The following story has been a long time in the works. It's one of those that I have to be in a specific mood to write -- most of you know how that goes *lol* Anyway, it's up to a decent point, and I no longer fear that it's one of those plot bunnies that die off just as they get interesting.
By the way, folks -- this is a very different writing style than you might expect from me. It feels good... feels right, but I'm hardly an objective critic of my own work. So if you feel the need to comment, please let me know what works or doesn't, what you like or think needs hair-pulling. Thanks, and enjoy!
Author: Rowaine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Summary: Sometimes even seasoned veterans get tired, completely fed up with the world around them. When that happens... all you can pray for is to survive.
Rating: Overall rating R, with splashes of NC-17 along the way. The first few chapters are mostly a strong PG-13.
Pairings: Mentions of various canon pairings, but mainly Spander. As if I'd write anything else. *snort*
Spoilers: Through all seasons of BtVS and AtS, with a few modest adjustments. It's called artistic license -- but we all know it's just 'cus Joss was on drugs when he killed off certain characters.
Warnings: Starts off fairly depressing. And except for the occasional dark humor, it does eventually seem to get better. Character death (major and OC), mentions of prostitution and drug abuse, child abuse and neglect, and assorted aspects of the homeless (aka transient) subculture. This is not an attempt to bash any canon characters, but it doesn't show certain ones in the most positive light.
Disclaimer: Since Joss has no boobs and is equipped with an extra dangly bit, I fail to see a resemblence between us. His toys, his world, my delusions.
Author's Notes: Written mainly from Xander's POV. Actually, Spike won't show up for... awhile yet ;)
Beta Notes: Way back when I first started writing this, Electrical Gwen volunteered some amazing advice. I've tried to incorporate her suggestions in the first two chapters, but everything after those are new and have yet to be proofed (other than by my own dubious skills).
Xander's thoughts, even in the middle of a descriptive paragraph, can be found in italics.
The first six chapters are written, and will be posted one a week to allow me time to work on the rest.
It was hard enough to stare at the crater that had once been his hometown and acknowledge the friends, the fellow fighters, who had died there. He found it just as difficult to bear witness to thousands of deaths to so-called natural causes in Africa while he hunted down the newly tapped Potentials. So many wasted lives, wasted chances. But of course, it hadn't begun with the battle with the First Evil. If he was completely honest with himself, Xander Harris could admit to numerous regrets dating back to his thirteenth birthday... a full dozen years of his life riddled with one heartache after another.
He wasn't a stupid person, for all he acted the fool. That mask was his shield against the harsher realities of his world, an ingrained reaction that kept his loved ones from worrying about his well-being. He had perfected his role at an early age to cover the telltale signs of his family's 'tender care', but found it worked as well for any number of situations.
No, he wasn't stupid. But every person has a breaking point.
In a dirty lean-to in the middle of darkest Africa, as Xander sat helplessly at the bedside of yet another dying young girl she couldn't be more than thirteen, his empty eye socket burned through the deluge of tears that never seemed to stop these days. He held onto the too-thin hand and mourned for the girl's family, mourned for the infant she was leaving behind but not for long, since AIDS passes so easily through the umbilical cord, for the injustice of a world so cruel as to propagate itself into oblivion only to kill off a large percentage of its population in the most hideous ways.
He tried not to become too reflective, but being forced to watch so many senseless deaths had a way of making him remember. To 'what if'. To regret. To ponder what might've happened if some of his dearly departed and how much do we hate that term? hadn't departed so soon.
Before his thoughts could sink too far, the skeletal fingers in his sweaty grasp gave one last twitch... and African Slayer #49 became a statistic of another variety. He almost choked on a sob, barely able to stifle his own emotions long enough to close the eyelids and cover the body with a thin sheet of rough fabric. Someone had to deliver the news to her tribe. They were an isolated group, but not unaware of the dangers of the disease. With the exception of her baby, this poor girl had spent the better part of the past year on the outskirts of their village so as to reduce the spread of contagion. Only Xander was brave enough or fool enough to risk her company. And he didn't have the courage to explain that the sniffling babe would pass along the illness they had all grown to fear more than drought or wild beasts.
