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
Xander ended up talking to Nasha’s mom for an hour. While the subtle humor of pop culture references was lost on those alien to the culture in question, some humor appeared to be just naturally universal. No matter the culture or language it came in, blackmail was ALWAYS funny.
As long as it didn’t involve you, of course.
“…And then she ran into crowd, naked save for a few suds, screaming for her dolly.” Nasha’s mom related to Xander gleefully as Nasha tried to edge out the door with some semblance of pride.
“Oh really?” Xander asked, teasingly. Nasha turned a bright red.
“Our friends from Athos were visiting.” The older woman covered her heart with her hand, looking up at the ceiling. “Yes, my friends, that naughty naked child is my pride and joy. The light of my life. The fruit of my-”
“I was ten.” Nasha cut in, sensing that her mother was on a roll. “Clothes are a nuisance when you’re ten.”
“EVERYTHING’S a nuisance when you’re ten.” Xander said, propping his chin up on his hand. Nasha’s mother took that to mean he was hungry again and hurried to feed him, the poor starved boy that he was.
Oi. If he kept eating the way he was eating, he’d end up being fatter than that Subway guy.
“Exactly.” Nasha agreed with him gratefully, swiping some bread from a basket. She looked quite perturbed when her mother snatched it right out of her hand. Xander hid an unkind grin behind his own piece of bread.
“It is not healthy for you to eat so much in your condition.” The older woman scolded, shaking the food as emphasis at her daughter. Nasha cast a frustrated look at Xander, who slowed down and exaggerated every bite. She scowled at him and turned back to her mother.
“I am eating for the child AND myself!” Nasha protested. Xander found this whole exchange highly entertaining. Nasha seemed so mellow and calm all the time. He got a kick out of watching her mom get her all riled up.
Her mother looked at her up and down. “You will need new clothing, I see.” Nasha’s cheeks puffed out. She looked cute and cuddly, like a squirrel. She needed to work on that death glare of hers if she didn’t want people to laugh, like her mother was.
“Haha, child, you are so-”
The door opened suddenly. In such a small house, there was no ignoring the door when it opened, especially if you happened to be standing, or, in Xander’s case, sitting in its path. The door hit the arm of the chair, Xander barely having enough time to get his arm out from between.
“Ow.” He said anyway. That would have hurt, a LOT.
There was a soft apology coupled with a greeting from the other side of the door and then a head poked its way around. It was Sora. She spotted Xander, immediately honing in on his position. He was reminded of a heat seeking missile- but twice as deadly.
“I have to talk to you.” Sora announced to him, frowning down at him. Nasha and her mother looked over Sora’s shoulder at Xander, identical looks of concern on their faces. Xander couldn’t help but feel a little resentful about how quickly the cheerful atmosphere had dissipated in Sora’s presence. He wasn’t the only one who was out of the loop- that is, if Sora was a loop of her own.
“Right now?” Xander asked, not wanting to move. She said nothing but her eyebrows rose and she left the house. Xander turned to Nasha and her mother with a forced smile. “That means yes. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
He felt vaguely like a delinquent kid being called to the principal’s office- a place he had been in many times, for one reason or another. Ingrained habits kicked in. He walked slowly out of the house. His shoulders forcibly relaxed. His hands were in his pockets. He whistled a jaunty tune.
Yep, nothing to see here, people. Move along.
Xander didn’t see Sora right away in the street, so he ambled over to the house, figuring she wanted privacy- which was WORSE, if you thought about it. If a principal wanted to lecture you, privacy wasn’t a necessity. But if they wanted to EXPELL you, well… privacy was always a common denominator, in his experience.
Unless the principal in question was Snyder the Troll. He got a kick out of making a scene, the drama queen. Now there was a man who didn’t get enough love from his parental units.
A few greetings were called out to him from some of the villagers. Pretending at cheerfulness, he returned the greetings. The people of Aromos were his kind of people. They were kind, compassionate, and didn’t ask too many questions. They weren’t ignorant, by any meaning of the word, but they were unfailingly… polite. And polite people don’t nose into other people’s business.
Sora could learn a thing or two from them.
“Okay, Grumpy! I’m here. Lay it on me.” Sora was pacing but at his greeting, she paused and turned towards him. He closed the door behind him and gestured at the table and chairs but she didn’t move to sit. There was a cup of something steaming on the table. Tea or something, or maybe even that Knock You on Your Ass brew. That stuff was AWESOME.
He sat down, even if she didn’t, comfortable in this house in a way that he hadn’t been in ANY principal’s office. The setup of the tiny house came to mean something warm and comforting to Xander but Sora, who MADE it a second home for him, looked anything but comforted.
Xander was worried about her. The more confident he grew about his place in Aromos, the less confident she came to be. He tried to not to see a connection between the two but he could not ignore what was happening to Sora. She clearly was not the Sora he thought he knew.
The Sora he knew- the one who could do no wrong- was disappearing and a new person was appearing in her place. This Sora was tense around people, irritable to Xander, and uncomfortable about her place in the village. She had always been a bit of an outcast (her choice, not the villagers’) but now she was taking it to a whole new level.
