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Just Out Of Reach

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On the whole, Sunnydale presents a good face to the outside world. It’s pristine, from the shops to the houses to the people themselves. The proverbial butter wouldn’t melt in Sunnydale’s metaphorical mouth. This is what Rupert Giles often refers to as one of the many ironic quirks of this particular Hellmouth. The first time Cordelia ever heard him say that, she shrugged and said it was like that awful cliché in the movies, where the ugly girl gets made over to look hot but stays boring, only with more death. Giles hemmed and hawed a lot at that, wiping his glasses fervently with his hankie. He didn’t comment, though, so she must have been dead on.


The only outward signs of Sunnydale’s less-than-pleasant side are the plethora of graveyards and the Winston house. The graveyards are only odd because there are so freaking many. The Winston house is just plain weird.


Cordelia stares up at the old house, and wishes she were anywhere but there.


The shattered windows and faded paint mark the Winston house as old and abandoned; it’s the rest that really makes it creepy. Ivy has been climbing up the walls for years now, and the whole left side of the house’s front is covered with it. The stairs leading up to the front are broken down, and beneath their haphazard stacking she can see rusting yard tools stashed away. At least, they look like yard tools; for all she knows they could be freaky instruments of hell torture from the eighteen-hundreds or whatever. She wouldn’t be surprised. The Winston house is just that weird.


She hears a gulp from her right. She glances over, and, wow, Xander’s kinda cute when he’s nervous. Has she finally found a pro to stack up against the millions of cons to spook-hunting without a Slayer? Score! Only, you know, one insane positive doesn’t really do much when it’s drowning beneath an avalanche of sensible, logical, reasonable cons like possible death. Death is a serious con.


He really is super cute, though. Cordy suppresses a smile, turning her eyes front and center again.


The scary-as-all-get-out house is still there. Cordy frowns. She’d been hoping maybe it would just go away, and then they could go back to her place and make out on the sofa or something. No such luck. Still there, still creepy.


She turns back to Xander. “You chicken?” she asks. She is absolutely not looking for an out. Queen C doesn’t look for outs, she makes her own. Just one of the many reasons why she’s such an awesome trendsetter.


“Me, chicken? Ha! I laugh in the face of dangerous architectural hazards,” Xander says.


He’s bouncing on his toes like he’s ready to run away at any moment. It wouldn’t do him any good. Cordelia’s seen him in gym class before – she could outrun him, and she’s wearing heels and a skirt. He’s all flailing arms and buckling knees and cute little butt in navy blue shorts. Not only will he never escape any monster ever, he’ll probably get their full attention if he’s even half as distracting in jeans as he is in those gym shorts. Then she’ll have to come and save him, or whatever it is wannabe Slayers do, and they can both get eaten.


Damn him. Damn his butt.


She reluctantly drags her eyes away from said butt and back to the house. “Remind me why we’re here,” she says, biting her lip.


“Because Buffy isn’t,” Xander says, and that’s that. Conversation over.


Whatever.


“Fine. Fine,” Cordy says, adjusting her grip on her uber-sweet tote. The leather straps make the look, but they sure aren’t very useful once your hands start getting all sweaty and gross, which is inevitable when you’re scoping out a place like the Winston house. Add to that the fact that the bag weighs a freaking ton, what with all the weapons and stuff, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Fashionable disaster, at least, but disaster nonetheless. “Last chance to run home and cower under your sheets? At least until the sun comes up and shines its light on your patheticness.”


“That was almost poetic, Cordy,” Xander snaps. “You’re a regular Robbie Bitch.”


She gets up in his face, crossing her arms. “Oh yeah? Well, at least that’s better than –“


A low creaking noise interrupts her, and Cordy freezes. Slowly, slowly, her and Xander turn away from each other to stare at the house.


The door is suddenly and mysteriously open.


Xander gulps again, and Cordelia sympathizes. This is just what they need. Not only do they have to enter Sunnydale’s own Addams Family Fun House, but apparently it’s waiting for them.


Cordelia’s grip on her bag slips again, and she sets it down to wipe her hands discretely on her skirt. Normally that’d be a total no-no, because stains are nobody’s friend, but she was reaching critical mass on sweat there. Gross.


Xander notices the movement, and grins smugly. Too bad for him the smug doesn’t quite beat all the blind terror screaming from his eyeballs. “What was that about cowering under the sheets, Cordy?”


