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Walking That Mile

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Summary: Yet Another Halloween Fic

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > Romance > Buffy/XanderGreywizardFR18118,29981312,9988 Apr 058 Apr 05Yes
Title: Walking That Mile

Author: Greywizard

Email: grey.wizard@verizon.net

Rating: Not very nice as far as language goes, and there's definitely some implied sexual relationships, but nothing explicit since the main characters are all still just sixteen years old.

Disclaimer: Is this really necessary? If anyone really thinks these characters belong to me, then you're even more out of touch with reality than Crackhead Joss was. All of the BtVS characters belong to Crackhead Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc. There is no intent to profit from this, I'm just borrowing the characters for a while. Only the story is mine, and even that is negotiable.

Category: Yet another Halloween story.

Summary: My response to Asbjoern's Halloween challenge at the XanderZone, which reads as follows:

{{ Pairing (preferred) : B/X

Rating : R or NC17 could be interesting ;-)

Premise : Buffy and Xander have lost a dare, or a bet with Willow, and have to cross-dress for Halloween (Xander as Buffy, and vice versa). Willow still loves Xander, and is somewhat jealous of his crush on Buffy, a state of mind that's not helped by the fact that Buffy and Xander are the ones having to go out together for Halloween. In the seconds before Ethan's spell is cast, Willow casts a little love spell on Xander, but as usual it backfires (probably due to the chaos magics released by Ethan) and instead of having Xander running into her arms, he and Buffy both get a full dose (Buffy and Xander are pretty much one person in two bodies during the transition between wearer and costume) and literally run into one another... }}

Time frame: Alternate S2 'Halloween' episode. The timeline's been adjusted slightly, too, in order to accommodate the challenge, since Willow actually wasn't really practicing witchcraft at this point in the series.

Character Bashing: Maybe a little bit on Willow and Angel, but it's justified by the plot. And besides, at the moment, neither of them are a particular favorite of mine. ;-)

Spoilers: None, since this is a completely different AU than any thought up by Crackhead Joss.

Feedback: Of course! Constructive criticism will be greatly appreciated, while flamers will be ignored and added to the lists of those to be painfully exterminated, once I am appointed to my rightful position as King of the World. Yeah, you just wait and see if I'm kidding! Dogbert's got nothing on me!

~~~

Title: Walking That Mile

Ethan’s Costume Shop
Sunnydale, CA
October 30, 1997

“Willow! You can’t be serious! TELL me you’re not serious!”

Buffy’s desperate protest was shrill enough that Xander winced from the pain in his ears while idling musing how surprised he was that the store’s front windows were still intact and that every dog in the area wasn’t already howling to the moon.

“Actually, I’m completely serious, Buffy,” the redhead grinned triumphantly, as she held out the bright red, winged baseball cap with the dual soda can holders attached to the sides, complete with feeder hoses running down to the wearer’s mouth level, that she had selected to go with the Hawaiian shirt she had chosen from Xander’s wardrobe for the Slayer to wear the next day when they shepherded their own personally assigned group of elementary school kids through their annual candy extortion crusade.

“This hat is identical to the one that Xander wore last year when he went as the patron god of fast food. Jesse borrowed it last summer, and we never could find it when we looked through his stuff, so that’s why we had to come here for it,” she explained, with what the Slayer would describe as the most evil smile she had ever seen. “Just put in two Coke cans, add a Domino’s pizza box, and you’ll be the spitting image of Xander, Lord of Junk Food.”

“Xander! Tell Willow I can’t wear that!” the wide-eyed petite blonde demanded frantically.

“You’re going to have to look somewhere else for sympathy about your costume, Buff,” the male Scooby replied indifferently to the Slayer’s entreaty. “I’m currently too busy trying to figure out what school I’m going to have to transfer to, to really care about your trashing of my fashion choices. After tomorrow night, I’m not going to be able to show my face anywhere around town without having anyone who sees me laughing themselves into an intensive care ward.”

The tall brunet was looking at the extra-large red and yellow cheerleader sweater and skirt outfit he was holding with a mournful expression, bordering on homicidal/suicidal. “I may never get over the mental damage this’ll cause…” he told himself as he sighed.

“You don’t really want us to do this, do you, Wills?” he turned to appeal to their companion, putting on his most earnest lost-puppy-dog-eyed expression as he spoke to her.

“But you guys *promised*,” the hacker replied, putting on an injured expression as she gazed at the horrified looks her two friends were wearing. “Whoever lost the bet had to dress up as whatever the winner wanted, and you both lost.

“No more whining, guys,” she informed her two fellow demon fighters. “You both lost the bet, so you each have to dress up as the other. It’s not my fault Snyder picked us to escort the grade-schoolers tomorrow night. We made the bet last week in good faith, and I won, so you have to wear whatever outfit I pick out.

“And you know you wouldn’t let me off if I lost, Xander,” she declared more confidently, knowing that both of them were conspiring to get her out of the Casper costume this year. “You’d be laughing yourself silly, trying to find the most embarrassing costume you could find for me to wear, and you know it!”

“But why do I have to dress up like Xander did last year? I shouldn’t have to do that, because that’s like being forced to do something against my nature! I’m the Slayer and his clothing sense has to be demonically inspired!” Buffy somehow managed to sound even more like a whining and annoying five year old than she had in the previous five minutes.

“Hey! Standing right here, you know,” Xander noted in a highly insulted tone of voice. “And where do you get off complaining? You’re not the manly guy who’s being forced to dress as a cheerleader! With my luck, I’ll be fighting off Charlie Sheen all night.”

“Get used to it, guys. I’m not changing my mind,” the redhead declared emphatically, putting on her ‘Resolve Face.’ “And you be sure you get out your Sunnydale High pom-poms when you get home, Buffy, so Xander can carry them tomorrow. After all…”

None of the three adolescents noticed the engrossed expression on the face of the shop owner as he listened to their bickering.

< Interesting, > Ethan thought to himself as he watched the trio wander in the direction of the sales counter, there to be joined by a younger brunette girl carrying a policewoman costume, complete with pistol and baton. < With an aura radiating power the way she does, that little blonde girl can’t be anyone other than the Slayer. Which means that Ripper can’t be too far away. >

A bitter smile graced the Englishman’s thin lips as old memories replayed yet again through his mind. He’d tracked his old running mate down to this Janus-forsaken nowhere town for the express purpose of balancing the scales on some old scores, and now it seemed as though his lord was smiling down on him.

< All right, then, Rip, old mate, > the thought crossed his mind. < Payback will be here soon enough. You’re responsible for my losing Francine, so I’m going to even the scales and take your Slayer away from you. >

~~~

Summers residence
Halloween night

“Oh my! You certainly look – different – Xander,” Joyce said as she took in the brunet’s appearance, heroically managing not to laugh or even smile at the sight of the blonde-wigged, six foot tall cheerleader standing at her front door. Even with the dark raincoat he was wearing over it, Xander’s costume was still quite evident to anyone looking at him.

“I look ridiculous,” he answered semi-sullenly as he stepped across the threshold in response to the mature blonde’s unspoken invitation.

“Join the crowd!” Buffy’s comment drew the male Scooby’s eyes to the stairway, and the diminutive, brunet-wig-wearing figure descending, clad in khakis, white sneakers, one of Xander’s wildly colored Hawaiian shirts, and the almost-iridescently-bright-red baseball cap, now complete with matching Coke cans in the two can holders, that Buffy wore along with a look of near-murderous irritation and displeasure.

Joyce, to her credit, managed to not fall down laughing as she looked at her eldest daughter’s costume, something that most likely saved Buffy from charges of matricide and serial murder, although she still threw a look of extreme annoyance her mother’s way, as though she were somehow able to actually read the older woman’s thoughts.

Dawn, however, was another matter entirely.

“Jeez, you guys look like you’re auditioning to join the clowns at the circus,” the youngest Summers woman declared with a broad smile as she walked into the foyer from the kitchen decked out in her policewoman’s outfit and snapped a quick shot of the two in their costumes with the camera she was holding.

“Hey, I simply *love* the hat, Buff,” she added, unable to resist jibing at her older sibling’s attire as she remembered the former fashionista that had ruled the Hemery High social order. “It’s a Versace original, right?”

Hearing the low growl and seeing the narrow-eyed glare her actions and comments had produced, the now-wide-eyed brunette quickly retreated back into the kitchen, mumbling something about leaving for Kit’s party immediately, as Joyce struggled to restrain her laughter at the two teenagers who now stood next to each other, their stances a mixture of mortification, defiance and embarrassment.

“Okay, I’m ready now, guys!” Willow declared as she came skipping down the steps, her jean-clad legs visible under the white sheet she wore as her perennial ghost costume. “Let’s go get our groups of kids!”

~~~

Noticing the glares she was receiving from her two fellow demon fighters as they gathered their assigned groups of elementary school students, the redheaded hacker reflected on whether she might have gone too far with her idea to try to put a little emotional distance between the two.

Having observed both that Xander’s crush on the tiny blonde seemed to remain undiminished despite the way she had treated him at the Bronze just after school had started earlier that year and that Buffy seemed to still look to the goofy brunet first whenever she felt the need for emotional support, the redhead had decided that if she was to ever have a chance at capturing Xander’s heart, she needed to put a bit more distance between the two, emotionally speaking.

Accordingly, when the opportunity arose for her to select the two’s Halloween costumes, she had decided that making each dress as the other would cause the maximum amount of embarrassment for both Scoobies while also generating a corresponding amount of low-level aversion, thus reducing each one’s attraction and interest in the other.

At least that had been the idea she had gleaned and tried to implement after consulting her mother’s psychology reference texts.

Unfortunately, actual practice seemed to differ substantially from what theory predicted, she noted upon their arrival at the school. The derisive and sarcastic gibes both were drawing from their fellow students only seemed to make the two draw closer together, as if each were drawing emotional strength and support from the other. Especially after Xander had lost his already-frayed temper and punched Larry out after the fullback had made a particularly vile comment about both of them.

Snyder’s comments about cross-dressing students and confused gender identities had done absolutely nothing to improve the situation either. Although the little troll had backed off quickly enough after Buffy had ripped his clipboard in half.

She needed to do something to salvage the situation, and she needed to do it now!

Mumbling an unintelligible excuse about bathroom breaks in Snyder’s direction, Willow rushed into the school and quickly took refuge in one of the stalls in the women’s bathroom.

Pulling out the bag of spell components she had taken to carrying with her lately from her shoulder bag, the hacker/wannabe witch racked her brains for an appropriate method of accomplishing her goals and decided on one of the most basic spells she had researched in the course of her studies: a charm spell. The spell took effect gradually, and would probably take a short while to reach full potency, but once it did, Xander would forget about his fascination with Buffy entirely and she’d have plenty of time to get him to notice her.

Crushing the requisite herbs in her hands, she hurriedly mumbled and paraphrased the verses as she remembered them.

“Aphrodite, goddess of love, hear my plea! Turn the attentions of my intended towards me alone. Though of two minds now, let him be single-minded in his attention to me from this moment forth! This boon I beseech thee to grant!”

A barely perceptible wave of energy seemed to suddenly erupt outward from the would-be witch and the herbs in her hand sublimated away as a feeling of power seemed to encompass her for a moment.

Satisfied that things were now going as she intended, the redhead took a moment to wash her hands and then went to rejoin the holiday revelers.

