Today is my contribution to spring_with_xan. This is the final chapter of my ex-work-in-progress story "Once Again", and--yay me!--has only taken four years (give or take). The previous parts can be found here. The first part of this story was my first fanfiction ever and, despite a little bit of effort to fix it up, it still really shows. If you can swallow a couple of bitter pills and hold your nose I promise the story (and the writing) get better as it goes on...
Title: Once Again, Part 7: No Place
Summary: Home is where the heart is
Spoilers: Up through BtVS:Chosen and AtS:NFA
Rating: Minor language, violence
Acknowledgment: First, and most importantly, I'd like to thank Theo. In fact there is not enough thanks I can give him, but this will have to do. This story would quite simply not exist without all his effort: beta-reading, bouncing ideas around, suggestions, enthusiasm, and encouragement.
I kind of had a few ideas about how to continue the story after writing the second part, but really was pretty much floundering around. Until ozma914 said something in a review a very long time ago. So I'd like to thank ozma914 for inadvertantly suggesting the direction for this story and enabling me to complete the journey to the end.
No acknowledgment can be complete without thanking every one who has read, and hopefully enjoyed, "Once Again".
Part 7: No Place
Behind him, from the rugged slope leading down to the narrow edge of rocky beach he was standing upon, Xander heard the scuffling, sliding progress of someone carefully working their way down towards him. He'd known the Council would find him eventually; it was only a matter of when. And who. He was mildly curious who his new companion this evening would be and, just for yucks, drew up a short list in his head. He paused, eye closed, to listen, but he didn't quite care enough to turn and actually see who it was.
After several seconds went by without being able to discern their identity he resumed his methodical task, transferring small rocks and stones he'd collected, from one hand to the other, and tossing them into the water one by one. He waited for the splash before tossing the next. Before long the scuffling was replaced by the light crunching of approaching footsteps and the huffing of someone catching their breath. He heard a sniff, possibly disdainful.
"Always the home-boy. I knew I'd find you here."
This time Xander did turn, just briefly, not a little surprised--and pleased--to see it was Cordelia. After a moment's reflection he realized he should have guessed it might be her. He didn't answer right away, pursing his lips and looked thoughtfully at her as he shuffled the stones around in his hand.
She looked good, he thought, real good. A stylish knee-length woolen overcoat kept her warm on this unusually crisp, breezy day, billowing around soft, expensive-looking leather boots. She'd trimmed her long hair to shoulder-length, loose strands blowing about her face. He watched her for another moment as she approached, memorizing this image, before turning away.
"That's me, Homeward Bound-guy, Sunnydale homie," Xander said over his shoulder. With a grunt of effort he threw the next stone far out into the water, beneath which lay the remains of his old home town.
Giles felt the crushing blow to his sternum, then an excruciating agony in his neck. The intense double wallops of pain were followed by a numbing paralysis radiating from his neck and branching throughout his body. He tried to push away his attacker but his movements were no more than feeble, ineffectual.
"Giles!" screamed Xander. He shoved the now alert Cordelia behind him and launched himself at the thing attaching itself to Giles' neck. His attempted tackle had about as much effect as trying to knock over a building with a feather. The demon only noticed enough to kick him aside viciously before biting in deeper. Giles hadn't had a chance to shout or make any noise, but now Xander heard a thick gurgling noise from deep in his throat.
As he scrambled back to his feet he was pushed aside as the slayers, having heard his and Cordelia's screams, arrived on the scene. Faith was the first slayer to reach Giles, and with the speed of rage, mindlessly leaped into a flying kick at the vampire's head.
She just bounced off. And although unhurt, the demon dropped his meal to deal with the new annoyance.
Like a thick and heavy blanket slowly being pulled over him, Giles began to succumb to a profound and overwhelming tiredness. His vision contracted to a small blurry gray spot and the sounds of battle raging near him faded into a faraway echo. He knew he should be doing something--anything--to help his slayers and friends, for it was his job to help his comrades in any way he could, virtually his reason for living. But he was just so, so tired. If he could just rest a little while he would help the others in a bit. He promised himself he would.
After the battle with The First Evil, the expanding crater swallowing Sunnydale had stopped just short of reaching the coastline, leaving a thin strip of land to dam off the ocean. During the beginning of the following hot summer the crater had remained dry, a giant festering wound; a choking pall of dust, smoke and ash had wafted up from it for weeks.
