It'll be interesting to see how long it takes for my computer to act up tonight. So far, my little data-eating bug has given my Word files a miss (they're all back up anyway), but I suspect that running on the Internet will be an impossibility within the hour.
Sorry for going all dark on you guys until this is fixed.
Continued from Part 3.
Xander didn’t care that he probably had spent hours under the shower’s almost-too-hot-to-stand spray as he repeatedly scrubbed every inch of his body. The dirt, the sweat, and the smell he could wash away. The blood he thought sure was on his head could not so easily be sloughed off.
It took a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, and several of Andrew’s razor blades for him to feel something approaching human.
He studied his face—sans eye patch—in the mirror and critically looked at his face. Despite his exhaustion, he didn’t cut himself up too badly. There was a little nick along his right cheekbone, another under his left ear, and a stinging one hidden by his chin. The skin on his face complained about his rough treatment as he rinsed Andrew’s razor under the water.
Kazzy was number 247.
Kazemde Ibrihim Abbas—aka “Kazzy” because Xander always made a hash of his name—was Xander’s best friend and right-hand guy in Africa. He was the last in a long line of deaths that had dogged Xander’s footsteps as he traipsed around Africa.
As Xander watched the water swirl down the drain, he knew that if Kazzy were here he’d be getting ‘the fatherly speech:’ the one that started with, “Alexander, you’re chasing after shadows with a knife,” and ended with, “So we’ll hear no more about how you killed those people.”
How did Kazzy get shot? How? Xander’s mind kept worrying at it. In his former life as a member of Egypt’s diplomatic corps, Kazzy had developed a finely tuned sense of danger. He was not the kind of guy who’d get mugged, shot in the head, and his corpse left like garbage on the streets of Addis Ababa.
You know how. You know why, the thought accused.
Because Kazzy trusted him. Because Kazzy was a true believer. Because Kazzy was convinced that Xander was nothing less than a force for good. Because Coptic Christian Kazzy believed his priest when the priest said that Xander was blessed and on a holy mission to preserve mankind. Because Kazzy up and quit his high-level, semi-retirement desk job in Cairo to follow Xander around Africa like he was a Deadhead and Xander was Jerry Garcia reincarnated.
That’s how and why Kazzy died.
The village that got eaten by the ground had 219 people.
That happened eight months ago, six months into his grand African adventure. He’d been doing so well up to that point and then suddenly…
It suddenly occurred to him that the senseless, inexplicable, violent deaths around him might have a connection to him. Before then, he hadn’t really thought about the rising tide of blood. He, along with Kazzy, had put it down to a lot of things. Magic or demonic forces may have been at work. Someone crossed the wrong someone and was the victim of revenge. Some of the seemingly magical attacks could be attributed to mundane causes.
It was that ol’ Sunnydale blindness at work, although this time in reverse. He grew up around senseless, inexplicable, violent death. That was his norm, for chrissakes. While the open and public nature of the attacks raised the eyebrows of some people, it didn’t even so much as turn a hair on his head. He was used to things like this happening in broad daylight or in front of witnesses.
In his mind, such things happened as a matter of course.
He had looked into the deaths as much as he was able, even before he started thinking he might be the cause instead of the innocent bystander. He never found anything and never uncovered any clue as to what happened, why it happened, or how.
He had no idea, had no reason to believe, that he was the eye in this particular storm. For heaven’s sake, the first spiritual leader he came across in Africa—Kazzy’s priest, in fact—declared him a man who was truly blessed and insisted that everyone under his guidance get a chance to touch him for luck. He had witches, shamans, monks, priests, and magically inclined individuals by the score act in a similar manner all through his time in Africa.
No wonder it took him six months to even start looking at himself.
Kazzy—who could smell trouble and troublemakers half-a-country away—insisted that Xander was nuts for thinking it. He had pointed out, very forcefully as he always did, that Xander was more attuned to violence and the supernatural than most men. Therefore, Kazzy had said in his best teacher voice, Xander was merely observing reality, not creating it. To assume that Xander had such great power over life and death was nothing less than ego.
