Kin of the Heart
Rated SAFE


































Bumbling to a Save

Angel watched as Buffy took out the last vampire, admiring her form, her grace as she spun and drove the stake deep into his chest before he exploded into ash. Then she was backing off, madly brushing at her jacket.

"Ew. Okay, not as bad as demon goo, but I really need to remember to stake upwind," she wrinkled her nose.

"Thanks Buffy, you're a lifesaver, and I mean that literally," Xander offered as he climbed out of the bushes. The young man didn't even bother thanking Angel who had staked the other two.

"It's in the job description," she shrugged, "but aren't you out kinda late?"

"Huge with the lateage. My dad had a craving for beef jerky." Xander dug around in the bushes and came up with a small paper sack. "I couldn't really explain that I was creeped out walking in the dark because the vampires seem to be multiplying like radioactively mutated rabbits." Now Xander did glance toward Angel, and Angel considered just fading away into the shadow.

"Oh crap. Look at the time," Buffy gasped as she caught a glance at Xander's watch. "Mom is going to kill me. Angel, you can get Xander home, right?" She turned her bright eyes on Angel, and the determination to just leave faded and Angel found himself agreeing with a nod. And then she was gone, racing across a yard and leaping a fence with all the power and grace of a demon.

"Great," Xander breathed in a tone that made it clear that this situation was anything but great. Angel agreed with the feeling, but he'd promised to walk the idiot home, so he stepped onto the sidewalk and waited for Xander to pick a direction. When they'd found him, he was already in the bushes, so Angel didn't know which way was home. For long seconds, Xander just eyed him suspiciously before he turned and started walking west. Angel silently walked beside him.

"So, you're Angel," Xander said finally. Angel had been watching a fledge in the distance, and the question didn't register with him right away.


"Buffy's Angel, well not Buffy's angel as in guardian angel type angel because that would just be strange." Xander rattled the words out so fast that Angel just stared down at him blankly. "You know, what with you being a vampire," Xander added with a vague hand-wave in Angel's general direction.

"I got that," Angel said with a small frown. If Xander was going to talk, this was going to be a lot more awkward. He wished the boy would just walk in silence and grudgingly accept the protection Angel was grudgingly offering without the verbal torture.

"Oh, good," Xander nodded. "Sometimes people don't get my stuff, and explaining it… so not good for the humor, not that I was trying to be funny because I wouldn't joke about some big tragedy like someone being a vampire… or using a wheelchair. Wheelchair jokes are totally unfunny, and I would put vampire jokes—" he glanced toward Angel out of the corner of his eyes, and Angel braced himself for whatever idiotic adolescent comments he was about to make. "Who am I kidding?" Xander asked. "There are some great vampire jokes out there. I bet you've heard them all."

"I don't talk to people much." Angel looked at Xander meaningfully, trying to get the boy to understand that he didn't choose to talk to people much. The idiot completely missed the point.

"Are you one of those weird people who collects years of newspapers and has about a hundred cats?"

"Cats? What?"

"You know, those weird people who collect crap and then when they die, their bodies disappear into their own apartments and the police have to go climbing in through the piles of newspapers and cats to get them out. Are you one of those? Because I have to tell you, you have the weird vibe going although I don't suppose you're going to leave a corpse behind for the cats to chew on after you've died."

Angel stopped and just stared at the boy, and Xander stopped, too. "What? No. I don't have cats. I don't like cats."

"No piles of newspapers from 1904 in some corner of your place?"

"No." Angel growled the word and started walking down the street again, almost hoping that Xander just wouldn't follow. Then he could leave this idiot behind without breaking his word to offer an escort home.

"Oh, okay. So, you really haven't heard any vampire jokes?"

"No." Angel kept his eyes straight ahead and tried to ignore Xander.

"What's a vampire's favorite snack?"

"We don't—" Angel started staying.

"It's a joke. You're supposed to ask 'what'," Xander interrupted as he rolled his eyes. Angel gritted his teeth and pushed down on the feeling of helpless stupidity that rose in him every time he didn't understand the world well enough to live in it. He hated that Xander could make him feel like that, and he hated that it was over something as stupid as a joke. But how was he supposed to know how two people talked to each other? He wasn't a person, and he'd spent a century trying to NOT talk to people.

"But I—" Angel started, determined to cut this conversation off.

"Say 'what'!" Xander demanded with a melodramatic sigh. Angel was caught between just saying it and getting it over or breaking Xander into several small pieces that would fit into a storm drain. He had to take several unnecessary breaths to push back the Angelus thoughts.

"Fine. What?"

"Neck-tarines." Xander howled with laughter… or gave one good bark of it at least before he settled into chuckling.

"That's not actually funny."

"It is if you don't have to fight someone into doing the joke right," Xander shrugged. He glanced over and rolled his eyes at Angel again, and this time Angel didn't even understand what he had done that warranted the disapproval of this child. "Fine, here's another one," Xander said with a mightily put-upon voice.

"What does one lesbian vampire say to the other?"

"What?" Angel said obediently, hoping that Xander lived close… very close. He started eyeing random houses and wondering if he could get the owners to just take the boy in for the night.

"Same time next month?" Xander looked at him hopefully, the smile fading as Angel just frowned. "Get it, time of the month. Girls… their periods…" Xander waved his hand in some sort of sign that seemed to mean 'all that,' but Angel just stared at him blankly until Xander sighed heavily. "I give up. You're ruining my best material here. Look, I have a limited number of strategies for humor here. You're clearly not going for the eyerolling variety, and no way am I going for self-deprecating when I'm walking with this super cool seekret stalker dude that the girl I like likes. There's humiliating myself for laughs, and then there's going just too far."

"I don't want you—"

"So that leaves humor through brutal harsh truth, which again, you make difficult by having the whole hidden past going on," Xander cut him off without so much as an apology. In Angel's human life, that would have led to getting backhanded to the floor. In his vampire life, that sort of rudeness only led to a physical beating if someone liked you. If they didn't, they'd just kill you over it. All Angel could do is grit his teeth and enjoy the few seconds of silence before Xander started again. "So, how's the Romeo and Juliet thing going for you and the Buffster?"

"We're fine."

"You do know they ended up dead at the end, right?" Xander looked up at him, and Angel took a firm hold on his temper as the boy kept right on talking even with Angel giving every sign that he was ready to snap. "I mean, just checking."

"Yes, I know how the play ended. I've seen it several times," Angel answered tersely.

"Good because some people, they're still all with the 'awwww, isn't that sweet' when I'm more about the 'hey, look, dead people on the floor.' It's the star-crossed lovers thing. It never ends well. Like that movie with the boat and the singing and the girl who it turns out is part black only no one knows it until she can sing that song about loving her man. That ended up badly. She ended up a bitter old alcoholic, or maybe that was him, but there was alcoholism and bitterness involved."

Angel narrowed his eyes and looked down contemptuously at the brat. So, that was his game. He'd dealt with Spike and his petty jealousies for enough years to recognize that expression. Now Angel felt a little more secure with his footing. This wasn't about him not being human enough to carry on a conversation; this was about the boy being so jealous of Buffy's affection that he couldn't see straight. "You don't think I should be with her," Angel said calmly. Nothing this cretin thought would change how Buffy saw him.

"Well, duh," Xander snorted, and that wasn't the reaction Angel expected. "I mean, you give pedophilia a whole new meaning. If sixteen and thirty is a bad, I don't even have a word for the badness that is sixteen and… how old are you, anyway?" Angel blinked, right back to feeling off-balance as that word sank into his consciousness. It was an easy enough word to understand with the Latin roots, but Angel had never even considered…

"I was born in 1727," he answered automatically, his brain still distracted by that brutal word Xander had just casually thrown out.

"Oh wow. If I could, you know, do math in my head, I would so be making comments about sixteen and way too freaking old. 1997 minus 1727 is… just freaky."

"Two hundred seventy."

"Okay, see, that's weird, you have to admit that's weird. My grandmother is sixty-two and she can't even work the VCR, so the idea of someone nearly three hundred years old dating Buffy with her current Third Eye Blind obsession? Way with the weird. Do you even know who Third Eye Blind is? You know, Semi-Charmed Life?"

Xander had that expectant expression. He knew full well that Angel had no idea how to work a VCR or who Third Eye Blind was. Angel had a better chance of finding a three-eyed, blind demon that knowing what the hell he was talking about. Not even bothering to answer, Angel just walked a little faster.

"I'm taking that as a no. Of course, do you even know how to use a radio?"

"Yes," Angel growled.

"A VCR?"

"I've seen them."

"So that's a 'no' on using the VCR front."

"We don't have to talk," Angel pointed out darkly, his tone the sort that would have sent William and Dru running for safety. "We can just walk in silence until we reach your house.

"Riiight. When all else fails, avoid." Xander nodded and got a smug expression on his face that Angel immediately wanted to smack off.

"I'm trying to be patient with you because I understand that you are jealous and more than a little petty over the fact that Buffy likes me. But if you think you can get me out of the way so you can make your--"

"Oh please. Not even. I watch movies like "Night of the Comet" as sock puppet material because every man on earth being dead but me, that's about what it would take for someone like Buffy or Cordelia to look at me, not that I ever looked at Cordelia, Cordelia was more Jesse's speed… or not Jesse's speed because Cordelia was always way faster. But me… I’m not even up to Jesse speed, so girls like that are totally out of my league. Nope. If I got you to drop off the face of the earth, I still wouldn't have a shot at Buffy. Doesn't mean I don't want you to drop off the face of the earth."

Angel strode forward, ignoring the man-child's voice and the dark fury in his gut and the stirring of his soul that had just now started asking a lot of questions that Angel hadn't even considered before.

"You know why?" Xander demanded.

Still not answering, Angel walked fast enough that Xander had to trot now.

"Avoidance… so doesn't work with me. I just keep talking right over the awkward silences. See, here's how I figure it. You're a vampire, and she's a vampire slayer. "

That warranted a strong glare.

"Yeah, I know that part's obvious," Xander shrugged off Angel's venomous expression, "but here's the bit you seem to miss. Her job is to protect people from monsters. You are a monster; therefore, she's supposed to protect people from you. But instead all she talks about is poor Angel… Angel almost got staked helping her on patrol… Angel had to kill his sire… and doesn't sire mean father because the whole Darla being a sire thing is giving me freaky thoughts about what she had under that skirt if she fathered you."

The fact that this man-child was poking at Angel's most pained and most cherished soft spots was nearly enough to make him reconsider his no-hunt policy. The only way he could deal with his own pain was to shove it off for later consideration as he focused on the idiot's misunderstanding of the word sire.

"She's the vampire who created me."

"Right. Whatever, so not the point. The point is that Buffy is all tangled up worrying about you. So, when the day comes that she has to choose between saving you or saving some poor schmuck who tried making out with some skanky vamp from the Bronze in a back alley, who do you think she'd save?"

"She's the slayer. She'll do her job." Angel had never fooled himself into believing that Buffy would chose him over her destiny. Hell, for a while he'd been confused about why she'd choose him over this boy with his dark eyes and soulful expression, but now that he was spending some time with the brat, Angel was beginning to understand why a slayer would want a vampire over this annoying man-child.

"Okay, let's assume that," Xander said without sounding convinced. "So, she saves random vamp snack and watches you turn to dust. Oh yeah, that's not going to screw her up, not at all. She broods, she gets all depressed and eats way too much chocolate and stops training, and then she's very quickly a dead slayer. Good plan, that." Sarcastic nod.

"That wouldn't happen," Angel said, clenching his fists to keep from grabbing the boy and breaking him. He didn't want that future for Buffy.

"Oh please, you really don't spend much time with girls, do you? They got depressed over Ross kissing the Xerox girl, so letting the 300 year old monster she thinks she's in love with die… oh yeah, that's major life-changing, Prozac-sucking depression."

Angel didn't understand most of that, but he still understood the general principle. He didn't want to understand it, but he did. And Xander, instead of letting Angel catch his balance and make sense of this whole new world view, he just kept barreling on. "Unless of course she picks you over the vamp snack. Then she gets to be depressed AND hear Giles go on and on about how he told her not to get involved with you because it would mean trouble. Yep, I am speaking the truth man, and you so know it. Denial, your name is Angel. And I'm still thinking that's a stupid name."

"This is your version of humor?" Angel asked with a grim laugh of his own. He felt as raw as if he'd just been worked over by three Fyarl demons.

"Trust me, from this side of the conversation, this is all sorts of fun… unless you plan on eating me for it." Xander looked at Angel suspiciously.

"I don't kill people," Angel said, even though just minutes ago he'd been reconsidering that policy.

"Then yeah," Xander shrugged, "I'm calling this funny." And now Xander fell silent. Now that his words had done their damage and Angel couldn't escape the thought that he was someone damaging the one person he'd sworn to protect, now that he was questioning everything he'd done in the last few months, now the brat was silent as they walked down the tree-lined street. He turned a corner, and Angel followed, his guts still roiling.

"I can't just stay away from her," Angel said firmly, even if he felt anything but firm right now.

Xander snorted, a derisive sound that made Angel want to rip his guts out… that made him want to turn the boy and then rip his guts out so it would last longer. "Oh, right, leave it up to the 16-year-old to have control. That's right up there with pedophiles blaming 6-year-olds for being too cute. Actually, it's kinda worse because at 270, you really should have a little more control and you're all supposedly atoning for past evil-man, which implies you really shouldn't be doing more evil. Way to show no control."

"If I didn’t have control, you'd be dead right now," Angel pointed out with grim amusement as he pictured what he would do to Xander if he didn't have control.

"See… with a face like that, I'm thinking you should be named Ra’s al ghul or something, not Angel."

The sudden shift in tone left Angel feeling like he was trying to walk through rapids. Every time he figured out how to keep his balance, the current changed and he was again left floundering. "Who?"

"My point exactly, the lack of pop culture references… you so don't have any business dating anyone less than two-hundred. He's a villain… always has that really evil expression on his face like you have when you're looking at me right now. He has too much forehead, too. I'll loan you my Batman comics. You'll like them."

"I don't—"

"Don't have a life... I got that already. But I figure you need someone or something to distract you from this Romeo and Juliet thing you have going before you go and get your Juliet dead." Angel stopped in the middle of the dark sidewalk. Up to now he could put the child's words up to unintentional meanness or dumb luck, but this… this suggested that the boy had just made a deliberate attack. Angel wondered how long he had practiced this little conversation in his own head before having the chance to say it.

"If she knew you were saying this to me—" Angel started.

"I'd be totally dead, yep, get that. But here's the thing, I don't have the slayerly powers for good or Willow's mad research skills. I've pretty much got the truth and nothing but the truth, so consider this my contribution to making the world a better place. Hey, we're here. Thanks for the escort. I really, really hope we don't ever have to do this again." Xander turned and darted into one more little square house that looked like all the others on the block, a little shabbier maybe.

"I—" Angel started, but the boy was already gone. Boy. He could so clearly see that Xander was a boy, a boy trying to attack in the only way he could. Why was it so hard then for him to see that Buffy was a girl? Angel shook his head, trying to settle these new and disturbing thoughts as he turned and headed back for his apartment, not sure that anything would be the same again after this night.

Family Ties

Angel opened his apartment door and very nearly shut it again. Unfortunately, he didn't close it quite fast enough.

"Hey, Deadboy. Today's lesson is on the glories of the modern educational system: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Breakfast Club, and the incomparable National Lampoon's Animal House." Xander held up three tapes, dropping them on Angel's couch before he went to dig through Angel's refrigerator. Gritting his teeth, Angel told himself that this was part of his penance for a century of murder and mayhem. He also told himself that he wanted to get rid of Xander, but the fact that Xander was pulling Doritos out of his cupboards and already had a Coke from the refrigerator in hand really did make it hard for him to do that. 

"At least eat something that isn't junk food. I bought milk," Angel pointed out.

"Nah-huh. I want my nice sealed Coke can because that milk has been sharing fridge space with your blood, and may I just say right now how bad that icks me out."

If Angel expected time to dull Xander's criticisms, he was going to have to wait a lot longer. Sitting on the couch, he looked at the tapes the boy had brought over. "Why I am watching films on high school? Why don't you bring more of those musicals? I liked Showboat," Angel complained as Xander toed off his sneakers and picked up the tape with the depressed looking teenagers on the front.

"Hey, the 'mostly dead' reference from Princess Bride, that so saved Buffy's skin... well, that and my powers of CPR."

Angel really couldn't argue with that. He wanted to. He wanted to point out that the movie had been inane and stupid. It really had been, but at least now he understood what Xander meant when he told Angel to have fun storming the castle as he sat on a tombstone and watched Angel dust vamps. Funny, he'd thought that backing away from Buffy would have meant seeing the boy less, but the less he focused on Buffy, the more he seemed to have inherited a younger brother... an annoying younger brother who was getting Doritos dust all over his couch. Angel looked at the mess in despair.

With a sigh, Angel got up to heat himself some blood.

"You're going to do the blood sucking thing right in front of me, aren't you?" Xander asked with a face.

"You're inhaling pure chemicals right in front of me," Angel countered. "Besides, I drink, I don't suck." He pulled the pan out of the cupboard and set it on the stove.

"Just keep that away from me because the smell of blood is doing seriously bad things to my appetite, and I'm a growing boy here. I need my calories."

Sighing, Angel just focused on his dinner while the opening credits of the movie started. "Hey," Xander called, "this sets up all the characters so you know their backgrounds, you have to see this bit."

Angel turned and watched as one teen after another got dropped off in front of a silent school. Why were they going to school if no one else was? Angel didn't ask because questions like that led to long and complicated answers that he often didn't understand any better than the movies Xander brought over.

"See all the pressure that asshole's putting on his son? So not with the cool. Wait 'til you find out what Andy did, and having been on the receiving end, I'm so not okay with what he did, but his father makes him do a lot of that stuff just with the way he acts. They should be able to make parents serve detentions, you know?" Xander snorted.

Detention. Restraining or confining someone. After Xander had served his second detention for not having homework done, Angel had finally caught on to the meaning as it referred to school, but that still didn't explain why these students were being dropped off for detention. Xander always served his after class.

Angel watched as a man in overalls told his son that he was a waste of lunchmeat. Angel flinched. Yeah, Xander was right, some parents deserved to take the blame, but then again, sometimes the punishments they received far outweighed any crimes they committed while trying to raise their children. The specter of his own past rose up, and Angel tried shoving it away. Tried, but didn't completely succeed. Maybe that's why he let Xander come over, so that he would be tortured with reminders of a life he once had. Angel turned back to the stove and swirled his blood. Maybe he just didn't like the young man being so alone. The first time Angel had invited him over, the boy had been sitting forlornly on his porch, and it didn't take vampire hearing to catch the vicious fight going on inside. Most of the neighbors could hear it. Now, Angel was never sure whether some fight at home or some unintentional insult from Buffy or Giles sent him to Angel. Xander rarely if ever discussed what was going on with him, even if he did make a habit out of torturing information out of Angel.

After pouring the blood into a cup, Angel ran water in the pan and headed back to his desecrated couch.

"The couch... so not a tragedy, so you can stop with the tragic face," Xander said without glancing away from the movie. He poked a chip toward the screen. "This guy? Snyder would love him. Snyder's problem is that he can't find enough sadists to hire as teachers."

Angel seriously hoped Xander was exaggerating. He probably was.

"So, what was school like in your day?" Xander asked before shoving an entire handful of chips in his mouth and then rubbing his dirty hand on his shirt. At least that was better than rubbing it on the sofa arm, Angel supposed.

"Strict," Angel said. "I had a friend who went to a hedge school and liked it well enough, but I went to a state school and I never learned much more than reading, basic numbers, and how to avoid getting hit with a very large stick."

"Hedge school?" Xander sprayed Dorito dust with his words.

"Catholics weren't allowed to teach and the schools tried to get us to not believe in the Pope, so a lot of boys, their parents paid storytellers or teachers who would teach out of barns or beside ditches or behind hedges."

"Really?" Xander sat up a little straighter. "You could get the whole rebelling and schooling things out of the way at once, which would leave many hours free for other pursuits, which seems big with the waste because you didn't even have video games to fill all those excess non-rebelling minutes." Xander nodded, and Angel didn't point out that in his day, children had very little time for rebelling. He himself had not rebelled against his father's beatings and insults until he got old enough to do it with a vengeance that had led to his own damnation. "So, your dad didn't go for the hedge thingies?" Xander asked.

"Hedge schools. No. He would rather have me protestant and wealthy than go to heaven. I suppose he didn't get either." Angel drank his blood and tried hard to concentrate on the movie and not the sick feeling in his stomach. Having Xander over was a little like self-flagellation, but the boy no longer seemed to enjoy the pain he caused. If anything, he'd turned pensive, chewing on one chip before pulling another out of the bag.

"How are Willow and Buffy?" Angel asked.

"She's back with Owen again. On again, off again, on again. Geez, he's like a yo-yo, and not in the sparkly fun way either because he can be slightly totally weird," Xander complained. Angel just nodded. Whoever Buffy dated would no doubt inspire jealousy and hatred in Xander's heart, but at least the boy was honest about that. After Angel had started backing away from Buffy, after he'd really seen how he was endangering her, both physically and emotionally, in a way he had never intended, he'd expected gloating from Xander. It never came. And as much as Xander hated Owen, and he did hate the young man, Xander never tried to break up the relationship Buffy was struggling to have with him. As much as Angel hated to admit it, a sixteen year old boy had been mature enough to see a truth that he at two hundred and seventy had missed. It hadn't been just the random, jealous babbling of some love-sick teen.


"She's fine," Xander shrugged without more comment.

Angel settled in to watch the movie now that Xander had been successfully distracted from the topic of Angel's own past. The knock on the door came after the students had started smoking marijuana. Xander looked at Angel questioningly, but Angel didn't have any idea who might be showing up on his door. He wasn't exactly listed in the yellow pages. Yellow pages, another reference Xander had explained, bringing one over to use as a visual aid.

When Angel opened the door, he was temporarily so shocked that he didn't even say anything as the figure billowed into the room, a leather duster swirling dramatically around him as he stopped in the space halfway between the small kitchen area and Xander. Angel quickly moved to stand between them.

"Ta, mate." Spike sniffed, an affectation that was followed with a trademark smirk. "Long time no see."

"Xander, you need to go home," Angel said quietly.

"Long time as in...?" Xander asked softly.

"Go home."

"Right, this is me with the going."

Spike smirked wider, running a tongue along the inside of his lower lip. "Say hi to Bruno on your way out, pet. He's the vamp with the tattoo over half his face." Xander froze half way to the door, his wide eyes on Angel. Reaching out, Angel grabbed Xander's arm and pulled the boy safely behind him.

"What do you want, Willliam?" Angel struggled to find some calm. This situation was bad. The cramped quarters were far more suited to Spike's fighting style than his own, and Xander would never survive even being in the same room with two fighting Master vampires.

"Got a new bit then? He going to be the new baby brother once he's grown into his knickers?" Spike turned an appraising eye on Xander and Angel could feel the warm hand touch his back, seeking some sort of protection and reassurance. "All dark eyes, that one. Looks like your taste." And Xander's hand disappeared from his back.

"That's not your business," Angel said sharply, refusing to get pulled into Spike's game. "So, William, what brings you to the Hellmouth?"

"Just came from court. They say you're the slayer's lapdog. Funny thing that." Spike walked over to the chair and dropped into it, sprawling out as he frowned at the television. "Crap movie. Now Star Wars, that's a movie worth seein'. Anyway," Spike said, one more fast shift in topics, "court says you're sniffing up the slayer, but I've been tailing this slayer for a week now, and I haven't caught hide nor hair of you anywhere around."

Angel took a step forward, anger surging through his guts. He didn't think of Buffy as someone he could or should sniff up, not after Xander had said a few truths that made him see her as far more of a child than a woman, but she was his responsibility. He'd taken on a mission to help her, to protect her, and as much as he didn't want to, he would fight even Spike over that mission. "You don't touch her," Angel growled, barely keeping out of gameface. Spike blinked up at him, unconcerned.

"Slayers exist for us to kill them, you forgotten that or does the soul just muck with your head until you can't understand the concept?" Angel stepped back so quickly he collided with Xander and the boy gave a startled yelp.

"You know," Angel said quietly.

"Well, yeah. Not stupid," Spike pointed out with a frown. "Half the demon world uses your name like some sort of boogy monster. Be a bad little demon or the gypsies will shove a soul up your arse like with that Angelus."

"Soul or not, I will dust you if you touch Buffy," Angel said seriously. Spike just raised an eyebrow.

Calmly, Spike pulled out a cigarette and lighted it, casually blowing smoke into the room. "Yeah, heard you'd taken up stakin' the family. That's what the line's come down to, has it?"

"The line was always full of vampires who would stake each other over a meal," Angel pointed out contemptuously.

"True enough," Spike shrugged. "Doesn't mean you stake your own sire or childer, or did the court get that wrong, too?"

"Darla threatened Buffy." Angel watched as his words had an effect on Spike. The nervous twitch of his fingers stilled and for one perfect second, he was a silent statue. Then he pursed his lips and leaned back in the chair.

"Not sure what your game is here, mate, so this is your play."

Angel wasn't fooled by the cocky attitude or the carefree attitude. Spike had placed himself closest to the one piece of art that would best serve as a weapon, and he watched Angel with wary blue eyes.

"I don't want to fight over this, but for Buffy, I will," Angel said calmly.

"Just the slayer?" Spike asked as he leaned forward. His eyes flicked toward Xander.

"Buffy AND her friends are the ones I'll specifically hunt you down and stake you over," Angel compromised on. "I'm sure you can sniff out which ones spend time with her, at least if you haven't forgotten the lessons I taught you."  Angel's soul demanded that he stake Spike right here and right now, that he end the danger the vampire posed to the world. Another part of his soul reminded him that he had created Spike, and the guilt of that made his stomach twist. Angel had tortured the boy, had forced him to watch as Angelus took Drusilla over and over.  He'd dragged young William out on sprees of raping and killing.  Before that, William had been the least bloodthirsty demon Angel had ever met. Now he was famous for torturing and killing. Angel carried the blame for that.

"Still not sure what your game is here," Spike pointed out.

"And you're not going to. You leave Buffy and her friends alone, and you don't hunt where she or I will find you, and I won't have to turn you into dust." Angel offered the best treaty he could.

"Bloody hell, sounds like you really might be tamed," Spike stood up, but Angel spotted his moment... the fraction of a second when Spike had his body angled just a little too far. Angel surged forward and slammed his body into Spike's. His larger frame meant that he had Spike pinned against the wall before the smaller vampire could launch a counter-attack.

