First, a plea for computer help:
Crap. I'm having massive, massive computer problems that suggest some kind of virus that's eating my computer's memory. Too many Windows open makes it impossible for me to save work or keep programs open because the computer is having a difficult time writing to disc. Something also shut down my Norton GoBack (handy tool) which saved my butt when this happened once before, so I can't restore back to a few days ago.
Needless to say, none of my virus or software fix-it tools can find anything. Any attempt to use them causes the computer to go batshit. *snarl*
I may have to call in professional help to fix this because it's getting harder and harder to work on anything. *crap, crap, crap*
I don't want to complete wipe my harddrive because, at this point, I've got too many music files and too many story files to comfortably do it.
My options are Staples or Best Buy tech services. If anyone has any other options I can try, please advise.
Now, story time:
People might be a little upset with the reasons why Xander is the one in Rome instead of a courier, but it isn't quite as bad as it sounds. It's not good, but it doesn't make him look quite as bad as this part does.
Previous part here.
Allarek tapped an impatient foot while D’Hoffryn considered her proposal. Jeannekana, D’Hoffryn’s current favorite, looked like she wanted to be anywhere but here. Allarek wanted to laugh at her for her superstition, but managed to keep her amusement to nothing more than a superior smirk.
“You are asking for quite a lot of leeway,” D’Hoffryn commented.
Allarek tried not to roll her eyes. There were glaciers succumbing to global warming that were more flexible than the boss.
D’Hoffryn hadn’t always been like this. He was more often than not open to some innovation, provided it passed his version of within reason. Granted, what she was asking required a little bit more flexibility than normal, but she figured that for this mission D’Hoffryn would’ve jumped at her plan. Everyone knew he was getting desperate. If this didn’t work, he’d have to make a Declaration.
And that meant disaster.
The other vengeance demons whispered—safely out of D’Hoffryn’s hearing, of course—that the boss was losing it. When Anyanka left him for good, he’d been murderously angry with his wayward favorite, even going so far as to go back on his word to let her live and die on the Hellmouth with no interference from him. When Anyanka died as a human, fighting the forces of darkness no less, he’d become obsessed.
In the past 14 months, a dozen vengeance demons had been sacrificed to that obsession.
Now, D’Hoffryn’s back was up against the wall. If this failed, he’d lose face in front of the Big Boys in the lower depths. He’d be forced to make the Declaration and he’d lose his position. All the vengeance demons would be reassigned to new demon clans and their bodies and powers reshaped to ease integration into those clans. They were faced with nothing less than the end of all vengeance demons if this didn’t work. No one wanted that.
The killer was that if D’Hoffryn had left well enough alone, they wouldn’t be in this mess.
Allarek was the last, best hope for D’Hoffryn and all of vengeance demon kind. She was the Chosen One who’d take down the Monster, the Death of Vengeance Demons, Justice’s Shadow, the Man-With-His-Thumb-On-The-Scales-Of-Righ
Or, as some of the vengeance demons called “the Monster” when they were pretty sure neither he nor D’Hoffryn could hear them: the Guy-With-A-Horseshoe-Shoved-Up-His-Ass.
All these ways to avoid saying the guy’s name just got on Allarek’s nerves. However, the other vengeance demons swore up and down that if you said his name, you’d attract his attention and he’d cross your path. No vengeance demon had ever survived the experience. You may survive for a little while, years even, but he’d get you in the end. He was always involved at the very end of a vengeance demon’s run.
Allarek believed the stories were superstitious horseshit. One day it got to be too much and she started screaming his name at the top of her lungs at the two other vengeance demons sitting with her. Their eyes got wide and they teleported away from her like she’d just thrown a Slayer at them.
The fact that Selinnica lost her pendant and was immediately squashed by a falling piano the very moment Allarek uttered his name only served to increase the vengeance demons’ fear of him and D’Hoffryn’s nervousness. It was this incident in question that made He-Who-Enjoys-Running-Over-Helpless-Demo
Something had to be done.
She’d only been a vengeance demon for a century. She hadn’t really made her mark, nor had D’Hoffryn singled her out as having the real stuff. But when D’Hoffryn asked for a volunteer to undertake this last desperate attempt, she stepped forward. The vengeance demons who weren’t busy looking everywhere but at D’Hoffryn stared at her like she was insane.
Allarek saw it as her big chance. She would catapult into the real power center of the clan and, if she were clever and careful, she could even manage to overthrow D’Hoffryn and seize leadership. After all, she would’ve killed He-Who-Eats-Raw-Pixies-With-Ketchup-And-A-S
But that was in the future. She just had to pass this test and remove the oogey-boogey man like the stain he was from the face of the earth.
