Angel had worriedly pulled a card from his breast pocket, and handed it to Xander.
Xander flinched, not tracking Angel's movement on his blind side.
Angel had immediately looked contrite. "Sorry. Look, Xander--- there's been some odd reports-- and some deaths..." He'd continued, ignoring Xander's negating head shake. "I'm not getting very much with my intel, but it looks like it could be a rogue slayer. Not a cake walk."
That goddamned leak was going to drive him crazy. He really shouldn't be using that kind of language right now, he reflected, this was probably not the best time to get God all ticked off at him. That almost made him chuckle.
Too little, too late — apparently, he’d already pissed off God royally—along with everybody else he cared for.
How? What had he done that had been so wrong that it led to this?
He closed his eye and drifted some more...
Back, back to the beginning…
He remembered, now that it was too late, how it had all started; the events that had led to his fool’s errand; it had been nearly three weeks ago. The flowers and trees had finally started to bloom, and London had become a riot of color, even in the darkest and poorest areas of the city, where he resided in pauper-ish squalor..
Maybe it had been the overwhelming sense of renewal permeating everything that had finally given him the courage to visit the new Council Headquarters in London, hoping to see Willow or Buffy and Dawn ,or even Giles, as he'd been incommunicado--okay, hiding from them, for the last few months.
And he'd been running out of money.
Instead of living at the Council Headquarters, he had opted to live as far away from them as he could get. He'd gotten some money from the old codgers, mostly for the loss of his left eye and the field work that he'd done-- rounding up slayer recruits until yet another injury put him out of commission for months.
That had been it for him, and he said sayonara muchachos! to the slaying and the death and the interminable apocalypses and everything.
He'd even quit contacting the rest of the Scooby Gang. He certainly had never told them why.
He'd had a sneaking suspicion that his absence hadn't been much noticed, and if it had been, it had probably been a relief.
His stipend had only covered so much, though. Being an American, with no skills that were in demand, he had found it very difficult to find work.
He had decided that he'd have to go back to work for the Council if he wanted to support himself. Either that, or go back to the States, and there had been nothing there for him anymore.
But it had been more than that.
He'd needed to feel useful again.
And he had been so lonely.
He'd been back at the Council for the last couple of weeks when he had begun noticing something ...strange.
After his trips around the dorms and outbuildings doing maintenance and repairs, he'd taken to haunting the Slayer training rooms; he supposed that it was nostalgia, or just wanting to keep an eye on the slayers he'd recruited months ago, before he'd quit.
Maybe he'd just needed to feel like he still had a connection. He'd not really spoken to the other Scoobies-- one chat with Buffy and Dawn, and he'd had enough for a while.
Still, the pitying glances. Such pitying, contemptuous glances.
He'd been written off as worthless to the Mission. But he'd known that, too. So, he wasn't surprised when his new duties were to do maintenance and repairs around the Slayer Dorms and the Council Headquarters.
He did his work and kept his head down. It got to be a routine. He had missed being around the slayers, and
he had to admit to himself that they were sort of like a drug for him; they made him feel needed; he loved the electric charge the carried with them.
They'd seemed so bright and innocent, and full of fire. It was inevitable that his maintenance of the slayer dorms became an opportunity to watch, to feel, if only vicariously.
Xander hadn't had much interaction with them, he spent his time doing the plumbing; fixing the broken furniture and the holes in the walls; he had been mostly occupied with everything else growing slayers tended to destroy.
He'd certainly had no real purpose to be there after hours, that was for sure. But there he had been, skulking around the halls, peeking through windows. He hadn't liked what he'd seen. Xander been standing by the door, peering through the window at what looked like large group of slayers; intermediates, by the punches and weapons they were throwing around.
These girls had seemed different from the intense but giddy teens he was used to. They had kicked and hacked at each other with a ferocity that seemed alien to him. When one of the girls, a big blonde, had tossed another girl, younger, but just as ferocious, through a plaster wall, Xander had nearly stepped out of his spot to see if he could help. He'd stopped, shocked, when he heard the blonde bawling out the other girls for being weak. For acknowledging pain. The Watchers apparently were urging the girls on to greater violence and savagery even in battling each other.
Since then, he'd begun surreptitiously watching other training sessions. They had gotten bloodier and bloodier.
Not questioning had gotten harder when one day, while repairing more damage to doors and walls in one of the training rooms, he had heard a pitiful, frightening sound-- like a puppy being tortured. Almost against his will, he'd rushed down the hall, to of the other training rooms.
What he saw stopped him in the doorway, and he'd stood there, frozen, not wanting to believe what he'd been seeing.
There was another group of girls, crowded around a creature no bigger than the average German Shepherd. Xander knew what the creature was, it was a demon, a Kk'jhu. He'd seen them in Kenya, and the carrion eaters were harmless. This had been an old one, terrified and struggling to get away on it's stubby legs, but the girls had just kept laughing as they kicked it and stabbed at it with their wooden training spears and swords.
Since when had the slayer trainees been given aging demons, harmless in and of themselves, to practice on? The Kk'jhu cried out again, it's brightly colored tentacles quivering in fear as the slayers cornered it.
Xander had watched in horror as as one of the slayers he'd brought back from Cleveland, a freckled, fresh-faced girl named Trudy of all things--ripped the insectoid head from the poor creature, splattering gore all over the area, including her comrades.
Xander's stomach had roiled, and he'd just barely staggered out without the girls noticing that he'd even been there.
He'd debated going to Buffy about it, but after the last encounter he'd had with her, decided to wait.
To find out more. To be sure. Something was wrong.
So, He'd kept his knowledge of the incident to himself, but increased his monitoring of the slayers.
