No More Be Grieved

Summary: Xander is wounded trying to protect Buffy, and finds himself face to face with those he feels regrets about.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes and language.

Time Frame: Last summer, post fourth season BTVS and first season Angel.

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me ( 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.


Xander ducked under a roundhouse right, then threw a left jab that unbalanced the vampire in front of him for a moment before it recovered and snarled at him before renewing its attack. Xander went on the defensive, blocking punches and kicks while he risked a glance over at Buffy to see how she was doing.

Riley was still out of town, and Xander had volunteered to patrol with Buffy while Giles, Willow, and Tara researched to uncover the meaning of a rather obscure prophecy that Giles had found in the Codex. Things had been rather quiet until three vampires had suddenly leaped out of the shadows and engaged them, one on Xander and two on Buffy.

Xander saw that Buffy was still fighting with both vampires, then noticed that the vampires were fighting defensively, much in the same manner he was. * That isn't normal * Xander knew that vampires, except for the very smartest and/or most dangerous ones, tended to fight all out, trying to overcome their opponent by sheer force. Xander turned back and noted that his opponent was not holding back at all. A chill went down his spine: something was going on other than the run of the mill mayhem in Sunnydale, and he was damned if he was going to stand there and dance with some wanna-be minion vamp while Buffy was in trouble.

He suddenly switched to an offensive approach, and the vampire was caught flat-footed as Xander slipped a right cross through, then performed a perfect sweep kick, knocking the vampire on its back. Xander snatched the stake from his belt and delivered the deathblow in short order: the vampire screamed and vanished into dust.

Xander turned back towards Buffy, who was about twenty feet away, but a motion in the shadows caught his eye. A dark bipedal figure stood about fifty feet away, and as Xander watched, it brandished what appeared to be a throwing dagger, apparently carefully aiming at the Slayer's back.

Without thinking, Xander dashed at Buffy, crashing into her with a flying tackle that knocked her about five feet away from the startled vampires fighting her. As he did so, he felt a sharp pain in his upper left arm, and was in the process of reacting to the pain and trying to roll clear of Buffy so that she could fight when everything went black.

Buffy was caught totally off guard by Xander, and had to stop herself from striking him as a new opponent before she realized who he was. She saw the dagger protruding from Xander's arm, and had to check herself from going to him immediately. She whirled back to the vampires, only to see that they were running off into the distance. Feeling a chill down her spine, she looked to where the dagger had apparently come from, only to see the dark figure vanish into the night. She considered pursuit for a moment, then remembered there was a more immediate problem. She looked down at Xander, seeing that the dagger was imbedded in his flesh, but did not seem to be near any major arteries or veins. She removed the dagger and carefully bandaged the wound, noticing that the blade was glowing slightly and that Xander did not react to any of her attentions. He was breathing shallowly and his pulse was slow.

Buffy's first impulse was to call the hospital, but she had a strong suspicion that they wouldn't have a clue about how to deal with this problem. She picked up Xander and draped him over her shoulder in a fireman's carry, and began walking rapidly back to Xander's car.

* * * * *

"He doesn't seem to be getting any worse: we can at least be comforted by that." Giles tried his most reassuring tone, seeing the intense worry on the faces of Buffy, Willow, and Tara as they looked at Xander lying on the couch, pale and unmoving. He turned away from them to look at Xander, hiding his own concerned expression as he continued, "The blood loss was minimal, and there is no discernable poison on the blade or in the wound; clearly, some magic is involved here."

Willow was examining the blade in question and had found a small sign carved deeply into the blade. She pointed it out to Tara, who shook her head, not recognizing it. Frowning, she called out, "Giles. . .do you recognize this symbol?"

Giles accepted the blade from Willow and was examining it carefully when Anya burst in through the front door in full demand: "What happened?"

Buffy quickly and quietly explained the situation and braced for a flood of abuse from Anya. She was surprised when Anya turned from her without a word and sat down next to Xander on the couch, caressing his check for a moment before whispering, "I am so going to kick your ass for this stunt when you wake up."

