Christopher Street, June 30, 2002
The first thing he notices is the tattoo.
Xander spots it from behind, snaking -- literally -- up the guy's bare arm and bare shoulder. (There's a lot of bare out here today, and may he just give a rousing yay for that?)
It's beautiful and it's horrific. A large snake -- incredible colors, unbelievably fine details -- twining up the guy's arm (accenting the biceps, the snake's coils rippling as the muscle flexes). Its jaws close over the shoulder, upper fangs seeming to sink into the flesh just to the right of his neck.
It's the scar he sees next.
A huge fucking sunburst of pale pink tissue, beginning on the shoulder blade where the snake's fangs begin, long healed but it takes Xander's breath away. Normal people would think I can't imagine what would make a scar like that, but Xander can.
This guy -- tanned, sandy haired, clad in nothing but loud Hawaiian shorts and huaraches, laughing as two lesbians wearing less than him flash (literally) by -- has transformed pain into art. Even if nothing else about this day was noteworthy, this would be something worth keeping. He quickens his step.
A Latino guy on the corner of Hudson gives him the eye, and normally Xander would stop and talk and maybe more, but his attention is fixed on Snake Guy. In this throbbing mass of queer boys and girls, Xander could lose him in a heartbeat.
The Mustache Parade, as Homer Simpson called it. We're here! We're queer! And we don't want no bears! Xander had tried to get that one started earlier on, but nobody picked up on it or even got it. Being gay and a geek is hard, okay?
He dodges a group of ten or so chanting cowgirls and breaks into a run, finally catching up to the guy on the next street corner. "Holy god," he says. "That's the most amazing tattoo I've ever seen."
The tattooed guy turns around, with a sunny, open smile -- and the face of a dead man.
"Fuck me," he says, almost as astonished as Xander. "Harris."
"Larry," he stammers. "I thought you were dead."
"For a while there, I thought so too." He cuffs Xander's head with a great bear paw. "Man, you look great." Larry takes in the white tank top and cutoff shorts just this side of what the law will allow and the ridiculous amounts of time at the gym. "Dude. You did it. When?"
"The winter after high school."
"Didn't it feel great?"
Xander shrugs. "After I healed up from the ass-kicking from my old man? Sure."
"Get out. You didn't even have a football scholarship to lose."
"Oh yeah. It's all about the jocks. Even when you're queer."
Larry just laughs, somehow manages to get Xander in a headlock. He ruffles Xander's hair, a little harder than necessary. "Still just as easy to piss off. You always were a gift to me, Harris. A little ray of sunshine when I was feeling down. I could always get a rise out of you." Larry lets him go, leaving his arm hooked over Xander's shoulder. From the corner of his eye it looks like there's a snake looped around his own neck. It weirds him out a little. A lot.
Still, he doesn't mind being yanked close to Larry's muscular body, covered with a light sheen of sweat on this humid June day.
"Why don't you stick around?" Larry asks. "See if I still can."
"Still can what?"
The snake drops off his shoulder, flicks its multicolored scales against Xander's ass. "Get a rise out of you."
Park West High School, May 20, 2003
They catch up to him at the end of the school day. He's been hanging around waiting for Dave Wheeler and his crew of assholes to leave, then he'll walk crosstown, through Central Park. His parents, of course, would have a shit fit if they knew, as much as they pay for that bus pass, but they both work late. For all they know, he's on the bus every day like he's supposed to be.
He'd been shooting the shit for a while with his French teacher, but she told him she had to grade papers, so he's on his own. He's pretty sure she thinks he's got a crush on her, is mooning around her these afternoons he stays late. He likes her, that's all. She's pretty and feminine, and he watches her for ideas. Sometimes he browses her fashion magazines, careful to look casual, bored.
What would she say if he told her who (what) he really is? But then, he'd have to know, wouldn't he?
He says goodnight to Madame, shuffles down the hallway. Maybe they've left. Maybe he'll be safe.
