It's my day today, although technically there's only an hour left of it my end. I'm not quite sure how that happened...
Anyway, there's a little something extra besides this, which will be coming over the next hour - I'm sure you're on tenterhooks!
Title: The Public Face
Rating: PG-13 (for one vaguely real swear word?)
Summary: Xander gets a phone call in the middle of the night, which leads him to witnessing a reunion he's not sure he wants to.
Author's Notes: This is a sequel-in-spirit to Resolution, wherein I tried to deal with my Season 8 issues. This is is less blatantly ranty, and more my attempt to deal with the (inevitable, dammit) Buffy/Spike reunion from what's hopefully a different angle. Hope you like it, and please feel free to point out any typos.
The Public Face.
“Mister Harris! Mister Harris, thank God you’re there.”
“Giselle?” Xander smeared a hand across his eye and tried to focus on the blinking colon of his alarm clock. “I mean, duh, Buffy – thought you were someone...” Half past two in the morning. That meant it was still night in Rome and this wasn’t rudeness. “What’s happened?” He pushed the duvet back, slipped his feet into his embarrassingly necessary slippers and thudded over to his dressing gown.
“My cover’s blown.”
“What?” The dressing gown slipped. “How?”
“I... I don’t know!” The line was crackling slightly, but it didn’t account for her hoarseness. “This vamp showed up at the door and asked to see Buffy, and I told him, you know, you’re looking at her, bold as brass or whatever, like Mister Giles said, and he got real pissed and grabbed the front of my shirt and was like, what the hell have you done with her, and I was like, what the hell are you talking about, but then I freaked ‘cause he had his arm over the threshold and I knew he didn’t believe me –” Giselle’s breath hitched. Xander swore he heard the creak of cracking plastic.
“Giselle, calm down.” With the button for an emergency meeting already pushed Xander was out of his suite and storming down the louring corridors to the boardroom. “Just tell me what happened.” A door slammed behind him.
“Well, I was thinking, oh shit, this is it, but then he dropped me and his voice went all cold and tell Andrew I want to talk to him and then he walked off, but I was still freaking and then I couldn’t get hold of Andrew ‘cause he’s not back yet. So I phoned you.”
“Why would he want to talk to Andrew?” Xander mused, mostly to himself, as he entered the boardroom. He nodded tersely to Buffy and the others, before taking his seat at the round.
“I don’t know! I guess...” A small mew of panic rushed down the receiver. Xander turned on the unit in front of him and the last breath of it echoed around the room.
“OK, Giselle, you’re on speakerphone.” There was a flutter as they recognised the name. “Giselle’s cover’s been blown, guys,” Xander said with a glance around the table, trying to ignore Buffy’s paling face. “Just tell us what he looks like and we can fix this. It’s gotta be someone Buffy’s met before.”
“OK, OK,” she replied, still slightly fluttery. “Description, description. Uh, he was British. Lots of black – black jeans, black shirt, black coat, kinda like the Matrix without the shades. And really bad hair, you know, white?”
She continued, but Xander had stopped listening. Buffy’s expression was composed, but her eyes were suddenly so very far away, stark and empty. It took a moment, but then she blinked and answered his stare, a weary frown growing on her forehead.
Without a word he tossed her the receiver, still in his hand, Giselle’s voice pouring from its earpiece. She took it and rushed out of the room, a flurry of white fleece.
“Giselle?” Buffy’s hushed voice fell from the speakers, so full of brittle anxiety that it made him cringe to hear it amplified. “Giselle, if he comes again, don’t let him leave, all right? Please, keep him there somehow – I’m getting a flight and –”
Xander’s finger rose from the speakerphone button.
“You’ve thought this though, right, Buff?” Xander asked, shifting again in his seat.
They’d been airborne for an hour now. Xander had finished his graphic novel and the budget airline wouldn’t give him any more entertainment. The seat in front was far too close to his knees and the seat he was in was just plain itchy.
“Buff?” he asked again, hoping she’d turn around. The clouds outside couldn’t be that interesting. Of course he knew that she wasn’t really looking at them, but maybe she’d realise the excuse wouldn’t work much longer.
