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."
Strange days. He gets off the phone feeling like the world has tilted off its axis. He's got another ally now, in the last place he'd expected to find one. Nearly as unsettling is the feeling that his own stock has gone up with Angel as well.
Plus: Harmony Kendall.
He's got to remember to tell that one to Dawn in the morning. Nobody else in the house will appreciate the richness of that.
The memory of the Sunnydale rich girls' mafia makes him miss Cordelia in a way he hasn't for years. He's not sure why he never thought about going to see her in LA -- well, other than being a smalltown kid scared shitless of the big city. Other than his certainty that she was traveling in circles way too important for the likes of him. Other than knowing he'd well and truly blown it with her, not that he'd ever really felt good enough.
He'd gotten a couple of Cordy stories out of Angel, with the promise of more. Even over the phone Xander could sense his eagerness to talk about her to someone who knew her as more than just an abstract concept.
Visions of people in trouble, huh? The conduit for what Angel calls The Powers That Be. An even stranger notion than Harmony answering phones and drinking gourmet otter blood. "Cordy was really something, Xander," was how Angel summed it up, and in that bare framework of a sentence, he sees the truth, that Angel was in love with her. He's not sure he wants to know what it means that he and Angel seem destined to care about the same women.
He wanders out to the garage to check on the guitar. Tomorrow he'll glue the linings for the soundboard onto the sides, and after that, he'll glue on the back. Both Cumpiano and Young say to do the soundboard first, but Evan says he always starts with the back. "Whichever you glue on first is the only one you'll get to clean up," he told Xander. "No one'll see the underside of the soundboard, but if you look in through the soundhole, you'll be able to see beads of squeeze-out around the edge of the back."
Xander reaches for the phone, but there's no answer. Evan turns off his phone so often Xander's not sure why he has one. He'll swing by sometime tomorrow, maybe before his first shift back at work.
Despite the Madre della Madonna!-sized coffee from Starbucks, Dawn's more sleepwalking than navigating as Xander sheepdogs her through the terminal. He's glad they had some time last night to talk, since this morning mfffff is about as much as she can manage. When they make it to security, she turns and clutches him tightly.
"God, it's been good to see you so much better," she says into his chest.
Xander blinks. "I didn't know you thought I was unwell."
She releases him so she can look at him. "You haven't seemed like you. You're what held us together, and once you stopped, we've all gone flying off in a million different directions."
He doesn't know what to say to that. That's just wrong.
"But now you're all recharged, and people are being drawn to you again. It feels weird that none of them are people I know except for Faith, but it's kind of neat."
"Look, that's nothing to do with me--"
"Oh, as if." She crushes him in another hug. "I love you, buddy. And I want you to come see me next time."
"Love you too," he says into her hair. He wishes he could ask her to stay, maintain that bridge between his old life and friends and this unsettling new territory. Funny, though. The other end of that expanse is buttressed into nothing, false memories that feel more solid than much of his life the last five years. It's not her place, though. She's not a bridge, no longer a key. Much as she worries sometimes, she's got her own destiny.
He kisses her forehead. "You'd better go," he tells her. "You've got shoes to remove, pockets to empty."
Xander stands on the steps to the cafe and watches her go.
The house is empty when Xander returns from the airport. For a moment it feels like he's stepped back into his old life. He lets himself walk through that life, pretending he's just come back from the morning meeting. Rummaging in the cupboard, he finds his little silver espresso pot, letting his eye slide on past the large coffeemaker he recently bought. Tamping espresso into the basket, he listens to the ruckus of birds in the backyard. The Nelson Muntz bird makes its mating cry. HAH-ha! Peg hears it as Hi, sweetie!, which tells you something about her fundamental world view. She can find love and an extra syllable just for the looking. She's told him the real name of the Nelson Muntz bird, but he keeps forgetting.
It takes a bit of searching, but he finds a breakfast burrito in the freezer and sticks it in the microwave. As he waits for the burrito and the espresso and the water to heat, he pulls one of the slim volumes from the book rack -- one of the old ones, not the Lorca that Willa gave him. He's trying on his pre-guitar self again, just to see how it fits.
Though he'd been making an effort to cut back, he lights up a cigarette. All this, the organic fast food, the smokes, the poems, the single Americano at a time, all had formed the ritual of a man who lived alone. Now the house is full of life and clutter and noise, home to a set of new habits. None of these new routines have yet achieved the status of ritual, not yet. Though Xander thinks Faith's cinnamon rolls may be close.
Something feels off, and he realizes the television should be prattling. He pads barefoot into the living room and raises Katie Couric. Her voice washes over him, serious but reassuring. There's bad news, but a familiar face has come to break it to him.
The microwave beeps, and Xander returns to the kitchen. Assembles his coffee, retrieves his egg-in-a-tortilla, and carries them into the living room. Huggies commercial, minivan commercial, Egg McMuffin commercial, and suddenly he realizes there's a difference between Faith's rolls and his Americano. Her pastries do qualify as ritual -- they are distillation of emotion, the complex (he assumes) range of feelings that surround her freedom. It's five years since Angel and his people got her out of prison, yet a reliable supply of cinnamon rolls are still a security blanket for her, a reminder of something she'd lost and regained. Can routine be called ritual if it's more about the suppression of feeling than the celebration of it? That's what his measured life has been, until recently: a way of being numb without resorting to chemicals (well, except for the nicotine and caffeine).
He reaches for the remote and cuts Katie off mid-sentence, and scrapes the rest of his burrito into the garbage pail under the sink.
Xander has his answer, he guesses. His old self isn't such a great fit -- at least he doesn't want it to be. As he hears his car pull into the drive, he reaches for the coffeemaker and fills its carafe with water.
HAH-ha! comments the Nelson Muntz bird.
When the front door bangs open, Xander turns to greet Faith, unable to suppress a grin.
Straley and Willa trail behind her into the kitchen and on to the basement to stow the weapons.
"Those would be a lot handier if we found a place up here for them. I could do some retrofitting of the coat closet." He slips his arms around her waist, accepts her kiss. "How was the daring daylight raid?"
"Good news and bad news. We cleared out a nest of four, but I don't think that's all of 'em from the store attack."
"There were seven that I know of from the store, and this makes nine."
Straley emerges from the basement stairs. "Yeah, but the guy you described as ringleader wasn't there."
"I think he's busy making himself lots of new friends," Faith says. "We tried to get a location for him out of them, but either they lied or he's moved on."
"He's been quiet too long," Xander says. "I'd like to get him before he comes to us again. And speaking of quiet ... Willa, do you have anything to report?"
She raises her head. "They're the experts."
"You're the Slayer," Xander says. "It's not a question of who's an expert and who's not. You learn this gig as you go, that's the way it's always been. I was doing this for seven years before I took my break, and I'm still on the phone with Giles and Angel trying to get this Red Evan thing sorted out. The most important thing I learned from being part of the Scooby gang, and it was a radical concept in the history of the Council, is that you'll survive a lot better as part of a team. That doesn't mean handing your power to someone else, saying, 'Oh, well, they're the experts.' You draw their power to yourself, you lend them yours. This is why Buffy's still alive, why she was the longest-surviving Slayer in Council history. There's no fading in the background here, Willa. That's a luxury we don't have. Contribute something, even if it's a question."
"I've got one, then. Why do the vampires we run across hang out in the equivalent of crack dens? I mean, they're immortal. If I'm immortal and have powers, I'm not sleeping in a dump."
"Damn good question," Faith says. "I've wondered that myself. For every vamp with taste, like Angel, you've got dozens doing their not-living in shitholes."
"You watched Evan's place," Willa says. "Is it like that?"
"I didn't get a real good look," Faith says, "but it didn't look like it. I don't think it was super deluxe, but it seemed decent."
"There's one thing you have to remember," Xander points out. "A lot of these guys aren't immortal. Yeah, sure, in a perfect vampire world they live forever, but the ones we find in nests, they aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. They were stupid enough to be vamped in the first place, and for the most part, they aren't looking past the easy score. As Angel said last night, they're the live-for-the-moment dead set. Vamps like Angel and Evan who've survived for centuries, they have some talent for strategic thinking, some conception of the future."
Willa's mouth quirks up in a smile. "So somebody could write a great academic paper exploring the correlation between interior design and longevity in the vampire world."
"Well, let's think about that," Xander says. "Maybe we're not finding our ringleader because he's too smart to live in a shitheap. We need to expand our search parameters. Where do we find some living areas protected from sunlight and too much attention, but not necessarily a derelict building?"
"I'll do some asking around," Straley says. "I'll say I'm looking for a place I can rent when I'm on third. I'm thinking cheaper is better."
"I'm thinking you're right. Not stupid, but not job-holding. He's probably supporting himself on petty crime."
"I'll get on that before tonight's shift." Straley grins. "After one more unsatisfying day's sleep I can bitch about."
The meeting of the Scoobies Northwest breaks up, Straley and Xander to their pre-sleep routines, Willa downstairs to train with Faith. Faith lingers long enough to slide her arms around Xander before he puts in some time in the workshop.
She raises a hand to his face. "You're doing fine, baby." She touches her lips to his. "You give good speech."
Two more lingering kisses, then she heads downstairs to train with Willa.
His sleep is fragmented, splintered by dreams and flashbacks to the night of Damon's murder. Finally Xander drags himself up for a long spell under a pounding shower, then he shambles into the kitchen.
"Coffee?" he asks Willa, who's sitting with a book and a half cup of something pale and milky.
"No thanks. There's some already made, but I think it's old."
Sniffing the pot, he dumps it out and works on making fresh. "So you're getting started on that interior design paper?"
She laughs. "I think there's a lack of source material. Have you read this?" She closes the book and turns its cover toward him. "It's Susan Cheever's biography of Bill Wilson."
"You can borrow it if you like. I've read it; I was just looking up some stuff."
"That's all right. I find I can use a tool without needing to know a lot about the guy who invented it." Especially Alcoholics Anonymous, a tool which does the job but doesn't quite fit him. It chafes and makes him tired, but he hasn't yet found anything which works better.
"Did you know he took LSD?"
He pauses in his rummaging through the cabinets. "Huh-uh. I hadn't heard that. Just one more hypocrite, huh?"
"See, I don't think so. LSD was different in its early days. There were a lot of incredibly bright people in America experimenting with it."
"Willa, there are a lot of incredibly bright people crawling into a bottle every day. Incredibly bright people -- and I count myself in that number -- can be stupider than anyone when it comes to fucking up their heads."
"I'm talking about before the whole 'Watch out for the brown acid' thing. All these guys at Harvard thought it was going to bring the human race into the next level of consciousness. It wasn't just something to do on Saturday night."
Xander wishes he knew why every single conversation with this woman ends up in an argument. "Tripping is tripping."
"Richard Alpert used it as a stepping stone to God. He ended up bringing Eastern philosophy to the masses. Who's to say he'd have found it himself if he weren't looking for something that worked better than the LSD?"
"Ram Dass. Be Here Now."
Xander snorts. "The man who launched ten thousand hippies."
"Go ahead and scoff. I happen to think looking for knowledge has a lot more merit to it than looking for numbness."
Ouch. "We kid ourselves all the time about what we're looking for. Making one reason to get stoned more moral than another isn't gonna lead anywhere but another round of rehab."
Her face darkening, Willa gets to her feet. "I'm going out for a run." She bangs into her room to change.
Xander grabs his sketchbook and his ebony and pearl and heads to Evan's shop.
The metal gates are down when he gets there. Xander backs up on the sidewalk, looks up at the windows above. No lights are on, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Faith told him Evan has some way of sealing out the sunlight. Works both ways. Still, he has a bad feeling about this. He approaches the gates again, peering in through the grillwork over the peephole.
He squints, trying to see through the colored film put up to protect the guitars (protect the vamp who owns the store) from the sunlight. Shit. Several of the guitars are missing. He knows from the position of the empty metal stands that it's the expensive ones, the custom guitars, that have vanished.
Xander slams his hand against the grate. "Fuck!"
"Aw, man," says a voice to his blind side. Xander whirls to face the speaker. It's the guy who owns the store next door. "You had a big deposit down with him?"
"Not exactly, but I wasn't expecting this. Do you know anything about it?"
"Nope. Just that he didn't open yesterday, and his car wasn't out back when I came in this morning. It's always out there. I'd almost suspect it didn't run, if I hadn't seen him take it out now and again."
"You think maybe he's just taken a vacation, had an emergency?" Jesus, hope makes you stupid. Yeah, maybe he's on a nice sun-drenched Jamaican holiday. Evan's had an emergency all right. Xander just hopes it's not going to be the kind of emergency that threatens his own life.
As he expected, the shopkeeper shakes his head. "Never taken any time off since I've known him. Could be an emergency, I guess, but he didn't leave me any information. And from what I could see looking in the window, he's taken some stock. Sorry."
"Yeah. Thanks." Xander slips his wallet out, hands the shopkeeper his business card. "Would you mind giving me a call if he comes back, or if you notice anything unusual going on around here?"
There's time to hit the 6:30 meeting, and he drops in, but he finds he can't sit still. The speaker's telling a rollicking story about his own history as a burglar and con man, but all Xander can think of is how badly he's fucked everything up. As the speaker winds up to his climax, Xander stands and slips out the door.
He finds a pay phone that works and calls Straley's number. He doesn't identify himself, just says, "Evan's bolted."
Straley meets him in the cafe at Auntie's. It's fairly deserted due to a reading upstairs, but they find a corner table near a noisy heating duct, where they hunch over their espressos, voices low.
"Padlocked the fucking door," Xander says again. "Taken his best guitars and run. I should've staked him when I had the chance. Christ, how could I be so stupid?"
"You gathered as much information as you could. Haven't you told me that's what your Watcher friend used to do?"
"Not when it comes to vampires. The library's for the end-of-the-world prophecies, sorting out your Harbingers from your Sisterhood of Jhe. Vampires are simple. You encounter 'em, you dust 'em. It's when you deviate from that plan that life gets complicated. Anyone he kills from here on out is on me."
"I'm not completely convinced he's left to go on a killing spree," Straley says. "He picked this place to live because it's quiet, he can blend in. Now he's been exposed, and there's a pair of vampire slayers in town, plus some newly arrived vamps, and there's what looks to be a war heating up. Would you stick around, if you were Evan?"
Xander's silent for a moment. "I am Evan. Except for the butcher's blood habit, I mean. I came here because I was tired, and I just wanted to be left alone. So yeah, I'm here and the war's come to me, but I'm sticking around."
"You have a soul," Straley points out.
"I'm not convinced that's the key to everything. I've seen plenty of bad shit carried out by people with souls."
"Okay, then, you've been a warrior on the side of good. What you're doing here is rejoining the fight. You've pretty much told Evan he can't be neutral. He's not going to make the leap from killer to neutral non-killing vamp to demon fighter. But he may not be willing to fight on the other side, either. Best thing then is to disappear."
"How much longer can he blend in?" Xander asks. "He's slowly losing the form that allows him to pass. Soon he's going to be forced to take sides, and it's not going to be with the people who'll know he's an outsider."
"But how long is soon? Could be decades. He's still passing now."
"Shit, I don't know." He rubs at his good eye with the heel of his hand. The noise level rises as the reading breaks up and people head into the cafe.
"I'll see if we can pick up some information on his car, keep my ears open for other information that might lead us to him, or at least let us know what he's up to."
"I'd appreciate that."
"And I'm still on that nest hunt. I'll see what I turn up there."
"Thanks." They both rise and throw out their napkins and empty cups, and Xander prepares himself to walk back into the scene of Damon's murder.
Xander arrives twenty minutes before his shift begins, taking a quick tour of the outside before he walks in. Nothing unusual that he can see. He enters at the deli end of the store, giving him a chance to scan each aisle as he walks across and back to the office. He waves at the checkers, accepts a couple of hugs. Peg's arrived too; she's sitting on the bench near the entrance, deep in conversation with Bobby, the kid who's taking Damon's job through the summer after being a bag boy his whole high school career. He's a college boy now, quick-witted and smooth with the girls -- it'll be a whole different dynamic from Damon.
Continuing on to the office, Xander checks in with the second shift manager, who has nothing unusual to report. He asks how Xander's doing, how the arm's healing.
"Good. I'll have to be careful about some things, but that's why I've got Bobby. How does Peg seem to you?"
"I'd have given her more time, but if she doesn't want it, you can't make her take it, I guess. She'll be fine once she gets started for the night."
Xander goes over the paperwork he'll be working with, checks the delivery schedules, then heads for the deli espresso counter. He's wired already just from being back, but he gets himself another coffee, rings it up. The second shift checkers are closing out their drawers, and Peg and Bobby are winding up their conversation. Bobby gives her a hug and a few pats on the shoulder before they break it up. Not exactly what he'd have expected from a slick operator like Bobby, but it's nice to see.
"Hanging in?" Xander asks her as she approaches. He makes a gesture that offers a hug if she wants one without being obvious enough to others if she rebuffs him. To his relief, she steps into his arms and wraps hers around him.
"I'm just not going to be stupid about the family I have left," Peg murmurs. His breath catches, and Peg gently pats his back before she lets him go.
"It's going to be different," he says.
"It is. But Bobby's a sweet kid."
They slip into their routines, subtly altered by Damon's absence. He finds himself forgetting now and then, and when there's a light knock at the office door, he looks up, half expecting to see Damon. "Hey, Bobby. What do you need?"
"There's a message I'm supposed to give you. From Darius."
"Darius? I don't know any--"
But his question is answered as Bobby's face transforms. "He said to tell you this isn't over. The retard was just the first."
Xander thinks of Peggy folded in a hug by not-Bobby. How easily he could --
It still sounds like Bobby's laugh, with a new edge that sounds like the ring of clashing swords. "What's wrong, man? You're looking a little green. This is nothing. By the time we're through--"
He clearly underestimates Xander's willingness to punch a stake through the chest of a kid he knows. As his dust spills to the floor, Xander slams out the office door and runs full tilt to the front of the store, stake in hand.
"Xander, what on earth--" She gets a look at his face. "What's happened?"
No one's in the store. "Excuse me," he says, and touches two fingers to her neck. He doesn't need to find the pulse there, a little wild. The warmth of her skin floods him with relief.
"What's going on?"
"You know the stuff I wasn't going to tell you until you felt you were ready?"
"Screw ready," he says. "I'm going to tell you now."
First thing he does is call his house. After seven rings he hangs up, cursing. He's getting everyone cellphones in the morning.
"What's going on? Where's Bobby?"
"What do you mean he's gone? He was here five minutes ago."
Xander takes her hand thankgodit'swarmthankgodit'swarm) and gives it a little squeeze. "I'm going to tell you things that sound nuts. Trust me. This is something I know even better than I know my job here."
"I'm listening," she says.
"Bobby's dead, Peg. I know that sounds crazy, you just were talking to him. That's what's got me so freaked out. The kid you were just talking to and hugging is -- was -- a vampire. He was sent here by the leader of that gang who killed Damon, to let me know they could get to you anytime."
"Why? What do they want?"
Xander doesn't think for a second that she believes him, just that her question is designed to figure out just how entrenched his craziness is. "You heard. They want me to take Faith and Willa and leave."
She shakes her head. "Why you three?"
"Faith and Willa are vampire slayers. I'm -- well, support staff. We're a threat to them, so they're trying to drive us off. I'm sorry this has put you in danger. And god, I'm so sorry about Damon and Bobby. You have to know what's happening, they'll gun for you as a way to get to me."
"I don't understand what you're saying. That wasn't Bobby?"
"He knew who I was. We talked about things only he would remember."
"He has Bobby's memories, yeah. He can even put on a convincing act. But it's not Bobby inside that body. It's a demon."
"Demon," she repeats.
"I know. It sounds --" The doors glide open then, and he opts to quit talking rather than drop his voice. He straightens magazines, neatens the candy racks while he waits for the customers to conduct their business and go. It's not the last frustrating interruption; each time he gets some momentum going on his explanation, gets maybe a little trust or at least a certain amount of logic built up, he's forced to stop. "This isn't how I'd have chosen to tell you," he finally says. "But you can't protect yourself if you don't know what the deal is."
"Demons and vampires," Peg says.
"You said yourself. It was a bite that killed Damon, not an icepick. You saw."
"Is Damon going to be a vampire now too?"
"No. He wasn't turned. There's a ritual that has to be followed. The leader threatened to do it, do you remember?"
"No." She looks out the big front windows, to the parking lot with its pools of light. "I wish you hadn't told me this."
"I wish I hadn't had to. But it's reached the point where you can be happily ignorant, or you can be safe."
"Am I safe?"
She's too damn sharp for him. He wants to lie, but it sticks in his throat. "We're working on that." Xander puts the stake in her hand. "Go for the heart. Like this." He mimics the stabbing motion he can do practically in his sleep. "You can also light 'em on fire. That's how I killed the one in the store the night -- the other night. Driving them into the sunlight works, but isn't quite practical most of third shift. Beheading too, but that's a little hardcore. Keep this at hand. Don't stash it in the till, you need to grab it at a second's notice."
"What about you?"
He almost laughs. "I've got more."
Peg looks at the stake in her hand, then back up at him.
Xander twitches a smile. "Welcome to the Scooby gang."
He'd like to put in a call right now to Giles, but he's unwilling to leave Peg alone in the front of the store. A couple of stock boys are working in the back, but right now he trusts no one. Halfway through his shift Faith and Willa appear.
"We made the rounds and thought maybe we should swing by here too," Faith says.
"I'm glad you did." He walks his Slayers back to the deli area, to one of the cafe tables there. He buys them sodas and they split a submarine sandwich. "We had a message. One of my workers was turned. He had Peg in a big Mr. Sensitive hug and made sure I saw it, then showed himself to me. Said a vamp named Darius had sent him. Ever heard of him?"
"Can't say I have," Faith says. "Did you get any more out of his messenger?"
"Just the posturing, then I dusted him."
She gives him a look. "Think you might've gotten a little more if you'd been less trigger-happy?"
"No. This kid was at Damon's funeral, out in the bright sunlight. He'd only just been turned. He was just the delivery boy, not a member of any inner circle. Speaking of which, I told Peg everything. Or as much of everything as I could between customers walking in. How much she's actually taken in, I'm not sure."
"You think they'll be back tonight?" Willa asks.
"Who can say? I think their plan is to unnerve us -- me -- as much as possible, so I'm expecting unpredictable. How was patrol? Anything happen that might bring us closer to this Darius?"
"Not so much that, but we dusted a couple of his new soldiers as they were rising," Faith says.
"I'll take that any day. Good work. I'm hoping Kevin turns up something that leads to this guy before anyone else gets killed."
"I'm sorry," Faith says. "About this guy who worked for you." She rests her hand on his arm. "Were you friends?"
"Nothing like with Damon. He worked here summers for years, but mostly different shifts. He was just a kid, though, first or second year of college."
"Just a little younger than me," Willa's voice sounds distant.
"Yeah." He's silent for a moment. "We've got a war going now. If we're not gaining ground, we're losing it."
"Why don't you check in with Giles, see if this Darius guy is on his radar," Faith suggests. "Willa and I will hang here, keep an eye out."
Faith catches his hand as they get to their feet. "Shitty night for you, with Evan and now this. I'm sorry," she says again. He'd called her at the house after he'd left Straley and told her what happened. "Want me to do a little breaking and entering, see if we can learn anything?"
"I like that in theory, but I need you here when it's dark, and that's pretty exposed for daytime."
"Never said I was going to scale the side of the building. I didn't read all those Kinsey Milhone mysteries for nothin'. I'll see if I can work up something that looks like a uniform."
"Still, be careful. The guy next door knows he's bolted, and knows who I am and that I'm interested."
Faith and Willa move off to cover the front of the store as Xander heads back toward the office. He gives a customer in the produce aisle a hearty enough greeting to make her visibly nervous. Well, better she's nervous than half asleep.
