Continued from Part 5C.
Part 5D: Presents of Mind
For the first few days after coming out of non-stop nightmare-ville, Xander was content to just drift in and out of a dreamless sleep. When awake, he suffered the regular physical and mental evaluations the house’s doctor insisted on performing every two hours. He ate when he was told to eat and drank whatever concoction was forced down his throat without complaint. He always fell asleep roughly 3 seconds after being left to his own devices.
Somewhere in the back of his brain a clock ticked down and red alert sirens sounded the warning that he had to get out of bed and go. The blanket of exhaustion muffled it too well, and the sounds of the countdown were too distant for him to care much about it.
It all changed when LaTisha and Susan showed up in his room and said they had something important to tell him. (How many days after he woke up? Xander had no idea, since time had pretty much become a fluid thing.) What followed was a stumbling rendition of Susan’s Slayer dream about him — the one that LaTisha had failed to mention until right before he walked into the storage bay.
Xander didn’t need Giles around for translation to know what Susan’s dream meant. If he stayed, the fallout from Vi’s wish was going to catch up to him. Worse, it seemed to him that Susan would get sucked right into it. The only open question was whether Susan’s friends would be forced to helplessly watch while Susan was hurt or killed trying to defend him. He wouldn’t wish that curse on anyone, except for maybe Vi.
If there was anything good about Susan’s dream, it seemed to indicate that he’d survive whatever was coming if he stayed put. Even then, Xander had to admit to himself that the hinted-at happy ending was debatable at best. Given his status quo, he couldn’t imagine that just floating along with the same-old, same-old could actually be called a happy ending.
In either case, getting hit with Susan’s dream while he was still fighting to stay coherent meant that it took everything Xander had to maintain his mask of polite confusion. It was a good thing that he’d become an expert at hiding gibbering panic thanks to years of doing it, starting with seeing a still-living Jesse dragged off to his death by vampires. More recent experience had taught him that the task was always infinitely easier when he was dealing with people who didn’t know him at all.
Even so, there was a certain amount of pride to be had in not clutching the blankets, not making distracting jokes to derail the conversation, and not looking like he’d been hit over the head with a hammer. In fact, Xander was very certain he looked like the very picture of befuddlement when LaTisha and Susan finished and asked him if he knew what it meant.
In his experience, a one-shouldered shrug was always better than two in such situations.
“Sorry. I can’t even begin to guess,” Xander said.
LaTisha and Susan exchanged a look. It was pretty obvious from their expressions that they didn’t believe him.
Fighting back the urge to babble out some overblown lie that would all but announce that he knew damn well what Susan’s dream was about, Xander injected a little vague truth.
“At a guess?” Xander began. “It’s probably something I did on some scouting mission or another coming back to bite me in the butt, which, God, I really hope not. I think I’ve had enough of that kind of crap after dealing with another Rwandan demon.”
LaTisha regarded him with a frown. “That could be it.”
Xander’s eyebrows rose before he could catch himself.
“Remember the mobsters in Bangkok you had to deal with?” LaTisha continued. “Turns out that your Ani Security and our Carna Security are linked.”
“What?” Xander exclaimed as he sat straight up in bed.
Susan nervously cleared her throat and glanced at LaTisha. The Lead Slayer gave the girl an encouraging nod.
“I’ve been working with the Council geek squad,” Susan answered, “to track down the ownership of Ani and Carna. Turns out they’re both owned by a holding company called Bifrons LLP.”
“Does that name sound familiar?” LaTisha asked.
Xander slumped back against the pillows as he shook his head. He didn’t have bad luck; he had craptastic luck. How on earth did he manage to run across two separate branches of the same evil demon-providing organization on opposite sides of the world?
“The Watchers are flipping out old school,” LaTisha said. “According to the book-crackers, the name Ani, Carna, and Bifrons all have some mythological connection to some Roman god named Janus, and—”
“A chaos mage is at the center of this?” Xander interrupted.
LaTisha’s mouth snapped shut as Susan said, “Unh, the Council doesn’t actually know that for sure, but some of the Watchers think yes.”
“What do you know about it?” LaTisha demanded.
“I, unh, we…I mean back in Sunnydale this chaos mage blew into town a couple of times for the sole purpose of giving Giles his annual heart-attack. It can’t be him, since last I heard he was locked up.” The minute he finished the sentence, Xander winced. The way his luck was going, he was ready to bet that his last statement was dead wrong. “Just out of curiosity, did the name Ethan Rayne happen to come up?”
Susan looked shocked. LaTisha’s eyes narrowed as she focused every ounce of Slayer concentration on him. It was a lot like being at the business end of a spotlight, which was not at all comfortable.
“According to Mr. Giles’s sources, Ethan Rayne escaped from custody three days ago,” LaTisha said in a voice that was entirely too even. “From what I understand, Mr. Giles found out about that yesterday.”
“According to what we’ve been able to find, Bifrons has been around for at least 6 months,” Susan nervously interjected. “Since this chaos mage hit the streets only recently, we got that it was a bad thing he was out there, but there’s no way he’s involved with this.”
“You mean there’s no way he’s involved with this yet,” Xander couldn’t resist correcting.
“You sound like Mr. Giles,” LaTisha remarked.
Xander looked up at the two Slayers and forced himself to smile. “Like I said, this little monkey saw evil back in bad ol’ days. I’m not an expert in Rayne, but I wouldn’t exactly be shocked if he turned up all wet in this flood somewhere.”
“Weak punning there,” LaTisha said as she shook her head.
“Gimme a break. I just woke up.” Xander forced himself to relax. “So, that must be it. It’s Thailand catching up with everyone, not just me. I probably got featured in the nighttime show only because my crazy travel schedule connected the right dots.”