Sora didn’t sleep at night nowadays. Most nights, she didn’t even bother to pretend. She’d pace and pace and go outside. Sometime she’d come back quickly while other times she stayed out until after sunrise. She seemed almost expectant, as if she was waiting for something, but what, he didn’t know.
“Syera is the son of Korl.” Sora said slowly, cautiously sliding into the opposite chair. Xander nodded. “Syera is- you said he was your friend. And he died.” She had a pretty damn good memory- he must have told her that about a month ago. “How did he die?” Oh, Xander so did NOT want to answer that one.
“I made the wrong choice.” He said vaguely, hoping she would leave it at that.
“What?” Sora was frowning at him but she frowned at him a lot. He stood up from his seat, ready to bolt. “Explain.” Xander tried not to snap because there was anger there. There would always be anger there, anger attached to his memories of the Keep. He didn’t poke at her scabs, why the hell was she poking at his?
“I’m not going to explain to you how the Keep works just so you can satisfy your own morbid curiosity, Sora.” Xander ended up snapping anyway. “You don’t need to know.” Sora shot up from her seat suddenly, pissed and showing it.
“I MUST know!” Sora stared at him for a moment after her outburst and then continued, her voice softer. “You owe me this.” Xander flinched, feeling oddly betrayed. He stood tense for a few minutes, just fuming. Then he decided ‘Oh, what the hell’ and angrily flung himself back down at the seat. Sora paused for a moment and then retook her seat.
“There are two types of fights in a Keep: the fight that you have a fifty-fifty chance of surviving, and the fight that you don’t win EVER, even when you do.” Xander heard his voice distantly. It sounded cold and indifferent. “The second is called a Wraith battle, or a Wraith match or a Wraith fight- it doesn’t matter! You catch the common theme there?”
“You have to fight a Wraith.” Sora reported dutifully. Xander glared at her and then sighed, rubbing at his eyes with his hand. He kept on alternating between anger and fatigue but as much as he tried to grasp on to one emotion and STICK WITH IT (like rational people do), the other one would force its way in anyway.
“Yeah. If you win and kill the Wraith, you’re dead. If you lose, you’re dead- get how you can’t win?”
“So…” Sora was trying to keep up, dodging the holes that Xander left in his story that he had no intention of filling. That he had nothing to fill them with, literally. Nothing important, anyway. “You fought in a Wraith match.”
“I did, but not until later.” Xander rubbed his knee absently. It ached from time to time. “Probably about a day and a half before you found me in the forest.” Sora was shocked.
“All those wounds-!” Xander smiled briefly. He thought it was funny precisely because it wasn’t funny at all. During his short plummet to the ground, he had felt more fear than he had ever felt before. Even in the face of demons and vampires, nothing was scarier than realizing there was nothing underneath you and that you would keep falling and falling and falling… until you stopped.
And as much as you hated falling, you NEVER wanted to stop.
“No. Those were from my impromptu flying lessons.” Xander got up, restless. He fiddled with some of the unused dishes, moving them back and forth without any purpose. His back was to Sora but he could feel her gaze on him like it was a physical thing. “Syera fought a Wraith match before I did.” He paused, considering the white knuckled grip he had on Sora’s bowl. With exaggerated care, he let go and put it back down. He turned around and leaned against the wall, facing Sora. “If you win, your cell mate has to choose how you die.”
“That’s… horrid.” Sora acknowledged softly. Xander crossed his arms over his chest, trapping them tight against his torso as he rocked on his heels once, twice.
“No kidding.” Xander told his shoes. He tensed a little bit and then looked up at Sora. He didn’t deny her eye contact this time. If she wanted it, then FINE. She could have it. “I made the wrong choice. I didn’t make ANY choice. I refused to.”
“Syera was killed anyway.” She realized, her gaze intense.
“Yeah. The Wraith fed on him.” This time, Sora was the one who looked away. “I watched.” The anger bubbled up again and he found himself lurching forward towards the table, using what little leverage he had to glare her down. “Are we done here? Or do I OWE you anything else?” His tone was as scathing and dry as he could make it but he was not surprised she wasn’t cowed. After all, Xander was to Sora what a kitten is to a mountain lion.
“How do you deal with it?” She asked, facing him again. She had a strangely contrite expression on her face. Xander frowned. She really had nothing to be sorry for. Well, besides being a nosy little brat, but he was used to that by now.
“I… don’t think about it.” He said slowly. “I try to ignore it.” It was better not to dwell on those kind of things. It was better to focus on brighter things, like the life he had now. If he thought too much about what happened in the Keep, well… he had a better understanding of why some veterans killed themselves after coming home from a ghastly war.
Death was quiet. Life was… loud.
“That is not the best way to handle your emotions, Xander.” Sora said, straightening up in her chair. He thought it was a joke and laughed, but she was serious.
“Oh?” Xander asked mockingly. “Like you do so much better? Miss ‘I’m so emotionally constipated that I ran away from home’?” Predictably, she ignored that. Sora always ignored things when he made it about her.
