False Smiles

False Smiles

By Bastard Snow

Rating: R
Summary: Faith and Xander had sex. Is there a baby on the way?
Pairing: X/F
Disclaimer: None of this stuff belongs to me.
Author’s Notes: Thanks to Drake for beta’ing, suggesting the idea in the first place, and smoothing out some bumps along the way. Also; the title of the fic comes from the Amy Studt album of the same name. Pick it up, it’s good.
Dedication: To Shona (aka Mara).

***

The library wasn’t usually crowded in the morning, but if anybody in the school had been asked who the most likely occupants were, Buffy Summers, Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg would have been the first names dropped, after that of Rupert Giles, who was, in fact, the librarian. Anybody in the school would have been right.

“I mean have you seen that place?” Xander asked. It was a morning meeting of the Scoobies, which happened occasionally but could not be called common, and Xander had brought up the subject of Faith’s living accommodations. It had taken him a good month after their ‘encounter’ to work up the courage to bring it up. “It’s a rat hole. I wouldn’t wish that place on anybody.”

“Not even Angel?” Buffy asked, smiling.

“No!” he said. Then he paused, considering. “Yeah, no, I wouldn’t. It’s that bad!”

“I should look into it,” Giles said. “I suppose she is my responsibility after all.”

“What’s all this supposing crap?” Xander asked, drawing a look from the older man. “I know you got fired and all, but… look, all I’m saying is… responsible adult, young girl in a fleabag motel. What more do you want?”

“How did you find out where she lived?” Willow asked.

“Huh?” Xander asked. “Oh, I was out driving, saw her, gave her a lift home. I tell ya, that place is no good.”

“Since when are you interested in how she lives?” Buffy asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Since I saw it,” Xander said. “I mean, I figure she’s a Slayer. No way she should have living conditions worse than, you know, me.”

“Xander,” Willow said, “your living conditions aren’t that bad. I mean, it’s not as though you live in the basement.”

“I know, and that’s what I’m saying,” he said. “Faith’s room is like living in my basement, only without the washer/dryer combo. Add the fun urine smell, and the sound of people going at it in the next room, and that’s where she lives. Which, come to think of it? Less disturbing there than it would be at my house.”

“Yes, thank you for that… enlightening look at your home life, Xander,” Giles said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“You were in her room?” Willow asked.

“She offered me the use of her bathroom,” he lied. “I had just had one of those, you know, super big Slurpees, and I had to go.”

“Oh,” Willow said, accepting the story.

“Still,” Giles said, “it’s a valid point. She shouldn’t be living such a disreputable place. I’ll see what can be done. In the mean time, in what free moments you have, I would appreciate it if we could get this library in shape. I imagine my… replacement will be arriving any time now.”

“If this one’s evil,” Buffy said, “I’m gonna just quit the Council.”

“Yes, well,” Giles said, “I’m certain that shan’t be a problem.”

At that moment, the bell rang, and the Scoobies all had to get to their first period classes.

***

Xander stood in the library that day during what should have been his last class, sorting some books for Giles, waiting for the rest of the gang to show up. He heard the double doors swing open behind him, and turned, smiling, to greet whoever had entered. His smile faltered for a split second, but quickly returned to his face.

"Hey, Faith," he said, shelving a couple of the books he was holding. "What's going on?"

Faith was wringing her hands, and looked stressed. She avoided his eyes.

"Faith?" Xander asked, concerned. "You okay?"

"You remember that night a while ago?" she asked. "You know, when we screwed after those demon bitches tried to kill me?"

Xander held back a chuckle, but was amused by her bluntness. "Uh... yeah. I'm not likely to forget that anytime soon. Why?"

Faith looked up at him. "I'mlate,” she rushed out.

Xander's face scrunched up in confusion. "Omelet?" he asked. “Are you inviting me to breakfast or something?”

"No, man, listen," she said. "I'm... *late*.”

"Oh," Xander said. "Oh. Well... okay. I know just the thing." He promptly fainted.

***

“He’s coming around,” said a vaguely masculine voice through the haze of a throbbing headache.

Xander groaned loudly as his eyes worked their way open and he returned to consciousness. He looked around without moving his head, and recognized Giles kneeling over him.

“Are you all right?” Giles asked, as he helped Xander sit up. “What happened?”

“Huh?” Xander asked.

“We found you in here alone, unconscious on the floor,” said a feminine voice. Xander’s eyes swiveled the other way and he could make out blonde hair. Blonde hair meant Buffy.

“Uh,” Xander said. “I don’t know. I think I passed out.”

“Are you sure?” Giles asked. “Nothing attacked you or…”

“No…” Xander said dragging the word out. He looked around the room as if searching for something. “No, I was just putting some books away and… boom. I’m out.”

“Here, have some water,” Buffy said, handing him a glass. “That’s really weird, you just passing out like that.”

“I’m not too keen on it either,” said Xander. He rubbed the back of his head. “And might I add, ow.”

“Here, let’s get you properly seated,” Giles said. He nodded to Buffy, who lifted Xander to his feet to lead him over to the table. “I’ll fetch you an ice pack from the teacher’s lounge.”

“Thanks,” Xander said. He allowed himself to be manhandled over to the table, and slumped down in a chair just as Willow and Oz entered the room.

“Hey guys!” Willow said. Xander looked up at her and smiled painfully. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Xander said.

“He passed out,” Buffy said.

“What happened?” Willow asked, concerned, as Giles returned to the room and handed Xander an ice pack.

“I don’t know,” Xander said, nodding his thanks to the older man. “One minute, I’m shelving books, the next thing I know, Giles and Buffy are kneeling over me, waking me up.”

“Perhaps it would be best if you went home for the day,” Giles suggested. “You needn’t stay here if you’re not feeling well.”

“Yeah,” Xander said, shaking his head. “Yeah, I guess that’s probably a good idea.”

“Come on,” Buffy said, helping Xander to his feet, and throwing his arm over her shoulder. “I’ll walk you. Giles, I’ll be back in an hour.”

“Of course,” Giles said.

“Feel better,” Oz said, his arm firmly around Willow’s waist.

“And get lots of rest!” Willow called, worry evident in her voice.

Xander waved behind him as he and Buffy walked out of the library.

After Buffy dropped him off at home and he got in a yelling match with his father over God knows what, Xander grabbed a cold soda from the fridge and set off to find Faith. He checked the Bronze and Willy’s bar, and finally made his way over to her hotel room. He stopped outside her room and listened. Hearing the television on, he decided she was, in fact, there.

Xander paused. What the hell was he going to say, anyway? ‘Hi, you’re possibly pregnant with my child, neither of us has jobs, and we’re both probably going to die young. Fun, huh?’ That wouldn’t work. He was completely at a loss about what to do, and was about to give up and leave when the door opened in front of him.

“You just gonna stand there all day, or you coming in?” Faith asked. She was holding a white tank top that she was obviously in the middle of washing. Xander nodded and stepped into the room.

“So?” she asked, retreating back to the bathroom to scrub her shirt some more.

“So, uh… thanks for, you know… leaving, earlier.”

“Checked you weren’t dead and split,” Faith said. “Figured there’d be too many questions if I stuck around.”

“Yeah, good thinking,” Xander said. “Because the last thing you want to do if you’re pregnant would be tell people who might be able to, I don’t know, help you.”

“I’m not,” she said.

“Not… what?”

“You know. Havin’ a kid.”

“But you said…”

“I’m late a lot,” she said, shrugging. “Happens. Slayer thing, I guess.”

“Then why did you look so worried? Why did you tell me?”

“Momentary insanity.”

“I don’t buy it,” Xander said.

“Yeah, well, I don’t care. It’s the truth.”

Xander watched her for a moment, bathed in the dim light of the bathroom lamp, washing her clothes, and decided not to pursue the subject for the moment.

“What are you watching?”

“One of those crappy Wopner rip-offs,” she replied. “You can change it if you want.”

“Do you like it here?” Xander asked.

“I guess,” she said. “SunnyD ain’t that bad. Always action somewhere, and your winters ain’t nothin’ like Boston. Though that snow thing was kinda weird.”

“Yeah,” said Xander. “I actually meant in the hotel.”

“Oh,” she said, pausing. With a shrug, she continued. “It’s a roof.”

“That’s not much.”

“It’s enough. Why, offering me a place to sleep and a warm body to sleep next to? Lookin’ for another roll, is that it?”

“What?”

“I get it,” she said, dropping the shirt into the sink. “B’s knight in shining armor coming to the rescue of some helpless dame. Well I ain’t helpless. I don’t need your charity, and your body ain’t that warm that I’m lookin’ to go for it again. Sorry, boytoy, you’re all outta luck this time.”

Xander walked closer to the bathroom. “Well, I actually wasn’t going to ask you to come stay with me,” he said.

“That right?” she asked, skepticism dripping from her voice.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t exactly want my dad dead.”

“Why would –”

“Because I doubt you take being called a whore particularly well.”

Faith’s glare froze him in his spot. “You might wanna watch what you say, if you don’t want to end up broken, you get me?”

“It’s just, if you were at my house, my dad would call you a whore,” Xander said, not backing down. “It’s just one of those things he does.”

She continued glaring for a moment, before returning to her shirt.

Xander walked up to her and took her hands in his, stopping her scrubbing. “It’s ruined, Faith,” he said. “The blood’s not coming out.”

Faith looked at their hands for the moment, then up in to his eyes. Her own flared with defiance. “What the hell do you know?” she asked, starting her scrubbing again. Xander backed away.

“I’ve been washing blood out of shirts for a while now. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. How late are you?”

Faith stopped scrubbing and looked up at him. “Screw you. Like you could handle it even if I was. You passed out after thinking about it.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a screw-up. But I take care of people. Sometimes it seems like the only thing I *can* do.”

“Look, just get out of here,” she said. “Don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself. Been doin’ it for years.”

“I’m not moving until you tell me how late you are,” Xander said, his voice like steel.

Faith looked up into his eyes, and saw only determination looking back at her.

“Eighteen days,” she said. “Now get the hell out.”

Xander nodded, turned around and left the room. He reached the parking lot and sat heavily down on the curb.

“Jesus,” he muttered to himself with a shudder. “That girl is scary.” Another quick shudder and Xander was heading back home.

Two

“Alex!” Tony Harris yelled up to his son. “It’s one of those sluts you hang around with!”

Buffy stood quietly outside Xander’s house, waiting for her friend to arrive at the door and counting to ten in her head in order to cool down. Xander bounded down the stairs and out the door, shutting in behind him quickly.

“Sorry about that,” he said, as the two of them started to walk around the block. “Dad gets a little obnoxious when he’s… awake…. What’s up? Bad things going down? Demonage? Maybe a little apocalypse?”

“Just wanted to see how you are, actually,” Buffy said, smiling at him. “We got worried about you today.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what’s up,” Xander said. “It’s really weird, but I feel fine now, excepting the residual pain from apparently smacking my head into the library floor.”

“Good,” Buffy said. “So, here’s an interesting item in the news. You’re worried about Faith.”

Xander chuckled. “Subtle.”

“I’m sneaky,” she said. “So what’s up with that?”

Xander shrugged. “Like I said, I saw the crap she’s living in. What do you want, Buff? She’s a Slayer, like you.”

“*Not* like me.”

“Okay, fine, but the point is she’s a Slayer. Fighting evil, doing the good, all that. She shouldn’t have to live in a rat hole.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “I’ve seen it.”

Xander looked at her. “How come you didn’t say anything?”

Buffy shrugged. “Cuz the last time I saw it, I was mad at her for trying to steal all my friends, and then, you know, Angel was back and…”

“Slipped your mind?”

Buffy glanced at the ground, ashamed. “Yeah.”

“Bad things happen to the best of us, Buffy,” he said. “And hey, they happen to me, too.” Buffy rolled her eyes and waited for Xander to continue. He didn’t.

“That’s it?” she asked. “Bad things happen?”

“Yeah, well, my mind’s all over the place tonight. It’s the best I can do on short notice.”

Buffy smiled up at him as they got back to his house. “Okay,” she said. “Well, get rest, or else Willow will beat you senseless.”

“You sure there’s no apocalypse?” he asked, a little too hopefully for Buffy’s comfort, but she set it aside for the moment and smiled.

“Sorry,” she said. “Nothing big nor bad tonight.”

“Ah well,” he said. “Thanks for coming to check on me.”

“Glad you’re feeling better,” she said. “Night, Xander.”

“Night, Buffy,” he said.

Buffy watched Xander walk back into his house, and shook her head. “Someday,” she said to herself, “I’m gonna ask him about what goes on in there.”

Buffy walked away intent on finishing her patrol and getting home before 1 am. After all, she still had homework to do.

***

Surprise registered momentarily across Faith’s face, before she recovered and returned to her uncaring façade.

“What’s up, Geeves? What are you doing on this side of the tracks? And at lunchtime?”

“Coming to see you, as a matter of fact,” Giles said. He pointed inside. “May I?”

Faith shrugged and stepped back from the door.

“Interesting accommodations,” Giles said. “Quite um… Spartan.”

“What can I say?” Faith said. “Warrior doesn’t need much.”

“No, I suppose not,” Giles said. “However, a young woman such as yourself often does. I imagine if Buffy were forced to live in quarters such as this, she would… spaz out, as I believe she might say.”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t her.”

“No, you’re not, are you?” he said, with a note of surprise in his voice. He hadn’t considered before, but Faith and Buffy were very likely as different as were Buffy and Kendra. “It is a testament to your character that you have not complained. Most girls your age would scoff at such a… lackluster dwelling.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, Faith, that you’re doing very well here. I am… proud of what you’ve accomplished, and though I am no longer technically your Watcher, I do still feel responsible for your well being. I can see that you are doing well here, and I respect that, however… should you care for more habitable accommodations, it can be seen to.”

“You offerin’ to let me stay at your place?”

“No,” Giles said. “As much as that would benefit both you and I financially, it would be unseemly for a man in my position to be domiciled with a young woman in yours. I simply offer that we find you a more acceptable place to live. Perhaps an apartment of some sort. This place, I’m sure, has been host to any number of… immoral liaisons.”

“Yeah, plus all the screwing,” Faith said. “Anyway, it’s a nice thought, but I can’t exactly afford that.”

“No, I expect not,” Giles said. “Which is why I will pay for it.”

“What?”

“As well as reimbursing you for any money you have spent on this hotel.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said.

“Don’t I look serious?”

“Xander put you up to this, didn’t he?”

Giles was a little surprised. “I wouldn’t say he put me up to it, but he did bring it to my attention. And I apologize for not looking into it sooner. Why did you assume it was Xander? According to him, he was only here for a very short time.”

“He actually talked about that?” Faith asked. “To you?”

Giles was again surprised. She was certainly getting worked up about a little bathroom talk. “Certainly,” Giles said. “It may not be a common topic of conversation, but it comes up now and again. Especially with Xander around.”

“Really.”

“It’s only to be expected, I suppose,” Giles said. “Teenage boys, and all that. Anyhow, I have a faculty meeting I’m supposed to be attending. If you’re free, perhaps you might like to go apartment hunting this afternoon. Say, three o’clock?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. Thanks,” Faith said, surprised by the man’s generosity and pissed as hell at Xander.

“Until later, then,” Giles said. He let himself out of the room, and shook his head. It really was a travesty, he thought, that a Slayer under his care should be living in such poor housing. He would have to remember to thank Xander for bringing it to his attention. Giles checked his watch and made for his car. Lunch was almost over, and he did have appearances to keep up. After all, librarian was now his only job, and it behooved him to keep it.

***

“So, you think there’s something fishy going on?” Buffy asked. She and Willow were in the library, talking and waiting for Giles to tell them to do something.

“I don’t know,” Willow said. “It’s just, it’s weird, don’t you think?”

“I do think,” Buffy said. “But I don’t know that it’s fishy.”

“I don’t know that it’s fishy either. But, I think it might be. And I know I don’t want him to get hurt or anything.”

“Me either,” Buffy said. “But don’t you think… I mean, he’s eighteen. And he knows how to make decisions, and he knows he can talk to us. You especially.”

“Me not especially,” Willow said. “Ever since we, you know… well, I don’t think I’ve been a very good friend. I mean, I didn’t know he was spending more time with Faith. Did you?”

“But was he?” Buffy asked. “He said he gave her a ride back there and used the bathroom. That doesn’t sound exactly dangerous, or long-timey.”

“I know,” Willow said. “I’m probably just being paranoid. But, I can’t get over the feeling there’s something he’s not telling us.”

“I don’t know,” Buffy said. “But, we have to trust him.”

Willow nodded as Buffy looked at her watch.

“Where’s Giles?” Buffy asked. “He was supposed to meet us here like a half hour ago.”

“I don’t know,” Willow said. “Maybe… there’s a teacher’s meeting he forgot about.”

“Giles? Forget? Not possible.”

“I guess,” Willow said. “I wonder what’s really going on.”

“Going on with what?” Xander asked as he swaggered into the library, munching on an apple.

“Uh, Giles,” Buffy said, thinking as quickly as she could. “He’s all not here.”

“Yeah, I know,” Xander said. “I dropped by earlier, he said he was taking Faith apartment hunting. You know, so she doesn’t live in such… uh…”

“Squalor?” Buffy supplied.

Xander tapped his nose with one hand, and pointed at Buffy with the other.

“So where have you been the past half hour?” Willow asked as Xander sat down next to her.

“Detention,” he said. “But Mrs. Robinson fell asleep, so I left.”

“What were you in detention for?” Buffy asked.

Xander shrugged. “Skipping class yesterday so I could fall unconscious.”

“How’s your head?” Willow asked.

“Not so throbby.”

The three friends sat there in a comfortable silence, as Xander ate his apple.

“So, Bronze tonight?” Buffy asked after a minute.

Xander and Willow both nodded. They continued to sit. Buffy checked her watch after another minute.

“How long does it take to find an apartment, anyway?” she asked.

Three

“This is a nice little place we have,” the real estate agent said. He was a seedy looking character. He reminded Faith of Willy, except he wasn’t quite as greasy. Or as short. And he didn’t reek of alcohol. And as far as she could tell, he didn’t know demons, but in this town, that was never a safe assumption.

“This place is, I guess, what, 600 square feet. Only one death on this property. Fully furnished, like you see. Air conditioning, cable, gas heat. Electric stove, an oven, full bath. You pay cable and phone, everything else is included.”

“Good natural light,” Giles said. “It’s a little cramped, though.”

“Yeah, but in your price range, it’s probably the best you’re gonna do. It’s a nice area,” the man said. “Well, not too bad.”

Giles turned to Faith. “What do you think?”

Faith looked around at the apartment. “It’s tight,” she said.

Giles glanced at her. “I should take that to mean you like it?”

“Yeah,” Faith said. In fact, it was the nicest place she could have imagined herself living since Linda had… since she had left Boston. “You sure you can afford it, though?”

Giles smiled at her. “The council has yet to stop paying for my flat,” he said.

“Yeah,” the skeezy looking guy said. “This is a pretty nice place to stash a little slice on the – urk!”

Faith slammed the man against the wall, her arm to his throat.

“I don’t know what you think is goin’ on here,” she said, her voice low and dangerous, “but I wouldn’t make any assumptions if I was you. It ain’t how you think.”

Giles cleared his throat, and Faith turned to see the former watcher peering over his glasses at her. Faith released the man and stepped back, still giving him a death glare.

“Right,” the man said, rubbing his throat. “Not what I think.”

“What is the deposit?” Giles asked.

“Uhh… first, last and one month security.”

“And your fee?”

The guy rubbed his throat a little more. “Half one month’s rent.”

“Bringing the total due at signing to…”

“Fifteen seventy-five,” the little man said.

Giles turned to Faith. “You’re sure this is adequate?” he asked.

“More than,” Faith said.

Giles nodded and started writing a check. “I can come by tomorrow and sign the papers?” he asked.

“Sure, sure,” the guy said.

“And she can stay here tonight, sans a signed lease?”

“I don’t see any problem with that,” the man said, glancing warily at Faith. He edged away a step. “In fact, why don’t you two stay here, I’ll run back to the office and get the keys. Take ten minutes.”

Giles nodded as the man left, and Faith looked around closer at the furnishings in the apartment.

“This place is wicked nice,” Faith said. She looked up at Giles. “You’re all right.”

Giles smiled, removed his glasses and began cleaning them. “Well, it’s closer to the school. Very near Xander’s house, if I’m not mistaken.”

Faith looked up sharply. “The hell does that matter?” she asked.

Giles was taken aback at her tone. “I just thought… if you wished to see a friendly face, you needn’t go far, is all.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice softening. “Yeah.”

“It’s close to… to the um, Bronze, too,” Giles said, poking through the cabinets. “Well, closer than the hotel, anyway.”

“Listen, G, I’m not… well… look, nobody ever did nothin’ like this for me before, you know? It’s… I mean, what I’m trying to say is…”

“You’re welcome, Faith,” Giles said. “In fact, I should have done something about this long ago. We have Xander to thank that it now came to my attention.”

Faith frowned. “What’s he like?”

“Xander? Giles asked, turning to his charge. Faith nodded. “Immature. Juvenile. More than a little selfish at times. Often irresponsible. He frequently drives me mad.”

Faith nodded. That was about what she expected.

“To be fair though, he also has one of the best hearts of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s loyal to the point of ignoring his own well being for those he loves. I believe that one day, he’ll grow up to be a fine man. Assuming any of us survive that long.”

“He ignores his own health, but he’s selfish?”

Giles smiled. “Selfish in everyday life, as, you’ll find, are all eighteen-year-old boys. But nothing short of an act of God will stop him from protecting those he loves, and even that might not be enough. I recall… early last school year, just after Buffy had returned from visiting her father for the summer. Buffy had… shall we say, issues, stemming from the fact that she had died the previous spring.

“She made some bad decisions, and it ended up with Willow, Cordelia, Ms. Calendar – whom you never met – and myself getting abducted by some vampires.”

“Okay,” Faith said.

“Well, when Buffy found Xander at the library, he told her that if Willow was hurt, he would kill her. I believe he meant it, too.”

“Damn,” said Faith. Xander threatening Buffy? She could hardly wrap her mind around that. He seemed like such a lap dog sometimes.

“Why the interest?” Giles asked.

“No, I just –”

“Here we go,” the real estate agent said, re-entering the apartment. He handed Faith a couple of keys. “First one’s the main lock, second is the deadbolt, third gets you in the building. That one also works for the laundry room. Only tenants are allowed, or have keys, so it’s pretty safe. Don’t think you have to worry about that, though.”

Faith nodded, and the three of them just stood there.

“I think that’s about it,” the agent said. “Mr. Giles, I’ll see you in my office tomorrow, to sign that paperwork?”

Giles nodded and the man left.

“Yes, well,” Giles said. “We should let you get settled. Do you need a ride back to the motel to get your things?”

Faith shook her head. “I’ll grab that stuff later.”

Giles nodded, and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small roll of twenties and handed it to her.

“What –”

“As I said, I would be reimbursing you for your expenses staying at the motel,” he said.

“G, I can’t –”

“Of course you can,” Giles said. “I insist. Besides, I’ll just have the new watcher reimburse me, whoever he is. And I’ll have him take over the payments here, too. Seems only fair. They should be paying for it anyway. Should have all along, though it’s my fault they weren’t.”

“I see,” Faith said, softly, with what sounded like disappointment.

Giles looked at the girl, and took a guess at the meaning of her tone.

“Of course, I can keep the payments, if you’d prefer not to be beholden to them,” he said. “I’ve the money for it. I just rather felt like giving a little grief to the council, now that I am no longer in their employ.”

“It’s cool,” she assured him. “If you don’t wanna –”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he interrupted. “I would be happy to keep the payments. I only thought, as the Slayer, you might want to keep closer ties to the Council.”

“Nah, screw ‘em,” Faith said.

“Very well,” Giles said. “Whenever my replacement arrives, I’ll not mention –”

“No,” Faith said. “I meant… screw ‘em. Send ‘em the bill. I’ll still do what I want.”

Giles smiled. “Of course. I shall be happy to.”

Faith nodded. She thanked Giles for everything again – a somewhat awkward exercise for both of them – then accompanied him to the library.

***

The whole gang was researching anything they could about the Mayor, even, Willow was surprised to find, Faith. Although, really, Xander wasn’t researching the mayor, so much as trying to work on his history paper so he wouldn’t fail the course, and would be allowed to graduate in a few months time.

“Willow,” he said, making notes in his book.

“Yuh huh?” she asked, still immersed in hers.

“Roosevelt put in the New Deal, right?”

“Yup.”

“So how come it didn’t happen during his administration?”

Willow looked up, confused. “What?”

“The New Deal,” Xander said, pointing to his book. “It was, like, thirty years later.”

“Franklin Roosevelt,” Willow said. “Franklin Roosevelt instituted the New Deal. Teddy Roosevelt was the big stick guy.”

“Oh, him,” Xander said. He closed the book and looked at the title. “I think I got the wrong book. Maybe I have something in my locker. I’ll be back.”

Willow shrugged and went back to her book as Xander left the library.

“Bathroom break,” Faith called a moment later, tossing her large, dusty tome down. “Back in a few.”

Willow looked up as the dark slayer passed through the swinging doors. Xander’s words registered with her at that moment.

“Poop,” she said, sighing. “I forgot, Xander has one of my books in his locker.”

“Man, everybody’s leaving,” Buffy said. “It’s as if we didn’t want to be here or something.”

Willow smiled, set her book down and walked out of the library and towards Xander’s locker. She was about to round the corner when a loud slamming noise and a voice brought her up short.

“The hell is wrong with you?!” asked a voice that Willow quickly identified as Faith. She stayed out of sight. “You go tellin’ Geeves that shit? You’re just bragging to anyone who’ll listen, ain’t ya?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Xander’s strained voice said.

“Oh, come on,” said Faith. “G knew about what happened between you and me. Said you talk about that shit all the time.”

“I don’t know what he told you,” Xander said, “but all I told anybody was that I used your bathroom after driving you home.”

Willow frowned, unhappy that Xander had apparently lied to them.

“What?”

“I didn’t tell anybody anything, Faith,” Xander said. “Not about our little tryst, and not about any bun that may or may not be in your oven.”

Willow stifled a gasp, and stumbled backwards a couple of steps.

“You swear on… on… what, on Willow’s life?” Faith challenged.

Willow could almost hear Xander straighten up.

“I would never swear anything on any of my friends’ lives, especially hers. No matter how truthful I was being,” Xander said.

Willow smiled for a moment, but quickly remembered the ‘tryst’ and her frown returned.

“Fine,” Faith said. “Swear on yours.”

“I swear on my life,” Xander said, almost immediately, “I didn’t tell anybody. Are we done now?”

“No,” Faith said.

Willow heard another slam of a body on a locker, and a grunt of surprise, followed quickly by what sounded like a moan. She was pretty sure she knew what they were doing. Willow heard the lockers readjust as the bodies stopped putting pressure on them, followed by Xander panting.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“For gettin’ me my new digs,” Faith said.

Willow decided she’d had enough voyeurism for the day, and scurried back to the library.

“Where’s your book?” Buffy asked. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine,” Willow lied. “And Xander must have gone to the bathroom or something, he wasn’t at his locker. I didn’t feel like waiting.”

“Don’t you have his combination?” Buffy asked.

Willow sat down hard on the chair. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I must just be tired.”

Buffy shook her head and stuck her nose back in the book. Willow did the same, and tried her best to suppress everything she had just heard. At least until later, when she could go home and have a good cry.

Four

Xander lay on his bed, wondering what the hell he should do. He felt like pacing around his room, but his dad had yelled at him for making ‘too much damn noise’ the last time he had been pacing. He figured it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Xander needed help. He knew that. He wasn’t going to be able to convince Faith to go get checked out, or even take one of those home pregnancy tests, not on his own. But who could he go to?

Giles was completely out of the question. Xander knew that going to Giles was quite possibly the most responsible thing he could do, but there was no way in Hell he was going to talk about sex with the man. Even in passing. Not since the love spell. Hell, not since *ever.*

The next person he thought of was Buffy’s mom. But even though she had been very kind to Xander, something he appreciated greatly, they hadn’t ever had that kind of relationship. ‘That kind’ being the kind where he talked to her at all outside of Buffy’s presence, unless it was asking for chips or soda.

Next on the list was Willow, as the smartest person he knew, most logical, possibly the most persuasive with arguments. Xander thought back to earlier that year, and the illicit smoochies.

Scratch Willow off the list.

Buffy, he knew, would be no help at all, Cordelia was pretty much still not talking to him, he’d be damned if he would ask Angel for help, and asking Oz would just be damn awkward, and, Xander thought, the guy was pretty likely to just shrug and say something like, “Do what you can,” and then shut up.

So that pretty much left him optionless. He felt he was living up to the tag of ‘worthless’ his dad had laid on him, and living up to it well.

Xander sat up in his bed. He was determined not to turn out like his father thought, so he decided to bite the bullet. He grabbed a jacket and ran downstairs and out into the night.

***

She looked up, rubbed her eyes, and walked over to where Xander stood, and let him inside.

“Hey,” she said. “Why are you here?”

Xander looked down at her, worried. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said. “Why are you here?”

