The new apartment was bigger than his parents’ basement had been, and even cluttered with all his worldly possessions, it felt empty. Echo-y. It made Xander wonder if the place was too new, if it hadn’t had a chance to build up muffling layers of life yet. Then he shook his head and decided that he’d been spending too much time in the ‘good vibrations, shiny auras’ section of the Magic Box. He’d get curtains, it would be fine.
He was trying to figure out if he should open the box in his hands in the living room or the bedroom (it was labeled 'Reading Material' in Anya’s crooked handwriting, which made it equally likely to hold comic books or porn) when there was a knock at the door. He dropped the box on top of a handy pile and ran a hand through his hair, trying for respectable in case it was a neighbor with a casserole or something. Did people really do that?
When he swung the door open, Riley was standing on the other side. He had a slightly sheepish look on his face, shoulders hunched just enough to make it look like he was unsure of his welcome.
Xander leaned against the doorframe and smiled at him."You don't have a casserole, do you?" he asked.
"Should I?" Riley's expression was already sliding away from sheepish and toward the open, amusement it usually wore around Xander. It was a good look.
"Nah," he said. "To tell the truth, my only experience with casserole was the one in the school cafeteria with tater tots on top, so I think I'm missing out on their appeal." He stepped back out of the doorway and waved Riley in.
"My mom makes one with Fritos and leftover turkey at Thanksgiving that's pretty amazing. I could ask her for the recipe if you want," Riley offered, coming inside.
Xander opened his mouth to refuse, but then reconsidered. "You know, Frito casserole sounds so much better than the syphilis and OCD of last Thanksgiving. Sign me up. After all," he did a little spin in the middle of the room, throwing his hands wide, "I've got a real, live kitchen with a real, live oven now. I can totally cook things with snack foods in them."
"It's the start of an era," Riley agreed.
Xander stopped spinning with a little half-skip around the box of dishes Willow had bought him at the Goodwill. "So, what brings you back to my not-so-humble abode?" he asked. "It's the bubble wrap, right? You just couldn't stay away."
Riley laughed. He was tall and broad, but he shouldn't have been enough to fill up the empty space in the apartment all by himself. He did. "Something like that," he said. "I just figured I'd see if you needed a hand unpacking."
"Who am I to turn down free labor?" Xander said with a grin. Then he gave Riley a suspicious look. "It is free, right? 'Cause job or no, I'm not exactly flush with the filthy lucre."
Riley held his hands out flat. "Volunteer basis," he said reassuringly. "Buffy's doing super secret Slayer-Watcher things, and I was getting bored at home. Only so many push-ups a guy can do, you know?"
"I do know, and in my case, that number is one." Xander looked around the apartment, scattered with boxes, and said, "Okay, sure. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to open boxes and take crap out of them. Should you get a paper cut, I will disavow all knowledge of your existence."
"Cold," Riley accused. But he was pulling one of those box-cutter dealies with the razor blades in them out of his pocket and grabbing a box. He settled cross legged on the floor with the box on his lap. "This message will self-destruct?" He slit the tape neatly and opened the flaps, then slammed them closed. His ears went pink, and a goofy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Okay, this one should probably not be out here where innocent boys can stumble across it. Unless you're going for an entirely different kind of mission, here."
Xander grabbed the box and peeked inside. Yup, porn. He squinched his eyes tightly shut for a moment and said, "Maybe I could self-destruct." He took it into the bedroom and stashed it on the top shelf of the closet. "Sorry," he called loudly. He walked back to the living room, his face hot.
"It's no problem," Riley said, looking up at him from the floor. He looked more entertained than embarrassed. "Better me than Dawn."
Xander shuddered. "I am way more comfortable corrupting your innocence than hers. Just, if you find any labeled 'Toys,' let me check first to be sure they're action figures."
Riley gave him a speculative look, but Xander didn't elaborate. He sat on the floor near Riley and started on his own box. It only took them an hour and a half to get through most of Xander's clothes, all of his kitchen stuff, and three boxes of Slaying supplies. Xander was bent over a box of old towels and new bed linens (Anya had standards), when he heard Riley chuckle. Xander jerked upright, a washcloth in each hand.
