Claimed she was 99% accurate. Remember her? She was sort of a running joke, between me and Will especially."
"Yes," Giles says vaguely, as if he's not so sure. Then: "God, yes. She came into the Magic Box now and again. Seemed like a pleasant enough woman. She liked to buy those dreadful books. And she'd post her leaflets on the bulletin board. Of course."
"Where to begin," Xander says. "We've got the past and the present, both equally juicy. And between us, we've got a lock on the future, too. What the hell, I'll start in the middle. The day I went out to the crater, I found one of her leaflets. It blew onto my car. The hole is not a big swirl of windblown trash, Giles. This was all I saw. I picked it up, thought I'd bring it back and show it to Will for a laugh."
He cruises by the Jake. The game's still going on, and even over the sound of the engine he can hear the peculiarly basebally sounds of the crowd. Something's building up: a rally, maybe a tense contest between pitcher and batter. Xander switches on the radio, tuning to AM.
--And Lawton fouls off yet another pitch--
"I forgot I had it, then a few days later I found it again. This time it reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years." He tells Giles about his and Jesse's visit to Serafina, the predictions she'd made, and the one she hadn't. "Extraordinary" makes another guest appearance.
"It gets more so," he says. "I had Maria -- that's Jenny's mother, she's in real estate and relocated some of the Sunnydale survivors -- I asked her to check around, see if she could find out where Serafina ended up. This is a good one, Giles. She's in Cleveland. Just opened a storefront in the Flats."
He lets Giles digest that for a moment while he slowly cruises past the front of the ballpark. He spots the guy wearing a Chief Wahoo jersey who prowls the sidewalk -- Xander's seen him a number of times. The game's too close for him to have much business now.
"I dropped by her office the other day. Know what she says to me?" He takes a slow, deep breath. "'You're the one who--' excuse me. Gotta conduct some business. Get behind the wheel, and keep 'em locked."
He steps out of the car. Calls Chief Wahoo over. "Got any good seats for tomorrow afternoon's game?"
"Oh yeah. How many you need?" He unzips the waist pack he's wearing, starts riffling through a block of tickets.
"Three. Behind the plate if you've got 'em." He's never thought to ask Jenny if she's got a preference for first or third baseline. This will suit as a compromise either way, and he prefers the broader view of the game -- the catcher's perspective.
Chief Wahoo offers him three box seats at sticker-shock inducing prices. It's more than Xander has on him, so they dicker a little, and the guy finally gives in. The guy jerks his head toward a darkened recess. "Let's make the swap back here. Don't want to get caught."
Xander follows, guileless as all hell. The tickets and money change hands as a roar rises up from the crowd inside the Jake, and before Chief Wahoo can finish getting his game face on, he's a spill of dust scattering to the pavement, the money and tickets fluttering on top of the pile.
"Bloodsucker," Xander says, and picks up the tickets and his money, then sprints back to the car. Giles unlocks the door for him and peels away from the curb.
--Lawton holds at third, but two runs score with two outs, and that'll be all for Clemens--
Xander snaps off the radio as a beer ad comes on. "Just got you booked for tomorrow afternoon, if you're free," he tells Giles. "I want you to give Jenny's parents the whole seminar. Faith and I are taking Jen to the ballgame, and we'll do the same for her."
Giles agrees to the plan, then says, "I have my own theory about your visions."
"I just can't talk about 'em enough," Xander says. "Let's have it."
"There are stories in Council history about visions. Within the watcher line itself. It's a rare occurrence, if I recall correctly. They sound much the same as you described -- both in their vividness and in their wildly contradictory profusion. I'll need to see if I can find any surviving texts, refresh my memory. But now you see why I said this was an extraordinary turn of events."
"Actually," he says, "not so much with the seeing tonight. Sorry."
"Xander, watchers belong to a long hereditary line. We're born to this, raised for it. Now things are different. Just as the slayer line has opened up, so apparently has that of the watchers. At the same time you've chosen this, it has chosen you."
