Author: Lizbeth Marcs <vblackheart[at]>

SUMMARY: What if Willow's magic blast in "Grave" had long-lasting consequences for Xander? Story is told from the POV of Faith, Buffy, Willow, Spike, and Giles. AU, takes place right after "Storyteller" but before "Lies My Parents Told Me." Serves as a stepping off point for a Post-S7 AU series featuring Xander and Faith.

RATED: PG for some language, alcohol abuse, and implied violence.

WARNING!: Was originally written early S7. Is now standing as an AU.

DISCLAIMER: I own nothing. Literally. Suing me will not help you, but I will cheerfully hand you my bills. ME owns everything. I'm just having a bit o' fun exercising my writing and editing muscles by trying something I don't usually do.

FEEDBACK: Yes! Yes! Yes! Private or public. Good or bad. While I won't remove bad reviews and will take constructive criticism to heart, I reserve the right to ignore you if your review boils down to two words: "It sucks."*grin*

PASS IT ON?: Please let me know if you want it for your Web site or to share on your mailing list. However, credit me and keep my name on it, otherwise I will be very, very annoyed.

Chapter 1
Faith--Rhapsody in Red

Faith gently closes the basement door behind her and carefully walks down the steps. Somewhere in the middle of the staircase, she eases into a sitting position on a random step and plops her chin into a supporting hand. She watches Xander through the gloom and wonders if he heard her entrance. She wonders if he did and simply didn't care.

There he is, one of the core Scoobies, well, former core Scooby, sitting in a dusty corner of the basement, as far away from the sunlight streaming through the windows as he can get. If Faith didn't know any better, and she DID know better, she would think Xander was a lurking vampire waiting for the sun to go down before making his escape into the night.

Not that Xander, human, vampire, or otherwise, can escape. Manacles encircle his wrists and ankles and chains keep his limbs tangled up. Another chain winds from the man to a supporting metal pole, which means that if Xander wants to he can probably hobble around the Summers basement. Faith tries to shake the image of a dog run out of her head as she calculates that the length of chain won't let Xander reach the stairs or the window.

So Xander making a break for the window and sprinting off into the night is pretty much out of the question. Faith wonders what would happen if she changed the odds by breaking the manacles and pulled the man free of his chains.

Faith KNOWS chains. She is familiar with them. She had come to rely on them in the past few years. Chains meant you had gone too far. Chains meant you were being punished. The presence of chains also sometimes meant movement: between cellblocks, between the prison interior and The Yard, between the loneliness of a cell and the always-unexpected appearance of Angel in the visitor's room.

Chains, both the metal and mental kind, keep you from going too far again.

Xander would probably refuse to break his chains. Will probably refuse to break them. Faith has a horrible image of her pulling the iron off Xander only to have physically free man remain unmoving and unresponsive, chained by more than just metal: chained by past, by the present threat, by the uncertainty of his future.

*Sunnyhell? Why do you want to go back there? From what I understand, they all think you're crazy, possessed, or a big evil who needs to be put down. Buffy's been HUNTING you for the past few weeks. What's in this for you?*

*We're needed.*

*Needed? Let 'em deal with it on their own. B will flip if I make a grand re-entrance and she'll try to kill you. Face it, boy toy, we are not wanted. *

*We may not be wanted, but we will be needed.*

*What makes you think they'll accept anything WE have to offer?*

*I'm going on Faith.*

From the moment she spotted Xander in the Hyperion's lobby to this moment here on the stairs, Faith was struck by a new adjective for Xander: control. He kept himself under complete control as if wavering for one second to let any human emotion slip by his carefully schooled features would result in something violent that would erase him and wash over anyone in his immediate vicinity.

Faith wonders where Xander had learned to wear a mask that was so impossible to read; that so completely obscured his emotions and every thought in his head. She was afraid to think that the opposite was true: that emotional, impulsive, easy-to-read, joking Xander was the fake and this too quiet man in front of her was the real deal. That maybe, just maybe, Xander had ALWAYS been about control.

'Xander' and 'control' are two words that should never be used in the same sentence, Faith muses. She shifts her butt on the splintery steps, trying to get more comfortable. She remembers the 17-year-old, or was he 18, that she knew the first time she came to Sunnydale. Not that she knew him, really, unless you count getting biblical with someone as knowing them. Faith knows for a fact that skin-on-skin is meaningless.

Not that anyone could tell Xander that, at least not then. Faith finds herself wondering if Xander STILL believes that sex could and should include that emotional connection. She wonders if that belief has been also taken from him; that time and experience has taught him the error of his ways. She surprises herself by fervently hoping that it hasn't.

Loud voices interrupt Faith's train of thought. Someone thumps something as if to emphasize a point. Faith raises her head in surprise, looking up, eyes narrowing, wondering if a crash will follow the thump. There's nothing but more voices. Giles's baritone, strained with the effort of trying to sound reasonable. Buffy's soprano, slightly shrill with anger and frustration. Willow's alto hesitantly cutting in, sometimes in harmony with Giles, but mostly singing Buffy's tune. L'il sis Dawn is suspiciously quiet and Faith pictures the girl hiding behind the couch, fingers stuck in ears, wishing the situation would get resolved. The army of Potentials has made themselves miraculously scarce, fleeing the house to god knows where.

Faith tenses, waiting for the violence factor to pick up, but it doesn't. The voices drop in volume, but don't completely fade out. There are footsteps overhead, as if someone is pacing back and forth trying to marshal more and better arguments for their side. She relaxes, but only a little.

It's clear what the argument is about. *What do we do about Xander?*

At that thought, Faith returns to watching the subject of this latest passion play. He doesn't appear to have moved or noticed the rising and falling rhythm of the voices overhead. For a man whose very future, whose very life, depends on who wins the argument upstairs, Xander is at best dispassionate, at worst, apathetic.

She studies him. Xander is sitting upright, knees bent at 45-degree angles to brace his back against the cellar wall. His hands are cupped over his knees as if to keep them in place. His eyes are closed and his head leans back against the wall. It would fool almost anyone into thinking he was napping in that position, except that Faith can hear from his breathing that Xander is wide awake.

Angel was still recovering from his latest Angelus period when he got the call from Sunnydale: Xander has gone evil, he's disappeared from Sunnydale, he might be heading your way. Catch him. If you can, get him back to Sunnydale so we can deal with him. Kill him if you must.

That last statement-or maybe it was an order-came as a complete surprise. Angel may have never been fond of the boy and at times may have wished he would simply go away, but unless Angel was in Angelus mode he never wished the boy dead. And if Angel, ANGEL, who had no love for Xander never wished him dead, how could Xander's friends state that killing Xander could be necessary and would be forgivable?

Faith barely paid attention to the confusion the call left in its wake. Sunnydale was the past. She had no plans to go back. Xander, Buffy, and all the rest were not her problem. As far as Faith was concerned, the Scoobies could play out the latest drama in their lives without her input, thankyouverymuch. She had her own life to live and her own ghosts to put to rest. Moving forward means never going back.

Except here she is back at the beginning. This is the place where it all began to go wrong, where events just spun out of her control. Where SHE spun out of control. Faith blinks and focuses on Xander again, studying him more closely this time, unnerved that he hasn't moved, hasn't even TWITCHED since she sat down on the stairs. She wonders where it went wrong with Xander, wonders if he really spun out of control or if it just looks that way to his friends, well, former friends. As far as Faith can tell, Xander seems very much in control, well, in control of himself anyway.

There's that word again: control.

Faith shakes her head, trying to reconcile the restless, nervous, quick-smile boy she met a hundred years ago to the silent man now sitting in the basement. The images don't match. The situation simply does not compute.

When Xander suddenly showed up at the Hyperion and walked into the lobby, the Angel Investigations team was so stunned that not one of them moved. When Xander calmly announced that he'd come to take Faith back to Sunnydale to help battle the First Evil and the imminent opening of the Hellmouth, it was too much for group to comprehend. Almost at once Angel's team erupted in questions, demanded explanations, tried to get Xander's side of the story.

Faith didn't get involved, but instead watched from the sidelines. She was struck by the fact that not ONE person in the Hyperion moved to subdue the hunted man now in their midst. Buffy's gang struck her as a group that would hit first and ask questions later. Judging by the call from Sunnydale and what happened after Xander and Faith showed up unannounced at Buffy's house, it appears that it remains the Scoobies' modus operandi. Angel's team seemed to be more interested in getting the facts before making a judgment.

The fact that Xander did his best to answer their questions, made no move to attack them, and acted nothing like a man with a mission to destroy all that was holy and good in the world proved that the L.A. team's approach was the right one, at least in this case.

Faith knows which group she'd rather be allied with and wonders if Xander now feels the same way.


