Subject to Change
the Hear Me Roar
Copyright July 2013
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Xander Harris had become accustomed to adjusting to change. He’d had no choice, really; after what had been the single greatest change of his life (when Buffy Summers walked into it, dragging along an entire world of nightmare and tragedy and exhilaration and significance ), he’d been hit by one change after another. Xander possessed by a demon-hyena spirit. Xander transformed into a soldier. Xander the bad-ass vampire. (Okay, he hadn’t actually gone through that one himself, but it had happened, albeit in some kind of alternate-reality temporal shunt.) Xander turning down a saucy, eager, raincoat-only-wearing Buffy. Xander rallying and leading the troops at the Graduation-slash-Ascension. Many other turns of events similarly bizarre, to the point where it became far more the rule than the exception.
Individual changes could be foreseen, resisted, even controlled to some extent … but there was no stopping Change, and that was just the way it was. You either learned how to ride it out — even if that was like body-surfing a tsunami — or you got chewed up and spat out the other end as bloody rags. Not a fan of the second choice, so he had managed, somehow, to get adequately practiced at the first one.
So, when THE biggest change of his life came along (bigger even than Buffy, and that was saying a hell of a lot), he handled it. Like always.
And, having done so, he then found himself dealing with the results brought about by his own ability to adjust.
Those results, in order of occurrence:
1. He finally got out of Sunnydale for good.
Moving from the sunlit street into the building’s lobby … he’d thought it would be like stepping from the hallways of Sunnydale High into the school library, all but literally crossing from one world to another. Light more subdued, air somehow more settled, the pace of life itself seeming to slow down. This, though? this was just going from an L.A. street to an L.A. interior. The building was showing its age, dating maybe back to the Forties or even earlier, and the lobby had the same kind of once-classy-but-now-faded patina to it. There were several different offices visible, their doors closed, but Xander crossed to the one that had a light beyond the frosted glass, and entered without a knock.
Yep, he’d made the right choice: the exterior windows were heavily curtained against the sunlight, with hanging fixtures doing their best to compensate. Anywhere else, the weight of too many bad experiences would be clamoring alarm to him that this was an all-too-likely habitat for a vampire. Here, he could disregard those warnings, not because he knew they weren’t true but because he knew they were.
He was ready for this to go either of two different ways … so, naturally, it was yet a third person who stepped out of the inner office. A stranger, pale complexion and pinched cheeks and rumpled clothes (though Xander approved of the shirt, a print pattern in near-fluorescent magenta). And very blue eyes, now fixed on Xander above a welcoming smile of a type he had come to know only too well. “Afternoon,” the newcomer greeted him. “An’ what can I be doin’ for yih, darlin’?” The smile widened, and the eyes penetrated one more layer of clothing. “Name it, an’ I’ll give it my best.”
Okay, this was just too much. Trying to keep his teeth from clenching, Xander asked evenly, “Is Cordelia around?”
“Cordy? I dunno.” The other man glanced around. “Just came in meself, an’ haven’t looked around for her yet.” He eyed Xander again. “You’d be one of her actress friends, right? ’Cause you’ve definitely got the looks for it.”
“Actress, no.” At first sight, Xander had wondered if this joker might be a vampire himself, but the sleazy pickup routine rang totally authentic. “Cordy and me go way back, clear to grade school.” He let a smile of his own come out. “ ’Course, we didn’t start locking lips till junior year.”
“She —?” The other man didn’t actually choke, but he’d have done a classic spit-take if he’d been drinking anything. “Lips? You ’n’ Cordelia?” His gaze went somewhere far away. “Woh. Didn’t know that one. It explains a lot, but still —”
“Xander!” Cordelia shrieked from behind him, making them both jump. (She couldn’t see his face from there, must have recognized the voice.) He turned, and she grabbed his shoulders with both hands, holding him at arm’s length while she inspected him head to toe, beaming delight. “I don’t believe it! What are you doing here?”
Xander felt his smile change into something genuine, and he pulled her into a hug. “Just got in,” he told her. “What, you thought I’d be able to resist seeing how Queen C was rockin’ it in the big city?” He drew back, looked her over critically. “Jeez, you got fat.”
She punched him in the shoulder, hard and with professional force and focus, but her laugh was free and genuine. “Bastard. And yeah, I know you stole that crack from Beverly Hills Cop.”
He grinned, rubbing the arm that would be showing a sizeable bruise tomorrow. “You look great, actually.”
“Well, duh,” she shot back, still laughing.
Then, in some way that didn’t make sense but worked all the same, they felt the silence next to them and turned to look at the third person in the room. His eyes were moving from one of them to the other, back and forth, and his expression was just completing the morph from stunned to understanding. “ ‘Xander’,” he said slowly. “Ah, right. The, eh, the old boyfriend with the new …?” His hands cupped expressively over his own chest.
“Xander, meet Doyle,” Cordelia said. “Yeah, you met already, but knowing him, he was too busy ogling you to actually offer a name.” The tartness of her tone was classic Cordy, but at the same time there seemed to be an indulgent note in there somewhere. “He’s the one who got his low-life friends to come up with some new ID to match your change of life.”
“ ’Cause our Cordelia pretty much ordered me to,” Doyle clarified. “But I’d’a prolly done it anyhow, for a mate who’d lost his … that is to say …” He ground to a stop. “So, former boyfriend,” he began again. “That bring up any lingerin’ echoes o’ remembered passion? on either side?” Again his eyes switched from one of them to the other. “Anybody?”
“Ignore him,” Cordelia told Xander briskly. “It’s the only thing that makes him bearable. But the ID business reminds me: what name are you going by now?”
This was actually a battle he was still fighting, if only internally, but Xander let none of that come out in his voice. “Doesn’t matter what it says on my driver’s license,” he said to her. “Whatever I may look like now, I’m still me, so I still go by Xander.”
“Huh,” Cordelia said. “Well, you were always an original. Which is what I say instead of ‘freak’, because I can do tact. Even if it isn’t really honest.”
“One of your SHS posse went by Aphrodisia,” Xander pointed out. “This is California, remember? We cherish our individuality and unconventional character.”
Cordelia shook her head. “And once again, I say ‘freak’.”
The warmth was so familiar, without the tension that had always been there in the past, that Xander was tempted to just relax and bask in it. Some things couldn’t be dodged, though, so he forged ahead. “I hate to say this. I mean, you seriously can’t know how much I hate to say this, but … I need to see Angel.”
