Xander wandered sleepily out into the living room. He gave a small yelp as a form suddenly moved on the sofa, startling him into full alertness.
“Abby?” Xander watched as the girl, who had leapt to her feet, visibly forced herself to relax. “Mornin’. Coffee?”
“Yes, please.” The reply was quiet but unhesitant.
“Oh, by the way,” Xander moved to the TV set that sat facing the sofa. “This is a magic machine, with moving pictures! We call this the ‘on’ button.” Xander switched the set on with a flourish, causing Abby to let out a small giggle. “And this is the magic wand that makes the picture change.” Xander frowned, realising the remote wasn’t on the coffee table where he usually left it. “Aw, hell. We’ll have to mount an expedition down the back of the couch later. However, that’s not something I’m prepared to face without copious amounts of coffee. Coming?”
Xander headed into the kitchen with the young Slayer following behind. He waved her to a chair by the small kitchen table and began making breakfast, calling out where various items were stored so she could find them herself later.
“Seriously, about the TV, don’t worry about the noise or anything like that. You get used to the background sounds in this neighbourhood.” Xander placed a cup of coffee in front of her. “You sleep alright?”
Xander interpreted the small shrug as a ‘no’. “Noise, or dreams?”
Surprised, the girl looked him full in the face. “A little of both.”
“It may not feel like it, but both will fade.” Xander gave her a smile before moving back to the stove. “How do you want your eggs?”
Abby had helped clear up from breakfast and the pair now sat in the living room again.
“So, first day in Denver. We could do a tour, or you could stay here, or if you wanted you could come with me down to my main workshop,” Xander offered.
“I don’t want to keep you away from your work.” Abby looked alarmed at the possibility.
“God, don’t worry about that. I’m my own boss, and it’s good to be the king.” Xander chuckled. “Seriously, I’m totally up for playing hooky for the day, if that’s what you fancy.”
“Not really.” Abby looked down before glancing up at his face. “Going to work with you would be nice.”
“Sounds like a plan. It’ll give you a chance to orient yourself, too. It’s about 20 minutes from here. Up for the walk?” Xander knew that the exercise would be good for the restrained slayer but wanted to let her make as many of her own choices as possible.
They were interrupted by the door banging open and a bundle of energy in the form of a young boy bursting in.
“Mr. Xander, Mr. Xander!” Xander intercepted the boy and worked to calm him down and make sure there wasn’t a problem that required immediate attention. With Eduardo, playing had the same sense of emergency as a crisis.
At the same time, Xander took note of the way Abby had reacted to her own actions at the boy’s entrance. Her first response had, quite naturally for a slayer, been to go instantly on guard. Her hand automatically flew to the small of her back, presumably where she normally kept her weapon, but had begun to clench and unclench on nothing. Xander was worried that the girl hadn’t armed herself, a dangerous choice for a slayer; experience had shown they could be a target at any time. As soon as she’d identified the source of the disturbance, a look of pure horror had crossed her face, and she had backed away in a panic until she had collided with the wall.
Xander sighed. He really should have considered this possibility. Like Vin, he kept his place pretty much open as a safe haven for the kids of the neighbourhood. He didn’t have much to steal, and generally people respected both what he was doing for the community and the fact that he’d kick their asses if someone tried something.
Eduardo’s attention was finally drawn to the girl standing rigidly against the wall.
“Who’s she?” The boy sounded put out that someone else was already taking up Mr. Xander’s time.
“Eduardo, this is Abby. She’s staying with me for a while,” Xander explained.
“In Mr. Spike’s room?” The boy scrunched up his nose. Mr. Spike was weird. He slept all day and smelt funny.
“Yeah.” Xander noticed that Abby had recognised the name and he realised that he hadn’t actually told anyone in Cleveland that Spike was back or that he’d been staying with him.
While it hadn’t been a deliberate omission, it was an awkward area. Spike hadn’t asked him not to say anything, but the vampire’s lack of enthusiasm about reuniting with the other Sunnydale survivors had been clear.
Yet another bridge to cross, but all he could do for now was deal with things one at a time. Looking down at the now fidgeting youngster he realised he could alleviate one of the problems.