"Don't ever think I'm tame, Spike, you won't live to regret the mistake." Angel hissed the words out, his demon's vision focusing on the soft curve where Spike's neck and shoulder met. For a second, Spike's hands scrabbled across Angel's shoulders, and then he went still. His head tilted a fraction, maybe less than a fraction of an inch, but the gesture was there. Angel drove forward, biting deeply at the offered flesh and tasting the blood of his line. He stopped before he could take much. If he did, Spike would just have to hunt again, and Angel didn't want that on his conscience. Slowly, Angel backed away, his eyes still focused on Spike.

"Guess that answers that," Spike said, just a little of the cocky gone as he reached up and touched the raw wound on his throat.

"Are you still planning on going after the slayer?" Angel asked, still in gameface. Spike stared at him for several seconds.

"Your offer of a truce good?" Spike finally countered.

"As long as I don't see you hunt. I'm here to stop people from ending up the prey, but..." Angel stopped. He couldn't come up with one reason for not killing Spike right now when the younger vampire was submitting and his instincts would work against him. Then again, maybe Angel just liked people who annoyed him, and Spike had always fit into that category remarkably well.

Spike shook his head. "You were my Yoda. Bloody hell, you were the one who taught me to enjoy my unlife, and now this is what you're left with? Crap all movies in some pathetic flat that stinks of pig's blood?"

"We all make choices," Angel said calmly as he fell back into human features. "So, what choice are you making right now, William?" Angel took a step forward again, and Spike angled his body for another attack.

"If your slayer is all that precious to you, I'll let you have her until some other vamp catches her havin' a bad day." Spike stepped away from the wall, and Angel backed up to give him a clear shot at the door to leave. Through this whole exchange, Xander had remained shockingly silent, and Angel spared the boy a glance. He was pale and not actually breathing. Angel wondered just how long he'd been holding his breath because that was not a healthy expression.

Spike started for the door, his swagger a little less pronounced than when he'd swept in. "How's Drusilla?" Angel asked when Spike put his hand to the doorknob. Spike's eyebrow twitched, either in amusement or concern as he gave Angel a strange look.

"Not good. Got caught by a mob outside of Prague, and she's failing fast. Hellmouth perked her up a bit and Dalton's looking for a solution."

Angel didn't answer, not even sure what to say. If he had a part in creating Spike, then he'd molded every inch of Drusilla. Her madness for killing children, her cruelty, her joy in torture... they were all the scars he had left on her before and after he'd turned her. Without another word, Spike was gone and Angel was left alone in the apartment with Xander, the movie still going. He turned, not even sure how to explain that exchange to the boy.

Xander frowned at him for a second and then at the door before he sort of wilted onto the couch. "And here I thought you drinking blood was bad for my digestion," he joked weakly. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to vomit. Passing out may follow. Actually, first I need to feel my crotch to see if I actually peed my pants or just considered it. What with the lack of oxygen there in the middle, I sort of fuzzed out."

"You didn't soil yourself," Angel assured him even though he knew that Xander already knew that. "Spike is..." Angel stopped. How did he explain this to a sixteen year old child.

"Family?" Xander asked. "Fucked up family, but family. Yeah, I get that. I'm totally getting it boy, but next time I'm complaining about my dad, please just poke me with a stick or something because your family makes mine look almost functional." Xander gave a dark burst of laughter, and Angel didn't bother pointing out that Xander never complained about his father. All of Angel's impressions about Xander's family came from standing outside on the street listening to them. Xander looked up at him. "We need to tell Giles," he said before he bit his lip. It was a gesture of uncertainty Xander didn't usually have. Whether Xander was right or spectacularly wrong, he was always sure.

"Yes, we do. If Spike's in town, he has a plan," Angel agreed. "It's probably not a good one, but he has one. However, I think this will keep until tomorrow. Do you want me to walk you home?"

Xander sat silent for a minute. "Um, do you mind if I do the couch-crashing thing? The parental units are off on the blaming of each other for the lack of money, and that particular conversation always seems to come back around to why I seem to suck up so much money and not give any back."

Angel grimaced. "If you can handling sleeping on Dorito crumbs, you're welcome to it," Angel said. "I'll get you some blankets." He pulled a set of sheets, a pillow, and blankets out. If Xander was going to admit that he wanted to stay instead of just refusing to leave until he fell asleep, then he could get a little more comfortable than sleeping on the couch with a blanket over him.

"You want to finish the movie?" Xander asked. Again, there was that uncertainty that Angel wasn't used to seeing.

"I actually think I need to go kill something," Angel admitted. He didn't like how that made him sound violent and unbalanced, but it was true. Xander just nodded.

"I'm with you there, well, not in the actual killing of things, but in the weird needing to do something, not that I plan on doing anything except sit on your couch and excessively channel surf. He won't come back, will he?" Xander glanced toward the door, and Angel used a fang to bite down on the pad of his thumb.

"No, he made his point. He won't risk starting another confrontation after he's submitted," Angel said truthfully enough as he let his hand casually brush against Xander's hair. He could smell his blood mixing with Xander's own scent as the new scent marker laid over the smells of older markers. Not even a dozen washings would remove all traces of vampire blood and the fresh marker would warn Spike that Angel was serious about protecting his own. Now all Angel had to feel guilty about was all the random people he was likely to kill.

Angel grabbed his coat and sword and headed for the door. Xander's voice stopped him as he was ready to leave.

"Hey Angel," he said. The VCR was already off, and Xander had the remote in hand.


"You can't pick your family." Xander didn't say anything else as he turned his attention to the television and started flipping through channels at a speed that made it impossible for even vampire vision to identify the pictures. Angel didn't answer as he headed out of the apartment.


Devil in the Details

Xander hurried as he headed for the Bronze. If Snyder hadn't been all with the 'help clean this up' after the swim team slopped all over the stupid floors, Xander would have been safely inside the club sitting next to Buffy way before dark. Instead he was power walking through the dark. Snyder just hated him because Ampata had disappeared, which made the school look bad, especially when it turned out that Ampata was supposed to be a boy, and boy didn't that look a little suspicious. But it still wasn't his fault he was always at the center of the weirdness.

He was officially stupid, Xander told himself as he walked even faster. He should have just gone home, it was closer. Xander snorted at that thought. Funny, but the more he avoided home, the more he wanted to avoid home. It was like some sort of reverse numbing process because the ability to just get away from his parents' fights... well, let's just say it was definitely reducing his tolerance for the random verbal assaults.

"Fancy meeting you here." The heavy accent sent Xander grabbing for a stake, but before he could even get it out of his waistband, Spike had grabbed him, one hand on the back of Xander's neck and the other on his stake hand, and this wasn't embarrassing, not at all. Spike looked so... okay, he looked like a Goth wimp with more scrawn than muscle, but the hands holding him were definitely not scrawny.

"Oi, stop fighting before I end up hurtin' you."

"Oh yeah, because vampires never hurt people. I'm not falling for that line you undead liar... guy." Okay, that wasn't his best line ever, but Xander hadn't peed his pants yet, and right now that was victory enough. Getting out of this without being dead would be even better.

Spike gave him a little shake that made Xander's teeth rattle. "Don't have to lie to you. If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead, pet. So let go of that stake and play nice before I rip your bollocks off."

Xander had no idea what bollocks were, but from tone of voice, he was guessing he wanted his right where they were thank you very much. He let go of his stake and listened to it rattle against the sidewalk before Spike started pulling him down a sidestreet.

"Angel is going to be so pissed with you... and Buffy... you know, the slayer. She's going to be big with the hunting your sorry ass down and doing the whole dust to dust thing." Even while Xander babbled, he couldn't help remembering what Angel had told Giles... that Spike was one of the most determined demons he'd ever known. Not a great one for planning or patience, but utterly focused, and Xander really, truly did not want that focus on him.

"Mouthy one, aren't you?" Spike asked as he changed his hold so that he held one of Xander's wrists and flung his other arm around Xander's shoulders.

"Too mouthy. You don't want to listen to me. Heck, my parents don't even listen to me, so random vamps, not really any reason to listen to me, so you should just let me go."

"Bloody hell, not some random vamp, am I? I figure Angelus will give you another three, four years to fill in and then we'll be family."

It took Xander a second to recover from that bit of stupidity. "Disturbo much? Angel is not going to turn me."

Spike gave Xander a look that looked a little bit like the one Giles had given him when Xander had confused whatsit demons with thingamajig demons and made them all think the world was ending again. "And you've known the sod for what? A couple of years?" Spike snorted, and Xander could feel the heat in his face. Okay, so he hadn't actually known Angel that long... really not that long... but he was sticking to the belief that Angel wasn't planning on killing him. If he was with the homicidal feelings, the whole night with the verbal jabbing about pedophilia so would have been the time for him to do it. But right now, Xander was more concerned with the way Spike was studying him. "How long *have* you known him?" Spike demanded.

Xander wasn't going to answer, but the grip tightening painfully on his wrist pretty much reminded him that he didn't have a choice. "Um, known in the having seen him around or known as in knowing his name or known as in figuring out he's a vampire or known as in showing up at his apartment for movie nights?"

Spike's eyebrow twitched.

"A couple of months, maybe," Xander said, kinda cutting it down the middle. The movies... that had been two months top... maybe a month and a half.

That made Spike just outright laugh. "Oi, he knows you for two months, and he's already marked his territory and is coddling you until you grow into your knickers. You're not a seer or somethin', are you?"

"Uh, not that I know. The only thing I'm really known for seeing is any snack food at a hundred paces. Other than that, I tend to trip over things before seeing them."

Spike stopped and really stared at Xander for a second before he started walking again, dragging Xander along for the ride. "Seers don't always know it about themselves. My Dru, she just thought she was cursed. I don't suppose you think your cursed or balmy or some shite like that, do you?"


"Crazy," Spike clarified.

"Crazy for wandering around a Hellmouth after dark, I'd be saying big with the yes," Xander agreed as they turned another corner.

"Hear voices? See things that aren't there? Cursed by some higher power?" Spike asked, and now he stared at Xander so intensely that Xander shivered. Spike just tightened his hold.

"Um, no, no, and maybe. I do seem to keep attracting demons. Demons and primals and vampires, oh my. I mean, this? So not even the weirdest thing that's happened to me this week. But then Willow had the whole demon-computer stalker dude which was weirdly creepy, so I'm not alone in the Twilight Zone. Of course, that still doesn't catch her up with me having the hyena primal and the teacher who tried to eat me, and the spirit-eating mummy that tried to suck out my life-force, and now Snyder is after my ass even more than ever because he's all blaming me because she was supposed to be a he and then she turned into a mummy, not that he knows the mummy part."

Xander bit his tongue to force himself to just stop. Yeah, people accused him of babbling just because he hung with Willow, who really was a babble champion, especially after too many Cokes, but he didn't actually babble much. He just said stupid shit. But with Spike walking arm in arm with him, Xander just had this weird feeling that if he could just keep talking, it was like proof that he was breathing, and breathing meant alive, and right now, any proof that he was alive was of the good.

Spike just nodded.

"You're supposed to tell me I sound like an idiot, and then let me go because you are too cool to hang with idiots," Xander pointed out.

"After a century with Dru, you aren't that hard to follow, pet. So, think I'm cool do you?" Spike asked with a sideways glance and a leer.

"Hey, no, just... no." The babble from earlier just dried up as Xander started having serious heart-failure levels of panic.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, pet," Spike said as he took his arm off Xander's shoulders. Xander retreated as much as he could considering the stupid vamp still had him by the wrist. "Angelus would have my testicles for a necklace if I tried anything with you. Just teasing is all, but after you're turned, when that soul and all the inconvenient human shite comes off with it, just remember that I don't think you're so hard on the eyes. I'll have to make sure to stay on the clod's good side so he'll share a bit after he welcomes you to the family."

"After he... Oh no. First, there will be no family because he is so not going to turn me, and second of all... welcoming?" Xander kinda squeaked the last word out. Spike laughed.

"Yeah, a sire always takes first taste, mate. 'Course Angel was always more for the skirts, but he welcomed me proper, and he never complained about my mouth on his tackle."

"Angel's gay?!!" Xander nearly swallowed his tongue. And now Spike really was looking at him like he had lost his mind.

"Hard to call it one thing or the other because we're demons, pet. Or Angel and I are anyway, you'll get there. And he always cared more than most about preferring skirts, but most demons are pretty willing to bugger anything that stands still long enough to get buggered, and he does seem to have taken a fancy to you."

Xander sat down heavily in the middle of the sidewalk, his legs just sort of going out from under him as his world pretty much shifted two inches to the right. Angel was gay. He was hanging out with a gay guy. Oh god, that so explained the hair.

"Bloody hell, if you're broken, Angel's going to skin me. Hey. You alright?" Spike let go of Xander's wrist and sort of poked him. Xander looked up and found Spike crouched in front of him looking confused.

"He's gay, like with the sex with guys and not the oddly old-fashioned happiness gay? Oh shit, he liked the musicals, of course he's gay. But hanging out with a gay guy, that doesn't make me gay because I'm so with the boobie appreciation." Xander realized that he had lost his mind when he found himself looking to Spike for reassurance. Instead of reassuring him, Spike was just looking more confused and a little concerned.

"Oi, let's get you back to the apartment," Spike said as he got a hand under Xander's arm.

"Hey, not gay here. I really don't think I should be visiting the gay guy's house. Shit. The Dorito tragedy face. Well, duh he's gay and just how stupid am I? No straight guy cares that much about his couch."

"Bloody buggering hell. I really did break the great sod's little pet. Look... what's your name again?"


"Right then, Xander, let's get you up and over to Angel."

"I'm not gay."

"Good for you. Never said you were, pet. Startin' to think this isn't a conversation we shouldn't be having at all. Come on, pet, up you go. One foot in front of the other."

"Hey, what's up with the being helpful weirdness?" Xander demanded as his brain finally caught up with current events.

Spike rolled his eyes. "Not going to hurt ya, pet, and right now, leaving you out here wouldn't qualify as safe. Vampires might not touch ya, but there are plenty of other nasties on the Hellmouth, more every day."

"Vampire's wouldn't--what?" Xander demanded.

Spike frowned at him, and that's when Xander realized that he was actually leaning against the vamp. He pulled back and stood on his own two feet, his heart pounding. Guy touching... touching of guys... touching of gay guy because Spike was the other half of the Spike and Angel oral show. And Xander had called the gay guy cool. And oh shit, he'd told Willow that Angel was all with the good looking before he even knew that Angel was all with the dead. Oh, he was so screwed.

"Ya smell like Angelus. Isn't a vamp on the Hellmouth who wants to tangle with a 270 year old vamp over a meal."

"I smell like a gay guy?" Okay, that wasn't exactly reassuring.

"Are you always this annoyin'?" Spike suddenly asked.

"This is me in annoying-light mode. You should see me when I set my mind to being annoying," Xander joked weakly. He was too busy trying to rearrange his brain with this new information. He slept at a gay guy's house. One night he'd fallen asleep on a gay guy. Oh he was more than just screwed, he needed a new word for screwed... preferably one that didn't have a sexual meaning because he might be screwed, but no way was he going to be screwed. No, not for the Xand man. No way.

Spike twitched his elbow, and Xander started walking. "The old man really is different now. Time was, if he'd planned on turning you, he'd be keeping you on a chain at his place, beatin' you regular so that every time he walked in the room, he commanded every bit of your attention." Spike pulled out a cigarette and lighted it, and now Xander had thoughts of gay and chains in his brain, and he was pretty sure that his balls were trying to climb back up into his body. "You really must have something he wants."

"Oh no, I have nothing of interest for any gay guys, and there will be no chains. Nope. Nuh huh. I should go home." Xander went to turn around and head for his house. If he wasn't going to die tonight, he needed to get started on the denial.

"We're going to the apartment, pet," Spike said firmly, and a hand locked on Xander's elbow, pulling him down the street even as Xander fought with everything he had. It didn't help at all, and Xander just ended up feeling even less with the manly when a scrawny looking Goth guy hauled him down the street without even having to work at it. With a heavy sigh, he eventually gave up and started walking under his own power.

"Still not gay," he said firmly. Spike didn't answer, but he watched Xander like he was expecting daisies to sprout out of his head or something.

"Angel, Angelus... you call him both, what's up with that?" Xander asked, desperate to change the subject, only talking about Angel wasn't actually subject-changing. His brain was broken because he really couldn't think about anything else.

"Both are him," Spike shrugged. "He used whichever fit in best, so in Italy he went by Angelus, but in England he was Angel more often than not. Which one he use now?"

"Just Angel."

Spike took a long drag on his cigarette and blew out a plume of smoke. "So, what's he do all day?"

"Mostly read," Xander shrugged.

"Read?" Spike sounded shocked, and Xander gave a little shrug.

"Yeah, not sounding like a whole lot of fun to me, but I had to nag him into getting a television at all, and then all the stuff he reads is like so old that I can't read more than a sentence before falling asleep. The girls think it's all cool how he reads Shakespeare and crap."

Spike snorted. "Great sod's worse than I thought. He always drink that pig's blood shite?"

"Okay, blood is one topic that I avoid ever thinking and/or talking about. Kinda like gayness. There will be massive repression after this."

"You've never seen him hunt?"

"Well, duh. He hunts all the time."

Spike looked interested in that. "Really? He kill the humans or just nip in and take a sip?"

Xander looked at Spike because that just did not make a lot of sense. "What?"

"When he hunts humans, does he kill 'em or just take some blood and send them tottling off?"

"Angel doesn't hunt humans. Okay, ick. Human here, for those who had obviously forgotten."

"But you said--"

"He hunts vampires. Goes on patrol and stakes all the fledges that seem to be multiplying way too fast. I mean, before Buffy, I lived here my whole life and never got hit on by one demon, not that Angel ever hit on me because he hasn't because I'm not gay and he knows it. I was talking about Ampata, who yeah, was a guy on the passport but trust me, when I knew her, she was all girl. Lots of girl. Nice boobies."

"Boobies, got it, pet," Spike assured him absentmindedly. "I suppose the fledges and minions are all makin' these low-level morons since Luke isn't around to torture the unlife out of them for breaking that rule. Angel never hunts a human at all? Does he even visit a suck house for some volunteered blood?" Spike asked.

"Whoa, suck houses? Like houses where vampires go to suck people? And please tell me that you mean suck as in killing because if we're talking about more weird sexual stuff, I really am not going to make it to Angel's apartment before the brain implodes under the weight of the repressing."

"Vampires in suck houses don't kill anyone. Bloody hell, hasn't Angel explained anything?"

"I'm starting to think no. Personally, I really would have appreciated a quick 'hey, guess what, I'm gay. And I had sex with this weird Goth vamp with a thick accent'."

"And cool," Spike added with a smirk. Xander barely controlled an urge to punch the smug vampire in the stomach, but that didn't generally turn out well for him. Spike just smirked wider at Xander's foul expression. "And a suck house is for people who want to be bitten. They pay, and a vamp will bite 'em and take just enough blood to make it feel really good. Don't generally get the best quality vamps in there. Usually they're old enough ta control the bloodlust, but if they were strong enough to be Masters, they'd either go out and hunt their prey or set up a stable. So, older and weaker vamps end up working the suck houses."

"This is just majorly disturbing. Majorly. I think I should go home and get some aspirin and pretend this night never happened. I can pretend that I don't know Angel's gay and go right back to assuming he's just anal-retentive with a hair fetish and a preference for musicals." Xander sighed as he considered those facts. "I really am an idiot." Xander looked hopefully over his shoulder toward his house, but Spike just tightened his grip on Xander's arm.

"Bloody hell, you're annoyingly obsessed with this."

"Yep, annoying, petty, vindictive and absolutely obsessed. I once held a grudge from third grade all the way through to high school." Spike looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "And those are my good qualities, so sex with me would be really, really bad. I would be all about me and totally obsessed. See, I'd be bad with the sex and an eternity of listening to me would make you go all crazy in the head," Xander pointed out.

Xander's last hope at escape ended when they reached Angel's apartment. Then again, it was a little later than Xander usually showed up, so maybe Angel was gone for the night, out killing vamps and not visiting suck houses. And really, that still made all sorts of unpleasant images go bouncing around in Xander's head. Gay images. He was so screwed.

Spike knocked on the door and leaned against the wall, one hand still on Xander's arm. The door swung open, and the flicker of a smile vanished as Angel's eyes went from Xander to Spike.

"Found your pet out wandering after dark. Thought I might bring him home for you. Should keep him on a shorter leash."

"And why didn't you tell me you were gay?" Xander demanded, his mouth opening before his brain pointed out that he should probably just shut up until Spike left. Angel got that dumbstruck expression.

"I... I'm not gay."

"Hey, you had sex with Spike, that's seeming pretty with the gayness, and I don't mean pretty as attractive because the thought of you two in bed... and I'm just stopping now. Still mad."

Angel's gaze was doing the tennis match thing, going from one to the other. "I only had sex with Spike the once, and that was more about vampire hierarchies than sex," Angel said slowly.

"And him sucking..." Xander waved a hand in the general direction of Angel's cock. "Don't you think that's with the gayness?"

"Bloody hell, pet. A mouth doesn't even have a gender. No offense Angel, but this isn't one of your better plans." Spike made a vague gesture toward Xander, and Xander glared right back at him.

"If you ever speak to Xander again, I will rip your tongue out of your mouth, William. You understand me?" Angel stepped forward, and suddenly Xander's friend was gone and a vicious demon was standing there, his body angled forward and long fangs bared in Spike's direction.

"Soddin' hell. Not like I lied to him or hurt him or somethin'. Never knew he'd get so balmy over something as stupid as whether you ever buggered me. I even pointed out that you were more about the skirts, but he was all off on this gay bollocks."

"He's sixteen. He's sixteen and human and a male from this culture. Of course that's going to bother him because he's a child. However, I'm trying to decide if you're intentionally getting in my business or just as thoughtless and careless as you always were." At Angel's angry words, Spike let go. Xander was left standing between the two vampires, and really, that was not a comfortable place to be right now.

"Xander, go in the apartment," Angel said, his voice tightly controlled.

"Um, maybe I should--"

Angel turned and growled at him.

"--go in the apartment," Xander hurried to finish as he ducked past Angel and into the apartment that had felt like a haven just yesterday. He stopped inside the door and turned to watch the conflict in the hall.

"You're the one who lets him bloody wander the Hellmouth."

"He's not my thrall. He has a life."

"Then you can't go and get your knickers in a twist if he learns things you didn't plan on telling him. You want to control him, keep him on a leash," Spike snapped, and then Angel was on him, pinning him to the wall. Xander couldn't hear the angry words hissed between them, but like that night days ago, it only ended when Spike tilted his head just the slightest bit and Angel bit him. After a second, Angel stepped back and slammed his fists into Spike's chest, slamming the smaller vampire into the wall.

"You're going to get yourself killed. Buffy will consider this an attack on one of her friends, so take Dru and get off the Hellmouth," Angel growled.

Spike stiffened at that. "I take her off the Hellmouth, and she'll bloody die. Is that what you want? Are you picking your brown-eyed boy over her? You never did respect--" Angel slammed his body back into Spike's.

"I respect her enough to not want her dust. Get off the Hellmouth."

"I can't," Spike snapped back.

"Between the Anointed one and Buffy, one of them is going to get fed up with your idiocy. You're going to get yourself and Dru killed," Angel snapped. Xander could hear the desperation in that threat. Oh yeah, the idea of them dead bothered Angel, and watching how Angel used his body, shoving it in, physically intimidating Spike, how the hell had Xander missed the whole gayness thing?

Spike snorted and shoved at Angel. Xander got the feeling that Angel chose to step back. "Anointed one is dead."

"What?" Angel stepped back far enough that Spike could move away from the wall, straightening his coat and putting on some of that cool swagger that Angel had kinda knocked off him when he slammed into him. Xander had been slammed into enough walls in his day that he couldn't exactly say he approved of the behavior, but Angel and Spike were both with the vampiness, and Xander was fairly sure that changed some of the whole Miss Manners rules.

"Wanker was all St. Vigeous this, St. Vigeious that. Woulda let him have his stupid ritual, only he sent a bloody minion to drag Dru into it, so I shoved a piece of wood in him."

"Okay, wait," Xander said, still safely one inch inside the doorway, so he wasn't technically out of the apartment. "We're all worried about this big huge power, and you just staked him like any other vamp? Feeling a little... um... let down. Where's the battle?"

Spike snorted and rolled his eyes. "He was just like any other vamp."

"That's not true, Spike. You could smell the power off him just like every other vamp could." Angel crossed his arms and stared with that same expression Giles used way too much, but at least he wasn't showing fang. Spike had fallen back into his own human face.

He shrugged. "Well, yeah. Had Dru in a right tizzy, that power of his, but he still dusted like any other vamp.

"Okay, I know I'm the only one here who rode the short bus, and I want to point out that my short-bus days were only like a month, but has everyone but me gone and got stupid?" Xander asked.

Spike immediately flashed into gameface, snarling, and Angel almost casually backhanded him. "What do you mean, Xander?" But Xander had already stumbled back into the apartment and Angel had to follow. "It's okay, Xander, Spike is not going to hurt you." Angel gave the other vampire a glare, but Spike just glared back as he tried to follow. He bounced off an invisible barrier at the doorway.

"Bloody hell. A vampire can't keep another out of his lair. What the bloody fuck?"

Angel smiled, and that was not a nice smile at all. "William, William, William, you never were able to think outside the box. The apartment legally belongs to someone else now, someone very alive, and I just have an invitation.

"But what if they kick you out?" Xander immediately asked. Funny, five minutes ago, he was thinking that he wasn't comfortable here any more, and now he was freaking at the idea of losing this place. And really... it didn't say much about him as a person that he was more worried about losing his safe haven than he was about Angel being homeless man again.

"They won't," Angel said calmly. "And William, you do not have an invitation, especially after that show of temper."

"He called me bloody stupid!"

"Um, actually, I wasn't really meaning you. I was more meaning Giles and Buffy and them," Xander hurried to say.

"Oh." Spike sort of deflated and leaned against the invisible barrier with all his cool back in place. "Callin' the slayer and her watcher stupid, good on you, pet."

"Xander, what do you mean?" Angel asked with a disgusted look in Spike's general direction. It didn't even dent Spike's cool. Funny, Xander usually looked way less cool when he was getting bullied.

"We're all reading really borderline coma-inducing books trying to stop this Anointed One, right?"

"Yes..." Angel said slowly.

"Well, he turns out to be slightly less important that a bug and Spike says it's all the minions making minions that's leading to the freakish increasing in death by barbecue fork. So, here's the short-bus question. If the low level minions wanting to make more low-level minions are the ones making all the trouble, why aren't we going after the low-level minions?"

