Part Ten


Xander woke up the next morning with a host of aches and pains, none of which were helped by the fact that somehow during the night he'd managed to roll off of the couch and onto the hard floor. Wait a minute... THE COUCH??? Xander thought, confused as to his whereabouts. This isn't my house, is it? So where the heck am I?

As if in answer to his silent questions, he heard the sound of pots and pans clanking from the general vicinity of the kitchen. Now I know for sure that I'm not at home. Mom would never actually cook something this early... or at any time of the day for that matter.

Xander ran a hand through his sleep-mused hair and stood up, wondering absently what had happened to his clothes. He frowned, trying to figure out where he'd gotten the T-shirt and shorts that he was now sporting but the growling of his stomach distracted him from such thoughts and spurred him on toward the kitchen instead.

As he walked through the doorway, he stopped short when he saw Buffy Summers leaning over the stove, a cookbook in one hand and a spatula in the other. Suddenly everything clicked into place and all the memories from the night before came rushing back to him, specifically the memories involving kissing. Xander shook his head and tried to concentrate on something else before he embarrassed himself in front of Buffy.

Speaking of Buffy... Xander laughed silently to himself as he watched her at work. She was frowning as she stared at the book and then looked at the interesting concoction that was brewing on the stove. "It sure doesn't look like the picture in this book does..." she grumbled, flipping back through the pages. "If this is the beginners cookbook, then I'd hate to see the advanced version!"

After he was sure that her mother wasn't in the kitchen with them, Xander grinned and snuck up behind Buffy, snaking his arms around her waist and giving her a peck on the cheek. "What'cha cooking?" he asked, peering over her shoulder at the stove.

Buffy jumped, inadvertently moving the spatula, and her egg, bacon and salsa concoction went flying onto the floor. She looked at the floor, pouting. "Now all my work is spoiled!"

Then, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, she pulled away from him and went for a sponge. "But it probably would have been gross anyway. I almost flunked Home-Ec."

After cleaning up the mess, she pulled out two bowls, spoons and the Cheerios and milk. "You know what they say, the breakfast of champions." Buffy frowned. "Or maybe that's Wheaties! Umm ... they're G*R*R*R*EAT?"

Xander laughed. "I think you've got your pop-culture references mixed up. Tony the Tiger is the one who says that quote and his cereal is Frosted Flakes." Xander shrugged, taking a bite of his breakfast. "Cheerios is the one with the bee."

After they had finished their food, Xander helped Buffy clean up the dishes. Then he glanced at his watch, shocked to discover that it was only an hour until school started. "Uh, I'd better get going if I wanna get cleaned up and changed in time to avoid being late to class." Grinning he added, "But since we have the same first period, I'll see you there, okay?"

Buffy nodded and gave him a sweet smile. Then she ran into the laundry room and grabbed his freshly washed duds from the night before. "You can bring the other clothes back whenever."

Xander pulled on his jacket over the borrowed clothes and headed for the door before an idea struck him. Turning back to face Buffy, he said, "Hey, Sonya and I usually take our lunches outside to eat. It's kind of a tradition. There's this special place that we like to go... no one else really knows about it. Would you like to join us this afternoon?"

Buffy smiled at the invitation. Xander wanted to eat lunch with her, yet another indication that he had changed his mind about getting involved. She was afraid to say anything lest he change his mind again.

But as much as Buffy wanted to eat lunch with Xander, she didn't want to eat with Sonya -- the girl had barely been civil the night before. Buffy admitted that maybe she had tried too hard, but still she didn't want to be in forced contact with the girl. But she DID want to eat with Xander! She was about to say she would, when she remembered something that made her gasp.

"I'm so sorry, Xander," she said as they walked to the front door, "but I can't today. I mean, I'd love to, and normally I would, but I met someone last night -- definite friend potential -- and we're supposed to do lunch today. Maybe you and I can do the dinner thing -- or even the after-school-snack thing -- instead?" She opened the door for him and looked up hopefully.

Xander smiled and said, "Sure, sounds like a plan." He walked down the driveway and paused when he reached the street, turning to look back at Buffy. "So, I guess I'll see you in class?"

"OK," Buffy said with a smile and a little wave. Then she went inside and closed the door just in time to see Joyce coming down the stairs fully dressed.

"Did Xander leave?" Joyce asked.

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "We had breakfast and then he had to go change for school. Thanks for letting him stay last night."

"It's all right," Joyce said, then her tone became more motherly. "But encourage him to see a counselor or something if you can, OK? I think it would be good for him in his situation."

"I will," Buffy promised, though she wasn't sure she actually would. She didn't want to rock the boat. He didn't seem terribly inclined to talk about his parents much. Though he needed to if the previous night's breakdown was any indication. But Buffy didn't want him to be mad at her for interfering. Xander was touchy about that. Then again, Mr. Platt was a very nice guy; maybe Xander wouldn't mind talking to him.

Then, pushing unpleasantness away from her mind, Buffy scampered upstairs and got ready for school.


As Xander walked home from Buffy's, he began to replay the previous night's events through his mind. It was still hard to believe that so much could have happened in just one night! As he remembered the fight with Willow and Spike, he decided that he'd make sure to drop by the library before class to give a quick report to the librarian. Giles would definitely want to know what had happened. But then he froze mid step and groaned, remembering everything the Watcher had told him about revealing their secrets to outsiders. Don't spill the beans to the general populace... that was the cardinal rule of slaying. Xander snorted. Well, he'd pretty much botched that one up, hadn't he? He'd told Buffy everything and now she would probably want to help them with their mission. How was he going to explain all of this to the gang?

"Giles is gonna KILL me!" he muttered as he slowly trudged home. "And if he doesn't... Sonya definitely will!" Xander sighed the sigh of a man condemned. "I'm doomed."


After a quick shower, Buffy picked out her clothes with special care. She wanted to look pretty today -- both for when she saw Xander again, and to reflect her great mood. For an instant, she wished she still had some of her killer clothes from before the accident, but they were out of style now anyway. From her new, conservative wardrobe, she settled on a pair of old jeans, just worn enough to look soft and cling to her every curve, a white T-shirt worn under a denim button-down shirt with the tails tied at her waist, and her sturdy black boots.

This morning when Joyce dropped Buffy off at school, Buffy was not scared or worried. Somehow, knowing the truth about the world of darkness that surrounded them made her feel less awkward. What was the point about worrying about normal things when one's life was in jeopardy. And there were happy things to think about, too, like Xander's lips, and his arms around her waist this morning, and seeing him again in English class, and even her new, almost-friend Oz who would be sharing lunch with her today. Despite the baddies, life in Sunnydale was starting to look up.

She was walking up the path when suddenly Cordelia stood in front of her holding some books and papers. Buffy had a sense of deja vu, and Cordelia made a big show of stepping back. "Don't hit me, Muffy, OK?"

Buffy glared at Cordelia. "It's BUFFY."

"Chill out, girl," Cordelia said, lifting an eyebrow to indicate how little she cared.

Her buoyant attitude deflated, Buffy turned and walked into the school. Well, she decided, it may still matter what people think, but at least it doesn't quite matter as much. Feeling mildly better, Buffy hurried off to English, wondering if Xander was already there.


The windows of the factory across town were boarded up for two reasons. First of all, the boards kept potential prowlers out and secondly, they blocked out the sunlight, making it possible for Spike and Willow to roam around through the building unhindered by the light of day. All in all, it was a fairly good arrangement.

Spike was just thinking about that when he heard a booming knock from the front room. "Now who would be callin' at such an ungodly hour?" he wondered, joining Willow at the door. "No one I know, that's for sure!"

Willow rolled her eyes at him and replied, "Don't worry, lover. I know who's knocking at our door. They're here to solve all of our problems for us..." She trailed off, turning to face the door with a satisfied smile on her lips.

