Grief, Relief & Love

Author: Lysa <lysaharris[at]>

Rating: PG

Feedback: Of course, it's always welcome. lysaharris[at]

Distribution: Ask and you shall receive

Pairing: Willow/Xander

Spoilers: If you haven't seen Season Three, I wouldn't read this.

Summary: What could have happened after Buffy and Xander thought Willow had been turned into a vampire during 'Doppelgangland', with a romantic twist.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of this so please don't sue me or anything. It all belongs to Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy etc. No copyright is intended.

Notes: As explained, this is set during 'Doppelgangland', with lots of angst and a romantic ending. This was originally just one scene that involved Buffy and Xander dealing with Willow becoming a vampire, but it kinda grew. I wanted to include the library scene from the show because I just think it's hilarious and it always makes me laugh. I eventually added the romance element because I just can't help myself. I know that some of it doesn't exactly fit in with the show and the emotions are kinda interchanging a lot, but I had to write this. It begins directly after vampire Willow leaves them in the Bronze.

I'd like to thank Martin because he helped me out with the dialogue in places.

Thank you, babe!

Chapter 1

Buffy watched the vampire's retreating form as it pushed through the small crowd of people and disappeared out of the doors of the Bronze. She stood stock-still, frantically trying to piece together what had just happened, her eyes wide in horror. She made a visual sweep of the club, making sure no one else had seen the demon that was now wearing Willow's body, and saw that everything seemed normal. It seemed almost cruel, the way the guys had resumed their pool game, the way the band played on, no one else feeling their chest grow heavy at the thought of one of their best friend's dying..

She tried to find her feet, feeling like she was rooted to the spot she stood on, until she eventually managed to turn around. The look on Xander's face was enough to make her eyes fill with tears, making her feel even worse than she did already, knowing that he was feeling this ten times worse. "Xander?" she said gently.

Xander didn't, couldn't respond. He was gazing off in the direction of the exit, the place he had last seen his best friend. His face was blank, pale, and his body was slumped, paralysed with shock.

"Xander?" Buffy said again, still gentle but this time louder, and reached out to him.

Xander felt the hand on his arm and backed away quickly as if he'd just received an electric shock from her, instinctively moving away from it. His eyes were dull and full of pain as they darted to her face, breaking the trance he seemed to be in. "What?" he said quickly.

She shuffled a few steps towards him, her hand reaching out slowly to rest on his arm again, and was relieved when he didn't back away from her again. "Are you…?" she began numbly, before shaking her head at herself. "Sorry," she mumbled. "Dumb question. I guess it's habit."

He looked at her, confused. "Was that…did that just happen?" he asked quietly. "Was that real?"

Buffy couldn't find the words to answer him. She tried to move closer to him in an attempt to comfort him, but it was like the closeness was too much and he backed away from her again, breaking the contact. Part of her had expected it from him, but it still hurt her that she couldn't help him. "We…" she started, taking a deep breath. "I think we need to go," she told him. "We should find Giles, see what he says."

"Okay," he said, his voice empty and his body not making any attempt to move towards the exit.

She gave him the smallest of smiles as her eyes met his, before she started through the crowds. She felt strangely numb inside, not able to get a grasp on her incoherent thoughts, the people in her way making her all the more tense and irritated. She turned to make sure that Xander was okay, only to find that he hadn't moved from the spot she had left him on. He still looked lost to her, still in a daze, still unwilling to believe what their eyes had seen. Her heart sank for him, amidst her own pain, and she hurried back to him. She placed a hand on each of his arms, lightly shaking him in an effort to get him to make eye contact.

He slowly came out of his grieving reverie and looked at her. "I can't…I…"

"Xander," she said gently, an edge of authority in her voice. "Come on," she told him, lightly tugging at the material of his sweatshirt.

He stumbled forwards, hardly able to carry his own weight, as Buffy began to head for the exit sign, one hand still pulling him along like a stubborn child on a harness.

All too soon, he found himself on the outside of the club, the cool breeze hitting him like a slap in the face, reality setting in, although he wished it hadn't. Everything seemed a blur: the streets, the people, the cars passing by, and he was only vaguely aware of a familiar female voice.

"…So we'll just head over to the library and go over everything we possibly can with Giles, and then we'll…" Buffy trailed off as she walked, almost marching, well aware that Xander wasn't listening, but part of her not caring. All she had left to keep her from breaking down was her sheer will and determination to get whatever or whoever did this to one of her best friends. Somewhere along the way she'd dropped Xander's arm, and now she realised that he was no longer following her. She turned on her heels, finding him a few yards behind her, slumped and defeated, sitting on the quiet roadside. "Xander," she said, her voice firm as she marched back to him. "We don't have time for this," she told him, standing over him.

Xander looked up at her. "She's gone, Buff," he said quietly, his voice thick with pain as he pulled his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. "She's gone…"

"Xander," she said, kneeling down to him and trying to get him to look at her. "Please," she said. "We have to get to the library, talk to Giles and--"

"And what?" he snapped suddenly, something exploding inside of him, his voice hollow and cold. "What's Giles going to do?" he demanded from her. "Is he gonna magically bring her back to life? Is he gonna make this all better, or is he gonna tell us that we have to kill this thing that looks exactly like our best friend?" He shook his head at her. "Giles can't do anything here, Buffy, and you're kidding yourself if you think he is."

"I'm sorry," Buffy told him. "I just…I need to do something here."

"You can't," he told her. "No one can."

Buffy shuffled herself so that she was sitting next to him on the curb. "I can't believe this is happening," she told him. "There must be something I can do here. Some demon to kill or some kind of spell to reverse. But Giles will know…he has to. This can't be right."

"Of course it's not right," he said. "Willow's gone. How can that be right?"

"Xander, I'm sorry," Buffy told him honestly, not knowing what else to say.

"Sorry for what?" he asked.

"Because as bad as this feels for me…it's gotta be worse for you."

"I just don't even know where to begin processing this," he said, running a hand through his hair. "I thought she'd be around forever," he told her. "I though we'd be around forever."

"No one can be around forever," she told him gently.

"Yeah, but this wasn't how she was supposed to go," he said sadly. "It was supposed to be when she was old, when she'd lived her life. Not when some demon took it from her. All of this time we've been helping out with the supernatural stuff, some part of me always thought, deep down, that it would buy us some kind of immunity from it. I just figured that when the unknown became the known, we would all face it together. I mean, the dumb, blond chick in the horror movies has no idea what's coming, but Willow did. Why wasn't she wearing ten crosses around her neck? Or…or why wasn't she bathing in holy water every hour? Fighting should have protected us, even though we were risking our necks, but never until now have I ever wished that we didn't get involved." From the corner of his eye he saw Buffy put her head down, her eyes clouded. "I don't blame you for this, Buffy," he informed her. "And I know that she knew the risks, just like I did, but Willow's…well, she's Willow. She could never turn her back on someone who needed help. She's been like that forever," he smiled at the memory of all those times when she'd dragged him along while she was helping out her neighbours, or when she'd talked him out of a punishment from his parents, but all too soon he remembered. "But now…now she's gone. She's left me, Buff."

"I know," Buffy whispered, still in shock and now in total fear at seeing Xander this way. "It's just too hard to deal with."

Silence descended for a few moments, until Xander looked at Buffy questioningly. "Can I ask you something?"

"What?" she replied.

"Angel has a soul now, right?"