“I need to talk to you,” Xander said.

“So, talk,” she said.

Xander frowned. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. “I mean, I know things have been weird, but you can still talk to me. You know that, right?”

Willow looked up at him and shook her head. “Sure,” she said.

“I mean, it’s just, you look like you’ve been crying,” he said.

Willow frowned.

“Not that you look bad!” he said, mentally backpedaling. “It’s just…”

“I know what you mean,” she said. She was angry at him, and hurt. But he was still Xander, and what he had said earlier, about not swearing on her life, had been so sweet. She wanted to give him any benefit of the doubt she could. “Just… maybe in a little. You still haven’t said the… why you’re here.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. He began pacing back and forth in her room. She followed him like he was a tennis ball, watched him wringing his wrists like he always did when he was really worried about something. After a few minutes, Willow couldn’t take it anymore.

“Xander,” she said, standing in front of him and taking his hands in hers. “Just tell me.”

Xander looked down at her small hands attempting to wrap around his, then back up into her eyes.

“I had sex with Faith,” he said, softly. “And she might be pregnant.”

Xander fell down on her bed and closed his eyes, seemingly waiting for the inevitable tongue lashing that Willow was certain he felt he deserved. When it didn’t come, he looked up. Willow was certain she looked as shocked as she had been earlier in the day.

“Will?” he said.

“When?” she asked.

“A few weeks ago,” he said. Willow saw he had his ‘spill the beans’ face on, and knew he’d pretty much answer anything she asked.

“And how come you think she… you know…”

“She’s late,” he said.

“You’ve been spending that much time together that you know –”

“No,” he interrupted. “She told me. That’s why I passed out the other day in the library.”

Willow frowned. “She hasn’t taken a test or anything?”

Xander shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “When I went to talk to her later that day, she was in full-on denial mode.”

Willow looked up at him, and set her face in as hard an expression as she could muster.

“How come you’re telling me all this?” she asked.

“Because if she is pregnant, we need to know, and I don’t think I can get through to her, and I need help.” He shrugged. “Nobody I trust to help more than you.”

“Even since…”

“Even since.”

“Since we’re being all truthful,” she said, “I knew already.”

“You what?”

“I heard you two talking in the hall today,” Willow said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help it, and…”

“It’s okay,” Xander said.

“How come you didn’t tell me until now?” she asked.

“Well, it really wasn’t anybody else’s business,” he said.

“Oh,” Willow said, sadly. “Yeah, I guess.”

Xander’s gaze turned to the floor. “But the truth is… I didn’t want you to think I was the kind of guy who’d do something like that. Like a one-night stand kind of guy.”

“It was sweet,” Willow said, hesitantly. “What you said. Not the one-night stand thing. The not swearing on my life one.”

“Well, I meant it,” Xander said. “I couldn’t do… things… without you. You may be ashamed to be seen with me now, or whatever, but you’re still my Willow.” He sighed. “Or at least, I hope you are.”

“Xander, I’m not ashamed to be seen with you. I never have been. I just…”

“Needed to work things out with Oz, I know,” Xander said. “But I missed you, and I’m selfish.”

Willow smiled inwardly. Even though she had Oz, and loved Oz… it was still nice to be missed. She sighed.

“So what are we going to do about this?”

“I don’t know,” Xander said. “But you’re the only one I could come to.”

Willow’s heart warmed at his declaration. A very cynical part of her told her that he might be just saying these things to get her help, but that voice was quickly silenced and squashed when Willow looked into his eyes and saw the obvious worry there.

“Okay,” Willow said. “Go home, give me a little time to think about this. I’ll try to come up with something.”

“You’re the best,” Xander said, wrapping his best friend in a hug.

Willow sighed, as she returned his embrace. “I know,” she said, smiling as she shoved him back out onto the balcony. “Now go.”

Xander smiled, and with a wave, he was gone.

Willow kept her smile in place, but her eyes began to tear up. Things, she knew, would never be the same, ever again.

***

“Here’s what I’ve come up with,” Willow said the next morning. She was wearing a happy face, despite her actual mood.

“Hmm,” Giles said, looking over her work. “Yes, this all looks quite good. Except for this bit here.” He pointed to a section. “You’ve got these two dates reversed.”

“Oh,” Willow said, accepting the paper back. She looked to the section he had pointed out. “Oh, yeah, I guess I did. Thanks.”

Giles nodded as he sipped his tea. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Willow frowned. “Why? Do I not look okay?”

Giles smiled softly. “You look fine, Willow. You just seem a little… melancholy, is all. Are things going well?”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “Or, well, no, not really. But they’ll be okay.”

Giles nodded. “Well, should you need help or… well, I’m here.”

“Thanks, Giles,” Willow said sincerely. “But, it’s one of those things I have to do on my own, I think.”

Giles nodded. “Of course. You’ll be by later, then?”

Willow sighed as she collected her materials. “Well, later, I might be needing to deal with things. But, if I can, yeah.”

“Good,” Giles said. “Well, good luck, or whatever the appropriate phrase is.”

“Thanks,” Willow said. She waved to Giles and left the library. She stepped out into the traffic of the hallway, hoping to be able to avoid Xander at least until the period began. They had class together, but Buffy was also in the class, and they couldn’t very well discuss how to get Faith to take a pregnancy test when Buffy was around.

Willow stopped dead in her tracks, causing some freshman to run into her. He dropped his books, but she didn’t care. She was going to help Xander find out if Faith was pregnant. She hadn’t considered that yet, not really. They had slept together, that was what got her yesterday.

What if Faith was pregnant? Would they date? Or get married? Oh, God, what if Xander got married before high school was over? What if Xander had a child? What would she do? What would *he* do?

That thought stunned her. There she was, thinking how she would feel about all of this, when the truth was that it affected her less than just about every other person in the group, except for Oz. If Faith was pregnant, she couldn’t very well slay for much longer. And if Faith wasn’t slaying, that left it up to Buffy again. And also, Giles would probably feel obligated somehow, and would almost certainly scold them both for being stupid, but at the same time take them under his wing.

And also, Xander would *never* go to college, he’d have to get a job to pay for things, because there was no way in hell his parents would help out. It would change his life. He wouldn’t be able to do his road trip that he’d been talking about for years. He wouldn’t get to do so many things.

And how would Cordelia feel? Her ex-boyfriend had gone and gotten a skank pregnant!

No, Willow thought. She couldn’t think about Faith like that. If the girl was going to be the mother of Xander’s child, Willow couldn’t think of her as a skank. She was carrying Xander’s child.

Willow would love that child, she knew. Even if it wasn’t hers. She couldn’t think of anything that would make her not love Xander’s child.

And that was when it happened. Willow decided once and for all that doing the right thing meant truly and finally getting over Xander Harris. And she was ready. For the sake of his child, and the mother of his child, she would. She had to. It wasn’t fair, otherwise. To anybody. She turned her resolve face on herself. It was time.

***

“What do you mean you can’t go?” Buffy asked. “How is that even possible?”

“Buff, I just can’t,” Xander said. He looked up and saw Willow enter the room, determination on her face. He was curious about that. “I have things to do.”

“Oh come on, what could possibly be more important than going to the Bronze?”

“Homework?” Xander suggested. By Buffy’s glare, he guessed she wasn’t buying it.

“Willow, tell Xander not to be such a poopy-head.”

“Don’t be such a poopy-head, Xander,” Willow said as she sat next to him. Xander rolled his eyes. “What are we talking about?”

“The Bronze,” Buffy said. “Xander’s claiming he has something else to do.”

“That’s because I do,” Xander insisted.

“And he won’t tell me what it is,” Buffy pouted.

“It’s private,” he said. Then he grimaced. He absolutely knew that was the wrong thing to say. Buffy would only be more interested now.

“Oooh,” she said, “is it some juicy secret? Some vile, sinister deed that nobody can know of until you eventually unveil your plans to conquer the world? Cuz if it is, I’ll have to stop you.”

“It’s not,” Xander said. “Buff, just… drop it, okay? I mean it.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Fine. You’ll just miss a dancing good time with me and Will and Oz and Angel.”

“Wow, yeah, that sounds just like my favoritest day ever,” Xander said, grumpily. “Nothing says fun like some fifth wheel action.”

Buffy’s face softened visibly. “Don’t be like that,” she said. “I just want you to have fun, is all.”

“I know,” he said. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

“You’re sure I can’t convince you?”

“I’m sure,” he said. He turned to Willow. “Where’ve you been?”

“Library,” she said. “Giles was looking over a paper for me.”

“You okay?” Buffy asked.

Willow seemed to think about it for a moment before answering. “Yes,” she said. “I am.”

Xander thought he heard determination in her voice, but didn’t pursue it. Class was just about to start.

FIVE

“Have you got anything yet?” Xander asked after class. Buffy had gone off to the library, either to ask Giles about something slaying related, or else to skip her next class. Xander was grateful for the chance to talk to Willow alone.

“Not yet,” Willow said. “I mean, it’s kind of a lot to drop on a girl.”

“I know, Will,” Xander said. “But it’s really important –”

“I know,” she said. “I do. But you’re going to have to give me a little time, Xander. It wasn’t so long ago that I was still harboring thoughts that I would be your first, and that it might be me in this position, so this isn’t something I can just *do* without any feeling, okay?”

Xander was stunned by her openness. He hadn’t expected her to say that. Hell, he hadn’t expected her have thought about that. Even after making out with her, he hadn’t expected her to think about… sex. He had, of course, but Willow? She was… she was above all that, right?

“Yeah,” he said, quietly, trying not to show the kind of turmoil she had just thrown him into. “Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I should have thought –”

“Yes,” she said. “You should have. But that’s okay. I’m gonna be here for you, Xander, through this whole thing. Anything you need, or even anything Faith needs. And if it happens that that’s the case, anything the baby needs, too, okay? I’m going to be here if you need me. It’s just right now? I need a little time.”

“Okay,” Xander said, nodding. “Of course.”

“You’d better go,” Willow said. She pointed at the clock on the wall. “You’re going to be late.”

“Willow, I –”

“Xander?” she said. “I’m fine. Just go.”

Xander nodded, smiled at her, and started to walk off. After a thought, he walked back, gave Willow a heartfelt hug, and a kiss on the forehead, then smiled at her one more time before leaving.

He walked down the hall, and saw Oz leaning against a locker, obviously waiting for him. Xander followed Oz’s line of vision, and looked at the exact place he had just hugged Willow.

“Oz,” he said, shaking his head, “it wasn’t –”

“It’s okay,” Oz said, with a quick shake of his head. “I trust her.”

But not him, Xander thought. It was only fair, really.

“Good,” Xander said. “It’s just that I’m having –”

“Don’t,” Oz said. “It’s private. I trust her.”

Xander opened his mouth to say something else, then thought the better of it, nodded and walked off to his class.

***

Faith opened her door.

“You gotta be kidding me.” She couldn’t believe he was there.

“Nice place,” Xander said. He stood outside her door, hands behind his back.

“Yeah, it is,” Faith said. She walked back into her apartment, but left the door open, in what she felt was enough of an invitation. He apparently took it that way, too, since he walked in and shut the door behind him. “What do you want?”

“Uh,” he said, nervously swaying back and forth on his heels. “I got you this.” He held out what was obviously a present.

“The hell is that?” she asked anyway.

“It’s a housewarming gift,” he said. “Or an apartment warming gift, or whatever.”

“What is it?” Faith asked, eyeing the package cautiously.

“You’re supposed to open it, Faith,” he said. “It’s not a bomb, or leprosy or anything.”

“Leprosy in a box?” she asked, accepting the package. Xander shrugged as Faith pulled the ribbon off the box, dropped it on her table – she had a table, that was new – and opened the box.

“Holy shit.”

“Really?” Xander asked. “I didn’t know a coffee machine was that big a deal.”

Faith was still looking at the box. “Why’d you give me this?”

“Um. You just moved into your new apartment. Common etiquette among… I thought you might like it.”

Faith looked up and scowled. “I’m not sleeping with you.”

Xander looked hurt, and for a split second, Faith allowed herself to feel bad about that. She squelched that feeling out as quickly as she could, though, because it led had always led to bad places.

“Faith, I’m not… you know what? Whatever. I’m gonna go spend some time with people who don’t assume I’m a villainous bastard because I have the unmitigated gall to be nice to them.”

Faith opened her mouth to interrupt with something, she was surprised to find, that was remarkably close to an apology, when Xander continued. He was glaring at her, his voice louder than ever.

“I mean, Christ! Did it ever occur to you that somebody might want to be nice to you, to give you something without wanting anything from you in return? Did it ever occur to you that not every single guy who does something for you wants to get in your pants?”

For a moment, the barest hint of a second, Faith shied away from him. And that, she knew, was enough to tip him off. He was pretty damn perceptive at times.

“Oh my God,” he said softly, horror in his voice. His face lost any last inkling of anger. “It hasn’t. It’s honestly never occurred to you that some guys might have good intentions.”

“It’s nothing,” Faith said. She went and set the coffee machine on the counter. “Thanks for the thing.”

“Faith,” he said, moving over to her.

“I gotta get ready for patrol,” she said, heading for her bedroom.

“Faith,” he called again, but she shut her door in his face. She heard him press a single hand against the door, and then rest his head against it. “Who hurt you?” he asked quietly.

A couple of minutes later, she heard his footsteps. Then the outer door to her apartment opened and closed. Faith sighed, disappointed in herself. Now she was never going to get rid of him.

And a deeply hidden part of her, a part she had ignored for years now, wondered why she wanted to.

But Faith wasn’t ready to listen to that part.

***

Xander was making her dizzy. It was almost hypnotic, him walking back and forth. He was genuinely worried, Willow could tell that much immediately. He was genuinely concerned for Faith, and her mental well being. He was asking questions, which Willow was sure were rhetorical, about what could have happened to her, what was her past like, how could anybody be like that at this age, things like that.

At least, she hoped they were rhetorical, because she certainly didn’t have any answers. But she found, in the past, that it was beneficial to both of them not to interrupt until he was done pacing. That would happen pretty soon, she guessed. Willow looked at her watch, and counted down. Five, four, three, two –

“I don’t know, what do you think?” Xander said, coming to a halt in front of her. She was off by a whole second.

“I don’t know, Xander,” she said. “I mean… if what you’re saying is true –”

“It is,” he insisted. “Jesus. What if she *is* pregnant? How can anybody who thinks like that possibly raise a child? Oh God, my kid’s going to turn out worse than me.”

“Xander,” Willow said. She grabbed his hands and forced him to sit down. “First of all, we don’t know that she’s pregnant. We still have to work that out. And second, Xander, what on Earth makes you think you turned out poorly? I mean, you’ve made mistakes, sure, but we all have. But you’re my best friend, Xander, and I don’t make friends with bad people.”

She could see that Xander was thinking about protesting, and shut him up with a finger to his lips. “No,” she said. “You don’t get to argue this one. I’m right, and you’re wrong. Accept it.”

Xander nodded silently, then sighed as she removed her finger. “What am I gonna do, Will?”

“First thing, we need to get her to take a pregnancy test.”

“I don’t think she’ll be willing to go to a doctor,” he said.

“So we get her to take a home test. They’re not as accurate, but it’s a start.”

“And then?”

“And then, we see what the results are. There are lots of steps that can be taken. Do you know… I mean, would she keep it?”

Xander’s eyes expanded. “Oh my God. I hadn’t even considered that.”

“Well, what would your thoughts on that be?”

“I don’t know,” Xander said. He seemed to be on the verge of hyperventilating. “Jesus, I don’t know.”

“Okay, calm down,” Willow said. “We probably don’t need to think about this until we know, you know… whether or not she’s pregnant.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “Yeah, you’re right.” He took a deep breath. “How are you doing? I mean with the whole… thing?”

Willow smiled at him, happy he had remembered that this wasn’t exactly easy for her, either. Even though, she knew, it was, like *way* harder for him, it was still nice to be thought of. “I’m okay,” she said. “And I think I know what to do. About finding out, I mean.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You just need to put your foot down.”

“Put my foot down. With Faith.”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “See, just tell her. She obviously doesn’t want this getting out, so just tell her that either she takes the test, even a home pregnancy one, which aren’t as accurate as the ones they do at the hospital, or you tell her you’re going to tell Giles.”

“Will, I can’t –”

“Yes, you can, Xander. You can tell Giles if you have to. In fact you should probably have done it right off.”

Xander groaned. “I thought there was some thing where getting the deed done on your first time was really rare,” he said.

“That pretty much only works for girls,” said Willow. “And even then, not all the time.”

“Damn,” Xander said. “Life would be so much easier if I were a girl.”

“It really wouldn’t,” Willow said. “There all sorts of things to deal with, you know, girl things, that you don’t have to.”

“I just meant that if I were a girl, there’d be no chance of me getting anybody pregnant.”

“No,” Willow said. “That’s true. But you could get pregnant.”

Xander looked at her. “Good point. Okay, so now we just need to get one of those home pregnancy tests.”

“No,” Willow said. “Now *you* need to get one of those home pregnancy tests.”

“But you said you were going to help!” Xander protested.

“Yes,” she said. “And I will. But I’m not doing everything, Xander. I’ll help you convince Faith, if she doesn’t go for it, a-and I’ll support you no matter what, but you need to take some of this on yourself, if only to realize how big a deal it is.”

Xander was silent for a minute. “Okay. I’ll do it tomorrow, right after school.”

“Good,” Willow said.

“I guess I should go,” Xander said, standing up and walking to her balcony door.

“Yeah,” Willow said. She steeled her nerve, and stood up. “Just one last thing.”

“Yeah?” Xander asked, turning around. As soon as he turned, Willow attached herself to his lips in a smoldering kiss that lasted a good minute, until Willow broke it off.

“Wha—” Xander said, panting. “What… I… ”

“That was the last,” Willow said, wrapping her arms around her best friend, her eyes moistening. She could feel confusion radiating off of Xander, but he wrapped his arms around her anyway.

“Willow?” he asked, quietly.

A few moments later, Willow released him, and backed up a step. She wiped tears from her eyes and sniffled. “It’s over,” she said.

“Will, what?”

“This,” she said, shaking her head. “Us. It’s over now. For good.”

Xander looked into her eyes, and understanding bloomed in his. He nodded.

“I love you,” he said, stroking her face gently.

“I know,” she sniffled, smiling sadly. “I love you, too.”

Xander nodded.

“You should go.”

Xander said nothing, only smiled back at her, turned, and left.

Willow did her best not to cry. As, it seemed to her, with so many things throughout her life, her best was not nearly enough.

Six

“I think you’re right,” Buffy said, startling Willow out of a daze. They were on one of the couches in the student lounge.

“What? Right about what?” Willow asked.

“About Xander and Faith,” Buffy said. She leaned in close to Willow to speak conspiratorially. “I think something fishy’s going on.”

Willow scowled. “Why?”

Buffy shrugged. “She was asking me about him last night during patrol.”

“Asking what, specifically?” Willow asked.

“If he and I had ever… you know… done it with him.”

“Oh,” Willow said. She sounded surprised, but Buffy thought there was something off about her tone.

“Yeah. And she was pretty insistent about it, too. Do you think maybe she’s crushing –”

“Oh, look, I got these!” Willow said. She pulled some envelopes out of her bag and spread them out on the table. Buffy’s eyes bugged.

“You’re kidding,” Buffy said.

“Kidding about what?” Xander asked as he and Oz sat down on the couch across from them. Xander started rifling through the packets. “Willow. What are these?”

“They’re early admission packets,” Willow said.

“Harvard, Yale,” Xander read. “Wesleyan. Some… German polytechnical institute whose name I uh… I can’t pronounce. Is anyone else intimidated? Cause I’m just expecting thin slips of paper with the words ‘No Way’ written in crayon.”

“They’re typing those now,” said Oz.

“Oh,” Xander said.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” Willow said, happily. Buffy looked through some of the packets. “I got in! To actual colleges, a-and they’re wooing me. They’re pitching woo.”

“The wooing stage is always fun,” Buffy said. Angel did have such dreamy eyes when he looked at her just so.

“But it’s weird,” Willow continued. “You know, rejection, I can handle, cause of the years of training, but this…”

“I feel your pain, Will,” Xander said. “Like right now, I’m torn between the fast growing fields of appliance repair and motel management. Of course, I’m still waitin’ to hear back from the Corndog Emporium, so…” he crossed his fingers. Xander was such a goofball. He was totally going to turn out fine, and they all knew it. Even he knew it, Buffy was sure. He just liked being funny. He couldn’t possibly believe that his life was *that* bad. She smiled and laughed.

“Well I think it’s great,” Buffy said. “Early admission. Now there’s nothing standing between you and a brilliant future.”

“If I may suggest,” Oz said. “Graduate. Gettin’ left back? Not the thrill ride you’d expect.”

“That’s so cute!” said a feminine voice. Buffy turned and saw Cordelia approaching. “Planning life as a loser? Most people just turn out that way, but you’re really taking charge.” She was directing her comments at Xander. Buffy was trying not to judge Cordelia, or be mean to her, especially since the whole Xander and Willow cheating thing, but Cordelia could sometimes be really vicious, and Xander didn’t deserve it.

“The comedy stylings of Ms. Cordelia Chase, everyone,” Xander said bitterly, clapping his hands. “Who incidentally won’t be needing a higher education when she markets her very own successful line of hooker-wear.”

Of course, Xander really could hold his own against her, so Buffy figured she shouldn’t worry too much.

“Well, Xander,” Cordelia said, “I could dress more like you, but oh. My father has a job.” She turned and walked off.

‘Bitch,’ thought Buffy. There really was no need to bring Xander’s family life into a nice little insult-fest between exes.

“I’m not going to waste the perfect come back on you now,” Xander said to Cordelia’s back. “But don’t think I don’t have it. Oh yes, its time will come.” He turned back to the group. “So, life beyond high school. Anyone. Please. Chime in.”

“I hear it’s nice,” Buffy said. “And a place I’ll never go, if I don’t pass Mrs. Haggert’s chemistry test tomorrow.”

“Oh, I can help,” Willow said. “Chemistry’s easy. It’s a lot like witchcraft, only, less newt. So, what do you say, study jam, my house, tonight?”

“I’m there,” Buffy said. The bell rang. “Oh. I have to go see Giles, report on last night’s patrol.”

“Oh, yeah, he said he wanted to talk to you,” said Willow.

“What about?” Buffy asked, a little concerned. Giles didn’t usually ask after her until lunchtime, at least. “Is he okay?”

Willow winced a little. “He’s… looked better.”

Buffy sighed. “Better go see what’s up,” she said. She turned to Xander. “Walk me?”

“Sure thing,” Xander said. He got up and joined her for her stroll.

“So,” Buffy said. “Faith was asking about you last night.” She thought she saw him twitch, but shrugged it off.

“Okay,” Xander said.

“You don’t find that at all weird?” Buffy asked.

“Buff, we live on a Hellmouth. I don’t find… little dead kids who are actually fairy tales weird. What could I possibly find odd about an attractive woman asking about me?” he asked. “Actually, when I put it like that…”

“So you think she’s attractive,” Buffy said, accusingly.

“Well, yeah,” said Xander. “I’m male, and breathing. She kinda, you know… oozes sexuality. But I find lots of girls attractive, you know, so whatever, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Hmph,” Buffy said. She hated it when things like logic derailed her perfectly good gossipy ideas. They arrived at the library.

“Uh oh,” Xander said, peeking in through the portholes. “Second stuffy British guy alert.”

Buffy looked as well. “Oh, man.”

“Looks like someone’s got a new watcher,” Xander said. He smiled at her as he walked off towards class. “Make sure this one’s not evil, huh?”

Buffy smiled at him and waved, before pushing through the doors to what was just destined to be a painful experience.

***

Xander was fairly certain that he was in the most awkward situation of his life to this point. He was alone in a grocery store, at 9 pm, purchasing nothing but a package of Twinkies and a home pregnancy test. He had meant to do this right after school, but… well, this type of thing, he had to work up the nerve for.

And worse. The only cashier on duty had gone to Sunnydale High. Xander hoped and prayed that his status as class loser would keep the guy from remembering him.

“Hey, Harris,” the guy said as Xander walked up. So much for hoping and praying.

“Hey, Richard,” Xander said, looking anywhere but at the guy’s face.

Richard swept both the Twinkies and the test over the scanner without so much as a glance. Xander handed the young man his money, and grabbed the bag from the counter.

“Oh, Harris,” Richard said.

“Yeah?” Xander asked.

“You still dating Cordelia?”

“No,” Xander said. “Not for a while now.”

“Maaaaan,” Richard said. “That sucks for you. Tell her I said hey, would you?”

Xander cocked his head to one side. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’ll just do that, then.”

“Hey, great!” Richard said, completely missing Xander’s sarcasm. “Thanks, man.”

Xander nodded at the guy and left the store. He considered going over to Willow’s, but thought he had relied on her enough for the time being. It wasn’t fair to her. Xander knew that, no matter how hard she was trying, she wasn’t going to be able to get over him just like that. And however much that made him feel good about himself, he couldn’t stand causing her more pain. Xander steeled his nerve and went to Faith’s apartment.

But there was no answer at her door, so Xander went home. Which was boring, because his dad was drunk, and watching the television, and Xander had no intention of breaking that up, so he up and went back to the library. After getting the evil-eye from the new Watcher, Xander asked Giles if there was anything he could do. Giles quite happily put him to work reshelving books, while he and Wesley waited for Buffy to return from whatever mission it was that Wesley had sent her on.

“Mr. Giles,” Wesley said. He had been looking through some books that Xander vaguely recognized as Giles’ Watcher Diaries. “I wonder if I might speak to you for a moment.” Xander took in the evil eye the new guy was giving him, and almost laughed.

Giles waved the man into his office, rolled his eyes once so that only Xander could see, then shut the door behind himself. Xander shook his head and kept reshelving. He heard some raised voices behind the door, and thought he picked out his name once or twice. About thirty seconds later, the door opened again and Wesley came back into the room looking angry.

“You,” he said, pointing straight at Xander.

“Uh. Me?” Xander asked. He looked behind the guy, to where Giles looked kinda peeved. Which was impressive, because he usually only looked that way about Xander himself. And occasionally Buffy, but usually Xander.

“Yes, you,” the guy said. “If you were researching the best way to kill a Dan’til demon, in what book would you find the method?”

“A what demon?” Xander asked.

“Green, scaly, about seven-and-a-half feet tall, tentacles that come out of its head, both front and back,” Giles said. “Rather slimy by all accounts.”

“Oh,” Xander said. “You gotta stab it in the chest, but real hard, though. But it doesn’t have to be a big weapon. Dagger’ll do.”

“Wrong!” Wesley said. “Not only did you not answer my question, but you got the method of killing it wrong. You see, Mr. Giles, he is unfit to be included in this. It is no place for civilians.”

“Mmm,” Giles said, chewing on the end of his glasses. “Show him a picture, why don’t you?”

“What?” Wesley asked.

“I said, show him a picture.”

“Oh, very well.”

As Wesley delved into one of the books on the table, Giles seemed to look amused. Xander walked down from the stacks to the table, and waited for the picture.

“Here,” Wesley said, showing Xander a picture of the demon. “*This* is a Dan’til demon.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “Right. Like I thought. Stab it.”

“I’m afraid you’re wrong.”

“I’m not wrong,” Xander said.

“The book says here –”

“I don’t care what the book says,” Xander interrupted. “The fact is, Buffy killed one of those a few weeks ago. She stabbed it in the chest with a dagger, and it died, so quit with your trying to make me look dumb, Mr. Snarky Watcher guy. I’m not quitting the fight. Undomesticated equines couldn’t forcibly remove me.”

Giles looked up at him, a surprised look on his face, and Xander grinned goofily. “Willow and I did a report on horses back in elementary school. A few words stuck.”

Giles smiled warmly at him. Xander liked when he did that, it made him feel like there was an adult role model who wasn’t entirely ashamed of him all the time. Gee, why would that make him feel good?

“But, but,” Wesley said.

“But nothing,” Xander said, turning back to the annoyance. “By the way, if you try to give Faith that stupid test, I’ll kill you. And if any of my friends get hurt because of you, I’ll feed you to a vampire.” He smiled at Giles. “See you tomorrow.”

Giles nodded, lifting his glasses in an almost-nod.

“He can’t be serious!” Wesley protested. Xander waited just outside the library door to hear what they said. “Threatening a Watcher?”

“Don’t be silly,” Giles said, lightly. “Of course he was serious. If you’d read all my entries before jumping to conclusions, you’d see that he has acquitted himself quite well, for a boy his age. Much better, I imagine, than you would.”

Xander smiled and left, feeling much better than when he had arrived.

***

The next day, after Buffy skipped out on her chemistry test – the one, Willow pointed out, that she had definitely not shown up to study for – Xander pretty much wandered around wondering what in the hell he was supposed to do. He was still reluctant to go back to Willow – he knew she’d help him, he just didn’t want to hurt her.

So he went back to Faith’s apartment, and when he didn’t find her there, he waited outside her door for her to return, and busied himself with counting the number of dots on the ceiling tiles.

He was awakened by Faith’s foot in his kidney.

“Whabu!” he said as he woke up.

