Three against One

Author: Eckles71 <eckles71[at]>

X-Over: Post finale of BtVS & Charmed

Summery: Dawn and Andrew are concerned about Xander. They believe that finding him a Girlfriend will help him get over Anya's death and his funk after Buffy and the other Scooby's give him his walking papers. Paige and Phoebe are concerned about Piper. After Leo reluctantly had to leave her and their infant son to attend to his Greater Destiny as an Elder she has been all mopey around the Halliwell Homestead. The two younger P's think she needs a friend outside of the family to help her get over Leo. Paige adapts a Love Seeking Spell into a Friendship Seeking Spell with Phoebe's involvement and the two decide that they would like to find a 'Best Friend' as well. They both throw their contributions of what they think would make a bestest-best-friend for them both. Unbeknownst to them the Spell merges all their desires into the one request --- and let's just say that the adaptations made to the Love Spell weren't all that effective :). Three Witches vie for the One Xander - Game On!

Feedback: Appreciated as always.

Coupling: X/P {you work it out:)}

I own nothing of 'Charmed and BtVS'

Dedicated: for Weeziegirl

Latest addition

Chapter 1

The interior of the Trailer was what it always looked like, and possibly always will till the end of time. It looked as if it was the birthplace of chaos itself. Post-it's, Plan's, Inventory Reports and Work Order's littered the small room. Nothing looked as if it had a proper home upon the worn wooden desk it sat, but somehow the 46-year old inhabitant of this domain could make sense of it all and knew where everything was. The Site Supervisor leaned on the same desk that held a mountain of unanswered communiques and addressed the young man in his presence. "Harris, I just want you to know that your work on this Site has been first-rate. First one here in the morning, and last one out the gate in the evening. In the three and a half weeks you've been in my employ you've shown me nothin' but the highest commitment to your work. But as you've probably guessed by now, the Project is running to a close. And regretfully we won't be needing you by weeks end."

Xander shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He had long been expecting this speech, been expecting it for three-and-a-half weeks if he was completely honest with himself. But he was an optimist. You get like that when you've not only lived on a Hellmouth, but have survived the worst it had to offer. After a time you came to expect that you lived a charmed life.

But every life must come to an end, and his charmed existence reached its close when Caleb took his eye. Cocking a hopeful smile, the young labourer posed the question he had to ask yet knew would be refused. "Is there any chance that I could continue---"

Before the one eyed carpenter could complete the sentence his supervisor held up his hand to halt his words. "I'm sorry Son, but I just can't use you. I've got a full crew already. We only took you on because Henderson broke his leg on the last job. In two, maybe three weeks that leg plaster of his comes off and he'll be back on our payroll." Steve Gary hated this part of his job. Reliable, hard working men like the one sitting across from him were hard to find these days. But Peter Henderson was Union, and on a Contract with his Company. So sadly there was no choice available for him. The best he could do was to soften the blow for the twenty-three-year-old with words of encouragement. "But you'll find something, Son. You do quality work. Under budget and under-time. Contractor's like you are a rarity, so I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'll throw out a net and see if anyone is in need. If they are, I'll give 'em your number. Worst come to worst you can definitely use me as a referee for any other jobs in the near future. Can't be anymore fairer den dat?"

Xander stoked back the lengthy fringe of his hair off his forehead, took off his tan leather gloves and extended his bare right hand to his soon to be ex-employer. "No. No, you can't. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in not continuing on with you guy's, but I understand. You ever in a pinch again drop me a line."

The handshake was firm and confident. And its owner maintained that false illusion as he exited the makeshift Office. But as soon as he closed the Caravan Door behind him he exhaled and deflated into a tired, worn man. He stoked his fingers through his hair once more and looked around the Construction Site with his one and only eye. Everyone working about him knew what had just been said in private. It was a Work Site full of good people who looked out for one another. Many had approached and warned him of what they heard at first break, giving him plenty of notice that today was the day Steve was going to give him the 'Handshake of Best Wishes'.

At the end of the week, tomorrow, he would be once more unemployed. Just like he was at the end of every month. But he still couldn't let this news distract him from the remainder of the day's work he had to do. Picking up his Hard-hat from the collection of hooks besides the Trailer's entrance he combed his fingers through his thick dark hair, guiding it back once more before placing the safety helmet on.

It had been months since he had had a haircut; sure he had it thinned out, but he never requested a trim. The lengthy hair was what he wanted, with the front overshadowing his brow. Casting an organic camouflage over the left side of his face. Offering concealment to the eye-patch he wore now all the time with the exception of when he slept or showered.

From a respectable distance people and strangers were unaware that he had been 'damaged'. This was how he liked it. No questions, no internal wondering of strangers to its origins. He used to make jokes; it was how he coped. He didn't anymore. And people who would work with him would realise quickly that discussion of the topic was one he didn't enjoy pursuing.

At day's end he received a couple of sincere nods of understanding from his co-workers to his predicament. They had all been where he was at one time in their collective lives. It takes awhile to build a reputation in a big City. When he was in Sunnydale it wasn't a problem or a concern for him, he always had work. It was a small pond and there weren't that many fish to compete with. But San Francesco was a bigger body of water then what he was used to, and he was a guppy in comparison to some of the other more established names that swam with ease in it. Given time he'd make it, he knew he would. He just had to have faith in himself to see it through.

He casually chucked his work-belt into the back tray of a second hand truck he had purchased with a portion of his remaining savings and began his sad twenty-five minute journey home. Driving mostly on autopilot and losing himself in old twisted thoughts that were never far from his mind.

As he pulled into the driveway of the modest Apartment Block he surprisingly only then remembered again what tonight was. Thursday. It was funny how he didn't count the days of the week anymore. He just tallied it to a meal of designated choice. As an end-of-week night it was Dawn's evening. That would mean it would most likely be Mac n' Cheese for dinner.

Yeah, he had a funny life now.

If you'd have told him a year back that he would be playing parent to Dawn and sharing an Apartment with Andrew, he would have laughed in your face.

If you were to tell him that Anya would be dead, that Sunnydale would have disappeared off the landscape, and that he would have lost his left-eye. He would have stopped laughing and then started crying.

If you were to tell him that Buffy, Willow and Giles would have turned their back on him after dealing with the 'First' because they didn't think he would have been an effective fighter due to his now part-blindness. He would have stopped crying and started calling you a liar.

But that's what happened. All of it, just as he was told it would happen, and now all he could do was deal with the collective fallout of all these experiences.

As he slowly steered the truck along the Drive his tastebuds began to work overtime as he imagined the meal waiting for him upstairs. Andrew, surprisingly wasn't a bad cook. But he always used way too much cheese in his 'Mac' creation in his humble opinion. But it was how Dawn preferred it so he never mentioned his desire to have it toned down to the geeky Chef, nor did he offer it any criticism.

Whatever made Dawn happy was fine by him.

As the wheels stilled in his parking spot the twenty-three year old looked into his rear-view mirror, and began to hype up a smile. He couldn't walk into the three-bedroom Apartment and allow its occupants to see how concerned he was. He had to put on a show, just like he did every time a job was coming to a close and there wasn't anything in the immediate horizon.

He was smiling broadly; he could feel the tugs of his facial muscles at work. But instead of seeing a row of teeth all he could focus on was the patched image staring back at him. The 'Patch' and a constant reminder of a night and the visit he could never forget. A meeting that changed his perspective of everything in his life.

He desperately tried to draw himself away from the hated reflection, but he couldn't do it. It was like an irresistible pull to him. {Remember this moment Xand. Remember what she took away and what I let you keep.} The 'spell' was only broken when he heard an errant car horn from the street, this startled him back to reality and allowed him to find the resolve to pat down the front of his hair that had blown itself back from the wind which had passed through his window as he drove home.

Rubbing the nervous sweat off his brow and into his skin, he trailed his fingers over the 3 o'clock shadow beginning to find form on his jaw and chin. At this tactile sensation the young man was reminded of Dawn's assurance to him a few months earlier that he now had all the earmarks of being one 'S-E-X-Y' guy, which was something he was not comfortable hearing from the 18-year old sister-figure. He was even less comfortable when Andrew had hastily agreed with her. These declaration's had him locking his bedroom door at night for a week afterwards.

He finally now had that 'Thing' he always wanted in High School. That 'Thing' that made him look and be thought of as cooler and tougher then everybody else.

That 'Thing' that made him special.

The eye-patch was like a babe-magnet when he went to Bar's after a week's work with the various Crews'. It was embarrassing most of the time as he had to 'slide' off the phone numbers he was given by the various women who thought because of the Patch he was both exciting and dangerous.

Maybe once upon a time he could have been thought of living that lifestyle and taken advantage of the various advances of the female population, but not anymore. He was 'Mr. Joe-Average-Six-Pack' now. He had a responsibility to Dawn, and too a lessor extent - Andrew, to come home safe every night and to provide a sound role-model for his sister-like responsibility. The Patch wasn't him; it was just material and a constant remembrance of what the 'old' gang saw in him. What *he* now saw in himself.

This is why he probably took such subconscious lengths to conceal it wherever he could now. It's what Buffy only saw in him - a reminder.

He may not have been in Willow's or Giles level of smarts; he knew that, it wasn't his strength. He was if anything an observer, and sometimes at night he would curse this insight of his. He wasn't in High School anymore, he didn't buy the whole 'you're not that good of a fighter', or the 'stay fray adjacent' line. It was all crap. How many times did he prove himself without the necessity of engaging in the physical? Enough times to know that he was being handed a load of it.

He knew why they didn't want him.

He had worked out the truth of it all by himself. Even if he wasn't 'Visited' he would have worked it out. It was guilt.

Buffy couldn't deal with seeing his face day in and day out. His face - his eye, was an unwanted memory to the Slayer of what her stubbornness had cost. And like all the problems Buffy has had over the years she dealt with it in the same mature way. She tried to deny that it ever took place. And the best way in denying that something ever happened is to not be constantly reminded of it.

When he was recovering at the Hospital eight months ago, not once did she actually look straight at him. She glanced over his features sure, but she always found something else more interesting to look at in the private room other then at him. His Chart, his feet, his view. But never at him. She would show up with Willow, Dawn, Faith, Robin, Giles or Anya just long enough to say a couple of positive words then make her excuses to escape his presence. Her record for the most time there was four-minutes.

He knew that being in that room with him made her uncomfortable given all that had happened at the Vineyard. Challenging Caleb that night was her idea. Despite everyone in 'the-inner-circle' telling her that it was an obvious trap she still chose to ignore the group's council and spearheaded against their recommendations. All they could do was support her as best they could. Two Potential's died that night, several more were gravely injured. And him --- he lost something far worse, and it wasn't his eye. He lost a piece of himself that had always trusted the inner instincts of one of his dearest friends.

If Buffy didn't want to be there with him as he recuperated then he would have preferred and wished it that she hadn't have come at all. Showing up for a couple of minutes then making some lame excuse to leave did nothing for his morale. Everyday he was 'abandoned' by her, and everyday she left the others to pickup her slack in the 'company' department.

Dawn tried but failed.

Anya was all brooding, critical and would do nothing but whine about what it was like to live in a household of thirty SiT's in an attempt to distract him from his depression.

Giles, Faith and Robin usually left a few minutes after Buffy stating that they had best add to her endeavours to uncover how they could defeat the 'First'.

Willow took it worse however; she needed Buffy to be there with her. She needed Buff's support; she needed to believe that despite everything that would be coming their way in the near future that the three of them, the three teenagers who had started out together on this dangerous adventure together, would always be inseparable till the very end.

As he exited his much used vehicle his mind again drifted back to that 'Night'. The night he faced Evil. It was post one of the more emotional visits from the redhead Wicca and the quickly departing Buffy, she lasted 2-miniutes on this visit. He was to be Discharged that evening and Willow had removed herself from the room so that she could discuss and reaffirm with his Care-Team appropriate approaches in attendance to his injury. But to be honest he more suspected that Will had left to have a good cry and didn't want him to know. He was over run with guilt over this; he never wanted to be a source of any of' 'his' girls crying.

Then 'he' - IT came. He supposed it made a kinda sense; he was at his lowest point after all and Giles had said that it was during these times, when people are at their most vulnerable that IT visited to speak poison into their ears.

On this Night the 'First' showed up to see how he was going.

Under the circumstances it was a very civil discussion, as he supposed most of the 'First's discussions went. No real posturing, no 'I'm-gonna-get-you-and-your-little-dog-too' routine. It spoke, using a language he understood and a face he would trust. It conveyed purpose with every word spoken. And if you were to believe what he was being told, that this was a meeting which was always destined to happen.

Everyone in the Core Group had had a tête-à-tête with the BigBad. Buffy, Spike, Giles, Willow, Dawn, Robin and now it was his turn. It had lasted longer then the others reported to have spoken with 'It'. Even now as the one-eye construction worker walked away from his parked vehicle he still wasn't sure whether or not he should have felt honoured by this fact.

Chills still ran up and down his spine like always as he recalled his reaction when 'Jesse' walked into, and about, his quiet light-lit room. Nothing was said to him in-bulk that he was not already well aware of. He guessed that was how the 'First' operated. It was all about the facts, and the presentation of possible scenarios to those facts that now haunted his mind. Why after all use cunning lies when the truth could be so much more effective. You can denounce lies; the truth however is something you cannot deny as easily.

'Jesse' made a polite introduction of himself as if he hadn't guessed already who, or what, this thing really was and explained to him why he wasn't dead at that moment. He was not dead because 'The First' didn't want him dead. Why else did Caleb just try to take his eyes's and not just snap his neck - it would have been a lot faster and easier for the deranged Preacher. Then there was the choice of words Caleb used before he gouged into his left socket - 'You're the one who sees everything.'

The remembrance of the short conversation he had with Dawn two weeks earlier filtered through his memory as he recalled what he said to her.

How much did the 'First' really know about them? He was about to find out in frightening detail.

**** Flashback ****

"I owe you bud. I owe you more then I can say."

"You're not fooling anyone, I know what you are."

"Course you do. Your a lot smarter then everybody ever gave you credit for. You see everything when others about you were blind. But when you've been seeing everything, I've been seeing you." 'Jesse' walked up to the window and lent upon the edge without a sound or shadow being cast by the effort and looked out to the view it offered. "I want you in my camp, Xander."

"Not gonna happen."

Theatrically the 'Jesse' figure then slapped his head in mocked realisation. "What am I saying? I don't want you in my Camp, you're already *IN* my camp. Have been since the Master's Lair. Without you upsetting the Apple Cart there Bud, the balance wouldn't have been off, and I wouldn't have been able to set the wheels in motion for my Victorious Return. Ya did me a real solid there Dude." 'Jesse' grinned broadly as he extended two thumbs up. "Much appreciated."

The bed-laying Scooby offered the evil apparition of his childhood best friend a cocky smile and replied. "Not gonna work, your not going to turn me. You're not going to convince me that this, *any* of this is my doing. Giles made us all wise to you and your methods. So save your breath, or rather lack of it."

Jesse grin then formed a smile. It was the most evilest smile he had ever seen in his life, and he had seen some evil smiles in his time. The 'First' then announced in a deep booming voice to the room's sole occupant. "But Luke; I am your Father." The First then smiled broadly again and corrected himself. "Nah, just joshing. Ya gotta lighten up Man, face oblivion with a smile on your dial. I'm not gonna kill ya, or turn ya. If I wanted that it would have been done years ago. I want you to live, and your gonna live too. Even if I gotta get the Turok-Hans to be your personal B-Guards. Your gonna live, Dude. I mean what good is conquest if there's no-one around to talk about it? Besides, we made ourselves a Pact."


"Word to the wise my Man. Never beg, plead, ask or pray for anything when you're beside a Hellmouth. You never know who might be listening."

"I --- I don't --- I *. Buffy!"

"Bingo! She was on her way to the Pearly Gates my friend. And you prayed before you offered her CPR, that you would give up anything to have her comeback to you. Totally selfless, my-man. Bought a tear to my ancient eye, *sniff*." The 'Jesse' figure offered a half-hearted chuckle at the stunned expression forming on Xander's face as he recalled the night he went against Giles and kidnapped Angel to help him navigate through the Master's Lair. "That was one of those few times Upstairs and I ever came to a joint decision. So we sent her back. Now, the PTB may have waved off your pledge, but I *never* forget a deal. You said you would give up anything, so I took *everything*."

"Wh--- what?"

"Everything Dude, look about you. Everything you have ever cared about is corrupt now. Don't get me wrong, I didn't stay up at night plotting all the pitfalls surrounding your life, I just helped them along with gentle whispers here and there. Not that they really needed much 'prompting', I just steered them towards the fork in each road and let them make their own individual choices. It's what I do, and after a *whole* bunch of millennia's you get to doing it real well.

"The first on the old scorecard was of course your precious Buffy. I mean really, how could she not be? You were so gaga over her that I made her a 'Special' Project of mine. Remember when she went off on her Summer Break with her old man after the Master's Lair and came back a different person? She wasn't prepared to give you the time of day was she? But for our souled Vamp she had all the seconds in the World for.

