Later, when he looked back on it, the whole thing was kind of a blur, no pun intended. It all happened so fast. One second, the chaos of battle, potentials everywhere ... the next second, he was helping Kennedy ... the next second, excruciating pain ... the next second, Spike coming to his rescue.
Yeah, Spike. Who would have guessed it would be Spike?
At first, he didn't really understand what had happened. Not really. Because things like this didn't happen to the Scoobies. Nobody ever got really, truly, permanently damaged.
He'd been in so many shitty situations, been sure he was about to buy the farm so many times, come so close so many times, on some gut level he really couldn't believe that this time it had all caught up with him.
He couldn't even remember how they got away. All he could remember was Caleb's face, and then Spike's. And then nothing.
* * *
At the hospital, they asked a lot of questions. Xander knew he was in shock, he knew what that felt like from personal experience, and this was it, but this time it was worse. He couldn't stop shaking, like he was so very cold, like the glaring white hospital room was a snowdrift that was freezing him to death.
Giles stepped up and took care of things, and Xander just lay on the hospital bed with a thick gauze pad strapped over his eye -- over where his eye used to be -- and waited for something he couldn't quite define.
Maybe waiting for the punchline to this really not-funny joke. Waiting for whatever would fix this wrongness and make things normal again. Make things right.
* * *
In the hospital room, nobody knew what to say to him. Willow held his hand. They all looked so uncomfortable. He was still waiting for the punchline.
Eventually, through the haze of pain medication and denial, he realized there wasn't going to be a punchline. No rimshot to cue the laugh track. This was all there was. A patch on his eye, and nothing underneath. A blank space where Xander used to be. No punchline. No joke. Just a pretty fucking harsh reality.
He said something about needing a parrot to go with the patch, but nobody laughed.
* * *
There was a lot that needed to be done. It was the whole apocalypse deal. So he made with the helping and the fighting, and there wasn't really any time to sit around and brood about personal disfigurement. They were probably all going to die, anyway, because this time was different.
If the eye thing could happen, then all bets were off. The universe was playing hardball.
When it came down to it, he went into the high school knowing that. Knowing he might not make it out. That maybe none of them would make it out.
He really wasn't thinking about the eye, because there wasn't time. The patch was a distraction, unfamiliar against the skin of his face, but there was ass-kicking that needed to be visited upon some extremely ugly uber-vamps, and that sort of took priority.
* * *
Once it was all over, standing on that dusty road, looking over the crater that had been his home -- the now-desolate place where he'd learned to rollerskate and made blanket forts with Willow and had his first kiss and asked Anya to marry him and helped save the world a time or two -- it just didn't seem important. The eye, that is.
He didn't actually know if his parents had gotten out or not, and he didn't much care. That probably sounded callous, but it was the truth. They didn't matter, the eye didn't matter, none of it mattered.
The high school was gone, even more definitively than it had been after the mayor's graduation snakification. Buffy's house was gone. The Magic Shop. The Bronze. The mall. The mini-golf course. The comic book store he'd been going to since second grade. The 31 Flavors where he used to go with Jesse and Willow after school. The park where Jesse's dad had taught them how to fly a kite. The public pool where they'd played Marco Polo every summer. His first real apartment, with his own towels and his own plates and everything. The construction company that had given him the first job where people actually treated him with respect, where he learned he was actually good at something. It was all gone. He'd lost the only home he'd ever known, all at once.
And he'd lost Anya.
Who gave a fuck about the eye?
* * *
It wasn't until they were in England, once things had settled down and they were all trying to figure out how to move on, that the issue really came up. Giles offered to use Watchers Council funds to pay for a very expensive artificial eye.
"The technology has advanced really quite remarkably with something they call a 'bio-eye', which allows the prosthesis to move quite naturally."
"Yes, well, the name is rather ridiculous, but the prosthesis itself is really quite impressive."
"Bio-eye?" Xander repeated mockingly. "Is it going to make bionic noises every time I look at something really fast?" He slowly moved his good eye back and forth while making Six Million Dollar Man noises.
Giles sighed. "Xander, if you wish to have this implant, I am happy to oblige, but it must be your decision. Please consider the issue with the seriousness it deserves."
