Chapter Two: Fine Again

She's walking down the hallway, and she already knows that this is one of those dreams, those Slayer-powered bizarre dreams that mean more than they should.

It's the Summers' house, and everyone's asleep. Correction: every one of the Potentials are asleep, and the original gang, the group that Faith had always wanted to be apart of, they weren't anywhere to be found. She knew, she looked all through the house. The house seemed bigger, the hallways much longer. She couldn't even find Buffy or Spike, and she didn't even really want to see them. She realized she was lost, lost in Buffy's house, and she couldn't believe how weak she felt, how lonely.

She found herself downstairs, at the doorway, and she knew that if she kept looking inside, she wouldn't get anywhere. If she wasn't there, though, none of the Potentials would be safe. Each girl in there would be open to something very bad. Faith just wished she knew where it was coming from- it was as if it was on the tip of her tongue, teetering on the edge, and she seemed to miss it each time that it was close to tumbling out. The window, the front door, the backyard, the bedrooms…

She tried the door and found that it was stuck, stuck to the point where she couldn't make it budge, stuck to the point where she pulled out the knob. She stared at it, and as she released it, the door knob tumbling to the floor with a large clattering jolt. The sound echoed throughout the entire house. She cursed it loudly, and then paused to make sure none of the girls woke up. There was nothing, and she let out a relieved sigh. If they might die, she figured, it might as well be in their sleep. When she goes, she wants to go in her sleep.

She wondered if anyone would be surprised by that fact.

"Need some help?" She twirled around, jumping. Xander stood behind her, clad in an outfit that looked as if she and Spike might have picked out for him. It looked good, but the tension that he was trying to hide leaked through like something cold, something very old. "Kinda strong now, might be some help." She shrugged, moving out of the way of the door. He pushed against it a couple of times, and soon, it opened under his weight. He smiled at her awkwardly, looking younger than he should in the clothes he was wearing. "See? There you go."

"Thanks a bunch, boy toy," she slapped in on the back gratefully. "See ya in a while, okay?" He grabbed her wrist before she walked out. It hurt more than she expected. "Ease off, Xan, 'less you're trying to break my wrist."

He loosened his grip, but didn't let go. "Hey, listen…" He sounded as if he was going to say something, but then he shook his head, letting go. "Spike and Robin are probably waiting for us…I'll be out in a minute."

She stepped out the door after he released her arm, momentarily trying to figure out what Xander had wanted to say. She turned back to ask, but the door was closed again, the knob restored, and she got the feeling that the door was locked again. It wouldn't open for her.

Wandering out onto the lawn, she looked up to the sky, dark and starless as it was. She sighed; this wasn't getting her anywhere.

"Where's Harris?" Spike was leaning on a tree, looking impatient. "Been waiting for the both of you."

"He'll be here soon," she answered, "Figure he had something else on the menu."

Spike narrowed his eyes. "It's not safe in there, for him or them, you know that. We don't leave him alone."

She held her hands up. "Sorry, Spike. You want to go back and babysit him, go ahead. Not my job."

"Of course it bloody is," Spike muttered bitterly, shoving past her to the door. He opened it easily, and she blinked; maybe it hadn't been locked. He looked at her over her shoulder. "See what you let happen, pet?"

She rushed towards the door, to Spike's side. "What?" It was clear, however, what he was referring when she got there. The house was wrecked now, as if an army had plodded through the first floor. Blood was everywhere, and a few of the Potentials laid like broken dolls on the floor.

Her first thought was that it was Xander, but heavy breathing drew her attention. He was just as badly off as the room, with his arm and an eye gone, and blood staining his clothing. He tried to walk over to them, and stumbled on the way. Spike held him up, supporting him quietly. "Jesus Christ, Xan, what happened?"

Xander chuckled, sounding broken and deranged. "Would you believe me if I said it wasn't me?"

The missing eye was the answer to that question. "Who was it, Xander? Are they still here?" Xander nodded weakly, unnecessarily swallowing hard. "Where?" She was going to kick their ass, whoever they were.

"Three guesses, and the hint is behind you," Xander replied, and she started turning around. "Try not to make much more of a mess, Faith. We're gonna have a hell of a time cleaning it the way it is now."

She would have made a comment, but Buffy's axe was making it's way towards her head.