Staring at the patch of sunlight that filtered through a crack in the shoe-polish covered window on the door, Spike took a step back and scowled. "Well, that's all fine and dandy, pet. But who's going to open the bloody thing and risk gettin' burned to a crisp? That's what I'm wantin' to know."

Willow smiled and rang a small bell that she was holding in her right hand. The sound chimed through the factory, echoing slightly off the walls. "Oh Samuel..." she purred, twirling around on her toes. "Won't you be a dear and come open the door for Mommy? We have guests waiting."


Part Eleven


Giles paced around the library, waiting anxiously for news. Sonya sat at the reading table, working on an assignment. The first period bell would ring in 20 minutes, and Xander wasn't there yet for the morning briefing. Giles hoped that nothing dire had befallen the lad while escorting Miss Summers home the night before. Then he thought of something else having to do with the blonde that could have distracted him, and frowned.

When Xander finally did make it to the library, he looked tired and his hair was slicked back, still wet from the shower.

"Where have you been?" Giles demanded, more curt than he'd intended to be because of all the worrisome thoughts rattling around in his brain. "We've been waiting for you."

"I had to spend the night at Buffy's last night."

Xander's reply got both Giles and Sonya's attention. Sonya wheeled over to the men, positioning herself next to Giles. Giving the boy a severe look, Giles said, "You skipped out on the rest of your patrolling to spend quality time with Miss Summers? Where are your priorities?"

"It was necessary," Xander protested. "Willow and Spike jumped us when we got to her house." He paused, feelings of guilt written all over his face. "I had to tell her everything."

"You did WHAT?" Sonya exploded before Giles could say anything. "What were you thinking, Harris? That wasn't your secret to tell."

Xander hung his head under her barrage of words.

Giles placed a hand on Sonya's shoulder. "It's too late now. The only prudent course of action for the future is to minimize the damage." Sonya looked up at him, and he met her gaze meaningfully. They had talked at some length about Xander and his new "friend" the night before. Now was the time for a united front. She gave him a slight nod.

The librarian Watcher looked at Xander. "You realize, don't you, that you're putting the girl at risk just by being with her. I understand young love -- believe me, I even experienced it once myself, if you can imagine -- but the Hellmouth is no place for it. It pains me to do this, but I have to be firm on this. Xander, you cannot see Buffy Summers again romantically. I forbid it."

There was a mutinous expression in Xander's eyes. "Now wait just a damn minute! Who do you think you are, Giles? You may be able to tell me what to slay and where to slay it, but you have no right to interfere in my personal life."

"What you don't understand, Xander, is that you don't have a right to a personal life," Sonya interjected.

"You, too, Wheels?" Xander asked bitterly.

She nodded, but kept her voice calm and reasonable -- quite an accomplishment for the emotional Slayer. "The Chosen One doesn't get a personal life, Xander. It's right there in the Slayer's Handbook. The Chosen One must devote their life to fighting the forces of evil -- not wrestling under the sheets with some blonde girl."

"Hey!" Xander protested with a blush. "If you must know, we didn't sleep together. It was mostly platonic. I slept on the couch."

"Good," Giles said, "that will make it all the easier for you to break it off with her."

Xander impaled them both with a deadly glare. "No way! I'm not the Chosen One, I don't have to go by these rules. I volunteered for this job, and if I have to, I'll un-volunteer."

"She means that much to you?" Sonya's voice was small and quiet.

Xander nodded. "Yes!"

Giles looked seriously at Xander. This wasn't good. The boy was so wrapped up in his crush that he was really going to walk away from all this. A year ago, Giles would have wanted that above all things -- the boy deserved a safe and happy life. But now Alexander Harris was all that stood between Giles and the ruination of his plan to save Sonya's life. Despite the guilt Giles felt, he knew he had to do this or their plans would all be lost.

"If you want to continue with your duties as temporary Slayer," Giles said, "you will cease to see Miss Summers romantically immediately. It's come down to a choice, Mr. Harris -- fish or cut bait, so to speak. Sonya and I need someone devoted to the cause, not someone distracted by blonde hair and green eyes."

He paused. It was time to reveal his secret. It was the only thing he could think of to convey the magnitude of the situation to the boy. "If you decide to walk away from all this, I can scarcely blame you, but know this. The deadline we've been afraid of has come. The Council is sending a representative here in three months to evaluate Sonya -- and you know what they'll do if they find her like this. Termination, they call it. Culling the weak is another term I've heard. I need to focus on finding the spell to heal her right now, but if you leave she and I will have to do the patrolling. It's up to you, Xander, but you should think about it very carefully."

Emotions flitted over Xander's face so quickly that Giles couldn't read them, but after a second or two the boy's face was a cold mask. "I'll call it off with Buffy today. You can count on me."

Giles nodded, trying not to show the guilt he felt at dealing yet another blow to the young lad's heart. He felt cruel for ending the only relationship Xander had had since Willow's transformation, but Giles shook those thoughts out of his head. In three months, all this could be over. Then Xander could pick up with Miss Summers if he wanted to.

The bell for first period chose that moment to ring, and Xander and Sonya had to hurry for fear of being late to yet another class. Giles went back into his office, and closed the door. He needed a moment of silence to prepare for the bad things yet to come.


Xander walked down the hallway slowly, not even caring whether of not he was late for class again. His mind was whirling, thinking about everything that had just happened. He knew that he couldn't possibly leave Sonya and Giles now, not when Sonya's life was on the line. If she died because if him, he wouldn't be able to live with himself. But he honestly didn't think he had the strength to break it off with Buffy. He cared for her so much, more than he had cared for anyone in a very long time. Finally Xander came to a decision. It wasn't a decision that he liked very much, but it was the only choice he had.

Just then the tardy bell rang and Xander was startled out of his thoughts by Mrs. Jacobs' stern voice from across the hall. "Well, Mr. Harris? Are you just going to stand there or are you going to come to class?"

Xander tightened his grip on his bookbag and hurried through the door, quickly sliding into his seat near the front. He studiously ignored Buffy, who was sitting right in front of him, and didn't respond to her whispered hello.

Just then, Mrs. Jacobs began taking the roll and Xander slouched down in his seat, praying that class would be over soon.


When Xander didn't respond to her hello, Buffy assumed he just didn't want to make Mrs. Jacobs any more angry at him than she already was. Buffy sat docilely in her seat, pretending to take notes on the forms of the Sonnet. She was quite relieved when Mrs. Jacobs did NOT make them actually write one.

When the bell rang, Xander was out of the room like a shot. Quickly, Buffy gathered her things together and ran after him. "Hey," she called, "wait up!"

Just outside the door, a few steps away from the exiting horde of students, Xander stopped. Buffy smiled at him. "Hey, stranger. For a minute there, I thought you didn't hear me."

His face softened. "Of course, I heard you. I always hear you."

Buffy leaned in to give him a kiss, when suddenly he stiffened up again. She looked up at him in confusion. His dark, hooded gaze was directed at something just over her shoulder. She turned her head and saw Sonya glaring at them from her wheelchair a few feet away.

"Does she not want you to see me, is that it?" Buffy demanded angrily. When he didn't respond, she began to get worried. "Are you listening to her?"

"Look," Xander said softly, "I'm sorry, but I can't do this now. Some stuff happened this morning... Can we talk later? At your house at about 4o'clock?"

Buffy stared at him, unwilling to commit to the date -- or maybe appointment was a better word. "Why?"

"Please?" Xander said, begging her with his eyes as well as his voice."Please?"

Finally, she gave in. "Fine!" Without another word to him, she turned and walked away, giving Sonya a glare as she passed the wheelchair-bound girl.

And to think that last night I tried to be nice to her! Buffy thought, feeling her anger seethe and roil around in her stomach. We'll see if I ever make THAT mistake again!

She didn't know what was up with Xander. It looked like he was breaking things off with her now. Buffy couldn't stand this on-again/off-again relationship. If he broke up with her this time, because Sonya was jealous or whatever, it would be the last time.


