Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel: the Series
Word Count: 6,800 words
Characters: Xander, Cordelia, Willow, Buffy
Pairing(s): Primarily gen, with references to Buffy/Angel, Xander/Cordelia, Xander/Anya, Willow/Kennedy, Buffy/Spike
Notes: I started writing this six or seven years ago (so, please, if you read it and like it, let me know!) Back then, my head canon was that (AtS spoilers) Angel, Spike, and Gunn died taking out the Senior Partners, thus earning their eternal peace. (No idea what might have happened to Illyria.) This story relies on that interpretation. I've borrowed nothing from the comics, except for Buffy's Eeyore pajamas. Many thanks to secondsilk for beta reading, and to everyone else I've pestered about this story over the years.
Summary: The Powers That Be give Xander a task: deliver a message from Angel to Buffy. Sounds simple enough, but Xander has some unresolved issues regarding Angel and Buffy.
Xander is lying in a Motel 6 somewhere between Billings and Missoula, staring at the cracks in the plastered ceiling, when Cordelia Chase appears beside him. For a moment or two, he isn’t sure which startles him more: the fact that she’s here at all, since Cordelia died over a year ago and has not, to his knowledge, been raised by magic or turned undead, or the fact that she is in his bed.
“Yeah, I know,” she says without preamble. “Can we say ‘awkward’?”
Xander swallows. His throat is still dry, so he swallows again. “We can say it,” he squeaks. There’s a tickle in his chest, the start of a fight or flight response, but his limbs feel leaden. He licks his lips. “If you’re the First…”
“The First Evil?” She makes a face. “Ish, no.”
“I’m dreaming?” he says hopefully.
Cordelia rolls her eyes. “Am I naked?” She waves her hand over her long, slender body, which is curled toward him on the thin motel bedspread. She’s dressed in a gown of some soft, almost liquid-looking material that might be silk, but probably isn’t. It clings to her curves and shimmers, even in the dull light from the overhead lamp, in shifting shades of green.
Not naked, but beautiful - and for a moment, Xander’s throat closes tightly.
“So, anyway,” Cordelia continues, “you’re probably wondering why I’m here.”
He still can’t seem to draw enough breath to speak, so he simply nods.
“Right. Well, it wasn’t just to visit, although it’s kind of good to see you, which, believe me, is something I never thought I’d live to hear myself say. Oh, wait.”
A small smile touches her lips, and the knot in his throat loosens. His eye watering at the corners - because he couldn’t breathe, not for any other reason - he coughs out, “Good to see you too, Cordy.”
She smiles at him for a few seconds more. Then she says, “I need you to do something for me.”
He knew it. “Anything,” he says, expecting her to ask him to track down her parents or something.
“Actually, it isn’t for me. It’s for Angel.”
But he’s already shaking his head. “Nope. No can do. Sorry.”
“Don’t be such a jerk. He’s dead.”
“Yeah? Well, good riddance.”
She glares at him. Her eyes are very dark, darker than they should be, even in this dimly lit room. He wants to look away, but he can’t. He actually wants to get up and get the hell out of there, but it’s like his wrists and ankles are manacled; he can’t even lift them.
“Stop it,” he says.
“Stop what? I’m not doing anything. Listen, I need you to give something to Buffy. From Angel. That’s it. Easy-peasy.”
“Lemon-squeezy. The answer is no.”
“No. Angel can deliver his own messages. I’m not his little errand boy.”
“But you’d have done it for me.”
“There’s a difference, Cordy,” he says.
“I actually cared about you.” More than I ever told you, he wants to add.
“Do it for me, then.”
“No.” He’s adamant.
“Fine. Whatever. Loser.”
In a blink, she’s gone. Xander stares at the spot where she lay. When he realizes that his limbs can move again, he reaches over and touches it. He doesn't know why, since she couldn't really have been there, but he's disappointed to find that the spot isn't warm.
Duh. She’s dead. You don’t owe anything to her - or to Angel, who couldn’t save her.
He flops onto his back again and focuses on the ceiling. There are quite a lot of cracks in the plaster. As he sinks into sleep, they begin to look like delicate black veins. Somewhere, they must all connect. Everything does, eventually. If he could find that spot…
He dreams about Buffy. She isn’t naked, but he knows he’s dreaming. If she does anything, other than stand there and look at him sadly, he doesn’t remember it when he wakes up early the next morning. And then it’s time to get up, get his car started, and try to find that Slayer Willow’s spell semi-located the other week.
