Buffy and Willow were exhausted. They entered the home quietly, expecting Xander to be asleep on the sofa and Dawn asleep in her room. Halfway through the front hall, they were surprised by a table lamp suddenly turning on. Xander was seated on the sofa. He looked tired. They entered the living room.
"Why aren't you asleep?" Willow asked quietly.
"Just thinking. Some worrying too." Xander ran his hand through his hair and sat up straighter. "You guys are late."
"In the dark?" Willow asked.
"Sorry 'bout that. Events on patrol night." Buffy offered the general though truthful excuse.
"Are you okay?" Xander directed to Willow, suddenly awake, eyes watchful for any sign of injury.
"Yeah Xander, I'm fine." Willow tried to sound as reassuring as possible.
He grew uneasy when Willow wouldn't look him in the eyes as she said it. Looking closer, he noticed something had changed, happened. Buffy and Willow stood inside the living room across the coffee table from him instead of sitting down or simply going up to their rooms. They kept close to each other, constantly almost or briefly touching. It reminded him of how they acted when they were in high school and that would have made him smile except that lately they had kept a careful safe distance from each other at all times. A familiar sinking feeling settled inside him, so he looked deeper.
"You're bit!" Xander stood up immediately and pointed a finger at Willow.
"No, I'm not." Willow was confused at first then realizing what he must be seeing, covered her neck with her hand before he could see more.
"No, she wasn't!" Buffy countered before she realized the same thing.
"Yes, you were. You were bit. I knew you shouldn't go out patrolling." Xander held his ground, looking Willow in the eyes.
"I can't just sit around here all night doing nothing." Willow defended herself.
"Like I do?" Xander emphasized his point by sitting back down on the sofa, arms out.
"You can go out patrolling as well. That's your choice you know." Willow reminded him.
"Not unless he stops judging how I do my job." Buffy countered. She was tired of this. Tired of Xander questioning how she lived and dealt with her life.
"How you hunt now almost got Willow killed." Xander accused.
He was terrified of what was becoming of Buffy since she returned to them. He had tried to continue going with her on patrols at first. Patrol proved to be the wrong word to describe her nightly excursions now. He grew sick of inertly watching Buffy set off on her own to search out and lure the vampires to herself. He felt ill, cold when Buffy would return. A blank hard stare remained on her face after a kill. It was as if nothing that happened in the night touched her. It was like nothing and no-one could touch her. He feared for her as she went out, thinking maybe she didn't care whether she lived or died. He feared her a little as well, seeing the look in her eyes when it was done. So he stayed with Dawn. Told himself he was protecting her, and worried in the dark.
"Buffy didn't almost get me killed." Willow corrected. "The eight vamps that attacked us almost got me killed."
Dawn heard the rising voices and got up out of bed. Quietly she sat on the top step in the shadows and listened.
"Eight vamps? You used magic, didn't you." Xander crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes against the truth. Willow wasn't supposed to use magic unless really, really necessary, and if she hadn't gone on patrol tonight it wouldn't have been necessary. He worried for Willow even more than Buffy. It was like some tentacle of the Hellmouth had reached up and possessed the childhood friend he once knew. He felt he was losing her just like he lost Jesse. She just had to fight it, not let it in. Not unless they had to fight some major evil. Even then, he wished she wouldn't.
"Xander, I had to use magic. You know, to save my life and all that." Willow let her hand drop from her neck. She took a deep breath and resolved to be honest and open and hope that he could deal with it in the end. "Magic isn't evil. It's not even the problem. How I handled having a little bit of power? Now that was the problem. The energy itself is just a little darker in this corner of the world. I have to be more careful. Of myself, not the magic. Xander..." Willow paused till he looked up and into her eyes. "I fought back. I saved my life. And with a little help from a friend, I got through it. I needed to do this. It needed to be done."
"Why?" Xander challenged. "Why couldn't you not patrol, not use magic, until..."
"Until what?" Willow voice rose as she challenged him back. "Until some big bad comes along and I need to suddenly do some major mojo? That makes a hell of a lot of sense."
"A vampire bit you!" Xander threw out what he thought was the winning point.
"A vampire didn't do this!" Willow pointed to her neck.
