A story dormant for 925 days suddenly rises, as if from the dead for no apparent reason?
Huh. Must be Tuesday.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer created by Joss Whedon
He Can't See It
Chapter 3: If She's Bad…
Breath is life.
Breath feeds the blood. Blood fuels the mind. Mind tempers the spirit.
Your body craves it, more than food or drink.
Lusts for it more desperately than pleasure.
Treasures it more than Love, no matter what the songs say.
And, so long as you live, you can never escape the need of it completely.
What I offer you is a way to become its master.
I warn you, it's no simple thing, to gain control over something so primal, so driven by reflex.
Impossible, even, for some. Because there can be no control without first becoming aware.
It must be removed from the unconscious mechanism you've relied on since birth.
Let the air flow in through your nose, but don't smell it. Send it out through your mouth, but don't taste.
Feel as it moves through the passages, the cooling rush of air.
Feel the pressure in your chest as it expands.
Slowly now, let it out and in. As slowly as your will can make it.
This is your control, to slow the breath against every natural instinct.
Complete focus, nothing exists outside of the path of your breathing. Empty yourself of everything else.
No worry, no doubt, no thought. Only breath.
Rupert Giles, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a high school library, briefly removed his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. It did very little for his growing headache.
"Xander?" he said, softly.
The young man facing him, wearing loose workout clothes and sitting in a poor approximation of the lotus position, showed no sign of having heard. Other than another particularly loud snore.
"Xander," he tried slightly louder, with the same results. "Very well, but remember that you brought his on yourself."
Reaching behind him, the older man produced a small object. He'd had a feeling he would need it since they'd scheduled this session over the phone the night before. Pointing it away from himself and towards his new and rather unexpected trainee, he pushed the button on the top of the device.
Ever had an air horn go off three inches away from your face?
"NO GEESE IN THE ATTIC!" Xander shouted, and then followed up with a move so uncoordinated that he actually managed to fall from a seated position. "Who, what, where, huh!"
"Eloquent as ever," said the Brit, smiling sardonically. "Pleasant dreams, I trust. Something worth wasting what precious little time we have?"
"You're a sadist, a sadist in tweed," the teen grunted as he picked himself up. "Cut me a little slack, will ya? The sun wasn't even up when I got out of bed this morning. I thought my alarm clock was broken at first but, no, I really did set it for four o' clock in the too-early-for-anybody-but-farmers morning."
"And I suppose you expect my sympathy," Giles replied, gruffly. "Despite my rising at the same ungodly hour, entirely for your benefit, I might add."
"Sorry, Giles" he offered, with a barely stifled yawn. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, really I don't. It's just… I don't know. I guess I thought this was gonna be different."
"You mean aside from Ben Franklin calling me up and telling me I'm taking this 'early to rise' thing too far?" asked Xander rhetorically as he tried to get his left foot to stay on top of his right knee, a place where his foot felt like it had no business being.
"For now, I'm afraid that is unavoidable, which I thought I'd explained to you last night over the phone," he explained, trying to be patient. "As important as it is to bring your gift under control, it doesn't excuse you from attending class. Ignoring the fact that it would draw the wrong sort of attention, I'm not about to stand by while you sabotage your education."
Xander bit back the urge to compare sabotaging his education to somebody trying to plant a bomb on the Hindenburg, like everything was bound to go down in flames either way, and listened as the man continued.
"My afternoons and evenings are devoted to preparing the Slayer in the fight against the end of life as we know it and to whatever research that entails so, by simple process of elimination, early morning is the only -"
"Couldn't I just train after school with Buffy?" Xander cut in. "You already said I'm supposed to be her sparring partner now. I could do the psychic thing when we're not doing the sparring thing. The very light, non-bruising, incredibly shallow learning curve sparring thing."
"No," he said, firmly. "I am, first and foremost, Buffy's Watcher. Having you take part in her sessions is something I'll allow only because I believe she stands to benefit. If it seems, even for a moment, that you're holding her back, your participation ends there. I'm not unwilling to give you instruction, but I refuse to divide my attention between the two of you when the fate of humanity might well hang in the balance."
"Okay, okay, I get it," the younger man gave in mock-reluctantly. "No damning the world so I can sleep in. Fine, I can always up my caffeine intake. So, I get up at the buttcrack of dawn, and you teach me how to move stuff with my brain, on purpose this time, right?"
"That is the general idea, yes," Giles responded, uncertain.
"Then could you explain to me how the heck this is supposed to do that? You told me I was gonna learn how to meditate, but all you did was make me sit on the ground and listen to your rendition of the 'Wonderful World of Breathing' in this super quiet, golf commentator voice."
"Breath control is among the most time-tested methods of entering a meditative state in mental disciplines the world over," the Watcher defended. "It focuses your attention inward, blocking out external distraction, while promoting tranquility and oxygenating the body."
"Oh," said a thoughtful Xander. "Why didn't you just say that in the first place?"
"I should think it was fairly obvious," Giles answered, stuffily.
Of course, the real answer was that he'd considered explaining it fully and decided that it ruined the whole esoteric atmosphere he was aiming for. Not that he'd ever admit it.
"Right," Xander muttered, beating himself up inside for not figuring it out sooner. "So, should we try it again? I know it's probably a waste of time, but I promise I'll give it my best shot."
That softened the elder man's expression a bit. He hadn't meant for his last comment to sound as harsh as it had. It reminded him too much of his own father's tone, full of condescension and disappointment. He'd dealt with it by rebelling against everything the man stood for, but Xander seemed to take it to heart. There was a story there, he knew. Wisely, he decided that he should use this opportunity to build the lad up, not to unearth bad memories.
"Xander, believe me when I say that your best effort could never be a waste," he said, with some small warmth. "Not of time, nor of anything else. If I thought differently, I wouldn't have agreed to this in the first place. You should know that I have every confidence in your ability to learn."
"Well," the student in question was slightly overwhelmed at his teacher's sudden praise. "I guess you're one of those rare people that do. As of this morning, it's you, Willow, and the guy that administered the test when I was seven and my folks thought I might be retarded. So, we're giving inner peace another go?"
"Yes, let's," confirmed Giles, intentionally ignoring the reference to his childhood test. "Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Very slow, even breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breath is crucial. Breath is life. Breath feeds the -"
"Could we maybe skip ahead?" Xander broke in, cracking one eye open. "Your delivery's great, don't get me wrong, I'm just not a big fan of reruns."
"Fine, to summarize: close eyes, breathe out, breathe in, repeat until you are one with the universe or the tardy bell rings, whichever comes first," Giles said, slightly put out. "Simple enough?"
"Yeah, I got it," he answered, squaring his shoulders to open his airways further. "Personally, I'm hoping for the universal oneness thing. If I'm late for homeroom again, Principal Snyder told me he'd be riding me for the rest of my high school career. Worst part is I can't be totally sure he meant it metaphorically."
"Then get to work, or I'll give him the name of a saddlery shop that won't ask too many questions," even as he said this, Giles had to cringe at the mental image. "Now, deep breath out, deep breath -"
The Watcher hung his head before slowly rising to his feet without a word. Walking away, he threw an incredulous glance back over his shoulder, noting Xander's sheepish smile.
"It was either skip breakfast or skip a shower," he explained with a shrug. "I made my choice."
Giles started walking again, not stopping until he was inside his office and out of Xander's sight. While the glum teen was cursing his stomach for ruining what he saw as his only chance to join the ranks of the Psi Corps. Or would have been his chance, if they were real and not just a made up organization of telekinetics and telepaths from Babylon V. And if they gave off less of a goose-stepping fascist vibe.
