Faculties Intact

Author: James T. Hsiao
Rating: PG-13 for adult situations.
Notes: Still not entirely satisfied with the flow of some parts. Title from "For Esmé--With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger.
Disclaimer: All characters the property of Mutant Enemy, etc.

An early birthday present for Victoria P....
Leave me feedback at my livejournal.

Xander's beginning to hate the bus.

Despite being a perfect cover for a number of athletic girls travelling across the country, the big Bluebird smells heavily of sweat and blood with a slight twinge of piss. Most of the windows, with their infernal push-two-tabs-and-slide latches don't quite work, letting the fetid air fester in the heat.

Unusually, he keeps quiet about the situation. Sure, it's not at all unlike the Summers house before it got swallowed by the Hellmouth--girls everywhere (underaged, superpowered ones, no less), no complaining allowed, especially from the simple, normal male of the group who most everyone assumes has nothing to offer aside from wisecracks and the occasional leer; but somehow Xander just doesn't feel like adding to the tense din.

Most of the time, he just tries to find some peaceful moments away from the mad giggling and bickering. Everyone, for the most part, leaves him to his one spot on the bus--his feet on the wheel well, knees propped up against the seat in front, trying to get a comfortable degree of slouch and staring at the bus ceiling. Sometimes, he catches Willow sending him a smile from the head of the bus. Sometimes, he watches her and Kennedy amongst the growing gaggle of women, too busy with their talking, training and tracking and the meeting new Slayers.

You'd think, he muses to himself, that it shouldn't take more than six weeks to get from LA to Cleveland.

After everyone had finished staring at the gaping hole that he used to called home for all the years of his life, the group had decided to make their way to Cleveland, where the other Hellmouth purportedly was. To begin, they stopped at a hospital where they got everyone patched up. While most of the girls took that time to stretch their legs and wander about the town, Xander spent most the recovery on the bus, not relishing the idea of spending any more time in a hospital.

From the hospital, they took a small detour to LA so that Buffy could meet up with Angel and have their usual melodrama. Then, with Willow guiding the way, they started making frequent stops to seek the awakened potentials in the SoCal area while they worked slowly towards Cleveland.

The winding path they're taking presses painfully on Xander's temples.

Somewhere just outside of downtown Fargo, the bus pulls into the parking lot of a Radisson Hotel. Scanning the surroundings with his good eye, Xander takes a few deep breaths like sighs of near-contentment. Thank God it's not the "Bambi Motel," he thinks.

Xander has been welcoming the brief solace of motel rooms, even having to bunk with the one person who was witness to the death of his former lover. Despite the much-needed haven away from all the girls (as well as the not-entirely-unfond memory of losing his virginity in a motel room), he's discovering that that certain adventurous appeal of sleeping somewhere new every night lasts at most three nights.

He never got a chance to grab his toothbrush while all of Sunnydale collapsed into a monstrous crater, much less the old cigar box of silly sentimental knick-knacks that he kept in his nightstand; so the complete absence of any sort of homey goodness in these transitory bedrooms just makes him think about how much he misses the Summers house or Anya's apartment or even the old basement. While it beats sleeping on the bus, the utter squalor of a single night in most of these motel beds just robs him of his sense of home.

He had argued with Giles, then, about their lodging tonight. "Please, one night," he asked. "Just one night where we're not worried about Anthony Perkins, dressed in drag, watching us through the creepy painting on the wall, biding his time to knife us down..." Giles, unamused, had insisted that lodging twenty-some travelers on his modest Watcher's salary was no easy matter, especially with the Watcher's Council all blown up. After their argument, he noticed that Willow took Giles aside and had a small discussion out of earshot, but he hadn't particularly cared what they had talked about; for once, however, Giles had decided to splurge on their night's rest.

Before Giles has even finished checking in the whole group, Xander takes one of the keys and, not waiting for Andrew, walks toward the room. "I'm going to take a shower," he mutters to no one in particular.