Buffy's eyes widened as she nodded slowly, not liking where he was going with this line of questioning. "Well--"

"And you say he's all ''grrr''-free now, right?"

She nodded again.

"Do you think that we could, you know, use that same spell and one of those glowy orb thingies and curse her with a soul? I mean, that could work, right?" he asked, his voice pleading and desperate. "I know that Willow was the only one who could work the modjo before, but I could try, or Giles could. I mean, it's gotta be worth a shot. That could work. She can't have killed that many people yet, so the brood-ness factor would be way lower, and she'd be the same Willow…only one that didn't attend that many beach parties – not that she did anyway. I mean, it would cut way down on the lotion she usually has to wear in the sun."

She felt a part of her heart break for him and struggled to keep her emotions to herself, not sure if she could handle breaking down at the moment, especially when Xander was trying so desperately to cling to some kind of hope and salvation. "I…I don't think…" Part of her was tempted to open her mind to the idea, to agree with him because, she realised, he wasn't the only one wanting hope. However, her slayer instincts took over. "Xander, that's not a very good idea," she told him, hating her own logic. "For starters, none of us are powerful enough to even attempt the spell, never mind the fact that we'd be doing something that went totally against what Willow would have wanted."

"How do you know what she would have wanted?" he snapped. "I'm the one who's known her all of her life." When she looked away from him, he took a deep breath. "Look, it worked for Angel."

"Xander, it's a curse, okay?" she told him. "It was done to him to make him suffer for everything he'd done. You want Willow to go through that?"

"That's not what you were saying when you found that disc of Miss Calendar's," he accused. "You wanted Angel back the way he was because you loved him. That's all I want."

"You saw what kind of terrible things Angelus did--"

"But Willow's only been a vampire for what, a couple of hours?" he asked pleadingly. "What harm could she have done in that time?"

"We don't know what she has or hasn't done yet, Xander," she told him firmly. "You saw that creature in there, and it didn't look or act anything like our Willow. I fell in love with Angel when he was already a vampire, not when he was a man. Giving Willow a soul isn't going to make her the same as she was."

"But at least she'll still be alive," he said in a small voice.

"No, she won't," Buffy said gently. "She'll still be dead."

For a moment he looked like he had been slapped in the face, and for that moment Buffy wished that she could take it back. But, as the tears welled in his eyes, he put his head down to look at the kerb, nodding his head. "You're right," he agreed hoarsely. "She wouldn't want that. You know, we…after Jesse died, we both made a promise to each other. We said that if one of us should ever…that the other would make sure we didn't come back. But Buffy," he said desperately, "I don't know if I can. Not again. I already killed one of my best friends. I don't think I can take killing another."

"You didn't kill Jesse," Buffy reassured him. "He was already gone. You killed the demon."

"How do I get through this?" he asked her. "I mean, you went through this with Angel. How did you survive it?"

"That was different," she told him. "I mean, I was in love with…" She looked at him, seeing something in his brown eyes that she had missed before. Among the pain and the unshed tears that made his eyes look like liquid chocolate, she realised that he was in love with Willow, and not just in the way someone should love their oldest and best friend. It went beyond that. "Oh," she said simply.

"What do you mean, 'oh'?" he asked.

"You never told her?" Buffy asked, almost rhetorically. Of course he hadn't, she would have known.

"Told her what?" Xander asked, confused.

"That you were in love with her."

"No," he said, too tired and emotional to argue and deny, as he looked down at his shoes. "Not when she was conscious, anyway."

Buffy nodded knowingly, having heard the story Willow had told time and again about waking up from her coma to find Oz standing over her, with Xander only a few feet away. She had said that she felt like that voice brought her back. "So, I'm guessing it wasn't so much a fluke?" she asked.

"Not to me," he said. "I don't think it ever really was for her either."

"She does…did…" she amended quietly. "…Love you, Xander. I know she did."

"I know," he said. "And that's why it hurts so much. I feel like there's an eighteen-wheeler truck on my chest, crushing my heart, making it so hurt so much that, when I breathe, it feels like it'd be so much easier if I just stopped."

She didn't know what to say to him, so she just put her hand to his shoulder and gripped lightly, letting him know she was there for him.

"I've been scared before," he told her. "But I have never, ever felt anything like this before in my life. It doesn't feel like it's ever going to stop."

"It won't," she said absently, wondering for a minute whose voice it was before realising it was her own. "I wish I could tell you that it all just goes away, or give you some piece of wisdom on how to deal with it. But I can't. I'm hardly a shining example. I ran away, changed my name, went to hell and then dealt with it. It doesn't ever go away, Xander, it just lessens. One morning you wake up and it doesn't hurt as bad. It's still there. It's always there. But it gets better."

"But Angel came back," Xander pointed out.

"He still died," Buffy said simply. "That fear, that pain, it's all still there. I can't even think about it without that panic coming over me."

"So how are you gonna deal with this?" he asked her.

"I'm trying not to think about that," she said. "I just want to get to Giles and wait for him to tell me what to do."

"Then we should go," Xander said finally, getting to his feet. He held his hand out to her and pulled her from the curb. "Promise me something?" he asked.

"Of course," she told him.

"Promise that you won't leave me?"


"Buffy, I'm not as strong as you," he explained. "I mean, I know you have the whole slayer thing working for you and all, but I mean emotionally. If I see her again, and I'm alone, I'm gonna beg her to take me, to make me like her. I know it. I think a part of me even wants it…just to be close to her again. While you're around, I still have some willpower left. If I'm on my own, I'm afraid that--"

"You're not alone," she told him. "And I understand that you want to be with her in death, just like you were in life, but I won't let it happen. I promise." She reached inside of her jacket, pulling something from the inside pocket of the garment and handing it to him. "Here," she said.

Xander clutched the large cross she had handed him. "Why are you giving me this?"

"I want you to have it," she told him. "Just keep it, okay? Promise me you won't let it out of your sight?"

"Buffy," he said quietly. "I want to be with her."

"I know," she told him. She gripped his hand that she still held in hers. "Come on. We need to get to the library."

Chapter 2

Giles heard the library doors swing open and wandered out of his office to investigate. If he was a betting man, he would have banked on it being one of their core group, seeing as an actual real student wanting a book would have constituted the latest apocalypse. He was mildly surprised to see Buffy and Xander. "Oh, Buffy," he said in greeting. "I thought you were going out tonight. I didn't expect…" Something about the sombre expression on both of their faces worried him. "What is it…?"

Buffy opened her mouth, ready to tell him that his favourite student in the world, the person who looked up to him the most – more than even Buffy did – was gone. She tried to say the words, but the words wouldn't come. She tried again, opening her mouth, and "Giles…" was she managed, but just as she found her voice, the loud crash coming from her right startled her and made her turn to where the noise was coming from.

Xander stood there, fury on his face that rivalled no one she had ever seen, not even Faith in the height of her slaying. The chair that had been close by was now thrown across the library, the distance between them seeming unreal because the last thing she remembered he had been right next to her and now he was on the other side of the room. His breathing was hard, coming so thickly from his chest that she could hear it catching loudly in his lungs. "Xander…" she said, taking a few steps forward to…she didn't know what.

"Don't!" he yelled at her. "Don't tell me to calm down!"

Giles, watching the boy who was usually the one to keep his head in a tense situation with a joke or an ill-thought out pun, felt his heart constrict in his chest. The title 'Watcher' seemed quite apt for him. Yes, it was his job to watch over the slayer, to train her and prepare her – or, at least it had been. But the word had taken many different meanings over the years he had spent in Sunnydale.

