All characters, background elements, and minutiae are copyright of their original creators, distributors, and copyright holders. All use is intended as flattery only, and no profit will be made.Not-The-Author's Note:
Normally, I snark on phoukabro here, seeing as he can't be bothered to get an account of his own. However, I just don't have the heart. I have so much fun reading his stuff, and he actually listens to the occasional comments and suggestions I make (one such response included something about sitting, rocking in the corner, cutting himself, but I digress), it doesn't seem fair. Phoukabro tells me this is the second-to-last installment of “Oh, The Places He Goes” series. I have my suspicions about what will be in the last episode. Bastard won't tell me, though.Coming Home
Buffy Summer knocked on the door of her sister's apartment. “Dawn? Are you there? It's me. Buffy. Your sister.... your older sister.... Are you there?”
Buffy stepped back and got to her hands and knees, trying to look through the gap at the bottom of the door.
“Are you there? You're there, aren't you?” she asked through the gap. “If you're there, knock twice.... or just say you're there.... or just open the door.... you're not actually there, are you?”
Buffy pulled out her cell phone and dialed a number. After a few rings, the call went to voicemail. “Um, hey. It's your sister.... Buffy. I was just in town and wanted to catch up. Uh... I'm actually at your place right now... and you're not since I didn't hear your phone ring from inside.... unless it was on vibrate. So anyway, when you get this message give me a call.... Or if you just get back before you hear this message, then... I'll see you then, I guess. So call me. Or I'll see you when you get here. Whichever comes first. Bye.”
Buffy hung up, then sat down by the door. She looked around, then pulled out a paperback from her bag. Opening it up, she began to read to pass the time.
Buffy awoke at the sound of her name. She shook her head, dispelling the sleepiness. Looking up, she saw Dawn pointing at her.
Buffy stood up and saw Xander standing with Dawn.
“Hey, guys,” she greeted them. As she spoke, Buffy noticed how close her sister and old friend were to each other. She glanced down and saw Xander arm around Dawn's back, with his hand resting on her hip. “So.... What's new?”
“Buffy!” Dawn squeaked. She brushed Xander's hand off her hip. She glanced at him and reconsidered, then deliberately grasped his hand with a defiant look on her face.
“Um, Buffy... hey. You're here,” Xander said.
“Yeah. I've actually been here for a few hours,” she told him. “I would have called, but.... actually I did call.”
“Oh, we had our cell phone turned off for the flight,” Dawn said. “We took a quick trip to Niagara Falls.”
“On Council business!” Xander quickly added.
“Oh. I didn't know Dawn was working with you,” Buffy said. “Not that she wouldn't... I just... yeah, so I'm here now and so are you guys.... Great.”
“Um, why are you here?” Dawn asked. “Not that you shouldn't be here.... but.... Why are you here?”
“I just... I wanted to see you. I missed you. Could we maybe take this inside?”
“I've been trying to reconnect with everyone. I spent some time with Giles, flew down to visit Willow, and I just saw Faith and Robin in California. So, I'm swinging out here to catch up with my little sister,” Buffy explained. She glanced at Xander. “And you too, Xander.”
“Great. I made the list. I'm even in the top ten. Such an honor,” Xander remarked.
Buffy winced at the comment. “Well, I heard that you might be settling out in San Francisco, so I thought I could see you when I was out there. But then I came here and you're here so... It worked out okay.”
“So, where's the Immortal? He doesn't mind you taking off for awhile?” he asked.
“Um...” Buffy's face fell. “He's dead.”
“I guess the Immortal was more of an ironic nickname then,” Xander said.
Dawn shot a quick glare at him. Xander shrugged apologetically.
“Sorry. Go on,” he told Buffy.
“After I.... After he died, I guess it just hit me that I had lost touch with everyone. It was like, one day I realized that all the people I consider family were gone from my life. And they had been gone for awhile, but I just never noticed. And I missed you guys. I want you in my life.”
As she finished, Buffy looked up at the other two. Xander sat back in his chair. His head was down looking away, and his arms were crossed in front of him. Dawn was leaning forward, looking at her with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, Buffy. I missed you too,” Dawn said, getting up from her chair. Buffy got up, and the two sisters hugged.
“Oh, god, there's so much I want to say to you,” Buffy told her.
Xander stood up, and the Summers sister turned to him. “Yeah. You came here to talk to Dawn, so I'll give you some privacy.”
“Oh, you don't have to go,” Buffy said.
“No, it's okay. I wouldn't want to intrude,” he replied. “Besides, I have a lot of work to do setting up the branch. I'm going to head over to the new headquarters and start making calls. I'll be back in a couple of hours.”
That night, Xander stood outside the apartment building. C'mon. You can't put this off forever. You're going to have to go inside.
He paced back and forth in front of the door.It's just that I know Buffy is going to hit the roof over me and Dawn. I knew this moment was going to come, I just wish we could have gotten a few months before it happened. I don't know how Dawn's going to react. Hell, I don't know how I'm going to react. But one thing's for sure, Buffy is going to shit bricks over this.
Xander sighed, and entered the building. He headed to the stairwell, instead of the elevator and began heading up.She's going harp on the whole age difference. Which is a laugh, considering three of her boyfriends had over a century on her. Then she's going to bring up my past history with Cordelia and Anya, and how I could have been a better boyfriend to them. Of course the guys she's dated have a history of killing innocent people in general and trying to kill her in particular. But despite all that, I still won't be good enough for her sister. Then she might try the whole you're more like family to her and it wouldn't be appropriate. I mean a history of stalking and violence against her is a solid foundation for a relationship, but caring and respect? No, that would be weird. Finally, she'll say how, as the older sister, she has to look out for Dawn. But when she was seeing Spike, it was none of our business.
Xander got to the floor of Dawn's apartment and headed towards her door.Well, if she has a problem, that's tough shit for her. I'm going to let her know exactly how wrong she is.
He reached the door and opened it. He spotted Dawn and Buffy sitting on the couch. Their eyes were red from recent crying.
“Hey, Dawn. Buffy. I'm back.”
Buffy stood up and walked over to him. “Xander, hey.”
“Dawn and I are dating,” he said. “We've had sex. We're going to keep dating and having sex.”
“Yeah,” Buffy said. “We talked about that.”
“Well, there's something I want to say to you then -”
“I'm glad. You know, that you two found each other,” Buffy told him. “When I saw you two outside earlier, I could tell you were happy. And that's the most important thing, right?”
“Yeah, well, that's too damn bad because...” Xander trailed off, then mentally reviewed the past few seconds. “You're okay with it?”
“Yeah. I mean, I sure as hell didn't see it coming. But, yeah, I'm okay with it,” she said. “Besides, with my history, I'd have to be the biggest hypocrite ever to object, right? I'm sorry, I interrupted. What did you want to say?”
“Oh, uh.... Well, there were a couple of points that... but you mentioned....” Xander mumbled. “I just figured this conversation was going to go in a different direction. And if I say what I was planning to say, then I'm just going to come off as a total dick.”
Dawn got up and walked over to her sister. She nudged Buffy. “Ask him. You know, about the thing.”
“Um, Dawn mentioned that you were going to be heading up the new branch in Chicago,” Buffy said.
“Yeah. Giles asked me and I accepted,” Xander replied. “I headed over to the new headquarters when I left here. I spent a couple of hours making calls and trying to line things up.”
“Well, since you're in charge, then you decide who's going to be assigned to the branch, right?” Buffy asked.
“I'm going to discuss it with Giles and Robin before any final decision is made. But yeah, I get to choose who works here.”
“That's great. I was just talking to Dawn about how I wanted to settle down somewhere. I could work here with you. It'll be just like old times!”
Buffy smiled as she finished. Glancing over, she saw Dawn with a hopeful look on her face. Buffy turned back to Xander, and saw the troubled expression on his face.
“So, it can be just like those last couple of years back in Sunnydale. Like nothing ever changed?”
“I don't think she meant it like that,” Dawn said. “I mean some things will obviously be different.”
“What's the problem?” Buffy asked. “There were some good times back then.”
“Look, guys. It's been a really long day. Everyone here has been traveling, you two did some catching up. I had some arrangements to make. I think this is a good place to call it a night. I'll think about what you said, but it's a big decision and I still need to talk to Giles and Robin.”
“You sure you don't want me to take the couch and let Buffy sleep in here?” Xander asked.
“Of course not. We're way past that stage. And I made sure Buffy doesn't have any problem with us together.”
“Thanks. I really thought she was going to pitch a fit over it,” he said. “So I take it you want me to offer Buffy a position in the branch?”
“I want...” Dawn carefully considered her words. “I want you to make the decision you feel is the best one. And it would be great if that's saying yes to my sister. But I'll understand if you feel otherwise. I trust your judgment. But just promise me you won't do that thing when you get upset.”
