Thanks to Rastro and Mo for beta reading for me!
I've been hurting since I've bought the gimmick
about something called love
Yeah, something called love.
Well, that's like hypnotizing chickens.
Well, I'm just a modern guy
Of course, I've had it in the ear before.
I have a lust for life
'Cause of a lust for life.
I'm worth a million in prizes
"Lust for Life," Iggy Pop
"And I think that we can not only make three to five thousand dollars in small merchandise sales but that the exposure will bring in new business from the surrounding towns," Anya said, pointing toward the brightly colored pie chart. She'd taken a short course on PowerPoint and was proudly showing off her skills. Anya looked at the group assembled in front of her; none of them was showing the proper appreciation of her business acumen. "Well?!"
"Hmm," Rupert Giles looked up from the notebook in front of him. "Excellent, as always, Anya. I think that your plan to sell non-threatening magiks, crystals and various weird smelling stuff," Giles read off the list of things that Anya was proposing to sell from her slide, "at the Women's Folk Music Festival, will be a great success. I'm only sorry that I'll miss it," Giles made a valiant effort to look disappointed.
"That's all right, I believe that the people attending will purchase more stuff from their own kind," Anya gestured towards Willow and Tara.
"Hey," Willow protested weakly. She was actually looking forward to hearing the music and getting paid for it, so she didn't protest too much.
"We resemble that remark!" Tara joked. Willow gave her a brilliant smile and entwined their hands. She was just starting to get back to her old self. It had been over two months since her brain had been gooified by Glory. Her confidence in doing things was returning more quickly recently. She and Willow had volunteered to help Anya work a booth at the music festival. It would be her first time doing anything outside the all-protective shelter of the Scoobie Gang. She was eager to get out, since she knew that school would be starting in a few weeks and she needed her self-confidence back before then.
"Ah, Xander," Giles greeted the late arrival to their meeting. The group was sitting around the Summers' living room, the slide projector Anya was using for her presentation propped up with old Teen People and Scientific American magazines. It projected onto a wall that formerly had one of Joyce's objects d'art on it. A rather bizarre object so no one really objected to it being taken down.
"Greetings all," Xander flopped tiredly down in the chair. It was a good tired though; the job he was currently working on was going well. They would even finish before the date he had projected. Damn, he thought, it's nice to be good at something. He was sorry that he had missed Anya's presentation. But since he had been her practice dummy for the speech and slides, he felt he could have recited it back to her in Pig Latin. "Meeting all done?"
"Yes, I've outlined the business proposal, the help," she gestured in the direction of the two witches sitting next to each other on the couch, "knows what they need to do to help. I think I've taken care of everything."
"Oi," Spike called out from the back of the room, he'd been sitting in a darkened corner. "I wanna go too!"
"You actually want to help at the booth?" Giles looked at the bleach blond vampire in amazement.
"No, I just want one of them badges that'll let me roam around the concert without any questions," Spike retorted.
"Why do you want to go to the Women's Folk Music Festival?" asked Willow. She'd always considered Spike to be more of an English punk or metal type of music fan.
"I have depth you know," Spike shook his head emphatically, pointing a thumb at his black t-shirted chest. "I have eclectic tastes."
The entire group stared at the vampire. Clearly they didn't believe his explanation. The silence dragged on for fifteen seconds, then thirty. Finally Spike broke down, "I have a Loreena McKennit fixation, all right? Is that a sin or something?"
Giles' lips twisted in amusement as he forced down a grin. "I believe that you told me just last week that your current musical interests were more in the direction of Pappa Roach and Staind," He cocked an eyebrow, he had broad musical tastes himself but the thought of the head-banging Spike listening to neo-Celtic folk was, well, disturbing.
"You don't know how it is," Spike replied, no small amount of self-pity creeping into his voice. "I'm a big, tough vampire neutered by the bloody chip in my head. If people found out that I liked Loreena, well, they'd just laugh."
"No we wouldn't," Willow said with a firm nod of her head. "Good for you," she turned around in her seat and awkwardly patted the vampire on the back.
"Yeah we would," Xander interjected. He tried to think of a snappy addition to his statement but nothing came. He looked over to Giles for witty-comeback support.
"Well, yes, we would, but we'll wait to taunt you until you're down," Giles said quickly. "That settled," he moved the conversation away from the disturbing revelation of Spike's, "Please remember that I'll be leaving Thursday morning for London."
No one in the room did anything more than give a half-hearted nod. They knew the purpose of Giles' visit was to deliver his final report on the death of the Slayer. The reality of Buffy's death had hit them hard; the finality of it was still hard for them to comprehend. A small part of them still expected her to come in the front door. But when Giles gave his final report that would mean that the chapter of their lives that contained Buffy the Vampire Slayer would forever be closed. It would be behind them, the bright colors of her life gradually muting with time.
"But you're coming back, right?" Willow asked.
"Of course," Giles said quietly, he reached over and lightly touched Willow's shoulder. "I've told you that I will remain here as long as you need me."
The red-headed young woman gave a weak smile at the reassurance. For now, she and the other's needed Giles' presence. But what about in a few months, she wondered, when they had healed from the trauma and their lives went on. There was no longer anything to hold the Watcher in Sunnydale. She forced the thought to the back of her mind. No sense borrowing trouble, she told herself.
"Who's going to be running the shop?" Xander asked.
"Michael," Tara explained, "we're going to reduce the store's hours so he should be fine for the three days we'll be gone."
"Well, sounds as if everything is planned out," Giles said standing up. "I suggest we adjourn for something to eat."
At that moment the front door was flung open. A very loud, very irritated voice forced its way into the living room. "You will not believe what those teachers want me to do for homework. This is so-ooo unfair."
"I think we forgot something," Giles dryly commented.