This job, whether it was still recognised by the Council or not, may not have been the first on his list of prospective employment …or even the last one, come to think of it. But he had to admit, being in the company of these three teenagers – the slayer and her friends – gave him a sense of something he had not felt in a long time. He felt like they were family, even though they'd all probably balk at the thought of that. He had found himself caring for the youngsters, something deeply frowned upon by the Council, hence the termination of his employment. He was apart from them, but also one of them. Maybe that was why he saw things that other people didn't..

Maybe that's how he knew that there was, more or less, only one thing in the world that meant more to Xander than everything else. That thing was his best friend. He had seen it in him a good few months ago, how he was different around Willow, different to how he used to be. And there was only one reason he would be reacting like this. He looked at Buffy, a desperation that he had not felt since Jenny's death creeping into him. "No…" he said quietly.

"Giles," Buffy said, for the moment side-stepping Xander and his grief to move to her now-defunct Watcher and his. "Something's happened," she told him in a voice that he didn't recognise as hers. "We were…"

"Willow's dead," Xander spat out loudly. "Can you fix it or not, Book Guy?"

Giles looked from the angry young man to the tear-stained girl in front of him who was supposed to be the strongest girl in the world, and then back at the boy again. "That can't be…" he said quietly, thoughtfully. "How can that have happened?"

Buffy took a deep breath and swallowed back the tears that were threatening her again. "Vampire," she told him, hardly able to say the word without her face crumpling again. "They turned her, Giles. We don't know…" she began. "We don't know when, but she was okay at school earlier today."

"I know," he said, unable to believe it. "I saw her here myself." he looked back at Buffy. "Are you sure…?" he asked her.

Buffy shook her head, trying to suppress the urge she felt to scream at him for the stupidity of that question. "Pretty sure," she told him. "I mean, it was her, Giles, unless she has some evil doppelganger."

"You still haven't answered the question," Xander said, interrupting them, his face still a mask of complete anguish as he charged toward them. "Can you fix it or not?"

"Fix it?" Giles asked. "How could I possibly fix this?" He looked at Buffy, searching her face and seeing only a hope there that he hated seeing, knowing it had to be distinguished. "You expect us to remedy this situation?" Giles asked her.

"If you mean try and solve it, yes," she told him.

"I don't want to go through this again," he said firmly. "But we had a conversation not dissimilar to this when we discovered Angel's true identity."

"What are you saying, Giles?" she asked.

"You know what I'm saying," he told her gravely. "You already know what you have to do otherwise you wouldn't be asking me for another option."

Xander glared at Buffy. "I told you," he said viciously. "I told you that coming here was a waste of time."

"Where else would we have gone?" Buffy bit back. "You want to go to Willow's house?" she asked him harshly. "You want to tell to explain to her parents why she's not with us?"

Xander's face changed so rapidly it was like watching one of the despised vampiric creatures change back into its human form. "Oh, god…" he said, his voice full of emotion. "Her parents…" he looked at Buffy. "What am I gonna tell them?"

"Xander," she told him, letting the anger dissipate. "We can't think about that now."

He shook his head, his hands over his face as he walked over to the staircase that led to the stacks and sat down, his head hung low. "You don't get it," he told them. "After what happened before with the coma and everything, Mr. R. made me promise that I'd take care of her."

"This isn't your fault, Xander," Giles told him, walking over to him and sitting beside him, a hand on his shoulder, as Buffy joined them, dazed, as she sat down a few steps below them.

"I told him I wouldn't let anything happen to her," Xander said quietly as he pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them to him, taking the cross from his pocket and clutching it tightly in his hand again. He shook his head sadly. "This isn't real," he said gently.

"I can't feel anything," Buffy said, in a daze. "Arms, legs, anything…"

"She was truly…the finest of all us," Giles said, full of honesty, as he stared into space.

"Way better than me," Xander said.

"Yes," Giles said, unthinking. "Much…much better."

"It's all my fault," Xander told them.

Giles looked at him. "What makes you say that?"

Xander shrugged. "I don't know, statistical probability."

"No, it's me," Buffy told them, her voice full of guilt. "It's me.. I'm the one who called her 'reliable'. She must have gone out and gotten herself bit, which she never would have done if I hadn't called her 'reliable'. And now my best friend's--"

"What's going on?" Willow said brightly, dressed in one of her trademark colourful sweaters, as she breezed into the library and approached her friends. She watched as Xander flinched back tensely, while Giles and Buffy simply stared at her. "Jeez, who died?" she asked her sombre-looking friends. Her eyes became wide when they didn't respond and she suddenly looked panicked. "Oh, god, who died?" she asked.

Xander jumped to his feet, thrusting the crucifix in his hands into her face. "Back! Get back, demon!"

Willow felt her eyebrows rise at him, as she tried to figure out what he was doing. She watched as he pulled back, shook the cross as if it were a pen that no longer worked, before thrusting it back in her face.

"Willow," Buffy said, getting to her feet and approaching her, tears in her eyes and wonder in her voice. "You're alive!"

Willow looked at her. "Aren't I usually?"

The only response she got was Buffy throwing her arms around her in a tight hug, forcing the breath out of her, and even more so when Xander joined in..

"I love you guys, too," she said, unsurely. "Okay," she said after a moment. "Oxygen becoming an issue!"

Buffy and Xander both released her from their grip, standing back.

Willow began to feel uncomfortable as Buffy gazed at her, a smile on her face and her eyes glinting with unshed tears, and felt her gripping her arm. She looked at the more sensible of the group. "Giles, what's going on with these--?"

She was abruptly cut off by the watcher embracing her in a tight hug. She looked afraid as he released her, looking ever more embarrassed by the display of affection and relief. "It's nice you guys missed me," she told them. "Say, you all didn't happen to do a bunch of drugs, did you?"

"Will, we saw you," Xander told her. "At the Bronze. A vampire."

"I'm not a vampire!" Willow said defiantly.

"You are," Buffy said. "At least, you were…" she looked at Willow, obviously confused. "Giles, planning on jumping in with an explanation anytime soon?"

"Well," he began, unsure. "Something…something very strange is going on…"

Xander looked at him with a bemused smile. "Can you believe the Watchers Council let this guy go?"

"Giles," Buffy said firmly, easily switching back into slayer-mode. "We need to figure out what's going on here."

"Agreed," he replied. "But I don't see how. I can't think what on earth could have happened."

Buffy watched as Xander refused to let his eyes leave the very-much alive Willow at his side. "Maybe we should check the stacks," she suggested, taking Giles' arm and pulling him up the stairs. "See if there's anything in your infamous books about freaky, evil, leather-wearing vampires who look exactly like your best friend."

"The only thing I can think of is maybe a doppelganger of some sort, an evil version of Willow out there somewhere," Giles said thoughtfully.

"That's what I said!" Buffy said, rolling her eyes and hitting him in the arm. "Come on," she told him. "Stacks."

"Buffy, I'm not sure…" Giles looked back at Willow and Xander, and then turned his attention back to the slayer's wide eyes and cocked head that was gesturing emphatically towards the bookshelves. "Oh. Right," he said finally. "Yes. Books."

Willow watched Giles and Buffy leave them, heading for the supernatural section of the stacks, still feeling confused at what had just happened. "I still don't get…" She trailed off as she turned to Xander, his eyes shining with tears, his face full of sadness and an extreme pain. It was something she wasn't use to seeing in Xander, not since they were kids. It scared her, sending chills darting up her spine at his forlorn expression. "Xander?" she asked gently. "Xander, are you okay?"

