Summary: Xander encounters Buffy in the aftermath of "Smashed." Follow-up story to "Accept No Substitutes."

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

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Several hours after the end of "Smashed": slightly different sequence of events thereafter. (spoiler warning!)

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


Buffy's eyes snapped open, and she took a moment to remember where she was: when she did, a shock of revulsion went through her body that almost sent her into dry heaves. She risked a glance to her right: whoever coined the expression "sleep of the dead" clearly had Spike or someone like him in mind. He was completely still, without even the limited sounds of heavy breathing that would have come from a human male in his situation. Buffy watched him for a long moment, until a pang of renewed desire caused her to shiver in near panic. She carefully gathered her clothing and located an exit to the abandoned building. She dressed quickly in an alley behind the building, then quietly slunk off, trying to remember the quickest route home. This could all just be a bad dream, if she could just-


The Slayer froze, and the near panic returned for a moment, until she realized that the voice was not Spike's. She turned around, and Xander was standing there, his expression looking grim, but calm. Buffy was silent for a moment before she composed herself and called out, "Hey, Xander. . .did something happen? I was just heading home, but if we need to-"

"Buffy. . .I know." Xander interrupted her, his voice as calm and determined as his expression, and he saw Buffy flinch as he added, "I decided to tag along on your patrol, so I had Anya drive home and I grabbed some weapons from the Magic Box before I headed after you. . .just in time to hear Spike talking to you."

Buffy paled, and she looked down at the ground as Xander continued, "I saw him hit you, and saw that it didn't hurt him. I broke out the crossbow and was looking for a clean shot when I realized that neither of you was really fighting all out. . .I've seen you two fighting to the death before, and this wasn't it. Then after you two. . .stopped fighting, I noticed that he had plenty of chances to bite you: he didn't."

Buffy looked back up, and her expression was appalled as she whispered, "You were there for all of it?"

"I wasn't watching after you guys crashed through the floor, if that's what you mean." Xander's expression twisted, looking intensely uncomfortable, before he continued, "I stayed in earshot, though. . .if I had heard anything that made me think he was really trying to kill you, I would have come down and shot him."

Buffy shuddered, and she looked down again, a tear falling free and falling to the ground as she replied, "Maybe Spike's not the one you should be thinking about shooting, Xander." She shook her head and started circling Xander, a note of hysteria entering her voice as she added, "Maybe you were right all along, Xander. . .a guy's got to be undead to make time with this girl."

Xander swallowed hard, then responded quietly, "Buffy, don't do this."

"Don't do what? Tell the truth?" Buffy stopped in her tracks, and her voice was a barely restrained snarl as she added, "I'm boinking the evil dead, Xander. . .not even a soul to point to this time as an excuse. Those times when you were pissed off beyond belief at me for taking stupid chances because I couldn't keep my hands off of Angel? You were right, and it's even worse now. Time for you to say, 'I told you so.'"

Xander was silent, and Buffy waited a moment before looking up and seeing that Xander was still quietly watching her, tears running down his own cheeks. The Slayer felt a twinge of guilt, then felt something snap within her, and she turned away from him again before lashing out, "Am I still your hero, Xander? Still wondering why I 'just don't think of you that way'? It's pretty damned obvious, isn't it? You're not screwed up enough for me to fall for, Xander. . . and I'm too screwed up even for your White Knight routine. . .I just couldn't admit it before now."

Buffy felt Xander approaching, and whirled to continue hurling invective at him. This plan was disrupted rather thoroughly when Xander stepped next to Buffy, put his arms around her, and leaned down to kiss her. The Slayer was stunned by her friend's sudden action, and made no move to stop him. There was no violence in his manner, and little passion, though Buffy could feel Xander trembling slightly as he held her. His manner was tender and affectionate, with just a tantalizing hint of desire in the way his lips brushed hers for a final moment before he pulled away and looked at her with sad eyes. Buffy blinked, then whispered, "What are you doing?"