“If you say so,” Susan said.
The tone in her voice put Xander on alert that Susan was not buying his story. He made sure to raise only one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Seems to me it all fits. Besides, I’m completely out of ideas. Unless you’ve got something I haven’t thought about.”
As Susan opened her mouth, LaTisha grabbed the younger Slayer by the arm. “Not really.”
Xander noticed that Susan shot LaTisha an unreadable look. Whatever the younger Slayer was thinking, she might as well have shouted liar in his face. The hell of it was this: she wouldn’t be wrong if she did just that.
That left him with only one option, which just so happened to be the one option he should’ve taken the moment he opened an eye.
“We’re just going to let you get back to sleep,” LaTisha said as she led Susan out of the room. “Maybe we can talk to tomorrow after you’ve thought more about it.”
As the door shut softly behind them, Xander thought, Not a chance in hell.
The rest of the day was a twitchy affair. Xander was still exhausted, and still wanted to go back to sleep, but the warning klaxons were finally blaring loud enough for him to pay attention. He spent the rest of the day and into early dusk forcing himself out of bed to surreptitiously pack his duffle.
The whole operation was fraught with peril. He had to fight to get out of bed, stay on his feet, and keep his clumsy movements quiet. On top of that, he had to make sure he was in bed and that any sign of him exerting himself was long gone by the time the house doc came in to do his check once every 2 hours.
Now that fear was keeping him alert, he was able to get the doctor — whose name he never did catch — to tell him that he’d been out of commission all through Christmas and was now going on day 8 in Chicago. The news wasn’t terrible, per se. One day longer than a week was better than one day longer than two weeks. His chances of running into a additional demon trouble was only up to 50-50, but his odds were only going to get worse the longer he stayed.
All through his personal Mission Impossible, he beat himself up with the clarity that only 20-20 hindsight could provide. The round of accusatory questions with which he kept berating himself — What the hell were you thinking? Why the hell didn’t you listen to Faith? Why the hell didn’t you stick with the plan Bernie approved? Why did you ever think walking into that tin shack to do a headcount was a good idea? — just added to the emotional and mental fun.
The daylong struggle to get everything together in preparation for fleeing Chicago under the cover of darkness was an illustration in just how hopeless his current predicament was. Walking across the room would leave him with shaking knees, and more often than not he was forced to lean on a handy piece of furniture until yet another bout of dizziness faded. The vision in his one working eye was having a hard time focusing due to exhaustion and it sometimes took several tries for him to finally catch hold of whatever it was he wanted to pack. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how he was going to get out of the house, let alone deal with the rigors of achieving escape velocity.
Regardless, he had to get out, that much was clear. Once he was a safe enough distance away from the house, he could call Giles and have the boss-of-him make arrangements to get him…where? He had no idea. Giles probably had a nice, quiet place in mind so Xander could spend another week recuperating.
Who was he kidding? LaTisha and Susan may not have said much, but they said enough. No chance in hell was he getting that break he desperately needed. He was the only field scout in all of the Council’s history guaranteed to sniff out if something weird was mystical or human crapitude at work, and right now the Council was dealing with both. Just his bad luck that his sitch made him the go-to guy whenever a real head-scratcher popped up.
Despite his constant mental railing at his own stupidity, and his recurrent bouts of self-pity, the effort he exerted had paid off. By the time the Slayers left the house for their regular nighttime patrol, the only thing Xander had left to do was get dressed and leave. When he heard the last echoes of the Slayers leaving fade out, he glanced at the clock.
It was just after 8 o’clock. The doc would swing by for his regular check at 10:00. He could get dressed and be out the door within 2 hours.
Dressing took a half-hour, which was far longer than it should have. While it didn’t bode well for his long-term chances of escape, in the short run he still had a 1-and-half-hour window to get out. He sat on the edge of the bed to allow himself 10 minutes to recover and to mentally rehearse his threadbare cover story if he was caught leaving the house. Then he reached for his boots.
There was a knock at the door.
Xander looked up with a surge of panic when, without so much as a how-d’you-do, Faith opened the door.
Faith grinned at him as she leaned against the doorframe with her hands behind her back. “Goin’ somewhere?” she asked in a friendly tone.
Faith. Anyone but Faith, Xander thought with despair. Of all the people in the Chicago house, Faith was maybe the only person who wouldn’t buy his cover story of Giles calling him to London for an emergency meeting and full medical and mystical check-up.
“I, unh…” Xander stupidly began in a hoarse voice.
“Wait. Lemme guess,” Faith interrupted. “You’re sick of laying around in bed, and just wanted to get some real clothes on. Am I right?”
Xander leapt on Faith’s ready-made excuse. “Yeah. That’s it. Plus, I was feeling better and wanted to see how much better the ‘better’ part of feeling better really was.” He hated the way that his voice sounded scratchy and dry.
Faith’s gaze went to the boots located right next to his feet. “So, better than you thought, hunh?” Her gaze went back to his face. “Or maybe not. You not only look like shit on a stick, you sound like shit on a stick, too.”
Busted. Xander swallowed. There was no way he was going to make it out of here on his own. He hadn’t even left the room and he’d already been caught. Maybe he could convince Faith to drive him to the airport without going all gory details on her. “I have to leave.”
Gone was lounging-against-the-door-frame-with-her-h
Xander coughed a dry cough. “I can’t get into it right now, ’cause it’s, unh, complicated and we’ll be here all night. But I have to go or there’ll be trouble. Big trouble.”
Faith nodded as she stepped into the room, turned around, and closed the door. “Try me,” she said without turning back to him.
“Like I said it’s—”
“You want me to help you get outta here? In your condition?” Faith asked as she turned around to face him with her hands moving back to their original positions behind her back, almost like she was hiding something. “Then you tell me why I should help you screw with your health, instead of tattling to the doc.”
