Jack Rodman. Fifty-seven years old when he spontaneously combusted two days ago. Left behind three loving children and a grandson.
That was all it had been, a tiny blurb in a newspaper far too accustomed to strange deaths to pay much heed to them in the obituaries. Xander had seen the page and gone pale, had avoided his friends' inquiring gazes and dropped the newspaper back on the table at the Magic Box.
They didn't understand, were far too willing to let it go as a simple error on his part. They had their own problems to deal with, and they could always rely on him to be the good one, the loyal one…
The one who never cost them lives.
It was hours later now, nearly dark, and Xander wasn't foolhardy enough to remain in a Sunnydale cemetery much longer. He dragged his feet a bit, reluctant to leave the gravesite, when he saw her.
"Hi." She waved, a bit awkwardly.
He waved back, placing her immediately. She'd been at the funeral, had cried on the older woman's shoulder, had clutched the little boy close in her arms. It had been a small gathering, and he'd known that she must have been close to Jack Rodman.
"I'm Melissa Rodman," she said, confirming his thoughts. "Jack's daughter. I saw you hanging around in the back during the ceremony. You knew my father?"
He nodded numbly. There was no other way to explain it. No, I summoned a demon because of my stupid insecurities and he forced your father to dance to his death just wouldn't cut it, not to her. He struggled for something to say, some way to comfort the woman he'd orphaned.
But Melissa was smiling softly at him. "I just…I want you to know that I really appreciate it, you coming here for him. He didn't have many friends, you know. But he must have meant a lot to you for you to stay here all this time." She shook her head. "We all moved away when we got older. I'm sure you know this town's…propensity for shortening lifespans." She smiled reminiscently. "Dad wanted us to be safe, encouraged us to leave as soon as we could. He always said that he was too tough for the Sunnydale nightlife…"
She walked slowly to the grave, to rest a hand against the marker lovingly as she spoke to him. "I'm so happy that he had someone like you, who still cared about him when we were gone."
Xander swallowed, but it couldn't quite force down the pit growing in his throat. "It wasn't…It wasn't like that. I didn't…"
She turned away from him, facing the tombstone. "Hush, now," she murmured, and he understood what she needed to believe, what she couldn't accept. The idea of a child who loved her father, who couldn't bear the thought of his pain in her absence, was so alien to him that it took a few moments before the concept took hold in his mind. "It doesn't matter anymore, does it?"
"I guess not," he agreed hoarsely. "Um…look, you shouldn't be alone here at night. It's dangerous."
"You'll escort me back home, then?" she extended an arm and he took it, following her quiet directions to her father's house, where she'd been staying for the past day. She spoke quietly of the man who was gone, of the kind of person that he was, of the legacy he'd left behind.
When they reached the door, she turned to stare at him directly. "I don't know how close to him you were," she said quietly, keeping up the illusion. "But he was the kind of man who was full of life and loving, the kind of man who'd shudder at the idea of lurking in a graveyard to repent for some past sin." Her eyes bore through him and he shifted uncomfortably, unable to look away. "He'd want you to live, and remember him as you did. Won't you come inside?"
He followed her in and she sat him down at the kitchen table, brewed him some of her father's favorite tea, and pulled out a photo album. They sat there for hours, poring over the life of a man Xander now knew better than he'd known his own father, a man who Xander was beginning to love.
At half past two in the morning, Melissa sent him home, telling him to call her as soon as he returned so that she'd know that he arrived safely. He did so dutifully before he climbed into bed beside his still-alert fiancé.
"Where've you been?" Anya demanded, her expression cold but her words so worried, so frightened, that his heart ached with all the force that it had at their exposed issues with each other back during the singing.
He turned to pull her into a stiff hug, until she finally relaxed in his grasp and melted into his embrace. "I was learning how to be a man," he said honestly.
Her countenance turned playful as she reached down to squeeze him gently. "I'd say you already are," she informed him.
He kissed the top of her head softly. "Not yet," he murmured. "But someday, I swear, I will be."
He thought of Jack and smiled.