A huge thank you to my anonymous luthier friend who went above and
beyond the call with on-the-spot beta services and many other forms of
help. Xander sounds much more like a luthier because of you. Anyone
interested in the art of instrument making should check out the Musical
Instrument Makers Forum at www.mimf.com, an incredible resource.
Story Notes: Though Spokane is a real city and most places mentioned here are real (plus a couple of people in walk-on roles), this is an imaginary version where a certain grocery is open all night and other anomalies exist. All inaccuracies regarding Spokane and its haunts are mine. Spoilers: All of BtVS and AtS, and early s3 "Alias." (One small joke, not a crossover.) Warnings: language, het, character death, discussion of alcoholism and drug use; much abuse of nicotine, not to mention caffeine and sugar.
Disclaimer: All BtVS and AtS characters belong to Joss, Mutant Enemy and various corporate entities. I'm just having a bit of fun with them. The poems and songs mentioned herein belong to their authors and/or copyright holders; no copyright infringement is intended in any case. All places, people, news organizations and the like from Spokane are used in a purely fictional sense. But guys: you might want to take that big ol' vampire invitation off your tourist map -- some beings you don't want to "just fit right in and make yourself at home."
Xander watches the evening news, not drinking. They're showing a perp walk of a guy they picked up in Portland, suspicion of a series of murders. All prostitutes and meth addicts. Guys like this one always go hunting for women like them. Ones they think no one will miss. Often they're right.
Now it's the obligatory interviews with his neighbors. Quiet, kept to himself, mostly. Always seemed like a nice guy. Straight out of central casting, these neighbors, whether it's Sunnydale or Spokane. With lines scripted by Magic 8-Ball. Well, actually there's less variation.
He suddenly realizes that his neighbors could mouth the pretty much the same lines. Pleasant enough guy, but works third shift, we don't see him much. Keeps to himself. Never see any visitors at his house, male or female. Could be he's shy about the eyepatch.
The people he knows from the rooms don't know that much more about him, and they'd never spill it to a reporter.
His coworkers at Rosauers could add a little. He likes movies, though he usually waits to rent. Has a quiet, sly sense of humor. Never pulls rank, never yells, but he never has a problem getting people to do as he asks. Third doesn't scare him, even after the armed robbery last year.
Xander flips off the TV. Usually he goes to a morning meeting when he gets off work, but tonight feels like a good idea. He can hit the 6:30 if he hurries.
He slips a fresh pack from the carton. Yeah, yeah, he's gonna cut down any day now. But the 6:30 is notoriously smoky. If he can't chain smoke, he'll sit there the whole time wishing he could. He grabs his jacket and keys and heads for the door.
He sits in the back, as he always does, mainlining the nicotine and caffeine. He says his name when the time comes, but passes on the commentary.
Chickenshit. He was going to do something different this time.
So he forces himself to stick around a little while after the meeting breaks up. He nods and responds to the regulars who say hello, but he can't dredge up anything conversational. It's hard to believe he spent his first twenty-two years a complete motormouth.
He's juggling a coffee, a cigarette and an Entenmann's donut, about to polish off 2/3 of them and make his escape, when the girl approaches. He's seen her the last few meetings, but only from a distance. She dresses in vintage-shop stuff -- fingerless lace gloves and the like -- and has choppy red hair about the shade of Willow's. Little silver nose ring. She looks to be twenty, twenty-one.
"Hi -- sorry, I'm bad with names --" Not true. It's just that every time she introduces herself, his mind shoots off on a Willow tangent -- and then the guilt tangent -- and by the time he gets it back on track, her name has come and gone.
Willow, it sounds like she says.
"W-I-L-L-A," she says. "As in Cather. Pity the poor child of English professors. Though it could be worse. They could've gone for Eudora. Or George."
Sometimes the universe -- if you like going around claiming the universe does anything but expand in a rush toward its eventual heat death -- likes to make its point with a cartoon anvil. Okay, so he'll call Willow. As soon as he gets home from work in the morning.
"No, it's a nice name," he says. "It's nice to meet you." Nice. This is how colorless his life has become. Not that he notices it very often (it takes other people for that). Lately when it comes to his attention, he realizes he likes it this way. He looks around for a trash can, tosses out his coffee cup and the rest of the donut.
"I mostly see you at the morning meetings," she says in a rush, like it's easier to talk to him when he's turned away.
"Yeah, I work third, so I usually come after." There's also the benefit that your fellow meeting-goers are probably living, breathing citizens. He's not heard much by way of supernatural weirdness in Spokane, but old habits die hard.
This could get more painfully boring. He could describe the route he drives to work. It's actually tempting. Mingling is overrated, he's just decided.
"Listen," she says on another gust, "I was wondering if you'd be my sponsor."
"Well, that's usually not done. The male-female thing. Sometimes it gets weird --"
She twists her hair between her finger and thumb. "I know, but -- I've kinda paid attention. You've never given off any kind of vibe that you're trolling or anything."
No, it's more the leave-me-the-hell-alone vibe. Which doesn't seem to be working right now. "Yeah, but why me? I never even say anything."
"Yeah, but you're solid. I saw you get your chip the other week. Listen, my whole life has been cluttered with glib guys who have charm out the ass, who love to hear themselves talk. I'm really wary of that. You're just doing it, you're not yapping about it."
"So what is it you're expecting? You call me when you're in trouble and listen to silence on the other end?"
Surprisingly, she laughs. "Bonus. Sense of humor."
"Except for the fact that I'm really not kidding." He softens his tone, just a shade. "Look, it's ... flattering, I guess. But if you've got guy issues especially, you should be asking one of the women."
"Maybe I'll learn a lot more from a man who's different from the kind I usually fall in with."
Xander digs his keys from his pocket. "I wish I could help you. I've got some errands before work --"
"Okay, so what about coffee? Just this one time."
What the hell. This once he won't be Keeps-to-Himself Guy. Just to prove -- well, nothing. Because he's planning to revert to form after one cup.
It's just that she reminds him of Will, that's all.
The diner that took over the old IHOP is the closest restaurant, and they both head there on autopilot. Xander hasn't done this in a long time, the coffee and talking after the coffee and listening. Not since he'd come with his sponsor.
He's no Patrick. He won't know the right thing to say when she's two seconds away from her first drink. He'll tell her that, pay for their coffee and go.
His choice would have been a booth in the farthest corner, but Willa-with-an-A pushes ahead and installs herself at a window table. Xander hates window tables -- a choice has to be made whether he's going to be more aware of what's happening inside, or out in the street. She's left him the side of the booth that means he'll have more of a view outside. He hesitates, wondering if he wants to clue her in, say he'd like to move to another table. Doesn't seem worth it; he slides into the booth.
When did his comfort zone get so fucking small?
She takes the menu the waitress offers. Xander waves his off, hoping Willa-with-an-A will get the point. "We just came for coffee," he tells the waitress.
Willa, apparently, came for corned beef hash and eggs. She turns her attention on him once they're alone again, waiting for pearls.
He gazes out at the street. It's started to rain, and the cars hiss as they pass. It's a busy intersection, cars pulling up to the first stoplight after the I-90 offramp.
"So. What do you do?"
"I work. I come home. I watch television. I don't drink."
"I meant for a living."
He laughs. "What, doesn't that sound like living?" Xander nods his thanks at the waitress when she brings their coffee. "I manage a supermarket."
"I work at a record store."
There's a long pause.
"What happened to your eye?" she asks abruptly. The conversational defibrillator paddles.
"A guy gouged it out with his thumb."
She sucks in her breath, looks a little green. That's the risk of using the electroshock. Sometimes you get a little hit of it yourself. "I'm s--" She bites back the apology, which almost makes Xander want to like her. "I guess that's when you decided to stop drinking."
He opens a little tub of creamer, dumps it into his coffee. "Actually, that's kinda when I decided to start." Not precisely true, but close enough for practical purposes.
The waitress slides Willa's plate in front of her. "Oh," Willa says, regarding the pair of over-easy eggs nestled in with the hash and going a little greener. She pushes the hash over them with her fork, but doesn't take a bite. "Well, I guess the other guy --"
"Sober as a judge, the both of us."
"Wow. What makes someone do something like that?"
"That guy's head is one I don't need to spend any time in. Could we bag this subject now?"
"Sure." She flushes bright red, and now she really reminds him of Will. "Sorry." She ducks her head, gaze on her plate, and tucks into the hash. "So when did you come to Spokane?"
He signals the waitress for a refill, though he's not sure why. He was going to bail after one. "What makes you think I didn't grow up here?"
"Baaaaaag," she says.
"That's not how we say it. You said 'Could we baaag this subject.'"
"No I didn't." He doesn't talk like that; she sounds like Spike trying to pass as American: Xanderrrrrr.
"Well that's how it sounds to me. Northwesterners say 'bag.'"
He hears it as beg. Not exactly, but the precise difference is too subtle for him to pin down. He makes her repeat it a few times. Why has he never noticed this in close to five years? He works in a fucking supermarket.
"Where you from originally?"
"Your car break down?"
Wait. How did he get thrown so off balance in this conversation? He'd been coming out ahead with the eye thing, but now he feels like a boxer just two good shots from hitting the mat. "My car?"
"It's a joke. Californians are always moving to North Idaho. Why would you want to live in Spokane?"
He twitches a smile. "Boo Radley's?"
"Right. The importance of quick access to Devil Duckies and Magic 8-Ball keychains cannot be underestimated."
"For me it's the action figures." Jesus. Six words that sound almost indistinguishable from the old Xander. The Xander who'd had a girl he'd loved (and lost, and still loved), friends he still spoke to, work that meant something to him. Dead Xander.
He scoots out of the booth, digs in his pockets for money and keys. "I just realized, I've gotta get going."
"Sorry. There's a place. It's going to close, and I forgot --" He drops a ten on the table and leaves.
It's driving him infuckingsane. Beg beg beg beg beg. He made a surreptitious survey of the checkers when he came on, playing distracted: "You sure you have enough ... um ... uh ..."
Now he can't stop noticing it.
At least some of the time it keeps his mind off whatever the hell was happening earlier. After he'd left Willa, he went home and spent a good ten minutes wishing fervently for a drink to deaden the memories before they got raw and painful again. Then he called Patrick. It had been a long time since they'd had that kind of conversation, but Patrick was as solid as always. Xander got through the longing, chatted a little while (How 'bout those Zags?) then got dressed for work.
How come it's not the Zegs?
Dress pants, white shirt, tie. Nametag.
He thinks about Cordy, her rage (fear) when he'd stumbled on her working as a shopgirl: That's right, I'm a nametag person now.
The left eye's been watering a lot. Xander locks himself in the washroom, uses his eyedrops. Thinks about Willa's question. Why is he living in Spokane?
Uncle Rory had spent some time here, a couple of decades ago. Xander remembers hearing him talk about it when he'd come around. He doesn't much remember what he said, but Rory hated it here, which had seemed like a high recommendation.
The name had surfaced in his attention again a few years back. Xander had idly picked up a book Willow-with-an-Ow had been reading, about a jazz guy from the big band era who'd settled in Spokane, and when he died the coroner discovered something the guy's five wives hadn't -- he was a woman.
Talk about close to the chest.
Spokane had seemed like a good place to hang onto a secret.
It was a place where none of the Scoobies would just happen to be passing through, where the airfares and schedules were brutal enough to discourage much travel for the sake of meddling. Close enough to Seattle if he felt like getting good and lost in a crowd, closer still to Idaho if he wanted to get some serious aloneness.
He shuts himself in his tiny office with a pile of invoices and some other paperwork, and manages to get through his shift. (He's a manager. It's what he does.) Makes a stop at Rocket Bakery on the way home for decaf and breakfast, drives home.
Xander turns on the television. Matt and Katie are talking about the serial killer they caught in Portland yesterday. He's on a first-name basis with them, would be one of those people, like his mother, who talk about them as if they're acquaintances, except for the fact that he doesn't talk to anyone. That was one of the things that had driven his old man batshit about her. All her opinions about world events or entertainment were filtered through the scripted inanities of television personalities. Though to be fair, why not? They could at least to be relied upon for a civil word in the morning. More than you could ever say for Tony.
He grabs for the remote, silences them. His chest aches -- he supposes he should stop having burritos on his lunch break.
Willow -- he'd promised himself he'd call her when he got in.
She'll be out, he's sure. But he picks up the phone and dials.
She picks up on the first ring. "Xander?" She repeats it like a new vocabulary word in a language she's just started studying. "What's -- Xander, is everything okay?"
"Fine, everything's fine. I'm just returning your call."
Her voice turns wry. "Which one?"
"I know. I decided I'd make it up to you. If this is a bad time, though --"
"It's a perfect time. My first class isn't till 2:30." She's halfway through her five-year doctoral thing.
He winds her up, lets her go: "Tell me what's going on."
Xander listens to Willow's voice, watches Katie's lips move. One of them is loving grad school, is stoked about her research work and the classes she's teaching. Ten years it's taken Will to come full circle to something he could see their junior year. He's never had that kind of certainty about his own life. There's much less, of course, to be certain of.
She fills him in on the others: Buffy's still in London working with Giles, but come summer she's taking off two months to go to New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea. She's got a slayer from PNG, Willow says, who's giving her the grand tour of the jungles. "I know she wants to do Antarctica, too, but there's a lot of red tape involved."
Giles is good, renegade watcher now running the Council with a lot less bullshit, more compassion. Faith is good, slaying now and again, teaching self-defense in one of those serious kick-ass courses. Andrew's Andrew -- Xander tunes out, actually, but dials back in to hear Will's had a recent postcard from Oz, who's been occasionally in touch since he heard about Sunnydale. Willow's dating again, but there's nobody serious.
"What about you, Xander? How are you doing?"
"Managing." It's their joke -- well, his, and it's never been all that funny. "Nothing much that's new." He hates this part. "Work's fine. Still keeping on the straight and narrow, going to meetings."
Willow waits, but that's all he has to report. "That's it, the whole eight months?"
"Well, one of our suppliers went out of business, which means we've been scrambling. And four of us on third are planning to sign up for Hoopfest."
"What's that, the pool for the college basketball thing?"
"That's over. No, it's a tournament. They close down the streets downtown and set up half courts, and there's 8,000 games played in one weekend. It's kind of cool."
"Wow. Neat." Her voice warms a bit; he knows it's because he's showed a little burst of passion about something, but he also knows she's lost. "So, you're into basketball."
"Not especially. We just thought Hoopfest would be fun." Silence descends again.
"Christ, Xander, we used to talk for an hour about the stuff that happened in just one day. And usually after we'd spent most of it together. Is this all you can dredge up for eight months?"
He clicks on the TV's sound again. "What the fuck do you want, Will? This is it. I work, I come home, I go to meetings. I'm not working on developing a new theory of -- whatever the hell it was you were talking about. I'm not saving the world, or even creating the bureaucracy necessary for saving the world."
"Well, why not?"
"There's room for you. There always has been."
"What, the Council has an employment program? They need a mailroom guy?"
"You piss me off," she says, her voice clipped and tight.
"Join the fucking club."
"I mean it. Poor Xander, you didn't go to college. You've gone right back to where you were during the Year of Shitty Jobs, except yay you, you've kept the same shitty job for, what four years?"
"Knock it off, Will."
"Your life's going to waste -- you're going to waste, and I hate seeing it."
"Nobody's making you watch."
"Xan, do you think this is what Anya would want? You're not the only one who --"
That's all he hears. He whirls and pitches the phone right through Katie Couric's face.
He sits on the floor a while, hands laced behind his neck, elbows on his knees. Not thinking. He hears the distant ring of the extension in the bedroom, but it doesn't really register as something related to him in any way.
There's no way he's going to sleep after this, so after a while he gets up and drives to Huckleberry's. He might live on frozen dinners and deli takeout, but at least he goes with the organic stuff, except when he's at work. He's pushed his cart down one aisle before he realizes he's still wearing the nametag and slips it into his pocket. He's cruising the third when he runs into Willa-with-an-A. Great. His cup runneth over.
"Alex, hey." Well, here's someone who's glad to see him, though he's not sure why. "God, I'm sorry about yesterday."
"No reason for you to be sorry, Eudora. That was totally me."
She breaks into a grin at Eudora. "Well, I sure didn't mean for you to buy me dinner. Let me get you breakfast." She gestures toward the cafe at the other end of the store.
"Listen, Willa." He makes his voice gentle. "If you're needing someone right now, as a mentor -- you should run."
"Actually, I'm doing good. Morning's always my best time, and I just got out of a meeting. This is strictly as a friend -- which it looks like you could use right now."
"I don't think it's such a good idea."
"I'm telling you. I've got my weaknesses, but sponging up my friends' problems is not one of them. I give great advice. It's just my own life I suck at." She touches his arm. "C'mon. Coffee and a scone, at least."
Friend. There's a word he doesn't hear much in his daily life, and here it is twice in thirty seconds. "Yeah, okay, if you're sure."
She's sure. The omelet bar isn't on since it's a weekday, but they get each get a vegetarian fritatta and find a table.
Her chocolate-raspberry coffee wafts his way. "Flavored coffee," he says. "The umbrella drink of the reformed."
The nose ring quirks up when she grins. "I drink my share of battery acid."
"I bet you do."
"So what's your drama? Why should I run from you?"
Xander pushes some egg around with his fork, considering. "Fight with a friend," he says at last.
Willa's gaze flicks to the eyepatch.
"Argument," he clarifies. "Telephone. Girl."
"Friend?" she says, dubious.
"Right." She pops a garnish-grape into her mouth. "What about?"
"On the subtext level, a little 'you don't call,' a little 'you don't talk when you do call.' The main level, I'm wasting my life. She's all fired up about what she does, and since I'm not, I'm living all wrong."
"What does get you fired up?"
"That's the wrong question."
"What I do is what I do. There's no point worrying about whether it excites me. It keeps me on an even keel, keeps me sober."
Willa tweezes another grape between her thumb and forefinger. "You think the only thing that'll do that is a boring crap job?"
Xander sets down his fork. "My best friend for the past twenty years just tried laying this horseshit on me, and I didn't go for it. What the hell makes you think you have some special insight?"
"I don't," she says. "I'm just asking. It's something I'm interested in, what with the English prof parents. My mom teaches a class that explores the whole addiction/creativity thing."
"Why do you assume I'm creative?"
"Because I think almost everyone is. You don't have to write a book or a symphony or paint or choreograph. You can cook for your friends or tell jokes or monkey with engines or start a flower patch. The things that get people going are mostly creative, don't you think?"
"NASCAR racing," he says.
Willa laughs, a startlingly loud sound for such a small girl. "It's creative for somebody. The guys who put those cars together, who keep reworking the safety gear. Those fans who see Dale Earnhardt's number in the markings on a goat. Well, okay, that last one's a stretch. Actually, this is one I'll have to hash over with my mom. If you look at stock car racing as an art, it's one that would never have existed without booze. It started out with a bunch of bootleggers rigging their cars so the cops couldn't catch 'em, then getting together to see whose was fastest."
He finishes his decaf. "This is proof that I need to get home and sleep. I've been up so long I'm having a hallucination about a girl with a nose ring who can talk about NASCAR history. As art. What's frightening is she makes it sound sort of interesting."
She grins again. "There's plenty more scary where that came from."
"Then we'll have to do this again sometime, Eudora."
He considers Willa's question as he drives home with the groceries. Does he believe the life he leads is the only thing between him and the bottle?
Maybe not the only thing.
But it's a thing he knows works.
The landscape and climate here are nothing like Sunnydale; there's little here to remind him of Anya. Nightlife means going out to hear Too Slim and the Taildraggers once in a blue moon, not packing a fistful of stakes on a stroll through the cemetery. No one asks him how Buffy's doing, or looks at him with pity when he shows up alone at another gathering, damn few ask about his eye.
Why change anything?
The memory of working with wood is almost a physical sensation in his hands. (Used to be calluses there, but they've long grown soft.) That used to fire him up.
He'd never expected it, just showed up in shop class because it was required if you were a boy, same as the girls had to do home ec. He'd thought all this had been abolished as medieval, but Principal Snyder was nothing if not a proud upholder of the traditions of the Dark Ages. Xander had walked in planning a dozen ways of subverting the lesson plan, but that first whiff of cut lumber changed everything. It touched some quiet place deep inside him.
He'd loved, as it turned out, the construction work, but even more he'd loved making something with his own hands, something he'd created on his own from start to finish. Dawn's jewelry box. Buffy's weapons chest. He'd made a jewelry box for Anya too, to give her on their wedding night, but --
This is what keeps him in his cocoon, his numbed routine.
Xander rounds the corner onto his street and hits the brake.
A patrol car sits in his drive, and the front door of his house is open.
There's a cop standing in his yard talking to one of the neighbors. (Seems like a nice guy. Quiet. Keeps to himself.)
He pulls along the curb and gets out of the car. Dustin, the neighbor, and the cop turn as he approaches. "Was there a break-in?" This neighborhood's pretty safe, but there's always the possibility of meth heads wandering by looking for extra cash.
"No sir. We had a call, went in to check on you. Said you were on the phone and she heard a loud crash, and that she hasn't been able to reach you since."
"Oh. That. Willow tends to panic sometimes --"
"She must've sounded pretty credible, or we wouldn't be here. My partner's inside -- why don't we move it in there?"
