Title: Walking Higher (The Childhood's End Remix) — Part 2/5
Author: Lizbeth Marcs (liz_marcs)
Summary: There’s only one person who’d ask you to give up heaven, and there are four people for whom you’d do it.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series
Characters: Xander, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Cordelia
Pairings: Primarily gen; Buffy/Xander UST; light Giles/Xander slash
Title, Author, and URL of the original Story: Winter Garden by kivrin
Warning: Disturbing imagery and violence. Vague spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
ii) in those strange old times,
when fantastic dreams and madmen's reveries
were realized among the actual circumstances of life,
two persons met together
at an appointed hour and place
You’ve managed to get yourself thoroughly lost. No big surprise there, especially since you’ve been running half-blind, no pun intended, from street to street, alleyway to alleyway, since dusk.
You duck into a narrow dirt alley between two low storefronts with corrugated metal roofs to catch your breath. You hope the darkness of the alley, and the dearth of street lights in the immediate vicinity, will hide you long enough to get a few good hits of oxygen into your lungs.
You’re not counting on it.
You need to calm down. You need to think.
If this was Sunnydale, you’d know exactly where you needed to go and what you needed to do. You knew the streets of home so well that you could’ve run across every inch of ground blindfolded. What’s more, you would’ve had several options. Go get Buffy was generally your default, but if there was no Buffy to be found, there was always the choice of hiding or standing and fighting. Those last two generally depended on the odds, whether you had anything resembling a stake on you, and the badness of the minor bads chasing you.
The problem here is that you’re a stranger in a strange land who couldn’t find your way around even if you had both eyes, a map, a tour guide, and the sunlight right overhead. Worse, all of your usual options have telescoped down to just ‘hide.’ Which would be fine, if you knew hiding was possible. After the day you’ve had, you’re not entirely sure that it is.
You lean against the wall and let it support your weight, a wise move since the muscles in your legs are nothing more than knots of pain and probably aren’t up to the job of keeping you upright without help. You lift your eye patch and carefully wipe away the sweat gathered there with half-numbed, shaking fingers. Once the delicate operation is finished without getting a dirty fingertip in your eye socket, you then swipe the excess sweat from your face using both hands.
It doesn’t really help. The air is too thick with humidity and you’re sweating far too much. Your hair is soaked and your clothes feel like you’ve taken a shower while wearing them. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to what we laughingly call the ‘dry season’ in Kenya. Ha-ha-ha.
If you keep doing what you’re doing, they won’t need the magic-fu and squishy Watcher brains to deduce where you are. They’ll just have to follow the trail of your sweat and tears until they find you passed out in the middle of the road.
You lift your head and scan the entire length of the alley. Why you’re bothering, you’re not entirely sure. You hid in here because the darkness was pretty total, but the not-seeing thing goes two ways. They might not be able to see you unless they trip over you, but you’re not going to get much visual warning that they’re coming, either.
That’s when it occurs to you that your luck in finding this temporary hideout isn’t so much the gift of luck as it is the curse of design.
They’ve herded me into this neighborhood!
The realization slams into you. You bring your hands up to your mouth and bite down on your knuckles to prevent the scream from escaping your throat.
No. It’s not possible. No. It’s a big city. There are lots and lots of people who live here. There’s no way…
Except there is a way. There’s always a way if someone, or a lot of someones, with enough firepower want something.
You mentally backtrack and desperately think about every step you’ve taken since you left Omar. You definitely went wrong somewhere, but you’re not entirely sure where.
You had counted on using the crowd of workers heading home and Nairobi’s famously short dusk-y period to swallow you up once they spotted you. You were so sure it would work. It had worked in two previous close calls, once fairly early on in Lusaka, and later in Lilongwe. It worked despite the fact they had tracking spells on you and their minions out in full force looking for you.
That must be where you went wrong, because this time it didn’t work. Sure, it worked at first, but for the past few hours (or days, or weeks, no telling how long you’ve been running) it seemed that every time you thought you were in the clear, they’d find you. They always found you. And when they found you, you were always so close to reaching the crowd that could swallow your presence whole, or finding that busy streetscape to blend in with.
They kept forcing you to change direction, forcing you to move away from what few areas of the city you knew, however slightly you knew them. You’re still managing to shake them again and again, but they keep finding you no matter what you do.
Maybe they’re not using a tracking spell this time. Maybe they’re using wards as a tripwire of some kind?
Dear God. If that’s true, they’ve let you run in circles, and let you tire yourself out. They’ve kept you so busy guessing at where they’d turn up next, kept you changing directions so often, that you basically lost yourself with a little strategic shoving from them.
You lean your head back against the cement block wall and resist the urge to scream a string of swears. Stupid. You’ve been stupid. You stuck with the tried-and-true tactics, but they somehow changed theirs. They don’t need to put a tracking spell on you, not when they can force you into a quiet business district after all the shops have shut down and all the workers have gone home, and surround your location with both people and wards. If they’ve got you surrounded, all they’ll have to do is move wards and people in towards the center until you’re caught right in the middle.
You stare up at the narrow slice of sky you can see through the opening between the two corrugated roofs. You wish you could see the stars, something that would be familiar even here. But Nairobi is a big, modern city and like all big, modern cities it’s got a nasty case of light pollution.
So, no stars for you to wish on, then. You’ll just have to do without.
You push yourself off from the wall. Without the support, you stumble a little bit. Somehow you manage to avoid falling flat on your face.
Stick with the shadows. Don’t get caught out and in the open. Keep moving. It’s your only chance. It doesn’t help that this is the same mantra that you’ve been chanting in your head since the chase began.
You force your protesting legs to move and manage a hobbling, skulking-like slide out of the alleyway. You stick close to the storefronts and hunch yourself forward on the vain hope that it’ll make you harder to spot. You keep your limping gait to a fast walk, somewhere below a jog, and very far below a run, on the theory that you’ll draw less unwanted attention that way.
It’s in this manner that you make it one block…two blocks…five…without getting caught.
You pause for just a moment and breathe a sigh of relief. So far, so good.
You hear a shout.
You don’t bother to look over your shoulder to find out if the shout is directed at you or something else. You just kick yourself into overdrive and run as fast as you can.
Behind you the single shout is joined by a regular chorus.
You will yourself to run faster.
Pain explodes in your back a moment before you hear a sharp, echoing crack.
You stumble forward.
A second explosion of pain shatters into your back and seems to pass right through you before exploding out of your chest.
