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Independent 25 - There Ought to Be Clowns

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There Ought to Be Clowns
(the Lying Eyes Remix)
by Aadler
Copyright December 2016


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.


This story is a remix, originally intended for Round 6 of the Circle of Friends Remix, of “Honesty”, by M. Scott Eiland.



It’s been going on for weeks now. She never suspected that it could be so intense, addictive. She never dreamed just how much it would hurt. She’s caught in the middle, between a roller-coaster ride she can’t bring herself to want to get off, and a runaway train careening down a mountain track to absolute inevitable disaster. She knows she’s made a mistake, a horrible mistake, knows she got in over her head so quickly she was gone before she had any chance to try and pull back, or even to recognize the need. Every night before sleep, safe and alone in her room, she cries and vows she’ll end it first thing in the morning. And she knows she won’t. Not yet. She’s stuck, she can’t escape, and part of her can’t keep from hurling herself to her own destruction.

The thing with Angel nearly killed her. This, now … impossible as she would have sworn such a thing to be, this one might turn out to be even worse.

*               *               *

“Okay,” Oz said, studying the french fry in his hand with a quirked eyebrow. “That was definitely … different.”

He didn’t mean the fry, of course. For some reason that nobody could name, this particular after-action conference at the library had seemed to call for munchies: fries, hot wings, pizza, cheese sticks. Even Giles was availing himself of the pizza in lieu of something more traditional. Waving a hot wing, Xander said, “I know what you mean. It was like, like looking at —”

“Like looking at me as imagined by some horny fourteen-year-old who reads Vampirella comics and nothing else.” Willow bit into a cheese stick, shook her head. “The way she was dressed … do guys actually think that is sexy?”

“Some guys,” Oz answered with a shrug. “Me, I have different ideas about what looks good.”

The smiles they shared were almost sickeningly cute. Buffy snorted loudly. “You liked her in a fur-trimmed parka, so I’d say you care more about the package than the wrapping.” She glanced at Xander, her expression arch. “You were sure getting an eyeful, though.”

Xander looked startled; had she put more barb into her tone than she’d intended? The ‘fluking’ business with Willow was still recent enough to leave a few sore spots and touchy areas … “I was trying to be supportive,” he protested. “That was when we still thought she was our Willow, our not-vampire Willow. You were kind of staring, too, at first, and I never tried to say that meant anything.”

“I was surprised,” Buffy agreed. “But my eyes weren’t trying to roll down into her cleavage.”

“It, er …” Giles cleared his throat. “It was an outfit expressly designed to draw attention, of a particular type. Little surprise that it did so.”

“Maybe.” Buffy picked up a soft drink cup, took a long sip through the straw. “Kinda makes me wonder how Faith would’ve reacted, if she hadn’t been off somewhere doing whatever.”

Willow looked up at that. “Faith? What do you mean?”

“Faith likes to throw out little innuendoes,” Buffy explained, aware that Xander, too, was paying attention. “Just messing with me, I’m pretty sure, but I wouldn’t mind seeing how she’d deal with somebody who’s every bit as out-there come-and-get-me as she is.”

Xander finished the hot wing, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and observed, “That does kinda grab at the imagination. Guess we’ll never know, though.”

“Guess not.” Buffy stood up, stretched. “Anyway, that’s enough decompressing for me. See you guys tomorrow.”

Her eyes barely flicked in Xander’s direction, a fraction of a second, but he promptly asked, “Need a ride?”

Buffy shrugged. “Sure, I guess,” she said, and strolled out the library doors with Xander right behind her.

After a brief hiatus following the group’s clash with the Sisterhood of Jhe, Xander had resumed stewardship of his uncle Rory’s convertible. Occasionally, that was convenient. They didn’t speak during the short drive to Buffy’s house; when he pulled into the driveway, however, and saw that Joyce Summers’s Jeep wasn’t there, he looked at Buffy questioningly. “Yeah, Mom’s got a thing tonight,” she told him. “Said she’d be getting in late.”

“Late?” Xander got out of the car at the same time Buffy did. “How late?”

“Late enough,” she replied, and led him into the house. And up the stairs. And into her bedroom.

*               *               *

The whole thing is totally Faith’s fault. And Buffy really wants to blame the other girl, but she can see too clearly where she herself made the wrong move.

Like so many other things, it came about through a chain of circumstances, each plausible enough but unlikely in their ultimate result. The first flush of reckless freedom in realizing the benefits of being teamed with another Slayer, someone with the same destiny and the same instincts but willing to surrender to the rush. Having that euphoria broken by the two of them being arrested in the sporting goods store, and then having to break out of the police car en route to lockup. The fight through Eliminati swordsmen on the way to Balthazar’s hideout the following night, falling into the quasi-chaotic shared battle-rhythm they had so recently discovered together but with a small part of Buffy now watching, worrying, doubtful about how trustworthy Faith’s impulses might be. A moment’s respite interrupted by another threat, Faith wheeling instantly to meet it with characteristic lethal reflex —

It was all so fast, even now Buffy can’t say how she knew, but she knew, and simultaneous with her cry of warning was the certainty that it wouldn’t be enough, and she lunged with fingers outspread, shoving against Faith’s arm to divert the strike just the least bit … The point of the stake tore Allan Finch’s shoulder, and he screamed in a way that vampires just didn’t do, and as quickly as that the crisis was past. Faith guarded Finch while Buffy hurried to complete the rescue of Giles and Wesley; after a hurried conference once Balthazar had been dispatched, the two Slayers were sent to wreck the man’s car, leaving enough makeshift claw-marks to make it appear he’d been dragged off by some random demon. Safely hidden away (Angel arranged that) and warded against discovery (Giles called in an acquaintance who owed him a favor for that part), he’s still providing them background information for their eventual assault on Mayor Richard Wilkins.