Xander exchanges "see you later" noises with Dustin and accompanies the officer into his house. Glass glitters on the carpet in the trapezoid of light slanting from the doorway. The rest of the room is shadowed, gloomy, and the contrast makes it seem squalid to him. It's a nice house, but something about the combination of dark and cops makes him feel like he's back in his parents' basement with the disco ball, the faint smell of mildew and laundry soap. He tugs the curtain pull to let in more light. "I work third," he says, "so I was pretty much settling in to sleep."
"Hey, partner," the cop -- Worth, his nametag says -- calls out. "We got our homeowner." Worth regards the 27" of scrap electronics hunkering in the corner of the room. "Someone did a number on your set there."
Xander wonders why his worst moments tend to be public events. He scrapes his shoe along the glass scattered on the carpet, trying to gather it into a pile. "That would be me." Briefly he tries to think of a plausibly innocent reason for his phone to be inside the trashed innards of his TV, but he decides it's not worth the effort.
The creak of leather announces the appearance of the other cop from the back of the house. "Mr. Harris?"
"Yes. Sorry you came out for nothing. My friend overreacted a bit."
The cop smiles. He seems vaguely familiar. "We're just as happy not to find a body, generally."
"Your friend apparently said you both worked for a private investigator in California," he says. Well, that's one way of describing it. "She said you sometimes dealt with disgruntled individuals, so she was concerned." He casts an acute glance at Xander's eyepatch.
"Well, that's been a few years. Once in a while I get a shopper who's not happy about having to take a raincheck, but nobody who's willing to torch my house or anything rash."
"That's where I've seen you," he says. "Rosauers, right?"
"How's everything else going?" The cop -- this one's named Straley -- eyes the jagged cave that used to be the television.
How's everything else? They're in chitchat mode now?
"You making your meetings and all?"
Oh. Fucking great. No doubt Straley saw his copy of the Big Book back in the bedroom. Thanks, Willow, for laying my life open to the scrutiny of the local law. Straley, though, he doesn't seem like such a bad guy.
"Good, it's going pretty good." He gestures at the TV. "That's what I did instead. Old friend, old argument, instant of stupidity. Expensive lessons usually work pretty well on me, so you won't be seeing this again."
Straley shoves his big Maglite into his belt. "Hell, I've been that pissed off, I just didn't know you could get there without kids. We'll just report we looked around, talked to you, and everything was fine."
"Might want to call your friend," Worth says as he follows his partner to the door.
"I'll do that, thanks."
"Take it easy."
"You too, officers. Thanks again." Somehow he manages not to choke on the words. He closes the door behind them, pulls the eyepatch off and heads back to his bedroom.
The bedside phone starts to ring as he's jerking at his tie, loosening his collar. He lets it ring, but so does she. Finally he lifts the receiver.
"The cops just left, Will. Give 'em a call, they'll tell you I'm fine."
He lets the receiver fall back into the cradle, then pulls the cord out of the phone jack.
He works his shift at the market, hits the morning meeting, but slips out before Willa makes her way over. At home he tries having his morning routine, but without a good half-hour to an hour of televised yammer, the sleep thing is not going to happen. Xander rinses out his coffee cup and heads out, to Dutch's.
He hasn't been to Dutch's in years, not since he stopped burning through the insurance money. A good few of his possessions have come and gone through Dutch's doors, some in his company, some leaving with strangers. None of them were that important -- the objects he cares about, that have any memories attached to them, were reduced to rubble years ago.
He parks across Main, in front of the bookstore, and feeds the meter. Crosses against the light toward the marquee sign that always teases a grin from him:
Two electronic tones announce his arrival, and the guy behind the counter looks up. It's no one he recognizes, and he feels a flash of gratitude.
Xander tells the guy he's looking for a new TV, and they start with the male ritual of discussing features. His head doesn't much care, but his mouth keeps up his part, much the same as he used to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school while his brain was occupied with elaborate sexual fantasies.
He selects one of the newer but less elephantine models, pays and tells the guy he'll bring his car around. The traffic is heavier now, and he waits at the corner as cars surge by. He thinks he catches a flash of bright red hair just outside Auntie's, but a big panel truck cuts off his view.
As the light changes he crosses, trying to pick up that flash of brilliance, but it's enough of a job keeping track of moving vehicles. He takes another look as he unlocks his car, and sees a glint of coppery red appear and then vanish, into the bar and grill on the next block.
"Shit," he mutters. He's not sure it's Willa, but on the off-chance, he pockets his keys and heads for the bar.
She's inside before he catches up to her, and he makes the plunge from bright sunlight to serious gloom. Blinking, he spots movement, calls after it: "Hey, Eudora."
The movement stops.
There's music playing, but it's not very loud. Xander doesn't have to raise his voice. "What do you want with this place?"
Willa turns, trying to put on a brave face, but it's not working. "Alex," she says. She swipes at her eyes with the back of the hand that's not clutching a paper sack from Auntie's bookstore. "Ah, fuck."
"My friends actually call me Xander Ah Fuck."
This pulls a snort of laughter from her, but this apparently involves snot, because she makes a desperate grab for a bar napkin someone left behind, and wipes her nose.
"I just paid for a new TV across the street. I could use some help getting it loaded and then into my house, if you're free. I'll even buy you a flavored coffee, completely ridicule-free."
Willa hesitates and he wishes she'd get on with it. The mingled smells of stale beer and cigarette smoke are working on cellular memory, making him long for a glass of something amber in one hand, a smoke in the other.
"Sure," she finally says. "I'd be happy to help."
He performs the U-turn/double-park combo, and the guy at Dutch's helps him wrestle the TV to the car. Xander fishes a bungee cord out of the trunk and gets the trunk lid secured.
"I can see I helped a lot," she says as he straightens.
He navigates the grid of one-ways to get the car pointed toward home. "Something's happened?"
Willa fumbles with the shoulder harness. "No, not really. It's just -- sometimes I get tired of fighting all the time. There's talk in my head, 24/7, like a crappy talk-radio station. The knob's broken, so I can't change it or shut it off. About all I can manage is drowning it out sometimes, or drinking it into submission."
"We talking kill-the-president sort of voices, or your standard I-hate-myself interior monologue?"
"Monologue's kind of a pale term for it, unless we're talking Eric Bogosian monologues here."
Xander doesn't get the reference, but the intent is clear, and that's enough for him. "Gotcha." He knows that demon well, had his ass kicked by it on a number of occasions and has reached what's more or less an uneasy truce. He sticks to his dull routine, pacifies any remaining vestiges with television and nicotine. It's been working for the past four years, but he's heard some distant rumblings of its possible awakening.
He changes the subject. "Find anything good at Auntie's?"
"I don't know," she says. "I seem to collect recovery books. Got a new one, plus a novel off the remainder pile."
"I don't go for those so much. I hate slogans. It's all that I can do to sit through the one day at a timing. My mother went through this religious phase where she festooned the family car with all these reworked advertising phrases on bumperstickers -- you know: Got Jesus?, stuff like that. If your philosophy can be boiled down to a slogan, I'm thinking it's not so much of a philosophy. Not, I hasten to add, that it's worthless for people who respond to that sort of thing. It's just -- well, the wisest guy I know would pull a dozen books off his shelf, minimum, before he'd answer a question." It's the kindest thought he's had about Giles in years, and it throws him a little. "Speaking of monologues."
"This wise man."
"Oh Jesus no. No, he was a mentor to a friend of mine, and he ended up sort of a friend. He was a librarian. Hence the book thing. Here's my place." Thank god for something to do besides babble.
"Ooh, what a neat house."
"Thanks. I've always liked the Craftsman style." He backs into the drive so they don't have as far to walk the behemoth. She's tiny but strong, and they get the TV set up with no trouble.
"How about that coffee, then?" Xander asks. "Do you have a favorite espresso shack, or will Starbucks do?"
"You don't have to buy me a coffee," Willa says. "Smells like you have something brewing."
Xander's not so sure it's the best idea to hang here alone with her. "It's been sitting there on the heater for a couple of hours. I wouldn't use it for stripping paint."
"I've had urns and urns of bad coffee by now. I really don't care."
"Oh. I'll pass. Why on earth would you drink decaf in the -- Christ, I am so stupid. It's nighttime for you. I'm sorry, I'll get out of your hair."
Suddenly the last thing Xander wants is to be alone, good idea or not. "Well, wait. I've got espresso. I can fix you that, or make it into an Americano."
She pauses, clearly trying to read him. "I'd love an espresso. If you're sure."
He leads her into the kitchen. "Sometimes I'm a wild man. Stay up late enough to watch 'All My Children.'" Not that those are good days, by any means.
She perches on a kitchen chair. "I looked at those espresso makers last Christmas for my parents. My god, those can be expensive."
He reaches into the cabinet, pulls down the espresso and a small, dull silver pot shaped something like an hourglass. "I think this was something like seven bucks, but I bought it in Italy." He unscrews the bottom, fills it with cold water, packs the tiny aluminum filter with espresso. Once he reassembles the moka, he sets it on the gas flame.
"What was your favorite thing about Italy?"
"Leaving. No, wait. The wine. My leaving was everyone else's favorite part." The bitterness in his voice surprises even him.
"Who were you with, family?"
"Why would your friends be glad you left?"
Xander retrieves his one espresso cup from the sink where he'd left it last night, washes it. "There's a certain allotted time you get for grieving. If you run over, you'd better keep it to yourself." He rinses and dries the cup, finds its saucer in the cabinet above.
"Who were you grieving?" she asks softly.
The pot makes its characteristic gurgling noise. He turns off the flame, pours her espresso. "Doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters."
He sets the cup and saucer on the table in front of her, turns to pour himself a cup of the decaf. "My fiancee. Well, ex-fiancee. But we were still friends, and sometimes lovers."
"Oh. I'm sorry. What was her name?"
"Yeah. So was she." Xander lights a cigarette just so he can stand near the back door to let the smoke drift outside.
"What happened to her?"
"I don't talk about that. Listen, I don't mean to leave you in the lurch or anything, but I can't help you right now. I can drop you back downtown, or your place, wherever."
She wants to protest that he doesn't have to, he can tell, but she's not exactly within walking distance of where she started out. And she doesn't look like she has extra money for things like cabs.
"It's the least I can do, after you came out here to help me," he says. He stubs his cigarette out in the ashtray on the counter, and she drinks the last of her espresso.
"This was great, Al-- Xander," Willa says. "I almost wish I'd gotten one of these for my parents, but I'd never have heard the end of it. Though only in a very passive-aggressive way."
"Well, the first two letters of 'parents' are P and A. Must be a reason for that, don't you think?" She laughs politely, but to him it sounds more like a slogan than a joke.
It's been a long time since Xander dreamed about Anya and Sunnydale.
The first ten days or so had been eerily quiet -- they'd all been so exhausted from the battle that they'd fallen into black silence each night. After that came the storm as he was slammed with images from that day: replays of his frantic search for Anya through a maze of high school hallways, the hot stink of battle as Bringers and vamps swamped him and Dawn, the sight of buildings swallowed up like watching a tablecloth slowly pulled off a formal dining table, taking everything with it, one piece after the other.
Not all the dreams echoed his own experiences. Xander can't count the times he saw Anya fall in battle -- sometimes as heroically as Andrew had said, sometimes in a blaze of meaninglessness. In some of the dreams, he was there kneeling beside her, helpless to stop the blood that poured from her.
Those weren't the worst ones. Anya came to him some nights -- sometimes wounded terribly, others without a mark on her, but always with the same question. Why didn't you wait?
Those were the dreams that sent him deep into the bottle -- anything to make them stop. Today he prays (to whom? He's not sure) for dreamless sleep.
Whoever's listening -- if anyone is -- is far less interested in Xander's peace of mind than his/her/its own amusement.
The dreams, bottled up for so long, fizz out like champagne.
He can't pull himself free of their influence until half an hour before his shift.
Xander tries to keep himself busy. He does a complete makeover on the work schedules he'd set the night before, goes over the paperwork for the morning's deliveries, supervises the reset of the coffee aisle.
In the dead time before the bakers come in, he stands outside the entrance and smokes. Dawn nags him long distance, begging him to quit. He's never told her about nights like this one when, if there weren't a cigarette in his hand, there'd be a glass.
As it is, his mind keeps straying back to the beer case. He misses the taste, way more than the hard stuff. Liquor was for doing a job in the most efficient way possible. But beer -- that's what he liked.
There are some kickass microbrews in this region. Eyes closed, he lets his memory linger over the taste of some of the darker beers, crisp and substantial.
Nice little hobby he's got going here -- if you also enjoy pressing your thumb along the edge of a knife blade. Xander flicks his cigarette into the parking lot, watching showers of sparks cartwheeling in the dark.
Then he heads for the phone in his office, preparing to drag Patrick out of a sound sleep.
Xander makes the morning meeting; Willa doesn't. He hopes she's all right. It feels like he's let her down. He didn't promise her anything, told her he couldn't be her sponsor, but somehow he feels he's left her to drown. A battered life preserver with a slow leak is probably better than none at all, but he's stood by on the shore watching her flail, not even attempting a rescue.
He tells himself not to be ridiculous. These meetings are full of people she could approach, potential sponsors much more appropriate than him. Xander's responsible for himself. How much good can he do her if every conversation with her awakens memories and emotions he'd long laid to rest?
Patrick thinks it's time he dug them up and took a look at them. "You buried all that, yeah," he'd told Xander during their late night conversation. "Good and deep, seems like. But you haven't laid it to rest."
He doesn't stick around after. He heads home, puts on a pot of decaf, throws in a load of laundry. Tries to watch the television, but can't sit still for perky, idiotic chatter. At last he heads for the guest room, reaches for the box on the top shelf in the closet, clear in the back.
Everything he has left from Sunnydale is here. The clothes he'd worn, smeared with grime and stained with streaks of blood. The old eyepatch. The leather wallet Anya had given him, which he'd carried another couple of years before retiring it, torn and scuffed, to this box. Inside the wallet, the detritus of his old life: punchcards from the Espresso Pump, the sandwich shop and the video store, his California driver's license, a couple of expired credit cards. Licenses and union cards for his construction job, outdated insurance cards. And a couple of photos of Anya.
Leaving the box opened on the guest bed, Xander carries the wallet to the kitchen. He warms up his decaf and lights a cigarette, then sits, turning the billfold over and over in his hands. It's worn shiny and smooth with years of use, about a year and a half longer than he normally would have carried it. He'd only given it up because it was falling apart.
His ashtray fills and his coffee grows cold as he sits trying to summon the courage to look at the pictures. The last time he pulled them out, years ago, set him on the binge that landed him in AA. Xander has tried but never been able to determine how many days that drunk had lasted.
Finally he opens the wallet, careful not to let its contents spill onto the table. He lights another cigarette, drinks down his cold coffee. Slides blunt fingers into the yellowed sleeve holding Anya's pictures, teases them out and puts them on the table.
He's not quite prepared for the ache that blossoms in his chest.
She looks so young (not a day over 942), her face so shiny. Anya with her goofy Farrah Fawcett hair and hot pants, all done up as one of Charlie's Angels for Halloween. Dawn had made a total pest of herself with the camera that night. He'd trimmed this shot down so it would fit in the picture sleeve -- cut himself off, with his wide-eyed what the fuck have I done? look. She'd been so happy.
He wishes he could have seen the future. If he'd known she wouldn't live long enough for him to make her miserable, Xander could have --
Grief rumbles up through him, slow and painful like steam in those clanking old radiators in the place in Florence. Damn marble floors -- beautiful, but never warm. The cold had seeped inside him there, into his friendships. Florence was where he'd asked Buffy the question he could never take back. And asked it and asked it.
Take me through it again. What was your thinking? Why Anya and Andrew together? Neither one of them --
The sound of the doorbell makes him jump. Ash falls onto his hand, dusts the surface of the photo. He brushes it off.
Everything's caught high in his chest, just below the throat. All that grief and rage. Part of him wants to shove it back down, keep things the way they have been these past few years. But the other part --
Surely not the cops again.
Xander stubs out his smoke and walks partway into the living room. More doorbell, more pounding.
Whoever it is doesn't, and clearly won't. The car's in the drive, so he can't exactly pretend he's gone. He walks a little closer, sees coppery hair in the small pane of clear in the stained glass of the door. Shit. Bringing her here yesterday had been a huge mistake.
He strides toward the door, opens it a crack. Makes his voice patient as he can. "Listen, Eu--"
But it's not her.
Last thing he needs right now is Willow surging through the doorway and giving him shit. "Will. I don't know that this is the best --"
Then she's inside and she's saying his name and her arms are around him. "Oh god, Xander, I just -- I needed to see you."
Xander blinks in surprise, then without conscious thought his arms enfold her. He hasn't realized, not until now, how much his body has hungered for the simple touch of another person. It's been years since he's slept with anyone. His first year of sobriety he followed the recommendation to remain celibate, and since then it's been nothing but a few awkward dates. The hunger isn't about sex, just a physical sense of being acknowledged by someone else. He's content to stand in the doorway holding Willow, for as long as she'll stand there.
A sob shakes her small frame, and he withdraws, looking into her face. "Will, what's happened, what's wrong?" Everyone was fine a couple of days ago -- what could have happened? Dawn -- Willow hadn't updated him on her, and it's been maybe a week since he heard from Dawn herself. God, not her, please --
"No, no, nothing's -- it's nothing like that." Tears still spill down her cheeks.
Xander crooks a finger, gently knuckles away one of the tear tracks. "Then what?" he asks softly.
"I've been so sad." Her face crumples as she dissolves into sobs. He hasn't seen her like this since that day on Kingman's Bluff, once the rage drained away and she finally let herself mourn Tara.
It tears him apart; it always has to see Willow distraught. "Will, honey. About what?"
This pierces him in a whole new way. "Me? I'm sorry I was so surly the other day. Mornings are never my best time." Like now, he manages not to say.
She shakes her head, says something he can't understand, she's crying so hard.
"Honey, I didn't understand you."
"I miss you so much." Willow palms away her tears and looks up at him. "It feels like you died."
He takes an involuntary step backward. His mouth opens, but nothing comes out. There's nothing he can say.
"I've lost so many people I love, Xander. Jesse and Joyce and Tara. I won't lose you too. Not without a fight."
"So you're going to bring me back." His voice cracks as if he's still working on puberty. "Like Buffy."
She offers a quavering smile. "This one should be a little easier."
"Jesus Christ, you're still the most arrogant person I know."
It's her turn now to be speechless.
"Maybe I feel the same way Buffy did. Maybe you need to check with me before you decide to drag me back to whatever form of life you think I'm lacking."
Willow bristles. "I didn't act alone. You can't pretend you weren't involved."
"No. Trust me, I'll never forget. But you can't pretend I didn't have reservations. I wasn't the only --"
She cuts in, and he knows it's so he won't bring up Tara. "It's already done." Funny how it's okay for her to bring up the theoretical disapproval of his dead lover, but she doesn't want to be reminded of Tara's misgivings about bringing Buffy back.
"I know," he says quietly. "But didn't you learn anything from it?" He pulls the drapes open. "At least take a look at what you're rescuing me from."
She blinks in the sudden light, then follows his suggestion. Xander sees the surprise on her face at his living room: nice furniture -- matching, even -- arranged on the Berber carpeting, gas fireplace, big new(ish) television with the home theater speaker system, a few books and magazines and DVDs scattered neatly near the chairs and sofa. For the first time, though, he notices the bareness of the walls.
"I'll put on some coffee, then I'll take you on the tour."
She trails him into the kitchen. "You don't need to make fresh for me."
"This is decaf," he says as he dumps out the pot.
She crosses behind him, peers into the back yard as he puts on the hi-test. As she's still gazing outside, he sweeps the pictures off the table, snatches up the wallet, stuffs them with some difficulty into his back pocket.
"It's nice," she says, turning back toward him.
"I like it. It's a good neighborhood, nice people. Who are now probably wondering about me, since the police were parading through my house the other day."
"What was that crash?" No apologies, he notices. "I've never heard anything like that."
"Me throwing the phone through the television."
There's a pause. Finally: "I guess that explains why I couldn't reach you for the rest of the morning."
He shows her the rest of the place, hastily replacing the lid on the Sunnydale box when they get to the guest room, carrying it to his own bedroom. "So what is it makes you feel like I died?"
"It's just ... I can't find any trace at all of the old Xander. When we talk you just seem ... flat."
"I'm not entertaining anymore, so it's time to put the toe tag on me."
"That's not what I meant at all."
Xander ushers her back into the kitchen. "Bullshit," he says, his tone still conversational. "This is Italy all over again. Xander's a problem, so let's have an intervention." He pours her some coffee, sets out the milk and sugar. "But I'm not drinking. It's not what I'm doing that's the problem, but who I am."
"Xander, no --"
"You want me to be someone familiar, comfortable. You just said so. I'm not who I was in high school, so I must be dead. Jesus, you're like one of those people who signs everyone's yearbook with 'Never change!' We've got one of those where I work. We all signed a card for the day manager when he had a triple bypass, and Damon, who's pushing forty now, writes 'Never change!' That's what death is, Will. I'm sorry I'm not comfortable and familiar anymore, but it's not my job to fix it."
A shadow passes over her face, and tears start slipping down her cheeks again as she cradles her coffee cup. He stays where he is, leaning against the counter, drinking the real stuff, knowing he'll regret it when he tries to sleep.
Still gazing into her cup, Willow asks, "Is there a hotel you'd recommend?"
He's tempted to tell her a name, give her directions or the number of a cab company. But he summons his energy. "That's crazy talk. No best friend of mine is staying in a hotel."
"Even when you're pissed off at me?"