Minutes after he had accepted the task of tracking down the hundred or so African Slayers, Xander found himself the center of much unwanted attention. His oldest (living) friend held true to her word and would not cast any spell on him... but that didn't mean that Willow would let him travel outside of 'civilization' without first being spelled to repel every known disease. The next three days had been exhausting for him -- not to mention taxing on their wobbly friendship -- until the Coven had deemed him 'bug-proofed' enough for the job.
He wasn't sure if he could ever bring himself to appreciate their efforts.
Oh, such precautions had done their duty, of course. Xander was healthier than he'd ever been before. Which only made it worse, in a way, traveling across a continent where over half the populace was starving, and nearly as many dying from any combination of diseases. There was a name for the majority of his anguish, he knew: Survivor's guilt. Not that knowing the name for it helped him cope with one more unwanted neurosis. Accepting that his life went on even after the early senseless, should've been me, so many times deaths of loved ones... or even relative strangers like the cooling corpse at his feet...
Yes, every person has their breaking point.
Xander's came when he delivered the sobbing ten month old child to its grandmother -- a hunched figure that looked thirty years older than her true age of twenty-seven -- and was asked to offer a blessing over the tribe, to cast out the evil illness from their territory, as he seemed immune to its lethal grasp. He couldn't force himself to say no, regardless of how much his heart raced, knowing that they were all living on borrowed time. The so-recently orphaned baby would see to their doom, if more natural disaster failed to obliterate them first.
And so he found himself as dusk fell across the area, chanting with all his might an ancient benediction for safety and health and prosperity, offering a part of his weary soul to the gods in exchange for the possibility that this group of people might somehow manage to escape the ravages of their world. His heart was pure in intent, but a shadow deep in his mind acknowledged the useless sacrifice and wrote off that sliver of his being as lost.
By the time his chant was complete, Xander couldn't bring himself to argue with the evaluation of his subconscious. He was far beyond making sucker bets these days.
It took every ounce of his self control to leave the baby with its tribe, pack up the few meager belongings he had left, and begin the hike back to the closest 'road' -- a tour route that boasted three whole junky buses. He knew he would have to wait at least a couple of days for the next passing vehicle, knew he stood a better than good chance of attack by animal or demon, but just the thought of staying one more day in the tiny little village they're already moving on, she was dead to them as soon as her illness became apparent made his stomach turn over.
The first night roadside was relatively uneventful, and if Xander felt somehow disappointed at the lack of action, well, he needed to get his mind off everything. His temporary campsite against the single, lonely tree and gods, it looks just as worn out as I feel blended into the surroundings only because of the thick layer of dust that masked its original colors. Wasn't thinking when I bought this stuff. Orange puptent, lime green sleeping roll... damn, I should've know better. At least nothing can see through all this dirt, right? Imagine what Spi- No! There will be no imagining of him going on around here!
Truth has a way of lurking just beneath the surface of a person's thoughts, biding its time until his or her defenses are at their weakest. Throughout all the years he'd spent working alongside the Slayer, with every pain and heartache that entailed, Xander had never allowed himself to accept one simple truth: A person was not defined by their biology, but rather by their humanity -- using the term in the loosest sense.
For all he'd had his soul longer, Angel was a prime case in point. The dark vampire had little humanity in him even before his first death, and he hadn't gotten better over the years. And Buffy... beautiful, tragic Buffy. The girl who had saved the world more times than anyone would ever know... yet still had no idea how to maintain a working relationship as sibling, friend or lover. Willow was definitely more caring, more giving, but she too had a similar problem. Xander thought -- very privately, so deep inside his mind that not even the redhead's telepathic spells could find -- that his oldest friend tried too hard, gave too much, and left nothing behind in the wake for herself.
And then there was Anya. His heart pinched in memory of the terrified girl she had been, returned to human frailty after a millennia of demonic protections. Oh yeah, she spoke her mind, had the subtlety and tact of a toddler, and was obsessed by money-making schemes... but she was remarkably more human than anyone else he'd ever known. Well, except one.
Regardless of his own admonitions, Xander found himself reluctantly thinking about a certain blond vampire. Even before the chip, the soul, one William the Bloody had (un)lived life to the fullest. He laughed, he cried, he mourned, he danced and sang. He was so tenacious just plain stubborn that nothing could bring him down for long. Nothing, except a broken heart.
