Title: Walking Higher (The Childhood's End Remix) — Part 5/5
Author: Lizbeth Marcs (liz_marcs)
Summary: There’s only one person who’d ask you to give up heaven, and there are four people for whom you’d do it.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series
Characters: Xander, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Cordelia
Pairings: Primarily gen; Buffy/Xander UST; light Giles/Xander slash
Title, Author, and URL of the original Story: Winter Garden by kivrin
Warning: Disturbing imagery and violence. Vague spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
v) but it is good,
at the eve of such a day,
to feel and know
that there are
such men and women in the world
It was as simple, and as complicated, as taking a breath.
At the edges of the earth, they scrambled in the moments before and the moments after realizing that their world had forever changed again.
…Dawn dropped her books on the desk and, despite her discomforting earlier conversation with Xander, eagerly took up the phone and dialed information to get the number of his hotel. It had been too long since they’d seen each other in person; too long since she had a patented Xander-hug that she liked to think he reserved specially for her.
Much as she hated to admit it, it was nice talking to someone who got it; the it that a Sunnydale survivor, especially a Scooby or an ex-Scooby, got. It was nice not watching every word; not worrying about strange looks whenever she let a vague hint about her past slip past tongue and lips. For the first time since she got LA, she didn’t feel like she had to keep up the wall that shut everyone else out of the Sunnydale portion of her life, and that rated high on the fantastic scale.
Sure, he came armed with horrible news. And yes, he pissed her off more than once during their talk this morning, but at the end of the day he was family. What was more he was family that treated her like an adult. She might not like the high-handed way he sometimes went about it, but he at least seemed to trust that she was capable of making her own decisions.
Which was why she loved him like a goofy, if messed-up, big brother, she supposed. And that was why she’d always be happy to see him, no matter what.
Dawn eagerly spoke the name ‘Lotus Land Estates’ into the phone when the automated system prompted her for the listing. She wasn’t all that concerned when she was clicked over to a live operator asking her to repeat the name of Xander’s hotel and its location.
When she was told that no such hotel by that name existed, she still wasn’t all that concerned. Thinking that Xander must have misremembered name, which was totally no surprise because she told him that ‘Lotus Land Estates’ in no way sounded like any kind of hotel she heard of, she began the long process of trying variations on the name.
And still, there was nothing.
Eventually she gave up seeking help from the operator. A curl of worry caused her stomach to flutter as she turned to Google for answers. With Xander’s luck, he was right about the name of where he was staying, but was wrong about it being the name of a normal, if cheap, hotel.
Maybe he checked into an evil hotel and didn’t know it. Maybe it was an evil hotel staffed by evil cultists. Only evil cultists would name a hotel ‘Lotus Land Estates.’
She began to sweat and her hands began to shake as her fingers flew across the keyboard and typed in every variation of the name that she could think of, even as she told herself that she was overreacting. Xander had spent more than a year in Africa without getting killed, or even seriously injured. If he could take care of himself in a completely foreign environment, then he most certainly could take care of himself in his home state.
She kept searching for more than an hour, but found nothing. She came up with a few business names that sounded close, but none of them belonged to a hotel or motel, nor did they sound like the kind of businesses that were owned by cultists, evil or otherwise.
Dawn chewed her lip in frustration. She’d have to call Buffy and admit that she knew where Xander was hiding. Then she'd have to tell her that she had somehow lost Xander and the name of his hotel. Xander said there were evil Watchers and evil witches and wizards after him, she couldn’t discount the possibility that they somehow tracked Xander to California and had somehow lured him into a trap.
If it turned out that she was jumping at shadows and that she was the one who misheard the name despite the fact that she double-checked, Xander would be annoyed that she didn’t think he could take care of himself, but better safe than sorry.
She grabbed her cell phone and began to dial. As she impatiently waited for her call to connect to the Council center in Rome, she hoped that Buffy would be able to help her solve her Xander-shaped mystery.
…Buffy sat straight up on the couch when the pounding at her door jerked her awake.
This is it, she thought as she grabbed the sword she had laid on the floor within easy reach. In the winter-weak early morning light, she stole quietly up to the door and peered through the spy hole.
She didn’t think it at all strange that Xander stayed put the guest room. Given the awful circumstances behind his flight to Rome, Buffy was relieved that he had realized that it was better for all concerned if he stayed out of sight and got himself tucked into a safe hiding place, not that there were any safe hiding places in the apartment if the worst happened.
On the other side of the door stood a twitch-er-ific looking man flanked by two girls.
Buffy quickly went through all the possibilities in her head. Either this was Omar bearing a 2 gigabyte flash drive full of yummy information and his Slayer guard, or it was a trio of fakers. If they were fakes, she didn’t want to give away that either her or Xander were around. But if they were the real thing…
There really wasn’t a choice.
“What’s the password?” Buffy asked through the closed door.
“No power on this earth,” Omar said back. He quickly added, “Mr. Harris said you’d know what it means.”