Your momentum carries you forward. For a second, it feels like your feet leave the ground and that you’re suspended in air on a wave of excruciating pain. You land in a face-first slide across the harsh ground.
You can hear shouting, but it sounds strangely muffled and distant.
You should be…you should somehow…there’s something you need to…you’re not sure…where are you…why are you…
The babble of questions and thoughts slowly sink into the ground, leaving you staring into blackness with no explanation and nothing to say for yourself.
The overwhelming pain loses its sharp, jagged edge even as it presses you into the unyielding earth and crushes you body and soul.
Buffy flung open the door. “Xander!”
“Let’s not announce that I’m here,” Xander said as he pushed his way past her into the apartment.
Before he could even get his bearings, 100 pounds of very-happy-to-see-him blonde Slayer threw herself at him and landed in a bone-crushing hug.
“Oxygen!” he wheezed as the duffle bag slipped from his shoulder and onto the floor.
“You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay,” Buffy’s muffled voice said from somewhere in the vicinity of his chest.
“Not that I’m complaining about your attempt to body-merge with me,” Xander wheezed, “but my ribs want to put this to a vote.”
“Sorry.” Buffy stepped back and grinned up into his face. “I’ve been going crazy with worry. I was afraid something bad was going to happen to you.”
Xander looked away. The safe house’s apartment seemed comfortable, even homey. He should’ve known that Buffy couldn’t resist putting some personal touches on the place even though she spent so little time here, and even then only so she could meet people she needed to meet without tipping off the entire Council. Xander caught himself thinking that heaven must be something like this: a comfortable apartment, a good friend, and protection from the big bad world outside. It was enough to make him want to stay here forever.
“I was afraid that I wouldn’t get here at all,” he admitted when he was sure he wouldn’t sound like he had a lump in his throat.
Buffy once more captured him in a hug, this time without Slayer strength, and she rested her head on his chest. Xander let himself enjoy the moment, because God knew he’d done without something as simple and as necessary as a hug for far longer than he cared to even think about. He had no idea how long they stood like that before he let himself break the spell by bending over and kissing the top of her head.
Buffy swatted at him before she looked up, grin still in place. “I knew it. You were looking for a way to cop a feel, weren’t you?”
“You read me like a comic book,” Xander agreed with a grin of his own.
“Wow. Some people never grow up. They just grow old.”
“Speaking of never growing up,” Buffy bounced on the balls of her feet, “you have a present for me, right?”
“Omar’s got it,” Xander admitted as he picked his duffle up from the floor and slung it back over his shoulder. “My perfect getaway from the bad guys’ super-secret lair turned out to be not-so-perfect. I had to hand the flash drive off to him in case they caught me.”
Buffy crossed her arms with a frown. “So where’s Omar?”
“Last I saw, hiding in Nairobi with two Slayers and trying not to be seen with me. If they find out he turned state’s evidence, they’ll kill him and leave his head on Giles’s doorstep.” When Xander saw that Buffy still didn’t look convinced, he added, “Trust me. He’ll be here.”
“Omar’s still en route, and yet you still beat him to Rome even though you got caught doing a Tom Cruise circa Mission Impossible,” Buffy said slowly.
Xander sighed. “I told him to be careful and not take any big risks in exchange for a fast ride out of the city. Right now they think he’s still mulling things over, so if they happen to see him taking a plane, train, or automobile through any part of Kenya, or hell, even Nairobi itself, he’s got a cover story they’ll buy. There’s no point in him raising his profile by taking stupid chances just so he can get out of the country a few hours faster.”
Buffy still seemed doubtful. “So when did the hand-off happen?”
“Dunno. Not long before sunrise, but that’s all I really know for sure,” Xander smoothly lied.
Buffy shook her head. “You got here pretty fast, especially considering the two-hour time difference.”
Of all things, Buffy’s Slay-dar had to fire over this.
“Yeah, well,” Xander uneasily shrugged. “Define fast. I was in the air for 12 hours give or take, not including the change-over to my connecting flight in Amsterdam, which was actually the plane that got me here. Unless you’re talking about my lucky timing in catching a flight, which is something I definitely don’t deny. Besides, I’d already been spotted, so I didn’t need to be all that cautious. I basically made a run for Jomo and hopped the first flight out of there. Hence my duffle. Going without baggage would’ve looked pretty suspicious.”
Buffy’s frown deepened.
Xander felt his nerves tense. “What is it?”
“It’s just…” Buffy shook her head. “Forget it.”
Forgetting it would be the smart thing to do, but the last thing Xander needed was Buffy harboring any doubts about him or Omar. “It’s just you’re looking like you’re finding it hard to believe.”
Buffy sighed. “Are you sure you weren’t followed?”
Xander relaxed. Of course she’d be thinking ‘trap,’ complete with big flashing red lights around the word. His escape from Kenya did sound a little too easy now that he thought about it. “Believe me, they’re still in Nairobi playing hunt-the-Xander,” he said with firm certainty.
“You sound really sure about that.”
“That’s because I am really sure about that,” Xander said as he hefted his duffle to prevent the strap from sliding any further down his shoulder.
Buffy suddenly slapped her head. “What am I thinking? You must be exhausted. C’mon, I’ll show you the bedroom so you can dump the bag.”
“Bedroom?” Xander asked.
“Just the one. It’s a really small apartment,” Buffy said as she marched over to a door and flung it open with a, “Ta-da!”
Xander followed her and peered inside. It lacked the personal touches that the living room had, but it had a real bed with clean sheets, a dresser-like thing with cabinet on top and drawers underneath, and a mirror. No closet, though. As spare as the bedroom was, it was a step up from sleeping in the back of the Toyota 4X4, something he’d done far too often while in Africa.
“Sorry it’s a little bit on the undecorated side, but I don’t use it that much,” Buffy apologized as she led Xander into the room. “I think I maybe crashed here twice, and only because meetings ran late.”
“It’s fine. Better than, even,” Xander quickly assured her. Then he remembered that Buffy had said there was only one bedroom. “Ummmm, where are you going to sleep?”
“I’ll be getting in some quality couch surfing,” Buffy said.
“That’s really not—”
Buff waved off his concern with a “pffft” sound. “After the day you’ve had, you deserve the bed.”
“You really don’t have to give me the—”
“If it’ll make you feel any better, we’ll flip a coin to see who gets the bed if we’re still here tomorrow,” Buffy cut him off. “Stop arguing about it already. Besides, I have to be sentry girl. I can be a better sentry girl on the couch than I can in here.”