He was genuinely surprised to see the librarian leaving his office, especially when he saw what Giles was carrying. The little red ball, as unusual as it was, went mostly unnoticed. No, Xander's complete focus was on the box in other hand, its bright pink coloring so familiar that he could almost taste the round sugary goodness inside.
"Being an early riser does have his advantages," Giles began, unhurriedly returning to his seat on the floor. "Not the least of which is getting to the donut shop while the first batch is still warm."
Another growl, easily twice as loud as the first, escaped the student's empty stomach as the box was set carefully off to the side. Xander had to shake himself back to awareness when he realized that the red ball he'd ignored was now inches from his nose. He'd barely registered that it was there before it was dropped in his lap.
"Giles…" Xander picked up the ball, about an inch in diameter with a shiny coating, and rolled it between his finger and them. "If this is some kind of special meditation pill, it better be the kind you take by mouth."
"That," Giles replied, "is a child's toy I purchased for twenty-five cents at a vending machine. We'll be using it as the first practical exercise. Put your hands together like a half-open book midway between your chest and your navel. The goal is to levitate the ball out from between them, made a great deal easier by the objects small size and close proximity to your manipura chakra."
"That's next to the spleen, right?" Xander asked, and was answered by another exasperated sigh. "Gallbladder?"
"It's an internalized vortex of spiritual energy that deals with personal power and…" he paused and shook his head. "Forget it. If you can make the little ball float, we split the box. Six apiece, so long as you leave me some of the jellies. Deal?"
"Keep it down," the teen answered, seriously. "I'm trying to violate the laws of physics, here."
As Giles leaned back, silently congratulating himself for a well thought out plan, Xander was contemplating the hell out of that little red ball. His brain dragged itself out of the fog of the early morning and was buzzing with activity. He felt the weight of it, light and barely there. The texture was smooth, very smooth. Probably shiny, too, if you held it up to the light. What was that called when you make something smooth and shiny? Glazing. The little ball was glazed. Glazed… glazed like a sweet, delicious…
Xander took another deep breath, forcing himself to focus. A mental picture of the ball, that's what he needed to do. Visualize, see the ball, be the ball…
Red. Red and round. Doesn't get much simpler than a little red ball. He saw it in his mind's eye, a dot of color on a field of black. Slowly, his world shrank away and there existed nothing but the ball. Nothing but the ball… and the blurry shape that was starting to form around it. Nothing but the ball, now perfectly framed by a freshly baked, sugar drenched, most important meal of the day treat that was so real he could practically smell it.
"Oh dear lord," the weary Watcher in front of him groaned, breaking the fairly shallow trance.
"Uh…" Xander stared at the donut hovering in the air between them. "That's gotta count for something, right?"
"It boggles the mind how I ever convinced myself this was going to be simple," Giles said, rising to stand. "But that would be entirely too much to ask, now wouldn't it?"
He retrieved the box, minus one donut that had floated into his student's outstretched hand, and dropped it off on the library table as he passed. From there, he went to the weapon's cabinet and came back with a medium-sized plastic container. Seeing that Xander now had his mouth crammed full of pastry, Giles continued without waiting for a response.
"I think we've devoted enough energy to the mental side, so it's on to physical training. How familiar are you with skipping?"
"'Skipping?' As in, 'to my Lou?'" he repeated, in insulted disbelief. "Okay, I know my best friends are girls, but I'm sick and tired of everybody doubting my masculinity. I don't skip or prance or sashay, either. So if you expect me to go skipping around here like some dainty little fairy boy, then no, I don't think so. Xander don't play that."
Shooting him a deadpan look, Giles reached in and pulled out a sturdy looking leather cord with lacquered wooden grips at either end, setting it down in a coil on the table.
"Rope, Xander. How familiar are you with skipping rope?"
"Oh, with-the-rope skipping! Like in the movies, the macho boxing Rocky Balboa jumping rope in a montage type skipping. I could do that." Xander walked to the grab the training tool from the tabletop but stopped. "You, uh, tend to get pretty sweaty doing stuff like that, huh?"
"I very much doubt that ever stopped Rocky Balboa," the Englishmen answered, dryly. "Exercise is sweaty business."
"I know that. It's just… I wasn't expecting to get all Eye of the Tiger on my first day. When I skipped breakfast to take a shower, it was so I wouldn't smell like the patron saint of gym socks."
"Which, of course, is the reason you were instructed to wear something sensible to train in and bring a change of clothing."
"You don't get it," Xander pleaded his case. "Clean clothes over sweat just locks in the funk, and that's not even going into the pit-stain factor! And, really, I'm still not one hundred percent sold on how working out my body is going to do anything positive for my brain weirdness."
Giles paused, breathing deeply, and only by saying the numbers out loud would it have been more obvious that the man was counting slowly to ten. When he spoke again, his voice was measured, deliberate, and chock full of finality.
"This is not a discussion. This is not a debate or an argument. You are either willing to agree to the training I've laid out for you or you're not. The student obeys the teacher out of trust that all lessons have a purpose, even if that purpose unclear.
"The only reason why you came here is because you trusted that, despite my having no practical experience with telekinesis, my experience with the Slayer and the supernatural world gives me insight into your powers and the steps you need to take to master them. The only reason I am here is my belief that you have the will to take those steps. So you can prove us both right by picking up that rope and, once you've shown me a good effort, I'll see to it that there's enough time for you to take advantage of the showers in the locker room before classes start. Or you can-"
He didn't have time to finish his sentence as the rope in seemed to uncoil and launch itself at Xander with all the speed of a rattlesnake, hitting with a dull thud against his chest. The boy's hands shot up instinctively and kept it from dropping.
"Well…" he said, as they both looked down at the energetic exercise equipment. "I guess you talked me into it."
Walking out to an open space, he took the rounded wooden handles on either end of the leather cord and, a bit awkwardly at first, started to jump. After a few false starts, something easily fixed by cutting down on excess movement in his arms, he managed to get into a fairly comfortable rhythm. Nothing too fast, nothing fancy, but a good solid pace.
Giles, meanwhile, had gone into the stacks with a cart of books that needed re-shelving, taking care not to go out of earshot of the steady snapTHUMP snapTHUMP in case it ever stopped for more than a few seconds. Carrying on the good work of Dewey and his decimals was something familiar enough to be practically automatic, giving him a moment to think. The events of the morning had certainly given him a great deal to think about.
A newly clean Xander walked the student-filled halls of Sunnydale High, trying not to think about the new soreness in his muscles, or his damp hair, or the way his shirt stuck to the skin of his back in those few spots he hadn't dried all the way.
And he really didn't want to think about that odd musky smell in the boy's showers.
He'd been partially distracted the whole time he'd been toweling off and dressing, trying to remember the last time he'd come across that particular smell. The best he could come up with was the summer three years before, during a sleepover at Willow's house. It'd been the middle of the night when the shouting from inside the bathroom down the hall had woken him up, Jesse being fully capable of sleeping through anything softer than a choir of jackhammers. When he'd crept over to see what was wrong, he'd peered through the crack of the almost-shut door to see Willow's parent's arguing with each other while his friend sat on the edge of the bathtub, her face redder than he'd ever seen it. Her mom was going on about some guy named Alfred Kinsey, her dad kept bringing up the "latency phase," that exact same musky smell wafting around the door the entire time. Back then, he'd figured she must've gotten in trouble for not cleaning the bathroom or something, and that the smell had been some kind of mold. Had to have been pretty bad, she'd never been allowed to have another sleepover with them again after that night.
Nope, didn't want to think about any of that.
