Pathways

 

 

Cell phones worked even in the desert.  Granted, they had to be satellite  phones, or you had to be in a populated area, but the new and improved Watcher’s Council was sparing no expense for its new intrepid workers, and Xander had a satellite phone.  So when Buffy called, wariness like thick sludge underneath the perkiness, Xander had no choice but to answer.  Not answer meant worrying, and that was. . .

He knew what they said about him.  He’d gotten strange, After.  After Anya.  After losing an eye.  After the big fight.  After he learned that he was to be the Council’s ranger.  After he lived in Africa for a while.  After, After, After.  He was quieter now.  Thinner, too, the rugged lifestyle and harsh, glaring sun melting him down to the gauntness he’d sported as a rapidly growing teenager.  He was slower, though.  His metaphorical holster didn’t hold quips anymore.  His metaphorical holster was too busy holding onto his sanity and emotional stability—something that’d worry him if he hadn’t run into a few American vets that retired in Morocco.  The way they acted was the way he acted.

Only they were in the sixties and seventies, wife and kids in tow or happily living back in the states.  One of them even had a girlfriend he was going to ask to marry him.

Xander didn’t have any of that.

Clicking his cumbersome satellite cell phone off, Xander wound his way through the dusty streets.  Cairo was a big city, as built up as any African city ever got—the intense heat made the steel monoliths Xander was used to nearly impossible—but Xander wasn’t in the ‘modern’ city.  He was in the area that looked pretty much as it had four, five, six hundred years ago.  Clay huts, people in flowing garments adorned with repeating patterns.  Their dark eyes followed his progress.  They weren’t hostile, though.  Xander had been here long enough that he moved right.  He still looked like an American—but he felt like a native.

Buffy was seated outside a small coffee shop—the traditional kind, not a Starbucks clone.  As he watched, she made a face at the coffee she was drinking.  Good coffee down here was an acquired taste for a transplanted American; thick and rich and with enough of a kick to keep you wired for days, drunk like a shot instead of a mocha you sipped for hours.  She looked good, he decided.  Dating the Immortal was good for her, since he indulged her love of the beach and bazaar shopping, as well as the pre-sex fights she loved.

But sitting in the middle of Cairo, dressed to kill in designer Italian fashions, sunglasses perched on hair bleached to nearly white—she looked fake.  Plastic.  Not like the earthy people here who’d as soon kill you as look at you.  The ones he’d worked damned hard to fit in with, to be accepted by.  For her.

For the hundred time that hour alone, Xander cursed his snazzy phone.

Sighing, Xander rubbed the coarse, bristling fur beside him and approached the coffee shop.  He was almost on top of Buffy before she finally looked at him.  Her eyes went so wide he was afraid they were going to fall out of her too-thin face.  “Xander!  Oh my god, Xander!  Look at you!”

She popped to her feet, intending to give him the bear hugs he still sometimes missed—but stuttered to a halt a few feet in front of him.  “Xander?”

“Hey, Buffy.  You look good.”

“You—look like you’ve gone native.”  Her eyes flickered to the side of him, widening a little more before returning to his face.  “You look good, though.  It suits you.”

It suited him the same way rubber would eventually conform to your shape, only comfortable when it was too late, but he didn’t say that.  Just smiled back and nodded.  “Thanks.”

She didn’t know how to treat him.  That bothered Xander less than it would have, once.  Some part of him was savagely enjoying her discomfort and uncertainty.  The rest of him just felt old.  “Come sit with me?”  It was a plea, not a request.  Something to let her know that this new Xander was still her friend.

Whatever else Xander was, he knew he’d always be that—so he sat down and curtly ordered a cup of coffee for himself.  Not in English.

“I didn’t know you could speak Egyptian,” Buffy told him.

“I don’t.”  No, he spoke a lot of different tongues, and here, in a neighborhood that remembered how proud it once was and still should be, the languages he knew would be understood—both the words, and the implicit warning in them: forgive the foreigner, it said, she doesn’t understand.  I won’t keep her here long.

The server nodded in a way that was almost a bow, hurrying off to deposit Xander’s requested drink on the table.  Xander didn’t speak while he waited, letting Buffy study him.  Her enthusiasm was fading, flowing back over her to dissipate like bounced waves.  “Hi.  I’m sorry we’ve had to leave you down here for so long.”

No, she wasn’t.  She was sad and upset that he wasn’t being the bouncy, goofy Xander she remembered from high school.  Xander with held his snort of derision, wondering if she really thought she was the same girl from high school.  Then again, she was closer to that girl than she had been in years, so maybe so.  “It’s okay.  I’ve done good work.”