The thought strikes her that she might be totally up for it if he were there cowering with her. Two cowering peas in a sheety pod. Put that way it doesn’t sound very sexy, true, but the same could be said about Xander, and she knows for a fact that his sexiness is kind of like a ninja. It just sneaks up on you and smacks you in the face when you’re least expecting it.


She forces herself to say, “Let’s just get this over with.” She’s no coward, okay? No matter how appealing those Xander-y sheets might sound, she’s done with running away and leaving other people to get hurt.


Besides, it seems that’s Buffy’s M.O. nowadays.


 Xander interrupts her train of thought with a nervous, “Right. Okay. Commencing breaking and entering of the scariest house ever built. Now.” He takes one last, calming breath, then marches up to the front steps, and she has to jog to catch up to him.


The door is still ajar, swaying slightly in the wind. They climb the stairs, eyeing it warily, and come to a full stop in front of the entrance. The only sound is the slight creaking coming from the rusted hinges. Then, Xander, peering into the darkness across the threshold, says, “Flashlight?”


Cordelia digs around in her bag, and pulls one out. “Flashlight.”


“You’re not conveniently out of batteries or anything, are you?”


Rolling her eyes, Cordy says, “Willow gave me six spare packs, just in case. Oh, and two extra flashlights. You know, in case the end of the world hits and we can’t reach a Walgreen’s or something.”


Xander shakes his head mock sadly. “We’re gonna have to hold an intervention for that girl. There’s just something not right about a teenager being that responsible.”


They share a quick smile, then Cordy clicks on her flashlight and they walk, side by side, into the Winston house.


The wooden floors squawk under Cordy’s heels, and she winces. The next step is quieter, though, so she’s not going to have to walk around barefoot, thank goodness. Cheer camp is just around the corner, and she is so not up for that kind of torture with, God, haunted splinters or whatever in her feet. No thank you.


They turn into the first room. In the feeble glow of the flashlight, Cordy can make out an overturned coffee table in the center, a raggedy couch off to the side, and a wide mirror above the fireplace. Old cobwebs cover everything, and they sway lightly in the breeze coming through a shattered window.


In the mirror, Cordy catches sight of her reflection, and frowns over the state of her hair. Summer winds are just the worst, seriously. She goes closer to fix the disaster on top of her head before anyone who matters (read: not Xander) should catch sight of it, as if anyone who mattered besides herself would ever be found in such a creeptastic place as this.


As she nears the mirror, though, she notices the thin, spider-web cracks extending from the upper-right hand side, where a small, round piece of metal is embedded.


“Xander?” she calls, quietly, tilting her head to inspect it.


“Yeah?”


“Come take a look at this.”


She feels him come close, then he’s pressing warmly into her shoulder as he squints over her shoulder at the metal. She watches his reflection in the mirror as he considers. He reaches out to touch the metal, then withdraws with a noise of disgust. Turning her eyes away from his image in the mirror, Cordy leans in to see what he saw. From so close up, she recognizes it, finally: a bullet. She also notices the pale hair stuck to it by a spatter of dry blood.


“Oh, ick,” she says. She shudders and backs away from the mirror. She’s stopped, though, when she bumps into Xander’s larger frame. Scowling, she turns, meaning to say a little something about “wrong place, wrong time, all the time”, but the look on his face stops her. He’s like a million miles away, and the distance in his eyes silences her.


When a minute goes by without change -- alright, fine, it was more like ten seconds at most, but Cordelia Chase can only stand being ignored for so long -- Cordy decides enough is enough. That kind of melodrama is only acceptable in movies, tacky romance novels, and when she’s the one doing it. She raises a hand and snaps her fingers in front of Xander’s face. He startles, and his gaze flicks immediately to her left, back to the bullet, she assumes. Then he shakes his head once, and turns back to her.


“Sorry,” he says. He changes the topic quickly. “Whatever happened here, it was big. The couch looks like Edward Scissorhands had a, uh, a sad but comedic accident all over it.”


Cordy raises her eyebrows at that, because could he be more of a dork? She walks around him to take a look, though, and has to admit that he’s right. The cushions are slashed to pieces, and the couch itself is covered in long, jagged cuts. Old stuffing is pushing through these holes, yellow and crumbling. As she trails her light down the length of the couch, taking this in, Xander puts his arm around her shoulder, and says, “On second thought, it looks more like Han’s tauntaun after he decides to make it into a nice, cozy sleeping-bag for Luke.”


