He says goodbye to Buffy and Willow. It's weeks till college starts, but they seem distant already. Though he's the one leaving, it feels like the other way around.
Joyce, though, she's the same as always. She supplies him with sandwiches, frets about the roadworthiness of the Crapmobile. He assures her his dad would never allow this trip if he wasn't 100% sure Xander would be safe, but privately he's not convinced.
He drops by Giles's place, which clearly surprises the watcher. Firm, damn manly handshakes ensue.
He visits Faith's hospital room. No surprise from her. No reaction at all.
Weird to see her here like this. Nobody home.
She'd always been in motion. Dancing all the time, even when she was sitting down. Xander's sort of like that himself, only it's his mouth that has to be going 24/7.
Weird to see her so still.
The nurse was glad to see him. Not many visitors, she said. That sweet blonde girl came for a while, but not so much lately. "Talk to her," she suggested. "You never know what might register."
He takes her in, this husk of a girl.
Can think of nothing to say.
"I'll send you some postcards," is how he leaves her.
Stupid thing to say, but he's never had the right words when it came to Faith.
If he'd known what to say, she wouldn't be here now. If he'd known what to say, maybe they'd have spent more than three minutes together after their one time. Maybe they'd be, y'know, together.
He shoves a tape into the car stereo -- the tape, labeled Road Trip Mix. Pulls away from the curb as Tom Waits' gravelly voice crackles over the Craptronic speakers:
Jack was sittin poker faced with bullets backed with bitches...
Live here long enough, and everything reminds you of some dearly departed. "Jack & Neal" makes Xander think of Ms. Murray, who put him onto Kerouac. Played this song in class and found herself in water beyond hot.
-- braggin bout some nurse he screwed while drivin through Nebraska and when she came she honked the horn --
Not exactly G-rated, but it put a book in his hand, one that changed his life.
Like this trip will change his life.
Suddenly he remembers Ms. Murray was suspended through semester's end.
Two lives changed by a song.
He grins and cranks the volume.
He feels this weird nostalgia as he drives through Sunnydale.
It's like Goodnight Moon in his head:
Bye, Sun Theater, Home of Proven Hits.
Bye, still smoldering ashes of Sunnydale High.
He wonders which place accounts for more wasted hours of his young life.
The tape offers more soundtrack: -- I'm eighteen and I don't know what I want --
He'll be back. But he'll be different.
As he reaches the highway Alice yowls, We gotta get outta this plaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgzk --
Xander grabs for the cassette, too late. Ribbons of tape like demon drool hang from the deck's maw.
The first night he sleeps at a rest stop. The night's chilly, but there's a scratchy wool blanket in the back. Smells like dog and cigarettes.
Someone pounds on the glass, jolting him awake. "Help! My boyfriend's hitting me! Please!"
He lunges for the door handle despite unpleasant flashbacks of Jack O'Toole, and she tumbles inside.
"Thanks. How can I repay you?" She turns toward him, all teeth and yellow eyes, ready to suggest how.
He grabs for the stake under his seat.
Next morning it takes two quarters at the car wash to suck her out of the carpet.
Something Xander hadn't considered when he planned this solo cross-country trip:
The whole 24/7 talking thing.
Big fat oversight, really.
He can't believe how little time it takes to get lonely. The demise of the tape player really didn't help. You get used to untimely death, living in Sunnydale. But this one hurts.
He's at the mercy of the radio as he heads toward Seattle.
And mercy -- well, in this world it's in pretty short supply.
After a few hours, he finds Jesse riding shotgun.
"What do you think, bud?" Xander asks. "Corn Palace is a must, right?"
"No way. Who was it? That Buffy chick?"
"Nobody you knew. She moved here after you--" Shit. "Left."
Jesse snorts. "Elvis has left the building. So tell. She hot?"
"Man. A dozen different kinds of hot." He feels weird talking about it. Wrong. There's something so very Larry about dishing up the dirt, even with his best friend. Old-school Larry, that is. (Another newsflash Jesse missed.)
"So. Xander did the deed." Jesse taps long fingers on the dash, though the radio's nothing but static. "Just my luck to get dead before I got laid."
Why does he feel guilty?
He doesn't know why it's easier to think about Faith than Buffy.