Xander resisted the urge to grind his teeth. If he dug in his heels now, he wouldn’t be doing anyone any good and could potentially bring a bloody problem down on the Chicago house. Faith had him backed in a corner.
The only way to go was with a highly edited version of the truth.
“There’s this curse,” Xander began.
Faith’s eyebrows rose, but she didn’t say anything.
Xander nodded to signal that he was telling the truth. “See I picked it up when…well, let’s just say I picked it up from somewhere. I’m a demon magnet. Not joke-literally like Sunnydale. Literal literally.”
Faith looked around the room with a vaguely curious air. “Not seeing any demons around here.”
“What I mean is, if the Council doesn’t know a demon exists, has determined a demon never existed, or has it on record somewhere that a demon once existed but is now extinct, I will find it. Or it will find me. Sometimes both at the same time. The longer I stay, the more likely that’s going to happen,” Xander haltingly explained. “The only reason why I’m not a walking Hellmouth is because of this protective spell Willow has to renew every three months, but she can only do so much. Once I get to a new place, I’ve got a week, two tops, where I’ll be relatively demon-free. Even then there’s no guarantee that I’ll be spared a demon pile-on if there’s a supposedly non-existent demon in the area.”
Faith leaned against the closed door as her eyes narrowed. “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.”
“It gets worse,” Xander said.
“Worse,” Faith repeated as her expression melted into one of puzzlement. “How can it be—”
“The curse is attached to my body, which is all the Council knows for sure. They still can’t decide if it involves my soul or not,” Xander quickly interrupted. He might as well pull the Band-Aid off all the way, and do it as quickly as possible. He needed Faith to understand just how serious he was and just how much he needed to get out of Chicago, not just for his own good, but for the good of everyone.
Faith’s puzzlement deepened. “Ummmm, does it really matter? When it comes to curses, I mean. Or, hell, any spells for that matter.”
“In this case, maybe.” Xander took a deep breath. “If you want to know how stupid my stunt was a few days ago, try this on for size. Dying isn’t an option for me either, because even if I’m a corpse I’m still going to attract demons. So, an unmoving corpse that has to get shipped to London? Trouble in a box. A quick cremation won’t solve it either. And forget scattering the ashes, because each Xander-sourced ash speck? Demon magnet. So instead of one big Hellmouth-like phenomenon around a single body, you’ll have a zillion little Hellmouth-like phenomena all centered around ash specks scattered across God knows how many places in the world.”
Faith’s face slowly melted into horror. “What? And you knew this when you walked into that shack to face that Rwandan monster? Were you fucking high when you thought that up? No. Scratch that. Were you fucking thinking at all?”
Xander cringed. He knew Faith was absolutely right to be pissed. In her shoes, he would’ve gone off like a Roman candle. Besides, he’d been pretty much berating himself along these lines all day. But if it convinced Faith to help him get out of Chicago, it would be worth it.
“I wasn’t. Thinking,” Xander admitted. “And you’re right. I screwed up.”
“So lemme see if I get this straight. It’s more than just a curse,” Faith said. “You’ve been turned into a walking pile of toxic waste.”
Ouch, Xander thought with a twinge.
“If I’m wrong, correct me,” Faith said.
“No. You’re pretty much right, except with toxic waste you can seal it up in the right container and store it out of harm’s way in some kind of salt mine. I think. But when it comes to me, you can’t,” Xander said. “And believe me, we’ve considered all the options, up to and including sending me to a dimension that has no demons. Then we figured out it was unworkable because, one, we don’t know if such a dimension even exists, and two, even if it did and I was sent there, there’s a chance the curse would attract demons to what was once a demon-free dimension. In a demonless world, which would also probably be Slayerless to boot, that could spell apocalypse. Trust me when I tell you, no one wants that kind of bad karma on their heads.”
Faith just blinked at him in dumbfounded manner.
Xander decided that she’d probably heard enough. She really didn’t need to hear about the debate over whether he should be sent to a hell dimension. It wasn’t a very long debate, mostly because Willow put her witch-y foot down and refused to do it under any circumstances. Even a dead Xander, she had argued, could result in Xander’s soul ending up there. Demons were magical creatures and not really big on playing nice. There were a lot of things hell dimension demons could do with a human corpse, up to and including dragging his long-departed soul into his body just for fun and torture games.
“So, I’m kind of stuck,” Xander said out loud to Faith. “I’ve got to keep moving and keep alive, or stop moving and become the centerpiece for a brand new Hellmouth where my staying alive is a strictly optional thing. That’s why I have to leave.”
Faith just gaped at him, like she couldn’t believe what she just heard.
Xander clenched his fists and said, “It’s the truth. Look up my varied and wonderful career for the past two years and — wait. What am I saying? You already know all about it. C’mon, Faith. You knew me back in the day, unh, sort of. I’m not exactly field scout material, let alone Watcher material. Do you honestly believe that I can possibly be the Council’s own Secret Agent Guy without a mystical shove in the wrong direction?”
Faith rolled her eyes.
Xander dropped his head. Figures. Playing the “I’m incompetent and you know it” card would be the thing that would sell her.
“I already know about Vi’s wish,” Faith said.
“What?” Xander exclaimed. “Then why—”
“What I mean is I knew the basics,” Faith interrupted. “The part about your death making things worse? That is not information I had goin’ in, just so you know. So, yeah, the dying bit? Not to mention the thinking about sending you to another dimension bit? I’m wicked floored by that. But I did know about you attracting the worst demons in the ’hood on account of a curse already.”
Xander cringed. He should’ve known. Rona still had it in for him.