The Watchers Council has it so wrong. Demons might not have what we mortals call 'souls', but they can feel real emotions. Guess it's just too taxing on their resources to weed through every demon we face.
He remembered their first brief meeting behind the Bronze, watching Buffy nearly get her ass kicked by the Billy Idol look-alike. Even then, with his crush on the Slayer building to fever pitch, he had to admit how good the Master vampire was.
Poor Spike, his luck is almost as bad as mine. Every one of his plans to kill Buffy, failed. Then there was the Gem of Amara -- and I can only imagine how much that loss hurt! And the chip, oh man, crippling his ability to fight for himself, to feed himself. And yeah, so he fed on humans. Hello! Vampire! Xander groaned loudly with the silent admission. I am so going to hell. Commiserating over my vampire friend's inability to kill. Only, he didn't always kill, didn't have to. That was part of the 'Master' thing -- he had enough self-control not to drain them. Those years with the chip made me get to know him, and know how much it affected him. And if I were to see Riley right about now? Bam, zoom, to the moon!
Sometimes Xander believed that there must be something in the African air to bring out all these deep, meaningful (and oh-so depressing) thoughts.
Four days of weary travel on the most uncomfortable bus he'd ever had the bad luck to experience, and finally he was back in "civilization". Such as it was. His Council credit card worked, there was hot and cold running water in the bathroom of his tiny hotel suite, and bottled water in the mini-fridge. He called in an order for the largest meal a single person should never try eating solo, then slipped into the blissfully hot shower to de-sod himself of a month of dirt, road grime, and things he'd rather not think about.
He pointedly does not check in with the Council.
Some basic part of his personality had... tilted in the past few months. Past few years maybe. Who knew how long it could take for a paradigm shift to manifest. And no matter how much he loved his girls, and Giles too, he'd simply had enough. He doesn't want to see ten new names of poverty-stricken Potentials, who very probably have children and/or AIDS and/or any number of tribal or religious beliefs that make his job so much more difficult than it has to be. He doesn't want to hear how many new spells Willow's learned, how many new boutiques Buffy found on her last 'vacation', or even how Dawn did on her semester finals. He doesn't want the guilt that's sure to come from speaking to Giles or the certain frustration from listening to Andrew babble on and on and on in that so obviously fake persona he's adopted since moving to England.
And if he was being completely honest with himself, he doesn't want any of them to clue in to his personality changes.
Last December's "End of Year Non-Denominational Celebration" gift was still in its case, only used twice since being opened. (Another reason not to call in : angry redhead with almost as much power as a god who hasn't received emails even after spending too much money on a laptop he'll never use.) With a sigh, he knew he wouldn't be sending any messages to his girls... but maybe he could at least reconnect with the rest of the world for a few minutes.
What he found made him question which reality he was in.
"Andrew." It was almost too much to handle, getting a word in edgewise with the mouthy little twerp. "Andrew!"
"And then she had the gall to question Council policy. To my face! I say, bad form."
"Andrew!" He could almost hear the single lens being removed and polished in a cheep affectation of Upper Crust Brit.
"What is it, Xander? Here I am, trying to debrief you on the numerous events you've missed in your little trip to the Dark Continent, but if you'd rather move on to-"
His eye rolling wasn't as effective these days, but it made him feel a little better. "Dammit Andrew, would you drop the act already? I don't want to hear which brand of tampons each and every Potential uses. I don't care. And if I wanted an update on where Buffy and Willow are, or how Dawn's doing, don't you think I'd have called them instead? Cus no offense, man, but you and me have never been the best of buds. And don't you start that sputtering crap -- it won't work on me."
"Well, I never!" Prissy Andrew scored another round. It almost made Xander wish that they'd been saddled with Jonathon instead... what's the difference between one sad geek and another. Oh, right, he's a card-carrying member of that club too.
"Maybe you should," he snapped out before he checked his words. "Listen man, I'm tired and it feels like I've got most of southern Kenya embedded in my skin. And that's after three hour-long showers. I just want some info before I drag ass back for a fourth, then maybe sleep for a week or two, ok?"
