Title: A Promise to Betty Louise

Author: Brooke

Email:

Rating: PG (PG-13 maybe)

Disclaimer: Buffy and friends are owned by Joss, Mutant Enemy, 20th
Century Fox, The UPN and whoever else has rights to the show.

Summary: Post Season 7 (...so, like, 2003ish, I guess). It's also the sequel piece to "Life…and Cupcakes". If you wanted to refresh your memory about that one, or check it out for the first time, just follow the linkage: .com/group/theunattainable/message/308. In this one the Scoobs
and the potential slayers are preparing to ship out of the States. Some are coping better than others…for various reasons. BXy friendship/comfort piece.

Distribution: I don't know why anybody would want this, but if
somebody does…sure.

Feedback: I'd be really honored, for sure.

This is archived at my group: The Unattainable
(.com/group/theunattainable/)


This, certainly, was a far cry from the minute-by-minute plan that Giles had devised. If the older man would have had his way, Dawn and the departing Potentials would have taken a cab to the airport. Xander remembered the precise way that drop-off was organized the night before. Like a surgical strike. When Buffy interrupted him to inform everyone that she was going to wait with Dawn inside the airport until the flight left, he seemed taken aback.

Xander wondered if being stodgy was a Watchers defensive mechanism of choice, but couldn't ask. That would surely ruin the prickly awkward silences that they *did* have…which was a great deal more pleasant than picturing Buffy putting her fist through a motel room door. They were all still trying to pretend that that hadn't happened during the latest loud argument that she and her Watcher had engaged in. A routine disagreement that started about one thing and ended about another. Giles actually ended up having to pay the security deposit for that one.

All the same, at Buffy's steady and firm insistence, all of the ones who were leaving piled into the bus that morning and Giles drove in silence. He didn't speak until he had pulled up at the surprisingly crowded passenger drop off. Whatever it was that he had been milling over in his mind to say during the ride was far less epic than Xander expected…probably, even than Giles was hoping. They'd be together again soon enough – a matter of weeks, in fact. Brief and unsuccessful words intended to comfort, but serving instead as background noise when all of the girls were shuffling through the exit doors.

Xander had never seen Dawn hold onto anyone tighter than he did when she hugged Buffy goodbye at Sky Harbor.

To anyone walking by it probably looked like they would never see each other again. There was a distinct air of desperation in that grip…like Dawn was scared because she knew that 'a matter of weeks' was never promised. Not a guarantee at all whenever her sister was involved.

It was, of course, a valid feeling. Dawn had experienced many unexpected last days with her big sister. Days when they had made plans to continue some irrelevant squabble and Dawn's subsequent ass-kicking later that night, only to have Buffy be dead before supper. Morbid thought for a motley morbid crew, Xander knew.

Not that Buffy was any stranger to unforeseen losses. Saying 'See ya later' to her mother in the morning before leaving for campus, only to return home at lunch and find her gone forever.

No, 'a matter of weeks' was never promised, and that's why they were holding on the way they were.

He and Willow hung back and let them have the moment. Didn't try to listen into the hitched whispers they heard muffled through each of the sisters' hair. The only spectators passively witnessing the beet red and tear tracked faces of the two girls embracing outside of the security checkpoint.

And why would anyone? Airports were meant for farewells…

It seemed, more times than not, that the 'Scooby Gang' was meant for on them, as well. Destined.

He had mentioned it to Buffy a few nights before. Destiny.

With the band down to 9, combined with the fact that Giles had been able to retrieve a larger sum of money from his contacts earlier that day than ever before, if they all doubled or tripled up, affording enough rooms to shelter everyone was a doable feat. Still, he and Giles got last consideration in the matter – and that was fine by him. Again, he knew the initial reasoning behind the girls getting dibs and he had no desire to put himself in that particular line of fire any night of the week.

But on that night in Wheatland they had been talking. They'd gotten in the habit of over the past weeks, and he had asked what she thought. A path that you were supposed to take…already laid out for you and you wouldn't even know you were on it. Like you may be the star of the play, but it was already in Act 2 Scene 14 by the time you were even finished in wardrobe.

"Like you missed something." Buffy had stated solemnly. "Something important, but that it wouldn't even matter because the ending was still going to go off on script."

She had been laying on her side gazing at him while he studied the glitter specs in the cheap popcorn ceiling. A poor representation of the desert sky that he had grown accustomed to. When she had finished speaking and the room was cast back into a warm silence he had turned his head to look at her. He forgot for a moment that she had been on his blind side and he rolled his whole body to match her position.

"Believe it about other things besides all your Slayerness?" he pressed in just above a whisper and searched both of her eyes for a reaction to the question. "That we're all on a road that's made us the way we are?" Her breath had huffed out in a semblance of a chuckle. "…y'know…or something…"

Her grin was more genuine at his attempt to lighten his statement and he felt his unease fade minutely. She had asked him why he did that before, too. She let her hand rise and with delicate fingers she traced the edge of the eye patch that rested on his cheek. She had told him that the world wouldn't end because he said something that wasn't a joke. He nodded and allowed his fingers to follow the same lines hers had brushed against his eyebrow, against her cheek. He stopped briefly with his palm resting against the side of Buffy's face before he tucked some of her hair behind her ear. He almost missed when she continued speaking. The world would end, that much she was sure of, but not due to a Serious-Xander moment.

At that moment, though, in that roadside motel room, Buffy's actual vocal response was soft and mingled with a sigh. He found that the tiny exhalation had made his lips curl into a small grin when her eyes closed… "Don't you?"

Now he stood facing Buffy's back while she clung to Dawn and watched her take a deep breath – could tell from the seemingly great heave that raised her shoulders before she gripped the younger Summers by the shoulders and stepped back until she was just at arms length.

"I *will* see you."

That was resolute and the first thing Buffy had said that was loud enough for Xander and Willow to hear from where they stood apart from the whole scene.

"I promise."

