Buffy sighed. "I feel like an idiot."
"Careful," Xander warned. "I'm the patent-holder on that one, I could sue if you don't pay the proper licensing fee."
"Right now, I think I could mount a pretty credible challenge in court." Buffy shook her head. "There I was, peeking under the rugs and watching to see if any of the tableware moved by itself, and all the time my friends were humoring me while they worked out how to hit me with a surprise smackdown. Is there an 'L' on my forehead? I could swear I feel an 'L' popping out there."
After the unexpected immobilization of Faith, Buffy had retreated to her second-floor room, vowing dire consequences if anyone disturbed her before she was good and ready to emerge. The others, still sheepish over their earlier error and now focused on freeing Faith from her presumed domination, had left her to her own devices. Twenty minutes later, Xander had come to report that Faith was suitably liberated, and was currently being released from the composite binding process that had so debilitated Buffy. Despite her prior dark threats, Buffy had admitted him without resistance, his steadfast cheerfulness (and the fact that he, at least, hadn't participated in her ambushing, however necessary it might have seemed) making his appearance welcome.
"You're too down on yourself, Buf," he said now. "You were right all along, there was a neat little bomb just waiting to go off in the middle of the party. You were watching for it, and you being so antsy got the others to wondering if there really might be something going on. Angel's contacts slipping him a warning, that just gave them some idea where to look."
"Right," Buffy scoffed. "Sorry, Xan, not buying it. Everybody blew me off, you included. It was like they didn't want to believe."
"Probably didn't," he agreed amiably. "You're not the only one who gets tired of riding around full-time in the dangermobile; sometimes we all just feel like kicking back for awhile. But just 'cause we were determined to have a nice, festive little gathering doesn't mean nobody took you seriously."
"Seriously?" She glared at him. "A costume party, Xander. You all made it a costume party. That's how serious everybody was."
He grinned back, unperturbed. "Uh-huh. Did you happen to notice just how many of those costumes included weapons? And that was only the stuff you could see."
Buffy considered it. He was right. Angel and Faith and Willow were essentially weapons themselves, but most of the others seemed to have been strapped in some manner or another. "So they weren't just ignoring me."
"No way." Xander lounged back in the armchair. "When Gloomy Buffy shows up, we may groan, but we pay attention. She keeps doing this annoying being-right thing. And hey, surprise, she was right tonight, too."
"I still feel dumb," Buffy muttered.
"Well, you can get major guilt-cookies out of Willow over this one. She was so sure she could track what was going on, except then she finds out she's been pointing all her witchy awareness in the wrong direction." He tilted an eyebrow toward Buffy. "Go easy on her, okay? Better yet, laugh at her a little, like it's okay to tease her because it was no big deal."
"Yeah, sure." She frowned slightly. "That must have been one sneaky demon, if it could slide past Willow."
"Well, she was feeling it," Xander pointed out. "But she couldn't look too hard, not then. The way she explained it was like fighter planes: they do as much as they can with passive sensors, once they turn on their targeting radar they'd better have a target 'cause they just alerted everything within five hundred miles. Our guys didn't want to give this thing a chance to mess you up, so they skated clear of you till there was a chance to hit you with somebody you didn't know. And that worked out fine; with everybody zeroed in on you, the thing inside Faith didn't feel any threat at all."
"And you had Anne zap her because this possessing-whatever would have been keeping its guard up against all her friends?"
"That's what it sounded like Wesley and Willow were saying. And it kinda seemed to me that I couldn't afford to take any chances." He let out a short, rueful chuckle. " 'Course, it was a chance either way. Hope you don't mind me hiding here till Faith has time to cool down."
Buffy smiled. "As if. Everybody there heard 'Slayer in danger', but you were the one who thought of Faith. She'll be tickled that you rated her right up there with me."
Xander pursed his lips. "Huh. Good point."
They sat together in one of the familiar, comfortable silences that had been too rare of late. Then Xander stirred and said, "So, what's the deal?"
"Hmm?" Buffy gave him a quizzical look. "What do you mean?"
"Your oh-so-accurate case of the heebies isn't all that's been happening with you the last few days," Xander said. "You've had a real mood going, that's one reason we all gave you plenty of room, and why it was so easy for them to believe you'd been infiltrated. And Dawn … she told me she saw you, right before you ran up the stairs and into Wonder Boy's foot. She said … well, she said I should talk to you."