Cordelia’s eyebrows went up. “You want to see Angel? You? Why?”
“It’s kind of the reason I came here,” Xander admitted. “I’m supposed to deliver …” He stopped.
“What?” Cordelia insisted. “Deliver what?”
For a long moment Xander hesitated, while Cordelia’s expression grew sharper and Doyle watched with bland interest (or else he was once again trying to imagine Xander’s figure under the blouse and jeans). “News,” he said, coming to a decision. “A message.”
Cordelia’s face instantly hardened. “Oh, that’s just great.”
“Hmm?” Doyle asked, looking to her. “Say what, now?”
“You may be new to this scene, but I’ve lived with it for years,” Cordelia said tightly. “A message, right. A message from Buffy. And now Angel’s going to get all brooding and self-pitying again, and our cash flow will go straight down the toilet while he’s trying to find his meaning, his purpose, some point to his tortured, demonic existence, and we’ll be doing all the heavy lifting while he’s wallowing in all that angst …” She crossed the room while she spoke, and stepped into an open elevator, pulling the metal grating closed, and the car started down while she continued to rant. “There’s never any end to it … rassafrassen … star-crossed drama … God, will I never escape —?” Then she sank below their view, and a second or so later her voice, too, faded below perception threshold.
There were a few seconds of silence, and then Doyle remarked, “Soul o’ patience, that one.”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed. “She’s mellowed a lot since we were together. It’s inspiring, really.”
Doyle tilted his head to one side. “So, when you say ‘together’, I don’t suppose any o’ that was after you traded in your tackle —?”
Xander was spared the necessity of making (or avoiding) an answer; Angel appeared at the top of a small set of stairs set next to the elevator, the latter apparently having been dismissed as too slow. “A message from Sunnydale?” he was saying as he came out, trailed by Cordelia. “From Buffy? What —?” His eyes settled on Xander, and he stopped, stared. His nostrils flared, and very quietly he said, “Xander. How?”
Xander returned the stare. “Are you smelling me?” he demanded. “Oh, God, you’re smelling me, aren’t you?”
Angel ignored the question. “What happened to you? … and, is Buffy okay?”
“She’s fine.” Xander waved it away. “As for me … well, long story. Obviously. But, the CliffNotes version? Demon ritual. I jumped in, messed it up —”
“Yeah, you’re good at spoiling things,” Cordelia interjected.
He waggled his eyebrows at her, Groucho-style. “And I’m smart enough to lead with my strengths.” Then, turning back to Angel: “Anyway, backlash burnt up the bad guys, but I got smacked by the leftovers of the original spell-energies …” He canted one hip, and raised his arms above his head in a Madonna-esque pose straight from the original MTV ‘Material Girl’ video. “… and this is what I got from that.”
Angel’s eyes were still fixed on him. “That makes no sense at …” He stopped. “Oh. A gender-change spell, they would have hoped the Slayer essence wouldn’t stay with Buffy if she was turned into a male. Only you triggered it too early, and the switch hit you instead.” He shook his head as if trying to clear the image. “It couldn’t be reversed?”
Xander shook his head. “Not without risks I wasn’t about to let Giles and Willow take. Odds too high, payoff too low and too iffy. Not exactly part of my overall life plan, but hey, coulda been worse.” He shrugged. “I mean, let’s face it, I’ve been turned into worse than this. And at least I still look good.”
“You do,” Cordelia agreed. “I can see you let your hair grow out. Good call.”
Xander nodded. “Yeah. Lucky for me, I’d already been needing a haircut for awhile when I got hit by Total Makeover, Hellmouth Edition. Just enough that … after … I didn’t come across like I was trying to channel KD Lang. And longer seemed better for my unrequested new lifestyle.” He touched his hair where it hung collar-length. “Not much more than this, though. Too much hassle.”
Cordelia shook her head. “Oh, we are going to talk about that one.”
As Doyle had done before him, Angel was looking almost dazedly from one of them to another. “So … you knew about this,” he said to Cordelia.
“Oh, sure,” Cordelia admitted blithely. “I got a call from Willow, and this was something I just had to see. Made a quick trip back to the ’Dale — you were off on that brain parasites thing in Brentwood, and I was bored — got in, saw the situation, did my magic, and zipped right back.”
“You didn’t tell me,” Angel said tonelessly, still staring at Xander. Really, this was getting creepy.
“What, you wanted to hear the latest on Xander? Should’ve left a memo on that one.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t hiding it, I just didn’t think you’d care. Are you saying you do?”
“No.” Angel shook his head. “No, I guess not. But …” He looked back to Xander. “Cordelia said you had a message. What does this have to do with Buffy?”
“Nothing,” Xander said, waving it away. “I’m just here, is all. Buffy’s fine, but she didn’t want you hearing this over the phone, and she couldn’t get down here herself, so here goes.” He paused, holding Angel’s eyes with his own. “Spike is gone.”
“I know, he left last year —” Then Angel stopped. “Wait. Gone?”
“As in dust.” Xander leaned on one of the desks. “He came back to Sunnydale looking for some magical whatsis called the Gem of Amarra —”
“Whoa, wait,” Cordelia said. “The what? Armani is demonic?”
“Amarra,” Angel corrected, explaining. “The Gem of Amarra. It’s a myth, some enchanted artifact that’s supposed to make a vampire impervious to the things that would normally kill him. It’s just wishful thinking, though. I’m surprised even Spike would waste his time on that kind of dead end.”
“Well, Spike found something, because he jumped Buffy in full daylight.” Xander’s smile had a decidedly nasty edge to it. “And ‘dead end’ is exactly how it wound up for him. He hit her at a time when she was just aching to kick the crap out of somebody, and she unloaded on him full-bore. Now what’s left of him is adding minerals to the grass outside the UC-Sunnydale student union.”
Angel nodded understanding. “And she’s okay?”
“Yeah, like I said, right then some righteous violence was just what the doctor ordered for her.” Xander studied Angel with speculation and perhaps some satisfaction. “She thought this might be a deal for you, though. Even if you and Spike had been on the outs for — what, a century? — you still had history together, and she thought you deserved to have somebody tell you in person.” The smile was still there, and still just a bit ugly. “I can tell you’re all broken up about it.”