He blinked hard. "I thought you were dead," he said quietly, almost whispering, afraid that if he said the words louder they would be true.

She reached out and took his hand, feeling the clamminess and the trembling.. "It's okay," she whispered, tears springing to her own eyes at seeing his concern. "I'm okay." She had been about to let go of his hand when she suddenly felt his arms around her, crushing her to him.

"God, Willow," he said into her hair, his voice breaking with emotion. "We thought you were gone…"

"I'm right here," she whispered, feeling him squeeze her tighter than anyone ever had before. "But if you don't let go soon I might not be."

Xander laughed as he pulled away from her. "Sorry," he told her, trying to disguise the tears in his eyes, using the sleeve of his sweater to dry his face, the relief palpable on his face.

"So, there's an evil me out there somewhere, huh?" she asked him, moving across the library to hop onto the table.

"Looks like," he said, moving to sit next to her.

"How could that even happen?" she asked, confused again.

He absently took her hand again without thinking, just wanting to feel her warm hand in his, wanting any kind of contact with her to remind him that she was really there and ignoring the 'no-touching' rule she had imposed on them not long ago. "I don't know," he said with a shrug. "At this point, my brain is pretty much working on the 'I thought Willow was dead and now she's alive. Yay!' principle," he admitted, and felt her squeeze his hand a little in reward. "I don't think I could handle anything other than that right now."

Willow smiled, overwhelmed at his admission. "You were really upset?" she asked.

"I've never been to hell like Buffy," he said, "but if I did, I imagine it would pretty much be like how I felt earlier. The word 'upset' doesn't even begin to cover it."

"Really?" she asked. "Cos lately…I don't think I've been a very good friend. I mean, I know we still see each other and stuff, but…it's not the same."

"I know," he said. "But I think we should make this the thing that makes us change the way we've been acting."

"Agreed," she said, a wide smile forming on her face. "I want my best friend back."

He put his arm around her and she leaned into his shoulder. "Everything's gonna be better now," he told her. "You'll see."

"Promise?" she asked, wrapping her arms around him, hugging him.

"Yeah," he said. "I promise."

As she broke the embrace, somehow she knew where things were going. But she didn't resist when his hand came up to her face, and pushed back the hair that had fallen into her eyes. She closed her eyes as he leaned forward and placed a soft, chaste kiss on her forehead. It was innocent, or that's how he had meant it, but it felt like so much more. And when she opened her eyes and saw him smiling sadly at her, she couldn't find enough inner restraint to stop herself from kissing him. It was something brief, just pressing her lips against his for a second or two, and he looked surprised at her action when she pulled away. She had been ready to apologise, to say something about it being because she wanted to reassure him that it was okay, and to blush and move away from him. But she couldn't. And when he took her face in his hands, his eyes taking in every line, every freckle, every strand of red hair, she allowed him to kiss her. She let him put his lips on hers, and allowed him to use his tongue to coax her mouth open as one of her hands came to his face and the other gripped the wooden table so hard she was sure it would bear the nail marks for years to come.

"Guys!" Buffy called from the stacks, jolting them out of the moment, causing Willow to bolt halfway across the room and position herself in the corner, a guilty look on her face. "No luck," she told them, as she and Giles reappeared from the stacks. Sensing the tension, she looked from one to the other. "Everything okay?" she asked suspiciously.

"Fine!" Willow piped up, altogether too cheery and shrilly. "Great. Everything's great! I'm not dead and I'm not a vampire!"

"Good to know," Buffy said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously as she took a seat close to a pale and blank-looking Xander. She was sure there was something going on here. She just wasn't sure what.

Chapter 3

Willow flopped down onto her bed as soon as she got to her room. She groaned lightly as she closed her eyes against the brightness of the light she had switched on, and silently wished she had talked her parents into getting one of those cool remote controls that dimmed the lights.

The days events had turned her brain into a numb block of ice, or so it felt, and all she wanted to do was close her eyes and forget about it all, at least for a few hours. She knew she should have been thinking about her evil twin, and what she could have done to them all, but she found herself focussing on something else entirely. Namely a Mr. Xander Harris. She almost wished her doppelganger was around right now, just so she could kick herself in the shins and tell her what an idiot she had been for allowing him to kiss her earlier, and then she remembered that she had been the one who instigated it, and more than that, she had wanted it. What she didn't quite understand was why. After everything that had happened in the past few months, she knew that kissing Xander would only lead to the bad. But still…

She moved off the bed, her body tired and objecting as she forced herself to stand, and kicked off her sneakers, not caring when they landed in a heap in the middle of the floor. She went to the dresser and took a pair of clean pyjamas from one of the drawers, and headed into the bathroom.

She reappeared a little while later, feeling slightly better after her shower and wearing her favourite, plaid pyjamas. She went around the room, lighting a few candles when the light was still harsh on her eyes, and relaxed a little when the soft flickering of the flames soothed her thoughts and feelings as she ran a comb through her wet hair. She had been supposed to be working on Percy's assignment, thanks to Snyder and his latest idea, and she thought that maybe schoolwork would provide the distraction she needed, like it had done so many other times in her life when all she could think about was Xander. But right now, the only thing she was ready to do was crawl into bed and forget about the whole day. However, the figure she sensed standing outside the patio door in her room told her that wasn't an option. She knew it was him because…well, because she just did. This feeling was as familiar to her as breathing was, even though she tried ignoring it.

She tried to pretend that she didn't know he was there, but that only made her worry that he could hear the way her heartbeat had increased tenfold, just like every vampire in the town probably had. For now, she had her back to him, but so many years of studying his face told her that he probably had that thank-god-I'm-not-monster-food expression mixed with a little what-the-hell-am-I-doing. She felt bad, leaving him out there all alone. At night. In Sunnydale. But it wasn't like he was making his presence known to her. He hadn't knocked, even though the knocking thing was only something that had happened last summer. He never told her why he just stopped walking into her house unannounced like he had ever since she could remember, and every time she tried to ask he'd just changed the subject. Buffy had said that maybe it was because he didn't want to walk in on something he didn't really want to see, like her and Oz being…friendly. She'd dismissed that, though, because thinking that would have brought back to life so many hopes she had given up on when she'd met her lycanthropic boyfriend.

She didn't know whether he waiting for her to turn around, or whether he was just watching her, making sure that she was still okay after everything that had happened tonight. He had thought she was dead, and when she first saw him in the library…it was like a part of him was missing and he just didn't look like Xander anymore. Either way, she couldn't bear the thought of him being out there alone, didn't really like the thought of him being anywhere alone, and at least this was one time she could help that. She had a feeling that once she had turned around and opened that door, things were going to change, but she didn't know how and whether it would be for the better or worse.

She took a deep breath, waiting for the last seeds of doubt in her mind to disappear, even though she knew they wouldn't go away even if someone tried to surgically remove them, and finally looked at him. God, it was like she was seeing him for the first time, and she had to suck back the breath she didn't know she had been holding. It wasn't usually like this when she looked at him. Yeah, she had the nervousness and the pounding heart and the butterflies, but this was…it was like an exaggerated version of that, and she couldn't understand why it was happening. Still, she closed her eyes briefly as she drew back the curtain that had been partially pulled across the door, seeing him fully for the first time.