“B spilled the beans to me after your big fight in Oslo,” Faith continued. “Pretty obvious she left out a few bits, but knowing B it’s probably because she doesn’t want to even think about any worst case scenario.”
Xander’s head shot up and gaped at Faith. He couldn’t imagine that Buffy trusted Faith enough to share that information. Either things had really changed between the two Slayers without him knowing about it, or Buffy was a really upset when he turned her down after she offered to be his personal bodyguard.
“She’s at the end of her rope with worry. They all are,” Faith said. “Once B gave me the 411, it wasn’t too hard to fill in the blanks. Shit, between everything B, G, and Rona told me, I may know more about what happened than even you do.”
“Somehow I doubt it,” Xander mumbled as he uncomfortably hunched his shoulders.
“I know where Vi is,” Faith blurted out. “Rona told me.”
“Well, don’t tell me!” Xander snapped.
Faith regarded him with a cool stare. “You don’t wanna know? Shit, if some chick wished that I should be a magnet for every demon on the planet for the rest of my natural life because demons seem to be the only thing I wanna screw, I’d be pretty pissed. Pissed enough to hunt her down and put a cap in her ass.”
“C’mon. I’m not that Gandhi. If I even had a hint on where she was, I’d be on the first flight there and working out how to kill her before the plane took off, even if it meant hiring hit demons to do it,” Xander admitted. “So, really? Don’t tell me or things will get even more out of control very fast. Better, tell Giles that you or Rona figured out where she is so he can move her to a different location without telling anyone.”
“Fair enough,” Faith said with shrug. “In case you’re wondering, Vi’s still Slaying.”
“You’re kidding,” Xander deadpanned.
“Don’t worry. Some podunk place that’s so far out of the way, you couldn’t find it with a map. No place where she could do more damage, and probably not some place you’ll ever have to go investigate,” Faith added. “Plus, Rona figured out she’s working under an assumed name. Her Watcher knows who she is, but no one else does. Well, ’cept for G. And me and Rona, even though G don’t know it.”
“I see,” Xander said as he fought to keep the fury out of his voice. He knew the Council decided to put Vi into hiding once the whole story came out, mostly because they figured it was a matter of time before the truth started filtering out of the inner circle and reached the ears of someone who might decide to get payback on his behalf. Of course, this was also the same group that decided to keep his not-so-nifty demon magnet-and-detecting skills under wraps and ordered him to keep his mouth shut about it so he’d be less of a target for a Black Hat with a burning need to attract demons, so their judgment was in doubt on a lot of things. Either way, he never imagined that the Council would let Vi stay active.
Faith sighed and leaned back against the door with her hands still behind her back. “For all you know, maybe Vi feels she needs to make up for what happened. Slaying’s the best way to do that. Can’t say as I blame the Council for letting her. At least she’ll be earning her keep while they protect her from people out for revenge. Shit. Considering my fairytale of a life, I can see all sides there.”
Xander fought down a tide of anger as he braced himself against the edge of the bed so he could push himself to his feet and walk out of the bedroom before he said something he’d regret. He managed to lift himself off the mattress an inch, maybe two, before he realized he just didn’t have the energy to finish the job. He collapsed back onto the edge of the bed with a bounce.
“Make up for it. Right,” Xander bitterly said.
“Hey, I know it doesn’t. Vi, if she’s got a brain at all, will figure it out if she hasn’t already,” Faith said. “If it means anything, Rona’s already figured it out. Sorta. But she’s feeling the sting of Vi lying to her, so she’s still pissed to the point where she can’t see straight on this subject.”
Xander snorted. He pretty much figured out that Rona knew she’d been lied to about a lot of things back when Faith delivered Rona’s apology. The only thing that really boggled him was that Faith played dumb so masterfully when she did it.
“Rona’s changed, Harris,” Faith added. “She’s not as hot-headed as she used to be. Hell, she actually listens to all sides before leaping, and even then it’s nothing like it was back in the SunnyD. She’s learned a hard lesson, no mistake. Only thing she gets crazy about is Vi. The rest of it, a more level-headed Slayer you ain’t ever seen.” Faith’s expression became sly. “You do know that she was the one who narced out Vi, right? About the wish shit.”
Xander startled. “What?”
“It’s true,” Faith said. “She even saw part of it, except she didn’t know the ‘new Slayer’ Vi was talking to at the time was really a vengeance demon. She even heard part of Vi’s wish, but got distracted when someone bumped into her, so she didn’t hear or see the end of it. All she knew was that when she turned back to Vi, our girl was sitting alone and looking real distracted. Rona originally put the whole conversation down to Vi talking shit about you to some random newbie. Wasn’t until B and Willow started asking around about people making a wish on you that it pinged for Rona. Soon as she figured it out, she was on the horn to B and spilling her guts. ’Course, Vi was already at the top of their suspect list. You know Vi initially lied about it, right? What really got her into deep shit was the lying to cover her sorry ass. If she copped to it right away, the official judgment probably would’ve been that she got tricked into making a wish and she would’ve skated free and clear of the mess. Rona speaking up was the proof they needed to confront Vi and get her to admit the truth.”
“Did Rona tell you that?” Xander sarcastically asked.
“B told me first. G backed it up. Rona told me after I let her know I already knew the whole story,” Faith said.
“I…I…I…” Xander stuttered. He shook his head and looked down. “I didn’t know that. No one told me,” he finally said.
“Ummm, yeah. About that. B said they did tell you about Rona, but that it might’ve flown over your head what with all the shit that was going down with you,” Faith said.