~~~

A small, dark-haired youth clad in a set of military fatigues was checking his guitar at his locker, as Cordelia, wearing a tight-fitting catsuit, stalked down the directly towards him.

“Oz. Oz!”

“Hey, Cordelia. Jeez, you're like a great big cat,” he observed dryly

“It's my costume. Who’re you supposed to be?” she demanded, her curiosity piqued by the sight of him in fatigues.

“The King, after he was drafted,” Oz replied semi-laconically. “Everyone in the group is dressing as him during a different phase of his career.”

“So, you guys are playing tonight?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “At the Shelter Club.”

“Is Mr. I'm-the-lead-singer-I'm-so-great-I-don't-have-to-show-up-for-my-date-or-even-call gonna be there?”

“Yeah. Y'know, he's just going by 'Devon' now,” he answered.

“Well, you can tell him that I don't care, and that I didn't even mention it. And that I didn't even see you. So that's just fine.”

“So, what do I tell him?”

“Nothing! Jeez! Get with the program,” the cheerleader half-snarled as she turned and walked off in a huff.

“Why can't I meet a nice girl like that?” Oz asked sarcastically as he watched her stomp away.

As he turned around, he bumped into a pretty redhead who was fumbling with the somewhat cumbersome bag she had slung over her shoulder.

“Oh! I'm sorry,” he immediately apologized.

“Sorry,” Willow echoed, backing away and smiling at him in an embarrassed manner.

“I'm sorry.”

“Sorry.”

~~~

< Hmm, Wills is looking pretty good tonight, > Xander thought to himself as he and his assigned crowd of enthusiastic holiday blackmailers followed the redhead’s own group of sugar-fixated ankle-biters out into the surrounding neighborhoods. < Even better than she usually does. >

The founding Scooby had always been aware of his friend’s physical beauty, but he had never really been drawn to her romantically previously, usually feeling a much stronger attraction to more outspoken, forceful females – like Cordelia Chase, for example.

He wasn’t exactly sure just what it was about Willow that had caught his notice tonight, but whatever it was, he was now feeling quite grateful that it had, since it had helped reaffirm his childhood friend’s more subtle, but nonetheless quite definite, attractiveness to his appreciative eye.

Now that he had finally noticed her, he was going to make sure that she knew just how pretty he thought she was.

~~~

An overpowering wave of arcane energy surged through the town, emanating outward from the only recently opened costume shop and those selected costumes mystically enchanted to take advantage of the event greedily absorbed the power, drinking it in and then turning it upon their wearers, turning them into whatever character, personage or being it was they had envisioned themselves as when selecting their costume.

Xander Harris, who was dressed as a faux Buffy Summers, began to shift and become the Slayer, while Buffy Summers, costumed as an ersatz Xander Harris began her own transformation into her best friend

Xander became Buffy who became Xander who became Buffy who became Xander who became Buffy, while Buffy transformed into Xander who transformed into Buffy who transformed into Xander who transformed into Buffy who transformed into Xander, each of the two Scoobies’ forms resembling a rapidly shifting special effects extravaganza even as they moved.

Responding to his/her basic Hellmouth instincts, Xander/Buffy began looking for the Slayer just as Buffy/Xander began looking for her, also, the mystic Slayer connection each now shared enabling them to locate the other.

“Buffy!?!” “Xander!?!” they each yelled in confusion as they saw the other approaching, each one’s body appearing as though they were physically stroboscoping into, first, a female and then a male body, an effect made all the more fantastic for any onlooker due to the significant differences in the duo’s heights and physiques.

Reaching out to the other in a confused, combined effort to reassure/be reassured, their fingers touched, and the Chaos magic infusing their bodies combined and interacted with the love spell Willow had cast earlier, causing a brilliant flash to light up the area before fading away and leaving a single dark-haired figure wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt lying motionless on the ground.

~~~

“Ohhh, man, what just happened?” Willow murmured to herself as she pushed herself to her feet and off the grass she found herself lying on.

“Ohmigod! What’s going on?” she exclaimed as she noticed a motionless, sheet-covered body lying on the grass next to her.

“OHMIGOD!!!! THAT’S ME!” she half-screamed as she recognized the sneakers on the body’s feet as her own.

“Ohmigod, I’m a ghost! For real!” she said to herself as she stepped back and noticed her hand passing through the railing enclosing the porch on which she had first awoken and found herself.

“I have to find Buffy! And Xander, too!” she babbled as she frantically looked around for any sign of her two friends before heading off down the street in a frenetic search for her companions.

~~~

< What happened? Who or what hit me? > she thought to herself as she groggily opened her eyes to find herself lying on someone’s immaculately manicured front lawn. Pushing herself upright onto her feet, she looked around, trying to find the person or entity who had obviously sucker-punched her when she wasn’t looking.

As she checked herself over for injuries, she noted the brilliantly emblazoned Hawaiian shirt she was wearing and added another memo to her mental ‘to-do’ list: eviscerate whoever was responsible for putting this thing on her.

How she ended up here, and exactly why she was dressed the way she was, was something she was still a little foggy on; her most recent memories were all very confused and hazy, almost like they belonged to someone else.

But once she figured out what was going on, someone was going to get his, her or its ass kicked!!!

No one coldcocked a Slayer and got away with it. Especially not her.

Someone was definitely in for a world of hurt in the very near future. Bet on it.

Pulling her emergency pack of Twinkies out of her jacket pocket, she quickly scarfed them down, hoping that the sugar rush would help clear her head and get rid of the confusion currently filling it.

~~~

Seeing the dark-hired figure in the Hawaiian shirt pushing herself to her feet just up the street a short distance, Willow gave a silent prayer of thanks to whatever divinities might be listening and redoubled her sprint towards her friend.

“Xander! Thank the goddess you’re all ri-“

The redhead’s greeting was caught off in mid-sentence as she looked up into the blue-green eyes of the six foot tall, dark-haired woman who was currently wearing Xander’s Hawaiian shirt, which she had last seen gracing Buffy’s deceptively petite form, and stuffing the last parts of a Twinkie into her mouth.

“Wills! Thank god you’re okay!” the brunette mumbled through her mouthful of food, giving the dumbstruck redhead a relieved smile as she stepped forward to embrace her, only to pass through the ethereal hacker as though she weren’t really there.

The horrified look the redhead could see on the woman’ face, which appeared to be a blend of both Buffy and Xander’s features, she noted distractedly, was pure Xander – the shock and fear she could see mirrored there could belong to no one else, she immediately realized.

“Ohmigod, Wills! What happened? Who did this?! Tell me so I can fix this! This is probably all my fault! The bad guys are probably targeting my friends because I’m the Slayer!” the tall brunette half-babbled/lamented to herself.

“Buffy? Is that you?” Willow asked, confused at what she heard.

“Wills! Are you okay? It’s me, Wills – Xuffy,” the brunette replied, a look of concern and anxiety on her face as she tried to reassure the hacker as to her identity.

“Ohmigod,” the redhead repeated yet again. “You’re both of you! You’re both of you together in there now, somehow.”

“What are you talking about, Wills?” ‘Xuffy’ demanded. “What ‘both of you’ are you talking about?”

“Come on, uh, Xuffy! We need to talk to Giles! As quick as possible!” the hacker demanded as she turned and headed back to the school.

~~~

A quick trip to the library, during the course of which the two Scoobies picked up both Angel and a cat-suited, yet curiously non-feral (well, at least no more than normal), Cordelia Chase, soon had them discussing possible explanations for the events of the evening.

"God, it was just so mega-weird, Giles!" Cordy declared emphatically. "Buffy and Dweeb-boy were running towards each other and they kept changing back and forth into each other! First, she's Buffy, then she's Dweeb-boy, then she's Buffy again, then she's Dweeb-boy again...It was *extremely* disturbing!

“Do you think the school's insurance will cover the therapy I'm probably gonna need? 'Cause this would never have happened if that little troll hadn't shanghaied me into doing this whole 'escorting the rug rats' thing! It's so definitely *not* my thing, you know!" the cheerleader whined parenthetically.

“I find it quite confounding that apparently only Cordelia was not affected by whatever it is that is responsible for the wholesale transformations that appear to have afflicted tonight’s revelers,” Giles commented to Angel, tuning out the brunette’s annoying drone with a bit of effort.

“What do you mean, only Cordy wasn’t affected, Giles?” Xuffy interrupted, turning her attention back to her Watcher, the worried expression on her face as she returned from yet another check on Willow’s ethereal status indicating that the redhead was still immaterial.

“I’m fine. Except for the fact that I’m dressed in this god-awful nightmare of a shirt!” the brunette Slayer declared. “When I find out who’s responsible for this abomination, I’m going to punch them out for putting this on me, and then punch them out again, for not burning this thing the moment they first saw it.”

“Of course, it’s only after it looks like Dweeb-boy’s turned into Slayer-Dweeb-Girl, she finally gets hit with the Fashion Fairy’s Wand of Good Taste,” Cordy snarked to no one in particular.

“Oh well, better late than never.”

“I know you said she’s not a demon, Giles, but can I stake her anyway? Just in case you’re wrong?” Xuffy implored her Watcher, her Slayer hearing having easily caught the cheerleader’s not-so-low-voiced comment.

“Lord, please do not tempt me like this,” Giles muttered under his voice as he valiantly tried to ignore both his – augmented – Slayer’s question/request and its source.

“Giles, why are we wasting time talking about stuff like that? We need to figure out how to get Willow back to normal as quick as possible! We don’t know if there might be any long-term risks to her being like this! We’ve got to get her her body back now!” Xuffy demanded, her attention quickly returning to what she considered the most pressing matter at hand.

“What is it that differentiates Cordelia from the others and precluded her from changing along with the other students?” Giles asked himself rhetorically, trying to ignore the pandemonium surrounding him.

“Well, good taste, for one thing,” Sunnydale High’s social queen immediately proclaimed, having heard his question. “I only shop at the best places, like Party Town. You’d never catch me going to a dive like that Ethan’s place where these guys got their costumes. Talk about a lack of selection! And taste! Why anyone would want to buy costumes at his place, I just don’t understand. I mean, yeah, he sounds like he could be narrating ‘Masterpiece Theater’, but he’s still a creepy, little slug.

