Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just borrowing them for a spell. . .

Rating: PG-13, for themes

Time Frame: A few days after the events in "Misdirection," and following the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Author's Note: This story follows up on significant plot elements from "Fair Warning' and "Misdirection"--particularly the latter. I'd strongly recommend that you read both of those stories before starting this one--both stories can be found here:

http://www.fanfiction.net/~mscotteiland

FAMILIAR PATTERNS

"Well, it looks like you'll be fine in no time." Buffy smiled at Giles, who was sitting up in bed: his ribs were bandaged, and there were bruises visible on his right cheekbone and his forearms. She turned to Faith--who was visibly ill at ease--and grinned. "Stop squirming, Faith. He's not dead, and I'm not mad at you."

Faith looked uncomfortable. "I know, B--it's just that--"

"Hey, none of us are perfect. You two got jumped by a dozen vamps, and you only could tie down ten of them--nothing to be ashamed of." Buffy's tone grew lighter, and Faith winced as Buffy added, "Look, he's just not up to holding off two vamps any more--we're just going to have to come up with new arrangements."

Giles' eyes narrowed. * I'm feeling a tad ambivalent about how well this plan is working * He cleared his throat and pointedly ignored Buffy's last comment as he looked at Faith and asked, "You have a date tonight, Faith, do you not?"

"Yeah--Robin snagged box seats to the Dodger game. Gotta book." Faith nodded to Giles and Buffy, and managed to flee the room without seeming to. When she was safely outside, she exhaled in relief and departed without delay.

Buffy watched her go, then made a "tsking" sound as she adjusted Giles' pillows and bedding. Giles scowled as his Slayer fussed over him, and he cleared his throat more loudly and said quietly, "Buffy--what exactly did you mean when you said that we'd have to come up with new arrangements? I'm retiring from field operations, and I'm certainly competent to--"

"Really? You're going to be the head of the Council, Giles. That's a position with a lot of importance, and you're known to the demon world from your time here--you're going to be very vulnerable to major attacks directed at you." Buffy looked at Giles sadly, shaking her head as she added, "Add to that your fighting skills going downhill, and I just can't take the chance. I'm head of VIP Protection under the new organization chart, and I make the call as to how much protection you get. One Slayer wasn't enough, so I'm thinking we're going to have to go plural for you."

Giles flushed in humiliation. "Buffy Summers--you .can *not* be suggesting that two Slayers should be detailed as my. . .babysitters! That is completely outrageous!"

Buffy's expression turned grim, and she nodded as Giles relaxed at her apparent willingness to relent. After a moment she locked eyes with him and replied, "I agree completely, Giles. It would be a criminal failure of duty on my part if I assigned less than *three* Slayers for that purpose given the deterioration of your skills--maybe more if there's a specific threat." Giles turned as pale as a ghost as Buffy--her eyes glinting--added, "You want me to take my job responsibilities seriously, don't you?"

Giles began to speak, then stopped--the words would not come. Buffy sighed, then said softly, "Of course, there is another possibility--"

"Yes, other possibilities are good--what is it, Buffy?" Giles' tone was that of a drowning man seeing a life preserver.

"Oh, I don't know. . .you could maybe admit that you were LYING YOUR ASS OFF to me, and you were really off nearly getting killed by some blue-skinned refugee from an 'Aladdin' cartoon--you stuffy bastard!" Buffy snapped, her eyes blazing.

Before he knew it, Giles was out of bed, and he was ignoring the stabbing pain in his ribs and the ache in his shoulders as he stood straight up and turned to Buffy. He locked eyes with the young woman he loved like a daughter and said without heat: "You bitch."

Buffy blinked, and chuckled low in her throat as she commented, "Now, *that* was worth the price of admission." She cast a mock leer at the flesh that the skimpy hospital gown exposed and added, "Makes me wish I hadn't missed that performance of yours at the coffee shop a few years back."