Buffy let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding and loosened her grip on the sword. Just the same, she made sure to keep it ready in case she needed to perform some quality hack-and-slash as she opened the door.
Omar held up the flash drive, his ticket to safety and Buffy’s protection, before she silently indicated that he and the Slayers could cross the threshold.
The second the door closed behind them, though, Omar immediately began to tell Buffy a tale that she found hard to believe. As he desperately related all he knew about the events in Nairobi that led to him standing in her safe house apartment sans one Xander Harris, Buffy’s confusion turned to shock.
“But you’re wrong,” she said. “He’s already here.”
Yet Omar, and the Slayers, insisted that it was Buffy who was mistaken.
“No. I know you’re wrong. He’s been here for hours,” she said as she quickly went to the door of the guest bedroom.
She knocked, even though she couldn’t see any way that Xander had slept through the racket. When there was no answer, she called through the door to him and told him it was safe for him to come out.
And still, there was no answer.
Buffy felt the tendrils of fear begin to circle her chest. Xander had to be there, safe and sound. She saw him walk into the bedroom with her own two eyes when he went to bed. She knew for a fact that no one got into or left the apartment in the hours since then.
She flung open the door and stared agape and the scene before her, or rather, the scene that wasn’t before her.
One bed that had never been slept in. One room bereft of Xander’s duffle bag. One floor free of anything resembling clothes.
And not one sign that anyone but her had stepped foot into the bedroom all night.
…Giles rolled over in bed and flung an arm across the pillow.
A thought tickled in the back of his mind. There was something missing, or something he forgot, although he couldn’t rightfully say what it was.
He irritably rolled over and checked the time on the alarm clock.
It read: 3:13 a.m.
In a flash it all came back him.
Xander calling him at his hotel. The taxi ride. Meeting Xander not far from the capitol building. The fearsome weather outside. The botanic garden. The intoxicating scent of flowers as Xander leaned over and kissed him, and a need that made him ache. The stumbling trip back to his hotel room. The desperate kissing and touching and fumbling of clothes as they stumbled to the bed. The hours of exploring each other’s bodies. The way the world and its cares faded away as the room grew dimmer with the coming of night. The sated exhaustion that lulled them both into slowly deepening sleep.
He remembered how, as he drifted off to sleep, Xander held him close and whispered that he loved him, and that all Giles needed to do was to rely on and trust the people he cared about and everything would be turn out all right.
Giles was on his feet in a split second and fumbling for a light. As soon as he snapped on the lamp located on the bedside table, he winced against the sudden brightness. Then he desperately began looking for some sign that Xander was still about.
The bed was empty. Every scrap of Xander’s clothing was gone. Xander wasn’t in the hotel suite, and there was no note indicating that he’d left, let alone where he’d gone off to.
Stupid old man, Giles thought as he dropped back onto the edge of the bed.
Stupid, dirty old man, the thought elaborated as he dropped his head into his hands.
He could imagine all too well what had happened. Xander got caught up in the heat of the moment, and allowed himself to be carried along by someone he trusted into doing something he didn’t want or desire.
Xander had been in an odd frame of mind from the time Giles first laid eyes on him. Xander had been looking over his shoulder for daggers in the dark. Xander had landed in the one place where he thought he’d be safe.
With him. In Washington D.C. Away from the nightmares that Africa had inflicted on him and in a city that — even if he didn’t know it well — was at least somewhat familiar to him.
Xander had trusted in him.
In his mind’s eye, he could see Xander waking up not precisely knowing where he was other than in a soft bed and a warm room. He could imagine Xander lazily rolling over and coming face to with what had happened. He could too well understand the moment of panic that had most likely gripped the younger man as he slid out of bed and quietly got dressed.
Most likely Xander was even now checking into a different room. No. A different hotel.
If there was any comfort in this, Giles knew Xander would contact him once he’d found a proper bolt hole and had pounded the events of the day and night into some semblance of sense. The situation with the rebel Watchers was too dire for Xander to simply up and disappear without a word.
Much as Giles desperately needed to know that Xander was physically safe, much he wanted to hear Xander’s voice, he dreaded whatever would come after.
It could only go one of two ways: Xander would want to talk about what had happened — a mortifying thought — or would pretend that it never happened — a horrifying situation. Giles wasn’t sure what would shatter him more: harsh accusations about being used in such a manner, or uncomfortable silence in an effort to ignore what had happened. One thing was for certain: Xander would never openly embrace nor express happiness about their momentary shared madness and need for intimacy.
The ring of his mobile startled him out of his gloomy musings about the distasteful future that lay before him. He stupidly stared into space as the mobile rang a second time.
By the third ring he was out of bed and digging through his jacket pockets.
In the middle of the fourth ring, he saw that it was Buffy calling from Rome.
A shiver ran through him. Guilt about the past. Fear about the future. But most importantly, concern about the present.
The mobile stopped ringing. No doubt Buffy had been dumped into his voice mail.