The others in the room smiled softly at Anya's implicitly hopeful comment, and Buffy felt moved to reply, "You can wait in line. . .damn it, he could have just yelled 'Look out behind you!' I've got these nifty Slayer reflexes. . .a lot of good they did here."

Anya ignored Buffy's comment, having spotted the dagger in Giles' hands. She moved over to him and spotted the symbol on the blade. She snatched it from his hands and asked bluntly, "This is the weapon that hurt him?"

Giles suppressed his initial impulse to be annoyed, seeing the glint of recognition in her eyes as she looked at the weapon. He replied, "Yes, Anya. . .do you know what it is?"

Anya's expression went blank for a moment, then she turned to Giles and responded, "I've seen that symbol before. . .and I recognize the metal it's made of. . .looks like someone has tried to use the sacred artifacts of the Order of Ramos to bag themselves a Slayer."

Giles blinked, then commented, "I'm sorry, Anya, but I'm not familiar with that organization. . .would you care to elaborate?"

Anya sighed, then responded, "About two hundred years ago, a woman mistreated by her lover supplicated me to punish him. . .she wished that he should have to face all of the women he had wronged in the past; apparently, this guy had quite a history of loving and leaving women. Anyway, I granted her wish, and a dagger appeared in the woman's hands. . .she wounded him with it, and he went comatose. I was a little curious about the whole thing, so I got the dagger from her and cast a few spells to trace it back to its source. The Order of Ramos is an ancient order devoted to self-knowledge. . .to reach what they consider the highest level of enlightenment, an initiate wounds himself with an enchanted dagger, causing him to fall into a cataleptic state, in which he communes with the essences of those he believes he has wronged. In this state, the initiate communicates with those essences, resolving those conflicts and leaving the initiate free of the guilt regarding them."

Buffy frowned, and commented, "So whoever that guy in the shadows was, he was planning to cut my throat while I was dealing with my issues."

Anya nodded, and Buffy continued, "Nice guy. . .he definitely goes on my 'soon to be really dead' list, whoever he is." She brightened, and commented, "So, Xander just does the whole inner peace thing and wakes up feeling better about himself? Minus the whole vampires sucking him dry problem, that doesn't sound so bad."

Anya frowned, and responded, "Yes, but he could be in that trance for some time. . .the man I saw wounded simply stayed in a coma until he died of dehydration. From what I understand, staying in the trance for too long could be very stressful on body and soul. . .part of the test was how good the initiate was at resolving his past regrets: if he lacked sufficient insight, the test could kill him." She was speaking matter of factly until the last sentence, during which she began to trail off and turned pale when she realized the implications of her words.

Buffy looked at the others, then sat down next to Anya and squeezed her hand in consolation, then commented, "I'm sure he'll be fine, Anya. . .we'll all be here for him, and Xander has a way of knowing the right thing to say in these situations." She frowned, remembering that there were a few individuals who had a way of getting under Xander's skin and asked, "So, who exactly will Xander be meeting in there, Anya? Every person living or dead that Xander has issues with?"

Anya turned to Buffy and shook her head, replying, "No. . .the focus of the ritual is on resolving conflicts with opposites, so all of the essences he will encounter will be female. . ."

Buffy turned to the others, noting the expressions on their faces as she did the math in her head, then sighed before turning to Giles and commenting, "We'd better order out for some pizza. . .this is going to be a while." She turned back to her comatose friend and wondered what was playing out behind his closed eyelids.

* * * * *

Xander's first thought was that he didn't remember grass feeling quite this hard. He opened his eyes, and found he was sitting at a small table in what appeared to be a moderately large, mostly dark room. He looked ahead of him and saw what appeared to be a line of figures sitting in a semicircle. It was too dark for him to make out their faces, which frustrated him somewhat, but their silhouettes seemed to be female.

After a moment, the figure sitting in the center of the semicircle stood up and walked towards Xander. When she came within five feet of him, a soft light suddenly illuminated her, and Xander blinked in recognition and exclaimed, "Tara?"