"I said don't open the toys," he started, but Riley was grinning down at a picture album.
"Is this you and Willow?" Riley asked. His eyes were bright and his shoulders were loose, and it kind of hit Xander in the gut how rarely he'd seen Riley happy and unconcerned like that. He crossed to stand behind him, still holding the washcloths. He was looking at a picture of Willow and Xander, taken when they were about six. Xander had cotton batting taped to his face and a hand towel draped over his head. Willow was wearing a Care Bears jumper and pigtails and glaring at the camera.
"You know those lame Nativity plays? I was Joseph that year, even though we didn't go to church much. I think maybe it was a bribe to try and get my mom more involved. Anyway, when Willow found out, she decided she had to be Mary, despite the fact that she was, hello, Jewish. Her dad flipped." That was putting it mildly. Willow had made some passionate but poorly considered threats about converting, and Xander had been banned from the Rosenbergs' for a week.
"Dedicated thespian?" Riley suggested, tapping Willow's disgruntled little face.
Xander shook his head. "She was just determined to marry me," he said. He plopped down on the floor next to Riley, curling his legs up under him. "I was quite the catch in Kindergarten." It was an utter lie; he'd been the weird kid who played with girls and left Q out of the alphabet every single time he recited it. Riley didn't need to know that Xander had been such a precocious loser, though.
Riley turned the page, and Xander had to explain how, exactly, Jesse had gotten his head stuck in a chair. It had been a long time since Xander had looked at these pictures with anyone else, and it was good. Nice. It made his belly feel warm and his face feel stretched too tight from smiling so much. Xander kept glancing at Riley to see if he was getting bored, but when they finished one photo album, he flipped open another one and pointed to the first day of seventh grade, demanding to know the story behind Xander's haircut.
They slowed down when they got to high school. Xander got it; the pictures with Buffy in them were more loaded, more relevant for Riley. Maybe more relevant for Xander, and that made him feel a little ill. Buffy was pretty much his hero, right up there with Batman and Kitty Pryde, but he wanted to matter outside of her context.
Riley paused for a long time on one of the pages dedicated to Prom. The picture he was looking at was of Buffy, of course, beaming at the camera with a glittery umbrella in her hands. Under the picture, Dawn had scrawled, "Class Protector Award! Suck it, Snyder, the people have spoken!" in curly, pre-teen handwriting.
"Do you-" Riley started. Then he stopped and made a face. After a moment, he said, "Does it bother you, that she got that and you didn't?"
Xander laughed, more from force of habit than amusement. "It wouldn't have gone with my dress."
Riley cocked his head to look at him."When I joined up," he said slowly, "my family was so proud. I was going to be a hero, you know? Hell, even if I didn't do anything, didn't see any action, putting on that uniform made me a hero in their eyes. My mom took so many pictures of me the first time I wore it." He shook his head. "And if something happened to me, they'd be getting the flag-draped coffin and the medal to prove that I'd been a hero. It was comforting to know. You guys …"
"If something happens to us, we hope like hell there's not enough of us left for a coffin," Xander said baldly. Nightmares about demons using his body to stalk and kill his friends kept him up nights at least as often as the ones about clowns. "Flags optional."
"But people don't even know what you do," Riley said. "This is the first indication I've seen that anyone gets it. That anyone cares."
Xander stared down at the picture for a long moment. In it, Buffy was smiling, proud and grateful, but her eyes were tired. "Up until graduation, we had the lowest mortality rate of any class at Sunnydale High, ever. You can shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears, and say 'lalalalala' until the cows come home - you're still going to notice your friends and family disappearing like that. People care."
Riley touched a gentle finger to the picture, tracing the tinsel-covered umbrella. "I'm having trouble getting over the fact that my parents won't be getting that flag and medal. I'm still fighting on the front lines." He stopped, his mouth twisting into something bitter that wasn't a smile. "Or as near to the front lines as Buffy needs me. But they won't know."