As Xander watched Buffy leave, he felt his anger rising. How could Sonya and Giles do this to him? How could they force him to make a decision that he didn't want to make? As all these thoughts were dancing around in his brain, he walked over to where Sonya sat and waited for her to yell at him again over Buffy. She didn't disappoint him.

"What the HELL was that about, Harris? I thought we were clear on this matter! No contact with the blonde, remember?"

Xander kneeled in front of Sonya, bringing himself down to her level. In a deceptively calm voice, he replied, "I'm not an asshole, Sonya. I don't just leave a girl hanging like that. I owe Buffy the truth, and that's what I'm going to give her this afternoon when we meet."

"You're seeing her AGAIN?" Sonya exclaimed.

"Yes, I am. Do you want to make something of it?"

"Harris, what is your problem? Don't you understand what the phrase 'no contact' means or are you just that mentally challenged?"

Xander studied Sonya closely. "Where is all this anger coming from, Sonya? You know that I've agreed to put my 'sacred duty' above everything else, even Buffy. So why are you getting so worked up about this?"

Sonya crossed her arms in front of her chest. In a defensive voice, she replied, "I don't know what you're talking about, Xander. I'm not worked up. I just don't want to see you loose sight of what's important here because of some blonde bimbo."

"Buffy is NOT a bimbo!" Xander snapped, rising to his feet.

"There, you see? Already, you're siding with her and defending her," Sonya pointed out with a smug smile. "That's why you have to cut the ties now, before you get even more attached to her."

Xander threw up his hands, exasperated and practically seething with anger. "What is your problem, Sonya?" he demanded, "Why can't you stand to see me happy for once?"

"Giles and I think..."

Xander cut her off. "No, I know why Giles is doing this. He's too busy looking at the so-called big picture to even realize how much he's hurting me. But what about you? What do you get out of this, Sonya? Some perverse satisfaction out of separating me from someone I love? Or maybe you're just jealous because you don't have anyone special and I do, is that it?"

Sonya looked at him with wide eyes and whispered, "You love her?"

Xander paused, momentarily taken aback by her question. He hadn't really meant to say anything about love earlier, it had just come out in the heat of the moment. But when he thought seriously about it, he had to admit to himself that it was true. Xander smiled. "Yeah, I think I do. Strange, huh?"

Sonya didn't reply.

Xander shook his head, clearing his mind of thoughts of his newly discovered love for the time being, and looked down at Sonya, who was trying not to cry. His anger at her diminished some when he saw how upset she was. "Hey, what's the matter, Wheels? You look like you lost your best friend."

Sonya hastily wiped her eyes and looked up at Xander with a too-bright smile plastered on her face. "I've gotta go. I'm gonna be late for class." Then she quickly wheeled herself down the hall and away from him.

Xander frowned. That wasn't the same Sonya that he knew. Something was wrong. But as the bell rang for second period, he had to forget about that for now in favor of the wonderful world of Algebra.


Samuel was afraid. He had been afraid for a very long time now, ever since he'd been kidnapped by the bad people. The man was so big and strong, he towered over Samuel's small form. But he wasn't who occupied Samuel's nightmares every night...

The woman with the flaming red hair.

She was who REALLY scared him.

Red hair...

Samuel's mother had red hair...

Samuel missed his mother.

The ringing of a bell startled Samuel out of his thoughts and he gathered up his chains, making his way slowly to the front room of the factory. "Yes, Miss Willow," he whispered, cowering before her.

Willow gestured to the door and smiled. "Please let our guests in, dearie. It's almost time for tea..." She giggled.

Samuel nodded and moved to open the door, afraid of what he might find on the other side.


Buffy walked into the cafeteria with a heavy heart, much different from her buoyant trek from the car to the school this morning. It was like everything that could have happened to pierce her new armor of happiness, had happened. She let out a deep sigh and headed for the hot lunch line.

As she stood there, waiting her turn with the hotdog surprise, Buffy's eyes searched the large room. All she needed for her day to be a complete bust would be for Oz to stand her up for lunch. When she finished selecting her meal from the unappetizing options in front of her, Buffy moved slowly to the table by the window she'd sat at yesterday. No Oz. She sighed again and pulled her trusty book out of her backpack.

"At least you'll never let me down," she whispered to the worn copy of her favorite novel ever, Jane Austen's Emma. Buffy had read the book at least ten times over during her time in traction.

"Hey."

Buffy looked up and her face broke into a sunny smile. The first in hours. "Oz. I'm so glad you're here."

The short, semi-cute boy slid into the seat opposite her at the small table and set down his tray of macaroni and cheese and Jell-O. Then he reached into his backpack and pulled out a book of his own. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. "See," he said, gesturing to the book, "expanding our minds together."

Buffy grinned. "Looks like a deep book."

"Not too deep after the fifth reading," Oz replied with a shrug.

The hotdog surprise was rubbery and hard to swallow. Buffy grimaced as she chewed, and her eyes roamed around the cafeteria. Then she saw Xander standing next to the vending machine with a soda and a candy bar. Probably headed for lunch with Sonya-the-witch Buffy thought with a frown.

It was hard for her to believe that things with Xander had gone from better than her wildest dreams this morning to awkward and confusing this afternoon. He'd treated her so weird after class -- as if he couldn't get rid of her fast enough. Because of Sonya probably. Granted, he did invite himself over to her house this afternoon, but from the way he was acting, Buffy suspected he was back on his "shouldn't date Buffy" attitude instead of his hopeful, life-embracing (and Buffy-embracing) attitude of this morning. Buffy stared at Xander for a minute, meeting his eyes, then she consciously turned away and smiled at Oz.

Turn about is fair play she decided. If he can treat me like crap and then go hang with Sonya, I should feel no guilt about eating lunch with another guy. And why should I feel guilt anyway? It's not like Xander's my boyfriend. We haven't even gone out on a real date. And Oz is just a friend anyway...

Realizing that she'd been silent for a long time, Buffy looked up at Oz. His face was never very full of expression, but there was a gleam of concern in his eyes. "Something's wrong. I can tell."

Buffy sighed. "I don't want to burden you with it. We've only just met. We should be talking about our favorite movies and things, not the darkness in our souls."

Oz leaned closer to Buffy. "I think humanity is much more interesting than a movie could ever be." He paused. "But if you really want to know, it's My Stepmother is an Alien. Great flick."

That made Buffy laugh. Her reservations overcome, she told him all about Xander (well, except for the parts about vampires, and the abuse stuff, which she knew she shouldn't share with anyone). "Do you know Xander Harris?"

At Oz's nod, Buffy continued. "We almost had a date last night, and then this morning we had breakfast together and he was so sweet to me, but when we got to school he practically blew me off, not to mention how he jumps whenever Sonya Parker says so. I don't know what to think. Is that just a guy thing? Or is he ashamed to be seen with me, or what?"

"No one would be ashamed to be seen with you," Oz said.

"Thanks," Buffy said with a smile. "That's nice to hear."

Oz leaned forward and commenced what, for him, was a very long speech. "There are rumors about Xander, but I've always thought he was a classic misunderstood guy. Sonya has been, like, the only friend he's had here since his other friends died."

Buffy nodded to show she knew that story. She suspected that she knew more of it than Oz did. He continued. "Give him time to work out a good balance. If it's real, he'll work it out, and if it's not, you'll know soon enough. Don't go dredging up trouble."

She tapped the cover of his book. "Is this where you got all your insight, because I must admit, you made me feel better."

"Can't tell you," Oz replied. "Wouldn't want to mess up the aura of mystery I've created."

Just then, the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Both teenagers stood up and collected their things. "So, is your band playing tonight?"

Oz nodded. "Yep. Coming?"

Buffy shrugged. "Depends on the balance."

"Good deal." Oz turned away to deposit his inedible lunch in the self-bus window. "See ya 'round." Then he disappeared into the throng of rushing students.

Buffy looked after him for a minute, and then bussed her own tray and headed for class.


The library phone shrilled, startling Giles out of his contemplative stance.

