Disclaimer in part 1

THANKS: To everyone who has supported me with this series, I love all you guys. ...and special thanks to all my beta-readers. Mucho thanks to Dare, Erana, Jamie, Mike, Melinda, Rihanon, Amy Mina, Becca, and Trace. (Whoa that's a lot of readers.) You guys all rock. Oh, and thanks to Laure for giving me great feedback even though she wasn't officially a beta-er on this story.

Text enclosed in * * represents thoughts.

*And in the end
The love you take
is equal to the love you make
-The End
-The Beatles

High Noon
by: Rebecca Carefoot

Part 9: The Love You Take

Buffy hesitated in front of the door to her house after the others had dropped her off and driven away. Giles had decided that they were all too exhausted at that point to discuss what had happened, and Buffy agreed with him. There would be time tomorrow to figure out exactly what they had gone through. So Giles had dropped off Angel, then Buffy, and now he was driving Xander and Willow home. *It had gotten awfully quiet in the car,* Buffy thought with a shiver. Everyone was too tired to put forth the effort of breaking though the awkwardness which stood between them. Buffy shoved her thoughts aside. She would talk to them all tomorrow, and they would forgive her...because they had to. *I can't do this without them,* she thought a little desperately *Slaying, my life...I can't do anything without them. I wouldn't be able to handle it.*

*I certainly couldn't have made it out of that warehouse alive without them.* Her fingertips played lightly over the bruises on her face, and she winced both at the pain and at the picture she knew she presented. *Mom is going to kill me,* she decided. *Especially after I went ballistic on her earlier today. Maybe I can avoid her until tomorrow at least.* With a sigh, she turned her key in the lock and slipped inside the house.

Treading carefully, she made her way up the darkened stairs to her room, then tip-toed along the hall and opened her door. It let out a creak, and she froze, throwing a glance at the closed door of her mother's room. Hearing nothing, Buffy shrugged out of her blood-stained leather jacket and hung it up in her closet. Despite her weariness, she couldn't stand to sleep in her filthy, bloody clothes so she stripped them off and slipped into a tank top and sweatpants. *I'll wash everything later,* she thought, making a beeline for the bed.

When she reached the bed, she realized that it was already occupied. Her mom had apparently been waiting up and in the process had fallen asleep.

*So much for not dealing with her tonight,* Buffy thought tiredly. She grabbed her mother's shoulder gently and gave her a little shake. Joyce's eyes flew open and she stared around the room in confusion. Her gaze settled on her daughter, and she sat up, pulling Buffy to her while squeezing her in a hug. Buffy's gasp of pain as her tortured ribs protested the treatment caused her mother to draw back.

"Are you hurt?" Joyce asked worriedly. "Do we need to go to the hospital?"

"No, mom," Buffy reassured her. "I'll be okay. It's just bruises."

"Bruises from what?" Joyce continued, her voice rising. "Were you in a fight?" She glanced at the clock, then continued her interrogation. "Where were you? I've been waiting for hours."

"I was out, mom," Buffy hedged.

"Buffy, you can't just treat me the way you did today, and then stay out all night," Joyce said angrily.

"Yeah I know," Buffy answered, her voice resigned. "I'm grounded, right?"

"I just don't know what to do," the older woman admitted. "Grounding you hasn't worked, and I don't know what punishment would."

"How about no punishment?" Buffy suggested hopefully.

"Maybe if I take you to a therapist," Joyce continued.

"Mom, I don't need a therapist," Buffy protested.

"You need help," her mother insisted. "You're in trouble all the time, you sneak out, you treat me with no respect."

"Look mom, I'm sorry about today. I wasn't myself. There were things I was dealing with. But I don't need help, okay?" As her mom started to protest, Buffy overrode her. "I know how it looks to you. But there are things I have to do. I can't get out of it."

"What are these things, Buffy?" Joyce asked, her voice beginning to shake with suppressed rage at her helplessness. "You never tell me anything, then you expect me to understand what you're going through. How can I when you don't tell me?!"

"I want to," Buffy whispered longingly. "But I can't."

"I worry about you," Joyce said with a sigh, her anger deflated by her daughter's quiet tone. "I don't know what to do."

"Just let me do what I have to do, mom," Buffy requested. "Trust me."

"I want to."

"Trust me to take care of myself, mom. Trust that I have good reasons for what I do. Believe in me instead of thinking I'm a bad kid."

"I don't think that..." Joyce began.

"You always question every decision I make. Ever since I got kicked out of Hemery. You blame anything bad that happens on me. You assume that it's my fault."

"I don't mean to, but you have to admit that I have reason to not trust you...look at the things you do. You burned down the gym, Buffy."