Easy's maybe not the best word. Thinking's maybe not the best word, either.
There should be a short, snappy verb for being confused.
That's what he's been doing about Faith.
She tried to kill him. What's to be confused about there?
She tried to kill him in a really damn personal way. Skin on skin, eyes locked on his.
Xander remembers the craziness and fear glittering in her eyes.
He knows his held pity. That's what she'd been trying to erase.
He still feels it.
He fills Jesse in.
"Principal Flutie. Not long after you."
Jesse nods sagely. "Vampires?"
"Well, students possessed by hyenas. They, uh, ate him." That was a near miss he doesn't like thinking about. "Dr. Gregory."
"Substitute teacher. She was a demon. Larry."
Xander snorts. "Giant snake. Turned out he wasn't such a bad guy."
"Dude, no. Now you're just fucking with me."
"No, really. Once he got himself figured out."
Jesse studies the crooked finger Larry broke in fifth grade.
"Jesse, man, I --"
He blinks. "I was already dead. Thought you knew that."
Cheap motel's safer than rest stops, but his money's going faster than he'd expected. The Crapmobile's a gas hog, which isn't helping.
Plus he can't help thinking of another cheap motel and that night with Faith -- the first one. He lies on the spongy mattress, trying to identify the intended scent of the air freshener, and wonders just what's wrong with him.
Most guys would give their right arms for a one-nighter with someone like Faith. (Enough girls like her, and you wouldn't need your right arm.) But not him. He wanted something real.
Definitely not of the normal.
hi faith, stopped in seattle for cobain pilgrimage but too expensive to stay. checked out pike's market and watched the fishmongers throw mackerel around, very marx brothers. maybe that's what mong means. cornball but entertaining. speaking of which i'm heading east on 90 so i can hit the corn palace in s.d. saw it on a diner placemat once, always wanted to go. you can see mt. rainier from here when you can see it but like the joke goes today's not your day. out of room, xander
He puts it in his messenger bag instead of a mailbox.
Xander's in -- Iowa? Idaho? -- when he reaches this burg called Wallace, where they filmed Dante's Peak. It's high on his all-time cheese list, so he can't resist.
He wanders the streets, which look just like the movie, except for the bigass CGI volcano.
How weird would that be, popping a tape in the VCR and watching your hometown get reduced to molten ruin?
He encounters the whorehouse museum, which he can't resist either. It's full of belongings abandoned in panicked evacuation -- FBI as natural disaster.
Xander ponders the pricelist by the phone.
There is a shitload he still doesn't know.
Xander wakes himself up, yelling, "Right flank, close! Close!"
At first he doesn't know where he is. It's completely dark. Eclipse -- no. Night. Not his own bed. Sound of his rasping breath, tv in the next room.
This one wasn't so bad. Sometimes he's Larry, lying broken on the sidewalk, life slipping away. Sometimes he's dangling from the jaws of the snake. In the worst ones, he's kneeling over Buffy or Willow, wishing it was him instead.
Still, he's done sleeping.
In the morning he crams packaged danish in his pockets as he crosses the lobby. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Though he gives it the old not-going-to-college try, there's only so much obsessing he can do about a girl he had sex with once. Once the Faith well dries up, there's Buffy.
And there's a lot there to work with.
You're my Xander-shaped friend.
Oh yeah, him, the sexless guy-pal who'd never dream of wanting something more.
I just don't think of you that way.
Try -- I'll wait. Nice going, Harris. Who needs pride?
But now Angel's left Sunnydale. Now there's nothing to stand between Xander and Buffy.
Yeah, sure. Nothing.
Except for Buffy herself.
He scrounges up a station on the Crapmobile's radio. New Country format -- whole different form of pain. In the hour before he loses the signal, he does hear one oldish song. He likes the line about dance-hall doctors.
That would have been a good choice to hear about on Career Day.
Then it's back to white noise, and Xander longs for some company. But Jesse's left the building. It's Faith who shows instead.
"What'd you think, Boy Scout? People like us? Buffy might find a use for us, but at the end of the day, we're nothin' to her."
"What's this 'us' shit? I can't think of a single--"
Faith flashes teeth. "I'm sure you can't. It's important to you, drawing that line. Between you and me. You and Angel. Nothin' dark in you, it's all bright sunshine in there. Keep telling yourself that." She pushes in the cigarette lighter. "We're damaged goods, both of us. We spend our lives frontin' so nobody catches on, but we know."