The call to Giles turns up no actual information, but lets him know this Darius is not a big noise in the vamp world. Giles thinks he'd clearly like to be -- he's got a sense of history to have named himself for one of the great kings of Persia. Xander thinks maybe he just likes Hootie and the Blowfish. By the time he gets off the phone, he's not sure whether Darius is the ringleader at the scene of the attack, or someone calling the shots who hasn't shown himself. But at least he's not dealing with rivers of blood, one of those vamps who cause the dark ones to fear, blah blah blah. Not that a wannabe big noise isn't dangerous enough.
By the time he steps outside for his sunrise nicotine gum, nothing more has happened at all. He knows this tactic is supposed to jack up his tension level, make him wonder when the next attack will come and who'll be the target.
It's doing a damn good job.
Xander has clocked out but hasn't left yet when Straley calls the store. Evan's car has been found by Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Straley's swings by after he's changed into civilian clothes to head to Coeur d'Alene. Xander slides his name tag into his pants pocket and installs himself in the passenger seat.
"We stopping by your place?"
"No need. I let Faith know I'd be back late, but didn't say what was up. I'll wait till we have the full story. I had to promise we weren't going to bust up a nest without her, though."
Straley laughs. "She likes a scrap, that girl."
"She does. Wasn't so funny, the first years I knew her."
"She was a lot less concerned about which side of things she was on." Funny how he's so careful in what he reveals of Faith's history to Willa, yet he's fine with telling Straley. "You didn't want her for an enemy."
"I still wouldn't."
Xander changes the subject, filling Straley in on Darius and his messenger. "Ever happen to hear that name on the street?"
Straley shakes his head. "I'm going to find more excuses to swing past the store while I'm working third."
"I wouldn't turn you down."
The weather is having a tough time deciding what it wants to be as they head into Coeur d'Alene. Dense, dark clouds pile up overhead, with patches of bright blue here and there. The lake water looks dark and choppy as they pull into the parking lot at Independence Point. As he steps out of the car, he spots a few seagulls hunched against the wind at the edge of the water.
Evan's big old boat of a Pontiac squats at the end of the lot nearest the lake. A guy in a uniform hitches the tow bar of a truck to the bumper, while a city cop looks on. Straley introduces himself and Xander to the cop, who tells them the car was seemingly abandoned, parked there yesterday morning in the pre-dawn hours. There was a dollar stuffed in the corresponding payment slot, to cover two hours of parking. The doors were unlocked, the windows rolled down. Nothing of value was found in the car, but anyone could've had access to it during the last 24 hours.
Xander turns and walks away, up the grassy knoll overlooking the lake. (Does anyone ever think of the phrase "grassy knoll" in any good context?) There's a circle of wooden benches, and one scrolled concrete bench that resembles the capital of an Ionic column, with a sunburst plaque on the side and a pole sticking up out of the top. Maybe it's from growing up in Sunnydale, but he can imagine all sorts of nefarious purposes for such a structure. Is this where Evan would have chosen to greet the first sunlight to touch his skin in a thousand years -- if that's what he'd decided to do? Or would he have walked down to the floating boardwalk to let his ashes drift into the waters of the lake? Xander sees no scorch marks up here.
There's a chance that Evan faked this all. Left the car, left the business, walked away to start over again. Xander's mind organizes everything into movie scenarios, but the only one his mental card catalog turns up is Hannibal Lecter's escape in The Silence of the Lambs. Not a good reference point.
His chest feeling hollow, he walks on down to the pier. Kiosks for lake cruises, small plane tours, parasailing crowd the dock, shuttered still. He's not sure whether to mourn, feel pissed off and duped, or what, so he settles on all of the above.
After a while he hears footsteps on the wooden planking, coming to a halt beside him, on his good side. Xander doesn't need to look to know it's Straley. Both stand silently for a moment, then Xander asks, "Who's Alene?"
"Heart of Alene, right? She was some homesick French explorer's girlfriend or wife, maybe daughter?"
Straley laughs softly. "Not even close. It's the name the settlers or the fur traders gave the local Indians. It means 'heart of an awl.' You know, awl, the tool."
Xander considers this a moment. "Sharp. Basically, French for 'These Indians aren't nearly so easy to screw over as those guys who sold Manhattan for $24.'"
Straley laughs again. "Something like that."
"So do we know anything?" His ears are beginning to ache from the wind.
"Can't say we do. Do you have a feeling one way or the other?"
"Yeah. 'One way' on odd numbered minutes, 'the other' on the even. You?"
"Well, he didn't get to be a thousand by being stupid. He could easily set something like this up. On the other hand, what you said last night about it getting harder for him to pass. Didn't he say something that night you found him out, about getting bored with immortality?"
"Yeah. Which could've been the truth, could've been setup." The bright sunlight that warmed him a moment ago is submerged again in charcoal piles of cloud. He shudders in the sudden chill. His California bones were not made for this. "Why don't we get the fuck out of here?"
Straley's got some follow-up to do on his search for Darius' lair, so he drops Xander at the store parking lot. Xander makes a quick run inside for groceries, only to get caught up in a conversation with the day manager. "So Bobby flaked on you last night, huh?"
"Yeah. Stepped outside on his break and just didn't come back."
"Huh. He's never done anything like that before, always been pretty conscientious. Think maybe it was third shift?"
"Could be, I guess. Some people can't hack it. That was, what? His third night?"
The day manager nudges Xander. "Well, it's harder to meet pretty girls at three a.m. Maybe that was the problem."
"Yeah, right." He hates standing here cracking jokes about Bobby's fondness for flirting while the kid in question is currently mingling with food crumbs and dead bees in the office Dust Buster. "I'd better get going."
"Sure. See you, Alex."
The house is quiet when he lets himself in. He unpacks the groceries, heats some leftover soup and toasts some bread, feeling worse and worse as the morning wears on. About Bobby, who's going to be reported missing before too long. About Evan, whose absence might be noticed by a few, but who probably won't be missed. But really, before the last couple of months, Xander could have said the same about himself. He'd never really thought about how lonely a life it was, living among people you didn't consider yourself part of, until he regarded Evan.
Suddenly he remembers the bottles Evan had brought the night of the funeral. He steps out to the front porch to retrieve the bag, a little soggy from the nights outdoors. Clutching it against him, he heads to the garage, where he deposits it on a shelf. He'll deal with it when he knows Willa's out of the house. Though he tries not to look, he finds himself contemplating his guitar, still exposed, awaiting its back and soundboard.
Xander begins removing the binder clips bristling all around the curves of its sides, already mourning the loss of his mentor. He can share this process with Faith, or Straley and Willa, but it's not the same. None of them can advise him, walk him through a difficult procedure or help him make an informed choice. None of them can know, when he's finished this instrument, what it was like to create it, how it felt to pour hundreds of hours into a labor of love.
Whirling, he seizes a piece of scrap and hurls it at the garage door. He grabs a hammer and one of his practice sides, one of the later ones with fair curves, and pounds it into splintered pieces. He's tugging another curved practice side from a jumble of scraps when the kitchen door flies open and Faith cries out, "Your guitar!" She crosses the garage faster than he'd have believed, and yanks the hammer from his hand. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"I -- the guitar's okay. I just -- Evan's gone. He might be dead."
Gently she tugs the maple from his other hand and lays them both aside. "Tell me."
"They found his car, that's all. Abandoned yesterday by Lake Coeur d'Alene, sometime before dawn."
"Where's this, out in the wilderness somewhere?"
Xander shakes his head. "No, there's a park right in the city, on the edge of the lake." Evan made his exit the same way he's spent the last few hundred years -- in the middle of things, but unseen.
Made his exit. No way to tell how permanent an exit it was.
"So you're thinking, what, he went there to wait for the sun to turn him into a six-foot Zippo?"
"You sure that's the only way it could've been?"
"Anything could've happened. The city dock's right there. Or he could have walked over a block or two and stolen a car. Hell, he doesn't have to breathe; he could walk across the bottom of the lake, swim up the St. Joe and emerge in St. Maries."
Faith strokes his cheek. "But you don't think so."
"No. I really don't." His jaw pulses under her hand and his eyes burn.
"I'm sorry. You liked him, I know. I could tell he thought a lot of you. He came here after Damon's funeral. He took that risk for you."
Xander wishes he hadn't, wishes life were still as simple -- relatively speaking -- as it had been before he'd made Red Evan's acquaintance. His lips twist. Now there's a wish with some zing to it. Where's a vengeance demon when you need one?
"Why don't we do something today?" Faith blurts. "Go off somewhere and be together. Sit by the river, get in the car and get lost, play goddamn putt-putt golf. Whatever suits you, baby."
"What about Willa? Why aren't you training?"
"She went to her meeting this morning, then was going to go to her parents' house for the day. They asked her to come, and I figured it'd be good to give her a break. Give us all one. Things have gotten a little intense lately."
"Between her and me, you mean."
"In general. But that too. Nothing a little time off can't cure."
Xander would like to believe that's true. There are so many things he'd like to believe, but he just doesn't have it in him.
He decides to start out by believing a little thing. Surely he can manage that, looking into the dark eyes of a woman named Faith. Time off -- he'll believe in that.
"That would be great," he says. "Just give me a couple hours to crash, then let's go."
After Xander takes Faith to a late lunch at the Steam Plant Grill, they walk to Riverfront Park. The restored 1909 carrousel impresses her less than the vacuum-powered garbage-eating goat. Outside the carrousel house they sit on the concrete steps down to the water, and Faith digs in her bag for the heel of stale peasant bread she brought from the house. They're immediately mobbed by aggressive geese, until Faith throws the rest of the loaf into the water and they flee.
"There's a reason I'm suspicious of nature," she tells him. "I'd rather be dealing with vampires."
He leads her to the catwalk over the falls, which are roaring this time of year. The air temperature seems to drop several degrees as they let the mist settle over their skin. Xander slips his good arm around her waist and she leans into him.
"Harris," she says abruptly. "Are we having a date?"
"Do you want to be having a date?"
"I hate dating worse than I hate nature. I mean, you go out with a near-complete stranger, often doing something you'd never do with one of your friends. You spend the whole time either thinking you might be having a good time if you were with one of your friends instead of the loser you're with, or that you could at least say, 'This blows, let's leave.' And the only thing worse than all the blank spaces between you is the awkwardness of trying to fill them. 'So -- do you have any brothers and sisters? What's your favorite movie? Tell me about your tattoo.' All that horseshit. Jesus, it's unbearable. Much easier to screw 'em and cut 'em loose."
Xander grins. "I don't know, Faith. Once you say the words 'putt-putt golf,' you've entered the realm of dating, as far as I'm concerned."
"The garbage goat doesn't cancel that out?"
"It might've, but geese-feeding cancels that out."
He settles his hand over the base of her spine. "So tell me about your tattoo. It's new since our date involving the Sisterhood of Jhe."
Her dimples come out of hiding. "Now that was a date." After a pause, she says, "I got it after Sunnydale. I was already planning on it before, though, after Angelus and Orpheus and all. I came so close to dying, and the drug took me to a place so dark ... I wanted to mark the fact that I survived that. It kind of ended up being about surviving both of those things." She peers at him. "You don't have that look on your face."
"The must-I-hear-about-Angel look."
"I told you, I've decided to stop being a dick about him. I'm dick-free."
"Don't go totally dick-free. You might want that later."
He grins. "How much later?"
"How long does it take to get home?"
"I know a ploy when I hear one. Sorry. No ejector seat on this date. I think we've got some putt-putt golf to play."
They end up playing laser tag at the Armory instead, and Faith of course racks up a score that Linda Hamilton in full Terminator-chick mode couldn't touch. Xander gives up on not being multiply killed, and develops an out-in-a-blaze-of-glory strategy, blowing up enemy HQ a few times. When he gets his scorecard, he feels all Linda Hamiltony himself.
They turn in their gear, flushed and breathing hard and horny beyond all thought.
It takes, they discover, three and a half minutes to get home.
When they emerge from the bedroom, Faith starts a pot of coffee while Xander goes into his workshop and turns on the hot pot. At her suggestion, their date is winding up here, with Faith hanging out while he glues the back on the guitar. Though he's grateful that Willa wasn't around for the last hour or so, he can't say he's not concerned by her absence.
He steps into the kitchen, gets some frozen cubes of hide glue to drop into the applicator bottle. "Did Willa say when she'll be back?"
"In time to patrol; don't worry." She follows him back into the garage, setting his silver mug in its spot, then perching on the wooden stool with her own coffee.
While he waits for the glue to heat, he begins dry-clamping the back in place. "It's getting almost that time."
"It's working on getting dark, that's all. Nothing says we have to head out right at nightfall."
"I don't know. Wouldn't have hurt to set a definite time."
"She's not a kid, Xander. She doesn't need a curfew. Give her a little air."
He doesn't need this kind of distraction right before gluing up. That doesn't stop him from pushing it further. "Are you saying I'm smothering her?"
"No. But she had a life before we came along. Before she found out she's a Slayer. She needs a little space to maintain that."
He's got the clamps backed off a bit now that he's checked the joint, and he removes them, setting them close by where they'll go. "Wes and Giles gave you plenty of space, I seem to recall. That didn't seem to work too well."
She bristles. "That wasn't space so much as a universe. They neglected me, Xander. Yeah, it was a mistake, you've got that right, but you don't avoid one mistake by making the opposite one."
To his surprise, Xander finds his own hackles rising at the suggestion that Giles did a bad job. "There was a little free will involved there, I think."
Faith sighs. "Of course there was. Christ."
"You think I'm doing a lousy job?"
"I said no such thing. Jesus, you're touchy. I'm just saying you'll hang onto her a lot better if you don't hold on so damn tight."
"I'm almost ready to start gluing up. I can't talk till I'm done." Without giving her a chance to answer, he fires up the portable hair dryer on the bench, aiming hot air at the area he'll be working on. Working quickly and carefully, he applies the hot glue and joins the back and sides, resetting the clamps. He's dimly aware of Faith, who watches for a while, then gets up and wanders over to the shelves.
When he's finished with the last clamp, he cleans off the squeeze-out with a shop rag. He works quickly and methodically, before the hot glue has a chance to cool. Maybe this is for the best, a little time to break the tension. He doesn't have to be so defensive all the time, so quick to believe he's being judged. Wiping his hands with a clean shop rag, he looks around for Faith. "All right. Now we --" He stops when he sees Faith with the shapeless brown paper bag.
"Mind telling me what the fuck this is about?"
"Shit," he mutters.
She is blazing. "I would think so, yeah."
"No, it's not what you think." How lame is that line? Doesn't matter that it's true. "I just brought that in this morning. It's been in the bushes since that night Evan came over."
"That's not helping any."
"He brought it, thinking there was a wake. I made him leave it outside, then with everything that happened, I kept forgetting it was there. I put it in here because -- shit, careful --"
But the bag is ripping and one of the bottles slips through and shatters on the concrete floor. The smell of bourbon blooms in the air, nearly making him gag. Xander hits the garage door opener, raising it halfway. He points his fan toward the gap, drawing the stench outside, reeling off a string of curses. "Do me a favor, will you? Pour the rest of that piss out."
Faith pulls the torn bag away from the intact bottle and says, "Well, looky here."
Turning to look, he sees that the bottle is a little over half full. "Fuck. Fuck. Willa."
All his fault. All his fault.
It's the tune he can't get out of his head, that provides the beat for his walk to work, that accompanies the routines of the beginning of his shift.
How many chances had he had to get rid of those bottles? How could he have believed Willa wouldn't find them just because he didn't deal with them? How fucking stupid could he be?
The smell of bourbon has curled into his head, reminding him how easy it would be to step away from his problems for a while. Couldn't make them any worse. He hasn't had a drink in four years, yet he's just buried one of his friends, lost another, staked a kid he's known for years, savaged Faith out of his fears that he's doing a shit job.
Wrong word, fears. Try certainty. Whatever made him believe he could do this, guide another person anywhere but Loserville? The Harrises own Loserville the way old money families own steel towns and railroad towns. He might get out and see other parts of the world, think he can fit into them, but in the end he'll always come back home where he belongs, maybe even dragging his friends with him.
Peg finds him when things get slow. "You want to tell me what's wrong?" She was never this direct, before all this happened. She merely gave him openings, none of which he ever took.
No, he doesn't want to tell her what's wrong. But he does. "I screwed up, and now Willa's drinking."
"Shouldn't that be Willa screwed up, and now she's drinking?"
"I made it easier for her to slip. I was stupid and careless."
"The world makes it easy for people to slip. They either do, or they don't. That girl is responsible for herself."
Xander shakes his head and walks away.
Peg lets him go for the moment, but later she finds him again. "The reason you're a good manager is you take responsibility for things. But you can take that too far. When you shoulder everything yourself, you become less effective. You can't see what needs to be done or who can best do it."
"You don't --" He suddenly thinks of Buffy, that last year in Sunnydale. How she pulled away from all of them, turned from a comrade into a general. For the first time he wonders if she was as shit-scared as he is now. "Maybe you're right. But I could have done better by her."
"She could have come to you and made that easier."
"Why should she, Peg? Every time we talk, it turns into an argument of some sort. I could say, 'Pretty day, isn't it?' and she'd say, 'We really need some rain.' Two days later, she'd be the one saying, 'Nice weather,' and I'm the one who comes back with the doom and gloom about wildfires in August. I'm not the person for her."
Her gaze sharpens. "You two are an item? I thought you and Faith--"
"No, no. I mean as a Watcher, a mentor."
"You don't have to get along with a teacher to learn from him. Are you sure she disagrees with you? Maybe she just likes working over a topic."
"What do you mean?"
"Looking at ideas, pulling them apart. When my husband and his sister got together, it was like watching someone give a dog a sock and then try to pull it away." Peg shakes her head back and forth, growling, as if on the end of an invisible tug-of-war. "Me and one of my brothers, there'd be bloodshed. But Dave and Cindi just looked at it as entertainment."
Nice thought, but Xander doesn't think that's the dynamic here. Why would she be drinking if he hadn't pushed her to it? Before he can form a response, Faith walks into the store.
She nods at Peg. "Good to see you've got the cross back on."
"After that speech yesterday, I'd be an idiot not to," Peg responds.
"Has Willa come back?" Xander asks.
"No. Is it break time? I'll buy you a sandwich." She accompanies him back to the cafe area, where they sit at the little counter where they can keep an eye on the front of the store. "First thing, I want to know if you're going to throw up my past every time we have a disagreement."
"Don't just say it. Put some thought into it. Was that your style when you got into a fight with Anya? Did you give her the 'What can you expect from a demon?' Because if that's your fallback, this isn't going to work."
"I got a lot of things wrong with Anya, but I --" It occurs to him, though, that he can't honestly swear he never brought up her past during a fight. He doesn't remember doing it, but he can't be sure. "I'll never do that to you again. I promise."
Faith regards him for a moment. "That works for me."
"I'm sorry," he says for good measure. "I've let everyone down."
"Later for that shit, all right?"
Bad as he's been feeling, Xander can't suppress a grin. "Okay then. Let's work out our plan. First thing tomorrow, let's check with her parents. I told her before she went into rehab, if she was going to drink she should do it at home instead of making herself vampire bait. We know there's no problem doing that there." A thought suddenly occurs to him. "We should try her apartment, too. Damn, I never thought of that. She may just be sick of the group home thing."
"Tell me where it is, and I can swing by tonight."
He sketches a quick map. "Just look the place over from the car and drive on by. Willa had some vampire trouble over there, and her apartment manager's been keeping an eye on visitors. He's not a guy you want seeing you skulking around at three a.m. We'll make a real visit tomorrow."
He hopes it's not too late in any one of a dozen different ways.
She's not at her apartment.
She's not at the morning meeting. Xander can't even bullshit himself that he stays through the whole thing in case she turns up -- he's there because he's none too steady himself right now. He'd stick around a few minutes to talk to Patrick, but he's on the last day of a custody visit with his daughter, so instead Xander pulls out his cell and leaves a message that he'd like to have coffee after the 6:30.
After, he stops by her parents' home. In the car, he straightens his tie and makes sure the name tag's not still on his shirt. He doesn't want to look like a Mormon missionary. Though maybe the eyepatch makes him look a little too gnarly for that line of work. He works on arranging his remaining features to look as innocuous as possible before he rings the doorbell.
How much do they know about him, he wonders, a little belatedly. Hi, I'm Willa's sponsor. Hi, I'm the guy your daughter lives with, along with another woman or two. Hi, I'm the nutty cult leader who's filled her with all these notions about vampires and Chosen Ones. He hears footsteps approaching the other side of the door and squelches an urge to sprint to his car.
The door opens a cautious few inches. The missionary defense maneuver. "Mrs. Donovan, I'm Xander Harris, a friend of Willa's."
Her expression becomes marginally less guarded. "Of course. I've heard a lot about you."
Not too much, he hopes. "I was wondering if Willa's around."
She shakes her head. He sees a little of Willa in her delicate, somehow aristocratic features, but there's something much vaguer about the mother. "She was here early yesterday to borrow my car. We aren't expecting her back for another day or two." She narrows her gaze. "She hadn't told you?"
"We must've had a miscommunication. She didn't say where --?"
Her expression shutters further. "No, she didn't." Ah. She's sorting through the fragments of information. He still can't tell if it tips toward cult leader or dubious boyfriend, but neither is good. "I can give her a message if she checks in."
"Just, um, just to give me a call if she would." He thanks her and heads for the car. Shutting the car door, he reels off a string of curses, grabbing his new cell phone.
He hits the speed-dial for Willa, but her line kicks into voice mail after one ring. For all the good he thinks it'll do, he leaves a message, then pushes the button for Faith.
"She's gone," he says when she picks up. "Borrowed her parents' car and isn't expected back for another day or two."
She unleashes a litany of swearwords not unlike his own. "Do they know where she's gone?"
"They're not saying. Maybe you could call later in the day and give it a try."
"Why not now?"
"They'll guess we're connected. God knows what she told them, but her mother was giving me a look that told me I'd better not push it."
Her breath hisses down the line. "So we're looking at her taking off, anyway, not Darius getting his mitts on her."
"I thought I'd try Willow, see if she can do a locator spell from this distance. I'm headed home. Her number's there." He feels a little weird about calling on Willow. They've talked only briefly since their argument-filled visit, and that was during his fog just before Damon's funeral. He hates asking her for anything just now, but this isn't for him.
"Eudora," he mutters. "Where the hell are you?"
It's awkward as hell talking to her, but at least no television sets are harmed during the making of this phone call. She needs an object that belongs to Willa.
"I've got a book she gave me a few days ago. Used to be hers. Is it technically hers, or mine?" He doesn't really want to give it up, since he hasn't had a chance to read all the poems even once.
"It's better if you have something that's definitely hers. Especially something she wears."
He'll have to rummage through her room then, which he'd hoped to avoid. "Okay, Will. I'll find something and overnight it to you today."
"Great. I'll call you as soon as I have something. I've gotta go -- I've got a student here for an appointment. Xander -- I'm really glad you called."
He walks into the guest room but only stands there, dazed. How did things get so weird between them? It seems like Willow thinks they're okay now because he's called to ask a favor, but it felt to him almost like asking a stranger. It was easier, after the initial awkwardness passed, to talk to Angel, for god's sake. With Willow he has the inescapable sense that there's so much they're tiptoeing around.
They've known each other so long, been through so much. Maybe that's the problem: so many layers of history and expectation that they can't break through it anymore. After so much death these last few weeks, it feels like another. He feels hollowed out, scraped raw.
Xander sighs and comes back to himself, looking around him. Looks like a small explosion went off in here. The bedclothes are a lunar landscape, strewn with clothes. There's a small knot of fabric on the floor, and he reaches for it, untwisting it. A little too large to be one of those hair scrunchies, and Willa doesn't have enough hair to scrunch anyway, and oh, god! He drops her thong panties back on the floor, kicks them under the bed. Xander grabs a scarf he's seen her wear and bolts.