Xander closed his eyes and tried to think. He honestly didn’t remember Buffy or anyone else telling him about Rona. Then again, it’s possible they did and he was too crazy flakes to even listen. He’d been operating on blind panic back in those days. It seemed every time he turned around, he tripped over some new demon no one had ever heard about or thought didn’t exist. It got to the point where he was fighting for his life on an almost hourly basis until Willow figured out how to buy him some breathing room. This was followed by finding out about the curse after several long, painful sessions with the Coven casting every reveal spell they could find on him. Then the fun part where they found out who talked to a vengeance demon and made a wish on him.
The real capper didn’t happen until after he and Giles came up with a plan to use his not-so-wanted demon magnetism to benefit the Council. Field scout was the perfect cover-up for his massive problem with the bonus that he’d always be on the move. As soon as he thought he’d turned a real lemon into lemonade back when he thought that kind of miracle was still possible, D’Hoffryn showed up in person to gloat that the last bit of Anya-related Sunnydale business had been tied up in a nice, neat bow.
I think we can now call ourselves even, don’t you agree? D’Hoffryn had said. I believe you’ve learned your lesson and will properly remember your place in the future. You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve now declared you off limits. No more wishes will be placed on you. Of course, you’ll not be able to make a wish either, but I’m sure you understand the importance of keeping commands clear and simple so there’s no room for mistakes. Pity Anya isn’t here. I’m sure she would’ve enjoyed the artistry of her successor and given her seal of approval. I’m sure you agree.
In either case, I feel I should offer you some words of encouragement since, as I said, I consider the Anya business settled and I've been adequately paid back for the trouble you caused. So, here it is. Go. Live your life. Try to spin gold from straw, if it pleases you, D’Hoffryn continued with a toothy grin. Just remember that 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. Everything you do, everything you touch, will come to naught. So why fight? You can’t possibly survive. I suggest that you lie back and enjoy it, for however long you last.
“Not to blame the victim or nothin’, but what were you thinking?” Faith asked, pulling him back into his current problem.
The question landed like a blow. There was apparently one lie that Rona still believed. “Vi and I were never a couple. We never so much as went out of a quarter-of-a-date,” Xander said.
“I know that,” Faith said with irritation.
Xander looked up at her with surprise.
“Everyone told me the deal. Vi started flirting with you, and you just wouldn’t see it. Shit, you had several people — not to mention B, Tweedy, and a couple of Watchers who’d been there and done that when it was nothin’ but Potentials as far as the eye could see — pointing it out to you. You were told to do something about it before someone got hurt and you let it slide because you thought they were fulla shit,” Faith said. “Jesus, Harris. How blind do you gotta be?”
Xander winced. “I thought Vi was just being Vi. She was always about the harmless friendly banter. I honestly thought it was more of the same. I mean, I’m the One-Eyed Wonder with no depth perception. At best, I was the Council’s babysitter for ferrying Slayers from Africa to London, so I wasn’t exactly Danger Mouse with a glamorous job to make up for the one-eyed having. Compare that to Vi. She pretty much could’ve had anyone she wanted if she set her mind to it.”
“Riiiiight. A girl who’s so straight that it’s just painful to look at, living in a place where her only option if she wants to get laid by something with a dick are a bunch of Watchers old enough to be her father,” Faith said. “Hate to say it sport, but you were pretty much the only the only game in town at the time.”
“Wrong. I was in Africa most of the time,” Xander weakly protested. “I was only in London maybe once every few weeks to deliver a new group of Slayers. I had no idea that—”
“You were pretty much the only thing on the menu for the young Slayer on the prowl who ain’t into women,” Faith interrupted.
“Okay, fine,” Xander said in a defeated voice. “I screwed up. I encouraged her without realizing it, even after several people, including Buffy and Giles, warned me that I might have a problem on my hands. But as soon as it finally clicked that she was flirting instead of being friendly, I tried to let her down easy.”
“We all know that went over well,” Faith said.
“I thought she was okay with it,” Xander said. “I swear she seemed fine after I talked to her. I even went back to Africa thinking disaster had been avoided and everything was cool. It wasn’t until I came back with the latest Slayer load two weeks later that I knew that Vi was still furious, so that’s when I figured I really screwed up the letting her down easy part. I figured if I apologized—”
Faith sighed. “See? This is the part that floors me every time I hear it. You had to know it was a bad idea to try to talk to Vi while she was still fuming. Jesus, I wasn’t lesson enough? You had to learn it again? And this time you had B telling you to just leave it alone.”
Xander clenched his jaw to prevent himself from saying something he’d really regret. He simply couldn’t believe it. He was willing to own his mistakes with Vi, because, yeah, he really did handle everything the wrong way even if he had the best of intentions. But now Faith was blaming him for what happened between them back in Sunnydale? That was beyond unfair.
Faith must’ve read the expression on his face, because she half-smiled a crooked and uncertain smile. “Look, I know you meant well, both with Vi and back in the SunnyD with me. Well, I know it now. Back then? I was so fucked up that the only surprise was that I hadn’t imploded a whole lot sooner.”
Xander’s shoulders sagged. It was all he could do to stop himself from gaping at Faith like he was idiot Jed and she was an alien life form who’d invited him up to the mothership for a round of anal probes and other scientific experimentation.
“That whole apology thing wouldn’t have been so bad if you’d been dealing with a chick of the non-superpowered variety. Sure, you might’ve gotten slapped or had something thrown at your head for your trouble, but that’s about it,” Faith added. “I mean, it’s a good instinct most of the time, and I’ll be the last person to say you’re a shithead for trying. Problem was your audience. You tried getting through to one fucked-up Slayer the first time, and a young, inexperienced, pissed-off Slayer the second. Both times you got nailed for it and…” Faith’s voice trailed off and she uncomfortably shrugged. “Guess you know better now, hunh?”
Xander winced. “Yeah. Public apologies all the way now.”