He looked surprised to see her, like he thought she didn't know that he had been there, and for a second he looked a little like he was going to run.. His head dipped a little, and then he looked at her, a grin that seemed out of place on his face because it wasn't his usual grin, and his hands stuffed in his pockets.

She unlocked the door and opened it slowly, not really sure why there was this strange sense of unfamiliarity between them. Here was the one person she couldn't remember her life without, and she felt like he was a stranger to her. "Hi," she said, trying to force a smile onto her face that said that everything was okay, because she knew that was what he needed to know.

"Hi," he said back, and she realised that she hadn't been too convincing because he was trying to do the same.

"So, were you trying to do that psychic thing again?" she asked. At his confused expression, she continued. "You know, with the standing here and not knocking? Cos I thought we learnt that lesson when we were nine and my mom grounded me for a week when she caught us trying to psychically make Harmony eat dirt. Which, by the way, really didn't work."

He smiled at her. "Well, I guess we needed a little more practice," he told her. "Besides, it was your own fault you were grounded. The whole point was that we were trying to be psychic. When your mom asked what we were doing, you actually told her."

"She caught me off-guard," Willow said defensively.

Xander smiled, not saying anything for a moment. "How did you know I was out here?"

She shrugged, not really sure what to tell him. "Why are you out here?"

"I have a reason," he told her. "Can't think of it at the moment, but I know there's one in here somewhere," he said, gesturing to his head. "I got here and I just…didn't want to disturb you."

"So you just wanted me to feel all 'the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house'?" she asked. "Xander," she said, "there's a thin line between friendly and stalker, and I think this is bordering on stalker." She grinned, letting him know she was joking. "You're out late," she said, letting that bit of worry into her voice because she couldn't help it.. "Is everything okay?"

Xander let out a small laugh and gave a shrug. "Great," he said, even though the tone of his voice told her otherwise. "Never better."

"Xander…" she began, her voice quiet and sad.

"Can I come in?" he asked.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," she told him, suddenly even more nervous than she had been, withdrawing away from him into the sanctity of her nice, safe room. "Look, we'll talk tomorrow."

"I, uh…" he said, dipping his head again so that she couldn't see his face. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay," he told her. "And, obviously, you are, so I should leave…" he said, turning away from her, his hands still in his pockets.

For a second, she thought about letting him leave. It would be easier that way. Letting him go would mean that her relationship with Oz wouldn't be disrupted. But letting him go, when things were like this between them, would mean that she'd be losing him from her life, which she wasn't sure she could do. He'd be around, sure, but he wouldn't really be there, you know? She let him get a few steps away from her before she reached out and touched his arm, grabbing a small handful of his jacket in her hand. "Xander…" she said as he came to a stop. "Don't go…" she told him. "Please…come in for a little while?"

He turned around to look at her, his eyes small and empty. "Why?"

"I don't know," she admitted with a sad smile. "It was your idea." She stood back and opened the door further for him, making sure he knew that she was okay with him being in her room, even if it was in theory more than practice, and was relieved when he made a few tentative towards her, into the room. She closed the door behind him, pulling the curtain fully across the glass so that no one could see in, or maybe it was more that she didn't want to see outside because for now she just wanted it to be them, and the rest of the world couldn't exist if she couldn't see it.

He looked uncomfortable, just standing there, glancing around the room with his hands still in his pockets, as if willing her to read his mind.

"Xander," she said gently. "What's going on?" she asked. "And don't give me some crap about wanting to know I was okay, because there's this nifty invention called a telephone now."

He almost looked like he was about to laugh, like the reason should have been obvious, but he thought better of it. "I, uh…" he said, starting to walk around the room, his eyes on the carpet like he was looking for something. "I think we need to talk," he told.

"Oh, great," she said sarcastically. "The words every girl loves to hear."

"I'm being serious, Willow," he told her. "We have to talk about stuff."

"Xander, come on," she said, her tone softening a little. "You and me talking about anything other than ice cream or Snoopy or demons and vampires? You know it's a bad idea."

He stopped walking and looked at her with a confused expression, pulling his hands out of his pockets as he threw them into the air. "Why do people say 'you know it's a bad idea'?" he asked her. "I hate when people say 'you know it's a bad idea'. How would I know it's a bad idea? If I knew it was a bad idea, I wouldn't suggest it in the first place."

He was being more like himself now, she could see. Maybe it was the adrenalin that he got when he was being particularly sarcastic, but the life had come back into his voice and he didn't look as lost as he did earlier. "Xander, were you dropped on your head as a baby?" she asked icily.

"With my parents?" he asked her. "Are you kidding? I was probably thrown. From a great height."

When he smiled at her, just a little, she let herself thaw a little. What was it about that smile that made her knees feel like they were in a Wobbliest Jell-O contest? She idly thought as she looked at him, if she could bottle that smile, she could solve World Peace and she'd be rich in no time. She watched as he sat down at the end of her bed, and quietly joined him. "Why do we need to do this?" she asked him, leaning forward so that he elbows were on her knees.

"Because I need to know what's going on with us," he told her.

She felt his hand move unconsciously to her back, rubbing softly in soothing motions that were designed to relax her. Unfortunately, 'soothing' wasn't exactly one of the words she'd use to describe the emotions she felt when he touched her, and that was part of the problem.

"Xander…" she said, closing her eyes so that she couldn't see him, couldn't see any part of him, because when she did, it clouded her judgement and made her do things she shouldn't. "Look, we can't talk about this," she told him, standing up to get away from his influence. "I think…I think that maybe you should just…I don't know, go home or something. After everything before… I mean, Oz has only just started to be okay with us still being friends, but if he finds out that you were here, in my room, at this time of the night, with me ready for bed…" she took a deep breath. "I mean, did you see the expression on his face earlier when he heard what the evil, leather-loving me said about us in her world?"

"The expression on Oz's face never says anything," Xander told her. "The expression on Oz's face said 'hey, I'm Oz's face!'." He stood up when she wouldn't look at him. "Willow, I need to know what's going," he implored her.

She finally faced him. "Nothing, okay?" she said. "There's nothing going on between us.

"Something happened between us earlier," he told her, not angry or sarcastic, but just stating a fact.

"I know," she told him. "But it was just a--"

His eyes widened and his nostrils flared as if he was about to breath fire at her like a particularly angry dragon as he put a hand up to stop her talking. "I swear to God, Willow, if you say it was a 'fluke', I'm moving to Spain to become a bull fighter!"

"Actually, I was going to say 'mistake'…" she told him, shrinking under his annoyed glare. "…But 'fluke' works too…"

He put his hands on his hips and shook his head wearily. "You know, I'm really starting to hate that word."

"Look, everything will be okay," she told him, trying to put that hokey, false cheeriness into her voice that only made her sound like she was a teenage boy waiting for her voice to break. "We'll just forget about it, okay?" she said as she crossed the room, trying to get away from him, until she reached the relative safety of her computer and the table it sat on.. "We'll just, you know, ignore it, and it'll go away. In a few days, neither of us will even remember it, and when we do, we'll laugh and talk about how dumb we were, and we'll just go back to being normal Willow and Xander."

Xander looked at her thoughtfully, pursing his lips as he appeared to consider the option as he nodded his head. "Okay, sure," he told her, no hint of the sarcasm she was expecting from him in his voice. "That'll work.."

"Really?" she asked, looking relieved if a little confused, like she never expected that to work.

"Yeah," he said. "But, do you have a coat?" he asked. "Maybe some gloves, a scarf…?"