Apparently he can be more of a dork. She is just the luckiest girl in the world.


“I am just the luckiest girl in the world,” she says, deadpan. Xander snickers. He pats her shoulder condescendingly, then uses his hold there to steer her around towards the doorway across the room. He freezes, though, mid-turn, and Cordy follows his gaze back to the mirror.


I know what you did, it says, and unless someone’s stolen her fire-engine red lip stick, it’s definitely been written in blood.


“Oh God,” Cordelia whispers, and she tries to back away but Xander isn’t moving so she can’t either.


His grip on her shoulder tightens. He doesn’t look away from the mirror.


“Xander!” Cordy says, pinching him in the side. He startles, and looks down at her. He looks completely lost. Her stomach clenches; it’s that stupid thing again, that thing where she cares about him a little bit. She really hates that stupid thing.


She swallows the snide comment she’d come up with and passes him her bag instead. “Do your man-thing,” she says, “Find something to hit someone with.”


He takes it from her and searches through it, still with that dazed look in his eyes. Meanwhile, she shines her light in all the corners of the room, hoping that this might be just some stupid, absurdly quiet little kid playing a prank. Who’s she kidding, though, this is Sunnydale. Even if it were just a little kid, he’d probably turn out to be a bloodthirsty weredragon. Do those exist? She really, really hopes not.


“Here,” Xander says, passing her a knife of some kind. He swings the bag over his shoulder and raises the tranq gun. She knows for a fact it was in pieces when it was in her bag, because obviously it couldn’t fit in there whole. The soldier-remnants from Halloween sure do come in handy when it comes to assembling weapons, she thinks.


With a final glance at the deep, red letters scrawled across the mirror, they make their way into the next room.


The kitchen is just as much of a mess as the living room was, albeit with insta-blood-writing. There are smashed dishes scattered across the dusty checkerboard floor, at which Cordy makes a disgusted face, because, wow, that should not be allowed outside of cheap Italian restaurants. Can you say tacky?


She shines her light around the cupboards and counters, searching for... well, she doesn’t really know what, honestly. She’d gotten a call from Xander about half an hour before, asking her to bring “the stuff”, and God does she ever hope her parents aren’t listening to her conversations on the other phone because they would definitely think she was on drugs. Rehab would totally cramp her style.


“Why are we here, again?” she asks finally, turning to look at Xander. If she shines the light in his eyes a little as she does so, well, there are worse things she could do to him. He deserves it, anyway, after dragging her out of her warm, safe home to sneak around the cold, creepy Winston house.


“Cordy! Light!”


“Woops, sorry.” She lowers the light again.


Thank you.” Rubbing at his eyes, Xander continues. “You remember that thing in the news, a few days ago? About, uh, Jimmy Colson, I think? He was a seventh grader down at Sunnydale Elementary.”


She raises her eyebrows disbelievingly. “Xander. You know full well I don’t watch the news. The makeup on the anchors offends me on a personal level.”


“You know, we have this wacky thing called a newspaper, Cordy,” he says, smirking.


“What, and get ink all over my hands? Yeah, that’s gonna happen.”


Xander huffs out a laugh, then says, “Well, let this inky-handed peasant fill you in, then. Kid spends the night here on a dare from his buddies. A little harmless fun, right? Next morning, though, he doesn’t come back out.”


“Did his friends call the cops?”


“Well, yeah, but you know the Sunnydale PD. Pleased to serve, as long as it doesn’t involve any actual thinking or work. They roped this place off for a day or so, then decided he probably just ran away.” Xander clears his throat, glancing away. “Rumor has it he had a difficult time at home.”


“Oh, so that’s why you wanted to take this job. Some kind of misplaced solidarity thing,” Cordelia realizes.


“Cordy! There’s a thing, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It’s called tact, and it’s something most people have to keep from constantly putting their million-inch heels in their mouths!” Xander snaps. He turns away from her, putting some distance between them.


Cordelia falls silent. That probably wasn’t a good thing to say, now that she thinks about it. Well, hindsight is twenty-twenty. How was she supposed to know that he wouldn’t take her brand of total honesty well? Normally he thinks it’s cute. She opens her mouth to say as much when she feels a droplet of... something land on her forehead. She cuts herself off with a quiet gasp.


