"Darshan!" Callisto yelled as she burst through the door, Xander following more sedately.
"In the kitchen," came his reply.
Cee grabbed Xander's hand and dragged him through the house and into the kitchen. Darshan was seated at the large, oblong kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea and poring over an ancient-looking book. "Darshan, the Roene demon has been following Xander."
He almost spit out his tea. "What?"
"It's been following him. He's had two encounters with it."
"Tell me," Darshan said, his face grave as he pushed the book to the center of the table.
Callisto related the incidents at the mall and in the food court to Darshan, Xander growing more and more humiliated with each word that she spoke.
"Is this accurate, Xander?" Darshan asked him.
"We'll have to put you under surveillance, then," Darshan said. "One of us will be with you at all times. We can't risk something happening to you."
"Is that really necessary? I mean, it didn't do anything to me..."
"Don't you understand, Xander? It's been preparing you; making you so ashamed of yourself that your soul is positively ripe for harvesting. Unless, of course, none of what it said bothered you?"
"I thought so. Ling and Ken are out right now, looking for signs of the Roene demon. I'll have to contact them and tell them that it was sighted at the University's food court late this morning. I hope they'll be able to pick up its trail. In the meantime, you are welcome to stay here, Xander."
"Can I just go back to my dorm?" Xander asked, rubbing his temples.
"Well, I suppose I could go with you. Scratch that, I want to be here when they get back so we can discuss a plan of action. Cee, would you...?"
"Of course!" she replied happily.
Xander grimaced. He'd wanted to go to the food court and get something to eat. It was nearly 5:30, and he hadn't eaten anything since that morning - he was starving. But he couldn't do that with Callisto in tow.
"Of course you can, silly," she interrupted his thoughts. "It's no trouble at all. Let's go."
Darshan and Cee exchanged a few more words, and then she and Xander exited the house and got back into Xander's car. "So," Cee asked, "what are you going to get for dinner?"
"I-I don't know..."
"Do they have good food at the food court?"
Mental images of Sheriece's cooking flashed through his mind as he turned a corner.
"Mmm, I'll take that as a yes. Who's Sheriece?"
"She's a lady who works at the food court."
"You like her."
"Yeah, she's nice," he said lamely as he pulled into a parking space. Cee hopped out of the car and waited as Xander slid his mass out of the driver's seat. Xander was pleased to see that there were no other cars parked in the food court's lot, and the place looked mostly empty.
"None of your friends are staying here over break?" she asked him as they walked into the building.
"Um, no," he responded distractedly. The delicious smells of the place had overcome his senses. He eagerly made his way up to Sheriece's counter.
"There's my favorite customer!" she exclaimed as she emerged from the back room. "How you doin', honey? And who is this?"
"Oh, um, this...this is Callisto..."
"Call me Cee," she said pleasantly as she extended her hand for Sheriece to shake.
"Pleasure to meet you, Cee," Sheriece said, beaming. "Now, Xander, you didn't tell Sheriece you had a lady friend! And ooh-ee, is she ever pretty!"
"I - she's not -" Xander sputtered.
But Sheriece was talking to Callisto again. "I've never seen you here before, darlin', are you a student?"
"Yes, but only part-time. I have a full-time job, so I don't have the time to come to the food court too often."
"Well I am glad you made the time to come down here with your honey and meet me. You two are so cute! Now, sugar, what can I get for you?"
"I'd like a cheeseburger and fries, please."
"Alright, sounds good. And what can I get for you, Xander?"
"I..." Xander hesitated. He was so hungry, but he didn't want to order his usual ton of food in front of Callisto. Why not? he wondered. She already knows what a pig you are. Ah, screw it. "I'd like four pieces of the spinach and cheese lasagna, three supreme pizzas, two cheeseburgers, and three orders of fries. Oh, and some onion rings, too."
"Okey dokey, I'll have it right up for you."
Xander stared down at the counter, avoiding Callisto's eyes.
"Hungry?" she asked him innocently.
He ignored her.
A few minutes later, Sheriece was packing up their dinners in a large brown paper bag. "There you go, sweethearts. You have a nice, romantic evenin'!" she called after them after she swiped Xander's card.
"She is really nice," Cee commented as Xander drove away.
"If somewhat misguided," he replied testily.
"Aww, come on, Pudge, that was pretty cute that she thought we were together."
Xander felt himself blush in the darkness as he pulled into his dorm's parking lot. "Sure," he said, "cute. You didn't do anything to dissuade her."
"She was so happy, though!"
"Right." He slammed the car door and sighed.
A few minutes later, he was collapsing onto his bed, breathless and hot from the climb up to his room.
"Hey," Cee, who was standing at his desk, rummaging around in the bag from the food court, said, "there's a lot of food in here."
"No, really?" he breathed sarcastically.
"No, I mean there's more than you ordered in here. There are like seven burgers."
"Oh. Um, well...Sheriece...she gives me extra...sometimes..." he responded sheepishly.
"Extra? Like, she doesn't charge you for it?"
"Yeah." He felt his cheeks burn.
"Oh, well, that's nice of her," Cee said nonchalantly as she unwrapped one of the burgers and then bit into it.
Xander couldn't respond. He snatched the bag of food off into his desk and dug out his lasagna. "So, um," he said between bites, "what else do I need to know about these Roene demons?"
"Well, they're middle class demons, capable of consuming a moderate amount of soul energy at one time. In their natural form, they're about four feet tall, thin, kind of spindly. And you already know that they're shapeshifters. They can only stay in their shifted form for about four to five hours before they turn back, and they need a piece of the person they're turning into in order to shift. Their eyes are always black, no matter what form they're in. They can exude something like a pheromone that makes the people around them turn against their target. They're terrified of water, even though all it does to them is burn their nasal passages. Which, I guess, isn't all that pleasant, so their terror is kind of warranted," she said, examining a french fry. "They're pretty rare; in the time I've been doing this, this is only the second one I've come across."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Since I was eleven."
