Promises to Keep
A/N I wrote this a while ago and had honestly forgotten that it existed. I've cleaned it up and removed a huge bit of plot and edited the heck out of it and now I rather like the way it has turned out. As always, I have no proprietary claim on BTVS or the works of Robert Frost which have provided the title for this fic and for the chapters thereof.
PROMISES TO KEEP
Buffy Summers was happy; and anyone that had known her in the last few years knew that this was a big thing for her. It wasn’t the unexpected ‘I just won a billion dollars in the lottery’ kind of happy, nor was it the ‘my boyfriend has an eight inch prehensile tongue’ kind of happy; it was something that was simpler and at the same time rarer. Buffy woke up in a good mood, she went to a job that she enjoyed and worked with people that she liked and that liked her, she came home and spent time with her sister or went out on the town with her boyfriend and then went to bed in a good mood. Nowhere did she deal with Demons, the undead or the world ending. There were no spectacular highs and no crushing lows; in fact the lows were few and far between. I guess the best way to put it was that she was content with her life.
Arriving at this state had not been easy; it had cost her a lot, and was costing her to this day. Mostly it cost her her friends, other than Dawn the only people from her past that she regularly spoke to were Giles and Andrew. There was the occasional note from Willow and rarely a note from Xander and even these were brief and the language impersonal. Cutting herself off had also cost her the respect of her peers and to a degree, her self respect as well. Buffy had forced herself to ignore the two world ending situations that had occurred since the collapse of Sunnydale but she knew that it had been necessary.
If she had not gotten away from slaying and the supernatural then she would have gone insane or maybe more insane would be closer to the truth. Even now Buffy would admit that her first few weeks in Rome had been kind of touch and go. Dawn had been constantly worried that Buffy would try to commit suicide by monster in those early days. But two years later, that was past. Buffy had detoxed her life and found the person that she had been in high school. The person that could both slay and be happy; it had taken two years and a lot of introspection but she had done it.
In a weird way she thought that her job had been a big part of her recovery. Buffy Summers, High School Counselor; who would have guessed that. When she had arrived in Rome and enrolled Dawn in the English speaking school there, she had noticed the paper on the bulletin board advertising the position. On a whim she had applied, and with a little help from Willow, she was in. Connecting with teenagers, allowing their problems and worries to take her back to what she had felt and thought at the time; and helping them resolve their situations had enabled Buffy to deal with her situations as well. Slowly she had pulled herself out of the dark place she had been in until now, when she finally felt like Buffy again, when she finally felt like living in a slayers world again.
Actually she felt like slaying right now, but she couldn’t because what she wanted to slay was not technically a monster. It was Dawn’s nineteenth birthday and some of her friends from college were currently having a party in the Summers’ apartment, a rather loud and drunken affair. Buffy honestly did like a couple of Dawn’s friends, but most of them reminded her too much of the Cordettes. Heck Amelia had Harmony’s screech down pat. Buffy just closed her eyes at a particularly loud barrage of laughter and then tried to get back into the quasi-smutty Harlequinesque romance novel that she was reading. She started reading again and was soon lost in the incredibly predictable tale of a young, single nurse and the handsome but moody doctor she worked for. It was just getting to the good stuff when her phone rang. She glared at it a second, but knew that Dawn wasn’t going to pick it up so she dog eared the page and put her book down and picked up the receiver in one smooth motion.
“Giles, what’s the matter?”
“How do you know that something is wrong?”
“You called yesterday to wish Dawn a happy birthday and all, so all of the social pleasantries are out of the way for a week, so that leaves trouble.”
“Yes, quite,” Giles replied and in her mind Buffy could see him pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
“So what’s up Giles, spill?”
“Well it’s rather awkward, but I was wondering if you had seen Xander this evening?”
Buffy froze, her mind suddenly awhirl with thoughts that she couldn’t have controlled if she had wanted to. After all of her introspection and healing Buffy had come to the unpalatable conclusion that while she had to clear the air with several people, there were two people that she had royally screwed over during her life on the hellmouth. One was Faith, and the other was Xander.