Faith's sprawled on the couch, channeling some other personality into the phone. "Her friend Grace, yeah.... Right, yeah, the film thing. She talked about that, but didn't say it was a definite.... No, that's all right. I'll catch up with her when she gets back. Thanks!" She cradles the phone and looks up at him. "Our Slayer's in Seattle. If her parents aren't blowing smoke up my ass."
He stuffs the scarf and a map of Seattle into a FedEx envelope -- along with a more general map of the area, in case there is some ass-smoking going on. "I don't know that I trust them," he tells Faith as they leave the FedEx drop.
"Her mother never opened the door all the way. I just took it as the fuck off, salesman stance at the time, but it's been bugging me."
"You think they could've been turned."
"It wouldn't be out of character for this Darius."
Faith reaches the car and opens the passenger door. "We need to find that fucker and stake him." She pastes on a smile, which she flashes at someone over Xander's shoulder. "To a nice dinner, God bless him."
Xander settles in behind the steering wheel, pulling out his phone and speed-dialling Straley. The only progress he's making on finding Darius is of the ruling out possibilities variety. Xander invites him for a meal before they both report for work tonight.
"We'll probably find out he's some loser who lives in his mother's basement," Faith says. "That's why we're not finding him." She winces. "Sorry."
"I've seen the kind of damage basement-dwelling losers can do. Willow's girlfriend got killed by one, and Will nearly ended the world."
"You're shittin' me. I mean, I know she got pretty powerful, but ... it's still hard for me to see her as anything but mousy Willow."
"Yeah. She got powerful. It didn't do great things to her head. She raised Buffy, I don't know if you heard."
"Angel told me." She's silent for a moment, gazing out the window. "He didn't have to tell me she died, I felt when that happened. Weird, though. I didn't feel it when she came back."
"What was that like?" He rounds the corner onto his street, pulls into his drive. "When she died."
"Like a piece of me was torn out. Sounds like I'm being overly dramatic, but that's the only way I can put it." She gets out of the car, heading into the house with him. She retrieves the mail from the box next to the doorframe, knowing the movement still bothers Xander's shoulder. "I remember I was in my cell, playing cards and talking shit with my cellmate. One minute I'm laughing, the next -- it hurt. I mean it was physical. And then a piece of me was gone."
"I never knew. Never thought --"
"You were there when she died, weren't you?"
Xander nods. "I haven't ever really talked about it. Everyone I could tell was there when it happened." Suddenly he's eager to have something to do with his hands. "Make you some coffee?"
"Not worth making a pot."
"I'll make you an Americano." He assembles the little silver moka pot, fills the basket with espresso blend. "We'd been fighting this hellgod named Glory, all hot to trot to bring on the apocalypse, yet with the Sex and the City wardrobe. She was after Dawn -- did you know this?"
Faith shakes her head.
"Glory needed Dawn for a ritual to open her hell dimension."
"Your standard virgin sacrifice? That's original."
"Well, not exactly," Xander says. That's another long conversation, though; one that'll rip the fabric of Faith's reality. As she would say, later for that. "But close enough. Glory kidnapped her and had her carried to the top of this huge tower. Long story short, Buffy sacrificed herself to save Dawn."
"I've got time for the long version," Faith says.
Xander looks away, pushing back the anger this provokes. It makes him think of Anya, the way she'd prod with questions, unaware of their effect. "Buffy jumped off the tower. She closed the portal, but -- I saw her hit the ground. I don't think I believed she was really mortal, even after she drowned that time -- not until that moment."
Faith lets that statement breathe. Obviously her work's made her better at the sitting still with the heavy emotional stuff; Xander's feeling the motermouth impulse sweep through him, almost impossible to resist. "She was gone for ... months," is all he says.
"Then Willow brought her back."
"We all had a hand in it. Except Spike and Dawn." He turns away again to pour the espresso and hot water into her cup. "I can't talk about that."
She smoothes her hand over his shoulder. "Why don't you work on your guitar a while. Nothing to do right now but wait."
Xander takes her advice, sequestering himself in the workshop, working quickly with the hot hide glue to get the soundboard on. When he finally emerges, exhausted and not altogether sure what time of day it is, Faith's curled on the sofa with a book.
She looks up as he trudges into the living room. "Who'd you piss off?"
She lifts a fat letter-sized envelope from his forgotten pile of mail. "Lawyers."
"Shit." Taking it from her, he checks the return address. A firm he's heard about but never had any dealings with. He tackles the flap, slitting it inelegantly with a finger. Xander reads for a moment, then sits heavily on the nearest chair.
Seems he, Alexander Harris, is now the owner of a music store, lock, stock and stickered tonewoods.
Xander dives for the phone and gets the lawyer whose name is on the letter. The guy's eager to walk him through the terms of the papers, while Xander's more interested in finding out what he can about Evan. Damn little is the answer to that, and it's difficult to tell what the lawyer can't say and what he won't. There appears to be no forwarding address -- if Xander wishes to contact Evan, his attorney will be happy to accept a letter which he'll hold until such time as he can forward it to Mr. Davies.
The gift of the store hasn't been in the works all that long, from what Xander can tell. The whole thing was put together at hyper warp speed between Xander's discovery of what Evan was and the abandonment of his car at Independence Point.
Xander wonders what kind of retainer pays for hyper warp speed. Not to mention a client who won't appear at the office during daylight hours. He makes an appointment to meet at the store and have the keys turned over. "Mr. Davies wanted me to let you know the guitars he made are safe in a vault on the premises, and those now belong to you too."
He doesn't know what to say.
"He also said to assure you that the contingency the two of you discussed won't be necessary."
Translation: Xander will have no need to burn Evan's guitars.
"You'll see everything's quite well set up so that it won't cost you money to own the shop," the lawyer continues. "On the other hand if you chose to sell any of his instruments, I'd be an enthusiastic buyer. I've been a fan of his work for a long time."
"I'll keep that in mind," he hears himself say faintly. This erases his last doubt about Evan's' fate, though maybe it shouldn't. The certainty engulfs him, making it impossible to focus on what's being said about guitars or legal details. He confirms the appointment and gets off the phone.
So this should be good, right? The threat's been neutralized, and Xander didn't even have to do it himself. It's not a death he's had a hand in, but Evan's release from eternal undeath. It's all good, right?
He takes himself off to bed, much later than usual, and by the time he wakes he still hasn't shaken off his dark mood. When he emerges, Faith delivers a message from Patrick, who says he's off to a concert at the Opera House with his daughter, but can meet Xander at the cafe at Auntie's. Around ten or 10:15, depending on when the ex pulls up to pick up Jenna.
The plan makes him marginally calmer, though Xander wonders how this is possibly going to work. Xander can tell him none of what's really going on. He decides it doesn't matter, that being across a cafe table from someone as steady as Patrick will help him.
He's grateful he's got Faith and Straley to speak honestly with. Over dinner, he hands Kevin the thick envelope from the law firm.
"Wow, this is -- let's go with the understatement and say 'unexpected.' How do you feel about it?"
"'Weird' sums things up nicely."
"The guitars that he made?"
"They're in there too. His lawyer told me they're on the premises and they're mine."
Straley rubs a hand over his face. "So he's giving them over to you as hostages, in a sense. A guarantee of good behavior."
"No. I don't think so. He's dead." Xander rises, busies himself with the coffeemaker.
"Are you gonna leave the grocery store and take it over?" Faith asks.
"I don't know. It's a lot different from managing a supermarket."
"Maybe that's a good thing," she says. "You've been just keeping yourself alive long enough. Maybe it's time to do something that means something more."
Xander laughs bitterly. "Don't knock keeping myself alive. It gets trickier all the time. Not to mention keeping my friends alive, which I'm not doing a brilliant job of."
"Why don't you try Willa's cell again. Maybe she's between movies or something."
He finds his own cell, punches in her speed dial number. Same as before, her voice mail kicks in on the first ring. "Willa, hey. It's Xander. Check in, will you? We need to know where you are." He gives her his cell number, signs off. "Someone want to tell me why I thought I could handle this?"
"Because you can," Faith says firmly. "I've got no doubts."
No problem. Xander's got more than enough for the both of them.
It's turned into a raw, blustery night by the time he meets Patrick. Bursting through the cafe doors, hunched in his sports jacket with collar turned up, Patrick shakes the rain out of his hair and offers Xander a damp, chilled hand. "So that's what happened to April," he says. "Back for an encore."
Xander smiles. "Sit down. I'll buy you a coffee to warm up. Decaf?"
"Be fine, thanks."
When Xander returns, Patrick warms his hands around the cup and tells him about the concert, which wasn't so much his cup of tea, but it made his daughter happy, he says.
"I'm glad you two are getting on better," Xander says. "You've been putting a lot of work into that for a long time."
He nods. "Took a long time to screw things up that badly, too. How are you getting along? Back to work yet?"
"Yeah, a couple of nights now. It's been hard. We had our team, and it's like losing a limb to be without Damon." Or an eye.
"Do you feel safe there?"
"Sometimes yeah, sometimes not so much."
"They never caught the guys."
"No. Some, I'm guessing they won't be back. But the ringleader's still out there, and I can't get a solid sense of him. I don't think I've heard the last of him, though." It's impossible, trying to get any of this across when he can't openly talk about any part of it.
"Sounded like other things in your life are kind of unsettled, too."
"Yeah." He cradles his own hands around his coffee for a moment. "You know that girl Willa? From the rooms?"
"Yeah. I saw her at your place the day before the funeral. And you've been walking into the meetings together."
"You sure that's wise? I've seen her on and off for a while, but I don't know that she's been sober for a whole year."
"No. She's had a rough time of it lately. But it's not -- we're not an item. That's not how it is."
Patrick flicks his glance up as a knot of people enters from the bookstore. His gaze lingers on one in particular before he returns his gaze to Xander. "Okay. Do you want to tell me how it is?"
"She needed a place to stay when she came out of rehab. Her parents are partiers and she doesn't feel safe in her own place. I had a free room. She's studying self defense with the woman I'm living with. Faith." It takes him aback to hear himself say it so blithely. The woman I'm living with.
"Are you sponsoring her?"
Xander shakes his head. "She asked me to, but I told her I didn't feel right about the cross-gender thing."
"Did she find another?"
"If she did, it's a deep, dark secret to me."
Patrick rubs a hand over his face. "I know we say 'Act as if' all the time, but that doesn't really include her acting as if you said yes and you falling right in line with her."
"I guess that's what we have been doing."
"I guess so. Shit, Alex, I would've liked to think I guided you a little better than this."
He's right, Xander knows he's right. "I know. But look, it's a little more complicated than that."
"Everyone's story is 'a little more complicated than that'. When was the last time you knew someone to have a simple, straightforward reason for fucking up?"
Xander blinks. Patrick's a pretty straight-talking guy, but he's never been quite so blunt.
Before he can form a reply, Patrick asks, "How's that working out for you?" in Dr. Phil tones that set his teeth on edge.
"A little rocky sometimes. She's gone for a couple of days in Seattle, taking a breather. That's bound to help."
"Don't be so sure." Rising, Patrick leans over the table, one hand planted on the marble surface, the other locked around Xander's left wrist. "That little bitch of yours has been asking a lot of questions. About Darius, which is enough to get her killed. About Orpheus, which is why he decided to let her live. Your little Slayer screws around with that, and she won't be in his way too much longer. Then he's free to concentrate on you and the Boston cunt."
Xander starts to his feet, but Patrick clamps his wrist tighter, the bones seeming to grate together under the pressure. The pain drives him back down.
"I'm here for you anytime, Alex, remember that." He lets just a glimmer of yellow flash through in his eyes, just a suggestion of ridges on his brow before he reassumes his human face. "When you find both your whores lying in their own blood, I want you to know you can call me, day or night. Hell, I'll buy you a drink." A last agonizing squeeze of his wrist and Patrick strides for the door.
When the gray mist clears from his vision, Xander races after him, but by the time he hits the sidewalk, the street is empty.
He runs for his car, already hitting speed dial on his cell. Fuck. Double fuck. Faith answers as he's diving inside, slamming down all the locks. "Faith. Fuck. I just saw Patrick. He's been turned. And he says Willa's been asking around about Orpheus."
She sees his fuck and raises him a motherfucker. "Think he could be lying?"
He pulls out onto Main, making his way toward Rosauers. "When the news is shitty, I generally assume it's true. Meet me at the supermarket. I want to pull Peg out of there."
"I'm on the way. What about Seattle?"
"I think there's still a good chance she went there. Do you really think this is a big enough vamp town to support Orpheus users?"
"It's looking like it's headed that direction. But not yet. What's our next step? Waiting for Willow?"
"I'm torn. Part of me needs to track down Patrick and put a stake in him before he does any more damage. But from what you said about Orpheus, Willa's in serious danger. If we left here now and drove to Seattle, we could be there by the time Willow gets her FedEx."
"It's a long shot, baby. And if her mother lied to me--"
"I know. But we can't sit here doing nothing. We'll get Peg somewhere safe, go to the house for whatever supplies we need, then I vote we head west."
"I'm with you."
He breaks the connection, then speed-dials Straley. "Kevin. Glad I caught you, man. We've got trouble."
"When don't we? What's up?"
"You remember Patrick, who was at my house after Damon died?" He sketches a brief description before Straley makes the connection. "He's my AA sponsor. Well, he's just picked up a new drinking problem. He's been turned, and I wasn't able to kill him."
Straley chimes in with another variation on fuck.
"Yeah. We've got us a war. I'm headed to the market now to get Peg out of there, and I'm staying away too. I'm not sure they'll go after anyone else there, but it might not hurt if you can keep an eye on the place during your shift tonight."
"I'm worried about the late meeting. He could hunt there. A lot of people pair off after to go for coffee, get asked to sponsor someone they don't know well -- there's plenty of opportunity for a vamp who's familiar with AA culture to exploit it. I'd put in an appearance there, but there's another crisis Faith and I are on."
"My partner and I can swing by about the time it might be breaking up, keep an eye out for him."
"What's your other problem?"
"Willa. Patrick told me she was been asking a lot of questions about Orpheus before she took off."
"Not a who. A what. The drug Faith was talking about the other night, that humans and vamps use in symbiosis."
"Right, I remember."
"Faith says it's particularly bad news when a Slayer fools around with it. As in lethal bad news. We think she might have headed to Seattle. That's where we're going, as soon as we get Peg somewhere safe."
"How the hell are you going to find her?"
He pulls into the store parking lot. One of the halogen pole lights, darkened, winks back on. He'll make a point of getting that attended to before he splits. "If there's a Slayer in town, she'll know where stuff like this goes on." There is at least one Slayer in town, he's still certain of that. But J.J. Grimaldi doesn't yet know what she is. "My friend Willow's working on a locator spell that'll pinpoint her if we haven't found her before that. She's waiting on a FedEx from me to get that going. I've got to get inside. I'll update you from the road." Xander snaps the phone shut and strides to the store entrance.
Faith's already stationed inside where she can see both entrances, but Peg's nowhere in sight.
"She was headed back to the time clock."
He nods, keeps going. "The door by the deli locks at eight. You only need to watch this one." He spots Father Bill in the produce aisle, gives him a quick nod and steps up his pace to the office.
Peg's chatting with the second shift manager, pulling her time card from its slot. Xander's never been so glad to see anything as the little cross glittering at her throat.
"Brett, we've got a situation. Peg has to be out of here."
"What?" she says.
"Do you have somewhere safe you can spend the night?"
Brett rises to his feet. "What do you mean, somewhere safe?"
"I've heard threats," Xander says. "Those people who killed Damon. There's word they're still out for me and Peg, god knows why, but I'm not risking anything happening here. I think if we're gone, they'll leave the place alone."
"Have you talked to the police?" Brett asks.
"I have." It's not a lie, really. "The best they can do is send a car around periodically. I'm not risking it. You'll have to get someone to fill in for us. I'm sorry it's such late notice."
"No, Xander, I can't," Peg says.
He tugs the time card from her hand, puts it back in its slot. "I'm not seeing anyone else get hurt. We need to go now." He draws her away from the office, out of earshot of anyone else.
Her gaze searches his face for a long moment, then she nods. "My sister's in Cheney."
"Great. It's on the way."
As Xander walks out the automatic door, he suspects it's his last time as anything other than a customer.
Faith strides out the door half a minute behind them, a plastic gallon jug in each hand. She sets them on the floorboard as she climbs in the back.
"What's that?" Xander asks.
He glances around at the jugs, labeled with a brand name he recognizes. "Aquafina makes holy water now?"
"Nope. But Father Bill does. I asked him to bless 'em for me while he was standing in the checkout line."
Faith accompanies Peg to her place to pick up a few things, while Xander packs for the both of them. Once he's got a few clothes and weapons together, an impulse sends him into his workshop for some ebony and pearl, cordless Dremel, CA and a few other supplies.
It's not until they've dropped Peg off in Cheney and they've got a six-hour stretch of highway in front of them that events finally catch up to Xander. Faith's taking a turn behind the wheel, and Xander stares out into the black expanse, thinking about Patrick.
It eats at Xander that he didn't get a chance to stake him.
Yet he knows once he does, he'll consider it one of the worst things ever to happen to him. Like staking Jesse, however accidental that was. Finishing Patrick will be different, and yes, worse. Patrick has been more than a friend to him. He's counseled him, taken his calls day or night, let him pour his tangled emotions out drunk or sober -- though it's been a long time since he's called Patrick with a bottle in front of him. They've hashed out their thoughts on the universe and God-as-we-understand-him (or don't understand him) more times than Xander can number.
In a way, he was Xander's Watcher. Advising him on fighting his demons. Keeping Xander's history from the first month he lived in Spokane. Keeping him alive.
Face turned toward the window, Xander lets silent tears slip down his cheek. Faith says nothing, but on the long, straight stretches of I90, she rests her hand on his leg.
A few miles out of Moses Lake, he rouses himself and finds Giles's number. This time Giles himself answers.
"Giles, hi, it's Xander." He hears the rustling of work being put aside, attention being shifted.
"Xander, how are things?"
"Remarkably shitty, to put not too fine a point on it."
"Is it Ieuan Goch?"
A sharp and bitter laugh escapes Xander. "He's fallen so far down the crisis scale, he's not even in the picture."
"I'll start with Darius. He may not have made a name for himself yet, but he's working overtime on it. He's sent me a couple more messages about getting out of Spokane."
Giles's voice drops. "What sort of messages?"
"Not so different from the first. Not a full-scale attack, but he's gone after my friends. Turned a kid who works at the store for his first Vamp-O-Gram, and showed me how close he could get to people I care about. When I ignored that message, he sent another new vamp. My AA sponsor."
"Oh god," Giles breathes. "I'm so very sorry."
"Thanks. I took a powder from work, hoping to avoid another attack at the store, and I got my closest friend there to safety. But he's not finished, not by a long shot."
"He seems to be targeting you in particular."
"Well, that's me, demon magnet."
"No, it's more than that," Giles says. "You've drawn two Slayers together, threatened his plans for Spokane. Brought others into the fight as well. He may think of you as the center."
He shakes his head. Giles comes up with the most insane ideas these days. Xander wonders if there's a second in line for the Council gig.
"Have you learned anything more about where he might be?" Giles asks.
"No. But we may not have to worry. He's gonna bring the fight to us. But we've got -- I don't know if you'd call it a breathing space. Faith and I left town. We're on the road to Seattle right this minute. Maybe Darius will believe he's scared us off."
"That's not the entire purpose of your trip."
"No. We're going to find Willa."
"Willow's in Seattle?"
"Willa. With an A. My Slayer. Giles, do you know anything about a drug called Orpheus?"
A sigh whispers across the transatlantic connection. "Yes." There's a pause. "I fooled about with it when I was young and stupid. Only the once, because my friends and I discovered Eyghon a short time later."
"So you know this is serious shit. The last message I got from Darius -- besides the usual about finding my Slayers in a pool of blood and all --" Faith gently squeezes his leg, and he covers her hand with his -- "was that Willa's been asking questions about Orpheus."
"Xander, that drug is dangerous enough for average humans, but for Slayers--"
"I know. It's deadly. It's also survivable. Faith dosed herself up with it to slip Angelus a mickey a few years ago. It was a near thing, but she made it back."
"I hadn't known."
"That's the problem with these super secret organizations, Giles. Nobody tells anybody anything. And while we're at it, SD-6 is not CIA."
"Never mind. This whole thing -- I should have seen it coming. I think Willa's taking this as some kind of vision quest. That she thinks she'll get to understand her enemy better if she goes through this. I'm pretty sure she overheard Faith telling me about her experience with Angelus. She described it as being inside his mind. For a brand-new Slayer who feels uncertain about all of this, it might seem like a way to learn something she can't know any other way. Shit." Everything has suddenly fallen into place. "Ah, Christ. I see it now. She as good as told me what she was going to do, and I missed it. I'm such an asshole."
"What do you mean?"
"She started this conversation about Bill Wilson, the guy who founded AA. How he'd taken LSD, and how so many really smart people once thought it was going to be a gateway to higher consciousness. You see it? She was making her decision then, telling herself Orpheus is the road to wisdom and the higher good, while I sit there giving her the standard Just Say No. Fuck, Giles. I'm worse than half blind. You need to get someone else out here to be her Watcher. Someone who knows what they're doing. If she lives."
"Xander, stop." His voice is gentle, but there's steel underneath. "There's no way you could have known, short of being a mind reader. You didn't even know she'd heard Faith talking about Orpheus."
"We're going to find her, but then I'm turning her over to the Council. I'm not cut out for this."
"You're completely suited for this. Had someone suggested it when I first knew you, I'd have been shocked at the idea. But for someone who wasn't raised to it, trained for it, you have a remarkable talent for being a Watcher."
Xander shakes his head. "Giles, I doubt myself every minute of the day."
"With time, you'll come to doubt yourself only once every five minutes."
He's speechless for a moment. "You had doubts? Back in Sunnydale, when Buffy was the only Chosen One?"
"All the time," Giles says quietly. "I still do."
Faith lifts her hand from his leg to guide the car up a steep rise, and Xander feels strangely untethered.
"You mean I might get to play with the big boys some day?"
Giles laughs softly. "You already are one of the big boys."
It's too much to take in. Once he breaks the connection with Giles, he stares stupidly at the phone in his hand, more shadowed than lit by the dashboard lights.
One of the big boys.
All that he'd wanted from Giles over the years seems like a gumball machine trinket compared to what he's just been given.
You already are one of the big boys.
Faith doesn't break the silence, giving him time to try and enfold all this.
Giles has put him in charge of something -- besides Willa, that is. When the twin crises are over (nice confidence builder, that "when" instead of "if"), Giles wants him to set about remedying the communications problem between the new Council and Angel. There's an enormous amount of history available to one side but not the other, and as Xander had pointed out, it's a waste of resources.
Xander had pointed that out?
Whenever he thinks life can't get any weirder, something new comes along that just boggles the mind. Him and Angel.
And the weird thing is, he doesn't even hate the idea.
It'll make a nice project for Willa, he's thinking. Setting down these newly uncovered pieces of history, categorizing them. He knows from experience how dangerous it can be, having too much time to think. Working on this with Angel and Xander will engage her, make use of her intelligence and love of making connections.
Just as Xander is finding his own talents called into use for the first time since --
Well, since ever.
Angel will go for it.
Willa makes it out of this alive.
At last Xander turns away from the window, puts a hand on Faith's knee. "Feel like taking a break now?"
"Are you sure? How's the shoulder?"
"I'm good for at least an hour, I think. Maybe more. You should get a little sleep."
"First rest stop we come to," she says. "So there's a Slayer in Seattle."
"Yeah. Bettina Sharpe."
"I'm thinking it's better to give her a call now, after she's probably been out patrolling, rather than first thing in the morning."
