Buffy must have gripped Willow's hand too hard, because she cried out in pain and Xander rushed in from the other room.

"What is it? What's wrong?" asked Xander worriedly.

Buffy loosened her hold on Willow's hand, but didn't release it. "Nothing," she said reassuringly. "I just forgot my own strength." She forced herself to give a little chuckle. It sounded artificial to her ears, but Xander didn't seem to notice.

Willow hadn't even looked over at him. Her eyes were still on Buffy's face, although the rush of joy had faded from them.

And still, Xander didn't notice. He'd never been a noticer, Buffy thought. He just ricocheted around on his hopes and fears. It made her sad, although she wasn't sure why. She could see how happy he was. How hopeful.

"Do you want to me to go back in the-"

Buffy nodded and smiled, and he returned her nod eagerly. Why would he question her?

Why indeed, thought Buffy with a trace of bitterness. When had she ever done anything not designed to meet with her friends' approval? When she did something she thought they wouldn't like, she hid it. In the dark, where they thought it belonged.

Where she would have thought it belonged, once. The girl she'd been all those years ago-Buffy, their friend, the one who made their lives matter. The only pretty girl who'd give Xander the time of day, the only cool girl who wasn't afraid to be seen with Willow. That's what she would have thought, then-that those were things Faith would have done, but not her.

She wasn't Faith. She never had been. Faith had been wrong about being selfish, about being above the law. But she wasn't wrong about grabbing what she wanted with both hands. About not being ashamed of what she wanted. She hated thinking that Faith had anything to teach her, but she was right about those things. Buffy liked the rush of excitement during a battle. She liked the look of fear on vamps' faces when they realized she was the Slayer. She liked it when Spike pushed her skirt up and bent her over the railing at the Bronze, even if he was pretty much being an asshole at the time. And she liked sitting in the kitchen with him and Giles, with Dawn upstairs doing her homework. She shouldn't have to choose, to be just one. They were both part of her.

Last year they thought she was different, that she had been since Willow scattered herbs and chanted over her grave. They looked at her and wondered why she wasn't the same, and she could see it: Them wishing she was the other Buffy, because she was better than what had returned.

But they were wrong. She'd been wrong, when she thought that. She was still Buffy. She walked the same way, liked the same things. She was the same girl, really. Just a little different. She didn't have the patience to pretend any more. She didn't want to act like she was all sunshine and roses when she wasn't. She liked those things, but she liked other things, too. Some things the others didn't approve of. But they were still things that were natural to her.

Vaguely she was aware of Xander returning to the kitchen. This wouldn't be a problem. She could handle Willow. Even if she wanted to squeeze Willow's hand, still cradled in her own, so hard that every bone broke.

She bent towards Willow again, taking care to keep her voice down. Xander was sure to be listening, eager to borrow any bit of joy he could from the reunion. "I know what you're doing," she told her, deadly serious. "I never believed for a moment that garbage about you being cured. All your magic gone? I know you, you're careful. You always keep something in reserve. You don't need a lot of magic in you to work a few basic spells, do you? A nasty little curse?"

Willow shook her head inarticulately. She looked too stricken to respond.

"So what is it?" Buffy prodded. "Have you got a little stash of herbs around here somewhere? Some sage in the kitchen? Xander wouldn't notice that, would he? So tell me," she said, getting her face right in Willow's, "what exactly are you doing to Spike? Are you trying to kill him? Or just using him for target practice as you work your way back up to the whole global destruction thing?"

"I wouldn't hurt Spike," whispered Willow. So softly, holding to Buffy's unexpressed desire to keep this between them, even as Buffy's eyes smoldered and her hand crushed Willow's relentlessly. Willow couldn't do anything else. She didn't even want to. "I haven't done any magic, I swear."

"Don't lie," hissed Buffy. "He told me everything. And I'm telling you right now, stop hurting him. Do you hear me?"

"I'm not-"

"I said don't lie to me!" Buffy yelled suddenly, patience gone. Goddammit, what had she expected? That Willow would just confess? That would be too easy, wouldn't it? "You stop it, keep your magics away from him," Buffy ordered furiously, seizing Willow by the shoulders. She shook her heedlessly, not even considering her Slayer strength. Noise roared in her ears, and for a few moments she couldn't even see anything.

The next thing Buffy was aware of was Xander shouting and trying to pry her hands from Willow's shoulders. Willow, whose loose hair was now completely wild and whose skin was pasty with fear. Buffy released her and moved away from the couch.

"Jesus, Buffy, what is wrong with you?" exclaimed Xander, hovering over Willow protectively.

Buffy didn't even spare a glance for him as she stared at Willow, her composure regained. "Stay the hell away from Spike," she told Willow coldly, and left the apartment without a backwards glance.

A second after she got into the hall the door banged again. She turned, anticipating Willow, but it was Xander there, eyes blazing.

"Is that who that was about? Spike?"

