Title: Arriving Home in Winter
Summary: Xander and Dawn arrive in Cleveland for the holidays.
Story Notes: Futurefic, post-Chosen.
Author's Notes: Thank you, Ten. It's Tom's turn next!
Disclaimer: Characters originally created by Joss Whedon. Taking 'em out to play, that's all.
He had arrived at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport Baggage Claims area. Xander stood dumbly for a couple of minutes, frowning at the many banks of baggage carousels, trying to remember his flight number while other grumpy passengers jostled past him. Then he remembered. He didn't have any baggage to collect. He should move on - find a phone and start making calls to ask for directions to the Cleveland Council House.
He pulled out his trusty notebook, the one he'd taken to scribbling every piece of important information in, if only he could ever find the relevant page to retrieve the information from. He leafed through the worn pages for the list of Cleveland Watchers' phone numbers.
"Xander? Oh my God, it is you! Xander!"
He raised his head, just in time to be grabbed in a bear hug by a slim female with long, dark, smooth hair. He remained still for a moment, then slowly raised his arms to hug her back. She laughed over his shoulder.
"I can't believe it. I was hoping that I'd run into you right here at the airport but I didn't know what time your flight was coming in."
She planted a kiss on his cheek. They disengaged from the hug and stood apart to study each other.
"Dawn. My God." He gaped. She was taller by another couple of inches and the height looked very good on her. But that was about the only good thing he could honestly say about how she looked.
"Xander. You look good. You're still with that eye-patch, but - looking really good."
"Dawn. So do you. You look...." he hesitated, searched for something to say, realized that if there was nothing good to say, he should lie. "Beautiful."
Dawn beamed. He resisted the urge to scrub away the lipstick that he was sure she had smacked onto his cheek. She had too much lipstick on. Too much lipstick, too much eyeliner, too much mascara. Her rouge, fortunately, was moderately conservative, but that couldn't save the rest of her face. She wore a lime green wool scarf loosely around her neck. Her dress - good God, her dress. The cut was too low, the hem too short.
Cordelia might've made the dress work. Cordy. She'd still have looked like a teenage slut, but she'd pull off the whole classy teenage slut who wanted to look like a classy older teenage slut. Cordy could've done it. But Cordy had always looked like she was old enough to pull off such fashion stunts. Dawn looked like she was trying too hard to look like a woman, and having failed to reach that target, had settled for looking like a cheap tramp who could at least afford make-up.
Did Buffy actually let her get on the plane looking like this?
"When did your flight arrive?" Dawn asked. He resisted yet another urge: to take off his jacket and try to modestly hide her in it.
"Just arrived. Maybe fifteen, twenty minute ago." He decided to concentrate on feeling joy that he was in her company. Ignore appearances for appearances sake. It was the company that mattered.
"Right out of Africa?"
"No, had to stop in France. It was an arranged flight, an evacuation thing - everyone out and into France. So I came in from Paris."
"Get out! I almost took a Paris flight, but at the last minute a seat opened up for direct Rome - New York - Cleveland. But if I'd known I'd have taken Paris."
"It's a big airport they have there in Paris. We might not have bumped into each other anyway."
"We bumped into each other here," Dawn pointed out. She gave him a once-over that came across as more predatory than what he'd expect from Dawn. In fact, if she weren't Dawn, and were five years older, the way she was looking at him might've made him puff with machismo. Since this was Dawn, he was decidedly uncomfortable. "Xander, you're all lean, mean, fighting machine. You're hot."
It took him a couple of seconds to realize that she wasn't mocking him. All the same, he wondered about what she was saying, and then it clicked into place. The last time she had seen him had been post-Sunnydale collapse: he'd lost weight but he had still been the blue collar Joe with developing flab. He had since grown rather lean and tanned from the work and time in Africa. It just never occurred to him that that fact would be noticed, let alone impress anybody.
A bell went off, and the nearest carousel cranked to life as luggage trundled up from the depths of the airport complex to land all askew on the flat carousel blades.
"Oh, that's mine," Dawn exclaimed, and barged into the impatient wall of waiting luggage-owners. She poked her way through, and then looked back at him. She shot him an exasperated scowl and made exaggerated hand gestures, and he realized that she expected him to help her catch her bags. He sighed, pocketed his notebook, and grabbed an orphaned trolley. Somehow he managed to poke his way through as well, and waited beside her as pieces of luggage floated by.
She tapped his shoulder and pointed. "There, that one."
It was a big Samsonite, looking like it would weigh about half as much as he did. He grabbed the handle to lift it off the carousel - no, he was wrong. It weighed very much more than half his weight.
He was trying to position it on the trolley when Dawn grabbed at his arm. "That one too."
This one was a large pink Samsonite case. He was belatedly reminded that he should always bend his knees when lifting. His back hardly had time to rest; Dawn was pointing at another suitcase. And yet another. All Samsonite hardcases. He started to suspect that this had to be one of those strange cliché jokes about travelling women and endless luggage.
"All these are yours?" The four bags barely fit on the trolley and he was panting from the strain of lifting and positioning them. "Tell me that you filled the bags with cast iron weapons."
A few heads turned and he bit his tongue. Dawn giggled a bit too hysterically, and tugged his wrist to make him move. They pushed the trolley off to the side, where she retrieved the winter coat she'd left unattended on an empty bench.
Xander concluded that the only reason nobody had tried to steal that coat was because it was God awful tacky. It was one of those expensive winter coats which guaranteed contained warmth for the wearer while making the wearer look like a walking futon. This one also happened to boast a violent pink and bright yellow patchwork design that made Xander's eye ache from colour strain. If a human being had designed this, then that human needed to be taken out somewhere to have his fingers broken so that he could never pick up another pencil to sketch anything ever again.
Dawn added her carry-on bag and the coat to the already precarious balance of Samsonite bags and they started pushing towards Immigration and Customs, trolley wheels creaking from the excess burden. Dawn's heels tapped too loudly on the waxed terminal floor, and he wondered how she could walk in heels that high.
"Wait." Dawn stopped in her tracks and Xander almost slammed into the trolley bar before he had time to recover his momentum. "Xander, where's your luggage?"
"I arranged for my things to be shipped. Well, I asked that my things be shipped, if possible. There wasn't much time to do any actual packing. It was a get out now or not at all kind of deal."
They started walking and pushing again. She glanced at his back, where his knapsack was slung over both shoulders. A year ago it was an army-green coloured bag, now it was dirt-smudged gray. He'd packed it up with as much as it could hold, and it was tearing a little at the seams.
