Summary: Xander has a visitor after his talk with Dawn.

Disclaimer: These characters are all the property of their owners/creators (not me).

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Just after the conclusion of "Potential." (Spoilers!)

Archiving: Please do. . .but e-mail me at eilandesq@charter.net to let me know, because it's always nice to know where my work is going, and I might like to see what else you've got.

Dedication: To victoria p., with apologies that this isn't a Willow/Xander story. ;-)

MORE THAN WORDS

Xander put down the coffee cup. *OK, three cups is enough* It was midnight, and he had taken over the research duties from Dawn an hour and a half before, ignoring her protests that she was fine: he had seen the bone- deep exhaustion on her face. He could crack the books for a few hours, then grab some sleep before getting up in time to visit the job site in the morning--

"Hey."

Xander turned and saw Buffy standing at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a bathrobe over pajamas. He smiled and said, "Hey, Buffy. Shouldn't you be trying to get some sleep?"

Buffy chuckled self-deprecatingly. "Couldn't drop off. I think my body's gotten used to me getting my ass kicked as an excuse to rest. One relatively slow day and I'm Insomnia Girl." Buffy saw Xander's expression twist, and she frowned and apologized, "Sorry, Xander."

Xander blinked, and was silent for a moment before asking, "For what? *Not* almost getting beaten to death? I think I can do with a few more days like that, thanks."

Buffy walked over and pulled up a chair next to Xander at the kitchen table. Neither of them spoke for several seconds. Buffy sighed and reached out to squeeze Xander's arm, and her voice was gentle as she said, "I've been so damned callous lately--I've been trying to scare the girls, get them to focus. Not that I was Miss Sensitivity the last few years anyway. You don't need that--you've spent enough time thinking about this stuff to know what the score is. You always have."

Xander shivered, and decided to change the subject. "Did Willow turn in?"

"Yeah, she went upstairs about two hours ago. The training session broke up just before eleven, and everyone crashed--kind of a rough day all around for them. Amanda's catching on really fast--she'll be caught up with the others before long. Except for Kennedy, but she's been doing this stuff since before Tonya Harding became a punchline." Buffy frowned, and turned to Xander with a speculative expression: "Xander, have you noticed something about how Kennedy acts around--"

"Yeah. It's pretty subtle. . .or it would be if we went by Anya's standards." Xander's deadpan reply caused Buffy to giggle briefly before she composed herself. Xander smiled and added, "Willow's all nervous around her. Once, she grabbed my arm when I was walking through the kitchen, and she wouldn't let go until Kennedy heard you calling her downstairs. She's got quite a grip, our Willow."

"Should I warn Kennedy off? Willow's still working through a lot of stuff. It might not be good for her." Buffy looked down, saddened at the reminder of a lost friend.

"Not good for her to be interested in someone who could die horribly at any moment at the hands of the forces of darkness? And this would be different from everyone else she's been involved with, how?" Xander's voice was calm, but there was an undertone of dark amusement there. He reached out and squeezed Buffy's hand as he added, "Like you said to me once--it's her call. She'll know if she's ready."

Buffy nodded, and they were silent again until Buffy smiled softly at him and commented, "You know, I had to come back upstairs for one of the practice swords just after I took the girls downstairs. I heard you talking to Dawn."

Xander shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and could not meet Buffy's eyes. He looked down and whispered, "I knew she was a little down, and she'd been through a lot. She deserved to know she'd done a good job."

"Yes, she did, and thank you for telling her what you did. I'm going to try to get some time alone with her in the next couple of days to make sure she knows how I feel about what she did--I'll even leave out the lecture about running off by herself. I'm kind of on shaky ground for getting on her case about that." Xander smiled at Buffy's rueful comment, and looked back up to see her looking at him sadly. Buffy sighed, then added, "Xander, you know how I--"

"I know, Buffy. You don't need to tell me." Xander blushed slightly, then turned away again as he added, "I was trying to cheer Dawn up, not vent grievances."