“I’m just on my way out, buddy, but you know you’re welcome to stick around. JD found another game for the PC.” Xander waved to the cobbled-together computer in the corner. With JD’s help he’d set it up from second-hand, nearly obsolete hardware. It ran some old games and had a functioning word processor. He had his own laptop, which was fully tricked out, tucked away securely. He wasn’t an idiot, after all.
“Eduardo, I need you to do me a favour.” The previously dour boy perked up at the prospect. “Can you spread the word? We’re back to protocol beta until further notice.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Xan.” Eduardo dashed to the door.
“You don’t have to leave right now, buddy,” Xander called out.
“I’m gonna go tell everyone now!” Eduardo’s voice echoed back into the room. Xander shook his head; hurricane Ed strikes again.
“Protocol Beta?” Abby asked quietly. Although she still hadn’t moved from her position, she looked a lot more composed.
“Knock first.” Xander grinned. “They seem to stick to the rules much better when it sounds like some secret agent game.”
At Abby’s nod Xander beckoned her back to the couch. “I know having strangers around isn’t going to be easy for you, but the kids need somewhere to get off the streets from time to time, and I don’t want to take that away from them, OK?”
“I understand.” She slipped quietly to the seat beside Xander.
“The bedrooms are off limits to visitors; if you feel like that’s not being respected, tell me and we’ll sort something out,” Xander stated firmly.
Xander studied the girl as she shifted slightly beside him. “Rule 6?”
Shooting him a guilty look, she paused before voicing her query.
“You don’t have full wards.”
Xander stared at her, surprised by the remark.
“No I don’t.” He hadn’t really given it that much thought. “I guess I told myself I was ‘retired’ so I didn’t need them anymore. Not the most intelligent choice, in hindsight. Now you’re here…” Xander didn’t get to finish as Abby interrupted him.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come.” Abby made to stand but Xander held up warding hands.
“No. Listen to me for a moment, Abby. I’ve had a couple of wake-up calls recently, and I’ve just been dragging my feet in doing something about it. Just because I’m not on the front lines anymore doesn’t mean that the supernatural doesn’t exist. I’ve been an idiot, and I’m lucky I haven’t been devoured in my sleep.” Xander realised how fortunate he’d been, especially with his track record. “So you see, I should be thanking you.”
Abby still looked uncomfortable, so Xander changed the subject. “Anyhow, after the distraction of Hurricane Ed, shall we get back on track? You sure you wanna come to work with me? There’s no TV, and nothing much about locally. Watching me plane and sand is going to get boring real fast, I would imagine.”
“I’ll bring a book.”
“OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you. We’ll head out in ten.”
The walk had gone quickly, Xander giving her pointers on places of ‘interest’-- as much as anything could be considered visit-worthy in Purgatorio -- and areas to be avoided. While he had little doubt that Abby could handle herself, the circumstances of her visit meant that he wanted to avoid any unnecessary confrontations.
“Well, this is it.” Xander stopped outside a plain-looking storefront. They were right on the edge of Purgatorio, far enough out for people not to be too afraid of stopping in, but still too close for the comfort of many, meaning an excellent deal on rent. The cheap costs mean that he could also afford a larger area out back to act as a workshop for the larger pieces he’d been commissioned for.
“Did you make that?” Abby stood, looking in admiration at the elaborate piece in the window. The coffee table sat on a raised plinth and was fairly abstract. He’d found the polished stump at a reclamation yard and had layered in shelves in a spiral around the central pillar. The varying colours, all natural, between the original stump and the inserts made a striking contrast. It was one of his favourite pieces and he couldn’t bring himself to part with it.
“Yeah, mainly I do custom-stuff-- dining sets, chairs and cabinets -- but that mesquite stump really spoke to me.” The pleasure in Xander’s voice was clear. It made all the difference when you were doing something you loved, and that came through in his work.
“It’s beautiful.” Abby kept her rapt attention on the table and so missed Xander’s blush at the praise.
“Thank you. Welcome to my ‘studio.’” Xander unlocked the door and ushered her in. The small storefront room was lined with pictures of Xander’s work, with a couple of chairs and an ornate desk that held a phone and more portfolios of his work. While Abby explored the room, Xander ran through his messages.
“All done?” Xander asked once he’d finished. Abby tore herself away from her contemplation of the table in the window. “Come on out back. I’ll show you where the stuff is, if you want to make yourself tea or coffee in the kitchen area. There’s a small fridge. Help yourself -- just remember Rule 4 applies here, too.” Xander pointed out the corner of the workshop where everything was set up.