“She wanted me to hear it face to face,” Angel repeated. “But she sent you to deliver the news?”
“I was willing to make the trip,” Xander shot back. “We weren’t exactly bubbling over with volunteers for that one.”
* * *
With the message delivered, Angel returned to his brooding, and Doyle to his … whatever … and Cordelia dragged Xander out for lunch. At the tiny table of a sidewalk café, she ordered a latte and a watercress salad, while Xander predictably opted for root beer and a hot dog. Then, the moment the waiter was gone, she put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “So, okay,” she said. “Why are you really here?”
He had accepted that he’d probably have to face this, but the speed and bluntness of her assault still caught him unprepared. “Uh, because this is where you brought us?” he answered in a feeble attempt to stall.
“Not here,” she said. “Here. You didn’t hop a bus all the way to L.A. just to tell Angel something you absolutely could have said over the phone. Killing evil vampires? pretty much what we do here, and Spike’s no different except him being dusted means we need to throw a bigger party. So why did you come here? Really?”
Xander sighed. “Buffy really did ask me to make the trip — or she said somebody needed to and I put my hand up — and it really was to drop off the … news. The news about Spike.” He shook his head. “But I was ready to say goodbye to Sunnyburg anyhow.”
Cordelia weighed that. “Goodbye,” she repeated. “Not just taking a break. So you’re not going back?”
“Visits, maybe,” Xander said. “But it’s about time I moved my life away from the Mouth of Hell. Just … too much for me to deal with, what with my new ‘circumstances’.” He brushed the new, longer hair away from his face. “Buffy managed to get by here last summer as a waitress. I don’t have Slayer stamina, but I figure that’s a job I can manage.”
“Oh, not even,” Cordelia said firmly. “If you’re staying in L.A., you’re staying with us. Angel Investigations is way overbalanced with testosterone right now, you’ll help even things out.”
It was a new thought, and not especially welcome. Still, Xander made himself consider it. Angel was never going to be his favorite person, but if he took Cordelia’s offer he’d at least be able to keep an eye on the guy; helping fight against the supernatural was basically the only work experience he had; and, if it didn’t work out, he could always fall back on the waitressing plan. He’d need to give Giles a call and tell him he’d decided against passing the Gem of Amarra over to Angel, so that Giles could cover him back on the Sunnydale end, but that was something he’d have to do anyway. (And he was pretty sure Giles wouldn’t argue over not giving the intermittently-evil-killer-and-torturer something that would make him the next thing to invincible.) To Cordelia he said, “You think you can talk Mr. Broody-pants into letting me hang around?”
“When did I ever not get my way when I put my mind to something?” Cordelia gave him a confident smile. “Besides, it’s our company motto: ‘We help the hopeless.’ ”
“Seriously?” Xander asked. “And … I qualify?”
Her laugh was free, open, and genuine. “Oh, Xander, you’ve always been hopeless.”
“Not really,” he told her. “Because I’ve always had people I could count on.” He gave her the kind of loopy, careless grin that had once been his trademark. “Guess I still do.”
2. He finally set things right with Cordelia.
Not that it started out that way. The state of things between the two of them was a bit odd, but not really uncomfortable. Cordelia seemed to regard the new, transformed Xander as both a challenge to her skill and a blank canvas on which she could endlessly experiment. Xander had his own ideas and preferences, which sparked any number of disagreements, but even those lacked the heat (animosity, passion, or both at the same time) that had once characterized their every interaction. Which was good, because that would have been … weird.
“I’m not saying no to the jeans — even if low-riders would be better than those high-waisted things you wear — but you have got to dump the man-shirts.”
“They’re women’s, Cordy. See? Buttons on the left and everything.”
“That’s just surface, Xander. Look at the cut. You might as well be chopping down trees in those monstrosities.”
“As opposed to chopping up demons? ’Cause that’s what the jeans and the square-cut tops are good for. Durability, freedom of movement, and cheap to replace if they get torn or gunked up. It suits me, and it’s all I need.”
“I’m living the same life you are, but nothing says I can’t look good while I’m doing it.”
“Look good for who, Cordy? You have a reason to keep up appearances. I don’t.”
It went back and forth, never settled to either one’s satisfaction but never turning into a genuine battle, either. Finally, one evening in the apartment Cordelia had invited Xander to share with her (and it was understood that Phantom Dennis could pamper Cordelia all he wanted, but he was to leave Xander clear the hell alone), she set down her wine glass, settled back on the couch with her legs folded beneath her, and observed, “So, basically, you’re gay now, right?”
Xander snorted only a bit of his beer out his nostrils before effecting recovery. “What? No. No, no, no. Not a bit. Nuh-uh.”
“Come on, Xander.” She waved her arms extravagantly (it was her third glass of wine). “You grew up a guy, then you got turned into a girl. So either you’re a girl now who likes girls ’cause that’s what you’re used to, or you’re a guy who likes guys now ’cause that’s what all the female hormones are telling you. One way or the other, suddenly gay. So which is it?”
Xander sighed. “Sorry, gonna have to go with ‘none of the above’.”
She blinked at him. “Huh?”
He set down his beer. “When you came to see me in Sunnydale,” he began. “To see if it was really true, to see what it looked like … I don’t know, maybe to gloat, even if you didn’t actually do that once you were there. Instead you told me I’d be okay, and you set it up with Doyle to get me a female identity so I could officially exist …” He looked at her. “And when you were ready to leave, you kissed me. And it was a really, I mean REALLY good kiss.”
“Well, of course,” Cordelia scoffed. “This is me we’re talking about.”
“So why’d you kiss me, Cordy?”
He hadn’t raised his voice, or put any extra intensity into the words, but Cordelia found herself abruptly more focused than the wine should have allowed. She looked to where he sat, watching her and waiting, and worked to reach inside herself and find the truth he had asked for. At last she said, “I kissed you then … because I finally could again.”
He nodded as if that made sense, and she kept on, gates suddenly open. “I cared for you, Xander. I really did. You can’t even understand how much I gave up to be with you … God, just to be around you even before I was with you. And then you cheated on me and hurt me, and left me with nothing —” She gestured angrily, impatiently. “And then you paid off my prom dress when I was broke and couldn’t afford it, and that was so sweet, even if you knew how much it meant to me you couldn’t know how much it meant to me.” She drew one hand across her eyes. “I loved you. I loved you so much. And there was just no way I would ever, ever be able to trust you again.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Got all that.” And then, showing far more sense than was his normal habit, he closed his mouth and waited.
