How do you tell Bindu's story?
She's a Kpelle girl, fifteen.
Her parents have died, her brothers were drafted into the army.
She lives with her sister and brother-in-law, helps them with their children and the crops.
None of this begins to touch the truth of it.
Bindu's parents were murdered during the civil war. Her brothers were kidnapped by a rebel faction, forced to become soldiers. Siakoh was thirteen. Dolo was ten.
None of this makes Bindu special, even in her own village. It's an old story.
There's something that does make her special. That's an even older story, one of the most ancient.
If you're reading this diary, you already know that story.
It's come full circle, back where it started. In Africa.
Xander chews his Bic pen. That sounds totally pompous. Doesn't that sound pompous?
He's always hated writing.
Bad enough writing classroom compositions. The idea that his diary is going to be shelved in some future watcher's library someday -- that freaks him out on a whole new level. It's like having someone reading over his shoulder.
Emails flow better, but sometimes that's a problem. Like the one he writes Willow his last day in Ghana.
You might not hear from me for a while. I'm heading into Liberia, where the government hasn't paid the postal bill in so long there's no mail service, and the phones don't work either. There's no power grid. Guess that doesn't bode well for the internet.
So when I suggested to the Council they hook me up with some five-star travel arrangements, I wasn't thinking five stars from The World's Most Dangerous Places. I'm wearing the amulet you gave me, which they can have when they pry it from my cold dead hand. Whoever "they" is. Send out a feeler for me every couple of days, will you? If I get disappeared, I'd like someone to know.
Hug everyone to pieces for me, too. Even Giles. He'll survive it somehow. love, x.
He worries about that one as soon as he leaves the internet cafe. He let his anxieties get the better of him long enough to get everyone he loves all freaked out, when he won't be reachable, when he'll be unable to reassure them. Stupid.
He got weirdly lyrical in the one he sent to Giles a couple of days before.
Out of all the places in Africa, Liberia seems like it's most designed to break your heart.
The name says it all. Freedom and hope. Freed slaves making a new life in their homeland. They bring the republic setup from America, and a Constitution. But they also brought the shitty stuff from there: injustice, inequality, slavery. They did what humanity does best, I guess, and fucked it all up.
Spectacularly, even for these parts.
I come in hope too. At the same time, I'm really, really afraid of fucking everything up.
Christ, Giles, are you sure you want me doing this?
He's read the State Department warnings, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office bulletins, and he's doing everything they say not to do. Don't travel outside Monrovia. If you do, be back in the city by nightfall. Nice precautions, if you can afford to take them, but he's got a slayer to find. The coven in Devon has pinpointed the village, and the Council's found him a driver who knows the territory, who'll act as a fixer as well. Xander's loaded up on candy and rolling papers to grease their way at any unofficial checkpoints. Dash, they call it here. The little bribes that get things done.
He's also got a canisters of bug spray, a stash of antibiotics, antimalarials, oral hydration packets, antibiotic cream, iodine, and enough eye drops to last him through the next millennium.
Or through two and a half days of driving upcountry during the dry season.
His left eye streams like a bastard in the dust, tracking streaks in the grit covering his face.
That's differentiated from the times tears stream down both sides of his face whenever they break for the hot pepper-laced local food. Paye, the driver, laughs and consoles him that this is a common reaction.
Paye's equally amused and philosophical about the effects of hot pepper-laced diarrhea. Which is easy for him, since he's not the one who has it. But Xander's been in Africa long enough to know it's just part of adjusting to a new region (a passing thing, ha ha), so he manages to make a weak joke or two and by the time he's more or less over it, Paye's decided he's an okay guy, a seasoned traveler. He whiles away the long hours on the road by telling Xander riotous stories about the travelers who didn't pass his personal litmus test.
Paye relates these tales in English, which is pretty good after half a life in the capital city. Xander practices his Kpelle, which has been enhanced magically by Willow. Their last day on the road, they stop in a village along the way to visit some of Paye's cousins and their wives. Or cousins of his wives. There are wives, plural.
Everyone must be greeted, handshakes all around. Everyone must be asked after, and all their relatives asked after. Then Paye and Xander are invited to lunch, and then vague movements toward actually making a meal begin. Anxiety wells up within Xander, bubbling close to the surface, but he tells himself his timetable is not theirs. He has to trust that he'll find his slayer when he's meant to. There's no sense in pushing.
Eventually food is dished up. Xander reaches into the pot with his right hand (never the left) and forms the cassava into a ball, which he dips into sauce. A little clumsy still, but he's getting the hang of it.
After the meal, they have barely a couple of hours of daylight, which won't get them halfway to their destination. So they accept the invitation to stay over. Paye tells them Xander's cover story, that he's a graduate student collecting tales of clever and resourceful girls. This brings him a flurry of folk stories, which he captures on audiotape mostly because it looks suspicious if he doesn't, but actually he's glad he'll have these preserved somewhere.
But none of them, no matter how great, leads him to a new slayer. Every step of this journey, it seems, is going to involve stumbling around blindly.
Thinking about the stories is what brings him back to the writing. As he lies on his mat in the heat of the long African night, trying to interpret the sounds of movements out in the trees, he realizes telling his own story -- even email by email -- is important too.
Much as he's invested in the idea that he hates writing, he realizes it's how he copes. It's not solely the connection with his friends, the emails in his inbox. Here in the dark, he sees this. The act of looking for things to write about colors the way he sees his experiences, the landscape. Finding the breathtaking vista he'll fail at capturing in an email for Willow, describing his misadventures in a way that will make Dawn laugh. It keeps him looking for the beauty and humor when he's physically miserable, depressed or overwhelmed. Though he never thought he'd say this about putting his thoughts down on paper or pixels, he misses it.
He's sure it's fallen to the bottom of his pack somewhere, but when it gets light he'll dig for his watcher's diary. He'll fill it with scrawlings -- notes to Dawn, Buffy and Will, observations to Giles, maybe the occasional actual Watcher stuff. Those last bits he'll transcribe into a new book when he gets a chance, one reserved for the stuffy.
The next morning he's perched on the passenger seat of Paye's jeep, feet cocked up on his pack, waiting for Paye to finish his smoke. His pen pauses mid-sentence as two women walk by, each carrying two huge plastic containers for the walk to the river. It's a pity about someone's cousin, one is saying. The girl refuses to do as the Sande directs. She's unmarriageable as long as she refuses her duty. Her brother-in-law has been more than patient, her sister is furious. The girl claims her dreams tell her what she should do.
This last is what makes Xander look up from his writing.
He's been asking for the wrong kind of story. Though they should be, slayers aren't found in the realm of tales about clever and resourceful young women. They're problem girls. These, unfortunately, are the stories no one wants to speak of, except in hushed tones, and not in front of a stranger.
Xander waits for a good opening to ask about the conversation he overheard. He suspects one doesn't really exist, so he puts some thought into a way of bringing it up that's least offensive. After a logging truck nearly runs them off the rutted road, they swear weakly in watery-kneed relief. Once they recover themselves, Xander decides to trade on this moment of bonding.
"Look, I know I'm a stranger here," he begins, in English. "I'm hoping to understand things that aren't how we do them in the States. If I give offense, I beg you --" the local way of saying please "-- overlook it."
Paye inclines his head, but makes no promises.
"Two women were talking as they passed me. About a cousin of someone who is defying the Sande." He thinks he read that this is the secret society that governs the tribal women. The male equivalent is Poro, the unseen force behind much of the power here. If a chief hasn't got the support of the Poro, he's not going to get much accomplished. "They said she's unmarriageable until she does what they say."
"These are not things we can speak of," Paye says, and Xander swiftly apologizes. "These are not things for men to speak of." Less an outsider issue than a male-female issue, then. "The girls must be initiated, just as the boys must. They must take years of instruction. It is how these things are done. That's all I can tell you."
He thinks he gets it. He's heard about customs that mark the passage from girlhood to womanhood. He did his research before he came here. He's heard Willow on the subject, and this is where her Indigenous Peoples Have the Rights to Their Traditions policy runs up against a big, painful stone wall. "Thanks, Paye. That helps me understand. What's the religion of her people?"
Paye gives him a sidelong look, as if wondering what the hell that has to do with anything. "She is Lutheran. All her village is."
"What happens if she refuses to do what she's supposed to?"
"It depends on the patience of her sister's husband, of her village. She might be brought before the chief. Sometimes the family or village takes matters into their own hands. It's a very bad business."
Xander nods. In touchy conversations like these, half the work is inferring. In his experience he's never gone wrong by assuming the worst. The way he reads it, if someone loses their patience, to use Paye's phrasing, she could pay with her life.
"You are looking for a girl," Paye says.
"Yes. A particular girl, though. One of the Chosen. It's not my place to choose, that's already done."
"But you think maybe this girl could be her."
"It's possible. A friend of mine was one of the Chosen -- the Chosen One, back when there was only one. She had a lot of trouble with her people because of this. Her family, her school, the police. It goes with being chosen. Trouble seeks these girls."
Paye looks unconvinced. Unavoidable trouble is one thing, shirking of duty another. "Still. If she is the one, I advise you to be careful."
"Believe me, that's the plan."
Sweet Jesus in the comics shop, Giles, are you really sure I can do this?
Paye presents him before the paramount chief of the village. The chief regards him with an unnerving amount of interest as they conduct the rituals of handshaking and asking after relatives. Even the gift of cigars, which clearly pleases him, holds his attention only for so long.
Paye explains that Xander would like to learn some traditional stories, and in exchange, he will offer his talents as a carpenter.
The chief studies him, and even Paye seems mystified by his scrutiny. Finally he asks, "Can you pluck out your own eye?"
Xander blinks. "I can. I don't do it unless I really have to." He flicks a glance at Paye, who looks as confused as Xander feels. Apparently not a standard question, then.
"There's a girl of our village," the chief says. "She has told of dreams she has. She tells of a man who appears in some of them. A white man who can pluck out his own eye."
The chief has the girl brought to him, and about half the village, it seems, comes too.
If there was any doubt, it's erased by the girl's reaction when she sees Xander. She doesn't speak until the chief gives her permission, but she obviously knows him.
Her name is Bindu.
She's taller than average, slighter than he expected. She's not quite pretty, not quite plain, her expression serious and her gaze direct. Bindu wears a skirt of a brightly colored local print, a t-shirt advertising a Kansas City 10K run and rubber flipflops.
Xander offers his hand, asks after her health and her family's. Her sister is well, she informs him, and her sister's husband, their children. She asks after his family.
His relatives, of course, died in Sunnydale. (No one ever told Tony Harris what to do, much less his stupid neighbors or useless son.) His family -- Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Giles -- are all quite well. It's this second that he tells Bindu.
"Bindu has told her family she's waiting for a teacher," the chief says. "That you are a shaman who has appeared in her dreams."
"Ah, well, that's largely true."
Scared shitless does not begin to cover it, Buff. She's already in trouble deep with her people, and here I come, Clueless White Guy, but they decide I'm a shaman. The removable eye makes a great party trick and all (largely when you want the guests to get the hell gone), but who knew it'd get me massive amounts of respect? They're so glad to get this poor kid off their hands, they build us a place on the edge of the village. I'm telling them, nononono, nothing funny is going on. They say fine, whatever, but the slayer -- yeah, they know -- and her guide should be together. I really don't think they care what the arrangements are. They're glad to have their warrior, but her place isn't really in the midst of them. People bring us food, do our laundry, ask me for basic medical help. (Thank Will for the copy of "Where There Is No Doctor," in case I forget.) But they don't really want to have anything to do with us. Paye comes through with supplies now and then, brings us news of the election, which seems to be dragging on. That's our big social occasion, but I think he's getting sick of coming upcountry. I intended to get her out, into Ghana to train with the others, but we do not want to piss off her family and village. I'll try to get this out to you. Paye knows someone he can pass this to, who can pass it on, and eventually it'll get to you. God, I miss you all. love, x.
She's a stubborn one, his slayer. No surprise, actually, considering she has enough spine to stand up to the secret societies that govern her village. They do a fair amount of wrangling. Xander's gaining a lot of belated sympathy for Giles.
There are things that move in the night here, he writes in the official part of his journal. It's difficult to tell whether they're human or demon. There are soldiers all over the country who suddenly have no war left to fight, no jobs, no education. Paye says what a lot of them do have is drug habits, the kind that make you twitchy. The rumor is that some of these soldiers, tweaked halfway to oblivion, band together with the demons and the vamps. That they swoop down and slaughter people in their sleep, dozens at a time.
What kind of life is it that this constitutes belonging?
At least we're in the dry season. Everyone says the sound of rain on these zinc roofs masks everything else. At least, if this becomes more than rumor some night, we'll have a shot at having some warning.
Once he's more familiar with the sounds of the night, and Bindu's gotten some fighting skills down, he takes her out after dark. Not deep into the bush, which is impenetrable and only a crazy person (tweaked-out ex-combatant) would even consider it. He takes her to the burial grounds, though there's little going on. He shows her signs to look for, while she fills him in on the village's history of unusual deaths. Since the war ended, there's been a lot less of the unexplained. Suspicious deaths happen, but the intervals between them are stretched out. It's more commonly a slow, mysterious illness that saps a person of their blood, but now and again there's a sudden violent death, a rending of the throat or perhaps the whole body. The second prompts a hunting party -- the overnight ones sometimes result in another hunter or two being lost. The protracted illness sometimes triggers accusations of witchcraft.
Ask me why I'm nervous, Giles. Being accused of witchcraft can get your ass killed in these parts, yet I'm a big man because I'm a shaman. Wonder if that changes someday if it's convenient or I piss off the wrong person.