"Hello?" he asked into the receiver, hoping against hope that it was the call he'd been waiting for.

"Giles," Angel said, the phone crackling with long-distance static.

"Where are you? What happened?" Giles demanded. "I was beginning to think the worst."

"I ... overslept," Angel admitted. "I had to hurry to make it to the airport in time for my flight. The plane is about to board. I'm calling from a payphone in the airport."

"You got first class, right? Plenty of room in the seats, and thick window shades?"

"Right," Angel agreed. "It's all taken care of. When I get to the airport in New York, I'll stay inside for the rest of the day, and then catch my connection to LA at 8 p.m. I should be in Sunnydale late tonight."

"Good," Giles said, wiping his forehead with his pristine, white handkerchief. "Now, what did you find?"

"I don't want to go into it on the phone," Angel said. "I got a copy of Sonya's file, and I found something that might be useful."

"The healing spell?"

Angel hesitated, and Giles began to suspect the worst. "I'll explain it all when I get there, Giles. I've got to go. They're calling my flight."

The phone went dead, and Giles began to panic. If Angel had failed, what were they going to do now? Then he tried to think rationally. If Angel hadn't found anything, he would have stayed in Europe to scour the continent for a spell that would work. That had been the plan. Angel must've found something -- and maybe it was the healing spell after all. Pushing the last of his doubts away, Giles ordered himself to be happy. He couldn't let his charges see the magnitude of his fear. He had to be their rock. Sonya was always just a few inches away from a breakdown, and now Xander was most likely desolate over the abrupt end to his new relationship.

"Keep a stiff upper lip, old man," Giles told himself. "Don't let them all down."

 


Part Twelve


Xander walked out of the library at a quarter til four, ditching his daily training session with Giles so that he could make it to Buffy's house in time for their meeting. He had left a note on the library counter so he wouldn't worry, and now he was sprinting across the quad at top speed. He managed to reach the Summers' residence with about two minutes to spare, luckily they lived fairly close to the high school. He waited a second until he had caught his breath and then he walked up to the front door and knocked. Buffy opened the door and let him in, keeping a carefully neutral expression on her face.

"Uh..." Xander faltered, trying to think of what to say, "Is your mom home yet?"

"No," Buffy replied as she took a seat on the couch in the living room. "She's still at the gallery. She won't be home until 6."

Xander nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

"So..." Buffy prompted him. "What's the deal?"

Xander didn't immediately respond. He was still trying to figure out how he was going to handle this.

Buffy sighed and stood up, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "If you want to break things off, just tell me, okay? Don't beat around the bush and try to soften the blow or whatever. I'm a big girl. I can take it."

Buffy turned away from him, not able to look him in the eyes. "So if you don't want me, just say so."

Before Xander even realized what he was doing, he had crossed the room and placed his hands on Buffy's shoulders, forcing her to face him. "Buffy, don't say that!" he exclaimed, gathering her into a comforting embrace. "I don't want to end things between us, far from it."

Sighing, he pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "When I'm with you, I feel like all the horrors in the world don't even matter any more. And that's part of the problem. You see, Giles and Sonya confronted me in the library this morning. They both told me not to see you any more. They say you're a distraction I can't afford to have right now. Giles said it was either you or the job. I told him I'd walk away from it, but they really need me right now. It's life and death. I feel like I'm torn in two pieces!"

"You were going to leave it for me?" Buffy looked up, a tremulous almost-smile on her face.

"I was, until Giles hit me with his trump card. Turns out that the Council is on the verge of finding out everything. If I don't stay with them, Sonya could die. I mean, what kind of choice is that?" Xander sighed. "Sonya's my best friend. I'd die for her, but when I'm not with you, all I can think about is how I wish I WAS with you. And nothing else seems to matter. Not vampires. Not school. Not my problems at home. Nothing. And that's what Giles and Sonya just don't get. They are convinced that this is just some silly, little crush; puppy love or something. But it's more than that, Buffy."

Buffy could hardly believe what she was hearing. He did care, and so much more than she'd thought. She couldn't stop smiling. Then, when she couldn't take any more, she leaned in and kissed him full on the mouth. That occupied them for more than a moment, and then Xander pulled away a little bit.

"But what are we going to do?" he asked. "I told them I wouldn't see you. I didn't want to, but I don't have any other choice. But I can't NOT see you! Arrgh! I feel like a character from Shakespeare!"

"There's got to be a way around this." Buffy leaned her head on his shoulder and thought really hard. There had to be something he hadn't thought of. Then the metaphorical light bulb brightened above her head. "We could still see each other ... if we didn't let them find out."

"You mean sneak around?" Hope dawned on Xander's face. "Maybe it would work. After all, the Council deadline is in three months, then it will be over and done with once and for all."

"Three months isn't that long," Buffy said, willing him to agree. "I'm sure we can find a way to meet secretly, between classes and patrols and stuff." An impish grin curved her lips. "Know any good broom closets?"

Xander laughed, and pulled Buffy into a hug. "Wow -- I'm having an affair. This is kind of cool."

Buffy giggled. "I've never been part of a forbidden romance before. You're right -- it is kind of Romeo and Juliet ... only without the whole suicide thing." She glanced up at the clock. It was 4:30. "So, how much longer do you have?"

He hesitated, and then said, "For you, I'll make some time." Then he pulled her into another, long kiss. Buffy surrendered herself to the moment without another thought. They could figure things out in more detail later. For now, this was enough.


Samuel opened the door, and Spike looked on with interest to see what would be revealed. All in all, it was kind of disappointing: a raven haired girl with short cropped hair, a dark complected and haired man who stood at least 6'7" tall and an ordinary looking brunette. They were all wearing thick, brown woolen cloaks despite the lovely California temperature.

Looking over at Willow, Spike hissed, "These are the people to help us take out the whitehats for good? A tad anti-climactic, don't you think? What the devil 'ave you been smokin', lover?"

Their human slave, the boy Samuel, scooted back as quickly as his shackles would let him. Spike raised an eyebrow, and spoke more loudly, "What are you afraid of, boy?"

Then something exploded just above Spike's head.

"What the bloody hell was that?" Spike growled, and his face took on its vampire visage as he prepared to face an attacker.

"Calm down, Spikey," Willow cooed, stroking his arm. "It was just one of my new friends." She gestured for them to come in out of the sun. Samuel closed the door behind them, and the five adults went into the dining area where Willow had ordered Samuel to set up for tea.

The three humans removed their clothes, revealing very different styles of clothing. The short haired girl wore a black bodysuit with leather straps covered with weapons of various styles criss-crossed over her chest. A dagger blade stuck out of each of her black combat boots and a gun belt hung low on her hips, sporting a couple of berettas and some spare ammunition. The brunette wore plain jeans and a denim, button-up shirt. And the man wore black, floor length robes over his tall, lanky form.

"I was the one with the pyrotechnics," the man said, smothering a cough with one of his long-fingered hands. "My name is Nathan. I am a sorcerer of Druidic descent, and I'm the leader of our team." He looked at Willow and inclined his head in a respectful nod. "The Order of Taraka sends you its regard, madam. Never before has such an extensive contract been made. That's why the order sent our team. If I may say so, we are the best team available."

"I'd expect nothing less," Willow replied with a cruel grin.

Spike looked at the humans dubiously. There were some interesting smells coming off of them -- a whole lot of magic -- but how could a sorcerer, a neo-nazi and a school girl defeat ... Then he thought of something. He looked at Willow and asked yet another question. "Exactly how extensive of a contract, m'dear? How much is this costing us?"

Willow waved a hand about in an airy gesture. "Don't worry, lover. I took care of the fee."

Nathan spoke up. "Let me answer the other question. We are here to remove the following targets: the Watcher, Mr. Rupert Giles; the paralyzed Slayer, Miss Sonya Parker; the human male, Alexander Harris; the human female, Buffy Anne Summers; and the demon known as Angelus, or Angel if you will."