Willow was shifting on her feet…she looked somewhere between antsy and bored, he noticed when he glanced to her. Her eyes still seemed dull even after the weeks that had passed…she still looked tired. She still was something that Xander was worried about because of all the, quote/unquote, healing that they had done, Willow seemed the most non-participatory.

When he mentioned it to Buffy, she had asked if she could quote him on the quote and unquote. Her smile had met her eyes and Xander had rolled his at her before being punched in the shoulder. Proof positive that things – anything - with time and practice, could be better…get better.

Dawn sniffled in front of Buffy, her eyes puffy and red, and she tried to duck her head as if to hide the overflow that they had produced. "Don't promise." Her voice had croaked amidst another hard sniffle.

Buffy had lowered her own head so that matching teary and red eyes could catch. "I promise."

He saw Dawn's wane smile in response and noted the sense of relief veiled within.

It was a very slight, hardly noticeable, tilt of Buffy's head back towards where her friends stood. Xander elbowed Willow slightly to refocus her attention and eyed her briefly when she seemed to jump in response. He had wanted to say something, but, instead, nodded a little towards Buffy. "C'mon," he had tried his damnedest to give her a genuine smile, before settling into just heading over to where he saw Dawn trying to appear collected for his benefit.

He was still working up to taking some advice that Buffy had given him even before Wheatland…when their, what Willow had called, Maudlin Blue Collar Comedy Tour, was hitting the road again. 'Talk to her about it.' The Slayer had offered that so matter-of-factly. 'You're worried about her, say something *to her*'. They had been relegated to the bus a couple of weeks ago on that night. Well, he had. Buffy, he was sure, could've found actual indoor lodging. She had, though, passed Dawn's offer that night onto Willow and opted for the fresh air.

He would always be able to recall her veiled non-smile when she had declared that.

Still, not even her sentiment could temper the disappointment when Xander had lost his tent, in a heated battle of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors', to one of the remaining Potentials. 'Like you did to me…', Buffy had added from the rough plastic seat across from where he was sitting uncomfortably. His long legs stretched across the aisle and matching Buffy's pose much more awkwardly.

That made him chuckle at the time. 'Like I did to you?' he had raised his eyebrow just to see her blush. Oddly, in spite of the bright pink that her cheeks turned, that time she hadn't habitually averted her eyes. Just looked at him through the abundance of shadows.

'For me.' Her counter had been warmly acerbic whisper and she had lifted her foot to kick him in the thigh. She did it again, when he pointed out that he liked her other wording better, before her foot had taken residence in his lap. 'Surprise, surprise.' Another warm whisper.

Usually he hadn't minded the bus that much, but on that night, one other thing that Xander remembered missing about Buffy's advice was the privilege of them not having access to his tent.

Willow was trailing slightly behind him as he reached Buffy and Dawn and sidestepped the eldest sister to wrap his arms around the younger. His eye clinched closed as he held Dawn tightly and felt more tears dampening his shirt. He felt more than saw Buffy shift a little further from his side and pressed his cheek into the top of Dawn's head. "Be good, Dawnster," he whispered gruffly into her hair.

Her choked laugh coincided with her arms unhooking from their position over his shoulders and pushing him in the stomach until he took a step back. "I'll try, *Dad*." Her reply sarcastic and she rolled her eyes.

Both of the Summers' blushed when Willow commented that his next line had better not be anything about taking someone over his knee. He readily fired back, pulling Dawn back into another quicker and looser hug, that it had been her birthday and it was tradition. Willow didn't joke a lot anymore…not like before, and when she did it gave him hope. She was still in there somewhere, and she needed him.

He released Dawn and Willow replaced him in front of the teenager as the hug line revolved. Xander found himself smiling again when he was beside Buffy, "I thought you said it was because I was special." She elbowed him in the arm and spoke loud enough of Willow and Dawn to hear.

The small taunt made Xander chuckle. He watched a slight jostle shake Willow's shoulders through her hug with Dawn. Willow needed Buffy, too. All of them. 'The Scooby Pact', Buffy had dubbed it to him while shivering through her umpteenth deep gulp of whiskey while sitting next to him in another desert one night. 'If we don't do anything else, we cannot let us get to where we were again.' He loved the determination in her voice, despite the subtle slurring, when she spoke of it and held out her pinky finger to him. 'We have to swear.' Her demand came with her acquiescing and handing him back the bottle.

His taking a long swallow preceded him spitting into the palm of his hand, ignoring her proffered digit, and offering Buffy a shake. Her eyes had gone only slightly wide before she conceded. Did so quicker than he thought she would, again, for a girl, and spit in her palm before taking his hand. He had called her a drunk dork again when she wiped her hand dry on his shoulder after a firm shake.

"Be safe, Dawnie." Willow's voice sounded pleading when she released Dawn, at last.

The teenager didn't protest at the request, though. More un-off from long bouts with too much emotion… backwash from growing up faster than even they remembered doing themselves.

"You be safe, Willow." Dawn's response didn't waiver. It was a command more than a request. "You take care of *you*."

Yep. If he'd ever doubted it, now it was in stone. She'd become a master of the re-assuring talk thing. Xander wondered when the time had come where 'Little Dawnie' had become the go-to girl for comfort and advice. When she had learned things from them all when they weren't aware that anyone was watching.

Willow's acceptance came by way of a brief nod and Dawn stepped back with a deep breath. She made sure that they all saw the exaggerated cleansing breath that she drew and swiped her palms down her button up shirt in a show of preparation. Her adjustments were undone, though, when Buffy nearly tackled her in another hug. Maybe she saw it coming because not even the impact made Dawn's step falter and she hugged her sister back.

"Call me when you land."

Xander could hear fresh tears that belayed the voiced demand that Buffy had made.

"And when you get to your new place."

This time Dawn gripped Buffy by the shoulders and held her back. "Should I email after I go to the bathroom, too?"

Both he and Willow bit back their muted laughter that Buffy's bigger-than-her little sister was still not above being shoved in the shoulder. "I'll miss you, Buffy." Dawn admitted. "For a few weeks."

