The doors to the library slammed open, crashing back against the wall with a loud bang. Sonya and Giles looked up and were astonished to see Xander walk in, carrying an unconscious Buffy in his arms.

"What happened?" Sonya demanded, pushing her wheelchair away from the reading table and moving closer to Xander's side.

"She was attacked by a vampire named Linus that I'd tracked all the way to the Bronze," Xander explained, a note of sadness in his voice. "He tried to put the bite on her but I got there in time to stop him. She went into shock right after it happened and then she just passed out cold."

As he was talking, Xander carried Buffy's still form over to the cot that Giles kept in the back of the library and gently laid her down, covering her up with a thick blanket to keep her from getting too cold. Looking back up at Giles and Sonya, he added, "I had no clue as to where she lived, so I decided to bring her here. Sonya, could you look up her address on the school's database for me?"

The wheelchair-bound slayer nodded, moving over to the computer terminal and flipping it on. "I'll have that address for you in a flash, Xand."

While she was looking up Buffy's information on the computer, with Giles watching carefully over her shoulder, Xander kneeled next to Buffy and gently brushed her golden hair out of her eyes. His eyes landed on a bruise that was forming on her cheek and he sighed, lightly running the pad of his thumb across it. "I had hoped that you would be spared from all of this, Buffy. That's why I didn't ask you out on a date, even though I wanted to so badly. I thought that if I could just keep you away from me, that none of the darkness would be able to touch you." He continued to caress her cheek as he spoke in a soft whisper. "I guess that plan's moot now. But I swear to you that I'll do everything in my power to keep anything like this from happening to you again, Buffy." His gaze became deadly serious as he repeated his vow once again. "I swear it."

Just then, the Buffy's eyes began to flutter open...

Part Six

Buffy moaned. Her head hurt. And so did her whole body. She opened her eyes and saw a male form leaning over her. For a minute it looked like Bobby. It was the day of the accident all over again. Her legs became a searing mass of agony.

"No," Buffy said over and over again, "no, no, no ... not this time!" She sat up quickly and threw the blanket off of her. She had to see her legs! She ran her fingers along them from ankle to the hem of her dress. The white tights had been torn. Angry, red, puffy scars were visible. But scars meant healing, and that meant that Buffy was fine. She took several deep breaths and gradually calmed down. Then she looked up at the boy and Bobby became Xander. She blushed a dark red. He wouldn't understand her reaction, and she didn't want to talk about the accident. Not now. She was trying to leave all that behind.

Buffy pulled the blanket back up over her legs -- the pain had subsided once she figured out when she really was -- and tried to smile. It was shaky. And so was her voice.

"What happened?" she asked Xander. His face, especially his eyes, was incredibly sad. Buffy raised her hand a little, wanting to touch his face. Her eyes focused on her hand. Two nails had been roughly broken off and a cuticle was torn and bleeding. Her face felt sore, as did her body.

Then it slowly began coming back -- Linus the vampire, his invincibility and then Xander saving her. Xander knowing how to kill a vampire.

"Oh..." Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "That really happened didn't it?" From Xander's eyes she could tell it had. Part of Buffy was bewildered, but the other part of Buffy felt like the world was finally making sense. Somehow her subconscious had known of these horrors long before the rest of her mind. The world seemed new and different and more terrifying, but it was all understandable.

She looked Xander square in the eyes and said, "You have to tell me everything. How did you know about those creatures? Where did they come from? Who else knows? In fact, why doesn't everyone know? Shouldn't the police department or somebody have a force to deploy to exterminate these creatures?"

Giles pretended to watch Sonya search through the school's database for Miss Summers' records, but really his attention was on the girl and Xander. Xander couldn't afford to be distracted, not at this crucial juncture. Every minute that slipped away without them finding a spell to reverse Sonya's paralysis brought them closer to the Council's deadline. And if Xander allowed himself to make even one mistake, the Council would be onto them like butter on a scone. And, worse, Xander would probably be dead.

The Watcher noticed the girl's reaction when she regained consciousness, and was impressed in spite of himself. Most of the population of Sunnydale were adept at fooling themselves. Gang members on PCP was the most frequent lie. Their puny brains just couldn't handle the concept of something they couldn't control or explain by science. Miss Summers was a bit agitated, but she seemed to be taking it in stride instead of lying to herself.

A whistle sounded from his office, and Giles went in to find the water he'd set to boil ready for a tea bag. But instead of making a cup of Earl Grey for himself, he mixed up a cup and diluted it with lemon and sugar the way Americans seemed to like it, and took it to Miss Summers. She would need the calming warmth of something in her stomach much more than he. He got there just in time to hear her last barrage of questions.

"Here you are, Miss Summers," he said, handing her the cup of tea. "Drink a little and you'll feel better."

She obediently sipped the beverage, frowning a little at the taste, but not saying anything but a quiet thank you.

Giles reached into his pocket and pulled out two items. He laid them on the bed next to her. "These should help protect you if you get attacked again."

He pointed to the cross. "This will cause any vampire pain enough to cower back." He pointed to the stake, "And this, through the heart, is lethal. But you can't tell anyone of what you have seen tonight."

Belligerence became evident on her face. "Why not? Everyone needs to know about this! If not, they'll be like mice in a trap."

"Perhaps, perhaps not, Miss Summers." Giles sighed. "We're doing the best we can here, and overall we're succeeding pretty well."

"You can't be everywhere at once!" she protested vehemently.

Giles nodded. "True enough, but this is the way it has to be done, as well as the way it's always been done. Most of the people in this town could not handle the truth."

"That's bull!" Anger flashed in her eyes, bespeaking an inner strength belied by her beauty. "If I can handle it, anyone can."

"No, that's not true." His voice was firm, yet not raised in anger. "The people of Sunnydale have had ample opportunity to see the truth. They choose not to, so we battle the forces of darkness ourselves. And isn't it better for them not to know and to be able to enjoy their lives?"

She didn't say anything, but he could tell she didn't believe him. He continued, "Now then, as soon as you've finished your tea, Xander will escort you home."

"I don't want to go home," she exclaimed. "I want to find the answers!"

"None of us here," Giles looked significantly at Xander, "are at liberty to divulge our secrets. We saved you -- rather, Xander saved you. The best way for you to repay that debt is for you to leave and pretend tonight never happened."

He could see she was still ready to argue, but suddenly the silent atmosphere of the library was interrupted by the phone's shrill ringing. Giles gave both Xander and Miss Summers one more intense, stern glance and then headed for his office to answer the phone.

"Hello?" he said into the black receiver.

"It's me." The voice on the other end was familiar, despite the obscuring static from an overseas call.

"Angel," Giles said, relief evident in his voice. Angel, the vampire cursed with a human soul, was one of their best warriors. When he was in Sunnydale, he patrolled even better than Xander, but only because of Angel's super-human strength. Xander had a bit more ingenuity than the vampire, but then, being a normal human and not a slayer, he had to. Between the pair of men, Sunnydale was all the safer. Angel and Sonya had had words at first, but finally the vampire convinced them of his loyalty to the side of good, even though Angel and Sonya never had gotten along. And after the accident, Giles was glad enough for the vampire's help. Angel could get away easier than any of the rest of them, and for this mission, Giles couldn't use his regular contacts in the Council. There was only one person in England whom Giles could trust with a secret of this magnitude -- the rest of the Council had to be kept in the dark, or Sonya's life would be forfeit. So Angel had gone to England on the first overnight flight they could find. It had been a challenge, but somehow they'd found a way to do it with out getting Angel killed by the sun's rays. "How are things there? Did you find anything?"

Angel's voice wasn't happy. "I've scoured the magic stores here. They are some of the oldest in Europe. No one knows of the kind of spell we need. They say it never existed. I'm going to try and get into the Council's headquarters tomorrow night. And if I end up with nothing there, I can try France or Italy."

