Title: "Withdrawal"

The sequel to "Addiction"

Part 2 of 3 in the "Bad Habits" series.

Written by: Shawn

 

 

Summary: Starving yourself of a fulfilling life through one you've allowed yourself to become addicted to won't ever bring peace to your soul.

Rated: NC-17

Category: Erotica/Angst

Characters: Buffy, Xander, Faith, and Willow.

Ship: B/X

Timeline/Spoilers: Everything is cannon through the end of both series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series. The only difference is anything said about the Buffy characters whereabouts and activities in the last season of Angel are completely ignored here. After "Chosen" and "Not Fade Away" it's my universe all the way. Reading "Addiction" is a must before reading this one.

My personal archive: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ShawnsLibrary/

Disclaimer: Joss owns it all. I just let them out to play once in a while.

Email: DayShawn1974@hotmail.com

Authors Notes: This story takes place three weeks after "Addiction."

Dedicated to: Brooke, who I know is still wanted me to write "Shhhh," but this came out first. Loves ya bunches:)

 

~~~~~

"A Friend"

 

His smile

Like a warm embrace

To make me laugh

From this awful place.

The sadness that was all around,

So lost inside

Can I be found?

A story,

A joke,

A casual touch,

The softest stroke.

A friend to soothe

My deepest need,

A friend to listen

A friend indeed.

I never noticed

Your pretty eyes,

Or the casual power

Of your thighs.

So strong,

Yet sweet,

An engaging smile,

Touch me

Touch me

Just for awhile.

The heat, it shimmers

From far below.

How deep this need

How deep it goes.

I thought you friend,

I find you lover.

Your lips so soft,

My breasts you cover.

With your hand

You pull me close.

My need is rising

Until I explode.

At last I lay

Content,

A sigh.

My breathing slows

The knots untie.

My deepest sadness

Now my deepest peace.

The ache within

At last has eased.

A friend you've been,

In my heart you'll stay.

You touched my soul,

While in your arms I lay.

-- Lynne Raine

~~~~~

 

 

The apartment of Xander Harris

Monday, October 26, 2005 12:30 AM

London, England

 

 

Empty...

Apologies. Her best efforts. Her soul. Her regrets. All were aspects of the flesh and blood vessel known as Buffy Summers. Parts of the fractured whole, shattered yet again by another life slipping through her fingertips. Another loss on the mountain of losses behind it. The Slayer could kill any vampire, but never outrun the pain they caused.

And so she fled into the night, seeking...

Instead of the love she denies herself, grief led her here, to the one place... to the one man that makes her feel alive as the world crumbles around her. No, she does not feel empty in his bed, as he entered her so deeply.

Only Xander could fill the vast emptiness that threatened to swallow her whole. Only he could turn the lights back on when she shut her eyes to the darkness.

The silky smoothness of his lips on the flushed skin of her neck created sensations Buffy craved as she hummed her approval. Out of control, her body writhed beneath his, sweating under the covers as they merged into one. She's softly crying out his name as every long thrust spread her tender womanhood asunder, their bodies slick with perspiration, nearly out of breath from the intense slapping of their heated flesh.

She's so lost in him she can't begin to explain the ways he makes her blood boil. He's so lost in her he can't convey that there's nothing outside in all the world when he's inside her.

There's a small spot on the left side of her neck he knows she loves to have sucked, and so he does to amplify her pleasure tenfold. Her inner charms rippled along the full length of him as his hips delved into her slimmer ones, his hands anchoring her small body beneath his larger frame. Her voice altered from loud to soft and back again, depending upon if he picked up the pace, or took his time with her. Has he ever seen her as ravenous as she is tonight? No, and it turns him on as much as scares him.

Although his senses have been trained to detect danger and movement at a moments notice, no matter the situation, Xander was completely caught off guard when Buffy stealthily entered his apartment twenty minutes

ago. He didn't rouse to wakefulness until she was gnawing at his mouth, frantically tearing her clothes off, and then his as he had little time to note anything other than the tear tracks on her cheeks and the hungry possessiveness of her kisses. She didn't need to talk because her ferocity spoke wicked volumes. Her need could only be fulfilled by his body until she was ready to share her heart. His patience with her is why she would only ever seek him out. Would only ever share her passion and pain with him.

He's her special elixir. Her 'fix' when she needed to forget the evil and grab on to something pure with all her might.

Harshly inhaling air, Buffy felt as if her heart rate must have doubled. Lying dead center in his California king-sized bed, she clawed at his back with her pink nails and started gently biting him on the neck between passionate exclamations. Ever thankful for a skilled lover, Xander knew how to grind-thrust against her pelvis, providing that delicious rubbing of her sensitive clit. She needed it, and so he did it over and over until her body began to violently shake and her voice became a low whimpering whine. Lifting her hips, her body pulled his deeper within her. Her nails dug into the muscles of his back as he rode her harder, pounding a faster tempo to take her over the edge, and she's so close... closer, the only sound was their hard breathing and an occasional slap of flesh. He's the perfect thickness, filling her absolutely, curved at a angle that has moaning his name and God

and... and...

"Xannnndderrr... ohhhhhuhhhnnnn!!... godohgoddamn!!" Her nails raked at his back, ripping his skin the second her climax hit in thundering waves of shudders. Her orgasm was a combination of relief, anguish, and joy mixed in one. A thorough vibration of her entire body as great tremors tore through her. She held onto him so tight, the thought of ever letting him go never crossing her mind.

Feeling her vaginal walls pulling all around him was a mind-numbing experience Xander prayed would last

forever. Gripping his rigid shaft, the deliriously sexy purrs she made as she babbled his name from on high. Forever and a day after he'll be by her side. No regrets ever, holding himself over her while she recovered.

His large bedroom's bathed in light blue, courtesy of a luminous full moon peeking in through the open curtains of his window. The scent of them fills his nostrils, primal and ancient. Gazing down at her loveliness, a swell of affection swept over him all at once. Buffy. So beautiful... achingly, painfully beautiful... and sad.

As if lips touched hers in a unspoken promise, Buffy had never been kissed with such untold preciousness until Xander kissed her, and every time since their first time. Here, now, kissing her using a exquisite blend of affection and passion. Having her tongue sucked on in his mouth caused her to clench unconsciously around him. His soft exhale of air cooled her lips, causing her to savor him the more. Where there's dark, he is the light. When everything turns so hard, his touch is soft. When she's lost, she knows that wherever she is, no matter the circumstances, he will find her. And the truth of that knowledge is not lost on her. It's simply not appropriate for the here and now.

Someday... maybe.

Crumbled, sweat soaked sheets held the scent of their lust. Her tightness was daunting, as his every invasion made him "Ahh," and his every retreat made her "Ohh." They began gently, slowly perfecting their rhythm, kissing as deeply as he surged into her, and she could not get enough... never enough.

The ever changing colors in her eyes revealed a somberness he can barely stand to witness. Gazing into them, into her, he would gladly take all her pain on himself, so that she might never hurt again. He is that devoted, committed, and protective of her. She made him feel that needed, that vital, and desired all the times they are together. She whispers a sweet command...

"Faster."

He obliges, spreading his knees apart for a deeper angle as he pounded into her faster, rattling the headboard of his bed against the wall, giving into the reckless lust she inspires from one heartbeat to the next. Pride grew within his chest as her lips trembled, her mouth opened wide, and every muscle in her body tensed all at once.

"Aaah! uggghhh!" Her eyes rolled behind shut lids, and then it hit her so damn hard... she came again with a piercing squeal, wrenching his cock in tight twists as her limbs hugged him so hard he could barely breathe.

"Yes..." she declared to the heavens above, soaked in her sweat and his and the decadent scent of their passion all around them. Her body quivered with aftershocks as he held her through them, one and all. Her nipple hardened within his mouth as he suckled her, firmly squeezing her breasts with his strong hands. As overwhelmingly comforting as his presence is, anguish still stalked even here, in the safety of her lovers bed, though she paid it no mind. He's erect and throbbing. The predator within her needed him to bend to her will and submit, so she had to act.

Suddenly mesmerized, Xander didn't have time to react when Buffy shoved them over, slipped him out of her, grabbed the edges of the covers and pulled them over her head as she descended. His throat unleashed a animalistic howl the second her tongue lashed a bead of their combined fluids from the tip of his cock. She lapped the tiny ineffectual droplets of his precum with her eyes shut, operating on instinct alone. He couldn't see her and knew she didn't want him to. Knew she wanted to submerge herself in the dark for a time. This is her game, and he'll play it any way... she kissed the sensitive head of his shaft again, then used one long lick from base to tip, before engulfing it in the burning heat of her mouth.

"Oh god..." he whimpered as a slave to his master, hands clenching at the bed sheets. His voice made a indecipherable growl of pleasure as he struggled to contain himself.

Velvety smooth and so hard, the taste isn't even registered as she began to softly nurse the tip of his cock, loving the way his hips tensed and the muscles of his thighs shook. Then quietly and so very slowly, she began to take more of him into her mouth, sliding her lips up and down his hardness, escaping a cruel world by pleasure alone.

The dark blue covers rose and fell over his lap as her tongue bathed the full length of his cock. Then her mouth took him home again, raiding his mind of coherent thought by increasing the vacuum around him, drowning him with her oral affection. She's in total control of this, if nothing else. Control of this good man who she wants to hurt through pleasure, only to heal again. Proof of life. Her fist wrapped around the base of his constantly throbbing shaft as she corkscrewed her hand while sucking as hard as she could, hollowing her cheeks, taking him to the very back of her throat.

"Feels so good, Buff...oh man that feels good." Incoherent noises sprung from his mouth as the sound of her sucking and the feel of her fist, and the pressure locked around his aching cock left him breathless. He moaned his need in a language known only to lovers. Delirious. A blow job surely from the Gods. His heart refused to slow, in time with her non-stop assault on his senses. She inhaling him so hard and the fact that he can hear it is fast driving him toward the edge. He can feel that growing tension coiling like a rattle snake ready to strike, and finally, at the end, she twisted his cock one last time while sucking hard on the tip.

Past the point of no return, Xander bellowed at the top of his lungs, the sound muted, but gratifying nonetheless from Buffy's standpoint under the covers. The absolute atomic breakdown of his nervous system felt as if he were caught somewhere between birth and death. His eruption came in the form of several hard bursts of hot cum, and she swallowed unconsciously, thinking nothing at all of the flavor, but of the completely broken man she's conquered for all time. The power. The mastery. She reveled in it. The way his thighs shuddered, his heavy breathing 'opening-night on Broadway' applauded her glorious efforts. Yes, she could do this and do it well. Better than anyone ever, for him alone. For him she would never fail.

"Buffy... Buffy," he panted her name as if chanting worship to a God. Her tight seal around him never wavered, and as the over sensitivity began to get to him, he tried to gently shift away, only to have her hands trap his wrists by his sides. He chuckled at her dominance, glad she couldn't see the wincing faces he made. Borderline pain began to creep in as she sucked so hard she stretched out the small muscles around her mouth. She made wet gulping sounds as she swallowed him. Again and again her head bobbed over his semi-erect cock, sucking harder than before. "Buffy... honey, I can't... it's to much."

He strained against her superior strength, but she wouldn't budge, holding him captive as she drank her full. The only thought filtering through her mind was that she could control this. Lost in a blur of raw need, she swallowed him whole, time and again until his movements became so aggressive and his pleas so urgent she finally snapped out of it, fearing she might have been hurting him. At long last she released him on the wing tips of a gasp, lying her cheek on his thigh beneath the warm covers, her breath warming a spot on his soft skin. Gasping for air, Xander shivered, his toes still curling. Gathering her wits, Buffy slowly crawled up his body, kissing his jittery tummy on her way up his chest. Hovering over his heart, she softly kissed the rapidly beating muscle under his skin, throbbing just below her lips.

Lying flush over his body, warm skin to warm skin, Buffy's bad girl facade seemed to fade gently into thin air, her face betraying a vast array of conflicting emotions. "I had a bad night," she confessed to the only person she confides in.

"You'll have a better morning," Xander assured her with a soft kiss, gently stroking her hair, tapering a few errant strands behind her ears. She seemed appreciative. Even if it never reached her eyes. "No one called me. What happened tonight?"

