Zen And The Art Of The Open Road
by Lar

It's dark when he drives. For some reason, Xander has developed this habit of being on the move when the sun goes down. It has nothing to do with being able to see the constellations overhead when he leaves the top down on Uncle Rory's big, obvious, penis-metaphor of a car. He thinks... no, he knows... that it's got everything to do with feeling safer to be moving forward when the things that go bump are up and wandering.

Life in Sunnydale teaches you a few things, and teaches them in a way that makes Drill Sergeants look like warm and fuzzy Carebears. Xander has those lessons tattooed inside his eyelids and burned into his brain. He thinks sometimes that if he could get a degree in Survival, he'd be the one with the shiny gold Phi Beta Kappa key come graduation. He could be Xander Harris, Doctor of Being Alive, Professor of Avoiding Deadness.

He distracts himself from the blandness of the highway that stretches out flat and endless in the bright light of his high beams by punching the buttons on the radio that will never work anytime between now and, say, ever. His arms are long; he barely has to lean sideways to click out a staccato rhythm and finds himself attempting a seriously fucked up version of "Wipe Out" before giving up and sitting straight, back cracking as vertebrae realign themselves. He suspects that if he lives long enough, he's going to have a wicked case of arthritis courtesy of the number of times his bones have impacted with doorways, tabletops, walls and tombstones.

Xander's head turns far right and when his neck pops, he sighs. He turns far left to repeat that exercise, and if Willow were here she would pinch his thigh to make him stop. The sound of him cracking his neck always gave her the wiggins.

He's grinning at the recollection when he sees it.

His first intellectual reaction - slam on the brakes, get out and help - overrides the way his body is trying to stomp on the gas and get the hell away. There goes the degree in Knows When To Run The back end of the car fishtails and he stares at the hand on the road.

Illuminated in the headlights, it's white, palm up and fingers splayed wide in what Xander knows was a prayer for help. His heart is beating hard his vision pulses with it, and that's all fine because there's no spit in his mouth either so nothing is working right. The hand remains still, pale and dirty, and with that mostly unwanted percepto-vision that an adrenaline rush lends him, he sees that there's a streak of something dark on one finger.

He knows it's blood. He hates that he knows this without really trying.

It's attached to an arm, and that arm is attached to a shoulder, a whole body just outside of the reassuring bright circles of light that his headlights cast. Xander's fingers that were sure and steady enough to attempt to play a tune on the radio buttons just minutes earlier find themselves stupid and clumsy as he tries to keep his eyes on the unmoving hand and reach for the latch that will open the glove box. He pops its and spills out a pile of maps, pens, tissues and one of the stakes he keeps there. There's another one under the seat, which is closer, but he knows it means looking away.

And just... no. Looking away is bad.

"Hey... " His voice shakes and he hates that, too. Whatever left that body there at the side of the road could be standing there just outside of his maybe faulty percepto-vision waiting for dessert and here he is about to walk up offer himself like the free sundae with purchase. He really misses Buffy right now. He misses Faith. Even Angel. And hey, a Willow spell would be really welcome right about now, too.

He leaves the car running, handy for those quick getaways from whatever is standing and waiting for him to bend down in what might be a nice little trap. Xander enjoys the thought of taking the bait as much as he enjoys the thought of being the bait. His fingers pull the cross around his neck so it dangles against the front of his t-shirt, and when he bends down out of the arc of light, he sees nothing. For a second he believes that it's just a hand, and while that's all kinds of disgusting in a way, it makes him feel relief. Then his vision adjusts and there's the rest.

Skinny. Young. Mostly bones and tight skin and Xander knows that even with blood in her skin, this girl would have been pale. Now she's waxy and the road dust clings to the patch of once-wet blood and settles in the half-open cup of her eyes. It looks like she was hollowed out and filled with sand, and he's mildly nauseated at the thought, but no more than that. Later, when sleep is just a thing he used to have first hand knowledge of, he'll worry over knowing that he's become that accustomed to horrible things.

