The hotel lobby was reassuringly familiar after the craziness of their last mission. Xander slumped against the registration desk, Maria and Gretchen leaning against him from either side, getting in his way when he had to fish out his wallet and when he tried to sign the registration form. They always did this; Xander thought they found it amusing when the desk clerks at hotels gave him the universal You Pervert death glare. Tianna hadn't gotten in on the act yet. She'd only been with them for two weeks, and she was still finding her place. At the moment, that place was slumped in one of the wing chairs that dotted the lobby. Xander chose to be grateful that she wasn't making his life more difficult rather than worried that she wasn't bonding with the rest of them.
Xander thought Tianna was completely ignoring them in favor of the TV in the corner, which was playing music videos with the sound muted. He'd just explained his room requirements to the desk clerk (two rooms near each other, but not connecting) when Tianna showed she'd been listening by climbing out of her chair and chattering out questions.
"What? We never get two rooms. Why are we getting two rooms? Who's going to stay where?"
Gretchen just smirked and leaned harder against him, but Maria turned to answer her. "It's Virginia," she hissed loudly. Really, she could have shouted and it would have been less conspicuous. "We always get two rooms in Virginia."
Xander felt a flush creeping up his neck, staining it red, and did his best to pretend he didn't know them.
"Virginia, so what? Who gets the extra room?" Tianna demanded.
Gretchen was now leaning pretty much her entire body weight against his side, and Xander was fighting not to stagger. Fortunately, she wasn't very heavy, and he was used to it. Other people nudged you with an elbow when they were gloating, or raised an eyebrow. Gretchen leaned. It was strange, but he'd learned that everybody had their quirks.
"Xander gets the extra room," Maria said. Her voice was all innuendo, and Xander felt the blush travel from his neck to his ears. He gave up pretending not to know them in favor of glaring over his shoulder. Maria flashed him a bright grin. "I'll tell you later," she hissed to Tianna.
Xander winced and took the room keys from the clerk. The least they could do was pretend not to gossip about him. Honestly, where was the respect? Sighing, he slipped free of Gretchen and gestured grandiosely toward the doors.
"Come along, ladies. The luggage isn't going to carry itself," he said.
"It would if you'd let Willow put that Sorcerer’s Apprentice spell on it," Maria muttered as they stepped into the parking lot.
Xander shot her a warning glance. "Okay, first? I will not allow spells, charms, or enchantments of any kind on the bags that hold my underwear, and neither should you. And second, cartoons are rarely a good source of magical inspiration."
Maria jerked open the trunk of the car and pulled out her bag, grumbling something that sounded suspiciously like, "You never let us have any fun," and Xander resisted the urge to bang his head against the car window. He pulled his own bag out instead and led the girls to the third floor.
"This is your room," he told them, handing out key cards. "You will be in it after eleven o'clock or you will suffer horribly." When Tianna goggled at him incredulously, he scowled and said, "Ask these other two hoodlums if you don't believe me. Dire punishment." God, threatening teenagers made him feel old. Who'd have pegged him as the de facto father figure for a batch of Slayers before he was thirty?
Tianna looked sufficiently cowed. Xander checked on Maria and Gretchen and saw that they were both wearing their best innocent expressions, so he could probably count on them not to get in trouble he would find out about. They moved to enter the room, but Xander stood in front of them, blocking their way.
"There's a thirty dollar limit on your room service orders, and I will be verifying the bill before we check out. You will let me know where you will be any time you leave the hotel, and keep your cell phones on at all times," he ordered.
Maria gave him a mocking salute. "Sir. Yes, sir," she said impudently. Despite her sass, he wasn't worried about her. She and Gretchen had been with him for nearly two years now, and they knew he meant business. Tianna was a wild card, but he knew he could count on the other two to keep her in line.
Stepping aside, Xander let the girls into their room. He could hear Tianna's voice before the door shut, asking, "But why do we get two rooms only in Virginia?" He shook his head and crossed the hall to his own room before he heard the answer.