Buffy had made her peace with Faith several months ago, taking time off of work and going to see the brunette slayer. It hadn’t been easy, but the results had been worth it. They would probably never be truly close, but they were now much better than they had been.
Xander was another story though. Despite everything Buffy wanted and needed to say to the young man, she just couldn’t muster up enough courage to face him. She was in the middle of planning on actually going to Africa to speak to him face to face but she was still afraid he would dismiss her on sight. A course of action on his part that she felt might not be likely, but would certainly be justified. All of this flashed through her mind in microseconds and she focused back on the conversation. “No, why would I have seen him; why isn’t he still in Africa?”
“Well apparently he was, but then he left the hospital unexpectedly without notifying his support staff or his slayers. All they found was a note that said he had to keep a promise.”
“Hospital?” Buffy asked, “why was he in the hospital.”
“One of his newer slayers was in trouble fighting a demon; Xander distracted the demon until she recovered enough to slay it.”
“By getting pummeled.”
“Quite likely. I was told that his injuries were extensive but not life threatening.”
“So why do you think he’d come here?”
“I’m not sure if you’d recall, but four years ago. . . . . .”
Buffy understood, “Anya and Spike, I remember. So you think the promise he’s talking about has to do with going after Spike?”
“I believe so, yes. And if he is looking for Spike. . . . .”
“He’d expect me to know where he is.”
“Exactly, hence he would turn up at your flat.”
“Sorry to disappoint Giles, but there’s no Xander here, just a bunch of drunken college girls.”
“Yes well, my sympathies for that, but do keep an eye out Buffy.”
“I will Giles, take care and thanks for the heads up.”
“Of course, goodbye.”
“Bye Giles,” Buffy said and hung up the phone. She glanced at her book for an instant, but the urge to read was long gone. Her mind was now filled with thoughts of her oldest guy friend and all that had happened to them in the last nine years. She wondered yet again what her life would have been like if she had said yes to him back in her sophomore year? Would things have gone differently, or would her life have flaked out pretty much the way it had? She was sitting there lost in ‘what if’ when she heard a knock at the door. She wasn’t expecting anyone else for Dawn’s party and The Immortal was out of town on business. Picking up her favorite dagger she checked the peephole. Once she realized who it was she tore open the door and engulfed her visitor in a hug.
“Uhhh Buffy, oxygen’s becoming an issue and I don’t want you to pop any of the stitches,” Xander managed to gasp out. His tone had been brisk and matter of fact, without any of the light, jesting quality that used to flow so easily from him. He was hard, closed up.
Buffy immediately released her hold and eased back so she could look up into the face of her friend, “sorry Xander, I knew you’d been in the hospital, but I was just so happy to see you that I forgot, you’re OK aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Xander said, “no harm no foul. So Giles already called here looking for me?”
“Yeah, the folks in Africa are a little worried.”
“Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to put you in the middle here; you mind if I use your phone and assure them of my continued existence?”
“Nah, mi casa es su casa,” Buffy said with a smile and waved the young man in. Africa had been good to him she noted idly, he was assured and confident and moved with a grace that he had not seemed to possess back in Sunnydale. The deep tan, the confident attitude and the muscular build all made him prime eye candy, and the eye patch gave him a touch of mystery and danger that Buffy was sure other women found irresistible. But he wasn’t the same Xander that existed in her memory. Her earlier observation of his closed off nature was confirmed in spades as she watched him. His face, which had been so expressive in the past, now gave nothing away. His easy manner was now brusque and impersonal. Buffy hoped that being on his own for two years had not changed him that much but she feared that it had.
