The Dark Cavalier


By Saber ShadowKitten




I am the Dark Cavalier; I am the Last Lover...
-Margaret Widdemer

Death? Why this fuss about Death? Use your imagination, try to visualize a world without Death!
-Charolette Perkins Gilman

I think you'll find that random and unprovoked executions will keep your workforce alert and motivated.
-ST: DS9, "Through the Looking Glass"

To die will be an awfully big adventure!
-James Barrie, Peter Pan



Prologue



Death comes to all of us.
When he came to Xander, he offered him a job... as his apprentice.





"Listen, I've met Death, and once you get past that whole facelessness thing and the stigma that he's there to basically kill you, he's a pretty cool guy. Plays a mean game of chess. But don't challenge him to a game of Twister. Death has a lousy sense of humor.

"Now, you're probably going: 'Yeah, so? What do I care about Death's lack of funnybone?' I'll tell you why -- your number's up, buddy, and Death's here to take you.

"You can stop laughing at any time. I may have a better sense of humor than the Big Cheese, but it's not that much better. Having people laugh at you tends to get old real fast.

"Thank you. As I was saying, it's time to say adieu to the world because you're about to leave it forever. See this scythe? It's what I'm going to use-- Hey! I was talking to you!

"'Are we jogging?'

"You can stop trying to run away from me. I can keep up with you indefinitely. It's one of the perks of being one of Death's apprentices. That, and the ability to eat all the McDonald's I want without worrying about my complexion.

"So, anyway, before your Marion Jones impersonation, I was trying to explain that it's Time for you to die. No, no, no, don't beg. I hate begging. It doesn't make a difference and it's annoying as hell. I don't chose who goes, I just follow orders.

"See this list? I have twelve more people after you to Collect before I can call it a day. Twelve. And there's a movie I want to go see at eight, so can you please stop sobbing?

"Okay," Xander Harris spun the scythe he'd materialized in his hands, then thumped the pole end on the pavement, "are you ready to meet your Maker?"

The balding, overweight forty-year-old man standing in front of Xander grabbed his chest and fell to his knees. His pudgy face became red and he began to gasp for air. Several people walking down the semi-busy street stopped to ask the man if he was all right.

No one noticed Xander standing there, dressed in black jeans and a white tee-shirt, holding a six-foot, sharply bladed scythe.

Xander watched dispassionately as the man collapsed. The few concerned citizens did their best to help the guy. 911 was called. Someone began CPR. But the man was dead before the ambulance arrived.

Xander removed a small notebook and pen from his back pocket. He flipped it open to the list of names he'd shown the now-dead man and drew a line through the guy's name. Beside the crossed-off name he wrote: "heart attack."

The corners of Xander's mouth went up. He loved it when he scared people to death.

The shaggy-haired brunette cast another dispassionate eye over the scene. Then, he tucked the notebook and pen back into his pocket, hoisted the scythe onto his shoulder, and walked away.





Part One





The campus quad was crowded with students enjoying the sunny afternoon. Young men and women were lounging around on the grass or congregating at a group of tables. Some were playing frisbee, others were involved in a pick-up game of football, and a very few had their noses in textbooks.

"Hey, Brad."

Brad shaded his eyes with his hand and looked up. "Deathboy!"

Xander scowled as the lanky redhead stood. "Don't call me that."

"My most humble apologies, Dark Cavalier," Brad mock-groveled, brushing the grass cuttings from the back of his shorts.

"Don't call me that, either," Xander growled.

"Ooh, someone's got a wedgie from hell," Brad teased. "Is Death's favorite Collector having a bad day?"

Xander shoved his hands in his black jeans' pockets and sighed. "Sorry, Brad. I'm just not looking forward to this tour."

"You're my replacement?" Brad was surprised. "I thought only newbies like me worked a hellmouth."

"Yeah, well, there were complaints about the fact that I never had to work one," Xander said unhappily.

"Someone made a complaint about you?" Brad said incredulously. "But... but... you're the Dark Cavalier! You're, like, the supreme understudy to the Top Banana himself! Your name is legend at the training school, and everyone wants to be like you!"

"Not everybody," Xander responded wryly.

"That just sucks, man," Brad stated. "When I get back to the Academy, I'm going to make a complaint against the complainer."

"I don't think that'll help," Xander said. "The Collections Board knows who attended my section during my teaching tour, so they'll discount anything my former students say that's not related to my teaching style."

"That still sucks," Brad said. He sighed on Xander's behalf. "And this hellmouth is so boring, too. The demons do all the work. You just have to stand there and make sure the one on the list gets Collected. I don't think I materialized my scythe my entire tour."

"That's why new Collectors usually start out on a hellmouth," Xander told him. "It's an easy way to become accustomed to constantly seeing death."

Brad frowned. "If that's the reason, why didn't you do it?"

Xander smiled, but it wasn't a pleasant one. "I used to live on a hellmouth. This one, in fact."

The redhead's blue eyes widened to comical proportions. "You lived here in Sunnydale?"

"Sure did," Xander shook his head like he couldn't believe it himself, "for nineteen years."

"How long have you been Gone?" Brad asked curiously, referring to the day Xander became a Collector.

