All parts can be found here.
Continued from Part 3A.
Part 3B: The Not-A-People Person Cha-Cha-Cha
Jesus, it was cold. From sunny Thailand to frigid Chicago. Extremes in weather did not get any more extreme than this. Global warming his California ass.
Xander’s teeth chattered as he set down the thermos’s tiny cup. He poured another hit and held it out to Faith.
“Any more of this shit, my need to pee is gonna become imperative,” Faith remarked. That didn’t stop her from taking the offering, though.
Xander’s working eye scanned the area while Faith mmphed and ahhed the coffee down. Amazing. Faith could make the simple act of drinking extra-strong black coffee sound like the kind of thing he’d hear in a Z-grade porno flick.
Their present location wasn’t bad, lookout-wise. Going by where the Slayers had lost the demon and its captors, they only had to keep watch on the far left-hand corner of the property. Luckily, there happened to be an empty bay just one row over from where the demon was last seen. Xander wielded the Council American Express to buy them a month in a storage bay while Faith stashed the car inside. Then, it was up on the roof of their rented space to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.
Their nest was both good and bad. Good, because it gave them an eagle-eyed view of the area. If anything so much as stuck its nose in the corner they were watching, either he or Faith was sure to spot it. Best of all, most sentient beings — human or not — wouldn’t think to look up to the storage unit rooftops, so the chances of him and Faith being spotted was pretty small. Unfortunately, it also meant they were completely exposed to the elements. Toss in that the incessant wind blew the cold right through their layers of clothing and drove it into their bones, Xander was half-convinced both he and Faith would freeze to death long before the night was over.
“Jingle bells, Santa smells, Rudolf picks his nose,” Faith half-whispered, half-sang to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’ as she handed the thermos top back to him.
Xander snorted in response as he screwed the cup back onto the thermos and set it aside.
“And how was your very merry Christmas?” Faith mumbled.
“Christmas Eve is Sunday,” Xander pointed out.
“It speaks,” Faith grumbled.
“Only because the hot coffee has melted my frozen spit,” Xander petulantly said.
“Anyways, when they ask, I’m gonna say, ‘Fan-fucking-tastic. Sat on a stakeout, nearly froze to death, spent most of the night needing to take a piss, didn’t talk to Harris…’”
“Teeth too busy chattering, Faith,” Xander complained. “Besides, since when have you been into the small talk?”
Now it was Faith’s turn to be pissy. “Since fucking never.”
The pair of them had lapsed back into the uncomfortable silence that had enveloped them since they took to the roof.
That was just fine with Xander.
To his surprise, Faith was the one who broke the silence. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but your mouth used to move non-stop back in the SunnyD.”
“Yeah, well, this ain’t the SunnyD.” He couldn’t resist copying her accent. It came out nastier than he intended, but if it shut her up it was worth hurting her feelings.
More uncomfortable silence. Halleluiah.
“I’m surprised that you haven’t asked about no one,” Faith said as she broke the silence again. “Just sayin’ this quiet strikes me as out of character, is all.”
Xander grit his teeth and bit back the obvious retort that Faith never had a clue what was in- or out-of character for him at any point in his life.
Faith glanced over at him before returning to her visual search. “Usually when I run into someone from the SunnyD, it’s war stories time, y’know? Even B, last time I saw her. She even bought me drinks, if you can believe it. We did shots and shot the shit for so long, we closed down the bar.”
Xander figured the only reason why she was being a pest was because she was one of those people who couldn’t stand silence during a stakeout. By and large, he liked it quiet based on the theory that it let him concentrate better. Since he was one-eyed guy, he had a deep-seated belief that he needed to concentrate twice as hard if he wanted to be half as observant as a two-eyed person. People who were into talking on a stakeout claimed it helped keep them awake. What it really boiled down to, in his experience, was that they liked filling up the space by talking about themselves.
So far, Faith wasn’t exactly holding herself up as proof that his experience was wrong.
There was no point in fighting it. Faith, like most talkers, was not going to take the hint. Once he got her talking about herself and her fabu life, he could tune her out. A grunt here and there would be enough to fool her into thinking he gave a damn. Since he knew very little about Faith, he had a limited idea of what would be a safe subject. It wasn’t hard to zero in one thing. If he were lucky, it would keep her talking for hours.
“How’s Robin?” he asked as he folded his arms so he could tuck his gloved hands under his armpits to keep them warm.
Faith’s eyes snapped ahead so fast that Xander almost wondered if he reached out and slapped her without realizing it.
“You ain’t heard?” Faith asked.
Xander nervously watched her out of the corner of his good eye. So much for what he thought was a safe subject. Figures. He stepped on a raw nerve. He’d have to tread carefully, otherwise he’d find himself doing his stakeout alone. While normally a good thing, in this cold he felt safer having a stakeout buddy. Sure, it was Faith, but Faith was better than no one.
“Unlike you, I’m not really plugged into the gossip,” Xander carefully responded. “I talk to Buffy, Dawn, and Willow all the time. Giles on practically a daily basis. But it’s more us catching each other up on what we’re doing and how we’re doing. Gossip really isn’t on the agenda.”
“Explains why you didn’t know Andy was in Chicago,” Faith said.
Xander kept scanning the area as he automatically nodded.
More uncomfortable silence.
