Parking garages were awesome places for fights in movies, but Xander hated them in real life. For one thing, the vampires did things like throw you over the railings and onto lower levels that okay, weren’t a full story down, but were still about half a story. All right, six feet. Far enough to hurt like a bitch when you landed badly. For another, cemeteries had nice comfy bushes to be thrown into. Parking garages had cars. Cars were made of metal and glass. Crunchy. With alarms that shrieked when you landed on them. It was a good thing his bootheel had smacked into that windshield, and not his head. 'Cause that would have hurt.
Xander managed to slide off the hood and onto his feet. The vampire vaulted the railing and landed next to him. Stake? Gone. Xander found the backup in his jacket pocket and brandished it. Backed up two steps, trying to look tasty and give himself some room. There went the death-scream of the one Shemsa was fighting, under the wailing alarm of the car he’d landed on. And there was his Slayer herself, vaulting over the railing in exactly the spot the vamp had. She rolled, came up, and slammed her stake into its back with perfect accuracy.
Nice. Xander raised a hand to high-five her. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed him and hauled at him.
Something hit him on the left side, hard. Xander went down again. Landed hard again, with a whoosh of outgoing breath and then a gasp as he realized that the something had sliced into his left arm but good. Weight on him, bearing down, pain from whatever it was digging into his left arm, then suddenly it was gone. Xander levered himself up with his right hand in time to see Shemsa execute a roundhouse kick at a demon. Buffy’d been going over them in class just this week, and that one was textbook.
The demon staggered, but didn’t go down. Xander cataloged it with half his brain while attempting to put the other half to work getting himself back on his feet. Green. Huge. Really huge. Ten feet at least. Too many arms. Weird metal belt around its middle.
Shemsa dropped and did a sweep kick that knocked it over. She sprang and came down on its chest with a stake in her hand. Perfect form. Stake driven deep into the chest. A burst of green fluid, a bellow, and Shemsa was flung back. She landed on top of Xander. There went his breath again. The demon was moving off, fast, down the ramp. The alarm finally shut up. Xander heard the demon’s heavy footsteps echoing in the parking garage.
Shemsa got off him. Xander stayed where he was. The concrete was cold under his butt. He stared up at the gray concrete and pipes of the ceiling. There was some kind of foamy insulation sprayed all over them. You noticed the strangest things when you were on your back like this.
“You’re hurt,” Shemsa said to him.
“I’ve had worse.” She gave him a hand and Xander staggered to his feet, wincing. The arm of his jacket was blood-soaked.
The evening hadn’t supposed to go like this. They’d been sent to Cardiff on their first solo mission to check out vampire reports in the inner city. Get there, give Shemsa a chance to practice honing, find a vamp or maybe a gang of teenagers, stake something, be home by two. Instead they’d spent the whole night chasing vamps and this green demon, all over the worst neighborhoods in the sharp November cold. Shemsa had staked at least eight, including three in that last fight. And she’d sensed more. Vamps a gogo, way more than the last time Xander had done a training run in Cardiff, with Buffy and Giles along to supervise. They hadn’t even been looking for that last fight. They’d been trying to get back to the damn car.
“Remind me to tell Rupert. There is some weird-ass shit here. That thing was wearing a bat utility belt!”
Shemsa just grinned at him, and helped him over to where he’d parked the Golf. He popped the trunk and she got out the first aid kit. He sat on the hood of the car, feet on the bumper, and watched Shemsa work on his arm. His jacket was toast: left sleeve all ripped up and bloody. His arm still worked, at least. No tendons cut. They’d been studying human and demon anatomy recently, and Xander was now officially stunned he’d survived the last seven years. Those artery things were everywhere.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” Xander said, as Shemsa smeared on antiseptic. “The Slayer gets injured, the Watcher patches her up. Then her super-healing kicks in, and he tuts about her form.”
“Shut up, whiner.” Shemsa taped the bandage in place over his upper arm.
Xander got them out of the main part of the city before he admitted that he was weaving all over the road. Too sore to keep going. Too much blood loss. He pulled off at the sign of a chain of crappy motels and somehow got them parked without plowing into the car parked next to the office. Bloody hell.
Shemsa handed him her sweatshirt. Xander pulled it on over his blood-stained shredded shirt and staggered off to get them checked in.
