Title: Walking Higher (The Childhood's End Remix) — Part 1/5
Author: Lizbeth Marcs (liz_marcs)
Summary: There’s only one person who’d ask you to give up heaven, and there are four people for whom you’d do it.
Genre: Future fic, ghost story, angst
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series
Characters: Xander, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Cordelia
Pairings: Primarily gen; Buffy/Xander UST; light Giles/Xander slash
Title, Author, and URL of the original Story: Winter Garden by kivrin
Warning: Disturbing imagery and violence. Vague spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Author’s notes: Takes place a year-and-a-half after ‘Chosen.’ All related comics are cheerfully and willfully ignored. Additional writing credits at the end of the story. Additional writing credits at the end.
Disclaimer: Xander Harris, Dawn Summers, Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, Connor, and all associated characters and organizations are the property of FOX and Mutant Enemy. Any mention of real life events and real people is not meant to imply that the people or incidents in question as they are used in the story have any relationship to reality. All original characters and the plot are mine. No payment was asked for or received in the writing of this story and no profit was earned. No copyright infringement on FOX or Mutant Enemy is intended.
i) there is no remoteness of life and thought,
no hermetically sealed seclusion,
except, possibly, that of the grave,
into which the disturbing influences of this war
do not penetrate
There’s no rhythm in your motion, like the kind you’d get from a quick lope around the block or a quick jog to your battered Toyota 4X4. Your current form of running is just a mad, desperate scramble as you dive through knots of people strolling the mostly unfamiliar streets in a mostly unfamiliar city. In your wake you leave shouts of surprise, cries of outrage, and demands for an apology, all of which is rendered in barely comprehensible English or utterly incomprehensible Kiswahili.
It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. All that matters is the sound of your explosive gasps for breath in your ears, the sweat dripping off of you, the burn in your lungs and thighs, and the flash drive tucked in the front pocket of your jeans.
You desperately hope you’ve lost them, but rationally you know that it’s a hope that’s of the non-existent kind. They’ve got powerful Malawi magic and Watcher-fu and numbers and a big ol’ yen to remake the world into a picture they like a whole lot better than the one they wake up and see every day.
All you’ve got is you and your determination to stop them before things get ugly. Uglier.
And you’ve got Omar. Maybe.
You’re not at all sure you can completely trust him, but you’re in the middle of a bitter no-choiceness of a situation. Then again, after the 3 months you’ve had — the worst 3 months you’ve had in Africa, the worst you’ve had in your life — it’s a wonder you’re even able to trust yourself. Good chance your suspicions about Omar are probably wrong.
You have to get to the rendezvous. It’s everyone’s only chance, it’s your only chance, and a damn slim one at that. As for what comes after, you’ll worry about it when you get there, but first you have to get there.
Omar better be there with those Slayers or…
Or you and the Council and the Slayers and maybe the world are totally screwed, that’s what.
You hear a shout to your left — your blindside — as you break free from yet another knot of people. Your ears must’ve been tuned in to your surroundings more than you thought, because you immediately register that this shout is rendered in English that’s of a more recognizable kind.
You have enough time to think, Shit, they found me, before you fake a zig that would take you into yet another large crowd of people if you followed through. You hope they’re focus-y on the zig, because you’ve instead zagged your way into an alley.
Even though it’s not one of the many, many alternate escape routes that you and Omar had scouted out over the past week, you don’t dare slow down to get your bearings. All you can do is tap into what little reserves you’ve got left and put in an extra burst of speed. Maybe you’ve confused them, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you don’t have much time to shake your British shadows.
You break free of the alley and immediately scoot to another located across the road. Not satisfied with that, you run into and down a third alley just to be sure. You finally land on a narrow street that’s less crowded than the one you left behind.
You skid to a halt so you can finally figure out where you are, assuming you’ll even be able to figure out that much. To stop yourself from toppling forward onto the worn pavement, you bend over and brace your hands on your knees while you breathe in harsh gasps. As you look up, sweat freely flows down your face before it drips off the end of your nose and the bottom of your chin. Your hair is plastered to your head, your clothes are sticking to you, and it feels like a lake has formed underneath your eye patch.
When the scene before you finally registers, you feel a surge of hope. Holy shit! you think as you scan the shuttered storefronts, I recognize this! I’m more than half-way to goal-ville.
Then you think about the people who are following you just a little bit too closely.
You force your bent-over and wheezing body upright and get your wobbly legs to move. You will the protests from your screaming knees and howling ankles to tone it down a few notches as you work your way up into something resembling an even running stride.
All you need to do is take a left here…
A quick right there…
Followed by a quick scurry down yet another alleyway…
A sharp left turn into the narrow space between two buildings and…
Duck behind the overflowing dumpster where…
You barrel right into three human beings huddled together.
You’re so taken by surprise that you trip forward and windmill your arms in an effort to recapture your balance. A young, slim, female hand snakes around your bicep and hauls you upright. The force of her pull causes you to list into her, and next thing you know there’s a flurry of hands pulling at you to stop you from falling on top of the much smaller girl.
“You’re in a state,” Omar says in clipped English.
That Omar, you giddily think, Egyptian he may be, but the British boarding school dry just keeps feeding that talent for understatement. You’re so grateful that Omar and the two Slayers are here — that they’re really, really here and haven’t abandoned you for a much safer place, like the other side in the Council’s rapidly heating-up civil war — that it’s all you can do to stop yourself from throwing your arms around the three of them for a big ol’ American-style sweaty hug.