Xander's room was directly opposite, which was, in his opinion, perfect. It was close enough for him to provide a credible threat to the girls (and for them to get ahold of him in an emergency), but far enough away that they couldn't listen through the walls. At least, not without looking like freaks.
Xander dug out his toiletry bag as soon as he got inside his room, tossing the rest of his stuff on the dresser. He took his cell phone with him into the bathroom so he wouldn't miss it if it rang. He showered quickly and shaved carefully. He didn't even notice he was humming until his razor vibrated as he glided it over his Adam's apple. He forced himself to be quiet until he finished with his neck. He hadn't survived a decade of vampires just to slit his own throat by accident. He wiped away the excess shaving cream and dragged a comb through his hair, absently noting that it was time for a haircut.
He'd just pulled on a clean pair of jeans and a tee shirt when he heard a knock at the door. He padded over to answer it barefooted, expecting one of his Slayers had stopped to tell him they were going to the pool or the snack bar. Instead, the door opened on a tall man with sandy hair. A surprised grin stretched over Xander's face.
The first time they came through Virginia, Xander had still been clinging to the delusion that giving the girls their own room would foster trust and teamwork instead of enormous room service bills and late night calls from the front desk when Truth or Dare got out of hand. He and his Slayers had been sent specifically to meet up with Riley, to take possession of some spellbooks that had been liberated from an enemy mage and passed up to his department at the Pentagon. The handover and debriefing had only taken a few minutes, so Xander and Riley had had the rest of the night just to catch up.
It had been nice, talking to someone he knew from before the big Slayer-activating brouhaha. They reminisced about the old days and filled each other in on what had happened since. Xander told Riley exciting tales of the glamorous world of Slayer management, and Riley told Xander about fighting demons in jungles, deserts, and the government. They stayed away from sensitive topics by mutual consent. It had been nearly sunrise when they dozed off, each of them sprawled across one of the beds in Xander's hotel room.
The next time was a few months later, after Xander had decided that closer supervision was the essence of effective Watcher-ing. Even though he'd taken to sharing a room with the girls, he decided he could make an exception, just for the night. It wasn't like he had a lot of friends, after all. It was only fair he should get to spend a Slayer-free evening with a buddy once in a while. He'd called Riley right after he booked the reservation for two rooms.
They'd gotten smashed that night. Horribly, blindingly drunk on vodka and tequila. After four shots, they started talking about the visible scars - the attack that had taken Xander's eye and the one that had just missed taking Riley's, the claw marks across Xander's ribs and the knife slash down Riley's arm. After a few more shots, they moved on to the tough stuff, the scars that didn't show. Xander told the story of the wedding that wasn't for the first time, and Riley told Xander about the divorce. Apparently, even though it had been amicable, the legal aspects had been a nightmare. And when Riley went home to Iowa, his mother had looked at him like he'd failed at something. Or everything.
Xander woke up in the morning with a roaring headache and Riley's huge, stockinged feet in his face. He batted them away with a groan. Riley's feet batted back, nearly kicking Xander off the bed. Xander grabbed them and held them down, using them to haul himself more firmly back onto the bed.
"I hate you," he croaked.
Riley's voice came from the other end of the bed. "No, you don't. You love me," he said, sounding as smug as a heavily hung over man possibly could. "You said I'm your bestest guy friend and that I shouldn't tell Andrew, 'cause he would cry."
Xander shifted so he was using Riley's feet for a pillow. They were bony and uncomfortable, but it felt good to have something warm and solid under his cheek. "I don't care," he muttered into a sock. "I still hate you."
Riley patted Xander's feet in return. "Uh uh," he said. "I hate you, too."
Xander didn't remember falling back asleep, but when he woke again it was nearly noon. His face was embossed with the grain of Riley's socks, and his mouth felt like he'd been eating them. Groaning, he let go of Riley's feet and rolled off the bed, staggering his way to the bathroom. He took a piss and washed his hands, then caught sight of his reflection. He stopped and stared at himself in the mirror, appalled. He'd lost his eye patch sometime in the night, and his skin looked horribly disfigured by sock marks. His hair stuck out wildly around his face. It was a terrifying sight.