"That's it? That's all you carried out of Africa?"
"More than what we had coming out of Sunnydale."
"That's true." She leaned on him, briefly. "I'm glad you're safe, Xander. I was so worried when I heard about the coup. I kept calling Giles to ask if he'd heard from you, if you'd gotten out."
"They let us leave. All expatriates and UN aid workers and...." He shrugged. "It was their war. They just wanted everyone else out of the way."
"UN aid worker. That's you."
"I was with UNICEF mostly, yeah." It galled him, that he had to leave when they'd begun been making progress, had started to see that the tide could be turned and lives saved. And it hurt him in a deeper place in his heart that he had had to abandon her - the newest Slayer he had found - when she was still most vulnerable.
"But what about your coat? You don't even have your coat?"
"There's no winter in equatorial Africa."
"You were in Paris."
"So? I just stayed inside the terminal building. Duh."
She retorted with her own, "Duh." A moment later, she said, "You have to tell me all about Africa. I'm thinking of taking up Political Science - that's a three-credit paper. Anything you tell me about their politics and their situation down there is so going to be beneficial. You'll be like my best reconnoiter and on-the-site man."
He was annoyed that she was draping the whole continent of Africa with a 'situation down there' blanket. "There're a lot of countries in Africa, Dawn. You might want to narrow down your field of interest."
"It's not like you tell us where you've been. I haven't received an e-mail from you in a year!"
"What? I sent you postcards."
"Postcards! You don't write, you don't call, nobody really knows how you're really doing, and all you say is 'I sent you postcards'. And some of them aren't even African scenery postcards. You just used freebie cards out of airport bars."
"Sure. Nobody ever appreciates the time it takes to get to a post office and line up to buy stamps. And the licking. Do you realize how much stamp glue I swallowed just for you?"
"Just pointing things out."
"Well, what were you doing with UNICEF?"
"We help kids."
"You know, I never thought you'd be a volunteer for helping kids. I'm not saying you're not good with kids, but I mean, little kids - "
"We're not talking kindergarten kids, Dawnie. These are the sick kids. I helped the doctors out. Kids with HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition."
"Oh. I mean, that's ... heavy."
"You were in a medical team?"
"Well, I was a volunteer. Call me the UN carpenter, ready handyman, always at hand!" He paused for effect. "Anyway, doctors tend to be where UNICEF is, and there's a good number of UNICEF teams, so it was just easier for me to be affiliated with them. Made it easier to cross borders or jump from one team to another whenever I had to. And you know something I realized pretty early on? When you're on your own, it's always best to be wherever the doctors are. You're always gonna need them."
"Right. That was a great idea, hitching up with the UN."
"I don't know why Giles isn't making the same arrangements for other Council people. You know, making that UN affiliation for other parts of the world."
"My UN job has nothing to do with the Council. Wasn't Giles that got me the job."
"I knew somebody. He helped me."
"Helped you? That's how you got to be in the UN?"
"Yup. And out to Africa. You don't know him - Greg Toulin, he was the General Manager of the company that owned the construction company I worked for, back in Sunnydale. It was getting near the end, but I was still finishing up some work for him at his place and when things started getting really bad, I told him that he should get his family out of there. Out of Sunnydale. He didn't want to at first, but then I don't know, maybe he saw something and got freaked enough and he packed his family up and left.
"Anyway, turned out that he never forgot that I was the one who told him - the first one to tell him - that the shit was going to hit the fan. The way he figured, I saved his life and his family. He actually tracked me down after Sunnydale, and when he found me he said he'd do whatever he could to return the favour. He's a guy with a lot of connections."
He sensed her start beside him and he amended, "No, no, nothing illegal. I'm talking about connections with foundations and non-governmental groups. He's got some say in things. Like a really strong recommendation that I could do the job."
"So, you mean, you asked him to help you get to Africa?"
"I thought Giles assigned you to Africa."
"Well, he did, because I had that job with the UN."
"Oh." Seemed like there was a strong hint of discontent, there.
"Oh? What's that 'oh' for?"
"No, I mean, I'm just ... well, the whole you going to Africa thing - well, yeah, Giles needed someone to get out there but it did seem like you were trying to get away - "
"Okay. But I never knew about this other guy arranging things for you. I mean, it sounds like you would have gone to Africa anyway."
He nodded, a bobbing motion that he knew Dawn could see from the corner of her eye.
"What did that guy want?"
"He didn't want anything from me, Dawn. He just wanted to return a favour. The way he saw it, I saved his life. He wanted to make sure I was okay. That I got a job. Whatever."
"But how did he manage to track you down?"
"It's not like I changed my name."
"Yeah, but it wasn't like we were advertising ourselves."
"I was in a hospital, Dawn, remember?"
He hadn't suffered injuries as serious as Robin Wood, but right at the first hospital they got to after Sunnydale, someone realized that aside from the terrible retching, he was burning a high fever - the stress, the trauma and the meds had finally all combined to break him down - and he had to be hospitalized for almost a week. Aside from the lingering pain from the loss of his eye, that was the worst his health had been in the immediate aftermath of Sunnydale, and he had been downright miserable. If only he'd known then that that wasn't the worst worst his life could get, healthcare-wise.
"Yeah, okay. But he tracked you down. He searched for you. That's just ... isn't that weird?"
He couldn't remember if Dawn had always been naturally suspicious, or if it was an instinct that she'd honed over the years. Either way, he was actually quite proud of her, being this wary and careful. She'd always stand a chance to stay safe if she kept her head this way.
"It was, when he first contacted me," he admitted. "But he was offering me a chance, and I wanted one."
He suspected that Greg Toulin had most probably suffered a severe attack of survivor's guilt when he learned about Xander's losses - he'd tried to coax Xander into leaving Sunnydale with his family but Xander had insisted on staying - Toulin seemed to feel that he should have done more. Hence the strong motivation in Toulin's earnestness to help Xander pick himself up again. Xander detested pity, but he appreciated Toulin's sincerity, and Toulin had come through for him. In the end, that was what mattered.
"I really wanted to get away."
They were well in the queue for the Immigration check, and the conversation lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Other people in line fidgeted quietly, while those who chatted did so softly. Not the most conducive time for a prolonged discussion. In fact, there should never be a conducive time for this discussion. He would have to remember to keep telling enough exotic stories about Africa in the hope that that would distract people from trying to revisit the issue of why Africa.
