Disclaimer: Neither Stargates nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to me. I claim no ownership of them and recognize that they belong to the various people and companies who own them. I do this solely for my own enjoyment and, should our interests mesh, the enjoyment of others. I have made no money off of this and do not ever plan to. Anything that even looks vaguely familiar (such as brand names, culture references, etc) also does not belong to me.
Series: Return to the Blood Lands
Story: Welcome to the Keep
They were running. The cemetery was dark and cold. It was winter. It was dark outside, abnormally so. It was the night of the new moon. Xander vaguely remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be out on the new moon but guessed it was okay because Buffy was with him. Things were always okay when Buffy was with him. She was the Slayer, after all, and one of his best buds.
Buffy was in front of him, chasing after… something. He didn’t see anything but figured they were hunting something because she was running. In HEELS. How the hell did that woman run in heels? She ran fast too. Xander was pleased with himself though. He was keeping up with her easily, not broken down and wheezing twenty minutes behind, like he would have been before.
He was better now. Stronger. Faster.
Much faster than that silly little slayer. She should know better.
Lunging forward, Xander grabbed her elbow and yanked her back with a sharp jerk. Buffy made a noise as her momentum was halted abruptly. She fell down, hitting a tombstone on the way. Xander laughed, his amusement genuine, his mind cold.
“Not fast enough, slayer.” He told her kindly. It wasn’t her fault that he was better than her. It was the nature of these things. Every predator must fall, if only to make room for the next one.
She looked up at him, her pretty eyes wide as he hunkered down to her level. There was blood on her forehead from where she had hit the tombstone but she made no attempt to stem the flow. He touched it gently, only long enough to gather some on his fingers. Under the light of the lamppost, his fingers were stained red.
She made an aborted move, almost a flinch, but never took her eyes away from his even as he pinned her shoulder to the tombstone with one hand. For once, her entire attention was focused on him. HIM! It was about damn time.
It took a moment for him to hear the growling over the whispers in his mind. He glanced over his shoulder, only mildly interested in the dog as it snarled at him. It was a ratty and beaten up looking thing. He took at closer look at it and realized it wasn’t a dog but a hyena. Instead of laughing, it- SHE- was staring at him, growling with her ears laid flat, teeth bared as she backed away slowly.
There was something wrong, he thought, grasping for something. That she would be afraid of him. But the thought disappeared as quickly as it had taken form. Almost as if she was responding to that, the hyena leaned forward, her muscles tensed as if she was about to spring at him instead of away. As if she had come to a decision that stopping him was more important than self-preservation, which was just silly. Nothing was more important than self-preservation.
She tossed her head angrily. There is pack! But he had no pack. He wasn’t good enough for the pack. He was weak in the pack. He was better alone. Isn’t that why he had been ‘disappeared’ off into a hell dimension? He was weak then. He was powerful now. They wouldn’t be able to stop him.
“YOU wouldn’t be able to stop me.” He promised the hyena with a cruel smile. She flattened herself low, her belly to the ground. She was all puffed up agitation but she was powerless here. They all were. Xander was the only one with power. They would all suffer as he did. As he continued to.
Xander turned back to Buffy, smiling indulgently at her efforts to get away. In the past, a blow like that to his ribs would have broken bones. Now, it barely registered. He patted her cheek with his free hand, noting absently how pale and sickly it looked against her tan skin.
“You matter, Buff.” He told her warmly. “I’ll remember you.” He ripped her shirt open, twisting just enough out of the way of Buffy’s punch so that most of the power was deflected. He picked her up, just barely, and slammed her head down on the ground when her struggles renewed. With a laugh, he let her fight, pretended that his grip was loosening before he tightened it again and slammed her once, twice, three times into the ground. She quit moving after that, moaning in pain.
Xander smiled, his hand drifting over the smooth collarbone and curling over her heart, so inadequately protected by skin and bone. He latched on to her, barely registering the jerk of her body under his hand. He was enjoying the sensation too much. The life force of a Slayer was a wonderful thing.
She tasted good.
Xander sat up with a jerk, wheezing and trembling. He threw his arms out, attacking a nonexistent enemy. The 'attack', as pathetic as it was, morphed into a frantic pin wheeling motion as he overextended his balance and fell off the bed. The sharp retort of his body hitting the floor was enough to pull him out of his half-sleeping state. With full consciousness came clarity.