Sadly, he barely seemed to look at her as he moved through the apartment and she noticed that he put as much distance between them even as he was using the phone. It just brought home to Buffy how much she had lost in her two year sabbatical. She watched as he dialed the phone. Soon he was in an animated conversation with a man named Peter who apparently was an apprentice watcher then there was a pause and Xander assumed a hang-dog expression as Buffy heard Xander receiving a tongue lashing from a young woman; Buffy could only assume this was one of his current slayers. Part of Buffy was happy to see that there were still elements of the old Xander still there as she watched his face and posture as he spoke. But at the same time it hurt to have confirmation that the closed off, stony expression was exclusively for her.
After the speaker seemed to pause to catch a second wind, Xander broke in, “No you don’t need to follow me here, I’ll be fine.”
“I know I should have said something, but it’s something personal.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow or the day after at the latest; Peter can take care of things until then.”
“No he isn’t, and don’t say anything like that to him, he’s doing his best.”
“I know you do, and I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine and I’ll see you soon.”
“You too, bye.” He hung up the phone and turned to Buffy and flashed a grin that was a shadow of his old smirk, “Sorry about that, overprotective slayer.”
“Not a problem, I’m familiar with the symptoms. So what brings you to Rome?”
“A promise I made a few years ago, I don’t expect anything to come of it but I always do my best to keep my promises.”
Buffy looked nervous but asked anyway, “does this have anything to do with Spike and Anya?”
Xander looked surprised for a moment but answered; “no, I made peace with Anya before . . . . . .”
“Before the battle with the First,” Buffy finished.
“Yeah,” Xander said, “no this is a promise I made a year before that, to your sister.”
“Dawn, you checked yourself out of the hospital and flew up here from South Africa because of a promise you made Dawn back when she was fourteen?”
“Yeah, well like I said I do my best to keep my promises.”
“Well just follow the noise and you’ll find her, but I’ve got to warn you . . .,” another loud blast of laughter came from deeper in the apartment, “she’s got a bunch of friends with her.”
“Friends?” Xander asked, noting the less than pleasant tone Buffy had used.
“A lot of them remind me of Cordelia’s sheep,” Buffy said with a rueful grin.
“Ahh,” Xander said, understanding dawning on his face, “well I’ll try and steer clear of them.” And with a tight smile he headed towards the sound of laughter and pop music.
Buffy watched him go, intrigued at what kind of promise he had made her younger sister. She knew that Xander always did his best to keep any promise that he’d made, but checking himself out of a hospital and flying to another continent was a bit above and beyond, even for him. She marveled again as she watched him walk, the man he was bore so little resemblance to the gawky fifteen year old that she had met all those years ago and yet the boy that he had been formed an unbreachable core of goodness inside him that had dimmed from time to time but Buffy had never known it to go out.
She saw him move fluidly through the gaggle of young women until he was standing right in front of a still oblivious Dawn. He paused, waiting for her to notice him, but she was too involved with her current conversation. Finally after he cleared his throat the second time, she turned and realized who was there. “Xander,” she shrieked and threw herself into his arms. Buffy saw a small wince of pain cross his face, but the dominant emotion was joy. He moved back just a bit and studied her face for a moment, Buffy noticed that he seemed to be steeling himself for something; she realized that whatever this promise was, it was serious.
“Hey there Dawn-star, how you doing?”
“I’m great, did you bring me a lion or something,” she asked, a bit of the booze showing.
“No, nothing like that,” he said, then continued quietly. “Could we talk in private for just a second?”
Dawn nodded, and Buffy watched him lead her into the kitchen which was a much quieter section of the flat. “Do you remember your fourteenth birthday?” he asked when they were settled.
Buffy saw Dawn nod automatically although Buffy would wager that Dawn hadn’t really understood the question. She knew that it wasn’t right, but Buffy was focusing all of her attention and enhanced senses on the conversation. She was understandably curious as to what was going on.
“I made a promise to you that day, and now I’m here to keep that promise.”
Dawn gave a confused little smile, but then the confusion grew as Xander leaned in close and Buffy barely caught the murmured question, “Dawn, would you go out with me?”
