Well, it's a big city, and he's a Sunnydale lad, born and raised. As much as he's joked about the one-Starbucks thing, he's always kind of liked the little town, and L.A. hasn't so much sung a siren song as hunkered like a big smoggy glow on the horizon, somewhere to get to, or just talk about getting to, when the Sunny-D got a little too much. When something happened to push him that way, because he'd never just up and go.
Sunnydale was comfortable, and that was a sentence he'd never imagined constructing. Sure, it was on a Hellmouth and it wasn't waterfront, but get your own place and a sweet strange oversexed girlfriend, toss in some thick-and-thin Scooby friends, it wasn't so bad. There was excitement in the occasional narrowly-averted apocalypse, the wacky life-threatening results of spells gone wrong, the absence of zippers running up the back of the Monster of the Week. It gave a guy stories for his grandkids. So L.A. could chill. Xander had a nice gig in Sunnydale, and who'd ever have believed Xander would get a nice gig anywhere?
Anya left, the apartment was empty. If he dropped a quarter on the floor he could hear the echoes for half an hour. She went east, wanted to see the country in a blue Buick coupe and didn't want him with her. He'd thought she was joking at first, like the time she'd said if she was rich she'd buy an antelope. But she wasn't, and when he thought back later he remembered she hadn't been joking about the antelope either. She realized halfway through that she was hurting him, and he watched the understanding spread over her face, thinking Ok, good, here's the part where she says sorry, didn't get that, you come too Xander. But she didn't say that. She looked horrified and sick and said she'd just realized what she was doing.
What are you doing, he'd asked heavily, sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands hanging down between his knees.
Breaking up with you, she'd said, and put her fingers over her mouth as if she'd screamed.
She bought the coupe and drove jerkily away in it, and he spun quarters on the floor and listened to the echo. Drank half a bottle of JD and smoked twelve cigarettes, and woke up the next morning before it was light, to puke and stand in a lukewarm shower and wish he was either smarter or dead.
Willow and Tara took him to a movie, made him play mini golf, tried to teach him to levitate a pencil. Buffy sat with him on the glider on her mom's back porch, and they talked a little about how love bit the big one, and then they just sat for an hour, gliding.
He had good friends. He loved them a lot. But Sunnydale was suddenly hell on earth, and not just in the literal sense.
So, L.A. It was the next logical step, and without thinking about it very much at all he woke up one morning knowing that it was where he wanted to go. Where else? He asked a few guys at the site if there was construction work there, and of course there was. Jeff, the foreman, knew a guy who knew a guy. Jeff would give him a call and tell him Xander was on his way.
He told Willow first, because she deserved to know. They sat in the swings in the park across from her house, the park where they used to dig tunnels in the sandbox, aiming them so they'd meet up and be able to shake hands underground. She clung to the chains and twisted slightly from side to side as she listened to him say it wasn't a big deal, he just wanted to try it out, he'd probably be back in a few months. Both of them knowing that wasn't true. He wished he'd had the guts to just say it that way, plain and simple.
"I don't understand," she'd said finally. "Is it—is it that bad, Anya leaving?"
He ran his shoes through the sand and didn't answer for a minute. What should he say—yes? It was that bad. But, no. It wasn't just Anya. It was a lot of things. It was everything. While Anya was there, Sunnydale was comfortable and he was a comfortable guy. He had work, he had friends, he had love. When she left, love took a header and he started thinking more about how much else he had. Work was a construction job—he paid the rent by pounding nails, occasionally thumbs. His friends—he loved them, would always love them, but he was a fifth wheel. The Zeppo, as Cordelia had said. The girls kicked ass. Tara and Willow had the magic arsenal, and Buffy had everything else. He had...the amazing ability to get whupped. It was endearing, but not useful.
"I just need a change," he'd said at last. Lamely. He smiled at her, and she smiled back with visible effort.
"Okay," she said. "So, you'll be the L.A. correspondent. We'll get a satellite link. It'll be cool."