Faith sadly nodded. “Hate to say it, but that’s smart. ’Cept for the part where you didn’t owe me any apology. Hell, you didn’t owe me shit, and I made you pay for reaching out despite that.”
If Faith could be candid, so could he. “I, unh, I kinda thought I did. Owe you. At least something.”
“I know. Thanks for thinking that,” Faith said with a half-smile.
“As for Vi, don’t paint me as the good guy yet. I, unh, ended up getting into a huge fight with her. She sorta took a few potshots at Anya. And me. But mostly me and Anya together because, well...yeah.” Xander cringed. “As soon as she started with some of the choice comments I should’ve walked away, but instead I…well, there was yelling. And screaming. And a lot of arm-waving. And Vi automatically reacted, which…umm, that really was my fault. Completely. I wasn’t exactly Mr. Maturity there. So, that apology? Didn’t work out so well. It’s probably the thing that actually lead to this mess I’m in, moreso than even the whole letting Vi down easy thing.”
Xander simply didn’t understand Faith’s reaction. She looked uncomfortable, like she didn’t really want to believe that maybe he had to bear a little fault in what went wrong. Granted, he sure as hell didn’t deserve the punishment he got and Vi’s wording for her wish was fantastically vicious, but he definitely didn’t help himself.
“The whole yelling, and screaming, and arm-waving led to me saying some pretty ugly things. It also led to my ass getting kicked followed by Vi’s hands locked around my thro—” Xander caught himself before he finished the word. He cleared his throat. “So I’m thinking that losing my temper? All in all? Totally wasn’t the way to go there.”
“Sorry. Can’t blame you for that, either,” Faith finally said. “Me ’n Robin may be over the hill and gone, but, shiiiiit. If someone trash talks him? There’d be some serious ass-kicking going down.”
“So, I guess you know the rest,” Xander dispiritedly said. “Buffy saved my ass because, smart woman that she is, she knew I was going to try apologizing anyway and followed me when she saw that I had pulled Vi into an empty room to chat. There was much yelling on the part of Giles afterwards, not the least of which Giles called me ‘foolish,’ which is the British equivalent of ‘idiot,’ and threatened to throw me into the Thames if I ever acted like, in his words, ‘an unprofessional child’ again. Vi gets slammed into anger management classes, which means her placement gets delayed and she loses her first choice of assignments.”
“Yeah, B told me the rumor mill got ugly after it all went down,” Faith said. “Rona told me she led the charge on that.”
Xander looked down at his knees. “I suppose…I guess I can’t blame her. Vi was her best bud, so who’s she gonna believe? Me, the asshole who’s too embarrassed to talk about just how badly I screwed up, or Vi? Wasn’t like she witnessed anything first-hand. I guess I can see how she thought Vi was screwed over.”
“So, can I tell Rona apology’s accepted?” Faith asked. “Because she really feels like shit about the role she played.”
Xander wearily waved a hand. “Rona didn’t make any wish. If anything, going on what you said, she probably helped saved my life.”
“I think she figures that if she checked instead of taking Vi at her word, maybe she could’ve head things off at the pass by making Vi see reason,” Faith said, “and you wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Xander sighed. “Even if Rona checked, she really wouldn’t have learned anything because the only person actually talking about the whole thing was Vi. The rest of us kept mum and hoped it’d blow over.”
“So, is her apology accepted?” Faith pushed.
Xander looked up. “That’s important to you.”
“Not to me it ain’t,” Faith said with a shrug. “But it is to Rona. Hell, I think it may even be important to you.”
Xander thought about that. Maybe it was time to let go of at least a little bit of the anger. God knew that holding on to it wasn’t doing him a damn bit of good. There was no harm in letting at least one person recapture a little peace of mind.
Besides, at the end of the day, Rona was only doing what he’d done approximately a zillion times before. She jumped into the middle of a fight to defend a friend she thought had been wronged without necessarily knowing the whole story. It’s probably why he’d been so furious with Rona to begin with. She was a mirror that reflected a part of himself that he didn’t always find appealing.
“Tell Rona apology accepted,” Xander finally said. “And tell her I’m sorry, too. I screwed up my share. Well, I knew that before now because I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. But on those days when it gets really bad—”
“It’s easier to put all the blame on someone else, especially on innocent third parties,” Faith finished for him. “Done it. Said it. Own a crappy-ass tourist trap stocked with t-shirts with that saying silk screened on ’em. But, Jesus Harris, before you announce you’re guilty as sin, your worst crime is you lost your shit after Vi poked the sore spot named Anya instead of just walking away when things got ugly. Not listening to people who told you that Vi was being more than just friendly was a mistake at best. A stupid mistake as it turned out, but mistake. Nowhere does that say that I or anyone else think Vi was in the right for any of it. At least, no one does now. Don’t know about back when the shit hit the fan, since I wasn’t even around.”
“Not a whole lot of comfort to be had there, Faith,” Xander muttered.
“Nope,” Faith agreed. “I’m just calling it like I see it.”
“So, now you’ve got my part of the story, for whatever it’s worth,” Xander said. “That doesn’t negate the fact that I’ve got to go, as in now-ish. It’s pretty obvious I’m not going to make it out of the house on my own, so I was wondering if you’d help me out by running interference with Bernie and the others.”
“I’ll do you one better than that,” Faith said.
“Better?” Xander frowned at her.
“You missed the big C with presents,” Faith said, apropos of exactly nothing.
“What does that have to do with—” Xander began.
“I gotchya something for Christmas,” Faith interrupted.
Xander stared at her. He couldn’t even begin to make sense of those words, especially after the conversation he just had.
Faith uncomfortably shrugged as she finally moved her hands from behind her back. One hand was clutching a thin red envelope, which she held out to him like a trembling olive branch. “Felt bad you missed out.”