He'd gotten used to that-- keeping everything to himself. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen any of the people who'd once been the most important people in his life. His family, the Scoobies.He'd opted to muddle along, staying out of Council Business. It wasn't his thing anymore-- and he'd been shunted aside in favor of the super-powered ones.
But he couldn't ignore this. He just couldn't.
He'd been mopping up the mess from one of the overflowed toilets when he'd recognized one of his earliest charges, from when he'd tracked slayer over Africa and Europe. She was dark haired, reedy, solemn. He though he name might be Katrina. Kat.. something..
Not noticing him, she'd cursed in German when she found the communal bathroom out of order.
"Hey." Xander caught her eye, and she regarded him as if puzzled that he would speak to her.
"Da?" She'd seemed preoccupied.
"Hey,is your name Katrina? I think I remember you...didn't I bring you here from Frankfurt?"
"Yes. I remember you,also. You were one of the original ...Scoobies. Xander."
"You are janitor, now?"
Xander felt a blush creep across his face. "I just like to help out. Here and there. So, ah-- how are things going for you? Not finding things too-- ah-- rough? Ah, kinda scary?"
"We have our Mission," The girl had said, "to make the world safe for humankind, for all time.", and something went flat in her gaze, as if Xander was beneath her notice. That he didn't count. She'd curled her lip. "Everything is as it should be."
"You sure, Katrina?"
"Why does the janitor ask this question?" She'd asked him, silkily. "This is not your.. area, yes? Perhaps, you should pay attention to your job." She'd spun on her heel,and left, presumably looking for a bathroom that worked.
Xander had first flushed with rage and then fear.
So, when he'd cautiously talked to another of the slayer recruits, she had responded with nearly the same words,"We have a mission. To make the world safe for humankind, for all time." That was beyond spooky; Stepford Slayers. The way both girls had looked at him after he tried chatting with them unnerved him even more.
The next day, when he went down the halls on his rounds, a small group of girls not only noticed him,they had given him odd glances while whispering intensely to each other. Still giving him those suspicious looks.
What had he done?
He'd known something was up, something new-- but he was left out of the loop-- and he had only himself to blame, he got that.
When he'd returned from Africa, he had not been given any new assignments, in fact, he'd been actively discouraged from taking any new ones due to his handicap-- the loss of his left eye-- and he'd been angry and a little bitter. He'd felt useless.
Xander hadn't been very good at feeling...irrelevant.
Apparently, he hadn't been very good at minding his own business, either. It had been too dangerous to approach any of the trainees. He'd not wanted to go to any of the former Scoobies, not until he had something solid. Unable to just leave it alone, he'd taken to getting information his own way. The rest of the Scoobies had apparently thought he really was an idiot-- and so never knew that he'd picked up some pretty nifty hacking skills from Willow over the years. He'd managed to hack into the Council Communications-- and had found something very disturbing. Phrases like "non-viable recruit" and "termination", and "re-programming" had scared the hell out of him. More phrases, " Great Mission" and "demon-recruitment" had frankly sent his mind tearing back to the days of the Initiative, and their freaky plans.
He'd kept a closer eye on the newest slayer recruits. It took time, but after a while of not meeting anyone's eyes, not speaking unless being spoken to first; the trainees had accepted that he was just another fixture in their environment and had quit paying attention to him. He'd gotten very good at being unnoticed in the background.
On the other hand, maybe somebody had noticed....He'd started getting emails asking him to come to meetings. He'd left them unanswered, but had kept watching the newest girls.
He'd been casually lurking outside one of the dorms, trying to look unobtrusive, when he was approached by a young girl, obviously a very fresh recruit. That had surprised him; he'd thought he'd become a living ghost.
Second surprise; the girl had reminded Xander of Dawn, bouncy and kittenish as she was. She'd also reminded Xander uncomfortably of Dawn when she'd been absolutely terrorized with the knowledge that Glory was coming for her because she was The Key. She'd looked just like that, warm brown eyes huge, pleading-- innocent--and she'd approached him as if he he'd been her only hope.
"You're Xander, aren't you?" She had whispered.
Xander had stared, noting the short brown pixie cut, pixie face. He had nodded at her slowly, as his brain had begun pinging yellow alert.
"You have to help me!" She'd gasped, eyes brimming with unshed tears. Her hands were clenched into fists, she glanced at them self-consciously and hid them behind her back. "Please, they told me you could help me-"
"Wait, honey," Xander had tried to project calm, when in fact his own insides were quaking. He'd dreaded something like this happening for a while, now. "What's going on? What's wrong? "
"I-I--" The girl was shaking so hard, she'd had trouble getting the words out. " I saw something--"
Xander's brain had flashed from yellow to RED ALERT, blinking ominously in his mind. Battle stations, then.
"What's your name, honey?" He gave her a reassuring smile.
She looked up at him, on the raw edge of panic. "C-Claire."
Xander resolved right then to help, however he could. "Claire, what's wrong? Are you in danger?"
The girl had burst into tears. "I don't want to be here.! They're making me into something I don't want to be!"
"What?" Xander had felt his vision narrow as if he was in a dark tunnel. He'd known something like this was happening. He'd known then that he had to get them out of there. "Okay, Claire. Let's go somewhere safe to talk. How do you feel about hot chocolate?"
Claire had wrinkled her nose at him, uncertainly. She'd nodded, "Okay."
"I promise you, we'll work this out, okay, Claire?" That had gotten a better response, and they'd gone off together into the anonymity of the London crowds.
He been seething with rage by the time he'd sent her back to the dorms with strict instructions to say nothing about their encounter to anyone. Who could he talk to? He'd been so estranged from the Scoobies-- but there was one he might be able to get through to. He'd known all along that it might come to this.
That he'd have to see Willow.
That’s it for this week’s installment—Chapter 4 will be posted next Monday!