by M. Scott Eiland

Buffy slipped into the backyard. It was two in the morning, and the silence was near-total. Robin had been right--people were leaving town in droves, and the neighborhood around Slayer Central had become particularly deserted. Buffy remembered the extreme awareness she had experienced of everyday sounds in the moments after her mother had died, and found herself longing for that hellish experience--at least then she would not be alone with her thoughts, her guilt. She sat down on the back porch: unlike the last time she had sat there alone after a shattering moment, the solace of bitter tears escaped her. She felt numb and helpless--and completely bereft of any idea of how to continue.


Buffy flinched: she had not heard Faith approach. Great, Buffy--sit here totally oblivious to the rest of the world. Anyone could come up and kill you where you sit, without breaking a sweat She chuckled bitterly. Not much chance of Caleb being the one: he loves the sound of his own voice too much not to let me know he was coming She forced herself to look up at Faith and smile; at this moment, she was unambivalently glad that the younger Slayer was there. "Hey, Faith. How are the girls?"

"Scared to death--and more than a little pissed off." Faith sat down next to Buffy and reached into her pocket to pull out a cigarette, only to frown and put it away. She turned to Buffy and commented, "It wasn't for nothing, Buffy. Caleb is a badass, but he isn't unbeatable. You took his best shot and got up. Spike managed to slow him down some and Xander--" Buffy flinched violently, and Faith took a deep breath and whispered: "Xander isn't dead."

"No, just maimed." Buffy blinked, and the tears came as she muttered, "All of those times he took stupid risks, did things that should have gotten him killed on the spot--and what finally causes him to lose something permanently? Me. I ordered him to follow this plan, and God help him, he listened to me." She waved her hand at the house behind her and snapped, "The girls here: they had bulls-eyes painted on their backs ever since the First decided to call Final Showdown--at least by fighting they're giving themselves a chance to survive. Xander has been making a life for himself, Faith: he's got a career that he's got a right to be proud of, and he's done it while being at my side every damned time I've needed him. You heard him tonight: he believed in me completely--was willing to follow me straight into Hell. I sure rewarded that trust, didn't I?"

Buffy bowed her head, and was startled to hear soft laughter coming from her right. She turned to see that Faith was laughing, and fixed a glare on her that would have withered the Master himself to ashes. Faith sensed the hostility and turned to Buffy, who was startled to see Faith's eyes shining with tears. The dark-haired Slayer shook her head and commented, "I'm sorry, B, but it's just damned funny that you're pouring out your heart about mistreating Xander--to me. In case you've forgotten, I've got a bit of bad karma going in that area of my life, too. Remember how I met Angel for the first time?" Buffy nodded: stopping a lethal stake thrust aimed at the heart of one's love tends to remain indelible in memory. Faith nodded in response and continued, "You know that Xander told me that Angel was back: did you know he tried to stop me from going after Angel after we found Giles out for the count?"

Buffy frowned. "No, he didn't mention that. He was too busy telling me how he had told you the truth, and that you had come to your own conclusions." Even after four years and many layers of friendship, that betrayal still stung.

"I did: meaning I ignored Xander saying `I don't think Angel did this.'" Faith shook her head in disgust and looked into the darkness. "Remember how he stepped between us when Gwendolyn the Bitch had us at each other's throats? He stepped between two Slayers who could have snapped him like a twig without even meaning to, and tried to keep us from hurting each other. I tossed him against a wall for his troubles--so much for the rewards of loyalty, huh?"

Buffy sighed, and smiled in wonder as another piece of her past suddenly slipped into place. She turned to Faith and commented archly, "Well, given what happened the night we kept the Hellmouth from opening, I'd say that he didn't hold a grudge." Faith went rigid, and Buffy reached out and squeezed her arm, whispering, "Faith, I know you feel badly about what happened later on with him--"

"Did Angel tell you what happened when he captured me, B?" Faith's voice snapped through the darkness like a whip, causing Buffy to draw back. Faith turned and met Buffy's eyes, and the haunted look in the younger Slayer's eyes caused Buffy to shiver uncontrollably as Faith whispered, "Did he tell you what I was doing to Xander before he hit me with that bat?"

