He was starting to regret bugging the insurance company for the glass eye. The damn thing itched. But when he wore it people didn't stare like they did when he was doing his pirate imitation, so Xander guessed it was just one of those nasty little tradeoffs life was chock full of.
The bench he was sitting on wasn't much more comfortable. The damn thing had still had dew on it the morning sun hadn't managed to burn off yet when he sat down, and the carpenter was fairly sure the wet had seeped through the seat of his jeans. But despite how uncomfortable it was, Xander didn't feel like moving just yet. This morning he'd woken up with the feeling something was going to happen; if he'd been in Sunnydale, or even Cleveland with its mini-Hellmouth, he'd have been running and screaming. But here, in supernaturally-nonexistent Philadelphia?
Here, he kept a hand ready on his cell phone to HQ in case he needed some Scooby-style intervention, but other than that he just literally sat back and watched. So far nothing strange had happened, except for his discovery after buying a bagel for breakfast that being in Philadelphia kind of did make the cream cheese taste better. Must be an atmosphere thing.
It was a nice place. A little cool for his tastes, and there was no way in hell he'd get caught here coming winter (even if Cleveland would be getting just as much snow), but nice. The people weren't in as much of a hurry as he was used to, and frankly the city was just beautiful. Xander spent a couple of days after meeting with the antiques dealer just touring around Central City, visiting all those historical places he'd slept through learning about back in high school.
He was just about out of excuses to hang around, though. The sword with the nifty burn-demons enchantment was going to be delivered the next morning, and then he'd have to head back to wonderful Cleveland, where estrogen came in buckets and according to everyone else he could take care of himself about as well as a declawed kitten.
Yes, a truly appetizing homecoming. Maybe he could see if they needed someone to do a bit more traveling...
He'd been passed occasionally on his bench, but for some reason the sound of footsteps this time made his ears perk up. They were fairly light, like the person making them wasn't all that big, but fast, like... Xander pushed himself to his feet. Whoever it was, was very afraid, and very small.
Damn that White Knight complex...
The other person was blocked from sight by a stand of trees. Xander ducked around them, trying to ignore the way the breeze chilled the damp fabric on his ass. It wasn't the most dignified way to rescue someone, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
It was a kid. The boy couldn't have been more than eight or nine; Xander couldn't see his face, only tousled brown hair, since his head was down and he was half running down the sidewalk. And with good reason. The guy following him surprised the Scooby, since he hadn't heard his footsteps.
Some kind of pervert, he guessed disgustedly, stepping forward with clenched, ready fists.
Cole's breath was coming hard. It wasn't much further to home and relative safety, only a couple more blocks, but that was assuming the man didn't catch him first.
He turned into the park, holding in a sob. And assuming he didn't collapse first. Cole was used to running, but this one had caught sight of him just outside of school, and that was a lot farther than he usually had to run. He wasn't sure he could make it those last two blocks.
"Hey, kid!" he heard someone shout just up ahead. He jerked his head up to see a man standing beneath a tree. His pace faltered, and this time the sob made it out. Adults never understood. They only asked questions, and yelled, and called you a freak. This one was probably just going to yell at him about going too fast, and slow him down so he'd get caught. Unless... unless he was another one of Them...
Cole broke into a run, hoping he could just blow past. But the man stepped into his path, brown eyes narrowed in suspicion, and the boy was forced to come to a screeching halt or run into him at full tilt.
The man put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, is that guy bothering you?" he asked, his voice gentler and concerned, and it was a moment before Cole realized he was looking past him.
At the dead man.
"You see him?" the boy blurted out, feeling his world quake and shift around him. No one else had ever seen Them before!
The stranger looked confused. "Yeah, I see him. Why wouldn't..." He blinked and looked back at the ghost, studying him carefully. "...Well, shit," he finally muttered, seeing the bloody, raggedy hole in his side. "Ghosts. Wonderful. Why'd I get out of bed this morning?"
"You see him..." Cole murmured again, nearly going limp with relief. He groped for the hand on his shoulder, holding onto it with white knuckles. "Please, don't let him get me," the boy pleaded, taking a step back towards him.
The man looked down at him, startled, and then his eyes narrowed again as he saw the bruise a different ghost had left on Cole's cheekbone a couple of days ago. "Don't worry, I won't," he whispered back, squeezing his shoulder and pulling him around behind his back as he stepped forward.
"Where is she?" the dead man demanded as the Scooby approached. "Where's my wife, that lying bitch? She's cheating on me, I swear she is! I'll kill her!"