Instead, he preferred to focus on his last, brief conversation after his workout had been ended. Apparently, on the phone the night before, Giles had thought he'd sounded a little distracted and asked what it was about.
And so, he'd explained the technological marvel that was call waiting, as well as just who'd been holding on the other line. He and Marcie had talked for hours, neither one of them wanting to be the one to hang up first. It was probably the main reason he'd complained so much about getting up so early, he doubted he'd gotten 15 winks out of the recommended 40.
But it was worth it, and he'd said as much to Giles. Because, at the end of that phone call, and for the first time since kindergarten, Alexander L. Harris had a…
No, that's not what he had. That's not what he had at all.
This second shout was punctuated with a hard shove of his shoulder, spinning him around to face a wall of… burgundy.
The Sunnydale High School Varsity Football Team. They could've probably made it to the division finals this past season if it weren't for the half dozen or so mysterious deaths that made fielding a full team all but impossible. He stared at the dozen or so of them, their letterman's jackets giving off a potent mix of elitism and intimidation. The speaker he could recognize as one Larry Blaisdell, a shaved gorilla with a reputation for chasing anything in a skirt and pushing around anyone smaller than him. That obviously included Xander as he was sent backwards a few feet with another push.
"You're blocking the hall, butt-stain," Larry sneered. "Move."
Xander was about to apologize and step aside, apparently he'd been so lost in thought he'd stopped in the middle of the hallway, but something about the situation seemed so wrong he couldn't stop himself from commenting on it.
"I'm blocking the hall? Me, with my one, average-sized body, I'm the obstacle here? Wall-to-wall thyroid cases bunched up behind me, but I'm the Hoover Dam in this scenario. I mean, are you guys so literally joined at the hip that you can't even think about splitting up and walking around me?"
It was around that time that his brain put on one last desperate burst of speed and caught up with his mouth. Not soon enough.
"How about I make it so you can't walk, period, Harris?" Larry threatened, taking a step forward that would've brought him inside Xander's personal space if he hadn't taken a step back.
"But me walking, that's a good thing for all of us, isn't it?" he asked, nervously. "Me walking stops me from blocking the hall and keeping you scholar athletes from your homerooms."
"I'll get Snyder to write us up some hall passes," the jock said dismissively, taking another step forward and making him retreat another step back. "We'll say it's for a… team-unity thing."
"I'm helping the team," he weakly muttered. "Yay."
"Just hold still, this'll only hurt a-AAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!"
Jumping backwards to avoid the lunging bullies, Xander landed far enough away to see that it was less of a lunge, more of a face-plant followed by a dog pile. The graceless landing into a groaning heap was a huge surprise until he looked to his left and saw the metal case that normally held a rolled up fire hose was hanging open, with the hose running down from the case and along the floor, under the Varsity squad and out to the opposite wall.
It didn't take more than a few years' experience in studying cartoon physics to understand what'd happened. Somebody had pulled the hose out to trip up the first few guys, and the rest had followed them down like giant, meaty dominoes. The question was who.
It was a question that Xander was smart enough not to stick around and try to answer.
"We have questions, Watcher."
He was cornered, solid walls behind him. In front of him…
"Questions that we want answered."
In front of him was a creature that could tear him to pieces in seconds, grind his bones to powder as easily as he could crush a dried leaf, tear his head from his shoulders so quick he'd be able to watch his own body topple over.
"And we'll get those answers from you, one way or another."
In the face of this supernatural murder machine, Rupert Giles had only one course of action.
"I know for a fact that you should be in your biology class right now."
The supernatural murder machine pouted as her Watcher sidestepped her and re-shelved the book he'd been reading.
"Giles, this is serious!" Buffy whined. "Who can think of biology at time like this?"
"Willow, from the looks of it," he answered, gesturing with his head towards the exit, where the redhead was trying to quietly sneak away.
"Hey, you get back in here!" she said, and half-dragged her friend back into the library. "We need to show a unified front, total stick-togetherness is the only way we'll find out what he knows."
Friend in hand, Buffy rounded back on the librarian finger pointed accusingly.
"Something funny is going on around here. We walk into History class this morning and Xander's already sitting in his seat. Not just on time. Early."
"Was he? Do you suppose we should call out the National Guard, or is it already much too late for that? We may have to contact MI6, see if they can get James Bond on the next chartered flight."
"You mean he's real, too?" Willow asked, shocked, until she noticed the deadpanned look he was giving her. "Oh, sarcasm."
"The being early isn't the important part." Buffy continued. "He had seats saved for us, so we both sat down and started talking. Breezed through the easy stuff, homework, the weather, how Rosanne seems to be making less and less sense since they jumped the shark with them winning the lottery, but then we talked about hitting the Bronze after school. Only, he says he can't go tonight, because he's expecting a call… from his 'new girlfriend.' So, Giles, you wanna guess what this 'new girlfriend's' name just happens to be?"
Giles hadn't missed the irritation or the hint of betrayal in her speech, just as he hadn't missed multiple uses of "finger quotes." It was enough to make him wish that Xander's paramour had really been imaginary, as it would've saved him from being caught in such a moronically obvious lie.
"Mentioned it this morning, actually," he said, pacing the floor to avoid eye contact with either girl. "I believe he gave her name as Marcie Ross."
"That's right, Marcie Ross," Buffy said, smugly. "So, how do you think got together? Standing in the same line at Starbucks, their hands accidently touching as they both reach for the same protractor in math class, or maybe their eyes met across the library when she came to borrow that bogus demon book?"
"I checked ever occult database I could find on the web, and nobody had ever heard of Gerhardt's Demon Almanac," Willow explained, sullenly. "Why didn't you tell us what those names were really for? Why go through all that to give him a list of girls with the same name as the one he's… dating?"
Giles stopped pacing with a sigh.
"If I tell you what I know, will you both just go to class?"
Willow nodded, probably already itching to continue her education regardless of the current relationship drama, and Buffy folded her arms and looked at him expectantly.
"According to Xander, Marcie Ross was a student here until last December-"
"Are you sure she went here?" Willow asked. "I don't remember anybody named Marcie Ross."
"Her departure pre-dates my arrival here by a full month, but she has her name and photo in the library's copy of the most recent yearbook." Giles gestured to the thin book on the table, which Willow picked up and began to leaf through. "Her parents were going through a fairly messy divorce and that, combined with the loss of her two closest friends several years before to mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances, led to her take an extended absence. She's been home-schooled since then, either here in Sunnydale with her father or at her mother's new home in Thousand Oaks. Her mother has been trying to enroll her in the local high school there, so she recently came back here to request her transcripts. Unfortunately, she chose last Friday to do so."
"Billy's nightmare." Buffy shuddered as she recalled her own experiences that day, now feeling some sympathy for a girl who'd picked one of the worst possible days to visit.
"And, like the four of us, she wasn't able to dismiss what she'd seen as easily as the rest of the population," he continued. "She hid herself away even after everything had returned to normal. It was luck, good or bad, that her hiding place was the custodian's closet with the faulty door lock, the same one that Xander found himself trapped in. They spent much of the night talking which, after a head injury like that, may have saved Xander's life as it kept him from falling asleep at the wrong time. When the door opened the next morning, she rushed out to find someone to give him medical attention. Apparently she didn't find her way back until after he'd already left, leaving him to wonder if the whole thing had been some kind of dream. It didn't help that he'd never gotten around to asking her last name."
"So the whole thing with the book…?" Willow asked, sounding slightly overwhelmed as she heard the full story for the first time.
