He wondered, sometimes, when he was deep in his paperwork, if the rest of them understood just how hard being a foreman was. Okay, brain surgery it wasn’t, but that didn’t mean it was something to, well, brush off or ignore. It was a good, solid job, nothing they could make fun of. Not that they did, of course, especially when they saw the spiffy new car, the decent sized apartment, and the even spiffier suit he occasionally wore.
But sometimes he wondered if they’d ever see something other than the Donut Boy.
Work schedules had to balance productivity, personality, politics, and the inevitable ‘deathly flu’ that never seemed affect other parts of the city. The final schedule had to be measured against supplies. Supplies had to be measured against the budget. The budget had to be stretched since there was never enough of anything to make the employer happy. Time, money, it didn’t matter. There was always something, and it was his job to make sure the somethings weren’t going to slow production down too much.
Dammit, if they didn’t get that new shipment of glass for the Forsythe building they were going to be delayed a week. Rain was supposed to hit a few days from now, and the glue they used wouldn’t set properly in the wet. And if it did rain, they’d need more covering, since the last set had been shredded by some demon Buffy had killed. Ah, the joys of trying to do a real job on the Hellmouth.
“Well, well. Look at you, man. All responsible and important.”
Tiny black words on pristine white pages, his own crabbed handwriting penciled in the margins. Blinking, Xander verified that he was still conscious and coherent before lifting his eyes.
No way. No fucking way.
Black hair in messy, untamable waves. Sharp features, all hard edges and angles, set off by deep-set eyes as black as his own. Gangly body, still half-grown, locked forever in the awkwardness of youth. Arms too thin, too prominent, folded over a shirt Xander knew better than most of his own. The blue one, with black and white stripes on top of the color, the one that set off the dusky skin, that he’d stolen the night before—
The night before Jesse’s funeral.
“Yeah, well, had to grow up sometime,” he heard his mouth saying. His brain was still stuck on no fucking way with a few quick additions of what the hell and what do I do thrown in for good measure. “Amazing what a little respect can get you.”
“What, the love and adoration of your peers? Come on, man. We’re better than that shit.”
Did Jesse always have this mouth on him, or were his memories just distorted? After so long and so much, Xander didn’t know what to trust anymore.
“So we’re in for the mockery portion of whatever this is?”
“Still funny. Not as funny but, hey, grown ups are always boring.”
“What—a grown—I’m only twenty one! I’m barely legal!”
Jesse smirked, grabbing a free chair and flipping it around to straddle the back. For a moment, Xander could only stop and stare at the heartbreaking familiarity of the vision. Long ago, before his life went crazy, he once thought he’d see that face and that motion for the rest of his life. Except Jesse would have gone to college with Willow and he’d have followed them and gotten a job while they’d had their books and their tests and their parties and. . .
Who said nostalgia was a good thing?
Work. Work was safe. Work was sane and he’d been throwing himself into it increasingly. The latest Hellmouth stuff had been a little more than he could handle, just then. High school. Shudder. So, work. Fredericks and Heckman couldn’t be on the same shift—they always fought, which brought a crowd. Could he flip Fredericks with Wood?
Jesse grabbed the pencil out of his hand before he could bring it rest on the paper. “What, you’re so busy with your grown up, important job that you can’t stop and hang with an old buddy for a little? Damn, man. I knew I didn’t count for much but I thought I was better than this.”
“Better than—no.” Taking a deep breath, Xander reminded himself that he wasn’t the same boy he’d been seven years ago. If the Jesse-thing wanted to call him a grown up, he’d act like one. Or as much of one as he could. “Look, whoever or whatever you are, I’m not playing any games. Get out.” Get out, or change to a different face. Something. Because the reality of Jesse in his home, still looking mischievously naive was more than he could handle.
“Damn. You really are a grown up, aren’t you? Where’d all that puppy enthusiasm go?”
“Rent.” Yeah, and seven years a Scooby, but he wasn’t going to mention that. Not to him.
“Hey, the one-liners survived.” Another too familiar smirk and Jesse was up again, wandering around the living room of the apartment. “Did well for yourself.”
“Who are you?”
“You sound like your dad when you bark like that.” Jesse picked up a picture of the gang of two years ago, when everybody had somebody to love. Before Riley left, before Tara died, before they knew that Dawn was anything more than Buffy’s annoying kid sister, who had a crush on him.
“What do you want?”
“Just to talk. It’s been, what, seven years? Wanted to stop by, say hello, catch up on all the big news. She looks happier, here.”
Xander automatically bristled at the comment, even though the part of him that wasn’t macho and stupid knew it was true. He’s messed up so bad, worse than anything he’d ever done before, and for what? Because he was scared? Because he was too good to talk to her about that, before he freaked at the worst possible time? He couldn’t even blame this on a demon, just him. Just stupid, buffoonish Xander.
“Yeah, well, you saw my charm with the ladies way back when. Don’t let the new clothes fool ya, Jesse, I’m still me.”
Jesse laughed, subtle tension in the bony shoulders relaxing slightly. “There’s my bud! Knew you hadn’t gotten too lost in there. Why’d you go away?”
The words were there, on the tip of his tongue. So big and painful and real that they felt like knives, cutting into the most sensitive part of him. “Not sure,” he said instead. “Not sure where I went.”