Next thing he knows, a body slams into his, and the momentum carries him into the girl's restroom, because Wheeler is helpfully holding the door open. Two more of Dave's friends are waiting inside, making four in all.
He is well and truly fucked.
"We thought we'd give you a tour of the girls' pisser," Dave says, "since this is the one you should be using. Elizabeth."
Correction: he's beyond fucked.
Who has his little sister been blabbing to? Dave's sister? Colin's? They're all about the same age. It's been years since they played that game where he asked her to call him that -- why is she running her mouth now?
Colin grabs him by the shoulders, steers him toward the sinks. He tries to dig in his heels, but his strength is no match for Colin's. He's shoved, stiff-legged, in front of one of the basins.
"These are the mirrors, where you girls spend half the fuckin' day fixing your makeup," Dave says. "I think your lipstick needs fixing."
A silver tube is shoved into his hand. "Coral Explosion, that's your color, isn't it?"
"Knock it off." He drops the lipstick into the sink.
A hand clamps the back of his neck and the tube is once more slapped into his hand. "Go on. Don't be shy."
He slides the top off the tube, twists the lipstick up.
"Go on." The hand grips his neck harder. There'll be bruises, and he'll have to think of some way to explain them.
He raises the lipstick. Don't do this like you know how, like you've done this a hundred times in secret. Fortunately, his hand shakes enough that all he can draw is a sloppy gash of coral.
"See?" Dave says. "You look great. Next, here's the maxipad machine, for when you're on the rag." Dave hauls him in front of it. "Colin, you got a quarter?"
Colin drops a quarter in the slot and turns the knob, and a cardboard box drops down the chute. Colin opens the box and unfolds the pad, peeling off the adhesive strip. He struggles, but Dave holds him fast while Colin slaps the pad on his forehead. One of the others steps in with the lipstick and writes FAG on the maxipad in Coral Explosion. "Hey, Elizabeth," Dave says, "you're all color coordinated."
"Yeah, but you'd still look nicer if you grew some tits. How they coming?" Colin gropes him as he tries to squirm away. "Nope, still flat as a boy's."
They get bored, then, and shove him into a wall. "Faggot."
Oh yeah. Definitely that.
Dave grabs his shirt and slams him into the wall again. He hits his head and bites his tongue, and something strange surges through him, something that makes him feel dizzy and powerful at the same time. He reaches up to peel the maxipad off his head. Dave clamps a hand around his wrist; he closes his own hand around Dave's wrist, and --
The. Look. On. Dave's. Face.
He flashes his teeth, squeezing Dave's wrist until Dave yelps and backs away. Then he reaches up and pulls the pad off his forehead.
Colin comes at him, fists swinging, and he punches back a few times, then kicks the asshole into the one stall that still has a door. Had.
"Anyone else?" he asks. He's not even breathing hard.
No, there's nobody else. Funny how that works.
Colin scrambles up and leaves with the others.
He watches the door drift shut, then scrubs his face clean of the minipad adhesive and the lipstick. He stares at himself in the mirror.
This is strange. This is new.
For the first time in his life, he feels like he has power.
The weird thing is, he still feels like nature's own fuckup.
It's still Elizabeth in there, born in the wrong body.
But nobody's going to fuck with her again.
The Bronx, November 12, 2004
What is it about this sort of dive?
Sometimes they're in the back room of an after-hours bar, but just as often they'll set up shop in a basement below a tattoo parlor. Xander wonders what that does to the vamps who frequent these places, the constant seepage of blood. Arousal in the air.
Not that they don't get their regular food deliveries -- morons just walking in the door every day, looking to get sucked off in a whole new way or ride an Orpheus high.
Idly he checks out the tattoo parlor through the front window, studying the flash on the walls (boring as fuck), flicking glances at the clientele. Hard to tell which he'd be most likely to get a disease from, the needles or the customers. Though he's working on a full sleeve, he wouldn't be caught dead in a joint like this. Marguerite out on the island does his work, all custom.
The joint downstairs, though, that's another matter.