“I’ve been seen,” you inform him between harsh gasps as you dig into your front pocket.
Omar swears under his breath. You think it’s French, but it could also be Arabic, or it could be any one of the other 6 languages he speaks. All you know is that it’s not Spanish, a language in which you can swear fluently thanks to your years on a Sunnydale construction crew.
When you pull the flash drive out of your pants pocket, it immediately slips from your shaking fingers.
“Shit!” you exclaim a split second before one of the Slayers neatly catches the flash drive in mid-fall and saves it from being lost in the garbage around your feet.
One of the Slayers — Zohour you think her name is, but you wouldn’t swear to it — says something to Omar that’s definitely French. Omar quickly nods at her.
“Quite right,” Omar answers her in English.
“That you’ve gotta make it to the carrot festival on time? Definitely quite right,” you say as you subtly sneak one of your fingers under the lower edge of your eye patch to wipe away the sweat gathered underneath it. “Just don’t forget to take that left at Albuquerque. It never turns out well when you do.”
Omar looks at you like he’s seriously rethinking about where his loyalties should lie.
“Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck would understand.” You can feel a crazed grin twist your sweat-wet face as you slump against the dumpster. You’re still punchy from your extended 1 million-mile run through Nairobi’s streets; punchier than can possibly be healthy given your sitch.
Omar tugs at his neat beard, his equivalent of Giles’s classic pinching-of-the-nose. “Nadia suggested—”
“Nadia? I thought she was Zohour,” you interrupt. You’re having a hard time concentrating on anything. You haven’t slept in more than a day, and you’ve been running for hours. You need electrolytes. You need water. You need food. You need sleep. Too bad you’re not getting any of that in the foreseeable future.
“I am Zohour,” the other Slayer, the one who snatched the flash drive out of midair, says in broken English.
“Sorry. Sorry,” you quickly apologize. “My brain’s gone a bit fuzzy.”
“Hardly surprising. You’re nearly an hour late and you look as if you’ve legged it through the whole of the city. We had about given up hope,” Omar tells you.
“Like I said, I was seen. Stuck around a little too long because I found more that I thought I would. Plus, I wanted to make sure I saved everything to the flash drive. Someone spotted me sneaking out the back window and let out a yell. I had to lose them first before I got here.” Your head’s finally clearing a little bit. Maybe all you needed was to catch your breath and give another wave of fear-fueled adrenalin a chance to work its hormonal mojo.
“Understandable,” Omar nods.
“Not so fast. I didn’t shake them entirely. At least one of them spotted me a few blocks away. You know he’s already gotten word to the others that I’m in the area,” you say. “Have I mentioned that I hate telepathy? I especially hate it when they use it to broadcast my whereabouts to everyone receiving signals from the local Radio Wicca network.”
Omar politely ignores your exhausted babble and takes the bad news in stride. “Can’t be helped. But before you interrupt me again, Nadia suggested a change in plans.”
You can feel yourself tense as all your suspicions about Omar come flooding back into your brain. “Oh?”
“Rather than allowing you to slip away on your own, Zohour should accompany you.”
“But you’ve got the flash drive,” you stutter. “You’re the one that needs—”
“Ah, but as you pointed out, you’ve been seen,” Omar interrupts. “So your plan to quietly slip onto the Jambo Kenya Delux to Mombasa is doomed to fail, as they’ll no doubt be watching the rail platform. Frankly, even if you hadn’t been caught out, I’d concur with her judgment.”
“You are one of the few people who knows everything,” Zouhour says. “You should have as much protection as this…this…”
“Flash drive,” you finish for her.
“Yes,” she nods.
You blink away the sweat dripping into your one good eye as you look from Nadia’s worried face, to Zouhour’s determined one, and on to Omar’s calm one.
You want to say yes. You want to say yes so badly that the word pounds in your chest like a heartbeat, strangles your throat, and makes your mouth dry. You’ve never wanted to say yes so badly in this or any other life.
“No,” you say. It takes everything you have not to shatter into million tiny pieces when the word slips out of your mouth.
“But—” Omar begins.
“No buts.” You know this is the right thing to do. You know. There are too many people looking for you. That flash drive contains everything you know. Hell, it contains more than what you know. That’s the thing that really needs protection overkill, and since Omar’s got it, he gets the protection overkill that goes with. “If they spot me with a Slayer bodyguard, they’ll know that I met up with a Council contact. Right now they’re concentrating on looking for a one-eyed white guy and that’s it. If they see a one-eyed white guy with a Slayer, they’ll start looking around for someone who looks like they’re Council.”
“The Council is a large organization with quite a few members, even given its current depleted state, and Nairobi is a very large city. Anyone could be your Council contact,” Omar argues. “Furthermore, Jomo Kenyatta is a rather busy hub of activity. The odds of anyone recognizing myself or Nadia before we depart for Rome are rather slim.”
“Yeah, but some of the people looking for me also happen to be old friends of yours, remember? If one of your buddies from the old One-Girl-in-All-the-World days just happens to be on the airport-watching detail, you know you'll get spotted. You know this,” you argue.
Omar looks away.
