"I'm gonna go home now," Willow announced, stretching from her position on Buffy's bed. "My mother might not be the most attentive of parents, but she goes on and on about teenage responsibility and the hyperbole of youth if I stay out too late, so..." She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, a parody of teenage exasperation, and Xander snickered appreciatively from his place. She looked at him expectantly. "Coming, Xan?"

"Maybe later," he mumbled, his eyes half-open and his hand permanently in a bag of chips.

"My mother's going to wig if she finds me in bed with a guy," Buffy said teasingly, and Willow let out a frustrated little groan and left, frowning back at the two of them. Xander frowned back. Willow had been less than present of late, too caught up in her new boyfriend and the responsibilities thrust upon her with the loss of Miss Calendar- don't think about Miss Calendar- and therefore a school computer teacher.

"Please. She knows by now that as far as you're concerned, I'm practically female," Xander grumbled.

Buffy squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry, Xan, your macho manliness is still safe. You've got a Cordelia as a beard, remember?" She considered, a smile twitching at the corners of her lips. "Well, unless you're a lesbian."

He scowled at her, but he couldn't quite suppress the smile blooming across his face.

She poked him. "What?"

He shrugged. "Nothing. Just..." He swallowed. "It's good to see you happy again."

Her face fell, just like he knew it would at the reminder of her unhappiness, and he mentally cursed Angel for stealing away his friend's vitality, for taking the animated girl and turning her into a damaged, weary warrior. Goddammit, he hated that vampire.

Angelus's insidious voice crept into his thoughts. "You still love her. It must just eat you up that I got there first."

No. He shook his head vigorously, trying to shove Angelus from his mind. Trying to stop the thoughts- bad thoughts, lies, trying to unnerve him- that returned again and again.

Then Buffy's voice cut into his turmoil, quiet and calm and infinitely sad. "He said something, didn't he."

"Buffy-"

"It's what he does." She moved to snuggle against his side, and he closed his eyes, trying to recall the careful-friend-mode he'd been on since Angelus had torn out Buffy's heart. Before, he'd thought…well, he didn't know what he'd thought. He'd known that Buffy had no interest in him beyond friendship, and he'd known that she loved Angel. And he'd let his feelings for her subside as much as they ever would, certain that some day, Angel would be gone. He'd never really considered how or the ramifications, but he'd known that Buffy would be hurt or angry. And hey, if that meant that she'd turn and realize that there had been someone there all along, someone who'd never hurt her like Angel did, someone manly and attractive and funny who she couldn't help but love? Well, so much the better.

But he'd given up on that dream the moment Angelus had emerged. Buffy didn't need a white knight to rescue her. She needed a friend who loved her, who'd support her and ask for nothing in return. And he was going to be that friend.

She must have realized it instinctively, because she never pushed him aside anymore, never rejected his efforts to help. And there had been more than a few nights spent lying in bed, wondering if he was fooling himself. Was he still painfully, one-sidedly in love with Buffy? Did he still want her? Was this all a selfish exercise in self-delusion?

"Xander." And there she was again, pulling him from roiling self-doubt with her fingers' gentle brush against his cheek. "He's trying to make you second-guess yourself. You can't let him-"

"He said I was in love with you," he blurted out, and snapped his mouth shut in horror an instant too late. The words were out, the nastiness implied in them tearing at him, straining the carefully sewn seams with which he'd woven their relationship.

He thought she'd comfort away those words, or perhaps make an excuse and leave- the Buffy he knew could never stand that kind of tension- and she stunned him to silence when she sat up, looked him up and down, and said, "Are you?"

"Buffy!" His voice was high with indignant humiliation and he sat up too, noticing with discomfort that he was only inches from her. "You said it yourself. Angelus, he tries to rile us up, make us think-"

He stopped short when Buffy put a hand down on his other side, pulling herself closer to him. "Are you in love with me?" she whispered, and with her eyes so close, he saw the desperation in them, the strange spark of hope he'd ignited with his admission.

He stared at her, uncomprehending at first. "Am I...do I love you?" he repeated dumbly. Why was she doing this, putting him in this situation? What was she going for? Shaming him? Revenge for what Angelus had said? The destruction of their friendship?

"Love me?" she echoed, and he understood at last, saw the neediness in her eyes. He opened his mouth to assure her somehow that she was lovable, that she was perfect and the problem was with Angelus alone-

"Buffy," he breathed, and she kissed him.

Her lips were a whisper against his own, the barest shadow of what might have been, but it slowly built, getting harder and more desperate until their lips were locked and their tongues entwined and Buffy was pushing him down again, onto her bed, devouring him in ways he'd scarcely dreamed of.

Gone were delusions of a soft and gentle romance. Buffy was raw and animalistic, the girl kept in check and surpassed by the vicious slayer, bent on Xander and Xander alone.

But then she pulled away for a moment, gasping for breath, and Xander's breath hitched at the look on her face. Unrestrained grief. Need. Fury. They were painted across her gaze, and he saw as he held it no sign of desire or affection.

This wasn't his Buffy, the one he'd imagined late at night when no one else could know.

No, his Buffy didn't exist anymore- if she ever had to begin with.

She dove down at him again, but he rolled over neatly, dodging her attack and backing against the headboard. "Buffy..." he whispered.

She moved toward him again, her forehead furrowing adorably. "Yeah?" Her lips neared, but he held her back, a hand pressed outward defensively.

"This isn't a good idea."

She stared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?" Her eyes were narrowed, her chest still heaving and her lips swollen from their kisses. "You don't want this?"

He was reminded suddenly of love spell-Buffy, promising him all he'd ever wanted on a silver platter. She hadn't really wanted it then, and now... "No," he lied. "I don't."

"Liar!" she raged, moving too quickly for him to pull away immediately, her lips harsh and furious against his. He tried to push her off of him and she changed tactics, striking at him with clenched fists. "You don't walk away from me!" she snapped, landing a blow on his gut that made him see stars and writhe in pain. "You loved me! You loved-"

He ducked her next blow and climbed off the bed, but she didn't seem to notice, beating her fists against the pillow he'd been sitting on before. "You were supposed to love me forever!" she cried out.

He circled the bed to climb up behind her, sliding his arms around her waist. "You were..." she whispered, slumping in his arms. "You-"

And then she broke down, tears pouring from her eyes and strangled cries from her throat, curled up against him and her hands fisted in her blanket as she wept. He held her silently, letting her sob out her pain, frustration, and emptiness, the terror and grief of the past few months. They swayed together, a tableau of compassion and despair, and Xander thought at last that he had found his purpose when it came to Buffy.

When she finally relaxed, carefully disengaging herself from his embrace, he kissed the top of her head and stood. "I guess...I should go," he murmured, backing away awkwardly and grabbing his coat.

Buffy turned her tearstained face away from him and he sighed, wondering if this had changed things irrevocably. You pulled away, he reminded himself. If nothing else, Buffy will remember that.

He was nearly at the door when she spoke, her voice heartrendingly lost. "Xander, why?"

He didn't turn back. He didn't think he needed to turn back ever again. "Because I love you."