Did you ever wonder what it would be like, being in a culture where you didn't have to hide the fact that your slayer is who she is? I'd thought it would make life so much simpler, but not so much. It's a given here that she performs a vital function for the community (though we haven't really gotten rolling on the vampire killing yet -- like everything here, there's a shortage.) but she's not of the community. I think things might be easier in Monrovia, but she refuses to go. She's bought into this whole thing. She's bound to this place.
About the only thing she does share with the village is church. Bindu and Xander go to Sunday services in the big zinc-roofed meeting house in the center of the village. They slip in late, sit in the back, leave just before the three-hour service is finished. His mind wanders through most of it, and it's here that he's most often seized with homesickness. At these times he looks at Giles with new eyes (well, one, anyway), wondering whether he ever missed England so fiercely he just wanted to say fuck this and pack it all in. Did Sunnydale feel as alien to him as this village does to Xander? How much had Xander missed during all those years? At times he wonders if he ever saw Giles at all, and somehow this makes him feel even lonelier.
The best part is the singing. It's the compensation for everything else. Fortunately, there's as much of this as there is of talking. He lets it carry him past words, past thought, to somewhere deep and mysterious. He tries not to wonder, as he emerges from this place, if Giles had anything like this.
He and Bindu are no sooner out of the meeting house than they're at odds. "I want to train this afternoon," he says one Sunday, though he knows where this will lead. "You need more work with the sword." True enough, but it's mostly that he hates sitting still after one of these services. He needs to burn off the depressive feelings that have taken hold of him.
"It's Sunday. It's wrong to work on Sunday."
"Look, you're set apart. You didn't decide that, they did. So why follow their rule?"
"It's God's rule," she says flatly. She goes off to the river to be alone, and he lets her, remembering Giles and Buffy. She always came back, didn't she? He wants to trust that here, but things are so different, and he's no Giles.
He tries to occupy himself. Studies his map of the region marked to track the rumored attacks, checks the weapons. He writes and drinks palm wine, which possibly colors what he writes.
Hey, Dawnie, I don't know when this will actually reach you, but I'll do my best. Paye's not due for a couple of weeks. Anyway, how's Italy treating you?
He abandons this message. The cheerful tone he tries to keep for her isn't coming, and he hates to worry her.
Dear Anya, God, babe, I can't believe how much I miss you.
Not a good road to travel down. Not on a Sunday.
They pray for us, Giles. Every Sunday we're in church, the back row, and every Sunday they include us in the prayers, which go on and on. They thank God for us, ask him to keep us safe, to grant us courage. But we are walled off from them, even in the meeting house. It's hard to tell if it hurts Bindu, she's so fierce and independent. I have a tough time with it, and they're not even my people. I wish I knew her better, I wish she trusted me more. I wish she had a gang of maddening young friends to drive me up the wall and keep her rooted in her life. I wish she'd let me take her to Ghana and get her started in the slayer academy, or at least get her to Monrovia. I guess it's safe to write the word wish, isn't it, if there's no one here to read it?
He hears her flipflops snapping on the wooden porch, and he stashes the book in his pack, summoning his energy.
Harris' Law: Fuck being careful what you wish for. If you're smart, you won't wish at all.
He broke his own rule, and there's no end to the payback.
The whole thing starts with a field trip. He takes Bindu to a town about two hours south of Paye's relatives. He wants to get her some experience. Wants to get the word out on whatever demon grapevine that there's a slayer in the neighborhood.
Well, he achieves his goals. Gets his wish.
They're not long back in her village when, one night well after dark, he hears Paye's jeep roar up in front of the house. It's not like Paye to drive after sunset.
Xander stashes his book in his pack and crosses to the open doorway. "Paye? Hey, what's--"
Paye sways at the foot of the steps to the porch. His shirt is wet and red.
Foolishly, Xander steps over the threshold onto the porch. The last thing he sees is the blur of a cricket bat, just before it smashes into his left temple.
The last thing he hears is Bindu, emerging from her room, calling out his name. Faintly he registers the rattle of weapons and a shriek of rage as she charges out the door, and then nothing.
Coming to is a helluva slow process, even though he tries to speed it up. His eyes are gummy, his head feels split open. After a bit of effort, he manages to sit up without puking, and he finds Bindu lying just inside the door with him, covered in blood but still breathing, if barely. From the smears of blood on the porch, he can see that she dragged herself inside, where vampires couldn't follow. "That's my girl," he says softly. "That's my good girl."
Daybreak's coming soon, but it's not safe to go out yet. Xander snatches up his first aid kit and Where There is No Doctor and does what he can, muttering as he works, "You can't die, I'm not letting you die, so don't even think about it." There's an MSF outpost in the town where they stirred all this up. It's a six hour drive.
She's a slayer. She might have some slim chance. He cuts it close, bundling her out into Paye's jeep a few minutes before dawn. He kneels by Paye's savaged corpse, murmuring I'm sorry, I'm so sorry as he fishes in his clothes for the keys. He slings his pack and his first aid kit in the back.
Did she kill them all? It's down to a choice between looking for stragglers and having some hope of saving Bindu. He breathes a prayer, in Kpelle, since that's the only language he has for fluent Godspeak. Prays for the village and for Bindu, and for safe and fast travels.
Xander's head throbs as they jolt along the potholed road, but he talks to her the whole way. Tells her stories about Sunnydale, about how he met the Slayer, about the Master and the Ascension and Glory (leaving out the bits about Buffy's death), and how they always, always found a way to triumph over the evil things. "I can't have you messing up my record," he tells her. "So get any thoughts of dying right out of your head."
His voice is nearly shot when he pulls up in the big village. He doesn't even stop the jeep to ask the way to the clinic, just shouts his request. People point and he pours on the speed. At last he staggers to the doctors' rough-hewn building, Bindu in his arms. "I beg you," he says to the white woman who meets them on the porch. "I beg you. Please. Help her." He's not sure if he's speaking English at this point or Kpelle.
"Tabarnak!" she exclaims, and stands aside so he can enter.
A swarm of medical people descends on them, taking Bindu from his arms. He's relieved to know he hasn't been talking to a corpse for the past several hours, but he knows it's still a very close thing.
"I can give some blood if you need it," Xander says, though he knows of course she needs it. "I'm O-positive."
"The first thing we need to do is check you out there," says the woman from the doorway. Her English is accented, but he's too near-dead to figure out what flavor. She herds him into an exam room over his protests. "She's going into surgery. You can't follow, so you might as well sit." She clucks over the side of his face, which he can feel is substantially larger than it should be. "Can you see anything there, out of the left?"
"No." He has the distant thought maybe he should explain that, but too much effort is involved. He flinches as she touches the left side of his face.
"You keep still there. What is your relationship to this girl?"
"I'm her teacher."
She scowls, and he's sure she views this in the worst possible way, but before she speaks further, she lifts the swollen eyelid and the prosthesis pops out. "Calisse! De ciboare de tabarnak de crisse!"
"Sorry. Sorry. I should have said something."
She mutters something unintelligible which he takes as agreement mingled with more swearing. After she finishes tending to his eye and face, she takes him up on his offer of a unit of blood. She gives him some fruit and bottled water and turns him loose in the waiting area, and heads back to help the others with Bindu.
Xander digs his book out of his pack.
Giles, I've got a confession to make. I know what a huge thing it was when you loaned me your diary to read. And I read everything, almost. But I couldn't bring myself to read the part where Buffy died. I know you wanted me to be warned, prepared -- for all of this gig, not just that part -- but I can tell you right now (but I know you know), there is nothing that prepares you for this.
I wasn't ready to face my own feelings about Buffy's death. I wasn't ready to see what was going on with you that I was too self-absorbed to see at the time, to know exactly how much I failed you as a friend. And yeah, I still wanted you to be a rock, a perfect role model. Even the stuff that I read, I filtered out the moments of self-doubt.
When we get home, I can't wait to go out (or stay in) and get really, really drunk with you. Talk about all of it: Buffy, Bindu, all of it.
I don't know how you carried this alone.
It shames him that he's fallen asleep by the time the woman who tended him comes out into the waiting area. "We've done what we can there. Now we wait."
"Can I see her?"
"Not now. Look at me. How many fingers am I holding?"
"Can you tell me who is president?"
"Ellen Sirleaf or George Weah."
That earns him a little laugh. "I'd say you are alert." He'd say so too. As she peers into his eyes he notices more about her, that she's got green eyes flecked with amber, and her two front teeth overlap just a tiny bit. Her bottom lip is fuller than the top. "What are you to this girl?"
"I'm her teacher."
"What happened to her?"
"I didn't see. They got me first."
"They. She looks like she is torn by animals. You were clubbed." He only shrugs, prompting her to mutter another calisse.
"I want to see Bindu."
"You can't yet. She's sleeping now, very deep. You should be doing the same."
"I'm not from here. We came from six hours upcountry."
"You drove with her for six hours like that? Fuck!"
"It was more like five. I drove pretty fast."
She shakes her head. "She's strong. You both are. I can let you have a place. And some clothes, I guess." She goes to rummage up some scrubs.
As he changes out of his blood-soaked clothes, he hears the hushed-raised voices of a disagreement.
"You need sleep, Chloe D," is what it sounds like. He sounds American.
"I can sleep later," comes the voice of the woman who tended him. "You need me."
"I need a doctor who won't make mistakes because she's tired. I need you rested. Your shift was over hours ago."
That seems to be the shot that wins that battle. By the time Xander emerges in his borrowed clothes, she's collecting her things. She unclips her wavy brown hair, gathers it into her hands and then fastens it again at the nape of her neck. "I have room for you," she tells Xander.
"I'd appreciate that. My friends call me Xander, by the way." Though he was tempted to let her keep on with the name she'd assumed from his I.D., which sounds, to his ears, something like Aleczoundre.
"Claudie," she says, spelling it to erase his confusion.
"Do you know where I can buy some palm wine, Claudie?"
"That's the last thing you should be doing. You may have a concussion."
"Well, then, it's a good thing I have a trained medical professional to monitor my condition."
She doesn't argue, but takes him into the town square. It must be market day, as the stalls are crowded with jumbles of baskets and cloth and pirated DVDs, where UN peacekeepers joke with the sellers. Xander gets the feeling as they walk in the square that his battered face and the eyepatch Claudie gave him would attract a lot more attention if not for the buzz outpacing them.
When they reach the wine vendor, the man asks, "Dr. Claudie, have you heard the news? Weah has dropped his charges of fraud. He's conceded to Ellen."
They chat with the wine man for a few moments about this reversal, then she leads the way to her home. "I feel like I've been holding my breath for so long," she says. "Waiting for the country to explode again. Weah's supporters were so disappointed, and so many of them had been fighters."
"He was some kind of soccer star, wasn't he?"
"Like Michael Jordan was some kind of basketball star." She snorts. "Soccer. That's all the international press knows. Weah didn't get so far because people think full cool, he's famous. He's not some Hollywood actor. And he's not a warlord or some political crony. He's one of the few people who's given money to this country rather than sucking it dry. Those young men follow him because he gave them hope and pride."
"Who would you have voted for?"
"Ellen," she says without hesitation. "An economist, maybe not so much sex appeal, but she offers a different kind of hope. I hope she can bring people together."
They can see the talk flashing through the town square as they walk. Maybe there is hope there. There's excitement, at least.
"Speaking of hope," Xander says, "what can you tell me about Bindu?"
"I don't know what to tell you, Xander. She shouldn't be alive now. I don't understand why she is."
Xander knows why. He just hopes it's enough to make her well again. "She has a chance, then."
"It's very small. It would be cruel not to tell you that. She's gravely injured. But I believe she does have a chance, yes. C'est ca, my little home."
It's a modest one-room with a thatched roof. Though it's sparsely furnished, Xander gets the immediate sense each wooden piece was chosen with care and love. If he weren't so heartsick, he'd be examining the workmanship, admiring the details. As it is, he notices, but it doesn't engage him.
She invites him to sit at her table, covered in a bright print, and sets out two glasses, upside down, in the Liberian fashion. She's on a generator, like a number of houses in town, so she rummages through a little box for a few CDs that she slips into a compact stereo.
"If you insist on drinking, you should eat something." Though there's still sunlight slanting into the windows, she switches on a lamp with a scarf-draped shade. It softens the light, makes things look a little less stark.
"I don't think I could." He turns up his glass, pours wine almost to the brim.
She sets food in front of him anyway, stewed mangoes with cloves and rice bread.
"This is nice music for getting drunk to," she says as she turns down the volume a bit. "A volunteer left them with me when he went home."
A rough and weary voice scratches over the speakers, the instrumentals behind it as spare as the furnishings here, but somehow just as comfortable. "Sounds like Johnny Cash."
She nods. "The music he made his last years. He's seen so much. He's sad, but he's okay with it." Claudie sits at the table and takes her glass. "I'm not so okay with it."
"How long have you been here?"
"Two years. Since the ceasefire."
"I can't imagine what it must have been like before."
She cuts a piece of rice bread for herself and suddenly he's starving, and he follows her lead. "What are you doing with this girl?"
Nothing that's going to harm her, he wants to say, but that's already been proven false. "Nothing creepy," is what he settles on.
"Right. You're her teacher."
"She's a warrior. That's what her people say. And I'm a shaman. They're half right." He doesn't give a fuck anymore. He's too tired to lie.
"She was a soldier."
"I didn't say that."
"Baie'la. There's a lot you don't say. And no, you don't seem creepy, but I can't think of too many good reasons you are traveling with this young girl."
