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
It only took a brisk dash through the forest to wear off the edge of most of Xander’s emotions. It also took that same dash to convince him that he was an IDIOT and why was he running and OW! His knee was not happy with him right now. He was attempting to walk the pain off (which was working pretty well) when he saw Sora.
“He-LLO.” Xander drawled out. In hindsight, he realized that it probably was not the best thing to do right behind someone doing their very best to kill a post. He should have expected the elbow to come back, but he didn’t. He managed to block it though, and the punch that followed, but just as Sora realized who he was and pulled back, he managed to trip and fall on his ass when his knee revolted and quit supporting his weight.
He stared up at her in the sort of blank surprise that children get after they trip or fall, that brief second of silence as their crafty little minds tried to figure out if they should scream their heads off or brush it off as nothing. She stared down at him, just as surprised.
“Uh… ow?” Xander ventured eloquently, breaking the tension. Sora took a step forward and reached down to him. He grasped her hand and, together, they helped him up.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” Sora said with a soft sigh, brushing off his back where dirt and leaves clung to his shirt.
“It’s okay, my fault.” Xander acknowledged good naturedly. He tilted his chin up in the direction of the post. “And ow, what did the post ever do to you? Insult your mother?” She looked at the post as he did, tilting her head to the side as she likely contemplated what to tell him.
“In my culture, I am considered a warrior, a soldier.” Sora said finally. She looked back at Xander. “I am training.”
“You’re no longer in your culture.” Xander reminded. She was like a soldier without an army, a teacher without students. Xander had a hard time seeing the point.
“No matter where I am, who and what I am will never change.” Sora told him with quiet dignity, her chin lifting slightly. It was a silent challenge, but it went on, ignored. Xander wasn’t going to fight her on her beliefs, even if she wanted to. He, at least, was willing to accept them even if he didn’t understand.
After hesitating for a moment, he walked around the post, inspecting it. It had a slightly cushioned surface on the front but it was hard all the way around. It was about as thick as his thigh and worn smooth where it wasn’t covered. It wasn’t an old post. Looking at the ground, he judged it as being fairly new. A month. Maybe two.
“Does it work?” Xander looked up at her, the post between them. “For training.”
“No.” She admitted with some embarrassment, deflating visibly. “I am used to sparring with people.”
“Maybe once I get better, you can spar with me.” He offered, knocking on the post with his knuckles.
“I don’t-” Without thinking about it, she was already trying to refuse, to protect. Xander tried to be annoyed about that but it was hard. As much as she pushed him away, she pulled him close too , taking up a protective stance in front of him against the world. In this way as well as many others, Sora reminded Xander of Buffy so much. That is why he found it easy to stay patient with her.
“I was doing well until I tripped.” He reminded her gently.
“Yes, you were.” Sora acknowledged, conceding that point. She looked him up and down, critically evaluating him. Xander had an odd urge to stand at attention. “Your knee is still healing. Enough damage might have been done to it that you will ALWAYS walk with a limp.”
“I have faith in my body’s ability to heal.” Xander tapped his chest with his knuckles. “Back home, I used to get injured a lot. I’ve always healed pretty quickly.” Of course, he had never gotten so injured before in his entire life. If he had, he would have been kicked back to bench warmer and ‘fray adjacent’ so fast his head would spin. Buffy would probably chain him to the freaking bench and Willow would help.
Of course, with his luck, the normal looking bench would turn out to be an evil bench demon of the female persuasion, bound and determined to make him her bitch for all eternity. It was just the way these things tended to turn out.
“You fought? Before the Keep?” Sora seemed cautiously optimistic but about what, Xander had no idea. “Are you a warrior? A soldier?” Fought was such a strange word and he had an urge to tell her so. But Xander had to be honest with her and deflecting with such an inane comment was almost like lying.
“I haven’t fought that long.” Only six months in the Keep and three years before. Back then, he used to be the peaceful sort. Peaceful as in he’d run away and hide at the hint of danger. And that changed how, exactly? Well, nowadays, it was more like he had nowhere to run, or nowhere his conscience would allow him to.
Ha, conscience. That was a weird word too.