Buffy just nodded. "A few weeks." Then they'd see each other again. Giles had promised all of them that and she had promised Dawn. "And blow your nose before you get on the plane." The brief look and grin that she had afforded Xander over her shoulder made him have to bite down his smirk. "Nobody wants to take an international flight sitting next to snot girl."

It turns out that the mighty Slayer wasn't above being shoved either.

~*~

Five days.

Topeka, Kansas and in five days they'd all be gone. Giles had located one more girl who they would pick up in route. She was going to travel to Brazil with Willow and live in the house there. Xander had thusly dubbed Willow's assignment as the 'Jackpot'. He made her promise that in reparation for another 16 hours on the bus, if she happened upon a nudist colony near the new house she would set up a photo booth in his honor.

Willow's ensuing punch to his forearm proved adequate distraction so that he didn't see Buffy line up the slap that landed against the back of his head. 'Alright, alright.' His concession was bound to be a given. 'Topless is fine, too.'

In hindsight, he should have waited until they had arrived back at the motel and were not still on the tiny school bus to toss that in. Still, when he was caught, he was sure it was worth it. It had been a long time since any of them had seen Giles smirk the way that he was while he watched them, the 3 twenty-somethings, play-struggle through the mirror above the drivers' seat.

They were all still in there, somewhere. Deep down. The children putting their feet on the tables in the library. Teenagers sneaking out of the house way past curfew…(albeit with the catch that most of the time, it was to slay undead fiends). Hanging out in the Bronze, blissfully unaware of anything that may develop simply because, whatever it was, it wasn't happening at that moment.

Brief glimpses of a life lived versus the life they are living.

In five days it all promised to change again. Even now would in the past and they would be different people.

'Yes, Confucius.' Buffy had teased him the first time he voiced that notion. His friend 'Jack' had bought her buddies 'Morgan' and 'Vladimir' to their private party in Utah that time. He tried hard to convey the fact that he was affronted through his responding glare. Knew that she noticed because her smirk grew. 'Tell me.' She still continued to taunt then, 'If a tree falls in the woods and nobody sees it, did it fall?' It seemed to Buffy, and he took comfort when she confided it in him, that the most important changes happened when they weren't the set goal. People change because everybody has to grow…his destiny theory, she referred to. Things would be vastly different if she were the same Buffy she was when she was 7, if Willow was the same as she was when she was 9…if he were the same Xander that he was when he was 16.

'Like, legally?' He questioned at the time, then commented that he was pretty sure that he'd be the only one who received a prison sentence in her scenario. That was still back when Buffy was averting her eyes at his teasing.

Through it all, though, it would never be said that Xander couldn't take his lumps. She had hit him back then, swatted at him now, and would likely use force against him in the future. That much was fact when Giles had parked the bus outside of the motel.

It was decided that Willow was going to pack up her room, the one she had been doubled in with Dawn, and move down to Buffy's. The most cost efficient method, Giles had pointed out, with it just being the four of them. They really only needed the two rooms now. That had been the point when the older man had asked if Xander needed help moving his things from Buffy's into his room.

Xander had said his lone measly duffle bag of socks was something that he could handle and Giles had chuckled. "Of course."

That was what made sense, after all. Buffy and Willow, he and Giles; so that's what had been done while the eldest traveler checked out of the un-needed accommodations.

"Sure you don't need a hand?" Buffy questioned sarcastically while Xander followed her into the room they had been sharing. She had flopped down on one of the double beds while Xander grabbed his still open canvas bag from the floor next to the air conditioner. When they had walked into that room the first time she told him that it reminded her of a rejected set from 'Threes Company'. He then commented to her that if *this* was the reject, it must have been slim pickings – it even smelled like 1974.

But still, for the last 2 days and nights, it had been passable. Their room.

'These curtains smell like Cheech and Chong's bastard love child.' She had taken the effort to shake him awake to inform him that night.

Still…their room. Just one of many that they'd shared since Sunnydale, and not even the first that he'd thought of as specifically 'theirs'…but it grew on him that it was oddly familiar that any room could be classified as that.

He, of course, could easily recall the first time he and Buffy had shared quarters – 'The Tent' - and a part of Xander had wondered if God had finally decided to cut him a break. A bigger part of him had known that he wasn't 16 anymore. He didn't know which facet of his internal thought process he found more endearing.

He did discern the distinct feeling of guilt, though. Guilty because Anya hadn't been in the forefront of his mind when the notion occurred – she should always be…

Then relief. A tinge of relief because she wouldn't want to be. She wouldn't want him to live his life holding back and restricted from emotion that he was allowed to feel.

Ahn had always said that was his strongest point. His simple unaffected humanity.

That was probably why *they* had rooms. Why he was able to let *that* happen. He could, in all actuality, solely speak for himself when about a week after 'The Tent' his recollection added the capital letters to pay homage to it. Then some funky bassed out music and glittery lights…

Buffy would always kick him when he said that to her. Ask him if he was actually there at the time and if he remembered opening his eyes and seeing the silhouettes of four Potentials through the thin nylon wall of 'The Tent'. She certainly remembered the audience that they seemed to had drawn…and all the snickers that ensued during.

The morning after, Xander had crawled out of the flap, once again to 'Pee on the ground' (Buffy had a very eloquent way with words) only to find the same familiar scenery that had been staple every other day. All of the Desert Dwellers milling around a brand new fire and offering the same cup of fresh brewed coffee that they always did. Buffy had peed on the ground that morning, too…the first time actually, since other mornings – before… - she ended up doing a funny looking bouncy jog back to the lobby whatever motel they were at. But that morning she had finished her business and joined him at the fire to engage in the customary conversation with her travel-mates…and nobody said anything.

It was oddly comforting for them. Individually and together. Somewhere in the far off recesses of their minds they recognized that Sunnydale wouldn't have afforded, well, any of it. The reaction. The lack thereof. Them.