"That's one way of putting it." Giles has circled around to the hacienda. He clicks the garage remote and glides the car into its stall. "The first vision -- what happened that day that was different?"
He thinks back. "I went to the crater. I found that flyer for Serafina's psychic parlor."
"And what else?" Gently leading, but stepping aside for him to figure it out himself. Has he said how annoying this learning experience crap is?
"Oh. I met Jenny."
"You met your slayer." The garage door closes behind them, and Giles starts to get out of the car.
"Hold on --" As Giles looks back toward him, he says, "One more thing. How do I keep going forward every day when every night there's a new technicolor panorama of all the things that could go wrong?" He rubs his eye, delicately, so the prosthesis isn't dislodged. "I love Faith. I want to make a life with her. But I've seen so much death. And worse. How can I walk into any kind of commitment, knowing all the ways things can go wrong? How do I ask her to?"
"All I can tell you, Xander, is that if I'd known how little time I'd have with Jenny -- my Jenny -- I wouldn't have dithered about and wasted so bloody much of it."
Xander takes a moment to absorb this. Then Giles says, softly, "Let's get inside. I'm eager to meet your Jenny."
Xander slips into the ballroom just before the end of the charity auction. He and Macon find a pair of seats at the back while Jessie and Mari stand near the door. It'll take a while, he knows, for Jenny to work her way through the crowd as they thrust paper and pens at her.
Finally the pack of fans has thinned out. Xander leans down to Macon. "You ready, buddy?" Macon nods, scoots off his chair and is gone, as Xander slowly gets to his feet.
"Make!" Jenny greets him. "You guys're here!" She scoops him up in her arms.
"Daddy's got a surprise for you," he tells her.
She almost misses Xander as she scans the stragglers still in the ballroom, her line of sight too low. Then finally she spots him. As she takes in the metal crutches, a little shriek escapes her and she lets Macon down. "Oh my god, A.L.! When did this happen?"
"Five days ago. I woke up and felt really good. Too good to stay in the chair."
She enfolds him in a careful hug.
"I know you can do better than that," he chides, and she squeezes him tight.
"You look so good," Her voice quavers just a little.
"Best!Remission!Ever!" he says, laughing.
"He says that every time," Jessie informs her.
"It's true every time," Xander says.
Jenny lets him go and hugs Jess, says an oddly shy hello to Mari. "Where's Faith?"
"We're illegally parked, so she stayed with the van. You about ready?"
"I want you to meet somebody." She lets out a piercing taxi whistle and yells, "Hey, Rey! Venga!"
Rey Cortes blushes furiously -- Xander's reminded just how young a kid he is, Rookie-of-the-Year stats aside -- and trots over.
"Dios mio," Mari breathes. Xander suspects it's more his poster-boy looks than his stats that have her worked up.
"He's not God," Jenny says, grinning. "Just the king. A.L., this is El Rey. Rey, este es mi amigo A.L. Harris. Su hija Jessie y su hijo Macon. Y su estudiante, Marisol, um--"
"Hernandez," Mari squeaks.
Handshakes all around, and Rey tells Xander in slow, careful English that he's heard a lot about him. "Same here," Xander says. "Come have dinner with us."
Mari adds something in Spanish, which Xander guesses to mean they'd be honored to have him as their guest. Rey agrees, all shy formality.
"Hang on!" Jenny cries. "My thingie!" She runs up to the stage and retrieves her public service award plaque.
Fatigue buzzes through Xander's muscles, and he urges them all out into the bright sunlight toward the van. Carefully negotiating the steps, he walks toward the embrace of his wife, his children and his slayer, his friend and her teammate. His family.
He wakes. Feels different.
Not different-since-the-visions-began, but different-since-ever.
Xander doesn't recall ever waking with this feeling of lightness, even when he was a kid. Not even on a Saturday with the whole morning to himself, the prospect of cartoons and Willow.
Lightness never penetrated the atmosphere of that house.
He lies in his sun-warmed bed, eyes still closed, tempted to analyze this change. Don't.