Xander knew this wasn’t an argument he could win, so there was no point in pushing it. “Okay. You’ve sold me,” he said as he dropped the duffle to the floor. “Where should I stash my coat since I see a distinct lack of closets?”
“Yeeeaaaah, I was about to ask about that,” Buffy said. “Isn’t Africa supposed to be hot? As in Africa hot?”
“Yes, Miss Broderick, depending on the country you’re in, it can be hot. It’s summer in Kenya even as we speak, but Nairobi’s not so much with the Africa hot as it is with the late-June-in-southern-California warm,” Xander said as he stripped off his jacket. “I bought this at a duty-free when I landed in Rome because, as it so happens, Italy is not so much with the late-June-warm, let alone the Africa hot, in February. Since I figured you wouldn’t be big on getting naked and warming up the old Xan-sicle using body heat when I got here, I went with the coat. Besides,” here Xander grinned as inspiration struck, “it gave me primo opportunity to make sure I wasn’t being followed, what with casually strolling in and out of different stores and trying on different coats.”
Buffy suddenly relaxed with a grin. “Check you out. You’re like totally down with the James Bond thing.”
Xander bowed. “All I need is some formal wear, along with a martini—”
“Shaken, not stirred,” Buffy interrupted.
“Very good, Miss Moneypenny. You’re catching on.”
“Oh! And poker. There’s poker involved, right?” Buffy asked.
“Baccarat. I’m going to have to demote you to Tiffani Case.”
“For a second there, I thought you were going to say Pussy Galore.”
Xander choked at the unexpected comeback and started laughing so hard that he could barely stand upright. Soon, Buffy was laughing just as hard and leaning against him. It was the kind of laughter that ebbed and flowed. The second one or both would calm down; they’d look at it each and start howling with laughter again.
As Xander gasped for breath and fought mightily to bring himself under control even as he collapsed onto the floor taking Buffy with him, he couldn’t remember feeling this good about anything since before Sunnydale was destroyed.
Eventually the two of them found themselves sitting on the floor and leaning against a wall. The coat and the duffle were on the floor in front of them, and the bed was completely undisturbed.
“I’ll have you know,” Xander coughed as he fought to keep the unmanly giggles at bay, “Pussy Galore hadn’t even crossed my mind. And when did you start watching James Bond?”
Buffy hiccupped her giggles. “Andrew. Totally Andrew’s fault. Worse, he’s got all the Slayers watching those movies. Do you know the girls have started having ‘bad Bond names’ contests? It’s true. Throw in the fact that more than a few languages are spoken at the Council center, and the naming can get really weird.”
“Count on Andrew to encourage world peace and international cooperation as an unintended side-effect of his never-ending quest to determine who’s the best Bond,” Xander remarked.
“He doesn’t have to determine. He says it’s Timothy Dalton. His mission is to convince everyone else that he’s right.”
“I’m leaning toward Pierce Brosnan, myself,” Buffy said with definitive air.
“Sorry, Buff. I can’t agree. I gotta go with the classics. Sean Connery. Nobody does it better.”
Buffy issued one final cough before bumping him with her shoulder. “So, how did you manage to get out of Nairobi? They had to have been watching the ticket counters at the airport at least.”
Ahhh, back to that again. He should’ve known that Buffy wasn’t about to let this part go. “It’s going to gross you out,” he said as his mind desperately flailed for an answer.
“So, gross me.”
Out of sheer desperation, and for lack of any better ideas, Xander said, “I took my eye patch off.”
Since Buffy was sitting on his right, he could see her give him a disbelieving look out of the corner of his uncovered eye.
Xander didn’t dare look at her. “After I passed the flash drive on to Omar, I ran like hell for Jomo, like I told you. Don’t ask me how, but I managed to get to the airport without being seen. I figured that my luck couldn’t hold, so instead of heading right for the ticket counter, I did a little lurking just in case.”
“I take it that it was a smart thing you did there, hunh?” Buffy prompted.
“And how,” Xander nodded. “For just the low, low price of lurking in the shadows for maybe 10 minutes or so, I saw that a few people were not-so-subtly checking out the traffic at the ticket counter. I also noticed they weren’t looking too hard at anyone, not even 20-something white guys traveling alone that could fit my description. I figured they were so focused on spotting the identifying feature,” he waved at the left side of his face, “that if I didn’t have it they wouldn’t do more than glance in my direction.”
Buffy faced forward as she shook her head in disbelief. “Didn’t they notice, ummm…I mean, don’t you think that…What I’m trying to say is—”
“Why didn’t they notice that there’s a hole where a left eye should be?” Xander finished for her.
Buffy uncomfortably squirmed. “Yeah. That.”
“The airport’s pretty busy, believe it or not, which is why they weren’t looking at non-patch-wearing people too closely. Too many people for them to even try,” Xander said with a shrug that he hoped didn’t betray his relief that Buffy believed him. “They probably didn’t even give me a second glance when they didn’t see the patch. Or maybe I got lucky and someone was blocking that half of my face when they looked in my direction.”
“And no one followed you,” Buffy deadpanned.
On this point, Xander had to give. “I don’t know if someone recognized me at the last second and followed me onto the flight to Amsterdam. Doubt it, but I can’t say for sure. All I can tell you is that if they did, I lost them by the time I landed here. Believe me I was paranoid about it, over and above what you can even imagine.”
Buffy’s head fell back and it thunked against the wall. “Thank God for stupid bad guys,” she said with obvious relief.
Xander knew he should probably leave it at that, but since when did he ever let anything go? “If you want to know the truth, I didn’t believe it either, hence my paranoid-y walk around Rome’s airport after I landed under the guise of looking for a coat,” Xander said.
Buffy bumped his shoulder. “Well, that explains why you weren’t getting irritated when I went into harping mode about you being followed.”
“After the past 3 months I’ve had? Knowing what I know? And after the joyous experience to be had in dodging Malawi witches and wizards? In your shoes, I’d be more than harping about it.”
Buffy glanced at him again. “Hey, I have a brilliant idea. How about we get off this floor and get you some food and something to drink?”
“Yes to off the floor, no to the food, yes to something to drink if it’s something not in a caffeinated liquid group,” Xander said as he struggled to get to his feet.
“No food?” Buffy asked as she did the same. “That has to be a first.”
“My stomach’s still in knots because some teeny-tiny part of me is half-convinced that someone’s going to kick down the door and shoot us,” Xander lied.