And OW, that hurt. Note to self: bellyflop plus hard wood floors equals much hurting all around.
Despite the pain, he could barely convince himself to move. His sleeping shirt was soaked in sweat and sticking to him but he never felt more cold. He pushed himself up to a seated position on limbs that felt like jelly, trying to quietly calm down. He wasn’t the only one in this house, after all.
Xander threw a desperate glance over at the other bed but Sora was still sleeping. This was of the good, certainly. It would be kind of hard to explain to your ‘roomie’ that you dreamed of killing and eating one of your best buds.
And hunting. Can’t forget about that.
He shivered, at first unconsciously and then purposefully, trying to shake off the bad feelings from the nightmare. It wasn’t something that got easier over time but, then again, Xander didn’t want to know the man who dreamt of murdering a loved one and woke up without feeling horrible. He’d rather have the guilt, the confusion, the nausea.
Xander rubbed at his face with his hands, letting out slow, controlled breaths as he willed his heart to stop racing. He didn’t need Freud to interpret his dreams. Wraith in human form, indeed.
Nights were always bad for him. The nightmares snuck up on him but not consistently. They showed up periodically, cutting his knees out from under him just as he finally started feeling comfortable in his place. Was it really the best thing to do, staying in this village? The fact that he even wanted to sent up red flags. Of course something bad would happen! Nothing was ever given to him without some kind of charge, without some sort of consequence.
He slowly pulled his hands away from his face and stared at them blankly. It was just a dream. He knew the difference between a nightmare and a vision- it was a nightmare. He didn’t have a psychic bone in his body. Giles had checked and double checked. All Xander had as his claim to fame was his utter human-ness topped off with a butt load of Hellmouth taint. He was no psychic.
Xander curled his hands shut and closed his eyes. He could still feel her frantic heartbeat against his palms.
The sun beat down on them mercilessly from the open roof of the house but, after the last cold spell, it was a heat that every villager couldn’t help but bask in for but a moment. A Californian-boy at heart, Xander barely noticed aside from an occasional itch from a newly acquired sunburn.
Xander locked in the wood, pounding down on it until it lodged in the crevice tightly. He pulled on it experimentally, satisfied with it when it didn’t move and gave the man on the other side a thumbs up. The man cheerfully mimicked the gesture, used to Xander’s strange ways.
Today was his one month anniversary of living in the village and, cautiously (because these things had a habit of turning around and biting him in the ass later), Xander would say that he finally found his place in Aromos. Like, after flailing around uselessly for so long, he finally FIT.
In the beginning, he had little in the way of skills to offer the village but what he did do, he did enthusiastically. He helped with crops, he helped people move stuff, he helped mind the children, he helped with everything- basically getting under the feet of everyone and anyone. He was a well known nuisance.
The villagers adored him even as they shooed him away. He dug up the wrong crops, broke things, and encouraged the children to new levels of mischief. He caused more work in the long run and even in those tasks in which he didn’t, he needed a keeper, a babysitter himself in order to not get into any trouble. Xander had just resigned to being the useless one when Pokin took him under his wing.
Pokin was a short old guy who probably had a decade or three on Giles. He taught Xander how to build things, simple things at first like fences and boxes and tables. Pleased with Xander's swift progress, Pokin invited him to help repair one of the more rundown buildings with him and three other men. It was a much harder job than making a table but Xander took to it like a fish to water, showing an incredible aptitude for it.
Pokin didn’t understand Xander’s need to map out what they were going to do before they did it, but after the first couple of times, he appreciated it more and, before each job, even asked Xander to “do that fancy thing with the stick”.
While Xander would hate to compare the village’s way of living to some bare bones monk-like tradition of living (simply because it wasn’t as extreme in many cases), he recognized that the culture of Aromos thrived on only what was decided to be necessary. Anything that was not deemed necessary (like jewelry or spicy foods or other luxury items), they just did not have. A writing system wasn’t deemed necessary either, so they didn’t have one.
They had no idea, no concept of what he was doing with his little blueprints, but they trusted that he not only would do well by them, but that he would also tell them the truth about it. Simply put, the villagers trusted him enough to not question him or his ways. It was weird, but nice too.
