[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of two

Episode Two: Far Away, So Close

by eep
A Foggy Day in London Town by Ella Fitzgerald
Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

Thanks to the usual gang of delinquents, but especially to cousinjean and adjrun for so diligently working through this chapter with me, adjrun and leeb for helping with the London specifics, jrs for coding it all at the drop of a hat, to georgevna for opening up her house for the big brainstorming weekend, and to hootenanny for giving me even more incentive to write this.


*

Willow breathed in, hyper-aware of her lungs expanding and her diaphragm rising. Her legs tingled as she sat, cross-legged, on the floor of the darkened room. She closed her eyes, blocking out all visual stimuli, and tried her hardest to block out the noise from the street below. She exhaled, then took another deep breath. The smell of dust that permeated the floor and walls of the entire building stung her nose. Under normal circumstances she might have sneezed. But Willow couldn't be bothered with sneezing.
She thought back to what she learned in class, how to meditate in order to allow the magic to flow in and out of her. She would be its vessel, a channel for the energy that guided the world around her. She pictured her mind opening like an origami box, slowly unfolding to allow her secrets to escape and others' secrets to become known.

Then, suddenly, the box folded in on itself, and she found her eyes open and her body feeling completely spent. "Phooey," she muttered, picking herself up off the ground.

"It's all right, Willow," a voice called from the corner of the room. "This type of meditation is much harder than what you're used to."

Willow stood up and stretched as the heavy black curtains drew away from the window, revealing the slate-gray London sky and the blue-gray rooftops of the buildings across the street. Willow's mentor and tutor, Niamh McCollough, gave one last yank on the curtain cord and they swished back into place.

"You're doing much better than we expected, you know," Niamh complimented.
"Thanks," Willow said, tucking a strand of her shoulder-length hair behind her ear. "I just wish I could get this. I don't have a whole lot of time left to get this right."

"Willow," Niamh sighed, crossing the room to gather up her books, "have you ever played an instrument?"

"I played the flute for a year in junior high. But it wasn't really my thing."

"So maybe you've heard of the term 'circular breathing?'"

Willow shook her head.

"Woodwinds players sometimes employ it. They learn to control their breathing so that they can sustain a note indefinitely. They push air out into their instrument as they take air into their lungs at the same time. For some musicians, learning this technique takes years. For others, it's as natural as, well, breathing.

"Willow, this is no different. Take these exercises with you when you leave London. Practice. It will come." She smiled at her red-haired protégée and Willow returned the grin.

"Besides," Niamh continued, "you're always welcome back here. You were a powerful witch before you came, and you'll only grow stronger with time."
"I hope so. And I'd really appreciate it if you'd tell the Council for me that I'll always help them out if they need me."

"That's good to know." Niamh patted Willow on her shoulder. "Now come along, our session is over."

Willow followed Niamh out of the room and into one of a hundred hallways in the Council Headquarters. She stayed a step behind her mentor as they walked toward the stairwell, and Willow's eyes drifted to the woman's hips, as they often did when Niamh wasn't looking.

Niamh was one of those unearthly beauties - porcelain skin, ice-blue eyes, and dark hair that hung halfway down her back. The men in the Council worshipped her body, and the women envied it. She looked like a nymph from a Waterhouse painting. It made sense, really, considering Niamh was a wood nymph.

Willow sighed and half-skipped to catch up to the woman. It would never work; in a few weeks her time in London would come to a close. And besides, putting the moves on a teacher was just tacky.

"So will you be attending Travers's lecture tomorrow?" Niamh asked.

"Yeah. Xander and I are going. I don't really have to, as I'm not 'central staff'" - here Willow made air quotes with her fingers - "but with Xander being a Watcher, he has to go. And he thought it would be smart for me to come along, too. Kind of a good will gesture from us Yanks."

Her mentor laughed as they turned down another stairwell. "Your friend really is remarkable. A Watcher at such a young age, and the Watcher of an active Slayer, no less." She turned to Willow with a wink. "He's pretty dishy, too."

Damn. "Yeah, I used to think so."

The stairwell opened into the grand foyer of the Council building. The room, at least the size of a baseball field and nearly three stories high, was the heart of the Headquarters. Any time of the day at least twenty people buzzed around the room, or held meetings on one of the sofas, or whispered conspiratorially to each other in the corners.

"So we'll meet again tomorrow at three, then," Niamh said, shrugging on her coat.

"Yup."

"See you then." With that, she nodded a quick goodbye to Willow and strode across the room to the main doors. Once more, Willow's eyes found their way to the woman's hips.