Her other hand is flung out like the one that he first saw, and her legs are bent at an angle that suggests it let her run a little and played with her, and then took her down like a deer or a rabbit. Fast would have ruined its fun, he guesses. What's a party without the panicked victim pumping all those juicy hormones into the blood before it gets sucked out of them?

He would really like to go back an hour in his life and make a left instead of a right, or maybe back further than that, to the day before this one when he decided that it was time to move on again. Go back a month to graduation and save a few dozen of those people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Try to make it so no one ended up snake chow or a broken smear of crushed flesh and bones on the steps of the high school.

Xander shakes his head and wipes clammy palms on his jean-covered thighs. He's getting himself into full babble mode with a touch of hysteria thrown in to make it all the more likely that he'll freeze if something tries to jump him. He looks over his shoulder, fully expecting to see the vamp that did this, but there's nothing there. Just his car, door open and lights on, the engine clicking over loudly, and when he looks back there's a gust of wind that blows more dirt over the face of the girl, settling on those freaky, dust-clogged eyes.

He shudders and looks around her for something that will give her a name. There's no purse, no backpack. For all he knows they picked her up and brought her here from Vegas, some little runaway from a street that has no name who would never be missed. As much as he would like to avoid touching her, he reaches out a hand that shakes way too much for his own comfort. Xander realizes he's only a few seconds from rabbiting away from this seriously bad shit he was unlucky enough to find. His hand wavers above the pocket of the ragged cargo pants she's wearing, below the bare line of her waist where the shirt is rucked up and torn. He runs his fingers over it tentatively, feeling for a wallet, keys, anything and already knowing that there's nothing there. Just the sharp bump of her hipbone and the far too thin line of her leg.

He drops his head a little until he becomes aware of how vulnerable that makes the back of his neck and then he stands up, stake held loosely in his hand as he looks down at the body. He wants to bury her, wants to make this right for her somehow, but that's really asking for too much. There's no making this right unless he manages to do the undoable. Turn back time, like he was thinking earlier, give this skinny no-name girl a little Sunnydale one on one lesson: strangers are bad. They're worse when the sun goes down. The monsters are real. Even if no one can hear, you still scream for help before you die.

Xander walks back to the car, pops the trunk latch and looks inside. His suitcase is there, the bald excuse for a spare tire, the rusty thing that someone once called a jack. Nothing he can use to dig with, and he leans down, hands on the warm metal gripping tight. There's probably a right thing to do here, something very logical that Giles would point out while he wiped his glasses on the hem of his shirt. He's sure that if someone told him, he'd recognize it as very smart and maybe slap his forehead because it was so plain that she should've seen it all along. What he's getting though, is the urge to get in the car, turn around and drive back to Sunnydale. Maybe stop and look for a nice dimensional time travel thing that would let him be fifteen again and arguing the urgent questions of life with Willow and Jesse.

"OK, Wills if you're so smart, then tell me: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody's there, does it make a noise?"

"Oh I know that one. Yes."

"Yes? That's your answer. Jesse, man, you need facts to back it up."

"Wills can do that part. I'm goin' with yes. Dude, stop hogging all the gum."

"Actually he's right. Well, he is."

"Hit us with the facts, Will."

"Wait, wait, do you know the one about if God can do anything, can he make a stone so heavy that even God ... stop staring at me like that. It's a valid question."

Xander sits behind the wheel for a long time, until the edges of the sky turn lighter. The hand stays still. The girl stays dead. He keeps wishing for that place where he was Knowledge Guy, but even then the answers to questions about things like this were somebody else's problem. He could have been really happy just knowing that trees always make noise when they fall, God might be around watching out for sparrows and fools, and that taking more than one piece of anything at a time would make Jesse claim he was hogging it. A part of Xander will always be looking for the place where he's ignorant of these facts - his friends will die, some of them more than once, and people will still scream, even if no one is there to hear it.


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