"Especially when I'm pissed off at you." He reaches a hand toward her. "We work through this stuff. Right?"
She nods, takes his hand, allowing him to pull her to her feet, into his arms.
"We'll be all right," he murmurs into her hair.
He hopes he's telling the truth.
He tells her he needs to sleep for a while, gets her set up first in the guest room, shows her the video library and orients her in the kitchen. "Back yard's nice this time of year, too, but a little cooler than you'd think. Grab a jacket by the door if you didn't bring one. I'll set my alarm for five, show you around town a while before I have to go in to work."
She flashes that quick, nervous smile he remembers so well. "Wild. This is kind of like staying with a vampire except for the being dead par--" Will winces.
Xander tries to make a joke of it. "Guess I've convinced you, then." It falls about as flat as hers.
They hug again before he retreats to his bedroom. He wants to say "I'm glad you're here," but he's not sure he is. He won't start making with the social lies, not with Willow. A quick kiss on her forehead, and he heads for bed.
The box sits on the coverlet, right where he left it. Xander flips the wallet inside and quickly shuts the lid. He's too tired to rearrange the closet to find it a new home, so he sets it on the valet chair, tosses his clothing on top.
His routine has been disrupted just enough that it takes him almost an hour to fall asleep, and when he does the dreams are bad. The battle flashbacks, the slo-mo destruction of his town. Xander thrusts and parries at a seemingly endless horde of vamps and Bringers, turning to say something encouraging to Dawn, but instead it's Anya fighting alongside him. Now he has a chance to save her. He renews the attack, and then Willow's hacking her way through a knot of Bringers. When the last one falls, he sees she's wearing black leather. She grins in that way she has, but it turns all yellow eyes and pointy teeth. She thrusts with her short sword and runs Anya through.
He falls to his knees beside her, but she's gone already. He looks up at Willow, standing in the shaft of light where he'd torn down the curtain. Between the sunlight and his tears, he can't really see her face, but she's wearing that fuzzy pink sweater she used to love. "Will, how could --"
"Get over it already," she says, her voice hard.
Then they're sitting on the floor together in her bedroom, crayons scattered on the carpet between them. Scabby knees peep from below the hem of her plaid school dress. They both reach for the yellow at the same time. Will breaks the crayon in half, offers him the pointy end in a hand that's bathed in blood, dripping it onto the carpet. "You know I never liked that bitch."
Xander thrashes his way from beneath the covers, his heart hammering.
This was a mistake. He should never have let her in.
The television plays softly in the living room. Though Xander has nearly an hour before the alarm rings, he knows his chances of slipping back into sleep aren't looking good. He's not particularly sure he wants to.
Not that he much wants to join Willow in the other room.
He raises one of the blackout shades, just enough to bring a little light into the room. Reaching into the Sunnydale box, he pulls out the red plaid shirt, far too big for him now. He sits on the edge of the bed with it bunched in his hands. There's nothing he has of Anya's that he can hold. No piece of clothing that retains her scent (not that it still would, after all these years). No piece of jewelry, lock of her hair, no love letter carried into battle. If he'd given it any thought at all, he'd have believed any of these things would be safer left at home. How could he have known he'd lose not only Anya but all trace of her beyond a couple of pictures?
Xander tries to summon the memory of her voice, but he can't be sure his imagination is offering a true rendering. He'd never known anyone who spoke with quite those rushing rhythms, her bright and brittle tones.
He misses the sight of her making eggs in the morning, sometimes wearing his pajama shirt and nothing else. She'd loved the cooking breakfast thing -- he didn't even like eggs that much, but for some reason this was the task that made her feel like she'd managed that Pinocchio transformation, become a real girl. He can see that in his mind's eye if he tries hard, but with the image always comes the nagging feeling that some part of it is subtly off.
Somewhere along the line he's lost the last words he ever spoke to her. Were they loving? Had they meant something, or were they just another joke, more whistling in the dark? He no longer remembers what she said to him, either. How could a person forget something like that?
He's not sure he remembers the particular feeling of her kisses, how she tasted. It's all slipping away from him or already gone, not really because he's moved on, found something to replace these things, but because he's not strong enough, not steadfast enough, to hold on.
Back when he was drinking, there was not a single person he knew whose life he wouldn't have traded for one object that had belonged to Anya. And to have Anya herself, alive and whole? He'd have given up everyone, even his oldest and best friend. He hadn't kept it much of a secret, which was one of many reasons he had so few friends left.
But what about now, he wondered. What if one of Anya's colleagues made an appearance and offered him a wish?
He doesn't know anymore, and that feels almost like a failure.
He takes her to the Steam Plant Grill. In deference to her body clock, still set to East Coast time, it's a little on the Early Bird Special side of things.
The food's good here, he tells Willow, but he mainly likes it for the interior. The architect who converted the place preserved many of the original fixtures of the old plant, designing the dining areas around its massive heart and ribs and circulatory system. It's not some bogus Spaghetti Factory theme park of a restaurant, but a brilliant reclamation of the space. He shows her around the inside after they place their order, and he turns and catches her beaming at him.
Tears glitter in her eyes. "I knew you were in there."
"Ah, Christ." He turns away, walks her through the rest of the place without comment.
She leans across the table, unrepentant, once they've retaken their seats. "I'm sorry, but I came out here on two days' notice for a reason. I needed to see how you're doing, not just hear you tell me how you are."
"So what now? Stick around and fix me? Go back and write up a report?"
"I thought I'd stay a while so you could be snotty to me. That work for you?" She glances up at the waitress, who has managed to return at just this moment with their plates, and she reddens. "Thanks. Holy cats, this is huge."
"That's kind of a trademark here, yeah," he says.
"Xander, you know how much I hate fighting with you."
"No buts. I came out here because I love you. I've been worried about you. If everything is fine, just let me see you being fine. I'm not here to put you on trial or anything, I promise."
Just let me see you being fine. That's a pretty tall order -- I'm going to stare at you now; just do what you normally do. What he normally does is eat in silence, so he does.
"Has anyone else been out here to see you?" She must know the answer to that already.
"Dawn's been, a couple of times. And I've gone to New York to see her a few."
"So how do you show a girl a hot time in Spokane?"
"Well, there's the carousel and the garbage-eating goat in the park. Then a movie on the IMAX screen, followed by hot dogs and cotton candy till she throws up."
She lets her fork clatter against her plate. "Why are you so damn defensive?"
"You're here to evaluate me, Will, to see if I'm doing okay. You try being on the other end of that sometime."
"I have been," she says softly. "It's not fun, I know that. But that's not -- Xander, we used to be able to talk to each other. The hard part was getting stopped. I miss that. I miss us." She lets that sit there awhile.
"So do I," he finally says.
"Then tell me something. Anything."
He tells her about Dawn's last visit, during summer break. How they'd watched almost every movie in town, done some hiking in Idaho, driven up to B.C. on his days off to a hot springs. The weather had been too warm up there to do anything but wilt, though. "Last time we talked on the phone she said she'd been cut off at Kiehl's. That mean anything to you?"
Willow laughs. "It's this old apothecary. They sell skin care stuff and you can get free samples. She made me go with her my last visit so she could get double the gimmes. She seems happy, far as I can tell."
"Yeah, I think so. For a glowy green ball of energy, she's turned out good."
The conversation flags after this. Willow asks some questions about Spokane and his job, but everything that's unspoken about Buffy and Giles -- along with peripheral others -- obscures what they do say. They give it up and start planning on a movie binge for tomorrow, and things are on a safe but superficial level when the waitress returns with the dessert he ordered for them both, an upright puff pastry horn with whipped cream spurting out the top.
"Behold the Smokestack," Xander says.
She rolls her eyes. "Phallic much?"
"If that doesn't turn you, noth--"
"It's all chocolatey inside."
"Oh, well then. I'm cured." She leans across the table to slug him on the arm.
This stuff, the talking about nothing, is the easy part. They go back to haggling about tomorrow's movies, joking about each other's taste, indulging in exaggerated rants about the worst films they've seen recently. He almost starts to feel -- not that everything is going to be okay between them, but that it is.
They ignore the check for a while, but finally Xander reaches for it and pulls out his wallet.
He knows before he even flips it open what he's done.
"What's the matter?" Will asks.
It takes a moment before he can get the words out. "Wrong wallet."
"No big, I've got cards with me." She peers at him closely. "It is a big, isn't it?" When he doesn't answer she reaches both hands across the table. Gently takes the billfold in one, closes the other around his hand. A quick look inside -- Anya, two-eyed guy on the drivers license, the corner of the Espresso Pump punchcard -- and she gets it. Both her hands enfold his. "I know, Xander. God, I know."
"You never could stand her."
"I still know what grief is." She laces her fingers through his. "But you're right. I never liked her. She spoke her mind too bluntly, she had no sense of politics in that respect." Xander tries to withdraw his hand, but she won't turn it loose. "If she'd been someone else, I probably would've liked her for that very quality. But you know, I had a blind spot about her. I like to think I'd have outgrown it, if I'd had the chance. Noticed how hard she tried, how much she loved you. It will get better, Xander. Give yourself permission to mourn, and after a while the pain won't feel so sharp."
"Can we go now?"
"Sure." Willow slides the wallet across the table to him, and after another moment releases his hand.
By the time his shift begins, he's grateful for somewhere else to be. Though Willow already conked out on the drive up the hill for the grand sunset view. He drove her home, steered her to the guest room and tucked her in. "I'll be more with-it tomorrow," she murmured. "Promise." Then she was out. He stood there in the dimly lit room, watching her settle into sleep.
He couldn't help remembering another time standing over her bed. That time in the hospital when they hadn't known if she'd ever wake up. He'd declared his love then, just before she'd roused and called for Oz.
"I still do," he said, and closed the door.
Since it's a Saturday night, he hovers near the registers for the rash of beer and cigarette runs. He was the proud possessor of a fake I.D. in his own day, and is pretty good at spotting them. The "one-eyed bastard" has a pretty fierce rep with the local kids, but he likes to maintain a presence.
Not long after shift change he sees the cop, Straley, in his street clothes. His cart contains milk, eggs, bread, macaroni and cheese, an assortment of cereal. "Hey, how's it going?" Xander asks.
Straley shakes his head. "First day on second shift. I'd just gotten used to first again. They make you rotate shifts, or you steady?"
"This is it. Glad I don't have to keep adjusting. I've always been kind of a night owl." Since high school, anyway.
"It's kickin' my ass." Straley yawns. "My cousin happened to call the other day. He lost an eye a while back. The one got diseased, and then he started to go blind in the good eye. Sympathetic reaction, they told him. Did you ever hear of that?"
"No, can't say I have."
"They had to remove the bad one to save the good. He got a hell of a prosthesis, an implant. Realest looking thing I ever saw -- it's even got little blood vessels painted on it."
"While I had him on the phone I got the name of the place he used." He tweezes a scrap of paper from his shirt pocket with two fingers, offers it. "Thought I'd pass it on, for whatever it's worth."
Xander doesn't even have the energy to wonder why this cop is spending his time on this. Or to bristle. "Thanks." He slips it into his own shirt pocket without looking. "I'll think about it."
"Well, hey. I'd better drag ass home."
"You have a good night." Reflexively he straightens the National Enquirers in their rack. Everyone wants to read 'em while they wait in line, but no one wants to be seen plunking down their cash. It's the quick, furtive peeks that are hell on the merch.
Straley makes a pleasant joke to the cashier and Xander moves on to the next magazine rack. Weird. There was nothing offhand about this visit, much less about the conversation with the cousin. No such thing as a coincidence -- this he learned living on a hellmouth.
During each of his smoke breaks, he finds his hand straying to the piece of paper, unfolding it.
The thought enters his mind that Southwest has pretty frequent sales on flights to San Diego.
What's the point, though? He'll be just as blind, just a little more cosmetically acceptable. Besides, the dark and menacing look has its uses, for more than just scaring off underage beer buyers.
No reason to change things now.
He always takes a cigarette break at sunrise. Once in a while one of the cashiers comes out too, sharing the moment in silence, but usually he's alone. It means something different these days, now that night isn't filled with such danger. He doesn't have to release some metaphorical breath he's been holding, just enjoy the sight of the sky lightening, the sound of birds staking their claim on the morning.
It's Sunday, so the streets are even quieter than usual. He doesn't mind working Saturday nights partly because it gives him Sunday morning. Not that he's Mr. Saturday Night Excitement; not that he's ever been that in any real way. Watching the shoppers load up on beer on weekend nights, he's not so sorry to be off the roads. Still, there's something about the hush of Sunday morning that makes everything feel more settled within him. It's as close as he comes to going to church -- well, the meetings, actually, are as close as he gets to that. Sunday dawns are as close as he gets to feeling it inside.
He crushes his cigarette butt in the sand of the big ashtray by the doors, then heads inside for the last hour of his shift. Peggy in Lane 3 looks up from the Martha Stewart magazine she's reading. "Did it come up?" She's got a voice like a wiseacre secretary in a screwball comedy, flat and brassy, making everything she says seem funny. Usually it is.
"Yeah, it did."
"That's a relief." This is their running joke, and he always wonders what she'd say if he told her there are a few times he knows of that it almost didn't. He chats with her for a few minutes about how her kid's doing in college, then finishes readying things for the morning shift and clearing the decks for his two days off.
Willow's up when he gets home, three hours ahead of him and vibrating with energy. She wants to make him breakfast and it's easier to let her. "I brought the paper in, if you want to look at it," she says, but she keeps talking. It's all right. Anya used to bustle around in the kitchen while he read the paper, and he doesn't feel up to an exact replay. He leaves the paper where it is. "I made some coffee, too," she adds, "but it came out terrible. You could stand a spoon up in it."
"What'd you use?"
She opens the cabinet, points out the can.
"It's espresso, that's why."
"Ouch, I probably just wasted a month's supply."
He tells her not to worry and dumps out the pot, makes some decaf for himself and an Americano for Willow. It's easy to chatter while they're both moving around the kitchen, somehow not stumbling over one another even though it's been a long time since he's shared kitchen space with anyone this way. He reports on his night, Willow on how well she slept. They negotiate some sack time for Xander before they head out to Spokane's hotspots.
He drags himself up in the early afternoon, fuels up with a couple of espressos, then heads downtown with Will. They binge on movies at the downtown bazillionplex, running across the street to the park when there's a few minutes between showtimes. He falls asleep during the Vin Diesel action flick, but Willow assures him the plot makes no more sense awake.
"You are so in the doghouse, mister," she says during their half-hour break afterward. She leans on the railing of the pedestrian bridge over the falls, letting the mist settle on her face. "Dragging me to see that piece of crap and then falling asleep through it. You abandoned me!"
"Hey, who's running on four hours of sleep here? I'm usually just getting up about now."
"Xander, you should've said--"
"I'm teasing. It's true, but I'm teasing. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want to."
"Kinda like old times," she says, her voice almost lost under the sound of the rushing water.
"Kinda," he echoes. He settles an arm across her shoulders as they walk back toward River Park Square.
A storm front moves in during the night, and by the time Willow begins to stir, there's the steady hiss of an all-day downpour. Xander puts aside his book and pads into the kitchen to make breakfast for her. She's a slow riser, and always wants to have her hair under control before she puts in an appearance, so he has time to throw together a fritatta with potato and asparagus and green onions. He does know how to cook a few things; he just doesn't bother most of the time.
He leaves the television off, and is amazed how much better he feels. No suicide bombings this morning, no good ol' American killing sprees, no natural disasters that make him wonder why God has it in for poor people in faraway places. No inane chatter, no in-depth reporting on an important issue that just happens to tie in with a movie opening this weekend. No fake company.
When he hears the bathroom door open, he pours her Americano, doses it with a splash of milk, and hands it to her as she walks into the kitchen. "Wow, it smells great in here. Can I give you a hand with anything?"
"Nope. It's all under control. Be about ten minutes before the food's ready."
"How long have you been -- not all night?"
"I'm always up all night, Will."
She perches on the counter as he unloads the dishwasher. "What do you do on your nights off?"
"Watch whatever TiVo caught for me on the nights I was working, or rent a DVD. Read. Spend some time on the Internet."
"So what geek newsgroups are eating up your life these days?"
He plucks the silver out of the basket a handful at a time, sorts each piece into its proper slot. "Actually, I've been tracking down all the Tony Harrises in the U.S. In case they might've made it out. Jessica Harrises, too, just in case they split since then." Xander doesn't mention the artificial eye website he checked out too; he's not ready to talk about it yet.
"Whoa," she says softly. "Have you been looking all this time?"
"No, not very long. I wasn't ready until recently." He closes the drawer, replaces the basket in the dishwasher. "Really, I don't think I'll find them. You know Tony. Never met a sign of impending doom he couldn't ignore. He wouldn't care if the whole neighborhood had emptied out." Xander smiles. "My aunt used to say, 'You can always tell a Harris man, but you can't tell him much.'"
"And your mother?"
"She might have joined some wildassed women's group and learned how to stand up to him in the last days of Sunnydale. I mean, there were reports of hell freezage and flying pigs, weren't there?"
Willow reaches out, rubs his arm. "Ah, Xander. I hope--" She stops dead.
Xander grins, a quick flash and it's gone. "I don't know how to finish that sentence either." He puts a couple of slices of bread in the toaster. "So, how are your folks?"
"They're good. They're gearing up for one of their Earthwatch expeditions. Elephants in Uganda, piranha in the Amazon -- something needs saving, I don't remember which. They ask about you whenever we talk."
He's finally registered on their radar screen, now that Will never sees him at all. "That's sweet. Tell 'em I said hello."
The timer beeps and Xander starts to turn toward the oven, but Willow slides off the counter and throws her arms around him. "I love you so much. Never doubt that."
He's taken aback for a split second, but recovers, hugs her back. "Me too, Will."
Over breakfast they salvage their plans for the day. Hiking's out, pizza or Chinese and DVDs is in. "Ooh, I've got a suggestion," Willow says. "You probably even have the boxed sets here already. Let's do a Lord of the Rings marathon. We never got to see the last one together."
He jumps up to put in more toast. "I don't have them."
"Oh. Well, we can be pioneers, I guess. Slog in the rain to the rental place."
"Will, I can't watch them. I'm sorry."
"I don't get --"
"I don't watch movies with battle scenes. Not the sword and sorcery stuff. They give me dreams." He hasn't even seen Return of the King, probably never will.
"Oh. Oh, well sure." She'd been well away from it in that last battle, doing her mojo. She'd put her life on the line too, but in a wholly different way. He can't begin to make her understand this.
They decide on a comedy marathon. Groundhog Day, the South Park movie, a couple of Mystery Science Theater 3000 tapes, a handful of others. They start off on the sofa, but it's not that comfortable for longterm seating, so they move it to his bedroom, even though the TV's a couple of inches smaller. Surrounded by 2-liter bottles of soda and assorted bags of junk food, they end up piled together on the bed like puppies, the way they used to do before puberty made everything so complicated.
"Oh god," Willow moans after one of the tapes has flipped into automatic rewind. "I have to pee. Would you mind going and doing that for me? I'll catch next time, I promise."
"Sorry. I'd like to help."
She moans again and pushes off the bed, shambling to the master bath. It's only late afternoon, but the light's been this same level of murky all day, and it feels later. When she comes back he takes his turn, then steps out onto the back porch for a cigarette. Once he's settled back on the bed, she snuggles up to him again.
"Ready for the next one?" he asks. He'd slipped the next DVD in the player while she'd been using the toilet. The Producers, which he plans to follow with Young Frankenstein, then Blazing Saddles, if they both hold up.
"In a little while. This is nice, just by itself."
"Yeah, it is." So why does he feel like there's something lurking around the corner of "by itself"?
She's silent for a moment, but he's already tensed. Finally she speaks. "When things got so bad." She laces her fingers through his. "What you did was so important. You brought me back from -- well, I don't want to think what from."
He can't think what to say in response. Gee, you're welcome? Glad I could help? Don't mention it -- that one he means. "It's okay," he says.
"I -- I just want to return the favor. Be there for you."
He has to stop himself from groaning. "You are here. This is good."
"Yeah, but I meant--"
"I know what you meant." There's a hint of steel that's come into his voice, unbidden. "You want me to cry so you can hold me until I become recognizable again. Until I'm all cured. That's movie bullshit, Willow. You of all people should know that. Life ain't Good Will Hunting. People don't walk around all fucked up until the first time they cry in front of a shrink, then, hey, cured!" He could easily launch into a rant here, blah blah The Prince of Tides, yadda yadda even The Singing Detective, but it would let them both off the hook and he's not willing to do that. "I'm glad you came out here, I really am. But you came on your own timetable, not mine, and you can't expect some kind of command performance just so you feel better about where I am."
"That's exactly what Oz said," Willow says in a small, quavering voice. God, he hopes she isn't going to cry. Xander knows it would make him irrationally pissed off.
"Long time ago. Back when you and I -- I kept trying to get him to talk it through, and he finally said he needed time alone to sort things out, and if I couldn't let him have that, it was about me, not him."
"I don't know what to say."
"That's kind of the point. Words don't solve everything. You don't need to throw them at every problem."
"Which is one way of telling me to shut up."
This is weird, having this fight while still cuddled together on the bed. Every fight he ever had with Anya, or even Cordelia, made them fly apart -- physically as well as metaphorically. This one goes bone deep, but neither pulls away.
"Will, that's not --"
"No, that's okay. Let's stop hammering at this. Why don't you start the next movie?"
