To Live And Learn
by nemo_gravis

***

Author's Note: This was the first full story I ever wrote, fanfic or otherwise and was an absolute blast to write. Hope you enjoy it :)
***



False Indifference


New Sunnydale is not a big town. Built on the edges of the crater left when the Hellmouth went south, it started out as a settlement for Sunnydalian refugees who had nowhere left to go.

Everyone ran away when the First came to play, leaving behind what they couldn't carry with them. But that didn't mean they were ready to lose their houses. Their jobs. Their schools and favorite haunts and community. Their town. It didn't mean they never counted on coming home once everything blew over.

But things didn't blow over. The Hellmouth blowing up meant most lost everything and the refugees had nowhere to turn for support. Oh, the aid came flowing in alright. For a time, federal grants and loans provided enough for survivors to pick themselves up and make a new life for themselves someplace else. Some even succeeded.

But, to a population so deeply traumatized by the weirdness of living over the mouth of hell, it had been surprisingly hard to fit in. And so, bit by bit, a few came back. Just the crazies at first, those too old or too stubborn to give up on their home town. Not everything was raised in the disaster, after all. The old army base, and the airfield were still more or less intact, and some parts of the docks too. From this, progressively, through a process of accretion, the edge of the crater witnessed the rise of a new town.

Smaller than before, Sunnydale the sequel is a mish mash of architectural styles. Houses were built as the town was formed, each one reflecting the personal tastes of the owners more than any municipal guidelines for cohesion. The overall effect is confusing to say the least. From above, the growth of the town is easy enough to pick out, slowly crawling from the haphazard back streets and rapidly erected houses nearer the base and docks down to the lake front proper.

The lake front. Crater Lake.

There was nothing left when the first settlers returned. Sunnydale had been built in a small coastal valley that had all but disappeared. What little was left was mostly dunes and rock. Gone was the greenery of the small wooded areas, the carefully landscaped parks and gardens. And cemeteries, of course. Nothing, really, but brush and sand. But that changed when the crater was flooded.

They were, after all, a stone's throw from the sea. Some officious excavation, the proper use of the remainder of the cave system that ran for miles in every direction and the gaping eyesore of the Hellmouth's demise was now a salt water lake. More of an inlet really, with a small port and a beach of its own.

Until then, New Sunnydale had been nothing more than an officious group of squatters, huddling together for comfort. Another Slab City with slightly better scenery. But when ground zero for Sunnydale's demise had become Crater Lake, New Sunnydale suddenly became a choice vacation spot.

This is where, nine years after leaving in a battered old school bus, Xander Harris chose to retire from the Watcher's Council.

*


It was the talk of the diner for two days straight when Harris Restoration opened for business next door. Most of the New Sunnydalians, at least those old enough, remembered him from before. He was one of the more recognizable figures from Sunnydale High before he graduated and his family had lived in these parts for years.

Speculation ran wild as to what he'd been doing since the quake. New Sunnydale was a tourist town, a place where over half the population was transient. In the off-season, that left only the locals, people with nothing better to do than gossip. For weeks, Xander's return was one of the biggest topics.

He had traveled, that much was clear for he made no secret of it. Aid work, he would say whenever anyone asked and leave it at that. Africa mostly, although he could talk for hours about almost anywhere if you asked him. He'd dotted all over Europe, Asia and the third world for years and had the memories to prove it. More than just the memories.

Some people, the more suspicious people who remembered the whispered rumors of so very long ago, said that whatever it was he'd been doing, aid work most certainly wasn't it.

The scars were what troubled them. However young Harris spent those years, he spent them harshly and it showed. Across his face, from above the hairline of his right temple almost down to the jaw line on the opposite side of his face, over the bridge of his nose and breaking the eyebrow above his eye, a thin, irregular white line of scar tissue could clearly be made out against his tan. Other, less visible scars all but disappeared in the small wrinkles of his weather beaten features.

An accident in Uganda was all he would say on the subject, as if this explained it away.

And from what little could be seen of his chest and arms under his shirt, more scars, small and large mapped his upper body. Souvenirs, he called them with a wry chuckle, never bothering to expound his strange reply.

Sure it all made him look dangerous, but ultimately it wasn't a clear indication one way or the other. Aid work was dangerous in some parts of the world, the more lenient argued. You heard terrible stories of wars and massacres and natural disasters all the time. Aside from these minor aesthetic considerations, there was really nothing to condemn the poor man.

But the rumors continued. Tales of smuggling, drugs and gun running. Stories about being a mercenary in one of those local wars they showed on TV. Harris was to be avoided, the elders concluded, although not maliciously. For it was clear that whatever he had been, whatever he had done, now he was nothing more than he seemed. A carpenter.

*


If you were to ask him now what he thinks of his life, Xander Harris would tell you he is happy enough. It's nice. Not great, no. It lacks the sense of purpose and importance of his time as a Watcher or the simple camaraderie of the pre-First days, but it's enough for him now. To live a normal, quiet life.

Away from the slayage. All that death and destruction.

All that darkness.

Now, without some demon trying to tear his liver out every week, he's happier.

He tells himself everyday.

He's just a carpenter now. Specialized in furniture restoration and detail work, because people are less inclined to worry about the eye thing when it comes to furniture rather than tall buildings. Business is okay, it pays the bills and that's all he needs really. Simple.

But right now, he's not thinking about any of that. Alone in his workshop, he's busy sliding a plane over the piece of oak lying in the vise in front of him, shaping an ornate mantelpiece from the husk of a large block of wood. Mind blank, wiped clean as he works. He is, at the moment, focused on the process of creation.

Standing back to examine his work so far, he wipes some sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, smearing sawdust across his forehead in the process. This is just a small order for an even smaller client, a one-off theatrical decoration to liven up an old lady's rundown house. But he's spent as much time on it as he would working on his larger restoration projects. That's just his thing. Never happy if his work isn't up to par.

Mrs. Trenton is going to be pleased with the finished product, he decides. A few more hours and the featureless lump of wood he picked up for a song at the lumberyard will become a mantelpiece of baroque splendor.

Or overwhelming kitsch, depending on your point of view.

Who cares? Mrs. T. should get a kick out of it and that's all that matters really.

His arms are burning, his head pounding with the onset of a headache.

How long has he been cooped up inside?

With a shake of his head, he checks his watch. Quarter to eight. Closing time.

Five minutes later, tools stashed away and the worst of the mess cleared up, he's ready to go. He takes a final look at the mantelpiece before switching the lights off.

*


His life is predictable now. Up at six, showered and out the door by seven. He spends most of his day on the job, losing himself in his work. Despite the rumor mill, he's still the best at what he does and people know it. The slow but steady stream of customers sheepishly creeping into the shop suffices to keep him busy enough.

Twelve to fourteen hour days, with a couple of breaks at the diner next door, and he's back home.

Home in this instance is a small, unassuming bungalow, too far from the lake to be considered a prime location. It isn't much, little more than a prefab box really. For a man used to roughing it in the worst parts of Sudan, trekking after demons in the hard-to-reach areas of the Congo and navigating the markets from Cairo to Dar-es-Salaam, Addis Ababa to Capetown, it might seem depressingly conventional but it's comfortable and it's his.

His home.


***



Souvenirs Of Africa


Back home, a meal is put together using the time-tried method of sniffing the leftovers to find whatever doesn't smell too bad, shoving it all in a bowl and nuking it. TV on in the background, droning on about the latest crisis in the Middle East, the rising crime rates and a hundred other topics all less depressing than the next. It is ignored as he pulls out a plate and pours the steaming leftovers onto it, careful not to burn himself in the process.

This done, he grabs a beer from the fridge and makes his way to the living room. His little joke. There isn't a whole lot of house to begin with, a small kitchenette, a bathroom and a bedroom. The living room is what he calls the leftover space connecting these three. Long and thin with basic white walls and a shabby carpet. It's where he spends most nights, sprawled out on the sofa, eyes on the boob-tube.

Here, in his quiet little world, he feels divorced from all the violence on the screen. Doesn't really care for the news, so he flicks, channel-surfing until he finds some lame romantic comedy. Nothing too demanding tonight.

Sitting alone, quietly eating his meal on his couch is comforting. Something he tells himself every day, how nice and calm his existence has become. It's a relief not to be responsible for other people's lives anymore. Not when he has so little of his own left to enjoy.

In this small world of his, there are no more damn responsibilities.

He's free.

But then his watch beeps. That time already.

With a sigh, he gets up, hauling himself with exaggerated weariness to the bathroom. In the mirror of the medicine cabinet, he can't help but be surprised at his reflection. He got old. When did this happen?

The man staring back, a scarred, weather-beaten face covered in a week's stubble, with shaggy graying hair and one eye, the glass one, squinting slightly, doesn't feel like him. Inside, he feels... Older, he ruefully admits to himself.

Shaking his head, he opens the cabinet.

The pills are there, lined up in their little pots. Sometimes, it feels like he spends his whole day shoving them down his throat. He hates it. When he first found out, he thought about ending it all. In pure Xander style, he could go after some hulking bastard of a demon that would rip his head off and no one would be surprised.

But in the end, he didn't go through with it. Every time his watch beeps and he has to force down even more of the dreaded pills, he feels he took the coward's way out, by simply running away. Nothing for it, though. He's a survivor. It's become part of his makeup, even more than when he was a kid fighting vampires for the attention of a hot blonde slayer.

With a sigh, he starts taking his medication. Feels sick after the first few pills but forces the rest down anyway.

His new life, away from the death and destruction, free of violence and fear. Whenever his watch beeps the time for the pills, he knows just how much he's lying to himself. He's not free, can never be free.

He has HIV.

*


In his dreams, he returns to the past, revisits his memories and remembers that not everything was bad. There are some good times he can recall to counterbalance the darkness and despair. He haunts the halls of Sunnydale High with Wills and Giles and Buffy. Watches Angel brood. Hears Spike's pithy comments, Anya's sex talk.

From high school to his first steps in the professional world to his time with Anya to the death of the Hellmouth. Then, out into the world.

Xander Harris the one-man show came to Africa with no idea what was expected of him or how to go about it.

They all picked a destination. Giles, back to London, of course, to resurrect the council. He took Buffy and Dawn with him in an unusual display of paternal concern but they moved on to Italy to set up a slayer school there. Faith and Robin were left in Cleveland, with access to a recovered council account and most of the baby slayers from Sunnydale to back them up. Willow and Kennedy flew off to South America, officially to hunt for Slayers but more likely to work up a tan.

That left Xander.

Giles signed Andrew up as a watcher, Andrew for god's sake, and only offered Xander a place with them as an afterthought. The slightly puzzled tone of his voice as he made the offer cinched it for Xander. Now that the shit had hit the fan, Sunnydale gone boom and the First been dispatched, the X-man had no function anymore.

He wasn't a slayer, never had the legs for it, or a witch or a super-savvy researcher type. He was just Xander. A man who fought as best he could with whatever he had at his disposal to back up the others, to support them as they went up against the vampires, demons, blah, blah, blah.

And held down a full-time job. Got promoted to head of a construction crew in under two years. He did have something to offer.

So he declined, much to Giles' surprise. Instead, he asked what they were going to do about finding Slayers that were not on the American continent or conveniently popping up all over Europe. Giles stammered something about a lack of resources, not having given that much thought to the problem.

Xander nodded once and said simply, "I'll take Africa then."

And so he did.

Driving hundreds and thousands of miles across countries his California-born-and-bred self had never even heard of, trekking through places that would have been hard to locate on any map, he spent months just getting up to speed.

Survival was paramount at the time.

The One Who Sees (tm), with extra caps. He's thought a lot about this over the years. About Caleb, the priest who took an eye for an eye just a bit too literally. About Dawnie, three year old teenager who lived the first billion years of her life as a glowing ball of energy.

Both called him this, within a few days of one another. He's often wondered if it was some kind of curse. No powers, of course. Nothing that wasn't there before. Just... He never could develop that little switch most of the people he worked with over the years had no trouble with.

The old Hear no evil, see no evil switch.

Evil was there, if you paid it any attention or not. And if you didn't, well, it would probably try to bite your balls off anyway in Xander's experience. The darkness was there, in and around everyone. What he saw he saw, and it stayed with him every God damn minute of every day.

Forget the stylized image portrayed in Hollywood, the proud and noble warriors still living in tribes far from civilization, the exotic beauties of the Sultan's harems, swathed in their transparent veils.

Bull.

Africa was a continent, not a country. That meant that from nation to nation, and region to region, the conditions changed radically ranging from the dirt poor to the richer, better developed cities of the coasts. And most demons didn't do cities too well. He started out in Johannesburg, got mugged, beaten and shot at on his way through Chingola, and nearly died in the Congo. All in his first month. Saw death and depredations the likes of which even the most demented demons back home would have a hard time thinking up. All apparently committed by humans. Illnesses that might seem benign to him, wiping out the locals in their hundreds.

It took time, but he soon learned to toughen up.

The first slayer he came across, a young girl outside of Addis in Ethiopia, was a real eye opener. Not that his time on the road, seeing for himself the train wreck some of the continent had become, didn't already do wonders for his world-view. But Mina, the slayer, was living on her own for years before she was even called. Hooking, stealing and even killing. She was tough, that little girl, tough as nails. Faith-tough and beyond.

Just getting her to talk to him had been a job of work. Three full days of doing whatever he could to convince her he wasn't just some sex tourist or worse. Or crazy. Five weeks to get her to understand the idea of being a slayer. Giles was ecstatic on the phone when Xander had finally called in to report his discovery. She was the first to be found outside of the Sunnydale crowd and it gave them all hope that more potentials survived the culling by the First.

The Scoobs were still setting things up on the organizational front so Xander kept her with him. The two of them spent the next few months together, gunning across the continent, searching for other surviving potentials. Together, they had gone after vampires, demons and weird-ass cults and, if not always completely successful, they did manage to save some lives and kick vamp ass quite effectively.

As the only occult-savvy contact Giles had left on the continent, Xander soon became Mina's de-facto watcher, looking out for her, training her as best he could and doing his best to figure out any threats they came up against.

But it was all held together by string.

Giles was doing his best to rebuild the Watchers Council from scratch with limited funds and even less luck. It took time.

Time that left Xander and Mina alone on the front lines of a losing war.

Of course she died.

A master vampire with a god complex had taken a shine to the pair of them, following them around wherever they went, killing off anyone they managed to save and undermining whatever they tried to accomplish. Called himself The Shaman. Dumb name, Xander had always thought. Some freakish Hollywood idea of what an African big bad should be called. Tough guy, though.

Anyway, Mina died, and Xander lived. Case closed, page turned, time to move on.

He had moved on alright. Hooked up with an aid convoy going through Rwanda during the troubles there. Spent weeks helping the docs set up field clinics and medical evacuation routes in several hot spots around the continent. After that onwards and upwards to more adventures. He spent four full years on his own in Africa, only contacting Giles when he stumbled across a problem he couldn't deal with by himself.

When the council was finally fully operational once more and at last sent the support he'd requested, it was debatable if this was an improvement. A few wet-behind-the-ears baby Slayers and their even more inexperienced fresh-out-of-training Watchers.

Swanning in like they knew better than anyone what needed to be done. Pushed to the sidelines, he returned to his old role, or tried to at least. Xander the comfortador. Xander the handy-man. Xander the backup. But no one really wanted him around, second guessing the Watchers and giving pointers to the Slayers like he knew better. On his own for so long, he didn't really fit in with this new organization. So he left. Other places to see, other demons to kill.