“You know,” Dawn said. Xander just looked at her confused. “When you start arguing and get upset, you manage to say the most hurtful thing you can think of. The worst part is that it's always something that's true.”
“I do that?” he asked in genuine surprise.
“Remember Buffy's welcome home party? Or when you found out she'd been hiding Angel?”
“Yeah,” Xander admitted. “I never really thought about it that way. Did.... Did I ever do that with you?”
“Not all the way,” she told him. “The closest was when Willow went crazy and you were trying to get us to safety. Then I made a comment about how Spike wouldn't run away. I think that was the most upset you ever were with me.”
Xander hung his head down. “Ah, shit. I'm sorry about that.”
Dawn gently cupped his hand. “I'm not. It was the first time in months someone actually told me the full truth, no matter how ugly it was.”
Xander smiled at her. “You are way too good for me. Did you know that?”
“I had my suspicions. So what are your thoughts about working with Buffy again?”
“Oh, geez,” Xander groaned. He got up from the bed and began to pace. “It's just what she said. 'It'll be just like old times.' I remember the old times. And honest to god, I have no desire to go back to that.”
“Xander,” Dawn interrupted. “Like you said, it's been a long day. You don't have to decide right now. Just sleep on it.”
“Sleep?” Xander asked with a grin.
“Only in the metaphorical sense,” Dawn told him. She kissed him tenderly, as they both moved toward the bed.
The next morning, Buffy awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. She looked up from the couch and saw Xander standing in the kitchen, fixing some food.
“Morning, Buff. Sleep well?” he asked.
“Ugghhh...” Buffy grunted in response.
Dawn came out of the bathroom, and walked over to the couch. “Still not a morning person, huh?”
“Rot in hell,” Buffy mumbled and sat up. “No one should be alert and peppy this early in the morning. Any normal person would be sneaking back in their bedroom after a patrol at this time. Not being all smiles and whistling. Morning people serve no purpose.”
“Made you breakfast,” Xander offered.
“I stand corrected,” Buffy said, shuffling over to the kitchen table. “What're your plans for today?”
“I'm heading to the new branch building. I've got some renovations to oversee. Dawn's got a couple of classes, and then she's going to join me.”
“Hey, why don't you audit my classes. You mentioned you wanted to get back to school, right? Then we can visit Xander where he's very official and serious.”
“You will have to call me Mr. Harris, if you do,” Xander joked.
“I can't believe you guys are so vibrant this early.”
“What can I say, we had a nice long rest, last night.”
“Then we had another one after that,” Dawn added.
“I know,” Buffy said. “You guys aren't exactly quiet. Add in Slayer hearing, and I have a much more vivid picture of your sex life than I wanted.”
Xander shrugged. “At least it wasn't naked push ups,” he said, heading to the door. “I'll see you guys later today.”
As he left, Dawn turned to Buffy. Buffy had her head down, frowning.
“Did he mean something? Naked push ups? I don't get it.”
“Yeah, it was...” Buffy sighed. “Back in Sunnydale, do you remember when I got turned invisible?”
“Yeah, what happened?”
“I went to visit Spike in his crypt. We... we did the only thing that made me feel alive at that point. Xander was looking for me. He was worried that I was in danger, so he checked to see if Spike knew where I was. And when he walked in, he saw....”
“Oh, god,” Dawn groaned.
“Yeah. So Spike starts trying to pretend that he was just exercising, but I started... playing with him.”
“Jesus, Buffy. Right in front of Xander?”
“I know, I know. I just never knew he figured it out. I kind of hoped he forgot about the whole thing.”
“Buffy, you're going to have to do something about that,” Dawn told her.
Xander watched over the construction crew's progress. He stopped to give a few pointers. “Wait, leave that wall up. We need a separate toilet and shower for each room. Not a communal bathroom.”
“That's going to cost extra, and take more time,” the foreman pointed out.
“I've dealt with these girls before and they are not good at sharing bathrooms. Believe me, this way is much easier and cheaper in the long run.”
“Yo! Boss? You here?” a familiar voice rang out from the first floor.
Xander trotted downstairs and spotted the visitor. “Rona! When'd you get in?”
“Flew into O'Hare about an hour ago. Me and Bigglesworth caught a cab to get here. He's paying it right now.”
“It's good to see you,” Xander told her. “So I take it you're accepting my offer and settling here?”
“Yup. It was fun doing the whole open road thing, but after awhile I needed to plant some roots.”
“I know the feeling,” he said.
“So who else are you inviting?” Rona asked.
“Well, I talked Dawn into joining. She's going to be a Watcher in training. Speaking of that, I'm going to have all the Watchers take combat training. I wanted you to help out with that.”
“No problem, Boss. So what's up with you and Dawn? You tapping that?”
“Rona! A gentleman doesn't discuss such details.”
“You are so tapping that!” she gleefully shouted. “Thank god. I was beginning to worry about you. That was an awfully long dry spell. I was considering getting one of the new Slayers to jump on that hand grenade. But you finally took care of it.”
“Wow, your concern is both touching and a little creepy.”
“Mr. Harris! Xander!” a voice shouted from the door.
“Oh. Hey, Reg. Good to see you again,” Xander greeted him.
Reginald Johnston smiled nervously. “I see you've got a lot to deal with right now. But I was hoping to have a word with you soon.”
“Uh, yeah sure,” Xander said. He turned back to Rona. “There's a few things I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Cool, we can – AW HELL NO!” Rona yelled. By the front door, Buffy was entering followed by Dawn. “I am not working with her.”
“Rona,” Xander pleaded.
“I mean it. There is no way in hell I will ever take orders from her again.”
“First of all, I haven't even decided if I want her here,” he explained. “Second.... Look, we'll talk about it later, okay?”
“Fine,” Rona said and walked off.
Reg sidled up to Rona and whispered to her. “Did you happen to mention me to Mr. Harris?”
“Not yet,” Rona answered. “He wants to talk later. I mention that you want a spot in the branch then.”
“Thank you. This really means a lot to me. I'd really prefer to stay in a field position. But since you're transferring here, I'm afraid I'll get sent back to the research division in London.”
Dawn pulled Xander aside to a separate room.
“Hey, Rona showed up. How is she?” Dawn asked.
“Ugh. Another headache.”
“Rona's not exactly thrilled at the prospect of working with Buffy,” he answered. “I mean I still don't know where I stand with her, and this just adds pressure to the whole thing.”
“Well, after you left, Buffy and I talked a few things over. And I think I have something that may help you.”
“What is it?”
“Okay, the biggest issue between you two is the fact that you all the guys he dates.”
“I didn't hate Riley,” Xander pointed out. “I actually liked him. And I didn't have a problem with Scott Hope. That could have really worked out well. You know, if he hadn't turned out to be gay.”
“That's just it. If she was seeing someone who's human and... .”
“Exactly. So if she agreed to let you set her up, you could make sure that whoever she dates isn't an amoral scumbag,” Dawn explained.
“Yeah, that would help. But I don't think I can find someone that Buffy would be interested in. It's not like we're matchmakers,” he said.
“Yes,” she conceded. “But we do know a matchmaker.”
Trevor Hale was tending bar at Taggerty's Bar and Grill when he saw Dawn and Xander come in and head towards him.
“Trevor, we need your help,” Dawn said.
“What is it?” he asked. “You two are still together, right? Because I don't get credit if you guys split up.”
“No, we're still good.”
“Yeah,” Xander added. “When I'm with Dawn, I'm happier than I've ever been.”
“I make you the happiest you've ever been?” Dawn asked in surprise.
“Of course. I thought you knew that,” Xander said. He pulled Dawn toward him and gently kissed her.
The crowd in the bar watched them.
“My handiwork, ladies and gentlemen,” Trevor announced. “If you need help with your love life, don't be afraid to ask for my help.”
Xander and Dawn broke apart. Dawn turned back to Trevor.
“We need your help. It's my sister.”
“Ahhh. It all becomes clear. Let me guess, she has a history of dating losers? Guys that cause friction between you and her?”
“Wow, you are good,” Xander said. “We need to find a guy for her. And he can't be evil.”
“It's got to be a guy that's not threatened by strong women,” Dawn said.
“Someone who understands the value of friendship,” Xander added.
“And he has to be able to handle unusual situations. He can't freak out when weird things happen. So he has to be brave.”
“And he's got to have a strong moral code. I mean really strong. No moral ambiguity. He's got to clearly see right and wrong and always do what's right.”
“Oh, and he's got to be hot,” Dawn said. “This is Buffy we're talking about. It's not like she ever dated an ugly guy.”
“But he cannot be evil. I really can't stress that enough.”
“He's got to have a strong sense of duty. Since Buffy is... you know, she feels isolated a lot of the time. So the guy has to be able to relate to that.”