It seemed to Buffy that the entire world was silent for a moment, as though even the gods themselves were awaiting her sister’s answer. But as the silence stretched out Buffy started to get a bad feeling that grew as the silence became longer and longer. Finally Dawn broke the silence by giggling, not her usual laugh but a choppy sounding thing, like someone bouncing a violin bow on the high strings. The laugh went on for way too long and then a scornful look bloomed on Dawn’s face. “Why would I want to date one of my sister’s cast offs?” she asked in a nasty tone of voice. “I mean if you were a real man, like Spike I might be tempted but you, I can’t imagine the brain damage I’d have to suffer to consider dating you” there was disdain dripping off every word and right then Dawn would have given Cordelia Chase at her bitchiest a run for her money. She then turned and flounced away to the inebriated cheers of her compatriots.
Buffy saw the light in Xander’s eyes dim, and then his face turned stony again as his mask slid from his forehead down as Dawn’s sheep joined in her laughter.
Buffy felt as though she was split into two people, one was still staring incredulously at her idiot of a sister, not believing what she had just seen; the other was focused with laser-like intensity on her best male friend, she could only imagine how he was feeling and for the life of her, could not even begin to guess at what she could do to help.
The closest that Buffy could come was the devastating feeling she had when Angel had told her he was leaving after the fight with the Mayor, but even that didn’t really compare. In all of her life, Buffy had always been the dumper, never the dumpee; she’d never really risked her heart only to have it rejected.
The look on Xander’s face, unfortunately; was one she recognized. She had seen the exact same look on his face when she had said “I don’t” when he had asked her out to the spring fling all those years ago. She realized that she was still standing there with a stunned look on her face as Xander ghosted past her and eased out the door. Buffy continued to stare a second longer, then shook herself and for the first time in years she turned her back on her sister; a friend needed her help and this time she promised herself that she wouldn’t let him down.
She caught up with him quickly enough, Slayer speed and all; but catching up to Xander was the easy part, now she had to figure out how to get him to actually listen without tying him up or hurting him off even more than he already was. She walked along next to him for a moment, trying to work out what to do. Being who and what she was, Buffy opted for the direct approach. She sped up and turned to face him and said, “Xander, stop for a moment, please.” To her amazement, he stopped.
This was such an unexpected turn of events that Buffy couldn’t settle her thoughts, a small part of her wanted to just comfort Xander for what had just happened, but mostly she wanted to just talk to him, to say the things that she should have said years ago. But now that her opportunity was here she just couldn’t seem to focus, she tried to start several times but just succeeded in standing there looking like a landed trout with her mouth opening and closing. Her whirl of thoughts were interrupted by Xander, he had been looking at her with that same stony mask that had dropped over his face when Dawn started laughing, now he just muttered, “I guess it serves me right, I should have remembered what happens when I put my heart on the line with a Summers woman.”
Those words, quietly delivered, hit Buffy like a rusty knife in the guts. What hurt the most, though, was the accuracy behind them. Every time Xander had put his heart on the line for Buffy, she had trampled it, sometimes knowingly, and had never apologized for it; and now Dawn had done the exact same thing. ‘I guess those monks really did make her out of me,’ flitted through the slayer’s head. One other thing Xander’s words had done though, was to clear the slayer’s mind, like slapping someone who’s hysterical.
“Please Xander,” she said. “I just want to talk to you for a little, not about what happened back there,” she twitched her head in the direction of the apartment. “It’s just that there’s some things that I need to say and that I think you need to hear, that’s all”
She stepped back a little and looked at his face, and for an instant it was as though she was still infected with the ‘aspect of the demon’ because she could tell exactly what he was thinking. “I promise, it has nothing to do with your job in Africa or keeping you ‘fray adjacent’ or anything like that,” she blurted out quickly, trying to head his anger off before it went nuclear.
Buffy could see him fighting it down, his pain and humiliation warring with the fact that he would do anything for one of his girls, even her. He seemed to come to a decision and looked her square in the eyes, his one eye, normally warm and happy, was now cold as the Arctic.
