Chapter Notes:

She can't work with them quite the same way she used to. She doesn't trust them quite the same way she used to. She can't even talk to them quite the same way she used to. But they don't know any of the reasons why. To them, she's the one who isn't quite the same. Well, this seems perfectly simple. ...Right?


Chapter 13: Old Friends

November, 2000

Xander slipped into his bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. He studied the occupant for a long time before he spoke. “Ahn, wake up.”

Anya shifted and winced, her pain waking her. Xander helped her adjust the pillow under her cast. “Hi. Did you finish the shelves?”

“Yeah.” He stroked her hair. “And I'm sorry.”

“For what?” She blinked against the morning sunlight. “Are they crooked?”

“For arguing with you before you got hurt. For not respecting your history. For not telling you where I think you should be.”

Anya struggled to sit up against the headboard. “We fight about that stuff all the time. And where am I supposed to be? You invited me to stay here until I felt better, right?”

“I should have asked you to move in.” Xander studied the tiny spots of wood stain on his fingernails. “I stayed at the store all night, getting it ready to reopen, because I know you want to go back to work.”

“And I'm making you crazy here.”

He smiled. “A little. But that's your shop, as much as Giles'. You belong there. And here.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yeah.” Xander took a deep breath. “I can't explain how much I freaked when I heard Glory had attacked you. I'm not sure I have ever been that scared... About anything. Ever. It scared me into silence, if you can believe such a thing.” He looked at her. “I don't think you know... I don't think I've made it clear... I'm in love with you. Powerfully, painfully in love. The things you do ... the way you think ... the way you move ... Even with a broken arm, a bump on your head, and loaded up on painkillers, you're still amazing. You make me feel like I've never felt before in my life. I get excited every time I'm about to see you. I want more of that. I want us to... to come home to each other. Every day.” He shrugged. “I just needed to say that.”

Anya was silent for a moment. Then she tried to lean toward him, but her cast and its cushion got in the way. She frowned at her arm. “I want to be kissing you, but...”

Xander hopped off the bed and ran around to the other side to sit down beside her. The warmth of the kiss more than made up for the brief wait.

When she pulled away, Anya looked around the bedroom. “Ok.”

“Ok?”

“Ok, I'll move in.”

*~*~*

“Giles is here,” Buffy said into the payphone.

“How are you faring with that?”

“I expected him to show up, for Mom's sake. And it's fine. We're civil and stuff. He just took Dawnie down to the cafeteria to get snacks.”

“How's everyone else?”

“Tense and worried. Anya decided not to reopen the Magic Box alone, and came to wait with Xander. I can't say I blame her, after last time. He's holding her good hand. Willow is cuddled up against Tara's shoulder. It's very... couple-y in here. Everyone has someone to lean on, to worry with them.”

“Jealous?”

“Someone should invest in heavy curtains. Or invent some kind of mystical sunscreen.”

“There was a gemstone, but I didn't get to give it more than a test drive.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I'm sorry, ok? But you were really being an ass that day, and you were still pretty dangerous back then.”

“Hey! I'm still dangerous!”

“This morning I saw you padding around my mother's kitchen in your bare feet, making an omelet for my sister, and drinking from a mug with tulips stenciled on it. Yes, you're dangerous and scary.”

“Bugger off.

She chuckled. “You're so fun to rile up.”

“Glad to be of service,” Spike grumbled.

“I'll check in again soon.”

“I'll be here.”

*~*~*

Buffy jumped up sit on the counter between the sinks. “So I think the crazies can see time travelers.”

“How do you mean?” Tara asked, leaning against the frame of a stall door.

“The other night, Mom was babbling about me 'flashing in white.' She saw what she thinks of as the 'real' Buffy between the flashes. I think she's seeing where I was merged into this time's Buffy. There was a lot of flashing white light in the spell that sent us here. I bet Spike is flashing, too. And possibly his coat. You might be, depending on how the PTB transferred you in.”

“Crap. I don't know how to mask that. I mean, I'm sure the Key glamour will cover it in me, if I am flashing, but there's no way I can mask you and Spike, on top of that, even with your super-charged power source. It would still be too much for me.

Buffy shrugged. “I figured as much. I just wanted to let you know what Mom told me.” Her gaze drifted to the restroom floor. “If only the news we're about to get was as good as everyone will think it is...”