*Yes, Angel?*

*Before you go, I want you to think about something.*


*When you're done with whatever you need to do in Sunnydale, I want you to consider coming back to L.A.*


*I want you to work with us. I think you'd make a good addition to the team.*

*You're offering me a job? Again with the, ' why?' Followed by a, 'hunh?'*

*Look, Cordelia doesn't seem to get visions any more and Lorne can't read someone unless he's looking at them and they're singing. Your talent, well, it would be a great asset to us. You'd save more lives here in L.A. than if you stayed in Sunnydale, always reacting to the latest big bad in the neighborhood. Here you could be proactive.*

*Angel, we don't even like each other. We'll never be friends. You can't possibly mean...*

*I do mean it. *

*I already have a job.*

*In construction, yeah, I heard. But you can't be just a carpenter. Not anymore.*

*Yes I can and I will.*

*Do you really believe that? After all you've been through, do you really think you can go back? I notice you're not answering me.*

*So, then, what do you want me to do?*

*It's not what I want. It's not what anyone else wants or expects from you. This is about what YOU want. So, Alexander Harris, what DO you want?*

*I don't know.*

*Fair enough. Promise me something.*


*Think about my offer.*

*I will.*

*You're not just saying that?*

*No. No, I'm really not. Your offer scares me, but. . . All right. Yes. I will give it some serious thought. I need time to decide, but I will think about it.*

*That's all I ask.*

Faith knows that when this is all over, assuming she survives, she'll be on the next bus back to L.A. She finds herself hoping that Xander will give her a ride, hoping he'll do it because he'll be heading that way.

Faith stands and stretches, feeling cramped from sitting too long on the stairs. Upstairs the voices are quieter, signaling that a decision has been reached and only the details are being worked out. She vaguely wonders what she'll do if the final decision is death to Xander. She pushes the thought out of her mind for a vision of her and Xander making the escape back to L.A. with the windows rolled down and the wind blowing in her hair.

She slowly finishes her descent and carefully crosses the basement acting like she, the Slayer, was merely a concerned human approaching an injured animal that might lash out, mistaking her intent to help as an intent to attack and inflict more pain. Faith silently crouches next to Xander, but is careful not to touch him. Still he doesn't react.

Faith is suddenly hit by another memory from the Hyperion. Angel's team insisted that Xander sing for Lorne to confirm that he wasn't the danger Sunnydale lead them to believe. They were willing to listen, but they weren't stupid. Xander reluctantly agreed, moving into the sunny courtyard to sing for the green demon. Faith couldn't hear the words, but the melody was familiar. No one would accuse Xander of having a spectacular voice, but he could carry a tune.

The session was over too quickly. Lorne stopped him mid-song and began an intense conversation with Xander. Xander backed up a few steps, suddenly looking so very small and so very lost in the expanse of the courtyard. He kept shaking his head 'no' at odd intervals, as if the physical movement would simply make Lorne's message not true. After few moments of this, Xander was back in the lobby, body shaking with the need to maintain control.

Before anyone could ask what was wrong, Xander meekly asked if he could crash for a few hours in one of the hotel rooms. He's tired. It was a long drive. He has a lot to face when he gets back to Sunnydale. A few hours' sleep, please, and he'll be on his way, with or without Faith.

Angel cast a quick glance at Lorne, who had quietly followed Xander back inside. An imperceptible nod from that horned head was enough to convince Angel to grant Xander's request. Fred offered to show Xander one of the "less dusty and icky" rooms while Lorne whispered, "We need to talk" into Angel's ear.

Through this whole business Faith simply watched, not wishing to get involved, not wanting to get pulled back to Sunnydale.

Angel and Lorne emerged an hour later from the back office. Angel looked at once shaken and upset. He glanced up the stairs, worry etched on his face. Something had rocked Angel's foundation, Faith remembers thinking. Something even more unnerving than Angelus and it's something to do with Xander.

While Faith doesn't know what it is, she knows what it isn't: Xander being evil. Judging by Lorne's reaction and Angel's concern, Xander wasn't what Sunnydale reported. That leaves one question: What IS he?

When Lorne was done with Angel, he had a message for Faith: go back to Sunnydale and watch Xander's back. When Faith asked Lorne about his message to Angel, all she got was a headshake. No, no answer for her, at least not yet.

Back in the basement, Faith reaches out and touches Xander's hands. His eyes fly open and for a moment Faith wonders if maybe Xander WAS asleep and really hadn't realized she was there. Then she knows. Xander knew she was there, he just didn't expect a gentle touch. She wonders if he no longer expects to be touched with any gentleness ever again.

Xander's eyes seek out hers and for a brief moment, they lock Right. On. Her. It's a brief flash, but with a shock Faith sees it. Recognizes it. Has seen it in too many mirrors when her ghosts have been extra loud and her nightmares especially intense. It's the haunted look of someone who is trapped, who questions every decision they've ever made, who wonders where they went wrong, who wonders what they did to deserve this.

It's the look of someone with blood on his hands.

And for a moment Faith wonders if Angel did Xander any favors by asking questions first and letting him live. Wonders if it maybe wouldn't've been kinder to simply follow the last order from Sunnydale and kill Xander outright.

She wants to tell him that he can get beyond this, but knows that it's sort of a lie. Knows that Xander would recognize it for the lie it is. She can see him, scrubbing himself raw in the shower with soap, keeping the water so hot that it scalds his skin. Doing anything to wash the blood off him and out of his mind, knowing that it's useless because all the soap and water in the world can never wash his soul clean.

The moment of recognition is over almost before it's begun. As Xander's expression closes down to the infuriating hard-to-read mask, Faith knows that Xander saw her expression, knows that she knows.

And she simply doesn't know what to say, so she says nothing.

Instead, she moves a hand into one of his chained ones and surprises herself and him by interlacing fingers. She isn't even sure what she's trying to say by this simple bit of physical contact. She doesn't even try to analyze it.

Again, she's taken him by surprise. He glances down at their interlocked hands, as if trying to figure out an inkblot; glances back to her steady gaze, his expression a mix of gratitude, self- hate, and simple need before finally closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall.

She notices that he doesn't try to pull away from the physical contact.

And in the dark of the basement, neither of them moves.

Chapter 2

Buffy opens the basement door and walks down the stairs, the picture of a woman with a distasteful mission. She stops at the bottom and sees the silent pair in the corner. Faith is watching her with a wary expression. Xander appears not to have reacted at all. With a shock, she notices that Faith is clinging to one of Xander's hands.

Buffy suppresses the urge to stride over and slap their hands apart. She wants to shout at Faith, *Do you know what he did? Do you have any idea what he's capable of?* But then, Faith has shown she's capable of doing the same thing.

What Xander did was not an accident. It was by design, plotted and carried out by the man now chained in her basement.

Assuming that the man is the same thing as Xander.

Maybe Faith and that thing in chains deserve each other.

Instead, Buffy walks over to the pair, holding the keys to the manacles up. Her voice is gruffer than she expects. "I'm unlocking you, no tricks."

Her only reply is a derisive snort from the Xander-shaped fiend.

Faith disengages, stands up, and steps back. Buffy notices that Faith doesn't move too far away and that the other Slayer's body is tensed, ready to spring if Buffy does more than just remove the chains.

Buffy kneels in front of her prisoner, hating the fact that it leaves her momentarily vulnerable. She unlocks the manacles around the ankles and removes the chains. Neither dark-haired creature moves from their spot. Faith merely watches her. The other remains passive, eyes closed, waiting for whatever will come next.

"Stand up," Buffy orders. "We're going upstairs to have a talk with Giles." Her tone clearly telegraphs what she thinks of this turn of events. She doesn't like it and doesn't agree with it.

The man stands, keeping his eyes downcast and focused on the basement floor. He holds his still-manacled hands in front of him, waiting for them to be removed.

"They stay," Buffy states.

As the hands drop, the head shoots up and a play of expressions flicker across the too-familiar face: hurt, anger, resignation. Buffy reminds herself that whatever this is standing before her, it's not- Xander. Whatever, whoever, Xander was is now gone. All that's left is the thing before her.

She nods to Faith, "You first. I'll follow him up the stairs."

A sneer passing as a smile crosses Faith's face, but her eyes remain cold. "Gonna keep an eye on ol' Xan here, hunh? What are you gonna do if he does something funny?"

"I'll kill him," Buffy replies. The Slayer shows no emotion as she says this, as the girl inside wails and screams, *This is your friend. You can't do this.* Buffy knows she can and she will if necessary. She wasn't strong enough to do it to stop Angelus, but she has to be strong enough to do THIS. Xander, the Xander she knew, would want her to.

Wouldn't he?

Faith reacts like she's been slapped. Not-Xander shows no reaction to this exchange or to the coldness in Buffy's voice. Buffy wonders if Xander she knew was always difficult to read, wonders if she ever understood the boy and later man who called her friend. Wonders if not-Xander really IS Xander and that all the signs of his instability and propensity for evil were always there, but she utterly missed them because it was evil of the human kind, rather than evil of the Hellish kind. She wonders if she should've seen this coming and curses herself for being so very blind.