"Sure," he said. "I'll send you regular updates on Luke Perry's doings."
She looked at him.
"I don't know," he said. "I couldn't think of any other celebrities just then."
She stood up and held out her hand, and he took it to pull himself out of the swing.
"Does it strike you," he said, straightening his trousers, "that these things were more fun when we were eight?"
"It does," she said. "I think it has something to do with adult butts. When you turn twenty, your butt morphs and you can't swing anymore."
"Butt-morphing," he said, putting his arm around her and starting to walk. "Lovely. You read this in a book?"
"Darkest Buttcromicon," she said. They walked a minute in silence, and then she said, "Xander, I'm worried about you. As a friend. You know, not a mom or other parental stand-in."
"Don't be worried," he said. "Not till after I tell Buffy."
And it was true, he didn't want her to worry, he wanted Willow to live forever in a perfect bubble of calm and happiness, but some part of him nodded in agreement when she spoke and thought, yeah, worry is good. Because everything was not okay just now, and he might need someone with actual brains looking after him for the next little while.
He was standing on the edge of something very tall, looking down into blackness, wondering how it would feel to just let himself lean forward a little bit more. Just that littlest bit. Feel the wind beneath his wings.
That, and Buffy was going to kick his ass when he signed out of the Scooby crew.
But it was okay. They told Buffy and the others together, and he was so glad to have Will there just then, nodding and looking calm while Buffy's eyes went wide and Giles polished his glasses over and over, like a stage trick. Again he said no big deal, just testing the waters, probably back in a few months. Nobody wig. And they nodded and pretended to accept that, but all of them knew it was more. It was exit stage left for Xander.
And so strange, so funny almost, that it was Anya who'd set it off. Who was she anyway? Some moments he felt like he could turn around and see her right there, wearing her usual frantic expression, trying to keep up. And some moments he felt like he hadn't seen her in years. Couldn’t remember her face.
She wasn't even one of the originals. He half-smiled when he thought that; as if they were a TV cast and she was a third-season add-on who turned out to carry the plot. He was a true child of the eighties.
"What about patrolling?" Buffy asked first, and he forced down a laugh.
"You'll manage without me," he said.
"L.A.," Tara said. "Wow, Xander. That's a big move."
"Not that far," he said. "Few hours' drive. We'll have a housewarming shindig, soon as I have a house to warm. Or a shin to dig."
"Work?" Buffy said. "You'll have to work, Xander. How are you going to get a job?"
"Look," he said, "if you consult your sources, you'll find that this 'moving' phenomenon isn't wholly unheard-of. People do this. It's doable."
Buffy stared at him for a second. "Not my people," she said after a moment. She was making tiny tears around the edges of a bookmark she'd picked up from beside the till. They all watched her do it in silence.
"Buff," he said gently, "you moved here from L.A. a few years ago, right? I'm just reversing the process. This is not matter for an aneurysm."
She looked down at the bookmark, and he felt instantly wretched. "Look, guys, I'm sorry. It isn't anything to do with you, or patrolling, or being a Scooby, or anything. I just need a change. Jeff knows a guy who'll give me work, and I'll find a nice dry cardboard box by the freeway, and just...see, you know?"
There was a brief silence, and then Willow took a breath.
"I think it's a great idea," she said, too loudly. Everyone looked at her, and Xander was deeply in love with her for that moment—good Willow, sweet Willow, what the hell was he thinking all those years while she was still straight? She stared back at them uncomfortably, her chin set.
Then Giles took the hint, cleared his throat and put his glasses back on. "Of course," he said. "Willow's right, it's a fine idea. Xander, if you feel you need to do this, you should do so, of course. We'll support you however we can."
"I know a guy with an apartment building," Tara said quietly. "I can call him up, if you want, see if there are any vacancies."
"That would be...great. Thanks, Tara."
Buffy was still staring at the bookmark in her hands. She'd torn the edges to fringe.