"There are a few people that I want to think of me as a hero," Xander said, "And none of them are my parents."
Riley shot him an unexpectedly sharp look, all bright blue eyes, and said, "You're lucky, then. Anya and Buffy and Willow, they all know already."
And Xander wanted to laugh, because how had Riley been a part of them (or a near spectator) for this long and not noticed that Xander was not the hero in their particular melodrama? More often, he was the shrieking damsel being tied to the train tracks. Xander swallowed down the laugh and asked, "You still talk to them? Your family?"
Riley nodded. "Yeah, of course. One thing secret projects are good for is training you in how to keep secrets from your folks."
"Did you tell them? About the 'leaving the military thing,' I mean? Not about the vampires and the 'your superiors were illegally drugging you' thing."
Riley shrugged uncomfortably. "Not really," he said.
"Yeah, I can't imagine that would go well." Xander twisted the edge of one of the washcloths tight around his fingertip, until it started to go purple and tingly, just for something to do with his hands. Because left to their own devices, they kind of wanted to reach over and rub Riley's shoulders, and he didn't think they were the shoulder-rubbing kind of friends.
"They wouldn't disown me or anything," Riley said quickly. "But they'd be disappointed. And they'd want to know why, and I don't know what I'd tell them."
"There's an official cover story, right?" Xander's parents had never looked beyond the official story for anything, from gangs on PCP to gas explosions.
Riley wrinkled his nose. "There is. I guess I just don't want them to stop thinking I'm a hero."
It was quiet in the apartment, and Xander didn't know how to break it. His usual tactic was to blurt out something inappropriate and humorous, but he liked the way Riley didn't look at him like he was an idiot. He'd like to hold onto that a while longer. After a long moment, Riley shook himself and looked at his watch. "Anyway. I think Buffy's about done with her Slayer stuff. I'm going to go see if she's got some time for me."
"Sure, right." Xander untangled his fingers from the bedraggled washcloth and struggled to his feet. "Thanks for helping," he said.
"I mostly just looked at pictures and made you talk about them," Riley said dismissively.
"Yeah. Thanks for that, too." Xander walked him to the door, feeling off-balance. "I'll see you later?"
"I'm sure I'll be around," Riley said. Xander wished he didn't sound so resigned about that.
He let Riley out and closed the door behind him. The apartment rang silent around him as he crossed the room to pick up the picture album they'd been looking at. The next page held a photo of him and Anya, standing stiff and formal in front of a paper backdrop. Maybe he should get a frame for that one, to go with the furniture Anya was picking out.
By the time the bus pulled up in front of the safe house, Xander felt like he'd melded to the seat. When he tried to stand up, he was sure of it. It wasn't just the way he stuck to the vinyl, clammy and clinging. It was the way his legs wobbled under him, like he'd only dreamed that they had once easily supported his weight.
Gripping the seatbacks, Xander worked his way down the aisle after everyone else had gotten off. It was a long way from his seat in the back to the exit, and his vision kept narrowing to the tiny patch of ribbed-rubber aisle in front of him. He couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion or if it was a fun new effect of monocular vision that he just hadn't noticed before. When he finally got to the front, he was grateful for the railing beside the steps down.
"There he is!" he heard. Lifting his head and blinking away the tunnel vision, Xander saw a small group of black-clad figures standing in the middle of the exhausted rainbow that was the Slayers. Plural. Man, that was never going to stop being weird.
Actually, Xander knew from experience that anything could stop being weird.
One of the people in black was walking toward him with Andrew in tow. He slid into focus when he was about ten feet away, and Xander rubbed a hand over his face and tried to look aware. "Riley, hey," he said.
"Xander," Riley grinned. His hair was longer than last time Xander had seen him. Judging from the company he was keeping and the weapon at his hip, it was more of a 'we've been so busy kicking demon butt that we don't have time for regulation haircuts' thing, and less of a 'left the military again' thing. "I was starting to think they'd left you behind."