"I could tell you, but then I'd have too kill you." He laughs but she doesn't, and he suspects she's sorry to be sharing food and wine with him. He's not inclined to try making her think better of him, though he normally would want her good opinion. He closes his eye, wishing he were alone, and listens as he drinks.
The player shuffles through a few tracks, and Xander only opens his eye when his glass is empty. He's well into the second when a Bob Marley song comes on.
Oh pirates, yes they rob I, sold I to the merchant ship
Ludicrous, this white old fart singing in Jamaican speech patterns. Or so he thinks until another line goes by, and suddenly it all seems natural and believable and right.
Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom
Joe Strummer comes crashing into the second verse as if someone forgot to tell him this isn't a Clash song. But Strummer's intensity works, just like Cash's voice does. Their roughened voices blend together on the chorus, each smoothing out the other. As he raises his glass, Xander's struck with a sharp sense of deja vu, a physical memory of drinking himself to oblivion with Spike the night the news about Joe Strummer came out.
"All I ever had," he murmurs, because the song has planted the phrase in his head.
"I got really hammered the night Joe Strummer died," he tells her. "A guy I knew, it broke his heart. So we listened to the Clash and drank all night. All dead now. Johnny Cash. Joe Strummer. Spike." Anya, he thinks, but doesn't say her name. She's off-topic.
She doesn't say the standard sorry to hear it, which makes him grateful.
"The life expectancy in my circle of friends isn't much better than Africa." He sets the glass down because, really, that's as maudlin as he needs to get with a stranger.
"Well, is it something about you there?"
He laughs, but there's a lot of bitterness in the sound. "She can't die, all right? The others, that's -- well, that's past, there's nothing I can do for them now. But I'm responsible for Bindu. I was supposed to keep her safe. I couldn't manage five years, hell, not even one year."
"Would you explain to me what you're talking about?"
He shakes his head. "Like your friend at the clinic said, you need sleep. I'll take a corner somewhere, I can sleep anyplace."
Claudie scowls. "That's it, that's all?"
It comes out sounding almost like one word, and it takes him a moment to tease out the meaning. "Pretty much."
She lends him a sleeping mat, and he uses his pack for a pillow.
All I have is a minute. My host is up making coffee, by the smell of it, and I'd have thought I'd sell my soul for a cup of anything but Nescafe, but I just want to see Bindu. It's a whole new day in Liberia, to get all cliche about it. All I can think is how much I want her to live to see this, to know there's hope and choice in her world.
That's one that probably won't get copied into his official watcher's diary. He has a clue it's a likely nominee for Most Naive Political Thought Ever.
Though he feels torn, he passes up the coffee and tells Claudie he'll meet her at the clinic.
When he sets foot in the waiting area, the clerk at the desk asks him to "wait small" and dashes inside for a doctor. His heart sinking, Xander lets his pack drop at his feet. Bindu's dead. He's finished with this place, then. Liberia. Africa. He can't do this again. That's it, that's all.
The doctor -- the American who was arguing with Claudie -- comes out and begins, "I don't quite know how to ex--"
Xander cuts him off. "Just tell me."
"She was asking for you a little while ago, but she's asleep again now."
He blinks. "She's not--"
"Never seen anything like this. She woke up, still pretty foggy, in a lot of pain, but wanting to know if you were all right. She said a few kind of hallucinatory things, too, but that happens with the anesthesia sometimes. Nothing unexpected."
"Something about monsters. It's nothing to worry about."
His chest aches with relief. "Can I see her?"
"Of course." He leads Xander to a ward with a number of beds, all filled. Curtains are drawn between each of the beds, but left open at the foot. He tries not to look in the other beds, tries not to wonder if any of them are there for blood loss from mysterious neck wounds -- or to wonder if those numbers have dropped any since he and Bindu made their sweep here.
They've got her closest to the nurses station, which he reads as being on the critical list, or not far off. Her skin is an ashen color, not her normal deep, warm brown. Still, the white bandages stand out in sharp contrast.
Xander touches her hand, which has IV lines taped to it and snaking up her arm. "Bindu, I'm here. You're doing great, you've been so brave. You're going to be okay." He realizes he's speaking in English, so he repeats it in Kpelle. "I'll be here, Bindu, till they throw me out."
Someone brings a chair, and he settles himself next to her. He arranges his pack on his lap so he can write with the one hand and hold her hand with the other.
She's still with us, Giles. Not out of the rain forest yet ("woods" being a pretty pale word here), the doc says, but doing enough better that I have faith in her Slayer healing to get her through.
They have a folktale here they told me, called "The Chief Who Was No Fool," but it's really about a girl. While settling a dispute between two of his villagers, this chief discovers a girl with the wisdom of a Solomon, and he's smart enough to marry her. But he doesn't want anyone knowing she's smarter than him, so he tells her if she ever butts into any dispute in the village, he'll divorce her so fast it'll make her head spin. Life's good, they're happy, but eventually someone asks her for some advice about a problem with another villager, and she does the girl-Solomon thing, and the chief finds out. That's it, he tells her, they're finished. She can take anything she wants from his house, but she has to go back to her family. This girl, she makes sure her husband has a little too much to drink that night, and she has him carried to the house of her family. When he wakes up, he's all outraged that he's not in his own bed, but his wife says, "You said I could take anything I wanted from your house. What I want is you." Well, the chief, he's no fool, so he takes her back and they live happily ever after (presumably with him not telling her what she can and can't say).
Actually, Giles, I'd call that "The Chief Who Was a Big Dumbass But Got a Little Smarter." Because I feel like this guy. Because I have this amazing girl as my Slayer, but mostly I bitch about the times she doesn't do what I want her to. I don't appreciate what I've got until I nearly lose her.
Claudie interrupts him then, bringing in a bowl-sized cup of coffee that she's carried from her house. "I brought him for you. A little cold, maybe, but real. I could see you hated to refuse."
He regards the enormous cup. "You're French, but not."
She laughs. "J'uis Quebecoise."
He stares at her blankly for a moment. "French-Canadian."
She gives him a mildly you are such a remedial look, and says "Way," as if he's just said "No way!"
Claudie holds the cup toward him. "You take him out onto the porch. I want to examine her."
He accepts the cup, which fills his hands. "I'd like to stay."
"She wouldn't want you to. Her modesty is important to her."
"But I've --" He stops himself before he says something that sounds incriminating. "I bandaged her wounds."
She's right, and he knows it. Xander sets the cup down long enough to squeeze Bindu's hand. "Bindu, I'll be right outside, and as soon as they let me back in, I'll be here. Dr. Claudie says you're doing great."
"Come talk to me about her as soon as you can, I beg you." He can't seem to lose that phrasing.
He goes out and sits on the rough planks of the porch, his pack at his elbow, his journal on his lap. Cradling the cup of cold coffee in his hands, he savors this small taste of home as he watches the town bustle around him.
So did you ever encounter this? People giving you the stink-eye because you spent a lot of time with teenagers? I guess we were all oblivious to it. Surprise. But maybe it was good oblivion. That there could be anything creepy in your attentions never crossed our minds. We knew we were safe with you, Giles. I hope Bindu has that same assurance about me. The stink-eye from other quarters I can handle.
As he tucks his book back in the pack and goes back to people watching, little memories turn up like hard pebbles against a tender heel. He remembers his old man picking him up at the library one time, on some kind of rampage about taking him to apply for summer jobs or something. Xander remembers his gaze settling on them all as they sprawled around the study tables, laughing and talking.
Giles had been in a rare goofy mood.
He remembers Tony's eyes narrowing, glittering and hard, taking it all in. He remembers half-muttered little asides later on to Xander's mom, who'd chide him to hush.
He remembers how the old man changed toward him. That his contempt became a little more apparent, the dope slaps and pinches on the shoulder a little more vicious. At the time he'd just taken it for more of the random inexplicable that was life with Tony Harris. But now he sees.
This is never going down on paper.
It's times like this he longs to dig the old man up so he can shake some sense into him. Well, it couldn't have any less effect on him than it would have when he was alive.
He hears Claudie's step on the porch, and when he turns to face her he hasn't quite rearranged his expression. "Are you all right?"
"Head hurts a bit."
"That's no surprise. I can give you something."
Claudie settles on the porch beside him. "She's stronger all the time. She's still sleeping. Dr. Richards said Bindu was asking for you when she woke in the night."
"He told me that, yeah." He sees that this makes a difference to her. "Did she say anything else?"
"He said she talked about monsters. After what she's endured, it's not surprising. Like the -- how do you call him? The one parents use to scare their children. Le Bonhomme Sept-Heures. "
"The bogeyman, you mean?"
"That's him. The bogeyman."
"What'd you call him?"
"Le Bonhomme Sept-Heures. In English it would be ... the Seven O'clock Man."
Xander grins despite himself. Nooooo, run! The Seven O'Clock Man! He'll make sure to write this to Giles. Though actually, it works for here. It's pitch dark here by seven at night, pretty much year round.
"Believe me, when you're little, he scares the shit out of you. The name is a -- fuck, how do you say it? -- a corruption of an old English word, the bonesetter. Back a long time ago, if he came to your house, c'est pas le fun."
"So being a doctor, you're kind of second cousin to the bogeyman."
Claudie laughs, and while she's disarmed, he moves in to make his point.
"Was it just garden-variety monsters she talked about? Or something specific?"
"Vampires, Nick said. There must be some local legend."
"Sure. It couldn't be because the populace keeps turning up with their throats torn out."
"You're not saying -- that's superstitious bullshit."
"Sure it is. Do you get a lot of cases like Bindu?"
"It's the rain forest. There are animals. Why are you telling me this stupid shit?"
"It's the equator. There's a whole lot of night out there, every night. Your bonesetter guy -- he might be real."
"Ostie. I have work to do."
Claudie is rising to her feet as the young Bassa clerk comes out. "Dr. Claudie. It's Bindu -- she's awake."
She's still so pale. He meant to ask how many units of blood she's had, but he let himself get caught up in this stupid are they or aren't they argument. Claudie's like everyone else, like he was. She'll believe when she sees.
She's still so pale. He can't help thinking of Cordy after her fall, or Willow after Angelus' pals nearly smashed her skull in. It takes some effort for her to focus her gaze on him. "Xander." Bindu's voice is raspy from the savaging she's taken, barely more than a whisper. "Oh no, your eye," she says in Kpelle.
"It's okay, Bindu." He edges past the American doctor as quickly as he can without being rude, and takes her hand. "It's safe."
"You're keeping it with you?"
"Of course. I'm not important. How do you feel?"
"I think I got them all."
Xander nods. "I brought you out before sunup. I didn't see any. You did great. I'm really proud, Bindu. I just wish I could have helped." First big fight of his slayer's career, and he's back to being Mr. Fray-Adjacent. What made him think he could do this? He couldn't even small-w watch.
"Did you see your friend? The man who carried you to my village?"
Xander nods. "I saw."
Bindu drops her gaze from his face. "I couldn't help him."
He reaches out, tips her chin up, all the while aware of the doctors watching him, judging. He breaks the contact as soon as she looks at him again. "I know that. He was beyond help when I went to the door. It wasn't your fault."
"They made him betray you."
"I know," he says again.
Tears spill over, and she puts her hand to her throat.
"I know that hurts," Xander says. "Try not to cry. Be still, and it'll feel better in a while."
She looks away again, studying the ugly green curtain partitioning off the next bed. "I'm afraid," she whispers.
"No, no, Bindu, you're one of the bravest people I know."
"I'm afraid one day they'll make me betray you, the way they did your friend."
"No no no. I can't hear you say this. You have too much heart for that."
"He had heart."
"No. No. I can't listen. You need to rest. You rest now."
"Xander, you come with me for a few minutes," Claudie says. "I need to examine your eye." She smiles at Bindu. "I'll have him back here in a little while. Wait small, yes?"
He turns and follows to an exam room, but as she closes the door, he says, "Claudie, I can't do this now." Tears are already slipping down his face, from the damaged left eye, and the right as well.
"You take the time you need," she tells him. "That's why I told you to come with me."
There is a rock in his chest, pulled straight from a cooking fire. He wants to thank her, but it's in the way.
"I can leave you to yourself, or I can stay," Claudie says. "It's up to you."
He thinks of Giles, so alone in his grief and (Xander's sure) his guilt. How he must have carried it with him all the time, yet kept it hidden. That's probably how it's supposed to be done.
I'm afraid they'll make me betray you.
How the fuck do you listen to that and go on being the strong one?
"I'd like you to stay," he says, and he allows himself to break.
She's asleep now. She wouldn't drop off until I got back to her side. The doctors are all amazed by her recovery, the fact that she's even alive at all, much less speaking. Still, it's going to take a while.
I've had plenty of time to think about those years in Sunnydale, to look at them from another angle. To think about it from a Watcher's point of view. All these memories, so many layers of bedrock, they're all beginning to shift, to use a perfectly Californian metaphor. (Metaphor? Simile? I kinda fell asleep during that day's lesson, so please insert appropriate technical term.)
Starting, of course, from Buffy's death, everything that came after. I didn't understand for the longest time how you could leave. Now I almost wonder how you managed to stay as long as you did.
She's not even dead, yet I feel unbalanced by this whole thing.
Not, y'know, unbalanced, you don't need to send your Have Inkblots, Will Travel guy out to find me. Thrown off balance, that's how I meant it.
"I'm really sorry," he'd said, and Claudie had just waved it off.
"If a man can't cry like a bebe la la when it's necessary he is not worth too much."
"How often is it necessary out here?"
"A lot more often than I'd like. You sit here; I really do want to examine your eye."
She'd already seen the wreck that is his left eye, but Xander felt more self-conscious about it now that he'd gotten drunk with her and wept in front of her. She wasn't just a doctor anymore.