"Buffster?" Xander said, going to lean on the counter next to her. "Come on, Buff, give me your blessing on this."
"No," she said. "I know I'm supposed to be mature here, but no. I mean, come on, Xander, Anya leaves and you're going to up and move to L.A.? I lost Angel, I lost Riley, I'm still here. It's not like, when your heart gets stomped, you get a 'move away free' card."
He laughed shakily and held onto the edge of the counter. "Yeah, I know. No card here."
She stared at her hands a minute more, then looked at him. "Sorry."
She sighed and ripped the bookmark in half. "Okay, you have my blessing. Fly, be free."
He put his hand on her back. Once, in another lifetime, he would have killed to do that, just touch her back. Now she was warm and she smelled like soap, shampoo, girl stuff, and she was one of his dearest friends, and he didn't feel a thing except sad and guilty and grateful.
"Thanks, Buff," he said. "Don't worry, I'll probably get mugged inside a week and you can come pick me up in the G-mobile."
"Don't even joke about that," she said, hitting him lightly in the arm. "Be careful. It's not Sunnydale out there."
No, it wasn't. It wasn't Sunnydale at all, and there was deep irony in the fact that in Sunnydale, on the hairy upper lip of the Hellmouth, he felt safer than he did walking around his neighbourhood in L.A. It was an eye-opener, living the working-class-stiff life in the city. A whole different ballgame.
In Sunnydale everyone was more or less the same, more or less white, more or less middle-class. He'd never thought about it much. He could find his way home from anywhere in Sunnydale; he knew all the street names, all the landmarks.
In L.A., he got lost looking for a gas station, and then again looking for the site, and then again trying to get home. He almost ended up in the Malibu Hills, which sounded nice, and in Watts, which he knew was not nice at all.
It was strange and scary and at the same time kind of exhilarating, bouncing around the big concrete city like a ping pong ball. And it was just him, Xander Harris—not the Scooby crew, with Giles to fold the maps and Buffy to punch out the bad guys. When he drove through a bad neighbourhood, or what he thought was a bad neighbourhood, he locked the doors and tapped the steering wheel nervously and didn't meet the eyes of the black men who wandered out into the street at stop lights, and it was just him. And somehow he didn't get carjacked, and he didn't get mugged, and he started to learn how not to look at people when he walked to the corner store. Or anywhere.
The whole gang came out for the housewarming after a month, after he'd moved out of the firetrap Tara's friend owned. He'd found a little place in Echo Park, cheap and dirty and not very safe. The car stereo had been stolen already, and the car itself was crap, so parking was okay.
For furniture he had just what he'd brought from the Sunnydale apartment—the bed, the ratty sofa, the folding kitchen table and chairs. The television and a couple of lamps. He kept his clothes in a tangled mess between the bed and the wall, washing things only when they were so stiff with sweat and plaster dust that he could prop them up against the baseboard.
There were roaches, he was sure. He was never there except to shower and fall into bed. He didn't cook. The refrigerator held half a liter of milk, an unopened jar of jam that Joyce had given him when he'd left, a packet of processed cheese slices.
Chateau Harris, welcome to it.
They went out for cheap Mexican food and then came back and sat around on the folding chairs drinking sodas and acting like Xander in L.A. was a good thing, like it made some kind of sense. There was no air conditioning, and the windows were open to the car alarms and Spanish cussing in the streets. Willow sat with six inches between her back and the chair, shotgunned her Pepsis, and talked in a high-pitched voice about classes, college, the weather, spells. Tara didn't drink at all, just watched Willow and smiled quietly at Xander whenever their eyes met. Together, they gave him a tacky bead curtain for the doorway between the kitchen and his bedroom.
"That," he said when it slid out of the paper, "is truly hideous. Many thanks." They put it up with a couple of nails he'd lifted from the site, and sat admiring it from a safe distance.