The destruction had been so massive, so complete, that the only sign anything like a town had once existed here were the approach roads, fences, and power lines, abruptly cut-off by the crumbling edge of the crater. Only a very few of the most outlying neighborhoods had survived the disaster in any form, but they remained abandoned and were already falling apart after looters removed anything of value.
The state had unsuccessfully tried to keep the public out: the mourners, the morbid, and the merely curious. But people cut through or tore down whatever fences and barriers were erected. Thrill seekers even climbed down into the crater, occasionally finding valueless bits and pieces of the town.
It wasn't long before water began to fill in from the ocean as it seeped through the porous and cave-riddled bedrock that had been Sunnydale's foundation. The following winter's rains and storms filled the crater even more, even breaching the dividing strip of land in one or two places. Bowing to the inevitable, the state called in the Army Corps of Engineers to blast open a wider, permanent channel between the ocean and the partially filled crater, allowing the tides to flush out the developing stench, and thus forming the newest bay in California's coastline.
Cold, heavy rains earlier in the day had washed the dust from the air, allowing Xander and Cordelia to easily see the far eastern shore of the nearly perfect circular bay. The shoreline they were standing upon was on a finger of land separating the bay from the ocean behind. North of them, just visible far up to their left, was the strait that formed the entrance to the bay, beyond which another finger of land extended down, completing the circle.
An idea was running around in some circles to turn the entire region into a memorial park. Xander was somehow offended by the notion, but on the other hand had to admit he couldn't think of anything better. A park was probably as good an idea as anything.
It was just the idea of people frolicking about on the grave-site of his hometown, of so many friends and family, it truly turned Xander's stomach.
As Xander was regaining his feet, a Buffy-blur streaked past him. Buffy slid in low and aimed for the legs, snapping off a kick at the demon's knee. This exacted the first real damage and caused the demon to howl. With its mobility severely degraded two more slayers, Zelinda and Fulani, were able to attack from either side, soon rejoined by Faith. With the addition of Tarian and Carole, the slayers were able to completely encircle the vampire and attack it from all angles. The demon was literally bounced around like a pinball, every girl darting in for a shot before dodging away from its lightning-quick counter-attacks.
Barely sentient, fueled by the fury of revenge after being encaged by a soul for so long, Angel's inner demon relied on animalistic instincts and reactions honed from thousands of generations of preying on the warm-blooded. The demon attacked everywhere. But it simply wasn't prepared for 'one girl in all the world' to become six. No matter how much it dodged, feinted, slashed, punched or kicked, it couldn't avoid the storm of blows from the slayers.
Realizing it wouldn't last much longer it roared and made a headlong charge at Tarian, seeking to break free. She jumped out of the way, allowing the slayers on either side, Buffy and Fulani, to take advantage of the opening. They each cut it down from the sides, striking with their stakes and knives. The demon roared again in fury as Fulani landed the final, fatal thrust to the heart.
Xander smiled crookedly and looked at Cordelia again. "So they sent you to find me, did they? Haul me back?" He extended his arms low, wrists together. "I promise I'll come peacefully, ma'am," he drawled, "Jus' let my horse run free."
"Nobody sent me anywhere. I came here to find you on my own," Cordelia told him.
Xander let his arms fall to his side. "Really?"
"Don't look so self-satisfied, pal. I have my reasons, not all of which have anything to do with wayward dorks. There were things I needed to take care of first. Then I came here. I've been waiting just a couple of days."
"Just you?" Xander shielded his eye as he scanned the crest behind him to see who else had come looking for him. "Where're the others?"
Cordelia's eyes narrowed as she regarded him carefully, fitting pieces together. "You really haven't spoken to them much ever since Sunnydale, have you?" she finally said.
Xander gave up looking and shook his head. He waved at the water. "After this, everyone was moving on again. Except me. I-I know they didn't suffer any less than me, but somehow--I don't know--I just couldn't talk with them anymore. They tried, but, but I couldn't hear what they were saying." Xander snorted in disgust with himself and shook his head. "Africa made it easier." He looked up at Cordelia. "How are they?"
She bobbed her head. "Buffy's handling it pretty well. She and Faith both figured you'd come back when you were ready."
Xander almost hesitated to say the next name that occurred to him. He was ashamed to admit how far apart they'd grown, it really was his own fault. "Willow?" They'd all tried, especially Willow, but he wasn't listening.