“They need to think that I’m still running scared because I either don't have any backup or because I haven't been able to reach my backup. As long as they really believe that, your chances of getting a pass if they recognize you goes up, way up. If you get recognized at the Jomo, they might stop you and make with the small talk, but all you'd have to do is give them your song-and-dance cover story and they’ll buy it, no questions asked. They think you’re still mulling over their offer, so they’ll not only be willing to believe you, they’ll want to believe you.”
You hate that you’re actually making this argument. You hate that Omar is listening to you. You want him to argue with you. You want him to tell you that you’re being paranoid or that your assumptions are all wrong.
Most of all, you want him to force you to take a Slayer with you.
You know he won’t, not after you finish what you have to say. Omar may have his differences with Giles about how to run things, but he’s a true blue Watcher through and through. Given the choice, he’ll always go for the greater good option.
“But, if they figure out that I managed to pass information on to someone, if they see you at the airport they’ll look at you a whole lot harder,” you say. “They may pull you aside. Maybe search you. You can’t let that happen. We can’t let that happen. The flash drive has got to get to Buffy. It’s got all the information the Council needs and then some to stop these guys. It may be the only thing that can stop these guys.”
You have to give Omar credit. He at least thinks things through rather than immediately agreeing with you. A minute ticks by. Maybe two.
His answer never really is in doubt.
“Be careful,” he says.
You feel a weight in your stomach after he says it. Even though you already knew what he’d say, you still had a little hope that he’d talk you out of it.
“I better go and get distract-y,” you tell him. “I’ll make a run for every matatus stage I can find until someone spots me so they’ll think I’m trying to sneak out of town by getting lost on mass transit. Once I get spotted, though, I’m grabbing the first thing with wheels or wings that’ll get me out of town. Understood?”
Omar nods. “Understood.”
“One thing in my favor,” you add. “Sunset’s in an hour. Once dusk comes down, I’ll be able to lose them even if I don’t manage to get myself a ride out of town.”
“If they have a tracking spell on you—” Omar begins.
“As you pointed out, it’s a big city, and that means lots and lots of places to hide,” you hope you sound a lot more confident than you really feel. “A tracking spell can get close, but they still have to see me to catch me. I got a lot of experience dodging tracking spells over the past 3 months, more than I want to even think about.”
Omar looks momentarily unsure and worried. You’d like to think he’s worried about you, but you suspect that he’s more worried about you getting caught and being forced to give up his double-agent status while he’s still in grabbing distance.
“And remember, go to Buffy’s safe house. Do not go to the Council center because they’ll be watching that,” you remind him. “As far as everyone’s concerned, Buffy’s recovering from a nasty case of demon venom poisoning at the center, complete with a real Slayer glamoured to look like a Buffy recovering from a nasty case of demon venom poisoning.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“Remember the pass phrase?” Now you’re just delaying the inevitable, but you need just a little bit longer to work up your nerve.
“No power on this earth,” Omar dutifully repeats.
“That’s the one.” You stand up to your full height and stretch your aching muscles. You hope you look surer of yourself than you really feel. “Give me a 15-minute head start. They’re too close, and I don’t want to chance them seeing the two of us leaving the same area at the same time.”
As you turn to go, you hear Omar say behind you, “Insha’Allah, we’ll meet again on safe ground.”
Your lips, God’s ears, you think.
Then you flee the scene.
It takes them almost an hour to spot you. You’re a little surprised it takes them that long, especially since you went back to the busy, crowded street where they last saw you and you’re loudly bellowing for the closest matatus stage in your best Ugly American voice.
The cry goes up that you’ve been seen.
The race of your life is on.
Xander stared down at the top of his venti white chocolate mocha and tried not to wonder where it came from. He was very, very sure that he didn’t walk up to the counter and order it, yet here it was, steaming and hot right under his nose.
Even though he was afraid to do it, he looked down and checked himself, wondering just what else had happened to him while he wasn’t paying attention.
Well, at least his clothes were the same ones he wore in Nairobi. Okay, they looked something resembling clean, instead of covered with his blood, sweat, and tears. Still disturbing, but at least it wasn’t a total change. It helped keep the freak-age level down.
Speaking of freak-age — oh god oh god oh god oh god — what was the deal underneath his eye patch? He was seriously wigging, even more than he already was over the fact that he had coffee he didn’t order and clothes that shouldn’t have been clean. It took everything he had not to whip off the eye patch and start feeling up the left side of his face.
Xander clutched his hands around the coffee cup and nervously scanned his immediate surroundings. Turned out it was a good thing he did, because on seeing the world outside the window, he did a double-take.
There was Dawn, frozen in the middle of the sidewalk, backpack slung over one shoulder, and staring at him with her jaw dropped open. One of the girls in her trio tugged at her arm and seemed to be asking her something with concern etched on her face. The other girl had followed Dawn’s gaze and was now looking curiously back and forth between Dawn and the weird, one-eyed guy sitting in a Starbucks window.
Dawn suddenly snapped to attention and said something to her companions as she indicated Xander with a wave of her hand. The girl who’d been tugging at her arm stopped and stared at him.
Dawn shrugged with an embarrassed smile at Xander before exaggeratedly mouthing the words, “Hold on. Be right there.” She then turned to her companions and said something to them.
