Xander nurses his beer, listening to the country music on the jukebox and flicking an occasional glance at the tv screen over the bar.
He likes this place; they play the hardcore. George, Merle, Johnny, Hanks Sr. and Jr., at a level that almost drowns out the jangle of slots from the lobby. Good tip from the taxi driver who'd driven him in from the airport.
Play me the song about a ramblin' man/Put a cold one in my hand...
This is one he likes. It thinks it's a song about drinking and cheating, but it's really about a guy who can't get over his old man. A good half of the Hank Jr. catalog is about how he can't get over his old man. There's a lot of that going around, but Hank Jr's a rare one who never got to know his father. Xander and his friends have tended to have quite the opposite problem.
Don't you play 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'/Cause I'll get all balled up inside/And I'll need to get whiskey bent and hellbound...
The song kicks up an urge, one he hasn't felt this strongly for a while. There's not a chance he'll give in; he's not stupid enough to get drunk the night before a job. Despite popular opinion, he's not suicidal.
Destruction, yeah. Self-, not so much.
He flips open his cell and checks his voice mail. There's one from Dawn (and Buffy and Giles by proxy), another from Willow. All wishing him well for tomorrow. "Catch you on the eleven o'clock news tomorrow," Willow says. Reflexively, he checks his watch. The time's correct, but he's not sure what time zone he's in, if her eleven's the same as his.
He slips the phone back in his pocket and has another sip, as a pretty blonde with an armload of shopping bags drops onto the barstool to his right and orders bottled water. She's flushed and a little unsteady.
"Are you okay?"
She smiles, flustered. "If someone says 'just a 20-minute walk'--" She seems to remember where she is, the raft of warnings she'd surely gotten about over-friendly strangers in Las Vegas. "I'm fine, thanks." She turns her attention back to the bartender.
"Tell you what I swear by in the crazy heat," Xander says. "Thai iced coffee."
The girl reaches for the 20-ounce water bottle -- $5 if it's a cent, Xander bets -- the bartender hands over, twisting off the top. "No mixed drinks, no," she says, her tone a bit clipped.
Xander persists, he doesn't know why. Because he's harmless, dammit, that's fucking why. "No, you wouldn't find it here. At a Thai restaurant. It's iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk. The sugar and caffeine come pretty close to raising the dead."
She gets a funny little smile on her face, but she doesn't share its source. She softens a bit, though. "Thanks, I'll give that a try sometime."
The juke switches to Patsy, "Why Can't He Be You?" A good question, one he's pondered (with a slight shift of pronouns) every time he meets another woman. Especially a blonde. Except this one's not interested, and he's not either, truth be told. Not before a job. After -- well, that's usually another story. He sips silently while she chugs her water.
The tv screen switches from a monstrous SUV perched atop a sheer cliff, to a shot of the Imperial Palace.
"That's the one they're blowing up tomorrow?"
"Not precisely." Precision is important. It's everything in what he does. "Implosion is the accepted term, though that's not really accurate, either. It's a series of controlled explosions that brings the building down in its own footprint."
"Is that why you came? I heard at my hotel that something like 150,000 people were in town just to see that."
He smiles. "No, I didn't come to watch. Were you ever there?"
"What? No. This is my first time in Vegas."
"I came through on business a few months back, and got a look at the place." A close look -- blueprints, load-bearing walls, structural supports. "They had a blackjack table with what they called Dealertainers. You could have Cher or Elvis or Little Richard deal your game, and every so often one of them would jump up on a little platform and sing. You could get lost on your floor if you didn't remember if you were in 11347 or 111347. Now it's coming down because it's not big enough or glitzy enough."
"You know," she says, "the thing that boggles me about this place is the waste. Like that building, because it's not in fashion anymore. Or the drive out here. Miles and miles of desert, and then all of a sudden there's all this green. And fountains everywhere you look. When I think of all the people who suffer every day for the lack of the most basic things -- " She laughs self-consciously. "I'd say 'don't get me started,' but it's way too late, isn't it?"