* * *
How they had managed to forget about Dawn was a complete mystery to Xander. Much of all their lives were centered on making sure that Dawn was taken care of. He supposed that the thought of doing something different had gotten them all so excited they'd forgotten about their responsibilities. After a five-minute discussion, with Dawn whining every thirty seconds that she "could so miss school to go to the music festival and help out." And that "real life sales experience was invaluable", they had finally come up with a workable plan. Dawn's inclusion on the sales staff had been vetoed. Giles had finally pointed out that if she didn't pass summer school there was a good chance that she would not be allowed to advance to the next grade. He had added, sternly, that she was barely doing enough homework to pass as it was. This had led to Dawn pouting and sitting herself down between Tara and Willow. It was a pattern that had been establishing itself the last two weeks. Giles was trying to put the brakes on the "Let Dawn to anything" parade. He had talked with the entire group about it, pointing out that Dawn had to get some normalcy back in her life.
Spike and Willow, ever Dawn's champions, had pointed out that Dawn herself was hardly normal, that her mother and sister were dead, and that she deserved to do as she pleased. Xander and Tara had sided with Giles, though not very forcefully. Giles had stopped arguing though and said that they would talk about it again. So when Dawn asked to visit with some friends, Willow readily let her go. However, it turned out the friend's house was really the local mall and that the hanging with friends was more along the lines of smoking cigarettes until midnight by the mall's movie theater. Everyone had been frantic until Xander, remembering what he had enjoyed doing at Dawn's age, had driven to the mall and found the girl and two of her friends. Xander had given the friends a ride to their homes and had driven Dawn home. He didn't yell at her for her behavior, just drove her home in silence and let her face the wrath of her betrayed protectors.
So allowing Dawn to go to the music festival was not going to be the preferred Dawn sitting method of choice. In the end the plan was for Xander to move into the Summers' residence and take care of Dawn for the four days everyone else would be gone. Dawn was not entirely adverse to the plan, her crush on Xander still lurking in the back of her hormone-laden brain. Also, she figured that he would be easy to bowl over and bend to her will. Dawn had not quite figured out that Xander was on the side of Giles in, what she had mentally termed, "the great war of teenage freedom".
* * *
Summer school started at 9:30, so Dawn wasn't quite sure why there was pounding on her door at the unreasonable hour of, she glanced at her N' Sync clock, 8 a.m. "What?" she yelled as she buried her head under the pillow.
"Why aren't you up?" Xander's voice came thru the door. "I told you last night that I'd be here to pick you up at eight. I've got to get back to work."
"Urfff," Dawn replied unintelligibly. She did remember Xander asking her to be ready at eight so that he could pick her up when he went for a morning coffee and donut run. She was to stay with him until it was time to go to school. She had meant to set her alarm clock but had gotten interested in watching some movie on the television in her room. The TV was new, as was the extended movie package on the cable. She and Spike had both pushed for a larger channel selection. Sometimes she felt weird staying up late watching movies. Part of her always expected to see her Mom poke her head in the door and yell at her for not being asleep. But now nobody, well nobody except Giles occasionally, told her to do anything. The freedom was a little daunting at times. It also meant there was no one to blame for not getting her up.
"What did you say?" Xander's voice came through the door again.
"I said I'm nearly ready, just give me a minute!" Dawn rolled out of bed, letting the blankets hit the floor. She hastily pulled on some clothes, brushed her hair quickly before putting on a hat. Pulling the door open, she pushed back Xander who was nervously pacing the hallway, and went into the bathroom. A quick toothbrush and face wash later she was hurrying out the door to the car. The smell of coffee and doughnuts assaulted her.
"Great, breakfast!" she said as she leaned into the backseat and opened the doughnut box.
"I don't think so," Xander interrupted the move by shoving a paper bag at her.
Opening the bag Dawn found a carton of milk, one of orange juice and single serving box of Raisin Bran. She made a face. Dawn hated bran anything. Bran was for old people. "No thanks, I'll have a jelly filled," She tried shoving the bag down by her feet but Xander just picked it up again when the stopped at a light a moment later.
"Donuts are not breakfast food!" he declared.
Dawn stared at him in disbelief. Xander looked back and then dropped his gaze. "Okay, okay," he admitted. "I know I've said that there was nothing better for breakfast than sugar and fat in a package that fits easily into your hand. But you need food that will stick to your ribs so you'll be alert in school."
"Food that will stick to my ribs!" Dawn replied, notching her voice up half an octave. "Have you been watching 'Leave it to Beaver' on TV Land again?"
"Look, I just want to take good care of you," Xander drove his car back to the construction site. After a minute, when Dawn had made no move to eat the nutritious breakfast he had procured, he relented. "Okay, you can have a jelly filled," Dawn made an immediate grab for the doughnuts in the back seat. "After you eat the cereal."
"No way, are you trying to make me fat?" Dawn pouted.
Xander wondered why women were always so freaked out about getting fat. He nearly retorted that she was a growing girl and a few extra calories wouldn't hurt but the last time he'd made such a comment Dawn freaked out and asked where she was growing. Were her hips getting bigger or something? It was after that he had made a promise to himself never to make a "you're growing" comment to any other female upon pain of death. "All right, how about you drink the milk with the doughnut at least."
"That works," Dawn nodded in triumph as she popped open the carton of milk, nearly spilling it, as she reached back to get the coveted doughnut. She noticed that there was both grape and raspberry jelly filled ones. "Stick to my ribs, where do you get those lines, Xander?"
"You'd be amazed the things you remember," he said as he parked the car. Dawn jumped out of the car and headed off to the construction trailer. He'd brought her to the site before and she'd enjoyed looking at all the drawings. He got out of the car and took out the cartons of coffee and donuts. Then he remembered the last time he'd told somebody to eat something so that it would stick to his ribs.
* * *
"I'm hungry," Shelly declared with all the gravity her four-year-old voice could muster.