Tara smiled and replied, "Hello, Xander. . .you're probably wondering what this all is."

Xander quirked a smile at her and responded, "Actually. . .yeah, since the last thing I remember was taking a knife meant for Buffy and passing out."

Tara nodded and replied, "The object that wounded you was designed to place the person in question in a state in which he could gain higher consciousness by resolving unresolved regrets he had regarding people of the opposite sex. . .whoever was using it to try to harm your friend Buffy was perverting its original purpose. Unfortunately, you are here, and to leave this place you must complete the ritual. If you do not, your body will remain dormant and after some time it will deteriorate regardless of any care your friends may give it."

Xander shuddered, then noticed the oddness of Tara's speech pattern. He looked pointedly at her and asked, "You're not really Tara, are you?"

Tara shook her head and replied, "I'm here because Tara is female and you have no real issues with her. . .your subconscious chose me as a neutral party to let you know what needs to be done before you can leave."

Xander absorbed this, then nodded and responded, "Got it. . .OK, what do I do now?"

Tara indicated the semicircle of quietly waiting figures and explained, "Each of these who wait is the essence of someone with whom you have unresolved issues with. Some will be obvious to you, and others may require a great deal of thought on your part. Whether obvious or cryptic, you must deal with all of them before the ritual ends." She saw the look on his face, and quietly concluded, "I'm sorry, Xander, but I'm not allowed to tell you any more than that." She gave him a wistful smile that was very much like one the real Tara might have had, then whispered, "Good luck," before turning away and vanishing into the darkness.

A moment later, the first figure on the left walked towards him, stopping as the diffuse light illuminated her. Xander blinked as he recognized the beautiful, dark-eyed, and not anywhere near as young as she looked woman standing there, and he had to compose himself for a long moment before remarking, "You know, I never even knew your real name."

The Incan princess who had assumed the identity of Ampata, deceased exchange student, sighed and responded, "Would it have mattered if you did? You made a choice, and I died from it."

Xander stood up and walked over to her, staring into her eyes for a moment before replying, "I did what I had to do to save my best friend. . .and I would have done it for any other innocent person whose life you took." The dark eyes swam with tears and pain, and Xander pressed on, "But I never meant you any harm. . .if there had been a way to keep you alive that didn't involve killing or hurting people, I would have been willing to help: any of us would have. After you died, Buffy reminded me that you didn't choose to become what you were: it was forced on you. If the only way you can find peace is to hate me, then I guess I'll have to live with that. I hope that whatever existence you know now is better than anything we might have had together if things had been different."

Her eyes remained sad, but the former mummy slid back into the shadows and vanished. A taller, more slender woman stood and moved over to Xander. He knew who it was even before the light enveloped her, and he felt his throat tighten up. With great effort, he managed to whisper, "Miss Calendar."

The cyberpagan's dark eyes were as sad as not-Ampata's had been, though Xander knew that the causes were very different. She looked at him and replied, "Xander," and waited for him to say more.

Xander looked at her, and took two deep breaths before beginning: "I really screwed things up when I had Amy cast that stupid love spell. . .Buffy almost died, and you-you lost your chance to get things straight with Giles before Angelus-" He had to stop for a moment, then continued, "-before it was too late." He looked at her intently, and this time there were tears in his eyes as he concluded, "I wish that I could have told you how sorry I was before now."

Jenny moved up to him and squeezed his arm softly as she shook her head in negation and replied softly, "It wasn't time yet, Xander. . .Rupert and Buffy both needed more time; if anything, you stopped me from making a fool out of myself. . .well, as far as trying to get Rupert back, anyway." She gave him an amused look, then went somber again as she whispered, "I died because I was careless. . .we all make mistakes, even you." She smiled at him, then drifted back into the darkness.

Xander waited, and was shocked to see the next figure come into the light. The last time he had seen her, she was struggling with Spike as he slipped by the chaotic scene to free Giles just before Buffy had been forced to fight for her life, then sent Angel to hell. Drusilla stood there, humming softly to herself and watching Xander: he could not read the expression in her eyes.