"Xander's attempt at a subtle ruse to keep embarrassment to a minimum, should the whole thing turn out to be something he imagined. As she's no longer a student here, it failed utterly. But it seems she remembered his locker number from earlier in the year, because she slipped her telephone number inside. He rang her last night, they spoke late into the night, and apparently they've decided to make a go of it."
Things got quiet for a moment, Giles waiting while the girls processed. Finally, Buffy asked the pertinent question.
"Can we trust her?"
"She is a… a largely unknown factor," he admitted. "I'd wager every relic in the Smithsonian that she's not a vampire, even Xander couldn't be that oblivious, but to experience the paranormal without taking refuge in denial and repression is uncommon. There could be any number of explanations, a desire not to end her new relationship with someone actively involved in such things, or a prior brush with something inexplicable that suddenly has an explanation. As I see it, we're most likely dealing with a lonely and frightened teenage girl who stumbled into all of this much the same as Willow and Xander did."
"So what do we do?" asked Willow.
"Something that may be difficult for all of us. We trust in Xander's judgment."
The two teens shared a worried look.
"With the threat of the Master hanging over us," Giles continued, "there's little time to investigate what amounts to a long-distance high school romance. Besides, recent events have proven he's not exactly defenseless on his own."
"HARRIS! How about a little DEFENSE out there!"
Xander groaned as he slowly picked himself off of the muddy grass. The bad news was that his team was now down 7-0. The worse news was that the football they were playing wasn't the normal American kind, where being down by seven points wasn't too bad. It was soccer, where being down seven goals can be reasonable justification for ritual suicide in some countries.
The worst news, he was the goalie.
All seven goals sailed right past him between those little orange cones they were using instead of an actual net.
Was it irony that he'd taken the goalkeeper position because he'd figured his body was too sore from his morning workout for a lot of strenuous activity? Maybe, considering that this had been the fourth time he'd attempted, and failed, a diving save that resulted in him slamming his "too sore" body into the unforgiving ground. And he couldn't take it easy now, not with all the death glares his teammates were giving him. Less than half of them probably cared about winning and even fewer cared about gym class in general, but nobody liked losing this bad.
And there, a few yards away exchanging high-fives with the rest of the winning team, was the root of his problem.
"Bad" Brad Konig, the bane of his Phys Ed existence. Perpetrator of more cheap shots, flagrant fouls, low blows, and old fashioned beatings than anybody to ever pull on a pair of gym shorts, and proud of that fact. And the only shot he'd missed the whole game was the one he'd forced Xander to block with his face.
He wiped off some sweat, probably rubbing in some dirt in the process. No more. He didn't even like soccer. Or most sports. Dodgeball was kinda fun that one day, but he'd been possessed by an evil hyena spirit.
But none of that mattered right then. He was done being showed up by some sweaty schoolyard screw-head. It ended here.
Balancing the ball in one hand, Xander dropped and kicked it with all his strength, sending it well into the midfield. Now he'd play the waiting game, bide his time until that irritating blob of hot air wrapped black and white plastic made its way back to him. Considering no less than three members of his team were already sitting Indian-style on the grass, he wouldn't have to bide for very long. Quitters.
Practically uncontested, the ball was back at his end of the pitch. Slowly, it rolled to a stop just inside the front line of the goal box. He'd been expecting this, Brad had baited him just like this twice already. Wait until the idiot goalie scrambles forward to grab the ball, then rush up and kick it into the empty goal. He wasn't falling for it, not this time.
Didn't step forward, didn't even look away from the ball to see the expression on that smug jerk's face, he just stared straight at the ball and waited.
There. Heavy footsteps on the grass, Brad had finally given up waiting for him to leave the goal. He was gonna have to get this one by him the old-fashioned way. Or he was gonna try and aim the shot directly for the body, possibly the nuts. Either way, Xander wasn't letting that ball past him again.
Closer. He could see Konig's feet as they pounded towards their target. He pulled back his leg, winding up for a powerful kick and…
"Whiff" went the empty space around Brad's foot as he missed the ball completely, "AUUUUUUUUUGHH!" went Brad as the lack of resistance threw him off balance, sending him off his feet and "WhuUUFFF!" went all the air in his lungs as he landed flat on his back.
There was a moment when the only sound you could hear was wind blowing across the grass. Which was immediately and entirely drowned out by everybody laughing.
Xander couldn't believe it. After all that abuse he'd handed out over the years, Brad Konig was finally taking bitter pill that was justice.
Make that choking on the bitter pill that was justice. Now coughing. Now gasping. Now… was he crying?
The goalie jogged forward, gingerly stepping around the figure pitifully crawling to the sidelines, and bent to pick up the ball. He stared down at it, turning it over a few times in his hands. A call from his teammate, one of the standing ones, made him cut his musing short as he settled for a distracted throw-in.
He'd been watching the ball the whole time. Brad's kick should've been right on target, had been right on target. The ball had been at a dead stop. But then it wasn't, it just… moved, right as the kick was coming, just far enough for him to miss.
Almost like it had a mind of its…
How is it that I never did anything like this before now?
What have I been doing all this time?
Hiding like a rat in the walls, bitching and moaning about how nobody knew I existed.
And what the hell was I doing to prove them wrong?
Not a damn thing. Just sat and schemed like some villain from a Saturday morning cartoon.
And it wasn't even a good scheme!
Red paint? Chalk?
Just more attention for that stuck-up little… ugh!
God, how big of a freak am I if he ever finds out about the scalpel…?
No, this is better.
A little harmless payback.
It's what he wants, what we both want.
I can give him everything he wants. BE everything he wants.
He wants to hang out with a super hero?
I can be his super power. I can be the gift that makes him gifted.
And when he finds out that it's me, that I'm out there helping him, that I'm not afraid…
But, right now, it's me that could use some help.
It's been great, better than great, but I've just been ad-libbing so far.
Can't just keep winging it. Need to have some kind of plan going in.
And that plan is…
A… "kick me" sign?
Ugh, maybe I can find a book on practical jokes or something.
How is it that your average bully can be so dumb, but still make bullying look so much easier than it really is?
Rodney Munson was never going to be a Rhodes Scholar. With his grades, the closest he would ever get would be a road paver, or possibly a roadie for some thrash metal band. Most would assume this was a result of low intelligence, or that he just didn't care.
In reality, Rodney Munson suffered from an undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, case of mild Tourette's Syndrome. He was unlucky enough that his symptoms, those vocal or motor tics associated with the neurological disorder, were easily misinterpreted when they first started to manifest at age 7.
When he repeatedly ground his teeth, his parents got him braces. His haphemania, or compulsive touching, made him want to touch anything that caught his attention, whether it belonged to him or not. The vocal tic that compelled him to growl and bare his teeth when he felt uncomfortable, like in situations where someone wanted him to return their property, didn't help much.
More than half of all TS cases also show symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His inability to focus in class cemented Rodney's reputation as a moron. His ritualistic behaviors, especially the ones that involved violently assaulting a fellow student every day for five years, cemented his reputation as a bully.
Bullies, in Sunnydale, were largely ignored by teachers, parents, principals, even the police. Maybe they were just playing odds, either the bully or the victim would "disappear" on their own eventually, if you left them alone long enough. Either way, Rodney had been allowed to slip through the cracks of the educational system. But that all changed when someone decided he might benefit from a tutor.
Willow, aside from knowing all the material practically by heart, was patient, kind, forgiving, and totally non-threatening. She explained things in ways nobody else had ever bothered to try, not moving ahead until she knew he understood. And he was learning, so long as she was there to make sure he didn't skip those things his eyes seemed to refuse to focus on. Rodney desperately wanted to do well, to make her proud of him. He even managed to break a ritual for her, by not beating up her friend Xander every day.