He turns from the window just as a girl approaches the shop. She eyes the tattoos on his neck, botonee crosses on either side, right at the sweet spot a vamp likes. She doesn't hiss, so maybe she's just a girl, staring because they look a little hardcore. She can't see the canvas of demons and names of the dead worked onto his arm, because of the leather jacket. Which also happens to hide the spring mechanisms and the stakes.
Xander takes the stairs down to the basement storefront, puts a boot against the lock. The jamb splinters, and the door crashes back into the wall behind. A spear of sunlight sends the nearest vamp scuttling back, hissing. The girl whose thigh he was bleeding moans at his disengaging, reaching after him. Her arm flops bonelessly on the mat she's lying on.
Xander steps in and dusts the vamp, then whirls to face the others. He sees a pair of legs slithering into a crawlspace that gives off a whiff of sewer. Fuck that, he won't follow. Another vamp rushes him, but he's too drugged for a fight, and before he finishes his dumbass battle yell, he's dust. The last one hasn't even lifted her head from the man she's feeding on. Xander grabs her greasy hair, pulls her back and stakes her.
He glances around; no one left but customers. Stoned, all of them. If it weren't murder, he'd be tempted to put them out of their misery, too.
"Get the fuck out. Now."
Two scramble to their feet and scuttle toward the door; one's completely out of it. The fourth, emaciated, has several days of stubble and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses with only one lens. "I know you," he says in a voice that sounds as if it hasn't been used for days, maybe longer.
"I bet you do. Piss off."
"I assure you I do." There's a hint of something. An accent, maybe. Difficult to tell, as rusty as the voice is. "You're from Sunnydale. Xander."
How very curious.
The boy usually doesn't appear when he's riding the wave of the drug. Rather, when he's been pitched into the trough, spun sideways and in danger of breaking up. Just before he goes in search of more Orpheus.
Not the same boy.
That one doesn't have a name. Pointed chin, almost girlish face. Dust-colored hair, not dark.
The expression is the same, though. The hard glint to the eyes, the bitter line to the mouth. Hunters, both of them.
He squints, and some piece of his mind coughs up a place, the name. "I know you."
The Harris boy -- no longer a boy, he sees that now -- looks like he wants to spit on him, but instead he narrows his gaze. There's something about his left eye that doesn't quite track. "Wes? Jesus, Wes?" His expression softens. Now there's puzzlement, perhaps pity. "Don't you know that shit'll kill you?"
Wesley manages a rictus of a smile. "So I've heard. It's taking rather longer than I'd hoped."
"Christ," Xander mutters, and hauls him up. He slings Wesley's arm over his broad shoulders, half drags him through the broken door. Wesley cringes at the sudden light. "It's probably a sign you need an intervention when the dead ones smell better than you," Xander notes. With a fistful of Wesley's shirt back, he guides him to a car parked on the avenue, a beater that looks to be rust spots held together by primer. He shoves him inside, rolls down his window, instructing Wesley to do the same. "What the fuck happened to you?"
"I watched her die," he says, his voice sounding distant even to him. There's more to it than that, he's sure, but it's slipped through one of the lacy holes the drug makes in his mind.
"Yeah, well, who hasn't seen some girl he loved die," Xander says.
Wesley peers at him, but he stares straight ahead, guiding the car through the erratic stop-and-start of traffic. A muscle pulses at his cheek. Wesley notices the tattoos, black as the tribal designs so common downtown, along his neck.
"A demon took over her body, made her an alien thing," Wes adds.
"Yeah?" Xander responds, his voice devoid of any curiosity. "Been there, done that, too. Where do you live?"
"You keep smashing in the doors of the places where I live, killing half the occupants. You can't really believe you're saving the other half, can you?"
"That's not my problem," Xander says.
"Spoken like a man who hasn't saved the important ones." That earns him a casual backhand across the mouth.
Xander returns his hand to the wheel. "Where can I drop you?"