Which made it easy for her to go on; quietly, with feeling. “So when I came to see you in Sunnydale, and you were a girl all of a sudden … I kissed you because it was safe. I could risk it because it wasn’t really a risk. I could never take that kind of chance with Xander-the-guy … but Xander-the-girl, I wouldn’t be tempted to give in and let him … her … whatever, back inside, so I could finally trust myself with that last kiss goodbye that I never got.”
“I thought it might be something like that.” Xander picked up the beer can, took another swallow. “That’s what I got from it, anyhow. And I was glad, myself, to get that last kiss.” He sighed. “But you want to know the funny part?”
“With you, everything is funny. Meaning weird, ridiculous, and grotesque.” Cordelia shrugged. “But, okay, what did you see as the funny part?”
“They funny part is, because I was different all of a sudden, you were able to treat me the same.” He shook his head. “Nobody else could.”
“Really?” Cordelia looked intrigued. “How?”
“Different ways.” Xander made a distracted gesture. “Just, none of ’em good. Giles … Giles got fidgety around me. Like I made him uncomfortable. Why? how would that work? Even if I started looking good to him, what with all the new bumps and curves, he’d been doing okay with Willow and Buffy for years. You’d think I’d be easier to deal with, but no-o-o-ooo. And Buffy was worse.”
“Wait,” Cordelia said. “Buffy started getting flustered around girl-Xander? I knew it, I knew all that subtext with Faith was more than just Slayer-sisters-in-arms —”
“Not flustered,” Xander said grimly. “Not even close. She started trying to protect me.”
Cordelia cocked her head to one side. “So? She did that already.”
“And I didn’t much like it,” Xander agreed. “But this was amped up way beyond that. She couldn’t put me at risk. I was too vulnerable.” He crunched the empty beer can in his hand, which was actually ludicrous with someone who looked more like Angie Harmon than Bruce Willis. “Let’s be serious, the strength difference between vampire and human is, like, four times what you get with male-female. So that part hadn’t changed for me, I’d always been outclassed. And Buffy knows that, but now the Slayer — the one girl in all the world, who I’ve saved her life more times than we’ve kept count — is trying to tell me I need to stay home and stay safe while everybody else keeps on fighting the fight.” His jaw clenched. “Everybody meaning including Willow.”
“That … doesn’t make sense,” Cordelia said, frowning.
“Which I told her, loud and often. Not that it did me any good.” Xander’s brows lowered in a dark scowl. “People try to say violence is mainly a guy thing, but I’m letting you know right now, it was female Xander that started wanting to belt her in the mouth.”
“Yeah, ’cause that’d work.” Cordelia pursed her lips. “But you mentioned Willow. Was she on the whole keep-Xander-safe thing? or did she get afraid you’d try to steal Oz from her?”
Xander winced. Visibly. (Good.) “No. Neither one. But …” He stopped, tried a few times to find the right words, sighed. “Okay. You know how it is when you haul me along with you to one of those clubs you like so much?”
“Uh-huh,” Cordelia said. “You’re nervous with the guys, and don’t know how to talk to the girls. Total buzz-kill, I don’t know why I keep trying.”
“Me, either. But, okay, imagine we’re out together like that, and I put my arm around you. Laughing, right? we’re just two gal-pals out on the town. And then I pull you in for a sideways hug, ’cause girls do that, too. Only I don’t relax the hug.”
Cordelia was staring. “Willow did that? with you?”
“Nothing that extreme.” Xander grimaced. “I was exaggerating to get the point across. But everything was too … too too with her. Too close. Too much. Too often. Too … familiar. We’d got all our old boundaries back in place after the whole fluking thing, but now Xander’s a girl so that makes it okay.” He scowled again. “It wasn’t okay. It was weird, and a lot of personal space invasion, and nothing like okay.”
Cordelia fought to keep from laughing. Poor, oppressed Xander, struggling to resist the dastardly advances of mousy Willow … “That must have been really awkward for you,” she said through carefully stiff lips.
“Yeah. And then some.” He looked up. “But, y’know, it actually brings us back to where you kicked off this wacky evening of Truth or Dare.”
“It wasn’t there, Cordy. I’d been a little crazy over Willow once, but now it just wasn’t there.” He leaned toward her. “I’m not interested in guys, because my whole life pointed me the other way. And I’m not interested in girls who are into girls, because I’m not a girl, no matter how much my mirror says otherwise.” He shook his head. “I’m literally a man trapped in a woman’s body. So, either way, not gay.”
“Okay.” Cordelia thought about it, picked up her wine glass. “Well, I asked, and you answered. Glad we got that straight.”
Xander shrugged, and grinned. “You can’t have been too worried, not if you let me move in with you.”
“I’m not worried,” Cordelia countered. “But I still put you in the spare bedroom, and we’re not about to be having any slumber parties together.”
Xander popped the top on another can of beer. “It’s a deal,” he said, and held out the can. Cordelia clinked her wine glass against it, and they solemnly drank to seal the agreement.
* * *
And they kept it that way, until the night they didn’t. The night after Doyle died, sacrificing himself to save so many others, and Cordelia and Xander got howling drunk together back in the shared apartment: Xander because this was a painful reminder of too many other deaths, Cordelia because she hadn’t known how much she’d meant to Doyle (or he to her), and now it was too late, too late, sobbing and incoherent in her grief.
Xander awakened in the low light of the new dawn to find the two of them together in her bedroom, tangled in sheets and discarded clothing and each other’s limbs. Her face was mooshed into her pillow, still splotchy with tears, her hair frowsy in monstrous bed-head. She was wrecked and forlorn and so beautiful it made him ache, and he lay without stirring for an hour, lest any motion disturb her.
At last she woke, blinking, and as her eyes came into focus they met his. Met, and stayed. She simply looked at him, her expression not changing, and he gave her however much time she needed. At last she said, “We didn’t do anything.”
“No,” he said. “We didn’t.”
Her eyes were still on his. Direct, unwavering. “If you had wanted to, I’d have gone with it,” she told him, perfectly calm. “I just … it hurts, it hurts so bad, I just wanted to make it stop, or at least blot it out for awhile …” She sighed. “If it was ever going to happen, that’s when it would have happened. And I do still love you.”
