DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com

In the Crosshairs
By Valyssia


I swear this night just can’t get any worse. I fell apart over nothing. So stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now we have vampires. Why do we have vampires? We didn’t need vampires. Not after—

I was such a flighty, fiddle-footed, fluttery, foolish, flitter-brained, stupid, stupid girl. Buffy called what happened a ‘false start.’ She’s being so nice it’s almost creepy. She isn’t that nice.

As if to validate my point, she kicks vamp number one square in the chest, ejecting him from the street in a staggering, pinwheeling, curb tripping show of vampiric disgrace. Mid-stagger and flap, his Stetson jettisons and goes pinwheeling too.

She isn’t mean either. She just usually isn’t this understanding. It’s really strange.

The vamp busts his butt on the sidewalk just down from me and I don’t even flinch. I normally flinch over stuff like this—what with me being a total wimp and them being all strong and fangy, not to mention bloodthirsty—but he’s a klutz. I was worried, but—uh…

Vamp number two tries to grab Buffy from behind. My heart leaps into my throat. Somehow I shout a warning around it, “Look out!”

She doesn’t need me. She turns on him with the graceful fluidity of a ballet dancer. Only ballet dancers who do that pretty, pirouettey thing usually don’t clobber people with their fists. He reels. She mocks, “Does Elvis know you raid his wardrobe?”

Huh? She saved the snide comment for the second one? Seriously? I mean, I guess his suit is pretty bad, but—

Not Elvis’, this guy’s. But there aren’t any rhinestones. It’s just a plain white leisure suit that actually reminds me more of the Miami Vice look than of Elvis. Not old Elvis. He had that scary, Chianti bottle physique, with the huge belt-buckle, muttonchops and enough bling to blind Liberace.

She must’ve meant young Elvis. But how would our stylistically challenged mystery guest raid young Elvis’ wardrobe without a time machine? It doesn’t make sense. Between young sexy Elvis and old spangley Elvis, he kind of aged, really badly, and then he died. Maybe if the vamp had darker hair the jibe might work for me, but he has—

Oh. Maybe Elvis is a vampire. The image of old Elvis with his hubcap belt buckle half covering his bloated blood belly is a little much. It makes me queasy.

I guess he could be. He could be hiding out almost anywhere as an Elvis impersonator and nobody would notice. It could even be a good thing. Maybe he hit the gym and got his, saggy vampy butt back into shape. At least the peanut butter and banana sandwiches wouldn’t be such a temptation. Maybe he’ll come out of the coffin someday and do a resurrection tour. That’d be nifty. All of his fans could pretend that they ‘forgot to remember to forget.’

While I’m staring blankly, mulling over Elvis’ possible afterlife, Buffy set Leisure Suit Larry on his keister long enough to dust the one who took fashion cues from Buck Owens. This is pretty bad, like she’s fighting the vampy Village People. All they need is a construction worker and a person of questionable Native American heritage in severely phony ceremonial dress.

I just wish I didn’t feel so useless. All I’m really good for is shouting warnings and encouragement and I haven’t even been doing that. Well, I’m holding her purse and shawl. I’m good for that. The squishy, fuzzy crocheted yarn draped over my hands presses against my belly with my purse. It hides the white-knuckled grip I have on my purse. You’d think I was nervous or something. Her purse is slung over my shoulder. I’m a glorified coat rack.

Moments later a grunt from her snags my attention, proving that I’m a little more lively than a coat rack and inspiring bushels of guilt. Not to mention buckets of fear. My heart flutters like a caged bird. She’s off-balance after taking a hit and the vamp’s right behind her. As he makes a grab for her, I do my job. “Buffy!”

I’m not even sure how he got there—how she got there—how she got distracted enough to get punched and nabbed. I scan the area for something to use as a cudgel. There’s nothing. Not a stick. Not a scrap. Nothing. Before he can chomp down, she fixes the issue with a kick. Her foot hits his face over her right shoulder. Wow. She’s really flexible. And she’s wearing pink lace panties.

This is just wrong! The briefest of glimpses and my cheeks flame up hot enough to stop traffic, if there actually was any traffic. Good thing there isn’t any traffic. I wouldn’t want any old anyone else getting a peep at—

I should’ve stuck with mulling. Mulling was much, much safer.