With any luck, there’ll be a Starbucks somewhere between here and there, but he isn’t counting on it.
He’s just north of Pullman, Washington when he sees Cordelia again. It’s been about three weeks since the Motel 6 in Middle-Of-Nowhere, Montana. It’s a warm night in early summer, so instead of paying for a motel, he just tossed his pillow and Star Wars sleeping bag in the back of his pickup and stretched out under the stars. It’s a clear night and the moon is a slender crescent, so the stars and planets stand out brightly against the black. He gazes at them, one hand cupping the back of his head, the other resting lightly against his chest. Like a tender breeze, a sort of dreamy drowsiness slips over him. He’s been driving all day - all week, in fact, all over the state - and his joints are stiff, but that seems very far away right now, and unimportant.
Thanks to Willow, he knows some of the summer constellations, and he locates a couple without too much effort. There’s Cygnus the Swan. There’s Scorpio, with bright Antares at its heart. There’s—
“Oh, come on,” Cordelia says, and Xander nearly jumps out of his sleeping bag. “It is so not that big of a deal. You’re just being selfish.”
She’s sitting cross-legged beside him, this time in tight jeans and an orange tank top, her soft brown hair just brushing her shoulders. She dressed like that in high school, though her hair was longer then, and for a moment - during which his startled heart skids to a more reasonable pace - he’s nostalgic for the old days in Sunnydale. Not because they were particularly good days, but because they’re gone and he’ll never get them back. They had their moments.
Looking at her, he can practically hear Sarah McLachlan playing softly in the background. Not that Xander, manly man that he is, ever owned any Sarah McLachlan CDs. Well, except for the ones Willow accidentally left at his place that one time, which he might have listened to once or twice or half a dozen times before remembering to return, but that is completely beside the point, which is--
“I’m being selfish? Cor, unless you haven’t noticed, I’m doing something and it’s kind of important. I realize,” he continues before she opens her mouth, “that you’re unlikely to consider anything I do important, but believe me, it is.”
She rolls her eyes. “I know what you’re doing. The Powers That Be see everything.” Somehow, she manages to make that not sound corny. “Buffy and Willow activated all the potential Slayers. Some of them don’t know what to do with their powers and some of them are in bad situations and need help. So they’re sending you. And that’s important, I get it.”
“You know, Cor? After all these years… Your flattery?” He scrunches his nose and shakes his head. “Not really buying it.”
“Whatever,” she huffs. “The point is, you’re already running errands for Buffy and Willow. Why can’t you do this one thing for me?”
Xander flops back against his pillow and gazes at the stars. “Because it isn’t for you. It’s for Angel. And unless you tell me that not delivering his message to Buffy is going to bring on another apocalypse … sorry. No can do. If he had something to say to her, he should’ve said it while he was alive. Or - less dead. You know what I mean. This isn’t high school. I’m not passing love notes for anyone.”
“Oh, please. You never left high school, Xander. You’re never going to get over the fact that she chose him.”
“I don’t have to get over it. He’s gone. Out of the picture. And anyway, it’s not like I still hold a torch for Buffy. Where are Anya’s words from beyond the grave, huh? Where’s her last message to me? How come Angel--” He breaks off before the words choke him. It’s been almost two years, but his grief for Anya is still raw. He’s come to terms with her death; they’re fighting a war against the forces of Evil, and war means people dying. But he has so many regrets.
“I’m sorry about Anya,” Cordelia says in a surprisingly non-abrasive tone. “I mean that. I’m really sorry.” She pauses. “But you’re still being selfish.”
“This message of Angel’s - if I don’t deliver it, will it bring on the end of the world?”
“No,” says Cordelia. “I’ll just be pissed at you.”
“I can live with that,” Xander says. “In fact, I’ve lived with it for most of my life. Where Angel’s concerned, I reserve the right to be selfish. And maybe that makes me a bad person, but the fact is, I don’t care. Anyway, you’d think I’d be the last person Angel would ask for a favor. Why can’t he deliver his message himself?”