She fiercely pushes the thought aside as Faith starts up the stairs, the man following not too closely behind. Buffy takes up the rear, her eyes not leaving the Xander-shaped body, waiting for any suspicious move, any excuse to end this, now, on the cellar stairs. But there are no suspicious moves, no excuses to make as Faith and then the captive emerge into the kitchen. Buffy closes the basement door behind her and orders the pair into the living room where Giles is waiting to pronounce not-Xander's fate.

Faith flops down on the couch, enjoying the warmth of the dying sun after the cool darkness of the basement. Willow sits at the opposite end, sitting stiff-backed and dry-eyed. The only sign of an internal struggle is the way her hands twist around themselves, as if uncertain how to express the tension without everyone in the room erupting into another fight. Dawn sits in a chair in the corner, doing her best to look invisible.

Only Giles seems to be in Technicolor, dominating the living room as he stands in its center, expectantly waiting to begin. He sees the current subject of discussion standing uncertainly in the entrance to the living room as Buffy brushes past him and settles herself on a chair. He frowns at the manacles still present on the wrists.

"Buffy, I told you to remove the chains," he quietly remarks.

"I did."

"His hands are still bound."

"I thought it best..."


The warning tone implicit in Giles's voice is enough to prompt the Slayer to move from her spot. She removes the manacles none-too- gently, ill grace telegraphed in every move. Buffy takes the manacles and returns to her seat, the sound of her teeth grinding in frustration can practically be heard by everyone in the room.

For his part, Xander, not-Xander, whatever the hell it is, surreptitiously rubs its wrists, but remains quiet. If it expects anything: judgment, mercy, an explanation, it doesn't show on the face. The expression is that carefully schooled neutral look that drives Faith up the wall and shuts the rest of the world out.

Giles clears his throat to begin. "We are not going to kill you."

Buffy notices the Xander-thing merely nods in response, clearly not surprised by the decision. She clenches her fists in anger. The bastard was sure of himself, wasn't he? Sure they wouldn't do it. She wants nothing more than to pull the rug out from underneath the son of a bitch.

"We also know that you're still you, Xander," Giles continues.

Faith perks up, a momentary hope flittering across her face, briefly interrupting the typical bored-now Faith expression that usually resides there. Both Buffy and Willow exchange looks, neither one of them agreeing with Giles's statement, not WILLING to believe the statement is true. This is not-Xander and no one will convince them otherwise.

Xander-not-Xander, Buffy reminds herself-responds by taking another step into the room towards Giles. Buffy tenses protectively, but the familiar-looking monster stops, maybe sensing one more step would push Buffy over the edge into its death.

Giles's tone is gentle, soothing, the sort of voice you'd use on a hurt child. "I know you're confused and scared. I know you felt that you couldn't ask for help. I know you feel trapped and that you had no choice."

"No choice?" Buffy explodes. "Giles, that, that, THING killed people! Humans! We should turn him over to the police! Not run an intervention!"

Faith reacts to the outburst by swiftly focusing on Xander, trying to read his reaction to the accusation. Xander catches Faith's eye and gives her a slight nod. Faith sinks back into the couch. It's been said aloud. No going back now.

"Yes, he did kill people," Giles allows. "But I showed you the coroner's reports. They weren't human, at least not when they died. Isn't that right, Xander?"

"They were infected."

Everyone in the room jumps. Xander hasn't spoken since last night when he and Faith showed up out of the clear night sky on Buffy's doorstep. Not a single word crossed his lips as Buffy knocked him out and chained him up in her basement. His voice is rough from disuse and Buffy remembers a time when THAT seemed an impossibility because Xander was never quiet, even when she just wanted him to shut up.

Giles nods, looking grim. "Do you know how?" Buffy is surprised to realize that Giles genuinely doesn't know the answer and is looking to Xander, XANDER, of all people, to give him one.

Xander looks thoughtful, as if mulling his response or composing his thoughts. He opens his mouth to reply. Closes it. Opens it again. It reminds Buffy of a gasping fish who's been pulled from the water. Xander looks again at Giles, his gaze steady. "I'm not sure."

Giles deflates slightly at that, but hangs on to hope. "Which means you have some idea?"

Xander shakes his head no, but answers something else. "Yes. I think. I'm not sure. Maybe I am."

"Xander." Giles's voice is strained, containing a warning and encouragement at the same time. "Trust your instincts, no matter how crazy it seems."

Buffy seizes on that word: crazy. Maybe this really is Xander and the Hellmouth or some mysterious demon has driven him insane. Maybe he CAN recover. Maybe they won't have to kill him. For the first time since this whole business began, she feels a tendril of hope. She brutally suppresses it afraid hope will lead to pain, hurt, and loss.

Xander exhales a deep breath. Whatever he heard in Giles's voice seems to have given him permission to let go, at least a little. "A demon. It was a demon. It would implant something in people, I'm not sure how. Whatever it would implant would just stay dormant until it was activated and when it was activated they'd turn into one of those super vampires..." Xander's voice trails off and he begins to shudder.

Giles swiftly crosses the room and places a reassuring hand on Xander's shoulder. Xander's response to Giles's touch is to jump back and regard the Watcher with alarm. Buffy thinks she should be surprised by this reaction, but is more surprised that she isn't. It's just confirmation that this really IS Xander. Xander who thought he was doing the right thing by killing thirteen people in cold blood, although she can never understand how he could go through with it. WHY he would go through with it.

Giles holds his hands up, to signal that he won't touch Xander again if Xander doesn't want it. Xander's body language relaxes.

"What activates it?" Giles asks.

"The when the First's human minion hits Sunndayle," Xander replies.

"How long has this 'implantation,' as you put it, been going on?" Giles asks.

Xander begins to shudder again. His reply is horrifying. "Years."

"How many people infected?"

"Hundreds." Xander wraps his arms around his torso, as if he's cold and will never be warm again.

Giles shoots another question at Xander and Xander answers. There's a rhythm to it, a sort of vocal symmetry that a neutral viewer can appreciate.

Buffy realizes that Giles is literally interrogating Xander now, more interested in the responses than how the answers are affecting the man being questioned. She opens her mouth to ask Giles to stop, give Xander a little breathing room. She quickly shuts her mouth. She knows they need these answers and needed them yesterday. Hell, they needed them months ago before anyone even knew there were questions that needed asking.

But Xander knew, didn't he? He knew and he didn't tell them. Buffy fights the wave of anger swelling in her. Why didn't he say anything? He should've said something. A whispered voice reminds her that she KNOWS why. Xander never asks for help, never asks for rescue. And if he did ask her, if he did warn her, would she have even heard him? Would she have listened? Or would she have cavalierly dismissed his warnings, just like she cavalierly dismissed his suggestion to question Willy about a demon or his objections to taking Spike in?

She hates herself just a little when she admits the answer to those questions to herself.

The atmosphere in the room changes and captures Buffy's attention. She sheepishly looks around. She lost track of the interrogation chasing after her own thoughts. Faith and Willow wear matching expressions of horror. Dawn slumps in her chair, eyes dull with what she's heard. Giles is rubbing his glasses. And Xander. . .

Xander looks miserable, eyes studying the designs on the living room carpet, jaw muscles working hard, and eyes blinking furiously as he reigns in his emotions.

"Thank you, Xander," Giles says quietly.

Xander looks up, startled. Buffy wonders if anyone ever thanked Xander for anything before. She cringes a little when she can't remember a single case. At the very least, he deserved a single thank you, maybe even a kiss on the cheek. Doesn't every white knight deserve it?

Of course, Xander is no longer a white knight, Buffy muses. Recent events have muddied the shinning armor and killed the white horse. So, if Xander isn't a white knight, what is he, then?

"Can I go?" Xander mumbles.

"We're not finished yet," Giles responds, replacing the glasses on his face. "We need to talk about you."

Chapter 3
Willow: On Power, Control, and Balance

Giles's last comment hangs in the air and Willow knows the world is holding its breath. She finds herself wondering what the Watcher will say. He's already promised to spare Xander's life. What's the alternative? Willow somehow doubts he'll get the Dumbledore treatment.

She shudders, remembering what she expected when Giles bundled her off to England. Punishment. Imprisonment. Getting stripped of all her hard-won powers. Being chained in the dark until some authority decided that she had been punished enough and could be paroled back into the light.

She feels Faith tense next to her. Oh yeah, if anyone knows anything about horrific crimes and justified punishment, Faith would be the "it girl." Not that this softens Willow's attitudes towards Faith one bit. Willow feels guilty; she should be more understanding, considering the blood staining her own hands, but she can't see beyond, what? Jealousy? Power struggles? High school? Her own pettiness?

So Willow waits and, with the rest of the world, holds her breath. In her subconscious, DarkWillow squirms with glee, *Buckle up kiddo. It's going to be a bumpy ride.* Xander waits impassively for Giles to finish his thought, but Willow notices something in his eyes, a form of pleading that maybe, just maybe, Giles can make this better, make all the pain of the past few months go away.