"And all we have to do is get at least half of the targets to the same place at the same time tomorrow night," Willow added, smiling and rubbing her hands together like a kid in a candy store. "That's gonna be the fun part."

"Let me introduce the other members of my team," Nathan said to the room at large. "First, Kate Smith, lycanthrop."

The school girl stood up and grinned. In the blink of an eye, her face had turned to that of a snarling werewolf -- but the rest of her body had not changed, and the feral look of most werewolves was absent from her yellow eyes. Then she spoke, her voice only obscured a little by her muzzle and fangs. "Unlike most of my kind, I have complete control of my lycanthropic abilities. I can change any part of my body that I choose, or all of it. I have complete mastery of my feral instincts. And, best of all, I can change whenever I need to -- day or night, full moon or any other phase."

With that introduction, Kate reverted back to normal. She smiled prettily and sat back down. Spike was impressed in spite of himself.

Nathan gestured for the other girl to stand up. "Meet Gillian Layne. Her talent is rather unique. There isn't actually a name for it, so I'll just let her demonstrate."

Gillian stood and extended her hands. Spike expected her to go for some of her many weapons and demonstrate incredible aim or something of the sort.

But what she did was something totally different and unexpected. Her hands started to extend and change shape. The left hand morphed into the blade of a sword -- long, sharp and deadly. When she moved it, Spike could hear the blade slice the air with a deadly swishing noise. The right hand distended longer and longer. It moved like a snake without a head. Finally, it was six feet long. Gillian motioned and Spike heard a cracking sound, like a whip.

She had extended the new appendage so that it wrapped around one of the beams in the ceiling, and as she was hanging from it she moved her legs in a flurry of impressive karate-style kicks. Then, in a few seconds, the new and dramatic appendages had reverted back into normal hands again.

"She also has deadly aim with all forms of weaponry," Nathan said as Gillian sat back down, "but there's no need for her to demonstrate that, I'm sure."

Spike had to admit it. He was completely impressed. The whitehats didn't stand a chance. However, he only had to admit it to himself. There was no need to give these newcomers an over-inflated ego, was there? So he just sat back in his chair and smiled.


It wasn't long after dark when Giles heard someone come into the library.

"Xander?" he called, hoping the boy had found his way back from his breakup with Miss Summers -- Sonya had told Giles about Xander's plans before she left for home. She was much more illuminating that the terse note Xander had left on the counter.

"No, it's me."

Giles came out of his office to find Angel standing there with a sheaf of paper. "You got here fast."

"I decided to risk flying out earlier from New York. It worked out all right. I had to take cover in the bathroom for part of the flight, but I'm here." Angel held out his hands to evidence his wholeness. Then he walked over to the counter and set down the stack of papers. "Here's Sonya's file, and a spell that I think will help. It's not the spell you wanted, but it has potential." Angel hesitated. "I'll just let you read it for yourself, and then we'll talk."

"Where are you going?" Giles asked, his eyes already straying to the stack of papers that might hold the answers to his dilemma.

"I thought I'd do a patrol run." Angel shrugged. "Xander's got natural aptitude for this, but he's been alone out there for too long. I guess I just worry."

"Natural," Giles muttered distractedly. Then he looked up at the vampire. "Go, find Xander, patrol. That would be good. Come back here later, and tell me what you think of this stuff. Then I will have had time to read it all."

Angel nodded. "Will do."

Giles looked at the first page of Sonya's file and smiled a little as he saw his own report of the Harvest situation -- the good old days, before Sonya's accident.

"Oh, and Angel..." He looked up and found Angel was gone. Giles hadn't even heard the door close.

That night, Xander patrolled with a goofy smile on his face. He'd spent too much time at Buffy's, but it had been worth it. The smile got wider as he remembered the smoochies. Buffy smoochies...

Stop it! Xander ordered himself. You're patrolling right now. Got to prove to Giles and Sonya that she WON'T distract me... Buffy smoochies... Dang it!!! Let's try and think of something else... Vampires... big, evil, scary... Buffy smoochies. Wait, Buffy smoochies aren't scary, how did that segue happen?

Then he heard a crunching sound behind him. Xander whipped out his trusty stake and whirled around -- all business. "All right. Who's there? Come out where I can see ya."

"Hey, point that thing somewhere else!" Angel stepped out from the shadows.

"It's not a thing!" Xander adopted a pained expression. "He has a name."

"You named your stake?" Angel raised an eyebrow. "Just out of curiosity -- though I'm sure I'll be sorry I asked -- what do you call it... er... him?"

"His name is Bob."

Angel couldn't help it. The laughter forced its way out of his throat. Xander always managed to make him laugh. "You named your stake BOB?"

"He looks like a Bob," Xander replied, pouting slightly. Then he dropped the routine and walked up to Angel, slapping the vampire on the shoulder. "So, you're back."

"Barely. There was a near-mishap during the flight, but the plane's bathroom is a pretty sunless place."

Xander nodded, getting back to business mode. They began walking side by side, patrolling the danger zone of the graveyard together like they had countless times before. "So, what did you find out?"

Angel sighed. "Not as much as we'd hoped for. There was no healing spell strong enough. They had spells for everything from wart removal to broken arms, but nothing for paralysis."

"Damn it!" Xander kicked a rock and sent it flying into the darkness. In the distance they could hear it strike a tombstone. "Now what are we going to do? There's not enough time for another expedition."

"Well, I found something that might help us, but I don't want to say any more than that yet," Angel said. "I gave the stuff to Giles, and he's looking over it. I don't want to get your hopes up until we know for sure."

Xander nodded, reigning in his impatience and frustration.

"So," Angel said, giving the boy a sidelong glance, "how have things been while I was away?"

"Not too bad," Xander replied, trying to be nonchalant. "No untoward demon sightings or anything. A few Spike and Willow encounters, but nothing I couldn't handle."

"Is that what happened to your nose?"

Xander touched the bandage with a rueful grin. "Yeah. Battle scars." He paused, wondering how much of his Buffy experience he should confide in Angel. Sure the guy was a vamp, but over the last year he'd become a friend. For a second, Xander remembered the time that Angel rescued him from his father during one of the old man's rages -- then Xander pushed that from his mind. But Angel might have some insights into his Giles/Sonya vs. Buffy problem. The guy HAD been around for awhile. But Xander didn't want Angel reporting on him -- he wasn't sure what the guy would do. Then he thought of the perfect way to get advice without risking any reprecussions.

"So," he asked in a carefully casual tone, "on a completely unrelated topic... I have this friend -- a hypothetical friend."

"All your friends are hypothetical," Angel muttered in a sarcastic-yet-brotherly tone of voice, but Xander was too wrapped up in his story to hear.

"Let's call this guy John. Anyway, John has this job. It's a very stressful job -- it occupies a lot of his time. And John's bosses, well, the phrase control-freak-workaholics springs directly to mind. Then John met this girl -- a hypothetical girl. Let's call her ... um ... Jane."

Angel rolled his eyes, but didn't comment.

Xander continued, "So Jane is this really great girl. She's gorgeous, but that goes without saying. But she's more than that. She's my ... she's JOHN'S perfect match. And, even more unbelievable, to JOHN, she likes him, too. These lovebunnies just can't get enough of each other!"

At that, Angel just had to laugh out loud.

"Shut up and let me finish, Dead Boy," Xander reprimanded him.

"Up yours, Weasle Breath," Angel replied without missing a beat.

Xander gave a big sigh and asked sarcastically, "Can I finish my story now?"

"Please," Angel said politely. "I'm all ears." He smiled again -- enjoying every moment of this fraternal bickering with Xander. He hadn't had any male siblings to banter with during his youth, so the past year of experiences like this with Xander had been refreshing.