In the motel room, Xander kicked off his boots and flopped back across the bed nearest the door. He groaned and reached into his pants pocket. “Fuck. Where’s my cellphone?”
Shemsa fished it out of his jacket pocket and tossed it at him. Xander stabbed a hand into the air and missed. It landed on his chest. He picked it up and hit the first speed-dial button.
“Hey, yeah, it’s me. Yeah, I know we’re late. Tougher than expected. We’re okay. Crashing for the night in a motel. Yeah, I remember. Ten am. And hey, Rupert? There is some weird-ass shit going down in Cardiff. Yeah, you too.” Xander flipped the phone closed.
“Wake me up, would ya? Eight am.” And Xander was out.
Xander came awake with a start. Sunlight edged around the curtains but the room was still dark. Motel. All-night hunt. Right. Shemsa was still asleep, which wasn’t surprising. If Slayers could be up all night and sleep all day, they would. So Xander wasn’t surprised that he woke up first. He was surprised when his phone check told him it was past nine already. He’d blown it.
Blood loss and bruises were no excuse for the Watcher. He had to be functional at all times, on minimal sleep. That’s what the Handbook said, anyway. Both editions, the old one and the Rupert Giles get-a-clue-you-old-fogies one.
“Rupert is gonna kill us,” Xander said. But he lay there for a few minutes more, gathering himself for the day. He was sore. He’d slept with his socks on, and his feet felt damp and gross. His socket bugged him, under the patch. He lifted it and scrubbed at the places where it chafed. Sweat and vamp dust and a little dried blood had caked up. Yuck. He needed a shower. And another four hours of sleep. In any order. What had Rupert said? Worst job in creation.
Xander rolled out of bed and laid a hand on his Slayer’s shoulder. She awakened instantly, met his glance, read his face, and said something Xander was pretty sure was a bad word in Swahili.
“Breakfast?” she said, with hope in her voice.
“No freakin’ time. We’re gonna be late for the summoning thingie as is.” Xander stomped his feet down into his boots and started lacing them. After a moment and a heavy sigh, Shemsa sat up and imitated him. Bathroom. Checkout, with a winning grin at the cute daytime desk clerk who gave him a big smile in response. Xander swabbed blood from the driver’s seat before he got in. Slayers didn’t do things like mop off the blood. That was the Watcher’s job. Buffy had been definite on that point.
Westbury in forty-five minutes? Doubtful. The distances were nothing in Californian terms; a sixty-mile drive was a lark for Xander. Though the drive wasn’t exactly a quick jaunt up the 5. No cranking it up to eighty and steering with his knees while he wrestled with a bag of corn chips. Instead slower speeds, traffic, trying to pay attention while Shemsa handed him one of those Jaffa cookie things. He blew crumbs down the front of his shirt and dug for the cellphone. Speed-dial again.
“Yo. On the M4 outside of Newport. Yeah, I know, I know. Hard night. Details later, okay? I gotta drive. We’ll be there!”
Xander tossed the cellphone at Shemsa without looking at her. He looked over his right shoulder, downshifted, pulled right, and passed the Range Rover in front of him. Time to make time.
Rupert was already talking to the assembled Slayers and Watchers when Xander and Shemsa crept into the lecture room. He was all dolled up in suit and tie, full Head of Council mode. His hands were deep in his trouser pockets, and he had his eyes fixed somewhere on the back wall of the room. He met Xander’s glance, returned his nod, and kept talking.
Everybody was there. The entire New Council: thirty Slayers and ten would-be Watchers. The Cleveland people had arrived last night, while Xander and Shemsa were on their milk run. Faith turned and gave him the strangest look, then pointed at her chest. Xander looked down, and realized he was still wearing Shemsa’s Hello Kitty sweatshirt. It was pink. No wonder the motel clerk had looked at him funny. He grinned at Faith and gave her the finger. She grinned back.
“We don’t expect it’ll solve the problem immediately,” Rupert was saying. “They’ll need to be trained, just as you see Dawn and Andrew and Xander training alongside you. A-And it may take them some time to respond to the summons. So, please, be patient. We’re, we, uh, we want every one of you to have your own Watcher as quickly as is reasonable. All right? Everybody clear?”
Rupert stepped aside to make room for Willow.