Dawn looked dour, clearly displeased by his declaration, but she wasn't acting like she was hurt or offended. He took that as a sign of growing maturity. She'd always hated the implication that people were trying to leave her, and in his case, he really had wanted to get away from her, and from Buffy and Willow and Giles. All those whom he'd fought with and would have died for. All of whom he still loved.
It had been his own survivor's guilt driving him to yearn to hate unconditionally: hate Buffy for not being a better Slayer, a better tactician, a better leader; hate Giles for not being a more competent Watcher, for not being smart enough to stop the First in its tracks; hate Willow for not activating the Potentials earlier, for not using her power when she could have, for being too afraid to use her powers when she should have. He'd even wanted to hate Dawn for being there in the school with him. If he hadn't been paired up with Dawn during the final battle, he might've been with Anya. He wasn't so disillusioned as to think that might have made a difference - he'd learned, that slow painful learning curve, that death truly waited for no man, woman, or ex-demon. But he might've been with Anya at the end. He might've … no, he was not venturing there again. There were just too many things he could list, for 'might've'.
Running away wasn't usually the best solution, but in his case, he figured it saved his sanity. Absence had made the heart grow fonder and he could positively say he missed his friends, and couldn't wait to see them again. Meeting Dawn here was just the start of the all joy. Even if she had come very close to triggering the return of all those swirling, mind numbing 'might've' evocations that he'd thought he'd buried.
It was Dawn's turn. He helped give the trolley a last firm push as he stayed behind the yellow line. She smiled at him; she would see him on the other side. Her passport was stamped and she was waved through. His turn.
He stepped up to the Immigration counter and slid his passport over to the lady in charge. She stared at him. He braced himself. As a general rule, Immigration officers didn't like it when they couldn't see the face, the whole face, and nothing but the face. It was never easy to predict how the officers would deal with that dislike. He'd encountered some amazingly rude ones, who'd instantly assume that he was a suspicious character with a dark history, now come to commit something nefarious in their precious territory. Others were excruciatingly polite to the point of being patronizing.
This one was one of those who stared, and who liked to do all the guesswork before actually trying to get answers from him. Sure enough, there she was, studying his passport photo with far more scrutiny than necessary.
"Was it an accident?" she asked, finally.
He clenched his jaw and nodded. He realized that the officer expected a verbal record and answered, "Yeah. Accident last year."
She resumed staring at him, trying, he assumed, to superimpose the normal Xander face in the passport photo with his present eye-patch wearing one. He wanted to offer to flip the eye-patch up for her to see - he'd done that to a couple of officers who wouldn't stop staring, and it had been worth it to have them blanch and recoil while struggling to maintain their cool, professional exterior. But he didn't want to cause any trouble, not here on home soil. And he couldn't trust that nobody had reported his 'cast iron weapons' comment. In this day and age, one couldn't trust anyone not to snitch on very bad, ill-timed jokes.
He felt somewhat offended, actually, that he wasn't just being waved through, not having a warm 'Welcome Home' said to him. He'd been saving the world since he was sixteen. That should count for something. Some respect from his own people. Wasn't too much to ask.
The Immigration officer studied his photo in the passport again, perhaps mentally drawing a pirate's eye-patch over that left eye. Finally satisfied, she flipped to the last stamped page, smoothed down the next blank page, and stomped the American stamp. She handed the passport back to him with a belated smile.
"You've been to a lot of places there. Welcome home."
"Thanks," he replied. He hated the sympathy she was offering with that smile.
Customs. He picked his queue, craning his neck to try and spot Dawn. There she was, right at the head of his queue. Her turn next. The delay at Immigration had put him about fifteen people behind her.
He still held his passport in his hand. Without actually wanting to, he started going through it, a page at a time. American and British stamps. African stamps from all the countries he'd passed through and been in. The attached United Nations slip. His photo. Normal photo.
He'd made the passport before the wedding ... the wedding that hadn't been. They'd gone to apply for their passports together, and when she got hers, she noticed that her passport had an extra page for photos. He'd told her that that space would be for their kids' photos: little kids share their mom's passports. She'd loved that idea so much.
He snapped his passport shut and shoved it deep into his knapsack.
The Customs officer didn't really believe him when he said that the knapsack was all he had, so he made Xander endure the process of having the entire contents of his bag searched. There were very few clothes, and thankfully the underwear that tumbled out were clean. What he'd stuffed into his bag during the emergency evacuation had mostly been the personal items that mattered most: the prayer mat his first confirmed Slayer had given him - the mat she'd sat and prayed on as she waited by his side for days on end; a comb from the third Slayer; a stack of official and personal letters bound in rubber band; beads and knick-knacks from his fifth and eight Slayers. Other miscellaneous items included some he hadn't even been aware he'd managed to save: the large wooden cross, which the Customs officer scrutinized carefully, turning it about in his hands; the tiny plastic bottles that he used to fill with holy water - all empty, though he couldn't recall when he'd emptied them; a beautiful piece of embroidery that his second Slayer had made just for him, which he thought he'd lost.
After the officer was done confirming that Xander was neither a dangerous smuggler nor a crazy Bible person - the officer had actually asked Xander where his bible was and was puzzled when Xander informed him that he carried no bible - Xander was free to go.
After he could get everything back into his bag.
Dawn was leaning on the trolley bar, looking bored out of her skull when Xander finally emerged from the Arrivals gate. He offered her a lopsided grin of apology.
"We have to wait for our ride, anyway," Dawn said. "I called the Council House the minute I got off the plane and told them to send someone here, but when I called them again five minutes ago, they were still stuck in traffic. We're looking at a lot of waiting here. They said the roads are pretty slippery too."
"And 'they' are?"
"No one we actually know. Just a Slayer and her Watcher. They're both new."
Xander grabbed the trolley bar and walked with her, letting her lead. They walked past airport shops filled with familiar brand name perfumes and apparel that cost so much; a very poor family in a developing country could use the very same amount of money it cost to buy that bottle of perfume to buy a year's worth of food.
They passed by a Starbucks.
"Let's have coffee," Dawn suggested. "Sit. I'll go do the buying. What'll it be?"
"A hot chocolate will be fine."
"We're at a Starbucks and you don't want coffee?"
"Hey, I'm already confirmed for the whole enchanting jetlag experience - I don't need to enhance it."
Dawn laughed. "Fine." She held out a hand to stop Xander before he could reach for his wallet. "My treat."