"That was actually kinda fun organising, especially when Angelus turned up. But before that, her chosin' to hang out with the Vampire over you. Watching you all those years as the lust-of-your-life was getting all cuddly with Mr Broody. You saved her life and it got you no-where. Man, it must have sucked to be you during that time. Now, I'm not denying that there weren't genuine feelings there or nothing for the Slayer and the Vamp, I mean I can't *force* anyone to do something against their wishes. I'm more an invisible-intangible advisor. But she fell easily into his arms, and she stayed there didn't she, didn't so much as look back, and around, or consider what she was missing out on ?!? Even after all of the Angelus nonsense. Most girls would be skittish about lip-locking with a guy who had killed and tortured friends of theirs several months earlier. But not her. With the 'He-didn't-have-a-Soul-then' crap justification, most people wouldn't have stood for it. I mean Spike last year didn't have a Soul and he proved good enough to keep the Slayer warm at night, right up until the time he tried to rape her of course. Yes siree, most would have learnt from their mistakes - but not her. Not the best judgement around where guys are concerned I guess."

Xander shifted up the bed, his face bright with interest. "Hangon, if I was the Target and you were using Buffy's relationship with Overbite to get back at me, then why did you bring Dead boy back from Hell? Wouldn't it have been smarter to let her go on without him? I mean she wasn't interested in me in that way, she made that quite clear. Why all that crap during Christmas?"

"Because Love Xand, evolves. People don't end up with their first Boyfriend or Girlfriend for the rest of their lives. I mean it happens, rarely, but that whole Soul-Mate stuff? Please. If I didn't arrange to send him back with that phoney-deal then she would have moped, like she always does, and you would have been all comforting. Then she would have started seeing you with fresh eyes and before you guy's graduated the two of you probably would have been an item. Naah, made more sense to bring him back. Let her get her hopes up, and take it away with Angel's suicide by Morning Dawn on Christmas Day. Making that day a real anniversary of horrors for her. She wouldn't have recovered regardless of what you would have said after that, and you would have been miserable because she was miserable. Good plan, and it was going to happen that way too, but 'Up-top' had to interfere. Anyway, spilt milk - not worth cryin' over now.

"At any rate the two worked out that they couldn't be together in that 'way' so a little misery was spread I guess. In those kinda things it's better to take a little than nothing at all. Besides, at the time I doubted you would have even have noticed given your distraction with Cordy and all. Or did you think it was a co-inky-dink that the Oz-Man was driving pointlessly around the numerous streets of SunnyD with Cordy in tow? There the two of them were, both boyfriend and girlfriend anxiously searching for their lost-loves and then *bingo*, Wolf man Oz catches a stray whiff in the air of his significant other?

"Gotta tell ya Bro, that Werewolf is harder to conjile as you, but he eventually caught on and turned left when he should have. And there in the wind, almost by chance - Willow. Of course the timing had to be just right, no point in them stormin' into the Basement an comin' to the rescue when everything was still all 'Innocent'. Had to get the circumstances just right for their entry. Will giving it up right then? Hmmmm, you never thought that was the worst timing ever?"


"Me." 'Jesse' took a bow. "Queen C was making you far too happy. And I didn't want that, so I started distracting the Red-Head towards you. The fact that she always had a crush of ya just made it all that much easier in a lot of ways. But she's a dedicated one and she was with Ozzy so there was a lot of internal conflicting going on with her part. You however were just stoked that you had two young women after you. Every teenager's - EVERY *Male* Teenager's dream.

"See the goal of this game has always been the same, Dude. It was to Break you. I can Break anyone; I'm very skilled in this area like I said. But you? No, you got character my friend and that made you a challenge. And I like challenges. The others weren't an effort. I wanted to break and then corrupt you. I wanted to do it in a fashion that the other's around you would have no empathy for you and what trials you were going through cause they were all to focused upon themselves and their own problems.

"They were cake, but you were tougher then shoe leather buddy-boy. You were always the optimist. With the whole 'every cloud has a silver lining' thing. You wouldn't fall to your knees, but I did find your Achilles heel. *Relationships*. Relationships of the people you loved. You are so invested in the happiness of your friends that it makes you vulnerable, and I liked watching you vulnerable. So I made sure your friends relationships were nothing but trouble.

"Riley, now he was a laugh. Always trying to do the right thing, the noble thing. But he always had to *try*, always making an effort to assert himself as the Alpha-Male of the Slayettes. Always trying to make himself indispensable, where basically he was considered pretty replaceable. Except by you. You liked that Buff had a normal Boyfriend, or should I say 'Human' Boyfriend. You couldn't connect with Oz, but Riley was the closest you came to a male buddy since, since --- well - me."

"Your NOT 'Jesse'!!!"

"Your right, I'm not. I'm just making a point. Riley Finn was committed and in-love but he knew he didn't have the Slayer's respect or Heart. He tried to be everything for her, tried to measure up to her needs, but everybody still looked to you, everyone that mattered in his eyes anyway.

"He had more to offer the group then you could - Op's Training, Combat Experience and it still wasn't enough. No wonder he got bitter, no wonder he tried doing the whole lone commando thing. No wonder he got defensive and aggressive when the other contender for the 'Alpha-Male' position - Spike, started paying attention to his 'Girl'. He couldn't take on you without coming off looking like the bad-guy, but Spikey he could Bully around. Besides, he really didn't hate you; he was just a wee-bit jealous of ya that's all. He thought of you as his friend also and that only made him more depressed. Because he knew you hadn't done anything to deserve his jealousy except be you.

"After this realization it just took a little amount of encouragement for him to do the adrenaline-thing with the Vampire Hooker. Then stuff happened between him and the Slayer when Spike discovered the truth and blabbed happily of his discovery to the Buffinator. And *even* when his name and discussion of the topic was 'off-limits' you were the only one there for him. Not in the physical way, but you didn't want Buffy to miss out on any chance of happiness. That was a real classy thing you did there, Xander. You stood your ground against her and you partitioned for him - which by the way was perhaps one of the most moving speeches I've heard you give since that whole 'You're my Hero' malarky. But it was too late for our lovebirds. He then left the scene - The Hellmouth & the Scooby's, and then became nothing to me. Show's up later after a year and he's now the happiest he's ever been. All because he left the Hellmouth and *you*."

"You honestly expect me to buy this BS. That you have been responsible for every crappy thing that has happened in my friend's lives. That what ever happened to them is linked to me?"

"No, no, not at all. *Again* - I can't force, Hell, I can barely influence people. I just put that little Devil on their shoulder and they do the rest. It's all about freewill, Xand. It's one of the binders's from Above. I can have my fun here as long as I play within the rules of the game. I put that Devil there to shout into their ear, but it's up to them on whether they listen too it or not. And they decided to listen. Buffy, Angel, Spike, Dawn, Finn, Oz, Faith, Giles and Willow. But not you. And that's what I like most about you Xand; you have standards that will not be compromised. You never had to try and do the right thing, you just did it. You wavered sure with the whole CordyWillowYou Love-Triangle but in the end you would have done the honourable thing. You lived your life by the same tired motto - 'It's not about *being* right, it's about ---*"'

The 'First' ceased the quote and looked expectantly to the bed laying Scooby. After a tense couple of seconds Xander completed it for 'him', much to the amusement of the visitor. "*--- it's about *doing* right."

"That's true. It's all about intent. All the greatest and most memorable victories of the Scooby Gang have your finger prints all over it. You were the one who decided to retrieve Buffy from the Master's Lair; sure Angel went with you. But even if you couldn't have forced him I bet you would have gone down alone anyway. Deceiving Buff with the Soul Restoration Spell of Willow's - that took Ball's of steel my friend. And it paid off; I doubt she could have fought Angelus like she did if she believed there was a chance that any second her Angel would return. The Judge and the Rocket Launcher - laughed my ass off for a week, that Guy always got on my nerves. The Library blowing up around Mayor Snake and leading the students - all down to you.

"The inspiration of the Joining-Spell to vanquish A.D.A.M. If not for your 'If only.' the G-Man probably wouldn't have thought of anything to counter that Frankenstein's Monster reject. Glory was a bit of a no-involvement for you, but you did come through with the Wreaking Ball when it was most needed to knock Glorificus on her ass, so I guess you get kudos for that. And then there was Kingman's Bluff and the Wicca.

"Ahh yes, and while we're on the subject - Willow. Inquisitive Will. Smart, but with absolutely no amount of common sense. Give her a taste of a little power and I knew she would want more. Like a junkie after their first free sample. And that Free-Sample was the Soul Restoration Spell. You weren't there when she did it, but if you were you would have heard my words and voice come from her mouth. Again, it's all about the timing. The Angel/Angelus switch had to be perfect. Just enough time to have no effect on the opening of the Portal, but just enough for the Slayer to realize who it was standing in front of her before she closed it.

"Yes-sirree-Bob, she sooooo loved the taste of the power I offered her. Most Powerless people do, that's why they get so fixated on it. The Dark Arts were at first a hobby everyone tolerated, but it then became a consuming way of life for her and nooooobody could see the path she was on. Except for Tara, of course. *Yick*, that one was so full of love it made me sick. Good thing she died, huh? Otherwise that whole Dark-Willow thing maybe never would have happened.

"I'm not buying into this. You're not that influential. It was a stray shot. Warren shot her!"

"Yes, that's right. He did. A Gun, very uncreative of him. For a guy who always thought big and grandiose schemes, too suddenly select a gun when previously he was using Invisible Ray's, and Power-Ball's. A Gun, hmmmmmm who coulda suggested that to him? And then what happened? He shot the Slayer, and fired off a couple of other times as he turned and ran away. Why waste the extra ammo unnecessarily? For that matter, why run? The Slayer was down, and that left you. If he was prepared to kill one person that day, why not another. Why leave a witness to the crime?"

Under the question Xander's jaw clenched. Afraid of the answer that it provided in itself.

"Like I said Xand, if I wanted you dead. You would have been dead by now. I've always been protecting you in one form or another. Warren was a pity party, Ha, Big Bad my foot. The man was a joke. All those big Brain's balanced with an even bigger ego. In another life maybe Will and he would have hit it off. They did have a lot in common after all."

These words were mumbles as Xander stared at the white stiff sheet's draping the lower portion of his body. Lost in the memory of Tara and the life taken from her. Of the suspicion that if the 'First' was being truthful then that he had played a significant part in it.

Only with the mention of Willow Rosenberg's name did he snap back into reality.

"So, so curious, and look where her arrogance led her. Doin' that old levitating pencil trick now scares the bee-geezers out of her. Who would have thought that Willow-the-Nerd would have become one of this Planet's greatest threats? But now she's terrified to do the old Voodoo that she do so well outta fear that she won't be able to handle it. Poor frightened and incredibly Powerful Willow. I guess it's like having a Nuclear Weapon without anyway to trigger it."

"Some would say that's the best kind of Nuke to have."

'Jesse' smiled at hearing the comment, enjoying that Xander had now fallen into his standard defensive character. The 'Cavalier Character' with the insightful humour. "You've always been attracted to powerful Women haven't you Xander. Power, Mystery, Authority. Substitute Teacher's, Exchange Student's, Seer's, Slayer's, Witches --- Vengeance Demon's. You like playing with fire, you find it exciting. You're an Adrenaline Junkie. You get off on it, that's why you are always drawn to them. You enjoy the romance and the redemption opportunities." The smile continued to spread as Xander's face became grimmer with the 'To-close-to-home' Topic. His uncomfortableness only encouraged 'Jesse' to continue.

"Do you really think it was fortune that a Vengeance Demon became Human again and had her stay that way? Who do you think gave D'Hoffran his start? That Demon-Lord takes his Order's from me - always has. I knew that chivalrous attitude of yours would try and reform Anya into a healthy member of society. But I got distracted myself and turned my back for one second and when I turn around again you'd fallen in love with her, and her you. 'You make me glad I'm a Man' - Geez, where do you come up with that stuff? And for that matter how could someone who say's those kinda things have difficulty finding a date in High School?

"So like with Cordy, I couldn't let that relationship happen, you were getting far too happy for my taste. So I had to put a stop to it on a day that would make the blade that pieced your heart's the dullest - Your Wedding Day. That's why I informed that Demon, you know the one - 'Future-whammy'-Guy, of your and Anyanka's impending nuptials. He had a personal score to settle with Anya, to which he decided to take out on you. Ever wondered why? If you usually got a 'Beef' with someone you go to the source, not to the fringe."

"Another 'Whisper'?"

"You're catchin' on. After that humiliation she then went Vengeful again, *at* my insistence to Hoffy. Or didn't you think it odd that a 'Lord' did an immediate back-flip to his position 18-months earlier. Didn't see Spike in the cards though, but you know what they say about Hell havin' no fury."

All awhile the Carpenter lay silent as his long-departed friend's words continued throughout the room. His mind drawed into the Macavellian plots that seemed to surround his life.

"Faith turning evil wasn't down to me I'm sad to say; she was always a Bad Girl. But that night with her and you - consider that a freebie. I thought you should at least have the pleasure of Banging one Slayer, sure it wasn't the Slayer you dreamed about but hey I didn't see you putting up a struggle at the time."

Xander turned his head away, unable to look at this thing with Jesse's face on it any longer

This action only bought a laugh to the talking figure. "Oh come on!?! Don't tell me you honestly thought there was genuine chemistry there? You had known her what? A month. In that time did she show any interest in you aside from telling those sexy stories? After the 'Jhe' Rescue, and when you were driving her back to her Motel Room - just more whisper's my friend" After seeing the expression grow dark and hurt upon the one-eye carpenter Jesse mocked sympathy and encouragement. "But hey, don't take it too bad. She must have thought about it at one time of another, probably before she got the chance to really know you. Only this time she decided to enact on it." Xander looked up at the youthful face of his long-dead friend unaffected by it's encouragement as the First asked him another obvious question. "Didn't you think it odd that she didn't come out and say anything to anybody about the two of you after the deed?

"Faith and me was just a thing. I liked her, I didn't love her. She was a friend. I knew - *She* knew, it was nothing more then what it was, and that it didn't involve anyone else but the two of us. It was just a bit of fun and release - for both of us."

"Your right. Absolutely right. Fun and Games. Not personal. Hell, you were probably imagining her with blonde hair anyway - Right? Y'know, some women might get offended if they thought that their Lover wasn't paying attention to them during the act. And Faithy-girl has herself a wicked temper. If she thought that you might have been fantasizing of Buffy when you two where doin' your impression of the Beast-with-two-backs. She'd probably want to *kill* you." The last part was said with emphasis on the key word in the last sentence. There was no doubt what was being implied. But by this stage Xander's mind was swimming with fact's that made sense, but he couldn't force himself to believe any of it.

After several moments of joyous observations of the Carpenter's distress the 'First' spoke again. Its tone once more held that of a friendly discussion. "You can admit it you know. That you're in Love with Buffy."

Shakily, a response was hatefully offered. "I'm not. Not in that way, haven't for a long time."

The First smiled once more, as if it was expecting that answer. "When did you stop loving her *that* way?" The question earnt silence, which was again what it was expecting. "It wasn't the discovery of Buffster and Spikey. You were more betrayed and hurt by that. It wasn't when she went with Finn, you liked the guy. And not Angel, you still lusted for her then. It was between Angel leaving, and Riley starting. Hmmmmmm what a stumper." Jesse rubbed his chin in mock pondering and then snapped his fingers. "Parker. You stopped loving her after Parker Abrams."

Xander's eye darted poison towards the image of his childhood friend. But this only confirmed the 'First's assumption and he started to clap his hands in self-triumph.

"Of course, it was Parker. Or as I prefer to call him - The Anti-Xander. Guy looked like you, used that disarming amusing charm like you. Dressed like you when you were Hyena-boy, all dark colours. And she gave it up to him after only a couple of meetings. Ohhh that must have boiled your blood. Knowing that she was attracted to and pining for a guy who was basically a carbon copy of you with only a different name - but lacking in character. That was why you got all committed to Anya so quickly wasn't it? It was because you knew she wouldn't see you as anything else but the old reliable Bud."

"You must really like the sound of your voice. Personally, it's starting to get on my nerves so say what you want to say and leave."

"Not yet Man, the Main Feature hasn't arrived yet. But it's coming. Trust me, its coming. But because you're starting to get stressed I'll change the subject to - Dawn." The First kept smiling as Xander's face became redder, imagining that he was about to explode with rage any second at mentioning a girl he loved like his own blood. But still it continued in baiting him. "Dawn with her kleptomania. She's not exactly a criminal mastermind is she? So how do *you* think she made it through all those Store's security sensors with her pilfered gear without setting them off? See that's the trouble with today's generation - you don't ask the questions that need to be asked."