Xander looked at Angel. Unfortunately, Angel didn't look like he had many answers as he just looked back at Xander blankly. It was Spike laughing that finally made them break their gaze.

"Shut up, William," Angel growled.

"Can't even count the number of times you beat my arse because I neglected some bloody detail. Always telling me not to get distracted by the obvious. Have a right to be amused, I do."

"I may beat you again," Angel snapped, but Spike just pulled a cigarette out. It really looked weird seeing him lean against that invisible barrier... even more cool as he did the impossible. With a click of his lighter, he lit up his cigarette and blew the smoke through the barrier.

"Seems like someone went and missed the devil in the details, or in this case, the demons in the cemeteries." Spike pulled his cigarette out of his mouth and ran his tongue along the inside of his lower lip. For a dead guy, he had way more cool points than was fair.

"So, we stop the minions from making minions by doing whatever Luke did, and presto… no more people dying by barbeque fork on a daily basis. Yes?"

Xander looked at Angel hopefully, but the vampire just looked constipated as he stared at Spike. "What?" Xander asked.

"Got a problem there, pet," Spike said slowly. "See, Peaches here just stakes the vamps when he finds 'em. No profit in following the rules for them. The whole reason Luke was effective as an enforcer, even if he was a great ugly wanker, was that he provided order in the court, protected the minions from bigger demons, and when they broke the rules… well… death woulda been kind compared to what he did to 'em. Tortured one sod for months after he caught him messin' with the mojo. Makin' a new minion or fledge without permission, that would lead to at least a week solid of getting' disemboweled over and over."

"Okay, that's just seriously ick."

Spike shrugged.

"He's right," Angel said quietly. "I can't torture them into obedience, and I'm not part of the court, so I don't even know which ones are making the minions."

"But Spike is, right?" Xander asked in confusion. Yeah, he was generally against torture, but if Spike torturing the minions into playing by the rules equaled life going back to pre-Buffy near normalcy, he was strangely okay with the torture.

"Yeah, good old Spike is right where he needs to be if certain people want the old rules enforced," Spike said cheerfully.

Xander looked from one vampire to another, confused. Okay, that was not Angel's happiest expression, but it's not like the man had a whole lot of facial muscles so maybe Xander just wasn't reading his mood right. Because this should be of the happy-making, and that face… so not happy.

"Now, the question to ask," Spike eventually said, still just as cheerful as ever, "is why the bloody hell I would bother with all that rules rot. I mean, if someone got to poking around, they might get the impression I was tryin' to protect the good people of Sunnydale, and you and I both know that I could cheerfully set the whole lot on fire and walk away with a whistle." Angel growled. "Excepting your boy, of course," Spike quickly added.

"So, barter time?" Xander asked. Neither vampire answered, but Angel's face did get a little tighter. "Hey, you keep the minions in line, and we can make Buffy leave you alone."

Spike growled, and Angel gave Xander that look like daisies might start sprouting out of his head. Xander looked from one to the other for a second. "That was a short-bus suggestion, wasn't it?" he asked.

"Bloody hell yes. I don't need any soddin' human to protect me from the slayer. Meant to have my third slayer here, so if you think keepin' us apart is makin' this deal sweeter for me, you're as barmy as Dru on her worst day. Bloody fucking annoying being in the same town as a slayer and not fighting her. Took my coat from my last slayer. Course, this one doesn't have anything I want, but drinking her blood and dropping her lifeless body on the street would be a right treat."

Angel reached out and neatly caught Spike by the throat, but instead of driving him back into another wall, which seemed to be a favorite of Angel's, he just pushed Spike a foot away from the barrier and then pulling him back against it as hard as he could. Spike's hands had first grabbed Angel's arm, but as Angel slammed him face first into the invisible barrier over and over again, his arms flew wide. On the floor, his cigarette quietly smoldered, making the hall smell faintly of burning plastic and Xander flinched at the pain in Spike's face as Angel started punctuating each slam with a word. "Do Not Touch Buffy Or Her Friends."

Angel let go and Spike staggered back against the wall, hitting it hard enough that Xander could feel the shiver in the walls of the apartment. With a shake of his head, Spike just slipped his smirk back in place and stretched his neck first to one side and then the other. "You always were annoyingly obsessed. No wonder you like your new little pet--you're equally annoyin'," he offered.

"What do you want?" Angel asked.

"Bloody hell, I just walked the boy home, so I'm not looking for some bloody handouts."

Angel sighed. "What do you want in return for enforcing the Master's rules?" Angel clarified.

"Oh that." Spike leaned back against the hall. "Don't suppose you're up for sharin' the—"

"No!" Angel cut him off.

Spike just shrugged. "Then you know what I want, same thing I always want."

"Help with Drusilla," Angel said quietly.

"Yeah. You're her sire, you oughta be there helping her through this. Maybe your blood can keep her from fadin' away like she is."

Xander watched as Angel's whole body just sort of sagged. His shoulders drooped and his hand came up to rub his face the way Xander's really, really old grandfather sometimes did. "I can't be who she really wants," Angel said softly.

"Yeah, know that. But you're still her sire."

"She may not see it that way."

"Then prove you are by torturin' her until she gets it through her head. I can't stand by and watch her turn to dust one day at a fucking time, and Dalton isn't finding what I need. I'd dust him out of sheer frustration, but it isn't like there are a whole lot of minions running around who can read demonic languages." All the cool was gone from Spike, and Xander could see the raw desperation there.

Okay, he was officially going to hell because right now, Xander wanted to help the crazy vampire, and after the orphanage story Giles told, he so should be on the other side. Angel glanced at him and then looked back at Spike.

"I do care," he admitted slowly. "You get the minions under control and I'll… I'll come see her. I'll try to do something. But she can't go off massacring families anymore," Angel hurried to add the last, his voice almost desperate.

"Bloody hell, I'm not her sire, so it's not like I can tell her a fuckin' thing. You keep her healthy and you can set whatever rules you want for her, but don't let her die, Angelus. Don't let her just fucking fade to dust while I stand there and bloody watch."

Angel nodded slowly, and Spike looked away, his hand coming up to rub his eyes for a second before that body slowly rearranged itself into the familiar cool lines of Spike. His back straightened, he righted his coat and pulled another cigarette out, although he didn't light it. Scrubbing at the still smoldering butt on the floor with the heel of his boot, Spike offered Angel a nod and then disappeared down the hall in a characteristic swirl of leather.

Xander sighed in relief.

"Are you okay?" Angel asked quietly.

"Does completely freaked out and totally wanting to repress this entire night count as okay?" Xander asked him.

Angel sighed and walked over to the chair, dropping down heavily and staring off at nothing. "Whatever you want to ask about Xander, I'll answer. If you want to leave, just head straight home. Spike is probably still out there, and he'll make sure you get there without bothering you again, at least if he wants his tongue to stay in his mouth, he will."

Biting his lip, Xander tried to figure out if he really did want to go there. If he didn't go there tonight, no way would he get the nerve to go there later, and if he didn't go there later, no way would he ever be comfortable over here again. And that would lead to long nights at home with his parents. "Are you gay?" Xander blurted it out before he could change his mind.

"Not especially," Angel shrugged. "I've had sex with male vampires, but when I was alive, I never had sex with anyone who wasn't female… and getting paid for it."

"Okay, that's slightly pathetic," Xander said as he crossed his arms over his chest. He couldn't figure out what else to do with his hands.

"I was pathetic," Angel shrugged without taking offense. "Vampires aren't generally concerned about gender. I think I cared more than most because I didn't want anyone to assume I would ever take the submissive position."

"Not playing butt-monkey. I'm very much there with you on that because I'm totally not okay with ever doing it myself, so I'm just going to ask… is this some sort of really weird plot to make me your butt-monkey so you and Spike can pass me back and forth?"

"What?" Angel looked up in shock, then he narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to rip his tongue out. What did he say?"

Xander's back thumped against the wall as he tried to physically back up only to run out of room. "Um, he was saying that he would enjoy kinda, you know, enjoying me after you'd turned me into a demon and had sex with me yourself."

Angel closed his eyes for several seconds, kinda like Xander's father did when he was trying to not yell. It almost never worked for Xander's father. "Xander, from a vampire's perspective, I suppose that makes sense, but I have a soul—a human soul. I don't plan on killing you."

"And butt-monkeying me?" Xander asked, sliding an inch closer to the door.

"Xander, why did I stop seeing Buffy? What did you say that changed the way I saw things so dramatically that I just couldn't touch her without hating myself so much that I was physically ill?"

Xander blinked in surprise. Okay, he hadn't known his words had sunk in quite that deep. "I called you a pedophile."

"Because Buffy's sixteen."


"Xander, how old are you?" Angel leaned back in the chair.

"Sixteen, oh, hey, right. If you won't break the pedophilia rule for Buffy, no way would you do it for me," Xander smiled as a huge weight lifted from his shoulders. "So all this being nice to me?"

"I like not being alone," Angel shrugged. "I'm not trying to get in your pants, I guess I'm just trying to get into your head, to see the world the way you see it and find some way to make a life for myself that's not groveling in alleys after rats or raping and pillaging across Europe." Angel slowly smiled. "Besides, I have to be nice to you because I don't want you disinviting me to my own apartment."

"Disinvite… what?" Xander stared blankly at Angel.

"Last week, the Star Wars marathon--you got here before me. What did I ask you when I came to the door?" Angel asked, and that was amusement in his voice, Xander knew amusement when he heard it.

"Oh shit. You asked me if you minded if you came in," Xander breathed as his world shifted two inches to the left again. He really needed to stop the world from shifting or his head was definitely going to explode. "You put the apartment in *my* name? But, this is yours."

"Xander, you can be incredibly annoying and shockingly petty at times, but you're always loyal. I trust you with the deed to my apartment. Besides, if something ever did happen—" Angel held up a hand to stop Xander from saying anything when he tried to interrupt. "Things do happen on a Hellmouth, and it might be something as simple as me having to leave for a decade or two, but I want to know that you still have this place if you ever need it."

Xander had to sit on the couch before his legs just went out from under him. "Really?"

"It's a little too late for me to change my mind now. The apartment's already in your name."

"Okay, this may just undo some of the suckiness that has been my week… not that I want your apartment or would take advantage or anything, but just in the you trusting me with it."

"Suckiness?" Angel asked.

"Major suckiness. You know those frat boys?"

"The idiots feeding girls to the demon?"

"Um, yeah, those. Before you and the cavalry got there, let's just say that it wasn't pretty and between that and Spike's offer to welcome me to the family in a Biblical way, my manhood is feeling slightly tattered and torn right now."

"Did they hurt you?" Angel leaned forward, and Xander could see Angel's fingers twitch.

"I can fight my own fights, thank you," Xander snorted. "You and Buffy, not good on my ego with the wanting to beat the crap out of people for me."

"I didn't—"

Xander stared at Angel's hands, and Angel actually glanced down himself where his fingers were nervously twitching. He sat back and put his hands firmly on his knees.

"Snyder kept suggesting that if I was dating Ampata, I must have just not known that she was a he, when trust me, she was not a he. She ate the he before I ever met her, but I can't exactly explain that, and then one of the boys from chemistry heard Snyder saying that, so some of the guys are making gay jokes, especially about me always hanging with the girls and never getting a date, which Buffy is not really with the helping when she threatens guys for me. And then the frat guys dress me in a bra and drag me around for everyone to see in drag and then Spike with the gayness, and you with the gayness, although I guess I can forgive your gayness as more vampireness than gayness. I've just had a really, really bad week."

"There's nothing wrong with being gay," Angel said without much emotion.

"If you're gay, I suppose not. Okay, if you're gay and out of high school, I suppose not. But Angel, this is making it really hard to actually get girls to look at me, and even if I were gay, gay and high school are definitely two unmixy things. And if you offer to beat up anyone who's giving me a hard time, I'm putting hair dye in your gel."

"Buffy?" Angel guessed.

"Oh yeah, which again, not with the making me feel all manly."

"You should probably remember something you pointed out to me once." Angel stretched out his legs. "She's sixteen. Sixteen isn't grown up enough to always understand how your actions affect other people. She's trying to be a friend."

"Okay, when I gave you that speech, my whole point was that 270 was too old."

"And sixteen is too young," Angel countered. "But she'll grow up and figure out that she can't fight your battles for you."

"Before she totally emasculates me?" Xander asked hopefully. Angel was looking far too amused.

"Maybe," he shrugged. "If you get to feeling too girly, you can come over here and we'll do something manly," he said as he got up. Walking behind the couch, Angel popped him upside the back of the head as he went to close the front door.

"Belching contest?" Xander asked hopefully.

"I can't belch."

"Exactly, it's perfect. I'll win every time," Xander pointed out triumphantly.

"Fighting lessons," Angel countered.

"Fighting lessons with you? Okay, those are officially called getting my ass kicked lessons, and in that category, I am fully certified. I think I have a paper at home that says so. I can get my ass kicked by anything ten percent demonic or higher, and demons, part-demons, and former sacrifices turned demonic are contractually obligated to try and kick my ass before going after anyone else in Sunnydale."

"I won't kick your ass… much," Angel shrugged before he headed into the kitchen.

"Hey, let me get food before you make it stink like blood in there," Xander hurried to say as he went for the fridge.

"I'll get you trained with something you can handle, a short broadsword maybe, and then I'll take you hunting for fledges."

"Really?" Xander asked as he rescued a cold pizza still in the take-out box from contamination by blood. He grabbed a baking sheet and flipped the oven on.

"Yeah, really. I'll have you feeling manly in no time," Angel promised as he leaned against the counter.

"I wonder if killing things will make the whole Xander-gay conspiracy go away."

"Spike probably could be considered gay. He certainly enjoys what…" Angel stopped when Xander pinned him with a cold expression. "My point is that he is still a dangerous predator who is very capable of killing. Killing and gay are not mutually exclusive."

"Freaky but true," Xander sighed. "Do we have any red peppers?"

"What do they look like?"

"They came with the pizza in little white paper packs about like this." Xander held his fingers up to show the size.

"Third drawer," Angel answered.

Pushing aside the frustrations of the week, Xander focused on the search for everything he needed for the perfect piece of pizza: red peppers, ranch dressing, tons of napkins, and extra cheddar cheese for the top. The girls could just spend their night gossiping about Owen the poetry geek, Xander was going to do manly things like scratch and eat pizza. "We have any movies left to watch?" he asked.


"Oh yeah, perfect guys' night," Xander said happily as he shoved his pizza in the warming oven. Sometimes life on the Hellmouth almost didn't suck.


Bad Karma

"Hey if it isn't G-man--the G-dog of Sunnydale, bad boy of England," Xander joked as he came through the library doors. It was weird, thinking of Giles as being a delinquent with a suspiciously diabolical ex-friend. Giles paused, his jaw tightening in that way that suggested cleaning of glasses was imminent, but he had a pile of books in his hands so he just kept walking back toward the stacks after a brief hesitation.

"Xander!" Willow hissed at him, and Xander shrugged. After finding out that Giles in his wild and magicy youth had summoned a demon, he was so not feeling bad for not sweeping it under the carpet. The girls might be willing to go back to thinking of Giles as the dusty librarian, but Xander couldn't help feeling like his world had shifted two inches toward the weird. Okay, it started shifting when Angel turned out to not be the biggest jerk of the century, but Giles summoning a demon was coming up a close second on the weird-o-meter.

"I'm just calling 'em as I sees 'em. Giles has a definitely non-tweedy past, and if you can't trust Giles to be boring, who can we trust? Maybe Snyder is a covert agent for Russia or Miss Calendar is a secret race car driver. I mean, this is giving me a good case of the wiggins."

"What's wiggins worthy?" Buffy asked as she came through the doors behind him. Xander dropped into the chair across from Willow and just prayed she would stay on her side of the table. His love life was getting entirely too weird, and right now he wanted large objects between him and Willow whenever possible.

"Giles and the non-tweedy past," Willow whispered, her eyes darting toward the shelves where Giles had disappeared, and Buffy frowned at him.

"We aren't talking about that. Didn't we agree to not talk about that?" Buffy looked at Willow for confirmation, and she nodded.

"You agreed. Cordelia and I were just in the room when you two did the agreeing, which would make us agreement-contiguous and not directly agreementees."

"You studied your vocabulary for Miss Kestner," Willow smiled at him brightly, and Xander shrank back. Right, no more doing anything that might be remotely related to schoolwork he vowed to himself as he felt that deep-set guilt at not being able to like the girl who actually liked him. He also cursed Angel for nagging him into doing that bit of homework. Contiguous was so not a word he needed in life. He already knew he couldn't drive to Hawaii and Canada.

When Xander didn't respond to the compliment, Willow's smile wavered. She got an uncertain, awkward look on her face complete with nose wrinkle. He was so screwed. The girl who hated him let him feel her breasts and rubbed up against him in a way that made him think she was definitely getting way more out of their relationship that he was. How could you tell if a girl had actually finished, anyway? Xander filed that thought away. Maybe when he got old enough to drink he would get drunk enough to actually ask one of the girls. He looked at Buffy doing her makeup in the world's tiniest mirror. Maybe he would get drunk enough to ask Angel instead.

Seriously, it didn't even make sense in Xander's head. The girl who actually cared about him left him totally cold. Willow and sex was like Barney and sex…. just wrong. Way wrong. Purple dinosaur mutant levels of wrong. Shaking off the feeling of impending doomage, he focused the conversation back onto Giles. "Hey, I'm all with the impressed." Xander nodded thoughtfully. "I mean, it's like finding out that a colorblind person painted the Mona Lisa or something... like the music guy who was deaf and wrote music way better than I could with two working ears... I'm very much with the impressed."

Giles appeared from behind the stacks. "So, I take it you had assumed I was either colorblind or deaf?" he asked as he cleaned his classes.

"Just socially," Buffy said apologetically. Giles' fingers paused in their cleaning and then resumed.

"We all have pasts, at least those of us old enough to have lived more than a few short years." This time Giles looked straight at them. Willow blushed madly and slid close to the end of the table, which Xander assumed was part one of a strategy designed to get her around the table and next to him. Aw shit.

"Definitely not the colorless past I expected from the king of tweed and fifteen ways to say 'stupid,' all of them requiring five syllables or more." Xander got up and headed for the checkout desk where he'd stashed some candy bars.

Giles just sighed. "This is not something for which I should be admired. If anything, I hope you all take from this a lesson on the unintended consequences of impetuous acts and that you avoid making similar mistakes."

"You mean we have to cancel the demon summoning we have scheduled tomorrow night?" Xander asked innocently as he looked at the girls. Willow was horror-struck, but Buffy's mouth kept twitching.

"I really do fear that your sophomoric inability to take anything seriously will eventually cause serious problems," Giles said tightly, anger seeping through the oh-so-proper manners of his.

"Sophomoric. Three syllables, but that means stupid, doesn't it?" Buffy asked and now she was grinning.

A little part of Xander had flinched away from Giles' open scorn, but he smiled back at Buffy. Yep, there was a girl who knew how to distract the Giles' glare of doom... how to distract it and not wilt into an apologetic puddle of angst under it. He totally understood why his cock went lusting after Buffy. Willow was just as pretty, but his cock had definitely decided she was in the "Barney" category. Maybe he just liked girls who didn't wilt under wilt-worthy criticism. Xander leaned his elbows on the counter and munched on his chocolate as he thought about Cordelia.

She was totally going to publicly humiliate him sooner or later, and she had the moral compass of a really uncompassy thing. She wasn't quite as bad as Spike since she wouldn't actually massacre a village to get a good deal on shoes, but she might leave the village undefended to go find a good deal. She seemed to have the whole 'bad idea' checklist. So, why was his stupid cock totally Jonesing after her? And better question, why was she returning the lusty feelings?

"Earth to Xander." A voice broke his concentration, and he looked up to see Buffy staring at him in concern. "Okay Mister, what's her name?" she asked with a smile.

"What?" Xander yelped. No no and oh god no. He was so not ready to deal with this. And that scrunchy look on Willow's face? So not going there. "Who's name? Did I miss a girl demon coming into town because I already told you, I am scheduling serious out of town something when the next girl demon hits town. The whole demon magnet joke is getting way too not-jokelike." Now Buffy looked confused and Willow looked relieved. He didn't want Willow relieved. Okay, he wanted her relieved, but he didn't want her relieved because of him being on the available list because he wasn't. The only thing stupider than dating Cordelia would be cheating on Cordelia. Even he knew that.

With an amused expression, Buffy shook her head. "No, no girl demons or boy demons either. We're definitely coming up short on the demon front, but I know that look. That's the look of someone totally getting sat on by love. I don't know why people paint love as a little baby Cupid. Love is this huge, hairy biker dude with tattoos that say "Mom" on one arm and "Send 'em to Satan" on the other.

Willow nodded sadly. "Really big... hard to breathe when he sits on you big," she agreed.

Xander shoved the rest of his candy bar in his mouth and tried to say nothing.

"While it has been quiet, we actually do have a demon to discuss, a female demon as it happens," Giles said. He detoured into his office and reappeared with a moldy book. Sitting next to Buffy, he opened to a page and pointed to an illustration Xander couldn't see. "I hadn't heard anything of her before now, but apparently she attacked a church service Sunday night causing pandemonium. I suspect she came with William the Bloody."

Xander's chocolate betrayed him and headed straight for his lungs as he tried to cough it back out. Tears ran before he could finally catch his breath and get all the pipes working again. "Food goes in, it isn't actually supposed to spray out," Buffy offered oh-so helpfully only without any actual help.

"Are you alright?" Giles had stood back up.

"Yep, just a slight chocolate mishap. It's all good," Xander assured him as he grabbed his Coke and tried to wash down the bile that had come up with all the choking.

Giles stared at him for a second and then turned his attention back to the book. "Her name is Drusilla, and she's been a companion to William the Bloody for many decades although she appears to have dropped out of sight in Prague. Three people died in the attack Sunday night."

Xander groaned. Great. He was in for extra doses of Angel-brooding. He reviewed his options: 1) stay home and listen to parental units fight 2) go to apartment and listen to Angel sigh dramatically 3) go to apartment and torture Angel out of sighing dramatically. This would take major weaponry. Xander wondered if he had enough pocket change to rent the entire "Revenge of the Nerds" series.

"Xander? Are you in there?" Buffy had moved to in front of Xander where she waved her hand in front of his face. "What is with you. If there isn't a girl, we might want to check for brain tumors," she nodded dramatically, but Xander could tell by her expression she actually was worried.

"I'm fine. I'm just wondering how to get from here to Angel's apartment fastest if I make a pit stop at the video store," he admitted.

"Angel's apartment?" Giles frowned. "I do worry about the number of evenings you have spent there recently."

Okay, maybe they should check him for a brain tumor because he knew that Giles was not really okay with Angel, and he seemed so much more willing to share his not okayage now that it was Xander being friends with Angel as opposed to Buffy lusting over him, which was unfair because lustage was so much more dangerous than friendage. Xander was discovering that little truth thanks to Cordelia.

"You and Angel aren't..." Buffy had a horrified expression as she made a little back and forth gesture with her finger.

"Skiing?" Xander guessed as he watched the gesture in confusion.

"No, together, like... together," Buffy clarified. It still took Xander's brain a second to translate that.

"What?" Xander wailed. "No! No and no. Really no. God, Buffy, just because Angel's gay so does not make me gay."

"Angel's gay?" Buffy's voice had dropped to a whisper--a horrified whisper.

"Um..." Xander stalled as his brain lost control over any parts that could use the English language.

Giles took over the conversation with a sigh. "Buffy, sexuality is quite different for demons. In the case of vampires, sex is used to establish hierarchies and reinforce control. The gender is irrelevant."

"I'm thinking it's way with the elevant!" Buffy disagreed.

"He isn't really gay," Xander struggled to explain. "I mean, yeah, there was this one guy, but he likes girls way more, but my point was that I don't like guys. Okay, I like guys in that I like to hang out and read comic books, but I don't like them in the naughty touching way so me and Angel... so not going to happen."

"One guy?" Buffy asked, her eyebrows now totally higher than Xander had ever seen them before. "You knew the guy I liked liked guys, and you couldn't tell me about the one guy?" She put her hands on her hips in a slightly scary way.

"Okay, first, I didn't know then. Second, if you're dating a guy, you can pretty much assume he's not telling you something, Buff. Angel was with the not telling you he was a vamp, and Ford didn't tell you that he was trying to sell you out, and Owen really didn't tell you that he wanted to take the whole tortured artist cliche to a whole new whips and chains level. I mean, witness me. When I first met you, I so did not tell you that I was the village idiot because that would have been bad for my dating potential." Xander smiled as he tried to patch over the damage his village idiot mouth had done, but Buffy still had on her tragic face.

"No wonder he did a vanishing act on me." Buffy bit her lip and sounded about ready to cry.

"No, that's not it," Xander hurried to say. "The one guy was like a hundred years ago, and I found out by accident. He's totally into girls." Buffy got an even more hurt look, and Xander realized how dumb he was about two seconds too late. "He's totally into really old girls... really, really old... ancient... like a hundred or older, so I'm sure if you were a century or more, he'd fall over himself for you. I mean, Mrs. Haggarty is too young for him, and I think she saw the Civil War first hand."

Buffy's pained expression didn't ease any. God, she'd been through Owen, Ford, Larry, and that tall kid with the hippy pony-tail on the swim team, and she still obsessed over Angel. At least Xander wasn't alone in his self-destructive love life.

"Perhaps we can return to my original concern: the number of evenings you spend at Angel's apartment. I find your unusual preference for his company more than a little disturbing." Giles gave Xander his 'I'm not letting this go' look.

"Did Giles just say he got the wiggins in his very Gilesy way?" Xander asked as he looked at the girls. Buffy ignored him.

"Definitely." Willow smiled and gave him a little nod, and Xander mentally kicked himself. Way to send mixed signals. God he hated his love life. "And now that Giles said it, I have to say that it seems a little weird. You hate Angel."

"I hate a 270 year-old man lusting after one of us. It's like one of us kissing old man Anderson."

Willow shuddered. Her Jesse and him had grown up daring each other to race through the wizened old man's back yard, so she knew what he meant. "Way to put the totally disturbing mental image in the brain. I'm never going to escape that thought," she said as she wrinkled her nose. "I guess it's hard to remember Angel's that old when he's such a hottie."

"Yes, I had expressed a similar concern over ages; however, do I detect obfuscation in your answer?" Giles asked. Xander blinked helplessly in the silence that followed that bit of watcher-speak.

"He thinks you're with the changing the topic to avoid answering, and you do seem a little avoidy," Willow translated.