Giles gave him a guidebook to the city—thanks, Giles. By that time he knew his way around a little better, but it was a nice thought. Also an envelope that turned out to hold an AAA membership. For some reason that made him tear up—it was so perfectly the kind of thing a dad should do—and he had to bob his head for a minute as if he couldn't figure out what it was he was looking at, blinking like an idiot.
"Thanks, Giles." When he looked up they were all looking at him, and Giles was smiling oddly and was he insane, or was Giles close to the salt-eye, himself? With all the British in the way it was hard to tell. And he didn't want to think about it too much.
Buffy gave him a key ring from the Sunnydale Amoco, and he laughed and jingled it for a minute before realizing there was a little mace canister on it, and that was probably the point. Perfect Buffy gift—overtones of Slayer, undertones of emasculation.
"Great," he said. "Goes with my rape whistle."
"Don't mock the mace," Willow said. "That stuff can knock a grizzly bear back at twenty paces. It's not just for the ladies."
"I'll remember that," he said, "when I'm mugged by the Russian circus. Thanks, Buff."
"Promise you'll carry it," she said.
He smiled and put it in his pocket.
"I'm serious," she said. "Think of it as a little Buffy in your pocket. For use in case of emergency."
"Whoah," he said. "There's a slogan. Put a little Buffy in your pocket. Not so catchy without the context, but once you understand the whole Slayer thing, it's really—"
"Xander," she said. "Come on, be a sport. We're worried about you."
"Worried?" he asked. "Why?"
Something like a gunshot—probably a gunshot—went off in the distance, and they all flinched.
"Are you sure this is right?" Giles asked. "You're happy here, you feel...safe?"
"I'm fine," he said. "Guys, come on—Hellmouth, remember? I'm the one who should be up nights worrying. Here in the Park we got our drug deals, gang violence, racial turmoil...but you've got, you know, Hell. And okay, yeah, maybe it's not such a big difference, but-"
"You're alone here," Buffy said. "In Sunnydale we're a team."
"A posse," Willow said, nodding. " We run with Buff Daddy, no-one can touch us."
He didn't bother reminding her of how untrue that was. "Yeah, well, think of me as the inaugural member of the L.A. extension, posse-wise. I'm scouring the streets for new recruits. Free stake and Wendo lesson with membership."
Buffy stared at him and Will smiled weakly.
"Well, if you're sure," Giles said, and Tara closed her eyes.
They drove back that same night—the girls had tests, or studying, or something collegiate. He sat at the kitchen table for a while, drinking a soda and listening to a fight in the parking lot beside the building. The bead curtain was truly horrendous.
After a while he got up and went out, down to the bodega on the corner for a tallboy and a bottle of Canadian Club. They didn't ask him for ID; they never did. He was looking older now, thinner and wearier, and he didn't know if that was a good thing or not. It let him buy booze.
Weeks passed, then months, and he talked to Will at first every other day, then once a week or so, then less and less often. She had school, he had work. The new job was fine, an office building that went up and up and never seemed to quit. He hauled I beams from eight to five, ate tacos or noodles or pizza for dinner, and stumbled home to shower and sleep. Sometimes he saw a movie; it didn't matter which one.
He started to make a habit of stopping for a drink on his way home. He'd drive until he couldn't take the traffic anymore, then realize he'd started looking for a bar to stop off at, and there was always a bar. Sooner or later. It was a way of getting to know the city, he told himself. He had to get to know at least a few hotspots, in case Luke Perry called up and wanted to go for a Cosmopolitan.
He liked little places, preferably cheap and ugly. If there was a mirror facing the bar he sat facing away from it, so he wouldn't see the guy looking back at him. Dark hair that needed to be cut, skin baked brown by too much sun at thirty storeys. Shoulders a little rawboned under the T-shirt—if you took it off, you'd see pink stars on the skin over the bones, where carrying beams had worn permanent marks. Most of all, big ghosty black eyes and mouth way too wide, especially now that the cheeks had worn down. He didn't like looking himself in the face; it gave him a strange sad desperate feeling, as if he were already old and looking back on his youth, wondering what the hell went wrong.