With more restraint then he had to offer the Carpenter spoke as civilly as was spoke to him. Refusing to allow the 'First' to see proof at how much it had gotten under his skin despite his flushed skin telling otherwise. "I guess if I did ask, then the answers would have ended up to you every time?"

"No, like I said. I can't force anyone to do what they don't want to do, I can just 'encourage'. But I can organize things to happen if I set my mind and minions to it."

"Ha, Encourage? Don't you mean manipulate?"

"If you want to use that word I won't stop you. But I would appreciate a little gratitude Bud. I have surrounded your life for the last six years and I have left you untouched. I have protected you with an aura of evil."


"Cause like I said - I owe ya."

"If you really *did* do all those things. And I'm not saying for one second you did, or that I believe you. Why not just come after me and leave them alone. You wanted to make me pay then come after me. Leave them alone."

"Xander, xander, xander, You might see alot, but you hear for shit. I *did* come after you, I only came after you through those you care most about. I can't touch anything - Yet. I can only speak and encourage. And you? You never would have listened. The other's would cause they're weak. All of them are flawed, and were susceptible. I couldn't destroy you, so I did what I could to make circumstances, which encased you, try to break you. But you wouldn't break Xander, not even bend just a little. You did come close last year when you discovered the truth about Buffy and Spike. But still you didn't fold, all the pressures, responsibilities, and the hurt of all those years of being the supporto-guy for everyone on your shoulders and still nothing! It was very frustrating Xander. There were so many times when I got close to destroying your spirit, but you just bounced back. I got you too loath yourself Xander. I got you to the point of nearly contemplating suicide in that miserable Hotel room post the Wedding that never was. But damn it that you didn't give in. It was then I realized that you are in possession of one of those spirits that would refuse to give up. Man, if the PTB instilled the Slayer's Warrior essence into people like you instead of teenage girls, then I might actually be shaking in my boots.

"You're a real Throwback you know that? Angelus called you a White Knight, and you know what, you could have been if you were born in another time and age. I remember Anya calling you honourable and D'Hoffran once admitted you were 'Gallant'. Impressive, Xander. Very impressive. Hoffy rarely uses such words anymore. But it peg's you to a T. Mr. Gallant.

"You are so separate to the others my friend. They have a Tow- the- Line mentality. But you would have resisted and challenged everything. That's when I decided to change tactics. I stopped. Evil is in everything, Xander. It can touch anything if you let it. But not you. You were a waste of my time then, but not now. I only fight Battles I know I will Win. And Xand, I will win this one.

"I wouldn't have been able to corrupt you, but the others ---? It was sometimes embarrassing at how easily they were prompted along. Simplistic even, boarding on boredom, but fun none the less. It remained a good distraction for me as I got everything in Order to make my Play. So for that I thank you."

"Give me back my eye and we'll call it even."

Jesse shifted off the window sill. "Yeah, sorry I had to have that done. But it's your own fault you know." The voice of 'Jesse' then altered and presented the perfect mimicry of his. "Go for the eye's. Everything has eyes."

The carpenter once more turned to face Jesse, his face startled to what he just heard. A snippet of his Lesson to the elder Potential's before they stormed the Vineyard. "You were there?"

"Yep, nearly every single battle strategy of the Scooby's I've been present. You guy's are so --- obvious. I can take the form of anything dead; it doesn't have to be a person. A human form just helps me communicate with you. But it can be anything, even a humble --- Housefly."

"You --- you knew what we were doing all the time?!?"

"Uh-huh. The eye-thing though was a creative twist. Several days' earlier you mentioned to Dawnie that you felt cursed because you see everything and nobody sees you. That's not fair Xander; you deserve people to pay attention to you. So I was going to give you a handicap so they would." The 'First' smile became a slit upon his face. "I was going to make you a 'Bringer'. I was going to make your friends look at you and see my forever influence in your face. Typically Bringer's are a 110% loyal to me and mine, but for you I would have made an exception to the rule. Afterall, in a way you already were a Bringer. You bought me into their lives, didn't you? I had to make a point to them. That point being I can get to anyone. But again things didn't go the way I planned, Spikey boy tackling Caleb before he got to the right eye is what I'm talking about. But again, you take a little misery rather then none."

Xander's mouth became dry. A Bringer. Of course, ironic poetry, it made a twisted sense to the First's warped humour. His heartbeat raced to uncontrollable levels at the thought. He had no purpose other then to be used as a reminder to the Slayer of what could be done. It was only through Spike's name that drew him back to the one-sided conversation he had been ignoring for those desperate seconds.

"You know what was really sick about all that? Spike! Spike comes off as some kinda Hero. You stopped to rescue a Potential from a Bringer, you are the one who order's the retreat and thereby saves just about everyone's lives. But it's Bleach-Boy who looks like the Golden-One, that's laugh in your face sick. I wonder how much of the truth made it to the ears of everybody. He and Buffy were halfway out the door when they heard you scream, only then did they notice they were leaving you behind. They were too focused on each other and everybody else. But not you. Same-old-same-old.

"Tragic-Hero Spike. Misunderstood Spike. Y'know, I've talked Potentials into killing themselves, nearly had Angie give himself a bad case of Sun Burn. But Spikey-Poo? He didn't require much direction, just a damn song. Guy may talk a good game, but he's a real momma's boy in the Core. Could you honestly see me using him for anything more then I already did? They were going to leave you Xand, one to two more seconds and they would have been gone and your absence probably would not have been counted until they all got back to Slayer Central."

A growled response was offered. "You're starting to bore me."

"Oh, oh, are your trying to be a tough-guy now? We gone an' done *that* shift now? Finished with the cavalier attitude? Cause if you have shifted into tough-guy mode I'd lose it. It won't work for you and it don't impress me much." Jesse then began to prowl the room, not touching anything but still smiling. "Your gonna go to Heaven Xander. The only one in your crew who will, and when you get there I want you to spread the fear of what you've seen me do. What your imagination was telling you I was doing. The other's can't do it; cause like I said there is no way they'll make it there. Only you have a sure shot. And that will be the icing on the eternal cake. Knowing that you will know eternal happiness and that your best and dearest friends won't."

"Buffy'll get there, she did before. And so will all the other's. But not for many years, and definitely not until they've kicked your ass back to Hell."

"You guy's honestly believed the Slayer was in Heaven? She say's she was in Heaven and you bought into it? Buddy-boy I've seen Heaven, as hard as it is for you to believe me considering I *am* Pure Evil incarnate. But yes, I've seen Heaven and she wasn't there. The centred glow of people who have been in Heaven is unmistakable. She doesn't have that glow.

"What did she say to you guy's? She was floating in a place of light, warmth, love and peace? Was that it?"

The damaged man didn't answer; he just kept staring mental daggers at the long-dead apparition.

"Xander, if she was in Heaven she'd wouldn't have had 'form' to know what she was really feeling. No Dude, she was in Purgatory - Limbo. A way-station for Judgement. Do you honestly think Will's hocus-pocus would be strong enough to draw a righteously delivered Being from Heaven? Limbo sure. People's fate there have yet to be decided, so it wouldn't have been a big deal for her to comeback and try and get it right a second time. The Righteous and Deserving are protected by a Power greater then any our favourite Witch could conjure.

"And what happened when she came 'back' - emotionally numb, having trouble 'adapting' back to life. People who have been in Heaven are so sickly sweet from the experience they would rot your teeth just by looking at you. But instead of sharing and being positive that there is indeed an eternal reward at the end of the Rainbow, she's what? Tight lipped over it. And after all the self-centred blunders she's made since her return? She's not going to Heaven, Xander. She's not good enough to make it all the way there - just to the edge, and only if she's lucky. I mean most Slayers' are shoe-in but not her.

"She's fucked the neighbours cat one too many time. And it has nothing to do with what I did either. Forget Angelus, everybody always focus's on Angelus and the murder's he committed while he was in Town and her not doing enough to stop him when she could. It comes down at the end of the day to her. She's a Fuck-up. Always has been. Given a big chance and blown it every time. She's dusted Vampires and killed the odd homicidal Demon. But if that's what it takes to get a pass into Heaven then nearly everyone on this planet would be screwed.

"How many times did she moan about sacred duty? Ask yourself this - if she didn't have the Slaying Power's and had not been told she had to do the 'Chosen One' thing, would she? Would she still go out each night like yourself with a cross around her neck, a bottle of Holy Water in the back pocket, and a stake in her right hand to do battle with Vamps and Demon's? Or would she be doing the Clubbing thing? If she had a choice to put her life on the line for others, would she? She's never spent hour's, upon hour's in private practice with weapon's. She's a Slayer, that stuff comes naturally. So I guess she never considered all the time you spent becoming daft-precise with a Crossbow or Broadsword? When you get through all the superficial thanks and smiles you'll find someone who only thinks about themselves and how it affects them.

"And that's why she didn't make it to Heaven. Like I told you before - It's about intention, my Man. She's selfish, a whiner, a bratty little princess who ain't as hot on the eyes as she thinks she is. It all comes down to Heart. When you were doing that joining spell - who was the Heart? You were. Nobody's Heart in the Scoob's measures as big as yours. It's the Heart that keep's things going. She's a quitter. Your not. If she had any heart at all would she have done half the things she did last year? Would she have left Dawn with a person who tried to Rape her a night earlier? I mean Spike must have thought he was humpin' a freekin' skeleton."

Jesse looked and studied the set features of the male Scooby and laughed. "Your not going to rise to it are you? Well done man. Keep that anger bottled. Keep it bottled tight until it explodes out of you. Yes siree, it's all about Intent. That's why Willow and Giles are screwed as well. Will wanted to destroy the Planet. Sure she was grieving, but do you think that pans out Upstairs? She had the Power, but power doesn't mean anything. It's intention. And she really wanted to destroy the World, all because she was suffering. I had nothing to do with that one either by the way. Except for the Tara deal. But instead of talking about it, counselling herself through her loss, her first thought is skinning a guy to death, going medi-evil on her only support network, and trying to drain the Planet of its Life energy's.

"Giles and Ripper - nuff said I guess. Guy wasn't a choirboy. He did a lot of not nice things and only recently in the last 10-years has he showed any sign's in betterment. Of course the kibosh was put on that progress when he killed hapless and innocent Ben. Andrew's killed and served evil willingly and so has Faith. Dawn? She's not even really human. I'm not sure whether she even has a soul? No bud, you're the one. You're the one who's going to make it."

There held a silence for a second and then a slow and steady applause from the lying Scooby. "Well done. You nearly had me. Got it all wrapped up with a nice little bow on top, but I ain't buying what you're selling. These are good people, and if I know anything it's that good people go to Heaven."

"Even Buffy?"


"She's hasn't been that 'good' to you of late has she? Not being around to support you through rehab, not listening to your input prior to her storming the Vineyard. On you're 'Demon-Date' when it tried to use your blood to open one of the Seals. There you were bleeding on the ground with your side slit open and her first instinct was to see how Spike was after he had been knocked down rather then look on how you were going.

"Even when Spike turned back up and the three of you - Buff, Dawn and Yourself made that sweet promise of never hiding anything from each other again, what does she do? Not tell you that's what. And let's not forget the whole 'Xander could you let Spike stay with you' idea. Assures you he isn't a major threat, but what happens? He knocks you out, goes off and kills*"

"*At your 'encouragement'. Don't think I can forget the driving force behind that."

"Hey I make no apologies, I'm Evil, you gotta expect that - so deal with it. But Buffy didn't care did she? She knew there was the possibility and she put you at risk. And even when her suspicions were found to be grounded she still opted to let him go on. Even though he was a greater risk to your Slaying Unit then before, and had killed and turned innocents. But not you Xander. I wouldn't let him touch you. Even when you were knocked out and unconscious on the floor I made sure he wouldn't feed or try to turn you.

"The fact is Xand, she always puts you in either the background of her decisions, or in Danger because of them. Last year when she thought she was going bonker's, Spike was told to get her to take the Potion or her condition would worsen. Simple ask. Did he? No. By rights after that the guy should have been staked, but Buffy had a --- change of Heart. You guy's nearly get killed by her hand because of him and its all forgiveness. Hmmmm, do you ever think back to that experience Xander?"

"Not if I can help it. Besides, she wasn't in her right mind."

"Or maybe she was only just a little bit out of it. Had you tussled up pretty good there huh? Willow, Dawn were all roped up with their hands tied and mouths gagged. But you? You were tethered around a support post. Odd man out, almost begging for you to be singled out by the Demon for feasting. The others were on the floor; you were more secure and more vulnerable. You know what that tells me? It tells me that she separates your importance to that of the others. That she wanted you dead first. Even Crazy, she wanted you dead first."

"You don't know what you're talking about. She doesn't single any of us out. It doesn't work like that, she cares about us equally."

"Really? When you get out of here do you honestly think after the warmth she's shown you during your stay that she's going to want an injured colleague anywhere near her when it hit's the fan. An injury she's responsible for by the way, if she hadn't been pro-active girl things would have been fine. What I was going to have done to you with respects to the eyes would have been a passing fancy that I would have forgotten about a day later. But you guy's came and an example had to be made, and you were it.

"If your going to believe anything I've told you tonight then believe this - when that fan is about to get hit she'll be sending you as far away from her as possible on some pointless errand. For only the great 'Doughnut-Fetcher-Xander-Harris' could fulfil whatever meaningless assignment she needs done. Not Andrew, who is basically only taking up space, or Giles who she is still at odds with, or Robin whom is pretty much a stranger - yet still has a Slayer-ness embodied into him thanks to his parentage, but you?!? What do you wanna bet that she will select the Geek, or the distant Father-Figure & the Stranger who tried to off her squeeze to stand at her side over you?

"You're nothing but a commodity to her, always have been. An ally she's been able to chalk up in her ally column, but your damaged goods now. Sure she might use the words to boost your ego, like 'you are the most important of us all Xander.' Or 'I couldn't have made it this far if you hadn't been there by my side', or how about 'You're the real Hero Xander.'" It was as Jesse was saying these quotes that his voice distorted disturbingly to sound exactly like Buffy after which it returned to normal Jesse-speak. "She'll flatter you like she does to Willow, Spike, Dawn, and Giles. Selling them on their importance to her, but basically your all just commodities in her grand battle strategy."

"I can see what you're doing, you can't turn me. So instead you're turning me against her abilities to lead. If what you're saying is true then at the end it won't matter what I think and feel. It will be ignored anyway."

"Your right Xand, it doesn't matter to her what you think or feel to her - but it should. *I* care more about your fate then she does and has ever done. You've been with her since the beginning, no-one has ever shown her the same level of loyalty and dedication as you have. But in her rigid thoughts it doesn't matter. She's the Boss. No-one voted her in, that's because she automatically thought she was entitled to it. She's the Slayer, end of story. Don't matter that her success rate to date is in the toilet. Don't matter that she's gotta be the worst Leader in the history of Leaders*"

At this, and in for the first time in day's Xander laughed, and he laughed like he meant it. "* You're scared of her! You're afraid!"

The First did not find this comment as amusing as the one-eyed Carpenter as its enforced evil smile began to turn downwards. "No. I'm more scared of you, then of her. I will *win* Xander. It doesn't have to be this century, could be the next. That's the beauty of being Eternal - there is always a next. You think this is the first time I've had my Followers rattle their sabres? Granted, I've never gotten this close. But I do this every few centuries to keep my Boy's alert for the time I eventually make my move. It just so happens I'm choosing to make it now. Yes sirree Xander, your more a threat to me then she is, and you wanna know why? You 'Inspire'. And there is nothing more dangerous then a person who can inspire. People would willingly lay their lives down for such a person and not too many people have that gift Xand, but you do. Out of everyone in Slayer Central you are the most dangerous without a doubt. That's another reason I didn't want you dead, cause there is only one thing worse then a person who inspires, it's a Martyr that does the same. You can't defeat the memory of a Martyr, as long as people hold onto the memory of them - you can't defeat them. You would be able to inspire from beyond the grave. So I'd much rather have you broken then dead. But like I said, too date I've been unsuccessful in that area, but I got a feeling that's going to change any moment now." The smile returned to the mute opening and closing of Xander's mouth.

After another several moment's the Scooby spoke again. His voice above a whisper in itself. "You're wrong. Buffy can inspire, Giles can inspire, Willow, Dawn, Spike, Anya can inspire. They will follow them. Your *NOT* going to break me!"

"Yes, they have had their moment's Xand, no doubt their. But they're just words to them Xander. Just pointless words they say to achieve their ends. But you? You make them deep when you speak them; you drive them in and make them stick. Last week, when the SiT's were all about to mutiny. Do you really think if Anya, Dawn, Willow or Andrew spoke what you said it would have had the same effect on the Potential's? They not only listened to you, they all believed in you and what you said. You gave them the strength to not doubt the Buffster as she led them into that ambush. 1/12 of your Potential-Army are gone now Xander. They're dead. But do you think Buffy even stopped to make a Memorial for them? Or did she just dump their bodies in the back yard like Chloe to be trained on top off with the morning callisthenics? She's leading them through fear and bullying. Hell, did she even so much as thank you for standing up for her that night? No, she didn't, did she!"