Wait till she finds out what's going in where the Palace was. A palace itself, of pointless yet conspicuous consumption. "You've discovered the secret."
"Why this town works so hard to keep you from thinking." He sips at his beer, wondering about the wisdom of asking her anything remotely personal, but he thinks he's earned a little trust. "Okay, so I know you're not here because you have to see the fountain at the Bellagio before you die. So what did bring you here?"
"Would you believe someone thought it would be a great idea to have a social worker's convention here?"
"Oh, sure. That's entirely believable. Hotel rooms are hella cheap around here. And if your organization books a catered dinner or two, the whole package is actually cheaper than without."
"Well, that's a relief. Good to know it wasn't mass insanity."
There's something about her that seems familiar. Not that he'll say so, because there's no way not to make that sound like a cheesy pickup line. But it tickles at his mind. "What kind of social work?"
"I work with runaways and street kids. In L.A., so there's a pretty steady supply."
"Yeah, I'd think so." George Jones's mournful voice kicks in. He said, "I'll love you till I die." He stops and lets a few lines of the song wash over him. He could easily listen to the whole thing, but the blonde seems to interpret his silence as waning interest, picking up her change from the bar. "Must be heartbreaking work," he says abruptly. George, no doubt, had an influence on the tone of that question.
She pauses, her money still in her hand. "It can be. Much of the time. But the successes are worth it. And someone was there for me when I was young and stupid. I'm kind of paying off that debt."
He doesn't know if he'd ever have the heart for that kind of work. Where your successes are measured on a day to day basis, and one day's miracle might be a drive-by shooting statistic tomorrow. One thing about how he makes his living now: Those buildings he's reduced to rubble have goddamn stayed rubble. Which is a lot more permanent than anything he's ever built. There are things you study once the job's done -- vibrations, potential damage to the surrounding area -- but for the most part, when the job's finished, it's chapter closed, turn the page. It's satisfying, in a strange way.
"Oh, now you've got that look," she says.
"Like you're thinking about what you do for a living and wondering if it's meaningful."
Xander laughs. "Not quite."
"I see that look a -- wow."
"What?" he says again.
"Just now, when you laughed. I'd swear I know you. Have you ever lived in California?"
"I thought you looked -- Sunnydale?"
She nods. "Sunnydale High. I didn't really know you, but I thought you were so funny. Except I was going through a goth thing, so I never laughed."
"You -- I thought -- Chantarelle." Difficult to be sure, with the pounds of makeup she used to wear, but he thinks he's right.
Coloring, she laughs a little. "Oh god. I haven't heard that in years. It's Anne, now."
"It's still Xander." He offers his hand, feeling dorky.
She doesn't hesitate to shake it. "You were Buffy's friend."
"I'm still that, too."
"She still fighting --" Anne casts a look around the bar, which has filled up while they've been talking. "-- the good fight?"
"She is. She's got a little more help now."
"I had some friends in L.A. who did that kind of work, too. You remember that big gas explosion that wiped out half a city block a few years back? A couple of them died in that. Except it wasn't a gas explosion."
"I hadn't thought so." He'd been there for the aftermath, helped bring down some of the more unstable buildings. The whole thing had reeked of the demonic. He'd gone back after dark to try and get a better sense of the place, and had found Angel wandering around there, half crazy with grief. Xander knew how that felt. They'd had possibly their first civil conversation ever in a country-western bar with a juke that rivaled this one. He'd actually even wanted to call Buffy, but Angel wouldn't let him.
"Gunn knew something big was happening, that he might not survive whatever it was. And he came down to the center to spend his last day on earth helping out."
Xander remembers his own Last Night on Earth, though it didn't turn out that way. Ice cream and kitchen floor sex with Anya. Not quite as noble, but he wouldn't trade it.
She tries to break the mood. "I never asked what brought you here."