Loud banging on the door jarred him out of his contemplation. Cursing, he went back out to the room and started rummaging around for his eye patch. Riley lifted his head off the pillow and blinked at him groggily. "What's up?"
Xander kept his head down as he hunted around the bed. "Just need my eye patch," he explained shortly.
Riley pushed himself to his feet and joined in the search, shoving back the covers to check if it was tangled in the sheets and digging through the detritus from their binge the night before. The knocking started up again.
"Just a minute," Xander called.
"Just answer the door, Xander," Riley said from halfway under the bed.
Xander wanted to scowl at him, but he was still keeping his head down. He threw a pillow instead, watching in satisfaction as it bounced off Riley's back.
"I'm not opening the door like this," he said.
"Xander," Riley sighed, emerging from under the bed with dust bunnies in his hair and the eye patch in his hand. "You look fine."
Xander forgot about ducking his head in favor of staring disbelievingly at Riley. Riley stared back, unperturbed. Riley didn't flinch, and his eyes didn't dart away from Xander's empty eye socket. It wasn't at all like Willow's 'I still love you and support you even though you've been maimed' look. It was like ... it was like Riley really didn't mind how Xander looked.
Xander swallowed hard. "Thanks," he said. He meant it. He felt like Riley had just given him a gift. "But I don't want to freak out the natives." He took the eye patch from Riley and slipped it on slowly. He gave Riley a little smile and Riley smiled back. It was the bright, open smile Riley used to give him back in Sunnydale, and it made Xander's heart go still. He blinked once, then pulled himself away and turned to open the door.
"Xander!" Maria cried. "Heike and Gretchen took the room key and now they won't let me in." She eyed Riley speculatively over Xander's shoulder. "Were you still in bed?" she asked, craning her neck to see the room, her eyes widening as she caught sight of one undisturbed bed and one bed with tumbled sheets and blankets. "Um, I can come back later if you're busy," she said weakly, blushing hard.
Xander stifled a groan. He shot Riley an apologetic look, but Riley was grinning like a teenager's assumption that he was having a torrid love affair with her male guardian was the funniest thing since whoopee cushions. Xander stuck his tongue out at him.
"Come on, Maria," Xander sighed, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go brave the Germanic duo and make them let you into the room." Riley followed behind them, still grinning.
Four months after that, Xander's team had been assigned to a circuit through the South. Most of the big cities already had a resident Slayer, so Xander and his girls patrolled the smaller towns where unusual incidents or crimes had been reported, ran errands, and helped out when the baddies got too ambitious for a local Slayer to handle. They traveled from Miami to the Mason-Dixon Line and back again, zigzagging from town to town as they went.
After he'd been briefed on the assignment, he took the girls out for milk shakes to tell them about it. He was slightly concerned that they'd be upset about being sentenced to a perpetual roadtrip, but Maria gave him a delighted grin and said, "Oh, good! You'll get to see Riley more." Xander tried to look as though that hadn't occurred to him while Heike giggled at him behind her banana malt and Gretchen leaned against his side.
He did see Riley more. Either because they needed to liaise with the government (which, for the Council, often meant Riley) or just because they were at the northern point of their circuit, they wound up in Virginia every month or so. Xander worried that Riley might get tired of him, that he had been willing to drop everything to catch up with an old friend, but that he would have better things to do now that Xander was a standard fixture. But every time Xander called to say he'd be in the area, Riley came.
It was about three months into their new circuit, and they were at Arlington again, which meant they had official Council business with the Pentagon. Xander had put on his good suit and had forced the girls into respectable clothes with no hint of glitter (Heike) or safety pins (Maria) anywhere on them. If they had bikinis on underneath, well, the military didn't need to know that. The meeting had gone well, although it had been freaksome to see Riley in uniform, analyzing the situation for his superiors. His voice had been neutral and his face closed off. It was all very professional and soldier-y, and it made Xander's stomach clench, it was so unlike the Riley he knew.