“Please stop sympathizing with me. You sympathizing with me is not in the least little bit comforting,” Buffy said as she bent down to retrieve his coat.
“Leave it,” Xander said. “I’ll hang it up when I go to bed.”
Buffy straightened up. “You sure?”
“Fine. Armoire is over there,” Buffy waved at the dresser-like thing in the corner. “There’s some hangers in it. I think. As for non-caffeinated drinkable things, I’ve got mineral water, some kind of herbal tea that’s actually pretty good despite the words ‘herbal’ and ‘tea’ in the title, and alcohol.”
“I’ll take your word about the herbal tea and go with that,” Xander said as he followed her out of the bedroom. “I’ve gone from a high 70-something degrees to a low 30-something degrees in less than a day. I need a warm-up, stat.”
“Alcohol could do that,” Buffy airily said as she led him into the neat, but tiny kitchen.
“High stress situation, Harris genes, and alcohol. No, that’s not asking for trouble at all.”
“Point-y statement taken and acknowledged without further comment,” Buffy said with false cheer as she filled the tea kettle with water.
In a desperate effort to stop the uncomfortable moment from spooling out into a few uncomfortable minutes, Xander asked, “You actually use the kitchen?”
“I’ve seen you try to cook. I’m just shocked that there aren’t signs that something exploded in here,” Xander joked.
“I’m not that bad.”
“Your kitchen in Sunnydale. A blender. And a tragic smoothie-making incident.” Xander ticked off the items on the list using his fingers. “Need I say more?”
“If you must know, the food is take-out that I bought tonight and put in the fridge,” Buffy said as she set the water to boil and retrieved two mugs and the tea from the cabinets. “So if fear of ptomaine is what’s keeping you from partaking—”
“I was telling you the truth about stomach knottage,” Xander interrupted. “I’m still riding the adrenalin high of a close call, so that’s pretty much killed most of my bodily functions for the evening.”
“And that,” Buffy said as she put the mugs on the table and flopped into a chair, “is not an image I needed in my head.”
Xander slid into the seat on the opposite side. “Did I mention that I’m also lacking my trusty Tweety Bird watch? Without it, I have to rely on my internal body clock to figure out when to eat and when to sleep. Right now it’s so screwed up that I can’t even begin to tell you what day it is, let alone the time.”
Buffy leaned forward and studied him with a laser-like focus. “Yeah, well, considering what you just told me about your day, you look pretty bright-eyed and bushy tailed. You even look like you’ve recently shaved.”
“I shaved in one of Rome’s fabulous airport bathrooms. I’d like to say that it was because it was part of my fantastic plan to make sure I wasn’t being followed by finding an excuse to stop long enough in one place to see if someone was hanging around in my general vicinity, but really I did it because I felt like crap and I figured a shave would make me feel better,” Xander babbled the lie. “As for being more awake than normal, I’ve managed to catnap here and there and pull off extended snoozes on the planes, which I have to remind you is in the realm of the plural.”
Buffy raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure you didn’t overdose on caffeine at some point? You’re talking so fast you sound like a back-up singer for Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Xander could feel the beginning of a sweat on the back of his neck. Damn it! He said too much, too fast, and volunteered way too much information.
“Believe me when I tell you, I look much better than I probably really am,” Xander fought to keep his voice calm, “and I totally wasn’t kidding about that adrenalin high. The second it fades you’re going to have to pour me into bed and leave me there for 3 days, because I’ll be moving for no one.”
“Hold on,” Buffy said when the kettle whistled. As she hauled herself out of her seat, Xander clenched his hands under the table.
He was no good at this. Buffy was suspicious. An on-guard Buffy was a Buffy who was going to be paying very close attention to everything he said or did. He had no idea how he could swing the conversation around to the subject he needed to broach without her raising an eyebrow.
Buffy didn’t look at him as she poured the boiling water into the mugs and dropped in the tea bags. “I don’t mean to pick at you. I know you’re you and everything, but I had to be sure.”
Xander’s heart painfully thudded in his chest. “You don’t think I’m me? Wait. What am I asking? Why would anyone pretend to be me?”
Buffy returned the kettle to the stove. “God, it really is you. Only you could be that dense.”
Buffy returned to the table and flopped into her chair. Instead of looking angry, she was actually grinning at him. “You heard the part where I said I knew you were you, right?”
Xander frowned at her. “But you had your doubts.”
“Not when I peeked through the spy hole and saw you standing on the other side of the door, no, mostly because I was so relieved to see you were okay,” Buffy waved dismissive hand as she said this. “But when it hit me that you made awfully good time from Nairobi to here, along with how you looked a heck of a lot better than worse-for-wear, yeah, there was more than a little doubt creeping in around the edges. The fact you had a coat and a duffle bag didn’t help your case.”
Xander made sure to keep his breathing normal. He figured a sigh of relief might kick her back into the realm of her thinking he was a fake. “And now you know I’m me.”
“The James Bond thing clinched it. No actually, it was the thing you said about the alcohol, and then the crack about my kitchen skills, which are much better by the way. But I was 90% convinced by the James Bond thing.”
“You were testing me?” Xander’s voice rose on the question.
“Hey, you passed, right?”
“And if I failed the Xander-centric quiz?”
“Well you didn’t, so don’t worry about it,” Buffy said just a little too airily for Xander’s taste. “As for why anyone would want to pretend to be you, you do remember who you are, right? You’re, like, the only person who knows everything about what’s going on with the ex-Watchers bent on world domination and their scary magical friends from Malawi.”
Xander’s shoulders slumped. Buffy kind of had a point. If someone had stolen his face and showed up full of false information, they could do a lot of damage. Even Omar’s flash drive full of electronic documents stolen from the bad guys’ computer compound might not help sort the truth from the lies, if only because everything could be thrown in a doubtful light if the fake Xander was convincing enough.
“Glad you see it my way,” Buffy said, even though Xander had yet to say one way or the other that he agreed.
“Sorry. Guess all logical thought is on the blink today,” Xander grudgingly admitted.
Buffy sounded somewhat contrite. “Yeah, I kind of noticed you’ve been riding the mood swings, not that me poking at you helped.”
Xander cleared his throat. “But, you are wrong about one thing. I’m not the only person that knows everything. Even as we speak, Omar’s en route with a flash drive full of dirty-dealings and evil plans, and it’s a lot more information than I had in my head when I got it. A lot more accurate, too, since it’s written in the bad guys’ own words.”