"No, I really think that I do." Buffy reached out and touched Xander's shoulder, and waited for him to turn back to her before continuing, "We've done a pretty good job of pissing each other off over the years--we've both crossed lines we shouldn't have. Either of us could have just walked away from this friendship, and I thank God every day that neither of us did. It's not just that I'd be dead or worse a dozen times without you--it's that I can't imagine being *me* any more without you there. Giles, Tara, Oz. . .even Willow--I love all of them, I always will, but they've all left me at one time or another. You haven't. Whenever I've really, really needed you, you've been there, saying the right thing, doing what had to be done. "

"Anya might have something to say about my talents for doing the right thing, Buffy." Buffy could see the haunted look on Xander's face as he met her eyes, and she watched as he whispered, "I think a lot about how I've hurt you guys over the years--"

"Yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about things too, when I've got the time." Buffy blinked, and tears appeared. Xander reached out, but Buffy gently gestured for him to stop. He complied, and Buffy took a breath before continuing bleakly, "This place is poison, Xander: it always has been. I'm not making excuses for anything we've done, but we've had to see our best intentions get warped into horrible consequences almost since the moment I came to this town. We've fought hard for every damned moment of happiness we've had here, and paid for it with misery and blood."

Buffy's eyes were shining, this time with intensity rather than tears, and Xander silently watched her as she gripped the table for a moment before saying, "When Giles dosed me with that stuff the Council gave him, do you remember what I was like? I was absolutely terrified that I'd have to go on, knowing everything I know, without the ability to do anything about it."

"That's kind of understandable, Buffy--you're used to being able to do something about stuff like that." Xander tensed: he wanted to reach out, but Buffy had refused his offer once, and he would not do it again without invitation.

"Except that you do it every day, Xander. It isn't just what you do, it's about what you know. It's about understanding, and knowing what to say, and just showing up. Even when things blew up with Anya, you didn't stay away for long, and when the rest of us were down, you saved Willow and saved everyone else while you were at it." Buffy looked up and locked eyes with Xander, searching for signs that he was understanding her: he returned her gaze with less intensity, but with complete attention. She smiled softly and grasped his hand hard enough to hurt him a little, and whispered urgently, "You are *not* just the guy who repairs the windows, Xander. I depend on you to be here when things are at their worst, and so help me, if you get yourself killed taking dumb risks I'm going to reach right into the afterlife and drag your ass back with my bare hands. . .and let me tell you as someone who knows what that's like--it really sucks."

Xander smiled at the semi-serious warning, and nodded gravely. Buffy released his hand, then leaned in and kissed him softly on the cheek before turning around and heading back toward the stairs without speaking. Xander watched her, and was surprised when she slowed and stopped. Without turning back to face him, she spoke quietly: "Xander, I never really thanked you for saving my life."

At one time, those words would have stung, but the unpleasant memories of a night on the dance floor of the Bronze had faded into irrelevance. Xander coughed self-consciously, and replied, "Sure you have, Buffy. You just did, in not so many words."

"Yeah, but I've never really said it, and I've come to realize that it isn't what I want to say to you anyway." Buffy sounded subdued, and Xander waited with concern as Buffy turned around and looked at him and continued, "Xander, however it ends, whatever all of this means. . .I just want to thank you for being part of my life. It means more to me than I can say, and I hope that me being in your life has been something you're happy about, in spite of all of the crap over the years."

Xander blinked, then walked slowly over to Buffy, tipped her chin up, and kissed her very softly on the lips. He felt her shiver as he released her chin and moved back slightly before kissing her on the forehead as he had Dawn earlier that night. He stepped back and looked at her: she looked vaguely puzzled, and a part of him laughed in sheer joy as he smiled at her again and whispered, "Very happy. No matter how things go from here on in. Get some sleep, Buffy--you've got a bunch of potential Slayers to train in the morning, and I've got a lot of really boring books to read through before I crash. You know the drill."

Buffy looked at him thoughtfully for a long moment, and Xander felt a shiver that mirrored the one that Buffy had just had. At length, she nodded, then slipped up the stairs without a sound. He stood for a moment, looking at where she had been, before sighing and heading back to the books. It would be a long night, but somehow it had just become more bearable.



As always, comments are welcomed and desired.