"Did she, now?" Buffy shook her head. "Dawn may think she wants to be a Watcher, but she's not mine. I don't need her calling the EMTs every time I'm dealing with a little case of the blues."
"Is that all it is?" Xander asked. " 'Cause she thought there was more to it than that, and I'm getting the same kind of vibe." He reached out to rest his hand on hers. "Remember how it was for you after we did our Miracle Max routine on you, back in the 'Dale? You were dying inside, and you wouldn't let us see it, and we all kept giving each other cheery-talk instead of sitting down with you and working out what was the truth and what we should do about it. The way things got …" He shook his head. "I still get ashamed every time I remember it. I swore I'd never let you be that alone again. So, here we are. If there's a deal, I'm the guy you can talk to. We may not always agree, but you know you can trust me."
"I do," Buffy said. "I do know it. And I do trust you."
She fell silent, and Xander waited, his patience relaxed and unforced; her demeanor was that of someone searching for the right words. At length she said, "I've had a lot of ghosts around me lately."
"Huh," Xander said. "But you didn't mention anything, which makes me think you mean that figuratively."
Buffy nodded. "Real ghosts probably wouldn't bother me nearly as much. This is …" She broke off, bit her lip, and started again. "Do you remember when we found out that Vi was about to have a birthday, and Faith wanted to throw her a party, only then she learned how young Vi actually was?"
Xander shuddered. "Whoo. Not about to forget that. I hadn't seen Faith so mad since she gave up killing people as performance art." He shot Buffy a sharp look. "That's what's bothering you? Vi's one of our best now. The field teams and the teaching staff keep fighting over who gets to have her next. Vi's fine, you know that."
"It was here," Buffy said. "We were still trying to pull ourselves together after the big Sunnydale collapse, Vi's birthday was going to give us something to celebrate … It was here, and I keep remembering all those girls, how young they were, how many of them never made it this far —" She stopped. "Xander, I'm sorry. I can't believe I'm going on like this. Not after what you lost there."
"Not a problem." Xander shook his head. "You keep forgetting, Anya wasn't the first person I lost. That was Jesse; he was gone without ever having a chance, without any kind of goodbye. Anya, she went into that last fight with her eyes open, like we all did. And we had our goodbye." He smiled at Buffy. "I loved her, and it hurt when she died, but I worked through that. Now is about you. Keep going."
Buffy sighed. "Did you know it's almost exactly ten years since I was called as a Slayer? That was here, too; here in L.A., anyhow. One day, my life is all about whether my shoes should match my lipstick; the next, destiny comes down on me like a freakin' avalanche. I spent all that time trying to hold onto myself, here and then in Sunnydale, do my mystical duty without letting it bury me. Only it did bury me, but I still wasn't off the hook, I got pulled back onto the treadmill. And I cried and moaned and wanted to die, and I hated the people who'd done that to me …"
She looked to Xander. "And then I was the one to do it. To over a thousand girls, all over the world. They've been coming in ever since, as quick as we can find them, and more turning up all the time. Some as young as I was, ten years ago. Some younger. They look at me with those eyes, scared and excited and worshipful and trusting, they call me ma'am and wait for me to give them the magic answers. And I was the one who ended their lives, made them over into little Buffy clones." She let out a long, sobbing breath. "Mostly I bear up, but sometimes it comes in on me. Sometimes it's like I killed them all. Maybe those are the ghosts I keep imagining."
Xander's hand tightened over hers, but he sat without speaking, looking past her. At last he said, "Buf, you know I love you, but you really can be terminally clueless."
Stung, she pulled her hand away. "I never claimed it made sense, Xander. But it really is how I feel. You asked."
"I know, I know." He sighed. "Okay. Right at the start, let's remember that the First was all set to unleash a horde of übervamps on the world, with who knows what else behind them. Every two-bit warlock and would-be vampire lord has his fantasies about ringing in the apocalypse, but this character was on track to pulling it off. So, all those lives you changed, without asking their permission? they only have their lives because you were there to make the hard choices and follow them through.
"That's only part of it, though." He gave her the wide, careless grin of old. "Andrew tells all these stories about me covering Africa when we started the first sweep for new Slayers. First of all, you know I did that for less than six months. Second, nobody can 'cover' Africa; it's not a country, it's a continent, with every kind of landscape you can imagine and more languages than anybody can count. A lifetime wouldn't even scratch the surface."
"You did good work there," Buffy objected. "I've seen the reports. From Giles, who doesn't gush, and Robin, who's not exactly your biggest fan."