“Whabu?” Faith asked. She slipped her key into the lock and opened the door, without saying another word. But she left the door open, and Xander felt that was an implicit invitation. A step, he thought, in the right direction.

“Where’ve you been?” he asked.

“What are you, my watcher?”

“No,” Xander said. “Just interested.”

Faith looked at him. “I was out with B.”

Xander nodded.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I came to see you,” he said. “Thought you might like a little company.” Yeah. And by the way, can you pee on this stick?

“Whatever,” Faith said, pulling a soda from the fridge. She tossed it to Xander and then grabbed one for herself. He was surprised by the action, but chose not to comment.

“You okay?” he asked, surveying her arm. Her elbows were scuffed up, and she had a small – and rapidly shrinking – bruise on her forehead.

“Fine,” she said. “Just a little rough and tumble coming out of the squad car.”

“The sq—the cops?”

“Yeah,” Faith said. She took a long pull from her soda. “Me and B kinda got a little arrested tonight. It’s no big, we knocked ‘em out and got away.”

“No big?” Xander asked, incredulously. He wondered what was a ‘big’ if not getting arrested. “Faith, you could be in jail right now.”

“Ain’t a jail yet built that can hold me,” she said. “I’m really not worried.”

“I am,” he said, putting his drink down. “Faith, look, don’t get angry at me for saying this, please, but… just because you’re a Slayer doesn’t make you above the law. I mean, you guys deserve some leniency, but… I mean, if you start thinking you’re just better than everyone, what’s to stop you from killing someone you don’t like? Or who annoys you?”

“That ain’t gonna happen,” Faith said.

“I know, I just… I worry. Too much at times, but it’s what I do.”

Faith frowned.

“Look, just do me a favor… well, two, actually.”

“What?” she asked.

”Just be careful out there, okay? I know you don’t believe that any of us give a crap about you, or whatever, but it’s not true. We do. I do. So just… be careful.”

Faith sighed. “What’s the other favor?”

Xander steeled himself, reached into his pocket, and pulled out the home pregnancy test. “Use this.”

“Fuck you,” she spat.

“Hey!” he said. “Look, I know you don’t believe you’re pregnant, and that’s fine. But what if you are, okay? I may not be a great material for a father, but if I’m going to be one, I’d like to know.”

She glared at him.

“Look, you take the test, and it comes back negative, and I’ll stop bugging you.”

Xander saw what looked almost like regret in her eyes, but it was quickly covered by even more anger.

“Of co—”

“What I meant,” Xander interrupted, “was that I’d stop bugging you about that. I’m still gonna come over here and harass you though.”

“Yeah right,” she said. “You’ll have had what you want and take off.”

“That’s not true,” he said.

“Bullshit. Why the hell would you come back?”

Xander looked directly into her eyes. “Because I should have been doing it in the first place. Because I don’t ignore my friends.”

“What makes you think we’re friends?” she asked, harshly.

“You are my friend,” Xander said, an amount of certainty in his voice that even he was surprised at. “That means that I will bug you, annoy you, probably make an ass of myself in front of you, and I’ll also support you at every turn – not blindly, but wholeheartedly. Whether or not I’m your friend is up to you.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Faith muttered. But she ripped the test from his hand. “You swear on your life that if I use this, you won’t bug me anymore?”

“If it comes up negative, I will no longer bug you about you maybe being pregnant with my child, yes,” he said. He shivered as he spoke, infused with the knowledge that he was not prepared to be a father. God he hoped it came out negative.

Faith tossed everything that wasn’t the pee-on-stick and stalked off to her bathroom. Xander retrieved the instructions, feeling it was important to know what the results actually said. About a minute later, Faith returned with the stick. “What now?” she asked, impatiently.

“Now,” Xander said, without looking up from the instructions, “we wait.”

“How long’s this thing gonna take?” she asked.

“Just a few minutes,” Xander said calmly. Calm, because if he let out even a little bit of the whirlwind of worry and hope and doubt and inner loathing, he knew he would crack. Son-of-a-bitch, why hadn’t they used a condom?

Oh right, he thought. He knew he was never going to score, so why would he bother to have one on him?

“Okay,” Xander said after the appropriate amount of time had passed. “Now, we look at the little thing, and compare it with the chart.”

Faith walked over and stood close beside him, holding the stick out in front of her. They looked at the stick, then back at the paper. Then at the stick again, and back to the paper one more time.

“Nuh uh,” Faith said. “No fucking way.”

“Okay,” Xander said. “The test says positive.”

“It’s wrong,” she said. “It’s wrong, I know it is.”

“I think,” Xander said, “that that’s a possibility. Willow said these things weren’t—”

“Willow said?!?” Faith yelled. Shit. He obviously should have phrased that differently. “I knew it! I just knew you were bragging about all this shit to anyone who would listen, especially your little red-headed bit –”

“It broke her heart when I told her!” Xander yelled, slamming his fist down on the counter. Faith backed up a step.

“Willow was in love with me for the longest time, and I broke her heart so often… and this time, she just didn’t even try to hide it. And I hate myself for that. But she overlooked her own pain, and she came through for me, she helped me when I needed it, because even though she used to *dream* about being in the position you are, she’s my friend, and I needed her, and that was enough. Because she’s Willow. And she’s my best friend. And she is the best person I’ve ever known, so don’t you *ever* talk about her that way.”

Faith stood there silent, shock evident on her face. Xander continued to stare at her. After about twenty seconds, she broke. “Yeah,” she said, softly. “Um. Sorry.”

“I just… Will’s parents ignore her a lot, and she didn’t have a lot of friends when we were growing up, and on top of that I unwittingly tortured her for years, and now that I know, well… I get a little protective. This has really been testing our friendship.”

Xander helped himself to a glass of water, and downed it in one gulp.

“Listen,” Faith said. “I… I didn’t know. I thought –”

“I know what you thought,” Xander said softly. He placed the glass in the sink softly, and turned around. They looked at each other in silence for a few minutes.

“So now what?” Faith asked.

Xander took a deep breath. “Now we make absolutely sure, and that means going to a doctor.”

“I don’t have insurance,” Faith said. “Or money, for that matter. Not that I can spare. G gave me some, but I gotta live off that.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Xander said. “I’m not quite sure how, yet, but I’ll figure something out.”

Faith nodded once, and released a shuddering breath. “Okay,” she said. “Do what you have to. I just… fuck. I need to know.”

Xander nodded and turned to leave, but stopped before he got to the door. “You know, Faith,” he said, “one day you’re going to have to trust somebody.”

He left without waiting for her response.

Seven

“It takes some doing,” Giles said. “A lot of finesse… well, not so much finesse, I suppose, as endurance.”

“What does?” Wesley asked. The pompous ass walked into the library as if he ran the place.

“Replacing the cards in all of the books with bar codes,” Giles said. “Not a task to be undertaken lightly.”

“Mmm,” said the only *actual* watcher in the room. “Yes, I suppose it would. Fortunately, some of us have more important things to do with our time.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “Like sending my friends out on missions, without offering them cookies.”

Giles smiled. With Xander’s energies focused on annoying the new watcher, he found the lad to be not nearly as trying as normal. “Was there something you wanted, however?” he asked of the boy. “As much as my already fragile ego would like to believe it, I cannot fathom that you came here on a Saturday merely to talk about library sciences.”

Xander smiled at him. “Can we talk in your office?”

“Certainly,” Giles said. He turned to Wesley. “If you need anything… get it yourself.” Giles saw Xander stifle a laugh, and he followed the boy into his office, shutting the door behind him.

“What can I do for you?” Giles asked as he sat down across from Xander. It was, in truth, rare that Xander would come to him – or anyone, for that matter – for help. He hoped he was up to the task.

“I need to borrow some money,” Xander said.

“Beg your pardon?” Giles said. This was certainly not what he expected.

“I need to borrow some money,” Xander said, “and I need for you not to ask questions. Just know that it is extremely important.”

“Xander…” Giles started.

“It’s not illegal,” Xander said. “And it’s not dangerous. I swear. But I just…” he shook his head and fell silent. Giles looked into his eyes and saw determination, fear, and desperation.

“Of course,” Giles said softly. “How much do you need?”

”I’m not sure yet,” Xander said. Giles looked confused. “It’s just, the pricing on the thing, I’m not sure. I just, I needed to know, otherwise I’d have to pursue other, you know, avenues.”

“How –”

“It shouldn’t be more than a couple of hundred, though,” he said. “And I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”

“It’s all right, Xander,” Giles said, soothingly. The boy seemed to be, at the same time, relieved and more jittery than ever. “Don’t worry about it. You say it is important, and I believe you. Take care of what you must, and inform me of what you need.”

Xander nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

“Of course,” said Giles.

“No, really,” Xander said. “I mean it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Xander,” Giles said.

“Okay,” Xander said, standing up. “I should uh, get to working things out.”

“Of course,” said Giles. He watched as Xander stood and left the library. Something was important enough to make Xander come to him for help – for money, no less, something he was certain that Xander was not comfortable talking about. At least, that was the impression he’d gotten from the way Cordelia had always brought it up.

Giles sighed. He’d just have to pay closer attention for a while, to see if he could find any clues as to what it was Xander was caught up in.

***

“I really do think there is something going on,” Buffy said. Willow was barely paying attention.

“Huh?” she asked. Yes. That was the best way not to arouse any suspicion, play dumb.

“Xander and Faith,” Buffy said. “Where are you today?”

“Just… distracted,” Willow said, holding up one of two small black pouches for Buffy. “Oh, but look. Smell this.”

“Mmm,” Buffy said as she took the bag and smelled it.

“You like it?” Willow asked, her tone much perkier.

“It smells good,” Buffy said. “What is it?”

Willow smiled. She was always happy when she got to help out with the Slaying, especially something important, or something new. “Just a little something we witches like to call a protection spell.”

“Good deal, protection,” Buffy said, sniffing the bag again. “I'm surprised, though, 'cause usually spell stuff's more...”

“Stinky,” Willow finished. It had taken her hours just to get the mix right. “Yeah. That's why I added lavender. Give me time, and I may be the first Wicca to do all my conjuring in pine fresh scent. So what's the plan?”

Buffy looked at her, as if seeking more knowledge.

“For tonight's slayage,” Willow prompted. “We're going, aren't we?” “Yeah,” Buffy said. But she was getting all avoidy, and that never meant happy-fun time.

“Great!” said Willow, hoping that there wasn’t more to say, but knowing there was.

“But...” Buffy said. Yeah, here it came. Another disappointment coming down the line for Willow. “There's a 'but'. And that's ‘but you shouldn't come... tonight.' Is that cool?”

Willow was hurt. It felt crappy to know someone thought you couldn’t handle yourself. She wondered, idly, if Xander had – oh God, he had. And that must have been the night that – the timing added up, too. Oh no, what if they had driven him to – Buffy was still waiting for an answer. “Well, sure. Makes sense. You know... You'll be facing big, hairy danger.”

“Uh, b-biggest and very hairy,” Buffy said. Willow knew she was reaching.

“You'll be risking your life,” Willow said.

“Right,” Buffy said. “And why risk yours?”

“Because I'm your friend?” Willow suggested. Did Buffy really not get that she – and Xander, she felt compelled to add, were willing to risk that? For her, and for the things that needed to be done?

“I know, Will, and that's exactly why I don't want you going. It's, it's too dangerous.”

“But I-I've done this sort of thing before! Like, a million times, and I can totally handle myself. Besides,” she said, holding up her own black pouch, “minty fresh protection. So?”

There was a knock at Buffy’s bedroom door, and Faith walked in.

“Ready? Time to motor,” Faith said. She visibly glanced over and saw Willow on the bed, looking sad. “Hey, Willow.”

“Hi,” Willow said, unenthusiastically. She turned back to Buffy. “Uh…”

“You comin’ with?” Faith asked, taking a step back towards the door.

“What?” Willow asked. She was confused. Faith gave a crap what she was doing?

“She, uh… wasn’t,” Buffy said. “I thought it was too dangerous.”

Faith shrugged. “Whatever, she’s been doin’ this longer ‘n I have. More the merrier, I say.”

Buffy looked as confused as Willow felt. Why was Faith defending her? What did she ever –

“Besides,” Faith said. “Maybe she’ll keep Xander outta trouble or something.”

Oh. Xander. Right.

“Xander’s not coming,” Buffy said. She seemed so certain.

“Yeah, tell him that,” said Faith.

“He’s not coming,” Buffy insisted. Her eyes narrowed. “What were you doing with him, anyway?”

“I was walkin’ over here,” Faith said. “His place is between mine and yours, he must have seen me, or something, I don’t know. Anyway, he said he’s coming. It’s not my job to tell him no.”

”He can’t come!” Buffy protested. “He could get hurt!”

“And what are you?” Xander asked, stepping into the room, “Invincible? Or was that someone else I gave the breath of life to?”

“Xander, it’s not the same,” Buffy said. “I just… I worry.”

Xander smiled goofily at her. “Well think of it like this. If we come with, you can look out for us?”

“Yeah!” Willow said. She had gotten over the shock of actually seeing Xander and Faith together – and no, she wasn’t buying that ‘I ran into him on my way over’ story – and was now prepared to join in the argument. “Where would we be safer than with two Slayers as protection.”

Xander shifted his grin to her, and she happily returned it.

“Fine,” Buffy said. “Fine. But if either of you die, I’m gonna kick your ass.”

Xander and Willow smiled, as Buffy thrust her black pouch towards Xander. “And you’re taking this.”

***

“Wow, is it this quiet every night you two slay together?” Xander asked. “Because I gotta admit, I imagined a bit more, you know… lip-lock.” He withered under the glares of three women. Willow’s was especially harsh.

“You guys stay here for a minute,” Buffy said to Willow and Xander. She pointed to a small alcove. “I just want to check out this alley first.”

The two non-Slayers rolled their eyes as Buffy and Faith entered the alley.

“So, why were you really with Faith?” Willow asked, quietly.

Xander sighed. “The home test came back positive,” he whispered. “I refused to let her patrol when I’m not around. It may be chauvinistic of me, but I’m not going to –”

“It makes sense,” Willow said, a half-hearted smile on her face. “You’re really taking this seriously.”

“Of course,” Xander said, a little offended. “It’s a child, I’m not going to –”

“No, I know,” Willow said. “I just, I’m impressed that’s all. You’re going to be a great father, Xander.”

Xander smiled down at his best friend. “Well, we’re going to the doctor soon – I made an appointment for Monday, and got an estimate on the lab work. Giles said he’d give me the money –”

“Oh, thank God you told him,” Willow said. “He’s really the one who should –”

“I didn’t tell him, Will,” Xander said. “I can’t face that yet. I just, I asked him for the money, and his trust. He said yes.”

“Oh,” said Willow. “Well, it’s good he trusts you.”

Xander smiled, and a loud noise echoed out from the alley, along with a growl and a couple of grunts. The two exchanged a look and went running into the alley, Xander out pacing Willow even over the short space.

As he ran up, Xander saw Buffy stake a vampire on top of a bunch of crates. She and Faith were both breathing heavily. They moved forward in the alley, and a man in a suit stepped out of the shadows. Buffy instinctively grabbed him and tossed him against a dumpster at the end of the alley, just as Xander caught up to her. He realized at the same time as Buffy that the guy in the suit was a human.

“Faith, NO!” Buffy yelled as Faith raised her stake. Xander allowed his momentum to carry him forward and tackled Faith before she could stake the man, making sure to roll in midair so he would cushion her fall. Her stake came down awkwardly, scraping across his back and ripping his shirt as he took her to the ground.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!?” Buffy yelled at the man by the dumpster. He was rubbing his head. “You don’t just jump into a frigging war zone and tap a soldier on the shoulder! Jesus!”

“Buffy, calm down,” Willow said, panting from the run. “There could be more baddies around here.”

“What the hell were you doing?” Xander asked angrily, as he and Faith disentangled themselves… but stayed close to each other. Faith seemed shaken from the incident.

“I… I work with the mayor,” Finch said. “I have information.”

Buffy’s eyes bugged out, and she smacked him on the head. “Well what the hell are you doing approaching us here? Next time, try using your brain! Now get up, we’ve got to get out of here.”

Xander stood and helped Faith up off the ground, just as Willow came over to check his wound. He winced when her finger ran over the scrape, but he was okay, otherwise.

“Buffy,” said a voice from the shadows. Xander rolled his eyes, the same, he noticed, as Faith did. That creepy-stalker-from-the-shadows thing was really getting old.

“Angel,” Buffy said, in that tone she saved only for him. Xander was always jealo – except wait. He wasn’t, this time. “What’s up?”

“Balthazar’s guys, they got Giles. What happened here?”

“This jackass almost got himself killed, is what,” Xander said. Faith was eerily quiet.

“Okay,” Buffy said, taking charge of the situation. “Angel and I will go get Giles. Faith, you take Xander, Willow and mister Brainiac here back to my house, and we’ll deal with him later, okay?”

“Buffy,” Xander said, “we should be helping –”

“Look, Angel and I can handle whatever Fatty McDemonoid has to offer, okay? But that guy might have serious knowledge, and we need him safe.”

“Fine,” Xander said. “We’ll get him out.”

“Good,” Buffy said. She turned to Angel. “Let’s go.”

“Buffy!” Xander called as the two of them ran off.

“What?” she yelled back.

“Be careful,” Xander said. She smiled at him, and ran off into the night. As Xander helped suited-guy up off the ground. As they began to walk back to Buffy’s house, he heard Willow muttering behind him.

“Fatty McDemonoid?”

***

“Is everything all right?” Joyce asked as much of the group – not, however, Buffy – trudged back into her house.

“Pretty much,” Xander said, with a comforting smile. “Buffy and Angel just went off to rescue Giles and the boy wonder from a vampire cult that worships a not-as-dead-as-we-thought demon. Wacky hijinks are sure to follow.”

“The boy wonder?” Joyce asked.

“New watcher,” Willow said. “Giles’ replacement. Only Giles isn’t leaving.”

“And who is this?” Joyce asked, indicating the suited guy.

“Deputy Mayor Alan Finch, apparently,” Xander said. “Also known as the idiot who likes to almost get himself killed. We don’t know what he wants yet, but it’s something to do with badness. We’re waiting for Giles.”

“I see,” Joyce said. Xander could tell she was trying very hard not to worry, or maybe even panic.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Summers,” Xander said. “Buffy will be fine. She and Angel are pro’s.”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “They’ve done stuff way worse than this. This probably won’t even be all that bad. Right Faith?”

Faith looked up from the chair she had sat in. “What? Oh. Yeah. Shouldn’t be any problem.”

“Well,” Joyce said. She seemed slightly mollified. “Can I get you kids something to drink? Or you Mr. Finch?”

“Um… water,” Finch said. A chorus of agreements from the ‘kids’ followed, and Willow volunteered to help bring the glasses. Finch seemed not to be paying any attention to his surroundings. He looked like he was in shock. A look, Xander noticed, that wasn’t too far from how Faith looked.

“Hey,” Xander said to her. He cocked his head toward the door, and she nodded, and went outside. He followed, shutting the door behind her.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Nothing happened. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I dunno,” Xander said. “Maybe cuz you almost killed a guy?”

“Hey, it wasn’t –”

“It wouldn’t have been your fault,” Xander interrupted. “I mean, the guy was an idiot, and you were being attacked from all around. It wouldn’t have been your fault.”

“But I almost… I almost killed him.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “But you didn’t.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Look,” Xander said. “It’s gotta be… disconcerting, knowing what could have happened. But it didn’t. So don’t worry about it.”

“But what if I had?” Faith asked.

Xander shrugged. “Then we’d talk to Giles. I’m willing to bet that it’s happened at some point before.” Faith nodded, quietly, hugging her arms to herself, to protect against the unseasonably cool night. She didn’t, he noticed, take any exception to the word ‘we’.

“What do you think about Finch?” Faith asked.

“Other than his complete idiocy? I don’t know. He’s the deputy mayor. Maybe he’s got some insight into what the *actual* mayor is doing. Or maybe he likes to attack pretty girls in alleys late at night. Either way, there’s about zero chance we let him out of here without Giles picking his brain.”

Faith nodded. The door opened behind them.

Eight

Willow was concerned. For Xander. For the child inside of Faith. For, she was surprised to find, Faith herself. And of course the whole thing about the Mayor maybe wanting to take over the world was slightly worrisome. But when she returned from the kitchen and set the glasses of water down, Faith and Xander were nowhere to be seen.

Willow looked around and saw a couple of shadows outside, moving around a little bit. She sighed. Even now, she could feel Xander pulling away from her, and she knew why, too. It wasn’t because he, apparently, had a kid on the way. It was because he’d hurt her, and was trying to distance himself so he wouldn’t anymore.

But the pulling away hurt, too. And now Willow knew how he felt after she sidelined him following their horribly-bad-but-extremely-nice-at-the-time kisses. And groping.

The point was, she needed her Xander, and she was damn sure he needed his Willow, and she was determined not to let anything come between their mutual needing of each other. Or rather, the comforting presence and best-friendliness that came as a result of the mutual needing. It didn’t matter. It had been only a few days, but she missed him anyway.

But she also knew he needed to get things sorted out, and the more he did that on his own, the better off she thought he’d be. But she could already tell he was starting to feel something for Faith. It was right there on his Xander-face, but she wasn’t sure anybody else actually saw it. Not even him. And she wouldn’t allow Xander to get hurt, not again, and certainly not by someone who was probably going to be the mother of his child in several months.

Willow put on her resolve face and opened the door.

“Xander,” she said, firmly. “Go inside.”

“What?”

“Go inside,” Willow said. “I need to talk to Faith, and I don’t want to leave Mrs. Summers alone with the deputy evil mayor.”

”Will,” Xander started. “There’s nothing –”

“Xander,” Willow said, stepping closer to him, so he could see her face. “Go inside.”

Xander stared at her face for a moment, nodded, and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

“What’s up, Red?” Faith asked.

“Three things,” Willow said. “First, thank you for standing up for me this afternoon, about the patrolling. Buffy means well, but she gets overprotective sometimes.”

“No prob,” Faith said. “’Sides, I figured you could distract X enough that Buffy wouldn’t get suspicious about nothing. And hey, thanks for keeping this thing on the DL, you know? That’s real solid of ya.”

“Second,” Willow said, ignoring Faith’s comments, “I’m glad that you’re taking what’s going on seriously, now. The whole pregnancy thing. A child is a big responsibility, and if you find out you’re having one, this helps put my mind at ease that you will take seriously issues dealing with the child. I’m prepared to help any way I can, but you need to be prepared for major lifestyle changes.”

Faith nodded. She seemed, Willow thought, to understand that this discussion – lecture, really – was deadly serious.

“Third,” she said, taking what she hoped was a single menacing step forward. Her voice lowered and her eyes reduced to mere slits “I grew up with exactly two friends. Jesse died the first day we met Buffy. He got turned, and Xander had to stake him. This leaves me with one childhood friend. If you hurt Xander, I will cause you more pain than you can imagine, and the only thing that will spare your life is that I would never deprive his child of its mother. Are we clear?”

Faith’s eyes were as wide as saucers, and she nodded once, very slowly. Normally, Willow knew, Faith would dismiss any such threats, especially from a girl with no strength to speak of. Willow hoped that meant Faith was taking her seriously.

Willow turned to go back inside, but Faith grabbed her arm, and turned her around.

“What makes you think I could hurt Xander? What makes you think I have any power over him at all, other than this kid?”

Willow looked into Faith’s eyes and saw a genuine curiosity.

“Because,” she said. “It’s not there yet, but he’s starting to look at you like he looked at Buffy. Like he never looked at Cordelia. Like he never looked at me.”

Faith looked even more confused. Willow smiled sadly, and went back inside. She felt her job was, for the moment, complete.

***

Faith was still standing alone on the porch when Giles’ car pulled up, and he and Buffy got out.

“You left them in there alone?” Buffy asked, when she saw Faith outside. She seemed angry.

“Uh, yeah,” Faith said. “Dude’s harmless, B, I checked him out. No worries.”

“But you just left him in there with my mother!” Buffy yelled.

“Yeah,” Faith said, leaning back against the railing on the porch. “And Willow, and Xander. It’s safe.”

Buffy looked even angrier. “But what if he’s evil!” she protested. “He could be in there right now –”

“That’s enough, Buffy,” Giles said. “You said that you felt nothing demonic about his presence, and I trust that, had Faith felt differently, she would not have left him alone. More than that, I am certain if she felt he was any threat, she would not have left him unattended. Not to mention that Xander and Willow have both shown themselves capable of handling many things.”

Buffy frowned, and obviously didn’t want to agree, so she just went inside instead.

“Bitch,” Faith muttered.

“That’s unfair of you,” Giles said. “Buffy can be harsh sometimes, but she has had a rough night. And while it was unfair of her to unload on you, neither would it be fair for you to do the same. Buffy is not what you said, she is merely worried about her friends and her family. Add that on to a stressful evening, in which Angel was injured, a new watcher who seems to be… somewhat… er…”

“He’s got a stick up his ass,” Faith said.

“Well… yes. Anyhow, Buffy has been taking that rather poorly. She should not have spoken to you as she did… but perhaps a little understanding on your part…”

“Yeah?” Faith asked. “What about how I’m handling things? What about stressful shit that’s going on in my life?”

“I don’t know,” Giles said. “You’ve not said a word to me since you got the apartment.” Faith opened her mouth to interrupt, but Giles continued talking. “I would be more than happy to help you with anything, Faith, to talk to you about whatever you wish, just to get to know you better. But I can’t always be the one to seek you out, and these past few days I’ve been very busy. The road must go both ways.”

Giles gave her a fatherly smile, and followed Buffy inside.

Faith stood alone on the porch. She looked inside and saw Giles and Buffy laughing, while Xander was waving his arms about. Even the deputy mayor seemed to be smiling – nervously, sure, but still. As she watched, the Scooby gang settled down to business, asking questions and playing off each other with a smoothness and comfort that spoke of great friendship.

She felt more than a little left out, and let out a big sigh.

“You can go in, you know,” said a voice from behind her. Faith whirled, pulling her stake as she turned. Angel held his hands up to show he meant no harm. Faith relaxed and put the stake away, noting what looked like big hand prints on each side of his face, and a slight smell of scorched hair.

“Next time, I’m stakin’ ya,” she growled. She turned back to look through the window.

“It’s tempting,” Angel said, standing outside the railing on the porch and leaning in over it. “Going in there. Joining in on the fun. Just a few simple steps, and maybe, just maybe, that world could be available. Open.”

“So why don’t you go?” Faith challenged.

“I’ve got too much to pay for,” Angel said. “Joyce doesn’t like me; Giles and Xander don’t trust me. And I don’t deserve it.”

Faith nodded. She stood still as Angel leaned closer to her, felt the breath he needed only for speaking as he leaned in to her ear. “What are you paying for, Faith? What’s stopping you? Who in there would not accept you?”

Faith felt him pull back, but did not react to his question. She stood, looking in the window, answering in her mind the question he had asked. She was surprised at the answer she found. Without a word, or a look backwards, Faith pushed away from the railing, opened the door, and stepped inside the house.

***

The entire group was scurrying about the library, even Cordelia. Hell, they even brought Wesley in. Deputy Mayor Alan Finch had told them a lot. What the mayor was doing; sacrificing people to turn himself into a demon and, oh yeah, becoming invincible. That little tidbit might have been nice to know before it happened.

Still, Xander thought, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Finch had quickly run back to the mayor, tail between his legs. The man was honestly afraid for his life, and his soul. He assured them he had come up with a good reason for not being with the mayor that night. He was going to try to feed them information, but he had to be extremely careful.

Or at least, that was what he said. And on the assumption he wasn’t lying, they were now in all-out research mode. Find anything and everything about an Ascension. As Xander skimmed through the book in front of him – it was in English, thank God – his mind was elsewhere. Tomorrow he and Faith had an appointment with the doctor. They would take her blood, and a few days later, they’d know if they would soon be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet of a child that would no doubt have a traumatic life, surrounded by death and a couple of really messed up parents.

Xander sighed and got back to the task at hand. He skimmed the page and found plagues, omens, foretellings and even the odd prophecy, but no Ascensions. Why didn’t these damn things have indexes? He worked his way through the rest of the book and found precisely nothing. When he stood up to get another one, Giles caught his eye and motioned subtly towards the office. Xander nodded and Giles went in ahead of him.

Xander looked around and saw that everyone was completely engrossed – or in Faith’s case, asleep – in their books. He fiddled around with the books for a second, and then followed Giles into his office, shutting the door behind him.

“Here,” Giles said when Xander had sat down. He pressed a wad of cash into Xander’s hand.

“What’s –”

“You said you needed some money, and that a few hundred would enough. That’s five.”

Xander’s eyes widened to almost ridiculous size. “Giles, I… thank you. I’ll pay you back when I can – with interest.”

“There’s no need,” Giles said. He pointed out his office window, to where Wesley was just that moment knocking over a pile of books, drawing scowls from both Buffy and Willow, and waking Faith up from an incongruously adorable state of vulnerability. Her face looked almost innocent for a moment before her shield kicked in, and the hard exterior was back. Wesley apologized profusely. “Just… consider it a gift from the Council. For services rendered.”