“Because that isn’t the way it works,” Cordelia says in a flat tone that tells him she is pissed. “That isn’t how the Powers want it to work. I didn’t come from Angel. He’s gone. He went down fighting the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart, just like the Powers knew he would. Or hoped he would. I don’t know. They owe me a lot - the Powers, I mean - but they don’t tell me everything. They actually gave me this last errand as a favor, if you can believe that.” She gives an un-Cordelia-like snort. “They want Buffy to have something of Angel’s. As a reward, I guess, for him - or for both of them. Whatever. And they want you to deliver it. In person.”
Xander crosses his arms over his chest. He can feel his resolve weakening and he hates it. To keep himself from saying anything - a yes might slip out of him - he clenches his jaw until it aches.
“Fine,” Cordelia says. The quaver in her voice makes him flinch, but he doesn’t loosen his hold on himself. “I’m just going to leave it with you, okay? Deliver it, don’t deliver it - it’s up to you.”
He feels something small and cold against the palm of his right hand, which is still curled in a fist over his chest.
“Goodbye, Xander,” she says. And then she’s gone again, like a puff of water vapor against a dark sky.
Once he’s alone, Xander lowers his arms and opens his fist. It’s a silver locket, engraved with the image of a claddagh: two hands holding a crowned heart. It dangles from a delicate silver chain. He holds it up and lets it swing gently before his eye like a hypnotist’s watch, twinkling in the starlight, and something bitter pools in his stomach and the back of his throat.
I’m not passing love notes for anyone.
“Sorry, Angel,” he says, pocketing the locket. “You’ve hurt her enough.”
He closes his eye and tries to get comfortable in his sleeping bag. He’s just found a promising position when it occurs to him that he might never see Cordelia Chase again, ever. In a flash, he’s wide-awake and sitting up, gasping. Regrets claw up and down his throat, and he knows there’ll be no sleep for him tonight.
When he can, he contacts Willow via Skype. It’s five days later and he’s spending the night at a Best Western on his way back east, having found Francine the Slayerette, and convinced her that she is not a freak, that she is, in fact, awesome, and that there are young women just like her who would love to meet her when she’s feeling ready to kick some undead ass.
Willow is her usual bubbly self, greeting him with a wide smile and a “Hey, Xander!” The picture isn’t exactly clear, but from what he can see, she’s sitting cross-legged on a mound of embroidered throw pillows, her green velvet skirt billowing around her. She looks so familiar, so Willow, that he wishes he could reach right through the screen and wrap his arms around her. He hates that she’s so far away.
“Hey, Will. How’s Chile? How’s Kennedy?”
“Good and really good,” she replies, her dark eyes shining. Xander can’t tell, but he imagines a faint blush tinting her cheeks as well. “It’s winter here. It’s actually snowing!”
“Which has been known to happen in winter.”
“I’m a California girl. The last time I saw snow, we were in high school. D’you remember that freak snowstorm we had senior year? On Christmas-slash-don’t-forget-Chanukah?”
“How could I forget? Nothing like waking up in the backyard with a face full of snow. It’s raining here,” he adds, hitching his shoulder in the direction of the window, which is outside her line of vision. “Which, hey, not complaining, since my truck needed a serious bath.”
“Xander,” Willow says solemnly, clasping her hands in her lap and leaning forward so her hair hangs down over her cheeks. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re talking about the weather.” She practically whispers the word - like it’s dirty. “That is not us. Something is wrong, and you should probably tell me all about it.”
“Curse you and your woman’s intuition,” he says dryly.
“Hey.” Willow points to her face. “I believe you are familiar with this? It’s gotten pretty good at reading yours over the years, so…” She pokes her finger at him, and even though she’s in Chile and he’s in the middle of Wyoming, he leans back slightly. “Don’t get cheeky, Mister.”
“Okay, okay.” He glances over his shoulder, but he’s alone in his room. Not even a shimmer of Cordelia. Sighing, he turns back to Willow and says, “Has anyone ever asked you to do something you didn’t want to do? Let me rephrase that so it doesn’t sound like the start of an after-school special. Imagine someone asks you to do them a favor. Something you would really, really rather not do.”
Willow cups her chin in her hand. “What kind of favor? I mean, there are favors and then there are … favors.”
“It’s the kind of favor where I play messenger boy for Angel.”
“I thought Angel was dead … er. Deader. You know what I mean.”