“OK Buff, I’ll sit down for a little chat if you answer one question.”
“Sure Xander, anything.”
“Back when Sunnydale was about to do its crater impression, why did you try to send me and Dawn away?”
Not expecting the question, it took Buffy a second or two to shift her mental gears. When she did, she did the last thing Xander expected and told him the complete truth. “Because I would have stopped if you both were killed.”
“You and Dawn were my ‘Achilles heels’, I might have gone on if one of you were still alive, but if both of you had been killed, I would have just stopped fighting, caring, everything. I won’t even tell you how close it came after Caleb. . . . .,” her voice faded out as she gestured at his eye. “You two were my reason why, you were a constant reminder of why I chose to be the slayer, of why what I did was important. I tried to send the two of you away because without the two of you there, I wouldn’t have to worry about the big gap in my armor.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, “and maybe that’s how the whole ‘fray-adjacent’ thing started; maybe I recognized this somehow but wasn’t willing to admit it to myself. That would explain why I was so hot to keep you out of the fight, but didn’t take the same attitude with Oz or Cordelia.”
Buffy could tell that Xander hadn’t expected that answer or the level of candor she had exhibited; again, just for an instant, she could read him and could see that he was re-thinking a lot of things at the moment. He looked up as if trying to find an answer in the stars, finally he turned back to her, his eye wasn’t so cold now and a small smile flirted with his mouth and Buffy felt better than she had in years, she felt a little flutter of hope.
“Tell you what Buff, my flight doesn’t leave for a couple of hours, how about we find a quiet place, you buy me whatever passes for coffee here in Rome and we can have a talk.”
Smiling, Buffy slipped her arm through his and said, “That sounds like a plan to me;” and together they moved off into the night.
They talked as they strolled, about safe subjects like the weather and life in Africa and Rome. They soon found a 24 hour café that Buffy was fond of and sat at a table off to the side. A waitress came over and tried to take their orders, but it was slow going because she didn’t speak English and Xander didn’t speak Italian and Buffy was still laughing over Xander’s story of his jeep’s encounter with an amorous Rhinoceros. She finally calmed down enough to order a couple of espressos and then turned the conversation to a more serious subject.
Buffy leaned forward and took Xander’s hand in hers. “I want to explain what’s been going on with me for the last two years. I’m not apologizing for it because I did what I did to get my life back together. It was a bit radical but it worked; but it was at a heavy price. To put it bluntly, I had to separate myself from every part of my life as a slayer, I had to walk away from patrolling, from the man I think of as my father, and most of all; my friends. I had to find the person I used to be because the person I was was going insane. You saw what I was like the last two years in Sunnydale, I was impulsive, irrational, dictatorial, not to mention the fact that I willingly had sex with Spike on a regular basis; I was a mess. So when I got the chance I found the European city that had the least amount of supernatural activity and told Giles to move me there. That’s how I ended up in Rome with Dawn.”
“It was tough going at first because I really had to re-learn how to be a normal human being again, and I know Dawn was worried a lot. But I was slowly getting better; then I started going out with the Immortal; and before you start, he’s fun and there aren’t any strings, no pressure, just having a good time. It had been a long time since I’ve just had fun. So I was having fun and getting better, but I wasn’t feeling useful or anything; then I found a job as a high school counselor and yes I know what you’re thinking so stop. Helping these kids work through their issues helped me with mine.”
“So now I wake up in a good mood, and I go to sleep in a good mood and I don’t worry about the world ending or anything like that and I’m pretty close to being a hopefully more mature version of the girl you met as a sophomore in high school. I know it hurt you because I wouldn’t talk to you, or come to you with my problems but I was doing what I thought I had to do; I am sorry that it caused you pain, but now you know why the last two years have been the way they have.”
Xander sat back and looked at the diminutive blond across from him, he really looked at her. She was different from the girl she had been when he saw her last, it was something in the way she carried herself, a bounce in her walk or something like that; and she smiled, a lot. It was a genuine smile and not the forced thing that he was familiar with. “I understand Buff, I’ll admit to being a bit sore at the fact you didn’t come to us or talk to us, but I can’t argue with the results; you look great.”
