The Xander Zone, Part 5

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

Rating: Adult; explicit sex

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

Pairing: Initially B/Other.  B/A mentioned.

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

Originally posted: 6.13.2004

#

Present, Angel Investigations.

The next video started much like the previous, the person carrying the camera obviously following several feet behind the guy now known to everyone at Angel Investigations as ‘X’.  The camera panned over his tall, muscular form – stopping briefly at the triple x’s tattooed on the back of his neck before Xander turned to face the camera. There, the similarity to the earlier video largely ended; instead of a wooded area, they were in what appeared to be a large abandoned warehouse. X himself was dressed as if he had been going out somewhere, a nightclub perhaps or a nice dinner. He was wearing a tight, white tank beneath an unbuttoned, short-sleeve black silk shirt that hung open over a pair of snug, well-fitting black slacks.

“The word on the street is that an Isalina demon has made this warehouse his home.”

The hushed, rumbling voice was recognizable from the previous videos as the narrative began, Xander glancing back to talk to the camera, his profile deliberately blurred.  Abruptly the shot panned away, zooming to a dark corner at the far end of the building. The muffled wheezing of the camera operator’s breath was the only audible sound as X came back into view from the right side of the frame. As he walked cautiously toward the dark corner, the person holding the camera used the zoom lens to follow along.

The video slowly panned left and gradually a woman with blond hair came into view. Angel recognized her instantly, even with the pixelated covering over her face – Buffy. She was far enough in the distance ahead that she was fully in the frame as she approached the dark corner.  She paused, still and wary, looking around before turning toward X who was continuing toward her with slow, measured steps. her muffled voice could be heard on the audio as she talked to the man she was with.  Angel strained to make out the words, but she was either too far from the camera, not wearing a microphone or both.

The video jerked as the camera operator once more began moving, drawing steadily closer to the pair. They appeared to be examining something in the dark ahead of them. Buffy moved suddenly, her hands coming up in front of her, poised and ready to face her attacker. It was a familiar stance; Angel had seen it often enough years ago when they sparred or patrolled together. She turned and looked somewhere behind the camera, seemingly unaware of the lens panning slowly over her giving the viewers a considerable look at her lithe form.  After a few seconds, she relaxed her pose and turned back toward X.

Angel tensed, the muscles in his shoulders and back tightening. Stopping the video, he reversed it and replayed that short section again, carefully scrutinizing his former girlfriend’s appearance.  Buffy was wearing a pale pink string-back halter style top, the v-neck cut low enough to reveal a glimpse of cleavage.  The short black skirt barely reached mid-thigh, leaving a significant portion of her lean, tan and bare legs exposed. On her feet, she wore a pair of very high-heeled sandals with delicate straps. Her golden blonde hair hung loose over her shoulders in long waves.  Her appearance confirmed what he had  expected; the pair had obviously been on their way out somewhere when they had apparently been interrupted for the demon hunt. The tall vampire snorted slightly and crossed his arms over his chest. Of course a showboat like this X would take his camera crew along with him wherever he went; he wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.  The thought suddenly crept into the back of his mind that if X videotaped his demon hunting he might also be inclined to film other… more personal activities.  Would Buffy-?  Had they-?

“Oh my God, are those Jimmy Choo’s?! Stop. Stop! Go back,” Cordelia exclaimed as she pointed to the screen just as Angel was getting ready to click  the mouse and start the video playing again. More out of reflex than obedience to her command, Angel hit the button to stop the video as he glanced curiously at the brunette sitting next to him. “Back… look, there… Well, my hell. They are. Barney’s had those for $740 bucks! How on earth did Buffy manage to afford them? Maybe she’s charging-”

“Cordelia.” Angel warned softly, stopping the brunette seer before she could say anymore. His patience was worn thin, his nerves already on edge, and he wasn’t sure he could put up with Cordelia’s lack of tact when it came to Buffy.

“What?” Cordelia muttered brusquely, sitting back in her chair with a pout. “I wanted a pair of those, but did I get them? No. Buffy gets everything; the hot guy and the cool shoes. It’s just not fair. Obviously you aren’t paying me nearly enough.”

Struggling to control the fit of temper that was threatening to erupt, the dark haired vampire gaped at the seer as if she had grown two heads. He had to admit, he rarely, if ever, understood how her mind worked, and this minute was clearly no exception. Unable to formulate a response, he dismissed the attempt at understanding her and turned back to the screen. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, he started the video playing again. He was working hard to keep the thought out of his head that there might be other videos, intimate ones with Buffy and this X guy, out there somewhere.

