There were easily three inches between us on the green checked picnic blanket. The sun blazed down on us, too hot. We had been newbie-less for two whole days, with eight still to go. Faith had swooped in and taken the girls on a field trip to somewhere in Tunisia.
Andrew made a lot of noise about going with them, something about Mos Espa, Yardangs, and the props in the bar at the Hotel Sidi Driss. But of course, he had to stay. I needed his help with interpreting an ancient demon text, and he, after all, had the whole affinity for demons thing going.
We had been left alone to try and avoid falling on each other like rabid animals. Or not. Neither of us seemed to be able to move, but we didn't hide from each other very well either. It was a slow crazed dance of advance and retreat.
When Xander showed up the second morning to meet with my sister, I was sleeping late with both my bedroom and bathroom doors locked.
Xander called, "Guys? Anybody home?"
I pulled on my robe and staggered to the top of the stairs.
"The girls are in the field with Faith," I told him. "I...I think I have a cold, maybe the flu." I sniffed loudly. Anything to explain myself.
"M-kay. I'll be out in the pool." He called up. "I came in early so I could get some laps in. Buffy's meeting me in a couple of hours."
This was news to me. It was also obviously news to Andrew who appeared from his room to stand beside me, looking groggy and rumpled. Buffy was supposed to be in London.
Andrew didn't look at me, but as Xander walked away he said, "Maybe we should um..."
"Yeah," I said. "Meet you down there."
Across the garden, Xander climbed the ladder out of the pool. He sauntered, tanned and graceful and dripping to the other end and dove in again, perfect jack knife.
"Caught you looking."
Andrew bumped my shoulder with his. I could feel myself blush and he grinned.
"It's not like you weren't looking too!" I snapped indignantly. He shrugged and didn't deny it and somehow that made me blush even more. We watched Xander climb out again, this time drying off with a garish blue and orange towel. He settled into the nearest lounge chair, oblivious to our attention.
"What are you thinking?" Andrew asked under his breath.
"There's a frood who-"
"Really knows where his towel is!" We said it in unison, snickering like maniacal children. I loved cracking him up. I loved how easy it was. This was a valley moment between us, calm, and I was grateful.
"Okay, what are you really thinking, pretty girl?" His voice went low and soft in my ear and it sent little sparkles straight through me. The roller coaster car began ascending another hill. I rolled away from him.
"What am I thinking? That the prosthetic looks good, looks real. That I hope that Will's full-sight charm is worth the headaches she warned him came with the package. That he looks...older and it's weird." I stopped and regarded Xander. "When did everybody get so old?"
The corner of Andrew's mouth twitched and he reached out and ran his thumb over my arm.
"It's not weird, Dawn. We're all older. It just means that we didn't die. It's not weird at all."
"I don't feel older, I feel the same," I said. As soon as the words were out of my mouth though, I knew they weren't true.
"Well, technically, you're older than all of us." He gaped at me mock horror. "You're a total cradle robber!"
I sat up and smacked his perky ass.
"Okay, that's it! Back to the text."
I opened the notebook that had been sitting neglected at the corner of the blanket.
"Ah, yes, the text. You know, there was something I was going to tell you..." He began.
"It was about my...um...I can't remember." He ran his hand through his hair, still sleep-deprived.
I knew the feeling. I had made a show of crawling out into the sun to work, and Andrew had followed. Like my sister and so many of our friends, we shared the experience of simultaneous resistance and acceptance of duty. Maybe we were all terribly young to be responsible for so much. But that was the nature of our world.
Most people finished high school, then went to college and got bachelor's degrees, then did graduate school later. Me, when we got to Italy, I went into seminary. The institution's mascot was the patron saint of lost causes.
The Saint Jude Thaddeus School was actually located in County Clare, Ireland. I arranged to study locally. My eventual piece of parchment would read 'Doctorate of Esoteric Philosophy'.
Like most institutions that partnered with the Council, it was a very modest, low profile kind of place on the outside, nothing special at all. There were no entrance exams or applications, it was invitation-only. You could attend classes there or online or study as a visitor at any college in the world you liked.
A separate nonprofit organization called the Howard Foundation provided the grants when necessary. If you decided you needed a semester at Harvard with Dr. Woolley in Sumerian archeology or Cambridge in the astrophysics lab, or whatever, there were no limits, you just submitted the proposal.
There were no sports teams, no fraternity parties, and no grades either. You researched as the spirit moved you, you conferred with colleagues, you attended conferences, you wrote articles, you devised theories, you translated and interpreted. You contributed as you could, and the only tests came when somebody in the field needed to use your end product. Your work either got people killed or it didn't.
My sister burst through the louvered doors that opened onto the terrace, knocking over several terracotta pots filled with red geraniums as she came at us.
"Down at the aqueducts, five of them. Very, very public!" She panted. "It's not over. Xander, the shamshir swords, the ones with the ebony-"
"On it." He called over his shoulder as he headed for the cellar.
"You two, hospital duty. I think he was admitted as Connor Angel, not Reilly."
We stood quickly. This was a drill we knew well.
"Which hospital?" Andrew asked.
"L'Isola Tiberina. Broken ribs, both legs, head trauma, probably. And Andrew," she seemed to remember something else, "Can you see what's up with my Blackberry? I think the calendar is wonky."
She tossed the offending electronic device towards him. He reached up, catching it in one hand, and nodded.
"We've got it," I said. "Text you on the backup cell when we get there." I shouldn't have bothered answering. She was gone again.