It was barely past dawn, the first rays of sunlight only just visible from his apartment window, and yet Xander was already awake. He hadn't been sleeping that well recently, although that had been getting better the last week or so, but the previous night's events had been repeating over and over in his mind and had ensured his rest would be brief and fitful. Also his injuries had been niggling him, and his aversion to taking any medication unless absolutely necessary, meaning administered by a doctor whilst admitted in hospital, meant that he was still in a fair amount of discomfort.
Moving gingerly around his apartment, having foregone his usual ritual of doing a set of pushups and sit-ups, Xander began to do a bit of tidying before taking a longer than usual shower. Feeling more refreshed and less stiff, he had then changed into jogging pants and a t-shirt before flopping down onto the couch and turning on the TV in a futile effort to find something to watch so early in the morning.
At around ten, he was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was a welcome interruption, as he had been on the verge of throwing something big and heavy at the screen, which would have been the most exciting on that morning. He hadn't been all that surprised to find that it was Giles at the door, although he had to wonder how he knew he was off of work at the moment.
"Hey Giles, come on in."
"You know you shouldn't invite people in Xander," Giles admonished gently as he accepted Xander's invitation and ventured inside, sitting down in one of the armchairs as opposed to the couch.
"I saw you last night and you were still among the living, and you were standing in direct sunlight," Xander pointed out as he resumed his position on the couch.
"That's as may be, but it's better to be safe than sorry." Giles leaned forward a little in his chair. "I spoke with a very subdued Dawn this morning as I drove her to school; I must say I was distressed when she told me of your plans to move."
"I don't have plans to move, at least not as such." Xander explained what happened during his meeting yesterday, feeling a little irked that he had to do so, given that it wasn't really anything to do with the older man. "If this had happened a month ago, I might not be thinking about it at all, but it didn't and I am thinking about it, seriously."
"While I wouldn't begin to presume that I have any sway over your decision," Giles began, Xander holding back the smirk he felt forming, "but I do believe that you would be making a grave error in judgement if you were to leave."
"I'll say to you what I said to Dawn; why would I stay?"
"I'm a stranger to her, and always will be," Xander retorted bitterly. "I can't pretend to be someone I'm not, nor could you, or Willow, or Dawn pretend to not know me either. If I stay, all I'm doing is increasing the risk that Buffy will find out who I am, and as you told me yourself, that could be fatal. If I stay, I will have to sever all ties to everyone I care about, and watch as she gets on with her life without me in it. So again I'll ask; why should I stay?"
Giles was now in a dilemma; he couldn't truly think of any reason why Xander should stay given the circumstances they currently found themselves in, at least not without letting on about his theory. He had gone over the casual way Buffy had reacted to Xander the previous night, how she had let him carry her and trust that he would take her somewhere safe, and could think of no other reason than because somewhere within her mind was the knowledge that he was someone she could trust, and that meant that there was a chance, however slight, that she might begin to remember him on her own.
The problem with his theory was just that; it was a theory that he had no possibility of proving until after the fact. Without being able to do so, at least to a reasonable degree, he wasn't sure that he could risk the chance of explaining it to Xander and give him hope where there may be none.
Xander was right in that if he were to stay, he would have to remain for all intents and purposes a pariah within their group, the risk was simply too great to chance otherwise, and Giles could not in good conscience condemn the young man to such a fate by disclosing his opinion.
While the thought disturbed him, maybe it would be best for Xander to move on, to build himself a life away from Buffy and Sunnydale, but in the end the only thing that would change would be his location. Even if he moved away Xander would still have to maintain his distance from himself and the others, and Giles knew that for Xander the prospect of never even seeing those he considered family would be torturous.
"I cannot give you an answer to that question," Giles said eventually, choosing his words carefully, "only you can."
"That's a cop out and we both know it."
Yes, Giles did know that, but he wasn't about to admit it to Xander or anyone else. "You are the only one that can make this decision, as you are the one that will have to live with the consequences. We both know that you moving away will not change the way you feel, only the place you are feeling it, so please do not think of this as a way to escape, as it simply will not work. You need to decide whether moving away will be the best thing for you in the long run, and not think of it as an easy solution to a complex problem."