“You don't know that the aneurysm will form again.”

“Why wouldn't it? Everything about her medical situation has progressed exactly the same way, at the same pace. I tried early on to get a couple of her appointments moved up, but there was never an opening. I even tried to find a better neurosurgeon, but this one is among the best in California. He's got a great survival rate on cases like Mom's ...I guess someone has to make up the statistics, but I wish they didn't have to come from my family.” She chuckled at herself, shaking her head. “Listen to me. Heartless and selfish. I guess everyone thinks that, but most people aren't crass enough to say it.”

“Most people don't have to go through it twice, Buffy. I think you're allowed a little extra selfishness.”

The gentleness in her voice made Buffy's smile shift from rueful to grateful. “It's good to have you here. I really need a friend with me right now, someone who gets it.”

“And can hang out near the windows?” Tara giggled. “I know I'm the second choice, but I still appreciate the sentiment... I'm also not the only friend you have here, you know.”

“You mean Willow.”

“For starters. She misses you, but this 'you and Spike' thing still has her freaked out. She came here for your mom, but also because she's hoping you'll make the next move.”

“I've already made my next move. I've called a reputable coven.”

“To train her or restrain her?” Tara looked worried. “I know she'll be a problem later...”

“Which ever needs to be done. We have to get to her before her first book-sucking rage-magic incident, Tara. If we're going to put you in the line of fire with Glory--”

“I could get hurt again. Or worse. And I'm her biggest trigger.”

“She has more love for you than she has good sense.” Buffy shrugged. “We either don't have your help, and keep you even more protected than Dawnie, or we risk Scary Black Eyed Willow. The only alternative is to get ahead of her, stage a magic intervention.”

“She's not going to take it well.” Tara sighed. “You want me to lead her into it, don't you?”

“We're not doing anything until we talk to the witches. For now, all I'm asking is that you'll be a part of the conversation.”

“Absolutely. You don't even have to ask that. But I won't force her into anything.”

“I don't want to force her, either. But I'm willing, if I have to. Let's just see what the pros say, ok?”

“You'll talk to her in the meantime? You know, about friend stuff?”

“I'll try.”

*~*~*

When Dawn broke out of the spontaneous group hug, she raced to the bank of payphones and called home. “She made it through surgery. She's going to be ok. The doctor says everything went exactly right.”

“That's grand, Bit. Any word on how long she'll be in hospital?”

“He said he'll decide when the test results start coming in. Hang on, Buffy wants to talk to you.”

A moment later, Buffy's quiet voice came over the line, a stark contrast the excitement of her sister's. “Hey, Sparky.”

“I know that tone. What's wrong?”

“My Mom relief is all mixed up with my Scooby tension. Everyone is being kind and supportive, but there's this undercurrent...”

“Sounds like you need to have a chat with your mates, love. What say I watch the Nibblet tonight, and you lot go out for drinks?”

“Spike, we're all under-aged. The only place we can get drinks in town is a bar they won't want to go to.”

“Then take the children out for a bloody soda pop at the Bronze. The beverage isn't the point.”

Buffy looked over to her friends. “I don't know... Maybe it is. And maybe you need to be there, too.”

“Yeah? And who's gonna stay with the Bit?”

“Clem?”

“You haven't met him yet, love.”

“I can call Janice's mom, maybe arrange a sleepover. Chandra's cool about this sort of stuff.”

“Chandra's cool about it when she knows you, a year from now.”

“It's worth a shot.”

*~*~*

Buffy expected more resistance than she got. When she told Chandra Miller she wanted to celebrate the good news with friends, but there would probably be alcohol involved, Chandra praised her for planning ahead and readily agreed to have Dawn spend the night with Janice. Dawn was elated at the idea of a school night sleepover, and eager to get away from the tension of the hospital waiting room. Willow and Xander were so surprised at the invitation, their girlfriends didn't even have to talk them into accepting.

When the three couples walked into Little Bangkok, the Thai restaurant on State street, a waitress near the hostess' stand greeted the vampire warmly. “Spike! You brought us friends! Not a take out order tonight?”

“No, Mae. We'll be dining in. A quiet table, if you can, pet.”

