Zero-Sum Game
by Aadler
Copyright August 2008


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


It's a fairly widespread notion: to categorize human interactions as a series of contests, competitions, even battles. In this world-view, every such interaction produces a winner (plus-one) and a loser (minus-one). Tallied together, they cancel one another. Result: zero sum. Assets — in one form or another — may shift, reallocate, but the ultimate balance sheet remains the same. No change. No progress. No point or purpose.

~ – ~ – ~

When Vi first arrived at the Sunnydale house, Buffy was still recovering from her initial encounter with the Turok-Han. Supernatural healing or no, even a day or so later Vi could still see the effects: the physical damage, the Slayer's guilt at her inability to save Annabelle, the shock at meeting someone even stronger and quicker and more ferocious than herself. There was more, however, mostly concealed under forceful resolve but Vi could see that, too: fear. Fear of this newest enemy, of the prospect of facing it again, and the fear that came from having run out of options, of having utterly no idea what to do next.

It was a realization so unexpected, so unsettling, that Vi instinctively kept it to herself, confiding in no one lest it shatter an already crippled group morale. The Slayer — the paragon, the ideal, the legend — was just as helpless as the rest of them. They came here seeking refuge, protection, salvation, and it wasn't to be found. Buffy couldn't save them, and if she couldn't, nobody could, so there was no point even in trying to run.

She's seeing something else now. Buffy speaks from the ledge above the excavation before the forward somersault that takes her down into the arena, and her words are aimed equally at the watching Potentials and the waiting Turok-Han. The raw power of the primal vampire creature is shocking; even in stillness, it's like a lion bristling with predatory intensity and savagery in the instant before it springs … except that Vi knows, without having to consider the question, that this thing could tear a lion in half and never lose a step. Yet it seems … what? Not hesitant, not even uneasy, more the minor puzzlement of recognizing that its prey — the thing it will rend and kill within the next few seconds — isn't behaving as prey ought.

It's the way Buffy stands, the way she moves and speaks: the matter-of-factness of her voice, the steadiness of her eyes. She's set a course, and she's about to follow it out, and the fact that someone will die here is something she can automatically disregard because she deals with such facts all the time. This is beyond determination, it's something so pure as to be bonded to blood and marrow.

When Andrew speaks — only a few words, barely louder than his breath — Vi wants to slap him. He isn't part of this; it belongs only to the two figures now facing each other.

And then they fight.

She's heard the stories of Slayer combat, and her imagination is vivid enough to have filled in a lot of blanks, but this is a place her imagination couldn't have taken her. It's the difference between watching a football game on television, and being at the sidelines to see massive bodies smash together with thunderous fury and absolute commitment, hear the crunch of impact and shouts of effort, smell the sweat, feel the ground shake and the air sing. It's like that, only times ten. The Turok-Han is a killing machine, the Slayer no less so, and they hurl themselves at one another with a murderous totality that their gaping audience could never have envisioned.

Buffy is outmatched, that much is obvious in the first few seconds. She's dazzling, breathtaking, frightening in the brutal, relentless lethality of her attack … and she's losing, hanging on through sheer guts and a refusal to entertain the possibility of defeat. Her foe is even faster, more brutal, and all but impervious to pain, shaking off her blows and striking back with an awful force that nothing could survive.

Somehow the Slayer does. Though she gains a brief advantage when she stabs the broken crossbow bolt into the creature's eye, there is no single point when the tide turns, when the momentum shifts; she simply keeps fighting, not quitting and not dying and never, ever, slacking off for an instant. When the loop of barbed wire severs the Turok-Han's head, the floodlights are bright enough for Vi to see blood spray from Buffy's hands. She must have torn her palms deep into tendons and bone, but she doesn't acknowledge the injury, and Vi honestly doesn't know if the girl is ignoring it or doesn't even notice.