Part of him wants to protest, but that would be all about smoothing things over for his own convenience. He suppresses a sigh, picks up the remote and fires up The Producers.
They watch the whole thing without making a sound.
Willow's flight is in the morning, so they both keep going through the motions. They want to preserve the structure of their friendship, even if right now it's mostly hollow. If they can remember the shape, maybe they can build it up someday to what it was. So after the movie they call for a pizza and head into the kitchen to put together a big salad.
"Eat it now, or wait until the pie gets here?" Xander asks.
"Let's start. Then we won't have to juggle forks and bowls along with the slices."
"Not to mention we'll have gotten the healthy part out of the way, so the pizza's essentially calorie free."
"You are still the king of rationalization." She cuts him a quick look, as if she's not sure that'll be taken as a joke.
"It's an art," he affirms.
She pulls a slender book off the cheap bookrack by the telephone. "Mastodon, 80% Complete," she reads. It's not what she's expecting. "So how come there's a collection of poetry books in your kitchen?"
"Because the kitchen's where I read poems."
"Sentences I Never Thought I'd Hear from the Mouth of Xander Harris, Number -- well, I've kinda lost track."
He goes to readings at Auntie's sometimes, whatever sounds interesting -- or sometimes anything that doesn't sound like it'll suck too hard. There are times he can't take all the Higher Power stuff, evenings he'd rather meet Caleb again than feel compelled to say so much as his name. That's when he'll skip a meeting if there's something happening in the bookstore, just to sit silently in a room with some other people, listen to some quiet voices talking about anything but booze.
"I've been writing some too."
Her eyes go a little wide. "Well, that's great."
"Some of 'em are short," he says. "Oh -- here's a good one, not too long:
"Note from Mrs. Williams
you ate my plums."
She rolls her eyes. "Shithead yourself."
"Had you worried, though."
By the time the pizza comes, they've found their groove again. He wonders if it's possible for a groove to become shallower with wear -- it seems to be true in this case. Old jokes and safe memories, but better than fighting. As they tackle the pizza, they riff large chunks of dialogue from Young Frankenstein.
"Oh god," Willow says, "remember that time we all had demon slime all over our hair and clothes and we accidentally burned down that old ramshackle house, and as we staggered outside you said, 'At least it's not rainin'" -- she does it as he had, in Marty Feldman's accent -- "and Giles just looked at you like 'Who is this person?'"
The corner of his mouth quirks up. "Yeah, I remember." He tugs a sundried tomato off his slice, flicks it aside. "I was pretty skunked that night." Skunked is one of Patrick's words, which found its way into Xander's vocabulary.
"Skunked--? No, Xander, this was in high school. It was back when Faith was kind of a probationary Scooby again."
"I know. You think I didn't drink then?" Especially after Faith.
"What, you're gonna tell me you drank all through school?"
"No. But I did sometimes. It's not like it was hard to find."
"How could I not know that?"
"I kept a lid on it. And I never got staggeringly, cursing drunk. Not till Italy." He hates watching her face when he's shifted the ground beneath her feet, rewritten history. "Let's forget about it. Put a couple of slices on your plate and let's go back and watch."
After the pizza and the breadsticks (and who decided the world needed breadsticks with pizza?) and the sleep deprivation, he falls asleep before Igor even grabs the wrong brain. Bits of dialogue and spooky sound effects filter into his subconscious, along with quiet laughter from the woman beside him. He drifts in and out, eventually noticing there's no sound but the television.
He reaches across her, puts his hand on her hip. "Ahn? Ahn, are you still watching that?"
Her hand covers his. "Xander, it's me. It's Willow."
He sucks in one of those deep, emerging-from-sleep breaths. "Oh, sure. That's what I said, isn't it?" He feels for the eyepatch before he raises his head, makes sure it's positioned properly.
"You said Ahn." Willow touches his face. "Do you dream about her a lot?"
"I wasn't at all for a long time. Not until just lately." Xander makes it as pointed as he can, but she lets it gloss right over her.
"I still dream about Tara. Not often, really, but they kind of come in waves. Nothing at all for a while, then a bunch in a row."
"What time is it?"
There's a little pause as she reacts to the rebuff. "Almost nine."
"I'm getting all screwed up."
She gets off the bed. "I'll be gone tomorrow." She walks out of the bedroom and Xander falls back against the pillows.
Shit. He's glad she'll be gone, and he's sorry she can't stay.
He hates this.
There've been a lot of times in their friendship when things were rocky. They've never had good timing on their side, much less good sense. But it's never felt this fucking hard. Standing on the edge of the abyss with veiny, scary Willow ready to push him in -- in a way that felt less hard than this.
He rolls out of bed, heads down the hall to look for her. She's in the guest room, her carry-on spread open on the bed, her coppery hair shielding her face as she bends it to her task.
Xander leans a shoulder against the door jamb. "Will --"
She looks up. "Look, I'm sick of pushing you. Sick of being the bad guy. Have it your way. Forever, if that makes you happy."
Heat rises in his face. "Oh hey, thanks for that. One last memento of Anya to leave with me. That was her favorite argument-ender, too. 'I'm sick of being the bad guy' -- which of course means exactly the opposite. Fine. I have years of experience being the no-good shit that some saint has to suffer, I'm fine with it. Next time you get an urge to visit, why don't you call first, see if I'm ready to open a vein for you. It must've been such a disappointment to come all this way for nothing."
The reaction comes like a punch to the chest. Not for the anger expressed to Willow, but the vitriol he's splashed on Anya's memory as well. He stumbles back out of the doorway, fingers splayed across his shirt front, unable to catch his breath.
"Don't be such a -- Xander?"
"Forget it," he says, and closes himself in his room.
The tears Willow's been hoping for finally come, but there's no magic cure-all in them. They're bitter and solitary and they burn on their way out.
The fun never stops. One last fight on the way to the airport.
"I never did say what I came out here to say," Willow says.
Oh, fuckin' great. It's six in the morning, and he's kept himself awake most of the night so he has some hope of getting his sleep schedule back on track. "Terrific, let's have it."
"I wish you'd come back to us, that's all. Come home."
"Home to your friends. We need you."
"Where would that be, exactly? You're scattered between the East Coast and London."
"Wherever feels comfortable and right. Wherever you can do what you were meant to."
"Spokane feels plenty comfortable. More than anywhere else I've ever been. I can't live the way you want me to, Will. Not anymore. I don't miss the bimonthly apocalypse, the adrenaline rush. I weaned myself off that juice, too."
There's a pause. "You're saying that's an addiction too?"
"I'm saying it wasn't easy to kick. I can't afford to be pulled back in." He rolls up to the parking garage gate, takes a ticket.
"So the rest of us are addicts."
"I'm just speaking for myself," he says mildly.
Xander shrugs. "Well, you seem pretty damn affronted that I'm not doing it anymore." He glides the car into a parking space.
"AA's a cult," she says as she jerks her door open. "It's making you see addiction in everyone."
He lifts her suitcase out of the trunk, remotes all the locks. Neither has anything to say as they walk to the terminal. Check-in takes no time at all, and there's no line at security yet. Just a man ahead of them with a young girl's hand in his, a Hello Kitty kid-size suitcase in the other. The man pauses to get his I.D. out, and a boy with a backpack, just working on his growth spurt, turns from where he's walking ahead. "You don't need to come to the gate with us."
"It's not a problem," he says. "I'm sure Casey would like--"
"It's okay, Dad." She lets go of his hand, takes the boy's. "Tim takes good care of me."
Xander's attention is pulled away then as Willow rummages through her purse. "I do this every time. Put it all away, and I just have to get it out again."
"Can I hold something for you?"
"No, I'm good." She's all ready now, and one of the security guards is standing ready to check her boarding pass and I.D. An awkwardness descends over them both. "I wish--" She sighs, slides her arms around him. "I love you. Not that I couldn't smack you just now."
He hears muffled sniffles against his shirt. "I love you and want to smack you, too, Will," he says softly. "Don't be a strangler, ya hear?" They'd both thought this was the height of wit around sixth grade.
Abruptly she pulls away and hustles through the security checkpoints. He climbs several stairs leading to the airport cafe to get a better view of her as she threads her way through. A poem comes to mind, one Patrick passed on to him, that always tightens his chest: Eliot's "Journey of the Magi."
...this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
He wants to leave off the last line, so bleak, but it wouldn't be true without it.
I should be glad of another death.
Willow passes through security, never turns back to look. The two kids trail behind her, backpack and Hello Kitty bag bumping along behind.
Xander looks at the father below him, surprised to find himself meeting the gaze of the cop Straley.
"Bon voyages sure as hell aren't what they used to be, are they?"
Xander twitches a smile. "Nothing's what it used to be." He suspects he looks much the way Straley does, hollowed out, haunted -- only with half the number of red-rimmed eyes.
"Live a few years longer, and you'll come around to the view that nothing ever was what it used to be." Straley emits a sudden, sharp laugh. "Listen to me. It's the Old Farts Smackdown -- I guess I'd be on the juniors tour." He climbs the steps toward Xander. "They do a pretty good breakfast at this place. I'd welcome the company if you want to join me."
He considers what's awaiting him at home: an empty house, an empty bed, newly raised ghosts that he'd done such a careful job of laying to rest. "Sure. That'd be great."
They put in their orders at the counter, then Straley finds a table that affords him a wide view of the cafe itself and the security area below. Xander angles his chair so he can see who comes and goes as well. The cop gives him an appraising look.
"Habit," Xander says. "Always keeping an eye on the shoplifters."
"Sure, of course."
"Those are great-looking kids. Where do they live?"
"Boise." He says it the way people do around here, Boy-see, not Boy-zee.
"I hear that's a nice city. Livable." And he's never heard any rumors of supernatural unpleasantness there.
"Yeah. I don't have to worry about them there. And it's a short hop on Southwest between here and there." The cook calls out their numbers, and Straley says, "I'll get it."
When he comes back with their breakfasts and plastic forks and napkins, he says, "He just turned twelve. I thought I'd have a while before the teenaged crap started."
"No, I think the prickliness sets in like an aura, then there's the years-long headache."
Straley laughs. "I'm gonna have to steal that line. But you're not old enough to have teenagers." He's been eying Xander, trying to assess his age, but Xander's been doing the same, so he doesn't mind. Straley's hard to pin down. Nudging the underside of forty, Xander suspects, but he easily passes for older.
"Any kids at all?"
"Nice-looking girl you were seeing off. Girlfriend?"
"A friend. We go way back."
"Sometimes I think it's smarter to have 'em as friends than marry 'em, but I never really learned the knack of making friends with 'em, either. What's your secret?"
Xander shrugs. "Lost to the mists of time. We've known each other since before kindergarten."
"That might've been the last time I understood 'em." Straley shovels in a forkful of potatoes -- which, as he promised, are damn good. "Aah, I'm full of shit. Sometimes I hear myself saying the same crap that the other guys on the job say all the time. Truth is, I don't think my ex-wife is some kind of alien. I understood her pretty well, and I still do. I even like her. We just couldn't make it. The job's a bitch, you know?"
"I can believe that."
"You ever been married?"
"Engaged. We split before the wedding." Sounds much nicer than at the wedding.
"Probably saved yourselves a lot a heartache."
"I don't know about that." He gazes out the window, watching a plane taxi and then rise in the air. It doesn't seem possible, when you think about it. Metal behemoths, yet so fragile.
"Sometimes I'm amazed at how hard it is to figure out what we want," Straley says. "Should be the easiest thing in the world, right?"
"All I want--" Xander directs a sharp glance back at Straley. Funny how the conversation's turned in this direction. He thinks what a perfect cover police work would be for a vengeance demon. All the domestic misery he sees, lives fucked up on drugs, people cheated and screwed over -- a demon in Anya's line of work wouldn't have to work his clients; they'd be all primed and ready.
But Xander's already been tested by a vengeance demon, that waitress during the road trip summer. She made the offer and he turned it down -- they wouldn't send another demon to try again, would they?
Why not? D'Hoffryn's not exactly his number one fan. He'd probably love to bag himself a Xander Harris wish.
"What'd I say?" Straley asks rhetorically. "Harder than you think, isn't it?"
Fuck it. Xander's skin prickles all over. He doesn't give a shit. "All I want," he begins again, "is to have a good life without hurting anybody."
Nothing happens, except Straley keeps talking. He doesn't go all freaky-faced, and no giant worm monsters rear up out of the ground to snack on the baggage handlers. People keep moving around them -- businessmen abandoning their breakfasts to hurry to their gates, families settling in for a breather with their whole caravan of stuffed animals, juice boxes, diapers and cell phones.
Is that what he means by a good life? Xander doesn't know.
He dials back into the conversation, which couldn't be more normal. Well, less superficial than normal. Straley asks Xander some pretty probing questions, but nothing he's not willing to answer himself. The conversation runs to women and kids and how the world keeps moving faster and faster without seeming to get anywhere. Straley talks about the barrier he feels rising up between himself and the people he serves, the habit of dividing the world into stand-up guys and scumbags. Nobody he works with even tries to resist categorizing people this way. Xander talks about getting sober, and without quite knowing how it happened, tells Straley about Willow and this chasm that's opened between them.
Xander tries to remember the last time he had a discussion like this, serious and wide-ranging, adult. The closest he comes is the talk he had with Giles the night he and Anya announced the engagement. He wouldn't say he felt like an adult then -- everything Giles said scared the living shit out of him. And the night after Tito's wife packed up their baby and moved to Chicago. Though he had to admit booze played a large role in that conversation. It's been a long time.
They're in the middle of sorting out the whole world when the sports update comes on the TV overhead, and both men swivel their heads to face the screen as the Ms are mentioned. They both break out laughing, then put in a good while hashing over Seattle's chances this season. "I like that new kid," Xander says. "Grimaldi."
"She's a gimmick. Pump up attendance before the pennant races heat up. She'll be back in the minors long before the All-Star game."
"She might get sent down," he concedes. "It's an adjustment. But she'll be back up. I was watching some of those spring games on the tube. She's got something." He's had a faint suspicion what it is, but there's no way they'll ever know. He supposes there's a bunch of girls out there, slayers without a calling.
"The Indians' season starts soon. I used to go with my kids, but I didn't make any games at all last year. When it warms up some we should get to the ballpark."
"Absolutely." Xander hasn't been to a minor league game since beer stopped being the main attraction. "That'd be great."
They suddenly become aware of the time and gather up their trays and trash. The clouds have started to break up as they walk out of the terminal building to their parking spaces. Xander fires up a smoke and takes a deep, grateful drag.
"Been nice talking to you," Straley says, sticking out his hand. "And I mean it about that ballgame."
"So do I, um..."
"Oh. Kevin. Kevin Straley. Alex, right?" He gestures at his chest. "I remember the nametag."
"Actually, my friends call me Xander."
That's the second time he's said this in the last couple of weeks. It's also the second time in the four-plus years he's lived here. Some Sunnydale-imprinted part of him wonders if either time was a wise move.
He slides back into his regular routine, but it all somehow feels askew.
His sleep pattern suffers the most disruption. Something there is that doesn't love third shift, either, and any slight crack in his carefully constructed habit of sleeping in daytime brings it all tumbling down for a few days. Xander notices every trickle of light that leaks in around the blackout shades, hears every dog's bark or kid's shriek.
There are also the dreams.
He makes the meetings in the mornings and the evenings, but he's restless with the stories, the automatic responses certain people make to them, the Higher Power stuff. It feels so bound in convention to him after a few days away that it seems something has died and been entombed in all this ritual. It feels like church with bad coffee and cigarettes as sacraments. He knows this stems from Willow's accusations, which have amplified his own doubts. He chafes at sitting in the rooms twice daily, but he's looking for Willa-with-an-A, just to make sure she's all right.
She hasn't appeared for days.
The transition back to work is the easiest to make, but things feel unsettled even there. In the hour before dawn his third night back, Mrs. Priestley hobbles in wearing her thin nightgown and no slippers.
Xander's catching up on paperwork in the office, but everyone follows the drill just as they're supposed to. His phone rings and Peggy says, "It's Mrs. P.," then hangs up. He grabs the jar on the shelf above his desk and hurries out past the checkout stands, calling out to Damon. Peggy's already easing her onto the bench by the automatic doors. "It's sure nice to see you, hon," she croons, "but aren't you chilly?"
"Mama said I could get some penny candy," Mrs. Priestley tells her. Her hair is a wispy white cloud around her head.
"Sure you can, doll. Alex is bringing the jar right now."
Xander kneels in front of her. "We just got some root beer barrels for you," he tells her. "We were running low."
"I like those," she says. Her gaze sharpens on his eyepatch. "My Charlie got hurt in the war, too."
"I know, Mrs. P."
"Do you know him, Allie?"
"Sure I do. Everyone still talks about how brave he was in battle."
Damon comes with the microfleece throw and the slippers they keep on hand, and drapes the throw around her as Peggy snugs the slippers on her pale feet.
"I'll call," Peggy says, and retreats to her checkout station and the phone there. Mrs. Priestley's daughter's number is posted at each stand, but they haven't had to use it in a while.
She looks at the candy in both hands, confused.
"You forgot to wear your pockets, Mrs. P.," Damon says. "Here's a sack." He opens a little brown bag, tilts it toward her to dump the candy inside. Everyone on third brings in the tiny paper sacks they get since the store doesn't stock them. Plastic grocery bags upset her.
"Do you feel like taking a walk over home?" Xander asks. "Pam's waiting to see you."
He helps her up, adjusts the throw around her shoulders. He offers to carry her little bag, and she hands it over. Xander takes her hand.
"Careful crossing those streets, now," Peggy says.
It's getting light out, which seems to inspire her to chatter. Some of what she says makes sense, though he doesn't know the people she's talking about, but sometimes she makes up words and slips into gibberish. He responds whether he understands her or not, trying to keep her engaged. It doesn't take long, even at their slow pace, to deliver her home to her grateful daughter.
As he walks back to the store, carrying the slippers wrapped in the throw, he still feels the warmth of her dry, papery hand, and thinks of Tara. How confused and lost she'd been after Glory had fucked with her mind, how much smaller it had made her seem. He misses her now with a fierceness he wouldn't have believed. She had the softest eyes of anyone he's ever known. Xander often wishes he'd gotten to know her better; there was a weird little territorial edge that underlay most of their interactions. Stupid thing to have a tug of war over, somebody's love. He wishes he could talk to her now, bask in her empathy.
He reaches the entrance of the store, but stops to light a cigarette and watch the day come on, as tears prickle behind his eyelids.
Xander skips both meetings, his emotions still too raw. Instead of the 6:30, he decides to head for Auntie's for the Sherman Alexie reading. Spokane is Alexie's old stomping grounds, and the place will be packed, so he arrives early.
A sudden impulse takes him through the recovery section, which Willa had said she haunted. Not surprisingly, she's not here now, so he climbs the stairs to the second floor. The spot he'd wanted, the far back corner, is already taken by a walking anachronism so complete Xander's stomach lurches. His hand automatically seeks out his jacket pocket for the stake he still carries on the chance this night would come.
Well, "walking" anachronism may be an exaggeration, considering the heels she's wearing -- more like tenpenny nails with pituitary problems. Powder blue Jackie Kennedy suit and a flip of blonde hair that has no relation to anything found in nature. He changes his plan and drapes his jacket over a chair on the aisle so he can slip out whenever she leaves. He slips back onto the selling floor to find some books to browse as he waits, and to work his way around for a closer look at the blonde.
Grabbing a couple of poetry books, he works his way forward again, gauging with a vampire's eye who she might choose as a likely victim. He pulls a couple of short story collections too, and circles around to her side of the seating area. As he gets a good view of her profile, he slams into another browser on his blind side and the books spill out of his hand.
He doesn't even hear the profuse apologies from the guy he clipped. "Holy god," he says. "Eudora. What did you do to yourself?"
Willa's skin looks sallow with the new blond hair. She tilts her face up toward him and he sees the bruises then, clustered around her eye and around the split in her lower lip.
Without thought he reaches to touch the skin below the fading purple and green. (Her skin is warm, thank god for that.) She flinches slightly from the movement.
"Jesus, Willa. Who did this to you?"
Willa can't meet his eyes. "Xander, I appreciate your concern --"
"There's a 'but piss off' if ever I didn't hear one." He slides past her into her row, sits next to her. "Unfortunately, I've never been that good at following directions," he says lightly. This sounds almost like his high school self, and he wonders where it came from. "Particularly the nonverbal kind. Anyone can tell you." He's sitting on her right, which means he has to angle his body toward her and twist his neck uncomfortably. "I haven't seen you around lately."
"I've been busy."
He smells alcohol on her breath. "Want to tell me about it?"
Tears swim in her eyes. "If I wanted to tell you about it, then I'd be telling you about it. What I want is to sit here and be left alone."
A couple of people sitting nearby take notice of them then, and one burly guy shifts in his chair. Despite his earlier claim, this is the sort of nonverbal cue he understands extremely well. "All right. But Willa, you don't have to take this shit from anyone. Get yourself somewhere safe. Promise me you'll do that."
The burly guy rises from his chair, and Xander reluctantly stands. "No guy on this earth is worth that," he tells her, then makes a hey, I'm harmless gesture at Willa's protector as he moves away. When he comes to the seat with his jacket draped over the back, he hesitates a moment, then he lifts it off the chair and goes.
Xander walks the downtown streets, a curious mix of lively and quiet. It's early enough that a good number of stores are still open, though not all. Some restaurants are jumping, some are fairly deserted. Kids sit outside the Rite Aid, panhandling passersby.