“That's easy.” Mae threw him another smile, then looked over the group. “Which of you ladies is the Drunken Noodle with Chicken, extra hot?”

With a nervous chuckle, Buffy raised her hand, earning strange looks from her friends.

“Aah. She's a pretty one, Spike. You'd better keep her happy.” Mae grabbed four menus from the stand and led the group to a table near the back of the dining room.

They settled in and placed their beverage orders. “So... drunken noodle?” Xander asked.

“It's really good. You might want to get it mild or medium, though. Extra hot is pretty much for non-humans and actual Thai people.” Buffy took a sip of her water. “Most people can't take the heat.”

“That's not what I was asking. Also, you're human.”

“Only mostly, Xan. Slayer, remember?”

“Do you never bring your girl food?” Spike asked him. “Why do you let him live, Anyanka?”

A snicker went around the table, but Anya didn't see the joke. “He orders pizzas sometimes.” She lifted her injured arm. “And carries things. Also, good sex can make up for a lot of little annoyances.”

“I'll drink to that,” Spike raised his water glass. “Ow! Dammit, Slayer!”

“Behave yourself, and you won't get kicked again.”

“Who's not behaving? Emily Post said fuck all about kicking your date.”

“Emily Post didn't have to put up with you.” Buffy smirked. “You're not wrong, Anya. ...Ow!”

Everyone laughed, save Willow, who looked profoundly uncomfortable. “I guess that answers that question,” she muttered from behind her menu.

Buffy turned to Tara as the laughter died away. “What are you ordering?”

“Um, I liked the Pad Thai. I might get that again.”

Willow lowered her menu with a frown. “You've been here before?”

“I, um, got take out once, with... my other friends.”

“Oh.” Willow explained to the table, “Tara's been branching out lately. At least that's how she puts it. She's been hanging out with some non-Scooby friends from her Chem class, Joan and Randy.”

Buffy choked on her water. Spike bit back his impulse to laugh as he patted her back.

“We should invite them next time,” Xander said as the coughing subsided. “You know, assuming Buffy remembers that the windpipe is not where water goes, and doesn't drown right here. Am I going to have to give you CPR again?”

Tara shifted in her seat. “They aren't Scoobies, Xander. That's kind of the point. I like having friends that aren't demon hunters.”

Buffy, when she was finally able to breathe again, fanned her red face with a napkin. “Are- are you guys ready to order?” she gasped. “Mae will be back any minute.”

To her relief, the conversation subsided as Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya returned to looking over their menus. Spike caught her eye, still fighting back a smile. She kicked him again.

*~*~*

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” Willow asked, pushing her plate aside. “I'm not trying to ruin anything. We're having a fun night, but I kinda feel like it's a little forced.”

Anya looked around. “There's an elephant? Oh, in that gaudy mural by the kitchen door. Yeah, someone needs to talk to them about that. Definitely not realistic.”

“I think she means the proverbial elephant, Ahn. The one with fangs.”

“Oh. Spike hasn't put on weight, as far as I can tell.” A chuckle went around the table. She adjusted her sling with a pout. “I'm not trying to be funny.”

“And you're right. It isn't funny.” Buffy's firm voice drew everyone's attention. “Willow's right on one point: We're having fun. Normal, Scooby fun. And there's nothing wrong with that.” She waved for the waitress. “Mae, I need an outsider's opinion, please. When you look at the six of us, what do you see?”

“I'm not sure what you're asking. A group of friends having dinner?” Mae looked uncertainly at Willow and Tara. “Three... couples?” Tara's nod relaxed her expression. “Is that what you mean?”

“That's exactly what I mean. Thank you, Mae.” Buffy addressed her friend as the waitress stepped away. “So where's the elephant, Wils?”

“Sitting between us.”

“Pineapple fried rice?”

“Silence.” Willow sat up straight, gathering her nerve. “You don't talk to me much anymore. Or Xan.”

Xander held up his hands, one of them still holding a fork. “Hey, keep me out of this.”

Willow turned on him. “Oh, so you don't mind feeling like you're only a friend sometimes, and a nameless soldier in Buffy's Hellgod war the rest? That's not what you told me.”