“What?” she said suddenly, her head turning with a jerk. “Huh? Oh, thinking through. Uh huh, done that.” She smiled, and her lip gloss gleamed as it caught the fluorescent light. She looked better than she had that morning: hair clean and tied back, face made up so she looked the way he always thought of her; no more mascara below her eyes, no more pale cheeks. In jeans and a jacket she was once again the face of the Council, but he was beginning to wonder whether that wasn’t a façade.
“You know that it... it might not be him.”
She glanced down, running her fingers along the textured plastic of the armrest between them. “I... Why would he ask for Andrew, Xander?” A look up, and he could see the shadows of her pale face the night before. “Why would he ask for Andrew if he was trying to mess with me? Why would he do any of it?”
He was at a loss. He’d been at a loss since that morning, when Buffy had dragged him from the boardroom, dismissed the others and told him to pack a bag. Both of them leaving went completely against protocol, protocol he and Buffy had set up together to protect the castle. He shook his head. “I don’t know. But wily plans don’t generally let their plan-ees in on the secret till the trap’s been sprung. We need to go in with our eyes open.”
Buffy sighed and tipped her head back to the polyester, closing her eyes. He hoped she wasn’t making a point. “Thanks for coming with me. It’s good to have some company.
“You could’ve taken the jet, you know.” Forcibly he tried to lighten his tone. “Giselle’s position’s been compromised, so it’s official business.” He stretched his legs out, nudging his backpack further under the seat, and almost missed the wrinkle of her nose on the word ‘official’.
“I guess. But I’d have to fill out a form for Accounts, and that’s way effort.” That wasn’t the answer.
“You don’t have to deal with this on your own, Buffy.” If it’s not him.
She still didn’t open her eyes. “That’s why I’ve got you, haven’t I?”
“Yeah, ‘cause since Sunnydale I’ve been nothing but fighting-fit.”
At that she definitely frowned. She shook her head and the expression cleared. “I think I might get some sleep before we land. My zee-catching didn’t go too well last night.”
Xander sighed, nudged his seatbelt into a more comfortable position and peered down the aisle for the food trolley.
Giselle met him with a rather frantic hug. “Xander, I’m so glad you’re here!” She’d obviously had time to regroup: her act was perfect now, and even though he could sense the extra grain of gratitude in her grip he knew it didn’t show.
“Buffster!” His acting skill wasn’t that great, but he liked Giselle. It made it easier to fake. “I haven’t seen you in so long!”
“How’s Africa?” she asked, pulling back from the hug with a sunny smile. She really was good. He could almost believe the frightened girl he’d spoken to the night before had been a dream.
“Dusty,” he said, playing the same joke as ever. “How’s the Immortal?”
Another beam, with just the faintest hint of plastic. “Perfectly perfect.”
Pleasantries felt so routine to him these days. “I brought a visitor,” he said, stepping to one side and nodding towards Buffy, who stood awkwardly in the doorway.
“Giselle Denvers, right? Giselle waved. “Hi!”
“Hey, uh, Buffy,” came Buffy’s stilted response. There was an awkward pause as Giselle’s eyes flicked to his, her one tick when she didn’t know how to react. Xander resisted the urge to suck in a breath, willing Buffy to remember the description of Giselle he’d given her. Luckily, she seemed to catch on, and continued, blushing red, “I mean, uh, Miss Summers. It’s really great to meet you.”
“I’m happy with first names if you are, Giselle.” Another effortless grin. “Call me Buffy.” Her eyes were clear, staring Buffy down. Xander couldn’t help but feel proud.
“Great,” Buffy replied, a little mulishly. “Because that –”
“We’ve only got one guest room,” Giselle interrupted, picking up their bags and breezing into the apartment proper. “I thought if you took that, Giselle, then, Xand, you could have the couch, if that’s OK?”
“Sounds great,” he replied with a reassuring grin.
She nodded, putting his bag down by said couch and indicating they should sit. “Dawn’s out with friends today,” she continued airily as she and Buffy’s bags disappeared. “But she’ll be back tomorrow.”
At the mention of Dawn, Buffy’s face fell. Xander still wasn’t sure what had gone on there. He did however know that the subject was closed, so took his seat on the sofa without comment.
“Xand, d’you wanna see what’s on TV?”
And that was, of course, code for ‘Mister Harris, please put the glamour up now’. He dug the special remote out from between the cushions, shaking his head at Buffy’s raised eyebrow, and as Giselle sat down he flicked the code into the receiver of their redundant DVD player.
