Part III

Eight and a half months later, Xander was sitting at a small table in a sidewalk café on the Piazza della Repubblica in Orvieto, staring down at an espresso and silently cursing Andrew Wells with all the fervor in his soul. Against any sane expectation, the little ferret had turned out to be an excellent organizer, and even a good motivator in his own deeply weird way … but his sense of the dramatic would yet be the downfall of them all, and how was Xander supposed to straighten out this mess? If he could just get Vi here, now, or maybe Kinue … Someone was approaching, he had as usual put the wall to his back so he could assess any newcomers, and even as Nina Ash was sitting down across from him, Xander's fingers found the silver stylus sheathed in an unobtrusively sewn fold in his right pant-leg.

Her smile was amused and warm. "Hello, Xander," she said to him. "I come in peace."

"Always nice to know," he answered agreeably. He still kept his hand on the stylus. Even if Nina herself was no threat (and he didn't honestly think she was), her appearance might mean other things were happening or about to be, and preparedness was generally to the good. "So, how's life been treating you?"

"Can't complain." She took off her sunglasses, regarded him with a slight tilt to her head. "I think I like the new look. Not as dashing, but maybe a bit less alarming. Forced healing, mystical replacement, glamour, or prosthetic?"

She meant the eye, of course. "Prosthetic," Xander told her, speaking as matter-of-factly as she had. "I don't really trust the mystical stuff … plus, like I said before, magic doesn't seem to stick to me anyway." He made a small gesture of dismissal. "I prefer the eye-patch when I'm roughing it — I have to take out this thing and clean it on a regular basis — but I attract less notice this way. Which is usually a good thing." Actually, the prosthetic was a recent addition, he'd finally got the thing just before the self-imposed isolation/vacation in Scotland, and spent his brief time of solitude in the shepherd's hut getting used to it. "And what have you been up to yourself?"

She was dressed in a sleeveless blouse and denim shorts, with a white floppy sun-hat and a small backpack as accessories. This was neither the pretty but unremarkable girl he had first met, nor the alert, vital predator who had accompanied him down from the roof of the new Council's provisional admin offices, but someone who combined aspects of both. Too, there was something … relaxed about her now, as if some private concern had been put to rest and she was now comfortable with herself. "I spent a little time in Nepal," she said to him. "I found Oz, like you suggested, he really didn't want to be found but I was able to … sniff him out eventually." A quick smile. "It was a good idea. My case didn't exactly match his, but there was enough in common that I was able to learn a lot from him. And he's a good guy."

Xander nodded. "I miss him," he said. Then: "And how about your sister, and niece?"

"Back in Los Angeles," Nina said. "I took care of that before I left London; your new Watchers were able to confirm that it was safe for them to go home again." A sigh. "I wasn't able to do that. I don't know if I ever will be."

Xander considered that. "Because of —?"

The wolf, he didn't finish, but Nina apparently caught the meaning. "Because too many things have changed. The life I used to have, ended more than a year ago, it was just a matter of whether my new life would be in the same place, doing most of the same things. Turns out, no." She looked down at the tabletop, and let the silence grow for a few seconds, then, "He did come to see me, you know. Angel. It was right after you left, you probably hadn't even got to the airport yet."

"So I made it out just in time, then." Xander caught her look, and added, "Yeah, I know. Issues. If you ever saw us together, you'd be able to tell I'm not the only one who has 'em." He sat back. "So?"

"It was a little strange," she said. "He was … apologetic, and repressed, and I could tell I'd be able to tie him to me if I wanted to, just because he was ashamed of how he'd behaved up till then …" She shook her head. "He was kidding himself, and that made me see I'd been doing the same. I could love him — I think I do, maybe — but I just don't believe that's what I need to be doing with my life." She gave Xander a sidelong look. "Also, she was there. Buffy. All friendly and casual and chatty, and I didn't need any wolf's awareness to see the waves of 'MINE!' coming off her. Her, and Angel, and Spike too … what is it with those three?"

Xander held up his hands. "I stuffed that question way back into the depths of never-go-there a long time ago. That way lies madness, or at least much banging of head against wall." He set his hands back on the table. "Okay, not going back to L.A., and not staying in London … so what brings you to sunny Umbria?"