Faith woke up, and found herself staring at the ceiling of the basement. There was an alarmed minute where she looked over at the chains on the wall, and realized that Xander wasn't there; her dream hit her with full force, and she climbed out of her sleeping bag. It took a few seconds before she remembered that Xander had been unchained the night before. He was probably just upstairs. She sighed, exhaling deeply. There wasn't anything to worry about, at least not at the moment.

Searching for her pants- she'd already slept with Xander once, so she didn't see any need to sleep in more than her panties and a t-shirt- and grabbing her bra, she got dressed. Faith walked upstairs, and, sure enough, Xander was in the kitchen, making scrambled eggs. It might have been well after sunset, but he still liked his breakfast food. He turned to her and smiled, motioning to an already made plate of food. "Hey, Faith. Figured you'd want something to eat when you got up, made you eggs and toast. Over easy, right?"

Faith nodded, licking her lips happily. "Looks delish, Xand, thanks." She glance back up. "How'd you know I was about to wake up? Couldn't have been asleep more than a few hours." Xander paused over the pan, muttering something that Faith didn't quite pick up. She sat down and asked, "What was that, Xand?"

Xander took an unnecessary deep breath. "I said, it was your breathing, and your heartbeat. Could kind of tell…" He trailed off, going back to cooking. It was clear how awkward he felt, how guilty he felt. Faith couldn't help but feel bad for him, and this whole feeling bad for other people thing was starting to get on her nerves. She was a loner by nature, and the compassion of the people in Sunnydale had been rubbing off on her for a long time, and now it was starting to stick. She wanted it to make her sick, but part of the problem was that she didn't. "Hurry up and eat. I don't think I feel up to making breakfast for everyone."

She dug into the meal with a zeal that surprised her; she was hungrier than she had thought she was. "How's the unlife treating ya, huh?" She was the only one who could have said something like that to him. Out of most of the group, she was the only one with enough balls to even think a comment like that, and Spike…well, Spike might have thought it, but saying it would have blown up into a fight, and Faith wasn't quite sure who she'd lay a bet on.

Last night had been filled with Giles testing Xander's strength and senses and reflexes. It had been Buffy's idea, but Xander had agreed with it completely; maybe, just maybe, they'd learn something about the Uber-vamps by it. What they'd discovered wasn't surprising; he was stronger and faster than the average fledge. He wasn't as strong as one of the original ones, but it was enough to make the Potentials that much more scared of him.

Xander shrugged. "I guess it's not as bad as I thought it would be…"

"Except?" Faith questioned, because she knew avoidance when she heard it. She recalled her conversation with Giles, and wondered if this was a good time to play therapist. Unfortunately, her only role models for this were the therapist on the Sopranos, and Dr. Ruth, neither of which would be at all helpful. Especially Dr. Ruth.

"Some things are harder than others," Xander said, and it didn't take much for Faith to know what he was referring to. "You think that all this normal food I'm eating would do me some good." He finished cooking, putting his eggs on a paper plate and moving to sit with Faith. The melancholy that had been in his voice quickly faded, replaced by a pleasant, conversational tone. "So, you seem to have calmed down for the minute."

"Got to play the chaperone," she explained. "Big sister Faith, that's me." And Mama B, she thought bitterly. The errant daughter and the scolding adult, that's what it felt like.

Xander grinned at her teasingly. "It must be driving you crazy, huh?"

"You've got no idea, boy toy," Faith muttered under her breath, shaking her head. "We put on music, B's saying it's distracting the others. And it's not like we can go out and buy batteries without making a big deal about it, so my CD player's been dead a couple of days. I mean, do you know what a week without Rob Zombie and Deftones will do to a girl?" Xander laughed, but it wasn't at her, exactly. Hearing him laugh, it made Faith feel just a little bit better about the situation than she had before. It wasn't much, and it faded the moment she started to think about it too deeply.

And she was really sick of thinking about things so deeply.

"Edgy?" he filled in. She nodded. "Figured you would have tried a jail break by now." He paused. "Another one."

She raised an eyebrow with a smirk. "You trying to tempt me, Xand? I don't exactly need anymore trouble than I'm already in."

"No, Faith, I'd never do that. That would be wrong." Xander paused. "I'd expect you to apply for a daypass, like all of the good inmates."

"Inmates?" she echoed, "What is this? The Summer's Family Jail?"

"Something like that."