Behind Angel, Gunn and Fred exchanged questioning looks while Wes simply shrugged and watched the video with the interest of an academic.

On the screen, Buffy advanced forward, X close on her heels as they moved further into the dark. In one hand she held a stake, her usual weapon. When the squat demon came out of nowhere and lunged at the blonde Slayer with surprising agility, Angel almost flinched. Buffy, however, countered the blow expertly with her right arm then whirled around and landed a kick squarely to the demon’s chest that sent it sprawling to the ground. Her skirt rode up during the maneuver, providing a glimpse of her almost naked behind, and Angel barely suppressed the growl that threatened to escape his lips.

Hearing the small sound, Cordelia glanced over out of the corner of her eye. She had to admit she was enjoying watching the almost unflappable vampire squirm. It was no surprise to her that Angel obviously still had strong feelings for the Slayer. More than once she had come across pictures tucked discreetly between the pages of a book he happened to be reading or sketches that he had carefully drawn. As private and close mouthed as he tended to be, there were still certain things that were still quite obvious to his friends.

“Her technique is flawless,” Wes commented with admiration in his voice, “better than ever, if that’s possible. She is, in my evaluation, clearly one of the best Slayers on record.”

“She’s damn good, that’s for sure.” Gunn agreed with a nod.

On the video, the fight continued, the thick-bodied demon coming to its feet with a nimbleness that was surprising.

“She’s taking too many chances. And he’s not helping.” Angel growled, watching as Buffy attacked the demon with a series of aggressive punches and kicks, driving it back into the recesses of the dark warehouse. Nearby X stood and watched, as if only there to watch not help.

With a sudden burst of speed, the demon lunged forward again, finally blocking one of the many punches that Buffy threw before managing to seize her around the waist with a pair of beefy arms. Lifting her off the ground, the Isalina demon squeezed as Buffy kicked and squirmed for release. Behind them, X moved forward and approached the demon with his arms raised, prepared to land a hard blow to the back of the creature’s neck.  When the staggering blow landed, the demon flung the petite blonde aside with a snarl and whirled around to face its new assailant.

Angel watched anxiously as Buffy tumbled to the ground, slamming hard into a low wall before rolling and rising to her feet in one smooth motion.  She dusted her clothes off with a grimace before moving back to the fray with determination.

“Uh, flawless, Wes?”  Cordelia said jokingly even though she too cringed at the fall the Slayer at had taken. “You want to reconsider that?”

“No, I stand by my statement, Cordelia. Even as she was thrown to the grown with force, did you notice how she was able to tuck and roll, thus minimizing the impact to the body? And how quickly she was able to get back on her feet?” The former Watcher insisted, drawing on knowledge accrued through years of studying various training techniques. Rarely had there ever been an opportunity to study a Slayer in action; he personally knew of only a few videotapes and those were training sessions – not live action slayage. This was an opportunity not to be missed. The Watcher’s Council would be interested in the footage; that he was certain. He was also certain, however, that he would not be the one providing it to them as his ties to the Council – and any allegiance he felt for them – had been severed.

The camera zoomed in briefly on the Slayer, focusing briefly on the tattoo that was clearly visible across her lower back. It was the same tattoo that they had noticed in the earlier video, only this time there was a slightly clearer shot. Stopping the video, Angel squinted curiously at the intricate design. What was it?

“Told her that damn tattoo wasn’t the best idea,” Spike’s voice came from behind him, the younger vampire now conscious again and watching both Angel and the video intently.  He groaned and rolled his neck side to side.  “Who gets angel wings with a broken heart anyway?”

Everyone turned to glance at Spike, including Angel, who, judging by his expression, was clearly less than pleased with the added commentary.

“What?” The blond vampire said unapologetically, his shoulders lifting slightly in an attempt to shrug, “It’s a little obvious, that’s all I’m saying. She might as well have just gotten ‘Angel broke my heart’ in big block lettering and been done with it.”

Gunn and Fred turned to Angel, waiting for his reply. Cordelia grimaced and glanced at Wes.

“It’s the damn truth,” Spike added as he struggled vainly against the ropes that held him to the chair. After several seconds, he gave up his attempt to escape and simply scooted the chair with small bouncing steps to the right, giving him a better view of the computer screen. “Well, let’s have a look at rest of it then,” he said, nodding his head toward the paused video and giving Angel a challenging look. “You’re the one making me stay here. Untie me, and I’ll be on my way or start the damn video.”