When he opens his eyes, Faith is there, propped on her elbow, watching him. "Morning, lover," she says. She touches his face. "No dream last night."
"Actually, yeah," he tells her. "But let's talk about it later." He reaches for her, draws her down for a kiss. She stretches out beside him, and he revels in the heat that radiates from her body, revels in the strength and responsiveness of his own. Loses himself in this moment.
Xander has to work to maintain this new state of being once he and Faith arrive at the hotel to pick Jenny up for the game. He catches sight of Jenny through the lobby window, slumped in a chair, clutching a yellow stuffed dog to her chest. She looks so pinched and small.
This is it, he's thinking. The last time they spend together in this specific relationship, before she follows her true passion. He'll move on to another slayer -- Marisol? -- but he wonders if he'll connect to her in quite the same way.
Don't. Just take the kid to a ballgame. Be with her and Faith.
As Xander and Faith come through the revolving door, Jenny thrusts the ratty stuffed dog at her mother, rises. "Andy Pettitte's pitching today," she informs him. "Your guys are toast."
Maria catches her arm, reins her in for a quick kiss. "I'll take Grimmy upstairs. Have fun." She winks at Xander and Faith. "Don't let her bankrupt you. She has money." She waves, unembarrassed, the stuffed dog tucked under her arm.
"Grimmy, huh?" Faith teases once they hit the sidewalk.
Jenny offers a crooked grin. "You know, the cartoon dog. Grimmy was my nickname in Little League."
"So what does your team now call you?" Faith asks.
"Nothing, really." Her tone is just a little too casual for him to believe it doesn't matter or mean anything.
Her mood starts to pick up once they get to Jacobs Field, as she catches the game-day vibe. She stands in the concession stand line with them like a fielder awaiting the pitch, shifting her weight from foot to foot, a paradox of loose-limbed coiled energy. Seeing this in her makes it easier and yet harder to think of letting her go. Must be Paradox Day at the Jake, one free to the first 30,000 ticketholders. He can't wait to see what Faith got.
The three of them order enough food to provision a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Jenny dives into her pocket for money, but he waves it away. Carefully balancing the cardboard carriers of junk food, they find their seats. (Xander wonders how many times Chief Wahoo sold these particular seats, drained the buyers and then reclaimed the tickets. Spike would've eaten his heart out for a scam like this, back in the day.)
Jenny exclaims over his choice, upper box behind the plate. She likes that elevated catcher's-eye view too. They get themselves sorted out, Jenny and then Faith seated to his right so he can see them without difficulty. He hands Jenny the outfielder's glove he snagged from the car. "You're in charge of foul balls," he tells her. "My depth perception isn't so hot."
She's put the glove and tray down by her feet and she opens the scorecard to begin copying the lineups from the scoreboard. "Mom says you're blind in your left eye. What happened to you?"
Xander's in mid-chew, which buys him a little time. He swallows a bite of foot-long with spicy mustard. "Wow. That's not something I've talked about a lot."
Jenny looks up from her task, distressed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-- Mom wasn't gossiping or anything. I was asking about the dreams, what she thought about the scar I kept seeing."
"Jenny, it's okay," he says gently. "This is stuff I meant to get into with you today."
Faith drapes her arm over the back of Jenny's seat, rests her hand on Xander's shoulder.
"I've asked you to change your life, devote it to my cause. I owe you the truth, and I owe it to you straight, no sugar-coating. You're a smart girl, Jenny, and we've already talked about this some. You know what we're into is dangerous stuff. Not just random-vampire dangerous, but occasionally end-of-the-world dangerous. We had something like that going on last May -- you remember what happened to Sunnydale, it was part of that. So there was this evil guy -- there's always an evil guy -- Caleb." Faith's hand rubs feathery little circles at the base of his neck. "There was a battle. It wasn't going well, and we were just sounding the retreat when Caleb got me."
"Tell it right," Faith interjects gruffly. "He was going back to get our wounded when Caleb got him."