"You're very lucky," she told him as she probed around with gentle hands.
Yeah, I feel lucky.
"There's no damage to the eye socket, so you should be able to wear the prosthesis once the swelling subsides."
That's good, he started to say, but her thumb strayed too close to the one area of his face that still triggers panic. He jerked back, his arm flashing up to bat her hand away.
"Nothing. Nothing. I'm sorry."
"How did this happen?"
"I ran with scissors. It was fun, right up until I lost my eye."
"You're a prickling bastard."
Xander laughed, which pissed her off even more. "Sorry," he said yet again. "I think what you mean is prickly."
"Maybe what I mean is prick."
He laughed again, then sobered. "It's hard to talk about. A guy put his thumb in my eye. I'm lucky to have the other. He offered the two-for-one special, but--"
"What is that you're saying?"
"Ostie? It means Host. You keep changing the subject."
"It's a subject well worth changing. Ost?" He translates this into American. "Host. I still don't get it."
"The, er, the wafer. Well, what happened to this guy? You're saying he blind you on purpose?"
"Right. He's dead, and the world isn't mourning the slightest bit. Wafer?" All he could think of was the Monty Python skit. It's wafer-thin!
"You know, the communion wafer."
"This is something churchy, isn't it? You should probably know I'm a big ol' heathen. Especially since the guy with the thumb, who was wearing a priest's collar at the time."
"That one I get. Is this some Quebec thing? Shouting out communion wafer! when the mood strikes?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. We're known for it. Les sacres."
"You kiss your maman with that mouth?"
Her feathery touch skipped to the side of his mouth. "Maybe I kiss you with it."
His skin buzzed with her nearness, in a way it hadn't for a long, long time. "I wouldn't dream of stopping you."
He had just parted his lips in response to hers when a tap sounded at the door.
"Claudie, we have a patient."
"Fuck," she breathed against his lips. She gusted a sigh. "Well. Bindu is waiting for you."
Unbalanced. In more ways than one.
One of those other memories I've picked up and looked at from another angle (and you're gonna hate this): your friend Olivia. Man oh man, Giles, the news that you had a chick in your apartment wearing nothing but your shirt and a pair of hot legs (of course Buffy told me), that rocked my still very teenaged world. Met her during the Gentlemen wingding (seemed nice, quiet though), then she was gone without a trace. After the initial "Holy crap, Giles and things carnal!" brain explosion, I spent two or three minutes wondering. Was it us? The general With Six You Get Eggroll vibe? Or us specifically? The whole monster deal? You did tell her they were scarier than the average run of monsters we faced, didn't you? I mean few things chilled my shit more than the Gentlemen. That one's happened to me. Any girl I dated who wasn't a demon, pretty much, other than Cordy, has headed screaming for the hills.
The reason I'm contemplating your very personal business, of course, is that I'm thinking about my own watcherly self and things carnal.
I see now how much you gave up to be Buffy's Watcher. And forgive me, I am going to get into stuff that you'd rather keep off-limits, because I'm trying to work this out for myself.
For most of those years, you were, let's face it, monkish. I know from personal experience that grief has a lot to do with that. But where does it change from grief to the fear that this could happen again? Whether it translates as "I could never go through that again," or "I could never put someone I love in that kind of danger," the result is the same. You're screwed. Or actually, you're not.
Maybe that's not it for you, not anymore. It's been years since Jenny. Maybe this has all evolved into a decision to focus on the mission. Or just knowing she'll never really understand who you are and what you do, if she's outside the immediate circle. It's hard to have a relationship and save the world on a regular basis. Any fan of the DC 'verse knows that by age seven.
I can't do that, Giles. It's noble, I guess, to put aside your needs for some greater cause, but I can't live that way. You've probably figured this out by now, but this isn't a theoretical discussion. There's a woman. Not a demon, pretty sure of that. Things are progressing, and I'm going to let them.
Sorry. This is all rambly and devoid of point, I know. I'll probably just tear these pages out. Save us both the mortification.
Xander sits by Bindu's side, scrawling pointless shit into his journal as she sleeps. She wakes a few times, mostly foggy, and they talk a little. Each time she asks him if he has his eye, and he assures her it's safe.
When Claudie finishes her shift, she invites him back again. Bindu's asleep, but he squeezes her hand and tells her he's going for the night.
As he walks with Claudie through the town, he asks, "The clinic, that's a public space, isn't it? Anyone can come, day or night?"
"Sure. There's always a doctor on site."
"Is there any private space there? Anywhere the public's not invited?"
"The drug cabinet. He's always under lock and key." (In case you were wondering, Giles, why I would abandon the monkish code, she swears in French and calls inanimate objects "he," not "it." Sexy as all hell.) "And the doctor's quarters. A room with a cot, really, and not really belonging to any of us. Nick sleeps there more because he works at night." She shoots him a Pourquoi do you ask? look, but he just nods.
"Do you get people pounding on your door at night, or do they go straight to the clinic?"
"Sometimes they come to me."
"It's very important that you don't invite them in. Even if you know them. You can step aside and let them in, but don't ask them in. The more insistent they are to be invited inside, the more guarded you have to be. Never get talked into inviting them in. And don't go out to them."
"How long have you lived here, Xander?"
"A few weeks."
"You think I am some kind of beigne there? I have been in Liberia two years, and not by being stupid."
"You say that a lot."
"I know. I'm thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead."
"Well, do it in the States. Someplace clean."
This makes him laugh, and she joins in. As they reach her thatched house, she gestures him inside with a flourish. "Do you approve of my form?"
"I totally approve of your form," he says.
Claudie pulls some eggplant and onions from the wooden bowl on her table, and sets out a knife and scarred cutting board. "These are already washed. You cut the onions small. The aubergine peeled, then in one-inch pieces."
"Water for handwashing?"
"That jug there."
As he goes for that, Claudie hoists up a huge yellow plastic jug and pours water into a big stockpot and a smaller pot on the range top of the cookstove. The yellow can thuds hollowly on the floor when she sets it back down.
"I can go to the cistern if you like," Xander says.
"Sure, and why don't you use that knife and cut off your balls while you're at it?"
"Because the onion juice would make it really painful." (And because they might come in handy later, hopefully soon.) "I take it that's your charming way of saying that's women's work."
"You lived in Bindu's village how long and don't know that?"
"You've been working all day."
"They don't care. It would get all over town before you got back with the can. I have a girl who does that. She'll be in in the morning."
"Isn't chopping eggplant putting my manhood in peril?"
"Only if you're sloppy with the knife. No one's going to see but me. You put those in here there."
Claudie makes a little clucking noise. "A bad habit." She flaps fingers and thumb in the international symbol for yack yack yack. "La. La. La. It comes along in English. Minute." She squats to rummage in a cupboard curtained with patterned cloth.
While she's busy he looks around her home again, noticing things he was in no shape to see the night before. A bookshelf with a statue of Mary. A rosary hanging from a nail near the doorway. Maybe, like she says, she is no beigne.
When she emerges from the cupboard with a can of tomatoes, he says (stupidly), "You have a rosary."
"That one's from my first communion."
"Does that mean you're Catholic? I'm a little dense about this stuff."
"Way," she says, which he realizes is oui.
He nods. "I have a lot of spare time while I'm sitting with Bindu. I do a little wood carving, you know, and I could make a nice cross to hang in the doctor's quarters. If you'd like that. I've been itching to do something with wood since I went to see the coffin makers in Ghana." A nice little cross, a nice little Latin chant when no one's around, and maybe that'll help plug the huge security hole in the clinic. At least create one room to hide in if things really go south.
"You're very nice, Xander, but since the clinic is so --" She waves her hands, searching for words.
"So sans frontieres."
"Exactly. It's wise to be nonpartial with the religious, too." Another moment of bustling over the stove, and she announces, "Bien. The rice is cooking, and everything will be ready in twenty minutes. You, out on the porch. I want to clean up. Have a ginger beer and write in your book."
He decides not to put any of this down for Giles. (More likely, for the fire.) Altogether too much manhood imperilment to include in the permanent record. Instead he sips the surprisingly potent beer, sketches some plans.
The thing that is so difficult about this dance between a man and a woman, he realizes, is he's hardly ever done it. Sure, briefly, twice with notoriously bad outcomes (nice girl with ex who's a giant worm, rope-buying demon chick). But the times he's actually gone the distance, with Faith and with Anya, they pretty much pinned him to the mattress and had their way with him. Which does eliminate a certain kind of awkwardness, even if it fosters another.
With Faith, it was pure mosh-pit slamdancing. With Anya -- maybe the jitterbug: something where your partner's swinging you out into the void and it's giddy and just the least bit terrifying.
This? It's like slow dancing in the school gym, shifting from foot to foot while doing your impression of rock and lichen.
In a way it's kind of fizzy and nice. On the other hand, it's killing him.
Along the way, there's been: his own five minute crack at the bathwater, which he's grateful for; rice, with eggplant and tomatoes and onions cooked in just a dribble of olive oil, not a cup of palm oil; quite a bit of very strong, very gingery, not very aged beer; a brief lesson in Quebecois French, with demonstrations where necessary.
To flirt is "chanter la pomme." (To sing of apples!)
A kiss is "un bec."
The thread of the lesson seems to get lost after the second vocab word. By this time the apple singing is largely wound down, because the bec is pretty much what's happening now.
The room is so sparsely furnished, there's no good space for making out. There's wooden kitchen chairs or Claudie's bed. It's awkward, and he doesn't feel like he should be the one to move things to the next level, especially when it's actually two levels up, so he waits (Joe Passive, as ever) for her to suggest it.
Not that this is a bad stage to spend some time. Not at all.
He doesn't learn the French for "let's go make out on the edge of the bed." Claudie just takes him by the hand and draws him there. The thing about the edge of a bed is, it's the edge of a bed and not a couch, so this stage doesn't last very long at all.
She lies back among her silk-covered toss pillows, the only foofy things in her little hut, and Xander leans over her.
"Red Delicious," he murmurs as he tastes her lips. They're more worthy of the name than the apples are.
He unbuttons the silk shirt she changed into before dinner, finds a scrap of peach-colored lace posing as a bra. Xander releases the front hook and teases her nipple with tongue and just a hint of teeth. "I'd say that's a Honeycrisp." He takes his time here. No two alike, not even on the same woman, so attention must be given. He gives it until Claudie gasps and arches beneath him. Anya used to say any lover worth having should be able to give his partner an orgasm or two before he even went below the belt, and he'd enthusiastically taken the challenge.
"Why don't we check out the Pink Lady?"
She laughs and swats him on the shoulder. "You are so ridiculous."
"If you can't be ridiculous in bed, Claudie, where can you?" Another thing he'd learned from Anya. He unfastens the buttons of her appealingly tight jeans.
They both like the Pink Lady quite a lot.
After a good few more apples are sampled, Claudie and Xander lie together beneath the mosquito netting, the sweat cooling on their skin.
Xander is considering which variety he liked best (the Braeburn or the Spy?) when Claudie props herself on an elbow and fingers the amulet he wears.
"This isn't local. Where did you find him?"
"It's from the States. A friend made it for me."
"Ah," she says, in a way that translates as so you forgive its ugly hand-craftiness.
He considers whether to say more, and decides he won't hide himself from her. Not any more than he absolutely has to. "For protection."
"Your friend is one of those new-agey girls?"
"Actually, I'd say more old-agey. What makes you think it's a girl?"
Claudie rolls her eyes. "Please. It's always girls who love these things. What does he protect you from?"
"Don't scoff. He might be why I'm alive. When I got whacked with the cricket bat, if I'd fallen down on the porch instead of back into the house, I wouldn't have had a chance."
"This is more of what you were telling me before."
"The superstitious bullshit? Yeah. Except the bullshit part."
She makes a disgusted noise and swats at a bug that's found its way through the netting. "Damn thatch. Better for sleeping in the rainy season, but the bebites, they love it."
"Want me to see about getting some zinc? I could put up a new roof for you."
"That's too much."
"You've fed me, given me a place to stay, looked after my eye. I was in construction before, it wouldn't be any trouble at all."
"You're hard to keep up with. Before what what?"
"What are you now?"
"A teacher of what?"
"Sometime I'll tell you. You know what you are? A bebite." He pokes her lightly here and there to illustrate his mosquito. "A bebite sans frontieres," which makes her laugh.
The touching and the laughter lead to other things, and the whole subject is dropped for activities with far more entertainment value.
How about an abrupt change of subject? (I can hear the sigh of relief all the way here, Giles.) All this ruminating about the Watcher-Slayer thing made me remember crazy Mrs. Post. Ever wonder what would have happened if she'd never showed up? Maybe Faith never spins out of control. I mean, there's a relationship a girl has to put her whole trust in. She'd just watched her first watcher die right in front of her, and then the next one plays her for a fool. I can't help but think my attempt to get her to come back to us was doomed from the start, for reasons that had nothing to do with me. How could she trust anyone? Easier to go follow someone she knew was evil than put herself on the line like that again.
Did anyone ever find out what the hell Mrs. Post's deal was? Because to me she came off like your basic power-mad supervillain type. "I want to rule the world, mwahahahahahahaha!" Yawn. No, actually, she makes me think of Janice Lester. We're talking old school Trek, and frankly, one of the crappiest eps ever. Janice can't be a starship captain, because strangely enough in the 23rd century, it requires a dick to drive one of those things. The fact that she can't command a starship simply because she's a woman drives her insane, and she arranges a body swap with Captain Kirk. Thus launching some of the worst acting of Shatner's career and a tragic missed opportunity for blue eyeshadowed femmeslash, but I digress. This line of thinking makes me wonder, if Mrs. Post reminds me so much of Janice Lester, is there something about the Council that reeks of stupid Federation rules? Is there some injustice or inequity that she faced, or women watchers in general faced? Or do watchers in general periodically go insane, and we just don't hear much about it. Because who's gonna talk much about it? Doesn't look great in the recruitment brochures. "...And here's an aerial view of our private looney bin, one of the many perks of employment with the Watchers' Council..."