"Speak for yourself."
"Buffy knows too. Might as well give it up."
A muscle tics in his jaw as he drives on.
She pulls the lighter, looks inside. "Piecea shit car."
By the time he notices all the motorcycles on the highway, they're coming in swarms. The roar fills his head like the drone of some hoard of demon insects, driving out all thought. Not such a bad thing, really.
The sound is with him all day as he makes his way east on 90, sending him into a weird hypnotic state. He's beyond exhaustion when he makes his first attempt to find a room.
Nothing available, the desk clerk tells him.
Nothing to be had for a couple hundred miles from Sturgis in any direction.
Clerk looks way too happy.
Giles should really check into the Black Hills. There's for sure some weirdass mystical energy connected to this place. What else would inspire some guy to dynamite a mountain into four presidents? Or some other guy to top that by blasting another mountain into a likeness of Crazy Horse so huge that Teddy Roosevelt would fit in his nostril?
Maybe Xander's just susceptible.
Hasn't slept since he tanked up on espressos and pills he scored from a trucker at a Flying J.
He investigates the Cosmos Mystery Spot for a laugh, but it fucks with his head.
It's not funny.
It's a ways off 90, which Xander hoped would deliver him from the hallucinatory wall of sound he's been riding. Hokey little tourist trap -- a shack where all the angles are out of true and balls roll uphill, plus a gift shop.
There's a mechanical explanation, he's sure of that. Maybe.
But with the pills and the noise and the vibration (he still hears it, feels it) and the loneliness and Jesse and Faith, he is wide fucking open. He was feeling okay before, not entirely himself but okay, but now --
He leaves before the six dollar tour is over.
He could keep curving around on Highway 16, turn east once he connects back to 90, and miss Sturgis completely.
That would be sensible.
But whatever Black Hills weirdness manifests here has infected him too, and he takes the westbound onramp.
Hell, it's not dynamiting a mountain.
He'll just ... check things out.
Sweet Jesus. He has never seen this many people in his life.
Xander ditches the car and wanders the drag as the sun goes low and red.
Motorcycle roar fills his head and his chest.
A stake is jammed in the waistband of his jeans, under his shirt.
He'd thought it was just the vibration of all that horsepower, but now he realizes he's trembling. A drink would probably be a real good idea. Xander brandishes his fake ID for something amber and fiery.
Perfect vampire scene, and he makes one standing across the room. Jesus, what a specimen: hollow-eyed scarecrow, jittering with the hunger. Loud shirt of some shiny material popular before Xander was born. A blind man could spot this guy.
He angles closer, trying to look casual.
Confronts his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
He knocks back his bourbon, orders another.
Xander wonders if it's possible to be this lonely without half a million people around you.
He thought he knew what it is to be alone, but he's never felt anything like this.
Maybe he should find a phone. Call Willow.
As if he'd be able to hear anything over the throbbing engines outside, the racket in here.
A woman approaches and he steps aside to let her past. She's -- wow -- unbelievable. She's -- wow -- stopping to talk. To him.
She asks his name, says he's cute. Does he need a bed?
He fingers the stake, offers a smile. "Lead on."
The first big surprise: she's not (un)dead. When she pulls him against her under the RALLY WEDDINGS sign, he feels actual breath against his lips.
He kisses her back. Buying time while he figures out what kind of demon she is, that's all.
No fangs, no slime, just softness and heat. Encouraging.
He lets her lead him to her room.
She touches his face. "You're so jumpy. You think my big biker boyfriend is going to kill you?"
"You have one?"
She laughs. "No."
"Good. That's good."
"So what's wrong?"
Xander shoves his hands in his pockets. "Um ... why me?"
"You're cute." She unbuttons his top button.
"You don't think you're God's gift." Another button. "Nobody else out there would ask 'why me,' for sure."
"And you look a little bit lost." Button #4 -- #3 was already missing. "I'm a sucker for that."
Panicking, he wrenches off the shirt, wadding it with the stake inside, tossing it in a chair.
Turns out there's more to sex than being body-slammed onto a bed. He can't stop talking after and says he thinks it's the pills.
