Xander spends three days in Rome before he gets to see Dawn. Well, technically he sees her, out of the corner of his good eye, zipping in and out of the house in tall high heels, pressing her cell phone against her ear with one hand and applying lipstick with the other. But actual talking? Not so much. It's okay, he tells himself. If he wanted to more than a squeal of "Xander!" followed by an incoherent stream of information about the art show she's opening, he could have called in advance. You know, like regular people, who haven't spent the last seven years wandering Africa, killing the slimy-and-green kind of demon while trying to make peace with the more personal kind.
So he spends his days writing reports for the Watcher's Council and his nights being chauffeured around the city by Dawn's seemingly endless stream of voluptuous, brunette friends. They all think he's hot, and he turns them all down, gently but very firmly. He knows what -- and who -- he's here for, even if the thought of actually doing something about it makes his stomach twist. The funny thing is, this whole women wanting him thing happens a lot now -- something about the eye patch and touch of gray at the temples. It's the kind of weathered good looks he used to long for, back in Sunnydale when he was sixteen. And stupid.
Dawn used to think he was hot too, he remembers. It feels like a lifetime ago.
She invites him to her show, but he pictures himself standing awkwardly at the edge of the crowd, sipping drinks and making an ass of himself by trying to sound intellectual. He's relieved when she doesn't fight him, even more relieved when she knocks on his bedroom door just after midnight.
"Show's done," she says. "Wanna take a walk?"
"Absolutely," he says, and offers her his arm. She takes it, which doesn't surprise him, and she leans against him a little bit, which does. She's traded her stilettos for a battered pair of sneakers, and her freckles are showing through her make-up. He thinks she looks young for the first time since they left Sunnydale.
"Remember those comics I used to make?" she asks. "The ones about The Incredible Xan-Man?"
"How could I forget? You were the first -- and still the only -- woman to think I was a superhero."
Dawn giggles, and Xander realizes how long it's been since he heard someone laugh like that, easy and carefree.
"I thought I was never going to forgive you for finding those comics. Remember? And I think I only stayed mad at you for, like, an hour."
Hallmark didn't make a card for finding out that you were a thousand-year-old ball of energy transposed to human form by some really ambitious monks. To be fair, it wasn't exactly a common situation, but Xander still wished they'd consider opening a Sunnydale division. "Sorry your girlfriend is undead" and "best wishes for your sudden existential crisis" could be best sellers here. But no, the geniuses of the greeting card industry were content to write sappy love poetry, leaving him alone with one really troubled thirteen-year-old.
Taking a deep breath, he nudged open Dawn's bedroom door. He was no emotional genius, but he'd watched his share of Oprah and Dr. Phil -- not that he planned to share that information with anyone any time soon -- and he knew that if Dawn hadn't locked the door, she wanted someone to come in.
"Hey, uh, Dawn?" he asked, his voice too loud over her tiny little sobs. She was curled up on her bed, her back to the door, and she didn't look at him. Still feeling awkward, he stepped over the shredded remnants of her journals and sat down next to her on the bed.
"Hey," he said more quietly. "Remember these?"
He pulled four crumpled sheets of paper from his back pocket and smoothed them carefully. Some of the glitter had fallen off in transit, but "The Incredible Xan-Man Saves the World (and Princess Dawn)" still sparkled faintly in the fading sunlight.
Dawn looked up at him uncomprehendingly, her sobs momentarily stilled.
"I threw those away," she said.
"I know. I got them out of the trash can. They were kind of important to me."
Kind of didn't really cut it. He'd been at the Summers' that night because his father was indulging in his favorite past time: getting drunk and telling his son that he was worthless. Finding an adorable eleven-year-old girl making comics in his honor was kind of a big deal...which is probably why he hadn't realized it would be a really bad idea to read them while she was momentarily distracted by big sister's latest slayage stories.
"Really?" Dawn asked. Her eyes lit up for a second, but they went flat and hopeless again before Xander even finished saying yeah. "It doesn't matter," she said. "I didn't really exist then."
"Yeah, you did, Dawnie," he said. He laid a hand over his heart. "I know it right here."
She didn't stop crying. In fact, she started crying harder, and Xander didn't realize they were good tears until she wrapped her arms around his waist and hung on tight. He'd known then that she'd have a little piece of his heart forever.
"So can I buy you a drink?" he asks. "Or an appertif or an affogato or whatever you call it around these parts?"
Smooth, Harris, he thinks, real smooth. He knows he's still an uncultured bumpkin, but he'd been hoping to hide that from Dawn for a little while longer at least. But Dawn slaps him playfully on the arm and giggles, and he thinks it's worth looking like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel to get to hear her laugh.
"I'd like that," she says. She jerks her head toward a cobblestone alley. "Come on, I know a little taverna down the road."
Little is right. The ancient-looking wooden tables are packed closely together, and the only light comes from tall white candles jammed into wine bottles.
"So," he asks, "come here often?" Because he'd kind of like to know -- neighborhood hang-out, or place to take the boyfriend of the week -- but Dawn only rolls her eyes and murmurs something Italian to the waiter, who appears seconds later with a bottle of wine.
"You're still Xander," Dawn says, swirling her the wine around in her glass. Xander watches her delicate fingers move against the stem. Her nail polish is chipped around the tops of her fingernails.