"He tried to blind me," Xander goes on. "With his bare hands. He only got the job half done."
Jenny's breath catches and she blinks several times.
"It's an ugly story," he says, "but if you're old enough to consider risking your life, you're old enough to hear it. And some of our friends have lost their lives, some in battle, some just because they were our friends. I know I've said this before, but you need to let it sink in. You should have a real sense of this before you give us your answer."
"I already know my answer," she says. "We were going to tell you tonight after the game and after Mom and Dad meet with Mr. Giles, but I know already what I was born to do."
The P.A. announcer asks everyone to please rise for the National Anthem. Jenny pulls off her ballcap, puts her hand over her heart.
"I want to be like Faith," she says as the music starts. "I'm going to be a slayer."
Xander blinks. "Are you-- What about the baseball?"
"This strength I have -- is it really mine to do whatever I want with it? It came from the slayer line. If I take it and give it to baseball, I'm kind of stealing it, don't you think? Plus I'm not really making it on my own merits as a player. That would drive me nuts, wondering if I only made it because I took the offer." She shrugs. "My dad thinks that's nuts, but that's how I feel."
He's supposed to teach this girl something? Xander hopes some day he's as wise as she is now, at fifteen. This is the moment, he knows, that he'll look back on and know that's when he gave his heart to this kid, whatever pain it might buy him in the future. He can do nothing less.
She joins in the anthem on the last line: And the home of the brave.
Before they take their seats, he offers his hand. "I'm proud to be working with you, Jenny."
She takes it and shakes. "Right back at you, A.L."
Once the game starts, Intense Jenny returns with a vengeance. She hunches over her scorecard, only grabbing a bite of her food between half-innings, and won't talk about anything but the game.
Baseball, he discovers, bores Faith out of her skull. She comes around to the vacant seat at Xander's left and provides the off-color commentary as he tries to focus and follow Jenny's remarks about the game.
"Not a fricken thing has happened in the last three hours," Faith says during one of the rare moments she's not murmuring smut into his ear.
"We've only been here an hour and a half," he says.
"Eighteen Indians up, eighteen down," Jenny says in tones of portent. "Like clockwork."
"You're going to have to be a lot more pointed than that," Xander says, "for it to mean anything to Faith."
Jenny shakes her head tightly, and Xander suppresses a grin. His slayer is superstitious about perfect games.
This is it, the real beginning.
Jenny clams up then, perched on the edge of her seat, leaning forward as if she can will the outcome. When the seventh-inning stretch comes, she says, "Bathroom," and sprints up the stadium steps.
As everyone stands, Faith says, "It's over? About fricken time."
"It's the seventh-inning stretch," he says, as everyone around them starts to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." "And nothing is happening because so far Pettitte's throwing a perfect game. So we can't leave."
"So it's not just a wicked boring game, but I have to sit here and watch history being made by the goddamn Yankees?" The Boston in her speech comes out strong and tart.
Xander grins. "'Fraid so. But it'll make a nice detail when we tell people where we were when I asked you to marry me."
"I've been dreaming all these different futures. You've been in almost all of them, and even in the bad ones, we loved each other. The couple you weren't in don't bear thinking about. So whatever the future is, I'd like to spend it with you. If you feel the same."
--For it's one, two, three strikes you're out--
She looks pole-axed.
"Wait. Before you say, think carefully about the 'in sickness and in health' part. I don't know what's coming, but I've seen some of what might come, some supernatural, some just random shit-happens illness."
The crowd starts singing the whole thing again.
"Give yourself some time to--"
"I'm serious, Faith. You should take all this into consideration before you give me your answer. I have to tell you what I saw last night."
"I already know my answer. I want to be like Jenny," she says. "I'm going to link my destiny with yours. If we run into troubles, then we have something to fight together. We do pretty good at that, don't we?" Her dimples emerge. "Friction is good. Makes everything sexier."
