The Xander Zone, Part 4

Author’s Notes: This is pretty much AU, though it does take off from canon.

Stats on skydiving are from “PARACHUTING, The Skydiver’s Handbook” by Dan Poynter and Mike Turoff, ParaPublishing, 2000.

Big thanks to LJ, Kolumbynne, Copper and Indie for their help and review of this chapter.

Rating: Adult; explicit sex

Disclaimer: Own nothing. All belongs to Joss, ME, Fox, et.al.

Pairing: Initially B/Other, ultimately B/A. (Really, I promise no matter how it looks right now. Trust me!)

Distribution: My site, EverySixSeconds; sites currently with permission to host my fics; all others please ask.

Originally posted: 11.09.2003

#

Present, Angel Investigations…

“Food. Yay!”  Cordelia gave a little clap and hurried over to where Wesley stood at the counter. Pretending to peek into the bag, she muttered under her breath, “Uffy-bay is on the ideo-vay. She’s with another eye-gay.”

Leaning forward, Wes whispered sardonically, “Despite your attempt at secrecy, I’m pretty certain that Angel can understand the ancient code of pig-Latin.”  Drawing away from the brunette seer, he walked around the counter and sat the bag of food on the desk.  Pulling out a chicken satay, he began to nibble on it as he stepped behind Angel to watch the video playing on the computer screen.

There were about half a dozen people in the back of an airplane securing their gear – goggles, helmets, parachutes. One of them was, in fact, Buffy. She was dressed in a black jumpsuit that had patches of yellow on the sleeves and legs. The man standing next to her was wearing a similar style jumpsuit only his was a solid olive green, a red ‘X’ was emblazoned across one pocket. He already had on goggles and a helmet and was helping Buffy – who was smiling up at him – secure her own helmet.

Angel stared at the screen, unable to believe that the girl he was watching was the same girl that he had known in Sunnydale, the same girl that he had seen only months ago. Granted, their meeting at the deserted location between LA and Sunnydale had been all too brief and certainly painful – but he would have never thought that the girl – no, the woman, he corrected himself as he thought of the changes in her since their earlier years together… the woman he had seen that night seemed unlikely to be the same one that he was now watching on a skydiving video. What had pushed her to take such risks?  Granted, she was still the slayer… but wasn’t that risk enough?  Too much, a voice whispered in his head, reminding him that he had already lost her more than once to the perils of her job.

“When was this filmed?” The vampire asked, suddenly curious. He glanced briefly at Gunn, standing to his right.

“I don’t know when it was made, but I downloaded it on…” Gunn took the mouse and moved the video window over slightly to see the date of the file. “February 12. It was probably made in January or February if it’s true to form. X’s vids usually come out within a week or two of when they’re shot. He’s got a pretty awesome video crew.” He clicked once more on the video, bringing the window back to the front.

With a brief nod of acknowledgement Angel turned his attention back to the screen. With a few clicks of the mouse, he started the video over again, as if he might have missed a few significant seconds. Awesome video crew, my ass, he thought peevishly as he watched the footage. It was probably a bunch of idiots just as foolish as X himself apparently was. And who used a name like ‘X’ anyway?

Wes looked questioningly at Gunn who only shrugged slightly in response.  After the video played for several minutes, past the part they had seen once before, the occupants of the airplane filed to the open door and began to jump.

“Doesn’t she know that’s dangerous?” Angel muttered as he watched anxiously as Buffy did in fact walk to the open doorway. After a few seconds of additional encouragement and a rather suggestive kiss from the big guy she was obviously with, she jumped out the plane doorway with him.

“Looks pretty cool if you ask me,” Gunn offered, watching the couple float through the air. Beneath them, the ground appeared as a distant smudge of green and brown. Obviously, the person with the camera was with the couple – and an expert skydiver as well – as he or she continued to film their descent.

“The latest data from National Safety Council puts it at one death per every 82,000 jumps.” Fred piped in cheerfully. She now stood next to Gunn, the carton of basil eggplant in her hand. “Of those, one in 10 is due to malfunction of the parachute.”

With a slow turn of his head, Angel blinked and gave the brunette physicist a cold look.

“Well, those odds are actually better than slaying…” Wes added matter-of-factly before he noticed that Angel’s cold glare had landed on him. Clearing his throat, he ignored the vampire and rummaged through the bag for another chicken satay.

On the video, X did a backward flip then drifted over to where Buffy was, reaching out to take her hand.