Xander stopped goofing around and looked away, then absently fidgeted with his eye patch. He was always worried that it might be slipping, that somebody might see underneath, even though it really wasn't all that weird under there. It was sort of gross when he had to clean it with saline solution, but the rest of the time his eye was just closed, like he was winking. You could sort of tell that there wasn't anything in there, because the eyelid didn't curve out like you'd expect, but it wasn't like he was the Elephant Man.
Still, he fidgeted with the eye patch. Nervous habit.
He never really made a decision, though, and when they eventually sent him to Africa on slayer-finding duty, he promised to return with eye patches in numerous colorful tribal fabrics.
* * *
In Africa, people didn't seem to even notice the patch. He was usually the only white man for miles, and that made him stand out more than a little triangle of black cloth could. In fact, he met a few other one-eyed people on his travels. He wondered if it was only because he was more aware of it now, or if there really were more one-eyed people in Africa. Most of them didn't even wear patches ... just bare twisted skin, scars, concavities. It was always a bit disconcerting, like looking into a distorted mirror in which all his own defenses had been stripped away.
He couldn't really look them in the face, and that made him feel like a hypocrite.
Africa was very hot and very big. Vast, even. It was beautiful sometimes -- some areas were surprisingly green and lush, and even the deserts could be beautiful -- but mostly it just seemed to go on forever. The sky was bigger than he'd thought the sky could be, wider and brighter, and the land stretched out for miles toward the horizon, shimmering with heat.
Sometimes he felt like he was alone in the world, thousands of miles away from anyone who knew him. Buffy and Willow and everyone else were all working, too, of course, in their own ways. He was sure of that. Pretty sure, anyway. But when the sun was really blazing down on him and the sweat was running down his neck and soaking into his t-shirt, running down his forehead and soaking into the patch, sometimes he wondered why he was the one wandering alone in a third-world desert. Why him, and not somebody else?
He was surprised how little the eye affected his driving. He had a beat-up old Range Rover -- thanks to Giles's revived Watchers Council -- which he used to travel wherever rumors led, looking for young girls who were unusually strong. It sounded a little pervy, even to him, but that's the job he'd been given. He was always surprised at how easily the girls' parents yielded their children to a complete stranger. He packed each one off to England and then continued the quest.
Sometimes he got stuck in one place for a while -- once it was a flash flood that had blocked the road for a few days, another time it was the promise of a wise man who would be visiting the village soon with news from afar -- and that wasn't too bad. Most of the people in the remote villages didn't speak English, but he just spoke very slowly and gestured a lot, and he got by.
Once or twice, he happened to pass through villages that had problems he could help with. When his construction experience came in handy, it felt nice to do something he was good at, instead of just floundering around in search of slayers. Anybody could do that, right? They could probably train a monkey to find slayers. Or they could just send Xander.
He's only got one eye now, not good for much, but we can send him out for donuts ... or coffee ... or slayers.
In one village, he caught some kind of fever and got really sick and was nursed through the night by an old woman whose name he didn't even know.
Sometimes it seemed like he'd lost more than just an eye.
* * *
He didn't know how long he would have kept it up if a particularly uncooperative slayer hadn't seriously kicked his ass. They'd known this was going to happen. It stood to reason that Faith wouldn't be the only slayer with a bad attitude. That didn't make the ass-kicking any more fun.
So with his arm broken in two places, he headed back to Nairobi -- and from there to London -- and told Giles he was done.
No more Africa.
No more slayer-hunting.
He was just ... done.
* * *
Andrew picked up where Xander left off in Africa, so when Dawn headed out for a summer studying Greek in Athens -- and, less officially, studying some obscure demon dialects with a woman "friend" of Giles's who lived there -- and Buffy was itching to leave Rome for a vacation with her latest non-human boyfriend, it only made sense for Xander to housesit.
So he found himself in Rome. Alone again. But at least this time there was tv and beer and porn and a comfy bed to sleep in.
It was like paradise.
With his "retirement pension" supplied by the Watchers Council -- "The Council can afford it, Xander, and you have most definitely earned it" -- he could live relatively comfortably, though not lavishly. It helped that he wasn't paying rent.