"So..." Xander paused, just to make sure Angel was paying the proper amount of attention, "... the problem is that John's bosses think that Jane is distracting him from his job. They laid down the law big time -- the job or the girl. John can't leave the job, they need him a lot, but he can't give up the girl either -- she's so great... And the smoochies are ... um ... great or so John said in his hypothetical way. Anyway, now they're forced to sneak around behind everyone's back, like some Romeo and Juliet thing. Which is actually kind of interesting -- I had to read that play once. They did all kinds of wacky things like potions and climbing on balconies, not to mention the secret marriage and the sex. The more I think about it, the more it was pretty Hellmouthy if you ask me. All they needed was a demon. Wait a minute! Maybe that priest guy WAS a demon! He sure was way too interested in magic potions and stuff... I bet Shakespeare lived on a Hellmouth. How else do you explain MacBeth? What a psycho play that was..."

Angel cleared his throat rather loudly. "Was there a point to this 'hypothetical' story?"

Xander paused, and then said, "I guess John and Jane are just wondering what to do. Sneaking around is fun and all, but it's got it's problems. I mean, they don't like lying to everybody, but they can't stop seeing each other, but the job is REALLY important." He gave Angel a sidelong glance. "So, what do you think? Any words of wisdom for our two starcrossed lovers?"

There was a silence between the two men as Angel digested all this information. "I think that you and Jane should quit stressing so much. I understand why Giles did what he did, but you have the right to your own life. And all this may be over sooner than you think." He paused and then smiled. "And you're right, MacBeth really is a psycho play."

"Wait a minute! John isn't me!" Xander exclaimed, but he couldn't really keep the outrage real. They both knew the truth. "So... you're not going to tell Giles and Sonya, are you?"

Angel shook his head. "No. I know you'll do it yourself eventually. You've never been a good liar."

"I am, too, a good liar!"

"Are not. Do I need to say anything more than 'hypothetical'?"

They walked on for a few more minutes, and then Angel's enhanced ears picked up a sound in the distance. It sounded like a scream. And then something crackled from the other direction.

"What's up?" Xander asked. He'd had plenty of practice reading Angel's signals.

"There's something that way," Angel pointed ahead of them, "and back that way. We've got to split up. You backtrack, and I'll go ahead."

"Right-o. Meet ya back here in a few." Then he looked up and Angel was already gone. "I hate it when he does that," Xander muttered.

A minute later, and Xander heard the crackling sound, too. He pulled out Bob again, and searched the darkness behind him. "Come out, come out wherever you are..." he said in a sing-song tone.

"Maybe I want you to come find me..."

Xander's face grew cold and shuttered. He knew that voice. Willow waltzed out into the moonlight, her skin luminous under the silvery orb. She was wearing a flowing, crimson dress with a plunging V-neckline.

"Miss me?" Her smile showed many teeth, but no fangs -- yet.

"Not particularly," Xander said snarkily. "What do you want? More of last night?"

She cocked her head to the side, and her long, red tresses rippled with the motion. "I came to give you one last chance, Xand. For old times' sake. Don't you remember the fun we used to have?"

"I remember." His voice was cold.

"We could have that again. If you come and be with me, I'll kick Spike out of here, and you and I will rule this town. You won't have to put up with your pitiful excuses for parents, that broody vampire with a soul, or even that bossy old Giles and the crip. I need you with me, Xand. I miss you. You're my best friend."

For a second she looked like the Willow of old. Part of Xander wanted to reach out, hug her and tell her that everything was going to be all right -- her Xand would be there for her just like he always had been. But the other part of Xander remembered everything else -- Willow in vamp face, Willow kissing Spike, Willow ripping the throat out of some innocent teenager...

They could never go back to what they had before.

"No," he said simply. "Never. You're not my Willow. My Willow died a long time ago, and I can never get her back. You're just an insane, horny vampire that happens to be wearing her face."

Willow snarled and let her true visage show. Fangs gleamed in the moonlight, and ugly, vampiric wrinkles marred her youthful beauty. "I was giving you a chance, but you blew it, pal! After tomorrow night, things are going to be different in Sunnydale."

"What are you talking about now?" Xander demanded.

"Spike and I are throwing a little party," Willow replied with a cruel, fangy smile. "At the Bronze. It's gonna be fun. You should show -- and maybe bring a date." She paced back and forth, running her fingers lightly over the tops of the tombstones. Then she cocked her head to one side and looked back at Xander. "It will be an intimate gathering -- only a few of our nearest and dearest. Everyone else will just be the hors d'oeuvres." Then she vanished into the darkness, her tinkling laugh lingering behind on the wind.

Angel chose that moment to run back up. "My search was a wild goose chase. Did you find anything?"

"More than I wanted to." Xander filled Angel in on what Willow had said about the party at the Bronze. "Looks like we're booked for tomorrow night."

"You realize it's a trap, don't you?" Angel commented.

Xander nodded. "Of course, but we can't let innocent Bronze patrons die because we didn't want to fall into a trap."

Angel looked serious. "We'll meet there about eight?"

"Better make it seven. Wouldn't want to miss the opening festivities."

Xander looked at his watch. "One of us had better go fill Giles in."

"You go, I'll finish patrolling," Angel offered. "I had a chance to rest up in England -- you deserve a little break. Maybe after the library, you'll have time to go see your hypothetical Jane, too."

"Everything's a joke with you, Dead Boy," Xander said, sarcasm dripping from his tongue. "You're never serious for a minute."

Xander went back to the school to pick up his jeep, and found the library locked and empty. He stopped by a pay phone and called the librarian at home, filling him in on the plans for the next night.

"Great," Giles muttered over the phone. "Just what we need. Meet us in the library tomorrow before school and we'll figure out a game plan."

"All right," Xander answered in a clipped tone. He was still perturbed with Giles, and didn't want to chat too long. "See you at 7:30."

Then he hung up, and climbed back into the jeep, planning to head for home to take advantage of some extra sleep time. The second hand jeep coughed and sputtered when he started it up. Xander shook his head. "Gotta thank Uncle Rory and his used car lot."

Soon he was driving down the road, thinking about the events of the day. Then he looked up and realized he was outside of Buffy's house. He pulled up to the curb, cut the motor and looked down at the jeep -- which he had laughingly dubbed the Slayer-mobile -- and frowned. "Must've been on autopilot. But as long as I'm here..."

He crept around to the backyard, conscious of the late hour, and looked up at Buffy's window. The light was still on. He smiled. If she was up studying, she'd probably be ready for some distraction. He picked up a small pebble and threw it toward the window with perfect aim. He repeated the routine a couple of times, until her silhouette appeared behind the curtain.

"Xander?" Buffy called, sliding the window open and peering out.

"What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Buffy...ette is the sun," he paused, suddenly at a loss for words. "Um... that's all I remember from when we had to memorize the scene in freshman year." His heart thrilled when he heard her laughter.

"Meet me at the front door," she called.

"Are you sure you don't want me to ascend to your balcony, fair maiden?" he asked.

"Xander," she replied, "I don't have a balcony."

He hurried to the front porch, and stepped inside when she opened the door.

"I'd come out," Buffy whispered, "but that didn't work so well last night."

Xander winced, remembering the fight. "I can be quiet."

They tiptoed into the living room, and Buffy turned on one small light. "What are you doing here?"

"I don't actually know," Xander admitted. "I got off of patrol a little early and suddenly found myself here."

Buffy thought that was adorable, but she didn't want to say too much to inflate his ego, so she just gave him a kiss.

"If that's my reward, I'll throw rocks at your window every night."

"So," she asked, "how was patrolling?"

He pulled her into a comfortable embrace while they talked. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, and her head rested on his chest. The perfume of her hair tickled his nostrils. "Angel just got back from England. It was good to see him again."

"Tell me about Angel again?"

"Well, he's a vampire, but he's a good vampire."

"Is that possible?"

"Yes, but it's too long of a story for now. Suffice to say that he was cursed by some gypsies, and now he's got his soul back, so he's on our side."

"Oh. So he's back from England..."

Xander resumed his story. "Yeah, he was trying to find out a way to cure Sonya. He found something, but he wouldn't tell me what it was yet. And then Willow showed up."

