Career Advancement


by
Two Ladies of Quality



9

The vampires were quiet in all the cemeteries they checked, but they did find a couple of fledges just crawling out of their graves in Shady Rest so the night wasn't a complete waste. Xander joined Buffy on a marble bench in front of a mausoleum.

"It's quiet," Xander said solemnly. "Too quiet."

"Jinx," Buffy muttered. "I hate it that the bad guys have somebody smart in charge. Somebody . . ."

He leaned against her. "Somebody who knows how you work."

"Yeah." She let her weight rest against him and dropped her head onto his shoulder. She said something softly, and Xander listened harder. "Dawn's OK, Mom's OK, nobody's dead . . . again . . ." He quietly put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her.

He let himself dream it, for a second, that this was more than Buffy taking a moment's comfort from a friend, that he wasn't still bleeding internally from Anya being alive and well, but out of reach. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned down to kiss the top of her head. He felt her smile, then she turned her head to look at him. She studied him for a few moments, then leaned up to kiss his cheek. With a sigh, she pulled back to sit up straight.

"A Slayer's work is never done," she said.

"Nope," he replied.

She patted his knee, then stood up. "I'm going to take a stroll through campus on my way home. You OK for getting home?"

He kept telling himself that it wasn't as emasculating as it sounded, this tiny blonde girl asking a guy a foot taller than her if he needed help getting home. And really, it was a fair question. "I'm good."

She gave him a real Buffy smile, all that bright attention focused on him. "It is very important to me that you don't get munched, Xander."

He managed a 99% sincere laugh. "I've got a vested interest in that myself."

She nodded firmly. "Good. Call me tomorrow."

"Yes, ma'am."

He watched her till she was out of sight, then reached up to rub the mostly-healed wound in his throat.

When he was little and they were visiting his mother's mom, Grandma had found him sitting way in the far corner of the backyard after dark, underneath a bush and staring out at the fireflies. She hadn't grabbed his arm and yanked him out, just peered in at him and asked if he needed anything. He'd shaken his head and said nothing. She'd smiled and said, "You're a fey little thing, aren't you. Don't stay out too long, there's pie waiting."

Later, over pie, he'd asked what "fey" meant. Grandma had ruffled his hair and said it meant like the fairyfolk in the stories, who hid in the woods and the bushes and did magic. Unfortunately, his father overheard, and the word fairy had only one definition in his very abridged personal dictionary. They hadn't visited Grandma very much after that.

It was the same mood that was on him now. The night was dark and quiet around him, with the occasional bird noise in the trees. He wanted to find a little spot to tuck himself into where he could stare out into the night and see what happened.

Another part, that he acknowledged as little as he could, wanted to run, to sniff the air, to make noises that scared the little things hiding in the bushes.

He tucked his head and smiled to himself, there in the dark. He was supposed to be afraid, he knew. The scar on his throat underlined the personal dangers of the night. When he looked into himself to where the fear should be, all he found was excitement. When he'd first followed Buffy into the darkness to fight the monsters who terrorized his school, there'd been a sensible amount of dread. All gone now.

The responsible guy who got up in the morning to go to work looked carefully for any signs of that suicidalness that had sent him out looking for fangs and claws, but that wasn't there. He very much did not want to run into anything that was likely to kill him. And he very much did not want to go home. There was a paycheck in his bank account and a Friday night all around him. He'd hoped to have some company while he was fiscally frivolous, but prowling around to find what he could on his own had its appeal.

He took his time getting up and heading back to his car, keeping a casual eye on his surroundings and not being too worried about what might be seeing him. When he got to the car, he got out a mini-flashlight and checked the backseat before opening the door, then he bent over just to make sure there wasn't anything underneath. Finding nothing, he got in and drove off.

The very idea of going to the Bronze by himself was creepy. He remembered feeling sorry for the post-graduation people who were hanging around the place when he'd been in high school, and he doubted opinions had changed. Willow and Buffy still went there occasionally, but cute girls were welcome in lots of places that Zeppos were not. Similarly, the Espresso Pump also leaned towards the gown side of the town-and-gown equation--with added negative points for Giles-with-guitar sightings. The Fish Tank was supposed to have an excellent country music selection on the jukebox, but Xander had lost all taste for beer bottles flying through the air a long time ago.