Giles turned crimson, and very carefully got back into bed as Buffy diplomatically turned away, whistling a cheerful tune. After a moment, she turned around and waited. Giles composed himself, counted to ten, and asked quietly, "What gave me away? Did you have a dream?"

Buffy shook her head sadly. "Giles, I didn't need a precognitive nightmare to put two and two together. I know Faith these days--if she had run into a dozen vampires with you around, she would have either grabbed you and run like hell, or she would have stood at your side and fought to the death before anyone got to you." Giles blinked, then smiled slightly at the expression on Buffy's face * Whatever has gone on between them in the past, she had no doubts of Faith's loyalty to me *. Buffy frowned and continued, "The other part was easy, Giles--I've seen Wesley with a sword, and there's no way in hell he could beat a thousand year old demon swordmaster without getting a scratch--even if he was channeling Samurai Jack. You, on the other hand, could pull it off with some help, and I made Willow tell me what that sword could do." Buffy stepped forward and locked eyes with her mentor as she stated quietly, "You nearly either died or lost your soul the other night, to save someone I know you don't give a damn about. Got anything to say about that to me?"

Giles shivered at the look in her eyes, but set his jaw and replied honestly:

"I'd do it again in an instant, Buffy."

Giles waited for the flood of condemnation, but was startled when Buffy leaned forward and kissed him softly on the forehead. She straightened and stepped back as she replied, "I know, and I understand why--if I could have done it for Wesley, I would have too--not to mention I'm just as happy to get Lilah out of that position--no matter how she felt about Wesley, she still hated Angel. But there's more to this, Giles--you lied to me, and you kept me from doing my job. It was bad enough when you pulled that stunt a few months back with Robin and Spike, but at least then you could argue that we were playing by the old rules. Ain't the case any more, Giles. We agreed that the Council would be advising the Slayers, not bossing them around, and I expect that you're going to treat me as an equal from now on--particularly since you asked me to do this job and protect you and the other Watchers. You can fire my ass from that job right now, Giles--but I guarantee you that any other Slayer you put in this position won't put up with that crap either, Giles--between Faith, Kennedy, Vi, and me we'll make damned sure of it." She paused, took a breath, and concluded, "Whenever you make a play that might get you killed, you run it by either me or Faith, and you listen to any objections we have before you proceed--unless it's happening right then with no warning and you've got to make the call. OK?"

Giles looked away for a moment, and Buffy waited silently until he turned back and replied quietly, "Very well, Buffy--your concerns are reasonable, and I accept your conditions." He yawned involuntarily and looked apologetically at the young woman who had just thoroughly spanked him. "Buffy, I find myself ready for a long nap--can we continue this discussion later?"

"Of course--I'm meeting Willow and Xander for dinner in a few hours after they get back from W & H, and I've got some errands to run first," Buffy said quietly and turned to go. As she did, she heard a soft cough and turned to see Giles looking at her carefully. She raised an eyebrow and asked, "Was there something else you wanted to say to me, Giles?"

Giles looked uneasy, but began to speak: "Buffy, about what I said--"

"You meant it--and don't try to weasel out of it." Giles looked more uneasy still at Buffy's words, but was relieved at the warmth in the Slayer's eyes as she added, "Let's work on avoiding situations in the future where I have to remind you how much of a bitch I can be, OK? Not fun for either of us." She turned and left, and Giles nodded thoughtfully to himself before closing his eyes and quickly falling asleep.

* * * * *

"Xander, are you sure you want to try something like this? I know things look bad now, but in a few years we might have less. . .demonic ways of solving the problem." Willow glanced at Xander, her eyes betraying her uneasiness as they walked past the guard at the entrance to the Magical Research section of Wolfram & Hart, Los Angeles.

Xander nodded, and turned to smile at his best friend as he replied, "Angel investigated this when he first took over; apparently, the prior management had abused the process, and he wanted to make sure that the bad stuff wasn't still going on. The problems were caused because Wolfram & Hart were using unwilling donors and keeping them alive after the parts were removed--two kinds of serious bad. From what Angel's been able to find out, as long as the donors are of the usual kind--accident victims and the like, and they're not still alive, the methods are perfectly safe, and work better than the technological equivalents--at least for right now." He looked at Willow, his single eye meeting her green ones with determination: "The damage is too extensive for a normal transplant, Will--this is the only way."