Not that I'm feeling like I might go off the deep end or anything. I'm good. Just curious, since we kinda skimped on the history to get me out in the field.
And you really don't have the faintest idea what the fuck I'm going on about, do you? Ask Andrew, he'll fill you in. Hell, he's got the DVD.
And I was just struck by the certainty that you'd rather have me yammer on about your sex life some more than sit and watch Trek with Andrew. Believe me, I get that.
Doesn't matter. Just idle thoughts that come up while I hang out at the hospital.
When Xander arrives at the hospital, they've got the curtain drawn all the way around Bindu's bed. After he listens long enough to determine nothing's seriously wrong, he heads back outside to wait on the porch, where the American doctor is having a smoke.
"Everything's okay with Bindu?"
"She's doing really well, yeah. They're just a little late finishing up with the baths. It's gonna be crazy later on. We're doing the vaccination clinic today. We might deputize you for meal delivery duty or something."
"Sure. As long as I don't have to stray too far from Bindu." He offers his hand. "I don't think I ever introduced myself. Xander Harris. I'm here for some field studies for my doctorate at U Penn."
"Glad to meet you. Nick Richards. Everyone around here calls me Dr. Nick."
"That's unfortunate." He does the voice from The Simpsons: "'Hi, everybody!'"
He laughs. "I know, I know. I actually say that once in a while, but nobody gets it. That's probably a good thing." He takes a deep drag on his cigarette, then looks at it like it's something he's never seen before.
Xander braces himself for a speech.
"We all really love Claudie here," Nick says.
Yep. That's the one. "I'm sure you do. She's a great person."
"I don't have to say it, do I?"
Xander shakes his head. "I've given that speech myself. The only real variable is the part about the consequences."
"I'm partial to the 'throwing you to the crocodiles' one."
"Nice. Got a local feel. I don't have to say the bit about 'won't be necessary,' do I?"
"Yes," Nick says. "You do."
Xander can't suppress a grin. He likes this guy. "I can't say where I'm going to end up, but she knows that. Whatever happens, I'm not going to treat her badly."
"Glad to hear it." Nick bends to crush his cigarette butt against the interior wall of a coffee can half filled with sand, then drops it onto the sand. "Got a line out here already. I'd better get in and get started."
When Xander follows, Bindu's wrangling with Claudie, wanting to be allowed out of bed. It's a thing of beauty, watching two strong women go at it.
Claudie spots him first. "Xander, can you reason with her?"
"You tell me. She's as hard-headed as you. Any hope there?"
"It's been said," he says cheerfully.
"Two days ago she was nearly dead."
"She's a fast healer. She's not asking to be released, just to move around a little. Bindu's used to being a lot more active."
Claudie heaves a sigh, and Bindu twitches a triumphant smile, which she quickly smothers. "After lunchtime I'll check on you," she tells her in Kpelle. "If you're feeling well, I'll let you walk around the ward a little. If you behave until then."
Before she goes to work the vaccination parade, Claudie presents them with a checker board she scrounges up. Bindu's not only familiar with the game, she slaughters him at it. Multiple times. But it does him worlds of good to see her well enough to taunt him, keeping her voice down so she doesn't disturb the other patients.
Her older brother taught her to play, she says after a few games. Siakoh. "He was so smart and handsome, and the girls, oh, they followed him around like chickens. He always made me laugh, even when I had a fight with my ma." She cuts her eyes away from his. "He was so good."
"What happened to him?" Xander asks softly.
"Rebels." Xander thinks he knows what she's about to say next, but she surprises him. "They took him away to fight with them. He was thirteen."
Holy shit. There are no words. "Now that the war's over ... when Ellen rebuilds the country ... do you ever hope to see him someday?"
Bindu shakes her head. "He's not that boy. He's like them now. When they came, one of the rebels beat my father to the ground with his rifle. He wasn't even as old as Siakoh. Other fighters came for Dolo a year later, and that time they killed my parents."
Xander doesn't even try to formulate a response. He sits with her in silence, except for the checkers clacking on the board.
"You lost people," she finally says.
"Yes, I did."
"Tell me about them."
"I had a friend. His name was Jesse. He didn't have a flock of chickens following him around. He was the one who was clucking after a girl. She was very rich. Very beautiful. But he was like a speck of dust to her." Xander realizes he's telling this almost like the buildup to a folk tale, like Jesse's going to do something clever or heroic and win the girl. "A vampire got him. Jesse was the first vampire I ever killed." He doesn't tell her it was entirely an accident.
"They made him like them," she says.
"Yeah." The ache that springs up in his throat surprises him after all these years.
"Maybe you did him a favor."
How can a girl be so young and know such things? What kind of fucking world is this?
As Nick predicted, Xander is pressed into service to deliver lunch to the other patients. Hospital beds are so precious here that most of the others are in very bad shape. He realizes he's going to have to make arrangements for Bindu once they do release her, which could be soon. People here don't know their history, and it wouldn't be proper at all for them to live in the same place. He'll talk to Claudie.
He chats with the patients as he makes his rounds, joking with the younger ones, commenting on the weather with the others, or whatever news is nonpartisan and innocuous. There's chatter about the traffic lights that are going to be installed in Monrovia, the first working stoplights in over fourteen years. Imagine that!
It's hard. Monrovia's a city in ruins. When he passed through on his way here, he saw buildings with the whole side sheared away, like a cross-section, like pictures he saw of that federal building in Oklahoma. Except people were living in these bombed-out hulks. Traffic flowed every which-way to avoid the craters in the roadways. What's a traffic light good for there?
A symbol, maybe.
Hope that something is going to bring order to chaos.
In one of the beds is a kid -- well, American Xander thinks of him as a kid, but he's old enough to be a war veteran here -- who lost his leg when he fell off a logging truck. As Xander hands him his plantains wrapped in banana leaf, the kid's painkiller-glazed eyes take in Xander's Technicolor bruises and eyepatch.
"I actually lost my eye over two years ago," Xander tells him in Kpelle. "I didn't think I'd get used to it, but it happened faster than I expected. I really don't notice it much anymore."
The kid's gaze slides past him, uninterested in the food or Xander's encouragement. Xander's been there, too. He moves on to the next bed.
Sometimes you just want to avoid saying anything at all.
Another thing about Mrs. Post: Was there a Mr. Post? Or is "Mrs." an actual first name over in England, favored by ball-busting, kinda hot secret organization chicks?
You know. Mrs. Peel. Did you ever watch any television at all, Giles?
And no, I did not just say I thought Mrs. Post was kinda hot.
Moving right along...
After lunch, Claudie finds Bindu some clothes and flipflops to wear, and though she's supposed to stay on the hospital grounds, Xander accompanies her to the market. This is the biggest town Bindu's ever been in, and she gawks like a hick in New York City. No one seems scandalized by the fact that they're walking around together, and eventually Xander realizes people here take him for a doctor or volunteer with MSF.
Bindu sighs over the bolts of cloth, and truthfully, they amaze Xander too. In the States they'll print up a t-shirt as a souvenir of some significant moment; in Africa it's woven into a richly patterned cloth. Your team wins the soccer championships, and you can make a dress and traditional headwrap out of the event. Someone's had some foresight, because already there's bright cotton bolts with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's picture worked into the design.
"So pretty," Bindu says wistfully, fingering the cloth.
And there you go. Half a world away from Buffy, yet she's still her sister in more ways than one.
She does well covering her tiredness until it becomes exhaustion and the effort of hiding it is too much trouble. "I'm ready to go back," she says, right in the middle of admiring some cheap and flimsy cookware.
He curses himself for not paying close enough attention. He considers buying them each a Coke from a vendor they pass, but the cans are swimming in melted ice, and he's not willing to risk it.
"You did really well," Xander says as if she's just dusted a pair of vampires. "Dr. Claudie will either be amazed at how much better you are, or she'll yell at us both." He offers a hand to steady her as they reach the porch steps.
He gives her a moment behind the curtain to change back to her hospital gown. By the time he settles in with his book and his pen, she's asleep.
He treats Claudie to dinner at a local chop shop on the way back to her place.
"So you have had plenty of my cooking?"
"What, as in too much? No, I just thought I'd be a good guest and let you have a night out of the kitchen."
"You are a good man."
"You weren't so sure for a while there."
"I don't like mystery."
Xander pauses by a stall with a collection of garish shirts. He's been wearing the emergency change of clothes from his pack, but that's all he owns now. The things he wore here, along with Bindu's, are in the biohazard bin now.
"Check Áa," Claudie says. "This is the least repulsive." She holds a green patterned shirt to his chest. He buys it, though he was personally more attracted to a purple one.
"We have a closet at the clinic," Claudie says. "Things the volunteers have left. You can look there too."
"That's what I need. A better class of cast-offs."
After dinner, they walk back to her place and crack open a new bottle of palm wine. The leftover wine of two nights ago is already vinegar. She puts on some less lonesome sounding music, a French-Canadian band called Les Cowboys Fringants. Old-style folky sounding stuff with a modern overlay that's almost goofy sometimes. It filters from inside as they sit out on the porch.
"I've been doing some thinking, Claudie. Do you think it would be all right to build a kind of chapel out behind the clinic? You know, if it weren't actually part of the clinic. I'd clear the land myself, do all the work or pay for any help--"
"Why? Tell me why a 'big ol' heathen' is wanting to build a chapel, wanting to carve me a nice cross."
"People need someplace peaceful to think about big things. Hospitals tend to make you think about big things. Just because I personally don't--"
"You are so full of shit."
"I like to think I'm just mysterious."
"I drew a plan." Xander digs in his pack for the book, turns to the drawing he made the night before. "See? Very simple, nothing huge."
"Why do you have so much space cleared? It's got the blazing sun on it there."
"That's kind of the point."
"Why don't you come out and tell me what this is about? Take the mystery out, and make me happier."
"I don't think you'll be happier. But I think you're right. I'll tell you straight out what we're talking about, and as the bonus steak knives, I'll tell you what I teach. I'm predicting four osties, two calisses and a tabarnak, maybe two."
She raises her hand to activate the conversational pause button, and tops up their glasses. Once she sets the bottle down, she points a finger at him. "Okay go."
"You remember a couple of years ago, this town in California that fell off the face of the earth? Sunnydale."
"Sure, yeah. It was the big news just before I left Quebec."
"That's where I grew up."
"Dammit, I forgot to list that one."
"Where were you when that happened?"
"I was there. With several of my friends. Almost everyone else in town had cleared out, they could feel something nasty was coming down the pike. But we stayed to deal."
"You're going to tell me there that this was no sinkhole."
He sips at his wine. A touch sweeter than he prefers it, it must have been made today. "A sinkhole of demonic activity, maybe."
"Demonic? Voyons donc!"
"No fair changing the cusswords on me now."
"It's not a sacre. It means the same as 'come on.' This is craziness."
"I used to think so. Before one of my best friends got turned into a vampire and tried to do the same to me. So, there. That's what we're talking about. That's why the chapel has no trees around it, why I tell you not to invite people inside."
Claudie sits back in her chair. Caw-liiiiiiiiiiiiiis, is what it sounds like she mutters.
"It's hard to know where to go next," he admits. "I could tell you stories all night, but that's not going to make any difference. I'll give you the Cliff's Notes version. You can ask questions if you want, or just try to absorb it all. I've told this stuff to people who've seen things they can't explain away, but never like this, never oh yeah, by the way, there's vampires and demons and hellgods out there rattling around the world."
"Hellgods? What are they like? Horns and flames and ten-inch claws?"
"The one I saw was actually sort of pretty, in a cheapish way. Blonde hair and makeup and three-inch stilettos. Kind of Sex and the Hell Dimension."
"Go ahead and make fun of me, chose. I can change my mind about the kind of man you are."
"Claudie, believe me. I'm not making fun. This god, Glorificus, had been imprisoned in a human body and tossed out of hell. She's not a joke to me; because of her, one of my best friends died, and she made another friend insane. Not to mention coming pretty close to the literal hell on earth thing. You've spent a couple days around me now. I'm a practical guy, a doer. Does that fit in with the kind of guy who'd tell you things like this just to fuck with you?"
"Two days is not very long."
"No." This isn't going well. "Night's coming on. We shouldn't sit outside talking of these things after dark."
Claudie gives him a look that says she doesn't want to talk of these things at all, but she rises and accompanies him inside.
Jesus, Giles. Have you ever done this? Given the "bad shit is out there" speech to someone who doesn't have an inkling? I mean, with Olivia (sorry!) you had an opportunity. "Hey, you know those freakish looking demons who were skulking around stealing hearts? Um, well, yeah. That stuff is real." Not that that was a piece of cake (witness the vanishing of Olivia), but there's an entry.
My version of the speech is something like, "Nice day, huh? oh by the way WATCH OUT FOR VAMPIRES!!!!" Claudie's a big fan of the rational; she's a science gal. Bet you can imagine how that went over.
Maybe I shouldn't say she doesn't have an inkling. But there's nowhere in the world where inklings are easier to explain away. Mutilated corpses? Hell, must be animals in the bush. Or could be Rebels without a War. This is a country with an 80% unemployment rate, and a lot of the unemployed are ex-soldiers. A lot of them are teenagers still. Drug habits, brutal, fucked-up childhoods -- who needs vampires to explain the unthinkable?
You've got to convince her on the facts. So I switched tacks, talked about Bindu. By everything science tells Claudie, Bindu should be dead. She shouldn't even have made it alive to the clinic. Two days later I took her on a stroll through the market. She's weak, she's tired, but she's up moving around, undeniably Not a Regular Girl. I told Claudie about Slayers. Of course she thinks that's a crock of shit, but I can see it bugs her that she can't explain Bindu away.
You know how this will go, Giles. She won't believe until she sees something with her own eyes, something she can't explain away.
I just hope nobody dies to make that happen.
Of course somebody dies.
It's how this thing works.
Bindu's doing enough better that he lingers with Claudie in the morning as she makes coffee in her French press. She's less steamed this morning than last night, that's something. Nobody sang of apples last night, though at least she didn't make him sleep on the floor. They started off on opposite sides of the bed, but when Xander woke, he was spooning Claudie.
They avoid the topic of last night as they sit at her little table over coffee and dense squares of rice bread, and that's perfectly fine as far as Xander's concerned. The strong equatorial light makes it easy to banish thoughts of vampires. To be a young couple basking in the quiet pleasures of a morning together when nothing has had a chance to become routine. He's had this with Anya and no one else until now, and realizing this makes him just a little wistful.
They walk together through the town as it begins moving through its day, Xander wearing his not-repulsive green shirt. They chatter about nothing of more consequence than his desire to find a new pair of pants. It feels mundane and yet somehow rare. Precious. A touch ominous, in that lull-before-the-storm way.
As they arrive at the clinic, Nick is on the porch having his smoke. He looks tired after working yesterday's double shift, but there's something beyond that. He greets them with a nod.
"Something's happened," Claudie says.
The kid who lost his leg, Nick tells them. He died during the night. "No fucking reason at all."
"The infection," Claudie says.
"We had that beat," Nick says. "His temp was normal at last check. Everything was healing up fine. He just stopped breathing sometime last night."
"A reaction to the pain meds?"
Xander braces himself for a storm. "What I'd do is check for any unusual marks. Maybe hidden somewhere you wouldn't look close. He was pretty bruised up."
"Marks?" Nick asks. "Like what?"
"Like bites," Claudie says in disgust. "Dr. Xander here believes in vampires." She stomps on into the clinic.
Nick's mouth twitches. "You believe in vampires."
"That statement isn't entirely accurate," Xander says. "People believe in things they can't see. God. The Easter bunny. Stuff you've seen, you don't believe in. You know."
Nick doesn't even try to hide his incredulous grin. "You've seen vampires."
"Seen 'em, killed 'em, more commonly got my ass kicked by 'em. Got drunk with one, but he was a special case."
"Bindu and I have killed some here. We pissed them off and they came after us, up to her village. That's how she got hurt. Have you seen this before? Patients who are doing better, maybe on the verge of being released, who inexplicably die?"
"People give up sometimes. Especially when they lose a limb. Or sometimes they think they've been witched, you know? They think they'll die, so they die."
"People give up when they get all their blood sucked out too. You'd be amazed how that saps your will to live."
"Ostie de tabarnak!"
"I knew she'd be listening. You've done it now."
"Just humor me," he says loudly enough for Claudie to hear. "Look closely. It won't hurt anything. You got any questions later, look me up. I'm going to go in and check on Bindu now."
There's a clatter of instruments from one of the exam rooms as he passes by, Claudie taking out her irritation on the inventory.
Xander passes on by, crossing to Bindu's bed. She's looking better still, sitting up with her legs crossed beneath the sheet.
"That boy died," she says. She points to the empty bed.
"I heard. That's bad news. Did you see or hear anything last night?"
She shakes her head. "I'll be on guard tonight."
"Bindu, your job now is to get better. I didn't expect you'd seen anything, I just asked in case. Could be he just died."
"I don't think so. I feel it."
She's got a good slayer sense. "Hey, I brought you something. Rice bread, from Dr. Claudie."
Bindu sets it aside for later, still unsettled.
"Now that you're getting stronger, we should start thinking about what we do when you're well. We can go back to your village. You don't have much family left; you must miss them. We could also stay here. There's a need for a slayer here, and we have friends here already. We'd have to figure out the living arrangements. The third option I can see is going to Ghana. We talked about that, back in your village. You'd be with other girls like you, Bindu. They're just learning about themselves, the same as you. This school will let them learn from slayers who've done this longer, learn fighting technique, strategy, all that. They get to train without holding back their strength. You don't have to decide now, but those are the options I've been considering. You might have some thoughts too."
Xander suggests a game of checkers, to take the pressure off making a decision. "All you have to do now is keep this in mind, let yourself live with the idea." If he's honest with himself, it's partly that he doesn't want to talk about it any more. It took a lot out of him to lay out three options when all he wants for himself is the middle one.
He doesn't want to go back to Bindu's village. The isolation was too hard. Bindu never complained about her own role that set her apart, but he doesn't want to see her go back to it either. She deserves so much more.
He'd been all for taking her to Ghana before the attack at Bindu's village, and he still knows that's probably the best option for her. Maybe for him, too. But that would tear him away from Claudie, and even when she's in one of her explosive moods, he wants to be around her. He likes the town, too, so much more active and open than Bindu's village. Xander suspects he's riding on the goodwill people feel toward the doctors here, but he likes the smiles from the people in the market, the jokes and gossip and news. Maybe they're hoping he'll buy, but still it beats oh, crap, here comes the shaman! Smile and be nice!
She kicks his ass at checkers until Dr. Nick asks Xander to have a word with him.
The barely suppressed smirk is gone, replaced by the barely suppressed weirded-out.
So they found something.
Nick ushers him into the exam room, where the boy's body lies covered with a sheet. Claudie hovers in a corner, giving off a complex vibe of mixed emotions.
"We, uh, I thought we should get an independent opinion," Nick says. "I guess you've seen this kind of thing before."
Xander nods. Nick draws the sheet down to his waist, then brings the bottom half up to fold over it, leaving the boy's hips and groin covered.
Xander glances up at Nick, but he doesn't make any gesture to narrow the search. This is Xander's test, too, to show he knows what he's talking about. "Um, okay. Just so you know, I haven't done much in the way of handling dead people." He looks at the boy's face, remembering him turning it away from him yesterday. Xander might have called that expression dead, but now he sees how wrong he was. The tightness in the jaw is gone now, and Xander realizes how much anger and fear the boy had been holding in. His neck is unmarked, and Xander pulls the sheet back over his face without looking further.
"I doubt there's anything up here, if his neck's clear. Vampires will sometimes feed from the arms, but it's not efficient. It's a little more recreational. Druggies, people into bloodplay, that's where you see that. It's not for a meal or a kill."
It's harder than he'd have thought for Xander to look at the boy's legs. The one that was mangled by the logging truck stops just above the knee, and Claudie and Nick have removed the bandages for their examination. It was healing, but still raw. Xander's stomach turns at the wrongness of that truncation, and he remembers himself in that state, looking in mirrors and seeing nothing but an absence. He can't stop himself from looking.
"Xander," Claudie says, her voice softer than it's been since morning, "you don't have to--"
"Right there." Xander points with two fingers at a pair of punctures hidden within a spreading bruise four inches above the place where the leg stops. "That gives a vamp a nice shot at the femoral artery. Drain a person in no time."
Nick pulls the sheet back down to the boy's toes, and Xander lets out an unsteady breath.
"Here. You sit." Claudie pushes a chair out from the little desk in the room.
Xander decides he'd rather sit down than assert his macho cred. "Thanks. Part removal, y'know. It just, um, it does bad things to my head."
"Course it does," Nick says. "I keep a little bourbon. Would you--"
Nick makes a quick exit for his quarters and returns with a bottle and three glasses. His and Claudie's he barely covers the bottom with the amber liquid, but Xander's gets a healthy two fingers.
"So something was in the hospital last night," Nick says. "Unless, of course, Saa went out on his own, got attacked by something that completely drained his blood, then came back to his bed to lay down and die. Whatever this thing is, it has canines about the same width apart as a person's."
"If you don't want to say it, I will," Xander says. "You had a vampire here last night."
"How do we keep this thing out of the hospital?"
"That's difficult. This is a public building. They can come and go as they please anywhere the public can. A private space requires an invitation from the person it belongs to. There's a spell to disinvite a vamp you've accidentally asked inside your home, and I'm equipped to do it. But you'd have to do it for the physician's quarters, not for the whole building. The other thought I had was building a private chapel out back. You couldn't issue an open invitation like putting up a sign saying 'all welcome,' but people who needed to take shelter there could. Vampires couldn't."
"They can't go into any church, can they?" Nick asks.
"Sure they can. A handful took a bunch of hostages in a church in my hometown a bunch of years back."
"Tell him your hometown, Xander."
"You know Sunnydale, California?"
"Oh, jeez," Nick says, and after all the fuck!s and the ostie!s, it makes Xander laugh.
"Yeah, pretty much. It was kind of a supernova of supernaturalness, so I got to be a little bit of an expert without really trying."
"You had vampires there?"
"Vampires, demons, apocalypse cults. Your one-stop shopping for all your scary-shit needs. Except, actually, we didn't have Le Bonhomme Sept-Heures. Or even a plain ol' American bogeyman. Maybe that's one of those old stories that really is a load of crap. Or maybe he was just busy elsewhere." He's yammering. He closes his eyes and draws in a breath, focusing his attention on not yammering.
"How do people defend against things like that?" Nick asks.
"In Sunnydale we had the Slayer. The Slayer's a girl who's chosen to battle these forces. She has kind of a mentor, called a Watcher."
"Okay, you were pulling me in on the whole vampire thing, but a girl? That's craziness."
"Yeah, sounds like some crazy legend about a clever girl that you'd hear around these parts, doesn't it? Well, it should. The first Slayer rose up in Africa. They're all descended from her. In a metaphysical way. It's kind of a mantle that passes, not a genetic inheritance."
"I can't even believe I'm listening to this."
Claudie's keeping quiet, but she's exuding the See? See? What did I tell you?
"Well, think of this. You have this boy on the table, who should be alive, but he's dead. I'm betting it's not just him, that there've been others. So tell me this: who do you have out there who should be dead, but isn't?"
Nick says nothing, but Xander sees his reaction.
"Yeah. The Slayer's stronger and faster than most other humans, though she is human. She also heals fast, and recovers from injuries that would kill a regular person. I've seen this with my own eyes. So anyway, the mojo's come back home. It used to be just one Slayer at any given time, but now there are slayers all over the world. What made that change is a long, tedious story full of me losing an eye, so I'll spare us all the telling of it."
"You're saying Bindu's one of these girls."
"She's a Slayer, yes. I'm her Watcher. Personally, I'd have picked another job title, because it doesn't exactly exude non-creepiness, but I'm stuck with the centuries of tradition here. So anyway, what I suggest for the here-and-now is that I spend the night here. Bindu's getting stronger, but I don't want her fighting alone if something comes up. I'll make wooden stakes for everyone on staff, and if you give me the okay, I'll do the disinvite spell on the doctor's quarters, start on the chapel if you want."
"Yeah, but what about after lunch?" Nick says.
Xander laughs, glad to have a little lighter atmosphere. "Trust me. This is what I do. Since I was sixteen."
"Great. Claudie? What do you think? I say go to it."
"I don't like it, but I think we should. If Le Bonhomme Sept-Heures comes back, we spit in his eye, right?"
"Fuckin' A," Xander says.
I don't know, Giles. Do you ever feel like you bring death with you wherever you go? Like a mangy, feral dog that slinks around behind you, or maybe just something that stuck to your shoe, a lingering smell that follows you wherever you go? I try telling myself that death is everywhere, that I'm actually standing in its way, making things better. But that's not how I feel.
Paye's dead. His wives and kids won't ever see him again, and won't ever know why. This kid in the MSF hospital is dead. Probably no more than fourteen, lost his leg in an accident. Vamp bait.
I feel like I bring this with me, that I'm King Midas in reverse. That Claudie and Nick and Bindu are in grave danger just because I'm in their lives.
I've got us all mobilized. Nick and Claudie, they know now, and they're letting me prepare for trouble.
I'm just not sure that what I can do for them outweighs the liability I am.
P.S. How is it that Claudie promising to spit in the eye of the French-Canadian bogeyman is one of the sexiest statements I've ever heard?
The preparations keep him from Bindu's side for most of the day. First he secures Nick's room, then he begins clearing the land behind the clinic. When he takes a break from the heat of the sun, Xander finds Bindu in the tiny dayroom reading English language children's books someone donated.
"You look so much better every day," Xander says. "How are you feeling?"
"That means you're almost well."
The Bassa clerk comes into the room, offering a bottled water. "Dr. Claudie said to make sure you stay well watered, because you don't pay enough attention."
"Thank you." When she goes, he tells Bindu, "I feel like a Christmas cactus." She looks confused at the two English words, so he says. "A houseplant. Americans keep them indoors. Like a pet flower."
She laughs at that, then grows quiet. "I've been thinking about what you said. About what comes next."
"What do you think, Bindu?"
"I don't know," she says softly, and Xander immediately suspects it's a lie.
"Tell me," he says.
She picks at the print skirt she wears. "I think you want to be here. I think you love Dr. Claudie."
Xander blinks and stammers. "Bindu, we've barely --"
"Dr. Claudie --" Bindu calls out as Claudie passes the dayroom -- "your pet flower is in here."
Claudie laughs, and he sees truth in what Bindu said. If he's not in love, he's in the neighborhood. "My pet flower?"