"Proving you wrong." Xander's tone was matter-of-fact as he watched Buffy's face twist in confusion. He shook his head and continued, "Buffy. . .I'm screwed up in ways that Spike and DeadBoy couldn't even imagine, much less Riley. I've managed to hurt everyone I truly love by being clueless, insensitive, and just plain nasty. . .but, I love you, Buffy: I always have. If the only way for me to prove to you how amazing you are is for me to walk away from Anya, then I'll do it. . .there are a lot worse things in life than being at your side forever, believe me."

Buffy stepped back and stared at Xander silently for several seconds before whispering, "You're not serious. . .you're just trying to stop me from babbling. You love Anya: you'd never walk away from her like that."

Xander sighed, then looked away from Buffy before replying, "You're right. . .I do love her, more than I ever thought I could love anyone. I've watched the last three years as she changed from an annoying, dangerous pain in the ass to a truly amazing person, Buffy. I wake up every morning and thank whatever benevolent force in the universe sent her my way. I can't imagine my life any more without her in it. . .but I love you too, Buffy, and I can't stand to see you like this. Anya's strong, and a hell of a catch: give her a few months, and she'll find someone that'll make her forget that I ever existed, and she'll live happily ever after. . . maybe she'll even leave this damned place." He turned back to Buffy, and dropped to his knees in front of her as he concluded, "And I'll be with my hero, doing my damnedest to convince her of how wonderful she is, and that she deserves to be happy. . .it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it."

Buffy looked into Xander's eyes, and searched them for signs of deception, but the young man's gaze did not waver, and she saw no sign of hesitation there. She swallowed hard, then shook her head at him and replied, "Xander, you can't be serious. . .have you given any thought to what this would mean to your life?"

Xander shrugged, and responded, "I've been thinking about my future a lot, Buffy. . .a little luxury that I've kind of started to appreciate. I'll just have to change a few details, that's all. With Anya doing so well, I was thinking that maybe we'd start looking around for a house to buy soon. . .you have a house already, and I can make the mortgage payments with a bit of careful budgeting. In a few years, maybe we can think of adding on: knowing people in the business is good for getting these things done cheaply. Having kids right away probably wouldn't be the greatest idea in the world money-wise, but I'm sure we can-" Xander paused, seeing that Buffy had buried her face in her hands, her body shaking. He stood and walked over to Buffy, placing a hand on her shoulder as he whispered gently, "Hey, I'm sorry. . .I didn't mean to-"

Buffy looked up at him, and while her eyes were shining with tears, the look she gave him was an odd mixture of affection and exasperation. She met Xander's eyes, sighed, and asked bluntly: "Xander, you knew that I was going to say no, didn't you?"

Xander blinked, then shrugged and replied, "I was pretty sure. . .after all, an offer from someone to spend the rest of your life with him isn't going to be the greatest thing in the world coming from someone you 'just don't feel that way about.'"

Buffy sighed again, then took one step forward and pulled Xander down into a hard kiss, which was not platonic in the least. Buffy held the kiss for twenty seconds, then stepped back and observed that Xander seemed to be catatonic. She cleared her throat theatrically, and Xander shook his head and exhaled sharply before commenting, "I think I was about to say something clever, but I can't seem to remember it right now. . .can you give me a little help, Buffy?"

Buffy smiled at him, then asked again in precisely the same tone as before: "I asked, 'Xander, you knew I was going to say no, didn't you?', and you said something that wasn't true. . .and I made sure you knew that it wasn't. Now, how about an honest answer, Xander?"

Xander stared at her and shook his head in bewilderment before sitting on the ground. Buffy sat next to him and waited for a moment as Xander took a couple of deep breaths, then responded, "I had a pretty strong feeling you would say no, Buffy. . .you wouldn't do that to Anya, even if you really wanted to be with me. You care too much about us, even if you don't always make it obvious you feel that way." Buffy looked down, ashamed, and Xander reached out and squeezed her hand as he continued, "Buffy. . .I don't understand what's going on with you and Spike, and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a little scared for you, but if this is what you want, I'll back you up. I won't let you hide it from the rest of us, though: you're still hurting, and if you're going to start dating the semi-reformed dead, you're going to do it with the rest of us making sure that he's not messing with your head." Xander looked away for a moment, then concluded, "Buffy. . .we messed up by bringing you back, and the thing that makes me feel the most guilty is that I just can't feel sorry for it. I am so glad to have you back that it's hard for me to feel much else right now, and to keep that feeling I'm willing to do just about anything to make your life more pleasant, including putting up with you doing unmentionable things with DeadBoy the Sequel."