Buffy glowered. "What did SHE want?"

"She and Spike are having a little party at the Bronze tomorrow night. It's obviously a trap, but if we don't go then they'll have free reign to feed on lots of innocent victims."

Buffy sat up and looked him in the eye. "I'm going, too."

"No way!" Xander exclaimed. "I can't worry about you and do my job at the same time."

"Shh!" Buffy cautioned him, glancing worriedly at the stairs. "Mom's asleep."

"Sorry," Xander said, shame-faced.

"And, yes, I'm going. I'm not made of glass, you know. I did pretty well against that Linus creep. Well, he did get me in the end, but that was just because I didn't know what the heck I was dealing with. I'll have a cross and a stake, and maybe I'll even stop by and get some holy water." She leaned in and enunciated her words clearly, but softly. "I am going to be there. There's no way I'm letting you face all that danger while I sit at home alone worrying about you."

Xander realized she was serious. "I guess that makes sense. Inactivity makes me crazy, too. But what about Giles and Sonya? If you're there alone, they'll realize you came for me, and our whole situation will come out into the open. That would be bad." He grinned smugly. "See, you can't go. Too bad. Sorry."

Buffy squinched her eyes tightly shut and thought for a minute. His heart sank a little when she slowly smiled and opened them again. "I think I've got a way around that..."

Xander got to the library on time for once that morning. He walked through the doors saying, "7:30 a.m., right on the dot!" Giles and Sonya were waiting for him. The three evil-fighters settled around the reading table, and the two teenagers looked at Giles and his pile of papers.

"We have two things to talk about this morning," Giles said.

"Only two?" Xander questioned sarcastically. "You're losing your touch, old man."

Giles frowned at Xander and continued. "I have before me the results of Angel's trip to England, and we have to talk about the plan for tonight."

 

Sonya stared at the papers under the librarian's hand with a fearful expression. Part of her wanted very much to know what Angel had found out. If things had gone right, she might be whole again soon -- or at least that was the hope. But since Giles had had all that stuff for awhile without telling her about it, she began to suspect the worst.

"I'm going tonight," Sonya said firmly, avoiding the subject she wanted to know about the most. Xander and Giles both jumped in to convince her otherwise in a heartwarming display of caring.

"It's not possible," Giles said.

"I won't let you," Xander said over the well-bred librarian. "I'll tie you up myself if you try it."

But the fact that they both cared about her, also meant that they doubted her ability to do anything, and that got on Sonya's nerves. "Sorry, boys, I'm going. I may be bound to this stupid chair, but I'm still a Slayer. You know what they say, half a Slayer is better than no Slayer at all..."

The men quieted down, but both still looked mutinous. Sonya knew she would have to do more convincing, or blackmailing, later.

"Well," Giles said, "we're going to need a plan of action."

Xander looked surprised. "I thought the plan was take all the weapons and mow all the vamps down. Call it the John Wayne approach to battle."

Giles rolled his eyes at the boy. "Yes, well, that may work in the movies, but what about all the innocent patrons. We need a way to get them out of there before the battle."

"I was thinking about that," Sonya said. "I figured you and I could get the sheep out the back way while Angel and Xander distract Spikey-poo and Willow-the-slut."

She couldn't keep her eyes off of the papers in front of Giles, and the Watcher noticed. He sighed. Now came the hard part. Abruptly, he changed the subject. "Angel didn't find what we'd hoped while he was in England."

Xander's face was an expressionless mask, but Sonya paled and sat back. Giles had to keep going. If he stopped to comfort them, he wouldn't be able to go on.

"But he did find something. It's a long shot, but it might work." He paused, and then blurted the rest of it out. "He found a spell that the Council keeps under lock and key, and for good reason. It is a spell to forcibly transfer the Slayer Essence from the current Slayer to another potential Slayer."

Sonya was deadly silent, but Xander had a question. "How come it's kept so secret? I mean, all this stuff we've been doing for the past year, it's almost all moot with this spell."

"Except for Sonya's life," Giles reminded him.

"That's the part I don't understand," Xander said. "I mean, why would the Council be willing to kill a Slayer who can't slay instead of just using this spell?"

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead. "I've been thinking about that all night. You're right, it doesn't make much sense. But the Council doesn't always make much sense from a human perspective. I remember the filing cabinet where Angel said he found this. It is the only locked cabinet in the room. No one ever opens it. I always wondered what was inside, but no one would tell me. And it wasn't that they were keeping it a secret. Honestly, no one knew about it's contents."

He looked from one teenager to the other. Xander looked angry. Sonya looked drained of emotion.

Giles continued. "My hypothesis is that only the head of the Council even knows of this spell's existence, if even he does. Think about it. If it was widely known that the Slayer could get rid of her powers, there would be an anarchy of sorts. 'Chosen One' wouldn't mean anything. If a girl didn't like the life -- and very few of them do at first -- she could trade it in and the powers would go to someone else, then the new girl would have to be trained -- if she agreed not to transfer HER powers -- and it would be a never ending circle. And in the meantime, vampires would overrun the world without a seasoned Slayer to fight them.

"I know it sounds hard, and very inhumane -- but from my years in the Council, that's how I think the reasoning went. The Council is an old, stuffy organization -- I'll admit it. They aren't in touch with the human side of slaying or the Slayer, and I don't know how that can be changed. But, anyway, this spell is the only option we have because apparently there is no healing spell strong enough to cure paralysis." He looked at Sonya. "I'm sorry."

She held up a hand, which admirably was not shaking, signaling that she did not want to talk about that right now. Instead she bit out, "But how are we going to do it? I mean, do you know any potential Slayers? As far as I know everyone who was going to be a Slayer was called and is now dead, and I thought it took a big spell or prophecy or something to determine who the next one will be."

"That's the difficult part. I don't know how we're going to find the girl," Giles admitted. "But I'm sure that Angel has a plan. If he didn't have a plan, he would have stayed in England until he found out the name of the next Slayer. He was supposed to meet me last night to discuss it, but he got busy patrolling until sunup. After tonight's festivities, we will have another meeting, with him in attendance, and talk about the details."

The clock on the wall read 7:55. Xander stood up, still a bit pale. "Gotta get to class. We can talk about this more later." He laid a sympathetic hand on Sonya's shoulder, but she pushed it off. Xander sighed and left the library.

"Sonya..." Giles started.

"Shut up!" Sonya snapped. "I can't do this right now." Then she wheeled herself out of the library, letting the doors slam behind her.

Buffy walked into the school that morning with purpose. She kept her eyes open, and watched the world around her instead of staring down at her feet. This time when Cordelia crossed her path, Buffy saw her in time to stop before the collision. Cordelia looked at her with a puzzled expression. Buffy just smiled and kept walking.

English class was good. Ever since the accident, Buffy had found her hidden aptitude for schoolwork, but poetry was one thing that had always eluded her. But this morning, as Mrs. Jacobs went over the Shakespearean Sonnet ("What winds do shake the darling buds of May" and "How do I love Thee? Let me Count the Ways..."), the words made sense to her in a whole new way. But when the teacher asked for comments about Sonnets, Buffy didn't raise her hand. She figured saying, "They make me think of my boyfriend," wasn't quite what Mrs. Jacobs was looking for. A few sidelong glances with Xander behind her, though, showed identical feelings on his face -- though he looked more serious than usual this morning.

The hard part about sneaking around, Buffy figured out as she was leaving English class without actually talking to or touching Xander, was that there were times when the urge to go over and kiss him, or just smile at him and revel in their feelings was almost overwhelming, and she had to squelch the desires.

This is harder than it looks Buffy thought, bending over the water fountain to get a drink. She felt a light touch on her back and straightened up just in time to see Xander walk by her. He caught her eye for a brief moment, and she followed him, a few paces back. Xander checked out the hallway in both directions, saw nothing, and slipped through a door.