His heart swelled at that, but he kept his voice level. “I never stopped loving you,” he said softly. “But where we are with each other, you and me, it’s … the right place for us.”
She thought about that. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.”
Xander drew a careful breath. “So, we’re good?”
Cordelia’s expression still hadn’t altered, but she raised her hand to touch his cheek. “We’re great,” she said.
And so they were.
3. He finally came to an understanding with Angel.
They had actually started out on a fairly good operating basis, because Angel didn’t show the least desire to protect him. He didn’t think Xander should be part of this at all, but if the boy (or whatever) was going to be in the mix, then he’d be put to use. So Xander had been smoothly integrated into the team, which consisted mainly of the familiar basics: researching, trips for doughnuts and coffee and Chinese takeout (he would have drawn the line at picking up pig’s blood, but either Angel took care of that himself or someone else did it for him), stocking up on various supplies for quasi-mystical operations, helping Cordelia scout prospects and work up client lists … but, if it ever came to fighting, Angel would toss him a sword or axe, bark out some quick instructions, and then leap into the fray while leaving Xander to hold up his end. And how funny was it that Xander preferred working with someone who didn’t seem to care if anything happened to him?
(Doyle had been right in there with the both of them, scrapping like a welterweight, usually weaponless. Xander had picked up quickly that Doyle wasn’t entirely human, had assumed it was common knowledge, and then been surprised at Cordelia’s surprise when she learned the truth. He felt a little guilty about that, but had no way of knowing if mentioning his conclusions to Cordy would have made any difference. Still, something to keep in mind for the future: common knowledge wasn’t always.)
When Wesley Wyndham-Pryce came motorcycling into town, though, and it turned out that Doyle had passed on his visions to Cordelia in that parting kiss (and might she have relayed them to Xander if the two them had actually engaged in grief-sex in the aftermath? close call there, maybe), and the three of them had to raid the demon auction to rescue her … after that, without any discussion or even announcing the decision, Angel started training Xander.
Little things at first. Showing where to grip, how to balance a weapon, what were some of the quickest and most effective strokes. Then more elaborate techniques, gradually growing into actual drills and katas, and finally it got all the way down to formal hand-to-hand instruction. Angel had gained wide experience in various martial arts in his post-ensoulment wanderings, seizing on the disciplines to help him control his hellish cravings, and it was tai chi that had given him the best results there. For Xander, though, he decided wing chun would be a better way to go.
“I think I’ve heard of that,” Xander said when Angel finally mentioned the name of what he was teaching. “Didn’t Bruce Lee start out on that, before he decided classical stuff was too limiting?”
“I believe so,” Angel agreed. “It’s a good fit for you, though. Legend says the techniques were developed by a Buddhist nun —”
Xander stopped the form he had been practicing, and looked to Angel with what wasn’t yet hostility but was poised to go there. “Oh, yeah, right. ’Cause the new, delicate Xander couldn’t handle a man’s system.”
“I don’t think Brue Lee thought it was too delicate,” Angel returned levelly. “But in a way, yes: if wing chun really was designed by a woman to fight stronger opponents, then it would make a solid foundation for anyone facing vampires and demons. It keeps a strong centerline, focuses on balance, doesn’t let you overextend … it has a lot of the same flow as most of the other Chinese styles, but in its way it’s more direct, so Westerners don’t have as much trouble adapting to it.” He shrugged. “We could go with something else. Hapkido might be something we could look at as an alternative, but I really think you should stick with this for awhile. We can always switch out if it doesn’t seem to be working for you.”
So Xander stayed with wing chun, and it really did seem to suit him. And, over time, it developed that Wesley was a better teacher for weapons: Angel was far more proficient, but his approach relied on a level of speed and strength that no non-Slayer human could hope to match, whereas Wesley taught things that Xander could actually do. None of this — nor all of it together — made him a match for the supernatural menaces they were facing, but he got to where he enjoyed it, liked the sense of accomplishment and, well, competence, that it gave him. If nothing else, it left him less helpless … and, in the clubs Cordelia kept dragging him to, it made him more assured in deflecting overtures from hopeful males. (And occasional females; maybe Cordelia was right, and he should move away from the man-shirts.)
With one thing and another, working with Angel reached the point where it was not only tolerable, but eventually something like satisfying. The guy was a huge dork, with an ego that was beyond belief: all the brooding, the guilt and self-blame and self-loathing, the martyr-hero-penitent routine, the insistence on taking on every hopeless cause and carrying the main weight of it himself, still came back to Angel being the center of everything. He really tried, though, and he really did his best to help people, and he really cared about the people he was trying to help … and about his own people, as well. And, even if you had to squint to see it, there was occasionally something that vaguely resembled a sense of humor there.
The one thing that made it work, though, was the absence of Buffy. More specifically, the absence of Buffy anywhere near Angel. (Angel’s Thanksgiving trip to Sunnydale, followed by Buffy’s return visit to L.A., had been a massive strain; if Cordelia and Doyle hadn’t colluded unconscionably to keep Xander in the dark about those till the whole business was over, he might have gone completely postal.) Continents apart would have been better, but ‘apart’ was the vital point there. Away from Buffy, Angel was genuinely a champion; near her, he was a huge honking magnet for (or generator of) trouble and complications and heartache and tragedy that the Slayer didn’t need any part of.
So when Angel got a phone call from Sunnydale, and Xander could tell it was Buffy on the other end of the line, he was seriously unhappy. Even when the call ended and he learned that it had just been a warning — Faith had come out of her coma, and the remaining Scoobies had wanted Angel to be aware of the possibility that the outlaw Slayer might come gunning for him — he wasn’t able to hide his disgruntlement and readiness to upgrade to active attack.
By chance, it had been just the two of them in the office when the call came. After Xander had unloaded the biting comments that he couldn’t keep inside, Angel sat for more than a minute, eyes toward Xander but focused elsewhere, before saying, “I know how it is with you and Cordelia. I know you still care for her, maybe more than ever, but your … your situation … means there’s no physical part to it. No attraction, no desire, nothing like that. And I know jealousy was one of the main reasons for you hating me being anywhere in Buffy’s life.” He tilted his head. “How does the jealousy hang on when the drive behind it is gone now? Or is it just a matter of habit by this point?”