Xander rubs his brow above the missing eye. Feels like a headache coming on. "You're right, I just -- I'm not sure how to get that conversation started. 'Hi, I'm not a Watcher, but I play one on TV.'"
"Look, I only heard half that conversation with Giles, but it sounds to me like he doesn't think you're some kind of wannabe." She's quiet for a long moment. "Richard Wilkins said something to me a long time ago. That nobody knew what I could become, not even me. As crazy as it sounds, considering the guy was evil and all, it ... it was profound. What he said got me through prison. Made me determined to be different when I came out. Not to make up for the things I did before, because there's no way I can, but to never stop trying. I don't know if that makes any sense."
"All kinds of sense," Xander says softly.
"So the way I see it, this is your big lesson. I think in your case, everyone but you sees who you are. Giles is telling you. I'm telling you. Don't make me go all Tony Robbins on you."
Xander laughs. "Okay, that is the scariest thought I've had all day."
"So call this girl. Tell her you're the Council's man in Spokane." She guides the car onto a rest stop off-ramp, pulls into a space. "Have at it, babe. I'm gonna go pee."
The phone rings long enough that Xander expects an answering machine to kick in, but finally a female voice snarls a hello.
"Is this Bettina Sharpe?"
"Do you know what time it is?"
"As it happens, yes, but I thought if I called too early you'd still be out on patrol."
There's a pause that makes Xander grin. Finally: "Who is this?"
"My name is Xander Harris. I'm a Watcher." He feels like he should say that sentence a few hundred more times so it doesn't feel so damn weird in his mouth, but in the interest of time, he leaves it at one.
There's another pause, and when it ends the tone of her voice has changed. "Xander Harris -- Buffy's Xander?"
He's not at all sure how to take that. "What do you -- where'd you get that?"
"You're in the lessons, dude. New Council pre-history. How come you're calling me?"
It takes a moment of spluttering and stammering for Xander to get it out. "Giles gave me your number. I'm on my way to Seattle, trying to catch up with someone before she runs into a whole lot of trouble. You know the territory -- I need to know where the seedier vampire haunts are. Well. Not that there's the vampire opera or demon cotillions or anything, but the really seedy ones. 'Bite me' parlors and Orpheus dens. Or a demon bar where I can ask around."
"Sure, yeah. I'd be glad to be your guide."
"Hey, listen, you don't have to come with. A few addresses and a look at a map, and I can be out of your hair."
"What, are you kidding? Pass up a chance to rock and roll with one of the original Scoobies? I'd never live it down."
Can things get any weirder? Despite the gravity of everything that's gone on the past few days, Xander feels a goofy grin stealing across his features. Famous.
Couldn't hurt to have someone along who's familiar with the lay of the land. "Sure, that'll save us a lot of time." They make arrangements to hook up when Xander and Faith hit Seattle. After he breaks the connection, he remains in the passenger seat a moment, stunned. Finally he remembers he was switching places with Faith, and by the time he gets out of the car, she's making her appearance at last.
In the eerie shadows from the halogen lamps above, Faith's standard storm-cloud expression verges on the Easter Island. "Can't a girl piss in peace? I had to dust two vamps in there. As if I wanted to hang out there a minute longer than -- what?"
"Did you talk to her? How'd it go? You've got this weird expression."
"How do you mean? What went wrong?"
"No, I mean history lessons. She knew my name."
"How about we get in and go, in case there's more?"
Xander gets behind the wheel and starts the engine, waiting for Faith to snug her seatbelt around her. "They're talking about me in slayer training. That's just ... strange. And Giles never told me." He hears the aggrieved note in his voice.
And, just before he puts the car in gear, hears Faith's soft laughter in the dark.
It gets light a good hour before they get their first glimpse of high-rise. Xander, back in the shotgun seat, pulls out his cell and calls Willow. Not that he expected the FedEx to be there yet, but he tells her he's already on the outskirts of Seattle, and gives her his cell number. "It'll be off if we're raiding a den, but I'll keep checking. Leave as specific a message as you can."
"Gotcha," Will says. "Be careful."
Before another hour goes by, they're leaning over a formica tabletop covered in maps, downing coffee and the donuts Faith insisted they bring (plenty of double chocolate, for once). Bettina Sharpe is a fireplug of a woman who favors spandex bike shorts and basketball high-tops, spiky black hair and enough studs and rings bristling from her ears to set off an airport metal detector. She's invited her Watcher, Dow, a man as tall and lithe as she is squat, whose movements are quick, almost birdlike.
Bettina's trying to be cool, but Faith's presence has thrown her. She's mostly starstruck, with a little flavor of something else, which makes Xander curious as hell to know what they've been saying about Faith in the Slayers academy. Dow just seems nervous.
They map out a strategy, marking the most-likely dens to raid first. By the time they've worked out a plan and torn through the donuts, Willow still hasn't called with an exact location. He finds Dow and Bettina both looking at him. He glances at Faith, who tips him a nod. This is your baby.
Straightening, Xander taps the map with two fingers. "Let's lock and load."
Xander's the one who knocks at the first door. Bettina hangs back in the hallway behind him and Faith; she's known in this place. Dow is in the car, acting as wheel man.
A small panel slides back in the door, and Xander finds himself being studied by a bouncer-type, not in game face. "Yeah?"
He's pretty sure that after the long drive he looks disreputable enough, and the sugar-rush jitters probably add to the realism. "You've got Orpheus, yeah?"
Irritation at the openness of the question twists the bouncer's face. "Who told you that bullshit?"
An impulse sweeps through Xander, and he takes a chance. "Darius."
"Oh, is he back?"
"Nah, we're from Spokane."
The vamp unlocks the door, laughing and turning to address someone inside. "Man, guess who sent us some tourists?"
Xander rocks back and kicks the door into its guardian, and the three of them push into the room. The smell is unreal. Stoned-out humans lay tangled with vampires, oozing bite marks on their necks or thighs. "Get 'em all," he says. If word moves faster than they do, this whole operation is sunk.
He leaves the bouncer to the Slayers, and concentrates on the Orpheus-addled. He stakes two of the three vamps in quick succession and Bettina takes the third. None of the half-naked stoners is Willa. Xander looks to Faith. "Tie them up?"
She shakes her head. "They're not going anywhere for a long while."
They pull the door closed as best they can and hit the street.
They pile into Dow's car and head for the next den.
"You know this vamp Darius?" Xander asks Bettina and Dow.
"Sure," Bettina says. "He's been around since before I was a Slayer. But he left Seattle, what, Dow, maybe eight or ten months ago?"
"Closer to eight, I think."
"What can you tell me about him?"
"He's ambitious," Dow says. "He was the lieutenant of the most powerful vampire in the city. They'd been friends in life, actually, and Kane sired him so they could prey on the city together. But he got restless being second in command, and finally Darius took off to find a town that was wide open. The old 'better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven' story."
Faith laughs. "I don't know if I'd say Hell. Spokane's more Limbo, if you ask me."
"Oh, thanks," Xander says. "So, what, there was an epic battle between the two?"
"Not at all. There'd been some minor conflicts, but neither was willing to escalate it to the usual fight to the death. Just a parting of the ways."
"Fuck," Faith blurts. Everyone looks at her. "So Darius has powerful friends here. He could call on this Kane if we piss him off too severely."
"Maybe," Xander says. "But he's trying to strike out on his own, so maybe not. That could undercut his whole lord of Spokane thing."
"Do you mind?" Xander says. "I might remind you there are places in this country where you're considered a bunch of hicks, too, only with pretensions about coffee."
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Faith asks Xander.
"We go kill this Kane while we're here, just to be on the safe side."
Bettina bristles, but before she can speak, Xander's phone plays its annoying little ditty.
"Willow. Hey. What's the good word?" With surprising swiftness, a dark tide of doubt washes over him. Maybe Seattle was a red herring, and they've wasted all kinds of time.
"The spell's done. I've got her pinpointed in Seattle. Down by the docks."
Xander feels his breath release in a rush, and he relays the location to Dow, who changes course and heads them toward the waterfront.
"Thanks Will. You saved us some time. We had the place, but it was a lot farther down on our list."
"Stay safe. Call me when you find her."
Bettina tells them as much as she knows about the layout of their target, an abandoned warehouse. "Unless they've done some repairs on the windows, they'll be crowded toward the center spaces."
"Lotta kids pitching rocks?" Faith asks.
Bettina grins. "Lotta me and Dow. Whenever we happen to patrol down there, we try to take out a few windows. Like the public service ads say, safety is fun!"
Dow leaves the engine running as the rest of them head for Bettina's preferred entrance. The shafts of light from her rock holes make the place a dangerous maze for a vampire, but also make it tough to adjust their eyes to the dark spaces. Xander curses under his breath.
"This way," Bettina says, and they follow. Silently she points to a steel door and melts back out of sight as Faith approaches it.
Her method of entry is what she's described to Xander as the rack-thrust. As the door keeper focuses on Faith's cleavage, she says, "We got something for you. From Darius." The something is sharp and wooden, and its recipient doesn't say how well he likes it.
Behind her, Xander hears Faith's breath jerk inward. He follows her gaze, and sees Willa on a ratty velveteen sofa, sprawled on a vampire's lap. Small as she is, she looks like a little girl, and her short dress only strengthens the illusion. Her head's tilted back against his shoulder as he feeds at her neck; both of them are oblivious to anything else. One of the vamp's hands holds her tight against him, the other's disappeared up her skirt, and Willa makes small, kittenish noises as he works in rhythm to her blood.
"Jesus," Xander breathes, and that unfreezes the scene. Bettina darts past him, screaming a string of curses. She wrenches Willa from the vampire's grasp and thrusts her at Faith, then whirls back to the vamp.
"No!" Faith yells. "Bettina, no!" But by the time she even gets the Slayer's name out, Bettina's plunged her stake through the vamp's heart.
Willa convulses in Faith's arms, and the thin scream torn from her throat is like nothing Xander's ever heard, even in seven years of demon fighting.
He spins away to a corner of the room and vomits.
Over Xander's protests, Faith carries her to the car. She's right, his shoulder would never take the strain, but it kills him to do nothing but run ahead and open the back door. He slides into the back seat. "Give her to me."
Faith and Bettina pile into the front, Dow peeling away from the building before the door's even shut.
"What happened, what happened?" Dow yells.
"She was doing Orpheus with a vamp," Xander says. "She's having a reaction."
Which is an understatement. She's not screaming now, but she's thrashing and moaning. Xander holds her arms, trying to calm her. "It's all right, Willa. You're with us now. You're okay."
"The nearest hospital's about seven minutes from here," Dow says. "She'll be all right."
"No," Faith says. "They can't help her, they'll just make things worse."
"How can you say that?" Dow's sounding half hysterical. "She needs help."
"Yeah, she does. But they don't know shit about what's wrong with her. This is a mystical drug, Dow. None of their antagonist drugs can touch it."
Willa starts fighting him again, her voice rising in a wail. Her arm flails, striking him across the left side of his face. Xander's breath hisses out in a rush.
Faith curses softly. "Are you all right, babe?"
"Fine," he says harshly, hating that she even noticed. He fingers the eyepatch, makes sure it's in place.
"Why is she like this?" Bettina asks. "The others were just lying there."
"Willa's different," Xander says. "She's a Slayer."
Bettina squirms around in the front seat to look. "She is?"
"Yeah," Xander says. "In case you didn't know, Orpheus is bad news for anyone, but it's particularly dangerous for Slayers. Stay away from it."
Faith turns to look too. "It seems worse this time. Maybe because the vamp was dusted while they were still linked."
"Shit," says Bettina. "I never thought --"
"There's too many factors here," Dow says. "We can't take care of her. She needs a hospital."
"How did I not make myself clear?" Faith asks. "There's nothing they can do."
"Then what the hell can we do?" he shouts. "What if she dies?"
Faith gives it right back to him. "Shut the fuck up!"
That quiets everyone for a moment -- even Willa stops thrashing, though Xander can feel the tension quivering in her muscles.
"There will be no fucking talk of dying," Faith says, her voice so low they can barely hear. "When I was on this shit, I went really deep. But a piece of me heard everything that was said around me. They talked about me like I was dead already, with me layin' there shivering and moaning. So help me god, I'll slap the next person who says anything about dying. This is her fight. We can't help her with it, but we can keep from working against her."
Dow stops the car along the curb in an unfamiliar residential neighborhood.
"My house," Dow says. "It's bigger than Bettina's place. She'll be more comfortable here."
Xander stands in the bedroom door as Faith gets her settled on the guest bed. Dow brings an extra pillow, a throw, fussing around her. Faith, Xander notices, maintains some kind of skin-to-skin contact whenever she can, touching Willa's hand, her forehead, an arm. He remembers what she said to him, all those years ago, when he'd been so arrogant as to say they had a connection: It's just skin. There's no "just" about it, though, and he sees that knowledge in her through her actions.
"What did Angel's people do for you, Faith? When you were overdosing."
"Someone always sat with me. Held my hand, held me. Lorne even sang to me. You ever meet him? Green demon with red horns? Ran a karaoke bar."
"Can't say I ever did. He was one of Angel's, you said?"
Faith nods, her dimples coming out. "He was a trip."
The word makes him flick his glance back to Willa. She seems to be sleeping now, but her fingers twitch constantly.
"Think we could get him to come here? Or at least give us some advice?"
She shakes her head. "He's dropped out of sight. Something that went down in the last days of Wolfram & Hart really wigged him. Angel hasn't heard from him in years."
"Any use calling Angel?"
"I don't think. He was as deep in it as me. Him, they shackled up. Both techniques seemed to work equally well, if you want the truth."
"I'm trying to figure this out," Bettina says. "You used to take this stuff?"
"I took it once. Spiked my blood, then let myself get caught by this vampire we were trying to bring down. I wouldn't recommend it."
"And it helped you kill the vamp?"
She pauses. "That's not exactly what we were trying to do," she says at last. "It helped us beat him."
"What's the difference?" Bettina asks.
"Too long a story for now, all right?"
Xander steps in. "I think it'll be easier on Willa if we don't have so many people in the room. Why don't we take shifts?"
"Good idea," Faith says, "except I'm not going anywhere."
Once she says it, he knows it's true for him, too. "Me either. Dow, do you have a cot or something we can have in here?"
They take turns napping, the other sitting at Willa's side. There's always a soft voice murmuring to Willa: Faith's urging her to fight, saying how strong and tough she knows Willa is; Xander does the same, as well as rattling on about the project he'd like her to work on with him and Angel, reciting the poems he can quote by heart, starting with first he ever read (beyond high school, which doesn't count), Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese."
He keeps his fingers busy, working with his jewelry saw on the bits of pearl. He keeps his focus on his hands, the work, and for moments at a time he can forget the deaths of his friends, the potential death of his Slayer. He's called Giles to see if he can gather more information about the drug and people who might've survived an O.D. Faith's called Angel to see if Wes might have left a record of some kind of her own survival. Now they're in wait-and-see mode.
Willa slowly grows calmer, but from the concern on Faith's face, Xander guesses it's not in a good way. "Come on, princess, fight," she mutters. "You're not a useless rich girl, you're a warrior. Show me what you're made of."
Willa sinks deeper.
Toward the end of the second day, Faith looks up at Xander. "Call me crazy, but I think we ought to take her home."
Dow doesn't like this idea, either, but Faith cares as much about this protest as she did his others. "She's sinking," Faith tells him as they hash things out in Dow's tiny kitchen. "I'd rather hurt her trying something than stand by and let her die."
"Let's think this through," Xander says. "You survived an O.D. Maybe we can figure out the differences between then and now, recreate the conditions that helped you survive."
"One big difference was me and Angel slipping in and out of each other's consciousness. Who knows where Willa was when that vamp got dusted. Or if there's some piece of him walking around in her head."
Either prospect makes Xander more than uneasy. "Is that how it works for most people who take this junk? Or was it a fluke -- because you're a Slayer?"
"I'm not sure. Don't forget the other big difference. Angel's soul. There was somewhere for me to be wandering around, you know?"
"I thought he was Angelus at the time."
She toys with the teacup Dow brought her. "Most of the time, yeah. But I don't know. The soul seemed to have some kind of influence over the places the drug took us. Very Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future." Faith shakes her head. "I was dying though. I knew it. Up until the point when Willow smashed the glass that held Angel's soul. That's when I got the strength to fight."
"So ... what if someone with a soul went in after Willa?"
"No," Faith says adamantly. "No one else is screwing around with that shit."
Xander cradles his own cup in his hands. Someone should clue Dow in that he's in the self-described capital of coffee. This green tea is not cutting it. "Smart policy," he says. "But I was wondering if there's some other way in. Maybe Willow knows of a spell. Or Giles, maybe."
Faith's frown lines deepen. "I'm not loving it. Too dangerous."
"I have to agree," Dow adds.
"Willow's done this before. Went after Buffy when she was all traumatized, sort of catatonic. She brought her back out of herself."
"Trauma is one thing," Faith says. "Orpheus is something else entirely. You're talking about her swimming into a riptide."
"I wouldn't let Will go. I'd have her send me."
Faith surges to her feet. "Aw, shit no. As far as plans go, that's almost as stupid as the one that got her here in the first place. I'm not letting you commit suicide out of guilt."
"It's not guilt. She's my Slayer."
"And there's nothing in the Watcher's manual, or whatever the hell they use, that says you throw yourself on the funeral pyre of your Slayer. Did Giles dive off that tower after Buffy?"
The image of Buffy pitching off that tower, arms spread wide, is like a knife to his heart. Without intent, Xander finds himself standing too. "You don't mention that ever again."
Regret flashes across Faith's face. She reaches a hand out to touch his chest, but Xander turns away. "Let's get Willa ready. We're going back to Spokane."
She's small enough that she can curl up on the back seat, a blanket tucked around her. Dow lends them a couple of rolled-up sleeping bags to set on the floorboards in case Willa falls off the seat.
"Won't hurt her if she does," Faith says. "Not where she is."
"Humor me," Dow says. He also gives them a thermos of green tea and some sandwiches.
Faith's about to circle to the driver's side when Xander says, "Faith, I need to apologize. I'm sorry I was an asshole about Buffy."
She flicks a glance at Dow and Bettina, then back to Xander.
"Hey, I was an asshole in front of them, the least I can do is apologize here, too."
She reaches out and touches two fingers to his chest, a glancing contact that looks casual, but Xander knows it isn't. "It's not a problem." She turns and flashes her dimples at Bettina and Dow. "Thank you guys for your help. God knows what shape she'd be in if you hadn't."
"I hope I didn't make things worse," Bettina says.
"You did what you were trained to do. What's important is, she's alive. We'll do our best to keep her that way."
"Please keep us informed," Dow says.
"That was generous of you," Xander tells Faith after she's found her way back onto the interstate.
"What you said to Bettina. It had to stir up some painful things."
"Well, it was true. Weird seeing such a young Slayer. I mean, she's not, the Council found her, what'd she say, two years ago? But she reminds me of myself a little when I was all new and shiny." She laughs. "Well. Never all that shiny."
She doesn't answer, just strokes her hand over his knee, a fleeting gesture. "So how was it, meeting Dow? Feel better now?"
"What do you mean?" One thing he doesn't like about riding shotgun: it takes effort to get a glimpse of her face.
"You've been so worried that you don't have this Watcher thing down. Here's a guy who's been at it two years, plus had all the training, and he's shit-scared. Does that comfort you some?"
"Nah, it just makes me sure I'm missing something big."
She smacks him on the leg with her fist, which hurts more than she probably meant it to. "Hey, watch," he says lightly. "Breakable, here."
"Yeah, you are. And that's the important thing about you, the thing I didn't see until I was in prison with all the time in the world to look back. You're an ordinary human, yet you're the first one to wade into a fight. You got stones."
"Yeah. They're in my head. Most of the time, though, I'm just a big chickenshit."
"You say that, but you're full of it. Back there's a perfect example. You're gonna do what you think is right, no matter how fucking dangerous. I admire that. I admired that years ago, when I stopped to think about you. You're stronger than me, or Buffy. Because you know anything could happen to you, and you charge on in there."
Before he's forced to think up a response, Willa starts in with the wailing again, fighting the blanket, arching her back. "Shit," he mutters.
Faith throws a quick glance backward. "Maybe it's a good thing. She's fighting it."
"Is she? Or is she just having convulsions?"
Another quick look. Willa's thrashing and making a noise that sends daggers into Xander's nervous system.
"I'm pulling off," Faith says. "I'll get in back with her. You drive." She hits the hazard lights and veers off onto the shoulder. They make the switch and she struggles her way into the back seat, gathering the writhing Willa onto her lap.
"You gonna be okay back there?"
Willa drums her foot against the door panel, and Xander wonders if he's going to have a car left by the time they get back to Spokane. Maybe they should've taken her parents' car instead of leaving it hidden away in Dow's garage.
"It's all right," Faith croons. "You're safe now. We're getting you home, Willa. Home to Spokane."
Xander hears a meaty smack and Faith's muttered curse, and he winces.
"All right," she says over Willa's moans. "Don't laugh."
"I dunno, Faith. I've got to tell you, that's my first response to everything that's been going on."
"Laugh and I'll kill you. I'm gonna sing." She drops her voice, speaking to Willa. "My mom used to sing this to me when I was little, okay? Try to imagine someone else singing it, it's kind of pretty." She starts to sing, her voice shaky and shy at first:
I'm young, I know, but even so
I know a thing or two I learned from you
I really learned a lot, really learned a lot
Love is like a stove, burns you when it's hot
Ooh, love hurts--
Xander had always thought this the lamest of power ballads. Nazareth. Cher. It wasn't until he'd heard it at Evan's shop, Gram Parsons' and Emmylou Harris' voices twining around each other in shimmeringly sorrowful harmonies, that he'd ever really listened to the song. Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars -- Who the fuck would sing that to her child? Is it any wonder Faith grew up to be so skittish, so wary and prickly? He wonders how often she'd seen the lyrics played out between her mother and whatever guy she was seeing. He doesn't remember ever hearing about a father.
The singing calms her again, and in the quiet that follows, Xander makes some calls. Willow says she can attempt what he's thinking about, but she'll need to be there in person. He asks her to make the arrangements and get there as soon as she can. Giles has no new information that isn't grim. He extracts what little practical advice from it that he can give Xander, but adds, "I wish you'd reconsider." Because he knows Xander won't, he says he's sending a protective amulet by overnight air, asking him to wait if at all possible to do the spell until he can wear it. Xander makes no promises, goes on to his next call.
Angel has nothing to add that they don't already know. But there's something in his tone, something so burdened -- even for the guy who walked away with the title of Mr. Broodypants of 1997, 1998 and 1999 -- that Xander can't help asking, "What is it, Angel?" Maybe it's the moonlight, maybe the long stretch of lonely highway.
He doesn't know what it is on Angel's end that prompts him to answer. "I searched Wes's papers. He never lost the Watcher's habit of keeping a diary." There's a pause so long Xander wonders if he's lost the signal. "It was hard," Angel finally says. "He struggled with madness the last few weeks. He'd gone back through the journals I was searching and covered the margins with annotations and additions. Seeing the evidence of that battle in him --" He suddenly seems to realize it's Xander Harris he's talking to, and he abruptly says, "Sorry I couldn't be more helpful."
The strangeness of the night stays with Xander, makes him say, "You're talking to a guy here who can blame himself for pretty much anything. But another person's mental illness -- that's one you can't really hold yourself responsible for."
Angel's brief laugh sounds like the crackle of dried leaves. "Call if there's anything else I can do."
Xander ignores the possible insincerity of the invitation. "There already is. I've got a project I've been asked to do. To get your history at Angel Investigations and the Scooby/New Council history gathered in one place. There's probably been a lot of duplication of efforts because we've been out of touch all these years. I'm going to put Willa on it, too. I figure it'll be a good project for her while she's recovering."