He wiped off his forehead with his sleeve, catching it on the crystal. He patiently worked it out of the material because, hey- not exactly on a big budget here. The shirt had to last. He paused for a moment, staring at the weakly glinting crystal. Jewelry was noticeably absent from this village, being one of those unneeded things. Xander was probably the only one wearing any, and even his was just a shiny bit of rock.
A shiny bit of USELESS rock, but one he couldn’t throw away either. Xander allowed the frustration to build a little before he shook himself out of it. He had work to do.
They managed to fix four houses by midday and started building a whole new one, which was excellent because Xander’s closest neighbor had a daughter, Nasha, who was almost bursting with child. Her husband, Micah, was very eager to get out from underneath the noses of his clingy in laws. Xander decided not to tell him that moving a few houses over wasn’t going to save him much.
Hell, going across the universe wasn’t going to save him, considering other worlds were literally just a gate jump away.And yes, that still was very weird! And oddly scifi-ish, but Xander tried not to think about that too much. It made things too complicated.
He was totally behind all that ‘embracing the simple life’ shit. It was his new goal in life, his new ideology. He didn’t want to think about how much he should be thanking the Wraith for such a radical shift in thinking, so he didn’t. There had to be, like, scientific proof for it. Thinking equals unneeded complication.
He just concentrated on working on making and keeping the simple life. It truly was the unsung wonder of the world. The simple life, after all, didn’t come with fangs, secret identities, and random apocalypses.
Whether he understood her or not (hell, on bad days, he wasn't even sure he LIKED her), Sora was a big part of that simple life. After the blow of finding out that her Holy Grail was just a tin can with bad beer in it, Sora had to be hurting. Xander wasn’t even sure if she WANTED to be a part of his simple life. On her good days, she was only mildly broody. On her bad days, she was a vehicle of barely restrained violence- not so much directed at people specifically but at the universe in general.
He was okay with the universe, so long as it didn’t mess up his Grand Master Plan
(AKA Operation: Have the Simple Life) so he often went ahead and took one for the team. If she was yelling at him, then she wasn’t thinking. If she wasn’t thinking, then she wasn’t sad. If she wasn’t sad, then she wasn’t angry. If she wasn’t angry, then…she would stop yelling at him. Sometimes.
Who knew the simple life could be so complicated?
Xander stretched his arms straight upward, then braced his hands on his waist and twisted his torso. His muscles ached but it was the good kind of ache. The one that came from good honest labor rather than… He cut that thought off. Xander managed to avoid thinking about the Keep most days and he wanted today to be one of those days.
Of all of the injuries he had sustained, only two continued to bother him. His knee, though much better, had a tendency to crap out on him after too much labor. And, of course, there was his arm. No amount of herbs and voodoo tricks would make those marks disappear. He still wore bandages over his arm, as per Sora’s request.
Not that anyone could even SEE those, since he was wearing a long sleeved shirt and all.
“Xander.” Pokin called out, just as Xander paused in mid-stretch. “Can you lift this end?” As the youngest man in Pokin’s crew, Xander was often made to lift and carry things like a prized mule. He wasn’t annoyed by it though. The second youngest man after Xander was old enough to be Giles’ age, and Xander wouldn’t make Giles pick up an eighty pound wooden beam for all the chocolate in the world.
Cheerfully, Xander picked up the end of the beam as Pokin made some last minute alterations to the other side. Together, they lifted it up (Xander patiently waiting while Pokin shook and puffed and heaved until he had his side up at the same height) and over until it fit snugly in the notches on the wall. He took a step backwards with Pokin, chuckling when Pokin made an appreciative whistle- taught to him by Xander himself.
The people of Aromos didn’t have things like nails or glue so they used a method that was not unlike those old linking log toys. It worked for them and they were able to patch up any gaps in the wall with a hard clay-like substance that was very resistant to water. This wall was the last wall that needed to be completed, but now it was done. Mostly, anyway.
He could see what accounted for the ‘main street’ through the wall, as the gaps hadn’t been filled yet. They wouldn’t be until the very end. Through that wall, Xander saw an old man, even older than Pokin, walking slowly down the street while muttering to himself.
