Title: Nothing the Same
Rating: PG for now
Feedback: yes, please
Concrit: any and all
Disclaimer: don't own them, never will, just playing with them
Summary: AU from The Harvest. Xander doesn't deal well with Jesse's death and everything changes from there.
“Xander!” Willow ran to catch up with him in the hallway. It was the first day of classes after summer break and she was determined to get their friendship back on track. She knew if she tried she could still reach him, he couldn’t have changed that much. Somewhere inside, he was still her Xander.
He turned and looked at her, eyebrows raised in silent query.
“We’re going to the Bronze tonight, Buffy and me, I mean. Would you like to come with us?” Her eyes were hopeful.
“Sorry, busy,” he said briefly, turning away.
Her hand on his arm stopped him in mid-turn. “Please, Xander. It’s been so long since we’ve spent any time together.” The neutral judge gave her an 8 out of a possible 10 on the Willow scale of pleading eyes. “I miss you.”
He was surprised to find that it no longer had any effect on him. “As I said, I’m busy.” Despite the fact that they had their next class together, he strode off without waiting for her.
He’d hardly seen Willow all summer. Her parents had taken her on a trip immediately after school was out and she’d been gone for a month. That had been almost enough time for him to have gotten over the anger that had filled him every time he remembered that the week before she left had been Jesse’s birthday. Willow had let it go by without a word or sign that she even remembered what day it was. Worse, heading home from Jesse’s grave that night, he had seen her and Buffy out walking. Unable to stop himself, he’d followed them - straight to the Bronze. Stepping inside for the first time since Jesse died, he had watched from a distance as she and Buffy met up with Angel. Seeing Willow laughing and joking like that had infuriated him. Willow wasn’t the kind of person who forgot birthdays. She was always the first to start talking about them, sometimes weeks in advance. Since second grade, she and Jesse and Xander had celebrated all of their birthdays together. They had even found a way to get together the year Jesse had chicken pox and the year Xander was in the hospital with a broken leg. And there she sat. Apparently, not even the presence of a vampire reminded her of what day it was. She’d obviously written Jesse off completely; fifteen years of friendship erased after only a few weeks.
He’d left the Bronze and avoided Willow when she called to tell him she would be gone and that she hoped she’d see him when she got back. With the school closed and no more access to Mr. Giles’ books, Xander had gone to Angel’s apartment, something he’d been trying to work up the nerve to do ever since he’d followed the vampire home after the spring dance. He’d hoped to talk to the vampire, but it had been a complete waste of time. Angel wouldn’t talk to him at all, wouldn’t even let him into his apartment. He just kept telling Xander that he was in over his head and that Xander should go home and stay away from vampires before he got himself killed. He refused to tell Xander anything about what vampires were like, saying that he wasn’t going to participate in “a boy’s morbid curiosity.” Xander had managed to keep just enough hold on his temper not to smack Angel across his smug face with the cross he carried in his back pocket.
Over the course of the loneliest summer Xander had ever spent, he’d begun seeking out vampire lairs during daylight hours, hoping he could watch them safely during the day. From the books he’d read, he had an idea of what he was looking for, the kind of places that vampires stayed in, but vampires had seemed pretty thin on the ground during the whole summer. He didn’t know if it was a summer thing, or if it had something to do with the Master’s death, or what. Personally, if he burst into flame at the touch of direct sunlight, he wouldn’t choose to live in Southern California but that hadn’t seemed to bother the vampires last spring. He’d found a couple of places that looked like vampires might have stayed there and he’d kept an eye on them, checking back once in awhile, but mostly he hadn’t found any sign that Sunnydale even had vampires. Sometimes, he caught himself wondering if he hadn’t made up the whole thing. If he wasn’t just Xander, the crazy loon who talked to himself in the little park on the edge of town. He’d become so lonely that one day he’d found himself considering digging up Jesse’s ashes, just to prove to himself that they really were there, that he hadn’t made up his best friend and that Jesse really had existed.
