Still not up to full speed, but I can at least work on the computer without things getting eaten. *kicks Firefox for being a bitch*
Xander had insisted on tagging along, even though he knew nothing about the city and, for whatever reason, she had agreed to it. She realized now that it was a mistake. She could’ve covered double the ground by now if she didn’t have Xander stumbling behind her. It served to kill any fuzzy feelings she felt about having Xander around and was enough to have her counting the hours until he’d be gone.
“Go home,” she snapped at him.
“You don’t have eyes in back of your head,” Xander said. He stumbled sidewise when one woman, who had obviously mistaken the street for a catwalk, bumped into him.
Buffy bit back the retort that at this point Xander was a hindrance she really didn’t need. Not in the search for Kennedy, and certainly not for her spying mission in Rome. She was so close to getting inside Wolfram & Hart that she didn’t want to blow it. She may be worried about a knife in the back, but she was more terrified that a loose Kennedy and Xander’s curse could flush a year of ‘proving’ her anti-Council street cred right down the toilet. She had worked too hard and had given up too much to get an in with the power center of the glitzy demon underworld in Rome. The fact that she could lose it all in a heartbeat over stupid series of miscommunications was almost too much to take.
However, the memory of Xander’s haggard, desperate look in the car was enough to stop her from going for the jugular. The only thing that kept her sane since she heard about Spike and Angel going down in L.A. was the fact that underneath the Slut-Buffy persona was a Real-Buffy waiting patiently to strike a blow for the good guys. Kicking Xander in the metaphorical balls would be like slapping Real-Buffy across the face.
Her cell rang out with ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and she yanked it out of the clip attached to her sweats. “Yes!” she barked.
“Unh, Buffy? I found Kennedy.”
Buffy could feel her tense muscles release. “Great! That’s great! Where are you?”
“Unh, she took off on me.”
“What?” Buffy screamed into the phone.
“Buff, people are staring,” Xander said behind her.
“Where are you?” Buffy demanded.
“I’m on Cappellari about a block from Campo De’ Fiori. I think she was heading that way when I last saw her,” Andrew said.
“Crap, crap, crap,” Buffy repeated. Kennedy just had to go trawling for demons in party central. Okay, not a shock that Kennedy was in that area since Buffy picked her apartment specifically because it was so close to party central, but given the crush of people, bars, clubs, restaurants, and cafés, they could search for her all night and still not find her.
Buffy had stupidly assumed that Kennedy would end up in Trastevere, since there were lots of twisty, narrow streets and enough of a nightlife to attract people and demons. Plus, it was in easy walking distance of her apartment. She figured Kennedy would start small since the Slayer didn’t know Rome at all, rather than go for the big game.
Looked like she guessed wrong. What’s more, she should’ve figured Kennedy would head for big hunting grounds. Rome’s eternal nightlife probably had a lot in common with Rio’s permanent party.
“Andrew, get over there right now and start looking,” Buffy barked in the phone.
“She won’t listen to me!” Andrew whined.
“Just find her! If you see her, don’t approach! Just call me. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Right after I knock out Mr. Deadweight and kick his useless butt into my apartment, Buffy mentally added.
“Going now,” Andrew said. Then his end went dead.
Buff flipped her cell shut, jammed it back into the clip, and turned to Xander. “You are not coming. You are going back to the apartment. You are too tired to help.”
“I’m probably the cause of this,” Xander said angrily. “I have to do something instead just stand there and watch someone get killed. Again.”
Buffy wanted to scream. She did not have time to argue with him. She had a crisis. If Kennedy killed the wrong demon, someone would start backtracking Kennedy’s trail. She couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m done letting you follow me,” Buffy said, barely managing to reign in her desire to throttle Xander. “You’ve got a choice. I leave you here to find your own way back to my apartment, or you can follow me back to my apartment as I run to meet Andrew.”
Xander glared at her with his one eye. He finally shook his head. “Some things never change.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, this is a surprise,” a male voice interrupted.
Buffy felt all the blood drain from her face. Oh, no. My night just got a whole lot worse.
“Does this concern you?” Xander snapped at the man standing behind her.
“Whenever I see a one-eyed brute abusing a dear, dear friend, it most certainly does,” the male voice said.
Xander actually stumbled back a step, as if the owner of the male voice had punched him in the gut.
“Hello, Michael,” Buffy said with resignation as she turned to face the music.
“Buffy, my dear,” Michael released his grip around the waist of his date—Buffy recognized her as an up-and-coming model—and came over to her. He gently placed his hands on either side of her face and kissed her on both her cheeks. As he stepped back, his eyes seemed to be dancing with amusement. “You are looking absolutely radiant this evening.”