Buffy looked at the sign on the door. Basement. She hesitated, scenes from all the horror movies she'd ever seen going through her head. Wasn't there a clause or something that said basements are bad? That would probably go double or nothing on the Hellmouth. But then she followed him inside anyway. One of the other clauses in those movies was that you usually only get killed when you're alone -- and she wasn't planning on being alone down there.

A couple of steps down, a pair of arms caught her around the waist. She squinted until her eyes adjusted to the dim light and she could make out the lines of Xander's face.

"This is so hard," he moaned, burying his face in her hair.

"I know," Buffy replied. "Why did we decide to do this again?"

"Saving the world," Xander muttered. "Saving the world. That's important, right?"

Buffy nodded. "That's important. And so is saving your best friend."

His smile drooped. "Yeah. That's going to be hard now. Giles found a way to save the world, but it may not save her. Or, it will save her life, but not her calling."

Looking up at him with concern, Buffy could see the sadness on his face, though she didn't quite understand what he was talking about -- only that it was bad for Sonya. "I'm so sorry." She didn't like Sonya, but Xander obviously cared about her, so Buffy couldn't find it in her heart to completely hate the girl. "Is there anything I can do?"

"I just need to forget about it for a few seconds."

They hugged fiercely, hoping for enough closeness to push away all the badness of the world, and to sustain them for the rest of the day -- or at least for a few class periods. They kissed too -- frantic, rushed kisses, but still sweet and new. Buffy couldn't get enough of him.

"You make my knees go all wobbly," she whispered, breathless.

Xander opened his eyes and looked down on her in surprise. "I do that?"

Buffy smiled. "Yeah, you do."

"No one's ever said that to me before." His smile took on a mischievous air. "I think that deserves another kiss."

But they couldn't stay there forever. The bell would ring soon, and they both had to get to class -- on opposite sides of the school. Finally, they pulled apart.

"Are you coming over to my house after school?" Buffy asked hopefully.

Xander shook his head sadly. "Can't. Battle conference for tonight."

Buffy nodded. "I understand. Well, don't worry. I'll see you at the Bronze at 7 or so."

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Positive." She kissed him on the cheek. "I've sat around at home and wondered what was going on in the real world for too long. I'm not going to do it again."

Xander gave her a quick hug. Then they helped each other fix their hair until they looked like responsible students again.

"Any lipstick on my face?" he asked with a grin.

Buffy made a big show of inspecting him, then she smacked her head with her hand. "Silly me. I forgot. I don't wear lipstick."

"Really, why not?"

Buffy remembered how hard it had been just to comb her hair or get clean in traction -- no time for cosmetics. And since then it had just become habit not to wear them. She wanted to tell Xander about that. She's told him a little about her accident, but not very much. But the ringing of the bell told them there was no time.

"You go out first," Xander said. "Kick the door or something if Sonya or Giles is out there. If you don't, then I'll come out in a minute or so, and hopefully no one will notice."

"Except our teachers when they mark us tardy," Buffy answered, but she did what he said. The hall was almost empty -- no librarians and no wheelchairs.

She ran off to class, which happened to be the one class she actually shared with Sonya. Still angry about the lengths Sonya and Giles had forced her and Xander to, Buffy wanted to give the girl a dirty glare, but she also remembered what Xander had said and felt a spurt of pity for Sonya, so she refrained. Buffy apologized prettily to the teacher, and made up some excuse about getting lost, it only being her third day and all. The teacher bought it, and didn't give Buffy a tardy. Buffy slid down into her seat gratefully, not noticing the dirty look Sonya was shooting HER from across the room.

When the class was over, Buffy was one of the last people out of the room. Time for the morning break, she realized with a smile. A few precious minutes of freedom before it was back to the grind. The halls cleared out quickly as students rushed to the lounge and the vending machines. Buffy was pondering getting a soda when suddenly Sonya was there in her path.

"Excuse me," Buffy said, trying not to sound rude but not succeeding very well.

"I need to talk to you," Sonya said, her voice cold.

"What about?" Buffy demanded. "We don't have anything to talk about that I can think of. You made sure of that when you and Mr. Giles made Xander stop seeing me. I'm not a part of your inner circle now, so what in the world could you possibly have to say to me? Did you want to rub it in?"

"You don't deserve Xander!" Sonya spat. "He needs somebody real, not some girl with nothing better to do than go to the mall."

Buffy stared at Sonya. The girl didn't know what the heck she was talking about. But the insult hurt anyway -- it brought back to mind the shallow person she used to be. "For your information, I haven't been to the mall in several months. And who do you think does deserve Xander? You?" Buffy thought about adding something about the wheelchair, but that would hit too close to home for her, too, so she didn't.

"He needs someone who understands him, and what he's up against," Sonya said, avoiding Buffy's last question.

"I understand him!" Buffy cried. "I'm not one of those fluff-for-brains people that can't see the truth of the evil. I think you're just jealous."

Sonya didn't say anything for a minute, and the truth started to dawn on Buffy. Her tone went from defensive to accusatory. "You're in love with him, aren't you?"

"No!" Sonya stumbled over her words. "How could I love him that way? He's my friend, he's the guy that picks me up when I can't get my chair up the stairs. He's not a romantic leading man."

Buffy just looked at her. The anger in her eyes softened. "I'm sorry if I got in your way, Sonya. I didn't mean to hurt you, but Xander and I really care about each other. You may be able to force him not to see me, but you can't force him not to care. If that's the way you love him, then I feel sorry for Xander because your love isn't real, it's selfish."

Sonya stared at Buffy for a few seconds, searching for words that weren't there. Then the girl turned her chair around and wheeled herself away, leaving Buffy alone in the hallway.

Lunchtime couldn't come fast enough for Buffy. When the bell rang signaling the end of fourth period, she scampered down the hall to the cafeteria.

After looking over her disgusting options, she selected an apple and a Coke, and then went over to her usual table. A few minutes later, and there was Oz, book in hand.

"Hey," he said, sitting down with a tray of something Buffy couldn't identify. "How's the balance?"

For her plan to work, Buffy had to tell Oz everything -- well, everything except the slaying and vampire parts. She hesitated for a minute and then plunged into the story.

"Better," she said, "but not perfect. I need your help."

"How?"

"You see, no one can know that Xander and I are still seeing each other. If it gets back to the wrong people, he will get in big trouble with his ... job. But he's got too many responsibilities to just give it up, so we're in a bind."

"Yeah saving the world from vampires and stuff can be time consuming, or so I've heard."

Buffy's eyes opened wide and she dropped her apple down onto the table. Oz caught it before it could roll away and handed it back to her.

"Thanks," she said, and then added, "but how do you know all that?"

"I have eyes," Oz said, "and a brain. There was this one night when this dude with a weird symbol on his forehead came into the Bronze before the Dingoes were going to go on. He started to eat Cordelia Chase up there on the stage. Sonya came in and busted the place up. For some reason, the next day, everyone thought it had been gang members on PCP, but I knew the truth. And then Sonya had her accident, and suddenly she and Xander are together like peanut butter and jelly. And then there was the Halloween Incident... It all adds up."

"Wow," Buffy said. "You're pretty good."

Oz inclined his head modestly. "So, you needed help?"

She swallowed nervously, and then just said it. "I need you to be my beard."

"Huh?"

"You know, a beard." She tried to explain. "When a guy is gay he will take a date to something as a cover, and she is his beard. I need you to be my beard tonight. Well, in a non-gay way, of course."

"Of course." Oz waited for more.

Buffy hesitated, and then decided to tell him most of the truth. After all, if she was going to take him to the Bronze, he had a right to know so he could be prepared, right?

"There's going to be vampire trouble at the Bronze tonight. Xander and the others are going to be there, and I want to go, too, but if I go alone..."

"They'll catch on," Oz finished for her."So, what do you think?"

"I'd be honored to be your fake date," Oz said. Then he stood up. "Gotta jet. Pick you up at 6:30?"

Buffy smiled, telling him where she lived. "See ya then."