And…do I really need to tell you this will be Spuffy in the end? Just be warned. Three and a half years have elapsed. Buffy has a life. There have been men in her life that aren’t Spike. If you don’t like that, this might make you a little uncomfortable in parts. All I ask is that you trust me to make it right in the end.
And the chapter title comes from Sting’s, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.”
Chapter 1: A Lost Man in a Lost World
The thing about Africa was the sun. It was merciless. Incandescent. Blessedly lethal to his least favorite demon. At Giles’ request, Xander had initially gone to Africa to do a job for the fledgling Council, believing he could have a bit of a safari adventure at the same time. He’d stayed because he fell in love with the way its sunlight made the world sparkle.
Everybody kept trying to talk him into leaving, though those attempts had dwindled as of late. Dawn kept extolling the virtue of Italian food, while Willow made promises of new healing spells she’d mastered. Even Andrew had gotten in on the game when he included a DVD of the last Star Wars movie in the official monthly care package, reminding Xander with his roundabout prose that the African villages Xander was usually sent to didn’t normally have movie theaters.
Buffy was the only one who never said a word. Xander loved her more than ever for that.
He spoke to them as frequently as he could. Communications were spotty in many of the places he was sent, and while there was always a warm rush whenever he’d manage to get one of the girls on the phone, there was also that sense of relief when he got off again. Talking to them was like ripping off a healing scab. It was smaller and hurt less every time it happened, but the nights that followed a conversation with Buffy or Willow were inevitably filled with nightmares of that last day in Sunnydale. Xander had spooked more than one native with his ragged sleeping patterns.
But he didn’t see them. There were invitations for holiday get-togethers and Slayer meetings; Dawn had even invited him to the party she threw when Buffy finally stopped seeing the Immortal, calling it the “Welcome Back to My Bathroom” party. Apocalypse aside, the teenager was ecstatic about not having to share the apartment’s tiny bathroom with Rome’s vainest man any more. Xander didn’t go, however, not to any of them, sometimes using work as a reason, sometimes pretending that reliable correspondence in Africa was even worse than it was. He was never sure why he always turned them down. All he knew was…he just wasn’t ready.
So, when Willow reached him on his cell phone on a shopping expedition in Mogadishu that warm autumn morning, Xander answered her call with a smile and an unspoken question about how she was going to try and get him home this time.
“If it’s an apocalypse, I think I deserve an engraved invitation,” he joked.
“No, no apocalypse.” She sounded so far away, her voice thin and reedy over the line. In the background, he heard the rustling of paper, the squeaking of a chair being pushed back on a wooden floor, and remembered that she was back in London, helping Giles with the reorganization of the Council. Now that they’d finally figured out how to deal with all the extra Slayers in the world, the next task at hand was a new administration for the Watchers. Giles had insisted that it begin with the reconstruction of the master library; Xander was convinced that he just missed the smell of musty old books.
“So…what? Demon uprising? A village needs rebuilding? Buffy’s got a new boyfriend? Help me out, Will. I’m not sure which Harris hat I’m supposed to be wearing here.”
“I need your Council hat,” she said. “You know how we’ve been pulling in all the old Watchers?”
“Well, I found one in your neck of the woods. He’s just outside of Cairo. We need you to go talk to him, see if he’s interested in coming back to work.”
Xander chuckled. “When did I turn into a giraffe?” he teased. “You know Egypt’s over two thousand miles away from Somalia, right?”
He could practically hear her blushing. “I know,” Willow said. “It’s just…we don’t know why this one left in the first place, or how he’d react if a bunch of suits showed up on his doorstep. And Giles won’t send Andrew any more, not after what happened with that witch in Mexico. Andrew still goes all kooky when anybody brings pork into the house.”
“And thank you yet again for reminding me of how glad I am that I’m not living with you guys any more.”
“So, can you do it? We’re talking two days, tops. Well, maybe three. He doesn’t actually live in Cairo. It might take you a little while to find him.”