It was a narrow escape; caught up in the frenzy of the moment, the two Slayers came horrifyingly close to killing an innocent (mostly) human. Faith was, if anything, even more shaken than Buffy, with two subsequent results.

The second was that Faith surprisingly softened toward Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, still mortified and disgraced by his behavior while in captivity; her own near-disaster (at almost the same moment) made her less unsympathetic to the Watcher’s failure, and that unexpected tolerance and fellow-feeling — still new and tenuous — shows signs of being good for them both.

The first was the cathartic girl-talk Faith insisted on having with Buffy, back in that awful motel room. Sharing and bonding, a level of vulnerability Faith had never allowed herself to show before, and the headlong Slayer-sister-in-arms camaraderie that had briefly possessed Buffy had been largely punctured by arrest and escape and near-homicide, but there was still a little bit of it in operation so she went with the moment. And the moment opened out into a series of surprises, so rapid and stunning that Buffy couldn’t finish adjusting to one before the next hit.

What? Xander had saved them all — and the school, and almost certainly the whole town, and very possibly the world if the Hellmouth had finished opening — the same night they’d tried to push him onto the sidelines for his own safety?

What? Xander had had sex with Faith, in a rest-break between fleeing a zombie street-gang and going back to confront them (and save his friends, the school, the city, etc.)?

And WHOA! — why, Faith wondered, wouldn’t Buffy give the guy a shot? Brave, dedicated, not at all hard on the eyes, “and crazy about you on top of all that. So what’s the hold-up?”

Still trying to take it all in, Buffy wasn’t able to mount a proper defense. “Again with me and Xander? I told you, I care about him but not that way.” She shook her head. “Besides, aren’t you kind of forgetting Angel here?”

Faith’s trademark grin, usually at least half sneering, seemed genuinely … un-mocking … just now. “Not lookin’ to bust your balloon, here, B, but I ain’t sayin’ anything you don’t already know: you got no future there. Fer Crissake, you can’t even boink the dude ’thout cuttin’ loose Mister Hyde’s nastier big brother. An’ even if you could talk yourself into forgettin’ that, Angel can’t. Hell, B, have you really not noticed that he’s startin’ ta pull back?”

That stung, because she had noticed and tried not to admit it to herself. “It still doesn’t change anything where Xander is concerned. There’s … there’s just a spark that I don’t feel with him, you know?”

Faith shrugged, head tilted challengingly. “What? Never?” And then the grin came back at the other Slayer’s expression, because suddenly Buffy was remembering … moments. Xander backing away when a bespelled Buffy offered herself to him, gift-wrapped in nothing but a raincoat. Xander standing bewildered and unresponsive while she ground herself against him on the dance floor just to piss off Angel. Xander holding her after saving her from Vamp Theresa —

For that matter, just the sight of Xander in a Speedo.

“Maybe you didn’t feel that way about him then,” Faith said in the new silence. “Doesn’t mean you couldn’t do it now. You can keep him locked in the Friend Zone if you wanna … but do you really wanna?”

*               *               *

Buffy will never be able to echo Faith’s over-the-top approach to life — in fact, she’s come to suspect that much of what Faith says is deliberately exaggerated specifically to elicit shock and protest — so it was unsettling to find herself (secretly) agreeing with almost everything the other Slayer pointed out. In the end, however, what decided the matter was something else.

It wasn’t that she’d lost interest in Angel; she hadn’t.

It wasn’t that she had no future with Angel; given the average life-span of a Slayer, the future might not go any farther than the next few weeks. Or even the next night.

It wasn’t that Angel was beginning to reluctantly, delicately distance himself from her. He was, but she could fight that if she wanted.

… It was that the two of them couldn’t have SEX.

She most decidedly does not have Faith’s hungry-and-horny thing going on. (She doesn’t. She doesn’t .) That first glorious experience with Angel, though, had showed her just what she’d been missing … and boy, howdy, was she ever missing it  now, knowing they could never have it again.

Of course, again unlike Faith, Buffy wasn’t interested in quick sex just to scratch an itch. If she wanted more than she could have with Angel, it had to be more, not just a different version of not-enough. Her genuine caring for Xander made her confident that they could achieve something that went beyond ‘strictly physical’ … and, even if it only served as a substitute for what was now impossible between her and Angel, it was a place to start. And things didn’t have to stay where they started, did they?