"If any such spell exists, it will be in the Council archives," Giles said with a confidence he did not feel. "You still have my keys, and my copies of the building plans and alarm codes, don't you? Oh, yes, and the amulet to get past the anti-vampire ward spell around the compound?"

"Yes, things should go fine. Unless your contact decides not to invite me in."

"He'll come through for us," Giles assured him. "I talked to him this morning. He's expecting your arrival."

"I'll call tomorrow to let you know how it goes," Angel promised. "How are things there?"

Giles glanced through his office window at Xander and Buffy still sitting on the cot, talking. "We've had an unforeseen occurrence. But nothing supernatural. We'll be able to handle it."

"Any activity on the Willow or Spike fronts?"

"None so far. I'm sure they'll re-surface again soon. Just when we don't need them."

Giles could hear the ironic smile on Angel's face through the phone wires. "Of course, that's what the love birds like to do best."

"Oh, Angel..." Giles hesitated, unsure whether to take the vampire into his confidence about their three month deadline. Was there anything Angel could do to stop it? He decided not to mention the problem. Perhaps another solution would present itself, especially if Angel was able to find the desired spell.

"Yes, Giles?" Angel asked. "I've got to get off of this pay phone soon ... I'm running out of change and I've got to get back to the hostel before sunrise."

Giles made a decision. He wouldn't tell Angel, but if the vampire happened to find out while searching for needed information that would be all right.

"While you're there, look up Sonya in their records. See what they know and if they suspect anything is amiss." The Council wouldn't tell Giles more than they thought he needed to know, and what they thought he needed to know just wasn't enough.

"Will do," Angel replied. Then he hung up.

Giles placed the receiver back in the cradle, and walked back over to Sonya. She was staring at Xander and the girl, and there was something about her eyes. "Is everything all right?"

Sonya looked up at Giles and smiled a somewhat strained smile. "I'm fine, Giles. Just a little tired, that's all." Glancing over at where Buffy was now awake and talking to Xander, Sonya added, "Since she's conscious again, I'm guessing that we don't need me to look up her address anymore. So I'm gonna shut down the computer and head home, okay?"

"That would be fine," Giles muttered distractedly, his eyes still on Xander and the girl. Then the words she had said sunk in and he looked down at Sonya. She looked tired, purple circles decorated the skin beneath her eyes, and her face drooped sadly. He realized that with all his preoccupation $b#about$/b# the injured Slayer, he hadn't paid much attention $b#to$/b# the Slayer lately.

"No," he said, touching her shoulder and moving so that he stood between her and her view of the cot. "Tell me what's wrong."

Sonya shrugged off the comforting hand that Giles had placed on her shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. In a strained voice, she replied, "I don't need a babysitter, Giles. And I don't need you pretending to be the father-figure that I never had, so give it up." As Sonya spoke, her eyes grew cold and hard. "I managed just fine without your pity and sympathy before and I will continue to do so in the future. Don't you get it yet? You're my Watcher, Giles, but you're not my father and you're not my friend, as much as you might like things to be different. So deal with it and move on, already!"

In the darkness outside the library, Spike lurked. There was a certain window that if you cracked it open just a bit, you could hear almost everything that the whitehats were talking about. And tonight there was a new girlie in the mix. It was almost worth losing Linus on his inaugural kill to find out about this beauty. And now the beauty was cozying up to Xander, the pseudo-Slayer.

But the big question still wasn't answered. Where was Angel? After Angel had killed Dru -- the thought still made Spike livid -- Spike had vowed vengeance. Even after six months of Willow's loving embraces, the blond vampire still raged against his sire. Angel would pay, and Spike would be the one to make him!

There was a phone call, but try as he might, Spike couldn't hear what went on. The vampire was willing to bet his last shilling, or his last quart of stolen blood, that it was Angel on the other end of the line. But there was no way to find out where the whitehats had taken, or sent, him.

Spike's eyes again fastened on the pseudo-Slayer and his new girlie. Willow would love to hear about this. Then he left, heading for the factory and his lady of the evening.

After the librarian left to answer the phone, Buffy looked up at Xander. "Please tell me what's going on! I know he doesn't want you to, but I swear I won't tell anyone. I need to know. I need to at least be able to keep myself and my mother safe, even if you guys won't let me help you..." Something else crossed her mind, and she blurted it out, too. "And if he makes you keep secrets from me I'm afraid I'll never see you again."

Xander held up a hand, silencing Buffy's diatribe. Then he took a deep breath and said, "Maybe it's best if you DON'T see me again, Buffy." He felt his heart break at each word, but he forced himself to say it, knowing that it was for the best. If he let Buffy into his life, she would be in danger from Spike, Willow and the other vampires, and Xander wasn't about to let that happen to her.

Buffy sighed. "You can do whatever you want. I can't stop you. But now that I know what is out there, you can be sure that I'm never going to forget it -- no matter what you and the librarian say!" She stood, regardless of sore legs, bruises and skinned knees. "I need to go home now. My mother will be worried."

Xander nodded, standing up as well. Inside he felt like someone had placed one of his own stakes through his heart, but on the outside he was the epitome of calm and detached. "All right, I'll escort you home. Just let me tell Giles what's going on, first."

Xander left Buffy by the cot for a minute and walked over to speak to Giles and Sonya. "Hey, guys. I'm gonna make sure Buffy gets home safely and then I'll be right..." Xander trailed off, sensing the tension filled the air. Placing a protective hand on Sonya's shoulder, he asked in a quiet voice, "Is everything okay over here?"

Sonya bristled under Xander's touch and yanked her arm away. Her voice began to rise as she cried, "What IS it with you two? You act like I'm made of glass!" She was practically yelling now but she didn't care. "I'm not going to break, not again! So stop trying to protect me from everything!"

Turning on Xander, she accused, "You act like you're some kind of God-send, but in reality, you're just a scared boy who can't stand the fact that his best friend became a demon and has a yen for him! So to escape from that you go out and kill the bad things. But you can't even do THAT right can you? Willow has given you so many chances to kill her and end the whole war, but you can't even bring yourself to do it! You're a weakling!"

Sonya turned her gaze to Buffy for an instant and then turned her wrath back on the pseudo-Slayer. "And now to make matters worse, you're letting this blonde bimbo distract you from your duties!"

At Xander's shocked expression, Sonya snorted, "Yeah, you think I didn't see it? How you stare at her when you think no one's looking? How whenever little Miss Buffy comes into the room, you can't concentrate on anything else but her? Puh-lease! It's so painfully obvious, even Giles saw it, he was just too polite to say anything." Sonya reached out and grabbed Xander's arm, pulling him down to her level, and said in a lower voice, "If you want to drool over the blonde, do it on your own time, Slayer-boy! Capeche?" With that, Sonya turned her wheelchair around and headed for the doors, calling over her shoulder, "If you need me, I'll be in my cell."

Once outside the library doors, Sonya broke down crying in huge sobs. What had she done? Xander and Giles were the only two people in the world that she actually cared about and she'd just exploded at them. And the things she'd said to Xander... Sonya began to slowly wheel herself down the halls and out the door of the school building, not caring if there were vampires out or not. All she could see was Xander's face when she'd flaunted her knowledge of his feelings for Buffy, throwing it all back in his face. She didn't know how he could ever possibly forgive her, but one thing was for sure, she knew that she would never forgive herself.

Buffy had watched the scene unfold with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. She didn't know about 'slaying' and 'watching,' but she figured it had something to do with vampires. Everything these people did seemed to be about vampires. Both Xander and Mr. Giles looked stunned and neither of them said anything. She felt bad for them, especially for Xander who really looked hurt, but her heart went out to the other girl. Buffy remembered clearly the cell that one found in a wheelchair.

"Um..." Buffy stared at Xander, her heart in her eyes, but she didn't know what to say to make it better. She looked at the library doors, which were still swinging. "I'll be back. Don't leave without me?" She realized that was lame, but she jogged out into the shadowed hallway, regardless if Xander was following her. If he was, she hoped he knew enough to stay back.