Kazzy’s assurances aside, Xander still consulted with every holy man and woman he could find to see if what he feared was true. They had all declared, every last one of them, that he was not cursed. He was, in their humble opinions, the most blessed and luckiest man to ever walk the face of the earth. In exchange for these assurances, all they asked was for a lock of hair, or a clipping from a toenail, a drop of blood, a urine sample, or a swatch of cloth from the clothes on his back, such was their belief that even this small piece of himself could provide powerful positive protection for them and theirs.
If only one had hesitated in making the pronouncement, if only one had said that his vague worries were grounded in reality, if Kazzy for a moment doubted his certainty, Xander would’ve called Giles immediately.
In the end, he let Kazzy and all those magically inclined and holy people convince him. If his fears were legitimate, they wouldn’t have clamored for just a tiniest physical piece of him. Some of them may be into questionable stuff, but all of them? Even the monks that guarded the Ethiopian Thorn? It just didn’t seem all that likely.
But when Xander’s translator literally lost the lower half of his face three months ago, Xander knew he should’ve trusted his gut. He could still see the horrified expression around the translator’s popped, bloodshot, and lifeless eyes as the U.N. medic paused over the corpse, uncertain what to do and too terrified to do anything. Even Kazzy was freaked, and he’d seen some pretty awful things since he planted himself in Xander’s jeep, refused to get out, and browbeat Xander into letting him come along as his advisor.
He should have called Giles right then and confessed everything. He knew it would have been the right thing to do. But how could he explain that it took him almost a year to finally figure it out? And how could he explain that he had suspicions even earlier than that, but chose instead to listen to a bushel load of strangers rather than turn to the Council because the strangers so earnestly told him what he wanted to hear?
So he decided to try and hunt the thing that was haunting him on his own. He put Kazzy in charge of day-to-day operations, sent a message out to his network that he wasn’t the safest guy to be around, and then he lit out for the bush. He backtracked along his trail; he pestered the magical people he’d consulted in the past; he did everything in his power to track down the cause of this curse, even though everyone—especially Kazzy when Xander would call him for updates on the network’s status and activities—insisted he was wrong.
The assurances at this point rang hollow and he didn’t dare stay in one place for too long for fear of witnessing yet another horrible death. He’d go days without food, sometimes even without sleep, to make sure he stayed separate from human company. He was going to find whatever killing the people around him and then he was going to kill it or die trying.
Then that family disappeared.
It was his fault. He gave in to exhaustion, hunger, and loneliness. They were so kind and so attentive to his sorry condition that he simply lacked the strength to leave.
They had been a large, prosperous clan with a lot of deep connections in the community. They had insisted that he stay for the night after he had consulted with the local shaman and simply refused to take no for an answer when he said he had to leave. When he woke up the next morning in their home, he was the only one there, which was strange because local etiquette dictated that his hosts keep him company for however long he stayed with them. When he questioned the other villagers about where the family went, not one person knew what he was talking about or even remembered the family had existed.
He knew then that he was well and truly beat. Ugly death was one thing, but this singular event convinced him that whatever was after him was turning up the pressure. From now on, he knew, it was only going to get worse for everyone around him.
He had his satellite phone in one hand and was ready to dial Giles’s number when Giles called him first. Before he could open his mouth, before he could utter “help,” Giles dumped information about Buffy’s real situation in Rome and what Angel and Spike did in L.A. on him. Then Giles charged him with finding the Ethiopian Thorn so Buffy would have additional magical protection for herself, Dawn, and Andrew. When Xander protested that he had a situation that might make the task difficult and that he really needed to get to England right away, Giles cut him off and insisted that Xander was the only one who could carry out the mission. He was the closest to the Thorn, he already had a network in place willing to help him, and he was the only one Giles could trust implicitly to carry out the delicate task in secret.
Despite his resolution, Xander found himself agreeing to find the Thorn. When he cut the connection he cursed a blue streak at himself for being weak, at the necessity of having to interact with people for extended periods of time, and at Giles for trusting him when maybe he shouldn’t.
Although Xander had expected the worst, nothing happened in his month-long search for the Thorn. Well, that’s not entirely true. Things did happen, as they always did when anyone searches for a powerful magical object that had been hidden away from human eyes for centuries, but there were no inexplicable, sudden, violent deaths among the people around him. Magically inclined people of his acquaintance continued to welcome him as if he were the second coming. Information easily fell into his lap and people were eager to help. Kazzy was ecstatic that Xander was back in what he viewed as Xander’s rightful place in the fight.