His words and the intensity of his gaze made Buffy blush. “Thank you Xander,” she said. “But now that explanations are out of the way, I’ve got some serious apologizing to do.”
“In getting my head out of my ass, I had to look back at the last few years and one theme kept coming up; and that was how much I’d used you.”
She could see him starting to protest and she raised her hand to cut him off. “From our senior year on I treated you like a convenience; I knew you’d always be there so I didn’t give you any time or attention. Even while I was trying to push you away I knew you’d still be around, and because of that I never thanked you or showed you the appreciation you’d earned. It’s like when you have a bicycle and one wheel squeaks. You pay attention to the wheel that’s giving you trouble and ignore the one that’s working. And because you were so constant, I ignored you. I used you when the house was destroyed and you fixed it over and over, again without any thanks from me. After I went to college I’d call you up when there was an apocalypse or some big bad and ignore you otherwise. And in return you were always there, with a joke or a smile or the truth when I needed it. You know that night in the Bronze when you told me I was your hero, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me or how many times I thought about that when I was scared. I used you and all along you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” She could see that he was surprised at this statement.
Buffy thought for a second; “no, somewhere between the fluke and Oz leaving, Willow changed towards me. She stopped being a friend and started being a sheep.” Buffy looked up at Xander, “A friend will hold your hand, but also kick your ass when you need it; Willow stopped being that way.”
“It was during that first couple of weeks of college,” Xander said with certainty.
“What happened, and how do you know?”
“I know because I know Willow, but early on she branched out and started living her own life, then with your whole roommate being a demon scenario, she realized how much you two were growing apart and it scared her. So she stopped being Willow and started just being ‘Buffy’s Friend’. That’s when she changed.”
“I wish I’d known,” Buffy said. “Or that there was something I could have done”.
“She made a choice Buff, you didn’t make it for her so you have nothing to be sorry for.”
“I know Xand, but as much as I love her now, I miss the old Willow.”
“So like I was saying Xander, I’ve used you, ignored you, belittled you, chosen vampires over you time and again and even though I know I don’t deserve it I’m asking, no begging your forgiveness.” Buffy paused a moment, then continued quietly, “but I’ll understand if you can’t give it.”
Xander looked at his friend for a moment, all of the times he had been emotional debris on the Buffy highway flickered through his mind in a second and were then dismissed; because when it came right down to it Buffy was someone he cared deeply for, someone he believed in and someone who had saved his butt a bunch of times and that carried a lot of weight in the whole forgiveness category. Not to mention that she was still one of his girls.
Leaning forward Xander looked into her eyes and said, “Of course I forgive you Buff, your friendship is one of the most valuable things in my life and while I’ll admit that things aren’t what they used to be, I’m not giving it up easily.”
There were no words for the blaze of joy that shot through her heart when Xander forgave her, she felt as though a weight the size of the Himalayas had been taken from her heart. “How do you do that?” she asked “how do you manage to have so much compassion in your heart?”
“It isn’t compassion, its honesty,” he answered. “I’m no saint Buff; there are things that I’ve done, things that I’ve said that certainly didn’t help matters. The way I acted around Angel, the way I held you responsible for things that you had no control over. No Buffy it’s honesty, because how could I forgive myself if I can’t forgive you. And this completely ignores the fact that you’ve dealt with more badness in your life than I could imagine.”
Buffy looked at the man sitting across from her and realized yet again what an incredible person Xander was, how he had more generosity in his heart than anyone else she had ever met. At that moment the silently thanked whoever, be it God, the Powers that Be, Allah, Gaea or the Great Pumpkin that had put Xander in her life and allowed her the privilege to call him friend. But now that the apology portion of the talk was over, she had to ask, “What have you been up to?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I’ve been almost completely cut off from anything slayage related; I don’t know how the Council is shaping up or if there have been any world endage situations or anything like that. So now I’m curious as to what’s going on?”