Speaking of her friend Xander, there he was getting out of the cafeteria line with his food. Sloppy Joe day. Rodney looked down at his own Sloppy Joe, then at Xander's. Pushing back from the empty lunch table, he stood up. Somehow, Xander's Sloppy Joe looked so much more interesting.
Xander distractedly followed Buffy's line of sight to his tray, specifically the empty space where his sandwich used to be.
"Huh? Oh… uh, yeah," he stammered, trying to cover the fact that he hadn't noticed before. "You know what they say, 'garbage in, garbage out.' And garbage might even be too generous when we're describing cafeteria food. Besides, Giles has me working out in the mornings, now. Good a time as any to start watching my caloric intake."
Looking over his friend's shoulder, he watched what he'd been about to eat as it crossed the room in the grip of his old tormentor, Rodney Munson. The sinking feeling that'd started the second the bully in braces had stomped up to him wasn't going away, it was getting worse. The light leading touch on his arm made him break the stare. He soon found himself seated between a somewhat glum Willow and a Slayer with smile that felt equal parts fake and dangerous.
"Your morning workout. We heard a little something about that, didn't we Willow?" she asked, continuing on after receiving a half-hearted nod from the redhead. "Apparently you and Giles got real… chatty, especially about your new girlfriend."
"Not chatty, per se," he deflected, lamely. "Boring conversation, really. Probably better that you didn't have to hear it, I bet it was much more interesting having him sum it up after."
Both girls looked at him strangely, but he didn't see it. He was looking between them, at the one table in the caf that was mostly empty. Not focusing on Rodney, or the way he was dissecting the stolen Sloppy Joe with a plastic spork like some kind of alien autopsy. No, his eyes were glued on the half-eaten Joe that was on the table.
At least most of it was on the table. The top bun was hovering a few inches above it. Just high enough to let a thin paper napkin, also floating, slide in between the bread and the beef. He started to reach out his hand, at a loss as to whether he should call out a warning or just…
His eyes snapped to the irritated blonde, then to the slightly concerned redhead.
"I… He… with the… Just listen for a second, I-" he tried, but Buffy wasn't having any of it.
"How about you listen, since we have your attention now? You shouldn't have lied to us."
"Technically," Willow spoke up, "it was Giles that lied first. Xander just went along with it."
"That doesn't matter," she shot back. "He still tried to keep it from us. If you don't want us to know something, don't try and hide it from us, just say it's none of our business. Even though it's totally our business because we're your friends and we have to trust each other with our lives going out to fight-"
Willow not-so-subtly coughed.
"- fight… boredom. And now you're thinking about bringing somebody new along, maybe even want her to fight boredom with us some night, and you expect us to be okay with that? Xander?"
The little plastic straw, still dripping milk from the little carton it'd floated out of, flipped and stuck one end of itself into an open and half-full condiment packet. Xander could just make out the little dark spot on the white straw. Much easier to spot the fiery red orange coloring on the packet, he didn't even need to be able to read the lettering to know it was hot sauce.
"I'm not trying to do this," he said, weakly. "It's just happening…"
Buffy bit back what she was going to say next, her expression softening. Reaching across the table she took one of Xander's hands, worrying slightly at how slack it was in her grip. She sent a meaningful look at Willow who got the message and took his other hand, stroking the back of it, gently.
"Hey, it's not like this is completely a bad thing," she soothed. "Giles told us how you met her. People in those kinds of situations together, they bond. And yeah, they don't have to try, it does just happen. It's even a little romantic, when you think about it."
She'd hardly finished saying it when she winced and glanced over at her other friend.
"It's okay," Willow said, trying very hard to mean it. "I… we just want you to be careful. 'Cause, you know, relationships that start under intense circumstances never last. There've been extensive studies."
Xander was beyond hearing her, at that point. Beyond comprehending the words. Far beyond pointing out that she'd slightly misquoted Sandra Bullock in SPEED. Because Rodney Munson was about to take a bite out of a half-eaten Sloppy Joe.
"No…" he whispered, trying his damnedest to will the sandwich out of his hand and onto the floor, to take control of the situation. "No no no no no…"
"Uh, Willow? Maybe you were a little harsh, there," Buffy said, sounding worried. "I think you spooked him. And spooked Xander is kinda spooking me."
"Me? This whole thing was your idea!" she accused, but looked back to watch her oldest friend stand up and back away, eyes wide and face pale. "Xander, wait! Please, we didn't mean -"
Both girls turned, Willow in surprise and Buffy ready to fight. Only, the roar wasn't demonic. A curly-haired boy with bits of food, and what looked like a shredded napkin, hanging from his braces stood up at his table with a look of pain, rage, and confusion on his face. The front of his shirt was wet, which probably had something to do with the crushed milk carton in his hand.
Buffy was about to ask how Willow knew this Rodney when he stumbled backwards, his legs not moving right. He couldn't stop himself from falling, and slammed into the cafeteria floor with a crash and a whimper. His legs kept moving with the momentum, bending him at the waist with his feet in the air. It was obvious to anyone that cared to look that his shoelaces had been tied together.
Another sharp noise had her turning again, even as Willow rushed over to help the groaning boy up off the floor. The cafeteria doors were just starting to close after someone had slammed them open a second before.
Apparently, Xander had decided their little talk was over now.
"This conversation is NOT over!"
"I might be wrong, Cordeila," Aura said blandly. "But I think running out into the hallway screaming 'I quit' over and over again means he's done talking. And all this time, I thought it was just losers and freshmen that crumbled when you yelled at them, who knew it worked on school employees, too."
"If he'd just done his job, I wouldn't have had to point out what a pathetic lump of polyester and B.O. he is. It's the 'Lost and Found'. I lose something, he's supposed to find it!"
"Right, except you never told him what it was he was supposed to find."
"Tell a mouth-breather like him about something like that?" she grimaced in disgust. "Hello, it's called privacy!"
"Maybe we could check the locker room again?" Harmony offered, timidly.
"Oh, of course!" Cordelia squealed with a huge fake smile. "Because five is the magic number of times we have to look before they'll just suddenly be there. How could I have forgotten that? Thank you, Harmony, where would I be without you to guide me?"
"It was just a suggestion…" she muttered, meekly.
"Here's a suggestion," Aura spoke up, stepping between them. "We give up looking and you just settle for what you're wearing now, I mean I don't even know why you want to do this now instead of waiting for the Spring Fling to show it off."
"'Settle'?" Cordelia echoed, dangerously, rounding on her friend. "I'm supposed to 'settle' for what I'm wearing? Aura, if the Chases knew how to settle, Gianni Versace would've spent last week stitching together another tea party outfit for his brat niece instead of handcrafting me a dress that makes the rest of his spring line look like something off the rack at J.C. Penny's. Now I am going to wear that dress when I make my acceptance speech at the end of lunch, so even the losers that skip the dance to wallow in their unpopularity get to see exactly why I'm Sunnydale royalty. And I'm not settling for anything less than exactly what I picked to wear under it!"
"Okay," the other girl shrank back, not liking the venom when it was being aimed at her. "Sorry, you're right. I guess I wasn't thinking."
The future May Queen let out a mix between a sigh and a growl, actually sounding a bit more upset than she had before the apology.
"After I got home from the fitting in Miami Beach last Saturday, I spent the next day picking out everything I was going to wear along with it," she explained. "And, once I had it together, it stayed together. Not even the maid was gonna touch it, so I'd know it was all there and ready for today. And, since it was all there, I knew I'd just change out of whatever I was wearing right when lunch started. So… I… I didn't make the same… wardrobe choices that I'd make on a normal day."