Trevor considered all this. “Kind of a tall list. Anything else you want to add?”
Xander sighed. “He's right. This is ridiculous. We're putting way too many conditions for this. Let's face it, maybe there's no one that we'd approve of that Buffy would be interested in.”
“Got it,” Trevor told them. “I met this guy a couple of months ago. He's perfect. Just have your sister show up here at seven tonight and he'll be ready for her.”
“So do you think Trevor will actually pull this off and find a worthy guy for Buffy?” Dawn asked.
“I don't know,” Xander answered. “But I get the feeling if anyone could pull it off, it's Trevor.”
The two were walking back to the branch headquarters as they talked. They turned a corner onto the block. Xander looked up at the building's facade.
“Huh, it still seems a little impersonal.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I thought it would be more... I don't know, comfortable. You know, like the old high school library, or the Magic Box, or the kitchen and living room of your old house.”
“Like a home,” Dawn offered.
“Exactly. But something's missing. It still feels like an old building we happen to work in,” Xander told her.
“Does that really bug you?”
“A little. Ever since Sunnydale cratered out, I've been so many places. But I always knew it was a temporary stay. I just miss the feeling that I belong somewhere.”
“It'll happen,” she assured him. “You just have to give it time.”
“I guess. We still have some renovating to do. And not everyone I called has shown up yet. I'm still waiting on – Hey! It's Herbie!”
Xander trotted up to an old VW Beetle parked by the curb in front of the building. Dawn followed closely looking around.
“Herbie! Great to see you. Is Violet here?”Beep! Beep!
“Awesome. I know Rona was looking forward to working with her,” Xander turned and saw Dawn staring at him and the car. “Oh, where are my manners. Dawn, this is Herbie. He's a sentient car Violet and I found in a junkyard. We got him out of there, and now he works with Violet and looks out for her. Herbie, this is Dawn. She's a Watcher here and my girlfriend.”
“Um, nice to meet you?” Dawn said nervously.
“Oh, you're going to love the garage. It's inside, so you don't have to worry about being left out in bad weather. There's plenty of room for you to move around. You want to see it?”Beep! Beep!
“Cool. I do know how to look after my team. I'm going to be a great leader.”Beep!
Xander glared at the car. “Don't be a smart ass, Herbie. The garage is around the corner. The door should be open since the contractors have been going in and out all day.”
Herbie wheeled around the corner, out of sight. Dawn looked at him, bewildered.
“So are we the only branch with a self aware, demon fighting, VW Bug?”
“Yeah,” Xander answered with a wide grin. “Isn't it awesome?”
“I hope this turns out all right.”
“Of course it will. Herbie's a total softie. What could possibly go wrong?”
“AGGHH! DEMON CAR!” Rona's voice echoed out. “KILL IT!”
Xander and Dawn sprinted to the garage entrance. When they tore in, Herbie had reared up on his back tires while Rona clutched a crowbar.
“Rona! Calm down. This is Herbie. He's on our side,” Xander told her.
Rona looked to Xander, then back at the car. Slowly she lowered the crowbar. As she did so, Herbie set himself down on all four tires.
“Um, boss? Not to complain, but a little warning would be nice.”
“I already told you about Herbie,” Xander reminded her. “Remember? Violet and I went car shopping. We ran into Herbie, but were attacked by some demons. Herbie helped us out, then stayed with Violet to work with her.”
“You never mentioned he was a car,” Rona pointed out.
“I didn't?” Xander asked. He mentally reviewed his statement. “Huh. That is kind of crucial. But the important thing is that everyone has met everyone else at this point. No more surprises.”
“Boss? Does Violet know about Gobo?”
“OH MY GOD!” Violet's voice rang out from upstairs in the building.
“Aw, shit,” Rona muttered, then ran inside. “Violet, don't hurt him!”
Xander ran up the stairs.Oh, god. Please don't let Gobo be hurt. The little guy is way too nice for anything bad to happen to him.
Xander reached the room and stopped. Violet was sitting in the middle of the floor with Gobo Fraggle lying in her lap. She held a bunch of grapes in her hand. Plucking a grape, she carefully handfed the Fraggle, who was now purring with contentment.
“OH MY GOD!” Violet squealed in glee. “You are just the cutest, sweetest thing I've ever met!”
“Thanks, Ms. Violet,” Gobo said. “You're one of the nicest Silly Creatures I've ever met. Will you be my friend?”
“I would love to be your friend,” Violet glanced up and spotted Xander. “Oh, Xander. Can he stay here? Please? There's plenty of room. And I'll clean up after him, and feed him, and make sure he's never any trouble. Please, can he?”
“Vi, you do realize that Gobo is a person, not a pet?” Xander asked. Seeing her nod, he continued. “Besides, he's been staying here already. He's got his own room and everything.”
“Mr. Xander let me decorate it myself,” Gobo said proudly. “He even told me other Fraggles can come visit and stay here. He always looks out for me. I was captured by a very mean Silly Creature. But Mr. Xander, and Ms. Rona, and Mr. Reg freed me.”
“Yeah, well Ms. Vi.... I mean Violet will be staying here, so she'll look out for you also,” Xander assured him.
“Yay! That makes me so happy, I could sing! “Dance your cares away.
Worries for another day.”
Xander quickly left the room before the song could get stuck in his head.
It was a quarter to seven at Taggerty's Bar and Grill, as Xander watched Dawn prep her sister for her blind date.
“Now, remember to maintain eye contact. If he makes a joke, give a little laugh, but don't go overboard.”
“Dawn, I have dated before,” Buffy told her.
“I know, but this is with a normal human. So you can't talk about weapons, or ambush tactics, or cursed, lonely lives doomed to tragedy.”
“Oh. What do I talk about then?” Buffy asked.
“You can talk about living in Italy, just leave out all who you were staying with. Also you could talk about how you want to go back to college. You can ask about him.”
Buffy nodded. Dawn began a final inspection.
“Let's see the smile,” she ordered. Buffy smiled, while Dawn studied her with a critical eye.
“Nothing stuck in the teeth, that's good. Better take a breath mint right now to be safe. Hair is good. Clothes are good. Although you could undo another button.”
“I'm only trying to help. Remember, cleavage is vital, even though you don't have a lot to work with,” Dawn ignored the glare from her sister and continued. “Show too much and you look like a tramp. Show too little, and you could lose his interest. You want to offer hints and possibilities. Believe me, it pays off.”
“I really don't want to hear how you know this.”
Dawn shrugged, then looked down at her chest. “What can I say, the girls have served me well. Now go get him.”
Buffy walked off to her table, while Xander and Dawn stayed at the bar.
“Do I really want to know how well the girls have served you?” Xander asked.
“Hey, they got your attention,” Dawn said. “Besides, you've been very attentive to them.”
“I haven't heard any complaints.”
“Oh no,” she assured him. “Two thumbs up on that front. Your efforts are very appreciated. Hey, I think Buffy's date is here.”
Xander glanced over and spotted the man approaching her table. A small smile broke out on his face.
“Well, he's... not what I expected,” Dawn said.
“Oh, this is much better than I expected,” Xander told her. “I've met this guy before. Believe me, he fits the criteria we gave Trevor.”
“Good,” she said. “But what is a Canadian Mountie doing in Chicago?”
“He first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father.”
“...and for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture I've remained, attached as a liaison with the Canadian Consulate,” Benton Fraser explained. “And what brings you to Chicago?”
“I'm visiting my sister and an old friend,” Buffy answered. She thought about continuing, but wasn't comfortable elaborating.
She smiled gamely and sat in her chair. Fraser nodded, but did not speak. After a minute of silence, Buffy spoke. “So what are you ordering?”
“I was thinking of the salmon. And yourself?”
“Um, probably the steak with a baked potato.”
“You brought an appetite,” Fraser offered.
“That's me. I'm famous for my... hearty appetite.”
Silence descended once more. Buffy glanced around the restaurant, keeping an eye on the entrances and the mirrors on the back wall. Fraser drummed his fingers on the table.
“Have you visited many sights in the city?” he asked.
“Oh, not really,” she answered. “I just got in yesterday. I haven't really had the chance to look around.”
“Any places you'd recommend?” Buffy asked.
“Well, I suppose it would depend on your interests. If you're interested in zoos, then I would recommend the city zoo. If you're interested in museums, I would recommend one of the city's... museums,” Fraser trailed off. Buffy nodded, but added nothing.
The waiter came and quickly took their orders. After he left, Fraser and Buffy sat quietly.
After a pause, Fraser spoke once more. “Have you perchance read any interesting books recently?”
Buffy sighed. “Um, look I'm really sorry about this. I just... it's been awhile since I've been on a date, let alone a date with someone I just met.”
“The conversation has been a little awkward,” Fraser noted.
“And truthfully, this date wasn't my idea.”