She gives him some different pills.
"Dance-hall doctors," he murmurs before he falls asleep.
Xander's wrecked in the morning, but Allie -- that's her name -- has the cure. A little cocaine, just enough to get the heart started, just this once. And then more sex.
He'd meant to get back on the road today, he'd been in Sturgis long enough to scope out the scene, but after Allie buys him an afternoon breakfast and coaxes him to have a couple of drinks with her, he wonders what's the big friggin hurry.
He's gotten to like the noise and the answering throb in his sternum.
It fills up some empty place in him.
So does Allie.
The next few days he spends in a haze. Allie's a well-stocked girl -- there's always a bottle, a rainbow of pills. A little coke.
It's not that he's completely stoned the whole time, that's not it at all. He just feels cocooned. There's a downy padding between him and the engine-throb that envelops him, inhabits him.
By the end of the week he realizes he had it wrong. This sound is what he's made of. It's what keeps him whole, makes his molecules stick together.
It's diminishing already, and soon it'll scatter in every direction, like vampire dust.
Allie takes him out on her Harley Softail for one last ride. She hits the pig tail bridges a little too fast, scaring the piss out of him. Somehow they make it to the motel without leaving any skin on Iron Mountain Road.
Allie takes him on the motel bed for one last ride. It's almost as hairy -- her coke sings in his blood like a tuning fork vibrating to the thundering bikes outside.
She leaves him with a nearly-full bottle of Cuervo and the use of the room tonight, heads back to her life as a dental hygienist.
The tide of sound crests and then recedes, leaving him washed up on the shore, beached, stranded, dying. He tries to make up the difference with the Cuervo, but it's a doomed rescue attempt. Tossing water on a whale.
The next morning as he stumbles to the shower, it occurs to Xander that he should have gotten in his car yesterday, ridden that wave. Now there's nothing to ride but trickles of runoff.
He takes what's left of the bottle, a few stray pills, and drags his duffel back to the Crapmobile.
He's got a palace of corn to see.
"Xander, I'm really surprised at you," Willow says.
It's a surprise for him, too. He thought he was only getting visitations from the dead and the comatose. "You're okay, aren't you, Will? Should I be worried?"
"I'll say you should. What the hell are you thinking, mister?" She's gotten in touch with her inner leather-wearing Willow -- oh baby, leather-wearing -- stop that. She's taken. Not to mention she's College Girl with unlimited potential, and he's just starting his career as Townie Loser.
"You don't understand."
"So make me understand."
He turns on the radio instead.
Makes her go away.
He stops at Wall Drug for his free water, but it's too busy and he's too hungover. He buys some postcards, retreats.
Out front a bear of a man pulls up on his hog. No helmet, so Xander gets a good look at the whole package: two full sleeves of Technicolor flesh, knife scar near the eye, long beard that parts to flash him a gold tooth. "Get your scrawny ass over here."
"Stink," he says, offering his hand. It's swallowed in a giant paw for an elaborate super-sekrit handshake.
"Next year?" Stink wants to know.
"Count me in."
"Xander, I'm really surprised at you." Amusement, innuendo color Faith's voice. "I didn't think you had it in you."
Wonderful. If Willow can't shame him out of bad behavior, maybe Faith can approve him out of it.
"Shows what you can achieve once you get over the notion that you're better than you are."
"Try fucking off, Faith."
He's here. Mitchell. Corn Palace. He pulls over.
Faith leans forward, peering out. "It's just a cement building --"
He ignores her, taking in the murals. BUILDING A NATION.
"-- with corn ears stuck on the sides."
Yeah. That's all it is.
After Sturgis, Chicago is a letdown too. It's crowded, no surprise, but people are spaced out in a more reasonable way, not nuts-to-butts on the main drag of a pissant little town.
Chicago compensates by being 9000 degrees. The stiff lake breeze is refreshing, if your idea of refreshing is climbing in a pizza oven.
He drags along Michigan Avenue a while, but the expensive stuff in the shop windows makes his reflected thrift store clothes seem even shabbier.
Xander thinks about panhandling someone, just to see if he looks that bad.
He doesn't really want to know.