And that was when she knew it hadn't worked. She rolled her eyes. "What for?" she asked, waiting patiently for the retort she knew was coming.

"Just so you'll be nice and toasty when hell freezes over and vampires are extinct!" He looked at her like she had grown another head. "Are you kidding me with all this stuff about forgetting? Please don't tell me that the balance of power has shifted between us and I just became the brains of this friendship, cos I'm telling you, if it has, we're both screwed." He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. "You can't just bury stuff like this, Willow," he told her. "It'll come right back up and kick you in the ass."

She watched him, not saying anything as she scanned the room, waiting. When nothing happened, and all there was was an uncomfortable silence, she told him, "You know, according to all the laws of irony and horror movies, there should be something dead crashing through the door or window to attack us right about now." "Yeah, well, you're not that lucky," he told her. "Zombies aren't gonna save you from this conversation. Please," he said, "just tell me what's going on." When he saw her shake her head gently. "I know that I'm asking a lot…but when have I ever asked you for anything?" "You mean apart from when we were six and you asked me if you could have my birthday cake?" she said. "Or, when we were eight, and you asked me to take the blame for you nearly killing the neighbours cat with a sling-shot? Oh, and there was that time with the Aquaman underoos--"

"Okay, I get it!" he interrupted her, reddening now. "The question was supposed to be rhetorical."

"You know what that word means?"

He looked offended. "I do know some stuff," he told her.

"You heard someone use it and asked Giles to explain it to you?"

"Pretty much."

She put her head in her hands and shook her head. "There's no chance the world's gonna end in the next few seconds?"

"Not that I know of."

"There's no way I can get out of this, is there?" she asked.

"Nope," he told her.

"Not even by distracting you with the candy in my dresser drawer?"

"I never thought I'd say this," he said, "but now isn't the time for candy." He took a seat on the chair across the room from her. "You know, you can play Avoidy Girl all you want, but I can sit here and wait for you to talk about this until the cows come home."

"Moo," she said miserably. "They're home. You can stop now."

He watched her as she sat on the end of the bed, waiting for her to speak. When all she did was look at him, before wringing her hands together in a nervous gesture, he took the lead. "Okay, so it looks like I'm opening the conversation," he told her. "We kissed," he said bluntly. "Again.." He leant forward in the chair, watching her as he leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Now, I'm not an expert or anything, but I'd say we're bordering on not-a-fluke territory here."

She winced as soon as he said the words out loud. Maybe it was because she'd always had the images in her head of kissing Xander. They were always there, even though the real ones had replaced the ones she'd imagined, but while they were in her head, she could tell herself they weren't real so they'd never hurt anyone, they'd never hurt her. Hearing him say actually say the words…that made everything rush back into her mind and her heart. "I know…" she whispered.

"So, can we talk about it?"

"You really want to talk about this?"

He looked at her, dumbfounded. "Do I really want to talk about this?" he asked. "Have I been too subtle here? I mean, have I been unclear on the subject? Did you need me to write the question down?"

"Did you know that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?"

"Yeah, well, I'm the lowest form of guy, so that works out well," he said.

"Don't say that," she told him. "You know that's not true."

"Whatever," he said, waving his hand in the air. "I'm not here to debate the finer points of my dazzling personality. I just want you to talk to me."

"Has it ever occurred to you that I might not want to?" she asked. "I mean, don't you think that enough stuff has happened between us over the past few years? Do you think I really want to have this conversation and risk putting our already fragile friendship at risk?"

"We're putting it at risk if we don't deal with this," he told her. "You think things will be okay with us after this? I thought we could talk about anything, Willow. We said earlier we were gonna try and make things better with us. I can't do that without all of this in the open. Why are you trying to pretend this didn't happen?"

"Because…" she said as she felt tears sting the backs of her eyes. "Because it hurts too much to think about it. Because thinking about it means it's real, and that means that I've betrayed Oz, again, after I promised him that things between you and I were over and that I'd never do anything to hurt him again. I've broken that promise, Xander," she said sadly. "I…I kissed you…"

"Yeah," he said sympathetically. "But if you hadn't, I know that I probably would have kissed you."

"You would?" she asked.

"Yeah," he told her. "I mean, I thought that you were dead. You have no idea how relieved I was to see you, to touch you, to know that you were okay. Oz is my friend, Willow, but when I saw you…I saw you, and that was it. I couldn't think about anything else. And when I was kissing you, I couldn't think at all."

She laughed harshly, tears in her eyes as she stood up. "Do you have any idea what those words would have meant to me a year ago?" she asked, her tone becoming sharper. "I loved you so much, and you just saw me as one of the guys. What was it you called me, your 'guy friend who knew about girl stuff'? There were so many times that I got my hopes up after you said one little thing, only to have you dash them again. I just thought that, maybe in enough time, you'd wake up one day and realise how much I meant to you, how much you loved me too."

Xander shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Look, Willow, you're my best friend, and--"

"Ooh, ooh, ooh!" she said, putting a hand in the air excitedly to stop him with spite in her voice that made her sound alien to him and an angry look on her face. "I know this one!" she told him. "'Willow,'" she said in a clear imitation of him. "'You're my best friend, and I think you're great. But…'"

"Willow…" he said, trying to interrupt her.

"'…You're just not girlfriend material'," she said angrily, mimicking him and flailing her arms around in the air, pacing a short distance in front of her bed. "'You're not sexy, or pretty, or funny and…'"

"Willow…" he said again, his voice louder than before.

"'…And you're really nice, but you're just not Buffy andor Cordelia andor Faith and/or any of those other girls I used to obsess about while we were growing up'," she continued, her tone becoming more venomous with every word. "'You're the type of girl who I'm best friends with, not the kind of girl whose lips I think about, or…"

"Willow!" he yelled, standing up.

She couldn't hear him as she carried on pacing, still trying to get out all of her frustration. "'…Or…or…'"

Xander threw his hands up in the air with a roll of his eyes, before he rushed over to her, put his hands to her face and kissed her, hard, silencing her.

Willow barely had time to react before he had pulled away from her, her eyes still open. She blinked once, twice, as he went back to his original place at the other side of the room, standing in front of the chair. She stood there a second, still trying to figure out if he had actually kissed her or if it had been some crazy daydream, before she managed to snap back to reality. She narrowed her eyes at him, that angry look back on her face. "Why the hell did you do that?" she yelled at him.

"It was the only way I could think of to get you to shut up!" he yelled back at her.

"Well, at least I finally understand how you and Cordelia got together," she told him. "I mean, after all the methods we tried over the years, it turned out the most successful was one you thought of all by yourself."

"Don't," he told her. "Yeah, I'll admit that things between me and Cordelia started out on an entirely physical thing, but you know what? I cared about her, okay? You might not have understood my relationship with her, but even you can admit that. Maybe it wasn't the same as what you felt for Oz, maybe I wasn't in love with her, but do you have any idea how much she got hurt by us? She might play the Ice Princess, but that's not who she is inside, however much we wanted to believe it when we were kids. We hurt her, and it still cuts me up every time I see her."

"I know she got hurt, Xander," she told him. "I was there. I saw the blood."

"I'm not just talking about that," he said. "But, you know, nobody was thinking of that when you were busy trying to get Oz back, or when I was getting the evil glares from Buffy or Giles because they blamed me for everything."

"They didn't blame you," she told him.

"And what about you, Willow?" he asked. "Did you blame me?"

"No," she said. "Of course not."