“That looks wicked fast.” Cordy declared as she pulled up a chair next to Angel. Taking out a pair of chopsticks, she rubbed them together then dove into the carton of pad thai, scooping up a healthy portion of the egg noodles and bringing it to her mouth.

“It is fast if you consider 90 to 100 miles per hour fast. They’ll get 115 to 130 on the initial jump.” Fred offered readily, happy to share her extensive knowledge of obscure data and facts with the others. “You go faster if you dive or stand – sort of cutting down on the wind drag if you will.”

Angel turned his stare on Fred once again. He didn’t need any more reminders or data that told him that what Buffy – his Buffy – was doing on this video wasn’t safe. This X guy was completely irresponsible. First with the demon slaying on video and now skydiving – it was bad enough that the guy did it himself, but to drag Buffy into this and who knows what other unsafe acts… His eyes flared angrily at the possibilities crossing his mind and he whipped his head back to the screen. What else was she doing with the guy – other than the obvious – that was unsafe?

Noticing the curious looks of the others, Fred said defensively, “What? So I remember things.”

“It’s actually quite exhilarating.” Wesley interjected proudly, nodding toward the video where the skydivers were now popping open their chutes.  Six parachutes appeared in the sky indicating that all the jumpers were now successfully drifting to earth.

“You jumped?” The brunette seer questioned with unabashed surprise, her eyes wide as she glanced over to where Wes stood. “You? Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, former watcher, librarian and rogue demon hunter, you jumped out of an airplane?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I have.” Wes replied indignantly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Several times.”

“Really?”  Fred asked with admiration, offering a bite of eggplant.

“Yes, really.” Wesley shook his head at the offered food, “Why is that so hard to believe?  I’m not without daring. And actually, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that a Slayer would choose such a sport. After all, when one is constantly on the edge, near death…” The former Watcher paused, noticing Angel’s dark eyes once more trained on him, the vampire’s expression almost menacing. Glancing back at Cordelia, Wes continued, “One would perhaps crave…” as if he could feel the weight of the vampire’s continued stare, he trailed off once again. “Ahem. Well, I’m sure you understand what I mean.”

“So you jumped. You wore the jumpsuit too?” Cordy teased, choosing to completely ignore the obvious tension in the room. Her eyes roved over the good-looking Watcher as she imagined him in the figure hugging outfit. She smiled brightly as she tilted her head toward the screen, “That kind of jumpsuit?”

“Of course.” Wesley replied almost primly before he amended, “Though perhaps not as… snug or revealing.”

“They are cute in a sort of ‘I want to hurl myself at the earth in impossible speeds way’ but I can’t really see you in one. Why do they wear them anyway?” Returning her gaze to the video, she watched it almost thoughtfully. With a shrug of one shapely shoulder, she added, “Maybe it makes the clean up easier.”

“I’m surprised that Buffy would do that really.” The brunette seer continued after she finished another mouthful of noodles. “I mean, Willow said she died by jumping into some portal or something – so you’d think that our little Slayer there would have issues – to say the least – about jumping off things or out of things.”

Angel ran one hand through his hair in exasperation and turned to face Cordelia.

“What?  I’m just saying…” The former Sunnydale cheerleader shrugged, her eyes wide and innocent.

Without a word, the vampire returned his attention to the video.

“Yes, well, given the trauma that she has been through, it wouldn’t surprise me if she has a need to reenact similar events and then live through them – if only to prove to herself that she can,” Wesley stated with a small shrug, “In fact, such behavior is only one of many possible reactions to post-traumatic stress disorder – something Buffy no doubt must have suffered from after both her death and resurrection, two undeniably traumatic events. It’s quite common for the person suffering from such to shut down emotionally, to feel disconnected from the world around them-”

“That or maybe she’s got some weird wish to relive her death,” Cordelia interrupted, not particularly concerned with the details that Wes could no doubt recite by heart. Her brow creasing in concentration, she added, “Or would that just be a death wish?”

Placing his hands flat on the table with a resounding thud, Angel clenched his jaw. His attempt to ignore the running commentary from the AI team was failing miserably.

“Leave,” he snapped angrily, his eyes never leaving the screen. The skydivers were now reaching the ground. Even though he was certain that she made it down safely, Angel felt compelled to watch to be absolutely sure. He didn’t need a reminder of how Buffy had died; he already had nightmares about not being there to help her, about watching her fall and not being able to catch her, no matter how hard he tried…

Cordelia stuck her tongue out at the back of Angel’s head but otherwise didn’t move from her spot. She considered him to be all bark and very little bite when it came to their small group; he might talk a mean game but he wouldn’t actually do anything to hurt any of them.