"In Death years, 835," Xander replied. He glanced at his chronograph, which automatically adjusted to the current date and time of whatever realm he was in. "In Earth years, this realm, about a year-and-a-half."

"Dude, that means the people you used to know may still live here," Brad said.

Xander shrugged. "Probably, unless they were Collected while I've been Gone. Doesn't matter to me, either way. I'm here to do my job, not catch up on gossip."

"Boy, I don't think I'd be able to go back to my old stomping grounds and see my family and friends," Brad said. "I guess that's why you're Death's favorite and I'm not, huh?"

"Guess so," Xander said aloofly.

"Well, good luck, Xander," Brad said. "If you get too bored, Stevenson Hall, Room 308 has some hotties that like to party."

One side of Xander's mouth quirked. "I'll remember that."

Brad gave the brunette a thumbs up sign and walked to a nearby tree. The redhead stopped in front of it, turned, and called over to Xander, "Emerson, Room 18. Great bongs!"

"Get out of here, Brad," Xander said with a laugh.

Brad smiled, waved, walked into the tree and disappeared.

Xander shook his head, his laugh trailing into a soft chuckle. After 835 years, it still amused him that ordinary oak trees were actually doorways to Death's domain. Even in arid realms, where nothing grew but the sand dunes, there was at least one oak tree standing for the Collectors.

All oak trees led to the Hall of Doors, which was literally an extremely long hallway lined with doors. Each door led to a different realm, arranged alphabetically. It was a real pain to walk from the Academy to Zxigswy.

Collectors, as the apprentices or helpers of Death were called, were governed by the Collections Board, which resided at the Academy. The Collections Board was made up of representatives from each of the hundreds of realms. They created the lists of those to be Collected -- those who were supposed to die -- and messengered them to the Collectors on a daily basis. They were management, overseeing the Collectors' job performance, assigning tours of duty, and acting as disciplinarians.

Every Collector answered to the Collections Board... except for Xander Harris. Xander answered only to Death himself, which didn't always make everyone Xander's friend and was probably why he had to do a tour on a hellmouth this late in the game.

Xander was Death's Dark Cavalier, selected and trained specifically by the Master of Time. Whereas all the other Collectors went directly into the Academy upon being chosen, Xander had been taken under Death's wing and made his number one apprentice.

Their teacher-student relationship was intensely intimate, which was how Xander got the nickname "Deathboy" -- he was Death's Boy. And Death was Xander's Master, in every connotation of the word, and was marked as such.

When Xander was sent by Death to the Academy to take the MCE -- Master Collector Exam -- the brunette achieved perfect scores. No apprentice had ever done that before, and Xander Harris instantly became a legend. Because of this, his first tour of duty had been in Bavariash, a harsh realm populated by children who only grew to child-bearing age before they were Collected.

Xander had done his tour without batting an eye, adding to his reputation. Students at the Academy were in awe of him, and when it was his turn to teach even post-graduates tried to attend.

The notoriety should have gone to Xander's head, as it would have any other Collector emulated to the extent that he was. It should have made him pompous and arrogant. It should have made him a demanding, a spoiled brat who always got his way because he was the apple of Death's one-eyed willy.

It should have, but it didn't.

Xander Harris was a bit cold when it came to doing his job, but to the other Collectors he was a friendly, easy-going human who always had time to listen, gave advice when asked and held his tongue when not. The brunette did scut work without complaint when told, and walked the Hall of Doors like the other Collectors, rather than riding in the Privileged cab.

There were only two things he did that no one else could do: still attain perfect scores on any test and live at Death's house instead of at the Academy. However, he boasted about neither. He simply went about his business like every other Collector under Death's dominion.

Xander glanced around the crowded quad at U.C. Sunnydale, trying to decide if anything had changed in the 835 years -- one-and-a-half Earth years, he corrected himself -- since he'd been Gone. He moved through the groups of students, invisible to them, although he would've blended in just fine. Since Death had chosen him, he had stopped aging. He was to forever look like an almost-twenty-year-old with shaggy dark hair, muscular body, and a sex drive at its peak. The single difference was the mark that Death had made between his shoulderblades on his back.

That was, he looked the same unless he was in a frisky mood. Then, he put his cockring in. Death loved it when Xander wore nothing but the hoop of silver at the end of his dick. And the Master Over Life certainly knew how to show his appreciation.

Xander found himself following a path he hadn't walked in a very long time, heading away from campus and towards the center of Sunnydale. Things seemed to be the same, including the ruins of the old high school. On Main Street, the Expresso Pump was still pumping, Willy was still in business, and Willow and Tara were coming out of the Magic Shop.

Xander pulled up short and stared. He knew he ran the risk of bumping into his old friends by being assigned to Sunnydale, but he didn't expect to do it within an hour of being there!

Willow, if anything, was more beautiful than Xander remembered. She seemed to glow as she chatted excitedly with Tara. Tara, too, looked far better than he recalled, and more confident. The two girls held hands and, for a moment, Xander felt envious. How long had it been since he had someone to hold hands with?

They were almost upon Xander when they both abruptly stopped and stared right at him. Xander took a step back, blinking in shock. The girls couldn't be seeing him, he thought wildly. To his knowledge, he hadn't physically manifested. Only animals should be able to see him.

"Do you see that, Tara?" Willow asked in a frightened whisper.