“Oh, er, right. Here we go!” she said. She began casting immediately, with little ceremony or mumbo-jumbo. Xander had watched her preparing for this for the last week, rehearsing while Rupert set up travel plans for the Cleveland contingent. She and Rupert had designed this spell from scratch. Nobody had ever cast it before, and they were both nervous about it. Summon everybody with the Watcher destiny. That was it. Simple. Simpler than the Potential-activation spell had been, in some ways, Willow had said. She’d shown him a diagram to prove it. Xander had let his eyes glaze over while he nodded wisely. He didn’t understand her when she got into the technical magic stuff.
She was speaking words of summoning in Latin, imperative voice, and her voice was going strange. Willow floated off the ground and her hair went white. This one was a big spell. The magic surged high enough that even a null-adept like Xander could sense it. It was like being in the room with a Van de Graaff generator, all noise and crackle and snap, energies swirling, the air fizzing. A voice took up the chant that didn’t sound entirely like Willow’s voice. Xander stared. Whatever the hell it was Willow was doing, it concerned Xander deeply. He was sure of that. Xander found himself walking to the front of the room. He came to a stop, shoulder-to-shoulder with Rupert and Andrew.
Willow went silent, and the energy sizzled away, snapping out into the corners of the room. She floated back down to her feet, red-haired again. Xander couldn’t take his gaze off her. She shrugged at Rupert.
“Okay, that felt good. Think it worked.”
“Oh yes, it worked,” said Rupert.
Xander nodded, and felt Andrew nodding alongside him. “Yeah, I gotta say, I couldn’t be more summoned than I am right now.”
“Phase two, then,” said Willow. “Touch me, and I’ll transfer the summons into guardianship of your matching Slayer. One at a time, please, so I can keep you straight.”
Rupert stepped up first and clasped Willow’s hand. “Oh my,” he murmured. Then he turned and smiled at Buffy, one of those full-face all-teeth grins that Xander loved seeing on him. He went over to her, and they hugged hard. Nobody looked surprised. A rampaging herd of rhinos couldn’t separate those two.
Robin Wood stepped up, touched Willow. He grunted. He then turned to Faith, and sighed. He went over to her. She reached up, grabbed the collar of his shirt, and dragged him down for a kiss.
“Hey baby, glad it’s you,” said Wood.
“As if,” said Faith. She kept her grip on his collar, though.
Andrew stepped up next, clearing his throat importantly. He was in full tweed. Xander shuffled. One at a time, yeah, to give Willow a chance to sort out the divinatory impressions, but man, this summons was eating at him. He felt bad for the Watcher-potentials who were in China or something, unable to do anything about it.
Andrew was shaking Sarah’s hand, all formal and “Ms Livingstone” and “privilege to work with you.” Then Dawn was stepping up to Eiko. That was a bit of a surprise: Dawn had been training with a few of the Slayers, not really settling down with any one of them, but Eiko hadn’t been one of her gang. They grinned at each other, both of them looking pleased. So that was all right.
Xander jigged in place. He watched Robson touch Willow then drift over to Megan, the kid who almost never took off her Nomar Garciaparra jersey. Then Stark, one of the other surviving Watchers, got himself hitched up with Leah. That was everybody except him and Travers Junior, and damned if he was going to wait for that jerk.
He stepped forward and gave Willow a hug.
Magic. Twisting forces inside and around and through. For a second he saw a long line of Slayers, stretching so far back in history he couldn’t grasp it. Each one had a Watcher standing behind her. Xander swayed on his feet, then came to earth solidly. He felt planted. He knew his role in this fight. He had a part. No more doubts. He was a Watcher, and his Slayer was nearby.
He turned to Shemsa and then it hit him. Not her. His Slayer was to his left. Xander swiveled his head and stepped forward uncertainly. A clump of three women, Kennedy and Faith and Vi. Wasn’t Faith. Another step. Oh, god, it was Kennedy. Xander touched her arm, and felt the connection solidify. Kennedy stared at him wide-eyed. Her mouth opened, then closed with a snap.
Xander gave her a big shit-eating grin. “Um, hey. Hello. I’m your new Watcher.”
The six of them were in the conference room, a shiny modern room with whiteboards and a computer-friendly projector and comfortable chairs and a telephone system that Rupert had never been able to figure out how to use. Xander stood in the open space in front of the whiteboards, between Rupert and Buffy in a little defensive wedge, facing off against Kennedy. Willow dithered to the side, still fizzing a bit in the magic spectrum.