The only person who can straighten out Willa is Willa. He knows that. But he can't help feeling responsible. She'd asked him for help and he'd told her to go find someone else, someone who could be bothered. So she probably hasn't -- why should she try again, after the first person she'd asked slapped her down? That's Xander Harris pretty much to a T: willing to give himself to a cause, but not enough of himself to make an actual difference.
He hates this itchy feeling, self-loathing and smashed plans. Every storefront he walks past seems to have a beer sign, neon barbs that pull at him, aiming to reel him inside. An impulse takes him instead into a music store with a set of metallic red drums in the window. Johnny Cash's unmistakable voice greets him as he walks in:
Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you, big river
And I'm gonna sit right here until I die...
The storekeeper is absorbed in a transaction over a huge catalog, giving Xander time to look around. He doesn't know what brought him here; there's not a single musical instrument he knows how to play. He'd briefly picked up the flugelhorn in school and had owned a guitar, but his old man had never had any patience for the painful squawks of noise you had to make to get proficient at playing. Neither did Xander, for that matter. He'd absorbed the family philosophy: Why bother playing badly when there are professionals out there who've already done it for you? And they'll play it note for note perfect, as many times as you want.
The warm gleam of wood catches his eye just as he's about to bolt for the door. A row of acoustic guitars, some used, some new. He finds himself drawn to one in particular, with intricate wooden inlay around the soundhole. Crouching before it, Xander traces his fingertips on its face. It makes him think not of music but the scent of planed wood, the silky feel of its sanded surface. When was the last time he'd lost himself in these sensations? Before the wedding, he thinks. The jewelry box he'd made for Anya, which he'd never given her. Well, she's buried with it now.
He'd gotten in a lot of time with hammer and saw the year after that, patching things up after Bringers, demons and rambunctious slayers-in-training. But there'd been nothing satisfying about it, nothing lasting or beautiful. Nothing that made him feel the way looking at this guitar did.
"Don't be bashful," says a voice. Xander hadn't even noticed when the other customer left. The shopkeeper turns down the music. "I made it to play."
"Actually, I never learned." He takes the guitar in his hands anyway, turning it over, taking in the natural markings of the dark wood. "Used to do some woodworking." Suddenly he looks up, really noticing the shopkeeper for the first time. He's tall and lanky, wearing black jeans and a black Western pearl-snap shirt. Hair's black too, threaded with gray. "You said you made these?"
"I made that one. And the one on the far end of the row."
"This is amazing. The back and sides are walnut?"
He nods. "California. It's a nice wood to work with."
"How long does it take to do something like this?"
"Starting out, it takes a while. Maybe a couple hundred hours of actual building time, not counting time for your glue and your finish to dry. After a couple of dozen, it's more like fifty, seventy hours. This one, though, took me around three hundred." He holds up his hands, bent and gnarled. "Arthritis. I probably won't make another until I can get this back under control." He picks up the guitar from the end of the row, the other he'd made, fingers the frets but doesn't actually play it. "Why'd you stop? The woodworking, I mean."
"I lost all my tools. House fire." That's the story he gives these days. It takes a lot less explaining than "natural disaster." "Then I moved here, went on to other things."
"I had something similar once. Only not a fire, but an ex-wife."
Xander smiles at the joke. It feels to him like the smile he gave Jack O'Toole, down in the school basement when everything was at stake. "I'd really like to learn. Would you be interested in teaching me?"
"To make these."
The shopkeeper -- Evan, his name is -- says he'll think on it, and gives Xander an assignment. Evan tells him to bring something he's made, anything.
"Then I'll have to make something. All that's gone, too."
"I can wait. Guitar-making will teach you that." He has Xander write down the titles of a couple of books and the names of some websites he says will be useful.
Xander's not sure if he's being jerked around or not. He decides he doesn't care -- he's got time, same as Evan. "I'll see you when it's done, then." Xander offers his hand, letting Evan take the lead on how strong a grip they use to shake. His cool, dry touch makes him seem almost as tenuous a presence as Mrs. Priestley, but in a completely different way.
Xander walks back to the bookstore, so intent on his mission that he forgets about the Alexie reading until he sees how deserted the main floor is. He finds the books Evan recommended and a couple other interesting ones on the mezzanine, sits in a chair and leafs through the pages, distantly aware of the waves of laughter wafting from upstairs. Finally he rises and takes a small stack down to the register, just as swarms of people start coming down from the reading. The sound of excited chatter surrounds him as he hands over the books and his debit card. Running on autopilot, he exchanges pleasantries with the clerk, takes his purchase and card and turns to find Willa standing in his way. The blond hair jolts him anew.
"Xander, it's not what you're thinking."
"Oh, you walked into a door? Because those look entirely consistent with walking into a door." He hates himself as soon as it's out of his mouth, and he reaches out to catch her arm as she spins away. "Willa. Willa, wait. I'm sorry. My best friend was just here for a few days, and we fought the whole time. I've forgotten how to do anything else. I have some time before work. Buy you a latte, whatever--"
She regards him for a moment, weighing the offer.
"I'm sorry," he says again.
"Tea would be nice."
They settle in at a window table at the bookstore's cafe, Xander with a double espresso, Willa with a decaf Earl Gray.
"What'd you think of that?" she asks. "That was some performance. A little TMI for a couple of old ladies near me, but that's Alexie for you."
"What? Oh -- I left before he got started. It was good?"
"He's always -- shit. You didn't leave because of me?"
"You did. God, I made a scene, didn't I?"
"Not by my standards, it wasn't. Seriously, Eudora. I've been thinking through a lot of things, and I decided I'd rather be doing that at the moment. That's all."
The steamed-milk nozzle screeches as the barista makes someone a cappuccino.
"Everything's fallen completely to shit," she says. She pushes her fingers through her hair, making an expression of distaste. Suddenly tears are spilling down her cheeks. "It doesn't even feel like hair anymore. I look like hell. Of course I was drunk when I did this."
"It's just hair," he says. "So you condition it within an inch of its life, maybe cut off the fried parts, do a tintback and start again."
Willa gives him a dubious look, palming the tears away.
"I nearly married a girl who had every hair color known to man. And a few additional. I know the drill. Tell me what happened."
"I went out with a couple of friends to see a band. They aren't that great to be around, they're always, 'Oh have one drink, what's it gonna hurt?' I was feeling sorry for myself, so I let them talk me into it. They got bored and left after a couple, and I stayed." She tugs the little napkin from beneath her tea and roughly mops her cheeks.
"Hey, easy," he says softly.
"I was barely able to walk when I left, and I cut through an alley. I got mugged. There were two of them. I'm so fucking stupid."
"Hey, c'mon." He reaches across and pushes her hair out of her eyes. She's right; it feels like straw. "It's not your fault."
"I fought them off and ran away, but it's a miracle I didn't get raped or killed."
"Did the cops find these guys?"
"I didn't call the police."
"I was so drunk."
"They have to help drunk people too. These guys are predators. The cops need to know about them."
"And I could give them real valuable assistance." She raises her voice above the noise of another cappuccino. "Let's see, officer, about 5'9" and 6'1", both average weight. Oh, and their faces were all fucked up." She touches a shaky hand to her brow. "And they had yellow eyes and fangs." The steamer cuts off abruptly, leaving the cafe nearly quiet as she shouts the last several words. "That'd be fantastic," she hisses. "Another trip to the Sacred Heart psych ward."
Xander feels like the air has been kicked out of him. He blinks, trying to think of something to say.
"Oh yeah," Willa says. "Your face says it all." She pushes back from the table, rises to go.
Xander peels off after her, catching her arm. "Believe me, my face says very damn little. We need to go somewhere private to talk, but I'll tell you this: You're not the slightest bit crazy."
"My car's around the corner. Would you let me drive you to where it happened?"
"If you don't want to go back, you can just tell me where. I'd like to see it, though. Sounds crazy, but --" Xander shrugs.
"No, I'll go." She keeps stealing glances at him as they walk, puzzled at this sudden change in his manner.
"Can you tell me what they looked like? The heights you mentioned -- were those a for-example, or is that about what they were?"
"It's my best guess. Which isn't all that good -- everyone's taller than me, so I don't think I figure all that accurately. Average build, seemed like."
"White, both of 'em." Not surprising, since it's a predominantly white town. "One dark haired, the other reddish brown hair, as far as I could tell in the street light."
He chirps the car open. "Do you remember anything about what they were wearing? Anything that seemed dated or weird in any way?"
She gets in the car, waits for him to enter. "How can you tell dated in Spokane?" Willa eyes him as he fastens his seatbelt. "I thought you worked at a grocery store."
"Uh-huh. They were just metal guys. Mullets, black rock band t-shirts, black leather and silvery studs kind of guys."
Could be anytime in the last thirty years. "What bands?"
"Jesus, I was getting the crap kicked out of me, I didn't ask their favorite songs."
Xander pays the parking attendant and says, "Which way?"
"Down near the Onion. What is this about?"
He's wanted to spend the rest of his life without giving the vampires-are-real speech. Maybe he isn't obliged this time. Could be they're just passing through. "Anything about them give you the sense they weren't local?"
"Like I said, I didn't bother with 'Where you guys from?' I was trying not to die."
He softens his voice. "I know. Sometimes you get an intuition, you know? That counts for a lot more than people think. Tell me how everything happened. How'd you fight them?"
"Knees, elbows, fists, feet. I screamed a lot, and a car stopped and honked. They stopped running after me, so I took off. There." She points down an alley, and he pulls the car into it and stops.
"Want to come show me, or stay here?"
"I'll come. Maybe I can find my shoes." He waits for her, and together they walk between the brick buildings.
"You think you know where they came from?"
"They were already out here, I think. Maybe from behind that Dumpster. Hey, there's one of them." Xander's heart thuds until he realizes she means her shoe. She retrieves a pastel pump from beside a doorway.
"Willa, you might want to ditch those pointy heeled shoes. Or save 'em for day, if you have to wear them. I don't know yet what the story is here, but nighttime just got a whole lot iffier. If you're going to drink, do it at home. Stay out of places like this, and watch where you are after dark."
"Come on. They're just a couple of inbred meth-heads." Click. There it goes. Sunnydale Denial Syndrome, just kicking in.
"I've got news for you. These guys --" Here it is. That moment when you change somebody's worldview. Enlighten them and usher them into the darkness, all in the same breath. Xander lets out a sigh. He is not going to be that guy for Willa. "Inbred meth-heads can fuck you up pretty bad. Please. There are changes going on in this town. Do those things for me."
"Hey, there's the other -- shit. Somebody must've run over it." She inspects the broken shoe, then slings the pair into the Dumpster. "I loved this pair."
"You came out lucky," he says harshly. "If you want to be safe, listen to me."
"All right. Christ."
"Show me where everything happened."
She points out where she was walking when the first one tackled her, which way she ran.
"Did you use anything besides your body to fight? Sticks? Anything?"
"I threw some stuff at them, that's all. Just crap lying in the alley. An old shirt. Oh, and my shoes. Threw 'em and ran. I've never motored so fast in my fucking life. That car came and I ran into the bar across the street there and called a cab home."
"Smart tactic. Stay where other people are, that's always a good move. But still don't let your guard down." They get back into his car and he makes a slow circuit of the block, checking out all the businesses that open onto the alley.
"Supermarket manager," she says again.
"I wasn't always," he snaps. "I have to be at work. Where can I drop you?"
He drives her home, hoping he's impressed her with some sense of the danger of repeating the other night. He knows he's impressed her with the fact that hey, weirdo. Can't be helped.
Xander begins his shift, marking time until lunch break when he can head out in his car to look for these two vamps.
He goes out for his cigarette at dawn, into a Saturday morning that promises to be chilly and raw. It fits his mood -- he'd gone out around last-call to check the streets around the place Willa was attacked, but had no luck. Morning's gone back to what it used to be in Sunnydale. Xander can't believe how much this depresses him.
"Everything okay, Alex?" Peggy knows something's up. In his whole history at Rosauers, he's never left the premises for lunch break. What would you do at 2 a.m., run errands at Home Depot? (Though now that he thinks of it, he does need to make a tool run.)
He starts to lie, but then doesn't. "A friend of mine got hurt the other night. Mugged. She's okay, but it could have been bad."
"I'm sorry. Did they catch the guys?"
He shakes his head. "She wouldn't go to the police. She was embarrassed."
Peggy makes a noise of disgust. "Why is it that women get embarrassed when men behave like animals?"
"Beats me." But it's why vengeance demons always have work, he wants to say. "Listen, Peggy. I want you to be careful at night. Those guys are still out there, and there are other changes happening here that I'm not so sure about. Pay attention after dark. If your intuition tells you something's off about somebody, listen to it. If anyone ever comes into the store who creeps you out, get me out there." There's already a code they have in case of trouble. "If it turns out you're wrong, it doesn't matter."
As he turns to stub out his cigarette, he's aware of her careful scrutiny. He's been getting a lot of that lately.
"You're a sweet guy, Alex," she says. "'Never change.'" She winks at him.
Xander smiles. "You never change too. Either. Whichever."
They both laugh and head back into the store, and he feels slightly better, although he's not sure why.
Just a few minutes left of his shift. He's itching for a cigarette, or a meeting -- but there isn't a meeting for the problem he's got. I'm Xander, and I'm a vampire hunter.
He's been trying to focus on the classifieds, find a yard sale with some woodworking tools for cheap, but his attention span is shot. "Hey, Peg. Are you hitting the sales this morning?" She's a general when it comes to yard sales, sitting down with the want ads and circling the ones she's interested in, categorizing them by neighborhood.
"You bet. Why?"
"Would you keep an eye out for woodworking equipment? Hand tools, not the power stuff. Call me if you spot a good collection somewhere, if you would."
"Alex, they could sell me an eggbeater for a jigsaw, and I wouldn't know the difference. Why don't you come along, look things over yourself. We'll draw up a new plan."
This is something he's never done, gone on a spur-of-the-moment social outing with a coworker. "That's okay. You've already decided where you want to head."
"I don't care where I go, the point is just to do it. C'mon, rookie, I'll show you how it's done."
"It's early yet."
"Well, we go have breakfast at Frank's, and work out our strategy. Then we start with the eight o'clock sales, and work our way to the nines."
He's drawing breath to say "yeah, okay" when the automatic door opens and in walks Willa. She's wearing jeans and an old school jacket. No makeup, her hair flat and unstyled, dripping with rain. She looks a lot like a half-drowned cat.
"Wow," she says. "You really do work in a supermarket."
"I really do. Uh, Peg, my friend Willa. Willa, this is Peggy."
"Nice to meet you," Peggy says. She closes out her cash register and slips out the drawer as the morning cashier steps in with hers. "Alex, let's plan this for next Friday morning. That's the best day anyway; things won't be so picked over."
"You're on, thanks." He turns back to Willa as Peggy slips on her jacket and goes.
"Can we go to your house?"
So not a good idea. It's full of Willow, of intimacy and arguments and the casual entanglement of their limbs and the resulting hunger in his skin to be touched. So full of these things that there's no room for two people. He starts to say this, but Willa speaks first.
"I can't go back to my place. Maybe I can move back with my parents, but it's too early to call them. I need to talk to you, but I can't, not in public." He sees that -- her hands are jammed so far into the pockets of her jacket that he can see the stitches straining. She's almost vibrating, ready to fly apart.
"Let's go." He lightly touches her elbow, and she jumps. "Easy, it's okay now."
Neither speaks as he drives her to his house up the hill. When he shuts off the car engine, he has to help her from the car like an invalid. Xander takes her into the kitchen and sits her down, then detours to the bathroom for a towel. Handing it to her, he turns to fill the kettle and set it on the stove, but when he turns back the towel is still bunched in her hands, unused. Gently he takes it from her and dries her hair.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
"Those things came. Tried to get in. They shrieked and banged at my windows all night long." She folds in on herself then, keening.
Xander pulls up a chair, drawing her to him and stroking her hair. "It's all right. You're safe now. It's okay."
The kettle squeals and he reaches over to shut off the gas, goes back to rocking her, crooning softly that she's safe now, nothing can get her. He hopes it's true.
After a long time she pulls herself together, withdrawing from his arms. "God, I am so sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry about. Are you ready for some tea now?"
She nods. "Could I have a Kleenex?"
Instead he pulls a soft kitchen towel from a drawer. "Use that. I'm doing laundry later anyway." Xander puts fresh water on to boil, then turns back to her. He waits through a couple of nose-honks then asks, "What can you tell me about last night? Were they the same two vampires?"
Willa stares up at him. "Vampires?"
Shit. Scooby autopilot -- there goes the carefully-laid foundation of logic he was planning to build. Not that he'd had the first idea how to start. "I was planning to work up to that, but I forgot to tell my mouth. So yeah. Vampires are real. Sounds crazy, but you get used to the idea after seven years. I used to fight them."
"The way you said that." She's still completely pole-axed; he's not even sure she's heard anything he's said after the first "vampires." "So offhand. Just another everyday noun, like Kleenex, or dishtowel."
"Back in the day, I saw them a lot more often than I ever saw a dishtowel, believe me."
"You're a vampire killer."
"More of a sidekick, really. Kind of like Robin, without any of the disturbing elements. And that's was, not am. And the term is actually Slayer. There used to be one in the world at any given time, by the way, but now there's a whole bunch of them." He gauges her expression. "This amount of detail is really not helping me out, is it? I just sound like a lunatic with an elaborate worldview."
"No," she says, a little too quickly. "Not at all."
"Come on. I remember the first time I heard this stuff. I thought I'd stumbled into a nutjob convention. But you've got an advantage I didn't have. You've already seen them."
"I'm not sure what I saw."
"You saw fangs and yellow eyes and fucked-up faces. That's what you said to me last night. You can go ahead and unsee them -- people did that in Sunnydale all the time. But a lot of those people got dead."
The kettle shrieks again and he turns away, grateful for a little break in the intensity. "Earl Gray's good, right?"
He breaks out two tea bags and pours a cup for each of them. No teapot -- he hasn't had any need for one. The scent makes him think of Giles. Xander almost wishes he was here to guide him through this -- or better yet, take over.
"I can't remember about milk or sugar."
"No on both, thanks." She cradles her hands around the mug he sets in front of her. "So you're telling me this shit goes on all the time in Spokane."
"I don't have a clue what's going on in Spokane. Two days ago I'd have said this city is a big fat supernatural goose egg." He sits across from her. "This shit does go on all the time in some places. It did in the town where I grew up."
"California, you said."
"Yeah. A town called Sunnydale. It got famous about five years ago for falling into a sinkhole. The whole town, here today and gone tomorrow, only it was more like five minutes."
"I think I heard about that."
This is why he so rarely mentions where he's from -- his whole life, the loss of everything he ever knew, is just a vague piece of trivia to most people. Dawn had called him when it made the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit.
"I can't figure out why they're going after you. Why are they showing up at your place instead of going after the next prey that comes along?"
"Maybe they found out we went back there to look."
"I don't know." He sips at the tea. Apparently tea has nothing to do with Giles's brain capacity, because it does squat for him. What the fuck are they doing here? Is it just those two, or is this the symptom of a serious infestation? It pisses him off that they're in his town.
"Maybe they were watching us, saw you take me home. That's probably it, they think you're a detective, and that I'm willing to testify if you catch them and --"
"Willa. These guys don't give a shit about the cops. I know it takes a few times to sink in -- it did with me. They're vampires. The police don't know how to deal with things like this."
"You don't know that."
A surge of irritation washes over him. "We can try. Want to try? I've got a friend I can call. 'Hey, Straley, got a girl here who's being harassed by vampires. Could you get someone to send a squad car?'"
He summons his patience. "I've had some experience with this. The Slayer got more negative attention from the Sunnydale P.D. than the vampires ever did."
"The Slayer," Willa repeats.
"Yeah." Xander rises, takes a cheap snapshot album from the top of the fridge. Willow had brought it as a gift, full of updated pictures of everyone. He's barely been able to look at it. He flips to a picture of Buffy out playing tour guide in London. "That's her. Buffy."
"She's the Slayer."
"One of, now."
"Is she one too?" She points out Willow, mugging, wild-eyed for the camera, clutching a tiny book. Her Little Book of Calm riff.
"No. That's my best friend."
"The one who was just here, fighting with you?"
Yeah, that one.
She flips the page. "Who's the couple?"
People he refuses to see. Giles and the wife he's never acknowledged. Gently he teases the book from her hands. "I'm sorry. I can't do this right now." He feels bad -- the pictures were providing a distraction, calming her down, but the price is too high.
"Oh. Are they people who died?"
"No." He tosses the album back onto the fridge. "They're the ones who lived."
That's what he can't forgive.
"Look," he says. "I have to stick to my schedule or I'll never get to sleep. You're welcome to stay until it's late enough to call your parents. You could probably use some sleep yourself. I have a guest room." She follows him down the hall and he shows her the bathroom and the spare room, invites her to help herself to towels if she wants to shower. Then he closes himself in his room.
The truth is, he's usually up for another hour or two, but he's on overload right now. Willa and her drama layered over Willa and her legitimate problems. (What the hell kind of parents do you have to wait to call until they're awake to tell them you've been terrorized all night? Oh wait, he knows that one.) Willa and the questions she raises.
He resents her. He's had his life all arranged, in balance. Violence -- except the armed robbery last year -- is just something that filters in through the television. He hasn't had to worry that someone he loves might not be around when the sun comes up. Of course, that's in part because he hasn't let himself love anyone.