***



Of Italian Playboys And Mrs. Trenton


He's been in town for a while now, running one of the more successful small businesses of the esplanade. But people are still looking at him like he has leprosy.

Every morning, he pops into the local bakery to pick up a pastry and cup of coffee. The pastry always has the consistency and taste of cement, the coffee smells of burnt charcoal and the service is shitty. And every day they overcharge him. That little snot-nosed arsewipe behind the counter shoots him a glare as he comes in, barely makes the effort to bite out the price and never returns his change.

Deep inside, Xander knows he should say something. Part of him just wants to pick up that kid and throttle him. But he doesn't. What's the point? There are a hundred others like him waiting in the wings.

*


"And how are things going, Xander?" Mrs. Trenton asks curiously, sipping hot chocolate from a mug as she watches him work.

Xander flashes her a tired smile, fiddling with his tape measure as he figures out how to fit the mantel in place.

"No trouble Mrs. T. Nearly there now. Bit of a job to get this piece in place."

Mrs. Trenton nods, sipping her drink, looking at the large cross beam lying at his feet.

"Yes, I can see that would be difficult."

She's a nice old biddy, Mrs. Trenton. He thinks of her like that, in the privacy of his own mind. Must be pushing seventy-five. She's a retired teacher who recently moved to New Sunnydale from Seattle. Her place, a large rambling house on the lake front, is quite plain. Functional furniture, white walls and lots of books. It feels a lot like his own, but it's clear Mrs. T. spends a whole lot more time at home than he does. Her house actually feels lived in.

The mantel piece was her idea. To give her rather bland front room a bit of drama. The fireplace dominates one entire wall, after all. A grey brick affair that is simply horrid to look at, her words not his. With a bit of paint, some lighting and of course, his contribution, she wants to make the place more friendly.

Hopefully, he's got it right. He likes her a lot, this old lady. Not one to listen to the gossip. Came to his workshop first thing when she thought the idea up, asked him if he could do it. No messing about, no dithering. And she was genuinely happy to talk with him, another first since his return.

"There you go," he says finally, stepping back after fitting the last element into place, "What do you think?"

Putting her mug down on the coffee table, she moves to get a better look. Popping her glasses on, she has to admit, the boy has done a good job. When the fancy took her, a couple of weeks previously, to spruce up the old fireplace, no one really understood what she wanted. Young Xander came up immediately with a brash, overly theatrical design that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a lot more involved than at first glance.

Either side of the mantle is supported by angels, heads bowed, seeming to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. The mantelpiece itself is intricately carved, depicting within its ornamental whorls the clash between good and evil. It could have been dark and depressing, a strange feature one would more likely expect to find in some tacky haunted house exhibit, but it goes beyond that. The faces of the angels, all female contrary to popular mythology, are lovingly sculpted. One in particular stands out, small and delicate but still somehow more intimidating than the evil fiends she's fighting. Daunting and strangely reassuring at the same time. Almost comforting.

It's not what she had in mind when she originally set out on her little project, but still more than she expected. The wood is lovingly carved and polished so that the fiends and demons are all but lost amongst the shadows while the angel's faces appear to glow with an inner light the origin of which she has trouble discerning. It's more than mere carpentry, this bit of chimney decoration. It's a work of art. She tells him as much.

Bashful suddenly, Xander shrugs and looks away.

"Just a little bit of detail work really. Nothing to write home about."

Mrs. Trenton's gaze hardens slightly and the old schoolteacher in her comes back to the fore. A soft flick on the arm makes him look up. Her stern expression surprises him.

"It's art if I say it is, Xander, and don't you forget it. The client is always right," she ends with a crooked smile, turning back to look at the beautiful carving work.

He flashes her a placating grin, running a hand through his sweaty hair.

"If you say so, Mrs. Trenton, I guess it must be."

She nods once, as if to establish her verdict once and for all, before turning back to him.

"Thank you very much, child. This is truly very good. I shall enjoy seeing the reactions my children have to seeing it whenever they come to visit."

Her children. She means the kids she taught up in Seattle. She never had kids of her own, Mrs. Trenton. Stooping to pack away his tools, he merely nods his assent, clearing some dust from his throat with a cough.

"Oh, how terrible of me," Mrs. Trenton says suddenly, glancing at the time, her face stricken, "I've kept you all day without even feeding you."

Xander shoots her a quizzical glance, wondering at this strange turn of phrase, as if he were some kind of pet. The old lady blushes slightly when her ears catch up with what she just said.

"Sorry. I meant, of course, that as my guest, I should have offered you something to eat. You've been working over eight hours non-stop."

Xander shakes his head wearily as he gets back up, his tools all back in their box.

"No need to worry about that, Mrs. T. Seriously, I..."

Mrs. Trenton interrupts with a wave of the hand.

"Nonsense, Xander. You must be famished. Stay for dinner, it'll be my way of apologizing."

"It was really no problem, Mrs. T," Xander replies earnestly, "Honestly, there's no need to worry about it."

The old lady looks so upset by his reply that he hasn't the heart to refuse. It's not like he has anywhere to be, after all.

"But, if it's not too much of a bother, I guess dinner would be okay."

She smiles again and nods.

"Good, good. I'll go rustle something up. You can use the bathroom to clean up a bit if you want."

*


After saying goodnight to Mrs. T, Xander packs up the truck and starts off back home in a thoughtful mood.

Art.

He's never thought of it that way. In his mind, the mantle was just a conversation piece he sloughed together to for an added bit of drama. The level of detail that went into it, the thought and meaning behind it hadn't really struck him until now. Buffy. Buffy, Kendra, Faith, Kennedy, Vi, Rona and the others. And Mina. All the girls whose faces he remembers so vividly, all there, fighting back the darkness above Mrs. Trenton's fireplace.

Buffy.

As he drives, he lets his mind wander back to the last time he talked to the petite blonde slayer.

Italy, six years post Sunnyhell, to wish her a happy birthday. Two years after going walkabout. Except for Robin and Faith, back in Cleveland, everyone had been there. The old gang made special arrangements to get together and surprise her and it was fun, to see each other again all in one place, to joke around.

Until her boyfriend-slash-keeper showed up.

The Immortal.

God how he hated that smug bastard. A smooth operator, old Morty. Xander grins to himself at the memory of that. Old Morty. Hadn't liked being called that, had Not-Dead boy. Never-going-to-get-dead boy. It pissed him off real good, which was of course the point.

Xander didn't understand how they could fail to see that asshole for what he was. Swanning in to the restaurant they were all eating at, half an hour late, he beamed at them all before sitting down beside Buffy and promptly starting to eat her face for the next ten minutes.

Okay, Xander no-likey Buffy's boyfriend, there's something new. But it was. They were fighting a war, simple as that, and Morty was on the fence. The stories he regaled them all with when he finally tore himself away from Buffy's lips still made Xander angry even all these years later.

Colorful tales of the Italian underworld, both demonic and criminal. Giles was impressed when he realized that "The Immortal" wasn't just some freaky sex-name Buffy had thought up for her latest beau, but actually the mysterious man who had haunted the council's records for several centuries. Willow had been impressed with how well spoken he was. Dawn was too busy drooling over the guy to pay attention to the drivel he was spouting.

But Xander had listened to him, actually listened. The colorful tales of old wars and smuggling during the renaissance soon gave way to gun running in some territorial fracas in central Africa. Fracas, that was what Morty had called it. Xander had actually seen the dead and dying, watched as children killed other children, their eyes blank.

And told Morty about it.

Asked him just how he could be so dismissive of all that.

That definitely put a damper on the evening. After that, it was like some thrall had been lifted because the others were too embarrassed to swoon at the idiot's witty banter anymore. Right miffed, Old Mort. Put on a false air of profound sadness and droned on about the need for protection against the destructive nature of humanity, yadda, yadda, yadda.

"Yeah, but you aren't human, are you?" Xander pointed out.

Everybody's eyes bugged out at this point. Apparently, this was deemed rude. Morty stammered to a halt and shot him an angry glare.

"Human? If anything, I am more human than you boy," he spat, causing the others to look at him in surprise. The polished exterior was slipping. "I have witnessed the rise and fall of empires, loved and lost more women than you have ever met, fought beside the greatest warriors of their time, I have..."

Bored now and sensing the beginning of some long winded speechifying, Xander cut him off.

"But you aren't gonna grow old or die, are you?"

The Immortal stopped mid-rant to glare at him once more. Xander just smiled back.

"Pratchett said something about that, didn't he? Something like 'What don't die can't live. What don't live can't change. What don't change can't learn.' You're just a parasite, aren't you Morty? Living off other people's misery."

The table had gone deathly silent. The frikking restaurant had gone silent. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Xander wouldn't have been surprised if the entire city stopped for a heartbeat.

The Immortal was furious. His well groomed countenance slipped completely for a second, his eyes feral and his knuckles white as he clasped the table violently, fighting to restrain himself. Taking a few deep breaths, he managed to keep control. With perfect courtesy, he apologized for the scene both he and Xander had caused, got up, nodded a quick goodbye to the others and left.

"Bye Morty!"

Xander enjoyed watching him flinch on the way out as he called after him.

Most patrons in the restaurant were staring at Xander in open-mouthed disbelief. The Immortal's fan club obviously did not like people talking back to their idol. Strangely enough, he found he really didn't care.

Ignoring it all he just shoveled in another mouthful of pasta with all the outward signs of the utmost relish. Buffy was uber-pissed, her face a fiery red, although from embarrassment or fury it was hard to know. Willow, too, was glowering at him like he'd pissed on her shoes. Giles and the others just ducked their heads, pretending to concentrate on their meals.

Only Andrew had remained strangely silent, his expression torn between elation, disbelief and... nostalgia?

Xander simply wasn't the same man anymore. He'd spent six years by that time single-handedly hunting for slayers and putting out any supernatural forest fires the council could pick up. Across a continent more than twice the size of the US. By himself. Giles, Willow, Buffy and Dawn all expected him to be the good old Xan-man, jokester extraordinaire. This was supposed to be a light-hearted celebration of Buffy's birthday and a commemoration of their own good works.

Out in the boonies, Xander had yet to see any improvements.

The Immortal sweeping in with his perfectly styled hair, gazillion dollar suit and morally equivocal attitude was just too much to swallow.

Jesus H. Christ, couldn't that girl just find somebody, any *frikking* body, normal? Was normal so bad? Living, breathing, human. Three criteria almost all the women on the planet have no trouble filling. Without even trying. So damn easy, they don't even make the list.

He shakes his head, surprised at the strange thoughts flitting through his head tonight. Indicating carefully, he turns onto his street.

It's not like he's even talked to the girl for over five years now. After Rome, there was the occasional stiff e-mail or postcard for holidays, but that was it. Willow stayed pissed for weeks afterwards and Giles had barely spoken to him outside of professional matters for months. And all that time, seeking out, hunting and fighting demons with whatever means he could lie and cheat and con his way to getting his hands on, he honestly didn't know if he even cared anymore.

People grew apart. That was just the nature of life. You were born, you grew up, you met people, lost people and died and, hopefully, you made some kind of a difference along the way. That was it, the Harris philosophy of life. A lonely, sad little philosophy, but one that observational evidence had proved to work so far.

Last he heard, they were still fighting the good fight. He doesn't speak with them much anymore, mainly just to Willow, and only about surface things. "How are you? What's up in your life lately?" Drivel. Not that he doesn't like it. Willow is practically his last link to his past.

And Buffy...

He can't stop thinking about what Mrs. T. said.

Art.


***



Better To Light A Candle


Another war on the news. Much like the last one a couple of months ago.

He's been thinking about Mrs. T. and her mantelpiece for a while now. About art, how it's a subjective type of thing. What Mrs. Trenton saw in the little fresco he carved is more than even he thought he had in him. Certainly, more than he feels now. But it was there, real. At least for her.

He's not sure what he thinks about that. It irritates him that she can see something uplifting in the little scenes he thought up to decorate that lump of wood. That she can but he can't.

For him, the whole slayer and demon theme is a reality, not some lofty metaphor of the human condition. He's lost friends to it, watched it eat them up alive and spit out an empty husk. Watched it kill the hope in their eyes day by day.

He coughs, to clear his dry throat.

Sitting in a booth at the diner, by himself of course, he can't help but mull all this over. There are things he's always wanted to say, things he hates that most people just ignore, about the world and humanity's capacity for self-delusion. Depressing things.

The fight between good and evil, not just the temptations that could tear up a man's soul but real world stuff, stuff that could rip your head off and spit down the hole. For so long, it's been hidden, brushed under the carpet by people lying to themselves for a passing feeling of security. You think you're safe if you don't talk about it? If you brush it all under the carpet? Well, you're in for a bitter disappointment buddy.

Could art be about that? A wake-up call? An inspiration to... Something. Anything. He doesn't know. Anything. Just to push away the shadows.

Maybe he'll give this art idea a try.

*


This is harder than he expected.

The thing for Mrs. Trenton kind of flowed by itself, like the fresco had been there all the time and he was just clearing it out from under the mass of wood. But starting from scratch with an idea in mind makes all the difference. His workshop is littered with balled bits of paper, woodcuttings and the remains of his first eight aborted efforts. It shouldn't be this hard, he keeps telling himself.

Maybe he's lost it. The thing, the creative flair that had helped before. Or maybe, he thinks darkly, he never had it. Maybe the beautiful sculpture Mrs. T. sees when she looks at that mantelpiece is only art in her own mind. Or maybe she was just being nice.

In his darker moods, he almost believes it. But no, he can remember the feeling he had as he carved that frikking thing. An intense focus, the ideas and images just flowing like air. This is not how it felt.

He sighs and gives up on yet another small carving. It was meant to represent Willow tossing her mojo at a vamp. It looked like a wheelbarrow.

With a shake of the head, he turns back to his other projects, an antique chair in need of restoration, a cupboard needing some adjustments, and tries to put it all out of his head.

*


Can't sleep. Tossing and turning in bed one night, a couple of weeks later, it hits him.

Start small.

What he refers to ironically as his masterpiece was not meant as art. He had had no expectations for it. It was just a bit of romantic background, a theatre prop. Maybe art is just like being a contractor. You start out at the bottom, do the grunt work, get your marks. Work your way up to things.

Trying to leap right into something of the caliber of Michelangelo's work or the Venus of Milo is not only dumb, it's downright delusional.

He's too jittery to just let this go so he gets up. Pulls some clothes on, takes some pills for the morning and heads off to the workshop.

*


Yes. This is something at least. Small indeed. Surrounded by piles of reference books, he's carefully putting the finishing touches on his carving of a hand.

Giles would probably die of shock if he could see him now. The intense concentration. Xander's been sitting at the table for five hours now, having spent four hours before that just working out what he needed to do. Perspective, that's the trouble. Having one eye doesn't exactly make for great depth perception.

So he's taking things slower. Head bent so close to his work his forehead is almost touching it, he chisels in the fine veins on the back of the hand with tectonic patience.

On the table beside him, his watch beeps.

He doesn't hear it.

*


He just might be getting the hang of this, he tells himself.

It's been three months now and he's able to sculpt simple things quite efficiently. On his work table, the hand is sitting next to a wooden bird, a horse and a race car. All of them detailed, all of them taking at least a week of work non-stop.