"Yes, I do believe I already said that," Giles said with a tight sort of control that from Xander's father usually meant screaming and profanity was on the horizon. With Giles it just led to glasses cleaning.

Xander sighed. He was so bad at the lying. Seriously bad. "I've been staying at Angel's because the parents are going through a rough spot," Xander admitted. Willow got up and moved closer, like she wanted to give him a hug, and Xander started checking for exits. "And I'm safer at Angel's because Drusilla? She totally hates me. I can't walk by a shaded alleyway without her doing her impression of a crazy stalker lady, which since she's crazy and following me, is really not much of an impression."

"What?!" Giles demanded. "You've hidden this from us for how long?"

"What do you mean? Why didn't you tell me?" Buffy wailed in a hurt voice at the same time, and Willow was going too, but Xander couldn't actually hear her over the other two.

He held up his hand. "Whoa, time out!" Buffy and Giles fell silent.

"Xander, how could you?" Willow asked sadly, in a tiny hurt voice.

"How could he what?" Cordelia asked curiously as she swept into the room. "I'm going shopping tonight, and I need someone with a stake to escort me and stand between me and any demons with slime, horns, or body odor."

"We're a little busy, Cordelia. Why don't you go polish your nails or something," Buffy suggested. "I hear Tibet is nice this time of year… or Timbuktu. And where is Timbuktu anyway?"

"Africa," Willow supplied, but Cordelia was already dismissing her with a sniff.

"Someone needs a little time with a masseur... a masseur and a genius hairdresser because a lesser cosmetologist would be at a loss as to what to do with the horrible bleach job." Cordelia ignored the unfriendly looks and walked to the end of the counter, leaning on it as she studied each of them. "What's with the attitudes? Did someone from the fashion police finally ticket you losers?"

"Xander's been stalked by a vampire, and he didn't even tell us," Willow said, and how did one person get that much hurt into her voice?

"The dark-haired loony-toons with the Adam's Family fashion sense?" Cordelia asked. Xander wasn't sure if he was relieved or horrified when all the gazes that had been focused on him turned to Cordelia.

"You knew?" Buffy had a cold tone to her voice that even made Cordelia hesitate, but only for a second. Then she shrugged casually and pulled a nail file out.

"She kept showing up whenever I drove Xander anywhere. But Angel or Spike always stop her before she can do anything more than ramble on about how the puppy ate up her daddy. Total fruitcake."

Giles had been silently turning a violent shade of red, but now he exploded. "Spike? William the Bloody? You have been fraternizing with William the Bloody? Angel has renewed his familial relationships? I will stake him myself." Giles suddenly looked very unGilesy and very much like someone who might summon a demon or two.

"It's not--"

"I am uniquely uninterested in why you would put Buffy and Willow at such risk," Giles snapped so violently that Xander jerked back. "I want you out of my library."

"Giles," Buffy said. Willow just looked from one person to another in shock.

"What happened to we all make mistakes in our youth?" Xander demanded.

"Doing drugs, an insanely bad relationship choice... these are not the same as cavorting with a demons who make up the majority of the Scourge of Europe."

"Scourge is sounding unfunlike," Buffy admitted, "but that doesn't mean that Xander is pulling a Ford here."

Xander crossed his arms. "And even if I were, summoning murderous demons seems more scourgelike than druglike."

"Xander," Buffy hissed. "Not helping."

Cordelia gave a snort. "Oh please. If you can't tell the difference between Ford and Xander, you deserve to get eaten. Xander would never betray anyone."

Giles glared at her. "Oh? He just socializes with William the Bloody?"

Cordelia laughed. "He just tries and fails to avoid Spike. I find the littlest vamp amusing, but then it's easy to be amused when he's making passes at Xander and not me. Personally, I think he's a little blind because I am obviously far more desirable as a shag, as Spike puts it, than Xander is." Cordelia's words had shocked everyone into a perfect silence. Giles' glasses were in one hand, dangling forgotten at his side. "But that's Spike. I think he's just lonely for Angel's attention. I told him that, and he threatened to eat me, but I know men, and Spike likes being tortured way too much to eat me. I'd worry about him turning me so that he could be permanently subjected to my painful honesty, but I think he's too afraid of me."

"Cordy," Xander said desperately.

She sniffed. "He so is."



"Seriously--stop helping."

Cordelia looked at him for a long moment, and then rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm going shopping." When no one said anything, she turned and headed for the door, slamming through the double doors with enough force to let Xander know that his shitty love life had just taken a turn for the shittier. His eyes were still watching the doors clack shut when they came open again, and Angel was there in the open door.

"You," Giles growled as he reached toward the circulation desk and the crossbow he kept under it.

"I'm not working with Spike," Angel said quietly without trying to go for cover, and Xander wavered between standing dumbly still or throwing himself over the crossbow to keep it away from Giles. He did what he usually did... went for the option with 'dumb' in it.

Giles snatched the crossbow and pointed it at Angel. "That's not what I hear."

"Okay, let's all calm down before we have blood or dust on the floor because you know Snyder is not really forgiving with the unidentified stains," Buffy suggested as she stepped between the two men. "Angel, did you know that Drusilla killed last night?"

"I'm not surprised. She's been increasingly agitated. It's taken both Spike and me to keep her under control as she's recovered from the attack at Prague." Angel sounded calm, even with the crossbow pointed at him and all the condemning stares. Xander wanted to hide because that much hatred in one room was just not healthy but as the only person in the room not looking at Angel like his soul had suddenly slipped off and slithered through the storm drain like a dirty dollar bill, he really felt like he should probably stay.

"So, you are conspiring with Spike." Giles raised the crossbow.

"Spike has been keeping the Hellmouth quiet, and I've..." Angel tightened his lips for a moment. "I've renewed a tentative friendship with him that does not include hunting humans or doing anything that I wouldn't be able to tell Buffy," he said carefully.

"And yet you haven't told Buffy or anyone else," Giles said, and Xander tried not to take it personally that he had just been officially reduced to no one.

"I haven't seen her."

"Nor have you sought her out. In fact, since Spike has reappeared, you have been remarkable quiet except for an odd friendship with the one person who seemed to annoy you the most." Giles glanced over toward Xander. Oh, this was going so incredibly bad.

"I took Eyghon into myself to save Ms. Calendar," Angel pointed out calmly. "I brought you the information on Ford and his coven of vampire fans, and I only found out about Ford through Spike. Spike understands that all of you are under my protection."

"I assure you that I do not need your protection," Giles answered coldly, the crossbow dipping just a little bit, which Xander was hoping meant that he wasn't actually going to shoot anybody. "As the slayer, Buffy needs to know who is in town. We will have to make plans to address the problem with Spike and Drusilla, but certainly not with Angel in the room. Angel or Xander," Giles said as he gave Xander a hard, cold look.

Angel gave a sound that came very close to a growl, close enough that Giles' brought the crossbow up and aimed. "Xander has never done anything except help. I have never done anything except help."

"For which we have only your word. You cannot expect me to believe that you have civil conversations with William the Bloody without being in collusion with him."

Xander officially couldn't take it anymore. He stepped out from behind the counter and into the path of the crossbow, and that was definitely a growl he heard from behind him. "Okay, Giles, here's the thing. Family is family. My cousin whose name will never be uttered…" Xander looked toward Willow, and she was already making her 'ick' face.

"Whose name will never be uttered?" Buffy asked as she looked from one of them to the other.

Xander shook his head. "There was an incident involving cub scouts and an overnight trip and some ickiness that is so icky that I have to wash my brain with soap every time I think about it. And if they gave him the death penalty, I wouldn't argue. I so wouldn't. After what he did to those kids, I'm totally okay with putting him under the jail, even if he was only seventeen when he did the icky."

"Is there a point to this?" Giles asked in a very cranky voice, and Xander noticed that the crossbow was still pointed right at him.

"He's family. I might think he so totally deserves the death penalty, but I wouldn't hit the switch on the electric chair," Xander said quickly. "I don't think Angel or I would ever call Spike good, but you can't ask Angel to go after Spike or Drusilla. They're his family. Evil, twisted, owning no fashion-sense family, but family."

Slowly, Giles lowered the crossbow, but his expression still didn't look all that forgiving. "So, we should just allow them to kill townspeople? Really, Xander, what are you thinking?"

"I never said that. I mean, if Buffy finds him, the two of them can have it out, and I'm rooting for team Buffy all the way. I tried to stake him myself and got my stake taken away before he dragged me across down tucked under his arm, and this was so not good for my fledging male ego. I get enough humiliation at school, so I am not going to stake him just because me and staking Spike is hopeless on a monumental scale."

"He… he what? Xander, why didn't you say something? I'm going to find him and shove the stake so far in he's going to be dust before he notices it," Buffy growled. She looked at Angel and immediately that same hurt expression from earlier was back, replacing the anger. "Angel, I have to say that I'm a little confused here. I mean, yeah, I get the creepy relative analogy, but not telling me about Spike and Drusilla is feeling not-so-helpful. And letting Spike attack Xander… I thought you liked Xander. I was all jealous of him because you two were being with the friends."

"Xander was never in danger," Angel quickly explained. "Spike brought him to me because he thought Xander wasn't safe on the street. I would never put any of you in danger, which is why I told you that Spike was here and that he was a dangerous, determined Master Vampire. He's killed two slayers. I just didn't mention that he had set up court."

"Spike was protecting Xander?" Giles demanded. The crossbow slammed down on the counter, but if anything, Giles looked even more angry. "And why might he do that?"

Angel stared at Giles for a long minute. "Xander spends a lot of time at my apartment. Spike could smell that. He hoped to make peace between us, and protecting someone he sees as belonging to me is his way of ensuring that. He doesn't have a soul; he doesn't understand friendship."

Giles narrowed his eyes and Xander looked from one man to the other trying to figure out what he was missing. He was big with missing something here. But Angel turned to Buffy, taking a step toward her with a pained expression on his face that Xander thought that maybe Angel hadn't given up on Buffy as much as he kept telling everyone he had given up on Buffy.

"I came here to help you, to make sure you weren't one of those slayers that died a month into her destiny. I've told Spike to stay away from you, but if you start hunting him, that won't stop him from hunting you right back. He wants to hunt you. For him, hunting a slayer is a sport, and he learned from Angelus—from me before I got the soul. He'll wear you down until you don't have the energy to fight him, and then he'll kill you."

"You sound like you don't have any faith in me. Slayer here. I killed the Master." Buffy chewed her lip, and Xander could feel the pain circling the room. Willow looked over to him for comforting, and Xander quickly broke eye contact. Buffy and Angel stared at each other with a desperation and fear that made Xander ache. Oh yeah, they were all officially screwed. The guy who summoned the demon was probably the mentally healthiest one in the room, and that wasn't exactly a shining recommendation for any of them.

"You're sixteen years old. He's a hundred and twenty. He'll trick, cheat, lie, and manipulate you in ways that you can't imagine," Angel said slowly. Xander made a mental note to borrow some money from Buffy before they left because not even Revenge of the Nerds was going to fix this brood. They were going to need an all night marathon of Thundercats for this level of angst.

"I can prepare her," Giles quickly offered.

Angel looked at the two of them for a second and then slowly nodded. "Make sure you train her to expect the unexpected. I know Spike has carried guns before, and he's a good shot."

"Whoa, wait, like gun guns? With bullets guns? 'Cause I'm okay with the bulletless guns, but if there are guns with bullets around, I'm calling that a definitely slayerly foul. Isn't that against the vampire handbook or something?" Buffy demanded as she looked toward Giles. It creeped Xander out that Giles looked surprised because Giles was supposed to be the one who knew everything. "When did they start giving gun licenses to the undead? There should so be a law."

"I've never heard of…" Giles started.

"It's rare," Angel interrupted him. "Master Vampires with enough control over the demon to prefer weapons are generally old enough that their weapons of choice are crossbows or swords. Young vampires don't really have the control to use a weapon. They could have a gun and still attack Buffy with fangs and hands because that's the vampire's instinct. But Spike, well, he never did play by the rules. And I'm warning you right now that vampiric instinct was never very strong in him, which is why he's so unpredictable. I helped create him, and I still can't understand him half the time."

"Okay, getting the wiggins here. He's going to shoot me? Giles, is there money for a bullet-proof vest in the slayer budget because I am so not interested in getting shot."

"I can't imagine—" Giles trailed off, frowning before he jammed his glasses back on.

Angel didn't wait for Giles to get his thoughts together. "Don't try to imagine with Spike. He'll surprise you every time. The only reason he isn't controlling a large city is because he doesn't have the patience to sit still that long or the bloodlust that would drive him to try."

"No bloodlust?" Giles almost squawked. "Good lord, they call him William the Bloody. His nickname comes from torturing people with a railroad spike. He ate an entire orphanage! One might question your judgment on this issue if not your honesty."

Angel glanced over at Giles before focusing on Buffy. "If it comes to a fight, you know I support you," he said earnestly, and Xander flinched at the doubt in Buffy's eyes. Angel nodded as though he'd expected her to doubt him. Okay, that had to have hurt, but Angel just kept talking to Buffy in the same earnest tone. "I can't help you go after Spike and Drusilla. They're part of me, and it's not a part I'm proud of, but it is part of me. However, I will tell you this—Spike is most dangerous when he's trying to impress someone. I don't doubt that he killed an entire orphanage. He would have done that for Drusilla. He didn't care about torturing anyone, but when he discovered that it impressed Angelus, he tortured people beyond what even Angelus had ever considered. Don't challenge him in front of other vampires or even in front of your friends or he's going to feel a need to impress you, and you won't like what he does."

"Angel." Buffy said the word like a cry or a curse, and then she fell quiet.

Angel nodded slowly. "I know you don't trust me, but I am trying to do the right thing here."

And there was Giles stepping into the mess again. "By protecting a vampire known for his torture and another who you freely admit would have asked him to massacre an orphanage? You leave us little reason to trust you."

"Maybe that's how you see it," Angel offered quietly, but Xander got the definite impression Angel was about to snap. He sometimes got that look in his eye right before Spike pissed him off really bad. "I've given you my best advice. I'm telling you that as long as Buffy doesn't attack Spike or Drusilla, the number of new fledges and the number of people dying is going to stay low. Spike wants to impress me, and right now he's doing that by running a tight court. I've done the right thing, and someone once told me that you have to do the right thing and walk away, whether people listen to you or not. If you need me, you all know how to find my apartment."

Angel turned to walk away, and for half a second, Xander was frozen—so caught up in the emotions of the moment that he didn't understand that Angel was walking away from him too.

"Hey! Wait. With your crazy childe walking around accusing me of being the puppy that ate you, I am so not walking to your apartment alone, and my testosterone levels dipped to new lows just saying that," Xander said as he hurried after Angel. Angel stopped at the library doors.

"Xander!" Willow called, her voice hurt again. Of course, that hurt was nothing compared to the massive emotional triage that was going to be required when she found out that he'd been naughty touching with Cordelia.

"I'll see you guys later," Xander yelled over his shoulder as he reached Angel and just sort of pushed the vamp out of the room with both hands. Retreat was the word of the day, and they so needed to.

"Xander, you probably need to talk to Giles," Angel pointed out as Xander kept right on pushing him down the hall and toward the exit.

"Nope, nu-huh, not happening. The man who summons demons does not get to tell me I'm screwy. I mean, I know I'm screwy, but any loose screws are on the Cordelia front, not the you front," he pointed out as they reached the exit. Angel looked down at him in amusement before pushing the doors open.

"You haven't told them about Cordelia?" Angel guessed.

"Okay, did you see Willow? Did you see the Willow eyes?"

"I didn't need to see her eyes, I can smell her when she gets near you," Angel pointed out before he headed down the steps so fast that Xander had to run to catch up with him. And by the time Xander had caught up half way down the block, he was out of breath enough that the punch he aimed at Angel's arm didn't have much actual punch behind the punch.

"Okay, stuff like that is just disturbing. You cannot go telling me that you're sniffing up my friends. It's upsetting."

"And Caveman wasn't? That was the worst movie you have ever subjected me to," Angel countered.

"Okay, Caveman is hilarious. 'Caacaa… doodoo… shit'," Xander quoted. "How can you not love that?"


"God you have a stick up your ass. I'm surprised you don't stake yourself on it when you sit." Xander sighed as they walked down the street away from Angel's apartment. He wasn't surprised since he figured Angel was going to need to kill something after that little scene. For several minutes, they walked in silence, going in and out of the yellow circles cast by the streetlights. "Do you think Buffy's going to go after Spike?" Xander asked quietly.

"I hope not."

"Bloody hell, I hope so." Spike jumped out from behind a bush, and Xander gasped, lost his balance, and grabbed at Angel's arm as he managed to half drag them both into the street. Spike started laughing so hard that he sounded like he might hyperventilate. A car laid on its horn, and Xander found himself lifted by his waist and practically tossed back toward the safety of the sidewalk. Yep, he could officially feel his testosterone hitting new lows, and thank god no one was around to witness that. Well, almost no one.

Spike leaned on the streetlight and gasped for air between bursts of laughter. "Goin' to give yourself a heart attack if you aren't careful, pet," he pointed out when he finally managed to get the air to talk. Xander glared, and that nearly set Spike off laughing again.

"William," Angel warned darkly.

"Don't get your knickers twisted, luv. Boy just needs to learn ta think on his feet a little is all. You're trainin' him up right proper if some demon walks up, introduces himself, and then sets the rules for a challenge. I just thought I'd give little brother a few hints about how demons really do it." Spike gave Xander a wink and then started down the sidewalk. Xander might have turned his back and walked away in protest, only Angel's hand in his back was already nudging him to follow.

"And again with the creepiness of the brother comments. You really are a weird, weird and slightly one-tracked with the mind, aren't you?" Xander asked in disgust. Angel had carefully explained that it was safer for Spike to believe that Xander truly would be his little brother one day, but that somehow just made things creepier.

"Yep," Spike agreed quickly enough. "I heard most of that little drama. Better than Passions, you lot are. Seems a right waste bein' in town with a slayer and not taking my third, so I'm ready if she comes gunning for me."

"You heard?" Xander's mind went into panicked overdrive as he considered what they might have said that definitely wasn't Spike-safe.

"He was on the roof," Angel said.

"Wait, you knew?" Xander demanded. "You knew? And you…" Xander looked at Spike, "what Angel said... you aren't with homicidal?"

"Fuckin' hell no. He said I tortured better than he did, didn't he? Even said I ran a tight ship with the court." Spike had a very pleased grin on his face and Angel just rolled his eyes.

"But he was all with the saying you were just out to impress people, and please just ignore me because if you're not upset, I really should not be trying to get you upset because people who know how to torture should not be upset. And people who upset people who know how to torture are stupid."

Spike turned a concerned look at Xander before he focused on Angel. "Not the brightest, is he?"

Xander answered for Angel. "No, no I'm really not."

"He just doesn't understand vampires. Most humans don't," Angel corrected him. Angel also reached over and popped Xander on the side of the head hard enough to sting.

"Hey!" Xander objected as he shot out a punch at Angel's stomach only to find the vampire ten feet away before his punch came anywhere near.

"I hate vampires. I've said it before and I'm repeating my official stance: vampire suck."

"I know I do, rather good at it, I am," Spike offered with an eyebrow wiggle.

"Oh my god. Stop. Just stop. My brain is going to implode if you don't stop with the weirdage. I don't want to know you suck."

"Want to know what I suck?" Spike asked cheerfully.

"William, leave him alone," Angel ordered, and then a large hand fell on Xander's shoulder, pulling Xander to the far side of the sidewalk so that Angel was walking between Spike and Xander.

"Oi, just playin'. So, you think the slayer's coming for me?"

"She might."

"No way," Xander disagreed. Both vampires looked at him.

"Okay, we all agree I know nothing about vampires, but I know Buffy. She's still all stupid about Angel, and if Angel thinks you're family, she's going to find some excuse to not stake you. And the whole gun thing… that really works as far as excuses go. Now if I just understood Willow and Cordelia as well as Buffy, my life might not suck." Xander held up a finger toward Spike. "And do not make suckage puns."

Spike chuckled. "Still, too bloody bad. Wouldn't mind trying this one out. She's good."

"Spike," Angel growled.

"Not goin' to go after her. At this point, I figure you'll never share your boy if I make you throw a wobbly."

"And again with the inappropriateness." Xander sighed. "I hate vampires. I hate vampires nearly as much as I hate my love life."

Spike really started laughing then. "Your boy's growin' up there Angelus. So, you've figured out that we're all screwed when it comes to the birds, huh? Welcome to the club, mate. Love turns all of us into her bitches sooner or later."

"I wouldn't have minded later."

"You'll be love's bitch later too," Spike promised. "Once love's got you on the hook, that's one lady you never get away from. Right, Angel?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Angel sighed. "We all do stupid things for love. We just have to hope that love doesn't kill us in the end."

"Oi, don't turn all maudlin on us there Captain Hairgel," Spike complained. "Bloody hell, let's go kill something, get some Jack and make fun of some late night television."

Xander might have objected, and he knew Angel definitely would have argued, but Spike was off down the street in a flapping of leather that always reminded Xander of Batman's cape, even if Angel was much more Batmany than Spike ever dreamed of being. Xander glanced over, and Angel had his constipated look. Yep, major brooding on the horizon.

"Come on, I escaped death by Cordelia shopping tonight, and killing of something slimy is sounding good. I even promise to not drink the Jack. Alcohol and the Harris family genes are not with the mixy."

For a second, Angel didn't seem to move, and then he started off down the sidewalk after Spike, one of his hands still on Xander's shoulder and pulling him along. "If you get anything slimy on you, I’m not letting you in the apartment," Angel warned.

"Hey, it's my apartment."

"It's my couch, and I'm still trying to get the Doritos powder out of it."

"You are such a gay guy," Xander said, and then he started running down the sidewalk, trusting that Angel would be at his back when he actually did find something slimy, or when something slimy found him because something slimy always found him. Spike accused him of having bad karma. And really, how weird was it that the torturing vampire thought he had bad karma?

Rust Upon Iron

“Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.”

Angel checked both directions for nosy neighbors before he quickly climbed the tree outside Xander's house. Knowing the elder Harris, a man climbing in Xander's window would be cause for more trouble than either he or Xander cared to deal with. Angel sometimes wondered if the beatings his own father administered weren't kinder than the words Tony Harris would use against his son. Listening to that man made Angel's teeth itch like the smell of fresh blood did.

Sometimes Angel thought this society's attempt to protect children from a whipping had just turned parental anger toward far darker paths. Angel still couldn't get the memory of The Breakfast Club out of his head. So much pain, and no villains, just people who thought that as long as they weren't physically striking the children they weren't damaging them.

But then again, parents in the past had not been limited to their use of the switch. His own father had certainly used choice words when describing Liam's faults, especially once Liam got old enough and large enough that his father feared to take the switch to his backside. Those were memories Angel liked to avoid, but being around humans so often brought back memories of his own human failings.

Once again, Angel wondered if it was worth it. He wondered if he truly wanted to live in the world. When he'd seen Buffy sitting in the sun in LA, he'd been enthralled to her beauty. He'd been ready to sacrifice everything to her cause, but now he wondered how much of that was just his pride coming through again. He'd swoop in and play knight to her damsel; however, she didn't need him. And God knows that his presence had made Buffy's life more difficult… again. Even when he tried to avoid her he still managed to hurt her. He shoved that thought aside for the night as he perched outside Xander's window and softly rapped on the window. Even if he couldn't fix the damage he'd done to Buffy, maybe he could help Xander.

Peering in through the dusty window, he could see Xander stomach-down on the bed. The radio played that song with the twangy voice that Angel particularly hated, and the lights were off. He rapped a little harder, and the only indication Xander had heard was a shifting of feet. For long minutes, Angel sat in the dim light of a sliver moon and wondered whether this was one of those times when someone needed to be alone or one of those times when they wanted someone to push back when they pushed away.

Even if he didn't miss being evil, sometimes Angel missed the certainty he'd felt before the soul. Now he had no more answers than Xander or Buffy. He had far fewer than Giles seemed to possess, not that Angel thought any of that man's answers were appropriate for their current disaster. Thoughts of the disaster brought him back to Xander laying stomach-down on the bed ignoring him. The frustration of being ignored by a sixteen year old settled the matter.

With an aggravated sigh, Angel pulled out his knife and started jimmying the window. The screen was rusted and gave a weak shriek as Angel pulled it out and propped it against the wall next to Xander's window before working the lock on the glass pane. Sliding the main window up, he thought he might have guessed right because Xander didn't turn around and start cursing him out. Xander rarely withheld his displeasure, a trait that amused Spike no end… at least until Xander turned that tongue on Spike.

Angel crawled in through the window and stood nervously next to the open window, his thoughts still focused on Xander and Spike. If not for the fact that Xander was so quick to insult Spike by calling him murderous and unpredictable and heart-attack inspiring, Spike might have tried to curb Xander's sharp tongue with some discipline of his own, but the boy did play to Spike's ego without ever understanding how the demon could preen under Xander's words. When Xander would call Spike evil, the vampire would smirk and encourage Xander to keep right on calling him names. Xander didn't understand, and Angel knew that. Angel knew it and he didn't do anything to try and educate the boy. That was one more pennyweight of guilt on his soul.

Awkwardly standing next to the open window, Angel waited for Xander to say something, but he didn't. A breeze played with the edge of the curtain, flipping it up, and Xander reached out and poked at his radio, mercifully silencing the miserable voice.

"Xander?" Angel said softly. He could hear the parents downstairs, but he still wasn't sure how Xander was going to react to him, so he stayed close enough to the window to make a run for it if Mrs. Harris and her fry pan came running after him. Mr. Harris was, no doubt, too drunk to make the effort. Xander rolled over and blinked up at him with swollen eyes.

"What?" he demanded, his voice rough and angry.

"He's left town," Angel offered, not sure what else he could offer the boy. The smell of salt sullied the air.

"Too bad. I'm sorry Buffy didn't stake his ass. He should be dust." Xander's voice didn't crack, but silent tears slid down his face as he breathed in jerky gasps.

"Maybe," Angel agreed. "I couldn't be the one to stake him, though."

"Wasn't she important enough?" Xander asked, and the anger had started mutating into something darker. "Maybe she wasn't. Maybe Spike came to you and asked permission, what with you being all sirey. Did you let Spike kill Kendra?" Angel flinched at the hatred that came from Xander, but if he left now, he knew he'd lose the boy's friendship. Xander had many good qualities, but open-mindedness was not one. If this hatred festered until morning, Angel suspected he would lose the boy's trust forever, and he suddenly realized just how much he cared about that not happening.