"I was just describing houseplants. Mardea was just telling me to stay watered, and I said I felt like a Christmas cactus, and I think I just put the last nail in the coffin of that joke."
"You work too hard in the heat. You don't hydrate enough."
Claudie rolls her eyes. "I have work. If they interrupt me carrying you in with heatstroke, you will never hear the last of it." She bustles off to the waiting area to call another patient to the exam room.
Bindu gives him a smile full of meaning and mischief.
He doesn't want to say it, but he must. "Bindu, what I want isn't important. What's best for you and what's needed, that's what counts. So I want you to tell me honestly what you'd do."
She looks at him for a long time, and he wonders if Buffy ever gave what Giles wanted this much thought. If any of them ever had.
"Honestly," he says softly.
She looks down at her hands twisting in her lap. "I think I should go to your school. To Ghana. I don't know if I'm ready to be a slayer alone."
"Same as I was thinking. It's the best course, I'm convinced." He believes what he's just said, but his chest aches. "Dr. Nick told me he has to go to the capital to pick up a shipment. He's leaving tomorrow. I'll have him deliver a message to the proper people, and they'll make the arrangements to get us to Ghana. I think we could be ready in a couple of weeks."
He goes back outside shortly after this. He works too hard and drinks too little, using labor as an escape from the conversation he's just had, and the realization it prompted.
"Xander? Caw-liiiiiisss, I cannot believe how stupid you are." Claudie whistles as if he's a dog and holds her hand out for the machete. "Viens icitte. Now, before you drop."
"We should really secure that wood --"
"I'm just saying, it's valuable."
"You're just arguing." She tugs at his arm and suddenly his legs feel just a little rubbery. "Did I tell you?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine. I could stand to sit down, that's all."
She steers him toward the room he's just done the disinvite spell in. "In there."
"In there there?"
She's not cracking a smile. "You lie down. Feet up."
"I do feel the slightest bit--" Like death on a sodium-free cracker.
Claudie finds some bottled water and a cloth, and dabs at his face.
"Claudie, Claudie, I have to tell you."
"I have to take Bindu to Ghana. We're setting up a school there. She needs to be around girls like her."
"You be still, Xander. Give your body a chance to cool."
"Not right away, but soon. Couple weeks."
"I will stuff this rag right in your mouth."
He catches her hand in his. "I'm sorry, Claudie. I wish I could stay."
Xander's breath hitches just a bit. "I wish" -- Christ, he knows better than that.
"I do," he whispers.
Giles, I wish I could talk to you. Soon, I guess. In Ghana, or maybe even in Monrovia, if I can find a sympathetic soul with a sat phone.
I don't know anybody who's been through this.
It's so fucking hard.
A medical missionary from another village comes to fill in for Dr. Nick while he's away. Monrovia is a couple days off, depending on your vehicle and current road conditions, so Nick will be gone five days, maybe six. Claudie moves to the night shift for the time being. At least it gives Xander more time with her, as he's on guard duty in the deepest part of the night. Their vamp is either watching and knows his feeding grounds are under guard, or he's got a wider territory he's working.
When things on the ward are quiet, Claudie teaches him a two-player variant of euchre. When things are even more on the dead side, they slip into the doctor's quarters for a brief round of necking, made all the hotter for the need not to drop their guard for long.
When the missionary comes in for his shift, Xander and Claudie share bowls of her strong coffee at her house, then Xander puts in some work on the chapel until the heat of the day clamps down. He puts away his tools, pulls a tarp over the wood, then takes himself to Claudie's house, where she lies naked beneath her mosquito net. He wakes her with a kiss on the damp skin of her shoulder.
"Xander?" she says sleepily.
"No, it's Dr. Nick," he says in the other Dr. Nick's accent. "I've come to check on your condition." He traces a finger down her spine. "I think you have nervous skeleton."
"T'es crampant," she mutters.
"Crampant. You give me a cramp. From the laughing."
"Well, we'll have to work that out." He sheds his new clothes from the volunteers' closet and stretches out beside her.
Claudie gropes blindly on her nightstand, hampered by the fact that Xander's hands and tongue are doing some fairly distracting things. "Wait, wait, I have it."
"You have it? I hope penicillin will-- ow." Little foil packets rain down on him from the envelope Claudie is waving around, condoms from the clinic. They feel pointier than ninja stars, these little squares, every last one falling corner-down on his back and shoulders and neck.
There seem to be a dozen or so.
"I guess these will do for a start," he says.
Her silvery laughter falls on him too, like foil ninja stars. Full of good things, but accompanied by a tiny stab of pain.
He tears open a star, wishing he could wish time would stop.
It's much too hot to lie with their limbs tangled together afterward, but they do it anyway. Their time is too short to waste any of it.
"You do what I do," Xander says softly, "and you don't put much thought into the future. In Sunnydale we took things one apocalypse at a time. I had friends who went to college, but I just couldn't see that far ahead. There were other reasons I didn't go, but some of it was this feeling of 'why plan?' The only time I've ever let myself look ahead was a few years ago when I came close to getting married. Now I can't see past two weeks, when I have to leave here. It's no time at all, but it's the longest time I've thought ahead in I don't know how long. It's been 'put one foot in front of the other: Find the Slayer. Train the Slayer. Don't get dead.'"
She presses kisses on his chest, her hair sweeping across his damp skin. "What happened? With getting married?"
"I looked too far into the future. I saw myself becoming a kind of man I was afraid of being. I cut and run."
She raises her head, regards him. "What kind of man is that?"
He looks away. "Someone who's angry and bitter, who takes it out on the people around him. A drunk. Someone like my old man."
"What future was this, twelve million years A.D.? That's not the sort of person you are."
"He's closer to the surface than you think."
Claudie makes a dismissive noise.
"Like you said the other day, Claudie, a few days isn't very long to know somebody, to know what kind of person they are."
"I remember saying that." She plants another kiss on him. "I think I was full of shit."
She throws her leg over him, and in no time at all, he's thinking of nothing beyond this very moment.
The dreams come back.
The Sunnydale ones he'd thought he'd finally banished.
The one in which he stayed in the high school, fighting his way through the Bringers and the vamps, searching for Anya until at last the ground disappears from beneath his feet. He slides and slides and slides down a long chute, with bodies and huge rocks battering him as they fall too. At last he falls on a pile of rubble, his body broken, but quite conscious. Next to him is a corpse so decomposed it's impossible to see a face.
She wears Anya's wedding dress.
The jawbone shifts a little to the right as the mouth opens. "There you are. I was beginning to think you'd jilted me."
Funny thing: You can tell the difference between the sweat that comes from sleeping in the hottest part of the equatorial day, and your classic cold sweat. He jackknifes upward in bed, gasping and shuddering, and Claudie drags herself up out of sleep to draw him into her arms. "What is it, tell me what's the matter."
"Nothing, nothing. Just an old dream."
"It seems very fresh to me."
"I haven't had this one for a while. It kind of blindsided me."
"Have you ever told it to anyone?"
"God no." Not even the Council shrink, who did the evaluation required before he could be sent into the field. He'd liked her well enough, and told her plenty, but he'd never been much on picking apart dreams.
"Maybe nightmares are a second cousin to Le Bonhomme Sept-Heures," she says. "We can spit in its eye, too."
He settles back onto the pillows with her, letting her enfold him in her arms. She caresses his hair, presses kisses on his temple as he talks.
"I used to dream this all the time. About Sunnydale, when it was sucked into hell. I was there when it went, and the ground crumbles beneath me, and I'm falling and falling. My ex-fiancee was there, dead, and she talked to me." This isn't even the Cliff's Notes version, but the coloring book version, but it's as much as he can manage.
"You must have imagined that a million times. Such a strange thing -- it was all the news talked about in the days before I moved here."
"No. I've remembered it a million times. Not imagined it. I was there. I barely got out. In my dream I stay and look for her. I didn't, though. I got out and I left her there."
"Crisse," she whispers. "She died in the cave-in?"
He shakes his head. "She died in the battle before the cave-in. It's the only reason I can live with myself at all."
"You still loved her."
"I did. I guess I do." He raises up on his elbow, offers her an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Claudie. It's bad form, talking about an old lover while lying in another woman's bed."
"You're talking about yourself. I want to know you, and she's part of you." She feathers her fingers over his face, across his lips. "Maybe now what we need is to stop talking at all."
He's content to follow her prescription.
She deals with the other nightmare too. The Caleb show. It's a lot shorter and pithier than the Anya dream. Just a little meet-and-greet at a wine tasting. Thumb, Eye. Eye, Thumb. That dream makes its appearance a few days later, a day or two before Dr. Nick's expected return.
She listens to that one too, and murmurs what sounds like an inventory of an ecclesiastical supply company.
"I'm sorry," he says. "It's hard enough sleeping in this heat, on a completely different schedule than your normal one. You really don't need this too."
"I've been meaning to talk to you about that. Bad dreams are on the list of annoying habits, right below trimming the beard hairs in the sink."
His heart slows its hammering. "You're giving me shit again, aren't you?"
Claudie draws his hand up, planting a kiss in his palm. "That's what we do with our pet flowers, no? We water them and give them shit."
"That working out for you?"
"It must be. You get prettier all the time."
"Oh, that's a different kind of shit."
"I have a special blend. That's my secret."
Xander props himself on his elbow, gazing at her. He feathers his fingers across her jaw, too strong and angular for conventional prettiness, but one of the features that makes him think she's beautiful. "You look like there's something you want to say."
"I want to look at your eye when we get to the clinic. The swelling is almost gone. I think you can wear your prosthesis again."
"That's great." That's not, he suspects, what she had on her mind. "I'm wondering if it seems like Anya's too present. With the dreams and -- well everything. Talking about her."
A tiny frown. "Didn't I encourage that?"
"You did. Absolutely." But sometimes lovers ask for what they think they're supposed to want.
"I don't mind that she's important to you. I don't want to give my heart to a man who considers the last one he was trusted with to be disposable."
His breath catches. "You're thinking about giving your heart to me?"
Claudie reaches up and traces his lips with her fingertips. "I think it's already done. So I have been thinking of the future too. A little past this next week."
"In one month I have a vacation. It's three months long, they want us to -- I think it's the same word in English -- to decompress? And we decide what's next. I have to go back to Quebec, of course, for part of that. But I like to travel. Maybe I could come to Ghana for a while, if you think it's a good idea."
Xander blinks. "I think it's a wonderful idea. But what about a slayers' school in Ghana, exactly, constitutes a vacation for you?"
She smiles. "I'll be with my pet flower."
When you find yourself happy -- even in short little bursts that have more to do with the color of the sky or the knock-you-down scent of honeysuckle on the breeze than anything that's going on in your life -- do you catch yourself waiting for the big kick in the teeth from fate?
Do you find yourself happy? I'm ashamed that I have to ask, Giles. I hope you'll forgive me for being oblivious so much of the time. When I think of you in the months before I left for Africa, it seemed you were -- content, at any rate. I want more than that for you, Giles, I really do.
Are you laughing now? Oh yeah, Xander's in love, in that "I want everyone in the whole wide world to be happy!" stage.
Not quite that far gone. There's still a select handful of people I could wish misery on -- well, more accurately, to sit happily by and watch. My wishes (made quietly when no potential vengeance demons are around) are specific to you, G-man. You deserve happiness a hundred times over. Why aren't people rewarded with happiness for the things they do for people who'll never know? Sometimes it looks to me like the shittier you are as a human being, the more goodness life heaps on you.
Whoa-la! (as Claudie loves to say) Not sounding much like Besotted Boy, am I? I just ask these questions. Why aren't you and Jenny Calendar raising a string of Anglo-Gypsy kids? Why is Buffy, last I heard, working her way through a boy band's worth of lightweights? Why has every one of the four of us had to bury someone we love? Who set the world up this way?
It's just a mood. Please don't worry.
You know what? I do want the whole world to be happy.
It's market day, so he and Claudie head out early to find Bindu some new clothes before their shift at the hospital. She's been malingering with Claudie's approval, sticking close by the hospital with an occasional night patrol through the center of the town. Xander has a suspicion that part of Bindu's enthusiasm for this plan is the desire to give him and Claudie some space.
As they wander through the market stalls, he tells her a bit about Giles, and some of the laundry list of things Bindu has helped him discover about himself and realize about Giles, most of the latter much too late to do any real good.
The conversation is interrupted numerous times for brief exchanges about the goods and their price, and without fail, about the coming inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Xander can't remember this kind of excitement among Sunnydale residents for American inaugurations, except when teachers would try to whip some up at grade school, setting up the television in class so bored kids could watch Our Government in Action. The people here sound like they believe a new era is coming -- or at least they hope for it -- where Xander can only remember his father casting aside the newspaper with the conviction that the ceremony ushered in More of the Same Old Shit. At each stall, Dr. Claudie is asked if she's heard the news, that the American first lady and the Secretary of State will be there for Ellen's installation. Each time she matches their excitement and wonder, and Xander finds his own cynicism dropping away.
By the time they've found some everyday clothes, some flipflops and the complete set of pagne a single woman wears (and one of the Ellen pagne to send back to Willow once he's in Ghana), he's given up on the thread of their conversation. So it's a surprise as they're sitting in the chop shop over plantains and dumboy when Claudie says, "It's not a sign that you're a thoughtless person. Young people are notoriously blind to the idea that their parents think about sex, and god forbid that they might like it. Or do it."
"No, Claudie, Giles is not my father."
She eyes him dubiously. "Oh, he's not?"