Stopping by Mrs. McNally’s house had cured that fixation, but it hadn’t helped his loneliness. She’d begun crying almost as soon as she let him in the house and had fled the living room, leaving Xander standing there awkwardly, not sure what to do. Finally, he’d simply left, closing the door quietly behind him and feeling worse than when he’d arrived. He hadn’t been back since.
He’d welcomed it when Willow first called after she’d gotten back into town. It was only mid-July and he’d already read everything on the summer suggested reading list. The list that he and Jesse usually “lost” before they’d even gotten home on the last day of school. Willow would tell them what the books were about and that had always been good enough for them. This summer, though, Xander had actually read everything on the list, spending the hot afternoons with a book in the shade under the trees near Jesse’s grave. None of his usual summer activities had held any appeal because he’d always done them with Jesse. It felt like betraying Jesse to go alone to the beach, or the swimming pool or basketball court. Mostly he knew it was ridiculous, that Jesse wouldn’t mind, but a part of him was simply unable to move on and couldn’t even contemplate trying to make new friends. Which was probably just as well. He was pretty sure he’d be a lousy friend right now.
He and Willow had gone out for ice cream but it hadn’t been long before she was talking about how Xander should come help her and Mr. Giles research to back up Buffy in her fight against “the forces of darkness.” She’d chattered on about how important the research was, about how Buffy, Giles and Angel had gone into the tunnels together and killed the Master after Giles’ research had shown him the flaw in a seemingly infallible prophecy predicting Buffy’s death. She described how they had killed the Master by firing crossbows at him simultaneously. She didn’t even notice Xander flinch as she eagerly described how many times they had had to shoot him before one of the bolts had finally struck the Master in the heart, thereby preventing the Hellmouth from opening and saving the world. For someone who hadn’t been there, she gave a pretty vivid description.
It was only later than he noted that his part in slapping some sense into her two heroes had obviously not been mentioned. Not that he cared if two people he had no respect for gave him credit or not, but it didn’t do anything to change his opinion of them.
Their ice cream date had ended disastrously. Willow kept complaining about how much he had changed and pushing him to join her merry band of Slayerettes - although he did get a sardonic laugh at the idea of Mr. Proper English Tweed guy and a vampire being reduced to 60’s girl group back-up singers. When she told him that she missed Jesse too, but they couldn’t spend the rest of their lives grieving, he’d exploded. They’d ended up in a shouting match and being thrown out of the ice cream parlor and that was the last time he’d seen her, until now.
Watching from her locker as Xander rebuffed Willow, Buffy sighed. She quickly grabbed her books and snapped the door closed, spinning the lock. She moved casually to Willow’s side and gave her a bright smile. “Ready for the truly epic boredom that is English Lit?”
Willow pulled her eyes from Xander’s retreating back and managed to smile back at her. “It’s not boring,” she corrected automatically. At Buffy’s wholly expected skeptical look, she warmed to the comfort of familiar ground. “It’s important to know this stuff.”
“Yeah right, because in no way will it throw me off to be calculating the precise arc of my stake through geometric formulas in the midst of battle. Oops, my bad,” she shot an amused look at Willow, “that was for your ‘you need to learn geometry’ pep talk. I meant it wouldn’t throw me off to be reciting Shakespeare during fights.”
“Ok, maybe not in the middle of a fight, but it’s important to know math and sciences in the computer age.”
“I notice you’re not defending Shakespeare,” Buffy teased, knowing she was letting herself in for a speech on the virtues of knowing the Bard.
Good mood restored, Willow shifted gears as they entered the classroom, launching into the anticipated defense of the playwright. Buffy unobtrusively steered Willow over towards two free seats near the windows, letting Willow’s chatter wash over her without really listening. She shot a hostile glare towards Xander, slouched as usual in the last row, wanting to shake him until his teeth rattled. He didn’t look up from doodling in his notebook.