An airplane, he wants to say, but that would be the chickenshit's way. He sips at his beer, which has grown warm. "I'm here to blow up a hotel."
"But you said--"
"I said I wasn't here to watch."
"Wow. How'd you get into that?"
"Not all that interesting. I did a lot of construction work in California. Worked my way up to foreman, but then I moved to Cleveland, and I was back to picking up casual work. I got a job doing prep for a demolition -- knocking down non-load-bearing walls, that sort of thing." Sounds menial and backbreaking, but there wasn't a job on the planet that suited him more at that time than busting shit up with a sledgehammer. But he leaves that part out. "I was interested in how it all worked, so I asked some questions which I guess they thought were intelligent, and so the demolitions people hired me on."
"They blow up a lot of buildings in Cleveland?"
"No, we operate all over the globe. We're based in Seattle. That's where I live." It would be more truthful to say he has a condo there. He spends more time in Cleveland, when he's between jobs. Suddenly he's tired of talking, tired of this bar, even tired of the music. "Listen, is there anything you have to do tonight for this convention thing? I know a great Cuban restaurant off the Strip, the food is kickass and if you sit in the window, you're looking right out at the lobby of a wedding chapel, and can watch the couples come and go. I can show you around, too. Obscenely wasteful fountains with water shows orchestrated to Celine Dion, pirate battles on the half-hour, photo ops with Caesar and Cleopatra, all cheesy, all free."
"Is it safe to walk around at night?"
"You can walk around with an open beer bottle, it's perfectly legal. I fill mine with holy water, but I've never had to use it. There's not much action here, not of that type. I think the desert heat screws up their thermostats or something. Because you'd think it would be the world's largest smorgasbord."
Anne giggles. "The $8.99 all you can eat midnight breakfast buffet."
"Something like that."
"I'd love to," she says, but she deflates just a little. "But there's a banquet I have to go to."
"The lure of the overdone chicken, the gray stringbeans. The whipped something-with-essence-of-potato."
She laughs again. He likes the sound. "Trust me, Cuban sounds better." Color rises in her cheeks. "But it's not really optional." The next sentence is nearly lost as she rummages around in her purse. "I'm getting an award."
Xander thinks of the vampire-wannabe from his junior year in high school. He wouldn't have pictured her getting any kind of award, beyond maybe Dumb as a Sack of Hammers. She'd done some serious growing up in the last nine years. He guesses that's what happens, if the hellmouth doesn't kill you.
"Hey, that's great," he says. "Congratulations."
Flashing him a quick, nervous smile, she says, "They gave me two tickets. Do you have a jacket and tie?"
He does. And though he's not much for large gatherings, he goes. He planned on eating his overcooked chicken and gray beans and fading into the background, but Anne deftly deflects the attention from herself by introducing Xander and saying what's brought him to town, which steers the table talk to implosions. What's more surprising, she mentions him from the dais when she's getting her award, saying how amazing it is to have someone there from her past to remind her of how far she's come. It's a nice speech.
"That was shameless," she says as they're walking on the sidewalk outside Caesar's Palace, each carrying a bottle of holy water. (His formerly held a microbrew with snob appeal, hers the overpriced Evian from the hotel bar.)
"What, the way I shoved you through the crowd to get the pic with Cleo?"
"That trick I pulled at dinner. You were an extremely good sport, and I appreciate it."
He shrugs. "Wasn't so much, really. You don't like talking about yourself?"
"I can shmooze. If that had been a fundraiser, you wouldn't have recognized me."
"Not so much with the taking credit?"
"Xander, I have so much help doing what I do. It doesn't seem right that I stand up there and say it's all me."
"I didn't hear anything like that. So what's next? Tigers, art gallery, pirates or waltzing waters?"
"I wore stupid shoes," Anne says. "What's closest?"
"Tigers are at the hotel next door, which here means around three miles away. We could just take off our shoes and stick our feet in the fountain here."