"Y-yes," Tara stammered with a nod. She tugged on Willow's hand. "We sh-sh-should l-leave, quickly."

"What is it?" Willow said, stepping closer to the other girl.

"An aura of- of death."

Xander watched as the girls hurried away from him, his heart pounding in his chest. He caught the words "Giles" and "new evil brewing" before the two were out of earshot.

The brunette slumped against the mailbox he was standing by as his bones turned to liquid. Tara and Willow had seen him, or at least his aura. They were much more powerful than he remembered the two Wiccans to be, unless...

Xander quickly pulled his notebook from the back pocket of his jeans and flipped it to the list he'd been given before leaving Death's domain. He slumped again, this time in relief, when he didn't see either girls' names on the list of those to be Collected. They were both simply two otherworld-sensitive young women who'd caught sight of him because he'd been gawking at them.

Making a mental note to avoid those two, Xander straightened, tucked his notebook away, and continued on his tour of Sunnydale.





Part Two





"Human... human... human... recoriath... human... cunari..."

Xander walked through the cemetery at a rapid clip, his head downcast, identifying the species on the dwindling list of names of those he was supposed to Collect. On any given day, the list ranged from one to twenty-five names and it was up to the Collector to make sure everyone was Collected before midnight.

The sun has set about an hour before and the brunette headed straight for the cemeteries in search of the non-humans on his list. Earth was one of the few realms that had a large number of different sentient species. A Collector assigned to any area on Earth had to be knowledgeable of demons as well as humans, because anything living was fair game to Death.

Xander had figured his stint in Sunnydale would include a large number of demons if Buffy was still alive and slaying. Hellmouths were usually the most boring places to work because of humans like Buffy and the high demon population. On a hellmouth, most of the time the demons killed the humans, demon hunters killed the demons, and a Collector stood around scratching his ass with his scythe.

But a job was a job to Xander. He went where he was told, Collected those on his list before the mandated deadline, and tried to enjoy himself while doing so.

"Okay. Demons first," Xander said to himself, his eyes on his list. "Most of the humans will be munched by vamps and dinnertime for them doesn't start for ano--"

Collectors may be invisible to the naked eye unless they physically manifest themselves, but they weren't ghosts. If one of Death's apprentices bumped into, say, a human, that human felt it. After the fact, the humans felt chilled and the hair on the back of their necks rose as a result of the contact.

Xander stumbled back a step after running smack-dab into someone because he hadn't been paying attention to where he was going. Then again, he hadn't expected anyone to be in a cemetery in Sunnydale after the sun had set. Unless, of course, that someone happened to live in the cemetery.

Like the blue-eyed peroxide blond vampire staring right at Xander with a startled expression on his face.

"Xander?" Spike whispered incredulously.

Xander blinked in shock. Spike could see him?!? The brunette glanced down at himself, wondering if he'd materialized on accident. Spike shouldn't be able to see him otherwise.

"There's no one there, you git," Spike said disgustedly, causing Xander's gaze to jump back to the vampire. Spike was still looking in Xander's direction, but wasn't focusing directly on him.

Spike shoved his hands into his duster pockets, scowled, then continued on his way. "Xander's dead, remember?" he muttered to himself. "He died in your bloody arms..."

~~~~~

Blood. Blood everywhere.

"Xander!"

Pain. Searing, excruciating.

A figure in black jeans and a black turtleneck, face in the shadows.

"Hello, Alexander. My name is Death."

Brad Pitt from that weepy chick flick?

"Damn it, Xander!"

Spike kneeling beside him.

It hurts so bad.

"I have a proposition for you, Alexander."



Soft, warm, smells like old leather and cigarettes.

"Stay with me, pet. The Slayer will stake me if you die."

Ripping pain.

Oh God, make it stop.

"Yes or no, Alexander?"

Lifted. Held close.

Eyes as blue as a summer sky. Anger, annoyance.

Fear?

"We'll be at the hospital soon, Xander. Just hold on."

So much pain.

Please, no more.

"Alexander?"

Anything, anything, anything. "Yes."

The pain stopped.

Slow exhale. Blackness descending.

"Shit! Xander, don't you da--"

~~~~~

Spike was long gone by the time Xander snapped back to the present. The brunette took a shaky breath and ran his hand through his dark hair.

Xander hadn't thought about his own death for over 800 years, and what should have been a faint recollection was painted in vivid colors across his mind.

He remembered how dark his blood had looked against the slightly tanned skin of his torso. The sky had been a royal blue in color, sprinkled with blinking white stars. Death had been wearing black, of course, and not a single strand of his sun-highlighted hair had been out of place. And Spike's eyes had been so very blue, with silvery starbursts around black pupils.

Xander recalled how scared he'd been when he'd woken up in a coffin. He'd thought he'd been buried alive, and he'd screamed and clawed at the coffin lid until his voice had disappeared and his fingers bled. It didn't dawn on him that he would have suffocated long before his panic attack had he really been alive.

Death had been the one to dig him out of the grave. Xander remembered his first thought upon seeing the Master of Time: why was Brad Pitt rescuing him?