“Which is just another layer on the ‘God, I’m glad to see you.’ If Omar doesn’t show—”
“He’ll be here. Guaranteed,” Xander interrupted.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Buffy graciously said. “But in case he does get caught before he reaches Rome, you’re here to give us an information dump. Heck, you can probably still fill in the blanks even after Omar and the fabulous flash drive gets here. I call it an all-around yay for the good guys, which just so happens to be us.”
Xander guiltily hunched over his mug. “I don’t know how much I can add to what’s on the flash drive. Like I said, there’s information on there that I didn’t know at the time I pulled off my cyber-robbery, so I think you’re riding the justification train there. Or at least I hope so, because I’d hate to think that you’re only happy to see me because I’m supposedly the all-knowing knowledge-guy.”
Buffy sighed. “You know, if you don’t get that herbal tea bag out of your cup, you’re going to be drinking sludge instead of a tea-like substance.”
Xander fished the tea bag out of his mug with his fingers. “Nice change of subject.”
“Maybe I’m afraid that if I go on and on about how glad I am to see you for non-knowledge reasons, you might pick up on how much I was worried about you and you’d get mad,” Buffy quietly said.
Xander looked up to see Buffy frowning down into her mug. There was a deep line between her eyebrows, and one corner of her mouth was unhappily ticking in an up-and-down motion.
“I wouldn’t be mad,” Xander softly assured her.
“It’s just that I think Giles…” Her voice tailed off. She coughed and started again. “Giles should’ve never put the whole be-a-spy thing on your shoulders. He should’ve given you more help, especially after you tipped him off about the Malawi dark magic club hooking up with the bad-seed Watchers. It was too much to expect you to do it alone.”
Xander bit his lip as he looked away. Considering how it all turned out, he did wish Giles had decided to parcel out the burden instead of dumping everything on his shoulders. At the same time he understood why things had to play out the way they did. And no, he wasn’t just taking into consideration Giles’s reasons behind the Xander-You’re-the-Only-One decision.
“See? You’re mad. I knew you’d be mad,” Buffy mumbled.
“I’m not mad,” Xander said as he turned his head to face her.
Buffy fished her tea bag out of her mug. “You don’t look like you’re thrilled to hear it, either.”
“Maybe because you’re being unfair to Giles,” Xander said. “Buffy, you had to know that Giles was in a bad position. It had to be a Scooby-type person because we’re the only people he knows he can trust 100%. Dawn was out, because she’s officially retired and attending UCLA. Willow was out, because the second she stepped foot anywhere on African ground the other side would’ve picked up on her witch-y mystical signature and they’d’ve been on her faster than you can blink. Power-Wicca she may be, but not even Willow can fight off an army of Malawi witches and wizards armed with magic she knows nothing about.”
“I’m not arguing with any of that,” Buffy quickly interrupted. “Not the trust thing, the Dawn thing, and, yeah, even the Willow thing. I’m just saying that—”
Just like that, Buffy handed him the lead-in he needed right on a silver platter. It took everything he had not to stand up and dance a jig around the kitchen. “So what you’re saying is that Giles should’ve sent you out there alone because you’re Superwoman, instead of sending me out there alone because I’m totally too Lois Lane for the job,” Xander interrupted.
Buffy’s head popped up. “No. I’m not saying that he should’ve sent me instead of you. I’m saying that he should’ve sent me with you. I mean, sent me to work with you, since you were already in Africa anyway and already knew most of the players, good and bad. No way were you going anywhere.”
Xander lowered his head and so Buffy couldn’t see his smile. “He couldn’t send you either.”
“Don’t tell me that I’m too important to risk,” Buffy huffed. “I heard that enough from Giles, so I don’t need to hear you get all agree-y with him.”
Xander looked up again. “Even though it’s true?” he innocently asked.
Buffy started sputtering, a sure sign that a Slayer-sized snit was in the offing.
“Look, I know you probably hate hearing this, but Giles couldn’t send you to Africa because you’re basically Rock Star Slayer. Everyone in Slayerworld knows who you are. Watcher. Slayer. Demon. Witch. Everyone. Why? Because you’re the Slayer that came up with the big idea to power-up every Potential on the planet. Hate to say it Buff, but your days of going incognito are pretty much over,” Xander said.
“I could have died my hair. I could’ve cut my hair. No one had to know it was me riding shotgun,” Buffy argued.
“And if we got caught? If you got caught?” Xander argued back. “Buffy, if you fell into their hands, they would’ve figured out who you were pretty quickly. Five seconds after that, they would’ve killed you, put your head on a spike, and then would’ve been furiously sending cell phone pictures of the event to everyone in the Council’s network. Can you imagine the effect that would’ve had?”
“You’re really overstating,” Buffy angrily countered.
“No. I’m. Not,” Xander emphatically said. “Not to turn your crack at me back on you, but you do remember who you are, right?”
“I’m not having this argument,” Buffy declared as she hopped to her feet and stormed out of the kitchen.
Xander silently counted to 10.
Buffy returned, looking embarrassed. “I just remembered that I can’t leave this apartment until Omar shows up and that you can’t either.”
“Was wondering when you’d remember that,” Xander remarked.
Buffy pointed an accusatory finger at him. “Yeah, well, stop sounding like Giles! Or I’m locking you in the bedroom and you can have this conversation with yourself.”
Xander sighed. So much for Buffy making it easier for him.
“And don’t you sigh at me like that,” Buffy said as she petulantly flopped into her vacated chair. “I know what that sigh means. It means you’re humoring me. It means you’re patronizing the little Slayer. It means you completely and totally disagree with me, but because you don’t want to argue about it all night you’re going to get the last word in by subjecting me to sighing and one-eyed rolling because I’m too stupid to understand the words coming out of your mouth.”
Xander blinked. “Wow. Who knew that a sigh could have so much subtext?”
“Not subtext. Text. That sigh was very text-y.”
Clearly it was time to try another tactic.
Xander sipped from his tea as he gathered his thoughts. “I guess the post-Sunnydale adjustment hasn’t been easy for you either, hunh?”
Buffy shot him a warning glare.
Xander held up his hands and painted an expression of innocence on his face. “It hasn’t been easy for any of us, you know. Don’t forget, you were the one that asked me if I knew who I was, remember?”
“A question that’s totally valid in your case,” Buffy grumbled.
“And yours,” Xander shot back. When Buffy angrily opened her mouth to protest, Xander held up a hand and added, “I promise that I’m not going to say that you’re so sparkly special that we need to keep you away from any and all sharp objects in case you accidentally chop off your own head while no one is looking.”