"I don't know, Xander. I've got a lot of current cases right now. I'm kinda overextended."
"Sure," Xander says. He's not ashamed to go for the cheap shot. "Giles will -- well, I'm sure he'll understand."
"Well, it seemed pretty important to him. I hate to disappoint him, but I'm sure I'll think of something to tell him. He always finds a way to soldier on." There's a hard thump to the back of the driver's seat, right about kidney level. He's not sure if it's Willa getting restless again, or Faith supplying some commentary.
"Nice try, Xander. That one might've worked on me a few years ago, but when he refused to help me with Fred --"
Shit. "I'm missing something here. Part of that history we didn't pass back and forth."
"Little over four years ago. One of my people was infected with one of the ancient god-demons."
"Ah. I was maybe still drinking my way through Italy then. What happened?"
"He let her -- She was devoured from inside. She died in agony. I don't honestly know if he could have helped her, but because we were with Wolfram & Hart, he wouldn't try."
"Jesus. I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
"If he'd ever known her -- she didn't deserve that."
"Sorry I played the guilt card, too. It's just -- this is important. There are gaps in our knowledge, yours and ours, because we don't communicate. It seems stupid. Wasteful. And it could someday be the death of somebody."
Another pause, and then Angel says, "When the hell did you get so good at this?"
"Being a leader."
Christ. He wishes people would stop saying things like this.
Angel agrees to discuss it further, and they break the connection. Sighing, Xander flips the phone onto the passenger seat. He should call Peg. He should call Straley.
"It's your turn," Faith says.
He glances at her in the rearview. "Want to drive for a while?"
"I mean your turn to sing. We've gotta be even, so this doesn't come back to bite me on the ass. You've gotta sing something your mother used to sing to you."
"She never did."
"No. She was too self-conscious. I never even heard her hum when she thought she was alone."
She shakes her head. "How about your old man?"
"He never sang to me. Sometimes he'd walk around the house singing something, if he'd had enough to drink."
"Let's have it."
"Doesn't matter to me. Let's go."
Xander stares straight ahead. "What you said. Laugh and I'll kill you." He takes a deep breath.
I'm Popeye the sailor man
I live in a garbage can
I love to go swimmin'
with bare-naked wimmin
I'm Popeye the sailor man
She is laughing when he finishes, but it doesn't matter. She's also reaching over Willa and running her fingers through his hair, from his neck to the top of his head. "Goddamn, Xander Harris, I think I'm in love with you."
Faith resumes murmuring and crooning softly to Willa after making her declaration, signaling Xander that he isn't required to return it. Or maybe, it occurs to him, to fill up the empty space between them if he doesn't. Intuition tells him, though, that an immediate I love you too will be met with suspicion, as a kneejerk response. Instead he listens to her soothing Willa, drifts in and out of conversation with her.
He does love her.
He loves her carefully guarded heart, so slow to trust, for opening to him. Loves her bravery for being the first to mention the L word.
Her excitement over the present she bought him at the casino, the wolf jacket.
Her tenderness with her fallen sister Slayer. Her smoky laugh, her cinnamon rolls, her protectiveness of his guitar, her honest treatment of their history together. The strengths she sees in him, which are somehow just out of his own line of sight. Xander trusts her judgment, so they must be there.
He loves the gesture she uses between them, her hand over his heart.
He loves how she's given him heart through all the terrible shit that's happened the past few weeks.
Loves what a kickass surprise this has all been. Who'd have thought, with all their history, that they'd work so well together? Who'd have predicted, as damaged and wary as they both are, that they'd fit so well together?
She speaks up when they pass a sign pointing out a rest stop ahead. "How about we switch off up here, give your shoulder a break?"
"Good thought." He takes the off-ramp, pulls into a space as close to the buildings as possible.
"You first this time?" Faith asks.
"That's all right. You go, then I will."
She grabs a jug of Father Bill brand holy water and strides toward the women's room. Xander barely has time to stretch his legs and light up his first cigarette in a very long time before Willa starts to thrash and cry out.
Opening the back door, he leans in to stroke her hair and hum a little, and gets a hard fist to his thigh for his trouble. "Easy, Eudora," he murmurs. "We're almost home. Just a little while longer now."
Then there's a fist to the back of his head and he stumbles against the doorframe, opening a gash on his right cheek. Willa's making that high, terrible shriek that sets up an answering vibration all along his spine. He turns as quickly as he can, trying to shove back a wave of dizziness, fumbling in his pocket for a stake as he wedges himself in the open door to protect Willa.
The vamp, a fortyish truck driver type, grabs Xander's arm and tries to jerk him out of the door, but he uses his own bodyweight to plant himself firmly in the opening. As Xander pulls the stake from his pocket, it catches on the cloth, spinning away to clatter on the asphalt. He attacks with elbows and knees in the tight space, staggering the vamp back with blows to throat and groin. Suddenly he feels a spray of liquid splash across his face and chest, cooling quickly in the night air. His attacker stiffens, shrieking in tune with Willa, smoke rising from his back and scalp as he whirls toward Faith.
She steps in and jams the stake into trucker vamp's heart. 'Your turn," she says. "Men's room's clear."
Still, with the cut opened on his cheek, he beats a land speed record getting there and back, and settles himself in the back with Willa, who's calmed again now that the vampires are dispatched. "What the hell is it about rest stops?" he pants.
Faith floors it on the long on-ramp, hitting highway speed (and then some) before she even merges onto I90. "It's like dim sum, babe. There's always something yummy coming, a couple old farts in an RV, deadheads on their way to the next jam band concert, families with kids -- what's not to like? Which reminds me -- when things settle down, I want to go back to the dim sum place on Division."
"You think that vamp knew what Willa is?"
"I think he saw an easy meal, that's all. Doesn't matter now anyway."
Xander supposes she's right. But the closer they get to Darius' territory, the more paranoia he feels.
When they return home, the neighborhood's still just quiet enough to get Willa into the house without being seen. Faith carries her inside with seemingly no effort at all. She settles Willa onto the sofa while Xander strips the mounded sheets off the guest bed to replace them with fresh linens.
"She's been wearing the same things for at least three days," Faith says once Willa's installed in her room. "Let me get her changed. You go get some stuff from your medicine chest so I can clean that cut on your cheek."
Xander follows her directions, grabbing the supplies she'll need and then heading into the kitchen to put on some coffee and some rolls. The house felt strange to him when they first walked in, like coming back to a place where he used to live long ago. He wants the cinnamony scent of home (of freedom, to Faith) to permeate the house, erase that sense of alienness. As he waits for the timer to ping, he checks all the rooms, the basement, backyard and garage. Everything looks fine, normal. He stands over his workbench, gazing at his guitar. It hits him again, what a beautiful thing he's creating. He'll be setting the neck; it'll be impossible not to feel Evan's presence when he does. They've discussed this, and both are dovetail joint men all the way.
The timer goes off, and Xander heads into the kitchen to finish the rolls, then takes one and a cup of coffee down the hall. "Everyone decent in there?"
"Decent as I'll ever be, lover."
He sets her roll and coffee on the bedside table. "How does she seem?"
"The same. No worse. Sit with her a minute, would you? I've got a couple of things I need to do."
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Xander takes one of Willa's hands. It doesn't even curl reflexively around his, like a baby's. "Hey, Willa. You're home now. Your last few weeks of home, anyway. My house." This is his Slayer, the Chosen One left on her own for so many years. She's so fragile, yet so brave. Much as she drives him crazy, ignites his worst insecurities, he can't fathom losing her. "I know you're lost in there. Just hang tight. I'll be coming in after you. What is it they say? 'Hug a tree.' Find yourself a nice, fat sheltering mental tree and hang onto it. I'll be there as soon as I can."
He senses a presence and turns to see Faith leaning in the doorway, regarding him. She's found the first aid supplies he left out. "Hey, scoutmaster. Let me take care of your face."
"Have your coffee first," he says. "It's getting cold."
Ignoring him, she pulls up a chair next to the bed, facing him. "We should've taken care of this two hours ago." Back at the rest stop he'd splashed cold water on it -- not that there was any other kind -- but the mirror in the restrooms were like looking into a chrome bumper (another plus for the vampires -- who would notice that they didn't appear?), so he hadn't inspected it.
"How's it look?"
"Nasty." She dabs a cotton ball soaked with antiseptic on the cut, and his hand jerks tighter around Willa's. She makes a small noise.
"Hey, she felt that. That's good, right?"
"She's doing real good," Faith says. Her eyes, though, say otherwise. "She'll be pulling out of this soon." Her gaze slides away, focusing back on the cut.
She tosses the cotton ball in the wastebasket, peels the wrapper off a bandage and sticks it on him, careful not to use too much pressure on the bruise spreading across his cheek. Her fingertips trail down his face, feather along his jaw.
"You don't want to follow her in there," she whispers.
"No," he says. "But I have to."
When they've finished with their coffee and rolls, Faith says, "Why don't you put some time in on your guitar? Or sleep, if you'd rather, but I get the feeling the guitar's where your heart is."
"You haven't had much rest. I can watch her a while longer."
She pushes his hair away from his eyes. "Xander. Before you go in there after her, I want you good and acquainted with what's waiting for you here. So you remember why you want to come back."
He meets her gaze. "No chance of me forgetting that."
"Go on. You probably have time to get another step done before Willow gets here."
Xander takes her suggestion and heads out to the garage, where he uncovers the fretboard he'd carefully wrapped for the trip home. He inspects the inlay -- not bad for his first time working with pearl. The design looks a little spooky, with a side of garden-variety weird, he suspects, but also cool. It won't be confused with anyone else's work, that's for sure.
He heats the hide glue, slides a cd of Nina Simone into his boombox. Working quickly, he fixes the fretboard to the neck. Once he's got that clamped, he starts fashioning the bridge out of another block of ebony.
Xander's beyond tired and has lost all track of time when Faith comes into the garage. "How's it going, babe?"
"Good. I'm almost finished with -- Willa -- has something happened?"
"No, she's the same."
"Somebody should be with her --"
"Somebody is. Kevin came a while ago. You didn't hear the door?"
He shakes his head.
"I guess you didn't. What is this old-timey shit?"
"Hey. Nothin' shit about that. It's Nina Simone. Evan got me started listening to her." He pushes the forward button a couple of times, to a track with honky tonk piano and churchy organ and pure sex-on-a-stick Nina.
Do I move you?
Is it thrilling?
Do I groove you?
Are you willing?
...The answer better be yes -- Yes!
That pleases me
Faith makes a sound low in her throat, and he catches her in his arms, starts to sway with her. But she's got other ideas in mind besides dancing. Though it looks like the whole standing-up idea might be part of it.
"I told you, babe. I want you remembering everything you have to come back for."
Xander kicks the door closed, and starts clearing off the spare workbench, the one he never keeps actual guitar pieces on. She laughs when he reflexively begins whisking the surface with his soft brush, tugging it from his hand. "We'll think of something to do with that." She hops up on the bench, pulling him toward her, wrapping her legs around his waist. "Hold on." She reaches into the cubbyhole where he keeps his safety glasses. "Put these on. You never know what'll come flyin' off that pegboard when we get goin'."
He climbs up to join her. If he's going to live dangerously, this is as good a place to start as any.
When Willow arrives, Xander and Faith are just emerging from a catnap Xander's not altogether sure did anything for him. Faith stops in the guest room to sit with Willa since Straley's gone to answer the door.
"You must be Willow," Kevin is saying as Xander enters the living room. He opens the door wider and steps aside without offering an explicit invitation. She steps inside, giving him a bemused once-over. "I'm Kevin Straley." He takes her suitcase. "Charter member of the Scoobies Northwest."
"Now is when it gets really confusing," Xander says. "We've got our Willa with an A, and our Willow with an Ow, all under the same roof."
"Xander!" After all they've been through, it's good to hear the pleasure in her voice. Till it turns to dismay: "Oh, god, Xander, what happened to your face?" She puts her hand to his cheek, fingertips barely making contact with his skin.
"The usual. Vampires. I haven't been near a mirror since it happened. Is it bad?"
"It's not good." She steps into his arms, holds him tight. "I'm so glad to see you. I'm so sorry about everything that's happened the past few weeks. How are you holding up?"
"I'm doing okay. My friends have been a real help. You should have called from the airport, we would have come for you."
"Don't worry. The cab was --" She releases him. "Faith."
"Willow. Can't really leave our patient back here, but I wanted to be part of the welcoming committee."
"Well, let's see her." Faith leads her back to the guest room, Xander following.
"I don't know if you saw much of what I went through on this Orpheus shit," Faith says. "I know you had your hands full with Angelus."
"I looked in on you, is all."
Faith's gesture brings them to a halt just outside the door. She drops her voice to a murmur. "What she's going through now is what Lorne called the barrens. For most people who O.D. on this, it's close to the end. But I came out of it, so there's a chance she will too. The thing I'm insisting on here is nobody gives up on her, nobody says anything about her dying. Some piece of her can hear what's going on, and any person who says she's a goner, I slap 'em cross-eyed." She pauses to let that sink in. "That said, we need to do this soon."
Willow nods. "Let's get started."
They enter her room, and for a moment Xander wonders if he should drop the arrogance and call Willa's parents so they can see her one last time. Thinks of all the cheesy TV cop shows with junkies who let their junkie friends die of an overdose because they don't want to get mixed up with the law. She looks so frail, so lost. Who does he think he is, believing he can pull her out of this?
Willow reaches out and places a hand on Willa's arm. Restless, whimpering softly, Willa seems oblivious. "Willa, I'm here to help you," she says. "My name's Willow, I'm a friend of Xander's. We know you're a little lost right now, but we're coming to find you. Faith's here, she's been through this and she found her way out. So there'll be some sage burning and some chanting and that. We'll be here the whole time. You're safe." She starts moving around the room, setting up candles. "It'll take a few minutes to get set up, if there's anything you want to do to get ready."
Xander says, "You know what Prince Charles supposedly said. Someone asked him the most important thing he learned in military service, and he said anytime you have a chance to use the bathroom, do it." When he returns, he adds, "I suppose that just blew my shot at fame as a legendary leader. Another minute." He beckons Faith out into the hallway.
"Hell, I'd call that a legendary quote. At least I'm not going to let you forget it anytime soon." She has that Goddamn, I think I'm in love with you vibe again, and it makes him go all serious.
"Faith, if something -- if I don't come out, or if I'm not me when I do, I want you to know I love you. You've been my anchor through all of this, but it's not just because of what you've been to me. I love the person you are. Don't ever forget that."
She holds up a finger to stop him. "You make me cry, Harris, and I swear I'll have to hurt you." Squinching her eyes shut for a brief moment, she presses two fingers to her own lips, then his, then over his heart. Without another word she walks back into the guest room.
Before he can follow her inside, Willow meets him at the door, pushes him back out into the hallway. "You think we're getting started without me taking my turn, mister, you think wrong."
He pulls her into his arms, and her own go around him, almost squeezing the breath out of him. "I'm sorry it's been so hard for us lately," he tells her. "I always love you, even when I'm pissed off or distant."
"Love you too, Xan. Always."
After a moment, he pulls back. "Let's do this. Lock and load."
Straley, who enters the room to watch over the whole thing and fend off interruptions, offers a damn manly handshake. In a bait-and-switch move, it ends up kind of a sloppy, back-slapping damn manly hug, but Xander's all right with that.
"I talked to Giles," Willow says. "He told me he was sending you an amulet. Are you wearing it?"
"It's not here yet. I'm not waiting, Will. We need to do this thing."
Willow nods. She lights the sage, gives it to Straley. She and Faith and Xander seat themselves on the bed, holding hands. The women are the ones who take Willa's hands, creating a link between him and her. Willow starts to chant.
Nothing keeps happening, and he's about to loosen his grip on Willow and Faith's hands when suddenly all his synapses crackle with some kind of energy that feels like cold fire, snapping his head back.
He's damn glad he took Prince Charles's advice.
Okay, this is weird.
Xander finds himself standing in the hallway outside Willa's apartment. He glances behind him, making sure her gorilla of a building manager is nowhere around, then he presses her bell.
How the hell did he get here?
There's no answer, but something makes him try the door. The knob turns easily in his hand, so he pushes the door open. It swings in less than a foot before encountering something blocking the way. A gentle push has no effect, so he puts his shoulder -- the good one -- into it. With considerable effort, he shoves the door in far enough that he can squeeze through. The hallway inside her place is much longer and narrower than he remembers, narrowed even further by the towering stacks of magazines that line both walls, reaching from waist to chest high. In the light from the hall he sees their titles: New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly. Not a Fangoria in sight.
"Willa? Hey, are you in here?"
His nose twitches as he notices the faint, sweet scent of decay.
"Love what you've done with the place," he calls out. "Want to come on out and give me the full tour?"
He gets the answer he expected, which is none. Something brushes his face and he startles, yelping. It's a string with a little metal piece on the end, a light pull. Xander gives it a yank, casting a yellow tinge over the contents of the hallway. The pages of the magazines, he notices, all bristle with sticky notes.
Edging his way along the narrow passageway, he comes to the kitchen. There's a little more space in here, and he finds himself letting out a breath. Count claustrophobia as one of those little personality quirks he hadn't been aware of possessing until now.
It's a kitsch museum in here, the walls covered in novelty clocks. Shaped like a coffee pot with a cartoon face, a hot rod, the obligatory cat with the moving eyes and tail, which still creeps him out. Quite a few were obviously salvaged from old cafes. Each, he notices, displays a different time. The ticking is near deafening.
Suddenly hungry, Xander peers into a cupboard, telling himself he'll ask before he takes anything. He finds nothing but a half package of rice cakes. "I'll pass on the styrofoam peanuts," he mutters to himself. The refrigerator, which he can find by the dense covering of magnets growing on it like mold, holds a crusty jar of relish and another of mustard, and several six-packs of diet soda. He closes its door, taking nothing, and checks the lower cupboards, hoping to find some innocent source of that sourish-sweet smell. Hundreds of empty booze bottles tumble out, sending Xander stumbling backward into the living room.
"Hey, Willa? Feeling kind of stalkery now. Want to tell me where you are?"
"I said I'd come for you. Are you hugging a tree? A stack of magazines?"
He switches on a lamp, but it only seems to get murkier in the room. Books and magazines cover every surface, aggressively sticky-noted. Collages cover the walls, leaving not an inch of white space for the eye to rest on. There's one in progress spread out on the floor, surrounded by magazines lacy with holes. No pictures on the collage yet, just the cutout words 7 Things You Should Never Regret.
He's really not loving this.
He makes it to a window without tripping over anything or toppling a tower of books, tugs on the windowshade. It slips from his fingers and shoots upward, flapping around the spindle. "Nothing like a heart attack to let a guy know he's alive," he says to the room. Blinking in the sudden light, he looks around. A bright patch of air is alive with dust motes, while the rest recedes into deeper shadow. He tries to open the window, let in some air, but it's painted shut.
There's another hallway leading from this side of the living room, and he makes his way there. No magazine hedges here, instead it's paintings tilted against the walls, stacked two, three, four canvases deep. He peeks at one as he edges by: abstract, dark. Xander shrugs. He's no art critic. He's actually sort of glad of that.
The bedroom door is ajar, and he pushes it open with his fingertips. Nothing here, just a big mass of covers in the middle of the bed. Starting away, he remembers finding Willa tangled in just such a heap of linens at his house, and he walks into the room. He shakes out the covers, finds nothing there.
Next door is a linen closet, leaving one more dark doorway at the end of the hall. Xander taps softly. There's no response, but he hears the soft noises of weeping from inside, and he reaches for the doorknob. "Willa? I'm coming in."
Here's the one room that's flooded with light. The bathroom is one of those old fashioned ones, white tiles, white walls, half as big as her living room. Willa's perched on the edge of the clawfoot tub, rocking slightly. She looks up as he walks in, her eyes huge in her white face. Her hair's her natural brown, and there's enough of it to pull into a ponytail. "Oh god," she says, and he catches a flash of silver. Braces. "Oh god."
A man lies sprawled at her feet, face down on the white octagonal tiles.
There's a lot of blood coming out of his head.
Xander puts up his hands, palms out. "Don't panic. I'm here to help. You remember me?"
She nods. "Xander."
"Okay. Who've we got here? The vamp?"
"The what? No."
He crouches next to the man on the floor, which he sees now is scattered with shards of mirror. With some effort, Xander rolls him onto his back and sees no, it's not the vamp Bettina dusted. The bleeding guy making such interesting patterns on the white tile is a writer so famous even Xander knows him by sight.
Willa wails when she sees his face.
"Eudora. Listen to me. I need a wet washcloth. Could you get one for me? Head wounds always look bad, but we won't know till I take a look."
Having something to do seems to help her control the panic. She finds a cloth and dampens it, then hands it over.
He starts wiping the blood from the writer's face. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I was helping with the party."
"Pay attention. The one out there."
And now he hears it, music and laughter and voices raised up in a dozen conversations all over the house.
"For him." She nods at the guy on the floor. "I was getting kind of overloaded, so I started upstairs, to my room. He followed me up, pushed me in here." Her breath starts to hitch.
"Take your time, Willa. You're safe here."
"He put his hands on my breasts. Stuck his tongue in my mouth. No big deal, really. I mean, he was just drunk. But I got scared."
"Willa, that's no excuse."
"I know, I know." Her voice is high and panicked. "I really didn't mean it."
Xander softens his own voice. "I'm not talking about you. I meant him. Being drunk is no excuse. So what happened then?"
"He said, um --" she thinks for a moment. "He said, 'Bet you're tight.' And, um -- how do I know you again?"
"We're friends," he says gently.
"Oh. Yeah. This is so embarrassing. He, um, tried --" she finally dissolves into tears now -- "to, um, touch me. Down there. So I shoved him. And I kind of did it a couple more times. I think I killed him."
"No. He's not that bad off." Xander's seen his picture on his dust jackets. They always light him to accentuate the broken nose, to give him that hard-knocks romance. "Just bleeding a lot."
Seemingly on cue, the writer moans.
"How old are you?" Xander asks her.
"I'll be sixteen in three weeks."
"Christ," he murmurs.
Stirring, the writer moans again. Xander dabs at the cut across the bridge of his nose. "Does this hurt?"
"Good, ya fuck."
Then the asshole is gone, but they're still in the cold tile bathroom, and the floor is still spattered with blood. He hears it drip on the octagonal tiles like a fast leak: spat spat spat.
Xander looks around to see where the sound is coming from, and behind him Willa sits on the toilet lid. She bleeds from a bad gash in one wrist.
In the other hand, she grips a shard of mirror.
"Willa, give me the glass. You really think that guy is worth dying for?"
"Oh please. That's ancient history." He notices now that the ponytail and braces are gone, that her hair is now the henna red it was when he first met her. She tosses the mirror shard into the sink. "I think I finally got the hang of it."
"Are you paying any attention at all? Of dying. I'm really not that into the raging. Sorry, Dylan. I'm firmly on the side of going gentle."
"How about you don't go at all?"
She laughs. "Wake up, Xander. What makes you think I've got a choice?"
"You can fight."
"Because it's so worthwhile to stick around? You know what I get if I fight? I get to live so I can fight more. I'm tired of fighting. It's all I've ever done."
"Things are different now. You don't have to fight by yourself. You don't have to fight yourself. You know who you are."
She waves her arm, sending a Jackson Pollock splatter of blood flying onto the white wall. "You're in my head. You think it's such a great place to be?"
"I've seen worse."
"Ooh, do I finally get to hear your story? 'I'm Xander and I'm an alcoholic.' You've really built up the expectation level. This better be good."
Does this ever fucking stop? Is he going to die bickering with this girl? Personally he'd have chosen workbench sex with Faith as his preferred way to go. "We're still talking about your head here. It's cluttered, yeah. Dark. And there's probably a dead vampire somewhere, rotting quietly away like a dead mouse in the walls. Sounds to me like stuff you can fix, if you're not too chickenshit to try. Funny how wrong you can be about people. I never had you pegged for a coward."