Willow didn't bother to ask why Angel had been looking into the techniques--an occasional amputation was an occupational hazard for demon hunters, and they had been fortunate that Xander's maiming had been the first in their group. As they continued walking along the hallway, Willow tried another approach: "Xander--I know that missing an eye must be awful for you, but I've been reading medical journals--they're improving surgical techniques by the month. It might be only a few years until you can have a transplant by normal means, and we have access to plenty of money now--that won't be an issue. Can't you wait it out? It's not like you can't be a construction worker or a carpenter with an eye missing."

Xander set his jaw and kept walking: "You know why I can't do that, Willow."

Willow felt a surge of anger. "Oh, right--because with over a thousand Slayers in the world and even Giles deciding that it's time to maybe start letting them handle the fighting alone from now on, you can't just chill out for a few years until science can do what semi-evil magic does? Damn it, I've been to way too many funerals in the past seven years, and I don't want to be at yours!"

Xander didn't stop, but he looked back at Willow, and the witch's heart melted at the sheepish expression on his face as he replied, "Willow--you know I can't back off, and you know why. I'd rather do it with two eyes instead of one--are you still willing to help me?"

Willow blinked, then sighed as she nodded and opened the unmarked door ahead of them. They went in, and found Fred waiting for them, wearing a lab coat and a concerned expression. Behind her was what looked like a room carved from pure obsidian and lit with an odd purplish glow. On the floor of the room was a pentagram approximately thirty feet in diameter, composed of large diamonds and diamond dust. Xander raised an eyebrow at the extravagance, and turned back to the others as Fred commented nervously, "I don't like this place, and I like leaving you in it even less--can't we try another plan here?"

Xander smiled at his new friend reassuringly. "Willow's just going to run some tests on me, Fred--nothing evil's going down today." He turned to Willow and added quietly, "And if it does, I've got better protection than a room full of Slayers could give me."

Willow flushed--which produced an odd display of color due to the weird purple light--and Fred stepped forward and whispered, "Good luck," before leaning in and kissing Xander softly on the cheek, then retreating, closing the door behind her as she left the room.

Xander heard Willow chuckle and mutter, "Damned if he hasn't charmed *another* one."

Xander shook his head emphatically and replied, "Yeah, right--with Wes and Gunn locking horns over her, I'm going after someone who's smart enough to get bored with me over a long commercial break. Big pass on that idea. We're just friends, Will."

Willow chuckled. "Yeah, I remember the drill." Her expression turned businesslike and she ordered, "OK, get into the center of the pentagram."

Xander walked into the inky black room and walked to the center of the gemstone inlaid design, while Willow followed him in and knelt on the point of the pentagram closest to the opening in the wall. Xander watched in fascination as she chanted in a completely unfamiliar language, then felt a tingle as the circle at the edge of the pentagram flared crimson, then faded. Willow sighed and carefully stood up as Xander blinked and asked, "All right--what did you just do?"

"The spell I just cast created a barrier at the edge of the pentagram," explained Willow as she walked around Xander making subtle gestures and occasionally muttering a word or two. "The only magic now in this area is whatever magic we brought in with us. That limits my abilities substantially, so I'll have to be economical in casting the diagnostic spells. Sit down."

Xander complied, and Willow began walking counterclockwise around Xander, chanting in yet another unknown language. After about two minutes, a burst of white light erupted from Willow and went into Xander's body. He felt a tingle, then a slight vibration as the energy permeated his body. He looked up at Willow--who looked rather spent--and asked, "OK, what just happened?"

"The spell has to run its course, Xander--it'll take a little while for it to analyze your body and soul and see if you can survive being exposed to the magic that the transplant procedure will demand of you." Willow lowered herself to the ground and sat in lotus position as she smiled at Xander and added, "So we have some time to kill--what's new with you?"