“Lance, you never told me there were rules. What’s number 4?” Xander jumped as Vin spoke up as he entered from the small storeroom.
“Bloody hell, Vin. You nearly gave me a heart attack.” Xander glared at the long-haired man.
“I told ya I was coming by. Remember, you said you’d give me a hand fixing up my favourite chair today?” Vin looked expectantly at him.
“Damn, I did. I completely forgot.” Xander was pleased to note that Abby had instinctively but unobtrusively armed herself with one of the many pieces of wood lying about the workshop, although she’d dropped it like a hot poker once she realised Vin was a friendly. Unfortunately, the look of fear was back on her face. Xander sighed. This was going to be a lot harder than he’d thought.
One step at a time, just one step, Xander reminded himself.
“Vin, this is Abby. Abby, this is my friend Vin.” Xander introduced the pair, relieved when Abby stepped forward and took the offered hand.
“Pleased to meet you, miss.” Xander caught the startled look on Abby’s face at the formal title.
“Hey, Abby, you want to call a Rule 3, there?” Abby grinned at him as a puzzled look crossed Vin’s face.
“I don’t know what Rules 1, 2 and 4 are, yet, so calling me on a 3 hardly seems fair, Lance,” Vin drawled.
“You don’t need to worry about Rule 4-- never been a problem with you, Bullseye.” Xander grinned at Vin’s scowl. “Rule 3 is my name is Xander, hers is Abby, and if you play nice we’ll include you as being Vin, Bully.”
“Fine, *Xander*. How come you got landed with this reprobate, Abby?” Vin cursed himself as a flash of panic crossed the girl’s face.
“Abby needed a vacation. I got the lucky straw.” Xander gave the girl a genuine smile. “She’ll be staying with me for a while.”
“So, has Xan shown you around town yet?” Vin pulled himself up to sit on a workbench.
“I only arrived yesterday, sir.” Abby quickly defended Xander’s hospitality.
“Hey, Rule 3, right?” Abby gave Vin a shy smile at his comment and nodded.
“If you want a tour from someone who actually knows the town, give me a call.”
“This from the *Texan*,” Xander snorted.
“Lived here longer than you, Lance,” Vin threw back.
“You’re setting a fine example to my new charge, breaking the rules left, right, and centre,” Xander huffed, glaring at the sharpshooter. He missed Abby’s look of surprise at his unthinking claim of her.
“I blame your Dad for that. Led me astray, he has.” Vin grinned unrepentantly.
“You know Xander’s father?” Abby queried.
“Yeah, I work with him. We’re ATF agents.” Vin didn’t miss the girl’s discomfort at the revelation but figured it was the normal youthful distrust of authority.
“Any news on when Ezra might be back?” Xander asked. The guys had been really good about being up front with him about what was going on with Ezra, but there was only so much they could tell him.
“Nothing new. Sorry, Xan.” Vin wished he had more information for his friend but they were all being kept in the dark on this assignment. Chris was on edge -- had been since the incident with Ezra’s stabbing, but having his undercover agent poached from under him so soon after had riled him up further. Vin sighed. The man had made a point to avoid Xander since the night at the hospital, which was probably for the best; Chris’s anger at situations out of his control was always volatile, and adding Xander to the mix would be like setting a match to gunpowder.
“No worries.” Xander sighed, not really having expected anything different.
“Anyway, let’s see about your chair. Abby, give us a shout if you need anything.”
“Abby’s first day in town, and you’re gonna make her sit in the corner while you work?” Vin was surprised at Xander’s attitude toward his visitor.
“I offered to take her out, but this is what she fancied today.” Xander gave Vin a look to accompany the comment that made it clear the matter was to be dropped. Shrugging, Vin decided to concentrate on the job at hand. Patting the back of the chair lovingly, he explained the problem.
“Right, so it’s been making these creaking sounds, and I’m a mite worried about what’s going to happen if Josiah comes over and sits on it.” Vin gave Xander a grin that was returned in kind.
“You could just buy a new one,” Xander commented as he examined the chair to try and find the best way to shore it up.
“Nah, I got this one broken in just right,” Vin replied without looking up, missing Xander’s incredulous look.
“It’s a wooden chair!”