To the small group of girls and women that they were surrounded by that first morning, it had been like a sitcom. A funny little flittering of time that made a good distraction for the chaos going on around them all. After, they seemed to have forgotten, if they even really cared in the first place, and had moved on…and nobody had gotten hurt.

For the first time in a long time things seemed…simple…free.

Normal. Buffy had looked awed at the concept when she appeared unexpectedly at his tent the following night. When the actuality hit her. Xander remembered just basking in the innocence of her expression when she had whispered it to him.

"I hope you realize that while you're having a pillow fight with Wills, I'll probably be researching," he informed her while she rolled her eyes. Buffy shifted so that she ended up laying on her back and looking up at him upside-down while he haphazardly tossed things into his bag.

She plucked one of the brushes out that had landed amidst a ball of boxer shorts and frowned. "When you're right, you're right." Her eyebrow arched teasingly at him. "And this is mine." Buffy folded her arms under her head, reclaimed brush still in hand, and shut her eyes.

He glanced at her while tossing some pants onto the bed. Her brow furrowed with her eyes still closed and the occasional frown would form on her lips.

"What?" he questioned, still moving, and used her inattention to snatch back the brush from her hand. Her pout behind closed eyes went ignored and he tossed it back onto the pile of clothes in his bag.

Her eyes never opened and neither said anything else for a moment. "Can I ask you something?" her voice sounded unsure and soft and he had no idea why. Buffy sometimes now, more than he had even noticed in the past, would have these brief moments of…vulnerability? Self-consciousness? Doubt? They would surface suck in a gulp of air and then disappear into an ether like she had realized what she had done – had shown – and beat it back down in a matter of seconds.

He had come to notice that that was who she was. A quality she had that he loathed because it disowned her best quality, too. The same one Anya had attributed to him – her humanity.

"Don't double entendre it up…"

Smothered the thing she strived for most with a deep breath and set jaw.

And he did the same. Some things, still, that he wanted to say – that he should be able to; probably could, even – he set his jaw and swallowed it down. He grabbed up his bag and tossed it to the floor again. The bed compressed with the weight of him sitting down when he replaced the spot it had occupied by her head. He reclined back down opposite her when he noticed that her eyes hadn't opened in spite of the movement.

His head was resting near her calf and he hesitated only briefly before lifting his left hand and letting it fall lightly on her thigh. He only got through one squeeze, meant to be reassuring, before she spoke again.

Voice barely above a whisper. "How?"

Xander paused. "Quantum Physics?...is that the answer?"

"Are you so good?" Buffy ignored and evened her voice. "You…you love…"

Another component of her trait…Something else he wanted desperately to tell her to just stop. Just get up from her pity party table of one… "You're good, too, Buf." Instead he squeezed her leg again. "I've covered that already. You love."

"How?"

Honestly, Xander didn't have that answer. Not even when he asked the same thing of himself. "Practice." He gave it pause. "I guess. Practice."

"By yourself?"

He heard her smirk in her tone. "Not fair." The bed creaked and he heard her chuckle through her shrug, "Y'know…if you wanna sometimes…practice…with the love by yourself, ever. I can supervise." Her bark of actual laughter comforted him even more when she didn't even swat at him.

"Can I tell you something?" Spoken in the same tone in which her original question was posed.

"Can I entendre?"

He sounded innocently hopeful and she heard his pout when she grunted out 'nun-uh'. "Betty Louise says thank you." Buffy drew in a deep breath. Even though he wasn't looking at her face, just from the sound of her inhale, it was as if she was desperate to get this out. Held it in for too long, almost. "She says that you have a good heart. She loves your heart."

Betty Louise. Still. The lingering desire to be somebody else to justify anything. But it was something. A feeling allowed to be felt. That she felt enough to not be able to keep it in. The attempt she was making was enough to make his throat go slightly dry and he felt his fingers flex against her thigh again. "She doesn't want to eat it, does she?" The 16 year old that he always tried to chastise made his voice crack. "…'ssjust this is the point where girls pull that out of left field on me." He got no response safe her even breathing.

The damsel.

In danger because now she had let her self be open. When she was in danger, he had to protect her.

A trait of his that he loathed. Dawn had been right – Buffy hadn't been in danger from anything that she hadn't provoked, and therefore, he could protect her from, in a long time. Still, the lingering desire – the need – to try...the inability to hold it in…

"She's got a good one, too, y'know. A good heart." He cleared his throat to steel his voice. "Personally, I think she learned it from Buffy, though. Good teacher, that one."

He had a promise that he made to himself. The bed creaked again when Buffy sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. He opened his eye to find her peering at him intently. An oath, he elaborated when her eyes beckoned him to continue. "You're going to be happy." He told her. Took in her blush before sighing and shutting his eyes. His arms folded under his head. "Before you leave…we leave…you're going to be happy."

Five days, Buffy readily reminded him. Xander's eyebrows just rose momentarily and he nodded. Her doubt based on time and not his ability to follow through. He didn't add that the original oath hadn't been to her. Dawn had made him promise that Buffy wouldn't turn up in Milan all lame and sad. Said that Downer-Buffy had been almost too much to deal with the last few days, and that he was like Downer-Buffy's Lithium. It was going to be up to him to make sure that her prescription was filled before take off.

Pep talks and double meanings. When his raised eyebrow seemed to be a prelude to question little Dawnie was quick to elaborate. He made her sister happy. She could tell…trace a difference and pinpoint a change and loved that for her sister. She had smiled at his appreciative grin when his head bowed…He would always try to be that for any of them. Then swallowed his subtle shock when he was punched in the bicep for the sentiment. She pointed out to him, with an honest smile, that his constant humility didn't help his super lameness, either.

But Dawn wasn't through with that. Told him something else that she had learned after 17 years with the woman in question. Buffy seemed to crave secrets. Thrive off of things that she couldn't tell anybody and use it as her purpose. Having a purpose made her sister happy. Content.