Xander set about to do some maneuvering to position the trolley beside the table and out of the way of the other patrons. He'd just made himself comfortable when Dawn returned, bearing two huge cups of steaming chocolate.
"In Rome, it's always all coffee, coffee, coffee, with the occasional espresso. Which I love. But I thought I'd revisit the cocoa," Dawn explained as she placed a cup in front of Xander and sat down. "I used to love this. Mom would make hot cocoa for us when it was cold and raining outside."
"Hot cocoa is synonymous with cold and rainy. The UN provides this Nestle beverage called Milo. A chocolate malt drink - really very nice with the chocolatey and the malty. A really good breakfast drink."
"That's the brand name."
"Something like Ovaltine?"
"A chocolate beverage you can find in England."
"Maybe." He blew gently on his cocoa, sipped, and scalded his tongue. "Whoa. Very hot cocoa." He grimaced. "At least we know they boil their water around here."
Dawn grinned. "I used to think it was really quaint, how when you go to certain countries you're supposed to boil your water first and then cool it down before you can even drink it."
"Yeah. But I wouldn't call it 'quaint'. And there are actually a lot of places that need to get drinking water trucked in."
"That's really rough."
"Yeah, but some places are pretty advanced. Some places - they're doing pretty good."
"I always thought it was unfair how some places just never seem to get a break. Their people are always fighting wars, or dying of starvation, and all sorts of really bad luck."
"No, it's not fair. Sunnydale was on a Hellmouth and we still caught more lucky breaks somehow."
"What about this recent trouble? What was the cause? Did you know? Were there certain ... elements involved?"
"No, just humans being human. One of those old rebels vs. government feuds that's been going on for generations and nobody actually knows what the big deal was in the first place. But I did run into a few of them good old African demons."
"You did? What were they like?"
"Oh, every bit like your average American demon. They see you, they size you up, determine that you're smaller than they are and thus, tearable."
He grinned widely as she snorted with laughter. Here was the Dawnie he used to know.
"God, Xander, that's a good one. I gotta remember that one. Rome vampires - they're dull. They're just so colourless. I expected more. I mean, this was Europe, right? The birthplace of Dracula. Not that I'm trying to dredge up any repressed memories here - " Xander acknowledged her kind concern with a dip of his head. "But all that style and mystique Dracula had? These descendents of his, these European kin just don't have it. They're so boring. Totally lacking in style. No quippage at all. Although it is possible that they're quipping in Italian and Buffy isn't quite all tuned in to the finer nuances of the language."
"While, you, Dawn, are no doubt dazzling them all into thinking that you're as Roman as Roman come."
She cheerily rattled off a phrase in Italian, then translated, "When in Rome do as the Romans do."
He smiled, but then frowned. "Buffy's still with the slaying?"
"There're two new Italian slayers and Buffy's taken them under her wing. She's been showing them the ropes and the moves and stuff."
"Oh. So. Is Buffy coming to Cleveland?" The pinching of Dawn's lips provided the answer. "Willow mentioned in her e-mail. Said that Buffy might have other plans."
"Yeah. But she sends her love to everyone - I was going to announce that when we get to the House. She really misses everyone and wishes that she could be here."
"Do you know if Willow's already here?"
"Yes, Willow and Kennedy arrived yesterday."
"Willow and Kennedy." He knew the two were still together. It was just that he had never bothered to ask about Kennedy in his occasional e-mails to Willow, and Willow's replies to him were always devoid of her name as well. Sad that Willow should be so aware that her girlfriend wasn't on his favourites list.
"Willow and Kennedy. I wouldn't have bet on them, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"Them still being together. Oh, come on, Xander, don't give me that look. I'll bet you've been thinking about it too."
He shrugged. It wasn't that he disliked Kennedy. He was happy for Willow, if Kennedy was the right girl for her, and if they were still together, then that meant he should be happy for Willow.
Kennedy's had been the last face his eyes beheld before half his vision was destroyed. He wasn't going to count Caleb. When Caleb grabbed him, Xander had known, deep in every fiber of his body, that he would die, and although he'd looked Caleb right in the eye, the overwhelming impact on his vision - no pun intended - was of the hand coming at him. At the time he'd been sure that that hand would snap his neck or smash his skull. Whenever he had nightmares or flashed back to that night, it was Caleb's destructive hand that overwhelmed him most.
Xander had helped Kennedy, and helping Kennedy had put him in the wrong place at the right time for Caleb to grab him. And the logical, terrible what-if to that, was that if he hadn't helped Kennedy, then maybe what happened to him might not have happened.
Not that he would trade Kennedy's life for whatever-ifs. Some things happened, and when they happened, there wasn't anything to be said anymore. Besides, Xander was pretty sure that if he ever had to do it again he'd still do the same thing - help Kennedy and any of the girls. That was just what he'd do. But he kept expecting something from Kennedy. He wasn't sure what. He wasn't expecting a plaque of appreciation, no, not even a food hamper, and he wasn't going to entertain any ideas about anyone owing anyone else - keeping track of who was saving whose life was not a pleasant way to go about the world-saving business, as far as he was concerned, and it was an ideal he tried to ingrain in the new Slayers he found in Africa, too - but he kept feeling like he expected something from Kennedy, and whatever it was, he knew he hadn't gotten it.
He changed the subject. "Giles is here?"
"He is. He's been here a whole week. He's running a training session for the North American Watchers while he's here in Cleveland."
"My God. Giles running a training session. Is there any hope that he'll show restraint in the number of transparencies that must die for him to make his point?"
"People don't use transparencies anymore, Xander. Power Point - that's the way it's done. He carries his Power Point presentations with him in a thumb drive everywhere he goes."
Xander scoffed at this far-fetched tale.
"No, really. Andrew prepares all the presentations for him and all Giles has to do nowadays is plug-n-play."
"Ah. Andrew." He didn't dislike Andrew either, and Andrew had been the last person with Anya when she died, but he didn't find it particularly easy to accept that within the brief time span of a year Andrew had gone from unrepentant murderer to Giles' virtual right hand man. Xander believed in redemption, but Andrew's meteoric rise in the new Council command structure was a bit too much.
Dawn didn't seem to pick up on the negative Andrew vibe. "The Council is moving with the times. Andrew's Power Point presentations are incredible. There's one where he uses animations to illustrate...." Dawn trailed off, finally sensing the silent, cold hint to talk about something else. "Oh, hey, guess what? Giles is here with Mona."
"She's a Watcher from Scotland. I met her when I was visiting Giles in London. She's gorgeous. Come on, Xander, don't you read the gossip?"