Willow knows he'll never ask, not in words.

She wonders if anyone else in the room can see it, too.

Willow isn't sure how she should feel. On the one hand, this is Xander, REALLY Xander, and not some possessed shell, not some demon wearing a friend's face. Yet on the other hand, she just witnessed the most frightening thing she's ever seen, more scary than the first time she saw vampires, more terrifying than when the Sisterhood of Jhe tried to re-open the Hellmouth, more soul-freezing than the first time she looked in the mirror and saw her own black eyes staring back at her.


Xander KNOWS things, black things that count on silence and darkness and secrecy to get the job done. He can see things that succeed by not being seen. That connection to the dark is more intimidating than a Slayer's strength, more terrible than dark magic spun out of control. And Xander, who barely cracked a book in high school, who struggled to keep up in the research department, who never went to college, who never was considered a "brain" by either his classmates or his peers, XANDER has access to knowledge and information that Willow will never be able to grasp, let alone understand.

She isn't sure she even wants to try.

Willow suddenly flashes back on a conversation she had with Xander just after she got back from England. She can almost sense the warm sunlight, the peacefulness of the cemetery, and the comfort of knowing that she had at least one true friend in this world. What is it he said? You can have power or control, but not both. It's a trade- off and you have to choose.

With a start, Willow realizes Xander's choice. He went with control. In recent months, he subtly directed things with a suggestion here, a word of comfort there, a well-placed question at the right moment, a misplaced bad joke elsewhere. All subtle actions that hid him right under their collective noses and no one saw, no one even noticed, that something was off until it was too late.

For her, it was always about power. For him, it was always about control. She now sees the pattern: a yin-yang, the sort of balance that the universe so loves to strike.

Why didn't she see it before? She who frittered on about how everything is connected, everything has its place, the great order of the universe, and magic, and, more specifically, her place in this constellation. Why did she ever assume that somehow, somewhere, the universe WOULDN'T do something to balance her descent into the ways of power?

Willow bitterly concludes that the universe has a very sick sense of humor.

She wonders when it started. She thinks back and...


It can't be...


DarkWillow chuckles. *Light dawns.*

The realization slams into her and her breath catches. She feels tears begin to spill out of her eyes, but is powerless to wipe them way. No one notices her. Everyone is caught in the moment; everyone is holding his or her breath.

Willow knows, she KNOWS this: no matter what happens next, no matter what's said, she and Xander are now chained together at the neck. In some ways, they always were linked more closely than blood and Willow wonders if this truth were true from the time they both were conceived. She knows the chains are now pulling tighter into a stranglehold and she can sense they'll weigh very heavy on the pair of them for a long time to come.

She wonders if Xander will ever be able to trust her again, wonders if he'll be able to ever look her directly in the eye. She hopes he will, she bets he won't.

Chapter 4

*Yes, let's talk about Xander,* Buffy thinks. *Here's an opening question, one that I'm sure you'll enjoy from the hypocrisy files: If you were in trouble, why didn't you come to us? Why didn't you come to ME?*

Buffy feels her body tense into that oh-so-familiar 'fight-or-flight' mode. She glances over to Willow, who looks as if Faith had reached over and thumped her in the stomach. Dawn's dead eyes seem to have a little more life in them, hopeful that she'll get some explanation about big brother Xander. Faith feigns indifference, but keeps stealing glances at the subject up for debate.

Xander's expression is inscrutable, eyes locked on Giles's face. Buffy fights the urge to leap out of her chair and shake him, if only to get a reaction. Maybe if she shakes hard enough, the real Xander, her Xander, will emerge with a quick quip and a ready smile to make this business easier. But she knows that no matter how hard she shakes, the Xander she knew, check that, thought she knew, is long gone. There'll be no awkward, stupid jokes, no ready smile, not for a long time. She wonders if that side of Xander will ever re-assert itself, thinks that it probably won't in her lifetime.

Giles breaks the spell by informing Xander that he's a demon.

Buffy can feel the shocked expression on her face. Xander is a demon. He's not-Xander then and the real Xander is elsewhere. He's probably being held captive until this thing in her living room does its damage. He may even already be dead, his body dumped in a shallow grave. Her heart skips a horrified beat when she realizes that she hopes this is true.

Except that Giles said this IS Xander. Buffy looks at this thought and mentally blinks. She turns to study Xander more closely and tried to find some physical clue that she might've missed. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices with some satisfaction that Faith is doing the same thing. It must be doubly embarrassing for her. Faith did see him naked, after all.

Xander for his part is shaking his head no. Buffy hears the broken, whispered response, "You're wrong Giles. Tell me you're wrong," and her heart breaks just a little.

"I'm sorry. I'm not." Giles tone is the no nonsense librarian of Buffy's high school years.

"I don't believe you." Xander's voice is stronger now. Buffy suspects that his unique ability to see what he wants to see is reasserting itself. She secretly crosses her fingers and wishes Xander the best of luck in this little war.

Giles sighs, takes a step forward, and stops. Xander surprisingly stands his ground keeping his gaze steady on Giles. Buffy suddenly sees how hard this is for Giles; that what he says next will kill him just a little.

She doesn't want to watch.

"You're a Pythia," Giles says. He stops. This is usually the cue for one of the group, usually Xander or Buffy, to make a crack about the name, mangling it mercilessly while repeating it.

There's no comment forthcoming.

And if Giles is surprised that he's met with utter silence, he shows no sign. He meets Xander's hard, black-eyed stare, the only thing alive behind the emotionless mask.

"Pythias are extinct..." Giles begins.

"And yet here he is," Buffy mutters. Off Giles's look, she mimes locking her mouth with a key and throwing said key away.

"As I was saying, Pythias are extinct, but their descendants do live on." Giles slips into his mode of teaching and explaining, a familiar pattern that would be comforting if he were talking about a stranger. "The Pythias disappeared from the historical record shortly after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity."

"Wait a minute, the Pythia was a woman," Willow protests.

"The ones seen by the public, yes," Giles responds.

"Are you saying that the Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, wasn't even HUMAN?" Willow looks excited, a new fact to learn, a new mythology to rethink. Willow lives for this, Buffy muses with a touch of bitterness, she never wonders if pretty new knowledge will hurt someone. Willow suddenly looks at Xander and the expression of rapture fades from her face.

"No, they weren't human, in general," Giles explains, warming somewhat to his subject. "But because their population was always so small, it wasn't unheard of for humans to volunteer to mate with one of them, to please the god Apollo, see? The fresh human blood prevented inbreeding. After a few centuries of this, the Pythias looked as human as you or I and could easily inbreed with the general human population."

Buffy wonders if Giles even realizes that Xander is still in the room as he gives his dissertation on ancient demonic races. She wonders why Giles didn't tell them this information BEFORE. She tries to think of a reason why Giles waited until now to say something about Xander's status. While she would like to believe Giles waited so he could answer all of their questions at once, some nasty corner of her mind thinks that Giles wanted to grandstand, like a magician waving his hands in the air to make the Statue of Liberty disappear.

She begins to think that Xander wasn't the only one who was sure that the carpenter would live to see another day.

"Were they evil?" Dawn asks as she fearfully glances at Xander. A brief look of hurt crosses Xander's face when he sees Dawn's expression and despite everything, Buffy feels for him.

"Under the pagan system, not considered evil, no, even if their knowledge was feared," Giles answers slowly. "They tended to be far more accurate when predicting cataclysmic events, evil doings, dark happenings. So you can see where some people might think them evil."

"So when Delphi ceased being a center of pagan worship..." Willow begins thoughtfully.

"The Pythias left and blended in with the general human population rather than be killed by new Christian converts, yes," Giles nods, pleased to be falling into a familiar give and take.

"And where do I fit in?"

Giles startles. Buffy smiles a small grim grin. She was right. Giles DID forget Xander.

"You were one of the descendants," Giles replies.

The expressionless mask cracks with surprise. "Were?" Xander asks.

"Yes, well, you aren't, how can I put this gently..." Giles verbally fumbles. The Watcher takes a deep breath, looks directly into Xander's eyes, and levels the harsh truth with no sugarcoating. "You were human with a demon heritage, but you WERE all human, you must believe that."

"And now I'm not." Xander says this slowly. Buffy pictures him chewing on the idea before spitting it back in Giles's face.

"No, you're not. Your human self was, ummm, burned away if you will. All that's left is the demon. I'm sorry, Xander."

"But how. . ." Xander begins and stops. Buffy watches Willow begin to shrink into herself out of the corner of her eye as Xander slowly turns to look at the witch, light dawning in his eyes. "Burned away. As in burned away by a spell," he says. It's not a question. It's a monotone statement of fact.


Under Xander's unreadable look, Willow has the good sense to look down at her lap, fingers once again twisting around each other. Faith looks back and forth between the two, her face showing confusion. Buffy remembers Faith knows nothing about Kingman's Bluff, how Xander interrupted Willow's spell by running into the magic stream not once, but twice. She wonders whether it was the second interruption that brought the demon to the fore, or whether Xander's humanity died on impact the first time he got hit.