"I'll get us breakfast," Xander assured her. He stood up and made his way across the living room. It was strewn with empty bear cans and pizza boxes. He may have only been seven but he knew that there wasn't a chance that his Mom or any of the other adults would be getting up soon to make them breakfast. He just hoped that he'd be able to find something for them to eat that wasn't gross. Xander took his cousin's hand and walked them into the kitchen. He sat her down at the small kitchen table and pushed some of the mess out of her way. Dishes were piled all over the counter-tops; glasses filled with soggy cigarette butts crowded the sink. Opening the refrigerator he was relieved to see a jug of milk. A quick sniff of the contents told him that it was okay to drink. He put the milk down on the cleared-off space on the table. Carefully climbing up on a semi-clear space of counter, he began searching the cupboards for cereal. He found a box of Chex, not his favorite but it was certainly better than nothing. Putting the cereal down he carefully edged his way over to the cupboard that should hold the clean dishes. There were none.
"Okay, Shelly," he put the cereal box down in front of the girl. Her dirty blonde hair was messily pushed back from her face. The flowered too small pajamas were stained down the front from an accident she had with a bottle of coca-cola last night. She'd woken up and had been thirsty. Xander had found her a drink but there had been no glasses and he had upended the bottle a little too fast as he'd poured it into her mouth. "I'll clean us some bowls."
Not for the first time Xander was proud that he was tall for his age. He was several inches taller than his best friend Willow. Willow was smarter, he had to admit. But she'd explained to him that having diverse resources in a group was important. She'd had to tell him what diverse meant but after that he had agreed that she was correct. Jesse had wanted to know what his talent was and Willow had said that he wasn't afraid to touch gross stuff and that was a great talent. He carefully dragged a chair over to the double sink and moved all the dirty dishes to the left hand sink. The right hand one cleared, he put in two bowls, two glasses and two spoons and poured a little bit of soap from the Palmolive bottle. He ran enough hot water over them to make suds and then scrubbed at them with his hand. Rinsing them, he dried them off on a piece of paper toweling and set them aside. He climbed down from the chair and moved it back to the table before carrying the dishes over to the table. He remembered what had happened the last time he broke a dish. His father had screamed at him for being clumsy. His father, Xander had been quick to notice, had broken two glasses when he had shoved away from the table to yell at him. But he wasn't stupid enough to mention that fact.
The boy set the bowls down and filled them with cereal and then added the milk. He then poured some Coke into both of their glasses and then sat down next to Shelly at the table.
"Thank you, Xander," Shelly smiled as she shoved the cereal into her mouth. A little milk leaked out at the edges when she thanked him, she wiped it away with her sleeve.
"You're welcome," he said feeling very proud of himself. Shelly always looked to him to take care of her. He thought he was doing a very good job of it too. After they ate he'd make sure they both brushed their teeth and washed their faces. That was important so they didn't look like "white trash". School had ended a week ago but before it had, things had gotten very strange in his house.
He had missed the start of school a few times because his Mom hadn't gotten him up. When he had gotten up there had been no one to tell him to wash or anything. The first time it had happened he'd dressed himself and gone to school. The principal had asked him why he was late and he'd told him that his mom was sick. The principal had looked at him strangely and whispered something to Mrs. Gray when he'd walked Xander to class. Later on, at recess, some of the girls had laughed at him because his face was dirty and shirt was on inside out. They'd called him "white trash" which Willow had explained wasn't a nice thing to say to anybody. She said that he should wash his face every morning and night and that he should show her his clothes when he first got to school to make sure that everything was right side out. That plan had worked for the last month of school but then school ended and Willow had gone with her Mom on a trip.
Then there was nobody to tell him if his clothes were on right. It would have been easy but his Mom hated tags and always cut them out. He thought she was silly because how else could you tell? But he thought he'd figured it out now because of the way things were sewed together. Xander was glad he'd figured it out since Shelly was here and he had to get her dressed too. Shelly had shown up with her Dad the day after school had let out. He didn't like his Uncle Frank; he yelled a lot and had a really bad breath. Since he had come everything in the house seemed even dirtier than usual.
"I want more cereal!" Shelly declared, drinking the last of the milk from the bowl.
"Okay, but we should save some for later," he poured more of the Chex for her. "Cereal is good for you," he explained. "It sticks to your ribs."
Shelly looked at him gravely and nodded. She wasn't sure what Xander had said but she was sure that it was important. He was older and he knew a lot. When he was around things were better.
* * *
"Okay, let's go over the game plan one more time," Xander said, speaking loudly to be heard over the loud banging. Dawn and he were standing in front of the saw one of the workers was operating.
Dawn rolled her eyes to indicate her disdain of such idiocy; they'd already been over the plan last night. Did he think she was stupid? "I walk directly to school. I go to school and learn. I leave school and walk directly here, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. I sit in the trailer and do my homework until you finish work or until I die of boredom. We then go home together."
"You got it!" Xander responded brightly. He dug into his pocket and handed her a ten-dollar bill. "Here's money for lunch, don't get all junk!"
Dawn grabbed the bill and quickly pocketed it. She knew that she could get a can of coke and Hostess apple fruit pie from the vending machines for a total of $1.50 and she could keep the rest. Xander never remembered to ask for change. "Bye," she yelled over shoulder as she headed out. Xander smiled and waved and went back to work.
The day passed quickly for Xander. He only took a ten-minute break for lunch since he wanted to make up the time he had missed picking up Dawn in the morning. By the time he looked up it was 3:30. He squelched the feeling of worry that came upon him. Dawn's classes ended at 3:00 and it was only a five-minute walk to the construction site. Telling himself that she had probably just stopped to gossip with friends, he forced himself to concentrate on work.
It was after 4:00 and he was just about to tell the site supervisor, Paul, that he had to leave early when a blue Jeep Cherokee pulled up and Dawn disentangled herself from the living mass of teenagers in the back seat. Xander's first thought was that none of them probably had their seatbelts on. His second thought was that he must be getting old if seatbelt safety was the first thing he thought of when he saw a bunch of people in the backseat. Dawn waved to the people in the car and then strolled over to where Xander was staring.
"Hey, Xander!" She greeted him.
"Hey, Dawn, where have you been?" Xander felt his voice edging toward adult indignation. Man, I am getting old, he decided.
"Oh, Cody gave everybody a ride home after class."
"Cody? There's somebody in your class old enough to drive a car?"