Buffy ‘uhs’ one last time and that weird hissy, vampy, self-combusty sound tells me that the fight’s over. I’m a little too busy hanging my head in shame to watch the fallout, though I’ve always thought it was really nifty. It’s one of those things that happens that makes no rational sense. The idea that piece of wood can act as a catalyst to make flesh—in all its soggy, soppy, saturated goodness—catch fire with such intensity as to spontaneously combust goes against the basic tenets of natural law. It was the first magic I ever saw—proof that things don’t always conform to the norm. I was fascinated. I’m still—

“Are you okay?” Buffy asks as she approaches the tree I’ve been keeping company.

’Kay, so…I’ve been hiding behind it, but what does she expect?

Apparently nothing. She sets about relieving me of her accessories without so much as a scornful word or even a funny look. She wants to know how I am. She’s concerned.

I muster what conviction I can and reply, “I’m fine.” Completely useless, but fine. Nervous as a cat in a dog run, but just fine and flipping dandy.

She takes my hand and apologies sheepishly, like my dad does sometimes when the office calls during family time. It’s really strange. I tell her, “It’s okay,” just like my mom does, and she tugs me into motion.

“We have time,” she says, glancing at her watch. “The restaurant doesn’t close till ten.”

I wasn’t worried about it, but she’s back in ‘nice’ mode, so—silly me—I want to ask. I’d like to understand why. I’d almost rather know why than have the ‘nice,’ but I also understand exactly how monumentally stupid it’d be. Last time I asked someone why they were being so nice to me, Xander put a frog in my sleeping bag. I shouldn’t have, but he was making me nervous. Figures, when I asked, he went the other way. It was awful.

Buffy’s been attentive, like actually, really interested in me. She comforted me. She fixed my makeup. She made me laugh. Looking a gift horse in the mouth would really be dumb. I don’t think she’d resort to assault by amphibian, but I do think she’d back off. I don’t want her to back off. Maybe I should just get over it. Enjoy it.

And if I was the sort of person who could leave well enough alone, that’d totally sound like a solution, but I’m not. I want to know why. That’s always been my problem. I need to know what makes things tick. Figuring this one out would be above average nifty. It might even be part of the formula to finding actual happiness. I like it when Buffy’s nice to me. I feel safe with her. It’d be perfect if she wasn’t so darned cute. If I didn’t get all fluttery. If only her being too nice didn’t turn me into a tragic ninny. But I guess that’s my problem. All of this is my problem. I should just let her be nice.

“What are we doing?” I ask, thinking that claiming some of the responsibility for our ‘doing’ might moderate the question. Really, I just want to get her talking. Maybe if she does, I’ll be able to figure it out without committing any gross acts of schlubbery. I really can’t leave well enough alone.

“We’re going to dinner,” she says, turning peevish, “Finally,” then flustered, “Is that alright? I’m starved. Are you hungry?” It’s cute.

“Yeah,” I reply, finding that I’m actually am hungry now too, like really hungry. I’m a little disappointed though. I was hoping for a more existential take on the question. She went literal.

She continues to go literal. “Mom says they have a great portabella mushroom burger. That’s what I’m going to have.”

Maybe after she’d done thinking with her tummy, I’ll ask again. For now… “That sounds good.”

I make a fist under the table, stretch my fingers and wiggle them. They hurt. Stupid vamps. Can’t I just have one night’s peace?

Will sits beside me, perpendicular to me, holding my other hand out of sight beneath the table on her lap. I want some space. Space I can’t have. There are too many people. The tables are too close together. We’re stuck in a corner. My back’s to a fence. It’s weird to feel so pinned down, stifled, hemmed in, claustrophobic…

I’m not claustrophobic. Not even a little. I never have been. I’m outside. I should be okay.

I’m not okay. Not even a little. The tall boarded fences around us seem to swim, wavering in and out, breathing as my eyes wander from one potted plant to the next, slipping over the people in between. I want to slip free just like they did from my gaze. I didn’t hold them. I wasn’t rude. Why should they hold me?

They don’t. She does. I’m held here by my desire to preserve her feelings. She makes me feel caged. That isn’t fair, but I can’t help how I feel.

Well, her and food. I’m starved. I wish they’d hurry up already.

My attention lands on the table, not her. The fruity salsa stuff she ordered as an appetizer is gone. It was good—more of a fruit salad than a salsa, with chunks of mango, papaya and even grated coconut. The dressing they used on it was citrusy and spicy. I wish there was more. Next to the empty, elongated, kidney-shaped dish/bowl thingy is a basket with a single overlooked chip, sitting in a scattering of crumbs on the red wax paper liner. I pick the chip up.