So, okay, her and Xander. The idea still felt a little weird, but not bad-weird, more this-could-take-some-getting-used-to weird. And it wasn’t like there was any chance he would reject her, the guy had basically been one giant drool gland since the first moment he ever saw her —

Except, even if he’d been kinda fixated on her, it hadn’t exactly been an exclusive fixation. Witness the stuff with Miss French, and Ampata … and Cordelia … and Willow … and even Faith …

He’d actually cheated on Cordelia with Willow. In fact, if you looked at it a certain way, he’d been sort of cheating on Willow by getting involved with Cordelia, and keeping it a secret for as long as he did. And the one-off with Faith … okay, that pretty much came down to hot babe says, ‘Hey, wanna do it?’, guy’s totally gonna go for the goodies  … still, it wasn’t like Buffy could be absolutely totally not-a-question-in-the- world positive as to his reaction —

So Buffy hedged her bets. Picked her moment, made her approach, and laid it out the way Faith might have done if Faith had been a bit less radically independent. Hey, Xander, you know all those times I made it clear there was no possibility of anything between us? I’ve re-thought that. I figure if you were willing to go for good times with Faith — the kind of good times that involve two people getting naked and going horizontal together — I wouldn’t mind grabbing some of that action myself. So how about it? just some strenuous fun when we’re both in the mood?

It was a test, no getting around it. She was willing to make an attempt with Xander, if he wanted the whole package … but, let’s face it, even after two years of fighting in the sidelines of hijinks-on-the-Hellmouth, he was still barely eighteen, an age when males weren’t exactly famous for steadfast constancy. If he said no — if he didn’t want no-strings fun, would rather have nothing than settle for anything less than the entire body-and-soul plunge together — then she could move ahead with some assurance that this wasn’t a bad idea. If he said yes … Well, she still cared for Xander, she wouldn’t back away and freeze him out for accepting an offer she had made of her own volition. She’d go through with it, they’d have a few intimate sessions together (pleasant, she hoped) while she began the careful process of extracting herself without damaging the relationship they still had. Not exactly a harsh, horrible task, definitely not a fate worse than death; still, when it came down to it, she was almost certain it wouldn’t go that far, he’d say no and then she could start in on the real agenda …

He said yes.

Did he hesitate at all? No way to tell, really; first he made sure he understood her meaning — he wasn’t hallucinating, she wasn’t under a spell, this wasn’t some ghastly grotesque miscommunication that would leave him ostracized and humiliated — then he made sure it wasn’t just a crazy ill-considered rebound from Angel. (No, Scott Hope was the rebound. Normal Guy simply couldn’t connect with Not-Normal Buffy.) He didn’t leap straight in, he was careful to establish that she meant what she was saying, that she was in her right mind, that this would not in any way be taking advantage of her …

But he said yes.

*               *               *

It was a cyclone, a maelstrom, a full-volume sensurround thunderdome of fists and kicks and head-butts, elbows and knees and stakes and (once) a huge space-clearing swing with a park bench. Bones broke — but not human bones — vampires vanished in falls of dust while more leaped in snarling to take their place, Buffy and Faith darted in and among their undead foes like blitzkrieg hummingbirds, light and graceful and appallingly lethal. The two Slayers weren’t even fighting back-to-back, they didn’t need that now, each followed her own course and yet was always abruptly in place for a sudden flash of impromptu teamwork. They were in tune, finally, and Dick Wilkins’s vampire toadies couldn’t understand that and couldn’t even dream of coping with it. At the very beginning of her career, Buffy had needed careful focus to reliably handle more than one vampire at a time; now, she and Faith had gone through … what? ten? a dozen? more? in a way that was simultaneously casual and full-out deadly slaughter. It was combat ballet, it was moving Zen, it was —

— it was over. The vamp facing her was a settling column of ash, she looked around for the next and found nothing. “Is that it?” she asked Faith, who was now likewise sans opponent. “Is that all of them?”

Faith brushed dust off her shoulders, shook more from her hair. “Yeah, ’less some of ’em ran. Don’t think any did, they were like We got the numbers, let’s steamroll these Slayer bitches!” She surveyed the empty park, the broken bench, and grinned. “Can’t say as that worked out too well for ’em.”

“The second part of their fiendish plan was a big ol’ dud, all right,” Buffy agreed. “But the first —” She gestured toward the small ornamental fountain where the ‘ambush’ had begun.

Faith’s expression lost some of its reckless jubilation. “Oh, yeah. That. Shit.” They went together to check, but there had never really been any doubt: the little demon’s neck was so thoroughly broken that his head had been almost twisted off. “Damn,” Faith said as they straightened up again. “No way’a’ knowin’ now if he really had anything worth seein’, but I hafta think a demon callin’ on Slayers? he’s gotta be really desperate and really believe he has something they’d be willin’ to pay for.”

Buffy nodded. “Well, we can tell the others what little we know, at least. And maybe they’ll have picked up something from their foray into city records.”

There was little talk as they made their way across town to the school library. Part of that was that the new, more balanced Faith had less need to fill any empty space with lurid, provocative chatter; part was that the other Slayer knew something was going on with Buffy, knew it wasn’t something Buffy wanted to talk about, and — major change for Faith! — knew better than to push for what wasn’t being offered.

Which was good. What Buffy was dealing with just now, she couldn’t talk about with anyone. Not even the other party to it.