After careful planning and judicious scouting of the terrain, she had a plan. She just needed the rules loosened ever so slightly.
“Three wishes? Three?” D’Hoffryn repeated as if his hearing had failed.
“All genies grant three wishes,” Allarek said demurely.
D’Hoffryn tapped his long fingernails against his chin. “Best not let the Jinn hear you say that. They still haven’t recovered from the Barbara Eden years.”
“The problem is that we’ve been going up against him directly as vengeance demons,” Allarek argued. “What we need is to use a little honey and feed it to someone willing to swallow it.”
“And you’re certain this Andrew is the key?” D’Hoffryn said.
Allarek nodded. “He’s in the same city. In fact, I’ve been following Alex—”
“Ah-ah-ah,” Jeannekana warned.
“I was gong to say, He-Who-Shreds-Us-Like-We’re-Birds-Trappe
“Better,” Jeannekana sniffed.
“I’ve been watching him and he’s in the same city even as we speak,” Allarek said. “I knew he’d end up there eventually. He’s got a strong emotional connection there. So, looks like me cozying up to Andrew wasn’t such a waste of time after all,” here she grinned at the glowering Jeannekana, “even though some little demons said I was going about this all wrong.”
D’Hoffryn seemed lost in thought.
“Boss, I need a little wiggle room,” Allarek argued. “Andrew knows what vengeance demons are. If I say I am one he won’t bite. If I play by the normal rules, he’ll figure it out, and he still won’t bite.”
“And three wishes is outside the rules, but not outside the realm of the possible,” D’Hoffryn said almost to himself. With a snap of his great head, he decided. “Done.”
Truvaka materialized in front of D’Hoffryn. She had enough time to ask, “Boss?”
D’Hoffryn fixed his eyes on her and Truvaka screamed as she went up in flames. Jeannekana backed away as D’Hoffryn turned to her and then she, too, disappeared in flames as she screamed for him to choose someone else.
Allarek smiled as she felt their power of the wish transferred into her being.
When it was done, D’Hoffryn turned back to her. “First, we must set some ground rules for your plan. I don’t have to remind you that if you fail, the consequences for you will be dire.”
“Don’t worry, boss.” Allarek stared at her outstretched hands as she reveled in the boost to her power. “Alexander Harris isn’t going to bother you any more.”
“Don’t say his name!” D’Hoffryn yelled.
Allarek sighed. “Fine. He-Who-Rips-Out-Our-Hearts-And-Eats-Them-I
The moment Kennedy’s head hit the pillow she was out like a light. The emotional toll of losing everything, up to and including Willow, coupled with her sudden departure from Rio, had caught up with her and she lost herself in the darkness behind her eyes.
When she woke, the dusky sunlight was slanting through the open window and the cooler night air was beckoning.
A little walk around the neighborhood seemed just the ticket.
She hauled out of bed and tiptoed up to the door to listen. She heard the sounds of chopping, a language tape, and Andrew’s voice clumsily repeating the Italian and English sentences. Kennedy shook her head. His language skills were worse than hers.
She didn’t hear any sign that anyone else was in the apartment.
Kennedy felt a mix of relief and anger. On the one hand, Buffy knew she was coming, but still couldn’t be bothered to show or leave so much as a note. On the other, she didn’t have to deal with Buffy.
She rummaged around her suitcases for fresh clothes and her wallet full of Euros she got at the airport currency exchange. Much as she wanted a shower, she wanted to get out of the apartment more. Sneaking by Andrew would be a piece of cake.
She quietly dressed and cracked open the bedroom door.
Andrew was busy out of sight, no doubt chopping, stirring, and sniffing what he was cooking as he continued talking along with the language tape. He was so distracted that Kennedy had no problems getting by the dragon in the kitchen and reaching the apartment door. She eased herself out into the stairwell and quietly closed the door behind her. She waited ten beats and listened intently for any sign that Andrew might have heard her.
When there was no outcry, she let out a breath, and smiled.
She’d take a spin around the block, maybe hit up some sidewalk café, and do some quality people watching.
If she worked it right, she might be able go the whole week without dealing with Buffy at all.
Buffy pulled into a parking spot on a side street and cut the motor. As Xander reached to open the door, Buffy said, “Wait.”
Xander turned to her and she was struck once again by how exhausted he looked. He had almost a week’s growth of beard and his hair was in desperate need of several washes and a hot oil treatment. His clothes were filthy and he stank of dirt, sweat, and desperation. Even the eye patch seemed to be wilting with the desire to find a safe place so he could collapse.