When he gets to the bathroom, he grabs a handful of the hotel-stuff, not caring if the soap that he holds is the 'Bath Soap' or the 'Facial Soap.' He quickly strips down--leaving a boot leaning against the toilet, another against the tub--and climbs into the shower. He sighs a barely audible, 'Yesss,' when he sees that the shower head isn't at neck-level but actually above his head, and turns on the water. As he washes himself, he doesn't care about the lack of lathering shampoo (he just dumps the entire mini-bottle into his hair) or the odd smell of the rapidly-dwindling soap bar. He just basks in the first decent shower he's had since Sunnydale, inching the faucet controlling the cold water closer and closer to the off position.

One hand pressed against the wall, he leans into the falling water, eyes shut, letting the shower soak into his hair and spread an enveloping heat throughout his scalp and down the rest of his body. There, under that stream of near-scalding water, Xander doesn't quite notice when the shower curtain shifts slightly, and someone else joins him. He jumps back when she touches his shoulder.

When he turns, he sees her--Willow, pale and nude.

"Will, I swear one of these days, you really will give me a heart attack..."

"It looked like you needed a hug..." She has a strange grin on her face.

"I hate to tell you this, Will, but hugs don't usually require nakedness-ness." Remembering the last time she surprised him like this, he jokes, "Second baseman this time, I guess?"

She has to think for a second, but then she laughs and comes closer.

In that moment, his smile fades as he realizes that his eyepatch is sitting next to his shirt, discarded by the sink. He turns his head away abruptly, but she cups his cheek in her hand, guiding his face into her view. She looks up into his eyes, one reflecting back at her, and the other pink and raw and hollow. He brings his hand up to cover his wound, but she pushes it away, and pulls his temple toward her lips. Kissing his eyebrow, she holds him tightly.

"What about Kennedy?" he asks, not really caring about the answer.

"Kennedy?" Willow frowns. She looks down and traces her fingertips lightly over his chest. Xander watches her as she thinks. "Kennedy has a bit of a power fetish, and, well... now she has her own power."

"Our relationship was..." She pauses for another moment. "Well, remember the last line of Speed?"

He nods, then thinks about it for a moment. Smiling wryly, he asks, "Don't tell me the the sex wasn't good?"

Touching his lips with her fingers, she shushes him. Her vision wanders about his face, settling on his lips, and she leans in.

When they kiss, he shuts his eyes, and for a second, he sees Anya, hungry and lustful. But that tense urgency isn't there, just a tenderness and a sweetness and the unmistakable scent of Willow. Xander keeps his eyes closed, and he's grateful that the shower can wash away the tears he's unwilling to shed at the moment. He pulls her body close to him, giving up on the furtive lip-play, and touches his cheek to hers. Shaking slightly and eyes tight, Xander just holds her.

"No, Will, it's not you. You should know that by now." They're out of the bathroom now, both of them half-dressed in towels, Willow's arms crossed tightly about her, her right hand clutching her still-wet hair. "It's just, you've gotta know I got a lot on my mind." He watches her eyes which brightly reflect the room's lights.

She sits on one of the beds. "You've been so far away, lately, Xander. I thought--"

"It's not like I didn't want to. Remember when we all went to the beach--you and Tara, Anya and me? You were wearing just your bikini top and overalls, and I remember thinking about how much I wanted to put my arm around you under them and feel your skin." He touches her shoulder, then, and as she leans her head toward his hand, he runs a few fingers along her neck.

"But that's really not the kind of thing you do to your lesbian best-friend--or her girlfriend. I thought about Tara, and how much it broke everyone when Oz and Cordy found us." He shrugs and sighs.

"I-I've just got a lot on my mind." Unable to think of anything else to say, he sits next to her. He draws his arm around her, and she drops her head to his shoulder. He shifts slightly in the uncomfortable silence.

A pause. "I...I have a confession," he quietly stammers. "After the whole wedding mess, after Tara died, when I was holding you after you...you know..." She nods.