"Doesn't matter." Pretty much any street corner in this part of the Bronx will do for what Wesley has in mind.
A rich stream of curses issues from Xander's lips. Wesley only just now notices the faint scar that slashes across them both and down his chin. He gives a slantwise look at Wes as the car idles at a stoplight. "You can sleep at my place tonight. But I'm going to burn the shit you're wearing."
Eventually Wesley realizes Xander's waiting for an answer. "All right."
7th Avenue, May 15, 2005
A great height, looking down.
Dawn stands at the edge, feels the world tilt. Soon it will all slide off this precipice, Dawn first.
At least she's wearing a nice dress. She spreads her arms wide, leans forward just a hair.
"Dawn, stop that." Buffy has found her here at the window of the ballroom. Like the ceiling of the ballroom, it arches high over them, reminding her of an old train station. The glass goes all the way to the floor, making her feel as though she could just step forward and plummet into the traffic below. "If heights make you wig, why don't you stay back from the edges?"
"It reminds me of the tower."
"I know," Buffy says softly.
"And here I am in my sacrificial costume."
"Don't you think that's a little dramatic? It was just a reading."
"Love is patient, love is kind, love is trotting your daughters out to perform like dancing bears at your wedding so everyone will know they're cool with it, even though you haven't bothered with them in years."
"He's always been Absent Guy. Sucks, but you can't change him, just your response to him." There's a few years of therapy talking. "Was there anybody interesting at your table? Any cute guys?"
"That's another thing. Couldn't the demon bitch at least seat us together?"
"Stop calling her the demon bitch." The stern tone doesn't quite work, since Buffy can't suppress a grin. "She seems perfectly nice."
"'Seems perfectly nice.' That's something you say about somebody you just met in line at the grocery store. We don't know anything about her. How much does dad really know?"
"You worry too much, Dawnie."
Dawn smiles. "I got to the disposable camera before the other guests. I shot the whole roll taking pictures of the silverware and people's shoes."
Buffy stifles a shriek. "Mom would be appalled."
"Mom would be amused, but trying hard to make us think she was appalled."
There's a squeal of microphone as the deejay announces the first dance.
"'I Had the Time of My Life,'" Dawn notes. "Could you get any more cliched?"
"Not to mention could you get any more two-decades-ago?"
Buffy and Dawn turn from the window back to the center of the huge room. How much did it cost to rent this place, Dawn suddenly wonders. A year's tuition? The wedding guests have made a dense circle around the bride and groom, watching them dance to their song. Dawn tries to slip into the crowd, but they're too tightly packed. She hikes up her skirt and stands on a chair.
Holy shit. "Buffy?"
Demon bitch is right. Whoever did the flowers, which she'd considered kind of veiny and gross looking, actually did a remarkably sensitive job of matching the bride's coloration, which she'd describe as "aging bruise." And the antique lace, which is a little too yellowy for Dawn's taste, really brings out the bride's tusks.
Buffy pops up next to her, taking it all in, along with the flash of ceremonial knife. Chanting rises above the song. "Crap. I was hoping I could wear this same dress to Xander's wedding."
Dawn and Buffy survey the room for weapons. Flagpoles, sound system, sterno cans, serving forks. They glance at each other, and Dawn knows Buffy's fierce grin is mirrored in her own.
They leap off their chairs, each racing to grab her weapon of choice.
Now this is a wedding.
West 81st Street, June 21, 2005
The sunlight dazzles them as they make their way out of the cavernous stone building.
Fred takes his hand, as she's freely done all day, pulling him from exhibit to exhibit, her Texas twang growing along with her excitement.
"Oh, Wesley, I just -- thank you. I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful day."
"It isn't over yet," he tells her.
"Where do we go next? How are you holding up? If your feet are tired we could stop somewhere. Want to find a place, get an espresso?"
Wes laughs. "Perhaps not an espresso."
"Oh. Oh." She turns pink and her hand flies up in front of her face, and Wes could hardly love her more. "I know, I'm a bit -- but there's so much. Three days is hardly enough time."