“Last I heard, Robin’s in Belgium,” Faith finally said. “They’ve got him swanning around to check out the educational programs at the various houses. Y’know. Making sure all the girls get the reading, writing, and ’rithmatic along with the daily demons. He’s like a pig in shit about it.”
“Is that good or bad?” Xander asked despite himself.
Faith gave him a ‘the hell’ look.
“You said ‘pig in shit,’” Xander said. “Phrase like that could go either way in this context.”
“It’s good,” Faith said. “He wanted to do it. When it was offered, he didn’t just jump, he asked how high he should jump.”
“He was a principal,” Xander absently remarked as he scanned the area.
Faith snorted. “Stupid to think me and him would last.”
“Last I heard, you two were good.” Aaaaand he really needed to stop encouraging this, but God help him he was interested despite himself. It was disconcerting to realize that he missed hearing gossip, even if it had stung him so thoroughly when he found himself at the pointed end of it.
Faith whistled. “You are out of date. Been, what? Six months? No. Seven.” She shrugged. “It was one of those deals where we wanted different things. No good guy, no bad guy. We shook hands on it and went our separate ways on good terms with a promise of guilt-free hook-ups down the road if we ever find ourselves in the same city.”
“You mean it’s possible to have one of those when it all goes kerplooey?” Xander asked.
“Fucking shock, I know.” Faith’s voice sounded marginally more friendly. “In every case I’ve ever seen, someone winds up sucking the fuzzy end of the lollipop. I managed to avoid that scene first time out. Makes me the lucky one.”
You don’t know how lucky, Xander thought. Still, good for her. Much as he didn’t like Faith, he sure as hell wouldn’t wish his post-not-a-wedding and post-Anya’s death on anyone. He also wouldn’t wish Willow’s post-Oz and post-Tara or Buffy’s post-Angel and post-Riley and post-Spike on them either.
Now clearly encouraged that he would be an active participant in any conversation, Faith seemed to be on a roll. “Before I forget, Rona says ‘hey.’”
Xander’s armpit-enveloped hands automatically clenched into fists. Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t ask. “Does she?” Xander carefully said.
Faith looked askance at him with a frown. “You two ain’t friendly?”
Oooooo, tread carefully here. “We haven’t kept in touch.” Short. To the point. True in fact, even if it left a whole lot out.
Faith casually scanned the area. “Hunh. That’s weird.”
Xander forced his brain to snap out of the bitter past and began scanning the ground in earnest. “What is? What did you see?”
“Nothing. I was talking about Rona,” Faith answered.
Xander wondered what would happen if he knelt down and began banging his head against the tar roof. In the best of all worlds, he’d be able to withstand the pain long enough to knock himself out.
“She’s hanging in Cleveland with me these days,” Faith continued.
Oh, fuck. With one little sentence, Faith revealed that the whole talking-on-stakeout thing wasn’t because she wanted to brag about herself. She was after information. If there was any good in this, Faith hadn’t taken Rona’s word as gospel. Oh, God. Faith was exactly the last person he wanted asking questions, let alone hearing any answers. Awkward couldn’t even begin to describe it, especially if by some miracle she believed him over anything Rona had to say. How the hell was going to get out of this one?
“When she heard about what was going down here, she volunteered straight away to come help us out,” Faith rattled on.
I just bet she did, Xander angrily thought.
“G nixed it so fast it would make your head spin,” Faith said.
I owe you a bottle of good single-malt scotch, Giles, Xander giddily thought as he willed his knees to stop shaking.
“Guess he didn’t want to leave Cleveland without a SunnyD vet, which I can see. Since I was already on loan to the Anchorage house to help them with their infestation and Rona was more up to speed on the latest in Cleveland than I was, it made sense to send me on to help you out,” Faith said. “Between you and me? I think G’s being a bit too paranoid about Cleveland, y’know? Not too much happens. Frankly, I’m usually bored off my tits there. There are so many girls ready to hop on whatever comes up that nothing ever gets out of hand. It’s just the same-old, same-old all the frigging time. But I guess with Hellmouths better safe than sorry, hunh?”
Xander nodded, but didn’t trust his voice to join in on the agreement.
“Anyways, Rona was hell-bent that I pass on a message to you,” Faith continued. “I asked her why she couldn’t pick up a phone like a normal person, but she said you were impossible to reach, what with you being an in-demand, top-of-the-heap field scout these days. Since I was seeing you for sure, she figured you’d definitely get the message if I passed it on.”
Banging his head against the tarred roof was no longer an option. Jumping off the roof looked like it would be better bet.
“Now let’s see if I got this right. She was all over me to repeat everything I said back to her. Made me do it so much that I threatened to write it down and make her eat it.” Faith frowned in thought.
Just say it. Tell her, “I don’t want to hear it. Unless it’s an apology, I don’t want to fucking hear it, ever.”
“Right. Got it.” Faith took a breath. “She said that you were in the right and that she was in the wrong and that she owes you big.”
Xander stopped breathing. Holy shit. He was getting an apology. It was way too little, way too late, and after an epic-level amount of damage had been done to him. Just the same, he was almost willing to declare that a Christmas miracle had occurred.
“And as a down payment…shit. She was really hyper that I told you this exactly the way she put it. She said you’d understand, even though it means shit-all to me. Guess whatever she wants to tell you, she wants to keep it on the downlow.”