The pressure of the presence of the people around me closes in. It’s weird. People have never wigged me out before. I like people. They worry me now. Have they noticed how she looks at me? Do they understand?

That shouldn’t worry me. They shouldn’t worry me. I haven’t done anything wrong. Even if by some freakish fluke, I gave her everything she wants, I wouldn’t have done anything wrong. I need to get over it.

I slip my hand from hers to stand. Every eye turns to me as I do. I’m committed now. “I’ll be right back,” I say and take a bite of the chip, feigning nonchalance. The attention turns the chip to paste in my mouth. I swallow. It catches, drags, gags, rests like a knot in my throat.

Okay, so…I’m stupid. They worry me. What if one of them knows someone I know? Sunnydale’s a small town. What if that someone’s my mom? What will I say? I almost sit down. I won’t be the center of attention if I do. I drop the bitten chip back into the basket and try to pick up my Coke. My hand is so unsteady I pull it back and give up.

I stare at where my hand rests on the table. My heart runs like a startled rabbit in my chest. I just need to get out of here. I need a minute to breathe. A minute away from the press of bodies and roving eyes—the clatter of their silverware, the groan of their chairs, the incessant drone of their chatter. I’m overreacting. I know I am. I’m wigging out over nothing. I take a long, slow breath to steady myself. I’ll be fine. Our food should be on the table when I get back. It’ll be great. I’ll eat something and feel even better. I’ll be okay. I just need some time to regroup.

Willow watches as I wiggle around, weaving between, freeing myself from the wall, the press of neighboring chairs and planters, like playing a people-size game of Operation with me as the funny bone. A raw nerve, that’s a good role for me right now. If they’d allowed more room for people than plants, it might be different. I smile at Will in a way I hope is reassuring. The way I feel, I probably just grimaced. She returns my grimace. On her it looks coy. I reassure her, “I’ll only be a minute,” and turn to stride across the short expanse of patio.

She can’t be enjoying this any more than I am. Will isn’t a people person. At the best of times, new people—certain people—make her nervous. She’s really only comfortable with a few people. There are at least twenty strangers out here packed in like sardines. I have to pass half of them to reach the door. The breeze when I open it rustles my hair. As I pass through, air rushes out.

Inside, the restaurant’s dimly lit and chilly. The air conditioner must be set on ‘arctic.’ We should’ve sat in here, even if the place is reminiscent of an antique ice chest. It’d feel more open if the walls were painted something lighter. They’re sort of a dusky olive. It chokes off the space, which isn’t that big to begin with. All the wooden thises and thats and cluttered knickknackery are a little too much. Too little. Not enough other textures besides wood and dusky velvet drapes. It’s supposed to feel intimate, but I don’t like it.

Y’know what? Whatever. I’m not their interior decorator. What does it matter what color the walls are?

The four or five people who were smart enough to stay inside and suffer the frigid temperatures and crappy ambience have all had a good look at me. I’ve smiled reflexively. It’s time to move on. There’s a restroom around here somewhere hidden among the junk shop décor. With any luck it’ll be single occupancy. As small as this place is, it might be. It might be the size of an airplane restroom. At least if it is, I’ll be able to lock the door and be alone.

I know it isn’t in the foyer, so there’s only one place it could be hiding. I make my way across the room, turn down the short hallway that leads to the kitchen and don’t quite run into the waitress who steps backward through its swinging doors. I duck out of the hallway and wait for her to pass. She isn’t our waitress, but I look anyway. The plates are full of rice and pasta dishes. They look and smell wonderful. My mouth waters. I have time. That much is good. The starving part—not so much.

After all of the weirdness and the near collision, locating the restroom isn’t hard. It’s the only place it could be. Both doors are on the wall opposite the kitchen. When I step inside the second, the one marked with the appropriate signage, I find I’m not alone.

Of course not. That’d be too easy. There’s a woman—pretty in that ‘Mary Ann’ kind of way, maybe a little older than me, but not much—powdering her nose at the washstand between the wall and the first stall. Our eyes meet in the mirror and she gives me a closed lipped smile. I don’t recognize her. We’ll call that good, considering. Maybe count a blessing or two.