"Why do you care how she treats me? Don't you want to win? Wasn't all this at the start about making me suffer, making me pay your due? From the sounds of things Buff is doing every thing you want her to do?"

"But you are paying for it Xander, you have always paid for it. Whenever you lightened your friends load and burden you placed it squarely upon your shoulders. They never see how much you ache at knowing what you know, for sharing yourself and spreading yourself thin for them. They don't know because they don't pay as much attention to you as you do to them. Don't you see?

"Besides, like I said - what good is a Victory if there is no-one there to talk about it afterwards?!? I'm going to win Xander, that's a non-event. How many Potential's survive at the end of it, and whether Dawn, Willow, Faith, Anya, Andrew, Robin, Giles, and Buffy will join that number all comes down to the competency of the leadership at the time of the final push. I know you're loyal to a fault Xand, but even you got to agree that Buff is going to get everyone killed. And the reason why she's going to do that is because she doesn't care."

"She Cares!"

Jesse was standing once more by the private window that looked over the Hospital Carpark and shock his head sadly. "Dude, dude, dude. If you want to know how much she cares for you, for any of you, then come and look out at this window now."

With a slight hesitantly the Carpenter complied, taking trepid steps forward. When he got to the Window a lump formed in his throat as he saw the Caleb - the Preacher, make determined strides across the Hospital Parking Lot.

"Yup, Buffy and him had a slight run in thirty minutes ago. He mentioned that he might pay you a visit. He wasn't, I had given him instructions on that. But she didn't know that. Anyway, what does she do to a guy who cleaned her clock? She threatens him, telling him that she would 'end' him if he came anywhere near you. Caleb is a very proud man Xander, just like you. Infact he *was* you once upon a time. A man of Peace, Goodwill, Moral Strength and of God. Until like you he begged, pleaded and prayed at the wrong moment, at the wrong place, and was heard by the wrong set of ears.

"Given time, and enough 'prompting' you could have been just like him under my patronage. You could have eventually have been my Harbinger. Strong, powerful, unstoppable. He took some time to break cause he always turned to the 'Good Book' for salvation and guidance. But he did eventually break; he became the opposite of everything he used to embrace. Where once he would have happily died to protect a life he would now take it without so much as bat an eye, it would be even less if it happened to be a female. You have that Galahad thing too don't you Xand? That whole noble drive to protect women above all? Caleb was like that too once - but not anymore.

"You betchcha, you are both the Before and After picture. But hey, that's neither here nor there, it doesn't change the fact that he's on his way up here to prove a point to her - No one threatens him! And where is the Slayer that got him good and riled? Unconscious on the floor of the High School. Hell of a Leader you got yourself there Xander, incites a powerful enemy and you with no protection. Caleb will walk his way pass the various Guards and Orderlies. Smiling politely to the Nurses and Doctor's, enter this room and then take out your right one. All because Buffy either didn't give a damn, or didn't think of the consequences of her actions. She can't help you, no one can. In two-to-three minutes your gonna be blind Xander. And like the other night, and the other eye, it will be all because of her. But I can stop him if you want."

Xander's first instinct was to flee, to run, to hide. This was his nightmare. The one that was tossing itself around in his head every night when he went to sleep and he would wake up in sweat drenched sheets.

He was still in a Hospital Smock; if he was to run he would stand out. If he was to warn Security, Caleb would get past and probably kill anyone who stood in his way. He had seen the extent of the Preacher's strength and skill, it surpassed Buffy's and Faith's combined. No Rent-a-Cop could match that. He couldn't put them in danger, he had to get out. But the various sedatives he had been made to take were already causing him to swagger with weakness, and he had only been out of bed for 10-seconds. He couldn't escape.

These thoughts rushed his mind.

There was *no* escape for him.

"Where's a 'Hero' when you need one? C'mon Xander, just ask me. Are you really that proud?"

Sweat beaded on his forehead in terror, as his heart raced. A standard PTSD response that the Doctor's had diagnosed him with but he had been successful in keeping from the others. "Stop hi*"

Jesse held up his hand to halt Xander from progressing. "Ask me nicely, you said some pretty nasty stuff about me of late."

"* Please sto*"

"Wait! Sorry Xand, changed my mind again. Don't ask me nicely - BEG ME NICELY!"

Xander paused for a moment, his fear growing with each wasted second. He was proud, he knew this. He *always* knew this. But Pride cometh before the fall, and he wasn't prepared to become blind because of Buffy's dare. It was time he fell. "I beg you, please*"

"*Uh-uh. I'm not seeing you Begging."

A ragged breath escaped him. His Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder flared in his mind and body at the cruel game being played with him, supported by an even crueller smile as it stared in his face by his childhood friend. If he could cry, he would. But this response to the right eye was not working true yet. Gripping the window sill the proud 22-year old bent his knees to 'Jesse', casting a truly pathetic image as he knelt upon the floor. "Please, I'm begging you. Stop him. Please."

Jesse leant forward and cheerfully responded to the desperate request. "Sure Bud, all you had to do was ask."

Xander didn't see the 'First' disappear; his head was bowed in embarrassment, shame and self hate as it disappeared from the room. Xander guessed he must have been kneeling on the floor for two minutes, before the 'First' returned. "It's sorted Xand, you can get up now." But the Carpenter couldn't, he just remained on his knee's his right eye clenched tight, lightly thumping his head to the wall next to him. Yes, he was casting a truly pathetic image. "I guess that's it Xand, game-over. You gave me a good run, but like I said - I've been doing this kind of stuff for a thousand years. It was only a matter of time. Consider yourself - BROKE!"

At the final word Xander froze, and looked up defiantly. "N---n---no. I'm not."

'Jesse' sighed heavily. "Yes you are. You're just stubborn. Y'know what the funny thing is Xand you had the potential to make something of your life. But you kept coming back to the Slaying, you couldn't leave it. So my advice, when the Slayer gives you a way out - take it. You're broken now, so I got what I wanted out of you - I got closure. I don't need you anymore and I doubt a crushed man could inspire anyone again. *Buffy* doesn't need you anymore. When this Battle is done, I need people alive to remember how it started."

"I'm not broken. I'm going to fight you. With my last strength, I'm going to fight you till one of us is dead and gone." With these words Xander dragged himself off the floor and stood tall in front of an unimpressed 'Jesse'.

"You can fight if you want Xander, but your gonna lose. Because Buffy's leadership sucks the big one. You know it - I know it - the Potential's know it - The Scoob's know it - and if she's completely honest with herself, Buffy knows it too. If you care for your friends as much as you claim you do, be honest with her. Make her accept that maybe a fresh approach is warranted. With Buff at the reins she's gonna lead them on a suicide run."

"You *are* scared of her. No matter what you say, I won't believe you. Your afraid of her."

Again 'Jesse' shock his head, this time clicking his tongue. "I'm not asking you to believe me, Xander. I'm not *asking* you to do anything. You can believe everything I've told you, you can believe none of it. Or you can believe just some of it. Believe what you want. Believe the facts as you know them and disregard the ones I have presented. In fact if you believe I haven't been an influence in your life it actually makes your 'family' come off looking worst for wear. But if you do - the role is reversed onto you. I win either way. An' like I said Xander, I always fight to *win*.

"Buffy doesn't scare me Xander. She doesn't even come close. And after what her leadership has cost you, I'm truly surprised at your dedication." Jesse stopped talking for a moment, and turned from looking at Xander to the view outside of his window. "I need people after. The more who lose but survive the End-Battle the happier I'll be. Whether your one of them or not it don't bother me too much now. I broke you. You may refuse to believe it - but I have. I broke you with the help of your friends. Wounds heal, but crushed spirits never mend. That's been the cost of being the Slayer's go-to guy. You were devoted to her above and beyond the call, and because of her you lost an eye and your innocence. That's the cost of being her friend - remember that. There is always a cost to her friendship."

The Patient drifted his vision to the Parking Lot view once more and observed the Preacher walking away from the Hospital. He then looked up and saw his reflection in the glass, its intensity heightened by the night outside and the brightness of the room. The white gauze prominent over his left eye. He didn't see the 'First' disappear, but he knew it was still there in the room with him. A small piece of the 'First' remained. Beside him he then heard a 'Whisper' in his ear speaking. "Remember this moment Xand. Remember what she took away and what I let you keep".

It had taken six-years and a life-time but he finally heard that 'Devil' on his shoulder.

**** END FLASBACK ****

With each footstep he took from his truck, the more flashes of memories he received of the days that followed. They were hurtful memories, guarded memories. And little by little what the 'First' had said found a truth within him. It was true - Buffy didn't seem to care what had happened to him. If he had died it would have been better for her, she could have rallied the SiT's around his corpse.

Where at first he noticed uncomfortableness at her presence he then began to notice something else - she never came alone. Someone always bought her. It was if she was dragged there by other's and then made her escape as soon as she possibly could. He tried to fight this possibility; he wanted so much to believe that she was concerned for him. But every time he remember the length of time she spent and the empty excuses to leave it was like a slap in the face to this desperate belief.

That was probably why he found himself challenging her leadership along with everyone else during the 'confrontation' at his Welcome Home Party later that night. The 'First' words were still fresh in his memories, as was his humbling. Willow had returned to the room three-minutes after the 'First' left.

He knew that she suspected something was wrong with him. She was overly attentive, but he didn't care. It was hard to care anymore of what people thought of him, he wasn't even embarrassed as when she tried to encourage him to change for his Discharge that he did so right in front of her. He didn't ask her to leave, or draw the curtain across the room to offer himself some privacy; he was just at that stage where he didn't care what he did anymore.

He had stripped naked and got dressed right before her embarrassed eyes. Barely any words were communicated by him during the drive back to 1630 Revello, even though he did request to be taken back home to his Apartment instead. The Wicca looked anxious and spilled that there was a Welcome Home Party planned at Buffy's. This did not do much to encourage him but when she added that Dawn and Anya had spent most of the Afternoon getting the celebration together he felt like a heel to just dismiss their attempts to make him feel better.

With Willow providing her supported he walked through the front door, and he was imminently touched by the enthusiasm he received by the collection of near strangers and people he had known for many years.

Yet when Buffy entered the room she bought down the good-feeling vibe till it hit the floor and borrowed into the basement. She made a courteous comment to him being there to hear her announcement.

He wanted to shout out at her about Caleb and her threat to the Preacher and what nearly transpired as a result, but before he could utter a word she shocked him. She ordered another hit upon the Vineyard.

Everyone looked around the room in surprise, just as he did. But where they were looking at each other's faces he was straining to see any arrant insects. This was a bad idea, but before he could rise his voice Faith raised hers, then Giles, then Kennedy, then Willow. Everyone contributed against her fractured plan. And whereas nine days earlier he was defending Buffy against the other SiT's, he now had no patience for her decisions and remained silent. It was during this time that Anya spoke something that resounded within him, something that reminded him of what 'Jesse' had told him earlier that night - Buffy being the Slayer didn't make her better then everybody else. It just made her luckier.

For years all he had heard from her was about *her* sacrifices, and he wasn't going to deny that they were many and plenty. But there were other people who had made sacrifices as well. People who didn't get half the 'Air-time' she did. Everybody who stood beside her over the years had given up something to fight this war with her. But instead of accepting their contribution she was cutting down every objection with her stalwart stubbornness.

Where everyone's lives were at stake, everyone had a voice. And she was not letting them have that voice.

So he said it.

He spoke the words the 'First' had told him to remember. The words that no-one could challenge, not even Buffy. Fore he had earnt the right to speak and to be heard. "But at what Cost?"

She looked at him like a Deer caught in the headlights, she faulted. She back tread trying to claim some ground that was lost with these four words. If anyone else in the room had said them it would have been waved off. But *he* had said them. So these four little words carried more weight with everyone present.

He could feel Dawn's startled eyes on him as the room itself seemed to mummer and shift and strengthen their allegiance with his question. A week and a half ago seemed a lifetime now; he wasn't prepared to accept anymore losses to her incompetence. Even if he didn't say these precise words, the vibe he was giving off was clear for everyone to read. As always he followed the question with a slight joke. A joke that emphasised his recent injury. A joke that had several new SiT's look at each other at the power struggle being played that night.

These new arrivals he had not met, but it was obvious at their reaction that they had heard of him. Probably from the older SiT's or survivors of the Vineyard. Maybe Dawn, and Anya had bolstered his 'Legend' to them. Maybe it was the other Potential's. There were a lot of maybes, but at this moment he didn't care for maybes. He wanted an answer from one of his best friends. An answer that would *inspire him* to believe in her leadership again. He wanted her to fight for the title she had claimed. But all he saw, all everybody saw, was a young girl overwhelmed.

Buffy stammered as she presented alternatives to her accessibility as the self-designated leader of the Group. But it was now too late.

And she could see it.

One-by-One voices were raised against her.

He already felt 'less' thanks to Caleb; and the enthusiastic support he received from everybody when he walked through the door three minutes earlier didn't so much as display to him their love but rather their pity at what had happened. Only a few people in the room had found the courage to actually look at his face - his injury. But she couldn't. Buffy couldn't. Inwardly he hated being the Brutus to her Caesar, but he couldn't allow his thoughts and feeling be ignored any more.

During the brief confrontation she focused her attention to everyone in the room who was speaking to her. In panic she became aggressively defensive, desperately searching the lounge for allies. But when she looked in his direction, whether it was by instinct in the belief she could always expect his support, it was a quick glance and a turn away. It surprised him that she seemed to almost tear up when she briefly looked to him and had seen no willing support come off from him.

She always seemed to turn to him when things got rough for her, but now she realized he wasn't going to come to her defence any longer. For once she would have to stand on her own two feet and justify herself. If only she could have 'looked' at him. After everything Buffy had seen over the years, his face was one she couldn't bare to see. If she could have looked at him then he could have doubted the First's words - but she couldn't. And if she couldn't look at him, then how could she bare to fight beside him? She left that night in disgrace, with Dawn closing the door on her and Faith taking the up the mantle.

After a couple of day's things eventually returned to what could be termed 'normal'. Buffy had returned to the fold with a greater appreciation to the responsibility she had undertaken, and once again assumed leadership. Only this time she now requested any and all feedback to her decisions.

But she still refused to look him in the face.

This was why he was certain she had asked him to be the one to take Dawn away before the big battle. Just like 'Jesse' had said she would. She offered him an errand Andrew, Giles, Robin or Anya could easily have done.

In a rare display of, he guessed, courage for her; she spoke to him in the kitchen privately. She looked at his face; actually she was focussing more on his chin then anywhere else, but he had to give her props for at least trying. She asked him to leave, and to take Dawn. She then insulted him by telling him that he was 'Her Strength'. That's what she called him - her strength. It was so close to what 'Jesse' had said she would say.

He did his best to disguise his anger at being so casually cast aside, presenting a superficially compliant Xander, remembering the opinion of the 'First' to leave the final battle if offered. But still he felt like a coward, despite Buffy's reassurance to him that he was not and that she could not trust anyone else to look after Dawn like she knew he could.

But again, just like the 'First' had said it all seemed as if he was being offered only empty words to get him to do her bidding. He may not have retained Solder-boy's memories anymore, but he still knew that you do not dismiss your strength on the eve of battle. You keep your strength close to you.

The 'First' was right; it was all just words to her. Maybe she meant it, part of it at least - but he daren't believe that she meant all of it. Saying that she trusted him, saying that she never would have made it as far as she did without him.

But in the end, they were just words.

Words which held no real meaning for him.

She had a battle to plan and his mere presence was a dangerous distraction for her. Him and Dawn. She wanted them far away from her so she could focus. She closed her request by stating that as he couldn't fire a crossbow accurately anymore, and that him swinging a sword was beyond dangerous as it would be safer for everyone that he wasn't there. She was trying to be glib and funny with the jokes, trying to blend their trade-marked humour into a tense appeal.

But the truly funny thing was - it was true. He couldn't do all those things any more, and hatred burned in him for her because of it. But it was a hatred he was finding easy to embrace and conceal from the others. None of them suspect that he was visited, or that he dealt with PTSD on an almost daily basis. When Willow, Dawn, Anya, and surprisingly even Faith enquired into his anti- anxiety medication in the unmarked yellow vial that he would take on a seemingly fourth hourly basis. He would just address to them that it was to assist with his headaches since the 'Incident'.

In her 'humour' Buffy was trying to prove and convey to him that everything was once more normal between them again. That the two of them could joke about that kinda stuff once more. Maybe if she looked at his face instead of his mouth and chin he would have bought into it and tried to believe that it was possible. But it still seemed to come out forced; her quips were superficial.

In his mind there was an obvious rift between them now. And even with one eye he could see the elephant in the room as plain as day. She sent him away, and he came back in defeat. Dawn had got the better of him. It was humiliating - he couldn't even stop a 17-and-a-half year old girl. What good would he be in a Battle? He wasn't. He was just fodder. But he was still going to fight, despite the terror.

