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Chapter 4

The conversation soon switched to trivial things. The females, overwhelmed and full of food, drifted off to sleep, Gunn read a book, Oz skillfully maneuvered the van north through heavy traffic, and Xander watched the world through the heavily tinted windows. Occasionally, Xander would savor a treat from his bag or ask details about the world he’d so missed. They decided to keep moving as long as the females were asleep.

Three hours later, the females woke up as they stopped at a security gate. Oz leaned out the window and punched in a code. The gates opened by themselves, and Xander heard the females whispering about seeing such things one of the places they’d been sent to service.

“Whose place is this, anyway?” Xander asked as he looked at the lush tree growth they passed.

“On the deed, the Watcher’s council. In reality, Willow and Daniel Osborne.”

“Really?” Xander asked. “How’s that work?”

Gunn spoke up. “That’s a bit of my work.” Xander remembered hearing about Gunn’s instant lawyer training and wished he could have gotten all of high school that way. “As you know, Willow’s folks were quite wealthy, so they left her a tidy sum. At the same time, the Watchers Council was looking for a piece of property where they could train Slayers in America. She found this place, bought it, and donated it to the council with all these legal stipulations that allow her to live here and run the place as she sees fit, but without all those nasty taxes and utility bills.”

Xander smiled and nodded. “That’s my Willow.”

They rounded a bend and the three-story house came into view. It was colonial without being over-blown. The shady porch sported inviting rocking chairs. The wide yard around it was well cared for, with flowers and neatly-trimmed shrubs everywhere. What drew Xander’s attention the most was Willow standing at the door.

He climbed out and stood gazing at his often missed friend. In a daze she walked toward her oldest pal, looking him up and down. The t-shirt Oz hoped would be loose only served to accentuate the massive muscles in Xander’s chest and arms. The wide silver slave bracelets were still welded in place about his wrists. His complexion, already naturally dark, had been baked darker still. His unbound hair flowed glossy and thick to his waist. Here and there jewels of various kinds winked in the sun. His expression was unreadable.

Timidly, Willow approached Xander and raised a shaking hand to touch his chest. “Xander?”

He could hold out no longer, and allowed his grin to escape. “Hey, Wills!”

“You’re alive!”

“That’s what they tell me.” He gave into impulse, wrapped his arms around his friend and twirled her around twice, his hair flying and the jewels glinting, before setting her down again. Willow whooped in delight and refused to let go even after the ride was over.

“Xander, Xander, Xander. My Xander,” she happily chanted. Even though some part of her mind took in the new, wild look and scent of him and knew “her” Xander really was no more. She could hardly close her arms about his chest.

“I hate to interrupt,” Gunn called, “but I think the ladies are afraid to come out.” Gunn stood by the open van doors as the two other former slaves huddled inside.

Willow pulled herself from Xander’s arms and wiped her eyes. “Oh. I forgot about them. Midra!” she called to the house.

A tall, slender black woman glided out of the house. She wore a traditional caftan and her dredlocked hair was pulled back. “Are they here?” she asked in a musical voice.

“Over here, baby!” Gunn called.

Midra smiled at Xander in passing as she quickly went to the van. She exchanged a brief hug and kiss with Gunn before climbing in the van.

“That’s Midra. She’s one of the first slaves we rescued. She works here as councilor and translator.”

Xander turned his attention back to his friend, lifting a scarred hand and soothing her twirl-mussed hair. She was older, and a few care lines marked her eyes, but she was still his beautiful Willow. “It’s so God damn good to see you, Willow.”

“You, too. Oh, God, you, too. Come on in. There’s some more people who want to see you.”

Xander surrendered Willow to her husband and followed them into the air conditioned dimness of the house. He felt a chill that didn’t entirely have to do with the temperature.

“Welcome to Rosenberg Hall,” Willow said.

Xander looked around at the dark woods on the staircase and the clean, pale walls. A wide stairway curved up from one side of the entranceway. It kind of reminded him of the long-gone Rovello Drive house.

“Nice.” He followed her meekly, half listening to the inventory of rooms, the history of the house, and how she’d managed to buy it from the former once-famous owner. It even had a small elevator. The rooms were all clean and tidy, the atmosphere safe and inviting. He could see gardens and other buildings out tall windows.

He followed her through another arch. “And  through here is the room where all the strays wind up.”

It was a large living room with a flat screen TV and worn, comfortable seating. The curtains were pulled closed and the only light came from the unfamiliar sit com on the TV. What caught his attention was the man he could see in profile. Spike sprawled on a chair with one boot up on the coffee table, and the other tucked under that thigh. The long-fingered hand that wasn’t clutching a beer was splayed on his hip, accentuating his crotch. His shirt was a faded black and his jeans torn at the knee. Except for the dark, long-haired pony tail, Spike looked so much like a scene from years before that Xander had to swallow his emotions.

Willow theatrically cleared her throat when Spike didn’t look up from the television. “You should have that looked at, Red,” he drawled.

“Spike! Look who’s here!”