She looked down the hall just in time to see Sonya maneuver her chair out the door. Buffy ran after her. "Wait!" When she propelled through the outside doors she found Sonya sobbing as if her heart would break. Buffy moved in front of Sonya and crouched down.

"Hey," she said quietly, "if you need to talk to someone, I'm here." She paused and then tried to smile. "I'll be honest -- I did resent the bimbo remark, but I think I might know a little of what you're going through."

From the look on Sonya's face, Buffy thought the girl was about to protest, so she started talking quickly. "You don't believe it to look at me, do you?" Buffy leaned down and grabbed the torn part of her opaque white tights. She ripped them open all the way down her right leg. Puffy, red scars became visible, even in the moonlight.

"Almost two years ago, I was run over by a truck. I was in traction for months, a wheelchair and braces after that. It's taken me a long time to get back to the woman you see before you..." Buffy tried to smile and make light of her statement, but it was too close to her. A tear slipped from the corner of one eye.

"I don't know why I told you that," Buffy said to Sonya's unresponsive face. "You probably don't want me messing in your life. I mean, I got better -- am I correct in assuming you won't? Even when I was in your fix I didn't want to talk to anyone. But now, I think it might have been easier if I talked. So, if you want me to go, I'll go, but I'm here if you need someone to talk to that might have even the smallest chance at understanding."

Sonya scowled at Buffy, hastily wiping the tears off of her cheeks. She averted her eyes for a moment, and then looked back at Buffy, with a hint of apology in her eyes but plenty of anger as well. "Look, I'm sorry for the bimbo thing. That was kinda out of line. But if you expect me to suddenly become your best friend just because you had to be in a wheelchair before, then you're seriously deluding yourself, Summers. So, do me a favor and back off, okay?"

Buffy shrugged. "Whatever. I just wanted to make the offer." She realized that her words might have sounded cold. Buffy was at the end of her emotional rope. She had experienced the gamut of emotions tonight -- everything from the joy of making a new friend, to the terror of being attacked, to the frustration of realizing that everything she'd thought she'd known about the world was a lie.

She sighed. Buffy remembered feeling bitterness like Sonya's. If not for the loving care of her mother, Buffy might still hate everyone. She looked the other girl in the eyes. "I can see why you don't want to talk to a complete stranger -- even though sometimes that makes it easier -- that's why therapists make all that money." Buffy had to consciously make herself stop rambling and pick up the threads of her original point. "Anyway, you should talk to someone. That anger can lock up your heart and ruin your life. It doesn't hurt anyone but you, you know? My mom helped me through that phase of recovery. You need to find someone who can help you."

After she had said her piece, Buffy turned and started the long walk home, totally forgetting that Xander was supposed to escort her. She hoped that Sonya would be able to work out her issues and she really wished she could help her out with that, but until Sonya actually admitted that she needed help, there was nothing more that Buffy could do for her.

Part Seven

"Pet!" Spike called when he stepped foot over the threshold of their lair. "Where are you? I have quite a surprise for you, baby! Wait 'til you hear what daddy found out."

"And whatever could that be, dearie?" Willow purred, stepping slowly out of the shadows. She paused, posing seductively in her newly acquired, emerald green, lace nightgown. "Tell me quickly now, for Mommy must know!"

Spike moved closer to Willow and enjoyed the view. "Pet! Is that a new outfit for me?" He tugged on her long, auburn hair fiercely -- it might have hurt a mortal, but for them it was play.

When Willow didn't answer him right away, Spike put on a play pout. "Don't you care what Daddy has to say, my lover?" The incestuousness of that statement didn't bother him at all. But Willow wasn't very talkative tonight. The frown quickly became real. When he'd been with Dru, she'd always been interested in his findings. Of course, Dru had rarely gotten out because she was so weak, but that didn't matter. If Spike were going to share his victories with someone, she had to be worthwhile.

His finger tangled itself deeper into her hair, and then grabbed a bunch of it hard, pulling her head backwards. "Your little pseudo-Slayer, that child who pretends he's the Chosen One -- he's got a new girlie. Looks like he's gotten over you for good, lover, and for a little blonde, too."

Willow growled low in her throat, her true face manifesting itself over her features as her anger grew. With a yell, she wrenched herself free from Spike's grasp and pushed him away. As he fell backwards onto the floor, knocking over a nearby table and sending everything that had been sitting on it crashing down around him, her eyes landed on his right hand, which was clenched in a fist around a wad of auburn hair.

Willow felt tears of rage come to her eyes as she reached a trembling hand to the back of her head and it came back with blood smeared on the fingers from where Spike's fingernails had dug deep into the sensitive skin of her scalp. The sweet, coppery smell of the blood brought Willow back out of her rage-fueled daze and she calmed down a bit, looking over at Spike with a million questions in her eyes.

Knowing that her vampire lover's eyes were still on her, Willow smiled a sultry smile and slowly licked the blood off of her index finger. Taking a step forward, Willow kneeled by Spike and swung her right leg across and over his thighs, straddling him as he lay back on his elbows, watching her every move. Then she smiled seductively, running her blood covered fingers over his lips slowly. "Now, Spikey," she purred, lightly raking the nails of her other hand across his chest through his black, silk shirt. "I know you're going to tell me everything about the bitch who's sleeping with our enemy. And you'd better not leave out any of the juicy details... or Mommy will be very unhappy."

Spike's demon visage transformed his face at the taste of blood on his lips. He licked her finger clean and then nipped it with his fangs.

"Now you've gone and made me all hungry again, lover. And I've already had my dinner tonight." He pouted -- or it would have been a pout if his fangs hadn't been in the way. But gradually he got control over himself again, and proceeded to answer her question. "She's a pert little blonde. Stunning actually. And strong, for a mortal. She got a few good blows in on Linus before the pseudo-Slayer came and staked him."

Spike paused, shaking his head. "I was almost sorry to lose Linus. For a new one, he had good style." Then he picked Willow up, and got to his own feet before setting her down again. More gently this time.

"Anyway, Harris seemed a bit gaga for the wench. He took her into the inner sanctum. I heard him call her Buffy."

Spike grinned. "Now it's time for dessert. You whetted my appetite. Coming, lover? Some tasty young ones must be leaving the Bronze right about now."

Willow pouted prettily, looking down at her new nightgown that was now stained with blood from their earlier "festivities." Facing Spike, she grinned and stepped up close to him, running her hands through his peroxide-blonde hair. "Look at my new pretty clothes, they're all ruined now. I'll have to throw them away 'cause blood stains never come out."

Tracing a finger down his cheek, she giggled and said, "Maybe my Spikey will take me out to cheer me up. We could kill some innocents, make a night of it. And then we'll pay a visit to this Muffy... Duffy... Fluffy... Buffy bitch."

Willow's eyes hardened and her smiled disappeared to be replaced with an angry snarl. "I'll make her regret ever sticking her nose into our affairs. And won't it just be absolutely wonderful to watch Xander cry as he finds her dead body waiting for him on his door step?"

Willow's eyes lit up at the thought of causing Xander Harris pain. After the way he'd treated her, the way he'd scorned her love, he deserved whatever they could dish out at him! In her excitement, Willow pressed her forehead against Spike's, clasping her hands around the back of his neck and giving him a long, lingering kiss that promised more fun to come... if he played his cards right. "I'm getting all hot and excited just thinking about it, lover. We can drain her together and dance on her grave!"

"Sounds fabulous to me, pet," Spike replied, whipping out his fangs again. "You find a new gown that's not so... er... bloody. Then we'll go find some dessert. And then we'll scout out the new girl in town."

Willow nodded and skipped off into her bedroom, hardly able to contain her excitement. They were finally going to make Xander pay for what he'd done to her! Willow felt like dancing, she was so happy! Quickly pulling off the bloodstained nightgown, Willow threw it into the trash and began sorting through her wardrobe for something suitable to wear. As she looked through all the clothes, she began to hum a merry tune. Finally, Willow found the perfect outfit, it was one of Spike's favorites. She pulled on the black, skin-tight leather pants and the matching black leather boustier and then she frowned. Something was missing.