Again a question. Dawn's response was a raised eyebrow of her own in a silent dare for him to refute it. Don't let yourself be kept a secret. Told him that if he did, he'd be letting her think that living one makes her who she is. He'd be letting her hurt him and, even worse, he'd be hurting her. She had added that last part with a cocky grin at her own perception. Unexpectedly profound in its sense and simplicity, the advice Dawn gave him before tossing him a warm smile and heading back to the bus for bed. That, and, if he let her down she was not above committing sister and Xander-cides.

When he had called out after her that he was pretty sure that those weren't words he learned that Dawn had inherited her big sisters frightening growl, and may even execute it more efficiently.

They'd still been sitting there when Willow finally arrived. He, reclined back on the mattress with his arms folded under his head and Buffy sitting with her knees hugged to her chest, her chin resting on her forearms. A comfortable silence that they had gotten used to. More normal.

Willow's light tap on the door before shouldering it open didn't even give them pause. When she looked at them, an air of confusion briefly clouding her eyes at the scene she had entered, and asked what they were doing, even then, the answer had been simple.

Talking.

About? The next staple was pressed as Willow moved to the other double bed with her two bags and dropped them to the floor before taking a seat.

Xander had sensed the change in tone in the room and offered "Buf practicing loving herself." The Slayer kicked him harder than it looked like in the ribs. "I think she should let me watch." Willow was perched four feet away, but had a surprisingly good arm with a pillow it seemed when one hit him in the face. When he opened his eye, he noticed that they were both wearing a semblance of a grin again, so, again, it'd been worth it.

He also noticed that Buffy hadn't moved from her position next to him. And Willow seemed to have forgotten whatever it was about he and Buffy's proximity that had piqued her in the first place. When there were more of them, it was simpler, he guessed. When everybody traveling was a stranger…one of the reasons why the desert had been so easy. Why Sunnydale had been so different.

A part of him was glad that that was over. Felt that maybe something there about him was being held back and now it didn't have to be anymore. When he would think about it, he felt like he was reminding himself how he was expected to be. A part of him hated that he couldn't say that right now because 'Xander' wasn't supposed to. A part of him wondered if they all felt the same way he did. In his play again – all of them in their own - …a character.

"So," Xander felt himself making the proposal before he knew his mouth was moving. Doing what 'Xander' was supposed to do. "Pay-per Scooby View Movie Night?" He appreciated Willow's over enthusiastic nod and the beaming grin that she probably was unaware had slipped out. Buffy had watched Willow's expression light up and it brooked her own.

"For old time's sake," she agreed with a nod of absoluteness. "We'll watch things that are on way past our bedtime that our parents wouldn't have approved of."

Her quick smirk at Xander preceded Buffy's flush - a deep red that he was impressed his best friend was able to provoke in the stalwart Slayer - when Willow asked if she were referencing the aforementioned 'practice'. Willow found out the hard way that Buffy was better with a pillow than she had thought or even remembered.

~*~

Pizza and brief lighthearted disputes over which one of them got to pick what films would be viewed. Channeling the life that was buried in the rubble of their old town. Giles opting for documentaries about the environment and healthcare, Willow wanting (to Xander's welcome surprise) comedy, he had picked horror…

They had ended up watching some kind of sappy romantic thing with Kate Hudson because Buffy was still the most stubborn about getting her way over the little things. Buffy, no matter how many arguments she engaged in with Giles…no matter how many of them she may even have started, and the rest that she was always willing to finish - could still sway some of his opinions with a well timed pout.

Xander was a victim of the same curse…Fated since that day in September so long ago.

They had watched some Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn flick after. Buffy and Willow's, Dawn before she had left; their votes, he had learned a long time ago, vastly outweighed proposals made by anybody in the group with a Y chromosome.

Laughing with all of them again was a memory that Xander hoped would outlast the darkness of their recent pasts. He hoped that one day he'd look back at his life and only evoke memories like these new ones that they were creating. Ones where he'd recall without a shadow of a doubt that these people were his best friends and know why he had picked them and they had picked him… know that they were his family and always would be. He tried not to dwell on the one other person who he sometimes wished more than anything was still there to share these types of things with him.

He still spent a lot of time trying not to dwell…not to feel guilt when that emotion was always so close to the surface for so many different reasons. Normal reasons. Overcomplicated reactions.

When they had been watching the movie, he had devoted himself to embossing the moment in his mind. Trying to engrain it and he had zoned out; the grin that had spread over his face had drawn Buffy's attention before he realized that he was even wearing it. Her face remained a neutral mask while she silently watched him. She'd've been adamant, right then, that he not do what he was doing, Xander was sure. Things in his mind sometimes lent to the over-complication. She always just told him to stop doing that.

He always just looked back at her and reminded what they both knew. Had experienced in the past and were exercising in the present. Just stopping is easier to talk about then to accomplish. Like taking a deep gulp of whiskey, that always provoked the same reaction in her. Repetitive and predictable, two things he had never applied to Buffy until recently. She would always frown.

Xander, for her benefit alone, shook himself from his reverie then and accepted her subtle satisfied nod when she recognized his refocused attention to the television screen. He had been surprised briefly that he had felt her gaze on him at all in the first place. That he would feel the urge and need to forgo his own emotions because he didn't want her to worry about him when she shouldn't; when Buffy started to come before himself again…he wasn't able to pinpoint when that had started again, but was fairly certain that it would be something else that he wouldn't be able to appease her by 'just stopping'.

Then there was the surprise over the fact that she read him at all – that she saw what nobody else, not even Willow, saw in him. That had lasted slightly longer than his reaction to his personal revelation.

Buffy wouldn't have before. Perceptive in a different way than Sunnydale. Revealing more and more everyday what must have always been buried under her surface. Altered and polar, but still in the same packaging. Xander promised himself that he would remember to tell her that later. Tell her when they were alone again because she needed to know….would appreciate knowing.