Refusing to be baited into an argument, and yet still curious about the rest of the video, Angel turned back around. He studied the tattoo for a few more seconds before he clicked the mouse and started the video playing once again. On screen, Buffy knocked the demon back into X who managed to grab the demon by the head. With a quick twist, he snapped the creature’s neck and the Isalina demon crumpled to the ground in a heap.

As the AI team watched, X, panting slightly, brushed his hands off on his pants. He smiled just as Buffy, with a graceful, springing step, jumped over the demon’s body and up into X’s arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.

Angel gaped at the screen. He ground his teeth together, clenching his jaw. That was his move. His. He couldn’t suppress the surge of jealous anger or the petulant resentment that washed over him as the coupled kissed.  Buffy had jumped into his arms exactly that way, years ago at the Bronze… a time or two after they had been on patrol… the memories were clear and vivid.

“Nice move,” Spike cheerfully declared, seizing the opportunity to annoy his already agitated Sire even more. “Not the demon neck snap thing, we’ve all done that one a time or two. I meant that little thing she did there with that jump, and wrapping her legs around…” The blond vampire nodded at the screen. “Rewind that, would ya? I want to see that bit again.”

“That was kinda neat,” Fred agreed with a sheepish smile, glancing at Gunn and wondering is she might be able to do something like that.

Angel closed his eyes, willing away the image in front of him. Seeing Buffy with someone else was harder than he had ever imagined it would be.

“Fine, don’t show that again. This is just his good. Are his hands-?  Yes, indeed, they are under her skirt.” The younger vampire continued pointedly, when no one took heed of his request. “But then, you know that they say about slaying – besides making ’em partially suicidal, you can always count on hungry and horny.” Pausing, he grinned, his tone deliberately provoking, “Of course, everything increases apace. Did you know – it’s a fact that the older they get, the more chances they’ll take?  And sexually.” Spike gave a low wolf whistle as he nodded toward the screen where Buffy and X were still kissing, “they get more demanding.” With a leer, he added, “And if that doesn’t just make you feel all hot in bothered in all the right places, well then, I don’t know what does.”

Angel’s eyes snapped open just in time to see X hold up a hand in front of the camera, blocking further view.  Breaking off the kiss, he said something at the person filming and immediately the scene faded to black.  The now familiar triple-X tattoo appeared on the screen along with a few simple credits and the video ended.

Placing his palms flat on the desk, one on either side of the computer, Angel simply glared at the dark screen. He was willing away the image of Buffy with this other guy, this X, but it stubbornly refused to be so easily dismissed from his thoughts.

“How would you know?” Cordelia asked, her curiosity getting the better of her as she glanced behind her at Spike. “About slayers and all that.”

“I may have had a taste.” Spike murmured as he glanced meaningfully toward the screen.

“A taste?  You’re saying that you and Buffy…?” The brunette questioned skeptically, one perfectly sculpted eyebrow lifting in disbelief.

“Yeah, pet, me and Buffy. The Slayer. Angel’s ex.” Spike said with a smirk.

“Now, I know that she doesn’t exactly have the best taste in men because well, Scott, and did anyone else find Ford more that just a little creepy? And I know that in the past her taste tended to run to the undead but…you?”  Cordelia trailed off, feeling the heat of Angel’s stare as he turned his gaze toward her. With a small self-conscious shrug, she finished, “I still find that hard to believe.”

“So do I.” Angel fairly growled in agreement, turning around to pin the younger vampire with his gaze.

“Okay, so maybe it wasn’t anything much yet, but it would’ve been. I had a shot, no doubt about it.” Spike declared defensively, his blue eyes cold as he stared back at Angel. “Girl needed a real man to comfort her after clawing her way out of the grave. Especially seeing as she didn’t get any of that from anyone she knew.”

Angel mentally flinched, recalling the intense conversation he and Buffy had shared at the sheltered beach cove between Sunnydale and LA just after her resurrection. To say that hadn’t gone all that well would have been an understatement.

“Then why on earth did you think that would be you?” Cordelia snorted, unaware of Angel’s discomfiture.  She had known that he had gone to see Buffy, but he never talked about what had happened at that meeting despite her frequent prodding and less than subtle attempts to find out and draw him out of his obvious moping.

“There’s a few dozen reasons, pet. Untie me and I’ll be glad to give you a demonstration. I doubt you’re getting any from anyone around here anyway.” Spike smiled slightly, his eyes drifting over Cordelia suggestively and pausing deliberately at the bit of cleavage visible above her low cut shirt. “It’s a good look for you, by the way. Bigger tits suit your frame. Is that part of the standard LA health plan or something? Just curious, is all. I’ve noticed it’s sort of a standard look here.”