In late August, coming home from work, he stopped for a drink in a dive called The Summer Place, just because he liked the name. It turned out to be the Platonic Ideal: ugly and small, just half a dozen tables and a bar, a television showing baseball with the sound turned down. There was a mirror behind the bar, so he sat sideways and watched the game, drinking CC on ice. The bartender was a little Vietnamese matron who called him love.
"Don't see you here before," she said, whipping a cloth over the bar around his elbows.
"Haven't been here," he said, lifting his glass so she could wipe beneath it.
"You live here?"
"Echo Park," he said. She scowled.
"Bad neighbourhood," she said. "Not safe. My nephew got mugged there, twice." She held two fingers up in front of his face. "Twice. They don't like Vietnamese there, I think."
He frowned and put his glass down carefully. "I'm sorry about your nephew," he said.
"Of course you are, love," she said, and patted his elbow. "You're sweet boy."
"Rosie has a boyfriend," someone observed from the table behind Xander. Xander looked around at the guy, took in the expansive gut, the Lakers hat perched on top of a fuzz of grey hair, the pink alcoholic meshwork over the nose and cheeks. The guy grinned and raised his glass, and Xander smiled automatically.
"He's not my boyfriend," Rosie said delightedly, and wiped the counter around Xander's elbows again. "He lives in Echo Park."
"They don't like Vietnamese much there," the guy said immediately, and winked at Xander.
Xander nodded and turned back to the game. He didn't want a conversation. He didn't want to think about the fact that he was here by choice, in a dirty little bar full of alcoholics who looked like his own father would, fifteen years and a couple of layoffs down the line. He spun a beer mat with his thumb and watched the game.
Orioles and Braves, and Rocker was pitching. Clearly you didn't need a brain or a conscience to pitch like a son of a bitch, because that's exactly what Rocker was doing. He raised his glass to drink and found it was almost empty.
"Again, please," he said, and Rosie grabbed a glass and polished it professionally before plunging it into the ice. "Man, this guy can throw."
She gave the screen a brief, disinterested look. "Not like Ty Cobb," she said. "Ty Cobb was the greatest."
He accepted the drink she put in front of him, and considered pointing out that Cobb wasn't a pitcher, but she had moved away down the bar already and was wiping around the elbows of an old guy in a Coors T-shirt.
He didn't mean to, but he sat through all nine innings. Rosie kept putting the Club in front of him, and he kept putting it away. It was hard to keep track of how much he'd had, since she took the empty glasses away and he couldn't see the bottle. When the Braves finished spreading the Orioles all over the outfield, he realized he had to use the head. He pushed his stool back to stand up, and the room tipped. He had to grab the bar to keep from falling.
"Watch out, Romeo," someone said. It was the old guy at the back, the one in the Lakers ball cap. He'd been joined by a wizened-up black guy with a pure white moustache. Xander waved loosely, waited for the room to straighten out, and made for the head.
When he got there he spent a minute fumbling with his fly, then leaned his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes while he pissed. Fuck. He hadn't meant to get so drunk. Where was the car? He couldn't drive it. He'd have to walk or take a cab, and pick the car up tomorrow morning. Early, so it wouldn't get towed. He sighed, shook off, zipped up.
Washing his hands, he glanced quickly at himself in the mirror and saw red eyes, flushed cheeks. The Harris face, the same one he'd seen so often on his dad when he was a kid. He filled his hands with cold water and splashed his face; he remembered his dad doing that, too. Heredity was an evil bitch.
"Take that, Lamarck," he said, leaning on the sink as he dried his hands.
The bill for the whiskey was close to thirty dollars, and that cleaned out his wallet. He smiled ruefully at Rosie as he laid it down on the bar.
"You want a cab, love?" she asked. Her tone was so sweet, her face so open and friendly that he had a brief vision of leaning over and asking her to marry him. He could move into The Summer Place, be the janitor. Drink his wages. It could be good.