Willow toyed with the idea of putting her hair up and grinned, finally realizing what would make the ensemble complete. Willow pulled her long, auburn tresses up into a beautiful mass of curls on top of her head and left a few tendrils hanging down to frame her lovely face. Then she picked up a black, velvet choker necklace from the nearby table and fastened it around her slender neck. Happy with the results of her efforts, Willow quickly pulled on her boots and walked back outside to where Spike was waiting for her.

After posing seductively for Spike's benefit, she walked right up to him and linked her arm through his. "Shall we go, lover?" she asked with a coy smile. "It's long past time for dessert and Mommy's getting hungry."

"C'mon, pet," Spike said, slinging an arm around her luminous bare shoulders. Then they walked off into the night.

Buffy was about halfway through the journey to her house when she started to get the uneasy feeling that she was being watched. She was still limping a little from the encounter with Linus. So, as protection, she pulled the cross Mr. Giles had given her out of her purse. Holding the wooden icon in her hand made her feel better somehow. She heard footsteps crunching on the gravel behind her, and whirled around.

"Who's there?" she demanded, trying to make her voice sound fierce and strong.

Xander stepped out of the shadows, holding up his hands. "Hey, chill out Xena Warrior Princess! It's only me." Giving her a lop-sided grin and shoving his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, he added, "I promise, I don't bite."

Buffy's scowl turned into a smile. Then the smile dissolved into a carefully neutral expression. "So, no one wants me hanging around, but you don't want me dismembered or eaten on the way home. That's so sweet."

She turned around a kept walking towards home. A part of her was grateful when he followed, though she was still angry, too. She was angry at the librarian for his inability to change. She was somewhat miffed at Sonya for not taking her offer of friendship -- though Buffy knew there wasn't any more she could do about that. But mostly Buffy was mad at Xander. He didn't seem to care if they never saw each other again just so long as his precious darkness warrior thing wasn't disturbed. And part of her was angry at herself for caring what Xander thought.

The silence grew oppressive, so finally she said, "What am I supposed to do with all this, Xander? What am I supposed to think?" She paused, biting her lip. "I just don't understand. They let you into their little fighting bad guys club, but I'm not good enough. It just seems to me that you guys can use all the help you can get."

"They didn't really want me in their fighting bad guys club, as you so eloquently put it, either," Xander replied. He smiled a little bit, though it was a sad smile. "But I didn't give them much of a choice in the matter. I was such a fool back then."

Sighing, Xander said, "Look, there's a lot that you don't know about me, Buffy. I guess you could say there were extenuating circumstances." He paused, trying to determine how much he should tell her. Finally, he came to a decision. "Maybe it would help clear things up a little bit if I told you about Willow."

At Buffy's puzzled frown, he clarified, "She was my best friend for the first 15 years of my life. We did everything together... she, me and Jesse. But about a year and a half ago, both Willow and Jesse disappeared. No one knew what had happened, but when the police found Jesse's body, drained completely of blood, they assumed that Willow was dead, too.

"I was a wreck after that. I mean, how does a kid cope with the fact that the only two people in the entire world that cared about him are dead? My parents weren't any help, they never even cared about me before the incident, so why should they change their tune now, right? So I just kind of shut down. My grades, which weren't stellar to begin with, began to slip and I pretty much stopped speaking to anyone. I became the school freak, no one wanted anything to do with me, but I didn't care. And then, when I was at my lowest point, Willow decided to pay me a visit. That was how I met Sonya, actually. She saved me from being turned into a vampire by Willow. And after that, it became my mission in life to fight the vampires.

"Giles and Sonya wouldn't hear of it. They said it was too dangerous for an ordinary mortal to fight against vampires and other demons. But I didn't listen. I began to follow Sonya on her patrols every night, staying just out of sight, waiting for a chance to help. And then I got my wish, though not really in the way I wanted it.

"You see, Sonya was fighting this big, nasty vampire who called himself the Master. He lived underground. And while they were fighting, there was a cave in. The Master was killed by a falling rock that decapitated him, but Sonya managed to almost make it out alive, until she was pinned by a rock, unable to move her legs. That's when she was paralyzed. I managed to get her out, but the damage was already done. The doctors couldn't help her, so she and Giles decided to look for other ways.

"Right now, they're trying to find a spell to cure her, but the chances of them succeeding are slim to none. So that's were I come in. You see, Willow took over as leader of the vampires after the Master was killed. And she wanted me dead because I wouldn't join her. So she kept sending vampire assassins after me, which is why Giles finally agreed to let me help -- me and this guy Angel, but I won't get into that story now. If Giles hadn't decided to train me to be able to fight the vamps, I would have ended up dead. Willow would have seen to it. So now I get the oh-so-wonderful task of trying to slay the vampires until we can cure Sonya."

Sighing, he added in a soft voice, "Believe me, Buffy. If I had it all to do over again, I would run away from this town as fast as my feet could carry me. I mean, defending the world and all that jazz sounds really cool in theory, but in real life, when you have to look death in the face every night and spend all of your time fighting and no time actually LIVING, the whole "chosen one" thing looses it charm really fast."

Xander looked Buffy directly in the eyes and said in his most serious voice, "That's why you should just try to put all of this behind you, Buffy. Because if you're not careful, the darkness just creeps up on you when you're not looking and then one day you wake up and realize that you've been spending all your time fighting vampires and other assorted demons and everything else in life has fallen by the wayside. I mean, I haven't even thought about making friends or having dates or anything else normal in over a year and a half! While everyone else my age is deciding who they're going to take to prom, all I can think about are ambush tactics and how to improve my fighting skills. I have no friends except for Sonya, Giles and Angel. And even they don't really know me. They have no clue about what my home life is like; only Angel has any idea about that and even he doesn't know the whole story. The others just assume that all the cuts and bruises I come in with are from vampires. They don't know about any of that stuff."

Xander paused, running a hand through his hair as he thought of the best way to phrase what he had to say next. "Buffy, is that really what you want for your life? Because if you throw in with us, you don't get to have a "get out of jail free card" that lets you off the hook when things go badly. Once you get mixed up in all of this, you can't change your mind. It doesn't work that way. So you can just forget about that normal life you seem to want, because that goes right out the window first thing. And having a good relationship with your mom or anyone else? Forget about it. Because no matter what you decide to do, you can't tell anyone about all of this. They couldn't handle it. And the secrets and lies that you'll have to tell on a daily basis in order to keep the secret if you join us basically ruin your other relationships."

"Look," Xander said, touching Buffy's shoulder gently. "You wanted to know what you were supposed to do now, right? Well, my best advice would be to just go on with life. Yeah, you should be wary of going out alone at night and always carry a cross with you for protection, but even with all of that to deal with you could still live a normal life." He smiled sadly and let his hand drop back to his side.

"Trust me, it's better for you to move on. You deserve to have a good life, without having to worry about vampires and demons." He stopped speaking when he realized that they were outside of her house. The mailbox had the name "Summers" written on it in big letters.

"Well, here we are," he said lamely, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets. He stopped speaking then, waiting to see what Buffy would say. After all, he'd just poured out his entire life story to her, so now she knew everything. Xander just prayed that Buffy would make the right decision. He looked down at her, taking in her golden hair, her perfect features, and her beautiful hazel eyes. He didn't know what he'd do if something bad happened to her because of him.

Xander tried to think of some other way to convince her to stay away from them, to stay away from him, but he couldn't seem to force himself to think coherently anymore. It was like he'd exhausted himself, dredging up all those painful memories that he'd tried to keep locked away deep inside, and now his brain was shutting down on him. So he just stood there, staring at her and waiting, for what he didn't know.

After a minute or two, Xander realized that he was making somewhat of a fool of himself, just staring at her this way. He tore his gaze away from her face and looked down at the ground, absently scuffing his shoe on the pavement. Then he looked up at her and asked timidly, "So, what are you thinking?"