He believed that now that Caleb had been cleaved in two, his Terror's would stop - it didn't. In private he still shook like a leaf in contemplation of the last push. But he was going to fight, and whether he lived or died to see through the following day - he was going to win because he wasn't going to allow the First to believe that he had been broken.

The following morning as they parted to protect their designated areas of the fortified High School. With Buffy again selecting Dawn to stay with him. The senior Slayer looked at him. Probably for the first time since the 'incident'. With the sole knowledge that death that day was a possibility, she looked on him like it was going to be the last time. Like she didn't believe with his injury he would make it out, or that she would.

He remembered taking her hand, squeezing it, and passing on what little inner strength he had in reserve just for her. Even though his stress was flaring up within him, he was not going to let it distract him from this moment. His face was going to be the last Scooby face she was going to see as she entered the mouth of Hell. He wanted his face to be the last one. He wanted her to see his resolve, his strength, and his Will to never let her down. If he was to die and she to live he wanted her to remember that he wasn't afraid. And that he would protect Dawn with his last breath. He tried to convey all of this without the words being said. He wanted her to have confidence in him, but there was still that haunted look in her eyes as they separated one another.

That look that made her seem sick in the stomach just at seeing what had happened to him.

That was the *true* reason why the gang pushed him to take Dawn the second time after the collapse of the Hellmouth. Why they said he couldn't be of any use to them any more. Buffy just couldn't deal being around him after what had happened with Caleb. And then with what had happened with Anya.

So for the greater good he complied.

Buffy's job was too important to the World for her to be diverted by him.

Xander paused in his approach to the Apartment Block, just once he would like to make it through the day without being victim to these now old and depressing thoughts. He sighed deeply proceeded to walk up the back stairwell. It was the longer way round to his front door, but it avoided the view of the half-full non-used Swimming Pool at the side of the building. And given his current inner depression the sight of seeing that eyesore would have probably have driven him to his bathroom with a bag of ice and a couple of razor blades.

He worked, and he worked hard. Everyday he sweated. His Bosses always got their worth out of him, and he made good money as a result. So why did he have to come home to this crappy place night after night? The answer was easy - it was cheap. Yeah, he did make good money, but he couldn't keep any of it. Why wasn't that? This question's answer only made him embittered and upset as he started the tired trudge up the stairs. So he imminently squashed it before he started to fixate unfavourably upon it. He wasn't going to fall into that dreaded pattern again, at least not now. It could wait until he was in his bedroom in private.

He slid the key into the lock and forced himself to beam positively before pushing the door open. The first thing to hit his senses was the aroma of melting cheese. The second was the sound of a frantic whiney voice of one who considered himself a 'Diabolical Criminal Mastermind on par with Lex Luther'.

"Daawwwwnnn, where's the strainer?"

As the soon to be unemployed construction worker closed the door, both set's of eyes of the other occupant's of the cheap and modest Apartment fell on him.

It was this moment that made the hardship of his day worthwhile. Watching Dawn smile warmly at him as Andrew stopped doing what he was doing and began attending to their daily routine. Dawn quickly crossed the conservatively Spartan room and gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek and a loving hug for good measure as Andrew removed a cool bottle of Diet-Vanilla Coke from the refrigerator. Placing it besides the recliner with a 'Xander' impression upon it and angled the most comfortable seat in the place to face the TV set.

Yes sir, Andrew would make some lucky guy a wonderful wife someday. To bad he was in denial on what everybody else had long ago guessed.

As he kicked off his boots the same pleasured thought entered his mind and pushed out all the negative ones. He was home, this was his 'Castle' and these people his loving family.

Xander sat down and gratefully extended out the footrest as Dawn took her typical place of straddling the left arm of the beloved piece of furniture and began to massage his tired back muscles and left arm. Trying her best to alleviate any discomfort of mounted pain and distress to the area. Three months ago Xander had saved a workmate from being struck by a falling girder. It made him a hero on the Site, but the girder had clipped his side and now whenever he had a hard day it caused all kinds of pain and spasms. As she kneaded his shoulder she excitedly asked the question. "Did they ask you?"

A sharp *pssssttttt* broke the room as the bottle was opened, all awhile as Andrew continued with his search in the kitchen for the elusive strainer. Xander took a refreshing gulp before addressing the 18-year olds question. After a pleasing second of contentment he sought Dawn out with his 20/0 Vision. Again he tried to be up beat, he hated making Dawn worry. "Nope. Job's finishing at the end of the week, and so am I. But don't worry Dawnie, something will crop up. Always does, and besides I'll be getting a big fat bonus along with my severance. That should tide us over until the next job starts up. We'll get by."

Dawn's face contorted to the news as her brow farrowed. She hadn't been expecting that answer. From what Xander had passed on to her and Andrew over the last few weeks it had given them the impression that his new Boss liked him a lot and truly appreciated his workmanship.

Xander sought out her hand with concern. "Don't worry yourself sick Dawn. We'll be fine. We've only been here a few months. Steve said he was really happy with me an' that he'll make a couple of calls on my behalf. It'll happen Dawn. So it's stiff upper lip time, and take a look at all the positives. Roof, clothing, food, electricity, hot water, and TV, we're doing good."

Dawn nodded. He was right, they were doing fine. She had surprisingly forgotten what it was like to be in a loving and functional household. When the SiT's moved in back at her Sunnydale home everything was a battle for one thing or another. The snacks, the bathroom, the choice of TV programs. Xander and Andrew had both gone beyond the call to make her sad transition away from Buffy as pleasant as possible.

Xander had truly come into his own looking after her. Nothing was too little, nor too much. He was much the same as he was when Willow was in England, playing 'Dad' to Buffy's 'Mom'. Only now he was serving as both parents to her. And Andrew was the 'dorky older brother'. Sure he was a little weird with the references from time to time, but that naive heart of his was always in the right place. And she loved that Andy was always trying to make her smile and laugh.

She adored them both madly.

They had moved to the City-by-the-Bay eight and a half months ago. It was nothing but chaos their first week, but after they found a place and bought some second hand furniture with the last of Xander's stored savings everything began to fall into a routine for them.

Xander had looked carefully into School Districts and selected one with the best educational record available. The rent was steeper in the area, and the accommodation was pitiful in respects to what was actually charged to them. But Xander saw it as a necessary Dragon that had to be slain to ensure she had the best learning opportunity available to her.

Unfortunately she couldn't enrol until she had lived at a stationary district address for a designated time. This sadly meant that she had to miss out on the Summer School Program and had too commence the following school year repeating the same level she was at when she last attended Sunnydale High.

When she was still at SD High she had dropped out when 'The Hellmouth' started making the other students behave irrationally. So here she was a year older then everybody else in her class. She hated and was embarrassed by her circumstances, but she did enjoy the ecliptic lifestyle offered by San Fran. So for that she tolerated her embarrassment. And because she was a year more 'developed' then her female classmates she was getting a lot more attention by the cute guy's in her class, which always helped the old ego.

The only thing she missed was Buffy, but her eldest sister had had made it clear to her that her education had to come first before any Slaying Lifestyle. And *that* was a decision shared by all of her 'Family'. So for the second time in as many days the head of the Summers Family looked to the man she had trusted above all others to protect and look after her little sister.

Publicly, and in front of the other Survivors of Sunnydale, Buffy had asked Xander to act as her Guardian until Dawn completed High School. Xander wasn't expecting this 'honour' a second time, not after what had happened with his first attempt to take Dawn away at Buffy's instruction.

Dawn remembered watching his reaction intently as he nervously fidgeted at the request. Rubbing his neck at the phantom memory of the Tazor that was used on him by the youngest of the Summer's brood. It was an 'Honour' he was not sure he was prepared to accept again. So he then tried to deflect the burden to Giles. But the Englishman regretted that he had other duties which needed attending and that he would not be able to focus the appropriate attention on the soon to be 18-year old. One of these cares was the establishment of a new 'Council' of Watchers.

Dawn didn't blame Xander for avoiding the responsibility to look after her. It was the old 'Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me' thing. She deserved his distrust of her, she had earnt it. The stunt with the Tazoring of him while he was behind the wheel of his car was a foolish and potentially deadly stunt. It also provided him with the example that she was not someone prepared to listen to what he would ask of them, or abide by any of his decisions when he made them.

It was painful for her to watch and hear him voice his objections to being Buffy's choice. But again she couldn't blame his stance, she deserved it. All she could do was promise him that she wouldn't do anything like that again. Out of everybody it was Xander she wanted to be with the most if she had no choice but to leave Buffy.

She truly did love and trust him. And she knew that Xander would never do anything untoward to jeopardise her care and safety. These were the very same reasons why Buffy had selected him to take her away the first time. But still, the 17-year old always got the impression that there was one more. Another reason why she wanted Xander to take her away from the new Hellmouth forming in Cleveland. She couldn't put her finger on it, but something deep inside of her told the teen that Buffy wanted Xander away from her for other reasons --- personal reasons.

Despite the assurance the former Dimensional Key made to the 22-year old 'brother' figure, Xander wanted to stay with the rest of the group. He wanted to go to Cleveland with them.

It was then that another decision was made and voiced in front of everybody by the blonde Slayer. To call this decision unfavourable and unpopular with herself and the other SiT Survivors would have been an understatement. With the same even-tone she had instructed her youngest sister earlier, Buffy addressed Xander. Saying that due to his injury he was now considered more a hindrance out in the field then he ever was before. And as such, for the safety of the other's, she could not allow him to continue with the fighting. And as he was never much good in the research area then it would be the best if he were no longer involved anymore with the Team.

This crushed him, but it wasn't a visible crushing. Only people who truly knew him could see the hurt form on his face, yet he still held his composure before the assembled. He didn't argue, he didn't make a scene. He just nodded, accepting the collective looks being delivered to him by Giles, Willow, Robin, Faith and Buffy. And with the death of Anya still fresh in his mind he was not in the mood to quarrelling with any of them. He smiled, sadly chuckled and nodded again. Walking away from the Bus for some alone time to deal with everything.

As he passed the remaining stunned group of SiT's he squared his shoulders and smiled. He actually smiled at them. It was a simple act. One that was trying to present to them a small measure of dignity in front of the novice Slayer's that had watched and admired him from the moment they had all arrived in Sunnydale. Where he was not prepared to offer a single tear to the 'Dumping' there were several Potential's who wept easily for him on his behalf as he passed them by.

For seventy miles the Bus and its occupants drove in silence. Xander had placed himself in the back corner, with Andrew the only one daring to sit close to him. The original male Scooby stared broodingly out of the dirty window as the landscape passed him by. Lost in his own and seemed painful thoughts. Receiving the occasional backward glances by the concerned SiT survivors who were all equally devastated by the fresh decision meted out to the one person who had given up so much of his life to the people who now seemed to have turned their back on him when he needed their support the most after the death of his on-again-off-again girlfriend.

Dawn was one of these concerned figures who carefully studied her 'brother', not being able to get past her growing anger. She had been this upset and angry with her sister before - many times, but never was she so blind to the superficial reasoning offered. The decision by everyone towards Xander's ability to contribute was so flawed that it enraged her. So at their third rest stop, and as Xander left to answer natures call and provide himself more private time alone. She confronted Buffy and the 'others' who had betrayed the groups 'Heart'.

In concealment behind the Bus, away from the Potentials, her sister answered her aggressive question and passionately apologised and begged for her to go with Xander. It was an undemanding heartfelt plea; a plea that carried all the emotion she thought was vacant in the Senior Slayers earlier proclamation. Buffy was now begging *her*. Buffy's eyes were misting over as she pleaded for her little sister to go with Xander, but only this time she reversed their roles. This time it was for her to be the one to look after him

In these desperate minutes of Xander's absence, Willow stepped forward to give the blonde Slayer a reprieve from the questioning eyes of her youngest and only sibling. With a shaky and cracking voice the red-head admitted something to the once-dimensional-key. Something that everyone on the Bus with the exception of the other Potential's, Andrew, Xander and herself knew. That when they were all still standing around at the crater that was formally Sunnydale. The residual dark energies of the Hellmouth saturated the Witch and it accidentally mind-linked Xander, Buffy and herself together for a moment. This was possibly because there was no-one else the Wicca felt emotionally, spiritually or historically closer too then these two individuals.

It was an instant-accident that Xander couldn't recognise because of his grief at the discovery of Anya's fate from Andrew. And no-one on the outside would have known how deeply he was wounded by this news because of his 'Poker-Face'. In those brief seconds, that fraction of time, the redheaded Witch and the blonde Slayer saw the full ramifications of his recent life.

In his distracted heartache every mental and emotional wall he had ever placed up fell down around their intrusion, walls that he had made high and thick to protect himself from all the memories of hurt he had received over the years.

The forced killing of his best friend Jesse.


Miss Calender.

Faith laughing in his face and taunting him with his concern and feelings for her as she tried to strangle him.

Tara's death.

Anya's Betrayal with Spike, and Buffy's betrayal of his friendship with the same Vampire.

Willow trying to destroy the World, and her trying to kill him to achieve it.

The still minor but always present feelings that had never really left him for both Slayers, despite what they had both done and treated him in the past.

As well as Anya's imagined death and her last lonely seconds of life without her knowing how much he still cherished her.

They 'saw' everything, and every motive behind his decisions. They saw all his sacrifices, and the scars that they had made upon his heart. They saw his meeting with the 'First' and what was said to him by the Ancient Enemy. They also saw his deep secret that he had recently hid from the group. His recent diagnosed Stress Disorder.

The two females maintained the link when they separated themselves from the brunette Scooby and remained silent towards the intrusion of their dearest friend's private hell. They then invited Giles, Robin and Faith to share in the information that they had learnt, and engaged in silent mental discussion of what they saw as the Bus drove forward away from the Crater.

To put it simply, there was a unanimous consensus that they all worried for Xander, and what he might do because of Anya if he wasn't taken out of the fight ASAP. They were also concerned that his PTSD would indeed make him an unreliable ally in the field. Afraid that he would be more inclined to 'Flight' rather then 'Fight'. Dawn, was thought to be the perfect reason and excuse for him to leave the group. As it was for Dawn's sake that he was able to successfully suppress his Panic Attacks and to hold his ground at the High School.

But again there was something else; something the seventeen-year-old thought Buffy wasn't sharing with her. Call it sister-intuition, but she knew there was another reason why she wanted Xander ostracised from the Scoobs. A private reason that bought her elder sister nothing but pain on an emotional level. When she challenged her sister on this intuition all that was offered was a cryptic answer - 'He was like her - Cookie Dough. It was time he started to bake and become warm and delicious cookies. Something he could not achieve if he remained with her and the rest of the Slayettes.'

When she pressed for an explanation of the metaphor, Buffy just smiled like her heart was breaking. Breaking at the very thought of being separated from someone who was and had become so much of her life. Breaking at the knowing that there was a place in his heart now that hated her. Breaking at the knowing that what she was doing she was doing for the best possible reason and that she daren't tell him so out of fear of his reply.

It was a surreal situation for the teenager that she wished she could understand better. So she demanded to know what they had seen exactly. That as a member of the 'Inner-Circle' she had a right to know what had made everybody so worried for her first-unofficial-imaginary-Boyfriend!

None would go into precise detail of what was seen in Xander's head. Buffy and Willow just looked awkwardly and ashamedly at each other. Both females lost for words. Willow actually started to cry as her demands grew, and Buffy looked more injured and lost at her recollection of Xander's experiences then she did when their own Mom had died. Whatever they had both seen in those brief seconds it was enough for the two to not wish to upset her with the details.

The only one of that number that came close to answering her query was Giles. And all he commented on was that the 'First' had place Xander in an unwinnable situation. Whether what was told to him was true or not, the First had branded Xander deeply with doubt. Doubt towards himself, and doubt towards everyone else. And knowing Xander as well as he did, the Englishman passed on that it was more then likely that Xander would hold himself accountable for everything then to think of his chosen 'Family' guilty or responsible for any negative event of their lives in recent years.

As she did not know what was 'seen' or said to Xander by the 'First' she naively queried whether Willow could do a 'Forget-me Spell'. Unsurprisingly this had already been considered by the knowledgeable group and declined by both Giles and the Wicca, as it skated to close to the Darkside of Magic to perform without the barer's blessing.

Xander's great and mighty heart was now wounded and would remain so.

True, the teenager would have like more details. But in the end it didn't matter to her. This was Xander. This was *her* Xander. And she was being asked by them to keep an eye out for her once upon-a-time Crush. Because it was questionable that anyone else could do as good of a job as herself in helping his Heart and Spirit to repair. Not Buffy. Not Willow. Not Faith. Not Giles. Just her.

When they all got back onto the Bus she sat next to her one-eyed Hero and leaned into his side and used his shoulder as a pillow. Xander responded by wrapping his arm around her seated leaning form, in this reaction she felt safe. And she knew that being with Xander was now possibly the best place she could be at this stage in her life. Not with Buffy, even though she loved her sister greatly and did indeed want to go to Cleveland with the rest, but she never felt this kind of open love and affection come from her in one simple physical action. If Xander wasn't with them at the new Hellmouth then it wouldn't feel right.

