Summary: With his life in transition, Xander receives a puzzling package.
Warnings: AU, human
Word count: 3,859
Disclaimer: I wish they were mine, sadly Joss and Mutant Enemy won't let them go. Not for profit.
Feedback: Yes, please!
Notes: This is for everyone who requested a sequel to A New Life. I'm sure this really isn't what anyone wanted, but this is what came out of my head.
The package comes on a drizzly, chilly late fall day, a few days after he has decided that sleeping on his side is too lonely and sleeping on her side is too disorienting. He has taken over the middle and added nearly a half hour to his two hours of sleep per night. It has taken him almost three months to make that tiny step and he hopes it is progress.
He has just come back from a visit with the school counselor who told him that Maddy's grades are slipping . . . badly. Her SAT scores are high, but the counselor suggests that they include a letter of explanation with her college applications if she can't pull herself out of her tailspin in time for semester exams. Xander hates to see his daughter lose her future, but he figures she's entitled to a little time to fall apart. She's done things and seen things in the past twenty-one months that no teenaged girl should have to. Instead of knowing the names of the members of the latest boy band, she knows what a heparin lock is and what to do if a white count drops below 1000 and how to ease bedsores. But Maddy has all of her mother's strength, though she lacks Anya's ruthlessness.
It's not her grades he worries about. She's taken to dressing in baggy clothes . . . loose jeans and shirts borrowed from his closet, as though trying to deny her femininity. He's heard her say that she wished she was a boy. For another girl, it would be unremarkable, but his daughter has become beautiful, taller than her mother with honey-blonde hair in defiance of his genetic contributions and light hazel eyes. She has always taken pride in herself and he knows that she sees her mother's disease as a betrayal of the body she acquired at puberty. He can't tell her that it will never happen to her; they both know the statistics. They have become experts at quoting the numbers, percentages, counts. He wishes they didn't know so much, that they could live in happy ignorance.
But they can't and he needs to talk to her. She can't live her life in fear. He won't let her.
The package is in the mailbox, and it has no return address other than the Amazon warehouse. The shipping label inside gives no clues to the sender either. He almost thinks he might have ordered something and not remembered it, until he sees what it is. For Whom the Bell Tolls. The only Hemingway he has ever read is The Old Man and the Sea, mainly because it's so short, but partially because he loves the ocean. But this . . . Hemingway's book about death it says on the back cover. He would never order this, and he wonders if it is someone's sick idea of a joke or a genuine attempt at comfort. The lack of return address makes him suspicious.
But he can't think of anyone who hates him that much and sets it aside, going into his downstairs office to return a few calls. It's time for his business to go dormant for the season and he regrets that he'll have free time soon. Work occupies his mind. He doesn't know what they'll do about Christmas.
He approaches the subject obliquely with Maddy over dinner, mentioning her counselor's concern about her grades, hoping she doesn't get defensive.
"It just seems like so much bullshit, Dad. Arbitrary numbers that mean nothing about the person I am."
He doesn't call her on her language and he understands her hatred of numbers. He wishes that life were other than what it is, because he sees now that he has passed on to her his dislike of being put into a box with a neat label. But if life is a game, then they are all forced to play it. He wonders if she has more courage than he did, to veer off the course that seems set. A college degree will give her more options, if later she decides to choose a different path. He hasn't told her what to major in, and he can't help the uncharitable thought that her mother wouldn't have been so flexible. He suppresses the traitorous idea immediately.
"I know it's bullshit. But it's a way of keeping score for now, there will be other ways later."
Suddenly he doesn’t want to do this, doesn't want to tell her to conform, wants her to be free. He would be neglecting his responsibilities though, if he did that. She's still a child, technically. His child, his duty.
"Get through this part of your life. Get a degree. Then live your life on your own terms."
It's the best he can do. She looks a little shocked at that, as though she expected a different speech from him. But he's not Anya, and he's not as skilled at the game as she was.
Later, after he's checked to see if she's still breathing for the third time that night and it's the wrong side of midnight and he's nowhere near sleep, he picks the book up again. Rain spatters erractically against the windows and the house is sunk into deep silence. The book is a relatively fast read, and it's after four when he reaches chapter thirteen. His brain is muzzy from lack of sleep and the words seem to swim in front of him. But he goes back and reads them again, awake now, his hands shaking.