He didn't. He only read whatever formal instructions and commands issued forth from Giles via Andrew, and whatever news Willow chose to share with him.
"G-Man has a girlfriend. Wow. A Scottish lass. And what about you? Any rippling muscle toned Italian going to show up here in Cleveland with sombrero and a guitar to serenade you while you sit aloft in your balcony?"
"I think you're getting your romance novel clichés mixed up."
"But, do you have a boyfriend?"
"There are a couple of cute guys. Human and mortal. Guaranteed. I checked."
Xander checked himself from asking how Dawn had checked. He focused on the other important issue. "These cute guys are, I would like to hope, in your age bracket."
"Yes, they are. I know them in school. One guy, his name is Talio, and he's this - "
She was going to tell him all about them, obviously. He zoned out. Not out of rudeness, and he was happily buoyed seeing her being such a giddy, hormone-laden, drunk-on-passion teen, but he was quite unfortunately preoccupied with memories of his own loves.
The three girls he'd loved had all died.
With the exception of Buffy, two of them stayed dead. Two had been his age, and the third had, technically speaking, been a match if one accepted her at face value and didn't try to think too much about how long she'd really existed on Earth. All three were human, but one chose to apply for half-breed demon membership for reasons totally unrelated to him, while another reverted to demonship after he jilted her. All three died human, except maybe Cordy. He wasn't sure what Cordy was at the end, and Willow hadn't known enough details either. Buffy died human, came back human. Anya ... very much the fragile human at the end. Although he mustn't forget the indestructible phase when she could not be vanquished, not even by a sword thrust through the heart.
He'd been stabbed right through with a sword about two months after arriving in Africa. He was in Mozambique, never the safest country, but that was where he'd located his very first Slayer. They were in a clearing adjoining a well-populated camp when an eager demon showed up. They fought - the Slayer showing some natural talent in the arena, and Xander was holding his own - and then the demon had gotten lucky. Plucked the sword out of Xander's hand after it had smacked him against a tree, and stabbed him right through. By some miracle the sword hadn't nicked any major organs to kill him on the spot, but he had been impaled against the tree. The pain was so excruciating that it actually eclipsed the Caleb enucleating experience.
His Slayer pulled the sword out of him - the jarring yank out of the tree trunk and searing wrench through his abdomen was another experience to attach the description 'overwhelmingly excruciating' to - and used that very sword to lop the demon's head off. The only reason Xander hadn't bled to death right then and there was because the UNICEF doctors in the camp wouldn't let him die.
No permanent damage, but there was that temporary blemish on his professional reputation - by the time he got back to his e-mail, he found an in-box almost clogged up with Giles-via-Andrew messages querying about Xander's extended Mozambique stay, when Willow had already recommended that he should move on to South Africa where the Slayer's Watcher was waiting. Xander had been quite hurt that no one had tried to find him and confirm that he hadn't been drained dry by an African vampire, or beheaded as a war hostage, but then realized that so long as he was alive, Willow's locator spells would have always confirmed his location. It wasn't anyone's fault if Willow wasn't pinpointing his survival rate while she was at it.
Actually, the tone of Giles' messages had started off 'annoyed'; reached the level of 'nervous concern'; escalated all the way to 'extreme disgruntlement about incompetence', tinged with just the right amount of sheer panic just in case Xander wasn't being merely incompetent. By the time Xander got to the last e-mail and clicked to reply, it seemed a more humane thing to drop any mention about scrapes with death, and just reassure Giles that he was fine and on his way to South Africa.
Being alive and staying that way - those were the salient issues. The skewering taught him some pertinent lessons: always be very extra cautious about his blind spot; African demons kill first and talk later; slayers, even untrained, will always save lives but aren't going to be gentle about it; despite the rich irony of a carpenter getting himself literally nailed to a tree, there really was absolutely no way to make a joke about it.
Xander had the scars. Not unlike Cordy's, he imagined. And if the sword had plunged higher up into his chest, he would have known exactly how Anya had felt when Buffy stabbed Anyanka - except for the fact that he, mortal Xander, wouldn't have actually lived long enough to make a significant note about it.
Dawn was prattling about the second of the two cute guys, now, Roberto. He smiled with her and made appropriate filler sounds.
He'd had a year of experience in listening to people talk while pretending to look like he was interested. Some of his UN peers spoke languages he didn't understand, but there were nights when there were no Slayers to seek, when he was loneliest and the pull of an alcoholic beverage was strongest, and he'd join the UN men and women in that particular camp as they lounged about. Everyone would talk while he looked on. People seemed to understand that while he was keen on company, he wasn't much on companionship, so they usually let him be. Some of them would eventually find that he was a good listener, though, so he would have people drawing him over to one side, and they'd talk to him all night long and trust that he wouldn't judge them.
At some point in his life, he, Xander Harris the rabid talker, had turned into Xander Harris the somber listener. Some day he might dazzle Giles with that astounding tidbit.
"But everything's going to change next year," Dawn mused. "So I don't feel it's fair to commit, you know? Giles really wants me to go to either Oxford or Cambridge. "
"Oxford would be great, Dawn."
"I know. I wanna do my best and get there but all this having to think about my future ... it's really interfering with my current priorities."
"Hey, get the guy to love you and he'll follow you there."
"But which guy?"
"I think this is where I give you my corny adult advice about looking into your heart to see which love is true."
"Xander, did you keep a stash of cheap romance novels in the Outback?"
"The Outback is in Australia, Dawnie."
"I know that." A bit too defensive.
Xander smirked. But he probably wouldn't have cared to know the difference either, if he'd never been to Africa himself. "Giles is serious with wanting you to be a Watcher, huh?"
"He's hinted at it. Strongly. Willow thinks that's a good career plan, but Buffy's not really saying anything about it yet. I don't think she hates the idea, but…."
"She knows the life."
"Yeah. Well, I can see where it's a very good career plan - if I want to stay with the Council for the rest of my life."
"Which isn't looking like a good plan right now?"
"I don't know. I've really been thinking about this. I was the Key and then I was made into a human … even though there's nothing for me to literally unlock anymore I feel like there has to be some reason I'm still here. Some bigger purpose. I mean, I was never born, right? I was just made and put here in this world as a human being, and if this world is making sure I still exist then it has to be because there's something important I'm meant to do."
"Well, Dawn. That's … that is deep." This was a Dawn who really had matured from the years of attention-seeking kleptomania.