Then there was his crowning achievement: the monks who had carefully guarded the Thorn since its creation not only turned it over to him without debate, but treated him as an honored guest. The payment for their help was the usual: swatches of cloth from the clothes off his back.
His mistake was that he allowed himself to fall back into the belief that his presence at all these deaths was just a coincidence. He began to believe that he really wasn’t being hunted, haunted, or cursed and that he was jumping at shadows.
Then Kazzy was brutally murdered.
Again, his fault. He was so worried about Buffy’s situation, that it made perfect sense to give his most trusted friend the assignment to deliver the Thorn. Plus, Kazzy was literally Xander’s second eye, as well as the eyes in back of his head. He’d deliver the Thorn, observe the sitch with those all-seeing eyes and quick-thinking brain, and come back to give Xander full scoop.
Had Kazzy not fallen victim to the thing that was after Xander, the idea would’ve been perfect.
Xander stuck around just long enough to get the full story on Kazzy’s death and to send a message through his network that he and the Thorn were too hot and that everyone needed to stay away for their own safety. Then he ran.
He didn’t dare believe that Kazzy’s death was completely the result of a mugger. Something else had to be at work. Whatever was after him had been cruelly toying with him. It left him alone until he dropped his guard and then it struck down the one person who ever believed in him without reservations.
Xander’s hand closed around the heavy Coptic cross at his throat, a gift from Kazzy’s priest, and stared in the mirror. Under the harsh bathroom lights, he was forced to face his catastrophic failures. He should’ve said something to Giles as soon as got an inkling that he was doomed, regardless of what anyone said on the matter. He should’ve said something to Giles when he was convinced of it. He should’ve told Giles about his problem before agreeing to find the Thorn.
And he should’ve never come to Rome.
He could’ve found another courier to take Kazzy’s place, not that anyone could replace Kazzy where it counted. God knows he had enough connections at his fingertips that it wouldn’t have been that hard to get someone trustworthy to take the Thorn from him within the hour, but he was so panicked and desperate that the only clear thought he had in his head was that Buffy was the only one who could help.
The Roman situation was dicey. He knew that. He should leave right now. He knew that, too.
Fear had finally won out, however. He was afraid of leaving the apartment. He was afraid of staying. He was afraid something would happen. He was afraid something wouldn’t. He was afraid he’d make it to the Council. He was afraid he’d get himself killed before he reached safety. He was afraid of explaining how he got into this mess. He was afraid of staying silent about it for one second longer.
In short, contradictory impulses coupled with the physical state of near-collapse had paralyzed Xander’s mind. He was simply incapable of making any decision at all. If Kazzy were here right now, the ex-diplomat would’ve kicked his ass until Xander reasoned out a solution.
One night, he reasoned. I’ll stay one night, get some sleep, and then just walk out of here in the morning after showing Buffy how to trigger the Thorn.
He had no idea where he would actually go once he reached the airport. Disappearing and forcing whatever it was nipping at his heels to follow him into some wasteland where he could make his final stand seemed to be the best option for everyone. And if it killed him in the end, so what? While he really didn’t want to die, he just couldn’t seem to care about staying alive any more.
A knock on the door followed by Andrew’s voice startled him.
“We found some clean clothes in your size,” Andrew’s reedy voice floated through the bathroom door. “One of Buffy’s occasional guests left a stash behind.”
Xander shut off the water with a frown. “That’s, unh, convenient. I guess.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t actually expect to find anything since there aren’t a whole lot of…ummm, let’s just say this guy wanted to be more than occasional.” Andrew sounded embarrassed. “It didn’t work out. Anyway, the clothes are a little dressier than what you’re probably used to wearing, and they probably won’t fit exactly right, but they’re clean.”
“Dinner’s on in five,” Andrew quickly added. “I’ll just leave the clothes outside the door for when you’re ready.”
Buffy was hell-bent on getting some relax time. She was having dinner with Xander and Andrew, so she didn’t have to trowel on the make-up or wear a slightly too tight anything to impress. Okay, Kennedy was going to be eating with them, but she really didn’t care what Kennedy thought. She dove into her room and joyfully threw on a pair of sweats and a ratty t-shirt and tied her hair back into a ponytail.