"He's in the grade above me," Dawn said with exasperation. "Duh. But he's got English with me."
"Class got over an hour ago! Where have you been?" I can't believe I'm saying these things, Xander winced to himself. I sound like, well I sound like a TV Mom, possibly Mrs. Brady or that idiot Mom on 7th Heaven. I used to be fun, how did this happen?
"Xander, I told you that we were going out for ice cream after school. I told you that on the way to school this morning!" Dawn convincingly managed to sound injured.
"Yeah, right before I walked over to school!" Dawn looked innocently into Xander's eyes. Xander couldn't remember her mentioning anything about ice cream but he wasn't positive of that fact. He didn't want to call her a liar if he couldn't remember exactly. He felt like he was being manipulated somehow, he didn't like it but he wasn't sure how to stop it. Deciding not to press the matter, this time, he merely shrugged.
"Ok, you got any homework?"
"Just a little math and Civics. I'll finish it up by 5."
"Good, want to go rent some movies for tonight?"
"Sure, what's for dinner?"
"I'll make us some pasta and some of the Harris special meat sauce!" Xander smiled as Dawn bounced off to the trailer. He was proud of his meat sauce.
* * *
"Mom," Xander tugged at his mother's sleeve. She was sleeping on the couch, loudly snoring. "Mom!"
"What!" came the drowsy reply.
"Can Shelly and I go over to the playground for a little while?"
"What time is it?"
"It's ten-one-five," Xander informed her, reading the numbers off the digital clock on the VCR.
"Hmmm," the woman mumbled, her head was pounding from a hangover and throat was dry. Having the kids out of the house would keep it quiet so she could sleep.
"Sure, go ahead and play, just be home for dinner okay?"
"Yeah," Xander agreed, then he looked at Shelly. He had gotten both of them washed and dressed. She was wearing one of his old t-shirts since he couldn't find any of her own shirts that weren't filthy. He didn't want to make his Mom mad but he knew that Shelly would get hungry again soon. If it had been just him he could have skipped lunch rather than asking for money. Money always made his Mom and Dad yell. "Uh, Mom, could we have a dollar to get a burger for lunch at McDonald's?"
"Uh, yeah, that's enough, right?"
"No, kiddo, a dollar isn't anything anymore," she considered, if the kids were out of the house she and Frank could light up the bag they'd bought last night. She didn't like smoking in front of the kids. She and her husband argued about that with Frank when he'd come to stay with them. They thought that the smoke was bad for the kid's lungs. Frank had laughed but he'd given in at the end. Of course, since he had no place to live right now, he didn't have much choice. "Hand me my purse."
Xander rushed over and dug the purse out from the pile of stuff by the front door. He brought it over and handed it to her. A minute later he had three dollars stuffed into his hand and he and Shelly were skipping down the street. "Hold on," he said. He stopped and carefully checked his front pocket for a hole. Finding none, he stuffed the money down in the pocket. Assuring himself that the money could not fall out when he bent over, an act that resulted in him sprawling on the grass next to the sidewalk, he grabbed Shelly's hand and walked them to the end of the street.
"See Shelly," Xander said, pointing to the left and right. "You have to look both ways before you cross the street."
"Okay," she said, more interested in the playground equipment she saw across the street than the traffic around her.
"No, no, this is important. You have to look both ways so a car doesn't run you over and squish you like a bug."
"Like a bug?" she looked at her cousin with more interest.
"A big ol' juicy bug," Xander informed her as they crossed the street. "Spoooge." He threw his arms out wide then quickly took her hand back into his.
The children spent the next few hours playing on the equipment. Xander pushed Shelly on the swings for a while and then made them both dizzy and nauseous by spinning the metal merry go round as fast as he could. They walked over the five blocks to the McDonalds eventually. It took a long time for them to place their order because Xander wanted to make sure that he got the most for their money. The teen-ager behind the register had been annoyed at first, but after his friend poked him in the side and gave him a pointed look, he had then assured Xander that he could get two happy meals and still get change. That didn't seem to add up right to Xander when he looked at the prices but he figured that the people working in the restaurant probably knew best. They slowly consumed their meals, enjoying the air conditioning in the McDonalds for quite some time. Xander looked at the clock. It was now 3 o'clock, he knew that dinner was at 6 o'clock. He headed over to a shady bench; they could both take a nap for a while.
It was a few minutes before 6 before they entered the living room. The air was thick was a weird smelling smoke. For a minute Xander wondered if they were barbecuing inside but he didn't see any signs of a grill. Uncle Frank and his Mom were lying on the floor watching the TV. His Dad was sleeping on the chair.
"Hi Xand, Shelly," his Mom greeted them sleepily. "Did you have fun at the playground?
"Yeah," both children chorused.
"I remember when I was little, man I just loved swinging on those swings!" Frank laughed, he stood up and swayed back and forth, "Back and forth, those were the days. Did you swing, Shelly?" he asked his daughter as he scooped her up and swung her back and forth.
"Yeah, Daddy," she laughed happily, "Xander pushed me really high?"
"He did, well isn't he the little strong man," Frank tousled the boy's head. "You two hungry? I'm sure hungry."
"How bout I order us some Chinese?"
"Awesome!" Xander shouted. He loved take-out Chinese.
"Great, let's go find the menu!"
The food arrived an hour later. Xander and Shelly quickly started shoveling down some of the kung pao chicken. Xander's Mom and Frank also ate heartily. The food was nearly gone when his Dad came into the kitchen.
"Hey, didn't you order me anything?" He growled, poking among the mostly empty white boxes.
"You were sleeping. I didn't think you'd wake up so soon." Frank responded.
"Well, you still should have ordered me something. You don't not get the guy's house you're living in take-out when you order some!"
"Well, excuse me for not being able to read your mind."
The adult's voices were getting louder with every exchanged sentence. Xander swallowed the last of his chicken and quickly grabbed two of the fortune cookies. "Come on, Shelly," he grabbed his cousin's hand. "We need to go to bed now."
"I'm not done!" she replied, trying to free her hand from his.