Dawn shrugged. "The thing is, I don't know if being a Watcher encompasses everything. It's one Watcher, one Slayer. Being responsible for one Slayer is really heavy stuff, but I feel like doing more than that. Something more like what you do."
"Yeah, you. You're the front line. You're out there in the field - the first person these new Slayers get to know and trust, and you send them 'home' to their Watcher."
"Um, yeah. I'm the Slayer talent scout."
"You're good at. You always get your Slayers."
"Is that supposed to be a good thing?"
"What do you mean? Of course it's a good thing. The girls wouldn't know what's going on if you don't get to them."
"Which was kind of my point. I get to them, tell them what they really are, explain why they've turned into freakishly powerful girls and why there're demons that keep jumping out at them. And then I send them packing off, away from their own homes because they have to be the ones to relocate to where their Watchers are."
"Well, their Watchers are at the locations where they're needed most."
"And isn't it impressive how many locations they're needed at."
"Well, yeah, that little detail is troubling. Which I know is the understatement of the year. But at least we have all these Slayers now who can keep things under control. And Watchers who are trained, and know what to do and what's important for every girl."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all that. Willow helping out, matching the right Slayer to the right Watcher."
"Yeah." He never asked how his Slayers did after their Watchers took over. He preferred to never know. He was but the talent scout, always moving on to the next girl with the lethal talent to Slay. He would not look back to find out how many of his girls met with destinies that doomed them. "Never mind. Let's not talk about that. Let's talk about you and Oxford."
Dawn reluctantly acquiesced to his mood. "Oxford! I don't know if I can get there."
"Maybe I'd want to get to Harvard. Or Yale."
"Fair enough. Better home in our land of the free than there where you might be influenced by stodgy traditionalists in tweed wear."
"Oh, no, no, never tweed." She mock-smacked her hands to her chest. She scolded, "Don't even think it!"
Xander grinned, then waved a hand over at Dawn's mountain of Samsonites. "Are you going to tell me what's in those bags?"
"Books," Dawn replied, with a conspiratorial wink. "Ye Olde English texts lost from the old London Watcher's Council library years ago and recovered only recently in a Roman Catholic Church in Rome. Priceless, precious knowledge. These books are worth an amazing lot. And I've brought them all back."
"Books? That's incredible. All four bags, filled with books?"
"Well, one is my stuff."
"Heh." He cocked his head. He could smell a good story cooking. "Okay, so how'd the books get to Rome in the first place?"
"There was this Watcher, you see; he was a Watcher, but he had this strong calling for the Church too. So the Council allowed him to be ordained and he became the first and only Roman Catholic Priest Watcher. Now, one day, this Slayer, she's possessed by a demonic spirit. The Council demanded that she fight the demon on her own terms, using her own willpower and strength. The usual. The priest - he wanted to conduct an exorcism, because he knew that was the only way to drive the demon out of the Slayer. But the Council got its way, and in the end, the Slayer died and the demon took over her body. The priest couldn't bear to see her body desecrated like that, so he had to destroy it, even though it was still her body. And then the priest, in his grief and - "
"He was her Watcher?"
"Yes, he was her Watcher. And he was so full of grief, probably even gone half-mad, and he decided that he was going to break away from the Council and commit himself to a life solely in servitude to the Lord. Only before he left, he went to the library and cleared off whole shelves of everything about old English demons - like the kind that killed his slayer - and all the secrets recorded in England from the time when people first learned to keep records. And one night, he just left, along with all those books. And the next day he contacted the Council leaders from Rome and told them what he had done. And there was nothing the Council could do about it because he had sought sanctuary within the holy church."
"What? He got to Rome overnight? He had what? Magic oxen and a giant cart?"
"Xander, this happened in 1973."
"Oh, okay." He rolled his eye. She should improve on her storytelling. "Why are you bringing the books here to Cleveland when they all should go back to London?"
"Giles is here."
"Giles will go back to London."
"But I'm not going to London at all. We're both meeting here in Cleveland. Giles will take the books back with him to London."
"Dawn, why didn't you just ship the books directly to London?"
Dawn floundered for a reason. Xander clamped down on the temptation to supply the Homer Simpson patented, 'D'oh!'. He looked at the piled bags on the trolley and remarked, "I don't think I want to know how much the overweight charges were."
"Oh, God, no, you don't want to know. Fortunately, they accepted a check."
"You have a checking account?" It was ridiculous to allow Dawn that kind of easy spending means. It was ludicrous to let any Summers female have that kind of spending ease.
"It was a Council check. The Council's paying. Are you crazy? I wouldn't want to pay for all this!"
"Well, you were just saying that all this knowledge counts for a lot."
"Well, yeah, when it doesn't involve me spending my money to pay for it."
That was good for a laugh. Xander sipped his now moderately hot chocolate, and realized that Dawn was intently studying his face. He raised his eyebrows, curious.
She was bashful, but blurted out, "When are you going to get your eye fixed? Get one of those … replacements? Prosthesis. The Council will pay."
He put his cup down. "I don't know. I don't really think about it."
"Xander," she began, in a tone that made his teeth grate. "I know Giles suggested it to you and you said no."
Giles. Sometimes Giles cared. Xander felt tired and deflated. "I just don't see what difference it makes. Depth perception, once gone, pretty much stays gone."
"It's not about that. You've got ... your eye ... you have beautiful eyes and I know it's not ever going to be the same, but it'll be good to at least see your whole face again. Look, really, I'm not trying to be insensitive, but the eye-patch - it's supposed to be just temporary."
The words 'just temporary' stuck in his mind for some reason. He traced the tip of his finger around the rim of his cup and didn't try to respond. Dawn's phone chirped, and he gave a start that made his cup clatter in its saucer.
"Sorry." Dawn killed the sound. She looked apologetic. "It's a little loud." She read what was on the screen, and then proceeded to reply immediately, leaving him to stare absently at her thumb as it flitted rapidly over the phone's keypad. He could see that it would only be a matter of time before orthopedic surgeons created a subspecialty for thumb impairments. If they hadn't already.
Like it's all just temporary.
Anya. Lyrics. Anya had sung that line. It had been their song, but it didn't have a tune that could potentially make it into a breakaway pop hit. He could remember her voice and he remembered the notes. He couldn't remember the entire song anymore - he'd had no intention of remembering at the time anyway since the lyrics hadn't been kind to either of them - but he remembered she'd been concerned. She'd been afraid that he only thought of their relationship as temporary. Had he tried to reassure her that that wasn't true? He could almost remember the tune, almost, almost had the lyrics on the tip of his tongue....