Buffy was in the bathroom and wondering if she was going insane again.

Sitting on the floor of the bathroom- because the bathroom was the only place where she could be alone in the house- she idly played with the idea that there was another demon out there somewhere, that was given her the same type of delusions that had caused her to think she was in an institution. Maybe she was crazy, and, like the doctor had said in her delusion, she was making it more and more ridiculous in order to keep herself roped in.

Her best friend was a vampire. Not just any type of vampire, either, but something new. A human bit by an Uber-vamp. Which, really, didn't make any sense because they didn't just go and choose humans to change. It was crazy, and ridiculous, and maybe if she'd been right there, she would have been able to piece it all together. It would seem less crazy to her.

She wrapped her arms around herself and felt herself shake. The last time she'd cried about this was when Spike had held her. She didn't want to feel this weak. She couldn't feel this weak, she couldn't afford to. All the girls who were living in her house looked up to her, and she had to be strong. She had to let them know that everything was going to be okay…

Even if that was complete bullshit. Even when she knew that, fighting the First, a lot of them would probably die. She remembered when she went to the Master her first year in Sunnydale; she didn't want to die, and there was no way that she could give the type of moving speech that would give them the desire to die for the cause. Hell, as it stood, she barely wanted to be alive, and she was a terrible role model. The longest living Slayer, who had died twice, went to heaven, had lost faith in everything for a long time, had lost her way…

She choked on her tears for a moment, and took long, gasping breaths. She tried to remember back before all this happened, back when she still had time to try out for cheerleading, and try to be Homecoming Queen, and date, and go to college. It seemed liked decades, centuries ago, and she realized how old she felt. How old they all probably felt.

Sometimes it felt as if time was on a permanent fast forward in Sunnydale, and she desperately wanted help, help for the mess that was forming in her head. She needed to have something firm to stand on, something that wasn't Spike, of all people. She needed to be strong, and she needed…

What she needed, she realized, was the old Xander and Willow. Willow before magic changed everything, and Xander before he had such complicated problems to deal with. She was so used to having someone to lean on, to depend on when she needed advice, that she'd forgotten how to do this on her own. She wasn't sure if she'd ever known how.

Wiping the tears off her face with the back of her hand, she took a deep breath. She needed to get her act together. She needed to get control of herself, because that was the only way they were going to be able to deal with the First. The girls, everyone, they needed a leader right now, and she knew that she had to be that leader.

Buffy stood up and washed her face. Closing her eyes, she took a minute to try to collect herself and figure out what to do next. What would Giles suggest? She could have asked, but she wasn't sure she could really talk to anyone at this point. She wasn't sure she could keep it together, as her conversation with Spike had proven.

The image of herself testing Xander's control of himself with a cross flashed in her mind, and she opened her eyes, hoping the action would banish the image from her brain. No, she couldn't ask Giles. She needed to do this on her own.

She opened the door and decided that maybe it was time to do a workout.

Xander discovered that, after being bitten, he did, on some level, prefer to be around Spike rather than anyone else. It wasn't because of his winning personality or excellent conversation, because Spike was an asshole, and still acted like one. It wasn't because Spike understood what he was going through, because of the soul thing, even though that was nice. The reason that Xander preferred Spike to any one else was very simple, and really had nothing to do with any of them.

Spike was quieter than the girls.

Like Xander had rationalized before, it wasn't about the type of person Spike was, or what type of conversation the girls had with him. The fact was, Spike was a vampire, and therefore dead: no heartbeat pounding in his head. And the non-existent heartbeat definitely didn't speed up as Xander moved past, as if he was going to attack them, nor did his breathing become forcibly controlled in order to keep from freaking out. Xander could barely deal with the Potentials, and with the emotional ups and downs of talking to Buffy, Dawn, Willow, or even Giles. With Spike, there was nothing to deal with, and Xander didn't have to watch himself so much; he could be himself without being misread. His morbidly sarcastic humor which, really, fit the situation, and shouldn't have been a surprise wasn't taken seriously. Even with all of Spike's taunting suspicions and dry comments, it was quieter.

"Taking a nap, then, mate?"

Xander opened an eye and looked up at Spike, who was leaning over him. Spike's hands were behind his back, and his head tilted curiously. "I prefer resting my eyes. 'Nap' implies I was asleep, which I wasn't. And weren't you patrolling with…someone?"