As he puts the finishing touches to his latest piece, the first time he's tried for a full person, he coughs again and wipes the sweat from his brow.

God, it's hot in here.

The workshop is empty now, all his renovation projects long finished. He might be a little obsessed with this art thing right now but he's still gotta pay the bills, right? With the onset of the tourist season, he's gonna have a lot more work coming in, he knows this from experience, so he's pushing himself to finish this last little piece as soon as possible.

He frowns as he stares at it. A figurine that doesn't quite look right. For the life of him, he can't figure out the problem. It's a carving of a small man just standing still. He took himself as a model, not for the detail work of the face, but for the stance in general. Spent hours observing his posture, the way his clothes moved with the shadows...

But something's wrong. Or missing. The little guy seems off somehow...

His head is really hurting all of a sudden, pounding like a hammer. With an exasperated sigh, he wipes the sweat away again and sits back. Maybe it's time to take a rest. Glancing at his watch, he's alarmed to see that it's past nine. He didn't hear the dumb thing beep again. Better get home and just take the damn pills.

His shirt clings to his back as he heaves himself to his feet, the cold sweat making his skin sticky.

*


"You're a very lucky man, Mr. Harris," the nurse tells him as she pulls the curtain back from around his bed.

Sitting in the bed, a thermometer in his mouth and a drip in his arm, Xander doesn't feel lucky. He feels stupid.

A two week stay in the hospital.

He should have taken better care of himself, he knows. With an immune system like his, a rise of a couple of degrees in temperature, he could have died. And the looks he got from the docs when he owned up to occasionally forgetting to take his medication.

Stupid.

He thinks about the little man he left on his work table and sighs. Now he knows what was wrong with it. Why it felt unfinished somehow.

The figurine is unfinished because he is unfinished. A ghost. For all his life experience fighting the good fight, helping out as best he can, something is missing. A piece of him, an element that he's lost.

And for the life of him, he has no idea what it is.

*


Angel died alone. Xander thinks of this a lot now.

Back home at last, he finds that no one missed him while he was gone. This is something of an unpleasant realization. He knows that Xander Harris, world wandering adventurer is distrusted by some, but he at least thought they'd notice his shop didn't open next door at the diner.

When he sits down in his usual booth and orders a cup of coffee, no one asks him about it. No one even gives him a second glance. Most of the people here, he's known for a while now, be it as a passing acquaintance or from his Sunnydale childhood. But none of them seem to give a shit that he disappeared for three full weeks with no indication of where he had gone or if he was still alive.

In fact, he knows that the gossip mill is busy turning the whole episode into some nasty tale to frighten the kiddies. He was away in Mexico, passing drugs over the border. Or maybe up in LA, on some crime spree. There are no vampires in New Sunnydale but those damn gangs on PCP are still haunting him.

Sipping his coffee, he peers out the window at the passing cars and thinks of loneliness.

Angel had been alone at the end.

Oh, he'd had his team, the fang gang, but Cordy died while Xander was incommunicado. He found out months after the fact. For some reason, Giles and the others believed Deadboy had gone evil.

When he heard this, Xander laughed.

Deadboy, the Broodmeister himself, evil? Annoying, maybe. Too damn self righteous, definitely. Suspiciously in love with hair care products, that was a given. But evil?

He was the only one to find it funny though. The council was still in its infancy at the time and had apparently turned its back on the ensouled vampire when he asked for help. Without knowing the details, Xander merely pointed out that Angel had been helpful enough to call them about that crazy slayer. Didn't they owe him something?

Both Giles and Andrew went quiet for a minute. No. It was too risky at this stage in their development.

So the Council had turned its back on him. And he had died alone.

Afterwards, there were tears. When the news came in, from local sources, that he'd pulled a Sundance with Spike and the others, well, everybody blamed themselves of course. Xander didn't. Said he'd always figured that would be the way they went out, fighting windmills.

Only Giles caught the allusion.

Sitting in the diner, Xander can't help but feel cut off himself. He knows how stupid this is. He hasn't told anyone about his quote-unquote condition after all. But, still...

*


He has to bite his cheek not to yell at this woman.

"You will take care with this, won't you?" the prospective customer repeats, her hand still on the small jewelry box she placed on the counter.

"Of course, ma'am" Xander says again, in his best please-the-customer voice.

He's ahead of the game here. Years of watching Anya and Giles behind a counter and the experience to back him up.

"Just a few cracks in the panels... No need to worry."

She's still reluctant, dithering over her decision.

"Only, it belonged to my mother, you see, so I'd like it back in one piece."

This lame attempt at a joke is more than a little insulting, but he doesn't show it. The client is always right, the client is always right. Repeats it in his head like a mantra. He can't afford to let any business slip away at the moment. The hospital fees were crippling, twenty thousand dollars in miscellaneous charges and procedures. Should have been a doctor, he tells himself. They get to overcharge as much as they like and you're supposed to thank them for it.

It takes another ten minutes to finally convince the woman he does know what he's talking about, twenty to take the thing to pieces, another ten to repair the damage and five to reassemble it. Done.

She leaves without so much as a thank you, too embarrassed by her earlier doubts to admit now that she was worrying for no reason. With nothing pressing left to do, he turns back to the little sculptures on his shelf. They're all there, the hand he first started on, the bird on its little branch, the horse galloping and the racing car. And the unfinished little figurine.

He hasn't given much though to art recently. Any aspirations he held before the hospital have pretty much fizzled and died. It was all silly anyway. The figurine, a small man with no face and something indefinable missing that Xander still can't understand, stares back at him.

A pipe dream.


***



From The Ground Up


Six months to the day since the hospital fiasco. And he's had an idea to make a bit of extra cash.

Souvenirs.

Little ornaments for visitors to remember their stay. Crater Lake is a draw after all. The mysterious earthquake that swallowed an entire town, a powerful tourist attraction. Not to mention that, with the sea air and coastal location, New Sunnydale is quite a good place to come and relax.

The window of his shop is easily filled with carvings of the area, of the Old Sunnydale as he remembers it, of places and people long since gone. He's slipped a few other bits and pieces in there to flesh out the display. A tentative piece about Graduation Day, Dracula's Castle as seen from within the helpless mind of his Renfield, Glory and Buffy's Dive. A strange mix, to be sure.

He doesn't expect much from it all.

He's tacked a strip of cardboard in the window saying "Souvenirs of your stay in New Sunnydale, 2$".

And the funny thing is, they're selling. The bird's eye view of the town before the quake is favorite. Revello Drive, a typical old Sunnydale house, is next.

But he's also selling the other stuff. The Scooby gang against the Vampires, VampJesse with a stake through his heart, a wolfed-out Oz chasing a car. And Graduation Day. This one's a biggie. A square foot base of red wood, little figures of his graduating class all banding together against the enormous snake rearing its head on the podium. He's downplayed it slightly, tried his best to make it seem a view of the mind rather than the painful recollection of the loss of half of the kids he grew up with, the people he led from the sidelines.

He's surprised when this one sells. It's a dark piece, nothing touristy about it. Who'd want something like that for their house?

The guy who bought it said it reminded him of his high school days. No accounting for taste. Xander smiles wryly. Maybe this sculpture is another piece of art, like his masterpiece still adorning Mrs. Trenton's living room.

*


This sculpture thing is fun, he decides as another client leaves his shop with one of his "Slayer Specials".

Nothing skeezy. He had the idea a while back to try and capture the essence of what makes a slayer. He was experimenting with the varnish and dyes to get a kind of iridescent effect, a change of color and shadow depending on the angle and lighting. The complex emotions and instincts that make up a champion are perfect to try them out on. From each angle, he's tried to show a different facet of the whole. Courage, strength, the thrill of the kill... He's tried to put in some of the things that make them human too. Fear, loneliness, loss, pain and love.

It's a weird idea but for some reason the things are selling like hotcakes.

The bills are all paid now, even after the first wave of tourists has passed. In his head, he's already thinking of other concepts. Willow again. Maybe the Willow-barrow could be improved upon. If he could find some way to show the inner struggle he's always felt inside her, between the magic and the rest. Between light and dark. He knows he could think something up.

He knows his Willow.

Knew her.

It's been months since they last talked on the phone. Before the hospital thing. And he could tell her about the souvenirs...

He'll call her tomorrow.

*


"Xander!" her happy voice squeals from the other side of the world, "We haven't heard from you in months!"

He smiles at the sound of her voice.

"The phone lines go both ways, Wills," he tells her cheerfully.

"Yeah, I guess," she replies sheepishly. "I should call you more often. I mean I think about you a lot and it's like 'Hey I wonder what's up with Xander?' and then some demon comes along and we're up to our eyeballs in trouble and it just..." She checks herself before the babbling overloads the phone lines. "There's just always something coming up, you know?"

"Uh-huh," he acknowledges laconically.

He does understand really. Nine years in the service did that to you. To their minds, the Scoobs are still close. If you were to ask Willow who her best friend was, she wouldn't even hesitate before naming him and Buffy. For Giles, it's the same. The one time Xander had attempted a social call to the old watcher, Giles had picked up the phone and talked as if they had just seen each other the other day. Buffy, he had no idea anymore.

"I get it Wills, I really do. World save-age waits for no witch."

"You can say that again. If it's not some weird ass cult trying to resurrect the Old Ones, it's some dumb demon with a Wipe-Out-The-World wish. I swear it happens every year like clockwork..."

They talk for an hour about the latest demon threats, thwarted apocalypses and so on. Shop talk. After a time, Willow moves on to more personal news. Giles got himself a girl finally. A university professor almost half his age. Dawn's still happily married to her Italian gigolo. Andrew finally came out of the closet. She's dating a new guy and Faith and Robin are...

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up there, Wills. You're driving stick again?"

"Xander!"

He can almost feel the heat of her blush over the phone from a hemisphere away.

"He's a nice guy, okay? Works in the research division. Reminds me a bit of Wesley."

"That putz? Pierce-Brosnan-lite-with-a-stick-up-his-arse Wesley Wyndham-Pryce?"

Willow giggles.

"Wes changed after he left Sunnydale, Xander, remember? Majorly. I told you after I came back with Faith. He had the whole scruffy-hotness thing going for him."

"I'll take your word for it on the hotness, Willow. It's just hard to imagine him out of the tweed is all."

"Everybody changes with time, Xand."

For a moment, he can't think what to say to that. He clears his throat before continuing.

"So, what's your lucky guy's name then?"

"Dennis. Dennis Moran."

"Dennis, huh? He nice?"

"You'll love him, Xand. Promise. He's sweet and funny and really good-looking and interesting and..."

She chats happily about her new beau, listing his fantabulous qualities in a single breath. She's really worked up over this guy. Willow with a guy, who'da thunk.

Soon the conversation winds down. He hasn't really told her about the art thing. He doesn't even know if that's what you'd call it. Souvenirs, paperweights, knick knacks... he can live with this.

She still doesn't know about the other thing, the big thing. The HIV with a little plus beside it. No one does. When he found out, after being patched up in a field clinic somewhere, he was too out of things to bother explaining himself. Now, it's been so long, he feels silly bringing it up.

Oh, by the way, the reason I left like I did? I have AIDS. Sorry I forgot to tell you. Bye.

He can't see it ever working out. Best not to talk about it.

Willow's still talking in his ear.

"... Anyway, it's getting pretty late over here now, I really should be getting back."

"I guess," he reluctantly agrees. He misses her. Misses his friends. He's lonely.

"Don't let's wait so long before we talk next time, okay?"

"Yeah," he agrees more firmly, "I'll try to call more often."

"Me too. Expect to be hearing a whole lot more from me in the future. I miss talking to you, you big goon."

"Same here, Red. Off you go now, hurry on home to Dennis. Naughty fun for Willow the Wicked Witch of the West tonight."

"Hey!" she exclaims over the terrible pun.

*


Things are looking up for Harris Restoration, although the restoration projects are still few and far between. His little sculptures are still selling despite the end of the tourist season. Not only is he finally breaking even once again, he's actually making a profit!

He's cranked the prices on the damn things three times now, from a couple of bucks to five, to ten to twenty. That's a hefty profit margin. He feels almost giddy. Wonders if he'll have to hire an accountant to do the books this year.

No more cardboard in the window. He's even cleaned up the front shop. Sculptures line every wall, big and small. Most of them aren't much to look at but he's churning them out by rote now. The "Slayer Specials", the various fight scenes, some of the things he saw in Africa. Even a few more frescoes.

His experiments with the varnish have yielded interesting results and without so much as painting his creations, he's able to give the wood a subtle sheen that reflects or distorts light just how he needs it. It's an unusual concept, these earthy figures who basically take life in the sunlight. He likes it.

*


The people of Sunnydale are all crazy. Old or New, without a doubt, Xander's neighbors are completely nutsoid.

What's brought about this verdict? The latest visit from the local Guild of Commerce. Turns out they don't like his new stuff. Don't think it represents the spirit of the town.

He asks them, the three men in suits who barged into his shop like they owned it, asks them what the fuck do they care about what he's selling represents?

They get snotty. He's selling souvenirs of Sunnydale, they say, and they don't like it. He's claiming an official status that he simply does not have a right to. Local souvenirs must be approved by the Guild before they are put on display so as to maintain a cohesive theme.

He says that okay, he'll stop selling souvenirs.

They smirk and leave.

He spends a couple of hours scrubbing the word Souvenirs from his window and painting in the words Original Art.

He sees the men in suits three days later, glowering at his shop from across the road. They seem pissed.

Fun.

*


He's redesigned the shop again. Might as well face it, Harris Restoration is more of a showcase now. He removes the counter and clears the front room out completely. Paints the walls, sands and polishes the floor, gets a professional to paint his window for him.

Springs for a few nice glass display cases that he angles to catch the light just right. Lays out the better pieces, the African stuff on one side and the slayer stuff on the other.

He's moved on from the small figurines and scenettes now. Near the back, on a kind of podium, he has a sculpture of the Scoobies. Buffy, Wills, Giles and Dawnie, posing as if for a family photo. Very detailed. The girls are smiling, their arms on each other's shoulders. His special varnish even makes Giles' glasses reflect the light.

He likes this piece. Makes him feel better. The Scoobies are back in Sunnydale, hanging out at Harris Restoration.

*


Could his life get any stranger?

Xander Harris is persona non grata most places in New SunnyD. People still half believe the rumors about the guns and the drug running. He knows this, can hear them talking in the diner when they think he isn't listening.

So why is this guy here?

"So, can you do it?" the young man asks earnestly.

Xander's not sure he heard him right.

"You're sure you've got the right guy?"

The man smiles at his disbelief.

"Yes, Mr. Harris, I'm sure. The City Council was quite torn apparently. There was some strong opposition from the hardliners. But you had the support of a couple of people. I think you went to school with them in fact. As a whole, the council felt that this commission should be turned over to a local artist but they had trouble settling on a name. Trina Helman was mentioned I think. You know, the deputy Mayor's wife?"

Xander almost laughs out loud. Trina Helman is a local artiste, as she calls herself. She paints scenes of the lake and stuff like that. Sells them from a stall on the pier.

"It was felt that her forte was more of a commercial nature."

Commercial. Hah. Nice way to put it. She'd be better off with painting-by-numbers.

"Your work has caused quite a stir in the community, as you might know."