Xander caught on. “Interestingly,” he said, “any desire I had of paying this back just vanished.”

“Good,” Giles said, “and if you have some money left over after whatever you need, well… I’m sure you can find some use for it.”

Xander grinned. “I’m sure I can. And thanks again. I owe you one.”

“I assure you, that’s not necessary. And you’re welcome.”

Xander nodded and went back to research.

***

School on Monday was pretty much a blur. Xander was less able than normal to pay attention in his classes. Willow, however, came to his rescue as best she could, by taking notes so intricately detailed that he would, if he wished, be able to recreate the day’s lectures from scratch. Xander didn’t think he’d want to, but he would graciously accept the notes anyway.

Just before lunch time, though, some things got sufficiently odd as to draw his attention. People in the halls were talking about him. And that wasn’t ego run amok, it was the fact that every so often, somebody would point at him, or shush themselves when he passed by. But it wasn’t laugh-pointing, it was more ‘what the hell is up with that?’ pointing.

To be safe, Xander checked with Buffy and Willow. They confirmed he had no extra appendages, nor was his hair on fire. They were, however, receiving odd looks as well, and Buffy pointed out that Cordelia, who was at that moment walking across the cafeteria, was also getting odd looks.

As he was walking into his next class, Xander saw Cordelia corner some poor girl and demand… something or other. Her face grew angrier with everything the girl said, and Xander was really glad at the moment that it was not he on the receiving end of her verbal lashing.

After school, Xander sat in the library, checking his watch and the clock on the wall over and over, waiting the twenty-minutes he guessed he needed to wait, in order to show up at Faith’s place in time to take her to the doctor’s office.

“Xander,” Buffy said, entering the library mere moments before Xander was about to leave. “I need to ask you something, and I need you to be completely honest with me.”

“Uh. Okay. Sure,” he said, checking his watch for the umpteenth time.

“You’d tell me if you got the entire girl’s basketball team pregnant, right?”

Xander’s eyes widened. “Uh. Well. Yeah, Buff. I think I would tell you that.”

“Okay,” she said. Buffy sat down at the table, twiddled her thumbs for a moment, then looked up at Xander. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Xander looked at her, very seriously. “Buffy,” he said. “I have to admit… your hair looks really nice today.”

Buffy smiled. “So you didn’t get the basketball team pregnant?”

“No, I didn’t. Where the hell did you hear that?”

“Around,” Buffy said. “I guess that’s why we were all getting weird looks. Somebody started that rumor, then people must have figured that since me and Will hang around with you all the time, and Cordy used to date you, that we got pregnant too.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Xander said. He checked his watch again. “Anyway, I have to go. I’ll see ya later, Buff.”

“Want company?” Buffy asked. “I don’t think I’m doing anything at the moment.”

“Er, well, it’s kind of a private –”

“Buffy, good, you’re here,” Wesley said as he walked into the library. “It is time to begin your daily training regimen.”

Buffy turned to Xander and rolled her eyes. “Sorry,” Xander said. He walked out of the library, pausing as he passed Wesley to whisper “Remember… vampires,” and headed off to meet Faith.

He didn’t even make it to his locker before Cordelia, leading a group of jocks and her newly-reacquired Cordettes, ambushed him in the hall.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she demanded.

“Uh,” Xander said. “What?”

“I know what you’ve been telling people, you… you… idiot!”

“That was harsh,” Xander said. “You really hurt me that time, Cor.”

“I hurt *you*? That’s rich! This from the guy who’s been telling everyone I slept with him!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Xander asked. “I never said that.”

“Oh, right. Then you didn’t tell Richard Sutcliffe that we had sex, I suppose? He just made that one up all on his own?”

“Well, he must have!” Xander retorted. “I don’t talk to the guy! The last time I saw him I was buying –” he stopped short.

“Buying what?” Cordelia demanded.

Xander took a deep breath. “None of your business,” he said.

“Hey, if you bought something that’s making him tell people these things, it damn sure is my business!”

“It is NOT your business!” Xander retorted. “Nothing that I do is your business, not anymore.”

“Oh, and whose fault is that, exactly?”

“Cordelia… I said I was sorry about that, and I am. I’m sorry for what I did, I’m sorry that I hurt you. But I never said anything to anybody that could even remotely be taken as saying that we slept together.”

“What about that pregnancy test you bought?” asked some random guy in the crowd.

Silence reigned.

“Where did you hear that?” Cordelia asked.

“Richard Sutcliffe,” the guy said, stepping forward. Xander didn’t recognize him. “He told me you were in the store the other day buying a home pregnancy test.”

“Is that true?” Cordelia demanded.

Xander said nothing, and that was enough to convict him.

“And exactly what *slut* have you been shacking up with that you think you got her pregnant?” Cordelia asked, snobbily.

“Hey!” Xander said. “You don’t even know… don’t… I… it wasn’t…”

“Me,” Willow shouted, trying to shove her way through the crowd to Xander’s side. The startled crowd parted for her.

“Willow,” Xander said. “Don’t. It’s not –”

“Only we haven’t been sleeping together,” Willow continued defiantly. “I was too afraid to get it myself, and I asked Xander to, and he did it, so if you want to berate him for something, berate him for being a good friend. And for helping me deal with important, life changing events. I might be nervous about that, but I stopped being afraid of you a long time ago, Cordelia Chase.”

“Oh, yeah, right!” Cordelia said. “You’re just trying to protect him, just like you two always do. If you needed a pregnancy test, just who have *you* been sleeping with?”

“With her boyfriend,” said a voice from the back of the crowd. Everyone turned to look, and Oz walked up and wrapped his arm around Willow’s waist. He turned to face Cordelia, who looked like she was about to tear into him as well. Oz raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m protecting him?”

With those words, Cordelia deflated. “Fine,” she said. “Just so long as *everyone* knows that I never did it with you, Harris.”

“I’m sure nobody thinks you would ever lower yourself that much, Cor,” Xander said.

Cordelia glared at him, and looked like she wanted to start tearing into him again, but the crowd was already beginning to disperse, and thus, her reason for the public admonition. Cordelia pursed her lips, but nodded sharply and walked away, leaving, for all intents and purposes, Xander, Willow and Oz standing in the hall in an *extremely* awkward silence.

“Okay,” Xander said. “Oz, I owe you an explanation.”

“It’s cool,” Oz said.

“No,” said Xander. “You just put yourself on the line for me, and you deserve to know why.” Oz opened his mouth to interrupt again, but Xander continued speaking. “Even if you really only did it for Willow, that’s enough for me. You’ve earned the right to the truth.”

Oz nodded. Xander told him. Oz blinked, shrugged, and wished him good luck. Xander looked at his watch and cursed. He was going to be late. Faith was going to kill him.

Oz raised an eyebrow. “Need a ride?”

***

“Don’t be nervous,” Xander said. They had just checked in at the doctor’s office. When the nurse had asked for his insurance information, Xander had flashed the money Giles gave him and told the man why he was there. The nurse looked at the cash, checked a quick pricing chart, and pointed Xander and Faith to the waiting room. He had been leering at Faith the whole time.

“How the fuck can I not be nervous?” Faith hissed. A few other women in the room looked up at her sharply, and Faith, who knew how to deal with men of any age, but was not quite sure how to deal with older women, tried to hide behind her hair.

“Don’t pay attention to them, young lady,” said a very pregnant woman sitting across from the pair. She had a distinct southern accent. “Those hags are just jealous that you haven’t lost your figure, and that you’ve got such a fine lookin’ young man here with you. I bet half of ‘em would give up their chosen suitor for such a virile young specimen. Hell, I would, except it’d break poor Leon’s heart all to pieces, and I could never do that to my Leon.”

Xander blushed a little, but couldn’t help smiling.

“How far along are you?” Xander asked.

“Oh, I reckon I’m about seven and a half months,” she said. “I’m a pro at this. Leon’s at home now, with the other kids.” The woman reached into her bag, pulled out a wallet and started flipping through it. She pulled out a picture and handed it to Xander.

“These are my babies,” she said. “On the left is Joanne, she’s the oldest, she’s 4. Next is Jamie, he’s two, and next to him is my Leon. I’m Irma, by the way.”

“I’m Xander,” Xander said. “And this is Faith.” He looked her way. Faith was staring at the Irma’s stomach. “Hey, you okay?”

Faith turned her head slowly to him, her eyes still wide. “Am I gonna look… like that?”

Irma smiled. “Honey, you’re young. And you look lucky, so you’ll probably get your figure back. I did, after my first. Not that my figure was much to look at in the first place, but Leon liked it well enough.”

Xander smiled, and handed the picture back to Irma. “You have a beautiful family. Does your latest have a name, yet?”

“Not yet,” Irma said. “We’re lookin’ to keep up with the J names – it’s our favorite letter. Anyway, we haven’t looked to see if I’m carrying a boy or a girl, yet, so we can’t pick. We want to be surprised.”

Faith looked up. “How about Jesse?” she suggested. Xander looked at her in surprise.

“Hmm,” Irma said. “You know, that name’s not half bad. We could use it for either a boy or a girl… Sugar, you just might be on to something.”

“Harris?” called the nurse. Xander and Faith looked up and saw the young man waving a clipboard, beckoning them forward. They looked at each other. Xander saw fear in Faith’s eyes, and hoped, for her sake, that she didn’t see the same in his.

He wasn’t sure, though, because he was scared shitless.

Nine

“Okay,” said the doctor. His name was something like – oh, right. Mendes. It was right there on his name tag. “Well, we’ll send the blood to the lab, and we should have the results back in a few days. We’ll give you a call.”

Faith nodded.

“What’s a few?” Xander asked. He was standing beside her, and had been doing most of the talking. Faith was just staring at the little vial of blood that rested on her chart. A small glass jar that held the key, that would predict how her future would go.

The doctor smiled reassuringly, and Faith felt a little better. Which was odd. That stuff didn’t usually affect her. What if it was because the pregnancy was starting to mess with her hormones?

“Probably four at the most,” the doctor said. “Usually two or three, though. Nervous?”

Faith and Xander nodded in unison.

“Well,” Dr. Mendes said, “that’s perfectly natural. Every couple is usually nervous about their first. And, you two aren’t even the youngest we’ve had, you’re at least old enough to take care of yourselves. I had a girl in here last month, she was fourteen years old. And she didn’t know who the father was.” He shook his head. “She had a couple of parents who could help her, though. They were pretty loaded. I get the feeling you two aren’t that lucky?”

Faith and Xander shook their heads. “My parents… well, they don’t know we’re here,” Xander said. “Not that they’d help if they did. Not like they could if they wanted to.”

Dr. Mendes nodded sympathetically, and looked to Faith for her explanation. She looked down at the ground. “Gone,” she said, simply. “Better off, too.”

Dr. Mendes looked at Xander questioningly. Xander simply shrugged.

“Well,” Dr. Mendes said, “there’s really no need to plan ahead yet, not until we get these results back.” He waved them along behind him, and they followed. “And don’t worry. I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.”

“Thanks, Doctor,” Xander said. Faith felt him move to encircle her waist with his arm, but he pulled away before making contact. The doctor put Faith’s chart and her blood sample down on the nurse’s desk.

“We’ll call you in a few days,” Mendes said, before returning to his office. Faith stood idly by as Xander paid the nurse in cash for the visit and the lab work. She allowed Xander to lead her out the door. As they were leaving, a man in a leather coat and a fedora bumped into Faith.

“Sorry,” the guy said, in a fairly heavy New York accent, and a tone that didn’t sound apologetic at all. “My fault.”

Xander nodded, and Faith followed him back to her apartment. She didn’t see the man in the fedora whistle his way into the doctor’s office, and she certainly didn’t see him pull a vial of blood from his shirt pocket and slip quietly and stealthily behind the nurse’s desk when nobody was watching.

***

Willow was pacing. She didn’t usually pace, but she was nervous. More nervous than normal. Not that she was normally nervous, it was just that, when she got nervous, she wasn’t usually as nervous as this, and sometimes she got pretty nervous, especially when there was a prophecy or a particularly nasty demon.

Or that time at Christmas she had basically thrown herself at Oz. That one probably trumped this. Only just barely, though.

The elevator dinged, and Xander and Faith stepped out into the hallway. Xander looked somewhat relieved to see her. Faith just looked drained.

“How did it go?” Willow asked, wringing her wrists as Faith unlocked her door.

“Fine,” Faith said. She opened the door, and Willow and Xander both followed her in.

“What did the doctor say?” Willow asked.

“Your basic stuff,” Xander said. “How long has it been since her… you know… and how long since we… and a few other things. He said we should have the results by Friday at the latest.”

“Good,” Willow said. “That’s good. I-I talked to Buffy. Not about this… well, not directly, but… anyway, the point is, she said she misses her period occasionally, too. Sometimes by as much as two months. She just doesn’t worry about pregnancy, though, because… no sex. I guess the Slayer thing really does mess with your physiology. Anyway, I just thought… ray of hope.”

“How’d you pass it off?” Xander asked. He looked worried about Faith, who looked pale.

“Uh… I said I read about it in a Watcher’s Diary, and was wondering if it happened to her,” Willow said. “I’m pretty sure she believed me.”

Faith nodded, distractedly. “Are you okay?” Willow asked her.

Faith looked up at her, her eyes wide and her skin pale. Her lips had lost almost all of their color. “I could be pregnant,” she whispered. “I swore to myself I wasn’t gonna be like her, but here I am. Seventeen and knocked up, no education… no job, a lifestyle that’s gonna put me in an early grave. And now I might got a kid on the way.”

“I think that you—”

“No,” Faith said, rising to her feet. She rushed into her room and started throwing some clothes into a bag. “This isn’t going to happen.”

Willow and Xander followed her into the bedroom. “Where are you going?” Xander asked.

“I – no, this can’t happen,” Faith said. She continued stuffing things into the bag. “I’m not gonna be like her. I won’t.” She went to the dresser, pulled one drawer all the way out of its slot and grabbed a wad of cash that was taped to the back of it.

“Wait, you can’t leave,” Willow said.

“Oh yeah?” Faith asked. “Watch me.”

“Where are you going to go?” Xander asked.

“Away,” Faith said. “It’s not the ‘to’ that’s important, it’s the ‘from.’”

“Faith,” Willow said.

“You can’t stop me,” she said, as she bolted from the room.

“You can’t run from this,” Willow called after her, as she left the apartment.

“She seems to be doing a pretty good job,” Xander muttered.

“You can’t out run something like this,” Willow yelled, chasing her down the hall, Xander a step behind her. “And if you leave now, you’ll just be dealing with it alone!”

Faith pulled up in her tracks at the elevator.

“What the hell do you think I’m doing now?” she asked, rapidly pressing the call button for the elevator.

“Gee, I don’t know, running from the people who are trying to help you?” Willow said. “Yeah, that’s a great idea when you’re pregnant. Leave behind anybody who wants to help, leave the guy who ate his pride and asked Giles for money, who has been trying to help you since this started. Yeah, leave behind the guy who is the father of your child. Who will still be the father of your child, even if the kid gets born in some back-alley slum.”

“This isn’t about him!” Faith yelled.

“Of course it’s not about him, it’s about the baby!” Willow replied. “That baby in you is half Xander, and if you think I’m going to miss a chance to spoil Xander’s kid rotten, you’ve got another think coming! It’s going to get the best care money can provide. The Scoobies are going to be here for you on this. We take care of our own. Not always in the best ways, or the smartest, but we sure as heck don’t give up. We are going to help you, Faith, and you’re just going to have to deal with it. You’re not alone in this, and you’re not going to be, so quit spazzing out like a scaredy-Slayer and go back to the apartment!”

Willow could see Xander trying to hide a smile, and realized she had inadvertently gone ‘resolve face’ on Faith. Faith stood there, almost in a state of shock. Willow guessed that girls didn’t usually have the courage to stand up to her, partly because she had the ‘bad girl’ vibe, and partly because of the hotness.

And now Willow had chewed her out twice in as many days. That had to be at least a little impressive.

“Come on,” Xander said softly, reaching out to take the bag from Faith. His hand wrapped over hers, and drew her eyes down to the connection. Faith released the bag, and Xander’s hand, then looked at Willow. She nodded once, and followed Xander back to the apartment.

***

“You know,” Xander said, “we don’t even know for sure that she’s pregnant.” Faith was lacking energy, and had gone to bed for a quick nap before patrol, leaving Xander and Willow to, presumably, let themselves out. They hadn’t, yet.

“Xander,” Willow said, “do you know how rare it is for those tests to give a false positive? False negatives, sure, not often, but occasionally. False positives are… they pretty much don’t happen.”

“Yeah, but this is the Hellmouth,” Xander said. “Anything can happen.”

“Xander, the Hellmouth doesn’t change biology.”

“So, being an invisible girl is biologically normal? Or, you know, the swim team turning into fish people? Or lycanthropy?”

“Okay fine,” Willow said. “So the Hellmouth does mess with biology. But still, it’s really rare! The odds are… astronomical.”

Xander shrugged. “I’m just saying… it’s not a sure thing.”

“I think you’re better off assuming that it is,” Willow said. “It’s not something you want to be caught unprepared for.”

Xander sighed. “I know. But, even if she is pregnant, it’ll still be, like…”

Willow smiled at him. “Just under eight months. Which means –”

“December,” Xander said, his voice full of awe. “I could be a father by December. Faith could be a mother by December. Jesus.”

“Jesus?” Willow asked. “Xander, I don’t think there was anything immaculate about this conception.”

Xander laughed, a smile returning to his face. Willow smiled proudly at him.

“Anyway, don’t you think it would make sense to start planning now?”

Xander nodded silently.

“Okay,” Willow said, gathering her things. “Well, come on. My mom has a list of local doctors, and ratings based on patient inquiries. We can try to choose at least a few, and then Faith can decide once you’re, you know, sure.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “But, I’ll drop by later. After patrol. If that’s okay.”

“Why?” Willow asked.

Xander shrugged and looked at the door to Faith’s bedroom. “I want to be here when she wakes up.”

Willow looked confused. “Why?”

Xander looked up at her very sincerely, and said, “Because it’s time that somebody was.”

***

Faith lay in her bed. She wasn’t asleep. They thought they were being quiet, but they weren’t. Not to a Slayer. With her eyes closed, facing away from the door, she knew exactly where in the apartment they were, what they were saying, what direction they were facing… how hard the soles of their shoes were.

And she would never admit it to anybody, but her eyes were wet. Willow, who had no reason at all to like her – had in fact made it clear that she didn’t – was doing everything she could to make sure the child Faith was carrying – and Faith was sure, now, that she was carrying it – would be cared for. Would, in fact, have every possible advantage they could muster.

And Xander… what the hell was his deal? ‘Because it’s time that somebody was?’ People didn’t talk like that. People didn’t even think like that, but Willow had just accepted it, like that was the way that he was.

And she knew him better than anybody alive or dead, even including his parents. Not that that surprised her, of course. Her mom hadn’t known shit about her, and Faith had never met her dad. Some doped up loser with just enough blow to get her mom high, if the old lady wasn’t lying.

No reason she should lie, though. She’d never exactly been one for painting pretty pictures out of life, just hanging on long enough to find a guy who’d pay the rent. Faith had been looking after herself since she was seven, and until she’d met Linda, her first watcher. It had taken a while, but she knew Linda had genuinely cared for her.

And then Linda had died. That son-of-a-bitch Kakistos had done… what he’d done, and Faith had just run away. To Sunnydale. Determined not to care about anyone, nor let anybody care about here.

And now here was this guy who said shit like “Because it’s time that somebody was.” Whose best friend in the entire world just accepted that he thought like that. Same best friend which had very recently claimed that the guy in question was starting to fall for Faith.

For the second time in as many hours, Faith was afraid. And not afraid because of something that was real, but because of something that might be. A what-if. What if she was pregnant? But then, people were going to help her deal with that. The other what-if was truly terrifying.

Here was a guy, a good guy – if such a thing existed – who by the only account that mattered was genuinely attracted to her, and the scary part was… what? She was attracted to him? That wasn’t it. Sure, he was pretty nice to look at, and not half-bad in bed – could be a real tiger with some practice – but attracted? To him? Not in any serious way, certainly. So what was so scary?

The possibility, she decided. What if… what if she did become attracted to him? She was trying this new thing of being honest with herself, and the truth was, she wasn’t attracted to him. But she could be. If he kept hanging around, if he kept doing that sort of half-smiling thing every time he got her to laugh, if he kept being an honest-to-God nice guy who seemed to genuinely care?

How could she not at least consider it?

“Okay,” she heard Xander say. “Well, keep the balcony open. I’ll be by after patrol.”

“Okay,” Willow said as she opened the apartment door. “And listen…”

“Yeah?”

“I just… be careful, okay?”

“On patrol? Come on, I’ll be with two Slayers.”

“No, I mean… with…”

Faith heard the floor creak as Xander shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He had turned toward her bedroom door.

“Why would you say –” he started to ask.

“Because I know you. And I know… how you work. I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying… be careful. Please?”

“I don’t think anything…. Okay, Will. I’ll be… careful.”

A second later, Willow shut the door behind her, leaving Xander alone in Faith’s apartment. He walked over and… Jesus. He was doing her dishes. Faith honestly wasn’t sure what to think. After the dishes, he sat on her couch and watched television.

An hour later, after lying on her bed the entire time, practicing her own form of voyeurism and introspection, Faith was once again ready to face the day. Night. Whatever.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Xander greeted her as she left her room. “How was the power nap?”

“Good,” she said. “Where’s Red?”

“Had to go home,” Xander said. “Homework and stuff. She’s a brainy one.” As if Faith didn’t know the truth. He didn’t really tell her why Willow was leaving, so why should she tell him she already knew? Right?

Bullshit.

“How come you’re still here?”

Xander shrugged, and turned back to the TV. Faith walked over behind him. “Hey,” she said, causing him to turn around and look up at her. “How come you’re still here?”

Xander looked into her eyes, and she had to stop her self from shivering. “You looked shaken up earlier,” he said. When did his voice get so calm and reassuring? “I thought you could use a friend.”

Faith looked at him for a moment, before getting a glass of water to wet her suddenly dry throat. “So,” she said. “You wanna grab some food before patrol?”

“Sure,” Xander said. He hopped up from the couch and turned the TV off. He smiled at her warmly. “Wherever you want to go. My treat.”

Faith nodded, grabbed her keys and led him out of the apartment. They were going to get food, she thought. What then?

Ten

The next day was a dreary, rainy day; an oddity for Sunnydale, which lived up to its name just about all year. It pretty much suited Buffy’s mood perfectly. First, it had done absolutely nothing for her hair. That much moisture in the air was never a good thing.

Anyway, Faith was hiding something from her. That wasn’t so big a deal though. Sure, they were both Slayers. And sure, she had had a connection with Faith like she never did with Kendra, and the pair of them had on occasion gotten along like gangbusters. But she truthfully wasn’t *that* close to Faith, so it wasn’t that big a deal.

But Xander was hiding something from her, too, and the last time that had happened, Willow had ended up broken-hearted. She knew, of course, that whatever it was they were hiding, they were hiding it together. They were around each other too much lately for it to be anything else. Plus, they had each been talking each other more than normal, until they had just stopped talking about each other at all.

It was suspicious. But, Buffy supposed she just had to trust that whatever it was Xander and Faith were hiding, they were doing their best not to hurt anybody.

It really sucked, though, because Buffy hated being left out of the loop, almost as much as she hated waiting for people. Patience and secrets: her two greatest pet peeves. Well, not counting evil gypsies who ensured that for the foreseeable future, her only form of ‘entertainment’ would come from that pulsing shower head that…

And why had those rumors about Xander and the girl’s basketball team popped up, and then suddenly stopped? And why had Larry been so completely dismissive of them? And since when did he stop trying to look down her shirt? Was there something wrong with her boobs, all of a sudden, that they weren’t good enough to ogle?

Not that she wanted Larry, of all people, ogling her, but that sort of thing sometimes made a girl feel nice about herself. When it wasn’t all dirty, anyway.

“Hey, Buff,” Willow said. She had just walked into the library, her hair not-at-all frizzy, somewhat to Buffy’s jealous dismay.

“Xander and Faith are hiding something,” was Buffy’s immediate reply.

“Did you do something different with your hair?” Willow asked, squinting her eyes at the blonde Slayer.

“No,” Buffy said, immediately on the defensive. “It’s this stupid rain.”

“Oh,” Willow said. “My hair’s never really done that. Although, it’s kind of naturally flat. Just like the rest of me.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Buffy said. “You’ve got a great figure. You’re so thin, and okay, maybe not the biggest, but I know people who would kill for a body like yours.”

Willow sighed. “I guess.”

“And hey,” Buffy said, trying to cheer up her friend. “Oz doesn’t seem to be complaining.”

Willow grinned a shy, yet sly smile. “No,” she said. “He doesn’t.”

Buffy looked at Willow inquisitively, her mind as far from the Xander and Faith conspiracy as it could be. “And how much doesn’t he complain?” Buffy asked.

“I don’t know if I should –”

“What’s up?”

Buffy and Willow looked up as Faith strolled in. Willow seemed, to Buffy’s eyes, to deflate a little. But that wasn’t important.

“Hi, Faith!” Buffy said. Oh God, was that too obvious? “What’s going on?”

Faith shrugged. “Thought it was time to check in.”

“That makes sense,” Willow said. “You know, because you haven’t been here. In a while.”

“Right,” Faith said. She sent a small smile Willow’s way. What was that about, Buffy wondered. Willow and Faith never got along. And why had Faith stuck up for Willow the other day? Okay, it was a good thing in the end, but since when did she care? Was Willow in on the ‘keep Buffy out of it’ loop? What was going on here?

“So,” Buffy said. “I’ve been wondering –”

“Oh, hey,” Willow interrupted. “Sorry, Buff. Faith, did Xander tell you that… thing? About the, uh, probabilities?”

“Yeah,” Faith said. “But not ‘til later.”

Willow nodded. “Good. You needed to know that.”

Faith nodded back at her.

“Okay,” Buffy said, her voice abnormally loud. “What the hell is going on here?”

“What?” Faith asked.

“You guys!” Buffy said. “You’re… talking in code! You’re, you know… friendly-ish! What’s going on?”

“What?” Faith snapped. “I can’t talk to people now? The great-and-wonderful Buffy has to dictate everything about everyone’s life?”

“No, but you two are being weird! And Xander, too! And it’s raining, and my hair is messed up, and everybody knows things but me!” Buffy sulked for a minute, switching between glaring at Faith and staring at Willow. When Willow opened her mouth to speak, but quickly looked to Faith for approval, it was too much for Buffy. She ran out of the library in a huff.

“Buffy!” she heard Willow call behind her. She ran around the corner and stayed there, waiting for what she hoped would be a Willow chasing her. She felt momentarily guilty about spazzing out like a drama queen.

But hell, it was that time of the month. She couldn’t be held responsible.

***

“What the hell’s up her ass?” Faith asked.

Willow frowned. “I should go after her,” she said.

“Yeah?” Faith asked. “And tell her what?” She didn’t want Buffy to know. If Queen B was that freaked about her talking to Willow, how’d she feel about Faith doin’ the deed with Xander? Probably run away again.

“I’ll make something up,” Willow said. She grabbed her bag and ran out of the room.

“Whatever,” Faith said. She kicked her feet up on the table.

“Feet,” Giles said as he walked into the library, reading a newspaper. Faith grudgingly removed said feet from the table. “Good afternoon, Faith. How are you doing?”

“Not bad, G,” she said. “Yourself?”

“I’m quite well, thank you. How are you liking your apartment?”

“It’s tight,” Faith said. Now that she was getting the hang of it a little, talking with the Scoobs – who for some reason seemed genuinely interested in her life – wasn’t that hard.

“Excellent,” Giles said. “Was there anything in particular you came in about?”

“Nah,” Faith said. “Thought it was time to check in. See what’s the what.”

Giles rolled his eyes. “An appalling expression. You have been spending far too much time with Xander.”

Faith chuckled nervously. Giles didn’t know anything. He was just talking about words. But wait, she was starting to sound like Xander? That wasn’t good. People might start to suspect things. Which, she reminded herself, probably wouldn’t be an issue for much longer. Once she started to show – and she was happy it would be really obvious, being a Slayer kept her body in almost disgustingly good shape (read: she was really hot) – they’d all know what was going on.

“Wesley should be here soon,” Giles said. “But I have some work to do. If you need anything, or, for some reason, just feel the need to talk, I’ll be in my office.”

“Cool,” Faith said. As soon as Giles was out of sight, her feet went back up on the table. She quickly got bored, and was considering leaving again when Oz walked in.

“Hey,” Oz said with a nod.

Faith nodded back at him, and Oz sat down across from her.

“You know, I heard this rumor,” Oz said. Faith looked up. Oz almost never spoke. “Apparently, Xander got, like, the whole girl’s basketball team pregnant?”

“You believe that shit?”

Oz shook his head. “Not much for gossip.”

Faith nodded.

“Thing is, though, the rumor started because someone saw him buying a home pregnancy test.”