“And the way he was eyeing everyone in his shop, even the guys – I gotta tell you, Giles, he did absolutely nothing to make all those stereotypes about English guys not caring too much about the female sex seem untrue! Even his name sounds phony! Ethan Rayne? Come on now! Who’d ever really have a name like that?” the beautiful brunette droned on.

“Excuse me, but what did you just say?” Giles asked a moment later as the cheerleader’s babbling finally managed to percolate through to his preoccupied consciousness.

“I was just saying that I just can’t believe that some people would actually buy their costumes at a place like that.” Cordelia was delighted to repeat herself, and again began her soliloquy regarding the lack of variety available at the shop wherein the Scoobies had procured parts for their outfits.

“No, Cordelia! The name!” Giles interrupted her. “What was the name you just mentioned?”

“Jeez, Giles! Maybe you should switch to decaf!” Cordy snapped at him for the interruption.

“The guy said his name was Ethan Rayne, okay?”

~~~

Cordelia’s revelation of the store owner’s name quickly led the mismatched group to the shop from which the Scooby trio had originally purchased their costumes, after first retrieving Willow’s disturbingly dead body, at which point the Watcher and the two semi-Scoobies became witnesses to a near-frenzied ‘interrogation’ of the shop owner by an incensed Xuffy, who had begun screaming at the Chaos mage about his “endangering my Willow” even as she was beating him senseless. It was only Angel’s immediate physical intercession that prevented the transformed Slayer from turning the badly beaten warlock into a bruised and boneless mass of flesh.

Giles’ subsequent destruction of the Janus bust had only seemed to compound the group’s problems, since both the petite blonde Slayer and the male founding member of the Scooby Gang, who had both reappeared in a flash of light upon the destruction of the statuette, had then each attempted to go after the now semi-conscious chaos mage, each of them seeming almost psychotically enraged at the possibility of harm befalling their redheaded friend.

Ultimately, it was only Willow’s physically interposing herself next to Angel between the two teens and the barely conscious mage, together with her frantic pleas for mercy on behalf of Ethan, that had finally calmed the two down sufficiently to enable the Watcher to call his Council contacts and arrange for a team to come take into custody the severely injured chaos worshipper.

~~~

Sunnydale high library
Still later that night

Giles gave a small sigh of relief as he finished preparing a cup of Assam tea in his office, grateful that all of the traumatic events of the evening had been taken care of. Normally, at this time of night he would favor a Darjeeling blend, but the earlier events of the evening seemed to indicate that this might be yet another late night given over to further research.

After determining that neither Buffy nor Xander appeared to be suffering any detrimental aftereffects from Ethan’s spell, thank heaven, Angel had left to do a quick patrol of the town before returning to his apartment and everyone else involved was now taking time to relax and unwind after the rather distressing consequences they had experienced.

Both adolescents had utilized the opportunity to change into some of the spare clothing all the members of the so-called Scooby Gang kept stored in his office for times of emergency, and all four teens were now stretched out by the main table, scarfing down sodas and snacks from the various vending machines as they tried to relieve the stresses they had incurred from their earlier experiences.

“Isn’t about time for you to go patrol, Buff?” Xander noted from his position on one side of Willow, as the two of them, with Buffy occupying the seat on Willow’s other side, sat at the table at which they normally did their Hellmouth-oriented research.

While the male Scooby usually did remind his Slayer of her patrol schedule, something about the boy’s tone of voice when he spoke seemed a bit off to the casually listening Watcher.

“No, Giles gave me the night off, remember, Xand?” the blonde Chosen One replied. There was something about Buffy’s voice that seemed to be a bit off, too, he noticed with the faintest hint of dismay.

“Anyway, I was thinking, Will, we could maybe get together and go shopping together, tomorrow. You know, just the two of us, and see about upgrading your wardrobe with stuff that’s lot more flattering to you,” he could hear Buffy continue speaking, only to be interrupted by Xander.

“Actually, Buffy, Wills and I were planning on getting together. She promised to help tutor me, so I can make up some of my math scores.”

Picking up his cup and heading out into the library proper, the Englishman was startled to see two of his adopted children glaring at each other from either side of the third child who had wormed her way into his heart.

Based on the way the two adolescents were glowering at each other, an outsider would be tempted to say that the two were rivals, if not bitter adversaries, instead of the stalwart friends he knew them to be.

And Willow was currently sitting between the two of them with an expression of dread on her face, as though she were somehow caught in some highly untenable position from which she was unable to extricate herself.

The moment he entered the main room, the redhead’s eyes latched onto him with an expression of pleading desperation, as though she were begging him to intercede on her behalf.

Picking up on the animosity clearly evident towards each other in Buffy and Xander’s voices and lacking any conceivable idea as to the possible cause, the Englishman realized he needed to speak with an apparently uninvolved third party; or at least someone as uninvolved as possible in the whatever the current imbroglio might be.

“Uhm, Willow? If I might speak to you for a moment?” he asked, pausing in the doorway to his office. “It regards your view of some this evening’s events,” he added as a pseudo-cover for their conversation.

“Uh, sure, Giles, be right there!” the hacker/wannabe witch responded immediately, almost jumping out of her spot between the two apparently feuding teens.

Once the redhead was ensconced in his office and the door closed, the Watcher was unable to restrain his curiosity.

“Uhm, please excuse me if I’m intruding on matters outside my concern, Willow,” he began as he gave his glasses a quick polishing, “but if you don’t mind, could you inform me as to the cause of the rift that seems to have developed between Buffy and Xander?”

“Uh, I’m not really sure, Giles,” the redhead shook her head uncertainly. “Ever since we got back from the costume shop, they’ve both been acting kinda weird. They’ve been sniping at each other with almost everything they say. It’s like they each get jealous if I even talk to the other one, Giles. What am I supposed to do? They’re both my friends!” she half-wailed.

“Hmm. I suppose it’s conceivable that, given the fact that both Buffy and Xander shared the same form, and apparently the same mind, for some time earlier this evening, that their worry regarding your safety during this crisis, as well as their sense of concern and friendship, might have each reinforced the other’s and thereby strengthened these feelings to a much greater than normal degree,” the Englishman hypothesized aloud.

Willow blanched as she first deciphered and then considered the full implications of Giles’ musings.

< Ohmigod! They’re both jealous of each other because of me! >

If Giles was correct, that Buffy and Xander’s current, uncharacteristic behavior was a result of having been merged by the costume shop owner’s spell, then it made the likelihood that her two friends’ sudden, simultaneous – fascination – with her was also a result of her earlier charm spell almost a dead certainty!

Oh boy! If Xander or Buffy found out about the spell, she’d be in a truckload of trouble!

And after seeing the way Giles had acted earlier, she didn’t even want to think about what his reaction would be!

She had to figure out the best way to handle this mess, and she had to do it now, before things got any worse!

“Uh, Giles, I’ve, uhm, ah, gotta use the ladies room!” she abruptly blurted out, jumping up from her chair. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes!”

Rushing back into the library proper, she quickly scooped up her purse and continued out the double doors into the hallway.

“What did you do to upset her?!” immediately erupted simultaneously from Buffy’s and Xander’s mouths as they both first stared after the retreating redhead, then turned to glare at the other as they began rising from their seats, only to be verbally restrained by Giles as he appeared in the doorway to his office.

“Will both of you please sit down? Right now!” he practically barked, as he, too, stared with concern after the now-vanished hacker. “Willow is merely making use of the ladies facilities , and I am quite certain that she wishes to do so in private! Should she have felt need for assistance of any kind, I am sure that she would have indicated such to you.”

< Whatever could it have been that she thought I said, that upset her so greatly? Heavens above, who can ever understand adolescents? > he thought to himself, before mentally shrugging his shoulders and turning his attention back to the more significant problem at hand, that of the sudden and completely unexpected rancor that had appeared between his Slayer and the usually cheerful and supportive brunet who had brought her back from the dead last year.

~~~

In her haste to rectify her earlier magic-induced error, Willow completely missed seeing Cordy standing off to one side in the ladies room, carefully touching up her makeup in the mirror, and headed directly into the end stall.

Accordingly, the cheerleader was present to hear the redhead’s clearly distressed voice begin chanting from within the confines of one of the stalls

“Goddess of magic great and small, I bid thee now to withdraw. Hecate, I hereby license thee to depart.”

A small poof! was clearly audible to the puzzled brunette, and her exquisite features wrinkled in bewilderment as, a moment later, as she heard additional chanting begin.

“Aphrodite, mistress of love, be gone. Let my love hear no more thy siren's song.”

Shaking her head in mystification and some concern, Cordy quietly exited the lavatory and headed back to rejoin her fellow Halloween semi-revelers.

~~~

Because of his concern at his charges’ uncharacteristic behavior, Giles was keeping a close eye on both Buffy and Xander, and it was as a result of that scrutiny that he noticed the faint, barely perceptible shimmering which closely resembled a heat mirage that suddenly surrounded both adolescents, and the very nearly invisible luminescence that seemed to pulse around each of them for a moment before vanishing without a sound.

Momentarily taken aback by the unexpected display, he instantly snapped into action when he saw both teenagers sway unsteadily in their chairs, a dazed expression on each of their faces. Given all of the clearly anomalous events that had already occurred this night, he wasn’t about to let anything more happen to any of his children if there was any thing in his power he could do to prevent it.

“Buffy, are you all right? And you, Xander? How are you both feeling?” he asked, his face mirroring the anxiety he was feeling as he dropped into the chair next to his Slayer, looking for signs of anything out of the ordinary.

“Wow! All of a sudden, I’m feeling kind of a little woozy, Giles,” Buffy replied as she brought her hand to her head in an effort to offset her sudden disorientation. “Like my head’s been overstuffed or something…”

“Whoa, baby! I’m feeling mega-weird, too, G-Man!” Xander informed the Englishman, as he steadied himself against the table.

“It’s like, suddenly, my brain’s a couple sizes too small. It feels like I’ve got all of these extra mem–“

The original Scooby abruptly broke off speaking as a look of surprise, dismay and horror took over his face and he looked up to find Buffy staring back at him, the expression on her face a reflection of his own.

”I’ve got to get out of here, Giles!” the diminutive blonde suddenly declared as she quickly looked away from her friend, grabbed her coat and bolted out the double doors and into the corridor.

“Me, too!” Xander agreed as he rushed through the stacks to the rear exit, the sound of the outer door slamming shut announcing his own departure, leaving the dumbfounded Watcher sitting alone at the table in mute non-comprehension and pondering the inexplicable actions of two of the children he had allowed into his heart.

It was this scene that Cordy walked in on upon her return from the ladies’ room.

“Hey, Giles, could after-effects from that costume spell your old buddy cast show up even after the spell was broken?” she asked the Englishman upon re-entering the library.

“What type of after-effects would you be referring to, Cordelia?” the Watcher immediately replied, his face apprehensive at hearing the brunette’s question.

“Well, Willow was turned into a ghost by the spell, right?” the cheerleader noted.