Xander doesn't. That he has any impact on the community comes as a shock. Even more so that this comes from his sculptures.

"In the end, it was felt that, given the quality of your work, and your past as a contractor, you would be the better choice for the job."

Xander clears his throat before replying.

"I've never done anything like this though, Mr..."

"Rickman. Bill Rickman. And it shouldn't be too different from a normal contracting job, albeit with the extra element of creativity."

"I work with wood, Mr. Rickman, not metal or stone. There's a big difference. Making the change will be hella difficult."

Rickman knows this.

"I suppose so. We're not expecting miracles here, Mr. Harris, seriously. Just a simple piece."

Xander hesitates for a moment before giving in. He accepts. He's just agreed to make a centerpiece for the new town square.


***



The Artist Formerly Known As...


On a whim, he decides to go visit Mrs. Trenton again.

It's been over a year since the mantelpiece. They've bumped into each other around town since then and she's always been very pleased to see him. Still doesn't bother about the rumors. Maybe she hasn't heard them. She is quite old and doesn't know many people in town.

Always has visitors though, a near steady stream of old students. She was well liked as a teacher, that's for sure. Her place has become something of a Bed & Breakfast.

There are people there when he knocks at her door, a casually dressed middle-aged couple.

"Xander!" Mrs. T. exclaims when she opens the door, "What a nice surprise."

He smiles.

"Sorry for not calling or anything, Mrs. T. I was in the neighborhood and thought I might drop by..."

"Of course. You're always welcome here, my boy. Come in."

The place has been spruced up since the last time he came. Gone is the generic paint job and stock furniture. Mrs. T has evidently done a lot of redecorating. The walls of the living room are red now, a nice warm red that offsets two large bookshelves running down opposite walls. The fireplace has been fixed too, redone in red brick. And his mantelpiece is still there, just as he remembers it.

"This is a friend from in town," Mrs. T tells her two guests, both of them sitting in plush armchairs near the window.

The man, short, portly and going slightly bald, gets up to shake his hand.

"Carl Winter. My wife Theresa," he gestures to his wife, a pretty woman with curly hair, who nods at Xander with a friendly smile.

"Harris. Xander Harris."

"Carl was one of my first students," Mrs. T. imparts in a false whisper, "One of my favorites."

Carl's quite pleased and downplays this with a shrug.

"She says that about all of us."

Xander smiles in response, feeling the affection they have for the old lady.

"Xander here is the one who made that," she tells the Winters, pointing at the mantelpiece proudly.

Theresa perks up at this.

"Really? You're the artist Mrs. Trenton can't stop talking about?"

Xander's smile is a lot less forced all of a sudden.

"She does?"

Carl nods.

"Most of the guys, the old gang from Seattle, are fascinated by the detail in it. Can't stop talking about it, some of them. It's a real draw."

Xander glances at his work, now resting against the red brick. It is rather nice, he can see it now. Still not sure about the art thing, but it's pleasant to look at. He doesn't know how it happened, but it's soothing somehow.

"My first attempt at carving something decorative," he says modestly.

Theresa is taken aback by this.

"You'd never done this kind of thing before?"

"Oh, just a bit of restoration work and carpentry. I was a contractor for a while before that and worked for a local building company before the quake."

This surprises them. Apparently, the way Mrs. T. talked it up, they thought he was some kind of jet-setting playboy with works in art museums and galleries around the country.

He likes this.

"Nah. I'm just a local boy, born in the old town and moved back here almost two years ago."

"So, you're a carpenter?"

"More like a craftsman now, I think. Mrs. T. kinda inspired me to make a few more pieces like that one..."

"There are others?" Theresa asks quickly, clearly interested. Carl smiles at her, obviously recognizing his wife in acquisition mode.

"Oh yeah. Frescoes sell the best. You know, little scenes to put up on the wall? And some of the smaller sculptures..."

"Sculptures?"

Mrs. T. frowns at this.

"How come you didn't tell me about all this, Xander? People always ask about that when they come to visit."

Now he's embarrassed.

"It's just a souvenir thing, really. Well, more of a gallery now, I guess."

"A gallery?! You have an art gallery now?"

"No, nothing like that. A display room. The stuff I do, it uses light a lot. I figure, to show it off right, I have to set things up nicely. I call it a gallery to get 'round the Guild of Commerce."

Theresa is almost salivating now, eyes bright with the news. Carl himself looks interested and Mrs. T. is beaming. They spend an agreeable hour discussing art and sculpture and silly local strictures and Xander has a good time. After lunch, which Mrs. T. insists he stay for, the Winters decide to come down to his showroom to see the rest of his work. Mrs. T. tags along too.

The changes at Harris Restoration shock the old lady when they come through the door. He is quite proud of just how professional it all looks. As if the right setting makes it all more real.

The Winters go wild over the fresco work. Hanging along one wall, each one depicts a different scene from his extensive fund of memories. Not all are dark. A few show the more memorable battles he's witnessed, generally the moment of the Slayer's triumph. Some show the breathtaking scenery of Africa, places that with hindsight are probably a lot more beautiful than he remembered.

Mrs. T. is busy staring at the Scoobies on their pedestal.

"This is very good, Xander," she tells him in a soft voice.

Beside her, he grins fondly at the faces looking back at them.

"This is my family," he tells her proudly.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. The G-Man," he starts pointing each out in turn, "Rupert Giles, he kind of raised us all out of high school. Like a mentor type of deal. And the youngest, that's Dawnie. She's married and living in Italy now. The taller one with the quirky smile, that's my Willow, she's in London at the moment, working with Giles. We grew up together..."

"And this young lady?"

He blinks. Starts to speak and stops. Shakes his head.

"That's Buffy. My other bestest friend. Last I heard, she was in Italy with Dawnie. Oh, they're sisters."

She nods her way through his explanations as the Winters flit around the room behind them.

"She's on my mantelpiece, isn't she?"

Surprised that Mrs. T. recognizes her, he can only nod.

"Very pretty," is her only comment.

The Winters are having fun. Theresa is very interested in some of the African stuff. To relax sometimes and have a bit of fun, he likes to whittle some traditional bits, the kind of thing a tourist would expect to see going over there. A couple of masks, a few fetishes and gris-gris, some intricate beading. Easy, cheap to make and good for a bit of tack on the wall.

She likes one of the masks, an original creation of his inspired from a demon he hunted halfway across the Sudan. Ugly sucker. The torsade effect in the horns with each facet daubed in his special varnish makes the thing sort of leap off the wall.

He likes it in the same way a hunter might like to mount his kills on his wall. Not that Xander can see what's so impressive about that. Hunting animals is for pussies in his opinion.

Try tracking a D'Engoru demon for three straight weeks across the desert, sleeping less than an hour a day. Armed with a can opener.

The browsing turns into a shopping trip and the happy couple depart with the mask, a Slayer special and a fresco of the Mountains of the Moon. Mrs. T. liked one of the mid-sized sculptures of Giles, his head bent as he researched, and Xander insisted on giving it to her.

On the whole, a very satisfying day.

*


He decides to check out the place where the centerpiece will be displayed before coming up with an idea of what he'll do.

Sitting on a small bench to one side of the square he takes stock of the surroundings. It has a very Hill Valley feel to it. Town hall at the back, park surrounding it, and overlooking the lake. It's quite big too.

The city council wants something to epitomize what has been done here, a capstone for the development of the town. It took time, but now New Sunnydale is a recognized part of California's coastline and they want to commemorate the occasion. An emblem.

The people who campaigned for him, Steve Millcrest and Jenny Carson, went to school with the Scoobies. Jenny had been amongst those who fought the Mayor at graduation and Steve had been one year behind. They both knew the truth about the nightlife of Old Sunnydale and they both remembered the people who fought against it.

Jenny had seen one of his Slayer specials and instantly loved it. The strange mix of fighting spirit and frailty. Appealing in a sad kind of way.

Strictly speaking, his stuff is not what the town needs for a job like this. Okay, he's way out of his league. But Rickman did point out that it was as much his past as a builder and contractor that had earned him the job as any perceived artistic talent.

He can do this, he keeps repeating to himself whenever the nerves threaten to overwhelm him.

He knows he can.

God, he hopes so. He's already cashed the check after all.


***



The Prodigal Slayer


She's standing outside when he gets back.

Her clothes are rumpled. So is her hair. Like she's been on the go for a while already. Different to the last time they saw each other. Not older really, as she'll always be the girl at the top of the High School steps for him, but weary. Her hair is clipped short, very short, and back to its old honey blonde. And right now it's sticking out like a frazzled hedgehog, bristly and unruly. It makes a halo around her head in the sunlight.

In a T-shirt and jeans, she's leaning against the shop front, sunglasses lowered, idly watching the world go by. She straightens up when she sees him.

"Hey, Xan," she says softly when he reaches her.

With a nervous gulp, he forces a smile. Hey. Like they just saw each other yesterday. With her standing in front of him, that's how it feels though.

"Hey, Buff. Long time, no speak."

He means it in a light-hearted way, because part of him is feeling better than he has in a long time, but he sees the wince. The flash of something in her eyes.

"It's good to see you," he adds to reassure her, his voice warm.

A quick, nervous smile.

"Well, I was in the neighborhood, you know? And, I thought 'Hey, why not go catch up with Xander?' So here I am."

"Here you are indeed. Come in."

He ferries her inside, a hand lightly resting on the small of her back. She's more than a little surprised by the showroom inside.

"What...? Willow said you were a carpenter..."

He agrees with a nod, looking around the place trying to see it as she is.

"Yeah. I guess I kinda forgot to tell her about it... Whenever we talk nowadays, it's about important stuff. What those wacky demons're up to, Dennis, what the others are doing, Dennis, her life in London, Dennis... that sorta thing."

Buffy's flummoxed.

"How could you not tell us about this? I mean..."

She waves a hand to encompass the frescoes on the wall, the display cases and the larger sculptures that are starting to creep in around the room.

He frowns at this, feeling a little guilty.

"It's not that important, Buff. So I moved on to making ornaments and stuff. It's just the next step up from the restoration business."

She looks at him again, confused and unsettled. Like she's uncovered a secret she never imagined. He supposes that in a way she has. Swallowing his slight annoyance, he starts to show her around. She browses through the African baubles, vaguely curious. The frescoes are good for a reaction, though. She recognizes some of the things he's carved.

"This is a Kraalis demon, Xand!" she exclaims over a particularly vivid rendition of a scene from his African past.

He and a few others had fought off one of those huge bastards with guns stolen from the local guerillas. Wasn't much normal humans could do in the way of killing the sucker but the sense of triumph they'd felt when he finally turned tail and ran was captured on his wall for all to see.

She's a bit put out that he's got it on display though.

"It's not like people'd know it was real, Buffy," he says defensively, "It's just a metaphor thing. Good over Evil, the feel of the fight."

She's not getting it, he can see. But the detail involved and the work that went into it, into all his creations, commands her respect.

She likes the Scoobies though. Smiles so wide he thinks her head'll fall off.

"This is nice, Xand. I like this one. Giles looks so Gilesey, you know? And Willow... And Dawnie, all cute and innocent..."

He grins, happy to see her happy.

"It's my favorite piece. The beginning. The Library and getting through High School and sleep overs. Us."

Her head comes up, eyes alight, and for a moment it's like they never lost each other.

"But you're not in it. Why..?"

"Can't do an autoportrait, autosculpture, whatever..." he answers briefly, his grin dimming slightly, "Tried, but it just doesn't work."

Sensing his reticence on the subject, she turns back to the sculpture.

They stand there, shoulder to shoulder, just staring at it for what seems like a full ten minutes before he clears his throat, breaking the spell.

"Not that I'm sorry you're here, Buffy, but why did you decide to visit? It's been... Seven years, close enough. Why now?"

She's tired suddenly. Her shoulders fall a little and she seems to shrink into herself.

"I can't just drop by to say hi to one of my oldest friends?"

He reaches up and squeezes her shoulder, startling her slightly, but she doesn't shirk him off.

"You'll always be one of my best friends, Buffster," he assures her warmly, falling back into the old role of supporto-guy and using the old nickname for the first time in over a decade.

She smiles brilliantly at him.

"I'm just curious is all. Last time we spoke, you still wanted to tear my guts out and feed them to me."

"I didn't," she denies teasingly, "Just your spleen. You can still live without one of those, you know."

He grins back, remembering the old banter they used to toss back and forth. Even before the big bust up, they stopped that. Weren't close enough anymore, geographically or emotionally.

"It's just..." she sighs, "I missed you, okay? And Wills and Giles and the old days. But you... We haven't spoken for so long, Xander. So long. I didn't even know where you were anymore. I was down in Mexico for a thing and Wills mentioned how Sunnydale had been rebuilt. I was all like 'As bad ideas go, that one sucks donkey dick' at first but..."

She moves over to the Slayer special display case, contemplating the little figurines wistfully.

"It's hard, you know?" she says finally. "Life. The whole world wandering thing. I've got this small apartment in Rome - we're talking a shitty room under the eaves, a garret I guess you'd call it. Some plants, a few fish..., and I'm NEVER there. The fish end up doing the backstroke and the plants all shrivel and die. I don't see Dawn for months at a time and we live in the same damn city. So, I guess I wanted to find something, I don't know. A trip down memory lane. When I told Wills that I was gonna take a few days to check it out, she got all avoidy. You know how she can be..."

He nods. Willow is the world's worst liar and cannot keep a secret to save her life. Her voice warbles when she's bluffing and she always starts to babble to cover up.

Buffy glances over her shoulder at him.

"I finally got it out of her, that you were living here. She was sorry for not telling me sooner, but I guess I kinda gave off these anti-Xander vibes or something. Anyway, I realized I hadn't even talked to you in seven years now. Practically one third of the time I've known you. It's like you're this person I let slip away with all of that. Sunnydale, the Scoobies... And I don't know you anymore do I?"

She turns back to the display cabinet and hugs herself.

"I had no idea you'd ever get into something like this."

He waves a hand dismissively.

"You and all the others, Buff. It's not a 'Xander and Buffy' avoidy thing, it's a 'Xander is too embarrassed to talk about it' thing."

"Embarrassed?"

He bows his head for a second, searching for the right words.

"I don't know. If I told you, anyone really, it would make it real, you know? I could tell myself I was still a carpenter before, that it was all just a hobby. If I told you, I'd have to take myself seriously, take a real look at what I was doing and I guess I was afraid of what I'd find if I looked too hard."

She's annoyed now.

"Oh, drop it, Xand. You've been putting yourself down since I met you. It gets old after the first decade or so. You like doing this, right? It's something that speaks to you?"

He blinks at her description.

"It's fun, I guess. I like working out what I want to show people and then finding the best way to do it."

She grins fiercely and hugs him.

"Then you're an artist now. Live with it."

He's missed her.

*


She's tired, he realizes. They both go out for lunch together, to catch up and she's yawning almost non stop.

The restaurant is one of those seasonal things, doing most of its business during the height of summer. They're almost alone in the dining room, at a small table near the window, eating seafood and joking around when he finally notices.

The weary slump to her shoulders, the haunted look that flashes from time to time behind her eyes. She's tired alright. Exhausted, even. Bone-weary.

"So, where to next for Buffy the Jet Setter?" he asks lightly, sipping a glass of cheap chardonnay.

"Want to get rid of me so soon, Xand?" she jokes.

"Well you know there can be such a thing as too much of a good thing, Buff. Don't want me to get sick of you, now, do you?"

With a snort, she flicks some of her water at him.

"Bastard. I was thinking of hanging around for a while, as in a vacation. A couple of weeks maybe."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh. It's not a problem, you know. Not like it used to be. We're all organized now, very professional. I've got business cards and everything. An International Security Concern, as Giles likes to call it. We even get dental. I had some time coming up, so I'm taking it to hang with you. That okay?"

He knows he's grinning like a loon but he doesn't care.

"We'll work something out, Buff. I'll try and find some time to fit you in between my demanding job, hectic lifestyle and the perverted sexual demands of my numerous insatiable lovers."

She arches an eyebrow.

"Perverted and insatiable? You think you might need a vacation, too?"

He laughs.

*


And doesn't really stop for the next two weeks. It's nice, Buffy and him, hanging out together. She spends her time either out at the lake deep in thought, or in his workshop watching him sculpt.

They have fun and act silly and talk about inconsequential things, exchange memories. Have a series of "my demon was bigger than your one" conversations comparing the most gruesome monsters they can remember fighting. Buffy, of course, wins on points but he gets some props for a particularly creative Bel'narys demon, a hermaphrodite who loved to dress up in the skins of its victims while laying its eggs and fertilizing them.

Xander remembers he doesn't know what scared him more, the skinning thing or the sex thing. He glares at her mention of the mantis lady.

She's a lot more relaxed now, without the weight of the world on her shoulders. She tells him some of what he's missed out on since they stopped talking. A couple of boyfriends and a wild experience in a night club involving another woman and some bubble bath.

She loves it when he starts blathering incoherently upon hearing this.

The slayage is the same as ever, she says with a sigh, vampires, demons and magic galore. Her life is a circus, she thinks.

At least things aren't getting any worse, he points out.

She doesn't sound so sure, but maybe that's just her.

He, in turn, tells her some things. Not about the HIV, he couldn't stand to lose her again over that and he just knows she'll be pissed if she finds out he kept it from them all. About the mantelpiece and Mrs. T. and Art with a capital A. He shows her his first attempts at sculpture, a few balled up designs from his early days. The Willow-barrow as he's taken to calling it.

They spend most of their time together. She even comes home with him for a binge of junk food and DVDS most nights. They're friends again, he knows. Maybe there was never really a time when they weren't.

*


Two weeks later, she has to go. A cult in Des Moines of all places. Then off back to Europe for some time with the Council before, hopefully, returning home for a while.

He takes her to the airport. They both pile into his truck and he tosses her bags in the back. He's sorry to see her go. They maintain an easy conversation as they reach the airport and she picks up her ticket, both of them delaying the inevitable good byes. He sits with her as she waits.

"So am I gonna have to wait another seven years to hear from you again?" he asks at last.

"No," the answer is immediate and definitive, "You can pretty much bet you'll hear from me soon. I'll call lots, I swear. So much you'll be sick of hearing my voice."

He grins.

"Not possible."

She smiles back. The call finally comes for her plane to board. They both get up and he grabs her bag, slinging it over his shoulder. Drapes an arm around her and they walk to the gate together. They take their time, walking slowly to stay together a few moments longer.

He hands her the bag regretfully when they get there.

"I'm gonna miss you, you know?" he says softly.

Her eyes tell him she understands.

"I'll miss you too. But hey! Nothing says we won't see each other again soon. Let's set something up. Maybe we could all get together for New Years."

"I'd like that."

The attendant taps Buffy on the shoulder and tells her it's time. She nods and turns back to him.

"Bye Xand," she says finally, standing up on tiptoe to kiss him briefly on the cheek.

And then she's gone.


***



Preparations, Reconciliations And Home For The Holidays


He knows what he wants to do for the square now. Came up with three or four designs that were all refused by the city council before hitting on the perfect idea. He can't stop thinking about it, like he's come up with something big on different levels. It's perfect. If he can pull this off, work with different materials and change his techniques, the result should be something of a final revenge. On life, on Sunnydale, on the things that go bump in the night.

Mrs. T. is ecstatic when he tells her about his plans. Not the reasons behind the idea, of course. But the piece itself. He's shown her the design and explained about the light and shadow effects. He doesn't know how to do that yet, not without his special varnish mixtures, but he's working on it.

He's all fired up now. Barely notices the whispering behind his back or the cold shoulder he still gets in the bakery every morning. Doesn't give a damn anymore. He realizes that it's one thing to give in, to succumb to the shit that tries to bog you down in your life, it's quite another to absolutely not give a fuck. He smiles back at them now, causing the gossipers and nay-sayers to avoid him even more.

*


Willow was almost incoherent with glee when he talked to her.

Her two friends are talking to one another again. This is big, huge, ginormous, lots of other big made-up words to describe something she's wanted for the last seven years. Babbling happily, she told him that Buffy was completely transformed when she came to London. That her holiday away from the slayage did her good.

It was if a dam broke and the easy friendship of the old days was back. He didn't realize just how hard it was, talking to Willow, to avoid the subject of Buffy. Their conversations always seemed strained before as she had to think carefully what to tell him, to edit her life for his listening pleasure. From what Buffy told him, Willow was doing this for her too. It must have been hard for the normally ebullient, outgoing witch.

Not that she was completely over the moon now. Buffy told the rest of the gang about his forays into the art world. Boy, was she pissed. Called him any number of names from the PG to the R rated. Made him promise to bring her some of his work for when he comes for Christmas. Apparently she's decided he's coming without asking him.

His half-hearted protests, more to lighten the mood than anything, prompted her to declare him unfit to manage his own life, so that from now on she was going do it.

He spluttered and objected and argued his case.

She told him she was using her resolve face.

He shut up.

He spends the next few days thinking up pieces to take with him as presents for everybody. Only a few months to go after all.

*


Buffy made good on her promise. A week after she left, she gives him a call, from her apartment in Rome. They talk together about the trip, Des Moines, the council and Willow.

"She's decided to manage my life for me," Xander says cheerfully.

"Good," Buffy replies, "Somebody has to."

"Hey!"

She muffled a laugh. He's sure of it.

"Anyway, she's ordered me to come over to London for Christmas," he continues, choosing to ignore her.

"Me too," Buffy says, confirming his suspicions that Willow is on a power trip.

"So, I guess we'll be seeing each other again soon."

"Looking forward to it."

"Expect something arty for a present."

"Like one of those fresh-co thingies on your wall?"

He can hear the concern in her voice. He's not insulted. Well, not too much. She's like him. The scenes he likes to portray are not metaphorical to them. They're a harsh reality he lived every day in Africa. She still does.

"Don't worry, Buff. I'll bring you somethin' special."

They talk for two hours more, running up the long distance bills for no other reason than enjoying some time talking to each other.

*


The centerpiece for the square is taking up all his time now. Until he's worked out how to get the light to do what he wants, to play over the structure in exactly the right way, he can't do a thing.

*


The weeks until his trip to London alternately fly or crawl by as he wrestles with the centerpiece. He's making some progress.

Tested different metals and synthetic materials until he stumbled across the perfect level of refraction, something akin to his varnish. It has to be simple, he knows, preferably a property of the sculpture itself rather than something applied to coat it.

His workshop is a shambles. Most of the other projects have been cleared away and what's left looks more like a garage there's so much scrap lying around. The final design requires a lot of shaping and molding and he's been working with the blowtorch and metal saw almost non-stop for the last two weeks to get it right.

He feels confident now.

Well, almost completely sure of himself.

He can do this, pull this dream he has into reality and give them all something to think about.

Two days before he leaves, he goes to see Mrs. T. to drop off her present. Another small sculpture, one of his first metallic ones.

It's nothing really, this one. A complicated rune for protection that he picked up from all those years of research. He doesn't know if it'll mean anything, if it'll work, but it is pretty. He's experimented with light again, so that it seems to sparkle in the darkness.

She's happy enough. He tells her it's a good luck charm he saw in Africa.

They spend the rest of the day together, chatting and drinking tea.

*


A couple of days later, Xander is at Heathrow, freezing his extremities off. Yes, England is as cold as ever.

He huffs into his cupped hands as he leaves the terminal, trying to warm his frozen fingers. He's here a day early and he has no one to blame but himself for having no one to pick him up. This is his first trip outside California in years.

He'd forgotten about the weather.

English weather feels sturdier than other weather, this is something he decided years ago. Not any colder than some parts of the east coast back home, definitely not as bad as the north east in the midst of winter, but sturdy. It's a myth to say that the sun rarely shines on the shores of Albion, as Giles has been known to call it, but when it doesn't, it feels like a pall falls over everything.

The world is just that little bit darker, the edges just that little bit sharper...

It's all in his imagination, he knows. England is no different than anywhere else. When it comes to weather at least.

He pushes the trolley in front of him toward the taxi port. There's no queue at the moment and he's lucky to get a cab quickly.

The driver grumbles a bit at having to haul his bags into the car. There are seven of them. The extra weight charges nearly drained his bank account but there are just so many presents for everybody.

"Where to?" the driver asks with a sneer.

Another thing he'd forgotten about England. Well, the London area anyway. The cab drivers. Brains like a homing pigeon when it comes to finding their way around. Manners of said pigeons too, treating everyone like a toilet.

He rattles off the address of Watcher H. Q. and sits back, staring out the window as they move into the flow of traffic. It's been a while since he last came here. Even before California. The estrangement with Buffy, the strain of being left to deal on his own...

His friendships had all suffered really. He was barely able to remain civil with Giles the last time, he remembers. And now he's here for Christmas.

Bloody cold weather.

*


Her name is Moira, Giles' new lady friend. His bird, as Spike would say.

Giles has a new bird.

Xander can't wait to use that one on the old watcher. She's young too. Well, younger than Giles. Come to think of it, he doesn't really know precisely how old Giles is. No matter, however old he is, she has definitely not yet reached his state of advanced old codgerness.

And she's hot.

Strange but true. Giles has shacked up with a youngish university professor with a stud in her left nostril and a ring in her eyebrow. She's pushing forty but looks a good ten years younger. Reminds him of Jenny Calendar with a Scottish burr.

Giles looks happy enough. More than happy. And younger than Xander remembered. They're both glad to put him up for the holidays, at Giles' insistence. He'd been quite pleased to see Xander again when he pushed the door to his office.

"Hello, any stuffy British librarians in there?" Xander called out as he pushed the door.

Giles looked up from the piles of paperwork on his desk, dumbfounded. Then he smiled and all but jumped up to greet him.

"Xander, my boy! Good to see you," he said enthusiastically, giving him the brief accolade of the heterosexual British male.

Xander grinned back, pleased at Giles' obvious happiness to see him.

"Well, I was in the neighborhood..."

Giles hastily picked a stack of papers from the deep leather chair in front of his desk and waved for him to take a seat.

Foregoing his own chair behind the desk, he pulled up a second one beside Xander and dropped into it.

"We weren't expecting you until tomorrow."

"Caught an earlier flight," Xander replied, "Bit antsy to get going, you know?"

Giles shot him a wry smile and looked across the sea of papers littering his office.

"Oh, I know, dear boy, I know. Never mind that, how have you been? We haven't talked in forever, you and I. From what Willow tells me, you've become something of an artist back in California?"

They settled in while Xander told Giles of his developing souvenir business, how it all snowballed into an amateurish gallery to show off his creations. They talked for ages, Giles only stopping him to offer him a drink. He likes the sound of Mrs. T. and laughed when Xander told him about giving her a sculpture of him. Was pleased for Xander's budding success. Very interested to hear about the job Xander was doing for the town.

"A statue for the town square?" he asked.

"Yup. Don't really know what they were smokin' up at city hall, but they asked me and I said I'd do it. It's a lot of work, bigger than anything I've done so far."

"I can imagine. And just what is the subject of this new work of art?"

Xander smiled secretly and shook his head.

"Can't tell. Even town hall don't really understand it, but if I can pull it off, it'll be huge."

"I must confess, I'm curious, Xander. Are you sure you won't...?"

"Nope. You and the gang'll just have to come for the unveiling this September."

Giles looks flustered, a bit worried.

"I don't honestly know if..."

"Oh, come on Giles! One day. Well, one day there and a day's travel either way. The world is not gonna end without you here, you know."

Giles shot him a sardonic look.

"It probably won't," Xander amended.

"We'll see, Xander. I'll do my best, I promise you."

*


The next day, they're all there, in Giles' flat. Dawnie came with her husband Joe and their three kids, Faith and Robin flew in from Cleveland with a couple of baby slayers, Andrew and his boyfriend, an annoying guy called Simon, just as geeky as he is. A group of the first Sunnydale slayers are there too. Rona and Vi and a few others. Buffy and Willow with Dennis in tow.

The day is spent in some semblance of a family reunion. The kids play with the baby slayers, Rona, Vi and Faith are all busy comparing war stories over a bottle of wine. Giles, Robin and Andrew talking of watchery things with Willow's beau.

She was right, Xander does like him. They have the same sense of humor, and the young Englishman enjoyed hearing his embarrassing tales of Willow back in the day.

Buffy, Dawn and Willow found a niche together, on a sectional to one side of the room, so he excuses himself from the good-natured debate between the watchers to go sit with them.

"So, Xand, you're all into sculpting now?" Dawn asks him, taking a sip of wine.

"Yup." He's settled between Willow and Buffy as he talks. "It's more fun than repairing stuff. Beats the heck out of dealing with snotty customers who think they know better than you do, or that you're a sub-human for doing manual work."

Willow snorts beside him.

"That's the kind of people you get in New Sunnydale?"

"The tourists, yeah. The locals pretty much knew I was good. They couldn't find anyone better, despite the rumors, so they had to suck it up if they needed anything."

"Rumors?" Buffy interjects.

He takes a sip of water before answering.

"Yeah. That old 'Gangs on PCP' shtick kinda stuck in their memory. They don't really know what went down back in the day, but they know I was into it so they avoid me as much as possible."

"But Giles said the town asked you to make them a statue, for crying out loud," Willow protests incredulously. She's frowning at what he's told her, angry on his behalf at the way that the townsfolk are behaving.

"Yeah, I know. Doesn't really matter, Wills. I'm not interested in making nice with the locals. Got me enough friends already, don't I?"

Buffy leans her head on his shoulder and Willow gives his arm a squeeze. The four of them spend a few minutes together, swapping stories and catching up with one another. He lightens the mood with a few jokes, tells them about the guild of commerce and Mrs. T. Sitting on the couch, chatting with the Summers sisters and Willow, he feels truly at home for the first time in years.

Soon enough, everyone's a bit tipsy, the children are in bed and the younger slayers have absconded with Andrew and a few others to join the Watchers party back at H.Q.

When it comes to the presents, everyone's made an effort. This is a special occasion after all and not just for him. The slaying lifestyle just doesn't make for close relationships. Tonight is practically the first time the whole gang is back together in... Well in dog years, you're into the double digits.

It's great fun, to sit around the tree and swap gifts.

Xander gets the boxed set of Babylon 5 DVDs to replace those he lost in the quake. He's pretty over the moon about this and reverts back to childhood for a minute to rave about his favorite TV series of all time. The others all watch him wax poetic with nostalgic amusement, pleased to recognize something of the geeky fanboy he used to be.

At one point, Buffy opens a box to find a deluxe set of bath salts and oils and cocks an inquisitive eyebrow at Faith.

"You're like me, you get banged up a lot on the job. I like taking a good bath to relax, you know?"

Buffy does know. She seems surprised Faith would go in for something so girly. But Faith is not finished.

"'Sides, those oils make for some hot sex, let me tell you."

Buffy winces. Robin grins and looks like he's remembering something good before going a bit red too.

The gifts continue and his sculptures go down surprisingly well. A couple of Slayer Specials for the newbies, a sculpture of Willow in her Eskimo outfit for Dennis. Moira gets a sculpture of Giles in his Ripper days, leather coat and all. She positively loves it and thanks Xander profusely. Says she had no idea Rupe looked so good in leather. Giles goes red.

There are other pieces he's brought too, more specific.

Angel brooding.

He's done his best to be fair to old Deadboy. The guy may have been a putz but he had some redeeming qualities. At least, Xander supposes so. All of those women fawning over him couldn't be completely crazy. But then maybe it was just the leather pants. He did his best to convey the battle between Angel's demons and good intentions. You could tell this was no Angelus and Xander was satisfied with that.

Tara.

Joyce sitting at the island in the kitchen, holding a mug of cocoa and laughing merrily.

These have all his girls slightly teared up and for a few minutes hugs abound. More presents. Everyone ends up with a pile of goodies in front of them, even Dennis and Moira who are still both only probationary Scoobies after all. Books from Giles, touristy things picked up on her travels from Buffy, magical knick-knacks from Willow and Dawnie. Faith... Well, it's probably best that the kids are in bed by now.

Xander has one last present to hand out, this one to all of them.

Spike. This could have been one of his most emotionally charged pieces were in not for the fact that Spike is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and dancing the funky chicken. Dawnie's the first to giggle. Faith follows soon after. Robin cracks a smile and Giles perks up considerably. Willow starts to laugh and before long they're all folded up. Buffy too, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"I told you that you were an artist, Xand," she tells him between laughs.

He bows ironically.

*


Xander stays in London for the holidays, with Giles and Buffy and Wills. Dawn and Joe take their brood back off home to the in-laws for New Years, Faith and Robin and the baby slayers not far behind them, off home for a couple of days before it's back to their posts on the Hellmouth. Andrew and Simon push off to France, Xander doesn't really care why. It's just the core gang for a while.

He spends a lot of time with Willow, whenever she's not busy being couply with Dennis. She shows him around, her office, her home, her life. Gives him the penny tour of London.

He also spends time with Buffy. They explore together, London, a city both know from experience but have never had a chance to visit as tourists. They see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, watch the changing of the guard, visit Madame Tussaud's and take in some shows. Eat out a lot and go shopping. Pal around while Willow and Giles take care of council business.

And it feels good. The easy bantering, the jokes and light-heartedness are all still there. It feels good to be together.

New Years is a big thing. Moira cooks a feast and they all pile in around the table. Drink too much wine and eat too much food and exchange embarrassing anecdotes about Giles to get a rise out of him. Do the countdown thing at midnight and cheer in the New Year. Buffy kisses him.

He's sad when it's over.

The world waits for no one and neither do those trying to destroy it. Giles is off to a big meeting in Hong Kong, Willow is going down to Devon to consult with the coven and Buffy is expected in Cairo in a week. Time to go.

This time, it's Buffy taking him to the airport. They don't talk much now, happy just to sit quietly together, their shoulders touching in the back of the cab. He doesn't really need to be seen off. He's said his goodbyes already, back a Giles' place. But he can't turn down the opportunity to spend just a bit more time with his Slayer friend.

Another scene at the departure gate, only this time it's him leaving.

"We seem to be doing this a lot recently."

"Yeah," he agrees sadly, brushing a strand of hair from her forehead.

Neither one feels strange about this.

"I'll be coming out to California sometime in the next few months," she tells him out of the blue.

"Really?"

"Yup. Local girls are gonna have some kind of refresher course going, Giles says. I asked if he could send me down to cover for them."

"Jonesing for the Xand-man, huh?"

She finds the ground very interesting for a second.

"So I like hanging out with you. Is that bad thing?" she replies lightly.

He laughs and pulls her into a hug.

"Nah." He pats her head as patronizingly as possible and pulls back, "You can't help it. You've just finally fallen prey to my unbelievable charm."

She snorts and shoves him away.

"Unbelievable is the right word. I've seen you dance, remember?"

"Hey! I'll have you know that the Funky Chicken is gonna come back is style, babe. Like disco and Tom Jones and leather pants."

"Disco's dead, Tom Jones is probably a vamp the way he just keeps on going and, take it from me, leather pants are so far down the skank-o-meter Christina won't even touch 'em anymore."

"Huh. You're just jealous of my moves."

"Jealous of them? No. Bemused by them? Maybe."

The last call to board cuts off this exchange.

"I guess it's time," he says, picking up his bag.

"Yeah."

She steps back and nods.

"Better get going, else all the good seats'll be taken."

He smiles and turns to the gate.

"Xand?"

She's behind him when he turns back, so close he can feel her warm breath on his face. Her face is a picture of confusion and something else. Something new. And then she's kissing him. But a real kiss, the kind he still remembers swapping with a couple of girls over the years. With Anya. For a second, he kisses back, a hand rising to rest against the nape of her neck. Then he remembers. HIV with a little plus next to it. Death for anyone who gets too close to him.

He pulls back quickly.

Buffy's lost, knowing he was there with her for a second and feeling he's retreated back inside himself now. He can't say anything. Can't explain. With a shaky smile he hopes will tell her they're still okay, he walks through the gate.


***



Making A Difference


Work on the centerpiece is going slow. He knows what he's trying for, can almost see it in his mind's eye, but things just aren't coming together.

He'll start on an element, get down to the twisting and bending and melting and molding it just how he wants it and he'll like the result. For a good two seconds, before, inevitably, seeing the fatal flaw. It's driving him wild.

He has talked to Buffy since the airport. Since that kiss. Called her up like an adult, but promptly chickened out. He simply can't tell her about the HIV, can't bear the thought of losing her over this, or to it.

And he's confused.

Buffy kissed him.

She kissed him.

He's no kid anymore, some young pup lusting after the blonde bombshell of his dreams. She's his friend, his best friend really, with Willow being something of a sister to him now. He never even imagined something like this happening to him, certainly not with her. It majorly fucked things up for one.

Their conversation was strained and stilted, the bantering and easy conversation lost, replaced by two nervous people too afraid to talk out their problems. He can't lose her, he just can't. They had had a glitch, sure, but he won't let that get between them.

And then, there are his feelings for her. He loves her, of course. But he's loved her for two thirds of his life, same as Willow and Dawn and, in a much more macho way, Giles too. He cannot even begin to analyze what that kiss meant to him. Why he kissed back like he did.

Another piece of metal joined the reject pile.

Stupid hunk of crap.

*


It's been a month since the last time he called Buffy. He's not avoiding the issue, he repeats this to himself so much he almost believes it. He's not. He's just giving them some time.

Buffy hasn't called him either.

The centerpiece is getting hellish. After hours upon hours of painful, back-breaking work he's got a frame. He's down to the detail work now but he knows the details will be just as important as the rest. More important. What he's got in mind will make its surroundings an integral part of the whole, the light or lack of it, the weather, the presence of leaves on the trees or not. It all adds up. He's playing with it all like a conductor with a symphony, fine tuning every single micron of his work to respond to the world around it.

And he's all but lost his inspiration.

He's got to suck it up and call her, he decides.

*


Mrs. T. is not well.

Carl Winter called him yesterday to ask him to pop around to check on the old bird, that she was under the weather and he would appreciate it if she had someone to watch out for her.

When Xander arrives, he meets the doctor on his way out. The doctor, an old man by the name of McTeague who treated Xander as a child for multiple household accidents and failed to call social services, is clearly startled and shoots him a suspicious sneer as if he's here to burn the house down.

"Yes?" McTeague asks, peering down his nose at him.

Xander bites his cheek to stop from saying something incendiary and takes a breath.

"I'm here to see Mrs. T," is all he says in response to the terse questioning.

McTeague is surprised that he would even know who she is.

"Mrs. Trenton is resting at the moment, Mr. Harris," he rattles out dryly, "If it's for business that you're here, I can assure you she has no need for a carpenter at the moment."

Xander grins at him suddenly, causing the old man to flinch, before seizing him by the scruff of his shirt and pulling him closer.

"My reasons for being here, Earl," he says in a low growl, emphasizing the old coot's name until it sounds like an insult, "Are none of your concern. If I cared in the slightest what a bottom-feeder like you actually thought about me, I might explain that I am here at the request of her family, to check up on her."

The good doctor looks like he's about to swallow his own tongue, he's so frikking scared. Good.

"Another thing, Earl. These rumors. Harris the drug baron and Harris the gun runner, Harris the mass murderer... You lived in Sunnydale for thirty years, man! You were a doctor. If you don't have some idea of what went down after sunset, you're more addled than even I give you credit for. I won't permit you, or anybody come to that, to condescend to me again, understand? Capiche? Now, fuck off, you irrelevant old fart."

Having vented for the first time in, well, ever, Xander feels better as he jerks Earl McTeague outside and shoves him down the alley. The good doctor stumbles for a second but manages to right himself, turns back to Xander with angry eyes. Xander takes a step toward him and he promptly decides to leave, as quickly as possible.

That felt good.

*


Mrs. T. is laid up in bed when he knocks on her door. She tells him to come in, her voice thin and reedy. Asks him to come in and sit down beside her.

She doesn't look good. Eyes wide and unfocused, sweat sticking her white hair to her forehead.

"Hey, Mrs. T, Carl asked me to come down and check up on you," he says cheerfully, trying to seem normal, "Seems to think you're in need of a friend."

She smiles weakly.

"Yes, it's very nice to see you Xander. My kids must all be getting a bit worried, I suppose."

"Ah, don't worry about it. You'll be up and around in no time."

She smiles warmly and shakes her head.

"I'm not going to get better, child. That was never in the cards for me."

He frowns, worried at the defeat in her voice, and sits forward. He clutches her hand in his own, trying to reassure her.

"It's not that bad, surely. You know how it is, a couple of weeks laid up in bed, you think the world's gonna end. I'm telling you, you'll be fine."

"I was dying when I came here, Xander. Cancer. I had a remission and they told me to move someplace quiet. But it came back a while ago, inoperable. I've already outlived all their estimations. Quite proud of that actually."

He doesn't know what to say. He knows she can see his reaction on his face but he can't do anything to control it.

"Oh, don't be sad, child," she reassures him, patting him on the arm, "It's just my time. I'm over eighty after all. Had a good life, helped my kids, made a difference in their lives and had a few laughs along the way. Can't ask for more than that."

He's too choked up to respond straight away. So he sits there, just holding her hand for what seems like hours. He leaves later, waiting for her to fall asleep before slipping away. Repeats the process the next day, and the next. They talk about everything and nothing, idling the time away to avoid thinking of the situation. She's asked him not to tell Carl just how bad she really is. She doesn't want her kids upset over this. Not before they have to be. So he stays with her, keeping her company.

"Tell me about her," she asks one morning.

"Who?"

"The girl on my mantelpiece."

"Buffy?"

"Such a funny name."

He grins.

"She's a funny girl. Tough too. And smart. We went to school together, before the quake. Me, her and Willow, we were like the three musketeers, only with more frills cause, you know, they were girls. She was like... I don't know. I can't really remember a time when she wasn't in my life. We've faced a lot together, her more than me. There were times when I didn't even like her anymore. But I could never not be her friend, you know? Never really. She's like a part of me."

When he says this, it's like a door opens up inside him, filling his head with sunlight. Mrs T. is studying his face, a shrewd glint in her eye.

"Sounds like a good girl. Nice. Wish I could have met her."

He brightens for a second, forgetting the situation, forgetting the strangeness between him and Buffy recently.

"You will. She's gonna be in town soon, next month, I think. I'll bring her to... Oh."

She smiles.

"Maybe I'll still be around, Xander. You never know."

*


She won't. Mrs Trenton died three days ago.


***



On Loss And Understanding


The funeral is an impressive affair.

Xander called Carl when Mrs. T. passed away and her old student immediately flew down. Together, they organized the ceremony. Called everyone they could and told them to pass on the news. Mrs. T. asked to be buried in Sunnydale, in the local cemetery.

Xander picked out the nicest plot he could find, one on a hill with a decent view of the lake.

The church is packed. Mrs. T. wasn't lying when she talked about her kids. There are simply hundreds of people here. A few of them he's seen before, her guests back at the house. But there are so many. A lot of people are crying as the priest starts the ceremony, as he talks about Mrs. Martha Trenton and her life.

Then one by one, they get up to talk about her, about what they remember, about the difference she made in their lives. How she encouraged them when they felt left behind, inspired them, cultivated a love of knowledge in her students.

It's Xander's turn and he doesn't really know what to say. Hasn't thought about it.

"She taught me about life," he says finally, not really knowing where this was going, "About what's important, about making a difference and having some laughs along the way. She was the one who inspired me to try my hand at sculpture, at taking what I had inside me and putting it out there. Never judged you based on other people's opinions, always made up her own mind. She was the first to like my work, to push me forward and drive me to make something of myself. I'll... I'll miss her."

*


He called Willow today, right after the interment. Wishes he hadn't now.

He told her about Mrs. T, about the mantelpiece and the friendship and the encouragements and how she died. Willow cried for him, saying how sorry she was that she never got to meet her, asking how he's taking it, babbled reassurances and apologies and a million other things, doing her best to comfort him.

They talked for a long time, well into the night. Moved on to other topics in an effort to get their minds off his loss. Dawn's pregnant again, she gushed. They both got some mileage out of that, speculating wildly on what she would call the baby, whether it would be a boy or a girl, that kind of thing.

Apparently, Giles and Moira are talking marriage. Willow spent an hour daydreaming about the wedding, who would be best man, wondering if she would be a bride's maid. They're thinking an autumn wedding. She'll keep him posted and nag Giles to call him himself to tell him when the news is official.

Buffy's seeing someone.

A guy in Rome, Willow's not sure who. She tells him Buffy seems mostly happy. He didn't really listen after that.

He felt hollow.

They wrapped up the conversation an hour ago and he's still sitting there, staring at the phone in front of him. In the dark, thinking about Rome and sunlight and Mrs. Trenton.

He really wishes he hadn't called Willow today.

*


He was surprised to get a letter from some lawyer up in Seattle.

A summons more like.

To the reading of the will of one Mrs. Martha J. Trenton of 1612 Lakefront Avenue, New Sunnydale.

It's raining in Seattle when he arrives. Big surprise there. His theory that some pagan rain god must have died here, back in the days of the Old Ones, would explain a lot. The trip from the terminal to the lawyer's offices leaves him cold, wet and sniffling, not a good thing for a man in his condition but he can't find the energy to care.

Sitting like a water-logged rat, bedraggled and dripping on the plush carpet of the reception room, he wonders just why he's here. Not even dressed for the occasion, he stands out like a sore thumb really. Grubby jeans, a half decent v-neck and a navy wool jacket. It's early February and winter and hellishly cold and he feels like an idiot.

"Mr. Harris?" an elegant receptionist calls from behind her desk.

"Yes?"

"You can go in now. Mr. Chavez is waiting for you. Third door on the right."

Getting up, he smoothes his clothes a bit, wiping off the worst of the water from his coat. His jumper is damp and clingy and the dust on his jeans has aggregated into muddy blotches. With a waved thanks to the receptionist, he walks into the office.

Mr. Chavez is a tall man with piercing black eyes and receding grey hair. Others are in the room with him, a few faces Xander recognizes from the ceremony in Sunnydale. He nods at them in a friendly way. They smile back. A lot of people on her will, Mrs. Trenton.

Picks a seat near the door, takes off his coat and hangs it over the back.

Mr. Chavez clears his throat and waits for him to settle down.

"You are Mr. Harris?" he asks.

"Yes," Xander replies tersely. He doesn't like being here.

Chavez only nods, making a note on a paper in front of him.

"Well then, everybody being present, let us start the reading of the will."

It takes a long time. There are small bequests to everyone, books, personal items and so on. Her money, what little she had, is to go to charity. Then they reach the part Mr. Chavez wanted Xander here for.

"... And to my good friend Alexander Lavelle Harris..."

He winces upon hearing his middle name, a conditioned reflex after so many years. How did she find out?

"... I leave my house in New Sunnydale, California."

His mind goes blank for a second. The house. She's left him her house with the big fireplace, the magical mantelpiece and its commanding view of the lake that had once been his home town. He's flummoxed.

*



He's just standing there. Outside Mrs. T's old house with the key in his hand. It looks empty without her inside. Hollow. Just like him. The sun is shining brightly, glinting over the rooftop and the trees are rustling in the wind. It's a beautiful place, he can see now. Peaceful. A lot has changed since he first came here, both within the house itself and inside him.

He knows what he's missing now. Why he's never been able to sculpt himself.

Only problem is, it's way too late.


***



Big Mouth, Loose Tongue


He's surprised, late one night, when the doorbell rings and it's Buffy, just standing there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

"Hey, Xand," she says with forced lightness, "You look terrible."

He snorts, caught between shock and laughter.

"Buffy. I... It's good to see you. I didn't know if..."

Frowning, she swipes a wisp of hair off her forehead.

"I did say I'd be coming, Xand. We did the whole arrangey thing."

Xander can only nod, too pleased for words. He steps back and waves her in and she enters cautiously, as if afraid she's unwelcome.

"Let me take that for you," he offers, helping her with her coat.

She complies quietly, busy looking around.

"How'd you know to come here?"

"They told me back at the diner. Said you moved in a few weeks ago. Nice place. Much better than that box you had last time."

He shoots her a weak grin and waves for her to move into the living room. It's much the same as it was when Mrs. T. was here. The two bookshelves have been restocked, but this time with his own favorites. It's an eclectic and colorful selection. Kant sharing shelf space with Pratchett, some Senghor, Dickens with Grisham and a mass of science fiction and comic books.

A slight smile floats on her lips when she sees these. The X-Men, Spiderman, all the old classics. Same old Xander.

He offers her something to drink but she declines. They sit quietly for a moment, neither one sure of what to say.

Xander can't stand it anymore.

"I hate this," he says finally, an explosive hiss repressed for too long.

"Huh?" she asks, playing dumb.

"This!" He gestures emphatically between them, "The weirdness, the not knowing what to say. That's not us damn it!"

Her expression is torn between embarrassment and amusement as she understands he's talking about the elephant in the room.

"The kiss, huh?"

"Was a good kiss, a great kiss even, but look how it's fucked us up. It's been over two months, Buff. No word. Willow's even started doing her avoidy shtick again. We're losing each other all over."

At this, Buffy's expression of bemused embarrassment sharpens to a fierce scowl, not so much angry as possessive, and she shakes her head emphatically.

"No. Uh-uh, nope. Not gonna happen," she replies hotly, reaching to grasp his hand firmly. "Things are just... are just a bit weird for us right now. For me. But we are good, Xand, I swear. Friends till the end."

As she says this something dies inside him. But at the same time he's relieved. He's not going to lose her. They can get back to how they were. Things will get better again. He smiles at her.

They spend the rest of the night talking. He tells her all about Mrs. T. and how she gave him the idea for the art. Shows her the mantelpiece. She likes it a lot. Points out everyone she recognizes, Faith, Kennedy, Rona and Vi, herself. Mina.

She's curious about Mina. He's never really told anyone about her, keeping her memory to himself. It hurts him to think about that little girl. He was responsible for her, after all. Her watcher. He tells Buffy now. About Addis and how hard it was to gain Mina's trust. About their travels together. About the Shaman.

She listens as he spills it all finally. About having to watch as that piece of filth took his slayer apart bit by bit. About being tortured by him afterwards. About getting lucky enough to escape while the Shaman went off to feed. His guilt over leaving her broken body behind.

Buffy grabs his shoulders and hugs him, so tight he can't breathe for a second, but he doesn't want her to let go.

He got the bastard, he tells her. Hunted that vamp carefully, herded him into a kill zone of his own. And how he watched as the holy water started to bore a hole in the creature's head. How he ignored the beast's pleas to be staked as he waited for the water to hit it again and again.

It lasted twelve hours until the thing couldn't talk anymore. By that time, its face was a mass of burns and blisters and blood. When it had finally stopped twitching, he unshackled it and took it outside. Nailed it to a tree facing east and waited for the sun to rise.

It was still able to scream and curse him once the light started to burn its skin.

She's shocked at this, this darkness inside him. Behavior like it, she can't really equate with the happy-go-lucky guy she left Sunnydale with. But she's beginning to think that it's not a recent thing, not just a result of fighting the good fight for too long.

They fall asleep together on his couch, watching the flames dance in the hearth under his fantastic mantelpiece, the shadows flickering over the carvings.

*


The next morning, he feels refreshed. Lighter than he's felt in a long time. They have breakfast together, after cleaning up. He asks her how long she'll be staying.

Buffy shrugs, not really sure. Until the end of the refresher course, she supposes. The local watchers have a lid on most things evil, she might not even have to do anything. Just hang around and see.

He's glad for this and tells her so. Tells her just how much he missed talking with her. She's happy to hear this. Neither of them broaches the subject of that kiss. The subject. By common consent, they decide to let it slip under the rug, to just wait and see.

And the days pass, much like they did last summer. She comes to his workshop with him, whenever she's not consulting with the local watchers. She's really interested when she sees all the metalwork and listens patiently as he explains about the change of material, about the centerpiece being a first for him, how nervous he is.

She asks him questions about his research, the trial and error it took to get where he's at now.

They go out more too. To restaurants, the cinema, the mall when she gets in the mood for some shopping. It feels like old times. They're almost back to good, he feels, back to where they were. Part of him gets cold when he thinks this, sort of numb, but then he tells himself that it's better this way.

HIV.

She doesn't know it but it's like a wall he's built up between them, a reality he knows means there can never be room for anything else. But his heart isn't listening.

*


It happens one night when they're together in front of the TV. They're watching some skeezy comedy he doesn't recognize and laughing together. Buffy's leaning against him, her head on his shoulder and he's tickling her, poking her in the side softly. She giggles, pretending to do her best to push him away. Their faces are so close.

And this time, he kisses her. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety, fuck, defuck fuck fuck. Oh, and fuck!

He knows just how stupid this is even before they make contact. Her eyes widen in shock as he leans in, her breath catching in her throat. And then there they are. Kissing each other like their lives depend on it. Almost desperately.

She's kissing back, making that pleased little noise in the back of her throat.

This is so...

He can't. He can't do this, not to her. So he pulls back. Physically forces himself away from her. She looks at him, her eyes hurt beyond all measure.

"What the hell is wrong with you?!" she yells at him, flushed and breathless.

"I'm... God! I'm sorry, Buffy I just... Please, I didn't mean to... I never wanted to..."

There are tears in her eyes that she wipes away angrily.

"Well you did, asshole. You did, not me! What am I supposed to think here, Xand, huh?"

Xander looks at her helplessly, petrified with fear and loss. He shakes his head. She's disgusted, turns away. Before he can say something, anything to make this right, she's moving. Her shoulders are set and her back rigid and she's clenching her fists so hard, the knuckles are white. Without so much as a look back at him, she goes for her coat.

*


He's an idiot.

After she left, he could only stand there feeling numb. Hours passed and the feeling wouldn't go away. He tried to push the whole mess from his mind, to convince himself she's better of far away. He's turned the situation over and over in his mind a thousand times or more and always come up with the same answer.

HIV plus Buffy equals pain for everyone involved.

She's gone again. This feels like the restaurant and Rome all over again. No, worse. But if he lets things lie, they'll eventually get round to some form of superficial emails and postcards and she'll be safe.

She's better off, he knows it. So why the hell is he still beating himself up? Because it's fucking unfair is why. To Buffy and to him. She deserves to understand. At least that. An explanation. He can't possibly lose her any more than he already has, right?

Idiot.

Muttering under his breath about brains addled from so many demon-pummelings, he grabs a coat and his keys and goes after her.


***



Hot in the city tonight


LA at three in the morning is not an easy place to find someone, especially a petite blonde spitfire like Buffy. She told him where she was sleeping, a good hotel not too far from the local watchers H.Q, but when he gets there she still hasn't checked back in.

Three hundred dollars in bribes to a particularly smarmy porter gets him a potential lead. The watchers had something come up and paged her. She left a couple of hours ago.

The Council offices are just as unhelpful when he finally finds them. Empty. Too worked up to let that get in the way, he jimmies the lock and sneaks in to look for clues. And finds at least a dozen potential sites in the current affairs tray. A couple of nasty demons, a slave auction, some magic users getting up to tricks in the rich neighborhoods and a couple of other things. Nothing urgent though.

Ah.

A master vamp raising a shitload of minions at a local cemetery. Perfect. Just the kind of thing a pissed off and emotionally overwrought slayer would use for therapy. It isn't too far away.

*


This cemetery isn't anything like those he patrolled as a kid. Much, much larger for one. And less with the Gothic memorials and mausoleums. No sense of style, these Angelinos.

He parks a couple of streets away so as not to attract attention. He's raided the weapons locker back at the offices and is not completely unprepared. Holy water, stakes and a couple of crosses. The crossbow is locked and loaded and bundled under his rolled up coat as he jogs up to the gates.

Bingo. There's her car.

Without bothering to think things through, he breaks into a run.

Sounds of a scuffle from up ahead. Oh yeah. His slayer is really pissed tonight. He slows down and moves as stealthily as possible, using the shadows and the noise of the fight to hide his approach. There she is. And there's the big cheese and his minions.

Ah. Not good. Twenty plus vamps. Granted most of them are fledges, some so green they've still got the dirt on their clothes, but even so. The master vamp, a guy named Vinceres according to the files back at the office, is over five hundred years old and it shows.

He's not quite as pug-faced as the Master yet and no way near Kakistos' cloven glory, but he's experienced. A big bastard too. In dark clothes, he's hard to make out in the shadows but he's there, a big-ass knife gleaming in the moonlight as he tosses it from hand to hand. Hanging back, calling out orders to his puppets as they charge Buffy.

Buffy who's looking a lot worse for wear. Half her face is going slowly purple, the swelling from a nasty blow to the head. Clothes ripped and torn, one arm clenched to her side to spare it. She's alternating between fear and anger and pain and slowing down steadily.

Shit. Okay, think. Time for a plan.

He watches in growing horror as the vamps start to beat her down and still nothing. There are simply too many of them. What's he gonna do? Charge in and wow 'em all with his non-existent martial expertise? He needs a frikking bomb to...

Hold on a sec. Ooh. Waitaminnit... Yup, idea.

Sparing a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure everyone's busy, he turns tail and runs for all he's worth. Buffy's car. No time for finesse, he breaks the window with his elbow and opens the door. A quick and desperate search. Where are they? She always keeps another set somewhere... He flips down the visor and the spare set of keys fall into his lap.

Hope this works.

The gas cap off, he rips a piece of cloth from his coat and dunks it in. If he isn't insanely lucky here, there are going to be itty bitty Xander-bits spewed all over this cemetery. And Buffy will die. So he lights the cloth and jumps in the car.

*


It's really only a variation of the time he saved Faith so very long ago, although he's reasonably sure there won't be any sex in his future whatever the outcome. Gunning the engine, he drives like a maniac, racing to get back to Buffy before she gets herself killed and to get there before the fuse blows the car.

They hear him coming of course. He's not exactly trying for surprise here. Just one kick-ass diversion that will hopefully bring the emergency services to investigate.

"Xander?" Buffy mouths, squinting against the glare of the headlights.

Her eyes widen when she realizes what he's doing. Sees the flames. She barely dives out of the way as he rockets into the pile of vamps, ploughing his way toward Vinceres standing behind them. Time to exit, stage left.

The explosion is impressive. Half of the vamps are dusted in the initial blast alone. Xander leapt to safety. Okay, fell out after catching his foot in the seat belt which had somehow gotten twisted around his ankle, a couple of seconds before the whole thing blew.

*BADABOOM*

Oh this was action hero stuff right here. But somehow, he really doubts that action heroes feel as bad as he does right now after one of their stupid stunts.

It helped alright, though. Of the twenty vamps that were ganging up on Buffy, only a few are left and the master is nowhere to be seen. But being hurled through the air by the blast of a small Japanese rental car's fuel tank exploding is not something to recommend to your friends.

Speaking of friends. Buffy's back in the fight. Her horrified shock at seeing him pull this crazy shit pushed to one side as she moves in to finish up the others. She's in seek-and-destroy mode and there's nothing he can do but try and back her up.

Hanging around the edges, he manages to get a couple of newbies, using her as a distraction to get in behind them. Another vamp grabs his neck in a death grip. Now he's wrestling with a beast four times as strong as he is and intent to rip his throat out, so he has no idea what's going on behind him but he can hear the fight die down.

Soon enough the vamp is hauled off and staked by an irate slayer. Ah, so the good guys triumph once again.

She reaches down and pulls him to his feet

"Steady there, Buff," he hisses, rubbing his neck and wincing, "Careful of the merchandise."

Buffy whacks him on the shoulder. Hard.

"What the hell were you thinking Xander!?"

The anger is coming off her in waves.

He holds up a finger, frowns at it as if uncertain it belongs to him before shaking his head and glaring at her.

"First of all, OW! That hurt dammit!"

She snorts and wipes a grimy hand through her hair, still monumentally pissed.

"Secondly, I was thinking of saving your skinny ass, slaygal. If I hadn't pulled that crap, you'd be vamp food by now."

The anger in her eyes ignites into pure white-hot fury and he has to duck as she takes another swipe at him.

"I didn't need your help, okay? I'm the slayer! SLAY-ER. Get it? That means that I kill the vamps and you keep your nose OUT of my business."

Fighting down a thrill of pure fury, Xander tells himself this is just the adrenaline rush wearing off mixed with the fallout for his earlier stupidity. It still bites though.

He's about to yell something back at her. What? He doesn't know and he's sure he'll regret it in the morning. But he can't. Doesn't have time to do anything but let out a grunt of surprise. He feels a sharp pain in his back and slumps to his knees.

She's next to him in a flash, panic-stricken, her eyes wild. He... There's a knife sticking out of his back, big and ugly. Glinting in the firelight. Turning, she sees where it came from. The master vamp. He's standing across the way, his eyes feral, an evil smirk on his lips. Charred but not dead and ready to go another round.

"Buff..." Xander hisses, trying to say something.