Cordelia frowned. "Less well. After we lost you in New York she tried a locator spell to track you down, but you showed up in ten different places at once. And gave her quite the nasty headache."
Xander chuckled darkly. "Yeah, I'm funny like that." He sent a silent salute to a tribal shaman he'd befriended in Kenya, a new watcher for a recently discovered local slayer. The old man had de-"demon-magnetized" him, making it easier to freely roam in the dicier demon-infested regions. It had had the additional side-effect of making him invisible to most forms of magic, witchcraft or sorcery.
While the slayers fought the demon, Xander scrambled over to Giles, his head now cradled in Cordelia's lap as she tried to staunch the free flow of blood from the torn flesh in his neck. She was having very little success in her efforts and tears were already streaming down her face.
Xander placed his larger hand over hers and pressed down to help. "Stay with us, Giles! You need to stay with us!" he yelled, grabbing Giles with his other hand, almost crushing the older man's hand in his grip.
Slowly Giles opened his eyes. He looked about for the source of the voice, but his eyes wandered aimlessly as if blind, unable to focus.
"You have to stay with us. We need you! Buffy, Dawn, Faith, all of us. I need you! Dammit, Giles, you promised to show me how to play the guitar. I'm going to hold you to that!" Xander shouted, trying to get Giles to hold on for a while longer.
Giles gave up looking for Xander. "I'm afraid--" He was seized by a violent fit of coughing. When he spoke again his voice had dropped to a soft husk of a whisper. "--not today, s-s-son." Giles smiled weakly and squeezed Xander's hand. Xander barely felt a thing and his own heart went cold.
Giles coughed again, a horrible, hollow rattling sound. "T-tell Buffy," he gasped, "Tell her! I lo--" Giles' hand in Xander's tightened and went limp.
Xander squeezed his eye shut and groaned in despair.
Xander raised an eyebrow. "How did you know where to find me? I wasn't even sure I'd come here."
She nodded judiciously. "I know who you are. It really was kind of obvious."
"And the others couldn't figure it out?" He'd only used the Council credit card for the one-way ticket to New York and then a huge cash advance. Afterward he'd avoided anything that might leave a record of his passage.
Cordelia took a slow, careful step forward to stand before Xander, and looked intently up at him, making sure she had his full attention. "I know you, Xander," she repeated. Cordelia laid her hand on his chest, over his heart. "You're not the boy I once knew, but some things haven't changed." She glanced over his shoulder. "You're still looking for home."
Even through the thickness of his jacket her touch was like a firebrand. Xander looked down at the strong yet slender--and of course, perfectly manicured--fingers splayed across his chest. Xander suddenly shivered before he could stop himself, and his breath caught in his throat. He had to will himself to relax and breath again, but he still fidgeted under her disconcertingly direct yet oddly comforting gaze, one that said she understood and accepted who and what he was.
He considered Cordelia's answer and what it might imply about her in relation to himself. All of the woman he'd known and loved had a piece of his soul, a piece of his heart, a piece of him. But there had been dreams, secrets deep and personal, that he'd shared with her and no one else - not Buffy, not Anya, not even Willow. At that movement he realized Cordelia might have a bigger part of him than he had ever understood.
On a sunny but frigid day they gathered on a low rise behind the Council House, just a gathering of his closest friends and the slayers and watchers currently in residence. Faith and Robin, who had flown over as soon as he learned of his fiance's reappearance, stood together on one side, with Angel a step behind. Across from them Xander was sandwiched between Buffy and Willow, holding them both tightly. Cordelia was behind Xander, with her hand on his shoulder. In a tight circle around them were the other slayers and watchers.
No one knew what religion Giles had subscribed to, if any, so there was no clergy. The will they had discovered in his office made no specification and there was a brief argument about whether he should be buried on his family's estate near Bath, or here in Saxmundham. Since he had virtually no extant family other than Buffy, Willow, Xander and the others in the profession he'd devoted his life to, it was soon decided in favor of the Council House grounds. And the slayers were selfish enough to want him near.
People spoke, in turn, as the will moved them. The speeches were often awkward, halting, and emotionally raw. They spoke of how they knew Giles, his influence on them, both the good and maybe even the bad. They spoke of their appreciation for his wisdom and tolerance and how much his calm introspective manner was already missed. They spoke of his love of the arcane, always seeking the answers to the most intractable problems they ran up against. They spoke of their love for Giles, and how, in several notable cases, he was more family to them than their own blood kin.