Yes, the library crew had news: nothing revolutionary, nothing that would give them the answers they needed, but definitely something. “So Mayor Wilkins is over a hundred years old?” Buffy shook her head. “Does that mean he’s a vampire, too? Because I’ve seen vampire cowboys, vampire bikers, even a vampire buff-jockey at the car-wash, but this would be my first vampire civil servant.”

Giles cleared his throat. “Richard Wilkins is most definitely not a vampire. Too many daylight appearances, for one thing. For another, our Mr. Finch makes it clear that Wilkins, while he employs vampires, has taken some care to limit their numbers.” He took off his glasses and began polishing them abstractedly. “In fact, there’s some evidence that he spent decades keeping the Master bottled up and isolated, purely to prevent the vampire population expansion that would-be overlords always seem to desire.”

“Either way, this changes things,” Xander broke in. “Now he’s not just Bad Guy Doing Bad Mystical Things, now he’s mystical himself. Even if we still don’t know mystical how, or mystical what type, or mystical what for.”

“Yeah, well, we might can help with that,” Faith said. “This demon hustler type, he came up seriously dead before he could get into details, but it sounded like he was offerin’ us a deal on somethin’ the Mayor wouldn’t want us knowing. Something like …” She looked at Buffy. “He said, what, Books of Essentials?”

Buffy gave a beats me shrug. “I thought it was ‘Assumption’, maybe.”

Angel, who had remained silent till now, looked up suddenly. “Was it Books of Ascension?”

Wesley managed to not, quite, spew tea. “Ascension? Surely not. That would be extremely —”

“Grave,” Giles finished, with an expression to match. To Buffy and Faith he said, “Was ‘Ascension’ the word he used?”

Buffy felt her face going blank. “Uh … maybe?”

“Ascension,” Faith repeated. “I … I think so. Yeah, I think that’s what it was.”

“So why is Ascension such a big deal?” Willow wanted to know.

Wesley cleared his throat. “After the, the contretemps with your other-universe vampire twin, Mr. Giles and I thought it advisable to have a very long talk with this Anya female who attempted to aid that individual during the standoff at the Bronze. She claims to be a former vengeance demon, over a millennium old, and has been … quite forthcoming, in an effort to stay in our good graces —”

“I rather suspect she’s happy to have a ready audience,” Giles observed. “Her ego is, er, outsized; she’s eager to talk, so long as it means someone is paying attention to her.”

“Well, yes,” Wesley said. “Quite. At any rate, among many other things, she recounted a tale of being in the vicinity of an ascension, some centuries ago: the elevation of a human wizard into full, pure demonhood.” At Buffy’s expression, he clarified. “Think extremely large, extremely powerful, extremely deadly, extremely hard to kill. Even if she was grossly exaggerating, a hundredth of what she described would be power we would not wish to see Mayor Wilkins obtain.”

“Yeah,” Faith said. “Got it. To me, it sounds like what you’re sayin’ is ‘Time for research!’ ” She stood up. “Which means I’m outta here.”

“Same here,” Buffy said, likewise standing. “If you come up with a battle plan, I’m all in, but right now I have some homework to slay.”

Xander also got up. “Language, Buf: ‘homework’ is two four-letter words, welded together for extra nastiness.” He shuddered ostentatiously, then added, “Me, I’m figuring on some quality time with my Game Boy.”

“Yeah,” Faith called over her shoulder, already at the library doors. “Have fun with that.” Then she was through, and gone.

Buffy was sure she could feel Angel’s eyes on her, but she didn’t look at him, angling her face so only Xander could see her and mouthing, Outside. Then she turned and went back to the table where Giles and Wesley had laid out the texts most relevant to the current situation. “Seriously, give me a call if you need anything. I’m not slacking off, I just have other things I have to do right now.”

“Ditto,” Xander said easily. “Bye, guys.” Then he, too, was out the doors and away.

“Are you really going to study?” Willow asked wonderingly.

Buffy gave her an exaggeratedly injured look. “I do that sometimes.” She shook her head. “If I’m gonna face the Trig demon, though, I’ll need some Slayer replenishment fuel. Maybe I’ll stop for nachos on the way home.”

Angel definitely was watching her now, the standard silent-brooding-intense that he’d probably perfected before Buffy’s great-grandparents were born. If he offered to walk her home — or simply stood to do it without asking her approval — she was prepared to make some effort to dissuade him. She couldn’t push it too hard, though, because she didn’t want to awaken any suspicions. His perceptions were the ones she most feared; she always demanded that Xander shower the instant they finished, and she did the same, but she was still haunted by the possibility that Angel might be able to smell her arousal — like now — and not assume he himself was the cause.

No, she definitely didn’t need that. Her life was too many different kinds of messed-up already.

As directed, Xander was waiting outside. Buffy glanced back toward the exit door, wanting to be sure Angel hadn’t decided to follow; then stepping close, she asked very quietly, “You have your car?”

Xander shook his head. “No, sorry. I’m kinda saving my gas money for weekends and emergencies these days —”

She cut him off. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. Go home … then go to my house.” She held out her hand. “Spare key. Go in the back door, then wait for me to get there.”

He took the key, looking puzzled. “Okay, yeah, but what are you —?”

“Just something I have to take care of first.” And she was off, putting distance between them.