"Been planning on going with Buffy," Spike replied, not moving from his position. "She decided not to."

"Do you mind moving from my face?" Xander asked. "You've got corpse breath." Spike didn't move, and Xander let a frustrated growl slip. Spike moved then, sitting back in a chair.

Xander was starting to think that Spike wanted Xander to slip up, lose control, maybe even bring it to the point where he had to stake Xander. It wasn't just paranoia, Xander thought, but to be on the safe side… "Did that just make your evening, Jr.?" Xander might have sworn off calling Spike and Angel 'Deadboy', but Spike was still Angel Jr., regardless.

"What'd you mean, Harris?" Spike took out a cigarette and lit it, even though he knew the girls, if they'd been in the room, would have had a fit.

"You just seem to thrive on making me go vampy," Xander noted, sitting up on the couch. "I figured it was to show off for Buffy or something, prove you've got more self-control, but you do it when she's not around. So what gives?"

Spike didn't answer at first, blowing smoke Xander's way. "Maybe it's not that I like you losing control. Maybe I like that you keep it."

Something about the way Spike said that, slow and coolly, made Xander wonder. "You know, the more I think about that, the creepier and dirtier it sounds, so if you wouldn't mind elaborating…"

"You're good at it, and it bloody interests me, alright?" Spike explained. "Been around a few fledges and such in my day, and usually, the first couple of months, all they care about is feeding." Spike raised an eyebrow at Xander, and Xander felt like he was under a microscope. "You, on the other hand, seem to be adjusting just fine…"

Xander shrugged. "It's what I have to do for my friends." He sighed, leaning back. "I'm not going to go around and talk about being hungry when people'll barely come near me to begin with…" He glanced back at Spike. "And, by the way, after yesterday, I apologize for every time I gave you pig's blood."

"Told you it was bloody disgusting," Spike snorted. "And weak. They don't know any better."

Xander wondered if Spike knew what a relief it was to have this conversation with him. If all the thoughts that had been running through Xander's head were freaking him out, and having someone to speak to…it was very much needed.

"But you and Red, you talking?"

Xander made a face, as he secretly wondered why Spike cared. "Define talking, because if you mean pussy-footing around each other so that neither feels too bad, yeah, we're talking. I mean, I love her, but it's hard right now, and since anything we need to talk about," the soul spell, Xander being a vampire, "is essentially taboo, it's pretty fake."

The bizarreness of talking with Spike hit him then, and he wondered if it had hit Spike. He wasn't talking to Willow, but he was talking to Spike. And Faith, sort of, but even that was fake. He admitted things to Faith, but he still avoided certain things, still didn't want to talk too much.

"And you and Buffy?" Xander vamped out, and Spike snorted again. "Thought so. She know why you're avoiding her?"

Xander didn't look at Spike, but that was mainly because he wasn't very good at controlling his vamp face quite yet. Talking about Buffy, however, was bound to bring it up, as was talking about the soul-spell for too long. "She's got to." His voice sounded strange to his own ears.

"But you haven't told her."

"What the hell do you expect me to do, Spike?" Xander snapped, and it was still quieter than it was with any of the girls. "I can't talk to her, because, like you said, I'm dealing with the control issue. That, and, for some reason, while they're not really scared of you, all the Potentials are scared shitless of me."

"Strange feeling, eh?" Spike's voice was almost sympathetic. It was times like this that Xander remembered that Spike had a soul underneath all that jackass. "Most of you hates it, feels bleedin' miserable. The demon in there, though, it wants it, and that makes you sick."

Spike managed to get it just right, somehow. Xander didn't like having so much in common with the platinum blonde. "Yeah, something like that."

"Doesn't get much easier, the feeling, it's just the choice becomes automatic."

"You know, I just had the thought that it could be Angel there trying to help me out instead of you. I feel much better about life now…sort of." That made Spike laugh. "Oh, come on, you know it wouldn't work."

"You hate him too much. You'dve thrown down with him by now, gotten your ass kicked," Spike replied. "Although he might hold back, for 'Buffy's sake'. I wouldn't hold back."

"Good for you," Xander said. He was still struggling to get his face back to it's human form.

A few minutes of silence, and Spike got up from the chair. He sauntered over to where Xander was, crouching down in front of him. He held Xander's face by the chin, and Xander growled at him again. Spike ignored it. "Gonna have to teach you to deal with this, won't I mate?"