Willa's changed everything. Xander realizes he's indulging in a little kill the messenger here, but fuck it, he doesn't have to be fair. She brought this to his doorstep.
What are vampires doing in his town? Willow still crackles with power though she's brought it under control -- were they drawn here by her visit? Is there Slayer activity, some other kind of force, that has demons on the move on a larger level? Willow tried to fill him in on the Great Work while she was here, but he told her he wasn't interested.
He just wants to kill these two and be done with it.
After half an hour of thrashing, he rises and shambles out into the garage in his sweatpants and tee. In the yellowy light of the bare bulb he regards the workbench the previous owner had set up, currently scattered with cans of motor oil, a few boxes. He'd never had space for his own workshop before he lived here, and now he uses it as a place to set things.
The cement floor is clammy against his bare feet as he crosses to the bench. He pulls one of the boxes toward him. Del Monte green beans, according to the printing on the side. Inside is the only woodworking he's done since he moved here: some two hundred obsessively whittled stakes, carved out when he'd first been trying to get sober. Back when he was the poster boy for post-traumatic stress. Good thing Straley and his partner hadn't run across these when they were checking out the house.
He takes two handfuls and heads back into the house. Willa could use a few, and he wants to have some within easy reach in the house and his car. He hits the light switch with his elbow and kicks the garage door closed.
All the layers of history scattered there on the kitchen table like so many pick-up sticks. The nights of carving so he'd have something in his hands other than a drink. Some movie with numerals after the title -- Die Hard 3, Lethal Weapon 4 -- filling the room with noise and light so he wouldn't notice that he was alone. The whittling worked better than the movies did.
He fits one in the palm of his hand, remembering all the times he'd patrolled clutching one of these. The February night he'd walked alone with Buffy, asking her advice about the silver heart he wanted to give to Cordelia. Patrols with Cordy at his side; others, years later, with Anya. Near misses and nights when nothing was shaking, dead or alive. The five months they carried on without Buffy, feeling hollow, scraped out. He thinks of the first time he ever felt the solid connection of wood to flesh and then the sudden absence of resistance. Thinks of Jesse.
Odd to feel this weight in his hand again, stranger still by light of day. It turns everything on its head. He realizes he's been living his life in a graveyard, giving more consideration to the dead than the living. Distancing himself from Willow and Giles and Buffy for the crime of surviving. Hating himself for outliving Anya.
He puts down the stake and retrieves the photo album from the top of the refrigerator. Turns to the photo he's found it hardest to look at. Giles and Catarina, from Willow's visit last fall. Will has them posed in front of the British Museum -- tourist site, Giles's old haunt -- but really the picture's all about love. Both look directly at the camera, laughing, Giles standing behind his wife, arms wrapped around her. He seems to be aging in reverse: The years those last months in Sunnydale piled on him -- especially the abuse Willow dealt him on her wild magic binge -- have fallen away.
Xander had seen it coming before any of them, even Giles. She was the last woman any of the Scoobies would have picked as a likely match for him. She talked and laughed a little too loud, and was fond of ripping off a string of Italian curses at cars and scooters clipping by on the narrow streets. She was also smarter than almost anyone Xander knew, possibly including Giles. It was watching Catarina bring Giles to life again that had spun Xander out of control, pushed him to a place where the desire to be drunk was stronger than his revulsion at the smell of wine. And through all that, it was Giles whose patience with him lasted the longest.
Giles knew what grief was, knew how it encased you, held you apart from everyone around you. Xander hadn't seen that when it was Giles grieving for Jenny Calendar, but he felt that recognition through those months in Florence.
Shame courses through him for begrudging Giles the one thing he deserved most.
Though it was not precisely that he begrudged him his happiness.
Xander just didn't want to see it. Especially couldn't stand to see him in the first flush of love.
Looking at them now, he takes them in three years after the wedding he refused to attend. She's as lovely as he remembers, stylish in a way he recalls in all the Florentine women. Her hand folded over his sports an absolute rock of a diamond -- he can't imagine Giles buying such a thing. It makes him smile.
He rubs at a tickle on his face, surprised when his hand comes away wet.
He closes the album, taking it with him as he walks down the hall back to his bedroom.
The house is quiet when he awakens. Once he'd finally managed to sleep, he hadn't even heard Willa's parents come for her. He heads out to the kitchen, fills the espresso pot and sets it on the burner. The sight of the stakes on the table makes his stomach sour.
She's gone without taking any, and he knows he's let her leave completely unprepared. He hasn't told her what he knows about vampires, how to fight them, how to kill them. If something happens to her --
Xander heads down the hall to strip the sheets off her bed. He opens the door and is halfway in the room before he sees that the tight little heap of covers in the center of the bed is actually Willa, curled in on herself. All he sees peeping out from the coverlet is an outflung hand, the inside of her wrist, delicate and pale as old china. She's so vulnerable, even without the self-destruct impulse. He'll at least give her the basic seminar before he lets her walk out of here. Backing out of the room, he gently closes the door.
Gathering the rest of the linens, he leaves them piled on the washer then returns to the kitchen to finish making his Americano. He finds himself drawn back to the garage, standing for a moment with coffee cup in hand, regarding the workbench. Gauging the light sources, storage possibilities, potential work areas. A guitar, he imagines, takes up a serious amount of space, particularly when it's in pieces. He sets his coffee down and crosses to the bench, clears away the oil cans and the boxes, examining the work surface. No stains or spills, just a lot of dust. Xander finds a rag and wipes everything down.
Xander whirls, his heart hammering. He'd forgotten about Willa.
"I'm so sorry. I meant to be gone a long time ago."
"You needed sleep."
"I've been abusing your hospitality. I'll call the 'rents."
"Don't." He wipes his hands on the rag, tosses it aside. "I should talk you through some things first."
He gestures at the doorway she's leaning in. "Like, this is the door to your apartment. You just opened it tonight and here I stand, a nice, clean-cut young man wearing a tie who'd like more than anything to give you some religious literature. Do you let me in?"
"Nope, thanks, already got plans for goin' to Hell."
"Um, good. I guess. Say I'm a tattooed freak who eats meth like breath mints -- except for the actual eating of breath mints. 'Lady, my rig broke down. Can I come in and use your phone?'"
"God no. Cause I'm not planning to go there tonight."
Xander laughs. "Okay, same sitch, only I'm a sweet young girl, maybe seventeen. You've never seen me before. Can I come in, call my parents?"
"Sure." She steps back out of the doorway.
"Wrong. No. Okay, same girl, only I'm scared. The tattooed biker guy is coming after me. Maybe the missionary too. Please let me in, please."
"Hurry, yeah, come in."
Xander steps inside his kitchen. "Wrong answer. You could be dead. You're safe inside your home if you or someone else doesn't invite them in. If it's after dark, you don't invite in anybody you don't know. Be careful about people you do. You can step aside if you think this girl's legit, and if she is, she'll come in. A vamp needs an express invitation. They can travel during the day, too, if they stay out of direct sun. Never let down your guard."
"That's a shitty way to live," she says, her tone accusing.
"I never said it wasn't." He fills her in on the rest of what he knows: how they're made, how they're killed, what they can do and what's just Hollywood bull. "Your first, best line of defense with these things is to run like hell. A public place is okay if there are a lot of people around, but just being inside won't save you. If the general public has an open invitation, so does a vamp." Xander picks up one of the stakes, hands it to her. "If you can't get away, you'll have to fight."
Willa reacts as if he's handed her a red-hot spike, slapping it down on the table. "Why are you telling me this shit?"
"Because being ignorant isn't going to change things. Because I don't want to lose another one of my friends."
She lowers herself into a chair, giving him the Frodo eyes. "How many have you lost?"
"You can't do numbers, not in a place like Sunnydale. It's like tracking the body count in a Bruce Willis movie -- eventually there's a big carnage scene, and there goes the whole tally. You have to set up filters, criteria: that girl in seventh grade who was always nice when you were at your lockers at the same time, does she count? Or just the friends you'd split your last Twinkie with, or tell about your most excruciating high school crush? Whichever set of numbers you go by, it's a lot." He can't have this conversation with her looking at him like that. He turns to the cupboard, drags out a bowl. "French toast and bacon work for you?"
"Sure, I guess. I mean, only if you're already going to."
Grateful to be moving, making some noise, Xander pulls out two skillets. "Well, there was Jesse. He's the first one I knew exactly what was what. He got turned." He shoots her a quick glance, sees she's not following. "Made into a vampire. Jesse was the first one I ever dusted." That's another term he has to explain to her. "We'd been friends ever since I could remember. Then there was Jenny Calendar. She was a teacher, but she was also our friend. Buffy, the Slayer, she had kind of a mentor, Giles. Jenny was the woman he loved. She got killed by a particularly vicious vampire, just to screw with Buffy's head. Tara, she was a special case. Garden-variety gunshot wound, no mojo involved. Jonathan -- well, not so much a friend, but significant. Ritual sacrifice. My parents -- swallowed in the Sunnydale sinkhole. Anya, my ex-fiancee. She died in battle." The eggs and milk are already frothy, but he can't seem to stop whisking them.
"Battle? That sounds ... big."
"Not like the ones you've seen. Ancient proto-vampires. And these priests of the First Evil, the Bringers."
Her voice is so soft that he barely hears when she asks, "Do you have pictures of them? Your friends. Could I see?"
"Everything's gone," he tells her. "Lost in the cave-in. I came out of Sunnydale with the clothes I was wearing, that's all."
"Oh," she breathes. "That's so sad."
The stainless steel bowl slips on the counter and tumbles to the floor, sending the egg and milk mixture everywhere. "Shit!" He reaches for a dishtowel. "Shit!"
Willa's on her feet, blocking his grasp. "No don't. Where's your salt?"
"No, not the shaker. The box."
Xander reaches into the cabinet, hands her the salt. He feels overwhelmed, incapable of figuring out what to do about this on his own.
She sprinkles salt all over the floor. "This works really well for plain egg. I hope it's as good for milk and egg. Just leave it sit for a while."
"Dinner's ruined," Xander says. He suddenly realizes he's shaking.
"It doesn't matter." Willa steps into the gritty ooze on the kitchen tile, touching a hand to his chest. "It doesn't matter."
Xander can't tell who makes the first move. Heat flashes between them and then his lips are on hers (or hers are on his) and there are hands and tongues, everything moving, and he bangs into the counter, sending a spear of pain into his hip. He shouldn't be doing this with her, she's too unstable, too new at sobriety and he's not so steady himself, he'll only fuck her up worse. But this skin hunger that's awakened in him makes its own demands, drives the urgency of his hands and mouth.
Willa pulls him away from the counter, leading him toward the hallway. They only get as far as the living room floor.
Xander wakes up alone, in his own bed, to two realizations. He's late for work for the first time in his Rosauers career, and he's had himself another Slayer.
He remembers on a deep cellular level the feeling of a Woman of Steel, Man of Kleenex morning-after. Everything hurts in a way it hasn't since he last got his ass kicked by the demon-of-the-week.
This changes everything. All his advice to run whenever possible -- great plan for a civilian, but not for Willa. And a handful of stakes is just a bare beginning. She needs the whole arsenal: stakes, swords, axes, holy water. She needs someone to show her what to do, to tell her how this all works.
Christ, this just gets worse and worse.
He reaches for the phone, gets Peggy. "Peg, it's Xa -- Alex. I'm running late, but I'm on my way. I think I had a mild case of food poisoning, and I fell asleep after. I just now woke up."
"Hon, if you're sick, stay home. You're long overdue." It's true; he hasn't missed a day since he got this job. But he needs a little space, an immersion into everyday routine. He needs to figure this out. (Though what really needs figuring, beyond Horrendously Stupid Idea?)
"No, I'm fine now. I need a few minutes to get myself together, but I'll be there soon."
After he hangs up, he calls out, "Hey, Willa," and shambles out into the hallway. The guest room is empty, the bed made up. "Willa, are you --"
Gone. The sofa cushions are rearranged, the kitchen floor cleaned up. Several of the stakes he'd left on the kitchen table are missing. That's one good thing, anyway. There's a note next to the remaining ones, saying she called her parents, thanks for everything. No phone number, not even a last name. Fuck. Could he have screwed things up any worse?
He heads to the bathroom for a quick clean-up. Well, at least his cover story will hold up -- he looks like shit on a stick. He pulls on his khakis, white shirt, adds the tie and nametag. Lights a cigarette on his way out the door.
Though it's not on the way to work, he swings by Willa's apartment, just to make sure she hasn't lied and gone back there. He breathes a sigh of relief to see her lights off, then heads on in to the store.
He clocks in and starts his nightly routine as Damon empathizes with his illness in great and unwanted detail, trailing him down the aisles. Xander attempts to fling a pickle jar off a shelf two aisles away by telekinesis, but no luck. "You know," he finally says, "I'm still a little queasy. Maybe we should change the subject. How 'bout that J.J.? She hit one out of the park last night."
"She hit three! One right after the other. I saw it."
"No, bud, that was the replays. It was just the one."
"Oh." He's maybe not so impressed now with J.J. Grimaldi.
Peggy has a torn-out classified for him. One of the yard sales she visited. "This lady has a whole set of woodworking tools she didn't have marked for sale. She was widowed last year and they were his, and she wants them to go to a good home. You can look at 'em tomorrow if you go anytime after church."
"That's great, Peg, thanks."
It's a quiet night. He spends much of his shift sketching designs for the woodworking project he'll take to Evan, thinking about different kinds of wood he might use.
That and thinking about Willa, her strong little fingers kneading the muscles of his arms and his back, the satiny heat of her mouth and her --
There's this famous set of rules he remembers hearing, though he can't recall who was supposed to have said them. They went:
Never eat at a place called Mom's.
Never play cards with a man named Doc.
And never fuck anyone who's crazier than you.
The hell of it is, he can't tell which one of them it was who broke Rule #3.
This Sunday dawn is pretty much wasted on Xander. He can't quiet his mind; there are too many thoughts running on too many different tracks.
He's lost another night -- or at least his lunch hour -- to search for the vamps who attacked Willa. He felt compelled to stay and work through, make up for being late. Now he's got two full nights to take up the search, though. He runs through likely places to search as he smokes.
He wonders how Willa fared last night. Whether the vamps found her at her parents' place, or if she had a peaceful night. Or as peaceful as it gets with Willa. How many of her problems stem from being one of the Chosen But Abandoned? She'd have been something like sixteen when she came into her power. What did that entail -- dreams, a changing body and a restless sense that there's something she must do or find or remember? Xander remembers hearing about a psychotic Slayer -- more wacko than Faith, if you can picture that. The few details he knows are radically different from Willa's situation, but still, to have this destiny dumped on you with no guidance at all -- he's rarely thought of Buffy as lucky, but he sees now that she is.
At shift change he drives past Willa's place again. Though he doesn't know the apartment number, he can take down the names over all the buzzers, then narrow it down with the phone book. It's a start, anyway. Her building has only eight units, but he sees when he examines the bank of buzzers that the name over one of them has been removed, the little white card pried out with a key or something. The scratches on the metal frame are fresh, silver streaks on brass.
A man comes out of the building. "Help you?" His tone makes it clear it's not a Mother Teresa kind of help he's offering.
"I'm looking for my friend. Willa. But I'm not sure which apartment number she's in."
"She's not here."
"Could you tell me --"
"I can tell you she's not interested." The way the pugnacious fuck stares at Xander, takes in the eyepatch, he knows the guy's been told about him specifically.
"Okay then," Xander says mildly. "Thanks." He gets back in his car and pulls away, aware of the man's scrutiny the entire time.
Yeah. He's screwed this up good.
Xander's too keyed up to sleep, he knows that without even trying. He heads to the lumber yard, gets a nice deal on some high-quality scraps, then makes a stop at the MegaloMart for a few other supplies.
Bringing his coffee and his cordless phone into the garage, he begins setting up his work area. How could he have forgotten this? The way working with his hands calms his mind, helps him order his thoughts. Some things are measurable, definable -- you might not have any more room for screwing up, but at least you know if you measure and cut with care, you'll generally be okay. He finds comfort in this small certainty.
As he sorts nails and bolts and screws into their bins, he mulls over the situation with Willa. It eats at him to be treated like a stalker, but he gets why. What he did was completely out of line. She'd come to him for help -- first as a sponsor and then with all this inexplicable shit happening to her. At least he'd had the sense not to sponsor her, but since she didn't have anyone else, he was still the closest thing she had. And he'd let his own physical desires, his own loneliness become more important than what she needed. God, he used to be a better person than that. Even when he was a dumb high school kid screwing around with magic to get back at Cordelia, he'd had the integrity not to take advantage of someone who was vulnerable.
And what does he do about the slayer issue? He can just see himself calling Giles, telling him "hey, I found one, then I scared the bejeezus out of her, then I slept with her, then I lost her, and no, I don't know anything but her first name." That would be a great introduction after four years. What Willa needs, anyway, is time. There's a lot she has to process, from the whole new worldview he laid on her to their screamingly unwise fling. If he can just wait for her to work through things, let her make the approach instead of tracking her down, this will go better.
He just wonders if he has time.
It's sometime after noon when he finishes setting up the space the way he wants it. Sleep still seems like it's somewhere on a distant horizon, so he finds the yard sale ad Peg circled and heads out in search of tools.
He finds the house on the South Hill, a Craftsman with huge glacial rocks and spiky native grasses stabbing up from the ground. The woman who comes to the door is much younger than he'd expected, maybe in her mid-thirties. "I guess I'm looking for your mother. Mrs. Paciorek. I'm here about some tools -- Alexander Harris."
"Actually, you're looking for me. I'm Trina. Come on in." She opens the screen door and he steps inside.
"Sorry. Peggy said widow, and I automatically --" Way to remind her her husband's dead, Harris. "I'm sorry," he says again.
"It's all right. She said you're looking for a whole set of woodworking tools." She leads him out to the garage.
"Yeah, I lost it all in a fire a few years back. Lost interest, too, for a while, but I'm getting back into -- Wow. This is amazing." Xander wishes he had a picture of this workshop, everything logically and neatly arranged. He picks up a hand plane. "These are beautiful tools. He took great care of them."
"It was kind of a religion with him." She names a figure for the whole shebang that rocks him back on his heels.
"Trina, no kidding, I couldn't pay that. It's way too low. This is quality stuff -- it must've cost a mint."
"It did, I know. But what is it worth if it's not being used? Greg would've liked knowing it went to someone who appreciates it."
"He was a young man, I guess."
Trina nods. "Thirty six. He went to his best friend's bachelor party. He didn't even really want to go. He left when it started getting rowdy, and some psycho stabbed him out in the parking lot. Stabbed him in the neck with an icepick. Can you think of anything stupider?"
An icy hand squeezes Xander's heart, and he nearly drops the plane. "That's unbelievable. Trina, I'm sorry, that's terrible."
"The police haven't found the killer yet."
"When did this happen?"
She snugs her arms close around her body, clutching her sweater sleeves. "Just over two months ago."
Jesus. They're not just passing through, then. "Much as I'd love to own these things, I don't think you should get rid of them. Not yet."
"What do you mean?"
"My fiancee died several years ago. Everything of hers -- all gone too."
"The fire," Trina murmurs.
A brief hesitation, then: "Yeah. You should have things of his. Especially the things he cared about."
"I do," she says. "I've got a houseful. And it would mean a lot to me knowing someone was creating something beautiful with his tools."
"I can't guarantee beautiful. It's been a long while."
"You'll pick it up again. There's time." Not that different from what Evan said. She pulls out a stash of grocery boxes and starts packing up his tools, and Xander follows her lead. They load everything into the car, then he writes her a check for a hundred dollars more than she asked, leaving before she can argue him out of it.
Xander falls into bed without even unloading his new treasures. Once night falls, he's got some vampire hunting to do.
He wonders if this first night, unless a perfect opportunity presents itself, he should stick to recon. Stakes are the only weapons he has -- he should have spent the day looking into finding more. Would have been a good day for getting some holy water, though probably the Spokane Broadswords R Us is closed on Sundays. Where did Giles get all this stuff, anyway? How'd he amass so much weaponry without getting on some FBI list?
Xander doesn't love the hand-to-hand, and he never caught the hang of swords and battle axes. No one had ever thought to train him, and he's not sure why. Sure, Giles had to concentrate on the Slayer, but maybe Xander would have been more of an asset if he'd learned to handle himself better. It had never occurred to him to ask. You didn't go to adults and demand any more of their time and attention than they'd shown themselves willing to give -- that was one of the first rules he'd learned in life.
That last couple of years in Sunnydale he'd gotten pretty handy with a crossbow. He hasn't picked one up since he lost the eye. He'd probably be a menace now, even though it's his dominant eye that remains.
Screw it, he decides. There's only so much weaponry he can take with him anyway, and only two nights a week that he's free. He finds any vamps, he'll fight them, so Trina doesn't find herself with a whole lot more company.
He cruises the area where Willa was attacked, the bar where Greg Paciorek died, a handful of other places that seem likely to him. As he drives he formulates a plan -- see what he can find on murders and attacks in the Spokesman-Review online, check the obits to narrow his cemetery patrol territory.
His score for the night: 27 cigarettes, 4 aspirins, 0 vamps.
About 5:30 it gets light enough that he packs it in and goes home.
Before he turns in, he finds four more overtly suspicious deaths in the past two months, and two obits he plans to check out tomorrow night. He cuts his finger trying to do some inlay work.
No word from Willa.
