Tabula Rasa

Author: Lori Bush <lwbush[at]>

Disclaimer: The Buffy gang is property of Joss. 'Nuff said.

Rating: PG

Pairing: B/X and Anya/X. I can't ignore the guy's very real feelings.

Spoilers: "The Gift" in a major, if you don't wanna know, please don't read this, way. Are there any of you still out there?

Summary: Sixth season ideas and stories are like belly buttons. Pretty much everybody's got one. Here's mine. Xander's POV.

Dedicated to the harem, like usual.

Author's Notes: I'm not really sure if they ever understood exactly what had happened in "The Wish," so I'm making the assumption they didn't. Also, this might be the place to mention that I've lifted several lines, intact, from songs by Nine Days, off the CD The Maddening Crowd, particularly the song Bitter. They may not all be in this part. Oh, and I also used a bit from the Wallflower's song Some Flowers Bloom Dead, although I know that wasn't in this part.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

I can see Anya watching me, as Buffy sits just a little too close, smiles just a little too widely. When did my life get so screwed up?

Everything fell apart when Glory showed her face in Sunnydale. We found out Dawn had been planted in our memories, but we couldn't stop caring about her just because we hadn't always done so, the way we thought we had. And Glory wanted to hurt her - none of us could allow that. But it was even more important to Buffy - first Riley left her, then she lost her mom, then she had to save her sister from an all-powerful being. God, the Fates, the Powers That Be - whoever dealt out the hand she held, had really screwed her over.

I almost felt guilty sometimes that my life was going so well. I had a good job - one I liked and was successful at. I had an incredible relationship - Anya and I seemed compatible in every way. She laughed at my jokes, made me feel special. She was gorgeous, and we were great in bed. I had to ask her to marry me - where else would I ever find a woman with all that who actually wanted me? It hadn't ever happened before. The only person I'd ever loved more was Buffy, and that was an impossible dream I'd stopped dreaming a long time ago.

So, to sum it up, my personal life was off the charts great, but the people I cared most about were going through hell, so I stood right there and tried to deflect the fire and brimstone, like I always did. And I did my best, until the world ended.

Buffy died.

When she died, I did, too. I wasn't cold, in the ground kind of dead. I was walking around empty kind of dead. I still had a pulse and a heartbeat and all those things - not that kind of walking around dead - but a part of my heart had gone to the grave with Buffy. And in spite of the fact she'd stopped the world from ending, it ended anyway, for me.

Maybe I should have thought it was weird that Anya understood how I felt. But I really think I know her better than anyone else, and I wasn't surprised she was patient and gentle with me during that time. Say what you will about An - and most of my friends have, even Buffy, at some time or another - but she always knew there were parts of my heart stamped "Property of Buffy Summers," and "Property of Willow Rosenberg," and she just always dealt with it. We even talked about it some, before Buffy died. She and Willow had dealt with most of their issues when Olaf had come to town, of course. Anya told me she knew I loved her, and that the love I had for Buffy was something more than friendship, but would never blossom into a real Relationship (with the capital 'R' and all) because I loved An and was giving her everything that was left of my heart. It made her a little sad, but she knew it was more than I'd ever managed to give anyone else, and that I loved her all I could. I still do, honestly. After Buffy died, and part of me shut off, Anya took care of me, let me talk about it, brought me tissues when I cried for hours, which I could only do in front of her.

But then Buffy came back.

In and of itself, that would have been okay, I'm sure. But the Buffster came back tabula rasa. Before you get all impressed at a carpenter that speaks Latin, don't. Giles called her that, and at my stupid look, he explained it means 'blank slate.' And what that means, exactly, is that the good old PTB sent her back remembering how to slay vampires, and nothing else.

I mean, she's still Buffy. She still has a killer sense of humor and those gorgeous eyes and incredible strength and determination and loyalty and love. She just doesn't remember anything that happened before she died. And I don't mean just before she died, either. She doesn't remember Jack Shit about her whole life up to the point she closed the portal. Nothing. Nada.

She showed up one day at the Magic Box, when just Giles and I were there. I have to admit, I was a little manic about seeing her again, and although G-Man was his usual cautious self, I could tell he wanted to hug her and cry the way I was doing. But he was probably right, quizzing her and testing her humanity before he'd accept that she was really back. It gave me a happy to know I'd been right, and it was the real, genuine article Slayer I'd been clutching to me since she'd arrived.

Once he was sure she was one hundred percent human and completely Buffy (crosses, mirrors, throwing a damned knife at her head, which was pretty much too close to mine for comfort, to test her Slayer reflexes), Giles got all misty-eyed, and took her in his arms. We realized there might be a problem when Buffy said, "So you must be my dad."

"Huh?" I'd never heard Giles so inarticulate before. I'd have laughed at his response if I hadn't been so startled by Buffy's puzzled expression.

"Buff," I said, once I realized Giles was still stunned speechless, "He's your Watcher. The guy sent to train and contain you, although he's better at the first than the second." I snickered at my own joke, and she smiled uncertainly. "He's been closer to you than your real dad, but the G-Man is, and probably will remain, officially childless." I gave him a look. "Unless there's something else about Ripper he hasn't told us." He managed a nasty glare in response.

She turned to me, that puzzled look still on her face. Her eyes were soft, though, and looked at me in a way I'd only seen in my dreams before. "But you are my boyfriend, aren't you?"

When I got over my own bout with incoherence I grinned, but I sure wasn't happy. "You really must not remember anything," I mumbled caustically.

"I don't," she said sadly. "I know what I'm here to do, and that I was supposed to come to this place and find friends who would help me. That's all I was told." She took my hand, and captured it between both of hers. "You sure you weren't my boyfriend before? You seem pretty darn happy to see me. I like you, you're really nice, and you're awful cute." My heart soared at that statement, I must admit. She frowned, studying my knuckles before looking at my face. "Was I too shy before? I don't feel shy."

For some reason, that made me angry. I pulled my hand away, and turned my back on her. "Someone will fill you in, and you'll realize how much you don't know about me. You deserve better than the doughnut boy, the 'glorified bricklayer.' At least, you always seemed to think so." I couldn't deal, so I headed for the door. I tried not to, but I couldn't help but hear the tears and confusion in her voice as she said, "I'm sorry," just before I went out.

To say I was floored would barely be scratching the surface of what I was feeling. I stormed off, angry, sad, hopeful and horrified. I was horrified because I'd just realized I'd completely forgotten, during that brief exchange with the Blank Buffy, that I had a fianc�. All thoughts of Anya had been totally absent from my mind. All I could think of was how my Buffy was back, how much I wanted her, and how unfair it was that she'd probably regain her memory soon and realize how little she wanted me. I was given hope by the fact that, however briefly, she did actually seem to want me.

But suddenly, the cold truth had slapped me in the face. The fact that I was engaged hadn't come up as a mental objection. How sad was that? I decided I really was a heartless SOB, just like An used to think all men were. But she thought I was different. Crap. I was thrilled Buffy was back, but why couldn't it be simpler? Oh, well, I was reasonably sure we'd be back to being Xander and Buffy shaped friends soon enough.


Naturally, we had a Scooby meeting that night, at Buffy's house. It was weird, watching Giles "introduce" Buffy to her best friends and all. She'd spent the afternoon getting to know Dawn again, and they seemed pretty comfortable now. I kinda wondered how we were going to handle all the stuff with her dad and Child Protective Services, though. Giles had been dealing with both, and I don't think things were all fine and dandy with Hank yet about this strange Englishman having custody of, as far as he knew, his only surviving daughter. How would he handle the news that Buffy wasn't dead after all (at least he hadn't been at the funeral - maybe we could somehow convince him it had been a memorial service and there really hadn't been a body and a casket and everything), but merely suffering from amnesia, and had now wandered back from where it was she'd been the past few months? I trusted Giles, and I knew he'd manage to stitch together something plausible.

I guess the details of Tara and Willow's relationship were left for another time. Buffy kept looking at me in that searching way she had been since she came back, and it made me nervous. I wondered if she knew about Anya and me being engaged. Of course, as soon as that thought crossed my mind, An had to let her know. I was kind of hoping she wouldn't. I know, more slime-like behavior from the rapidly sinking Xander Harris. But the information, while it seemed to surprise Buffy, didn't change her attitude much. Maybe she was already remembering how little she cared for me in the 'as a man' kind of way.

It wasn't until I talked to Dawn the next day I found out about what Buffy and Willow talked about after the meeting.


"So, Willow, how long have we been best friends?" Buffy sat on her bed, tossing the stuffed pig back and forth without paying it much attention.

"Since our sophomore year in high school. You, me and Xander pretty much did everything together from the very first day you came to Sunnydale."

Buffy got a distant look in her eyes. "Tell me about Xander," she ordered.

Wills was trying to be fair - this Buffy (no, same Buffy, less memories, she corrected herself) knew nothing about Xander and all he'd been through. She could make him look good; some of what he'd done could make him look awful in a stranger's eyes. And Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, nearly a stranger. Even the unvarnished truth looked different through different eyes. And how much of the real truth about Xander had the Buffy who'd died known, and how much of it did the Buffy who came back need to know? Mental babbling again...

Honesty, as she knew it, was the best policy. "He fell in love with you the first time he saw you," the witch whispered reluctantly.

The Slayer glowed with happiness. "I knew it. He was my boyfriend. Why wouldn't he admit it?" Buffy's face fell. "Oh, no - Willow, did we break up before I died?"

The redhead stared incredulously. She'd have laughed if she weren't so stunned. "Y-y-you, you never broke up with Xander. You never dated Xander."

"Huh? Why?" Dawn, listening in, grinned. The question she'd always entertained, finally coming from her sister's mouth. Why hadn't Buffy ever dated Xander? Just once, even. Even Dawn, at ten, had seen Xander's lovesick looks, but Buffy never seemed to notice. She, for one, had appreciated how cute and fun he was, and how loyal. Or she had, in the memories that weren't really hers... She shook that off and pressed her ear back to the crack of the door.

"There were lots of reasons, I guess. First, you never noticed him that way - you even called him 'one of the girls' not long after we all met."

Buffy was on the defensive. "Did he ever ask me out - let me know how he felt?"

Willow nodded slowly. "You told him no. That night, in the face of your rejection, he saved your life, and you never really even thanked him, now that I recall." No way she was going to mention the disastrous dance at the Bronze where that had come up. Willow pressed on. "And there was the thing with me..."

"You told me earlier that Tara was your girlfriend, that you're gay. Did I swing both ways or something?" This time Willow did laugh, at Buffy's stunned expression.

"That would be me, not you," she admitted as she settled down. "The thing with me and Xand, I meant. I toted a huge Jones for him all over the place since about the age of five, and he was oblivious. Not that I ever said anything to him. You knew how I felt, and may have been trying to protect my feelings." The redhead sighed. "Not that things really worked out once he did notice me that way."

"So you dated Xander?"

"Sneaking kisses behind our respective boyfriend and girlfriend's back wasn't exactly dating," Willow informed her. "We really messed up the whole group dynamic for a while. Cordelia dumped him, almost died, Oz and I... and... you have no idea who any of these people are I'm talking about, so I'll just shut up now."

Buffy grinned sadly. "It's gonna take a while to get me back up to speed." Suddenly, the Slayer's body sagged, and she looked immensely tired. "Maybe I need to take the Buffy Saga in chapters. Being brought back from the dead takes a lot out of a girl."

Dawn peered through the crack, and saw Willow nod, and stand up from the bed. Her desire not to get caught eavesdropping overcame her curiosity, and she scurried off to her own room before the door opened.


We began proper patrolling again, which was fine with me. Her Slayer-ness seemed to be the one thing she still felt comfortable and confident with. NO lost memory there. Instead of excluding me, Buffy seemed to always want me along, which was okay with Anya at first, as long as she got some time off. We were far enough along in our relationship she didn't feel the need to be with me every minute of every day, and she hadn't been around Buffy enough yet since her return to realize that there was something a bit different about how the Slayer acted around me, now.

I've tried to define it, to give it a name. I've turned it over, around and upside down in my mind, and even looking at the back, the sides and the bottom of it, I can't describe exactly what's changed in my relationship with Buffy. It just feels different. In a better sort of way.

I still make the jokes; she still laughs. She still kills creepy things, while I watch, only pitching in when she's kind of heavy in the undead department. I'm not the Zeppo anymore, but I hadn't been for a while. When things are slow, just like we did before, we talk.

True, we now talk about things she doesn't remember, where before, we talked about Angel, or Riley, or Dawn, or whatever other relationship Buffy was stressing over at the time. I was usually Buffy's Relationship Guy - she could talk about important stuff with me, because she didn't feel anything for me. Okay, that's a little harsh. She's always cared for me. I finally figured out that some of the times she'd hurt me the worst were because she cared. But she didn't know me, really, and in her ignorance, she hurt me. In her defense (I'm always doing that, Anya would complain, if she heard me say that), Buffy was pretty busy, what with saving the world and having a doomed relationship with a vampire, and starting college, and all the million things in her life that were infinitely more interesting than I was. But for whatever reason, I was her sounding board, and I was happy with that job, most of the time.