Nina sat for several minutes without answering: not confused, not blocking him out, but taking her time to choose the words she wanted. "Because of my exposure to the Tsjorkic challenge-pheromones, I'm like Oz now," she said at last. "Not exactly like him, but we have that in common: I'm not tied to the lunar cycle anymore. Which is good, it means I don't have to lock myself up three nights a month now, but it also means I have to be … a lot more careful, all the time."

"Yeah," Xander said. "Upside, downside, I get that."

"We talked a lot, he and I." At Xander's expression, Nina grinned. "Yes, if you can believe it. This was a subject where we could see and share things that wouldn't make sense to anybody else — anybody normal — and it helped us both. The main thing, though, was what we didn't have in common."

Xander tilted his head, studying her. "Which is?"

"He's male," Nina said. "I'm female."

"One of my favorite things about you," Xander agreed.

"I'm a female wolf," Nina clarified. "My imperatives aren't the same as his. I don't want the same things, and I don't respond in the same ways." Seeing that he didn't quite understand, not yet, she went on. "There was a time when I wished I had never learned about this world. That I could have just gone on, happily oblivious, not having to worry about apocalypses or demon possession or … or even werewolves and vampires. But I do know, and I can't pretend I don't, and there are things that need to be done and I have something to offer."

"Ah," Xander said.

"Right," she said, nodding. "You saw me, on the roof. It was being pulled out of me, then, but I've learned to let it out, under control. I'm not Slayer level, but I can fight. And I know your organization always needs more people."

"Always," he agreed. "So, what, you want my backing, to talk them into letting you join up?"

"Not exactly." Her gaze met his, and the measured assessment in her eyes triggered a tickle of warning in him. "I told you I can control how much of the wolf I let out. I can, mostly. It's just, I know that if I keep pushing the boundaries — and I'll have to, if I get deep into supernatural operations — there will be times when that control will slip. When the wolf gets out all the way."

"Ow," Xander said. "Definitely not a good thing."

"Not the best outcome," Nina acknowledged. "But a female wolf isn't as … automatically aggressive, as a male. Her instincts are oriented more to protection than dominance. Oz and I think that, if I can establish the right kind of bond with someone, he can act as a brake on her, if she gets out. Keep her close, keep her calm, prevent any spontaneous rampages … I think you get the basic idea." She looked to him. "The thing is, what I'm talking about here is a mate-bond."

Xander's mouth dropped open, but miraculously he prevented anything idiotic from emerging. After a moment, he pulled himself back together and said, "Is this because I gave you my windbreaker? Because, seriously, that was just me being polite."

"I'm not actually proposing anything at this point," she reassured him. "We don't know each other anywhere near well enough. Right now, I'm just raising the subject." She leaned toward him. "If we think about it, and take the time to learn about each other, and spend some time working together … well, then we can decide if it looks like a good idea. What do you say?"

And once again, more romantic than Faith. Xander shook his head, and heard himself saying, "Have I mentioned that I'm having a very strange day?"

"Really?" Nina sat back. "How, exactly?"

"I don't know how much you know about Orvieto," Xander told her. "They have this … labyrinth, underground tunnels and chambers dug out of soft volcanic rock. Centuries old, really elaborate, and they only recently opened those out to guided tours."

Nina nodded understanding. "And?"

"And there's something down there," Xander said to her. "We don't know what yet, just vague reports, but something appearing and vanishing and we're not even sure if it's actually supernatural or just local kids pranking." (Please, let it not be a kraken wraith. That was one of the less likely possibilities, but definitely the least desirable.) "Our people were supposed to look it over, but the total moron in charge of the Slayer team here decided that a fashion show would be just the ideal cover for checking out the labyrinth …" He stopped, eyed Nina speculatively. "When you let out just a bit of your wild side, how's your sense of smell? Would it, for instance, be good enough for tracking through a bunch of underground tunnels?"

Nina thought about it. "Probably," she said. "Very probably. So what do you have in mind?"

Xander waved for the waiter while they began to hash out the details, and ordered espresso for Nina. Then wine. Then lunch. They went over the possibilities in depth, and tacitly allowed the larger issue to remain hovering in the background, unspoken. For now.

They weren't making any decisions, not for a while yet. But a decision would come eventually … and maybe, just maybe, it could lead to something really good.