She stared at him, her eyes opaque. "What did you think it was? Some grand revelation on my part that Willow didn't mean to kill my sister and beat me to death and destroy the world? That when she tried to kill Giles it was just a little mistake, that her saying sorry makes everything all right? Because she's one of us, and so it doesn't matter what she did, we just forgive it? No matter how big it was, and how awful, and how evil?"

"Evil?" said Xander, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're dating Dr. Evil. That's why you attacked Willow, isn't it? Him? He comes back to town, and two minutes later you're over here attacking Willow, when she'd done nothing but try to make things up to you. Oh, and just forgetting what someone's done? You've made an art of it when it comes to some people. But people isn't really the right word, is it? God, it doesn't matter what they do, they get a free pass with you."

"I told you what happened in the bathroom is no one's business but mine," returned Buffy in frustration. God, she wished she'd gotten up and gone to her bedroom after Spike left, or gotten in the shower, or just locked the goddamn door. Xander pretended to be outraged, but he loved knowing about it. Loved having another cudgel to use to beat her back into line.

"What happened in the bathroom, maybe. But all the times he's tried to kill us? We're just supposed to forget about that because he's your boyfriend now and suddenly what he's done doesn't count? What he's done to us, and to a thousand other people?"

Buffy flinched. She didn't like to think about that. "He doesn't do that any more."

Xander gave a bitter laugh. "The only reason he doesn't is because of that chip in his head. If that chip was out, he'd been tearing his way through this town like the demon he is."

"Demons? Do you really want to talk demons?" scoffed Buffy. Damn him, how dare he judge her? The hypocrite! "You've dated every female demon who came to town-bug lady, mummy girl, Anya. Oh yeah, and Cordy-though I don't know if I'd call her a real step up. If she were a demon your record would be perfect."

"I never-"

"Never what? Never had anyone in your face 24/7 about what you're doing and who you're dating, telling you what you're doing wrong and how you're disappointing them and your calling and the world and fluffy kittens and god knows what else? And generally acting like being someone's friend gives you the right to judge everything they do? What kind of friendship is that?"

"I've risked my life for you," Xander shot back furiously. "I have always been your friend."

"But there was always something in it for you, wasn't there?" Buffy demanded. "You weren't helping out of the goodness of your heart. In the beginning you helped because you were trying to get my attention. Thought you'd get in good, I'd notice you and suddenly you'd be my dream guy. Wasn't that more like it?"

Xander felt wounded. They'd been friends for so long, through so much, and she was attacking him? Choosing Spike over her friends? "Well, there wasn't much chance of that, was there? Not with your vampire boyfriend of the moment around."

"I met you before I ever saw Angel, and I still wasn't interested," snapped Buffy. "How long did that go on? Your little competition with Angel? Even after you started dating Cordelia, I could see it. I ignored it because your friendship was important to me. But now I'm kind of wondering why, since it seems to consist of you setting standards for me and letting me know when I'm falling short. How about you just try being a friend, and not the Sunnydale branch of the Watchers' Council?"

"How about you try dating humans?" returned Xander.

Jesus, he hadn't listened to a word she'd said, she realized in disbelief. It just rolled right off him. "How about you try minding your own fucking business?"

A hard look crossed his face. She'd never said such a thing to him before. He'd never even heard her use that word, ever. Welcome back, Spike. "Done," he said frigidly, walking back into the apartment and closing the door behind him.

***

Willow watched Xander pace around the room. He'd come back from the hall so upset he was panting. She'd heard what he and Buffy had said to each other, mostly. It would have been hard to miss, what with the loudness and all. The last time she'd heard them talk to each other that way was years before, after they had found Miss Calendar's disk containing the spell to re-soul Angelus. Xander had been against the ensouling, arguing that Angel didn't deserve it. He'd killed Miss Calendar and Theresa and lots of other people, and he would always be dangerous, even if they restored his soul. He'd accused Buffy of not caring about anything but getting her boyfriend back.

The thing was, he was kind of right. It wasn't just Buffy, it was all of them. It was the way of the world. The heart wants what it wants, that sort of thing. It was the same thing that had allowed Willow to try to kill them all. To create a fireball to kill Jonathan and Andrew, knowing that they were with Xander and that it might kill him. To threaten Dawn, even though she knew Tara had loved Dawn so much-maybe even more than she'd loved Willow. Even though Willow had loved Dawn for years. Because when the heart was in pain, it didn't think of anything except what it needed. The world ceased to matter.

And Xander had forgiven Willow. It was something she could always count on from him: His love. His understanding. Buffy had his love, too, but he didn't understand her at all. He never had. Willow clearly remembered the day they had met Buffy. Cordelia had been cruel to Willow, as usual, this time in front of her new friend. And then Buffy had come up to her at lunch. Sought her out and made it clear she wanted to be her friend. Willow could still feel the puzzlement, the excitement, that Buffy wanted her friendship. The gratitude.