Buffy closed her eyes. “We're all soldiers,” she whispered. She opened her eyes and looked around the table. Willow, her hair short, the haunted look in her eyes noticeably absent. Tara beside her. Anya, her arm in a cast and sling, the expression on her face more concerned than bitter. Xander, slim and fit, looking at her with two kind eyes, rather than one resigned one. Spike, his hand reaching for hers under the table, his eyes darting worriedly to Tara's. “Never mind. This isn't the war you think it is. And you're all welcome to walk away.”

“No one is saying we want to, Buffster. We're here to help. We just want to feel like we're helping a friend. You know, someone who talks to us and hangs out with us? This is the first time we've all been together just for fun since Tara's birthday party.”

Willow nodded her agreement with Xander. “We want to be in on your life, trade stories and worries, and just be like we used to be, like before...” Her eyes drifted to Spike.

“Before I had a boyfriend you didn't approve of.” Buffy threw her napkin on the table.

Spike's eyebrows lifted. “Boyfriend?”

“Just roll with it, ok?” She turned back to Willow. “It's ok to say it, Wils. Hell, it's ok to tell me to my face that you think I'm enthralled. I didn't have to hear about it from Mom and Giles.”

Willow leaned back in her chair. “I would have, but you aren't exactly as ...approachable as you used to be. It's not just Spike, Buffy. It's you. You're distant, closed off. It's like you have to force yourself to trust us, and that's about as far as you can get. Being a friend is just asking too much. That's why I thought there was a thrall. But I get it now. There isn't a thrall, is there?”

Spike shook his head.

“No, you're shutting me out by your own free will. You dumped Riley, without even talking to your best friend about it.” Willow pointed to herself. “You had Spike move in pretty much immediately after, and at some point started dating him. Again, no girl talk. You fired Giles from watcher duty, and he's pretty upset about it, but neither of you has even offered to tell me why. And the best part? I had to find out your mom was sick from Spike. I'm not going to pretend to understand this.” She gestured between Buffy and Spike. “But I've figured one thing out for sure: I'm not your best friend anymore.”

Willow swiped at her damp cheek. Tara put comforting arm around her. Xander offered a spare napkin to use as a handkerchief. Buffy sat open-mouthed. This wasn't the anger she'd expected. This was hurt and disappointment. “Wils, I'm not closed off on purpose. I'm trying, really. The whole point of tonight is to just hang out, as friends.” She reached over the plate of rice to take Willow's hand. “All the Glory and Dawn stuff, and Mom being in and out of the hospital, has just shifted my focus toward home.”

“Which is conveniently where you keep your vampire,” Xander grumbled.

“Which is where she needs me to be,” Spike snapped. “Don't see any of you lot willing to move in to play bodyguard and help run the house while Joyce is ill.”

Willow shook her head. “Who are you? And what have you done with Spike?” She dabbed her nose with the napkin. “If you keep talking like that, people aren't going to want to stake you so much.”

A snicker went around the table, breaking the tension. “We should do this more often,” Anya said decidedly. “Catharsis and spicy food, to clean out all the systems at once. But people aren't supposed to have these conversations sober. It isn't natural.”

Spike smirked. “Yeah, I think a few drinks are in order. Let's get out of here.”

*~*~*

“Spike. Slayer.” Willy nodded in acknowledgment as they walked into his bar. He saw the two couples behind them. “Hey! You're not going to fill this place up with your white hat humans! You'll drive off my clientele.”

Buffy looked around the half empty bar and raised an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, your week night crowd is pretty wild. I'm not even sure we can get a table.”

He sighed, relenting. “What'll it be?”

“That's what I thought.” Buffy walked away from the bar to choose a table.

Willy looked at Spike. “Captain and Coke and Jack on the rocks?”

“And start a tab for me. Might be here a bit tonight.”

After the humans put in their orders, Xander leaned against the bar beside Spike to wait for the drinks. “So you order Thai takeout often enough that Mae knows your girlfriend by her favorite meal and the two of you come here often enough that Willy knows your drink orders?”

Spike shrugged.“We swing by for a nightcap after patrol sometimes.”

“And Willy is going to put Buffy's drinks on your tab without a second thought.”

“What are you getting at, Harris?”

Xander shrugged. “Nothing. I'm just making sure I'm reading this right. 'Cause, honestly, Spike? You and Buffy? It doesn't make sense. Like, none of it. From the very concept to the fact that you guys seemed to go from what I assumedwas a first date to being like a settled couple really, really fast.”