Appreciative was another new thing that he applied to her now, as well. Still situationally, of course – dependant on the person and location. Some received it more often than others, but those who did reaped more frequently. Picking out the 'New Buffy', he had called her once, was easier for Xander than finding the newness in himself. He liked it more, he admitted, than thinking about himself.

Since then, 'New Buffy' had self appointed herself a new role…one she admitted to counter his own self-depreciation, was better than her other pre-destined one. 'Less fangs and goo?' he had tried to joke. A week later he had still been wearing the bruise that had formed when he had been pinched for the effort. He regretted that he couldn't be afforded the same method of retaliation when she had shot out a pithy counter negating him about the goo.

Buffy, now, was always readily available to be his personal reflecting surface. She always seemed happy to do that for him because, as she had whispered to him one night while they shared a seat in the back of the bus, he needed to know too. 'New Xander', she had added in a quietly reflective tone and he had been able to feel her accompanying grin more than see it through the darkness. The expression, which he had subconsciously memorized since, had felt warm when she did it… brushed the lips that bore it against his ear.

That movie night in Phoenix would always be too short in his mind. Part of him would have drawn it out forever if he could…put it on loop and devote an eternity to appreciating each of their laughs and individual smiles. Expressions that none of them afforded themselves as frequently as before everything that had happened.

The fact that it had continued long after even Giles had given up trying to keep his eyes open, Xander knew, meant that they all wished the same thing. Even when the Watcher had left, the three of them…they yawned and pushed through…held on and savored the seconds.

Hours later, all the lights save the TV, had been turned out and laughter had ceased, replaced by the hum of the window-fitted air conditioner.

His eyes closed to the glow, Xander still lay awake and listened to the sounds of the room he hadn't left. The room Buffy had proposed that he stay in again. Their room. The sentiment had passed silently between them even as her statement resulted in Willow beaming again and proclaiming that the last 'Scooby Movie Night' should rightfully be a final 'Scooby Sleep Over'. Xander had loved Willow's sincere bright smile. He had loved Buffy's veiled recognition. Both equally, if he were to be completely honest, but for vastly dissimilar reasons. Buffy had slurred to him before (when he was trying to shrug off one of her recountings of Spike) that he was a bad lair…always be honest, she had made him promise and vowed to do the same.

On the other side of the room he concentrated on Willow's even breathing. Calm in the shadowy light that the moon was casting through the thin curtains. Once upon a time, he remembered laying in a sleeping bag on her floor and thinking that the sound was the most soothing thing in the world. He used to be able to fall asleep to that sound.

He probably still could – that mixed with the ever present exhaustion that would well up every time lights turned out now. But nothing would ever reduce the amount of comfort that the even inhales and exhales of his best friend gave him. Proof that he was safe…and that she was too. That they, at least, had made it.

'Twenty-four hours.' Willow had laughed once reflecting on the ease of any given day. She and Buffy had just started at UC Sunnydale. He had just started driving an ice-cream truck. He needed pep talks too…things said that Anya had still been trying to grasp at the time. 'Easy.' He remembered her sliding her hand through the air smoothly. When he had been suitably reassured he had called her Fonzy and hugged her as tight as he could.

He kept trying to apply her old philosophy. The rest of the hours just kept getting to him sometimes, he guessed.

The time, that night, had been like what they had made it from. The waning dusk of another smooth twenty-four. Like when they were younger. Familiar and safe. Something that he feared that if he fell asleep would disappear by morning.

Now, he basked in the memory where, if he shut his eyes, he could almost be able to recall the plush feel of the fresh comforter that Willow's mom would always make sure he had, or the airy sweet scent that always permeated Buffy's room.

Only difference now was that no parents had popped their heads in to wish them good night…told them not to stay up too late…bought up more snacks. The difference between the soft expensive carpet that had covered the floors before and the thin cheap fabric that smelled slightly mildewy now. Even the fact that Giles had excused himself two hours prior to get some sleep in the second room down the hall (Xander was fairly certain that, regardless of Slayerness or circumstances, neither Buffy's nor Willow's parents would have been keen on his hanging out in their rooms back in high school.)

Xander thought it was odd that something could be so far removed from something so comforting, and yet, still stir the feeling of it. He had the far off thought that if he put himself in situations that would evoke those memories then they would be engrained…never fade…when he would close his eyes he'd always be back to then.

Now, like he had before, he lay on the floor while the two girls took the beds. Even that reminded him of when Buffy and Willow would, in all complete innocence, be sharing the mattress. Innocence had very little to do with his overactive teenage imagination at the time though. Xander smiled to himself in the dark and let his mind wander back to those brief glimpses. Like old times.

That was a smaller part of the reason that when Giles had questioned if he was going to head back down to the other room with him, he had declined. Said that they were going to watch one more film. If it bothered Giles, he had hidden it well. Xander had felt a little bad that he was letting him go alone, if not simply for the fact that it seemed to only reinforce the divide.

Buffy even offered, somewhat half-heartedly in tone, that he could stay too. Xander had appreciated her attempt, even if it was transparent…even if Giles must have read it as such by his demure decline of the offer. The Watcher had simply asked Xander if he had his key before departing.

Xander had known that the simple acceptance reflected what Giles already knew…the divide – the one that had began as 'Adults vs. Children' and had, over time, morphed into something much more obscure. Xander wouldn't be back to the room, but he nodded anyway.

Part of him now wondered why he was so willing to forgo, even, a worn out mattress as opposed to the rough carpet over cement that he was resting on currently. A larger part of him knew.

He thought it odd that so many of his own reflections he knew he could discern in Buffy now. The comfort. The need for a home that wasn't anymore. He couldn't even fault her, because he knew he did the same thing…had picked her to show him the past that he wished he loved more at the time.

She was comforting to him…and he was to her. She had been there and so had he.