"Right." Xander stared at the real, solid surface of the coffee table. "Now we're playing the guess the demon game. So what did bite you, Willow?"
"I did." Buffy stunned everyone in the room.
Willow sat in a nearby chair, placed her head in her hands and waited.
"You did it?! What do you mean, you did it?" Xander rose to his feet, glanced at the front door, then the stairs and checked Buffy's position, noticing she blocked the door and the way up the stairs and to Dawn. Looking around, he tried to form a plan to get past her.
"Xander, please, sit back down. I'm not evil. I swear there's no-one evil in the house. But I appreciate your obvious intent to protect Dawn." Buffy smiled slightly and ran her hand through her hair, trying to come up with a way to explain it all.
"What? You bit Willow in a good way? That's a love bite?" Xander remained standing, accusing, but forcing himself to hear Buffy out.
"It was pretty good." Willow cut Xander's sarcasm with some of her own.
Buffy laughed. "Sorry, hysterical." She took a deep breath and tried to continue. "Xander, when I finally got to Willow she had already used the magic. She was..."
"The black was back." Willow honestly put in.
"Yeah." Buffy acknowledged, offering a small, reassuring smile to Willow before returning her attention to Xander. "You don't understand. What's it's like now. Afterwards, there's just this cold nothing that creeps in." She wanted to explain, but couldn't believe that Xander would understand the words. She didn't really have the right words, anyway.
"You're damn right I don't understand." Xander acknowledged. He felt himself fall past the edge of worrying: of what was happening to his friends, of what might happen to him if he pushed them too hard. He had to do something about it. Or at least say something about it. "I don't understand why you live like you're the undead," then turning on Willow, "and I don't understand why you can't just leave it alone."
"Xander." Willow cut in before he truly got going on his tirade, the calm in her voice causing everyone to pause. Seeing the familiar frustrated anger in his eyes, she closed her own and leaned back in the chair. Taking a deep breath to ready herself, she opened her eyes and held them caring and knowingly on her friend. She saw Xander relax, his eyes soften. When he started to speak again, she held a hand up to halt him. "Wait. Let me try to explain. I want you to understand. Cause it's something that I kinda have to live with now. And it's something Buffy's been trying to live with for a while."
Xander crossed his arms against the feeling of being yet again, the odd man out. He noticed again the small, reassuring glances that passed between the two women now. It didn't reassure him.
Willow continued. "Coming back; from what I became before and from England to this place now: something's left open in me. Magic's a part of me now, but when I use it, something else has a way in. It's just a cold, hollow, not much of anything thing. And there's this need, desire, to fill it. I could fill it with more magic, but we all know that is not of the good."
"It's been the same with me." Buffy confided, finally. "Since... since coming back, there's like this part that's missing." She watched her friends recoil slightly at the reminder that they pulled her back from the dead, from heaven. "Maybe I finally got a wound that just couldn't heal. But now when I slay, it opens." Buffy looked Xander in the eyes, almost begging him to understand. "You have to connect with something; life, more than life; or it just bleeds you dry. You have to connect with someone."
"Even if it's undead life?" Xander picked up on the reference and threw it back at her.
"Let's leave Spike out of this, okay?" Buffy responded, surprising even herself with how calm she remained. "For once let's you and me have it out without bringing my boyfriends into it."
"Boyfriend's not exactly the right word, is it?" Willow cut in, perhaps a little too honestly. A part of her was grateful for what had happened tonight, but a greater part of her was still reeling from what it had all come to.
"Fine!" Buffy threw her hands up and sat in the other chair. Her skirt rose as she sat and she very self consciously tried to tuck it around her, suddenly fully aware of fact that she was missing her panties. She wondered sarcastically to herself how many times she had come home like this in the last year.
Noticing he was the only one still standing, Xander relented and sat back down on the sofa. Silence filled the space between them.
Willow mouthed the word 'sorry' to Buffy and decided to try and get back on track. "Point is, Buffy helped pull me back from the edge."
"And how did she do that, exactly?" Xander challenged.
Buffy's eyebrows rose and she decided to call him on it. "Do you really want the visuals? The play by play? Cause then, first..."
"No!" Xander cut her off and gave in. "No, I don't want to hear it."
Willow laughed. "You sure? Cause I'd pay good money to hear Buffy try to describe it."