Xander’s stare went from Faith to the envelope in her hand.
“Been keeping G up on your condition. Since you’re up, you really should call him later. He’s been worried sick. Anyway, G gave me some present ideas, but I thought of this one myself.” Faith was doing something close to babbling, like she was almost embarrassed. “Heard you’re big on the gift cards, on account of the fact that you’re always on the move. Anyways, turns out that G, B, Dawnie, Willow, and Kenny were gonna surprise you. In Bermuda. Which you probably suspected. ’Cept Clem’s in your reserved crib at the Council house down there. Clem says ‘hey,’ by the way. G says they’ll do a delayed Christmas thing later in January. Maybe. It’s looking that it might be later than that because there’s a ton of shit raining down right now.”
Xander had zero idea what to make of this. “Unh, that wasn’t—” he cleared his throat. “You didn’t have to—”
“Wanted to.” Faith interrupted as she moved closer and held the envelope out within easy reaching distance. “You gonna take it, or what?”
The feeling of this-isn’t-possibly-real grew as Xander took the envelope, which was a little wrinkled because she’d been clutching it behind her back since she walked into the room. He held it for a second before giving Faith a questioning look.
Her hands were in her pockets and her shoulders were hunched, a clear sign that she really wasn’t sure her present would go over well.
Xander then slowly opened the envelope, mostly because he wasn’t sure what to expect. The card itself was classic generic in a sparkly Christmas kind of way, which meant she got it at the last minute, maybe even post-Christmas. When he opened the card to reveal a fancy ‘Season’s Greetings’ written in red, a slip of paper fell out and fluttered into his lap. He scrambled a bit, not wanting to drop the card while grabbing the paper before it slipped to the floor.
When he finally had everything under control, he read the mysterious slip of paper.
He looked up at Faith. He was very sure his face radiated the full force of, “What the hell?”
Faith fidgeted, but her eyes didn’t leave his face.
Xander looked down and re-read it, mostly because he was very sure his eye was playing tricks on him.
The paper still said the same thing: “One coupon allowing Xander Harris to lay down three free ass-kickings on Faith Lehane. Good any time. No restrictions apply. Steel toed boots and aluminum baseball bat provided on request.”
Xander had no freakin’ clue what it meant. “This is the most—” bizarre, weird, have you been skipping your meds, so much for Robin’s good influence. Maybe not a good idea to finish the sentence. Faith made an attempt. An attempt at what, he had no idea.
He tried again, this time trying a different tack.
“When am I supposed to redeem this?” Xander asked.
Faith grinned as she backed up and executed a perfect flop onto a chair. She obviously thought that Xander’s question meant that he was happy with the homemade coupon. “While you were in recovery, we found out some information out about Carna Security,” Faith said.
Faith was changing subjects so often that Xander was getting dizzy. The only thing he could do was just roll with it until Faith agreed to help sneak him out of here.
“LaTisha and Susan told me about the whole Carna-Ani-Bifrons connection,” Xander carefully said.
“There’s even more than that,” Faith said with a predatory grin. “The Council’s pet computer geeks and accountants are working to untangle all the links, but as far as anyone knows our new best friends at Bifrons also own an investment company, a computer online gaming outfit, and corporate jets for rent. There’s more, lots more, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.”
“The corporate jets would give them their own demon delivery service,” Xander said with alarm.
“Now you’re getting it. Good thing, too, ’cause this is where we come in,” Faith said.
“‘We?’” Xander squeaked.
“Seems they’ve got a client in Southie,” Faith answered.
“Southie?” Xander was now so lost he couldn’t find his way with a map. “Southie where? Southie Dakota? Southie Carolina?”
“Southie’s a hood in Boston,” Faith answered. “Someone’s trying to resurrect the ol’ Winter Hill Gang and they’ve hired Carna Security to provide ‘special services’ for certain choice shenanigans.”
Ahhhh, suddenly everything was blindingly clear. “Let me guess,” Xander said dryly. “Giles needs me to check it out. And since you know Southie like the back of your hand—”
“Oh, fuck no,” Faith cheerfully interrupted. “I actually grew up hopping back and forth over the Boston-Chelsea line. I know where Southie is. I kinda drove through it a couple of times with cars borrowed without their owners’ permissions, but other than that I don’t know shit about finding my away around.”
Xander’s eyes narrowed. “But you’re still coming with.”
“I know the lay of the land better than you,” Faith said, as if the was case was closed. “According to G, the closest you’ve been to Boston is connecting flights at Logan. You don’t even know what a Southie is, let alone where it is.”
“Faith, I really don’t think—”
“Fact is, these Bifrons mooks are all about building the network,” Faith interrupted. “The long-term goal is obviously world domination, but the short-term goal is all about hiding whoever or whatever owns ’em. From what G tells me, they’re buried behind walls of paperwork and dummy companies. The only way we’re gonna get our hands on a real person is by burning the shoe leather, so all the big guns are getting scrambled. And you and me? We’re the big guns they’re sending to Boston so we can start sniffing around Carna Security’s newest clients.”
Xander held up his hands. “Before we yippie-ki-yay like Butch and Sundance, I really think I need to bring this subject back around to the curse, which you should remember because we just had a huge conversation about it.”
Faith leaned back and crossed her arms.
“Sticking with me is only going to get you killed,” Xander said.
“So you say,” Faith said. “Where’s your evidence?”
“Like I said, look at my record,” Xander began.
“Already did. In fact, I read and re-read your record,” Faith interrupted as she leaned forward. “Just so you know, I hate reading. And the more it looks like it’s something official, the more I hate reading it. Funny thing. In all my studying up, which I gotta remind you is something I hate doing in case you missed it, I didn’t see no record nowhere of Slayers getting killed because they were protecting you.”