“Yes, she was, Cordelia, as you already know,” Giles somewhat irritably answered the clearly rhetorical question. “Exactly what is it that motivated your question?”

“Well, I could hear her talking when I was in the ladies room, and she must think she’s some kind of witch or something, now,” Sunnydale High’s social queen informed the Englishman, “because she was chanting and acting like she’s casting spells or something.”

Giles’ brow creased in puzzlement as he considered the former May Queen’s report of the redhead’s uncharacteristic activities.

“Yeah, she was telling someone named Hillary that she could take her magic and leave now, and then she was saying something to some African love goddess. Afro-Dottie or something like that,” she added, her classically beautiful features furrowed in thought.

It took the Englishman a few additional seconds to process the brunette’s somewhat garbled report before the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes.

“Could the names she was calling on have been Hecate and Aphrodite?” he asked, his jaw set in a grim line as possible explanations for at least some of the night’s phenomena began falling into place.

“Uhm, yeah, I guess so,” Cordy agreed, a bit disconcerted at the abrupt and somewhat chilling changes her news had prompted in the librarian. The expression on his face, she decided as she looked at him, was far too much like the one he had been wearing when they had begun their little visit to Ethan’s costume shop for her to feel completely comfortable.

It was at that moment that Willow, in a display of remarkably poor timing, chose to rejoin them.

~~~

< Damn! Damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN!! Why is it that when Fate decides it's gotta screw around with someone, it always has to be me? > Xander tiredly thought to himself as he continued restlessly prowling the empty and currently deserted streets of the town. < It’s not like my life wasn’t shitty enough even before that goddamn limey sonuvabitch decide to fuck everyone’s life up with his goddamn costumes! >

Xander had realized a long time back, even before Buffy Summers had shown up here in town, that his life sucked. And he had also realized that it would most likely continue to suck for however long the remainder of it lasted. Which, considering the various hidden delights he had become privy to since the Slayer had shown up, probably wasn’t going to be all that long. But he had managed to convince himself that, barring serious injuries or the death of any of his friends or an apocalypse that would bring about the end of the World, his life was about as bad as it could get.

He realized now that he should have known better and kept his mouth shut, since it seemed that the Hellmouth was bound and determined to prove him wrong yet again.

Sure, his life had sucked ass for pretty much as far as back as he could remember, but back then, even with parents who only seemed to notice him on the few-and-far-between occasions when they were actually completely sober, it had never really seemed as though the world was just lying back and waiting for a chance to kick him in the balls every time he turned around.

Tonight’s little escapade seemed geared to prove to him just how wrong he had been, again.

Somehow, as a result of the merger earlier tonight, he had ended up with a complete set of extra memories.

Buffy’s memories.

And, knowing how things worked around here courtesy of the Hellmouth, not to mention the look he was pretty sure was disgust on Buffy’s face, he was willing to bet everything he owned that she had ended up with a matching set of his.

Great. That was just exactly the kind of thing he needed to happen.

Sure, Buffy had to know that he had always been interested in more than just simple friendship with her, but now that she had all of his memories to look over, she’d probably think that he was some kind of pathetic perverted stalker guy obsessed with her when she saw how much he thought about her.

It wasn’t bad enough that he could see from her memories that she had actually been somewhat attracted to him initially, but that she had refrained from anything more because of his strong resemblance to one of her former classmates at Hemery who had always acted like the big brother that she had never really had. And irony of ironies, the only time he’d really aroused her in any sexual kind of way was when Hyena Boy had been ready to stake his claim on his mate. He was so glad he’d kept that little tidbit to himself – she had been really afraid that he’d bring that little kink up to her face.

No, to make it worse, you had to add in Buffy’s memories of Willow’s throwing out her not-really-all-that-subtle ‘Hands Off! No Trespassing!’ signs shortly after they first met, which is what had convinced Buffy to relegate him to the status of ‘one of the girls’, because that was a nice, safe niche where she could classify him, and not have to worry about any conflicting feelings she might be having about him, or about possibly alienating pretty much only the girl in school who didn’t seem to mind being seen in public with her.

And then, to make a bad situation suck even more, throw in a tall, dark, handsome, mysterious and cryptic-speaking stranger who seemed to know a great deal about the dark side of life that she had been drafted to fight, and he could see how, from Buffy’s perspective, Angel looked like the answers to her prayers about how she could reconcile having a boyfriend with the demands of her new lifestyle.

Actually, now that he could see her memories, he could even maybe kinda understand the whole lap dance thing she had done earlier in the year.

After the whole trauma of being killed by the Master and the emotional upset of going to live with her father for the summer, Buffy had begun to retreat into her pre-Slayer, Hemery-High Queen-Bitch personality, regressing to a time when her life had been a great deal safer and less distressing and upsetting than it currently was. And after seeing how she had behaved back then, even Xander had to admit that Buffy had truly been a pure Grade A bitch on crack, no doubt about that whatsoever.

Once she had gotten back into town, Hemery-High-Queen-Bitch-Buffy had been annoyed that Deadboy wasn’t responding to her hints and veiled innuendoes as quickly as she wanted him to, so she had decided to use the closest, most convenient guy around to make a point to Pulseless about how she could have any guy she wanted, and he’d better make a move soon, or lose any chance he might have with her. Xander had just been the most convenient chump to use. Her little parting comment about thanking him hadn’t been anything personal, it was just exactly the kind of putdown that the cock-teaser she had been back then would have used to make herself feel superior to whoever she might be with at the moment.

Not that knowing the reasons for her behavior made him feel any better, mind you. Having someone you had considered a good friend treat you the same way as your parents did simply did wonders for the old self-esteem. Of course, Buffy had never referred to him as Dogshit like his father seemed so fond of doing.

But the one thing he had gained from her memories that *really* pissed him off was seeing Buffy’s belief that *he* had had been the one tagging along after Angel when he went down to the Master’s lair to save her.

He could hardly friggin’ believe it when he first stumbled across those recollections.

Buffy actually believed that the Gutless Wonder had courageously ventured down into the dreaded depths of the Master’s labyrinth all on his own, and that *he* had just followed him down there to provide whatever support he could!

She had never asked anyone about the circumstances surrounding her rescue and revival, blindly assuming that Breathless’s love for her had compelled him to pursue her into the tunnels underlying the town. Deadboy clearly had never brought the subject up so he wouldn’t have to admit that he had been busy cowering in his apartment, reading a damned book and lamenting the Slayer’s impending demise while she was on her way to her preordained death.

And it wasn’t like he could just tell her what had really happened; all that would result from doing something like that would be for him to look like he was jealous and trying to cut the ground out from beneath his primary rival for the Slayer’s affections.

Yeah, Fate had evidently decided it was time to declare it was ‘Shit All Over Xander Harris Week’ again and wanted to start it off as strongly as possible.

< Yeah, what else can go wrong tonight? > he silently asked himself, knowing better than to say something like aloud.

Turning right at the corner, intending to head home now, he found himself facing down four vamps, all already in game face.

Shit.

Evidently, you weren‘t even allowed to *think* things like that in Sunnydale.

~~~

Buffy Summers was feeling sick to her stomach.

Almost literally.

It wasn’t that she was having an adverse reaction to anything she had consumed earlier in the evening.

Perched atop one of the picnic tables located to one side of the town’s municipal sports fields, she had been giving some serious thought to the overwhelming events that had changed and dominated her life for the past two and a half years.

No, she wasn’t physically sick; it was the fact that she was realizing the extent to which she had already screwed up her not-all-that-long life and possibly ruined what might be one of the most significant and precious friendships she could ever hope to have that was making her feel ill.

She had not only allowed her friendship with Willow to affect her attitude towards Xander and his potential interest in her, she had let her infatuation with Angel color her reactions to his erratic and unreliable behavior and blind her to his now-obvious deficiencies in both morals and courage.

Her memories flashed back to that moment of stupefying realization back in the library when, all at once, she had felt as though she were awakening from some sort of ultra-weird waking dream in which she had been seriously crushing on Willow, of all people! Dismissing the feelings as probably just lingering aftereffects of that Ethan guy’s spell, her thoughts had, naturally, immediately turned to wondering how quickly she could get out of their current discussion and get back to her honey, Angel, when suddenly, she had been hit by an avalanche of memories that most definitely weren’t hers.

Her musings about Angel had triggered an abrupt cavalcade of scenes and emotions centering on the ensouled vampire, the most striking and disturbing being one of her (but not really her; these memories clearly belonged to someone else) confronting the dark-haired mysterious stranger with whom she was enamored in his apartment.

/// Flashback ///

“She's gone.”

“What do you mean?” Angel asked him/her.

“Buffy. She's gone to fight the Master.”

“He'll kill her,” was the vampire’s immediate response to his/her statement. And that, apparently, was his only reaction to the news.

“Rumor has it. Only we're not gonna let it happen.”

“Well, what do you propose we do about it?”

“Look, I know you can find this Master guy. He's underground, right? Take me to him,” he/she demanded.

“You're way outta your league, kid,” Angel snorted in mixed disdain and dismissal of his/her request. “The Master'll kill you before you can even breathe. If you're lucky.”

“How can I say this clearly?” Buffy heard himself/herself saying, before abruptly producing a cross and brandishing it at the demon before him/her. Angel growled and flinched back until he fell back onto the couch.

“I don't like you. At the end of the day, I pretty much think you're a vampire,” he/she stated with a growing feeling of rage and mounting anxiety at how much time he/she might be wasting talking with this jerk while the girl he/she cared about (No, the girl that he/she loved! He/she knew that for certain, even if the object of his/her affections didn’t, couldn’t, care about him/her *that* way.) was on her way to confront the Master alone.

“But Buffy's got this big old yen for you,” he/she continued. “She thinks you're a real person. And right now, I need you to prove her right.”

“You're in love with her,” Angel challenged him/her.

“Aren't you?”

/// End flashback. ///

The almost instantaneous flash of memories had left her stunned and speechless as she immediately realized whose memories she had just seen, and she looked up to find Xander staring at her with a dawning look of surprise, dismay and horror on his face.

< Oh god, he knows! He knows I just read his mind! > she thought to herself, as panic instantly set in at the thought that the tall brunet somehow knew she had seen his memories.

Unable to face him, she babbled some mindless excuse to her Watcher as she grabbed her coat and almost literally ran out of the room.

Her headlong flight had taken her out of the school building to wander aimlessly through the now-deserted town as she realized that she had received far more than just the initial display of memories she had seen back in the library. She could remember pretty much everything Xander Harris had ever said or done, all of them in large-as-life detail: sight, sound, smell, emotion; the whole package.

She saw him meeting a little red-haired girl and a black-haired boy on the first day of kindergarten. Willow and Jesse…

His father’s fist and waking up in the hospital… Again and again.

Good and bad, so very bad at times, memories paraded before her mind’s eye.