If Angel was out tonight, or Faith, she didn’t want them to see her and Xander traveling together. Absolutely didn’t want to be seen taking him into her house. She’d said she was getting something to eat, so that’s what she would do now. And, if anyone happened to follow her, they wouldn’t see Xander because he’d already be there (by a different route) by the time she arrived.

In Sunnydale, the thing with paranoia was making sure you were paranoid enough.

Of course, there was still the matter of whether Xander might be seen leaving. Maybe she should consider having him stay the night —

No. She couldn’t do that, couldn’t take the risk.

Not because of the danger of being caught. Because she wanted it too much.

*               *               *

He holds her like she’s something precious. He can spend hours just kissing and caressing her; she’s always the one wanting to get down to business. Because they never have enough time. Because her hormones (or the way they mix with Slayerness) make her impatient for satisfaction now . Because he treats her like he loves her, but —

— but, when offered sex without commitment, he said yes.

Between Xander and Angel there’s no comparison, so naturally she keeps making comparisons anyway. Angel had the advantage of centuries of experience, plus the enormous passion that had already been there between them, plus the way his acute senses had been able to register and react to her instinctive cues. He had played her body like a Stradivarius, a virtuoso performance probably never to be equaled in her lifetime. Xander isn’t at the same level, Xander isn’t in the same universe . He’s a novice, learning eagerly but ultimately every bit as clueless and untutored as …

… as she is.

They’re more nearly equal, she and Xander. Lovemaking is something they’re discovering together, learning together, building together. The best they’ve ever done is nowhere near as good as it was with Angel … but it’s something they achieved together, and insanely that makes it better than it ever was with Angel.

Except.

Except that she can see no more future with Xander than with Angel.

Because he said yes.

*               *               *

It isn’t supposed to be like this. She had been surprised, but not taken totally off her guard; she hadn’t expected that response from him, but she had known what she would do if it turned out that way. Give him a few good times, then ease out of the whole thing. No big, right? This isn’t serious between them, it’s just something they do when they’re both in the mood. That was the deal, that it isn’t a relationship, and with everything else going on it’s obviously a hassle to keep finding opportunities to get hot and sweaty, so it would just kind of fade out after a while. That was the plan.

It was a good plan. It would work, if she ever used it.

She doesn’t understand, can’t make any sense of it. She’s not in love with him (she could have been, she was willing, but he settled for no-strings when she was finally ready to have some strings), a lot of the time she doesn’t really like him very much. (Because he took what was offered. Because he responded to what she said, instead of knowing what she wanted even if she was saying something else.) Because he’s happy to have the occasional use of her body, when she was ready to offer so much more —

— if only he hadn’t said yes.

No, she’s not in love with him, but she clearly can’t do ‘casual sex’ worth a damn. Every time they’re together, it just makes it worse. So why do they keep getting together? It’s not him, he never pushes or even hints — and she’d be angry with him if he ever did, except she’s angry anyway when he doesn’t — but no matter how much she swears that every time will be the last time, she can’t stop herself from going back for more. Just one more. Just this one last time.

She’s the one in control here, except that she can’t control herself.

He holds her like he loves her (when they’re alone, when nobody else can see them, just the way she insists it has to be), and she needs that, aches for it.

But, when everything is weighed, it keeps coming back to the same thing:

He said yes.

*               *               *

When Angel and Buffy entered the library, Giles’s eyes went to the box Angel was carrying. “It was true, then?”

“Yep,” Buffy said happily. “Willy really came through on this one, I’ll have to see that he gets a snappy little prize.”

Giles was nodding. “I’ll, er, I’ll check what we have in available cash —”

Buffy cut that off with an emphatic gesture. “Don’t bother. I’ll go see him, let him lip off at me and tell me to take a hike. Then I’ll give him this big glare-y glare and say his protection won’t last forever, and then stomp out, maybe with him saying something snotty to my back as I leave. His clientele will see him shut me out, word will filter out that he has protection hefty enough to make the Slayer back down … for a guy like Willy, that’ll be like owning his own bank.”

“Yes, yes, I see.” Giles was already studying the exterior of the box, so the next words were perhaps a bit absent. “Everything went smoothly, then?”

Buffy was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet, still energized and exuberant. “Oh, yeah, it was a thing of beauty. The Mayor’s car was waiting at the airport, right next to the tarmac by the private hangars. The plane landed and taxied up, and the guy with the tattoos got out. Willy’s source said there were runes worked into the tattoos to warn him if any hostiles were nearby, so we held back, we hoped far enough. Once he met with the Mayor’s vamp gofer, though, and we could see he had the box, it was game on.”

“Really?” Giles looked up. “The Mayor himself was there?”

Before Buffy could answer, Angel said, “I don’t think so.” He shrugged. “Faith dropped the courier with an arrow to the back of the calf, and was running out across the tarmac at the same time Buffy used a crossbow to kill the vampire. I was coming in from the other side — the three of us converging from the points of a triangle — but the plane and the limousine reacted immediately, retreating in different directions. I got close enough to throw an axe through the back window of the limo, but I didn’t see anyone there, and I doubt the Mayor was doing his own driving.”

“Well, then.” Giles adjusted his spectacles. “And the courier?”