"Willow!" Buffy glared.
"I can't deal with this." Xander felt himself shutting down. Frustration overwhelming and blocking all his emotions except anger. He was almost blind with it now, and shut his eyes desperate to try and keep control.
"You have to deal with it." Willow carefully informed him. "We all have to deal with it."
"I can't. I can't just let this happen." Xander opened his eyes, staring at the mark on Willow's neck.
"Let what happen, Xander?" Willow brought his gaze into her own; calmly, resolutely challenging him. "Let magic have an effect on me? Let a friend help me feel something again when there's nothing but cold need? Let what's already happened, happen? What?"
"How about let the Hellmouth swallow you whole?" Xander countered.
"Xander, it's not." Willow's eyes softened. She leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees and tried to reach him through his anger. "I'm okay. We're both okay."
"But you're not." Xander corrected. "Nothing's like how it was. And it feels like everything we've been fighting against."
"We're not turning evil," Buffy offered. "It's just you can't get into the fight without getting some of it on you. Or in you."
"But you are." Xander persisted. "I check the driveway now for hand baskets."
"Knock it off!" Buffy stood up. "So we're not like we were in high school. How can we be? You've been around the last few years. You know everything that's happened. Personally, I don't know how many more times I can die without it really screwing with my head."
"No!" Xander rose as well. "I may not have any big powers but I'm gonna have my say. You can't just keep doing this. We have to do something. I have to do something. I can't just stand by and let the evil suck you both in."
"Xander," Willow cut in, "we're human. We're not demons. Hell isn't sucking us in. I mean yeah, souls touched by darkness. But we're dealing with that. We're surviving." She pointed out, remaining seated and trying to remain calm. "I wanted in the fight. It's a good fight and I don't regret signing up. But I'm in it now and I can't just pull out. And that's not your fault," Willow directed towards Buffy. Returning to Xander, "We're still the good guys. We're still fighting it and evil can't just suck us in."
"But it can, Will." Xander countered. "There's all sorts of evil and it can get us too: swallow you up whole. I've seen that look in the eyes before. You forget, I grew up with it. As long as I can remember, my dad's eyes would go blank and then he'd hit me. In fact, it's my earliest memory. I can't let that happen to you."
Buffy's breath caught at the words and all her anger froze. Willow was up and over to him before he registered he was wrapped in a hug. Willow released her hold and pulled him down with her on the sofa. "It's not gonna happen, Xander. See, we're talking, we're dealing. Already it's so on it's way of not happening."
Buffy heard Dawn's gasp from the top of the stairs and realized she had already heard everything. She focused on Willow and Xander tangled together on the sofa, her mind aware again of what he just admitted, what he feared. She crossed to the sofa and sat on the other side of Xander. "Xander, I'm sorry. I... I don't know what to say. But it's different. We can't just not fight. So we're gonna have to find a way to deal with what it does. But I can't just pretend any more that it doesn't affect me, or even that the darkness isn't a part of me." She held his eyes as she admitted her own secret to him.
Xander closed his eyes and bowed his head, taking a deep breath he tried to explain. "I know. And I do know that. But it's what I worry about. I sit here in the dark and worry. And I can't stop what's happening. And I can't talk about it."
"Why can't you talk about it?" Willow asked.
"Because, I don't know. Because we'd get in a fight?" Xander smiled.
Buffy laughed. "He was afraid we'd kick his ass. Please, Xander, know that I'd never really hurt you."
"I know, Buffy." Xander acknowledged and reassured.
"And I tried but couldn't." Willow pointed out.
"Mostly I think I was not only worrying about what was happening to you, but that it was happening to me." Xander felt his frustration leave at finally voicing these tangled thoughts. He felt the knot in his gut slip and loosen, and he could breathe again. Still, he fought the following tears.
"What do you mean? You're like the only sane one here. You're like that soldier who goes off to war and comes back able to lead a normal life." Buffy countered.
"But I can't, Buffy. And it's not normal. Never will be. Remember me leaving an ex vengeance demon at the alter?" Xander pointed out.
"Again, I say you're the sane one." Buffy pointed back.