Buffy didn't really know what she was thinking. Part of her agreed with Xander. She should run from this faster than one should run from a fire, or a dissection in biology class. But there was another part of Buffy that just couldn't do that. During that fight with Linus, when Buffy had smacked her foot into the vamp's chest with perfect accuracy, there had been this sense of deja vu. She couldn't understand it, but it was like somewhere, in another life, such a thing was the norm. The feeling had vanished in actuality, but it remained as a memory in the corner of her heart. She didn't want to lie to people, and part of her didn't want to get involved at all. She wanted to arm herself and get the hell out of Sunnydale. But something stopped her.

Shaking her head, she looked up at Xander from under her lashes. Even now there was an old bruise decorating his jawline. It was turning yellow. She reached up and touched it with a finger.

"I never wanted to be anything but normal," she whispered. "But I stopped being normal when a boy ran me down on the street in front of my old school. I became a pariah. I had to grow up. But then, I was thinking about it one day, and I started to wonder -- who really is normal? I mean, was I normal before when all I cared about was the latest hunk and what was on sale at the mall? Sounds like a scene right out of an Alicia Silverstone movie. Then I thought that maybe moving to Sunnydale would let me find normal. But it's not normal here, either, and neither am I." She paused, a hint of sadness in her voice. "There is no normal. I think we've got to understand that and live with it."

She stopped and just looked at Xander. Buffy realized her fingers were still on his cheek. His dark eyes were staring at her with such intensity. Suddenly, all thoughts of vampires and other unpleasantness vanished from her mind. She leaned in a little bit, and kissed him.

At first, Xander was too stunned to do anything but just stand there. He couldn't believe that she was kissing him. Considering the track record he had with women, it seemed like Buffy was just too good to be true. After all, the only two girls he'd ever liked at all had ended up becoming a vampire and a paralyzed, bitter, vampire slayer. However, all of Xander's musings about his love life faded away when he felt Buffy's lips softly brush against his.

Xander quickly got over his initial shock and returned Buffy's kiss, his hands moving to the slender column of her throat and lightly caressing, then moving up to rest against her jawline, cupping her face gently as he deepened the kiss.

Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that something could feel so perfect, so right. Kissing Buffy was like kissing in a dream. Xander wanted to go on kissing her forever, but common sense prevailed and he slowly pulled away, ending the kiss with great reluctance. He sighed, running his fingers through her tousled blonde hair and planting a tender kiss on her lips before taking a step back.

He saw the look of surprise on her face, followed by a look of sadness and he quickly took hold of her hand, rubbing the pad of his thumb in soft circles over her palm. "We need to go inside," he told her as he began to lead her toward the house, not dropping his grip on her hand, "It's not safe out here at night."

They hadn't even gone two steps when a voice from behind them replied, "You're right, it's not safe out here."

Xander whirled around, moving Buffy behind him, and saw Willow step out of the shadows with Spike close behind her. He gulped, trying not to show his fear as he pulled a stake out of his pocket.

"What's the matter?" Willow asked in a singsong voice as she sauntered closer to the two teenagers. "Not happy to see me?"

Part Eight

Xander didn't respond to Willow's comments. Instead, as he moved forward to engage the enemy, he threw a glance over his shoulder and caught Buffy's eyes, mouthing the words, "Run; get inside the house."

He didn't have time to make sure she obeyed him because Willow chose that moment to attack, lunging at him with deadly speed. Xander dodged, bringing his foot up in a viscous kick to her side and sending her reeling. She didn't stay down long, however. Grinning madly, she jumped up and came at him again, fists flying. Xander tried to evade her blows, but she was just too damned fast, moving with a super-human speed. Xander felt one blow land on his nose and heard a crunching sound. He pushed the agony of the pain aside, thinking that his nose was probably broken, and stepped back, playing for more time. But he didn't count on Spike picking that moment to join in the battle, grabbing his arms and pinning him, making him an easy target for Willow's wrath.

As the female vampire came at him again, Xander used Spike's grip on his arms for leverage and sent a hard kick directly into Willow's midsection, knocking her to the ground. The he twisted in Spike's grasp, managing to get one arm free. That was enough to punch Spike in the face, hard. The blond vampire released Xander, staggering backwards.

Xander turned and launched a kick at Spike while he wasn't looking, catching him squarely in the jaw. Then he followed up with a roundhouse kick, nailing Spike in the side. He was about to ram his stake right through Spike's heart when he heard a shriek come from behind him and before he could even blink, Willow was on top of him, clawing at him with her fingernails. He elbowed her in the ribs, knocking her away and spun around, grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the ground harshly. Then he pulled her up while she was still dazed from the fall and spun her around, locking her arms behind her and rendering her helpless before placing the tip of his stake against her heart.

Spike, who was just getting back to his feet, stopped short when he saw Willow's predicament. Xander grinned, tightening his grip on Willow. In answer to her earlier question he replied, "No, I'm NOT happy to see you." Sarcasm practically dripped from his voice as he added, "But thanks for stopping by, really. It's nice to know you care."

Willow snorted, struggling to escape from Xander's hold. "Yeah, well you'll be even less happy when we rip your throat out, now won't you?" Looking over at Spike, she added pointedly, "You know, help here would be appreciated."

Spike rolled his eyes at Willow. He would help when he was damn good and ready. Xander might just be a pseudo-Slayer, but his kick had aimed true and smashed his jaw. It had actually been broken before his preternatural healing took over.

"Don't worry, lover," Spike growled from behind his fangs. "He ain't gonna kill ya." The blond vampire looked at Xander with his glowing eyes. "Are you, boy-o? You've had a million opportunities, and you let her go every time when she does the poor, pitiful Willow routine." He gestured to Willow. "Get on with it..."

Both Xander and Willow were staring at him as if he were mentally incompetent. "Fine then," Spike snapped, "force me to do it the hard way."

He turned and looked at Buffy. She had backed away from the fight, but she hadn't gone inside. "Oh, blonde girl, come to Daddy."

It was Buffy's turn to look at him as if he were insane. "OK, you may be the first English vampire I've encountered, but I'm not stupid. A foreign accent may cause other girls to puddle at your feet, but not me." She pulled out her cross and held it between herself and Spike. There were several yards between her and the vampire.

Spike shrugged. "Oh, well." Then he laughed. Before anyone, except maybe Willow, realized that he had stopped the maniacal chuckles, Spike lowered his head and charged toward Buffy with a supernatural speed.

Buffy's eyes widened and she jumped out of the way in the nick of time. When she did just what Spike had hoped, he lunged under her, twisted, grabbed her airborne feet and threw her toward Xander and Willow with a mighty thrust.

The girl floundered in the air and, despite obvious efforts to redirect herself, she crash-landed into Xander. The mortals rolled a few feet and Xander lost his stake. But somehow Buffy had managed to keep hold of her cross, which she held between them and the vampires with a trembling hand.

The vampire strolled over to Willow and helped her to her feet. "Now what should we do, my pet? This is your show, after all. I only came a long for the food. But it'll be bloody unpleasant to get them while the girlie is holdin' that pesky bit o' wood. I, for one, don't relish the idea of burned flesh."

He grinned at Buffy. He'd enjoyed tussling with her in spite of himself. He knew if he tried harder he could take her, and he would enjoy that. But for once, Spike was interested in delayed gratification. "At least not on my own flesh."

Buffy looked at Xander and then toward her house. "Do you think we can make a break for it before they catch us?" she whispered indecisively.

Xander made the decision for her, grabbing her hand and taking off for the house. He heard the vampires giving chase and quickened his pace, scrambling up the porch steps and toward the door. Once there, he grabbed the doorknob and twisted, cursing under his breath when he realized that the door was locked. "Where are your keys? Get them out and unlock the door!" he cried, pushing Buffy toward the door and standing between her and the oncoming vampires. He grabbed her cross out of her hand and thrust it out, catching Spike across the jaw with the wooden tip.