Fred pointed at the video, watching as the camera zoomed in on the faces of the exuberant skydivers. They were removing helmets and goggles now that they had reached the ground. “Is it hot there, you think? They look hot.”

“Well, I don’t know about her…” Cordy smirked, a grin on her face. The camera was panning the back of X just before zooming in closer to get a close-up of the three x’s tattooed across the back of his neck. It was as if the person manning the camera had been searching for him in the small group of skydivers now milling around on the ground. “But he’s definitely hot. Verrry hot. Fills out that suit nicely.”

Angel closed his eyes for a brief second, trying to control his temper. His friends were not helping his mood at the moment.  Opening his eyes again, he focused on the video just in time to see a smiling Buffy swung up in the man’s arms.  They kissed hungrily as the video panned back slowly before switching abruptly to dark static and ending.

“I’d have to say they’re both pretty hot right there in that last bit,” Gunn said with a grin. There was no mistaking his meaning, his words obviously on the heated kiss rather than the temperature.  “And I’m not seeing any signs of that emotional disconnection you were talking about, English.”

If Angel had thought that there would be something more gut-wrenching than watching Buffy do something so dangerous as skydiving, he had been wrong.  Seeing her in another man’s arms, watching that man kiss her… that was worse. Much worse.

He reminded himself that he had left her so that she could find someone new; someone ‘normal’ that could love her and that she could love; someone that could take her on picnics in sunlight; someone that could make love to her and give her children.  So why then was it so hard to accept?

The last thing he wanted for her was someone that would encourage her to take more risks than she already had to as part of her duty… what kind of guy was this X anyway? How could he possibly make her happy?  How could he possibly love her as much as he…  Pausing, Angel corrected himself – how could this guy love her as much as she deserved?  What kind of life would X – or whatever his name was – offer her?  No doubt he’d end up dead and soon as a result of one of his foolish stunts and Buffy would be left alone… Strangely, that macabre thought cheered him.

“This the other video?”  Angel asked, pointing to the next one that Gunn had queued up to watch.

“Yep.” Gunn affirmed with a nod.

#

Sunnydale, three months earlier…

Warren grunted and floundered around on the floor, but was unable to dislodge the boot resting firmly in the middle of his shoulder blades pressing him to the debris-covered floor.  Nearby, Jonathan and Andrew both lay prostrate on the ground, their hands cuffed behind their backs.

“Let’s see… here we have files on Project 314,” Buffy said cheerfully as she pulled folders out of the boxes along the wall. She flipped open a few of the folders and glanced through them, stopping and unfolding a diagram. “For those of you playing the home game that would be the plans to build another ‘Adam’. Oh, and lookie… they’ve made their own anatomically correct additions.”

“Let me guess,” X said in a deep rumble as he secured Warren’s hands behind his back with the plastic cuffs that had been used on the others. “Are we talking about certain female attributes?”

“Oh, excellent guess,” the blonde Slayer replied with a derisive snort as she pulled out another box of files and rifled through the contents. Several folders later, she sat the box aside and declared, “This one looks like some sort of weapon.”

“You guys broke in here without any kind of warrant or paperwork. There’s no way this is going to stand up in court,” Jonathan mewled from the floor, twisting his head around in a attempt to look up at either Buffy or the man she was with.  They’d seen the big guy around Sunnydale, but didn’t realize that he had been working with the Slayer.  They thought he was hanging around her like so many other guys in town did – just hoping to get into her pants. They had to admit from the snuggling they had witnessed at the Bronze along with the suggestive dancing, that this guy might have gotten farther than most.

“I’m not too worried about that, fellas.” X said as he glanced over to where Buffy was now leaning over and digging through yet another box. He eyed her shapely bottom appreciatively, a slow smile crossing his face. “You aren’t exactly going to court.” Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a small cell phone and flipped it open.

“This looks like surveillance equipment, definitely government issue.” Buffy said as she sifted through the various pieces of equipment in the box.  Her voice was muffled as she was still bent over the box.

“What do you mean not going to court? We have to go to court. It’s the law,” Andrew squeaked, thrashing around as he tried to turn over.

“Hey, so we found your thieves.” Xander said into the cell phone after the person on the other end answered the call. “You sending a team in to pick ’em up or what?”  He listened for a few more minutes before snapping the phone closed. “They’ll be here in less than 15.”