"I don't get it," said Harmony, surprising no one, really. "What does having your outfit together have to do with anything? What different choice did you make?"
"Oh God…" Aura paled, suspecting the answer. "You didn't… Cordelia, are you wearing something you'd pick for a day when you were… expecting a visit from your Aunt Flo?"
"They're my most comfortable pair," she aimed for defensive, but wound up sounding miserable. "Now, do you get it? I can't wear them, they'll completely ruin the lines of my dress!"
"Why would your aunt make you wear special underw-" Harmony asked, before she was shushed loudly by the two other girls.
"There isn't any time to call home and have them bring me something," said Cordelia, worriedly. "What am I going to do?"
"Well… I have one idea. But I can't promise you'll like it."
"Aura, I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I'm not borrowing yours."
"No! Ew, no!" she squealed, almost as disgusted by the implication as she'd been by the corpse in her locker a few months before. "I meant you could just… you know, try going without."
"Hey, yeah!" said Harmony. "That's, like, the perfect solution. Plus, since it's a dress and you're outside, the breeze feels really good on your…"
The other girls just stood and stared.
"Not that I've ever done it or anything!"
"I don't know…" Cordelia said. "What if somebody sees? I mean, I saw that stage they set up, it's pretty high off the ground."
"And your dress falls far enough to cover everything," Aura reminded her. "We're not in Kansas, Dorothy, so there won't be a twister on the quad to blow up your skirts. And seriously, even if there was one, think about it. Can you honestly say that what you're wearing right now would really be better than nothing?"
Maybe it wasn't the best idea, but his current strategy of walking aimlessly through the halls at a fast clip seemed better than nothing. He hadn't stopped moving since he left, and the school was small enough that he'd probably done several laps by now. Everybody has their own coping mechanisms, and this was Xander's. Simple repetitive activity, the same motions the same way again and again and again, it rarely failed to soothe him when he was upset. He'd have preferred a tennis ball and an empty classroom, all things considered.
But finding either would've meant having to stop moving.
That's all it would've taken for the million thoughts running through his head to jump him all at once. This was the only way he knew to keep them in line, waiting for their turn to punch him right in the brain. His dumb, STUPID psychic brain.
The stake and the books last night, the fire hose this morning, they all had the same thing in common. Pure, knee-shaking, pants-wetting terror. He wasn't ashamed to admit… silently, to himself, that he'd been afraid. Giles said that self-preservation was the strongest natural instinct programmed into every living thing, and that the human brain was wired to do whatever was necessary to make that happen, even it had to ignore pesky little things like conscious thought.
The floating donut, soccer ball in gym class, even the jump rope that jumped itself off the table, he could explain those as things he'd wanted. Food on an empty stomach, giant helping of "duh," that could even fall under self-preservation instinct against starvation. But those other two, he'd wanted them on a different level. Proving to Giles that he had what it takes to train. Proving to everybody that he wasn't the loser Brad Konig made him look like.
But that, just now at lunch? What the Hellmouth was that about? Sloppy Joe day?
Rodney Munson wasn't Xander's favorite person, that curly-headed sociopath had finished destroying what little faith he'd had left in authority figures doing their jobs to protect him. But, after five years, anything can become routine. Anything. So, after a while, they got a system going. Xander would take a punch to the shoulder, take a dive and go into the fetal position, where he'd get kicked two or three times. After that, they'd both go on with their days. Rodney never took his money, and rarely took anything else. Once it'd finally stopped, he hadn't even thought about revenge. He was mostly just happy to have an extra 2-3 minutes of free time every morning.
Why, then, had he used his brand new Marvel Gir… er… Marvel Boy… Marvel MAN powers to pull off a rapid-fire assault of pranks that would've left his old buddy Jesse rolling on the ground, laughing himself sick? Better question, why couldn't he stop it when he'd wanted to? Hadn't he wanted to? No, of course he'd wanted to, it was a sandwich for crying out loud!
That's when it hit him. What if his powers aren't about what he wants? What if they're about what some part of him, deep down, feels like he needs? He couldn't stop what was happening to Munson because, subconsciously, he really hadn't let go of the bitterness, the resentment for making him feel helpless for years. That part of his brain, the freaky new dangerous part, it was going to follow through whether he wanted to or not.
He started walking faster. His eyes darted back and forth, but they never focused on anything. The library. Giles had to hear about this. Everything would be fine, so long as he went straight to there and didn't let himself see anything that could make him use his powers. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Out of sight, out of mind. Almost there.
Out of sight, out of…
Why is everybody laughing?
The noise of the students in the halls rarely carried to his office, one of the few benefits Giles enjoyed working for the American public school system, but now he had to wonder if he'd ever been so easily amused as a teen. Certainly not without some form of chemical assistance.
Doing his best to ignore the noise, he returned to his task of organizing his translation references in preparation for the arrival of a book that could be considered the Holy Grail of Slayer prophecies. Latin, obviously, he'd need every volume he had for that, from Archaic and Classic to Medieval and Vulgar, and even a smattering of Renaissance Latin, as the Pergamum Codex had been lost, or "misplaced," sometime during the 15th Century. But that wouldn't even begin to be enough. The prophecies within had been given in every language under the sun, and likely a few from the Underworld as well. He could trust the Latin translation, yes, but a single ambiguous word could change the entire meaning. He added several works on ancient languages and his largest book of demonic verse.
The Watcher's Council policy that dictated the book be sent to Headquarters immediately was completely irrelevant. Giles already had very good reasons prepared for why he shouldn't.
He was the Watcher to the Slayer, making the book more relevant to him than any other Watcher living. The Master working towards something and, despite thwarting him with the Harvest and Buffy's victory against the Anointed in the morgue, time was not on their side. Knowledge of the prophecies in the Codex could not be allowed to wait for a long trip to England. The timing could be a close thing as it was, considering he didn't even have the book yet.
And that brought him to the other, less noble, reason to keep things to himself. The Council would undoubtedly want to know where the lost document had been found, and how the Watcher had come to have it. The answer to both, that it had been found and delivered by one of the most infamous, mass-murdering vampires in history, would not be welcome. Any story of Angelus being given a soul and reformed by guilt and love for the Slayer would only make things worse, he feared. And earn him, at best, a reassignment or, at worst, a bullet to the back of his head.
All very good reasons, all primed and at the ready so he wouldn't have to admit to being giddy as a schoolboy at the thought of being the first Watcher to have a crack at the old book in centuries.
Reaching for another dusty tome, he was startled by the sound of the library doors slamming open. Giles stepped out of his office to see Buffy and Willow charge in and both begin to speak at once.
"You won't believe what just happened," they said, then looked at each other and continued, still eerily in sync, "I should go first."
Giles looked back and forth between them, very disturbed. Thankfully, when Willow spoke again, the words only came from one mouth.
"I need to go first. Mine's spooky, possibly Slayer-related," she insisted.
He was about to agree, but Buffy answered first.
"Mine is about Cordelia getting embarrassed in front of more than half the school."
"You can go first."
"But didn't you just say -" he started to ask.
"Buffy's going first!" the normally meek redhead shouted, making him take an involuntary step back. "Go ahead, Buffy."
"Okay, it's like this," the smiling Slayer said. "Cordelia was up on this stage they built on the quad, and she was giving her May Queen acceptance speech. She kept going on and on about all the reasons why she's so popular and why everybody loves her so much, going back as far as pre-school. Why I didn't just walk away, who knows? Maybe it was some kind of intuition but, when she grabbed the microphone and walked out from behind the podium, this big wind came up out of nowhere and lifted up her dress!"