Xander nods. “He is so much vamp dust on the wind. But Cordelia asked me--”
“I thought Cordelia was dead. Are you sure it was Cordelia and not the First?”
“Very sure. See, the Powers That Be…” He’s doing this badly. He can tell by the little crease between Willow’s eyebrows. “I don’t really know how it works, Will. According to Cordelia, the Powers want me to give Buffy something from Angel. As a last reward. They want me to give her this.” He digs in his jeans pocket and pulls out the locket. Dangling it in front of his laptop screen, he says, “I mean, is this creepy or what?”
Willow stares at the locket for a few moments. “What’s inside it?”
“I have no idea.”
“You didn’t even open it?”
“I tried,” Xander says. “I broke several perfectly good fingernails trying to get the sucker open, but nothing doing.”
“I wish I could see it up close. That way I could tell if it were all … magicked up.”
“I’d say chances are good that it is.”
“Has it done anything magicky?”
“Other than just appearing from nowhere in my hand and not letting me open it? Not really.” He sets the locket down on the keyboard. It gleams faintly in the light of the bedside lamp, but that’s all.
“You should show it to Giles.”
“I don’t wanna bother Giles with this.”
“Because…” Because he doesn’t want anything to do with this locket, or with Angel, frankly. He doesn’t owe him anything. He wishes Willow would just tell him to toss the thing in the nearest body of water and walk away. It’s what he’d like to do, what he should do. He doesn’t know why he hasn’t yet.
“Because what?” Willow prompts, letting her hand fall to her lap. “Because he might tell you that you should give it to Buffy? Why don’t you want to, anyway? I mean, I know you never liked Angel, but to say he helped us kind of a lot is, well, an understatement. He loved Buffy. I can’t believe he’d want to hurt her. Not now, anyway. I know he did, but that was when he was bad. He isn’t bad now, he’s deader. And say what you want about the Powers, but I don’t think they’d use him or Cordelia to hurt Buffy.”
“Curse you and your logic,” Xander mutters.
“Not to mention the fact that Buffy? is really kind of strong. And mature. Well, kind of. Anyway, she’s not some delicate flower that’s gonna wilt at the first reminder of her old boyfriend.”
“Curse you and your metaphors.”
“I think you should give it to her,” Willow says. “Would it really be that inconvenient? I take it you can’t just mail it to her.”
“You want me to tell you not to give it to her.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d back me up here, Will.”
“I can’t,” she says. “And I’m sorry - although, not really. You’ve been holding onto this resentment toward Angel for a long, long time. Since high school. I think you should let it go. Maybe that’s what this is all about. Maybe it’s what the locket symbolizes.”
Xander cocks his head at her and lifts his eyebrows. “Let it go? You mean, just forget everything Angel did? To Buffy, to Miss Calendar, to Cordy--”
“What did Angel do to Cordy?”
“You’re just making excuses.” Now she’s frowning in disapproval, and Xander isn’t in love with her anymore, hasn’t been for years, but she’s still his best friend in the world and her disapproval cuts deeply. Especially since he knows she’s right. He lowers his head slightly, focusing on the shiny black edge of the monitor rather than her face. “Really,” she continues, “if you honestly thought the locket was evil, you’d take it straight to Giles. But this isn’t really about keeping Buffy safe, or even about what Angel did. If Anya had a message for you, you’d want it, right? And don’t tell me this is different,” she says quickly, forestalling his protest, which would have been And what if it were Tara? - so it’s probably just as well she did. “Anya hurt lots of people when she was a vengeance demon, but you believed in her redemption. This isn’t about people being hurt. It’s about you, and how you can’t let go of the fact that you were never the guy you wanted to be - not in Buffy or Cordelia’s eyes, anyway.”
It smarts, hearing the words spoken. He should have known she’d be forthright with him. She’s Willow, after all, and she knows him better, probably loves him better, than anyone - even Anya. “Why,” Xander groans, “are you so smart?”
Through the blur of his lowered lashes, he sees her shrug. “Somebody has to be.”
He doesn’t promise he’ll give the locket to Buffy. He says he’ll think about it, and Willow seems satisfied. Not happy, but satisfied. After they say goodnight, he closes his laptop and sets it on the bedside table. He lies back, dangling the locket in front of his face, watching it turn slowly back and forth.