"We have to go to bed!" Xander wrenched her hand and tried to pull her up. The adult voices got even louder. Shelly noticed that her Dad was yelling in her uncle's face. Maybe it was a good time to leave. The two children made their way upstairs. After they ate their cookies, they both brushed their teeth and washed their face. Then they lay very quietly in the bed they were sharing and hoped that the yelling would stop soon. It didn't.
* * *
The clock on the VCR read 2:23 a.m. but Dawn was still lying on her bed flipping through channels. Xander had gone to bed hours ago. She had pretended to go to bed as well but just turned on the TV when she was sure that he was asleep. Sometimes she wondered why she needed to sleep at all. She wasn't really a human being even though she felt like one. Dawn had tried not eating or sleeping to see if the mystical power that she really was would sustain her. The not eating had been a total failure. She'd been starving by mid-afternoon and had broken down and eaten. The sleeping had been a little easier to do without but she still needed to do it.
She really wished she could sleep right now. There was nothing on despite having over 100 channels to choose from. That freakazoid Martha Stewart was on the food network and she couldn't stand her. That Emeril guy was kind of interesting with his "bam" and all. Sleep was something she was having problems doing lately. Tired, she would go to bed and the moment her head hit the pillow the thoughts would come. Thoughts of her Mom and Buffy, mostly she wanted to tell them things that had been going on during the day. Sometimes, in her head, she'd pretend to be sitting in the kitchen with her Mom. Mom would be making dinner and she'd be chattering on about all kinds of stuff. She'd really like to tell her Mom all about Cody and how excellent he was. But it was just pretend and she'd end up laying in the darkness with all kinds of thoughts and no one to tell them to.
Deciding there was no way she could sleep, Dawn shut off the TV and made her way downstairs to the kitchen. Maybe a cup of warm milk would help. She poured milk into a mug and popped it in the microwave. The ding when the cycle was over startled her out of the stool she was dozing on.
"Hey," Xander's voice called out. "Couldn't sleep?"
"No, I've decided to become a creature of the night," Dawn joked but it wasn't a funny statement and she knew it.
"Well, you're in the right town for it," Xander slouched into the kitchen dressed in a pair of holey blue sweat pants and white t-shirt that said SPAM on it.
"You want some?" Dawn pointed to the milk. Xander nodded and she popped a mug of milk into the microwave for him. They both sat there in the dim kitchen staring at the numbers on the microwave countdown.
"Something bothering you?" Xander finally asked.
"No, just couldn't sleep, that's all."
"You know I may not be Willow or Tara but you can still talk to me about anything."
Dawn cocked and eyebrow at him and smirked.
"Okay, not about everything. There are some womanly areas where all men fear to tread," Xander admitted. "But other than that, if something's bothering you."
"Nothing's bothering me," Dawn declared firmly. "I just couldn't sleep and wanted," her voice trailed off. "I wanted somebody to talk about how my day was."
"Isn't that what we did over dinner? I distinctly remember a length discussion about the sheer waste of time algebra II is."
"Yeah, we talked about that but there's some other stuff."
"There's this guy in class," Dawn looked over to Xander expecting to hear him flinching from a discussion about boys. Instead he just sipped his milk and looked at her expectantly. "I really like him but I'm not sure he likes me."
"Well, this is an area I know something about," Xander nodded sagely. "I was a boy in high school not too long ago. What makes you think he likes you?"
"He asked me if I needed a ride home."
"One for the plus column, anything else?"
"Yeah, he always comes over to my locker before first class and talks with me."
"Does he want to copy your homework?"
"Well then, I'd definitely say he likes you then. Seeking out a female for no other reason to converse with her is one of the first signs of interest."
"You mean you only talked to girls to get their homework?"
"No," Xander said hiding a smile, remembering all the times he'd copied off Willow. "But I had friends that were girls."
"How do you tell if a guy is your friend or is more into being your boyfriend?" Dawn asked, getting to the heart of the matter.
"That's a hard one, look at his eyes. Do they light up when he sees you enter the room? If so, probably more a boyfriend than friend friend."
Dawn thought back to the moment she entered the hallway this morning at school. Cory had seen her and his eyes had definitely perked up immediately. He'd left the guys he was talking with and came over to talk with her. "There was definitely wattage from the eyes."
"Well, there you are, question answered," Xander finished the milk. "I think you should try and go to sleep again now that you've gotten that off your mind."
"Okay, thanks," Dawn said heading out of the kitchen.
* * * Something pushed into Xander's side causing him to wake up. He groggily sat up. It was still very dark and the house was silent. Shelly was climbing out of bed.
"You going to the bathroom?" he asked, sometimes she didn't like walking to the bathroom in the dark. He'd go ahead of her and turn on the light.
"No, I can't sleep."
"Do ya feel sick?"
"No, I want my Momma," Shelly said, her voice wavering, turning toward a cry.
"She's not here right now. You want me to wake up your Dad?"
Shelly shook her head, "No, he gets mad if you wake him too early. Besides, I want my Momma." The girl sat down on the floor and drew her knees up to her chin, making a very small ball.
Xander crawled out of bed and sat down next to his cousin. Shelly never cried very much so he wasn't quite sure how to handle the situation. "Do you want me to wake my Mom?" He knew his Mom didn't like being woken up in the middle of the night but if Shelly was sick she probably wouldn't mind much.
"No. I want my Momma! Where is she?"
The boy looked at the crying girl. He knew where his Aunt Fannie was, he'd overheard his Dad and Mom talking about it. Aunt Fannie had been passing "bad checks" but "it wasn't her fault" and it was a shame nobody could "post bail". He didn't really understand all of it except for the fact that his aunt was in jail and they had lost their apartment causing them to move in with his family. "Didn't your Dad tell you where your Mom was?"
"No," Shelly said unhappily, she was crying silently now. Her body shook with sobs but she didn't make a sound. "Is she dead?"
"No," Xander sat down and hugged her. "It'll be all right," he comforted her. "She just had to go away for a little while, that's all."