Having his eye poked out by the First's Evil Preacher was by no means temporary, however. Something like that - had to indicate something. He just wasn't sure what. It could have been divine punishment, for some adolescent crime against individuals or nature - he had a nice long list of those. It could have been a precursor to bigger losses. Maybe even a sign that he should have just stayed out of the final battle. Maybe ignoring the signs had resulted in Anya losing her place in life.
This was not a pleasant reunion. Meeting up with old friends was supposed to be about the good old days, reminiscing about happy times. It wasn't supposed to be about dredging up repressed memories.
He had better stop looking forward to catching up with Willow.
Dawn put her phone down on the table. She let the awkward silence sit for a while, then perked up. "Tell me all about Africa. Willow told me you've been everywhere. Do you have pictures?"
"Sorry, no pictures. I had that Sony Ericsson mobile with the built-in camera. Got it picked out of my pocket within a half hour of landing at Johannesburg. That taught me not to carry any more gadgety temptations around."
"Is Africa beautiful?"
"Oh yeah. Yeah, it's got some of the most beautiful things you could ever see."
"Any beautiful girls?"
He recoiled. "Dawn, they're teenagers! They're younger than you!"
"I'm not talking about the Slayers. I'm thinking about their older sisters."
"No. I mean, not no as in the not beautiful, just no. Okay?" He considered things while Dawn smirked. "Beautiful doctors," he conceded.
"Ha! Knew it. Doctors. Ooh."
"Nah, they were all too busy. And too old."
"Hey, no dissing older women. Anyway, ooh doctors. Very much with the tender life-saving."
He didn't remember much tenderness when that team of doctors worked to patch him up. To be fair, that biased impression might have been to do with them being less generous with the morphine than he would have liked. But they were kindly tolerant of his delirious insistence about demons abound. And he had a hazy, embarrassing memory of feverishly trying to discuss the worrying implications of wood dust and splinters in wounds. To this day he had no idea if the doctors ever received a satisfactory explanation for how and why he'd been impaled by a sword - the demon being one of those that neatly disappeared following decapitation, and his Slayer, bless her, being among the very highly skilled in telling glorious lies with great efficiency. He just never remembered to ask her what story she'd spun.
Dawn perched her arms on the table and leaned forward. "Come on. War stories." He frowned and she shook her head and clarified, "Demon encounters, you know, stuff. Show off your war wounds."
"Oh. Nah, nothing serious." Dawn's face fell. She was eager for a tale or two. "I did get malaria. Sick as a dog for three weeks."
"Well, it wouldn't have been so bad, except I was in a place that was far from a hospital and I didn't have anti-malarial drugs on me." He had, initially, but he'd given the drugs to a few sick families he met on the way in to the interior of the country, and didn't replenish his stock.
"Yeah. That does sum up that experience."
"I've been wanting to ask - how did you communicate with your Slayers?"
"Most of them knew some English, and for the others I managed with pidgin French."
"Ah, French. I love French, don't you?"
"Pidgin French, Dawn. It's what you get by on when you're doing Slayerage 101 with Slayer."
"I still think it's a good thing you do, getting the new Slayers in."
He just looked at her. Dawn stared back, unflinching, and then appeared to remember something. "Oh, I don't know if you know, but Giles has already sent a Watcher for ... Missa?"
He hadn't known. "Maisa. Who's her Watcher?"
His goodbyes to Maisa had been rushed, perfunctory. Maisa had been so afraid - for him. He couldn't risk being seen in her village anymore, and she wasn't allowed past the checkpoint into the capital city, where only foreign aid workers and expatriates were assured safe passage to the airport.
He should have gone to a cyber cafe to check his e-mail for news after landing in Paris, but it seemed important then to spend a few final hours with his fellow UN compatriots as they talked themselves out of the frustration of a ruined mission. He had made one call to the new Council Headquarters in London, where an anonymous Watcher drone merely congratulated him and advised him to proceed to Cleveland as he'd originally planned for the holidays.
"I don't know," Dawn said. "But according to Giles, her Watcher's a fellow countryman. He should already be with Maisa."
"Oh good. Thank God." Bless Giles. And now Xander could send word to Maisa; let her know that he too was fine.
"Giles had assigned Maisa to that Watcher anyway and was going to contact you about setting it up, but then that coup happened and you called and said you had to get out of the country and there was no time - "
"Yeah, it all happened so fast."
"Everyone you worked with got out in time?"
He nodded. "Everyone's safe." The evacuation had been a smooth operation; none of the dramatic chaos that he'd seen before in news footage about other wars.
"Are you going back? To Africa?"
He thought about it. "I don't know. I guess I'll wait and see what Willow says - whether there're other girls to go back for. See what Giles says."
"What about if the UN wants you to go back?"
He didn't hesitate. "I'll go."
Dawn's lips twitched and this time he saw the hurt in her eyes. "No, Dawnie, it's not about choosing one over the other. The job I have with the UN - it's not an easy job to do, but it's a job I like. What I do with the UN; it matters to me in the everyday sense, even when it gets difficult - like when I have to leave a country because of the colour of my skin. But I've met good people. Great people. I like what I do. It's important, helping as many of those people as I can. What I do for the Council, I do because it's probably even more important, from a save-the-world perspective … but it's just not something I … it's just sometimes I wish I wasn't one of those who have to do it."
He watched her carefully, hoping that she would see the distinction between the two, while he wondered if he was even making sense to himself. Acctually, the most important thing the UN did was give him hope. Through UNICEF he was helping as many children as he could help, and he hoped that could atone somehow for whatever doom he sent his Slayers to.
"I'm not trying to get away from you guys," he added, and he meant it. "But I did need to get away for a while."
Dawn gave him a rueful smile. "I know sometimes I want to get as far away from Buffy as I can. But I don't think she'd last the day without me. What would she do if she didn't have me to lord over, you know?"
"Wouldn't that be 'lady over'?"
"Don't give her ideas."
"Maybe 'dame over'."
"Which would mean what?"
"How the hell would I know? I've been in the Dark Continent for a year; what do I know about them high-and-mighty overlords. Overladies." He shook his head. "Meh. That's not going anywhere. And on top of that: lame delivery. Thought I had something. Didn't."
Dawn giggled; then the giggles grew into huge, gulping chortles. Fellow patrons seated at neighbouring tables turned to look and smile.
He wryly observed, "I never get those kinds of laughs when I'm really trying for them."