But now, she has me talking more than she does when we're together, and it isn't just fluff. She asks me deep questions about my life; my past; my plans. And now she really listens to my answers. She's still pretty busy, but, it seems, never too busy to listen to me.

Of course, her life is somewhat less complicated. For one thing, she's not in college anymore. What could she do, show up at the registrar's office and say "Hi! I'm Buffy Summers, and I dropped out last semester because I was dead. I'd like to re-enroll?" Even in Sunnydale, that probably wouldn't fly. So she's not in school, and not working, either. We need to figure out how to re-activate her Social Security number and revoke her death certificate first. It was a whole lot easier last time, when she was only dead for about five minutes. Less paperwork, and the only real challenge besides Buffy's brief Bad Attitude was Slayer multiplication.

She still talks to me about Dawn, though. The love that led her to throw herself into the portal instead of letting her sister die seemed to have come back from the grave completely intact. She's crazy about the kid, and I quickly let her in on the poorly kept secret that I was, too. She's asked a couple of questions about Giles, although I think, from some of the things they've both said, she's rediscovering her connection with Willow on her own. But she's never asked me about Anya, or for that matter, Tara or Spike, either. I have to wonder if she came back with some kind of shadow memory, like people have shadow pain when a limb is removed. Her shadow memories are of the original four of us - the nucleus of the Scooby Gang. Which makes me wonder if she'll remember Angel when she finally sees him again.

Sometimes it seems she really doesn't want to know the "Buffy Saga," as she referred to it that night with Willow. She'll get me started talking about her past, but manages every time to twist it so that I'm telling her about me. Stuff I never even told Willow, or Anya, or Jesse. She managed to worm out of me how I really feel about my parents, and why I never tried hard enough in school to make the grades to get into college. Not all of it's that serious - like she asked about my favorite movies, and had me going for over a half an hour on why I related so much to Han Solo, the selfish smartass who couldn't stop himself from fighting with the good guys no matter how hard he tried. I admitted to her that he'd pretty much been my role model growing up - I learned early a snappy comeback could cover a multitude of failings, or at least distract others until you could kick the dirt under the rug.

Then she insisted we rent the movies, and after patrol was done, we went to her house and watched them. It was a Friday night, and even though An whined about me not coming home, I sweet-talked her out of really being upset at me, and woke up Saturday just before lunchtime on the couch in Buffy's den, realizing I'd fallen asleep halfway through "Return of the Jedi." Buffy told me later she'd watched the entire trilogy through twice before they had to be back at the rental store, because she wanted to understand me better. Buffy Before would never have done that.

I've started thinking about her that way, you know - Buffy Before, and Buffy Now. She was the same, but different, and sometimes she seemed like two separate people. I liked Buffy Now a lot. But I had, at least once upon a time, loved Buffy Before. I kept trying to push that thought away.

See, the past couple of days, since the movie thing, now that I think of it, Anya's started to notice how much time Buffy and I are spending together. We've talked about it. Well, once she stopped yelling we talked. And she's right, of course. An is my fianc�, my intended bride, my betrothed. She threw out a few more terms while we were discussing the situation - I wasn't really taking notes. But suddenly, she's not quite as cool and confident with the whole idea that I've loved Buffy since, well, forever. But I really do love An, honest. And after the shouting, and the tears, I managed to convince her, by doing that thing with...

I've been letting her rub off on me, if I was about to spout off about that. Suffice it to say, we made up.

But right now Anya's behind the counter at the Magic Box glaring at me, and I'm sitting at the table beside Buffy, who is acting way too interested in me for me to casually blow it off, although, trust me, I'm gonna try. See, I know she needs me right now - she's told me so. And although she thinks she has this thing happening with me - and God knows, I wish she'd thought this a couple of years ago - I can't, and she won't, as soon as she's back to herself again. But without me to help her along, she'll never get back to being like she was. Me, and Willow, and Giles, of course - not just me. I love Anya. I'm gonna marry her, right? I love Buffy, too, but not the way she thinks. Not the way I used to. I swear!

My life is so screwed up.

Chapter 2
Dawn To Dust?

I just found myself thinking about the first time Buffy Now saw Spike. It was actually pretty funny.

I've never told anyone, but I kind of like Spike now. I'd sure as hell never let him know - he'd find a way to twist it and use it to his own advantage. But he'd promised Buffy, before she died, that he'd watch over Dawn, and he really had been doing his undead best to care for her. And while Dawn was a bit cautious around him at first, she'd grown to really care for him, too. I think she was the only person who ever really saw William, not "Spike." Some of the things she told me about him I had to swear not to repeat, or she'd never tell me anything again. I know the Summers women, and how precious trust is to them, so I'm not going to chance it.

One of the things I'm not real proud of was the fact that I did a lot of drinking after Buffy did her portal dive. It was the only thing I could find that helped to numb the pain for a while, and at first, I really needed it. An tried not to care, to look the other way, but she finally let it slip how much it worried her, and I quit. I didn't want to be my Dad, and she made me realize I was heading down the first part of that path.

But anyway, while I was still bar crawling, I ran into Spike a few times. It was always late, after he'd made sure Dawn was asleep, and he was usually just getting started while I was already three sheets to the wind. Ah, but the Harris men can hold their liquor, so I put up a good front, even while the alcohol was doing its mind-numbing best. I could tell, the way one drunk can with another, that Spike was there for the same reason I was, and eventually, we talked about it. About her.

I have no doubt that Spike loved Buffy, in his manic-obsessive vampire-without-a-soul kind of way. It wasn't human, it wasn't healthy, but it was pretty clearly love. We spent about forty-five minutes one night just reliving "Buffy moments" - memories of things she'd said, or done. I found out he'd been taken with her from the first time he'd seen her, only then he was Evil Spike, chipless and bloodthirsty, and his obsession was killing her, not bedding her. But after the Initiative emasculated him (his choice of words, not mine), he started to see her in a new light. He wanted a strong woman, one that could stand up to him and be his equal. And I could tell it didn't hurt that he'd get the girl his Sire lost, although he never said that in so many words. For whatever the multitude of reasons was, Spike admitted that he fell for Buffy, hard.

I had to snicker when he said that. He growled, and wanted to know what was so damned funny, and I told him about me falling hard as well, what with the skateboard and the stair rail at the high school. He actually laughed at that story. Then I explained how hard I'd worked to win Buffy's heart, and how much I hated Angel because he'd done what I'd been trying to do, without any effort involved. Spike snarled and told me that was exactly how it'd been with him, Angelus and Dru. So, over way too much scotch, heartache and memories, Spike and I sort of male-bonded. And if you ever tell him I said that, I'll deny every word.

Anyway, Spike missed the Scooby meeting the first night Buffy was back. He'd already told Dawn he was going to be gone for a couple of days, but nobody knew where, so we couldn't let him know what had happened. He came by the Magic Box as soon as he got back though, to check on his "Little Bit."

He sailed in the door, blanket smoking. Anya slammed it behind him, as he stopped, dropped and rolled like a good little blazing vampire should. Giles, Willow and I had been working on an entrance from the sewers for him, but even though we had the blueprints, we hadn't had time to start digging, since I was in charge of that particular project, and I'd been doing a lot of patrolling with Buffy gone. Besides, I secretly think he enjoys making his dramatic daytime entrances.

Spike stood up and dusted himself off, and bellowed, "Where's my girl?" Dawn was in the back, in the training room with Buffy. She ran out, and threw herself into his arms, babbling a mile a minute about her sister's return, none of which Spike could understand, I'm sure. Then Buffy emerged.

I was there on my lunch break, and it's a good thing. When Buffy saw her sister hugging a vampire, well, like I said, she came back one hundred percent Slayer. It took both Giles and myself all our strength to hold her back, and if she'd had a stake at hand, I think we'd have been sweeping Spike off the floor soon after his arrival. Dawn stood in front of Spike, that petulant look on her face that she reserved for showdowns with Buffy. "Leave him alone, or else," she threatened.

Giles and I still had a hundred pounds of pure Slayer between us, straining at the bit. "Dawnie, he's a vampire."

"I know full well what he is. He's my friend, and he took care of me when you were gone. He never left me. You can't say the same." Dawn's eyes were snapping, and I think it was the first time I realized how much of Spike's devotion to her was returned. Buffy wilted in my grip.

Meanwhile, Spike was speechless, a memory I truly treasure. He just stood there jaw gaping. If we'd let Buffy go, she could have staked him before he even noticed, I believe. Finally, he choked out, "Slayer?"

As she had done frequently before and since, Buff turned to me. "Who's he?" she asked, fighting tears. I realized seeing her sister, whom she loved more than life itself, so obviously devoted to one of her sworn enemies, tore her apart. Once again, the irony of Buffy operating without the full set of Buffy Historical Files reared up and slapped me in the face.

I cut my eyes over, and saw Dawn had hold of Spike's hand and was whispering earnestly to him, filling him in on what he'd missed. I smiled in spite of myself, then turned back to Buffy. "Believe it or not, he's one of the good guys now, pretty much. He was in love with you before you died, although you weren't interested. But you also knew he cared for Dawn, and you let him help you protect her, since he was stronger than the rest of us." I looked over, and saw the Nibblet, as Spike called her, had gotten Bleach Boy to smile again. "I sort of think he's transferred his feelings for you to your sister." At her murderous expression, I backpedaled. "He's not obsessive or creepy or anything, he'd just do anything for her. He knows she's only fifteen." I hope. Spike's sense of the appropriate isn't always in working order.

"He'd better," she growled. "So what keeps him from using her, or any of us, as an all-you-can-eat buffet?"

"This military bunch, called the Initiative, put a chip in his head. He can't hurt humans, but he's a demon, so to speak, in a fight against demons." She looked at him warily, but I could see she accepted my defense of Spike. Again, I was overwhelmed by the change in the axis of the world's rotation - I was defending Spike, to Buffy. Soon, pigs would fly.


Oh, good. Speak of the devil, and he appears. Or think of him, anyway. Spike's here, and maybe things will get awkward and uncomfortable for him instead of me. I know I said I sort of liked him, but I'd rather see him as the one who has to squirm, given the choice.

"Slayer," Spike offers cautiously.

Buffy tenses and stands up, and both Anya and I immediately slightly relax. Willow gives me an odd look when I sigh quietly in relief, and I shrug in response.

Dawn comes in behind Blondie, and I see Buffy reign herself reluctantly in. "Hey, Spike," Li'l Sis greets him cheerfully. But I also don't miss the superior glace she gives Buffy, and it concerns me. I think Dawn's crush on me has been transferred to an even less appropriate target, and I think the more Big Sis objects, the more sibling rivalry will rear its ugly head. Buffy, meaning well, may push Dawn right into a bad 'Summers girl loves vampire inappropriately' relationship to rival her forgotten own. I needed to talk to her. And Spike - I need to talk to Spike, too.

When did I become Doctor Love? I mean, yeah, when An and I play that game, but.

I gotta stop saying stuff like that.


Anya was not happy when we got home tonight. I keep trying to tell her that Buffy just needs me right now because she trusts me, and that once she's comfortable again, she'll go back to semi-ignoring me, but An seems to think otherwise.

"She's obsessing over you, Xander. I should know, since you had the same effect on me when we first were together."

"Had?" I tried to lighten things with a joke. "You don't find me endlessly fascinating anymore?"

"I've grown more comfortable with our relationship, I believe. Although I still desire to have sex with you whenever possible, I find it easier to spend extended periods of time without thinking about it - I went two entire hours just the other day." When An is serious, she reverts to her precise diction and word selection, and she said the last bit so matter-of-factly, I had to really choke back my laughter. It had always been clear what Anya found the most appealing area in our relationship, and it wasn't my deft touch with macaroni and cheese mix. I have to admit, I have a whole new perspective on what girls can find objectionable about being seen as a sex object, sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. Usually, I just revel in it.

"If you're comfortable with our relationship, why are you so worried about how Buffy's acting? You know as well as I do, she'll be herself again soon. Buffy has never loved me, and she's still the same person she was before, only without all the emotional baggage she was carrying. It's just a natural reaction to her situation - she relies on me, which makes her think she's got a crush on me. Even if she doesn't get all her memories back, she'll get over it all when she feels more sure of herself."

"I disagree," Anya countered with a frown. "And you never talk about how you feel, either. You always say that Buffy could never love you, but I know you could love Buffy. You did. You do."

"An, you've known how I felt about Buffy since you met me, and that's never affected how I feel about you. Besides, I do love her, but I'm not in love with her anymore. She's simply one of my best friends - you're the woman I plan to marry." I took her hand, hoping she wouldn't ask me to set a wedding date after that declaration. For some reason, that had scared me from the moment I proposed to her - setting the actual date. Right now, with things awkward between us, and everyone still in an uproar over Buffy's return, I didn't think I could handle that added strain. Fortunately, An didn't pick up that ball and run with it, either.