A loud harrumph, but it didn't hold quite as much indignation as before. "At least you had the good sense to contact me, then." Cocky little shit. "What information are you in need of? Your file indicates that you have already received the next list of Potentials, and your credit accounts are up to date."
"Yeah yeah, whatever. This isn't exactly Council business." Xander paused, feeling a distinct unease in asking now that he finally had the blond Watcher's attention. "I checked email this afternoon. First time in... feels like forever. And the strangest message was sitting in my inbox. Want to take a guess what it said?"
"Ah..." cough "Perhaps you should delete that. We had a series of bogus emails sent to the Upper Level personnel a few months ago, but it proved to be a prank perpetrated by one of the SiTs."
And didn't that one stink all the way across three continents. He didn't have a clue how to get the true story out of this kid he's the same age as me, just one grade lower, but he still acts like a little boy playing dress-up, but he had to give it his best try. "No offense, Andrew, but I'm calling your bluff. This little toy of mine was tweaked by the Willow-geek herself, and would've showed in flashing lights that the message was fake. Now are you going to tell me what's really going on, or am I going to have to go over your head?"
If all else fails, threaten the foundation of their position. Bureaucrats, gotta love'em.
"There's no need to be snippy, Alexander!" Another round of monocle-scrubbing, then finally, in the old SoCal voice, "Alright, you can't tell anyone about this, understand? We had to work really hard to hush it up here at HQ before the girls found out, and Mr. Giles himself ordered total secrecy. File closed, warded, and hidden in the darkest vault."
"Yeah ok, I gotcha -- no spilling of the metaphorical beans. Now spill'em!"
And in two words, conveyed by a Bond-ish conspiratorial whisper, Xander's entire world turned upside down. Again.
It made no sense. Xander knew what he had seen in those last traumatic moments before the Hellmouth went up in a big boom. Natural disaster, my ass. Even after hearing Andrew's account, and reading the unofficial file-that-didn't-really-exist, it still made no sense.
Questions ran wild through his brain. Two in particular vied for top on the priority list: 1) Was it really Spike, pre-chip, post-soul... or something imitating the annoying bleached blond? and 2) If Spike was indeed among the walking set once more, was there maybe some way to bring back Anya too? He quickly hushed that half-wish, half-fear. It hadn't been that long since he'd played a part in yanking Buffy out of Heaven, after all. He wanted no part in causing such grief to any of his loved ones ever again.
So, Spike's alive. Or re-undead. Or whatever the politically correct term is for a vampire that's no longer filling an ashtray. Only now he's working for Angel, who apparently runs an evil law firm in L.A. -- and how's that for a major redundancy! -- and hasn't made a single move to get in contact with any of us. Except he did, and was told not to ask for the Council's help with any of their problems. And ok, I can get that. Helping Angel and his pet court monkeys? Not my idea of a good time. But this is Spike we're talking about here! He's earned whatever help he needs, in my book.
Fifteen steps north to south, thirteen from east to west (if he dodged the bed). Xander paced the length of his hotel room while he considered where to go with this latest twist to his life. It wasn't as if he had so many good friends that he could afford to abandon one of them. And by now, Spike almost certainly believed that the whole Scooby gang had deserted him, since only Andrew had spoken to the vamp since his return from... where ever.
Gods, what a mess. I just wi- Train of thought abruptly derailed by slamming the offending head against the nearest wall. Don't be stupid, Xanman! You know better than to even think a wish. Remember all the lectures from Ahn about silly mortals ranting to themselves, giving vengeance demons the ol' Welcome mat. He flopped gracelessly across the bed and buried his face in a slightly lumpy pillow. So. Giles doesn't want the girls to know, and I kinda get that. Buffy... wouldn't take it well, and that'd just mess them both up again. Willow can't keep a secret to save her life. And Dawnie, oh man, she's gonna be so pissed when she eventually does find out -- and we all know she will -- that heads will roll. But she's so close to graduating, maybe that's why Giles hasn't said anything. Or not. More not than not-not. Damn, think I'm starting to out-babble myself.
He did have a plan. Of sorts. Maybe not the best idea of his life, still, it was better than sitting around in this dump worrying over things he couldn't change until he was no longer sitting around worrying. Yeah.