"Yeah. My parents are demon hunters, too, so I've been learning my whole life."
"Yeah, we're not exactly the Cleavers," she said conversationally. "That's how I met Ling. Her parents and mine are good friends."
"Are they...demon hunters...too?"
She nodded. "It's a small community, everybody knows everybody. Darshan and Ken are first generation, though. I guess you could say that we recruited them the same way we recruited you. Demons were following them, and we took them in."
"So where are your parents?"
"Back in the city. There's less activity here, so we're allowed to run stuff on our own."
"So...all demon hunters have special talents?"
"Yup. Telekinesis and the sight are the most common, but there are a few who read minds, like I do. No one else who can smell energies like you can, though. Our parents would love to get their hands on you."
Xander shifted uncomfortably, chewing his pizza. "Why?" he mumbled around a mouthful.
"Because of the prophecy, of course."
"What exactly is this prophecy?"
"I can never remember it exactly," she said breezily. "Ling can tell you."
"How come Darshan's the one in charge if you and Ling are the ones with the family history of, uh, demon-hunting?"
"Well," she said, wrinkling her nose, "his sight makes him the best choice for leader, since he can sometimes see the consequences of our actions. Plus, our parents love him."
"Don't get me wrong, Darshan's a great guy, but he's a little bossy," she explained as she seated herself close to Xander on the bed. Xander shoved another bite of his last pizza into his mouth and tried to move over a bit. "I don't have cooties, y'know," she told him.
He felt his round cheeks redden as he swallowed. He reached into the bag only to discover that all his food was gone. He looked dejectedly at the mountain of containers and wrappers that lay on the other side of him.
"Why don't we go get some ice cream?" she suggested.
"C'mon, you're still hungry," she reasoned.
"Would you get out of my head? You know how close I am; you know that I shouldn't," he burst out. "You know that I shouldn't have eaten any of that." He stared at the floor, ashamed.
Cee was silent for a few moments before responding. "It really bothers you, doesn't it?"
"I'm the size of a freaking house, what do you think?" he spat sullenly.
Cee sighed, and Xander saw her shrug out of the side of his vision. "It suits you," she said.
"I said, it suits you. You'd look weird if you were skinny."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You'd look weird if you were skinny," she repeated insistently.
"I'm serious. Some people were meant to be skinny, and some weren't. You weren't. You look good bigger."
"What is wrong with you?"
"Wow, you really know how to talk to the ladies," she said sarcastically. "I'm here trying to compliment you and you ask me what's wrong with me?"
He shook his head. "You can't tell a 400 pound guy he looks good in any way and expect to be taken seriously," he muttered.
She sighed again. "Come on," she said. "I want ice cream. Let's go."
A few minutes later, they were walking up the slushy street in the cold darkness.
"Do you think...you could...slow down...a bit?" he breathed irritably. His full belly was bouncing up and down heavily with the pace Cee had set, making it hard for him to keep up.
"Oh, sorry, Pudge," she said, looking over her shoulder at him. She stopped and waited for him to catch his breath for a few seconds. "I'm not used to having someone with me when I'm out walking."
"It's...okay," he coughed.
"Geez, are you alright?"
"Fine," he said grimly. "You know, I would have driven..."
"It's only six more blocks, no use wasting the gas," she told him airily. "Besides, I'm used to walking everywhere."
"Six more blocks?"
"Yeah." She looked at him. "Oh. I guess you're not used to walking that far." She bit her lip as she eyed his gut.
He clenched his teeth. "I'm fine," he repeated. "Just because I'm fat doesn't mean I can't walk."
"At a reasonable speed," he amended. "So just...go slower. Please."
"Sorry. So what kind of ice cream are you going to get?"
She chattered at him the rest of the way, but she did walk more slowly. Soon, Xander saw the ice cream shop glowing ahead and sighed with relief. It was embarrassing, having to ask her to slow down for him and his huge body. Yeah, and now you're going to feed that huge body even more, he thought ruefully. Good job.
The bell on the handle of the old-fashioned door jangled as Cee opened it and walked inside, alerting the person behind the counter to the fact that she had new customers. The place was empty except for them, for which Xander was thankful. He surreptitiously eyed the seating and, to his dismay, realized that there was no way the tiny chairs would hold his weight and there was even less of a chance he'd fit into the small booths lining the walls. He hoped he could easily persuade Cee to get their ice cream to go.
"Hi," Cee said cheerfully. "How are you tonight?"
"I'm great, thanks," the girl behind the counter said. "How are you?"
"What can I get for you?"
"Hmm, I think I'd like a scoop of strawberry in a waffle cone."
The girl busied herself with getting Cee's ice cream as Xander looked over the flavors, his mouth watering. Never mind that he'd just eaten enough for four people; he felt his stomach grumbling in anticipation of the creamy deliciousness.
The girl handed Cee her cone and turned to Xander, her smile slightly forced. "And what can I get for you?"
"Um, I'd like two scoops of peppermint and two scoops of fudge brownie in a dish, please."
"Okay, I'll have it ready for you in a sec."
"Mmm, peppermint and chocolate, that sounds good, Pudge," Cee told him between licks of her cone. "Let's sit down and eat for a while."
"I'd rather if we didn't..." he trailed off, looking at the chairs again.
"Why n-" she stopped herself, obviously reading his mind. "Ohhhh. Okay, we can walk."
Xander felt himself blush, and swallowed hard. As much as he hated the fact that she could tell what he was thinking, at least he didn't have to say such embarrassing things as "I won't fit in the seats" out loud.
The bell on the door handle jingled again just as the girl behind the counter handed Xander his ice cream, and Xander was hit by the stink of rotten meat. He nearly gagged as he handed the girl his money, and did when she held out his change and said, "Here you go, fatass."