"I never gave Spike permission, and he never asked," Angel hurried to promise Xander "And yes, Kendra was just as important. She was just as beautiful and worthy as Buffy. I should have protected her, but I didn't, and she's dead. I can't fix that. I'm sorry." Angel shifted uncomfortably.

Xander rolled onto his stomach, his back shuddering with sobs, and Angel could feel guilt clinging to him like oil, only this time Xander wasn't going to torture him out of his bad mood. He felt like he had lost both Spike and Xander. It wasn't a good feeling. All he needed was the taste of rat's blood in his mouth, and he would feel like he had slipped back into a life he had gratefully escaped. And still, Angel couldn't feel quite as bad about his own pain as he did about Xander and Buffy and even Willow's anguish.

"Giles shouldn't have been so hard on you," Angel said quietly as he shifted from foot to foot. Oh god, what made him think he could do this? His emotions were as rusted as Xander's screen.

Xander gave a dark laugh. "You mean where he told me that Kendra would still be alive if I hadn't fraternized with the enemy? Oh yeah, he really should have. I lost track of a little truth there for a while, which is funny because it's the truth I started out with. Vampires bad. You remember that truth?" Xander turned and gave Angel a cold glare that worried Angel more than all the hot hatred and yelling he'd heard earlier as he'd eavesdropped on the others as they gathered in the library. Giles had brought word after Spike had tracked the watcher down and bragged in his usual Spike fashion. Thankfully Giles had gone and found the body without the children. But that small bit of mercy had vanished by the time he got back to the library and had taken aim first at Buffy and then at Xander. Buffy had escaped with minor emotional damage, but Angel still wanted to tear Giles' throat out for the words he had used against Xander.

"Vampires are generally evil," Angel agreed slowly with Xander's claim.

"No, no not evil… bad," Xander hurried to correct him, sitting up on the bed. "Bad as in bad for you, like Twinkies are bad for you, only, like with Twinkies, I tried to ignore the whole badness. But here's the problem… ignore the badness of Twinkies, and cavities are in your future. Big, huge, drive a truck through cavities that leave you with the nasty whine of a dentist drill poking holes in your head. With vampires, the badness spreads like chickenpox or marker stains on your Sunday-best shirt. I let the badness in, and Kendra paid for it."

"You had nothing—" Angel started. Xander talked right over him.

"And really, that's funny because I was first on the 'vampires bad' bandwagon when Buffy was dating you. I staked my best friend in the whole fucking world because I got it. Vampires bad. But then I went and got stupid again, which is not big with the surprise because I do a really good impression of stupid. Put me and stupid next to each other, and you can't tell which is which. I am the perfect mirror-image of pure stupidity," Xander almost hissed, and Angel froze, not really sure exactly what he could say to fix this. Jesse had been one topic that Xander never wanted to discuss with him, that Xander would walk out of the apartment if it came up. This wasn't feeling like safe territory right now, and Angel had no answer to soothe Xander's pain.

"You know that first night I showed up at your apartment?" Xander demanded. "That first night, I only came over because Buffy wanted to come check on you because you'd done the disappearing act again, and I didn't want her falling into the whole big, brown eyed pouty sympathetic thing you have going, and instead I fall for it. Stupid Xander. Stupid, stupid Xander. Forgot the first rule there, Xander. Vampires bad. Vampires very bad." Xander stood up and advanced on Angel, his finger poking the air until he came close enough to poke Angel's chest, and Angel stood silent, struggling with his beast's need to push Xander back and put the boy back in his place.

"This isn't your fault," Angel offered softly. After Giles' angry words in the library, Angel wasn't sure Xander was ready to listen to that, but at least the finger stopped poking him. Xander just stood with his face twisted by all the grief he'd hidden in front of his friends as he'd comforted them and endured Giles' diatribe.

Slowly, Xander nodded. "This is Spike's fault. He killed her. He killed Kendra, which, you know, is like a 'duh' moment because he's been out there killing this whole time, and I just let myself ignore that as long as he wasn't snacking on someone I knew. This doesn't make me a good person."

"It makes you human," Angel disagreed.

"Go away," Xander whispered as he turned his back on Angel. The vampire instinct surged, and for a half second, Angel teetered on the edge of grabbing the boy and throwing him down in order to force a little respect into him. He physically withdrew a step just to avoid the temptation, even though the scent of his bloodmark on Xander's skin called to him.

Instead of following the beast's urge, Angel focused on quiet logic. "It you had stuck to your rules—if you had continued to insist that vampires were bad, where would Buffy be?" Angel asked with a false calm, most of his attention still focused on controlling the beast inside.

"Seriously, Angel, me and my stupidity need some quality alone time," Xander sighed.

"Someone hired the Order of Taraka. If Spike and I hadn't taken out the one-eyed bounty hunter, what do you think would have happened?"

Xander sighed and sat on the edge of the bed giving Angel a calculating look, as though trying to figure something out. Finally, he answered. "Buffy would have killed him, and then Buffy would have staked Spike, and Buffy and Kendra would have gone for ice cream after, only with no ice cream and more reports because Kendra was one for reports," Xander gave a strangled half-laugh at his own joke, and Angel could hear the desperation. "She didn't deserve to die. How could he kill her?" Xander asked in a small voice that Angel couldn't ignore. He stepped forward and let his hand rest on Xander's shoulder.

"Kendra didn't listen to Buffy or me. She went after Spike. None of us could have saved her the second she made that choice. And no, she didn't deserve to die. No slayer does, but that's what happens with slayers. They challenge some demon who's faster or who fights dirtier, and they die."

"Buffy didn't. I brought her back."

And there was the rub. The boy had managed one miracle, and he couldn't escape the expectation that he could simply pull another out of the air. Angel remembered the foolishness of youth, but he still couldn't quite understand it. But one way or another, he had to convince Xander that he couldn't carry the blame for Kendra's death. "You couldn't have saved Kendra," Angel pointed out, struggling to make a more valid argument, but really, it was so obvious that Angel couldn't quite decide how to prove it. It was like trying to prove the sky was blue.

"Maybe if I'd been there. I could have asked Spike…" Xander stopped and gasped for air, fighting the need to cry for a second. "I really do need to be checked for brain damage. One too many hits with the headstones maybe because there I go thinking of Spike like someone I could talk to when he's just a cold-blooded killer. A demon. A thing that needs to be turned into dust."

Angel sighed. Xander's guilt and his intolerance were both running high tonight, and neither were Xander's most charming personality traits. "He's the same demon he always was, with all the positive and negative traits still there."

"I thought he was a friend. How stupid am I?" Xander whispered so softly that Angel wouldn't have caught it without vampire hearing.

"You aren't stupid. In his own way, he offered you something as close to friendship as he could. Spike cares about you," Angel answered, not sure that Xander really wanted the truth right now, but that's all Angel had to offer. The others had ranted and raved… everyone except Cordelia who'd been surprisingly silent… but none of them understood Spike or his relationship with Xander. "If you had been there, maybe Spike would have stopped. He probably wouldn't have, but maybe," Angel admitted.

"He cares?" Xander asked incredulously as he looked up at Angel with a wet face. "How can you say he cares? He killed Kendra!"

"I know."

"I hate him. If he were here right now, I'd stake him."

"I know you'd try. He knows you would too, that's why he left," Angel offered soothingly.

"What?" Xander's anger yielded to confusion. "Okay, this is making sense of the not-even kind because no way would Spike leave town because of me. Spike knows he can kick my ass no matter how much I want to stake him, and I want to stake him a whole lot right now. Big with the wanting to stake him. I'd sacrifice my Batman collection to turn him back into dust."

"He thinks you might get hurt when he has to stop you from trying to kill him. William knows you aren't a threat, but he doesn't want to hurt you," Angel offered gently as he came and perched awkwardly on the edge of the bed next to Xander.

"Right. I'm just the loser. I'm just the one no one listens to or worries about or whatever the hell people do with people they respect, and I obviously don't know because no one actually respects me or what I have to say. I say 'just leave it alone, Kendra,' so of course she has to go and be Wonder Woman, only with not so much wonder because she's dead. She's dead and I didn't do anything to stop the whole process of her getting dead." Xander put his head in his hands in a gesture of supreme fatigue, and Angel could feel the urge to just leave, to escape from the boy's pain, but he wouldn't. He might not know how to handle this, but he would sit and at the very least endure the pain with Xander. The room was silent as they sat side by side.

"What's wrong with me?" Xander finally whispered.

"Nothing," Angel quickly assured him as he put his hand on Xander's back and tried to figure out if he should pat him or just leave the palm pressed against the shivering shoulder.

Xander snorted. "I'm thinking there's something hugely wrong." Xander leaned forward until his head rested on his arms, which were crossed in his lap. "I killed my best friend because he was a vampire. And trust me, if vampires really do get part of their personality from the host, then Jesse-vampire was about as harmless as vampires come. Only I don't know that because he's dust. Or actually," Xander said after a pause, "I do know he was harmless because any vampire I can dust is pretty high on the harmlessness scale. So, Jesse's dead because he's a vampire. Only I go and make two brand new friends, oh, both of them are vampires, but I never even stop to question that.

Swollen eyes turned to look at Angel. "Either I killed my best friend when I shouldn't have or I didn't stake Spike when I should have, but I fucked up somewhere. What happened to my nice simple 'Vampires bad' rule? That rule made sense to me. God, I can't do this. Giles is right. I screwed up. And the Willow eyes.... I don't ever have to worry about her with the crushing again because she looked at me with those eyes that said that she was so sorry I had so completely fucked up, and I did. I fucked up, only Kendra is dead, and how much sense does that not make?"

"The real world isn't supposed to make sense," Angel said softly. "And you didn't fuck up. You told her that Spike was too dangerous to go against."

"Which is a little like waving a red flag in front of a bull… or waving a vampire in front of a slayer. Yep, we're back to me being the poster child for stupid."

Angel sighed, not sure how to defuse this cycle of self-hate. Sadly, he found himself afraid to try because at least when Xander was focused on hating himself, the boy wasn't spewing hate for Angel and all vampires. He just couldn't in good conscience allow Xander to continue to carry this burden. Not for the first time, Angel cursed Giles for allowing Willow and Xander to tangle their lives and destinies with Buffy's. He accepted that he would probably not be able to give Buffy a normal life, but now he doubted whether either Xander or Willow would have one either. And in their case, they had no destiny to steal their futures. They only had their own naïve belief that they could fix the world if they only made the right choices.

"Before you, life was simple for me. As a vampire, Darla ruled my world. When I got the soul, I suffered the way I was supposed to as a damned creature. Then Whistler showed me Buffy and then I knew I was destined to be with her. Three different lives, three very simple rules," Angel started as he struggled to find a way to explain nearly three hundred years of life to a sixteen year old.

Xander snorted. "If you start that Romeo and Juliet crap again, I'm going to point out that they ended up dead. Dead is not the happy-happy joy-joy fairy tale ending unless you're reading those old, really violent fairy tales where everyone ends up burned alive or cut to pieces or something, and dismemberment is still not with the happy unless you have a pretty serious psychological disorder. Like the kind of disorder Spike has," Xander finished wearily. "And you know, maybe you should just leave so I can get some sleep before my brain implodes." Xander sat up and looked around the dark room as though searching for an excuse to get rid of Angel. Time was running out.

"Not Romeo and Juliet," Angel promised as he ignored Xander's request for him to leave. "My mother used to sit near the fire with her stitchery and tell me stories of Lusmore of Knockgrafton."

"Which would be something I know nothing about, and tonight is not a good night for long, Gilesesque stories," Xander hinted with his usual lack of subtlety.

"Lusmore was born with a huge hump on his back. Even though he was deformed, he was a good man." Angel ignored Xander and his rolling eyes. "One day, Lusmore heard the fairies singing, and he was full of so much joy that he joined them, singing with such a pure voice that they whisked him away to their magical kingdom and cured him, took his hump off and made him whole and beautiful."

Xander stared at Angel with obvious confusion. Okay, so maybe the metaphor wasn't as self-evident as Angel had thought.

"Xander, when the gypsies cursed me with a soul, I saw the demon as a deformity that would one day be swept clean, and when I saw Buffy sitting on the stairs of her school in LA, it was like finding the fairy kingdom and knowing that I was this close to being cured. I just had to figure out how to sing beautifully enough to earn the cure."

"Singing for a cure?" Xander asked skeptically.

"With one small problem," Angel shrugged. "I'm not actually all that good at singing. Spike once said he'd rather have me whip him than sing one bar song with him in the room. But I still couldn't help feeling like Buffy was the key to making everything right with me, that I just had to be smart enough to figure it out."


"Profound?" Angel supplied.

"Stupid," Xander corrected him. Angel frowned at him, and Xander held up a hand palm up. "I'm sorry, but it kinda is. And in your example, if the curse is the hump, then taking it off would be like curing you by taking off the soul. No offense, but after Spike's many hours of reminiscing, if you and your soul part ways, I'm vacationing on another continent. Possibly another continent in an alternative dimension."

"My point," Angel said, flinching away from even the thought of losing his soul. He knew the dark corruption lying in his heart the way no one else ever could, not even Spike. "My point is that life seemed simple. The rules were so clear—If I found a way to keep Buffy alive and happy, I'd have my cure. Then you showed up and pointed out that Buffy isn't just the slayer or a girl I had worshipped from the shadows. She is a human soul with human needs and fears and desires and a truly strange taste in music, and that is so far from simple that I feel like an idiot for ever having my Lusmore fantasies." Angel fell silent, just hoping that Xander understood this time.

"So, your way of cheering me up is to point out that I have company on the short bus of life?" Xander asked.

"My point is that you taught me to see that the more complicated truth is harder to accept but far more accurate."

"See, I know I didn't teach you that because I don't even get that. There's nothing complicated here. I screwed up by not helping Giles and Buffy go after Spike. Kendra came to help us. Kendra is dead because I didn't help Giles and Buffy. See? Simple." Xander crossed his arms as if daring Angel to contradict him.

"It's as simple as Buffy being the solution to my curse or Lusmore getting his hump removed," Angel agreed, "and just as wrong. "You know that Spike is… Spike is complicated. He's evil, but he's not particularly devoted to evil. He did far more good than evil in town, even if he only did it to keep in my favor." Angel glanced at Xander's stubbornly set face. "And to keep some hope alive that I would let him bed you," he added. Xander glared at him, and Angel had to school his face to impassivity in order to avoid laughing at the exasperation in Xander's eyes. "Life is messy. We both made choices that we wish we could take back, but neither of us is to blame for this."

"We're to blame for letting Spike live," Xander said, but this time, Angel could see that the boy said the words in the desperate hope that Angel could talk him out of believing them.

"There is no blame there. Dozens of people are alive today only because Spike ruled the Hellmouth with a vicious ruthlessness that left the minions too afraid to make new fledges. If we could go back in time and dust Spike, would we trade away the life of a mother of three in order to save Kendra? Would we really kill Spike knowing that dozens of people would then be vamped by the minions? Would Kendra even want that?" Angel could see the emotions war in Xander's conscience. "We did what we knew would save people. We don't have anything to apologize for because we did save people, many people. I seem to remember Willow having pie charts of mysterious deaths and barbeque fork accidents at one point, and the numbers showed that human deaths had dropped back down to pre-Buffy levels."

Xander did laugh at that. "That's Willow. Don't give her enough homework, and she'll just invent her own. And her pie chart was definitely on the side of Spike being good for the human half of good old Sunnyhell."

"Willow will come around first, you wait," Angel said "Her numbers prove that we made a good decision, and she'll see that. I know I should have tried harder to gain Kendra's trust so that she would allow me to place her under my protection. However, we weren't wrong for letting Spike live. Those pie charts represent people who are alive today because of that choice, Xander."

Xander sat next to Angel and stared at the wall where a poster of Seven of Nine stared back. "I want to believe that," he finally whispered to the air. Angel's hand was still on Xander's shoulder, and now he slid it around Xander's back and pulled the boy into a one-armed embrace.

"Then do. It's the truth," Angel suggested.

"But it feels… it feels wrong because I should feel guilty, but what you're saying is not guilt-inspiring."

"You shouldn't feel guilty," Angel said, and obviously he had failed because the whole point of this conversation was convincing Xander to give up his guilt, yet the boy continued to cling to it.

"Giles said—"

"No!" Angel snapped, cutting Xander off mid-word. They both froze, listening to the downstairs television as they waited to find out if Mrs. Harris and her frying pan were on their way up to find out why there was shouting coming from Xander's room in the middle of the night. Angel tightened his arm around Xander, desperately hoping that he wouldn't have to run, but prepared to dart out the window when the first footstep landed on the stairs. It never came, and Xander took a deep breath as they realized they had avoided company. Mrs. Harris had probably fallen asleep next to her husband on the couch.

"No," Angel said more quietly but just as firmly, "Giles carries his own guilt, for his youth summoning demons or his failure to protect Kendra or his inability to get Buffy to take training seriously. I don't even pretend to understand his guilt or his motives for being so harsh. But for whatever reason, he has spoken to you far more sharply than he should. You can't take what he says so seriously."


"You know how much guilt you feel for Kendra's death?" Angel interrupted as he tightened his grip a bit. "Imagine if you were the adult who had been charged with protecting her. Imagine that you had to call her other watcher or her parents and admit that she died on your watch. Imagine that you have to write a report to the bosses who expected you to keep her alive, and you have to admit that you failed in your job, a job you've been training for your whole life. Xander, you're too smart to think that Giles' anger is for you."

Xander angled his body toward Angel a little, squirming uncomfortably, and Angel just used it as an excuse to pull the boy closer. "He's angry with himself," Xander said softly. "And I'm the one who's closest to being like him what with the having a penis and all because Willow and Buffy are definitely penisless, not that I've looked or anything. But Giles is angry with himself and so he takes it out on me."

Angel nodded. "I think my father did the same thing. The Catholics were losing land and position, and my father turned against his own father and the Church, publicly denouncing his own family and marrying the protestant daughter of an English settler. When I showed any sign of rebellion, he turned on me viciously."

"Do I want to know how this story ends?" Xander asked uncertainly, but he didn't try to pull away. If anything, he sagged into Angel and let the vampire support his full weight.

"Probably not. It would give you nightmares," Angel admitted. "I don't like thinking about it."

"Just like Giles doesn't like thinking about how bad he feels, so he takes it out on me?" Xander asked.

"Maybe. But whether it's that or something else, you shouldn't believe him when he says these things," Angel answered as he slid back on the bed, scooting toward the wall and pulling Xander with him. Xander just let himself be maneuvered.

"This is freaky," Xander said softly as Angel finally got settled with his back to the wall and Xander half lying on his chest.

"Do you want me to leave? I don't want to make you uncomfortable because I'm not planning anything." Angel tensed up, suddenly remembering just how uncomfortable Xander had been at the idea that Angel had been sexually intimate with a man. Maybe the bed wasn't the best place for him to offer comfort.

"No, not that. I mean it's freaky that you get this stuff. I mean, how long has it been since you were around the whole family dynamics thing?"

"A while," Angel admitted. "I'm a little rusty sometimes, and you know I don't always understand you… or Buffy either. But maybe that distance helps me see things a little more clearly because I'm not caught up in the middle of human emotions."

"Not caught up in human emotions. That sounds…" Xander paused, "that sounds lonely," he finally finished.

Angel sat in the dark with Xander's warm weight against him, the smell of Angel's bloodmark strong because of the sweat and emotion still seeping from the boy. "Not recently," Angel admitted as he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

Xander's hand clung to Angel's shirt, and the boy's breathing evened out as Angel traced circles on his back with his fingers. Eventually, the smell of salt tears faded and the familiar soft snores started a few hours before dawn. Laying in the dark holding the boy, Angel considered just how much a year had changed his world. A year ago, he would have secretly cheered Giles for his verbal tirade. Now, he recognized that anger for the weakness it had always been. No, he wasn't perfect. He didn't blame himself for not killing Spike, but when the next slayer came to town, Angel wasn't going to allow his fear to keep him from insisting on being a part of her life. Buffy wasn't his quest, but the slayers were. He would give every single one of them a chance to grow up and a fighting shot against the demons they were destined to fight. It wouldn't be simple, but hopefully it would be the right thing to do. And if he fell off the wagon on his path to redemption, he'd just have to trust Xander to point it out, just like he planned on staying around and putting Xander back on the right path when the boy's self-hatred threatened to overwhelm him.

Neither of them had parents or family who could provide the sort of support that Angel had seen when Xander had insisted they stay up for two days straight to watch a marathon of Leave it to Beaver, but they could be family to each other.


Mending Fences

"Hey! Anyone in a mood for pizza and only halfway melted ice cream?" Buffy asked with an uncertain expression on her face as she stood in the door.

"And Twinkies. Don't forget the Twinkies," Willow added as she held up a plastic bag from the grocery store. "We come bearing Twinkies and apologies."

"Hey. And how did you find me?" Xander asked in confusion as he stepped away from the apartment door to let them in.

"This was our second guess, and your mom might be a little on the grumpy side when you go home because she was definitely big with the believing you were upstairs," Buffy said with a sympathetic cringe. "And the ice cream was not half melted before she started with the ranting about you being irresponsible."

"Oh great," Xander said as he headed back to the couch and flopped down. "Buff, I know you're big with the being pissed at me, but do you think that maybe next time you could just punch me or something? Now I have to go home and listen to the parentals fight."

"Yeah, sorry about that."

"I don't suppose you could hit me now and break a bone or two... something small enough to not hurt much but big enough to justify a short stay in the hospital and a little sympathy?" Xander asked with his best hopeful look in Buffy's direction.

"Xander!" Willow said with way more horror than the situation really called for. It was awkward, but at least she was struggling toward normal. Xander headed for the kitchen where Angel had plates and bowls.

"Hey, I'm all for staying unbroken normally, but the parentals are going to nail my window shut if they figure out that I'm pretty much avoiding them more often than I'm staying home." He stacked the dishes on the counter and Willow dished up chocolate marshmallow ice cream while Buffy started divvying up the pizza.

"Hey, I'm there with you. Mom is really starting to get the hairy eyeball down good when I come home late, but sometimes the vampires are just not good with letting me dust them before curfew," Buffy shrugged. Willow stayed remarkably silent, but then Xander remembered her confessing that she wished she had a curfew. Here they were living on a Hellmouth with murder stats that could rival New York City, and her parents were more concerned about stifling her adult whatchamacallit than making sure she didn't end up dead. Yep, Xander could see how that would give a person a complex.

"So, any new with the news?" Xander asked, changing the subject.

"You missed the big 17 party for Buffy," Willow said, jumping on the change of topic.

"Yeah, I didn't really think you guys wanted me around." Xander took a plate and a bowl and retreated to the chair that was normally Angel's. Balancing the pizza plate on the arm, he started on the slightly gloppy ice cream.

"I wanted. Didn't you want?" Willow asked sadly as she turned to Buffy for confirmation before she headed for the couch.

"I was huge with the wanting, but with a side of cowardly because I didn't want to call and admit that'd I'd been huge with the bitchiness and blame. We're talking epic Cordelia-levels of bitchiness," Buffy nodded as she sat next to Willow. "I really am sorry, Xander, and I'm claiming temporary insanity because the things I said were pretty insane."

Xander focused on his ice cream and didn't mention what all of them were avoidingly circling. The girls hadn't said the worst of it, they'd been more insult accomplices as Giles called Xander a traitor and an idiot, and while the idiot part was about right, Xander wasn't a traitor. However, that word had kept him out of the library and away from the girls for nearly two weeks now. He'd spent Buffy's birthday out practicing sword fighting on fledges, and Angel hadn't even lectured him when he'd ignored easy kills and went for the long-drawn out, ugly fight. Of course, Angel had to rescue him twice, but that wasn't exactly new either.

"Get anything good?" Xander asked with a cheerfulness that felt fake even to him.

Buffy smiled. "A demon arm. Which tried to kill me when I opened the box, so the party just screamed slayerfest."

"Okay, in the history of gift-giving, that's like worse than the time I got Willow bugs for her birthday," Xander said as he finally looked up from his gloppy bowl.

"You were six. I forgave you.... after therapy." The smile Willow gave him was strained, but at least it was genuine. When he smiled back, she caught her lip between her teeth and her eyes fell back down to her plate. Buffy was the slayer, but Xander knew that Willow was the one who really relied on Giles to be all parental unit-y, so this had to be hard on her.

With a shrug, Buffy shoved pizza in her mouth and then talked right over the chewing. When you were a slayer and consumed as much food as Buffy did, you learned to talk and chew at the same time or just not talk much. "Yeah, well it turns out that the arm was only one part of a tinkertoy ending-the-world demon that got chopped to little bits at some point. It looks like Drusilla was trying to put him back together."

"Drusilla?" Xander frowned at that. Yeah, she was nuts, but he'd been fairly sure she was run-of-the-mill nuts and not world-ending nuts.

"Which is not really surprising because of the whole crazy demon vibe she has going on, but the bizarre part is that Spike mailed me the arm, and he shipped the head to the Council in England," Buffy made a face at the thought of that piece of weirdness.

"Um, doesn't that make it a little harder to assemble?" Xander may have liked Spike, but if Drusilla asked him to end the world, he would have thought Spike would bring the torch for the world-ending bonfire party.

"You'd think, yeah." Buffy frowned. "But I guess he had an agenda other than ending the world."

"He wasn't all bad, you know."

"Xander, he killed Kendra," Willow gasped.

Xander's guts knotted up as the old fight restarted, but if they didn't talk this out, the old fight would lay there and rot until they couldn't stand each other. In his seventeen years, Xander had learned two things from his parents: don't let problems rot and don't drink. Of course his not letting problems rot philosophy sometimes led to more honesty that was good for him, but it was better than ending up like his parents. He sighed and pushed on. "I know. He's evil, and I'm big with the knowing that. You don't even want to know some of the stories he told me when he was trying to be nice. Spike being nice was kinda absolutely terrifying. His idea of a bedtime story will either be fodder for many years of therapy or the start of a whole new career as a horror film writer. But he still wasn't all bad."

Willow dropped her plate on the coffee table where it rattled against the wood. "What's wrong with you? You know that vampires are evil, but now you're sticking up for one. And you're dating Cordelia. I heard Harmony talk about it. And she said you and some big hunky guy sometimes walk the cheerleaders home and beat guys up, and I don't even know you anymore."

"That would be called patrolling," Xander shot back at Willow, and he immediately felt guilty as she shrunk in on herself. "Willow, I'm just patrolling, and yeah, Angel goes with me because I'm way better with the flushing demons out than the killing of demons."