"You like to bicker. But when it comes to a real fight about something meaningful, you haven't got anything to show me. 'I'm tired.' 'It's too hard.' You had a rough break being made a Slayer without anyone to show you the way. Well, boo fucking hoo. You're not the only girl. You look at Jenny Grimaldi over in Seattle and tell me she's not a Slayer. Can't say I know how her personal life is going, but she's not wallowing in misery, wasting her gift working at a record store. She doesn't quite know what it's for, but she's using it."
"Look who's dispensing the wisdom. Mr. Third-Shift Grocery Store Manager."
"Yeah, I spent some years hiding out. I'm done with that now." Xander hasn't really known it until the words come out of his mouth, but now he's sure: if he still has a job at Rosauers, he's giving notice. "But we're still not talking about me here. Watcher or not, I'm just a guy. You're the one with the gift. Could be life or death to some people, but hey, you can afford to piss it away. Faith was right about you. You're just a spoiled rich girl. You don't know what hard is. The first bump in the road, you're waiting for the Grim Reaper, ready to give him a big sloppy tongue kiss."
"You miserable fuck."
"Maybe so. But I'm a miserable fuck who wants to live. You're so set on burning this place down? Well, I'm here too. Looks like if you go, I'm coming with."
"I didn't ask you to come busting in here."
"Nope. That's right, you didn't. Invited a vampire in so you could see what he could tell you, but me, I'm an intruder. Did you get anything useful out of that? The whole exercise is kind of pointless now, isn't it? Except you finally get to die, like you've apparently always wanted."
She surges to her feet and slams him against the wall, hard enough to make his teeth click. Out of the corner of his right eye, he can see the spray of Willa's blood on the white tile. "All right, Xander. You want to walk away? Let's walk away."
She yanks the bathroom door open, revealing a dense, humid jungle of tangled underbrush and trees so densely packed together that there's no light to be seen between them.
"Okay, smart guy. Which tree do you want to hug?"
Yeah, smart guy.
"Again, I love what you've done with the place. So very Apocalypse Now."
"I was really thinking Heart of Darkness," Willa says.
"Whatever. Just don't get out of the boat. Never get out of the boat. No matter how much you want a mango."
"What's that supposed to mean? We don't have a boat. Or a river."
Xander sighs. "Never mind. It's a thing. You wouldn't happen to have a couple of machetes lying around, would you?" Long shot, but it can't hurt to ask. A girl with a jungle in her brain, no telling what else she's got in storage.
He turns to see, and she's got a whole collection of broadswords, battle axes and shiny sharp objects.
"The curved ones. Though if you can manage to stick a sword or knife in your belt, it couldn't hurt to bring it along." Huh. Not that she had a belt five minutes ago, but she does now. She's got a whole jungle commando thing going, with the khakis and the undershirt and the sweat. And so, it seems, does he. Well, okay. Army Guy is back. This is good. Army Guy has gotten him through a lot of shit he's not sure he'd have survived otherwise.
Lock and load.
He moves ahead, hacking his way through the vines obstructing his path.
Never has he been in an unpopulated place where he felt such a sense of presence. Not in a good nature-is-friendly kind of way. There's a constant hiss of -- what? Leaves sliding across one another in some unfelt breeze? Snaky things slithering through undergrowth? The shriek of insects and birds rises and falls, shredding his nervous system.
"Want me on your left or your right?" Willa asks.
"If this were just recon, I'd say left, but since we're swinging the sharp, shiny things, make it my right. I trust you, but I can't see where you are, and there's always a good chance of stumbling over this shit."
They make their slow progress without speaking, accompanied by their grunts and the sound of blades hacking into twining roots and vines. Last time he remembers being in anything like this -- oh. Riley and Buffy and poltergeisty sex weirdness, oh my. He doesn't want to know what's behind the lush, tropical Willa's-brain vegetation.
"You were a soldier, weren't you?" she asks after a while.
"Yes," he says without thinking. "No. Not exactly. There was a spell. I was a soldier for one night, but all that is still in my head as if I did an entire hitch."
"God, that's weird. That something magical can reach into you and change you that way. Your memories are who you are. Something changes them, it changes you."
Laughing, Xander stops swinging the machete.
"Eudora, you don't know the half of it."
He shakes his head. Dawn has begged him -- everyone -- not to tell people about her origins, except on a purely need-to-know basis. He doesn't blame her. It's got to change how people look at you.
"Look out!" Willa yells. "Left!"
He whirls, the machete coming up as he turns, slicing into the vamp stumbling toward him but not high enough to kill. The blade is stuck in his side, and Xander fruitlessly struggles to yank it free.
"Down!" she shouts.
Xander drops to the ground, hears the whir of a blade slicing the air above him. A head tumbles to the jungle floor beside him, then falls to dust.
She reaches a hand to him, helps him up. "Okay, how many times does that thing have to die?"
"Was that the one you did the Orpheus with?"
"Maybe this is all." He looks around. "Have you noticed something? The jungle's been closing in behind us as we pass by. The path we cleared --"
"Oh, shit," she breathes. "It's gone."
"And I don't know about you, but I got totally turned around during that fight. Can you tell which way we were going?"
"No. It all looks the same to me."
He reels off a rich assortment of Army Guy curses, trimming off the ones that could be interpreted as misogynistic. He's a guest in her head, after all. "I'm going to climb one of these things, maybe get a sense of where we're headed."
The trees nearby all seem to have the same smooth bark, their skin as drenched in this humidity as his own. Pulling off his shirt, he uses it to wipe the greasy sweat from his arms and torso, then drops it on the ground. For all the good it does -- by the time he's three feet up the tree, he's as slick as he was before. He climbs slowly, cautiously, muttering about saunas and mutant fish monsters.
At last he makes it to the tapered treetop, swaying a bit under his weight and the ripe, sweltering breeze. He sees a likely direction, fumbles carefully in his pockets for a compass. Surely he has a compass. He finds it, gets his bearings. Should be easy now. Except for the hacking-their-way-through-the-jungle part, of course. And the getting down from the tree. He's always had a much worse time with descents than ascents. So much harder to see where you're putting your feet. So much easier to see how far you have to --
The flat-on-his-back landing knocks the wind out of him. Xander gasps and wheezes, struggling not to panic. He'll be all right in just a moment.
Willa's face tells him otherwise. As he gets control of his breathing, he raises his head, as Willa kneels beside him saying, "No, no, no, lie still."
He props himself on an elbow and looks where Willa's hands are hovering like little white birds. There's a hacked-off vine where it shouldn't be -- where it really couldn't be, growing out of his body, glistening black with blood.
"Crap," he hears himself say. "I've done a Cordy."
"Oh Jesus, now what, now what?" Willa cries.
"Take it easy," he says. "We just get me unpinned here and keep going."
"No. You shouldn't move."
"Nice thought and all, but it's not like there's a search party coming. I was the search party." And a damn fine screwup you made of that, Harris. "Take your knife and saw through the vine in back here."
"Shouldn't we just pull it out?"
"No. If it's nicked something important, we want to keep it compressed for now."
Willa sets to work, holding the vine so her sawing movements jiggle his injury as little as possible. It helps, but all those natural painkillers that flooded his system at first are doing a fast fade and, careful as she is, he's in agony. He longs to lie still for a moment, maybe just pass out for a bit, but he knows better than to give in.
This is all mystical shit, he tells himself. Totally imaginary. He tries to remember what Faith said about her magical mystery tour with Angel. Angelus beat the shit out of her, she'd said, but Xander can't remember if the injuries carried over into the real world once she emerged from the drug. Maybe she never said. Doesn't matter. He's got to get up and move now or he won't make it to the outside.
"Okay," he says. "Let's get me on my feet. Get over here on my good side. You can sling my arm over your shoulders."
"I can't, I can't." She's panicking again.
"Sure you can, Eudora. You came on this trip to learn something. Here it is: You're more powerful than other women, almost any man and a good few demons and vamps. And despite what people have told you your whole life, that's not a weakness. It's your strength."
His pep talk actually has the desired effect, and she sets about helping Xander to his feet.
It had never occurred to him that you could break out in a cold sweat when you were already covered in sweat, so chalk this whole thing as a learning experience for him, too. Everything goes gray and is working on black, when Willa barks, "Xander. Stay with me. Talk to me. What's doing a cordy? Is that some kind of army term?"
He laughs, and the pain snaps him back into focus. "No."
"A demon of some kind?"
Xander almost laughs again. "Only when she wanted to be. Cordelia was my first girlfriend. She fell, impaled herself on some rebar. There's a compass in my left pants pocket. Cargo pocket, on the side. I don't think I can move that arm without passing out."
His right arm draped over her shoulders, Willa maneuvers her left arm around his back, feels around in the pocket. "You saw something up there? A way out?"
"Maybe. I figure if we head north by northeast --"
"Got it." She snakes her hand back around and between them to get a read on the compass. "Ah, shit."
The compass is all smashed in, broken in the fall. "Don't panic," Xander says. "I have a plan."
"Give up. Sit down. In my case, pass out."
"With all due respect, that's a suck plan. We go forward." She gets a grip on his shoulder with her left hand, starts swinging the machete with her right. "A rebar, you said. That's some kind of demon?"
"It's a steel rod. The kind they put in concrete. Garden variety building materials."
"Was she a demon hunter too?"
"Yeah. In Sunnydale and then in L.A. She survived the rebar just fine."
Let me count the ways this is not like what happened to Cordy. Every swing of the machete sends a surge of liquid fire through his side.
"Come on, keep talking. I want the dish. Tell me about your next girlfriend."
"That one was the demon." Crap. He's pretty sure he hadn't meant to give that up. "Ex-demon, actually."
"Is that the one you got high with?"
He told her that? Oh yeah, guess he did. "No. But they were colleagues."
"What was she? What kind of demon?"
"Ex. Ex. A vengeance demon. Granted the wishes of scorned women. If you ever dated a schmuck and then met a sympathetic woman who tried to get you to make a wish, you probably met one."
"Demons grant wishes?"
"Trust me, it's a lot less whimsical than it sounds."
She tries to keep him nattering about this and that, but after a while he's graying out again. Maybe raving a little bit. At one point he sings, though it's actually more muttering under his breath.
"What's that?" Willa asks. "An incantation?"
"What you were just doing. Was that Latin? You kept saying Non mi stanco."
He lets out a puff of air, intended as a laugh. "Italian. It's a rap song. 'I don't get tired.' The verse, not the song. I used to run to it."
She snorts. "Italian rap?"
"Don't laugh. It's Jovanotti. He kicks ass." Speaking of ass-kicking, something is whaling on his. He looks down, sees a black slick of blood running down his left leg from the puncture in his side. He staggers. "Fuck. This is not good."
"Don't look. Just keep walking. I'll find us a curandero, a healer. I mean, it's my brain, right? I found the machetes."
Forget the healer. How about a med-evac helicopter? How about a nice shiny hospital? Why a jungle in the first place? Why couldn't they have found themselves in the Willa's brain version of Las Vegas? He hears himself babbling about Wayne Newton and Penn & Teller. "Man, I thought the place would be lit up way more than this. Damn, it's dark." He stumbles on rubbery legs and crashes to the ground.
Willa shrieks, stops the swing of her machete just inches from his throat. He thinks. Just to be sure, he feels his neck. Yeah, still there. His fingers find a leather cord, follow it down to his chest. There's some kind of stone thing hanging from the cord. He can't make out the shape by feel.
"You'll travel a lot faster now," he mumbles.
"I'm not leaving without you."
He takes in a deep, shuddering breath.
Starts to laugh, though it hurts like hell.
"You smell that, Eudora?"
Xander lifts his head, still laughing. "Cinnamon rolls."
He closes his eye for a moment, marshaling his energy.
"Xander, no! Stay with me!" Her hand strikes his cheek, somewhere between a pat and a slap. "Dammit, you can't die!"
He catches her by the wrist before the fourth slap. "Don't go near the eyepatch."
"I thought you were dying. Raving about cinnamon and Las Vegas, and --" Suddenly she's crying too hard to talk.
It's not a stupid assumption. He's not so sure even yet that she's wrong. "It's not a hallucination," he says. "Go on, have a snort."
She sits back on her heels, takes a sniff.
He grins as a look of wonder crosses her face. "Yeah, that's the primo stuff. It's Faith. Showing us the way home."
Willa channels a bit of Army Guy herself, snapping to. "We've got to get moving. Let's roll." It takes some doing to get Xander back on his feet. He seems incapable of offering much help. There are these strange floppy things at the ends of his legs where his feet used to be, that trip them both up every couple of yards.
She picks up the conversation from a few topics back. "The eyepatch, by the way, is long gone."
His hand flies up to his face.
"It doesn't matter," Willa says. She sounds irritated. "You think all people see is what's lacking. Anyone with half a brain stops noticing five minutes after hello."
"That must be why I'm still noticing it."
"It must be," she snaps. "Could you just get on the self-esteem bus? Not as far as Obnoxious, but you could ride until you're out of Deeply Annoying."
Xander laughs, which makes him cough, which makes him think about passing out. "You sound like a Scooby," he mumbles.
"No, you don't," she orders as his knees go wobbly. "Stay with me. Faith's waiting, and she'll kick my ass if I come back without you. I have no doubt she'll find some way to kick your ass, too."
She's probably right. He tries to focus. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left knee. Right knee, right hand.
"Xander, get up. Come on, look. The bush is thinning. We're almost out." She hauls him up again. "You'd better march, buddy, because if I get to those rolls first, they're mine."
He makes a couple steps, goes to his knees again.
She pulls him back to his feet. "I could probably pick you up and carry you, but how embarrassing would that be for you?"
"Yeah," he pants. "A little too Legends of the Fall."
She makes a noise of disgust. "How revolting was that? The sexy picture on the DVD box, and then it turns out the chick he's carrying is dead. Scar me for life. We are so not doing Legends of the Fall."
Xander staggers again, but she rights him before he goes down.
"Hey. Hey, look. I see daylight. We're almost out of the woods."
Maybe she is.
They're only a few yards from the outside when he takes another header. All he wants to do this time is lie down. "Just for a few minutes," he tells her.
"No. Get up."
"You go ahead. I'll rest, then I'll be right out."
"Don't give me that crap," Willa says. "You can't give up now."
"I'm not. I swear," he lies.
"Xander, if you don't walk out of here, I can't either. Looks like if you die, I'm coming with."
"You're the miserable fuck who wants to live, so let's see you act like it. Just get on your feet one more time, and you'll be out. Poppin' Fresh Faith is out there."
"Better not let her hear." He groans as she gets him upright again.
"March," she orders.
He pushes forward, leaning most of his weight on Willa. A stumble or two and then he's out in the light, blinking in the sudden brightness.
There's Faith, standing in sunlight so strong it bleaches out her features. He takes a step toward her and slips to his knees. In a flash she's there beside him, kneeling with him, gathering him into her arms. Funny how that doesn't make the injury to his side feel any worse. "Baby, you're back, you're safe, you're home."
His eye flutters open. He's in the guest room, Faith leaning over him, deep frown lines etched on her brow. "Stay with me, okay?" he murmurs. "I just need to rest a while." He slips into sleep, but as he greets the darkness he knows it's okay.
Xander drifts awake to find himself in his own bed, Faith curled behind him, spooning him. He knows by the feel of her body and her scent. When he shifts he sees she's awake.
"Hey, babe," she says.
"Hey." Already he's losing focus again, slipping back toward sleep. "How's Willa?"
"Good. She's safe. Doing exactly what you're doing."
He does it some more. When he resurfaces, she's still there, sitting beside the bed reading one of his paperbacks. He reaches out, brushes her knee with his fingertips. "You saved us," he tells her. "You know that, don't you?" By the time he feels her close his hand in both hers, he's slipping under again.
The next time he wakes up, Faith is asleep beside him and Willow's on watch. A nagging sense of something wrong has finally resolved into a memory, and he carefully passes his hand over his left side.
Willow catches the movement and looks up from her textbook. "You're okay," she whispers. "Whole and unpunctured."
She knows, though. "You did some healing mojo?"
Willow shakes her head. "Willa asked about you the first time she came out of it. She said what happened, so we checked you out. You left it behind when you walked out."
He's grateful for that. "I almost didn't. Walk out."
"I know." Her eyes shimmer with tears. "I was so scared, Xander. There's so much I need to say to you. Not now, you need to rest. But soon."
He sits up, careful not to disturb Faith. His head swims a little, and he closes his eye until it stops. "Will, all I've done is sleep. How long have I been back, anyway?"
"Pretty close to two days."
"Whoa, that's some sleeping. How long was I gone?"
She hesitates, and that's when he starts to get a little freaked out. "Four days."
He blinks. "Could be worse, I guess. At least I haven't been an assassin for the Covenant for the past two years." Xander rises to his feet, wobbling until Willow jumps up to steady him. "Tell me Vaughn hasn't gone and gotten married."
Willow takes him by the elbow, steadies him as they head out into the hallway. "This language you speak. It sounds like English, yet it makes no sense."
"Yeah, thank goodness I came back unchanged." He reaches back to close the bedroom door, smiling at the sight of Faith sprawled across the bed, frown lines erased as she sleeps.
Willow keeps her voice low as they head down the hall. "Wow. You and Faith. That's not one I'd have seen coming."
"Me either. I mean, yeah, I have been known to date on the wild side. But it's been nine years since the whole throttling me thing. Five years since the fight with the First. She's grown up. Tried and failed at some relationships. Made amends with me. She's changed. I've changed."
"I seem to remember a conversation about that last bit. You were right, you know. I was way out of line, expecting you to be who I thought you always --"
Xander holds up a hand. "You don't have to do this. Things are okay between us."
"I'd rather not take the shortcut. I did all the thinking it through and everything."
He stops at the guest room door. "Yeah, it's a pisser to go through all that for nothing, isn't it?" He gives her a quick hug and a kiss on the forehead. "Let me check on Willa first."
Opening the door a crack, he peers in at her -- or what's visible of her. A foot hanging off one side of the mattress and an unruly thatch of hair at the other. The rest is buried under covers. He pushes the door farther open and peers inside, finding not Straley, but Peg.
He can't suppress a grin. "Peggy. Hey. I thought you were at your sister's."
"You know me. I hate sitting around. I called to see if you'd gotten back from Seattle okay, and it sounded like you all could use a hand. I'm filling in with Willa while Kevin's on duty, but before that I stocked the fridge."
"How is she?"
"A lot less restless than she was at first. You're looking better, too."
Xander nods. "I could stand to sit, though. Thanks for coming, Peg. It means a lot." He turns back to the hallway, weaving a little. Instead of taking his arm, Willow pulls him into a hug.
"I'm so glad you're okay. You scared the shit out of me, mister." She pulls back, her gaze searching his face. "You've always seemed so indestructible, except when Caleb-- Even then, you rallied so fast, because you knew we needed you. This was-- it was terrifying to watch. You went deeper and deeper and I just didn't think you'd find your way back."
He touches the small stone on a cord that still hangs around his neck. "Giles's amulet?"
Nodding, she asks, "Is that what brought you back?"
"Partly, I think. But it was mostly Faith. Cinnamon rolls. She brought them into the room, didn't she? They set me going in the right direction."
"Speaking of food," Willow says, "let me heat you something. Peg was in here cooking all night."
"In a minute," Xander says. "I want to show you something first."
Taking her hand, he leads her into the garage.
After another hour, Willa emerges from her room, unsteady on her legs as a newborn colt. Xander rises from his place at the kitchen table, offering her the closest chair. "Hey, look who's up. Have a seat."
Instead she puts her arms around him, clinging to him for a moment before she speaks. "I'm so glad to see you. You're okay? They said you're okay."
He steps back and spreads his arms, as if somehow this provides proof. "Perforation-free. How about you?"
"Headachy, but otherwise okay."
"Well, you had a lot going on in there. Some food'll probably fix you up. Take a seat." He rolls up the guitar plans he and Willow had been looking at, as Willow gathers up the luthier supply catalogs.
Willa collapses onto his chair. "Did Xander show you his guitar? Isn't that astonishing?"
"It's beautiful." Willow bustles around the kitchen, getting silverware and a bowl and plate for her.
"Wait, you guys haven't met yet, have you?" He's just been dying to do this. "Willa, Willow. Willow, Willa."
"We met during a lull in the sleeping," Willow says. "How about soup? Oh, hey Peg. You too? Xander, you're definitely having more." She dives in the fridge for the soup container, and Xander is suddenly taken with how much he loves this moment, the domesticity of it. Peg and Willow doing the kitchen dance of using the same space without getting in each other's way, he and Willa sitting like cosseted children, waiting to be fed. Even Faith asleep in the other room -- the perfect everydayness of this, which of course is nothing like his normal daily life, fills him in a way nothing ever has. If he were Angel, in fact, he'd be having his soul ripped out by the roots at this very moment. He furtively rubs at his good eye with the heel of his hand.
His Slayer and his best friend are still talking about the guitar. "He made some beautiful pieces back in Sunnydale, too," Willow says, "but this is incredible. I never have known anyone with a feel for wood like he has."
"There's a double-entendre in there somewhere just crying to get out," Xander says.
Willow cuffs him on the shoulder. "I know what you're doing, buster. Knock it off."
"You guys have known each other forever, haven't you?" Willa asks.
"Actually," Willow says, "we predate forever."
They're on their second (Xander's third) bowl of soup and tucking into the hot cornbread Peg made when Faith shambles into the kitchen. "Don't mind me," she says. "I just live here."
"We figured you needed the sleep most." Xander rises and takes her in his arms. "Sit down, I'll get you something." To his surprise, she does so without arguing, and he ladles out some soup for her. "So is there anything Willa and I need to know? Any new dark masters risen in the last week? The Indians' home opener? TiVo catch anything good?"
"No dark masters," Faith says, "but something's brewing. Kevin says there's been a rash of missing persons reports recently. A couple of guys from the Indians opener, in fact. Not to mention that the park's been suspiciously free of homeless people. The mayor and the police chief are taking credit."
Yeah, right. "Fuck. Darius is building an army," he says.
Xander asks, "Has Kevin said when he's coming by?"
"When he finishes his shift," Peg replies. "A little bit late, because there's a briefing about Hoopfest. He'll be working double shifts over the weekend."
"This weekend?" He glances around at the calendar by the fridge. "It's next -- oh." Strange feeling, to have lost nearly a week. "I think we'd better be geared up for it too. There'll be a lot of people in town for that, and Saturday things'll be shaking long after dark."
"What's the deal?" Faith asks.
"It's a huge basketball tournament. Thousands -- I'm not kidding, thousands of games all over the streets downtown. On Saturday the games'll go until eight or nine, but it'll be a mob scene long after that. I think we should concentrate on the park, but we'll see how things lie when we get there."
He tugs this month's printout of sunrise/sunset times from under its magnet on the fridge door. "Sundown at 8:51. With the trees and buildings they'll probably be able to start coming out before then. Whatever it is Darius has planned, I'd bet it's either centered around Hoopfest, or at least he'll plan to make some major advances in the cause then. We've got to be ready, or it's going to be brutal."
What he doesn't say, but everyone knows, is it could be brutal even if they are ready.
Saturday afternoon Xander and Faith stroll hand-in-hand through the crowds in Riverfront Park, your typical lovers-on-the-weekend, except for the conversation about killing undead things. The two Wills, as they've come to be known, are scouting the streets to the south, closed off to traffic, lined with hoops and abbreviated three-on-three courts. Peg is scoping out the scene north of the river, around the Flour Mill. The day is sweltering, extraordinarily humid for Spokane, with the threat of thunderstorms later in the day.