She rests her hand on my face, and her eyes look earnestly into mine. For a moment, I see an Anya no one else seems to know - shy, insecure, almost little girlish. Usually she's brash and self-assured, relying on patterns she learned as a demon to help her through the places in human life that don't look familiar. She never seems bothered by everyday things, but I know how often she is. How she wanted so much to hold me before we faced Glory, not so much for the sex (although she did mention she'd thought it would help relieve some tension, and who was I to argue?), but to feel connected to me when she told me later, she was sure we were both going out there to die. I know how much it frightened her to go to the hospital for the first time, and how sad she really was when her confusion over Joyce's death led to her upsetting Willow and Tara. But demons don't deal with emotions like that, and so, she hides them when she can. People think she's mean, or unfeeling. I know better, and I'm proud of my demon-girl, for hanging in there. Sure, she has faults. She's selfish and a bit greedy. And I can be self-absorbed and childish at times, too - so what? The fact that she's got her flaws makes her as human as the rest of us.

For a moment, I'm struck by the realization that I'm knee-deep in irony once again. I had just told Anya it was natural that Buffy thought she was in love with me because she was relying on me to help her figure out her world as it now stood. Wasn't that exactly how An and I started out? I was An's buffer as she learned about the Real World. And now she really was in love with me, and I with her. Maybe she had a reason to be worried after all.

No, I won't do that. Won't think about Buffy in that way. I won't betray An - I do love her. I want to show her. I lean over to kiss her, knowing where it will lead, and happily heading that direction. But my lips no sooner meet hers than the door to our apartment bursts open, even though I thought I'd closed and locked it. I look over Anya's head into the frantic blue-green eyes of the Slayer.

"Dawn's missing," Buffy wails.


Well, this Xander Report comes to you directly from the couch, where Anya's making me sleep tonight. It really was easier before she moved in here - before, when we fought, she'd just go back to her own place. Now she throws me out of the bedroom.

Buffy and I found Dawn, no problem. She was in the first place we looked - Spike's crypt. When we walked in, we almost ran into Spike, who was physically dragging her to the door to take her home. In spite of herself, Buffy was grateful to Fangless, since it was obvious he wasn't enabling Dawn, at least this time, in her rebellion. She grabbed her sister by the arm, eliciting a squeal and probably leaving a bruise, too. "Buff," I called to her, breaking the angry glares she and Dawn were exchanging, "can I have a minute with Spike, before we walk home?" I turned to him. "Do you have a back room? I really don't want them waiting outside at night." He shook his head, so I dragged him outside instead. "Wait here," I ordered the girls, unnecessarily. Dawn obviously wasn't planning on going home with Buffy unless I was there to protect her.

Spike lit a cigarette and looked at me expectantly. "She's got a crush on you," I began without preamble.

"You jealous? That was your claim ta fame for a while, wasn't it?"

I glared at him, and he raised one brow. "I've got a girlfriend, and she's of legal age and everything. I just don't want you to encourage Dawn - I may be older than she is, but you're older than she is and dead. Not a good combination."

He gave me a wicked grin. "But in a few years, I'm not going ta look older. And she will be of legal age then, and able to make her own bleedin' decisions." I was getting angrier, but then Spike's face grew serious. "I don't intend to be the stuff of a teenaged fantasy, whelp. I really do care about the little niblet, and I don't want t' see her hurt. This whole business with her sister comin' back and not rememberin' stuff has her more scared than you know. She's worried about Buffy, and afraid she's gonna go off again. She's back ta feelin' like she doesn't belong, like the created thing from the monks, instead of the real person and sister. Now that she's got memories Buffy hasn't, she's more sensitive ta the fact that none of them were real to start with. She and the Slayer got inta a big tear over me, and she ran out, an' came here. Ya' need ta talk to that girl of yours about takin' it easy on the little one."

"Buffy is not my girl," I responded automatically.

Spike grinned, and this time it was a friendly expression. "That's a ... eh." He shrugged. "Take 'em home, and talk ta both of 'em. They need ta cool down and take it easy a bit. I promise to keep me cold dead hands off the niblet. But when she graduates, all bets are off." He threw down the glowing butt and crushed it under his heel. I opened the crypt door, and motioned to Buffy and Dawn. I wasn't entirely comfortable with how the conversation with Spike had ended, but I knew where he stood as of now, and that was enough.


Dawn ran right up to her room and slammed the door when we got to the house. She hadn't said a word the whole way back, and I was pretty sure she was angry at all of us - even Spike. I grabbed Buffy's shoulders and sat her down forcefully on the sofa. "You wait here - I need to talk to Dawn first. But don't you dare go anywhere. Your turn is coming." She gave me the patented Buffy Death-glare, but she nodded anyway. I ran up the stairs, slowing before I reached her door. My breath was coming hard, but I think it was more nerves than any exertion on the stairs. "Dawnie?" I called after my breathing slowed.

"Go 'way," I heard, her voice muffled.

"By now, you know me better than that." I managed to get a bit of a grin into my tone. She didn't answer, but I heard shuffling noises inside, and the door opened a little bit. I pushed in the rest of the way, and saw her shuffling back to her bed. She plopped down and retrieved the pillow she'd obviously been hugging before.

"Lecture me, get it over with and then go away," she told me sullenly.

"Dawnie, I love you." She looked at me suspiciously, but finally her expression softened, and she nodded. "Spike loves you, too - just not the way you wanna think." Her eyes grew a little sad, but she nodded again, more slowly. I began to pace, not sure how to go on and make my point. "Your Mom loved you. Did you ever doubt that?" Tears began to fill her eyes, and I almost kicked myself, but she finally shook her head. "You always knew your Mom loved you?" Dawn nodded again. "Did she always let you do what you wanted?"

"You know she didn't," she answered, a little angrily. I knew I was on thin ice here, with Dawn's hurt still so close to the surface, especially about Joyce, but I pressed on.

"She stopped you from doing things that weren't good for you, didn't she?"

Dawn jumped up and began waving her arms and yelling. "Yeah, but Golden Girl down there could do whatever she wanted. She was always Miss Perfect, and Mom turned a blind eye to anything she didn't want to see that Buffy did wrong. Buffy could date a vampire. Buffy could stay out all night. Buffy." the anger got lost in the tears of frustration, and Dawn plopped back down on the bed and started sobbing. "Now Buffy's all not dead anymore, and she doesn't want me to live. And Mom is gone."

I sat down beside her, and folded her slim body into my arms. "Dawnie, your sister caused your Mom so much grief, but she didn't do it because she wanted to. When she fell in love with Angel, she didn't know he was a vampire. When she stayed out all night, she was saving your butt and mine from the nasties that this town is crawling with. She made mistakes, but we all do. Don't you remember when she ran away? How scared we all were?" The thought, "and when she died," hung unspoken between us. She was weeping all over my shirt, but I could feel the tension melting away, and finally she turned her blotchy face up to mine.

"I'm afraid she's gonna leave me again, and I want to leave first." God, did I ever understand that. I pulled her back to my chest and stroked her silky hair.

"She won't leave again, baby. She loves you so much. What happened last time ought to prove that." I kept stroking her hair, talking almost to myself. "She doesn't want you to make the kind of mistakes she made. They hurt her more than any demon or anything else ever could have. We all want to protect the people we love."

"Is that why you do this?" she asked me.

"Do what?" It seemed a total subject change.

"All of this." Dawn waved a hand around in a sweeping gesture. "Fight demons, work so hard, play big brother to me? To protect the ones you love?"

I nodded. "You, and Willow, and Anya, and."


"Well, of course, Buffy. She's a part of it, too." Dawn had pulled herself out of my embrace and gone to her dresser for a Kleenex. She turned and gave me a look older than her years.

"She's all of it." Before I could protest, she bowed her head and blew her nose loudly. "Go talk to her - I know you plan to." She pulled me up to my feet and shoved me out the door.

"I-I-I. Don't you *dare* do anything like that again, young lady!" I hollered impotently at the closed door. I'm pretty sure I heard a giggle in response.

Great. Now I was all flustered, and I still had to talk to Buffy.

Chapter 3
Girls, Girls, Girls

When I got downstairs, Buffy was gone. Damn that girl! If she went to stake Spike, I'd never manage to make peace between her and Dawn. Should I go upstairs and tell Dawn I was leaving? How much lead-time did she have on me? Where.?

"You're back." Buffy came out of the kitchen carrying two steaming mugs. "Hot chocolate?"

I never stayed speechless for long. "Yeah. My favorite. How'd you know? You remembering?" A part of me just wanted Buffy Before back, so I could go on with life as it was, although that stubborn idiot that occupied large parts of my brain filled me with disappointment that I'd no longer be one of the most important people in her world if that happened.

"Just a guess," she said with a smile, "although I see it was a good one." She took a small sip from her own mug and sighed happily. Then her eyes bore down on me. "I heard some yelling. Everything alright, or does she hate me?"

I sat down on the couch, and Buffy sat right beside me. "She's scared and upset. I know Giles told you that just before you died, your Mom did, too. Dawn had just found out about her identity as the Key, and it was a lot for her to deal with. When you died, Spike was the only one who could get through to her for a while. They've always gotten along well, even when the rest of us hated him. The harder you try to separate them, the more she's gonna fight you on it." I almost went on to use the thing with her and Angel as an example, but she didn't remember, and I still wasn't ready to deal with telling her about him yet. Yeah, I'm a wimp.

"Were you always this smart?' she asked, that look in her eyes again. I hated that look. It was so much better to see in person than it had ever been in my dreams, and I knew it was all wrong. I turned my head away.

"Me? I'm an idiot. Trust me." I took a deep drink of my chocolate, discovering too late that it was still much too hot for that. Jumping up, I ran to the bathroom and spit the mouthful into the sink. Then I turned on the cold tap and stuck my mouth underneath, trying to cool the fire on my tongue. Finally, I felt a little better, and I looked up, water running down my chin and soaking the collar of my shirt, to see Buffy trying to hide the laughter that shone from her eyes. God, she was too beautiful. I gestured to myself. "See?" I said around my swollen tongue. "Idiot."

"I still don't believe you, although the visual was pretty convincing. All you really proved was that I put the chocolate in the microwave for too long." She stepped back inside my personal space, and wiped some water off my chin with her thumb. "It was sort of cute."

I got out of there as quickly as I could. I don't remember what I said.

Then I got home to Anya's warm welcome.

"Where the hell have you been for so long?" (I've been out much later before, with no phone call, and she's never been upset.)

"How'd you get all wet?" (I actually tried to begin explaining that, but she never gave me a chance.)

"Why do you smell like Buffy's perfume?" (I hadn't previously realized that Dawn had started wearing the same scent as her sister. And I doubt An would buy that, anyway, even though it is true.)

"Here!" (This was accompanied by an armload of sheets and blankets, and the sound of the bedroom door slamming and locking.)

Wonderful. I sighed and started making up the couch. After a moment, I went and knocked on the bedroom door. "An, I need." The door opened and my pillow sailed out, hitting me squarely in the chest and sliding down my body to my feet. "Um, yeah. Thanks."

It doesn't much matter; I don't expect to sleep a lot tonight anyway.


I don't know if Anya and I've formally made up yet - there's been no sex involved, and I think that's a requirement - but she seems to be speaking to me again. I did manage to get across to her over breakfast this morning that last night was about Dawn, and the difficulties she's having with her sister's return. An mumbled something about having similar difficulties, but I had to ignore her, or I'd never get through the explanation. Just like the rest of us, An has a soft spot for Dawn, and I knew that would sway her. She kissed me on my way out the door to work, so I guess that's the down payment on the make-up sex later.

We've argued before. All couples do, I think. I mean, I know I have a temper, and An didn't get to be a Vengeance Demon by writing the best essay on the subject. So we've had some doozies. That also explains why I'm so sure about the procedure for making up. But this feels different - like it's an argument in chapters, and last night ended with a big "To Be Continued." It worries me.

I like to think I've grown up a lot since Willow and I explored our passions in High School. I don't see myself sneaking kisses behind the bookshelves with Buffy like I did with Wills. What I have with Anya is different from what I had with Cordy, too. It's more. More mature, more serious. Long term. But I also admit to having feelings still for Buffy. Feelings that aren't right for a married, or soon-to-be married, man to be entertaining. They probably weren't right even when Buffy didn't feel that way about me. Now that she does, or at least, a version of her seems to, it's even worse.

See, I've seen a bad marriage, first-hand. Grew up dodging the fallout from one. I sort of was the fallout from one. Some of the things my mom said in her less-than-sober ramblings indicated that I was born to try and save their marriage. From the moment of my birth, I was a failure at my first task.