Outside, the rain falls harder. He can hear it drumming against the hotel window and the roofs of the cars and trucks down in the parking lot. It’s the sort of ferocious summer rain that he used to love as a kid, especially when it fell at night. The sheer power of it comforted him because he couldn’t imagine anything, either man or monster, wanting to be out in it, and it was usually loud enough to drown out the sounds of his parents fighting. He always felt purged when he woke up in the morning and looked out his window to find the sky clear except for a few pink clouds, and the grass sparkling. He’d crack open the window, smell the wet earth, and think, I can handle anything.
To keep the illusion going, he would sneak out of his house as quickly and quietly as he could, and go find Willow. If he managed to avoid his parents and the bullies from school, which was actually possible in the summer, he could sometimes make the feeling last all day. From dawn until sunset, he and Willow were Sherlock and Watson, or outlaws in Sherwood Forest, or the Gummi Bears, or whatever. Running until their lungs were on fire, getting grass stains on their knees and the seats of their pants. Never wanting to go home. Believing, at least until their shadows began to lengthen, that they didn’t have to.
I can do anything, he used to think.
It sucks that Willow is so far away.
He wants to say it sucks that they all had to grow up, but he can hear Giles in his head, telling him, in that droll tone of his, that the alternative would suck far more.
Anya, he thinks. Cordelia. Tara. Jesse. Joyce. Jenny Calendar. Larry. Jonathan. And so many others. If he starts trying to recall all their names, he’ll be up all night. He’ll be up for weeks.
Angel belongs on that list. He knows that. Angel went down fighting the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart, and before that, he spent years helping the sort of people the supernatural loved to prey on, the people beneath the LAPD’s notice or concern. He helped the hopeless, as Cordelia liked to say.
If Xander can acknowledge all that, why is there still a knot in his chest that tightens whenever he thinks of Angel?
From that night on, he sees ghosts everywhere, and he can tell from their expressions that they aren’t happy with him. He sees Jesse, one of his oldest friends, who got turned into a vampire the same week Buffy Summers moved to Sunnydale, at a noisy club in Boulder. Xander’s there to find a Slayerette who’s just beginning to realize her own strength. He thinks he spots the girl – Priya – shaking her (exceptional) booty on the dance floor, a sweating bottle of Corona in her hand. He blinks and she’s gone.
He blinks again and there’s Jesse, standing right where the girl had been, his eyes like smudges in the pulsing strobe lights, his mouth pulled downward in a disapproving frown. His dark hair is artfully tousled, his collar button undone. He looks exactly the way he did the last time Xander saw him alive. A second later he's gone too, and Xander feels the shiver crawl up his spine.
“Just my imagination,” he mutters. “Plus high altitudes, strobe lights, et cetera. Yeah.”
He looks around for Priya and catches sight of her over by the bar, flirting with the curvy blonde bartender. Xander hates to interrupt, but there’s a Thesulac Demon up in Greeley, and the sooner they hit the road, the better. Hell, the bartender's welcome to tag along if she's handy with a crossbow.
Three days and one very dead Thesulac Demon later, he’s at a rest stop off Interstate 80, somewhere between North Platte and Lexington, Nebraska. The sun seems to hover just a few inches above the flat horizon, turning the wheat fields on either side of the interstate to gold. Xander stands in the parking lot for a while, taking deep, long breaths of the clean air, watching the sun sink lower. It's been a hot day and his air conditioner is busted, so the breeze feels wonderful against his face and neck.
His is the only car here, so he nearly jumps out of his sneakers when he hears the metallic click of a cigarette lighter, and a familiar voice drawls, “You useless ponce.”
“Shut up!” says Xander, staring fixedly at the gleaming stalks of wheat.
“Make me. Wanker.”
“Here’s what I don’t understand,” Spike continues in that obnoxiously amiable tone of his. “You’re alive. Which is more than can be said for me or Angel. S’far as I can tell, you’ve won, mate.” He pauses to take a puff from his cigarette. Xander can smell the smoke, which is ridiculous because Spike can’t really be here. He died with Angel.
“I mean,” says Spike, “you could be with her, if you wanted to. You could talk to her. Touch her.”
“Do not—” Xander closes his eye, silently counting to five. He will not turn around. “Do not talk about touching Buffy.”