She spoke an introduction before leaping into combat to the death, and now the Slayer delivers a coda to her breathless pupils. Vi hears none of it, she's still staring at the spot where the Turok-Han's ashes stand out in subtle distinction from the concrete where they fell.

From the first moment she ever heard of the Slayer, and understood her own possible destiny, Vi dreamed of what it would be like to hold that status. She didn't wish for it — that would be wishing for someone else to die — but she couldn't stop herself from dreaming. Now, as the others begin to move away from the impromptu amphitheater, and Vi follows, her throat aching with a vast, unanticipated grief, she abandons that dream for once and all.

I could never do that, she thinks numbly. I could never BE that. She's beyond me and she always will be. No matter how long I live, no matter what happens, I'll never measure up to what I just saw.

Ever.

~ – ~ – ~

The effect of the zero-sum proposition is to dismiss all competition as non-productive. If every winner produces a corresponding loser (or even multiple losers), then where is any gain to be found? If one insists that a particular goal is worth the cost, the answer will come that these cycles don't end: more victories and losses — balanced, at best — with endless conflict as the only final product.

~ – ~ – ~

She wonders if she'll ever stop crying.

Kennedy has never had much use for crying. She doesn't sneer at it; there are good reasons sometimes, and to equate tears with weakness is exactly the kind of macho idiocy that makes her glad her preference is for women. In fact, Kennedy would view an inability to cry as a sign of distance from one's emotions or a lack of sensitivity, and either one would warn that this person was questionable relationship material.

But for her to cry … She doesn't like that. It feels like loss of control, and Kennedy has always been about maintaining control of herself.

She tries to believe the tears are for Willow. She knows better.

For all her brashness, Kennedy is fairly perceptive about people. She picked up on Willow's orientation almost immediately, and that was before they had dealt with one another in any real depth. It didn't take much longer for her to warily note the subcurrents running between Willow and Xander. That those two were lovers once is obvious; more puzzling, but just as clear, is that the aftermath somehow left them as something even closer. Though her normal inclination is toward direct action, Kennedy can see when it isn't a good idea to go at something head-on. If she tried to displace Xander, she would probably lose, so the optimum strategy was to gradually become more important to Willow than he was, without ever making it an open competition.

That part went well, but Kennedy still had to wonder what had been the appeal in the first place. The guy was likable enough, and after awhile you could see everything seemed to go better when he was around, even if it wasn't clear just what he might be doing to produce that effect. He treated everything as a joke, though; humor was his tool for dealing with absolutely everything, and surely that would have to grow tiresome. Then there was the matter of combat effectiveness: he didn't really have any. He'd give tips to the girls on weapons and tactics at times when Buffy wasn't available to drill them herself, and he actually knew what he was talking about, but those same tips gradually delineated the limits of his own capabilities. He was Backup Guy, there to cover the sidelines while the true combatants — Buffy, Willow, Spike, even Giles — dealt with the main threat. For six years he'd fought on top of a Hellmouth (and you had to grant him points for that), but at the end of it he still wasn't as good one-to-one as Kennedy herself.

She wasn't about to underestimate the emotional connection between him and Willow, but Kennedy knew she wouldn't have to worry about looking inadequate by comparison. Then came the raid on the winery, and all of her comfortable convictions simply exploded.

The first part of the fight was pure exhilaration. Pulse-pounding heart-in-your-mouth real, but she'd been preparing for this since well before puberty, and the First's minions were small beer compared to the KiłtonRǚq demon her Watcher-trainer had let her take on — and kill — in a carefully controlled field exercise when she was fourteen. The Bringers were all-out attack, meaning they left themselves wide open for counterstrikes if you just kept your cool. Plus, with Buffy and Faith and Spike spearheading the assault, Kennedy and the other Potentials were just picking off the leftovers.