"I still don't buy it," Xander is stubborn. He's not giving up his membership card to the human race without fight.

*Go Xander with your bad self,* Buffy thinks.

"It's still a fact," Giles states blandly. Buffy wonders if Giles thinks he's being kind. "The signs of your heritage were always there, although I admit it took a bit for me to catch on."

Suddenly Xander winces, as if struck by a headache. "You claim you knew there was something wrong with me from the beginning."

"There was and is nothing wrong with you," Giles stresses. "And not from the beginning, no."

"How long?"

"Knew for almost certain? Since the enjoining spell we used against Adam."

Xander's head shoots up. "Which means you had an idea before that." Accusation and warning pepper Xander's tone.

"I suspected something, well, different about you when you were able to revive Buffy after the Master drowned her," Giles replies.

A quiet response through clenched teeth. "I see. And you didn't see fit to tell me until NOW?"

"Well, I wasn't sure at first and I didn't want to say anything until I was completely sure," Giles is talking fast to beat the explosion building in Xander's eyes. "After the enjoining spell, I was almost certain, but I thought it best not to pursue it simply because it wouldn't change anything."

"It would've been nice if I heard your 'suspicions,' which are still wrong, by the way," Xander growls.

"Would it have changed anyting? Answer me truthfully, Xander. How would you knowing about my suspicions have changed anything?"

"It might have proved you gave a shit," Xander spits.

Giles seems surprised by this statement. Buffy suddenly realizes that it never occurred to Giles that maybe Xander would've liked some attention for himself, attention that he was always willing to give to herself and, to a lesser extent, Willow.

Xander continues to glower at the dumbfounded Giles, all his attention focused on the Watcher. "Still, you said you were never sure about me. What makes you so sure about me now?"

"Xander, I just spent the past two hours questioning you about things you have no logical way of knowing and hearing you give me ANSWERS. How can you seriously ask me that question?"

"Answer." Xander's reply more like an order.

Giles sighs. "After I returned to England the second time, I heard some information that seemed to fit your, well, peculiarities. I started to do some research and I was able to track your family line..."

"Of drunks," Xander interrupts with a bitter laugh.

"Did you ever wonder why almost every member of your family is a raging alcoholic, Xander? Ever think they were maybe trying to drown something out?"

"Oh, this is good. This is just great." Xander throws his hands up in the air. "Now you know my fabulous, miserable family history. You then are trying to tell me that it all boils down to GENETICS? Tell me, oh great and wonderful Wizard of Oz, please tell me how I managed to avoid this particular curse, with one or two notable slips."

"Because unlike the rest of your family, you always used your gifts, even before your transformation," Giles quietly replies.

This stops Xander cold, emotion draining from his face. "You're lying," he whispers.

"I'm not. I have an extensive list I could show you, but I'm more than willing to give you..."

"You're lying," Xander says louder. "I'm human, normal! I have a nice, normal job and nice, normal bills! You know, the boy next door, face in the crowd, just another nobody! Hell, people pass me by without a second glance all the time! Unless I'm doing something that looks patently evil, my supposed FRIENDS don't even notice me!"

Buffy cringes at this tirade, wants to cover her ears and block the sound out. Giles's soft reply cuts into her hearing. "Why does it bother you so much that you might be unique?"

Xander glares at Giles, but says nothing.

"Some of the highlights," Giles says, picking up his train of thought. "Did you realize that of all of us, you've never been hurt enough or sick enough to spend time in hospital overnight?"

"I had my arm broken. Twice." Xander contradicts.

"Yes, and you've been hit by a Troll Hammer and didn't even get a concussion. Spike beat you pretty seriously when he kidnapped Willow and yourself, yet you suddenly recovered enough to get to Cordelia's side when she fell and was impaled. You've been tossed around by just about every demon that's made a visit to the this godforsaken town and haven't suffered more than a few scratches, bruises, mild concussions, and yes, two broken arms. Broken arms should've been the least of your worries over the years," Giles says.

"I think you're reaching," Xander mutters.

"You also had a habit of showing up or making statements at the oddest times," Giles says. "You came up with the idea of the enjoining spell."

"It was a joke. Not my fault you took me seriously."

"You prevented the high school from blowing up."

"Actually, I did help blow it up."

"Ahhh, but you prevented it the night the Sisterhood of Jhe tried to reopen the Hellmouth."

"WHAT?!" The exclamation is out of Buffy's moth before she can stop it.

Xander, for his part, looks shocked. His mouth forms words, but no sounds come out.

"Yes, I do know about it, Xander," Giles answering his unspoken question. "Found out long after the fact. Actually, I discovered it after I started researching you and your family background. Those zombies that you stopped? They had been contracted to blow the high school up and help the Sisterhood reopen the Hellmouth. Those responsible for hiring them were soundly punished for, shall we say, using substandard materials."

"But. . ." Xander begins, his face telegraphing worry. Buffy wonders what else Giles is going to throw at him. Wonders how much more surprised she's going to be before the night is over.

"You also were the first to 'just stumble' across Angel after he got back from Hell, bringing that whole business out in the open," Giles says, beginning to tick off points on his fingers.

"Like I could forget," Buffy mutters.

"When Spike was kidnapped by Glory, you were in his crypt when her minions took him and so were able to warn us," Giles continues.

"I went there just to talk to him about. . ." Xander begins. He glances at Buffy and snaps his mouth shut.

"You found out about Buffy being the Slayer when you were hiding in the library stacks," Giles continues.

"I needed a book." Xander is fighting to remain calm. "And I was not hiding in the library. You just failed to see me come in."

"You happened to overhear that the swim team was having tryouts and were able to get on the team," Giles says, ignoring Xander. He gives Xander a questioning look. "Tell me, did you ever swim competitively before? Have you done it since? How did you get on the team?"

"This is insane troll logic," Xander comments, his posture defensive. "All you have a bunch of coincidences, which by the way, can apply equally to all of us in this room, so don't even start. . ."

"Xander? I'm going to ask you one question. If you can answer this question, then I will concede that you are right and I am wrong."

"One question." Xander is suspicious.

"Just one. If you can answer it, then I will stop this conversation now," Giles says. Buffy figures the question must be quite the bombshell. Giles is willing to stake everything on it. Buffy mentally prepares for crash position.

Xander nods his assent, studying Giles through narrowed eyes.

Giles takes his shot. "How did you know where Angel lived?"

Xander seems surprised by the question. "What?"

"When you went to drag Angel from his living quarters so you could rescue Buffy from the Master. . ."

"Wait a minute!" Buffy shouts. "Angel took Xander. . ."

Giles regards her with irritation while Xander blinks in silence. "Xander went and got Angel, not the other way around. Before you say anything more, Angel told me this himself while you were visiting your father in L.A. that summer."

"But how did Xander know where Angel lived?" Buffy protests. "I certainly didn't tell him. I know Angel sure as hell didn't." And that's when it hits Buffy. That's when she gets it.

Giles turns back to Xander. "Yes, Xander, please explain how you knew where Angel lived."

"I. . . . Someone must've told. . . No, no one did. . . You just said that. . ." Xander fights with the idea and in that moment, in that one single moment, Buffy sees something in Xander break. His shoulders slump and the eyes go a little dull. In that moment, the moment where he couldn't rationalize something away; the one question he couldn't answer, Buffy Summers watched Xander Harris die.

"I've made my point then," Giles says. "I'm sorry about this, Xander. Truly, I am."

Emotion rushes back into Xander's face at that, his eyebrows knit as if a thought occurs to him. "Wait a minute. Last year when Willow. . ." He glances at the woman in question before looking back to Giles. "You were counting on me to be in the right place at the right time to stop her, weren't you?"

Giles keeps his voice steady; his face is pale. "Yes."

"You set me up." There's a tone of wonder in Xander's voice as his eyes unfocus a moment. When his eyes snap back to life, his tone is cold. "You. Set. Me. Up."

"I didn't precisely set you up, no. There was no other choice," Giles tries explaining.

"You knew exactly what would happen," Xander paces on this statement. Stops. Fixes Giles with a look. "You knew what would happen if I went to Kingman's Bluff."

"Not precisely, no. A good idea what might happen, maybe. . ."

Buffy restrains herself from launching herself across the room to slap Giles.

"Did you think to ask me?" Xander growls. "Did you even once think to warn me?"

"Would it have changed anything?" Giles is genuinely curious.

Xander grimaces and waves his hands, as if to ward off the question. "Yes. No. Maybe." He looks back at Giles, voice calmer. "I'd like to say, no, I wouldn't do anything different. But I honestly don't know. I WILL never know. I'll never know what kind of man I am." A not-particularly-nice grin slides across Xander's face. "Oh, wait. I'm not a man. You have to be HUMAN to be a man."