Xander gazed around the crowded marketplace, listening to the ebb and flow of the voices that surrounded him. “All I have to do is talk to him?” he asked. “You’re not expecting me to escort him back to the land of the unrising sun?”
“Nope. Just give him the Council spiel. I can e-mail you the latest version. Giles finally let me take out all the references to ‘untold risk’ and ‘imminent death.'”
He smiled at an elderly woman who passed on the walk in front of him, her gaze warm as she returned his smile. “Well, since talking is the one skill I have that I can’t really pretend not to have,” he said, “I suppose I’m your man.”
Her relief came through in waves as she relayed the details of the job. As he stepped out into the flow of pedestrians, Xander only half-listened to her instructions as he wove his way back to his hotel. She was sending all of it to him in an e-mail, anyway. It was enough for him just to listen to the comforting babble of her voice. That was always enough.
Willow had been right when she’d suggested it might take Xander a little while to find the guy. The map she’d provided stopped just beyond the outskirts of Cairo, and all Xander had was some vague address that turned out to be in the middle of nowhere. By the time he maneuvered the rental car down the dirt road that led to the house, the sun was already disappearing over the edge of the horizon, casting the world in orange flame. The hills in the distance turned murky, cloaked in encroaching shadows, and as Xander climbed from behind the steering wheel, he could’ve sworn that he could see movement along their faces.
The house was much bigger than others he’d seen scattered along the countryside, more modern like the ones in better neighborhoods of Cairo. Visible behind it was a large barn-like structure, the absence of any other vehicles than his own suggesting it was used as a garage of some sort. Willow hadn’t mentioned that the guy was loaded. This was going to be harder than she’d said. Watchers got paid crap; there was no way Xander could use that as a reason for him to rejoin.
The front door opened before he’d taken two steps away from his car. An elderly woman stepped across the threshold, coming out onto the sprawling porch to peer at Xander through thick lenses. Her hair was completely white, her dark skin unlined, and her corpulent body moved with an unexpected grace.
“Hi there,” he said with his best smile. He had a feeling this was one of those times where having the eyepatch wasn’t going to do him any good. Sometimes, depending on the age of the woman, the story of the patch served to break the ice, earning him either a measure of respect or a spot of sympathy that made it easier for him to do whatever job he currently had. This one didn’t seem to care one way or another. “Do you speak English?”
Wrinkling her nose, the woman harrumphed, jerking her head for him to follow her as she came down from the porch. Hesitantly, Xander hit the remote on the car’s lock before starting after her, staying silent as they went around the corner of the house and toward the garage.
When they reached the narrow side door, she called out in a dialect he didn’t recognize before pushing the door open. A blast of diesel fumes burned his nostrils, but before Xander could follow the woman inside, a slim man cut off his path, barring the doorway with a lifted chin.
He looked younger in person than in the picture Willow had sent. As slight as the woman was bulky, the man gazed at Xander with piercing black eyes, his bald head belying the youth of his skin. Grease stained his long fingers, and he wiped them absently on a grey rag, not even waiting for Xander to speak.
“You’re early,” he said.
His rich voice combined with his nonchalant tone took Xander by surprise. “You were expecting me?” he asked.
“Watcher’s Council, correct?” At the jerky nod, he added, “I assumed you’d come in the morning, rather than venture out at this hour. But, never mind. I can take you to him tonight. Unless he retires early, you should have an opportunity to meet. Come.”
Xander gaped as the Egyptian pushed past him and headed up to the house. “Wait!” he called out. The man stopped and glanced back at him, his gaze cool and assessing. “Aren’t you Hanif Selim?”
“But…you’re the one the Council sent me to talk to.”
For the first time, Hanif smiled, and an amused gleam softened his eyes. “No, I’m not.”
He hung back while Hanif washed his hands at the kitchen sink. “You are American,” Hanif observed. “Are you an associate of the Slayer’s?”