I didn't want a marriage like that. I didn't want to bring a kid into the world for no better reason than that. I know no couple is perfect, and that marriage takes work, but I didn't want to begin our life together with a shadow the size of Buffy hanging over us. There was no sense in making the already hard work of marriage even harder like that.

So I had to do something. And no matter what it ended up being, I was gonna hurt, and hurt someone else, too. I just had to decide who it had to be.


I can usually lose myself in my work. Carpentry is precise, and absorbing. You measure, you calculate, you measure some more - all before you ever cut anything. It takes your whole mind. Of all the jobs on the construction site, it's the one position that spawns the most architects, because of the similarities of the two jobs. Both require precision, craftsmanship, and an eye for detail. So I was doing pretty good, forgetting my confused and miserable love life, until Willow showed up.

"Harris!" Jerry yelled from the front. "You've got a visitor." When I waked by him, he winked at me. "Cute, too. I won't tell your girlfriend." The crew had seen Anya a few times - usually after I sailed out of the apartment without my lunchbox. Jerry's comment established the fact that it wasn't her. I was pretty surprised when I saw my oldest friend.

"Wills!" I hugged her, and she smiled the same way she had when we were five. "To what do I owe this honor?" I lost my smile. "Something wrong with Tara or another huge Big Bad?"

"Nonono," she sputtered, shaking her head vehemently. "No danger from the Land of the Creepies, and Tara's fine." She looked at me with those big green eyes of hers, and for a moment, I saw again within them the darkness she was fighting. She had no idea how much her use of Dark Majiks scared us all, especially Tara. Anyanka's existence had been directly due to a misuse of Dark Power, and I didn't want to lose my best friend to that sort of thing. We sat down together on a plastic-covered pile of bricks. "It's about Buffy."

Funny, before she said that, I always thought "We need to talk" was the scariest phrase in the English language. I was wrong. Although I guess what she said was a variation of that dreaded phrase. This was big enough to bring Willow to my job site - a first. It involved someone I'd always figured my sun rose and set around. And it was a subject I knew I couldn't currently speak intelligently about. On top of that, I'd always had trouble lying to Willow, although I could, and have done it before. But, then again, in order to lie, I'd have to know the truth, and I really wasn't sure I did.

I may have grunted, I'm not sure, but something encouraged her to continue. "She's really hung up on you," she went on, as my stomach sank to my ankles, "And while I know there was a time that would have thrilled you to death, I'm pretty sure you have your hands full now with Anya." Oh, yeah, Will, that's an understatement for the record books. "Anyway, I'm sure if she could just remember how things were before, this nonsense would all go away." Oh, you little redheaded confidence builder, you. Of course, Buffy liking me is nonsense. My vocal chords had abandoned me in horror, and I couldn't manage a response.

Having plunged the knife into my heart with the sweetest care and concern, my dear friend now smiled, grabbed the handle, and twisted. "I've called Angel, and he'll be here later. Maybe seeing him will snap her out of this." Now I think I know how a vampire feels - I'm pretty sure I didn't breathe for at least five minutes after Willow said that. And I know I went cold, in spite of the heat of the day.

Okay, so I'm a hypocrite. I was worrying about how to handle this thing with Buffy without hurting Anya any more, but still. It was going to be my choice. I was supposed to be the one to decide how to do this. I could've still chosen Buffy, even though I knew it meant heartbreak as soon as tall, dark and breathless showed his face. I was more than a little angry at myself that I've even considered choosing her after all she's put me through, while An has always been supportive and loving. Well, as soon as she figured out how to be - the fact she was going to, like, smite me in order to grant Cordelia's wish for vengeance was ancient history, really. At least, it was before we were dating.

But now, that choice was out of my hands. Even if Buffy didn't get her memory back, she was going to see Deadboy, and all thoughts of Xander Harris would flee her brain. She was just wired that way, and I'd always known it. I owed An a major apology for even thinking the way I'd been thinking. But I was going to spend a little time in mourning what might have been, first. Hey, at least I was wrong about one thing. I would end up being the only one who got hurt.

Some automatic response inside my body roped my vocal chords back into service, mumbled some kind of agreement and managed a goodbye hug to Willow, and I went back to work. But my mind wasn't there, and I was pretty relieved my boss wasn't either. So far, the only thing I figured could make my day worse was if I got fired.

Or, at least, that was what I thought before Anya showed up.

"Harris!" Jerry yelled about a half hour later, awaking me from my mental ranting and wailing. "Your girlfriend's here to see you." I walked back out to the same spot I'd been with Willow just recently. When I passed Jerry, he whispered, "I didn't tell her about the redhead. You owe me." Smartass.

Anya was sitting on the bricks, waiting for me. I stood this time - I couldn't afford to take a lot of time, and if I sat down, it might. She smiled brightly when she saw me. "Hi, sweetie," she greeted me.

I forced a similar expression. "Heya, An. What's up? You never come here to see me."

Anya hung her head. "I really feel bad about last night. I know you'd do anything for your friends, and you just wanted to make sure Dawn was okay. I overreacted, and I wanted to apologize." She stood up, running her hand over my chest suggestively. "I thought it might make your day a little brighter if you knew I planned to make it up to you tonight - in a really big way." Her voice had dropped into that sexy, husky range, and she was pressing her breasts against my chest. Before I knew what was happening, she'd grabbed the back of my head, and began doing an intense exploration of my molars with her tongue. Now, after two years of sleeping together, Anya knew my every button, and she was pushing most of them for all she was worth.

I forgot about my troubles with Buffy. I forgot Angel was on his way from L.A. I forgot I wanted to kill my childhood best friend, and that I'd seriously considered breaking the heart of the woman now kissing me. Hell, I probably didn't know my name, birth date or Social Security number at that point.

I was pressed against her tightly, my hands wandering to fun and familiar places. Her hands were journeying as well. Then I heard the catcalls from behind me. "Whoa - he's gonna get lucky right here!" "Get a room!" "Can I be next?"

I pushed away, and she even blushed. I think it was a sympathy blush, since I know I was beet red. "An," I gasped, "I can't be doing that at work!" I turned my body so my natural response wasn't silhouetted in profile to my coworkers, and I thought about cold, unsexy things.

"I just wanted to give you something to think about - for later." With that, she picked up her purse from the bricks and sashayed away, drawing a few more catcalls in her wake.

As if I didn't have enough to think about already.

Jerry didn't say anything when I walked back by, but his grin was ear to ear, and he slugged me on the arm.

I don't know how much time went by before Jerry summoned me again. This time, he came back to where I was working, and he was practically whispering. "Harris, man - there's another girl here to see you. Another blonde. A different blonde." He gave a nervous laugh. "What, you haven't got a brunette?"

I rolled my eyes, and went to the pile of bricks, where Buffy was pacing frantically. "Hi," I greeted her, a bit warily.

"I'm really sorry to come by your work, but I talked to Willow, and I think I upset her. She told me she used to like you, but I thought she was over it, what with her being gay and all. But when I told her how much I liked you - you do know I like you, I mean, I haven't really kept that a secret, have I?" She paused here, looking uncertain and a bit nervous. It's not a natural look for Buffy. I held onto my deadpan expression, in spite of the fireworks going off in my brain. Buffy just said she likes me! "Anyway, she got all flustered, and almost angry, and I just wanted to warn you, and." She ran out of breath just as I took her by the arms.

"Buffy, calm down. You're babbling."

She started to cry, and what could I do? I pulled her to me, stroking her hair to calm her down. "I can't help it. I don't want her upset at me. You and Willow are the only friends I've got. I mean, there's Giles, but he's old and all, and Dawn and I are still figuring out how to be both friends and sisters. I don't know anybody else, and I don't want to lose her over my feelings for you." Hello, surreal.

"Willow's just worried that you're going to be upset at yourself if and when you get your memories back. I'm not your boyfriend, as much as." I didn't need to finish that sentence. Not a good idea.

"And you've got Anya, I know. Willow and Anya are good friends, I'm sure, and she doesn't want to see her hurt." More proof Buffy didn't remember anything there. "But I don't think Anya's good enough for you. Don't tie yourself down to her before you know. Give me a chance."

"Buff - Willow has an idea she thinks will help you remember some of what you've left behind. We'll talk again later, after we see if it works, okay?" There was no way I was going to respond to anything she'd just said to me. I remember enough of my soldier training to know a minefield when I'm about to step into it, even if it's an emotional one. She nodded against my now-damp chest, and I patted her back a few more times. "I really have to get back to work now. You okay?" She nodded again, and then stood on her tiptoes and kissed me lightly on the lips. Pulling away, she smiled uncertainly, turned and left.

Jerry looked confused when I walked past him again. Welcome to the club, buddy. He did manage to spit out, just before I was out of hearing, "You are so lucky Carter isn't here today." Huh - I'd almost forgotten about my boss and my job.

I know I was of no earthly good after that, and probably wouldn't be for the rest of the day. So it didn't even surprise me when Jerry showed up again, a while later. "Your brunette is here," he said dully. I nodded and walked out to the bricks again.

"Hi, Cordy."

"That guy gave me the weirdest look when I asked for you. What a creep." Cordelia preened for a minute, then looked at me searchingly. "Shouldn't you be surprised to see me?" I shook my head slowly. "Oh, okay. Sorry to come by your work site, but Angel wanted me to catch you before you went home. He's at the mansion, and he wants to see you before he goes to see Buffy. Seems Willow said this had to do with you, and he wants to hear your story."

I managed a weak smile. "Tell him I'll come straight there after they fire me." She looked at me oddly, but I didn't bother to explain. "Oh, Cor - like the haircut."

She grinned, and although I thought I was beyond surprise at that point, I almost swallowed my tongue when she grabbed me in a rough hug. "Missed you, Xan. See you later." She left, and I headed back to the place where I wasn't actually working again. All along the way, guys were patting my back, murmuring to each other, or just staring in awe. When I passed Jerry, he looked at me, wide eyed.



"I really need to borrow your aftershave."

Chapter 4
The Angel Angle

Technically, I was in charge at the job site when Carter wasn't there, so I let myself go early and left Jerry in my place. The way the guys were treating me, I kinda figured none of them would rat on me. For that day, at least, I'd achieved a god-like status. And I wasn't exactly getting a whole lot done, anyway.

I thought about going home to shower before I went to the mansion, but I really didn't need to chance getting horizontal with Anya right now. Oh, man, I was thinking of sex as a negative thing. Death was surely only minutes away. Without even realizing how I'd ended up there, I shut off my car in front of the mansion. Lately, I seemed to be doing a lot of things, like driving across town, without paying attention to them. Good way to get a ticket - anywhere but Sunnydale, home of the blind, deaf and dumb police force.

Cordelia let me in, looking me carefully up and down. "Well, the sweaty, stinky look works for you, I guess." I knew I hadn't done enough work that day to break a sweat, but I also knew that saying anything nice to me would probably cause Cordy physical pain. She'd admitted she missed me earlier, but now her defenses were back up, and not about to drop again.

"Good to see you, too, Cor. Where's Deadboy?"

She turned, and without a word walked down the hall. I surmised I was expected to follow her, so I did.

While I was walking, I noticed stuff. I noticed Cordy had on old jeans and sneakers, and looked kind of dusty. I noticed the floors in the hall looked really shiny, more so than they should have after two years as an unoccupied property. "Been cleaning?" I asked my ex.

She nodded. "Angel feels he needs to be here for Buffy, so he and I have been fixing the place up to stay a while if she wants him to." Oh, joy. She rolled her eyes. "Little Miss Back From the Dead calls, and he drops his whole business and comes running." Man, her tone reminded me of my own, whenever I'd talk about Angel and Buffy. Interesting.

I'd've pursued it further, but I was briefly agape at the sight before me. Angel, in sweats (sweats! And grey, even, not black!), down on his hands and knees, cleaning out the fireplace. There were smudges of ash on his face, and his fingernails were dirty. He was wearing Reeboks, for crying out loud! He looked - human.

"Oh, you're here," he said, pulling me from my zoned state. He handed Cordelia a box of cinders. "Would you put this outside, Cor?" Hey, that was my nickname for her. He walked over to me, hand outstretched. His palm was black with soot, and I looked at it, then up at him. I know he thought I was being my usually snotty self, refusing to shake, but then he looked down. "Oh. Ooops." He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his hands, then tried again. I took his hand and shook it firmly. "I've heard what's going on from Willow," he started, motioning me to a chair and getting right down to business, "Let's hear your version." Before I could gather my thoughts, exactly, or even sit down, he growled, "And why the hell didn't anyone call me to tell me she was back, anyway?"

"Excuse me," I answered, in a similar pissed-off tone, "But we were dealing with Buffy-without-a-clue. She had to re-establish herself with Dawn, relearn who her friends were, and cope with the fact that we all knew more about her than she did. Calling her undead ex-boyfriend, who became evil because of her, bringing on one of the most miserable years of her life and ending with her sending him to hell, not to mention who almost broke apart her closest friendships after he came back and she kept it a secret - let's just say, we had other priorities." We were nose to nose now, staring each other down. Cordelia stepped in, gently prying us apart.