. . . time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and felt the earth move out and away from them.
This book? That passage comes from this book? He doesn't know what the words are supposed to mean, whether Hemingway was trying to say that life exists in the midst of death, nor does he know what the person who sent the book intended. Perhaps just to spark his memories. Because he knows now who sent the book, and the implications may shatter his heart. For the gift indicates a level of interest and caring that crosses the years, and he had thought that he had forfeited the right to such attention a long time ago.
Grief swells his chest, like an alien spawn that can no longer incubate inside him, feeling like it will break him open. He tries to hold back his sobs, knowing that they will wake Maddy, but he can't, the weight of his losses have accumulated and he cannot deny his agony any longer. He has never cried, mourned, not this way and his wrenching cries send his daughter to his side. It isn't comfort she offers him, but her own release, long deferred. They hold each other through the tumult as the sun rises, their mutual grief feeding on itself and growing, until they can't contain it any more and they both let it go.
The early sunlight shows her eyes clearer than he can remember and he smiles, feeling lighter himself.
Her answering smile is beautiful. "Yeah, Dad, I think I am."
She goes off to school, looking decidedly bouncier than she has in the last two years. He settles down with the book after she’s gone. She walks back in when he’s nearly done with it, and he’s conscious that he’s been submerged in the Spanish Civil War all day. He feels wrung out and exhausted. Dinner is quiet that night.
Xander doesn’t know what to think . . . about the book, the meaning of Hemingway’s words . . . the reason for the gift. He’s depressed because it seems he can’t see anything clearly and he’s frustrated that he can’t grasp the message behind the book.
The next day he walks through the quiet rooms in his house, not knowing what to do about his discovery . . . that a thing once forgotten can be called to mind with all the power it ever had. He goes outside, where the last of the mums are clinging to their petals, spots of warm brightness in his dying garden. But it is dying only for the season; it will renew itself and bloom again. Is it possible that a love long dead can live again too?
Some things get lost along the way and you can't turn around to go back for them.
The time is long past where he could have turned back, but he wonders if it is possible to go forward. To find what he had thought lost forever by following through with his choices.
He gets out a shovel, turning dirt over, spreading mulch around to give his garden a blanket for the coming cold.
While he’s working, he makes a decision and when the beds are done, he heads for the book store, finding what he wants without trouble. Both authors are prolific and well-beloved by their separate sets of fans. He grins in pure amusement, the first time in a long while he's felt like this, laughing because he doubts that the authors' fans know that both are one person.
Flipping to the back covers, he finds the information for contacting the authors, and he hopes that person actually reads his fanmail. He composes two letters, not asking what he really wants to ask, in case some minion is the only one who will ever see his missives.
To Lacey he writes:
Dear Ms. Deltornade,
I have admired your work for a long time, finding your books both stirring and erotic, with intricate plotting and lush romance. I was wondering if you have a particular muse, if anything inspires you?
Sincerely and in admiration,
His second letter says:
Dear Mr. Humphrey,
I have always found that intelligence is the most attractive feature in another person. Your plots leave me laughing out loud in one paragraph and wincing in horror in the next. I have great admiration for your ability to invoke both emotions in your readers.
What draws you to other people?
He sends the letters, knowing they are lame and possibly idiotic. He’s partly appalled at his nerve, wondering if he'll get anything in response. He knows it is asking a lot of someone that he hurt so badly. Someone who has no doubt moved on with his life, and has found someone else to warm his heart. Xander knows that it is more than likely after all this time and he accepts the possibility. Then he decides that it doesn't matter whether he hears anything back, the book is a gesture that has snapped him out of his fog and it is enough. He has his life to live, free of the pain of the past.
He doesn't regret the decision he made years ago. His affair taught them to be careful with each other, and he and Anya were remarkably kind to each other through those years, much more so than their friends and neighbors from what he has observed. They had learned that they needed to go gently together, for the rest of the world would not be so caring. And Maddy was raised in a tranquil household, unmarred by bitterness or strife. He thinks that atmosphere is partially responsible for her strength and therefore he cannot regret giving her a childhood so carefree.
The replies come three weeks later. Lacey's is laser printed, with an elaborate and frilly heading, and it says, "I have found that the love of another person is the most inspiring thing for a romance writer, one true love that can spark many other love stories."