“I found out that a friend of mine… well, it’s hard to explain.” Xander made a face as he attempted to explain it anyway. “People want to kill her because of her job. And her job? Kinda deadly too. Girls like her have expiration dates.” He waved a hand dismissively, not wanting to get too into the sacred duty of slayers.
It really wasn’t his secret to divulge. And he didn’t want to run the risk of revealing to ANYone who the slayer was. He had to keep in mind where he was. He was in a hell dimension. Even though he hadn’t found a way back to his dimension, it didn’t mean that there wasn’t one. Murphy’s Law of the Supernatural stated that the big bads always knew what you needed to know and used it when you wished they really wouldn’t.
“I interfere. I get in the way.” Xander said, summing up his role pretty well, in his own opinion. “I’m Support Boy, not Warrior Boy. Or even Soldier Boy.” He thought about that for a second. “Maybe a little bit of Soldier Boy, but not in the way you think.”
“And after the Keep?” Sora inquired softly. She recognized the difference, just as he had. He had to deal with trying to figure out which of the two Xanders he was- the nice one or the killer? It didn’t take a genius to figure out which one he WISHED he was. But, then again, the grass was always greener on the other side.
“I’m Deadly Boy.” He said unhappily. Support Boy was no longer a true function of this Xander. He had been upgraded without consent and no one was more pissed about it than he was. “Didn’t really know how to kill before. I do now.”
“You can channel that.” Sora said and gave him a determined look. Xander laughed.
“And what, fight the Wraith?” He meant it sarcastically but quickly saw she wasn’t kidding. He flung out an arm, waving his arm vaguely at the sky. “They have space ships! How the hell am I supposed to fight against that?”
“There are ways.” Sora said mysteriously. He was kind of getting sick of that. He was already aware he didn’t know anything about ANYthing. “But first, you must get better.” She generously extended an invitation towards to the post. “You can use this to train, if you would like.”
“My idea of fun doesn’t involve beating the crap out of a wooden post.” Xander said, considering it dubiously. Because broken hand? Did NOT sound fun.
“You’d be surprised.”
Sora got around to asking why he had appeared so suddenly in the forest, so far away from where he was supposed to be working but, to tell her that, Xander would have to admit that he was running. That would be very bad. She only let him work with Pokin because she was harboring the illusion that his job involved sitting down and making things. And it had, a week ago. He was working with the big boys now.
He made what must have been a convincing excuse because she didn’t press the issue. They both parted ways once they got back to the village, Sora going one way and Xander going another. Xander cheerfully greeted the guys he was working with, apologized for disappearing, and helped but up the last wall. If nature cooperated, they’d have the house finished by late tomorrow.
“So cool!” Xander said to himself. He was building a HOUSE!
Night came quickly. Something about the air disturbed the villagers. Xander overheard someone muttering about how the Wraith always came on a hot night. Although it was superstitious in a way, it still had an element of truth to it that bothered Xander. It wasn’t like bad luck from the wrong side of a penny or a broken mirror. The Wraith were REAL.
Everyone went back into their houses before the last rays of the sun disappeared from the far horizon. Xander lingered, helping another put out the dinner fire. Their idea of communal meals was very kumbaya and camp-ish, which Xander thought was really cool. He never went to camp as a child but, rather, lived vicariously through Willow’s tales of it.
Oddly, while she never enjoyed it, Xander had a BLAST.
“Korl!” Xander called out, recognizing someone lingering in the middle of the road long after most of the people disappeared into their houses. He kicked up a last batch of sand over the fire before turning to Sora, who was giving him one of her mysteriously worried looks. “I’ll be right back.” He promised her, waving away Micah, as the older man weaved unsteadily towards his in-law’s house.
Xander could handle this. Maybe. He hesitated for a while before suddenly lurching forward, covering the distance between the solitary figure and himself within seconds. Despite his speed, he kept his approach slow and cautious, half-circling rather than zooming directly towards him.
“Korl, it’s getting late, shouldn’t you-”
“Don’t try to be the parent of me, child.” Korl was smiling, his light expression belying the potentially harsh words. He didn’t seem quite as downtrodden as he had been earlier that day, which cheered Xander up a fraction. “I was just going back.” He extended one shaking limb out to Xander, who immediately took it, allowing the old man to lean on him. “How fares your trading, Syera?”