And because of that, she now knew exactly how Xander felt about her.

She knew exactly how he had felt when she had rebuffed him last year when he had asked her to the Spring Fling.

She had experienced the heartfelt relief and joy he had felt when she finally responded to the emergency CPR he had administered to her later that same night after finding her lying facedown in that pool of water in the master’s chambers.

And now she also knew exactly how he had felt when she had danced with him in the Bronze back in September when she was trying make Angel jealous.

< Oh god, how much of an idiot could I have been? > she asked herself.

It wasn’t enough that she had tried to play Xander off against Angel the same way she had played guys off against each other back when she was at Hemery, back when she was still that shallow, vapid airhead more concerned with maintaining her position at the top of the really completely meaningless high school social pyramid than with accomplishing anything that might possibly be meaningful. No, she had just *had* to twist the emotional knife she had slipped between his ribs by reminding him that she hadn’t even bothered to thank him for saving her life.

Talk about cold – even Cordelia had called her on that particular piece of bitchery.

And to now realize that she had mocked the youth – no, the *man* who had saved her life while selflessly risking his own –just made her feel even more wretched than she had been. Even her actions following that realization had done little to make her feel better about her previous behavior.

Her earlier aimless wanderings as she ran through and evaluated her newly gained memories after leaving the school had brought her to the neighborhood in which Angel kept his apartment, she had realized when she had finally taken note of her surroundings. Her lips had formed a thin line as she considered over the course of several minutes what she needed to do while staring at the building’s outer walls, before finally entering his building and knocking on his basement flat’s door.

The usual expression of non-commitment and disinterest Angel typically wore had instantly transmuted to a small smile upon seeing her, and he had quickly opened the door to his dwelling in a silent invitation to enter.

The smile, however, had rapidly turned to shocked dismay upon hearing her greeting after she entered and stood looking at him with an expression of pain and anger on her face.

“You lied to me, you bastard!”

“What are you talking about, Buffy?”

“You let me believe that you came down into the Master’s lair after me to help,” the diminutive blonde snapped, staring at the hybrid being she had begun to fall in love with the previous year.

“You let me think that you let Xander tag along, and that was why he was there and could give me CPR,” she continued, the anger and hurt at his deception clear in her eyes. “And now I know that it was really the other way around! He dragged your cowardly, brooding ass out of this apartment and shamed you into leading him down there so that he could try to help!” she finished her brief summation of the previous spring’s events, clearly challenging to him to deny it.

“Is that what the boy told you?” the ensouled vampire half-snarled, consternation and panic flaring in his eyes as he tried to think of an appropriate reply to the tiny blonde’s accusations.

“Now that he’s finally realized he can’t compete with me for your affection, he’s trying to make me look like a coward in your eyes, in the hope that you’ll go running to him after breaking up with me,” he stated, confident that Buffy would believe his version of what had happened the night of the Spring Fling.

The Slayer couldn’t decide at that moment which was worse: that the person she had thought she loved and who loved her hadn’t denied her accusation, or that he had ignored her accusation completely and was trying to divert her attention by attempting to alienate her from the man who had really saved her life with bogus claims.

It was at that moment that she felt any affection that might have remained in her heart for the ensouled vampire wither and die.

“First off, he's not a boy, Angel - he's a *man*! And Xander didn’t say even a single word to me about what happened here that night,” she practically spat out her reply. “Thanks to that spell earlier tonight, I’ve got a complete copy of *all* of Xander’s memories in my head. I *know* what happened, Angel.”

It didn’t seem possible, but the vampire became even paler than he normally looked.

“Buffy, I can explain –“ Angel began saying before she savagely cut him off.

“I’m sure you think you can,” she said as she looked at him with eyes now completely devoid of any affection. “But I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.

“I know who’s been there for me every time I’ve needed it, and who’s stayed in the shadows and just watched. I know who’s said exactly what he thinks about whatever’s going on, whether I wanted to hear it or not, and who’s just made mysterious and cryptic comments without ever committing himself one way or another. I know who’s stepped up and been willing to fight, even if they’ve never gotten any kind of training, and who hasn’t done anything unless they absolutely had to.

“I know who I can depend on, now,” she told the distraught being staring at her. “And I know it isn’t you.

“Goodbye, Angel.”

The expression in her eyes told the ensouled vampire that, as of this minute, he was now just as dead to the woman he had developed an obsession for as he had been the moment Darla had drained him some two hundred and forty-odd years before.

~~~

The balance demon known as Whistler let out an explosive sigh of relief as the little blonde slayer left Rat-Boy’s apartment. Being called on the carpet by the Big Guy along with the PTB to be shown what the old time line would have wrought definitely wasn’t his idea of fun. Angelus would have begun a long slide that would have eventually led to the First Evil (Boy, Lucy sure hadn’t ever gotten that ego under control) being given a chance to come out and play by the end. He hadn’t messed up that bad since he inadvertently got Jimmy Carter elected.

But, with a little judicious tampering, that looks like it might be avoided, and since he hadn’t been hit by a thunderbolt from on high, the Boss must be OK with the result, too.

Now he just had to make sure that girl in LA didn’t get that little five year vacation to Pylea and make sure to hook her up with Doyle, just in case Angel got to his destiny a little early, and he’d be off the hook.

A balance demon’s work is never done…

~~~
After leaving her now-ex-heartthrob’s building, the petite blonde had drifted through town to the sports complex where she now found herself as her ruminations turned to the other man who had figured so prominently in her life since moving here to Sunnydale.

Her schoolgirl crush on the romance novel cliché, the tall, dark and mysterious stranger, had caused her to ignore the souled vampire’s numerous and obvious character flaws and had almost gotten her permanently killed, she silently lamented to herself, while simultaneously causing her to ignore another potential boyfriend’s positive qualities.

Not that Xander was perfect, she realized from just a cursory examination of the brunet’s memories. Oh no, far from it. He could be quite petty and annoying (almost childishly so at times), extremely stubborn, he frequently spoke without thinking, was usually completely clueless about what to say or do around girls and generally had the table manners of a barnyard animal.

In short, he was a typical male teenager.

But he was also uncommonly brave and loyal and would throw himself, sometimes literally, into the line of fire to save an innocent or someone he cared about.

Comparing that to what she now recognized, with the advantage of hindsight, were Angel’s usually nebulous and cryptic warnings about possible dangers she might be facing, his definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to putting his neck on the line and his total absence of candor when it came to anything relating to his past, she had to wonder exactly what, aside from an overabundance of teenage hormones, could possibly have made her think that the souled vampire might her predestined love, her soulmate.

And it wasn’t like she had finally wised up and figured all of that out on her own.

Uhn-uh. It had taken the combination of the Hellmouth and a warped and bitter English sorcerer for her to end up with a full-color, high-fidelity, one hundred percent genuine, in the flesh (so to speak) copy of Xander Harris’s memories that allowed her to completely remove any possibility of lingering doubt that she was anything but an absolute and utter idiot when it came to making life-altering decisions.

She had had the opportunity to have exactly the type of romance she had longed for ever since becoming the Slayer standing right there in front of her the entire time she had been here in Sunnydale, and she’d managed to miss seeing it completely, thanks to her own stubborn pride and inability to even think, let alone acknowledge, that she might have made a mistake. Fortunately, she might still have time to correct some of the choices she had made.

< Please, Heaven, let that be true! > she silently prayed to whatever deity might be listening.

Her decisions now made, she effortlessly flowed off the tabletop and began making her way towards her new destination, intent on repairing the damage she had caused to a friendship whose value she had never truly gauged, and possibly rebuilding a future she had never truly dared dream of having.

She had just turned off Main Street and was heading off towards her best friend’s house which was only a short distance away, hoping but not really expecting to find him there for some reason, when she felt an wave of alarm and apprehension course through her, which was immediately followed by an almost overwhelming surge of revulsion and loathing with a dash of rage and hatred mixed in for good measure. She frowned as she realized that particular combination of feelings matched exactly how she usually felt when she was on patrol and encountered a group of vampires.

The frown on her face only deepened as she broke into a run and headed towards the spot the feelings seemed to originate from, her legs seeming to almost blur as she quickly attained her top speed.

Whatever was responsible for that mix of emotions most likely didn’t bode well for whoever might be in its vicinity.

~~~

“Well, well, well,” the lead vampire, a rather pretty brunette, grinned as it displayed its fangs in a wide smile intended to panic its prey into a headlong escape attempt, “looks like breakfast’s decided to deliver itself to us.”

Xander’s common sense had told him that he was in big trouble the instant he had turned the corner and seen the four demon-controlled corpses heading towards him. His survival instincts were screaming at him to turn around and run his ass off as quickly as possible, in the admittedly virtually nonexistent hope that he might be able to find some place of refuge that the bloodsuckers he was currently facing wouldn’t be able to follow him into. He also knew, intellectually, that he was no match for even a single vampire in a one-on-one match up, let alone facing the current four-on-one odds he was looking at.

Unfortunately for his common sense and self-preservation instincts, however, the founding member of the Scooby Gang was in a very bad mood as the result of what seemed to be the night’s continuing attempts to shit all over him. Combining that with the alarm and apprehension filling him upon his first sight of the demons, which was immediately followed by an almost overwhelming surge of revulsion and loathing tinged with a dash of rage and hatred, and he decided he simply wasn’t going to put up with any more aggravations that Fate might throw at him.

Giving the female vamp what could best be described as a demented smile, Xander instantly slid forward and drove a punch into the demon’s face as he growled, “Ladies first,” the infuriated aspect of his mind reveling in the feel of his opponent’s flesh and bone crumbling under the impact of his fist even as he followed the initial assault with a driving kick into the groin of the vampire to his immediate right.

The other facet of his mind, that had decided to sit back and watch, spectator-fashion, as he effectively committed suicide, leaped to its metaphorical feet and cheered as the first vampire he hit flew backwards through the air some dozen feet before landing on the sidewalk and sliding another ten feet back before finally coming to a halt, while his second victim gave a high-pitched scream and dropped to the sidewalk, clutching at his groin.

Momentarily stunned by their ostensible victim’s unexpected attack, the two still standing vampires stared at him in disbelief, providing the still-enraged youth with an opportunity to pivot and continue his assault on his would-be predators. Gliding forward in a lethally fluid movement faster than could be expected, the brunet reached out towards his potential assailants and grabbed hold of each by the neck, then slammed the vampires’ heads together, the collision sounding like two melons hitting the floor. Okay, it was admittedly a little bit Three Stooges-ish, but damn if it wasn’t effective.

As both vamps dropped to the ground, only half-conscious from the surprise attack, Xander pulled his always-present stake out of his back pocket and quickly dusted both demons.

He was in the process of standing back up, a feeling of satisfaction at removing two more bloodsuckers from existence filling him, when the faintest scuff of sound from behind him alerted him to the fact that he wasn’t alone. He was just beginning to turn to face the source of the sound when something slammed against the side of his head and a pain-filled explosion of stars suddenly burst into existence.

He felt himself fly through the air for a brief moment before landing in an ungainly crash and rolling several feet more, coming to an abrupt halt against the unforgiving trunk of an oak tree.

“Okay, meat, you’re gonna pay for that,” he dimly heard someone snarling as he tried to shake off the disorientation gripping him.

Hands grabbed him and lifted him off the ground and he forced his eyes open to see the scowling face of the first vamp he had hit, stolen blood streaked across her furious features.

“That was the first and last lucky shot you’re ever gonna get, bloodbag,” she informed her victim, anticipating the horrified expression on his face as he futilely struggled to free himself while she slowly drained him of his life’s blood.

She was unpleasantly surprised then, when her prey’s expression narrowed and his mouth curled back into a snarl to match her own as he glared at her.

“Wrong,” he spat out and the vamp was just beginning to wonder exactly what he meant when she felt two rock-hard fists crash against her temples in simultaneous hammer strikes and her consciousness flickered out as her frontal lobe liquefied.

“You definitely picked the wrong night to piss me off, bitch,” Xander muttered as he picked himself up from the ground. He had no idea why he was dealing so easily with the usual denizens of Sunnydale’s nightlife, but he wasn’t about to complain about the fact that he could do so.

After first checking on the condition of the second vamp he had taken down and seeing him still curled up on the ground clutching his groin, he began looking around for his stake, which he had dropped when the brunette vamp had attacked him, and smiled when he saw it lying just a few feet away. He quickly retrieved it and staked the insensible demon before she could awaken and attack him again.

Looking up upon hearing the sound of running feet and someone calling his name, he saw Buffy heading towards him at full speed and had barely managed to stand fully upright when she slammed into him.