I grin too, or try. I can see myself this time. I don’t look happy. My smile looks forced. I look like I could kill someone. Her expression picks up a little angst. She finishes up and clears out with smooth efficiency. With two stalls, there’s barely enough floor space for me to step aside and let her pass. I think the closeness is what’s setting me off. Part of it, at least. Violating my personal space is a matter of necessity here. There isn’t enough room for anyone not to. Add to that getting jumped by a pair of vamps just before we got here, and waiting half an hour for a table, my patience is positively anorexic—famished like me.

I go to the mirror, turn on the water and cup my hand beneath the stream. It’s been a great night. The bathroom’s cold, like a meat locker, colder than the rest of the restaurant. The water I bring to my face is bracing. I run my hand around behind my neck. My skin’s hot there in spite of the chill. Hot enough it warms my hand. I repeat the process until it’s cool. Tension eases with each frigid touch. Water drips from my chin into the sink. I look into my eyes. I still look miserable.

My dress is pretty. At least there’s that. Simple, white, floral print cotton. Simple v-neck cut. Simple flowy skirt. Changing wasn’t simple or pretty. I felt like I was on stage. Why do things have to be so hard?

I really need to get over this. Get a grip. Get over myself. It’s just stupid. No one out there cares about us. They’ve barely noticed us. And Will, for her part, has been a total sweetheart, diffident and kind, except for the part where she wasn’t. But so what if she got upset? I was upset too. This is upsetting. It’s supposed to be. But if we keep this up, we’re going to tear each other apart. Or more like, we’ll tear the two of us apart. We’ll end up apart. I really don’t want that. I want to figure out how to fix it. Maybe outlast it? Whatever it takes. I just don’t want to let her go. She means too much to me.

I pull a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and blot my face. My makeup suffered a little from the bath. And of course, I forgot my purse.

It’ll be fine. I look okay. Nothing’s smeared. My cheeks are flushed more than they were, but that’s probably because of the water. My skin’s still cold to the touch. I tense to stop the shivers. It’s time to go. I poke the waded paper towels through the springy, swinging stainless trap door next to the sink marked ‘trash’ and turn to leave. The air that hits me as I exit the bathroom is warmer and filled with good and yummy smells. I feel better. My thoughts are clearer. Nothing about me races. And nothing’s actually changed. Weird.

I return to our table, but instead of sitting in the same seat, I pick the one across from Willow. She gives me a funny look, almost hurt. “I want to be able to see your face,” I explain.

“Oh, okay,” she says, still looking a little hurt.

I give her a sympathetic smile, but my heart isn’t in it. Being able to see her is good. Not seeing anyone else is better. Not having my back planted against a wall is best by far. I move my Coke around in front of me and take a sip. Our food still hasn’t come. “I wish they’d hurry up,” I mumble. “I’m hungry.” I haven’t eaten since noon. That’s part of my grumpiness too. My tummy’s starting to hurt.

“I am too,” she admits in an even softer voice than mine. She smiles sheepishly. Complaining about stuff like this isn’t Willow’s style. She’s usually more patient than I am. More understanding.

I smile again. This time, fueled by the surprise, I actually manage. It feels warm and genuine. I really do love her. She makes me happy…when she isn’t making me crazy. Sardonic humor meet wry grin. One follows the other. My smile transforms.

Will takes a sip of her Sprite and looks up to meet my eyes over the rim of her glass. She smiles too. Only with her there’s a difference. Nothing about her is jaded or derisive. She positively beams at me. The intensity in her eyes lays her bare. I should be the bare one—what with the intensity—but she isn’t scrutinizing me. She doesn’t need to. She’s already decided. There’s warmth, affection, longing—not raw, just a sliver of desire—all plain to see. She really cares for me. She wants me.

I should be ashamed of myself.

That last part should freak me out. It doesn’t. The heat in her eyes isn’t lusty. It’s simpler than that. I could lean across the table right now and kiss her and I’d make all of her dreams come true. That’s all she wants. She wants to touch me—to share the affection she feels.

I don’t—kiss her, that is. No affection sharing for me. I don’t even move. Just knowing is enough. She really does love me.

She caught my gaze. Now she won’t let go. I know how I must look. I know what I was thinking—what I’m still sort of thinking. What I shouldn’t be thinking. She’s just so beautiful. She has such pretty, smoochable lips. She hasn’t looked away. She doesn’t look disgusted. I sit frozen under her curious gaze. She lifts an eyebrow. My breath catches. She’s teasing me. Heat rushes into my cheeks. I turn away.