Xander realized that this weirdness was an offer of assistance, and stopped pulling away. "Yeah, 'cause I may know a bit about vampires, but I'm not up to speed on being one."

"Well, then," Spike said as he released Xander's face. "You've got yourself a tutor."

As he sat there, staring at Spike in shock at the gesture of kindness, Xander felt his face shift again, and he looked human again.

Faith's voice broke through the silence from the kitchen, and she wasn't talking to them. "What they need is to get out of the house, B, all of them, not just me."

Spike turned his head. "What the bloody 'ell is Faith doing?"

"Applying for a daypass," Xander deadpanned.

"Should have just left," Spike commented, "Would have had a better chance."

"I'll let her know next time."

Willow listened from where she was standing, up on the stairs. None of them noticed her, not the Slayers in the kitchen or the vampires in the living room. She was far enough from the front door to the living room where she was pretty sure they didn't thinking that she was spying, that she just in the house.

And she hadn't meant to spy, not originally. She'd been heading to the dining room, because she was sick of staying up in her bedroom, when she heard the conversations. The shock of Buffy and Faith talking, while Xander and Spike were talking at the same time, it stopped her in her tracks. Most of the Potentials were downstairs, listening to the exchange between Faith and Buffy, and Dawn and Giles seemed to have been sleeping.

The conversation between Spike and Xander drew her attention more than the other one. Maybe it was a self-fish thing, and she couldn't help but being drawn in by the fact that she knew they were talking about her. Maybe she was used to hearing Buffy and Faith's argument, because it was the same thing Faith had been trying to tell Buffy since high school.

Hearing Xander say that he couldn't talk to her, and sounding almost comfortable talking to Spike…it took her a minute for her to digest it, and she didn't like where it left her.

Even when they'd grown apart after high school, with the complications of her starting a relationship with Tara and other things, she always thought of him as her best friend. If things got bad, that was always a guaranteed relationship there. Xander would always be there to help her out.

And maybe she was reading too much into it, but she couldn't help but feel that it wasn't right for her to depend on him, when he couldn't depend on her. When he couldn't tell her the truth, why should she think that she had the right to-

She'd known that they were avoiding certain topics. She wasn't sure what to say to him, after all, and even if she did know what to say, she wasn't sure that it would be enough. Maybe the spell, maybe what had happened was where their friendship hit a brick wall.

And the worst part of it was that it seemed like that was happening with all three of them, too- Xander, Buffy, and herself. It didn't take a genius to see the stress between Buffy and Xander, and she didn't need to listen to Xander talk about it with Spike to know that he was angry at the whole situation.

And between her and Buffy…? The wall was still up there looming with them, too, and that one was her fault too. It was the magic that blocked them from being what they used to be, it was her going crazy, it was her bringing Buffy back to life…it was everything she'd done since Oz had first left.

Willow wanted back what they'd all lost, but she didn't know how to help get it back. She wanted to be the one that Xander could turn to.

After all, she thought dully, and the voice in her head sounded suspiciously like Xander in the moment, this is your fault.

And somewhere underground, the First smiled.

If there was one thing that Spike wondered about more than everything else, it was whether any of the things that were happening in the Summers' house were coincidence. The events that were unfolding seemed at times too chaotic, at other times too coincidental to be chance.

Take Harris being the one that was bitten, for example. Really, the way to tear the group apart at the seams was through him. Willow, one of the Slayers, if they were made vampires, they would have been insanely powerful, a tool that could have been used against the uber-vamps and the First. That, and Xander would have tried to make life easier for them, would have helped them still feel like everything was okay. Harris, contrary to first impressions, was a very good judge of when to be seen and when not to be seen. Unlike the girls, he would know when he was needed to comfort, and when people should be alone.

Harris was the heart of the group, always had been. Without that, they were all just children, children who floundered in their own self-doubts and insecurities. Xander Harris had always taken that load for himself when it was most needed.

Spike hadn't lied to Harris when he said that the boy's control impressed him. Spike suspected that the control was stronger because of Xander's personality, that the very same things that allowed him to keep the girls together were what kept him from hurting them.

And, Spike thought cynically, were the same things that were going to drive him insane.