~~~

As she frantically closed the distance between them, Buffy could now see as well as feel the presence of the four vamps closing in their quarry at the far end of Harbinger Avenue. She was also getting some sort of empathic or sympathetic feeling from whoever it was the vamps were after, she was surprised to note. That person was evidently the source of the odd feelings she had experienced just a few moments earlier, she surmised. How and why that could be was something to be addressed later, once that person was safe and the vamps dusted.

As she neared the uneven confrontation, she was astonished to see the vamps’ victim striking out in an attack that sent two of the vamps to the ground. And with their collapse, she could now see that the person in question was Xander!

Even as she sought to increase her speed, her heart pounding with panicked worry upon her recognition of the vamps’ target, she watched in astonishment as her best friend, the man who had heedlessly risked his own life to bring her back from death last year, almost effortlessly took down the two remaining vamps and staked them almost as easily as she could done.

Her heart in her mouth as she ran, she saw him then attacked by the vamp leader using the stolen body of a brunette woman and prayed frantically as he fought off the demon’s attack, managing to knock his assailant unconscious.

Seeing him lifting himself up from the ground after staking his assailant, Buffy felt a tidal wave of relief surge through her as she realized that he was safe and at least relatively unscathed, and she couldn’t help herself from calling out his name.

“Xander!”

He had just managed to stand upright as she reached him, her speed slackened to a mere sprint, and she practically threw herself into his arms, nearly knocking both of them from their feet as she began begging his forgiveness in an almost-hysterical frame of mind.

“I’m sorry, Xand!” she told him as she anxiously hugged him to her. “I’m so sorry! I was a bitch and I’m so sorry for treating you like that! Can you forgive me? Please forgive me! I’m so sorry!”

The sound of an angry growl behind her momentarily broke her attention away from her apologies and she spun around to drive her stake into the heart of the now-recovered sole remaining vampire, dusting it before it was even aware that she had acted before quickly turning back to Xander.

“I’m sorry, Xander,” she repeated herself as she again threw herself into his arms, which reflexively closed around her without any conscious thought.

“Please forgive me. I didn’t know it was you! I swear, I didn’t know it was you!” she sobbed, her tears soaking into his shirt as he held her. “Really! I didn’t know it was you until just a little while ago!” she repeated insistently.

“I just assumed he came after me ‘cause he told me he loved me and he never said anything about it afterwards and when I finally did realize what happened I went and confronted him about it and I told him I knew now who I could depend on and that it wasn’t him but you and I’m so sorry that I never tried to give the two of us a chance and I’d really like to try that now and see if we could make things work out and I’m really so sorry Xand and I hope you can forgive me and I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I‘m so sorry I’m so sorry,” she kept telling him as she wept.

For his part, Xander initially had no idea what Buffy was babbling about as she pressed herself against him and frantically begged his forgiveness. Gradually, as her sobs became less labored and her words more comprehensible, he began understanding exactly what it was that had Buffy so upset. And once he did understand the cause of her distress, he was quite happy to reassure her that, yes, he really did believe her when she said she was sorry, and yes, he believed it was possible to forgive her for her actions, despite her initial anguished denials that she truly deserved forgiveness for her slipshod treatment of him.

He was content to merely stand there and hold her for however long a time as she’d permit, so that was what he did, letting the tiny blonde’s words of apology flow and offering an occasional reassuring grunt and hug as he deemed appropriate. The fact that she had apparently given Deadboy the brush-off only gave him another reason to smile.

In fact, the longer he stood there holding her, the more Xander truly began to feel as though he could actually feel Buffy’s remorse and guilt.

Could his apparent hyper-sensitivity to the petite beauty’s emotions be an aftereffect of the Halloween costume spell, a lingering side-effect of the fact that they had both shared a mind, for however short a period time?

And even more significant, was it possible that the effect might work both ways? If he could sense Buffy’s emotions, could she possibly sense his?

“Uh, Buff, I don’t want you to think I’m crazy or anything, and I’m not just saying this to make you feel better, but I think I really can feel just how bad you feel about everything that’s happened,” he said after carefully considering the myriad possibilities of the situation for several minutes.

“So, I want to try something, to try and check things out, okay?” he asked. ”But I need you to look at me for a minute.”

Slowly, the Slayer raised her head from its current position snuggled against his chest. She was finally beginning to feel reassured about her friend’s guarantees of forgiveness and she was extremely reluctant to let go him and relinquish the feelings of warmth and comfort she was currently enjoying. But if Xander felt it was important, then she clearly needed to pay attention to whatever it was he wanted to tell her.

Buffy reluctantly turned her tear-reddened eyes up to him, giving another small sniff as she did so, and a small smile blossomed on her face when she saw Xander smiling down at her.

“Okay, Xand, what do you want me to do?” she asked, her spirits rising as he gave her that same goofy smile he normally wore.

“I want you to just step back, close your eyes for a minute and concentrate and see if you can feel anything, uhm, unusual, I guess you’d say,” she heard him say to her as she continued to bask in his reassuring warmth. “See if anything around here seems different.”

“Okay,” she replied, grudgingly unlocking her arms from around him and taking a step back.

Closing her eyes, Buffy focused her attention on her surroundings and let her awareness begin to flow outward, checking for anything unusual, anything that might differ from the typical Sunnydale night.

Everything seemed completely normal she decided after concentrating on her surroundings for well over a minute. Absolutely nothing unusual showed up on her Slayer radar, her ‘Slaydar’ as Xander had once called it, and she was beginning to wonder exactly how long he expected her to continue this experiment before he was willing to call it a night so that they could go home and get some well-deserved rest.

Not that she really objected to doing this, mind you, she thought to herself idly. At least, not as long as he stayed here next to her with his arms around her. She hadn’t really noticed exactly when he had embraced her like that, but she was perfectly content to stay exactly just as she was now. She felt sort of like a big, warm fluffy blanket had been wrapped around her on a cold morning, cuddling and reassuring her, and she never wanted to move or let him pull away.

“So, Buff, do you feel anything strange or different?” she heard him ask, his voice sounding curiously distant from her.

“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “I feel fine, actually. All nice and comfy with your arms around me,” she murmured, turning to lean her head back against his chest.

Strangely, she couldn’t feel him behind her, and she frowned disapprovingly as she opened her eyes, only to see the tall brunet standing several feet away, in front of her.

“Uh, that’s pretty much what I wanted to check about, Buff,” he said, an uncertain half-smile on his face as he looked at her.

“I, uh, think we can, uhm, each feel what the other is feeling now,” he announced.

Shock, surprise, consternation and an atavistic terror suddenly exploded in her mind at the idea that her thoughts might be open for a stranger to read and Buffy was just opening her mouth to scream at him when she abruptly realized that not all of the surprise, consternation and fear she was feeling was hers.

Part of that surging maelstrom of feeling she was experiencing was Xander’s and he was just as upset as she was. And in addition to all of the barely controlled emotions she was feeling, she somehow knew that he was also terrified that she would hate and reject him because of this new, primal, almost instinctive connection that they were suddenly sharing.

Strangely, the intensity of the desperate fear that filled him at the thought of her rejection brought her own raging emotions to a sudden halt, momentarily leaving her in a curiously calm and balanced state of mind that allowed her to more rationally consider the ramifications of their current situation.

The fact that she now apparently possessed a complete copy of Xander’s memories made it a virtual certainty that the same applied to him regarding her’s, and the fact that he was still not only willing to tolerate her presence but to actively comfort her as he had been doing for the past several minutes indicated that he wasn’t so greatly appalled or offended by either her presence or any of her past actions that he couldn’t stand to be around her.

If any thing, the presence of those memories would make understanding some of their past actions more comprehensible to the other, since they could each truly understand why the other had done what they had done.

And because of that understanding and comprehension, there was no need to fear either Xander or his reactions. While he would not necessarily agree with some of her past actions, and in fact would certainly have taken different actions in several instances, he would not condemn her for what she had done.

Sure, there was still plenty of room for embarrassment, mortification and discomfort, but that was just a normal part of life. And on the plus side of the ledger, she now also knew, without any doubt whatsoever, of the boundless love he felt for her and his uncompromising intention to support her in the bloody and violence-filled vocation into which she had been drafted.

Actually, now that she had given it a moment’s thought, if she had to be empathically connected to anyone, she couldn’t really think of anyone else she would choose than Xander Harris.

Her thoughts now settled, her decisions made, Buffy smiled at the tall brunet standing a few feet anxiously watching her and stepped forward to pull him into a hug.

“Come on, Xand,” she told him as she pulled him tight. “It’s late and it’s time we should be getting home.”

“Okay, Buff,” he agreed, relaxing as she molded herself against him and just enjoying the warmth and reassurance her touch gave him. After a moment, he released her and began turning away, in order to head towards his parents’ house, only to immediately be restrained by a supernaturally strong grip on his hand.

“Uh-uh, Xand,” the Slayer shook her head. “You’re not spending another night with *those people* ever again.” The emphasis she used when describing his parents made the male Scooby look at her questioningly.

“I know, Xand,” Buffy reminded him with a restrained expression on her gorgeous features. “I know about all of it, and I’m not letting them near you again.”