“My guess is that most of whatever they took is here.”  Dusting her hands off on her pants, Buffy turned around and surveyed the rest of the modified garage with a quick glance.  She would have never guessed that the geeky trio would have turned out to be as shrewd as they had been. They had managed to elude capture for almost three months, leaving very little evidence to tie them to the scene of the crime.  However, their own egos eventually gave them away as they grew careless in their assurance that they were too smart to be caught.

Tired of waiting for them to slip up and give themselves away, Buffy had given in to her impatience and simply walked up to the door and knocked. Seeing her standing there, the trio had panicked. After a short but ineffective attempt to subdue the Slayer, followed by an attempt to flee out the back door – which only led them straight into X, who was casually leaning against the wall – they were captured and the stolen collateral from the Initiative offices was discovered. What the trio planned to do with most of it – well, Buffy and X left that to Augustus’ NSA team to figure out.

#

“So I guess you’ll be off to some new exotic location now?.” Buffy asked with a forced smile as she wandered absently around the living room, stopping to examine the various knickknacks and pictures along the fireplace mantle.

From his position on the couch, X watched her thoughtfully. They had driven back to the house on Revello Drive after Augustus and a small team had arrived to collect the various materials from the Initiative along with the three perpetrators of the crime. Warren, Jonathan and Andrew would be shipped off to some undisclosed location and would be dealt with accordingly; there would be no trial, no formal proceedings. When it came to certain aspects of government business, it was handled quickly and in a clandestine manner.  The trio would not been seen in Sunnydale any time soon, if ever.  There would be no questions asked.

Buffy toyed absently with the cherub figure that sat on the edge of the mantle, one arm lifted and blowing a kiss. One of the wings showed a tiny crack where it had been glued back on; otherwise there was no hint of the damage that had been done when it had been knocked to the ground when zombies had invaded the house. The figure had been a rare gift from her father so Buffy had kept the pieces in a box for months, unable to throw it away even though it was broken in several pieces.  Angel had found it and carefully glued it back together for her, claiming he had more spare time on his hands than he knew what to do with after his return from hell. The gesture had touched her deeply at the time.

Pushing away her musing, Buffy turned to face her companion of the last few months. His silence only confirmed her suspicions. Xander Cage had a job that took him to exotic destinations all over the world. His most recent assignment here in Sunnydale was now officially over with the arrest of those responsible for stealing from the Initiative’s former buildings. Logically it followed that he’d be moving on soon.

“Come here.” He murmured, reaching a hand out for her as he dropped his feet to the floor from their previous position resting on the coffee table.

Quietly, Buffy laced her fingers through his and allowed herself to be tugged forward between his knees. She should have known this was coming; eventually everyone left her, they even left Sunnydale. It was ironic really since she’d be stuck here on the Hellmouth until she died – again. Idly she wondered if X would say goodbye or if he’d just disappear one day.

Xander dropped her hand and, grabbing her belt loop, tugged her forward a few more inches. With his hands on her waist, he looked up at her face. His expression was serious as he contemplated how best to address what he guessed was on her mind.

“Nah, I’m not going anywhere. Not yet anyway.”  He answered her question after a few minutes. “I do have a job in China coming up in a week or so but I thought I might keep my place here in Sunnydale. I need somewhere to come back to.”

“Really?” The blonde Slayer placed her hands on his broad shoulders. The disappointment that she had felt beginning to consume her only seconds before receded slightly as a trace of hope surfaced. She traced the star on his shoulder with one fingertip, the white sleeveless shirt he wore leaving it uncovered. “And why is that?”

“Well, the weather here is pretty good, there are some great motorbike trails nearby and there’s this really great coffee shop here…” With a sudden movement, he jerked her forward into his lap. His lips curved upward in a slow smile as he enfolded her in his embrace, “Why do you think?”

Smiling in surprise, Buffy kissed him sweetly before she answered. “You really like the coffee here?”

“I do,” X replied as his lips met hers again.

“You do have a pretty nice place. Good deal on the rent, too.” She murmured against his lips as she settled more comfortably in his lap.

“Definitely a plus.” His lips drifted across her cheek and down her throat.

“And then there’s the company.” Buffy returned in a husky whisper as she began to run her hands over the bulging muscles in his arms.

Standing, Xander swept her easily up in his arms then tossed her over his shoulder. “I thought you’d never get to that one. It’s my favorite.”

Buffy laughed as he carried her up the stairs. Her expression, however, was serious when they reached her room and he set her down on the bed. “You mean you’re not leaving?”