Buffy felt a chill. "Angel told me you were strangling him."

Faith laughed bitterly. "Yep. Sure was. Angel apparently failed to mention that I was grinding my crotch into Xander's chest, taunting him about the meaninglessness of the time we had together and of the power I had over his life. If Angel hadn't come in, those would have been the last words Xander ever heard, B."

"Faith, I really don't need to hear this." Buffy squirmed, feeling her own guilt over the irritation she had felt at Xander's apparently clueless mutterings about his connection with Faith.

"I think you do, B." Faith kept her eyes locked with Buffy's, and visibly composed herself before continuing: "He came there to save me, Buffy. I all but spat in his face when he showed up at my door, and it didn't make him miss a beat. He told me that he knew I had been lying, and that he'd be in my corner no matter what. All I heard was that he'd believed you over me. I had no conception of someone who could know what I had done, and still be willing to stick up for me--and not want a damned thing for it. I gave him bruises on his throat and the memory of someone he had tried to save trying to kill him as a reward: that's enough to make anyone give up on the human race, isn't it?" She shook her head and concluded: "It didn't make him give up."

Buffy stared at Faith, then remembered something she had noticed earlier that night--along with some older memories: "You never spoke to him again--even tonight while we were getting ready, when we were walking to the stronghold."

"I couldn't face him, Buffy. You, Red, even Giles. . .I could deal with whatever you had to say to me, or even take a beating if it's what you thought I had coming. Xander wouldn't give me that beating, even if he wanted to, and I knew it. I was going to wait for him to be ready to talk to me, then do my best to make it up to him." Faith looked away and whispered, "Looks like I might have waited too long."

"Don't count him out yet, Faith." Willow slipped out of the shadows and walked over to sit on the other side of Buffy before continuing, "He's awake, and the doctors say he's recovered pretty well from the shock. The first thing he did when we were alone was to ask about everyone else--he mentioned you by name, Faith." Willow smiled softly at the visible relief on the faces of the Slayers, and added, "Xander's pretty good with the forgiveness thing, Faith. I told you while we were driving back that I had my own trip to the Dark Side last year--I didn't mention who stopped me from turning the Earth into a big old ash heap because I thought it was best for everyone involved."

Faith smiled, and replied without surprise in her tone: "Xander."

Willow nodded, and told the story. Buffy had heard it before, but listened as intently as Faith. When Willow finished, Faith raised an eyebrow, and her tone was very much like the Faith the others had known four years before as she asked, "Xander saved the world by reminding you about a yellow crayon?"

Willow shrugged and commented, "You had to be there." She shook her head and added, "Faith, I knew a hundred spells that could have reduced him to dust with less effort than it's taking to say this right now. What's more, he knew it. By the time he reached me, he was torn and bleeding from the shots I had given him. I could see it on his face. . .he never had a moment's doubt that I wouldn't kill him, because he knew that I knew he loved me, unconditionally and absolutely. He got through to me when I was absolutely convinced that I was right to want to destroy the world--by showing me that no matter how bad things get, there are things worth living and fighting for."

Faith nodded and turned to Buffy as she commented, "He had a good teacher."

Buffy shook her head emphatically and replied, "Xander was that way from the moment I met him--none of us would be here now if he wasn't." A low chuckle came from the darkness, followed by the sound of a match striking. Buffy raised an eyebrow and asked, "You have something to add, Spike?"

"Who, me?" The vampire slipped out of the darkness and leaned against a nearby tree, then took a deep drag from the cigarette before adding, "Far be it from me to interrupt the lovefest for Droopy Boy--you probably think I don't have the right to comment on his saintly self." Spike saw dangerous glints in all three pairs of eyes focused on him, and paused for a moment before continuing: "Boy's a bloody pain in the ass--almost never had a kind word to say about me, and I wouldn't have been doing my job if he had." He took another drag from the cigarette, and concluded, "Which is why it irritates me to no end to say that I've never seen someone with less quit in him than Xander Harris--and if you ever tell him I said so I'll call you a filthy liar."