Xander’s breath caught. Rona had been a hothead back in Sunnydale, a character trait that did not mellow out when she made Slayer. If she thought someone did her or her friends wrong, she was the first one to stick the knife into whomever she judged to be the guilty party. He was willing to bet that if she found out that she’d been played, she wouldn’t be any more gracious. Going by the first part of the message, he had an awful feeling that he knew what Rona was about to offer.
Faith’s face scrunched up as she thought. “Right. She said she got the real story from the horse’s mouth before the horse disappeared. She’s been digging around the grapevine, and she finally scored pay dirt. If you want, she’ll take you to pick a flower, but only if she gets to come along. She’ll even bring the pruning sheers.”
It took everything that Xander had to keep his knees locked and stay standing. The fact that he knew it was coming did not take away the shock of hearing it.
“Oh, and the dog barks at midnight,” Faith added.
“What?” Xander startled.
Faith grinned. “That last one is me. Just wanted to get in on the spy act.”
He stared at her.
“It’s a joke,” Faith said as her grin faded into a serious expression. “You used to know what one of those was.”
Yup. That was him. Xander Harris, fall guy for the universe. Watch that banana peel, kiddoes, because she’s one hell of a doozy. Take it from the guy who knows.
“So, you gotta spy thing you want to send back?” Faith asked.
Xander closed his eyes. It would be so easy to just say yes. One simple word, and he’d get…
Not his life back, that was for sure. Willow may not have faced up to it, and Buffy and Dawn were struggling to hold on to the idea that all was not lost, but Giles pretty much knew it was over. Count on Giles to come up with the plan that would let Xander try to spin his shit life into gold for the Council.
While his deal with Giles wasn’t much — something Giles was the first to admit — it was better than nothing he’d have if he gave in and indulged in some justified revenge. Besides, he if he took this step, then someone would go after him, and then someone would go after whoever went after him. It would never end.
And it still wouldn’t change a damn thing.
Go. Live your life. Try to spin gold from straw, if it pleases you. You can win a thousand times, but you only need to lose once. It only takes once to reveal that it’s nothing but straw and dust in the end.
Xander shivered, but not from cold. Screw D’Hoffryn. He wasn’t going to let the bastard win that easily.
“Xander? Earth to Xander? Yo, are you reading me?” Faith asked.
“Tell Rona, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” Xander said through numb lips. Saying that hurt a lot more than he expected. It felt an awful lot like he had finally given up all hope.
Faith’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it?”
Xander winced. Going on personal experience, he knew that Rona had a habit of seeing and hearing only what she wanted to see and hear. He forced himself to spell it out, just in case Rona remained unclear on the concept. “Tell her she’s never to try giving me that information ever again. And she’s not to tell anyone else that information, either. There’s a damn good reason why it’s supposed to be secret. Also, if I get any hint that she plans to act on it, I’ll be on the phone so fast to Giles that it’ll make her head spin. And trust me when I tell you, Giles will not let it slide.”
Faith crossed her arms and shivered from the cold. “What about the first part of the message?”
Fuck it. He wasn’t that big of a man. “Tell her apology is not accepted,” he spit.
Faith’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve changed,” she remarked.
Xander could feel the rush of freezing air in his nose as his nostrils flared with irritation. He clenched his jaw tight to prevent himself from screaming that she had no clue what he’d just given up and began studying the landscape in earnest.
“At first, I figured it was ’cause you were wiped from the plane ride.” Faith was still prodding; still trying to get a reaction that would tell her what was going on. “Turns out you’re changed right down to the bone, aren’t ya?”
“What do you know about it?” Xander exploded.
Faith went very still.
Oh, hell. He wasn’t used to dancing around areas marked ‘subjects to avoid.’ People who knew his sitch knew better than to talk about it, well, except for Willow who kept giving him non-progress reports. Beyond the old Scooby gang, know one knew him well enough to start butting into his personal life. He’d so lost his ability at creating a distractions that he couldn’t even begin to figure out how do it when someone like Faith started stomping on one hell of a sore spot.
There was only one thing to do. Lie using the truth.
Xander fought to keep his voice even. “Before I got here, I was in Bangkok for a week. Before that, it was 3 days in Prague. Before that, it was 10 days in Columbo in Sri Lanka. Before that, it was 17 days in Ottawa because I tripped over the shiny and new Gobblers with their amazing mouths that hid billion very sharp teeth. And I was only there that long because one of the bastards bit me on the thigh and I needed some healing time. This has been me, non-stop, and on very little sleep as of two years, three weeks, and six days ago. Does that clear things up?”
Faith’s eyes were appraising as she slowly looked him up and down. “That’s part of it, maybe, but I think that ain’t it at all. You’re too different.”
“Believe what you want,” Xander grumbled as he turned away. It was pretty obvious that Rona’s message made Faith hella suspicious that something was up with him. Fucking Rona. She managed to screw him over even more in her misguided attempt to make things right. Amazing.
He supposed he’d have to fend off Faith being nosy until it was clobbering time. After that, he’d be gone so fast that Faith wouldn’t have time to interrogate him. Sure, it meant that she’d get the story from other people, assuming she still cared at that point, but Xander figured the odds of him dealing with Faith ever again was very small so it really didn’t matter.
What really puzzled him was why Faith cared at all.
Faith crossed her arms and tapped her foot, as if she were considering a new line of attack. Xander steeled himself for what was shaping up to be a longer night than he originally thought.
That’s why he was surprised when she lifted her head and mildly remarked, “Car.”