Xander didn’t recognize him. He thought he knew everyone in the village already, which was a fair assumption, considering the village was about the size of his ninth grade English class, which pushed forty on good days.
“Who is he?” Xander asked, directing Pokin’s attention to the man when they went outside to get water.
“Ah, him.” Pokin sounded sad. “That is Korl. He has a sickness.”
“Will he get better?” Xander asked, genuinely concerned. Although these people had a great understanding of the many medicinal uses of herbs, their idea of ‘health care’ left much to be desired. Amputation was still considered a viable method of getting rid of a bad infection and deep cuts and wounds were often subjected to the not so tender mercies of a hot iron.
“It’s a sickness of the heart. Only time will tell.” The old man picked up a jug with shaking hands and drank deeply. He put it down slowly, nearly dropping it. He was really too old to be doing his job but everyone had given up on making him quit. “His son was taken by the Wraith while visiting one of our trading partners, a few months shy of a year ago.” Pokin shook his head, walking away. “Syera was such a good boy too.”
“…right. Of course.” Xander stared after Pokin and then looked at Korl again. He felt like he had been hit and been hit HARD, but it was the kind of blow that you expect and that you see coming. You just don’t realize until you’re hit how much it is going to hurt.
After several long moments of hesitation, he didn’t so much walk over to Korl as he shuffled over in shame, feeling more awkward than he had when he was thirteen, all legs and elbows and zero coordination. But this time, it wasn’t so much humiliation he was feeling as much as he was feeling something in the general field of bone deep terror, spiced up with a lethal dose of guilt.
Was it human to want to torture yourself in such a way? Was he doing this because he needed to do it or was he doing it because he THOUGHT he should need to do it? Or was he just an asshole who had a chronic need to rub salt in everyone’s wounds, including his own?
Xander was putting his money on that last one. Not that he had any. But it would have been a good bet. After all, he was a selfish son of a bitch and he knew it. There was no way he could begin to convince himself, let alone others, that he was doing this for any reason other than his own.
There was no way he could live his happy simple life without some sort of absolution for some of the shit he was forced into doing, and he wasn’t Catholic enough to go searching for any from God.
“Hi.” Xander said after a moment, respectfully maintaining a distance as Korl slowly turned to look at him. Syera had been in his late thirties when he died, but his father must have had him late in life because he looked like he was pushing ninety. “My name is Xander.”
The old man squinted at him, taking a few shuffling steps towards Xander. For several long minutes, he was sure Korl wasn’t going to respond but, in the end, the innate politeness of the people of Aromos seemed to kick in.
“Hello Xander.” Korl had a raspy and rough voice. “You are the new child.” Xander supposed, to an eighty-something year old, he WAS a child even if he was eighteen, almost nineteen- an age at which men were already considered adults in most cultures. Or so was lectured to him by… Willow? Ah, yes. The College Pep Talk. What a waste of time, for the both of them.
“I was wondering, Pokin and I and some of the guys, we’re going around and fixing houses.” Stupid Xander, he thought. But what the hell else was he supposed to say? ‘Hi, I’m a Keeper, I killed your son?’ For a second, he had an urge to say just that, but he managed to swallow it down. It had a bitter taste. “Do you need any repairs?”
“No.” Korl seemed to ponder this answer for a moment before he shook his head. “I don’t need any.” He inclined his head slightly. “Thank you.” And that was that. The end of a very short and very awkward conversation. The point had been lost (if it had ever been found), lines had crossed and fizzed out, and Xander… Xander was FREAKING OUT and didn’t know how to calm down.
Xander stared at Korl’s retreating back with something akin to mild hysteria before he pivoted sharply and jogged back to the half-built house, ignoring the twinge in his knee. He went right up to Pokin, who straightened up from his position and stared him down calmly. Xander found himself freezing under the old man’s gaze, having no idea what to say but knowing he had to leave, had to go away, had to control himself before he did or said something that would hurt these people.
He gestured off at the surrounding forest vaguely. “I can’t…” Xander laughed but it was a rough sound. “I have to.” He was worse than incoherent but Pokin gave him a look of surprising empathy.
“Go ahead.” He told him briskly, briefly clapping a hand to Xander’s shoulder- the marked one. His shame, his burden. His choice of his life over the lives of others. “We’ll finish up later.”