"Really, she had to go to," Xander thought of someplace far away for Aunt Fannie to go to, "San Francisco for a little while but she's okay."
This information seemed to comfort the girl and she gradually stopped crying. Xander stood up. "I think you should try and go to sleep again now."
"Okay," Shelly agreed and both children climbed back into bed and quickly fell asleep.
* * *
Friday passed uneventfully for Dawn and Xander. Xander worked all day. Dawn went to school and was again dropped off by the "possibly interested in her but she still wasn't quite sure" Cody. They decided to go out to the movies and then for a curry at the local Indian restaurant. Then Dawn decided to test her powers of persuasion.
"Can I go to a party on Saturday?"
"No," Xander said, popping a samosa into his mouth.
"What do you mean no! You haven't even asked anything about the party!"
"Let's see, you're a teenager. You go to teenage parties. Teenage parties always involve some sort of trouble," Xander counted off his points on his fingers. "If it's not drinking and fooling around it's zombies and werewolves. So no, you can't go."
"That's so unfair! This is going to be a wild party, it's just a few people going over to Cody's house."
"Oh, Cody's house," Xander couldn't resist a slight smirk at teenage infatuation.
Dawn's eyes narrowed at the tone of his voice and he felt slightly guilty. He had hated it when he was her age and adults had made fun of the stuff he thought was important. Not to mention it was probably really important to Dawn right now to behave as a normal kid. "How about you work on your homework and we do house stuff, then you ask me again?"
"Fair enough," Dawn said taking a sip of her mango lassi. She had very little homework and doing a little stuff around the house didn't bother her. It was a slam dunk to go out partying with Cody, she figured. She only hoped that her friend Debbie would be able to go too.
* * * It was late Saturday afternoon by the time all the errands had been run. There was now a fully stocked refrigerator and all the bathrooms had their own twelve-pack of toilet paper. Dawn had cleaned up the living room and kitchen while Xander mowed the lawn. Dawn figured it was time to ask again about going to the party. Not only was Xander physically tired and less able to argue but also he would be happy with her because of all the work she had been doing.
"So can I go the party?" she blurted out, forgetting all the lead in sentences she had been rehearsing in her mind.
"Well, are Cody's parents are going to be at this party?" Xander asked, feeling more like the uptight Mom on 7th Heaven than ever. His parents had never asked him questions like this when he wanted to go out. Of course, his parents never seemed to care where he went or what he did as long as it meant that he wouldn't be in their way. They never even asked why he came home so frequently with bruises. A flash of rage went through him as he remembered them not even inquiring how his arm had been broken in the fight with Angelus. They just hadn't cared. Pushing his anger back down, he tried to focus on making sure that Dawn was taken care of. He felt incredibly awkward grilling Dawn like this. The teen was staring at him like he'd grown a third-eye. Living on the Hellmouth he hoped he wasn't since growing a third eye. It would be an awkward thing to explain at work.
"Yes," Dawn said slowly, as if talking to someone mentally deficient. "For the third time, the party is at Cody's house. This is the address," Dawn handed him a piece of paper with an address and phone number on it. "You can drop me off at Debbie's around five. We're going to get dressed there. She lives only a block away from Cody's and.."
"It's not safe to walk around Sunnydale at night!"
"We will leave for the party at 7:30," Dawn continued in a very reasonable voice. "It will still be light out. We will stay at the party until midnight. Cody will then give us a ride back to Debbie's house. Debbie and I will then stay up eating more crap and watching late night television as we discuss, in minute detail, what happened at the party. I will then wake up early in the afternoon and will come home. Is that acceptable?"
Why can't I just lock her in her room until the others come back? Xander considered momentarily. Except for the possibility of an attack of claustrophobia at least she'd be safe. Get a grip, Harris, he told himself. She is a fourteen year old and there's no reason she can't go out and have fun with her friends. She'll be in a group the whole time. She certainly knows to duck if things get Sunnydale weird. Okay, calm down, calm down. You know where the party is, there are going to be parents there, then she'll be over at Debbie's, everything is fine, everything is safe. Hold on a minute. "How do I know for sure that Cody's parents are going to be there?"
"I wouldn't have given you the address and phone number if they weren't. Full disclosure, Xander," Dawn pointed to the piece of paper. "Full disclosure keeps everything nice and honest."
"Okay, but don't be surprised if I drop by the party."
"What? Are you trying to embarrass me to death?" Dawn whined, her reasonable tone forgotten. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I do! I just remember that, well, parties are more fun without any parents around."
"Duh," Dawn rolled her eyes. "But at this party, there will be responsible adults making sure that we silly teenagers don't run amok!"
"Okay, okay," Xander raised his hands in a placating gesture. He didn't want to argue with Dawn, he just wanted to make sure that she was safe. But, he reckoned, she wouldn't have given me the address and phone number if there was anything going on. "That's fine, do you want me to drive you over to Debbie's?"
"Yes," Dawn declared as she did an about face and headed up the stairs. A huge grin crept over her face. The battle plan she had concocted while in algebra class had worked flawlessly. It was going to be a great night.
* * * Dipping his hand into the popcorn bowl, Xander took another huge fistful of popcorn and shoved it into his mouth. It was his second bowl and he loved having it all to himself. No more having to take small amounts and be polite. He was home alone and he could eat all the snacks he wanted without having to share. Feet propped up on the coffee table; he lounged comfortably in front of the television. There was a double-header on the tube and he didn't have to change the channel to any stupid movie or documentary. The remote control was his and he was king of the couch tonight. So of course there was a knock at the door. Sighting mightily, he stood up, it was just after ten. There was a bat by the door, he took it in hand as he answered the knock. Opening the door a little, safety chain still on, he asked, "Can I help you?"
"I'm here to give this to Debbie," a slightly paunchy, graying African American man held out an inhaler. "She forgot this when she came over."
It was times like this that Xander thought that possibly his father had been right and he was an idiot. "Uh, I think we have a problem."