The next night Xander actually catches a vamp in the act of rising, and dusts him before he even fights his way out of the grave. A little on the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel side, but sportsmanship won't matter to the people this one won't have a chance to kill. Xander still can't find two who hurt Willa -- they're cagey. (Or he's hopeless; he'd rather think they're cagey.)
He slips into the morning meeting just long enough to look for Willa, but she's not there. Mr. Give-Her-Space has left the building after two tense nights hunting on his own. Why hadn't he gotten a phone number, at least a full name? It makes him angry with himself that he could have sex with her without even knowing that much.
So what can he do now? Call around to the English departments at Eastern and Gonzaga and Wazoo until he finds one of the profs who named their kid after Willa Cather? What then? "Hi, I'm one of your daughter's AA friends, and..."
That thought sparks an idea though. When he gets home he looks on the websites for all three schools, writes down the last names of all the English instructors, then cross-references against the phone book. W is a pretty damn common first initial, it turns out. Some of his matches have addresses nowhere near Willa's place, so he scratches those names from the list. Several list their numbers only, no addresses. A good chance they're women, then. If she's still staying away from home she won't answer, but he can at least eliminate some of the wrong ones. He'll call. But later -- when he's not tired to the point of incoherence.
He sleeps late, haunted by bad dreams.
The usual assortment, with some new added in. Now he can see Willa die in Technicolor, Panavision and slow-motion, along with everyone else he ever cared about.
Finally he pulls himself awake, lights his first and drags himself out of bed. As he waits for the espresso, he looks over the list. Five potentials -- the word quirks his lips into something like a smile. He calls the first.
"May I speak to Willa please? Oh. I'm very sorry to bother you." He repeats this twice more, gets two machines. Neither sounds like her, but that's cheap machines for you. Xander leaves his name and number on both.
He makes another Americano and carries it to his workbench.
Another three days, and no word. Xander heads out for an abbreviated patrol during each lunch hour. Not surprisingly, he finds nothing. He wonders if he's going to have to request a transfer off nights. The idea seems beyond bad. He likes third shift, likes his crew. Someone's going to have to train this girl, though, if she doesn't get herself killed before he gets to her. If not him, who?
He relies on his hands to make that solution clarify itself, working on his audition project for Evan. The morning he puts the finishing touches on it, he heads inside, pages through the phone book until he finds the home number of the two English professors still on his list of potential Willa-parents.
The first number kicks into voice mail, and he hangs up without speaking. The second gets him a live human being, a woman.
"Is Willa there, please?"
There's a pause, not excessively warm. "Who's calling?"
Not good. He's sure he's on the screening list. "My name's Xander Harris." He rushes on before she can give him the brush-off. "I gave her some information the other night, but I didn't have everything she needed. I wanted to make sure she got the rest."
"She's not here now, but if you'd like to leave a number, I can get it to her."
It sounds like a standard polite kiss-my-ass to him, but he gives her his work and home numbers. He hangs up feeling so disheartened he can't even take any satisfaction from the completion of his project. He mashes his cigarette out in the ashtray and takes himself off to bed.
Evan barely looks like he's moved from where Xander last left him when he returns to the music store. He's wearing the black pearl-snap shirt, the black jeans, same black cowboy boots. He looks up from an order form as Xander enters. Setting down down his pen, his left hand automatically moves to massage the right. "You made it."
"I made this." He sets a plastic grocery bag on the counter.
Evan reaches inside, brings out the picture frame. Bloodwood, set with Art Deco chevrons of maple inlay at the corners. Red and blonde, like Will and Buffy, whose picture he slipped behind the glass. Evan examines the it, silent for so long that Xander can scarcely stand still. "This is beautiful work," he finally says.
Freed to demur, Xander points out a flaw. "There's a nick. The close work takes some getting used to."
"Most people wouldn't spot it," he says. Evan looks up from the frame, scrutinizing Xander as carefully as his handiwork. "You hang your tools on pegboard?"
Xander nods. "Just got everything set up again. I found some nice used tools."
"You'll want to store 'em some other way. Or else set up a workbench away from your pegboard. That eye throws off your aim and you miss a peg, you could put a ding in a pretty expensive piece of work."
"Good thinking. Thanks, I'll do that."
Evan rubs a crooked finger over the nick. "There'll be flaws in your first guitar. In your first five or ten. If that's likely to ruin it for you, stick to picture frames. Every guitar you work on will teach you something new. That doesn't mean the first one you build won't look and sound beautiful. But you've gotta have patience with process. That make any sense to you?"
His whole life is process. He's not sure he has patience, exactly, but tolerance he can manage. "All kinds of sense. So I'm in?"
"If you want it."
"How does this apprentice thing work?"
"You start building it. Call or come in if you run into a problem or a question."
"You're a woodworker. You don't need me to show you how to build a box. If you want advice on some of the trickier aspects -- bending the sides or attaching the neck -- I'm here. C'mon, I'll walk you through some of the different woods and what effect they have on the tone of your instrument." Evan takes him on a tour of every guitar in the store, and some of his personal collection in the back, training Xander's ear in the distinctions in fundamental and harmonics created by wood and steel or nylon. He tutors him in sources for wood especially for instrument making, and unrolls layers on layers of plans.
They talk so late that Xander barely makes it to work on time.
Peg suspects Xander's in love, he thinks. Over the next couple of nights she catches him deep in thought about soundboard and body materials, and she notices his agitation when anxieties about Willa surface. When he gets back from his lunch hours out, flushed and slightly disheveled, she smiles. She's asked a couple of neutral questions about Willa, so he knows that's the scenario she's working up in her head.
Still nothing from Willa. He finds comfort in the fact that her parents haven't sent the cops after him, takes that as a hopeful sign that she's not missing or dead. She just wants nothing to do with him. That he's got experience with. That he knows how to handle.
Early into his shift Saturday night, Straley comes in. He has a cart, so he must be gearing up for a visit from the kids. Xander runs into him at the end of the beer and wine aisle. They shoot the shit for a while, about Straley's kids, the Mariners and Xander's guitar-building project.
"I bought a nice set of woodworking tools from a woman up on the South Hill. Her husband was murdered a couple of months ago. Greg Paciorek. You remem--" He doesn't even need to finish the question -- the answer's on Straley's face.
"Oh hell yeah." He shakes his head. "That one made no sense at all. I mean, even for a senseless murder, that didn't add up."
Xander could make it add up for him. He wonders what Straley would say if he told him what he knows. "Has there been anything else like this recently?"
A woman turns her cart into the aisle and they shift to let her pass.
"Nobody's making any statements about it, but there's been another couple of these icepick-in-the-neck stabbings. Another attack where the woman didn't die, but it was a near thing. She couldn't remember any of it. The weird thing is, the physical evidence doesn't add up to one killer."
From the corner of his eye, Xander sees movement, the woman straining to reach for a wine bottle on the high shelf. He'd be moving to help if he weren't focused on what Straley's saying.
"Tall or short, right-handed or left," Straley goes on, "it doesn't match up every time. So, what, we've got two or three icepick killers running around Spokane? This is just between you and--"
The woman cries out and two bottles tip off the shelf. They seem to fall in slow motion, then they crash and everything speeds up to real time, red and glass exploding everywhere and the earthy smell of red wine blossoming in the air. Xander's stomach lurches, his eye socket throbbing with the memory of Caleb, and he spins away from the mess, yelling for Damon. "Aisle seven -- now!" he shouts as he heads for the office, nearly on a run. He slams the door behind him.
Xander falls into his chair, breathing hard, sweat beading his forehead. He can feel Caleb's grip on his face, unyielding as steel, smells the scent of cloves on the breath riding that malicious voice. Feels the ghost of pressure and then pain like nothing he'd encountered before. Hears chaos around him, girls hurt, terrified, running for their lives. Remembers the feeling of his knees giving way, Spike half-walking, half-dragging him, then Buffy coming up on his other side. All this slams back as if it were yesterday. Time at once stretches and collapses, until he's not sure how long he's been in the office when Peg comes in.
"You didn't have to --" She catches sight of Xander. "Alex. What's happening? Do you need an ambulance?"
"No," he says quickly. "Just give me a few minutes."
Peg sits on the desk, brushes the hair back from his eyes. He wonders if she can smell his fear in the air, sour and stale.
"You're shaking. What's wrong? What can I do for you?"
"Just stay a minute." He reaches for her hand, and she grips his in both hers.
"Sure. Damon's keeping an eye on things."
He's still struggling to even out his breath. "Oh Christ. Is he all right?"
"He's afraid you're angry. He'll be okay."
"How about the woman?"
"Rattled, but fine. Your friend got her calmed down."
Friend -- right, Straley. Nice moment for him to witness. He'd already seen Xander's living room littered with shattered glass from an earlier performance.
"What about you?" Peg asks. "What happened?"
There's a light knock at the door and Straley pokes his head in. "Hey, you all right?"
He slides his hand out of Peg's. "Working on it."
Straley nods, says to Peggy, "Mind if I talk to him a moment?"
Shit, here it comes. Peg looks at Xander and he nods. "Go tell Damon everything's okay. I'll be out in a little while and we'll talk."
Peg leaves, closes the door behind her.
Straley takes her place on the desk. "That was pretty textbook."
"Post-traumatic flashback. I went through that a couple of years ago, after a shooting I was involved in. It took a while to shake. I'd hear a loud bang, just about piss myself. Was that it, the noise?"
Xander hesitates, not sure he wants to give this up. But Straley's not asking for anything he hasn't already given up himself. He shakes his head. "The smell. The wine. Night I lost the eye, we were in this winery." He doesn't know how to make this sound plausible or reasonable, but somehow he doesn't much care. "There were casks getting smashed left and right, and the smell -- holy god, I can't describe what it was like. It made me want to gag even before --" He squeezes his good eye shut for a moment, breathes deep. "It was a cluster-fuck. We had wounded, and I went back. Got caught."
Straley looks at him, trying to puzzle it all out. "This wasn't the Gulf. I mean, they're pretty strict about alcohol."
"No, no. God, no. I'm not a vet. This was out in California."
Straley makes a sudden noise in his throat, like he's got it figured now. "I was thinking this before. You were on the job, right? Before the private investigator gig."
On the job -- cop slang for one of them. Xander's not sure how he knows this, but he does. He laughs. "No. It's a long story. If I ever think of a way to make it believable, maybe I'll tell you." He finger-combs his hair back into place. "Well, I've got a shift to get through."
"Like I said, I've been through the same thing." He grabs a pad of rain checks and a pen, scrawls his number. "You need somebody to talk to about the PTSD, I'm around."
Xander shakes the offered hand and follows Straley out of the office. Damon's lingering around Peggy's check stand, looking agitated though she's using her best soothing voice. He sees Xander coming and shifts his feet.
"Hey, buddy. Sorry about the yelling."
"Did I do something?"
"No, Damon. The noise scared me, is all, and I freaked out a little. I shouldn't have yelled."
"I thought you were mad."
"I know, but I'm not. Are we good?"
Damon's answer is about what Xander expected, a rib-cracking hug, with a side of back-thumping.
"I'm gonna go have a smoke now, okay?"
"You shouldn't smoke."
"I know, bud. But this one's medicinal." He pats Damon on the shoulder and breaks away. Stands just outside the square of light from the windows and looks out into the dark night.
Funny how little it takes to bring it all flooding back.
Maybe the vivid reminder of how fast things can go south wasn't such a bad thing. This is what he's thinking as he limps into his bathroom the next night to draw a hot bath. He'd finally engaged with one of the metal-head vamps who'd hurt Willa, and it had turned nasty. He'd managed to get home alive by using a technique ancient even in the time of the Romans -- running like hell.
He can't do this alone.
He's not so sure he can do this partnered with a Slayer, since her training will be up to him.
For the first time in years, Xander drags himself off to bed while it's still dark. Finds himself carrying on the fight even in his dreams.
The phone is ringing when he claws his way to wakefulness. Xander has a distant feeling it's been ringing for a while. Reaching for it sends a flare of pain shooting across his shoulder and down into his lower back. "Yeah."
"Oh god, I woke you up. I thought you'd still be up."
"Doesn't matter. Willa?"
"Yeah. Sorry for disappearing on you. It's kind of a post-coital habit I have. It wasn't you."
He fumbles for his cigarettes on the bedside table. "Listen, I never should have --"
She cuts in. "I can't talk long. I just wanted you to know I'm in rehab. So it'll be a while before you see me around."
Part of him thinks this is a great idea. The rest of him thinks the timing could hardly suck more. "Willa, there's more I need to talk to you about. It's important."
"I know. I got your message. But I'm in lockdown for another three weeks."
Three weeks. Jesus. "Do you feel safe?"
"I do. I'm fine. No more freakouts, no weird hallucinations."
Xander's heart sinks. Sunnydale Denial Syndrome's got her in full grip. "If at any time you don't feel safe, call me. You promise?"
"I will. But I'll be fine. I'll see you in the rooms in a few weeks. I have to go." True to her word, she's gone.
Well, he could take comfort in the fact she's probably in a fortress. Maybe. But it's designed more for keeping her in than keeping something else out. If those two fuckers ever got in....
Xander will just have to find them again tonight. And this time he'll have to finish the job.
He changes tactics. These two have seen him now, and he's not exactly a master of disguise with the eyepatch. He sets himself up in an urban duckblind, a fire escape above the alley where they attacked Willa, with a crossbow he bought that afternoon. Could be he'll take one out before he gives his position away, then he'll have reduced their number by half.
They won't expect him here tonight, he thinks. It's where he fought them last night, and he's sure they'll assume he won't anticipate their return. A lot of he-thinks-they-think-he-thinks, yeah, but he'd bet that he's right. If he's wrong, a cold ass is all he gets out of it. It's being right that might get him killed.
Xander wishes he had a confederate, someone inside the bar to play drunk and oblivious and lure them outside. Instead he has to trust to chance.
Chance, for once, does him a favor, and one of the vamps walks out of the bar with his arm slung over a girl's shoulders. A few minutes later, the other slips outside too, alone. He hangs back as his pal stops to indulge in a little groping with the girl. Xander lines up his shot, telling himself it's really no different from closing his left eye to take aim. He lets the bolt go, and in a heartbeat the vamp trailing behind is a Kansas song.
"Hey, not here," the girl says, covering the soft clatter of the bolt as it falls to the asphalt. "Gross." She pulls her shirt back down.
"Sorry, honey," says the first vamp. "You just make me crazy, you're so hot." He starts nuzzling her again, and turns his back to Xander. It's a good shot, if he'd just stop moving.
Xander lets the next bolt fly, but the shot goes wide, hits the vamp in the shoulder. He shrieks and is turning to see where the assault came from, and Xander scrambles up as quickly as he can with sore, cold-stiffened muscles. He's throwing himself over the parapet edging the roof when he feels fingers scrabble against his boot. His own fingers fumble their way to a stake in his breast pocket, but then the vamp is on him, pinning his hand between them.
"You again." His hands close around Xander's neck, inhumanly strong. (But not as strong as a Slayer's.)
Xander jabs at the eyes (can't say he doesn't learn from the masters) and the vamp rolls off, howling. Both try to gain their feet but it's the vamp who makes it first, uncorking a vicious kick at Xander's ribs. His vision goes white with the pain, and he collapses onto the birdshit-covered roof.
The girl below is on her cellphone, explaining in barely-coherent terms to a 911 operator. Some kind of sniper, she thinks he got her date.
Xander rises to his hands and knees only to receive another kick, this one in the belly. He pukes, and the pain from his ribs goes white-hot again. The vamp lifts him by the hair, baring his neck, and Xander smells the vamp's rank breath as he lowers his fangs and then sinks them into soft flesh.
A gray curtain obscures Xander's vision and he tries to think of a prayer, but Christ is all he can dredge up.
Then a siren wails nearby, growing closer, and the vamp drops him, delivering one last kick before he runs. Running not such a bad idea, but it's more a fantasy than a possibility. Xander staggers to his feet, looking over the parapet. The girl has moved into the street to wait for the cops, leaving the fire escape free. It's not the best escape route, but action flick-inspired moves like jumping to another building are out of the question. He finds his crossbow and hustles down the fire escape the best he can. As the siren noise builds, he breaks into a near run for his car. He glides out the other end of the alley, lights off, before the cop car pulls up at the other end.
Miraculously he makes it into his driveway without passing out. He shuts off the engine, collapses across the front seat, and his last conscious thought is he's amazed not to be dead.
When he wakes up it's nearly dawn, and he is thoroughly fucked. His joints are locked, his muscles stretched tight as guitar strings, and when he moves it feels like there's broken glass somewhere inside. It takes him maybe ten minutes to make it out of the car and into the house.
God, would he like a drink. Or six.
Maybe washing down a big fistful of pills, in one of those fatal cocktails you read about. Death is underrated, he's beginning to think.
Xander limps back to the bathroom to assess the damage. He unbuttons his shirt, but trying to remove it sends him to his knees, bathed in a cold sweat. Should he get himself to Sacred Heart? He tries to remember if they do anything for broken ribs, seems to remember they don't, not even wrapping them. He's breathing, so he hasn't punctured a lung. He's lost blood, but he doesn't think it's a dangerous amount. Fine, good. He'll stay home.
Xander sits on the bathmat, tipping his head back against the side of the tub. Does shivering mean you're in shock? It hurts like hell, that's all he knows. The cold porcelain isn't helping, so he carefully scoots away from the tub and curls up on the rug, slipping out of awareness once more.
Every time he does this, it gets harder and harder to move. Xander considers crawling to the bedroom, but the attempt hurts worse than he could have imagined. Slowly he hauls himself to his feet, takes a piss -- no blood, the best news, really, that he's had all day -- and creeps down the hall to bed. Doesn't so much fall asleep as faint.
This time when he wakes up, he's sorer than ever, if that's even possible, but he feels slightly less broken. He's not sure he could explain that if he had to, but it doesn't matter. He carefully gets to his feet and does an old man's shuffle to the kitchen. He gets the espresso pot going, steps out into the garage to look at the wood that came by express delivery yesterday. Runs his hand along the length of Sitka spruce that will make up the soundboard. It helps him breathe better, somehow, to touch its surface.
Xander returns to the kitchen to rescue his espresso before the pot boils dry, drinks it without bastardizing it. There's a reason they put caffeine in pain pills. Retrieving the cordless phone from the living room, he steps back into his workshop, dials a number.
Someone he doesn't know answers, and he identifies himself, asks for the person he wants to speak to. He waits through a silence, his gaze on the picture of Buffy and Willow that he's placed on the shelf above his bench. Then there's the muffled sound of the phone being passed hand to hand, a murmured exchange including his name.
"You're shittin' me," says the other voice. Then, louder: "Harris?"
"Hi, Faith. How've you been?"
"Can't complain. Well, I could, but no one would give a shit. You?"
"Can't complain." As long as he doesn't try to move or breathe. "I heard you're teaching martial arts these days."
She laughs. "I teach women to kick mugger ass. Nothing arty about it."
There's a pause. "It is. It's important, and it's good work, and I'm bored out of my skull. Which probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knew me when. I heard --" Another pause, laden with significance -- "I heard you work in a grocery store."
"It pays the mortgage."
"Why Spokane?" She pronounces it to rhyme with "cocaine."
"Spo-can," he corrects. "It's quiet. Supernaturally, I mean. A good place to retire from the wars. Or it was. Some vamps have moved in over the last few months. At least two, maybe more."
"There goes the neighborhood."
"No kidding. I killed one of them last night, came close with the other." Came close to dying, too, but he sees no need to mention that part. "That's not exactly why I'm calling. There's something else in town."
"Something bigger than vamps?"
"Yeah. I stumbled across a slayer." He hears the hiss of her breath down the phone line. "I haven't had a chance to talk to her yet about that. She's fragile, Faith. She's young, twenty-one, twenty-two, already an alcoholic. I suspect part of that comes out of being a lost slayer. All those dreams, all that preternatural energy, nowhere to put it and no way to understand it. Like I said, I haven't talked to her about this. I figured it out about a week ago, right when she disappeared. She's safe -- she's in rehab. She'll be in for another three weeks, but when she gets out, she's going to need some training. I can do some of it, but the actual slaying part -- I don't want to get her killed."
"You know Giles is a better choice than me."
"I don't know that. This girl needs someone who's experienced the worst of this curse, but come out of it whole. Giles can tell her she'll be okay. You can show her."
"You really think it's a curse?"
"Yeah. In a way I do. Much the same way Angel's having a soul is a curse."
She's silent for a long moment. "I'll have to see what I can arrange, but yeah. I'll come. Let me make some calls, and I'll get back to you."
"That's great, Faith. I appreciate it." Thumbing off the phone, he reaches for one of the tools on his pegboard to straighten it out. Everything swims and goes black, and he crashes to the floor.
He wonders if he's bleeding internally without knowing it. The garage floor would be a stupid place to die, wouldn't it? The bright side is, at least he has coworkers to miss him -- he wouldn't lie there dead for two weeks until the smell made the neighborhood dogs crazy.
Xander looks around for the phone, tries it and gets a dial tone. Hooray for good old-fashioned Chinese craftsmanship. He thinks about calling Peggy to get him to the hospital, but she's a small woman. No way she could hoist him up and get him into her car if he can't go on his own steam. Damon's not Mr. Cool-in-a-Crisis, and he can't drive anyway -- Xander gets a picture of himself perched on Damon's handlebars, and the laugh that image produces nearly makes him faint again.