“Or what? You’ll try to punch me in the face? I’m dead. I’m really, really dead. And so’s Angel. So untwist your knickers, get over your jealousy, and go talk to the lady.”
Xander sighs. “This makes no sense. The message is from Angel. You don’t like Angel.”
Spike is quiet, but Xander can still smell his cigarette, so he hasn’t left. As the seconds tick by, the breeze picks up and the crickets begin their thin song.
At length Spike says, “Angel and me – it’s complicated. But no, I never did like him. I loved her, though. And so did you. Who knows, maybe you still do.”
Xander turns now; he can’t stop himself. There’s nobody standing there behind him; he’s completely alone here. For a second, he thinks he sees a spark, which could come from a smoldering cigarette, but it turns out to be the evening’s first firefly.
He sees – or hears – Jonathan in Iowa, when he stops at a gas station convenience store to buy rations. He doesn’t really look at the kid manning the cash register as he sets his trail mix and lemon Snapple down on the counter and starts to thumb through the bills in his wallet, but his head snaps up when a quavering voice says, “Did you know that Riverside, Iowa is the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk? Also, you’re kind of a dick.”
The kid at the register looks nothing like Jonathan, and there’s nobody else in the store. But Xander heard what he heard. “What did you say?” he demands.
The kid boggles at him slightly. “Uh, I asked if that’s everything.”
Xander pinches the bridge of his nose, giving himself a mental shake. He’s going to lose his mind – if he hasn’t already. “Yeah,” he says finally. “Yeah, that’s everything.”
In the end, it’s cowardice that sends him to Buffy, not any sense of nobility or fairness. He sees Joyce Summers at a park in Minneapolis, where he’s sitting and nursing a cup of coffee early one morning. She says “Xander,” as she walks toward him, materializing out of thin air, her eyes the same color as the overcast sky. He jumps to his feet, spilling his coffee, and runs.
On State Street, in Madison, Wisconsin, he sees a swirl of honey-blonde hair and a long turquoise skirt, and his knees buckle. Okay, he thinks as he turns away, shaking, and starts to walk as quickly as he can, in the opposite direction. Fine. You win, Powers That Be.
Because he can’t take this anymore. If they can send him a vision of Joyce, of Tara, then they can just as easily send Anya, and if he sees her, if the Powers try to use her form and voice to get him to run this stupid errand of theirs, he’ll lose it completely. And they’ll do it, he knows. They’ll push him that far, hound him to the very ends of the earth, to Buffy.
He could be stubborn, but instead he just says “Screw it,” leaves his car with Faith and Robin Wood in Cleveland, and hops the next flight to Albany.
Buffy hugs him tight, like she hasn’t seen him in a long, long time, and he holds her back, but tentatively, his hands barely cupping her shoulder bones. She seems thin in his arms and that gives him a twinge, or maybe it’s just that he’s functioning on very little sleep, he’s never liked flying, and his stomach is empty except for a splash of orange juice and a handful of airline peanuts. When Buffy steps away from, her smile is pure California sunshine, and it’s enough to make Xander smile too, albeit limply.
“C’mon,” she says, wrapping her arms around one of his and leading him toward the glass sliding doors. “We have a longish drive. You can tell me what’s the what on the way.”
But he doesn’t. He’s quiet as they head north on I-87, only half-listening while Buffy chatters brightly about her new life as a mountain woman, about the young Slayers she’s training, about Dawn’s adventures as a college freshman. After a while, she seems to notice that his head is lolling against the back of the seat, his eyelid quivering with the effort to stay up. She smiles, reaches over, and pats his hand.
“Sleep, Xander,” she says, and he obeys her like always.
When he wakes up, the car has stopped and Buffy is gone. He starts in confusion, forgetting that his seatbelt is still buckled. Fortunately, Buffy returns before he has the chance to do anything worse than bang his knee against the glove compartment. She slides into the driver’s seat and hands him a warm-to-the-touch pizza box.
“Oh, food,” he says with his usual wit. “I like waking up to food.”
“I figured,” Buffy says as she straps herself back in. “Thought about pulling over like forty minutes ago, but I didn’t want to wake you. You seemed tired.”