“Man, I wish I knew. God, look at you, Xand! You’re almost chunky. And the whole middle-class thing going, that’s scary. What about what we always said we do? You were gonna fly, I was gonna build engines and we’d be—”
“Yeah. I know. Things change.” Xander swallowed around the words Jesse had been going to say, getting up and heading towards the kitchen. He was thirsty. Concentrating on the need for liquid relief was paramount if he was going to deal with the Jesse-clone in his apartment. The one who sounded so much like his old friend that he could feel his mind tearing.
Because Jesse couldn’t be here. He couldn’t. Not on the Hellmouth. The Hellmouth pulled up the bad things, the nightmares. Jesse couldn’t be part of that nightmare. It was the only consolation he had, for what he’d done—knowing that he’d freed Jesse.
“You don’t trust me anymore, do you. Man, I’ll never forgive her for that. Not even your asshole parents could take that away from you. Remember when Willow used to call you her puppy? And you’d bark and tug on her shirt.” The words followed him as he took out a glass and filled it with tap water. Anya had wanted to get a filter, but he’d been drinking the unfiltered water all his life. If something bad was going to happen, it would have by now.
Back at the table, Xander rifled through his papers until he found the supply manifests. He had to make sure they had enough for—
“Xander. I didn’t come here for you to ignore me some more.”
The table was made of oak. Anya had wanted the pine—she said it was prettier—but he’d been firm and they’d bought the oak. It was a much better wood, definitely strong enough to withstand Xander gripping it so tightly. “What do you want?”
“Man, can’t I just wanna talk with my best bud from back when? Isn’t what this is about? High school memories, man. Back when everything was uncomplicated and free and all we had to worry about was the next pop quiz we were gonna fail.” Slumping down into the same chair, Jesse gave him a level look. “Aren’t I allowed to miss my friend Xander? Or is he so far gone that I’m gonna have to go haunt her to find him?”
“Don’t think she’ll be really disturbed by it. Ghosts wouldn’t bother her.” Xander swallowed half of his glass of water and then finally met black eyes. “Are you a ghost?”
“Nah. Too lame. I’m. . . well, don’t really know what I am. I’m supposed to warn you, I think. That whole ‘from beneath you it devours’ thing. And how lame is that, really? Sounds like Mrs. Frost’s idea of what a ‘good’ story is. Remember when we brought in the X-Men comics for our favorite book? Good times, then.”
Xander laughed, the memory so vivid in his mind that he could feel Mrs. Frost’s unamused glare. Willow had agonized over the decision so much that Xander had been able to rope her into helping them prove the Comic-book as Literature theory. Mrs. Frost hadn’t bought it.
Willow still got an A.
“Yeah, that was fun,” he agreed wistfully. Back when Willow was his best friend and the world wasn’t really going to end, it just felt like it was. “I miss that.”
“Yeah. Then she came along.”
The venom in Jesse’s voice prodded him back to, well, not reality since this was clearly a hallucination brought on by too much work. But to whatever this was, it brought him back. “Hey, Jesse, what’s your problem with Anya? I love—I loved her.”
“Anya? Why would I have a problem with a woman as hot as that! Okay, yeah, there’s the demon stuff, but I’m dead. I can deal with the interspecies thing. No, man, Anya was hot. You never should’ve let that one go. Except, marriage? What were you thinking, ‘I’m-barely-twenty-one’?” Air quotes made a visual aide to the mocking comment.
“I—well—it seemed like a good idea at the time—”
Jesse shook his head, the smirk still firmly in place. It hadn’t faded even once, Xander realized. “Yeah, and see how ready for it you were? You’re still a kid, Xan. Still the same bungling puppy dog that used to follow me and Willow around because nobody else wanted you. Sheesh. If Willow hadn’t been head over heels for you, I don’t know how long I would’ve stuck around, either. The two of you were fucking hysterical to watch.”
Xander couldn’t make his mouth move.
“Anyway, I didn’t mean Anya, she was cool. I meant Buffy. You know, the girl you killed me for? Damn, what a bitch she is. Kinda glad you two never got together. That’d only make this worse.”
Worse? What could possibly be worse than this?
“It was all for her, wasn’t it? Losing me, losing Wills, losing Anya, even. For her. Gotta be the reliable one, the one who picks her up when she falls down. Car Guy. Man with the blueprints and the weapons for her to fight with. Good for you, man, savin’ the world.” Jesse leaned forward a little. “Think she doesn’t remember the Zeppo? Man, she’s gonna drop you faster than Cordy used to slam you on your face.”
“Get out.” Oh, his voice came back. Yay.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m getting out of your cushy apartment.” Rising, Jesse twisted the smirk into something that was so stretched and evil that Xander shivered in fear. “But when the time comes, don’t forget to hear me saying ‘I told you so’. Cause when the dust all settles, I know where you’re gonna be, Xander. Don’t forget to buy them pretty flowers, on your way back to your empty apartment and your prime-time tv. Don’t forget to thank them when you look at your beer gut or when you just can’t face getting up in the morning. Have fun, man. Have fun.”
With one final grin and a chummy wave, Jesse moved to the middle of the living room and popped out of existence.
Picking up the pencil, Xander discovered that if he moved Wood, then he’d have to move the new kid, too, since he got along with Wood best. That meant he had to move somebody else to make sure the shifts were even. Or else maybe. . .