Buffy ground her teeth. She knew she looked like crap on a stick. Michael was a master of the complimentary put-down. God knows she’d seen him use this tactic against people he considered beneath him during the two months she spent under his spell. This was the first time he’d done it to her.
Considering who he was, this was a very bad sign. She wished she could blame it on Andrew, Xander, or even Kennedy, but this problem was one she created. Rome may be even more dangerous than she thought.
“I must say, I’m not used to you looking quite so casual,” Michael continued. “I had heard that you had, shall we say, gone more informal since we parted company. It suits you.”
Xander shuffled up next to her so that he could watch her out of the peripheral vision of his one eye. Buffy was surprised Xander didn’t say anything, since he wasn’t exactly Mr. Tongue-in-Pocket. That’s when she realized that Xander could be watching her for clues about how he should respond. It was the first sign she had that Xander actually understood her general situation.
But this situation with Michael was a whole other shameful, embarrassing level.
“Your companion, on the other hand, has impeccable tastes,” Michael continued. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but are those my clothes?”
Buffy winced. She had hoped he wouldn’t notice or would just assume that Xander had a taste for the expensive, custom-made jobs. She should’ve known better. Michael always noticed how someone was dressed. There was no point in lying about the source of the clothes now that Michael had made the comment. He’d just use it against them.
“My friend just came in from…from…elsewhere and his luggage got lost. He’s just borrowing them,” Buffy said. “I keep meaning to ship your things back to you. As soon as my friend leaves, I’ll get Andrew right on that.”
“I’m surprised that your companion is not being treated to one of your famous private dinners,” Michael said.
Xander still remained quiet. If he was surprised that Buffy hadn’t introduced them yet, he didn’t give a sign. Frankly, Buffy was kind of hoping to get out of the conversation with no introductions at all. Her source inside Michael’s compound had told her that he wasn’t keeping tabs on her, but she couldn’t assume her source knew all of Michael’s plans.
“Andrew’s busy and we’re going informal.” Here Buffy threaded an arm around Xander’s forearm. “We were just running to get some pizza and take it back to my apartment.” The minute she said she realized it was exactly the wrong thing to say. It made her sound like a tourist instead of the Roman sophisticate she was supposed to be.
Michael’s mouth made an “ooooh” shape before he turned to his companion, took her hand in his, and gently kissed it. “Go to our usual place. I’ll meet you there. I need to speak to my friend.”
The up-and-coming model gave Buffy a considering look and, with a shrug indicating that she didn’t see Buffy as much of a threat to her claim on her date, she quietly agreed to wait for him there.
Once she was out of earshot, Michael turned on the charm offensive. “Is there a problem I can help you resolve?”
“There’s no problem,” Buffy chirped with Buffybot-like smile.
“I did hear you screaming in your phone, did I not? And your companion, well, he does appear to be deeply unhappy,” Michael said.
Xander tensed next to her. Miracle of miracles, he still stayed quiet. It was enough to make Buffy wonder if someone had ripped out his tongue. Xander was never one for the quiet when babbling could dig him deeper into trouble.
“Andrew,” Buffy said quickly. “Some girl pick-pocketed him on the way home. All my credit cards were in his wallet. So, he found her, then he lost her, but he thinks he knows where she went. So, we’re trying to get to her before she starts spending.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed. “You have not answered my question, I noticed.”
“We have it covered,” Buffy said.
“Even you cannot possibly track a lone pickpocket in Rome. And given that Andrew is your eyewitness,” Michael shrugged, “you cannot be sure you’re tracking the right girl.”
“I don’t need your help.” Buffy said a little too harshly than was comfortable as she willed Michael to just go away so she could catch up with Andrew.
“Seems to me you could cancel your credit cards,” Michael said airily as if Buffy hadn’t spoke.
“There were other items in the wallet,” Buffy said. “Items that I don’t want in the hands of some common thief. Not that she’d know what to do with them.”
“Shouldn’t have given such precious items to Andrew then,” Michel said. “I honestly don’t understand why he remains in your employ.”
“Andrew is the most loyal person I’ve ever known,” Buffy bristled. She ignored Xander’s sudden full-faced look at her.
“Ahhhh, it appears we’ve struck a nerve,” Michael said.
Crap. Now he’s doing the cat-toying thing he does. If we play this game, something’s going to slip, Buffy desperately thought.
“Xander is an old friend. Way older than you,” Buffy said as she clutched Xander’s arm even more tightly.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Michael smirked. “And I was unaware that friends spoke to each other in the manner I just witnessed.”
“That’s why we broke up back in the day,” Xander volunteered.
Buffy plastered a smile on her face. She knew silent-Xander couldn’t last. At least it was a comment she could work with.