“Xander?” she says breathlessly.


“What?” he asks, turning around with his shoulders slouched and his head ducked. He kicks at the floor once. She frowns that he’s avoiding her eyes, but she’s got more pressing concerns right now. Whatever landed on her brow is now slowly sliding down. So, so slowly. She raises a hand to her forehead.


Please don’t be blood. Please don’t be blood.


Cordelia glances at her fingertips and lets out a little shriek.


“Why is it always blood?” she demands when Xander finally meets her eyes. She rubs at her forehead furiously, dodging out of the imagined drip zone. “Why couldn’t it be, I don’t know, perfume or something for once? Fragrant and not at all creepy!”


He turns his face up to inspect the ceiling. Cordy shines her flashlight for him, out of the goodness of her heart. There’s a gaping hole in the floorboards right above them, with jagged edges and dark tips. From one extended board comes a slow trail of deep red liquid; it gleams in her light.


“Oh God,” Cordelia whispers.


“We have to get up there,” Xander says. Then he pauses, and he reaches out, taking her face in his hands. With a look of total concentration he wipes away what’s left of the blood on her forehead. “There,” he says. “Good as new.”


They’re in the middle of a crime scene, with blood falling over their heads and a missing kid possibly somewhere in the building, but if there’s one thing Cordy is big on and one thing she really isn’t, it’s dramatic moments and appropriate timing, respectively. She leans in close and presses their lips together, her arms coming up to wrap around his shoulders, and she feels his hands settle on her hips, pulling her in.


For a few seconds all she can hear is her own heartbeat and the imagined swell of music she always hears when she kisses Xander. It’s that triumphant crescendo that says that this, what they have, is more than just some fling, no matter how much she tells herself that’s all it is. But then there’s a muffled thumping from above, decisively breaking the moment, and she pulls away
reluctantly.


Xander brushes some stray hair out of her face, still staring at her lips, and says lowly, “We should probably...”


“Yeah,” she breathes. Temptation is right there, in front of her, and not even a year ago she would have laughed at the idea of Xander being considered temptation, but she knows better now. How is she supposed to resist?


The footsteps sound again, and they seem louder this time. Deliberate. Cordy rolls her eyes. “Alright already, we’re coming,” she says. She grins at Xander smugly, then, and says, “Even creepy kid-killing things  think you and I making out is wrong. I hate to say it, Xander, but this is just more proof that I’m way, way too good for you.”


“Hey, you kissed me first, Cordy,” he says. “Guess even with blood dripping down your face, you couldn’t resist the ol’ Harris charm.”


“First of all, ew, I thought you got all the blood off,” she starts, but the muffled thumping rings through the room again, this time accompanied by a low moan. “You know what, we can probably talk about this later.”


“Yeah,” Xander says, grabbing the tranq gun. “Do the hero thing now, get the kid, and deal with the hygiene issues of bloody make-outs once we’re safely out, huh?”


There’s a door on the far side of the kitchen, and they head to it. It leads to a staircase. Every step creaks under their feet, and Cordy holds her breath as they go up, praying that it doesn’t cave in under them.


The stairs lead up to a long hallway. The wallpaper is pale pink and floral, like the stuff she had in her room when she was a kid but ancient, and it peels up in molding curls around the doorways on either side. She shines her light in each entrance, scanning every room, but there’s no one; all that’s left is overturned furniture hung with wispy cobwebs and the occasional picture frame discarded on the floor. The room on the left does have a hole in the floor, where the carpet and the floorboards rotted away. When they go in for a closer look, though, there’s no sign of the blood that fell on them.


They go back to the hallway. In the dim light, they can see their only option left: a second staircase at the far end, leading upwards, curving, to the attic.


“This is a really, really bad idea,” Cordelia whispers.


“We don’t have a choice here, Cordy,” Xander says, starting forward.


Cordy grabs at his arm, pulling him back to her. “Xander, come on, we can wait until daylight, can’t we? We’ll get Oz to give us a hand. More of us, fewer chances of horrible maiming death, right?”


Xander pauses. He glances up at the stairs, then down at her hand. He says, “You couldn’t have thought of that earlier?”


“You were being all gung-ho action man,” she says, meeting his eyes shamelessly. “It was weirdly hot. I wasn’t about to distract you.”