She can't share that with him just yet. But when she does... when her breakdown happens, she trusts him to be there to hold her. "I couldn't sleep. I..." her head lowered, and she looked away. Her voice fled her very throat.

Something did indeed happen tonight, and it was terrible for her. Xander knew that for certain as he knows

her. Knows that while she thoroughly enjoys their sexual escapades, there's a difference between when the Slayer is in the mood to play with him and when there's a deeper meaning behind their desperate erotic encounters. And in the pale moonlight, the faint tear streaks on her lovely face smooth away his need to know all right now. What she needs tonight is his submission to her will, body and soul. "I'm here for you. Whatever you need, it doesn't matter what it is, I’m here for... OhhBuffy..." Xander could not help but to moan her name the second she grasped his cock, shifted back, and took him inside the welcoming heat and moisture of her body again.

"I need this," she declared in a husky tone, pumping her hips until he was fully sheathed within her. "I need you," she told him truthfully on a long down stroke, burying him to the balls, a twinkle of mischief behind her conflicted hazel eyes. She set a maddening pace as his thick wall of flesh filled her. No man has ever touched her so deeply, on every level, and so no man has ever satisfied her, left her begging for more, than him.

Grasping his hands in hers, twining their fingers, Buffy rode him at a steady gallop. Warm sensations spread through her loins and deep in her belly. She took him in further, engulfed in her slick heaven as they held hands and fucked, never once taking their eyes off the other.

The covers were just over her backside and hips, barely covering the lower half of her body. The sight of her entire upper body bathed in moonlight, her moody dark eyes, that gorgeous blonde hair, with those beautifully erect coral-tipped nipples drove him mad. Having silently let go, his hands fell to her slim hips, offering his guidance as she rode him all the way down. The sight of his cock disappearing inside her humid confines never ceased to take his breath away. His hands rose of their own accord, firmly kneading her soft breasts, loving the way she threw her head back and rolled her hips, effectively fucking him this time.

They were in perfect sync, working each other carefully, steadily toward a mutual climax. The bed creaked and groaned underneath them as the springs flung him up to meet each new down thrust.

Xander sat up suddenly, changing the angle that caused Buffy to hum his name. His hands filled with the supple cheeks of her ass, kneading them now as he bent down and sucked a pebbled nipple into his mouth, holding it firm as his tongue played over it.

Lying her head on his shoulder, she could only roll her hips back and down, filling her with as much of him as she could take. Needing his kiss, she stole it from him, hands holding his face as they devoured, plundered, and sated their hunger for the other through merging lips and glistening tongues.

Contrary to Dawn's continuous teases and allusions, Buffy knows the sheer truth of her liaisons with Xander. It's not as if after seven months the realization suddenly hit her over the head. If the truth be told, she knew after the fourth month for sure. Knew when sleeping with him made her not want to move the next morning. She knew when he made her laugh so hard she could barely breathe over dinner. She knew when the thought of spending the evening with another man wasn't something she'd even consider. And she knew when his arms encircled her while watching movies on a rare night off felt like the best place in the world to be. She knew, not because her eyes were shut to the truth, but because her heart was open enough to see it clearly.

It's only the circumstances that have led them here, silencing their innermost feelings. They're not in a good place in their individual lives. They're not in a healthy frame of mind, and haven't been for quiet some time. Whenever one considers expressing the depth of what they share, horror clouds it, diminishes and taints, thus shoving it away for another day until infinity or they simply wear each other down and walk away.

Everyone has a breaking point. It's only the direction one breaks that matters.

Softer cries of pleasure encouraged Xander into longer thrusts, spooned behind her now under the covers. His hand moved between her thighs, stroking her clit with tender brushes in time with each slick lunge. This is the peaceful, dare they admit it, loving side to their passion. Just right of sweet. Just left of tender. Their bodies were rhythmically rocking back and forth, wet with perspiration, voices murmuring quietly in the dark.

Buffy tilted her head as she pushed back, meeting his thrusts, loving the hot hardness filling her inner self. They're kissing as they grind as one, his body aligned exactly behind hers. His knees fit into the back of hers as if matching pieces to a puzzle. His chest plastered to her back as his hips snapped into her, her bare ass grounding back. Neither evil nor death could intrude on this primal dance, their cleansing act of feverish lust, wiping away the hell of their lives.

What it is and what it isn't didn't matter. Stories for another day. What was shared in this bed had no real definition, nor understanding beyond the two people engaged in the moment. They comfort through passion. Through sex, kissing, and affection. They hold on with trust and sincerity. Honest caring is never far from the surface. It wouldn't work for most, isn't for everybody, but does indeed work for them.

As the emotional flood crested, a tidal wave of intense pleasure swept over Buffy and Xander, lifting their bodies to heights of exquisite sensation, of infinite tremors as they came together. Buffy's drawing Xander's forth, dragging him over the edge with her as they at last rested in one another’s arms. Only instead of a steadfast deep sleep of the sated, Xander held her as she cried her dear eyes out, sobbing uncontrollably against his neck, murmuring the same phrase over and over.

"I couldn't find him."

 

 

******

The Next Morning

7:30 AM

******

 

 

Warm and toasty, for lack of a better clichéd word, best described the yawning Slayer as she slowly came around to waking up. The soft breathing of warm exhaled life cascading against the back of her neck matched the comforting heat of the sun shining in through the open bedroom window. Sighing peacefully in Xander's arms, Buffy flat-out refused to open her eyes just yet. The thick dark blue covers were so comfortable she dare not move. With his big protective body literally wrapped around her own, she gave up her title of 'capable solitary grown woman,' albeit briefly, and enjoyed the depth of caring this man shared with her as he slept.

After the wetness of the sheets and stickiness of their own bodies, as well as the odorous need for a shower overwhelmed them in the middle of the night, they rose from the bed, drowsy and bratty, on their way to his master bathroom. The most sleepy shower ever shared took place, along with them dragging their feet back to his bed, quickly changing the sheets. They slipped on whatever clothes were at the top of the dresser drawers, and climbed back into bed. As always, be it literally or otherwise, they found each other in the dark. Romance novels often over-dramatize affection between lovers, and yet, who would not want to sleep in the arms of the one they...

If she'd been conscious enough when they fell back into bed, she would have laughed at his black Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith t-shirt and Flintstone pajama pants. He had questionable fashion taste even with his sleeping attire, she smiled past a yawn last night. Disheveled and barely able to keep his eyes open, her old Xander peeked out from behind the quieter current model. Whatever Darth Vader and Fred Flintstone had in common, Buffy didn't have a clue.

After mumbling something about pancakes in her ear that she vaguely remembered, Xander fell asleep spooned behind her, with one long leg dangled over her slender thigh, one arm wrapped snug around her waist, and his face buried in the tresses of her silky blonde hair. Ever the pillow hog, she shared with him despite her unwritten rule. She shifted closer so that not an inch seperated there bodies, and sought rest in his protective embrace. Mere seconds passed before she fell asleep, further testament to her need of the way she feels when she's with him.

Last night and this morning were more than simply night and day comparisons. When duty called, she answered heroically, as always. As expected. She did her job. The Slayer kills vampires. That's not only prophecy, that's fact. Unfortunately, ancient text never spoke of rescue missions. The strength that could rip the arm off a vampire, or punch a hole in a demons chest could just as easily rip a door of it's hinges, or punch a hole in a wall. She did her job... and more. Or less, as it turned out.

Cops cope. Fireman cope. Doctors, nurses, military servicemen, disaster relief workers... They all cope with the inevitable bad experiences you face in life when you're reminded that you are all to human, that life is all to precious to ever waste, and that happy endings more often than not are only found in the back of children’s storybooks. Buffy pondered this as she laid on her side, wondering when such bitter depressing thoughts entered her way of thinking. She never wanted to be a glass half empty sort of girl. She never saw depression behind all the vampires as a potential enemy in her future. Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, at least you're among the stars.

Sounds so good on paper.

She cried her eyes out last night in front of her whole team on a windy rooftop. Thankfully, they're trusted colleagues and friends. Never has she expressed her emotions so openly in public. Not ever. She cried under the bright lights of approaching and lifting off rescue helicopters as Watchers Council EMT's helped load victims and a devastated parent verbally berated her. She cried behind the wheel of her car an hour later, forgoing a trip to Council Headquarters for her full report. She cried under her hot showers spray, and even when she got back behind the wheel of her car. Fuck them, she remembers muttering murderously under her breath as her fist bashed her steering wheel. She thought of getting drunk or going to a church to pray or going somewhere to get high and forget. Her little stash at home was empty... She thought of what she felt like giving in to, and what grief made you do when you felt as if you were worthless to everyone, everywhere.

In her darkest hour of need, Buffy thought only of Xander. Of her true north. Her safe port in a storm best known as her life. Not able to recall how, she found herself pulling into his apartment buildings parking garage. Minutes later she found herself in his bed, vigorously trading her crushing grief for pleasure. She took. He gave. They shared, showered, and slept the rest of the night away.

Her Xander...

Buried under the warm covers, Buffy absently ran her small hand over the strong arm circled her slim waist, gently grazing the soft skin over muscle. He's gone from lanky to being a big guy who carried his size well before they fled Sunnydale, and then trained his way into the chiseled man of today. His physique didn't feature a ripped six pack or anything so defined. But beneath the surface, he's so much stronger, and it looks so good on him she can barely stand to see him with clothes on. Allowing herself a little smile, she shifted ever so slightly, yet even sound asleep Xander would not let her get away. As if perceptive of her every move, he pulled her closer, his arms tightening ever so. His breath hitched until she gave up moving at all, resigned to his protective need. He quickly settled back into a deep sleep once he was assured she was safe by his side.

Xander. Her protector. Her lover. Her best friend. Her champion.

... as if she 'ever' truly as a grown woman loved another man.

Allowing her heart to accept the moment, she enjoyed the tender affection he freely offered. She picked up the faint sounds of traffic from outside. Suddenly, a plane flew overhead, it's engines roaring as it soared. Evidence of the world waking up to a new day. Suddenly... brutally, she imagined little boys playing stick ball in the street. Riding bikes together, preparing for their next grand adventure just around the corner. Little boys who to run fast and jump as high as they could. To be active and wild, yet tamed by a caring parent when they strayed to far. They were loud and energetic. Grinning smiles so wide their faces could barely contain them. Attempting to avoid hugs from their mothers, yet craving her adoration at the same time.

Only when the twin streaks of moisture descended her cheeks did Buffy even realize she was crying... softly and hidden from Xander, her tears soaking the pillow they shared. Fuck Angelus! Fuck The Master! Fuck the Mayor! Fuck Glory and every motherfucking demon and vampire she has ever killed because Godamnit, she failed last night... and all her anger, cursing, shame, triumphs, and mistakes didn't matter at all! Not one damn bit!

And so she cried. Wept softly until her eyes hurt from the strain, and the warmth of his embrace barely shut out the cold.

The soft pads of his thumbs gently wiped her tears away. She exhaled a long breath she didn’t even know she was holding. A new day has come, and so she has to be an adult and face it. She knows she can't lay in this big warm bed all day with him and forget her duty. She knows that. But it doesn't stop her from wanting it.

Waking to find her quietly crying in his arms nearly broke Xander's already battered heart. Just how much more could they take? How bad was what happened last night? Slowly, he told himself. Take things slowly with her. That's what she needs and cannot ask for. "Good morning," he expressed further with a tender kiss just below her ear. He watched as her lips curled into a smile for a fraction of a second, only to falter yet again.

She said, and meant it. "I'm ready to talk."

"I'm here to listen." Regretfully, he allowed her to pull away from the safe haven of his arms, but not so far away. Wearing that charmingly cute pink 'Hello Kitty' t-shirt she often wore to bed and her plaid ladies Hanes boxers, he wanted to kiss her so bad, and knew that he couldn't. He instantly felt the loss. Pushing aside his feelings, his only concern was hers. She sat Indian style, her legs crossed, just to his right. In all the years he's known her, and all the wars he's seen her fight, not even the day her mother died has she looked so fragile.