Crossing her arms self-consciously over her chest, which had, in fact, been surgically enhanced after her move to Los Angeles, Cordelia glared at the vampire. Her curiosity, however, was not in the least bit curtailed by the crude comments. “You’re saying that you and Buffy had sex?”

“Well, no.” Spike admitted reluctantly. Noticing Angel’s tense posture, he couldn’t resist adding, “Not yet, but we would’ve if the big man there, X, hadn’t come along.” He shrugged slightly, his movement largely curtailed by the ropes binding him to the chair, “Course, it’s a small comfort to know that I lost her to a real man instead of some idiot nancy boy with a fondness for too much hair gel.”

“Then how do you know that about Slayers?  What you said – the hungry, horny, demanding and… on my God, I can’t even believe I’m asking this question.” The brunette seer trailed off, shaking her head as if she didn’t understand what had provoked her to even ask the question. She held up her hand in a ‘stop’ gesture. “Never mind.”

Spike grinned in response, jerking his head toward Wesley. “Ask him. He knows.”

Angel turned then, his piercing dark eyes landing immediately on the object of Spike’s announcement.

Wes froze in his spot, obviously startled by the near accusation. Gunn winked and grinned, giving the former Watcher a nudge with his elbow while Cordelia and Fred looked on with surprised eyes.

Wesley cleared his throat as Angel continued to pin him with an accusing glare.  The vampire’s eyebrows lifted questioningly.

Clearing his throat again, the former Watcher spoke up, “I wouldn’t… that is… I didn’t…. I don’t…” Pausing, Wes inhaled deeply and collected his thoughts. “I don’t have any personal experience here, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Angel’s gaze swung back to Spike.

“I read it in one of their bleedin’ Watcher’s journals. They’ve got all these nice little subtleties about Slayers written down there.” The blond vampire countered defensively. He turned to Wes, “Isn’t that right?”

Angel’s gaze returned to Wesley’s face.

“Well, um… yes. Of course.  It’s what we do… er, what I did… ” Wes stammered slightly, uncertain of how exactly to answer.

“Well, go and get one of the damned books then. Show the poof so he can read it for himself,” Spike insisted with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “It really is a good read. Enough stuff in there to give a guy – uh, demon – some ideas.” At Fred’s startled glanced, he amended with a suggestive lift of his eyebrows, “Well, about that, but also about killing Slayers and torture and such. Did you know it’s a documented fact – in the journal there – that Slayers tend to have heightened sensitivities to both pain and pleasure during certain times of the month?”  His blue eyes returning to Angel’s face, he grinned leeringly, “Now tell me that doesn’t give you some delicious thoughts. My mouth waters just to think on it.”

“Spike-” Angel ground out in warning.

“Oh. My. God. Are you talking about…. Ewww.” Cordelia said, her features contorting into an expression of half surprise and half disgust. “You didn’t say…. Just ew…. I don’t even want to…. Ew…. This conversation is so over.”  She shook her head and shoulders, as if trying to clear the thought out of her mind.

“Oh, no need to get all prissy and uptight. I’ll bet,” Spike paused and glanced at Cordelia before he amended meaningfully, “No, I know Angel had more than a taste of little Buff back in the day.” Licking his lips, he prodded, “How about it, Angel? Good, eh?”

Angel closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, fighting long buried memories as well as current emotions for some semblance of control.  He should have realized that Spike would have known about that, what with their enhanced vampiric senses.

Wes stared at him curiously, obviously intrigued by the newly revealed information. Gunn was making a face that looked like he might be sick at any second while Fred blushed furiously.

With a look of disgust, the brunette seer put her hands over her ears. “Stop.  Just… stop.  I don’t want to hear another word about… any of that…  Ever.”

“Suit yourself.  Hey, if you would…”  Spike jerked his head down toward his jacket pocket. “I could use a smoke about now….”

“No.” Cordelia replied brusquely, still squicked by the tidbit of information that had apparently just been revealed about her employer and his ex.  She had to assume from Angel’s reaction that Spike was telling the truth; of course she had known that Buffy and Angel had been intimate, but she had never given any thought about the various possibilities that might entail…

“How about you, love? Care to give a fellow a hand?” Spike turned his blue eyes to Fred and gave her a flirtatious smile.

“No.” Gunn answered flatly, moving the petite brunette behind him.