"No." Xander continued. They had to understand. He had to try to make them understand what was happening to him. "And you know? I still love her. It's just that all I could see was what I was afraid of turning into. How long, how much further could I love her? How much more could I see before anger just turned bitter and I stare blankly in the mirror at a demon? And I see you both spiraling down and a part of me wants to sink with you." Turning to Willow, his eyes softening as he reached out and tucked her hair behind her ear. "A big part of me was hoping you'd take me with you that day."
"And all that happened was you pulled me back." Willow smiled and took his hand in her own.
Buffy couldn't stay seated, so she rose and started slowly moving around the room. "He has a habit of doing that."
"So I try to fight what's happening to you, cause I'm still in the fight." Xander smiled ruefully. "But I end up just fighting you. Buffy, you know I love you. I love you both. I'm tired. I'm tired of fighting all the evil. There's too much." Xander took a deep breath and came to a decision. "I'll help ya fight the demons. I'm still there, to the very edge of the Hellmouth. And I'll even help you fight yours if you let me. But I won't fight you any more." At Buffy's answering grin, he continued. "I'll be there. And I'll watch your back, both of you. But please, will you just watch where you're going?"
Buffy smiled in relief. It felt like he was saving her again. "Thank you. I've never told you thank you, yet, have I?" She smirked. "And hey, if we do go to hell, you're welcome to follow."
Xander laughed a little in relief, himself. "No. I'll do anything, but I won't do that. Someone has to be around to remember. And remind you both at awkward times what apparently happened tonight." Xander smirked and slowly shook his head in now calm disbelief.
Buffy blushed and put her face in her hands, chuckling to herself. Willow openly laughed.
"I'll watch and I'll stay with you both, till whatever end happens. Just think of me as watcher guy, only without the pesky research." Xander gently vowed. He did have a place here. And he realized he probably had the hardest job.
"Giles would be so proud." Willow commented jokingly, knowing it was the truth as well.
"Yeah, well, just remember to let me watch next time." Xander hinted as the two women protested. "See, one sane normal guy, coming up."
Buffy sat down in a chair and closed her eyes, exhausted with the night and feeling more relaxed than she had in what felt like years.
Willow squeezed Xander's hand and closed her eyes, settling a little deeper into the sofa next to him. "You know, Tara and I used to just watch the stars. And secretly, I used to thank them. Lucky and all. And lately, I keep thinking that I should curse them. But I still feel lucky, having you guys, being in this with the both of you."
Xander felt like he belonged here, in this ragged company of warriors, again. It'd been so long since he felt a part of their lives and the last of the frustration left him, though a little of the worry remained. Still, he couldn't remember the last time Buffy let herself close her eyes in his presence. And he sat still, holding Willow's hand and watching Buffy almost sleep in the chair.
As sleep finally took Willow, Xander felt her hand slip from his as she curled into the space on the sofa. Before he could miss the contact, her leg reached back to rest against his own. Buffy woke at the movement and at her glance, Xander shrugged, whispering and knowing Buffy would hear. "We always did have to be touching digits." He leaned back, wondering if sleep would have him as well.
Buffy watched them for a moment. She felt a little apart as always, yet somehow more connected than she had ever been. They were truly in it together. Any one of them unable to let any of the others go. There should be guilt, but what she felt was love in that gray area between right and wrong. 'No more protecting them,' she realized and promised. Remembering Dawn at the top of the stairs, she got up to check on her.
Dawn had fallen asleep on the top step and Buffy gently woke her, helped her to her room and tucked her in.
"You know," Dawn mumbled, still half asleep, "at first, I wanted so much to be like Willow. To have all that power. I even wanted to be like you at times. Destiny, purpose, and all that. Now I'm thinking I want to be Xander when I grow up." She snuggled a little deeper into the covers, not even aware she spoke out loud.
Buffy kissed her on her head and stroked her hair until she fell into a deeper sleep. "Smart girl. Just be the kind of Xander that finishes college."
Leaving Dawn to her dreams and knowing even after what she heard tonight, she would be alright; Buffy returned to the living room. Xander was asleep in the middle of the sofa, Willow curled up between him and the side. She thought of just going up to her room, alone, but the thought felt lonely. She started for the chair but let herself end up on the other side of the sofa. Feeling Xander's arm circle around her, she rested her head on his shoulder and let sleep connect her to the daylight world again.