Buffy’s eyes dangerously narrowed, but she didn’t interrupt.
“But you’re not the one and only anymore,” Xander began.
“I know that already. God.” Buffy threw up her hands. “You do remember that there’s a Council center full of Slayers right here in Rome, right?”
“Will you please let me finish?” Xander asked.
Buffy hrumphed as she leaned back and crossed her arms.
“What I’m saying is that I think you sometimes do forget,” Xander said. “And I totally get why, okay? All those years back in Sunnydale, you were the one and only Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer. Okay, there was Kendra, and later Faith. But time and again, it all came down to you and no one else. So, effectively speaking, it was pretty much just you doing the Slaying thing.”
Buffy’s expression softened. She looked down as she reached out to snag her mug. “Yeah, well, that’s not exactly true. I had all of you guys, not to mention a whole lot of other people who helped like Angel, Spike, Tara, Oz, Cordelia, and Anya. So, no, not so much on the alone.”
“You kind of forget that we all looked to you to be take-charge girl, even when your life was pretty much in the suck, because you were the Slayer,” Xander softly reminded her.
Buffy suddenly found her tea infinitely fascinating. It was a sure sign that she damn well did remember, but she wasn’t about to declare defeat by admitting that Xander had anything resembling a point.
“But even taking into account that you had us as your back-up, you’ve got remember how hard it was defending one town, right? Even with regular patrols involving multiple people, even with Giles manning the books in case of prophetic disaster, even with multiple super-powered people making with the Batman, we still couldn’t save everyone even when we saved the day,” Xander said. “Every single one of us could’ve patrolled Sunnydale 24/7 without taking meal or bathroom breaks, and people were still going to get killed because we couldn’t be everywhere at once.”
Buffy glanced at him before returning her gaze back to her tea. “Okay. Point,” she grudgingly admitted.
“So, if all of us couldn’t save everyone in one lousy suburban town, what makes you think that you can save everyone all over the world all by yourself?” Xander asked.
“I don’t think that,” Buffy firmly said.
“Okay, probably not. But on some level you think you need to be involved in every single major Council operation because you feel like you should be,” Xander said. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Buffy finally put down her mug and looked at him. “This thing with the Watchers gone bad…that’s pretty major, Xan.”
“If you think this whole mess is major now, wait until it gets really major, because I guarantee it will,” Xander said.
Buffy snorted. “I don’t need anyone reading tarot cards to figure that out.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, the Council needs to save its Buffy-shaped big gun for the day when the big blow-up happens?” Xander asked. “And that maybe, just maybe, Giles needed to know that you were primed and ready to go just in case everything went to hell before I was able to get my hands on the information the Council needed? Did it ever occur to you that maybe that’s what Giles meant when he said you were too important to risk sending to Africa for what was basically an intelligence-gathering mission?”
Buffy hunched her shoulders and muttered, “Maybe he said something like that. I just thought that…I don’t know what I thought.”
“You thought he was making excuses to keep you out of the fight, weren’t you?” Xander asked.
“And Giles has done that since when?” Xander archly asked.
Buffy shot him a glare. “I thought you said that your ability to go all logical on me was on the blink?”
“That was before your ability to think logically melted down,” Xander answered.
Buffy shook her head as she once more studied her tea. “I dunno. When you’re right, you’re right, I guess. It’s just that I sometimes feel so useless. I mean, do you know what I do all day?” Buffy asked as she waved her hand around the kitchen. “Okay, maybe not all day, and maybe not every day, but most of the time?”
“Play chess with the Rome branch of Wolfram & Hart,” Xander automatically answered.
Buffy gave him a what-the-hell look.
“Metaphorically speaking,” Xander quickly corrected himself. “What I meant to say, and what you would’ve realized I was saying if you weren’t so busy manning the Buffy-defenses, is that your job is to make sure that the local branch of Evil Inc. keeps looking over its collective shoulders in case a group of pissed off Slayers show up at an office shindig with swords. Don’t know if you noticed, Buff, but that’s a pretty big job.”
Buffy slumped in her chair. “Yeah, right. I get to play ‘tag’ with a bunch of lawyers armed with pens.”
“Evil lawyers. With evil pens. And have I failed to mention the clients? Because the clients are eviler, and they’re better armed,” Xander pointed out. “And don’t diss the lowly pen. Ever accidentally stab yourself with a pen? Ball points can hurt. Plus, they leave a mark.”
“Har-har-har,” Buffy sarcastically laughed. “Doesn’t take away from the fact that in my world, the big bads now wear expensive Italian suits, and that’s even taking into consideration that I live in the land where they have breeding farms for expensive Italian suits.”
“Well, what about that Immortal guy?” Xander asked. “Aren’t you watching him for evil?”
“Still can’t figure out if he’s evil,” Buffy grumbled. “No one can figure out if he’s evil. I asked around and can’t get a straight answer. Believe me, I tried. I even tried asking him. Still no joy. So, of course, I have to keep an eye on the Immortal, too. It’s like I’m some freakishly strong babysitter waiting for an overgrown kid to do something naughty-ish so I can send him to his room without any supper.”
“So let me see if I get this straight,” Xander dryly began. “You’re foiling the plans of evil lawyers and their evil clients. You’re making sure Immortal-type people aren’t apocalyptically inclined. And on top of all this you’re training newbie Slayers and helping to build the Rome branch of the Watcher’s Council so that, if all else fails, at least one outpost of the Council Giles is trying to build actually survives. Yet here you are not complaining that you’re overworked. Instead, you’re complaining about…what, exactly?”
Buffy scowled at him. “Fine. You’re right. I’m complaining about nothing. I’ve got nothing to complain about. I’m an angst-free, trouble-free, carefree Buffy. Happy?”
Right. Kid gloves were officially off.
“No. I’m not happy,” Xander said.
“Xander, drop it,” Buffy warned.
Xander ignored her. “I’m not happy because you’re not happy. I’m not happy because I know exactly why you’re unhappy and so do you, even if you don’t want to admit it.”
“Fine. You want to be like that? Fine.” Buffy slapped her hand down on the table, causing the mugs and Xander to jump. “Go ahead. Share your thoughts. God knows I won’t get you to shut up until you do.”
Okay, maybe he really should’ve kept the kid gloves firmly on his hands. Now it was too late. All he could do was just go with the theme and hope Buffy didn’t take a swing at him. Xander picked up his mug and sipped his rapidly cooling tea so he could gather his thoughts.