"Xander. . ." Giles begins.

Xander waves Giles off. "You know what? I get it. I get why you couldn't ask me. There wasn't enough time. You were the general in this battle and a spur of the moment decision had to be made. I get that. I even get why you didn't think to mention all the other stuff about demons in the family to me. But there is something I don't get. Something I don't understand. So, I'd like an answer. Right now."

"Anything," Giles quickly responds.

"Why didn't you warn me later?" Xander asks. "You had time to tell me after I talked Willow down. Hell, you could've called me with the bad news from England. But not a word out of you, not a PEEP. Here I am in Sunnydale thinking I'm going insane because I know things, Giles, I KNOW THINGS that I really don't want to know, I see things I don't want to see, I have nightmares Every. Single. Night. I'm terrified because everyone needs me to be stand-up guy Xander, safe and nonthreatening Xander, and before we forget, the Xander-shaped friend, and I'm barely holding it together."

Buffy can hear the anger bleeding through every word. The mantra plays through her head again: *If you were in trouble, why didn't you come to me? Isn't that what YOU said, Xander? Shall I hold a mirror up to your face, Xander? Are you getting the irony here, Xander?*

"You never said anything, so I wasn't sure. . . That is, until Dawn contacted me about your recent activities I wasn't certain there were any long-lasting affects." It's a weak explanation. From the look on Giles's face, Buffy knows that Giles knows that it's a piss-poor excuse.

Xander slumps against a living room wall, his anger spent. Buffy can almost feel the emptiness left behind. "I trusted you Giles." Xander's voice is breaking with hurt, pain, and loss. "I would've trusted you with my soul. Hell, I DID trust you with it. Look what you did. You let me lose it. You let me lose it without telling me what I was doing or why."

"Xander. . ." Giles begins, taking a step forward. He looks hurt when Xander immediately reacts by sliding along the wall away from him and closer to the front door.

"You should've said something. Anything. Just warn me that all that magic might affect me. A word Giles. That's all I needed. Just a word." Xander fights to keep control over his face, force it back into the expressionless mask. It isn't working. He looks at Giles and in almost a whisper, adds, "You owed me that much."

With that, Xander spins out of the living room and flees from the house.

Chapter 5
Spike--Just Like Smoke

Spike hangs up the phone, mulling everything L'il Bit told him. It's hard to comprehend. *So Xander is a soulless demon,* Spike thinks with some satisfaction. *My, how the worm has turned.*

He gets up from the couch and silently moves across Anya's apartment. For reasons he can't comprehend, Spike stalks the microwave before opening it to retrieve his cup of blood. He suppresses a snort. He has a soul and here he is stalking an appliance. It's probably a deep- seated vampire trait that compels him to stalk his food, even if it is provided courtesy of all modern conveniences. He removes the cup and frowns at its contents. Ruined now. The microwave dinged that dinner was served forty-five minutes ago, but he was on the phone with L'il Bit wringing all the juicy details out of her.

Spike tosses the blood down the drain, suddenly not hungry any more. He tilts his head and listens. Anya is quiet and Spike reckons that she's finally fallen asleep. He's not sure what he should feel about that. On the one hand he's relieved. Anya's muffled sobs through the closed bedroom door drove him to quiet distraction as he hovered torn between the need to charge in and comfort her and the need to charge in and smother her with a pillow.

On the other hand, he wants to charge into the bedroom now and shake her awake with the news and crow that there was more than one demon involved in her little affair with Xander. Well, more than two if you count his own tryst with Anya in the Magic Box, and Spike damn well doesn't.

Pity he didn't get to stick around to watch the show. He'd pay good money to see the look on Harris's face when Giles dropped the bomb on him. Although Dawn didn't say it happened, Spike is willing to bet that Xander threw a good right hook at the Watcher's face before storming out of the Summers house. He idly wonders if Xander will show up here to seek comfort from Anya. He hopes he does. He hopes he doesn't.

With a start Spike realizes that he feels a little guilty about enjoying Xander's comeuppance. A little. Not much.

Bollocks. Spike isn't sure what he feels.

His head's a bit of mess, been that way since he was cast out of the Summers home earlier this evening and ordered to watch Anya. When he insisted that he should stay in case Xander try something, he was quickly rebuffed.

*I think you've done enough, Spike.*

*Buffy, you know I was under the thrall of. . .*

*So not what I meant.*

*Then what DO you mean?*

*This is a family matter and it should be dealt with within the family.*

*But, I. . . *

*I still don't trust you.*

*Oh, but you trust me enough to watch over Xander's ex.*

*Anya is distraught and shouldn't be alone right now. Since Giles, Willow, and I need to hash this out, you've been elected. *

*Why the hurry to get the ex-demon out of the house?*

*She's not thinking straight about the situation and I'm afraid. . .*

*Afraid that she might spout some uncomfortable truths about how you've handled the whole Xander situation from the get go?*

*I'm afraid she might hurt herself.*

*Hurt herself trying to stop you from carrying out your plan, you mean. Don't look at me like that Slayer, Buffy. I can see the bloodlust in your eyes.*

*This is not bloodlust. This is me resigning myself to the inevitable. And since when are you so sympathetic to Xander's cause?*

*Not sympathetic. I don't care what you do with him. I just think that. . . *

*Don't think. Take Anya and leave. Stay with her. *

*Maybe I should take Dawn and Faith with me. Dawn shouldn't have to see this and Faith is even less "family" than I am.*

*Dawn won't leave and Faith made it clear that she'll dust your ass if we try removing her.*

*You trust her?*

*Not one little bit, but she said she promised Xander she'd stay out of it and abide by our decision.*

*You trust her because she promised XANDER?*

*I don't know what I trust, but I can't afford to loose an ally just because Faith doesn't feel like leaving the house.*

*I'm not happy about this.*

*You don't get a vote.*

*So what do you want me to do again?*

*Take Anya home and stay there until we call for you.*

With a furtive glance at the closed bedroom door, Spike removes a cigarette pack from his coat pocket and expertly flips a fag into his mouth. A moment of hesitation later, he lights the coffin nail-heh, coffin nail-and draws hard.

*You know, those things'll kill you.*

Spike jumps, quickly exhaling the smoke, looking wildly around. He relaxes when he realizes that he's utterly alone. But he could've sworn he heard. . .that voice was RIGHT in his ear.

*I mention today how much I don't like you?*

"You mighta let it slip in. . .once or twice," Spike answers the silence and for some reason a smile touches his lips. He suddenly frowns, taps the ash from the cigarette, and broods at the sour smoke. This is quite the cock-up, one of epic proportions. He sees this changes everything, will change everything. Wonders if Buffy realizes it yet.

*Poor Buffy,* Spike thinks. *She likes to gift-wrap people into pretty little boxes and handles it poorly when it turns out that people aren't knick-knacks.* She was furious when that computer teacher turned out to be a Romani spy, nearly destroyed when Angel reverted to Angelus the first time, tripped over her own mouth when Willow embraced her Id, and still isn't sure what to make of himself.

But when all the little Scoobies discovered that Xander. . . Well, Buffy immediately went into "kill him" mode, didn't she? Didn't matter that Xander was human, well, that they THOUGHT he was human. Didn't matter that the right and proper thing to do would be to turn him over to the police. No, Buffy grabbed a sword and went hunting. So much for leaving human evil on the doorstep of human law.

Strange, how the Slayer reacted. Spike draws slowly on the cigarette and thoughtfully releases the smoke in his lungs. He's disquieted by the image of Buffy hunting, skulking through the dark streets of Sunnydale, Xander always one step ahead. She'd find one of his hiding places, only to discover that it had been abandoned the day before. She'd stumble across one of Xander's human victims-which were actually demons lurking in human skin if Spike understood L'il Bit correctly--bodies still warm, the blood still flowing.

Yet she never caught him, would've never caught him if Xander hadn't thoughtfully showed up on her doorstep with the other Slayer in tow.

Thirteen. There were thirteen in all, nothing more than the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Frightening to think about if there really are hundreds of infected people programmed to respond to the First Evil's call by shedding skin to let demons out of human shells to become warriors perfectly designed to bring down the wrath of evil long contained.

And yet, according to what Spike heard, killing the thirteen was all that was necessary, just enough to tip the balance in favor of people who LIKE living on this sorry old world, for all its problems, conundrums, and heartache. Hell on earth or an earth touched by hell. Hell of a choice that, but then Spike knows which he prefers, which he preferred even when he DIDN'T have a soul.

Not that victory is a sure thing, not by a long shot. There are too many variables that still need to play out. All Xander's murders did was buy them some breathing room, just enough of an advantage to give them a hope of winning when all hell breaks loose and wackiness ensues.

Spike wonders if he knew what Xander knew whether he would've stopped at the thirteen, wonders if he would've wanted to stop at thirteen now that the chip is dead. He's surprised to discover that he's glad he didn't have to find out.