He froze, his hand held out underneath hers to accept the coins. They plopped into his palm one by one.
"Excuse me?" Cee said indignantly.
Without a word, Xander turned to the door and saw a young, blonde, black-eyed man standing behind him, grinning wickedly. "Well, if it isn't the whale," he said conversationally. "Gonna stuff your face some more, you obese piece of crap?"
Cee caught on immediately. She reached down and pulled a long knife from her boot and handed Xander her ice cream cone. "You take that back, you piece of scum," she spat.
He growled at her, and Xander heard the girl behind the counter run for the back room. Cee advanced on the man, her knife glimmering in her hand. He charged at her in a blur, moving faster than Xander thought possible. They met in the middle of the shop, Cee punching with her left hand and stabbing at him with her right while the demon ducked and punched back at her. She kicked him in the head, and he went down, crashing into a table and chairs, but immediately popped back up and countered with a jab to Cee's midsection. She grabbed his arm and yanked, and the next thing Xander knew, the knife was sticking out of the demon's chest. He let out an unearthly howl and scrambled for the door, but Cee was fast. She pulled another knife out of nowhere and hurled it at his back, then took a flying leap and tackled him to the ground.
"Who sent you?" she hissed at him, grabbing a handful of his blonde hair and pulling his head back.
He laughed at her. "You think it matters, pretty? More will come. Many more. We know what you've found!"
She wrenched his head back. "Which one sent you?" she yelled. With her free hand, she swirled a ball of energy into existence, which turned a glowing emerald as she spoke.
"You think I'm afraid of you? She'll just raise me again if you kill me."
"So it's Megaera."
The demon laughed, his black eyes crinkling jovially.
"Enough." Cee slammed the ball of energy into his face, and before Xander's eyes, the demon shriveled up with a "pop!" and turned to a pile of dust on the floor. She stood up and wiped her hands on her pants and picked up her knives from amidst the filth, then walked casually back over to Xander and took her ice cream cone from his grasp and gave it a lick.
He gaped at her. "You just...you..."
"You just annihilated that demon. That was...that was awesome!"
She grinned at him. "Thanks, Pudge. All in a day's work, y'know. Come on, we'd better get out of here before the cops show up. She probably called them when I whipped out my dagger. Hurry up and eat that, it's melting."
As soon as they stepped out of the ice cream shop, Callisto called Darshan and told him that she'd dispatched the Roene demon.
"Yes, Darshan. Mmhmm...yeah. No, nobody saw us except the girl who works at the ice cream shop, and she was in the back when I killed it. Yes. Yes! Stop worrying. Okay? Yes. Okay. Goodbye, Darshan." She hung up her phone and slid it back into her pocket and took a lick of her ice cream. "Geez, he's worse than my mother."
"Is everything okay?" Xander asked from around a mouthful of ice cream.
"Yeah, everything's fine. He was worried that someone saw me kill it, but you're the only one who was there. Oh, and he still wants me to stay with you tonight, just in case."
"He...wait, what? You're...staying?" Xander nearly dropped his dish.
"Yup, we're gonna have a sleepover!" she exclaimed happily, patting him on his well-padded back.
He felt his face redden. "Is that really necessary?"
"Probably not, but would you rather Darshan stay over? He's not going to leave you by yourself now."
Yes, Xander thought immediately.
"Hey! That's not very nice," she said, shoving him playfully, her hand sinking into his soft side.
"Do you really have to?" Xander's face blushed further at the feeling of her fingers pressing into his fat.
"I...I guess you can sleep in my bed," he told her reluctantly.
"That's okay, I'll sleep in Adrian's."
"Um, I don't think you want to do that."
"I was going to ask you for fresh sheets first."
"Okay, good. As annoying as you are, I wouldn't subject you to that."
She stopped walking, a look of distress upon her face. "You really think I'm annoying? Don't lie."
"I'm sorry...you're not annoying. You just...you just don't seem to get...people."
"And by people, you mean 'you.'"
"I think I get you more than you realize, Pudge."
"Then why do you call me that?"
She looked surprised. "That really bothers you?"
"Yes," he said. No, he thought, that part of him that liked being fat rearing its difficult head.
Cee grinned at him. "See?"
Xander sighed, knowing that he couldn't hide much from her.
"Look, I know things are complicated for you right now. I get that, I really do. And I'm sorry about it. It sucks. But you've got to learn to accept yourself sooner or later, and why can't it be sooner?"
"You think you're going to help me accept myself?"
"Who knows?" she shrugged and licked at her ice cream. "You were comfortable enough to have eaten all your ice cream, at least."
He looked down at his bowl and saw that the delicious treat was gone. He scowled and tossed the bowl and spoon in a trash can as they passed. "And you know that I shouldn't have."
"Why not? Who cares what the scale says?"
"I care. My parents care. Everyone cares."
"I don't care."
"Come on, that's a lie. Just look at me." He held out his arms so she could take all of him in. "You're telling me you don't think I'm disgusting?"
She looked him up and down, her eyes lingering on his big belly. "No," she said softly. "No, Xander, I don't think you're disgusting at all."
He stared at her, blushing. She gazed right back, calmly slurping up her ice cream. "Well, then," he finally said, "there's definitely something wrong with you."
She rolled her eyes at him. "There are many things wrong with me," she said flippantly. "So. Let's watch a movie tonight. What do you have that's good?"
"Um, what kind of stuff do you like? I'm afraid I don't really have any girl movies."
"Well, that's good, because I hate girl movies. The more violence, the better."
He rattled off a brief summary of his dvd collection.
"Ooh, I haven't seen the second Alcyor movie yet; let's watch that."
"You like Alcyor?"
"Yeah, it's one of my favorite movies!"
"But it's so..."
She grinned at him. "Exactly. Lots of violence, blood, and a good story with an awesome plot twist. Totally my thing."
