Length: 3400 or so
Rating: Let's say PG but I don't think it gets too bad.
Setting: Post Chosen but we go AU almost immediately. Forget Angel season 5 references and certainly forget the comics.
Disclaimer: Well yes, these toys belong to Joss but I'm I'm taking much better of them that he does. Someone told me he'd even broken one recently. Bad Jossie.
To say the stranger bothered them would be an understatement. His very presence alarmed the other passengers and now his behaviour was beginning to cause serious concern.
The evening bus from Riga was usually unexceptional in its passenger list. It was part of the same battered fleet of transport left behind in Eastern Europe after the breakaway from the Soviet Union. It was unremarkable yet functional; carrying workers to the Latvian capital in the morning and returning them to their families at night. The passengers were old friends who would nod and chat as old friends are wont to do. The men worked in the factories whilst the women had a variety of jobs that no-one questioned. There was a happiness and camaraderie to the pattern of their working day. They had seen politics come and go; the only certainty was family and friends. Nobody new ever needed to travel on that particular bus.
But tonight as they had joked aboard for the last ride home before Christmas there was an outsider wanting to travel and they had observed their customary silence for all strangers. It was a habit formed before the Independence and it was not a custom they broke lightly. For his part, the stranger superficially showed no interest in them. He was a tall, middle-aged man in dark framed glasses. His hair was dark though a little grey in some places and a little thin in others. He carried a brown holdall and displayed the cautionary air of a professional journey maker. His leather jacket and jeans were western, but that meant nothing in this day and age. He’d spoken Russian to the driver and his reading matter, from what they could see, was also Russian - a trashy novel whose cover depicted a bikini clad girl and some hero of the Soviet Union fondling an oversized gun. No patriotic Latvian was going to make small talk with such a man, so the passengers had sat with icy wariness whilst the Russian had quietly read his book. He had observed them all though, they’d had enough practice over the years with secret police to recognise that.
So when he’d put the book down and nodded off to sleep they’d relaxed somewhat and quietly started to whisper their feast plans for Christmas. Indeed they might have forgotten him completely had it not been for the nightmares. At first it was just some twitching and mumbling – they couldn’t make out any words – but then he was sweating and jerking and they were torn between common decency and preserving their distance from a man they had elevated to ex-KGB in their minds. In the end it was Madam Mamina who had stood up compassionately and slapped the man across the face. She was taking a second swing when he caught her arm forcefully and opened his eyes. He assessed the threat and released his pressure immediately.
“You were dreaming,” she said in Russian for his benefit. To which he nodded, rather sadly. He took off his glasses and pinched his nose. “My son was conscripted into the soviet army in Afghanistan,” she continued, “he dreams too.” The stranger merely shrugged and avoided her eyes. “You have seen conflict I think? You should be with your family at Christmas I think?” He replaced his glasses and rudely picked up his book to ignore her. Madame Mamina returned to her seat with a knowing nod to her compatriots. She understood him a little better than he realised. She understood that there are some people you just can’t help.
When the bus pulled into the last town on its route, the final passengers withdrew. They exchanged cheery messages of goodwill. It would be three days before they would meet again and return to commuting and working habits. Everything in the town was shutting down in preparation for Christmas. There had not been snow so far that year but the cold was palpable. Icy breaths hung on the air reluctant to leave the warm of their host.
The tall stranger also alighted and looked about him. The others had already hurried away; if he was looking for someone they were not going to point any fingers for him. Even the bus driver slammed the doors closed, killed his internal lights and swept away. He wanted no part of trouble this close to spending time with his family. The town was barely a few streets with only two outlets of commerce, a shop and some sort of newsagent cum café. Rupert Giles gripped his bag and proceeded to the latter.