“What’s different now? Am I not gung-ho enough? Because I can be gung-ho-ier,” he says, and she smirks.


“What’s different is that we’re about to go in an attic, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that that never ends well, Xander. Especially not for the rich, gorgeous, popular girl.”


Xander grins. “That’s not the right line to take if you want me to reconsider, Cordy. Chance to be free of you? Sign me up,” he says, chuckling.


“Don’t be a jerk, Xander, I’m being serious here. Okay, maybe not about the whole ‘me dying’ thing, because I’d just shove you in the way, loser,” she says, and she pokes him in the chest. “But back-up would go a long way towards avoiding our grisly demises. Demisi? Whatever.”


He hesitates, and for a moment Cordy thinks she’s got him. Then, suddenly, a thin voice floats down the stairs, whimpering, “Help... God, help me, please.” It’s soft, so soft Cordy thinks she imagined it at first, but she meets Xander’s eyes and knows immediately that he heard it too.


“Xander, what was I just saying?” she says, watching him warily.


“I know, I know, back-up," he says. “Cordy, there’s a kid up there -- a little kid and he needs our help. I’m not waiting.”


“That could be some kind of, of terrible voice-mimicking monster! With a weirdly high-pitched voice, and it’s luring us into its vile, gooey trap, okay? Stop and think this through!”


“Cordy --”


“You’re not Buffy, Xander! You’re not Buffy and you never will be, and you need to stop trying to be because you can’t,” Cordelia snaps, finally, raising her voice beyond caution. Why can’t he get this into his head? Why does he always have to try and be the hero, and risk both their lives in the process? It’s not like that worked out so great for Buffy! She shakes her head despairingly and repeats, “You just can’t!”


He stares at her like he’s been slapped. His eyes are wide and shocked, like he can’t believe she’d say such a thing. For all that honesty is her best and only policy, and that’s a dose of truth that’s been a long time coming, when he looks at her like that... For once in her life, Cordelia wishes she could take back what she’d said. She stares back at him, trying to formulate an apology in her head, but there’s no denying she was right. She firmly believes that that was something he needed to hear.


Reluctantly, she strengthens her resolve and holds her tongue.


Xander’s shoulders slump, and she knows she’s won. It doesn’t really feel like it, though; there’s a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She guesses she’s finally found that fabled ‘guilt’ feeling everyone’s always bitching about. It’s not particularly fun.


She takes his arm again and begins to lead him back towards the staircase down, but her progress is halted when the same soft, high voice whimpers, “Xander?”


Cordy freezes. Slowly, she turns to meet Xander’s eyes. “Xander, how does Jimmy Whatever know you?”


“He doesn’t,” Xander says, swallowing. His voice is hoarse, like his throat is parched. “I’ve never met the kid.”


The leaden feeling in her stomach turns into butterflies. Not the nice kind though, more like their super-evil, man-killing relatives. It’s a sinking feeling that’s as wary as it is breathless.


“I know that voice,” Xander whispers, and Cordy knows she does too.


“Xander--”


But he’s off like a shot, sprinting down the hall and up the stairs, leaving her to race after him. Those damn leather straps slip out of her hands as she runs, because she’s so afraid and so worried and, and – damn him. She barely even notices: she can’t stop thinking about what she’d said, all of what she’d said. Buffy, and Xander’s desperation, and that poor kid and the scary monsters -- but what if he was right? What if she was really here?


Just ahead of her she hears the sound of muffled fumbling. Then Xander curses, and wood splinters. She reaches the top of the stairs and sees the shattered remnants of the door. That would be Mr Gung-ho, manly man that he is, losing his war with impatience and winning his war with the lock, she thinks. Mr Gung-ho, who is frozen on the threshold, and doesn’t even jolt when she bangs into him.


Cordelia stares over his shoulder.


Willow will cry, is the first thing she thinks. Those huge, gasping sobs that make her so ugly but make you want to just pick her up and hug her, not that Cordy would ever risk contagion of the nerd virus like that. Then she thinks, Giles will be furious with himself for not even thinking of this. Oz will... be Oz. Unreadable. Mrs Summers will collapse. And Xander, Xander, Xander --


He’s frozen.


“Buffy?” he whispers.