“I don’t actually live here,” Buffy explained. “I actually live a few blocks away, but we need to talk.”
“Giles told me last month when he sent me to find the Thorn.” Buffy wasn’t sure if she imagined the hint of accusation in Xander’s voice. “So I’ve got the scoop.”
“Sit closer,” Buffy ordered.
Xander winced. “Buff, it’s not going to be pleasant. I can smell me right now.”
Buffy had to remind herself that Xander may now know her situation, but he still didn’t understand it. “I’ve got a rep to uphold,” she patiently explained. “We have to get closer together and make it look like we’re in the middle of a serious smooching session.”
Xander looked nervously around.
“People aren’t going to care, Xand.” Buffy fought to maintain her patient voice. “This is Rome. Smooching in public is like a societal must. Besides, the sun’s setting. It’s practically the law that everyone starts smooching right around now.”
Xander shifted closer, although his body language screamed that his muscles were too tired for even that much. Buffy met him halfway and soon they were nose-to-chest. Xander’s beard growth prickled against her forehead in a way that, she had to guiltily admit, was thrillingly unfamiliar.
“You haven’t said much,” Buffy said as loud as she dared.
“It’s been a long trip,” Xander rumbled back in an equally low voice. His chin slipped away from her forehead and he slouched against the seat so that his mouth was a little closer to her ear. When Buffy looked at him with worry, he answered her with a weak grin. “You really don’t need to stick your nose in my shirt, Buff. I’m not that mean.”
“I’ve smelled worse,” Buffy lightly said.
“In a sewer, maybe.”
“So, how come Giles didn’t tell me you were the courier?” Buffy asked.
Xander winced. “I’m not supposed to be. The courier’s dead.”
“What happened?” She quickly scanned the streetscape before adding in a lower voice. “Wolfram & Hart?”
“No. My luck at work,” Xander answered shortly. “I had leave Ethiopia anyway because I thought it was happening again, so I just decided to take Thorn to you myself. Maybe leaving Africa will—” He seemed to suddenly realize what he was saying and he stopped.
“Leaving Africa will what?” Buffy prompted.
“It’s nothing,” Xander said. “Forget it.”
“No. I’m not. Xand, in case you missed it, Rome is dangerous territory right now, especially after the crap Angel pulled two months ago in taking down the Circle of the Black Thorn and throwing Wolfram & Hart on the defensive. If you’ve got a problem that might follow you from Africa, I need to know.”
Xander closed his eye and breathed heavily. Buffy was so sure he’d fallen asleep on her that she gave him a poke.
“I’m awake,” he sullenly said. After a pause, he added. “I think I’ve been cursed.”
“What?” Buffy asked sharply.
“I haven’t been able to stay in one place too long lately,” Xander said with the air of a man who was at the end of his rope. “Every time I do, bad things happen. To people I know. To complete strangers. I can’t stop moving or—”
“What bad things?” Buffy interrupted.
Xander’s eye darted around the streetscape, like he half expected that whatever had happened in the past was going to happen again. “People are dropping dead all around me. A village that put me up at the beginning collapsed into a crater with no explanation or warning and there were no survivors either. This one guy exploded into chunks of meat while we were talking in an outdoor market. A family disappeared into thin air and the freaky part is that no one remembered them, not their relatives, neighbors, or friends. I’ve seen people literally turned inside out, catch on fire when there are no open flames around, or collapse into heaps of jelly. In some cases, people have suddenly turned into monsters right in front of my eyes and I have to kill them before they start killing other people. One of my translators…” Xander swallowed hard, “One second I was giving him instructions, the next his mouth and nose disappeared and he suffocated to death before I could get help. I don’t know what’s causing it, but the only thing everything has in common is that I’m standing right there when it happens. The only good thing about all this is no Slayer has died from weirdness yet, but it’s a matter of time and the longer I stay in Africa, the more likely it’s going to happen.”
And you came here? Buffy wanted to scream. Whatever it is that’s hunting you may have followed you to Rome? What the hell were you thinking?
As she fought to keep the accusation from reaching her lips, Xander obliged by answering her silent questions.
“Buff, believe me. I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice, but I really didn’t,” Xander said. “At least the courier died of natural causes instead of some supernatural thing. Gunshot wound to the head. It was a case of someone who believed in the redistribution of wealth, namely, the courier had wealth and should give it to a mugger. The plane was leaving in hours and Giles said the Thorn had to get to you right away. I didn’t have time to find someone else.”
