“Come spend the day in town with us,” Clark had said. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “My friends will love you.”
Damn, had Xander ever been that young?
Yeah, Clark and his friends were nice. Pete was a good kid. Chloe might just be able to keep up with Willow, but no way she could out babble the master. But still. Maybe Xander should have stayed on the farm and helped Uncle Jonathan. Clark already seemed to like him, so Xander didn’t need to butter the younger boy up. His father, on the other hand… yeah, Uncle Jonathan didn’t really care for having his wife’s nephew staying with them. Chipping in with the chores, and managing to keep up decently, seemed to be thawing him a little, but Xander had a long way to go.
Which was a pity, ‘cause Xander was actually enjoying himself. He liked working with his hands. And he adored Aunt Martha, and her cooking. Yeah, her cooking did not hurt at all.
They were walking down Smallville’s Main Street, Xander mostly ignoring the kids gossiping about the latest weirdness out on Old Man MacDonald’s farm or something, when Clark tripped.
Which was a weirdness of its own because that boy was always very, very aware of his space. Xander was startled doubly when the other kids started cackling.
“Okay, what just happened?” That reaction seemed like a bit much for seeing a friend trip over the sidewalk. And Clark glancing at his friends, the storefront they’d just passed, and blushing just made his friends laugh harder.
Chloe finally answered. “It is a statistical fact, Clark Kent can’t get within ten feet of Lana Lang without tripping, five feet and he becomes a complete freak show.”
Xander frowned at the girl. “That’s not nice, Chloe.” Oh gods, and he sounded like a parent. “And who’s Lana Lang?”
“Her aunt owns the flower shop and movie theater,” Pete said, pointing back at the storefront they were still moving away from. “We always know Lana’s helping out when Clark trips at the door.”
And nobody thought that strange? Xander was perplexed. Chloe had been expounding on her theory that Smallville was land of the weird since the meteor shower in ‘89 for over an hour, and this had not been on her list.
Glancing at his watch, Xander turned back. “I’m going to grab some flowers for Aunt Martha before we head back. I’ll meet you at the Beanery in a couple.”
“Mom has her own garden and grows flowers she sells to Nell,” Clark commented, sounding more confused than hurt about the previous conversation.
“And a woman always appreciates flowers,” Xander called over his shoulder. “Remember that for the future, boys. Might come in handy someday.”
From the way Pete and Chloe started chortling again, Xander had missed some inside joke, but he’d sort it out later.
Inside the small store, the space was full of flowers and the air smelled amazing.
“Hi,” called a small brunette who looked to be about Clark’s age, or maybe a bit younger. It was the necklace she wore that really caught Xander’s attention. The style was very unique, and if he were in Sunnydale he’d be asking Willow to check for magical enhancements.“Can I help you?”
“Hey, I want to get some flowers for my aunt,” Xander said, coming closer and dropping his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I don’t suppose you know Martha Kent’s favorite flower?”
“I didn’t know Martha had a nephew.”
“I didn’t know I had an aunt until recently.” He offered a hand and a friendly smile. “I’m Xander Harris.”
“Lana Lang.” She had a soft handshake, more delicate than anything else. “My aunt and I live just down the road from the Kents. And Martha loves tulips. Red ones.” A sad smile crossed her face that Xander wondered at.
“Then I’ll take a dozen, if you have them.”
“I can definitely do that.” She quickly bustled out from behind the counter. “Are you enjoying your visit to Smallville? Somehow town gossip has missed your arrival.”
“I’ve stuck with the farm since I arrived. But it seems a really nice place. And I’m sure the gossips will catch up soon. I’ve been tooling around with Clark and his friends today, and I’m sure someone’s been listening in.”
Lana laughed. “I’m sure. I don’t suppose you’d care to give me something the gossips haven’t overheard? I need to hold my position in the town hierarchy.”
Xander smiled. She was a sweet girl, if very, very young. Clark probably had a crush, which would explain his friends. Yeah, he seemed the type to go for the girl next door. Xander, on the other hand, had sworn off brunettes after Cordie. He’d only slipped twice since getting to Metropolis, and both times he’d paid for it. He’d gotten thumped by two unhappy boyfriends, and Xander never again made the mistake of not checking for a boyfriend when the person approaching him was a guy. Not after that second brunet.