“I have a job to do, but as long as you want me, I’ll come to you.”  He replied in a deep rumble, his expression as serious as hers as he brushed a strand of long blonde hair back from her face.  “So no, Buffy, I’m not leaving Sunnydale – at least not permanently – and I’m not leaving you. Not on your life.”

Buffy’s eyes searched X’s dark ones for a long moment. It was the closest thing she had felt to being loved in a long time even without either of them ever saying the words. He had been the only person to come close to filling the void that Angel had created in her heart and in her life when he had walked out on her years ago. If she lost X too – if he left her – she wasn’t sure she’d ever let anyone get close to her again.

“Thank you.” She whispered finally, holding her arms out for him.

#

“So Buffy’s up there with freakazoid again, huh?” Xander Harris questioned, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling. Low murmurs of laughter drifted down the stairs occasionally, but otherwise the couple had been quiet for most of the evening.

“Yeah. They’ve been up there since this afternoon sometime.” Willow replied blandly without glancing up from the magic text she was studying. “I saw X when the pizza delivery guy came. He came down and got it along with a bottle of wine then went right back upstairs.”

“What does she see in him, Will?” Xander pulled up a chair at the table and sat down. In the kitchen, Anya and Tara were chatting quietly. Dawn had left earlier to meet some friends for a class project and study group. “I mean, with Angel there was that whole bad boy, tall, dark broody, vampire thing that girls seem to love – but this guy? I don’t get that same vibe.”

“Oh, I get the vibe.” Anya said as she came into the dining room from the kitchen, a plate of cookies in one hand, a sugar bowl in the other. “Okay, so maybe it’s not the broody, bad boy vampire vibe,” the former vengeance demon corrected at the stern look from her lover, “but there’s a vibe. A sexy, hunky, beefcake vibe. The arms. The tattoos.  The deep voice. Yep, there’s definitely a vibe, and it’s a sexy vibe.”

“Thank you, Anya, for clarifying that.” Xander replied with a sarcastic roll of his eyes.

“He’s good for her,” Tara said as she sat a coffee pot and several mugs on the table. She returned to the kitchen and came back with a small pitcher of cream, taking a place at the table next Willow. “He makes her laugh.”

“But we do that. We’re her friends and we’re here for her. She doesn’t need him.” Xander insisted, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the table. “I mean, what do we know about this guy? Nothing. He breezes into town and into Buffy’s pants before we even know him. And I’ll bring this up since no one else seems to, but I know we’re all thinking it –  I don’t really think she’s in the best condition – you know, mentally after… you know… to make good decisions.  She shouldn’t just let some guy… ”

“Xander.” Willow admonished him in a hiss, looking up for the first time. They didn’t talk about Buffy’s sojourn into hell – or so they presumed – at all, not wanting to upset her by bringing it up.

“I’m just saying…” The brown haired young man began unapologetically, reaching for a cookie and stuffing into his mouth. The rest of his sentence was an unintelligible mumble complimented with sprayed cookie crumbs.

“Maybe-maybe… she needed someone – someone that she could love. You know, a lover,” Tara stammered softly, not used to asserting herself with the group. She genuinely liked X and was happy that he seemed to be a healthy influence for Buffy. So what if they went motorbike racing or skydiving or if Buffy got a tattoo? Other people did those things too…

“But why that guy? I just don’t get it.” Xander protested resentfully with an exaggerated wave of his arm. “Can you honestly tell me that girls really go for that… that bald head, bulgy muscles and tattooed look?”

Willow gave a small half-smile as she glanced at Tara. “You’re asking the wrong girl.”

“Yes, yes, they do.” Anya declared firmly, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “What? You asked a question. I answered.” She amended, noting Xander’s disgruntled look, “You want me to lie?”

Tara smiled at the two of them as Willow set aside her book and reached for her laptop.

“I kind of like him. He’s nice and fun to look at with all those tattoos and big muscles.  And there’s that voice… that deep voice that just sort of rolls over and through you…” Anya added a bit dreamily as Xander continued to eye her irritably. “And I’m guessing he’s really good in bed since Buffy likes to spend so much time with him there.”

“Oh, stop it.” Xander held up one hand and half covered his eyes, “Don’t say that. I don’t even like to think about those two doing… that. Even though I know that they’re… doing… that… over our heads even now.”

“I-I think they’re cute together.” Tara said quietly, adding cream and sugar to her coffee.

“Well, I think it could be trouble.” Willow said quietly as she turned on her laptop. “I did a little looking around the other day to see what I could find out about our Mr. Xander Cage.”

