Ten Days After

xiv

The rental car was compact, efficient, economical, and deathly boring. It both matched and exacerbated Wesley Wyndham-Pryce's present mood, and it held the meager collection of possessions he had brought to this appalling city. He was on the move, for the bleak message had come from the Council of Watchers while he was still being assessed to rule out spinal damage, its content terse, immediate, and unambiguous.

Sacked.

Almost precisely a matter of kicking a man while he was down, but at the same time it was neither surprising nor entirely unjustified. Wesley had been well aware, even before beginning, that the responsibility entrusted to him well exceeded his likely capacities, but it had been a charge he could not possibly decline. His failures had begun to mount from the moment of his arrival, and while the first — his panic under Balthazar's threats — had been unquestionably the worst, there had been no respite from their continued appearance.

As to the most recent … he honestly didn't know whether the result of his miserable attempt at combat during Graduation stung more, or less, than the debacle of the kiss with Cordelia. Weeks of dreaming, of fantasizing, exploded in an instant by the cold dash of reality.

Time, then, to leave.

Not back to England, for he was not remotely prepared to face those he had known among the Watchers, still occupied in the essential labours from which he had been so coldly dismissed. In point of fact, he had no destination, he merely wanted to be finally quit of Sunnydale. He would drive (but not to Los Angeles, the very thought made him wince, the absolute worst of America distilled into one enormous mass of grating stereotypes) until he saw ocean, and then find a place to stop, and relax, and try to let some of the bitterness seep out of his system.

No destination. No plans. No discernible future.

It would be a long, barren summer, and he had no faintest notion of what he would do once it ended.

xv

She met him at the gate of the mansion (a modest mansion, but it qualified), and when he stopped and rolled down the window, she demanded, "Did you bring what I told you? And, God, this is what you're driving?"

'This' was a 1981 AMC Gremlin with no hubcaps and a bile-yellow paint job (except for one white fender on the passenger's side). A steady ticking emanated from the engine, with occasional sputters. "Sorry to sully the family estate with my lowbrow transport," Xander said evenly. "If it meant that much to you, you could've picked me up yourself."

"Right," Cordelia scoffed. "No car, remember?"

Xander cocked his head. "Oh. Right. Sorry. Yeah, I brought the pike and the crossbow. You sure this is something we can handle ourselves?"

"I'm always sure." Cordelia turned and pulled the gate open. "You can check it out for yourself if you don't believe me."

Xander eased the Gremlin inside, and Cordelia swung the gate closed behind them. "I noticed you didn't use the keypad," he observed. "Why have a security system if you don't keep it running?"

Cordelia opened the passenger's door and got in next to him. She did not actually shudder when her body touched the seat, but her air was of someone very prominently not saying something. "No power," she said. "The city shut it off after my parents split town. Then two weeks ago they padlocked the gate."

Xander moved down the long drive at low speed, pulled up in front of the house. "So what happened to the padlock?"

"Bolt cutter," Cordelia said tersely. "Look, can we get on with this?"

Xander popped the hatchback; the rear seat had been laid down so the short pike would fit diagonally. He withdrew the crossbow, pulled back the whipcord string with a grunt and secured it, and placed a quarrel in the channeled groove along the top. "Here," he said, passing the loaded weapon to Cordelia, and took up the pike for himself. "So where is the thing you were talking about?"

"Upstairs." She led him inside; the BANK OWNED PROPERTY sticker sealing the front door had been torn down the center, and inside the air had a stale taste to it. There was enough light from various windows that they had no trouble making their way up the staircase, but even within the first minute, a faint sheen of perspiration had begun to show on their faces and arms from the absence of air conditioning. "I got most of what I needed already, but this one closet —"

The closet was a walk-in, and perhaps two-thirds the size of Xander's bedroom at home. The rich scent of cedar had wafted out the door when Cordelia opened it; she stepped back, readied the crossbow, and said, "You first."

"Fools rush in," Xander mused, "so I guess that's why you called me. What're we looking at here?"

"About the size of a cocker spaniel," Cordelia told him. "Skin like a toad's. It'll try to bite — luckily, I had on boots the first time, it couldn't get through the leather — but I haven't seen any other natural weapons. Unless the bite is poisoned." She shook her head. "Look, it's a nuisance, okay? If I was really worried, I'd have got in touch with Saint Buffy. But it's too quick for me to handle by myself." As Xander started to step inside, she added, "Oh, yeah, it can climb the walls, so be sure to watch out above the door frame."