The thunderous emotions he could feel emanating from the petite blonde told Xander all he needed to know about how the woman of his dreams felt about the treatment he had received from the people ostensibly responsible for his welfare, and he merely nodded and let her lead him in the direction of1630 Revello Drive

~~~

Summers residence
November 1, 1997

“Mom, don’t we have any Twinkies left?” Buffy semi-whined as she rifled through the storage cabinets near the cellar door.

“Well, Dawn’s got a pack in her lunch bag and I think Xander ate the only other pack we had, honey,” the eldest Summers woman answered as she stood in the dining room and made a last minute check of the folders in her briefcase.

“Okay, thanks,” Buffy called back as she hurried over and examined the youngest Summers’ lunch bag. Her face lit up with happiness as she located the sought-after treat and appropriated it just as Dawn walked into the kitchen.

“Hey! Those’re mine!” the young brunette protested as she saw her sister tearing open the cellophane holding the snack treats.

“Sorry, butt pain,” Buffy approximated an apology as she smiled and stuffed one of the cream-filled delights into her mouth whole.

“But the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the obnoxious little sister,” she semi-quoted the famous Star Trek line.

“MOM! Buffy stole my Twinkies!” Dawn loudly complained as she threw an evil-eyed glare at her sibling. Her outrage increased exponentially as Buffy gave her a thoroughly evil grin and held the remaining Twinkie out towards her for a moment before pulling it back and stuffing it into her mouth as she headed down the hallway.

“Hey, Xand! We need to get going!” the Slayer then went on to yell from the bottom of the stairs, the snack cake muffling her voice not at all.

“Girls, stop squabbling. We need to get moving if you’re not going to be late,” Joyce cautioned her daughters as she moved through the kitchen. “Buffy, don’t take any more of your sister’s snacks, okay? In fact, why don’t you stop at the grocery store on your way home and pick up a couple more boxes, if you like them so much now?” she suggested as she urged Dawn to hurry up.

“Oh my goodness!”

Dawn turned to see exactly what had triggered the clearly admiring comment from her mother and her jaw almost dropped to the floor when she saw the reason for her mother’s exclamation.

It was Xander.

Actually, it had to be a Xander Harris clone, she immediately decided as she took another look at the tall brunet descending the stairs. It couldn’t really be Xander because this guy looked too good to be him. Not that her future husband wasn’t good-looking, she reminded herself; it was just that he never really seemed to care or take the time to look his best.

And this Xander Harris looked *real* good, she decided approvingly.

He had on a pair of pressed khakis that were cut just right to show off his butt, she thought to herself in a completely impartial opinion, along with a black golf shirt that molded perfectly to his upper body, revealing and emphasizing his lean, muscular build, and his hair had been combed and had received just the right amount of gel to make it seem like he hadn’t used any at all.

She remembered seeing both the pants and the shirt before this, although they had usually been wrinkled when she did see them, and he had never worn either article with such casual elegance before, either. Not the way he was doing this morning.

Yeah, he was completely drool-worthy, the Key thought to herself, and a satisfied smirk crossed her face as she glanced over and saw that her sister had frozen in place upon catching sight of her fellow Scooby Gang member.

She had a strong temptation to reach over and push Buffy’s jaw shut, but she managed to resist it as her hopeless and apparently-completely-clueless-until-this-moment older sister shook her head and then quickly began trying to act as if she hadn’t been acting like a complete and utter dork the moment she saw him coming down the stairs

“What? Is there something on my face?” Xander demanded, self-consciously reaching up to check his face upon seeing all three women staring at him.

“Uh, no. Ah, not at all,” Buffy shook her head negatively, trying not to let him feel through their link her pleased surprise at just how good he looked to her. “I, uh, just didn’t recognize the shirt you had on, that's all,” she quickly added.

Dawn could see that Buffy was trying to regain her composure after practically drooling on the floor after him, but Xander, being the totally clueless but good-looking doofus he was, took her denial at face value.

“Oh. Okay,” he nodded, trying in turn not let Buffy feel through their link his satisfaction at her reaction to his new look.

“You ladies ready to go?” he asked as he looked over at Joyce and Dawn.

“Uh-huh.”

“Yeah, we’re both ready. Let’s go, Xand. Buffy can find her own way to school. If we’re lucky, maybe she’ll follow a trail of bread crumbs and get lost in the woods or something.”

“Mom!”

“Dawn!”

“What?”

~~~

“Giles, some really weird stuff happened to the two of us after you broke that Ethan guy’s spell last night,” Buffy announced to her Watcher as she and Xander entered the library. She smiled to herself, a little giddy, as she also noted that they were casually holding hands as they did so, something neither one of them had apparently given any conscious thought to.

“Err, yes, I know, Buffy,” the Englishman acknowledged as he exited his office, his attention primarily focused on the book he was currently holding in his hands and not noticing Xander’s presence.

“Fortunately, I was able to determine exactly which spell it was that Willow had cast and then attempted to dispel, and I am confident that there were no lingering aftereffects that we need be concerned about,” he reassured his Slayer.

“What are you talking about, Giles?” Xander immediately demanded upon hearing the Watcher’s words, concern for his oldest childhood friend obvious in his voice. " What do you mean, Willow cast a spell? What kind of spell are you talking about, who did she cast it on, and why did she cast it?"

“What? Oh, good lord,” Giles muttered, looking more than a bit flustered upon seeing Xander present.

“Yeah, Giles, what are you talking about?” Buffy chimed in.

Trapped between the two teens, and speaking only after an exhaustive degree of badgering from his young charges, Giles reluctantly informed them of everything that had transpired after the amateur witch had first cast her spell, along with his hypothesis regarding the theoretically temporary aftereffects that might have remained after the spell had ended.

“Well, it looks like you might have been partly right about some of the spell’s aftereffects,” Buffy informed her Watcher once he had finished outlining his beliefs concerning some of the possible consequences. “We did share all of each other’s memories last night.

“And we still do,” she admitted, after first glancing over at Xander, and receiving his nod to reveal that fact.

“There’s more,” the tall brunet added, startling the petite blonde with his admission. “We can feel each other’s emotions, too.”

Seeing the surprise in Buffy’s eyes at his statement, Xander turned to her to explain. “We need to learn how to control the whole emotion sensing thing,” he told her. “You being distracted if I get hit when we’re out patrolling would definitely be of the bad, Buff,” he clarified his previous statement.

“And I will be patrolling,” he added in a ‘don’t bother arguing’ tone of voice that elicited a small start of surprise from Giles when Buffy merely nodded her head in agreement with his statement.

“And it looks like now Xander's got some Slayer powers of his own, too,” Buffy elaborated, further astonishing the librarian. As a demonstration of that statement, Xander retrieved a piece of leftover steel pipe from inside the book cage and casually bent it into an ‘O’ shape.

“Indeed.” The sudden onslaught of glasses-cleaning set off by the two’s unexpected revelations indicated that the Englishman was furiously contemplating what additional possible effects the already demonstrated phenomena might produce in either or both teens.

“I’ll need to research this further and see whether I can locate records of any other instances of similar type of phenomena occurring,” Giles finally said after a brief moment of silence.

“Boy, I have to say that statement certainly took me by surprise, G-Man,” Xander joked as he and Buffy gathered up their books as the bell rang and began heading to their first class.

“Uh, by the way, Giles,” Xander said as he paused in the doorway, “have you seen Willow this morning?” Buffy could feel through their link the effort he was making to sound as casual as he could when he asked the question.

“Uhm, after some consideration regarding last night's events, I, uh, suggested to Willow that it might be more, uhm, prudent were she to remain home from school today,” Giles replied, clearly uncomfortable with the topic under discussion.

“Uh, okay,” the teen nodded acknowledgement of the Watcher’s implied suggestion.

“Right then,” Giles replied. “I’ll expect to see both of you after class, then.”

Bidding the librarian goodbye, the two Scoobies quickly left for class.

~~~

The rest of the day passed without any major incidents, Percy’s obnoxious questions to Xander concerning whether Buffy had dressed him that morning immediately drying up after the brunet Scooby casually picked him up with one hand and asked him to repeat his question.

Buffy had initially been more than a bit annoyed when Harmony, accompanied by several members of their clique, had begun hitting on Xander immediately upon seeing his new image. The Slayer's displeasure had instantly changed to glee and delighted satisfaction when he had immediately informed the pompous, self-important blonde and her companions that his heart had already been captured by the most beautiful girl in the school before then turning to her and taking her hand in a firm grip as they headed off to their next class, leaving behind a sputtering and disbelieving would-be social queen and her cohorts.

And this was made oh-so-much-better by Cordelia, who’d been standing off to the side, giving him a golf-clap of approval.

~~~

“So, what’s the verdict, book guy?”

Xander ignored the withering gaze the Englishman sent him as he dropped into his usual chair at the research table while Buffy perched herself on the table itself immediately next to him.

“I have been unable to find any comparable accounts in any volumes available to me of occurrences similar to that which the two of you experienced last night,” Giles stated as he looked at the two teenagers. “Which is, of course, exactly what one would expect, given that the circumstances involving you and your current methods of Slaying are completely unprecedented in any of the Council records which I have been able to access, Buffy.

“Accordingly, since it is clear that there are no antecedents upon which we might model our actions, I have decided that the most feasible method for dealing with this situation is to best determine the parameters of both of your abilities and then incorporate those considerations into a modified training curriculum that emphasizes your strongest attributes and allows you to compensate for any weaknesses or deficiencies we may come across,” he went on.

“So, that means extra-long and hard training, right?” Buffy stated, a bit uncertainly after listening to her Watcher. "For both of us?”

“Yes,” Giles sighed, “That means extra-long and hard training. For both of you.”

“Great.”

The brilliant smile his Slayer graced him with was a bit of a surprise, but he decide it was better to simply enjoy the unexpected reaction rather than question its occurrence.

“Very well, then. I will expect to see both of you here, dressed appropriately, immediately upon the completion of your final classes this afternoon.”

“You bet, Giles.”

”See you then, G-, uh, Giles.”

~~~

“Xander, Buffy, er, spoke to me earlier this afternoon and informed me of, uh, some of the particulars regarding your family situation, and I, I wanted to let you know that I have a second bedroom in my apartment which is currently unused. You are welcome to its use for as long or short a time as you might feel inclined.”

“Thanks, Giles, but it’s not like I’ve got a job or any money stashed away I could use to pay rent.”

“I don’t recall the term ‘rent’ being mentioned at any time in our conversation, Xander. My living expenses are covered by the Council as part of the general upkeep involved with acting as the Slayer’s Watcher, and I want you to consider the second bedroom I referred to as always being available for your use regardless of who might actually be paying for it.”

“Oh. Okay, then. I appreciate it, Giles. A lot.”

“And since you did raise the subject of employment, Xander, this seems as good a time as any to mention that I’ve been allocated sufficient supplementary funding to cover the expenses involved with hiring an assistant to help with additional research and training. This is the Hellmouth, after all, and the current level of supernatural activity seen here in recent weeks significantly exceeds any previous records which the Council has examined. I was wondering whether you might be interested in applying for the position? It’s not as if I anticipate that there will be a plethora of applicants vying for the position.”

“I’m not sure I followed all of that exactly, Giles, but I think I’m gonna have to go with a ‘Sure, why not?’ if that’s a job offer like I think it is.”