"I had some luck," he acknowledged. "I'm just saying that the legend of Xander the intrepid explorer is mostly hype from people more interested in a cool story than in the truth. But, yeah, I was there. And let me tell you, six months in Africa is an education you can't get anywhere else."
Buffy frowned. "I don't understand what that has to do with —"
"Some of the spots I visited, demons avoided because there was too much competition." Xander grimaced. "You've heard the stories — nasty little wars, ethnic cleansing, child soldiers, even human trafficking — but you can't know what it's like unless you've seen it. I had no idea how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, till I got over there. I'm not saying it was a non-stop horror show. Some places, I've never been more welcome, or felt more at peace with myself. But when it was bad, it was a degree of bad that you have to see to understand. And there are plenty of other areas in the world that have their own brand of harsh.
"The new Slayers coming in … they're not like you, Buffy." He took hold of her hand again. "These girls, these kids … they don't see things the way you do. Especially not the way you did when it was just you. For a lot of them, getting that Slayer call is the best thing that ever happened to them. They're strong now. They're special. They're in a sisterhood. The things that used to scare them, are scared of them now. And they have a leader they can admire and trust."
Xander gave her hand another squeeze, and then let go. "You changed their lives, all right. Just like you did with mine. And I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
"I …" She blinked, shook her head. "I've felt so guilty. The way they look at me, idolizing me when all the time I was the one who took away their choices, it's like I was this horrible fraud. But if what you're saying is true —"
"It is," he assured her. "I'll bet at least half of them have more choices now than they ever would've without you. As for how they look at you …" Xander grinned again. "You have to remember, teenagers are dumb. Some of them idolize you 'cause that's what they need in their lives. Some of them probably think you look like Britney Spears. And some … some are just grateful. Simple as that."
For some minutes they sat silently again. Part of Buffy didn't want to let go of the melancholy that had gripped her; it had its place and its purpose, and many of the roots truly were valid. The sense of aloneness was gone, though, and the guilt seemed to have been set into a more fitting perspective. Healing magic from the man beside her.
"You're not a pirate," she said.
"Hmm? No, I changed my mind. Remembered I'd done the pirate before, the year Anya was a Charlie's Angel. As for the Sergeant Fury thing, I just didn't feel like listening to Andrew." He picked up the hat he'd brought into the room with him, settled it onto his head at a jaunty angle. "Well?"
Buffy studied him. For a second she'd thought he might be going for an Indiana Jones motif, but that possibility failed closer inspection. The hat was white, and broader-brimmed than Indy's fedora; Xander wore a short-sleeved, square-hemmed khaki shirt with epaulets and flapped pockets, a broad leather belt cinched around it as if it were a short tunic. A sheathed machete hung from the belt, and his trousers (also khaki) were tucked into calf-high boots. The whole of it tickled at a whisper of memory, and she crinkled her brow, trying to pull the thought into focus …
It was the leopard-skin hatband (fake fur, she hoped) that finally did it for her. "Allan Quartermain!" she burst out. "You're Allan Quartermain!"
Xander tipped the hat to her. "The Great White Hunter himself. It was either this or Car Guy, and I didn't think there was room in the lobby for a convertible."
"Good choice," Buffy said. Then: "Wait. Are you the Richard Chamberlain version, or the Sean Connery?"
"Chamberlain," Xander returned promptly. "No way would I try to match Connery for testosterone."
She laughed, and hugged him. "I like your testosterone exactly the way it is. Don't ever change."
The kiss surprised them both, but she kept it light, suitable for affection and gratitude, before pulling back again. Passion … things were a little too crazy right now for passion. And this was Xander.
Somehow that didn't seem to mean quite what it once had.
"Let's go see if Faith is back on her feet," she said to him. "If she isn't, we can hover over her and pretend we're going to shave off one of her eyebrows. If she is, they'll be wanting to get the party going again." She gave him a grin of her own. "Think it's too late for me to put on a leather skirt and a steel brassiere and go out there as Xena?"
"The mind boggles," Xander said. "But, confidentially? You were a warrior princess already."
She put her arm in his as they left her room and started for the main stairs. Maybe she could tolerate Angel's cataclysmic dorkiness after all. Maybe a little fun and silliness was what she'd needed all along. Maybe figurative ghosts could be laid to rest just like real ones.
Maybe … maybe, this coming January, she'd try to have a birthday party.