Much as he didn’t wish to call her back, he had little choice in the matter. Most likely Buffy was ringing him to report that Xander’s courier and his Slayer guards had arrived safe and sound with the information Xander had purloined from the rebels.
Giles uneasily swallowed in an effort to steady his nerves. Dealing with the destruction of his personal relationship with Xander would have to wait. Duty called.
He set aside the mobile and slowly dressed, out of some misguided sense of propriety more than anything else. Once he was decent in body, if not in soul, he again took up the mobile.
As he flipped open the mobile and scrolled through contact list to Buffy’s number, he couldn’t help but muse how Xander was right. This damnedable piece of technology had become the weapon of choice against his enemies, and the shield he used to keep his loved ones at bay.
…Willow stared into the crowd for a long time after it swallowed all trace of Xander whole.
Once she was certain that he wouldn’t be coming back — not to talk, not to give her another hug, not to give her another kiss on top of her head, not even to say good-bye — she could feel her heart shatter.
She stumbled away from the surging crowd rushing between gates, and slowly sunk into an available seat in a nearby departure lounge.
It wasn’t until a concerned passer-by stopped to ask if she was all right that she realized that she was sobbing.
You’re getting lost in the rhythm of life.
It’s the way the dawn sunlight flows over the buildings; the way the city snaps awake not with a slow stretch, but a sudden spasm of movement; the way people spill into the streets.
There’s a cry of shock at the sight of a burned corpse in the middle of the road. You know that the person stumbling back from the scene is not the first to notice, but he’s the first who cares enough to break the spell that shrouded the horror from human eyes.
You drift over to him and brush a calming hand across his shoulder. He nods his thanks to you, seeing and yet not seeing you as you stand next to him and offer silent comfort.
It seems the entire city pours into the area after that. The ever-swelling crowd eventually hides from view the thing that you know is there.
As for you, you walk in the spaces between now, marveling at the mix of languages and dialects and how you can understand every word, and every shade of thought and emotion behind those words, so clearly. In this rush of color and confusion, you are nothing more than a shadow, unless and until the moment requires you to be fully present. You know that moment will come soon enough. You also know that moment is not here, nor is it now. Now it’s time for the living to confront the dead. It’s not really a place where you belong, and it’s not really a time for you to have your say.
She’s moving through the spaces with you, watching you take it all in; watching as understanding slowly fills you up after so long of doing without.
You nod at her, feeling a little light-headed, a little loopy, as you absorb it and make it a part of yourself. “Yes,” you say to her unspoken question, “Yes.” You have never meant the word more than you do at this very moment.
Somewhere in between, police wind their way around you, dodging your presence without any of them realizing it. There is an on-site examination, consultations, and orders for the crowd to stand back. There are even jokes to keep the scent of burned flesh and death at bay, and it’s a language you understand so well that you can’t help but throw out your arms and laugh at the sky. These police are your countrymen, members of the union of people who’ve seen horrors and have kept their sanity up until the bitter end.
“Morbid much?” she asks with a hint of irritation. “Have I mentioned that it’s gauche to stick around for your own funeral? Especially when the guest of honor has your fashion sense.”
You grin at her, knowing that her remarks are a little bit for show, a little bit for old time’s sake.
She rolls her eyes to the heavens, and lets out an irritated breath. “Get it together, dorkface. The Powers have another job for you lined up already.”
That brings you up short. “What? Don’t I get some recovery time?”
“You get a day. Wait. Maybe a century.” She waves an elegantly manicured hand in dismissal. “That’s the problem with this job. Your sense of time becomes goo. I’m soooo putting in for that PDA.”
“I’ve got my Tweety Bird watch. I’m good.”
“Yeeeeaaaaah. We’re going to have to do something about that, not to mention your wardrobe.” She snaps her fingers and grins. “That means shopping. I know this great place in Paris—”
“I think I’ll stick with the Tweety Bird watch, thanks.”
“You would.” She glances at the crowd, now moving as sluggishly as blood. “We really have to go.”
“I’m ready,” you tell her.
She turns and leads the way, her head held high like the queen she always knew herself to be.
You run a few steps to catch up, and when you reach her side your hand brushes hers.
To your surprise, to your non-surprise, she grasps your hand and holds it tight without breaking her stride.
You walk away with your back firmly to the scene that has captured so much interest. The dead thing that lies in the midst of living holds as much importance as a stray piece of street litter — important to someone somewhere once, but important no longer.
“Good soldiers are hard to find,” she quietly says to you. “I’m glad you’ve decided to come with.”
Then she falls uncharacteristically silent, but that’s okay. You know she’ll be talking with her usual flair again soon enough, and you’ll be laughing again soon enough, and in that moment the world will ring with the rightness of it all.
Additional Writing Credits:
The title is taken from the song “Walking Higher" by Heather Nova.
Chapter breaks were written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The quotes come from the following works:
i) from “Chiefly About War Matters”
ii) from “The Hollow of the Three Hills”
iii) from “The Procession of Life”
iv) from “Our Old Home – To a Friend”
v) from “Footprints on the Sea Shore”