"And here I thought we were going to deal with one weirdage at a time," Buffy sighed. "Well, since that plan's all shot, let me handle this with my normal tact," she suggested. "Xander, what the hell are you thinking dating Cordelia?"

Buffy's normal tact made Xander shrink back and for a half-second, he just considered denying the whole thing. Of course, then Willow would run back to Harmony and tell her she was wrong, and then Harmony would tell Cordelia, and then Cordelia would hunt him down, eviscerate him, and stretch his skinned hide across the football field as a warning for other social climbing losers.

"I'm mostly thinking with the head that's not on my shoulders," Xander admitted with a shrug. Willow turned bright red. "Hey, it's what guys do," he defended himself. And the fact that women had twisted guys around by the cock was at the center of at least fifty percent of Spike's really scary stories.

Buffy looked over at Willow with worry etching deep and unattractive lines on her face, and Xander knew exactly what she was thinking. The problem was that Xander wasn't sure how to make Willow feel any better about this. He just didn't like Willow. And the more Willow pouted at him and played teacher's pet to Giles, the less he liked her that way. Yeah, she'd always be sisterish the way Spike would always be Angel's family, but somehow, the idea of naughty touching with her in a closet freaked him out way more than naughty touching with Cordelia ever had. Buffy looked at him with the worry slowly morphing into anger.

"I don't control the not-on-the-shoulders head!" he defended himself. Buffy did not look even a little amused. "Come on, look at my track record. The girls I've actually gotten dates with include a life-sucking mummy and witch fond of ratting people. Add in there the girls I've crushed on and you have a hyena-infested pack member and a preying mantis monster. Put all those girls in a lineup, and Cordy fits in there a whole lot better than anyone in this room."

Hopefully that worked because Buffy's face turned from angry to a slightly squicked sort of sympathy. "Okay, on the officially sucking in the picking partners department, you win. I mean, I thought I was the record winner, but when you line up your dating life like that, my back-stabbing traitor, masochistic poet, and a couple of losers just don't compare with your string of disasters."

"Gee, thanks," Xander said sarcastically, and Buffy smiled at him. Willow, however, was not going to be that easily distracted. She was already shaking her head.

"I don't know you anymore, Xander. You say you like girls who can hurt you, and you hang out with Angel and fight and you hang around with Spike."

"Hey, there was not hanging around with nearly as much as there was me and then there was Spike who was enjoying making me blush and trip and generally making my life miserable when he wasn't rescuing me from Drusilla or some random monster of the week."

"Which is hitting the weird-o-meter pretty hard," Buffy pointed out.

"Yeah, this I know. Spike had it in his head that sucking up to me would make Angel less growly around him, and Spike's idea of sucking up included wedgies. Okay, not real wedgies, but emotional type wedgies with the things getting painfully pulled into tight spaces where they are not supposed to go. His sense of humor was definitely on the humorless side," Xander said, refusing to go any farther into Spike's habit of poking the gay-button whenever Angel was out of earshot. Cordelia insisted Spike was just trying to be big-brotherly. According to Angel, Spike was trying to torture the older vamp vicariously by going after Xander. Xander just tried not to think about it much at all. That went into the little box along with the knowledge that Spike had killed Kendra, and Xander tried really, really hard to never think about any of it. "Look, maybe we just shouldn't talk about this right now," Xander suggested hopefully.

"Xander, talking would be good."

"So you can not listen to me again?" Xander said with a little more venom than he'd intended. Both girls flinched from that, and Xander immediately felt like a heel.

"I'm listening. I've always listened," Willow said softly as she picked at the cheese on her pizza. Xander had never seen food so unloved at a Scooby meeting.

Buffy quickly nodded. "And I'm all listening-girl. Look, I know we all over-reacted, and I'm trying really hard to not be with the reacting. See me? This is me listening with absolutely no over-reacting or reacting or even acting. I promise to do nothing that ends with an 'ing'."

"Breathing?" Willow asked with another strained smile. Buffy shrugged.

"Okay, maybe I'll do that. Xander, I know you didn't make Kendra go out looking for a fight because I was there with you when we did the 'Spike is a gun-carrying evil spawn of Satan' speech for her. I know this. But you talking about Spike like he's just a guy from school or something is doing the wiggy in my brain."

"Big wiggy. Xander, he ate people, and eating people equals evil. Well, not when the eating of people is over like with Angel, or like with you when you went all hyena... not that you ate anyone... but Spike is still with the eating people, and as people we need to stand up and say no to people-eating." Willow blurted her words out as though relieved to finally be getting to the conversation she wanted to have with him.

"Can't argue with Willow-logic," Xander agreed wryly. Spike would have recognized the sarcasm, but Willow was already nodding her head in agreement.

"Darn tooting you can't, mister."

"Willow, I hate that Spike eats people, and I am totally on the Spike-evil train with you guys. I told you he was evil back before you knew who he was. I mean, he just about gave me a heart attack at least a dozen times a week, and that was when he was trying for nice. Not that nice and Spike are really two great tastes that taste great together." Xander let his words trail off, not quite sure where he was going with this. Sometimes he wished he could just erase the last year and go back to being the guy who just agreed with whatever Willow said. It was easier that way. Neither of them did conflict very well, which wasn't really surprising. In Willow's house, raised voices or any sort of conflict was met with long lectures in words Xander didn't even understand but that came down to 'nice people don't disagree.' In Xander's house, raised voices just led to more raised voices and then screaming, and throwing of things and on a really good night, the calling of police. Yep, they both officially sucked on the disagreeing front.

"Xander?" Buffy looked worried again.

"Okay, look, he's evil. I get that. He also has a side of funny and a secret love for poetry. No one who loves poetry can be all evil. Nerdy, yes, but not evil."

"Spike is nerdy?" Buffy choked down her bite of pizza and started laughing.

"And he would so eat you for saying that, and then I would feel guilty because me sharing his secret love for poetry led to the lifelessness, and I have enough guilt already. But as much as he is dangerous and evil, it's just not that simple."

"Evil is simple, Xander. He ate an orphanage." Buffy crossed her arms and got that 'me, slayer' look on her face.

"Because Drusilla told him to."

"Which is not making me feel any better about the eating of orphans part of that story." As Buffy spoke, Willow nodded enthusiastically, so Xander knew he was facing a united front here. And the fact that he was outside the united really hurt, but he couldn't just unknow things, not even if he wanted to.

"Do you know why she ate children? Do you?" Xander demanded. Both girls looked confused, like it had never occurred to them to ask for a reason. "Angel tortured her. He tortured her family in front of her. He chained her up and beat her and raped her and did all kinds of things that he's only hinted about and honestly, I so don't want to know."

Willow lost all color, and Buffy wrinkled her nose before she finally answered. "Okay, officially not making me feel any better, but I do have a sudden urge to scrub my lips because I kissed Angel at one point. What is wrong with my taste in men?"

"That's not my point. My point is that Drusilla on bad days wants everyone to hurt as much as she hurt before Angel got around to killing her. And on good days... she thought that if she ate the children they wouldn't ever have to get tortured by Angel. Drusilla is totally loony toons, but she isn't totally evil, either."

"So I should stop vampires and give them a 'how evil are you' quiz before I slay?"

"Not unless you're feeling particularly suicidal," Xander sighed.

"Then what are you trying to say?"

"I have no idea." Xander stuck his spoon in his liquefied ice cream and headed for the kitchen. He should rinse the dishes because Angel complaining about ants was not really the way he wanted to end this very shitty day. Standing at the sink, he watched the chocolate stream streaked with white marshmallow vanish down the drain before he started washing the dish.

Warm hands came around his stomach, and a familiar head rested against his back. "Oh Xander," Willow whispered.

Xander leaned against the counter for a second before he let his hands rest against Willow's arms. "Yep, that's me... clueless Xander."

Buffy was there too, her hip leaning against the counter as she rested a hand on his shoulder. "You're just clue-lite, like the rest of us."

Xander nodded, and for one second, he was just tempted to let it rest, to just accept the forgiveness they were offering him, and chalk this up to one more case of Xander-stupids. He almost made up his mind to do exactly that, but then it occurred to him that the girls would expect him to go back to the library and play humble to Giles' English disapproval. And really, Xander couldn't do it. "It's just... He wasn't all evil. He was like marble cake with lots and lots of evil and streaks of something..." Xander hesitated as he considered what to say. Spike was funny and arrogant and insecure and protective.

"But if you ate a piece, you'd taste the evil and not the other stuff," Buffy pointed out. Willow slowly let go of him and stepped back.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed as he turned to face them. "Like a cake made of bitter, but you could pick the not bitter parts out if you're really careful." Buffy looked at him skeptically. "And if you're either particularly suicidal or you have a three hundred year old vampire standing right behind you offering to turn him into dust if he gets all evil, but it's probably smarter to just look at the whole cake and say 'evil.' But that doesn't mean the not-evil parts aren't there," Xander struggled to explain.

Buffy looked at Willow and Xander couldn't believe how desperate he was for them to understand what he was saying. Finally Buffy nodded. "Okay, I can live with that. So, Spike had not-evil streaks that still don't erase the fact that he was evil."

"Eating of people bad, and even if he did like poetry, he was still evil," Willow said, her mouth set in a firm line.

"Oh yeah," Xander agreed, "and he'd be the first to agree, well, except for the him liking poetry part which he would deny and probably just kill you over."

Willow made her scrunchy face.

"So, we're good?" Buffy asked.

"I'm good," Xander said. "Are you good, because there's a 'you' in there before there's a 'we.'"

Buffy nodded. "We're always good, Xand. And yeah, I said a bunch of things that I so shouldn't have that implied less-than-goodness, but that would be where my clue-liteness came in."

"Willow?" Xander asked uncertainly. She chewed her lip before she took a hesitant step forward. Xander opened his arms, and she came close and hugged him hard. Buffy wrapped her own arms around both of them, and Xander found himself struggling not to cry as both girls clung to him and made little close-to-crying sounds themselves.


Hearing them hug, Angel abandoned his post in the hall and headed toward the other side of town. He'd known that the girls would eventually take Xander back in. They were too smart to believe that Xander wanted or allowed Spike to kill Kendra. But if Giles wasn't on his best behavior, the friendship was just going to get torn apart again. The watcher was having a harder time getting over his stupidity, so it was definitely time for the adults to have a little conversation.

Angel waited in the shadows outside Giles' apartment for the man to get home. When the silver Citroen coughed its way to the curb, Angel stepped out from the shadows and waited. He could tell the moment Giles saw him. The man stopped just short of pulling a stake out, settling for clutching it in his pocket as he stood beside the car, obviously ready to jump back in.

"To what do I owe the displeasure of your company?" he asked tightly. Angel studied him trying to decide how to handle this. He wasn't particularly diplomatic and hadn't been in any of his incarnations: Liam, Angelus or Angel. However, this man had his head so far up his arse right now that Spike would disembowel him if he'd heard Xander cry even once. Spike might have forgone killing Kendra if he'd known how Xander would be blamed. Maybe.

"Xander and I are not to blame for Spike's actions," Angel started. He could see from the way Giles' face hardened that the watcher was not about to listen. Well, if he wasn't good at diplomacy, at least Angel knew where his strengths did lie. "And we are not to blame for your failure to protect her."

Giles went stiff. "Thank you ever so much for your insights," he said contemptuously.

"That's why you're blaming Xander, isn't it?" Angel asked as he moved forward. He enjoyed watching Giles twitch at his approach. At least the man wasn't foolish enough to assume Angel was harmless. "It wasn't his job to protect Kendra, it was yours."

"And I fulfilled my duties to the best of my ability," Giles said sharply as he slammed the car door and headed for his apartment. Angel stepped into his path and forced him to stop.

"Which wasn't good enough."

"I have no interest in your opinions, vampire."

"Is that why you didn't come to me with your hate?" Angel demanded. Giles attempted to step around him, but Angel shifted into his path again. "Or do you simply find it easier to attack seventeen year old boys?"

That got a response as Giles turned on him with fury in his gaze. "I simply told the boy a few obvious truths. If he chooses to see them as a condemnation or an attack, then he should reconsider his own actions."

"He's a child, and he couldn't control Spike any more than you could control Kendra. Only, it was your job to control Kendra, wasn't it?" Angel asked. He enjoyed the slow red color that spread through Giles' face.

"He's a fool," Giles said as he turned as though to go to his apartment, but his slow, mortal reflexes betrayed his true move. He dropped his bag and thrust out with the stake. Angel twisted to the side and grabbed the watcher's wrist with one hand and the back of the man's neck with the other. It only took one second to force him to drop the stake and slam him face first into the side of the apartment complex.

"So, now you show your true colors," Giles said with a low laugh that had nothing to do with humor.

"Yes, I do," Angel agreed as he stepped back and let Giles go. "Next time you feel like attacking a boy because of your failure, you remember this and how much worse this could have gone," Angel suggested.

Giles straightened his jacket before he turned around, and he had that same contemptuous look on his face. "You've bloodmarked the boy, haven't you? How long before he turns up dead and I have to counsel my slayer to kill him? Will you still claim the moral highroad then?"

Angel stopped, shocked into stillness for a moment. "I don't plan to ever kill Xander."

"Is that what Spike thought? I can't imagine why a master vampire like William the Bloody would be so protective of the boy. Not unless you care to claim he as a soul as well." Giles' glare dared him to try and make that claim.

"William has no soul, and he believes that I'll turn Xander, but that's because he doesn't understand how my soul changes me," Angel tried hard to not let the demon inside him come crawling out, but the anger and viciousness was right there under the surface struggling to emerge.

"So, you're the almighty champion? The one who allows the slayer to face the Master alone?" Giles sneered.

"Just like you did," Angel countered, and he could see the direct hit he'd scored with that comment. "We both want to protect Buffy, but I cannot understand why you feel such a need to attack Xander. Could it be because he has managed to do what you can't? Is it because he saved Buffy when you allowed both Buffy and Kendra to walk into their deaths?" Angel asked with a slow smile that made the darker parts of his soul thrill. He still had the power to torture people in the ways that truly counted. Giles was almost vibrating with rage.

"Xander has been corrupted by you and by your childer."

"Like Ethan Rayne corrupted you?" Angel asked, his smirk widening as he started to slowly circle Giles. He kicked the fallen stake into the far bushes. "Only Xander has never summoned a demon or acted in a way that put human lives in danger. The worst thing he's ever done is force me to watch Revenge of the Nerds, and you should appreciate his touch for torturing me. Only you don't. You blame him every time you are derelict in your duties."

"I blame him for being stupid and naïve."

"For being seventeen?" Angel asked. "Again, a shortcoming you once shared. Do you hate yourself so much, watcher? Do you truly think that if you, the grown man, simply blames a boy, you can escape that nagging guilt that gnaws on your soul with every failure?"

Giles had gone stone-faced, and Angel smiled because he didn't need human cues to know how badly he was hurting the other man. He could smell the misery and the fear rolling from his skin and gathering like mist.

"You've been training the girl, showing her the white magics that you can't touch since you're corrupted with your own taint of evil. I can smell that evil you know. You trained Kendra. You train Buffy. It's only Xander who you abandon and leave to the mercies of a merciless Hellmouth. Do you want him dead? Is that your way of trying to destroy yourself? Because if you want to die, if you truly hate yourself that much, I can bring death. I can even make you enjoy death, watcher, and I won't destroy some innocent bystander in the process.

"Xander is hardly innocent," Giles said, his voice brittle.

"Because you weren't at his age? Or because you can point to someone and say Xander caused the death of that person? Of course, if we are to count the number of deaths at a person's door, who would we count for you? Philip Henry? Diedre Page? Thomas Sutcliff? Kendra Young? Buffy Summers? That's quite the trail of bodies behind you. Of course, Xander saved Buffy and he tried to save Kendra, and maybe that's why you can't forgive him. Maybe that's why you hate me... because I've done a better job of protecting Buffy than you ever could."

"I hate you because you're a monster—a monster with the blood of hundreds on his hands," Giles quickly snapped as he came back to life.

Angel laughed, low and dangerous, and Giles clamped his mouth shut and his fingers twitched. Angel just kept right on laughing, this time at Giles' foolishness at believing that the vial of holy water in his pocket would protect him. "My demon has the blood of *thousands* on his hands, Rupert," Angel corrected the man. "But my soul has the blood of..." Angel thought about that for a second and then held up two fingers, "two innocent people. It seems that your soul has a longer trail of bodies behind it than mine. One more reason for you to feel your failure, watcher—one more reason for you to lie to yourself about why you really feel so much hatred."

Giles had again gone stone silent, his lips clamped tightly shut, and for a moment, Angel breathed in the smell of terror and guilt and had a nice little fantasy about torturing the man into honesty. His mind conjured images of what a chainsaw could do to human flesh. And suddenly Angel jerked himself backwards away from that smell and away from the sickening fantasy that had invaded his thoughts. This wasn't about torturing Giles; this was about making school safe for Xander.

"You would destroy Xander just because you want to destroy some part of yourself," Angel said as he redirected his thoughts back to his objective here. "You need to be honest with yourself and far more cautious about what you say to him before you do any more damage to a young man who has never done anything except try to protect the people he loves."

"Like you?" Giles spat out scornfully.

"No," Angel shook his head, "I'm the safe place where Xander hides from his parents and from you; I'm not someone he loves. He loves Buffy and Willow and Cordelia. And if you're too big of a fool to see that he has nothing but loyalty in his heart, I will snap your neck and hope the next watcher they send has more sense than you do."

Angel turned and walked away, leaping up onto a low wall and going around a corner before he doubled back to watch the aftermath of his meeting with the watcher. The man sat on the ground clutching a small bottle and looking as if he had aged at least ten years. Angel kept waiting for him to get up, but it was nearly an hour later before Angel abandoned his spot on the roof of the apartment, and Rupert Giles was still sitting in the flowerbed clutching his holy water and staring into space.


Quiet Waters Mirroring Undistorted

“Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.” 

Angel stayed in the shadow of the library and watched the group. Xander and Cordelia were sitting close, her foot braced on the rung of his chair. While it looked casual enough, Angel didn't miss the way she kept Willow in her sights as she filed her nails. Angel hadn't expected Willow to ever approve of Xander's choice, but hopefully her shy smiles toward Oz meant she'd be distracted soon. Buffy was laughing and hanging on Devon, so he guessed those two were back together. Buffy tended to date, discard, and then recycle the boys she dated, but there were a limited number of boys who knew about the darker side of Sunnydale, so he supposed that restricted her choices.

Xander was flipping pages in an old text, and even from here, Angel could see that Giles had given him the Caecus Tome. The book did have some interesting illustrations, a few of which Angel was fairly sure Xander wasn't old enough to be viewing. However, other than the demonic porn, the Caecus was fairly useless. While it vexed Angel that Giles would reduce Xander to busywork, he did have to admit that Xander's attention span was rather limited when it came to research. They were probably all safer for having Xander exploring an unrelated, if inappropriate, text.

Willow, meanwhile, was engrossed in the Malum Maligo and even Oz showed a fair amount of interest in his own text. Angel only hoped that Oz would give Willow the attention and stability she obviously needed. The part of him that was Angelus could almost smell how easily she would break with all her fears and insecurities clinging to her soft skin. And Buffy... smiling and shoving at Devon with her knee... she looked so young. He hoped that Devon remembered to treat her right or Angel was going to have a little visit with the young man. Being a slayer, Buffy had sorrows enough in her life without a man creating more problems for her.

Giles came out of his office with a sigh. "Any luck?"

"No starfish eyes, although I have lots of tusks. They aren't all in the mouth, but I have lots of tusks," Xander said as he tilted his head to examine a drawing. Angel made a mental note to tell Xander those weren't tusks just as soon as Xander was old enough... like when he was a hundred and fifty.

Slowly, Angel moved forward out of the shadows. "I don't suppose you're having better luck?" Giles asked Willow.

Angel could see her shrink in the face of her own failure to find the answer. "I'm sorry, but it's a big negative on hospital wandering, semi-invisible, starfish eyed guys."

Buffy plopped down on the arm of Devon's chair. "If I'd been sick enough to stay more than a few hours, I would have found him, and then he would have been an ex-hospital wandering semi-invisible demon. And what kind of demon wanders hospitals? That just doesn't seem very sporting."

Giles froze for a moment as he spotted Angel. "Yes, well, I hardly think being sporting is a demon's first priority.... Angel," Giles greeted him with a tilt of his head.

"Angel! Hey, have you ever heard of some trenchcoat demon with lots of tusks in his lower jaw and starfish on giant stalks sticking out of his head because I am so ready to be done with research," Xander blurted.

"And I have a sale that's going to end without me getting new shoes if we don't find something soon," Cordelia huffed. Angel knew full well that she was more likely to ferry the cheerleaders home in her car or sit and complain at Xander while he whittled stakes, but he allowed her to put on her vacuous front for the others. Willow and Buffy were certainly falling for it as they exchanged disparaging looks.

"Cordelia without new shoes? Tragedy," Buffy snarked.

"Tragedy is that haircut," Cordelia answered with a sniff.

"What can I do for you, Angel?" Giles asked stiffly.

Angel hadn't seen the man since he'd verbally cornered him at the door of his own apartment, and he still wasn't sure if he should feel vindicated or guilty about the outcome of that meeting. However, Giles seemed to be acting better around Xander, so he would deal with his emotions on his own. "I heard from an informant that we have a problem," Angel said as he looked first at Giles and then Buffy.

"Please tell me you're talking about the kind of problem where there's too much rich and creamy, zero-calorie ice cream and you need someone to eat lots and lots," Buffy said with a frown, "because we're all full up on the other kind of problems."

"The museum has brought a demon capable of ending the world to Sunnydale," Angel said simply. Buffy got that resigned expression that made him ache for all the hardships in her life.

"World-ending?" Willow asked, her voice going squeaky.

"Why aren't there any nice homework-ending demons or maybe a flu-ending demon," Xander sighed dramatically.

Angel watched Giles open his mouth, but then the man seemed to physically twitch and swallow before he gathered his thoughts. "Which one?"


"Oh dear." Giles sank into the nearest chair.

"Oh dear? No, no, no. Oh dears from Giles are not good," Buffy said with a frown.

"Very much not good. Hugely not good," Willow agreed.

"Does it occur to anyone else that this town would be a whole lot safer if they just shut the museum down? Mummies and curses and demons, oh my, which is oddly unfitty, but there are just not enough museum theme songs." Xander stopped when Cordelia gave him a look that reminded Angel eerily of Spike.

"I say shut the whole town down. The vampires are breeding like really, really horny bunnies out there," Buffy sighed. Angel could see Xander's jaw tighten, but the boy had the presence of mind to not say anything about Spike and Drusilla's absence aggravating the vampire situation. Intellectually, they all knew the truth, but the others had to emotionally accept it on their own timetables. He and Xander had discussed that late into the night on more than one occasion.

"I assume he is still trapped within the rock?" Giles asked.

"Yes," Angel agreed, kindly not pointing out that if he weren't, they would all be standing in hell right now.

"So, we just have to get rid of a big piece of rock?" Buffy asked. "I'm liking this demon more all the time. No hunting it down or researching, just a nice big sledgehammer and a couple of wheelbarrows, and we can call it a night. Only, can we be all nightish another night because we have something killing kids, and kids have a higher priority than sledgehammers and wheelbarrows."

Angel shook his head. "I doubt that will work. Acathla was a powerful demon who nearly swallowed the world."

"School cafeteria levels of indigestion," Xander shuddered. Both girls smiled at him and even Oz managed a grin. Giles didn't smile, but Angel noticed that he didn't deploy his normal harangue against the boy.

Cordelia sniffed and looked around the library with obvious disdain. "There's not even anything good around here to swallow. Why don't demons start with Paris or New York? They have things worth going after."

"If you ever turn into a demon, Cordy, I'll look for you in the nearest big city, attacking malls." Xander smiled.

"Jewelry stores, thank you very much," she corrected him with an arched look and a little hint of her own smile. "Designer jewelry stores."

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. "So, what's the 411 on this Acatheter? If I can't smash it, what am I supposed to do?"

"Hide it," Angel answered. Giles frowned at him for a second, but Angel kept on speaking. "The demon turned to stone by a knight who impaled him on a blessed sword and buried where neither man nor demon would look."

"Um, if it was buried where no demon or human would look, who found it?" Xander asked.

"A construction company putting up low-rent housing," Angel shrugged.

Buffy made a face. "Okay, that's not creepy, not at all. Buy in Sunnydale and you too can have a demon buried in your backyard."

Willow scrunched her nose up. "Not exactly a good selling point. Well, not unless you're evil. But actually, even if you were evil, I wouldn't think you would want other evil in your backyard sucking up all the cool evil vibes."

Devon was obviously bored with the whole conversation. He leaned back in his chair, popping his back. "If we can't smash the thing, let's just take it out and drop it in the ocean. Poof, no more world-eating demon. Does anyone else want to go for pizza? I have a serious case of the munchies." His hand slid between Buffy's thighs, and Angel could smell the panic rolling from Xander. While Xander may talk about wanting sex and ways to get Cordelia to let him sneak past second base, Angel suspected the boy wasn't ready yet. Either that or he really hated Devon being with Buffy... or he was back to his old game with being jealous of any boy Buffy liked. Some days, Angel couldn't even pretend to understand Xander.

"That may be the best solution," Giles agreed.

"Yeah, except for the part where not all demons have to breathe air," Xander said with a snort. Giles snatched his glasses off his face, and Angel could see him gathering his contempt around him like a cloak as he prepared to strike, and Angel braced himself to strike back twice as hard if Giles targeted Xander.

"Good point," Oz said before Giles could start, "Angel could still get to it." Oz looked up and frowned for a second. "If he were evil," he shrugged.

"Okay, first, Angel is not evil," Buffy immediately blurted. "Annoying and slightly with the stalkerish, but not evil. And second, if we can't just drop it in the ocean, and I can't smash it, what are we supposed to do?"

"Send it to another dimension?" Willow suggested uncertainly.

"While that has merit, attempting to send the demon across a portal threshold might wake it," Giles said.

"Which would be of the bad. So no smashing, portals, oceans, or slaying," Buffy summarized. "I really miss the days when slaying was all about the vampires and the poofing and the trying to get dust out of my hair."

"With that hair, I don't know why you'd bother," Cordelia said in her normally tactful voice. "Look, it's been safely buried for how long? Just find a new place to bury it, and I would suggest not on a hellmouth."

"Which would leave the problem of transportation," Giles pointed out.

"I know someone who could help with that," Angel quickly offered, and Giles gave him a strange look, one that made it clear that the watcher had even less trust in Angel now than he'd had before their confrontation.

"So, we should entrust a demon capable of ending the world to your capable hands?" he asked with more than a little sarcasm.