The other two girls looked doubtful for a moment. Then one started laughing and the other gave Dawn a thumbs-up. They turned in unison, waved at Dawn over their shoulders, and walked off with their heads bent together, no doubt gossiping about the weirdo in Starbucks that Dawn was willing to admit she knew.
They barely made it more than a half-dozen steps before Dawn hightailed into Starbucks like her life depended on it.
“Xander!” she squealed the second she popped through the shop door. Her excited shout stopped all conversation in its tracks and drew every eye to her even as it made Xander grin like a loon.
Dawn ran-skipped the last few steps as he got to his feet. Turned out his timing was pretty good there, because Dawn threw her arms around him in a hug. If he hadn’t stood when he did, she’d’ve been squeezing his head and he’d’ve been mashed face-first into her breasts.
“Way to make me feel like a rock star,” Xander grinned down at her has he hugged her back. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I was expecting a friend-ish type hello, so a rock-star hello is pretty awesome.”
Dawn let go and aimed a swat at his upper arm.
“Ow! What was that for?” Xander demanded as he rubbed the point of impact.
“For not calling ahead and telling me you were coming,” Dawn huffed. “I would’ve made plans, as in entertain-you plans.”
“Don’t need entertain-me plans,” Xander said as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “Me from California. Me not tourist. Since me not tourist, me pretty much knows how to entertain me without any help from you.”
“Yeah, but this is L.A.,” Dawn said as she dropped her backpack under his table and pulled over a seat. “You’re not actually from L.A.”
“Yes, I know. We are, in fact, a stone’s throw from UCLA, which is where you have classes,” Xander said as he sat down. “Buffy would kill me if she found out that I encouraged you to play hooky and helped you make up bad excuses that you could email to your professors involving ‘a friend from out of town came to visit and ate my homework.’”
Dawn snorted and rolled her eyes. “Sometimes Buffy thinks she’s my mom, and not my sister.”
“Buffy thinks she’s everybody’s mom.”
“Hey! I so do not have a mom fetish. That’s just weird. And icky. Especially if you met my mom.”
Dawn planted an elbow on the table and plopped her chin into her hand. “God, it’s good to see you,” she grinned at him. “How long as it been? Seven months?”
“It's been almost eight since I saw you and Buffy leave Rome for your big college adventure,” Xander said.
A shaggy-haired college-type guy walked into Starbucks and caught Xander’s eye. He frowned as he tracked the kid’s progress up to the counter.
“So what are you doing here?” Dawn asked, snapping him back to attention.
“Oh. You know. I’m on leave,” Xander airily answered. “Your name came up on the list of people I haven’t imposed on lately, so I figured I’d come visit and remind you why you’re really glad that I usually hang out in a different time zone.”
The college-type guy was standing in line and impatiently tapping his foot. Every once in awhile he glanced over at their table with a puzzled frown.
“Buffy and Willow were busy, hunh?” Dawn asked.
Xander startled. “What? Where do you get that?”
Dawn ticked off her reasons on her fingers. “Buffy’s overworking herself in Rome. Did you know that she hasn’t gone shoe-shopping in more than month? It’s freaky. Willow’s doing something hush-hush with some coven in Rio and is never around, which means every time I call I have to talk to Kennedy. So not a thrill.”
“Hey, Kennedy’s okay. She’s just…driven,” Xander weakly protested.
“Then there’s the fact you haven’t emailed me in almost 3 months, you doof, let alone called.” Dawn swatted at him again, but this time she missed. “I was starting to think you were mad at me.”
“Mad? Why would you think that?” Xander’s one visible eye was inexplicably drawn back to the counter, where the shaggy-haired college guy was placing his order.
“Maybe because you’ve been non-communicative. The fact you’re not even looking at me doesn’t really help,” Dawn answered.
Xander’s attention snapped back to Dawn. “Sorry. Got distracted by something. And no, I’m not mad. I haven’t emailed you in 3 months? Really? I know that’s wrong. I think you’re totally overstating.”
“Okay. You’ve emailed twice in the past 3 months. Both times it was an apology for not emailing more often with an explanation that you’ve gone workaholic and can’t do more than let me know you’re still alive,” Dawn said.
“Oh. I guess I didn’t realize,” Xander winced. “And I have been the kind of busy that’s of the constantly-on-the-run variety.”
Dawn relaxed back into her chair with a genuine smile; as if she really did think that he had been angry at her for some mysterious reason and was relieved to hear that he wasn’t. “So, catch me up on the fabulous adventures of Xander Harris, pan-African man of mystery. Last I heard you were in Malawi.”
“Wow. Guess it has been awhile. I haven’t stepped foot in that country for 3 months. My latest stop on the pan-African tour was Kenya,” Xander distractedly said. The shaggy-haired college guy had left the counter and was now staring at them from underneath his bangs.
Realization on all fronts suddenly dawned. Oh, no. You have got to be kidding me. Someone has got to be playing a bad joke on me. Scratch that, someone’s playing a bad joke on everyone I know. Buffy is going to freak when she finds out.
It took everything he had to stop himself from beating his head against the table out of sheer frustration. Of all things, this was what he was meant to do. This. It was official. The universe had a sense of humor so twisted that it crossed the line into perverse.
“Xander, what’s wrong?” Dawn’s voice indicated that Sunnydale survival instincts had taken over and she was now on alert for badness.
Xander leaned forward and dropped his voice. “That guy near the counter. The one with the shaggy hair and sipping from his cup. You know him?”