The three women stared, and Spike snorted in amusement: "You never bothered to ask Peaches about some of the things that went down, did you? First time I saw Droopy Boy, your ex was using him as bait--trying to sell me on the idea that he was still The Terror Of Europe instead of a big poof. Insulted my intelligence, he did. Harris was scared out of his mind, but he stood his ground until I called on my boys to charge and Nancy Boy sounded the retreat. Didn't give it much thought at the time, but after Angelus came back, I started hearing a certain name pop up on a regular basis. Dru came back one night talking about how some boy had stood up to her Angel and how she had lost her head thinking he was her true love. . .pissed me off, but having The Big Bad breaking up the furniture that night made it worthwhile. Then there was the time you were in the hospital, and the lord of the manor decided it was time to turn you--Harris stood him down with nothing but guts: more broken furniture that night."

Buffy blinked, remembering waking up to see Xander watching her with open relief after her fever had lessened. Spike nodded, then continued, "Of course, I had my own run-ins with him. When I snatched the witch to brew up that love spell, he charged me: twice. Had to whack him pretty hard with lab equipment to stop him. You were there the second time he pulled the same stunt, Buffy. I was as invulnerable as Glory with that ring on, and he never hesitated an instant--I'd bet that brick wall smarted something fierce." The others winced, and Spike concluded, "He also managed to get up afterwards--not many men I've done that to did."

"Yeah, the staying down part was something he never really got that hang of. Remember when Olaf showed up a couple of years ago? He had Anya and me dead to rights, and Xander comes charging in and attacks. It was like watching a Whack-A-Mole game. . .except with broken bones and blood." Willow shuddered and added, "Olaf couldn't believe that Xander was standing up to him: I guess nine foot trolls don't get many opponents who want to stand and fight."

"Yes, I was rather impressed with that story--I regretted not being there to see it. Of course, that regret was rather secondary to my regret about leaving you and Anya in charge of the Magic Box to begin with." Giles walked out of the darkness and smiled at Willow's visible embarrassment before shaking his head and commenting, "His ability to walk away from such confrontations has caused me no end of wonder over the years; of course, anyone willing to propose marriage to a former vengeance demon obviously has more than a little steel in their nature." He looked at Buffy, and his eyes were haunted as he whispered, "I'm so sorry, Buffy. I should have been on the front lines instead of Xander--if I hadn't lost your trust--"

Buffy shook her head emphatically. "No, Giles. If we had never had the whole `let's make Robin's revenge fantasy come true' blowup, I'd have wanted you exactly where you were." Giles looked relieved--then a bit downcast--and Buffy chuckled involuntarily and elaborated, "And no, it isn't because I think you're getting old. . .I needed someone to help Willow protect the potentials, and I knew that if I told you to stay back and do that job, you would. Xander, on the other hand--"

"He would have followed you and showed up for the fight anyway. Xander never was very good at following instructions involving staying out of fights." Willow smiled, then looked over at Buffy and added, "Remember how we tried to protect him when the Apocalypse demons showed up? That really didn't work the way we planned it."

"What, just because he ran into a bunch of zombies who were going to blow us sky-high and took them out without telling us? Hey, life in Sunnydale is risky." Buffy's tone was rueful, but the smile playing across her face was amused.

The smile on Faith's face was a bit more mischievous as she added, "Not to mention saving my ass, fixing my shoulder, and--"

"Don't go there." Willow's tone was weary.

"Yes, let's not." Giles' tone was emphatic.

"You don't say. What else happened?" Spike's tone was amused.

Faith's grin spoke volumes, and Spike snickered at the irritated expressions on the faces of Buffy, Giles, and Willow before lighting another cigarette.