“Some things just work, Harris. Even when there's no reason they should.”

A curvy redhead in her late thirties put the tray she carried on the bar beside Spike. “Not even a hello, Spike?”

He turned and gave her a warm smile. “Evening, pet.” He kissed her cheek. “Didn't see you. Thought you might have the night off.”

The waitress gestured to Willy behind the bar. “Working for this slave-driver? Are you kidding me? I'm still holding out for you to take me away from all this.”

“I would, Trix, but there'd be 110 pounds of slayer rage blocking the door.”

“Worse, she'd probably call my husband.” She smiled at Xander. “Hi. I'm Trixie.”

“Don't even bat your eyes, pet. His girl's sitting with mine.” Spike nodded toward the table the women had gathered around. “And she's a retired vengeance demon.”

Trixie gave a friendly wave to the table, where Anya was watching them with narrowed eyes, and Buffy was rolling hers. “Go on, get to your women. I'll bring your drinks.”

Spike gave her another kiss on the cheek as they stepped away. “Still my best girl, you know.”

“If I thought you meant that, I'd be divorced by now.” She waved them on.

Spike was chuckling when he took the empty chair beside Buffy.

“One of these days, William... some jealous husband is going to have himself a real good day.”

He laughed and put his arm across the back of her chair. “Doubt he could take me.”

“I might help.”

“Which one? Me or the husband?”

“I haven't decided yet,” she grumbled, but she was smiling.

Everyone laughed, save Willow, yet again. She looked around. “It's nice to not get carded and laughed out the bar, but guys, we're hanging out at Willy's.”

“I kind of like it.” Anya said. “It's dive-y, but homey. We should come here more often, Xander.”

He glanced around at the scattering of demons, trying to reconcile his worries with his wish to make her happy. “Um, if you want you, I guess we can, once in a while.” He looked at Buffy. “Is it safe to be here without a slayer escort?”

She shrugged. “Most of the demons in town know who you are, Xan. I'm pretty sure being my friend puts you on the 'do I really want to bruise this guy?' list. Ah! Thanks, Trix.” She accepted her drink from the waitress. “Keep this up, and I'll forget to call Greg when you and Spike run off together.”

“I wish!” Trixie laughed as she served the other drinks.

“Willy wouldn't let you get hurt in here,” Spike added when Trixie had moved to another table. “Knows Buffy would make him suffer for it. Besides, the weeknight regulars are mostly peaceful types.” He tapped Buffy on the shoulder and pointed to the far end of the bar.

Her eyes lit up. She nodded, and Spike sauntered back to the bar. He gestured for her to join him a minute later. “Clem, meet the slayer. Buffy, this is the bloke I've been telling you about.”

“Hi,” Clem said with a nervous wave. He cringed as Buffy stepped toward him.

“I'm not going to attack you. I've heard so much about you from Spike, I feel like I know you.” She held out her arms, inviting a hug. “Let's just start out as friends, ok?”

Clem hugged her readily. “She's not nearly as scary as everyone says,” he said over her shoulder.

“Not to you, anyway.”

Buffy pulled out of the hug and took Clem's hand. “Come on, you should meet my friends. They might be a little tense at first, but they'll like you.”

“By the third round, at any rate,” Spike mumbled.

“That's kinda the point.” She stopped a few steps from their table, when she spotted a tall, bumpy-faced demon slouched in a corner booth with his claws wrapped around an empty glass. “Rudy?” She released Clem's hand. “Spike will introduce you to the gang. I'll be right back.”

Willow forced herself to accept Clem's offered handshake. “Um, hi. It's nice to meet you.”

Clem chuckled, shaking the loose skin of his face. “It's alright to be nervous, human. Just don't try to kill me, and we'll be ok.” He took a seat at the table. “I didn't know Rudy knew the slayer.”

Xander peeled his eyes away from the booth in the corner. “Is Rudy the demon in the purple robe?”

Spike nodded. “We met him on patrol a few weeks back. Some young vamps were trying to mug him.”

“So Buffy's saving demons now? That's a little weird.”

Anya shrugged. “Not really, Xander. Jalferstalf demons might look like big, sharp-clawed scary things, but they're really just overgrown kittens.”