Buffy decided. Xander was just going to have to get on the next plane out for London. Given the situation he described, he probably should take the Thorn with him. The last thing she wanted was anything Xander-related anywhere near her in case the curse was catchy. If it was, if her cover was blown, Wolfram & Hart would be put on notice that the Council was watching them even more closely than the Senior Partners ever suspected.
She looked up into Xander’s face to tell him about the change of plans and stopped. He looked so haunted, so desperate, that she lost all her resolve. She could see that Xander was on the verge of breaking apart and was only holding things together on a prayer and a hope.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone this was going on?” Buffy asked. “Because I know if you said something—”
“Pride,” Xander admitted with something that sounded like a half-sob. “At first I just thought it was a coincidence and didn’t think much about it. By the time I figured out that maybe I was black cat, I didn’t go to Giles because I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want him thinking I couldn’t handle my job.”
“Oh, Xander,” Buffy whispered.
“So I was trying to track down the source of my trouble, but I wasn’t getting anywhere and people kept dying all around me.” Xander bit his lip. “I was going to tell Giles. Really. I swear I was about to tell Giles when this whole Ethiopian Thorn thing came up. That’s when he told me your sitch and that it had to be found because you needed it for added protection. I figured I’d just find it, send it to you, and then tell Giles. Then this thing with the courier happened and I panicked.”
“How many people?” Buffy asked.
“How many people have died connected to this black cat thing of yours?” Buffy asked.
Xander’s face was a mask of tragedy as his eye restlessly scanned the street. “I’ve lost count.”
Buffy leaned her head against Xander’s chest and fought the urge to cry. She suspected that he hadn’t lost count, but was too terrified to say the number out loud.
The smart thing to do would be to grab the Thorn, potential curse or no, turn right around, and shove Xander on a plane to London. It would be safer for him and a whole lot safer for her and Andrew. She just couldn’t find it in her to do it, mostly because she understood what it was like to be constantly looking over her shoulder waiting for the blade to fall and how much of a toll it took on the mental health. Besides, Xander obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, because if he were he wouldn’t even be here.
Buffy huffed a breath and decided. “Okay, you’re staying for at least two days—”
“Buff,” Xander began the half-hearted protest.
“Don’t ‘Buff’ me,” she said firmly. “You’re in no condition to go anywhere and I need someone to tell me how to activate the Thorn. You do know how, right?”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded. “Yeah, I do. The monks told me how.”
“See?” Buffy could feel that her smile was just a little too close to the Buffy-bot’s. “So you have to stick around. Besides, if you try to leave in your condition, Andrew could stop you. You’re almost in dropping dead territory, and I should know about dropping dead, right? Give yourself a couple of days to regroup and then we’ll send you on to London. No harm, no foul. If anyone asks, you stopped for a visit, we had a little fling, then you found out that I was leading the life of a ho, and you left after a big dramatic scene. I bet we can even get Andrew to make up an epic story about our fight and everything. It’ll be all through the demon underground before you step off the plane in London.”
Buffy could see Xander fighting against weary relief. “You’ve got all the answers, hunh?”
“I’ve totally got you covered.”
“Aren’t you afraid that someone might question why you and me would be doing the ugly?” Xander asked as he resettled himself further away from her.
“Haven’t you heard?” Buffy bitterly asked. “I spread my legs for everyone, regardless of the side they’re on. Humanity is totally optional. So are souls.”
“Ouch,” Xander whispered. “I thought I had it bad.”
Buffy turned the key and again fought the urge to cry, this time for herself. “I just lie back and think of England. Oh, and with a little prompting I get some pillow talk. Not much else I can do.”
“Well, I think what you’re doing is very brave. I couldn’t do it.” Xander huffed a laugh that definitely had a sense of relief in it. “Not that anyone would want me.”
Buffy threw the car into gear.
“So, aside from Giles, Wills, and Andrew, who else knows?” Xander asked.
“No one,” Buffy said. “Well, unless Andrew told Kennedy.”
“Why the hell would Andrew tell Kennedy anything?” Xander asked.
“Oh, crap. I almost forgot. Kennedy’s at the apartment, too.”
“What in the name of Zeus is Kennedy doing in Rome?”
“You haven’t heard,” Buffy deadpanned.
“Haven’t heard what?”
“Willow and Kennedy broke up,” Buffy said. “Some idiot lower on the Council food chain decided to send Kennedy here for a week before she heads off to Prague for a little ‘vacation with the party girl.’ Giles was livid, but by the time he found out the expedited visa thing-y was in motion, so Willow was supposed to tell her. Willow couldn’t get to her, so Kennedy’s clueless about the deal. I told Andrew to make sure Kennedy knew before I got home.”
Xander said after a beat, “That conversation will go over well.”