Xander shrugged. "You know me, Will--keeping busy with the construction work around the Hyperion and checking out W & H, going out on the Slayer-locating runs when it looks like some sweet-talking might be needed. The usual." He grinned at Willow and asked in an utterly irreverent tone: "So how are things going with you and the Sarge?"

Xander watched as he saw Willow's expression change--not to the cold and evil look that she had displayed last year during her dark period, but to the whimsical expression he had seen on Vamp Willow's face over four years back. He wondered if she had practiced that expression in the mirror as she leaned forward and cooed, "Xander. . .sweetie? Could you please refrain from referring to my girlfriend--with whom I spend long, lazy hours making mad, passionate love to--" Willow paused for a moment, noting that Xander was becoming visibly unsettled, then continued: "--as 'The Sarge?' 'Cause if you don't, I'm gonna feel compelled to share with my love your little joke at her expense, and I have a sinking feeling that--as much as she likes you--she's gonna do some serious damage to the part of your anatomy that I caught Anya composing an epic poem about in April. Sound good?"

Xander shivered involuntarily, and nodded once before glaring at his now-smirking best friend and muttering, "You've sure been in a tattling mood lately. First Dawn, and now--"

"Oh, stop whining--it was you or me, pal, and I've got a *lot* more bad karma to work off with Dawn than you do." Willow replied, looking thoughtful for a moment, then added, "Xander--I know what you two talked about, and there's something you should know." Xander straightened, curious, as Willow flushed slightly before saying simply, "You're not a kiwi fruit."

Xander laughed involuntarily, remembering his joke to Dawn about how Willow must have looked at him as far as romance went. "Really? Well, that's a relief. What exactly *am* I, then?"

Willow met his gaze squarely, and answered simply: "You're a pear."

Xander blinked, and considered her answer: "Well, that doesn't sound so bad--hey, wait a minute? You're allergic to pears--I remember--"

"We were at my house, and you and Jesse had brought a pear over--I had never eaten one, and I was really wondering what they were like. Half an hour later, I was barfing all over the place, you were calling my mom, and Jesse was hugging me and telling me that everything would be OK." Willow looked over at Xander--who looked vaguely hurt--and added, "And after a trip to the hospital, a few shots, and three days in bed--I *was* OK."

Xander looked disgruntled, and he muttered, "Thanks, Will--it's nice to know where I stand."

Willow shook her head and replied, "No, I don't think you do, Xander. You and Jesse had told me about how great pears were, and I was *really* looking forward to eating one. We were out on a trip to the beach when you were telling me about pears, and there weren't any around. I nagged my mom about getting me some, and she told me I'd have to wait until we got home. I pouted and complained and wasn't happy at all until we got back and you had gone to get the pear. It was big and ripe and juicy and it was all mine, Xander. I ate that pear and I savored it--every bit of it."

"And it almost killed you." Xander looked mollified, but still a bit puzzled.

"Yep, it sure did. Pears aren't good for me, I really don't want another one, and it would be kind of sad from the pear's point of view to be wasted on someone who can't completely appreciate it, wouldn't it? But I remember every moment of eating that pear, and the joy that it gave me--" Willow stared intently at Xander, and concluded, "--and I will always be glad I ate it. I'll feel that way until the day I die, Xander."

Xander felt a surge of emotion, and he turned away for a moment before turning back to Willow with moist eyes and suggesting, "Let's change the subject, before the pear does something unmanly and can't hang out with the other inhabitants of the fruit basket without being mocked, OK?"

Willow nodded solemnly, and changed the subject: "So--I hear you're living on borrowed time."

Xander glared at Willow and muttered, "I'm glad *someone* thinks it's funny. There's a seventeen year old obsessed genius determined to get me a love life, and God help me if I don't come up with one before her next birthday, or Buffy will kill me--"

Willow blew air through her lips, stopping Xander in mid-sentence. "Xander, Buffy was listening to you talk to Dawn, and when you were gone she was furious with Dawn--she said that Dawn had no right to interfere in your life. Funny thing is, she never said that she had any objections whatsoever to the idea of you ending up with Dawn, other than not wanting her to force herself on you."