Dawn glanced in the direction that he had indicated. “His name’s…Connor? Connelly? I think?” She waved at the guy in question, even as she kept up her explanation in a lowered voice. “He’s in my Classics Lit class. Comes across as one of those slackers who never does his homework, but he’s scary smart. Always knows the material, and always comes up with an angle that gets the professor all hot and bothered in a good way during class discussions. I’ve gotten into some pretty loud arguments with him about some of his weird analyses. Why?”
Shaggy-haired college guy smiled and waved back at Dawn. Xander wasn’t entirely sure if he was smiling because Dawn noticed him, or because he was covering up the fact he’d been caught staring in their direction.
“Because I think he’s heading our way,” Xander said.
Dawn shot Xander a look. “Why would you think that? We barely know each other outside of a few loud discussions in class.”
Right on cue, Dawn’s maybe-secret admirer materialized at their table. “Hey,” he greeted in the cool way that only a L.A. native had.
“Hey, yourself.” Dawn was far less composed.
“So,” the guy began, “I heard a rumor from a friend in one of the other class sections. Pop quiz this afternoon. One question, essay-type. Guess the prof is pretty sure we’re the only two people who actually do the readings.”
Dawn seemed utterly taken aback. “Unh, yeah. Thanks for the warning. Now I’m glad I actually did do the reading last night. I almost put it off because of this bio paper I’m stuck with.”
Oh, Xander couldn’t take one more second of awkward conversation that went nowhere. Besides, he had to shove these two crazy kids together so they could make a connection, or at least the start of one. No time like the present.
“Xander Harris,” he introduced himself. He held out his hand for a handshake.
The guy startled and then juggled his coffee over to his left hand so he could properly return Xander’s offer. “Connor Reilly.”
“Xander’s a friend,” Dawn quickly intervened. “He went to high school with my big sister, and he’s visiting me from out of town. So I guess you might say he’s a friend of the family.”
“From Sunnydale,” Xander added just a little bit too cheerfully.
Dawn’s and Connor’s eyes snapped to him in unison. Dawn looked horrified that Xander had dared to volunteer that kind of information to a stranger. Connor simply looked shocked.
“Unh, Sunnydale?” Connor hesitantly asked. “I…I…why does that sound familiar?”
“Don’t know. Can’t tell you,” Dawn quickly answered.
“Gas explosion. Ate the whole town. It’s now one big crater that bears more than passing resemblance to the Grand Canyon,” Xander said.
Dawn looked at him like she was seriously considering dumping his venti white chocolate mocha on his head.
“At least,” Xander leaned forward as he mischievously added, “that’s what they claim. If I were you, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.”
“Xander—” Dawn warned. She suddenly snapped her head around so she could look up at Connor. “He’s kidding. He’s such a kidder. He’s always making bad jokes.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think I’ve heard a few of those conspiracy theories.” If Connor was trying to sound sarcastic he was missing the mark by a mile, not that Dawn seemed to be in any state of mind to notice. Xander could practically see the guy’s antennae rise and start pointing in his direction. “I’ve heard everything from aliens to secret government experiments.”
Xander shrugged as he grinned at him. “Wow. Really off the mark. And we should know, since we were on the very last bus out of Sunnydale, right Dawn?”
Dawn looked at Xander with murder in her eyes. “We don’t like to talk about it,” she spit.
Connor moved back a step. Maybe he was surprised, or maybe because he could sense that Dawn was building up some quality rage. “I…I understand. How you feel, I mean.”
“Really,” Dawn said through a tight jaw as she glared at Xander.
“Last May, I had some friends and…and family get caught in that thing that happened here in town. Several city blocks looked like they exploded. There wasn’t anything left but rubble.” Connor looked like the confession was being pulled out of his mouth against his will. “They said that was a gas explosion, too. I'm not sure I believe it, though.”
Dawn’s head whipped around as she angrily said, “You shouldn't, because we found—”
Xander watched as Dawn’s brain screeched to a halt. She lifted a hand to her mouth and her eyes were big with the horror of what she almost admitted out loud.
Connor stared down at her with wide eyes of his own. Xander could tell that he was already filling in a few blanks about the pair of them. He didn’t seem in the least bit horrified or surprised, but Xander didn’t know the guy well enough to get a good read his expression beyond that. There was knowingness in those eyes, certainly. Understanding, most definitely. Other things were mixed in as well that were too complicated for Xander to name.
One thing was certain, however. Connor was most definitely going to be keeping his eye on Dawn for the foreseeable future. Xander could only count that as a good thing, even if Connor was a potentially brain-bending complication for everyone else in Dawn’s life.
Dawn moved her hand away from her face, revealing that her lips were pressed into a white line.
Connor began to uneasily shift. “I, unh, I should be going. I promised that I’d help Moocher prepare for the quiz. In Classics Lit. Later today.”
Dawn shakily nodded. “A name like Moocher? No way he did the reading. You better go.”
“Right. Yeah.” Connor awkwardly paused. “It was nice to meet you…Xander, right?”
“Yeah,” Xander answered with a nod. “Back atchya, Connor.”
“See you later, Dawn,” Connor quickly said.
“Later,” Dawn answered without looking at him.
Connor left the area so fast that Xander was pretty sure he left skid marks.