"I know." He stops walking, tugs her hand and brings her to a halt. Drawing Fred to him, he kisses her as the taxis rush by on Central Park West. A train rumbles beneath their feet, a metallic squeal rising up as it pulls into the station.
No one even glances at them. This is what young couples do on a summer Sunday afternoon.
"We could walk across the park," he suggests. "I think there's time to see some of the Met before it closes."
"But it's so huge. We should save it for tomorrow."
"We can always do both."
They stroll across this remarkable swath of green down the center of Manhattan, past the Delacorte Theater and the Great Lawn sprawled with sunbathers. Fred chatters excitedly about her favorite parts of the Natural History, including the dinosaur exhibits, completely renovated since her high school class trip, and the glimpses of ancient civilizations. Wes can't recall seeing her this animated since her talk on supersymmetry and P-dimensional subspace. She's radiant.
He smiles. "You made the docents very happy."
"You think? I'm worried I unnerved that poor older lady. I don't think she's used to so much ... discussion."
"You were completely charming."
They manage only half an hour in the Met before guards begin sheepdogging them toward the exit. Tossing their admission badges in the bin at the doorway, they emerge to throngs of visitors perched on the high stone steps. They weave their way through them to the sidewalk lined with photographs and sketches for sale by different street vendors, although it looks as if they all come from the same source. At the end, a sketch artist sits beside an empty chair, with pastel drawings of famous people propped up as samples of his work. Elijah Wood, gazing at the viewer with his huge, liquid eyes. John Lennon, murdered just across the park these twenty-five years ago.
The artist gestures to the vacant folding chair. "Picture of your lady?"
"Oh, could we, Wesley?"
He smiles indulgently. "Of course."
The artist brings up his sketch pad, clamped at the bottom corners with binder clips to keep the pages from flipping in the wind. Though his English is limited, he asks Fred's name, where she's from, what her interests are. Wesley doesn't care to watch the sketch taking shape; he'd much prefer viewing the original. He stands near Fred, occasionally glancing at the artist, whose hand skips over the paper. After a bit, the artist stops his chatter, having fallen almost into a trance, it seems. The fleeting movements of his hands slow, as if he's working underwater.
At last he finishes and turns the large sketchpad around to face Fred. Her mouth opens to speak, and then twitches in a strange smile. "Oh, it's -- wow."
Wes shifts to look and feels his own face freeze. It's just appalling, nothing like the nuanced celebrity portraits in clear vinyl sleeves, which clearly are not the artist's own work. He's drawn Fred with enormous, doll-like eyes, a flat shade of blue. There's something oddly inhuman, almost birdlike, about the expression, the tilt of the head. Her hair and forehead are tinged with blue.
"Wow," she says again. "It's just -- wonderful. Isn't it, Wes?"
He flicks a glance at her, sees how desperately she's struggling to control her expression.
"Ahh, yes. It's, um, a perfect likeness."
"You'd best pay the man, honey. We have a play to catch."
"Yes. Yes." He fumbles in his wallet for the ten dollars they agreed on, waits in agony for the artist to slide the sketch inside a plastic sleeve.
Fred's accent thickens as she thanks the artist just before turning away. She's not four steps down the cobblestones before she releases a strange prolonged hissing snort. It takes Wes a moment before he realizes it's the sound of suppressed laughter. "Oh my god, Wesley!" she whispers. "Did you see? It's like one of those big-eyed kid paintings from the 70s." Her hands fly to her mouth, but they're useless to contain the giggles that overtake her. "I'm sorry, Wes. I shouldn't -- but --" Another shriek bursts free.
He laughs too, riding the waves of her hilarity until he too can barely control himself. Rolling the picture into a tight tube, he jams it into a wire rubbish bin on the next corner. Wes puts his arm over her shoulders. "What do you say to dinner in Little Italy?"
End Five New York Minutes (That Never Were) by nwhepcat: firstname.lastname@example.org
See author and story notes above.