Xander blinked, startled at the revelation. "Well, at least I don't have to worry about abrupt loss of limbs--but it's still crazy, Will--you can't see me with Dawn, can you?"

Willow studied Xander carefully. "Well, let's see--you're more or less pleasant to look at, you earn a good living, you treat women with respect when you're not being driven insane by your inexplicable belief that you're some kind of time bomb ready to hurt the people you love, and you'd lay down your life in an instant for anyone you care about--and Dawn knows it." Willow paused, then chuckled and concluded, "Yeah, can't possibly imagine what she'd see in you, Xander."

Xander was silent, and Willow added, "Of course, there's the other side of the equation--a beautiful young woman, brilliant, energetic, strong-willed. . .and someone who not so long ago tasered you and threatened to drop you bound and gagged in a biker bar in Oxnard if you tried to stop her from getting back to Buffy." Xander winced, and Willow smirked and commented, "Of course, as far as danger potential goes, that still puts Dawn pretty much in the lowest quintile of women that you've been or might be involved with--including the eight Slayers who have approached me wondering what it would take to get your attention."

"Note to self--get more guys to move into the Hyperion." Xander muttered.

"Yeah, because any guy off the street would be an adequate substitute for you--dumbass." Willow shook her head in irritation and asked, "Xander--how can you be so good at telling other people what makes them great, and so crappy at realizing what a great guy you are? It's getting in the way of you having a happy life--and it *has* ended up hurting other people, particularly Anya."

Xander bowed his head. "I know."

"So knock it off, already!" Willow snapped, staring at him and shaking her head in frustration. "Make a decision that you deserve to have a happy life with whoever wants to share it with you, and just *do* it. If I can make a go of it after everything I've done, you sure as hell can, Xander."

"So, what--I should just wait the year out and let Dawn snap me up?" Xander asked, looking rather overwhelmed.

"Xander, I gave up advising my friends about who to choose a long time ago--I was the one who thought that stinky Parker would be good for Buffy, remember?" Willow sounded rueful, and Xander chuckled at the memory before she continued, "I will say that you're going to be better off looking close to home--less complications regarding our. . .lifestyle choices that way. Plenty of options for you, Xander--find someone and make it work. I want to get through a wedding ceremony with you as your best man, damn it!"

"Yeah--and I want to return the favor for you, Will." Xander smiled softly at Willow, and she was about to reply when Xander felt a strong tingle and Willow's expression turned businesslike. "OK, time to get to work. Hold still while I do this." She put her hands back on Xander's head and heart, and her eyes glowed briefly as she drew the energy back into herself. Xander felt a moment of dizziness, but recovered quickly and watched as Willow rocked back on her heels and sat down, eyes closed and expression blank. After a few moments, her eyes snapped open and Xander could easily read the stunned look in them. Xander frowned and asked quietly, "What's wrong, Will?"

"Shhh. I need to try something else." Willow replied, and she quickly moved her hands in a complex pattern, causing a shimmering, nearly transparent field in the shape of a container the size of a hatbox to appear in the air in front of her--there was a small hole in one side. Willow thrust her right index finger in the hole and muttered a brief phrase. Pure white energy flowed from her fingertip into the enclosure, filling it quickly. When the flow stopped, Willow uttered a single word and quickly removed her finger--the opening sealed as the obstruction was taken away. Willow looked at the white energy and shook her head in disbelief before turning to Xander and saying quietly, "Xander, I have some news, and I don't think you're going to like it."

"Let me guess--I have a fatal, lingering illness that will make me look more and more handsome as I get worse." Xander said, frowning at the expression on Willow's face. Willow was silent for a moment, and Xander paled, "Did I get it right in one?"