"Nice to know that Slayers die and are reborn, but some animosity never changes," she said wryly. Glaring at us both, she went on. "Now that we've blown out all the excess testosterone, could we discuss the reason we're here?"

As I often do, I backed down first, although far from graciously. "Sorry, Angel - we should have called." Cordy gave me a thin-lipped nod of approval, then looked expectantly at her boss. I was surprised when he gave in as well.

"Yeah, well, I guess there was a lot else going on." He actually looked to my ex-girlfriend, and was rewarded by and encouraging smile.

"Well, if I can trust you two boys to play nice, now, I'll go put this outside." Picking up the box in her arms, she turned on her heel and strode confidently from the room, and I couldn't help but notice that Angel was watching her retreating figure with the same appreciation I'd shown for it in the past. I so wanted to ask, but I was here with another purpose, and that would just sidetrack us longer. I heard Angel cluck his tongue, though, and saw his affectionate smile. Relationship things could be complicated for someone other than me, I realized. I dropped into the chair.

"Buffy came back without a clue as to anything that had happened before she died," I dove in.

Soul man sat across from me. "Like a baby? I mean, how not knowing was she?"

"More like an amnesia victim. She remembered how to slay - if anything, she's better than before. But she made a lot of random associations - thought Giles was her dad, thought I was her boyfriend. She got over the Giles thing, but she's kinda stuck on the idea that we belong together." I hung my head. The end of that scenario might be just around the corner, but that didn't mean I was totally accepting that fact quite yet.

"And you have a girlfriend," he said, almost as a question.

"A fianc� - who deserves better than I've managed to give her lately."

"You still love Buffy?"

From the doorway, Cordelia snorted. "Stupid question much? Is the sky blue? Is the grass green? Do you need regular plasma to survive? He's always loved Buffy. When he was with me, even when he was cheating with Willow, we were just warm bodies who could fill in for the Slayer."

I jumped to my feet. "Not fair, Cor. I really cared about you - and Willow too, as stupid as that sounds after what I did to both of you. I love Anya. It's just..." I shrugged, unable to find the words.

Angel smiled, apparently sympathetic. "It's just Buffy." He knew. I could tell. For the first time, I realized how much he and I actually had in common - outside of the whole breathing issue, that is. She was a part of us - in our blood. I shuddered involuntarily at the mental picture of what that actually meant with her and Angel when the whole "Slayer's blood saving him from death" thing flashed through my memory. But the man - vampire - across from me right now knew what I was going through better than anyone else could. I smiled uncomfortably back at him.


"So you go see her, she remembers her undying love for you, and I go back to the back burner, where I belong. I may not marry Anya, though. I mean, like I said, she deserves a good guy, and I'm getting the feeling that I'm not him. But Buffy in love with you, me alone and miserable - all would be right with the world." Okay, I'm not bitter, huh?

"Buffy and I can't be together, Xander. You know that. What if my coming back does more damage than good?"

I wasn't angry anymore, or bitter, or anything but numb by this point. I shrugged again. "I'll be here to pick up the pieces until she's ready to move on with someone else, just like I always am." I turned, and was nearly out the door when Cordy caught up with me.

"You breaking up with Anya?"

I shook my head. "I just need a little space to examine why I can't give her my all. I'm not into making the same mistake twice." I looked at her, closely. There were a couple of faint streaks of grey in her hair, between the new blonde streaks. There were tiny wrinkles around her eyes. Life since Sunnydale hadn't been entirely kind to Cordelia Chase, I could tell. "I don't want to hurt people, Cor, it just seems to be what I do."

"I'm not gonna make you feel better by saying you didn't hurt me, 'cos you did. But I returned the favor in spades, both before we got together, and after we broke up. Just because you're used to being treated badly, don't start thinking it's all you deserve. You're a pretty good guy, Xander Harris."

I cupped her face in my palm. "That is one helluva lucky vampire in there. First he had Buffy, now he's got you. I gotta say, he gets all the best women." She didn't even bother to sputter and deny anything - sometimes I really wish I could manage to be as honest as Cordy. I kissed her on the tip of her nose. "Don't go giving him a moment of happiness and screwing up the world."

"Hey, I learned about loving without having from the best," she said, looking knowingly at me. She stepped back. "See you later?"

"Maybe." I knew I needed to go talk to Anya, before I lost my nerve.


She was at the Magic Box. Giles had been pressured into "offering" his apartment for the happy reunion, and Anya'd agreed to close down the shop for him. I knew they were expecting me at the big unveiling, but I also knew they wouldn't mind starting without me. Or finishing without me. There were some things that were better not seen and heard, and this was probably one of them. I had a strong feeling several people there would completely understand my absence, and to my own surprise, I was sure Angel would be one of them. I steeled my resolve, and went inside.

"Xander," she greeted me enthusiastically. "I understand Angel is here and meeting with the others. I didn't expect to see you." I looked at her with love. She didn't always understand me, and I was about to confuse her again, I was sure. I smiled a humorless smile.

"Yeah, Buffy's gonna be back with her soulmate," I said, as if I didn't care. "We need the real Buffy back." God, that almost sounded convincing, like I thought there was something wrong with the Buffy we had now. "An, we need to talk." Shit - I started off wrong. I swore I wouldn't use that damned phrase. Checking out her expression, I once again blessed Anya's lack of cultural references. She didn't know what that meant, exactly. "I love you," I began.

"Oh, Xander, I love you too." She wrapped herself around me, as I bit the inside of my cheek. Let's make this a little harder - as if this wasn't hard enough. I pushed her gently away.

"We need to talk." Geez, you already said that, dork-o. "An, you've come so far from when I first met you, you know that?" She nodded. "I think you're the greatest. And you deserve the best, too." I was getting through this. I'd mentally prepared a script, and I was doing well. The doorbell tinkled, and a customer walked in.

Anya went into shopkeeper mode. "Welcome to the Magic Box. We have a special today on toad's eyes and all our books on levitation are half off. Is there anything in particular I can show you?"

Great - I could start dwelling on my upcoming regrets. It helped, actually, knowing I wasn't doing this for Buffy. She was probably, at that very moment, awakening to the horror that she'd actually thought she was interested in me in a romantic way. And it wasn't like I planned to break up with An - just take a little cooling down period, to examine what was wrong with me, that I could even think about another woman when this lovely creature wanted to be mine, and mine alone. Y'know, the longer this guy stayed in the store, preoccupying Anya, the easier it was going to be to convince myself to do the easy thing, instead of the right thing, and just let it slide. She didn't need to know I'd ever had doubts. Buffy - well, she wouldn't be Buffy Now anymore, and while I didn't think she'd end up back with Angel, I was pretty sure she wouldn't be interested in me, either. Not that that was a bad thing, I guess. I didn't deserve her either.

What was this guy doing - examining each individual toad eye for the right one, or what? Anya smelled a sale, and wasn't going to let him get away with his wallet intact. Just then I heard the squeal of car tires outside, and the door burst open. "Xander!" Cordelia screamed, "Get your butt out here, now! Buffy's trying to kill Angel!"


I got most of the story on the way to Giles' place. It seems that Buffy wasn't told anything about what was to go down, since Willow figured that the shock of seeing her eternal love would be stronger that way, and more likely to resurrect her old memories. Will and Tara invited Buffy to go out for dinner with them, and then they all went to the apartment. Cordy and Angel were waiting.

Willow apparently told Cordy she'd started acting weird before they went in the door, saying they needed to be careful, her senses were on alert. Giles let them in, and walked them to the living room, where Deadboy sat. Buffy flew at him, and if Cordy hadn't tackled her, she'd have staked him for sure. Everyone was screaming, and fortunately, Tara had the presence of mind to throw a freezing spell on the Slayer, but it wouldn't hold long, and it about wore her out just to do it the one time. Angel, being stubborn, refused to leave, although he did go to another room to avoid the looks Buffy was giving him. The quick consensus was that they needed me to talk to her.

When I got there, she was still immobile, which gave a minute or two with Willow. "If you need to, can you reproduce that spell?" I asked her. She nodded. "Oh, by the way, Wills, great idea to bring Angel here to bring the old Buffy back. You might have just warned her, at least, what he was."

My pal's lower lip was quivering, and I gave her a quick hug to let her know all was forgiven. I had a feeling she was upset enough at herself, and my ragging on her wasn't going to help. "You won't let her dust him, will you?"

I was genuinely hurt. Then I realized that no one but myself was party to my revelations about Angel earlier. "Naw," I scoffed, "it's not nearly as much fun to call Spike names." I grinned, and Willow almost smiled. "Time to go stop the loose cannon again."

I saw something in Buffy's eyes when I entered the room, but she was still stuck in position, her hand over her head, holding a stake in readiness. It wasn't too much longer before she grunted, and nearly fell into my arms. "Hi," I said, catching her.

"Love to stay, but I have a vampire to dust. He must have hypnotized Giles, got him to..."

"Whoa, killer, calm down. That's Angel, and he's okay."

She pulled away from me, honestly irritated with me for the first time since her return. "Are there any vampires in this town you think it's permissible for me to kill?"

"You know it isn't like that..."

"No? You stop me from killing that cold blonde creep who had his hands all over my sister. Now you're telling me this guy is okay, too. Well, Dawn isn't here to protect this one, and I want to know why you won't let me stake him. Like, you know, it's my job to do?" She began pacing, angry energy in her every step.

It was almost tempting to let her do it. Cruel irony was for once going after someone else. But I really didn't want to see Angel as dust - besides the fact it would destroy two of my favorite women. Cordelia obviously cared deeply for him - and if Buffy ever came fully back - well, I shudder to think what it would do to her.

"Buffy, Angel has a soul." She stopped pacing. "He was cursed, and now he remembers and suffers for everything his demon did in the days before his soul was returned. He works for the White Hats - and unlike Spike, his motives are actually pure. I may have never liked him much, but I know he's a good guy - in pretty much every sense of the word."

"Why didn't you like him?"

How should I answer that question? Was there any good reason to lie - outside of every good reason? Oh, hell. "We were both in love with the same girl. He got her. I was jealous." If I didn't look up, she wouldn't see it in my eyes.

But this was Buffy - she may not have her memories, but she was still pretty smart. "You told me Willow was going to do something that might help me - what did you say? - 'remember some of what I've left behind.' He was what you meant. It was me, wasn't it? You loved me, but I chose him?" She pulled away from me. "Even if you're right, and he's got his soul and is good - and I don't see why you'd lie to me about that - why? He's still a vampire. I'm a Vampire Slayer. Why?" She was crying, and I was at a loss what to do, or say.

"Buffy..." I reached for her, to calm her down, but she stepped away.

"No!' she yelled at me. "You loved me, but you let me get involved with a relationship that anyone could see would clearly lead to tragedy. I'm a goddamn Vampire Slayer!" She was shaking. "Willow lied to me to get me here - she wanted me to fall back in love with him, is that it? You were willing before, and are going again, to let me go - to him? My so-called friends want to set me up for a fall, again? Maybe I'm glad I don't remember who and what I was. My life was so screwed up. Get out! GET. OUT."

She could break me into little pieces if she wanted to - I felt it wise to do what she demanded. Angel was waiting outside the door. "I take it that went well?"

That sounded like one of my lines. "She hates me. She hates Willow. She hates you. She'd probably hate Cordy if she'd had time to introduce herself before Buffy went postal on you. I'm thinking things couldn't get much worse. Maybe we can track Giles down, and she won't kill him before he manages to talk to her."

"No. I'll talk to her."

I looked at him incredulously. "You likin' the nickname 'Dusty,' Deadboy? 'Cos I don't see her and any piece of wood and you as having a long future in the same room."

He shrugged. "It's actually less complicated than our relationship was before. When I came to visit her after Joyce died, and we kissed, I knew it was over. This makes it a little easier to sort things out." I didn't know he'd even seen her after her mother died. Tonight had been like a case of Cracker Jacks; there was a surprise for every customer.

"It's your funeral," I offered.

Okay, he actually grinned. This was getting spooky. "Been there, done that." I grinned back. Scary - I could get to liking this guy.

Suddenly, I remembered that Anya had offered me a major session of makeup sex tonight, and it was late. Very late, and she was going to be very pissed. And I really needed to have that talk with her, anyhow. This was getting better and better. "Uhmm, Angel? Maybe you could talk Buffy into staking me, instead. I'm sure it'd be preferable to whatever's waiting for me when I get home."


An, we have to talk...

No, that one sucked. I'd already established that fact. Besides, I'd used it twice earlier.

Anya, before I begin, I want you to know it's not you, it's me.

Ick. She'd run off in horror before I even got to the point. It was so - I dunno, romance novel or something.