The crazy preacher was another matter entirely. Smiling as he killed, wading through two Slayers and one of the most bad-assed of all bad-assed vampires (in series, Kennedy thinks, she doesn't remember seeing him fight more than one at a time), as casually as browsing down a grocery aisle … The most frightening part wasn't his strength or ruthlessness or even the fact that he was apparently unaffected by the most devastating strikes from Faith or Buffy or Spike; no, scariest was that he didn't seem to be especially exerting himself. Just an amiable, chuckling maniac out for a pleasure-stroll that left dead girls behind him.

And then he started toward Kennedy …

… and …

… and …

Why was Xander there? Why did he turn back? He wasn't one of the principal fighters, he'd admitted it himself, over and over. The faithful sidekick, the willing clown, on the scene to keep up morale and do the fetching for the ones who really counted. There was no reason for him to put himself between Kennedy and the Reverend Murder. He wasn't supposed to be there at all, wasn't supposed to be …

Hurt.

Maimed.

For her.

Except she isn't even sure about that part. Did he know it was her? Did he even look? Or did it matter to him at all? Was that just what he did, leaping to help anyone who needed it, regardless of what the other person thought of him or his own weakness or the likelihood that he would die in the process?

Willow cried herself out before she would leave for the hospital. She wanted to be able to smile, she explained to Kennedy. To joke back, if he opened with a joke … and he would. Kennedy knew better than to go along, to place herself where any comparison could be made. She'd wondered why Willow loved the goof, and now she knows.

Yes, Willow used up all her tears, but Kennedy isn't even close to hitting bottom. She stands in the darkened back yard, safe in her solitude, near to choking with the effort of keeping the traitorous sobs too low to be heard by anyone in the house. Hating herself, and hating the one who saved her.

Damn you, she thinks bleakly. Damn you. I may be a Slayer someday, but I'll never be as brave as you. I didn't really know what brave is, not till now. You're a better man than me even if you are a man.

He's set an impossible standard, and she can only try to match it, even while knowing she never will.

~ – ~ – ~

Many claim that the concept has been inappropriately projected onto all human interrelations. That winners and losers are assumed when the actual facts might be emphatically otherwise. That null results are assigned to issues and endeavors, the parties to which would see in distinctly different terms. Still, the overall concept retains a certain plausibility.

~ – ~ – ~

When Faith was doing her term of penance at Stockton, she followed a basic set of rules that she had formulated specifically for her situation. The first — and last — ran: Absolutely no killing. Nothing past broken bones. Others dealt with submission to authority (no matter how lame-assed or petty), acquiring what education she could (to diminish some of the hostility springing from an inferiority complex it had taken her forever to admit), stopping and thinking before she did anything (because her first impulses tended toward homicidal). Somewhere along toward the end, though, she'd included Stay the hell out of politics. Meaning the prison gangs, mostly — you wanted to steer clear of those if you could, and Faith very definitely could — but she'd also understood that a Slayer was something apart from humanity; trying to rule through the use of her abilities was wrong, and letting herself be co-opted into somebody else's agenda was a totally bad idea. Upshot, just don't get into it at all.

Now here she is, right in the middle of the shit. And she can't see any way to avoid it.

See, that's the problem with taking responsibility: it gets to be a habit, and then you find yourself doing more and more of it. She broke prison with Wesley because something came up — Angel — that was even more important to her than paying other debts. She slugged it out with the Beast, and then Angelus, and kept going back for more in spite of getting her ass comprehensively handed to her. She came back here to the 'Dale, and she behaved, she fell into line, she did her best in the horrible balls-up at the winery … and now it's all falling apart, these desperate little girls are boiling into mutiny and even B's nearest and dearest are beginning to show cracks in the wall of Buffy Is Always Right. She can't just watch it happen, and the Potentials are looking to her, and what can she do but step up? try to hold things together, shoulder the load any way she can?

She's a fighter, not a leader. If she could see another way of handling this, short of bugging out entirely, she'd take that route, but she's got no other options. This is here, and it's on her, and it's time for her to cowboy up.