It took a moment for the word to register, but as soon as it did, Xander’s eye quickly scanned the area.
“Over there,” Faith jerked her chin. “The storage bungalows are hiding it.”
Xander focused on the area and soon spotted the ghostly glow of moving headlights. Judging by the brightness, they were halogen. “Right. Let’s see where they end up.”
The glow got brighter as a moving car-shaped shadow passed the end of their row. Xander and Faith hit the deck at the same time.
“Our boys have turned into the row right next to us,” Faith remarked.
“I see ’em. Let’s get down before they stop and cut the motor,” Xander said.
Faith was moving by the time he said ‘stop.’
Xander hauled himself to his feet, hunched low, and scurried over to their rope ladder. By the time he reached it, Faith was halfway down. She let go and jumped the rest of the way. As soon as she was clear, Xander followed suit.
After he hit the ground, he and Faith moved low and fast to the opposite side of their row. While Faith glanced over her shoulder to make sure their bay door was open so they’d have easy access to the car, Xander watched the for the telltale sign of the headlight glow coming to a stop so they’d know which narrow space between the storage units they could duck into.
“They’ve stopped down there,” Xander jerked his head to the right.
“Let’s move,” Faith said as she prodded him in his lower back hard enough for him to feel it through the layers of clothing.
Xander aimed for the narrow alley that offered what he guessed would be their best vantage point and ducked into it. As he moved forward, he could hear the echo of car doors opening and the soft swearing of men as they hit the cold air.
Yikes. That wasn’t a good sign. Their car’s doors were unlocked, but not open. If they had to follow these guys, how they hell were they going to get into the rental without being heard?
When he got as close to the end as he dared, he dropped to his hands and knees on the frigid ground. He could see some men dressed in heavy winter coats gathered around the trunk of a black car. From his vantage point, they all looked like they were wearing ski masks. He crawled forward another foot, in hopes of getting a better look at the heavily bundled group. When he came to a stop, he could feel Faith squeeze in next to him on his right side, the side with his good eye. She got as far as his shoulder but couldn’t seem to advance further than that.
“Can you see?” he asked in soto voice as the men, all of whom were chatting about some football game in thick Chicago accents, popped the trunk.
“I’m good,” Faith whispered back.
One of the guys reached into his pocket and pulled out a handgun.
Oh, shit, Xander thought. They came looking for demons, they end up witnessing a mob hit. Could his day get any worse?
Handgun guy bent down and said something into the trunk in a voice too low for Xander to catch any words. “Can you hear that?” Xander whispered.
“No,” Faith whispered back. “Too much background noise from the chatty Cathys.”
When handgun guy was done, he stepped back so two more guys could step forward and lift a burlap sack out of the trunk. Whatever was inside was about the size and shape of a man, but there was no struggling as the pair maneuvered to get a better grip on it.
“Shit,” Faith breathed into his shoulder. “We gotta do something.”
Xander didn’t need his hard-won first-hand experience in avoiding confrontation with the armed and dangerous in Africa to know that there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot they could do. “Not unless you’ve got four guns on you,” he said. “Anything less than that, we’re Swiss cheese.”
Faith released a soft sigh. “Better watch for an opening, then.”
And the role of white-hat superhero with more guts than brains will be played this evening by Faith, Xander thought. Good grief. What was this world coming to?
“Lights,” handgun man barked and three bruisers unzipped their coats to retrieve large flashlights.
Xander’s heart felt like lead. No. Oh, no. This night can get worse.
“Maybe they’re just gonna beat him and leave.” Faith sounded relieved. “We’ll drop an anonymous dime to the cops after they’re gone, and then take off before help swings by.”
I have a bad feeling we’re not going anywhere, Xander thought as he hunched lower to the ground.
The two burlap bag-bearing men and three bruisers with flashlights followed the man with the handgun into a side door of the storage bay. That left one guy standing guard over the car.
As soon as the six men and their package disappeared into the storage bay, Faith whispered. “We can take him.”
She started to move forward, but Xander held out a hand to stop her.
“Harris,” she hissed with irritation.
Guard man must’ve heard the echo because he was on his feet and alertly looking around. Xander began backing up. Faith gave way after a little resistance. After about two feet, Xander stopped and got as low to the ground as he could.
The guard paced by their opening twice before disappearing from view.
That’s when the screaming started.
“Car. Now,” Xander said as loud as he dared.
“Seven of them, two of us, and they’ve got guns,” Xander insisted. “We know their bay number. Now we need to find out who the hell they are.”
He could hear Faith’s irritated huff.
“If it’s a demon, by the time we get to him—” Xander began.
The screaming cut off like someone had flipped a switch.
Xander closed his eyes and resisted the urge to pound on the ground in frustration. “And he’s already dead,” he quietly added.
“I’ll get to the car,” Faith quietly snarled at him. “Soon’s they start the motor, I’m in. You better be ready to jump in while the car’s moving because I’m going after them.”
“No worries,” Xander assured her.
Faith wormed her way backwards and was gone.
Xander shivered the sudden feeling of aloneness and the loss of Faith’s bulk jammed in beside him. He kept his gaze trained forward and resisted the urge to swear when the guard stopped right in front of the narrow opening and blocked his field of view.
The only good thing about this situation was that the guard was facing in the opposite direction.
He could hear the bay door open and a voice shout out, “Toss him inside and let’s go.”