Xander was ready to launch a savage rejoinder when something about the question penetrated. Huh. It was true, his thoughts — his feelings about Buffy — weren’t the same anymore. And the way he dealt with Angel was different, too. So, if so many other things were different, was this still the same? And, if so, why?
“You know what?” he finally said. “You’re right. Jealousy was always the elephant in the room there, and I never really could look past it. But that doesn’t mean I was wrong.” He leaned forward. “Actually, me being jealous meant it kept me from seeing the real reason I hated you being involved with Buffy. Or, more to it, her being involved with you.”
Angel nodded. “I’m listening.”
“She went out with Owen Thurman, and I was jealous,” Xander said. “She actually dated Scott Hope for awhile there: not just out together a time or two, they were a real couple for as long as it lasted. And … there was a guy in college, total creep but she didn’t know that at the time, she was ready to be serious if it hadn’t gone to crap because he was such an asshole. Even if the last one came after I’d done my instant transfemification, I didn’t much care for any of those, but I didn’t hate it the way I did with you.” He shook his head. “It’s weird, I can see it so easy now, and I could only feel the edges of it then ’cause it was all snarled up with my own issues. It’s just, every time Buffy got involved with somebody else, even if it was always not-me, she was doing the same thing: trying to be Buffy, a Buffy who was more than just the Slayer. Trying to hold onto some part of the life she would’ve had if she’d never got that call.”
His finger jabbed at Angel. “Whenever it was her with you, though, she was doing something else. She was giving up, giving up her life, turning the whole thing over to the Slayer. Tying herself to somebody who could never live outside the dark she had to fight. Whether she meant it or not, whether you wanted that or not, that was what was going on. And … I think, if it started to look like that was about to happen again, I think I might try to kill you to stop it.”
It was different now; the automatic, gut-deep loathing wasn’t there anymore. The two of them had fought together, learned to work with one another, learned trust and something that might even resemble respect. Which meant that Xander was now speaking from a kind of raw honesty that had nothing to do with aggression: this was how he felt, and he meant it, but he was also sharing a truth that mattered to him. And, because of this, it carried more weight than any of his acid diatribes of the past had ever borne.
That was the effect it seemed to have on Angel, anyhow; the guy was staring at him in something like wonder. “That’s … that’s why I came here. Why I left her.” He drew an unnecessary breath, let it out. “I never thought it out that deeply, but I knew I wasn’t good for her. That any life she could have with me would be … less than the life she deserved. You just named out all my reasons for being here.”
“Well, good,” Xander said. “Just don’t forget: you ever start to backslide, there’s a Buddhist nun here ready to kick your undead ass.”
Angel gave him a thin smile that, for once, didn’t have the edge that seemed always to have been there between them. “I’ll keep that in mind. In case I’m ever tempted.”
And then Faith did come to L.A. and took a shot at killing Angel, followed by cold-cocking Wesley and carrying Xander off for the ever-popular Torture part of the program (along with some seriously unsolicited lap-dances that made a kind of strange Xander didn’t want even to try to describe). Which smash-hit she followed by surrendering to Angel, at which point the masochistic big doof decided he had to protect her, and then Buffy came to town to scream about that for awhile, and she and Angel and a Watcher wet-works crew and a Wolfram & Hart assassination demon and a Los Angeles SWAT team wound up in a five-way elimination round over who got possession of the dark Slayer. Which Faith settled by turning herself in and confessing (and rotsa ruck to the DA looking for the right charges to file for “tried to help a demon mayor eat a high school graduating class”).
Xander missed the last part of that, blissed out on morphine at the hospital while Cordelia held his hand and assured him that, no, he didn’t have an extra stomach and yes, Carrot-Top probably was part-demon but probably not dangerous. Once he heard how it had all shaken out, he was cautiously pleased that the events just past had done nothing whatsoever to nudge Angel toward returning to Buffy, or she to him.
Which was good. He was getting used to this life. To having a place and a function. Even, if you came right down to it, to Angel. No, more than used to it; he was fine with it.
Just as long as that world never overlapped with Buffy’s.
4. He finally got to be a champion …
It was his own fault, standard Xander dumb-assery. Even though he’d chosen not to give the Gem of Amarra to Angel, he still wanted to keep it safe in case it was ever needed. The problem was, he didn’t really have all that much in the way of safe storage for mystical artifacts, so he wound up carrying the thing with him. Mostly in his pants pocket, but after the third time he nearly put the pants in the laundry with the ring inside, he stuck it in a small leather pouch instead, put the pouch on a chain, and wore it around his neck. Wore it all the time, removing it only when he showered and then donning it again the moment he was done toweling off.
So, yeah, for months he kept magically-charged jewelry just one remove from next to his skin — in fairness, the thing really was supposed to be for vampires only, the manual hadn’t so much as hinted at anything else — and it never occurred to him that there might possibly be repercussions from that. Not until they hit.
Angel had chanced across a gang of street kids, apparently run by a tough young black man and his much-younger sister, who took it on themselves to rumble with vampires. Enforcing a hard-fought peace on their own patch of turf, proud and determined and not too inclined to follow anyone else’s advice (much less, in the leader’s words, “some middle-class white dude that’s dead”), and almost certainly badly overmatched in the long run. Convincing them of that, though … So Xander stayed to try and work some diplomacy, while Angel went hunting for the nest that hid the vampires who had been plaguing these streets.
Charles Gunn was a hard sell, but Xander’s approach didn’t set him bristling the way Angel’s had, even if Gunn didn’t seem particularly impressed by the arguments. His sister Alonna was a more receptive audience, though, and Xander homed in on that. Got to talking with her about how they were set up: food supplies, places to sleep, whether or not they had access to medical care for combat injuries or even normal ailments that could be a serious hassle for people who didn’t have any money to spare. His own experience in fighting the same fight (well, something similar, anyway) gave him credibility, and his ‘female’ status was another avenue where Alonna could relate to him. She had Willow’s selflessness and caring, along with a straightforward practicality and spirit that were entirely her own, which in turn made him feel a particular kinship with her, and before long they had settled into a long discussion about logistics and organization and team structure and — eventually — some goal that went beyond immediate survival.
So he was still there when Gunn looked up suddenly and commanded his sister, “Get everybody out.”
“What?” Alonna asked, before Xander could say it himself. “What is it?”