It hadn't been until much later, after his mind had wrapped around the fact that he was not dead, that he learned Brad Pitt wasn't the real Brad Pitt, but Death wearing Brad Pitt's face. Death himself was faceless, and therefore everyone saw him differently. Since Xander had thought of the movie Meet Joe Black upon Death introducing himself, the Last Lover had appeared, to him, to resemble the actor.

Xander had eventually learned how to give Death a different face; a more square-jawed, rugged face. It had unnerved the brunette to have a Brad Pitt look-a-like for a teacher and lover. Now Death was an individual who looked like no one but himself, and Xander had no problems in serving him.

Xander rubbed the back of his neck and looked at the notepad in his hand. Enough reminiscing, he thought, stubbornly shoving the memories of his death away. He had a deadline to meet and nine more names to cross off his list.

Instead of continuing on in the direction he'd been heading, he turned on his heel and started back the way he'd come. And, subsequently, the same way Spike had gone.

*****

A short while later, a broad smile crossed Xander's lips. Buffy Summers was alive and well and kicking the crap out of a cunari demon.

Xander circled around the Slayer and her opponent, observing their fight. Pride swelled in his chest; he'd forgotten how powerful Buffy was, how well she combined skill and improvisation in her fights. She was a wonder to watch, all that lethal force compacted into a tiny, feminine body.

And it looked as though he wasn't the only one who liked to watch. Xander's proud smile changed to an amused smirk when he found Spike half-hidden behind a poplar tree.

Spike didn't seem to notice Xander as he joined the vampire by the tree, much to Xander's relief. Chalk one up for hellmouthy events, the brunette thought as he materialized his scythe, planted the pole end in the ground, and rested his hands and chin on the top of the curved blade.

The cunari, however, spotted Xander and the male demon's white skin became even whiter. Buffy took advantage of the long-limbed humaniod's distraction by pummeling him.

"Oi, you nonce," Spike growled from beside Xander. "Concentrate. You can take the soddin' Slayer as long as you concentrate."

Xander tisked, turning his head and resting his cheek on top of his hands. "Shame on you, Spike, for rooting for the bad guys."

"You expected differently?" Spike commented offhandedly.

Xander froze. Spike had heard him. Holy crud, Spike had heard him!!

A shocked Spike slowly turned to face Xander. Blue eyes were wide as saucers -- a very odd look for a supposedly tough-as-nails vampire -- as they focused directly on the brunette.

Things went a bit wacky after that. Spike yelped in a very loud, unmanly fashion and backpeddled away from Xander, right towards the fighting duo. Buffy spun to face the unexpected possible threat, giving the cunari the opportunity to lunge forward and wrap his strong hands around her neck. He lifted her off the ground and shook her like a rag doll with little trouble.

Buffy tried to swing her legs back to kick the cunari, but his long-limbs gave him a distinct advantage. She tried to go over the top of her head with the same results. Her face began to turn colors from the lack of oxygen.

Xander cursed, uprooted his scythe, and sprinted forward. Spike put up his hands defensively when Xander came towards him, and back-stepped quickly. He promptly tripped over a headstone and went crashing to the ground.

Xander leapt neatly over the headstone and prone blond vampire. He landed lightly on his feet in front of the cunari and Buffy.

"You will not take me!" the cunari roared in his native language. The demon glared triumphantly at Xander as he shook the dangling Slayer in his grip. "I have challenged Death and won!"

"Neaa, wrong. Sorry, buddy," Xander said in Cunarian, complete with buzzer sound-effect. "You lose. But you get this lovely parting gift for playing."

From a standstill, Xander sprang into the air and sommersaulted over both Buffy and the cunari. He landed behind the demon, spun around and sliced through the cunari's neck with the scythe.

The blade cut through the white flesh like a knife through hot butter; however, the demon's head did not fall off, nor was there a mark on his neck. The otherworldly weapon didn't exist on the physical plane, but worked none-the-less.

The cunari lost his hold on Buffy as death began to claim him. Buffy dropped to her knees, breathing harshly, but she was up again in an instant. She had a broken shard from a headstone in her hand and with a vicious jab the jagged stone was imbedded in the demon's throat.

Xander stood with his feet planted shoulder-width apart, one hand on his hip, the other holding the scythe, and watched as the cunari toppled to the ground. Wind whipped through the cemetery -- a direct result of Xander's temper -- and ruffled the brunette's shaggy hair. An angry frown marred his brow as he stared at the fallen demon, waiting for him to die.

"Spike, you idiot! You almost got me killed!" Buffy exclaimed in rough voice, capturing Xander's attention.

The Dark Cavalier raised his eyes and met Spike's part-amazed, part-terrified stare. A slow, almost evil smile curved Xander's lips. He released the scythe and it fell towards the ground. It disappeared before it hit.

The cunari went limp as his final breath left his body. Xander briefly glanced at the demon, then stuck his hands in his pockets, nodded a polite goodbye to the vampire and sauntered away.





Part Three



"I'm telling you I saw him!" Spike exclaimed, his irritation evident. He resumed pacing in Giles's living room, a deep furrow between his brows. "He had on black denims and a white tee, and had a...," he gestured helplessly, "...long staff with a curved blade at the end."

"A hockey stick?" Riley suggested.

Spike glared at him. "No, not a hockey stick, you overgrown spud."

"He's just trying to save his own butt, Giles," Buffy said, tapping a sharpened stake against her leg.