There’s an odd note in her tone, and she’s staring at him rather intently. He blinks back at her stupidly for a moment or two, then realizes she’s actually asking him a question. “Everything’s fine,” he assures her hurriedly. “Everyone’s fine.” For now. He could give her the locket now – it’s in his jacket pocket – but the time isn’t right, so he summons up a goofy smile instead.
By and by, the wary concern fades from her face. But she still says “Promise?” in a clipped voice.
Xander swallows. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” She relaxes visibly. “Then let’s get home.”
It isn’t until much later that her use of the word home kicks him in the brain, and he has to stop what he’s doing – buttoning his pajama top – and say out loud, to no one at all, “Whoa. Huh.”
This is home, for Buffy. This old house tucked away in the mountains of upstate New York, with its creaking stairs, its sputtering faucets, and the warped linoleum in the kitchen and bathrooms. With its many bedrooms, each one occupied by one or more Slayers-in-training, some of whom Xander himself recruited. With its cellar full of weapons and training equipment, the magical wards that keep the uninvited – living or undead – from finding it.
Xander walks over to the window and peers out into the darkness. The house is at least half a mile from the nearest road, farther still from any other inhabitants. The front porch has a couple of carriage lights, but Xander’s window faces the thick woods out back. He can hear the wind moving like a ghost through the birches and pines, sighing in the dark. For a moment, he entertains the idea that there really is a ghost out there, not dangerous but lonely, afraid of being forgotten.
Xander shivers. He leans his forehead against the glass and squints. For a second, he thinks he sees—
No, there’s really nothing there.
He steps back and looks over his shoulder at his jacket, which he tossed into a corner along with his backpack and shoes. Now, he thinks. Do it now, or just don’t do it.
He picks up the jacket and shakes the locket out into his palm. Closing his fist around it, he leaves the bedroom, and walks swiftly but quietly down the hallway. Buffy’s room is all the way at the end, and by the time he gets there he’s decided that there are two parallel universes: one where he goes through with this, and another where he turns and runs and never finds out what’s in the locket, and everyone thinks he’s crazy, and the Powers hate him, and that’s okay, because, because…
He doesn’t remember knocking, but there’s Buffy, opening the door in her Eeyore pajamas, her hair in braids. And she’s looking up at him with her lips half-parted, her eyebrows pinched together curiously. He gulps for breath, and then says – if you can call it talking – “A thing. I have. For you. I mean, an actual thing. A thing thing. Uh, this.”
He grabs her hand and puts the locket into it, folding her small fingers around it. Aware that his own hands are sweaty, aware that he’s shaking.
“It’s not from me,” he continues, wondering fleetingly how that Xander in the parallel universe is doing, if he’s happy with his life choices. “It’s from, uh, Angel. Say the Powers. That Be. I’m their – they asked me. So. Here. Bye. No, wait.”
He’d been about to pivot away, but he stops himself, puts both feet firmly on the ground, and looks into her bewildered green eyes. “I lied once, back in high school. I mean, I’m sure I lied lots of times because I'm a guy with a lot of stupid insecurities, which you may have noticed, but I’m talking about one specific time. I lied about something Willow said, about something she wanted me to tell you, about Angel. The thing is…” He pauses, but Buffy doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t move. “The thing is,” he continues, a little less breathlessly, “I still don’t know if I was wrong. I think I’m sorry I lied, but I don’t know if I was wrong, and I guess I’ll never know. But I wanted you to know. Because … yeah.”
Now he turns and walks away, and it’s funny but the hallway seems so much shorter than it had only minutes ago. In just a few seconds, it seems, he’s back in his room, and flopping face-first onto the bed. His heart bangs around in his chest for a little while, but gradually it slows, and he’s able to think again.
He thinks about Parallel Universe Xander, who’s probably living it up on a tropical island somewhere, drinking rum from a coconut shell. Although, if the Powers really have it in for him, he probably has a meeting with a tidal wave sometime soon, in which case it won’t be long before he feels as pummeled and sodden as This Universe Xander does.
He isn’t sure what he expected would happen, once he did what he was supposed to do. Cordelia reappearing and patting him on the head? Jesse or Jonathan or Tara or Joyce offering him a ghostly thumbs up? A gold star? Not this suffocating feeling, anyway.
Thinking it might help, he rolls over onto his back.
