Walk On By

The full moon swells and scrapes against the graceful, arching columns of Rome, and if he squints with his one good eye, the rooftops of the city smudge into a blur and he can almost pretend it's the same moon he's been living under in Africa for the last few months.

The sounds are different here. When he'd first gotten to Africa, the incessant drone of insects and the call of night-birds had been enough to keep him lying awake at night, and the occasional crash through the foliage by some preying or preyed animal had sent him fleeing from the bed to the window, eyes wide and chest heaving. Even Africa has its undead, from vampires to ju-ju zombies to even more horrific things, and the thin walls of that place that hadn't seemed enough like home yet to keep them all out was just as foreign as the landscape around him.

Now he listens to the sounds of water, and the hum of cars, distant conversations like broken bits of music that bleed through from the background. And though it should be familiar, a comforting buzz of noise that speaks of cities and people and all the things he grew up with, it somehow seems even more foreign than the place he has come from.

Home is a crater in Southern California with all his memories crushed at the bottom, and sometimes, like now, when he is wide awake and electric with thought, he wonders if it was ever really his home at all. It seems like a dream now. Like someone else's life.

His empty eye socket seems to mock this thought, and the ghosts of memory that still plague his heart are written with the name Anya. Most times, he tries not to think about it. Sunnydale had been home to so many horrible things; things that were better off buried in a crater at the bottom of the west coast.

But there had been good things, too, hadn't there?

Buffy climbs quietly from the window, long legs rustling beneath the sweep of her diaphanous skirt as she joins him on the roof, the bottle of red wine that they hadn't finished at dinner clasped in her left hand.

She sits down next to him and draws her knees up, and they stay like that for a long time in silence.

"I'm glad you're here," she says after a while.

"Well, you know me," he says trying for glib and failing. "Never could pass up a good home cooked meal. Or any meal," he adds as an afterthought.

She chuckles and shakes her head, and it's a sound that echoes in memory. "I wouldn't call that a meal," she says, hunching up her shoulders beneath her hair. "I think I've eaten hockey pucks that were chewier than that meatloaf."

"On the other hand, you did keep to the Slayer instincts. That hamburger has definitely seen its last moo."

"Yeah," she chuckles again, and this time it's less dry. "I'm like the Sarah Connor of the kitchen."

"And not too shabby with a deck of cards, either. You'd have had rummy for sure if that glass of wine hadn't decided to go and get all twitchy."

She laughs and slips her arm through his, leaning her head against his shoulder. Golden blond strands tickle his face, drawn by the gentle night wind, and the scent of peaches and strawberry surrounds his senses. There'd been a time when he'd thought he could live in that intimate place beneath her hair, sheltered and warm. So far away and so long ago.

"I've missed you, Xand," she whispers, and nuzzles her cheek against him.

"Yeah. Me too, Buff," he says, and leans his head down against hers, indulging himself for a brief moment. And then instinct and years of training kick in and he sits up straight again, joke popping out almost before he can stop himself. "Good old Xander, always there in a pinch for a killer hand of 'Go Fish'." Only it comes out far more bitter than he intended it to.

She stills against him, and he takes a deep breath, trying to find the words to smooth over what he's just said. But then she raises her head to him, gazes deep into his eyes, and he forgets that there are things such as words.

"No. It's more than that."

The moonlight catches in her eyes the way it did in more than half his teenage fantasies, and suddenly he's forgotten how to breathe.

He doesn't belong here. He doesn't belong anywhere—but especially not here. Not like this.

"It…uh… it is?" And he knows he sounds like an idiot, but he can't help it. What does she mean? What is she saying? Did he do something?

She nods, her face almost serene, and smiles, reaches out with one hand to touch his cheek. "All these years, Xander… Haven't you ever wondered…?"

Only every day of my life.

"Buff, are you sure you didn't have too much wine?" He's trying for playful, jovial, but his laugh comes out more like a nervous titter.

"No," she says, and grins. "But I'm sure about this."

She leans up and kisses him, lips sweet and soft like bubblegum, tentative and questing, as if afraid he might turn away, reject her.

It's the funniest thing that's happened to him in a long, long time.

"I love you, Xander," she says, and somehow it's an apology, a caution and an entreaty all at once. Pink, bow-shaped lips make the sounds they have always made, and yet now they form them in the way he's always wanted to hear. Longing, loneliness, desire all lend them a razor sharp edge that slices along the edge of his barriers, peels back a layer from his heart, and suddenly he's sixteen again—all uncertainty and hero-worship-puppy-dog love.

He's been in love with her for so long and forced to deny it so vehemently that he'd nearly forgotten he ever loved her in the first place.

She's different than Anya. The way her mouth moves against his, the way her hands caress him. Anya had been no stranger to hot, desperate sex, but strangely, she'd had a way of softening it, of making it sweet even when they were being rough, like vanilla ice cream with the harsh, exotic taste of instant coffee layered on top. Buffy's like a fire who needs kindling to survive.

She opens her mouth and her body to him, and he enters, trembling with trepidation and awe that still exists despite the tempering of years. It could be different between them. There could be sweetness here—the tender love that has always existed between them could be stoked, made brighter and stronger by this act between them—but there isn't. Even now, inside her, he is still a normal, bumbling teenage boy who will never be quite good enough, quite exciting enough to be anything more to her than a moment's pleasure.

He is kindling, and he is consumed.

...............................................................................................................................................

It never occurs to him to wonder if Buffy may be just as lost as he is. If she's trying to find home in him the same way he's been longing to find it in something. And when he gathers his things to return to Africa, he never stops to wonder if the surprise and hurt in her eyes is due to anything other than the loss of her "boy-toy". He doesn't judge her for this. He simply knows that it's the best he could ever be for her.

Maybe she thinks she could love him. Maybe she's decided that she's ready to settle down into a normal life now that there are other Slayers in the world, and good old, normal Xander Harris just happens to be available. Once, there was a time when he would have jumped on this with both feet and damned the torpedoes, but now, he knows better.

A soft kiss and a parting word, and neither of them really wants to leave it like this. They'd both rather stay here, safe in each others arms with the illusion of comfort and familiarity, but he knows it would never be real enough to satisfy either of them.

He could stay. He could be what she wants. At least, until she figures out that he's not really what she wants at all. He's the normal guy. The regular Joe. The one who's always a hero but never gets the girl. He accepted that a long time ago.

So he packs his bags and boards the plane, and it never does occur to him that maybe the reason there'd been no sweetness between them, no tender love, is because he'll never believe he deserves it.

There's nothing quite like the demons that live inside your skin.