Whether he had heard something or was following instincts finer-honed than anything Xander had seen in an unaugmented human, Gunn was already moving. “Out, out into the daylight.” He grabbed up a sword, and that was when a smoke grenade came in through a low window, followed by another from a different side. “Do it now!” Gunn ordered, charging to meet whatever was trying to come in, and after an instant’s indecision Xander went after him. Alonna was already shouting directions, the other kids in the ‘abandoned’ building were responding quickly, this was their scene and they had it worked out, he wasn’t needed for any evacuation but he might be able to lend Gunn a hand in a fight —
The smoke confused him, though, he lost Gunn and then he lost track of just where he was, so he gave it up and headed for daylight. Made it in time to see Alonna skin up over the railing around the basement stairs, coughing herself from the smoke, and a beige van screech to a halt next to her as she dropped to the pavement in the alley. Heavily swaddled figures darted out to grab her — gloves, thick leather coats, gas masks, those were vampires wearing enough layers to protect them from the sun! — and she screamed as they dragged her into the van. Xander sprinted desperately, getting to the van just as it started the surge of acceleration that would carry it beyond his reach: hopeless even to try for the doors, so he swung the light axe he was carrying and burst the front tire on the passenger’s side, using the follow-through to extend and slice across the rear tire as well. The ruined tires grabbed on the pavement and the van plowed into the wall on that side, and the raiders came boiling out and at him.
No time for thought so it was all training and reaction, he smashed the axe not at the vital areas he normally targeted but at the face of the nearest charging vampire, breaking the glass lens on the gas-mask, and the leech shrieked and fell to its knees, throwing up one arm to protect its exposed eye from the torturing sun. Xander could have taken that one easily in the moment of distraction but the next one was coming right at him, Xander started a swing but the one on the ground clutched at his knee, delaying him for an instant, so instead he stabbed with the steel spike at the head of the axe and ripped upward (couldn’t stake a vamp with metal but it hurt like a mother!), rancid blood splashed his chest and down the neck of his shirt, soaking the leather pouch on the chain and his chest was on fire!, then the vampire smashed him down, down to the pavement, and as Xander lay there, helpless, the thing raised a thick boot to crush his skull like a dried gourd, should have done it different should have done it different —
— breaking the lens on the gas-mask, and the vampire shrieked and fell to its knees and Xander threw himself from the path of the next one coming at him, doing a reverse-loop with the axe to strike the head from the one who was already down. His recovery almost wasn’t quick enough, the second one was nearly on him again and this time he aimed the spike at crotch instead of belly, driving and twisting, this shriek was like a banshee being gutted, and Xander chopped at the thing’s head with the axe, again and again, slashing the fabric of the gas-mask until the sun seared through a dozen gashes. He pushed the vamp away with his foot as it squalled and writhed, made it to the van and jerked open the back door, just in time to see the one that had stayed inside tear out Alonna’s throat with its teeth, no no this is wrong NO, don’t allow this can’t allow this —
— chopped at the vamp’s head with the axe, laying open the fabric of the gas-mask with three strategic cuts, then dodged its blind lunge as he drove for the back of the van. He already had the axe raised as he jerked the door open, and threw even before his eyes had picked out the target. The axe cut into the jaw of the last vampire, almost hit Alonna instead but didn’t, Xander grabbed her ankle and yanked her outside, but it was too sudden and her position was wrong and as she came clear she dropped straight down, her head striking the pavement of the alley with a sound like a green watermelon being split open FUCKFUCKFUCK —
— grabbed her ankle and yanked her outside, twisting to catch one shoulder as she came clear, they went down together in an ungainly heap and his elbow cracked against the pavement with a lightning-bolt of agony, the last vampire was leaning out of the van to snatch at them, rage and bloodlust stronger for the moment than the sunlight that crisped the skin from its face, and Gunn’s sword went through the open mouth and all the way out the back of the skull with a force that embedded the blade in the metal of the side-panel.
After that, something of a jumble, but eventually it got sorted out. Once Gunn was sure his sister was all right, he looked to where Xander stood holding his elbow, white-faced (it hurt oh Christ it hurt, he’d broken it, compression fracture for sure), and said, “Girl, that was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw in my life.” He shook his head in wonder. “I was runnin’ all-out, still knew I couldn’t make it in time, but you went through those bloodsuckers like Red fuckin’ Sonja in Levi’s and plaid. And the thing with the tires … they teach that in some freak-ass ninja school? I mean, that was tight.” He drew a long breath. “Okay. You still wanta talk, I’m here to listen, ’cause I owe you big-time.” Then he cut his eyes to where Alonna was being checked for injuries, and leaned toward Xander to add in a lower voice, “Just don’t try to make no moves on my sister, okay? She don’t swing that way.”
“Not a lesbian,” Xander gritted out. “Jesus, why does everybody think that? Just ’cause I don’t dress out in vampire-hunter chic like Cordy would —” Then he bent over suddenly to throw up.
Hey, he was doing good not to pass out here.
* * *
Xander didn’t tell Angel or Cordelia or Wesley what had happened to him during the frantic melee, selling his performance as the result of total desperation and stunning luck … and, with what they already knew of him, they bought it. He was right about the compression fracture, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been, and after carrying the arm in a sling for a week, he was able to begin coaxing it back into normal function.
He had, however, pulled off the leather pouch containing the Gem of Amarra the first chance he got, and stuck it in the bottom of his sock drawer. What he’d done, the zone he’d gone into during those awful moments … there was no way he could be grateful enough for the miracle that had come when it had, but that didn’t mean he liked it very much. The ability to replay a few crucial seconds, re-do something that had gone wrong, clearly could be a near-priceless advantage in the kind of crises they faced all the time. Only, he could remember how it felt. Even above the fear and adrenaline and driving need, there had been the distant sensation of being … disconnected … of tuning into and being gradually subsumed by a larger force. Xander thought of the way the Slayer still threatened to take over all there was of Buffy; of the headaches that came with Cordy’s visions, and the way they seemed to be getting worse even though she tried to hide it; of the changes he’d seen in Willow as she got deeper into the magicks for which she was showing such a sudden, unexpected skill; even of the way Oz had found it necessary to re-order so much of his life to deal with the three nights of the full moon. Xander had built up a lot of frustration at being the only member of two different teams who had no special abilities of any kind, not even a Watcher’s knowledge of the supernatural … but he’d also had the opportunity to see what some of those extraordinary attributes could cost, and he didn’t feel easy at the prospect of losing who he was, just to gain an edge in a fight.