“No offense, but why now?”
“Why do you want to know now? Like you said, it’s been two years. Why do you want to know now?”
“Because its time I got back in the game, Xander,” Buffy answered simply. He looked at her for a moment and then gave her the ‘Spock eyebrow’ so she continued. “Being a Slayer is a lifetime gig, I know that; I’ve just been on vacation for two years while I got my head out of my ass. Now that it’s out, I’m curious as to what all has gone on so I know what I’m getting back into.”
Xander thought this over for a second or two and then just sighed. “I’ll let Giles give you the overall picture and just let you know what’s been happening down in Africa.” He looked up and Buffy could see the pain in his eye. “Since the collapse of Sunnydale I’ve found twenty seven slayers, eight of them are now dead. I helped establish ten slayer houses scattered over the continent, three of them have been destroyed with the loss of over twenty support people.” Here he looked away, “All three were destroyed by men not demons. As for men, I’ve personally killed over one hundred; they were Witch doctors, Slavers, Pimps and Soldiers who were looking for a bit of ‘relaxation’ with the girls. It’s not something that I enjoy but it is something that was necessary.”
“As for Apocalypses, there have been no world ending situations in Africa, but I did send some girls to help out with an Apocalypse in Cleveland; not all of them came back.” He turned back and his eye bored into her, “Its ugly out there Buffy and sometimes the things I deal with make me believe that all the demons really need to do in order to take over the whole damn planet is lay low and let us destroy ourselves.”
Buffy was nearly in tears at this bare recitation of the facts. She knew it was bad, that demons were dangerous, but to have experienced what Xander had in just two years was almost inconceivable. “I’m so sorry, Xander. I had no idea just how bad it’s been.”
“I’m not blaming you Buffy,” Xander replied. “I’m just trying to let you know that it isn’t like it used to be. We’re not the plucky heroes that we were back in Sunnydale where you fought evil and Wills and I were your groupies and we could all decompress at the Bronze when it got too heavy. It’s a lot harder out there now and we’re the generals who are leading young girls through a river of blood.” His eye softened a bit, “And before you feel too bad for me, remember that this is still my choice. I know I could walk away from the fight, that I’m a volunteer and not a draftee. I’m here because I want to be here not because I have to be here.”
“Yes you do,” Buffy replied. “You may have volunteered but now you’re in too deep and there’s no way that you’d walk now.” She shifted in her seat and pierced Xander with a look that was equal parts accusation and apology. “I know that you could walk away but you would never allow yourself to walk away. Just like me and the girls, you’re in this fight to the death.”
“You’re right,” he replied simply after a moments thought.
“And that’s why you’re a hero of mine Xander, because you could have walked away and probably should have walked away but you never will. You willingly entered this world with your eyes open.” Buffy flinched a bit at the reference to eyes but Xander didn’t seem to notice or if he noticed he didn’t care. Searching for a way to change the topic, Buffy blurted out, “Now all we need to do is find you a girlfriend who can handle the world you live in and isn’t trying to kill you.” Buffy winced as soon as the words were out of her mouth. One of these years she was going to have to learn to actually think before she spoke. Obviously that hadn’t happened yet. She saw the brief flicker of anger and humiliation on Xander’s face and tried to make up for accidentally rubbing salt in an open wound. “I’m sorry for how things worked out this evening Xand,” Buffy said, reaching across to take his hand. “And sorry for the whole girlfriend thing, I’m working on this thing called tact that seems to be all the rage.”
“Yeah, I'm sorry about the whole Dawn thing as well,” Xander muttered as he looked away. "And as for tact, you do remember that I dated both Cordelia and Anya, tact wasn't a priority with either of them."
"True," Buffy mused and then she sighed. “Poor Dawnie, she’ll kick herself for the rest of her life over this.”
“You think so?”