"Is that a good thing?" he asks.
"It's the very best thing." She smiles, and he thinks they're maybe about to have a moment before she says, "What's the matter? My friends not hot enough for you?" He stares at her blankly for a second and she adds, "Carlotta says you barely even looked at anyone the whole time you've been here. So...not hot enough, or not demon enough?"
The truth is, Dawn's friend's are plenty hot; they just don't know. They think the eyepatch looks cool and fighting demons in Africa is romantic. He doesn't want to be with someone like that, not even for a night. He probably ought to say that -- it might steer the conversation back to where he wants it -- but he takes a too-large gulp of wine and goes for the vintage Xander line instead. Because he's a wuss.
"You know how it is. The women all think the eye patch is sexy. Why do you think I stayed with it instead of the eerily lifelike glass eye? Unfortunately, I never seem to remind them much of Johnny Depp the next morning. So I’ve decided to remain dashing and mysterious and with a hint of the tragic. It works for me,” he says.
“Johnny Depp didn’t have an eye patch.”
“You just ruined a perfectly good rationalization.”
“Well, at least you admitted it’s a rationalization. You expect me to believe that? That you’re happy all by yourself?” She finishes the last swallow in her glass, and he pours another for her.
He should have known Dawn knew him well enough to see through his bullshit, which is probably why it stings.
“Well I suppose I could be a serial dater like you are, leaving a trail of broken hearts in your wake. Does that make you happy?”
She sets her glass down. “Ouch.”
He winces. "Geez, Dawnie, I'm sorry." He's never wanted to hurt her, not even a little, and he needs her to laugh now. "You know how my foot likes to live in my mouth."
“It’s okay,” she says. She doesn't giggle, but her face softens. “The truth hurts, as they say.”
Xander stares down into his glass. Now or never. “Actually, Dawn, I kind of have a thing for someone. An unavailable someone.”
Dawn wrinkles her nose.
"Don't tell me. It's Buffy." She sounds so long-suffering that Xander wonders how often men come to her, lamenting her sister's unavailability. Those men are stupid.
"Not Buffy," he says, and he thinks, just for a second, that Dawn looks relieved.
"Then what's the problem?" she asks. "Are they married? Undead? Gay?"
"None of the above. At least not to my knowledge," he amends, although he's pretty sure he would have gotten an email from Buffy if Dawn had joined the ranks of the lesbian undead. "It's just...complicated. Too much history."
Dawn sighs. "Xander, if she's your friend's ex, you should probably just leave it alone. And if she's your ex, you might have left her for a good reason. Believe me, I know. " She winces slightly. "On both counts."
He studies her carefully, trying to decide if she really doesn't know where he's going, or if she's just playing coy to let him down easy. He looks down at his wine glass, which is, unfortunately empty.
"Do you really not know?" he asks, forcing himself to look up even though he can't see her through the lock of hair that's fallen across his eye. Dawn leans forward -- he can just barely see her coming -- and sweeps the hair out of his face. As her fingers brush against his skin, he catches her hand between his own.
"It's you." He pulls her close. "I'm over thirty years old. I've been in love. I've made mistakes. But I've never pined for a woman like I do you, Dawn Summers."
He almost died in Mali, looking for a slayer. He'd ridden days across the desert, tagging along with a Tuareg salt caravan, ignoring the unease that grew in his stomach with every mile. Trust me, the guide kept saying, I'll take you to the one you seek. He was smart enough by then not to trust anyone who asked to be trusted, but they were too far gone to turn back. He would've died alone in the Sahara. And anyway, if there was a slayer, he had to find her. He knew what could happen to a young girl suddenly endowed with extraordinary power. It wasn't always good.
But this time, there was no slayer, although he didn't realize that until it was almost too late. She was alone, lying beside the remnants of an old campfire. Her face was bloodied and bruised; he knew that somehow, even though he was too far away to see her. The wind rose with every step toward her, and with it came a rush of memories: His father, drunk and screaming. Faith, kicking him out of a hotel room. Buffy, overlooking him for Angel. Beneath it was the girl's keening cry for help. Come to me. Don't fail me like you failed them.
The memories kept coming. Failures. Mistakes. Being the guy who fixed windows in the house full of potential superheroes.
That memory led to another one: Dawn, trying to pretend that it didn't hurt not to be a Potential. Him, trying to pretend he wasn't relieved to know that at least one of the Scoobies was still like him. "Maybe seeing is your superpower," she'd said.
He'd looked up then. The girl vanished, replaced by a hooded figure whose scaly gray fingers were reaching toward him. He'd fumbled in his pocket until his fingers closed around a crucifix. He pressed it hard against the creature's face, and suddenly he was alone in the desert. The crucifix was smoking, but he couldn't help but feel it was the memory of Dawn's faith in him that had sent the demon away.
She was never far from his thoughts after that. He had a long journey ahead of him, but he knew who he wanted to see at the end.
Kissing Dawn should feel weird, but it doesn't. She tastes like wine and cherry chapstick, old and young mixed together. The body in his arms is warm and slender, almost too thin, except that he knows she's too strong to break. He pulls back and leans his forehead against hers, and knows that he's finally come home.