"Well, by Boston standards this is pretty much your average Sunday along the Charles," Faith says, "but for Spokane I guess it's a fair-sized crowd. I'm not sure how much use we'll get out of the crossbow."
"It'll clear out some after the center court games are over, but there'll still be plenty of people around. If Darius' crew concentrates somewhere and we can find high ground nearby, I could do the sniper thing, but it's dicey."
"Less chance of civilians getting hurt, though." They check out the center court, lined on three sides by wood and metal bleachers. The squeak of sneakers on parquet, absent everywhere else, punctuates the crowd noise. "This is a place worth watching. Plenty of lurking space underneath, places to corner a victim. As far as hand-to-hand goes, it's gonna be tough to work with anything but stakes. Any blade big enough for beheading isn't going to be concealable."
They weave through the crowds darting toward food stands and henna tattoo tents, heading past the carousel house toward the Clock Tower.
"Just barely. I can wander around with a big backpack." He grins. "I'll wear sandals and socks, people will just think I'm a foreign tourist. Then we'd have it if there's an opportunity to use it. What else we got?"
"There's fire. I say we all carry a shitload of Bics."
"Good plan. We'll hit the drugstore."
The sound of a tight brass section greets them as they reach the area by the Clock Tower, followed by the realization that the rhythms are pure punk rock. The lead singer reminds Xander of Oz during his five-minute black hair phase, if he'd had much taller hair. The brass guys pogo onstage while they're not playing, the trombone player faking guitar chords on his instrument.
"Damn," Faith says in delight. She picks her way through the sprawled audience on the grass, already dancing before she gets to the front of the stage. She dances just the way he remembers, vibrating like a knickknack in an earthquake. Xander stands by the path, watching her, like every guy on the grass and half the guys on the stage.
They should be heading back toward the mall across the boulevard, meeting the others at "the lakes" to compare notes, work out their strategy. One more song won't hurt. There's no way of knowing what happens tonight.
He catches some lyrics on a gust of hot breeze:
Stay out all night, and sleep all day
But when I wake up I'm empty
I wish that I
Could find my way, yeah
Yeah, that's a problem that's going around here these days.
Xander'll be glad to point Darius' followers in the right direction, using the sharp end of a stake.
He pushes tonight aside, trying to let himself exist in this moment, watching Faith work up a sheen of sweat next to a mohawked kid. And wonders when it was, the exact moment when he found his own direction.
The sun beats down on his shoulders and scalp, making the compass tattoo prickle even through the cotton Hoopfest tee.
For the first time he really feels it, though Faith told him some time ago. It's working.
Without quite knowing when and how, he's found his way.
Straley manages to meet them at the rendezvous point, adding his observations and strategic suggestions to those of Faith, Xander, Peg and the Wills. He's got his stake concealed in his body armor and a sport bottle filled with holy water. Faith loads him up with some disposable lighters, and he heads back to the shimmering heat outside.
"God," Willa says, "I hope I don't die wearing cargo pants." They're all wearing them, stuffed to the gills with stakes, holy water and cheap lighters.
Faith laughs. "Whatever happened to Miss Knock-off-the-Death-Jokes?"
"She has been assimilated," Xander says.
"You were right," Willa says. "Resistance was futile."
"We wouldn't lie to you," Xander says.
"Okay, the mind meld thing?" Willow says. "Getting a little freaky."
Plan A had been dinner at the Red Robin before dark, but the storm clouds have piled up over the center of town until it looks three hours later than it is.
"Looks like we should be ready for them to come out at any time," Peg observes.
"Yep," Faith says. "It's vamp weather."
Peg stays at the lakes, taking one of the benches that ring the inlay map on the atrium floor. They leave her with a couple of stakes and some holy water, but her main job is to relay messages between Straley and the others, if needed.
The other four head for the elevators to the parking garage where the just-in-case weapons stash waits in the trunk of Xander's car. A quartet of white girls with hair cornrowed from hairline to the crown of their heads bursts in from the Spokane Falls Boulevard entrance, teary-eyed and agitated. One girl is bleeding from scrapes on her knee and elbow.
"It's started." Faith takes a step in their direction.
"Wait." Xander catches her by the wrist. He listens a moment, catches aggressive bitches and then shakes his head. "Nah, that's just Hoopfest. But yeah, it's time to get out there."
They're walking up the parking ramp from the blue level elevator stop when Faith mutters, "What the hell is that?" She veers off from the others, bending to look beneath an SUV. "Shit. We've got a casualty." She rolls the body over. A balding guy in basketball shorts and jersey that says Terminators has played his last three-on-three.
Of course. Sunlight never reaches very far into the garage. They all dive into their cargo pockets for a stake, moving into battle-ready mode. Xander's stowing the crossbow into his pack when he hears Willow shriek behind him. Faith and Willa barely have time to react, stakes rising, before a small fireball emerges from Willow's fingertips and it's Vampire Suzette.
"Wow," Willa comments. "That's a useful skill."
"And no unsightly bulges in the cargo pants," Willow says.
A sound swells from the street below that doesn't sound like normal Hoopfest racket. Xander races to the outer edge of the garage and looks out over the concrete wall. A vamp is chasing a girl toward the Boulevard, driving her toward the sculptures of the Bloomsday runners. She almost makes it between them, but gets tangled in the steel legs of one of the figures. The chaos is just beginning to spread, a few people running into the park from the street, others fleeing the park toward the mall.
"Now it's started," Xander says. Pulling out the crossbow, he fits it with a bolt as he says, "Willa, a vamp's got a girl down at the runners. See if you can help her. I'll try to get a clear shot from here. Faith, Will -- go with her. I'll catch up with you."
As their feet pound on the ramp toward the stairwell, he fixes the vamp in his sight, but he's always shielded by the girl or one of the sculptures. Xander can't get a clean shot until the vamp's drained the girl and let her drop at the feet of one of the bronze runners.
Her attacker explodes into dust, sifting onto the girl's corpse like volcanic ash. He lowers the crossbow, sickened, as he spots Willa dashing across one of the half-courts on the boulevard, leading Faith and Willow to the scene. She kneels beside the girl, and Xander backs away from the parapet before his Slayer can turn and direct her gaze at him.
He wheels and takes the ramp at a dead run.
When he hits the street, it's a weird scene. There are running people who have a good idea what they're fleeing, while others are just picking up the sense that something's wrong, glancing around nervously, wondering if they should run too. Others are oblivious, still playing ball or watching their teams from the curb or threading their way through the crowd.
Faith and the Wills have gotten themselves clear of the sculptures, fanning out into the park. Xander darts between two back-to-back hoops to cross the boulevard, a team of ten-year-old boys on one side and knee-braced middle-aged players on the other. Dodging a boy who comes barreling toward him from his blind side, he makes it to the far sidewalk and searches for his comrades. He catches a flash of red hair up closer to the center court and hurries to catch up.
He finds Faith first, just dusting a vamp who'd been struggling with a gangly teenaged boy under the bleachers. "Might be a good idea to head home now," she tells the rattled kid. As he takes off, she turns to Xander. "It didn't look like he was trying to eat him, but maybe take him somewhere."
"So we should see if we can figure out where."
Faith nudges him. "Hey. Look who's there."
"It's Big Sexy."
She shoots Xander a look.
"Jerome Shelton, Big Sexy, elite player from Atlanta," he clarifies. Still not the right answer. "Who ... is ... talking to a, uh, much ... smaller ... white guy."
"Who would be Father Bill," Faith points out.
"No wa-- oh. So it is. I'd never have spotted him without the collar." Or the black suit -- or much of anything. He's wearing, in fact, basketball shorts and jersey, black, actually, with white trim -- Xander gets it now -- with FOUR PADRES across the front. When he spots Xander and Faith, he winds up the conversation with Shelton and comes over to them.
"Alex, Faith. It's good to see you again, under a little happier circumstances this time."
"Maybe not," Xander says. "Father, things are starting to get kind of unholy around here, and I don't mean some drunken rowdiness. You should go home."
Father Bill gives him a blank look. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Well, I can't exactly explain --"
"It wouldn't have anything to do with the crosses you're all wearing." All including the two Wills, who've joined them.
"My work takes me out at all hours of the night. It requires me to invite into the parish house anyone who knocks. Let's just say I've seen a thing or two within the past few months. And by the way, how'd the two gallons of holy water work out for you?"
Faith grins. "They came in handy."
"Good. Tell me how else I can help."
"Shit!" Willa yelps, running after a vamp who's chasing a guy in a knee brace.
Faith reaches into a cargo pocket and offers the priest a stake. "Want to rock and roll a little?"
"Faith--" Xander protests.
Father Bill takes it, hefts it in his palm. "I normally have my own, but I'm low on pockets."
Xander surrenders to the inevitable. "Watch out for the Bloomsday sculpture, it's too easy to get hung up. Use the clock tower as our rendezvous point in the park, our fallback is inside the mall, at the lakes. Peggy's there, and she'll pass on messages to our cop friend if he can make it to her. Are we ready?"
Father Bill nods and they start to move deeper into the park. Before they fan out, Xander hears himself say, "A little prayer couldn't hurt right now, Father."
Father Bill swats him on the arm, one teammate to another. "Already on it."
Xander circles around toward the Pavilion. Wherever rides are set up, there are kids, and who's easier to overpower and transport than kids? As if to prove him right, a guy in denim shorts and a tee comes up the rise with a shrieking boy under his arm. He's in human face, the easier to get away with an abduction.
Pulling a large wooden cross from his cargo pocket, Xander thrusts it in his face.
The guy doesn't vamp out. "Buddy," he says tiredly, "I don't have time for religion right now."
"Rides, Daddy, riiiiiiides!" the kid wails.
"Oh. Yeah," Xander says. "I'd say he needs to go home." He hopes the guy gets him out of here before the shit hits the fan.
"I do, anyway." He passes Xander, then turns. "Hey. I wouldn't go down there looking for converts. There were some seriously skeevy people moving in down there."
"Just the people who need to hear the Good News," Xander says cheerfully, loping on down the path.
As he reaches the Pavilion, he sees these people are the sort of skeevy he's well acquainted with. They're easier to dust when they've got a kid under each arm, and Xander even manages to grab the pair before his kill falls to dust. He's under attack before he can even shout at them to run, but they're not stupid, and they both take off, screeching.
Two vamps pile on him at once, and he jabs the stake with one hand and thrusts the cross with the other, gaining enough breathing room to dust the one and then the other. During the struggle, some others -- two, he thinks -- make off with their own hostages. Xander follows them up the rise, panting, and sees them cut across the lawn, heading south. It's still too crowded for the crossbow, getting more chaotic now as people are catching on that something's seriously wrong. And as always, there are a few who notice and figure out a way to take advantage. Xander sees a handful of teenaged guys bolting from the Hoopfest merch tent, loaded down with t-shirts and sweats, pushing through the group Xander's following, giving one of the hostages enough of an opening to bolt. Xander rushes the other vamp, who shoves a screaming woman ahead of him, hand wound through her hair. He's dust before he even knows anyone's stalking him.
Heading on in the direction the vamps were going, searching for their destination, he spots Willa in the midst of a knockdown, dragout fight with a female vamp in a police uniform. She punches, kicks, whirls and kicks again, and to see his Slayer fight is a beautiful thing. Willa rears back and drives the stake into her chest, but of course it splinters against the kevlar vest. "Fire!" Xander shouts, but she's already diving into her cargo pocket for a lighter, and the vamp cop goes up in a blaze.
She turns and catches his eye. "They're overrunning the medical tent."
Not firm believers in working real hard, Darius' vamps are more buffet table types than hunters.
Willa points. "There's Faith."
She's at the far side of the carousel, punching and scrapping with a vamp, driving him up the stony little hillock where the garbage-eating goat stands. She ducks under a roundhouse punch, kicks out at the vamp's knee, then pops him with the stake as he staggers. Faith high-kicks the on switch for the goat just as the vamp crumbles to ash, and the vacuum mechanism in the sculpture sucks down the dust before it can fall. Willa laughs in delight, even as she launches herself at a pair of female vamps dragging an injured player out of the med tent.
Xander plunges into the tent, where it has in fact gone all smorgasbordy. Vamps are pulling people off the treatment tables, out of folding chairs. He spots a uniformed cop sprawled on the ground, his neck snapped. Before he can do much more than register the man's presence, he's fighting for his own life as two vamp's tackle him. One kicks him in the stomach, driving the breath from him. The other grabs Xander from behind.
"That's the one," says the first. "The one-eyed fuck that Darius told us to watch out for. We just made the big score, buddy."
It's a compliment, he supposes, that Darius' boys tie him up with a length of rubber tubing they find in the med tent. All the other captives he's seen have been unbound, wrangled like cattle. Their makeshift slaughterhouse is the round building housing the Looff Carousel. Xander's captors have cast aside the backpack and emptied out his cargo pockets, leaving the contents scattered on the floor of the tent as they drag him the short distance to join the others.
The vamps have locked down all the glass doors but one. The carousel is stopped, but the organ music still booms in the enclosed areas, hellishly cheerful. The din makes it impossible to communicate, difficult even to think. The vamps keep shoving their hostages into a smaller and smaller area, kicking and cursing and randomly snapping a neck or two, and the result is a milling crowd of panicked humans.
Above their heads he spots a figure in black with glimmers of silver, standing on the platform where the ride operator normally sits. He's the palest person -- the palest vampire -- Xander's ever seen, with fine, straight white hair down to the middle of his back. He's short and slight, almost the size of a young adolescent who's on the tall side, but from what Xander can see of his face, he looks to have been in his twenties when he was turned. His eyes are obscured by the light blue lenses of his shades, but Xander's got a pretty good idea that the vamp on the platform is an albino.
He also knows with absolute certainty despite the incongruity of his appearance -- because of it -- that this is Darius.
Xander's breath catches at the suddenness with which everything falls into place -- actually, at the thought that makes it all crystallize with perfect clarity.
It all makes sense to him now: Darius' break from Seattle and his friend, his move to Spokane and the driving ambition he's shown in the few months since his arrival.
Xander's seen it all played out before.
For the first dozen years or so of their friendship, Willow had been the vulnerable one, and Xander her protector. He'd stood up to the bullies for her -- the same ones he'd cave before if it was a question of standing up for himself. Their roles had made her feel safe, made him feel important, but finally she came to chafe under his protection. It was so subtle at first that neither of them noticed. Her discovery of her talent for magic was what sparked it into impatience and then resentment. Xander didn't think it was an accident that he'd borne the brunt of her wild streams of magic that day on Kingman's Bluff.
Xander doesn't know much about this Seattle vamp Darius had served -- Kane, he now recalls -- but his imagination fills in a lot. Longtime friends, he remembers Dow saying. Xander sees Kane acting as protector, siring him to share the dark power he'd discovered in his demon self. How many years had he spent as sidekick, the lesser one, the one who had to be shielded from harm?
That shit gets old, he knows.
Darius' attention suddenly falls on Xander and his captors, and he lifts a long, slender hand to signal one of his soldiers to cut the organ music. In the abrupt quiet, the whimpers and moans of the hostages can be heard.
Darius takes him in, his expression surely mirroring Xander's own. Here's the bastard who's made my life so fucking hellish these past weeks.
His gaze holds Xander's for what seems to be an eternity.
Darius smiles. "I was beginning to think this day would never come." His voice is young, reedy. "I've heard so much about you."
"Xander Harris," Darius continues, "you're quite the legend."
"Me? Naw. You've got me confused with some other one-eyed fuck."
Darius laughs. He signals to Xander's captors, the silver rings on his fingers flashing in the overhead lights. "Bring him to me. Untie his hands, Jerrod. Let him take the ladder himself."
As his arms are released, Xander resists the urge to shake the blood back into his hands. He casts a glance at the fierce, rolling-eyed stallions nearest him, wishing Looff had thought to include a nice, wussy little unicorn with a ready-made wooden stake. Too bad. He climbs to the platform. Jerrod starts to follow, but another signal from Darius, and the vamp retreats.
Once again, Xander's expectations are confounded. While he'd known Darius was by no means stupid, he's startled by the intelligence he can see behind the tinted lenses. Close up he sees the black shirt is silk, the Cuban-heeled boots are some exotic leather with ornate silver toe caps. Somehow Darius pulls off the villain-with-fashion-sense vibe without it coming off as cheesy.
Darius offers one of his delicate hands, the picture of affability. When Xander declines to shake it, he smiles again. "Once I realized I had a pair of Slayers in my town, I did some asking around. I found out quite a lot about you."
"Can we just skip the 'You're a worthy opponent, Mr. Bond' crap? Jump to the part where you tell me your nefarious plans before I die, or just fucking kill me. I'm tired of this."
"Actually, I had something different in mind," Darius tells him. "I've been hoping we could forge a partnership. You'd be an invaluable ally."
"Aren't you forgetting something? Like me being into the whole killing-vampires-for-fun-and-profit thing, while you, well, you're a vampire."
He makes another subtle hand signal. "I'm hoping you'll come around to my way of thinking."
Xander whirls, thinking to vault the railing and leap onto the carousel's top. By the time he completes the movement, another vampire has already reached the platform, seizing him by the left shoulder, digging his thumb into a spot that reminds Xander of the damage already done there.
"Glad you could make it," says Patrick.
"One of the things I've come to admire about you," Darius says, "is your ability to follow. Don't think I'm being snotty -- I know how difficult it is to do. From what I can discern, you're not a yes-man, but you're whole-hearted. It's a delicate balance. I could use someone like you, but you know, there isn't anyone like you. There's just you."
"I'm not so much of a follower these days, if you've noticed the past five years or so."
"Maybe you've just been disillusioned with the side you chose."
"I thought you had to go to Seattle to get that good vampire crack. Who's your supplier?"
Darius smiles. "I understand completely. Your vision is limited from where you stand. When you find a higher ground, you'll see so much more."
"Let me guess. You're going to take me there."
"Actually, I thought it would be much more fitting if it was Patrick who was your guide."
"I have a lot to unteach you," Patrick says. "The whole powerless thing, for starters. You wouldn't believe how much power is out there for you to take."
Xander tries to break away, but Patrick's thumb finds that spot on his shoulder that sends an immobilizing bolt of pain through him.
"Easy does it," Patrick says, and sinks his fangs into Xander's neck.
He hears the beating of his own heart, the sound of Patrick's throat working as he swallows Xander's blood.
He finds himself mesmerized by Darius, the way the light makes his pale hair glow like moonlight, the translucence of his white skin.
He wonders if he'll feel his soul leaving when it goes, vaguely startled to discover that he believes in it after all. Funny that it's Patrick, after so many conversations at all hours, who shows finally him what's true, in a way he'd never envisioned.
Tearing his gaze from Darius, he spots a scarecrow of a figure seemingly hovering nearby, his body and head held at a peculiar angle. Distantly he notices the guy has an eyepatch too -- what are the odds of that? He's probably a hallucination. Certainly the face far behind him is. It's how he'd like to remember Faith before he dies. So fierce and beautiful. He hopes she'll stake him before he does any damage.
"Huh," Patrick grunts behind him, then he releases Xander so abruptly he finds himself teetering back against the platform railing. Xander lets his legs fold beneath him, landing on his hands and knees in a drift of ash, a crossbow bolt near his hand. A blur of black and silver crosses his vision as the crashing of glass heralds the smashing of all the doors to the carousel house. In the chaos, he catches a glimpse of red hair and sees Father Bill's black Four Padres uniform.
"Drive them into the river," Father Bill calls out.
Seizing the bolt, Xander grabs for the railing and pulls himself to his feet. "Not the water," he calls out, but he can't make his shaky voice heard over the din. The part of the Spokane that flows by the carousel house is too placid to do any good. The Falls and the rocks might do some damage, but they're too far away to make an effective strategy.
None of this seems to occur to his fellow vampire fighters. He spots Faith and the Wills and Father Bill, all pushing the crowd before them, vampires and humans alike, sweeping them out the north door and down the concrete steps toward the water.
This is insanity. He turns to leave the platform as a flash of lightning throws his figure in the carousel mirror into stark relief. Shitty as he looks, he's never been so glad to see his reflection. He pauses as a wave of dizziness crashes over him. Hearing the first screams rise up from outside, he pushes aside his queasiness and makes his way down to the north door. God, I knew it. We're in for a slaughter.
He dusts two vamps as he fights his way through the mass of fleeing bodies. When he makes the top of the steps, Father Bill's strategy suddenly becomes clear, as Xander watches Faith hurl a vamp into the water, and sees it seethe and boil around him.
A whole river flowing with holy water.
Xander joins his comrades in herding everyone toward the water then pulling out the ones who are unaffected, in a bizarre sort of baptism. Lightning stabs the air around them as they battle on, and soon the rain is slashing down. It gets hard to tell who's been in the river and who hasn't, but by now most everyone has been dunked or they've fled.
Xander's knees wobble and he drops to a step right at the river's edge, panting. He watches Willa rise up out of the water after pulling two vamps to their second deaths. She climbs the steps to collapse next to him. "Did we win?"
"We did good." He's not so sure anymore that anything so final as a win is possible. "But I think Darius got away. Albino guy, hair down to here?"
Willa shakes her head. "I didn't see him in all this." She peers closer at him. "You look like shit. I think we should get you to the hospital."
Xander sits up straight, then blinks as his vision grays from the sudden movement. "The first aid tent."
"There's no one there."
Actually, there is. Xander just doesn't know who. "Take me there. It's important."
Willow appears at his left side, startling him as she takes his other arm and slings it over her shoulders. "God, Xander. I'm so glad you're okay."
"That's kind of relative," Willa says. "I think we should get him to Deaconess."
"The med tent first," he insists. "There's a dead cop in there."
"What," Faith says as she comes up, "you think a dead Watcher will help make it a nice matched set? I'll check, meet you at the ER."
Xander feels more than sees Willow's startled reaction at the idea of Xander as a Watcher. Even in the midst of his urgency to get moving, he feels a small thrill of satisfaction. "Faith, I'm checking. It's on the way."
They move toward the tent, coming up on Father Bill, kneeling to pray over a woman sprawled on the sidewalk. As he looks up, Xander says, "Great work back there, padre."
The eyes that meet his are filled with doubt.
"You saved a lot more than were lost. In this line of work, sometimes that's the best you can hope for."
Father Bill's brows shoot upward. "'This line of work'?"
"Yeah. I'm a professional. Except for the getting paid part." He gestures toward the med tent. "There's at least one in here who needs you, too."
The priest lays his palm on the woman's head for a moment, then rises to accompany them. He's the one, once they're inside the tent, who kneels to tend to the dead man in the police uniform. Xander's impressed with the respect with which Father Bill turns the body.
Xander sucks in his breath. "Shit. Sorry, Father."
"Who is this guy?" Faith asks.
"It's Kevin's partner."
She makes a small noise in her throat. "Still. We've gotta get gone."
Xander shakes his head, slipping his arm off Willa's shoulder and reaching for one of the scattered canvas chairs. "I'll stay here. Willa, if you can't find Kevin himself out there, have Peg relay a message. Just tell him to come here. I'll tell him the rest."
"Xander," Willa protests, "you have to take care of yourself. I --"
"Just do it!" he snaps. "Jesus, I thought we were past this, Willa." He drags the chair to the entrance of the tent. "This is nothing -- I've been bitten before."
There's a chorus from his Slayers and Willow: You've been bitten before?
"Yeah. And the only reason I went to the ER was I got beat up too. I'm good. Just go. Get the word to Kevin." His legs betray him then, folding and dumping him onto the canvas chair.
Willa gives him a fierce look but goes, leaving Xander to wait by the tent to tell Straley the news that his partner is dead.
Straley's alone when Xander catches sight of him crossing the deserted half-courts on Spokane Falls Boulevard. Xander carefully rises and heads toward him. Faith and Willow have gone off to do a sweep of the park and make sure everything's settled down, while Father Bill has stayed inside with Officer Worth and to be available when Straley gets the news.