The vampire's flesh sizzled and burned from where the cross touched him and he screamed in agony, falling back. Willow wisely backed off as well, growling low in her throat but staying just out of reach of the cross. Xander glanced over his shoulder, seeing that Buffy was rummaging through her purse for the house keys, before turning his attention back to the vampires. He hoped that she found the keys soon.

"I can't find them!" she hissed to Xander almost in a panic. The two vamps were crouching around, just waiting for an opportunity.

They heard a jingle and looked up in dread. Spike was dangling her keys on one of his long, white fingers. "Missing these, luv?" He grinned, showing off his pointed fangs.

"Where did you get those?" Buffy demanded angrily.

"Found 'em. In an alley. Behind the Bronze. Guess you must've lost 'em when you met up with my pal Linus. You 'member Linus don'cha? My newest son that your boyfriend KILLED?"

Buffy gave Xander a look that said 'cover me,' and then she made her move. There was no other choice. She palmed the stake Mr. Giles had given her, holding it behind her back. Dropping the purse, she grabbed the decorative statue next to the front door and in one quick move smashed it over Willow's head. It was a dazing blow. Buffy was able to get behind the vampire girl and hold the stake to her heart.

"Give me the keys, or I'll kill her," Buffy ordered. Her voice was firm, which belied the panic she felt inside. Vampires were quick healers, if Willow regained full consciousness Buffy could never hold her. Taking a few Tae Kwan Do classes might make her more agile on her new legs, and might even help her defend herself against a mugger, but not against a supernaturally strong vampire.

Spike looked at the girls, glowering. He seemed torn between his desire to get Xander and Buffy and his desire to save his paramour. Part of Buffy's mind wondered if vampires had the capacity to love, and if so, if Spike really loved Willow. She hoped so -- this move was banking on it.

Finally Spike tossed Xander the keys. Xander caught them deftly, not lowering the cross one iota. At that moment, Willow groaned and started to move. Buffy pushed Willow with all her strength, sending her straight into Spike. The vampire managed to catch her, but the unexpected weight nearly toppled them both.

Buffy grabbed the keys from Xander, put the right one in the keyhole and ran inside, with Xander coming after her. Seconds after they crossed the threshold, Spike regained his balance and lunged for them. Something like an invisible wall kept him from reaching him. Spike growled. A little jumpy, but feeling more secure, Buffy slammed the door in his face.

She turned to Xander. "So that not being able to come in unless they're invited thing really works, huh?"

Buffy jumped when she heard her mom's voice from upstairs. "Buffy, is that you, honey? How was your night? You can tell me all about it over hot chocolate."

"Oh, no," Buffy moaned. Of all the times for her mom to wake up. She looked at Xander. "You can't go out there right now. I won't let you! You may have some special training, but you're not facing those two alone. Can you think of some reason to tell my mom why you have to spend the night. Like your house is being fumigated, but something she'll believe?"

Just them Joyce came down the stairs with a big smile on her face. The smile fell for an instant when she saw Xander, and she clutched her robe more tightly about her shoulders. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't know you'd have company." She looked questioningly at Xander, and Buffy tried frantically to think of something to say.

"Um... Mom... this is Xander..."

Part Nine


The cold breeze whipped Angel's trench coat, but he didn't feel cold. Or, more to the point, he never felt warm, so the coldness didn't matter. He walked with a purposeful stride, but he kept to the shadows when possible, not wanting to be noticed.

The Watcher Compound was on an estate in a rural part of England, as close to London as possible while sustaining the ruralness. On the outside, the compound looked innocuous enough. Angel had asked the locals, and most people thought the estate served as some sort of finishing school, training likely lads and lasses for the future. They were more right then they knew ... but more wrong then they knew as well. If they knew what kinds of occult incidents happened behind the great stone walls and the cast-iron gates, they would drive out the Watchers like the mob drove out Frankenstein. But if Watchers knew one thing, it was how to be inconspicuous.

Of course the compound had a security system, but with Giles' help, Angel knew the codes to turn off the motion detectors. The heat sensors were no problem for someone who was already dead, and with his non-photogenic nature, Angel would not show up on any security cameras. Giles had even provided Angel with a medallion to wear against Watcher anti-vampire spells and a key ring full of useful keys -- the front door, the back door, several side doors, and keys to several locked rooms where private information was stored. The only big problem they had in getting him inside was how to circumvent the whole inviting rule. Giles had sworn to Angel that he had that covered. "Be at the door at 1:30 a.m., sharp, and someone I trust will be waiting to let you in."

Avoiding the night watchman easily, Angel went right up to the front door and waited. The second his watch hit 1:30, the door swung open.

"Won't you come in?" a well-bred, British voice asked politely.

Angel nodded and crossed the threshold. He started to introduce himself to the young Watcher - a man, seemingly in his early twenties, with short, brown hair and glasses - but the man stopped him.

"Please don't," the young Watcher said. "I can't know any more than necessary about you and what you're up to. Mr. Giles was my mentor a long time ago, so I'm willing to do him this favor, but it can't go beyond this. If the upper echelons of the Council find out about this, my rank would be lost. Be aware, as soon as you leave, I will cast a spell that nullifies your access to this place, so this is your one chance."

Angel nodded. "Thank you."

The young Watcher adjusted his glasses with nervous fingers, and then disappeared down the hall, leaving the vampire to fend for himself.

The locked rooms were right where Giles had said they would be, down a long, musty corridor and on the right. Angel went inside and locked the door behind him. He turned and found himself in a room with rows upon rows of endless filing cabinets. He felt a twinge of frustration. Where should he start? Then he looked at the nearest filing cabinet and smiled. Handy labels on the outside of each drawer told what was inside, and relevant dates. Angel smiled at the Watchers and their collective Type-A personality.

When he reached the cabinet that said "Known Vampires, A - M" and the year of his transformation, Angel hesitated. It would be so easy to look and see what they knew about him. It would hurt to see records of his vile past, but it would be useful to know what Giles had reported about him. Angel knew that Giles no longer trusted the Council -- that was the reason for this whole covert operation. However, before Sonya's accident, Giles might have made full reports to the Council, including mentions of Angel. And though Angel now counted Giles an ally, he didn't think the rest of the tradition-bound Council members would take too kindly to befriending a vampire -- even a vampire with a soul.

But thinking of Giles and Sonya made Angel remember that he didn't have time to dally. He was needed in Sunnydale almost as much as the information he'd been sent to collect. Xander was a good Slayer, for a mortal with no superpowers whatsoever. Over the last year or so, the pair had even become friends, sort of. Angel was the only person who knew about Xander's difficult home life, and though Angel had found out about it by accident, he had kept the secret safe to protect the boy's reputation. Angel felt a sense of responsibility for the boy, though he would never say such a thing to Xander. The pseudo-Slayer wouldn't take kindly to knowing he was being looked after. But then, Sonya hadn't taken too kindly to that either. It was rough getting past her guard, and he seldom succeeded.

Angel wondered yet again if he'd tried harder if he could have stopped the accident. Then he quashed that thought. It would do him no good to brood! If there was one thing Sonya's accident had shown him, it was the brooding held no purpose in the fight against evil. Actions -- like killing Drucilla instead of letting her feed on an innocent, 10-year-old boy and getting vital information from the Council -- were what counted.

He walked past the cabinet where his file would be and with some searching, finally found the cabinet for "Twentieth Century Slayers." The files were in chronological order, so Sonya's was the last. But the name on the file before Sonya's leapt out at him. Buffy Summers. The accident that had crippled the young girl and changed her destiny flashed into his mind, as vivid as the day he'd witnessed it. He wondered what she was doing now. If her broken bones had healed and if she was having a happy life. He'd always felt some sort of connection to her. He couldn't help himself -- he pulled out the file. It was very thin. The first few pages chronicled her life up to the point of her accident. Then there was a brief entry about the accident itself, with an attached eyewitness account by Merek, the man who would have been her Watcher. Then, in red ink, the words "Subject no longer viable. Watching terminated."