“You have.”  She blinked and leaned back when the server reappeared, this time with a small bowl of water and some scraps of meat.

Is this enough?” he asked.

Yes, thank you,” Xander replied.  He reached down to grab a bristling ruff while both bowls were placed on the floor next to him.  Then the server disappeared.

The sounds of lapping filled up the empty space Buffy wasn’t speaking in.

“Xander?” she asked after a moment.  She was faintly greenish, now, but that wasn’t unusual when Engoko was eating.  She wasn’t very neat.  “Okay, I understand the wearing of African clothes, since you’re out in the Bush or desert or whatever it’s called here.  But isn’t that kind of strange for a pet?”

Engoko raised her muzzle and growled delicately at Buffy.  She was a smart old bitch, medium dog-size with thick, heavy brown fur that covered her sloping hide, and knew what Buffy was saying and that it had to do with her.  Xander chuckled, ruffling her fur again to calm her.  She relaxed under his touch but didn’t lose the slight snarl.  “This is Engoko.  It means ‘old lady’, but it has connotations of wise, too.”

Buffy licked her lips.  “That’s a hyena.”

“Yeah.”

She fumbled for her drink, swallowing half of it without a single twitch.  “I—I thought it was maybe a dog?”

Engoko flattened her ears.

Xander let half his mouth lift in a smile, continuing to pet Engoko into stillness.  Bringing a ‘wild’ animal into cities like this wasn’t always a good idea, one reason he’d forced the meeting into one of the smaller, more primitive sections of town and away from the busy metropolis.  If she grew agitated, he would be lucky to escape without being shot at.  Add in a beautiful blonde foreigner. . . no.  Too risky.

“Why do you have a hyena, Xander?”

He shrugged.  What was he supposed to tell her, exactly?  That he’d been traveling through most of the African back country and seen things no man should witness and stay sane?  That he’d been hunted by things that made Sunnydale look tame, and hunted down even worse, most of them human?  That he was lonely.  That he needed a companion who’d protect him while he slept.  That the magic from years ago was still inside him, and that Engoko had found him long before he’d realized he needed her?

It was all of those things.  None of them, and more he couldn’t articulate even in his most private thoughts.  Something of that must have shown on his face, though, because Buffy lost the please-don’t-hurt-me posture and reverted into something he was more used to—condescending compassion.  Only this time, there was no guilt.  “The magic didn’t leave, did it?”

Xander was surprised she even remembered, frankly.  He shrugged, tipping back in his chair to scan the area.  They were attracting attention—more Buffy’s American good looks than Engoko.  <i>She</i> rarely attracted attention except in the truly ‘civilized’ parts.  It was still a good habit he had no intention of losing due to negligence.

“Xander.  Xander, are you okay?”  There were other questions lurking below her eyes. Can we ever make you right? was the first, of course with the assumption that something was wrong. Is this my fault? came hard after it, because Buffy’s Immortal-taught therapy on how to deal with guilt hadn’t quite taken firm hold, yet.  He didn’t want to read the other, worse, questions, so Xander purposefully turned to look to the right of him.  It was the subtlest insult he knew, but then, he still wasn’t very subtle.

“What’s up?” he asked calmly.

“I was going to ask you if you wanted to come home.”

Nodding, Xander turned back to look at Engoko.  She looked back at him, dark eyes flaring green for a moment.  No, the magic hadn’t gone away.  Engoko had found him through it, though that wasn’t why she stayed with him.  It just made things easier. Hunt, the magic told him, a whisper soaked with spore and sweet grasses, waving in the breeze.  Ripe fruit laying half-crushed on the ground, rich with dirt and as good as the gazelle laying not far away, as content with either as Xander would be.

“Are there still slayer-girls left to be found?” Xander asked without turning his head.

“Willow said you’d ask.  Yes.  But not as many.”

He nodded.  “By then, I’ll have found another reason.”

Buffy matched his nod, reaching out to touch his hand.  “Talk to me?”

Engoko relaxed, recognizing the compromise for what it was.  She didn’t care about the sadness in Buffy’s eyes, but Xander did—and she knew that.  Pushing up onto her hind quarters, she rested her muzzle in Xander’s lap while Xander began to talk about anything and—almost—everything Buffy wanted to hear about.  They didn’t stop until it was fully dark, the heat of the day fading to almost frigid coolness, in comparison.  And later, Engoko wrapped herself around Buffy’s feet.

Her thoughts smiled in Xander’s mind, saying that one day, this one would be Engoko, too.

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