"And just who did you think saved yours, Slayer?" Spike sneered. "You were as good as dead until Xander came to your rescue."

"Xander's the one who's dead, Spike," Buffy stated angrily. "D-e-a-d, dead. As in, no longer around to rescue me, or tell bad jokes, or keep us fed, or bolster our spirits--"

"Oh!" Willow interrupted, turning on the couch to look at Giles, who was standing by the kitchen counter. "Spirits! Maybe Spike saw Xander's spirit."

"Perhaps," Giles agreed. He tapped the stem of his glasses against his lower lip. "But why now? Most spirits or- or ghosts will start haunting almost immediately after their mortal death."

Spike shook his head. "He wasn't a ghost. He was solid enough when he ran into me the first time. Plus, he killed that demon Buffy was fighting."

"I killed the demon I was fighting," Buffy corrected. She turned to Giles. "See, he's lying. Let me stake him. I promise I'll clean up the dust myself."

"Slayer, you were hanging three feet off the bloody ground, being choked to death," Spike told her. "Did you think the demon simply decided to let you go?"

"I... uh...," Buffy stuck her chin out stubbornly, "...it got a cramp. A hand cramp. Whitey had no choice but to release me."

"You wish," Spike snorted. "Xander used that blade-on-a-stick he had on the demon and saved your bony ass."

"How do you know if her butt is bony or not?" Riley said, folding his arms over his chest.

"Can we please not talk about my butt and get on with staking Spike?" Buffy said with irritation.

"What if it really was Xander, Buffy?" Willow spoke up again, hope etched on her face. "What if he's come back to- to rescue Buffy and... and... say 'hi' and stuff?"

"Tell me, Spike," Giles began, sliding his glasses back on. "The area in which Buffy was fighting, was that the place where Xander... er, passed on?"

"No," Spike shook his head, "wrong cemetery. He was killed out in Westbrook."

"Hmm." Giles walked over to his bookshelf and removed a slim red volume. "And you say he was wearing a white tee-shirt and black trousers and not the clothing he was k- k- killed in or- or his funeral garb?"

"Yeah."

"Do ghosts change clothes?" Willow asked.

"Not that I know of," Giles replied as he paged through the book. "Which leads me to believe Spike may be telling the truth."

Spike shot a triumphant smirk at Buffy. Buffy scowled and stalked over to Giles. "Giles, this is Spike. Scheming, conniving, evil--"

"Slayer, stop," Spike said. "You're making me blush."

"--vampire who hates us," Buffy continued with a deadly glare at the vampire. "This is just some sort of trick to hurt us."

"Possibly," Giles contended. "But what does he have to gain? Xander has been gone for well over a year now and all of us have learned to cope without him in our lives. Plus, Spike knows we are skeptical of anything he tells us and therefore he's less likely to try and pull the wool over our eyes."

"Fine," Buffy huffed. "Looks like you get to survive another night, Spike."

"How gracious of you," Spike said sarcastically.

"What I want to know is: why does Spike care if he saw Xander or not?" Riley said, looking over at Spike. "Like Giles said, you have nothing to gain."

"Maybe I don't like seeing gits who're supposed to be dead rescuing the Slayer," Spike said, walking to the door. "It ruins the pleasure of seeing Buffy get her brains smashed in."

The closing of Giles's front door thankfully cut off any reply, but Spike didn't immediately leave. The blond vampire instead took his time lighting up his eighth cigarette in an hour -- going to have to get me another pack, he thought -- and let the familiar action soothe his frazzled nerves.

And Spike's nerves were frazzled. Not many things disturbed him -- after all, he was a vampire. But seeing Xander plain as night in the cemetery, fighting like a Slayer with a cock, had truly spooked him.

Xander was dead. Spike had seen him get sliced almost in two by a Gondeck, and the kid had died before the vampire had even carried him out of Westbrook Cemetery. Spike had been at the funeral, lurking in the shadows, and had seen the coffin lowered into the ground. He'd even had a drink for Xander, toasting the Slayerette's bravery, sharp tongue, and the tight ass that had been hidden under all those baggy clothes.

Tonight, however, a walking, talking, leaping, flipping, way-too-good-looking-for-a-dead-guy Xander Harris had been in Restfield Cemetery.

Spike glanced back through the window into Giles's house and saw the Little Rascals already busy at work, paging through books, and the redhead plugging away on her computer. It was a sight that both calmed and unnerved him. How many of his plans had been thwarted by those very actions?

With a shake of his head, Spike took a pull on his cigarette and started off towards town. He planned to do a bit of information gathering of his own... if he could get anyone to talk to him. He was still, after almost two years, on a majority of the demons' shit-lists because his need for violence could only be satisfied by pounding his fellow demons, all due to the effin' chip in his skull.

Maybe Willy would have some idea about Xander's Duncan MacCleod imitation, Spike thought speculatively. The slick bartender had his finger in everybody's pots.

Spike dipped a hand into his duster pocket and pulled out a few crumpled dollar bills. Damn. There was no way Willy would give up any information for three dollars and change. Three hundred, yes. Three singles, not a chance.