Two-finger typing took almost as long as finding a travel guide fluent in American English, but eventually he had a reservation on the next flight back to the states. As he crammed the last unwashed sock into his carryall, Xander's mind did a cold boot.
I'm leaving a long-term assignment that pays well, has good benefits, lets me see the world, and doesn't rely on normal two-eyed vision... just to see for myself if Spike really is back with us. And if so, there's gonna be an economy-sized can of whoopass opened on a few people for keeping it a secret.
After careful consideration, Xander decided that he really, truly, whole-heartedly hated airplanes. The funhouse of purchasing tickets, the parade of pachyderms that was standing in line to board, the strange dance macabre of flight attendants shuffling passengers around and droning on in monotone about how to survive a crash that no one wanted to think about. And don't get him started on the quality of food and entertainment. If he hadn't thought to keep his laptop with him, he felt certain that someone would be in a world of hurt by the end of the trip.
Websurfing got easier (even if his pitiful typing skills did not improve) the more you tried it. He managed to find all sorts of odd records for Wolfram & Hart, and even a few articles on Angel Investigations. Years of practice at skimming archaic demonology texts for relevant data insured that he didn't spend too much time chasing dust bunnies, no matter how... interesting some of W&H's case files to be. And with the handy dandy Willow Upgrade 7.5, I can search faster and stronger... and I've spent waaaaaaay too much time in the world of SciFi. At least she left some cool bookmarks. Who knew that demons were just as internet-savvy as humans? Oh hell, that makes so much sense now! I'd bet my other eye that Bill Gates has demonic backers, or that he's part Ferengi, or something. Gotta remember to ask Wills. Or maybe Giles would know.
And so it was that he spent the remainder of the cross-continental flight happily entertained with various conspiracy theories. (Author's aside: Can you think of a better way to waste that much time?)
Right, it's official. I don't ever want to travel that many miles without a break, at least every third or fourth country. Think there's a permanent indentation on my ass from that spare seatbelt...
The car rental clerk wasn't terribly happy to hand over a set of keys to the scrungy-looking one-eyed man. And again, he felt a wave of capitalist pleasure flush through him. Anya would've been proud. Money talks, oh yes it does. His steps felt lighter as he bounced toward the parking garage, whistling softly. A shimmer of heat waves hugged the blacktop, but after a year in Africa? Ha! I laugh at your puny efforts. Ahhahaha!
Of course, he hadn't missed the millions of rude drivers that California seemed to collect. Or the stop-and-go traffic. Or the other brands of poverty and disease that lurked in the corners, under bridges, behind dumpsters. Unfortunately for Xander Harris, he would never again be able to so casually ignore the unpleasant realities that his fellow Americans habitually shoved aside. The Heart... how can I be the Heart when mine breaks so easily?
One last corner, two stoplights, and his hotel was in sight. He only had to pass a dozen or so homeless people to get there. I'm working for the wrong White Hat organization. Time for career change #293, Harris.
Several feet away from the rest, a tiny little kid (gender unknown through the layers of dirt and ill-fitted clothes) held out a grimy hand. If a parent was anywhere nearby, they were cleverly hidden, so Xander did the only thing he could think of. He stopped the car, illegally parked, and carefully approached his target. Kneeling down at the child's level, far enough away not to be threatening, he softly said, "Hey there, buddy. Bet you're a little hungry, yeah?" He didn't wait for the timid nod, reaching into his carryall for an airline complementary apple. "This is all I've got with me, but let me check into my hotel room and we'll see what we can do. How's that sound?"
Huge bright blue eyes widened at the kind words and unbelievable offer. Xander had a flashback to the animated movie he'd seen not ten hours ago -- Shrek 2 -- and had to catch himself before calling this child 'Puss'.
But first, the technicalities had to be handled.
"Your mom or dad nearby, hun?" Quick shake of dirty hair. And warning bells made his line of questioning switch tracks. "Alright darlin, when's the last time you saw them?"
The soft raspy voice that creaked out nearly made him cry. He'd heard it way too often from victims of dehydration and starvation in Africa. "Mommy's cold, mister. She hasn't woke up for days."
As if he'd needed another reason to hurt for the kid.