"Oh my god!" Willow said, wearing a smile of her own. "How high up did it go? Was she able to catch it before anybody saw anything?"
"Both hands on the microphone like she was Stephen Tyler or something, there was no catching happening up there. And you won't believe what everybody saw! Underneath that designer dress, she -"
"Now that is enough!" Giles half shouted. "A divine calling to protect all humankind will not be set aside so you can indulge in schoolyard gossip. Now, Willow, please tell us what it is you discovered."
Both girls deflated, Willow looking especially ashamed of her behavior.
"I was at the nurse's office with Rodney, to make sure he was okay after what happened at lunch. When Nurse Greenleigh saw him, she said 'Oh Hell, another one?' I asked her what she meant, and she said students have been coming in all day for accidents. Larry Blaisdell was covered in bruises, he tripped over a fire hose somebody pulled across the hallway and the whole football team landed on him. Then, in Gym class, Brad Konig hurt his back when he fell after trying to kick a soccer ball and missing. Larry said he never saw anybody move the hose, just like Rodney never saw who messed with his lunch and tied his shoes together, and Brad swears the ball moved on its own before he could kick it."
"It 'moved on its own,' you say?"
"I didn't say it, Brad said it to Nurse Greenleigh and then she… Oh! You meant… Yeah, all on its own."
"Giles?" Buffy asked, cautiously.
"I hope that I'm wrong but, if I'm not, this could be something serious. Something that must be dealt with immediately. Willow, do you know of anything connecting the three boys? Anything they have in common?"
"Not much. I mean, I think Brad and Larry used to hang out before Larry started playing football, but Rodney always kept to himself most of the time. The only time I remember ever seeing the three of them together was when they were beating up…"
At Buffy's mention of the name they'd both been thinking, Willow and Giles looked first at her, then followed her line of sight to the library door.
There was fear in his expression, eyes wide and skin pale with an obvious sheen of sweat. Tiredness as well, breathing hard like he'd been running. But what it was the heartbreaking look of pure sadness that they'd remember most after he turned and ran back out the door.
"We've got to go after him," Giles said urgently to his Slayer, Willow having already gone chasing the boy.
"Wait, are you telling me Xander did all this? With his powers? I don't believe it, he wouldn't -"
"I'd rather not believe it either, but the fact is that it all fits! Last night, we find out he has the ability to move objects with his mind. Today, people who mistreated him are suddenly having 'accidents' involving objects that seem to move by themselves. Even the business with that Chase girl you all despise and her windblown dress, I'll bet you anything that Xander had something to do with that, too."
"But, it's not like he sent anybody to the hospital! All of it, especially what happened to Cordelia, it was harmless. That football jock has probably been hurt way worse on the football field, that guy in Gym shouldn't have put so much into his kick, and that thing at lunch, second graders pull those kinds of pranks on each other. Not funny, but he wasn't trying to hurt anybody!"
"Maybe he wasn't today," Giles said, solemnly. "I'd almost forgotten it myself, but these accidents didn't start today."
Auto Shop. Up to now, didn't think he'd spent more than an hour in this room his entire time at Sunnydale High. Checking the clock on the wall, he'd already doubled that tonight. It'd been a miserable time, and not because of the uncomfortable metal stool he was sitting on, or the lingering smells of motor oil and exhaust fumes.
He hadn't even had to bypass any yellow police caution tape to get in or anything. Why should he have? It'd been two days, after all. In a place like Sunnydale, even if somebody had died in here, the room would've been back open the next day. Just like nothing had happened.
Something had, though, hadn't it? He stared at one spot in the middle of the room. Cracks, crisscrossing back and forth like threads of a spider's web, from the impact of something a little too heavy for even the concrete to handle. What must it have sounded like when it fell?
"We've been looking for you."
Damn. He'd taken too much time stalling. If he'd known anything about Shakespeare, he might've considered a quote from the Scottish play, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." But he didn't know Macbeth from MacGyver, so he'd just sat there letting his mind play its tricks. He could've sworn he'd actually seen a pair of legs sticking out from that old Chrysler an hour ago, morbidly reminding him of a wicked witch smashed under a Kansas farmhouse. And several times, he'd heard footsteps pacing back and forth across the clearly empty floor. When he heard the voice from the door, he half thought he'd imagined that, too. But he had to look over when he heard her again, but barely turned his head to do it.
"You managed to get off campus without Snyder catching you. Impressive. Willow wasn't so lucky, but her straight A's saved her when her puppy-dog eyes failed. Even Giles couldn't get away, his cover story about sending you to earn some extra credit by picking up a magazines and newspapers for the periodicals section probably saved you from getting suspended, I bet his ears are still ringing from all the yelling about keeping delinquents on a shorter leash instead of letting them roam free among decent people."
"Can we not talk about this right now, Buff?" Xander said, softly. "I'd kind of like to be alone."
"By the time school let out, Giles drove us to your place to look for you there. Your dad wasn't happy that we interrupted his… Well, whatever he'd been doing, he wasn't happy he got interrupted and he told us you weren't home. From there, we went to the Bronze, Kingman's Bluff, Jesse's parents' house. They asked about you, wanted to know if you were okay."
"Just go, please…"
"We kept looking in places Willow thought you might go but, when she suggested we try Angel's apartment, I suggested we split up just in case that sign of the apocalypse didn't actually come to pass. So I had them drop me off here, hoping I'd get lucky. And it looks like I did. What are you doing here, Xander?"
"They say the killer always returns to the scene of the crime," he answered, with a sad smile. "Go away, Buffy. Just turn around and walk away, pretend you didn't find me."
At the word "killer," the slow approach Buffy had been making halted and her whole body tensed. She recovered, but not as quickly as she'd probably wanted to.
"Nobody died in here," she said. "And I don't know if I could even blame you if you were disappointed by that. Last night, I asked Willow if she could look up something online for me. People that get knocked out from a blow to the head, they don't always just get up a little later with a headache like in the movies. You could've had a concussion. You could've died. What I'm saying is I understand coming back, wanting to get even."
"No, you don't understand," he said. "I didn't even understand."
"Okay," she said, gently, and slowly started walking forward again. "Maybe you can explain it to m-"
"STAY BACK!" CLAAANGG!
They both jerked in surprise as a heavy wrench seemed to jump up from the metal cabinet it'd been lying on and slammed itself back down hard. It floated up again, hovering menacingly between them.
"Damn it, Buffy!" he shouted, turning to face her now but backing up, putting distance between them until his back hit the wall. "This is exactly what I didn't want to happen!"
"I'm not here to hurt you, Xander," she tried to soothe him, eyes pleading with him but still tracking the floating tool. "And I know you don't want to hurt me."
His arm moved and, for the first time, she noticed he was wearing a beat-up old army jacket she'd never seen on him before. His hand, hidden by his body up until he'd turned to face her, was in the jacket's pocket making a bulge that told her it wasn't in there by itself.
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?"
What cleared the dull green fabric, clenched tightly in his shaking hand, wasn't especially big. Smaller than a sword, or a crossbow, much smaller than any vampire or demon she'd ever fought but, to the part of her that was Buffy Summers from L.A., it terrified her in a way that had nothing to do with being the Slayer. She wasn't familiar enough with the terminology to be able to describe it with words like "snub nose" or "revolver."
To her, it was just a gun.
"Get out of here, now!" he said, sharply.
"Where did you get that?" she asked, so focused on the weapon barely heard the wrench clatter to the ground.