But evil never stopped and the Council had to move forward, to return to business as usual. The first major action was to choose the new Head Watcher. What Xander had thought would be a sure-fire, easy and obvious choice quickly deteriorated into nasty arguments and bitter words. Everyone had an opinion and just about nobody agreed with anyone else. Factions stood entrenched. Old-guard versus new, recent slayers vs, the Scoobies, watchers vs. slayers. Some wanted no Head Watcher, some didn't even want a Council at all. They hadn't even come close to deciding how to deal with the new Keeper of the Deeper Well.
Buffy mostly stayed back and just listened to the heated back and forth, but eventually got frustrated with the endless feuding and lack of progress. The chaos made her head ache and, in an effort to move them forward, she tried to impose some kind of reasonable order to the deliberations. She was shouted down and then pointedly ignored, particularly by some of the slayers who had been with her in Sunnydale. It was quite the shock to Buffy and she made ready to leave.
Faith fared little better, the subtlety of Council politics being beyond her blunt, straightforward style. It was a miracle Faith, despite her own frustrations, and Robin were able to convince Buffy to stay.
Half a day passed before anyone noticed Xander was gone.
With a subtle shift of weight and stance, Cordelia assumed a more challenging posture, one that let him know she would tolerate no nonsense from him. "Why, Xander? It was hard for everybody, losing Giles. One moment you're there," she snapped her fingers, "the next you're gone, no reason at all."
Xander turned away as he mumbled his answer. "I-I'm sorry, Cordy, I just--I just couldn't take it anymore. I simply couldn't. It was all wrong again, all wrong. We were getting nowhere faster than I can tell a bad pun. And the last person anyone needed to hear from was some tired, one-eyed joker who can't slay and can barely tell a Fyarl demon from a Gna'cklar.
"Y'know, Xander, for 'the one who sees', you're pretty blind. Trust me, for all my seer-ness I've had some real prize moments of blindness too, so I know what I'm talking about." Then Cordelia's lips turned up into a small, secretive smile. "I think you might be surprised what all those people think of you." Her grin grew larger.
"What?" Despite himself, Xander's curiosity was piqued. "You all had a big party after I left?"
Cordelia shook her head coyly. "In a moment." And she let the matter drop. She turned to survey the remnants of Sunnydale. "So this is really it, huh?"
Xander, knowing he wouldn't get Cordelia to speak until she was ready, followed her gaze and nodded.
"Boy, did I hate this piss-ant excuse of a town. Most days back when I was vision-girl for the Powers, I liked to pretend I had never lived anywhere but Los Angeles. But seeing this now," she waved vaguely at the water, "seeing the reality--"
She noticed the skeptical expression he gave her and returned a rueful smile. "Yeah, I know, I know. I always said there could be no better fate for Sunnydale than to do the world a favor and slide it's sorriness into the ocean. And I never did come back. I think that's because I always knew I could if I ever needed to. I think," she inclined her head toward the water, "I think I needed to see this." She shook her head sadly and frowned. "I don't recognize anything."
Xander pointed at the strait separating them from the northern peninsula. "The docks were up there." He pointed to the far north shore. "That rise over there, on the far side, is what's left of Kingman's Bluff, but it's partly crumbled in."
Cordelia had already read through the brochures with their overlay maps and knew all this, but nodded along just the same. Hearing Xander's description, seeing the pain written clearly on his face, hearing the huskiness in Xander's voice, told her more than any sterile words and diagrams could say. So without comment she let Xander point out the old landmarks, her eyes following wherever he indicated.
"You lived there. My parents lived over here. And right there, in the middle, is where Ah--" Xander froze, his arm hanging in the air and pointing to the center of the bay.
Cordelia looked over at Xander curiously. He suddenly seemed so completely lost, and her heart ached for him. She remembered Anya had died at the high school during the battle, and that being here must be a profoundly painful experience for him. Wordlessly Cordy reached and took Xander's hand and held it tightly.
Xander, a little surprised, flashed her a quick, sad smile. With a reflexive shiver, he shook himself out of it and continued more quietly. "Th-that's where the high-school was." Squeezing back, he returned her gesture of sympathy and comfort, letting her know he appreciated the silent show of support. He continued to gaze out across the rippled water. After a few moments he was surprised to find Cordelia was still holding his hand.