Xander choked on something that might have been a laugh in a previous life. The zombie of a laugh. "Nope," he said. "I'm better at leaving than at being left. Didn't you hear?"
Riley frowned at him, and Andrew tugged at his sleeve. "Xander's been through a lot," he said, glaring up at Riley like he was the source of all of Xander's ills. "Maybe you can catch up later."
"I don't know how long we'll be around," Riley said.
Xander nodded loosely. "Riley's got to go," he told Andrew. Just in general, that was a fact of life. Riley always had to go.
"I think maybe you should sit down," Riley said. He tugged Xander's arm up around his shoulder and that was just … weird. Not bad, but they'd never been hugging guys. He had a fuzzy memory of saluting last time he saw Riley, and you couldn't get much more hands-off than that. But Riley felt really solid under his arm, against his side, and Xander let himself sag into his hold.
"Okay," Riley said, "You definitely need to sit." He maneuvered Xander over to a row of crates and deposited him on top of one. "Are you going to be okay?"
Okay was a relative term, and Xander was fully aware of that. "I'm going to be fine," he said.
"If you say so." Riley looked around. "Where's Anya? Do I need to get her to come sit with you?"
Xander's vision did the horse-blinders thing again, and all he could see was knee of Riley's pants. It was dusty, and there was a pocket on the side. "Anya's dead," Xander said. Quick and brutal, like pulling the Band-Aid off a gaping chest wound.
Riley's face dropped into view. Oh, he was kneeling. "I'm so sorry," he said. His eyes were sincere, and his hand was reaching out to pat Xander's shoulder.
"Me, too." Xander nodded. Riley slid his hand down Xander's arm and away. His face kept bobbing in Xander's sight, but it didn't occur to him that he was still nodding until his neck started to get tired. He stilled. "Did you know," Xander said, "that I was in the Army once?"
Riley shot him a confused look. "No," he said lightly. His forehead was wrinkled up, at odds with his casual tone. "Did you run into a recruiter who wouldn't take no for an answer?"
Xander snorted. "It was Halloween. We all turned into our costumes. It was a whole big thing." He flapped a hand. "I remember being him, the soldier guy. There were some awesome things that he knew, but I remember not liking the way he knew how to lose people. He hated to lose anyone, spent all his time trying not to. But he knew how. How to keep fighting, keep running, keep breathing when people fell. I never wanted to know that for myself." He took a deep breath, surprised that he needed it. He hadn't talked much since they'd gotten back on the bus outside of Sunnydale. "I feel like I'm getting good at it."
"I think you're in shock," Riley said. It wasn't what Xander was expecting to hear. He'd expected something deep. Reassuring. He tried to focus enough to glare. "Let me help you inside," he offered. "There are beds in there."
Xander wanted to make a bad joke about Riley trying to get him into bed, and what would his wife say, but the words stuck in his throat. Riley supported him up into the house, which was a big, rambling place with shuttered windows and heavy locks on the doors. There seemed to be crowds of people, but Xander knew that most of them had been on the bus with him. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Faith carrying Wood down a hallway.
Riley steered him to an empty room with a couple of narrow beds in it. Xander thought it was probably a good thing Anya wasn't here, because she would have had something to say about the accommodations. She would have held up the flat pillows and shaken them, saying, "This is unacceptable. This is my tax dollars at work." Xander snorted at the image, and then froze, mentally taking it all back.
It was not a good thing that Anya wasn't here.
"It's okay," Riley said, lowering him onto one of the beds. "Hang in there."
Xander blinked, and he was looking at the ceiling. It had that popcorn texture on it, rough and bubbly. Xander hated that stuff. It was out of style now, and scraping it off during renovations was a nightmare.
"Keeping moving, keeping breathing, that's all you can do," Riley said. Xander tipped his head to the side on the pillow so he could look at him. "It's not a bad thing, Xander."
Xander took a shaky breath, his chest swelling with denial, but he lost track of what he was going to say before he could even start. There was a noise by the door, and Riley left the bedside.