I bet you're wondering where I've been all evening.

Okay, if I keep her away from the butcher knives in the kitchen, maybe. She knew damn well where I'd been all evening, and this wasn't about that, after all. I'd already given up on the whole Buffy thing (what does this make, the millionth time in my young life?), and needed to focus on my own failure as a boyfriend. Even if nothing would ever come of it, I was seriously drawn to another woman, and I needed to get my act together before I could marry Anya, or anyone.

Maybe I should just buy her a nice, new, very sharp butcher knife and have done with it.

I briefly wondered where I developed the talent for driving without once thinking about where I was going. This was the second time today I'd done that. Maybe my car had a mind of its own. In this town, stranger things have happened. "Sleep tight, Christine," I murmured to it as I locked its doors in the parking space outside my apartment building. No need to antagonize it, if it did. Maybe I could fix Christine up with Malcolm, Willow's computer flame...

I was way off the deep end. This went beyond mental babbling to mental instability. Or it would, for most people. I really think that insanity is the term the unaware use for people who deal with reality without filters. They're safer locked up - the demons and such probably leave them alone there, too.

But arranging a blind date for my automobile was easier to deal with, mentally, than telling my ex-demon girlfriend I needed some time to reconsider our relationship. What the hell was I doing?

I stood nervously outside the door, key in my hand, still working on the proper opening line. Finally, I shrugged, figuring it'd come to me when I saw Anya. I went inside, but the apartment was dim, lit only by a candle, and even that was blocked by the figure - Anya's, it appeared - leaning over it. Then she turned to look at me, and I saw the veiny face of Anyanka, and my opening line was clear:

"What the fuck is going on here?"

Chapter 5
Just Call Me Demon In The Morning

The look of fear on An's demon face was almost comical, it was so out of place there. "Xander?"

"Yeah," I answered cautiously, "And you aren't my fiancée, but rather her demon counterpart, Anyanka, right? Or else, I'm sleeping and you're simply one of my worst nightmares."

"I didn't think you'd be home tonight," she said, still sounding frightened.

I glanced around at the stuff spread out in our living room. There were various herbs and things of unknown origin, a candle, and a necklace I was pretty sure I'd seen somewhere before. "So I see," I responded, starting to get angry. "What's the matter, Giles wouldn't give you a raise, so you went back to your old job? 'Cos I'd like to think I make enough money to support us, if you wanted to go on unemployment for a while. I don't think this was necessary."

"I-I-I... you weren't supposed to know," she said in a small voice.

"How long has this been going on, An? Were you ever planning on telling me? Or was it all just a game - a joke you were playing with the heart of an 'evil male,' and I'd get the wedding surprise from Hell on our honeymoon? I'm really trying to find an upside to this, but right now, I'm coming up short." I was pretty mad by this point.

I saw a flicker of anger in Anyanka's eyes, and combined with that face of hers, it made my stomach twist. But I couldn't show my fear, and I held onto my stoic expression.

"When you didn't come home again tonight, I called on D'Hoffryn, and made a deal with him. I wanted my powers back so I could fix things between us. Lately, we've been falling apart, and I just wanted to go back to how things were when all you had to worry about was me, and our upcoming wedding."

"But before Buffy died, we had to deal with Glory and those knights, and..." No. It was too horrible to think about. But she could only mean... "You wanted Buffy dead again? Oh my God! Tell me you haven't done it yet!" I grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her. "Tell me!" I was screaming like a girl. I didn't care.

An shook her head, tears running down her disfigured face. I still had a bruising grip on her shoulders. "I haven't." I relaxed a little, but didn't let go. "I wanted you to forget, like she never came back. You wouldn't have known."

I shoved her away, sickened by the fact I was touching her at all. "No. I could have just gone back to the joyful drunk-in-training act I was perfecting. Dawn could go back to being suicidal, and Giles could once more be thinking about returning to England to live out his old age in misery and depression. The world could once again be at the mercy of the vampires and demons that Buffy wouldn't be here to KILL!" Screaming again - the neighbors were gonna call the cops soon. Like the cops could do anything. An was sobbing now. "I was gonna talk to you tonight about our relationship - how I knew I wasn't treating you right, and maybe we needed some time apart so I could get my head back in the right place. But you aren't the girl I loved. I don't know you at all." I stormed past her into the bedroom and threw open the closet, pulling out a suitcase. "I don't want to know you, either. I've made stupid, selfish mistakes in the past, but never ones that would put the whole world and everyone I claimed to love at risk." I was throwing things into my case, not even looking at them as I did. I zipped it shut and looked her in the face for the first time since her confession. "You can keep the ring. Maybe it'll remind you what we could have had, if you'd been willing to deal with things fairly - like most humans have to. But now you're on your own." I was at the front door, when I turned around and pinned her down with a glare. "And if you try to go ahead with it, I'll find out, somehow. No matter what, I could never love you again the way I did - even if you take my every memory of this. Your precious D'Hoffryn shouldn't even be helping you - you aren't a woman scorned, but one who scorned everything that had made her human." I slammed the door, and made it all the way to my car before I began crying, and couldn't stop, until I thought I might throw up.


So here I sit in my car, staring at the light in the window of my apartment. My apartment - Anya's name isn't even on the lease. I just packed up and left my own home, with no plans to ever return. Well, I have to go back for the Babylon 5 plates and my CD's, and I'm pretty sure my favorite boxers are in the laundry basket, but still...

That's my apartment.

Where am I supposed to go now?

Normally, my first instinct would be to go to Buffy's, but the stupidity of that move would be too great even for me. Even though Dawn stayed there before, Willow and Tara's dorm room was only slightly larger than a good-sized walk-in closet, so that was out. My parents would probably give me precise directions to the nearest park bench I could sleep on, complete with obscene hand gestures and comments about the rock they found me beneath. Spike's place was a tomb, for God's sake. Giles had probably seen enough of all of us earlier tonight to last him a lifetime. Only one choice remained.


"Xander, it's three in the morning."

"Thanks, Angel. Along with my apartment and my fiancée, I've lost my ability to tell time." I glared at him without much heat in the expression. "Look, I have nowhere else to go. Can I come in?"

He stepped aside, smirking. "Didn't think an invitation was needed for a non-vampire."

"Maybe for a rude non-vamp." I trudged in the door. "Do you have a place I can sleep, or not?" I was exhausted - mentally, physically and emotionally. I think if he just propped me up in a quiet corner, I'd sleep there. "Don't you sleep during the daylight hours, anyway? If you don't mind me using your bed, I won't even make any smart jokes about it."

"Well, Cordelia's there right now." Okay, I was awake enough to raise an eyebrow at that. "And no, gutter-brain, I haven't been there with her. I use it during the day, she uses it at night. Saves on laundry. It was her idea. But that does mean the guest room's available. Although to pacify her, you'll probably have to wash the sheets yourself when you're through."

"Hell, I'll repaint it and put up bookshelves for you if I can just go lay down now." I meant it - I could barely put one foot in front of another. He led me down the hall, and I really don't remember much after I saw the bed.


I blinked a few times, my sleepy brain unable to process what the pattern on the fabric under my nose belonged to, and why I felt so hung over. "Good, you're awake." That wasn't Anya's voice, it was -

I rolled onto my back and sat up unsteadily. "Cordelia."

"Eww - morning breath. And you have bedspread wrinkles on your face. I wonder why Anya didn't throw you out sooner. You should see your hair."

Thanks, Cor. For a few brief moments, I'd forgotten how my life had fallen apart last night. I could tell my pain had danced across my face, and that she felt bad when she saw it. But being Cordy, she wasn't gonna back down, she'd just change the subject. "So, you must have been tired. It's almost noon."

I shot out of bed, digging through my bag for my comb. Noon? Hell, I was going to be in so much trouble at work. I'd already called in sick so many times, I wasn't going to be able to die and be allowed to take time off work for my own funeral. I'd been out when Joyce died, and the Glory thing, then Buffy's funeral, and with a couple of crises with Dawn, and...

"Xander, it's Saturday." I stared at her blankly. "You know, one of the two days every week you don't go to work?" I found my comb and was standing there holding it, still not quite with the program. Cordy waved her fingers in front of my face. "Hell - ooo. Anyone in there?"

Welcome to the suckfest that was my life. I'd lost one of my two best friends, as well as my girlfriend, and I didn't even have the distraction of work to keep my mind off of it for at least two more days. I folded to the floor, sitting Indian-style and staring at nothing. I just couldn't take any more for a while. "Ooo-kay, you're scaring me now, Harris. Are you okay? Uh, Angel? Angel!" Cordy ran out of the room to get her boss, I suppose, while I shut down again.


I have no idea how long I was off in la-la land. I came to hearing Giles' worried voice.

"...emotional overload."

I heard Angel rumble something about checking on me, and then my stomach sank. Buffy's voice. "I'll do it." I could pretend I was still out...

"Hi." He who hesitates is lost.


She came over and sat down on the edge of the bed - I'd guess from her face that she'd been crying. "You scared us all." She was fighting to smile, and losing the battle. "I'm sorry," she finally all but sobbed.


"This is all my fault. You kept pushing me away, and I wouldn't let up. Now Anya's left you, and you're falling apart, and..." She blubbered off into incoherence.

"You haven't staked Angel yet." Where'd that come from? I must not be totally awake yet. She shook her head, the sniffles still in control for the moment. Finally, she found her voice again.

"Naw. For a vampire, he's not such a bad guy. Beats the hell out that Spike creature." I smiled at that, and this time she managed a weak grin in return. "We talked a long time last night - he told me a lot of stuff about who I was, and who you are and, well, a lot of stuff."

I was back on the bed in Angel's guest room - not that I'd ever left the room, anyway. The door was ajar, and there seemed to be several people outside discussing my condition. "This isn't your fault, you know," I told her. She'd apparently wandered off, mentally, around when I did a few minutes before. She was staring at me, but didn't actually focus until I spoke.

"But I..."

"Made every dream I ever had come true. Well, except for the one with the whipped cream and the feather..." She swatted me weakly and blushed.

"You seem to be doing better."

I shrugged. "Anyway, I always wanted you to want me. It just wasn't the right time."

"Too little, too late?" I'd seen that look on Buffy Before - after Angel went to hell, after he left for L.A., when Riley took off. It had never been due to me, though. My heart twisted.

"No." I took her hand. "Too much, if anything. I'll tell you the same thing I was planning to tell Anya, before she..." I hadn't explained to anyone what had happened, and that Anyanka was on the loose again. I wasn't in the mood for a long story with a frightening ending just now. I was still a bit woozy, too. Letting it drop, I went on. "I need a little time, to figure out who I am, and what I really want. I've made too many mistakes in my love life. I need to decide if I want you because I've always wanted you, or because I want you now." She looked confused, and I can't say I wasn't partially there with her. "I don't want to fall for you out of habit. You're a little different now, but what if..."


Cordelia should get some kind of bad timing award. She burst in the door without knocking, and the conversation was totally off track instantly. "Good God, Xander, you scared the crap out of me. Do you know you've been out for almost twenty hours?"

"What time is it?"

"Seven-thirty - 7:30 Saturday night. You were unconscious most of the day." Her tone became less strident. "You alright?" She nearly sounded worried. I was flattered.

"Oh, man. I only get two days off, and waste a whole one passed out. What a rip-off." The rest of the gang shuffled in - Angel, and Giles, of course, and Willow and Tara. I shouldn't have expected Anya, but my heart fell a little that she wasn't there. Of course, not that Anyanka would care about stressed out ex-boyfriends. In fact, she might have-

Okay, it's about time I panicked. "Has anything weird happened? Time changed, anyone disappear? Oh, shit, you wouldn't know, would you? She could have wiped out everything, but, then," I looked at Buffy, "You're still here."

"We hadn't really finished talking," she answered me, pouting a little. "But if you want me to leave..."

"No! I didn't mean that. I mean - Anyanka." Buffy still looked confused, but I heard Willow and Cordy gasp in unison.

"She's that mad?" Willow asked. I nodded and Wills moaned. I mean, none of us really remembered the alternate world that Anyanka had produced when Cordy was mad at me, but Anya had filled me in on all the details, and I had told Willow the whole background about our vampire selves, one of whom we'd actually met. Apparently somewhere along the line, Willow had shared the entire story with Cordelia.

Buffy kept looking around to see if she was the only one confused. Finally she waved her hand in the air, and said, "I'm afraid I can't seem to connect the dots. Anybody else not following?" Her hand still high, she looked around as Angel, Giles and Tara all slowly raised their hands as well.

Willow was surprised. "Giles, you remember the vamp me, don't you?"

"She was a bit - unforgettable."

"Well, we knew she was from an alternative world - what we really didn't know then was that Anyanka had been the one who created it, and exactly how." She and Cordy tag teamed the story, each telling what they felt was important, and most of it seemed accurate. I finished the tale by simply explaining that she was back and not entirely happy with me, right now.