The silence was broken only by the soft echos of crashing waves from the ocean behind them and the call of seagulls overhead.
Xander sighed. Time to move on.
He let go of Cordelia's hand and pivoted to face her directly. "Why are you here, Cordy?" he demanded.
"I have a message for you. From the Council."
"For me? What would they have to say to me? Are my dues not paid up? Did they finally come to their senses and vote me off the island?"
"It's about Giles' replacement."
"That's what you've come all this way to tell me?! Who the new boss is?" Xander dug into his pocket. "Y'know, I actually do know how to use this thing." He held up his cell phone.
Cordelia waited impassively.
Xander sighed. "Okay, fine, you win. Who's the luckless bastard they finally picked? Sheesh, it's about time!"
Unexpectedly, Cordelia smiled wickedly, eyes squinting with amusement at the joke only she knew.
Cordelia still said nothing. But her grin kept growing.
It took two more seconds for Xander to get it. "Oh no! No! No way!" He shook his head back and forth. "Me? That's impossible! Please tell me you're joking."
"Nope, sorry. They want you," Cordelia said, almost gleefully. She was clearly amused and enjoying herself, though whether at the very notion of Xander as Head Watcher, or his reaction to the news, he couldn't tell. "When everyone was all shouted out," she continued, "and the fur and dust settled, yours was the one name everyone could agree on--well, except for the senile skeletons, but nobody's listening to them anymore, so we just shoved them in a nearby closet."
Xander was shell-shocked and gob-smacked. His mouth flopped open but he made no sound. When he was finally able to round up enough working brain cells to say something coherent without also falling down, he said, "What the--?" He stopped to gather himself again, taking a big swallow. "Did everyone suddenly get sucked into the "Let's All Do Something Really Stupid" dimension? Suffering Hector, why?! Why would they pick me?! Who thought up that lameness? At least I'll know which brain-trust to kick in the ass."
"It was Faith, so you might want to be careful about that kick. And Teri seconded."
"Teri?!! B-b-but--" Xander was speechless again.
Cordelia nodded. "Um hmm. It was really kind of interesting. Once your name was mentioned everyone just got kind of quiet. And then all hell broke loose. The African bloc was particularly vocal." Her air of detached amusement disappeared suddenly, replaced by a more sober and intent expression. "Listen, Xander, as unfathomable as it may seem to you, people--very good people--think you also are pretty damn good. I'm strangely compelled to agree." Cordelia's smile returned briefly before her expression turned deadly serious again. "They want you, Xander. Buffy, Willow, everyone. They want you back. As Head Watcher."
"But Buffy, shouldn't she--?" Xander began the mouth flopping thing again.
"You'd think. But no." Cordelia began to pace slowly in front of him as she explained the situation. "My friend, one minor, teensy little detail you never mentioned about our brave new world all awash in super-chicks, is that not all the new slayers like what's happened to them. Not a lot everyone is happy with Buffy. Being a slayer, even with all the help you guys give, is still the suck job, with more than its fair share of downsides. A lot of those girls blame Buffy for turning them into targets for vamps and demons without their knowledge or consent. Just like they do Willow."
"But if we hadn't--!"
Cordelia's raised hand stopped Xander's protest. "I know, Xander, believe me I know," she began patiently. "It had to be done. I get that. Maybe if you had more time, or more...something--I don't know--you might have come up with a better plan. Or not. The heroes always get to make the tough choices. Been there, done that, got demon goo on the Guccis to prove it.
"But it's over and done with. You made the best choice you could at the time, with the information you had. And you can wrap up all the best logic and rationale and till-you're-blue-in-the-face explanation in a pretty package, tie it with a bow on top, and it still won't change anything for some of the girls. Something to do with all your worst nightmares coming true and trying to kill you twenty-four seven, every day of the year. Huh, go figure."
Cordelia tossed her head to get some stray hair out of the way. "They'll do what they need to, but they don't have to like it or how it happened. And they don't want Buffy in charge. Or Willow either."
Xander noted Cordelia took no pleasure, nor gloated, in her conclusion. It was merely a statement of the facts.
"Faith? Robin?" Xander asked, more weakly.
She shook her head, causing the wind to catch her hair again in a wave all about her face. "She said no." Cordelia smiled. "Well, actually she said it with a lot more of the off-colorfully. She said she's just a grunt and her place is on the front lines. Besides, they like it right where they are, in Cleveland," Cordelia shuddered theatrically. "Honestly, I think, in the end, Buffy was relieved."