Dawn clutched at her sides, wheezing. "It's not the delivery, Xander. Delivery was fine. Content was lacking."
Xander chuckled. "Is that also a critique of me as an individual?"
"No! No, it's the highest praise that you can always make with the funny even when there's not much funny."
"Thank you. I think."
"Xander, come on." She'd sobered up. "Stop selling yourself short."
He shot her a look like she didn't know what she was talking about.
"You are the best man the Council has, bar none. That's straight out of Giles' mouth. No one does as a good you do out in the field. Giles thinks you should write up your experiences so that everyone can learn from you. All the new Watchers look up to you."
"I'm not a Watcher. I'm just the guy who knows how to find the Slayers."
"That's right. You're not a Watcher. You're a Seer. You see."
She was earnest and serious. The word meant something to her. He suddenly remembered. He'd tried to console her after she found out that she was just Dawn: normal, ordinary, civilian Dawn, and not a Potential Slayer chosen because she was Special. He'd said something to her about how he was the one who stayed in the sidelines and watched, and saw. He couldn't remember if those had been his exact words. She was extraordinary, he knew he told her that, and she was. He'd seen her.
His proposed power - his pathetic claim to power - had been that he could see, and because he could see, he knew. And he figured with the having of power, he could get a cape. The cape bit had only been a lame joke, but God, he'd really been asking for it, hadn't he? Just asking for something to come along and smack him right back into his miserable place out of the spotlight.
Dawn was still looking at him as though he were someone who mattered. "Do you remember, Xander, what you said to me that day? You said you saw me. Those were the most important words anyone had ever said to me. I mean, I know Buffy loves me as a sister, and I know everyone cares me, but you always saw me.
"Sometimes I'm afraid - I'm still afraid - what'll happen to me if people stop seeing me, if people start forgetting that I'm here. Will I just disappear? Will I stop being human and revert into whatever I'd been before? Sometimes I get really scared. But then I remember that you see me. And I know that you'll always see me. And more than anyone else, knowing that you could see me for what I really am, that you'll always see me, as a person - that's just...."
She paused and tried to laugh as she blinked tears from her eyes. "I'm not trying to be a weepy mess, but I just ... thank you. I never said thank you." A tear slipped out of the corner of her eye and smeared a trail down the side of her cheek. She smiled. "So. Thank you."
He felt a lump catch in his throat, which he tried to softly chuckle away. He looked at everything else before finally looking back at her again.
"God, I'm all Hallmark network."
"There's nothing wrong with Hallmark," he declared. "Hallmark makes good family entertainment where feelings matter and get expressed appropriately." He decided he should be graceful about this.
"Hey," he said gently. "You're welcome."
He reached across the table and wiped the tears from her face. He got some of her make-up on the backs of his fingers, and that made him chuckle again, with affection this time. "You don't need to be wearing all this, Dawn. You've always been one of the prettiest girls I've seen. Don't be hiding that."
Dawn scrunched up her face. "I'm trying to find my best colour."
Xander settled back into his chair. He showed his stained fingers to her. "These colours? Stick on the hands, not on the face."
She was digging through her carry-on bag, and flashed him an annoyed look. But she couldn't stay annoyed for long. She grinned. Xander smiled. She pulled out a packet of tissues and a compact mirror, and started to dab away at her eyes and cheeks. He thought her face improved as the make-up went, but chose not to mention that.
"When's our ride getting here already?"
"Give them a few more minutes. They'll call me on my mobile."
"Why don't we go outside and wait. I wanna step on the ground out there and say I'm back in America, on good old American soil. It doesn't feel the same just sitting here in an international airport."
"Outside?" Dawn stared at him in disbelief. "It's snowing outside. You don't even have a coat."
"I've experienced the whole range for heat." He lifted his left hand, palm facing right. "From warm with moderate shirt-sticking humidity, to - " He lifted his right hand, palm bracketing to the left. "Unendurable sunshine of blistering hot."
He nodded firmly. "I think I'm ready to give freezing and wet another try."
"Xander, you're crazy!"
"It'll be like old times. I spent a wintry Christmas morning out on the lawn, once, back when I was your age."
Dawn laughed. "Oh yeah, our white Sunnydale Christmas. Actually, we had some really great times in Sunnydale, didn't we?"
Xander supposed that his winter lawn Christmas did have some highlights to it - the first time he'd ever seen or felt snow, for one; and his parents had actually been as excited as he was, once he'd assured them that they were not experiencing a conjoined alcohol-induced hallucination. It had been one of those rare occasions when his whole family had sort of celebrated something together.
And really, honestly, his life at Sunnydale hadn't sucked. It had been a pretty good life, when he ruled out all the family blues, and teen angst, and demon and vampire-related traumas. And he knew he'd done plenty of good in his time. Nothing could ever beat saving the world on an annual basis.
Xander said, "We had the greatest formative years of our lives in Sunnydale."
Dawn winked. "For some of us, more formative than others."
He laughed; glad that she could joke about it now. They gathered their things. It came to Xander then, as he was strapping his knapsack on.
Like she thinks I'm ordinary
That had been his line of the lyrics. Only it came before Anya's, 'like it's only temporary'. It used to bother him so much, how ordinary he was. Then, at some point after Willow's near-apocalyptic event, he stopped caring about being ordinary and started learning to accept that he was who he was. Ordinariness didn't equate worthlessness.
Sometimes, he still had to keep reminding himself that.
"Okay, Xandman." Dawn slipped into her winter coat. Xander suppressed his instinct to raise a hand to shield his eye from the garish horror. Worn full-length, the coat was a dyed atrocity that surpassed the earlier tragedy of the mortifying dress. Oblivious to the effect her wardrobe was having on Xander, Dawn wisecracked, "Let's go see you be the Iceman."
"Not literally, though. You will buy me another cup of hot chocolate before I succumb to hypothermia."
"Forget it. Next cup of chocolate is on you. Have some shame. I'm still in school. You're the one with the job."
"I know you're given an allowance. But fine. It doesn't have to be cocoa. I'll take hot coffee."
"You are truly incorrigible."
"Or tea, if it comes to that."
"If you freeze to death, I'm denying all culpability. I'm making that known now."
"How long are you staying in Cleveland?"
"Only till the New Year. You?"
"Until the next job, I guess. But it would be nice if I could hang around till I see spring."
"A long rest will do you good. And spring is very nice to see."
"I'm hoping so."
They pushed their trolley outside.