Buffy glances up at them from beneath a curtain of stringy blonde hair, and her eyes widen. She scrambles up onto her knees from her huddled position, staring at them hungrily. “Oh my God,” she whispers. “Oh my God.”


Cordelia glances her up and down. Buffy looks a big damn mess, but she can’t be blamed for that, given the circumstances. Her clothes are torn, her hair is greasy, and there are bags under her eyes the size of Cordy’s prized designer purse. Despite it all, her eyes are shining with hope, and there’s a small smile playing around her lips.


Buffy lifts a hand, and Xander steps forward to take it, leaving Cordy alone by the door, waiting. When their hands clasp, Buffy gasps quietly. She grabs his hand in both of hers, and says, “Oh my God, Xander, I heard your voice and I thought I was dreaming -- is it really you?”


“Yeah, Buffy,” Xander says, and he falls to his knees before her. “I’m here.”


Cordelia stares at them. It’s like tunnel vision: all she can see is Xander wrapping his arms carefully around Buffy, like he’s afraid she’ll break, or worse, vanish. All she can hear is the wooden thumping of her own heart and Buffy’s muffled sobs.


Finally, Cordy clears her throat, and offers Buffy an awkward smile. “So you’ve been here all this time? My condolences.”


Buffy stares at her for a beat, then breaks into hoarse chuckles. “Cordelia, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am so, so glad to see you.”


“Likewise,” Cordelia says, and it feels like the truth.


Xander doesn’t even turn to look at her . He’s only got eyes for Buffy. “We need to get you out of here,” he says, cupping her face clumsily. Buffy grabs his wrists, holding him there, but she shakes her and says, “No – Xander, there’s something here. Something bad, and for some reason... I can’t fight it. You need to stay here. I need you to stay here. You’ve gotta help me, Xander.”


“Wait, what?” Cordy says, narrowing her eyes.


“Yeah, yeah, I’ll stay,” Xander promises. “If there’s something here, I’ll stay. Cordy... Cordy can go get back-up. I’ll stay.”


There is something seriously wrong here, and it’s not just the fact that when he said her name, his voice was totally indifferent. That’s pretty wrong in and of itself, Cordy thinks, and they’ll be having serious words about it when they’re out of here. But even more than that, something is wrong. She eyes Buffy warily. “Back-up would be good,” she says slowly. “Xander, how about we both go get it? It’s dark out there, and... I could get hurt! You wouldn’t want that, would you, Xander? Buffy’s a slayer, she can hold her own. She’s been here for a while now, anyway. I’m sure she can last against the, uh, bad thing for a little bit longer.”


Xander glances at her, torn. Over his shoulder, Buffy glares at her. Then Buffy grabs Xander around the back of his neck and pulls him to face her. “Help me, Xander. I need you. You owe me that much!”


Even from behind, Cordy can see how Xander stiffens at that. Buffy smiles slightly, and whispers, “I know what you did.”


“Buffy,” Xander says lowly, shaking his head.


“Uh-huh,” Buffy says. Cordy edges around the room until she can see both of their faces, and she winces when Buffy digs her nails into Xander’s cheeks. “You thought you could keep secrets from me. That was my decision to make, Xander. Mine. Who the hell said you could make it for me?”


Xander’s shoulders slump, but he keeps whispering, “Buffy, no, Buffy --”


“You’re why I’m here, Xander,” Buffy says, and Cordy’s heart stops. The thumping noise continues, oddly enough. “I’m hungry, I’m aching, I’m alone, and it’s all your fault.”


This has gone beyond wrong and into absurd. Buffy may not be into Xander, but she’s his friend and has been since the beginning. Whatever it was Xander did, she wouldn’t blame him like that. Or at least, not while they were in a creepy old house with, apparently, a “bad thing” stalking around in it.


Cordy hesitates, considering her options (and, frankly, her chances of survival). Then she steps forward and puts a hand on Xander’s shoulder. He doesn’t even look at her. His eyes are wet and haunted as he stares straight at Buffy. “Xander,” Cordy says, “Xander, this is weird and you know it, so you’ve got to snap out of it, okay?”


“Buzz off, Cordy,” Buffy snaps, but she doesn’t look away from Xander. “You’re not involved here. This is between me and Xander, so just -- go powder your nose or something. Bathroom is down the stairs and to your left.”


“Yeah, I know,” Cordy says, “and the mirror’s been painted black and the taps are dripping ooze. I’ll stay here, if that’s all right with you.”