"You know, this is the second time you've been her target, Xan. Maybe you should think twice about having any sort of relationship at all." I know Cor was trying to lighten the mood after my revelation, but I could see Buffy wince, and I may have done so myself. That was such a heart-warming thought - the world was safest if I was lonely.

I stood up from the bed, only a little shaky. "I need to go find her before anything happens - sort of throw myself to the lions, so to speak."

"I'll go with you." I looked over at the volunteer.

"Buffy, that is so not a good idea." I saw her bottom lip quiver, and she bit it to make it stop. I was not going to think it couldn't get any worse - it always could. This is the Hellmouth, after all.

"Are you sure you're up to it?" Dear Tara, always quiet, but always listening and caring. She was digging around in her purse. "Here." She handed me a small talisman on a chain. "It's a charm that gives the wearer strength of heart. I keep it around for exams. I get queasy without it. I don't test well." Pulling it back out of my hand, she fastened it around my neck. "You might want to keep it for a while," she said softly, catching my eye and looking over my shoulder at Buffy. The Slayer looked scared and lost, and I hated that I had anything to do with it.

"Tara, you're the best. Wills is so lucky you like girls." I squeezed her hand, and headed out to my car. Once again I was thinking that the butcher knife, if it were sharp enough, would be the way to go.


She wasn't at the apartment. The good news is, none of my stuff was broken, and there was no blood to be found anywhere. But all Anya's stuff was gone, as was the stuff's owner, whatever name and face she was currently traveling under. I tentatively touched the wall where the photo of her and me, the one we had done at the Real Photographer to put in the paper with the engagement announcement, was conspicuously missing. Did she take it for the memories, or the image to use for majikal purposes? I even wore a suit for that.

I wanted to hate her. Really. But all I could work up to was sad. She was wrong - I have no question. And I couldn't marry her after what she did, and almost did. But I wasn't completely faultless, at least in arousing the emotions that led to her need to do something. It was just the choice she made on what to do that was way beyond wrong. I wouldn't take any blame for that.

I went to the Magic Box next, although I was pretty certain she wouldn't be there. The 'closed' sign hung in the window, like it should at this time on a Saturday night. I let myself in with the key Giles had given me (we all have one), and wandered aimlessly, half thinking I'd see her there behind the counter, or dusting the artifacts, or emptying out a box. The security lights gave me dim visibility, and I stepped into the training room in the back, taking a couple of half-hearted swings at the punching bag before heading back out. I was almost certain I'd never see Anya in that place again, and it made me terribly melancholy.

I checked the Bronze, even though she didn't really care for the place. Lots of youthful hormones, and everyone seemed to be coupled up - dancing, drinking and making out. I caught a flash of curly blonde hair, but when I got a better look, I saw the girl was a kid - probably not much more than Dawn's age. I wasn't there long.

Finally I went to the cemetery. I didn't think she'd be there, either, but I knew Anya, although I wasn't sure how much of her was in Anyanka. Anya would be looking for me, by now, and might try here. If Anyanka wasn't looking for me, well, that might be a good thing. Anyway, Green Lawn was always one of my favorite cemeteries - a category of favorite I think normal people don't have. It was pretty - the place where Joyce was buried, and where I'd built a small memorial for Jesse, since his parents thought he'd run away, and there'd been no body for them to bury, anyway. It was where Buffy had been buried, too, which still kind of weirded me out when I stopped to think about it. And just through the woods, past my shrine for Jesse, was a small city park.

I wandered through the graves, recognizing more than a few for a variety of reasons, then I wound through the trees and over to the park. I folded myself down onto a swing, sticking my long legs out in front of me so my knees didn't end up around my ears. I was there, alert for vampires but my mind still wandering, when she found me.

"That swing taken?" she asked, almost shyly. I shook my head and she sat down. We sat in silence for a while, swaying gently. I'd looked for her all night, wanting to talk to her, but now that she was here, I wasn't sure what to say.

"I'm not coming back," she finally offered, out of the clear blue. "I'm sort of bound now to work for D'Hoffryn. I was going to do it in secret, but since you found out..." She fell silent again, and I was fighting back the bile that rose at how casually she'd mentioned me finding out she wanted Buffy to be dead again. I'd promised myself to hear her out - I just wasn't able to trust my mouth yet if I opened it.

"Don't flatter yourself, I'll survive." Oops - I never have been able to keep quiet when I'm upset.

"I really am sorry," she whispered, obviously hurt by my anger. "I didn't think about how many people would suffer if Buffy was still dead. I fell back into my old pattern of ignoring the consequences of the wishes I granted. I didn't mean to hurt you." Her voice was breaking, and I stopped swinging.

"An, I loved you so much. We probably could have worked it out, somehow. But something like that..."

"I know." That soft answer was my An - more human than demon, and feeling instead of just acting. I'm just glad I found her in time. Still, she wasn't my An anymore, and we both knew it. She was all demon, all the time.

"I made a deal with D'Hoffryn," she told me, her voice growing stronger again. "I explained to him that the whole vengeance demon thing was seriously eighteenth century, and things needed to change. He wanted me back so bad, he agreed to try it my way." She turned to face me, a small but confident smile forming on her face. "First off, the thing where I just worked with scorned women? Sexist! Now I'm gender-neutral." My anger had already faded some, and now I was sort of amused - a politically correct vengeance demon. Would wonders never cease? "Also, I've now seen that many couples have difficulties that aren't clearly any one person's fault." Her tone was sad again, but I ignored that and let her know I wanted to hear more about her new - arrangement. Perking up at my obvious interest, she continued. "So now, I'll listen to both sides and try to help the couple reconcile first. If that doesn't work out, I'll then attempt a fair breakup agreement. All else failing, I'll curse the one who doesn't cooperate." Her smile was ear-to-ear by this point.

"Sort of 'Can This Relationship Be Saved?' with teeth," I offered.

"Oh, yeah. And with D'Hoffryn's help, I've set up a web page with pictures of some of my more creative past curses to use as incentive. I never knew he'd kept an album..." she went on to herself. Smiling proudly, she turned to me again. "He's very pleased to have me back again, and admitted this could actually work. It's very twenty-first century."

"You've always been a style-setter, An." I stood up, stretching my legs. "I guess I'll see you around, then?" I suddenly wanted to get away - I knew she was going to be okay, and her going back to her demon state would apparently hurt no one, but I didn't want to lose it here. I was still a bit emotionally unstable about the whole thing. I figure I was probably only holding it together with the help of Tara's amulet.

"Unless you screw up with Buffy, you won't - see me, that is." She stood face to face with me.

"I - I'm not..." Smooth, Xan.

"Yeah, you are. You two are fated or something." She shrugged. "You could do worse." She hugged my waist, and I put my arms carefully around her shoulders. "I'm really going to miss the orgasms," she said muttered into my shirt. Stepping back, she seemed to withdraw into a shell so she wouldn't cry. "Make sure you water the philodendron," she lectured me. "And tell Giles to just keep my last check. I won't be needing it now." And just as suddenly as she'd appeared, she was gone, leaving me to pick up the pieces of my life and move on.


Chapter 6
That Last Step Is a Doozy

You know, after all these years, you'd think I'd've learned. Emotional distress. Blood pounding. Standing alone, after midnight, outdoors, in the dark.

We're talking engraved invitation, here. Xander Harris, all-you-can-eat, now open for business.

I was still in shock, trying to decide if I should go back to the mansion and try to face Buffy, or go back to my apartment, and try to face how empty it would be. Imagine my surprise when choice C appeared. Stay here and face becoming some vampire's evening meal. At least I had the Stake Express - I don't leave home without it.

He grinned, and I growled. Maybe this would help me work off some of my frustration. We tussled, and I dusted him - never a word was spoken. And that would have been fine.

But he brought five or six of his closest friends along for the fun. "Hey," a female who was probably a goth type even before she was turned complained, "You staked Joey!"

"Well," I said, still a little short on snazzy comebacks, "yeah."

She turned to the guys with her. "He staked Joey," she repeated. I was afraid the whole thing was taxing her single brain cell to the edge of its capacity. I turned, planning on slipping away while she kept repeating herself. "He's leaving," she whined. Still caught up in the obvious, it seemed.

Two of them tackled me at once, and they weren't little guys. "Oooof." Geez, I may have improved on my technique while filling in for Buffy during her absence, but I was going to have to work on the clever lines. If I lived through this, I'd have to make up a cheat sheet, maybe practice a few in the mirror. I rolled out from under the vampire holding me down, and scrambled to my feet, doing a quick recon. There were four guys, and Goth Girl, who was still mumbling about Joey. I could do this. I could do this. Sure, and I could fly, too. As bad as my life was, I wasn't sure I wanted to call it quits just yet, so I had to at least try. One of the fullbacks came at me, and I managed a solid roundhouse punch to his temple, knocking him into one of the smaller vamps behind him. Turning, I saw the other big one approaching, and staked him nearly instinctively. One down.

They now realized that in spite of where they found me, I wasn't going to be a picnic in the park. The one I'd staked (two, counting the much-bemoaned Joey) would be my last easy and unaware shots. The guy I'd punched was up and shouting directions to the others, who moved into a circle around me. Oh, well, I wasn't going down without a fight. Didn't mean I wasn't terrified.

I reached inside my shirt to pull out my cross, but instead my hand closed around the talisman Tara had given me. I grasped it tightly, and felt the shot of courage run down my backbone. Grinning now, I surprised the vampire who'd broken Big Guy's fall by moving towards him and sucker punching him in the gut. He doubled over, groaning. "You guys have to work for your dinner tonight," I taunted. "Although if I have my way, you won't go home hungry. You'll go home dust." The fullback responded with an uppercut to my jaw. Yow!

I stumbled back, into the grip of Goth Girl, who was much less lame and more impressive in full game face. "You're cute," she hissed. "Maybe I should keep you. I mean, since it's your fault I lost Joey." Leave it to me to die due to a girl's romantic problems. I winced, readying myself for the end I'd always expected would happen eventually. As her teeth headed for my neck, I saw her eyes widen in surprise, and she vanished just before I landed unceremoniously on my ass in the dirt where she'd been moments prior to that. The dirt that had been her, moments prior to that. I looked around for my savior.

"Spike! Am I damn glad to see you," I gasped, climbing to my feet. The blond vamp had his stake in one hand, and the remaining big vamp had pinned both his arms from behind.

"Can we save the happy reunion for later, mate?" my undead friend asked me, "I'm just a bit busy right now." He brought his elbow up into the fullback's jaw, and I heard a sharp crack. The pain caused the other vamp to turn loose of Spike, who swung his arm around in an arc, his stake hitting home with ease.

With Goth Girl and the fullback now imitating ground cover, the two smaller guys that remained decided they liked their food a bit more docile, and took off. Spike looked at me critically, touching my jaw. "That's bruising already," he commented as I pulled away from his fingers.

"Oww! Leave it alone."

He pulled back the collar of my shirt. "The chicklet left y' a souvenir, too." I reached up to feel my neck where he was pointing, just above my collarbone. A neat set of what felt like four bleeding crescent-shaped wounds stung beneath my fingertips. "I think she had acrylics," Spike offered.

"Great. The latest in style for the best-dressed bloodsucker."

"Actually, she was kind of skanky, not terribly stylish at all." Buffy stepped out from behind a tree. "Thanks, Spike, for finding him, and helping. I showed up a little late to do anything."

"I din' do it for you, Slayer, I did it for Peaches. And God alone knows why he asked, or I agreed." Fumbling in his jacket pocket, Spike pulled out his lighter and a cigarette, lit up and took a deep drag.

"And you were just leaving, right?" Buffy said, her brow arched.

"Nah - I'm all warmed up, now. I want to kill something else, and Droopy here seems to attract 'em."

I was testing the sore spot on my chin, just to feel it burst into pain again. Felt so good when I stopped, I guess. "I promise to call you the next time the undead plan to party atop my ass, Spike. Right now, I think Buffy and I need some time." By this point, we were both glaring at him. He tried staring back innocently, finally giving up, throwing down the butt and crushing it out.

"Fine. I know when I'm not wanted."

"No he doesn't," Buffy mumbled softly as the vampire left. "Never has." She moved over and sat down on the swing. The same swing that Anya had been sitting in earlier. Blue-green eyes looked at me expectantly, and I had to turn away.

"Look," I said awkwardly, "No offence, you being the Slayer and all. I mean, I know you could defend me, but I still have a little bit of crap left that hasn't been kicked out of me yet tonight, and I'd like to hold onto it. Could we move this discussion indoors somewhere?" I heard her jump up, and now she was separated somewhat from the unpleasant memories that particular swing held, I could manage to look at her again. "My apartment?" She nodded.

