Exaggeration and Blank Verse
Nairobi In The Rain
Battlestar Galactica
Horatio Hornblower
Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series

Kenya is the Africa where Americans feel safe; stable and docile and eagerly looking westward. Nairobi crawls with journalists and expatriates, tourists and the occasional soldier of fortune with nothing to do- though it’s a bit tame for them. The wannabes come to Nairobi.

So it’s not unusual to see a young woman- and I know she’s American just by the way she holds her head- sitting at the bar when I duck through the door, hard on the heels of a rowdy pack of German journos, all just trying to grab a few minutes out of the rain. What is unusual is that the bar stool next to her is empty, and that she’s smiling at me the same way Willow does when I step off a plane. Like she’s been waiting for me, and she’s so glad that I’m finally here.

This isn’t my regular bar in Nairobi- I don’t even have one. I have an apartment here, or the key to one in Giles’ name, where I bring whatever half-feral Slayer or priceless mystical artifact I’ve picked up on my rounds. I wait for a few days until a cab arrives from the airport carrying a Council agent- and I know it’s a council agent by the layers and layers of tweed- turn over my report and collections, and leave again. I have no regular haunts here, and I have never seen this girl before.

And yet she’s smiling at me like she’s been expecting me. The seat next to her is open, even though this rathole is packed to the rafters with damp-haired Europeans shouting drink orders over the rain.

Because it seems so silly to argue with fate when it’s gone to all the trouble of putting on long dark hair and huge brown eyes, I walk over and sit beside her.

Once I’m there, her air of certainty wavers. She looks down at her hands, flat on the worn wooden bar. She doesn’t have a drink, and when I order mine she says nothing. Her hair falls over her face the way Willow’s did in high school, a veil to hide the thoughts her face would give away.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I ask, doing my best third-rate Bogart. “Are you journalist, traveler, or mercenary?”

She smiles, tracing the rough wood grain with her fingertips. “Traveler, I suppose.” She glances wistfully over her shoulder, eyes touching everything in the bar. “I always wanted to see Africa. They owed me that much.” Her gaze falls back to the counter. “And I have a friend in high places.”

I knew there were layers upon layers here, meanings fathoms deep, but I stuck to my strength and played the surface. “They couldn’t get you anywhere better than this dump? How high can they be?” She smiles, faint and melancholy, and I reach for safer ground along with my beer. “Where are you from?”

“Texas,” she says, “by way of Los Angeles.” And she’s looking at me again with meaning in the depths of her eyes, and the faint tingle of the weird around all this comes together with a few things in the back of my brain with a nearly-audible click.

“You’re Fred,” I breathe, hands clenching on the bottle, feet scrambling to push the stool back from the bar. “But you’re dead- you died weeks ago- Giles said- ” A terrible thought comes for me, and I fumble for weapons that won’t do me any good. “You’re the First- ”

She shakes her head firmly. “Not the First.” A little smile crosses her face and she giggles over the bar. “Or the last! The third, I think- three soldiers down- ” She goes very still and a sorrow deep and opaque as the ocean comes over her pale face. “But not the last. There’ll be more before it’s over.”

“Why aren’t you haunting LA?” I ask, my voice harsh and grating over the heartbeat pounding in my ears. “You never even met me.” Of all the ghosts to run into, why couldn’t you have been one of mine?

“I wanted to go back.” Her fingers dance over the wood grain, rise and brush her hair aside, fiddle with her collar, fall back to dance again. Restless, searching hands. “Strictly forbidden, they said, given the…circumstances.” The dancing stills. “No matter how much they owe me. Rules are rules, I guess.”

I can’t imagine a death senseless enough to make a higher power pretend to care. “Okay, so there are rules. I get that. Structure, rules, an end zone. But why me?”

“I met someone on the other side.” She tucks her chin again, veils her face from the world. “They suggested I come looking for you. Threw in Africa like it was a favor…”

Pain rises in my chest again. God, it’s almost been a year, will it ever hurt less? “I don’t suppose you can share any names.”

“Not supposed to,” she murmurs behind her hair, and I close my eyes against dry tears. When I open them again, she’s looking at me.