“Ah,” he said. “In interests of full disclosure, I wasn't looking for a date either. The bartender of this establishment came by the consulate about a week ago. He stopped by again this afternoon, and asked... well, he... actually I'm not quite sure exactly how it happened, but at the end of the conversation it was established that I would be present at this restaurant at seven to dine with you.”
Buffy chuckled. “Well, at least I know how I wound up here.”
“How did you wind up here? If you don't mind me asking.”
“I.... It's not really a subject I want to talk about.”
“Ah,” Fraser said. “In that case we can revisit the book topic.”
Buffy let out a groan, and slumped in her chair. “I screwed up. There was this guy who.... No, honestly, it was me. I have a tendency to isolate myself from my friends and family. One of the ways I would do that would be to throw myself into a relationship with someone who would not fit in with them. But after awhile I would miss them and reconnect like nothing was ever wrong. Except this last time, when my relationship ended, I realized that pretty much all of them had moved on with their lives. So I came here to reconcile with my sister and friend. And to do that I have to convince them I've changed. Going on a blind date they set up is part of that.”
“Look, you seem like a really nice... Mountie. But I just don't think this is really headed anywhere. It's kind of hard for anyone to understand.”
“Interesting,” Fraser said.
“Well, it's just that you said you have a tendency to isolate yourself. But now that you're trying to overcome that, you say that no one would understand what you're going through. And if no one understands, then you feel alone. So your efforts to end your isolation in effect serve to isolate you further.”
Buffy stared at him. “Are you for real?”
“Indeed. But many people ask that, so you're not alone in wondering.”
“Look, I don't want to be rude, but you really don't know me or what I've gone through.”
“True, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't understand. As a member of the RCMP, I am a fully authorized law enforcement officer. As such, I have to maintain a highly developed sense of empathy to investigate and help people.”
“Right. Okay then, try to understand this. The three longest relationships I've had I knew going in that they wouldn't end well. That didn't stop me though. At every point I knew that I was driving away the people in my life who loved and supported me. The one time I dated a guy who actually fit in with them and could be a full part of my life, I took him for granted until he finally left. Otherwise I would date guys I knew would cause me pain. And even when it was happening I couldn't stop. So do you understand that?” Buffy challenged him.
“Yes,” Fraser stated.
“Yeah, right. Look, it's been a lovely evening, but -”
“Her name was Victoria,” Fraser said, cutting Buffy off. “She drove a car for her boyfriend. Her boyfriend robbed banks. She never actually robbed anyone or carried a weapon, but she was still an accessory. I tracked them into the wilderness and caught up with her. It was in the middle of winter and a blizzard hit. She kept me warm and awake through the night by telling me all about her life. It was the most intimate connection I've had in my life. She saved my life. And when the weather cleared, I arrested her and sent her to jail.
“Years later, she was released from prison,” Fraser continued. “She came to Chicago, and the moment I saw her I knew I wanted to spend every day of my life with her. But she had changed in prison. The years she lost because of me twisted her. She framed me, shot Diefenbaker my dog, and put my closest friends in jeopardy. And after all that, I let her go.”
Buffy listened in rapt attention.
“The end result for me was getting shot in the back, lying in the snow, watching her train pull away from the station. But the physical pain paled in comparison to having to look my friend in the eye after the choice I made. Victoria was in my life twice. The first time I sent her to jail. The second, I let her go free. Both times I made the wrong choice.
“So you ask me if I understand being involved with someone that can only hurt you, and realizing the damage it does to your friends and family but doing it anyway. My answer is yes. I do understand.”
Fraser finished his story and looked up. “It appears our meals are ready.”
The waiter placed the dishes before them.
“Thank you kindly,” Fraser said.
“Fraser?” Buffy asked. “I... thank you for coming here tonight. I'm glad I met you.”
“Understood,” Fraser said with a hint of a smile.
Two hours later, Buffy and Fraser walked out of the restaurant, deep in conversation.
“Wait, you were stuck in the bank vault, so you decided to set off the fire sprinklers?” Buffy asked, barely containing her laughter.
“At the time, it seemed to be the most viable option,” Fraser stated. “And it did work out to our advantage. By the time the robbers broke in, the water flooded out, knocking them down.”
“That's even crazier than the hummus plan. Geez, I thought Xander would set me up with some stiff. But you are certifiable.”
“Xander... Xander Harris?” he asked.
“Yeah. How do you know of him?”
“He was involved in a case I was working on a few weeks ago,” Fraser answered. He paused, studying Buffy. “I'm not sure how to say this, but... are you a vampire Slayer, by any chance?”
Buffy halted beside him. “How in the hell do you know that? Did Xander tell you?”
“No. It's just in the restaurant, you always kept an eye on the entrances and mirrors. Plus your posture, whether walking, standing, or sitting is a defensive stance. It's like you're prepared to be attacked at any moment. And from the occasional bulge in your purse and your dress, I believe you have at least three wooden stakes on you person.”
“Okay, I have to admit I'm impressed,” Buffy said.
“So you're one of the new Slayers moving in,” a low voice interrupted. Three figures stepped out of the alleyway. Buffy spotted ridged foreheads and yellow eyes on each.
“Oh dear,” Fraser said. “I assume these are vampires?”
“I got a message for you. We don't want your kind in our town,” the leader said. “We're going to make you scream.”
“And say goodbye to the Mountie. You're going to watch him die,” the second vampire added.
“Shouldn't have left Canada, Dudley Do-Right,” the third said. “What the hell you doing in this city anyway?”
“I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father. And for reasons that -”
“Benton,” Buffy said. “Now is not the time.”
The vampires sprang forward in attack.
The next morning Dawn sat at the kitchen table listening to Buffy describe the events from the night before.
“So did he freak?” she asked.
“No, he just took the stake I gave him, jumped in and dusted one of them. Well, actually, he tried to talk him into stopping the attack and turning themselves in to the nearest police station. But after they clawed his hat, he went for the heart.”
“So your boyfriend took out a vampire on his very first try. Was he jealous that you got the other two?”
“Technically we've only gone on one date. I wouldn't call him my boyfriend. And his pet wolf managed to take out the second vampire. So we were tied for the night.”
“Are you going to go out with him again?” Dawn asked.
“I don't know. Dating a Mountie? Seems a little out there,” Buffy said.
“As opposed to all the down to earth guys you've dated before?”
“True,” she admitted.
Xander passed through the kitchen, grabbing a piece of toast and slice of bacon.
“Sorry, I have to take off. There's a couple of things I need to get done this morning. You guys dropping by the building?”
Dawn nodded. “As soon as we finish breakfast, we'll head on out.”
Xander left the apartment and walked down the street towards his Humvee. As he neared it, two men in suits and dark glasses walked up beside him.
“Are you Mr. Alexander Harris?” the first man asked.
Xander looked at the man. He mentally named him Shades. “Nope, never heard of the guy.”
He began to walk away, but the second man, who Xander now thought of as Muscles, moved to block him.
“Are you sure about that, Mr. Harris?”
“Look, you have the wrong guy,” Xander said, trying to spot an opening to run.
“I don't think so,” Shades said, showing him a printed copy of his driver's license. “We know you're Alexander Lavelle Harris from Sunnydale California.”
“Actually, that's my identical cousin. My name's Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla. Don't worry about it. This kind of stuff happens all the time.”
“We'd like to ask you a few questions about some stolen government equipment,” Shades said. “Some Air Force survival equipment, weaponry, and one motor vehicle were reported stolen a few months ago. Witnesses place you in the area at the time of the theft.”
Xander shrugged. “Geez, sounds pretty bad. But I don't know anything about that.”
Muscles looked over at the Humvee parked next to them. “Aren't those Air Force plates on your vehicle?”
“Oh, see that's where this misunderstanding is coming from,” Xander answered. “This isn't mine. I was just walking over to admire the sleek design and fuel efficiency of it. I'd never steal government property.”
“Mr. Harris, do you know anything about theft of a rocket launcher from Sunnydale California in early 1998?” Shades asked him.
Xander began to sweat. “You know what, why don't I just call my good friend Agent Riley Finn with Homeland Security. I'm sure he can clear all this up.”
“Mr. Harris, are you aware that Agent Finn was relieved of duty three days ago?”
“He was?” Xander asked, now very nervous.
“He's being court martialed for gross immoral acts. He'll be lucky if he gets a dishonorable discharge,” Shades told him.
“Hell, considering what he did, hanging's too good for him. Can you believe the nerve? That goat has been traumatized for life,” Muscles said.
“I heard he videotaped the whole thing. And it turns out the sheep was underaged,” Shades lamented. “Sick, sick man.”
Xander stared at Shades, then Muscles, then Shades again. “Did Riley send you guys to punk me?”
Shades broke out into a wide grin as Muscles began laughing. Xander felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around.