“So?” Faith asked. What the hell? Oz was hinting at something. But Red wouldn’t have told, she was sure about that. Willow was too afraid of losing Xander’s friendship to do that. And that only left one person. She knew that whole ‘good guy’ thing was just an act. What a bastard.

“Just thought you might find that interesting.”

Faith shrugged as casually as she could. “Don’t see why I should care.”

Oz nodded, and cocked his head to one side. “You look angry.”

“Why the hell would I be angry?”

“I just thought since you slept with him and all, you might have some interest.”

“I knew it!” Faith said. She was trying to keep her voice low, because she didn’t want Giles to hear. “I knew that son-of-a-bitch wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.”

“The thing is,” Oz said, “there was apparently another rumor that he had gotten Cordelia pregnant. She kind of confronted him with it, in front of a group of students.”

Faith kept getting angrier. That would be just what the ass wanted. More people who he could tell about how he banged the hot girl.

“Thing is, he didn’t say a word. Wouldn’t tell anybody who he slept with.” Faith was surprised. But he probably –

“So then Will steps in and is like ‘He bought that for me and Oz.’ Which, imagine my surprise. Because, that’s something which I’m pretty sure I’d remember.”

Faith knew that her mouth was open in shock. She wanted to close it, she really did. It just wouldn’t shut, though. Willow had done that? And Xander had gone along with it? He was willing to let his best friend ruin her reputation in the school because…

Because what? Because she didn’t want people to know she’d had sex with Xander? What did she care, it wasn’t like he was her first. What the hell was so different about him – other than the pregnancy – that made her care if people knew?

“Anyway,” Oz said, standing from the table. “Just thought you might find that interesting. If you see Willow, tell her I went to practice.”

Faith nodded idly as Oz left the library.

“Giles!” she called. A few seconds later, the librarian arrived at the door to his office.

“Yes?”

“I’m goin’ home. If you need… something, you got my number.”

“And if Wesley needs something?” Giles asked.

Faith snorted. “Tell him to shove it.”

***

“Faith!” Buffy called out. It had stopped raining, and a little bit of sun was beginning to peek through a crack in the clouds. Buffy’s mood was improved greatly.

“What, B?” Faith asked, her manner clearly indicating she was unhappy.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Buffy said. “I just… you guys have been all secret-y, and everything, and it’s just been weirding me out. Anyway, there’s no reason to be embarrassed about what you’re doing. Willow told me your little secret, and I’m totally on board.”

“You’re…”

“In favor,” Buffy said. She knew Faith hadn’t had the easiest life, and didn’t really like school that much. But she was trying to do something normal, and Buffy totally got that. Plus, if they did live longer than they had any right to (and really, Buffy already had… with just the one little hitch), then a GED could open up all kinds of doors for Faith. “In fact, if you need help studying, or wanna do flash cards or something during patrol, I’m all over it.”

“Study?” Faith asked.

“You know, for the GED!” Buffy said. Faith obviously was having a brain-fart.

“Right,” Faith said. “The GED. Which Willow is helping me study for.”

“And Xander,” Buffy said.

“Right,” said Faith. “Xander, too.”

“Anyway,” Buffy said, “I just wanted to say that you’re doing a good thing, and I’m sorry about earlier.”

“It’s cool,” Faith said. “Listen, I gotta head. I’ll catch ya later.”

Buffy waved at Faith’s departing form. Things, Buffy decided, were looking very much better than they had been twenty minutes earlier.

A huge crack of thunder boomed its way through the courtyard as lightning flashed across the sky. Buffy looked up just as rain started to pour from the sky in buckets.

‘Well,’ Buffy thought, as she looked down at her now soaked-through-to-transparency thin white blouse, which was showing off quite well the fact that the air temperature was chilly, ‘at least boys will be looking at me.’

***

“Just my luck,” Buffy said. She was strolling through a graveyard, with Angel at her side. “Rains all day, and cuts out just in time for patrol through muddy graveyards.”

“Could be worse,” Angel said. He pointed out a large puddle of mud so Buffy could avoid it. “You could be wearing heels.”

“You’d just love that, wouldn’t you?” Buffy asked. “All pushing my hips back and my chest forward. You’re just a slave to your inner demon.”

“Funny,” Angel said, looking down at her. Buffy looked deep in thought, which didn’t happen often unless something from her personal – by which he meant daytime – life was bothering her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “Why?”

“You seem off, a little. Something bothering you?”

“Nothing big,” Buffy said, with just enough of a sigh at the end that Angel knew he should pursue the topic more.

“Are you sure?” he asked, placing his hand on the small of her back. “Because you can talk to me about anything, you know. Even if it seems silly.”

Buffy smiled up at him. Angel loved those smiles. There were days when Buffy’s smiles were about all that kept him going.

“It’s just, it’s stupid. I just… Faith’s getting her GED, which is great. It is. She’s trying to do something with her life, something outside of the slaying. Which I’m pretty sure is like a *huge* step for her, because she’s been so convinced we’re going to die young.”

“But…” Angel prompted.

“But how come she has to study using my friends?”

Angel did his best not to show any emotion – a skill he was well practiced in.

“See?” Buffy said, looking right at him. “You think I’m being selfish.”

Apparently, the practice had not paid off. “A little,” he said. “Buffy, you said yourself she’s doing something good. And Willow’s probably one of the most intelligent kids in your school. It’s only natural…”

“I know,” Buffy said. “And I know I’m in no danger of losing their friendship or anything… it’s just, the last time Faith and them were really friendly, it was like she was almost stealing my life, sort of.”

“There’s no danger of that, Buffy,” Angel said, swiping aside a few strands of her hair and tucking them behind her ear. He lifted her chin up so she was looking at him. “Your friends all love you. You’re not going to lose them any time soon.”

“Discounting Hell on Earth and horrible, painful death,” Buffy said.

“Right,” Angel said. “But those you can handle.”

Buffy smiled gratefully at him, warming his heart as only her smiles could. Literally. Angel leaned down and pressed a soft but deeply felt kiss to her lips.

“Mmm,” Buffy said. “You do manage to make things better.”

“It’s what I’m here for,” Angel said. He paused. “Who else is helping her study? Besides Willow, I mean.”

“What? Oh. Xander is.”

“Xander, really?” Angel asked. That he had not suspected.

“Yeah,” Buffy said, a little defensively. “Why? Xander can sometimes do okay in school.”

“It’s not that,” Angel said. “I just didn’t know he was helping her study. I thought they were just sleeping together.”

Buffy walked face first into a crypt.

***

Willow was awoken by an incessant knocking at her balcony doors. Rubbing her eyes, she wondered what crisis it was that Xander needed help with now.

“Willow!” said the harshly whispered voice from outside. What was Buffy doing here?

“Buffy?” Willow asked. She pulled her robe on and opened the doors, letting her friend inside. “What’s going on?”

Buffy was pacing back and forth in her room, now, as Willow shut the doors. She let her friend – who had graciously left her muddy shoes on the balcony – pace as much as she wanted. Unlike Xander, Buffy could not be rushed into declarations of things gone wrong.

“You need to sit down,” Buffy said. Willow dutifully sat upon her own bed, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “It’s just… this is important.”

“Oh, god, you didn’t sleep with Angel again, did you?” she asked.

“What?” Buffy asked, clearly offended. “No! I’m not… no.”

Willow nodded. What Buffy had to say, then, probably wouldn’t be that bad.

“I didn’t know if I should talk to you about this,” Buffy said. “But… well, I really can’t talk to anybody else. And I don’t want you to freak out. Promise me you won’t freak out.”

“Uh… asking things like that? Not so conducive to the lack of freaking.”

“Sorry,” Buffy said. “You remember, um, those years where you were in love with Xander?”

“Uh huh,” Willow said, with absolutely no idea where this was leading.

“Well, I know you’re all… with Oz, now. But… are you over him?”

“Oz?”

“Xander.”

“Oh,” Willow said, still entirely clueless. “Yeah. I am.” And immediately, she knew it was true. She hadn’t been thinking about him, only about the baby, and Faith, and their lives and what might happen, and somehow, all of that had gotten her over Xander.

“Really and truly?” Buffy asked.

“Uh huh,” Willow said, attempting to keep her joy at this fact out of her voice. “Totally.”

“Good,” Buffy said, dropping to her knees in front of Willow. “Because I couldn’t keep this to myself.”

“Buffy, what is it?” Willow asked.

“Faith and Xander are having sex!”

“Who told you?” Willow asked. She immediately regretted her answer, and showed it with a grimace.

“You knew?” Buffy yelled. Willow quickly shushed her, afraid that her parents would hear. “You knew and you didn’t tell me?”

Buffy looked more hurt than anything.

“I knew,” Willow said. “And I would have told you. I would have, but he swore me to secrecy. I wasn’t even allowed to tell Oz.”

“But –”

“You remember when I had said I didn’t think I was being a very good friend?” Willow asked. Buffy nodded. “Well… I found out after that. It was a chance to… to get closer to my Xander-friend again. I couldn’t not.”

Buffy relaxed. “Well, that’s okay, I guess. How did you deal?”

“Not great,” Willow said. “But… I dealt. It was okay… I mean, not really, it wasn’t. But Xander was great about the whole thing, of how I found out. When he realized I had… issues, he acted a lot more grown up. He really helped me through it, and we’re really bestest best friends again.”

Buffy’s smile looked genuine, and Willow could tell that her own was. “That’s great, Willow,” Buffy said.

“It really is,” said Willow. “I missed him.”

“Okay,” Buffy said. “Well, I won’t say a word. Not even to Xander and Faith.”

“How did you find out?” Willow asked.

“Oh,” said Buffy. “Angel smelled it on them a while ago, and he just told me tonight. Some lame-ass excuse about it not really being anybody’s business.”

“Those vampires and their wacky sense of privacy.”

“I’m really glad you’re okay about all this,” Buffy said.

“So am I,” said Willow, still amazed by the fact that she *was* okay about all this. After a quick goodnight, Willow lay down to sleep, happier than she had been in weeks. And she was deliriously happy Buffy hadn’t asked what the GED was *really* about.

Eleven

The next day of school passed by in a blur. Teachers said things, students said other things, and none of it really sank in. And why, Xander wondered, should it? The SAT’s were past. The colleges had decided who they wanted to invite. It was resoundingly not him, and there was very little he could do, at this point, to even flunk out of high school. The life of a high school Senior on the Hellmouth was not a difficult one. During the day, at least.

Xander was, instead of doing his homework, listing jobs he might get as a high school graduate, so that he could provide for Faith and a baby.

“Hey, Giles?” he called into the ether around him.

“Yes?” came a reply from somewhere behind his head.

“What kind of jobs are out there for a high-school graduate with a low C average?” Xander was vaguely aware of footsteps.

“Worried about the future?” Giles asked.

“More than a little,” he said. “I’ve got some money saved up, but I’m planning to spend that on my road trip. After that, I’ll need a job.”

“Immediately?” Giles asked. “No, um, down time?”

Xander shook his head. “I think you may be operating under the mistaken impression that I can live rent free after high school. No, no. Not for me the life of leisure. I must endeavor to earn the money.”

“I see,” Giles said. He always sounded so sympathetic. Xander wondered for a moment whether that was because of the Watcher training, or just the type of guy Giles was. His eye caught a glimpse of Wesley in Giles’ office and knew instantly it had nothing to do with Watcher training. “Well, there are many careers suitable for a young man such as yourself. What type of job would you like?”

“I don’t know,” Xander said. He paused in thought for a moment. “Something where I don’t have to work much, but they pay me ridiculous amounts of money anyway.”

“Ah yes, those jobs. I hear they’re just giving them out these days. I’ve merely not taken one because I feel a sense of duty to the school.”

“That’s what’s nice about you, Giles,” Xander said, smiling at the older man. “You always were a little naïve. Really, though? I have no idea what kind of job I want.”

“Well, a high school degree opens up any number of doors. I’m certain there’s something out there that will suit you.”

Xander nodded.

“And if that doesn’t work, you could always be a male escort.”

Xander nodded, then looked sharply up at Giles. The librarian shrugged. “Just keeping you on your toes,” he said with a smile, as he retreated back into his office.

“Xander?”

Xander looked up. Willow was calling him from the door to the library. She beckoned for him to follow, and he did, into the halls and out into the quad.

“What’s up, Will?” he asked.

“I thought you should know… Buffy and Angel know you guys had sex.”

“They what?”

“I didn’t tell,” she said, a little defensively.

“I know, Will, you wouldn’t do that. How did they –”

“Angel smelled it a while ago. He didn’t say anything because he didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” she said.

“So what prompted him last night?”

“I don’t know,” Willow said. “But you know how they get.”

“True,” Xander said. “But uh…”

“Buffy didn’t say anything about knowing about the…” Willow looked around and lowered her voice. “About the baby. And she had lots of opportunities to. And she promised she wouldn’t say anything to you or Faith.”

“Good,” he said. “That’s good. How are you doing with all of this?”

Willow looked up at him and smiled brightly. “I’m doing very well, Xander, thank you for asking.”

Xander squinted, and inspected each part of her smile, from her lips to her cheeks to her eyes. He grinned. “Good,” he pronounced. “I’m glad. I couldn’t stand hurting you anymore, Will.”

Willow’s smile grew even larger. “Anyway,” she said. “Have you guys heard anything back yet?”

“Nah,” Xander said. “It’s really too early, still. I’m going over there a little later. You wanna come?”

Willow shook her head. “No, I’ve got some work to do, and I’m going out with Oz later.”

Xander smiled and leaned back on the bench. “What about the GED?”

“What?” Willow asked.

“Well… if Faith and I were sleeping together, does Buffy still think she’s getting a GED?”

“I guess,” Willow said. “I mean, she didn’t say anything about it. And, really, there’s no other reason I should be spending time with Faith.”

Xander nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Well, I’ll explain to Faith later… and hope she doesn’t try to rip my head off.”

Willow smiled at him. “How come… um….”

“Yeah?”

“How come Faith doesn’t want anybody to know? About the baby? Or what you two did?”

“I don’t know,” Xander said. He hadn’t really considered it, but now that he was… it wasn’t making with the happy. “She’s probably embarrassed about it. I mean, you saw the way Cordy reacted.”

“Xander, not everybody would react like Cordelia. I mean, she had a reputation to hold up, and you know what it’s been like for her. Faith doesn’t.”

Xander sighed, and shook his head. “I don’t know, Will. She just… that’s the way it is, and it’s her decision.”

“It’s just… I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“What do you mean?”

”Xander look at me,” Willow said. Xander looked at her. She looked very serious. “I want you to listen to my question very seriously, and take sometime to think about it. Okay? It’s important.”

“If it’s important… of course. I owe you that much –”

“No,” Willow said. “You don’t owe me. I’ve done what I’ve done out of friendship and love, and you don’t owe me for any of it. You’d do the same for me, I know you would. This is something you need to do for yourself.”

“Okay,” Xander said.

Willow took a deep breath. “Are you falling for Faith?”

Xander laughed. “Will, don’t be si – ”

“Stop,” Willow said, placing a finger over his lips. “Don’t. Go spend time with her tonight, and do whatever it was you were going to do, and think about it. It’s not something you need to tell me, even. But… you need to know if you’re falling for the mother of your child, and how that might change things.”

“Even if I was…”

“Even if you were, don’t count yourself out,” Willow said, softly. “You never know what effect spending a lot of time with you can have on a girl.”

***

Xander’s visit to Faith’s apartment went more smoothly than he could have hoped. He managed to tell her about Buffy and Angel knowing they had slept together without her biting his head off. In fact, she didn’t even snap, or accuse him. She asked how they knew and when he told her, she just accepted it. He was amazed.

And he was also confused. Xander was thinking about what Willow had said – really trying to figure it out, and it was the damnedest thing. He couldn’t. He was paying attention to the way he acted around Faith, and to be sure, it was different than how he acted around Willow, or around Buffy, or whoever, but not that substantially different.

He also didn’t think he paid excess attention to her, especially considering the situation they were most likely in. He actually wondered if there were more he should be doing, like making sure she didn’t move around a lot, or… or what? Xander had no idea what the hell he was doing.

And, okay, yeah, he might have spent an inordinate amount of time watching her ass, enjoying the way she looked, but, jeez, she was sexy as hell, moved with a confidence and swagger that accentuated every single curve she had, and he was eighteen years old! What was he supposed to do?

But sitting next to her on her couch, watching television, and not really talking, he felt comfortable. And he wasn’t sure what that meant. Because he felt comfortable not talking with Willow, and he had never felt the same comfort with Cordelia. But he had with Buffy, and he knew for damn sure what he had been feeling for her.

“You all right?”

Xander was startled out of his introspection. “Huh?”

Faith shrugged. “Look like something’s buggin’ ya.”

“Oh. Uh. No, I’m good,” he lied. But such things were necessary in these matters. “I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep.”

Faith nodded. “Know what you mean. I can usually operate on like two and a half hours, but lately I’m not even getting that.”

“Worried?”

Faith looked for a moment like she was going to deny even knowing what that word meant, but stopped herself and smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, shit. What do I know about raising a kid? I basically had to raise myself, you know, and it’s not like I did a bang-up job there.”

“Ah, I think you turned out all right,” Xander said.

“Sweet, but you’re not very convincing.”

“No, I mean it. I mean, I don’t know a lot about you… not much at all, really, but I kinda guessed that you didn’t have it easy. And you’re a fairly well adjusted, intelligent, attractive young woman.”

“If I’m your idea of well adjusted,” Faith said, “you’ve maybe got as many issues as I do.”

Xander smiled. “I think, if you just rewind, you’ll find I said ‘fairly’ well adjusted. I don’t think anybody can be on the Hellmouth and be completely well adjusted. As far as Hellmouth residents go, you’re doing pretty well.”

Faith smiled at him, and Xander almost melted. She really didn’t smile often, and man, it was stunning. “Thanks, man,” she said. “I gotta say… the more we chill, the more I think I was wrong about you.”

“Yeah?”

Faith smiled and punched him lightly – for her – in the shoulder. “Yeah,” she said. “You may not be just common scum,” she said with a wink.

“Oh, gee, thanks,” Xander said playfully. “That was such a huge compliment. I can just see it, years down the road. ‘Hey, kid, you know the nicest thing your mom ever said about me? She said I’m not common scum.’”

Faith laughed. “I only said you may not be, not you aren’t.”

“Even better,” Xander laughed, as Faith attempted to smile through a yawn. “And, enter my cue to leave.”

Faith shook her head. “I’m good, it’s cool,” she said.

”Faith, you said yourself that you’re not getting enough sleep. I’ll just let myself out and –”

“You really don’t gotta do –”

“But if you’re not getting any –”

“I can deal with –”

“Why are you so –”

“Because I get lonely!”

Xander shut up, and just looked at her. She was gazing down at her hands, picking at her fingernails. “It’s just,” she said, “I never had a place this size, or anything, and last few days… there’s been people around. And it doesn’t suck, you know? ‘Cept when they’re not here anymore. Turns out once I get a taste of not being a loner… being alone don’t suit me that great.” She laughed harshly. “Guess I’m not who I thought I was.”

“Faith,” Xander said softly, “just because you don’t like being alone doesn’t mean you aren’t you. Nobody likes really being alone, Faith. Not when there’s another option. Unless you’re the Unabomber. You’re not, are you?”

Faith smiled, and looked up at the TV. “I guess you gotta go.”

“I don’t have to be anywhere. I can stay as long as you want. You don’t want to be lonely, you won’t be.”

Faith shook her head. “I’m not good at, um… asking people… you know, for things. But, uh… could you maybe… I dunno…”

Xander smiled. “You want me to couch surf?”

“I mean, unless your parents –”

“Won’t notice a thing,” he said with certainty.

“I just… this place gets too quiet.”

Xander nodded.

“I got a spare blanket…”

“Should be great,” he said. “Unless we get another freak snowstorm.”

Faith smiled, and went to her room to retrieve said blanket, and Xander accepted it silently.

“I guess, uh… I’ll see ya tomorrow,” she said, awkwardly.

“Thanks,” Xander said, looking at the blanket in his hands.

“For what?” Faith asked.

Xander looked up at her, saw her fear, her strength, her passion and her insecurity, and smiled. “For trusting me.”

Faith said nothing. She nodded and turned on her heel, shutting the door to her bedroom behind her. Xander clicked the television off, stripped to his boxers and settled into the couch, thinking about everything that had happened within the last few minutes. She had trusted him with some pretty personal stuff. He had joked about having a kid with her. He had shared some fairly personal stuff with her.

And the entire time she was talking, he couldn’t stop looking at her lips.

“Damn,” he said to himself. “I hate it when Willow’s right.”

***

“I can’t stay here after this.”

“I understand, of course,” Giles said. “If we pull this off, he’ll most certainly be looking for you. A witch hunt, no doubt.” He was right, of course. It was unfortunate, but there was no way out of it. If they did indeed manage to steal the box of Gavrok out from under the mayor’s nose, Richard Wilkins would no doubt be furious, and would spare no one in his search for the traitor. Alan Finch, deputy mayor and current inhabitant of his office couch, would have to be protected.

“I’m glad you understand, Mr. Giles,” Finch said. He looked nervous. It was any wonder the man had the courage to come forward, but it was the best of luck that he had, as there had been no inkling of what the mayor would do, only that it would be bad. “Do you have any idea of how…”

“I might call on an ally of ours to… remove you to a safer location,” Giles said. “He’s very reliable. You would, of course, have to travel by night.”

“You mean the vampire,” Finch said.

Giles nodded. He did indeed intend to ask Angel to protect this man, or at least find someone who could. There was nobody else who could get away, unless Wesley could be convinced, an idea that was so unlikely as to not be worth attempting.

“Stay here,” Giles said. “I’ll find someone to protect you for the moment, and we’ll get you out of town tonight.”

“Thank you,” Finch said. Giles nodded curtly at the man and stepped into the library proper, behind the desk where the phone stood. He hoped that Faith would not scoff at protecting the man whom she had almost slain. Giles was grateful for Xander’s timely intervention, remembering how Buffy had felt before they discovered her mother’s boyfriend was a robot.

‘Good lord,’ Giles thought to himself as he dialed Faith’s apartment. ‘Women dating robots. I really must get off the Hellmouth more often.’

After the third ring, a surprisingly deep voice grumbled into the phone. “Whozzit?”

“I’m sorry,” Giles said. “I um… appear to have dialed –”

“Giles?”

Giles recognized the voice that time. “Xander?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

“Uh… yeah. Yeah probably. Whuz going on?” The young man was very obviously not awake yet.

“I was looking for Faith. Must have dialed your number by mistake. I’ll just –”

“No, hold on,” Xander said. “She’s in her room. One second.”

Giles was surprised. He had no idea that Xander and Faith were… but then, they were two… almost adults, with stressful lives, and certainly what ever they did with their own time was none of his business. It was possible, however, that Xander had merely ventured to Faith’s apartment as a friend, and had fallen asleep on her couch. And it was also possible that Ethan Rayne had learned his lesson, given up Chaos, and would never return to bother them. The two events were equally likely.

“Giles?” asked a just-waking-up Faith.

“Yes, Faith, glad I caught you in. I have a bit of a situation here at the school, and I was wondering if you might help me with it.”

“Uh, what is it?”

“Mr. Finch has returned, with some rather disturbing information. We feel his life may be in danger, and I was hoping you could protect him until tonight.”

“Babysitting duty. Got it. We’ll be there soon.” Faith hung up.

They would be here soon, Giles thought as he placed the phone back in the cradle. The ease with which Faith identified herself and Xander as a pair was a little startling. Giles thought he had been doing quite well in keeping straight the intricacies of who was dating whom, who had crushes on whom, and who loathed who, although he would never, ever admit it.

This pairing surprised him, and so soon after Xander and Cordelia had – but really, it wasn’t that soon. In the eyes of an eighteen-year-old boy, three or four months was practically a lifetime. And Xander had always shown attraction to strong women, of which Faith was definitely one. Faith had, on the other hand, rarely been cared for by anybody. And if there was one thing Xander was accomplished at, it was making people feel cared for, and actually caring for them.

Perhaps, he thought as he re-entered his office to question Mr. Finch again, their relationship was not so surprising after all.

***

“Buffy,” Angel said, “it’s for the best. I’m the only one who can do it.”

Xander was impressed, a rare occurrence, especially when it came to Angel. God only knew how long this trip would take, and while it hadn’t been his idea, Angel had been on board from the start. Now they just had to convince Buffy.

“Look, I know it needs to be done,” Buffy said. “But how come –”

“Because,” Giles said, for what was, if Xander had counted correctly, the fifth time, “we are all needed here. Angel, while absolutely a valuable asset, is the only one with the leisure to make such a trip.”

“How come we can’t just keep him here?”

“In the library? Does anybody read that much?” Xander asked. Stupid question, but he could tell Buffy was starting to get frustrated.

Giles and Willow smiled at him, and Faith raised a single eyebrow in his direction.

”In Sunnydale, not the library,” Buffy said. But she was pouting now, which was better than frustrated. “I don’t like it.”

“Buffy,” Angel started.

”How come Wesley can’t do it?” she interrupted.

“I very much doubt the council would approve of him leaving his charges,” Giles said. “And Wesley is nothing if not obedient to the wishes of the council.”

“But –”

“Buffy,” Willow said. “I think you have to face it. The only person who can get Mr. Finch out of town, to safety, is Angel. Everyone else has a reason to stay.”

“Faith doesn’t!” Buffy said.

Xander and Faith both whipped their heads around to look at Buffy. Willow, too, had her mouth open in reply

“Yes she does,” they all said simultaneously.

Buffy narrowed her eyes. “Oh yeah? What?”

“It’s the thing… that I told you about,” Willow said, cautiously.

“Oh,” Buffy said, deflated. Willow, Faith and Xander let out their breath in relief.

“What is this?” Giles asked.

“It’s noth –” Xander started

“Nah,” Faith said. “It’s okay. I ain’t embarrassed anymore.” Xander and Willow looked at her, surprised. “Thing is, G… Red and Xander have been helpin’ me study for the GED. Test is pretty soon.”

“Really?” Giles asked.

“For a while now,” Xander said. “That’s why I was at Faith’s when you called. I passed out last night, and she just kinda tossed a blanket on me.” Faith nodded in agreement.

“Well… that’s splendid,” Giles said, beaming at Willow, Xander and Faith. They all three exchanged a slightly guilty look, but nodded, nonetheless.

“Buffy,” Angel said, taking her hand. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to leave you, but this has to be done. Mr. Finch has done as much as can be asked, he’s given us a way to stop the mayor the least we can do is make sure he’s safe.”

“How long will he have to be gone?” Buffy asked.

“Well, assuming he drives approximately the speed limit… and only at night… perhaps two weeks. It is a long way to Maine.”

Buffy looked up to Angel, her expression deadly serious. “Drive fast,” she said.

Angel nodded. “Mr. Finch… if you’ll come with me?”

Finch looked up. “Um. I just… please stop him,” he said. “If he transforms… there’ll be no stopping him.”

“We understand,” Giles said. “Now please, you must hurry. Get as far as you can, tonight.”

“Thank you,” Finch said. Angel kissed Buffy passionately, stroked her hair once and smiled at her, then led Finch out through the back.

“What kind of monster will he be?” Buffy asked, still watching the stacks where Angel had left. After a moment, she turned to Giles, eyebrows raised in question.

“A demon,” Giles said. “But, a true demon, different than any we’ve fought.”

“Different how?” Oz asked. He had been silent pretty much the whole time. It stood to reason that it didn’t really matter to him whether Angel went or not, but once they got down to business, so did he.

“Well… I’m not entirely certain. Larger, certainly. Likely… much harder to kill.”

“That’s certainly informative,” Xander said.

“What’s this thing we gotta steal?” Faith asked.

“It’s called a Box of Gavrok,” Giles said. “And we must be especially careful with it. It’s a magical box that contains millions upon millions of mystical spiders that, should they escape, would take great delight in devouring the flesh off of our bones, and anyone else with whom they should come into contact. They would swarm over the Earth and destroy humanity.”

The gang was silent.

“I vote we kill the box,” Oz said, raising one hand. Xander quickly joined him, followed soon after by Faith, Willow and, after a few seconds, Buffy.

“Yes, well, that would be the idea,” Giles said, smiling as the group lowered their arms. “But, as of the moment, we don’t know how to do that. I’m going to be bringing Wesley in tomorrow to figure this out…” Everyone groaned.

“I understand you don’t like him,” Giles said, “but however annoying he may be, he is a proficient researcher, something that will come in useful right now. Does anybody have anything else to add?”

Xander shook his head along with everyone else.

“Good,” Giles said. “Then I believe that’s all for the night. Buffy, Faith, I believe a sweep of the Southern cemeteries will suffice for the night. There are no recent graves in the more northern ones.”

Buffy smiled and nodded, while Faith tossed off a lazy, poorly executed salute.

“And Xander,” Giles said, “if I might have a word.”

The girls and Oz headed out of the library, and Xander waited around. Giles waited until the others had gone, and turned to Xander.

“Your personal life is none of my business,” Giles said. “But I believe we both know that Faith is not in anyway pursuing her GED.”

Xander opened his mouth to protest, but stopped himself and nodded.