Angel sighed and put the folder back in its spot. He pulled Sonya's folder out and, using the copy machine that they handily kept in the records room, copied it in its entirety. As he pulled the last page off of the machine, Angel read an entry that surprised him, but it wasn't a good surprise. "Word from Mr. Giles sporadic at best, and suspect. He cares for his charge too much. During the upcoming test, evaluations will be made to ascertain the need for a new Watcher." The date for the test was scarcely three months away. Now he understood the urgency he'd heard in the librarian on the phone. Giles probably knew about the test, but Angel doubted that he knew about his own test. Their time was ticking away fast.

He looked down at his watch. It had been an hour. He'd been in there too long, and he had yet to find the spells Giles needed. But there was no help for it. Giles' contact would let him in again, so this was his only chance.

Angel walked down rows of filing cabinets, looking for subject headings that seemed helpful. He pulled open a few drawers, with no results. Then Angel found what he was looking for. An entire cabinet of healing spells, organized in alphabetical order by the disease or injury being healed. He flipped to the "p" section for paralysis. Nothing. He tried the "q" section for quadriplegic. Nothing. Angel checked "s" for spinal injuries, but found nothing there either. There was nothing helpful under the heading of "nerves" or "nerve damage," "walking" or any other subject that Angel could think of.

Angel wanted to slam the drawer shut in frustration, but he held back out of caution. He started to walk toward the door, but something stopped him. He couldn't leave this room with out an answer. Then a subject heading on a filing cabinet caught his eye. This could be it! He tried the door, but this one was locked. It was the only locked cabinet in the whole room - that had to mean something! Giles didn't even have a key for this one. But that didn't matter. Angel just pulled harder, breaking the lock. He'd hoped to leave without any evidence that he'd been here, but that was moot now. Luckily, the noise wasn't too loud. It might be days (or even weeks or months considering all the filing cabinets in the huge room) before anyone discovered the lock was broken.

Hurriedly, Angel flipped through files. There had to be something in here! There just had to be. It was his last chance - and Giles, Sonya and Xander's last chance, as well. Then he found something -- it wasn't what Giles had asked for, but it might do, especially since there was no other alternative.

Angel pulled the spell from the drawer and made a quick copy of it, adding the papers to the stack in his hands. Then he put the spell back in the drawer and vacated the Watchers' Compound as quickly as his preternatural speed would let him.

When he got back to his room at the hostel, Angel knew it was too late to call Giles, and Angel was tired. He laid down on the bed, with the precious papers on the pillow next to him, and fell asleep, promising himself to call Giles the moment he woke up.

End of Interlude.

Back in Sunnydale...

Xander froze when he saw Joyce, his brain trying to think of something to say but failing miserably. He could just imagine what she must think, seeing her daughter sneak into the house with some strange young man in the middle of the night. He suddenly wished he looked more presentable. Xander looked down at his dirt covered jeans, ripped and bloody shirt, and bruised body. He winced, quickly realizing that he was not a pretty picture. After the fight with Willow and Spike, he really looked the worse for wear. He glanced frantically around the room, trying to think of some way to get them out of this mess. Then his eyes landed on Buffy's panic stricken face and he suddenly felt the fierce need to protect her from any and all trouble, including the kind of trouble she could get in with her mother. Xander didn't take the time to think about what those kinds of feelings could mean; he just acted on impulse.

Xander ran a hand through his hair, trying to dislodge any grass bits that had gotten tangled in it during the fight with the vampires. Then, smiling a somewhat strained smile, he stepped forward and extended his hand, saying politely, "Hello, Mrs. Summers."

Joyce shook his hand and offered a simple hello in return.

Xander took that as a good sign and continued. "Well, I can guess what you must be thinking... strange guy coming in with your daughter in the middle of the night and all of that. Every parent's nightmare, I'm sure. But, at the risk of sounding cliched, this is not how it looks."

Xander paused, trying to think of something to say that would explain everything without actually saying anything about vampires. He guessed he could pull the "your daughter was being mugged by some bad men and I saved her" routine, but he didn't think Mrs. Summers would buy that for a minute. She was sharp. She would realize that they weren't telling her everything right away. So Xander decided to go with the only other plausible explanation he could come up with on the spur of the moment, aside from the oh-so-clever fumigation story.

Xander sighed, looking up at Joyce and then at Buffy, who were both still waiting for his explanation. He hoped he was doing the right thing here...

"Well, it's kinda a long story. But the gist of it is... I can't go home tonight. My parents..." Xander looked down at the floor, staring at a spot on his tennis shoe. He absolutely hated talking about his home life. It didn't matter whether or not he was telling the truth at this very moment. It didn't matter that his father hadn't been so bad this week. Because eventually, his father would have just a little too much to drink and then Xander would have to start locking himself in his room at night again, cowering by the closet with the sheets wrapped tightly around his trembling form until the morning sun rose in the sky, signaling his chance to escape to school and training with Giles and Sonya. For as long as he could remember, it had been this way. Evading his father at night and escaping during the day.

Intellectually, Xander knew that he was physically stronger than his father was. But he could never bring himself to strike back at the man. Perhaps it was just the ingrained sense of fear that his father had placed in him with many years of abuse. But whatever the reason, Xander still quaked with fear at the sight of him in one of his rages. It was ironic really, since Xander had faced down many vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night in his time as the stand-in slayer. But some demons... you just couldn't fight.

It still hurt to say anything about it out loud, especially in front of Buffy. But he pressed onward, trying to make the best of it. "Well, let's just say that they wouldn't win any Parenting of the Year awards. They're both pretty fond of alcohol, especially my father, and sometimes they just go to far. And it's better for me to be elsewhere when that happens."

He shrugged, trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing. "I used to go spend the night at my friend Willow's house. Her parents were really cool; they never asked any questions. They just let me sleep on the couch. But, ever since she died last year... Well, I'm not really welcome there any more. I'd bring back too many painful memories for them."

Xander looked up at Joyce and smiled tentatively. "Your daughter was nice enough to offer to let me stay here tonight. She said something about you guys having a first rate couch. But if it's a problem, I'll leave. I mean, I don't want to cause any trouble or anything."

Buffy looked back and forth from Xander to her mother. She didn't know what to think. Was this Xander just making up a story? She wanted to think so because it was a horrible story, but there was something so authentic in his telling of it. She watched as her mom watched Xander, and wondered what Joyce was thinking.

"Buffy," Joyce said in her most motherly tone, "go upstairs and get the peroxide and some bandages. We need to take care of Xander's scrapes here."

After Buffy was gone, Joyce escorted Xander into the kitchen where she gave him a paper towel. "Use this to staunch the blood flow from your nose." She looked over his wounds with the professional eye of a long-time mother who'd seen her share of accidents. "It's not broken," she said with confidence, "but it will hurt like heck for awhile."

Joyce's eyes narrowed on Xander. "I don't know you, Xander, but my daughter seems to trust you. And I trust my daughter. You're more than welcome to stay here tonight, or any night."

She paused and then continued. "Look, this isn't any of my business, but I'd be failing in my duty as a mother and a human being if I didn't say something. What your father is doing to you is wrong." She saw an expression on his face like he was about to object, but she talked right over him. "You've probably heard this a million times, but I've got to say it. You should do something about it. You may not be ready now, but if you ever are and you need anything you can come to me."

Just then Buffy came back in with the bandages, and Joyce changed the subject, moving on the more inconsequential matters. With practiced fingers, Joyce cleaned his cuts and bruises, and bandaged his wounds. She scrounged Xander an old T-shirt and shorts to wear, and spirited his dirty things off to the washing machine. Then she told Buffy to make up the couch, and Joyce headed back upstairs.

Buffy found blankets and a pillow and put them on the couch for him. "So," she said, her tone worried, "how are you doing?"