The timer appeared on the screen, ominously blinking thirty minutes at them.
“OK,” Xander said. “We can talk now.”
“What the hell is that?” Buffy asked. She looked at him, but her eyes kept flicking back to the seconds counting down.
“It’s a glamour, only operable by me, so that Giselle and I can talk. Andrew was going to have clearance, but, as he pointed out, he lives here, so it’s more likely he’ll get possessed.” And the fact that he could say stuff like that with a straight face proved how far he’d come.
“Why didn’t I know about it?”
He shrugged. “We never thought you’d come here.”
“Miss Summers –”
“Seriously, call me Buffy.” She waved a hand, relaxing at last and quirking a smile. “You have sex on my behalf; I’d say we’re pretty close.”
Giselle grinned, a rich bubble of laughter suddenly rising out of her throat: a much more natural happiness than anything she’d shown so far. Xander felt himself even unwind slightly.
“So you reckon this vamp’s Spike?” Her momentary diffidence was gone, replaced by a soft shrewdness that made her look nothing like Buffy.
“I...” Buffy herself visibly sobered, hints of darkness coming into her voice. “It could be. Maybe.” She blushed. “It’s insane, and I don’t even want to hope, but, yeah.”
Giselle shook her head. “No, it’s not that insane. And he fitted Spike’s description, definitely. I should’ve figured it. I guess I just freaked out, you know?”
“I get it,” Buffy replied, nodding.
Giselle sighed, and leant back into the sofa. “It’s like – just when you think you’ve got this Slayer-dual identity gig going good, something comes along and slaps you in the face. And then suddenly you’re a dewy-eyed, untrained nobody all over again.”
“I totally know that feeling,” Buffy replied, her voice lightening perversely. Xander, on the other hand, felt an odd churn of worry in his stomach, because he most certainly did not know that she knew that feeling. “You’ve just got to remember that... you’ve always got yourself. The training, the weapons, whatever – it all makes you better, but without it you’re just as strong. You’re still the Slayer.” She waved a hand again. “Or a Slayer, anyway. You know what I mean.”
Giselle nodded, drinking it in; Xander just fidgeted. He hadn’t seen Buffy go all Zen Master, even flipply, since Sunnydale, and he hadn’t seen anybody listen in longer. It wasn’t that they’d all assumed she was no good at teaching, it was just that they had people to do that. Buffy was the leader, the figurehead, not another Watcher.
A silence fell and the seconds ticked away. Xander dug his hands in his pockets and leaned back, prompting Giselle to speak up again. “So, how are we going to work this? Spike, if it is Spike, will recognise you as you and that can’t happen because currently you’re me.”
Three years ago Xander wouldn’t have bothered trying to make his brain keep up with that comment. Now he nodded along, glad for the change in subject. “Right. But what if I meet him? Bring him inside, cast the glamour, tell him what’s going on?”
“That could work,” Buffy agreed. “But – I want to see him.” She raised her chin slightly and Xander raised an eyebrow.
“But how are we going to find him?” Giselle asked, eyes flicking between them. “Do we know if he’ll even turn up here again?”
“He’ll be back.” Buffy’s answer was quick and final. “He’ll run out of options, get pissed off and come back here to get more information out of you.”
“Certain.” She wilted slightly into the armchair. “Well, I want to be.”
It wasn’t until he opened the door that Xander realised he hadn’t thought it was true. He’d been prepared to see someone who looked like Spike, been prepared to deal with Buffy’s grief and have his heart wrenched out of his throat in sympathy for her, but he had not been prepared to see Spike, standing in a corridor, faint surprise on his face.
“Great squiggly Cthulhu, Spike, welcome back to the living!” He even had a manly arm around the vampire’s shoulders before he remembered they didn’t actually get on.
“Yeah...” Spike replied, extricating himself awkwardly. “Good to see you too, Harris.” Had there always been that glimmer of suspicion in his voice? “Was told you were in Africa.”
And who had told him that? “And now I’m here.” Spike wasn’t buying it. “Won’t you come inside?”
“I’m here to see Buffy,” Spike said as he stepped through the door. Xander wondered why he’d thought Spike would be any different after coming back from the dead. Then there was the standard question of whether he’d even been thinking at all.
“Way I heard it,” Xander replied as he led them to the sofa, “you already saw her. Completely freaked her out.”