"No thanks," he said. "I'll be okay."
"Long way," she said. "Not good to walk there."
"Don't worry," he said. "I have a friend around the corner, I'll stay there."
She smiled broadly and wagged the cloth at him.
"Lady friend, yeah?"
"Lady friend, yeah."
"Ooh, lucky her. Have fun, love."
He smiled and started carefully for the door.
Outside, it was dark and hot, and the air smelled of cars. He stood on the sidewalk in front of the bar, watching tail lights streak past in the street.
Talking with Rosie had been the longest conversation he'd had in days, since talking to Willow over the weekend. Today was...Friday. Weekend again tomorrow, and that was good. Very good. The car was around the corner. He could still catch a bus, or find a bank machine and take out some money for a cab. Or he could walk. It was a nice night. No work tomorrow. He could just walk until he found a bank machine, then hail a cab. Home was...that way.
He swung in the general direction of home and started to walk. Nobody walked in L.A., that was the problem. In Sunnydale you could walk from one end of town to the other in twenty minutes. Less, if you weren't on crutches.
He checked his watch—ten thirty. He'd been in the bar four hours. In Sunnydale, the girls were probably doing something Friday-ish, watching a movie or staking some early-rising vampire, or maybe having a cherry Coke at the Bronze. He could call them if he saw a pay phone, just say hi, catch up. Was it strange that all his friends were girls?
He dug his wallet out of his pocket and started to rifle it for change, walking with his head bent. When something knocked him half off his feet he was too shocked to think for a second, and then he thought he must finally be getting mugged. Of course, and his own fault too. Walking with his wallet out, what a Zeppo.
He pushed off the sidewalk with his right fist and spun around as quickly as he could, then blinked as the Club went for another half revolution and took him with it. His wallet was in his left hand, loose and open, and if someone wanted to snag it, well, silver platter. Shit, his AAA card was in there.
But nobody grabbed him, and after a second he found his feet and shook his head and grinned. He couldn't help it. It was kind of funny, in a loopy way.
"Sorry," he said. "My fault." He'd bumped into someone, that was all. Happened all the time. "Sorry, sorry." Then he looked at the guy, who was just standing there looking at him in silence.
It was Spike.
Standing staring at him on the sidewalk outside of The Summer Place. In black jeans and black T-shirt and a black leather jacket, the same damn thing he'd worn for years in Sunnydale, and his hair was still bottle blonde, and he still looked like the Billy Idol of vampires, but a little off balance at the moment because Xander had walked into him as if he were a turnstile. The look on Spike's face was half surprise, half annoyance. Then he started to look interested.
"Xander." It was weird, a little chilly, to hear his voice again. Xander remembered that he was still holding his wallet out open in his hand, and flipped it closed. He tucked it back into his pocket and nodded.
"Indeed," he said. "How's death, Spike?"
"Lovely, thanks. And you?"
"Well, it's been nice talking." He turned on his heel and started to walk quickly away, correcting a little as he veered to the left. Spike. Of all the friendly folks to run into in L.A. It couldn't be a Crip, or a crackhead serial murderer, or Luke Perry. No, it had to be Spike. He had to remember to cancel his Russian roulette lessons.
He could hear Spike catching up to him, then falling into step beside him. He walked faster, knowing it was stupid.
"Where's the rest of the Bloodhound Gang?" Spike asked.
"Lying in wait just up the block. Come on, let's go see 'em."
"You're here alone, then."
"Yeah. No, wait, there’s this dumbass vampire following me."
"Oh, that's not friendly."
"I've decided to reserve 'friendly' for people I like."
They walked for a moment in silence, while Xander tried to think what to do. His brain had seized. He'd forgotten that Spike was here now, and seeing him so suddenly put a weird taste in his mouth, nervous and slippery. It made him feel like he was back in Sunnydale again, eighteen years old. Down in the basement, lying awake at two am listening to the shouting and banging upstairs.
Knowing that Spike was sitting up in the lounger on the other side of the room, listening to it too.