"And get arrested, I'm sure."
"Anne, Anne, Anne." He takes her hand and draws her closer to the fountain. "You just don't get the whole Vegas thing. You can drink on the street, no one's going to care if you stick a toe in the fountain."
She stumbles against him in her stupid shoes, and he puts an arm around her waist to steady her.
"Nothing bad will happen," he tells her. "Promise."
She doesn't seem to mind that her arm, holy water and all, is trapped between them. She tilts her face upward, and the next thing Xander knows, he's kissing her.
Anne doesn't seem to mind that, either. Or the next several kisses.
And neither does Vegas.
The crowd flows around them, parting to pass and then knitting itself back together again, and no one jostles them or says "Get a room." Once they part, a woman beams at them. "Just married?" She's got a House on the Rock t-shirt, and the guy with her wears one with a giant W and a cartoon animal he doesn't recognize.
Xander grins. "We're on our way there now."
"We got married, just across the street," the woman says, pointing at the Imperial Palace. It's now a dark space in the midst of all this garish light, like a missing tooth. Darker bands make horizontal stripes around the building, geotextile fabric shields to contain debris on the floors where the explosives are rigged. "Nineteen years ago. We were planning to come back and stay for our twentieth anniversary, but they're blowing it up tomorrow, so we came for that instead."
"Oh, that's a shame," Anne says.
"We're at the Luxor," the man says. "Actually it's a lot nicer."
The woman wishes them luck with their wedding, and they go on to wherever they were heading.
"On our way to get married," Anne repeats wryly.
Xander shrugs. "Why bore people with facts? They're all romantic and nostalgic tonight, why not be bit players in their story? Hell, I'm bringing down the place they got married, a little lie's the least I can do."
The moment's lost now, leaving Xander feeling both disappointed and relieved. Relieved because this is not his normal routine, and he's a creature of ritual in the countdown before a job.
Anne must be feeling it too. "You must have an early morning tomorrow."
"Well, there's checking and rechecking the charges and fuses, and the idiot sweep, yeah."
"There are implosion enthusiasts who want to get all close up and personal, so they'll sneak past the barriers. How about you? Breakfasts and seminars?"
Anne sucks in a measured breath, then lets it out. "Nothing I couldn't sleep through. But you -- no, you need to be fresh in the morning."
He blinks, trying to translate. Is she on the verge of an invitation? Sounds more like the verge of scrapping the whole thing. He can't believe how awkward this all is. Because they've known each other in the past, or something else entirely? "There's a team, you know. This isn't all on my shoulders."
"Would you --" Another deep breath. "Would you like to come up?"
There are all kinds of reasons to say no.
He says yes.
Her hotel's only marginally better than the Imperial Palace was. His company's set him up in a nicer place, but he senses it's important to her to be on her own turf. He's never hesitated to turn the invitation around before, but this time he leaves it unspoken.
She fumbles with the key card, then finally swings the door inward. "Well, here it is," she says, then rolls her eyes at herself. "There's a terrace."
It seems like a slightly less awkward thing to do than stand here looking at each other, so they cross to the other side of the room (which is mostly bed) and she pulls the drapes and slides the door open. It's like a blast furnace, a wall of heat and floodlights that assaults them as they step outside, taking up almost the entire area of the terrace, which is more of a ledge with railing. Her dress flutters in the hot wind as they look down at the street below.
"Well," she says, "that's the terrace."
Rather than say something awkward (and anything he'd say would be nothing but), he kisses her again. It turns out to be the right move, one that gets them off the terrace and beside the bed, curtain drawn once more.
"Are you sure?" he asks.
She nods. "Are you prepared?"
"Got it covered. Well, I will." He slides off the silly little jacket she's worn all evening, and suddenly one of the night's big mysteries is solved. He'd wondered why, in this heat, she hadn't peeled it off. The big red half-heart tattooed on her inner forearm answers that one. "Rickie," he murmurs.