Lazily, the vampire dropped his head back on the seat back and rolled it to face them as if it were the greatest effort in the world to make the move. “Hey, Whelp,” he said, then turned back to the TV.

Willow almost stomped her foot. “Spike! It’s Xander!”

Spike shrugged and sipped his beer. “I know. Found him, didn’t I?”

Xander exchanged a wink with Willow and strode over to Spike. Even though the vamp didn’t move, Xander knew he was watching his every move from the corner of his eye. He saw Spike tense as he approached and snatched the beer from his hand.

“Oi! Get your own!” Xander drained it in two long gulps, crushed the can flat, and handed it back.

He patted Spike on the head. “Thanks, fangless,” he said fondly as he turned back to Willow. “Is there anyone here who would be glad to see me?”

Spike watched them go and then stared at the crushed can. He was very glad to know there was still some puppy in the beast.

Xander’s joking question was met with a squeal of delight that made everyone’s hair stand on end. A bright green haired, tall, slight figure rocketed at him from the back of the house. If he hadn’t fondly preserved the memory of that sound from years before, Dawn Summers could easily have ended up badly broken. As it was, Xander caught her up and spun her around much as he had Willow, only four more times.

Willow had to snatch a vase out of harm’s way, but she couldn’t scold her old friend.

Finally he sat her down, but did not let go of the young woman weeping and clutching at him. “I told them you’d come back. I told them to keep code doughnut on the list.”

“Was that your idea, Dawnie?”

“Yeah. Doughnut’s not a word you say much when talking about Africa, is it?”

Xander reveled in the feel of her strong, wiry body in his arms. She’d matured, but kept the slimness. He opened his eye to see Spike leaning in the doorway, a lop-sided smile on his lips.

Dawn finally pushed away, but kept a hand on his arm. “Let me look at you, TarXAN. Wow! You’re hot!”

“Wasn’t I always?” he asked with a visit from his old crooked grin.

“Well, yeah, but now you look like something found on the internet.”

“Dawn!” Willow scolded, teasingly.

“Not that I look at such things. And those jewels are beautiful! I’m so glad I happened to be visiting when Spike called! Oh my God! I want to show you the house, and we’ve got so much to catch up on. Where have you been?”

Oz saw Xander’s back tighten, and stepped in. “It’s been along trip for him, Dawnie.” As always, Oz’s steadying presence cut through the chaos.

She blushed. “I’m sorry, Xander. I just missed you so much.”

“You, too, Dawn. We’ll talk later.”

Oz turned to his old friend. “What do you want to do now, Xander?”

“If there are no more green-haired banshees going to come out at me, and I want to hear the story about that later…” he closed his eye and brought up long-shelved I’m-free-and-back-in-the states fantasies. “I would like… as hot and long a shower as possible. A medium rare steak, beef mind you, with all the proper sides, cold beer, a big, tall glass of milk, and chocolate ice cream for dessert.”

Willow and Dawn laughed. Oz smiled warmly. 

“It will mean a trip to the store, but we can do that, no problem,” Willow said. She went to her friend and cupped his cheek, looking into his eye, she smiled. “Welcome back, Xander.” Xander kissed the palm of her hand. “Come on, Dawn, help me take inventory. Oz, can you show him the guest room?”

Oz nodded and Xander hesitated, turning back to the living room door. The vampire was gone. “Hold on a minute,” he said and returned to the other room.

Spike had resumed a variant of his sprawl, apparently watching TV, but Xander knew him well enough to know he was actually staring and thinking. 

“Spike?” he said quietly.

“Yeah, mate?”

Xander came in and sat on the coffee table, facing Spike. “There is something I need to do, a ceremony, and it takes a warrior to help me.”

Spike steadily met the clear brown eye. “Want me to help you kill the bastards that captured you? ‘cause that’s some proper killing.”

Xander shook his head and shut his eye tiredly. “No. Not that. That’s… later.” Xander opened his eye to see the vampire nodding in understanding. “It’s… I want rid of Africa. As soon as possible. Will you help me?”

“Yeah, mate. Anything you ask.”

“Join me in my room after dinner. Bring a sharp knife, a candle, red if it’s to be had, a handkerchief size piece of clean cloth, and a small box or draw string bag.” Xander cupped his hands together to show what size was need.

“This ain’t going to get kinky, is it?” Spike asked, tilting his head, and lightning the mood.

Xander didn’t hesitate, but reached out and stroked Spike’s hair, once. “I don’t know. Tabula rasa, Spike. I want to be a blank slate, and I need help to do it.”

He’d half expected Spike to flinch, turn snarky, or at worse throw it all in his face. But Spike just nodded. “Share the wealth of steak and you’re on.”

Xander grinned and stood up. “Willow! Add another rare sirloin for the vamp to your list.”

Spike stared after him. He didn’t know this man. Not at all. He’d seen the seeds of this strength, both mental and physical, and he knew plenty about slave colonies. He wanted to know how this slave had remained unbreakable, and found he wanted to get to know this new man, too.

Absently, Spike stroked his hair where Xander’s great, warm hand had touched him twice now. He had to learn what was up with that.

On to Chapter 5

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