Part of him knew that the first time…the beginning of their mutual usury, had been the result of him simply being male and sitting next to her. She had laughed at him when he voiced the notion – 'Mutual usury?', she had arched an eyebrow and let whatever reaction she had to his terminology go unspoken and fade away. Xander, for his part, kept babbling…talking…not really knowing, but everything was falling out of his mouth in an insecure rush, he was certain. He knew that Giles was completely ruled out. He was the only other guy.

When she had responded it hadn't been very elaborate, but it was semi-sincere. There were 'guys' everywhere. The tension then had broken him and he, out of reflex, tried to alleviate it – asked if he was special. It didn't work…the feeling that the nature of the conversation they were having then was causing; it didn't dissipate. 'You're Xander', she had responded simply…said it with an air of wistfulness. He read it in her eyes and reflected it back 'You're home'.

Funny that the last part happened completely without vocalization. Mutual understanding to compliment their mutual usury.

'My blanket', he had murmured to her one evening. He wished that he couldn't remember because it sounded so lame in his mind now, but it was what it was. He had said it and Buffy had heard him. Buffy hadn't pushed him away – hadn't acknowledged it then or since, but he remembered her not pushing him away that night.

That's why he was opting for a floor. It came back to that need for home…the fucked up normal that they both – all – missed.

Sandwiched between a drippy air conditioner beneath a drafty window covered by a cheap polyester sheet, Xander was reminded of home. His new home, a semblance of what that could or should be, he corrected when the lone hand dropped discretely over the edge of the mattress above.

There were a lot of secrets back then, too. Secrets and angst and drama that at least one other was bound to know about, but never outted. Xander wondered if the same flash of loneliness that he felt at the sight of Buffy's hand extending off the side of the bed was born from the same place inside as Giles'…if he felt, on some level, the way Giles had earlier before he made his way down that empty hallway that evening.

Lost in some abstract and foreign way and wondered…knew that Buffy missed the fact that the one other, the one who always ended up knowing, had left that afternoon. Her sister, he was confident of deep down, was right, even though Buffy would probably never admit it fully…she got off on having a secret – secrets – that were sometimes very much the opposite of that.

He had rolled to his side and folded his arm under his head when he noticed her hand. He studied the pale skin in the flickering lights cast by the television that they had subconsciously refused to turn off. He waited a breath with the full knowledge of that the impassive gesture was; the reason she had suggested the movie night not end, the reason they had their room…the comfort they took and craved and used to last until tomorrow. Still, he smiled when her head appeared just above the appendage. He kept the expression when he saw her match him softly.

He reached up to her hand and pressed their fingertips together, smiling at her as if anything was said the spell might be broken. A shared sentiment, as Buffy let him spread out his palm to the point where her smaller hand lost contact with his fingers and fell into the spaces between.

Just simply touching…connecting. Xander had the far off notion if Buffy knew that often times her actions would coincide with things he was thinking about. Wondered if his actions sometimes were reactions of her emotions too. Lonely…and then a hand reached out of nowhere from the one person he expected it from. Hoped she expected it from, too. That he grounded her the way she rooted him.

He watched her study their joined appendages and pull the corner of her lower lip between her teeth. Still silent in the flashing blue hues. When his grip squeezed slightly he drew her attention back to his face sharing another grin before she extracted her hand from his own.

If it hadn't been like it was for them, he'd have been nervous. He had reacted that way in the past…been unsure. Around her and in general let his confidence waiver; he knew that he had used it to scare himself away from situations like the ones he encountered now. It was odd to him that once they had left Sunnydale, he noticed Buffy did the same thing. Wondered if it took leaving to help the Slayer learn to be Buffy…wondered if it took leaving for him to dedicate enough of himself to notice that about her.

There used to be so many things…things about their life before that kept them all apart. Lead completely separate lives within each others strata.

Buffy sat up on her mattress and Xander watched her glance over to Willow's neighboring bed before turning back to the television. She stared at the screen for a moment longer and then climbed over the side opposite him. The soft footfalls crossing the room belayed their unspoken agreement.

The implicit reason that Dawn claimed Buffy was using as 'her purpose'. That Xander was using to hurt himself and her. That he would always pick the floor beside her over a room down the hall.

He listened to the sound shuffling over the threadbare carpet and her duel acceptance of what they both knew. Finally accepting comfort and allowing herself to revel in the feeling of home. Allowing somebody to try to make her feel safe…loved – even if that somebody wasn't even positive that they could offer that to any other because they didn't know how and never really had. Because the somebody was using her for the same assurance.

The bright light only spilled from the bathroom for a moment before Buffy pushed it closed. Xander rolled onto his back when he heard the soft click it made.

Everything about the desert had been easy…easier than this…than now. The longer it lasted…they stayed, the more over-complicated it became, he knew. And it wasn't even necessarily him. He was positive that she allowed herself to slip in a mirroring fashion. She had to, and he knew because he had caught it in her eyes, too. It wasn't her, though, either. It wasn't totally them or fault or blame.

What they were – he and Buffy – it was still simple. Still the tent and the bus and diners and everything in between. Everything before this and since. It was still them passing a bottle of whiskey in a paper bag back and forth.

It was always things about Sunnydale…things that they still, inexplicably, fought to preserve, that made it difficult. Hard.

Them passing back and forth between *needing* it not to end and, simply, just never *wanting* it to end.

Xander groaned quietly when he pushed himself up from his makeshift bed, and kicked his legs free of the blanket. A quick glance cast towards where Willow was still resting in the twin bed that was opposite Buffy's before heading towards his duffle bag.

A large part of him longed for the past, even while recognizing it for what it was. That much was sure of his life now. He had spent so much time into making it that. And sometimes larger part of him wanted…wanted …warmth and comfort and the feel of Willow's mothers freshly washed comforters and the scent of Buffy's room.

He dug out the small foil packet that he knew was in his khaki pants pocket. Neither of them had ever discussed the purchase after the first time. The first box had just been included in a jumble of other 7-11 purchases they had made one night. Sodas and chips, other odds and ends he and Buffy had been assigned to get, and he had just tossed them onto the counter. Xander had guessed that she shared the sentiment right then that protection couldn't always be just praying to every god they knew of that the repercussion level would eternally be set to null.