From the beginning, as they say. Buffy lifted her eyes to meet his, and found only caring staring back

at her. "Around 6:00 PM yesterday one of our vampire informants gave my sector chief the heads up on a high rise apartment building in Manchester being used as a front for a vampire-bleeding distribution center. As you know, they've sprung up all over Great Britain in the last couple of months."

"When I saw one in Wales last August, I just about vomited. The idea that vampires were keeping humans barely alive and semi-conscious, bleeding them nearly to the point of death, only to feed them intravenously to keep them alive was the sickest thing I've ever seen."

"Yeah..." she quietly replied, her head lowered. "My team and I took up a surveillance position on the roof of a office building next door. We saw them removing walls in the top three floors. They were gutting the place."

Xander shook his head. "Vampire Extreme Home Makeover. I guess we have seen it all."

"That's when we noticed the glass coffins being assembled on five separate floors. They were setting up shop like it was no big deal." The strain of telling this story has left her hands shaking in her lap. "I took six Slayers with me. I had two of my snipers take out seven vamps that were on the roof."

"Bullets with time released droplets of holy water. Mans greatest creation."

"Their silencers took them out without alerting anyone to our presence. The girls and I roped our way across the street and stormed the building. That's when all hell broke loose."

As badly as Xander wanted to take her in his arms, she's strong enough to face this and anything on her own. But she might not realize that at the moment. She needs to lean on herself and he accepts that. Not easily, but he does.

Buffy's tone of voice remained even, and eerily calm. "We battled our way through the first two floors, slaying twenty or more vampires like they were nothing at all. Three of them had guns, but we were so good and moved so fast they only got one shot off. That stray bullet didn't get anywhere near us." Flash images of last night haunted her suddenly, as a cold shiver criss-crossed her spine. Was someone walking over her grave? That's what it felt like. "We grabbed the last vamp trying to escape and beat information out of him. He said a vampire named Ducard purchased the building legally as a human, and planned to keep the first ten floors as a residential apartment building. The tenants were going to be off limits and the building would be a front for what activities took place upstairs. They were planning on selling fresh blood like a Vamperic McDonalds."

"Ewww, I'd like to add."

"He told us there were thirty people, mostly the homeless and runaways, being held on the twelfth floor, about to be comatized."

"What did you do?"

"I threw him out of the nearest window." His laugh wasn't bitter, but didn't quite light his face up either. "I called in for back-up, and was told Faith's team was twenty minutes away at best and you were in Lincolnshire and Willow was on another plain of existence, as Robin put it."

"That wacky Willow and her dimension jumping."

"Anyway, I gathered all the Slayers together and took the stairs down two floors until we encountered more vamps. A lot more to be exact. I sent Shayla to cut the electricity, and when it went out, we slaughtered those vampires," she recalled... and at the time it had been fun to let loose all her rage and annihilate those

vampires. Whenever she could touch the darkness safely, she never denied herself the opportunity. "I found Ducard, we bantered a bit, and I cut his head off. The other vampires began scattering, but one of them hit some keys on a computer keyboard in the next room. Before one of my girls could get to him we heard a huge explosion a few floors below us that rocked the whole building. They booby-trapped the building, setting it on fire with

a bomb. So there we were, needing to get thirty poeple out alive with the elevators gone, the building on fire, and the rest of Ducard's guards attacking all at once."

"How did you win?"

His confidence in her abilities is admirable, if misplaced. Still, it felt good. "I yelled to everyone in the room that all I wanted were the people in the floors below us to get out alive. If the vamps fight us they risk dying themselves. I told them about the line attached to the building across the street and told them they could get away using it. They all ran for the roof. I knew when we got back up there they would have cut the line, but it didn’t matter. I called Robin and said he would have four Council helicopters there inside of fifteen minutes. All we had to do was get the people out."

She's withdrawn into herself, having never appeared so unsure to him before. Xander looked on as she cried, but did not seek to wipe away her tears this time. Crying is a form of cleansing, and so she has to do this. He held his peace, his own face betraying none of his inner turmoil at watching her suffer through the events of

last night. "Thirty people?"

Buffy gave a slow, somber nod. "I sent two of my Slayers to the roof just to make sure all the vampires were gone. The other four and myself ran downstairs. We knew we had to save those people right away or they were dead. When we arrived a lot of them were already dead. We found a few of them blindfolded, bound, and gagged. That would have been a good thing because we hoped they would all be together in one place, except one of the men told us that while we were fighting upstairs, a group of them in a floor below somehow managed to escape. The vampires were searching for them when we arrived. I took off running, Xander." Her shoulders slumped as the color seemed to drain from her face. "I ran as fast as I could down those stairs through all that smoke and I couldn't see and..." her painful, wincing features accompanied a fresh wave tears yet again.

Sniffling hard, she somehow pulled herself together. "At the bottom of the stairs I found two little girls holding their mother, who had been knocked unconscious when the explosion hit. They were hysterical, crying and so scared. They tried to explain what happened, but all I could think about was getting them out of there. I grabbed the mother and took them back upstairs as fast as I could. My other Slayers went as far into the fire as they were able to, carrying two or three people at a time. None of them were conscious. When I reached the roof the first of the Council's helicopters was landing with another not far way. I gave the woman and her daughters to my second-in-command, Pamela, but one of the little girls tugged on my sleeve and told me her older brother, a eleven year old boy named Collin, was still down there. He had run off to find help and never came back. I took off running again."

Needing to be closer to her, Xander moved beside Buffy and wrapped his arm over her shoulder. Her shudders tore at his soul, and yet he held his peace, allowing her to continue uninterrupted.

"I ran down five flights of stairs through the blackest smoke I had ever seen, and in the worst heat you could possibly imagine. I couldn't breathe, but I could hear the boy screaming for help. I could hear him crying out as I tried to find him, but the explosion collapsed an entire hallway and I... My hands were burning as I threw debris left and right. The smoke was so dark... All the while his voice grew quieter. He yelled until he couldn't anymore. I heard him choke his last breath, and found him unconscious, huddled next to a elevator that wouldn't open. I tried CPR, but he was already dead. God, he was burned so badly... I... I just didn't... he was... All I could do was carry his body back up all those stairs, with him bleeding all over me, and hand him over to the Council EMT's. His mother was awake when I returned and she started yelling and screaming at me. Why couldn't you save my son!!! Over and over until I just broke down. I fell to my knees and..."

He didn't have to wait for her to reach for him, and finally she's in his arms, crying so hard... harder than he can ever remember anyone crying. The death of a child, under any circumstances, affects them all deeper than anything else. Having heard her heroic account of last nights events, he knows she can't see the truth past her grief and pain. So he held her tight to his chest, brushing her hair in a soothing manner, pressing soft kisses to her forehead as she released this flood of ferocious emotion. Her fists gripped his shirt so tight she nearly tore the fabric.

Xander rocked her in his arms as her sobs tore through her without end. He held her until he was sitting back against the head board, cradling her in his arms, giving to her whatever it is she needed.

This is why she comes here... to him, always. He offers no speeches, or opinions, nor does he ask anything of her that she cannot give. He is simply, utterly, there for her, and asks for nothing in return. As heavy as her arm felt, she wiped away the last of her tears, smiling up at him through misty eyes. He has to know the depth of what she feels for him. If he doesn't, then... his caress conveys what they refuse to acknowledge. Yes, he knows.

"Did you do your best?"

"My best wasn't good enough."

"Your best is all anyone can do."

"Tell that to the boys mother and see if it offers her any comfort."

"Nothing will comfort her. Not right now, at least. And not for a long time probably." He touched her arm to draw her attention back to him from some faraway place. "Trust me, she didn't mean what she said to you last night. And when she's done grieving, she'll remember who saved her life and the lives of her children still alive." His hands cupped her face as she shut her eyes to his kind words. "You're a hero, Buffy. You did everything you could possibly do to save as many lives as you could. You did your very best."

"I heard him screaming, Xander. Screaming!!!" she yelled at him, shifting out of his arms to sit in front of

him now. "Do you fucking get this!!" she grit angrily through her teeth, shaking with emotion. "If I had bothered to look around before I took the mother upstairs I might have found him in time."

"You'll never know that."

"I'll remember him screaming."

"And you'll live with it the same way you live with finding your mother dead."

Xander stopped her dead cold, cooling her fiery despair with the truth. His straight forward, unapologetic point of view wasn't meant to hurt her, but to remind her she can overcome anything. "I hate this."

"Be more specific."

"I hate my life."

"We're a perfect match then. I hate mine too," he managed to smile at her.

"Isn't that sad?"

"... yes."

"Then what do we do about it?"

"I don't know. I haven't a clue where to begin."

Neither did Buffy, admitted begrudgingly. Back and forth they trade nightly tragedies, never for a second having the chance to enjoy this connection between them. "Do you ever wish we..." she paused. "You ever wish that we were different."

She's alluding to that huge elephant in the room they ignore with a masters touch. He can't play dumb with her, nor can he lie to himself. Far to many nights of sleeping with her, kissing her, ravishing her body under the pretense of lust and need, which were all true, but shadowing the far greater truth. "Yeah, sometimes."

"Only sometimes?" she inquired with the curious quirk of a brow.

"Lust is easy. What you're talking about... we've never been very good at that."

"We don't try, Xander."

"I have, Buffy. You speak for yourself on that one."

If she didn't know him so well, or care for him so deeply, she might have taken that the wrong way. "I've never had with any man what I have with you. That's why this is different."

Pledging forever, or until the day he died would be so easy if they weren't so damaged by this crazy lifestyle they live, or the fear of risking what’s the best thing he's ever felt for something better that might kill it all. Emotional cowards, both of them. Xander ducked his head, but only for a moment. "I need you."

"I need you more."

She leaves him breathless, constantly. "You mean the world to me, Buffy."

"But you love someone else?"

"No," he answered her clever question, all the while enjoying the faint hint of a blush coloring her cheeks. "Do you love someone else?"

"No," she replied, smiling softly as she fell back into his arms. "I don't like you."

She better not. "I don't like you either." Xander kissed her so deeply as they slithered back under the covers, searching, seeking, finding all that they needed... all that inspired and fulfilled... all that connected them, mind, body, and soul.

With the brilliant warmth of the early morning sun raining down upon them through a open window, they made love, and spoke not a single word the whole time.

 

 

******

 

******

 

The Coven Witch Academy

Thursday, November 12, 2005 1:30 PM

Birmingham, West Midlands in England

 

 

The Rosenberg’s old two-story Victorian home was in many ways to a young Xander the very best place in his little world. Safe, warm, quiet, and he could always count on a good home cooked meal. From the very moment he raced up the five steps to the front door, even the charming rose-decorated 'Welcome' mats seemed to alert him that he was entering some place friendly.

Here, there were no 'Welcome' mats. Nothing at all seemed friendly about these hallowed halls. As Xander entered the boarded up former Elementary school that’s a cover for the Coven Witches Academy due to a mirage spell, only the eerie specter of a dark voice from a entity with no physical form greeted him the moment he ventured into this mystical place. Not once since the day he first came here did that voice fail to send a shiver up and down his spine.

Willow's father often waved to him, smiling from the den whenever Xander stopped by. He'd always ask him how he was doing, and give him five dollars for no reason at all. He was a good soul like that to a boy who needed as many good souls as possible in his life. Looking back on it now, Xander didn't realize just how much trust the Rosenberg’s had in him, seeing as how he could always go up to Willow's room alone, shut the door, and stay for hours on end. There was a innate bond between him and Willow's parents. Perhaps they understood better than anyone the deep, close friendship their only child had with this poor kid from down the street.

The red cloaked Coven witch-guards only nodded in respect to one of the Watchers Council Senior Agents as he walked down the ancient winding hall, with it's archaic stone walls, other worldly tapestry that seemed to be whispering to itself, and mirrored ceilings. The sheer fact that you could see ethereal spirits... actually see white fading ghosts of men and women wearing everything from aristocrat clothing, to old world Colonial attire, and even slave chains moving in and out of the walls only added to this academy’s mystic. Xander felt the entire facility was a 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' wet dream.

The typical girls bedroom, Willow's contained all of the things Xander pretended he could care less about, and wish he had a fifth of at his own home. Well, maybe not the over abundance of dolls and doll houses, but the space to move around, her big comfy bed, a window facing a nice wide-open backyard, the cool lava lamp on her dresser and the quiet of a happy household. Looking back on it now, his true home as a child belonged to the Rosenberg’s. His own home was merely a place he slept because he had no other choice.