Xander's mind went blank for one horrible moment, then he realized why the demented vampire was there. He took a moment to calm himself, to let his hammering heart slow and to let the twitching of his right hand stop before he forced himself to meet her eyes and begin, "I hadn't really thought much about it before. . .but I think I always felt rather bad about what had happened to you, Drusilla. I've heard your story, from those old books in Giles' collection and from having to hear Spike talking about it whenever the mood strikes him. Angelus really did a number on you. . .and getting sucked into that whole love spell thing had to have been a bit confusing for you afterwards. As much as I so did not want take to you up on your offer of eternal life, from your point of view I suppose it was your way of being friendly. Anyway, if I ever see you again, I'm still going to run like hell or help Buffy stake you, but I just wanted to say all of that to you. . .does that make sense?" He winced as he uttered the last words: "making sense" was not a concept that Drusilla was exactly in touch with.

Drusilla moved close to him and whispered, "Poor lost lamb. . .so like the moth drawn to flame. . .like my Spike." Xander flinched and gave Drusilla an offended look: she giggled softly and slipped back into the shadows. Still nettled by the unwanted comparison, Xander waited for the next figure to come from the shadows.

She swept regally out of the shadows, and Xander caught his breath; sometimes, he allowed himself to forget how beautiful she was. He sighed, and greeted her: "Hi, Cordy."

Cordelia favored him with a small smile, then asked, "What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into, Xander? Trying to save Buffy again. . .how long is it going to be before that thing gets you put into a pine box?"

Xander snorted at her and replied tartly, "You're one to talk. . .I've heard what you've been doing in L.A. . . .not exactly what you were talking about doing with your life when I saw you last." He looked at her and asked, "How come you're so much more conversational than the others?"

Cordelia shrugged and responded, "Probably part of the whole Seer Girl package. . .some barrel of laughs Doyle left me, huh?" She sighed, then looked at him oddly and asked, "So why am I here, anyway? I thought we had a good arrangement by the time I left: we get to badmouth each other to our new honeys to our hearts' content, and everyone's happy." She saw his face cloud over, and she subsided and concluded, "Or not." She looked at him, waiting for him to speak.

Xander watched her stand there, looking at him with a patient look, and took another deep breath before beginning, "It's just. . .I've heard what you've done in the last year, working for Dead Boy, all you've done and had to deal with. . .it reminded me about just how amazing a person you are, and how much I've regretted screwing up what we had together." Cordelia's face remained calm, and Xander continued, "I'm happy with Anya. . .but there are times I wish I could have done better by you, Cordelia, and the fact that I didn't makes me sad."

Cordelia looked at him quietly for a moment, then she reached out and squeezed his hand as she replied, "Me, too. But that's the past. . .and up to the point where I saw Willow and you together and had a close encounter with that rebar, I wouldn't change any of it." She paused, then amended, "Well, maybe the whole thing with the bug guy. . .that was gross."

Xander, whose face had twisted with guilt at the mention of Cordelia's injury, laughed involuntarily at her last comment, and she joined him for a moment before she squeezed his hand once more and slipped into the shadows.

Xander looked over to the semicircle again, and the next figure moved easily into the light. She wore a standard issue prison jumpsuit, as she had been in the photo that Xander had seen in the file that Willow had surreptitiously obtained from the online penal records. He smiled wanly at her and greeted her: "Hi, Faith."

The fallen Slayer looked back at him and managed a small smile of her own as she replied, "Hey, Xander. . .you look good." She took a glance at her surroundings and asked playfully, "So, you decided this would be a better way of seeing me than visiting day?"