The guy was barely out the door before Dawn leaned across the table with furious, narrowed eyes and snarled. “What were you thinking?”
“What?” Xander asked as he spread his hands, the very picture of all innocence and light.
“Telling him about…about…you know.” Dawn was fighting very hard to keep her voice down.
Xander leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Do you mean to tell me that no one knows that you’re from Sunnydale?” he asked in a normal tone of voice.
“Xander! Not so loud,” Dawn ordered as her eyes darted around the Starbucks.
Xander uncrossed his arms and leaned forward with a serious expression on his face. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t realize that your hometown was a big state secret.”
“It’s not. I just don’t advertise it, that’s all,” Dawn said.
“You mean you don’t admit it even if you’re directly asked,” Xander countered.
Dawn looked away from him and glared out the window. “Let’s just say I find something else to talk about when the subject comes up.”
“Why?” Xander especially liked the way he made that question sound like he was surprised and hurt by this revelation.
Dawn's expression softened just a touch as she looked back at him. “You know why,” she quietly said.
“Is it because Sunnydale has a weird reputation?” Xander asked. “’Cause if it is, you should probably know that Sunnydale always had a weird reputation. Remember that one summer I was in Oxnard? I remember a couple of people who backed slowly away from me after I told them the name of the ol' hometown. So, if that’s what you’re worried about, you should know that it’s totally nothing new. Besides, anyone who makes a negative judgment about you based on the fact that you grew up in Sunnydale is probably not someone you want to be friends with anyway. So I don’t get the whole hush-hush thing you’ve got going.”
“Because your Sunnydale weird and my Sunnydale weird is totally different,” Dawn said.
“Now it’s a crater. That makes my Sunnydale waaaaay weirder than yours.”
“Dawn, Sunnydale’s part of your history,” Xander argued. “You can’t just toss it aside like it’s some Tweety Bird watch you’ve outgrown. If you do that, you’re pretty much throwing out your family with it.”
“It’s not the same thing,” Dawn firmly said. She paused. “Did you just compare Sunnydale to a Tweety Bird watch?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“No, no, no. You were the one who brought up the Tweety Bird watch.”
“Dawn,” Xander gritted through his front teeth.
“You’re still reaching even without the Tweety Bird watch,” Dawn huffed. “C’mon, I introduced Buffy around when she escorted me here back in August. I told Amy and Jean that you were a friend of mine from back home just now. So denying that I’m from Sunnydale is not denying that I know any of you, no matter how you slice it.”
“Maybe,” Xander doubtfully said, “but it’s a pretty short step between the two.”
Dawn leaned back and stared at him as if she couldn’t believe what he just said. “I’d never…how could you even say…Xander, do you really think I’d do that? Honestly?”
Xander didn’t answer. Instead, he picked up his coffee cup and sipped from it.
“Can you please at least listen to my explanation before you get all judge-y on me?” Dawn defensively asked.
Xander made a show of shrugging. “Illuminate me.”
“‘Illuminate me?’ God, you really have been hanging around with Watchers,” Dawn remarked.
Dawn nervously looked around, as if she was afraid someone was trying to listen in on their conversation, before she leaned forward and explained in a lowered voice, “There’s this one girl in my psych study group who’s obsessed with Sunnydale and Sunnydale conspiracy theories. And by obsessed, I mean she belongs to all these groups online that are always talking about the latest rumors. She’s even,” here Dawn shuddered, “started a Web site and companion MySpace page that’s full o’ links to the latest and greatest theories. What’s worse, she shares these theories. With us. The study group. It’s creepifying.”
“Dawn,” Xander sighed as he shook his head, “there will always be people on the highway who’ll slow down so they can get a better look at a horrific car crash. This is no different.”
“But it’s my car crash,” Dawn said. “And I don’t like it when people stare at me like I’m some kind of victim.”
“You’re not a victim,” Xander soothed.
“And I plan to keep it that way.”
Xander rubbed his temples as he desperately tried to think. This approach was not working. He had to try something else.
“I didn’t mean to land into you like a ton of bricks,” he finally said.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“Dawn, I’m sorry.” Xander looked up at her. “I’ve got a lot on my plate and I totally took it out on you. It’s my bad, not yours.”
Defensive Dawn was very quickly replaced by Worried Dawn. “What happened? Buffy’s okay, isn’t she?”
“She’s fine,” Xander quickly answered.
“But you, not so much,” Dawn added for him. “You didn’t just come here for a visit, did you?”
Xander leaned forward and held out his hand as he desperately thought about his next step. Dawn grabbed it and squeezed it tight.
“Yes and no. I’m kind of on the lam,” he lied.
“You left the Council because of some trouble?” Dawn asked as she squeezed his hand again.
“No. Oh, no. Nothing like that.” Xander smiled at her. He knew it was a pretty weak smile. “Turns out I pissed off some black hats in Africa. Giles thought it was probably for the best if I disappear for awhile.”
“This sounds pretty dire. Dare I ask?”
Xander nervously cleared his throat. “Let’s just say these guys want to talk to me really, really badly and they’re on a Xander-hunt. If they catch me, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to live to collect my nifty Council pension.”
“Oh, Xander,” Dawn sympathetically whispered. “What happened?”
Xander shook his head. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“Xander,” Dawn snapped as she painfully squeezed his hand, “I’m not 15 anymore. Stop treating me like Buffy’s dumb kid sister.”