"Oh sweetie, we'll get you fixed up soon." Snap decision -- and hopefully the tyke would cooperate. "How 'bout you come with me? Let's get you fed, then a nice warm bubble bath, and I'll try to find you some nice new clothes that fit, k? Then we'll see what we can do for your Mommy."
Child Protective Services was a joke. An expensive one for the general public, but a joke nonetheless. Oh, they probably did some good for about half their cases, but too many screw-ups slipped through the cracks of their overwhelming caseload. Point in fact: his own household. He briefly considered the complications involved in magicking a paper trail, just in case someone questioned his temporary custody of the child. Sooooooo not good, Xanman. Not that I can leave the kid on the streets, but don't go falling in love with him... her... it... before finding out what's up with Mommy, or if there's a Daddy or grandparents to go to.
No child should have such world-weary eyes. Clearly wanting to accept the offer of help but still afraid, the expression of a kicked-too-many-times puppy stared back at him. "Promise. Pinky swear!"
A slow, solemn nod was the only answer.
Xander got to his feet and held out one hand. He didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until a mud-caked hand curled around his two littlest fingers. And can I just say thank gods the girls aren't here! This is liable to get messy... but I couldn't just leave the lil'un here, could I?
"I'm staying at the hotel just there," he pointed down the street, "but first, I've got to check in with the front office. Do you want to go in with me, or stay in the car while I pick up the key?"
Those blue, blue eyes so much like Spike's! stared up at him, then flicked down across the dirty clothes, shoeless feet, and back. A tiny whisper full of shame, "here."
And if his heart hadn't already been squeezed so tight with pain for the child, it would have clenched at that quiet admission. For all the kid was young can't be older than six, even counting malnourishment, he or she was conscious of how the world viewed such an outcast state.
"Alright, sugar. And don't you worry none, yeah? We'll get you fed and cleaned up real soon. Then you can take a nap in a big, clean bed while I go check on your Mommy." He ignored the flinch as he smoothed one hand over filthy hair can't even tell what color it is. "Is there anyone else who looks after you?" He half expected the answering shake, but it still hurt to see. "Then it looks like we've got ourselves a plan."
Xander, what are you doing? Picking up strays is one thing -- not that Dad managed to beat that habit out of me -- but this is a human child, and the laws are pretty clear about how to handle homeless or orphaned kids. But just maybe I can convince Deadboy to cover my ass, since he's got a whole mighty lawfirm under his broody thumb. Can't just leave and ignore, not like... Stop that! Do what you can and move on. Internal scolding complete (at least temporarily), he started the car and drove down the block to his hotel.
Seeing how small the kid curled up in the floorboard like he/she's just waiting to be caught in the wrong place and get kicked out, again hurt almost as much as the tiny flinch when he tried to offer a little squeeze of reassurance on one bony hand. He quietly explained again what he was going to do, then double-checked the door locks and made his way to the check-in desk.
"Reservations for Alexander Harris, confirmed by email late last night," he told the thirty-something clerk. Just a handful of minutes later, he was handed a cardkey and welcome package.
Guessing he had time to run into the tourist shop of the lobby, he grabbed shorts and t-shirt that looked like the correct size, a pair of flipflops, hair brush and toothbrush and toiletries, and a coloring book with crayons. His impulse purchases wouldn't make much of a dent in the kid's attitude when he had to explain that Mommy was dead and never coming back, but just maybe he could keep the little one's mind off such sorrow for awhile.
He approached the rental car, talking outloud so as not to startle his charge. "Got that taken care of, and maybe found some clothes that'll fit you. At least until we can go shopping, right? I bet you've never learned how to swim, and they've got a terrific pool here, so maybe you'll let me teach you later. Sorry about the clashing colors by the way... they didn't have much of a selection in the gift shop. But we can fix that later. Food first, then a bath, then a nap. Sound ok to you, kiddo?"
Xander manually unlocked the driver's side door, opting not to use the remote -- who knew what the sharp beeps might do to the kid. Inside, just as he'd last seen, was the scrunched bundle of rags and matted hair and huge, hurt eyes. He forced a smile onto his face as he slid into his seat, letting the crinkle of plastic break the silence when he tossed the shopping bag into the back. "Let's go see how nice our room is."
Continued in Part 2.