"He was a very sweet boy I was with when I first ran off to L.A.," she says.
Xander strokes his hand over the soft flesh over the boy's name.
"The street just ate him up." When she looks up at him, the movement's quick, as if she's startled by something. "That's what I tell people. But it was demons." A fleeting smile. "Bet that was a mood-killer."
"No. It just means we have more in common than I knew." When he leans in and presses his lips to the half-heart, it draws a gasp from her and the awkwardness melts away. He doesn't know what this might've been like without her revelation, but it's slow and tender, sweeter than any sex he's had since Anya. He takes his time getting to the point of needing protection, teasing soft cries from her first with his hands and his mouth. And when she in turn makes him shudder and gasp and cry out, for the first time in years it's not Anya's name that tumbles from his lips.
He dreams of Sunnydale. No surprise there; he always does the night before a job. He's used to it.
What he's not used to is the touch of another person as he sits bolt upright in bed. "Xander, it's all right, you're safe." She feathers her hand across his bare back.
"Anya?" He knows as soon as it's out that it's not, that Anya's gone. Years gone.
"It's Anne. You want the light?" With the floodlights from outside, the low-watt bedside lamp doesn't make a lot of difference, but it makes enough.
"I'm sorry," he tells her.
"I always have this dream just before a job," he says.
"You want to tell me?" Her voice is soft, but not with the breathy, wispy quality it had when he met her in high school. He likes this version better.
"It's about Sunnydale." He turns to look at her. "Did you have anyone there? At the end, I mean?"
"No. My parents left, a couple of months before. There was a lot of denial in that town, but from what they told me later, the vibe was so intense it was almost impossible to ignore."
"I was there," he says.
"When it went?"
He nods. "There was a battle. We actually won it. The hellmouth -- that was what made Sunnydale such a metaphysically crazy place -- it closed, but it pulled the whole town into it. It was like pulling the tablecloth out from under a banquet table, everything tipping off in slow motion, yet amazingly fast."
"And you were there."
"In a bus, outrunning it. The handful of us who were left."
"It wasn't an earthquake, like they said on the news."
"Felt nothing like that." He looks at her again and sees the understanding dawn, and he laughs. "Oh, I totally see it. I always have. That what I do for a living is all about reliving it, reordering it, making sure it all comes out right, with everyone safe. I'm nothing if not laughably transparent."
Anne strokes his back again. "Not everyone came out safe from Sunnydale."
"No." Part of him wants to tell her more, but there have been enough revelations for one night. "No."
She doesn't push it. Must be something you learn when you work with runaways. She presses her lips against his shoulder and he turns toward her.
He has his thumb pressed on a button as a voice in his ear ticks off the seconds.
The indicator light winks on.
Three ... two ... one ... detonate.
He presses his thumb on the other button.
This is a crazy kind of beauty. The center of the building drops straight down. A heartbeat later, the ends fall inward and down. It almost looks like an embrace. Graceful and brutal, all at once. Before the hotel even finishes falling, the dust cloud is rising up.
Xander wears safety glasses. He doesn't need to have either of his eyes scratched up by the grit in that cloud.
As the noise of the building's fall fades, he hears the shouts and applause of the people who've come to watch.
Henri claps him on the shoulder, but they don't speak.
After the follow-up, he finds himself in Cleveland for a week of vacation.
The stake feels wrong in his hand. He dreams about swinging a hammer, about running a plane over a plank, producing delicate curls of shaved wood.
He slips out on the second night to the country bar he infrequently frequents. Play me the song about a ramblin' man....
He takes out his wallet, finds her card where he tucked it behind his drivers license. Dials her number.
"Anne. It's Xander. I've been wondering -- could your shelter use five days of free carpentry work? Well, tomorrow, I'm thinking."
When he flips the phone shut, he looks at the palm of his hand.
He thinks how good it will feel to build something again.
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