Xander smiled involuntarily, then wondered if Faith herself would somehow remember this, maybe as part of one of those dreams that Buffy was always complaining about. He met the Slayer's dark gaze, and began, "Faith. . .even knowing that back in the real world, you're working to get yourself straightened out and that you really feel badly about everything that happened. . .I'm terrified to be standing this close to you." Faith's jaw tightened subliminally, and Xander paused for a moment before continuing, "It isn't just that you tried to kill me. . .God knows I've come close enough to that any number of times before and after our tussle in your room. It's knowing what it feels like to almost die at the hands of someone you thought was a friend. It's the sick to your stomach feeling you get when you're wandering around with some gun that looks like a reject from a Buck Rogers movie, ready to shoot down someone you used to care about. Maybe worst of all. . .it's looking at a coma victim, or at a mug shot, and thinking maybe if you had done something different, everything might have happened differently, and better."

Faith just looked at him, and Xander elaborated, "I was the one who badmouthed Angel to you, then went along with your idea to kill him, even though I knew in my heart it was wrong. . .then I didn't try hard enough to stop you. . .that night really drove a wedge between you and Buffy for a while. Then on the night of the zombies. . .I can blame hormones all I want, but I could have said no: I didn't. When I slept with you, I became just another guy to you, and wrecked any chance that you would trust me when the whole thing with the assistant Mayor blew up."

Faith snorted and replied, "So what, now you're Psychic Guy? B hadn't told you about me and guys. . .you didn't know-"

Xander interrupted her with a gesture and retorted, "I knew that you had had it rough, Faith. I knew that you had serious trust issues, between a lousy home life-which I am very familiar with how much that sucks-and one dead Watcher and one evil fake one in your recent past. . .I should have known better, Faith. Hyena possession issues aside, I am capable of holding the inner beast in check when I have to. . .I didn't want to. " He looked at her without pretense or defensiveness and concluded, "If my not exercising a little willpower helped mess things up between us, Faith, then I'm sorry."

Faith just watched him for a long moment before shaking her head and responding, "Xander. . .whatever I did, whatever it made you think about me. . .you were never just another guy to me. Maybe that's what pushed me over the edge that night: the guy who had saved my ass not so far back, the one who had given me a pretty damned good roll in the hay the same night. . .that guy was the one who came to tell me my little pyramid of lies was crashing down on me. . .if you hadn't meant anything to me, Xander, I wouldn't have let you into my room in the first place." She moved closer and grasped his right hand and squeezed it firmly as she concluded, "Anyway, I'm the one on the atonement quest right now. . .and from where I'm sitting, you don't owe me anything. . .except maybe a kind thought directed towards my figuring out how the hell I'm going to get my life together. . .that would be nice."

Xander blinked, then he leaned forward and kissed Faith on the forehead. The Slayer released Xander's hand, and stared at him for a long moment before blinking rapidly and muttering, "Damn it, Xander. . ." before she turned away and vanished into the shadows.

Xander smiled sadly, then waited for the next figure to come into the light. As she did so, Xander stared. . .it had been less than two years since he had truly noticed just how beautiful Willow was, and she was wearing a green dress that rather spectacularly reminded him of that undeniable fact. He smiled at her in the way he had always reserved for her since they were five, and softly greeted her: "Hey, Will."

Willow echoed the smile, but was silent. Xander looked at her, shook his head sadly, then began, " Willow. . .I don't know where to begin. You're my best friend, and I've probably hurt you more than anyone over the years. . .maybe it ended up working out for the best, seeing as how you're with Tara now, but I'm sorry I was so damned clueless about the way you felt about me until the worst possible moment. I miss how close we used to be. . .I'm glad Buffy was there when you needed to confide in someone, but I wish you had come to me: I'd like to think that I could have been Sensitive Guy and helped you deal with it. The whole blow-up with Adam and Spike helped us clear the air a bit, but we still aren't where we were before the Fluke, and God. . .I really want that back." He walked up next to her, and hugged her tightly, whispering, "I can't imagine my life without you in it. . .and I hope I never have to."

After a moment, he stepped away from her, and while the smile remained on her face, her lovely green eyes were full of tears as she waved at him and moved back into the shadows. Xander blinked rapidly for a moment, then turned towards the new figure coming from the shadows. As always when he saw her these days, a small smile appeared on his face. Feeling a surge of affection, he reached out and clasped her hands as he greeted her: "Hi, Anya."