* * *
"Look at this mess! Are you an idiot?" Xander's father yelled at him. There was cherry Kool-Aid all over the table, dripping its stickiness onto the floor.
Xander just stared at him, too frightened to say anything. He hadn't intended to make a mess. He and Shelly had been thirsty and it seemed easier to miss the drink on the lower kitchen table rather than the higher sink. But Shelly had knocked the plastic pitcher over when she had tried to stir the drink. He'd told her that it was okay, he would clean it up and nobody would know what happened. But then his Dad had come into the kitchen.
"You are, aren't you? Just stand around with your mouth hanging open like your mother. Here," the man pushed a towel at his son. Grabbing the boy roughly by the back of the shirt, he shoved him down to the ground. "Clean up this mess. Make sure there's not any sticky patches," Shoving Xander again until his nose touched the floor, he said, "Understand?"
"Yes, Daddy," he said trying not to cry. His father stomped out of the kitchen. Xander started soaking up the Kool-Aid. When the towel was full he carefully wrung it on in the sink and then ran water over it.
* * *
Xander's cell phone rang; he had just finished riding around the half-demolished old Sunnydale High School. Debbie's father, Jim, and he had already found out that the address that Dawn had given him was bogus. Jim had known nothing about the party. He'd only been told that Debbie was going to spend the night over at Dawn's house. They had split up and had been combing the town for the last hour. "Any luck?" he asked into the phone.
"No, I think there's only one place we haven't looked," Jim replied. Both men simultaneously said, "the beach."
Xander started saying a mantra of "it's fine, she's only at a drunken teenage party not eaten by some crazed hellbeast" repetitively as he drove to the beach. He hit jackpot at the first section of beach he tried. There were several cars parked at the edge of the parking lot by the water, a roaring fire going on the beach. Jim pulled up beside him. They exchanged an irritated, weary look before wading through the gaggle of teenagers lounging by the fire. The firelight danced off two kegs half buried in the sand. Xander thought he recognized some of the kids from the car that had dropped Dawn off the previous two days but he wasn't positive. The teenagers mostly just pointed and laughed at the two older men, though a few of them looked panicky and moved into the shadows. Afraid, possibly, of getting caught by somebody's parents that would tell their parents where they were.
Jim searched the crowd quickly, running the flashlight over them. Then he spotted his daughter. She was leaning up against a rock, half asleep. Wasting no time, he moved over to her and grabbed her arm. "You are in such trouble, young lady,"
"Wha' Dad, don't move so fast," Debbie complained as her father starting propelling her across the beach. "I don't feel so good." She proved her statement by coming to a complete standstill and vomiting onto the sand.
"Where's Dawn?" Xander asked when Debbie had stopped puking. He could find the girl nowhere among the crowd. He'd done two sweeps through the mass of teenagers already. "Debbie, where did Dawn go?'
"She went for a walk," Debbie pointed vaguely over to the right of the beach.
"How long ago?" Xander's voice crept towards panic mode. Not only was it night but this part of the beach had sections of it that disappeared under high tide.
"I dunno, Cody said something to her and she wanted to be alone. I, uhgh," Debbie resumed vomiting but this time very little erupted from her.
"Do you want me to help you look?" Jim asked.
"No, think you'd better get her home," Xander replied, "Can I have your flashlight?"
"Sure and good luck," Jim turned the light over to the younger man and started, very slowly, moving his daughter to the car. It was going to be a long night, he thought, a very, very long night. Sometimes he wondered how any parents survived having teenagers.
Xander hurried down the beach, the tide was rushing in. Scanning the area where Debbie had pointed his light reflected off a sandbar. "Dawn," he yelled, "Dawn are you over there?" For a second nothing answered his call accept the sound of the surf, then a very loud, very frightened voice called out to him.
"Xander! Xander, I'm over here!"
Shining his light in the direction of the voice, Xander saw that Dawn was standing on a rapidly eroding sandbar. "Stay right there," he ordered. "I'm coming over to get you!"
Xander waded out into the water. There was a swift current running between the beach and the sandbar. Even though didn't quite come up to his knees by the time he reached Dawn, it was hard to not fall into the water. "Hold on to my shirt," he told the shivering girl. She gratefully grabbed onto him and he held her around the waist to give her extra support. It took several minutes longer to get back to the beach than it had going out. They were both soaked to the skin and shaking with exhaustion by the time they made it back to the car.
* * *
"Xander!" Shelly yelled as she slipped on the side of the fountain. It was a large marble fountain with rearing horses at its center that shot water high into the air. She and her cousin had been walking around the edge, arms sticking straight out for balance. Only the ledge had been slightly wet and she had slipped in.
"Shelly, get out of there!" Xander yelled running sure footedly around the edge. "Get out of there, now!"
Shelly, frightened by the fall and the fact that Xander was yelling at her, simply sat in the water. She screwed up her face and tried not to cry. Seeing that the girl was not going to come out of the fountain, Xander jumped in and pulled her up. Propping her on the ledge, he crawled out of the fountain and then dragged her to edge of the ledge. She dripped water onto the concrete.
"Daddy's going to be mad!" she whimpered. Xander agreed with her that the adults were going to be very mad at them if they went home wet. They had all been arguing over something this morning. They yelled so much sometimes it was hard to figure out just what they were yelling about this time. He looked at his scared cousin and then at the big clock in the park. It said four o'clock. There were two whole hours before they had to be home. Xander set his jaw and patted the girl on the shoulder.
"Nobody's going to be mad."
"Yes they will."
"Nobody's going to be made cuz they won't know about it. Come on," he grabbed his cousin's hand and moved them down one of the paths. There was a sunny bench that not many people ever went to down there. Arriving at the bench, he quickly took off his shoes and socks and told Shelly to do the same. Next he took off his t-shirt and twisted it to get the water out of it, and then he twisted the socks. "It'll be fine, you'll see!"
"It'll be okay?" the girl asked as she yanked off her damp shirt.