“Well, everyone will probably have picked up I’m from California. However, Chloe’s excitement aside, I’m from a small town a few hours north of LA, not LA itself.”
“I think I can work with that. Thanks.”
Lana offered him a bundle of red tulips and prompted him with a price. Just as he pulled his wallet out, an older woman came out of the back. There was a slight similarity of features, but something about this woman spoke of artifice. Lana had a pure-faced innocence that was definitely missing from her companion. The dyed red hair didn’t help.
“Hey, Aunt Nell, this is Xander. He’s visiting his aunt, Martha Kent. Xander, this is my aunt, Nell.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Xander said politely, offering a hand. Nell took it, but seemed to expect more of a kiss to her hand than a firm shake.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Nell said with a flirty smile. For the first time since he left Sunnydale, Xander got that shiver up his spine that meant he’d once again attracted someone dangerous. “Did I overhear you’re from LA?”
“Nearby,” Xander said.
“How lovely. It must be nice living so close to Hollywood.”
“Not really,” Xander said dryly. “I’ve never been actually. Sunnydale’s further from LA than Smallville is from Metropolis.”
“Pity.” Damn, that woman could flirt for the Olympics.
“Well, I’d better catch up with Clark. I promised his parents I’d have him back to help with the afternoon harvest.” Xander gave Nell a smile, and then shot a much more honest and friendly one at Lana. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you both.”
Drink coffee at the Beanery, watch movies at the Talon, and attend bonfires in the woods. Apparently, those were the things for kids to do in Smallville.
Xander leaned back against a tree in the shadows just beyond the reach of the bonfire and sighed. Why had he agreed to escort his fourteen year old cousin and his friends out here again? To where the college kids home for summer smuggled in beer and booze for the kids as young as twelve, because gods knew there was nothing else to do on a hot summer night. If there had been music and a chance to maybe find some company, Xander would have been a lot more interested. But Metropolis had jaded him a bit, and the kids had scattered on him as soon as they arrived.
Glancing at his watch, Xander pushed away from the tree. It was coming up on ten. Time to gather the wayward flock and head back to town. Why was he being the responsible one again?
He found Lana first, wrapped around some blond Adonis that had to be both a jock and her boyfriend. Damn, no wonder Clark was a mess over her.
“Hey, Lana. Have you seen Clark recently?” Xander asked when he got closer. “Or Chloe or Pete?”
“Hi, Xander. I think I saw Chloe over by the lake recently. The other two are probably somewhere nearby.”
“Hey, this is Whitney, my boyfriend. Whitney, this is Clark’s cousin, Xander.”
Xander had been ignoring the Adonis since he got close, but now, hand extended, he couldn’t miss the glare directed his way. “Whitney, nice to meet you.” They shook, and jock boy tried to crush Xander’s hand. Ha. As if. Xander played chicken with vampires for fun. He went for a pressure point Oz told him about once and Whitney flinched first.
“I promised Aunt Martha I’d get Clark back before ten, so I’d better find my crew. Nice to see you again, Lana. Nice to meet you, Whitney.”
“Hope to see you around,” Lana said. “And I hope Mrs. Kent liked the tulips.”
At the same time, Whitney muttered, “Yeah, great,” and tried to shake the tingles out of his poor hand.
“Loved them. Later.”
Guessing, Xander walked in the direction Lana had pointed, hoping that was lakeward. The light from the bonfire faded quickly and years of wandering the graveyards of Sunnydale were Xander’s saving grace. Which wasn’t to say he avoided tripping over his own feet. Several times.
“Hey.” He’d just spotted Clark when the hair on the back of his neck climbed halfway up his scalp. “Where’s Chloe?” Pete was next to Clark, but of the blonde there was no sign.
Clark nodded his head back into a bunch of bushes behind the boys. “Watering a tree. She’ll be right out.”
Yeah, except that was the direction Xander’s crappy excuse for a sense for trouble said the trouble was lurking. “Stay here,” he ordered, and slipped through the bushes. He paused a moment and pulled a stake from his boot, wishing he’d brought two. At least out in the woods there was always the option of breaking a branch off a tree.
He spotted a flash of blonde first, then the cowboy hat. Then he heard the crunch of bodies moving through the brush behind him. Ah hell.