"I can't explain it, mom," Buffy said with frustration. "But I do everything I do for a good reason. You just have to believe me."

"I know," Joyce agreed. "I do believe in you, Buffy. And I'm very sorry if you've gotten the impression that I don't." She hesitated then continued. "But you don't trust me either. If you did, you could tell me about whatever the reasons are for the trouble you get into."

"I wish I could, I really do," Buffy sighed. "But for now can we just agree to let it go?"

"No," Joyce answered shortly.

"Mom," Buffy pleaded, feeling herself begin to whine. "Please."

"I think we should deal with this," Joyce insisted stubbornly.

"Yeah we should," Buffy agreed. "But I'm just so tired."

"Tomorrow then."

"Okay," Buffy said with a sigh. "I AM sorry for how I acted today. Really sorry."

"Well, that's another thing we'll have to talk about tomorrow," Joyce decided. She climbed off the bed and headed for the door.

"Mom," Buffy called as her mother opened the door.


"I love you," Buffy offered quietly. Joyce smiled at her daughter's words.

"I love you too, Buffy," she said. Letting go of the door, she walked back into the room and placed a kiss on her daughter's forehead. Then she hurried out, hoping Buffy hadn't caught sight of the tears that glittered in her eyes. Buffy watched her mother leave, then climbed into her bed and snuggled under the covers. For a few seconds she worried about what she was going to do about her mom, about seeing everyone the next day, and about Angel. But her eyes quickly closed and her worries disappeared as sleep claimed her.

* * * * * * * *

Giles pulled up to the curb in front of Willow's house and stopped the car. He and Xander peered into the back seat and realized that Willow had fallen asleep.

"Poor girl," Giles muttered.

"I'll take care of her, Giles," Xander offered. "I can walk home from here."

"Are you certain?" Giles asked.

"Yeah," Xander assured the Watcher with a casual shrug. "I've got a cross, and I doubt any vamps will be running loose tonight. They've got to sweep up the Annoying One's ashes." The boy grinned at Giles, and Giles' own lips twitched up into a small smile.

"All right then," Giles conceded. "But do be careful."

"Of course, mom. Aren't I always?" Xander asked as he climbed out of the car. He opened the back door and hesitated a moment, staring at Willow's sleeping face. She looked so still and peaceful, so perfect and beautiful. He felt his breath catch in his throat, and before he could stop himself he had stroked the side of her face, brushing her hair to the side.

Feeling Giles' eyes on him, Xander forced himself out of his contemplation of the sleeping girl and slid one of his hands behind her back, while sticking the other beneath her knees. Carefully he pulled her out of the car, lifting her up into his arms. Giles watched as the boy carried Willow to the glass door leading to her room, smiling as he struggled to open the door while juggling her in his arms. After a moment of bumbling, he got the door open. Once they were safely inside, Giles pulled away from the curb, looking forward to collapsing back at his apartment.

Xander lay Willow gently down on her bed and stepped back, staring at her for a moment longer. He couldn't get over the way her eyelashes curled, the barest hint of pink on her pale cheeks, the deep dip in her upper lip, the poutiness of her lower. He sighed, loving the sight of her, remembering how wonderful she felt in his arms, wishing he hadn't hurt her. He hadn't meant to. *I never MEAN to,* he thought. *But I keep doing it.* He moved closer to her, kneeling down next to the bed. With his knuckles he lightly traced the side of her face, then leaned closer to place his lips on hers. Her eyes fluttered open as he pulled away from the quick kiss.

"Xander?" she whispered.

"Yes," he answered, staring into her green eyes.

"Why are you in my room?" she asked.

"You were asleep so I brought you inside," he explained, rising to his feet. *She wants me to leave. She hates me. I hate me.* With a sigh, he turned away from her. "I was just leaving." Willow watched as he reluctantly moved toward the door. She hated to see that kicked puppy look in his eyes, hated knowing she had put it there.

"Xander?" she said, stopping him.

"Yeah?" he asked hopefully, turning back to her.

"You can stay if you want..." His eyebrows rose, and she hurried to clarify, "On the floor I mean. I still have that sleeping bag you used to use for our sleep-overs." He didn't answer, and she shrugged hesitantly. "If you want to stay. Which you don't have to do."

"Where's the sleeping bag?" he asked with a grin, as the thrilled shock of her offer wore off. *Maybe she'll forgive me. Maybe she already has.* Willow smiled back in relief, pointing towards the closet. She watched him as he reached up into the closet to grab the sleeping bag then rolled it out next to her bed. Her mind filled with the countless times he had done that when they were younger. She had always felt safe when he was sleeping on the floor next to her. She had known that he would take care of any monsters under the bed. And here he was lying next to her again. *He still protects me,* she realized. *We protect each other.*

"Good night," she whispered as he squirmed on the floor, trying to get comfortable in the old Ghostbusters sleeping bag.