It doesn’t help, he decides after a minute, but it’s no worse than lying prone. This way, at least, he can count the ceiling tiles while he decides what to do next.
If it were possible, he’d leave now. Just sneak out and disappear into the night. But he doesn’t have a car, and he doesn’t actually know where here is. Maybe one of the Slayerettes could borrow Buffy’s car and drive him to the nearest bus stop or train station; some of them probably feel like they owe him at least that much.
But that would require more talking, more moving. He’s tired.
At some point he finally falls asleep. It’s a shallow, restless sort of sleep, but it lasts for a few hours. He knows this because when he opens his eye again, the bedroom is full of the soft blue light of pre-dawn. He’s still on his back, which aches dully, and the blanket has somehow gotten tangled around his bent legs.
As he’s extricating himself, the doorknob starts to turn slowly. It’s Buffy. He knows, before she even pokes her head inside.
I’m awake, he starts to say, but she can see that, because she holds her finger up to her lips, shushing him. As she comes fully into the room and closes the door behind her, he sees that she’s still in her pajamas but she hasn’t been to bed; her hair is still in its neat braids. It’s hard to tell in the wan light, but he thinks she looks pale.
She paces for about a minute, pausing twice, as if about to speak, then changing her mind. Finally, he says, “Buffy,” and that breaks the spell because she stops pacing, gives herself a little shake, and says, “Xander. Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
So, they leave the house, still in their pajamas. The grass is flecked with cold dew and the breeze has an autumnal bite. But the sky is slowly turning a soft lavender, and there are creamy wisps of clouds between the treetops. The stars are almost faded.
They stand close together, with their backs to the house, not touching, not looking at each other, and after a long silence, Buffy says, “It was a memory. In the locket, I mean. It held a memory of a day I didn’t even know existed.”
“Or maybe I forgot. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Her voice is rough, like she’s close to tears, but he can’t turn to her, can’t reach for her. He can only stand there and wait while she pulls herself together. And she does.
“It was when I went to LA to see Angel. You know, right after Thanksgiving, our first year of college. After he came to Sunnydale, but wouldn’t let me see him, and all of you were in on it, and I was angry, so… I went to see him. And we had this shouting match, and then this demon showed up, and then … I don’t know. It’s like … I can see the day. See it, like it’s right in front of me. If I look at it from one angle, I see Angel kill the demon, and I go home to Sunnydale, to Riley and the rest of you. If I look at it from this other angle… He became human. Angel. The demon’s blood or whatever made him human, and we had this one day together. Just this one amazing day with sex and ice cream and…”
She stops, and he waits for her to go on, but this time she doesn’t, and he’s secretly kind of grateful. Not because he doesn’t care, and not because he’s still jealous – he isn’t, he realizes with a cold jolt – but because … somehow, he doesn’t think that Angel would be too happy if he knew that Xander knew. Angel’s sort of a private guy. Or was, anyway. And this memory belongs to him and Buffy alone.
Xander glances down at her. She’s still staring straight ahead, but now there’s some warmth in her cheeks, and it isn’t only coming from the thin ribbons of sunlight slanting through the trees.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Her eyelashes flutter, like his words or maybe even the sound of his voice startled her. “For…?”
He shrugs. “A lot.” And leaves it there.
“What you said last night,” says Buffy. “What you sort of were trying to say…”
“I knew. I mean, I figured it out. Something you and Willow said once.”
She frowns. Sighs deeply. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Sometimes I really wanna be angry. But I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference. Maybe it would’ve made a bad difference. I don’t know. I just know I kind of can’t judge you. Because.”
“I should go,” says Xander. Because. He did what he came to do and now it’s time to move on. That’s how it is. “You probably want to be alone, and I—”
She catches his hand in hers and holds tight.
“I don’t,” she says, finally turning to look at him. Her eyes are a little too bright, but there are no tears in her lashes. “What I want is to put socks on. ‘Cause my feet are cold. ‘Cause I’m standing in the wet grass, and it’s cold out. And then, after that, I want coffee. I want a big pot of coffee, and a best friend to drink it with. Okay?”
In his mind, he sort of teeters. The spirits hold their breaths. But Buffy’s hand is still holding his, and damn, her grip is strong. He couldn’t break it if he wanted to, and he very much does not want to.
“Coffee sounds wonderful,” he says.