From everything Buffy had heard, Xander used to be the class clown. A complete loser apparently, without any of Willow’s smarts, but goofy and amiable and always cracking jokes. Granted, most of that information came from Cordelia, which meant it wasn’t particularly reliable. Certainly it didn’t fit Willow’s sadness over losing her life-long friend. But Willow also talked wistfully about how much Xander had changed in the past year. Willow kept trying to reach him, and he kept rejecting her. Leaving Buffy to try and comfort Willow when she got depressed every time Xander pushed her away.
The way Willow described him, Xander was loyal and brave and a great friend. He certainly wasn’t the moody, bitter, sarcastic loner that Buffy knew. As far as she could tell, Willow had been his only friend, and apparently he didn’t even to want to be friends with Willow anymore. He couldn’t seem to deal with the fact that Willow and Buffy were close.
Probably he was just jealous of their friendship. Thank god, Willow seemed to finally be getting over him. Buffy knew that Willow had had a giant-sized crush on Xander for years. She had been trying to steer Willow away from Xander, encouraging her to look at other boys, trying to help Willow get over her shyness and to give someone else a chance. And it seemed to finally be working. It was taking her less and less time to snap Willow out of the depression Xander could send her into. Now all she needed was to find Willow a boyfriend and presto, Xander would be of the past for Willow. And it couldn’t happen soon enough. Willow was too nice a person to waste her life away mooning over a jerk like Xander Harris.
Standing at his locker, Xander looked up and was surprised to see the librarian calling to him.
“Please come to the library for a minute.”
“I have class.”
“This won’t take long and I will give you a note.”
Shrugging, Xander slung his backpack over one shoulder and followed Mr. Giles into the library. “What’s up?”
“I understand that you made a habit last year of taking books out of my private collection.”
He didn’t bother denying it. “I returned them.”
“That isn’t the point. Those are my private volumes and they are not available to be checked out by students.”
“That’s probably why I didn’t check them out.”
“Technically, you were stealing them.”
“Actually, I think technically I was borrowing them.”
Giles sighed heavily. “Are you intending to continue taking my books this year?”
“That depends. Will you let me borrow them openly?”
“Mr. Harris, you have enough information about what really goes on in this town to know that I need to have those books available for reference. I don’t wish to be overdramatic, but the fate of the world can, quite literally, hang on my access to those books. I cannot just lend them out to students. And that is quite leaving aside the fact that many of them are extremely valuable and irreplaceable.”
Xander had crossed his arms stubbornly during this speech. “Did you ever even notice that any of them were gone last year? I only ever took one at a time.” He considered that for a second. “Ok, at the most, two.”
“Mr. Harris, those books are my private property. I would be well within my rights to call the police.”
“Look, we both know you’re not going to do that.”
“And why wouldn’t I?” Giles took his glasses off and rubbed his forehead tiredly. This was not how he had pictured this conversation going.
“You think Snyder and the school board are going to approve of some of the books you have? I really don’t think you’re going to risk calling attention to your real role here in Sunnydale.”
Mr. Giles glared at him silently for a long moment but didn’t try to refute Xander’s point or the implied threat.
“Look, can we maybe do a compromise thing here?”
“What are you proposing?”
“How about I take only one book at a time, openly, kind of a private check out system. Any time you need the book I have to save the world or whatever, I’ll bring it back immediately.”
“Why are you reading these books?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
When the librarian just continued to stare at him, Xander looked away, uncomfortable for the first time since the conversation began. After a long pause, during which the librarian continued to wait silently for a response, he finally answered reluctantly. “Last spring, I learned that vampires exist and that a lot of them live in Sunnydale. Not to mention the whole Hellmouth thing. Don’t you think it makes sense for me to want to learn more about it?”
Mr. Giles continued to study his face intently and Xander now met his gaze squarely. What he’d said was true, it just wasn’t the whole truth.
“And yet Willow tells me that you have refused her repeated invitations to join us in our research efforts.”