The back door opened, and Kennedy emerged, looking pale and drawn. She walked up to Buffy and forced herself to meet the Slayer's eyes as she whispered, "I'm so sorry, Buffy. If I hadn't let that freak grab me, Xander wouldn't have--"

"Kennedy, if it hadn't been you it would have been one of the other girls. Caleb was trying to demoralize us--he could have just as easily snapped Xander's neck as do what he did. Xander was just unlucky this time--he ran into someone who was smart enough to know what he means to us, and who came up with a particularly nasty way to hurt him." Buffy looked down at the ground and added, "We're going to have to fight without him until he recovers. . .I just hope we last that long."

"I leave you guys alone for one night, and you get all doom and gloom on me. I'm just going to have to make sure not to let it happen again."

Everyone turned to the gate as the familiar voice echoed through the yard, and saw Xander walk in slowly with Anya hovering with visible discomfort at his side. She was careful not to touch him as he walked into full view. He was deathly pale, and his right hand shook a little as he leaned on the plain wood cane. The bandaged eye was starkly visible, as was some purplish swelling that extended slightly beyond its covering. The occupants of the yard brightened at seeing him on his feet, though their expressions quickly changed to concern as they perceived how weak he still was. Willow gasped and protested, "Xander! You know the doctor wanted you to stay there for at least two days. You've been through so much--"

"Yeah, but I'm pretty sure they're not going to be able to solve the basic problem, Will. I can rest at home as well as anywhere, and Slayer Central is probably a bit overcrowded right now. You can send some of the potentials back with me." Xander's voice quivered a bit with bone-deep exhaustion, but the single dark eye locked onto Willow's with the old intensity. He turned to Buffy and smiled softly at her before adding, "No time to sit on the disabled list right now."

"Xander, I don't want you back in the line of fire right now--Caleb could attack at any time. The danger--" Buffy paused, feeling foolish. They were all facing the end of the world--what danger could trump that?

Xander grinned, and pulled a rolled-up newspaper out of his coat. He held it to his bandaged eye and called out, "I see no danger."

Most of the others stared in confusion, but Spike chuckled from the shadows, and Giles commented quietly, "You read the Nelson biography I gave you for your last birthday."

Xander shrugged. "Well, the cable was out one weekend, and I was bored." He turned to Willow and asked quietly, "Could you drive me back to my place, Willow? It's late--we can relocate the girls in the morning."

"Of course." Willow looked back at Buffy--who nodded--and exchanged worried looks with Anya before walking past Xander. Xander touched her arm, stopping her, and she waited as Xander looked at each of the others in turn, meeting their eyes with his remaining one and waiting for them to smile. Spike nodded respectfully at him and vanished into the night. Xander looked at Buffy last of all, and requested: "Could you see if that pirate costume I wore two Halloweens back is still in your basement? I might need part of it."

Buffy winced, then directed a mock glare at him before walking over to him and whispering, "Have I ever mentioned what a frustrating jerk you can be sometimes?"

Xander nodded solemnly and replied, "The subject has come up on occasion." Buffy sighed and kissed him softly on the cheek before turning away and walking back to the others. Xander turned to Willow: "Let's go, Will."

Willow opened the gate and led the way to Xander's car. They both got in, and Willow was reaching for the ignition when Xander reached out and touched her hand. She turned to Xander, seeing the gleam of his remaining eye in the dim light as she asked, "Yes, Xander?"

"Did anyone follow us, Willow?" Xander's voice was guarded.

Willow looked around, and reached out with her magical senses. No one else was within a hundred feet of the car. She looked back at Xander and whispered, "We're alone. Xander, what--"

Xander squeezed Willow's hand. "Willow. . .I think I'm going to cry now. Is that going to be a problem?"

Willow blinked, and tears that she had been holding back for Xander's sake flowed as she whispered again, "No, Xander--it really isn't."

"Good." Xander leaned down, burying his face in Willow's chest, and Willow heard the low sobs begin. She gestured, casting a spell that would prevent passersby from hearing any sound from the car, and gently held him, comforting Xander as he--for once--gave in to grief and pain in a moment where it would do no harm.


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