Giles wanted to say more, but knew in his heart of hearts that it was Xander's decision alone, and that the young man would only resent him if he tried to persuade him one way or the other.
"I know all that," Xander told him, "and I can guarantee that I won't be taking this decision lightly, but it is my decision to make and I don't need everyone telling me what I should or should not do."
"I will not deny that I would rather you stay here in Sunnydale," Giles admitted, knowing that to do otherwise would be folly, "but I do want you to know this Xander; no matter what you decide, whether it is to stay or to leave, I will support you 100."
"Thanks Giles," Xander said gratefully, "I guess I just needed to hear someone to say that, because I sure as hell know it won't be coming from Willow when she finds out."
Giles chuckled slightly as he imagined the reaction the redhead would have to the news, but there was little humour in it. "No, I don't suppose you will."
Wilkins Memorial Park,
Giles had stayed with him for a further hour, putting the subject of his possible move to the back of their minds as they reminisced and caught up on they had been doing the past month. Xander had even joined him in a cup of tea, using the special blend he kept in the kitchen especially for when the older man would visit.
After Giles had gone, Xander had decided to forego the brooding he'd planned to do and instead rustled him up a quick lunch and went for a walk around the town. He had to admit that he had always liked living in Sunnydale, parents and demons not withstanding, and always found himself marvelling at how picturesque the town was in sunlight.
Xander rarely took the time these days to take the town in, either due to work or fighting the forces of darkness, and therefore forgot that before it had become The Hellmouth in his eyes, he had seen it as good old Sunnydale, the town he would spend his life in. The prospect of staying in Sunnydale hadn't actually bothered him, it had always been his worry over just what he would be in the community, his family's less than stellar reputation overshadowing everything, and that fact that his friends, Willow and Jesse especially, would most probably leave to make their mark on the world.
A lot of things had changed since then; Jesse had died, Willow had stayed, and he had begun to be seen by others as someone other than 'Tony Harris' Boy', and if it weren't for the current situation, he would go so far as to say he had been content with his life. He should have known that even thinking of something like that would make the Fates take a look at him and throw a curve ball into his life to make everything crash down around him.
He knew he was overplaying things there, but then he had always worn his heart on his sleeve and felt things more than others. He was still a success as far as his career was concerned, his current potential promotion a shining example of that, but he was a social animal and needed to be around people he cared for, and being without them for the last month had taken its toll on even his usually unflappable positive demeanour.
By the time he had reached the park, he realised that the brooding he had been trying to escape had followed him, and once again banished the darker thoughts and instead began to enjoy the warm sunny day. He soon spotted Caroline Laughlin, the wife of one of his colleagues, and helped her to keep her young ones, twin boys called William and Thomas, entertained for a while, kicking a ball around with them and generally allowing himself to be a kid again, something he hadn't done that often even when he was a kid himself.
He had felt himself at a loss when Caroline and the boys made their way home, but not wanting to go back to the apartment, went and sat down at the foot of one of the sycamore trees at the centre of the park to watch the world go by.
He had been sitting there about thirty minutes or so and was close to dosing off when a shadow was cast over him and he opened his eyes to see what was blocking the sun.
"Hey," Buffy greeted him with a smile, "Alex, right?"
"Good to see you," he told her truthfully, although she didn't realise just how good it was. "I'm surprised you're up and about, given the way those…" he trailed off as he saw a couple passing by, "gang members had gone to town on you last night."
Xander could see the cogs whirring inside her head as Buffy thought of what to say, keeping the smile off his face with difficulty. She had never quite got used to lying about her Slayer abilities, which wasn't that surprising as most people she talked to already knew about them, and Xander had always found it funny when she tried to explain how she could do the things she could do to those not in the know. "Well, you see, a friend of mine got me into using biofeedback as part of a work assignment, and found that it helped ease the pain somewhat."
Xander was now fighting off laughter desperately at her explanation, knowing what a crock of bull that was. "Sounds like something I could use," he replied eventually once he was certain his voice would remain level.