As she closed her eyes and absorbed into her nostrils the still musky-sweat stench of Xander's shirt she wondered why Buffy never dared to feel as safe as this with him. And silently she counted herself fortunate that she had not. Afterall, Buffy had a problem keeping Guy's close to her, everyone she had been attracted too had either died, were creeps or had left her. Xander was *not* a creep, so that would have meant, going by the odds, that he would have either left Sunnydale or died. Either way, if any of those scenarios took place she would be missing out on this moment right now. And she loved this moment; she loved this supportive love coming off from him. She didn't know what harm was done to him by the First, but she knew she would aid him in any way possible to help him work through it.

With this private vow she snuggled deeper into his side and began one of her best sleeps in fifteen day's. Knowing full well that when she did drift off that Xander would not move a muscle to disturb her slumber. This was why she loved him so much, it wasn't the big things that he did - though he did plenty of those. It was the little things as well.

The following day Andrew spoke up and asked if he could to tag along with them. So when they stopped at the next rest-stop Town on their way to Cleveland Xander negotiated for a functional and beat up Pick-up Truck and began stowing the teenager's and the Sci-Fi Geek's belonging's in the rear tray. Not surprisingly Buffy and the others didn't put up much of a fight to have him change his mind about him leaving their company so soon.

No words were remembered spoken except the typical 'Let us know where you settle' type thing. Infact Dawn couldn't remember Xander actually choosing to speak to any of them at length since he was given his walking papers. He smiled and hugged the remaining Potentials good-bye, and received a few dozen kisses from the en-massed teenage girls.

But the other's - The Originals. All he offered them was the same short nod he had offered them when they told him he was being let loose.

Giles extended his right hand - Xander didn't shake it.

Willow hugged him fiercely - yet he didn't return the embrace, he just remained stiff until she released herself from him and ran into the Bus crying.

Robin lay on his side, still supporting his injury and Faith mirrored Xander's posture, unsure how they should part - in the end Xander stopped standing silently in front of the pair and just passed them towards Buffy.

He looked down at the Slayer, towering over her, waiting for something - anything to be said by her. Dawn had watched all these exchanges with a morbid curiosity and each one broke her heart. Under Xander's silence Buffy said something softly that the teenager couldn't make out and then Xander asked if she could ever look at him like she used to, if she could ever depend on him like she once did. Her response again was delivered softly, an answer that had Xander nod again at the top of her head as she searched the gravel at her feet. Whatever was said, whatever words were passed on to him by her caused an embitter vibe to be created that had Xander turn his back and walk silently towards his new purchase. Awaiting patiently for his fellow passenger's, Dawn and Andrew, as they made their own separate goodbyes to the group.

Looking back on this memory nearly a year past, Dawn was now grateful that Andy had indeed come along with them, because she couldn't imagine her new life without him being in it. As she then sat between the two males she remembered turning back her head to look through the rear windshield as they drove off back towards California. She couldn't make out much, but she recognized Buffy's growing distant figure by the clothing she was wearing. The figure was on her knees and was being helped up onto her feet by Giles and Faith.

That was the last sight she saw of Buffy. But it wasn't the last time they spoke.

When Xander had found a place to live her first call was to her sister's mobile phone. Since then they spoke semi-regularly, both keeping up with the gossip of both groups. Xander had asked that she never involve that he was still only doing casual work. He did so because he didn't want the others to think they weren't doing well, or that he was struggling to look after her. Basically, he didn't want Buffy questioning her guardianship decision of her to him.

It was deceptive, but she respected his wishes even though she adamantly denied that she wasn't being looked, and cared after. But it was what Xand asked, and it was the only thing he had ever asked of her. So she agreed to play up on how well they were doing, but she was careful not to go overboard. She just minorly stretched the facts abit.

To date, she had learnt that Robin was still pretty much recuperating and now required a walking stick to get around these days. When she passed this bit of info on to Xander he asked her to pass his regrets and best wishes to the former Sunnydale Principle. Andrew, however asked why did they then chose to keep him then if he couldn't walk without assistance? It was an obvious question. Xand sharply replied to the query that they did and that they would just have to accept it. It was rare for Xander these days to display any anger; he was usually so much more withdrawn. So when he snapped at Andrew the question was no longer pursued.

Of course, after he had a chance to settle, he later apologized to the geek for the outburst and bought him two tickets to the latest 'Sci-Fi Convention' where a certain Capt. Archer was going to be in attendance. This made it up to Andy in the Nth power. It was one of the funnest days she had ever had in recent memory, as Andrew and herself had gone together. She just wished Xander had bought three so that he could have joined them as well. But he chose to stay home alone. He did that a lot, giving up on personal luxuries so that she and Andrew could have a sense of a social life. It seemed to her like a self imposed punishment at times, with his room becoming his cell.

At any rate, Robin's inability to do certain physical things put a major crimp in the budding relationship of the Raven-haired Slayer and himself and the two separated after only a few weeks of leaving Sunnyhell.

Faith was doing only cash in hand work, a person with a Criminal Record and a recent Escapee had to keep a low profile. Willow had left with Giles and Kennedy to England to reform the new Council of Watcher's and to train the other recently called Slayer's. Buffy however was struggling with work. She lived in a small house with both Robin and Faith. And because of a Company Secret that she knew about the 'Double-Meat Palace' special ingredient she was able to find a job working at a place she loathed. Only this time it was worse for her, because this time she was in to City she didn't know, and this time she was nearly two-years older then she was when she first started at the Sunnydale Franchise. Her social standing with the other employees was also on par and she was deemed too old to hang-out with by her colleagues.

Nearly every month since they had gotten themselves settled in Los Angeles they - or rather *she*, received 'The Call' from her Slaying sister. 'The Call' was always the same. It centred around a loan to help her meet the expenses that herself, Faith and Robin had not budgeted for. Sometimes it was a hundred dollars, and other times it was three to five times that amount. Today she received another 'Call' and she was so confident that Xander was going to be picked up by the Construction Company that she agreed to another $400 loan without even thinking. It was stupid, it was irresponsible, and it was thoughtless. But it was Buffy, and she needed the money urgently to take care of some Bill's Robin's medical insurance didn't cover.

"Xand --- "


"Buffy called today." Under her administrations she felt Xander's muscles tense at the name.

"How much?"

Dawn closed her eyes and thought nasty thoughts towards her sister for asking her to play the Messenger to her message. It was an uncomfortable position and it was one Buffy kept repeatedly placing her in because she knew two things. One) Xander would find it difficult to accept the call from the Slayer. And Two) She knew that Xander would never refuse a request made by her.

Buffy and the group's private reasoning for distancing Xander from the battle's may have been well intentioned. But they weren't exactly giving him an opportunity to strike out on his own away from them with all the calls for financial aide. "About --- about 400. I'll call her back and say we can't manage it this month."

"Like Hell you will!" Xander shot out of the chair and paced the room trying to rein in a frustration that never seemed to end for him. After a moment he responded softly, almost apologetically for his reaction earlier. "That's it, that's the whole Bonus, Dawnie. It's going to be tight around here until something else picks up."

"Xander, it's Okay --- really. They got themselves into this, they can get themselves out. I'll just tell her that *"

"I said NO, Dawn! I won't have her think we're struggling."

"We're not. Remember - Roof, Water, Electricity."

"End of topic. I said no - she'll get the money. I'll --- I'll transfer the Bonus into her account tomorrow. If you're going to call her later, then tell her that. It's a done deal." Xander then stepped over to the kitchen and to an uncomfortable Andrew who had watched everything awkwardly. The one-eye construction Worker lent forward and smelled the bubbling cheese cooking. "It smell's real good Andy. But I'm not hungry anymore. Why don't you two dish mine out between you - kay?"


From the exposed kitchenette area Xander made his traditional path to his room. But before he got to his door he heard a female's voice break out. "I --- I'm sorry, Xander." The 22-year old turned around and saw Dawn fight back a wall of tears. Instinctively he rushed to her as Andrew did the same. Wrapping his tired arms around her shaking torso.

"What have you got to be sorry about sweetheart?"

"Me, if Buffy hadn't lumped you with me you and Andrew would be fine."

"Hey, Buffy didn't lump me with you. You're the best thing I got out of that deal. So I lose a few hundred a month helping out. So what. It's only paper Dawnie with funny pictures on it. And I'm still contributing to the 'Fight'. Besides, I'm getting to watch you grow up. I'm getting to be with you every night when I come home. I'm getting to help you with your homework, take you to the movies and attend Parent/Teacher nights. I am not *lumped* with you. I'm the winner here Dawn Patrol."

"You --- you haven't called me that in ages."

"Well, your not a little kid anymore. You're a young woman now. And you're becoming more of a young woman everyday, and I'm here to see that happen. I'm here to be part of that. And I wouldn't want to miss that for anything. So Buffy can have her money, she can have as much as she wants as long as I can have you."

The tears had dried by this stage; Xander then gave her another loving hug and turned to Andrew, letting him take his place in the embrace. "Last day tomorrow Andy, I need to make a good final impression so I'm turning in early. The dinner really does smell good." Then, like a tired Warrior who had to once more venture out into no-mans land he approached his room.

With the closing of the door Andrew found in him that rare courage he never showed anybody. "Y'know Dawn, I used to think your sister was pretty cool. But she can be a real jerk at times."

Sniffing and wiping he eyes Dawn nodded into Andrew chest. "Definite jerkish potential present." She held onto the reddish-haired techno-geek for a comforting moment, drawing a little bit of strength from him. "What are we going to do Andrew? It was my job to help him, but he's only getting worse."

Andrew stepped back and nodded. Dawn had long ago passed her burden of what Buffy, Willow and the others had shared with her towards Xander state. And he had happily shared this responsibility. "He needs a hobby, an outlet. Y'know, something to distract him from everything. He needs a*"

"*A girlfriend!"

"Or a Goldfish."

Dawn didn't here the accompanying suggestion as she pushed herself back. A fresh energy overwhelming her. "Why didn't we think of it before, it's so obvious."

"Err, maybe because he hasn't exactly been telling us he wants one."

"He hasn't been telling us anything, Andy."

"Still, Anya --- she's a tough act to follow Dawn. I mean Anya was the perfect woman. You don't get over perfection."

"She wasn't that great. I mean yeah, not wanting to speak ill and all, but I always thought Xand could have done better if he wanted."

"Like you? C'mon Dawn, I've seen you look at him."

"I don't look at him."

"Yes, you do."

"Well --- well so do you!"

"I do NOT! That's a --- a lie. I'm a full-blooded sex machine set for Female Luv. I, I, I don't look at him." Andrew looked down at the carpet and began to shuffle back to the kitchen to continue with the stirring of the bubbling cheese. When he got back in his domain he looked across the room to see Dawn's miserable face welcome his. "I hate it when we do that."

"Do what?"

"When we --- 'tease' eachother."

"Yeah. Bad, we shouldn't do that." The Sister of the Slayer took a deep cleansing breath, and looked her other brother-figure in the face. "I don't look at him."

"Yeah, me either."

Dawn's head bobbed in accordance with Andrew's. "I mean, I used too, but --- but I haven't looked at Xander in a 'special' way since he --- he lost Anya. It just felt, y'know, wrong. Like I would be taking advantage of something that I shouldn't."

"Exactly, so why introduce a woman into the mix. He might not be ready just yet. If Anya was my girlfriend I would never get over it."

"Xander was made my responsibility. So it's my call. I think it's time he moved on, or atleast, get himself back into the game and swing of things."

Andrew then began mixing the cheese with the strained pasta. "He won't like it. He can be pretty proud, y'know. How are we going to get him to 'make-the-scene'?"

"Simple, we won't tell him."

"How can he not be told or not know he's getting or got a girlfriend? It's impossible. Besides, dating costs money. And Xander and us don't have much to rub together with your sister always calling up asking for handouts."

"Y'know if you got a fuller, full time job instead of just Part-time Assisting down at that Comic Book Store then maybe ---"

"I like it there, they're my people."

"I'm kidding, asides you're right. Buffy has to stop it with coming to Bank Xander." With this she picked up the phone and began punching in numbers.

"Wait, your really going to do it? Cut her off? Your calling her now?"

The 18-year old didn't answer she just listened to the dial tone until it was picked up.


<Naah, Faith, Baby-B. How's it hanging? >

"Is Buffy there?"

<Yeah, she's just getting ready for the grind. How are you guy's? >

"Why so curious?"

<Not curious, just haven't spoken to you in a while. Thought good manner's to ask. How's BoyToy doing? >

A flush a lite anger rose in the teenager's voice, only Faith could do this with her with a few stray words. "Xander is good. Infact he's doing great. He --- he's actually doing better then great."

<Oh yeah? That's ---- that's good news. >

The hesitancy in the Slayer's words was like fresh blood in the water and Dawn pressed the point. "Yeah, great. He's dating now."

<You lie. When did this happen? Last I heard from B, you had told her he was still Mopes-ville, USA. >

"Yeah, well that was before he got himself some luvin'. He's now walking on Sunshine. Really nauseous to watch, you know - the whole lovey-dovey type stuff. Oh wait, no, no you don't know it."

<Low blow Baby-B. Fighting dirty. So what's she like? The Flame hot or what? >

"She's sweet, funny, smart, sexy, sensitive, understanding, supportive and Xander likes her alot." From behind her she felt the frantic tapping on her shoulder. Placing her hand over the Phone to ensure no eavesdropping she turned and looked at the startled face of Andrew.

"What are you doing?"

"Putting her in her place. She's always so smug when it comes to Xander just cause she 'Broke him in'. I'm just letting her know that she isn't that hot, --- or that memorabile. That Xander isn't pining for her."

"Yeah, but still. Did you have to include all that other stuff? Couldn't you have just said he had a girlfriend and leave it at that? What if they call up and speak to Xander and ask about the Girlfriend that he doesn't have."

"They won't. Have you ever known any of them to phone and ask to speak to Xand? They don't do it. You and me sure. But Xander they give a wide berth." Andrew had to nod in agreement to what was just said. Xander had never been directly sought by the Cleveland Team, even Giles when he would phone from England would often avoid speaking to Xander if he could and when he did do it was a very blunt pleasantry. Removing her hand from the mouthpiece Dawn once again spoke. "Faith *"

<No, Buffy. Faith just gave me the phone and the 4-1-1. >


<He's --- he's dating? It's not even a year, it's too soon Dawn. >

Another wave of anger rose within the Teenager at her sister's assessment. "What do you know, Buffy? What do you know what he's ready for?"

<I know that several months is not enough to get over the loss of someone you love. That's what I know. >

"Yeah, well he's happy."

<What's her name? >

"What does her name have to do with anything?"

<Willow can do a check and find out if she's evil or not. >

"She's nice and normal."

<No woman Xander is attracted too is nice and normal. >

"Yeah, well she is. And he's happy. Smiling and everything. And the noises I hear coming from his room is*"

<*Do I really have to know this? >

"No, no you don't. What you do have to know is that your getting your Money wired to your Account tomorrow."

<Thanks Dawn. >

"How many times do I have to tell you, don't thank me. It's not my money. Thank Xander." There was silence for a moment on the other end of the phone, and she could imagine her sister weighing again what she had said. Just like she always did when the youngest of the Summer's brood stepped up to correct her. After a few pregnant seconds the teenager spoke once more. "Make the most of it Buffy, cause that's all your getting until you can ball up the courage to ask Xander yourself."

<Dawn, I --- I can't. >

"Why not? What did you say to him when the two of you parted? Why won't you speak to him, why won't Willow, or Faith, or any of you guy's speak to him. What do you know?"

<I --- I told him that I love him and that I always will. But things were different between us now. We had both grown in different ways. He asked, nearly pleaded, if things could ever go back to being how they once were, if I could ever look at him the same way as I did when we first met. I told him no. I told him I needed Warrior's at my side, not people who can get caught and have their eye gouged out. I needed fighter's not pushovers or wimps. >

"What!?! You called him a wimp?"

<I called him what I HAD to call him to get him to leave, Dawn. It broke my heart to call him that, knowing the truth of everything he's been through thanks to my Destiny, and me. I know he's not a Wimp. I've 'seen' what he's done over the years - so has Giles, Willow, Robin and Faith. After seeing everything he's endured, If anybody were the wimps, it was us. All of us. But if he were to stay --- if he went to Cleveland with us, something bad would have happened. Either to him, or to one of us. I couldn't take that risk. I wanted so badly for him to know some happiness, and I knew that if he stayed with me he wouldn't ever have it. >

"Yeah, well he --- he does now."

<Well then --- I'm happy for him, I really am. She's lucky, whoever this mystery woman of his is, she's very lucky. >

"Buffy, is there anything else you want to tell me?"