Willow smiled reassuringly and shook her head. "No, you're perfectly healthy as far as I can tell. Problem is, that transplant is going to be out of the question--it just won't work." Xander scowled, and Willow hastened to explain: "Xander, the test I just did was to analyze the nature of the magic that exists inside your body. Virtually all human beings have some kind of magical energy naturally occurring in their bodies, and the magic leaves a certain signature. The spell I cast created a lot of magically 'neutral' energy that filled your body and that should have intermingled with the magic in your body, so that when I pulled it out again, I could examine the traces that your magical energies left in the neutral medium--like running pure water through a pipe and analyzing it on the other end to see if there's some toxic element in the pipe."

Xander nodded. "OK, and the magic-free environment inside the circle prevents contamination of the neutral energy." Willow nodded in response, and Xander pressed, "I get that, but what's wrong with my magical energy--why will it screw up the transplant?" Willow looked away uncomfortably and Xander leaned forward and said gently, "Will--I have to know."

Willow looked back over at him, took a deep breath, and replied: "That's just the problem, Xander. You don't have *any* magical energy in your body. That's why I created the vessel--to double-check the findings." She pointed at the glowing field, and elaborated, "The neutral energy is white, and the traces that magic in your body would have left would be of any number of colors. There's nothing there--the energy is as pure as the driven snow." She shook her head and stated flatly: "Xander--you're a Null."

Xander snickered. "It's a bit mean for you to be calling me names right now, Will."

Willow shook her head and explained, "I'm not insulting you, Xander--'Null' is the technical term for your condition. I learned it last summer during the studies I had to do in England during my recovery. In very, very rare cases a human being can be born without any magic whatsoever being present within him or her. The effects are unpredictable, but some effects have been observed as fairly common: spells don't work quite right on or near them, magical beings have a harder time affecting them with their powers, and--" She paused and squirmed a little before adding the last: "Demons are naturally drawn to them--it's sort of an 'opposites attract' thing that they may not even be aware of, since it's very hard to spot a Null for certain except in an environment like the circle we're in."

"Wait--what about the love spell I helped Amy cast? How come that worked if--" Willow scowled at him, and Xander remembered some rather crucial facts about that incident and changed gears smoothly. "OK, so the way that spell went wonky is sort of consistent with your description." He thought for a moment, then brightened. "Wait a second? What about my hyena memories, or the soldier memories? If magic can't really affect me right, why did I retain that stuff?"

"Xander--did you notice that I didn't gain any permanent insights about being dead, and that Buffy doesn't seem to have any real affinity for late eighteenth century fashions these days? Not to mention that none of the kids seemed to remember being little monsters?" Willow's voice was calm, but distracted--as if she were putting together a puzzle long unsolved. Xander was silent, and Willow added, "We never really thought about it, but you were the only one who kept anything permanent from the experience. Now we know why." Xander frowned, and Willow explained, "Xander, for a person with normal magical affinity, a possession is more or less a temporary overlay of the core personality--when it leaves, it takes its side effects with it. Now you--the environment the entity or spell needs to make that overlay work isn't really there, so the new personality has to be more forcefully implanted in you to make it work right. You still remember Dracula mind-zapping you pretty well, right?" Xander looked nauseated, and Willow winced and moved on quickly, "Most mesmerism victims hardly remember their time under the influence of the hypnotist--you caught a bad break there."

"No kidding." Xander shook his head in disgust, then looked downcast. "So, all those spells of yours that went wacky--I was doing that to you?"

Willow shrugged. "A few, maybe. A really powerful ritual would probably be unaffected--the spell we used to defeat Adam would probably go off without so much as a flicker caused by it. It probably helped you weather those power bolts I was throwing at you last summer long enough for you to get through to me. I always wondered how you survived having Olaf beat the crap out of you that time--trolls are magical creatures, and his hammer was magic. It might have cushioned you just enough to keep him from killing you."

"Yeah, that was a load of fun." Xander sighed, then stated flatly, "So the transplant won't work because it requires magic in my body to keep it working--couldn't you cast a spell to--?"