“Faith gave him a boot across the jaw,” Buffy answered gleefully. “He’d handcuffed himself to the box, but she used a sword to whack through the chain … which, yeah, kinda ruined the sword, but it worked. What was the guy thinking? Even if we didn’t have the muscle or the magic mojo, any serious hijacker would’ve just cut his hand off.” She shook her head. “Some people, seriously.”

“Not good tactical thinking, I’ll agree.” Giles had returned his attention to the box. “We’ll need to ascertain precisely what this is, and what the Mayor wanted with it; perhaps that will inform us as to some of the particulars of his plans and intent, or point to some weakness.” He rubbed at his chin, still studying the box’s exterior markings. “Wesley has been seeming something like competent lately, and his knowledge base covers areas where mine is less than comprehensive. Perhaps I should call him on this —”

“I’d wait a little on that one,” Buffy said. “Faith said she was gonna go report to him right away, and you know how she gets when she’s all revved up.”

Giles looked blank, and then distinctly alarmed. “Faith and … and Wesley? Surely not!”

“Probably not,” Buffy agreed. “But think how embarrassing it would be for everybody if you found out it was true. … Well, everybody but Faith. No, better to not take the chance.”

“I’ll, er …” Giles removed his glasses, and began busily cleaning them. “I’ll call him in the morning. The later part of the morning. Or perhaps I’ll simply wait till he comes in.” He stood, picking up the box, and went into the little office he almost never used, and closed the door behind him.

Buffy tilted her head, one eyebrow up just the least bit. “Okay, that was so much fun, I ought to be ashamed. Really, I should.”

She’d been essentially speaking to herself, but the non-response from Angel had … weight. She looked back to him. “What?”

He was silent for several more seconds before replying. “You’re happier now.”

“This was a good night for us,” she answered, maybe a little sharply.

He ignored it. “The less we have to do with one another, the happier you are.”

“You were part of this,” she objected. “Good teamwork, with good results. And it leaves me in a good mood. No big shock there.”

He didn’t respond, and she couldn’t tell if he was disregarding what she had said or simply choosing his answer. After long seconds, however, he said, “I’m leaving.”

“Fine.” She shrugged. “Go on home, maybe you won’t be so pouty the next time we —”

“After the Ascension,” he interrupted. “After we’ve stopped it, or beaten the Mayor in spite of it. Once it’s over, I’m leaving Sunnydale.”

She stared at him, surprised mostly at not being surprised. This had been hanging there between them, unvoiced but growing, for a long time now. “Just like that?” she said finally. “You make this big decision, this big announcement, without talking to me about any of it?”

His eyes met hers, bleak and resigned. “Talking wouldn’t change it.”

Maybe not, but he had still made the decision unilaterally, chosen for both of them without giving her a choice at all. It made her angry, but she knew that any fight now would be a bad one, so she only said, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his face so set with noble, self-sacrificing determination that she just wanted to plant a hard fist right in the middle of it. “I’ll go.”

He was at the doors when she said, “I love you.” (Because she was supposed to say that. Because it was true. Not because it ever would have changed anything.) She saw it hit, saw it in the slight hunch of his shoulders, but he kept going, and then she was only looking at the doors.

No, she wasn’t surprised. She had known this was coming, known it had to come. It was — had always been — inescapable. That was why she had made her own choice, those weeks ago.

Only, that choice had gone wrong, and she still had nothing.

She had nothing.

Suddenly the library walls were pressing in on her. She had to get out, had to go — The Bronze. If Xander wasn’t at home, he’d be at the Bronze, and she could arrange something, for the two of them to meet later at (or go together to) some more private spot where they could … do what they always did.

And, when they were done, she would still be as empty as ever.

*               *               *

Joyce Summers’s taste in music leans heavily toward Barbra Streisand. Buffy, solidly grounded in contemporary culture, nonetheless has a soft spot for certain quality ‘oldies’, and Streisand can certainly hold her own in that area … but (in Buffy’s opinion) fell short with “Send in the Clowns”, perhaps because Buffy saw the Judy Collins version as the ‘right’ one, with any other to be judged against it. Granted, Streisand’s rendition is warmer, deeper, but Collins surpasses that with purity and clarity. More than that, Streisand got an additional verse — a second bridge — thrown in purely for her own benefit:

          What a surprise; who could foresee
          I’d come to feel about you what you felt about me?
          Why only now, when I see that you’ve drifted away?
          What a surprise …
          what a cliché …

Buffy had been annoyed and disgruntled by that; couldn’t the superstar see that it was redundant, that it just said blatantly what was already there in the rest of the song? She’d shaken her head, marked it down as diva hubris, and forgot about the whole thing … Till now. Now, that dumb ‘extra’ verse is the one that keeps playing through her head.

It’s nothing as simple as missed timing, though. That would be irony enough, like “the Gift of the Magi” but with that nasty little Hellmouth twist to it. No, this is something else. Xander wanted her when she didn’t want him, but he didn’t decline, politely or otherwise, when she decided she was ready to let him in. No, he was all for it, but —

But he was content to settle for less.

And so is she, apparently, since she didn’t end it after the ‘decent interval’ she had planned. No, she keeps hanging on, keeps doing something that makes her more and more miserable. Crawling back every day onto the wheel that is slowly breaking her.

She feels sometimes like she’s dying. And Xander, it is very clear, is a  long way from dissatisfaction or anything like it.

He loves being with her, is simply and purely happy at the joining of their bodies. (And so is she, a little, while it’s happening. Mostly, though, it’s hunger that refuses to be denied.) He goes away smiling, looking forward to the next time and cheerfully satisfied to wait for it. Meanwhile, the lover watching him leave wishes she could drive to the nearest beach, walk into the ocean, and swim out until her strength fails her.

For all her hair-trigger dread that anyone else might find out, Xander gives her no cause to worry there. He treats her the same as always (in public, at least), treats everyone the same, the only difference being that the old occasional flash of humorous bitterness or humorous pessimism is no longer seen. And why should it be? his life is all brass bands and cotton candy right now, this must be heaven for him. The only flaw in his paradise would be that he can’t be seen with his trophy, that nobody can ever know of his triumph, but then he already has experience there. Cordelia would have taught him all about intimacy that has to stay secret, that can never be even suspected, and he clearly learned it well.

It would be wrong to bludgeon Cordelia to death for that. Wouldn’t it?

The most bitter part of it all is the recognition that she brought this disaster on herself. She was the one who set the terms, and Xander simply accepted them. Every step of the way, he’s followed the rules she laid down. He comes to her when she asks, fucks her when she asks, makes her body shake and cry out, and leaves her when she says to go. He does it all at her direction, so it isn’t his fault at all that she sometimes hates him for it.

When she isn’t too busy hating herself.

*               *               *

For someone who had been on Hellmouth duty for the last three years, getting into the school unobserved at night was easy-peasy, even with the prom now in full swing. Buffy stretched comprehensively, then checked herself carefully in the mirrors of the girls’ bathroom before getting down to serious business: the dress.

It could have been worse. She had originally thought to find Tucker Wells and scupper his plans on the way to the dance, meaning already decked out in her now-meaningless finery. Faith had derisively rejected that plan, however. Jeez, B, you’re always tellin’ me I need ta think about consequences? Take my word for it, demon blood ’n’ fancy dress don’t go together worth shit. So, at her sister Slayer’s urging, Buffy had carried the dress — carefully folded, and wrapped in protective plastic — in a backpack while the two of them went to thwart Sunnydale’s latest make-your-life-suck-even-more project.

Good thing, as it turned out. Tucker alone had been no more problem than anticipated. Nobody had suspected, however, that Mayor Wilkins might have shunted some help and encouragement to the current breakaway favorite for the Sunnydale High yearbook’s new ‘Mass Killer of the Year’ award. No telling what the Mayor’s motive might have been, aside from plain delight in carnage on general principle, but the result? six hellhounds, with poisoned talons and breath that would literally choke you if you got close enough. Still not too much for two Slayers to handle, but hard to chase down and kill individually when they were more interested in reaching their programmed slaughter-destination than in hanging around to fight —

So Faith treacherously changed tracks: yanked open the backpack and pulled out the dress, shaking it free of its wrapping to wave it like a taunting banner while yelling, Hey, assholes! Prommie goodness right here, come ’n’ get it! Which was 1) a TOTAL dick move, and 2) brilliantly effective … except for the part where the ensuing deadly kill-or-die free-for-all took place around where the dress lay discarded on the grass —!

Buffy anxiously studied the result under the bathroom fluorescents before relaxing in cautious relief. Yes, if you looked close you could see a few wrinkles and some faint grass stains, but that appeared to be the extent of the damage. Plus, the lighting in the gym itself would be more forgiving (not that she had anyone now whose opinion there would matter to her, but there was still pride to be considered).

So, all done. From there it was a short walk through the familiar hallways, music growing louder as she got closer. She was approaching from the interior of the school, so she’d be going in through a side-entrance, not the one the other prom-goers would have used. She stopped at the door, took a deep breath, drew herself up straight, and pushed inside.

Accustomed to cutting through extraneous clutter in combat, her eyes found Giles in seconds. Like her, he was steadily surveying the crowd around him — his chaperoning duties for once allowing him to openly do what the Watcher role normally kept clandestine — and his gaze met hers across the width of the gym. Disregarding the throng between them, he tilted his head in inquiry; she nodded in response (hellhounds dead, demon-free prom is a go), and he smiled. Approval, not relief, as if he’d never doubted her success. Flattering.

“Buffy!” Willow hurried up, pulling Oz behind her. “You look fantastic!”

Buffy found herself smiling; where did that come from? “So do you. How’s the prom?”

“Strangely affecting,” Oz said; then with a lift of one eyebrow, “So, the party-crashers —?”

“Are history,” Buffy finished for him. “Devil dogs will not be making an appearance.”

Willow’s smile was pure, unalloyed happiness. “Everything is perfect!”

That happiness was what Buffy had wanted to give them. Seeing it, helped.

Some.