Upon passing the 'living-doors' on the fifth-floor Head Mistresses Hall of the academy, Xander reached the end of it, now standing at the office door of Professor Willow Rosenberg. Every time he read the words written in majestic smoke above her door, he smiled. Surely it was the title he always expected her to claim, only in Astro physics, or computer engineering, or something along those lines. Never in the mystical arts. My how times have changed.

Raising his hand, Xander prepared to knock on the door, but before his hand could connect the door simply faded away, and just inside he saw her. Saw his very best, oldest, dearest friend. Nothing in the universe could contain his smile, especially after having been denied hers for the past two weeks. "Someone’s pocketing all the Watchers Council office furniture budget, I see."

He's a sight for sore eyes, looking oh so handsome in that three-quarter length black leather jacket, gray sweatshirt, dark jeans, and boots. Willow felt joy the second he walked in. The door reappeared behind him, yet she didn't move just yet. She intended to enjoy his gentle teasing she knew was to come, having missed it and him terribly the last two weeks. "I have no idea what you are talking about, Mr. Harris," she replied in a whimsical

tone.

The Nofma Clear oak wood floor would probably have been an amazing compliment to the appropriate furniture set if the large office contained any furniture at all. Last time he was here the place looked immaculate, and a far cry from what Buffy calls his 'pig sty' of an office at Council HQ. From Xander's vantage point near the entrance, he marveled yet again at Willow levitating instead of sitting on a chair. Then again, her computer, keyboard and mouse also levitated. Her cordless phone hung in mid-air, as did three orbs containing raging fires inside them. Her pens, notepads, folders, and pencils also floated freely in the air. Stacks of books hung up, clustered together in the corner. And if that wasn't strange enough, the smooth walls were not painted any one color, but would change color depending on Willow's mood. Right now they were a serene green. A comforting color like the grass they used to sit in her backyard so many years ago. Five gold and jeweled paintings slowly rotated around the room, each containing moving images. One of children playing. One that resembled a reenactment of the Civil War. And another of a young girl discovering magic for the very first time. They were like mini-movies drawn by a master painter.

Astounding... and a bit foreboding, in Xander's eyes.

He's truly seen it all, but most of all, he's just happy to see her. "Do I have to do a spell to get you to

hug me?" She's off like a rocket, swooping into his arms in a big warm hug both needed far more than they could say.

"I missed you so much. In that other plane of existence I was stuck on for a few weeks, they didn't have TV or anything interesting at all. And the food was terrible."

"What kind of a plane of existence are they with no TV? A plain plane if you ask me."

She's missed that crooked smile, and so she hugged him tighter, enjoying the faint scent of his cologne. Pulling away, she noted the dark handle that poked her in the rib. "You brought your gun with you?"

"Like my American Express card, I never leave home without it," he replied, releasing her as they smiled. "It's a habit. Sorry."

Blinking, Willow shook her head apologetically. "It's no big deal. Sometimes I just have to remind myself you're a Senior Agent of the Watchers Council and a bad mofo like Shaft."

"Shut yo mouth."

"I'm just talking 'bout Shaft," she laughed, their humor practiced as routine over so many years. By the hand she led him over in front of where she had been levitating. "I got rid of my old furniture set in here because these levitating spells are just so much easier. The Academy janitorial staff personally thanked me."

"And you can pocket your furniture budget money."

"Well, that too. And you know how I love my Prada shoes. They don't come cheap." Leading him by the hand, she carefully motioned for him to take a slightly squatted position, bending down until a look of surprise came over his face. "Trust it, Xander. It's there. Just relax."

"If you say so." Trusting her, Xander allowed himself to fall back a bit and felt the very air around his body tingle and cushion as he slumped into a sitting position, upright and normal as any chair he'd ever sat in. He felt fully supported by something he could not see. He could touch and run his hand everywhere around him, but his body was fully and comfortably supported by the very air around him. He shifted a little until he centered himself, then looked up as Willow levitated again just in front of him, as if a imaginary desk were between them. "You're just full of new tricks, aren't you?"

"Magic, for me, is a way of life," she offered as a valid, albeit somber, excuse. Settling down with him, she felt a sense of ease for the first time in a long time. "Two whole weeks."

"Yeah, I know. Aside from your stay here a while back we haven't been apart that long since my little trip over the summer a couple of years ago."

"Yeah, but even then you called me all the time. And I Western Unioned you money quite a bit."

"Hey, not quite a bit."

She smirked, recalling, "Ten times, Xander."

"Gas, snacks, new tires, and a fuel pump were not easy replacements on my poor old used car and paltry vacation budget." Relaxed in mood, Xander took a good long look at her. His Willow, her luminous fair skin, freckles hidden by a light foundation of makeup, her hair as vibrant as ever, and even a bit longer than she's worn it since high school. Her green and red silk cloak added a regal quality she already possessed. She looks great... and quiet. Even a bit, withdrawn. If he's not mistaken, the walls were a shade of rust before changing quickly when she saw him. "How was your trip?"

Shrugging, Willow had little interest in talking about it. Very little interest indeed. "If you've seen one plane of existence, you've seen them all. A couple of extra moons in the sky, two or more suns, waters a different color, blah, blah, blah. I had to negotiate a peace treaty between two factions of Immortals. I saw some people fight to the death and lost one of my students in the melee."

That nearly sucked all the air out of the room. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"So am I," she uttered in a deathly low tone of voice. "The Watchers Council continues to send me to diffuse these potential wars so that those species won't one day hop over here and want to start trouble. The problem is they depend on me way too much to fix things that we should not be dealing in." Her demeanor took on a slightly tense pose, as the walls began to fade into a darker green. "I've lost ten students in the last six months going back and forth between dimensions. Those Immortals are barbaric and cruel, but that is 'their' way and we can't change 'their' culture to fit ours. I agree with the need to keep an eye on them, but no more than that and frankly I'm sick and tired of being taken for granted by the Watchers Council." She took a deep, calming breath, having not meant to raise her voice, then added ominously, "It's not like I need them."

She meant the Watchers Council, and he knew she was right. There were enough witches and the Coven were organized enough now to fight evil without anyone’s help, if they so chose. It was only the Councils longstanding alliance with the Coven that kept things the way they were for hundreds of years.

A head tilt here and there afforded Xander the sight of the walls shading a gray color now. Willow’s mood seemed to shift on a downward spiral. How suddenly her outburst came. Xander's instantly worried about her. "We're you very close to those girls?"

A sad laugh later, "They were handpicked by me for the missions, as well as trained by me personally. They were among my first class that I schooled in the mystical arts alone. They were more than my students. They were friends."

He could relate, especially with his and Buffy's experiences in recent weeks. Losing someone close to you is never easy, and they've all lost so many. "Sometimes I feel the Watchers Council is a necessary body, but even with Giles and Robin in charge, they don't see the forest for the trees. Then again, I may just need a vacation."

"Take me with you please," she half-joked, half begged, her legs crossing in mid-air.

"Remember that three-month vacation we all talked about taking on the plane ride to London?"

How could she forget. Willow remembered the Scoobies sitting in the back of the plane, laughing their asses off, huddled with stacks travel brochures. The plan was very simple. Bust their butts working so hard for a year to help rebuild the Watchers Council, then take a three month world-wide vacation, and after that they were all going to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. Sadly, Willow thought to herself, that was almost three years ago. "I was going to get to go fishing."

For some strange reason she always wanted to. And he always wanted to be with her when she did. "Me too. And we were going to see the Pyramids in Egypt."

"And you wanted to eat spaghetti and meatballs in Italy made by real authentic old Italian women, who you said made it the best."

"Ah yes, my grand spaghetti scheme."

"So how have you been, oh bestest friend?"

"Horny."

"Sorry, I can't help you with that," she smiled at him affectionately. "And for more than one reason. Don't make me say my trademark."

Xander put his hands up, palms facing her. "Please, no more 'Gay Now' chants. I meant horny as in a herd of horned Byliss demons. Twenty of them appeared out of nowhere and attacked a village near Coalcleugh. We found seventeen dead bodies before we tracked them down and killed them all." The right side of his body throbbed, but he chose to ignore it for her sake.

Willow looked away, as if the tiresome expression on his face physically hurt her. Upon closer inspection, his eyes are a bit darker, and he jokes far less than he used to. It was more than maturity and living out in the field each day. It was something more. Something elusive. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, and wasn't completely sure she wanted to. "Aren't you tired of it?"

"Tired of what?"

"The dead."

Yes, in so many ways, he longed to say. "I'm tired of a lot of things, Wills. Heck, I'm tired of me."

"I'm tired of you too."

"Hey!"

"Gotcha," she teased, grinning. Suddenly, she remembered what she wanted to ask him ever since last night when he called and told her he wanted to stop by. The walls blended into a warm lavender. "Okay, check this out and let me know your blunt opinion, okay?"

Not sure what this was all about, he nodded.

Calming herself, Willow shut her eyes and whispered a few unintelligible words to herself. As she spoke the very roots of her hair began to lighten, and flowed down to the ends a lovely blonde. Willow, in a matter of a few seconds, was a blonde. When she opened her eyes Xander was staring at her like she was the Exorcist. "Good, bad, or undecided?"

"Beautiful, but not really you."

"Wow, and I now how much you love blondes." Purely calculated to get his attention and push him towards revealing what she's only guessed at so far. "So, your answer is nay on the blonde?"

"Yeah, but don't feel to bad. I wouldn't look any where near as good as you do as a blonde."

"Want me to do a little spell and find..."

"NO!!" he quickly stopped her before she could finish. And for the first time today, she looked as young as he dreamt of her at night. Youthful and untouched by the lifestyle they led. Then suddenly the same weary eyes he saw every morning in his bathroom mirror reflected back at him now by his best friend. And he could barely

stand it. "I'm a little worried about you, Wills."

"Great minds think alike, Xand. I'm a little worried about you too."

What a match they were. Two grown adults levitating in a empty room with mood colored walls. Xander could only shake his head. "I'm worried about you being burnt out and relying a little to much on magic."

"I'm worried about you being burnt out and drowning yourself in a doomed relationship."

Of course she knew, or at least suspected. He could never pull anything over her eyes, nor had he ever tried to hide what he and Buffy were doing. They may not have told anyone outright or explained it in detail even to themselves, but they never hid a thing. "You had a problem with magic before."

"Yeah, and Slayers make you hot. That didn't stop you." His concern is valid, though she won't let him off the hook any more then he'll let her off. "When are you going to fess up about Buffy?"

"When you fess up about what happened with you and Giles last summer." She's mildly surprised, and has a much improved poker face than he's used too. If he had not personally caught the tail end of a conversation between them he would never have known. "You wanna go first?"

A challenge for a challenge. By now he's as curious as she is. Though very private with her personal life in recent years, last summer had been a break... a surprising one at that, away from a sadly predictable life. She cut loose a bit for the very first time, and seduced someone. She seduced a good friend. "We had a brief, passionate affair that lasted barely ten days and was mutually ended on good terms. It was very, very private. It was an odd place and a odd time. I don't regret it and neither does Giles. That's the short version. I can't really explain it any better than that."

"For crying out loud, Wills. You're supposed to not want to talk about it so I wouldn't have to talk about mine. You've totally thrown my denial-based game plan."

"I'm sorry to mess things up for you. Would you prefer I lie?" Yeah, he wished she did. That surprised her. Whatever's between her best friend and Buffy is deeper than what she expected to find. Before she could probe any further her phone rang. "Hold on a second, Xander." She answered the phone, listened for a few seconds, nodded, said she'd be right there, then hung up. "I have something to take care of in the basement."

"Important? Dangerous? Kinky?" he wiggled his eye brows at her.

"Nah. It's a simple demonic possession. Someone's head is spinning around again. Shouldn't take more than ten minutes tops. Be right back."

And with those parting words, Willow disappeared into thin air, leaving a faint purple vapor trial in her wake.

"That damn teleportation spell still creeps me out." He shuddered for effect, then felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket. Flipping it open, a quick check of the caller ID revealed a most welcome caller. Her picture was his wall paper, for crying out loud. "Are you calling me for an afternoon shag?"