"Bugger," Spike cursed to himself, shoving the money back into his pocket. He felt the familiar band of anger and misery tightening around his chest. Hell, how he hated the defunct Initiative and what they did to him. He hated them more than he hated Buffy or even his asswipe sire. And the sodding Initiative didn't even exist anymore, which meant his hatred was targeted at a non-fightable phantom.

Spike's brows knitted together as an idea flitted through his mind. Was it possible that Xander was a phantom? He'd heard somewhere that Cordelia had a phantom roommate. And didn't she at one time date Xander? Spike had seen her at the funeral blubbering on the shoulder of some tall, wirey bloke. Angel had been sitting in the open door of the car, which had been parked in the shade during the afternoon funeral, sadness etched on his normally stoic features. The nonce; it wasn't as if he'd even liked Xander.

"Wait a minute," Spike said out loud, coming to a halt. "I didn't even like Xander." So why the hell did he care if the boy popped up in the cemetery looking very much alive?

"I don't," the blond vampire answered himself. He looked up at the dark sky and addressed it as if Xander resided there. "You hear that, Xander? I don't bloody care what your deal is, so go bother someone else."

Spike heard a pair of giggles behind him and he quickly turned. Two teenage girls were laughing at him behind their hands as they passed him.

Feeling incredibly stupid, Spike scowled at the girls' backs, spun on his heel and stalked off. If that didn't take the piss; even after death the Slayer's cronies managed to make a fool of him.

Back at his crypt, Spike threw himself down into the stuffing-impaired chair he'd scavenged from the garbage dump. Another cigarette found its way to his lips and he puffed angrily on it.

One day, he swore to himself, he was going to bring Death to Sunnydale. And then this town would burn.





Part Four





Xander crossed the neatly trimmed lawn behind the sprawling two-storey mansion, nodding a greeting to the gardener pruning the outside of a lavish, ever-changing maze. The maze was a game of Death's which Xander always won, and it was a constant source of amusement for Xander to see Death's frustration each time he mastered a new maze. The brunette never told -- and would never tell -- the Game Master that the gardener always created a trail of pink blooms on the tall hedges that directed the way through the maze.

"Hi, Binky," Xander greeted, walking up to a muscular white steed tethered to one of the posts in the stable. The Dark Cavalier rubbed the horse's nose between his two intelligent blue eyes. "Have you seen the old timer?"

Binky snorted softly and nudged Xander's shoulder so he turned. Xander smiled when he saw Death trotting into sight on a chestnut mare. The mare was actually Xander's horse, though he hadn't ridden her in a while. Her name was Susie and, like Binky and everyone who was in Death's good graces, she was immortal. From what Xander could tell, she didn't seem to mind never aging nor suffering whatever ailments horses suffered from.

"Xander!" Death climbed off the mare at the stable's entry and passed her reins to the waiting stable-hand.

"Hello, Master," Xander returned, his smile broadening. It felt good to be home.

Death was dressed in calf-high black riding boots, black jodhpurs and a soft black sweater, and his sun-kissed blond hair was slightly wind-blown. He strode quickly to Xander as he removed his black riding gloves, his hazel eyes gleaming with happiness. When he reached Xander, he snared the back of the brunette's hair and gave him a long, welcoming kiss.

"Missed you, Boy," Death whispered against Xander's lips before stepping back. A half-second later, he thwapped Xander upside the head. "That's for not coming home for a year."

"It's not like you've been here," Xander scowled, rubbing his head.

Death sighed and started out of the stable towards the mansion at a brisk pace. Xander immediately fell into step beside him. "I know," the tall, thin man granted. "I've been on Hypacia starting a world war."

"Again?" Xander shook his head. "Someone should really introduce the concept of birth control to them."

"But then I wouldn't get to have any fun," Death said with a mock-pout.

They entered the red-brick mansion through the French doors on the garden patio and walked into the pale yellow sitting room. Death dropped his black gloves on a glass end table before taking a seat on a brocaded sofa. He crossed one leg over the other, laid his arms along the back of the small couch, and gave Xander a pointed look.

"Now, tell me what's got you in a tizzy," Death commanded.

Xander ran his hand through his dark shaggy hair and blew out a quick puff of air. He forced himself to stand still instead of pacing like he wanted, and said, "I was seen."

Death's blond brow arched. "By an adept?"

"No," Xander began to pace anyway, "by a vampire."

"A vampire," Death repeated.

"And not just any vampire," Xander said, his long legs traversing the distance of the sitting room every few seconds. "A vampire that I know... knew... still know... argh!"

"Calm down, Darkling," Death chided gently, "and start from the beginning."

Xander stopped pacing abruptly, took another short breath and blew it out. He walked over to an ornate curio cabinet and peered through the crystal clear glass at the objects inside. "It's this new tour of duty," he began. "I know it's only fair that I take a turn on a hellmouth--"

"A hellmouth?" Death sounded surprised. "You shouldn't be assigned to a hellmouth."

"Well, someone thought I should be," Xander said. "I normally wouldn't have a problem with it, but the hellmouth I was assigned to is Sunnydale--"

In the reflection of the curio cabinet, Xander saw Death shoot to his feet and interrupt with a loud, "WHAT?!"

Xander turned around, confusion etched on his face. "What what?"

Death's hazel eyes glinted angrily. "Someone is going to pay for this."