And our stupid waitress is right there. Great timing. Thanks for that. Sharing my embarrassment with complete strangers is always such a treat. At least she gets Buffy’s attention. She’s way more interested in food than in little ol’ me. She tells the waitress that ‘everything’s alright’ and that it ‘looks good’ while I do my best to sink between the cracks in the paving stone floor.

I s’pose the food does look good. It’s not exactly what I wanted, but that’s my fault. I didn’t really look. It was easier to follow Buffy’s lead than to make up my own mind. A veggie burger’s fine. Following her example again, I remove the top bun and take off the onion. There’s too much of it. Big thick, icky rings of the stuff with shiny purple skin. It’s pretty. It’s also pretty gross. Too pungent. I remove the pickles too and replace the bun without drowning it in ketchup. That’s Buffy’s thing.

She passes me the bottle as I unfold my napkin and place it in my lap. I take the ketchup and put a dollop on my plate for the fries that aren’t fries. The not-fries are French fried veggies, every kind of tuber imaginable except for potato. They look almost as pretty as the onion, which probably means I should keep the ketchup close. The first one I pick up is tawny with funny grayish freckles. I think it’s rutabaga. I’m going to need lots and lots of ketchup. I take a bite. It has a sharp, unusual flavor that’s just not very good. I force myself to swallow. Buffy gives me a curious look. I must’ve been making a yucky face. I say, “Yellow turnip,” hoping that’ll explain.

She lifts an eyebrow. There are at least two bites missing from her burger already. She’s going to be finished before I get started. Then she’ll sit and watch me eat. It’ll be awkward. I pick my burger up, using both hands to support its hugeness, and take a bite, hoping to head that off.

We settle into eating, quietly completely occupied. Not that we’ve been overly chatty since we got here. Not that we’ve been chatty at all. Buffy’s been too distant and moody for me to think chatting was a good idea. I wonder about that as I avoid the freckled tubers. The rest of the food’s good. I like the sweet potatoes. They’re better without ketchup.

As predicted, she finishes first. She finishes so fast I wonder if she’ll burp, maybe pat her belly, pound her chest to make a burp come, or just ask for another burger. She disappoints me on all counts. Our waitress passes by with refills. Buffy responds to her with another polite, “Thank you.” Otherwise, she’s silent. She spends her time watching all sorts of things, none of them me. I can’t tell exactly what she’s looking at other than when she spends a good minute examining at her sandal. I almost ask her if she’s alright then, but she cuts me off, hissing, “Stupid,” under her breath.

“What ‘stupid’?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she mutters dismissively.

It isn’t ‘nothing.’ I know that tone. She’s mad at herself. I don’t press her. My courage isn’t as strong as my curiosity. I keep to myself, eating my burger and nibbling my fries, trying to identify each type of tuber. I’m a pretty boring girl. The orangey ones are still the best. The only good news is that the place is clearing out. There are only a couple of couples left when I finally finish almost ten minutes after her.

Our waitress, seeing that I’m done, comes over to take my plate and ask, “Can I offer you two some desert?” By question’s end, she has a bright, ‘charming’ smile plastered on her face. It doesn’t quite reach her eyes. Poor girl looks beat.

“Yeah, sure,” Buffy answers, turning her attention to me. “Will, you want something?” She’s wearing a similar smile, false, but friendly enough.

I give her a one shouldered shrug that’s as much a head tilt and they begin to negotiate for goodies. The list is pretty extensive. The poor waitress—who seems bored by the task, having most likely done it a hundred times tonight—makes it as far as cheesecake before I’ve heard enough. If it were up to me, I’d stop her, but Buffy still looks interested.

Watching her makes me feel contented. I know how I must look. I shouldn’t. I should be good with a stranger standing so close. I just can’t help it. She makes me feel all warm and gooey inside—melty in the middle like a grilled cheese—umm…only not icky, sticky and yellow.

That was kind of gross. No more similes for me. I’m swearing off. My yucky face returns in full force, wrinkly nose and all. The moment’s passed.

Buffy doesn’t even look at me. Good thing too. It gives me time to school my face. When the waitress falls silent, she says, “I’ll have the strawberry pie with ice cream on the side and a cup of coffee.”

The waitress looks to me and I ask for, “Plain cheesecake and a cup of coffee,” adding a, “please,” for politeness sake. I shouldn’t have the coffee. It’s too late. I’ll be up all night, running laps. But it sounds so good.