Xander rolled his shoulders as he considered everything Cordelia had just dumped on him, still shocked even as it started to settle in.
"Do you want my opinion?" Cordelia asked gently.
Xander couldn't keep a small grin off his face. "Will it hurt?"
"Of course it will." Then Cordelia delivered Xander his second shock in as many minutes. "I think they made a good choice."
Xander's eye widened in surprised. "B-bwuh--" he finally managed to say.
"I wouldn't say it if I didn't think it." Although Cordelia seemed to be deadly serious she was also clearly enjoying the effect she was having on Xander.
Xander suddenly felt very tired, and he had the overwhelming desire to sit and ponder this for, oh, the next ten years. Instead he answered, "I'm going to have to think about it."
"Okay." Cordelia seemed to accept Xander's answer at face value and didn't press any further. She knew he would accept.
"Wow. Damn. Wow," were Xander's last words on the matter.
They looked at each other. Xander was the first to look away, kicking at the ground with his toe, while Cordelia stretched and began to stroll about in a slow, lazy circle, getting a better view of the surroundings.
"How was L.A.?" Xander asked when she had drawn near again.
She shuddered involuntarily. "I didn't drive up from there." There were still far too many bad memories associated with the bright city for her and, much like Xander with Sunnydale, she suspected it would take a long time before she would be willing and able to face it again with any degree of detached equanimity. "I came down from San Francisco."
"Lia-Angel wanted me to look in on, um, someone."
Cordelia closed her eyes momentarily. She'd only done it because Angel had nearly begged her. The recollection of her earlier time with Connor, as Jasmine's psyche began to assert greater control over her, had fortunately taken on a detached sensation, like the memory of a memory, but she still hadn't looked forward to meeting him again. Connor too had been hesitant to meet an almost familiar stranger with an exotic name who had played the central role in some of his most intensely erotic dreams. He'd cited his heavy load of coursework, only agreeing when his father's name was mentioned.
She'd been jumpy and felt terribly awkward when they sat down to share some bad pizza on campus. She could tell that Connor was equally as anxious and somehow that calmed her. They quickly settled down after some easy small talk about how he was enjoying Stanford, the classes he was taking, and all the people he was meeting. She was extremely pleased he was no longer the hate-filled needy teenager, and in fact was quite likable, although she still firmly believed these ends didn't justify Angel's means.
They'd discussed his father before parting, and Cordelia left him contact information--a forwarding address care of the Watchers Council--if Connor ever wanted to speak directly to him. After parting, Cordelia was glad she could tell Angel that his son was very much a cheerful adult now, doing well, and enjoying college life. How Angel was going to tell Buffy about him though was not going to be any of her business.
Xander stared at Cordelia, waiting for her to elaborate. But she just shrugged and looked away, refusing to answer the implied question.
He sighed, frustrated. "Speaking of our resident newly ex-undead--or is that un-undead? Is he all nicely squared away? Showing up to work on time? Not shirking his responsibilities? He hasn't lost the keys to The Well, has he?" Despite himself, and despite knowing Cordelia's feelings toward Angel, Xander wasn't able to keep out all traces of the old bitterness and resentment toward Angel.
"Whatever you think of him, Xander, he's a good person. And he's always going to be my friend."
Xander could feel Cordelia's disapproval of his childishness towards Angel.
Cordelia eased up on the glare. "You and he are more alike than you know."
He couldn't help a short, sharp bark of laughter, cut off when he saw her annoyed, closed-in expression return. "Oh, you were being serious?"
"He wants to do the right thing, and he tries harder than just about anyone I've ever known. And yeah, he's made some mistakes, some real whoppers, hurt people he's closest to." She arched her eyebrow. "Hear any bells a-ringing, Xander?"
Xander winced and tried to turn away. But Cordelia reached to hold his chin in her hand, stopping him, and made eye contact. Only when she was sure he understood he'd been forgiven, and that in turn he should think about forgiveness himself, did she let go. Then she smiled and twirled on her toe. "And you both have the same taste in women."
Xander sighed deeply, shoulders rising and falling, knowing he'd have to get over it all somehow. He would have to soon enough anyway if he and the Council ever hoped to deal with the new Keeper on an amicable basis. More importantly, he'd have to if he ever hoped to maintain his friendship with Cordelia.
But this moment, this moment right now, was just not that time. He needed to hang on to the old and familiar, even if it was the old and familiar rot of bitterness and rivalry. Too many things were changing too fast, and he needed this one last hold on a past he understood, at least for a short while longer. He glanced up to see Cordelia looking at him expectantly, and he knew it would have to be sooner rather than later. Much sooner.
"He's thinking about calling himself Liam now," Cordelia informed him.
"Liam?" Xander's face screwed up, like he was tasting orange juice over his Lucky Charms. "What kind of a name is that? Why does he want to call himself Liam?
"That was his name before he was turned." Cordelia sent him another disapproving look.
"Oh. But that was hundreds of years ago, why bother now?" Xander was genuinely curious. "What's wrong with 'Angel'? I mean, aside from the obvious."
"He's--" Cordelia looked thoughtful. "He's not sure he's that person anymore. He tried to explain it, that 'Angel' was a demon with Liam's human memories and a soul tacked on--"
"Not damn well enough!"
She ignored Xander's outburst. "--now he's all human, body and soul." She shrugged and looked up at Xander. "He just feels he's someone else, not 'Angel'. So he'd like to be called Liam again."
Xander shrugged to indicate a lack of interest one way or the other. Angel. Liam. It didn't really matter, did it? You are what you do, after all. A man is defined by his actions, not by what name he calls himself.
The evening's on-shore breezes continued to roll down into the protected space they were in, flapping his pony-tail about and causing her hair to blow all around her face. Cordelia tried to brush it back into place, but to no avail. Seeing her struggle momentarily, Xander fished into one of his own pockets and handed her a rubber band. She gave him a curious look. "I always carry around extras." She thanked him and tied her hair back.
Watching the fluidity of her sure and easy movements, Xander's heart ached momentarily. He had to make a mental effort to divert his thoughts. "So what's Buffy think about Ang--Liam?" Old habits died hard.
"Now there's a soap-opera!" Cordelia puffed out an exasperated breath as she applied the finishing adjustments to her hair.
"They haven't, err, well, y'know..." He tapped the knuckles of his closed fists together, then he suddenly looked concerned. "Or have they?" Then Xander realized that soul-lossage wasn't going to be an issue anymore. Old habits really did die hard.
Cordelia screwed up her face in disgust. "Not that I know of, or even care. But there're a whole lotta issues there! Not the least of which was not telling her Spike had come back. And apparently they had been in Rome, spying on her. Buffy's got a slayer-sized pissed-off at him. And he won't stop ragging her for being with the Immortal. It's all really kind of fun to watch, y'know, as long as you're at a distance. At least now we don't have to worry about incompetent gypsy curses and their nasty 'gotchas'."
Xander nodded his acceptance. Whatever Buffy wanted to work out with Angel, or Liam, or whatever the ex-vamp wanted to call himself, was fine with him.
"He asked about you. Ange--Liam." Cordelia too was still finding it difficult to get used to his new name. Xander grunted as he slowly brushed sand off his hands. "He heard you were in construction and stuff," she continued, curious herself. This was something he'd never revealed to her.
Xander looked up at Cordelia before returning his gaze to the bay. He was almost glad to talk about something so mundane. "Yeah, I guess I kind of had a knack for it. Mostly commercial stuff, but some homes too, a few other things." He stopped and sighed. "All in there now," he finished, pointing his chin at the water.
Cordelia frowned. "Yeah, well anyway, when he's not complaining about Buffy and the Immortal, or wanting a new wardrobe, he complains about the cave Envoy showed him. He wants to completely remodel it. So he wants some help. From you."
"From me?" Xander shook his head. Today was just full of surprises.
"You'd think somewhere along the line, in two hundred and fifty years of existence, he'd have learned how to handle a hammer, but no-o-o, he was too good for that. He'd just steal stuff, or force people make things for him before killing them. It was pretty funny seeing him try to use a hammer. Pop! Right on the thumb. He cried like a baby-girl." Cordelia laughed at the memory.
Xander also chuckled, picturing the image. His chortling subsided after a few seconds. "Yeah," he answered, "I can probably help out. We gotta keep the Keeper happy, right?" he said, giving her an ironic smile, before slowly heading up the incline. Cordelia followed behind as he passed and they both climbed the trail.