By the time Jenny dashes back to her seat, Xander and Faith have broken their post-engagement clinch, the guys in the row behind them are buying them celebratory beers, and Pettitte has given up a hit to a no-name kid just called up from Buffalo.
Giles hands him a mint. "You look fine," he says with infinite patience.
He does, he decides. Xander peers into the mirror, fingering his unbroken eyebrow, the clear skin below his eye where the scar had slashed in some of the visions. He buttons the charcoal suit jacket, tugs at his tie. "That's better, don't you think?"
Giles sighs and tugs the tie back to where it was. "That's better."
Xander pats his pockets. "Oh god. The rings."
Another sigh. "I have the rings. That's my job. That and telling you you look fine. Which you do."
"What if I throw up in front of everyone?"
"What if I lose my nerve?"
"You won't," Giles repeats.
"It's happened before."
"You won't," says a different voice, laced with the barest hint of menace. Angel. Xander hadn't seen his re-entrance in the mirror, of course. He's flown here -- he's no longer Tramp Steamer Guy now that he has access to the Wolfram & Hart private jet, which can accommodate his nocturnal travel schedule -- to walk Faith down the aisle. "Minister's here. Everything's ready." His voice softens. "Faith looks beautiful." He turns to head back downstairs to her.
"Angel." He turns back. Pretty styling suit he's wearing, Xander notices. Angel looks better than him, which on his wedding day should be illegal. "We've got reams of history between us, I guess."
"Are you planning to run through it all now? Because there's people waiting."
Xander finds this curiously reassuring. A grin twitches at the corner of his mouth. "Just wanted to say I know I laid a lot of crap on you for standing by Faith, back in the day. I didn't want to think she was worth redemption. Well, when you're right, you're right. If you hadn't done what you did for her, I wouldn't be here now. I know you didn't do it for me, but thanks anyway."
Angel clasps the hand he offers, just shy of crushing it. "Everyone's worth redeeming, Harris. Even you. You realize, by the way, a solemn duty falls to me -- the one of threatening dire harm if you ever make Faith unhappy."
Xander liberates his hand, shakes it out. Damn. "I don't need you for that, brother. She'll take care of that just fine."
Angel laughs. "When you're right, you're right." He vanishes, and Xander hears his heavy tread on the stairs down to the dining room For some reason the sound makes his jitters spike. He tries to take a deep breath, but it gets stuck somewhere before it does him any good.
"It's time," Giles says gently.
"I just need a minute," he protests.
"Delaying will only make it worse. Trust me." Giles steers Xander toward the door, and once he's in motion, he's okay.
It's a lot smaller congregation than the non-wedding to Anya. Just his housemates and a handful of others. Jenny and her parents, who are practically residents of the hacienda anyway. And Wes has made the trip out with Angel.
The minister in her burgundy dress beams at him from the little altar space they've made in the dining room. She's one of the chaplains at the Cleveland Clinic -- she was non-plussed to be asked to perform the ceremony for two people she'd never met, but agreed as long as he and Faith met her for a couple of premarital counseling sessions. He's found he likes her as much in this reality as in the vision.
The pocket door to the parlor slides open, and there's Buffy, Faith's maid of honor. More a gesture of hope and reconciliation than indicator of current reality, but Faith felt as honored by Buffy's ready acceptance as Buffy did to be asked. Whoever's working the boombox starts the "Wedding March," and Xander's hit by another wave of nerves. Buffy winks at him as she sweeps down the aisle they've created. Then Faith appears in the doorway, taking Angel's arm, and he forgets everything. Any doubts explode into dust.
She's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. Her dark hair all done up, a few tendrils curling beside her face. The simple cream dress, sleeveless, unfussy. Nervously she readjusts her hand on Angel's arm, then nods, and they set off down the aisle as their friends get to their feet. He sees the bouquet tremble a little in her hand, and he passes along Buffy's wink.
Angel delivers her to the altar and though it's not time in the ceremony for Xander to take her hand, he offers his and they clasp hands as they turn to face the minister.
End Double Vision by nwhepcat: email@example.com
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