"Is Xander okay?" Buffy asked. She sounded grey and tired, worn out now in a way she hadn't been earlier, with the adrenaline of the battle boosting her.
"Yeah. I think it's just hitting him now, losing Anya," Riley told her.
"We lost a lot of good people." Buffy's voice was hard, and Xander remembered. As much as his heart and mind balked at classing Spike with Anya, Spike had been something to Buffy, and he was gone now, too.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Riley said. Xander didn’t know how he did that, just offered simple sincerity. Xander had never had the knack.
"Thank you. Does Xander need anything? I can have one of the girls come keep an eye on him," Buffy offered.
"That's okay," Riley said. "Things are organized out there. I'll stay with him a while."
"Okay." There was a rustle of movement, and when Xander lifted his head, he could see them hugging. Buffy had always looked so small next to Riley. He wondered if the contradiction between her appearance and powers had ever been funny. "It's good to see you. Thanks for coming."
"Well, this time it's my job, but I'll pretty much always come when you call," Riley said.
Buffy nodded. "Good to know. Take care of Xander." And with another touch to Riley's arm, she was gone.
"I'm fine," Xander said as soon as she left.
"I'm sure you are, but I have orders now," Riley said. "Buffy told me to take care of you. I don't have a choice."
Xander shut his eye. When he opened it again, there was a blanket over him, and the shadows on the popcorn-y ceiling were in different places. "Buffy was in heaven once. Did she tell you?"
Riley was sitting on the next bed, and he stilled at Xander's words. "No," he said carefully, "She never told me."
"I can't imagine a way for Anya to get to heaven," Xander said. "I've been trying. She was a good person, when she was a person. A little greedy, a little self-centered, but I think most people are. But she was a demon for so long. I don't see how a few years as a mostly okay person can wipe that clean."
Riley leaned forward on the edge of the bed so that his elbows were resting on his knees. "I could tell you comforting lies, if you want. But all you can really do is hope. Choose what you believe and what you can live with, and hope.”
Xander squinted at him. “I think you used to be more helpful than this.” The idea of Anya in hell felt heavy, like it was pressing down on his whole body and not just his mind.
Riley laughed sharply. “I really wasn’t.” His watch beeped, a loud, demanding chirp that seemed to have more authority behind it than your average, civilian watch alarm. “I have to go,” he said. Xander nodded. Worlds to save, demons to kill, he knew how it went. “I’ll let somebody know to come check on you.”
“Awesome,” Xander said tiredly. “I love being checked on.”
Riley bent over his bed and patted his shoulder again. If all this shoulder-patting kept up, Xander was going to suspect him of having some kind of a fetish. “You’re going to be okay,” Riley told him. “Not right now, but it’ll happen.”
Yeah. That was kind of what he was afraid of. Riley left quietly, and Xander stared up at the ceiling until Willow came in with his pain pill.
The bar was just busy enough to be comfortable; no awkward silences and no shoving crowds. Xander wove his way through the tables until he finally reached the one in the back corner. Sliding into the booth, he said, “You know, for someone who’s supposed to be all Central America jungle commando, you spend a lot of time in California.”
Riley looked up from his beer and shrugged. “Got to go where the action is.”
“And the action led you here.” Xander looked around at the bar. The patrons were all human, and they weren’t even rough, biker-gang types. Just normal people having drinks and watching basketball on the overhead TVs. “Good thing you got here in time.”
Riley threw a peanut at him. “I’m allowed to take a night off,” he said.
“Of course you are. And so am I.” Xander grabbed a peanut out of the bowl and tossed it in the air, tilting his head to try and catch it in his mouth. “I used to be better at this,” he grumbled. “Stupid depth perception.”
Riley chuckled, and Xander felt a flush of victory. Popping a peanut in his mouth the boring but more reliable way, Xander asked, “So what’s the what? I have a bevy of superpowered girls at my beck and call, if you need back up.”