As he put down his mug, he looked Buffy in the eye. “Look, I know it sucks to sometimes be fray-adjacent-ish, but—”
“Hah! I knew it!” Buffy triumphantly interrupted. “Even you’ve figured out that I’ve turned into a total waste of space.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘even you figured out’ with regards to me thinking that you’re a waste of space?” Xander said. “And, wait, that was so not where I was going with this. I don’t think you’re a waste of space.”
Buffy had the sense to look a little bit abashed. “When I said ‘even you’ve figured out,’ I meant ‘even you’ in the sense that we haven’t seen each other in months, and even you’ve picked up that I’m being kept out of the Slayer loop. I’ve been de-looped, which leaves me completely loopless. And every time I tell Giles to loop me, he tells me that I am looped because I get all the reports whenever a Council center comes across something big, I get all the after-action reports for all the wackiness that goes down, and I know everything he knows.”
“Ummm, sounds like you’re totally loopy to me.”
Buffy shot him a glare.
“Information-wise that is,” Xander quickly amended. “What it sounds like to me is that you’re frustrated because you’re here in Rome while other Slayers are out there fighting their own battles without you and doing a good job kicking evil’s ass and taking demon names.”
“I think you mean they’re doing a good job getting themselves killed,” Buffy snapped.
For a beat, just a beat, Xander and Buffy stared at each other. Buffy looked shocked that the words had jumped out of her mouth. As for Xander, he stayed very still and kept his gaze nailed to her face.
Buffy’s expression crumbled around the edges as she looked away.
Xander reached across the table to take hold of her hand. “Buffy?”
Buffy yanked her hands out of reach and put them in her lap without looking at him.
Xander dropped his hand to the table and remained leaning forward. “Buffy, have you been blaming yourself for—” But of course she had, and he knew it. “You shouldn’t do this to yourself, because it really isn’t your—” But of course she could and would, and he knew that, too. “What on earth prompted this?” He knew the answer, but she needed to say it.
Buffy’s head jerked, like she wanted to look at him but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“Please,” he quietly begged.
He didn’t know if it was the ‘please’ that got to her, or the tone of his voice.
“Do you think we did the right thing?” Buffy softly asked.
Xander honestly had no answer for that.
She quickly looked at him, and then looked away again. “Did you know that last month some Slayers in the Ukraine had to deal with an ascension?”
“Ummmm, assume that, unlike you, I’ve been kept out of loop for very obvious and very good reasons,” Xander stuttered.
“Well they did,” Buffy said. “Do you know what I contributed to that fight? Advice. They called me on the phone to pump me for information and to get my advice.”
“Well, makes sense, since, y’know, you actually have experience on that front so—”
“Advice, Xander,” Buffy impatiently interrupted. “I graciously went into share mode, but that’s it. I should have been there with weapons and a posse. I should’ve been there actually helping them fight.”
“I’m pretty sure your advice counts as helping them fight, actually.”
“So there they are, fighting, getting hurt, and dying,” Buffy said as if Xander hadn’t spoken at all. “And what am I doing that day? The usual, that’s what. I get out of bed, and go through all of the training classes with all of the girls here in Rome. Then I check to see if the Immortal has been causing more trouble than usual, before checking to see if Wolfram & Hart has been especially evil. All those people, Xander. Watchers. Slayers. Innocent bystanders. And where am I?” Buffy angrily shrugged. “Twiddling my fingers in Rome hoping that something awful hasn’t happened in my current backyard.”
Xander sighed. “Buffy—”
“Final tally from the Ukraine? Twelve innocent bystanders, 6 Slayers, and 5 Watchers,” Buffy interrupted. “I should have been there.”
Xander tapped a devil’s tattoo on the table. “Why do I think this is just the latest in a long line for you?”
Buffy fixed him with a glare. “What? You don’t think the one is bad enough?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“If it did sound like I was implying that, I’m sorry,” Xander contritely said. “But I know you. If this was the first time you felt like you got punched in the gut by something like this, even if it was the fiftieth, you wouldn’t have said anything. For you to go explosively into share mode? I’m guessing that you’ve been getting punched in the gut practically everyday since Sunnydale. Maybe even before.”
Just like that, all the anger seemed to drain out of Buffy. Her shoulders slumped and her expression took on an unhappy mien. “I share,” she weakly protested.
“Sometimes.” On her hurt glance in his direction, Xander added, “Depends on what you’re being share-y and non-share-y about. Don’t make me bring up the mess that was after you sent Angel to hell. Or when Joyce was sick. Or the year after we yanked you out of heaven. And, especially, don’t make me bring up that last year in Sunnydale. If you make me do even one of those things, we’ll be here for weeks.”
“Sometimes you really suck as a friend,” Buffy said without any heat or anger.
“Yeah, well, that’s because I am your friend,” Xander gently pointed out. “So, spill, or I’ll sit here and start really annoying you.”
Buffy gave him another dose of what-the-hell face.
Xander shrugged. “I’ve got you trapped. Neither one of us can leave the apartment, remember?”
Buffy looked away with her mouth drawing down in a frown. For a moment, Xander thought he’d pushed too hard and that Buffy had shut him out.
No one was more surprised than he was when she actually started to talk.
“Sometimes I think everyone would’ve been better off if we never powered up the Potentials,” Buffy quietly admitted. “All those girls? Those Slayers that get killed in a fight? Or hurt? Sometimes I think they might’ve been safer if we just left them alone. What’s the worst they would’ve dealt with, hunh? Worrying about some boy asking them out on a date? Worrying about going to college? Or…or…just normal things. Everyday things. Instead, they’ve got to worry about keeping the world safe from evil and stopping the latest local apocalypse when they should be worrying about whether their clothes make them look fat.”
Xander didn’t dare move. He didn’t dare breathe. Finally, Buffy was letting the poison out of her system. He didn’t want to jeopardize it.
“And this thing with a Watcher group going all rogue on us,” Buffy beat an angry tattoo on the tabletop. “If it was just me and Faith, we wouldn’t even be here. We wouldn’t have needed them. Well, not all of them. We could’ve picked and chosen who we wanted to work with instead of grabbing everyone and anyone who had even the slightest clue. Now we’ve got evil Watchers with resources because we let them into the network, instead of potentially evil ex-Watchers and wanna-bes who have to start from ground zero.”