'Is that all I am to you? A booty call?'

If he shut his eyes he could imagine the sexy smile on her face. "Of course not. I'd like to call your boobs, your thighs. your hips, your lips, your..."

"Oh shut up," she laughed into her cell phone, sitting back in her office chair. 'I haven't seen you for three days and I heard you took a sledgehammer shot to your shoulder last night. How do you feel?'

"Like a guy who took a sledgehammer shot to the shoulder."

'Be serious, please.'

Buffy's sincere concern forced him to comply. "My team and I tracked some fangy-folk to a nightclub in Shoreditch called Herbal. I was fighting off some vampires in the basement, and one of them got a lucky shot in. I was wearing our new body armor and that absorbed most of the blow. It's kind of purple on my shoulder, but I'm not Barney-like all over." Her silence connected them as he could imagine her thoughts. Every time he hears about her being hurt, that fear... that all encompassing fear sets in until a short time has passed and things are back to normal. She sighed on her end. "I'm alright," he assured her seriously, tempering his tone of voice with a note of intimacy.

'I know, I know. I just have to make sure, okay.'

There was nothing sensual about the way she said what she said, nor did it fly over his head that she will 'have' to make sure, not that she 'had' to make sure. This phone call simply isn't enough. "I miss you."

He's entirely to far away. Clutching the phone closer to her ear, she listened to him breathing. "Three days, Xander."

"... I know"

Ready or not, Buffy felt they were slowly coming to the edge of an emotional cliff, and sooner or later something was going to happen. Something major. Something vital. Something real, at long last. "'How's Willow?'

"She good, I guess. Magicy as usual. Maybe a little bit more than that. Her latest mission was a success, though she lost a student along the way."

That's the last thing Buffy wanted to hear. And she's heard that far to often in recent months. 'Give her my condolences. Tell her I love her.'

"Come over right now and do it in person."

'Is that for her, or for you?'

She's a step ahead of him all the time. "I need to kiss you."

There was hunger, and then there was caring, and then there was the way a man could say something so simple, so basic to a woman, that she had to shut her eyes and feel his words vibrate over every square inch of

her body. 'I have a meeting in a hour, then a workout with Faith and the other S.I.T's after that. I won't be free until this evening. Maybe around six.' Even exhaling, he sounds disappointed to her. If he were near she'd fall in his arms and... God, she's not sure anymore. She only knows that she 'HAS' to see him tonight. "Bring grilled steak and shrimp."

"Is that all that's on the menu tonight?" he asked in a oh so naughty tone of voice, already mentally going over the restaurants he can stop by on the way to her place.

'That depends. What do you want to be on the menu?' Let the games began...

"From the second we finish dinner, I want you naked in your bed."

'Will you be there?'

In Xander's humble opinion, Buffy is equal parts hero, tease, bitch, and amazing. He craves her like air, but wouldn't tell her that to save his life. "Do you want me there?"

'Yes.'

"I need to make love to you, Buffy."

She's touched, scared, aroused, and inspired all at the same time. He didn't say he 'wanted' to make love to her, like someone might say they 'wanted' a glass of water. He said he 'needed' to make love to her, the way someone 'needed' to breathe air to survive. She's humbled... "You want to make love to me?" she half-asked, pausing as the words sank into her heart. It wasn't just sex to him, and even though deep down she knew that, neither had ever acknowledged it before. He never replied, so she figured she might as well. What came out wasn't what she meant to say. 'I need to stop by and see Willow too. We haven't sat down and talked in the longest time.'

What could he say to that? How was he supposed to react? His push was clearly side-stepped, and now he regretted it. Nothing to do but chin up and keep going. "Yeah, she'd like that. I bet she misses you too."

The very last thing she's ever wanted to do was disappoint him, and yet again, she has. The mighty Slayer didn't fear the things that go bump in the night. She feared true intimacy, and her ability to give, receive, and cultivate that one true greatest emotion of all. 'Do you hate me?'

"No. I could never hate you. Apparently, I'm not allowed to love you either."

A verbal slap to her face. Perhaps one she deserved. 'I suppose I'm the bad guy now?'

"You're a girl, not a guy."

'And you're being a jerk.'

"I'm not the one that shut down, Buffy."

'But you are the one speaking in riddles. If you want something just ask for it.'

"I asked for the one thing you're willing to give me. I'm not going to press my luck."

He's pissed at her as surely as she is at him, and that was her last intention. 'Look, I didn't call to fight.'

Xander exhaled a long sigh. "Maybe we should talk later."

'Fine!!'

The line went dead.

Xander imagined her throwing her cell phone at the wall. She'll need a new one, no doubt. Slipping his own back in his pocket, he looked up when Willow materialized again, standing in front of him. Her hands were nervously tugging at her cloak. Anytime something had her flustered she messed with her clothes. "How did your possession go?"

"Better than your talk with Buffy."

She seemed to shrink back a step when he advanced. Not in fear as much as guilt. He instantly knew why. "You were eavesdropping."

"Only... only a little. I was invisible and I kinda sorta read your mind a bit. And maybe peeked into your memories a tad." She winced when his scowl aimed at her.

Sometimes he thought all women were placed on the Earth to drive him crazy. Then he realized he just wasn't that important, and maybe women enjoyed driving him crazy. "That was a severe invasion of privacy, Wills."

"You guys did it in the front seat of her car?" she tried not to smile and failed miserably. Xander was not

amused. "I'm sorry, okay. I know I shouldn't have done that, it's just..."

"There you go again, making excuses for using magic when you shouldn't." His accusation stung her deeply, as he knew it would. "Look around you. Look at this office. Everything here is about magic. You're abusing it again and what you just did was a prime example of that."

"I was worried about you. I wanted to help."

"You could have just asked. Ripping information from my mind, especially intimate information, isn't right."

"Look, I'm sorry about what I did, and it was out of line, but don't you dare stand in front of me and talk down to me from on high. Do you think we don't get gossip around here? We’ve heard about how many humans, not vampires Xander, humans you've killed. You're not so perfect either."

"I've only killed humans helping or working for the bad guys."

"You're still a killer."

To have her utter those words at him with venom lacing her voice only underscored how bad things truly were. "You have the nerve to accuse me of that to justify what you did? Way to go, Wills. You're losing it." Turning his back on her, he ran his hand slowly through his hair. Everything’s a mess in his life right now, and it seems in the lives all those he loves most. There are no answers, and none of the questions seem to make sense.

"I do feel like I'm losing it, Xander."

Her fragile, softly spoken words broke something within him, and he's by her side in an instant. Her eyes are shut to him... and to the world it seemed.

"I change street lights with magic so that I never encounter traffic. I make people change their mind in line at grocery stores just so that I don't have to wait." Her head fell, effectively hiding her face from him. Her throat constricted hard as she confessed her sins to the only man she ever could. "I lied about wanting to buy Prada shoes. I use spells to turn my old shoes or any of my clothes into anything I want. I can't remember the last time I went clothes shopping."

As her revelations came, one painful confession after the other, so did soft tears down her fair cheeks. Watching her cry never failed to crush something inside him. "Willow..."

"I'm stronger than the other Head Mistresses and they know it."

She turned to face him, her expression a darker, sadder one than he's seen in a long time. "It just means you're good."

"I'm better than good, Xander. I'm powerful. I scare them. And sometimes... allot of times... I like it."

The gun in his coat has killed sixty humans to date. Sixty flesh and blood living beings that have died by his hands. No, they weren't good people or innocent civilians. But they were alive and they died because of him. He's not the man that he ever wanted to be, or living the life he ever imagined would make him happy. Honestly, that's okay. It's him. He doesn't matter to himself. Selfless to a fault. Always thinking of others.

But this... Willow. His Willow. Seeing her a shadow of her former self killed a part of him necessary to live day by day. It didn't matter that he was lost because she always saved him. And when she needed saving that one terrible time, he was there. Now they both need saving, and no ones around to help them... but them.

Xander gently drew her in his arms, holding onto her tight, allowing himself an honest look at her life laid next to his own.

Change must come. The idea is as clear as day. His family is falling apart around him, and no ones doing anything about it. It has to start somewhere, and so he makes the decision it might as well start with him. "Do you remember that night you, me, and Faith were at Buffy's house in early September?"

Brushing away the last of her tears, she did recall that fun evening with a careful smile. "We were so high," she laughed at the memory. Never in a million years would she have thought recreational drug use would be a part of any of their lives. Well, okay, maybe Faith's. But low and behold one night on a dare about a year ago, Faith dared her to take a hit of a joint. Outside of magic, she's never experimented with anything remotely dangerous, and so in the presence of friends and for the very first time, she smoked a joint for the hell of it. She got high and a headache, and ate a whole bag of Gummy Bears. Then Xander and Buffy joined in until Faith's bag of weed was gone. Then pizza was delivered, and so on and so on until it became a monthly get together to unwind at one of their apartments. Get high, drink, laugh all night, fall asleep, wake up the next day and just keep going. That night in September was particularly fun. "Hearing Faith sing karaoke was something else."

"We were all laughing so hard as she tried to sing that N'Sync song. And we all know she hates N'Sync with a blinding hot passion."

"We hadn't laughed that hard in years. Buffy was giggling nonstop. You kept telling jokes that you couldn't remember the punch line. And for some drug-induced reason, I thought they were the funniest jokes ever."

Xander circled her, hands in his pockets. "We had a good time."

"The best."

"But we're not living good lives."

"Are you saying you're not happy?"

"Are you saying you are?"

Willow didn't know how to answer that... or maybe she did and wasn't sure where it would lead. "I'm lonely," she admitted at long last. "I am still grieving Tara years later, as much as I wish I wasn't. I'm still trying to find something to fill that void. But day after day I recognize myself a little less. I don't like that."

"I'm the same way. I don't grieve Anya the way you do Tara, but I miss her every day. And now with Buffy..." he breathed, feeling her stare focused on him, waiting to hear what he wasn't sure he could say. "I think we could be good for each other. Just not like this."

His joy walked hand in hand with her own, and so she reached for his hand, conveying her regret for their brief argument and her mistake with a gentle squeeze. "Are you in love with her?"

After nearly eight months of denial, Xander gave up the ghost, and told her everything.

 

 

******

 

******

 

Greymalken Manor

The Slayer Training Facility

Thursday, November 12, 2005 3:15 PM

Soth Yorkshire, England

 

 

Greymalken Manor's grand opening took place almost two months ago with a lavish ceremony and party as it truly represented the beginning of a new era. The very first Slayer Training Facility ever built from the ground up, designed for that purpose and no other. It replaced the aging mansion in Wales the Watchers Council had used ever since their rebirth nearly three years ago. Sitting on four acres of land practically in the woods, hidden away from prying eyes, the majestic Manor housed a huge one hundred bedroom dormitory, cafeteria, horse riding stables, and a side road used to train for offensive and defensive driving. The manor housed classrooms for everything from firearms use and safety, to chemistry, mystical entities identification, basic witchcraft, dealing with the press, creating plausible cover-ups, hand-to-hand combat centered around disabling and or killing your opponent. The new gym featured a state-of-the-art weight lifting room built specifically for Slayers, as well as cardio workout gym, double swimming pool, and basketball court.

Thirteen Watchers, nine men and four women, survived the First's rampage of the former Watcher's Council, and all but two now lived and taught at Greymalken Manor. The others joined Rupert Giles and Robin Wood as the new Watcher’s Council Elders.

Greymalken Manor employed full faculty of experienced Watchers who know what they are doing, and are dedicated to not repeating the mistakes of the past. Add into that the fifty men and women who teach, train, and counsel the Slayers. Currently, there are seventy S.I.T's living in the dormitory, with a worldwide count of ninety active, fully trained Slayers operating all over the world.

Here, in the Sunnydale Memorial Gymnasium, the two oldest living, most battle tested Slayers of them all presided over the next generation.