Buffy laughed, “We’re talking about the girl that signs her name ‘Mrs. Dawn Harris’ half the time. She’s more or less had a crush on you since the first time you met; so when she realizes that you offered her everything she could possibly want and she said ‘no’, she’ll freak.”
“So you think I’d have more luck tomorrow?”
“Once she’s sober, yeah you’d have all the luck you want; but you’d never ask her again.”
“You don’t think so?”
“No, I know so.”
“Because I know you Xander, maybe not on the same level that Willow did but I know you; you’ll forgive Dawn soon enough, but you’ll never forget and you’ll never take a chance like that again.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Because you never asked me out again after the Spring Fling,” Buffy promptly replied. “You forgave me for hurting you but you never risked your heart again. And let me tell you, there were so many times I wish you would have; like the summer after Willow went bonkers, when it was just me, you and Dawn, if you would have asked me out I would so have said yes in a heartbeat.”
“So why didn’t you ask me out?”
“I couldn’t,” Buffy said, looking at the table for a moment. “Dawn had kind of staked you out as her territory like Willow did the first couple of years we were together; so if I asked you out, she would have seen that as a betrayal, and I couldn’t have hurt her like that. So I had to wait for you to ask me out, but I knew you never would. So I just settled for trying to seduce you all summer, but you weren’t having any of that either.”
“What do you mean, trying to seduce me?”
“Xander, what was I wearing most of the time when you came over?”
“A T-shirt and panties. . . . . Ohhhh.”
“So the light dawns?”
“Yeah actually it does, so the fact that Dawn was always wearing those fly-away tank tops and rolled boxers was just her way of keeping up with you?”
“Yeah, she knew I couldn’t say anything about how she was dressing so she went as daring as she could.”
“I can honestly say that while I did notice the wardrobe, or lack there-of, it never occurred to me that I was the reason for it. I guess most guys are pretty clueless like that.”
“Generally,” Buffy agreed, “but you also tend to see girls as friends first, and potential dates second.”
“So it kinda sounds like I’m screwed, any advice.”
“God no Xander, I’m like the last person you should be asking any romantic advice from; my serious relationships all suck with a capital S.”
“Do you think I should leave Dawn a note or something?”
“Nah, I’ll take care of her in the morning, my question is ‘are you gonna be OK’?”
Buffy could see Xander thinking a moment, actually evaluating the situation that he found himself in; finally he said, “yeah, a bit of bruising but no permanent damage.”
“That’s good,” Buffy said as she smiled, then she noticed her watch. “I hate to say this but we really need to get moving if you’re gonna make your flight.”
As they got up, Buffy dropped a couple of Euros on the table to cover the bill and the two friends headed out into the Roman night. Despite the hour they soon flagged down a cab, after that Xander had empirical proof that Buffy was not the worst driver he had ever known. They arrived at Leonardo DaVinci airport with time to spare but Buffy didn’t leave with the cab, electing instead to stay with Xander until he had to leave. They sat together in the airport, a comfortable silence about them, each lost in their own thoughts and reflections on the events of the day. They didn’t really need to say anything to each other because all that was necessary had been said.
Soon Xander’s flight was called and the two friends stood up. “Take care of yourself Xander.” She hugged him close and whispered in his ear, “whenever its dark and I’m scared I ask myself, what would Xander do? You’re my hero.”
“You mean you never wonder, What is Xander wearing?”
“Not usually, no,” Buffy replied but then a naughty smirk grew on her face. “Well maybe once in a while,” she concluded
For his part, Xander was stunned by the things that Buffy had just said to him and there was no way he could process it all right now, so he just hugged her close and kissed the top of her head and said, “thanks Buff, you be careful and don’t just jump right into the deep end, ease in a little at first.”
“I will Xander; you do the same, promise me.”
“I promise, see ya around Buff.”
“Bye Xander,” she replied; and with that they let each other go and Xander was on his way back to Africa. Buffy watched till even her slayer’s eyesight could see him no more, then she turned and started towards the taxis; she needed to get back to her apartment and take out the trash.