Xander snorted. "Looks more like she got a piece of you," he said, glancing at the crater blown into his side. A hole that big could only have been made by a shotgun at close range. And how the hell had he managed to miss seeing that?
The ghost stared at him with blood-shot eyes. So much for pale, transparent ghosts. This one was in full Technicolor and looked as solid as he himself was. "Where is she? Tell me!"
He lunged, as if trying to get the answer by force, and Xander made a mental note not to taunt unknown dead people (as opposed to known, souled dead people) as he fended him off with an instinctive move that bore only a distant resemblance to any recognizable fighting style. Screw looking solid; if it hadn't been for the whole "You see him?" thing, he would have thought zombie, not ghost.
The dead guy stumbled to the side, and then past, and Xander realized he had never been the target of the lunge. "Where is she?" the ghost howled, reaching for the kid, who backed away in terror. "Tell me, you little bastard!"
Xander snarled. He could remember his father standing over him and yelling in that exact tone of voice as his son nursed his bruises, and the similarity made him angrier than he could ever remember being before. "Leave him alone!" he yelled, going after the ghost and grabbing him by the arm. Alive the asshole had weighed more than he did, and death hadn't lightened him up any, but the combination of adrenaline and ire was enough to get him turned around and looking into Xander's face.
At first the ghost didn't even seem to realize Xander was there; his eyes didn't focus on him, instead gazing away somewhere over his left shoulder. But as the man shook him, the wayward eyes settled on his own, and the ghost went utterly still, transfixed. "Leave him alone," Xander said again, his words low and hard as steel.
Strangely enough, a part of him wasn't at all surprised when the ghost nodded frantically and pushed himself away from the Scooby, his movements made clumsy by fear. He fled down the pavement, and the two of them remaining watched as he disappeared from view among the trees. Xander turned towards the kid then, to ask if he was okay, only to find him staring back uneasily.
"What's wrong?" he asked, worried.
The boy bit his lip. "Your… your eye. It's glowing."
Xander blinked. "…Huh?" He reached up and patted his left eye, and the kid nodded. Shit. That was the glass one. Looked like he needed to have a little chat with the manufacturer… At least, he hoped he would. He really didn't want to consider the possibility that it was something to do with him instead of the eye, 'cause that would be a bad thing, a very bad thing. Possibly Willow-going-black-eyed-again bad, if she found out someone had messed with her Xander, and he didn't need more than one of those little incidents in his lifetime, thank you very much. Even thinking about it was enough to make his hands sweat.
"It's fading now," the boy ventured cautiously after a minute filled with an uncomfortable silence.
Xander wiped his palms on his jeans. "Oh, good." He looked at the boy and summoned up a lopsided smile to cover his apprehension. "So… I'm Xander."
He got a hesitant smile in return, which was kind of surprising given the whole freakiness factor that usually accompanied seeing someone's eyes glow. Or eye, in this case. But then, if the kid always saw ghosts, maybe he was used to the weird... "I'm Cole."
The man cast a glance after the vanished ghost. Xander didn't think he would be coming back, but… "Nice to meet you, Cole. Um… do you live around here?" He guessed he did, considering the backpack he was carrying and that schools usually let out around now.
Cole nodded. "Not far from here. Just a couple of blocks." Okay, the kid was way too trusting… Oh, crap. He'd seen that look in peoples' eyes before, though never directed at him. That was the beginning of hero worship right there, and that couldn't possibly be a good thing.
"Mind if I walk you home, then?" Xander offered against all his instincts of self-preservation. Or at least sanity preservation. But the kid must have caught the direction of his glance and had some of the same thoughts run through his mind, because he quickly shook his head and darted forward to grab Xander's hand.
Then Cole was leading him down the sidewalk, telling him about introducing him to his mother, and all Xander could think was that this couldn't possibly end well.
He really shouldn't have gotten out of bed today…
A/N: I'm not going to do the usual platitudes about starting a new story, especially since this one has actually been pending for a while. The facts are that something has gone seriously screwy with the memory chip that has most of my up-to-date work on it, and I'm worried that this time I might not recover the work in question. Of all my in-progress chapters on it, I saved only the one I was working on at the time, which was Melody's. In case you haven't noticed, that leaves me rather stressed-out right now, but I didn't want to have a sudden,unexplainedpause in my updating while I regroup, so I'm giving you this for now. Wish me luck.
Oh, and unless the other chapters really are lost, this story isn't a real priority.
Disclaimers: I own neither Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Sixth Sense.