~~~

Giles’ apartment
November 2, 1997


“What can I do to help make it better?”

Buffy’s quiet question broke the silence that Xander had wrapped around himself as he sat on the small balcony staring out into the night.

“Just be you,” he replied as he gave her one of the sickliest smiles she had ever seen grace his face. His face was looking wan and she would have thought he was coming down with something if she didn’t know the real reason for his looking the way he did.

“She was afraid she was going to lose you, and she panicked, Xand,” she said quietly, in a half-comment/half-explanation sort of way as she stood by the sliding door to the balcony, waiting to see what he might want to do.

“I can sorta understand how she felt,” she added after a moment passed and he didn’t say anything in response to her comment. She could, literally, feel through their link the anguish, hurt and anger that was currently filling him as he mentally went over their conversation with the redheaded witch earlier that night.

“Now that we have this connection, even the thought that someday I might not have you around just terrifies me,” she confessed as she slipped onto his lap and wrapped her arms around him consolingly. “The two of you grew up together, Xand. You and Jesse were the only people she had who had ever cared about her, and we lost Jesse last year to Darla and the Master. All of a sudden, she’s lost half of the people she cares about to something supernatural, and then, this year, she thought you were slipping away from her, and she panicked and she tried to use the supernatural to prevent that from happening.”

Her fingers gently, reassuringly stroked his hair as she held him and she could feel him beginning to slowly relax under her ministrations.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be upset with her or that what she did was okay or right or anything like that, baby. And I’m not telling you that you should or shouldn’t forgive her, either,” she elaborated. “I’m just saying that she didn’t do what she did for bad or evil reasons. Just the wrong ones.”

“Actually,” Buffy gave a small half-laugh/half-sob, as she pulled him tighter against her, “in a completely selfish and self-centered kind of way, I’m grateful to her for doing it. If she hadn’t cast that spell, I never would have known the truth – about you, about Angel, about how I was acting, about everything – and I wouldn’t have been able to realize all the mistakes I had made and do something about them.

“And I wouldn’t have you.” Only Xander’s now-supernaturally acute hearing allowed him to hear the muffled words she murmured against his chest as she clutched him to her as his shirt once again blotted her tears.

“You’ll always have me,” he murmured in her ear.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Good.”

~~~

Sunnydale High library
November 3, 1997

“Uhm, Buffy, I, uh, I am not quite certain of the best way to convey this to you, but, uhm, Angel stopped by here, last night while you were on patrol and informed me that he was leaving town. He didn’t mention exactly where he might be moving to, but he asked me to tell you that he deeply regretted that he was not more forthright with you from the very beginning of your relationship. He said that once he was settled in his new accommodations, he would contact us, in case we should ever require additional assistance.”

“Thanks, Giles. If and when he calls, tell him we’ll be fine, but if we ever do need him, we’ll call.”

A moment later, after what, judging by their expressions, appeared to be a silent discussion with the tall brunet standing next to her, she grudgingly added, “And tell him that if he ever needs help, that he can call us."

“You’re being extremely noble and forgiving to someone who probably wouldn’t be nearly as nice if the situation were reversed,” Buffy observed a few moments later as they proceeded down the corridors to their post-lunch period classes.

“I’m not being noble, I’m being extremely selfish,” Xander informed Buffy as he grinned down at her as they walked hand in hand. “If it increases the odds of your making it home safely, I’m all in favor of Deadboy helping out here. Hell, if it helped keep you safe, I’d even kiss Snyder.

“But not with any tongue, mind you,” he added. “I might be crazy about you, but there are limits even I won’t dare to violate,” he stated with as somber an expression as he could manage.

“EEWWWWWW! That’s completely and totally disturbing in a way I thought even you couldn’t manage, you pervert,” the petite blonde squealed, laughing even as she gave him a disgusted look while swatting his arm

~~~

Los Angeles International Airport
May 4, 1998


“Are you sure you want to do this, Will?”

“Yeah, Xand, I do,” Willow nodded her head as she choked out the words Buffy knew he didn’t want to hear.

She, Giles and Jenny all turned slightly away from the two adolescents desperately clinging to each other to give them at least the illusion of privacy as they stood a mere dozen feet from the boarding gate for the plane that would take the redheaded witch to a coven Giles knew in England.

“I have to,” the hacker/apprentice witch stated with a sense of absolute certainty. “You saw what I almost did to that guy. If you guys hadn’t stopped me, I might have killed him!”

“I wanted to kill him myself, Wills,” the founder of the Scooby Gang replied with the same intensity as his friend. “If I had seen Oz’s pelt before seeing you, I probably would have been cheering you on while I held him down for you.”

“No, Xand,” Willow shook her head in disagreement even as she held on to him as though he were a lifeline thrown to a drowning woman. “This is the best thing for me to do all around. I need to learn to control myself and my power better than I can right now or there’s no telling what kind of bad stuff could happen.

“And besides, if I stay here, everything I see will still remind me of him, and that he’s not here anymore, and, and –“

Her next words were unintelligible, lost in the tears that overcame her yet again.

The announcement of the final boarding call broke through their mutual grief and Willow pulled away and futilely dabbed at her eyes and nose with the handkerchief Giles had given her earlier.

“I-I-I’ve got to go,” she stammered as the other three Scoobies moved up for a final last-minute embrace before she left.

“We’re all going to miss you, Willow,” Jenny declared as she gave her apprentice a rib-crushing hug. “I’m certain you’ll be exemplary in your studies and we’ll see you back here by summer!”

“You are one of the most intelligent and loving people I have ever had the good fortune to meet and I am confident that you will be returning to us in a very short time,” Giles told her, his voice beginning to break as he crushed her to him. “Should you require anything at all during your stay, you have but to let me know and I’ll make certain that you receive it forthwith.”

“Remember, Will, if you need us, all you have to do is call. Okay?” Buffy whispered as she enveloped her friend in an almost-literally rib-crushing hug, desperately afraid that she would break down and cry like a baby if she tried to speak any louder.

“You’re my Willow. Never, ever forget that, okay?” Xander said as he pulled her in for a final embrace.

“I won’t,” she promised before she tore herself away and almost ran through the boarding gate, not looking back at her family as she did so.

~~~

“She’s gonna be all right, Xand,” Buffy tried to reassure him as they cuddled together for mutual comfort and support in the back of Jenny’s car as they returned to Sunnydale. “It’ll take some time, but I really think she’s gonna be okay.”

“I know, Buff,” the tall brunet sighed as he slumped dejectedly against the seat. “It just hurts, ya know?”

“Yeah, Xand, I do,” Buffy agreed, answering what she already knew was a rhetorical question. “And it’s the way we lost him that really bothers me.”

“What really gets me is that it wasn’t even some vampire or demon that killed him,” Xander exclaimed heatedly. “That bastard was human and he knew Oz was, too, and he still shot him! He acted like Oz was some kind of animal, and he shot him, and then he skinned him!” The rage she could feel emanating from the normally jovial and good-humored youth against whom she was snuggling gave Buffy more than a little concern so she was somewhat relieved to hear their teachers attempt to calm her link-partner.

“I’ve already put out the word in the various circles I can access,” Jenny told the depressed teens. “If Cain shows up around any of the people I talk to, we’ll know about it as soon as they can get to a phone or somewhere with ‘net access.

“Having a witch, even a techno-pagan like me, owe you a favor is something everyone would like to have,” she explained in a bit more detail.

“Allowing your anger to continue to fester will do you absolutely no good at all, Xander,” Giles advised, glancing into the rear view mirror to check out what effect his words might be having on his most recently acquired charge. “While I know it does little to ameliorate the pain, I suggest that you both try to console yourselves by remembering him and the positive effects his participation in the Slaying generated and not focus unduly on his death or the method of his passing.

“Yeah, you’re right, Giles,” Buffy agreed with a small shake of her head. “He totally saved Willow when that one assassin started shooting up the school on Career Day. And if it weren’t for those soldier memories of his from Halloween, we would never have been able to get hold of that rocket launcher we used on the Judge.”

“And the whole not-being killed by anything non-silver thing really helped with that high-school-haunting-ghosts problem,” Xander mused aloud, before his face clouded over at the inadvertent reminder of their friend’s death.

Seeing the pain on his adopted children’s faces in the rear view mirror, Giles spoke up.

“I assure you both, Buffy, Xander, the bloody bastard responsible for Oz’s murder will not escape unpunished,” the Englishman assured the two teens, and the expression on his face that Buffy could glimpse from her position under Xander’s arm sent a small shiver down her spine at the same time a warm feeling of vengeful satisfaction filled her heart.

< If necessary, I’ll find him and tear that ponce’s heart out myself, > he thought to himself as he tried not to think about the brutally murdered youth who had been another child he had taken into his heart.

~~~

Summers residence
May 10, 1998


“Xand?”

The young demon-hunter looked up from his position on the living room couch to see the love of his life smiling at him from the far end of the couch.

“Yeah, Buff?”

“Mom called to say she’s gonna be staying overnight in L.A. to talk to some buyers who’re in town from the East Coast,” the petite blonde informed him as she slunk around the end table and eased her way down onto the sofa to snuggle up next to him.

“Okay?” he replied, a little uncertain as to the significance of the news. Joyce often stayed overnight when she was out of town on an ‘acquisition expedition,’ as she sometimes jokingly referred to her trips.

“And Dawn’s called to that say she’s staying over at Chrissy’s house,” the Slayer smiled at him again as she lightly ran her finger up over his chest.

“Oh really?” the brunet Scooby smiled more broadly upon hearing that bit of news.

“Yeah,” Buffy practically purred as her bondmate slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her even closer.

“You know how we were talking a while back about maybe taking that next step in our relationship when the time is right?” she reminded him with what some people might call a truly salacious grin.

“Oh yeah. I remember,” he agreed, his thoughts leaping ahead with anticipation to what he hoped she might be suggesting.

“Well, now seems like a perfect time,” she replied, leaning in to give him a quick but intense kiss on his lips. “What do you think?”

“Well,” he said, as he gathered the love of his life up in his arms and began heading towards the stairway, “I think that since Giles wants us to get up first thing in the morning to go with him and look over some old statue the museum’s received, we’re wasting valuable time talking that we could be spending in bed sleeping.

“Or doing other things,” he added as he charged up the stairs holding her.

“And I call first dibs on the shower!”

FIN

The End

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