“Xander, tell her to go away,” Buffy orders. From above, Cordy can see the way her hand tightens around his neck.


“Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” Cordy says, smirking. She tightens her own hand on Xander’s shoulder. “Xander, wake up and smell the bleach job, okay? This isn’t Buffy.”


Buffy glances at her briefly, then turns back to Xander. “She’s crazy. Insane. This is so Cordelia, trying to break us up. Don’t listen to her, Xander.”


“Break you up? You were never a thing! There was never a ‘you’ thing! He mooned over you for a while and that was it, because he moved onto something bigger and better -- me. But oh yeah, that’s right, that wasn’t even you! Because you’re not Buffy!”


“Cordy, you’re not making sense,” Xander says, his gaze darting between them. “Of course it’s Buffy. Don’t you see, it all makes sense! She never left, of course she didn’t -- Buffy wouldn’t just up and leave us like that. We all goofed, but she’s here now, so everything’s fine again!”


Cordelia growls in frustration, then she drops to her knees beside him. If this scuffs up her tights he is in so much trouble. “Xander. I’ve tried being gentle, but the kid gloves just aren’t cutting it, so let me lay this out for you.” She shakes his shoulder until he turns to her, then she yells, “You’re an idiot! A sad, lonely idiot who misses his friend, and who thinks he’s found her again but you haven’t! So you need to open those big puppy dog eyes and see this thing for what it is, because it’s sure as hell not Buffy Summers. As if Buffy would ever let her hair become so gross.”


In the wake of her tirade, there is a moment of near-silence. Even the thumping has stopped. Then Buffy reaches out and slaps Cordy around the face, knocking her back and away from Xander. Cordy skids across the room, losing her knife and flashlight along the way. She comes to a stop as she hits the wall, and she blinks dazedly up into the dim glow of the skylight, which is now the only source of light. As Cordy raises her head with a groan of pain, she sees Xander and Buffy, still kneeling in the gloom, looking back at her. Xander’s eyes are clear.


“You’re not Buffy,” he says, turning to face it.


The thing wearing Buffy’s face shakes him off and stands up. “No, I’m not,” it says, still in Buffy’s voice. “I don’t know much about this Buffy bitch you’re so choked up about, but if what you’ve been thinking all night is true, it sounds like she’s never coming back.”


Cordy raises herself up onto her elbows slowly. A quick glance at Xander shows that he’s back to shaking his head stubbornly, his shoulders drooping more and more with every poisonous word. He’s not going to be any help.


“I mean, damn, kid,” Not-Buffy continues. “I may not be Buffy, and I may not be involved, but even I can see that what you did was cold. The guilt must just be eating you up. It won’t be the only thing, soon enough.”


It chuckles coldly, and Cordelia rolls her eyes largely at that. What is up with monsters and bad jokes, anyway? It kind of detracts from the blood-chilling terror, she thinks.


She scans the room, taking in the giant chest in the back and the old bookshelf in the corner, but not finding any weapons. She’s got no clue where her knife is, and she doesn’t really fancy trying to drop a bookshelf on Not-Buffy. It might hit Xander along the way, and she likes him just fine all non-squished.


“So you’re going to die,” the thing says with a chilling air of finality, “and darling Buffy is never, ever coming back. She’s going to die too someday, lost and lonely and far from home. But that’s out of your hands now. You’ve played with her fate enough, I think.”


Cordelia turns back to Xander, waiting for the pithy remark, the stubborn denial, but he stays silent. She hopes that he’s just, oh, plotting the thing’s demise. She hopes he’s not broken.


Of course that’s not what it is, she thinks. This is Xander, Mr Happy-Go-Loser himself. He’ll be fine, she tells herself, and she tries really, really hard to believe it.


Out of the corner of her eye, then, she sees what she’s been looking for. Just on the threshold, where he must have dropped it, the klutz. Still, given the whole finding-his-friend-again circumstances, she supposes it’s understandable.


All the relief running through her now that she’s found a weapon must be making her soft.


The thing is still talking. It has leaned in close to Xander, almost flirtatiously, with Buffy’s big eyes and Buffy’s sweet voice, and it’s saying, “Once I’m done with you, I’ll go after all those people you were thinking about when you first saw me. Giles, was it? And Willow and Oz and a certain Mrs. Summers. You’re the one who thought they’d be relieved, right? Consider this my gift to you. They’ll get that relief. It’ll be a brief, brief relief, but hey, there’s your silver lining, buddy. That one, shining moment of happiness.”