“And that, lady and gentlemen, is our proof. A young lady alone is always the best bait.” Xander strode forward openly as he spoke, loudly. Chloe snapped to look at him, then sensibly followed his eye-line to the vampire just out of reach. And she jumped back.
“Really, I never expected such great results.” He groaned internally. Could it be a good thing, or a really bad thing, that he actually recognized the vampire in question? “Lyle Gorch, as I live and breath. I would never have expected to see you in Smallville.”
Startled, and never the sharpest tine on the fork, Lyle actually answered. “Place is weird enough we thought no one would notice us, small enough the slayer wouldn’t be around. That’s not her….” He looked at Chloe carefully, taking half a step back himself.
“Nah, member of the new high school vampire slayer’s club, but no mystical destiny.” Oh he really hoped that was Clark and Pete behind him, not some of Lyle’s buddies. “Who’s we this time? Who was it last time? New wife I think? At slayer fest?”
Lyle looked closely at Xander, eyes scanning his company as well. “Who are you?”
Xander plastered a hurt look on his face. “You don’t remember me? We met in the basement of Sunnydale High School the day the monster under the slab ate your brother.”
Lyle frowned, looking a touch sad. “There were a lot of people in that basement.”
“True, and most of them not in their right minds.”
Ah, that was Clark behind him. Good. “I’ll get back to the lesson in just a moment. Look, Lyle, I’m Xander Harris, Slayer’s White Knight.”
Lyle laughed. Bastard. “Who gave you that crappy moniker.”
Xander frowned and crossed his arms, Stake hand out. “Angelus actually.”
That shut the vampire up.
“Look, Buffy let you live twice. I’m willing to do the same today.” Xander took a few steps closer, angling to give Chloe room to get behind him. “I’m out here doing outreach with the small town slayer groups. Let me give them a bit of a show and tell, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Great.” No way Xander was going to give the bastard time to think. “So, we’ve discussed luring techniques. Now, identification. How does one identify a vampire? They look human most of the time. Lyle, could you show them the demon face for comparison?”
A soft snapping and golden eyes glared out from under deep ridges, all shadowed by a worn cowboy hat.
“Perfect. So, if a vampire is in demon form, it’s easy to identify. However, if it’s not, then what?”
Chloe raised her hand, stepping back from Lyle at the same time. “Might it be different identifying new vampires and old vampires?”
“Excellent question, Chloe.” Xander actually was surprised. She was thinking on her feet. Hopefully he could keep doing the same. “Yes, very new vampires can be identified by grave dust and burial clothes much of the time. These are nice indicators of a possibly disoriented new vampire. But, they’re also probably hungry, so watch out for blood lust induced speed.
“Now older vampires can sometimes be identified by how they stand out in a crowd. The Master, for example, always wore something from a previous century and Drusilla liked long velvet gowns. Even someone who looks like they got lost in a previous decade can be an older vampire, but long past centuries are the best clue.”
“But surely not all vampires fail to move with the times,” Pete chirped up from behind Xander. No, to the side. Clark and Pete were moving closer to Chloe and she to them. Good, but they weren’t behind Xander anymore. Bad.
“Very good, Pete,” Xander said, taking a few steps closer to Lyle, gesturing towards the vampire. “Lyle Gorch here is a good example of a mid range vampire, adjusting to the modern day but holding on to something from their birth era. Lyle and his brother were wild west outlaws once upon a time, and while Lyle has updated his look, the duster, the cowboy hat, those never seem to change. So you can look for out of place elements.”
“He doesn’t look out of place,” Clark commented.
Xander laughed and stepped closer, finally close enough to sling an arm around Lyle’s shoulder. “True. Not here in the midwest farm country. But trust me, he stood out like a sore thumb in So Cal.”
The kids laughed, now clumped together and looking, superficially, very amused and intrigued by the topic. Shit, what the hell was Xander doing?
“And then there’s the vampires who manage to completely blend in with the modern look. Some you’ll never catch. Others… well, Angelus had a thing for leather, silk, and way too much hair gel. And Spike looked like a seventy’s punk rocker. Except he probably created the look. So really, you can’t judge a person based on look.”