A rustle from Anya's bedroom brings Spike out of his trance. He listens as the brief activity quiets and Anya's breathing resumes its deep and even pattern. *Let her sleep,* Spike decides. *She's had a longer night than most. The news that Xander's alive can keep until she wakes.*

Chapter 6

Giles breaks the seal on the Johnnie Walker Black, pours the amber liquid into the glass, and carefully thinks about nothing. Nothing is safe. So's the oblivion promised by a long night of hard drinking. He doesn't care that getting pissed tonight of all nights while sitting in Buffy's kitchen ranks as one of the most imbecilic things he's ever done.

Well, aside from all the imbecilic things he did when he ran with Ethan's crowd.

But after the night he's had, hell, after the year he's had, he just doesn't want to care anymore. The hell of it is, he does. He absently swirls the scotch around the glass wondering how he went from being a Watcher to a single Slayer to watching a group of young adults wade through human blood.

Alexander LaVelle Harris, Giles bitterly muses, is one of his most spectacular successes yet. Ethan would be so proud.

Stop it. No thinking. Giles swiftly drains the contents of his glass and pours himself another.

He looks up and spies Faith watching him from the doorway. Almost before he sees it, a ghost of distaste crosses her eyes. Her lips imperceptibly tighten as she turns away and retreats to the living room. Giles remembers seeing a similar reaction from Xander in that long lonely year when Willow and Buffy left them behind to go to college and they sat around his apartment with nothing but each other to keep themselves company. Just a little earlier every day Giles would pull down scotch, whisky, vodka, whatever was on hand, and pour a drink. Something in Xander's eyes would flicker, but he'd say nothing.

Xander always excused himself shortly afterwards.

Of course, Giles knows enough to know WHY Xander reacted the way he did. He knows nothing about Faith, never really made the effort to try, and suddenly finds he regrets it. *Let it go, Rupert. Spilt milk, falling London Bridges, open barn doors, and all that rot.*

Giles knocks back the glass in his hand, winces at the burning sensation, and pours himself another.

Ahhh, yes, the demon alcohol, source of so many a man's downfall. Right now Giles thinks it will eventually be the death of him, provided the First Evil, the Hellmouth, or a random demon doesn't get him first. Certainly alcohol lead to Xander's downfall. Funny thing, Xander didn't even have to take a single sniff for it to happen. Giles isn't sure whether he wants to laugh or cry about the irony of it.

Giles toasts the sins of the fathers and sips from his glass. Though far from empty, Giles tops off his drink.

Giles thinks he should've told him, let Xander know where the blame REALLY lie. *So, ever wonder how Anya's former vengeance victim escaped from his hell dimension? Ever wonder how he found out she was human and getting married? Ever wonder how he knew where to find her? Ever think about why he targeted YOU instead of the woman he wanted dead?*

*Ever wonder why I never bothered to attend the wedding?*

The Watcher removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. He can't tell them; he can't tell HIM. He'll have to do it eventually, but he can't face throwing more pain on top of Xander today, not after the scene in the living room, not after how everything turned to shite for the human when Xander fled from his last chance at normalcy.

Giles remembers watching the ceremony descend into chaos, witnessing events courtesy of the coven's scrying mirror. He remembers shaking so hard that his teeth rattled. He did this. He set that demon free, gave it the crystal bauble that would plant nightmares in the groom's head, spelled out the revenge plan stressing that Xander was the target and not Anya, and had it transported to Sunnydale on the day of the wedding.

Giles thinks that he should've realized something: Xander's unique heritage would amplify the crystal's effects so that he was not just seeing, but feeling and living the visions. That was unexpected. It also meant that Xander was seeing a grim reality. The visions are not false. The answer is true. Please check the correct box.

*Hell of a choice,* Giles thinks. *Become an abusive, domineering, hateful alcoholic, or become a demon with a direct link to evil knowledge, dark visions, and horrific nightmares.* Damned if you do, damned if you don't, so you might as well damn the torpedoes.

At that, Giles gulps the scotch, ignores the burn, and pours himself another.

Not that Xander's lack of fortitude in the face of emotional adversity set the chain of events in place. No. Willow slipping into the dark would've happened one way or the other, no way to prevent it, according to the coven in Devon. She'd gotten too powerful, too used to the rush of commanding reality and lives with the sound a single word. Giles in desperation asked the one question he now regrets asking: Can we get her back?

He was strangely not surprised when Mrs. Haversham gave him a one- word answer: a name. And so Xander's fate was sealed: the whipping boy, raised by mongrels pretending to be parents, was set on the sacrificial stone of Willow's rage and grief.

But Giles needed him, needed Xander to be ready and available in Sunnydale when the inevitable happened and not sunning himself in Baja with his new bride or enmeshed with starting his own family. Xander had to be in the right place at the right time to stop Willow's murderous rampage.

Frightening how easy it was to manipulate events to make sure that happened.

Giles made the choice, traded one child for another in hopes that both would somehow survive. Too bad it didn't work out, but the fate of the world was in the balance. Giles is almost certain that Xander would've agreed, had anyone bothered to ask the human. All the assurances from the coven-that it was the right decision, that something truly evil was coming, that the end result would give him a more grounded witch and a very powerful ally in the coming cataclysm, that it would work out for the best-provides no comfort at all in the here and now.

Giles bolts the scotch and pours himself another.

His Willow is a murder, this new Xander is a serial killer, and Giles has the blood of Ben, Xander, and a few more on his hands. He barks a laugh. Of all the people in Buffy's circle of friends and allies, Buffy the Slayer is the only one who's only taken human life solely in self-defense. Well, Dawn hasn't killed any humans yet, but she's been on this earth a mere three years. Give it time.

Giles holds his glass aloft, watches the light through the liquid, and tries desperately to stop the thoughts chasing each other in circles inside his head. *This is a momentous occasion,* a voice inside his mind remarks. *Something needs to be said.*

In response, Giles straightens in his chair, holds the glass up in a toast, and says to no one in particular, "To the late Alexander Harris, murdered in the name of hope and love, age 22, in the month of May in the Year of Our Lord 2002 on a beautiful sunny day on Kingman's Bluff. You are sorely missed."

With that, Giles downs the contents of his glass. Then he pours himself another.

Chapter 7
Buffy--Old Friends Who've Just Met

Buffy is just exhausted. Emotionally. Physically. Exhausted. She is the perfect example of exhausted. She suspects there's a picture of her in the dictionary right next to the word's definition. She's crisscrossed Sunnydale twice in her search. Some favorite hangouts were immediately crossed off the list: the Bronze, Willy's Bar, in short, any place there would be a crowd.

She's beginning to think that might be a mistake. Xander alone time may involve him hiding in the anonymity of a crowd. Then a thought occurs to her and she slaps her head. One place she didn't check. The beach. She's glad it's only a few blocks away because she's about ready to give up and go home.

Not that she would if she turns out to be wrong about the beach, too.

She pulls herself together and begins the long march to her destination. She mulls that whenever Xander went on patrol with her or helped her with a monster hunt, she usually found trouble or her target fairly quickly. She snorts. Yet another Xander-as-convenient- plot-point-in-her-life factoid to put on the list she's been building all night.

Amazing that she missed it; that they ALL missed it. As Spike might say, a four-year-old could've figured it out had any of them been paying attention.

Buffy refuses to feel guilty about missing all the signs and silently curses Giles for not saying anything sooner, or at least before things got out of hand. How was she expected to notice the coincidences swirling around them? Given the general overwhelming weirdness that is life on the Hellmouth, Xander's own unique brand of strange wouldn't even register on anyone's radar. It was simply lost in the background radiation, mistaken for little more than noise when hidden among all the more powerful signals.

But that's kind of the whole point, isn't it?

Buffy stops at the edge of the beach, takes a deep breath, and trudges onto the sand. Half way to the water, she stops, studies her surroundings. It takes a few moments to spot him in the dark, sitting just above the high-tide line and staring out to sea.

She's found him. Now what?

With a deep breath, she bows her head as if she's walking into a stiff wind and works her way to him. She gets close enough to touch. He doesn't bother to look up.

"You're here." A simple statement, a dead voice. His eyes don't leave the water.

"Yah." Buffy replies, her eyes not leaving him. She's a little disconcerted to notice that Xander seems to be breathing in time to the waves slapping on the shore.

"Now what?" he asks.

"Hoping you'd tell me, since you're the answer man," Buffy responds, her voice just a little to brusque.

"You're the Slayer and I'm a demon," Xander states, as if this explains everything.

"I don't get you," Buffy replies.

"It means that I pretty much fall under your jurisdiction." If the words are difficult to say, nothing in Xander's demeanor or dead voice shows it. "You know, the one that falls just outside of human law? I guess that means you're now my judge, jury, and if necessary, my executioner." He glances at her before turning his attention back to the sea. "I won't bother to throw myself on the mercy of the court."