She listened to the music. She went to the punchbowl. She watched the dancing couples. Nancy Doyle was talking with Jonathan; it looked like they were arguing, but then they did that a lot, sharp but without heat. Giles was listening to Anya, with an expression of polite patience, as she doubtless regaled him with yet another of her experiences as a demon. Jack Mayhew was doing something with balloons while Gabra Allen and Michelle Blake watched, giggling and whispering to one another. Faith was at Wesley’s side (how did she get here so quick?), wearing what looked like the same dress she’d had at Homecoming, and she took hold of his sleeve while she murmured something to him with a saucy grin —

Buffy looked away. She knew what she wouldn’t see here (Angel), and what she didn’t want to see here (Xander), so why was she here at all? This was the prom, you didn’t skip prom, but except for the satisfaction of knowing she had saved everyone else’s treasured memory, she might as well have been wading through the sewers for all the pleasure this was bringing her.

She turned away, and of course there was Xander. And Cordelia. They weren’t dancing together, they weren’t touching, they weren’t even looking at one another; Cordelia seemed to be idly scanning the crowd, and Xander smiled easily as he saw Buffy. Something about how they were standing, though, showed an absence of the tension (biting, bitter hostility from her, guilt and half-hearted counter-sniping from him) that had been there for so long. Buffy would have tried to fade back, but she’d already been seen so she went to them. “Hey, Xander,” she said, and then to Cordelia, “Nice dress.”

For some reason, Cordelia glanced at Xander, unexpected warmth in her smile, and then her expression smoothed back into her normal, practiced social armor. “It’ll do,” she said. “So you stopped the beastie-boys?”

“Me and Faith,” Buffy agreed.

“Good for you. And good for us, too, I guess.” To Xander she said, “I’m getting some punch,” and left him.

Buffy wasn’t sure what to say, so she went with, “So … you two?”

Xander shrugged. “Sort of a temporary cease-fire. Neither of us actually had prom dates, so we’ll just kind of hang together now and again, long as neither of us is doing anything else.”

He didn’t give her a meaningful look as he said the last, there was no slightest innuendo in his tone, but Buffy felt the possibility all the same, and a sudden heat in her belly. This had always been here, in the background of her thoughts: find a moment, pull him away to some private spot of opportunity … they’d been doing as much for weeks now, and hey, post-prom sex was practically traditional —!

Or she could go off somewhere and open up her wrists. That would be faster, and probably wouldn’t hurt any worse.

“That’s great,” she said to Xander. “For both of you. You should make the best of that.”

She moved away smoothly, under control, blackness closing in on her. She was at school. She was at the prom. And she was in a small, private hell, with no way out that she could see —

She couldn’t stop herself from looking back, despite her determination not to, and so she saw Cordelia return. Saw Xander say something to his ex, and Cordelia throw back her head to laugh for a moment before recovering herself and turning to look out at the dance floor again. The two of them, not actually together but side-by-side, in tenuous trust and cautious companionship and maybe even the memory of shared affection.

And that was when Buffy knew.

She turned away and made for the exit, not running but quick and determined, and people automatically shifted from her path without seeming to truly notice her. Which was fitting; she had saved prom, for them, but it wasn’t for her. She didn’t belong here.

She didn’t stop till she was outside on the school grounds, letting the night soak in and feeling tears beginning to well up.

It was worse than she had realized, horribly worse. It wasn’t just that she had made a dreadful mistake, but that she was still making it; not that she couldn’t escape a hell of her own construction, but that there was a way out and it was closed to her; not that Xander had made the wrong choice — or even that she had offered the wrong one to him — but that she knew now what the right one would have been, and it was still something she couldn’t do.

“I know I always told you I didn’t feel that way about you, Xander, and it was the truth. Maybe I couldn’t, then, but I think now that maybe I can. Can you take a chance on me? I can’t make any promises, except that I’m serious about this and that I’ll always be honest with you. I think I could love you. Will you let me, and love me back?” That’s all it would have taken: skip the test, and go straight to the real question.

That’s what she could have done, should have done. Then, it would have been possible. Now, it was too late.

Because she was the one who set the rules.

He can change it now. She can’t. The original agreement was for occasional fun sex but nothing serious. If he says he wants more, that’s fine, because so does she. If she asks for more, though … He’s not Angelus. He does care for her, as much as she’s allowed him to, so he wouldn’t cast her away with scorn and contempt. No, at worst he’d do his best to let her down easy, and she could live with that —

Except that’s not the worst he could do. If she asks for more and he grants it, she’ll never know if it’s because he feels the same, wants the same, or if he’s just doing it out of pity. Because she offered her body without her heart — because that was the deal they made — her heart can never be sure now.

Xander wouldn’t let any such qualms stop him. When they were all being stalked by nightmares, during sophomore year, he was the only one of them to confront his worst fear directly, to turn and go back and punch the chortling, knife-wielding clown square in the face. Even Cordelia, with all her ego and fragile arrogance and volatile pride, has been able to let herself take a chance, to put herself out on the line where she could be hurt once again.

Buffy, who jousts with nightmares as a matter of routine now, simply doesn’t have that kind of courage. She could fight any solid foe, endure any physical pain — homicidal clowns would be welcome right now, something she could battle directly! — but not that stabbing uncertainty. She’s built a trap for herself, and it’s too perfect to allow any escape she can contrive.

Not because Xander said yes.

Because she didn’t ask the question she wanted him to say yes to.

And the Slayer, the legendary killer of demons, stands alone in the empty, aching darkness, and lets the tears take her.

 
end