The former demon looked around, then back at Xander and replied, "I don't like this place. . .damned Order of Ramos and their stupid rituals. . ."

Xander raised an eyebrow, making a mental note to ask Anya about that topic later, then led her to the edge of the table, where they sat silently for a moment, still holding hands. Abruptly, he looked into her eyes and began, "If someone had told me a year ago that we would be a couple, I would have thought they were nuts. It hasn't always been easy for either of us. . .let's face it, both of us can be a bit annoying to those around us."" Anya smiled softly as Xander continued, "But we work together. . .Anya, you're smart, brave, and every time I see you, I have to catch my breath. . .and for some inexplicable reason, you seem to think I'm great too." He blinked, then tightened his jaw and concluded quietly, "I love you. . . I wish I had said that before now. . .and the first thing I'm going to do when I wake up from this damned test is to say it to you again."

Anya's smile changed slightly, and Xander could see a sadness in her eyes that he sensed meant there was something she knew that she couldn't tell him. She stood up, kissed him softly on the lips, and departed without a word.

Xander watched her go, then stood up, looking over to where the last silhouetted figure was just rising. He waited silently as Buffy walked into the light and over to him. She smiled at him and commented, "You're pretty good at being Comfort Guy, Xander."

Xander smiled back at her, realizing that Buffy, like Cordelia and Faith, appeared to be more "there" than the other women had been. He shook his head and commented, "I'm not surprised you came last, Buffy. . .we've had a pretty bumpy road over the years."

Buffy laughed and replied, "What's a death threat and a few incidents of gratuitous abuse among friends?"

Xander scowled at her and retorted, "Very funny," He looked down at the floor for a moment, then forced himself to look back at her as he swallowed hard and began again, "Buffy. . .I think it comes down to what I told you last fall when I came back from Oxnard. You're my hero: you have been from almost the first moment I met you. As much as life sucks on the Hellmouth at times, my life has a hell of a lot more meaning than it did before I met you, and aside from being grateful for all of the times you've saved me from a really loud and painful death, I want to thank you for that."

Buffy blinked, and tears appeared. Xander resisted the impulse to stop and hug her: there was more to say. "I think that's why I've been so rough on you at times, too. Most people get to admire their heroes from a long way off, where they can't tell that they drink too much, or cheat on their wives, or just have moments where they're scared to death and not sure what they should do next. You've screwed up royally on occasion, Buffy. . .so have I, and Willow, and Giles, and right on down the line. The difference is, when you screw up, it's made me feel like the center of my universe is about to fall in and wreck everything I know and love. . .and it's made me do and say things that by rights you should have never forgiven me for."" He stopped and took a deep breath, then concluded, "Buffy. . .hero or not, you're a human being, and you have every right not to be perfect. If anyone-including me-tells you differently, they're just wrong."

Buffy blinked again, then she locked eyes with him, and Xander could feel the intensity of her gaze as she replied, "You weren't always wrong, Xander. . .there have been times I needed to hear what you had to say, as pissed off as I've been at you sometimes. Never forgive you. . .how could that have ever happened? How many times have you laid it on the line for me, or one of the others? You go too far sometimes, and if you ever pull a stunt like the one that landed you here again, I am so going to kick your ass. . .after Anya gets through doing it." She smiled as she spoke, but Xander knew from the look in her eyes that she meant every word. Buffy coughed self-consciously, then continued, "Xander. . .I know you've been kind of down over not going to college with us, and Willow and I haven't always been as sympathetic as we should have been. But we-I will always need you. . .I can't imagine doing this without you."

Xander smiled, then leaned forward to hug Buffy. They held each other for a long moment, then Buffy turned and disappeared into the shadows. Xander sighed: he felt calm and relaxed, to the point where he hardly noticed when the room began to lose focus. Xander spotted Tara waving at him just before everything went black.