They stopped at the top, side-by-side, on the beaten path running along the crest, and looked west over the beach and the Pacific. Staring out over the ocean, Xander quietly asked Cordelia, "Did you ever think about quitting? Y'know, when you were with Angel? Just hanging it up and walking away from it all? Let the super-heroes have the field all to themselves?"
Her answer was immediate. "Every damn day. Every time the dry-cleaners couldn't get the yuch out of my newest blouse, or my shoes got ruined from walking around in the sewers, or my head was split open for yet another vision of horrible. And let's not forget all the times I was cornered by some demon and scared to death, or the latest apocalypse threatened to kill everyone. Yeah, you better believe I thought about! But I never did." She paused and peered up at his profile. "Just like you, I never would."
His lips tugged into a quirky lopsided smile. "I think we must be kinda stupid that way."
She returned her own small warm grin. "Yeah, I think we kinda are."
Looking at him again, seeing the rough, hard years in the lines and scars on his face, combined with the vulnerability expressed in his soft smile, Cordelia realized something. She had discovered renewed trust. She could trust him, something that, until just now, she hadn't known she wanted or even needed. Cordelia knew she could place her trust in Xander and be secure in that as never before. The possibilities thus opened before her made her choice easy.
A cold and salty-wet gust cut through the layers of their clothes. She slid sideways next to Xander, closing the gap, her shoulder up against his side, tucking into him. He automatically wrapped his arm around her and gently pulled her tighter. When he realized the familiarity he'd just committed--possibly an unwelcome one--he nearly took his arm away. But Cordelia only looked up at him and smiled and so he left it there.
Together they watched the sun dip into the ocean, the horizon blazing in copper-orange fire. The rusty light of the setting sun slanted in underneath a scalloped layer of cloud bottom, reflecting in salmon-pink. The very atmosphere all around them became luminous in the glow. Like golden diamonds, rays of sunlight sparked off the windows of the few remaining mountain-side houses across the bay. Xander sighed in contentment, reminded how it had been too long since he'd been privileged to see another California sunset such as this. He was right to come, he thought, to touch base with the beginning, to remember where he'd come from before moving on.
As the sun continued to set, and the bright western sky deepened to bands of bronze and dark purples, the gusts died down. Cordelia and Xander stood together, wrapped in a soft cocoon of silence. Cordelia wriggled her shoulders in his arms. "We should go home," she said presently, making her choice known.
"Home?" He looked back over his shoulder at the bay, its inky indigo surface hiding everything below like a giant eraser had been wiped across most of his life. He let his eye close. He wondered. Home? Where was that anymore? Did he even truly have one?
Cordelia glanced sideways up at him. "Yeah, home. A small, cozy flat in a little town in England, one with a funny name. I'm sure you know the place."
There was something else she'd said, something crucial that he couldn't quite place just yet. He opened his eye and gazed down at her for the longest time before he finally figured it out. "We?"
Cordelia flashed him an indulgent smile. "You're pretty good, Mister Head Watcher Xander Harris, with the all grown and competent, but you're going to need help keeping all the boys and girls in line."
"I am?" Xander twisted around to face her, letting his arm slide around and down to her waist "And you're volunteering to help me?"
"Nobody better." Her smile, brilliant even in the fading light, left no room for doubt. She always did have that way of knowing what he needed.
Xander let his gaze travel over her face shining in the last remaining light, seeing determination, strength and drive reflected in her eyes. And something else. Slowly he returned her infectious grin as he brought his other arm around to hold her close. "No, I don't think there is," he whispered.
Their eyes met and time stopped. Only for the briefest of moments, it was a quiet and calm corner of time and space all their own, where an unspoken agreement, an understanding of compassion, affection, and trust passed between them. A wonderfully warm shiver swept through him, radiating from his suddenly racing heart, an odd juxtapostion of intense desire for this woman and relaxed contentment. With a start Xander let go of the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Catching him by surprise, Cordelia stood up on her toes and kissed him softly on the lips. It was unlike any of the kisses they had shared before, all hot and heavy, driven by an insistent, confusing--and all too often scary--passion neither had understood. This time, though an undertone of fiery sensuality was definitely present, it was tempered by a maturity of mutual care and trust, understanding and acceptance, foundations of real love.
Just as Xander was beginning to return Cordelia's kiss more passionately she twisted out of his grasp, grinning impishly. She took his hand and pulled him along. "Come on, Xander, we've got a lot of work to do."