Maybe whoever was in that sack is still alive, Xander prayed as he got to his feet and scurried away from the scene.
As he broke into the open row behind him, he could hear the sound of car doors opening. Xander spun around to see that Faith had her door open and that she was getting behind the wheel.
He reached the car and yanked the passenger side door open just as the other car’s engine wheezed to life.
“Go,” he ordered when he was halfway in. “Leave the headlights off as long as possible.”
“Got the Slayer eyesight, so ain’t a problem,” Faith stiffly said as she cranked the engine to life and eased the car out of the bay.
“They took whoever was in the bag with them,” Xander said as he belted himself in.
“Don’t mean they’re still alive,” Faith remarked without looking at him.
The other car with its halogen headlights passed in front of their row.
“Could mean they plan to dump the body somewhere else, dontchya think?” Faith added as she gunned the motor.
God, he hated that she had a point. Yet another dead body on his head. Yet someone else who ended up dead because he couldn’t afford to be spotted because the information he had was too important. It was no wonder he had a permanent address in burnout city.
And to think he once thought being a field scout was making the best of a bad situation.
Somewhere between Sunnydale and Chicago, Faith had picked up driving skills and the ability to tail people. She managed to stay far enough behind the car they were following without raising any red flags, despite the fact that traffic on the road away from the storage facility was light. When the car ahead of them turned onto the main drag, Faith flipped the headlights on and sped up.
What followed was a 45-minute merry chase at just under 35 mph. The car ahead of them made so many turns that Xander was half-convinced that they’d been spotted.
“Do you have any idea where they’re going?” Xander asked.
“Shut up. ’M concentrating,” Faith mumbled as spun the wheel at the last minute to make a left-hand turn behind their target.
Eventually, all the twisting and turning landed them in a nice neighborhood with tree-lined streets and large houses. The lack of traffic forced Faith to kill the headlights again and drop back in an effort to hide their presence.
The car, which at this point was five blocks ahead of them, slowed down. The back door opened and someone was tossed out onto the shoulder of the road.
“Slow down,” Xander ordered.
“We’ll lose ’em,” Faith warned.
“I didn’t say stop, just slow down. I want to get out of the car so I can check on that guy. If they dumped him here, he’s probably still alive.”
“Maybe we got lucky,” Faith agreed as she decelerated. “When I hit under 10, you go.”
Xander unbelted and put his hand on the door handle. “Just follow them and find out where they go. They’ve got too many guns and I don’t want you to get killed. Whatever you find out is going to be the only way we’ll be able to find them, so it’s too damn important for you to go all Dirty Harry on them, okay?”
“They’re signaling a turn,” Faith warned.
Xander opened his door. “Have you heard a word I said? We need to know whatever you find out more than we need you to be a hero.”
Faith didn’t answer. “I’m at 5 and they’re turning.”
Xander jumped. Faith was going just slow enough that when he hit the ground in a roll he knew that he probably wouldn’t break anything, but fast enough that the impact stunned him. He heard the sound of screeching rubber as Faith sped up, but his head was ringing too much for him to muster the energy to look up and watch the taillights recede.
He wasn’t sure how long he remained in the gutter trying to catch his breath before the frigid air against his exposed face became painful enough to snap him out of it. He forced himself to his feet and hobbled one block up to where the abandoned person lay.
“I’ll get it tomorrow…I’ve got a bet on the ponies…just a hit…one hit…the jackpot baby…”
The broken voice reaching his ears was male. The accent was definitely Chicago. A local. Best of all, he was alive. However, he was without a coat or hat. In this cold, he wouldn’t be alive for long if help didn’t get here soon.
“You bitch…not the face…shhhhh, stay quiet don’t let them know…getthefuckawayfromme…you screwing her…open the cash register now you piece of shit Polak…shit Kevin…shit…you did not fuck a cop…”
Xander stumbled up to the abandoned man and landed on his knees next to him. No. Oh no.
The victim all the classic signs of a Rwandan demon attack: staring, glassy eyes; bruise-like circles around the eyes; vampire-pale skin; cracked, dry lips; and the monotonous nonstop talking. God, he especially hated the talking.
“I’m good for it…gimme on speck…you want me to suck your…no…mommy when’s daddy coming home…no shit, you bitch…you’re my meal ticket…see what you made me do…go Jaywalker… for life…”
They’re here. The Rwandan demons are here. How? They’re not supposed to be here. Not here. This is safe territory. I know it’s safe territory, Xander thought with panic as he yanked off his coat.
“Jimmy I’m good for it… away for life…I fucking swear I’m good…I’m gonna make you eat this gun you miserable little…you get that brat to shut up or I’ll give him…don’t cry mommy I didn’t mean it…next time you take care of the fucking cat… he blew the guy’s head off…”
He didn’t even want to know the stories behind the man’s muttering, even if there wasn’t a damn thing this guy could spout off that could hope to top the kind of talking nightmares he heard in Rwanda.
Xander covered the guy using his coat as a blanket. As he shivered with cold, he hunted through the pockets for his cell.
“I don’t owe that bitch money…what the fuck do you think you’re doing…you wanna be a man grow a cock…no one talks or they’ll stick a needle in us…you ain’t got nothing…you want fries with that…Jimmy’s nuts…boom-boom-boom…you were supposed to pay…”
Jackpot, Xander half-hysterically thought as he pulled the cell free.