<No, why would there be anything else. >

"You said 'me' instead of 'us' when you said about him going to Cleveland. Whilst your being completely honest with me, is there anything you want to add?"

There was silence at the other end and then an answer was offered. <No, Dawn. There's nothing. Just a bunch of memories of times when things were more innocent between us. When our lives were easier and not --- complicated. I made his life complicated, when he deserved it to be 'not'. Choices I made and regret's because of them. Y'know, 'Roads not travelled'. Name your metaphor, Dawnie. And that's how I see my past with Xander. Sometimes I think it would have been better if I didn't know him. I'd have stayed dead in the Master's Cave, but atleast --- atleast he would have been free of the doubt that the 'First' sowed. >

"Ah, so it start's in the Master's Lair. This whole 'First and Xander' thing."

<Don't push, Dawn. Trust me - you don't want to know what I know. If you knew what I knew you'd never be able to look at him the same. So don't push this Dawn. Please. >

"Fine. Fine, just remember that if you need money again you talk directly to Xander. Not me or Andy - Xander!"

<Dawn, I can't. >

"Then you have a problem. Cause from now on that Money, Xander's Money, is earmarked 'Xander's-Happiness-Money'. You call up for another 'Loan', and you will be taking away from Xander's happiness fund. I'm sorry Buffy, but you gave me a job to do, a responsibility. And I made a promise, not only to you, but also to Xander as well to help him get better. And he's goin* --- he IS getting better."

<Dawn --- *>

"No Buffy, this is the line I must draw. It's over until you make things better between you and him. I'm not going to allow myself, or Andrew get caught up in this anymore. You want to make things better for Xander, then repair it. Make things right, it been nearly a year Buff. We're settled somewhere else. What harm is there in you burying the hatchet. A hatchet, that you threw into him! Your intention might have been good, Sis. But the intention has become something else now. He avoids talking about you guy's. When he hears your name he tenses. Whatever memories he now has of you has now been poisoned by how you parted with him and months of scamming dough. Fix it, not because of the Bankroll, cause he's more then willing to keep contributing if it makes things easier for you and Faith. But Fix it cause you want him to be happy." With this said the eighteen year-old placed the receiver back into the cradle and looked to Andrew. "See, all done now."

Andrew had already served out the portions of the Macaroni and Cheese. "Kinda dangerous, Dawn. Telling her that stuff about the 'Girlfriend' and then telling her to speak directly to Xander from now on."

"She won't. Maybe in a few weeks, or a few months when she, Faith and Robin are really strapped. But until then she'll be mulling over what I said. And hopefully when she does call she'll make things better for him."

"And the 'Girlfriend' thing?"

"No-one knows Xander better then we do. How hard can it be to find someone that would suit Xander right to the ground? This is a big city, there must be ton's of single fish out there all wanting to meet someone as great as Xander."

"Someone Smart?"

"And sensitive."


"And funny."


"And supportive."

"Aanndd Sexy? --- You couldn't have lowered the bar a bit? Where are we going to find someone who fits all of that?"

Taking the two plates from Andrew's hands and placing them on the table while he got the two of them some cutlery. She opened the classified section of the day's newspaper and began to dial another number that was at the top of the front page. "Simple, we look and we look hard. There has to be someone available out there. And failing that --- Yes? Hello? Hi, I would like to place a Personal Ad, it should read - 'Searching: A 'Soulmate', a person who is sensitive, smart, sweet, ---"


Chapter 2

Takes place in Cleveland, one-second after the Phone Call.

Buffy placed the portable phone back down upon the dinner table, catching her reflection of the Double-Meat uniform she was wearing in the blank television screen opposite as she did so. She stared at herself for a sad moment and then looked up at her fellow Slayer, Faith, whose face was one of expectation towards what Dawn had said to her a few seconds earlier.

The last few months of co-habituating with the brunette Chosen One had taught her much about the young woman now in front of her. There were times when the 'street tough' dissolved away and was replaced with a softer and gentler Faith, a Faith that possessed a caring side, one that only came out in rare moments. Some such moments were when the topic of Xander was raised within the household, and with the mention of the name her façade easily disappeared. Buffy believed that this transformation was possibly due to Faith's own kindred experience of knowing what it was like to be given up on by people. The brunette had mournfully complied with the decision of deserting Xander several months ago, but that didn't mean that she liked or respected at how it was achieved.

Only Willow and herself ever got to see Xander's memories on the red-letter day of Sunnydale's destruction. Only they saw the repercussions of Xander's life and it's loss, as well as the depths of its effect on him. The other's only shared through the later 'mind-link' in information that they had selectively chosen to tell and there was sadly too much that they didn't want to share. This was not done out of selfishness, it was more because it was too painful to relay and explain to the other's. Everybody had hurt Xander unknowingly in someway over the years. And too see everything from his perspective did not make things easier for either of them.

Buffy now saw a noble man who was quite literally bought to his knees through her actions, as well as a life of one of her dearest and longest surviving friends destroyed. When things had gotten bad for any of them, Xander was always there to shoulder the load for them. But where were they when Life had abused him? If what they 'saw' was accurate, they were no where except in their own self-involved worlds. He dealt with his trials singley and based on what she and the Wicca understood that day, his various hardships had been just as bad, if not worse then their own because he had dealt with them solo.

Both Willow and she saw things that the other had done to this man. Many things, and many hurts - great and small. Buffy had witnessed Xander's raw fear of a childhood friend on Kingman's Bluff, and Willow had taken in the sense of emotional destruction the Slayer had caused when he had learnt the truth of Spike's and her involvement with one another at that same time. Both had laid assaults to his core and centre of love and trust of the other. Both had wounded him, and of course both had seen the 'talk' between Xander and the First Evil at the Hospital and of the revelations it had revealed. Neither wanted to accept what they had witnessed in that discussion, because if they did they would have to admit to their own frailties as well as Xander being third-party responsible for some of the worst happenings of their collective lives.

The decision to send Xander away from everybody was a quick fix to a complicated situation. A simple application of a bandaid to a savage wound that was their lives. The group saw that Xander's life, out of all of them, had the most potential of ever being a normal one, and they all saw that this potential could only be achieved if he was distracted away from Demon Slaying. The addition of Dawn was a latter thought to the plan about to be implemented, and it was one to ensure that at least a small sense of 'normality' of life was achieved for at least one Summer's sister.

They, as a group (Herself, Willow, Giles, Faith and Robin), decided that at the first opportunity to pose the importance of Dawn's welfare to the carpenter. This was done to ensure that his separation from everyone was achieved as painlessly as possible. But unfortunately, based on his previous experience of removing the teen from the group earlier in the week, he decided to decline the gentler solution to their collective problem.

It was then that the hateful alternative had to be seized and made public; with a heavy heart she closed off all emotion and denied looking at the people who were gawking at her in surprise of her flowing words. She broke his heart into a million pieces in full view of everybody with the single hope that when it eventually mended that it would be free and stronger then ever before.

This was one reason and motive, and it was the popular belief by those who were in the 'know'. But there was also another, a smaller hateful one that she had kept concealed; the other dark reason was that deep down she felt in a measure betrayed by him. Betrayed and ashamed.

It was revealed to her through the witnessed 'First Evil's words that Xander was responsible for all the dark happenings of her recent life and even though his involvement was at best a distant one she wished to hold him responsible and punish him for it. And she knew that in sending him away from everyone he loved, all humiliated would achieve this end successfully. Yes, in a sicking part of her mind she knew it to be cruel. She knew it to be malicious. Especially as it was delivered mere hours post his sad acceptance of the loss of one of his greatest loves of his life. But she felt that she couldn't trust him on the same scale as she once did. She later tried to justify and balance these dark thoughts with the knowledge that his various injuries, physical and discovered psychological ones, did indeed make him vulnerable in a combat, and did in truth place others at risk. This gave her a measure of solace, that and the fact that couldn't bare to look upon his once perfect face anymore. An injured face that she was responsible for and couldn't bare being reminded of day in and day out. Five reasons for him to go, and only one to have him stay. Unfortunately for Xander that day, the majority won out.

As the months past in Cleveland, that silent distrust, guilt, anger and all other elements that made her choices that day disappeared and a more reasoned mind took over her faculties. But sadly it was far too late for her to make the wrong thing right. How many times in the past did she just react to a problem before she ever thought it through? Too many, and everyday past this realization she was reminded of what precious things she had given up.

Every absent day bought her a quiet sadness until she had to eventually give into herself and admit that she couldn't let either of them go. Yet, she as well as the others were too afraid to ever speak to Xander directly out of fear to what he would say them. Their parting words and actions to him were far too effective. So they dealt with him by proxy and via Dawn and Andrew.

She lived for the semi-weekly calls to Dawn and the geek, devouring any gossip and updates, enjoying every spoken word just as much as Willow and Faith did on Xander and everything that was happening to him and his 'family'. Xander was her cookie-dough; he was making himself ready for someone deserving to enjoy his flavour, and each piece of feedback she received both elated and tortured her.

Dawn's happy stories about her new life in San Francisco living with Andrew and Xander were voyeuristic pleasures and sometimes at night when she went to bed and closed her eyes, she would recap on the facts Dawn had passed on in her tales and cry herself to sleep. Stories of the fantastic School she was attending, and her popularity amongst her fellow students, as well as the constant and regular work Xander was receiving, and of the magnificent meals cooked by Andrew.

In her dreams she was with her little sister again, she was with Xander again, and everything was perfect again, much as it was before Willow returned from England and before the entire First Evil thing entered their lives.

But each morning she would wake up to attend a job she hated with all her heart, eat a cold breakfast that was prepared and/or burnt by a uninterested Faith and receive unwanted lectures on Watcher Lore and Slayer Duty by and invalid Robin Wood - A Slayer's son, whose injuries had made him bitter at those that had escaped the Sunnydale Hellmouth's destruction with barely a scratch on them.

She would have given anything to be part of Xander's happy family, and she had a strong feeling that Faith and Willow was of the same mind as her. But that would never happen. The way she had severed her ties with him assured her of this. She called him a 'wimp' and 'useless', not behind his back - but to his face. After everything he had either given up or lost in his association with her it was too much for him to take and she knew that. This is why she said to him what she said.

Her actions may have been thought by the others as true and good, but memory of the 'darker motive' made her feel rancid at saying them. When she saw Xander get into his newly acquired Pick-up Truck and drive away with her little sister sitting beside him she collapsed to the ground and cried uncontrollably. Her being the Slayer had destroyed far too many lives and happiness of people she cared about, and now it had effectively destroyed one more - her own.

When they had settled in Cleveland the spectre of the happening to Xander carried on. The Potentials all shied away from her leadership more so then when they were in Sunnydale and arguments quickly and easily erupted between herself and Willow. Without Xander there to act as a buffer and intervener, the cute eccentricities of Willow Rosenberg just got on her nerves. After a few of months it was decided that in order to preserve whatever friendship that remained between the pair, that the Witch should go with Giles to England to reform the Council and to seek out other allies in the fight against the dark. The remaining Potentials were returned to their families and ordered to maintain their exercises and hone their basic skills until they were officially called by the Council.


Buffy blinked her thoughts clear and diverted her eyes away from Faith, pretending to look for her keys as she delivered an answer. "Well, what? You heard. Xander has a girlfriend."

"Yeah, I got that B. But what about her? Pip went all defensive and Secret Squirrel on me."

"Dawn kept it brief with me also. She said she was normal, so I guess that's a good thing and that she apparently makes him happy."

Faith William's put her hands on her hips and exhaled a tired sigh at the defeated tone delivered to her. "And your not liking this?"

The elder Summer's daughter turned and looked directly at her once long ago foe. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean you don't have a Happy-Happy, Joy-Joy thing goin'. That's what."

"I'm --- I'm happy for him."

"Uh-uh, not buyin' any, B. Me? I'm happy for the guy. You however are givin' off a totally different vibe here, an' it ain't joy."

Buffy surrendered to the scrutiny, if she had gotten to know Faith better over the months then it stood to reason that the opposite stood the same. "Just alittle shocked at how quick it is, that's all. He's just not ready yet, Faith."

The female standing opposite shook her head. "Who says? You? B, if not now, then when? Look, he's not marrying the girl - He's just dating her. Which in my book is good; it's at least a positive start. Sure beat's hearing from little sis that he's been spending his Friday and Saturday Night's in front of the tube. He's getting out into the Game again, an' crawling out of his funk."

"See - It's with comment's like that that shows how little you know. You just don't understand. He's got a condition, Faith. You can't just cure that with a few dates."

"No, B, I *do* understand. I understand more then you think I do. The guy's got himself a stress-disorder, so do you think it emotionally healthy for him to just close himself off from the World? Too wrap himself up in cottonwool? Fall into the same depressing pattern of going to work an comin' home to D and A? From what you and Red told us, the guy lost a lot. His dignity, confidence and self-worth. Can you honestly think of anything better in building either of those characteristics up again then a bit of girly action?"

"What if she breaks his heart? What if*"

"*What if tomorrow never comes? Isn't that why you sent Baby B with him? To keep an eye out? If Pip thinks he's ready, then ya gotta trust her."

Buffy bowed her head at the memory of the phone call just had, placing on the brightly coloured Double-Meat Baseball Cap. "Dawn hates me. But I guess I should have expected that once I told her what I said to drive him away. She now understands why he doesn't want anything to do with me on a personal level.

"I put her in a position where she has had to watch over someone she cares about and play Ms. Tactful where yours and my name came up in conversation with him. It didn't occur to me till now how unfair that was, or how it would affect her. She see's his charity and hate for us and it confuses her. But now that I've told her what I said to him she can't defend us anymore. I told her I called him a wimp and she couldn't believe her ears, you should have heard her voice, Faith. She hates me now. She's even ordered me not to call again asking for handouts."

"This isn't good news. We aren't exactly rolling in the mohla, B. Until G finds the Council's Account information and proof to help him access it, we are well and truly fucked in the dollars department. Xander's paydays were the only thing that was keeping our heads above water."

"Then I guess we'll now just have to learn how to swim a lot better now. Cause as of tomorrow, Xander, as a Cash-Cow Option will no longer be explored."

Faith nodded solemnly, she could cope with cutting corners here or there. Her childhood had made her adaptable to living under the poverty line. It was Buffy and Robin to whom this would be a fresh experience for. "I suppose we can keep the Dog's off our heels until G comes through with the green."

"That's the plan. Positive thoughts, that and I'll see if I can slide my name in to doing some Over-time wherever and whenever I can at the DM."

"Did Pip give you a reason why Xander is saying 'No' to us now?"

"He didn't say 'No', Dawn did. And as to her reasoning - Dating costs money."

"Well B, all I got to say is that I hope this babe is worth it."

"Me? I just hope she doesn't go and do what I hope she doesn't, and that is - break his heart."

"An' what if she does?"

"If she hurts Xander, in any shape and or form - and I find out about it, ohhh man, you do NOT want me to find out about it! Cause I don't care how much it will put me in hock, I'll be on the first Plane bound to Frisco with one solo aim, and that is throwing that skank through a wall, and we're not talking one wall here, were talking a dozen."

The brunette Slayer's left eyebrow arched and a dangerous smile formed. "If that's the case then you'd have to make that passage with double seats, cause there won't be no-way in Hell you'd be making that trip without me riding shotgun."


The Following Morning in a certain Manor House in San Francisco.

The door to the attic opened inwards with a slight creak to its hinges and a very attractive brunette peaked her head inside the room to witness the youngest of the three sister brood engrossed with the large and protected book at far end of the room.

Not lifting her head from the inscriptions within a large and thick book placed upon an antique stand, the younger 'P' beaconed her sister over to join her.

"Piper said she couldn't find the Demon that attacked Wyatt in the books downstairs. Any luck with the Book of Shadows?"

For the first time since the polite intrusion, Paige, looked up and met the eyes of her elder half-sister with a slightly embarrassed glint in her eye. "Uh, actually, I'm working on something else."

"A vanquishing potion?"

"No. A birthday present."

"A birthday present?"


"Ooookkkaaayyyy, she asks with dread forming in the pit of her stomach. What kind of birthday present?"

"Oh nothing, just the perfect gift."

"The info still not helping in settling the fear. What perfect gift? What's that devious little mind of yours concocting?"

Paige marked her place with a bookmark and closed the Book of Shadows. Stepping away with a note pad in her hand with her distinctive scribbling. "I figured Piper has no love in her life right now, so I was thinking of putting some love back in it."

"Whoa! Love? Are we talking a Love Spell, here? Geez, Paige, how many times have I told you - Love Spells and the Halliwells just don't mix. Sure they seem simple, easy and a bit of harmless fun, but take it from this veteran they cause the Sisters-Three nothing but trouble. It's like we're cursed, y'know. In fact if there is another person on the Planet who has had as bad of experience with Love Spells as we have had over the years, I for one would love to meet them..."

"Relax; I'm not doing a Love Spell. I'm making a Love MACHINE. I'm making Piper the Perfect Man."