Michael changed focus and Buffy mentally prepared. She already knew Michael would consider Xander beneath him. He tended to view anything male beneath him, especially if they were human. And Xander? Painfully human. She might have to knock Xander out because there was no way Xander would keep his temper under the verbal assault.
“Xander, is it?” Michael’s warm smile gave Buffy the shivers. “A most unusual name, but then I hear from your accent you’re American. Unusual names seem to be your nation’s stock in trade.”
“Some of the best people I know have weird names. The people with common names just don’t really stand out, don’t you agree?” Xander asked.
Buffy whipped her head around to look at Xander. Holy crap! Is Xander playing Michael’s game? He’s going to lose!
“We really have to go,” Buffy said as she started tugging on Xander’s arm.
“I have been rude,” Michael said as he thrust forward a hand. “Michael Romano.”
Xander seemed to turn to stone and dig in his heels. If Buffy didn’t know better, she’d think Xander had added 1,000 pounds onto his body weight while she watched.
“Romano,” Xander said lightly. “Like the comedian, right?”
“Romano isn’t an uncommon name,” Michael said just as lightly.
“So, you’re telling me that you’ve got a very, very common name,” Xander grinned.
Buffy’s mouth dropped open. Xander scored a point! Go Xander! Wait! What was she thinking! Michael was just going to come back even stronger and there would be body parts and there would be blood and they still had to find Kennedy and, oh god, she really didn’t have time for this.
Michael turned up the charm and Buffy’s heart turned to ice. “Never be fooled by a book’s cover…Xander is it? Do you spell that with a Z?” Michael asked in a friendly tone.
“Short for Alexander, so it’s an X,” Xander said.
Buffy noticed that Xander’s one eye was glued to Michael, as if he was watching the other man for any suspicious moves. She knew that Xander was looking in vain. Michael wasn’t type to attack them unless someone drew blood, at least not directly. If Xander pissed him off enough though, Michael would make the rest of Xander’s stay very unpleasant. She just hoped it wouldn’t involve a bomb in a bowling ball bag like the last time two “old friends” decided to drop in on her.
“Alexander is a strong name, a man’s name,” Michael said thoughtfully. “Yes, I can see why you’d prefer to go by Xander.”
Buffy felt the urge to cry.
“Perpetual Peter Pan, that would be me,” Xander cheerfully said. Buffy’s head whipped up to look at him as he added, “Besides, Xander strikes me as a way more interesting name. People want to check out my book-y cover when I use it. If I go with Alexander, some idiot’s going to call me Al and I really hate that song.”
“I see,” Michael said thoughtfully. “Pity. Al suits you even more.”
“See? Now I’m thinking you’re trying to pick a fight.” Xander pouted. “You probably have a black belt stashed away and you’re all set to kick my ass. Let’s just consider my ass kicked because I totally want my pizza and I don’t want to have to try chewing it with a broken jaw.”
Michael was so caught off guard that he took a step back and regarded Xander with something akin to surprise. Buffy didn’t blame him. In the kind of circles she and Michael ran in, men, both human and demonic, tended to fight for their honor to the last breath. To simply capitulate and not fight back simply wasn’t done, if only because it ruined Michael’s fun.
After a moment, Michael waved a hand at Xander as if dismissing his presence. “My dear,” he said to Buffy, “if you desire real aid, please let me know. I’m certain I can be more effective than your current,” here he gave Xander an unreadable look, “associates in finding your pickpocket.”
“I will if it comes to that, but we really do have this covered,” Buffy insisted.
Michael’s eyes were once more fixed on an idiotically grinning Xander. “Somehow I doubt that.” He shrugged. “I’ll bid you good evening, then. I hate to leave a lady waiting.”
As Buffy watched Michael turn away, she let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.
“We better go,” Xander said in a low voice.
As they began heading for Buffy’s apartment, she admitted in a low voice, “That was close. Thank you. For backing off.”
“Not a problem, especially since he’d only kick my ass one way or the other,” Xander said.
Buffy looked up at him and met the gaze of his one eye.
Xander suddenly looked away and said quietly, “I know who he is. One of his aliases begins with an ‘I.’ Am I right?”
Buffy wilted. “Ahhh. How much do you know?”
“Three of his aliases only. Didn’t know he was actually based in Rome and that you’re mixed up with him, though. That’s news.”
Buffy hoped she imagined the sound of disappointment in Xander’s voice. She wished she could find her own voice to admit that she was disappointed in her enough for the both of them.
“I’m barely able to stand and I’m just slowing you down,” Xander said suddenly. “I better catch some sleep back at your apartment, ’kay?”
Buffy guiltily hunched her shoulders and added a new wish to her list: to erase every evil thought she had about Xander following her around Rome and exchange it for Xander insisting that he help find Kennedy.
“’Kay,” she answered with whisper.