"No," Xander shook his head quickly, "don't do whatever you're thinking of doing. I don't want special treatment. And, anyway, it's not that big of a deal."

"'Not that big of a deal,'" Death repeated incredulously. "It most certainly is a big deal!" He stalked over to the writing desk in the corner beside the French doors, yanked out a sheet of parchment paper and a gold pen. "It is expressly forbidden for any Collector to be assigned to the area in which he spent his mortal life."

"Maybe someone made a mistake," Xander said, trying to placate his Master. He didn't tell Death about his new tour in order to get his teacher to change it. In fact, that's the last thing he wanted to have happen. To have Death talk to the Collections Board about the assignment was like having his father talk to a bully's father about his son beating Xander up.

"No," Death growled. "This was done purposely."

Xander frowned. "What do you mean?"

The blond man folded the page he'd written on in half and faced Xander. "Do you know why I chose you, Xander?"

"Um, you needed a new boytoy?" Xander joked, shifting uncomfortably. He'd never really wanted to know the reason why Death had chosen him to become an apprentice. He was afraid that the answer would simply be because he was in the right place at the right time.

"No, it wasn't that, my Dark Cavalier," Death said, a tender smirk curving his lips. "It's because you were -- and still are -- a very special man."

Joy unfurled in Xander's heart. How long had it been since someone said that to him? Since never? Still, he had to ask, "Why?"

"I was there when you killed your best friend," Death replied. "Jesse, I believe was his name."

The happiness blackened. "So?"

"Do you realize how difficult it is for a normal, caring individual to kill someone they love?" Death said. "Yet you did it, because it was what had to be done."

"And...?" Xander prompted unhappily, knowing there was more.

"And afterward," Death continued. "You dealt with your feelings over your best friend's death expediently and efficiently. I had thought to myself: if he could do that with someone he'd obviously loved, imagine what he could do when faced with strangers?"

Xander dropped his chin and stared at the tops of his battered black construction boots, his heart heavy. He knew that he was a little on the uncaring side when it came to Collecting, but he hadn't thought that he was that bad.

"I knew then that you would make the perfect apprentice," Death went on, his pride obvious. "It was as if I had found another me."

"Deathboy," Xander whispered to himself, the nickname taking on a whole new meaning.

"That's why I am certain your assignment to Sunnydale was no accident," Death said, crossing the room to Xander. He tilted the brunette's chin and met Xander's eyes. "Be careful, Darkling, until I can fix this."

"Why?" Xander asked, a sense of foreboding filling the air, sending a chill down his spine.

Death eyes darkened as he replied ominously, "Because I'm afraid someone may wish to see you fail."

~*~*~*~*~

The Past





Xander's knee bounced at a pace Thumper would envy, and he tapped his fingers on the scarred desk. The small classroom where the first round of the Master Controller Exam was taking place was filling up with students, none of whom Xander recognized. Then again, this was the first time he'd ever been at the Academy, so that wasn't surprising.

"Okay, I'm officially nervouser than hell," Xander said in the general direction of the student seated beside him. "You?"

The raven-haired, gaunt man shot an annoyed glare at Xander before looking forward again. "'Nervouser' is not a word," he stated haughtily.

Xander blinked in surprise at the rudeness. "Um..."

"Don't mind Anthony," the student on the other side of Xander said. "He's got a stick up his ass the size of an oak tree."

"It is better than having the brain the size of an acorn," Anthony sniffed.

The rotund twenty-something seated to Xander's left rolled his slate grey eyes. "Hi. Mr. Personality there is Anthony Hodgkins," he said, gesturing to Anthony with his chin. "And I'm Samuel Scrollock."

"Xander Harris," Xander returned the greeting.

"Death's number one apprentice." Samuel half-smiled. "Everyone knows who you are."

"And no one understands why you are here," Anthony continued rudely.

Xander frowned. "I'm here to take the MCE."

"Which you will undoubtably attain perfect scores on," Anthony said. "Even if you do not deserve them."

"What do you mean?" Xander asked, his eyes narrowing at the implied insult.

Anthony snorted indelicately and gave the brunette a pointed look. "Do you honestly believe the Proctors will fail Death's Boy?"

"Anthony, quit it," Samuel said with a glare. Anthony sneered and faced front again.

"Hey, I'm going to pass the MCE on my own, thank you very much," Xander stated.

"Ignore him," Samuel told Xander. "He's just jealous of you."

"Me?" Xander's eyes widened. "Why the heck would anyone be jealous of me?"

"Because you're Death's favorite," Samuel confided. "Hell, I'm envious, too. So is the rest of the class."

Xander shook his head disbelievingly. Since apprentices didn't need sleep, he'd spent the last hundred years studying all day and night, save for an hour of free time each day. He'd had to learn the languages of every creature of every realm and be able to speak, read, write and understand each fluently. He'd had to study magicks and science and how to utilize them both. He'd had to memorize the side effects that came with being an apprentice, including how adepts and animals could see him and how his anger could influence the elements. He'd had to learn to fight expertly with both a scythe and hand-to-hand. He'd had to obey his Master's every whim, be it physical, mental, or sexual.

"You guys are nuts," Xander finally said. "I'd give anything to have trained here at the Academy and not with Death."

"Somehow I doubt that," Anthony said.