Buffy feels her knees give out. She doesn't fight it and falls on the sand. She doesn't care that Xander can reach right over and plunge a knife in her chest and send her back to heaven. Assuming heaven would let her back in.

*So this is what it feels like,* she thinks. *This is what being the Slayer really means. It isn't dusting vampires, it isn't fighting demons and assorted big bads. It's when a friend literally puts his life in your hands because you have the RIGHT to kill him. It's when he expects you to treat him worse than you would an evil, soulless thing.*

"This isn't fair!" The words are out of her mouth before she can stop herself.

Xander fixes her with a quizzical look, taking in her slumped, kneeling form less than a foot away from him on the sand.

"This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to you," Buffy tries to explain.

Xander sighs and turns away from her. "I've been helping you since I'm, what, 15? 16? It should've occurred to you that sooner or later something bad would happen."

"But, but. . ." Buffy begins. "You were supposed to be NORMAL! You were going to get married, and have a house, and a white picket fence, and a minivan, and 2.5 children, and a dog, and maybe a cat! And I was going to get to watch! And I could be crazy Aunt Buffy who comes around to baby sit or hang out at barbeques! I'd be the one who brought the cool presents for birthdays and Christmas and. . ."

"You've really thought about this, haven't you?" Xander's voice betrays a little amusement at this outburst. It's the first flash of humor he's shown since he came back home and Buffy is inordinately grateful to hear it. It's that sound that brings tears to her eyes.

"Not really," Buffy surreptitiously wipes the tears from her face, annoyed to find fresh ones springing to replace those that are gone. "I just kinda realized it tonight."

"So you're upset because you can't live vicariously through someone normal?" Xander snorts, shields back in place. "Sorry to disappoint." He turns his attention back to the Pacific.

Buffy takes a deep breath. "It's just, it's just. . ." Her voice trails off. "You were normal. You were HUMAN, not a Slayer, not witch, not a vampire, not a werewolf, not a Watcher, and not some super-solder. You were YOU and now. . ."

"Now?" he prompts.

"Now you're just one of us." Buffy's shoulders slump at this admission.

"Again, sorry it didn't work out for you."

"This isn't about me!" Buffy growls.

Xander shrugs. "Seems to me you think it is." There's no venom in his voice, but it's clear that statement was meant to hurt.

Buffy cringes. "I think it explains why I was so angry when, you know. . ."

"I murdered people?"

"They weren't people. Not any more."

"Yes they were, in all the ways that count. Brings my total body count up to sixteen humans in two years." Xander replies in that dead voice, the one Buffy is quickly learning to hate. "Better than Spike's track record in the same time period."

"Don't compare yourself to Spike," Buffy snaps. "You're better than. . . . Wait, sixteen?"

Xander vaguely waves three fingers in Buffy's direction. "The three people got burned to death in our little Dancing Demon incident. Managed to do that WITH a soul." Xander drops his hands. "Sixteen deaths I have to live with." His humorless chuckle raises the hair on the backs of Buffy's arms. "Maybe I should call Deadboy in L.A., ask him if he ever managed to forget the faces of all the people he's killed. You'd think I'd feel less guilty, considering my lack of soul- having."

"You have a soul," Buffy quietly responds.

Xander turns to look at her, eyes black, eyebrows lowered into a furious knot. "You did hear what Giles said, right? I. Am. A. Demon. Not part demon. Not sorta a demon. A demon, full stop. By definition, I don't have a soul."

"I don't believe that."

"Well I do." Xander looks away from her and back at the ocean. "And people accuse me of seeing only what I want to see," he mutters. Buffy isn't sure, but she could swear she hears unshed tears in his voice.

That's when it occurs to her: she's never seen Xander cry. She's seen him furious. She's seen him sad. She's seen him emotionally hurting. She's seen him depressed. She's seen him upset. She's never seen him cry. Even tonight, Xander Didn't. Cry. Once.

She wonders if maybe she should worry about that, decides to let Xander mourn in his own way.

"You know, if you ever need help. . ." her voice trails off.

His head whips around to look at her so quickly Buffy thinks Xander must've snapped bones in his neck. The look of incredulity on his face is enough to make her a little ashamed. "Not that you probably think I'm a good person to ask, given, well, everything." Buffy's eyes wander, looking at anything but him. "I just, well, I just want you to know that, ummm, if you ever feel like we can talk. . .be friends again. . . I'm willing to listen. I'll be here. I'm willing to wait."

Xander's expression softens just a touch. Oh, but it's a crack, Buffy thinks. The tiniest of tiny cracks and maybe, just maybe it's enough. Not to fix things, not to make things the way they were, but maybe hope for a rebuild because somewhere in Xander's head, somewhere in Xander's heart, the foundation of Xander still survives. And Buffy sees it. It's a flash, but it's enough.

Buffy reaches out to touch his shoulder and stifles disappointment when Xander shies away.

"Nothing personal," he mumbles, his eyes now downcast, avoiding her gaze. "I just can't. . . It's not you. . . It's me. Please. I just can't stand to be touched right now."

Buffy drops her hand into her lap. Studies him for a moment. "Do you want me to leave?"

A small voice. "No."

That answer is a surprise. "So what DO you want?" Buffy asks.

"Just to sit here and think about nothin'," Xander's eyes wander back to the ocean, breathing matching the tide, in, out, in, out. "I guess I just don't want to be alone."

Buffy nods, settles herself into a sitting position on the sand so she is almost, but not quite, touching. Listens to his breathing, in, out, in, out, and times her breaths to match. She finds it oddly relaxing and wonders why she never tried this before. "So," she says between calming breaths. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Nothing. Don't really want to talk."

"You, Xander Harris, are going to sit here in complete silence?" Buffy chuckles. "Never thought I'd see the day when you'd want to be quiet."

A ghost of a smile plays across Xander's lips. "I like the quiet."

Chapter 8
Faith-Thank You and Good Night

Faith can't sleep. Big fucking surprise. She hauls herself off the couch and creeps up the stairs. She cracks open the first bedroom door she sees and spies Buffy, Willow, and Dawn sleeping in puppy pile formation on the bed in what was once Joyce's old room. As Faith closes the door she feels a twinge. She liked Joyce. B didn't know how good she had it.

Another creeping move brings her to another bedroom. Buffy's old room. Faith opens the door with more certainty and leans against the frame. On the bed an exhausted Xander rolls over, shying away from the light. Faith debates a moment before stepping into the room and closing the door softly behind her. She leans against a wall and slides slowly down until she settles in a crouching position using the wall as a support for her back. Her eyes adjust to the dark and she remembers Lorne's message: *Ya gotta go with him. Watch the kid's back. Everything depends on it.*

After hearing the stuff she heard tonight, Faith thinks she and Xander might be better off if she asked HIM to watch HER back on something like a permanent basis, wonders for something like the millionth time how he'd react if she asked him to ditch Sunnydale and leave with her after this business with the First Evil and the Hellmouth is finished.

A low moan from the bed knocks Faith to attention. She watches Xander's body twitch, roll over to face back in her direction, then relax. His breathing is ragged. A nightmare, Faith figures. She wonders if it features the people he murdered, she wonders if it's something worse. Decides that she really doesn't want to know.

She crawls slowly over to the bed, careful to make no sound. She freezes when another tremor shakes the bed and Xander kicks the covers partially off. He's muttering now, a broken string of words that may or may not be English. Faith silently wishes he would wake up, but is afraid to snap him out of sleep herself. After a few tense seconds of waiting, the muttering dies down. Faith breaks out of her paralysis and finishes the long crawl to the bedside.

Sitting up in a kneeling position, Faith studies, really studies, the man in front of her. He's wearing sweatpants, she notices. She sees the scars of three parallel scratches on his bare chest. Her eyes wander to his face and with a shock she sees the scars of more scratches on his right cheek. Her eyes narrow. She doesn't recall seeing them earlier in broad daylight. Yet, here in the dark they stand out, an angry red against pale skin.

Xander's eyes snap open and body tenses. Faith prepares for some angry questions and readies her excuses, but he doesn't seem to be aware of her presence. His eyes look right through her, focused on something else. The irises go momentarily black before a subtle swirl of green washes them. His eyelids fade to a close and something like a soft cry escapes him.

*Demon?* she questions.

*Human still,* she decides.

Once again she finds herself reaching out, this time to touch the scars on his chest. Her fingers barely brush the skin when Xander whimpers in his sleep and begins to shiver. She pulls back, uncertain what to do. Then she remembers. She reaches out and holds his hand. The shivering subsides and the breathing evens out while somewhere Xander searches for some real sleep.

She isn't sure how long she sits there watching him when the bedroom door inches open. A sliver of light spills into the room and Faith turns her head to face the next worried visitor. She is surprised to see Buffy's silhouette peeking through the crack. If Buffy is surprised that Faith beat her to the punch, she gives no sign.

Xander stirs, but doesn't let go of Faith's hand, which for some reason pleases the woman kneeling in the gloom. It's been too long since something hasn't died or cringed from her touch.