Rome was a larger, more urban, more crowded city than he'd lived in before, and the difference was a bit overwhelming, especially after nearly a year wandering the villages and empty spaces of Africa. The insano-traffic was like nothing he'd ever seen. But he loved the cafes, the open-air movies -- some of the theatres even had retractable ceilings, which was one of the coolest things he'd ever seen in his life -- the gelato, and the truly incredible pizza.
He didn't speak Italian, of course -- any more than he'd spoken the dozens of African dialects he'd encountered on his travels -- and he was finding the language difficult to pick up. Languages had never been his strong suit. That was more Dawn's thing. He didn't want to be the rude American, and so he bought himself a phrase book and would often try to sound out the phrases, much to the amusement of the Italians he met. When he didn't feel like providing quite that much entertainment, he would usually just point at what he wanted to say. Most of the people he met spoke some English, so it wasn't too bad.
Rome in the summer was very hot, but compared to Africa it was nothing. Xander wore shorts and tank tops and splashed himself in the public fountains and relaxed under the awnings of local cafes. Nobody seemed to care if he took off his shirt in the afternoon and lay down under a tree in the nearby park. He got a tan even darker than when he'd been working construction. He found out where the cheapest local swimming pools were and started swimming almost every morning.
It was a pretty good life.
He settled in, and when Dawn decided to stay on in Athens with Giles's friend for another semester, and Buffy decided to stay a while longer with The Immortal on some tropical island he apparently owned, Xander didn't fight it.
He was actually pretty happy where he was. Rome wasn't half bad.
He sometimes thought of Sunnydale, sometimes thought of Anya and Tara and Joyce, the loved ones he had lost, usually when he saw a woman on the street who looked like one of them, or when he smelled a familiar perfume. On those rare occasions when he wept, the left eye wept as well as the right. But the patch caught those tears, absorbed them, like a repository of sorrow.
He rinsed the patch, even wore a new one, but somehow felt that he was always carrying those captured tears in the thick fabric, as if nothing could wash them away once they had fallen.
* * *
It was a surprise when Spike showed up at the door. A surprise for both of them, apparently, since Spike jerked backward and stared. They both stared.
"Thought you were in Africa."
"I thought you were dead. Again."
"Yeah, well, sometimes it's handy to have a god on your side."
Xander invited him in and they sat on the couch and it was all very bizarre. Spike had burned up on the Hellmouth. He'd been the final sacrificial weapon that saved everyone, saved the world. He'd gotten to be the big hero.
He was one of the things they'd lost.
And yet he was here.
They both sat awkwardly, looking around at the very well-appointed apartment. Fancy, especially compared to the places he'd stayed in Africa. After a bit, Xander realized that Spike wasn't just admiring the furniture, and his looking around wasn't just nervous or random. He was looking for Buffy.
Of course. That's why he'd come. Of course. Duh.
"She's not here."
"Buffy. She's not here. Dawn, either. They're both ... somewhere else, doing their own thing."
Spike was silent for a while.
"She still with ... ?"
"The Immortal? Yeah. And what kind of stupid name is that? I mean, is it on his driver's license? Does she call him that in bed?" He made his voice high, "Oh, The Immortal, harder!" But Spike didn't laugh.
A long silence. Actually, that probably hadn't been the most tactful thing to say to the guy who burned himself to death saving the world because he loved Buffy so much. And then became somehow re-undeaded and flew to Rome looking for her ... only to unexpectedly get stuck with one-eyed Xander instead.
"Uh ... want a beer?"
Spike nodded, so Xander got them a couple of beers.
They didn't talk about much, just random stuff. Italian beer. Airline food. The hot weather. Angel's addiction to hair gel. Nothing about Buffy or Sunnydale or apocalypses. They laughed here and there and made it most of the way through a six-pack before Xander shuffled off to bed.
They hadn't really discussed it, but Spike ended up sleeping on the sofa.
* * *
It turned out that vampires get jet lag just like anybody else. Spike was wide awake in the middle of the next day, so he and Xander just hung out, watching tv and shooting the shit. Xander dug out an old deck of cards, and Spike proceeded to skunk him at a variety of different games. At least he was smart enough not to bet money, despite Spike's best efforts to convince him that it would make the game "more exciting."