Xander would be hard pressed to name a more depressing place than a Laundromat on Sunday morning. He sprawls in a plastic bucket chair and reads the paper someone left (ten minutes' work, for a slow reader), then stares at the gray linoleum, trying to tell the printed speckles from the stains.
When the manager steps out for a smoke, Xander approaches the Coke machine, thumps it in the sweet spot that used to work on the one at Sunnydale High. It yields a Sprite.
Less luck with his one washer. His red-striped shirt bleeds all over his whites.
Xander stares at the pile of wet, pink clothes in the laundry cart.
"Wow, just look at you," Cordelia says. "The new, improved Xander. Now, with 20% more patheticness."
Trust Cordelia not even to have the grace to haunt him in private.
She looks really good. He wonders how she's doing in L.A. Is she ever lonely?
Not her. She's queen bee of some circle already.
She rolls her eyes. "It doesn't work that way, Pink Underwear Boy. I'm a manifestation of your self-absorption. I can't answer questions."
"I know." But he's a little tired of himself.
In his studies of Playboy centerfold profiles, he's never seen Turnons: fucked laundry.
Yet here's a woman, just on the underside of Mrs. Robinson, giving him the eye.
Xander wonders what she's doing here at prime loser hour. She's got yoga clothes, a yoga body. Her latte cost more than his last two meals.
Couldn't help noticing... My ex left some things... About your size...
Oh. Now he feels stupid.
He goes along with her.
At her place he sees it's clearly her son's stuff.
She removes his shirt.
He feels even stupider.
He goes along with her.
It's all very sweet, if kinda weird, and Xander gets a good hot meal at the end. Laurel sends him off with a bag full of her son's clothes (the "ex" pretense has been scrapped) and another full of sandwiches, carrot sticks and homemade cookies. It makes him think of Joyce, whom he so much doesn't want to think of right at this moment.
As he pulls away from the curb, Cordelia pipes up. "Can I just say that was completely gross?"
"If I said 'no,' would that stop you?"
There's no answer. He looks over, and she's gone.
An hour goes by, nothing on the radio, not even much traffic. He's eaten all of the cookies.
"Psych!" hollers Cordelia by way of announcing her return, and he nearly runs onto the median. "What, you didn't think you could lose me that easily, did you?"
"Cordy, for fuck's sake."
"So what's with the Harold and Maude?"
"Though I've gotta say, you're dressed better than I've ever seen you, with the possible exception of prom night. Wow, I didn't come close in the class pool on Most Likely to Become a Complete Whore."
Overpass abutment ahead. Xander considers it.
"Big whoop, you're not going to college." She's been going on at him for a while. "Neither am I."
"It's different. You got away."
"What do you call this?"
"I call it a road trip. Temporary." He calls it lonely.
"You gave up early."
"It's different for you. You've got a plan. You're gorgeous, you'll be beating off agents -- man, that came out so wrong."
"What's stopping you from getting a plan?"
"Oh, ambition, brains, connections -- all the other things I don't have."
"The main one being a clue. You're better than you think. Stop settling."
Once Cordy finally leaves, he finds himself idly thinking about Anya.
He wonders where she went. He pictures her drifting around like he is, but at least he's had years of experience being a teenager who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. It must be painful to find yourself demoted to seventeen after centuries of power. It's painful enough getting there the normal way.
She's a strange, disturbing girl, but Xander hopes she's safe.
He supposes he'll never know.
He considers finding somewhere to eat, starts paying attention.
He wonders when he started heading back west.
Xander follows the signs to a state park -- whatever state he's in right now. (State of Desperation, bordering Confusion and Anxiety.)
He stretches beneath a tree, staring up into leaves and sky until he's pleasantly dizzy.
"You're not the first guy to make it out of high school without knowing who he is."
He glances over. Larry sits with his back against the trunk, gazing at the lake.
"I'm not gay," Xander says.
He thinks of something Leather Willow said, that in her world Larry was in Giles's crew. "Larry, I hardly knew ye."
"You and me both, buddy."
Once he starts thinking of that other world he can't stop. Larry, Oz and Nancy, fighting at Giles's side. Willow a vampire. It's so damn Spock with a beard.
Not to mention Xander himself with a taste for the warm red.
All he knows is the sketchiest outline. His mind keeps playing with the spaces between.
Him and Willow. Who vamped who?