"What're you doing in L.A., Xander?" His tone was amused, interested. Not going anywhere.
"Nothing," Xander said automatically.
"Wait—are you bait? You're often bait. Is that it?"
Xander stopped short and raised his hands to keep his balance.
"I'm not bait—" he started.
"You're arseholed," Spike said, sniffing. "On...cheap whiskey. Always pegged you for a beer man. Or else those fucking awful mix drinks, what do they call them? Put the whole bottom shelf in, drink 'em through three feet of surgical tubing."
Xander swayed for a moment, staring.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said.
"Oh, you do," said Spike. "See it on MTV all the time. Spring break."
"Spike," Xander said, "I am not bait. I am not anything. I am going home. Again, I've enjoyed our little chat."
"Home?" Spike said. "What, back to Sunnyhell at this late hour?"
"No," Xander said. The pavement under his feet was starting to tip a little, and he took a step back to compensate. Then another. "Back to here. I live here."
Spike's eyes widened. "You're joking," he said.
"No joke," Xander said, still stepping backward. The sound of cars passing in the street—wheels, engine, thumping stereos—was disorienting. It was pulling him off his feet. "Why is this such a bizarre concept? Is there some natural law they forgot to tell me about? The stasis of Xanders?"
"So just you, then. Not the whole lot." Spike was regarding him narrowly, standing still while Xander stepped slowly away. He was right under a streetlight, and it lit his hair up pure white. He still had the cheekbones from hell. Evil bastard.
"Just me, Spike. Hellmouth's still in Sunnydale, Buffy's still slaying away. I'm the L.A. branch of Slayer, Inc." He laughed a little at that.
Spike relaxed visibly, and walked toward him with a smile. "Well, that's all right then. The thought of you lot turning up on my doorstep, that gave me a turn. Last thing I need in my life right now is the bloody Slayer."
Xander stood up as straight as he could and scowled. "Why's that?" he asked. "You getting up to your old hijinks, Spike?"
Spike sneered. "Chip, idiot. If I could get up to hijinks, I'd have yanked your lungs out through your navel when you bashed into me just now."
"Yeah, that's the Spike I know and ignore." He fished in his pocket for his keys, turned, and started walking back the way he'd come.
He wasn't going to get away from Spike on foot; he'd have to drive after all. He wasn't that drunk. And he came from a long line of proudly drunk drivers. For years, it wasn't a Sunday afternoon in the Harris household unless he and Mom were trapped in the Nova, careening helplessly between lanes while Dad tuned the radio with one hand and nursed a bottle with the other. Until he was twelve, Xander thought all dads steered with their knees.
"Wrong way." Spike was walking with him again, of course. Xander raised the keys without looking up.
"What, you're going to drive home? Oh, this I have to see."
"Spike, don't you have an ambulance to chase or something?"
"In a few minutes, I expect."
They made it to the corner and turned. The Nova was just a few spaces up, he'd left it between a new Volkswagen bug and a decrepit pickup truck. Both of those were gone now, and the Nova was alone on the curb. Alone except for the little white car with flashing lights pulled up beside it, and the woman in the tan uniform standing next to the driver's door, writing something out.
"Oh shit, that's—" He broke off and ran the last few paces to the car. "Hey, excuse me, could you—"
The woman stopped writing and looked at him without raising her head. She was black, slightly built, with bleached braids under her uniform cap. She looked at him with deep skepticism.
"That's my car," he said, waving the keys.
She raised her head slowly and continued to look at him without speaking.
"I'll move it," he said quickly, taking in the two tickets already tucked under the windshield wiper. "I didn't even see that—I didn't know I couldn't park here, sorry, I'll move it now."
She tipped her head even farther back and looked at him through narrowed eyes, tapping her pen against the pad she held.
"Yeah, okay, I'll take that one too," he said, reaching out for the ticket she'd written. "And I'm sorry, and okay, that's actually a full pound of flesh, right there." He half-turned to put the key into the driver's side door lock.