"I don't care if you're black, white, Latino, Indian, Korean, German, or any other race from any damn country," Faith declared as she circled the twelve S.I.T's standing in the center of the blue circular sparring mat. "I don't care if you believe in God, or don't. I don't care what God you believe in, or even if you think he's really a chick. I don't care what you call your God or if you don't call him anything." With Buffy just off to the right, Faith strolled around the group of eighteen to twenty year olds who are six weeks into their training to become full-fledged Slayers. "I don't care if you like dick, pussy, the combination of both, or neither. I don't care if you like to dress up as men in your private time, or any of that shit. You are all human beings. Any black girl here with the same blood type as me can give me blood. Any Asian chick here can give any Indian or Mexican girl a liver or kidney if they're a match." A few snickers until Faith glared, then all was silent again. The immense size of the gym caused her voice to

echo. "My point is that we are all the same. If you are human, you are no better or worse than any other human. You are all the same, and if you can't get that through your thick skull then hit the fucking road and stop wasting our time."

One and all, the girls sole attention was focused on the Slayer with the long dark hair, clad in her gray workout gear as she addressed them. Thoroughly intimidated, they were all quietly appreciative of her candor.

"Demons, vampires, and all other ugly creatures that try to kill you are not human," Faith told them bluntly in a strong voice. "You need to be prepared to kill anything that is not human. Now don't get it twisted. I'm not saying you go off half-cocked and start stabbing and slashing at everything in sight. I'm living proof that doesn't work, and will cause more harm than good. There have been and are now some demons and even a vamp or two that are worth a damn. I'm sure you all read about Angel. But for the most part you need to be ready to annihilate anything that is not human because they are out to annihilate you. This is not a game. This isn't the motherfucking O.C. This is a life and death job from the moment you wake up until the second you lay down in bed at night. You are on call twenty-hours a day, seven days a week. There ain't no fucking vacation ever. Time off is rare. This is a lifestyle choice."

No small amount of pride was felt by Buffy as she allowed Faith to do her thing. Watching her one-time rival develop not only as a person, but a damn good teacher, while still retaining what made her Faith, was fun to watch. She's flat out great at her job and Buffy noticed.

"I'm not trying to depress you or wig you out or force you to leave. I just want you to know the heads up. Watchers Council agents are investigators, crime solvers, cops, and a host of other jobs I wouldn't want. They got to deal with the authorities and the press and all that shit. Their business is covering up what we do so that normal world can function without going nuts and rioting in the streets over what they don't know and wouldn't understand." Faith gave it to them the raw real, now standing in front of them. "On any given night the situation may arise for us to do any of those things the Watcher's Council agents do, but for the most part, we are killers. We are the first line of attack. We are Slayers. Our job is to stab, cut, chop, punch, kick, bludgeon, stomp and generally beat the ever loving shit out anything that ain’t human and wants to use humanity as a snack buffet."

She certainly had her own style, Buffy thought amusingly to herself with a small smile. The girls looked as scared as they were determined. A good sign indeed. "In the past there was one Slayer and one Slayer only," Buffy entered the fray. "We were created to fight evil. We were used, controlled, and manipulated." As much respect as they all held for Faith, the oldest, most legendary Slayer of them all captured their attention like no other. "A Slayers life meant nothing to the ancients who created her. She was cattle. Used until she died, and then replaced with the next. We were their tool and nothing more." Pausing, she toot her time, hoping what she's telling them will

sink in. "The Watchers Council, in the past, treated us no different. The only support they provided was a single Watcher. Their methods were outdated. They never changed with the times. They never fully supported a Slayer the way the current Council does. You are all far luckier than either Faith or myself. We were thrown into the fight unprepared and made so many mistakes, you just don't know. But things are different now," Buffy announced before her newest students. "You will all be part of a team, and not on your own. Every team consists of a team leader, three Watchers Council agents, three Slayers, and two witches. One person cannot do this job and we finally recognize that. You will be educated, financially supported, and treated like family. But you will also sacrifice your personal lives. There is no such thing as a personal life outside this job. When you choose to be a Slayer, you can be sent anywhere in the world on a moments notice. The assignment lasts until you complete it or die. The fate of the world is literally in our hands. If any of you are not sure that you want this as your lifestyle, leave now. There won't be any hard feelings. You are not bound to us. We will not force you to do anything. You have a choice."

Faith and Buffy stood side by side, honestly answering questions as the girls grilled them on what they had been told since arriving at the school, as well as all their reading materials. Faith preferred handling the girls with as rough a hand as possible at first, so that they could weed out those who sincerely wanted to accept their calling, versus those who had no real clue what that calling meant. Buffy counseled the girls on living with their calling, the responsibility and maturity that is expected of them, the importance of befriending their fellow Slayers, and the proper shoes to Slay in, much to their amusement.

Thirty minutes passed, with everyone now sitting on the mats in a circle, laughing and getting to know one

another. Serious conversations mixed with stories of the past and hopes for the future. Normally, after the six week trials all of the SIT's are put through by the Watchers Council, there's always one or two girls who feel this is not for them. Usually those who have strong family ties at home, or lives they want to get back to. Fiancées, boyfriends, or that grad degree they've always wanted to pursue. But most, upon learning their true lineage and coming to understand the scope of the power they possess, for them the Slayer calling cannot be denied.

Two sisters, Janine and Karin Rictor from Cleveland, Ohio told the story about being at batting practice for their high school softball team. One day they were going through some hitting drills and all of a sudden the sisters were slamming the balls so hard they not only flew out of the ball field, but some landed a block away. That's when they knew something strange was happening to them.

Nineteen year old Celeste from Florida found her boyfriend kissing another girl in the University of Florida's parking lot. He never saw her. When she walked over to his car she intended to let all the air out of his tires as a beginning of her revenge. Then something swelled inside her and she just knew she could lift the car. And lift it she did, sideways over three handicapped parking spots. Then she called the police on her now ex-boyfriend and all was well.

The girls all got a good hearty laugh out that one. Faith and Buffy even high-fived her.

Having had her fill of story time, Faith motioned for all the girls to rise. "Alright, bitches. On your feet. We're gonna do sixty laps around this track. Then we're going to trek some old guy that smells like vanilla incense in here that's gonna teach you about meditation. It might sound kinda boring, but it does wonders on your cramps during your period." More laughter, with even Buffy cracking up. "Then the fun stuff. I'm gonna show you how to shoot a gun. Cause at the end of the day, no martial arts master alive can roundhouse a bullet. After some gun play, then B here is gonna show you a hundred ways to kill with a sword. Get to running, bitches."

Having sincerely needed a lighter moment after the day she's had so far, Buffy chuckled under her breath as the girls trotted onto the tracks and began running. "Must you call all our student bitches?"

Shrugging, Faith patted her back pocket, then forgot she left her smokes in her car. "They'll learn to take it as a symbol of affection. You did."

"It took putting you in a five-minute arm lock to get you to stop calling me bitch every five minutes."

"Hey, I let you hold me down," Faith confided with a knowing wink.

Ignoring her smirk, Buffy rolled her eyes, not wanting to get into 'that' again. "Willow had to make your hair fall out before you stopped calling her that. You're lucky she made it grow right back."

"That Wills is a scary one. I'm gonna leave her spell-knowing ass alone." Suddenly, Faith caught sight of a few of the girls lagging behind, chatting a bit to much. "Look at them bitches gossiping."

Buffy glanced over her shoulder. She saw the small group laughing amongst themselves. The gentle beginnings of a support system, hopefully. "They're just getting to know each other. Friends are necessary, you know."

"We gotta crack the whip early, B. Keep'em in line."

"When did you become a drill sergeant?"

Wearing a tongue in cheek expression, Faith teased, "Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black, Ms. I-Am-The-Law Sunnydale 2003."

Dang. Another lifetime ago. Unfortunately, Faith was right and Buffy knew it. "Maybe. Just take it easy on them, okay. We're supposed to teach them without alienating them. Once they get out there, they'll harden up on there own. They don't need that from us."

Faith backpedaled off, arms outstretched in a unsure pose. "Life's hard no matter how you look at it, B. They might as well get used to it. Didn't we?" With those parting words, she ran to catch up to the girls while Buffy shook her head. Some things never changed. In more ways than one.

Try as she did to push all thoughts of him away and focus on something else, her argument with Xander not long ago still pissed her off and left her feeling hollow and uncomfortable, even if she wasn't altogether

sure why. Walking past all the sparring mats across the gymnasium, she took a seat on one of the benches near the basketball court.

She needed a nice little solitary moment to think.

Today, Xander pushed. He hadn't before, but he did today. She recognized it for what it was, and instead of admitting that what he said made her feel so special to him, she pulled what's known in her own head as 'Buffy-Denial Order Number 6.' If anything hits to close to home she simply ignores it until it goes away. Fear, her good old friend. She hadn't seen him in a while.

Honestly, she didn't think about when enough would be enough. It wasn't as if they'd ever approached the subject seriously. They're so good together and it feels so right that she's chosen to blind herself to everything and simply enjoy him. When all roads in her life led to pain, the one road that led to him was her safe haven. Xander's presence in her life filled void after void she wasn't sure would ever be filled again. And it wasn't because he could pleasure her body oh so well. It wasn't that he confided in her his every fear, regret and thought, without hesitation, while being completely truthful. It wasn't that she could tell him anything... anything at all, and knew he would listen, understand, and simply support her. It wasn't that she could count on him without fail, and gave that luxury back to him as well. It wasn't just the way he'd hold her all night, or cook dinner if she were tired, or make himself available to her for any reason, no matter what. It wasn't because his kisses made her feel romantic, or that the pain he shared with her made her feel part of a whole, or that ultimately in her life, she trusted no one as much as she trusted him.

At the end of the day, it was all of those things combined.

That meant he mattered to her. And what happens to you if you lose what matters most? Buffy never, ever wanted to find out what life would be like if she lost him, so to that end, she never claimed him for her own. You can't lose what you never had. And for the longest time he seemed to be right there with her in that line of thinking.

They had no label. Far more than friends. A connection deeper than lovers. They are each others best... and that had been good enough until now.

Then Xander had to go and mess things up today by mentioning love. Buffy's head pounded with the memory. He actually used the word 'love' in relation to what he wanted with her. He wanted to make 'love' to her. He said it. Made it real. And he can't unsay it. Then again, neither can she unsay her cold response. And part of her wished she could.

"So what am I afraid of?" Buffy muttered the question to herself, sighing. In her heart of hearts she knew she wasn't afraid of Xander leaving her. Where would he go? No man that kisses her the way he kisses her wanted to be anywhere else. That's not ego, that's fact. And she wasn't afraid of placing her total trust and faith in him. How could she be afraid of something happening that's already happened years ago. She wasn't afraid he would betray her, or break her heart if she let him all the way in.

He's already all the way in.

He just hasn't looked around yet.

Does he know that sometimes when she's at home she sits alone in the dark for hours? No TV or radio on, just her own isolated world of nothing. She sits and she thinks until her head hurts, and then she thinks some more.

Buffy wondered if he knew that she rarely buys her favorite snacks anymore. And that little nugget of information is a small piece in a ton of pieces where she denies herself things she likes for no reason at all. Her clothes are darker. One day a week ago she opened her closet and had never seen so many dark clothing before. Like she goes to a funeral everyday.

She rarely listens to music these days. Barely watches TV. Avoids the news like the plague. Talks less and less to Dawn, even when her sister reaches out to her. She's mad all the time. Angry. Empty. Stressed. And she hides it so well.

Dawn's relationship with Simon, her boyfriend of last five months is driving a wedge between them because every time he cheats, Dawn runs to her sister for a shoulder to cry on. And three days later she takes him back, which only serves to infuriate Buffy. Simon is garbage, but Dawn refuses to see and won't listen. Then there's Andrew driving her crazy with all his newest gadgets that she doesn't give a damn about, but is too nice to ever say

so. Then there's the way Angel still looks at her. Like she's the longing of his heart, and she can't seem to care because he's not the longing of hers. Then there's the distance between her and Willow. She's mad at herself about that because it's so easy to pick up the damn phone or just drive over to her place. As busy as she is, she's not that busy for a good friend. Then there's Faith, whose dipping into the "Happy Sack" isn't so much a problem as that small bag of white power Buffy found on her bathroom sink two weeks ago. While entertaining, weed wasn't something Buffy intended to indulge in forever, but she absolutely drew the line at cocaine.

Apparently, Faith did not.