"Look at that," a voice cooed appreciatively in Willow's ear. "Marilyn Monroe herself couldn't move like that."

Willow jumped and spun around. "Xander!" she hissed, hitting him on the chest with her fist. "Don't do that!"

"What, sneak up on you?" he grinned. "Or catch you giving your teacher the horny eyeball?"

"Shhh!" Willow gasped, feeling the heat of a blush creeping into her cheeks. She leaned over. "Was it that obvious?"

"Nah," Xander laughed, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "Besides, I think every other person in this room was doing the same."

Willow smiled. "She thinks you're quite the hottie, you know."

Now Xander flushed red. "Really? Well, that's . . . Huh." He straightened up and guided them to the door. "Not that I'm interested or anything."

She instantly recognized the pain in his voice. "No, I didn't mean it like that. I'm not trying to rush anything."

"Thanks." Xander coughed and deftly changed the subject. "Speaking of dating and things, whatever happened with that Danny guy?"

Willow pulled a pink and green hat over her head as they stepped out onto the rainy street. "The one from the club? Total dud. We went out to dinner once, and all he did was talk about books. But not even good books, he was a big fan of John Grisham."

"Oooh, the perfect author for those short airplane trips," Xander laughed dismissively. "I guess that ends that."

"No kidding."

They walked down the street towards the British Museum. Behind them Council Headquarters loomed over the street, a four-story stone building with a plain fa?ade. To the unassuming local, it was just another building. But in truth the building burrowed seven levels underground and connected to every surrounding building through a series of tunnels and fake walls. The Council possessed the perfect disguise - what looked like an entire city block of apartment buildings and offices was really a virtual fortress housing the world's most ancient and dangerous secrets.

"So you want to grab some dinner?" Willow asked as they neared the Underground station. "There's a great kebab stand that opened by my place."

"Thanks, but no thanks. I've got a ton of work to do tonight."

Willow frowned, her bottom lip sticking out slightly. "You're always working. Do you ever have any fun anymore?"

Xander nodded. "On Sunday the guys are taking me out to play rugby again."

"Oh, swell," Willow moaned. "Getting bloody noses and ending up covered in bruises sounds like a great time."

"Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it." He adjusted the messenger bag hanging from his shoulder. "Tuesday. You and me. Drinks. We'll catch up."

"Same bat time, same bat channel?" she asked, alluding to their regular pub.

"Of course." Xander gave her a quick hug and began to descend the stairwell to the station. "I'm going to miss my train!" he shouted over his shoulder.

"I'll call you later!" she shouted back. As Xander disappeared into the ground, Willow turned back into the fine London mist and began her walk home.

***

Willow plunked onto a cushioned seat and checked her watch. Twenty minutes till she had to meet Xander for drinks. More than enough time.

She stuffed a flyer into her backpack and sighed. She couldn't believe she had lived in London for six months and just now visited Sir John Soane's Museum. She debated on bringing Xander with her on her next visit, but realized he'd be more interested in a good soccer match.

She watched through the window as the train pulled away from the station. Riding the tube seemed so much cooler than public transportation back home. After all, the buses of the Sunnydale Transit Authority only took you to the mall and back, yet somehow missed downtown completely. How convenient was that?

"Hey."

Willow felt her stomach knot before she even looked up. She turned in her seat to face the voice, half hoping she imagined it. But there he sat, the downcast eyes, the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, the black hair - black?

"Hey!" Willow chirped after swallowing what felt like a tennis ball in her throat. "Oz!"

"Willow." He leaned forward in his seat, coming alarmingly close to where she perched, half-sideways, in her seat. "What are you doing here?"

"Riding the tube." That's brilliant. Try to sound like more of a tool, why don't you?

Oz laughed, the sweet, good-natured chuckle she loved. "I meant, in London." He slid across the aisle to face her.

"Council stuff." Then she shook her head, laughing. "What are you doing here?"

"Just chillin'. Got bored with Switzerland."

"Switzerland? What were you doing there?" she asked, feeling rather shell-shocked by her present situation.

He looked at his shoes. "The usual."

"Oh." Willow looked away to the rest of the train car. A woman with a shopping bag sat in the aisle reserved for handicapped persons. A teenage boy with a pierced eyebrow stood at the other end of the car, the volume on his headphones so high she heard it from where she sat. An old man stared at the door like he expected the Predator to attack at any moment. "This wasn't how I pictured our reunion," she said.

Oz looked almost sheepish. "Sorry I surprised you."