That was definitely a growl behind him. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, Harris...”
“Just sit down, Spike.” Xander turned, pulling the remote out of the sofa before pushing Spike not too softly into the seat. “Let’s be civilised about this. You, me, Buffy and the other visiting Slayer – who’s called Giselle, by the way – can watch some TV, and then –”
He was cut off by the guest room door opening, violently. Buffy rushed out, shaking her arm free from Giselle’s grip. She made it about a metre into the room before she stopped dead, fragile as a feather, the distant eyes of the night before wide in her face.
In front of him, Spike, thankfully silent, tried to stand up. Xander pushed him back down before he could protest, as Giselle forcibly guided Buffy to the other half of the sofa, taking the armchair for herself. “Giselle, meet Spike,” she said quickly, brushing some hair out of her face. “We dated, ish, back in the day. Now, Xand, I think there’s something crazy inaccurate on the History Channel.” Her eyes bored into him.
Xander dropped to his chair fumbled with the control, fingers shaking, but at last he beat out the code that unleashed the mojo. The numbers flashed up on the screen.
No one spoke for what turned out to be seventeen seconds.
“So, right, is there any reason for the Final Countdown, or is this what passes for telly round here?”
“It’s a – glamour,” Xander replied, shaking the silence out of his head. “You...” He wouldn’t look at the sofa, just at the safety of Giselle. “We can talk now. The idea of Buffy in Rome keeps the demons hopping, so Giselle’s here with Jessie, putting up appearances.”
“Dawn.” At Buffy’s voice, Xander found himself turning, despite his intentions. The space between her and Spike seemed to have grown, and that old weariness marked her face, though she didn’t look at him.
“There’s a fake Dawn?” Spike turned to her, all sharp lines and angles. Buffy winced, and pulled a knee up to her chest. Spike was relentless. “Kid’s got issues with being real and you set some other girl up to live her life?”
She scrunched her eyes closed and Xander leant forward, ready to intervene. Buffy, however, cut him off and out of the conversation. “It’s not like that.” He was beginning to remember why he disliked Spike so much.
“She all right with it, then?”
Buffy sighed, eyes opening to the floor. “It’s awful, I know, but... Look, can we not do this now?” A single glance up to her right as she dropped her knee. “This is not the conversation we’re supposed to be having.”
“Right.” Spike avoided her gaze this time, scratching the back of his head. “Course not.”
The heavy mood between them forced Xander’s head away; he felt too embarrassed to look. Opposite him Giselle still stared intently, lost in character study. He could understand why. This Buffy, cold and tired, wasn’t one they’d ever taught her about, mostly because Xander had hoped she’d never need to know.
He hadn’t seen this Buffy since Sunnydale, and only then when she hadn’t known he was looking. He blamed Spike for bringing her back, and seeing the way Giselle’s eyes flicked between the two he didn’t think he was grasping at straws. It was nice to have vindication once in a while.
“So, how’ve you been?” Spike asked suddenly.
This was followed by the thin, dark sound of Buffy’s laugh, which made Xander jump.
“You’re going to tell me you’ve been back for ages, aren’t you?” The subtle irony of Buffy’s tone seemed almost alien.
“It’s...” Resignation: not an emotion he usually associated with Spike. “It’s true enough. Was a ghost for a bit, then got stuck trying to pull Angel’s arse out of the flames of Wolfram and Hart.”
Buffy sighed. “Andrew knew.”
Xander frowned at the coffee table, and the near-perfect composition of magazines and coasters. If Andrew had known Spike was alive he should have reported it. Was he the only one who ran things by the book?
Buffy continued, so Xander assumed Spike had responded somehow, “Did you... did you stay for the reason I think you stayed?”
“What – oh, Christ, Buffy –” The cushions moved, but a quick glance reassured Xander that there was still space between them. “That was just me being a pillock. For most of it anyway. I couldn’t just walk back in here after burning for the world. Didn’t seem right.” There was a pause, and Xander was almost glad he couldn’t fill it in. “Course, then we had another battle and I realised that was bollocks, so...”
“It’s not, though.” He was reminded, suddenly, of a conversation he and Willlow had had once about sibyls. The image he had in his head immediately took on Buffy’s quiet, unfathomable speech.