Xander froze. He swallowed many times before he shakily answered. “F-fine.” What the hell ELSE was he supposed to say?
“I am too old to accompany you to our trading partners, so I’m afraid I’m terribly biased.” Korl stopped and turned to Xander, seeing him but looking beyond him at the same time. He had a look of great affection and love. Xander felt bad, knowing the look was wasted on him. “But I’ve heard great things about you. You make me proud, Syera.”
“Thank you.” Xander said quietly, miserably. Korl nodded, a peaceful look on his face. He patted Xander’s cheek gently and started to shuffle away.
“Good night, child.”
Xander was aware of her presence but that didn’t mean he had to acknowledge her. Kinda like an ostrich with its head in the sand but he’d take it any way he could get it, as long as he could get a few more seconds of peace.
Sora knew too much. She got in the cracks and the cuts of his wounded psyche and then proceeded to try and Willow him out of it. Xander was the first to admit how susceptible he was to the effect of the Willow-eyes and the Willow-logic, but too much time had passed. He had spent too much time on his own to accept such… he didn’t even know what to call it.
Before the Keep, he would have seen it just as one of those things that friends did for friends. The mutual stick pulling, clarity inducing, comfort offering friend thing. The sort of thing that showed love and concern even as it had the potential to annoy or piss off.
But now… he had a hard time swallowing something that came to him like second nature. Things were different now. HE was different. He wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t Sora’s friend. He didn’t DESERVE to be anyone’s friend. He was a Keeper and a killer.
His whole sense of right and wrong had been knocked on its ear. Good verses bad, human verses demon… where the hell were his ethics now? He lived life in the Keep based on the simple rule of kill or be killed. And even worse, now that he was away from it, he couldn’t convince himself that such a way of living was morally bad. Self-preservation defined his life now. THAT scared the crap out of him. His friends used to define his life.
Who was he then, if he wasn’t Xander, friend of the slayer, witch, watcher, and werewolf? If he wasn’t the Zeppo or the Scooby or even the loser who had the temerity to date a cheerleader? The donut boy, the demon magnet, the twice possessed man-child?
Alexander Lavelle Harris. It was just a name. He’d still be who he was even if his name was George Bobarilla Thumpernickle the Second.
All he had left, really, of his entire identity was that stupid name. All of the other stuff, the IMPORTANT stuff, were just DETAILS, and irrelevant details at that. It didn’t matter that he had a best friend who snuck pudding into his lunch every day during third grade. It didn’t matter that his best father-figure in his life wasn’t his father but a librarian who occasionally stuttered and said things like ‘blast’ whenever he was confused by the various mysteries of pop culture. It didn’t matter that the most beautiful girl he had ever crushed on could crush him with her pinky but didn’t because he was ‘one of the girls’. It didn’t matter that his closest guy friend barely talked but expressed himself so well that words often were unnecessary.
What defined his existence? Keeper. Killer. And maybe amateur carpenter. It wasn’t much of an identity. It really wasn’t much of anything. If it wasn’t anything at all, then did he even exist? If he didn’t exist, then he wouldn’t have an identity. Because he didn’t have an identity, then didn’t that mean he didn’t exist?
“It is late.” Sora said quietly, interjecting on his thoughts, which was of the good- his line of thought was dangerous. But he couldn’t help but be a little aggravated too. Sora wouldn’t like Xander the Keeper either. She only got the briefest glimpses of him because Xander tried so hard to show her, to be the Zeppo instead. People liked the Zeppo! “You should be sleeping.”
Xander heard a whisper in his mind, low, harsh, and familiar. “You should have done a lot of things, Keeper.” It was the voice of “Richard”, the Wraith who taunted Xander about his mistakes. The Wraith Xander had eventually killed. Which implied he was DEAD, which implied that a, Xander was crazy or b, Xander was tired.
Just a vivid memory, he recognized, even as his adrenaline levels shot up. He saw something move out of the corner of his eye and reacted without thinking. Sora’s training post, made out of a thick wood that had braved many strikes, snapped like a matchstick under the sheer force of his kick.