Dear lord, for bars he was willing to set foot into, that left Willy's and the Wheel, that weird place out by the freeway that had theme nights. He'd only gone into that one when he was delivering pizzas, and he tried not to think of the stuff he'd seen out of the corner of his eye while handing over the stack of extra-large cheese onlys. Anya had tried to get him out there for Sub Night, and he'd been willing, until she said it had nothing to do with sandwiches.

The Sun Cinema was showing some lame chick flick. Couples waited in line, the guys looking bored, yet hopeful of getting laid later. The rest of Main Street was depressingly convivial--people on dates, people in laughing groups, people having fun. At the 7-Eleven at the intersection of Main and Miwok, he turned left, towards the train station and the river. The real bad side of town.

On this side of town were the warehouses and factories and canneries that had been built decades ago, when Sunnydale was a bustling commercial center in its own right. Some of the places nearest the river and the trainyard were still in business, trading in produce from the farms and vineyards farther out in the valleys. Back in 5th Grade Social Studies, Mrs. Keener had talked about small growers who wanted to stay independent of the big conglomerates and about the politics of the dock workers and union busters and unexplained fires in warehouses. To most everyone in Sunnydale, this side of town was just something to be talking about in terms of urban renewal and opportunities for development. What they didn't realize was that this stretch of blight and decay was also the gateway to the demon side of town.

At first sight, the neighborhood just looked like any rundown, low-rent district. Xander wondered if it had been built with the monsters in mind--the late, unlamented Mayor had been in charge for a long time--or if they'd moved in as the humans left. A couple of low-rise buildings looked like apartment houses, which made sense, because the thingies had to live somewhere.

Hell, there was a even a new QuickiMart on the corner down from Willie's.

Not as many pedestrians on the street as in the human part of town. Most of them looked human, but a few showed extra appendages or a bit of extra squishiness on the edges. Xander paused at a Stop sign for a pedestrian who had multi-jointed, spindly legs peeking out from under a long coat.

He actually felt calmer in this part of town. Maybe he wasn't fit company for normal humans anymore--or they weren't fit company for him. He knew most of the rules here--if it tries to eat you, it's not your friend, and many things will try to eat you. He thought he knew the rules for normal humans, but those had stopped working for him a long time ago.

There was an open business section a couple of blocks in, just beyond Willie's bar. Xander thought a moment, then pulled into the small corner parking lot. A wizened blue thing sitting on an overturned milk crate at the entrance handed him a ticket stub without showing much interest in why a human was in his neck of the woods. Unless he didn't think Xander was human. Or didn't care. Xander parked, locked up the car, and went for a stroll.

Window shopping was different in the demon part of town. What looked like a pet store with a lot of kittens behind the barred window turned out to be a pawn shop of some sort, with the proprietor accepting merchandise in exchange for kitties. Unless it was a restaurant of some sort. Xander moved on quickly.

The hardware store's window looked normal and tempting, but he was too restless to go contemplate tools. A fairly spiffy tweed jacket in the men's clothing store next door attracted his eye, despite the Gilesian overtones, until he actually counted the number of sleeves.

He was just pausing to look over the display in the bookstore when someone leaving the store ran into him. He reached out to steady whomever it was and blinked at seeing Jonathan from high school. Jonathan stared at him in horror.

"Y--you!"

Xander blinked. "Me. Fancy meeting you in this part of town." He noticed several books in Jonathan's arms and tilted his head to see the titles.

Jonathan clutched the books to his chest and sidled away. "Love to stay and chat, must go, bye." Once he was out of arms reach, he ran.

"Yeah," Xander muttered, "you're not up to something." He watched Jonathan run down the street towards a van parked facing away. The side door slid back, and Jonathan stumbled into the vehicle. Xander started strolling in that direction, and he smiled slightly as the engine started and the van lurched, then peeled rubber as it left. "Yeah, perfectly innocent Friday night shopping at the demon bookstore."

He hadn't seen the license plate, and anyway, looking up such things would involve trying to get Willow to talk to him, and that wasn't happening very often anymore.

He shook his head, dismissing thoughts that led to dark, appealing spirals. He was out here looking for distraction from the unpleasantnesses creeping through his life.

Neon across the street caught his eye, and he focused on the sign in the shop window. Oh. That was a thought. Not the smartest of thoughts, what with potential pain and blood and whatnot, but a thought. Besides, he wondered what the demon version would look like.

He carefully looked both ways, then crossed the street to the store with the sign that said Tattoo.




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