“While, as I said, your personal life is not my business, I do wish to… caution you. I have read the journals of Faith’s first Watcher. Faith is a troubled young woman, who I believe may have problems with, well, people.”

“Giles, I –”

“Please, do not take this as a criticism,” Giles said. “Nor as a threat, or anything of the sort. But if you are to pursue a relationship with her, you need to be a stabilizing influence. She has lacked those severely in her life. I only wish to say… you must approach it with great care.”

“I’ve… kind of figured that out,” Xander said. “And while we’re not, you know, dating or anything? We’ve been… spending a lot of time together, and she can be really sensitive about some topics, and really, just, blasé about others.”

“But… generally, things are going well?”

“Generally,” Xander said, nodding, “I think she’s starting to trust me. That I won’t, you know, dick her over, or try to hurt her.”

“Good,” Giles said. “It’s just, I fear she’s more fragile than she lets people know.”

“I get it,” Xander said, standing up. “I’ll take care of her. Even if we’re not dating.”

Giles smiled as Xander walked away.

“Oh, one more thing,” Giles said.

“Yeah?”

“Do be careful yourself. I should hate to see you hurt, either.”

Xander smiled, nodded, and left the library.

Twelve

“Try it and I will pound you into the ground,” Buffy said. They had been waiting outside the school for him, but she wasn’t really in the mood for Xander’s games.

“You’re no fun,” Xander said from behind the group. “I can’t even sneak up on you and startle you. At least Willow still gets scared.”

“Um,” Willow said.

“Oh, man,” Xander said. “Don’t tell me you’ve just been acting.”

Willow grinned a wide-mouthed grin, and Xander laughed.

“Can we get going?” Buffy asked, tapping her foot impatiently.

“What’s the rush, B?” Faith asked. “Got somewhere to be?”

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. “No,” she said. “I just want to get this over with.” Buffy noticed a subtle movement out of the corner of her eye, and Willow grabbed Oz’s arm and went on ahead, followed a moment later by Faith. Xander, predictably, slid up next to her.

“You okay, Buff?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. The two of them began walking about thirty feet behind the others. Willow seemed energetic, and was entertaining Faith and Oz with some story or other that required her move around a lot, while walking backwards.

“It’s just, you seem to be taking Angel leaving pretty hard. I mean, it’s not like he won’t be back,” Xander said.

Buffy sighed, hoping Xander would take the hint that she didn’t want to talk about it. Bzzt. Wrong.

“So, what’s the what?” he asked. “How come with the wigging?”

They walked in silence, both watching Willow’s antics.

“Did you ever get the feeling,” Buffy said after a minute, “that somebody was doing something you didn’t want them to? And that they thought they were doing it for your own good?”

Xander smiled and dipped his head. “You mean like telling somebody to stay fray-adjacent?”

“That was just – I mean, I was only –”

“I’m not attacking you, Buff,” he said. “I know you were trying to look out for me. And I was being more than a little reckless.”

“And,” Buffy pointed out, “you’ve calmed down since then, not been so throwing-your-life-away-ish, and I haven’t said a word.”

“I was just pointing out that I do have some idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not fun.”

“No.”

Buffy decided not to say anything, but she knew her face was worried, and that Xander wouldn’t rest until he knew what was bugging her and tried to help in someway. He was a sweetheart like that, but also, sometimes, kind of annoying.

“Buffy?” he asked. “Do you think Angel’s leaving you?”

“No,” she said. Truthfully, too. Angel had shown no signs of wanting to leave… not counting the actual getting in a car and driving across the country that he had done a few minutes ago. That totally wasn’t about leaving her. “I just… I’ve been thinking a little bit –”

“Oh dear God, somebody save us,” Xander deadpanned. Buffy stuck her tongue out at him, and he grinned back at her.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I’ve been thinking, and, I don’t know. It’s just recently it seems… like maybe I should be thinking. About him leaving.”

Xander was completely silent. He was even walking quieter, if that seemed possible. And by the look on his face he had exactly zero idea about what to say, how to react, how to process the information she had just dropped on him. But valiant as ever, he seemed determined to try.

“What… uh, what brought this on?”

Buffy lowered her eyes to the ground. “Do you promise you won’t get angry at me?”

Xander nodded.

“Well I don’t know if you know… that I know about, you know, you and Faith? And I know I told Willow I wouldn’t bring it up, but… you and Faith being… together-ish, or whatever you guys are. It got me thinking, a little.”

“O…kay,” Xander said.

“It’s just, okay, when I first found out about it, I was a little freaked. Like what, did she put a spell on you? Or did you put one on her? Or, I don’t know, maybe you guys drank some weird water, or something. I just… I didn’t see what possible future you could have.”

“Because we’re too different?”

“Because she’s a Slayer. I was thinking… Faith will probably be dead in a year or two. Why would you open yourself up to that kind of… of pain, or turmoil?”

“I’m still not seeing how this gets to you and Angel splitting up.”

“It’s just… if you and Faith, in my head, shouldn’t be together because she’s a Slayer, then what am I doing with Angel? It’s just going to hurt him more in the long run. And it’s already torturing him now, with the, you know… no um…”

“Fun time?”

“Right.”

Xander sighed and ran his hands through his hair. Buffy noticed his expression shifted a little, but she couldn’t quite tell what it shifted to.

“Buff,” he said. “I literally can not believe I’m going to say this. If that’s your best reason for leaving the guy, then stay with him. Because if there’s one thing Angel’s willing to do, it’s put up with pain on your behalf.”

“But you hate Angel.”

“Oh boy, do I,” Xander said. “I dislike him very much, and nothing would please me more than to see him broken-hearted by you, just to ensure he never ever became Angelus again. But you guys breaking up would hurt you, and I care more about you than I hate him.”

“So why do you think my reasoning is flawed?”

“Simple,” Xander said. “Using your Slayerness as an excuse – to protect him – is completely bogus. Okay, sure, statistically you should be dead already. But why not enjoy life while you’ve got it? Don’t act like you’re dead just because you should be. Do what makes you happy.”

“Which doesn’t mean you think I should be with Angel.”

“Not even a little,” Xander said. “But if it makes you happy? I say do it. Life’s short enough.”

“I said something like that to Willow once,” Buffy said, remembering back to her first day at Sunnydale.

“How’d that work out?”

“She got dragged to a cemetery by a vampire.”

“Which is pretty much your goal, so see? I’m right.”

Buffy leveled her death glare at him, but couldn’t help from letting a smile force its way to her face.

”Fine,” she said. “Promise me something?”

“What’s that?”

“Be careful,” she said. “Don’t get hurt because of her.”

Xander smiled and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Buff,” he said, “you are the third person to tell me that. This keeps up, a guy could get the idea people like him.”

“A guy would be right,” Buffy said, smiling at him. “But don’t let it go to your head. I only like you cuz you think I’m pretty.”

“A solid foundation for any friendship,” Xander said. “Now. Let’s go kill things deader than they already are.”

***

Xander woke up to the telephone ringing. As before, he stumbled off of Faith’s couch and snagged the phone from the cradle. “Hullo?” he managed to growl.

“Mr. Harris?”

Xander cleared his throat. “Um. Yeah?”

“This is Doctor Mendes, down at the clinic. How are you doing this morning?”

“Uh. All right, I guess,” he said, as Faith stumbled out of her room in a tank top and sweat pants. She set a pot of coffee going.

“Mr. Harris, I’m calling about the test that you and your friend came in for the other day.”

“Uh. Right. Yes?”

“Well, I’m happy to tell you that in about eight months, you’re going to be a father.”

“I am,” Xander said. “Okay. That’s… that’s good news.”

“I guess you’re a little shocked,” Dr. Mendes said.

“That would be a good word to use, yeah.”

“Well, Mr. Harris, if you wish to come down to the clinic, we have some literature we can give you, to help you prepare for this sort of thing. Classes that are available, groups you can join. Suggested reading, things like that. Are you familiar with Spock’s book?”

“The Vulcan?” Xander asked.

Dr. Mendes laughed. “No, the doctor.”

“Oh. I’ve heard about that.”

“Great,” Dr. Mendes said. “Well, Jason – that’s my nurse – has put together a file for you, you can come by and pick it up at your convenience. And once again, congratulations to you and Faith.” “Thank you, Doctor,” Xander said. He hung up the phone.

“So?” Faith asked.

“So,” Xander said. “You’re pregnant.”

“Like we guessed,” she said.

“Right,” Xander said. “Like we guessed.”

“What’s this mean?” Faith asked.

Xander sighed as the coffee finished dripping. He poured a cup for both himself and Faith.

“In terms of…?”

“I dunno,” she said. “Life changes?”

“Well… diapers. A crib. I’m guessing a good amount of pain for you, although you can probably handle it better than most. A baby crying in the middle of the night. I don’t really know. A lot, though.”

“What about… uh… what about us?” Faith was looking directly down into her coffee.

Xander cleared his throat again. “Well,” he said. “For us to, uh… change… there’d have to be some definition of what us is now.”

“We sure as shit ain’t dating,” Faith said.

“That would take actual dates,” Xander agreed. “But, well… we’re not exactly… I mean, hell, we’re having a kid.”

“Yeah,” Faith said. She sat down, her eyes wide, and held her forehead in her hand. “Jesus. We’re having a kid.”

“We have to tell them,” Xander said, sitting down across from her.

Faith looked up, and looked like she was about to rip into him again. But she didn’t. She looked into his eyes and nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Listen… I don’t know about you, and I know I don’t go to church or nothin’, but… I was raised Catholic. I may not, you know… keep to it that much, but…”

“You don’t want to have a child out of wedlock?” Xander asked.

Faith shook her head, stood up and started pacing.

Xander let out a long breath, and nodded. “If that’s what you want,” Xander said, “then that’s what we’ll do.”

“Well, Jesus, if you think it’s gonna be a fucking chore, then –”

“That’s not what I meant!” Why did she have to always think the worst?

“Well say what you mean, then!”

“I just meant… that I’ll do what you want, okay?”

“Oh, so you just want a cop out?”

“No! I just… I’m not… Christ!”

“What? Not what, Xander?” she demanded.

“I’m not good at making decisions!” he said. “Okay? I just… I’m better at just being told what to do.”

“Bullshit,” Faith said.

“I am!”

“How many times have you told off Buffy? Huh? What were you doing out that night had sex? Didn’t she tell you to stay out of things?”

“Well I—“

“And what was all that stuff in your car? And why’d it smell like dead people, huh? You weren’t stayin’ out of shit, were you?”

“No,” he said, his eyes cast at the ground.

“Well, shit, then stop whining about making decisions. Grab your life and do something with it. Stop worrying you’ll do the wrong thing, because then you won’t ever do anything.”

“It’s not that easy,” Xander protested.

“It is that easy,” Faith said, anger showing on her face. “You find something you want, you go for it. That’s all there is.”

“That’s not all there is!” Xander argued. “You can’t just do things without thinking about them. There are consequences, Faith, and I think we’ve demonstrated that pretty damn well.”

“You’re all so worried about everything!” Faith yelled. “Just once, I wish somebody would just fucking find something they want, and go for it!”

“Fine!” Xander yelled. He put his cup down, stood up and stalked over to Faith.

“What the hell are you doing?” she asked, taking a step back.

“Going for what I want.” He leaned in and kissed her roughly. Faith resisted for a moment, a brief disappointed look crossing her face, before surrendering to the feeling and throwing herself into the kiss.

Xander slammed Faith against the wall, his hands entwined in her hair even as his tongue explored her mouth. Faith slid her hands under his shirt, raking his back with her nails. With a little kick, Faith moved them away from the wall and guided Xander to her bedroom while she pulled his shirt off over his head. Xander kicked the door with the back of his heel just before Faith wrapped her legs around his waist and twisted, forcing him down onto her bed. She slipped out of her tank-top just as the door swung completely shut.

If either of them heard the phone ringing, they paid no attention to it.

Thirteen

Asshole, Faith thought as steaming hot water ran over her body. What an unbelievable asshole. All this time, all those things he said, all those things he did… and all for one reason. She knew it. She absolutely knew it, and she allowed herself to be taken in. Just showed what you got for trusting people. Son of a bitch. She knew there weren’t really guys like that.

Faith shut the water off, and began to dry herself. She had taken a long, hot shower to get rid of the disgust she felt for herself. He had used her. He saw an opportunity, a weakness, and he used her. And she had vowed never to let a guy use her again.

Although, she supposed she had really allowed herself to be used. Nobody, not that new watcher, and certainly not Xander Harris, could make her do anything. She had let him use her, yeah. But only because she wanted to see if he really would.

Faith stepped into her bedroom, her towel wrapped around herself, and found her bed empty. Fuckin’ asshole, she thought as she pulled some clothes from her dresser, slamming the drawers shut as she found her clothes. The door swung open behind her as she pulled a clean shirt on over her bra.

“Hey,” Xander said, walking up behind her. He wrapped his arm around her midsection, and she shivered in disgust. Xander kissed the top of her head.

“What’s up?” she asked, attempting, for some unknown reason, to keep the complete and utter loathing she felt for the man out of her voice.

“Giles called,” he said. “Uh. A lot, apparently. We’re needed back at Scooby Central. More specifically, you’re needed back there, and it wouldn’t be horrible if I tagged along, too. I think it’s dealing with this Box of Gravity or whatever.”

“Cool,” she said. “Take your shower so we can go.”

Xander nodded, and stepped toward the bathroom.

“Listen, Faith,” he started.

“Talk later, Chief,” she said. “Clean now.”

Xander smiled at her, nodded, and stepped into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Faith just wanted to hit something, she was so pissed. Ten minutes later, Xander came out of the bathroom clean and fresh-smelling, and dressed in a respectably non-goofy outfit, and she didn’t say a word.

There was a knock at the door.

“Hey,” Oz said when Faith opened the door. Willow peeked out from behind him, grinning. She waved silently.

“What are you here for?” Faith asked.

“Rupert Giles Taxi Service,” Oz said. “Not guaranteed to be clean or comfortable, but we’ll get you where you’re going.”

Willow grinned. “So come on,” she said, in a voice all too cheery for Faith’s mood. “Get Xander and let’s get going.”

“Yeah, coming, coming,” Xander said. He hopped into the kitchen from Faith’s bedroom, still tying his second shoe. He slammed kidney first into the stove, causing him to drop his shoe as he grasped his side in pain. “I’m okay,” he groaned. He picked up his shoe, slipped it on, tied it, and stood up with a grimace.

“That’s gonna bruise,” Oz noted.

“Oh yeah.”

The group left Faith’s apartment and loaded into Oz’s van. Faith sat as far away from Xander as she could, but with all the music equipment, that was only about two feet away.

“Hey,” Xander said, reaching out to her. He stroked her shoulder softly. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, leaning into his touch despite herself. “I’m fine.”

Xander smiled at her, a warm smile that Faith still had trouble believing wasn’t genuine. But damn if she wasn’t pissed at the son of a bitch. They rode the rest of the way to the school in silence.

***

“Do we know which way they’re going to be coming from? I mean, where the plane’s landing?” Xander asked. He was leaning over the table, looking at a diagram of the airport.

“No,” Giles said. “Willow was not able to hack into their systems. We just have a general layout of the airport. However, we were able to find out where charter flights typically come in.”

“I still don’t get why I’m here.”

“Because, Cordelia,” Giles said. “Loathe as I am to admit it, you have been helpful on any number of occasions, and with something as important as this, an opinion not normally voiced may be useful.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “Plus if we’re all being idiots – which we have to admit, is a possibility – you’ll tell us outright instead of, you know, hiding it.”

Xander looked over the area Giles was pointing to, and nodded. “I think you’re going to want to set up here,” Xander said, pointing to an area of the tarmac near a hangar.

“And what makes you qualified to make that decision?” Wesley asked, clucking his tongue.

“My ability to make witty comments at a moment’s notice,” Xander said. That guy was *really* annoying.

“Yes, well, perhaps tactical decisions are best left up to those of us who have finished high school, and had some manner of higher education, hmm?” Wesley said, lifting to the balls of his feet as he did so. “Perhaps somebody who has studied the martial arts for more than a fortnight, hmm?”

Xander looked at Wesley, smiled, but said nothing.

“Where’s the ‘witty comment at a moment’s notice’?” Buffy asked, smiling.

“A few things you need to understand,” Xander said, looking Wes directly in the eyes.

“Xander –” Willow started. But Xander kept talking.

“First and foremost? There is a *huge* difference between knowing martial arts and knowing tactics. As it happens, I spent a night as a grunt in the army, with all the knowledge that comes with. Training, tactics, you name it. It may not be as sharp as it once was, but I bet you can’t remember what it’s like to be in a live-fire exercise.”

“Yes, well…”

“Second. You went to college. I’m not going to. That in no way makes you better than me.”

“Well, I certainly didn’t mean to imply – urk!”

“Last,” Xander said, grabbing Wesley by his shirt collar and slamming him down on the table. Giles jumped back a step, and everyone in the room looked as surprised as Wesley. “Remember our talk. There’s likely to be vamps out in high numbers. You want that on your head?”

“Xander,” Giles said, softly. “Xander, let him up.”

“Whatever,” Xander said, releasing Wesley. Xander briefly bristled, then shook his head. “I need to get some air.” He stormed out of the library, leaving the doors swinging violently in his wake.

An awkward silence filled the library. It was broken, of course, by Cordelia.

“Saw that coming.”

***

Buffy and Willow had rushed out of the library after their friend, leaving Oz, Cordelia and the old guys in Faith’s company, and the old guys were tending to Wesley’s whining in Giles’ office.

“You saw that coming how?” Faith asked, looking into Cordelia.

“Oh please,” she said. “Xander was totally tense, and you could tell he didn’t like Wes. Probably hasn’t from the start.”

“That is most definitely the case,” Giles said, exiting his office. “In fact, on his first day here, Xander threatened Wesley. I took it as nothing more substantial than a friend attempting to… preemptively protect those he cared about. Now, though…”

“Yeah, but that?” Faith asked, nodding at the table where the airport plans were still lying. “That ain’t like him.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Cordelia asked. “That’s totally like him.”

Everybody looked at her.

“He doesn’t usually attack people who snark him,” Oz said. “Or you’d have been laid out more than once.”

“Not that,” Cordelia said. “Look, right now, Xander’s thinking, ‘Here’s a mission where my friends could get hurt. This guy who I don’t know from Judas is interrupting me keeping my girls safe, when I know what I’m doing.’ He maybe reacted a little strong, sure, but his precious Buffy’s was going into danger. Of course he’s going to want to hurt people interfering.”

“Buffy’s not the only one going into danger,” Oz said softly. Faith connected with his eyes, and looked away.

“Whatever,” Cordelia said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “He’s just taking all that stupid nobility to a new level.”

”Cordelia,” Giles said, “there is very little that is stupid about that kind of nobility.”

“You know what I mean,” she said.

“Man,” Faith said, shaking her head. “He’s really got all of you fooled, doesn’t he?”

Cordelia and Giles exchanged a look, and Oz narrowed his eyes.

“Fooled how?” Giles asked.

“You can’t tell me you buy all this nobility, good guy bullshit,” Faith said. “I mean, you known him how long, and you ain’t seen through it?”

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” Giles said. “I can assure you, Xander is legitimately a good man.”

“Whatever,” Faith said, dismissing the whole group as idiots. “I’ll be outside, find me if you can come up with a plan that won’t get me killed.” Faith pushed away from the table and headed out the back of the library.

***

“What’s goin’ on?” Oz asked. He found Buffy, Willow and Xander leaning against some lockers, talking.

Willow looked to Xander, and he nodded.

“Faith’s pregnant,” Willow said. Understanding blossomed in Oz’s eyes. Or it would have, if he had allowed it to. “Xander was… well… tense.”

Xander laughed. “I spent the whole ride over here wondering how in the hell I was going to raise a kid, pay for a kid, anything like that, and the first time somebody annoys me I turn into this monster.”

“You’re not a monster, Xander,” Buffy said. “It’s a lot to deal with. A lot of stress.”

“How would you know?” Xander muttered. “Not like your boyfriend can get you pregnant.”

Buffy glared as Xander closed his eyes and cursed.

“See,” he said, “I didn’t mean that. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said, patting him on the leg. “Getting Faith pregnant gives you a free pass for the day in my book. But just one day.”

Xander laughed. “Thanks,” he said. “Speaking of, I guess we should go back. We said we were going to tell everyone today, better ask Faith how she wants to do that.”

“Uh,” Oz said as Buffy, Willow and Xander stood. “That might be a little hard. She kinda… left.”

“Left?” Willow asked.

“Left where, left?” Buffy asked.

“Out,” Oz said. “And… she was pretty convinced that Xander was… well, we’ll go with not nice and call it a gift.”

Buffy and Willow turned to Xander. “What’d you do?” they asked in unison. Oz thought that was pretty funny.

Xander shook his head. “With that girl?” he said. “I have no idea.”

***

Xander steeled his nerve and walked into the library.

“Are you all right?” Giles asked. Xander nodded.

“Is he all right?” Wesley asked, incredulous. “I’m the one who was attacked.”

“Yes, but I’ve already seen to you,” Giles said.

“Plus, we don’t care that much,” Buffy said.

Xander stepped over to Wesley, who backed up a step from him. “I’m not going to hit you,” he said. “I was out of line. A lot of that was… personal aggravation, and you’re an easy target. Sorry.”

“Whatever,” Cordelia said. “Can we get this over with?”

“Where did Faith go?” Xander asked. Giles pointed towards the stacks and the rear exit from the library.

“Why do you care?” Cordelia asked.

Xander paused and looked at Cordelia. She looked at him, then Willow, Buffy, Oz and Giles, who were all conveniently looking other places.

“Oh, come on!” Cordelia said. “You weren’t just kidding about that Slayer fixation.”

“Sorry, Cor,” he said. “I would have told you… I mean, you deserve to find out in a way other than this, but she wanted to not say anything… to anyone.”

“So you guys are, what, dating?” Cordelia asked as the rest of the group sat down.

“I don’t know.”

“Well she doesn’t seem to like you that much right now. What’d you do?”

“Cordelia, I honestly have no clue. And can we play twenty questions later? I should really go talk to her.”

“Fine,” Cordelia said.

Xander thanked her and went in search of Faith. He found her sitting just outside the back entrance to the library. Xander sat down next to her, silently. She slid away from him. Xander sighed and leaned his head back on the concrete wall.

“Wanna tell me what I did?” he asked. “I thought we were getting along pretty well.”

“Like you care.”

Xander’s eyes narrowed. “Faith, of course I care,” he said, reaching for her arm. As soon as his skin touched hers, she recoiled like she’d been burnt.

”Don’t fucking touch me,” Faith spat, glaring at him. Xander held his hands up, palms out.

“Okay,” he said, pulling away from her. They sat in silence for a minute. “Listen. I really like you, Faith. You’re an incredible woman. I don’t know what I did to piss you off, but I’d like to make it better, somehow. If I can. We’re a little stuck together, here, and I can’t say that makes me sad. Different circumstances might be nice, but there’s not a lot we can do about that.

“I want things to be good between us, Faith. Because I like you, and because we’re having a kid together. But I can’t make it right on my own, because at this point, I’m completely in the dark.”

Xander sat, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But nothing came. Xander shook his head. “I’m going to tell everyone tomorrow,” he said. “If you wanna be here for that, great. But we can’t do this alone, so I’m telling them with or without you.”

Xander stood up and opened the door. “But the rest of it? I can’t do that without you.”

***

“I’ve got it ready,” Willow said. She wasn’t as nervous this time as she was the last time. “Just tell me when.”

“Excellent,” Giles said. He was crouched beside her, a comforting presence. Giles tended to calm her nervousness.

“Yeah, see?” Xander said, pointing towards a set of lights. “I think that’s it.”

“And where’s our troop of merry undead?” Buffy asked.

“I bet they don’t show until the… or here comes a limo,” Xander said.

“I think it would be prudent to wait until both airplane and limousine have come to a stop,” Wesley whispered.

“Faith, you ready?” Buffy asked.

“Five by five,” Faith said. What the heck did that mean, anyway? Five what by five what? She kept saying that, and nobody ever –

“The limousine has stopped,” Giles said, as the plane rumbled to a halt. The moveable stairs pulled up to the plane, and the door opened. “Now, Faith, Buffy, go. Willow, the spell!”

Willow lit a small candle and began chanting in Latin, and a fog began to roll in on the airport. She watched as Buffy and Faith streaked towards the opening doors of the plane and the limo.

“Oh dear lord,” Giles said. “Wesley, stay here with Willow. Xander –”

But Xander was already on his feet and running. Willow had no idea what was going on, but as the fog rolled in, she thought she saw a large number of shadows moving towards the fight.

“Wesley,” Willow said, “what’s –”

“Concentrate, Ms. Rosenberg,” Wesley said, softly. His voice, miraculously, was actually soothing. “You must maintain the spell.”

Willow doubled her concentration, and the fog got thicker. Willow smiled.

“Not too much,” Wesley said, his voice indicating surprise at how thick the fog had gotten.

Willow eased up on her concentrating a little, and the fog thinned.

“Excellent,” Wesley said. “Now. Duck.”

Willow pressed herself as close to the ground as she could, protecting the flame from her candle as best she could. A large demonic body flew over her head and slammed into the hangar behind them.

“Go!” Buffy yelled. Willow looked up and saw two figures running in their direction, and one more figure limping quite badly. Willow gathered up her candle and walked delicately to Oz’s van, which they had borrowed for the purposes of the mission. Oz and Cordelia should even now be preparing the spell to destroy the Box of Gavrok.

Willow climbed into the passenger seat next to Wesley as Buffy, loaded down with a body, jumped into the van, followed quickly by Xander, who yelped in pain as his already injured left leg caught on the door. Faith, carrying the box, was the last inside.

“Go!” yelled the darker Slayer. Wesley tore out of the airport as fast as the van would take them. Faith slammed the door shut just as they past the gate. After they had taken a few turns, Willow finally blew the candle out and lifted the fog. There was nobody behind them. She whipped around.

“What happened to Giles?” she asked.

“Knocked out,” Xander said, laughing. Buffy and Faith joined in as well.

“Knocked out?” Willow asked worried. “What’s funny about knocked out? He – he could be seriously injured, or have a concussion. Oh! Or what if whatever hit him had some kind of goo, and now he’s all infected and is going to become a demon?”

“Will,” Xander said, “he ran into the stairs.”

“What?” Willow asked.

“You know,” Buffy said, “those moveable stairs they use when people get off of airplanes. When we were getting out of there, he ran into it head first. He’ll be fine.”

“Oh,” Willow said, relieved that Giles wouldn’t turn into a demon. “Well, good.”

“Did you manage to retrieve the box?” Wesley asked.

“Right here,” Faith said, patting the box that was in front of her. “Now we just gotta destroy this thing.”

“Thanks for the shove in the back, by the way,” Xander said, as he tended to his bleeding leg with Oz’s first aid kit.

“No prob,” Faith said. “Way you were limpin’ along, you’d be vamp bait by now.”

Xander nodded, silently. A tension was immediately palpable between the two of them. Buffy rolled her eyes and cleared her throat with a pointed look at her sister Slayer. Faith sighed heavily.

“And thanks for knockin’ that demon offa my ass,” Faith said.

“Glad I could help,” Xander said.

“Well, don’t be so reckless next time,” Buffy said. “That thing almost took your leg off.”

“Aww, come on,” Xander said, waving off her concern. “He didn’t even get to the bone.”

“Yeah, well,” Buffy said, “you’re having Wesley look at it when we get back. You’re no good to me if your leg falls off.”

“What, you don’t think I can still kill demons with only one leg?” Xander asked. “I can outfit my wheelchair with a rifled stake gun, and I’ll get ordained, so I can be a mobile holy water factory. They’ll call me Father Wheeley McRollerson.”

Buffy, Willow, and even Wesley laughed.

“But Xander, you can’t,” Willow protested, light-heartedly. “The school isn’t handicap friendly, a-and just think. Who would get things off of high shelves for us if you couldn’t stand?”

Xander sighed as if he were the most put-upon man since Job. “Fine,” he said. “I guess I’ll keep the leg. But only because you people are short.”

Willow and Buffy shared a grin, and Xander lolled his head back against the side of the van.

“Whew,” he said.

“Hey,” said Faith, picking her hand up off the van’s floor. “This is –”

Xander slumped over, his head thudding down on an amp.

“Xander?” Buffy said, shaking her friend. Willow flicked on the inside light and the three girls looked at the carpeted floor inside Oz’s van. It was soaked in blood. Xander looked deathly pale.

“Hospital!” Buffy shouted. “Right now!”

“What?” Wesley asked.

“He’s losing too much blood!” Willow yelled as Buffy ripped the arm off her shirt to tie around Xander’s leg. “Go!” she said, slapping Wesley on the arm. “As fast as you can!”

Wesley wheeled the van around and slammed the pedal to the floor. Two minutes later they were at the hospital emergency room. Buffy and Willow pulled Xander out of the van, both getting his blood all over their clothes.

Faith moved to follow them, but Willow stopped her.

“We got this,” she said. “You and Wes need to get back to the school and do the spell. We’ll call with news.”