Well, two points for the old guy. He obviously sensed that Xander wasn’t telling him everything. Xander’s jaw tightened at the confirmation that Willow had been talking about him with Buffy and Mr. Giles. “She probably also told you that she and I aren’t really friends anymore.”
“I know she regrets that very deeply.”
He made a sharp motion with his hand. “Not the issue here. Do we have a deal on the books?”
The librarian sighed heavily. “I suppose if I don’t agree, you will simply continue to pilfer my collection.”
Xander’s mouth quirked up on one side, but he didn’t admit that that was his plan.
“Very well, we have a deal.”
“So, what would you recommend?” Xander nodded towards the office and, ignoring Mr. Giles’ put-upon sigh, began describing which books he’d already read.
Two minutes later, he had his first quasi-officially checked out book on vampires and a note for his third period teacher. Checking it out on the way to class, he was amused to learn that he was late because he had been assisting the librarian with moving furniture.
The only bad part about his new semi-official borrowing status was that Willow of course learned about it and continued to press him to join the research sessions. He really didn’t want to get into another fight with her, so he kept ducking the question. Unfortunately, she took that as encouragement and sought him out several times, telling him again how important what they were doing was.
She told him about how some kid vampire she called The Anointed One had tried to revive the Master and how vampires were coming back to the Hellmouth after the summer lull. She’d tried to convince Xander to help them research the Anointed One and couldn’t seem to grasp the fact that he was absolutely horrified at the idea of Buffy staking a six year old kid. “But it’s a vampire,” she’d said, as if he had missed the beginning of the film and needed a plot summary. “I know it’s kind of squicky, but that’s the only good thing about vampires, no bodies to clean up.”
He’d left abruptly, ignoring her calling after him and ran outside, where he concentrated on breathing deeply until the nausea subsided. Willow had always been one of the softest hearted people he had ever known. For god’s sake, she wouldn’t even step on spiders. He and Jesse used to laugh at her because she always insisted on putting spider’s outside instead of squashing them. Xander would never understand how she could talk so casually about killing things that walked, talked and acted just like people.
One good thing came out of the conversation. Willow probably didn’t realize it, but she had given him the location of The Anointed One’s Court, as the latest book Mr. Giles had lent him called vampire groups. Well, “Court” or “lair” or “nest”, depending on circumstances he was still struggling to understand. He suspected Mr. Giles had deliberately given him a book that was difficult to read in an effort to discourage him. If so, he obviously didn’t believe that Xander had already plowed his way through a good third of the librarian’s vampire books. Anyway, according to Willow the unsuccessful attempt to revive the Master - and why had the Master left bones behind? - had been in a factory near the edge of town. From Willow’s description, it sounded like one of the places he’d found over the summer that he had thought vampires might have stayed in. If they had moved back in, he was going to check it out.
The old factory was two stories high and the windows on the ground floor had been blacked out. A catwalk ran the length of three sides of the building below the second floor windows and some of those windows weren’t covered over.
Climbing up to the catwalk proved surprisingly easy, even while trying to be as quiet as possible. Despite the fact that it was well before sunset, he didn’t want to alert any vampires that might be inside to his presence - after all, he might be crazy but he wasn’t an idiot. He firmly suppressed the little voice trying to tell him that what he was doing was both crazy and idiotic. Xander moved along the catwalk, keeping below the level of the windows and heading towards the end of the building. From his explorations over the summer, he knew that the main floor was a large open room and that his best view would be down the length of the building.
Reaching the end of the building, he crouched down and peered inside the window. The interior was unevenly lit, with pools of shadows where the lamps and the few patches of sun didn’t illuminate. There was no-one obviously present, so Xander settled himself cautiously to wait for the sun to set.