“Well now, it’s not like I’m going anywhere now is it?” The blond vampire grumbled in irritation. “I don’t even know why I came here now. Oh yeah, to tell the poof about his competition. Done that. I’m sobered up now. Learned my lesson not to come here again and all that, so you can just untie me and I’ll be on my way.”

“Tell me again why we don’t just stake him?” Cordelia muttered irritably.

With a dismissive shrug, Wesley replied, “He’s chipped. Harmless. According to Mr. Giles, he’s actually been helpful in Sunnydale.”

“Harmless? Harmless?! I’ll have you know I can kick demon ass with the best of them. Better than the best of them actually.” Spike spat indignantly.  He rocked the chair, trying again to loosen the ropes that bound him fast.

“The best? You?” Cordelia sniped back. “Like you could.”

Rubbing his hands over his eyes, Angel attempted to tune out the bickering that continued. His attention returned to the video that he had just seen; mentally replaying it, he had to admit Spike was right. Buffy was taking chances. More chances than he thought necessary. It wasn’t a question of her ability; that he never doubted. She had always been strong and capable, intrinsically gifted when it came to her instincts and physical skills. But now… now he thought there was a reckless abandon to her fighting that he hadn’t seen before, and it worried him.

#

One month earlier…

“I’m sorry we never made it to The Knitting Factory last night.” X said as they sped along the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles.

“It’s okay. Better than okay actually.” Buffy said as she glanced over at Xander from her position in the passenger’s seat of the Pontiac GTO. “While the demon hunt was a bit unplanned, I have no complaints about how we spent the night. And most of the morning.” With a smile, she leaned over and kissed him.

“Yeah?” Xander grinned as they exited the freeway toward Venice beach. They exchanged playful banter as they drove though the increasingly congested neighborhood streets until they reached the building with the sign that read “Last Rites Tattoo”.  There was an inordinate amount of traffic parked in front, along with people lining the streets and attempting to peer casually in the windows despite the large man standing, blocking the door.  Taking in the scene, X drove around back and parked in the carport behind Indie’s covered Mercedes SLK.

“You seem a little familiar with the place,” Buffy noted, curious for the first time about the relationship between X and Indie. She had seen a casual familiarity between them before, but now she wondered if there was something more to it.

“I’ve been here a few times. I stayed here a few times too. It was after Yelena left, and I was back in LA.” Xander said candidly as he retrieved the hidden key to the back door from over the outdoor light. “We had a thing, briefly. She made me laugh, and I tried to return the favor. It was a time when neither of us had much to laugh about. There wasn’t much more to it than that, though we’ve managed to stay friends  since.”

“Oh.” Buffy said after a moment, digesting the bit of information.

Xander watched her and waited, wanting more of a confirmation that Buffy was okay with what he had just told her. At her continued silence, he added, “We can go somewhere else if you want.”

“No, no.” Buffy replied quickly, looking up into his dark eyes. X never lied to her, even when the alternative might be easier – that was just part of who he was and how their relationship worked.  This new bit of information didn’t change her feelings for him, or oddly, for Indie. She knew what it was like to need someone, even for just a little bit of comfort; she would never begrudge that to anyone else.  It many ways, it probably echoed her relationship with Riley.

“You sure?”

“Yes.” She answered in the sudden quiet, “I’m sure.”

Reaching for her hand, he smiled.

#

“Back so soon?” Indie greeted with a smile as the pair walked through the back door. She was just finishing up a tattoo on a young, good looking guy that was chatting on his cell phone as she worked.

“Well, you know what they say – you get one tattoo and you’re more likely to get another.” Buffy said brightly. She tapped X on the arm and pointed at the guy reclining in the chair Indie used for her clients.  Buffy mouthed a name, recognizing the man as a famous rapper.  That also explained the two very large men that stood up protectively when they appeared in the back hallway, as well as the small crowd gathered out front.

“I’ll be another ten or fifteen minutes here. Make yourselves at home upstairs, okay?” Indie suggested as she returned to her work, carefully finishing up the elaborate design on the young man’s shoulder. Assured that the guests were okay and would not harass their charge, the two bodyguards sat back down.

Half an hour later, Indie sat next to Buffy at her table studying the design in what was obviously a very old book.  “This is a unique design,” Indie commented as she took out a piece of paper and carefully began to copy the gryphon design. “Mean something to you?”

“Yes.” Buffy answered, then quietly amended, “Well, it did once.”

“It did, huh?”  The attractive tattooist glanced up curiously. “That sounds like the past. You sure you want to make it permanent?”