He flipped open the cell and scrolled until he found the Chicago Council House’s number. First he needed to set up his cover story, and then he needed to call an ambulance.
Then it was a matter of waiting with a living reminder of why he wanted to keep Faith as far away from the Rwandan demons as possible.
“And you say that you didn’t even realize he was there until you were almost on top of him?” the police officer asked.
“Y-y-yes,” Xander managed to get out while his teeth chattered. Even though the ambulance and cops were here within 15 minutes, he’d been without his coat too long. He couldn’t seem to get warm, despite the fact that he got his coat back, had hot packs shoved down his sweater, and was under two blankets.
“Torch the place…where’s the money…you said that horse would come in…put down the knife baby…” the victim said as he was shoved into the back of an ambulance.
The officer paused in his note taking to look over his shoulder at the victim. Then he looked back at Xander. “How’d you miss that?”
Sadly, it was a reasonable question.
The ambulance bay doors slammed shut.
“D-d-d-d-distracted,” Xander chattered. “F-f-f-f-fight with g-g-g-g—”
“You had a fight with your girlfriend and she dumped you off in the neighborhood. That’s what you said,” the office finished for him out of pity. “Did you see anything while you were wandering around?”
Xander shook his head.
“A car, maybe?” the officer prompted.
Xander made a show of thinking about it before he held up four gloved fingers.
“Did they seem suspicious? Were they driving too slow, or too fast maybe?”
“D-d-d-d-don’t know,” Xander chattered. “Not p-p-p-paying attention.”
The officer looked like he wanted to pinch his nose in a very Gilesian manner. Xander decided right then that he liked the guy.
“Now you said your girlfriend dumped you off where?”
Xander hadn’t said, but he still gave the officer an A for effort. “Not sure. Maybe a b-b-block or two that way,” he made a waving motion with his arm somewhere to his left underneath the blankets, “and maybe two blocks up,” he waved behind him, “j-j-just walked in circles. Not sure.”
The officer flipped through his notes with a frown. “According to your driver’s license, you live in the U.K.? London?”
Only technically, Xander thought as he nodded.
“You don’t sound English,” the officer said.
Ahhhh. He noticed that. “J-j-job. Live there for my job,” Xander said. “From C-c-c-california. Originally.”
“You’ve never been to Chicago?” the officer asked.
Xander held up five fingers to indicate five visits. The only reason why he didn’t tell the truth was because he was very sure the officer would detect just a little problem with his “my girlfriend lives here” story if he admitted that the most he’d ever seen of Chicago was O’Hare while he waited for connecting flights.
There was a thump of someone hitting the side of the ambulance to indicate the all clear. It slowly pulled away with its lights flashing and sirens silent.
“He g-g-g-gonna be okay?” Xander asked.
“Probably,” the officer looked worried. “Going by the EMTs, he wasn’t out here that long before you found him. I’m sure he’ll be fine when we get him warm, get some fluids in him…the usual. I’m sure he’ll make a full recovery.”
Xander’s mental antenna tuned right into that. “This happened before?”
Now it was the officer’s turn for some quality antenna-tuning. The cop looked sharply at him. “Why do you ask?”
“All the q-q-questions about cars and…he was talking crazy a-a-and you didn’t mention the crazy talk,” Xander said.
The cop’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.
Time to flash the cover story. “Sorry. Human rights violations investigator for a NGO,” Xander said as he mimed pointing to himself under the blankets. “N-n-n-naturally suspicious.”
The officer’s expression softened just a touch. “Guess this isn’t your beat, hunh?”
Xander shook his head. “D-d-didn’t expect this to happen in Chicago. Moscow, maybe, b-b-but not Chicago.”
“Xander Harris, there you are!”
At the sound of his name, Xander spun around to see a young black girl with close-cropped hair marching up to him. Her head was held high and she had a picture-perfect pissed-off expression on her face.
Oh, no! The cop’s going to think I’m a pedophile! Xander thought with horror. He expected Bernie to show up and play the irate girlfriend, not one of her Slayers.
“The missus, I take it?” the officer mumbled.
Xander’s head whipped around to look at the cop. Instead of seeing disgust or outrage, he saw amusement written all over the guy’s face.
“I can’t believe this. I leave you for five seconds, and you get into trouble.” The girl sounded like she was spitting nails.
Obviously mistaking Xander’s expression of panic for something else entirely, the cop grinned at him. “You are on your own. Unless you want to file a restraining order.”
The girl came to a stop right next to Xander. “What happened? You said you found a guy?”
“Called her after I called you,” Xander quickly explained to the officer.
“I figured that,” the officer answered as he flipped his notebook shut.
Xander turned to the girl. “Later. I’ll explain later.”
The girl’s expression softened. “Oh, baby,” she said as she put an arm around Xander’s waist. It took everything he had not to stiffen with shock. “I’m so sorry. It was a stupid fight. I’ll take you home and make it up to you.”
If it involves a hot shower all by my lonesome and hot chocolate, you are so on, Xander thought. Just stop with the hugging already.
“Oh!” the girl startled. “Sorry. My manners. I’m LaTisha Boudreau. You’ve already met my sweetie.”
She’s good, Xander thought. Now he wouldn’t be stuck calling her “honey” or “baby” until the officer left.
“Where’s your car?” the officer asked.
“Around the corner,” LaTisha jerked her head. “When I made the first pass, the street was full of cruisers and ambulances.”
“Can you walk it?” the officer asked Xander.