"Sure, I'll take care of it," Xander assured her. The two children twisted their clothes as hard as they could and banged their canvas sneakers against the ground to force water out. Their clothes were very nearly dry, if horribly wrinkled, by the time they came home. Xander's Mom was the only one home when they got there. She didn't say anything about the clothes, just gave them some mac and cheese to eat. Then she said that she was going out for a while and could Xander take care of Shelly. Xander assured her that he would.
* * *
"I'm sorry," Dawn gulped out between sobs. "I didn't think the tide would come in like that!"
"It's okay," Xander said comfortingly, he hugged the girl again. "I'm just glad you're okay." He fished in his pocket for the car keys; he found them but had a hard time pulling them out of his wet pants. Opening the trunk he pulled out two of the old blankets he kept back there and spread one over the front car seats. No sense totally soaking the upholstery, he thought. He draped the other blanket over Dawn's shoulders to ease her shivering. Settling into the car he started the drive home. His butt was beginning to itch the way it always did when he sat around in wet clothes.
"I bet you're sorry you ever agreed to take care of me," Dawn finally said softly. She felt guilty for making Xander worry and even guiltier for doing something that she should feel guilty about. Truly, she alternated from feeling guilty that everyone had to take care of her and terribly angry that they had to take care of her. They weren't family; they didn't have to take care of her. Not like Mom and Buffy had to take care of her. But they were gone, her father didn't seem to care that she existed, so other people took care of her. And she made them worry and made them have to swim out to rescue her when she was stupid enough to get caught out by a tide in the middle of the night. And now Xander probably didn't like her any more and what if Willow and Tara stopped liking her and didn't want to take care of her? "I bet everybody is sorry they agreed to take care of me," she covered her face with her hands and started crying.
"Actually, none of us agreed to take care of you," Xander said, he turned the car heater up to high but purposefully didn't look at Dawn but the road. Sometimes things were easier to explain when you didn't have to see how upset the other person was.
"What? But I thought.."
"No, we offered to take care of you, there's a difference."
"Yeah, we wanted to take care of you because we love you. It's not like Buffy made us take care of you."
Dawn thought about what Xander said for a moment. She supposed it was different if they really wanted to take care of her, that meant they didn't have to. It was better. People having to take care of you meant that you were just a responsibility, not somebody they cared for. "But I keep making you guys worry and stuff."
"Yes and you also make us argue about what's best for you," Xander explained. "And that's not all, Willow and Tara feel strange living in your house but they know that's what they have to do. Spike thinks he's fulfilling some kind of oath by staying in Sunnydale even though the vampire population thinks he's some kind of pet bloodsucker. Oh, and Giles really hates having to be the one to yell at you to do your schoolwork. Which actually amuses the rest of us. But none of it really matters because we're doing it because we want to."
"You like coming over to mow our lawn?" Dawn asked, remembering how Xander had sworn at their old mower just yesterday.
"No, but I like taking care of things."
"I dunno," Xander said, staring ahead into the pool of light thrown from the car's headlights. "All I know is when you can do something to help somebody you care for, it makes you feel good. Remember how you used to make your Mom soup and sandwiches when she was sick?"
"Yeah," she remembered making tomato soup and grilled cheese. She thought tomato soup was gross, especially when it was made with milk, but she always ate some so her Mom wouldn't be eating alone.
"Well, that's what loving other people is. Doing stuff for them, making sure that they're taken care of." Xander was quiet for a minute, and then added, too softly for Dawn to hear. "Making sure they never leave the house with their face dirty."
"I think I understand," Dawn wiped her face on the blanket. They were going to have to wash them anyway.
They drove in silence for a few minutes. Then Dawn spoke up, her voice hesitant. "You're not going to tell Giles and Willow that I lied to you about where I was going, are you?"
"Oh, of course not, I'm going to tell them that you decided to go knock back a few beers at the beach," Xander retorted. He stifled a smile.
"You're not," Dawn looked at him in alarm. "Really, Xander, you're not going to say that. Are you? Are you?" her voice climbed higher.
* * *
Xander walked through the Sunnydale graveyard; he'd brought five pots of flowers with him. I'm too young, he thought, to know so many people here. He dropped off the red carnations at Jesse's and Miss Calender's graves. Then he dropped off a pink azalea for Buffy and yellow chrysanthemums for her Mom. Then he walked over to another section of the graveyard. There was just a flat, small metal marker. In plain lettering, it's surface said:
Shelly Layna HarrisHe carefully brushed the surface of the marker, clearing the dirt from it. He wondered if anybody else ever bothered to visit the grave. Probably not, he thought, nobody except him had ever cared while Shelly was alive. Oh, Uncle Frank and Aunt Fannie had made a big scene at the funeral. He remembered Aunt Fannie falling to the ground and weeping that they couldn't take her little angel from her and put her in the ground. Everybody had cried and said that it wasn't fair that little Shelly had been taken from them. But even at seven he'd known the truth. And the truth was you don't leave a four year old by herself all night with a space heater. An old space heater that fell over and caught the dump of the house on fire and burned it to the ground.
That's when he had made a promise to himself. That he was never going to end up like his parents or his other relatives. Never caring about anything but themselves. Drinking and yelling and living in dirt and blaming the whole world for their troubles. Never taking the time to help anybody else, never taking the time to help themselves. He'd cried when his Mom had told him that Shelly had died. He had been mad that they hadn't left her with him because he could have taken care of her. But his Mom and Aunt Fannie had been fighting over something so they'd left Shelly alone when they went out. He hadn't cried at the funeral though. It had seemed like his eyes were open for the first time at the funeral. At the time, he didn't know exactly what he was seeing or why he didn't like it. He just knew that there was something better out there. But he knew that taking care of Shelly had been important and that somehow taking care of people was important. So he tried to take care of the people he cared about, Willow and Jesse were his friends, and that was good. Then later on had come Buffy, Dawn, Giles, Mrs. Summers and even Cordelia. Then Anya had come into his life. So many people to love and be loved by and, most of all, to take care of.
I have a lust for life
'Cause of a lust for life.
I'm worth a million in prizes
"Lust for Life," Iggy Pop
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