She cast her reflection a pleased look. For the first time in months, she actually looked like a Buffy instead of a Barbie.
Despite the fact that Xander may have a curse on him, she decided that she was glad that she insisted he stay for a few days, even if it was for purely selfish reasons. It was nice to let her guard drop and since she had a male “guest,” she could beg off any and all invitations and social activities. She could pal around and not have to laugh at jokes she didn’t find in the least bit funny. She didn’t have to be more sophisticated than she was or pretend to not understand things when she really did.
Ahhhhh, honesty. How I’ve missed you!
Plus, with Xander around, she wouldn’t have to deal with Kennedy all by herself. Who knows? Maybe Kennedy would turn down the ’tude with two of Willow’s old buddies hanging around. Maybe she could convince Xander to stay the whole week to help keep a lid on Kennedy.
I can dream, Buffy sighed. Still, Kennedy did like Xander a whole lot better than her, by virtue of the fact that Xander did save her butt back in Sunnydale. And Xander did look like he needed to sleep for a week, so maybe it wasn’t a pipe dream after all.
She bounced out of her bedroom and paused in the living room to let the smell of Andrew’s latest culinary masterpiece wash over her. The dinning room table was already set and Andrew had gone all out with the best tablecloth, best china, best silverware, candles, and fresh-cut flowers in the Baccarat crystal vase. Buffy grinned. Andrew never went this all-out for one of her “private dinners” and all of her “soirees” involved catered help. Andrew must be as excited as she was to have a friendly, familiar face around.
And no, she was not talking about Kennedy.
Yup. There were times when she was really, really glad Andrew was here and times like this reminded her of that.
“You look very happy,” Andrew remarked as he brought a trivet to the table.
“It looks great, Andrew.”
“Sorry about putting the pots on the table,” Andrew immediately apologized. “I thought maybe something informal—”
Buffy wanted to laugh. “It’s perfect. I’ll go wake Kennedy.”
“Great.” Andrew tried to look happy, but failed miserably.
Buffy shook her head as she turned to go to Andrew’s bedroom. Like her, he probably would’ve been perfectly happy to let Kennedy sleep through dinner. Still, she was guest-ish and it was going to be awkward enough with her around. Besides, Buffy still needed to have that talk with her. Might as well rip the band-aid off sooner rather than later.
She knocked on the closed door and got no answer. She sighed. Kennedy was probably out like a light, but they had to have that talk. She knocked louder. Still no answer. Buffy gave the door three sharp raps, the loudest yet. Still no sense of movement behind the door. Buffy’s face scrunched in frustration. Kennedy may want to sulk, but they still needed to have that talk.
“Ready or not, I’m coming in,” Buffy announced as she opened the door.
One look at the bed and the open suitcases told her all she needed to know.
She spun out of the room and barreled into the living room, nearly running over Xander in the process. “Guys! Kennedy’s gone!”
“Gone?” Andrew yelped. “But I saw her go into my bedroom!”
Xander looked from the bedroom entrance to the kitchen entrance and asked the obvious question. “Could she have snuck out while you were busy?”
“I would have heard her!” Andrew hotly protested.
“Not if she were in Slayer stealth mode,” Buffy answered.
“But why would she do that?” Andrew asked. “She knew I was making dinner for us. She knew you were coming back!”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “I think she wanted to be avoid-y, which, totally no blame here.”
“Okay, everyone calm down a second,” Xander said. “I mean, how is this a bad thing? We get to have quiet dinner without a pissed-off Kennedy, which, like you, totally no blame here either. So, she decided to take off and get some air all by herself, maybe explore the city a little. It’s not like she took her stuff.” He paused. “Her stuff is still here, right?”
“Yes, it’s here,” Buffy responded. “And it is a problem if she’s out there with no clue about what’s going on.”
Xander wilted. “God I must be too tired for this. Slayage is a no-no in the city because people might start looking at you as the culprit.”
“Bingo,” Buffy said. “If she Slays, especially if she Slays one of the big players, and someone finds out she’s staying here—”
“We’re in big trouble,” Andrew finished on a slightly hysterical note.
Xander shot Buffy an irritated look. “So, do you believe me now?”
“Believe what?” Andrew asked.
“Nothing,” Xander and Buffy chorused.