"Not if you didn't keep going out at night you wouldn't," she told hi immediately, causing him to roll his eyes. "I know, I know," Buffy went on when she saw the look, "I can't tell you what to do, it's your choice, yadda yadda yadda."
Xander smiled, once again being reminded of a similar conversation he'd had with her a few months ago when they started to get serious. "It isn't the first time someone has said that to me."
"And I bet you listened to them as much as you listened to me I suppose."
Xander's smile turned down a little, and became more melancholy. "Yeah."
Buffy noticed his change in demeanour but didn't comment on it, not knowing him well enough yet. She found that was something she wanted to change. "So, what are you doing lounging around on a workday?" she asked as she sat down next to him, not noticing how close she was.
Xander had to beat down the impulse to put his arm around Buffy's shoulders as she sat down next to him, and wondered how much he should tell her. "I was given a couple of days off work to think about something, and couldn't get any down at home. What's your excuse?"
"Oh, I run a gallery," she told him, "but we close early on Fridays."
Xander had forgotten all about that, and kicked himself for it. He knew that after she finished wok on a Friday she liked to walk around the park for a while before going home, and should have known better than to stay around. He ignored the thought that was a subconscious desire to want to see her again, and berated himself for being so careless.
"That sound like fun, how did you get into that?" he asked before he could stop himself.
He had no idea what was going on inside his head, but whatever it was he didn't like it. Every moment he spent around her was torturous for him and dangerous for her, and yet here he was continuing on a conversation to which he knew all the answers. He chastised himself further when he saw the sadness that appeared on Buffy's face for a moment before a mask came down, knowing the reason.
"I took over from my mom when she died," she told him solemnly, still feeling the loss of her mother as keenly today as she had last year when she found her body.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," Xander said, doing his best to hide his emotions. Pain lanced through his heart at the sadness he saw in her eyes and heard in her voice, knowing that he had helped put them there.
"Don't be," she assured him, offering him a small smile, "you weren't to know."
But he did know, and felt the loss of Joyce also. She had been a kind, generous woman, and had shown Xander just how a mother should act.
"I don't talk about her much anymore," Buffy went on, oblivious to Xander's thoughts, "I mean I want to, but I know how upset my sister and friends would get. Of course, they probably don't for the same reason, but sometimes I feel like I'm disrespecting her by not doing so."
Xander knew that they all had a tendency not to talk about those that they'd lost, he and Willow barely even mention Jesse and they'd known each other for almost a decade, but he didn't realise that it affected Buffy so much. Again, he found it ironic that if she remembered who he was, they wouldn't even be having this conversation, but he figured that he might actually be able to do some good.
"Maybe you're right about your friends not wanting to bring up any bad memories by talking about her," he said eventually, trying to think about the best way to put things without showing he knew more than he should, "but bottling up your emotions is not a wise idea either. If you make the first move and talk about her, the others will see that as an opportunity to do so as well. As for disrespecting your mother, I doubt that she could be anything but proud of you."
"You're pretty smart, you know that?" Buffy said with a smile.
"Not smart," Xander replied, "just talking from experience."
Buffy looked at her watch and her eyes widened as she noticed the time. "Damn, I have to get home before Dawn does." As she got up, she looked down at Xander and flashed him a bigger smile, although he noticed she looked a little nervous. "It's been nice talking to you Alex; maybe we could do this again some time?"
Once again Xander's mouth engaged before his brain. "I'd be disappointed if we didn't."
The smile he received then was brighter than the sun, and Buffy quickly scrambled through her bag and wrote her number on a scrap of paper and handed it to him, Xander taking it instinctively. "Great! I'll speak to you soon," she said and then set off towards home, leaving Xander sitting there in shock.
"How the hell did I go from keeping my distance to exchanging numbers in 24 hours?" he asked himself numbly, knowing that the situation was spiralling out of control.
His face went from shock to determination as he finally came to a decision, and he took his cell phone out of his pocket and quickly dialled a number before he changed his mind. "Hello, Claude? Xander. I'll take the job."