"Oh! Not like that," Willow babbled with a roll of her eyes. "I mean, it's just weird. Half a world from home, and here you are."

His eyes met hers. The move was deliberate. "Just like you said."

For the first time since, well, his last reappearance, the silence between them was awkward.

Willow's eyes darted to the Underground map above the car doors. "My stop is next. I'm going to meet Xander. Come along?"

"Xander's here, too?"

"Yup. We're both on the Council's payroll."

"The Council has a payroll?"

Willow laughed as she stood up. "Come on." She tugged on his sleeve. "You have to come."

He smiled and stood up. "Or else?"

"I'll turn you into a wombat. I probably could, you know." She crossed to the door as the train slowed. "What would that make you, a were-bat?"

Oz frowned at her. "What are you talking about?"

Willow lurched a little as the train stopped. "Wow. There's a lot to catch you up on."

***

Xander threw an arm around Oz's neck and pulled him into one of those ridiculous man-hugs that Willow never understood. If guys were happy to see each other, why not just hug like normal people rather than thumping each other with their fists? Xander gave Oz a punch on his bicep, which was met with a slightly surprised wince from Oz. Willow looked heavenward at the sudden display of testosterone.

"Well, if this isn't an occasion!" Xander laughed. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"The usual," Oz replied.

"Wow, don't be so descriptive," Xander joked, not really expecting Oz to expand on his story. "I'm buying. This is too big not to celebrate."

Oz grinned. "Free beer is always good."

The three friends walked to the bar of the hole-in-the-wall pub that quickly became the home away from home for Xander and Willow. The lights were dim, an effect not of mood lighting, but of a thin layer of grime that covered everything, including light bulbs. Others from the Council preferred the brightly lit bar down the road, but this seemed more homey to the Americans. It was kind of like the Bronze from their high school days, minus the roaches.

"So you're in the Council," Oz stated, the question in his words hidden somewhere in the monotone.

"Yup," Xander replied, signaling the bartender for three pints. "Both of us. Willow's all super-witch gal, and I'm a full-fledged Watcher now. Faith's my Slayer."

"Isn't she in a coma? And evil?"

Willow sighed. "This is going to take a while." She led Oz to a booth near the back of the pub as Xander paid for the drinks. A wave of relief rushed over her as she slid onto the bench across from Oz. It was great seeing him again, but the idea of sharing a seat with him made her uncomfortable.

Xander arrived a moment after them and passed out the beer. "So, you want the short or the long version?" he asked Oz.

"Short will do."

Willow looked at Xander. "You want to start?"

"You go ahead. I'll jump in when I'm needed," he replied.

"Okay." Willow turned to Oz and drew a deep breath. "So Buffy and Spike are in love, Dawn's in a coma, Faith is a good guy, Giles is recovering from being beaten to a pulp by Darla, Sunnydale is free of vampires, but a lot of people died."

Oz sat still for a moment, then ran his hand across his chin. "I think I need the long version."

Two hours later, Oz sat alone in the booth, still staring at the myriad of napkins covered with scribbled notes spread out before him. "Buffy - raising Dawn after mom died. Loves Spike." "Spike - chip in head, loses chip, loves Buffy. Lives w/ her & Dawn. Good guy." "Giles - runs magic shop. Almost died. Getting better." "Faith - went to jail, reformed, lives with Giles. Active Slayer." "Dawn - Mystical ancient energy. Opens portals w/ mind. All memories of her = alternate universe type reality. Car accident, in coma." Then there was the stack of napkins listing the names of everyone who died over the past few years. Riley. Anya. Tara. Joyce.

He shook his head. "Huh." He crumpled up all but one and shoved the mass of paper napkins into his pint glass. He made sure to grab the lone napkin before he left, as it had Willow and Xander's phone numbers scrawled on it.

Oz left the pub, not noticing when the man clearing the table fished the other napkins from the pint glass and shoved them in his pockets.

***

Xander dropped the keys to his three-room flat onto the coffee table. The little flat wasn't much, but it was his. Much better than his apartment back in Sunnydale. That was theirs.

He turned on the television and hoped for something good. BBC News - always informative, but never fun. Reruns of Jerry Springer imported to the U.K. to make Americans look bad. A documentary on Tony Blair. An interview with Kylie Minogue. Xander stopped changing the channels and sat down on the loveseat.