"I didn't think girls liked that kind of stuff."
"Well, Pudge, I'm not your typical girl."
They had finally reached Xander's dorm, so he let them in and they began the climb to his room on the third floor. A few minutes later, huffing and puffing, he let them into his room, which was still covered in packages of food from his binge the previous day.
"So do you have some good movie snacks among all this stuff?" she asked, peeking in one of the unpacked bags from the grocery store. "Oh, you have gummi watermelons, my favorite! May I have some?"
"Yeah...sure...help...yourself," he breathed.
"You should have some water," she told him as she ripped open the bag of gummies.
"In a...minute." He seated himself heavily in his desk chair and cringed when the whole thing buckled beneath him with a loud snap and sank a few inches. "Shit," he muttered, standing up again. He bent down to examine the chair and saw that he'd broken the hydraulics.
"Everything okay, Pudge?"
He swallowed hard. He'd known that he'd break it sooner or later, after all, the chair's capacity was only 300 pounds, and he'd had it since the beginning of the school year. But breaking it with her there seemed to be worse somehow. "Fine," he said, his voice cracking.
She came over to him and laid her hand on his shoulder. "It's just a chair. You can get a new one."
"I'll just break that one, too," he muttered angrily.
"Come on," she told him, gently guiding him away from his desk. "Why don't you put the movie in? I'll make some popcorn."
A few minutes later, Cee removed the bag of popcorn from the microwave and plopped down next to Xander on his bed. He had to stop himself from moving away from her uncomfortably, not wanting her to call him out on it. But then she leaned back into him, and he couldn't help it - he shivered and tried to scoot away so that she wasn't sinking into his soft side.
"Aww, come on, Pudge, it's cold. Share some body heat," she told him.
"I thought you were never cold?"
"Not when I'm walking around outside. But when I'm sitting here doing nothing, I get a little chilly."
He sighed and stopped moving, swallowing hard as she snuggled up to him and threw the blanket over their legs.
"There, see? Much better."
He hoped that during the movie, she'd realize just how gross he felt and would move away from him. But he had to admit, having her smushing into all his fat felt pretty good. He quickly shoved the thought out of his head before she caught it.
She just yawned and snuggled closer.
Halfway through the movie, Xander reached for a bag from the grocery store and commenced eating everything in it: those little peanut butter and chocolate cakes, gummies, a bag of chips, and a bag of pretzels. He cursed himself the whole time, but he couldn't help it - having her so close to him made him so nervous, and he was definitely a nervous eater.
The movie ended with Cee laying her head on Xander's shoulder. "That was really good," she told him with a sigh.
"The final fight was awesome," she said. "That honor stuff gets me all choked up every time."
He turned his head and looked down at her. "Really?"
"Yeah, it's so much more emotional than that stupid relationship crap girls are supposed to like," she explained, her head still resting on his soft shoulder. She yawned again. "I don't know about you, Pudge, but I'm beat. Do you have a shirt I can borrow to sleep in?"
"Um...I...I guess so..." he said, reddening. He panicked, not wanting her to see what size his shirts were, but then he remembered that she knew what size his clothes were anyway. If she hadn't read it from his mind, she certainly found out when he relived the scene at the mall with the Roene demon.
"Oh, don't worry about that. Of course your clothes are going to be bigger," she told him, "you're a big guy." She patted him on the arm, sending his flesh jiggling.
Xander just sighed as he hefted himself to his feet. He dug around in his drawers until he found one of his old three exes, a dark green one, and pulled it out. He clutched it to his chest for a moment, feeling as if he were giving a piece of himself away in that old shirt. He reluctantly handed it to Cee, who was holding out her hand expectantly.
"Thanks, Pudge. I'll be right back," she told him as she skipped over to the door and let herself out.
He let out another sigh as he pulled his pajamas out and started to take his shirt off. Just then, the door opened. He ripped his shirt back down over his protruding belly with a gasp as Cee said, "I forgot to ask, left or right for the girls' bathroom?"
"L-l-left," he managed to stutter out, his hands clenching his shirt with incredible force.
"Thanks!" She left again.
Xander let out his breath explosively. He trod over to the door and locked it before he lifted his shirt over his head and fought his way into his tight pajamas. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and shook his head. What was he doing? He couldn't let her see him like this, with his ass and his gut hanging out so much. He began to remove his shirt again in order to put his regular clothes back on, but a knock came from the door.
He gritted his teeth and opened the door.
He stared at her. His shirt came down to her knees. It looked absolutely ridiculous on her, hanging off her as if she had shrunk down to a fifth of her normal size. Her coppery hair was tousled about her shoulders, and she had a sleepy expression on her face. She looked incredible.
She stared back at him, her eyes dancing up and down his huge form.
"What?" he said, uncomfortable after a few seconds.
"Nothing," she told him as she broke her gaze and walked into the room. "Are you going to help me change the sheets?"
"Um, yeah." He rooted around in his closet for his spare blanket and set of sheets and handed them to her, then gingerly removed Adrian's bedding and laid it over his roommate's desk chair. He helped her put the sheets on the bed and smooth out the blanket. When they were done, they both stood there awkwardly, not looking at each other.
"Okay, well, I guess it's bedtime," she finally said. She nimbly climbed into Adrian's bed and pulled the covers up around her shoulders, yawning again. "All that demon-killing wore me out."
"Okay, um, well, goodnight," Xander said. He locked the door and switched off the light, and then climbed into his own bed amidst the creaking of the springs at the addition of his weight.
A few seconds of silence went by, and then, in a small voice, Cee said, "Goodnight, Xander."
Suddenly his pillow was unceremoniously yanked out from beneath his head, causing his skull to bounce off the mattress. "Ow."
"If you don't get up, next thing that's getting pulled off is your blanket," Cee warned him.