Xander drew back with a sharp yelp of indrawn breath, then reached inside with the pike to probe blindly at the area indicated. Then, with a wary upward glance, he moved past the threshold, keeping the pike ready. "It had to be this closet?" he asked Cordelia. "Whatever you want from here, it must really be important."

"I'm leaving town," Cordelia said to him. "I hung on through graduation, I stayed at the shop for another week to build up my emergency fund, but I have no future in this town. I can take only so much with me, and there's a classic black cocktail dress that is utterly indispensible, and there might be a few other items I wouldn't want to leave behind, so man up and help me kill this stupid home-invading Ugly Thing while we still have enough daylight to see it."

The creature had five legs, an ovoid eye placed on its squat body above each leg. Suckers tipped its feet, allowing it to skitter along the walls and ceiling with a fair degree of speed. Xander danced along the length of the closet, jabbing upward but never quite connecting … but Cordelia, tracking ahead, nailed it just off center-mass with the crossbow, and Xander used the pike to finish the thing. "Drag it down!" she commanded instantly. "Drag it down, it's drizzling goo on the clothes!"

In the end, along with the cocktail dress, Cordelia chose two other dresses and two complete outfits. "This means I'm going to have to trade some things out," she said. "Come on around back with me."

Xander did, uncomplaining, but when they arrived at a medium-sized cottage a hundred feet from the main house, he said, "Okay, I just have to know: what's the deal here?"

"This is where I've been staying," Cordelia told him, her expression daring any hint of criticism. "The groundskeeper lived here with his family, and Daddy had the electricity set up on a separate circuit so they'd pay for it themselves. They had to move, but …" She shrugged. "Power still works — probably for not much longer — so I moved in."

"You've been living here?" Xander's eyebrows went up. "All this time? But … with no car, how were you getting to school? And work?"

"City bus till I got close enough," Cordelia said flatly. "Then I walked the rest of the way so nobody could actually see my humiliation."

"But …" He frowned. "But the nearest bus-stop has to be a mile from here."

Cordelia tossed off a scornful shrug. "Yeah. What about it?"

"Well, that would explain why your legs still look so good." The smile was easy and unstrained. He followed her inside the cottage. "What I'm not totally understanding, though, is what you need me for now that your own personal closet-monster has been vanquished."

Cordelia laid the clothes she had extracted onto the couch in the small living room, then turned to face him. "The whole Kerouac on-the-road thing you were talking about a few weeks ago: are you still doing that?"

Xander nodded. "Very much yes to that. In fact, that's why I got the Gremlin. I know I'll have to get a job sooner or later — I can already hear the fast food industry whispering its siren call, or maybe I can luck into the exciting world of aluminum siding sales — but I'm gonna have me one fun summer before settling into the grind." He shrugged. "I'd actually planned to be gone a couple of days ago, but Gizmo needed a new oil pan, so …"

"Yeah, yeah, I'll have plenty of time to be bored to tears, which I know is your specialty." Cordelia put her hands on her hips. "I want to come with you."

"You …?" Xander took a half-step backward, as if he'd been knocked slightly off-balance. "I mean … huh?"

"I'm moving to Los Angeles," Cordelia went on steadily. "I have money put away for the bus ticket there, and I'll check the price from wherever we go to make sure I don't travel outside my price range. But this year has been grim, and I'm like you, I want a little decompressing time for myself before I buckle down to the process of achieving my inevitable superstardom." She put her finger on his chest, as if pinning him in place. "You owe me. I'm collecting. Got it?"

Xander opened and closed his mouth a few times, and then his expression firmed. "Yeah," he said. "I got it."

Cordelia studied his face, her own showing nothing. "I really did love you," she stated matter-of-factly.

He nodded. "I know that, yeah. And I'm still sorry for how I —"

"I don't anymore," she interrupted.

"That memo, too, did arrive," he acknowledged with a sigh.

"Good," she said. "Because that means you can understand that this is about closure." And she took his face in her hands and delivered a long, molten kiss that left him gasping.

Then, in the cottage's main bedroom, the two of them put some more work into effecting the needed closure. And, after half an hour of drowsy, wordless cuddling under the ceiling fan, they began another installment.

Against all expectations, even her own, Cordelia Chase had somehow retained her virginity through the end of high school. (Any round-heels could get sweaty in some random back seat; Queen C had always been determined that her own transformative event would be an event.) There was absolutely no way she would have carried that status with her to Los Angeles … and, after the crash-and-burn with Wesley, any pre-emptive strike could only be with the first man she had genuinely loved.