Xander let go of her hand, but he remained leaning forward. “You’re going to find out anyway, so maybe I should warn you.”
“What?” Dawn impatiently asked. “Just tell me already.”
Xander kept his visible eye on her. “The Council’s in the middle of a civil war.”
“What?” Dawn gasped. “How on earth—”
“A few Watchers have decided that world domination is the way to go if they want to stop all evil,” Xander interrupted. “Giles has a few objections to that. So do I, actually. Pretty much all of the usual suspects do, too.”
“Oh my God,” Dawn quietly interjected.
“People have already started shooting at each other. It’s only going to get worse,” Xander said.
“How did this happen?” Dawn looked and sounded like she was close to tears.
“Does it matter?” Xander knew he sounded resigned, but he couldn’t help it. “That’s why I’ve been incommunicado. I’ve been doing the James Bond thing all over east Africa in an effort to figure out who’s still on our side and who’s signed on with the other team.”
Dawn nervously licked her lips as she scanned the Starbucks for anyone who might be a little too interested in their conversation. “How bad does it look for our side?”
Xander waggled a hand. “It’s 70-30 at the moment, including both Watchers and the Slayers the Council has actually found. The majority is on our side.”
“That’s good news,” Dawn said with relief.
“Not so fast. The other side has hooked up with a group of Malawi witches and wizards,” Xander said. “They’re not evil, per se, but they’re an ends-justify-the-means kind of crowd. That means they’re not afraid to use black magics and ethically questionable tactics if they think the greater good is at stake. That’s why I was in Malawi 3 months ago. I was tracking down rumors that some magic cult had hooked up with some malcontent Watchers. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending how you look at it, I found proof that it was true.”
“Ummmm, not to upset you or anything, but we’ve got a witch like that,” Dawn nervously pointed out.
“Willow’s long past that way of thinking,” Xander said with more certainty that he really felt. “She knows from experience of the first-hand kind that, sooner or later, the dark stuff will suck you in and make you lose all perspective. And she’ll be the first to tell you that this kind of mindset makes the Malawi group more dangerous, not less. They think they’re absolutely in the right, and that they’re doing something for the greater good. They’re not about to back down, even if they know they’re going to lose.”
Dawn seemed lost in thought.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you really do need to know,” Xander apologetically said.
“Right,” Dawn quietly said as she got to her feet.
Xander stayed right where he was. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“First to the Registrar’s so I can drop out. Then back to my dorm room to pack,” Dawn firmly said.
“Are you coming with, or not?” Dawn interrupted. “I hope you are, because I could use some help packing.”
“Dawn, you shouldn’t go,” Xander said.
Dawn frowned down at him.
“Buffy would feel a whole lot better if you were here out of harm’s way instead of in Rome with her, because I guarantee that Rome’s going to be one of the first big battles of the Council's shooting war.” The minute he said it, Xander knew he just made a huge error in judgment. He couldn't have come up with a justification to stay put that would piss her off even more if he tried.
Dawn went white with fury and she clutched her chair hard enough to make it creak. “You of all people tell me to stay away. You,” she said barely above an infuriated whisper. “And after you accusing me of pretending none of you existed. How could you?”
Xander cringed. “Dawn, sit down. Please let me explain.”
Dawns nostrils flared and her jaw squared. “I think I’ll leave.”
She reached down to grab her backpack, but Xander already had both his feet firmly on it and he was pressing down with everything he had.
“Fine,” she stood up, “I can leave without it.”
She turned to storm out of the Starbucks when Xander leapt to his feet and shouted, “Because you’ll be needed here more than ever when things start getting even more out of control!”
Dawn froze in mid-stride. Everyone in the coffee shop stopped to stare at the pair of them.
Xander just hoped that a thunderbolt wouldn’t come down and fry him on the spot. He had so spectacularly screwed this up that it defied even his expectations of a spectacular screw-up.
He nervously turned to face all of those stares aimed in his direction. “Family argument,” he weakly explained. “Problems with our parents. Alzheimer’s. She wants to go home; I want her to stay in school. You know how it is.”
A few people exchanged rolled eyes. Others shook their heads in knowing sympathy. A couple of people looked like they didn’t entirely buy it, but they were willing to be convinced if the young lady didn’t object.
As it turned out, the lady didn’t object. Dawn quietly turned around and, with economic movements, recovered her chair and sat in it. She didn’t look at him the entire time.
Xander nervously cleared his throat and said to everyone, “Thanks for the concern, though.”
“Finished?” Dawn asked in a low voice.
“Sort of,” Xander just as quietly answered as he sat down again. No thunderbolt smacking him down yet. That had to be a good thing.
“So let me guess. Buffy’s big plan is to make sure I stay here and your job is to lie to me until I agree to it.” Dawn sounded deeply disappointed. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the target.
“Actually, no one knows I’m here,” Xander admitted.
Dawn gave him a dose of the disbelieving fish-eye.
“It’s true,” Xander said with a shrug. “Giles told me to take a powder, but to keep it low profile and not tell anyone where I was going. In 2 weeks, I get to check in and find out if it’s safe for me to stick my head out of the proverbial foxhole. To be honest, I could use the vacation, so I’m not complaining too loudly.”
“So you sort of lied,” Dawn accused.