He ponders what that means, whether it refers to him or someone else, the hypothetical person he's imagined. It's too ambiguous and he sets it aside. The letter from Marlowe is hand-written on a plain piece of paper and only two words, though it is no less confusing.
Present tense. Not, "I missed you once, but now I don't." Still missing him.
That hurts, although it is true on his side too, but he doesn't know how to respond. His fingers linger over the words, tracing the letters, surely written in Will's own hand, although Xander has never had any reason to see Will's writing. He notices that he's let the name into his brain, something he's refused to do for years, but he savors it and the memories of the man the name belongs to.
Finally he looks at the envelope for the return address, and sees that the address is different from where he sent his fan letters. A small crack in the door, but it seems that Will might be inviting him in. He doesn't know what to do about it.
He composes long letters in his head, explaining everything in eloquent phrases that would be the envy of Shakespeare, while he's waiting in line to buy Christmas gifts, but the words have melted away like snow by the time he gets home to commit them to paper. Although he is sleeping better, sometimes he stays up at night, a blank piece of paper before him . . . an accusation that he can’t deny, and he can't find any way to defend himself. His emotions are too raw to be contained in a frail sheet of pulp.
Christmas is not as bad as he thought it would be. Maddy passes all her exams the week before, and they spend the day quietly, talking mostly, remembering. He wonders, but doesn't dare ask her, if she started grieving when they got the diagnosis or if she believed Anya who had said that it was just another battle that she planned to win. He thinks he might choke on the mundanity of his fiery wife brought low by some microscopic shift in her DNA. She deserved to go out in a blaze of glory, not the way it happened . . . pieces taken from her slowly, one at a time, until there was nothing left but a shell barely clinging to life. And then nothing at all.
But Maddy has regained some of her brightness and he is thankful for it, and he won't take it away from her by questioning the stages of her grief. He did denial and anger a long time ago, and guilt that he didn’t love her as much as he could. Bargaining was in there too, before the body was buried. He hopes that he and Maddy are both working on acceptance and he suspects that part of his reluctance to write back to Will has something to do with that.
Because he desparately wants to open that door, but he won't do it unless he can offer nothing less than everything, his whole heart. He won't approach Will again while his loyalties are divided.
At the end of January, Maddy receives her first acceptance letter, not from the place she really wants, but it is something and Xander thinks that everything will be all right. The blank page isn’t quite as accusing and he finally knows what to say.
”Maddy will graduate in June.”
It sums up his situation . . . that he is not free and may never be totally, Maddy will always come first, but that his obligations will be lessened in the future. He’s not sure how he feels about her going away, another separation, but he wants her to have everything she desires, so he is enthusiastic when she pores over course catalogs.
The garden is just shaking off its winter sleep, green spears of spring bulbs poking through the rich moist earth, when the answer comes back.
New York needs good landscape architects.
It is a clear invitation and he doesn’t know how to respond again. He could call or send an email but he is strangely reluctant to abandon their old-fashioned letter-writing, not willing to risk anything more intimate . . . or less intimate, until he is sure what he is doing.
Actually, the very idea of intimacy frightens him. After Maddy goes to bed, he stands in front of the mirror in his bathroom, naked. He's let himself go, too busy taking care of other people to take care of himself. The lines of his body have softened and he's aged since Will saw him last. But then, so has Will. And it occurs to him that he has no idea how old Will actually is. He never thought to ask. Older than him, he thinks, but maybe Maddy has the right of it . . . that numbers aren't the truth about a person.
From what he remembers about Will, he suspects that the man would agree with her. Other memories of Will hit him then and he feels a long-missed stirring in his groin. It seems like forever since he actually wanted something physically; his sex life has been reduced to hurried hand jobs in the shower when the tension becomes too much. It has been the only time he can be by himself and it has the extra advantage of requiring no clean up, and leaving no evidence. Anya lost her sex drive the first time the chemicals invaded her and he refused to burden her with his needs. And so it has become a habit he hasn’t bothered to break.
But now he cannot remember the last time the act was purely about pleasure. More than a year, without question.