"Giles," Willow breathed, and Angel knew the horror in her voice was far more about her discomfort at conflict than out of any need to defend him.

"Seconding that 'Giles' and adding a 'hey!'" Buffy said, and she at least was truly defending him. Angel watched Xander nearly twitch with suppressed words of his own. Cordelia, however, didn't play nice for anyone.

"Oh please, he's had like a thousand chances to kill us and he hasn't. After what Xander did to his original Paul Cadmus, Angel would have been justified in going evil."

"Hey!" Xander blurted, "that thing was ugly. Ugly and freaky... and potentially demonic. How was I supposed to know it was some piece of actual art?" Cordelia rolled her eyes at him, but her foot stayed on his chair, clearly claiming him for her own, even if she considered him a dork who couldn't recognize art. "And again with the I'm really sorry," Xander apologized to Angel again.

"It's okay, Xander," Angel assured him. He hadn't been fond of the painting himself, which was why it had been in a closet and not on the wall. "However, if you don't trust me, Giles, you can come along and supervise the move."

"I hardly think I should leave Buffy here alone," Giles quickly dismissed that suggestion, but he still looked more than a little concerned.

"So send Xander," Cordelia suggested. "I would go myself, but this sounds like actual work, and you people do not pay me to work."

Giles just blinked for a second before he started shaking his head. "With a month of school left, I cannot condone pulling Xander out of classes for this sort of expedition."

"Hey, I am all willing to be pulled," Xander argued. "Ready, willing, and able to be pulled. I would love to be pulled. Seriously, pull me." Oz's mouth quirked at the corners, and Angel suspected the older boy had caught the double entendre in that comment.

"And what about your schoolwork?" Giles asked.

"I do better when it's just me and Angel trying to figure out osmosis together than when I'm in class," Xander pointed out.

"If you don't understand osmosis, I could explain it," Willow offered shyly.

Cordelia snorted. Immediately Willow blushed and dropped her gaze to the table and Buffy glared murder at the woman, but Angel understood well enough. Being tutored by someone who understood too well could be disastrous. At least when he struggled to decipher Xander's texts, he never made the boy feel incompetent. He often felt incompetent himself because at nearly 300 years old he was clearly inadequately educated for this time period, but Xander never had to feel overwhelmed.

"Thanks Will, but I did actually figure that one out," Xander smoothed things over. "But Giles, I really am better at learning when I'm not actually in the classroom, so I could go with Angel as long as we have a story that explains why I'm ditching class for a week or so. I mean, we are talking weekish and not monthish, right? I so don't want to repeat a grade."

"That would be unfun," Oz agreed quietly.

Angel nodded. "We could load Acathla on a semi, drive somewhere relatively safe, and bury it in a week. I have funds to fly home after that."

"I'm not sure what the Council will have to say about that." Giles was staring as he glasses, not even cleaning them.

"I'm not asking permission from someone a fraction of my age," Angel said quietly. "I wanted you to know what I was doing." That silenced Giles. He looked up at Angel and swallowed so that his Adam's apple bounced as he remained silent.

"I am officially bored stiff. Look, Buffy and the others can find the hospital demon without Xander looking at the dirty pictures, right?" Cordelia asked as she stood up and Xander followed almost instinctively. "The girls who need extra cheer practice should be finishing up and we're going to walk them home," she told the group before she turned her back and headed for the doors, a queen convinced that her white knight would follow.

"Hey, I'll see you guys later, and if you still need more with the research tomorrow night, I'll be here," Xander said brightly before he turned and chased after Cordelia. The ones who were left watched Angel as he nodded his head in their direction and turned to follow Xander.

"Okay, Angel doing the stalkerish thing with Xander... was that just as big with the creepy when he was chasing me?"

"Um... kinda," Willow offered, "only in a much more romantic 1940's movie sort of stalker way."

"Perhaps we can get back to work now," Giles suggested. "I'm sure Angel and Xander will get the cheerleaders home unharmed."

Angel smiled as he shadowed Cordelia and Xander all the way to the gym. Clearly there were still undercurrents running through the library, but Xander was at the very least, forgiven for Kendra's death. Now if Angel could only get them to understand that Xander had no culpability in the first place, then he might feel more comfortable with the dynamics in the group.

"Hey, hey, Xand the tripping man is here to escort all you lovely ladies home, all muggers, weirdos, and creeps will be tripped over, fallen on, and made to laugh themselves harmless while I'm around," Xander joked as he hit the gym doors. "And why am I talking to an empty gym?"

Angel hurried up a little, and found a furious looking Cordelia and a bewildered Xander in a dark gym.

"Harmony." Cordelia just about hissed the name. "We are never going to win the regional cheer conference if she just lets them go home when they want. Cheer is pain, people. They don't get that." Cordelia reversed and headed back out the doors, and Angel flattened himself against the wall to let her pass because he did not want to get in the way of a full Cordelia fury.

"Thank god I have a bodyguard," Xander whispered as he hurried past, catching Angel's arm and pulling him along in Cordelia's wake.

"And the swim team is actually not sucking and we're going to be out there and that horrible little Desiree isn't even going to be able to get her kicks timed with the rest of the line. I swear, I'm going to strangle Harmony for this." Cordelia slammed out the front doors of the school and headed down the steps with anger rolling off her in heady waves that made Angel's nose itch. "At this point, Buffy is going to be a better choice for the last slot than Desiree, and I do not want Buffy anywhere near my cheerleaders."

Cordelia stopped near her car, her hand resting on the hood as she turned to look at them. Now the anger was starting to fade into frustration and something that smelled almost like sorrow.

"Hey, Cordy, you'll get them in shape. If anyone can terrify fifteen and sixteen year olds into doing what they don't want to do, my money's on you," Xander offered. She smiled at him. "And with me and Angel out of the way, you can stay late and torture them like the dominatrix you were born to be."

Angel almost choked on his own tongue.

"Oh please," Cordelia sniffed, "only skanks wear that much leather. But a nice whip might come in handy. Harmony is going to be so tired by the time I'm through with her that her perk is going to fall off."

"Are you going to be safe practicing late?" Angel asked. With Spike gone, the number of vampires was increasing... faster than it should be. By all rights, the minions should retain some fear of Spike in their unbeating hearts, at least until his throne was cold. However, within days of Spike and Drusilla leaving, minions were making new minions without fear of being punished. Someone was playing with court politics, telling the minions that they were safe from Spike... maybe even offering protection against Spike. Either way, Angel kept catching wisps of rumors that something was lurking just beneath the surface in Sunnydale.

"I'll make Buffy walk the girls home," Cordelia sighed. "If she doesn't care enough about school spirit to spend a little time making sure that the cheerleaders don't get eaten before they have a chance to make this a memorable and happy school year for the rest of the students, I'll just wave my legs at Devon. She can either show up or let her boyfriend drool over me."

"Um, Cordelia?" Xander asked with a flinch.

"You goof. I'd let him drool, not touch," she said, her hand resting on Xander's arm. "But I have to get home and start calling girls and yelling at them right now. I mean, without more practice, we are not going to make this year happy or memorable for anyone, and a winning swim team deserves better. So, excuse me while I go inflict some debilitating guilt."

"Have fun torturing the girls," Xander offered as he gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then Cordelia was in her car, heading out of the parking lot with a little more speed than Angel thought necessary, not that he would tell her that.

"She's scary in that mood," Xander commented.

"Very much so," Angel agreed. She was. Angel could feel a core of determination in her that he would truly not want to cross, even if she was only a mortal. And as angry as Spike would get whenever she said it, Angel actually did think she frightened him. She very nearly frightened Angel.

"So, the parentals are still all mad about me making magician with the disappearing act, so I think I have to go home," Xander commented with a frown as he stared down the street toward his house.

"I'll walk you."

"I have my sword if you're busy, you know, if you want to go hit the cemeteries on the south end," Xander said as he patted his thigh.

"It's a cinquedea."

"It's a dagger with dreams of swordhood... or it's a sword with a thyroid deficiency; I haven't decided which," Xander shrugged. "But it's a handy dandy vampire hacker upper, that's for sure. And it functions nicely to impress the girls, although I think Harmony actually liked the carved curlicues on the blade more than the actual blade. And again with the pointing out the oddity of having pretties on a weapon."

"You just think that because Buffy lets her stakes turn to dust with the vampires more often than not."

"Well, duh. I mean, if I’m going to carve something, I really don't want my carving to get all dusted or dusty or even crappy with demon goo. Seriously, Angel, if something other than a vampire comes at me, my first thought is going to be, 'crap, I don't want demon ick on my nice swordlike thing.'"


"Okay, that time I was going for self-deprecating humor with the pretending to not know that it's a cinquedea." Xander rolled his eyes.

Not for the first time, Angel wondered how any of these children ever understood each other. Cordelia cared passionately, and covered it up by pretending to care about nothing. Buffy worried about her future that loomed ever closer since Kendra died, and she pretended that she didn't have a worry in the world. Willow feared failure so much she could taste the bile of it in her mouth, and she pretended to be perfect. They were all so very flawed. Probably as much as he had been at their age, and Angel had thought himself an egregious failure as a human. It had never occurred to him that this was normal.

And then there was Xander. Angel reached up and rested his hand on Xander's shoulder. "I'm only going to say this once, so listen closely. If a demon comes at you, run. If you can't run, you pull that blade and kill it. And if you worry for one second about that blade, I will show you how I taught William to stop running the horses to death."

Xander glanced up, but instead of fear, Angel saw a partially successful attempt to hide a grin. "Nothing says love like the threat of torture."


"Hey, that's a Spike quote."

"And you take Spike's advice?"

"Spike is dangerous but he's never lied. Okay, he lies a lot, but he never lies when I ask him something and tell him it's important."

Angel nodded as though he were thinking about that. Funny, Xander was still putting his relationship with Spike in the present tense. "You bring out the William in him, I think."

"God, don't tell him that. He'll try to gut me."

"No he won't," Angel growled, losing control of his gameface for a second.

This time Xander laughed. "Okay, if threatening me with torture is love, what do you call threatening other people with hypothetical torture for their hypothetical sins against me?"

"I just don't want you getting in the middle of something you can't handle," Angel said stiffly as he struggled to regain control of the conversation.

"I'm dating Cordelia. I'm way out of the 'being able to handle it' pool and swimming in the 'aw fuck' ocean with the big fish. And speaking of the being not able to handle it, I'm all out of clever plans for being able to convince the parentals to let me go with you on the demon delivery. Any plans, oh cranky one?"

"A few ideas. You go on up, and I'll see you tomorrow," Angel said as he stopped in front of Xander's house. He hated that his evenings with Xander had been terminated by a sudden burst of familial interest, especially since their interests were limited to making sure Xander stayed home, and not talking to him or helping him with homework. And Xander's sparring was starting to suffer for the lack of practice. Angel was not going to let all his training be wasted because of such ridiculous rules. Tomorrow would hopefully fix one problem, and a call to Saul to ask for a semi and driver should fix his second one. That would just leave the issue of the rumors to solve. Overall, Angel considered it a good night.


Bait, Swindle and Self-destruct

Tony Harris checked the name on the office against the notarized letter they'd received.

"Is this it?" Jessica asked, her eyes bright with excitement.

"Yep. And here I thought your family was good for nothing," he joked. The excitement in her eyes dulled for a second, and Tony let it drop. Her family were a bunch of stuck up assholes who had dropped her and her father quick enough when the old man had lost his money. If Tony hadn't stuck by Jessica after she got pregnant, they would have turned her out like yesterday's garbage. He had no idea why she insisted on sticking up for them. Yeah, his family had a couple of rotten apples hanging from the branches, but they weren't rotten at the root. And now, with Alexander hanging onto that rich bitch from school, he looked to be taking after his mother's side.

He pushed open the door and stopped short as a large man stood a foot inside. "Oh, hey, we got a letter," he said, holding the letter up. This guy was not looking like a lawyer. He looked more like that guy that Bruce had collect a few gambling debts.

"Mr. and Mrs. Harris?" he asked, holding out his hand. Tony surrendered the letter and the man took it before retreating behind a large desk. The name plate was brass: Angel O'Connelly, Esquire. That must have cost a pretty penny. Then again, the entire office smelled of money. Tony sank into a leather chair across from the lawyer, and Jessica followed a second later.

The lawyer leaned forward and clicked on a brass desk lamp, which seemed unnecessary since it was day, but heavy red curtains covered the windows. The whole room gave Tony that feeling he'd had when he'd egged his English teacher's car and gotten called into the principal's office.

"So, you're Destry LaVelle's lawyer," Tony said, trying to sound friendly. He didn't even make his normal jokes about the LaVelles' horrible taste in names. Alexander insisting on being called 'Xander'... that was all Jessica's fault. If he'd married a good solid girl, he would have gotten lots of kids with normal names, and they would have been on the football team or basketball team or some shit like that, too. "I thought old Destry died way back."

"He disappeared," Jessica said softly, not quite contradicting him.

"The matter of his will has only now come to my office," Mr. O'Connelly said as he leaned back. The man looked too young to be much of a lawyer, but his suit—like his office—stank of money, and Tony needed that money. Neither Jessica or Alexander were easy on his pocket, and California was an expensive state. "And the terms of Mr. LaVelle's will are rather specific."

"Specific?" Jessica asked, looking worried for the first time. "Specific about what?"

"About young Alexander," Mr. O'Connelly commented, steepling his fingers in front of him in a way that made Tony even more nervous. If that kid screwed up some inheritance, Tony was going to take it out of his hide. It was about time the kid started to work anyway. His old man always said that when a boy's old enough to go running around all night he's old enough to work all night. Besides, that would keep him away from that Donella bitch he was dating. No way did he want his son getting stuck marrying some bitch who would never let him forget that he would never make as much money as her late sainted father.

"Alexander's a wonderful young man," Jessica said with a big plastic smile. The lawyer didn't seem impressed.

"Mr. LaVelle was concerned that he not fall prey to the temptations that seem so common in today's young people," the lawyer said, and it was almost funny because with his spiky hair and build, he looked like he should be a running back for some college team, not a lawyer complaining the younger generation.

"Xander isn't into drugs or free sex or any of that. We've raised him with good morals and values," Jessica said, trotting out that old, tired 'aren't we a perfect family' routine of hers. But if there was money in the offering, Tony was a little more willing than usual to go along with her.

"Yes, well I made some inquiries on my own. I volunteered with the school and have spent several evenings tutoring Xander."

"You what?" Tony demanded. If this asshole tried to keep their money because Xander had said something, Tony was suing his ass off. "I never gave you permission to speak to my son."

"Then you're turning down the inheritance? I have that paper right here although I had not thought you would choose to turn down the money."

Jessica slid forward on her chair until she nearly tumbled out of it. "Turn down? We never turned down anything! Tony was just concerned that you didn't do anything to upset our Xander. He was particularly close to cousin Destry."

The lawyer raised an eyebrow and just stared at them while being perfectly still. Tony could swear the man wasn't even breathing.

"I didn't mean to say we'd turn down the money," Tony finally said, and that was the closest this asshole was getting to an apology. It seemed to be enough though. He nodded.

"Mr. LaVelle was very specific. He wanted Alexander to have access to an educated male to act as tutor and mentor."

"Mentor? That sounds like a fag," Tony said with a frown. He knew what older men wanted with boys, and his boy wasn't having nothing to do with that.

The lawyer sighed. "Mr. Harris, I assure you that I am not now nor have I ever been gay. And while I have no intentions of providing a history, the women in my past leave little doubt about my taste in sexual partners," he said with a sort of fancy disgust that just made Tony want to get out of the room. The promise of money was the only thing keeping him in his seat. "Mr. LaVelle wanted Xander to live up to his potential. The firm explained that he had no right to interfere with another man's family."

"Damn right," Tony exclaimed, happy that he could agree with something this lawyer was saying. However, now the lawyer had an even more disgusted look on his face.

"The firm helped him draft this document." Angel O'Connelly, Esquire pushed a thin stack of papers across the desk toward them. "Here is the short version. I am to have partial custody of Xander, including a say in medical and legal decisions and visitation rights." Tony opened his mouth to object to that but the lawyer just talked right over him. "And in return there is a trust fund set up to provide you with five thousand dollars a month."

"Five thousand? That's all?" Jessica asked quietly. Tony almost told her to shut up. He was the one who worked, and he knew how many overtime hours he had to put in for five thousand dollars.

"Five thousand a month for 15 months until Xander graduates, which is $75,000 dollars. There is an additional $10,000 for signing the custody paperwork today, and a $25,000 bonus after Xander's graduation provided that I sign off that you have been cooperative and helpful during this process." The lawyer smiled, but it wasn't a nice smile. It was like one of those men who just dare you to take a swing because they know they have a tire iron behind their back.

"And what exactly does cooperative mean?" Tony asked suspiciously.

"It means that you allow me to work with Xander. He lacks faith in his own abilities and his grades are only now starting to come up."

"He was never good with school," Jessica said apologetically.

"Then I will help him find something he is good at after he graduates; however, your only choice is to give me partial custody or to forfeit the inheritance." The lawyer opened a drawer, and given the man's expression, Tony tightened up wondering if he had a gun in there. Instead O'Connelly pulled out a bit of paper. He slid it across the desk, and Tony reached for it. It was a check. It was a $10,000 check. Damn that was a nice chunk of change, even if it wasn't enough to make Jessica happy.

Tony glanced over, and Jessica was chewing on her lower lip. The bitch was about to say something that would ruin this, he just knew it.

"Sign the papers," Tony told her.

"But Tony..."


"He's our son."

"This is your fucking cousin who set this up. Your family always has hated me, and now your fairy cousin is reaching out from the grave for his chance to poison Xander against hard work and honest living. Xander's smart enough to figure out that bullshit smells like bullshit, so I'm not worried about him. I am, however, worried that we don't have money for that new paint job for the house or that fancy wine you like to drink." Tony was proud of his ability to bribe and threaten his wife at the same time, and just like he expected, she crumbled under his attack. She quietly signed the papers. Tony followed, adding his scrawl to his wife's John Hancock before pushing the papers back over to the lawyer.

"The check is yours. To get the rest of the payments, you'll need to appear in front of a judge three weeks from tomorrow to have the papers finalized." Now the lawyer looked more relaxed. It looked like good old dead Destry had found himself a lawyer who cared about actually getting the job done. Every lawyer Tony'd ever talked to just wanted the fee up front.

"Oh," the lawyer said suddenly as though he'd just remembered something. "I have a business trip tomorrow; it lasts for a week. As a show of cooperation, I think you should allow Xander to accompany me so that we can get to know each other and work on his math grades. They've been dropping in the last two weeks."

"But..." Jessica started. Tony glared the woman into silence.

"That'd be fine, but if he needs clothes or food or something, I expect you can take care of that since he'll be in your custody."

"Agreed," the lawyer said as he stood up, and Tony got the feeling that the meeting was over. That was okay; he needed to get the check cashed anyway. And then he was going to call work and tell them he wouldn't be in for the rest of the day. A dead relative was reason enough for a well-deserved day off.

Tony stood up and held out his hand to his wife before he pulled her from the room. Today had worked out pretty damn good, all things considered. He might even hate Jessica's relatives a little less now... especially the dead ones. Dead was always good.


Angel watched the Harrises leave. He'd met slime demons he liked more than those two. Walking over to the window, he raised the shade and stood in the light of the window as he watched them walk to the curb, still talking. Mrs. Harris' hands were fluttering in front of her. Angel didn't know what was worse: Tony Harris' lack of concern or Mrs. Harris being concerned but not concerned enough to go to battle for her son. If Angel had been a pedophile, the Harrises would have just turned over a good deal of control to a monster. Technically, he now had 60% custody of Xander.

Fingering the Ring of Amara, Angel wondered what Spike would think when he came home and found out that $110,000 was gone from the accounts they'd set up from the other treasure that had been in the crypt with the ring. Oh, Spike wouldn't blink to spend that much on Xander, but he was going to be pissed that Angel had paid the Harrises off instead of just eating them. And Angel knew that he couldn't just claim that he wanted to protect Xander from the guilt of being friends with his parents' killer. With a fraction of that money, Angel could hire someone to kill the Harrises on some night when he had a solid alibi.

Spike wouldn't understand that Angel did it because of his soul, but he would just have to have another conversation with his childe. He'd helped cure Drusilla and he staked vampires and he paid off the Harrises all for the same reason: he thought it was the right thing to do. After centuries of killing, or, even worse, doing nothing, Angel was trying to make the right choices.

Of course, more and more he was finding that there was a dearth of right choices out there. He had to pick between bad and less bad. Kill Xander's parents, allow Xander's parents to ruin him, or give Xander's parents just enough money to seriously damage themselves. Angel was doing his best. By the time Spike wandered back to Sunnydale, he might even be able to see the natural consequences of two drunks being given too much money. That would amuse him. And when the money ran out... well, that was just going to be ugly. But at least their blood wasn't splattered across the wall.

Standing in the sun and feeling the warmth soak into his skin, Angel watched as the Harrises pulled away from the curb and headed back to their sad little lives with just enough money to encourage them to do such sad little things with those lives. And he didn't feel guilty at all.


Deaf, Dumb, and Destiny-blind

Xander watched as the huge semi slowed and then bounced to a stop in the alley behind the warehouse with a squeal and a final jolt. The music for "Convoy" was running through Xander's head, and he focused on not actually singing the words out loud because that would be too geeky even for him. When the door opened, a young man with short curls and a huge smile opened the door and stuck his head up.

"Hey, is Angel around?"

"Not yet," Xander said. "I'm the one-time sidekick and assistant rock lifter."

"Cool," the trucker said as he jumped down, and this was one seriously strange trucker. He couldn't be more than a couple of years older than Xander, and Xander knew that he wasn't totally trustworthy with Uncle Rory's car, so no way would he trust himself with a semi. "Blair Sandburg," the guy introduced himself as he stuck out his hand. Xander took it, feeling both strangely adult and just strange shaking a man's hand like that.

"Xander Harris," he introduced himself.

"Xander? Are you Dutch?"

"Am I what?" Xander studied this guy more closely because first, he was way more with the off track than even Xander was used to and second, he was potentially stoned. Stoned would explain the off track. Devon did that sometimes... just said something that had no connection to the rest of the conversation.

"Xander... that's a pretty common nickname for Alexander in the Netherlands, but I don't hear it around here all that often."

"Oh, uh, no with the Dutch, more with the lower middle class California here. You know, the preference for a name no one else has, only obviously it's not so much with the uniqueness if you say Dutch people are big with Xandering," Xander said with a shrug as he checked out this Blair. Lots of earrings put him on the Oz and Devon side of the cool fence, but his glasses were all geek.

"Hey, I'm all for being an individual," he nodded agreeably. "Some people are way too into conforming, but if you follow the pack, you just end up breathing their dust, right?" Blair asked with a bright smile. "So, should I unload the forklift or just hang here until Angel shows up?"

Xander must have made a face or something at Angel's name, because Blair took a fast step back. "Whoa, hey, if you and Angel have a problem, I am so not part of that." He held his hands up as though to ward off Xander.

"This is more the 'I'm going to kill him even though he's my friend' type of problem than an actual problem-problem," Xander promised.

"Kill as in metaphorically then?"

"Probably," Xander nodded. "Maybe."

Blair looked at him for a second before giving an amused huff and heading for the back of the truck. "Man, just do not get blood on the truck. Uncle Saul would not be amused."

"How about dust?" Xander asked, not quite loud enough for Blair to actually hear. He was so dusting Angel. Or if not dusting him, doing him bodily harm. A few toothpicks in painful places, maybe. Too bad Spike wasn't around or he'd sit on Angel while Xander did the sticking. This time Deadboy had really gone too far, and the whole hour-long lecture from his dad about not getting enticed into some sort of cult or sexual perversion... that was an hour that would haunt him for the rest of his life and potentially drive him into therapy.

"Xander," a voice called softly, and Xander turned, his glare already up to full-power.

"Deadboy," he answered as Angel slipped out of the shadow. A frown flickered across Angel's face.

"What's wrong?" Angel asked as he stepped close, his hand finding Xander's shoulder where it usually rested, only this time Xander shrugged it off and retreated a step. Yellow flashed in Angel's eyes for just a second. "Xander? What is it?" he asked again, this time not trying to reach out.

"You bought me? Hello! Major with the disturbo. I mean, stalking, yeah, I get that seeing as how this is a hellmouth and hellmouthy happens. So when you follow me and Cordelia, I put that under the column labeled 'whatever,'" Xander said, making air quotes with his fingers. "And hey, lots of times the stalkerish is goodish because of the way I seem to attract trouble, especially before Dru left town. But buying me from my parents was way over the line in a creepy set up for a movie-of-the-week sort of way."

"I did not 'buy' you," Angel started to say, and that was just all kinds of wrong. Xander would not have been stuck with 60 minutes of the world's creepiest parent lecture without the buying. Most of the time his dad just left him the hell alone, so only something this weird could shake his father out of his laziness, and the sudden appearance of money around the house... that was so backing his father's story up.

"'Liar, Liar, pants on fire' would be the Willow-phrase to cover this," Xander just about growled as he backed up another step. "And I get that you were all with the worried about me not training enough, and I was with the worried too because not training is not good when you don't know what boogieman is behind the next corner, but buying me was..." Xander stopped, his own emotions threatening to break in a way that they hadn't yet. Faced with a week of Angel, he'd tried bottling these emotions up and putting them away, but he had always sucked at the repressing. "Angel," Xander tried again, his voice artificially calm, and Xander struggled to just hang on to that calm. "I so did not need to know that my parents would sell me. Yeah, my dad threatened to sell me to these Armenians who owned a restaurant once, but that was Harris humor at work. This time he really did it."

Angel took a step back and frowned. "Xander, they think your cousin Destry hired me to look out for you. They didn't sell you."

"Who?" Xander asked with a frown because the only Destry he knew was riding again in Saturday morning movies. "Nevermind because the who is so not the issue here. Look, you got them to sign over partial custody, yes?" Xander checked.

"By telling them that I was a lawyer hired by Destry LaVelle to protect your interests."

"There were papers signed and money so changed hands, yes?" Xander demanded.

"Well, yes," Angel said with a flinch.

"That would be buying. Buying of people is both legally and morally not on the side of good, and buying me is just.... Seriously, I so did not need to know that my parents would do that," Xander said, and then he bit his lip and closed his eyes to try and keep back the very unmanly tears he could feel pricking his eyes. He was not going to cry. Not not not. Just no.

"Xander," Angel said, and with that tone of voice Xander knew exactly what expression Angel had on his face—it was two parts guilt and three parts frustration. "Your father only agreed because he said you were strong enough and smart enough to not fall for any lies."