"Why? You want one?" he asked, chuckling a little in disbelief. "Sorry, Buffinator, this was the only one in stock. If you really want it…"
Right in front of her widening eyes, he brought the barrel up until it was pointed at his own temple.
"…you have to wait 'til I'm done with it, first."
"Xander? Wh-what…? Why?" Buffy stammered, completely off balance.
"I was there, this morning with Larry and the football team. Same with Brad and Rodney. But I wasn't here Sunday night."
"Wait, so you mean you didn't -"
"But I did! Because I wasn't with Cordelia, either. I wasn't watching, I was on the other side of the school when it happened. But I know it was me because I kept hearing from everybody how there wasn't any wind but her dress went up anyway, I heard that more than I heard about what everybody saw under it! Do you get it now? My brain, my power, it works whether I'm close by or a mile away. And I don't have to concentrate, I don't have close my eyes, I don't have to say any magic words, it just happens! Even when I don't want it, even when I try to stop it!"
"Giles, we can talk to him. He'll know something that -"
"I heard what Giles said in the library, and he wasn't wrong. This is serious, and so I'm dealing with it. I won't wait 'til after pull a Carrie on you with kitchen knives someday for taking the last slice of pizza on movie night. You think I want to live to see that? If I hurt Willow…"
He trailed off, the line of thought making him grip the pistol just a little tighter. Watching as his words sunk in, Xander didn't see the resigned acceptance he was hoping for, or even the fear and desperation she'd been showing before. If anything she was starting to look offended, maybe even a little annoyed.
"So, that's what this is all about? You scared you're gonna hurt us, maybe someday, so you put a gun to your head?" she asked, calmly but without an ounce of sympathy, as she started walking slowly towards him again.
"This is how I make sure someday never comes!" he shouted back, more tense as she seemed to relax. "Just get the Hell out of here or -"
"Or what? Will you shoot me if I don't go?"
"I only put one bullet in the gun. If you don't go, you have to watch me use it. Don't think that's a picture you want in your head."
She kept moving forward, slow but never stopping.
"Trying to protect me from nightmares now, too? Don't bother, I get 'em anyway. Have been for years. And it's only gotten worse since I became the Slayer. Every time my head hits the pillow, I've had to watch girls my age fight monsters. Some won, some died. And I didn't know what they meant. Not until this old guy showed up and told me. But I didn't believe him at first. So you know what he did?"
Less than ten feet away. Xander's grip tightened so much it started to hurt. She didn't wait for an answer to her question.
"He threw a knife at my head. Not with his mind or anything, he used his hand. But it was still a knife, and it was still about to hit me right between the eyes. Me, Buffy Summers, little miss popular Freshman from Hemery High, never been trained to fight, never even heard the word vampire outside of movies with Gary Oldman or Brad Pitt. And yet, here I am, free of stab wounds to the forehead. Can you guess why?"
Five feet. He felt the barest touch of thin metal against his index finger, but he didn't put any more pressure there. His mouth was dry, so he had to work his tongue before he asked.
"Did you dodge it?"
"Caught it with one hand. That's why he threw it, to prove to me that being the Slayer wasn't about making a choice. It was already hardwired into me. And Merrick, my first Watcher, knew that I could catch it. Said I hadn't been in any danger because I was the 'Chosen One.' But still, he threw a knife at my head so I punched him, right in the face. Really hard, too, he got a bloody nose and everything."
He didn't flinch when he felt her fingertip pressing against his nose, and that probably saved his life, he just sat there, frozen. Even when he felt the fingers of her other hand wrap around the hand that held the gun.
"And, Xander, I'll be happy to punch you too if you ever throw anything at anybody you aren't supposed to. And it'll hurt but, sometimes, pain is how we learn."
Staring at each other, face to face, neither moved except to breathe or blink. And, even though both knew he couldn't stop her from moving his hand if she tried, nobody knew if he could pull the trigger fast enough to do the deed anyway. With only one shot, no pun intended this time, to do what he'd come here to do, he had to make her understand before she made him lose his nerve.
"I've always been a slow learner, Buff. If I hurt somebody with my powers before I learn how to control them -"
"That's not the lesson you need to learn. But, yeah, you're pretty slow not to get it by now. Especially after yesterday morning, that speech you made about all the parts of me that make up who I am. The part of me that's the Slayer, it means I can handle anything your brain can throw me. Literally. Even if I can't see it coming, I'll just hear it or feel it before it can get too close. Not to wound your pride but, as a scary monster, you rank somewhere above fresh-from-the-ground vampire but way below Amy's mom."
Actually, that did sting just a little bit. Evil witches can be scary and all, but Catherine Madison was a middle-aged lady with a pom-pom fetish, damn it.
"But, like you said, the Slayer is just one part of me. Even if you can't hurt that part, you can still hurt me. Hurt me worse than all the vampires and the demons ever could. And you will, if you pull that trigger. If you do this, you'll be hurting me and you'll be killing Willow. Was that a part of your plan? Is that how you're gonna protect us? By leaving us? By taking away our best friend?"
He felt her gently pulling at his hand, the barest pressure trying to lift it up and away from his temple. But the light touch was met with just enough resistance to keep his hand in place. She had one more card left to play.
"What about Marcie?" she asked, softly. "Isn't she calling you again tonight? Do you want her to have to talk to your answering machine? Do you want your dad to talk to her, tell her that you're not home like he told us? Do you really want me to walk out of here so you can use that gun to make the last and biggest mistake of your life, Xander? Do you really want me to leave you to that? Or do you want me to stay and make sure your new girlfriend gets to hear you say 'sweet dreams' before she goes to bed tonight?"
They turned to see the door to the Auto Shop room slowly closing, all by itself, until it shut with a soft thud.
"That's what I hoped you'd say," said Buffy, watching with a relieved smile as Xander hit the latch that released the cylinder, letting the single bullet inside fall harmlessly to the ground.
Author's Notes: I'm back, brothers and sisters. It's been a long time, no question. Frankly, sometime after my first attempt at writing this story, I took a look at my life and wasn't particularly happy with what I saw. So, aside from some beta work and a Christmas Parody story that nagged at my brain until I got it out, I took an extended break from writing stories. But I can honestly say that I feel I'm doing much better now. Employed, maybe not as consistently as I'd like, but happy for the work I do get. In a loving relationship with a wonderful woman who understands me like no other. Not quite in perfect health, but I'm getting there. And some of my convalescing time is a big part of what's allowed me to write. But I could've written anything, I suppose. I've got pages and pages of ideas, notes and dialogue, for Buffy and Buffy crossovers, and several other fandoms beside. But I couldn't abandon this story.
The reason I couldn't abandon it, aside from the fact that this story hasn't been fully told, is all the positive feedback I've gotten from those who read and enjoyed He Can't See It. I see every review, every PM, every story alert and favorite, and they kept coming and coming. Rarely a week went by when I didn't get something. So, as far removed from this story as I was, as soon as I decided I was going to get back to posting, I knew this would have to be the first new chapter. And, to be completely honest, I started to feel that old enthusiasm writing this that I haven't felt in more than a year. You guys have been patient, some more than others, but I appreciate the patient and impatient alike. Thank you, everybody. Over the next few days, I'm going to do my best to answer the reviews I've let slide, and stay on top of any new reviews that come in.
And, as I should do in every author's note I write for this, I have to thank dogbertcarroll for giving me the idea for this story in the first place. Brother Ted, I've taken your words to heart and every change I try to work into the story, and there were several big ones here that set up several more to come, will have lasting ramifications that will ripple changes through the… do we call it the Buffyverse? Whedonverse? I've never been completely sure about that. Either way, things are in motion, stay tuned to find out where they're headed.