Xander picks up a bottle of unscented lotion and locks his bedroom door. He mocks himself as he turns out all the lights except for a softly glowing lamp beside the bed, but he wants this to be about him, for once. To love himself. He props the pillows so he can see what he is doing. His hands wander down his chest first, plucking at his nipples and he hisses as sharp feelings spread from the hard buds. There is a sprinkling of silver in his chest hair and he wonders when that happened, knowing that Anya would have pointed it out if she'd seen it. He's mildly surprised to find more silver at his groin, not much really, just a few strands that seem to glitter in the light. He rolls them between his fingers wonderingly.
Hands drift over his body again, discovering forgotten erogenous zones, and he shivers. Images of Will nudge at his mind, and he lets them in, opening the locked gate on his emotions. Fine blonde hair, lean muscles, hands with enough strength to take him, gentle enough to love him. Xander’s cock hardens, filling, and he works his hips against the mattress, exciting himself. His fingers tease the tip, pushing against his slit, and he is leaking already. He stares at the drop resting on his crown and dabbles a finger in the clear liquid, drawing strands of pre-come out. He puts his finger in his mouth, tasting himself and moaning. He rounds his mouth, missing the weight of Will's cock on his tongue, a sensation that he thought he had forgotten, pushed painfully aside because it hurt too much to remember.
Mouth working on his fingers, he pretends he is sucking on a cock. His own jumps at the idea. He pumps some lotion into his hand and works it over his erection, slippery now. He fists himself, hand loose around his shaft as he bucks his hips into the circle of fingers. The feelings inside him build, but Xander moves his fingers to the base of his balls, tightening his grip and stopping the orgasm while he pants, struggling to recover his balance.
He repeats his actions, pulling himself to the brink and then pausing. Each time he is going higher, it's harder to hold back, until he goes too far and his hand doesn't move fast enough. It slams into him. Xander comes hard, a cry wrenched from him as he shatters, muscles pulsing, cock jumping, warm wet liquid covering his hands. And more leaking from his eyes at the sheer beauty of it. He's forgotten so much about himself, lost himself in all those months of medical rituals.
When the acceptance letter from Maddy's first choice comes at the end of April, Xander takes it as sign that he can move on from his old life. He writes his first check for tuition and another letter to Will.
Is Labor Day okay?
They attend freshman orientation in July and Xander watches Maddy carefully for any sign that she's nervous, but she seems excited, quickly making a few friends among the other girls, and exchanging AIM IDs and Facebook addresses. He knows it's inevitable that he'll have a harder time with her leaving than she will.
In the third week of August, they are back. Maddy and her new roommate have chatted almost constantly since they got their room assignments and they have plotted out how they want their room before they ever arrive. He doesn't want to leave her here, offering to take her to dinner, but she has plans with other girls on the floor. He stands awkwardly in her room, feeling adrift again.
It's been over a year; he's mourned properly, letting Anya and his memories rest peacefully. He cannot turn back for what is lost, but moving ahead frightens him.
Maddy disrupts his inertia for him, wrapping her arms around him. He holds her tightly, tears thickening in his throat.
"It will be okay."
He nods, unable to talk.
She pulls back and he stares at his beautiful daughter, drinking her in, astounded that she came from him. She smiles.
"Live your life on your own terms, Dad."
He can't keep the shock off his face as she gives him back the words he told her so many months ago. She can't possibly know about Will.
"What do you mean?"
"Whatever it is you're arguing with yourself about, just do it. If it's something that will make you happy, you deserve it."
Xander's grin matches his daughter's then. “Wise girl.”
She's given her blessing though she doesn't know for what yet. College is a time to encounter new ways of thinking and they didn't raise her to be close-minded, so he hopes that she'll accept his decision when the time comes to tell her. If there is any decision to be made. He doesn't like to think how long it's been since he's seen Will. They haven't communicated since Will's last letter, telling him that Labor Day is perfect. He hopes that the years haven't completely erased the bond they shared between them that one summer.
The house is empty without her, but he decides against selling it. Not while she might need someplace to come home to.
It is a cool September morning when he takes a taxi to the airport. The jet takes off, pushing him back against his seat and he gives himself over to the feeling, of being out of control, his life in someone else's hands for once, after too long with only himself to depend on.
Sunlight glistens on the clouds and he feels hope stirring in his heart as he flies forward into another life.
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