Phoebe Halliwell's mouth gaped open in mixture of shock and horror at the statement. "Are you kidding me?!? Are you out of your mind?!?"

Paige looked up from her writings with a matter-of-fact expression upon her face. "No, I don't think I am. Listen, we've conjured magical being's before, so, you know, hey, what's the big drama?"

"The drama is they always come back and bite us on the ass, that's what!"

Holding up her pad as evidence Paige smiled in her forethought plan. "No-no-no-no-no, this one won't. He'll just be around for her birthday, from midnight to midnight, then poof - all gone."

"Paige, we can't just conjure up a sex-toy. It's not right."

"Listen, I figure magic owes Piper. It has taken away the love of her life, and now it's threatening to take away the love from the rest of her life. You heard her down stairs just now; she's given up on ever finding love again. Look, I get that Wyatt is super-important, I DO get that. But I think this spell could be for the greater good. Not only for her, but for us also. She might be able to finally accept Leo's now gone and can move on with her life. Instead of dating these guy's who run in the opposite direction when they find out she's a single mother, or who bury the needle in the creep-o-scale."

Phoebe looked at her younger sister and studied her for a moment before she continued with her opinion on the well intentioned thought. "I'm sorry, Honey, but I can't agree with this. I understand why you want to do it, and I agree. She needs to move on, but not like this. I mean, what good is making her a perfect man for just 24-hours? I mean, c'mon Paige, do you even know her? Piper's not a one-night stand kinda of gal; she'd want substance and stamina to her relationship. Honey, like I said, I know where you're coming from, I do. I really do. Piper has been handed a bad deal, but trust me she doesn't need a temporary Lover to get over Leo. She needs a friend more at this moment. Someone she can feel free to talk too. Someone she can be a normal person around and not just a mother, or more importantly - A Witch.

"I realize that you want to help her get over Leo, cause I want to help her too. But take it from me, with great Love like what they had, it's not that simple. It's never that simple. We all love Leo, and always will. But when he had to leave her and his own infant son to become an Elder, no matter how you try and sugar-coat it, it hurt her. Hurt her to the point that when she found out --- well you know how well she handled that piece of news. Talk about bad timing, she had then the power of the Earth Goddess Gia at her beck and call and with it she nearly destroyed us and the whole city with it. Hell, given her state of mind back then she may have even been prepared to destroy the Planet.

"She was an immensely powerful witch overwhelmed with grief at losing someone who was to her the other part of her soul. *You* couldn't reason with her, *I* couldn't reason with her. But Leo, luckily, was able to get through and I can't think of a single person alive, given those same circumstances, who would have been able to do something like that. And THAT'S the kind of person I want for her. Some one who can reach her, and bring the old Piper out to play in the sun again.

"She needs someone who is like Leo, but not. Someone who can remind her that Leo's mould was not a 'use-once-then-smash' type deal. That there are other guy's like him out there in the big bad world for her. That's what she needs, Paige. Not a walking, talking and breathing Sex-Machine!"


*No, Paige. Like I said, I understand. I'm all for the whole 'Sister's doin' it for ourselves' Stuff. But we got to draw the line somewhere, Sweetie. There is right and wrong. And inventing and creating a stud-muffin for her, as good as it might sound in the planning, it's just wrong."

"Then what would you suggest?"

"What I would suggest is that we focus on identifying this said Demon like we're supposed too before Chris and Piper come up here and ask what it is you were planning on doing."

A sly smile formed over the younger sister's face, her left eyebrow arching as she coyly shock her head. "No, I got another idea, how about we do it? What you just said. Find her another Leo, but NOT Leo. Someone she could have that same kind of connection with. A guy she can be best friends and talk about normal stuff with. Someone who can 'get' her."

"Are you serious?"

The sly smile spread further at the question. "Deadly. It's her birthday; can you think of a better present then another friend, maybe even a possible Step-Daddy for Wyatt? At the very least we could find her someone who might be able to understand her alot better then most men out there do and get her out of her funk. We can mix a couple of spells together and then viola, not create the perfect mate, but find her one. We could throw in a seeking spell here, a touch of love spell there, and my own original piece. What could go wrong?"

"Oh so many things come to mind."

"Oh, come on. If it falls flat none will be the wiser, and if it works it would be like she hit the Jackpot."

Phoebe Halliwell bit her bottom lip in dangerous contemplation to the idea. "I don't like this. What guarantees do we have that we can even pull it off?"

"It'll work. Trust me."

"I do trust you, but like I said - mondo bad experiences. You have to warm me more on the idea then just offering me your word. How is this thing gonna work, exactly?"

Paige again moved to stand once more behind the Book of Shadow's and opened it up to the Seeking Spell she was talking of. "See this, what happens is that circumstances bend and warp to unite the included objects. On the outside it all appears natural, a whole mess of coincidences, but in reality it's completely not."

Phoebe lent over and read the caption written in the Book pertaining to the spell in question. "Okay, so for example, just so I got it straight, what this spell does is something like you see a guy at a Supermarket, then later that day the same guy is waiting behind you when your getting gas, then you might bump into them again while taking a walk, while alittle bit later in the evening you end up showing at the same Bar at the same time."

"You got it, coincidences upon coincidences until that connection is made."

"Alright, that one sounds harmless enough, you got me alittle bit interested, that dread thing in my stomach is starting to subside. But what about the Love Spell?"

"That's going to be trickier; the Love Spell is by far the most dominant of all of them. We don't want somebody to fall falsely in love against their free will, nor do we want her too. Just enough for them to draw out and recognize that they *could* fall in love with each other, even if it's just as a friend, which has a little bit of love in it anyway. Motivation all completely natural, what happens between them happens without it being forced too.

"However we do have to be careful in measuring out the proportions; it has to be just right. Just a small pinch of the ingredients, overboard would undoubtedly be a disaster we're trying to avoid. As to my 'Prince Charming' Spell, alittle refinement on what we think she needs and wants will help in the incantation's selection process. After all, I don't think Piper would appreciate some 80-year old knocking on her door with flowers in hand, do you?"


The younger sister stamped her feet on the floor boards to emphasis her excitement over pursuing the plan. "Come on, Sis, you know you want too."

Phoebe stepped back and brushed some of her hair back from her forehead. "Fine, but only on the condition that if it works - WE get the credit and if it doesn't - YOU get the blame."

"I can live with that." Piper then directed her elder sister over to the cauldron that she was going to use, turning her pads pages over for a fresh sheet to write on. "Okay, the first step I suppose would be to write down some qualities."

"Qualities, what do you mean by qualities?"

"You know, qualities for the perfect Boyfriend for Piper."

"Oh. Okay, well, I think she would want someone that, um, lives really nearby and, you know, doesn't travel a lot."

"Yeah, well, I would write down something about someone I could do magic infront of, but these are qualities YOU and I want, not qualities that Piper would necessarily want."

"How about someone whose just reasonably close and 'Open minded'?"

"Yeah, I'd go with those two." Paige headed a piece of paper with Piper's name and began to write as the elder of the two sister's began to pace the room in thought of what her sister would be wanting from a mate.

"Okay, um, Piper, Piper, Piper. What would you want? Definitely someone under thirty five and over twenty. Oh Oh, okay, I think she would also want, you know, a strong man but someone not afraid to show his sensitive side, and not the kind who would blow their own trumpet."

"Sensitive type, but not a bragger or a wuss bag. Gotcha." The paper in the youngest hands began it's journey of filling out her eldest sister's requirements.

Phoebe then began to rub her chin in thought, silently surprised at how easy all of this was now coming to her. "She'd want somebody whose a good listener."

"Okay, and a good cook."

"Right. Someone whose handy around the house also, a guy who knows how to fix things."

"Excellent with kids."

"Gets the whole wanting to live the normal life thing."

"Someone who knows what the word loyalty and devotion means."

"Definitely. Someone gentle and tender."

"And has a really big ---" The younger P hands drifted apart to emphasis what she was meaning.


"Uh, we are trying to find her the perfect guy aren't we?"

Against her will the Advice Columnist smile spread at the fantasy she was creating in her mind of what this Adonis would look like. "Alright, add it to the list." It was with this statement that she realised just what it was they were doing and what she was missing out on in her own life.

Paige Halliwell noticed the loss of enthusiasm in her sister's eyes and closed the note pad before she enquired. "What's wrong Sis?"

"Cole. Cole, is what's wrong. Cole is what will always be wrong. I just can't help but think right now how well things would have been for me if we had thought of doing this for yours truly after we discovered the truth about Cole."

Paige looked down at the pad in her hand and tried to smile at the memory of the tall, dark and handsome demon her sister fell madly in love with, but it wasn't easy. "The Cole situation was a unique one." It was no great secret that she found it difficult to ever trust Cole, like Piper, Leo and Phoebe did. But now was not the time for 'I told you so', nor would it ever, Cole's betrayal and the hurt it caused would always rub raw. Now it was time to be sensitive and supportive. "I mean, you fell inlove with a Demon, Pheob, you were even engaged to him. Not to many people would have been able to look pass all the bad deeds he had done in the past, but you did. You helped humanize him, even if it was for just a bit. When he returned to the Source and his demon ways, then --- 'disappearing'. I just don't think we could have found anyone who could have identified with your hurt at all that, and of the great love you had to have to overlook his short AND long comings."

"Yeah, but it would have been nice if we'd tried. I was in a funk for months after, even contemplated becoming a mermaid to get away from the hurt I was feeling. Even now, a year on, I still --- I feel like I'm so alone at times."

"You?!? Phoebe, you're the Queen of Flirtation, you can't walk out of 'P3' without a dozen guys trying to give you their phone number by the end of the night."

"Don't confuse quantity over quality. I think back to all of the relationships I've had, and aside from Cole - who was plotting to kill us all, they were each and all fly-by-nighter's without any real long term staying power.

"Y'know, sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have a Leo of my own." Phoebe smiled back at the first memory she had of the Whitelighter and his tight jeans on the ladder five years earlier. "You don't know this but when Leo first showed up to work on the Manor all those years back, we all took him for just a normal guy. Piper and I were even in a friendly and sisterly competition to snag him.

"I did the hapless seductress thing, tight jeans and tops, cleavage, pout, practically breaking things on purpose so that he'd spend more then 5-minutes with me, y'know the whole 9-yards. But Piper went completely opposite and took the Homemaker route with the freshly baked cookies and cakes for him and did the total independent 'I can manage, thanks' way. At the end of the day, he chose Piper. I mean I could see why he did that, and with all the good he bought into her life like Wyatt, I'm glad that he did. Back then she was the only choice he could have really made, she was a lot more mature then I was, and me --- I was a big flake back then. Drifting in and out of things, jobs, relationships an' other stuff. Commitment was a word I had to look up in a dictionary for. But I'm not that Phoebe anymore, I use to flee from the 'C' word. But now? Now I have to admit I long for it, and I don't want to date a thousand guys' anymore, Paige; I just want to date the right guy."

Paige looked down at the remaining blank pieces of paper in her hand and the sad understanding smile brightened. "Y'know, we could do you too. I mean, where is it written that Piper should have all the fun?"

Phoebe stiffened at the suggestion. "How about we not, and just say that we did. Like I told you, Paige, had a bit of experience with these kind of things and I'm now a bit gun-shy. If this thing does end up going wrong I for one would not like to be in anybody's sights."

"C'mon, it's all harmless, but if your nervous I'll tell you what, I've hit a bit of a dry spell of late, so why don't we make this a family thing? You, me, and Piper. C'mon, give in to the Peer Pressure, Phebes."

"But won't that put a strain on the magic? The three of us doing it?"

"Naah, it should be fine. We'll just triple some of the doses, that's all."

"But the Love Spell, wasn't it you who said we should be careful with that one?"

"And we will. Now stop finding reasons not to do this and just do it. If for no other reason then it will be fun. Just think of the top factors you want in a guy."

The Advice-columnist looked at her younger sister with suspicion, but quickly gave in to her expectant look. "Well he's, um, well for starters he needs to be Single. Not on a 'Break', and not just broken up. He's got to be totally available. He also has to be the kind of person who would not take a woman for granted.

"He's got to be a man of action, not the kinda of guy who would stand back and let others do the heavy stuff, y'know, the kind not afraid to get his hands dirty if he has too.

"He's also shouldn't be intimidated by strong willed females, which I know I can be sometimes. Maybe a guy a little bit younger then me, but not too young, not eighteen or nineteen, in his early twenties or something. Cole was centuries older then me so I think I need to divert away from the older guy type."

"Sooo, he has to have a thing for the older women?"

"Not a thing, just an 'appreciation', besides we're not talking a 50-year age gap here, just a few short years is all. A decent communicator, but not the kind who thinks they have to talk all the time, just someone who knows when to yap and when to stay silent, yet when he does talk to know exactly what to say and not babble it out.

"A stayer in the bedroom wouldn't be a bad thing either. I'd like him to be able to make me laugh and make me think. Kind, honest, edgy-boy next door look about him. I think that's about it. Umm, what about you?"

Paige threw Phoebe's 'Wish List' into the cauldron with Piper's, and wrote her own name at the top of a fresh page and passed it and a pen to her sister. "Me? My turn, umm, I guess first off I would like someone whose direct - I want a guy who doesn't play mind games with you."

"Oh, good one."

"Thanks. I want a fella who will think of other's before he would think of himself. A guy with morals, with the ability to be able to laugh at himself. A guy with a track history ---*."


"Think about it, you don't want some newbie to dating. You want a guy who's been in a long-term relationship before, someone who knows the right and wrongs where treating a Lady is concerned. A man who knows himself and how to behave in coupledom."

"Damn. I want my list back!"

"Too late once it's thrown in the cauldron it can't be retrieved or you'll disrupt the magical field. Umm, I would like him to be fit and healthy with a good work ethic. Someone who is wise beyond their years and who once they set their mind to something they will see it through no matter what. A guy who can be cute - I like cute, but not dimples-cute, someone whose kinda handsome with a cuteish-quality when he wants to be, if you know what I mean. What do you think?"

"I think between you, me and Piper's List we got ourselves a keeper."

"Yeah, but I doubt a guy with all those qualities would be single. Broken into three pieces of requests like we did gives us a broader net. And a better chance of individually finding someone who would fit them."

"So now that we've identified what we want, friendship --- or suitor wise, what do we do now?"

"Now comes the hard part."

For the next fifteen minutes both witches were travelling back and forth between their ingredients tray, the Book of Shadow's and the cauldron with the three precious pieces of paper with in it.

Then on the sixteenth minute the Spells were ready to be cast.

Stepping forward from the northern pole of the Cauldron, Paige and Phoebe Halliwell cleared their throats and began to announce the combined incantations to the room.

"A perfect man we call for now,
Another way we don't know how,
To make our sister's see the light,
Deliver us to our Mr. Right."

"From Hell to Heaven and in-between,
Direct them too us unforseen,
Grant us this a female's boon,
Bring us happiness to our home."

A florescent pink light glowed in the heart of the metal pot, the ingredients within beginning to break down the three pieces of paper like one whole. The ashes then became flakes of intense whiteness as they raised out of their confines. Then upon distancing itself successfully from the cauldron the pieces gravitated to one another and upon joining rapidly spun in place until the white light grew brighter to the point that both witches had to shield their eyes from the intensity given. Then *pfft*.

The sisters lowered their hands in surprise of the strange sound and sudden dimness to the attic room.

"It went 'Pfft'. Successful spells don't go 'Pfft', there is usually a clap of thunder, swirly light and a pinkish or purplish mist or something, but never a Pfft."

Paige peered into the now empty cauldron, her brow betraying genuine confusion. "But it was working. You saw it, it was working."

"Maybe we miss-matched the ingredients?"

"But I was so careful with that. It should have worked!"

"Maybe we just mixed the wrong spells together?"

"No, I checked before we did it. They all should have been compatible."

"Paige, don't fret. So it didn't work, it's not the end of the world. It just means that we have to handle life and love like 3 billion other females out there."

"But it should have worked!"

"Wweeellll it sounded to me like it didn't, which is probably a good thing. Love Spell vs. Halliwells. Just shake it all off and walk away from it, sister."

Begrudgingly, Paige nodded and seeked out her sisters face, trying to fight back an embarrassed smile. "Yeah, your probably right. So, now that this is a bust what are you planning as a birthday gift?"

"CD. You?"

"A trashy book and some perfume."

The two smiled knowingly at eachother, both understanding that this was going to be their little secret and that no-one needed to be aware of what had been transpiring in the attic for the last twenty minutes.

"C'mon, let's help Chris and the Birthday Girl set up for the Party tonight."

"What about finding the Demon?"

"We'll let Chris do the leg work on that one. He likes that kinda thing."

The two Wicca-sister's walked across the room and exited. As the door was gently shut behind them and the light turned off. A lite glow emanated from the 'empty' cauldron. A glow that warmly amplified to combat the darkness until it disappeared under the soft barrage of a clap of thunder and a mauve cloud.