"Good night, Willow," he whispered back, suddenly feeling more comfortable than he had in days.

* * * * * * * *

When Willow woke the next morning, sunlight was streaming through the window. She groaned, rolling over to look at the clock. *Almost noon. I should get up.* She groaned again, her body wanting nothing more than to never move again. *Have to get up,* she decided. *Mom will be in here in a minute, telling me not to sleep a beautiful Sunday away.* Five minutes later she dragged her body into a sitting position. She blinked a few times, trying to get adjusted to being awake. Resisting the urge to flop back and snuggle under the covers, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, almost stepping on the body that lay there.

*Xander.* Her mind whirled as she tried to think through the muddle of sleepiness. *He slept over. My mom doesn't know. If my mom finds out that would be bad. No boys allowed to spend the night in here. Look how cute his hair is, all mussed.* She shook her head, banishing that thought. Leaning down, she gave him a shove.

"Xander, wake up," she said softly. He muttered something and rolled over. Shaking him harder, she tried again to wake him. He shifted, his eyes remaining closed, his mouth working slightly as he resettled himself in the sleeping bag.

"Willow," her mother called loudly. Willow started guiltily, feeling herself begin to panic.

"I'm up, mom," she called back. "Be there in a second." She glared down at Xander. He slept like the dead; he always had. But she needed to get him up. *How did I used to wake him?* A tiny smile lifted the edges of her mouth as her fingers found their way to his arm. She grabbed a layer of his skin, pinching as hard as she could.

"Ow!" he nearly screamed, sitting bolt upright.

"Oops," Willow said, eyes wide as she glanced toward her closed door, half expecting to see her mom burst through.

"Willow," he said in confusion. "What's going on?"

"Willow, are you ok?" Willow winced as she heard her mom's voice again.

"Yeah I'm fine. I just uh...stubbed my toe," she called. "You've got to get out of here," she whispered to him.

"That really hurt," he said accusingly, rubbing at his pinched arm.

"I'm sorry, but you wouldn't get up." She looked at him anxiously. "I didn't mean to really hurt you, but my mom's going to come in; and if she finds you here I'm in big trouble."

Looking into her worried eyes, Xander felt the pain in his arm fade.

"I don't want to leave," he muttered.

"Xander," she whined, grabbing his hands, "you have to." She gave him a yank, and he helped her pull him to his feet. He didn't let go of her hands once he was standing, instead holding them tighter.

"Willow, I need to talk to you," he said sincerely.

"Ok, but not now. We're meeting Giles in the library this afternoon so talk to me then."

"I want to talk to you alone. Now."

"Willow!" Mrs. Rosenberg called insistently. "I made you lunch. It's getting cold."

"Get out of here," Willow hissed to Xander, before yanking her hands out of his and hurrying out the door. Xander stood alone in her room for a moment, then quickly slipped on his shoes. He didn't want to get Willow in trouble. That would only make her angry at him. And he thought that he might be on the path to forgiveness if he didn't screw up. *But I need to talk to her now.* His shoes on, he hurried out Willow's door into her yard.

Willow ate quickly, her mind jumping from Xander to her mother, who was trying to talk to her, and back again. She hated leaving him that way, pushing him out. *But I didn't have a choice, and I'll see him later. What if someone sees him leaving and tells mom? What if... Stop that.* She took another bite of her grilled cheese sandwich, trying to force herself to pay attention to what her mother was saying.

"Do you have a lot homework due tomorrow, Hon?"

"Oh, no," she answered. "I'm pretty much done. There's some reading I have to do..." The doorbell rang, and Willow jumped slightly in her chair. She half rose from the table before her mother motioned for her to sit.

"I'll get it," she told her daughter. "You finish eating." Willow sank back into her seat and devoured the last two bites of her sandwich. She was in the process of finishing her glass of milk when her mother walked back into the room with Xander close behind.

"Xander?" Willow squeaked in astonishment.

"Hi, Will," he answered. "I'm here to pick you up so we can go over to Buffy's to study." He gave her a look that said 'play along,' and smiled at Mrs. Rosenberg.

"Would you like something to eat?" she asked him, smiling back. "You must be hungry."

