It was not yet dawn, but in Tehran it was never fully dark. Light pollution from the city was often trapped by the smog, wrapping the city all hours of the night in an ethereal glow. It softened the harsh edges of tract housing, the ancient and beloved architecture of the past bulldozed and redefined in a quest for western solidarity.
Xander stood on the balcony of his apartment, sipping a cup of kaf and looking out over the city. Nearby was the Azadi
Tower, surrounded by fir trees and lit with hybrid light. It was a creamy coloured bastion this hour before dawn; he began every day with this silent perusal of the tower. Constructed of marble, the tower was more than an architectural delight; it was also a museum. The artistic history of the country was relayed in artifacts within the museum, and when Xander gazed upon the tower every morning before dawn he was reminded of Willow, of Buffy, and the terrifying secret they had unearthed.
He missed them both so very much.
Only here, safe and protected in his apartment, would Xander allow himself to think of them. This was the only place he could take off his eye patch, the only place he could take off his shirt.
So he stood there, without his eye patch, without his shirt, and nestled between his shoulder blades was a tattoo, of a dragon with her tail curled about her nest, her egg the world, holding a sword in one hand and a dove in the other. The tattoo was a year old now; he had forgotten much of the sting of its forging.
He wished he could forget the other pains of his ascension. His head still hurt from time to time.
Xander drained the last of his kaf and saw sunlight bleed into the sky, shooing away the pearly smog. Before long the heat would arise, another day would begin, and perhaps this would be the day he would finally find what he was looking for.
He doubted it. Hope had fallen from his vocabulary.
Besides, there was always tomorrow. Joyce Summers would be flying into Tehran tomorrow.
Xander took one final look at Azadi Tower and retreated inside. In the basement of his apartment was a well-equipped gym; he began his morning by jogging five miles. At precisely six in the morning his Steward entered the gym, offering lukewarm water and green tea.
As much as he respected his Steward, Xander couldn't stand the man. Punctilious and arrogant, Wesley never seemed capable of smiling.
Xander had come to realize he did precious little smiling himself; usually confined to those Willow-moments through the vid screen. The thought haunted him.
"Any news?" Xander asked, accepting a towel from the man.
"Yes, as a matter of fact. I have just spoken with Giles. Willow is recuperating well from her encounter with the djinn, and as impossible as it seems, it is apparent that Willow is falling in love with her."
Xander allowed the half-envious lub of his heart when he heard of Willow's new romantic interest. They had grown up together, and it was only in their initial training after high school, seeing her hard, bruised, and perspiring, that Xander realized what he could have had.
Even by then it was too late. The story of Willow and Xander would be forever unwritten.
Xander sighed. Giles had phoned him that day, the day Willow woke from her djinn-induced nightmare. None of them had known back then what Tara actually was. Now, half a world away, seeing Willow in a relationship, a relationship with a half-demon, no less, held less pain than he thought. He only wanted Willow to be happy.
He only wanted Willow to be safe. If he had any idea of this Tara the day he spoke to Willow on the phone, he never would have encouraged her as he did. This would get far messier than anyone could realize.
The mug shattered in Xander's grip. He hadn't realized he was gripping it so hard.
Wesley didn't flinch.
"And the djinn? Does she hold her own collar or not?" Xander asked, standing in the spray of crockery and limp tea.
"She does not. It is not known at this point who her Master is."
"That's not exactly comforting," Xander replied, staring at the shards on the floor. This world was far more perilous than he could have ever known.
He remembered the taste of the Pacific Ocean, the heat of the sands of Malibu, and innocent outings as high school seniors. The cool slide of beer down the throat, half burned hot dogs in the flames, never realizing, never dreaming that this world was in peril, and that he, among all others, would be the one to save it.
Unfathomable dreams, like the reality of Kris Kringle.
He couldn't blame Buffy for the choice she made, when she decided to be with Riley. He accepted the consequences of her choice with as much courage as he could muster. The transfer of power, the ascension was more painful than he imagined. Now he was in Tehran, honouring the last wish of his golden-haired friend. Buffy never wanted Willow to be caught so deep in this world.
(She's my Willow, too.)
No one ever got what they wanted.
(Willow and a djinn)
"Giles has already secured greater surveyance, in hopes of ascertaining the identity of Tara's Master."
"How much did Jenny tell her?" Xander asked, ignoring the flare of pain in his palm from the shattered glass.
"Only the identity of the djinn, and after great duress."