Riley raised his eyebrows and made a show of looking around the bar, and Xander rolled his eye. “I left them at the hotel. As we speak, they are running up insane room service bills and using an entire hotel’s worth of hot water.” He kicked at Riley under the table. “So spill.”
Riley looked down at the table as though it were fascinating. As a carpenter, Xander was qualified to determine that it was not. “I’m thinking about retiring,” Riley said.
“Whoa.” Xander paused, a new peanut hard and salt-gritty in his hand. “Like, ‘spend the day fishing and complaining about your lawn’ retiring, or …”
“Leaving the squad. That kind of retiring.” Riley tilted his head up like he was watching the game, but his eyes weren’t moving to follow the action. Rookie mistake.
“Is it because of Sam?” Xander asked. “Because I’m pretty sure she didn’t get the entire military in the divorce.”
Riley grinned. It was self-conscious, but it was real, and Xander felt something in his chest relax at the sight. “No. We’re good, Sam and me. If that was going to cause problems, she would have stuffed a Zeckl egg in my bedroll last year when we signed the papers.”
“So, what, then?” Someone (the team in yellow) made a basket, and half of the people in the bar cheered.
Riley shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for a while. I’m not old, but I’m feeling … tired. Run down. Pointless.”
Xander kicked him again. “You’re totally pointy.”
“Thanks.” Riley took a drink from his beer. When he looked up, his eyes were serious. Riley had always done serious well. “I’m just starting to feel like I’m not making a difference. Same rat-race, different rats, you know? The squad is doing good work, but they don’t really need me there to do it. Not when I’m slowing down.”
Xander gave him a thoughtful once over, keeping it professional. Not that he was really willing to admit to giving Riley non-professional once overs. Not in a bar this lacking in glitter, anyway. “I happen to know a team where you could make a difference,” he said. He tried to keep his voice neutral, but some hope might have crept in.
Riley raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t I already tried out the Team Slayer option?”
“Nope. You tried out the Slayer’s Boyfriend option. Totally different deal. The one I’m offering has less sex with superpowered girls but more authority and responsibility. Plus, dental.”
Xander watched the idea sinking in. “Who would I work with?” Riley asked. “’Cause Buffy and I are okay, but I don’t think we’d work that great together. History,” he said, as though that were explanation enough. Fortunately, it was.
Xander scoffed. “Please. Buffy doesn’t waste her time breaking in new Watchers. You’d spend some time at headquarters, learning from the research types, and then you’d go into the field for practice with an established Watcher until you’re ready for your own team.”
“An established Watcher, huh?” Riley eyed him speculatively, and Xander felt his ears going red.
“I’m established,” he said defensively. “My girls kick ass, and I-“
“Watch?” Riley suggested with a grin.
“I Watch like nobody’s business.” Xander pouted a little melodramatically. Not because he was upset, but because it felt good to hang out with someone who could let him be silly. Being a role model all the time was exhausting.
“And you think I could do that?” Riley asked, more hesitantly than he probably intended.
Xander paused, assurances and reassurances piling up in his mouth. He’d always admired Riley to an extreme degree. He couldn’t aspire to Giles’ knowledge and experience, couldn’t hope for Oz’s wit and cool. Hell, he’d never wanted Angel’s mystique, and he’d known the bitterness under Spike’s snark too well to want that. Of all of the guys (few though they were) who had really touched their little group, Riley was the only one Xander had wanted to be.
It had taken him years to realize that he’d just plain wanted him, too, but that wasn’t the issue here.
“I think you can do it,” he said simply.
“And you’d show me the ropes?”
Xander smiled. “Like I’d let anyone else.”
Riley nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll think about it,” he promised.
Xander brushed his hair back from his forehead and ran a finger along the strap of his eye patch. “You know,” he said, pulling out the big guns. “We have a program. If one of ours falls in the line of duty, their next of kin gets a letter of international commendation. The language is pretty non-specific, but …”
“But they’d know,” Riley finished softly. “I’ll think about it.”
His foot bumped against Xander’s under the table, and Xander grinned, suddenly completely confident of what his decision would be. They were going to make a great team.