Cool, huh? Evil Twin Xander -- in someone else's world. Sure, it's cool --
Till he remembers what he'd been willing to do when he was Hyena Boy. His appetite for cruelty, his taste for blood.
(Remembers that kid. Joey.)
Used to be, he wasn't so reluctant to look at himself. Literally, figuratively.
His old man caught him sometimes, staring in the mirror like a goddamn girl.
Thinking what's so wrong with me?
Used to be, the answer was nothing much.
His ears stick out, his mouth is too wide.
He's a dork, his mouth is too big. Sometimes he's shitty to his friends.
Now he sees below the surface. Layers of secrets, lies. Sees someone Willow doesn't know the way she thinks.
Someone who nearly raped his friend, who sent her lover to hell.
Who hides now behind lies.
"You gonna SEE ROCK CITY?"
"Cause it seems if you'd like that Corn Palace bullshit, you'd go for that, too."
"I'm not talking to my imaginary friends just now," he tells her.
"Know what I like about you?"
He waits for the punchline.
"Never saw you hang back any time it came down to a scrap. Even when you knew you'd get the shit kicked out of you. You never fuckin' give up."
She cocks one of her chunky black boots on the dash. "Never gave up on me, either. Wish I could say the same."
He wonders about Faith in Leather Willow World. Buffy was still the slayer, but she didn't come to Sunnydale till two years later. So she never died for those crucial few moments, and no second Slayer was called. Right?
He pumped Anya about this other world (An AU! Involving him! Too. Fucking. Much.) during the prom. Mostly to avoid the gory vengeance talk, but it got under his skin. With the Ascension coming, he didn't have excess time for a full-blown obsession, but now he's got nothing but.
Where's Faith in that world? Is her life better, or worse?
Why does this AU thing keep working on him?
Shit World, revealed to him with way too much glee by the goddamn demon he was slow-dancing with. Willow vamped, him too, happy little soldiers for the Master. Cordy slaughtered -- by him and Will.
(He wonders if he took a page from Angel's book of blood and ripped open the throats of his own parents.)
Why can't he stop thinking about it?
Maybe because what stretches before him seems so bleak. Leather Willow World might be hell on earth, but it's somewhere else.
At least its questions are safe ones.
Xander hasn't followed any particular direction since the Corn Palace.
Scratch that: he's never been headed in any direction.
Never worked hard enough to get into college, because: Scholarship? Academic or athletic, it is to laugh. And the idea that his parents would help him financially was an even bigger joke.
Tried the Business Ed track, but that was really about selling crappy fundraiser merch, so all that brought him was his first taste of business failure. Shop was a little more about the attractions of certain fumes than anything else.
Now, even in his head, he's spinning his wheels.
He wishes --
That's not a place he's ever going.
Xander Harris doesn't wish. He deals.
The waitress bustles over with a menu, a pot of coffee and a smile. "Sorry to leave you waiting. I didn't see you come in." She's young, around Xander's age. Her hair and brows and lashes seem impossibly light, but her eyes are a dark blue. Like Earth from space. Her nametag says Vaughnie.
"No problem," he says. "I'm just happy for a break from the road."
"Where you headed?"
"Not quite sure yet."
She's got dimples like Faith's. "Maybe you're already there."
Vaughnie comes over whenever she gets a free minute, and flirts.
He takes his time over dinner, and orders a slab of cherry pie he really can't afford. It's nice to have someone to talk to who's not dead, comatose or a figment.
She asks if he'd like to wait in the truckers' TV lounge for her shift to end. Xander falls asleep during That 70s Show.
He falls asleep again once she gets him to her apartment, but somehow it's okay. He wakes in the dark with her nestled against him. He strokes her hair and drifts off again.
She has the day off, so they spend it in her bed. There's not even sex right away -- for a long time they just lie there talking.
They're a lot alike. Vaughnie just graduated this year without any real clue what she wants to do. She says in the town she comes from, your choices are pretty much hairdresser, bank teller, waitress. "Or you head to L.A. to become an actress, where you end up as a waitress because you didn't bother studying to be a hairdresser or bank teller."
She likes waitressing. "People interest the hell out of me."
The women he's had this summer (who've had him) have just been tourists in his aimless state. All he's been was just a fling with one of the local yokels before it's time to head back to real life. Someone they've gone slumming with.