“Got me there,” Xander admitted with a wince. “But I wasn’t lying about the part where Buffy wants to keep you out of the line of fire, at least for as long as she can. It’s more than just her wanting to keep you safe. She’s really proud of you and she doesn’t want the family business to ruin your chances of a getting a college education.”
“Like it did for Buffy and Willow,” Dawn said.
“Yeah. Like that,” Xander agreed. “Although in Willow’s case, she pretty much shot herself in the foot along the way because of the black magic addiction thing.”
“So it’s totally just you trying to convince me to stay out of it.” Dawn shook her head. “God, you of all people.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dawn focused her disappointed eyes on him. “You were the one that said we had things to contribute, even though we weren’t chosen and we weren’t special. Now here you are trying to convince me to be totally fray-adjacent before anyone else tries it. You. You of all people should know how that feels. And yet, here you are the first in line to try it.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to tell—”
“Hello? Do people forget that I’m Buffy’s sister?” Dawn interrupted. “Maybe you guys want me to stay out of it, but what makes you think the bad guys are going to agree? I mean, hello? Possible hostage sitting right here. I’ve been kidnapped enough to know how this works. It’s a case of ‘a matter of time,’ not ‘never going to happen.’”
“Will you please let me say something in my defense here?” Xander plaintively asked.
Dawn waved a hand at him. “Sure. Why not? I can’t imagine anything else you could say that’ll hurt my feelings even more than they already are.”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings,” Xander apologetically said.
“Yeah, well. Little late now.”
“Listen, if you think things are looking grim now, they’re going to get a whole lot grimmer.” Xander leaned forward and hoped like hell he was getting through to her. “I can guarantee that a lot of people are going to be killed, and there are days when it’s going to look like that we’re going to lose it all.”
“Pretty much figured that out when you told me about the Malawi magic users,” Dawn petulantly said.
“Let me finish.”
Dawn ungraciously inclined her head to grant him permission to speak.
“The difference between our side and theirs is that they can throw everything they’ve got at us, but we can’t throw everything we got at them,” Xander explained.
“How do you figure that?”
“Giles is trying to work out a plan where we can fight the bad guys, but still do our regular jobs,” Xander said. “You know, fighting random evil, averting the occasional apocalypse, keeping innocent people from getting munched.”
All trace of Dawn’s anger and hurt disappeared as she considered what Xander said. “Even I can see that’s a problem.”
“And it’s bigger than you think,” Xander agreed. “Because you and me? We don’t need to be seers to figure out how this is going to go. The war’ll get ugly, both sides will lose lots of people, and the Council and the Slayers on its side will eventually get backed in the corner and have to start fighting a war of survival instead of a police action. I guarantee that something, maybe a lot of somethings, are going to have to slide. Certainly until the shooting stops, but maybe a long time after the dust has settled because, no matter what, the Council’s going to have piece itself back together with whomever and whatever is left.”
Dawn’s head slowly turned and until she was looking out of the window and at the passers-by. Her face was pale, and her chin trembled as the implications of what Xander had said sunk in.
Xander kept his eye on her. “All of those innocent people, Dawn, and not one of those people realize that the monster under the bed can be real, and that not all of the monsters on the street are human.”
Dawn gave her head a hard shake as she turned to look back at him. “I was thinking that it’s more like a whole lot of people are going to get trapped in the middle of this civil war.”
“That, too,” Xander softly agreed. “So, you’ve got to ask yourself, when the Council has to start looking out for number one because its very existence is at stake, and the other side doesn’t give a crap because they’re focused on some theoretical long-term good, who’s looking out for them?” He jerked his chin toward the world outside. “Seems to me that someone has to, and it seems to me that someone may have to fight to make that decision stick.”
Dawn looked sharply at him. “You think Buffy’s going to ask me to join her in Rome to help.”
“No. At least, not any time soon,” Xander shook his head. “A year from now? Maybe two when things look grim? Giles will be calling in anyone and everyone in the reserves to lend a hand. My bet? You’ll be at the top of the list.”
Dawn frowned in confusion. “So then what are you telling me? Go? Don’t go? What?”
“All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t go running to Buffy’s or Giles’s side because they suddenly need recruits with experience, or because you think you have to, or because you feel obligated,” Xander quietly answered. “Go only if you think it’s the right thing to do, and I’m not talking about in your head, but in your heart.”
“As answers go, that’s pretty obscure,” Dawn complained.
“Look, I can’t tell you what to do.” Xander fought the urge to throw up his hands in frustration. “But as you said, you’re Buffy’s sister, and the forces of badness aren’t going to leave you alone because we ask them to nicely. And I honestly don’t think it’s in you to stand by and do nothing if you see or hear that something bad is coming down and people are going to get killed. I’m just pointing out that there’s more than one war going on here, and it’s a matter of time before the Council has to pick one or the other. Someone needs to be here if it goes the practical route and focuses on its civil war, instead of us normal people.”
“Well, that’s not at all depressing to hear,” Dawn quietly said.
At least she wasn’t angry. At least she was thinking about what he said. He’d take it and be glad.
“That’s the problem with being not chosen,” Xander said.
Dawn gave him a confused look.
Xander picked up his coffee cup and saluted her with a toast. “Because in the end, we're the ones who have to do the choosing.”
“Hear, hear,” Dawn quietly agreed as she watched Xander take a sip from his cup.