"You know me too well, Mrs. R.," he answered, following her over to the refrigerator. Willow stared at him in disbelief, trying to figure out whether to be angry at him for doing this. Her mom didn't seem to suspect anything, so she decided not to get upset. She finished off her milk and dumped her dishes in the sink while Xander made himself three sandwiches. He dumped them in a plastic bag and waved a cheery good-bye to Willow's mom as they headed out.

Once they were outside and walking towards the library, Willow turned on Xander with a glare.

"What'd you do that for?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. "You could have been caught."

"But I wasn't," Xander pointed out, digging into his first sandwich.

"That's not the point," Willow argued.

"Look. I needed to talk to you now. We're no longer in mortal danger or rushing to save Buffy or anything...so we need to talk about this whole....thing." He took another bite of his sandwich and grinned. "Plus I was hungry." Willow smothered a grin.

"So talk then, go ahead."

"Ok," Xander agreed, suddenly hesitant. *What do I say?* he wondered silently. Willow watched him hesitate, feeling doubt threaten her. "I don't want to lose you," Xander finally blurted out. Willow gave him a look punctuated by raised eyebrows, and he pushed himself to continue. "Will, you have to know you're the most important person in the world to me. You're everything to me."

"Then why don't you treat me that way?" she asked challengingly. "Why do you chase after Buffy like a love-sick puppy?"

"I don't know. I know I always expect you to be there, because you always have been." Xander paused, lowering his eyes to the crusts of bread he crumbled in his hands. "And maybe that made me take you for granted. But I won't anymore. I promise." Willow felt herself soften, but she refused to let him off the hook.

"But Buffy..." she began. "You still have feelings for her." Xander closed his eyes, trying to figure a way to honestly tell her how he felt without driving her away.

"I'm attracted to Buffy," Xander agreed, watching Willow's mouth tighten unhappily. "But I'm attracted to you too...and Will..." Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Xander continued. "I love you." He felt a part of him fall away as he said the words. Words he had said to her before, but never with the meaning he gave them now. Even when he had said them to her the night before, they hadn't meant as much as they did this time. This was a different kind of love than the friendship he had always cherished. It included the friendship, but it was so much more. As he admitted that love to her, and himself, he could feel himself expanding to include new elements in himself, elements of her. *This is how it always should have been,* he thought. *I just didn't realize.*

Willow felt her eyes fill with tears as he spoke. She had waited for what seemed like forever for him to say those words, to say them with such feeling behind them. To mean more than sisterly love, or friendly love. *He loves me.* It felt good to think it, to hear it. It felt good to have him say it when they weren't in mortal danger. It meant more.

"I love you too," she said, once she got her mouth and throat working again.

"So are we ok then?" Xander asked hopefully. "Is it all good?" Willow frowned a little, feeling her brow wrinkle as she struggled with the question.

"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I love you, but you...you're a hard person to deal with, Xander."

"Yeah, but you can handle me, Will," Xander pointed out.

"But I don't want to have to deal with it," Willow argued. "I want to be with you. But I don't want to deal with the Buffy thing...or the way you can just think about yourself."

"You asked me before if I would go with Buffy if she came up to me and asked me out right now," Xander began. "No." Willow's brow wrinkled again. "I wouldn't. I would stay with you. You're all I need. Does that count for something?" Willow stared at him, weighing the truth of his statement, then her lips turned up into a smile.

"It counts for a lot," she said softly, grabbing his hand in her own. "And the fact that you saved my life last night is a plus on your side too."

"So now are we good?" Xander asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Willow confirmed with a bob of her head. "We'll see how it goes."

"And what if it doesn't...go?"

"We'll always be friends, Xander," Willow told him firmly. "Whatever else may happen between us, we'll always have that."

"Are you sure?" Xander asked, feeling like an ass for pushing his luck, but needing to know.

"I have it on really good authority," Willow confirmed, Oz's face popping into her mind. She smiled. "We'll be ok."

Xander returned her smile, happy just to have her hand in his.

"Now we better get to the library," the red-headed hacker pointed out.

"Right," Xander agreed, his feet rooted to the pavement. He couldn't seem to stop staring at the girl beside him. She raised her eyebrows at him, and gave his hand a tug.

"You have to move," she observed.

"Right," he agreed, this time starting to walk. "Mobility is big fun." Suddenly he wanted to run and jump and laugh, but he settled for falling in step next to the girl beside him. "Next stop, the library."

* * * * * *

Buffy stared at her mother over the bowl of cereal she was eating. She had just gotten out of bed a few moments ago, and when she came down for something to eat before heading to the library, her mom was waiting for her. They hadn't really said anything while she fixed the cereal, but she could feel her mother's eyes following every move she made.