"I'm pretty excited by keeping my money, Spike."
By late afternoon, they were watching Diff'rent Strokes dubbed in Italian, drinking shots whenever Gary Coleman said something that was presumably the Italian version of "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" After a while, Xander could even repeat the nonsense syllables, and so he did an Italian Gary Coleman impression that cracked them both up.
They sprawled side-by-side on the couch and Xander rubbed a finger underneath the strap of the patch. It ate into his skin sometimes, leaving a red indentation that could give him headaches if he wasn't careful.
"Decided to stick with the patch, did you?"
Well, not really decided so much as ... "Yeah, I guess. Why?" He looked over at Spike. They looked at each other in the dim light that came through the curtains. In the background, Gary Coleman rattled away in Italian.
"Just a bit surprised," Spike said. "Most folks'd get a glass eye. You doin' it to make some kind of point?"
"Not really. It just never seemed important."
Gary Coleman said the familiar Italian words, and they both leaned forward to take a drink. Xander grimaced. The whiskey burned all the way down. Spike pointed at the screen and snickered. Diff'rent Strokes in Italian was fucking hilarious.
* * *
They never really made a decision about it, never actually discussed it, but it was pretty apparent that Spike didn't really know what to do with himself now that his quest to find Buffy had ended so anti-climactically. He didn't seem to have anywhere to go. Sort of like Xander, actually. They were both rootless. Aimless. So Spike stuck around and they both lived a life on the periphery, living in someone else's home, someone else's country, just passing the time.
And as time went on, Xander was glad for the company. And since he didn't have a job anymore, his schedule gradually shifted until he was sleeping all day and hanging out with Spike at night.
He introduced Spike to the parking lot a few blocks away where they projected movies onto a big whitewashed brick wall every night. It was a Bring Your Own Seating sort of deal, so they nabbed the cushions off Buffy's couch and dragged them along to keep their butts off the hard asphalt. Buffy would kill them when she saw the stains, but as long as you made sure to always keep the cushions right-side-up, no one would ever know.
Sitting on the couch cushions in the middle of a parking lot, they saw mostly old movies, sometimes in English and sometimes not. They watched Casablanca dubbed in Italian and debated the ending while they walked home in the dark, occasionally waving their couch cushions for emphasis. They watched Rebel Without A Cause and On The Waterfront and some Italian movies Xander couldn't understand at all.
"Do you speak Italian?" he asked one night as they strolled past one of the nearby fountains.
Spike jumped up to walk along the edge of the fountain and shrugged. "A bit. Enough to get by."
"So what the hell was that thing with the llama and the briefcase?"
Spike just looked down at him and grinned, then shook his head, chuckling.
* * *
Sometimes they ran into a vamp or a demon, but overall Rome was remarkably demon-free. When you grew up on the Hellmouth, probably anywhere seemed normal. And, anyway, Spike said that most of the vamps in Europe were old-school, whatever that meant. Apparently they had more "dignity" than American vamps. Watching the American tourists among the Italians, Xander didn't find that difficult to believe.
It seemed like Rome's demon contingent, such as it was, mostly kept to themselves. It was a refreshing change from the frenetic pace of the Hellmouth. They rarely met up with anything that needed slaying.
When they did run into trouble, Xander let Spike take care of it. He was done with the slaying biz. He'd contributed an eye, and that was quite enough. He was keeping the rest of his body parts out of harm's way, thanks very much.
Spike, however, fought with the same energy and enthusiasm as ever. Watching all that speed and agility and pure enjoyment, it was difficult to believe that he'd burned up in Sunnydale, difficult to believe that he'd been really dead. He'd never explained how he came back after that, but here he was. The same as always.
Well, except for the not evil thing.
He hadn't always been not evil. Obviously. But it was getting harder and harder to remember the Big Bad with that burning Hellmouth hero getting in the way. It didn't matter that Spike refused to talk about it.
Xander'd lost a lot of things in Sunnydale, including Sunnydale itself, but he wasn't going to lose his own memories of what had happened there. The things he'd learned the hard way.