“Hey, Xander. Good to see you,” Riley told him. He turned to the men. “You guys just had to push it. He was totally buying it up until you starting talking about livestock.”
“Come on, Farmboy. I figured it gave us some verisimilitude.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks for helping out,” Riley told them. The two men waved goodbye and departed down the street. Xander and Riley got into the Humvee.
“Okay, you got me. But just to be sure, I'm not in any trouble about taking the stuff from the Air Force base?”
Riley shook his head. “General O'Neill tried to sweep the whole thing under the rug out of embarrassment. My boss, General Hammond, heard about it and asked me to find out if it was true. If you've still got the signed order, I'd like to get a copy of it and a picture of you with the stuff. General Hammond wants to send it out as a Christmas card to General O'Neill.”
“How long are you in town?” Xander asked.
“A couple of days. Sam's visiting some family. I knew you were in town, so I figured I'd stop on by and catch up.”
“Cool. Nice to be able to talk without asking you to bail me out of trouble. Do you want to grab some breakfast? I was going in, but I can delay for a couple of hours.”
After their meal, Xander and Riley arrived at the Branch building.
“Nice place. You renovating it?” Riley asked.
“Yup,” Xander answered. “I've got three crews running to get everything ready by the end of the month. It's actually kind of fun. When I was in construction, I always had to follow the buyer's plans. But now I get to make all the cool improvements the clients wouldn't take.”
“As long as you're having fun.”
“Hey, Riley? You've been posted a lot of places before, right?”
“Yeah. I've seen quite a bit of the world.”
“Did you ever get the feeling that... I don't know, you don't really belong anywhere? Like it's all just a temporary stay?”
“Well, I could always visit my family in Iowa,” Riley told him. “Nothing like the old homestead.”
“What if your homestead fell down a crater?” Xander asked.
Riley stopped and thought. “Honestly, after a certain time away, the place you grew up stops feeling like home. On all of my postings there was some point where I'd comeback to the barracks to hang with my friends and teammates, and I knew I was home.”
“Home is where the heart is?”
“It's corny, but yeah.”
They entered the front door and climbed up the stairs, coming into the training area. Rona and Violet were warming up before their workout. Both were dressed in tight workout clothes.
“So you're in charge of this unit?” Riley asked.
“Sure am. I'm putting my team together right now.”
“I remember my first command. There's nothing else like it.”
“I'm just getting used to it. I'm sure you had a lot more men and equipment. This will still be pretty small compared to an army unit.”
“Maybe, but you do get a few things I never did,” Riley said. He stood and watched the two Slayers stretching out. “A much better view, for one thing.”
“Hey, watch it. You're married,” Xander kidded him.
“Please. Sam makes it a point to catch every hand to hand training session on the base. She says it's research, but I know she likes ogling the fresh meat. So she won't mind if I take a moment to assess the scene. She's limber,” Riley observed as Rona pulled her leg straight up. He shifted his gaze to Violet who was arching her back. “Very nice.”
“Glad you're enjoying the show.”
“Like you're not. And who is that bending over by the bookcase? If the front is as good as the back then I officially envy you,” Riley smiled. The girl he was watching stood up and turned around. “Oh shit, that's Dawn!”
“Riley!” Dawn shouted as she spotted him. She waved to them, then finished putting away the books beside her.
“Oh, god, I was just perving on Dawn's ass,” Riley moaned. He turned to Xander. “You could have warned me.”
“I could have. But I didn't” Xander replied with a grin.
“Jesus, I guess you have to be careful. I mean how god awful would it be if you found yourself checking her out? And you've know her a lot longer than I have, since she was a little kid. It'd be like checking out your little sister.”
“Um... about that -” Xander began, but was cut off as Dawn joined them.
“Riley! It's so good to see you again,” she greeted him. Turning to Xander, she pulled him into a long kiss. “I was wondering why you were late. I missed you.”
Dawn turned back to Riley, grinning. “So what are you doing in Chicago?”
“Well, for the last minute or so, putting my foot in my mouth. But generally, I'm here with Sam while she visits some family. I dropped by to see Xander and I get to see you too.”
“Oh, and Buffy's here also,” Dawn told him. “Let me grab her.”
Dawn headed to the other room, leaving Riley and Xander.
“So... you and Dawn. Does Buffy know?”
“And she hasn't tried to kill you?”
“That came as a surprise to me also. My current theory is she's lulling me into a false sense of security before she strikes.”
“Hmmm. She is a hottie. I'll give you that. So you don't see it as weird or inappropriate then?”
Xander shrugged. “Hard to say what inappropriate is. I mean some would say that a TA dating an undergrad in his class is inappropriate. Or that two soldiers in the same unit fraternizing and even getting married is inappropriate. Who are we to judge?”
“Point,” Riley admitted. “Gotta say, I did not see that coming.”
“It kind of snuck up on me too,” Xander told him.
“Riley!” Buffy's voice shouted from across the room. Dawn led her sister over.
“Buffy, how have you been?” Riley asked her.
“Long answer yes, with a but. Short answer... actually there is no short answer. I'm glad I ran into you,” Buffy turned to Xander. “Do you mind if I grab a cup of coffee with Riley? It should take maybe an hour or two.”
“Sure. I was wanting to talk to Rona today. I'll see you guys later,” Xander said. “Dawn, have you started on mapping out the cemeteries and churches?”
“I've started. I want to set up a computer model that will map out everything we need for the city and surrounding area. Any idea when we can get the link to the police reports?” Dawn asked.
“It'll be at least a week. I'm taking Rona to Caritas today. I'll have a list of demon species for you when we get back.”
“Any chance I could get some help on this.”
“Uh... Ask Reg to help you out,” he told her. “I think he's at loose ends right now, since Rona's coming on board here, and he hasn't heard about his next assignment.”
“Have you thought about any other Watchers for the team?” she asked.
“That's not a top priority right now,” Xander said. “I've got to deal with the whole Buffy situation before I even think about that.”
Dawn nodded and went over to talk to Reg. Xander walked over to the training area where Violet and Rona were sparring.
“Hey, Boss,” Rona greeted him.
“Hi, Xander,” Violet gave a quick wave, while circling around Rona, looking for an opening.
“Rona, I'm going to need you for the rest of the afternoon. Violet, can you start organizing the armory?” Xander asked. “Set up what we've got, make a list of what we need.”
“So, where we going, boss?” Rona asked. “Patrol? Track down a few leads on a new case? Some demon we need to take down?”
“We're going to a bar.”
“Lambkins, welcome back,” Lorne greeted Xander. “And who is this enchantress by your side?”
“Lorne, this is Rona, one of the vampire Slayers in town now.” Xander introduced them. “Rona, this Lorne. He owns and runs this club. Don't try to kill him.”
Rona eyed Lorne in suspicion. “Why not?”
“Generally, because he's a peaceful resident in the city. Specifically, because there's an anti-violence charm on this place You take a swing at him, but you're the one that gets knocked out,” Xander informed her. He turned back to Lorne. “You mind if we grab a table and hang out for awhile?”
“As long as you settle the tab at the end of the night,” Lorne told him. As Xander turned, Lorne cleared his throat. “Aren't you forgetting something?”
Xander sighed and pulled out a stuffed moose doll. He handed it to Lorne. “For the record. I don't do souvenirs. This is the only one you're getting.”
“He's cute. I think I'll call him Patch.”
Xander ignored the comment as he and Rona headed towards a table in the back.
After they sat down and were served their first round, Rona turned to Xander.
“Okay, so what's the deal?” she asked. “Why'd you bring me here?”
“Look around the place here. What do you see?”
Rona let her gaze move over the scene. After a minute, she turned back to Xander. “I see five different vampires, scattered around the bar. They're drinking blood from the bar. There are two chaos demons having what I hope is apple cider in the booth. A family of Brachen demons watching the football game on the television. Three lister demons are by the bar. A Polgara is nursing a scotch in the corner. And it looks like four Vahrall demons playing pool. Do I pass?”
“Okay, good job. But what does it all mean?” Xander asked her.
“Besides the fact that there are at least ten demons here I should be Slaying instead of sitting and talking to you?”
“Exactly. Now we have two choices. One, we can try to take out the vampires, Polgara, and Vahralls. Or call the others to come in before we attack. Option two is to sit here, observe, then leave without causing a fuss.”
“Never thought you'd take a live and let live attitude toward murderous demons,” Rona said.
“I'm not. I just want to run through the situation with you. Now what are the reasons for taking out these guys right now?”
“They're killers. They've killed people in the past. They're going to kill people in the future unless we stop them,” she explained.
“Okay. Very important. What else?” he asked.
“Well, we're setting up a new branch in town. We take these guys out, it sends a message there's a new sheriff in town. Maybe a some demons that would otherwise be killing will decide it's safer to keep their nose clean.”