It still feels like betrayal.

She used to dream about trying again to make it work with B and the gang, and sometimes those dreams were literal. Every scenario involved a long, hard slog: fighting the fight but not really being accepted, hearing conversations stop or turn stilted whenever she came into a room, slowly and painfully earning back the trust she violated and pissed away so long ago. Different arrangements, but always the basic theme: it wouldn't be easy, and for damn sure it was going to be slow.

This isn't slow. This landed on her so fast, she still isn't sure just how the fuck it came about.

When the message sinks in, when B sees that this isn't just happening, it's a done deal, she walks out of the room like a ghost. (Faith used to have nightmares about Buffy being dead. Real nightmares, not happy wish-fulfillment stuff about beating the other girl to death or slicing her up with the Mayor's deadly-beautiful birthday present, but horrible despairing images of the blonde Slayer slowly decaying in a private grave. Had to mean something, but she elected not to mention those to the prison shrink.) Faith follows, as soon as she can get away, and finds B standing outside the house — her house, B's own house, where Joyce welcomed Faith for Christmas and Faith returned to terrorize Joyce and the Dawnster — staring into the darkness with eyes that see nothing, looking like the world just fell in on her. Which basically it did.

And Faith tries to say she's sorry, 'cause that's what she does now. Used to be, she'd rather cut off a couple of her fingers than risk having an apology thrown back at her, but Faith has reached the point where she'll apologize even if she knows she'll get slapped for it, anything to not keep being the loser who burned through everyone who might have cared for her because she was damned and determined to reject them before they could do it to her.

She tries, but B cuts her off: "Don't." No surprise, but the follow-up is like a gut-punch. "Don't … be afraid to lead them," B says, and her voice still sounds like she can't believe reality changed around her while she was watching. "Whether you wanted it or not, their lives are yours. It's only gonna get harder. Protect them …" Her eyes meet Faith's. "… but lead them."

It is just absolutely the worst thing she possibly could have said.

Sure. Lead. Make it work when the magic girl couldn't. All her life, Faith has watched things turn to shit around her, a lot of the time because she nudged it along but mostly 'cause the world just plain fucking hates her. Then she meets Buffy, the Slayer before her, the one so special she couldn't even stay goddamn dead. California princess, all herbal shampoo and trendy clothes and easy, casual pop jargon. Faith envied her and hated her and wanted to just crawl inside her skin (and then did, except naturally she screwed that up, too). Point is, if anybody in the world ever had her path strewn with rose petals, had whatever she tried work out all totally fine simply 'cause it was her doing it, that would have to be Buffy. She's preachy and self-righteous and brave beyond description and a dirty fighter right up there with Angelus and Faith herself, but that doesn't change that the girl has been purely blessed by fate. And now Faith is expected to succeed in the place, at the very task, where Buffy failed.

In her whole life, she's never wanted so bad to just run. Not even the times she did run.

Don't do this to me, she wants to call after her one-time nemesis. Don't leave it on me. If you couldn't make the grade, how am I supposed to pull it off? I can't do this, there's no way I can do this.

Except there's no choice. It has to be done, and it's been handed to her. B never quit, never quit, she carried the load until it was taken from her, till suddenly nobody was willing to follow her anymore.

Faith can't do this. She knows good and damn well she can't. But she has to try.

She has to try.

~ – ~ – ~

Though the concept long predates that era, the zero-sum proposition got fresh impetus from the peace-and-love, get-off-the-treadmill-and-bliss-out Sixties. Some of it can be found in the verses of Desiderata (which, despite the promotional material supporting it, was NOT discovered in a church being renovated, but was the product of a 1920s poet): "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself," yadda-yadda. In other words, be happy about yourself just as you are. Be cool with everything, just as it is.