Xander slowly lifted himself out of his chair, rounded the table, and landed next to Buffy’s chair on one knee. “We don’t know that.”
“We don’t?” Buffy sadly asked. “How can you even begin to say that?”
“I can say it because it’s true,” Xander said with absolute certainty. “Sure, we’ve got problems, but you know what? If we went the other way, we would’ve had different problems, and they’d be just as big and just as scary.”
“But the Slayers, the Watchers, and all those other people—” Buffy weakly began.
“Maybe they would’ve been fine. Maybe they’d be dead anyway, but for different reasons. Buffy, we don’t know,” Xander gently interrupted. “All I can tell you is that if you’re looking for a definitive answer to, ‘did we do the right thing,’ prepare to be disappointed. There’s no way to ever know that. I don’t think anyone’ll ever know for sure — not tomorrow, not even 1,000 years from now — because there’s no way to know.”
Buffy shook her head and slumped even lower over her tea. “That’s not a lot of comfort there, Xan.”
“Just let me just say this, and I’ll shut up,” Xander said. “Buff, if you’ve heard nothing else I said, then at least listen to me on this, okay? People are going to screw up. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make bad decisions, sometimes really bad ones, and that means bad things will happen. And hey, guess what? Sometimes people will do everything right and make no bad decisions at all, and bad things will still happen. People are going to get hurt. They’re going to get killed. And you know what? That’s not on you. It’s not your fault. Sometimes…” Xander made sure to keep focused on her face, “Sometimes bad things just happen for no good reason at all and there’s nothing you can do about it. Playing ‘what if,’ Buff, is not going to help. It’s not going to help you, it’s not going to help the person you’re what-iffing about, and it’s definitely not going to help the people who are depending on you. Sometimes, all you can do is the best you can with what you’ve got. No one could, no one should, ask you for more than that. So stop thinking that you should be working yourself to death because someone, somewhere, might get hurt, otherwise you’ll tie yourself up in knots and you won’t be doing anyone any good at all.”
Buffy stared at him a few beats, as if she really were mulling over what he said. After a few minutes (or hours, God his sense of time really was screwed up), she lifted her hand and almost touched the left side of his face.
It took everything he had not to flinch.
“I guess…” she began. She cleared her throat, and started again. “I guess if you can say it, you of all people, I guess…”
“Hey,” Xander grabbed her left hand out of the air and kissed it without letting it go, “none of that, remember?”
Buffy looked down. “Okay.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know,” Buffy said. “I guess I have to think about it.”
“So think. Just stop punching yourself in the face while you’re doing it,” Xander lightly said.
Buffy suddenly leaned down and hugged him. “Thanks,” she softly said before letting him go.
“Hey, what are annoying friends for?” Xander grinned at her. He winced. Time was growing short, and he really did need to go.
Buffy noticed. “Something wrong?”
“Tired,” Xander lied. He faked a yawn and a stretch as he got to his feet. “Believe it or not, I’m feeling an attack of the sleepies coming on. What time is it?”
Buffy craned her neck so she could look at the wall behind him. “Wow. It’s almost 11:30. You got here just after 10. Guess we’ve been talking awhile.”
“That late?” Xander asked as he faked another yawn. “You know what that means, right? I haven’t slept in more than 24 hours.”
“Right.” Buffy hopped to her feet, all sense of purpose and ready for action, even if it was just seeing him safely to bed. “Time for a little of that sleeping action. March.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Xander gave her a sloppy salute as he turned out of the kitchen.
“If you need anything, I’ll be right out here,” Buffy called after him as he reached the bedroom door. “Believe me when I tell you, I’ll be sleeping pretty lightly until Omar gets here.”
Xander paused at the threshold. He needed to say one thing more. It was selfish, and it was totally for himself, but if he didn’t say it now he’d never get the chance.
“Hey, Buffy?” he asked as he turned around.
Buffy paused as she unfolded some kind of throw blanket and looked at him. “What’s up?”
Xander took a deep breath. “I love you. You know that, right?”
“Well, I love you, too,” Buffy lightly said as she finished her unfolding action and spread the blanket out on the couch.
“No. I mean, I love love you,” Xander corrected.
Buffy froze and looked at him with big eyes. “Oh.”
He held up his hand and smiled. He knew it was genuine because he could feel it on his face. “I know, I know. You love me, too, but not in the same way.”
“Xander, I — When did this happen?” Buffy sounded slightly guilty.
Xander shoved his hands in his pockets and cheerfully shrugged. “I’m not sure I ever stopped.”
“I loved her, too, but in a completely different way,” Xander quickly interrupted. “That is possible, you know.”
Buffy took a deep breath, like she was preparing for a fight, “Xander—”
“Buffy, it’s okay,” Xander interrupted again. “You feel what you feel, right? You’re totally under no obligation to return the feelings. I get that. I don’t expect it, either. I know that you love me as a friend, and I’m plenty happy with that. Actually, I’m just glad you didn’t drop kick me into the Hellmouth when I was 16 and I put you on the spot like this.”
“So why do it again if you didn’t think anything changed with me?” Buffy didn't sound angry or accusing. In fact, she sounded genuinely curious.
Xander looked away. “I just wanted you to know. In case tomorrow never comes, I guess.”
“Hey, stop it!” Buffy marched across the room and planted herself in front of him with crossed arms. “Tomorrow is so coming. You’re already here, and Omar’s on his way here. There will not only be a tomorrow, there will be a tomorrow full of much yayness. So stop thinking we’re all going to be struck by lightning.”
Xander looked down at her. “Okay.”
Buffy snapped a firm nod. Then she burst into a grin, and gave him another hug. “Everything’s going to work out. You’ll see.”
Xander’s heart sank as he returned the hug. “I know.”
“Good,” Buffy said as she let him go, as if her say-so had reformed the world into one that made sense to her. “Now get some sleep, and we’ll talk in the morning about good things. I’m thinking shopping, because that always cheers me up.”
Xander groaned, more out of habit than anything else. “Goodnight, Buffy.”
Xander stepped into the bedroom and turned to reach for the door handle.
“Xan, you do know that I really love you too, right?” Buffy asked.
Xander paused and looked at her. She seemed so serious, as if it was vitally important that Xander somehow understand her meaning, and why she couldn’t or shouldn’t met him halfway. “I know.”
She smiled, but it seemed a little bit sad in a way that Xander couldn’t quite place. “Sweet dreams.” It sounded like a wish for him, maybe even for both of them.
Xander nodded and gave her a final smile.
Then he closed the door.