Spike knew insanity intimately, and the memories were at the forefront of his mind. Having attempted to tear the Scoobies apart before, he knew what it took to break them. And, as he'd already tried to warn the others, that's the buttons that they were pushing with Harris.

Fear, resentment, depression…it was thick in the house to the point where Spike was sure that Harris could choke on it. When it all fell, collapsed on their heads like the ruins of an ancient city, Spike couldn't help but wonder if it was going to be Buffy, Xander, or Willow who would crumble first.

It wasn't as if he cared about Xander personally, at least at first. The few weeks since Xander had been turned had shown Spike more about the young vampire than he'd expected. Spike's intention was to keep him under control for Buffy and Dawn's sake, nothing else. It wasn't the way that things were coming into place for him, however.

Xander's way of dealing with his essential removal from the main flow of the group- the Potentials, and helping them function- was what caught Spike's attention. It was the way that Xander's defensive humor was finally laced with anger, instead of just helplessness. Spike might have had a soul, but he was still drawn to the undercurrent of emotion. Hell, his relationship, non-existent as it was, with Buffy was built on that. Passion, some bit of hatred, and it was rare that Spike saw that in Xander.

Fueling the curiosity was that the only place Xander seemed to be comfortable anymore was with Faith and Spike. They, as he pointed out, weren't scared of him losing it with them, probably because they'd lost it before and knew the real warning signs. They didn't avoid reality, at least not in comparison to everyone else in the house. He could feel almost like he was human again, he said, because they didn't try to ignore that he was a vampire.

Irony, it seemed, was the only thing the house was running on nowadays.

Buffy found Xander outside the house, in one of the cemeteries, while she was patrolling. He wasn't even patrolling or anything. He was sitting on the ground, knees up, leaning on a tree. A stake was lying on his left side, and a bottle of beer on his right. Buffy wasn't sure when the last time she saw him drinking was, and wasn't sure if it worried her.

She stayed standing back for several minutes, trying to decide whether or not it was alright to walk over to him. After all, they hadn't exactly been conversing much since he'd been changed, and Spike still didn't think it was a good idea for them to have a one on one.

Scrunching up her face, Buffy hated the fact that she's been letting Spike make her choices for her. She hoped that the others hadn't noticed it, especially the Potentials. The idea of a Slayer taking her cues from a vampire…it would cause doubts, and they couldn't afford to let that happen.

Taking a deep breath, she walked over in his direction. Slowly, Xander looked over his shoulder to see who was coming. He saw her and stilled, and Buffy saw amber flash in his eyes. He was wearing a hoodie, which, until he'd been unchained, Buffy had never really seen him wear. He frequently pulled it over his head, and Buffy knew that he did it to keep people from staring at his face when he vamped out.

He did that now. "Buff, what're you doing out alone? Thought we were working on the buddy system nowadays."

"I could say the same thing to you," Buffy replied, and she sat on the top of a tombstone in front of Xander.

"That would be avoiding the original question," Xander retorted smoothly, but his voice…it was low, almost shaky, as if he was trying to hold himself in. Fake calm filled his voice, and it was something that Buffy knew very well.

Buffy shrugged. "I can handle myself." Xander snorted with what sounded like sardonic amusement as he lifted his beer to take a drink. "Do you come out here to drink often?"

"What are you talking about? This is the first time that I've been out since I got the chains off," Xander replied. "The house is loud."

"You could always ask the girls to quiet down," Buffy suggested. "I'm always telling Faith to turn down the music-"

"-not the type of noise I'm talking about," Xander interjected. "And you really don't want it to be as quiet as I'd like in there. It wouldn't be a good sign." Buffy only had an inkling of an idea about what he was talking about, and she didn't want to think about it.

Buffy swallowed and wished that it was easier to look Xander in his eyes. Maybe then he wouldn't seem like such an alien creature to her anymore, and she could confide in him like they were old friends, which they were, technically.

"It's not safe out here, Xander," Buffy told him.

"What's going to happen to me? I don't think any demons are going to come running to kill me, and if worst comes to worst, I can play like I'm one of them." There was a tinge of something in Xander's voice that Buffy was unaccustomed to, something that twisted her stomach and made her grip her stake that much tighter. He noticed it. "Don't worry, I'm not that much of a dedicated actor. You're here, I'd just leave the slaying to you and hang back."

Buffy nodded to herself, even though it occurred to her that he would be more than capable of doing some serious slaying on his own. "I appreciate that."