“Makes sense. Any other reasons?”
“Um... the sight of vampires laughing it up while drinking blood pisses me off, and I'd really like to take them out?”
“Not as pressing a reason. Now the flip side of this. What are the reasons for letting them be?” Xander quizzed her.
“We're outnumbered. We're unarmed.”
Xander raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “You're telling me you're unarmed?”
“Fine,” Rona admitted. “I only have two stakes on me. We'd need a lot more to kill the Polgara and Vahralls.”
“Right. What else?”
“There's a charm preventing violence in here.”
“Bingo. So even if we did want to fight, we know it's useless. So having established that. What are our options?”
“Wait until they leave, then take them out.”
“What are the advantages to waiting?”
“Well, by coming in here, we know ahead of time who's here. We can call the branch and get the proper weapons ready.”
Xander raised his hand and showed her his cell phone. “Sent out a text message right after we sat down.”
Rona nodded. “So you already decided what to do. You just wanted me to figure it out on my own.”
“Pretty much,” Xander said. “When I worked with Sam Zabuto in Africa, he did the same thing with me. He didn't just want me to follow his orders. He wanted me to look at all the options of a problem and think my way through it. And if I figured out an angle he didn't see, he would consider it and even sometimes follow my suggestions. Now think about this bar. Our options are try to figure a way around the protection spells so we can shut the place down, or just leave them be. What are the reasons to shut it down?”
“Murderous demons come in. We shut this place down and we shut out an avenue they have.”
“And if they have one less avenue?” he asked her.
“Then... they go someplace we don't know about.”
“And the reasons for letting it be?”
Rona thought for a moment. “We can watch who comes in and out and target appropriately once they leave.”
“Correct,” Xander said. “Also, you'll notice several non violent demon species here. Also some neutral demons. We close it up...”
“We could be making some enemies when we don't have to,” Rona completed the thought. “We play nice with them, then they play nice with us. Maybe get some potential allies.”
“You got it. Also, we may need some place that everyone recognizes as neutral ground. We can get information from the regulars. And if we need to send a message to the other side, we can come here,” Xander thought for a moment. “That's all I got. You have anything else?”
Rona shook her head. “So we let this place be. That the plan?”
“I'm leaning towards that. But I wanted to run through it with you. Ready to go?”
They got up and paid for their order. After they exited the bar, they walked across the street.
“One other thing. The owner of the bar is an anagogic demon. He reads people when they sing. Doesn't even have to be loud. Just humming or whistling is enough for him to pick stuff up. I figure some of our team may want to use that later.”
“Not me. I don't feel like opening myself up to some demon.”
“A woman after my own heart,” Xander said. “But I gotta ask. Are you sure about that?”
“Of course. No way, no how I'm going to him.”
“Okay,” he nodded. “There are two entrances to this place. I figure we set up a couple video cameras in the alleyway and across the street. That way we can track everyone who goes in and out. What do you think?”
“Makes sense. We'll find out who's in town, the hours they come here. But if Lorne reads one of the others...”
“So it stays between you and me. We keep the others out. I'm not happy about keeping anyone in the dark, but if we want to keep Lorne from finding out we can't tell anyone about it.”
“We can still inform Giles,” Rona added. “It's better to keep the other branches in the loop about all the stuff we have going on here. And they won't be read by Greeny inside.”
“Good idea,” he said. “I knew I made the right decision with you.”
“I'm making you my second in command. You're in charge of the training with the Slayers and combat training for Watchers. I'll need you in every strategy session. And in any combat situation, you're in charge,” Xander told her.
“I'm in charge?” Rona asked.
“Under me,” he clarified.
“I'm in charge,” she repeated. “I'm
“You like the sound of that?”
“Oh yeah,” Rona agreed. “So with me and Violet on the team, you decide who you want filling the final slot?”
Xander sighed. “I haven't decided yet.”
“You know I don't want to work with her,” she told him.
“Believe me, I understand. But I haven't decided yet.”
“I'm just saying, you know how I feel.”
“Look, Rona. Running this branch is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done, regardless of whether Buffy is here or not. I'm scared shitless that I'll screw up. But do you know the one thing that gives me courage to do this?”
“I don't know, being able to call up Sam Zabuto or Giles anytime for advice?” Rona guessed.
“Oh... well, yeah, there is that. Okay the two things that give me courage to do this?” Xander asked.
“Having your brainy girlfriend doing all the book work?”
“All right, I'll give you that,” he admitted. “But of the three things that will let me do this-”
“Plus you got army boy dropping by ready to bail your ass out when you get in trouble,” she listed.
“Yes. I freely admit Riley is a big help.”
“Don't you have a couple city cops feeding you information?”
“Okay, okay. But the fourth..fifth.... Among the reasons I know I can do this is the fact that I'll have you backing me up. I trust you. And I'm hoping you trust me too.”
Rona sighed. “Fine. I trust you. I trust your judgment. Happy now?”
“Giddy as a schoolgirl,” Xander replied. “Seriously, Rona. We both know that in this line of work we're going to have to deal with people we don't like. Hell, we might even despise them. But sometimes to get the job done we have to work with them. Can you do that?”
“I guess so,” she muttered.
“Not just work. But act like a professional. You're sure you're up for that,” he asked.
She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Yeah, I'm up for it. So this mean you asking Buffy to join up?”
“I really haven't decided yet,” he answered. Spotting Herbie driving up, he straightened up and waved. “Looks like the rest of the gang is here.”
The next morning, Reg paced outside Xander's office. Every few seconds, he glanced down to a group of notecards he held in hands. He recited his pitch under his breath as he walked back and forth. The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs drew his attention. He looked and saw Xander heading towards him.
“Ah, Mr. Harris. Good morning.”
“Hey, Reg. You're here early,” Xander said.
“Yes, I was hoping to speak with you today.”
“Um, yeah, I can talk to you,” Xander glanced at his watch. “First, I've got a conference call with the Council in a couple minutes. Oh, can you sit in on it? We may need your observations on the fight last night.”
“I....” Reg faltered.
“Great,” Xander said. He sat down at the desk and punched in a number on the speaker phone. After one ring, the other line picked up. “Hey, it's Xander, is everyone else here?”
“Yes,” Giles' voice came from the other end. “Robin Wood, Roger Wyndam-Pryce, Sam Zabuto, Michael Robson, and myself are all on the line. First off, old business. Roger, how has the lead on the fraudulent Council?”
“We tracked down Rutherford Sirk last week. After an interrogation by our mystics, he admitted to being a part of it.”
“Sirk?” Sam's voice came through. “I thought he was with Wolfram and Hart.”
“It seems he was serving two masters for awhile,” Roger explained. “There's a consortium based in Japan he was with. We're still getting information from him. Once we get the location of the base, I'd like to set up a joint assault force between the Hong Kong and Melbourne teams..”
“We'll set it up,” Robson's voice said.
“I assume you'll want to be present for any assault seeing as you have a personal stake in this. Keep us updated on what you find out. Next item, we're still short staffed on Watchers. We can use the experienced Slayers as trainers for the newer Slayers, but our research staff is still undermanned,” Giles said.
“What about Aaron Tyler?” Xander asked. “Did you get the information I sent on him?”
“We're doing a background check on him right now. Once he clears, we'll offer him a position,” Giles answered.
“Xander has set an example,” Sam noted. “We should keep our eyes open for any suitable candidates and began recruitment efforts.”
“Agreed,” Robin joined in. “We've made great strides in making allies in the magic communities. We should make the same effort for non-powered humans who deal with the supernatural.”
“I think we are all in agreement on this. Any possible candidates should be referred to the London base, then I'll follow up. Next item, the new North American branches. How is the San Fransisco branch setup going?”
“It's now complete,” Robin said. “Chao-Ahn is operating in Beijing, and Ms. Veal transferred to the Rio branch. That leaves Faith, Caridad, and Shannon in the branch.”
“And the Chicago branch?” Giles asked.
“Rona and Violet are in town now,” Xander told them. “Dawn and I are getting everything set up. We should up and fully running by the end of the week.”
“Have you decided on the third Slayer for your team?” Giles asked.
“I... haven't decided yet.”
“What's the delay?” Roger asked. “I understand Buffy Summers is there. You've worked with her for years. I assumed she would be the third Slayer.”
“Has she talked to you yet?” Robin asked.
“Briefly. I've been busy since she got here.”
“You should set aside a few hours and talk to her. Faith and I did so when she was in town last week. It was very... helpful.”
“Yeah, I'll get around to it.”
“Oh, I have good news,” Robin continued. “You still have a slot open for a Watcher, don't you? I have the perfect candidate. He's experienced, been dealing with the supernatural for years, has dealt with a variety of Slayers, and worked in a number of cities. He can be there in two days. Sooner if you need it.”