After the waitress leave us, Buffy falls back into her pattern of silently scanning the fence as if she’s looking for a gap she might slip through. That’s pretty much how this has gone. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. She seems malcontent to the bone.

It isn’t long before the waitress returns to break her funk with caffeine and sugar. At least there’s that. I just wish there was something I could do. I pour creamer into my coffee, gauging the color with a swish of a spoon, add a scant spoonful of sugar and stir. It’s easy to see how this is going to go, again. Buffy’s already attacking her pie. She stops when I set the cream pitcher down to doctor her own coffee. I take the barest little bite from the point of my cheesecake, just a taste. It’s creamy, rich and wonderful. I suck on my fork where the cheesecake worked its way between the tines. This much is good. My fork is cleanish when I pull it from my mouth. I hold it poised over my cheesecake.

This is going to seem—well, I’m not sure how it’ll seem. I—

“How are dates supposed to go?” I ask, throwing caution to the wind. I have to do something. Say something. “I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t— I don’t— I’m not—” I sigh. My fork drops. The tines spear my poor cheesecake all crooked. I pull them out. “I don’t have much experience,” I admit.

Buffy gives me a cockeyed grin, looking amused as she scrapes ice cream up with the edge of her fork and stabs a berry. She slides the fork into her mouth. I watch a little closer than I should. My spirit sinks when she raises that same, mean eyebrow. She thinks I’m amusing.

“Okay, I don’t have any experience,” I admit, giving in to the truth. It isn’t like I have lots of choice with her looking at me like that. “Killer demon robots and you. That’s it. And Moloch doesn’t so much count—what with the demon and the robot part.” I slab off the marred part of my cheesecake, nice and straight, and play with sectioning the weirdly speared part into bite-sized bits. I can’t look at her. It serves. I’m busy, or I seem it. “I don’t know what to expect—how it should be.”

The next part’s hard. I take a bite of my cheesecake to stall, savoring it like I did the last and washing it down with a sip of coffee. It’s heavenly…and distracting. It makes me want to give up, give in to the yummy goodness, not speak my mind. Speaking my mind never goes well for me. I always end up in trouble. I make people mad, or I make them laugh at me.

Strawberry pie has Buffy’s interest now. She’s forgotten me. I suppose that’s fair. When I sigh, she looks up, interested.

I meet her eyes, steeling myself to ask, “Is this how things should be, because—well, umm…?” Her brow crinkles. I soldier on. “I’m not saying this hasn’t been nice. It really has. It’s just—”

“It’s what?” she interjects when I stall.

“It’s been a little weird,” I reply. “I mean, I get it. I understand why. I’m not upset at you. I know you’ve tried. You’ve been really nice.” Too nice. Weirdly nice. “Is the weirdness usual?” When I make it to the end without upsetting her, I almost breathe a sigh of relief. 

“Sometimes,” she says, looking thoughtful. Her fork upside-down in her hand with the tines curved down, she causally toys with her food.

 “Well, what do you do? How do you undo the weirdness?” I ask as she stabs the poor berry she was playing with.

She holds it up over her plate. Sugary, syrupy sauce mixed with ice cream, pink and red, drip from it. I watch that instead of her as she answers, “Like this usually. Well, not exactly like this, but talking is good. It helps with the comfort. Not all the time, but most times. Getting to know—y’know?” She pops the berry into her mouth and I nod.

Silence follows. Too much silence. And lots of irony. I puzzle over what else I could say as I enjoy my cheesecake. There has to be something. I’m just not sure what. I should ask her something else. Get her talking. She’s comfier when she’s talking.

“I hope you find someone. You deserve someone who’ll be good to you.” Her statements hit me like a slap out of nowhere, bring tears to my eyes just that fast. I choke them down. Wipe them away. What she’s telling me is ‘no’ in a roundabout way—all while doing another berry the same way so does me—toying with it. How nice for her that she can do both—that she doesn’t even have to look up to cut me to the quick. That she can do that in such pretty, melodious, sympathetic sounding tones just seems wrong.

I’d prefer that she didn’t—look at me, that is. She might at any moment. I don’t want her see me like this.

I look away just in time to see Our Lady of the Worst Timing Ever approaching the table again. She looks at me and my face flashes hot. I turn back to find Buffy smiling at me, just one corner of her mouth twisted wryly. As I wonder how she can manage—how this could possibly get any worse—she says under her breath, “Xander’s a fool.”

End of Part Nine: In the Crosshairs

Continued in Part Ten: Cross Examine

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