"Really?" he asked. "Cos that's not how it felt. I felt like I was being punished, especially when I had to adjust my whole life because we weren't allowed to be friends anymore."

"We're still friends," she told him.

"I don't think so," he told her. "I mean, the night of all of the apocalypse stuff? I was so important that you guys couldn't even tell me about it."

"Yeah," she said cattily, "because you were so busy worrying about us while you were off sleeping with Faith."

"Yeah," he said, ready to retaliate with a dangerous glint in his eye. "So, where were you on Christmas Eve when 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was on? You know, the Snoopy dance isn't nearly as funny when the only person I'm trying to make laugh is myself in the mirror. I was all ready to bring the sleeping bag indoors, you know, watch the show with my bud, share a laugh or two before my family's embarrassing yuletide behaviour guaranteed me a place on the psychiatrists sofa for another five years, and where was she? Oh, that's right. She was seducing her boyfriend over at her place with some non-alcoholic beverages, candles and a little Barry White music."

Willow looked shocked for a second. "How do you know about…?" she shook her head. "Nothing happened with me and Oz," she told him. "And I'm sorry that things have been so weird between us, but…"

"I know," he said. "You had to make things right with Oz and it was to hell with the way I felt."

"The way you felt?" she asked, annoyed. "You made it perfectly clear how you felt. It was all the life-and-death danger stuff that made you want me."

"Life and death?" he scoffed. "I mean, one of those stuffed animals on your bed was looking at me kinda shifty that night before Homecoming, but I don't think we were under any real threat."

"Two words, Xander," she said. "Cordelia Chase."

"Good point."

"Look," she said, "The point is, you wanted me when I wasn't available. You were curious. You were--"

"In love with you," he told her, cutting her off.

Willow did a double take. "What?" she asked, wide eyed.

"You heard me," he said quietly, putting his head down. "And I still am."

"Xander…" she said, trying to take a deep breath. "Don't say stuff like that," she told him. "Please…" she asked him. "Because once you say something like that, it's out there, and you can't take it and put it back where it came from again. Just tell me that you meant it like in a best friend way, and then it'll be okay."

"I don't want to take it back," he told her. "And I didn't mean it in a 'best friend' way, so I guess it won't be okay."

"You don't mean it," she told him. "You can't…not after everything that's happened."

"Hey, is it nice in Denial?" he asked. "How can you believe that I don't mean it? Have you ever heard me seriously say that to anyone other than you? Have you ever heard me say the words 'I love you'?"

"No," she admitted quietly and thoughtfully. "But when did this happen? I mean, how do you know that's what you're feeling? Are you sure it's not just, I don't know, you thinking it's the easy option, or a reaction to us not being best friends, or…very intense, prolonged indigestion?"

"You think this is the easy option for me?" he asked with a laugh. "Yeah, I may be lazy and ignore Giles occasionally, and I may have a history of doing the easy thing instead of the right thing, but now isn't one of those times. You think I saw you in that hospital bed and thought 'Oh, my life would be so much simpler if I was in love with Willow'?"

"Well, no," she said. "But maybe…" she trailed off when she realised what he had said. "What do you mean…'hospital bed'?" she asked, suspicious and shocked.

Xander suddenly smiled nervously and shifted uncomfortably on the spot. "Did I just say that out loud?" he asked. "Oops?" he offered with a shrug.

"Why does it feel like that's something I've known all along?" she asked him quietly. "But this is kind of a sudden confession, Xander. Say I actually believe what you're saying here," she said. "And I'm not saying that I do… why didn't you ever tell me how you felt?" she asked.

"I didn't want you to think I was being selfish by making you choose between me and Oz," he told her honestly.

"And now?" she asked.

"And now I'm being selfish."

"Why are you doing this to me?" she pleaded, running her hands through her drying hair and putting them over her face. "Why can't you let me be happy?"

"Willow, have you even met me?" he asked. "You're talking to the guy who couldn't handle you spending the weekend at your Aunt's house. How did you think I'd react to losing you forever?"

"You're not going to lose me," she told him. "I know that things are weird between us, but we'll be okay."

"You're the one who said things were going south with us," he told her. "We said that we were going to fix our friendship, but you seriously think I can do that when I have these feelings? Now you know I have these feelings?" he asked. "I'm telling you, you must be so much stronger than I am," he said. "Because you dealt with this for years. You were in love with someone who you thought didn't love you back, and you still hung around with them every day, talked to them, watched them be with someone else. I can't do that, Will," he said sadly. "I can't stay here, knowing that you fell out of love with me, hang out with you and watch you be with Oz."

"What are you saying, Xander?" she asked.

"I'm saying that, for me, when we kissed, it felt right," he told her.. "Every single time we've done something we shouldn't have, it felt like it was something that was supposed to happen. And when I thought you were dead earlier tonight, I was ready to give myself to that thing, that creature, just so that I could die with you, like I always thought I would."

She looked touched, putting a hand to her chest gently. "Because you love me?"

"No," he said dryly. "I mean, you saw how hot you looked in leather, right?"

"Xander…" she said.

"Yes, because I love you." His face fell, as he turned and saw the photographs on her wall, most of them showing the pair of them over the years. "You know, on the way over here, I fooled myself that when you kissed me, it was because you felt something." He shook his head and smiled at her. "But I know it was just because you felt sorry for me, and I can't wait around for you to feel sorry for me all over again. When Graduation's over – assuming I actually do graduate - I'm gonna take off."

Now she looked angry again. "What?" she asked. "You're just gonna take off? For how long?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "Until it doesn't hurt, I guess."

"Do you know how selfish that is?" she asked, furious. "To just leave because things get a little hard?"

"I admit it, okay?" he told her defensively. "There's nothing you can say to me that I haven't already thought of myself. I'm selfish, because I want you in my life as more than my friend, even though I know I screwed up any chance I had a long time ago. I'm stupid, because I didn't see how much you meant to me until someone else saw it too. I'm jealous, because Oz is a great guy and I know that you care about him so much." He took a breath. "You know what else? I know that, in the past, I've had a tendency to make my best friend miserable… But the thing is, I'm crazy about you, okay? Given the choice between being on the hottest date you can imagine with any of those girls you just mentioned or whose posters adorn my bedroom walls or from that not-so-secret stash of magazines under my bed and hanging out with you, eating cold pizza and watching crappy horror movies about killer piñata's and psycho beach parties, I'd pick you every time, without question. Unless you happen to know any of the Playboy models…" When she said nothing, just stood there looking at him with tears in her eyes, he grinned. "So, this is the inevitable rejection, huh?" he asked. "Look, when I said we needed to talk, I was wrong," he told her. "I guess I needed to talk. I needed to tell you all of this stuff that was going on my head. It's funny, all of my life, you were the one person I could tell anything to," he told her. "But you're the one person I had to keep all of this from."

He ran his hands through his hair. "Look, I'm sorry, okay," he told her. "I should have just left things the way they were. I mean, they were strange, yeah, but at least we could have pretended for a little while longer. I, um… I'm gonna leave now," he said, walking backwards to the door. "I'll try and leave you alone from now on," he told her. "I mean, it's not gonna be easy, what with the slaying and stuff, but I'll try. And don't worry, if you wanna keep this stuff to yourself, I'm not gonna tell anyone. There's no point hurting Oz again just because I was a dumbass. Plus, the fewer people who know about me humiliating myself the better. We'll just have to devise some kind of rota system or something for use of the library and Giles. Or, you can devise it, and let me have a copy, cos, let's face it, computer genius is more your speciality and--"

Willow threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes as she rushed at him from where she had been listening, slamming him into her door as she kissed him, hard.