Buffy chuckled at Xander's last comment, then glanced over at him with renewed life in her eyes as she asked playfully, "Xander. . .if I had said yes, you weren't really going to go through with it, were you?"

Xander blinked, and an indignant expression appeared on his face as he retorted, "Buffy, I love you, and if it had been the only way to make you happy, then I would have spent the rest of my life with you without an ounce of regret." Buffy continued to look at him with a skeptical expression, and Xander shuddered, then added, "Of course, that probably would have been all of two hours, since Anya WOULD have found out and killed me in a very slow and painful manner. . .and you probably would have had to get out of town too. Have you ever seen the books on the shelf at her apartment?"

Buffy shook her head, and Xander shuddered again and elaborated, "Good. . .less nightmares that way. Don't cross a vengeance demon. . .former or otherwise." He stood up and commented, "It's getting cold out here. . .let's stop back at the Magic Box and get cleaned up a bit, then we'll head back to your house and make sure Willow and Amy haven't turned it into a giant Habitrail."

Buffy nodded, and they had turned towards the Magic Box when Xander stopped and looked at Buffy with a perplexed expression. Buffy frowned and asked, "What is it, Xander?"

Xander frowned, then asked quietly, "I was just wondering. . .did you even consider saying yes?"

Buffy smiled, and replied, "Xander. . .it's probably not a good idea to dwell on this too much, but I will say this: don't ask me again unless you're really ready to hear me say yes." She glanced back at the shadows of the alley, then continued walking toward the Magic Box, with a visibly bemused Xander following behind. After a moment, a lighter flared, and Spike stepped out of the shadows, lighting the cigarette and taking a long drag from it before muttering, "Damn. . .that was one hell of a poker game."

"Yes, wasn't it?" Spike turned in surprise, and saw Anya walking over from a recessed doorway nearby. The former demon walked over to Spike, took in his surprised expression, and elaborated, "I followed him. . .I don't like him walking alone at night: he takes too many chances. I heard the whole thing: you were rather nasty to her, Spike."

Spike shrugged and replied, "What of it? She was giving as good as she got. . .and things got a bit more friendly there at the end." He met Anya's annoyed glare and added, "Not sure why you're pissed off. . .if I've got the Slayer occupied, you don't have to worry about her sniffing around Droopy Boy."

Anya's expression turned icy, and Spike recoiled at the malice in her eyes as she responded, "Spike, Xander and the others may be willing to keep you around if it helps Buffy, but if you hurt Buffy, you'll hurt Xander. . .and anyone who hurts Xander is going to have me to answer to. I've had female vampires as clients, Spike. . .I know ways to make you suffer that would make the Master break out into a cold sweat, if he was still around. Don't mess things up."

Spike shivered slightly, then nodded curtly before looking over at the direction that Buffy and Xander had departed and raised an eyebrow before asking, "So. . .are you going to let Xander know you just watched him offer to spend the rest of his life with another woman?"

Anya snickered, and replied, "What, and miss out on the guilt presents for the next few weeks? I love him, but I'm not stupid. I'll drop little hints here and there and watch him squirm. . .being human definitely has its compensations." She glared at Spike one more time, then headed off for her car.

Spike sighed and shook his head. Things were about to get interesting, and he was unsure as to whether that was a good thing, or the Hellmouth version of the old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times," which was more typical of life in Sunnydale. He headed back for his crypt: whatever was to follow, a good bit of rest would definitely make it more bearable.

As before, comments are welcome and desired.