Stupid idea. My apartment. Me and Buffy-God-Knows-What (she wasn't Buffy Before, but she was acting less like Buffy Now since she arrived here - do I need a new category?) alone, together. And in the place that reeked of Anya - if not in the literal sense, although I think I'll probably pick up faint traces of her perfume for months - and reminded me of what a mess I'd made of yet another relationship. With the girl who seemed to be at least peripherally the cause of all the relationships I'd had in the past that had gone down in flames. Not only that, but this place contained my bedroom, and if she was still Buffy Now, and still fixated on me, could I resist her, and if I couldn't, would it screw up what someday could be, when I was over Anya and.

". and I thought maybe I'd figure out a way to get Spike's chip removed, and he and Dawn and I could run away to Acapulco together and have a wild three-way affair." I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at her incredulously. She looked back at me blandly. "Good, you're finally listening again. I was running out of outrageous lies to get your attention. You totally missed the one about me planning to have Giles' baby." She turned and began walking again.

I gulped. "Sorry." I took a few long strides, finally catching up with her. We were in the parking lot outside my building, and I saw my car a few spaces away from us. "Hi, Christine!" I called out, earning an odd look from my companion. "Long story," I said, and shrugged. We entered, and I let her in my door.

I went into the kitchen and got the ice pack, wrapped it in a towel and put it on my jaw. When I came back she was sitting on the couch, looking at me expectantly. I returned the look, and she frowned. "Okay, spill - the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

"So help me God," I finished, hand in the air, unable to help myself. Then I frowned back at her. "About what?"

She sighed, and settled back into the sofa cushions. "What do you think?"

I sat down in the chair, ice pack in place, and thought out loud. "You know what happened with Dawn, and how you died, so that isn't it. You heard the whole Anyanka story, so not that either. And I assume you and Angel covered your shared background, and there's little I could add there. What's left?"



She began ticking a list off on her fingers. "So far, since I've been back, Willow's told me about how you've always loved me. Angel called you my White Knight, and said he was always jealous of your love for me. Giles stuttered, cleaned his glasses, blushed and cleared his throat, and somewhere between all that, your name and the words 'romantic attention' were mentioned. Dawn has all but threatened to beat me if I fail to return your feelings 'this time.' The only person who hasn't talked to me about your feelings for me has been you."

"I'm surprised Anya didn't drop by and lecture you on her way out of town," I mumbled, a bit irritated at my so-called 'friends.' How the heck is a guy supposed to deal with a poorly kept secret with people like them around? I don't know if Buffy heard me or not - she just kept sitting there with that look on her face.

"Okay, fine," I sputtered. "I fell for you - literally - the first time I saw you. I was a stupid geek, and you only wanted me as a friend. You only had eyes for - well, actually, Owen Thurman, first, then Angel, then Scott, then Parker, Riley, Ben - basically, anything with a Y chromosome that wasn't named Xander. I imploded several relationships because I couldn't stop obsessing over you. Well, okay, Ampata was a mummy-girl sucking life from everyone, it never would have worked anyway, and we won't talk about Miss French, but there was Cordy, who also got caught in the cross-fire of me discovering Willow was a girl and all, and maybe most of those weren't directly your fault, but there were others I never even looked at because of how I felt about you. Then, finally, I had something worthwhile with Anya, but I should've never asked her to marry me, 'cos deep inside, I still had it bad for you, and that just wasn't fair to her." God, is that a spot on my carpet? Maybe I should check it closer, because if I look up, I'll see Buffy's face, and she'll be laughing, or crying, because that is so damned pitiful, I need a life.

"And yet, whenever I've tried to talk to you about it since I've been back, you've pushed me away. I know there was Anya, but you wouldn't even talk to me about it."

I stared at her, angry. "So you can eventually get your memory back, and tell me again that you just don't feel it? That you can't feel that way about me?"

"Xander, I was sixteen. I was stupid, and selfish, and overwhelmed by the fact that the world depended on me, and I was in love with one of the creatures I was meant to kill."

Wait a minute. I'd never told anyone what she said to me that day. I'm pretty sure she didn't, either. "You remember." She looked at me, fear in her eyes, shaking her head. "Yes you do, you remember what you said to me when I asked you to Spring Fling. You know you were sixteen when you said it, and in love with Angel. You're starting to remember things from before." She looked like a deer in the headlights, a mixture of fear, sorrow and anger dancing across her face. The part of me that wanted to always protect Buffy came to the fore, and I dropped the ice pack on my abandoned chair and knelt down in front of her. "Why don't you want to remember?"

"Because she -" her words began to tumble out, rapidly. "I don't want to be her. But I was her, and. I was stupid, and selfish, and overwhelmed by the fact that the world depended on me, and I was in love with one of the creatures I was meant to kill. I was mean to you, and rude to Willow, and I ignored Giles, all because I thought I was so special. I never paid attention to the fact that you guys did the same things I did, and nobody ever told you that you had to, you just did. You did it because you loved me, and I never returned that love the way I should have." She wouldn't look at me.

"How much do you remember?"

She still had her face turned, and her voice was hard. "Just bits and pieces. Enough to know I don't want to be that person. If memories were things you could see, they'd be big colored blotches instead of people. No fingers, or toes or faces. But lots of them, the blotches that I know are me, are ugly colors."

I took her chin in my fingers, and turned her face so she had to look at me. "If they're ugly, they aren't you. Yes, you were scared, and sometimes you didn't think about others - we all had that problem. Even Giles sometimes lost the big picture in the everyday awfulness that was our high school life. And when you finally remember the love spell I had put on all the girls, well, don't tell me, okay? It didn't get all that much better after graduation, for any of us. But you were always the beautiful colors, Buffy. You were the one who kept us all alive, who rode in on the white horse and saved the day. You didn't just rescue the fair maiden, but the whole damned world, more than once. And we knew you loved us - you didn't have to say it for us to know."

The answer came softly. "I should have said it. Especially to you."

"I know you love me, Buffy. But you don't love me the way you think you do. You never did. It's okay. I'm happy just being your friend, and having you back among the living." I moved up to sit beside her on the couch, my hand still on her face.

She wrenched her face from my grasp. "Why do you do that?" she asked me angrily. "You always assume I'm going to treat you the way she did - the girl I was before. That's one of the reasons I don't want my memory back. I can start over - make up for all the hurt I must have handed you, to make you so sure you aren't worthy of being loved that way." She spit out those last two words with some serious venom.

"But we all need you back," I flailed, verbally, trying with my words to beat down her inexplicable anger. I stood, not even conscious of my need to back away. She stood too, following me.

"Why? Is it because I'm safe and familiar that way? Because the Ugly Colors Buffy can be counted on to only think of Buffy? You're afraid of me," a sharply manicured fingernail poked into the middle of my chest, "loving," another poke, "you!" The last poke drove me backwards, and the back of my legs hit the edge of the chair. I dropped into the seat, only to land on the ice pack and spring back up, squealing like a stuck pig and rubbing the freezing cold spot on my butt. She was so worked up she didn't even crack a smile. I knew I was in trouble.

And it felt great, in some perverse way. This was the real Buffy, the Buffy I knew and loved. She wasn't upset and crying; she was upset and fighting back. Some of the primo conversations I'd ever had with Buffy Before involved yelling at some point during them. I'd play Jiminy Cricket to her Pinocchio, and tell her in glorious Technicolor exactly what she needed to know, and all would be right with us afterwards. The only thing I could see wrong with this particular yelling match was that we'd switched roles.

And I also saw that she was right. I was afraid of her loving me. Before, when my love was hopeless and unrequited, there was always the hope of 'someday.' But if I went here now, if I let her love me back, maybe I'd find out that all the other relationships that had gone under had been my fault, and all Buffy and I would end up with was a broken 'never again.' I'd grown so comfortable in my blind devotion, all I'd done for a long time was touch it once in a while, like the spot on my jaw, to feel it hurt again. I'd long ago stopped expecting any kind of healing. The pain was so familiar, I wasn't sure I could live without it, and I was a little afraid to try.

During my inner monologue, she'd moved closer. Her voice was almost back to normal tones. "You know one thing I'm starting to remember? I remember how desperately I sometimes wanted to change things. This is my chance to start over - not with just you, but everyone. Already, Dawn and I get along better than we ever did - at least, she says so."

I looked down at her, and she looked so small and frail. I knew better, of course. Still, I spoke to her gently, as if she were as delicate as she looked. "Just because you're remembering things doesn't mean you can't change things. Outside of being the Slayer, which I'm pretty sure you can't change, what would you do different, Buffy? If you could change anything?"

She sounded wistful. "If I could change anything? I would change - everything." A sad smile danced across her face at that thought. "I'd respect Giles more, and love him like the father I've seen him as since I returned. I'd encourage and help Willow with her need to exercise her witchcraft - I think I've pushed her into dangerous places with it, if only because she saw me taking dangerous paths and not looking back, so she thought she could do the same. And you-"

I was mesmerized by the look in her eyes. "No, Buffy. You don't want to change things with me. If you'd noticed me that way back when I first noticed you, we probably wouldn't even be friends anymore. That's what happened with me and Cordelia, and very nearly with me and Willow. She and I are still working our way back to something close to what we once had, and it'll never be the same. I'd hate to think of spending all these years as your ex-boyfriend, rather than as your friend."

Oh-oh. The wistful look was gone, and anger was back. What'd I say?

"So, you could love me all this time, but you think I'm incapable of loving you that long, is that it? Because Buffy could never keep loving anyone that long. Damn it, Xander, is that what you think? Or is it just that you believe no one could love you that long?" She was right in my face, and her eyes were snapping. I was caught between fear for my life, and joy that the girl I knew and loved was really, truly here with me again. "I'll show you," she growled. Then she grabbed the back of my head and kissed me, hard.

She was still angry; I was in shock. We stood for a few minutes, lips pressed together, but interacting as much as a couple of plastic figurines. Suddenly, my mind woke up. I was kissing Buffy. I was kissing Buffy! For God's sake, man, do it!

One thing that I knew for certain was that I was a good kisser. Cordy didn't know every broom closet in Sunnydale High for nothing. Willow admitted she'd been addicted for a while. I'd certainly had plenty of practice with Anya, and she wasn't the type to keep quiet if anything had been less than satisfactory. I decided to put one of my life skills to work.

I slipped my arms around her, pulling her still stiff body closer to me. I turned my head slightly, and began to tease her lips with my own. Before long I felt the angry tension flow away from her, and she melted against me, plastering herself to my front. Buffy's fingers ran through my hair, and my hands smoothed over her back. I tickled at her lips with my tongue, requesting entrance, and it was granted. Our tongues danced, they dueled, we tasted. We had to breathe, finally.

"Oh, God," Buffy sighed against my chest, as we both gently panted. "I've missed so much, haven't I?"

I stroked her hair, reluctant to let go of her too soon. "When did you start to remember?" I murmured.

"Talking to Angel. Little scenes would flash through my mind as we spoke. I still find it hard to believe I was so in love with someone so wrong, though." Her eyes were shining as she looked up at me. "And that I spent so long ignoring someone so right." And then for a few minutes, we were kissing again.

I shouldn't be doing this. She's still not back, at least, not completely. She started to remember, though, and. I broke off the kiss. "Angel knows?"

She nodded against me, unwilling to move from my arms, it seemed. "He promised not to tell anyone, at least, not yet." I took a breath to speak, and she stopped me with a finger to my lips. "Before you say it, no, I'm not going to change my mind about you, no matter how much more of it I get back. Angel seems quite content with his life as it is now, and I felt nothing beyond friendship both from him and for him. And he seems quite pleasantly amused by the way I'm feeling about you. He was as worried as I was when you didn't come back after a while tonight." She was looking at me seriously again, although the anger had long since faded. "When I came back, you treated my like a boyfriend should - you were loving, and kind, and patient. Angel pointed out to me that you'd always treated me that way, even when other people claimed the title. And some of what's coming back to me confirms that. Could I try again, from the top? Please tell me it's not too late."

She'd asked me a similar question before, but I was more certain of my answer, and my reasons for it, this time. It was everything I'd ever wanted, but there was still a gnawing pain and emptiness that I knew wouldn't go away for a while. There was a gaping hole inside that needed time to heal. I had to swoop in for one last kiss, a quick one. "Not too late, Buffy," I assured her, even as I pushed her gently away as our lips separated. "But it may be a little too soon." She looked puzzled, as I thought she might be. "All my many failings aside, I really did love Anya. I'm not ready to let that go without a period of mourning. I can only hope you care enough about me to wait for me to be ready." I stepped back a bit more, turning away, unsure of what her reaction might be.

I spun back, shocked at the sound of her laughter. But her face was missing the sardonic and mocking grin I expected to find at that sound. Instead, she looked relieved. "How long have I made you wait, Alexander Harris? I'll be the first to say that you shouldn't be in the least bit interested in me if I can't manage to wait a bit for you." Her expression softened to an affectionate smile. "I'll wait as long as you were willing to wait, Xander."

I had to smile back. I knew it wouldn't take me forever.