"Don't you dare," he replied, reaching for the edges of his comforter in terror. He could feel that his entire belly was bare, his shirt having crept up over it as he'd tossed and turned last night.
"Then get up!"
He opened his eyes. Cee was standing in front of his bed, hands on her hips, already clad in her leathery black attire, he noted with some disappointment. "What time is it?"
"Okay, what time is 'late?'"
"It's already after ten."
"After ten? Why are you awake?"
"I've been up since eight. You should be up, too," she admonished him.
"It's still too early..." He closed his eyes again.
"I will rip that blanket right off of you."
"Fine." He reached down beneath the comforter and adjusted his shirt as best as he could before tossing the covers back and sitting up. "Why do I have to get up again?"
"Because we have a lot to do today," she sang. "We have to get you some breakfast - well, brunch, I guess - and we have to go to the house so we can get you started on training."
"Training?" he asked timidly. He yawned widely and stretched, his arms reaching high above his head, before he realized that that only pulled his shirt up and exposed his gut to Cee's view. He quickly put his arms down, stifling the rest of his yawn behind his palm.
She grinned devilishly. "Yup. Weapons," she told him.
"You're not serious."
"I'm completely serious," she said. "Darshan will want to start you right away, probably on swords or staff, so that you can defend yourself if one of us can't be there with you. Although I'm more than happy to be on Xander detail."
"Great," he replied weakly. He could just imagine himself stumbling about with a sword in hand. Someone would probably be injured, and it would most likely be him.
"So come on, let's go!"
He ran his fingers through his hair nervously. "Could you, uh, leave for a few minutes so I can get dressed?"
"You ain't got nothin' I haven't seen before, Pudge. I have three older brothers."
Xander blushed. "Well, despite what you have or haven't seen, I'm not moving until you go out into the hall."
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, obviously exasperated at his refusal to allow her to witness his stripping down to his skivvies, but walked over to the door and let herself out. Not wanting a repeat of the night before, Xander followed her over and locked the door behind her.
"Seriously? You're locking it?" her muffled voice came through the door.
He ignored her and began to pull clothes from his dresser, trying to find the newest, biggest sizes. He chose a pair of roomy cargo pants and a short-sleeved blue button-down that had a bit of stretch to it. He quickly slipped out of his tight pajamas and, with a look of disgust, tossed them into his laundry basket. "I need to buy new pajamas," he muttered to himself as he stepped out of his boxers and threw them in the laundry basket, as well. "And new boxers." He caught a glimpse of the deep red line in his soft hip that the elastic of his undergarments had created. They shouldn't be that tight, he told himself, they're four exes. Yeah, but your new pants are fifty sixes, lardass. He sighed as he pulled a fresh pair of boxers on, feeling the waistband settle underneath the overhang of his huge belly and the fabric tighten over his ass. He wriggled into his pants and shirt without too much difficulty, and surveyed the results in the mirror. "Yup, you still look like a whale," he told himself.
Just then, Cee banged on the door. "Stop that!"
He jumped guiltily, then tore his gaze away from the mirror to grab his sneakers from their resting place by the door. He gingerly sat in his desk chair, not wanting to cause the whole thing to collapse, and pulled his shoes on. He then got to his feet and unlocked and opened the door.
Cee stood in the hallway, arms still crossed, glaring at him. "You need to stop that."
"Calling yourself names."
"No excuses," she told him. "It's terrible for your self esteem."
"What self esteem?" he muttered.
Cee let out an irritated noise. "Come on, let's go get you some brunch."
Xander let them out of his room and locked the door behind them. Cee bounded down the steps, all the while chattering away. "You really shouldn't put yourself down like that, Pudge," she told him. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with you just the way you are."
They made their way down the hill to Xander's car and got in. To avoid having Cee lecture him about self esteem any more, Xander turned the CD player on and dialed up the volume. His favorite band, Velvet Sky, pounded out of the speakers.
"This is pretty good, Pudge," Cee yelled over the thumping bass. "I like it."
"It's Velvet Sky," he replied.
"Ooh, cool name. I like it," she reaffirmed.
He pulled into the parking lot of the union building and just sat there for a few moments, trying to psych himself up to go inside. He knew that Sheriece was working the late shift today, so she wouldn't be there now to serve him breakfast. He wondered who would be there: Jason, the young pothead who'd never left his alma mater, or Sue, the miserable old woman who took great pleasure in yelling at her customers.
"What's wrong, Pudge?"
"Sheriece isn't here yet? That's no big deal. Do you want to wait?"
He sighed. "No, we can go in."
Xander hefted himself out of the car and made his way up to the front doors, Cee close at his heels. It looked like the counter was empty, and he experienced a moment of relief - it was probably Jason who was there this morning, in the back, trying to sleep off whatever partying he'd done the night before. Jason was rarely aware enough to give him a hard time about what he ordered.
Cee patted him on the arm and told him that she was going to go get some cereal and get them a seat. He just nodded as he stepped up to the counter, his stomach already grumbling in anticipation. But his excitement was dashed as a tall, thin woman with greying hair and a sour expression stepped into view.
She gave him a long, thorough look that he shrank under. "What'll it be?" she barked at him, practically daring him with her eyes to order his usual size breakfast.
"Um...four w-waffles...with cream cheese...and...three scrambled eggs..." he told her shyly.
She grimaced at him. "Digging his grave with a fork and knife," she muttered as she turned to begin preparing his food.
He blinked, shocked. He'd only ordered about a third of what he normally ate for breakfast, and she still thought that was too much?
It is too much, you freaking pig, he told himself. You shouldn't be having anything more than a bowl of cereal, if that.
He stood there awkwardly, his face burning red as he waited for his food. Finally, Sue emerged from the kitchen with two foam containers and dropped them on the counter in front of him. She wordlessly held out her hand for his card, and, fumbling a bit, he handed it to her. She swiped it, all the while muttering under her breath. "Disgusting, fat pig," he caught her mumble as she handed his card back to him. He swallowed hard and quickly gathered up his breakfast and left the food court.