“Yes.” The petite blonde insisted, glancing at the paper that now contained the drawn replica of the tattoo. Indie would shrink it down and reverse it before printing it on her skin to begin the inking process.

“Some things are better left in the past, you know.  We don’t always need reminders,” Indie said with discreet emphasis. She sat back in her chair and studied Buffy’s expression. “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you want this? I can tell there’s a special significance, and I’m guessing that it involves a guy.”

In the small silence that fell at the question, the noise of Xander moving around in the makeshift kitchen was suddenly audible.

“X…  told me that every one of his tattoos means something to him. Reminders, markers of life events.” Buffy said at last, somewhat uncomfortable in explaining the motivation behind the desire to get a replica of Angel’s tattoo tattooed over her heart. “This,” she tapped the design with her finger, “is about love. And about trust. It’s a reminder that love isn’t forever, no matter what you think or say or believe. No matter what you want. It’s a reminder that with love, you only get what you have in your hand at any given moment. Seize that moment in both hands and hold on with everything you have, because that may be all you get. If someone tells you otherwise, you can’t believe that. You can’t believe them. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, I think so.” Indie replied thoughtfully, wondering at the same time who the guy was that had obviously hurt the young woman in front of her so badly that she no longer believed in lasting love. Probably, she guessed, the same guy that inspired the angel wings and broken heart that she had done not that long ago on Buffy’s lower back.

“It probably sounds a little exaggerated.” the petite blonde shrugged with a sigh. Even if she couldn’t articulate it clearly so that someone else would understand, she felt it in her heart.

“No, not really.  What happened to the guy?” The tattooist asked just as X stepped through the door carrying a tray of drinks.

Buffy glanced up at Xander and wondered how much he had heard. Her direct gaze held his for a moment.

“So what happened to the guy?” X repeated with a smile, his deep voice soothing, cajoling.

Even though X knew most of the details about her past with Angel, Buffy hesitated out of habit before answering. Even now, after all this time, a lingering pain still accompanied the actual words, “He left me.”

“He was a fool.”  Leaning down, X kissed Buffy on the lips. A slow, sweet lingering kiss.

Smacking Xander lightly on the arm, Indie interrupted with a smile, “Hey, you can do that later.” She turned her gaze to Buffy and smiled, “Ok, I’m ready to do this if you are.”

“I am” Buffy said and reached for the hem of her shirt to pull it over her head so that Indie could tattoo the design on her breast over her heart.

With a suggestive leer and a wink,  Xander grinned then sprawled on the couch to wait.

#

A few hours later, Buffy and X sped along the LA freeway toward Sunnydale.

“I still can’t believe Dawn has been stealing. It’s so … I don’t know.” Buffy said sadly, still stung by her friends accusation that she was neglecting her sister in order to spent time with X.  Of course, it hadn’t helped that Buffy had been in LA when it happened.  In fact, that only increased her feelings of guilt.

Willow had called just as they were leaving the tattoo parlor and said that she had picked Dawn up from the department store.  She and her friend were caught shoplifting, and aparently it wasn’t the first time. The store owner was, thankfully, willing to not press charges if Dawn and Amber were to get some sort of counseling or help.

Buffy sighed heavily. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Hey, raising a kid is tough business. You’re doing all right.” Xander said encouragingly, reaching across the seat for her hand. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just deal with each thing as it comes, that’s all you can do.”

“I guess.” Buffy stared out the window into the dark, pushing aside the wave of hopelessness that threatened to wash over her. Things were better now than they had been after her return from Heaven and they were steadily improving. Thanks, she thought affectionately, in large part due to the support and encouragement from Xander Cage.

She hadn’t cared for her friends’ ‘intervention’ a couple of weeks ago when they attempted to tell her that X was not all that he seemed, that they worried about her involvement with him, and in fact, went as far as to suggest that she no longer continue to see him. They had some details they gave her about his background, including his Internet activities known to underground extreme sports enthusiasts as ‘The Xander Zone’ and some loose rumors about his involvement with the NSA and a recent trip to China.  They didn’t have much in the way of details but Buffy knew now that Willow had been actively trying to find something that would turn her against the man in question.

Her friendship with the entire gang had been strained since. This recent incident with Dawn only added more fuel to their argument that Buffy was neglecting her responsibilities at home in favor of spending time with “the big goon”.

Xander squeezed her hand then, drawing her attention back to him.  After a moment, she gave him a tentative smile.  She survived a lot worse than this.  She’d get through it. And this time, she had help.