And she would also use it to work him completely out of her system, for good and all. She would travel with him, sharing motel rooms and diner food, until she knew she was ready to put her old life behind her and seize the new one by the throat. And that might take just a little longer than she had originally planned … because … because …

Oh, God! who would ever have suspected? The man was an absolute Viking in the sack!

xvi

"This was the first time I could come to see you," Joyce Summers said to the girl in the bed. "I understand they knew after the first day that you would survive, but it took this long for you to get out of … not intensive care, the stage below that, but still more restricted than where you are now. And I'm afraid I wasn't entirely honest with them about how we knew each other. If there were anyone to object, I probably wouldn't be allowed on the visitors list; but, since you don't have any family anyone can locate, a former unofficial foster-parent is better than nothing, right?"

There was no reply. Nor would there be, of course. It wasn't even really the girl in the bed that Joyce was talking to … but she wasn't entirely not talking to her either. Even if this was only a one-way conversation, there were issues that needed to be addressed.

"I welcomed you into my home. There was a selfish element there, I won't deny that. Even apart from the possibility that you might be able to replace Buffy, or at least take on the brunt of her duties, I thought having someone to fight alongside her — someone with as much power as she has — could only help her. There was more to it than that, though: I liked you. You were brash and brazen and brave and … I'd worked so hard to provide a good home, and then worried so long about Buffy once I learned of her calling, it was just indescribably refreshing to have someone around who so totally lived in the moment. Openly, no apologies, obviously relishing it. You were what I couldn't be, didn't even really want to be, but having you in our lives meant I could enjoy it by second-hand exposure.

"That's what I want to be sure you understand. I welcomed you into my home, and I meant it.

"According to the doctors, you'll never wake up. Naturally, doctors say all kinds of things, with complete authority and conviction, that turn out differently. And they don't know anything about Slayer healing, do they? But they do say you'll never wake up, and Buffy seems willing to accept that assurance.

"I'm not sure I am.

"She warned me about you, you know, when she first knew for sure that you'd gone over to the Mayor. Vampires were bad enough, but you're something designed by fate to be even deadlier than vampires, aren't you? Besides which, you didn't need an invitation to come into my house. She warned me, and then qualified it with all the reasons there was probably no reason to worry, I wouldn't be a target, you mainly wanted to kill her

"Seriously. She actually thought that would be reassuring to me.

"You wanted to kill her. You tried to kill her. In a way, that just made you one more threat, one of the things she's been beating for, what? three years now? I didn't like it, but it wasn't actually anything I hadn't been living with since the end of her junior year.

"But you've been in my home. Unlike most of the things out there, you know me. I struggled so hard to make myself trust Buffy, trust her judgment in the insane world she occupies, I let myself not see part of the truth. You know me. It might have struck you as a good idea to come to our house looking for a hostage, try and use me against Buffy; it's been done before, and it almost worked. You didn't, but I didn't think of the possibility, not then, and that was a failure of my responsibilities as a mother.

"I love Buffy. She's my daughter, and I love her. But … she isn't the only daughter I have. And, someday, you might wake up. Someday, I might have to worry about you taking Dawn, instead of me. Buffy can fight for herself. Dawn can't. That's my job.

"I welcomed you into my home, and I meant it. You almost died, and I'm at least a little glad you didn't. But you might wake up someday, and I don't know if I can afford to risk that. Risk my little girl's life on her sister's vigilance, or on it not occurring to you to come after us."

She stood from the chair she had drawn up next to the hospital bed, and reached out to stroke the silent girl's face. "I may have to kill you. I came to tell you that, and to see if looking at you helped me make up my mind. It hasn't, not yet, but I'm not about to let the matter go. I'll be back again to visit you tomorrow, and probably for quite a while after that. Every time, I'll think about how much it would cost to act, and how much it might cost to not act, and every day I'll consider my decision."

She went to the door, stopped with her hand on the knob and looked back. "I'm still on the fence. I honestly am. But if I ever decide that it's a choice between my daughters or you … it'll be you, Faith. And I'll apologize to you before I put the pillow over your face, but I won't let pity stop me.

"So sleep well, until I come to see you tomorrow."

end


Special acknowledgment: The Xander/Cordelia segment was freely inspired by sam_arkand's story "School's Out" (found on LiveJournal). I like my version, but his came first and is well worth reading.