Xander looked down at the bottle, the hood of his sweatshirt completely blocking Buffy from seeing his face. That was a relief more than she was willing to admit, even to herself. "Fuck, Buff, if we're just going to do the awkward conversation thing, I'm going to take a walk."

As he started to stand, Buffy jumped up. "No!" She started to speak again, this time sounding less, she thought, pathetic. "I miss you, Xander, but I worry about you too."

"Really?" Xander said, and he sounded so doubtful that Buffy felt as if it was stabbing her in the heart. "Isn't it customary to ask if how I'm doing if you feel like that?"

He was standing now too, like she was, and the tension in his body made him look very still. Buffy sighed loudly, shaking her head. "Don't make it sound like it was so easy, Xander, because you can't say that you weren't avoiding me."

"Well, that was just because of your stupendous bedside manner," Xander retorted. At Buffy's look of horror, Xander nodded. "Yeah, was kind of awake when you did that. It wasn't appreciated."

"You don't know what was going through my head," Buffy argued. He was misunderstanding her, and this hadn't been what she wanted. She knew that hashing out their issues needed to happen for them to have the friendship that they used to have, but that didn't mean she wanted to go through it. "You don't know what it was like, what I was feeling…god, I'm sorry, but I had to know!"

The conversation with Spike rang in her head as Xander responded. "Yeah, you're sorry, but you'd do it again. That's the problem with us- we keep making the same damn mistakes over and over again." He kicked at the rocks on the ground.

"So what do you expect us to do now? Stake you and pretend like we don't know it's you? It doesn't work like that."

"That's not what I want," Xander snarled at Buffy, and she surprised herself by flinching, "What I want is not to be a goddamn pariah because of something that you all decided! I don't want this whole emotional and physical torture shit because of something I had no say in."

"I didn't have a part in the spell, did I?"

She had just blamed Willow for this, she realized, covering her mouth in shock. Xander stared at her blankly, and even with the hood on, his glare was strong. Yes, Willow had a part in this, but all of them did, in some way. She couldn't believe that she'd just said what she had said. Her world was really falling apart.

"You might not have done the spell, or even known about it, but you didn't exactly stake me immediately, did you?" Xander asked, and the tone was clipped, reserved. "What happened exactly? Spike didn't stake me because he knew you wouldn't forgive him, he bring me home? What then?"

"I wasn't going to kill you!" Buffy realized that, if Willow hadn't said anything about the soul spell, she would have asked the redhead to do it anyway.

"I was already dead, Buff!" Xander shouted back at her. "Now I've got to deal with the fact that none of you can stand to be in the same goddamn room as me because you're feeling guilty, or freaked out, or it's not just like it's always been-" Xander cut off his tirade and took a deep breath, which Buffy supposed was some sort of calming thing, because lord knew he didn't need to do it.

Xander took a step backwards, away from Buffy. "Look, if having me in the house is too much for you, if I'm putting too much stress on you and the Potentials, and Willow, I'll head back to my old apartment. Not like I'm doing much at your house."

"You can't leave. It's not safe, not for you or for the Potentials. They might not be all friendly with you right now, but we all need you."


"Because you're you, because you care, and because, unlike almost all those girls in that house right now, you're willing to die for the greater good," Buffy responded. "Especially now, you're more of a soldier than they are right now, and you need less protecting than they do."

"I'm not your soldier, Buffy," Xander informed her. "I'm gonna be there when we kick the First's ass, finally, but I'm not going to do it because you tell me to."

There was more than Buffy wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him how she needed him, needed a rock to keep her grounded. To keep her feeling like more than just an empty shell, because whatever progress she'd made since she first came back from heaven, she still had a long way to go.

She wanted to tell him that she was no good at motivating the girls, and without him to urge them on, she wasn't sure how long the group would hold out.

All the things she had to tell him, and she didn't have a chance to say it.

He turned to her again and said, "The one next to you's about to get up. It's why I was drinking over here."

"I can handle it," Buffy said.

"I don't doubt it." Xander walked off. Buffy stood, waiting for the fledge to wake up, and wondering what she was going to do.

However, a seed of terrifying doubt started to grow in her head. It was the anger that Xander had building up, and the reliance she was starting to have on everyone else's opinion.

Maybe, maybe she needed to start relying on her self to get things done.