Something wasn’t right and Buffy Summers knew it. She walked with a casual indifference around the dimly lit back streets. On the face of it she was no threat and she knew from experience that demons and danger seemed naturally drawn to her. She stopped by some garbage bins and tried to focus her energies: it wasn’t a vampire but there was definitively something up to no good in this town. She walked on in what she hoped was her best bait-looking manner. Something would have to jump out soon. She was not imagining it. She never imagined it. Xander had once said ‘nobody stops the world on Buffy’s watch’ and she took that motto to heart. She moved swiftly to what passed for the main street. A bus had pulled in and had already discharged its passengers. The driver had switched off his lights and was pulling away, his shift finished. There was nothing. No demon. No big bad evil. Buffy hated it when the bad guy got away. She retraced her steps and shook her head to herself. Something still wasn’t right but there wasn’t much else she could do. Reluctantly, she tucked her stake back in her purse.
It was just a day before Christmas and here she was, half a world away from Dawn, chasing rats in a town whose name she couldn’t even pronounce. Since the destruction of Sunnydale that scenario had become her daily deal. There were hundreds of Slayers all around the globe, but when trouble brewed, as trouble would, Buffy liked to be there in person. Since the demise of Sunnydale there had been a full program of works. Robin Wood had managed to win over what was left of the old watcher network with his promise of a new start. The new slayers accepted him as their leader immediately, something about his natural authority as a Principal, although having a Slayer Mom proved to be a hell of a trump card too. Xander, Faith and Willow had carved out areas of expertise for themselves and even Andrew was a useful member of the team. It had been a hard six months of change and responsibility, but everyone found a place and peace.
Buffy had appointed herself to the role of chief trouble shooter. Robin may have had reservations of the need for such a post but she’d argued she had valuable field experience and that it honestly wasn’t because she hated the idea of having to sit behind a desk and organise anything. She’d been the Slayer for seven years on the Hellmouth, not counting three months off for dead behaviour, and the only way she felt she could be responsible for other people’s lives was if she standing shoulder to shoulder with them, preferably swinging something sharp and heavy. It was who she was and what she did, so when the new Council got word of a sect in Latvia, breeding demon doggies and trying to create a new hell portal, Buffy packed her passport, some kickass fur boots and headed off. Robin had tried to convince her that the local girl could handle it, but it was a high stakes roll for Buffy and she was on it.
“It’s apocalypse stuff,” she’d argued, “We’d all look pretty silly if there was no New Year this year…. next year?” Robin had blinked but finally agreed. Besides it was getting close to Christmas and she dreaded the holidays. All her memories were of her Mom. It hurt too much if she stopped running. Dawn evidently had the same idea because she’d arranged to go snowboarding with some school friends.
Robin, ever the Principal, had given her a thorough briefing on the country including some maps and a crash course in local customs which she conceded was useful. She’d learnt it was one of the Baltic States that had acceded away from the Soviet Union as soon as it could, though that was the tip of a long and rather bitter history with neighbours Russia. They had been occupied before and a lot of wealth seemed to have remained with some of the older families. So much for the Fodor facts. Evil was universal as far as Buffy was concerned. Geo-politics were best left to the er, geo-politicians.
Meeting the local Slayer had been more interesting. There had been some initial resentment if not downright disagreement over her methods. Zara seemed to think Buffy was some sort of Watcher sent to hit the books and carry her weapons. She didn’t even own anything tweed! But that misunderstanding resolved, they had fought side by side until the threat was averted, the cult quashed and the demon dogs were chop liver. Zara and her family had asked her to stay for Christmas but Buffy was charm and politeness personified and had refused.
She’d got as far as the airport at Riga when she realised she didn’t particularly want to go home right away. Zara’s family had been warm and welcoming. Buffy thought of her mom and her dad and of all the Christmases she’d shared with them and Dawn. It broke her heart to think of it. Dawn was snowboarding (though the phrase Bambi on ice came most readily to Buffy’s mind), and though she had promised to join her sister, at the airport she held back on buying the ticket. She thought about getting a hire car instead and just travelling somewhere. She suddenly felt small and lonely in the bustling airport. She wanted to escape. Trying to get a hire car at Riga airport the week before Christmas turned out to be harder than closing a Hellmouth, so it was a relief when he had come to her aid. Paul Popov was tall and handsome, he spoke Latvian and Russian and probably lots of other languages, but most impressively of all, he spoke Money. With charm and downright bribery he got the last available car and offered to share it with Buffy. He was handsome, mid thirties and confident. He was Latvian by birth but liked to travel, he had property to the west of here he said, would she care to spend Christmas with him? She’d said no of course, but she’d laughed a sort of yes and let him her buy coffee.