The forest was very still for a moment. Sora was holding her breath. As his adrenaline levels ebbed and went back down, his paranoia along with it, Xander swallowed and straightened up with a sheepish sigh. It was certainly ‘dead’. He certainly snapped. And he felt damn satisfied about it. He EXISTED, whoever he was- the proof was in the broken post.
Except it wasn’t his post to snap. Whoops.
“I’m sorry.” Xander said, turning to Sora suddenly. What would she say if he told her that he thought it was a Wraith? He knew, intellectually, that there were no Wraith on this planet but… The instincts of a Keeper were to act or die. “I’ll make you a new one.”
“It’s fine. Just… come home with me.” Sora reached out to him, her hand extended. Her eyes begged him to take it. He did, reluctantly. He was stricken by the differences in their hands. Hers, small, white, fragile. His, bloodied, rough, and tan. Xander allowed her to pull him all the way back to their home.
“I’m not crazy.” He said after a moment, then winced. Ow. If he was going for the ‘mature adult’ mark, he missed it by a mile and hit dead center in ‘whiny and petulant brat’. “I’m just… a little messed up.” Sora looked at him for a moment over her shoulder, her expression indecipherable. She turned forward once more.
“No less than anyone else.” She said lightly. Xander was surprised by a rush of affection for her, especially since those were Zeppo things and not Keeper things. Maybe the two were not mutually exclusive. Maybe, with enough time, he would be able to reconcile the person he had to be with the person he wanted to be.
That made him feel a little bit better.
Korl passed away that night. Early the next morning, the villagers found him and carried him out of his house in a sling made of white linen. Xander walked out of the house right as Korl’s closest family (a cousin and her family) walked the body out the village. He froze and stared at the small procession as it moved slowly out.
He wasn’t the only one to watch. He overheard others talking. It was a relief, they said. He lived so long and so much of it in pain, not only physical but, after Syera, emotional as well. They were glad he could find some peace of his own. He was even smiling in his death, as if some great burden had been lifted off of his chest. They thought it was best that he died in his sleep.
All Xander could think kept coming back in a never-ending loop: Korl was dead. Xander talked to him the night before. Korl was dead. He couldn’t help but see a correlation between the two even though none existed.
Xander watched the family as they walked off, presumably to bury the body, and watched even after there was nothing left to watch. He watched until Pokin got in his face with a few choice aspersions on his character, a few baseless assumptions about his parentage, and concluded by asking that now that he was good and mad, wouldn’t he like to get back to his job and finish the house?
Well… yes, actually. Xander was a house building MACHINE. Or at least he’d make like one, if it helped distract him from Korl’s death. He already established that not thinking of the good- it was just the application of it that he needed some work on.
Working was great for his psyche, he decided. Aching, sore, and exhausted, he felt more rational about Korl’s death. Although he didn’t want the old man to die, Xander, like other villagers, was glad he could die in such peace. Xander wondered if he had somehow contributed to that small smile on the corpse when he had pretended to be Syera. He hoped so, and he hoped there was some kind of afterlife where father and son could meet up once more and share that great mutual love and affection that he, as the outsider, had only seen hints of.
They finished the last bit of the house that day just a few hours before sundown. Pokin suggested that they present the house that night and let the wedded pair take up residence right away. Xander, as he wasn’t thinking, agreed without questioning the slightly evil twinkle in the old man’s eyes.
Their inherent enthusiasm for their work didn’t quit explain the enthusiasm that the other members of the crew ran for the cover and safety of their respective homes. Pokin himself only lingered long enough to bellow the husband’s name before he skedaddled as well, leaving Xander the only one to awkwardly stand there in front of the house he just helped create.
Micah took one look at the finished house and promptly burst into noisy tears. Xander realized he had been sold out by his fellow carpenters when the older man threw himself at Xander, nearly squeezing the spine out of him with the force of his hug.
Pokin was watching around the corner, out of sight for most people but Xander NOTICED these things now. The old son of a bitch was laughing his ass off, complete with knee slapping action. Xander had wondered why Pokin was so eager to allow Xander to show off the house to Micah, which was, in essence, to take credit for it. Now he knew.