His apartment barely stood larger than his living room back home. The bedroom only fit a standard-sized bed and a dresser, but its drawers never pulled out all the way without hitting the mattress. The bathroom only fit the toilet, sink, and bathtub, and from any place in the bathroom he could touch all three. As for the main room, the only furniture in it consisted of the loveseat, coffee table, and a bookshelf in the corner. A small counter curved around one corner of the room, housing a tiny range-top stove (only two burners) and a one-basin sink. A three-quarter refrigerator completed the kitchen area of the apartment.

The place might not seem as cramped if only Xander tidied up now and again. But as he left it, every single surface in the apartment lay buried under piles of books, papers, and ancient scrolls he borrowed from the Council.
Xander let his body relax for the first time since he woke up that morning. He tilted his head back until it touched the back of the loveseat. He sat, propped upright like a rag doll, and stared at the ceiling above.

He felt old.

Everything he did revolved around the Council now. Unlike Willow, he didn't have time for a social life. Meeting her for a drink now and again became almost too time-consuming, as he really needed that time for research. He needed to be the best Watcher he could be. He needed to protect Faith as best he could.

At the thought of her, he reached up and fingered the chain that still hung around his neck. His fingers traveled down the length of it, feeling each tiny jump ring as it passed between his fingers. And then he found it, what he always searched out when he felt too tired, or weary, or just needed some comfort. Her ring.

Xander shut his eyes. "Anya."

God, how he missed her. He never cried about her anymore; that stage of his grieving passed a few weeks after he arrived in England. Now he just missed her. He wanted to call her, to tell her all about what he learned, and saw, and did every day. But she was still gone.

Some days it seemed that she still lived, that she was just somewhere else, somewhere far away where there weren't any phones. Maybe that really was the case. Some days he talked out loud in his flat, hoping that somehow she could still hear him. On those days he wanted to believe she tried contacting him, too, like every flicker of a light bulb meant her presence was in the room with him. But he knew that wasn't the case. Everything he believed in told him that never happens. And everything he learned at the Council said the same thing.

Once or twice he considered asking Willow to help him find her, to locate her spirit on the astral plane or something, just so that he could see her once more and tell her how much he loved her. But he knew Willow would never agree. "It's not healthy," she'd say. "You need to learn to let go, just like everyone else who loses someone they love. She knows you love her. Trust me."

Xander just wanted to know that he would never forget her. Never forget the way she laughed, or the smell of her hair, or how she always left bottles of nail polish in the fridge, or how she'd sit in his lap at the end of the day and wrap her arms around his neck. How she'd kiss his ears and run her hands down his chest. How her body felt when he tightened his arms around her, pulling her into him. How she felt underneath him when they made love. Or how she felt above him. Or how she tasted. Or how her lips felt around his -
The phone rang, shrill and alarmingly loud, snapping him back to reality. With a groan, he reached over the arm of the loveseat to where the telephone rested on the floor. He held the receiver to his ear. "Harris."

"It's Colin."

Xander recognized the voice immediately. "Hey, man, what's up?"

"Have you heard about Phillips?"

"No," he replied with a yawn.

"He's disappeared."

Xander sat upright. "What do you mean, 'he's disappeared?'"

"Just that," Colin said through the phone. "He was supposed to meet with me to watch the football match, but he never came. I called his flat, but his roommate - you know Jack Stone, right? Anyway, he said Phillips hasn't been around in a day or two. We both got worried and made a few calls, and no one knows where he is. Stone said Phillips was heading over to Hyde Park last he heard."

"Has the Council been notified?"

"Yeah. They're doing what they can to find him. From what I could gather, there's something strange going on at the park that's keeping them from doing a locator spell there."

Xander stood up and grabbed his keys. "Call me if you hear anything more, okay?"

"Sure thing. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bye." Xander hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket, shutting off the TV as he headed for the front door. He slammed it behind him and headed for the stairs, making his way straight to Hyde Park.

***

Xander crossed the meadow, his eyes straining in the last of the twilight to notice any sign of Phillips or a struggle. Years of patrolling with Buffy taught him the finer points of detective work. Look for footprints, patches of displaced leaves, broken shrubs. Whatever might lend a clue in tracking someone.

He sighed and squinted in the darkness. This was hopeless. Two and a half hours passed already, and so far all Xander found were two teenagers making out in a thicket and a handful of homeless men. The worst part was that he still had three-quarters of the park to search.