“That was rather a surprise to all of us,” Rupert said, addressing Shemsa, with apology in his voice.
Shemsa shrugged. Kennedy said, “No kidding.”
Rupert took off his glasses and polished them. “Are you both, er, all right?”
“Yessir,” said Shemsa. She shrugged again. “My Watcher is out there somewhere. I feel it now.”
“No, I’m not all right. I had a Watcher. I thought we were getting along fine. But she just dumped me.” Kennedy’s voice was like a glass-cutter, all shriek and slice.
“Beg pardon?” Rupert put his glasses back on. He looked annoyed.
“She matched me with somebody else. Not her. That was cold.”
Xander exchanged a look with Rupert. Willow answered before he could, however. “Er, I don’t do the matching. It’s more like I ask something outside myself who to match somebody up with. I think the Powers are the ones who answer. Somebody in the spiritual world, anyway.”
Shemsa said, “We were with the wrong Watchers?”
Rupert said, “We let you all gravitate toward the partners you felt most comfortable with. And in the main it worked. We had only the, er, the one mismatch.”
“Two mismatches,” said Shemsa. She shrugged. Xander could tell already that she would be fine.
“Willow should have told me in private.” Kennedy seemed angrier, if anything. Xander could feel it vibrating from her. Angry Slayers were not comfortable people to be near. He was grateful for Buffy’s presence.
“What?” Willow looked confused.
Buffy snorted. “I get it. She thinks she has to date her Watcher. Who said that? I’m not dating Giles. Never have, never will. No offense, Xan.”
“None taken, Buff.”
“I don’t give a shit about whether you ever did it with him–”
“Can it,” said Buffy. She had widened her stance and was on the balls of her feet.
“Yeah, okay, whatever. Not gonna let this go, Willow. You should have talked to me first.” Kennedy shouldered between Xander and Rupert on her way out.
“Oh dear,” said Rupert. “She’s misunderstood.”
“I’ll talk to her,” said Xander. He wasn’t looking forward to it, but as of now it was his job. He sighed.
“Give her some time, Xan. She’ll chill out in a few hours, and her brain will start working again. She’s not a moron. Just a jackass. Oh. Eep! Sorry, Will! Um, I’m audi before I say something even worse.” Buffy wound her arm through Shemsa’s and the pair left together.
Willow sighed. Rupert brushed a hand against her shoulder. “Congratulations. You did well, Willow. It went just as we hoped it would. Aside from, well. Travers and this.”
Willow shook her head. “I’m not going to blame the spell for this one. It’s been touchy for a while. She wigged out because she’s been expecting me to break up. So you know, it’s kind of a relief that you’re her Watcher not me, Xan.”
Xander shrugged. He’d take a lot of bullets for Willow, but maybe he wouldn’t have signed up for this one. “Hey, wait. Travers?” Xander had chased an upset Kennedy out of the room seconds after he’d touched her.
“Travers. Hell. He was not summoned,” Rupert said. “Completely baffled by what we were going on about. And then furious beyond words once he realized it meant we won’t give him a Slayer.”
Willow sighed. “We can’t give him a Slayer, Giles. He doesn’t belong with one. I don’t care how many generations his family has been in the Council.”
“I don’t care either. He can do administrative work or find another post.” Rupert set his jaw, and that was that. Xander hid his smile. The guy was a sanctimonious jerk. He fought every single edit Rupert made to the handbook. He’d shouted about Cruciamentum’s vital importance until Xander had thought Rupert was going to slug him. Buffy nearly had.
Willow took off to go mop up after the spell. The moment the door was shut behind her Rupert’s arms were around Xander. He leaned in. Xander opened his mouth and tasted Rupert, all tea and marmalade. They hadn’t had a chance to do this since yesterday morning. No sex in more than a week, thanks to chaos and scheduling and trips to London. Rupert shifted and pulled Xander close against his chest, hip to hip. He moved a hand behind Xander’s head and tangled his fingers in Xander’s hair. And unfortunately right over a sore spot.
Xander flinched. “Ow! Watch the bruises. Got banged up last night.”