Xander shot him a withered glare. "If I'd have trained here, I would have taken the MCE over eighty years ago instead of now."

"Eighty years of additional study?" Samuel gaped. "Wow."

"Yeah. Woo-hoo," Xander said sarcastically.

Samuel shook off his amazement and leaned closer to Xander. "Maybe at the break we can swap stories," he suggested. "We'll tell you about Academy life and you tell us about tutoring with Death."

"I don't know," Xander hedged, wondering if he could talk about his apprentice education without going into the naked aspects of his student-teacher relationship with Death.

"Oh, please do us the honor of sharing. After all, your studies were 'exceedingly hard,'" Anthony said snidely, complete with finger quotes.

"Fine," Xander said sharply, his temper flaring at the unmitigated nerve of the raven-haired man. "At the break we'll share."

"I do so look forward to it," Anthony drolled.

"I do, too," Samuel said enthusiastically.

"Can't wait." Xander slouched down further in his seat as the Proctor rapped on the podium at the front of the room and he muttered sarcastically to himself, "It'll be such fun."



~*~*~*~*~*



Xander was lying on his double bed, his feet propped up on the headboard, tossing a fuzzy green ball repeatedly into the air. He'd retreated to his spartan bedroom -- which only had a bed, a closet and a window -- after his talk with Death, wanting to be alone for awhile.

"Deathboy," Xander said out loud, then laughed humorously. It sounded like an arch-villain's name from a comic book. A pathetic arch-villain.

The nickname had never really bothered him until now. He'd been called worse, especially by Anthony Hodgkins, the acerbic twit. Anyway, most of the other Collectors who called him Deathboy were using it in the sexual connotation and not as in Son of Death.

Not that he was Death's son, because, eew, incest. Xander was more like a clone of Death, someone who was in no way related to the Master of Time but had the same views about everything.

"No, that's not true," Xander told the green fuzzy ball. The ball silently disagreed with him, so he tossed it over the edge of the bed.

Sliding his hands behind his head, the brunette stared morosely at the white ceiling. Even inanimate objects knew he was fooling himself. What Death had told him was true: he was the perfect apprentice. He had no qualms over Collecting the most innocent of lives in the most horrid of ways. He'd helped start wars, spread plagues, induced famines, and stood idly by during rapes and murders. He'd Collected children who'd died from neglect, negatively influenced those on the verge of suicide, and scared a few into Death's Final Embrace on many occasions.

It was the job, Xander's rational side piped. He didn't make the lists of those whose Time it was, he was simply the Collector.

Then why did he feel like crap?

Xander shut his eyes and sighed. Well, at least he knew the reason why Spike could see him. It seemed that a tie formed between someone about to be Collected and the last individual to come into contact with them, sort of like a last ditch effort on the mortal's behalf to keep a hold on life.

"Lucky me," he murmured. Because of that link, his current tour of duty was going to be a pain in the ass. He sighed again. Why couldn't he have died in Miss America's arms instead of Spike's?

Xander heard the rapid flap of wings from a bird coming to perch and he opened his eyes. At the single window beside the bed he saw a homing pigeon pacing along the windowsill.

"Hey, Rusty," the brunette greeted with little enthusiasm as he rose from the bed. Every Collector had their own personal homing pigeon -- immortal, of course -- that was used to deliver the daily lists.

Xander removed the small rolled up scroll tied to Rusty's leg. "Thanks," he said to the bird. The bird cooed and left.

Pulling his notebook and pen from his pocket, Xander returned to the bed to recopy the list. In the closet, he had a box full of used notebooks each filled with the crossed-off names of those he'd Collected. Samuel, his closest and oldest friend, once said it was morbid, but to Xander it was a record of the past.

Xander didn't recognize any of the dozen or so names and he felt a wave of relief sweep through him. It wasn't until right then that he realized how much he didn't want to have to be the one to Collect any of his old friends. He also suddenly understood why there was a rule against sending apprentices to the place where they'd spent their mortal lives and why Death got so ticked off. If Xander was undergoing a test of some sort involving his old friends...

...he'd pass with flying colors.

Xander swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat. It was true. If Buffy or Giles or -- please, no -- Willow appeared on that list, he'd do his job and end their mortal lives.

He really was Deathboy.

A light knock sounded on the door as it opened and Death stuck his head in the room. "Mind if I come in?"

"What if I said yes?" Xander replied jokingly as he set his notebook aside. He quickly buried his thoughts and feelings and disgust with himself. He wasn't interested in an in-depth discussion about his freakish psyche.

"I'd come in anyway," Death joked back. He entered the bedroom, shut the door and leaned against it with his arms crossed. "How are you feeling, Xander?"

Xander frowned, instantly on edge. "What do you mean?"

"You seemed a bit down after our chat earlier," Death said.

"Nah, I'm fine," Xander lied, but he followed it up with the truth. "Just homesick ."

The smile that spread across Death's face was almost blinding. He crossed to Xander, bent down and kissed him hard on the mouth.

Death's hazel eyes were full of hunger when he focused on Xander. "Do you need to leave soon?"

Xander grinned rakishly, wanting nothing more than to forget his troubles for awhile. He slid his arms around Death's neck and pulled the other man down onto the bed with him as he whispered desirously, "Not any time in the immediate future."



Continued