After the meeting was over, Riley accompanied them back to the hotel. They girls were out of the van like a shot, shedding clothes in the lobby and calling over their shoulders that they'd be in the pool. Xander gathered up the blazers, skirts, and neat white blouses with a rueful smile.
"I'm amazed they kept them on as long as they did," he told Riley, stooping to grab a sensible shoe. "Heike said she had to think of it as a costume for a play, otherwise it felt too strange to be wearing something like this."
"I know what she means," Riley said. His hands were full of discarded clothes and shoes as well. "I signed up for this, and I've been wearing uniforms for over a decade, and sometimes ... it still feels like a costume." His eyes were pensive, but his face was relaxed in a way it hadn't been during that meeting. A warmth spread through Xander's chest.
They dropped the clothes off in the girls' room before they went to Xander's. As soon as he was through the door, Xander followed his Slayers' example and started pulling off his suit. He didn't drop it on the floor, though. He didn't want to have to explain to Giles why he needed to replace the suit he'd only worn twice. So the jacket went over the back of a chair, with the slacks folded neatly on the seat, and the shirt went in a bag with the rest of his dirty clothes. Down to his boxers and the wife beater he'd worn under his shirt, he stretched happily and smiled at Riley. Who was staring at him like he'd just started dancing naked in the streets while verbally abusing small children.
"Sorry," Xander mumbled, digging in his suitcase for a pair of jeans and a shirt.
"Hey, no," Riley said in a rough voice. He cleared his throat. "That's okay." He dropped down onto one of the beds and stared at the bedspread while Xander got dressed. "You want to order a pizza?" he asked the bedspread, tracing the pattern with a finger.
Since the bedspread didn't seem likely to answer, Xander said, "Sure," and fetched the phonebook from the bedside table. After a few minutes, Riley apparently came to the realization that a relationship between himself and the bedspread could never work out and stopped staring at it. They argued over pizza toppings and what to put on the TV, and Xander tried not to show how very much he liked having this Riley, the Riley who smiled and who smacked him on the back of the head when he said something stupid, the Riley who delighted in bad puns and good jazz, here with him. It more than made up for the cold Riley he'd seen at the meeting.
After they ate, Xander produced a deck of Uno cards and challenged Riley to a manly game of cards. They stretched out on the bed, each propped up on one elbow, facing each other over the brightly colored deck. Xander was in the middle of organizing his hand and telling a story about the time in Georgia when the girls had taken down a demon who'd been terrorizing a local congregation, only to learn that the Sunday School class had summoned it so they wouldn't have to learn their catechism, when he looked up and saw Riley watching him. There was an expression on his face Xander hadn't seen before, intense and hopeful.
Riley leaned forward, his hand reaching out to hold Xander's wrist. For one moment, Xander thought Riley was just sneaking a look at his cards. Then Riley's eyes were very close and very blue, and then Riley was kissing him, and Xander didn't think anything at all. His lips were soft and firm and his hand was warm on Xander's wrist. Riley pulled back and let go of his wrist, and Xander saw his face, triumphant and uncertain at the same time.
Xander's brain started working again, though the main thought that kept running through his mind was simply, 'Oh!' Over and over again: 'Oh! Riley likes guys.' 'Oh! Riley likes me.' 'Oh! That was nice.' 'Oh! He's moving away.'
That last 'Oh!' spurred Xander to move. He pushed himself forward and slid a hand behind Riley's neck, pulling him back. Drawing him forward across the bed, Xander stared into Riley's face, watching the uncertainty wash away and the triumph shade into happiness. Then he decided that the staring was nice and all, but he'd really rather kiss Riley again.
The Uno deck was irreparably mangled.
After that night, Xander felt like everything had changed and nothing had. He left the next morning to take the girls to Tennessee, where a high school baseball team was enjoying a sudden winning streak that seemed highly improbable without supernatural assistance. Riley gave him the same smiling farewell he always had, and Xander had a brief, horrible worry. Maybe Riley didn't think spending the night tangled around Xander, unraveling years of sexual confusion and weaving them into a brand new tapestry of 'Yeah, I'm gay' was a big deal. Maybe Riley just wanted a buddy to fool around with, like he'd wanted a buddy to play video games with back in Sunnydale. Maybe ... Riley's smile slipped and Xander caught a flash of the hopeful intensity he'd seen the night before.