Rupert eased off his grip instantly, and plucked at the sleeve of the pink sweatshirt. “You all right? What happened?”
“Demon. I gotta get Dawn and Andrew to help me with an ID. But beyond that, man, Rupert, about ten times as many vamps on our last training run. We got a problem. Shemsa was seriously wigged by the energies zapping around. Can, uh, can there be two hellmouths at once?”
A quick sandwich and a shower made Xander feel a million times better. Almost human again. He put drops in his socket, and then strapped on a clean eyepatch. He’d rinse out the other one later. He checked himself in the mirror. What was the damage? Bruise on the left cheek, deep puncture wounds and claw scrapes on his upper left arm. The demon had blind-sided him. Xander barked out a bitter laugh. No metaphor, that.
He was going to have to nudge Willow about getting a prosthetic enchanted. Even the kind of ghostly evil-detection she said was all she could do would be a help. Anything. He was handicapped. Not as effective as he should be, no matter what Rupert said about complementing his Slayer’s skills and all that. He was half-blind. Some day it was going to kill him.
That was his quota for self-pity for one day. Time to use the mirror for what it was good for: shaving. While he buzzed the razor over his jaw Xander forced himself to think about practical stuff. Slayer stuff.
Xander rebandaged his arm, then padded barefoot back to the bedroom to finish getting dressed. He put Shemsa’s sweatshirt into the clothes hamper. He’d got blood and crumbs all over it. When he had ten seconds free he’d wash it, fold it, return it to her and take the opportunity to apologize. Though what he had to apologize for, he wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have chosen another Slayer if it had been up to him. He liked Shemsa. He was going to miss working with her.
What was he supposed to do with a Slayer he didn’t like? He’d tried, for Willow’s sake, but Kennedy hadn’t made it easy. She’d had money her whole life. She’d never lacked for anything, ever. When she wanted something, she bought it. The concept of buying used clothes, used anything, had baffled her. She’d laughed when Xander had told the story about driving an ice cream truck, and asked him what bet he’d lost. And laughed at him again when he’d said it was because he’d needed a job. Yeah, that still rankled.
Rupert had told him enough stories that he knew Watchers didn’t always get along with their Slayers. Sometimes Rupert and Buffy had been furious with each other, deeply hurt by each other. Being bound by destiny wasn’t always fun. But underneath all that, the whole time, they’d loved each other. And when it counted, they took care of each other. Kept each other alive.
Could he care about Kennedy like that?
Xander sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on thick socks. He was Kennedy’s guardian now, spiritual and physical. The Powers had given him the job. And damned if he wasn’t going to do it. He was going to be that trustworthy for Kennedy. Willow saw something in her. He was going to act like he liked her, and then he’d start liking her. And Buffy was probably right that she’d stop being pissed with him as soon as she calmed down enough to think.
What did he like about Kennedy? She was reasonably smart. She had a lot of training from her first Watcher. She fought well and kept her head in a crisis. She was brave. Okay. Those were good things in a Slayer. He could work with those.
Xander sighed. Time to head back to the Council buildings. They had a pow-wow scheduled with everybody present to hear his report about Cardiff.
They were all there in the conference room, spread around the huge table in the comfy chairs, waiting. All the Watchers and their Slayers, and some of the more experienced unattached Slayers. The whole Cleveland contingent was present, Faith and Wood with Rona, Chao-Ahn, and Shannon following them like ducklings.
Xander had been afraid he’d be late, but he’d been on time. Rupert was late. Fifteen minutes late. If he hadn’t been known to be on Council grounds, surrounded by about thirty Slayers, Xander might have been nervous.
Rona and Shemsa were trying to make themselves sick spinning around on their chairs, only since they were Slayers, it was impossible. They were doing great at making Xander sick from just watching them.
Kennedy was there, about as far from Willow as she could get. Xander had plunked himself down next to her, on her left, where he could start with the making friends project. Only she hadn’t spoken to him or to anyone. He tried again. “Hey.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“Wanna get together for tea after this? Catch up?”
“Sorry, got plans.”
Kennedy stayed stony-faced. “All right. Lunch.” She turned away. Well, could have been worse. She hadn’t grimaced at him or made fun of him or anything.
The door opened and Rupert strode in, moving fast. He looked harassed. He sat in the open chair next to Buffy.