“Sounds like... wait a minute. Are you talking about Andrew?”
“Fair's fair, Xander. I've had him for the past few months. It's your turn now,” Robin explained.
“He has a point,” Roger pointed out. “Mr. Wells has been foisted on every outpost in the past three years. Robin has endured him for months. He's due some relief.”
“You know, I'd love to, but...” Xander's eye glanced around in panic. He settled his gaze on Reg sitting across the desk from him. “But, I offered the final Watcher slot to Reg this morning. And he accepted.”
Xander looked at Reg with pleading in his eye. Please say yes
, he mouthed.
“That's... right?” Reg said in a hesitant voice. “I'm... taking the field assignment.”
“So, as much as I'd love to take Andrew off your hands, I have a full staff already.”
“Sorry, Robin. Sounds like you're stuck with him for awhile longer,” Sam chuckled.
“Maybe he should be transferred to the Nairobi branch,” Robin grumbled. “We'll see how funny you find it.”
“Do you actually think he would survive the week?” Sam asked.
“Robin, once another position opens up we'll have him moved. I promise. All of us appreciate the sacrifice you're making. But the truth is he's slightly more useful working with us than falling into the wrong hands.”
After the call, Xander and Reg exited the office.
“Thanks for covering me in there,” Xander told Reg. “I really owe you one. I'll try to make this assignment as comfortable as possible. Just let me know what you need and what you want and I make sure it happens.”
“Well... I suppose I can accept those terms.”
“Hey, Xander!” Buffy called out from the training room. Riley stood beside her. “Glad to run into you. Seems like you don't have a spare minute the way they've got you running around. I was hoping to spend some time with you. Maybe catch up and have a heart to heart.”
Xander resisted the urge to groan aloud. Instead, he took a step back and looked away.
“Geez, I don't know, Buff. I'm scheduled pretty tight. There's a lot of work to be done, and I'm the one that has to oversee it all.”
“Oh,” Buffy said, disappointed. “Maybe I can help. What are you doing right now?”
“I...,” Xander thought for a moment. “Oh! Reg wanted to talk to me about an urgent matter. Right, Reg?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. That,” Reg mumbled. “Actually, the situation I wanted to discuss managed to resolve itself. I was just going to go to... I need an office. I'll just grab a room and begin setting up then.”
Reg walked away, much to Xander's annoyance. As he left, Reg muttered under his breath. “High speed internet access with a lexis-nexis account. Plasma flat panel screen.”
“So you're free?” Buffy asked.
“Uh... I should probably look over the weapons locker. That should take me awhile.”
“Say, Xander?” Riley interrupted. “Didn't you need to coordinate some stuff with me?”
“Oh, yeah,” Xander quickly agreed. “That should take a few hours. I'll try to catch up with you later.”
Later at the Taggerty's, Riley racked up the balls on the pool table.
“So, it looks like you're avoiding Buffy,” Riley observed.
“That obvious?” Xander asked.
“Pretty much. Any particular reason why?”
Xander sighed. “A lot of general reasons and one specific reason.”
“Okay, let's start off with the specific reason.”
“She asked me about taking an assignment in Chicago. That means working with her again,” Xander told him, as he lined up his pool cue and made the breaking shot of the game.
“And that's a bad thing? From what I remember, that was always a priority in your life,” Riley noted. He lined up and sunk the two ball. “I'm solid.”
“Was. It just got to the point where we were fighting or alienated from each other for longer than we actually got along. I don't want to do all that again.”
“As opposed to the warm friendship you have with her now? So what are you going to tell her?” Riley asked. He missed the next shot.
Xander shrugged as he leaned over the pool table. “People keep asking me that. But I still haven't decided yet.”
“Well, she wants to talk to you. Maybe you should do that before you decide.”
“Great. That brings us to the lots of general reasons,” Xander pocketed the ten ball and lined up his next shot. “I'm sure she'll give some lip service about how she's sorry we drifted apart and how I'm an important part of her life. Blah, blah, blah. I've heard it all before.”
Riley watched as Xander sunk the fourteen ball. “So, you think she's not actually sorry?”
Xander missed his next shot. “Oh no. I'm sure she feels bad and is really sorry. Just like I'm sure she was honestly sorry for when she dry humped me on the dance floor for the sole reason to make Angel jealous. I'm sure she was sorry for running away without ever letting us know if she was dead or alive. I'm sure she was sorry for saying we would just get in the way when dealing with Adam right before she got her ass kicked and only beat him by performing the joining spell with us. And I'm sure she was sorry for saying Spike was the only one watching her back the day after I got my eye gouged out following her plan. I'm sure she's sorry for each and every instance. I just don't think that'll ever stop her from acting the same damn way, she's always acted. I don't trust her to change that now matter how much she says she will.”
Riley grimaced as he listened to his friend rant. “Maybe -”
“I don't trust her,” Xander repeated to himself. “Huh, never actually said that out loud before. I guess I did make my decision. I just didn't realize it.”
“You sound pretty sure,” Riley said, sinking the five ball. “You know, as much as I admired the close bond you guys had, I never thought you were organized that well.”
“What do you mean?” Xander asked.
“As far as I could tell, you guys operated by general consensus. Maybe someone would take the lead, but all of you would kind of do your own thing. Now that's great when you all agree and have the same goals. But when you don't, then there's arguing about who's in charge, who makes the decisions, and whether you trust the other's judgment.”
“I guess. We did change that,” Xander pointed out.
“Yeah,” Riley agreed. He shot and sank the four ball. “You have someone who is clearly in charge. So in any situation, someone makes the call, the rest follow the orders, right?”
“Then it seems to me that a lot of the problems you had with Buffy won't arise because of this new structure,” Riley reasoned. He pocketed the one ball and lined up his next shot. “Right?”
“I guess,” Xander admitted.
“Then it seems to me that the big stumbling block is that you just don't think Buffy will ever change her behavior.”
“Well, I only have seven years of watching her do the same damn things over and over again to base my theory on. But yeah, that sums it up.”
Riley took careful aim for his next shot. As he did so, he thought about his next words, knowing how crucial they were. “I was there in Las Vegas with you. I saw how the whole deal with your mom went down.”
Xander stopped and shook his head. “Okay, non sequitur. I thought we were talking about Buffy.”
“We are,” Riley said. His shot missed and bounced off the bumper. “But just think about it. You have your mom. Someone who should look out for you, a vitally important part of your life. But she keeps letting you down. Mainly due to some self destructive behavior. Then you get into town and find her. She promises she's sorry and will change. Then at the first chance, she gets money from you and takes off. That would burn anyone.”
“I really hope you have a point to this,” Xander said. He hit the cue ball too hard, missing his shot.
“So months later, Buffy shows up. As a Slayer and a friend, she's someone who should look out for you, a vitally important part of your life. But she keeps letting you down. Mainly due to some self destructive behavior. But she promises she's sorry and will change. But this time, you don't even give her the time of day.”
“And you're saying I should what? Close my eyes and clap as hard as I can? Then Buffy will magically be a better person who never lets anyone down again? I don't think so. I took me awhile before I learned I couldn't rely on my mom. It didn't take as long with Buffy.”
Riley sank the three ball. Lining up the next shot, he spoke. “Let me ask you something. Just assume for a second that Buffy has well and truly changed. What would she have to say to convince of this?”
“I... I don't know,” Xander admitted. He watched Riley sink the one ball. “I guess it would be just like she's been doing. But it takes more than words to change. She just wants her friends back. She's been making the rounds.”
“You think that's what she's been doing?” Riley asked as he sunk the seven ball.
“Yes. First Giles, then Willow. Then Robin and Faith. Now Dawn and me.”
“Xander, are Buffy and Faith such good friends that Buffy would travel just to see her and try to win her over?”
“Well... not really.”
“And you can't really say she's friends with Robin,” Riley pointed out. His next shot pocketed the six ball. “Eight ball corner pocket. And she talked to me yesterday. It wasn't because she missed our platonic relationship.”
“Then what's she doing?” Xander asked.
Riley lined up his shot and cleanly pocketed the eight ball. “She's making amends. Everyone she's every hurt. That's not paying lip service. That's an honest attempt to change her behavior. I thinks it's even a step. Like in a twelve step program.”
“Step nine,” Xander muttered. “I have some passing familiarity with them.”
“Now, I'm not saying that you don't have the right to write her off. I don't think anyone would blame you if you said you weren't comfortable working with her. But I think you should at least sit down and talk to her first. You owe it to yourself to hear what she has to say.”
Xander walked inside the headquarters, up the stairs to his office. He passed Violet and Rona sparring on a training mat. Near them, Reg was cataloging the weapons. Just past him, Xander spotted Buffy talking to Dawn. They were sitting, surrounded by three piles of books Dawn was organizing.
“Hey, am I interrupting anything?” he asked.