Cordy keeps her eyes on the thing as she inches along the floor towards the exit. It’s painstaking and painful -- her abs are going to be killing her in the morning -- but she makes it. She wraps her fingers around the tranq gun and pulls it close, shielding it from the thing’s eyes. Her fingers are slick with sweat as she traces it. She’s never used one of these before; the role of bait is rarely played with any kind of weapons beyond the obligatory stake.


She finds the trigger easily enough. Do tranq guns have safeties or whatever? She doesn’t know, and she sure as hell hopes not or else her little rescue attempt is going to be seriously anticlimactic. Like, Catcher in the Rye anticlimactic.


“The best part, though? Buffy will never, ever know, because she’s never, ever coming b--”


Cordy pulls the trigger.


The look of shock on Not-Buffy’s face is kind of hilarious, as she glances down at the dart in her side and then up to meet Cordelia’s eyes. Cordy isn’t laughing, though. The thing still looks like Buffy, all the way until it collapses down, and it feels like she’s shot Buffy. So maybe she’s fantasized about that once or twice, fine, but it’s nowhere near as fun as imagined.


Cordy crawls over to Xander’s side, and they stare down at the thing together. The blonde hair recedes into a short-cropped, stringy black mess. Its skin becomes translucent. Soon, it doesn’t look anything like their lost friend.


Pulling her eyes away from the still body in front of them, Cordy turns to Xander. He’s staring down at it, searching it desperately for -- well, Cordy doesn’t know what, exactly. Unlike the weird shape-shifter thingy that nearly ate them, she’s not telepathic. But he looks like he’s gone off the deep end, a little. Like everything hurts.


Cordy lays a hand on his shoulder again and rubs it gently. “Hey, Xander,” she says. “Xander. Snap out of it.”


He looks at her, finally, and meets her eyes. “Cordy?”


“Yeah,” and God, it feels like something’s caught in her throat. She is not going to cry. That would be terrible, so it’s not going to happen.


He’s just staring at her, so she clears her throat and continues, “You know, I seriously doubt Buffy was having any heart-to-heart sessions with freaks like this on her way out of town. I know I insult her a lot, but she’s got better taste than that. So --”


“What, you think I believe it?” Xander asks. His voice is raw and filled with bravado. Cordy knows a thing or two about bravado, and right now it’s making her want to smack him. Can’t he just be honest with her? With himself? “Cordy, it’s a monster. It’s an evil, soulless piece of crap, and monsters lie. They’re always lying, always -- so she’ll be back. Of course she’ll be back. It was lying, which means she’ll be back.”


That’s not how it works, she thinks. Xander, you poor, pathetic, loveable dunce, that’s not how it works at all.


“Right?” he asks, staring at her desperately.


She glances away. “Right.” She never thought the day would come when she’d lie for Xander of all people. Would wonders never cease.


“Right,” he repeats, then he brushes himself and stands up. She looks elsewhere deliberately while he wipes at his eyes, then turns back when he asks, “So, are we done here then?”


The wooden thumping restarts, loud and obnoxious, and Cordy drags up a smirk. “We could always leave Jimmy Whatsisname in the trunk, I guess.”


“Huh?”


She gestures towards the trunk at the back of the room, and they step carefully around Not-Buffy’s body towards it. When they’re standing right in front of it, Xander turns to her and says, “See, I wouldn’t have even noticed. We would have left poor Jimmy to starve. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”


Cordy smiles, and he grins back. It’s enough for now, she thinks. They’ll get the kid out and send him home. Maybe they’ll even check in with him in a few weeks, make sure he’s okay, given what Xander’d said about -- yeah. They’ll call up Giles first, though, tell him where the thing is and leave him to deal with it. Xander’ll walk her home, and they’ll kiss on the doorstep -- the kind of kiss that would have Willow miming vomit and Giles sighing loudly and British-ly. They’ll pretend nothing is wrong.


Everything is wrong. Cordy just hopes that Willow and them will be able to hold Xander together until she gets back from her camp and her vacation and all that other stuff. If they break her boyfriend, there’ll be hell to pay.


“Whatever, loser,” she says, reaching for the trunk lid.