Straley's phone number is where he's taken to putting everything he wants to think about -- on top of the spare workbench, the one with the pegboard. It takes an enormous amount of effort to retrieve it and focus long enough to dial seven numbers, and then it rings a long time. Straley finally answers, hoarse and muzzy-sounding.
"Kevin, man, sorry to wake you. It's Xander Harris."
"No problem. I'd be getting up soon anyway. What's up?"
"I could use a favor, and I don't think any of my work friends can handle it. I need a ride to the emergency room."
That wakes him up. "Where are you?"
"Right now, on the floor of my garage. But I'll try to make it to the door in time to let you in."
"Maybe you need an ambulance. What happened?"
"Nah, no ambulance. Got the shit kicked out of me. Just busted ribs, I think, but I figure I should make sure."
Xander hears a muffled commotion in the background, as if Straley's struggling to pull on his pants and hang onto the phone. "Be right there. Is there a window or door I can get into if I have to?"
He directs Straley to a back door with a small pane he could break out to reach the lock, if necessary. "Try the front first. I'm not even sure if I locked the door when I came in."
Somehow it seems extremely important that Xander get his shirt buttoned by the time Straley arrives. He accomplishes that, then works on getting himself into the living room to answer the door. Xander makes it as far as the kitchen, where he sinks into a chair for a breather, when Straley arrives.
The door turns out to be unlatched (There's something to watch, next time he comes in semi-dead from vamp-fighting.), so Straley lets himself in, calls out for Xander. "In the kitchen," he answers. "There's progress. I'm sitting up."
Straley takes in the bloodstained shirt and grime-caked jeans, the bruises on Xander's face that he doesn't remember getting -- maybe from one of the times he fainted. "Jesus. Bad night?"
Xander laughs, and immediately regrets it. "Not that kind."
He doesn't look all that convinced, but makes no comment. "All right. Let's get you on your feet."
"Watch the ribs."
They make it to the car after what feels like a half hour or so, and only three excruciating knee-bucklings. The ride to Sacred Heart isn't a lot better; the roads are for shit after the long winter.
"That does it," Xander says, "tomorrow I write a strongly-worded letter to the Spokesman about these goddamn potholes."
"Maybe wait till you've changed those studded tires," Straley says.
"You gonna tell me what happened?"
"Not just yet. If they ask you what you know, you want to be able to say I haven't told you a thing. I will go so far as to say I'm planning to lie like a bastard in there. Would you flip down my visor?"
Straley reaches across and adjusts it so Xander can see in the mirror. Despite the pain of raising his arm, Xander lifts a hand to adjust the eyepatch.
"If you're in some kind of trouble --"
"Nothing that's going to screw you up, I promise."
"Not what I meant. I'm just sayin', talking about this might make it better rather than worse." He pulls the car under the emergency portico. "Don't move. I'll come around and get the door."
As Straley leans in to help him out of the car, Xander reaches up to his own collar. "I'll tell you after I'm done in there. Here's a preview." He pulls the collar away from his neck. "See this? Not an icepick."
After a few hundred insurance forms, some x-rays and several thousand repetitions of I fell down the stairs and I don't know (Spokane medical staff don't have the don't-ask-don't-tell -- or at least don't-ask-twice -- mentality Sunnydale doctors did), Xander limps out of the hospital pharmacy with a scrip for hydrocodone. He pauses at the water fountain to down a dose, then heads to the entrance where Straley's bringing the car.
"I swung by the sub shop while they were looking you over. I'll need to eat before I go on duty. Got an extra, if you want."
"Yeah, that sounds great, thanks."
Straley points the car back toward Xander's house. "So you've seen our not-an-icepick killer."
"I saw two of 'em, but one won't be troubling you anymore."
"I killed him."
Straley nearly runs a red light, slamming on the brakes when he's already into the intersection. "Shit, buddy, if you go telling me stuff like this, I've got to do something about it."
"I don't think I broke any laws. Guy was already dead."
"How many of those happy pills did you take?"
"I'm going to tell you something you're not going to believe. But I came from a town where the cops closed their eyes to this all the time, and a lot of them got themselves killed. Things are going on in this town now that you need to know about. You can decide whether or not you pass it on, but if you listen to me, you'll be safer."
Straley pulls the car up in front of Xander's house and helps him inside. "You said you killed someone."
"It's a long story. Get the sandwiches."
Once Straley's returned with the subs and gotten them both set up with plates and cans of soda, Xander says, "You asked if I was a veteran or a cop. I'm neither. And in a way, I'm both. Twelve years ago, when I was still in high school, I found myself in the middle of a war most people don't know anything about. The place I lived in California was a hotbed of nasty mystical energies -- and before you dismiss me as a new age wackjob, you can look up one thing. Sunnydale was swallowed whole five years ago. The whole town just disappeared. The newscasters called it a sinkhole, but there are others who say the mouth of hell opened up and choked on the town. I was there when it happened, and I was one of a handful of people who got out. And, bad as that was, there were a whole lot worse things that could have happened that day."
"Okay. I think I'm following."
"A lot of weird shit came out of the Hellmouth throughout the history of this town. It attracted other things to it. One of the things this place had in spades was vampires."
"Aw, for shit's sakes."
For some reason, this reaction makes Xander like him even more. "Pretty close to my reaction, first time I heard this story. I thought these people were wackaloons with extra loon on the side. But I ended up on the side of the believers, and I fought vampires for seven years until the end of Sunnydale."
"You're saying Spokane's overrun by vampires, too?"
"Overrun, I don't know. I know nothing at all was going on here for a good four years since I moved here. That's why I've stayed. I was retired, out of the business. But something's going on now. I know there were two, at least. A girl I know got attacked by them, knocked around but not bitten."
"Well, if she wasn't bitten, how do you know they were vampires?"
"Good question. Good sub, too, by the way. Good going on the sweet peppers." It's official, he thinks. The hydrocodone has made him a touch loopy. He's got to focus, if he's going to make this sound believable at all. "She described what they looked like. 'Faces all fucked up,' she said, and yellow eyes." Xander raises his hand to his brow, wincing. "When they vamp out, they get all ridgy along here. Some are like that all the time, some vampires can slide in and out of it, pass as human sometimes. The yellow eyes thing is a giveaway, too. But only when they're in game face."
"Where do I find this girl?"
"She's --" Oh, great. She's in Dipso Gardens, drying out from her hallucinatory alcohol problem. "She left town. She's due back in about three weeks."
Straley raises two fingers, touches his own neck. "How'd you make these?"
He twitches a smile. "I got stupid and let myself get bitten by a vampire. Like I was saying, I killed one. I don't know yet how many that leaves."
"When was the last time you had a drink?"
"Four years ago, about." He reaches into his jeans pocket, and the shifting of his ribs makes a cold sweat spring to his upper lip. He puts his AA chip on the table, flicks it with a finger across the wood tabletop toward Straley. "I was carrying that as a good luck charm. Can't tell if it didn't work, or it did."
"Shiny and new," Straley says. "Was it the basement stairs you fell down?"
"Got beat up." Xander takes a sip of his soda. Store brand cola, not so bad. "There was a 911 call last night. A girl, saying there was a sniper on one of the rooftops downtown. She said she thought her date was hit, but I'm guessing you never found the date. I know your guys didn't find the sniper."
"How do you know that? You have a scanner?"
"I know what they did find. A wooden crossbow bolt. Or should have, if their heads weren't up their asses. Her date -- which is a charitable way of putting it, he was a pickup from a bar -- was the vamp that kicked my ass. I hit him with a bolt, too, but my aim was off. The first bolt, the one your guys would've found, hit its mark, killed the vamp's cohort."
"You're saying you're our sniper."
"If you can snipe with a crossbow, I guess I am."
"So tell me, did they find the body?"
"Of course not. He dusted. They all do, when you stake 'em in the heart. By the way, useful info to know, you can also cut their heads off, light them on fire, or get them in direct sunlight somehow, but you'll mostly see them at night."
Interesting how all this strange news isn't slowing down Straley's appetite. And being thought to be a raving nutcase isn't affecting Xander's, either. Straley chews thoughtfully for a moment. "Your eye, that was a vampire did that to you?"
"Nope. Plain old evil human-type person."
"Yeah. Sometimes it is as simple as 'us' and 'them.'"
The muffled sound of the phone carries from the garage. "Hell," Xander says. "Would you mind? It's out there."
Straley looks a little relieved for the break. "Sure thing." He disappears into the garage, and the phone stops ringing. Shit. But then he comes back in, saying, "Hang on a sec," and holds the phone up. "It's Faith. You up to it?"
He nods, and Straley hands him the phone. "Hey."
"Ooh, wicked. 'Are you up to it?' Sorry to interrupt."
"No, it's a good time. Here, tell Kevin here what you and Buffy do. About your calling."
"You kidding me?"
"No, I'm not kidding. Just tell him the truth. Hang on." He hands the phone back to Straley.
"Uh, hi." A pause, then he repeats, "Vampire slayer. Did you guys set this up?" Another pause, and then he holds the phone back out for Xander. "She, uh, says tell you she called to give her fuckin' flight information, not to dick around playing games."
Xander can't help laughing, which hurts less through the haze but still isn't fun. "Could you hand me a pen and paper? Yeah, Faith."
"I tried calling a shitload of times. Where the hell were you?"
"Popped off to the emergency room," he says merrily. "Sorry."
"Emergency room? What for?"
Damn. He hadn't planned to let her in on that. He's seriously too loopy to talk anymore. "Nothing. Little action last night, like I said before. It got a bit rough."
"You're all right?"
"All my original parts. Except the one."
"Well, get a goddamn answering machine. You ready for this, or not?"
"Okay, go." He scrawls her arrival information. About a week before Willa gets out, to get things set up. "I'll meet your flight," he tells her. He thumbs the off button. "I gotta crash, Kev."
Straley helps him back to his bed, setting him up with the phone, a fresh pack of cigarettes, water and pill bottle in easy reach. "You need me to call your job?"
"No. I'm good. I'm going in."
"Are you sure that's a great idea?"
"I'm fine. Go." He settles back into a fine, fuzzy warmth, and everything goes dark.
Xander sleeps until the phone rings, fumbling to answer, blinking at the light leaking around the edges of the blackout curtains. There isn't supposed to be light -- it makes no sense to him.
It's Peggy on the line. "I'm bringing some take-out. Is there anything special you want?"
"What time is it?"
"Almost shift change. 6:50."
"Shit! I missed work!"
"No you didn't. I mean, it was a sick day. Your friend came by sometime during second shift to say he doubted you'd make it. Alex, my god, you could've been killed."
He wonders what the now-official story is. "I know. I need to watch where I'm walking."
"Where were you?"
"Um. Basement stairs?"
"You were mugged on the basement stairs?"
"Oh. No. I'm sorry, these pain meds are making me stupid."
"Well, what would you like? Breakfast burrito, steak and eggs?"
He gropes for his cigarettes, gets one lit. "I'd kill for some fried dumplings. The pork."
"It's seven a.m., they'll have to be the frozen ones."
"That's fine. I'm fading, Peg. Call from your cell when you get here. If I'm asleep I won't hear the bell." He drifts back to sleep, but wakes when Peg calls from his doorstep. "Give me a couple of minutes, I'm slow."
She comes in, takes charge. She gets him out of his ruined clothes, the same ones he's slept in two nights in a row. He'd have thought this would mortify him -- he's her supervisor, after all -- but she's so efficient and briskly gentle that it doesn't bother him. Once he's cleaned up and in fresh clothes, they sit on the sofa together watching a DVD and eating breakfast burritos and dumplings. Xander drifts in and out, shoulder to shoulder with Peg, head tipped back.
Briefly it crosses his mind to wonder what Straley's decided to make of everything. He decides he doesn't care.
He feels safe.
Xander misses work Wednesday night, too. Straley calls in the evening to say he'll be over when his shift is up. He arrives shortly after eleven with Chinese food and a sampler pack of Thomas Kemper artisan sodas -- microbrews for the sober.
"Feeling any better?"
"Working on it. I should make it back to work tomorrow."
"Sounds a little optimistic to me." Straley moves all the guitar-making books off the table and sets out the food and the twelve pack. "You get hurt much in your line of work?"
"My line of work? Supermarket managing? Or being a nutcase?"
"I haven't decided you're a nutcase." He rummages in the cabinet for plates.
"You haven't decided I'm not."
"I did a little researching. Chopsticks, or fork?"
"Chopsticks. So what'd you dig up?"
"I read some news reports on Sunnydale. The end, and before. That town had a high death rate."
Xander opens the cartons. Sesame noodles, cashew chicken, Mongolian beef. He scoops out a pile of rice and then some of each of the entrees. "Yeah. Mostly the clueless, but a good number of people who knew enough to be careful. I lost a lot of friends. I like it when my friends have at least a fighting chance."
"I also looked at the files on the so-called icepick stabbings. Always two punctures, right into the carotid. Wounds a consistent distance apart, about where a person's canines would be. As I said before, not so much consistency on other physical evidence, like the attacker's apparent height or weight."
"Does it look like two? Or more?"
"Could be more." He dumps some rice and beef onto his plate.
"So you're still undecided. That's good. That's more than I expected." Xander rises to his feet, moving carefully.
"What do you need?"
"I'm good." He doesn't want Straley getting a look at his stash of wooden stakes. Xander goes into the garage and selects a couple, adds a longer one with a leather cord through a hole drilled in its handle, then returns to the kitchen. "Here's a pair of chopsticks for you. Until you finish making up your mind." He hands over the big one. "And a modified Tire Thumper. If you can get away with keeping that in your cruiser, it could be a good thing to have."
He's not sure he likes the way Straley's eying him as he eases back into his chair.
"You never said. Did you get hurt a lot doing this sort of thing?"
"Broken arm, a couple of times. A lot of bruises. The eye was the worst of it. I didn't get dead, and that's what ended up mattering most."
Xander starts spacing out the pain meds so he can make sense of his second reading of the Cumpiano manual on guitar-making. By Friday when he returns to work, he's down to one just before he goes to bed.
During his off hours, he begins his work with the neck blank. He's grateful to have something to do with his hands, something that eases the restlessness of biding his time. There's nothing he can do right now: Willa's tucked away in rehab, Faith's on her way. She's shipping an assortment of weapons, so he doesn't even have to worry about that. He's not in any shape to go hunting vamps -- getting himself killed will do no one any good. Xander's never had any talent for sitting on his hands; he'd rather make something happen.
He loses himself in the wood, in the feel of having something take shape beneath his hands, slowly emerging as its true self. He's glad he chose the European maple instead of settling for something cheaper for his first effort. The curly figure of the grain flows beneath his fingers -- already he can envision its beauty once the finish is applied. The smell of cut wood is like a distant dream, tickling at his memory and then returning full force after a long period of forgetting.
He mulls over things as he moves on to each step. Thinks about Faith as he applies heat to a steel rod and bends it into shape as a truss rod. The pressure of hands squeezing his throat has featured in his dreams the last few nights. Sometimes it's the vamp, sometimes Faith. Those nights the scent of the cheap perfume she favored invades his dreams -- he used to think it smelled nice, even though Cordelia scoffed that it was drugstore crap.
They pretty much had kept their distance after she broke out of prison to join the fight against the First. He works at the rod with the threading die, turning it forward and then back, forward and back, kissing the new threads with a bead of oil. His run-in with Caleb made a difference -- Faith still kept herself apart, but he could sense her newfound respect whenever he happened to catch her gaze. She parted from the survivors even before he did. Xander suspects she never felt comfortable in a country where she didn't speak the language, where Buffy's blond hair drew stares and comments from the men on the street, and Faith's dark hair and eyes made her blend in with all the other women. She'd stayed in touch with them, though, which was more than he had done. What will it be like to work in close quarters with her after so much time has passed? He can't say.
The steel doesn't give him much. Xander's grateful when he can get back to working with wood, shaping the tenon, the peghead, the heel. His thoughts move to a subject he's shoved to a distant part of his mind for the last couple of weeks -- the ocularist Straley had mentioned after their first meeting. He can't imagine after all this time they'll be able to make him look the way he did before. (Xander remembers the brochures they gave him in the hospital, touting the close matches with the natural eye a custom prosthesis could offer.) The first couple of years after Sunnydale, he wasn't interested in blending in. He wanted visible evidence of his losses to remind himself and everyone around him. By the time he dragged himself out of that pit, he just didn't mind. This is how he looks now -- it isn't even easy to imagine himself the way he used to look. (Though he still didn't let Willow take pictures of him this past visit, asks Peggy not to whenever their crew gets together for a birthday or a picnic.) But now there are different considerations. The eyepatch makes him stand out where he used to blend in, it calls attention to his weakness. It's become a strategic liability.
As he joints the bookmatched plates he wonders about Willa. Xander hopes the rehab takes, but also that she doesn't settle so deeply into the embrace of normalcy that she forgets what she knows. He hopes when he tells her about her destiny it answers her questions, calms some fears she never understood. He hopes he doesn't destroy her.
This part he'll do alone. There's a lot Faith can teach her, but he wants to take that responsibility on himself, for better or worse. It should be someone she trusts who cracks her world open, shapes it anew.
Xander strokes the curly maple sides, thinking about the process ahead: working the sides over the bending iron to shape their curves. He can practice on scrap, but there'll come a time when he has to risk his good wood, more apt to fracture at the curls if handled badly.
He hopes he knows what he's doing.
Xander works each morning and evening until his back and legs ache from standing on concrete. It's not all he does during the twelve days before Faith's arrival. He goes to his job, he smokes (though less than he has in a long while), he drops by Evan's shop to talk about how the work is going. He makes a morning meeting, mostly to reassure Patrick that he's not gone off the deep end. "Got an old friend arriving in town later tonight, so I'm not sure how much I'll be around," he says.
"All the more reason to stick to the program," Patrick says, as Xander knew he would. He's aware that Patrick has noticed his lingering discomfort with the broken ribs -- the man misses nothing. "You don't want to fall into old patterns."
"She mostly predates that," he says, knowing it's more lie than truth.
Xander nods, says nothing.
"Well. You know where to find me if you need me."
"I appreciate it." He goes home, turns on the television as he brews some decaf. Morning tv hasn't gotten any more intelligent since last time he watched. Drifting into the garage, he fingers clamps and saws and skew knives, too restless to settle his attention into work. He gauges the progress of his work: not too bad, for a novice. Out of habit, he whisks off the top of his workbench, then flicks off the lights and heads in to try to sleep.
Xander can locate the exact place in his body where the longing for a cigarette lives. Not his lungs or his bloodstream or his brain, but his fingers. They twitch with the desire to be tapping the pack against the butt of his hand, slipping one cigarette from where it nests with the others, the whole dance of flame and indrawn breath and smoke-filled sighs. But there's a no-smoking sign almost everywhere he looks, and airports are not places to display your disinterest in following the rules, not anymore. He jams his hands into his pockets, standing halfway up the cafe stairs just outside the security checkpoint.
It's like watching the ocean. Waves come surging toward him, some bigger than others, then they subside. He watches the little human dramas around him during the quiet moments -- baby-faced soldiers returning to their families, couples parting just outside the checkpoint -- and feels unaccountably lonely. His hand wanders toward his shirt pocket; he catches himself, rakes it through his hair instead. About the twelve-thousandth time for this two-part action.
Another wave spills down the concourse ramp, and he spots Faith at its front. Moving at a fast clip, loose-limbed, as always like she's listening to some music no one else can hear. She looks the same, long hair worn loose, denim jacket and jeans and a black top marginally less tight than the ones she used to wear. A scarred leather satchel bounces against one hip. Faith skirts the metal detectors and slows, searching the knots of people lingering outside security.
He waits for the little furrow to appear in her brow, then calls her name as he descends the steps. "Thanks for coming," he says, feeling awkward and formal.
She shrugs. "Well, she's one of the sisterhood."
"Do you have luggage?"
Xander leads her to the carousel where people from three flights are milling around. "Are you hungry?"
Distracted, watching for her bags, she says, "After six hours of airplanes? I could eat the ass out of a skunk."
"We'd have to go to Idaho for that," Xander says.
She turns to give him a what the hell? look, then it sinks in and she laughs.
"It's not far," he adds.
"On second thought, a nice bloody hamburger close by would do."
"Sorry, can't do that here or in Idaho."
Another sharp look. "What do you mean?"
"Rare burgers. Restaurants can't serve them, they're illegal. E. coli and all."
"That's bullshit. Out east you eat 'em however you want 'em, and let the goddamn chips fall where they may."
"You can still get those."
"The goddamn chips."
"About time," she says as a battered black suitcase tumbles off the belt. She moves toward it, but Xander cuts her off, lifting it off the carousel. His ribs had been mending fairly well, but this drives a spear of pain into his side. Everything goes gray briefly and he has to pause until his head stops swimming.
"Is this it?" His voice sounds oddly squeezed.
He leads her out the doors to the parking garage. "Did you have a good flight?"
"Harris, no one ever gives a shit about the answer to that one. Including me. Did my weapons get here?"
"Arrived a couple days ago. Everything's still in the crate, but it got here in good shape."
"All right. Good." Faith reaches out for the suitcase as they make the other side of the crosswalk. "For god's sake, let me take that."
It's not the carrying but the letting go that doubles him over, panting. She waits it out without comment, then says as he straightens, "That was your last stupid macho pride moment. That's the shit that will get you killed. We clear?"
"Yes sir, ma'am." Xander stands by as she stashes her bag in the trunk of his car, then they head on into town.
He wishes he knew if this was one of the brighter ideas he's had, or the worst.
Continued in Lilac City: the Artisan.