“Nope, just telling Buffy all about my classes,” Dawn answered.
“Cool,” he said. Taking a deep breath, Xander bit the bullet. “Can I talk to you privately?”
“Oh, yeah,” Buffy said. “I can give you two some privacy. I was going to head over to Dawn's place and start packing anyway.”
“I meant you, Buffy. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh,” she nodded. They went into Xander's office, and he closed the door behind them.
“So what's this about you packing up?”
“I figured I couldn't sleep on Dawn's couch forever. Besides, I don't know how much longer I'm going to be in town,” Buffy told him.
“You're leaving? I thought you were going to stick around for awhile. You were asking about a position in the branch.”
“Yeah. But, there's still a few people I need to talk to. And I got the impression that you weren't very eager to work with me again.”
“I guess I have been ducking out on you since you got here,” Xander admitted. “Riley and I talked for a bit before I dropped him off at his in-laws. He had this crazy theory that.... Buffy, why are you here?”
“The Immortal didn't just die. I killed him.”
Xander raised an eyebrow to that piece of news, but remained silent. Buffy continued. “Giles was an a business trip to Rome, and he decided to visit me. He brought along his friend Robson, do you know him?”
“Yeah. He was the guy Giles found after being attacked by the First's Bringers. He was, like, the only Watcher to survive a direct attack.”
“Yeah, that's him. Well, the Immortal comes in the room and just starts freaking out. He grabs a sword and tries to kill Giles and his friend. He was yelling something about how there can be only one.”
“I told him to stop. I really did,” Buffy said sadly. “But he wouldn't. So I grabbed a sword.. I had to cut his head off to keep him from killing Giles and his friend. Then the weirdest thing happened.”
“A bunch of lightening shot out of his body and hit Giles' friend Robson?” Xander asked.
“Yeah,” Buffy told him. “After everything settled down, Giles was surprised that I put his life above the Immortal's. And at first, I was shocked that he thought I would value a sometimes evil killer more than him. But then I realized he had a point. I mean I dated and slept with the guy for months. And I know that I valued Spike more than anyone else that last year in Sunnydale.”
Buffy stopped, tears welling in her eyes. Xander handed her a tissue. She took it and gave Xander a thankful smile. After dabbing her eyes she continued.
“I took a long look at the choices I made, and the person I've been for the past few years. And I really didn't like what I saw. I spent a lot of time with Giles. There was a counselor, one of the people who helped Willow, that he had me talk to. After that, I decided I wasn't going to make the same bad decisions and choices I've made before. And I made a list of everyone I treated badly or hurt, and I going around to try to apologize to them. I've seen Giles, Willow, Faith, Robin, some of the Slayers from the last battle in Sunnydale. And since I got into town, Dawn, Riley, and now you.”
“And now me,” Xander said. He sat down at his desk, and moved a few pieces of paper around. Finally he looked up at Buffy and spoke. “Do you have any idea how pissed off and disappointed I've been with you?”
“I can guess.”
“You were my hero. When things got bad, I thought I could always rely on you to make them better, not worse. You were supposed to be this perfect person who always knew the right thing to do. But then you were just this flawed, messed up person instead. I just didn't think you could be so...”
“Human?” Buffy offered.
“Yeah, that covers it,” Xander agreed. “Now when I pretty much think the worst of you, you pull this humble apologetic crap on me. I can't even be properly pissed off at you, without you ruining it.”
“Sorry about that.”
“You're not sorry,” Xander griped. He chuckled at his next thought. “I do have to admit, I was impressed about how you reacted to me and Dawn. I thought you were going to freak out over it.”
“Xander?” Buffy asked. “The truth is, when I saw you two in the hallway all over each other, I freaked out. A little. On the inside.”
“Glad to know I wasn't completely off base, then.”
“The worst part, wasn't the thought of you two together. It was the fact that my little sister and friend fell in love, and I missed it all. I had this image in my head of Dawn being a kid I had to look out for and protect. But when I saw her, I realized she had grown up.”
“She did. Dawn's no longer a pesky little kid. She's a smart, brave, funny, young woman. It's about time you took her seriously.”
“OH MY GOD!” Dawn's voice cut through from outside the office. “IT'S A COOKBOOK! IT'S A COOKBOOK!”
Buffy and Xander glanced through the window and spotted Dawn waving an old text around. Violet, Rona, and Reg were laughing.
“That in no way invalidates what I just said.”
Buffy shook her head and smiled as she watched her sister She turned back to Xander.
“The biggest regret I have about all this is how I lost touch with the most important people in my life. The last five years I had with my mom, I spent most of them either lying to her, fighting with her, or trying to get away from her. Considering how little time I had with her, I should have valued every day. I don't want to feel that way about anyone else in my life.”
“I know how you feel. Anya,” Xander explained. He drummed his fingers along his desk and looked out the window at Violet, Rona, Dawn, and Reg. After a few seconds, he turned back to Buffy. “Here's the deal. The position I'll give you is a branch Slayer. Overall I'm in charge, so you have to follow orders from me. Rona's second in command and in charge of all training and actual field operations. If you have a problem with her, you can come to me. But unless she's obviously wrong and out of line, I'm going to back her up.”
“Okay,” Buffy agreed.
“You'll get paid a salary. And you can have a room in the headquarters here. If you don't want to live here, you have to pay for you own place. The Council will also pay if you want to go back to college. All patrols, training, and meetings are planned out ahead of time, so no skipping out if you don't feel like it. And everyone's on call for apocalypse situations.”
“Everyone here sees a therapist at least once a month, more if he or I think it's necessary. Dr. Fraiser is clued in on the whole Slayer gig, so don't hide anything from him. Now the biggie. If you ever lie to me, or keep me in the dark about anything, you're fired. No more Council funding, not from me, not from Giles, not from anyone. Now are you sure you can do all that?”
“Yes. I promise,” Buffy said. “Xander, I just want to say how sorry I am. I should have been a better friend. I should have been there for you when you needed me. I shouldn't have treated you like you weren't important to me.”
“Thank you,” Xander said. “I know that wasn't easy.”
“I should have said it a long time ago.”
“Yeah. Look if we're going to do this, we might as well do it all the way,” he said. “It has been pointed out to me that during a lot of our disagreements, I would say very hurtful things. I realize I was only making things worse, and I'm sorry for hurting you like that.”
“Thanks,” Buffy patted his arm. “I'm sorry I didn't stay with you in the hospital after you lost your eye.”
“I'm sorry I summoned Sweet and you almost danced to death.”
“I thought you were just covering for Dawn on that one.”
“Nope,” Xander said. “That was all me.”
“I'm sorry I ignored your problems after graduation.”
“I lied about not remembering what I did when I was possessed by the hyena. I'm sorry for lying about that.”
“I understand,” Buffy said. “I'm sorry I left town and didn't let you know if I was okay after fighting Angelus.”
Xander grimaced at that. “Yeah. You know when I said I had a message from Willow. She didn't say 'kick his ass.' I was supposed to tell you she was trying the soul curse again.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“What? That was a huge secret I've been carrying around! You're telling me you knew all this time?”
“Xander, I'm not stupid,” Buffy told him. “I didn't know at the time. But I spent every minute for months afterwards going over each second of that fight. It wasn't hard to figure out.”
“So... why didn't you ever say anything?”
“Because... I knew at best, it wouldn't have mattered. I still would have had to send Angel to hell. At worst, I would have held back and Angelus would have killed me, then let Hell on Earth happen. Besides, that way I could always remind you of it if we argued. Sorry about that, by the way,” she explained. “This is going to take awhile, isn't it?”
“Yeah, look like. Maybe we should order a pizza,” Xander said. “It's my turn, right? Okay, I'm sorry I blackmailed Amy into casting the love spell that splashed over on you.”
Three hours later, Buffy and Xander were doubled over in laughter.
“Oh, god. Then you were leaning in, like three inches from my face, yelling, 'Buffy! If you can hear me, we're going to help you!'”
“Cut me some slack. You were talking about slaying your roommate because she liked Cher. We thought you were possessed.”
“But she was a demon!”
“Not because she liked Cher. We usually need a little more to go on before we hit Defcon 1,” Xander glanced at the clock. “Oh, god. It's getting late. I didn't realize we'd been in here for so long.”
“I'm going to let Dawn know I've got the job,” Buffy said, as she left the office.
Xander got up from the desk and walked to the door. He looked around the office, gazing on the blueprints on his desk and the picture of Dawn by his phone. He turned and looked into the main floor. Buffy was finishing telling Dawn the news. Dawn squealed in glee and hugged her sister. Across the floor, Rona was helping Reg aim a crossbow at a target. A few feet away, Violet watched them with Gobo sitting on her shoulder.
“Huh,” Xander smiled at the scene before him. “I'm home.”The End.