“Well, I got involved because of Buffy, yeah.” Xander frowned. Something about his choice of terminology didn’t make sense. “You do know it’s not about the Chosen One any more, don’t you? It’s more like the Chosen All now.”
Hanif hesitated before turning off the tap. “So, it is true. My mother said, but I didn’t think it could be possible.” At Xander’s questioning look, he added, “Mother has certain magical powers, though they’re hardly reliable. Still, she has managed to save my life more than once with them, so I suppose I shouldn’t be quite so cynical.”
“Is she the reason you left the Council just a month before it got blown up?”
Thank god for Willow’s research. As off-putting as this entire encounter had already been, seeing the raised brows at his observation helped Xander regain a measure of control over the situation.
“Yes,” Hanif said simply. “She’s also the one who told me you’d be coming. Mother can be quite astute, but her interpretation of the timing involved can leave quite a bit to be desired.” Walking out of the kitchen, he dried his hands on a towel as he moved. “Do you have much petrol?” he asked.
“Gas?” It was an odd question. “At least half a tank. Why?”
No explanation was offered. Hanif merely grabbed a light jacket from by the front door and exited, not even glancing back to see if Xander was following.
They were both silent as they climbed into the rental car, but when Xander brought the engine to sputtering life, Hanif pointed off toward the hills on the horizon.
“That way,” he said.
Xander peered through the windshield. “There’s no road.”
“Then, I suggest you drive carefully.”
Biting back the retort that sprung automatically to his lips, Xander swung the car around and began bouncing over the rough terrain in the direction Hanif had indicated. Dark was already settling over the land, swallowing down every remaining vestige of light, and with the absence of artificial illumination, he could only rely on his headlights to cut a swathe through the murk.
“You know I’m supposed to be trying to talk you back into the fold,” Xander said, his tone casual. “Moonlight jaunts weren’t exactly on my itinerary.”
“The Council doesn’t want me,” Hanif replied.
“Funny, but that’s not how it sounded to me.”
“The Council needs people who believe in what they do. I am not one of those.”
They were jostled by a particularly deep hole, and both remained mute for a few minutes while Xander struggled to keep the car on a straight path. Slowing his speed even further, he frowned when they went over the crest of a hill. There, at the foot of it, was a small house.
“There it is,” Hanif instructed, pointing toward the structure.
“Are you going to tell me one of these days what I’m doing here?”
“You’ve come to retrieve someone for the Council. I’m merely leading you to him.”
Xander slammed on his brakes. Dust swirled around the car as it ground to a halt, and he jerked the keys in the ignition in his haste to kill the engine.
“If I wanted cryptic,” he said, turning to face his passenger, “I would be working with Willow in London on translating for the next apocalypse. I’m not. I’m here. I like my evil straight up, and my answers easy. If you don’t want to play by my rules, then get out right now. I can still make the red eye back to Mogadishu if I do eighty all the way to Cairo.”
Hanif was unruffled by the outburst, but Xander didn’t care. The way he figured it, helping stop eight and a half apocalypses gave him the right to conduct Council business his way. If he didn’t get the result they wanted and they fired him, he was all right with that. He’d made enough friends and contacts along the way to settle down for real. It wouldn’t come to that, though. With Giles in charge, Xander’s future was pretty much set in stone. He’d have to mess up pretty bad to lose their support at this point.
“I came home four years ago because my mother had a vision that something was going to devastate the Watcher’s Council,” Hanif said. “But I was prepared to turn in my notice regardless. The Potential Slayer I’d been assigned was slaughtered by the First’s Bringers, and I returned to London to find the people I’d thought most likely to be ready to fight to avenge her death buried in their books instead. So, the prospect of returning to their fold? Does not fill me with joy, Mr. Harris. You would be wasting your breath in attempting to convince me.”
Xander’s shoulders slumped. “And you couldn’t have told me all that before we took our little joyride?”