And then Xander had come, and poor Jesse, and they jockeyed around for position, trying to impress Buffy. She had barely looked at them. And as Xander continued, for weeks and months, to attempt to gain Buffy's attention, Willow had gradually lost her apprehension that Buffy and Xander would begin dating. Because she realized that even if Angel wasn't there, it would never be Xander. Not for Buffy. He was a friend, a companion. Not a lover. Buffy had something epic going on. It was really the only way she could have anything. Now she was 21; she'd died twice. Anything she'd have would have to be accelerated. Willow hated to think of it, but Buffy wouldn't be around to enjoy anything taken at a normal human pace, on a normal human scale.

Xander had never really understood that.

Xander had finally realized that a superhero needed a boyfriend with superpowers, or at least a handy chip of some sort. He was thinking more the Riley sort of chip, though. Or maybe he just became sick of waiting-Willow had never been sure. So Xander had resigned himself to a brotherly role, but he thought that came with certain privileges, kind of like a consolation prize. He wasn't the person who'd save the world, usually, and he wasn't her boyfriend. But he could influence her. Persuade her. Shame her. It wasn't deliberate, at least Willow didn't think so. But having pull with Supergirl, the coolest girl in high school, gave him something. Maybe people didn't know Buffy was the Slayer, but Xander did. One in all the world, and she listened to him. Tried to make him happy. And Xander needed that. He needed it to help define himself, because otherwise he was just a laborer with a bad family who'd thrown away his fiancée and was playing nursemaid to his emotionally crippled friend.

Xander was so much more than that. But he never saw it. He never saw what Willow did-the little boy who'd tried to keep his own clothes clean because his mother didn't bother, the kid who'd gotten into fights in grade school because someone had made Willow cry. The teenager who'd looked at the girl he was infatuated with, saw her love for another man shining in her eyes, and risked his life to help her anyway because he would do anything for a friend. He wasn't complex. He was brave and loyal and simple. He took everything like a body blow; he didn't have it in him to shrug anything off. A person had to be elastic to do that, and he wasn't. Everything was personal. Everything mattered.

"I'm going to kill him."

Willow's attention jerked back to Xander. He was standing in the center of the living room, fists clenched. She hadn't even noticed when he'd stopped pacing. "What do you mean?"

"Spike. It's time someone put him out of his misery. Buffy should have done it years ago. He's done everything he could think of to kill us, and we shouldn't just stand around waiting for next time."

"He hasn't tried to kill us for a long time," she pointed out. "Not since Adam-"

"Oh, that's good, he hasn't tried to kill us for two years! Let's throw him a party! We'll have hats and streamers and cake! Jeez, Will, he should have been dusted years ago, chip or no chip. That's all that's standing between us and him, the chip."

"You didn't want to kill him until he slept with Anya," Willow pointed out softly. She hated bringing it up to him. Hated hurting him with it. But he'd become so angry, sometimes it seemed like the only emotion he had left. "You didn't even hate him any more. You two used to play pool at the Bronze, remember? And I remember you laughing together the summer after Buffy died."

Xander felt his throat close up. He hated to think of that. Hated to think of Buffy dead, in the ground. Cold, and gone from them. "We didn't laugh," he muttered.

"Yes, you did. It took a long time for either of you to laugh, but finally you did."

Xander stared at the floor.

"Buffy's the Slayer, not you. If someone's going to be killing vampires, it will be her. It sounds like Buffy and Spike are becoming friendly again. I don't think you should bother them, Xander. It doesn't have anything to do with you."

The hell it doesn't have anything to do with me. It has p-

"Right?" Willow prompted.

Xander sighed in frustration. "But she was in here acting crazy and threatening you," he protested. Willow looked so pale, so drawn. She'd been okay before Buffy stopped by with her fake friendly visit. Better than usual, at least. Xander thought it might be because she'd seen Giles again.

And now she was all worried, her face creased and marked with more pain than a 21-year-old should know. He didn't know how she managed, all alone except for him.

He reached out and gently touched her face. Maybe he should ask a couple of the guys' wives in to talk to her. While he was there, just to make sure everything went all right. He hated her being alone so much, but he wasn't sure she was ready for anything more.

"Fine, fine, you win," he finally agreed. There'd be time for Spike later.

"Thank you," Willow said gratefully. She reached out, wrapped her arms around him. It was nice to get a hug, especially when you were isolated from most of the people you loved. Which pretty much described both of them.

Xander tucked his head over her shoulder and squeezed her with the same open affection a child shows a playmate. Willow hugged him back, enjoying the contact. Xander was so sweet, so uncomplicated. He wouldn't understand what she was doing any more than he understood Buffy. Who also wouldn't understand, not yet. But soon. What she was doing was for the best, Willow knew. Buffy had been right, she was careful.

And things were going exactly as planned.

 





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