Xander nodded as he reluctantly untangled himself from the blankets and handed them to the officer.
As he took the blankets, the officer said, “Keep the hot packs. They’re disposable anyway. I have to ask you if you want medical assistance. I take it the answer is no?”
“I’m good,” Xander said as LaTisha snuggled up to him.
“Don’t you worry, baby,” LaTisha cooed. “A nice bath and some time under the sheets, and I’ll warm you right up.”
Stop. Please stop, Xander desperately thought. You are way too young for me. Anyone with eyes can see it. I can see it and I’ve only got one eye.
“I take it he’s staying with you?” the officer asked as he flipped open his notebook.
“Yeah,” LaTisha nodded. “I’m a live-in assistant at Susan B. Anthony Vocational Center.”
The officer looked at her, as if her age was finally registering with him.
“Internship,” LaTisha smoothly explained. “I’m working on my undergrad for social work over at Adler. Stick with the program and get my degree, my master’s is gratis. I even get my own room.”
Xander hoped she’d be able to back that up if the police decided to pay him a follow-up visit.
The officer seemed to buy it. “Right. I need a contact address and phone, as well as how long Mr. Harris is going to be in town, just in case we need to ask some more questions.”
“Sure,” LaTisha brightly said as she began rubbing her hand up and down Xander’s back in what he supposed was meant to be a comforting manner.
And no, he was not comforted in the least.
Once the information was exchanged and LaTisha assured the officer that Xander would be around until at least mid-Christmas Day, she threaded her arm around his and she led him away.
Xander held his tongue until the two of them were safely in the car. As LaTisha turned the key and the engine sputtered to life, he asked, “Just out of curiosity, how old are you? Sixteen?”
LaTisha shot him a hard look. “You’ve got a problem with the way I handled the cop?”
“What? No. You handled it just fine,” Xander quickly said. “But you’re young. I expected Bernie to play the girlfriend since she’s closer in age to me, not a Slayer. You’re just lucky that cop isn’t good at judging ages; otherwise I’d be up for aiding in the delinquency of a minor.
LaTisha stared at him. “I’m going to be 20 next month!”
“And Bernie’s got at least 10 years on you,” LaTisha huffed. “You’re, what? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”
“Twenty-five!” Xander protested.
“And Bernie’s 38, so me being your girlfriend is a hell of a lot more believable,” LaTisha firmly said as she threw the car into drive. “And, oh, it’s Lead Slayer, not just any old Slayer, thanks.”
Xander hunched forward and played with the heat settings so it would blow at maximum. “Sorry,” he muttered. “It’s just that you look so young.”
LaTisha was not mollified. “Right. Because you’re such an old geezer at 25.”
Xander settled back and watched as the houses with their big yards slid by the passenger side window. “You should be in college or something. And dating around. And going to parties. And being stupid. That’s what you should be doing.”
There was an irritated huff.
“Slaying’s always gonna be there if you really want to do it,” Xander muttered. “Go live life or something first.”
“You’re a fine one, aren’t ya?” LaTisha said. “You’ve been doing this since you were something like 15 or 16, right?”
“That’s different,” Xander mumbled.
“Do as I say not as I do, hunh?”
Xander turned his head so he could see her. LaTisha’s eyes were fixed ahead as she drove. Her expression indicated that she would much rather that he shut the hell up.
But he couldn’t let it go. That was always his problem. He never could let things go. He always had to try to explain or apologize or do something to smooth over the rough spots. Christ, this is how he ended up neck-deep in the permanent suck. It wasn’t the initial bungling that did him in; it was trying to fix things after they’d had been well and truly bungled.
Yet, he couldn’t just let this go. Just this once he wanted a chance to explain himself to someone, even if it was a complete stranger.
Faith was wrong. He really hadn’t changed that much.
“I grew up on a Hellmouth, so, yeah, it is different for me,” he quietly explained. “The choice was fight or get eaten. What’s your excuse?”
She shot a glance at him. “Slayer.”
Xander looked away. “You have a choice. That was the whole point of what Buffy did. It was to give you guys a choice.”
“Sure,” LaTisha said, “but who the hell are you to tell me that I didn’t make one, hunh? The way I figure it, the Council pays for my education, I get a roof over my head and three squares free of charge, free health care, and I get a clothing allowance and stipend to buy whatever I want. I’d be stupid to turn that down.”
“You do understand what you have to do to get it and keep it, right?” Xander asked.
“Staking vampires and killing demons?” LaTisha archly asked. “Hate to break it to you, but the second they told me I knew there’d be no way I’d be walking away from that. I’m just glad I get an awesome benefit package to go with the mission. So why not sign up with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, hunh?”
Xander started giggling despite himself. He was riding with a real live woman with an honest-to-God temperament of hero. Who knew there were any of those left?
“You think it’s funny?” LaTisha snapped.
“No, no,” Xander waved his hands. “It’s just refreshing. That’s all.”
They came to a halt at a stoplight and LaTisha looked at him much more closely than she had thus far. “So, you’re not a hero, then,” she said.
“Me?” Xander shook his head. “No. Oh, hell no. Just doing my job, ma’am. Only now I get paid for it, instead of being part of the sparkly all-volunteer Sunnydale Fire Brigade and Club of People with a Healthy Sense of Self-Preservation. Back then there was only enough room for one hero…sometimes two. Buffy got stuck with the hero job. Whoever she was dating tended to be the other one by default.”