Buffy shoved another mouthful of food into her mouth and glanced up, catching her mother's gaze then quickly dropping her eyes.

"Buffy..." Joyce began hesitantly.

"Yeah," Buffy answered non-commitally.

"What are we going to do?" her mother asked.

"Today?" Buffy asked, deliberately misinterpreting the statement. Joyce gave her a look, and she quickly amended her statement. "Oh...um. I don't know."

"Is it drugs?" Joyce asked bluntly. "Buffy, are you on drugs?" The Slayer felt her eyes widen in shock as she struggled to find words.

"Mom!" she exclaimed. "Geez..."

"I need to know, Buffy."

"For God's sake...NO!"

"Don't raise your voice to me, young lady. It's a legitimate question."

"I'm not on drugs," Buffy said, beginning to feel angry. "I just have a lot going on in my life."

"Is it that Angel?" Joyce questioned. "Is he why you're always getting into trouble?"

"Mom, could you try not to blame Angel? Don't drag him into this."

"But he's older...and you've been acting so..."

"Angel keeps me sane, mom. Angel makes me happy." Buffy could feel herself starting to get drawn into another of their fights. She took a deep, calming breath. *Don't freak out,* she reminded herself. *She just doesn't know all the facts. It's not her fault.*

"You said you broke up with him yesterday."

"We had an um...a fight," Buffy hedged. "But I'm going to see him today, and try to explain everything to him. We'll make up. We have to." She paused thoughtfully, almost unaware of her mother's presence. Then she drew herself back into the discussion. "Anyway, none of this is his fault."

"Well, I just don't understand it," Buffy's mom answered in exasperation. "There has to be a reason for your actions."

"I already told you...there are certain things I just have to do," Buffy offered, hoping her mother would accept the vague explanation.

"Tell me what things," she demanded.

"I can't," Buffy said with a helpless shrug.

"Not good enough," her mother replied, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Haven't you ever had something that you had to keep a secret? Not because you wanted to, but because you were trying to protect the people you love?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Buffy," Joyce snapped. "Protect me from what?"

"From the thing that I can't tell you about," Buffy said vaguely, evading her mother's gaze.

"I can protect myself. Just tell me what's going on," Joyce demanded.

"I can't," Buffy groaned, burying her head in her hands. "One day I'll tell you."

"I don't know if I can accept that," her mother answered angrily, tightening her lips into a frown.

"You have to," Buffy said with a sigh. "It's the best I can do."

"How can I believe you? Why should I trust you?" Joyce asked with a shrug.

"Because I'm your DAUGHTER," Buffy answered heatedly. "You've known me my entire life! How can you NOT trust me?! You KNOW I wouldn't be on drugs or do these things if I didn't have to."

"I don't know that," Joyce began.

"Well you should," Buffy answered, annoyed.

"I...I do try to trust you, but you make it so hard. The things you do, Buffy."

"Fine. It won't happen again," Buffy declared with a sigh, knowing it was a lie.

"You always say that," Joyce protested.

"Well, this time I really mean it," Buffy lied again. "Look, mom. I have to go to the library. I'm supposed to meet Willow and Xander there to study for finals."

"How do I know that's really where you're going?" Joyce asked suspiciously.

"Fine, mom, you've figured it out. I'm in a gang, and I'm a drug dealer, and we do all our best cocaine sales in the middle of the day at the library."

"Don't you take that tone," Joyce warned.

"I'll call you from the library when I get there," Buffy said with a sigh. "You can talk to Mr. Giles if you don't believe me."

"Buffy, it's not that I don't believe you," her mother began.

"It's just that you don't actually think I'm telling the truth," Buffy finished sarcastically.

"No...I just..." Joyce sighed. "Just call me when you get there."

"I will, mom," Buffy promised. She put her cereal bowl in the sink and grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair. "I won't get in any trouble, mom. I don't LIKE getting in trouble."

"I know," Joyce agreed, pausing briefly. "Be careful."

"Ok," Buffy said, giving her mother a wave. "Don't worry about me."

Joyce sighed as she watched her daughter leave the house.

"I can't not worry," she muttered. "It's my job to worry." Closing her eyes, she tried to calm her nerves. *She can take care of herself,* she silently reassured herself. *She'll be fine. Now if I could just make myself believe that.* She opened her eyes and glared at the door, irrationally wishing that her daughter would walk back through it and never walk out again. *If I could just keep her safe.* She turned to put the dishes in the dishwasher. *But I can't. I have to trust her to take care of herself. I have to let her go.* She scrubbed some food off of one of the plates, pausing as the thought of Buffy ice skating as a small child popped into her mind. *She's not a baby anymore...my baby.*