“Willow!” Xander grinned, a mischievous gleam in his eye. He shifted excitedly on his seat, looking from Anya to Tara then back to his childhood friend again. His excitement was barely restrained. “So – spill Will, what’d you find about the big goon? Let me guess – he’s done time behind bars. A guy like that has to be a criminal.”

“Well, he’s never been convicted of anything that I could find, but he was a suspect in a number of things. Car theft, reckless endangerment-” The sometime hacker said as she opened up a file of notes on her computer.

“Drunk driving? Robbery? Murder?” Xander added enthusiastically- only too happy to find out that Buffy’s boyfriend had a colorful background that he most likely hadn’t shared with her. Xander could hardly wait to see her face when they told her about this latest development.

The soft creaking of footsteps was heard upstairs followed by a low feminine laugh and answering deep voiced rumble. A door closed and the shower started promptly.

“Nooo…” Willow corrected as she glanced up at her friends, “Nothing like that. Some political statement stuff, but most of it’s related to doing extreme sports type things when or where you’re not supposed to.  Odd thing, it seems like there may be some records that have been deleted…  I did find one thing though, and that is that he has a pretty big following on the Internet for this thing called ‘The Xander Zone’.  I’m sure it’s him, even though they smudge out the faces.  The tattoos, the body, it’s him.”

“Xander Zone? What’s that? Some kind of dirty movies?” Anya sat forward eagerly, glancing at Willow’s laptop. “Can we see them?”

Xander rolled his eyes and shot his girlfriend a pointed look.

“No, not dirty movies. Just sports clips mostly though there’s a demon hunting one from somewhere in South America.” The red-haired Wicca said thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure that he’s some kind of government agent but I don’t know which branch or what he wants with Buffy.”

“I know what he wants. And he’s getting it right now.” Xander jerked his thumb toward the ceiling. Snorting with disgust, he continued, “And a government agent? If that big freak is a government agent, then I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“So what do we do?” Tara asked quietly, studying Willow’s pensive expression. “Do we tell Buffy?”

“I don’t know yet,” Willow replied, glancing back at her computer screen.  “I guess I should tell Buffy what I found out but-” Trailing off, Willow chewed her lip thoughtfully.

“But?” Tara prompted softly, reaching out to touch her partner on the arm.

“But I can’t just tell her I found all this stuff,” the hacker said with a shrug, “She’ll know that I went looking for it and I don’t think she’ll be all too happy about that.”

“So?” Xander snapped, “You only did it because you care about her and don’t want to see her hurt by tattoo boy up there. We only care about what’s best for Buffy here. She has to understand that.”

“Maybe.” Willow mused, squeezing Tara’s hand.

“We have to tell Buffy, Will,” Xander urged animatedly, “We’re her friends. We’re just looking out for her.”

“Tell me what?”  Buffy asked from the doorway, her cheeks flushed and a bright smile on her face. She was wearing sweats and a white thermal shirt that was several sizes too big for her. Her hair was combed back but was still wet from the shower.

Four pairs of eyes swiveled around to stare at the blonde Slayer almost guiltily. Beneath the table, Xander nudged Willow’s leg but no one said a word.

“Ooh, cookies!” Moving to the table, Buffy took two of the cookies and placed them carefully on a napkin.

Willow looked at Xander with a frown, then back at Buffy. With the primary topic of conversation still upstairs, neither of them wanted to broach the subject with the blonde Slayer just yet.

Closing the lid on her laptop abruptly, Willow gave a small nervous smile. “About the cookies. We wanted to tell you about the cookies.”

Anya snorted and opened her mouth only to have Xander grab her hand and pull her to her feet. “And we have to go now, but maybe later we can all get together and… have cookies. You know, just the five of us. It’ll be like old times.  Right Will?”

“Sure, yeah.” The red-haired wicca said agreeably. “Later we’ll all get together and… have cookies.”

Buffy looked from Xander to Willow speculatively before her gaze landed on Tara, who was studying the contents of her now empty coffee mug intently. She had no doubt in her mind that it would be another “we-know-what’s-best-for-you-Buffy” conversation. The topic might be X, it might be slaying or it might be any other thing that she chose to do that they didn’t seem to like or agree with; she couldn’t imagine that they had anything new to say that they hadn’t already said before. She loved her friends dearly, but it was getting tiresome.

“Later though, okay guys? Tonight I have plans.”  Without a backward glance, Buffy turned and went back up the stairs. X was waiting for her.