“Well that doesn’t help much then,” Chloe chirped, her hands on her hips.
“Ah, but body temperature, or lack there of, is a good sign,” Xander said. “You can always try the cross test. Hold on out, see if your attacker flinches. Should have brought one to show you. Now, what are ways to kill a vampire?”
“Fire?” Clark offered hesitantly.
Did Xander just see him break a branch off a nearby tree? Now fast did his cousin move? “Good, but slow. Same problem with sunlight. Great when you’ve got it, but seriously limited, and there are collateral damage problems.”
“Garlic?” Pete offered.
“I’ve never seen a vampire with a garlic problem,” Xander admitted. “Lyle, what do you know?”
The vampire was looking between Xander’s neck and the trio of chattering teens. “Umm, knew one guy with a problem with garlic, but not many seem to be bothered. One of those myths.”
“The things people pick up from books,” Xander said.
“Holy water?” Chloe said.
“A good distraction, but unless you have enough to drown the vamp it isn’t deadly. It will burn them.” Xander chuckled. “But sometimes that just pisses a vampire off. And unless you’re prepared, that’s not a good thing.”
“Wasn’t there something about cutting off a vampires head?” Pete said.
“Very good.” Xander pointed at Pete. “Were getting closer now. Cutting off a vampire’s head is very effective, but there is one problem. Which is?”
“Hiding a blade?”Chloe asked.
“Right. You can use a knife, hope no one notices, and hope you can get close enough. Remember, vampires are faster and stronger than you. And they get more so the older they are. So if you see a vampire over a century, the sensible thing to do is get away and get help. Always.
“You can use a sword. Better distance.”
“But harder to hide.” Pete said.
“Exactly. Which isn’t to say a scythe, if handy, wouldn’t be a great option if a vampire comes at you in a barn.” Xander had to finish this up. Clark was starting to look really twitchy. Hell, Xander was too, but he hid it better.
“But the best option is always the classic wooden stake to the heart.” Xander held up the one he was still carrying. “Insert in the heart like so and voila, instant dust.” He dodged the poof as he set word to action and Lyle disintegrated. “Remember to remove the stake or it will turn to dust with the body, along with clothes and any other valuables on the vampire’s person.”
That was as much as he could get out. Xander dropped to his knees and hyperventilated. Oh shit, oh shit. He just talked a vampire to death. Willow would never believe it. Never could have killed the bastard normally. Buffy hadn’t succeeded in a straight fight with the Gorchs.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
“Xander?” Chloe crouched beside him. Looking up, Xander found Clark and Pete were armed with broken branches and scanning the small clearing.
“Right.” Xander coughed as he tried to speak and breath at the same time, and it didn’t go well. “Whatever you do, don’t do that. Gods, I just talked down Lyle Gorch.”
“That was a vampire?” Chloe said.
“Seriously?” Pete added.
“Yes and yes,” Xander said, and struggled to his feet. “And we are getting the hell out of here. Now.”
Chloe started with the questions the minute the car started. Xander ignored her halfway to the farm. Finally, he cracked.
“Chloe, shut up.”
“Come on, it’s not like we don’t have strange things here in Smallville. I told you all about the articles I’ve been collecting. But you’re not from Smallville, and you seem to know an awful lot about this.”
“And you do not want to know more,” Xander snapped. “Trust me.”
“Why should I?”
That made Xander pause. “Because I know what I’m talking about. Because I was where you are once, and now I’ll never unlearn what I know. Unsee what I’ve seen. Bring back the people I’ve lost.” His voice dropped with each point until it was barely audible over the car engine.
“We already know,” Pete said from the back seat.
Xander laughed. “No, you’ve gotten a hint. Not the same thing.” He pulled into the Kent farm drive and parked by the yellow farmhouse. He got out, and leaned against the warm hood of the car. The three kids clustered around him. “I lost my best friend to vampires, watched him turn to dust before my eyes, on the end of my stake. Stay away from this.” He tried to be earnest. He tried to be convincing.
Clark placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, but shook his head.
“I can’t,” Chloe said.
Pete’s mouth just flapped in the wind.
Xander knew he’d failed.
“Alright, miss research. Go digging. Look up Sunnydale, California. See what gets reported, then decide if you want to know the real stories behind the print.