"And Giles is still unaware of Azadi?"
There was hesitation in Wesley's voice.
"Out with it, Wesley."
"It also appears that Jenny invoked Pythia, and received a prophecy."
Xander lifted his head. "And?" he asked.
"It seems as if Tara is essential. We musn't kill her as we planned."
"The exact words, Wesley."
"Giles, Tara is the key. For night has come and there is no dawn. She is the key for us all," Wesley recited from memory.
"Did Jenny tell Willow about Azadi?"
"Good." Xander had learned by now to accept his small victories. The longer Azadi was a secret, the better.
Later that morning Xander exited his apartment, slipping easily into the rivers of humanity that seeped throughout the ancient city. He could not wear his sword freely here, so he always had daggers on him, discreet, jagged, powerful. It took some time to find his way to the Great Bazaar; he wove a serpentine route not as easily tracked. The patch was back over his eye, but this was not such a cultural oddity here as it was back home.
Eye for an eye was still in force in Persia.
If Xander ever encountered the Persian who had mutilated him, who had ripped open Giles' cheek, who had nearly eviscerated Willow, he would command more payment than just an eye.
The season for cherries was over, and it would yet be a month or two before the watermelons. Wandering the aisles of the Great Bazaar, slipping through the crowds with surprising grace, Xander kept his one eye open for fresh fruit that didn't smell funny or have spikes and impossible names. If he was lucky, he would find some fresh lychee, brought in from Prussia.
If he was really lucky, he would find a clue.
(Luck died with Buffy.)
The covered awnings did not breathe in the dry summer heat, yet they did manage to deflect the battering ram of sun. It was like walking through a rainbow; the awnings were made of every colour imaginable, muted and conquered by that anvil sun. There was no blessed sweep of air to lift the heat or stir away the smell of the bustling city of Tehran. It was a mixture of sweat and tobacco, of wasps dipping into ripe and spoiled fruits, a hint of urine and smog and decomposition.
Sweat had fallen under his eye patch, so he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the majority of it away.
He was being followed.
The serpentine shuffle of people amongst the booths could not divert the woman who shadowed him. She was able to surf through these crowds with an equal measure of uncanny ease. Xander did not have to look behind him to know that she was there, that she wore a thin silk scarf over her dark hair, or that she had daggers secreted in all sorts of interesting places on her person.
He paused at the corner of a garish booth, immediately enduring the shrill barking of the vendor trying to push sweetmeats and Turkish Delight into his hands. There was a short jab of pain in his head, and then he heard the flow of Persian words as if they were English. He opened his mouth and was able to barter with the woman in linguistic perfection. The woman was a little surprised at his ease with her language; he managed to leave the booth paying significantly fewer dinars for the Turkish Delight than she had probably hoped.
When the attack came, only minutes later in a rank alley, it came from his blind side.
Unfortunate fool. Whoever had hired the woman did her a disservice. Did she not know that Xander drew her in here on purpose?
It would take far more than a gouged eye to blind Alexander Lavelle Harris. Not while he was Marshal-General of the Drakensdvaerder.
the gods speak)
He felt a surge of anger towards her employer as he engaged her in the alley. Those close to Xander's heart knew he hated killing, even at need. He had, after all, Scooby-Doo pajama bottoms and a Spiderman watch.
Duty a mountain; it would crush him in the end.
"I am sorry for the message you must bear," he said to her as he killed her with three short economical movements of his knife.
How he missed the everlasting California sunshine and the laughter of his friends. Staying up late and flicking popcorn at each other. Pretending to puke as Buffy and Willow swooned of Venice love stories. Drinking root beer too fast and belching. Sitting up late with his flashlight, reading adventure comics, never knowing, never dreaming that his own life would become more fantastic than any story, truth infinitely stranger than all fiction.
Xander cleaned himself up after he arrived home; Wesley would take the clothes and destroy them. With the Turkish Delight in his hands, Xander climbed upstairs. Next to a closed door was a retinal scanner; Xander pressed his good eye against it.
The computer prompt today was in Chuvatsky, the extinct language of Siberia. He'd never heard it uttered before, yet with another twinge to his head Xander replied in kind.
The door slid open, revealing a room in a million shades of pink; blush, bashful, blaring. The walls were peppered with crayon drawings. Sitting on a rug in the center of the room was a four year old girl, patiently braiding the hair of her doll. She looked so much like her mother.
Xander held out the Turkish Delight. "I brought you something, Azadi."