“You were the heart,” she says, studying my face like it holds some kind of truth. “Your group’s heart, their center in the fight.”

I shrug. That spell was lifetimes ago, but still long after I stopped believing in symbols. “No. Not really.” She smiles, like Willow when I mention cabbages and third-grade birthday parties. A joke that’s just between us and has had time to age. “Were you?”

“If you asked them now, they’d say so.” Her hands start their restless dance again, over and around her body and the bar. “But- no, no, not really. I was a heart replacement, an artificial pump to hold the place after Cordelia went away.”

“She died because of Angel.” I feel an ache in my hands and look down- I’ve driven my fingernails into the bar. Another one of his ghosts. “He did something to you, you know- to all of you. Willow sensed it and Giles looked it up and Buffy spit fire. He messed with your memories- ”

“I know.” Her voice is gentle, her fingers the barest whisper of a touch on my wrist. “I know a lot of things now.”

“You can’t forgive him.” The back part of my brain calls me a hypocrite and I stumble on- if she knows so much being dead, she’ll understand. “This isn’t rewriting a little to save the world from a Hellgod. It’s selfish and it’s a deal with evil and you can’t just say that’s okay because the Broodmaster can do no wrong.”

“You’re talking about black and white, and the thing is…you mix those, you’re gonna get gray.” Her voice is odd, like she’s quoting from something that I don’t recognize and she doesn’t particularly like. “And I think this world was born in gray and in gray it’ll die.” She hesitates. “But not yet.”

“Still,” I say, staring down into the empty bottle, “he- ”

“If he hadn’t, I never would’ve let myself love Wesley. I knew too much- I thought too much- I put my brain over my heart and I would’ve stayed that way, too stubborn to move.” She shakes her head. “If nothing else good comes from what Angel did- and that’s something I still don’t know, either way- it did let Wesley and I be in love for an hour. And that’s never something to just dismiss out of hand.”

“Sometimes you’ve got to put your mind first,” I say, thinking of Angel and Oz and Giles walking away, and trying not to think of wedding bells and dying flowers. “Gotta use logic even if it hurts sometimes.”

“Yeah. ‘Cause the logical thing was to tell the crazy witch-girl you loved her. Hating her for trying to end the world, now that wouldn’t have made sense at all.” Her fingers brush over my hand again, curl around it softly, and they’re warm. “That dog don’t hunt and you know it. Don’t try to make me think you haven’t learned a thing or two about the place of love in this world.” She looks into my eyes, searching for something I can’t fathom because I’m lost in hers, in the weary tearstained peace there. “Hold onto it whenever you find it, wherever it comes from, because sometimes it’s gonna be all you’ve got. And it’s always precious.” She releases my hand, turns back to the bar, and my eyes ache again with tears I’ve never shed. “That’s the only real power humans have against the dark, Xander- the one and only thing we’ve got going for us is love.”

“I’m sorry,” I say after a long silent moment. “I always need things spelled out for me. Where is this going?”

“Back to London, I hope. But you knew that already.” She holds out her hand and I take an airline ticket from it with fingers gone stiff and numb. She smiles, and even though her eyes are so tired I want to cry, there’s happiness in them too. “Am I going to have to work this hard in Rome and Rio? Or are the ladies quicker on the uptake?”

“Time to circle the wagons, huh?” I glance at the date and time on the ticket and slip it into my pocket. “Something coming?”

“Always.” She shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t let them isolate you. Don’t drift apart.” She glances over her shoulder again and I realize that she’s been looking west, where halfway around the world Los Angeles lies. “Don’t let them pick the soldiers off one by one.”

“Are they going to need backup?” I can’t deny that the idea of rescuing Angel holds a certain appeal for me.

She chuckles at that, drumming her fingers along the bar. “They’re men, they won’t call for help. But the work goes on, with or without us. The world’s always gonna need its Champions.” She leans over, catches my face in her hands, and kisses me softly. She tastes like apples and sugar and just a little like tears. I wonder what any of that has to do with eternity.

“There’s got to be someone to keep the faith.”

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