He climbed back to the top of a small hill, looking to his right where the lake spread out in the distance. He'd already scoured the paths on both banks and their surroundings. He turned around. He had just searched the walking trail on the left. The only section remaining in this portion of the park was the woods growing off to the right. Xander set off for the trees.
At this point in the evening the light barely illuminated the woods. His best chance of finding Phillips now would be to trip over him in the dark. The trees and underbrush fanned out before him, leading him into the heart of the park. Xander trekked through the forest, swatting at stray leaves and stomping on brambles that grabbed at his pant cuffs.

He passed through a glade hoping that the ridge of trees ahead might open onto another of the park's large fields. A shudder passed through him as he reached the edge of the small field, and he suddenly realized that something watched him. He swallowed and turned around, hoping that he'd find nothing but the empty clearing.

He was wrong.

An entire army of men marched across the clearing, materializing from the foliage at one end and disappearing into it on the other side. But they didn't disappear by walking between the trees - they walked through them.
"Crap!" Xander whispered, scrambling for the cover of the trees. Crouching behind a large ash, he slowly peered around the trunk to observe the hauntings of the forest. Then men marched past him, their hands and arms full of weapons.

"Double crap," he hissed.

His scanned the men, trying to memorize every detail so that he could properly report it to the Council later. Swords, helmets, beady little eyes. . .

Xander froze. There, at the edge of the group, marched Phillips. His face held no expression; his eyes stared forward like a zombie. He moved with the army like an automaton.

"And that's three craps," Xander whispered.

Phillips marched past the spot where Xander crouched. "Hey!" Xander called softly, hoping to get his attention. "Hey! Phillips!"

He passed by, and Xander scooted from behind one tree to the next, trailing alongside his friend. "Hey!" he shouted louder, trying not to attract anyone's attention except Phillips's.

The man continued on and Xander realized that shouting wasn't going to snap Phillips out of his trance. Xander looked around and grabbed a large rock from the ground. He lifted it and lobbed it at Phillips, hoping to conk him on the head. Instead, the rock sailed past his friend and towards the soldier on his left. With a silence- splitting clang, the rock slammed into his metal helmet, knocking the man to the ground. Instantly the soldiers around stopped and drew their weapons, turning in the direction from which the rock came.

"Attack!" one yelled, pointing straight at Xander.

"CRAP!" Xander turned to run, but before he took three steps he felt hands on his arms. He struggled against them, but the soldiers easily dragged him back into the clearing. They threw him on the ground and in a split second the tips of five swords pressed against Xander's neck.

"Any last words?" one sneered at him, pressing his blade harder against Xander's skin.

He swallowed. "I'm just here for my friend. That's all. I'm not an enemy."

Another soldier stepped forward. "You have attacked us unprovoked. Now you will pay for your insolence."

"Whoa! Whoa!" Xander stammered, his eyes scanning the faces above him for Phillips. "I told you, I'm not an enemy. I didn't mean to hit your guy. I'm just trying to get my friend back."

A third soldier stepped forward and signaled for the others to move away. They all withdrew their swords and stepped away from Xander. He cautiously lifted himself from the ground and eyed this new soldier. He wore a shiny brass breastplate and a long cape with fur trim at the collar.

"Listen," Xander began, "I can see you're in charge here, so I want to apologize. I didn't mean to interrupt your little. . . parade. It's just that my friend has been missing for a few days, and when I saw him with you I just wanted to take him back home. I threw the rock at him to get his attention."

The soldier stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. "And who is your friend, exactly?"

Xander spun around, trying to locate Phillips. He stood in the middle of the crowd, his weapon drawn and his face a mask of disgust. "Right there."

Xander pointed at him.

The soldier signaled for Phillips to step forward. "You say you know this man?" he asked Xander.

"Yes, I told you," Xander sputtered. "I don't know why he's like this, but please let him go. People are worried about him."

The soldier shook his head. "He is part of our army now. There is no way for him to leave."

Xander looked from the soldier to his friend and back again. "What about a trade?"

"What?"

"What if," Xander began slowly, "I take his place? Let him go free, and I'll take his place."

"You would do that?"

Xander swallowed and nodded. "Yes."

"Let it be done," a woman's voice commanded.

Xander spun around and found himself face-to-face with the most breathtaking woman he had ever seen.

She smiled at him. "Your selflessness is impressive, young man. Your wish shall be granted." She waved a hand and a flash of light blinded him.
Xander felt a wave of warmth pass over his body. Before him, the woman shimmered and the air around her rippled. He looked around, and in every direction it seemed as if colors were melting into one another. His head swam as the world began to spin around him, and his body felt like it was falling away from him. He blinked, his eyelids thick and heavy, and then . . . Xander knew this was where he belonged.

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