* * * * *

Buffy's eyes snapped open, and she realized she had fallen asleep in the chair next to where Xander was sleeping. . .that dream had been so real. Could it be. . .? She turned to Xander, and sure enough, he was stirring. She looked around to where the others had fallen asleep in various chairs and spots on the floor and cleared her throat loudly, causing them to stir and open their eyes. She pointed at Xander, who was opening his eyes and blinking in confusion.

Buffy moved over next to him and asked, "So, how was the whole getting in touch with your regrets thing?"

Xander blinked, then looked confused before replying, "What do you mean, Buffy? The last thing I remember is getting hit by that knife that guy was throwing at you." He sat up, shaking his head, then began smiling involuntarily before he noticed and frowned in confusion as he looked at Buffy and commented, "Now that you mention it, I do feel sort of peaceful inside. . .what happened, anyway?"

Buffy turned to Anya in confusion, and the former demon was quick to explain: "Oh, I almost forgot. . .the initiate retains no conscious memory of the ritual. . .the whole thing takes place in his subconscious, so it has positive emotional effects, but he retains no memories of just what happened to him during the ritual itself."

Buffy smiled sadly. She wanted to hug Xander again, to let him know how much what he had said meant to her. . .but intuitively she realized that telling him about a conversation they had that he had no way of remembering would make him feel uncomfortable. She frowned and resolved to be especially nice to him for the next few weeks. As the others crowded around Xander, explaining what had happened (and, in Anya's case, verbally flaying him for almost getting himself killed again), Buffy gave silent thanks to the Powers That Be for letting Xander survive yet another close scrape before she joined the confusion.


Buffy was sitting in her living room reading a magazine when the phone rang. She answered after the second ring and said, "Hello?"

"I have a collect call from-" the operator began, and the voice that came on the line next sent a chill down Buffy's spine: "Faith."

Buffy felt a momentary urge to slam the receiver down and flee the room, but she suppressed it and replied, "Yes, operator, I'll accept the charges. . .Faith? What is it?" Her tone was genuinely surprised; desire for atonement aside, she had assumed that Faith would never want to speak to her again.

"B. . .is Xander all right?" Faith's voice was calm, but Buffy could hear the edge of concern in her voice.

Buffy smiled softly, and a good deal of the animosity she still felt towards Faith melted away as she replied, "He's fine, Faith. . .but he doesn't remember any of it. . .just the way that mojo that zapped him works." Buffy heard Faith inhale suddenly at her words, and lingering resentment dueled with a sense of obligation for a long moment before she added, "For what it's worth, Faith. . .I saw the whole thing, and Xander really does feel that way about what went down with you. . .that's just the way he is."

There was a long pause on the other end of the line before Buffy heard Faith reply softly, "Yeah. . .I know. . .I guess I always knew. . .thanks, B." There was a click on the other end of the line, and Buffy stared at the receiver for a moment before shaking her head and returning to her magazine, feeling an odd mixture of sadness and hope.

A few blocks away, Willow was fielding a call from Cordelia: "He's not dead, is he? Because I wanted to yell at him about a lot of stuff, and if he's dead I can't do that. . .so, he better not be dead, or I'll be really pissed off at him!"

Willow rolled her eyes and smiled at Tara before filling Cordelia in on what had happened. After a moment of silence, Cordelia continued in a more subdued vein: "Well, fine then. . .as long as he's not dead or anything. . .tell him I called, OK?"

Willow smiled affectionately and replied, "No problem. . .I'll let him know. Bye." She hung up the receiver and turned to Tara, commenting, "Well, there are three women wandering around now that know Xander's innermost feelings about his issues with the women in his life. . .lucky for him that all three of them actually care about him."

Thousands of miles away, Drusilla opened her eyes and whispered to herself: "Such a sweet boy. . .I'll have to pay him a visit, one of these days."

As before, comments are welcome and desired.

Acknowledgement: To William Shakespeare, from whom I borrowed the title to this story (and to a lesser degree, the theme). The human heart is a fragile yet magnificent thing, and no one had it pegged better than the Bard himself. . .pathetic recent critics be damned.