Continued from Part 5.
Had any of the Slayers in the Cleveland Mother House been sitting in the Harris kitchen that evening and had they been asked which Xander Harris was the “real” Xander Harris, they would’ve guessed wrong no matter which one they chose.
In one chair, there was Xander Harris wearing his customary flannel shirt with plain T underneath, jeans, and Timberland workboots. He was busy talking to Haley, getting her to open up about her day, her friends, her teachers, what she learned in school, and what she had for homework. He joked, he teased, he rumpled her hair, and all the while Haley beamed with adoration and slowly built up to happy chatter about friends, boys, and plans for the weekend that involved a trip to the movies. Okay, it appeared that Xander Harris had gotten himself a haircut and if they looked closely, they might’ve been surprised to notice some graying action happening in the hair, but this Xander acted exactly like the Xander they knew and lived with.
In the other corner, was another Xander Harris, also wearing his customary flannel shirt with plain T underneath, although the jeans on this one could stand to be a little smaller. This Xander Harris was very quiet and spoke only when spoken to, which wasn’t all that often. Anything he said was direct, to the point, and didn’t give any information beyond what was required. He picked at his food—which happened to be pizza, his all-time favorite dinner in this or any universe—and ate very little. Sure, the left eye was tearing up like a son of a bitch just like it always did when he was overtired or it was irritated by something in the air. Yes the hair was growing in that shaggy dog direction they were all familiar with, mostly because Xander was too busy to run out for a haircut and wouldn’t let any of the more fashionably inclined Slayers near him with a pair of scissors, but none of it meant anything because Xander was never what anyone would call reserved when interacting with people.
And if they heard Anya call the “quiet Xander” Rory, as in Rory Lavelle, the Slayers would’ve high fived each other for guessing right.
The problem here is that the hypothetical Slayers would be asking the wrong hypothetical question.
As for Xander-turned-Rory, dinner was special kind of torture. First off, the pizza did not have any manly meat on it for that extra flavorful burst of grease he liked. His personal pizza philosophy dictated that if you’re going to have pizza, you should have pizza. The fact he was faced with two pizzas involving nothing but vegetable matter and cheese cemented the idea in his head—more so than Faith telling him to go fuck himself—that he was living in nightmare land.
The look on his face upon seeing the pizza was probably what prompted Anya to joke that she’d only allow the occasional vegetarian pizza in the house because she was worried about other Xander’s cholesterol.
While he tried to process the idea that Anya thought high cholesterol was a greater threat than, say, an apocalypse or two, other Xander jumped in and insisted that his cholesterol was just fine, thakyousoverymuch, and that Anya was worrying over nothing because she had a “make Xander immortal” plan.
“Then you’re doing it all wrong,” Xander said. “First, you have to anoint him with the right combination of oils and herbs before shoving him into a fire to burn away that pesky mortality. Plus, you’re way too late. You would’ve had to do it when he was a baby for that to even work. And you’re forgetting the really big drawback. Most babies burn to death when you try it.”
He wasn’t sure what disturbed him more: the fact that he once had the immortality conversation with Willow while on a training run with the baby Slayers—okay, they were discussing it in relation to how probable the premise of Highlander was and it was all Andrew’s fault for getting them started down that road, but they still had it; the fact that he actually remembered what Willow said and could repeat it on command; or the stunned, blank faces Anya and other Xander directed at him when he blurted it out.
He decided then and there he was going to keep his mouth firmly shut and his eyes open for the rest of the night.
He almost immediately regretted making that vow if only because, without a distracting conversation, he saw too much. Anya beamed happily around the table, contently munching on her pizza and occasionally tossing out a bon mot here and there. Other Xander was eating his share and encouraging his daughter to come more and more out of her shell.
But Haley…the girl bothered him on some fundamental level. There was something not right there, but he could be damned if he could put his finger on it. Maybe it was the way she had to be drawn out, although that couldn’t be it. Willow in her younger days had a habit of blending in with the wallpaper if you didn’t pay her any attention, so he knew shy when he saw it. But this was shy with a hint of something else, like Haley was actually afraid to be noticed. Even Willow at her most shy wanted someone to see her.
Could be the way Haley practically inhaled dinner. As tiny as she was, she ate three-quarters of a pizza all by herself. Xander was half-tempted to look under the table in an effort to find out where the food was going because there was no way it is going to her stomach. Even though she was only 12, she would’ve given his high-school self some serious competition in the eating sweepstakes.
Or maybe it was the way that Haley was totally daddy’s little girl in a way that couldn’t possibly be real. Harrises had the parenting skills of earthworms. There was no way any Harris could avoid fucking up their kids to the point where those same kids couldn’t wait for the parental units to die ugly deaths. It was a hardcore law of the universe as far as Xander was concerned.
But most of all, he was bothered by the white bandage peeking out from under Haley’s left sleeve. He didn’t even have to say anything for Anya to realize that he noticed and start making excuses, something that sent the warning bells in his mind soaring to a louder decibel.
“Haley fell off the bleachers at school and split open her arm,” Anya explained. “I had to take her to the hospital for stitches.”
“I still say you should’ve told me what was going on,” other Xander said lightly, but not so lightly that Xander didn’t pick up on the fact that there must’ve been a hell of a fight over whatever had happened.
Anya shrugged. “You were busy and up against a deadline. Besides, I took care of it.”
“When our daughter has to go to the emergency room, clients can wait,” other Xander insisted with a little more force than necessary. “You still should’ve told me where you were going when the school called.”
Haley practically shrank into herself at this exchange.
“It won’t happen again,” Anya promised serenely.
Haley’s vigorous head nodding formed an uneasy knot in Xander’s stomach, although once again he wasn’t entirely sure why it bothered him so much. The kid didn’t seem leery of Anya, but the immediate excuse and conversation that followed was still enough for him to make a mental note to pay more attention to how mother and daughter interacted.
And then Haley pulled what, in Xander’s mind, struck him as a classic distraction maneuver: she started talking about something else without any segue. “I’m reading Beowulf in English,” she announced.
“Beowulf?” other Xander asked as he reached for another slice of pizza. “Since when do they make you read that in middle school?”
“Honey, she’s in an advanced class,” Anya placidly reminded other him.
“Still a little young,” other Xander complained. “I had to read it in high school and I couldn’t get through the first page.”
Mission accomplished, Xander thought.
“But it’s so cool. We’re learning about epic literature, and Scandinavian heroes, and monsters…” Haley began.
Xander expected Anya to interrupt with some detailed explanation that Grendel technically was a demon and not a monster and that the chroniclers got it all wrong because she knew Grendel personally and he gave the best parties in his lair despite the fact that all his tacky furniture was fashioned from the bones of humans. Well, maybe he wasn’t expecting something exactly like that, but a spirited defense pointing out that Grendel wasn’t so much evil as he was misunderstood was definitely in the realm of the expected. When the correction didn’t come, he turned his whole body to look at Anya, since she was sitting on his blindside. She was busy dabbing her mouth with a napkin and making a big show of ignoring him.
“…said we’ll have to write our epic based on our lives, but we won’t have to do that until next week,” Haley finished assuring her father. This pronouncement was punctuated with an endearing geeky bounce that made Xander wonder if Willow really was the kid’s real mother.
In an effort to drown out the troubling thought, Xander blurted, “They’re probably letting her read a modern English translation.”
That brought dinner conversation to a halt.
Realizing that maybe he should renew that no-speaking vow, Xander focused on his plate and his half-eaten pizza slice. “I’m just saying there are a lot of good translations out there, so it’s probably not that bad.”
“How would you know anything about that?” Other Xander apparently wasn’t about to let him off.
“Unh, had to read it for resear…I mean for a class.” Xander sunk lower in his seat.
“What did you think of it?” Haley asked.
Bit-by-bit, no matter how hard Xander tried to fight it, Haley managed to draw him into a reasonably safe conversation about Beowulf, and Grendel, and great quests while other Xander and Anya once more exchanged those blank expressions that could signal worry and maybe even a little surprise.
This dinner conversation is important to note not necessarily because it means anything in particular. It’s to point out the difference, maybe the key difference, between the two Xanders.
One Xander left early in the game and went on to a life that looked, acted, and smelled normal. From all outward appearances, he’d achieved the American Dream of doing better than his parents and winning something that sure looked like a happy ending. That’s not to say he didn’t fight for everything he got. He probably did. However, this is an instance where once he achieved victory, he only needed to exert a little effort to hold on to his status.
It probably helped that other Xander didn’t wake up every day wondering if today was the day his luck would run out.
Another Xander didn’t have the luxury of being able to stand still. He was surrounded not by people who thought and acted like he did, but a mishmash of people who came from everywhere in the world. While he’d long ago conceded that he’d never be the best fighter or the biggest hero in the story, there was one thing he could do better than anyone else. He could talk to people, but to do that he had to get to know them.
So while one Xander built his life in a nice suburb with people who outwardly seemed very much like himself, another Xander immersed himself in unfamiliar music, books, movies, and television shows just so he could hold up his end of the conversation.
So when a new Slayer from France expressed disappointment that Cleveland did not have a smoky jazz club on every corner, Xander sat with her and listened to the jazz greats she idolized. He became intimately acquainted with everything Christian Bale’s oeuvre. He learned to discuss Jane Austen without sounding like a complete idiot. At this very moment there was a book-marked copy of The Fountainhead on the floor by his bed that he planned to finish, even though he’d already decided that Ayn Rand was a crackpot.
Lord knows it’s not because he wanted to do this stuff over and above Giles’s crash course in what musty-smelling books were important for a Watcher to know. He did it because he had decided that it was his job to help new Slayers feel at home.
In short, life gave something to Xander Harris that four years of Sunnydale High School and its indifferent teachers failed to do: an education. When anyone starts learning and trying out new things, it makes their mind expand in some surprising ways. While no one in the Slayer inner circle would ever accuse Xander Harris of being a bleeding heart, it did color his worldview in ways that even he never realized.
This is mentioned not as an excuse, because when all was said and done Xander wouldn’t accept any of it, placing instead all the blame squarely on the one person he thought deserved it. It is merely mentioned as an explanation of the physics involved in the series of world-rocking explosions that followed this relative calm before the storm.
Just remember: a brick wall may be able to withstand a frontal assault and may be able to protect the inhabitants that choose to hide behind it. However, a brick wall has no chance against a more subtle and flexible fog that creeps through the cracks in the façade.
Willow stepped back and surveyed her handiwork.
“Wow,” Dawn declared as she studied her changed appearance in a mirror.
Near as Faith could tell, the Anya-looking illusion obscuring Dawn was good enough, but Willow thought otherwise.
“Hold still,” the witch ordered. “I don’t want to accidentally move your nose to the center of your forehead.”
Willow twitched and brushed her fingers around Dawn’s face, frowning in concentration as she did so. When she was finished, she stepped back and nodded. “Now it’s wow.”
“You’re just being picky,” Dawn said as she turned this way and that before the full-length mirror. “Hey! I never noticed Anya had a great ass.”
“Dawn!” Buffy exclaimed from her corner.
“What? She did!” Dawn protested with a girlish mischievous grin that looked completely out of place on Anya’s face.
“I still don’t like this, using you as a stand-in,” Buffy grumbled.
“B, for all we know they could’ve been watching us a long time,” Faith pointed out. “If all the usual suspects don’t show for the trade, they might get a little twitchy.”
“Still…” Buffy began.
“Still nothing,” Willow cut her off. “Dawn’s the only one who doesn’t patrol, so that means she’s the only one that can afford not to be there.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but she may look like Anya but that’s not Anya,” Buffy said.
“You know what I mean,” Willow said.
“Appearances are everything, B,” Faith added.
“I need to get readier than I already am for this,” Dawn said. “I’m not going out there without getting bundled up.”
“I’ll go with to make sure the clothes look like they fit right,” Willow said.
“Unh, why would you need to do that?” Dawn asked.
“You’re taller than Anya was,” Willow pointed out. “So it would kind of ruin the illusion if your hat was floating a few inches above where your head was supposed to be.”
“Oh. Didn’t think of that.” Dawn turned to her sister. “Wanna come and help me pick out clothes?”
“I’ll let Willow do the fashion thing,” Buffy said glumly.
The fact that Buffy was actually ceding fashion decisions to Willow of all people caused Dawn to frown with worry. “You okay?”
“Fine,” Buffy said with a half shrug. “I just don’t like it is all.”
“C’mon, Dawn. I want to get started in case I have to twitch my nose some more,” Willow said. She snorted with amusement. “See what I did? Pop culture reference. ‘Twitch my nose.’”
“Yeah, yeah, got it,” Dawn said as she went to the door, “All hail the Samantha wanna-be.”
“Bet I could take Samantha two out of three,” Willow said.
“In your dreams,” Dawn argued back. “She’s got Hollyweird writers working for her and you only got us.”
The closing door cut the argument off, but not before Faith noticed that Dawn and Willow spared a worried glance in Buffy’s direction.
When the two of them were left alone, Faith silently cursed Giles for laying a load of responsibility at her feet as she said, “Yo, B. Enough with this shit already. Things are bad enough without your ’tude.”
Twin flames of anger flickered to life behind Buffy’s eyes as she said, “I told you. We should put a Slayer in the Anya suit, not Dawn. I want her out of this.”
“Oh. Right. Like she’d sit around and bite her nails while the Cyclops was among the missing,” Faith deadpanned. “Dream on, B. Using Dawn was inevitable. Hell, Willow practically nominated her and Tweedy backed her up.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
“If Dawn was being forced to do it you’d be right, but near as I can tell you’re the only one doing the bitching around here. So spill it. What’s the deal with you?”
Buffy set her jaw. “It’s exactly how I say it is.”
“I’m calling bullshit on that,” Faith countered. “I’m not saying we’ve all been the most stable bunch since Harris went missing, but you’ve been practically out of control since Dawn volunteered. I heard you reaming Giles a new asshole in his room earlier. You didn’t get this worked up over Li’l Sis’s safety when we were marching into the SunnyD high school, so don’t tell me that you’re just worried over Dawn.”
Faith expected Buffy to blow up and start screaming and throwing things. It was pretty clear to her that the other Slayer was pissy because she was tense about the whole situation. She figured that once B let off some steam by letting loose on her, equilibrium would be restored, and B would be back to her hardheaded self.
What she got was not what she expected and, in some ways, was a hell of a lot worse.
Buffy looked away, focusing instead on the bedroom door. “Faith? Do you think vengeance demons can get revenge after they’re dead?”
“Dead is dead, B. So how…no, wait…why would you figure that?”
“I told Xander to stay with Dawn.”
“In the high school,” Buffy said. “Xander and Anya were going to fight together and I told Xander he should stay with Dawn instead.”
“Yeah, so?” Faith asked. “I know about the lineup, B. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Sometimes I wonder if she’s dead because of me.”
“I didn’t mean to get her killed, you know that, right?” Buffy was looking at Faith now. “I just wanted to make sure Dawn was safe and…”
“You knew Harris would make sure she’d get out alive no matter what,” Faith finished for her.
“I made the call. Me,” Buffy said. “And now because of me we don’t have Anya here to fix this. So we’re using my sister to play the part of Anya.”
“And you’re thinking this plan’s going to go wrong and Dawn’s going to wind up hurt or killed as some form of karmic payback? That’s just bullshit,” Faith said.
“Is it?” Buffy asked. “I don’t know. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you Faith and I’m telling you…”
“No good deed goes unpunished, yada, yada, yada. Heard it, still think you’re jumping at shadows,” Faith insisted. “You’re looking for trouble where there ain’t none.”
“But nothin’, B. You made a call. Not too sure that anyone would’ve made a different one in your shoes, but then I wasn’t there so what the fuck do I know. The thing you’re missing here is that people went down in that battle. We lost a handful of Slayers, we lost Spike, and we lost Anya. You didn’t set out to get any ’em killed far as I can see, but you had to know people would die. It could’ve been a hell of a lot worse. Dawn could be dead for starters.”
“Since when did you go all support-o gal?”
“Since you started being stupid,” Faith shot back. “The only person blaming you for Anya being dead is you. Jesus, if anyone should be blaming you it’s the X-man himself and last I checked he ain’t doing that. If he blames anyone, and this is one big-ass if, it’d be Andrew for not dying instead of her. I mean, c’mon, someone cut Xander’s tongue out so he couldn’t tell you to shove it up your ass back when you sent him to help Dawn? Did someone cut off Anya’s feet while I wasn’t looking? She could’ve walked out of your house any time she wanted, so she didn’t have to stick around for the big battle.”
Buffy let out a snort of a giggle. “You’re new to this cheering up thing, aren’t you?”
“I’m just stating the facts,” Faith said. “Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, shit went down and things went wrong. But last I checked you don’t have mind rays that make people do what you want them to do. A lot of things had to happen for Anya to even be there to get killed to begin with, so you weren’t the only one holding the ax.”
Buffy relaxed, as if somehow Faith had lifted a stone off her shoulders. “I still don’t feel better that she’d dead.”
“Not supposed to make you feel better,” Faith replied. “But you gotta get out of the ‘only me’ mindset because that day is long gone.”
Buffy actually smiled at that. “When did you get so smart?”
“Smart nothing. I’m a realist,” Faith said. “We need you to stay slinky if this is going to work. If you don’t keep your shit together, we might as well go to the meeting, bend over, and beg these assholes to fuck us doggy-style because that’s the only way we’ll be able to get what we want.”
Buffy blinked a little at that declaration. “Thank you soooo much for that image. I have to go bleach my brain before we leave.”
Download (Good for seven days): The Snake by The Medieaval Babes
(Traditional story in Medieval English.)