Xander groaned as he floated back towards consciousness, his entire body was throbbing, reminding him yet again that he was not a superhero, no matter how many of them seemed to surround him. Maybe it really was time for a desk job in the Land of Tea and Tweed. He realized that he hadn’t moved yet and tried to place where he was without opening his eye to the brightness he could see through the lid – he worried his head might just actually split in two this time, and that would not be of the good. The last thing he remembered he’d been an hour north of Cape Town with a small squad of Slayers; they’d been tracking a DUO (Demon of Unknown Origin – and damn he hated that the last remnants of Soldier Boy insisted on acronyms for everything) and apparently they’d found it… or it had found them. And the way he was feeling right now the “it found us” option seemed more likely.
OK, threat assessment time, he was in massive pain, but nothing seemed broken and none of the pain seemed localized. He was lying on some sort of metal… what the hell in that area had been metal? The refugee camps were miles away yet, but maybe, or maybe there was a mine nearby that his GPS hadn’t shown; wouldn’t be the first time for that. He was definitely inside, the air wasn’t fresh.
OK Harris, he thought to himself, time to open the eye and face whatever it is. He cracked his eye open, fighting against the impending migraine and saw that he was inside a warehouse of some sort. There were large plastic and metal crates all around him and the floor was metal –which he’d already known-; overhead there was a catwalk of some sort. Loading door seemed to be at one end, it was still night outside, the other end disappeared into a hall.
He had no idea where he was.
And he couldn’t see the girls.
He moved slowly, careful not to make any noise, and took his dagger from his boot and the backup stake from his belt. He checked himself more thoroughly, he wasn’t bleeding and none of his joints were dislocated. This was better than he usually was when he woke up after an ambush. He heard heavy boot-falls coming towards him and moved faster than his protesting body really wanted, to hide behind one of the larger crates. He took the smallest stance he could to be both hidden and ready to pounce.
“I don’t like it, sir,” said an earthy, feminine voice, “these folks are far too fond of shooting you.”
“Not much choice here, Zoe,” a male voice responded. “We gotta get rid of that cargo before we attract the Alliance. An’ if I remember right, I wasn’t the one got shot last time.”
“Which is why I agree with Zoe,” said another male voice, this one gruffer, “I ain’t plannin’ on gettin’ shot again, Cap’n.”
“Hey, I’m none too fond of it my own self,” the first male said – how did he know that voice? – “but we ain’t exactly rollin’ in options here. Way I figure it, we go in, we make the trade, we get out. Too much money at stake and too much risk in holdin’ the cargo too long not to do this.” There was a heavy sigh. “I don’t want River to know anything about this. She’s rather fond of it.”
There was a small chuckle. “You really think you can keep a secret from her, sir?”
“Long as I can, yeah. So not a word, and not a thought, dong ma? Now, let’s get it ready to go.”
Their footsteps came closer and Xander knew that he only had a matter of moments before he lost the element of surprise. His adrenaline kicked in and the pain didn’t matter as his lizard brain kicked into fight or flight mode. He took a fast look at the trio just so that he knew what he was up against and who he had to take out first.
And then everything seemed to stop, like someone had hit the pause button on the universe.
He was moving, he knew that he was moving, and he knew that he was moving either really, really fast or really, really slow; but time was mixed up in his brain and he couldn’t figure out which. Time didn’t matter, nothing mattered, not when he saw that face. That face that haunted his nightmares was right there, and his girls were missing, and if The First wanted to dance again… Xander would really like to think that he could take it down, but he knew that he couldn’t… he really needed a Slayer Army at his back right now.
Suddenly he had that bastard shoved up against an enormous crate and the blade was at his throat and Xander was pressing a cold silver blade into his throat. “Why aren’t you dead?” he said between clenched teeth.
He felt the press of metal to his temple. “You don’t put down that blade, son, you soon will be,” the woman - Zoe said.
Xander heard a gun cock. But he didn’t care. “You send me to hell, I’m taking Caleb with me. What do you say to that? Time for The First’s butt monkey to come back home?”
A line of blood welled up from beneath the blade.
“Where are they?” Xander said, jerking the blade just a little bit.
“Where are who?” Caleb asked, forcing his breath out.
“The girls. You sent your little demon to bait the trap and you took them. And so help me gods-“ he moved the blade just a little, just enough to cut a little deeper “-you’ll understand what pain is.”
“Son, I don’t know how you got on this ship, but we don’t take kindly to stowaways.”
“’Specially those wantin’ to kill the Cap’n,” the other man said, he was standing off to the side, looking like hired muscle, but he didn’t have a weapon.
“You know who this guy is?” Xander demanded. “You know what he does? To little girls? Do you know that this sick fuck you’re calling sir,” he spat the word, “does to kids? Do you know,” the blade was held even tighter, pushed even harder, “how he beats them? How he rapes them with objects? How he brands them with his ring? How he burns the bottoms of their feet and breaks their knees and shoulders so that they can’t get away? Does that sound like the man you wanna save? The man you wanna call sir?”
“That don’t sound like Mal,” the big guy said.
“Jayne,” Caleb, who was called Mal, forced out of his throat, “don’t help.”
“You got the wrong man,” Zoe said.
“You think I’d forget the man who killed my girls? You think I’d forget the man who turned my eyeball into goo with his thumbs? Trust me lady, that’s not a face I’ll forget. So you tell me where Afia, Selam and Kaioni are; I kill Caleb – trust me he deserves it - and then we all get outta your hair.”
“Nowhere to go, but out to the black,” Zoe said. “Now, you lower that blade, we all look for your friends, we’ll lock you all up nice and together so the big, bad Cap’n can’t get em. And as soon as we land on the next rock, you can all go off on your merry little way. Or,” she cocked her gun, “I can end your life right here.”
“You leave him alive and he will kill them all.”
“No he won’t,” said a new voice, this one young and female. “He’s not her minion. And you’re in the wrong place.”
“River, you get on outta here, we got this handled,” the woman said.
“No, Zoe,” River said, her voice slightly sing-song, “he’s just mixed up.” She kept coming towards him, her dark hair swaying as she came, she got right up in Xander’s personal space, close enough to touch, but she didn’t. “What was it like?” she whispered.
“What was what like?” he answered in a whisper.
“Earth That Was. What was it like? It’s been gone so long, no one remembers, but you do. You’re the White Knight come out of the history book, but it’s not history for you.”
“River, what are you saying?” Zoe asked.
“He was there,” River said with awe in her voice. “Back when man was just first stepping out into the black.” Her hand was on Xander’s hand. “And he’s not the minion. He’s Mal.”
“You say that now,” Xander said to her, “but he will turn on you like a rabid dog.”
“Don’t worry Xander,” she said. “I can kick his ass. I’m stronger than I look.”
That got his attention. “Stronger than you look?”
Her hand was still gentle on his. “You’re hurting him, Xander. He’s not the one who hurt you. It’s the doppelganger effect; it took a few hundred years, but throw the genetic dice enough times and you’re bound to get the same answer twice. Taking the movement of both time and space as well as the expansion of humans into space and then the magical misfire that brought you here… and … I need a word more astronomical than astronomical to explain how you ever saw him.” Gently, she took the blade out of his hand, then she reached around and gently pushed Zoe’s gun away from Xander’s head. She lead Xander away from Mal. “Come here.” She took him to the airlock doors and let him look out the window. “The White Knight is in the black now.”