Xander shrugged, sitting down on the couch and pulling his knees up to his chest. He wrapped his arms around his legs and leaned his chin down on his knees. "I'll be okay," he said softly, disgusted with himself when he heard the tell-tale tremor in his voice. He was NOT going to cry in front of Buffy. Not over the vampires, not over how much he missed Willow, not over his sad excuse for a life, and most definitely not over his low-life father. "I just need a few minutes to pull myself together. Then, before you even have a chance to blink, I'll be everyone's favorite Xander-shaped friend and psuedo-Vampire Slayer once again!"

Xander tried to give Buffy one of his famous, lop-sided grins but moving his face too much made his nose hurt, so he quickly gave up on that idea. Reaching a hand up to lightly touch the bandage on his nose, he recalled the last time it had gotten busted up. It had been during a particularly bad fight with his parents. His father had just lost his job and was drowning his anger in alcohol, like always. Of course, the alcohol didn't help lessen the anger one bit. It had only served to make things worse in the Harris household.

---Begin Flashback---

The door slamed loudly as Albert Harris made his way into his darkened house. As he was walking, his steps slow and awkward due to the excessive amounts of alcohol in his system, he banged his shin against the coffee table and cursed loudly. "Damned woman never cleans up this place! How's a man supposed to live in a hellhole like this? BRENDA!!! Get your fat ass down here right now, you lazy, ungrateful bitch!"

Hurried steps could be heard coming down the stairs, taking them two and even three at a time. When Brenda Harris reached the end of the stairs and saw Albert standing there in a furious, drunken rage, she froze like a deer caught in the headlights. "Albert?" she whispered, feeling the tears start to come, "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong? What's WRONG? What the bloody hell do you THINK is wrong, woman!" Albert yelled, his face turning an unhealthy shade of red due to his anger. "I cut the hell out of my leg because you were too lazy to clean this damn place up!" Albert reached out and grabbed his wife by the hair, dragging her into the kitchen and pushing her roughly to the floor.

As he moved toward her, like an animal stalking its prey, he slowly loosened the belt from around his waist and pulled it free of his dirty jeans, folding it over to make it into a decent paddle.

Brenda cowered before the man she had married, fear etched onto her face. "Albert... please... don't..." she whispered, but her pleading only served to enrage her husband even more. Tightening his grip on his make-shift paddle, Albert prepared to strike.

As the hand holding the belt whooshed down toward her face, Brenda shrieked and scooted backwards, narrowly missing the blow intended to knock her unconscious. Albert growled, grabbing her by the hair to prevent any further escapes and lifted his belt to strike again. But this time, as the belt came flying down, another hand reached out and stopped it and a scared but determined voice said, "No. Not again."

Albert released Brenda in his rage at the newcomer's interference and whirled around to come face to face with his only son. "Alexander LaVelle Harris, what the HELL do you think you're doing?" he yelled, the alcohol causing his words to slurr slightly. Brenda chose that moment of distraction to scoot farther away, out of Albert's reach but still close enough to see what was going on.

Xander, who was only 15 at the time and knew nothing about the world of vampires and demons that he would later come to face, flinched at the anger in his father's voice. But he didn't falter in his resolve. "Leave her alone, Dad." He bitterly spit the last word out of his mouth like something foul, something unclean.

Albert sneared at Xander and replied, "Oh, so the little boy is finally growing some balls, eh?" He laughed, tightening his grip on his belt before growing deadly serious. "You contradicted me, boy. You're gonna bleed for that."

Before Xander could think of a reply, the belt flew through the air and slapped him across the face with a sickening crunch, sending shooting pain through him. As he fell backwards, his backside hitting the floor painfully, Xander reached a trembling hand up to touch his nose, shocked to see the sticky, crimson colored blood that came away on his fingers. Xander heard the whimpering sounds that his mother was making from over in the corner of the kitchen, but he knew that she would be no help to him now. She was too far gone to do anything but cry.

As his father advanced toward him, the now-bloody belt slapping ominously against his thigh, Xander prepared himself for the next blow and fervently hoped that he would pass out this time before the pain became unbearable. In the distance, the crying grew louder...

---End of Flashback---

... and that was when Xander realized that he was the one crying, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his head facing away from Buffy. He wanted to stop, he commanded himself to stop, but the tears just kept flowing. Pathetic much, Xand, he thought as he swiped at the offending moisture on his cheeks angrily with one hand. Now Buffy probably thinks you're a big wuss. She'll never want to see you again, bud. You might as well consider it over before it even officially began, whatever IT was. Tough break.

When Xander started to cry, Buffy hesitated, unsure of what to do. Things were going on inside of him that she didn't and couldn't understand. After a minute, she sat down next to him on the couch, but he turned his head the other way. It stung like rejection, but she knew he just didn't want her to see his tears. That was very much a guy thing.

She put her arms on his back and rubbed between his shoulder blades, murmuring comforting words in a low voice. What she said was no where near as important as the fact that she was saying something. When he started to calm down, Buffy moved around to where she could see his face. Then she hugged him, letting him spend the last of his tears with his head tucked under her chin.

"I never cared for this dress anyway," she said with a smile as he pulled back a little, realizing he'd made a damp spot. She touched his face when he looked a little guilty. "It's OK, I don't mind. But how are you doing now?"

What he did next surprised her. Instead of talking, or making a joke, or pushing her away, he leaned in and kissed her. It was a fierce and passionate kiss. She could feel his teeth through his lips as he pressed against her. Zings of excitement started in her stomach and radiated out through her body. But then she started to think about it in the tiny corner of her mind that wasn't wrapped up in Xander's lips, his hands in her hair, his breath on her cheek. Besides the fact that her mother could come back down at any second and catch them making out, Buffy knew that this probably wasn't the best way for him to deal with whatever was bothering him. Instead, in a way, this was kind of like drowning one's sorrows in alcohol -- a way not to think about his problems.

After a few minutes, Buffy pushed him back. It was hard, but she managed to do it. And she couldn't stop smiling, because no matter his reasons for kissing her it did mean something. It meant that -- no matter what he'd said earlier -- he did like her, and that maybe they could have a real date, or even a real future.

When she looked at his face she saw the familiar look of guilt coming back to it. She hurried to correct him. "No, it's fine." Her smile was brilliant. "More than fine actually..." The confession wrung a blush from her cheeks. "I just ... we can't do this now." She gestured toward the stairs. "My mom..."

Buffy stood up. She was a little embarrassed now. "Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning ..." Xander gave her a little wave. "Sleep well." She stepped away, but then she leaned back in and gave him another quick kiss. Then, with a silly little smile that she couldn't get rid of, Buffy went upstairs and got ready for bed.

After their monumental failure, Spike was in a bad mood. He grabbed Willow -- who was still mildly stunned -- and threw her over his shoulder. Then he started walking back to their lair.

"I can't believe it," he muttered. "All that and they got away. Bloody hell! I thought you really wanted them this time, what?"

When they got home, he lofted her down onto the bed and threw himself down next to her, trench coat and all.

"So now what?" he wondered aloud. He turned his head and looked over at Willow. "Pet? Are you all right? I need some help plotting and scheming here!"

Willow didn't reply right away. She just lay there, staring dreamily at the ceiling. When Spike nudged her arm, prompting her to say SOMETHING to him, she smiled and rolled over onto her side, leaning back on her elbow and watching her lover with partially unfocused eyes. The silence finally got the best of him and Spike sat up, tearing off his trench coat and throwing it violently across the room. Willow reached out and grabbed his shoulder with a steel-like grip and pulled him back down beside her. "Don't get all angry, Spike. Anger doesn't help us. It only makes us foolish and hasty."

She leaned over the peroxide-blond vampire and grinned widely, tracing a fingernail leisurely down his chest. "Besides, we haven't lost yet, lover. Far from it. We now know exactly where to strike next." Willow giggled, letting her copper-red hair fall down over her pale face. "And when we do, we'll make them pay for what they've done to us."