Xander gave his head a shake, which triggered a slight bout of vertigo that forced him to grasp the edge of the bed until the room stopped spinning.
“Now, near as I can tell, a few got killed before you showed, sure, but it seems to me that it was the cue to send you in, not haul you out,” Faith said. “And sure, a few got killed protecting civvies while you were in the general vicinity, which ain’t the same as getting killed while protecting you. And yeah, some had their asses kicked, but then again, so have you. Jesus, how many years you been doing this? You’ve been around long enough to know that shit happens, whether you’re involved or not.”
Xander swallowed and brought up the obvious point. “You hang with me you’ll never be able to stop moving. If I stay in one place too long, something will come out of the woodwork. That something will be followed by more, lots more. Hell, I can practically promise you that Boston will be a horror show all on its own. I may have to bug out before the week is up if it gets bad enough.”
“Hey, I ain’t saying we should settle down and build a house or nothin’,” Faith said with a shrug. “I got that part. What I’m sayin’ is that big ol’ fear that anyone who hangs with you is dead meat doesn’t have a whole lot of evidence to back it up.”
“We’ve been careful,” Xander began, “not to mention lucky.”
Faith pointed at him. “And you pressed that luck a few days ago. In fact, from what I hear, you’ve been pressing it more and more. Everyone sees you swirling the drain, Harris. That’s a big part of the reason why B had a drunken breakdown on my shoulder.”
Xander cringed. “I had no idea. I didn’t mean to—”
“Nope. You really don’t got any idea,” Faith interrupted. “You’ve also got no idea how desperate your buds are to keep you alive, so I’m going to lay it all on the line for you.”
Xander had a very bad feeling about this.
“I’m gonna help you move your ass out of here. Shit, I’ve already told Bernie a big story about how G wants you to go to some nice, quiet, Council-run facility to recover as soon as you’re upright,” Faith said. “There’s a catch, though.”
“Catch?” Xander choked.
“Starting now, I’m your permanent right-hand Slayer. I’ll be watching your back and guarding your ass.” Faith cocked her head and grinned at him. “Or is that the other way around?”
“Just for Boston, right?” Xander desperately asked. “Because we’ll be on the trail of a big, bad demon importing company and God knows what kind of demons no one’s ever heard of are in their packing crates, right?”
“Boston and beyond, baby,” Faith said as she got to her feet. “You made a big mistake when you turned down B. Now you got me on a permanent basis, and I ain’t gonna let you pull your horseshit noble act and let you take off and be a lone wolf. It’s my job to keep you alive, and I’m gonna do just that.”
Faith fixed him with what was truly an intimidating stare. “Don’t even think about arguing. I know how to use a tranq gun, and I’ll use one on you if I have to.”
Xander just stared at her. Somehow this conversation had gotten far worse than just talking about how he screwed up his life. He didn’t know how it happened, but somehow it did.
“If you’re so clued in, then why the hell did you play dumb until now?” Xander asked.
Faith shrugged. “I wanted to hear your side of it.”
“And if you didn’t like what you heard?” Xander snidely asked.
The tone apparently didn’t register with Faith, because she cheerfully said, “Wouldn’t have changed a damn thing. I promised the Tweed One and B I’d have your back, one way or the other.”
“Giles is okay with this too?” Xander asked.
“Yup,” Faith nodded. “Willow doesn't know yet. Neither does Dawn. I think B’s gonna break the news to them.”
Xander’s shoulders slumped. He knew when he was well and truly beat. Still, he couldn’t imagine what Buffy and Giles were thinking. Faith? Faith? Of all people, Faith? Sure, they worked okay together on this one mission, but a permanent partnership? It wasn’t going to work. There was no way it was going to work.
Faith crossed her arms and glared at him. Xander thought that maybe his expression gave away what he was thinking. He decided to distract her by focusing on logistics until he could come up with a plan to contact Giles and beg him to reconsider.
“When do we leave?” Xander asked.
“First thing in the morning. Think ass-crack of dawn ,” Faith said. “You ain’t ready to go anywhere, and a few hours more or less isn’t gonna kill anyone.”
“You hope,” Xander automatically added.
“Hey, if I had my way, we’d be here for the next two or three days, but I don’t have my way,” Faith said. “I know we need to blow out of here ASAP and hit the road. And since you and flying is just begging for trouble, coupled with the fact that you’re too paranoid to get any rest if we get on a plane, we’re gonna cross-country it. It’s two days, tops, from here to Boston. Since we don’t need to be there right away, and since you need to rest up, we’re taking the rent-a-car. There’s a branch in Boston if I have to give it back, but G’s already signed off on some kind of open-ended deal so we’ll probably get to keep it for awhile.”
“I’m not sure I’m together enough to help with the driving,” Xander said.
“No shit. You sleep. I drive,” Faith snapped a nod.
The sinking feeling in the pit of Xander’s stomach told him that he was well and truly trapped, at least for now. He might as well just close his eyes, lie back, and think of…he’d have to think of someplace he supposed. Somehow he doubted the concourse at LAX would be a suitable stand-in for a home, but since his home was basically his carryon these days it would have to do.
Faith stretched like a cat, and then headed for the door. “If I were you, I’d squeeze in those extra Zees. We’re getting up bright and early in the morning.” She paused as she reached for the doorknob, looked over her shoulder, and grinned at him. “And before you get the idea to maybe sneak out in the middle of the night, I want you to know that I’ll be sleeping on the other side of this door just waiting for you to trip over my ass.”
“You’re not leaving me any choice, are you?” Xander asked.
“None,” Faith answered as she sailed out the door.