Willow shook her head. "Too dangerous. The spell would be warped by your nature, and it wouldn't work right. The part could quickly go necrotic, or even leave you vulnerable to demonic possession." She looked at him compassionately, and said simply, "I'm sorry, Xander--you're just going to have to wait for science on this one." Xander nodded in acceptance, and Willow brightened and added, "But hey--you can do other things while you're waiting. You just need to avoid fighting until--"

"You know better than that, Will." Willow flinched--she knew that tone well, and the expression that went with it, which was no less implacable with an eye missing. "I'm not going to hide--I'm not as good with only one eye, but I kept Dawn alive at the school, and I can still be useful in a fight. I'll just have to adjust."

Willow scowled at Xander again and commented, "You know--there are times that I want to zap you with something that will hold you still until we can talk some sense into you, Xander. Sooner or later, you're going to take one chance too many and--"

"Yep. That's pretty much a given, Will. Of course, I'm hoping that it'll be at the age of a hundred and ten from tripping over a walker, or being shot by a jealous boyfriend--" Xander paused and was gratified to see Willow brighten and chuckle before continuing, "--but we both know it'll probably be sooner and way less fun than that. We're all taking that risk, and I'm going to make the best of it--and my best involves doing whatever I can to keep you all alive--no matter what it takes, Will."

Willow sighed. "I know." She stood up and made a sweeping gesture, causing the barrier spell to fade. She offered Xander a hand, and she helped him up, saying, "OK, now we know, and I'll make sure Giles and Wesley are informed--we can make sure there are no dangers associated with being a Null that we've just been lucky and avoided over the years."

Xander smiled softly and replied, "I can always count on you to make the best of it, Will.." He walked towards the exit to the room, and was surprised to hear Willow clearing her throat softly behind him. He paused and began to turn, asking, "Is something wrong, Wi--Mmmph!"

The sound was caused by Xander walking directly into a hard kiss on the lips from his best friend. Her arms were around his neck, and a very gentle tug indicated that she was not inclined to let go at that moment. Xander felt a surge of concern, wondering if the ritual had deranged Willow somehow, and thought about pulling away.

After a timeless moment, he decided not to--they were alone in the room, and they could discuss what exactly what had caused her to react in that way after she had stopped on her own--preferably before Kennedy found out and removed several vital parts of his anatomy. Having decided that, he diverted his attention to the kiss itself--it lacked the frantic air of the kisses they had shared while hiding their mutual attraction from Cordelia and Oz. It was far from a dry kiss, and Xander noted some change in technique; apparently, Tara and Kennedy had taught her a thing or two. For his part, he tried to hold up his end of the bargain, and kissed back with enthusiasm, though he too lacked the intensity that they had shared five years before.

Willow released him and stepped back, and the look Xander saw in her eyes caused him a pang of regret--she looked wistful, and affectionate--and not in the least bit aroused. He realized that the look in her eyes mirrored the feelings in his heart, and he smiled sadly as he asked quietly, "Willow--I like a good kiss as much as the next man, but why are we exposing me to the threat of Kennedy-pummeling?"

Willow smiled at him, and answered quietly, "Because you just reminded me why I wanted that pear so badly, and while I had the chance. . .I just wanted to be reminded how it tasted."

Xander chuckled involuntarily, and pointed out, "Will--you're still allergic to pears."

Willow snickered and shrugged, "A little taste won't kill me--as long as no one squeals to my doctor."

Xander looked at her solemnly. "Willow--just promise me one thing." Willow grinned at him and nodded, and Xander leaned forward and said simply: "Promise me I'll never have to hear another fruit metaphor for our love lives again."

Willow leaned forward, kissed him on the cheek, and raised her right hand as if giving an oath: "The metaphors die here in this room."

Xander looked at the ritual room--where he had just learned a crucial fact about his life--and shuddered as he replied, "Better them than us." He turned and left the room, and Willow followed him in silence, closing the door after her and leaving the room silent and glowing.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired