Disclaimer: All characters and situations belong to Joss Whedon et all.

Xander loved her once.

She thinks about this from time to time when she and he are out patrolling or discussing defense tactics or researching the latest evil threat in the middle of the night.

Giles used to chide her for her lack of concentration (among other things). Buffy's mind always seemed to wander. Generally to little things like shoes and dinner and what was on tv last night. Too often she catches herself thinking about the last year in Sunnydale. Giles looking at her with disapproval, Xander sitting in a hospital bed with a bandage where his eye should be, young girls who trusted her fallen on the battlefield, Spike's hot hand in hers (the only time he ever felt warm). Less often, her mind dwells on sad stories from long ago – Angel's turn to Angelus, Riley leaving, her mother's death. Time has dulled the sharpness of these memories, but if she thinks hard on them, they feel close; she can almost taste the salt in her tears.

But every now and then, like remembering a strange fact from a fading dream, it occurs to her that Xander loved her once. It's a peculiar and oddly comforting thought, one that she clings to for fear that it will soon slip away.

Sometimes the remote impossible possibility that you might like me was all that sustained me.

For a while, back when they were still in high school and she was still deeply entrenched in the Angel saga, Xander had felt like a card up her sleeve, like a back-up, like the guy who would always be there. Angelus could stalk her and she could ruin things with Scott, Faith could turn away and Angel could leave. But, in the midst of it all, Xander had loved her, still did.

She used to catch him looking at her every now and then – that familiar face rapped with admiration and attraction and love. She didn't mind – hell, she encouraged it. Some days she would dress up a little just to see him do a double-take when she walked in the room. It made her feel special and sexy and powerful. It was stupid and selfish; she was using him. But those looks made her feel strong when she was sure she would fail. They made her feel loved when she was sure no one wanted her. Even when he was with Cordelia and even when he was kissing Willow in closets, he still looked.

When it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?' You're my hero.

She stopped trying to get him to look when she found Riley. Maybe he still did, but she wasn't paying him any mind. Riley never failed to make her feel special and strong and beautiful. She had been so caught up with being the almost-normal girl with her almost-normal boyfriend. When all the nasty business with the initiative ended, Buffy was content to spend her summer doing every normal thing she could think of – dates, movies, candlelight dinners, long walks on the beach. It didn't even occur to her that she had been treating him exactly the same way she treated Xander, taking what she needed from him and ignoring the rest.

Xander's words still rang in her head as he told her to go after Riley before it was too late. He's never held back with you. He's risked everything. You shut down, Buffy.

She wonders idly sometimes if Xander realized that he wasn't really talking about Riley at all.

(But it didn't matter.)

Her relationship with Riley fell apart and Xander didn't look at her anymore. He only looked at Anya. Buffy was happy for Xander because he deserved to love someone who loved him back and she (probably) never would.

She tries to find solace in Spike's looks instead, but it's hardly the same. Spike is hard and sarcastic, bloodied knuckles and bruising kisses. She uses him too – takes everything that he gives her and throws only resentment back. When she finally starts trying to treat him fairly, pulling down her guard, letting him in, he doesn't want her to. He pushes her back, refusing to take anything from her, not feeling as though he deserved it.

(Maybe he didn't.)

And as she stood in that cavern with his hand burning in hers, she said the words. She didn't mean to, they just slipped out – but that didn't make them any less true. Spike didn't believe her, didn't want to believe her. He wanted to give her everything he had without taking anything in return, just to make up for what he had done to her.

Buffy wishes he could have realized that it wasn't only his fault, that they shared the blame for their disastrous mess of a relationship. She also needed to make up for what she'd done to him.

But none of this mattered anymore. Spike was dead. Willow and Giles were gone. And Xander was the only person Buffy had left (even if he didn't look). Her white knight; her funny sidekick; the only person who was truly by her side until the end.

(She doesn't deserve him.)

She still hopes that he'll look at her again, the way he used to so long ago. When he doesn't, she tries not to feel rejected.

Buffy, I like you. A lot.

After all, she was the one who did the rejecting. Seven years ago. His words still echo back some nights.

And I know we're friends and we've had experiences… but I want more.

Sitting there on that sunny bench, on one of those stupid perfect southern California days, watching him stumble over his words as he tries to ask her out. Her time as a cheerleader at her old school had gotten her quite used to watching scared boys ask her on dates and even more used to rejecting them.

I wanna dance with you.

But, not Xander. Why did he have to ask? She didn't want to break his heart, not when it was so open and defenseless. Because that's the real reason his love has always mattered more than Spike's or Angel's or Riley's – because she didn't deserve it. Because Xander was good in every way, kind and funny and trusting. And he loved her?

I don't want to spoil our friendship either. But that's not the point, is it? You either feel and thing or you don't.

Now, Buffy wishes she could know for sure whether Xander had any romantic feelings for her still lingering around. Knows she can't ask him. Not without having to answer herself, to decide how she feels about him, and she still doesn't have an answer.

I don't.

It's cold and lonely inside these stone walls. She's surrounded by young girls, looking up to her, following her every order. The fortress may be well-defended, but the familiar air of death lurks in dark corners and creeps ever closer. Giles is still gone and Willow is closed off. And Buffy still doesn't have a fucking clue what she's doing.

But Xander is still there, will never leave her. Her constant friend, her watcher. (He watches but doesn't look). She finds that it doesn't matter that every possibility for romance seems to have slipped through their fingers (her fingers), because he had loved her once. And even when she shut him down, he stuck around.

Buffy figures that she can't be too bad, if someone like Xander is still standing by her. She must be strong and competent and worthwhile.

I love you. You know that, right?

Buffy asked him that once. On another sunny bench, in the middle of a perfect southern California day. So many years had passed since he was a bumbling teenager trying to ask her to the school dance, so much was yet to come. But, in those soft moments before Warren's gun shattered their world, she had the courage to ask him the question. He never answered.

She hopes he knows that she meant it. There are too many things that she's never told him (like that all she wants is one look, the way he used to glance at her when they were in school, like she was the only thing in the room worth looking at).

It occurs to her that maybe her feelings for him are less important to him, that perhaps he doesn't really need to know. Xander is open in all the ways that Buffy has had to close herself of. He doesn't need her the way she needs him. He probably never dwells on all these faded feelings and lost chances. It probably never occurs to him to think of what could have been, if things had been different, all those years ago. He's no longer that awkward, nervous boy and she's still that selfish girl with no idea what she wants.

Well, uh, maybe I'll see you around… maybe at school... since we both... go there.

But she still clings to the memory, the only solace she has within her walls of isolation. Xander loved her once. She whispers those words softly in her dark room at night, as if saying them aloud will mean that it really happened.

Xander loved her once.

(But he doesn't anymore.)