And one of the things he'd learned from Spike, during those last days, was what it felt like to be truly wrong about someone. He'd been wrong about Spike. And he wasn't going to forget it.
* * *
As September waned and the weather got cooller, the outdoor movies stopped and they had to find other ways to entertain themselves. The tourists faded away and the natives returned from their summer vacations. The feel of the city definitely changed.
Luckily, the nightclubs that had been closed down for the summer started opening their doors, which made up for the lack of outdoor movies ... and they didn't even have to bring couch cushions, which was a plus. Xander had never been to a European nightclub before, but he and Spike fairly rapidly turned into regulars at a few of the nearby places.
The club nearest the apartment was a gay bar called Alibi. It had better dance music than the other two clubs in easy walking distance, so they tended to go there a lot. Xander prided himself on being so open-minded and cosmopolitan.
They danced a lot, often with each other. Not in a gay kind of way, of course, but just ... dancing. The music was good and they were bored and it was sort of the highlight of each day. Just letting go.
Spike never made fun of Xander's dance moves, and he never complained about the music. It was like he'd mellowed somehow. It was a little disconcerting, actually. So whenever he made some kind of snarky remark, Xander relaxed a little bit. Still the same Spike.
* * *
At the clubs, Spike was constantly approached by both men and women, offering to buy him drinks, asking him to dance, and whispering in his ear, probably with more intimate suggestions.
Xander got his share of offers, as well, but even when they got past the language barrier he was uncomfortable with the way some of them stared at his patch. Others avoided looking at it, their eyes slipping nervously away, and that was oddly worse than the outright curiosity. The bold ones came right out and asked about it.
He had no idea what to say to them. How could he shout over the music at a nightclub and explain all the tears the patch held, all the lonely African dust, all the one-eyed faces from which he'd turned, unwilling to look? How could he explain the pain the patch contained, all the memories and loves and losses?
How could he possibly explain that the patch hid more emptiness than just an eye socket?
But he couldn't really blame them for asking. He was wearing a patch. It was a bit like a flashing neon sign advertising, 'I lost an eye. Ask me how.' People were likely to notice.
Heck, back before Caleb, if he'd seen someone on the street wearing an eye patch, he might have stared, too. Maybe made some pirate jokes in his head. He'd've been looking at the patch, not at the person.
He still did it, even now. Maybe even more than before. Fascinated by eyelessness. Fascinated by that lack, that black triangle, that black hole where an eye should be. Fascinated by that difference, which was now a sameness. Fascinated by that patch.
The realization was uncomfortable.
* * *
During one of their demon run-ins, Spike got pretty badly cut up. Xander was bandaging his hands for him in the apartment bathroom when Spike said casually, "Got my hands right chopped off last year. Scared the shit out of me."
Xander looked at him. Looked at his hands.
"Got 'em mojo'd back on by some docs on the Wolfram & Hart payroll."
Xander eyed Spike's hands speculatively. No scars. Spike wiggled his fingers.
"Like new," Spike explained. "Could probably still hook you up if you wanted."
Xander was shaking his head before Spike had even finished the sentence. "That's a big no thanks. I'm not interested in having an evil eyeball."
"Hey! My hands aren't evil!" Spike paused as if realizing what he'd just said. "Well, they are, because they're mine, and I'm evil, but they aren't any more evil than they were before."
Xander shrugged. "I heard some guy at Wolfram & Hart ended up with some kind of homicidal maniac hand that went around causing all kinds of shenanigans."
Spike nodded agreeably. "Oh, right. That bloke."
"Yeah. I think I'll stick with my non-evil non-eye."
* * *
They gradually relaxed about dancing together and it got a bit more physical. Xander stopped stiffly maintaining distance between them, and so their bodies often touched, especially when the dance floor was crowded, which it usually was by midnight.
Xander expected to be freaked out, but he wasn't.
He tried not to be freaked out by the fact that he wasn't freaked out, and it wasn't all that difficult. Dancing was fun. Spike wasn't groping his ass or anything. And, anyway, the place was full of guys dancing with other guys. No big deal, right?
Spike danced with other guys -- and, at the straight clubs, with women -- but Xander mostly danced alone when he wasn't dancing with Spike. He really wasn't looking to get laid.