"For a split second I thought about us--about how we were for those few weeks. You remember--Senior year?" He watches her. "I thought, just briefly, that we could be together again." He shook his head. "The world crumbling around us, you crying because of Tara, and all I could think of was, 'Is this my chance to be with Willow?' I hated myself for thinking that even for a moment--"

"I thought it, too," she whispers. Xander looks down at her, and Willow takes her head from his shoulder. He feels a warm wetness hit his arm, and sees a trickled trail down her cheek. "Standing on the edge, holding your hand...when I looked around, looked on the bus, and couldn't find her, I wondered, for just a second, if that could be my chance."

He wraps his arms around her there, and can feel the shame of their guilty hopes wash away in her tears. They lie there for a long time, feeling the damp towels wrapped around them grow cold and bleed the wetness into the sheets of the bed.

Xander breaks the silence. "I'm not going to Cleveland."


"You've got a near-army of Slayers out there to find and recruit and train, and I'm just the guy with one eye. You said the next closest Slayer is where? Near Sioux Falls? I was thinking--"

"Don't talk like that," she interrupts.

"No, Will, I'm serious. I was thinking of staying in Sioux Falls, or maybe catching a train or a bus to...somewhere...I don't know..."

"No..." she pleads.

"...somewhere without vampires or demons or Hellmouths," he continues. "Somewhere quiet and where people like you and me actually sleep during the night."

"I'm so tired. I'm tired of the vampires. I'm tired of the fighting and the pain. I'm tired of the broken arms and the broken hearts."

He pauses. Willow watches him with his hand tightly bound in hers. He thinks about Jesse and Miss Calendar. He remembers Tara, scared and feeble-minded, and her funeral a year later. He remembers the second time Buffy died, when he could do nothing. He pictures himself watching Cordelia, feeling bad for thinking that her short hair didn't suit her, even if she was comatose.

"I'm tired of losing my friends." His voice falters slightly.

He closes his eyes again and sees Anya.

"It's not like..." He stands abruptly, and pulls his hand out of Willow's. "It's not like, I'm all essential to the operation anyways. You and Giles usually take care of the research, and Buffy has more than enough people to train the newbies."

"You have magic and they have strength. You can bring people back from the dead. You could give every girl in the world strength like Superman. What can I possibly do now?" He is pacing now, his arms gesturing wildly with his words.

"Buffy and Giles have enough people to deal with. They don't need Cyclops Boy with poor...no, with no depth perception to gum up the works. They don't need someone who's only significant contribution in the last crisis was to fix a house which is now just a twisted mass of nothing at the bottom of a crater. They don't need someone who couldn't kidnap a powerless girl." Xander's eyes are wide and glossy, and his lip twitches slightly.

"They don't need someone who couldn't even save the woman he was gonna marry."

"Xander..." Willow starts to cry. At this, Xander can't hold himself back, and the tears come. Not caring as the loose towel around her falls away, she rises from the bed and holds him tightly, feeling his sobs shake her body.

"I need you, Xander. I need you." She repeats it softly, like a spell with no magic.

They don't make love that night. In the morning, Xander will simply smile when he hears the sibilant murmurs of the girls as they point and gesture. Despite her intentions, despite their nakedness, Willow and Xander stay up much of the night just talking and crying, talking and laughing, the each of them pulling their best friend out from under the rubble of life in Sunnydale.

The smell of diesel fuel seems to have temporarily overpowered the scent of dried sweat on the pine-green vinyl. Xander wrinkles his nose at the change in scent, but in a way, he doesn't mind. Once again, he's found the perfect slouch in his usual spot in the bus, but this time he's watching the scenery. "I'm so tired of flat land," he says in response to the largely featureless horizon. "I can't wait to see some hills..."

Willow doesn't hear. Slumbering on his shoulder, she doesn't notice his slight discomfort at the starburst of pinpricks suddenly erupting in his arm. Not wanting to wake her, Xander watches her face for a moment and turns back toward the window. Ignoring the high-pitched laughter of the girls, he watches the roadsigns. One sign catches his eye, and he smiles.

Now Leaving Sioux Falls