All the Scoobies are coping in whatever way best gets them to sleep at night. They've all become expert liars, hiding their depression and anger, their loneliness and uninspired, unfulfilling lives. No ones making a move to change it. No ones even trying.

Hopefully, working up a sweat will clear her mind. It always does. Buffy's on her way to the weight room. Pumping some iron will do her some good and get her to focus on something other than Xander and her craptastic life.

Hmm... she'll start with nine hundred pounds.

After slipping on a pair of weightlifting gloves, Buffy set the weights up. She's ready to bench press. Seconds later, she's lifting before she even realizes it, and yet, her thoughts fill with him and them and what she denies herself.

His world is neither hidden, nor foreign to her. Xander's just as messed up as she is. Buffy knows that. His nightmares in the middle of the night jar him so hard he almost falls off the bed, waking in such a sweat-drenched rage. He has trouble sleeping, and so she stays up with him because she does too. There are time he takes her so hard when they're having sex it's like he trying to hurt her and can't bring himself to do it. Slipping an arm around her waist at the Watchers Council HQ during a meeting or out in the field is never shrugged away. He's possessive of her and she knows it. Accepts it. Deep down, covets it as she is possessive of him as well. Behind closed doors they argue at the top of their lungs and curse each other out, throwing the past in each others face and...

... then they kiss, and all that bitter anger just fades away into nothing at all. There are times the tenderness they share leaves her breathless. Usually in the dark under the covers, holding onto each other as if there has never been another person in the whole world who ever mattered more than the one in their arms.

"You know, B. I think we got a good crop of bitches this year."

Buffy's startled out of her thoughts, but regroups quickly. She laughed under her breath, and didn't miss a beat as Faith took the bench next to her, slipping on a pair of matching weight-lifting gloves. A quick check revealed she put a ton on her bar. The specially made for Slayers weightlifting bars were one of a kind and made of Titanium. Of course Buffy knew Faith would try to one up her. "I like them so far. They all want to be here. That's the key."

"I thought your sister was the key."

"The older you get, the more your Jim Carey side comes out."

"At least something’s coming, cause I sure ain't. It's been two months since I last got laid."

Two months since Travis left her heartbroken. Knowing her as well as she does, Buffy knew a shoulder wasn't what would help her. Sarcasm, however... "Poor Faithy. I'm crying for you. I really am."

Unspoken, Faith appreciated her style. "And with you hogging all the Xander-goodies, what's a..."

Buffy gripped the bar a bit tighter. "Excuse me?"

"Bitch, don't even try it," Faith smirked as she bench pressed. "You two are the worst hidden secret ever. I know you're hitting it at least every other night, and you ain't sharing."

"Sharing what, exactly?"

Faith glanced at her, grinning. Buffy didn't look back, struggling to contain a grin. Sneaky teasing bitch. "Sharing whatever it is you're enjoying."

"What you assume I'm enjoying."

"B, I caught you riding him in his office chair a month ago. I saw you through the blinds, but didn't interrupt. I honestly didn't know you had those kind of up and down skills."

"Oh whatever," Buffy laughed it off, having needed something to amuse her. "You don't need me sharing

anything."

"I need some good dick."

"You just need a good guy."

"Is Xander available?"

Feeling Faith's raunchy curiosity staring at her, Buffy replied, "Does he look available?"

The bitch in her good friend was welcome anytime. To Faith, Xander looked satisfied, and utterly possessed by one Ms. Buffy Anne Summers. Of course that fact wouldn't stop Faith. Oh no, not at all. "Is it as good as it looked?"

"Better than any man I've ever been with."

"You should change your name to Lucky Bitch."

"Blah, blah, blah." They continued lifting, enjoying the exertion, building up a good sweat. Evidence of a good workout. "I heard about the great job you and your team did last week in tracking down that half-breed demon."

Suddenly, Faith wished the bar held more weights, just to make it hurt more. "It's my job. I didn't do no more than anyone else did. And that sick fuck deserved to die the most horrible death possible."

From the reports that came across her desk, Buffy knew that the demonic serial killer Faith and her team hunted down preyed on pregnant women. It's cannibalistic instincts sought them somehow, and after six deaths the Watchers Council had to be brought in. "You okay?"

"No."

"Excuse me?"

Catching people off guard was her claim to fame. "What? Shocked I didn't blow you off? Sorry to disappoint, B."

"No, it's okay," she said as they continued their workout. "Do you want to talk?"

"Yeah."

"Are you really Faith?"

Any other time that would have made her laugh. Just not under this subject. "I have never in my life seen anything as fucking sick as what I saw when we tracked that son of a bitch back to his apartment. He had human organs in jars in his refrigertaor, B. Blood was dried up and caked everywhere. The walls, the floor, his bathroom, the kitchen sink. The smell was... I almost vomited right then and there. When we cornered him he didn't even fight. He just started laughing and confessing everything he did. He told us the six deaths we knew about were just what he's done since arriving in England. He told us he's murdered well over a hundred women, and ate them all. He had the nerve to ask me what I was going to do with him."

"What did you do?"

"I tore his throat out." Said with as much emotion as one would convey changing the toilet paper in their bathroom. Faith didn't like the way she felt that day. Killing that monster didn't wouldn't bring one dead person back alive, even if it prevented any more deaths. The bodies forever will haunt her. Haunted her even now, in the daytime when her eyes aren't even closed. "Angel helped out on the case."

"How's he doing?"

"Outside of missing you, fine." Hmmm, no reaction. Then again, Xander's in the picture now. And it's been a very long time. "For what it’s worth, I told him to move on."

"Why?"

"Because I can tell you don't love him anymore."

No need to argue that point. "I don't want to hurt him."

"You can't help it. He's hurt because you're with Xander and he knows it."

"Xander and I are... complicated."

"I know you're in love with him."

"And I know you use cocaine."

Faith bar slammed back down. She sat up quickly, glaring at Buffy. "What I do on my down time is my business. I certainly don't need a After School Special lecture."

Buffy dropped her bar into place, then sat up herself, turning to face Faith. "Fun is one thing. Cocaine is another. That stuff will mess you up and you know it."

"Maybe for a regular person they should lay off, but I'm a Slayer. My body treats a few grams like sugar. It's no big deal."

"Even though it washes out of your body quickly the med-techs at the Council warned us that we can become addicted and that in the short term if a Slayer was high on the stuff it would affect her senses, reflexes, and judgment. It's just not worth it and I think you need to stop."

"Just because I use a little don't make me a addict."

"All addicts start that way. Justifying a little here and there leads to harder drugs."

"You toke up every now and then. I don't see you buying heroin on your payday."

"It's a bad habit, Faith. I saw the bag on your sink counter in your bathroom a few days ago. I know I can’t tell you what to do, but I wouldn't be much of a friend if I didn't speak up."

This was a waste of time and a dumb conversation. Faith didn't want to listen. And it wasn't like a snort here or there meant all that much to her anyway. "I'm fine."

"I say the same thing, but I'm not either."

Lying back down on the bench, Faith shut her eyes to the glare of the ceiling lights. Try as she might to stay pissed at Buffy, she knows her anger is misplaced. Her friend just cares about her, that's all. She wondered after nearly three years of finally having some good friends when she might become used to it. "I don't do it often, B. Just... you know, just when I'm restless and need something to get me outta my own head."

"I can relate to that. Sometimes, I think Xander and I use each other that way." Buffy reclined back on the bench, her arms pillowed behind her head. "Faith, what are we doing?"

"B, I follow your lead, as much as it sucks to admit. I was hoping you'd figure it out first."

"Haven't you by now realized I don't have much of anything figured out?" It's been like this for years. People looking to her for answers to questions she knew no more about than they did. A wise old sage at age twenty-four, she was not. Less than even that on her bad days. "I see a counselor on Tuesday mornings every week. Only Xander knows," she confided out of the blue.

Years ago the first thing that would have flown out of Faith's mouth would have been a insult, or at least

a joke. It's only when suicide starts not looking so bad that you either do it, or realize you need help. "Is she any good?"

"It's a he. Dr. Abraham Chandler. Yeah, he's pretty cool. Helps me look at the big picture when all I can see is the sad smaller ones."

"Is he a civilian or did someone at the Council send you his way?"

"I did this on my own time. He's a civilian. I sought him out myself. As far as he knows, I'm a policewoman."

"What made you do it?"

"... I woke up one morning and couldn't think of a single reason to get up out of bed, and that scared me real

bad."

"Was Xander with you?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because you wouldn't say that if he was." Buffy's absolute silence spoke volumes. Faith absorbed it all in, listening closely to what her friend didn't say. Not one known for her softer side, or even having one, she felt one good turn deserved another. "Look, as far as beings with dicks go, Xanders a good guy. One of the best I have ever known, and you know I think most guys are crap."

Faith's so private, and rarely ever gives her opinion on anything emotional. Maybe she's the perfect person... the first person she can talk to about Xander. "Seven months."

"Wow... that long, huh?" Buffy confirmed it next to her. "Is it just fucking?" She didn't move a muscle for a good ten seconds before finally shaking her head, no. Faith figured as much. "How did it start?"

The proverbial question of the universe, or so Buffy imagined. "We had a really long talk one night after a joint mission in London. We were at my place... We sat in front of the fire place. I poured us a couple of drinks, but we never touched them. All we did was stare at the flames," she recalled wistfully, taken back by the flood of immense emotion that began that night. "I think he turned to me and said something I don't quite remember. I know I hugged him, and then we kissed for the very first time... then he was inside me... he was everywhere and we just gave in... for hours."

Damn... even Faith felt that. "Is it like how you and Spike were?"

"Not anything like that," Buffy was quick to note. "When I'm with Xander, I'm still me. I know that doesn't make much sense."

"It makes more sense then you know, B." Men have often made her feel rotten about herself in ways both typical and horrible for men to do. So at a young, bitter age, she turned the tables on them and stopped giving a damn either. Then ten years later she gave a damn, and had her heart stomped on by a good guy she can't even be mad at. "I got a confession to make."

"Ohhh, Faith gossip."

Painful, restless sleep at night gossip. "Travis never cheated on me like I said. I lied on him so that no one would know the truth."

"What happened?"

"I got dumped for a higher paying job away from the madness of working for the Council," she uttered all in one breath as if the words were fowl as they escaped her lips. "Travis was offered a position in New York at a police officers training compound. Great pay with all the experience he had, and no field work. He didn't ask me to come with him. He just said he needed a change. To him, I was just a nice affair."

"What was it to you?"

Bitter laughter wasn't really laughter at all. "I don't know. I thought it might be... Fuck, I guess I got my hopes up. He was older than me by ten years and smarter and had been to college and all that. I never had anyone talk to me like he did before. The fucking was good and he bought me gifts. The day he broke up with me I felt like a whore."

She's still hurting so badly. The fact that Buffy can feel this is astounding to her, seeing as how Faith is a master at hiding her true feelings. "You are not now and have never been a whore, Faith."

"That don't stop a girl from feeling that way sometimes."

"I've been treated like crap before too. I've bought the same lies and had the rug pulled out from under me. It happens and you deal."

"I don't trust men, B. I never have." Only Buffy and Xander know her history with rape in blunt detail. All other secrets she'll gladly take to her grave. "Building trust takes effort and I ain't got none left in me."

"It's his loss."

"I know I ain't perfect or anything like that, but for Travis, I tried. I did my best."

"He didn't do his," Buffy pointed out. "You're a wonderful, amazing, violent-at-appropriate times kind of woman. And I know that you'll find someone special when the time is right."

"That's exactly what a good girlfriend is supposed to say."

"I love you, so it's easy."

Mushiness wasn't her cup of tea, but Buffy's was appreciated. "You sure I can't have Xander?"

"Yeah."

"Why is it so hard for you to admit you're in love with the guy?"

"Because..." And that was all Buffy get out of her mouth. How do you answer a question that had no

answer? Giving her heart to the one man she truly wants to have it wouldn't fix all the problems in her life. But maybe... just maybe, it would be a start in the right direction. "I suck."

"Yeah, you do. But as people who suck go, you're alright." That felt like something you'd say to your sister. They had that kind of vibe and Faith liked it more than she could say. "Are you in love with him?"

"More than I've ever been with anyone."