She wasn’t looking for a heavy commitment, just companionship. Zara had been so grateful to find someone who understood, someone who could help her in this nightmare world of demon fighting. Buffy missed that for herself. Paul had large brown eyes and the softest eyelashes she’d ever seen. His family he explained had managed to hang on to their money during the soviet years and now he could afford to travel and see the world. He made her laugh in odd ways. If he was a playboy-rapist or a murderer then he hid it very well. He was all charm one minute, then boyish old-fashioned nervousness the next. Fundamentally after three days of art galleries, cold yet brisk walks in parks, shared late suppers yet chastely separate hotel rooms, Buffy had concluded he was just the world’s largest Boy Scout. And not really looking for commitment either.
Rupert Giles entered the café warily. The patrons were dotted around small tables, studying the newsprint of betting papers as if winners could be detected by smell alone. A good looking man in his thirties was reading a yellow National Geographic and sipping a small coffee. He spotted the newcomer and called to him cheerfully.
“Dr Jones? It is Dr Jones isn’t it?” The young man’s English was accented with Russian but also with a confidence that came from an expensive education. Giles gave a tired smile and confirmed he was indeed Dr Jones.
“I take it you are Paul Popov?” Introductions made, the men shook hands firmly.
“Thank you so much for coming Dr Jones. I really appreciate all the help you can give me. And thank you for coming at this time of year too.”
Giles smiled, “Well, you wired me $10,000 to come straight away, so I’m always happy to help a client.”
“You won’t be disappointed in the work I assure you. I’ve arranged for you to stay at my house.” Popov held up a hand to stem protests, “I know you wanted separate accommodation, but there are no hotels for 200 miles and the villagers are difficult to billet upon over Christmas.”
“I don’t want to be in your way.”
“That’s alright, you won’t be,” said the younger man, “the house is closed up for most of the year. I’m the last of the family so I travel and do as I please. I’ve not stayed at my house over Christmas before but everything is prepared and I’m sure it will be comfortable. However there will be three of us as I have another guest staying. An American girl so I hope the two will get along. You’ll have your own quarters of course. The house is old but quite spacious.”
The door bell tinkled behind them “Ah and here she is now.” A short blond woman walked brightly to Popov’s side but then stared at the stranger in disbelief and anger. “My dear, may I introduce Dr Jones who is here to do some research for me. Dr Jones, this is Buffy Summers, my fiancée.”
Of all the places for him to turn up. Buffy fought an instinctive urge to punch him to the ground and find some means of dragging him back to America. The second part was impractical with it being Eastern Europe and Christmas time, but the first part was still damn tempting. It had been six months since anyone had heard of him and yet here he was all nom de guerre and looking shifty. The colour had drained from his face which gave her some satisfaction. The stop at the village had been for provisions Paul had said. Picking up lying, murdering ex-watchers had not been mentioned as part of the itinerary.
Buffy folded her arms and tilted her head to one side, “What’s he doing here?”
“I’m sorry,” said Popov who looked a little confused, “do you two know each other?”
Did she know him? That was a good question. Depends which one he meant. The Giles who’d annoyed her? The Giles who loved her? The Giles she’d loved and risked everything for in order to save his life. The one that repaid that by calmly advocating murdering her sister? Oh, oh, the one that was so shy with Miss Calendar or the one that was so obviously experienced with Olivia?
“No,” said Buffy folding her arms, “No I have no idea who he is.” Giles’ expression remained stoically blank.
“Please let me explain, I’m sorry it was all very last minute. Could you give us a moment Dr Jones?” Giles nodded and drifted off to feign interest in a stack of faded western Sunday supplements. Buffy wondered if he was calculating whether he could make it out of the door without her noticing. Part of her wanted him to try.
“I’m sorry to spring this on you Buffy but I have some papers at the house I need an expert to look over. Now is the only time I could arrange I’m afraid. He comes highly recommended.” Buffy wondered by whom though if he was faking a passport in this part of the world he’d probably written his own recommendations too.
“Fine. I thought it was just going to be us,” she said, “but he can stay. I wouldn’t want anyone to be all alone at Christmas.” Paul rubbed her arm appreciatively. “Not when I can keep an eye on him,” she added to herself.
Buffy found she didn’t have the courage to go to Intensive Care straight away so she went to Robin’s room first. She was surprised to find him on his feet and dressed, Faith had been round to the hospital earlier with a change of clothes, and it was a huge relief to see him looking so well. Rona had Slayer healing and was well on the way to recovery by the time they’d parked the school bus. Robin may have been a slayer’s son but he still had to do it the hard way.
She hugged him impulsively and Robin seemed to understand because he held her just as tightly. “Faith told me what happened,” he said, “how is she doing?”
“Doctors aren’t really telling us anything. I don’t know. She looks so vulnerable. I can’t believe he’d do a thing like this…”
They walked the corridors slowly. Robin leaned on her for support though she needed the contact just as much as he did and held his waist tightly.
“Any luck with the search parties?” he asked.
“Nothing yet,” she sniffed, “I thought we’d done with all this. I thought with the Hellmouth gone we might get at least five minutes before the next wave of evil came crashing over us. God! I should have seen it coming. He’s been different, Dawn was right. I should have seen it coming.”
“There was no way you could have predicted this. Don’t blame yourself Buffy. I’ve started making some calls to some contacts in the old Council who are still alive, even the Coven.”
“Think they’ll help with this?”
“Maybe, though I was thinking more about finding the new slayers. There are girls out there who have no idea what has happened to them. They need help and support, Watchers if you will. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
They arrived at Willow’s room. Kennedy and Xander had been forced to wait outside whilst the doctors did some tests. There was more hugging.
“Hey. How’s she doing?”
“Doctors say there’s still brain activity so that’s hopeful. Apparently it’s better if she doesn’t wake up just yet.” Poor Xander could barely keep his voice from breaking.
“Caught the monster that did this yet?” demanded Kennedy.
The hire car was in Buffy’s name but Popov drove to his country property. It seemed a complicated route with many rural roads some of which were barely dirt tracks. Buffy sat in front and wondered how she was going to get a message back to Robin and the others.
“Are you OK?” Poor Paul looked concerned. It wasn’t fair. He was an innocent in all this. She looked at him fondly. His clothes were new and perfect. His hair was always immaculate. He was always closely shaved and must spend hours in the shower or have the world’s most discrete deodorant. He came from a clean world and it was just what she needed, a man to open doors, pay bills and not ask anything in return. Damn Giles. She’d finally got herself something nice and uncomplicated and it was all going to get spoilt. “Try and get some sleep,” he advised.
She nodded and then returned her concentration to the front windscreen. It was getting darker and there was no moon. The road had no lighting and it was only when they passed other cars she could see Giles’ reflection. He’d insisted on keeping his travel bag with him on the back seat and Buffy was half expecting him to jump out of the car with it. She was far too on edge to sleep. He’d be memorising the route back as well as she was. They embarked on another track road, narrower than the previous. The trees on either side were high but had steepled over densely. They tunnelled on through the canopy, deeper into the darkness of the countryside.
Paul Popov looked at his passengers. Dr Jones was quiet and resolutely taking an interest in his surroundings. That was a little surprising, but Buffy was asleep as he wanted.
“That’s right,” said Popov, “Better to sleep now my darling. We have a long day ahead tomorrow.”