"These people you tell me about, they're the family you chose. Their love is important to you, and I can see how much you want Giles to be proud of you." She says his name the French way, Zheel. "You're discovering him now as an adult, the way we all re-map the territory of our parents. Suddenly we fill in the great blank stretches, and these hills and valleys are familiar, because they're on our maps too. Of course it's painful. We realize there were times they suffered and we weren't aware, and it makes us lonely for them. But you were there, even if you didn't know, and you were yourself, and that means more to them than you realize."
Xander wishes he could take her hand, kiss her, give her some sign of how much he loves her in this moment. But these things are not done here, and it's not his culture to break its rules.
Bindu's squeal of delight over her new clothes would do Buffy proud. "They're so beautiful, Xander, I've never had such fine things."
"Well, you have Claudie's taste to thank. She helped me choose. Not only that, but this pagne is a gift from her."
"Thank you so much, Dr. Claudie. They're so nice."
"You'll be passing through Monrovia during the inauguration, I think. Everyone's going to be wearing their finery, and you'll be representing the upcountry people. We have to let everyone know we have our beautiful women, too."
Bindu's color deepens and she drops her gaze, all modesty, and Xander wonders how he could have thought of her at one time as less than beautiful.
"Claudie's hoping to join us in Ghana for a while. She has a holiday coming up, and she plans to spend some of it with us."
This prompts a shriek even louder than the new clothes squeal, and she leaps up to throw her arms around Claudie.
"I was a little scared about going to a new country and all the other slayers, but it will be easier having you there."
"It won't be right away," Claudie cautions her. "By the time I get there you'll have many new friends. You'll barely remember Claudie."
"That'll probably happen to me, too," Xander says. "Ow. Hey, I was just spreading a little fertilizer of my own."
"I've been waiting for Dr. Nick all day," Bindu says. "Wasn't he coming today?"
"Today or tomorrow, he'd thought." Claudie says. "It's nearly dark now, so probably tomorrow. He probably has a lot of news from Monrovia. Everyone's so excited that the American president's wife and daughter are coming, and the Secretary of State. Maybe he's heard more."
"Maybe he'll want to stay and see it," Bindu says.
"That's days away, and he knows he's missed here. I'm sure we'll see him tomorrow."
Giles, this isn't the country to conduct such a nerve-wracking business as ours. No phone service, no mail, no email. No "Call me when you get there" or "Don't worry, I'm taking an extra day, see you Thursday." It's just nail-biting and enduring your subconscious throwing every bit of crap at you that it can dream up. Guys like us, we even have sub-subconsciouses, don't we?
Nick's still within the range he gave for his return, but my motto as a watcher is "Worry early and often."
Can't think where I learned that.
Xander steps back from the exam room mirror after he places the prosthesis. It feels a little strange, but as far as he can tell it fits the way it's supposed to. There are still tinges of yellow on his temple, threads of purple, but the swelling is gone. He turns toward Claudie. "Well, there you go. The pre-2003 model Xander Harris."
She steps in closer, laying a hand on his cheek, careful to keep her fingers from straying too close to his eye. She's gotten very good at that. Her gaze shifts from the real eye to the prosthesis and back again. "I can't allow you to wear this. You are much too pretty now."
"And this is a problem how?"
"The women will be lining up to sing of your apples, and they'll block the door of the hospital, and no work will get done."
Xander grins. "It is possible to shovel the shit on too thick, you know. Even the sweet-smelling kind."
"Am I smothering my flower?"
"It's up to my --"
The rough throb of an engine brings him to a halt. It's not a sound he wants to hear after dark, bringing memories of Paye with his throat cut, of the cricket bat slamming into his head and the discovery of Bindu's nearly lifeless body in the first glimmers of dawn.
"What?" Claudie asks. "Oh -- the truck. It's Nick."
"No, Claudie, wait. Let me check it out."
"I know that sound, it's okay."
He grabs her by the arm, roughly enough that she yelps.
"Just two minutes."
Footsteps bound onto the porch and on into the building. "Hiiiii, everybody!" Nick says in his Dr. Nick voice.
"What did I tell you?" Claudie breaks his grasp and darts out into the waiting area.
As swiftly as Xander moves, Nick is quicker. He catches Claudie by the waist and snakes another arm across her chest, holding a scalpel to the soft flesh below her jaw.
"I just love a warm welcome," Nick says. "Totally makes it worth being away."
It's pointless to reason or make demands, but it's equally pointless to raise the crossbow he snatched up from the exam table. Nick's got the human shield thing down perfect. "Let her go."
"It was hard to come back," Nick goes on. He sweeps his tongue over his fangs. The new vamps, they seem to do that a lot. "All those people. Did you know if you're a squatter in a bombed out building with three walls, the invitation thing doesn't apply at all? But really, the best meals are at the hotels for foreigners. Business is picking up there, with the big wingding coming up. I thought about staying. Scoring at least a Secret Service agent or two. But I had several compelling reasons to come back. The clinic's down to bare bones on supplies, so I had to bring those. Though damn, I think I forgot to turn on the refrigeration unit. Guess the drugs won't do you much good."
Claudie mutters enculeur de mouche under her breath, and gets the kiss of the blade just under the jawline. A drop of blood wells at the place where he pricked her.
"Let her go," Xander says again, and again Nick goes on as if he hasn't spoken.
"Reason number two, we've got our resident vampire expert here and his little slut, uh, slayer. Knowing what I know, it seems right to do my brethren a favor and kill you."
"You know the first vampire fact I learned? God, how you love to hear yourselves talk. It's a universal. Very cheesy, very before I kill you, Mr. Bond."
"After I kill you, Mr. Bond, I'm gonna fuck your girlfriend here. Always wanted to. So how is she? I bet she's a screamer. Who's better, her or Bindu? I'm voting on Claudie." He slides his hand upward to fondle her breast. "Fuck me right, and maybe I'll turn you," he whispers against her neck.
Claudie turns into the hand he's just moved, coming up and around with a forearm into Nick's throat.
"Get down!" Xander yells.
Claudie drops to her knees and Xander raises the crossbow, but Nick is bending over Claudie with the scalpel flashing. Xander fires without taking careful aim, nailing him in the stomach. It's enough to stagger him back a step, and Claudie scrambles to her feet and out of his reach. There's blood, but Xander can't see how much or from where.
"You'll pay for that, both of you."
Bindu appears behind him and jabs a stake deep into his back. At his look of shock and surprise, she says, "Before I kill you, Mr. --" He crumbles to dust at her feet. "Oh. I think I need to talk faster."
Xander rushes to Claudie, while Bindu goes for the door. "I'll make sure he was alone," she says.
"Take the crossbow." He kneels beside Claudie, who's curled on her side with her back toward him. "Claudie, Claudie, how bad is it?"
"Gloves, for the love of god. Never touch blood."
He hurries to do her bidding, relieved she's doing well enough to bark orders. Pulling on the bright purple gloves, he remembers bringing Bindu in, covered in her blood.
Carefully he peels Claudie's blood-soaked shirt away from her skin. There's a slice four inches long, slanting from her collarbone toward the valley between her breasts. He presses a folded scrubs shirt, the first thing at hand, against the wound.
"This should make me a hit at cocktail parties," she says, then promptly gets the shakes. "God, Xander--"
"You're safe now. It's okay."
"Nick was my friend. To think of him--"
"That wasn't your friend." He brushes the hair back from her face. "That was a demon who had his face and body and memories, but Nick's gone."
"The things he said. That he always--"
"Claudie," he says firmly. "That was the demon. Nick cornered me a few days ago to tell me if I broke your heart he'd break my legs. That was your friend. Not that thing."
"What happened to Nick?"
"He's dead, honey. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
The shakes give way to sobs. "He was here just a year, but I got to love him."
"Of course you did, Claudie." He strokes her face, annoyed by the film of latex separating their skin. "I kind of did too." Xander tugs at one of the gloves.
"Leave that on. You have to sew this up."
"Ostie," he says, which at least prompts a smile. He takes her hand and presses it against the cloth over her wound. "Hold this here, while I get you up and into the exam room."
Her legs wobble a little as he helps her up.
"Hey. Hey. No fainting. Think how embarrassing that would be if word got out."
"How could that happen?" she asks pointedly.
"Just how you think. C'mon, just a few more steps and you're there." He gets her into the room and up onto the exam table, where he pulls out the extension for her legs so she can stretch out. "Good job. You did great. Stay with me now, you have to talk me through this." He finds the supplies for cleaning the wound from memory, and sets out bandages and tape. When he turns back, tears are streaming down her temples into her brown hair. Xander dabs at them with a square of gauze, wishing it were skin on skin instead. "I know, sweetie," he whispers.
"I can feel his breath on the back of my neck. That's the last thing I have of him."
"Just keep telling yourself that wasn't him. His body was hijacked by the demon that killed him. It's hard, I know. I'd rather face ten random vamps -- well, half a -- well, two -- rather than one who was a friend. They know how to get inside your head, and they will. We'll talk about this more, because I've been through it too. Let's get you fixed up first."
Finally he's got the scalpel slash cleaned out and has managed, after multiple efforts, to thread the needle. He takes a deep breath, hoping not to faint himself, hoping not to leave her with a Frankensteinian scar across her creamy skin. "Want a bullet to bite on?"
"Ostie de tabarnak. Just get on with it."
"Let me do it," Bindu says from the doorway. "You can tell by the way he holds that he's never made a stitch in his life."
"Hey. I've put on plenty of buttons in my time." Even before he left home. But it's true -- if something he owned needed a seam or a hem, it went ragged or waited for Willow to fix it. "Wait. Why am I arguing?"
Once she's washed and gloved up, Bindu takes up the needle.
"How was your patrol?"
"Quiet. It's like Dr. Nick said, why would the vampires come here if they had Monrovia? Why did he?"
"It happens a lot," Xander says. He's taken off his gloves and stands by Claudie, stroking her hair. "New vampires go after the people they loved in their human life. Some kind of bridge-burning instinct, I guess. A need to erase the past."
Bindu takes another stitch, small and precise. He'd never have managed something so dainty. She murmurs comfort as she works, and Xander can't help but think how lucky he is. The woman he loves and the girl he also loves, so good with one another.
As he so often does, he thinks of Giles, and for once he thinks he's got the better deal. He remembers Jenny and Buffy, the terrible rift between them torn open by Angelus. Poor Giles, caught between them, having to choose. And then losing Jenny before things were totally right between them.
If there is a god out there who has any faint interest in humans at all, who might give the slightest crap whether Xander lives or dies, Xander offers thanks for this.
That Claudie and Bindu are alive and relatively unscathed, and care about each other.
And for whatever reasons of their own, they care about him.
You have to meet them, Giles. Both of them. Bindu, so serious and stubborn when I first knew her, learning to joke a little, and always so brave. Did you ever feel just humbled by Buffy? I'm supposed to be the teacher here, but sometimes she just bowls me over.
And Claudie, well, she brought me back to life. She's seen her first vampire at last, and it was about as painful as it gets. A colleague she loved and trusted, who loved her, and then she's literally in his clutches as he talks about how he'd like to fuck her and then turn her.
I think about the first time I was in a similar position. Hell, I can't remember -- did you ever know Jesse at all? He was my closest bud before Buffy pulled me and Willow back together, drew us both to her. Confronted with Jesse as a vampire, I let him mesmerize me. I'd probably be vamped and staked long ago, if someone hadn't plowed into Jesse, knocking him right into the point of my stake. But Claudie? She slipped around in Nick's grasp, slammed him right in the throat with her forearm, gave me a shot at him. I winged him, Bindu finished him off. Go Team Bindu.
The point is, Claudie's better at this than me, quicker on the uptake, even though it took some doing to get her to believe.
Yeah, I know. I'm yammering.
Have I mentioned that I'm in love with her?
The last thing he expected was tears.
It's almost a week later when they rattle into Monrovia in Paye's jeep, and the change takes his breath away. The stretches that looked like a garbage dump before have been cleared; work crews -- men and women -- are everywhere. Painting, cleaning, filling in craters in the road.
Xander swipes at the water leaking from his left eye. "Bindu, I wish you could have seen it before. To see the difference, I mean. It was so sad, so broken." It still is broken, but to see so many people caring enough to build things up again --
Claudie squeals. "Look at the road! They painted the lines!"
This is not even his own nation, but the sight of so many signs of hope brings a fierce ache to his throat.
They check in at the embassy, which is far busier than the last time he came through. After a wait, the Council's man arranges a place for them to stay, and Xander passes over his precious book to be placed in a courier pouch.
He regrets it almost as soon as the book is out of his hands, much like his second thoughts over the email he'd sent Willow just before he'd crossed the border.
He hopes someday Giles will forgive the intrusion into matters that are none of his business.
When he crosses back, he'll send an email. Sorry! Bastard of a bout of malaria -- I was out of my mind for weeks, but I'm back on my feet now!
Xander walks out of the embassy with the papers (from the Council, not the embassy itself) that will get him and Bindu to Ghana.
The next stop is the Canadian embassy, where Claudie tells their carefully edited account of events at the hospital, and she sends off a message to her own organization. The Canadians make sure they're well fed, offer them a spot to watch the journalists' feed from the next day's ceremony.
Inauguration Day dawns bright and clear, but hell, it's the dry season in Africa, so what day doesn't? Noting the weather on occasions like this is just one of those American cliches that must be indulged.
Bright and clear, with a chance of warships in the harbor.
They're American, they told him at the embassy yesterday. To ensure the peace and the safety of the First Lady, her daughter, and Secretary Rice.
As they watch the American women greet the president-elect now on the television screen, Bindu murmurs, "Such powerful women. It makes me happy to see them."
Xander looks over at Bindu, so dignified and beautiful in her pagne, and Claudie, looking so French in her slim linen dress, and he has to agree.
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