"Then go for it." Pushing aside her own feelings after the breakup of the longest relationship, five months, that she's ever had, Faith wanted to at least do this right. Inspire, instead of break down. "Life's short. No one knows that more than us. I say go for it and never look back. And if it don't work, hell, we'll be lesbians."

"Anything other than another man, right?"

"Exactly."

"So this is how girls act when guys aren't around." Faith and Buffy sat up at the same time, surprised to see Xander standing in the doorway. Wearing that crooked smirk of his, he walked just inside. "Why am I not surprised."

The tension hit Faith immediately, and it sure wasn't between her and Xander. Something happened recently and it wasn't good. "Hey, X. What brings you to our neck of the woods?" Faith rose from her bench to grab a towel nearby.

"Abraham Quinn's graduating Slayer, Cyan Winters. I'm here to interview her for a spot on one of my teams," he explained. His eyes locked with Buffy's briefly, before she turned away. Maybe she was hoping he was there for another reason. "I have to meet her in twenty minutes. Figured while I'm here I might as well give your young Slayers-to-be a look at the sexiest agent the Watchers Council employs."

Bullshit, Faith thought, but whatever. And that had nothing to do with his looks. To her, he's damn yummy and if Buffy didn't have it so bad... "Those girls ain't looking at you."

"Two of them whistled when I walked by." He wiggled his eye brows, and even got a little smile out of Buffy. "I even got a couple of catcalls. I felt like a piece of meat and I loved every second of it."

"Why are you trying to attract those young impressionable minds when you got two hot and sweaty girls in

here dying for a workout," Faith taunted to his face, licking her lips just to piss Buffy off. "B and I could shut the door and take out our frustrations on you. I'm game if you are." Titling her head back to glance at Buffy, she added the icing on the cake. "It's not like I haven't fucked both of you already."

Oh yeah. Buffy knew that was coming as surely as she knew the sun would again rise in the morning. "For the last time, Faith. You and I did not fuck, or do anything sexual. After downing one to many Tequilas we both fell asleep drunk on your couch and woke up with a hangover."

Faith's still not buying it. "You woke up with your head in my lap, B."

With a snort, Buffy rolled her eyes back. "And that means we had sex?"

"Your lipstick was on my cheek and stomach."

"I vaguely remember kissing you on the cheek cause someone did it on TV, and when I passed out in your lap I may have grazed your stomach on the way down."

"Yeah, you went down alright." Faith rolled her tongue at her.

"Oh shut up!" Buffy playfully defended for the one thousandth time her and Faith's longest running gag. Xander looked amused, and probably aroused as he's heard this argument many times. "If we slept together I would remember it. I would remember having sex with a woman."

"I remember plenty, Ms Tongue. You were all over me like stink on filth." Faith's lying, but it's so much fun to mess with Buffy. "Your bra was off when you woke up. Explain that?"

"I was twirling it over my head like a cowboy because I was drunk and we were watching Grease. That's not evidence we ever had sex."

"Ladies, ladies, ladies," Xander finally added, stepping between the Slayers. "Why not have sex now, and I can be the witness and make sure you get it right. I'll even provide tips. Maybe grab a video camera. What do you say?"

Faith wiped her face and neck with the towel, then threw it at Xander, who caught it before it hit him in

the face. "You keep dreaming, Xan. Just remember," she teased as she walked past him on her way out of the weight room. "I had her first." Winking, she smacked him on the butt and took off before he could grab her.

All alone with nothing to say. Buffy wasn't sure how to proceed or what he wanted to talk about, if anything. When Xander walked over and sat on the other bench, he looked like he had a lot on his mind all afternoon. "Hey."

"Hey back." Her shirt clung to her chest by sweat, subtly outlining the curves of her breasts. Coupled with the beads of perspiration cascading down the back of her neck and... he needed composure. "Look, we left things on a bad note today."

"I felt you decided the conversation was over for the both of us."

She's still pissed. No doubt about that. "You hung up on me."

"I thought you had said enough."

"That wasn't mature, Buffy."

"But it was mature that when you didn't get the response you wanted the second you wanted it, then you decided to end things and talk later?"

"I felt like you just ignored what I said instead of telling me how it made you feel. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure what I said that turned you all weird."

"You know what you said."

"I'm a man, Buffy. We don't know crap. How about you enlighten me?"

Sometimes, men made her want to kill men. "You told me you wanted to make love to me," she ended up saying louder than she intended. He fixed her with a curious expression, then ducked his head away from her.

"Maybe not at first, but you really haven't felt that's what we've been doing for months now?"

Guilt instantly ate away at her like the rotten roots of a once glorious tree. She's hurt him deeply... And he believes that he is all alone in how he feels. This is where the Slayer has no abilities, and it is up to Buffy Summers to fix things. Her experience in that matter is, and has always been, lacking. "Nothing has ever made me feel as special, or as cared for as when we... as when we're together like that."

She can't even say it, and as the anger and regret built steadily, his heart hardened ever more. "Right. Fine."

"Why do you want to suddenly change things?" she just had to ask.

"I don't. But obviously even the idea of being more than lovers disgusts you."

Her posture turned defensive, as his anger grew. She’s just as frustrated as he is. "I never, ever said that."

"You act that way."

"What's wrong with what we have now?"

"Because you 'FUCKED' Riley and you 'FUCKED' Spike and it seems that's all you want to do is 'FUCK' me. We can hold you and kiss you and be there for you, and you can fuck us until we're so addicted to you we can't see straight, but anything more than that and it's time to be shone the door."

She's stunned. It's like being slapped by your mother. You can't even comprehend what just happened. It doesn't make any sense at all. Her temper soared. "What I feel for you is so much more than what I felt for Riley or Spike. Not even Angel meant to me as much as you do now. You... you're a part of me, Xander," she struggled to say, her jaw tightening. "When I don't know up from down, or left from right, I come to you and everything makes sense again. When I'm sad, you make me happy. When I'm scared, you help me see there's nothing to fear. When I want affection, yours is the sweetest."

"If all of that is true, then why are you so afraid of things changing?"

"I've had my heart broken a thousand times and I've survived them all."

"I have never broken your heart."

"But you could," she confessed, as open as she's ever been. Emotionally naked before him. "And I don't think I could survive that."

The most beautiful, capable, sensual, courageous woman he has ever known does not see herself that way, and so the world turns. Xander's staring at her, silently nodding to himself, exhausted. This is where he feared he would be if he gave into that nagging little voice in his head to take things further with her. He should have known her body would never, ever be enough. Once, he thought, after he's sated himself of the lust he's carried for ten years, their friendship would be sufficent for the rest of his life.

He lied to himself. And this is the result.

Exhaling a long deep breath, Xander rose to his feet. Anger fled his eyes. He released it all. He stood proud, albeit sad. "I don't know what more to do to show you that I..." he wanted to say it so bad. He felt like saying it, but she didn't deserve it. With a final sigh, he offered, "I'll see you around."

As if in slow motion, marking the occasion forever, Xander turned away from her, as the tears she’s struggled to hold back rained down her cheeks. Her small hands covered her face as she sobbed quietly, her hitched breathing echoing the loss within her soul. He's walking away. She can hear his footsteps... hear him saying a few parting words to Faith and the girls... hear him even crack a joke, but his voice isn't right. He's not happy. She's not happy. Is anyone?

Selfishly, the first thing that came to her mind was what if he found someone else? What if he found a less-damaged woman to love and accept her love back? What if she had to see him happy and fulfilled by another woman? How would she ever recover from that? Another woman enjoying his laughter, hearing his funny stories, eating his cooking, or making love to him all night long, just the way she did.

Something sparked to life within her chest. There's a sense of urgency in the air around her. This feels like a monumental make or break moment, and suddenly Buffy is on her feet, now standing in the doorway of the weight room as Xander said his final goodbyes to Faith and the girls.

Would he ever come back?

A person can usually identify moments in their lives where something within them changes. Where a choice is made and that's that. Would her silence close her off to him forever? True, she has a million and one issues and problems, but fuck, so does everyone. And while the weight of them all bear down on her, maybe the goal isn't to solve them all at once, but one at a time. If she couldn't fix everything in her life, maybe ... just maybe, she could fix this.

"GIRLS!" Buffy yelled, quickly attracting everyone’s attention, including Xander's before he exited the

gymnasium. Steadying herself as she all but sprinted towards her students, her gaze never left Xander, who didn't walk out just yet. Maybe there was still time. The fighter in her roared to life. "Follow me, girls."

This is odd, but then so is Buffy at times. Xander stood by the door as she walked all the way across the gymnasium towards him, with Faith and her students right on her heels. He can read the fear and determination on her lovely face, within her eyes, and by her every step. "What are you doing?" he asked when she took her place by his side, swallowing harder than he can ever remember her swallowing before. "Buffy?"

"Since you all just met Mr. Harris, I won't bother with the introductions," she began. "I just want you to know a few things about him," she arched her neck to catch his stare. He doesn't know what she's going to do any more than she does. "His full name is Alexander Lavelle Harris. Yes, his middle name sucks and even he knows

it." Chuckles by some of the girls lightened Xander's tense mood, who's still looking at her as if she's about to grow a second head. "He's been one of my best friends since the day I met him, and is now my very best friend... and so much more." Conviction and sincerity laced her gently spoken words. Even though she was talking to the girls behind her, she shifted in front Xander. He just had to know this was all about him. "He's a Senior Agent of the Watchers Council, and in my opinion, the very best they have."

Buffy's surprising him, no doubt leading up to something. He could feel the winds of change blowing in, and for once, they felt good against his skin. Maybe the ground beneath his feet wasn't so shaky after all.

"He's a wonderful person. The funniest guy I know. The only person I trust with my life. He's my confidant. My shoulder to cry on. My closest ally. My dearest friend. And he's my lover..." The ohhhs and ahhs of gossiping teens were halted the second Buffy glared back at the girls. Faith gave her the thumbs up. Buffy felt better than she's felt in a very long time, as if a weight lifted from her shoulders, and the dark clouds were finally clearing. She took Xander's hand in her own, enjoying the smile attempting to curl his lips. "Xander is also the love of my life." Silence. A romantic moment for all time, at least in those young girls minds. They knew they were seeing something

special. Unexpected, a little quirky even, but special nonetheless. "I am so in love with him," she confessed to the girls, as her heart held Xander captive, gently squeezing his hand. "Xander, I love you more than anything else in the world, and as crazy as our lives are... as crazy as they might always be, that's the truth. That's how I feel about you. And I just want everyone to know that."

Two of the girls had tears in their eyes, while the others had no clue what this whole display was about, but nonetheless were smiling, Even Faith seemed a little softer around the edges. Feeling that the show was over for now, Faith caught the girls attention. "Alright bitches, you've had enough entertainment for the day. Go hit the showers and then get your asses back out here for the old guy. Go on." With a wave of her hand she's off, trailing behind her students.

Meanwhile, Buffy's kind of holding her breath. Xander hasn't said a word so far, though he seems pleased, or at least he smiling again, which is a very good Xander-sign. She's just poured her heart out to him, publicly mind you, and as scary as that was, she feels liberated. She took the bull by the horns, dammit. She took a step forward for once. "So..."

Feeling kind of speechless and light-headed, Xander felt the Earth shift beneath his feet, and yet he didn't move a muscle. "You're in love with me?"

With something of a shy blush fluttering her cheeks, she nodded. "I have been for months. I just... I'm still a mess, Xander. But I'm trying. The one thing. The only thing I am absolutely assure of is how I feel about you. And as scared as I am to pursue this, I'm ready for more than I've ever had before." She studied the calm, deceivingly older expression on his face. He looked as if something profoundly good had happened in his life, and she sincerely hoped she wasn't reading him wrong.

"Grilled steak and shrimp, right?"

Her smile grew brilliantly, until it lit up her whole face. Yes, she still has him. "And love making afterward, yeah."

"See ya around eight," he slipped just outside the door, before ducking back in. "I'm in love with you too."

He left before she could say another word. Then again, what else was there to say? For the first time in the longest time, Buffy found a sense of peace within herself, created by herself, for herself.

And though it was only a beginning, it felt so satisfyingly good.

 

******

 

The End

The 3rd and final chapter in the "Bad Habits" trilogy, titled "Recovery" is coming soon.