Willow slammed the door in Faith’s face and ran into the hospital after her best friend.

Fourteen

Buffy and Willow stood in the emergency room, watching as Xander was wheeled off into emergency surgery to fix whatever it was that was wrong with his leg.

“Miss?” asked a nurse. Buffy turned to her.

“Huh?”

“I don’t know… your friend, the young man you brought in.”

“Xander,” she said. Willow was watching them.

“Yes. Do you happen to know… any of his information?”

“His name is Xander,” Buffy said. “He’s my friend. They’re going to fix him, right?”

“I’m sure they’re doing everything they can,” said Nurse…

“Ratched? Your name is Nurse Ratched and they let you work here?”

The woman frowned.

“Buffy,” Willow said stepping up to the nurse. “Go call your mom, okay? I’ll take care of this.”

“Mom… why?” Buffy asked. She realized she was in a daze.

“Buffy… you’re missing half your shirt, and what you’ve got is soaked in blood,” Willow said.

Buffy looked down at her exposed, blood-soaked torso in shock. “Whoa,” she said.

“There’s a phone at the nurse’s station,” Nurse Ratched said. “You can use that one.”

Buffy walked in a zombie-like state to the nurse’s station. “She said I can use this phone,” Buffy said to the man behind the desk. He took one look at her and nodded.

Buffy dialed her home, waiting for her mom to pick up.

“Hello?” asked a light, feminine voice.

“Mom,” Buffy said. “It’s me.”

“Oh, hi, Buffy,” her mom said. “Is patrolling going okay?” Despite her best efforts, Buffy’s mother could not hide the tension in her voice.

“Mom, something happened,” Buffy said. She explained as best she could, without tipping off the nurse, what had happened. Made up a story on the spot, that she hoped meshed with Willow’s.

“Oh, sweetie,” her mom said when she had finished. “What can I do?”

“I need a shirt,” Buffy said. “Mine’s kinda ripped. Willow could probably do with one, too.”

“Of course, honey. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Buffy hung up the phone and went to sit down next to Willow. They sat in silence, neither looking anywhere but at the floor. Twenty minutes later, Buffy’s mom showed up with clean clothes and hugs for both of them. She talked to the doctor and found out that Xander was still in surgery, and expected to be so for some time. Buffy and Willow found a couch to curl up next to each other on, and waited, watching either the floor or the clock.

It ticked too slowly.

***

“Here.” Willow looked up and saw Oz holding some coffee for her. She smiled sadly, and graciously accepted the coffee. She hadn’t even realized that Oz showed up. Willow looked around, and the entire gang, Cordelia, Faith, Giles, even Wesley, was there. When had that happened?

Willow poked Buffy, whose shoulder she had been leaning against. It seemed, though, that Buffy was asleep.

“What happened?” Willow asked, turning back to Oz.

“He’s still in surgery,” Oz said. Willow’s eyes flicked up to the clock. It had been over four hours. She had basically been unaware of everything for at least two of those.

“How’d the… thing go?”

“Went fine,” Oz said. He sat down in the chair next to her couch and stroked her arm lovingly. “Box is history.”

“Good,” Willow said. “That’s good.” She sipped her coffee. It wasn’t very good, but Oz had made it the way she liked it. She smiled at him appreciatively.

“Excuse me,” a nurse said, approaching the group. She was sort of a dumpy woman, her hair frazzled, no makeup, and a look of exhaustion about her. She’d probably been working for hours on end. “Is there a guardian for Mr. Alexander Harris here?”

“Um, no,” Giles said.

The woman sighed. “Damn. I can’t find them anywhere.”

“They’re not coming,” Giles said.

“You mean they’re out of town?” she asked.

“No,” said Giles. “I do not.”

Willow got angry. She knew perfectly well that his parents weren’t showing up because they’d have to show something along the lines of caring for their son, and that meant leaving alcohol long enough to get sober. Her fists clenched, turning her knuckles white. Oz covered one of her hands with his. His touch calmed her, though only just.

“Well,” said the nurse, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. “You’re his… um…”

“We’re his family,” Willow said, her eyes daring the woman to contradict her. She felt Buffy’s arm wrap around her shoulders.

“Of course,” said the nurse. “In that case, I should tell you folks that Mr. Harris lost a lot of blood, and at times like these we ask family and friends if they would be willing to donate. It helps us keep our stores up, in case of emergencies like this one.”

The entire group kind of looked around at each other.

“I can leave this sheet here,” she said. “You can decide individually whether to donate. I’ll come back in about thirty minutes?”

“Of course,” Giles said. “Thank you.”

“Is there any word?” Willow asked. “On… how he’s doing?”

“I think they should be coming out of surgery any minute,” said the nurse, smiling at her. “I’ll be sure to direct the surgeon to you.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Summers said. The nurse nodded and walked off.

And Willow officially got more nervous. Her hands started shaking. “Hey,” Oz said, soothingly. “He’ll be all right.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

Oz shrugged. “He’s a fighter. And he won’t, uh…” Oz cast a glance towards Faith.

“Oh,” Willow said. “Oh, right. Yeah.”

They sat silently, Willow’s hand resting in Oz’s. Around the Scoobies, the hospital was a noisy, bustling place, but silence seemed to surround them as they waited for the surgeon to finish working on their friend. After about twenty minutes, a tall man with dirty blond hair, wearing what were obviously fresh scrubs came up to them.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Um… is someone here for Mr. Alexander Harris?”

“We all are,” said Buffy’s mom. Willow shook Buffy until she woke up. Buffy woke immediately, and seemed very rested.

“Oh,” the man said. “Lucky him. My name is Dr. Joseph. I was –”

“Dr. Joseph what?” Buffy asked.

“Buffy,” Willow whispered, shushing her friend.

“Joseph is my last name,” the man said with a smile. It was a comforting smile, Willow thought. Just the type of smile a man who was in his position should have. Comforting, reassuring, and not at all like a man possessed by a hyena. Which was about the worst Willow figured it could get.

“Anyway. Mr. Harris was brought into surgery about four… four and a half hours ago, with a… well, we’ll skip the medical jargon. His leg was badly cut, and the cut nicked his femoral artery. If not repaired quickly, this would have killed him. Luckily, we were able to stop the bleeding, and repair the damage to the artery with great speed. He lost a significant amount of blood, but we were able to replace most of that.

“The surgery went about as well as can be expected. The wound was clean, and we had a clear point of entry. A significant portion of our time was spent repairing muscle and tissue damage. I’m afraid Mr. Harris will, unless he has some cosmetic surgery, have a fairly nasty scar on his leg for the rest of his life. But other than that, we expect him to make a full recover – oh!”

Willow had tackled the man in a bear hug.

“Willow,” Giles said, softly. “I believe the doctor would like to continue breathing.”

“Right,” Willow said, releasing the man from her grip. She smiled shyly and backed away from him. Just about everyone, including Dr. Joseph, was laughing at her, but she didn’t care. She could feel her grin stretching her facial muscles. “Can we see him?”

Dr. Joseph smiled. “Mr. Harris is still in recovery, and will be for some time. I suggest you all go home and get some sleep, and tomorrow you’ll be able to visit him.”

Willow frowned, but her happiness at Xander’s condition broke through whatever disappointment she had at not being able to visit him.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Giles said.

“Are you his father?” Dr. Joseph asked.

“Um, no. His parents are… well, they’re not here. And we are.”

“I see,” Dr. Joseph said. Wesley walked up to join the two men. “Well, I don’t know about his, um… we have a payment program –”

“All of his bills will be taken care of,” Wesley interrupted. “You needn’t worry.”

Giles looked at the man in surprise, as did everybody except Cordelia and Buffy’s mom.

“Oh,” Dr. Joseph said. “Excellent. If um, I could have a nurse get your information…”

“Of course,” Wesley said. “Point me to the right person.”

“I’ll walk you,” Dr. Joseph said. The two men walked off discussing God only knew what.

“Yes, well,” Giles said, turning to the rest of the group. “That went about as well as can be expected. I suppose we should all, though, take Dr. Joseph’s advice and return tomorrow.”

“You’re probably right,” Buffy’s mom said. “Willow, Oz, can I offer you a ride?”

“Oh, I’ve got my van,” Oz said. “Which I’m gonna have to clean out now.”

“Faith?” Buffy’s mom asked.

“Oh, no, I –”

“I’m driving her,” Cordelia said, he arms folded across her chest. Looks of surprise shot at her from every angle, including from Faith. Nobody defied her though.

“Very good,” Giles said. “Well… a good night to all of you.”

The group dispersed, and Willow noticed Cordelia was completely dominating her conversation with Faith. She wondered what they were talking about.

***

“So how long has this thing with you and Xander been going on?” Cordelia asked. They were walking away from the rest of the group and towards her car.

“There is no –” Faith started to say.

“Obviously, there is something between you,” Cordelia said. “And denying it won’t make it any less true. I may pull the dumb cheerleader part, but I’m not stupid. That pregnancy test wasn’t for Willow, it was for you.”

Faith stayed silent.

“Well, that’s what I’m going to believe whether you admit it or not. I don’t know why you’d let other people ruin their reputations for you, when all they’re trying to do is help you, though.”

They arrived at Cordelia’s Chrysler Sebring, and the cheerleader unlocked the car. Faith slid into the passenger seat silently, closing her door behind her. Cordelia gracefully slipped behind the wheel, checked her mirror – or probably checked out herself in her mirror – before starting the car up. She flicked the radio off.

“So, what, did you and Xander have a fight or something?”

“None of your business,” Faith said as Cordelia pulled out of the hospital lot.

“What was it about?” Cordelia asked. “He probably did something really stupid, didn’t he? What, like, he was ogling some other girl’s ass? He did that all the time. Especially Buffy.”

“No,” Faith said. “That’s not it.”

“What? Did he cheat on you like he did me?”

“No,” Faith said. She fiddled with her fingernails, paying absolutely no attention to how or where Cordelia drove.

“Well, what? Tear your favorite skank shirt? Get dirt on your slutty leather pants? What?”

“He just. He was an asshole,” Faith said, giving in to Cordelia’s questioning. “He was only after one thing the whole time, and I knew it, and I trusted him anyway. It’s my fault for trusting him.”

“Only after one thing?” Cordelia asked. “What, you mean sex?”

“Yeah, sex,” Faith said. “Fucking. Screwing, Doing the nasty. That’s all he wanted. Just like every other asshole out there.”

Cordelia started laughing. “Oh my God,” she said, her voice rising. “That is so precious. You actually believe that, don’t you?”

“You sayin’ he didn’t?”

“Want sex?” Cordelia asked. “Of course I’m not. I’m sure he absolutely wanted to have as much hot, sweaty, Slayer sex with you as he could possibly manage.”

“Yeah,” Faith said. “I know. You probably had to deal with the same thing.”

“God, did I ever,” Cordelia said. “Guys were always in it for the touch. Like it’s my fault my boobs got this big. Xander was different though. Not initially, but…”

“Yeah, right,” Faith said.

“No, I’m serious,” Cordelia said. “He grew up a lot while we were dating.”

“You’re telling me he didn’t want to screw your pretty little head off?” Faith asked.

“No,” Cordelia said. “I’m saying that’s not all he wanted. He’s not like that. Not anymore.”

“Bullshit.”

“Not bullshit,” Cordelia said. “Trust me. I’ve had plenty of guys who were just interested in my body. I know what it’s like. You need to understand something.”

“What?” Faith asked. She was already tired of this.

“Guys want to screw you. They wanna press you up against a wall and do it until you’re screaming.”

“Oh, gee, thanks for that insight.”

“But,” Cordelia said. “Just because they want sex, doesn’t mean that’s all they want. I don’t see you understanding that.”

“What the fuck are you –”

“Faith, of course Xander wants to have sex with you,” Cordelia said. “You’re a Slayer. You’re almost ridiculously hot. Hell, if I were a guy, I’d want to do you. But if all he wanted was sex, I guarantee there’s easier marks. Easier ways to go about it than ruining his best friend’s reputation in the school – who, by the way, wouldn’t have done that unless she knew Xander was sincere about this thing. Xander’s really not one for picking difficult challenges.”

“But he cheated on you,” Faith said.

“Yeah!” said Cordelia. “Because he thinks with little Xander, probably more than he should, but definitely less than most guys.”

“Why are you defending him?” Faith asked, legitimately confused. “He cheated on you.”

“Yeah, and he saved your life tonight. Or at least, that’s what Giles said, and Giles isn’t prone to exaggeration. Plus, the whole pregnancy thing.”

“How did you –”

“Like I said,” Cordelia replied as she pulled into the parking lot. “I’m not stupid. Xander’s worst nightmare would be to raise a kid the same way his parents have – yelling, drinking, never getting along. As much as I’m still pissed as hell at him – and I am, believe me, I still want to make him miserable sometimes – he doesn’t deserve that.”

Faith stayed silent for a moment, thinking over what Cordelia had said. It made a certain kind of sense. And even when she knew, absolutely one hundred percent knew that Xander had only been after some tail, she’d still felt comforted by him. Still felt like he cared. And she wasn’t sure even Bobby DeNiro was that good an actor.

”Well, we’re here. You can get out now,” said Cordelia.

“One thing,” Faith said as she opened the door and slid out. “You two never did it, did you?”

“No,” Cordelia said. “Why?”

Faith leaned down and looked Cordelia right in the eye. “You called it little.”

Faith grinned at having gotten in the last shot, and stood there watching as Cordelia sped off. She then turned and saw – the Sunnydale Motor Inn.

“Fuck,” Faith said. Cordelia didn’t know she had moved.

Fifteen

Xander dragged his eyes open. It was a battle of wills between the six tons of lead that were quite obviously attached to his eyelids and the muscles that controlled said eyelids, but it was a battle he was determined to win. His eyes open, Xander quickly let them fall closed again.

“Ahh,” he said, moving his arm to cover his eyes. “Too bright.” He heard some movement, and what sounded like curtains being pulled. He chanced to remove his arm and open his eyes again – a task that was much easier this time. The room was darker, and more to his liking. He rolled his head to one side.

“Heeeeey,” he said, smiling as best he could, though he got the feeling his lips weren’t working quite right. In fact, it seemed as if much of his head wasn’t working quite right. “There’s my girl.”

Willow grinned at him and wrapped him in a soft, gentle hug. “Hi, Xander,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, I’m oogey,” he drawled. “A little slow, I think.” He tested out all the parts he could think of his fingers moved, his head move, his arms moved, his legs – “AAAAH!”

Willow winced. “Got to your leg?”

“Oh, gaawd,” he said. “Wha happened?”

“Um....” Willow said, glancing up at the window. “When you got that dog out from the sewer, you cut your leg on some debris that had lodged in the pipe. It cut you real bad, too.”

“What?” he asked. “Nonononono, I’m pretty sure there was a great big, kind of yellow –”

“Mr. Harris!”

Xander rolled his head to the other side and saw a man wearing a white lab coat and a clipboard. Only he was holding the clipboard and not wearing it. Xander was pretty sure that wearing one of those things would be pretty uncomfortable.

“Who’re you?” Xander asked.

“I’m Dr. Joseph,” he said, smiling. Xander looked at the man’s smile and felt happy. “I was your surgeon last night, although I’m sure you don’t remember it.”

“Surgeon?” Xander asked.

“You were in pretty bad shape when your friends brought you in,” he said. “But we got you taken care of. Your lucky your friend tied off your leg so well.”

“Oh,” Xander said. “Oogey.”

“I just need to check a few things,” said the doctor-man. Xander nodded as best he could. “Um, miss? You might want to, uh…”

Willow turned away and shielded her eyes. The doctor lifted Xander’s blanket and moved the gown away from his leg. “These look good,” Doctor Joseph said. He attached his stethoscope to his ears and placed it against Xander’s chest. Xander shied away from the coldness of it. After a few seconds, he removed the stethoscope, and jotted some notes on Xander’s chart.

After a few more minutes of poking and prodding, and questions asked and answered – interrupted by Xander’s utter jubilation and poorly enunciated greeting at the arrival of Buffy, fresh from the cafeteria with some coffee – the doctor left them in Xander’s room.

“So,” Xander said once the doctor had left, “what really happened?”

“A demon ripped open your leg after you tackled it off of Faith,” Buffy said. “It was very heroic.”

“Thass good,” Xander said. “Is Faith here?”

“No, sweetie,” Willow said. “I’m sure she’ll show up sometime, though.”

“No,” Xander said, a lopsided frown pulling at his features. “She hades me. I dun even know what I did but she hates me. She gonna have… kid, an’ I’m gonna give her money, an’ she gonna teach the kid to hate me cuz o’ sumthin I don’t know what I did.”

“She doesn’t hate you, Xander,” Buffy said, softly. “And she’s not going to teach your child to hate you. I guarantee that.”

Xander smiled. “Thanks, Buff,” he said. “You know, you not always make the best decisions, but you’re a good person. I love ya, Buffy.”

Buffy smiled and hugged Xander gently, leaving a soft kiss on his cheek.

“An’ hey!” he said. “I kept my promise, see? I’ve still got my leg. I can tell, cuz when I move it, I almost pass out from the pain. Can I borrow your healing dealy?”

Buffy laughed. “Sure, Xander,” she said. “Just as soon as we figure out how to share that.”

“’Kay thanks.”

“Xander,” Willow said, “I think you should probably try to get some rest, okay?”

Xander rolled his head so he was looking at Willow. “Ookay, Willow,” he said. “You know… you know… you look out for me, Willow. Like a big protective tree… in a small red-topped package. I love you, too, Willow.”

Willow smiled and gave Xander another hug, before she and Buffy moved towards the door.

“Hey,” Xander said, calling them back. They turned around.

“Yeah?” Willow asked.

“You guys aren’t ‘bandoning me, right?”

“Of course not,” Buffy said, as Willow cooed a soft “No.”

Xander smiled. “Kay,” he said. He let his eyelids fall again.

***

“He’s recovering quite well, actually. I imagine we’ll be able to discharge him fairly soon.”

“You don’t think that’s rushing it?” Giles asked. Faith was watching him talk to the doctor outside of Xander’s room. She was watching them from just around the corner. Not because she was scared. Never because she was scared. She was just… wary.

“I don’t,” said Dr. Joseph. “He’s coming along quite well. As long as there’s someone who can help him, make sure he takes his prescriptions, I see no reason Mr. Harris couldn’t be out of here within the next couple of days.”

“I see,” Giles said. “Well, I’m certain that arrangements can be made to, um… to…”

Faith knew why he was trailing off. He’d seen her. She sighed and came out from around the corner. Giles watched her the whole way.

“Hello, Faith,” Giles said. She nodded in response. “How are you?”

Faith shrugged. She was looking at the door. “Is he, uh…”

“He’s awake,” Giles said. “If not entirely lucid.” Faith nodded again, but didn’t move, and didn’t speak.

“Dr. Joseph,” Giles said, “perhaps we could speak about this over a cup of tea?”

The doctor looked between Faith and the door. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve got nothing scheduled for a few minutes.”

As the two men walked off, Faith steeled her nerve and approached the door. She leaned against the frame, and saw Xander reading an issue of some comic called Preacher. As he attempted to shift himself he winced, and took in a sharp breath. He reached for a little control wand of some sort, but couldn’t quite reach it. Faith, taking pity on him, walked over to his bed and handed it to him. Xander pressed it, and seemed to relax.

Then he turned and saw her.

“You came,” he said. Faith nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “I did.”

“That’s good,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

Xander smiled at her. “Means you don’t completely hate me. Or that Buffy and Willow guilteded you into it, which means they cared enough to do that, which is also nice. But it’s nicer if you don’t completely hate me.”

Faith looked at him, sitting on the hospital bed because of an injury sustained while tackling a demon that, truthfully, she hadn’t even known was there until he smacked it out of the way.

“I don’t completely hate you,” she said.

Xander smiled a very mellow smile. “Thass good,” he said. “I’m glad.”

Okay, obviously the wand controlled his morphine. Word-slurring was a definite sign.

“So why’d you come?” he asked. Faith shrugged.

“Dunno, exactly. Guess I wanted to see.”

Xander laughed. “See me,” he said. “You wanted to see me.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she said. She frowned. She did want to see him. It was that goddamn cheerleader’s fault, too, for dropping her off at the stupid motel. If she had been at her apartment, she could have just gone to sleep, but instead she had to walk home with nothing but her own thoughts and observations. And damn if that hadn’t made her want to give Xander a second chance.

“Don’ frown,” Xander said. “Is a lot prettier when you smile.”

Faith laughed a little at his honesty.

“Yeah,” he said, drawing the word out. “Thass the one.”

Faith sat in one of the chairs, and watch Xander attempt to read the comic again, only it was upside down now. He was smiling just the same. After a couple of minutes, he set it down and turned to Faith.

“Hey, Faith,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Can you do something fer me? Can you lissen to me for a minute?”

“I guess,” she said. She owed him that much, anyway, to listen to him while he was completely drugged up. No use not humorin’ the guy.

“Good,” he said, closing his eyes. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry, for whaddever it is I did that made you hate me inna first place. I don’t know what it is. I wanna know, but I don’t know, and you didn’t tell me. But I wanna say I’m sorry, cuz… cuz I was jus’ trying to make you happy an’ nen you hated me. But also… but I also want you to forgive me. But I don’t want you to forgive me for me, I want you to forgive me for the… the baby. Because I don’t want the baby to grow up with hating me. Because if you hate me… and the baby hates me… then I’m gonna hate me, and I’m gonna be a bad father, and then I don’t want the baby to turn out like me. To be… dumb, and not good at things like me.”

Faith held her hand over her mouth, not sure what to say. She choked up a little at what she was sure was an honest, if not altogether intelligible, request from Xander. There was no way that he was pullin’ her leg on this one, not as doped up as he was. Even with all the pain he must be in, and the drugs to counteract that, he was worried about their baby.

But the bit that stuck with her was that he was trying to make her happy. Because if he believed it now, then it was true, and when she had been completely one hundred percent sure he was an asshole… she had been completely one hundred percent wrong.

“C’n you do that, Faith?” he asked. There was pleading in his voice. “Can you… can you forgive me, so the baby doesn’t turn out bad?”

“Yeah,” she choked out. “Yeah, Xander, I can forgive you.”

Xander rolled his head towards her and opened his eyes. “Hey, hey, hey, don’t cry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do that, I’m sorry, you don’t have to forgive me if it’s gonna make you cry.”

Faith smiled through the tears she hadn’t realized she was shedding. She stood up and walked to his bedside. “I don’t have to forgive you,” Faith said, “but only because you didn’t do anything wrong. I did.”

“You don’ have to say…”

“Yeah,” she said. “I do. Listen, go to sleep, huh? This kid’s gonna need a dad with some strength in him. We’ll talk more later, cool?”

“Yeah,” Xander said. He waved his hand around until he grabbed hold of hers. “Later. We’ll talk later.” Faith leaned down and kissed Xander’s knuckles before releasing his hand. She wiped away her tears, then turned and left the room. Outside, she found that Giles and Dr. Joseph were just returning.

“How is he?” Giles asked.

“Passed out,” Faith said. “Tried shifting himself and had to hit the morphine.”

“Really?” asked the doctor. “He’s been using less morphine than we expected, generally. Odd that shifting his leg would require it.”

Faith stared at the doctor. “Son of a bitch,” she said, with a small laugh. “He did it on purpose.” Not that it mattered. Whether he had doped himself out of pain, or because he needed Faith to believe him, did not matter one bit. What mattered was he had meant what he said. And she believed him.

“What?” Giles asked.

“It’s not important,” Faith said. “Listen, G, you were talkin’ about somebody needing to take care of Xander?”

“Um, yes,” Giles said. “I had planned to bring him to my flat – my apartment, that is, and hire a nurse.”

“No,” Faith said. “He’s coming with me.”

Giles took off his glasses and started cleaning. “Faith, I’m not sure that, um, that this would be the best time to –”

“What?” she said. “Cuz I got something else to do during the day? Not like I go to school.”

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s true, but still. A professional would be best equipped to handle any unforeseen –”

“Giles,” Faith said, interrupting him. “I’m pregnant. He’s the father. He’s coming home with me, got that?”

Giles looked shocked, and began stuttering his British heart out. Faith nodded and patted him on the chest. “Good,” she said. Faith brushed past the two men and out of the hospital. She had an apartment to make gimp friendly.

***

Willow looked around. She could have sworn she heard someone calling her name. Nobody was looking at her, though, or seemed to have said anything. In fact, Buffy was asleep, Oz was preparing himself for his stay in the book cage, and Wesley was in the office.

“Willow!” she heard. Willow turned around and saw Faith’s face at one of the windows above the bookshelves on the wall.

“Faith?” she asked. Faith nodded and waved at her. Willow looked confused.

“Come here!” Faith said, still waving.

“Oz,” Willow said. “Will you be…”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve still got twenty minutes until sundown.”

Willow nodded, scooted her chair back and headed outside, where she met a Faith who was quite obviously happy, which was odd enough in itself, but also excited about something, which was really kind of creepy, because as far as Willow knew, Faith didn’t get excited about things. Except maybe wrestling gators, or saving nuns while naked.

“Hey,” Faith said as Willow came out into the courtyard.

“Did you need something?” Willow asked.

“Yeah,” Faith said. “Can we sit?”

Willow was wary of Faith, still, but she nodded and sat on a bench next to the Slayer.

“I uh… I went to the hospital, and I saw the X-man.”

“The X-man?” Willow asked with a snort. “That’s original.”

Faith frowned. “Don’t be a bitch, it doesn’t suit you.”

“Well, I’m sorry, it’s just that… that you were being mean to Xander, and… and…”

“And that’s what I came to talk to you about,” Faith said. “Listen. There was a thing. After we got the news about… I figure he told you the doc called, and the test was positive?”

Willow nodded.

“Right,” Faith said. “And then we got into a little argument and… well, we kinda had sex again.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Willow asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Because,” Faith said. “The sex… I thought it meant something it didn’t mean. I thought it meant… I thought it meant that was all he wanted from me.”

“What?” Willow asked, angrily. “How could you think that? After all that he’s done… after all that *I’ve* done, how could you even –”

“Look, I know, okay? I fucked up. That’s what I’m saying.”

Willow listened as Faith talked about everything Cordelia had said the night before, and everything that Xander had said that day, and how it had affected her, and what it made her feel… the words came so fast, and felt so awkward that Willow wondered if this might be the first time Faith had really opened up to anybody. When Faith finished, Willow sat back on the bench.

“Wow,” Willow said. “I mean… okay. So, what, you’re in love with him now?”

“No,” Faith said. “No, not even. But… shit, I don’t know. He’s a good guy, you know?”

“The best,” Willow said.

“Right,” said Faith. “And… I don’t know if there’s anything between us, or anything but… I’ve known a lot of guys, you know? And he’s the only one like him I’ve met. And… I’ve never been one for relationships, but I gotta take a shot here.”

“Because where are you going to find another one?” Willow asked.

“Yeah,” Faith said, softly. “Knew you’d understand.”

Willow nodded, and checked the skyline. She’d have to go back in soon.

“Anyway,” Faith said. “I need your help.”

“Me?” Willow asked. “What do you need from me?”

“Well, I overheard the doc tellin’ Geeves that Xander’s gonna need some lookin’ after when he gets out. After our little talk… I kinda volunteered my place.”

“Yeah?” Willow asked. Faith had volunteered to take care of somebody else? Jeez, maybe she was really serious about taking a shot.

“Yeah,” Faith said. “And, well, I wanted to, uh… well, I uh…”

“Faith, just spit it out,” Willow said.

“I want to make it home-like for him. So he’s comfortable. And get some of his duds and stuff, you know?”

Willow nodded.

“And I need your help,” Faith said. “Cuz his parents don’t know me, and I wanted to get his stuff.”

Willow glanced at the ever-lowering sun and frowned. “Can’t,” Willow said.

“Oh,” said Faith, disappointed. “I just… yeah, okay. I guess, umm…”

“No, Faith,” Willow said. “I mean, I can’t right now. I have to watch over Oz tonight, it’s the night before the full moon. If you want, like, tomorrow afternoon…”

“Oh,” Faith said. “Oh, yeah, that’d be tight.”

“Okay,” Willow said. “Well, I have to go back in and watch over Oz now, but, I’ll see you tomorrow, after school?”

“Sounds good,” Faith said. “And uh… don’t mention this to anyone, okay?”

Willow frowned. “Still ashamed?”

“No,” Faith said. “It’s just, I want it to be a surprise for him. Something nice. I mean, he saved my life. Twice.”

Willow smiled at her. “Sure,” she said. “I won’t tell anybody.”

Faith thanked her and headed off to places unknown as Willow walked back into the library. As she got to the library door, she stopped suddenly.

“Wait,” she said. “Twice?”

Sixteen

“She broke you, didn’t she?” Willow asked.

“I can assure you, she did no such thing,” Giles said.

“I think he’s lying,” Buffy said. “Willow? What do you think?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s lying,” Willow said. “I think she broke him, and pretty well, too.”

Giles sighed. “Well, she just dropped it on me,” he said. “No warning, or, or build up. Just… here it is! How was I supposed to react?”