“Your trip will not be a wasted one, I can assure you of that.” Hanif opened his door. “Come. There is someone I wish for you to meet.”
He had no choice but to follow the older man through the dark and up to the tiny house. The earnestness with which Hanif spoke was infectious, and Xander felt compelled to believe him, even though he was very much aware that he could be walking into a trap. But the odd events of the past half hour whispered to him to trust in the unknown, just as he had so many years ago. It was unsettling.
Hanif knocked at the front door, but after they stood on the threshold for a full minute, it became clear that nobody was going to answer. He knocked again, frowning. Still, no one came.
“Damn it,” Hanif muttered, and reached into his pocket to extract a thick keyring.
“What’s wrong?” Xander asked.
But his question went unanswered when Hanif unlocked the door and stepped inside. After hesitating for just a moment, Xander followed, surveying the interior with growing confusion.
If there were walls to the main room, they were hidden by rows upon rows of books. Every shape, every size comprised the boundaries, leaking onto the floor in neat stacks. Notebooks interspersed the piles, their edges soft and worn from handling, while on the desk that sat right in the middle of the floor, pens and pencils were spilled, forgotten in someone’s haste. Three empty teacups joined them, as if the drinker had had his fill and then chosen instead to get a new cup instead of using the old. Next to the desk, someone had made a pallet for sleeping, the blankets on which were in disarray. In spite of the clutter and disorder, however, there wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen.
He was still gaping at the décor when Hanif disappeared from his side, rushing through the only other door in the room to audibly tramp through the rest of the house. A few seconds later, Hanif returned and marched determinedly for the front door.
“We’re too late,” he said. “He’s already gone out.”
Xander scrambled to follow. “So, we’ll come by in the morning if it’s that important.”
“No.” He was already out on the front step. “He is my responsibility. I have to bring him back. Bring your car. It will save us carrying him.”
“I still don’t know who this so-called ‘him’ is,” Xander said, trotting to keep up.
“My…ward. And right now…” He waved toward the dark hills, looming above them. Xander wondered when they’d grown so tall. “…he is out there.”
Back into the car, back behind the wheel, back bouncing over the rugged landscape. This time, Hanif sat on the edge of the seat, hands gripping the dashboard as he squinted into the unforgiving darkness. There was a tension to him that had been absent before, and Xander couldn’t help but wonder what was so significant about searching for this man now that could create it.
“There!” Hanif said suddenly, pointing off to the right.
Xander turned his head but saw nothing except the shifting shadows along the hills. “Are you half-vampire or something?” he joked. “Or is it the fact that I only have one eye?”
He ignored the gibes. “Follow him,” he instructed. “But not too closely. It will only spook him.”
Doing as he was told, Xander slowed the car even further, angling it off toward whatever it was Hanif could see. After a few minutes, he was convinced that, patch or no, there wasn’t actually anything there, but then…he saw it. A thicker space in the black. Shadows moving against the dark as if the world itself wasn’t sure if it wanted to hide this creature any longer.
He turned just enough to catch the movement in his headlights. It was clearer now, the man’s back visible as he walked along, but it was the long stride, the casual saunter of the man’s pace that made Xander grip the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned bone-white against his tan.
It wasn’t a man who walked in front of him. It was a ghost. He’d only known one person to have that distinctive swagger in his step, even when the world and a newly gained soul conspired to take it away, and that person was dead, had been for over three years. There’d even been a little memorial service, awkward and tense, after which Buffy and Xander had promptly gotten riproaring drunk.
So, it couldn’t be him. He was dead. Gone. Just like…just like everyone else they had lost that day.
His foot grew heavier on the gas pedal, closing the gap between the car and the pedestrian. The beams crawled up the man’s body as they grew nearer, and, just when Xander was going to ask if they should stop and go talk to him, the man glanced back at them over his shoulder, his pace never faltering.
Details were impossible to make out. All Xander saw was his profile.
It was enough.
It was Spike.