Vaughnie's different. She's a fellow resident. They speak the same language.
Xander can't recall anything he and Allie talked about in their days together. (Now there was a week to try to remember.) With Laurel it was chitchat about his travels and her son's clothes, all cloaked in mutual embarrassment.
With Vaughnie he can be himself.
In addition to the talk, there's lots of sex.
Mind-blowingly good sex that seems to last for days.
Because there's also mind-blowing weed -- lots of that too, and it makes everything hazy.
Xander's sense of time shifts, because it seems like she never leaves the bed for work, just to sashay to her door to take delivery of Chinese food, or pizza, which will be abandoned half-eaten for more sex.
He can't believe how good this is, the scent of her hair, the feel of her skin. He wishes --
He wishes he trusted in wishing.
The air has changed. It's still warm enough to keep the windows thrown wide open, but there's a hint of something else. He can't quite tell what it is: a smell, a shift in temperature or humidity or what. He mentions it to Vaughnie, who's rolling another joint.
"It's fall," she says.
Fall is what he does.
He's always had Willow by his side when autumn comes. Always. There's school and Willow and lately Buffy and Giles, and these things he could always count on.
Now he sees himself in the rearview mirror of Will's life, waving, receding.
"Hey, what just happened?" Vaughnie lays aside the joint, unfinished. "Where did you go?"
After the briefest of hesitations, he tells her. About Buffy and Willow and college, about his crappy prospects (though they've been over this), his fears of turning out like his old man and his suspicion he doesn't know how to be anything else.
"If you could be or have anything in the world you wanted," Vaughnie asks, her arms around him and her hair fanned out over his chest, "what would you wish for?"
"I don't wish," he says. "Nothing but heartbreak ever comes from wishing."
"Jesus, that's sad." She props herself on her elbow, touches his face. "Xander, you can't think that way. You can't let life beat you down so much you don't even hope for something better."
"No, it's not that." He traces a finger over Vaughnie's lips. "I'm down with the hoping. It's just wishing I avoid. It's complicated."
"You're a strange boy."
"You don't know the half of it."
"Maybe you can ease into it. If you can't wish for yourself, maybe you can for someone else. What about your parents? What would you wish for them?"
Xander grows very still.
"Just try one," Vaughnie urges. "Be good for the soul."
"Oh god." It's suddenly hard to breathe. As gently as he can, he slides from beneath her, sits up. "Oh god."
"Xander, what? You're scaring me."
"You're a vengeance demon, aren't you?"
"Why else would you be trying so hard to make me wish something?"
"You're sounding crazy now. It's just talk, like we've been doing. What's this demon shit?"
"Vengeance demon. I make a wish, then it's Willow in leather and Spock with a beard and Cordy dies and everything is fucked. Don't pretend you don't know."
There are tears in Vaughnie's eyes, and he wonders if he's made one of his usual epic fuckups. She presses both her hands against his chest, skin on skin, as if trying to transmit calm or sanity. "Xander, please. Please. There's no such thing."
"There is. I know it sounds nuts, but I dated one once. Well, an ex-vengeance demon. She got demoted or something."
Vaughnie sucks in her breath in a sharp gasp. "Holy shit. You know Anyanka?"
"I told you, I went to the prom with her."
"Holy -- she's my idol."
Forget the wish. Things are already fucked.
She pulls on her kimono, sits cross-legged on the bed. "That was such a loss. It was -- like Elvis dying."
"She's not dead." Xander's not sure why he sounds so cranky.
"Well, no." But her tone says there's not much difference. "I always wanted to meet her."
"So you hooked up with me to grant me a wish?"
"If you'd take one."
He shakes his head. "It's too fucking Monkey's Paw. I'm not smart enough to negotiate something like that without falling through the loopholes. But thanks for the thought."
He falls back onto the bed. God, this hurts.
"It doesn't have to end in disaster," Vaughnie says. "I'll help with the wording." She touches his chest again. Such warm little hands.
He shakes his head. All he can think of is Anya's stories on prom night. Vengeance is like battery acid -- it doesn't care who it sprays. "Aren't you supposed to hate men?"
"Not at all. Anyanka had a specialty. I'm a generalist, mostly because no one can measure up to her. C'mon. Anything."