He had been mildly surprised when they had run out and bought the second box on a completely dedicated mission to do so. Would have never guessed that Buffy would have suggested one with a larger quantity on that repeat voyage. Filed the pat on the back that the 'New Xander' she had let him meet gave himself that night in the 'Don't Talk About' folder.

He bit his lip, folded his fingers over the packet and followed Buffy's path towards the bathroom. His eye only squinted briefly when the light inside the small tiled room illuminated the space around him before he let himself in and softly pushed the barrier closed.

~*~

Willow, for her part, let herself stay silent. Even if she had wanted to speak when she had heard Buffy sit up in her bed. She had wanted, then, to ask if it was a second wind. One more movie, maybe…hopefully, even. She couldn't remember the last time she had hoped for something…anything…

She never got the chance to let the notion form itself before her once and again roommate climbed out and padded to the bathroom. Bit her tongue when she had caught the yellow glow from the that lit the room briefly…and held her breath when she had heard Xander, her best friend – their best friend - follow the Slayer's path.

A thump against the door that had closed behind them made her heart clench for a split second. The muffled whine that followed made her gulp and she tried not to focus on the deeper tenored snuffled groan that happened after.

The sounds, the ones she had discerned and recognized for what they were, muted slightly when one of them had turned on the sink faucet. The coinciding high-pitched whines masked further when the shower spigot was put into use.

A husky whisper and another deep groan and a louder thump…rapid succession…and Willow kept her peace. Closed her eyes and willed herself to be like the new people that they all were, or needed to be.

Laying in the bright blue light from the TV for countless minutes before the sounds stopped. Before the water turned off, the toilet flushed and the bathroom door opened again. She kept her eyes closed to the sound of two pairs of footsteps padding back across the room to their respective sleeping spaces. Buffy on the other twin bed and Xander on the floor at the opposite side under the window.

"Night guys." She almost was successful at not letting her voice crack when she had decided to finally speak. Not born of emotion, but the simple fact that she hadn't spoken in a while…she was apparently, after all, not supposed to be awake.

Emotion would have been Sunnydale Willow. Willow in the past tense. Now, there was just acknowledgment. Shock would have been her friends back in Sunnydale, too. Even a surprised intake of breath. Buffy and Xander, it seemed, in the past tense.

"Night Willow." Buffy beckoned from her bed and Xander finally flicked off the television.

The last noise in the room after it was cast in to darkness was the subtle creak if Buffy's mattress when Xander crawled into the space with her. She knew that sound, as well. And Willow, without another word, let herself drift off into her usual dreamless sleep.

~*~

She always woke up early now. Earlier than the rest of them if she had even ever went to bed to begin with. He knew last night that she had. He recalled the soft snoring that had roused him from his own slumber and the welcome shock that followed when he lifted his head to glance over Buffy and had seen the relaxed facial features of his best friend across the room.

Drew a strong sense of comfort that she was able to rest, if even for a few short hours.

When Xander had woken in the morning, though, Willow wasn't in the other bed anymore. Buffy was still resting, her back to him, on the other side of theirs. His friend had been quiet that morning and he felt a brief flash of worry behind the reasoning of that.

The sole clue that he had that possibly nothing was wrong was that Willow's bags were organized neatly on the foot of her bed…the bed that she had made before departing, he smiled to himself when he noticed that next.

Xander remembered when they were kids and he would sleep at her house, Willow would always make her bed every morning. She would always chastise him because, when she stayed at his, he would always just fan out the top blanket and leave the room. It made him smile that the trait still seemed to be preserved.

"I'll never get why she makes hotel room beds."

Buffy's groggy comment before she turned to face him made him smile again.

"She's Willow," Xander chuckled and shrugged. He watched her, gauging for any sign of a reaction, and picking up none. Buffy sat up with a yawn and glanced over at where he had lain back down against the pillows. He let his lips quirk slightly, "Coffee?"

Buffy nodded at him then as she stood up and stretched. "Last night…" Sounding unsure, at last she appeased him without realizing that he had been waiting. "Do you think Willow's mad?"

He shrugged again and sighed. Xander had been hoping that when she finally did acknowledge it, she would have discerned the answer. Had sifted the irrefutable and sure Slayer out of the heaps of Betty Louise and Buffy and been able to reveal it to him. "Would it matter if she were?" he posed the alternate question to Buffy and waited intently for her answer. Positive or negative…the truth.

She seemed to pause for a long moment, studying his face hard, as if the answer might be written there. Her face tensed until the sigh passed her lips and their corners turned up minutely. Maybe she found what she had been searching for. Buffy simply shook her head once. "Did it matter in the desert?" she asked him in a hushed tone next. She added next, still in a private whisper, "When your mental Studio 54 started?"

His own reminiscent gaze and negative head shake made her grin more prominent. It hadn't mattered then…it would have been what it was regardless. Just that realization made his heart beat faster for a moment. She had started telling the truth to him, long before she demanded the same from him. Her expression just then betrayed something that he didn't know if she had even admitted fully to herself. Guys were everywhere and he was Xander. Special.

'Strong'. She told him once even before 'The Tent'. Kept talking even when his chuckle had tried to refute the claim, and had offered earnestly, 'It takes a strong man to do what he'd done…does…for as long as he'd done it.' She had thanked him for that. He had thanked her even more deeply for saying it.

His promise to Betty Louise, Xander knew…the one he had made to himself and Dawn. The one to make her know and accept that Betty Louise Plotnick was really the 'New Buffy Anne Summers' he kept seeing peek out at him, kept telling her about…

That promise…

He'd kept it already. He knew because in the past, he knew, the numerous things that wouldn't have happened…that she wouldn't have accepted if they had. He knew because Buffy, for what might be the first time, didn't seem to be worried. She wasn't and it was honest and shone through her eyes with an unspoken revelation...that it was just another morning.

Another normal morning.


The End