“Bull. Or whatever the English equivalent for what you just said is. You were a hero...”
“And now I’m not?” More sighing cushions. “Ta ever so.”
“Don’t you dare say that.” He risked another look, his gaze meeting Spike’s hand just as Buffy clasped it. Embarrassed reflex tore his eye away, bringing instead into view the tensed muscle of Spike’s jaw and the glassiness of Buffy’s eyes.
There he stopped. Something dense, something vital, thrummed between them that he hadn’t known existed. He and Buffy had talked dozens of times that year, but she had never said, never hinted at something like this. Thoughts flew from his head as she continued, “You were a hero that day, a – a champion. You laid everything on the line. You don’t come back from that, not if you want it to mean anything. You keep doing it, every day, what you have to, because it’s right. You learned that.”
Giselle was still watching, chewing thoughtfully on a nail. She was looking at Spike as much as Buffy, unabashedly scrutinising the interplay between them. Xander knew she had an oddly dispassionate streak, it was what made her so good at her job, but he hadn’t realised how deep it ran. For the first time he questioned how much trust they’d put in her, considering how little they really knew. She was a Slayer, and that had seemed enough. Now he wasn’t so sure. Why wouldn’t she look away?
“Love, you give me too much credit. I’m a cowardly ponce, is all – or did you forget?”
“You always sell yourself short, Spike.” Part of Xander winced at the softness in Buffy’s voice. In Sunnydale he’d been resentfully curious about their relationship, but that didn’t mean he deserved to know all this. “And I guess that’s my fault, but... just stop, OK? Just stop.” He seemed to be the only one who cared.
“I’m not a hero.”
“You are. You’re also crazy melodramatic, but that’s...”
Something shifted in the air, forward and back, and it was followed by a more physical shifting. Giselle blinked and sat up in her seat. Xander felt a tension leave him.
Buffy was blushing furiously, looking between him and Giselle. She tried to brush some hair from her eyes, but her hand was still entwined with Spike’s. They noticed, and Spike pulled his away, sitting further back into the sofa and closing off his face.
“Sorry, guys. That –” She glanced back at Spike, who raised an eyebrow. “You probably didn’t want to hear all that.”
Xander hadn’t, but it was mostly for their sake rather than his own. The quagmire had faded from the room, and it was easier to think with perspective. “You’ve got a lot to talk about. I get it.” And yet, the TV was still ticking time down in the corner of his eye, and Giselle was still watching. “Maybe, Spike, if you could get to Scotland, then...”
“Not Scotland,” Buffy distracted him. There was a hardness in her face, but he now realised it had never gone anywhere.
“I need to be back in LA pretty sharpish,” Spike added. They turned and he addressed Buffy, “Never thought this would be a long trip – I figured you to still be going out with the Immortal.”
Xander felt himself be cleaved from the conversation, and wasn’t sure what to do.
“I think technically I am.” Buffy frowned, scrunching up her nose. “How about...” She looked Spike in the eye. “If I came to LA, would I be welcome?”
Springing forward in his seat Spike brought himself to Buffy’s level, turning his back on Xander. “Welcome? Buffy, that place is a bloody hellhole; we need all the help we can get! Course you’d be welcome.”
“I wasn’t sure, I...”
“Well.” Spike’s voice went thick, and Xander was back to looking at the coffee table, the clutter around the TV, anything in the room that wasn’t them. “Naturally, the quality of welcome depends on in what capacity you come.”
He couldn’t help but think that Spike had come a long way from jabbering insanely in a basement. And he hoped to God that Buffy remembered where they were in time.
There was a moment as Xander locked eyes with Giselle that he thought it wasn’t going to happen. But then the atmosphere diffused naturally back into awkwardness, and Xander could bear to see Buffy tucked indignantly under Spike’s arm.
“That’s that, then,” Spike said, smug as hell.
Xander woke blurrily to a cold, pitch black apartment, muffled voices leaking from the direction of the kitchen. He sat up, but saw nothing apart from the red glow of the oven’s LED display. Soft whispers continued, bouncing darkly from ceramic and suffusing the apartment with earnestness. There was a sob, and a shadow passed over the LED.
If there were purpose to their paranoia, Buffy was being incredibly stupid. Xander knew he should do something, and knew he should care. As it was, he nestled further down into his sleeping bag and let them have some privacy.