She lowers him carefully to the ground and turns to face the thing that hurt him. In the semi-darkness of the cemetery, it's hard to make out details, the smoke and dust in the air thick enough to make your eyes water. But vampires have good eyes. And whatever Vinceres saw in her then, it scared him.

*


Xander is falling.

He doesn't understand how, because he can feel the cold earth underneath him, but somehow the world is dropping away. The pain is still there though. Something tells him to cling to it, to make it a part of himself. Old memories. A stint in Angola. Someone had shot him.

Not this time, back then. He remembers the faces of the men behind the guns, firing on the townsfolk with empty eyes. The children behind the guns. The refugees! He's got to get to the camp to warn them. He's got...

No, he's in LA now. He's been shot... stabbed. Vampires. Lots of vampires. Buffy!

From beyond the mental fog, he can almost hear something. A fight. No, it's a lot more one sided. And now something is wailing. And screaming? Buffy? No. A man's voice, beyond the haze, begging for mercy.


***



Chapter Thirteen - Dark waters


The vamp is dust in under a minute. No witty banter, no hesitation and absolutely no mercy. Part of her is afraid of what she'll see if she turns around. Clenching her bruised fists, Buffy bites her lip and forces herself to calm down. To let go of the panic until she knows.

But it's not going, it just won't. When she does turn around, she realizes she's riding one of the biggest waves of fear she has ever experienced.

Xander's lying against a tombstone, half propped up, his eyes glazed. There's a knife in his back.

A knife.

In Xander.

She stares for a second, wanting it not to be true, not believing this could happen to him. In all the time she's known him...

*


The fighting seems to have stopped and for a second everything is quiet. Then... Someone is screaming. Screaming for help, for someone, anyone, to call an ambulance.

Shit!

He opens his eyes in time to see Buffy coming towards him, eyes streaming.

"St...Stay away," he manages to choke out, fighting his unresponsive body to haul himself away from her.

She's still coming. Desperation gives him strength.

"No! Buffy! Stay away!"

Now she stops, eyes more hurt than he has ever seen them. He's got to tell her, she's got to understand.

"The blood," he says, his voice slowly fading, "My blood. Don't touch it. I don't want to infect you."

Her brow furrows in confusion and she kneels beside him.

"Xand? Are you... What... You've been stabbed, Xand. We're gonna get you some help, okay?"

She's not listening, lost in panic, babbling meaningless reassurances as if she's talking to a crying child. Not understanding yet.

"The blood, Buffy," It's all he can do to hiss out a warning now, interrupting her. "I've got HIV. Don't touch my blood."

The pain in her eyes seems to flare exponentially. Her previous screaming would have been a blessing to the silent distress that hits her now. He tries to reach for her but his arm falls down to his side, useless. So he smiles pitifully and shakes his head.

"... hurt you to be with me..." he murmurs, trying to make her understand why he's been acting like he has.

He turns away. Time stands still and the world begins to fade, dark waters rising around him to drown out the details of the cemetery. A fitting place to die. He struggles to say one last thing.

"... love you, Buffy. Sorry."

The world is gone from around him, nothing but thick, muddy waters rising in every direction, hiding everything and deadening the sounds to his ears. But he still feels her. Feels when a pair of small arms wrap around him and pick him up.

No!

Not that, she can't...

The blood, dammit! Think of the blood.

He wants to yell at her, to shove her away. But he can't. The dark waters are drowning him now and he has no more strength.

Doesn't have the strength to push her away anymore.

*


He flashes in and out after that.

A sensation of movement, of a voice trying to reassure him, to keep him alive.

"We're almost... Hang in there, Xand... Don't die on me, god damn it!..."

More movement.

"Help! I need a doctor here!"

Other voices.

"What happened?"

"We were mugged... They stabbed him."

"Okay, bring him this way..."

"Be careful, he told me... HIV..."

"... stabbed in the back. The patient is reportedly HIV positive..."

Noise again, lots of people all around him.

"Stay back, miss. Let the doctors..."

Time passes in these dark waters. He floats upon them, doing nothing but existing. The pain is still there. Faded, almost to the level of a dull ache, but there. He focuses everything upon it, upon this connection to Buffy.

There are moments when he's not. Not anything specific, just not. As in not there anymore, not floating like a raft over these murky depths. And there are moments when the pain flares white hot.

Buffy. The look in her eyes.

Focus on the pain.

*


Xander wakes up slowly, surprised to find himself in bed. It takes a moment to remember what happened. Huh. He's not dead. Part of him is unsure about whether this is a good thing or not. The steady beep of the EKG tells him where he is, as if the cool dry sheets and the vague smell of cleaning products floating in the air weren't enough.

Hospital.

He tries to open his eyes, but they're too heavy. Fights the weights someone has put there. And suddenly the light is searing his retina. He blinks and shies away from it, turning his head.

"Xand?" a small voice asks from the end of the bed.

Buffy.

She's sitting in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs they have in hospital, her worried face drawn from lack of sleep. But her eyes light up like it's Christmas day when he turns back to face her. He tries to smile but there's a tube in his throat.

"I'll... I'll get a doctor in here, okay?"

*


Three days later and the others have arrived. Apparently, he nearly died three times on the operating table. The knife cut through a lung, collapsing it. The HIV just made for some added fun. So now he's in a serious but stable condition.

Buffy stayed until Willow and Giles turned up. Then she left.

He's not surprised, really. He knows she's not angry with him, that this is not some kind of punishment. She's just like that. Needs some time to deal with things like this.

He tells himself this, but he still misses her.

Willow is here now, and sometimes Giles.

They both took time off to come and help him through this. Both of them were scared when they heard about the injury, appalled when they got here and they were told about the HIV.

Willow can't stop crying and Giles can barely look at him. Feels it must be his fault somehow. After all, fighting demons in a place where over 50% of the population is contaminated, dying a slow death to this terrible plague, he says he should have expected something like it. The demon hunting business acquaints you quickly with the experience of being covered in the blood of others. Why half the damn budget goes into dry cleaning bills alone.

He's blabbering a bit himself now, Giles the stoic Brit-man, blithering on about dry cleaning bills and cleaning his glasses furiously.

So Xander tells them. He doesn't really know when he got it. The big IT. Looking back, he's pretty sure there were a few times when he should reasonably have expected something.

But you didn't really.

AIDS was like vampires in that respect. The general public had decided to believe that if you just ignored it, it wasn't real. And despite his Hellmouthy instincts, well, this one slipped by.

At the time he had died. Almost literally. Just shriveled up inside and turned his back on everything. That was when he resigned. He had spent years knowing he would die a horrible, painful death, but he wasn't prepared for someone to start the countdown.

They listen to him, Willow biting her lip not to start bawling again and Giles practically wearing a hole in the lenses of his glasses he's polishing them so much.

But it's not as dark as he had believed then. It's not a death sentence, not any more than simply living can be considered as such. He has no set expiration date, no great big axe cutting off his future in a day, a week or a month from now. He has a condition. That's how he can deal with it, thinking of it as a condition. Something that is slowly eating away his immune system.

One day he might die. Of an infection or an illness maybe. Maybe not.

He can live with the uncertainty, he assures them. He has learned to deal with it.


***



A poke in the eye


It's been over six months since the cemetery. He's finally finished the centerpiece and it's a thing of beauty, if he does think so himself.

Standing, mounted in his workshop, it captures the eye and dominates its surroundings. When he slots it into its cradle in the square tomorrow, everything around it should become a mere backdrop. If his work pays off, the sun, the weather, the quality of the air, the shadows from the trees and a thousand other conditions and occurrences will weave themselves into the piece, changing it as they go.

He's a professional artist. It's official.

Never mind the judgment of others, never mind that for him Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael will forever be a bunch of giant, green, mutant pizza-lovers in the sewers of New York.

This was art. This was what he set out to do. A poke in the eye to those who would ignore the world around them. The consequences of burying your head in the sand. The conflict of good and evil, in and around everyone. A strange piece for Sunnydale to use as an emblem, but then Sunnydale didn't know what it had let itself in for.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow with Wills and Giles and Dawnie and Moira and Dennis and Joe and the kids and Robin and Faith. He hasn't heard from Buffy but maybe that's good. She doesn't know what the piece is and he's not so sure how he'd feel if she came to see the unveiling with everyone else.

Willow told him that no one has really heard from her since LA. She just called to say she was taking some time off and disappeared. They might have been worried, but she sent postcards. Snapshots of places she had gone on council business and that she was now visiting as a tourist.

He remembers her strong arms carrying him from the cemetery. She must have been covered in his blood. He can't bring himself to think of that. Best for her to stay far away from him and hopefully, with a bit of luck, she'll be alright. She has to be.

*


It's time. He spent all morning getting the centerpiece in place. Eight feet tall, glowing in the sunlight as he knew it would. He rented a van and some big guys in overalls to help him set it up just right. They all seemed to like it, especially when it was finally where he wanted it.

He's got a big curtain around it at the moment. No one else has even got to glimpse at it and the mayor is looking pretty nervous. He spends a good hour reassuring her that it is exactly what the city council agreed upon, a perfect emblem for the new town of Sunnydale.

She goes off happy enough, his guarantee that he'll personally pay for its removal if it doesn't meet with her approval doing something to appease her. He's not as offended as he might have been.

He has an image in this town, one that he'll have a hard time shaking.

Fuck 'em. If the townsfolk can't see just how much he has accomplished then who the hell needs them anyway?

It's almost time for the unveiling.

*


There are speeches and commendations and dedications galore to go before the unveiling and he's getting impatient. Willow smiles at him and grasps his arm to stop him bouncing from one foot to another. They're all here. Giles is busy chatting with a couple of local dignitaries, Moira on his arm, his impressive British countenance almost overwhelming them.

Faith is being Faith, a bemused crowd of spectators listening in rapt horror to some story she's telling them. From the hand movements that she's doing to illustrate it, he's not sure he wants to know. Robin is beside her, an embarrassed grin on his face. Dawn and her husband are busy trying to contain their children, zipping around the square, weaving through the legs of the adults clustered about in a spirited game of tag. Dawn is really pregnant now, six months, and it is only because of the first class tickets and four star hotel Giles is springing for that she was able to come.

He is standing off to one side with Willow.

"Calm down," she says to him again, reaching up to straighten his tie.

He fidgets like a kid while she makes him presentable and sighs in exasperation when she spits in a cloth and uses it to wipe a smudge from his cheek.

"C'm on Wills, I'm not three anymore!"

With a serene smile, she continues to dab away at his face.

The suspense is killing him. He looks around, peering at all the people who have shown up.

Willow's smile fades.

"She's not coming, Xand."

He shoots her a Who do you mean? look but she's not buying.

Just rolls her eyes in reply.

He sighs.

"I know. I don't know why I'm so nervous. I just..."

Willow pats his shoulder.

"I get that. This is important, she should be here. No one's heard much of anything. Just that she's okay..."

She looks sad.

Xander tosses an arm across her shoulders and gives her a sideways hug.

"She just needs some time to herself is all, Wills. She's been in the business for what? Twenty years now? She'll be back."

She looks up at him, her eyes bright for a moment. They lean into each other and just hug, both trying to comfort the other. Until the Mayor comes to the microphone again.

"Excuse me people," she calls, trying to attract everyone's attention, "We've got one more thing to do here today. New Sunnydale has finally become an official township, recognized by the state. With the last of the reconstruction finally over, the town council and myself agreed that we needed a symbol, something to rally the townsfolk and signify our little community to anyone coming to visit."

She turns to the curtain-covered statue and waves a hand.

The others have joined him and Willow now, Giles holding Moira's hand, Faith and Robin together, Dawn leaning on her husband's shoulder. They watch as the centerpiece was unveiled.

It is good. As he studies their faces, he can tell. The other people in the square look pleased too. It's just a statue of a girl. A simple thing really.

But not.

He's designed it specifically to suit its surroundings so that, depending on the sunlight, the weather and the time of day, it changes. First, a young girl grinning happily, the light glinting off her hair like a halo. Then a young woman, more serious, her face set in a look of grim determination. Next, a shell, fragile and broken, her smile a facade to hide the emptiness inside. Finally, a fighter, her shoulders set, her expression serene in the face of adversity. All beautiful, all touching in different ways and all the incarnations of one Sunnydalian girl.

Standing on her pedestal, eyes cast over the lake that had once been her home, she towers protectively over the square. The world around her changes to fit her mood and through it all, she stands tall and looks it in the eye.

It's everything he wanted to show when he started sculpting, fear and duty and strength of spirit. Humanity against the darkness.

Willow and Giles and the others are grinning like fools.

Well of course it's Buffy. Who else could it be?


***



This Could Be The Beginning Of...


They all go out for lunch afterwards. It's fun, just a bunch of old friends hanging out together for the day. None of them can stay though, except Dawnie and Joe. Everyone flew in specially for the occasion but now it's time to go home. Xander will be sorry when they go, but he knows that he'll see them all again.

No more Hermit!Xander.

He makes arrangements with Willow for a visit to London. Talks with Faith and Robin about a stay with them and their slayers in Cleveland. Soon enough, they start to leave. The London crowd with lots of tears and waving and promises to call as soon as they get back.

During desert, Giles asked him to be his best man. The wedding is set for next spring.

Faith and Robin next, driving off in Robin's convertible, Faith waving and yelling cheerful goodbyes as they go.

Dawnie and Joe and the kids are last, off to visit Disneyland while they're here. She promises to drop in tomorrow, just so they can spend some more time together.

He sees them all off, grinning happily, and goes for a walk on the beach. From down here, the statue is just visible, shining in the setting sunlight, it's eyes gazing watchfully at the lake. He stays there a while, just looking at her.

Buffy.

In so many ways, she's the real centre of his life and has been since the day he saw her. It doesn't matter if he never sees her again, not really. She's a part of who he is, the largest part perhaps, and that will never go away.

*


For some reason, he's not surprised to see her when he gets home.

Once more, Buffy Summers is there on his doorstep, sitting on three huge weather-beaten suitcases. She gets up and smoothes her dress as he comes up the drive. She's different now, glowing somehow, her features less drawn. Peaceful, that's it. It takes him a while to put a name to it because it's never been something he could associate with her before. When she smiles at him, he feels light headed.

"A big house like this, you've gotta have a room to spare, Xand," she says when he reaches her, eyes dancing with warmth.

He doesn't say anything. Just nods. Slowly, tentatively, she wraps her arms around his shoulders.

"It could kill you, Buff," he says, trying to do with words what he can't bring himself to do with his arms, to push her away. "Just being with me could kill you."

She nods, accepting this.

"Yup. Now you know how I felt about you guys helping me all these years. But it won't. Don't worry, Xand. You know me, I'm pig-headed that way. I won't let it. We'll be okay."

For a moment he's speechless. The world is still, as if waiting to catch it's breath. But it's him who needs to breathe. He can feel the smile spread slowly across his face, growing almost until his cheeks hurt.

He lost his illusions years ago. The good guys don't always win, evil is not always punished and the only certainties are death and taxes. But if there's one thing he's never doubted, never really, it's her. And...

Before he can finish that thought, she's kissing him and he's kissing back and his misgivings, the fears that have followed him since the day he found out about his illness, that have shadowed him for so long he forgot they were there... They just flew out the window.


***

The End.


Thanks for reading! And thanks again to the fantabulous hpchick for being my first ever reviewer on this :)

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