He didn’t have to wait that long. The sun was still just above the horizon when a small boy walked down the spiral staircase leading to the second story rooms in the back of the factory. He was followed by several vampires who entered the main room from different areas and clustered around the boy. Xander felt his heart begin to pound and he almost called out a warning to the boy, but stopped himself before he uttered a sound. The kid was the only one not showing demon features and he was clearly not afraid. Xander pulled out his cross and clutched it tightly as he watched. The boy climbed onto a raised seat of some kind and began speaking. Xander couldn’t hear the words, but the vampires were nodding and listening with respect. The books he’d read talked about hierarchy in vampire groups, although with way too many different theories on how it worked, and he suspected he was seeing an example. What he couldn’t figure out was why all the other vampires would follow a young kid. Did the boy have some sort of special power or was he like one of those underage kings of England and the others accepted him as their ruler through birthright? Xander fervently wished that he could hear what was being said because the silent play he was watching wasn’t really telling him anything.
Gradually becoming aware that his knees were killing him, Xander shifted cautiously so that he was sitting and for the first time realized he didn’t have a plan for getting out of there. The sun had set and at least one vampire had already left the factory. He really wasn’t prepared to stay on the catwalk all night and he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of climbing down with vampires wandering around. Absently rubbing some feeling back into his lower legs, Xander was forced to wonder once again if he’d gone completely crazy. Sitting in the growing darkness on the second floor of a building filled with vampires, he honestly couldn’t come up with one good reason why he was there.
Reading about vampires was one thing. Deliberately seeking them out in their homes was another. Leaning back against the lingering warmth of the brick wall, Xander seriously considered whether he was trying to get himself killed.
Despite looking for them since spring, he hadn’t actually encountered more than a single vampire at a time since that night at the Bronze. Having finally found what he’d been looking for, what he’d discovered was that he was (A) no wiser and (B) scared to death. Which probably meant he didn’t really want to die.
Great, and you decide that now? he asked himself sarcastically. You couldn't have figured this out before you climbed up here?
Drawing his legs up, he rested his face in his folded arms and forced himself to think about what exactly he was looking for. It wasn’t hard, the answer was right there in the question that haunted him waking and sleeping: he wanted to know, once and for all, if he’d murdered Jesse. Even if the answer was yes, it would be better than this limbo he was trapped in. It was the uncertainty that was killing him, that was causing the dreams of Jesse begging him to help him, that was trapping him in this miasma of guilt and grief that he couldn’t see his way out of.
Ok, and how exactly is spying on a bunch of vampires you didn’t know before they were vampires going to help you with that?
Put that way, it wasn’t going to help. So, what the hell was he doing here? The books might be confusing and contradictory, but at least they wouldn’t get him killed. He didn’t trust Mr. Giles or Buffy to give him straight answers, and Angel refused to help. He knew there were other Watchers, but didn’t have a clue how to find them. Plus, they would surely just give him the same party line that Mr. Giles did. Which pretty much left him back at square one. Or square two, he thought, remembering his aborted attempt to talk to the vampire at Jesse’s grave. Well, Mr. Giles still had a lot of books he hadn’t read. Maybe he’d find something in one of them. And at least reading books won’t get me killed or leave me sitting on a catwalk in the dark. Xander decided it was way past time for him to get the hell out of Dodge.
He checked inside the factory again and saw that there were fewer vampires in sight. Moving cautiously, he backtracked to the ladder leading down, grateful it wasn’t near any of the doors. Crouched at the top of the ladder, Xander hesitated for a long minute, checking for any signs of movement. Everything was quiet and he tucked the cross he’d been holding the entire time back into his pocket and began climbing down slowly, trying to be absolutely silent.
He’d just reached the ground with one foot still on the ladder, when a hand closed on the back of his collar, yanking him off the ladder. He yelped in shock and found himself slammed face first into the brick wall of the factory. The breath whooshed out of him and before he could move he was spun around and slammed into the wall a second time, this time his back taking the impact. Still struggling to get his breath back, he caught his first glimpse of his attacker: yellow eyes and hair that shone white under the streetlamps.
“You’ve got a real death wish, mate.” The vampire cocked his head to one side. “It’s almost interesting.”