What? Different parents. A path. A Vaughnie who isn't here just to trick him.
A Buffy who loves him back.
He thinks about it.
"I'd have to wish something bad on someone, right? Isn't that how it works?"
"Not necessarily. You know that old saying: 'Living well is the best revenge.' My mentor's actually the one who coined that."
"How old are you? If you don't mind."
"327 in November." A baby next to Anya.
A Buffy who loves him back.
He thinks about how hollow that felt before, with the love spell. Now he's being offered a whole hollow life. Still, it tempts him. His chest hurts when he says, "No. Thanks, but I can't."
He waits for Vaughnie to disappear.
This is strange. She curls on the bed beside him, her silk robe against his skin. Why is she still here?
"I won't change my mind," he says.
He hates to admit how much he'll miss this. He thinks of the hazy, dreamlike sex. "I don't know how to ask this --"
"Did we ... have any actual sex?"
She sits up. "You were a client. That would be all kinds of inappropriate."
Sure. When you can handle AUs, what's a little magic weed mirage sex among friends?
The robe slips off her shoulders. "You were a client."
The next hours are better than the imaginary sex with Vaughnie -- which itself was better than any imaginary sex Xander ever had on his own. (He's had plenty.) Even without enchanted weed, time stretches and collapses on itself.
After, they lie together and talk the way they had been, but he feels her absence, that aimless girl who'd made him feel less alone. She's as much an illusion as the weed sex.
When Vaughnie asks what's wrong, he tells her.
"That aimless guy's an illusion too," she says. "You have a destiny. It just may take a while to find."
Much as she'd like to linger, Vaughnie says, she has an assignment in Oxnard. She could do a teleportation spell, but if Xander's headed that way....
Maybe his Vaughnie's a mirage, but she's more dependable company than the other hallucinations he's traveled with. He says yes.
As they leave her apartment for the first time in days, she tosses him a set of keys. "I won't need my car anymore. It's yours."
"No way I'm riding in that beater. Besides, I couldn't give you a wish."
What the game shows call a parting gift. "The registration --"
It's a waitress-persona car, nothing approaching luxurious, but a couple of levels above the Crapmobile. They switch off driving (none of his other slacker companions offered), knocking off early for the night at a decent hotel (vengeance demons have good expense accounts), where there's more mind-blowing sex.
The next day they both find reasons to prolong the drive -- she's got to have Cracker Barrel grits, he's jonesing for Taco Bell -- but they still wind up in Oxnard by 6 pm.
She directs him to a place called the Fabulous Ladies Nightclub. The dishwasher's about to get his wish.
They neck a while, till Vaughnie pulls back. "Duty calls."
"Don't --" Xander touches her face. "Don't wreck his life."
She feathers fingertips over his lips. "You're a sweet guy. Know that?"
"Well, Anya said I'm not horrible."
"Name-dropper." She smiles. "She does love you."
"Anya?" Did his voice just crack?
"Buffy. You can accept what she's offering, or trash it because you wanted something else. Your call." A kiss and she goes.
A screech of tires distracts him. When he looks back toward the club, nobody's there but a thirtysomething brunette with a classic J-Lo caboose.
She turns, waves.
And then he's driving back into Sunnydale. It looks small now, stuck in time.
The school still smells like fire -- charred timber, roasted snake.
He wonders what would be different if he'd given in and wished. (Could it be any more Bizarro World than Willow in a leather bustier?)
He drives down Revello. Buffy's not living there now. Past Willow's house. Same deal.
September's here, but he won't be roaming the halls with Will and Buffy.
Feels like an AU already.
There's a place in this world where he fits in, has a purpose. He just has to find it.
Xander mulls everything over his first couple of days back. Lot of mullage. Finally gets bored and heads for the Bronze, hoping it's not utterly depressing without Buffy and Will. But there's Buffy, looking so sad. Suddenly words are tumbling from him.
Because he's so glad to see her.
Because he's been practicing this lie (don't forget the new car explanation!).
Because it's the only way to keep from spilling his (Vaughnie-induced) epiphany.
"...and no power on this earth will make me tell you the rest of that story." He babbles on.
"No power on this earth!"
End Postcards from a Kerouac Summer by nwhepcat: email@example.com
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