“Sorry I’m late. We, er, had a young boy appear at the gate on his bicycle. He was quite definite that he’d been called here.” Rupert pinched the bridge of his nose, then resettled his glasses.
Faith snickered. “A mini-Watcher? What did you do with him?”
Rupert hid his face in his hands. “Called his mother and offered him a scholarship to our exclusive private school. Said he’d impressed me with his obvious intelligence.”
Faith and Buffy snorted as one. “Did she buy it?” Buffy asked.
“Eventually.” Rupert raised an eyebrow. What they did was an open secret in the village and probably had been for as long as Gileses had lived there, but not everybody paid attention to it.
“This what you expected? Kids as Watchers?” Wood said.
“Feared more than expected, but we can cope. Our youngest Slayer is twelve, so we’ve got the facilities for young adolescents. And we have a second surprise recruit, one with considerably more experience.”
“Who?” said Buffy.
“Armitage,” said Rupert. In response to Faith’s gesture, he continued. “My estate caretaker. Was a field Watcher once, but he’s been retired since he lost his Slayer.”
“Yeah, and he lost half his leg at the same time,” said Xander. “Chewed clean off by a hellhound. Is this a good idea?”
“The magic doesn’t care. And, er, Vi has a Watcher now. You’ve been worried about her.”
“I know,” said Rupert.
“We knew this might happen,” Willow said. “We knew we’d be surprised. But it was the right thing to do. None of these people would have been happy without a chance to fulfill their destiny. And without them we’ll lose Slayers.”
“Unacceptable,” murmured Rupert. His shoulders slumped for a moment, then he straightened them and sat back in his chair. “That’s not our topic today. We’re here to discuss some troubling developments in Cardiff and in Cleveland. Robin, would you begin with a summary of what you and the Cleveland Slayers have been observing?”
Wood cleared his throat. “To be blunt, a marked decline in activity. Rapid onset. About two weeks ago, the vampire kill numbers started dropping, and not because of any change in our patrol patterns.”
“As if we’d slack,” Faith muttered.
And they were off. Xander was surprised to find himself not just interested, but taking notes. And when his turn came, to discuss what he and Shemsa had observed, he was all organized in his head and ready with a coherent summary. Where he missed details, Shemsa was right there to fill in. When he got Rupert’s pleased nod, he felt great. Awesome. Part of a well-oiled team. A team that was now broken up.
Kennedy sat the whole time with her arms folded, completely silent. Xander wondered if he was ever going to be able to make this work.
Dinner brought together the inner circle, the five of them who’d been together all along, plus Wood and Faith. The fodder was gallons of a thick lamb and potato stew that Rupert had made earlier in the week, when he’d been fretting about the upcoming ritual, and crusty wheat bread that Xander had baked yesterday while he and Dawn had played study-buddies on Clausewitz. He was getting pretty good at baking, and did a mean cheddar cheese bread that Dawn was addicted to. They ate in the kitchen, because this was family. Xander sat at Rupert’s left, as always, where watching him didn’t require turning his head. Willow was at Xander’s left. She was one of the few people he trusted in his blind spot like that. Buffy was okay when she paid attention. She was at Rupert’s right, fiddling with her spoon and not eating much.
Kennedy would normally have been there, by her rights as Willow’s girlfriend, but Xander guessed that was all over bar one last bout of shouting.
The topic of conversation was the ritual, and the surprises. Of course.
“This matching approach isn’t new,” Rupert was saying.
“It used to be done by the Council seer,” Dawn said. “According to this thing I just read. They abandoned the practice in modern times, but they used to do it Willow’s way all the time.”
“Why’d they stop?” Wood said.
“Seer died, didn’t have a replacement. Didn’t look for one. The modern Council was sorta stupid.”
“Yeah, no shit,” said Faith.
“So Wills, who’d you end up with?” Buffy asked.
Willow poked at her bowl. “Nobody. Nobody felt right. No, that’s backwards. I’m not supposed to have a Slayer. I’m not a Watcher, exactly. I mean, I’ve got a sense that my destiny is doing Watchery things, but it’s not about me teaming up with one of you guys. Gals. You Slayery types.”
“So what are you, then?”
“Our seer,” Dawn said.
“I’m not sure what Willow is.” Rupert was methodically shredding his bread. He looked down at his hands and then brushed them clean over his plate. He sat back. “Seer is as good a word as any.”