“It’s okay, Giles,” Buffy said. “It’s not embarrassing to be completely confounded by the statement of a seventeen year old girl.”

“One who dropped out of high school,” Willow added.

“Watch it,” Xander croaked, clearly startling all three other occupants of his hospital room. “That’s the mother of my child you’re talking about.”

“You’re awake!” Willow accused him, rising to her feet.

“Uh huh,” Xander said, pushing one of the buttons on his bed. The back lifted up to put him in a sitting position.

“That’s cheating,” Willow said, even as a smile broke out on her face. “How are you doing?”

“And how long were you awake?” Buffy asked as she and Giles both stood.

Xander shrugged. “Not long,” he said. “Only since you started talking about Giles being broken. And I’m doing pretty good. Leg itches.”

“That would most likely be the muscle repairing itself,” Giles said. They were all gathered round his bed.

“How long have you guys been here?” Xander asked.

“Giles has been here pretty much since lunch,” Buffy said. “I got here a few hours ago, and Willow just showed up about ten minutes ago.”

“I brought you presents,” Willow said, holding up a brown, magazine sized paper bag that was filled to bursting.

“Porn?” Xander asked, smiling. Willow glared.

“Comics, Xander,” she said as Xander slid the bags contents out on his lap.

“Oh man,” he said, flipping through the books there. “This is –”

“The first five,” Willow said, grinning proudly. “And I’ve got the others at home, when you’re done with these.”

Xander turned to his best friend. “You are absolutely the best,” he said, grabbing her arm and pulling her into a hug as Giles picked up a couple of the books from his lap.

“Preludes & Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, Dream Country… what are these?” he asked.

“Only compilations of one of the best comics ever,” Xander said. “That, my dear former watcher-man, can put nine out of ten of your stuffy old ‘literary classics’ to shame, any day of the week. It is true genius.”

“And it’s for Xander,” Willow scolded, taking the books back from Giles.

“I was merely taking a look,” Giles said.

“Don’t worry, you can borrow them when I’m done,” Xander said. “Hey, if you’re all here, who’s watching Oz?”

“Wesley is,” said Willow.

“Yeah?” Xander asked. “How many of his teeth did you have to pull to get him to do that?”

“None, actually,” said Willow. “He offered.”

“And he’s paying your medical bills,” Giles said. “Or at the very least, passing them on to the Council.”

“Gotta say, I don’t mind that,” said Xander. “Have uh… my parents…” His voice trailed off as Buffy and Giles glanced away and Willow petted his arm. “Not like I expected them anyway,” he muttered.

There was a knock at the door. Giles and Willow separated, and Xander saw Faith standing there, leaning against the door frame.

“Hey,” Xander said, surprise in his voice.

“Hey,” said Faith. Their eyes were locked on each other.

“Yes, well,” Giles said. “I was just about to go find some food…”

“I’ll come with,” said Buffy.

“And I should really get back to Oz,” said Willow. She leaned over and kissed Xander’s temple. “You get some rest, okay?”

“I’ve been asleep all day, Will,” said Xander. “And tell, uh… tell Wes thanks.”

Willow nodded and left the room behind Buffy and Giles. Faith stepped up to Xander’s bedside.

“You’re here,” he said.

Faith shrugged. “I said we’d talk later. It’s later.”

“You said that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “This afternoon. You were reading a comic, I showed up, you got doped up…”

“I remember the comic,” he said, creasing his eyebrows, “and I remember the morphine…”

“Oh,” Faith said, suddenly much more reserved. “Well, it wasn’t like –”

“I’m kidding, Faith,” he said, smiling. “I remember that you were here, and I remember us talking, or, well, me trying to talk. You’re way too easy a target. Sorry.”

Faith smacked him on the head and smiled. “Jackass,” she said.

“I am what God made me, “ he said with a shrug.

“So, how much of this afternoon do you remember?” she asked.

“Uh,” he said. “Something about you forgiving me. And right now I’m really hoping that wasn’t just the morphine.”

Faith smiled at him. “It wasn’t,” she said. Xander breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Only, a little after that, I kind of admitted that maybe it wasn’t you needed forgiveness in the first place.”

“Well, I can’t comment about that,” Xander said. “Cuz I still don’t know what happened in the first place.”

“Sex,” she said.

“That much is obvious.”

“No,” she said. “I mean, the other day, after we found out for sure.”

“Oh,” Xander said. “But I thought –”

“I kinda took it as you… just wanting sex,” she said.

“As in… the only thing?” he asked, bewildered.

“Yeah,” Faith said. She shrugged. “Sorry. It’s just, I was still so… I *am* still so skeptical of guys… and when you just wanted it like that…”

“Faith, I never would have done that if I thought you weren’t comfortable, or, well, I mean…”

“I know what you mean,” she said. “Now I do, anyway. Got some sense talked into me.”

Xander smiled. “So, we’re okay?”

“If it’s possible,” Faith said, “I’d like us to be better than okay.”

“Yeah?” he asked. Did she mean friends? Or lovers? Or what?

“Yeah,” Faith said. “See, here’s what I kind of figured out. We’re havin’ a baby. And… you’re a pretty good guy. And I thought, I haven’t met a lot of good guys my age. I mean there’s you, and…” she shook her head.

“Oz,” Xander said.

“Yeah, well, he’s short, hairy, and taken,” Faith said. “And too quiet. Half the time you can’t get more than three syllables out of him. Anyway. I kinda thought, once your up to it, maybe we could, you know… date. Or something. Try it out, you know?”

“Is this before or after we get married?” he asked.

Faith shoved his arm, causing him to rock back and forth in the bed. “Quit it,” she said. “I’m being serious.”

Xander laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “Um. Yeah. Dating. I’d love to. When I’m up and about, I’m gonna take you on a date like you’ve never seen… you know I only go Dutch, right?”

Faith glared at him, and he smiled. “Seriously, though,” he said. “I would love the opportunity.”

“Good,” she said. Faith went on to tell him about what the doctor said about him needing help all day, and would he be open to moving in with her – only for the duration of his gimpiness, of course. Xander approved of the plan with a smile and a joke about seeing Faith in a sexy nurse outfit.

The two talked and joked into the night, neither noticing when Giles and Buffy stuck their heads in, and then quickly back out. And when the nurse came in and said that visiting hours were over, Faith leaned in and gave Xander a soft kiss on the lips.

“One more thing,” she whispered to him. His eyes were still closed and he was smiling like a fool.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Xander… when we made love this afternoon –”

His eyes flew open. “When we *what*?”

Faith walked away from his bed and winked at him over her shoulder. “You’re way too easy,” she said, closing the door behind herself.

Xander smiled at the door, then set in to his comics.

***

“What do you want?”

Willow and Faith looked up at the man. He was much taller than they were.

“Um,” Willow said, “we’re here to get some of Xander’s things.”

Tony Harris frowned. “What for?”

“He’s um… he’s not going to live here anymore,” Willow said.

“What?” Tony asked. “What the hell do –”

“It’s just,” Willow said, “he had an accident, and he needs pretty constant looking after. And so, he’s going to be somewhere, for a while, without so much in the way of stairs. Somewhere it’ll be easier for him to move with the wheelchair, and then crutches, later.”

Tony Harris stared down at the two of them. “Don’t think I’m paying for any of that crap,” he said.

Willow shook her head. “It’s being taken care of,” she said. “Can we, um…”

“Only the crap that’s in his room. The rest is ours, you hear? I don’t want you two little bitches stealing what’s mine.”

Faith opened her mouth to reply, but stopped when she felt Willow’s hand on her shoulder. Willow shook her head. Faith bottled up her comment and followed Willow up to Xander’s room.

“Jeez,” Faith said, when they got to Xander’s room and shut the door. “He always like that?”

Willow shook her head as she started to pick through some of Xander’s things. Willow obviously wasn’t going to say any more than that, so Faith, too, started to look through Xander’s room.

They started loading up the backpacks they had brought with knick knacks he had collected over the years, a few books, and some comics. Willow grabbed some of the pictures he kept, pictures of herself, Xander and Jesse, then later with Buffy, and even Oz and Cordelia. She wrapped these in a sweatshirt, and then started loading some of his clothes into her bag.

Faith found Xander’s own backpack and started loading it with clothes, too. In about forty-five minutes, they were done. The only talking was when Faith asked Willow whether or not to bring something they’d found.

“Anything else?” Faith asked.

Willow, with a determined look on her face, walked over to Xander’s window and unlocked it and tried to open it, but it would not budge.

“Pop this,” Willow said.

Faith looked questioningly at Willow for a second, but then did as she asked. With very little effort – for her – the window slid open. Willow reached through the hole and removed the screen, placing it just inside. She closed the window, but not before making sure to leave something jammed in under it, so it wouldn’t fully close.

“What’s that for?” Faith asked.

“Not now,” said Willow. She grabbed two bags, despite Faith being a Slayer, and opened the door. Faith quickly grabbed the last bag and followed as Willow walked out of the house and down the street. Faith had to almost jog to keep up with Willow’s speed.

“Red,” she said. “Hey, Red!” She grabbed Willow’s arm and turned the girl. Willow was crying.

“Hey,” Faith said. “What’s going on?”

“That man,” Willow said, “is as unfit to be a father as anybody ever was. He-he doesn’t care, and he doesn’t worry, and he never… he…” She shook her head. “Xander’s not going back there. I don’t care if he’s staying with you, or with Giles, or with me, but he is not going to live with that *bastard* anymore.”

Faith was pretty much shocked. She hadn’t heard Willow use that kind of language… well, ever.

“So,” Faith said. “The window –”

“If Xander needs more things, we can get in that way,” Willow said. “I don’t want to have to deal with him.”

Faith looked back down the street at Xander’s house – Xander’s old house, she corrected herself.

“His dad,” she said. “Is he always that bad?”

Willow shook her head. “He’s usually worse,” she said.

“How bad?” Faith asked.

“Do you really want to know?” Willow asked.

Faith looked back at the redhead, her… her boyfriend’s best friend. God that was weird. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

“He always yells at Xander, for not living up to his expectations, even though he really just wants Xander to fail. Calls him worthless. Calls him a mistake. Xander has a problem of not believing he’s worth anything, and that’s the doing of one man.”

Faith opened her mouth to say something, but Willow kept talking.

“The only time Xander stood up to him…” Willow shuddered with a memory. “Tony called me a whore. When Xander stood up for me, he got a fist in the face.”

Faith was silent. She guessed Xander’s home life was not good, but…

“You have any experience with that?” Willow asked as they started walking again.

“Yeah,” Faith said. “My pops, before he split.” She pulled her hair back, exposing a small scar below her ear.

“What’s that?” Willow asked.

“Beer bottle,” Faith said. Willow frowned. Faith looked at her. “You’ve got tear streaks.”

“Don’t care,” Willow said. They continued to walk in silence for a couple minutes.

“Bein’ the Slayer’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Faith said. Willow turned and looked at her.

“So far,” Willow said.

Faith looked at the redhead, and knew she meant Xander. “Yeah,” Faith was forced to admit. “So far.”

Seventeen

The next day, Monday, Xander was released from the hospital Giles borrowed Joyce’s Jeep to transport Xander, Faith, and Xander’s new wheelchair. Xander was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of his stuff there, and that Faith had moved her furniture around so there was a space right next to an end table, and in front of the television, where his wheelchair would fit.

After Giles left, he was even more pleased to find some more of his things in the bedroom. Faith explained that his leg needed proper elevation and support, and it had a good chance of slipping off the couch. And she was damned if she was gonna give up her own bed. They would share the bed, she said, proclaiming that since he needed to be well rested, there would be no repeats of previous performances.

At least until he was healthy. Xander was willing to take what he could get.

Willow and Buffy came over later that day, and said that a city construction crew had showed up and started doing things. When Giles had asked about it, they said they were putting in a wheelchair accessible ramp from the sidewalk to the front door. A memo had been circulated to teachers saying that any students with special needs would be allowed to use the service elevator to travel between floors.

Nobody knew why it was happening, but they were all grateful… and suspicious.

Xander and Faith spent the next three days together. They joked, they watched television and movies, and they read, Faith picking up each of Xander’s comics pretty much as soon as he was done with them. Faith managed to make a mildly serviceable dinner on the second day, but they pretty much stuck to take out and delivery – Chinese and pizza.

They also talked. Faith revealed that Willow had told her some of his life at home, and what it had been like for her – she’d had it worse, not that it was a competition. They talked about everything. What they liked, what they didn’t, their deepest secrets, their biggest embarrassments, their greatest sexual fantasies. Faith, Xander quickly found, was not hesitant about or embarrassed by sex talk.

On Thursday, Xander had a check up at the hospital. He was deemed healthy enough to return to school, so long as he abstained from any strenuous activity, and he stayed in his wheelchair. The next morning, Faith wheeled her boyfriend to school and at the front door, in front of everyone, planted a scorching kiss on his lips that kept him smiling through the first three periods.

When the school day was over, Xander wheeled himself into the library backwards – the only way he could get there without smacking his leg – and whipped around to find the entire group just sitting around talking.

“What?” he said. “No demons? No bad guys? No nothing?”

Buffy shrugged. “There’s absolutely nothing going on. Patrol’s been quiet, nothing more than the normal vamps.”

So Xander sat there, playing around on his wheelchair and talking to his friends. He quickly learned how to spin around and make very sharp turns at fairly high speeds. Giles, though annoyed, was reluctant to admonish him, and settled instead for polishing his glasses and clucking his tongue a lot. Around about five, they loaded Xander into Oz’s newly steam-cleaned van and dropped him off at Faith’s apartment.

“You know,” he said, as he munched on pizza, “you shouldn’t just stay here all day.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, as she wiped some tomato sauce from her lip with her sleeve.

“I mean, come hang out with us. School’s out at three, there’s no reason for you to just hang around here. Hell, I bet Giles wouldn’t mind if you hung around the library most days.”

“I got TV here,” she said. “Why would I wanna leave that for a buncha dusty old books?”

Xander shrugged. “Somebody to talk to,” he said. “And I could totally come in at lunch time and we could make out.”

“Loser,” Faith said, laughing at him. She leaned across the table and kissed him just the same.

“I’m serious, though,” he said. “Think about it. The guy’s’d love to have you.”

“Guys always want me,” Faith said.

Xander glared at her. “I mean it,” he pleaded. “Please?”

“Maybe,” Faith said. Xander dropped it.

That night, when they were going to sleep, Faith leaned over and kissed Xander. “Thanks,” she said.

“For what?” he asked.

“Earlier. Thinkin’ of me. Askin’ me to be a part of the group.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked. Faith smiled and rested her head against his chest.

“Don’t change, huh?” she said.

Xander didn’t have anything to say to that, so he wrapped his arm around his girlfriend – who he got to spend each night with – and turned off the light. When he woke, she was still there.

***

The next week went by smoothly. The Hellmouth was quiet – which freaked everyone out a little – and Xander and Faith continued to get along great. Faith did indeed start showing up after school to hang with the gang. When she showed up on Monday, Xander greeted her with a kiss and pulled her into his lap. He immediately regretted it. His leg was not ready for such things.

Xander’s week went well. He caught up on all his missed work – with the help of the wonderful and lovely Willow – and after a Wednesday check up, he even got to hobble around the apartment on crutches for a half hour a day.

Things, in fact, were going so well that he had Faith and Buffy sneak back into his parents’ house and retrieve the rest of his clothes and a bunch of his other ‘cool junk.’ They left his old room barren, and he and Faith spent the rest of that day deciding what to toss out and what to keep.

The porn, by unanimous vote, was not thrown out.

That Friday, Angel returned from his trip. He showed up at the library fairly late and, after a exuberant greeting from Buffy, told everyone that the trip had been fine, if a little boring, and that Alan Finch was safe, and in good hands. Then he and Buffy went out on patrol to catch up.

***

“Wow,” Angel said as he and Buffy strolled hand-in-hand through Restfield Cemetery. “A lot happened while I was gone. The box, Xander and his leg, him moving in with Faith…”

“Oh!” Buffy said. “And I didn’t even tell you the biggest news! Faith’s pregnant with Xander’s baby!”

“You’re kidding,” Angel said.

“I know. Weird, isn’t it? Xander’s gonna –”

“No, I mean you’re actually kidding right?” Angel asked.

“Oh, don’t be like that, he’s going to be a good father. And she’ll… I’m sure she’ll be fine as a mother.”

“Buffy,” Angel said, shaking his head, “Faith isn’t pregnant.”

“What?” Buffy said. A vampire jumped out from behind a crypt. She quickly stabbed it in the chest with her stake, and turned back to Angel. “What do you mean she’s not pregnant? They had a blood test!”

“I don’t care if they had three,” he said. “Faith’s not pregnant.”

“And just how do you know that, Mr. I-haven’t-been-here-guy?”

“Because,” Angel said. “I’d have smelled it if she was.”

“Well, well maybe you just missed it. I mean, you weren’t specifically trying to tell if –”

“Buffy, trust me,” he said. “This is not something in question. Vampires can smell that kind of hormone shift from a hundred feet.”

“How do you know? What, did you like make sport of hunting them?”

Angel looked down at his girlfriend, frowning.

“Oh,” she said, glumly. That was really bad, and she wished she hadn’t asked him that. “Wait! But, if she’s not pregnant, then how did the test come back like that?”

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “In my day we knew a woman was pregnant when she started to get big.”

“But, she’s missing her period!” Buffy protested, feeling she had trumped his sense of smell.

“And you’ve never done that?”

Buffy was mortified. “You knew?”

Angel shrugged. “It’s blood.”

She buried her face in his shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her. “Wow,” she said. “Um. We have to go. We have to tell them.”

They made their way over to Xander and Faith’s apartment, Buffy realizing that she had mentally assigned ownership to both of them, and not just Faith. She knocked tentatively on the door and was surprised when Xander opened it.

“Buffy!” he said. “Look what I can do!”

Xander hopped on one leg in a short circle, balancing one crutch in his hand.

“How long did you practice that?” she asked.

“Only the last hour or so,” he said, before sitting carefully back down in his wheelchair with a grin.

“Yeah,” Faith said as she came out from the bedroom. “And amazingly, we haven’t got complaints from the neighbor downstairs. Hey, B. Fang. What’s up?”

Buffy glanced up at Angel. “We need to talk,” she said.

“Sure,” Faith said. “Come on in.”

“Um…” Angel said.

“Both of you,” Faith clarified.

Angel nodded his thanks and entered the apartment behind Buffy, closing the door behind himself. Buffy turned to him. “You’re sure?” she asked

Angel took a short whiff of the air. “Yeah,” he said. “Positive.”

“What’s up?” Faith asked, sitting on the arm of Xander’s chair. He patted her leg and she smiled at him.

“Okay,” Buffy said. She began pacing. “It’s like this. I was telling Angel about everything that happened while he was gone. The box. The fight. The Xander getting almost killed. And I mentioned the fact that you were pregnant.”

“Yeah,” Faith said.

“And he said… well, there’s these hormones, you see, and Angel said that… well, what he said was –”

“You’re not pregnant, Faith,” Angel said.

Faith’s smile vanished, as did Xander’s. “That’s not funny,” she said.

Angel shook his head. “It’s not supposed to be,” he said. “But I am being honest. I could smell the change if you were. But you’re not.” “But the blood tests –” Xander started.

“Were wrong,” Angel said. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Faith said, softly. “Um… it’s good that you told us… I gotta… I’ll be…” she stood up and went into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

Buffy looked at Xander, and he just looked lost. The blood had drained from his face, and he looked like he could cry. Buffy encircled him in a hug, and Xander held on to her for dear life, tears flowing.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know you were… I didn’t realize it was that important to you. I didn’t realize you had… I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t realize either, ‘til just now,” he said. Xander sniffled and wiped his eyes as Buffy released him.

“Well,” Buffy said, “we should go. You guys probably have things to talk about.”

“Yeah,” Xander said, looking at the bedroom door. As they walked out, Xander called out for Angel.

“Yeah?” the vampire asked, sticking his head back in.

“Thank you,” Xander said.

Angel nodded, and shut the door, and Buffy wrapped her arms around him.

“That sucked,” she said. Angel nodded and held her. Buffy knew there was nothing he could really say, other than clichéd agreement. But deep in her mind, something else was seeding. Buffy knew that, as long as she was with Angel, she’d never feel the emotion of losing a child, which was basically what had happened to Faith and Xander. But she’d also never feel the joy of having one, not by Angel. She suddenly wasn’t sure if the one was worth the other.

***

Xander rolled over to the bedroom door and knocked on it. He didn’t hear anything, so he opened the door. Faith was lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Tears were streaming from her eyes, but she wasn’t acknowledging them.

Xander rolled into the room and shut the door behind him. He locked his wheels and managed to get himself out of the chair and onto the bed. He lay down next to Faith and stared up at the ceiling, crying right alongside her. After a few minutes, Faith slid over to him and buried her head in his chest, staining his shirt with her tears.

Xander stroked her hair and back as soothingly as he could. He needed to be strong for her.

“It sucks,” he said. Faith rolled away so she was leaning on his arm, looking up at him. “I didn’t even realize,” he said. “I didn’t know how important it was until that moment.”

“Are you gonna leave me now?” she asked.

Xander turned his head sharply. “How can you ask me that? How can that even cross your mind?”

Faith shrugged. “It’s just… every reason this whole thing started just turned out to be fake.”

“That doesn’t make what we feel any less real,” Xander said. He kissed Faith softly, and she smiled at him through her sadness.

“We weren’t ready anyway,” she said. “Not really.”

“Nah,” he said. “We’re still just kids ourselves, really.”

Faith nodded, her head rolling awkwardly about his arm as she did so.

“But,” he said, looking down into her eyes.

“But?”

“But, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t looking forward to having a baby with you.”

“Me, too,” Faith said. “It was… I got used to it. It was nice.”

“It was,” Xander said. “Something to look forward to.”

They lay there together, not moving, for a few minutes before Xander spoke again.

“Faith,” he said.

“Yeah, baby?”

Xander smiled at the pet name. “Don’t freak out on me, okay?”

“About what?” she asked.

Xander pulled her as close to him as he possibly could. “I’m in love with you.”

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. Faith rested her head against his chest.

“I can deal with that,” she said. They lay in silence, and after a few minutes Xander reached over and turned the light off.

“Xander,” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“I think I’m in love with you, too.”

Xander smiled in the dark, and kissed his girlfriend. It was gonna be okay.

Epilogue

Xander and Faith spent that weekend in the apartment they both now thought of as theirs together. A parade of people came by to see how they were. Mrs. Summers brought cookies, Giles brought sage advice and a fatherly manner they both had lacked. Oz brought Willow, and that was enough.

Willow brought love, and dealt with the situation how she knew best – by reeling off statistics she had researched about how often labs screwed up blood work. She also brought a needle and a vial that she had Angel snatch from the hospital, claiming the need to send the blood to an independent lab her father knew of. The results came back negative. None of them, of course, knew the fedora-clad Balance Demon named Whistler had switched the vials. Whistler was lucky that way.

Life eventually returned to a more normal state over the next seven weeks before graduation. Xander recovered. Buffy got infected with a demon’s psychic ability, and had to be fed the demon’s heart so she wouldn’t go crazy. Later that day, she stopped Jonathon Levinson from killing himself, and, in a fit of hunger, Xander discovered the lunch lady poisoning the Jell-O and saved half the school from certain death, or at least a horrible case of food poisoning.

Faith got her period.

Prom came around and the ex-demon named Anya asked Xander to the prom – or at least tried to, but Faith pushed her out of the way and declared Xander her property, and that if he was gonna embarrass anybody on the dance floor, it was damn well gonna be her. This, along with the fact that he got to second base and was headed for third on the steps of the school, finally convinced Larry that he wasn’t gay.

That same day, though, Angel broke up with Buffy, and broke her heart. The Scoobies held her up as best they could, and Buffy was grateful to have a demon problem to focus on, instead of her emotions. After killing a few hellhounds the night of the prom, Buffy was happy and surprised to be given a completely new award – class protector. Angel showed up for the last dance.

Xander danced awkwardly with Faith – his leg was only *mostly* healed, and he still had a pronounced muscle twinge that caused him to limp – and looked around at his friends. Willow was happily resting her head on Oz’s shoulder, Buffy was holding onto Angel for what might be the last time, and even Jonathon had a date: the ex-demon named Anya. He looked horrified. It was a nice Prom.

A few days later, Angel was shot with a poison tipped arrow by Mr. Trick, the Mayor’s vampire lackey. Hours and hours of arduous research produced very little. Wesley contacted the Council, and when they refused to help, Buffy quit. In a show of solidarity, Faith did the same – not that she had really followed their orders much anyway. Xander felt a little bad for Wesley – after all, he had gotten the Council to pay for his hospital bills, which he knew had to be enormous. But he stood by his girls.

Oz found, eventually, that the only cure for the poison in Angel was the blood of a Slayer. So Buffy and Faith broke into the hospital, grabbed a couple of empty blood bags, donated a pint each and let Angel drink. He drank, he lived, and then, citing two Slayers on the Hellmouth, he left. Buffy was again heart broken. She found Mr. Trick and well and truly kicked his ass before killing him.

And then it was time for graduation.

***

“Hey,” Xander said, approaching Buffy and Willow in the student lounge. Willow had just finished petting the soda machine “You guys know how we’ve been worried about what the Mayor was gonna do? When the other shoe was gonna drop?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said.

“Well, guess who’s speaking at graduation.”

“Siegfried?” Willow asked.

“No,” said Xander.

“Roy?”

“No.”

“One of the tigers?”

“Come out of the fantasy, Will.”

“The mayor’s speaking at graduation?” Buffy asked.

“I know,” Xander said. “It’s not fair. We’re so gonna die.”

“Hey, don’t say that!” Buffy said. “We’re gonna live. Now come on, let’s go find Giles so he can tell us what the Mayor’s up to, so that we can continue this living.”

The group of them headed off for the library, after grabbing both Cordelia and Oz along the way. Whatever the Mayor was planning, they were certain they’d need everybody they had. They got to the library and found Faith and Giles conversing, and looking through some books.

“You guys heard?” Xander asked as he greeted his girlfriend with a kiss.

“About Mayor Wilkins?” Giles said. “Yes, we have. Unfortunately, with no leads, we can’t tell what he’s planning.”

“He’s not planning anything.”

Everybody turned to see none other than Mayor Richard Wilkins III strolling into the library. Buffy, Faith and Giles immediately reached for weapons.

“Hey, hey, whoa, there’s no need for violence,” Mayor Wilkins said. “Come on, now folks, do you need to be so hostile?”

“You poisoned Angel,” Buffy growled

“Now, I did no such thing,” said Wilkins. “I had nothing to do with that. I let Mr. Trick go long before that happened.”

“Let him go?” Giles asked, warily.

“After he failed me,” Wilkins said, “with the Box of Gavrok. I was going to kill him, but darned if he didn’t disappear before I could get to it. I understand you took care of it pretty well, though, Buffy. Good for you.”

“Why are you here?” Xander asked.

“To congratulate you,” said Wilkins. “You’re graduating. Quite a feat.”

“I don’t believe you,” Faith said.

“Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?” Wilkins said, smiling. “But you’re right. I’m not just here to congratulate you on graduating. I’m also here to congratulate you on winning.”

“What?” Cordelia asked.

“Winning!” he said. “You guys beat me, fair and square. Oh, I had a doozy of a time trying to find another way to ascend, but it turns out there just isn’t one. Now I’m going to have to wait another three hundred years for an appropriate alignment. Whew. And I thought a hundred years was a long time! Well! Who knows what I’ll see.”

“Wait a second,” Xander said. “You’re telling us that you’re just here… to say good job?”

“That’s about it,” said Wilkins. “You guys fought a good fight, and you won. Now how can I begrudge you that? Huh? I ask you! No. The rest of my term will be dedicated to community enrichment and safety.”

“Safety?” asked Oz.

Wilkins smiled. “I don’t like outside operators in my town.”

“So,” Faith said, “we won… and you’re not going to be a threat for at least three hundred years?”

“Uh huh!” said the Mayor. “So stop worrying. It’s over. Live your lives, if only until college starts. You guys have earned a break.”

The Mayor left them in the library to muddle over what he’d said. They wore weapons under their robes despite his claims of peace, but it turned out that they didn’t need them. Mayor Wilkins kept true to his word and didn’t do anything. They gathered together one last time across the street from the high school.

“Check it out guys,” Oz said. “We survived.”

“It was a hell of a fight,” Buffy said.

“I meant high school,” said Oz.

Buffy smiled. “Me too.”

Oz shook his head. “Take a moment.”

The seven of them stood there, looking at the school they’d attended for years. Or in Faith’s case, the school she’d avoided going to for the better part of a year. Buffy and Willow nodded and started walking away.

“And the moment’s done,” said Oz.

Faith whispered into Xander’s ear.

“Hey guys,” he said to the rest of the group. “We’re meeting at the Bronze later, right?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said.

“Good,” said Xander. Faith was holding his hand and starting to wander away. “We’ll uh… we’ll meet you guys there.” He and Faith ran off in the direction of their apartment.

Buffy and Cordelia looked at the retreating couple, looked at each other, and had only one thing to say.

“Perverts.”

The End

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