"Call me?" Riley said.
Xander's smile was lopsided and relieved and reassuring. "I will," he promised.
The girls teased him mercilessly the whole way to Tennessee. He didn't know how they could tell anything had changed, since Maria, at least, had been insinuating that Xander and Riley were involved for months now. But through some strange, female intuition, they knew. They were merciless, but they were also romantics, and they made excuses and invented errands to get Xander back to Virginia as often as possible.
Xander called Riley most nights while they were working the circuit. Sometimes they just caught up, relating what had been happening at work and who said what to whom. Riley's stories were full of political intrigue and, occasionally, cool guns, but Xander's stories had vampires and hair-pulling, so it was a toss-up as to whose were more interesting. Sometimes they made plans, either concrete ones for the next time they got together or misty ones for 'someday.' Sometimes they fought over what the right course of action was for the Council, for the demon community, for the government. Sometimes they fought over thoughtless words and hurt feelings, although they adhered to the guy code and rarely used the actual words 'hurt my feelings.'
When Heike turned eighteen and was deemed old enough for a solo gig with a different Watcher, Xander took Maria and Gretchen straight to Virginia even though it wasn't on their agenda. That night Xander only booked one room, and the girls curled up on Xander's right while Riley pressed against him on his left. They all reminisced about things Heike had said or done, and Riley never mentioned that it was strangely like a memorial service. He also never said anything stupid, like, "I'm sure she'll be fine," or "Don't worry." As a reward, Xander took him into the bathroom once the girls were asleep, pressed him back against the counter, and dropped to his knees. Xander's mouth was insistent and desperate on Riley's dick, but Riley never mentioned that, either.
Xander didn't tell Buffy or Willow about Riley, but he was sure they knew, anyway. After all, he knew about the time Willow and Kennedy had picked up a gymnast at a bar in San Francisco and had a threesome, though Willow had certainly never told him about it. The Slayer gossip network was vast and unstoppable, and Xander had no doubt that there were Slayers and Watchers from Kansas to Nepal discussing his love life at that very moment.
He wasn't sure why he never told his friends. It wasn't as though he were ashamed of Riley or anything. He just ... he didn't want to listen to them analyzing it, didn't want their theories on what was right and wrong with the relationship, didn't want any comparisons between this and Riley's time with Buffy. He and Riley were good together. That was enough.
"Riley!" Xander grinned at him stupidly. He waved his cell phone at him. "I was expecting you to call for the room number," he said.
"I ran into the girls in the lobby. I think they were staking it out so Gretchen and Maria could show me off to the new girl," Riley explained, smiling back. He'd been letting his hair grow, and it flopped down over his forehead, making him look younger.
"I guess it's part of the initiation. Join Xander's team, ogle Xander's boyfriend."
"I do feel well and truly ogled," Riley joked, stepping closer. "So, you gonna let me in, or do I have to stay out in the hallway this time," he asked, moving right into Xander's personal space, so that Xander had to look up at him.
Xander wrapped a hand around a fistful of Riley's shirt and pulled him into the room, shoving the door shut behind them. "What a silly thing to ask," he said, stretching up to him. "If you stay in the hallway, random people will ogle you, and they're not part of Xander's team."
Riley pressed a series of quick kisses across Xander's mouth. "Ooh, territorial," he said with a smirk.
Xander nodded and pulled him toward the bed. Unbuttoning Riley's shirt, he nibbled at his collarbone. "Got to mark my territory," he replied. Riley laughed and shrugged out of his shirt, rolling them so he was stretched out on top of Xander. Xander spent his life surrounded by people who could bench press him one-handed, but he still got a rush out of Riley's strength, the easy skill in his muscles.
Riley propped himself up on his elbows and smiled down at him. "I'm glad you're home," he said.
Xander slid his hands around Riley's waist. "Me, too."