Cee waved him over from a booth in the back corner of the seating area. She'd thoughtfully pushed the table all the way over to one side so he could fit at the booth, and was sitting on a chair that she'd pulled up to the end of the table. "Is this okay?"
He sighed a little. "Yeah. Thank you," he told her gratefully. He sat down and opened his containers, gazing at the food forlornly.
"That's all you're having?" she asked him, sounding concerned.
He didn't reply.
"Why didn't you get more? Who cares about that old bat?"
"I didn't want more."
"You're a terrible liar, Pudge, y'know that?"
"Would you stay out of my head?"
"You make it too easy."
"You just do," she told him, as if it should have been obvious.
He sighed heavily and dug into his eggs. He polished off his food in a matter of minutes and sat there, sipping his orange juice glumly.
"Why don't you go get some more?" Cee asked him as she slurped up the last of the milk in her bowl.
Xander just gave her a look.
"Seriously," she said. "You're still hungry. Do you want me to get it for you?"
"Knock it off," he told her. "That was more than enough for a normal person. I'm fine."
She gave him an exasperated look. "I thought you were done with this crap. Just eat what you're hungry for and stop trying to starve yourself, because you know that it doesn't work. All it does is make you miserable."
Xander blushed furiously. "Just...stop it, alright? I'm not going up there again to order what I really want and have her tell me what a pig I am."
"You're not a pig, and you know it. You're a human being."
He rolled his eyes in disgust. "I am a pig," he muttered viciously. "A huge, corpulent, repulsive pig."
Cee was silent for a moment. "Please don't talk about yourself like that," she said quietly a few seconds later.
"Why not?" he sighed. "It's true."
Cee exploded. "No, it's not," she insisted, pounding her fist into the table. "You are none of those things. Sure, you're bigger than the average guy, but that doesn't mean you're a horrible person. All it means is that you're big. And in addition to being big, you're also intelligent, sweet, caring, and handsome. Those are the things that matter. And what the hell is 'average,' anyway? Nobody's average. We're all messed up in one way or another. So stop putting yourself down, right now."
He just stared at her. Handsome? What the hell? he thought, genuinely confused. He'd never thought he was ugly, exactly, but handsome?
She stared back at him, a look of pure determination on her face as she willed him to believe her.
Somehow he couldn't brush off her seriousness. "Sorry," he said meekly.
"Don't apologize to me," she told him, "apologize to yourself. Now are you going to go get some more to eat?"
He gulped, but shook his head.
Cee sighed. "Fine. Let's get going; Darshan will be wondering where we are."
"Time out," Xander gasped, his chest and belly heaving with his need for air.
Darshan lowered his sword, which had been hurtling through the air towards Xander. "Again?"
"Yes...again." He swallowed hard to try to bring some moisture back into his throat, and failed. Wheezing and shaking with exertion, he lowered his sword and plopped down on the ground.
"You've got to learn to push through this, Xander," Darshan said. There wasn't a bead of sweat marring his visage, and he was breathing normally. Xander's shirt was soaked through, and he was so out of breath he could barely speak.
"I...don't...think...I'm...cut out...for this," he puffed, wiping the sweat off his face with the back of his hand.
"You're doing fine, Pudge," Cee said encouragingly from her perch on the low wall that surrounded the yard.
"Truly, you're doing better than I thought you would, if only you wouldn't take so many breaks," Darshan told him.
"I'm not...exactly...used to...regular...exercise," he quipped.
"I suppose that's true," Darshan said thoughtfully.
"Can I...have...something...to drink?"
"I'll get you some water," Cee said, popping up. She disappeared into the house.
Xander watched his breath puff into the air in a cloud of steam. They were in the spacious backyard of the house, and though the sky was grey overhead, no precipitation was falling. He sat on the cold ground, mentally begging the cool air to dry his skin. He was drenched in sweat and still quaking from the work of hauling his huge body around as Darshan came at him again and again. Though, as Darshan had said, he was doing better than he had expected. Though Darshan was fast and strong, Xander was stronger. He was able to swat away Darshan's blows with ease, though he wasn't always fast enough to catch them.
"Here you go," Cee said as she emerged from the house with a large glass of water.
"Thanks," he panted, and downed half the glass in one gulp. "Can we...be done?" he asked hopefully. They'd been at this for over two hours, and he was getting really hungry.
Darshan frowned. "One more time, as soon as you catch your breath. Then we'll take a break."
Xander just sat there for a few minutes, sipping the rest of his water and staring down at the ground. He wished that Cee hadn't insisted upon watching them. The way she stared at him as he jiggled about made him really nervous and embarrassed. It was bad enough to show Darshan how out of shape he was, but having Cee just sitting there, staring, for once silently, was unnerving and humiliating.
"Alright, that's long enough," Darshan piped up. "Up you get."
Xander reluctantly lugged himself to his feet and set the glass of water down on the picnic table, and picked up his sword. It was a heavy thing, the sword, silvery and sharp with a scrolling design etched in its handle. Xander had thought that they would practice with fake wooden swords first, but Darshan had insisted upon using the real thing so that Xander could get the feel of the weight of it. At first, Xander had been terrified that Darshan was going to slice him open, but the level of control he displayed was remarkable, stopping inches from Xander's body.
Darshan came at him again with no warning, and Xander raised his sword in front of him to fend off a blow. Xander whipped Darshan's blade away. Darshan countered with a stab, which Xander missed. The point of Darshan's sword came at his round belly and Xander instinctively sucked in. Xander parried the move with a sweeping motion, stepping backwards out of the range of the blade. He stumbled over his own feet and flew back, landing with a heavy thump on his backside.