“You have to face it if you want to live through it.” Xander made a derisive noise. She looked up, her voice sharper. “You have to face your darkness, lest it sneak up on you when you least expect it.”
“My way is better.” Xander said shortly, turning around to leave. He had better things to do. Like counting the rocks that made up the circle of the communal fire. Now THAT was a better use of his time than this Dr. Phil nonsense.
“It is a wound that festers, Xander!” Sora snapped, slamming her cup down in an uncharacteristic show of temper. Xander froze for a second and then curled his fingers around the knob of the door. He couldn’t bring himself to turn it, not yet. He looked over his shoulder.
“Before you start telling me how to live MY life, fix YOURS first.” Xander stared at her for a moment, then slammed the door shut behind him. He was still seething, so completely angry that, for a dizzying moment, he couldn’t see straight.
“Not all is well on the domestic front then?” Pokin inquired from the doorway of his own house. Fuming for a moment, Xander didn’t answer. He clenched and unclenched his fists repeatedly, then turned on Pokin in an explosion of movement.
“Are all women so… so…” Xander grasped ineffectively for words. “Infuriating?”
“Oh my.” Pokin exclaimed, laughing heartily. “You don’t even know the half of it.”
An hour later, the village smelled warmly of fire and good food. The villagers were in the midst of preparing for something big- dinner never started this early, when the sun was still fairly high in the sky. The smell of spices and cooking meat was thick in the air- also a rare occasion. The people of Aromos usually limited themselves to their version of a rabbit or two.
Whatever was cooking, it was something BIG. And it smelled so good. Xander was nearly salivating. Looking for some free handouts, he sidled to a group of women surrounding a big pot.
“So, what are we doing, ladies?” Xander asked, sniffing appreciatively. They were cooking some type of stew, one that smelled alternatingly of meat, potatoes, and carrots. That and that spice that the villagers were so fond of, the one that smelled like a sweaty shoe but tasted SO good.
“Oh, no, not you Xander.” The tallest of the group said in a scolding tone, playfully shooing him away. “I’ve seen you, uh, work.” Xander grinned unrepentantly. He was known for eating on the job.
“Yes, go and-” Nasha’s mother paused, exchanging looks with the other ladies. “Uh…”
“Stay out of everyone’s way.” Xander concluded with exaggerated sorrow.
“Yes!” They exclaimed in unison, looked at each other, and laughed.
“I see how it is.” Xander said good naturedly. “I’ll just be off to do productive MAN things, like drinking alcohol and scratching my belly.” He left the group with a chorus of laughter trailing him. “And I just wanted to ask what this akenda thing was…” He took a bite out of the bread he had swiped, snickering when they, with a sudden outcry of ‘hey!’, realized the extent of his sneaky ninja skills.
“Do you not have the same word on your home world?” A voice came from his left. Xander turned, his expression more startled than he felt.
“Oh, Micah!” Xander tried not to flinch but Micah was like an Irish Wolfhound: friendly but terrifyingly big. Xander didn’t have good experiences with big people. Big people tended to be jocks and jocks tended to take offense to his continued existence and he tended to take offense at their offense- all in all, not a good situation. “No. At least, not in my language.”
“Hm…” Micah crossed his arms over his chest, thinking about it. Any desire to crack a dumb jock joke died when Xander saw the size of Micah’s hands. One squeeze from those mitts would likely crack his skull open. “It is like… a welcome. Everyone in the village welcomes them to their new houses and their new lives. It is… a blessing?” He frowned. “It is very hard to explain!”
“No, I think I get it.” Xander assured him. “We have a similar celebration. It’s called a house warming.”
“House… warming.” Micah echoed slowly. “How… strange.” He shook himself out of his thinking. Xander had a vague sense that Micah didn’t think much but had to wonder if thinking was overrated. After all, Micah turned out to be a nice guy, if not a bit… simple. “It is tonight. You will come with Sora?”
“Uh…” Xander stalled, thinking of the argument they just had. “…Sure, why not?”
“Great!” Easily pleased, Micah patted Xander’s back with careless force, misunderstanding or just not noticing Xander’s scramble for balance. “You will have much fun!”
“Wonderful.” Xander said dryly, watching Micah practically skip off. But why wouldn’t he be happy? He had a beautiful wife, a new house, and a kid on the way. Micah’s life was the life Xander wanted more than anything. A simple life unfettered by complicated nonsense . No Slayers, no Keepers, no monsters. Just… life.
Xander cheered up. Baby steps, he told himself. He would get there eventually. Even if Sora was making his life complicated by digging at half-healed wounds better left forgotten, he had great optimism for the life he was building on Aromos. He refused to let the shadow of his past affect his present.
Now if only she understood that! He could quote Disney at her but he doubted she would get the subtle wisdom of hakuna matata. He had to live in the present and put the past to rest.
Maybe he wouldn’t exactly FIT, ever, in the little community of people of Aromos, but he could fit well enough. After all, he wasn’t a man after perfection. He was a man after LIFE. And life just wasn’t about dwelling on the past, no matter whatever Sora thought.