Apparently Spike wasn't, either, because they always went home alone together.
* * *
Xander found himself thinking a lot about the eye. And about the patch. And about why he kept it. Because saying that it just never seemed important was a cop out. He knew that. What he didn't know was why.
Was it some kind of penance for Anya's death, for all the mistakes he'd made?
Was it some kind of badge of honor in remembrance of all he'd done in the battle against evil? A pretentious sign of his own sacrifice for the greater good?
He didn't really know. He'd never thought about it before. And that was probably the true reason: He hadn't wanted to think about it, hadn't wanted to make any kind of decision, because then it would be permanent. He'd be facing the permanence of it. Facing the reality of it. Facing all the bad shit it stirred up.
Then fucking Spike had to show up and make him face it anyway.
Did he really want people discreetly telling their children not to stare at him for the rest of his life? Did he really want to watch potential lovers' eyes slip away, not wanting to look at him?
Did he really want to carry around this visible memento of that one single horrible moment with Caleb?
Did he really want to make himself different, apart, isolated? Did he want to live in Africa forever?
Did he really want to carry all those captured tears? Did he really want to hold all that pain close to him?
Did he really want to preserve that emptiness?
The patch shouldn't matter. He shouldn't care if other people stared, or if even his friends were always aware of it. He was made of stronger stuff than that, right? He was his own man! He defied convention!
Except that sounded like a fight he wasn't particularly interested in fighting. He tended to prefer to be pretty low-profile, and these days he was just so tired. Averting half a dozen apocalypses took a bit out of a guy. He wasn't all magicky-powered like Willow or all Slayery-powered like Buffy. He was just a guy. A really really tired guy. With one eye.
And he didn't know what the hell he was doing.
* * *
The first time they kissed was on the dance floor at Alibi. It wasn't planned or expected, they were just dancing, grinding against each other in the meaningless way that dancing encouraged. The music was thumping and they were sweaty and moving together and then Spike's face was leaning in and then they were kissing. It didn't start out light or gentle or teasing ... it went straight to a tongue-thrusting intensity that had Xander clutching Spike's shoulders for balance. They kept moving to the music as the kiss went on, and suddenly the dancing seemed a lot more sexual.
When they pulled apart, Xander felt dazed.
They stared at each other, and they weren't really dancing anymore. Spike had a look on his face like he was waiting for the explosion, waiting for the disgust.
But then Xander just raised his arms above his head and swivelled his hips and started dancing again, and then Spike's arms were around his waist and they were chest-to-chest and moving to the beat of the music and it was good.
It was only later, when he was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, that Xander remembered the look on Spike's face and realized that Spike's eyes never slipped away, never avoided the patch. He didn't stare. He didn't look away.
And that was just ... amazing.
* * *
The second time they kissed, they were sitting on the couch, watching some Italian game show that Xander couldn't understand worth a damn. This time, it was Xander who started it. Spike was laughing at something that had happened on the tv, and then Xander was just leaning over and kissing him.
They ended up making out on the couch, rubbing against each other and struggling to move their hands toward interesting places despite their awkward position.
In the struggle, the patch slipped off. Xander felt the elastic snag through his hair as it fell away. He tried to pull away, tried to get a hand free to cover himself, but Spike just grabbed him by the back of the head and pulled him back down into a kiss that made him forget all about his eye.
* * *
They were on their way home from Alibi a few nights later when Xander said suddenly, "I'm gonna call Giles tomorrow. I think I might be ready to find out more about the eye thing."
Spike nodded, but didn't say anything. He just kept walking. He didn't seem dismissive, just ... quiet. Respectful, maybe, because this was Xander's thing. Spike being respectful ... the world must be coming to an end.
A few minutes later, they met up with a Grathnak demon in a dark alley, and Spike went into action. Xander stood against the stone wall for a few minutes, watching them fight, but then looked around on the ground and picked up a metal pipe that was lying in the gutter.
The pipe made a very satisfying thunking noise when it hit the demon's skull, sending the Grathnak sprawling on the ground.
Xander and Spike looked at each other, and smiles slowly spread across both their faces.
Yeah, life in Rome wasn't half bad.