by Victoria P.

He carried her down from the cliff. She was too drained to walk, and he just wanted to keep her close. She was light, almost hollow -- too delicate to have held the power to end the world.

Buffy and Anya took Giles to the hospital, leaving Willow in his care.

He might fail at everything else in his life, but the one thing he'd always passed with flying colors was Willow 101.

She curled up on the couch and he wrapped himself around her. They had done this a thousand times, and, luck and the Hellmouth willing, would be able to do it a thousand times more. If he had anything to say about it.

And apparently, he did.

For once, he'd had the answer when no one else could even figure out the question.

He held Willow, just breathing her in, as she slept the sleep of the dead. But not the really dead. Just the metaphorically dead, he reminded himself, and felt his breathing hitch. He hadn't cried for Tara, hadn't let himself. He'd needed to be strong for Dawn and Buffy, to take care of yet another apocalypse.

But now he couldn't stop.

He remembered losing Buffy, and how the only thing that had sustained them for so long was the idea that they were going to bring her back.

There was no coming back for Tara.

His shoulders shook, and he soaked Willow's hair -- glimmering red-gold in the late-morning sunlight -- with his tears.

She woke with a sob.

Dawn had been sitting within touching distance, and now she, too, began to cry. Xander held out the arm that wasn't currently under Willow's body, and Dawn crawled onto the couch with them.

They were one large, sobbing mess, grieving for Tara and all the light that was gone from their lives with her death.

Xander knew that he needed to be strong, and that this -- this was the basis of his strength. He could -- and would -- give them all the comfort they needed, a shoulder to cry on, a body to batter when the grief turned to rage. It was something he was good at. He'd spent his whole life looking for one thing to be good at, and he was suddenly grateful that this was it.

He could give comfort to his friends in their time of need; simply by loving them as he always had, he could help them.

It might not always be enough to protect them, but this time, it was.

And he could live with that.


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