"Willa said to tell you she went to check on Peg," Straley says. "Is she okay?"
"Willa? Yeah, she's good. Got the battle shakes, maybe." It's a lie, but he's not ready for the truth just yet. "How is it out there?"
"I was stuck on crowd control over on Main. Things emptied out in kind of a crazy rush, but I heard it got bad over here."
"Yeah. Darius made himself an army. We killed scores of them, but he got away."
Straley shines his flashlight on Xander's neck. "You've got a mark -- Jesus, you got bit."
Xander waves a hand. "Darius was recruiting. I took a pass." He takes a deep breath. "Kevin. I found your partner. He's dead. He's just inside there." He clasps Straley's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Straley blinks, then furrows his brow as if these four sentences are beyond his comprehension. "Did you see--?" he finally says.
Xander shakes his head. "It was quick, though. I could see that much."
"Will he, uh, what's the word? Turn?"
"No. That's not how they killed him. Father Bill's in there with him. Want to go in?"
"Yeah. Let's, uh ... yeah."
Xander ushers him into the tent, where Father Bill prays over the body. Straley halts, the breath hissing out of him. Even under the kevlar vest, his body seems to shrink some. After a moment, he grabs onto police procedure to pull himself out of his paralysis.
"Anyone with him when you found him? Possible witnesses?"
"Vamps and victims. I didn't get a good look at anyone before I got dragged off to the carousel building, like the rest."
"His gun's still holstered," Straley says. "He didn't even take out his baton. Looks like he didn't even know what hit him."
"I moved the body," Father Bill says. "Just to see if we could make an I.D. He was face down."
Nodding, Straley rubs a hand over his face. "I've been working with Eddie for three years." He kneels by Worth's body, regarding the startled look on his partner's face. "This is what's always in the back of your mind," he says softly. "Even more than dying yourself."
Xander knows. Even when he was young and stupid, he had this driven home early, on the sharp point of the stake that dispatched Jesse.
"In your worst nightmares," Straley continues, "it's your fault. Some fuckup that gets your partner killed."
Xander knows this too. He's dreamed up scenarios, revisited memories. Wondered if he could have moved faster (moved at all) when he saw Warren with the gun, saved Tara's life. Saved Willow from her slide into the pit. He's wondered if he could have prevented Buffy from sacrificing herself to defeat Glory if he'd been ... something more.
"You weren't partnered tonight," Father Bill offers. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"There's nothing I can say," Xander tells Straley. "Except I've been there."
Straley looks up, meeting his gaze. Actually, more like strip searching it. Xander maintains the contact for an uncomfortably long moment before Straley nods in acknowledgment and reaches for his radio. "I'd better call this in."
It's astonishing how fast the words "officer down" changes things. In no time the sound of police and ambulance sirens bears down on them, close enough to tell him some cruisers have pulled onto the trampled grass by the med tent. Other cops arrive on foot or bicycle.
Straley and Worth are swallowed in a moving mass of blue, while Xander and Father Bill are taken off separately for questioning. Xander says what little he can say. He tells his story a dozen times over, gives his contact information.
At last a pair of EMTs load Worth onto a stretcher and take him away. Straley remains behind, still in the center of a knot of officers.
"What can I do to help?" Father Bill asks for the second time tonight.
"We take care of our own, Father," says one of the cops. "The chaplain's on his way."
Xander gets the idea it's a good idea to depart, even though he's been unable to catch Straley's eye, much less have a word. He'll come to them when things settle down, Xander's sure of that. When everything's been said that can be said, there's going to be a whole lot left that Straley can tell nobody but Xander and his Slayers.
He steps outside the tent, searching his cargo pockets before remembering his cigarettes and lighter are long gone. The carousel house is swarming with cops now, and EMTs are carrying out the dead. He never got an accurate count.
Father Bill joins him. "I have work to do."
Xander nods. "You know where my place is. We'll be gathering there as soon as I can collect everyone. I can't see us going to bed anytime soon." He remembers the invitation he'd extended to the priest after Damon's funeral. To call it half-hearted would have been putting a real optimistic spin on it. This time when he says, "Come by when you're finished, padre," he means it.
A shadow separates from a nearby tree when Father Bill is gone. It's Faith, who has the jitters from all the cops around. "We had a rendezvous point," she reminds him. "Maybe the Wills are there."
He catches her hand, pulls her to him, breathing in the scent of her hair. "You saved me," he whispers into her hair. "I saw you."
"Returning the favor," she says.
"I never saved you."
"You tried. Years ago. It counts." She laces her fingers through his and leads him toward the Clock Tower.
It's a strange, subdued celebration at Xander's house. Peg has laid out a spread from the store -- she still works there; Xander, to no one's surprise, has been cut loose. Though Xander knows he should be starving, he just picks. They talk about the night's events, but there's none of the giddy laughter and loud chatter that usually accompany the end of a battle. Nobody wants Straley to walk in on the middle of that.
"Did anyone see Darius in the big sweep down to the river?" Xander asks. "He's very slight, long white hair down to here. Albino. Wears black and a lot of silver. I caught sight of him running for it when Faith dusted Pa -- that vampire."
"Silver?" Peg says. "Isn't that supposed to hurt vampires or ward them off or something?" At Faith and Xander's look, she says, "I watched some movies while I was at my sister's place. I figured some research couldn't hurt."
"Well, that's sort of like asking your twelve-year-old cousin what the deal is about sex," Xander says. "Lurid and fun, but not all that informative."
"Depends on the cousin," Faith notes.
"Do we have an estimate on how many we killed tonight?" Xander asks.
"I'd say fifty, at least," Willa says. "I tried keeping a count, but -- what was it you said? Like trying to keep track of the bodies in a Bruce Willis movie. Especially when they go poof before you can add 'em up."
"Didn't seem to be more than a handful that escaped," Willow says.
Straley calls in, says he's home from the debriefing and the counseling and the drive-by condolences from the mayor. "I'm beat," he says. "I'll come by in the morning, if that's all right."
"Sure. We're planning to take it easy. Come by whenever you're ready."
"Listen, you think they killed Eddie because of me? The same way they went after you with your sponsor and your coworkers. Maybe they realized he was my partner."
"I think it was just random, Kev. There was another officer they got. A female. They turned her, and Willa had to dust her."
"Short blonde hair? About five-seven?"
"Yeah, that's right."
He mutters a few curses. "I was afraid of that. She went missing a couple of days ago."
"She won't be found," Xander says unnecessarily. "I'm sorry about her, too. At least your partner was spared that." At least Straley was spared having to confront him and stake him. "Get some rest. We'll see you tomorrow."
The atmosphere remains subdued for a short while after he hangs up, but gradually the volume rises as they feel free to release some pent-up energy. Willa asks if he's got any of the Italian rap he told her about during the whole vision quest thing, and he rummages through his cds to find Jovanotti's hits collection. He slips it in the tray and watches, amused, as the opening whistle shrill of "L'Ombelico del Mondo" startles everyone in the house. That blast seems to signal something to them all, though, and soon it does feel like a victory celebration.
Xander slips up behind Faith, who's slamming a tube of cinnamon rolls against the counter. He wraps his arms around her, throwing them both a little off balance. He's not completely steady on his feet. "Sono ragazzo fortunato too," he murmurs into Faith's ear.
She turns in his embrace, finds herself a handful of his ass. "Play your cards right and you can get fortunato on the workbench later on. If you want."
He lets his kiss tell her how very much he wants.
It's then that he hears the crash of glass from the back bedroom, and a strange whoosh.
Cursing, Faith stiffens, shoves herself back from his embrace. "Call 911. Now."
Before he can even process this, there's another crash and a bottle comes skittering into the hallway from the open door of the guest room, a flaming rag stuffed in its top.
It's completely unnecessary, but someone says it anyway: "Fire."
Xander grabs a throw off the couch and heads down the hallway, but Faith catches him by the arm, swinging him around to face her. "Xander when that thing goes--"
As if to prove her point, the bottle shatters, sending fire roaring up the wall. Another bottle crashes through a kitchen window, followed by one through the living room picture window. Both explode into fireballs on contact.
"Your guitar!" Willa shouts. She wheels for the garage door.
"No!" Xander yells. "It's full of chemicals. If it catches --"
"Your wood's in there," Faith says. "Plus it's the only way out."
Willow has placed herself by the garage door, muttering. "Get in now! I'm working on a barrier."
Willa's slammed a fist against the garage door button, and the sound of the door mechanism briefly drowns the roar from the other rooms. The sound of the fire makes it seem like a living thing, fierce as any demon Xander's ever fought (or dated).
Willow steps into the garage, waves her hand in front of the door into the house. "I bought us some time. Move what you need to carry out to the edge of the drive, and when I drop the barrier, we can haul it all out."
"Through them." Peg points out a knot of vamps waiting just outside the barrier.
"Ah, shit," Faith says. "They've got the father."
"Got him, or is he with them?" There's been altogether too much of that sort of thing for Xander's taste lately.
"They're struggling," Faith says.
"Forget the guitars." Funny how all that stickered wood already feels like guitars. "Will, drop the barrier."
Faith and Willa ignore him, Faith going for the guitar and Willa moving the stack of stickered wood to the barrier's edge.
Xander pulls the box of stakes onto the floor and grabs one in each hand. "Open it!" he shouts.
Suddenly he hears the familiar sputtering clamor of the neighbor's van, careening across their lawns and crosswise onto Xander's driveway, scattering the vamps. "Get in!" Dustin shouts, but once the barrier dissolves, Xander runs around the van, ready to join the battle. He finds only Father Bill, back in his suit and collar, sprawled on the grass.
"Padre, are you all right?"
"Outstanding." He clasps the hand Xander reaches to him, regains his feet.
Xander jerks the cross from his own neck, slaps it into Father Bill's palm. "Here, hold this." The priest doesn't flinch, and Xander lets out a relieved breath. "Which way did they go?"
Father Bill points. "That way."
Though the van's too loud and too distant for him to hear, Dustin hauls it around and floors it in that direction. Faith and Willa are tearing in down the street too, overtaking the van without much effort.
"Is everyone out?" He spots Willow, still inside, magicking his tools into a box, which she sends skittering down the drive. He dodges it to run after her, yelling at her to get out.
"Coming!" She grabs his hand, running with him.
"Safe," she says. "We're all out."
Sirens come screaming down the street -- finally, he thinks, though it's probably been not a handful of minutes. He hurries to meet the lead firetruck. "There's a lot of finishes and solvents in the garage," he says. "We were firebombed. There could be more."
He backs out of the way of the firefighters, bumping hard into another body. As he turns, the apology dies on his lips to find himself face to face with a smiling Darius.
"I can't stand leaving unfinished business," Darius says. "I believe I was making a proposal."
Somewhere along the line Xander lost track of both his stakes. He doesn't even have his cross. "I had my attorney take a look at that," he says. "I think I'll take a pass."
Frail as he looks, Darius is one strong fucker. He slams a hand into Xander's chest, and he finds himself thrown against the side of a firetruck, the breath driven from his lungs.
"Before very much longer, you'll wonder why you resisted so strenuously." Darius is as fastidious as he looks -- he makes certain to sink his fangs into the unmarked side of Xander's neck. His hair changes colors in the strobing emergency flashers: white, red, white, red. It makes Xander's head ache, and his eye flutters closed.
It's the hair-raising shriek that makes it fly open again, and he puts a feeble hand to Darius' chest to shove him away, to no effect.
Then Darius isn't there, but there's a wooden stake point biting into the palm of Xander's hand. The pain is sharp and startling, but it roots him here, just when he'd been so ready to slip away. At the other end of the stake is a wild-eyed Willa. "Oh god, oh god," she says breathlessly.
"That was really ... good timing, Eudora." Everything turns all gray and he staggers into her arms.
"I need some paramedics here!" she screams from a great distance.
Then there are hands tending to him, none too gently, and he hears Faith doing a drill sergeant number, yelling at him to live, dammit.
He fades in and out as they work over him --
-- work him over --
But as they're wheeling the stretcher toward the ambulance, he rouses himself for one last look at his house. And feels the heat sear his face as the finishes and solvents flash into an enormous fireball.
He tries fighting it, but the fear threatens to overwhelm him.
He's crossing over.
Shedding the old life to step into a new one. Unknown territory. Hell, he's a guy who barely left his hometown, had to be evicted by an unnatural disaster before he'd consider living anywhere else. He does not do well with unknown territory.
He thinks of the people waiting on the other side, but the thought doesn't console him. He's betrayed them, disappointed them, shown them his worst self.
He's not ready for this.
"If you bump that thing into my leg one more time," Faith says, "I'm going to have to kill you."
"Sorry." Xander sets the case at his feet. "Nervous."
"Babe, we all are." She strokes his cheek, looks into his eyes.
"Yeah, me. In case you haven't noticed, I'm known for not playing well with others."
"That was a long time ago." He shifts uncomfortably under her gaze. "Don't," he whispers. "Not in public."
"I don't know why you're so self-conscious. You look fine."
Not really. Right now he's got a temporary prosthesis that looks like a fake eye, and the socket still needs some work. It'll be an operation or two before he can get the implant. The Council, at least, is paying for all that. It'll never look the way it did before -- he waited too long for that -- but eventually it won't be so noticeable at a casual glance. He won't be so readily identifiable (one-eyed fuck) to his enemies, his vulnerabilities so easily read. "The line's moving," he tells her.
She shoots him a chickenshit look, but turns and moves ahead.
Faith's right about one thing: The rest of them are nervous too. Willa's fallen unusually quiet, and Straley drums his fingers on the top of his rolling suitcase. Kevin's interest in joining the Council had surprised him. Xander told him it was no place to retreat from the trauma of losing a partner, that he'd be letting himself in for an even greater possibility of loss than the Spokane P.D. offered. "Yeah, I know," Kevin had said. "But there's a real chance I might save someone. I'm tired of seeing scumbags go free, or people walk out of rehab to go set themselves up a meth lab, or women sell all their stuff to bail out the shitheads that beat them up. I'd like to know I'm doing something that makes a difference, even if most people never know about it."
Whether Kevin will wind up in Spokane or somewhere else in the world, nobody knows yet. In the past couple of months since Willa dusted Darius, the city's gone back to its previous level of supernatural dullness. Xander's had a chance to heal, get his life back in order, reopen Evan's -- his -- store, which Peg and her son are running for the time being. He's had time to figure out what's next.
What's next, at least for a while, is London. Giles stressed that this isn't about him teaching Xander how to become a Watcher: "You've grown into the Watcher I wish I'd been," he'd said, and refused to hear any protests to the contrary. Giles had invited them there to give Xander and Willa a chance to enjoy the support and fellowship of others like them before they rejoined the fray, and for Xander and Faith to, as Xander began to joke, "teach the whippersnappers what we know."
And how weird is that?
As he shuffles along the Customs line (queue, he's in England now) his stomach starts to lurch. It's crazy -- he knows things are okay with Giles and Catarina -- but this is the first time he'll see them since the engagement party. Since the bitter, shitty toast he made, and the fistfight that came after. What Xander had admitted to Faith -- hitting Giles -- was not the worst of it. Buffy had stepped in, mostly to join Giles in urging him to go home and sleep it off, and he'd hit her too. She could handle herself, of course, sending him directly to the "sleep it off" part without even rumpling her party dress, but that wasn't what mattered. What he'd done was unforgivable. No matter what Dawn has said about Buffy's eagerness to see him again.
He's glad she's still off in Borneo or wherever. There's only so much facing of himself he can do at one time.
They finally reach the front of the queue. Faith gets the full luggage search, undoubtedly for having said, "I have nothing to declare but my hotness." When they're all four together again, they trail down to the arrivals area, where Giles and Catarina will be waiting.
He stops in his tracks when he spots them. All of them. "Jesus," he whispers.
Giles and Catarina and Dawn and Willow and --
"Oh my god," Faith says. "It's B."
Time's worked its changes on everyone, not just him. This incredibly obvious thought flits across his mind courtesy of the sight of Giles rushing toward them. He first envelops Faith in a hug, murmuring, "I'm so glad you've come." When Giles lets her go, Xander sticks out his hand to be shaken, only to be swept up in a bone-crunching embrace of his own. "My boy." Giles's voice is thick with emotion. It seems like there'll be more, but that's all he says until he releases him. "Welcome home."
A family walks by, staring at this decidedly un-British display.
All Xander can think of to say is, "Thank you." Turns out he's got his own hoarseness issues.
Giles rouses himself first. "And your new Slayer and Watcher candidate."
"Willa Donovan and Kevin Straley," Xander says. "This is Rupert Giles, and his wife Catarina. You already know Dawn and Willow, of course. And ... Buffy, I thought you were off halfway around the world."
"I came back."
"You didn't cut your trip short for --" Me, he can't quite say.
"Of course I did. Xander, this is huge. Do you know how long I've -- Antarctica's always gonna be there." She catches him up in a hug that knocks the breath from him.
"Actually," Dawn offers, "I was reading this article -- Oh."
Then he's hugging her, then Willow and finally, Catarina approaches him, uncharacteristically hesitant. "It's wonderful to see you," he says. Can you ever forgive me for being such an ass? can wait until they're all in a less public space.
"Ksander, you're looking so well." She lays her hand on his cheek, the side that used to make him flinch or, on worse days, bolt. Since the operation, he's more accustomed to being touched -- used to Faith's matter-of-fact attentions.
"So are you. And so's Giles -- I can see you're doing him a world of good."
It's Buffy who breaks the mood. "Okay, when Giles rates a You look mahvelous and I get squat, it's time to book a derma peel at least."
"You look just as terrific as the last time I saw you," Xander says. "Only somewhat less blurry." Her hair is shorter than he's ever seen it. Boyish. It looks great on her. "I guess not being the one girl in all the world is agreeing with you. How was Borneo?"
"Papua New Guinea. It was amazing. They've got butterflies bigger than your head."
"No, just regular. I brought you back a penis gourd. And I've got enough slides back at the house to put you in a coma, if dinner doesn't do that for you. Why don't we get there?"
The welcoming committee sets about relieving their guests of their baggage, except for one case of Xander's, which he hangs onto. "You're kidding about the penis gourd, right?" he asks of Buffy's back as he traipses along behind. "What is a penis gourd?" he asks Giles out of the side of his mouth.
"An item of apparel. In a manner of speaking."
"You are kidding about the penis gourd, right?"
"She's not kidding," Giles assures him.
The drive into London, surprisingly, turns out not to be into London proper, but a pretty swank suburb. And "back at the house" was something of an understatement. Giles and the Council have a compound. Or, as Faith says, "Holy crap. Is this a movie set?"
The dining hall where they have dinner looks like a movie set, too. "We'd planned on a more intimate reunion dinner," Giles explains before they go inside, "but the Slayers and Watchers were so eager to meet you."
Xander's knocked out by the current crop of Slayers, so different from the potentials that last year in Sunnydale. A girl everyone calls Roo for some reason, tall and phenomenally tanned, bristling with silver piercings all down her ear. She has an accent he can't quite identify -- not British, not Australian, and not quite American, though she says that's her nationality. Elizabeth is a lot quieter, self-conscious about her large hands and angular face, but something tells Xander there's uncommon depth to this girl. She's more recent than Roo, who's known what she was almost from the get-go. There's also an Italian girl Catarina discovered on her last trip home; she doesn't speak enough English for Xander to get a sense of her.
There's a crew of young Watchers, too, generally less voluble than the Slayers. The only one he gets a real bead on is Claire, who also seems to be Roo's girlfriend. She's a walking library of Sunnydale history, pumping Faith and Xander for stories he's sure she knows. She's funny and brash and yet her eyes fill with ready tears at certain points of certain stories.
Sitting at this table with his old friends, the newer ones and the near-strangers, watching Willa and Straley get gradually drawn into the conversation, Xander remembers the meal at his house after his and Willa's strange, Orpheus-fueled journey. The perfect domesticity of it, his sense of contentment. He'd been aware, even as he basked in the day-to-day feel, that it was a mere moment. But this -- this is where he lives now. These people are his family. As Catarina rises to get the biscotti and coffee and Roo and Claire begin clearing the table, Xander takes Faith's hand, marveling at how happy he is.
Everyone's gone to bed but Xander and Faith and their hosts. Catarina is instructing Faith in the nuances of the word stronzo, particularly the differences between stronzaccio and stronzuccio.
Xander's been describing to Giles his four days in Willa's head, answering a barrage of questions. Abruptly, Xander cuts into another question: "Could we talk? I mean privately. For a moment."
Puzzled, Giles rises. "Absolutely. Come to my study."
Xander makes a quick detour to the room he's sharing with Faith, returning to Giles's study to find him lighting some kindling in the fireplace there. "You saw through that 'for a moment' thing, huh?" Though really, he'd prefer to deliver his surprise and then flee.
"There's no need to rush." He smiles. "I know you're something of a night owl these days." Once he has the fire going to his satisfaction, Giles pulls the firescreen across the opening and turns to face Xander. "What is it you'd like to discuss?"
"I know I'm really new at this. So if there are things I could've done better, things I can improve --"
"Xander," he says gently, "you've no need to try to prove yourself. I'm quite impressed with your work with Willa so far."
"Oh." He flickers a smile. "That's not quite what I meant. Uh, well. This is my first." He retrieves the case from where he'd stashed it by the door. "So I know it'll need some fine tuning. Feel free to tell me anything. I can't get better without feedback."
Giles is still utterly puzzled, so Xander just sets the case down on Giles's carpet and flips the latches. As he lifts the guitar from its case, he still feels a thrill of pride, despite the imperfections he can spot in the French polish finish. "I guess in a way this is like being a Watcher. Making guitars I don't know how to play. Though the difference is, this I could learn." He holds the guitar out to Giles.
"Making -- I don't understand." His glance flicks down at the guitar, which Xander still offers. "Xander, this is exquisite. Where did you find an instrument like this?"
"I didn't find it. I made it."
Finally it sinks in. "The woodworking you said you've picked up again."
"Yeah." He launches into the disclaimers, all in a rush. "So the finish isn't perfect. Evan told me French polish would always make me feel like I had a lot yet to learn, and I see what he meant. And here's a little ding on the soundboard -- see that? It's from when Faith saved it from the fire. I did a lot of work on it, you have to know what you're looking for, I think. The X-ray thing, Faith suggested that and so that's kind of my trademark." He's babbling, but he can't stop. "And did you catch the inlay on the fingerboard? Like an X-ray image of your fingers making a G-chord. So, say you're having a jam session with some other cats at the Council, playing some of that painful old folkie shit, and you leave your axes lying around while you go score some skag, well, this is sort of like a monogram. G -- for Giles."
Giles rolls his eyes. "I assure you, even skag-addled, I could pick this guitar from a hundr-- Wait. Are you saying this guitar is mine?"
"Yeah," he says softly. "I made it for you. It's a gift."
Giles stammers the way Xander remembers from the old days. "This is remarkable. I scarcely know what to say --"
"Don't say anything. Just play it. I can't really make any adjustments until someone plays it who knows what to listen for."
He's still too flabbergasted for a moment to take Xander's suggestion, but after another moment of admiring the guitar, Giles cocks a stockinged foot on a thick text on the floor and plucks a string. He tunes the string and then the others -- something Xander can only do with the aid of an electronic gadget.
When he's finished, Giles positions his fingers over the X-ray fingers of pearl, strumming a G-chord. He follows it with a progression of chords, and Faith and Catarina appear in the doorway, drawn by the sound.
Giles looks up. "This is quite fine."
Xander wants to say how there was a buzz when he first finished it, which Peg's son helped him track down and fix. The disclaimer, however, dies on his lips.
Faith steps up behind Xander, sliding her arms around his waist. "Play something, Rupert."
Giles smiles and dips his head, thinking for a moment. His fingers caress the wire strings, then he raises his head and begins to sing.
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