~ – ~ – ~

She's done this dance before, again and again. Somehow, that doesn't make it hurt any less. The sharp rock biting into her knees as she collapses forward is a minor pain, theoretically all but unnoticeable against the sword wound transfixing her back-to-front. Theory doesn't match fact. She hates skinned knees, that's supposed to stop happening when you turn twelve.

All about her, girls fight and fall and die or don't die. She led them because she had no choice, because they had no choice, and she lectured them and harried them and cursed them and came to love them so fiercely that it shook her, but she never — not really — believed in them. That lack of faith was wiped away seconds after the empowerment spell ginned up by Willow took its effect.

She felt it, of course; she's carried the Slayer essence within her for more than seven years now, and awakening that essence to reach out to all the available candidates created a ripple that would have jolted her out of a sound sleep. For the others, though, it had to be more than just a jolt. The opening up of a new reality, maybe.

She felt it, and then she saw Vi — Vi! — leap to attack. Saw her jump out over the edge of the pit, drive a kick into the chest of a charging Turok-Han, and let the rebound push her back to solid footing. A crazy move, reckless and counterintuitive, the kind of thing you'd see only in someone who'd been doing this for years and knew every cell of her body inside and out.

If Buffy had been called to list those who definitely would not live through the events building up in Sunnydale, Vi's name would have topped the roster. Hat Girl, someone called her, because of that ridiculous knitted thing she always wore. Hesitant, unsure of herself, unfocused in her training … compared to her, sophomore-year-Willow had been bursting with confidence. Rona needed seasoning, and Kennedy needed someone to slap it into her head that she didn't know everything, but they were survivor material. Vi? Instant goner. Might as well put a red shirt on her and stand her next to Captain Kirk.

Just goes to show …

The First has put in an appearance and is saying something, but Buffy isn't really paying attention: standard Big Bad showboating, no doubt, these characters always have a big speech they're just dying to try out. She may begin to listen in a moment, if she's not too distracted by the blinding pain or her heart stopping. At the moment, she's more caught up in what's going on around her.

After she passed the Scythe off to Faith, she saw a Turok-Han seize an Asian girl (Chao-Ahn? Kinue? no, one of the others, Buffy never got some names set solid in her memory), bend her head to expose her throat, and drain the girl in seconds. Amanda went down a moment later, her eyes open and unseeing, blood streaking her face. Others are doing better, especially the ones rallying around Faith. But Vi …

God, she's amazing. Total intensity, non-stop ferocity, every movement precise and savage and directed to maximum damage. It's like she's surrounded by a small, close-set force field, because anything that comes within her reach is killed or crushed or smashed away in a fraction of a second. She's on fire. She's alive for the first time. She's what she was born to be.

She's beyond me, Buffy thinks with the distant clarity of one about to lose consciousness. I've been doing this forever, she just started, and already she's operating in a higher gear. I can't live up to that; right off the starting block, she's hit a speed I can't reach. I'm supposed to try and lead her?

But the battle isn't over, and the new Slayers around her still need all the help they can get, so Buffy focuses on the gloating voice of the First, drawing power from anger, and begins to dig deep into herself for the strength to rise and return to the fight.

~ – ~ – ~

The biggest problem with the contentions of the zero-sum proposition? They're just flat wrong. Sometimes — most of the time — people interact with one another in ways that produce more than they would manage individually. Such mutual benefit (all involved parties come out ahead) is the fundamental basis of society.

As for comparing oneself to others … it's true, yes, that we shouldn't make ourselves vain or bitter. There will indeed always be those greater and lesser than ourselves, and comparing ourselves to them could indeed lead to smug pride or despairing surrender. Still, to avoid comparison completely … how else is a person to learn? to grow? to know that there are greater heights to aim for, other than by studying such heights and measuring them against those already scaled?

Not every interaction is a contest, nor does every contest inevitably produce a negative or even a null result. When we look at those around us, when we seek out those greater than ourselves and resolve to do our utmost to live up to their example, when we strive to do more, be more, BECOME more …

… when we do that, everybody wins.

end