"Crap," he muttered. That was the fourth time he'd fallen on his ass.
Darshan sighed, obviously disappointed. "Alright, we can take a break."
Cee ran over to him. "Good thing you've got all that padding," she told him cheerfully as she held out a hand to help him up.
He ignored her proffered hand and lumbered to his feet, still gasping.
Cee immediately started chattering as they made their way into the house. "You're doing really well, you know, Pudge. None of us can just whack Darshan's blows out of the way like that. You're really strong."
Xander just stayed silent, wishing firstly that his breathing would calm down, and secondly that he had something to eat.
"Oh, you're hungry?" she asked him innocently.
"No," he growled quietly, not wanting Darshan to hear that the big fatty was already hungry.
"Yes, you are," Cee insisted. "We don't really have much here, but maybe we can run out and get you something."
"You're hungry?" Darshan asked, making a bit of a face. "Didn't you just eat breakfast?"
"He couldn't get as much as he wanted because the lady who was working was a bitch," Cee explained.
Xander mentally buried his face in his hands.
"Oh, uh, well, I suppose you can go get something," Darshan conceded. "Just don't be gone too long."
"I'll be right back," Xander promised. He made his way to the front door and stepped back outside. He then realized that Cee was following him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm coming with you. You're not supposed to be alone, remember?"
He looked at her with distress. "You don't really have to come, do you?" He'd been looking forward to going to a drive-thru and ordering as much as he wanted and stuffing his face in the car with no one there to make him feel guilty.
"I want to come," she said simply.
Xander sighed, but unlocked his car and let her get in.
Five minutes later they were sitting in the drive-thru of his favorite fast food place, a locally-owned joint that had the most amazing fried cheese, burgers, and chicken sandwiches. "I'd like five cheeseburgers with everything, four chicken sandwiches with ranch, three large fries, a large coke, and six orders of fried cheese. Do you want anything?" he asked, turning to Cee.
"Nah, not hungry, I just ate, remember?"
Blushing, he turned back to the speaker and told the server that that would be all. He gave him his total and told him to pull around to the window. This was Xander's least favorite part. He came here so often that many of the servers knew him, and knew that everything he was ordering was all for him. Most of them let him go with just an odd look, but some of them made comments about the size of his order. He prayed that today he'd get by with just a disgusted look.
"Thirty-one fifty is your total," the guy at the window told him. Xander handed over his bank card, trying to not look at the guy, who looked familiar. He handed his card back to him, followed by a large bag of food. "You enjoy that!" the guy told him, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Uh, thanks," Xander said as he took the food and his drink. He handed the bag to Cee to hold and quickly pulled into a parking space.
"Why are we stopping?"
"So I can eat."
"Why don't you eat back at the house?"
"Because I'd rather not show Darshan what a garbage disposal I am."
"Stop it right now," she said sternly.
"Look, I just don't want to stuff my face in front of them, okay? You, unfortunately, have already seen me eat, so it's not going to be a big surprise when I devour everything in this bag. I just don't want them to say anything."
"Why would they say anything?" she asked him, her brow furrowed.
"Because...it's not normal," he explained, "to eat this much."
"It's normal for you."
"Yeah, and that's why I weigh as much as three people put together," he told her in an exasperated tone as he unwrapped his first burger. "That is not normal."
Cee just sighed. "You know, you can't go through life just being afraid of things people might do or say."
"But I can try my best to avoid getting humiliated," he muttered, then shoved half his burger into his mouth.
They ended up going through the drive-thru again so that Xander could get another three orders of fried cheese for the drive back to the house. When they finally pulled into the driveway and Xander popped the last morsel of cheese into his mouth, he sighed contentedly, almost forgetting that Cee was there with him.
"Feeling better?" she asked him as she unbuckled her seatbelt.
"Um, yeah." He felt stuffed to the brim, and he loved it. He gave the side of his belly a little rub, feeling the resistance beneath the softness that meant he was packed full of delicious food. The way you've been eating, that little voice said, you've got to be close to four hundred. But you just keep stuffing yourself. He felt himself blush guiltily as he undid his own seatbelt and hefted himself out of the car. His full gut sloshed pleasantly as he moved, and he found himself wishing he had some more fried cheese. Come on, you just had nine orders of it, he told himself as they ascended the steps to the house. Isn't that a little excessive?
Cee let them in, and they found Darshan waiting for them in the kitchen, finishing a small salad. "Ah, you're back. Good." He bit into his last forkful of lettuce and took his bowl to the sink. "We'll continue with swords, and then, depending on how well that goes, work on archery for a bit."
Xander's mood sank. He'd been hoping that they would be done with his training for the day, but it sounded like Darshan was just getting started. He and Cee followed Darshan back out into the yard, where the swords were waiting for them on the picnic table.
"Alright," Darshan said. "Let's go." He picked up his sword and rushed at Xander, barely giving him time to grab his own weapon. Xander blocked his attack at the last possible second, and tried one of his own, which Darshan dodged easily. They went back and forth, Darshan increasing the intensity of his attacks as Xander got worn out. His entire body was jiggling madly, the sensation amplified by his fullness. At first, it felt incredible: his body felt gigantic, and softer than it ever had in his frantic movements. But as he had to work harder and harder to fend off Darshan's blows, a queasiness began to invade his stomach.
"Stop!" he finally called.
"What is it now?" Darshan asked.
"I don't...feel...so good," he told him, clutching his belly.
"What's wrong, Pudge?" Cee asked.
"I just...don't..." He staggered over to the corner of the yard and vomited once, his stomach heaving.
"Oh, Pudge." Cee was suddenly at his side, rubbing his back. He swatted her away. He was mortified. How had he not expected this? What did he think would happen when he stuffed himself silly and then tried to do the equivalent of running a marathon?
He heard Darshan sigh, and say darkly, "In the future, you might want to watch how much you eat before a training session."