Clem nodded his agreement. “Rudy's a nice guy and all, but geez! His species makes mine look tough.”

Buffy came back to the table alone. “Sorry, everyone. I had to check on an acquaintance. I tried to get him to join us, but I think he's busy being miserable.”

“What's wrong with him?” Tara asked. “He looks really depressed.”

“He lost his favorite bicycle in a poker game.”

Xander took a sip of his drink. “I think I'm going to need more liquor to process this night. My brain is already sending me mixed signals about fear, sympathy, and the hilarious mental image of that big, nightmare-looking dude riding a bicycle. And we're barely into the first round.”

Buffy threw Spike a quick smile, anticipating success. “So we're going to be here for a while? Good. Does anyone have any quarters for the juke box?”

*~*~*

Buffy was sipping her coffee and reading the newspaper when Tara came into the kitchen. “Morning,” she said, without looking up. “Coffee's fresh. Do you remember where we keep everything?”

“Yep.” Tara pulled two mugs from the cabinet above the microwave and filled them, then reached for the sugar bowl. “Willow's hungover.” She dropped the sugar spoon on the floor and cringed at the noise. “I'm not in the best of shape myself.”

Buffy didn't even flinch. “You didn't have that much to drink.” She glanced over the top of the newspaper. “Also, Joan and Randy? Really, Tara?”

“I had to explain why I was going out without her some evenings, and those were the first names I thought of.” She shrugged. “And it's not just the alcohol. It's waking up in your mom's room with Willow. I looked out the window, half expecting you and Xander to be in the backyard.”

“Sorry, I wasn't thinking of that. I should have put you guys in my room.”

The clatter of the spoon dropping had woken the guest on the sofa. He shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. “Everything ok? And do I smell coffee?”

“'Morning, Clem. We're fine. Mugs are in the cabinet above the microwave.”

The sounds and smells from the kitchen slowly brought everyone else from their borrowed beds. By the time Spike came upstairs, the kitchen was full. Clem and Anya were debating the merits of cereal advertising. Willow was starting a second pot of coffee, Xander and Tara were scrounging around the refrigerator and cabinets, trying to come up with breakfast for seven. Buffy sat seemingly oblivious in the middle of it all, calmly reading the newspaper. Spike whispered in her ear, “Just like old times, eh?”

“No,” she whispered back. “This is quieter.”

Spike snickered and began the well-practiced maneuvers of moving around the humans to warm a mug of blood for himself. “Downstairs?” he asked over the noise of the other conversations.

“Good cloud cover this morning. A little foggy.”

“Suits me.” When the microwave beeped, he grabbed his mug and slipped out the back door.

Buffy joined him on the porch after she'd refilled her own mug. “Don't you dare laugh, but...”

“You've missed this?”

“You have, too. Admit it.”

“Maybe a bit.”

She leaned against the railing. “It just feels so... normal to me now. It shouldn't. And I really, really hope it doesn't have to become normal again, given why it was before. But there was something comforting and familiar about coming upstairs this morning, knowing the house was full of people and the kitchen would soon be in chaos.” She sighed. “I wonder how long we've been gone.”

“A few minutes. An hour, maybe. Red wasn't clear on how long it would take.”

“It's been months, plus the bounces. But they'll never even have time to miss us.”

“As soon as we prevent the resurrection spell, it'll have never even happened.”

“It's kind of sad. I know it's better this way but they--” She gestured toward the house. “will never know why we are the way we are, why morning kitchen chaos is comfortable, why assigning beds to a handful of drunk people was no big deal... why I can't connect with them the way they expect me to.”

“Seemed to do alright last night.”

“I got them liquored up and made them blow off some steam.”

Spike shrugged. “Worked for Faith.”

“And I gave her a serious chewing out for it. There's got to be a better way to bond with them again.”

“So why'd you want to take them to Willy's in the first place? I know you don't want to hear it, Slayer, but Faith got that part right. Easiest way to turn strangers into friends is booze and dancing. If you're gonna use her methods, you need to admit she knew what she was doing.”

“It's still not the same as Faith and the girls.” She pointed to the house again. “They aren't strangers.”

“No,” Spike said slowly. “We are. That's kinda the problem, isn't it?”





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