The light turned green and LaTisha urged the car forward. “This would be back when you had to walk to school uphill both ways while dodging man-eating dinosaurs, even when the snow was waist deep and all you had was animal skins to keep you warm.”
“Grew up in southern California so no snow, and instead of dinosaurs it was demons, and the animal skins were fake because Willow would get upset if they were real, but you pretty much get the gist.”
LaTisha shook her head and grinned. Just like that, all seemed to be forgiven.
“I am sorry about getting on you about your age,” Xander said. “It’s just that these days all you Slayers look pretty young. I don’t know why, but you do. I guess I’m a rotten judge of age.”
“It’s cool. And you’re not completely wrong. I’ve met a few Slayers that are pretty young in mind, if not in actual years.” She tossed Xander a vaguely friendly look. “Although I gotta admit that you’ve probably got a million years experience on everybody I know, so I guess it’s understandable that we all seem like young kids to you.”
Xander accepted LaTisha’s comment for what it was and he relaxed into the seat. The heat was finally seeping into his bones. It left him feeling vaguely spacey.
“Anyway, Bernie sent me instead of coming herself because she’s waiting to hear from Faith,” LaTisha said.
Xander woke right up. “Faith hasn’t checked in yet?”
LaTisha shook her head. “When I left, it had only been 10 minutes, so it’s not really all that surprising. She’ll check in as soon as she’s got something.”
He had visions of Faith deciding that she could take on a car full of armed men, forcing the car off the road, going on the attack, and then getting shot on the order of 30 times while she was in mid-ass kicking. He knew that Slayers couldn’t survive one well-placed bullet, let alone 30. “If you say so,” he cautiously said. “I just hope the faith is justified. Unh, I mean your faith in Faith, not...well, you know what I mean. I hope.”
“She’ll call,” LaTisha insisted.
“Fingers crossed,” Xander mumbled.
“Anyway, what about you? Do we have an Emokillsus? Or is it just an evil twin?” LaTisha asked.
Xander winced at the name, but answered. “Yes.”
“It’s Rwandan demons.” Xander shook his head to dispel the persistent mental picture of Faith bleeding to death in a roadside ditch. “Going by the victim’s symptoms, I’d give it a definite yes.”
“I heard the plural of demon,” LaTisha remarked
Xander worried at his bottom lip. “They never hunt alone. There has to be at least three of them.”
“So, you don’t know for sure,” LaTisha sounded relieved.
“If you’re asking me if Faith and I saw anything? No. We were stuck outside the storage bay where they’re keeping them,” Xander said. “If you’re asking me based on experience? Then, yes. I know for sure.”
Xander figured that since he managed to smooth over one blunder, he might as well smooth over the others. “You said you’re the Lead Slayer, right?”
“Yeah,” LaTisha nodded.
“Unh, well, I ripped the heads off two of your girls this morning. If I’d been less sleep-deprived, I would’ve been more polite, but that’s not really an excuse,” Xander said in a rush.
“Yeah, I heard,” LaTisha nodded. “That was my number two, Terri, and the new girl, Cheryl.”
Cheryl. The one with the sucky background. Terrific. “I want to apologize,” Xander said. “I was wondering if you’d broker a meeting so I could.”
LaTisha glanced at him. “You don’t have to involve me. Just go up to them and apologize.”
Not a chance. Personal experience taught him that apologizing one-on-one to pissed off Slayers was dancing with death by strangulation. “I’d much rather it was formal, and I’d like you to be there when I do,” Xander said. “That way they’ll know I’m serious and not just pretending to be sorry.”
LaTisha spared him a questioning glance.
“I’d rather apologize in public,” Xander insisted.
“If it makes you feel better, I’ll set it up for you,” LaTisha finally said.
“Thank you,” Xander said as he once more relaxed back into his seat to enjoy the feeling of heat washing over him. Between the warmth and the motion of the car, he was being slowly pulled into a half-snooze.
“Hey, mind if I ask you question?” LaTisha asked.
“Shoot,” Xander mumbled.
“Is it true that you strangled a poisonous snake to death when it slithered into your bed when you were four?”
It took a good minute to register with Xander’s heat-befuddled brain that LaTisha was done with her question. It took another three for him to puzzle out what she asked. He turned his head so he could stare at her.
“Guess not, hunh?” she asked with amusement.
“Who the hell told you that?” Xander asked.
She coughed to hide what was probably a giggle. “Andrew.”
“Andrew?” Xander asked.
“Andrew,” LaTisha confirmed.
“Let me put it this way: my crowning achievement when I was four was the time I colored in the squares on the bathroom linoleum with permanent magic marker,” Xander said. “Sadly, my parents did not see a future Picasso. What they saw was a future juvenile delinquent.”
LaTisha’s giggle broke free. “Definitely a no, then.”
“Strangling snakes. Dumping demons in volcanoes,” Xander muttered as he turned his head forward and closed his eyes. “God knows what else. I don’t want to know, either. Where the hell does he get this stuff?”
“You know what?” LaTisha said.
“I’m afraid to ask, but what?” Xander wearily asked.
“You’re pretty okay, for a real geezer that is.”
It was nice to hear, even if it wasn’t true.
There was a beat of silence; only this one was almost comfortable, unlike the silences that punctuated his time with Faith.
“Thanks,” Xander finally said in a half-sleepy whisper.
He meant it, too.