“Y-you know-” Xander wheezed, ineffectively pushing at Micah’s shoulders. The guy was built wide like a football player and was tall enough so that Xander’s face was uncomfortable mashed against Micah’s collarbone. “Pokin really d-deserves the credit for this.” The grip loosened a fraction. “He really does!” It loosened a little more. “He built it with you in mind!” Micah pulled away, that big smile in no way diminished by the tears.
“Where is he?” he asked, looking around. He was like a big hyperactive puppy with a bone. It was cute from a distance but scary when that attention was focused on you. “I must thank him!” Xander was oh so helpful in pointing the way, engaging in his own laughing and knee slapping session when Pokin realized Micah’s intent and bolted like hellhounds were snipping at his heels.
Xander stopped laughing when, as gentle as the landing of a small bird, a hand tugged his elbow. He looked back, immediately smiling at Nasha. For a pregnant woman, she was very graceful in her movements. What he liked the most about her was how zen she was, especially compared to the emotional whirlwind that was her husband.
“Thank you for your help with the house.” She said quietly. She was like a ninja too- first, her hand had just been resting on his elbow and then suddenly, their arms were entwined. Xander was forced to walk with her or live forever known as the ass who knocked the pretty pregnant lady to the ground.
“Uh, no problem.” Xander said hesitantly, patting her hand reassuringly. And why was he reassuring her? He needed it more! His arm was being held hostage, captive by a four foot eleven pregnant lady. His masculinity was being threatened here!
“It is custom to give back when you have been given to.” Nasha explained as she pulled Xander back to her parents’ house. Resistance was futile. Her mother chirped a friendly hello when they crossed the threshold. Apparently, Nasha got the ninja from her side of the family. By the time they got to the other room, Xander was munching on a piece of bread and had pockets full of these wonderful candied nut thingys.
“Your mother thinks I’m skinny.” Xander said, amused. But if anyone dared to take his food away from him, they’d be pulling back a stump.
“You are.” Nasha said, critically eyeing his torso. She was getting the same look on her face that her mother had, the same look Joyce Summers got whenever he came to visit Buffy. Like she was slave to some motherly programming that forced her to feed every child that crossed her threshold. For a rare, bitter moment, Xander wished his own mother had such programming, but he shook the bad feeling off quickly.
Nasha rifled through some things as he looked around the room. There was one bed off to the side of the room and two low tables. It seemed very crammed, not so much because of what was inside of the room but more because of the size of the room itself. The houses weren’t built to be big and houses in the village rarely had more than two rooms.
“Ah, here it is!” She turned to him, presenting a small bundle of cloth. Xander took it good naturedly and, at her ‘go on’ look, shook it out. It was a loose long sleeved shirt, not unlike the drab brown shirt he was wearing at the moment. Looking closer, he realized there were more differences than he originally noted.
“Wow.” He said, looking at it from different angles. “Blue FUR? Was this dyed?” It wasn’t a tacky fur- not at all like the fur coats Xander suspected Cordelia’s mother of having in her closet before that whole tax evasion snafu. It was much thinner, so thin that he hadn’t recognized it as fur at first. It looked more like velvet but it was much softer.
“It is natural.” Nasha said serenely, looking up at him with wide guileless eyes. “It comes from a beast that lives in the ruins of a great city of the Ancestors. It is the only place that the beast can be found.” She caught a sleeve and ran it gently through her fingers. “It is said that he who wears the fur of this beast will be blessed with long life, good health, and the best of luck.” She smiled, tugging at the edges of the shoulders of the shirt. “I made it for my husband but…” Nasha gestured to herself, one shoulder to the other. “He is too big. It should fit perfectly on you.”
“Thank you.” Xander said. The significance on such a well wish present was not lost on him. Such things were never given lightly. Sora once explained it to him. The villagers believed that frivolous use of well wishes made them lose their power. Remembering how lightly people in his dimension threw ‘good luck’ around with little or no effect, Xander had to wonder if he agreed. Maybe his people had killed any effects the well wish would have had.
And yet, he never failed to jinx himself with a well placed ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ And speaking of which... did thinking it just jinx him?