“Witchy woman!” said Xander, through his mouthful of bread. “My little wiccan is getting so big now! Aw. So are you going to be a full oracle some day?”
Willow made a face at him. “I dunno about this seer thing. I haven’t ever foreseen anything. Like this hellmouth transfer thing. I had no clue.”
Faith said, “Slayer stuff. Our job to notice the tingles like that. No clue what it means most of the time. That’s for the bookmen. Book-people, sorry Dawn.”
Buffy put down her spoon with a clank. “Speaking of books. What do we know about how hellmouths work? 'Cause this Cleveland thing is weird. It was there for, what, less than a year? Brief me.”
Rupert answered. “I know little. There was a fellow, Kip Johnson, who’d been doing heavy research into hellmouths. Where they come from, how to predict their fluctuations, how to contain them, all that.”
“So let’s read his stuff.”
“It blew up. Along with him,” Rupert said, simply.
“No off-site backups, I assume.” Willow was forlorn.
“Kippy had heard of computers, but had no truck with them. He was seventy.”
“Repeat previous comment about Council dumb-assery,” said Faith, rolling her eyes.
Xander met Rupert’s glance. Kippy, whoever he’d been, had been a nice guy. He could tell from Rupert’s face. Xander had never known all these people, had never seen what the Council had before. His only view into the size of the loss was moments like this, when Rupert said that the world’s knowledge of hellmouths was gone, along with a guy Rupert had liked.
Rupert polished his glasses on his napkin. “Well. Even without that knowledge, I think it’s clear that the Cleveland hellmouth is closing, and some sort of rift to the underworld is opening in Cardiff. You should plan on moving here, er, soon. Immediately.”
“Pack up your leather pants,” Buffy said to Faith. “And get ready to buy a lot of raincoats. We Slay in the rain here.”
Xander couldn’t resist. “Slayin’ in the rain, just slayin’ in the rain.” Faith threw a crust of bread at him and nailed him in the forehead.
Xander made his excuses to their guests early, and left everybody in front of the fire in the living room, mired in a happy argument over whether it was cheating to memorize a Scrabble dictionary or not. Rupert and Dawn, being the sort of people who had already memorized it, were holding forth on the topic of “not”. Xander was happy being the kind of guy who played words like “the” and “cat”, and he was tired. He wanted to brush his teeth, take another handful of ibuprofen, and sack out.
He’d achieved the first two on the list when Rupert appeared. He closed the door of the bedroom behind him, and turned the lock. He leaned his head against the door and groaned.
Xander over-handed his t-shirt at the hamper and scored. Three-point shot. Not bad for the blind guy. “No groaning. It went well,” he said to Rupert.
“Oh, too bloody well. Travers rejected, Armitage’s retirement summarily ended, Kennedy’s nose out of joint, and the mother of a ten-year-old boy furious with me.”
“Nothing blew up.”
Rupert relented and gave Xander a little smile. “Nothing blew up.”
Xander felt more than saw Rupert watching him unzip his jeans, so he did it a little more slowly than he might have normally. A little more with the hands rubbing down his thighs. It had been more than a week, after all, and Rupert hated going without as much as Xander did. Briefs off, also fired at the hamper. Jeans were good for another wear or two. He folded them, aware that Rupert was still watching him. It was enough to get him a little excited, even though he was beat.
He slid into the bed on the left side, and stretched. His turn to watch now, while Rupert emptied his pockets methodically onto his dresser. He stripped himself equally methodically, folding his clothes loosely and dropping them on top of Xander’s in the hamper. That was Rupert for you: folding clothes he was about to wash. And then putting on pajamas, even though he must be hoping to take them off in about two minutes. Rupert wore flannel pajamas in the cold weather, though in deference to Xander’s wishes he’d been leaving off the shirt and sleeping in the pants only. Blue stripey pajamas tonight. Xander preferred sleeping in the nude, on the just in case theory.
At last Rupert was in bed next to him, and the light was off. They lay on their sides, nose to nose.
“Are you all right?” Rupert asked. He fiddled with Xander’s tooth necklace.
“Yeah, I guess. Kinda disappointed. I thought I was with the right Slayer. It felt good. I thought I’d bonded with Shemsa. Guess I was wrong.”