He wasn’t being a coward, he decided. It wasn’t fear if you decided you’d rather take this risk instead of that risk, especially when this risk was more likely to keep you alive. It was just, that risk showed too much potential to take him places he didn’t want to go, and when all was said and done, he’d take his chances as he was.
Win or lose, live or die, he’d do it as Xander.
(… and decided to pass).
5. She finally stopped thinking of herself as “he”.
Things kept on keeping on. Blind female assassin; the office building blown up, Cordelia on the psych ward with endless screaming visions till Angel brought back the scroll that would cure her (and cut off greasy-lawyer-boy’s hand in the process, YES!); weeks of gradual recuperation, and finding a new place to set up operations, and dealing with Kate Lockley’s increasingly irrational obsession with Angel’s basic fangy nature. (Kate had grit, and Xander actually liked her quite a bit, but right now the woman needed help.) Then summer, and a brief, welcome slacking in supernatural activity, so they could all just relax and recharge for awhile.
Okay, that last was hard for Angel. He needed to be fighting something, wasn’t good at all with the concept of downtime. Tough luck, bucko. Get with the program.
Wesley went deeper into his research, trying to further clarify the shanshu prophecy (which Cordelia kept calling “that Shoeshine thingy”), and he and Xander continued weapons training as much for physical therapy as honing of professional skills. Cordelia began pulling Wesley along on the club outings that she still wouldn’t let Xander escape. And, on those occasions — since they seemed to be roughly equivalent in chestiness — she insisted Xander ditch the man-shirts and wear some of her own tops and blouses. (Even a camisole once … and, if Xander actually kind of liked the feel of the smooth fabric, well, that didn’t really have to be said out loud.)
It even got to be fun. Wesley’s dry humor, which had been so brittle and prickly when he first arrived in Sunnydale, had mellowed into a natural part of the group interaction. He and Xander both saw something faintly ridiculous in the club scene and the antics of its denizens, and it got to where they could share this awareness of absurdity with no more than a sardonic glance while continuing to take pleasure in being out with Cordelia. Even if it wasn’t really their deal, it was something the three of them could do together outside of vocational demon-killing, and in its own way it became a routine they enjoyed sharing.
Except for the dancing. Cordelia loved it, Xander wasn’t interested, and Wesley … well, the first time they saw him attempt it, Xander mentally relinquished his crown as King of Cretins. It really was that appalling. Even worse, it didn’t seem that Wesley could just shrug it off and move on to something else (as Xander had eventually done with the skateboard, on recognizing that he simply had no aptitude for that). Wesley was self-conscious about his deficiency there, saw it as a lack in himself, and let it affect him to an extent that Xander couldn’t really understand.
One night he couldn’t take it anymore. “You know your problem?” he challenged Wesley. “You’re thinking of a performance. It works better if you look at it like teamwork.”
“Sound concept,” Wesley observed drily. “But then comes the matter of putting it into practice.”
“All right, come on.” Xander grabbed Wesley’s arm, dragged him out onto the floor. “You know your Bavarian fighting adze? Imagine you’re holding it. Better yet, one in each hand. Okay?” Wesley nodded, warily, and Xander said, “And I’m using the short staff here. Got it? So, light sparring. Move with me, and keep with the rhythm of the music.” And Xander smoothly, unhurriedly feinted at Wesley’s face with the ‘staff’, and Wesley just as smoothly used an imaginary adze to catch the invisible weapon and sweep it out of line, then he launched a leisurely counterstrike and Xander slid to one side to evade it, and they kept going like that, adapting things they’d been doing together for months now. It was a bit awkward at first: not the movements with visualized weapons, but easing them into something that could mimic the appearance of dance. Still, this was built on familiar ground, and in the first twenty seconds Wesley had already achieved a thousand-percent improvement in his form. They kept it up till the song ended, and when they went back to the table, Cordelia welcomed them with a broad smile.
“Better,” she said, beaming. “Much better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Only, next time? use knives. Get closer to each other.” And they all laughed, and ordered more drinks, and that was one of their better evenings.
After that, Wesley occasionally essayed a dance with Cordelia, and she occasionally allowed it. Mostly, however, it remained him and Xander. It was a shared joke, and at the same time something Xander could use to continue building Wesley’s confidence, and — weirdly — it seemed to help their formal weapons practice as well.
Then one night Xander came back from a trip to the ladies’ room with Cordelia (which had turned out to be much less odd and mysterious than Xander had long suspected; women just talked, was all, and the women’s restrooms were nearly always better than the men’s rooms he remembered), and found Wesley sharing a laugh with a sleek Latina in a beaded dress. He nodded to them, smiling, as the two of them rejoined him, but the other woman said quickly to Xander, “It’s okay, he was just saying something funny about the band. I wasn’t trying to move in on your boyfriend, honest.”
And Cordelia guffawed at that, while Xander incredulously mouthed Boyfriend??! … but sudden alarm grew in Wesley’s eyes as he looked at Xander, and then he looked jerkily away, and Xander felt his stomach lurch as he realized that something had just happened, and he had felt it, too.
The moment was gone almost as quickly as it had been revealed, and the three of them finished out the evening without it betraying itself again. Xander was silent on the way back to the apartment with Cordelia, though, and sat up alone after she had gone to bed. Trying to come to grips with something he hadn’t even suspected till now.
Wesley was interested in him. Interested, or at least aware in a way that hadn’t been there before. And … Wesley wasn’t looking too bad to Xander, for that matter.
Wesley? Wesley? It was mind-blowing … but, even more incredible than the notion of Wesley?!, was the fact that Xander was thinking about it at all.
Changes. You didn’t just cope with Change, you had to deal with the fact that changes kept on coming, never stopped.
Xander looked at … at her hands, and smoothed them down over her hips, and stood there feeling all the things that had been there for a long time but were real and immediate now in a way that they hadn’t been before. She had thought she was handling this, really believed that, but the truth was that she’d been fighting it the whole time.
Well, that was done. Time to face reality, buster: you ain’t the man you used to be, and trying to pretend otherwise hasn’t been doing you any good.
Xander was a girl.
Xander was a girl.
And, all of a sudden, that looked like something that could be really, really interesting.