"Sorry," he muttered.
"Come on, let's go get Ling to fix you something to settle your stomach," Cee cooed at him, taking his hand and leading him inside.
Xander saw Darshan shoot them a look as they passed, and he repeated his apology. Darshan just shook his head.
Inside, Cee called up the stairs for Ling, who emerged from a room at the top of the stairs almost immediately. "What's wrong?"
"Pudge has got an upset tummy," Cee explained. "He just threw up."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Xander. I can make a tea that will settle your stomach, if you'd like?" she asked as she floated down the stairs.
"Come sit in the kitchen while I brew it up for you. What caused your nausea?"
"I...um..." he sputtered.
Darshan spoke from the doorway. "He ate too much and then tried to do swordplay."
"Ah. An easy enough fix."
They followed her into the kitchen, where she busied herself by putting the kettle on and pulling several jars of herbs out of a cabinet. Xander stood awkwardly by the counter, having already determined that he was too heavy for the kitchen chairs. She carefully measured each herb into a mortar and began crushing them together with a pestle. She poured the mixture into a little mesh tea ball and placed it in a big blue mug and, when the kettle began to whistle, poured the boiling water into it.
"Now this needs to steep for a few minutes. Have a seat, Xander."
"I..." he trailed off, not wanting to admit that he'd break their chairs.
"Let's go into the living room," Cee suggested with a knowing look at Xander. "The couch will be more comfortable."
He followed her into the living room and gingerly lowered himself onto the dark green velvet couch, as much to assure himself he wouldn't break it as to keep his stomach from churning.
Cee hovered over him anxiously. "Can I get you anything? Do you want to put your feet up?"
He gave her a strange look. "No, I'm okay," he lied. In truth, his insides were heaving with every breath he took. He lightly clutched his belly, and heard a sharp intake of breath from Cee. He looked at her. She was staring at his gut, her eyes slightly widened. Xander swallowed hard and grabbed a throw pillow and covered himself with it as best as he could. Great, that's all I need, he thought bitterly, her staring at my disgusting gut.
"Here you go, Xander," Ling said as she walked into the living room, holding the steaming blue mug. She handed it to him - it smelled incredible - and he took a tentative sip. Thankfully, it tasted amazing, as well. He caught hints of spearmint and ginger, and other herbs that he couldn't identify, and he could literally feel it calming his upset stomach. He happily sipped away at it as Ling sat down across from him.
"Is that alright?" Ling asked him.
"Yes, it's really good, thank you. I can feel it working already," Xander told her.
She smiled at him. "Good. I do apologize, someone should have warned you about Darshan's training sessions. They're pretty intense."
"Yeah, intense is a word for it..."
"I thought he'd go easy on him," Cee confessed quietly, so Darshan, who was still in the kitchen, wouldn't hear. She was still standing next to Xander, her arms crossed and a moody expression on her face. "I would have. He's never even held a sword before."
Ling crossed her legs and leaned back into the rose-colored armchair. "Darshan doesn't believe in going easy on anyone, when it comes to training. It sounded like things were going well before your unfortunate sickness, though."
Cee brightened. "He's a natural," she said eagerly. "And he's really strong."
"That's good to hear," Ling replied. "It will be helpful when you're capable of defending yourself, especially in the times to come."
"Oh!" Cee exclaimed. "The prophecy - you should tell him."
"Yes, he certainly does have the right to know," Ling said. "You must understand, Xander, that we had no idea what this meant until we heard about your unusual talent.
The gateway soon overrun
With scores of risen demonkin
Crowding, blinding, black'ning the sun
Shall join to let the Old Ones in
Led by the leader who is not
The Damned will walk by light of day
But one whose senses rightly ought
To seek them out in air's fair way
Shall be the drop on moth's pale wing
The source of Light's bright vict'ry
A man, a son, of thee we sing
The first, the one, in hist'ry."
Ling stopped reciting and folded her hands in her lap.
Xander just stared at her, a puzzled expression on his face. "Okay, so I get the whole 'demons are going to overrun the earth' part..."
"Yes, the first part is fairly transparent. Demons shall overrun the gateway between their world and ours, and will join together to let in the Old Ones, the three Old Gods. 'The leader who is not' is Megaera, the Mother of the Damned. She will be the driving force behind the invasion. It's the next part that had us stumped," she admitted. "'But one whose senses rightly ought to seek them out in air's fair way' just didn't make any sense, until we met you. 'Air's fair way' is scent, the sense of smell. You are the first one that we know of with your particular talent. You are the one who will tip things in our favor," she told him. "The 'drop on moth's pale wing' that stops it from flying."
Cee gazed at him, a triumphant expression on her face. "See, Pudge? I told you you were important."
"This..." Xander began. "This is kind of ridiculous. I'm just...I'm just me. Who made this prophecy, anyway?"
"No one knows. The prophecies have been passed down since there have been demon hunters," Ling said, shrugging.
"There are more?"
"One of them even says that your child will save the world," Cee told him smugly.
"Bullshit." he shifted uncomfortably on the couch and set his empty mug down on the coffee table. "Look, don't you think this is just a little...implausible?"
"You've been followed and attacked by demons, Xander. How is a prophecy any less plausible?"
He was speechless, at that.
"We don't have it bad here, yet, but in the city, the number of attacks and sightings have been steadily increasing over the past few years. More and more demons are coming through. Other things in the prophecies match up. The time is now," Cee said insistently. "And now we have you. I don't know how or why, but you are going to help us win, maybe even close up the gateway for good and stop more demons from ever coming through to our world."
They were all silent for a few moments. Xander rubbed his eyes with his fingers, trying to preemptively strike at the headache he was afraid would develop at the influx of stressful information.
"Well," Darshan said from the kitchen doorway. "Now that you know how much we need you, are you ready to devote a little more effort to your training?"