"Noooo," she said. He paused, took the key out of the lock, and turned back to face her.
"You must love L.A.," she said.
"Great town," he said.
"Because not only are you going to pay several hundred dollars' worth of parking tickets tonight, but you're about to get into that vehicle while under the influence, which means I'm going to call LAPD, and they're going to pull you over in about thirty yards, and you'll get to pay a whole other set of fines tonight, sir. Plus a night in jail free."
He stared at her for a moment.
"Well, I wouldn't exactly call it free," he said numbly. She smiled slightly and pursed her lips.
"Tell you what," she said. "I'm feeling tender. You've got two choices. You let the car stay where it is, I won't ticket it any more tonight. I'll call the tow truck right now, tell you which company, you pick your car up tomorrow and pay the fines. 'Cause I could keep ticketing you till five, then tow you. Save you a couple hundred bucks right there."
"Ri-ight," he said. "And my second choice is...?"
"You got someone can come get you, drive you home?" she asked. "Someone who wasn't drinking with you tonight?"
His brain was just too slow, too drunk. It was only an instant before he found the words to say, "Tow me," but it was too late.
"I'll drive him."
Spike's arm reached around and jerked the keys from his hand.
"Hey!" He whirled around, but Spike had stepped back and was holding the keys behind his back. He was looking at the woman with his chin down and his brows drawn together, probably trying to look stern and respectable. He looked vaguely threatening.
The woman gestured at Xander without taking her eyes off Spike.
"This guy your friend?" she asked.
Xander closed his eyes and leaned on the side of the car.
"We go way back," Spike said, smiling.
The woman stared at Spike a moment longer, then looked quickly at Xander. "He's sober?" she asked.
"Yes," Xander said, staring at the ground. "But—"
"Sorry for the inconvenience, officer," Spike said, his accent suddenly clean and posh. "I'll see he gets home all right."
The woman hesitated a moment longer, then tore the ticket from her pad and leaned forward to tuck it under the wiper. "Okay," she said, flipping the pad shut with a slap. "You boys have a nice night."
"I will," Spike said, moving to the driver's side door.
Wait a minute, Xander's brain protested. How had this happened? Half an hour ago, he'd been sitting in The Summer Place, drinking his final whiskey, watching the post-game and thinking he had to go to the head. He'd been thinking about his dad, about the Canadian Club bottle behind the bar, about the guy sitting behind him with the pink bruises of alcoholism on his face.
And somehow...it had added up to this. Standing here, with the handle of his car door pressing into his butt, while Spike lifted his car keys and sweet-talked an L.A. meter maid. Spike.
He needed to find the auxiliary engines, because the main thrusters were still shorted out.
"Shove over," Spike said.
The woman was getting back into her car, fussing with something inside, talking on a radio, checking her mirrors. Spike pushed him and he stumbled slightly, away from the car. The woman put her signal on and started to pull out.
Stop, his brain called out. Tow me. Give me a free night in jail. Sign me up. Come on, this is ridiculous.
In all of L.A., why Spike?
Spike opened the driver's side door and slid in. The car started, and Xander felt a little thrill of shock at the familiar sound of the engine, the slight slip in the belts; he never heard that sound unless he was in the driver's seat. He scowled through the windshield at Spike, and Spike smiled back. After a moment he rolled down the window and put his head through.
"Come on, then."
Xander turned to look at the woman's retreating tail lights. She'd already merged into the traffic and while he watched, she went from going to gone. Come back, he thought. His eyes felt heavy and swollen, his mouth was dry. Tow me.
Spike bipped the horn and he jumped. For a moment he tipped his head back and looked up—looking for the stars, or the moon, or something to guide him. There was only the weird pink haze of the night sky, a million lights reflected through the smog.
"You bastard," he said, and he was talking to Spike, himself, everyone. The world.
He turned and started to walk slowly around to the passenger side of the car.
Continued in Chapter 2