“Of course you bonded with her, Xan. People bond with each other all the time without the benefit of magic. You worked together closely. You get along. So you bonded.”
Rupert slipped a hand up and massaged under the eyepatch strap at Xander’s temple. The strap bugged him sometimes. He still couldn’t take it off in front of anybody without getting tense.
“Kennedy isn’t, isn’t the easiest Slayer to work with, but we must trust the magic. It wants you two together for some reason we can’t guess at.”
“Yeah, I’m all right with that. I’ll do my best.”
“Course you will. You always do. Mmm. Come here.” Rupert kissed him, then backed off. He ran his hands gently over Xander’s bandages. “These bother you?”
“Naw. I mean, yes. Console me, for I will have a new set of scars.” Xander snickered.
“Do shut up,” Rupert said. His voice was husky. That all by itself was enough to get Xander hot.
Rupert did all the work tonight, which was fair; he didn’t have bruises purpling over his entire left side. Rupert was quiet when he made love. Not silent, but soft. All you heard was quiet moans and gasps, little sounds muffled against Xander’s neck. Sometimes words, half-coherent whispers, words like “yes” and “please”. And he was completely quiet when he came, all held breath and shuddering and hands trembling even as he tried to keep stroking. He liked simple things in bed. Xander hadn’t yet coaxed him into the more complicated stuff. He said he preferred to be face-to-face. And Xander couldn’t argue too much with that. Face-to-face allowed kissing, and kissing was good. So good.
Xander lay back like a dead man afterwards. He’d been tired before. Now he was zonked. In a blissed-out post-sex hazy good zonk, but definitely a zonk. Rupert dunked the towel into the hamper then got back into bed. Xander cuddled up.
He had a sudden thought. Rupert was quiet, but what was he? He had no idea. He couldn’t remember if he’d been making noise a minute ago, even. “Hey. What do I sound like?”
“What do I sound like when we make love? Do I make noise? I have no clue. I could sound like a lovelorn yak for all I know.”
Rupert’s chest shook underneath him. “Yes, but you’re my lovelorn yak.”
“Xan. Go to sleep.”
Xander didn’t need to be told twice. He was beyond bushed. He settled himself against Rupert’s shoulder again and let himself drift down.
Xander came slowly awake. His head was on Rupert’s shoulder. The room was dark, though the curtains were open. Rain spattered against the windows. It was a good night to be home, in this warm bed, sleeping naked under clean sheets. He’d slept with his socks on last night, he’d been so tired, and he hated that. “Better without socks,” he mumbled.
“Socks. Don’t like 'em.”
“G’back sleep.” Then Rupert lifted his head. “What’s that sound?”
Rupert sat up, dislodging him. Now Xander heard it too, the thing that had woken him: hammering on the front door. Somebody shouted. Rupert was out of bed already, moving to the bedroom door while he pulled on his robe. Xander found Rupert’s pajama bottoms and yanked them on. He ran downstairs.
More pounding and shouting. Male voice. English. “Open up! Let me in.”
Rupert pulled an axe from the display on the wall. None of the weapons in this house were only for show. Rupert hefted it, shifted his grip, and unbolted the door.
“Wesley?” Rupert moved aside from the doorway, but didn’t put the axe down.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, dorkiest Watcher ever, stepped over the threshold into the hallway. He stood with his hands upraised, palms forward to indicate he wasn’t armed. His eyes tracked the axe, flicked aside to Xander, then went back to Rupert.
Buffy came skidding down the stairs, dressed in way less than Xander might have guessed she usually slept in. He didn’t have attention to spare for her, though. Something was seriously wrong with Wesley. He was not giving off dork vibes in any way. Dangerous vibes. He looked like he’d been dragged backwards through a vamp pit: unshaven, hair sticking up every which way, big black circles under his eyes. He had a nasty scar on his throat. His expression was several miles south of grim. Xander widened his stance and shifted his weight.
“Wesley?” Rupert said again. He lowered the axe and carefully leaned it against the wall with the blade on the rug.
Wesley took another step forward, planted himself, and slugged Rupert in the jaw. Rupert went over. An instant later Wesley was flat on his back under the combined weight of Xander and Buffy. He strained upward under them, struggling wildly.
“Rupert, you bastard! What the hell have you done to me?”