Xander had to take a breath when she had released him, unsure of whether or not he had been knocked unconscious sometime and this was the state of delirium that usually followed. She had only kissed him for a matter of seconds, but now he was left feeling almost paralysed minutes after. He saw that she had moved back across the room, and quickly tried to stand up properly again, trying to act cool, rearranging his clothes so that it didn't look like he was as affected by her kiss as he had been. "Why did you do that?" he asked.

"It was the only way I could think of to get you to shut up," she told him with accusing eyes. "You just pile all of this stuff on me, Xander, and you don't give me a chance to react or explain or anything."

"Look, you've made your feelings pretty clear," he told her. "I know that you're happy with Oz."

"And you just said that you wanted me to choose," she told him. "Before launching into this big speech where you tell me you're gonna leave. Is there any wonder I'm confused?" she began slowly pacing across the room, leaving him by the door. "Look, you know how I felt about you for years," she told him. "I know you knew it back then, too, and I know you never wanted to hurt me, but you did, okay?" she told him. "I can't just forget all of that stuff, Xander, because it was too hard to get over. After every single heartbreak you gave me, I promised myself that I'd move on, that I'd stop feeling that way about you. I know it doesn't work like that and you can't choose how you feel about someone, but when I met Oz, he gave me…everything, Xander. He gave me his heart, even if I wasn't sure that I wanted it at the time."

"And you gave him yours," he said quietly.

"I never really knew how I felt about him," she told him. "Until that night in the hospital. I just heard this voice saying that they loved me, and I knew that I loved that person back. When I woke up, there was Oz…" she looked at him. "But everything I feel for him was based on that one moment, and you've just taken it away from me. Do you know that I have never told Oz that I love him? I never understood why I couldn't…until now."

"I'm sorry," he told her sincerely.

"I know," she said. "But it's not your fault, Xander. I mean, all that stuff that we did before, when we were fluking…" she saw his eyes widen at the word, "…or whatever…" she quickly said. "I felt so bad afterwards, and you're right when you said that I didn't think about anyone else. I couldn't think about anyone else, Xander, because then things just got too screwed up." She stood still and looked at him, her eyes older and wiser than he had realised before. "But what I'm saying is…" she told him. "…When I kissed you earlier, it wasn't because I felt sorry for you."

"What?" he asked.

"If I fell out of love with you so long ago, when I met Oz like we both thought, then why have I never been able to say those words to him? And why did it feel like my heart was being ripped out when you told us about what happened with Faith?" she asked. "I mean, I shouldn't have cared. Yeah, we're friends, but you shouldn't tell me absolutely everything, right? I mean, that's just not healthy."

"You already know that didn't mean anything," he told her, his hand on his heart. "I don't know if that makes it better or worse, but it just happened, Will. I never planned it, she never planned it – I don't think."

"I know," she told him, tears in her eyes. "I can think of a million reasons why you and I would never work, why we shouldn't even try."

"Can you write them down?" he asked. "I'm a little tired to hear a million of my faults being pointed out to me. Just give me the list tomorrow."

"But in the end…" she said, taking a deep breath as she slowly started walking towards him, placing her hands on his chest and feeling his heartbeat quicken at her touch. "I choose you…" she whispered.

"Okay," he said, his voice ragged and his breath catching in his chest. "Be kind, rewind."

"It's always been you," she told him. "It always will be."

"Do you mean that?" he asked quietly. "Because if this is just a pity thing…"

"It's not," she said. "I mean, our evil selves seem to have it figured out in that alternate dimension or whatever. We can't exactly ignore that. Besides, there's some leftover cold pizza downstairs with our names on it, and I think we may have a crappy horror movie or two that my dad forgot to return to the video store."

"You're serous about all of this?" he asked. "Because, this is gonna change everything, you know. I mean, what if I screw this up? What if we can't make it work between us and we end up not even being friends? I couldn't bear that, Willow. And, you're gonna have to hurt Oz, again, and I don't want to be responsible for that."

"Gee, Xander," she said dryly. "Are you trying to talk me out of this?"

"Of course not," he told her, smiling sadly. "I just want you to be sure what you're getting into here."

She nodded slowly, moving her hands to his jacket lapels and pulling him down so that she could kiss him on the lips, briefly, skin only just touching skin, but making everything feel right. "I'm sure," she told him. "Are you?" she asked. "I mean, it wasn't really the leather thing was it?"

"I'd say it was 99% love, 1% leather…" he told her with a grin that brought back so many memories for her because she saw that grin in every memory of their childhood. "I mean, maybe 90-10…" he continued thoughtfully. "Or, you know, if I'm being honest 80-20…okay, so it was 50-50." He watched her shake her head with a smile that made her sure she won the Wobbliest Jell-O contest. "Sorry," he told her sheepishly. "I'll quit joking around now."

"Things are gonna be hard, Xander," she told him. "I mean, they're gonna be really awkward for a while. This is gonna spin the whole group dynamic back into orbit again, and I think I can safely say that Oz isn't gonna wanna be around us for a while, if ever."

"Does that bother you?" he asked.

"It does," she told him with a nod. "We were friends before anything else, so it's gonna be hard not to have him in my life like that, but we still have to try and help him with the werewolf thing. And there might be times when I'll be really miserable about it, and I might get kinda grumpy, but when that happens you're just going to have to remind me why we did this, okay?"

"I don't know if I understand why we're doing this," he told her. "But, I swear, I'll make you happy. I'm gonna change for you, be the person you want me to be."

"I don't want you to change," she told him. "You are the person I want you to be. You always have been, that was the problem. Promise me you'll always be Xander?"

"I promise," he told her. "But only if you're Willow."

She smiled at him, nodding her agreement. "Do you really love me?" she asked him tentatively, feeling herself hold her breath.

"I do," he told her. "When I see you…it feels like I have a time bomb ticking inside of me, and the longer I'm around you, the faster it gets, and I'm so scared that it'll go off and I won't be able to stop myself from holding you and kissing you and telling you how much I'm in love with you."

"Me, too," she told him. "Xander?" she whispered to him.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"I love you," she told him sincerely, feeling the years of keeping those words to herself melt away. "I'm in love with you."

He couldn't help the smile from forming on his face, wouldn't have stopped it even if he could. "I love you, too," he told her. He leant down and kissed her softly.

"Xander?" she whispered again.


"That time bomb?" she asked. "It's time to let it go off."

She looked him in the eye, knowing everything they had been through in the past, good and bad, had led them to this point. She let her hands move to his face, let them wander over his cheeks, feeling the stubble that was already growing there, and a small gasp of awe escaped her. She felt his arms wrap around her waist tightly, fitting around her like a jigsaw puzzle they had just figured out how to piece together. She moved her hands to his shoulders, her hands linking together behind his neck as their lips seemed to move of their own accord, attracting each other like opposite poles of a magnet. Before she knew what was happening, their lips were locked together gently, and their tongues were meeting softly. When they parted and she felt like she could breathe normally again, nothing had ever been so simple in her life. She belonged with him, she knew that, especially when he held her to him like he was doing now, with her head fitting perfectly in the crook of his neck.

There was a moment of perfect silence that followed, until Xander finally spoke again. "Will?" he whispered.

"Yeah?" she asked, completely content with the person she loved.

"Can I have the candy now?"

The End