"My dad? My dad called me smart?" Xander asked, his eyes popping open in surprise.

"He said," Angel stepped closer, "that you were smart enough to know LaVelle bullshit and not fall for it."

"Okay, that kinda sounds like dad," Xander admitted. His father hated the LaVelles, which was fair since they pretty much hated him right back. His mom didn't even talk about her family, well, except at Christmas, which is what usually led to the annual 'you ruined my life' funfest that drove him outside.

"He said he'd raised a son with a solid head on his shoulders, not some fairy with his head in the clouds, and why is your father obsessed with homosexuality?" Angel asked.

That made Xander laugh. "Oh, that."

"Yes, that. After meeting your father, I think I know why you reacted so badly to me having a relationship with Spike." Angel shook his head as though he just couldn't figure humans out.

"Hey, you still so should have warned me. I spent an hour listening to how I should tell the judge if you tried to make me touch anything and how you were stuck up and would probably try to get me to look down my nose at my own parents, and if I came home with an attitude, he would give me an attitude adjustment." Xander jumped when Angel growled, his eyes shining yellow in the dark.

"If he touches you..." Angel hissed.

"Not dad's style," Xander said as he put a hand on Angel's arm to calm him down. Spike had said that touching was something vampires just needed... like an animal wanting to curl up with the family or something. Xander thought it actually came closer to monkeys grooming each other, but the fact was that Spike and Angel were always finding some excuse to touch, usually by smacking and pushing each other. But once Xander understood that touching was a vampire thing, he'd discovered he could calm Angel down pretty quick with a pat on the arm. Sure enough, the yellow vanished. "Dad's idea of an attitude adjustment is to break something of mine. He ripped up all my baseball cards when I was about eight. Mom had to hold me to keep me from hitting him, and she was begging him to stop, but he ripped each one in half right in front of me, and then he told me that if I ever cursed him out again, I wouldn't have anything left in my room... which was pretty effective at getting me to stop swearing."

"Xander," Angel nearly gasped, and then Xander found himself caught in strong arms and pulled close. Okay, this was new. Xander stood there shocked for a second and then he awkwardly patted Angel on the back.

"Hey, lots of kids have it worse. Your dad hit you," Xander pointed out. "A lot."

"But he never hurt me like that," Angel said, his arms not loosening as he held onto Xander. "Anything you really value, let's move it over to the apartment, just in case."

"Um, I think we can call you forgiven now," Xander said, and this was really odd. It wasn't like his dad had taken a belt to him or anything, and he really shouldn't have been swearing. Slowly, Angel eased up and then he stepped back a half step, his hand still on Xander's shoulder.

"I'm glad you forgive me. I really didn't understand that this would hurt you," Angel said, his face looking shiny in the yellow light of the streetlamp. "You said you hoped I had a plan, and I did, but you had a right to know before I did it."

Xander sighed. "I probably would have told you to not do it. Okay, so I definitely would have told you to not do it, and I would have added a side of 'my parents would never go along with that,' but obviously I would have been wrong because it did work, and now we can work on the training again."

"And your grades," Angel added.

Xander frowned at him. "Angel, no offense, but you helping me with biology is like the blind leading the really, really blind."

"We'll figure it out," Angel said with confidence as he turned toward the truck. Xander blushed brilliant red when he saw that Blair was standing there leaning against the truck and watching. And thank god for darkness because humiliation really was not one of Xander's favorite emotions.

"Hey, Angel," Blair said.

Angel nodded. "I didn't expect Saul to send you."

"Summer starts early in college, and I need the money. I have the forklift in back, so are we ready for a little B & E? Man, I just hope the Sunnydale cops are as bad as Saul said." He shook his head as he headed to the back of the truck. "If we get caught, my grad school application is so getting shredded."

Grad school? Okay, so this guy was older than Xander thought. "The cops are idiots," Xander said, happy to change the subject as he followed Blair. "There are all kinds of murderers just running around, and the cops are pretty much on traffic duty... writing tickets for people who park in red zones."

"We're safe," Angel added. "Get the forklift down, and I'll pick the lock on the warehouse." Blair nodded and jumped up into the truck and started the engine on a small forklift, backing it up onto a ramp that extended off the back of the semi. Xander had a whole lot of nothing to do as he watched Angel break into the warehouse and Blair lower the lift and then drive the forklift into the warehouse to pick up a big block of stone and load it into the truck.

Xander tried to jump up and help Blair tie the block down, but Angel's hand stopped him. "Don't."

"Okay, this is me being big with the unhelpfulness," Xander sighed as Blair did the work.

"Legend says that worthy blood can wake Acathla, so I would just as soon you not touch it," Angel said. Xander frowned at the man because that had sounded suspiciously like Angel had just called him worthy, and he was just ready to get off the rollercoaster his emotions were riding tonight.

"That's looking way more like a block of stone than a demon," Xander whispered.

"It's his coffin. The Norse writing is a warning to anyone who finds him."

"And what with everyone reading Norse, it's so terribly helpful in a useless kind of way," Xander pointed out. "And you are talking loud enough for human ears to hear you," Xander said with a meaningful look in Blair's direction.

"Blair," Angel called, "How are your Uncle Saul's spawn?"

"They are growing way too fast. I mean, yeah, I get that D'fatum grow up fast, but it seems like they've grown by at least four or five years every time I go back," he said as he tied the last knot. "I'm just lucky that my blood is so diluted or no way would I be able to pass for human without some serious tampering with the official records. As it was, they all thought 16 was early for me to start college." Blair snorted as if that were a joke, but Xander just stared at the man. He looked so human. Okay, so Angel and Spike looked human too, but they used to actually be human, and this guy wasn't human.

"Oh man, you didn't know, did you?" Blair asked as he skirted around the forklift that he had tied down closer to the doors. "Angel, you're a complete dick sometimes."

"I can be," Angel admitted.

"You're a demon? I mean, there's a definitely lack of demoniness what with the curls and the eyes and please tell me that you aren't wearing some human like a suit or something," Xander begged as it suddenly occurred to him that maybe what he was seeing wasn't the demon but the host, like with a vampire.

"Considering your relationship with Angel, I would think you'd be a little more open-minded," Blair snorted as he jumped down and started closing up the back of the truck. "Five days in a small cab with you is going to be interesting. Yeah, that's the word: interesting." Blair made the word sound like a curse.

"Ignore me, I offend first and figure out how to get my foot out of my mouth later," Xander scrambled to say when Angel scowled at him. "I mean, I guess I’m just used to demons being the ones trying to open hellmouths and take over the world, and why would they want to take over the world because running it would be absolutely no fun at all. There are the roads and bridges and the electrical grid to keep up, and who's going to run the factories if you eat all the humans, and from what I've seen, demons so like to shop at Walmart."

That made Blair stop and study him. "Good point," he said slowly before he gave Angel a confused look.

"Xander, D'fatum are known as fate demons. They aren't evil, not even full blooded ones," Angel said softly.

"And man, I am far from full-blooded. Far, far. Look, we got off to a rough start, so let's try this again. Hi, I’m Blair Sandburg, about one-tenth D'fatum and trying to get into grad school for anthropology. I'm driving this summer for my uncle, who's really my great-great-great-great uncle."

"Um, Xander Harris, sidekick and joke provider to the stars," Xander offered. Blair gave him a strange look, but then Angel's arm rested on Xander's shoulder.

"Let's get out of here in case anyone realized this was Acathla," Angel suggested as he steered Xander toward the cab of the truck.

"Totally. I do not want to be here if some psycho shows up," Blair agreed as he trotted past them and hurried around the front of the truck to climb into the driver's side. Angel detoured and grabbed a heavy knapsack Xander had brought and then they were bouncing out of the alley, Blair shifting about a million times as he maneuvered his truck through the quiet streets of Sunnydale. Not a creature was stirring, well, except for the vampire who snarled at them from the gates of a cemetery.


"I'll call Giles," Angel said as he pulled out his cell phone. Either Xander was hallucinating or there were more vampires around lately, which was not really comforting. Sometimes he wished Spike would come back because he knew that the hellmouth was safer with Spike threatening the unlife out of the local vamps. But if Spike came back, that would definitely lead to Spike-Buffy confrontations which would be very much of the not good. Xander had no idea who would win, but he figured he'd be left hating the survivor. And if he ended up hating Buffy, he'd pretty much lose all his friends except Cordelia and Angel. And he if hated Spike... well, he had a feeling that Spike wouldn't be amused, and a not amused Spike was a thing of very big danger.

Xander managed to keep quiet until they hit the open road heading north on Highway 5. "I've never heard of D'fatum demons," Xander said about a half second before he realized he probably didn't want to talk about why he had heard of other demons because talking to a demon about the slayer was on the don't-go-there list.

"I'm not the expert. Angel knows more than I do on that subject," Blair said, and that surprised Xander. Angel rarely talked about other demons when they were researching in the library. Angel had retreated into the living space behind the seats and Xander lifted the heavy curtain that separated the back area. Angel was sitting on the bed sorting Xander's textbooks.


"They can see destinies," Angel said without any more elaboration.

"Okay, that was less than helpful," Xander pointed out. Angel sighed, the kind of sigh he made right before he gave up the good information. Xander hooked the curtain on the back of his seat.

"Whistler, the one who showed me Buffy, he was D'fatum," Angel admitted reluctantly.

"Oh man, he is a total busybody. I keep telling him that it's not about fate as much as choices," Blair said.

"He told me Buffy was my destiny," Angel said with a frown. And Xander was guessing that Angel really did trust this guy because conversations about the slayer were generally not on the approved list of topics with demons.

"Are you sure? I mean, Whistler is like seriously into obfuscating."

"Is that a demon thing?" Xander asked.

Blair almost looked like he smiled, but then the expression vanished. "He says the truth, but he bends it in a way to make you believe what he wants you to believe."

"Ah, a Buffy special. She doesn't exactly lie to her mom, but she sure lets Joyce make some assumptions."

"Yeah, that's Whistler's M.O.," Blair agreed.

"Wait, if you can read destinies, can you read mine? I mean, unless it's something really terrible because I don't do good with knowing when something bad is coming. I'm more of a pop-test guy than someone who wants lots of warning."

Blair shifted before he glanced over with a shake of his head. "No way. You're 100% human, and humans do not have destinies. Humans have choices, man. It's all about the choices."

"But Buffy has a destiny," Xander said, and now he was totally confused, which wasn't a new experience for him, but still... it would be nice to get through one conversation without someone having to draw him a diagram.

"She's the slayer, right?"

Xander nodded.

"I mean, it's not like slayers are exactly human," Blair said, and Xander could feel the bottom drop out of his stomach.

"What? No. No, Buffy is all human. Buffy is so human she makes humanity look less human in comparison. She's about shopping for dresses and shoes and trying to out-cat Cordelia, and we're talking human cattiness with the being bitchy, not some sort of cat demon."

"Whoa, hey, no offense intended," Blair hurried to offer.

"Xander, Blair's right. Slayers aren't totally human, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with Buffy," Angel assured him, but that was not the kind of assurance that he wanted. He wanted Angel to say that Blair was wrong. He wanted someone to say that of course Buffy was human.

"No. Just no. No with more no on top."

"I'm on the verge of taking serious offense," Blair said dryly. "You are showing some serious racism, man."

That shut Xander up faster than anything else Blair could have said. Shit. He was turning into his father. Only being racist against demons somehow didn't seem as bad as making Hispanic jokes. Hispanics were people who deserved respect. Demons were.... Xander glanced from Angel to Blair and they both had serious expressions on their faces.

"Does she know?" Xander asked softly.

Blair glanced over his shoulder, but Angel could only shrug. "I don't know. I don't know if Giles is even aware of it. I do know the council uses the demonic traits to track potentials."

"Man, those are some people who've made some seriously shitty choices, doing what they do to the slayers." Blair sounded angry.

"What?" Xander demanded.

Angel was the one to answer. "If they identify the potential slayers early, they remove them from the family and raise them to be dependent on the council."

"Like Kendra," Xander said softly.

"Yes," Angel agreed. "I knew that she'd been brainwashed by the watchers, and I should have tried harder to reach her—to convince her to accept my protection, and that is my fault Xander, not yours."

"Okay, that is creepy."

"Most demons think so, too," Blair pointed out. "Or the good demons anyway. I think the world-ending sort just focus on avoiding the slayer."

"Good demons?" Xander asked, his voice threatening to crack in an unmanly way.

Blair shook his head. "Angel, aren't you teaching him anything?"

"He's too young to put in the middle with Giles... the watcher," Angel said carefully, and Xander glared at him.

"I'm old enough to be in the middle of whatever I want... well unless I want to drink because the drinking age is 21... or vote. But I can almost vote."

"So you're old enough," Blair summarized, saving Xander from saying anything even more with the stupid.

"Exactly," Xander agreed.

"Not all demons are evil. I mean, Angel is pretty much proof of that."

"He has a soul," Xander said uncertainly.

"Lots of demons do. The word demon comes from the Greek 'daio' which means to divide up as in there are humans and then there are demons, and we're sort of divided up into separate camps. For the Greeks, a demon was something with more powers than a human but who lived on earth and wasn't a full god, and no way would I ever aspire to godhood, so yeah, that seems like a pretty good word."

"Brain cramp here," Xander complained. "Angel?" he asked as he turned to his friend for some sort of path out of the sudden confusion he found himself in.

"Blair's right," Angel agreed. "Demons can be good or bad, and the Greeks knew that, but the world changed and demons were redefined as evil spirits. But some things, like vampires, are by nature dangerous, you know this."

"I thought I knew a lot of things, now I'm not so much with the knowing anything," Xander said softly.

Blair gave a soft laugh. "It hurts when the world view shifts, huh? Man, I've been there. I've so totally been there. But you can trust Angel. The Greeks would have said that you were 'eydaimon' meaning happy or under the guidance of a good demon who would lead you to good places."

"And the brain cramping keeps on a'coming," Xander sighed. "They wouldn't have had words for these things if it didn't happen. I mean, if no one was ever led to a good place by a good demon, they wouldn't have the word eydaimon, right?"

"Exactly," Blair said with a huge smile.

"And I thought I was eydaimon when Whistler told me Buffy was my destiny, but now I have to wonder," Angel said softly. "Do you really think he would trick me?"

"Totally," Blair agreed. "I mean, there are lots of generally good demons like D'fatum and Skipari and Nutph and Brachen who would love to break the slayers out of the watcher's grip. Those old men are accumulating karma like whoa. Seriously, the way they lie to those girls and make the world out to be human versus demon? So not cool. But no way would Whistler actually lie, and he would never risk putting the world in jeopardy, so what exactly did he tell you?"

Xander stared out the front window and tried to figure out exactly how to put the pieces of his brain back together because it was not all fitting. There was just too much to fit into his skull right now, and he seriously needed Willow to make a pie graph or something to make everything all logical, only there was no Willow out here. Just a crazy guy who said demons were good and a crazier vampire who was agreeing. His head hurt.

"He said I had a choice, that I could go on being nothing or I could be someone."

"That I believe," Blair nodded. "Whistler has a lot more D'fatum blood than I do, so he's way better at reading fates, but I can pretty much see that, too. But man, what did he say to make you think that the slayer was your destiny?"

"He showed her to me, sitting on the stairs to her school," Angel said, and Xander could hear the pain in his friend's voice. Xander instinctively reached back and rested his palm on Angel's hand.

"Man, that would be obfuscation at its best. Your choice is between standing up and being seen for either doing something or becoming as inconsequential as a cockroach. If he never said that you had to help the slayer, then you don't. That's your choice, buddy."

Angel frowned. "He let me go to the hellmouth when I was so weak I could barely take down a fledge because he said she'd be coming. But then when she needed me, I wasn't there, Xander was," he said softly.

"Hey, you were there! You were all CPR adjacent, and the lack of breathing or knowing how to do CPR is a good reason for you to stay adjacent, but don't say you didn't do anything," Xander said firmly. "You were there storming the castle with me."

"See?" Blair asked. "Choice, man, it's all choice. And if you chose to help the slayer and the side of the Æsir, then you're totally on the right path."

"Æsir? Æsir as in Norse gods?" Xander asked in confusion.

"Hey, lots of people believe lots of things, but most 'eudaimon' fall into two camps," Blair nodded. "Some believe the world was created in evil and ice, and the first eudaimon were the Æsir who fought to restore balance. Humanity was created because the good and evil demons had fought each other to a standstill and both sides needed someone new... someone with no destiny at all that could throw the balance toward either good or evil. Other eudaimon believe that good and evil demons were born from gods who battled for many universes, including this one. When the gods were busy battling among themselves, a spirit more powerful than any god or daimon planted the seed of humanity in the dust of earth. The gods and evil daimon tried to kill the humans, and this great spirit pushed them out of this world leaving the eudaimon behind to teach the young species. However kakodaimons, evil demons, had disguised themselves among the eudaimon and one slipped through a portal and corrupted the humans by biting one and leaving his evil in the human's heart."

"Okay, is it just me or is it really weird to think of demons as having their own religions, and being that I'm the only human in this truck, this really might not be the right time to ask that question," Xander sighed. "Angel, you were supposed to make my brain ache with biology and history, not with demonology 101."

"Consider it repayment for the number of times you have forced me to redefine my world views," Angel answered with very little sympathy.

"You two are so incredible awesome together. I mean, Angel, I haven't seen you look this happy... ever."

"You've only seen me once before."

"And you were totally a mess, starved down to bone and looking like one mean word would send you crawling into the sewers. Naomi always said you just needed someone to really love you," Blair nodded. "She's going to be thrilled that you found a mate."

Xander didn't catch the direction Blair's brain was going until he looked over with a huge smile.

"What?!" Xander yelped. "No! No with the mate and no with the gay. I like boobies. I have a girlfriend; she's got great boobs, really nice. She lets me feel them. Why does everyone think I'm gay? Why does everyone think I'm Angel's butt monkey is the better question because I'm not gay. That would be wrong," Xander just about stumbled over his own tongue when he caught the look on Blair's face, and that was not a happy look. "Not that there's anything wrong with gay, so if you're gay, go for it," he hurried to add. "But me and Angel? He's like two hundred and fifty years older than me and pedophilia is so not my thing, not from either end. Nope. No mating."

Angel came to the rescue. "Blair, Xander and I are just friends. He is too young for a serious relationship, and mating with a vampire would be far more serious than he's ready to handle."

"Yeah, exactly. I'm way too immature for something like that," Xander agreed.

"Okay," Blair said slowly, his voice clearly disbelieving. "How old are you, Xander?"

"Seventeen," Xander said firmly, "And seventeen and 240 or 270 or whatever is seriously with the pedophilia and yick."

"I suppose the yick factor is a personal choice, and I'm all about choice, but Xander, pedophilia is having a sexual attraction to someone who hasn't reached puberty. I think we can safely say you've been through puberty."

"It is?" Angel asked with a frown. "So if I liked a sixteen year old...?"

Blair shook his head. "Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen... these are adults in most cultures. And no way is that pedophilia. I mean, our society calls that illegal, and it's probably a smart thing because the cultural creation of a period of adolescence means that American teens aren't mentally prepared for adult choices, but no way is that pedophilia."

"Hear that, Xander?" Angel asked smugly, and Xander knew exactly what the big idiot was thinking.

Xander crossed his arms. "It was still icky. Even if we don't think about the whole age thing, there's still the vampire/slayer thing there."

"Whoa, you have a thing for the slayer?" Blair demanded as he almost choked.

"Had," Angel corrected him. "I thought she was my destiny."

"So you thought you had to bone her? Oh man, that's precious," Blair said with a smirk, and suddenly Xander was liking this guy a whole lot more.

"Exactly, huge with the yick, and I pointed that out and he got all grrrrr with me," Xander said as he leaned back in his seat and glared at Angel.

"I did not grrrrrr," Angel sighed.

"Oh man, I can just imagine. Did he go all yellow eyes?"

"Yep," Xander nodded.

"I did not," Angel objected hotly.

"Oh man, Uncle Saul is going to laugh his ass off."

"Blair," Angel said in a pleading voice.

"And Aunt Jokina is going to break something laughing."

"You wouldn't," Angel almost growled.

"Oh, I so totally would," Blair said with a smile.

Yep, this road trip might turn out pretty good after all, Xander thought as he smiled at the dark road disappearing under the truck at a good clip.


The Road Not Taken

"Pop quiz time," Blair announced happily as he shifted the truck and slowed around a slight curve. Xander squinted as the light from the sunset caught him.

"You are running the risk of no longer being my favoritest truck driver with words like that," Xander warned.

Blair rolled his eyes and then checked his mirrors before changing lanes. "The byproduct of anaerobic respiration?"

"That's when you're running fast because a demon is about to munch on your legs, right?" Xander checked. The science stuff actually made a lot more sense now that Blair put it in terms of demons and things that went bump in the night. Even Angel was getting most of it, and Angel and science were big with the non-mixy. The only reason he studied so much around Angel was the sheer enjoyment of watching Angel get that flummoxed expression when Xander asked for help. Yep, Xander was mean spirited, but then he figured Angel already knew that and freaking bought him anyway. Not that Xander was thinking about that because he was on the not-thinking-about-that plan.

"Man, stop stalling," Blair huffed.

Xander focused on the question and not all the little weirdnesses in his own psyche. "Fine, but it's not like we don't we have enough time out here to waste," Xander pointed out as he waved a hand at the highway. They were near some town called Appleton right now, but whether they were looking at house after house or tree after tree, this wasn't the most exciting trip in the history of tripping. "And the byproduct is lactic acid, which is taken up by the mitochondrial somethings in order to get more energy, unless you overdo it, and then you just cramp. Or unless a Ryk demon catches you because they like to kill humans at the point of maximum lactic acid build-up for the yum, and I have to say, I don't think that last part will be on the test."

"The last part is the only part that really matters if you're going to hunt demons," Angel added from behind the sun-proof curtains that protected the living area.

"Ah, the grumpy-guts awakens," Blair teased. Angel didn't answer, but Xander thought he heard a growl. But then, Angel trapped in a small space was not a happy thing. He'd even insisted on riding in back with the rock guy for one leg of the trip just because he needed to pace. "We're getting ready to stop for gas, and I thought I would kick you two out and get three or four hours of sleep before we do the next leg," Blair suggested, his voice clearly a question.

"That'd be fine," Angel answered immediately, and Blair got an impish grin.

"Someone so does not appreciate my living accommodations," he said softly.

"Angel's a little touchy on the subject of creature comforts," Xander nodded. "Big with the interior decorating. I caught him watching design shows one day."

"Oh, man, I don't doubt it. I can totally see him going into interior design."

"And when I get a little Cheetos dust on the couch, he gets that look on his face like he's trying really hard to not vamp out."

"He probably has fantasies about putting you over his knee," Blair said in a conspiratorial voice with a wink added on. That time, Xander *knew* he heard the growl.

"Dream on, Bloodbreath," Xander called back to Angel. "If you're anally retenting with the couch, I am not responsible for that."

Blair nearly choked to death as he pulled into a gas station. "It's anal retentive, and I don't think there's an 'if' in there, Angel just is," Blair offered.

"As long as that means 'prissy', oh he really, really is." Aside from the having to study part, this trip was turning out a lot more fun than he'd ever expected. Pissing Angel off was always a joy, and Blair tended to tell him about demons and nasties that Angel had somehow managed to completely skip over when teaching him. On top of that, Blair had a knack of explaining school stuff in a way that almost wasn't boring... usually by adding demons and nasties to the lessons.

"Xander, do keep in mind that the sun is going down in about five minutes," Angel warned from the other side of the curtain.

"Yeah, whatever, threaten away, but you paid good money for me, and you're not going to break me now," Xander pointed out, and he was fairly sure his voice was a little more pissy than he meant because Angel fell silent.

"Oh man, you are not good at letting things go, are you?" Blair asked as he brought the truck to an idle behind another truck already fueling.

Xander cringed. "I meant that to be more in the teasing end of the pool than it actually came out," he admitted.

"Buddy," Blair said with a shake of his head, "if that was teasing, I so do not want to be around when you're actually trying to inflict emotional damage."

"When he gets going, it's really something. Spike has stood back and watched with appreciation when he gets up to full speed," Angel said as he stuck his head out from the back. The cab was in shadow and only a few streaks of light were left streaking across the parking lot.

"Hey, I am not sadistic enough for Spike-appreciation."

"Oh yes you are."

"Whoa, Spike likes him? Man, you must have some seriously freaky shit going on if both Angel and Spike like you," Blair said with an amused shake of his head.

"Spike just thinks he's going to get to have sex with me, and that's a big old never-happening. Besides, who did Spike ever see me get emotionally damaging with?" Xander demanded.

Angel turned to Blair, totally ignoring Xander. "He and this girl at school would rip into each other to the point that I kept waiting for one of them to bring a gun to their little tête à têtes."

"No way," Blair said as he looked back at Angel with wide eyes. "No fucking way. Do not tell me that he..."

"Yep," Angel interrupted. "He is now officially dating her, and Spike has announced that when I turn them, he will be taking a decade-long vacation on another continent until I teach them some manners." Angel chuckled for a second before his face lost all expression. "Not that I would turn them. I don't—I wouldn't—"

"Chill!" Blair held up his hand. "Man, I talk about killing my family all the time, and that so does not mean I'm going to do it."

"Besides, I wouldn't let you. I would be all 'not going there' boy if you pulled out even one fang," Xander warned. Both men gave him an odd look.

"Blair," Angel nearly whispered, his voice carrying that edge that made Xander's hand slip to his cinquedea.

"I see him," Blair said.

"Who are you with the seeing?" Xander asked in a rough whisper. Angel's hand came out and rested on Xander's shoulder.

"It's okay, it's just cousin Whistler the Hustler," Blair said with a sigh.

"I'll deal with him, you two stay here," Angel ordered as he started reaching over Xander. Xander grabbed Angel's arm.

"That a big old 10 on the not happening scale. Angel, you're good at the killing of random baddies, but this is the guy who convinced you to develop the hots for a 15 year old slayer, and I'm thinking he's probably more dangerous to you than random baddies—especially if Blair is right about his habit of obfuscating."

"Oh, I'm right. I'm totally right," Blair added.

"I'll be fine, just stay here," Angel growled. Right, like that expression worked on him, Xander turned to get out of the truck, and he found himself pinned to the seat by a hand too strong for him to move. "Stay here."

"Not happening," Xander said as he struggled without getting anywhere eventually, he gave up and just glared. "I'm following you the minute you get out of this truck."

"I can make you stay."

"Oh, you so cannot," Xander said as he poked Angel in the chest with a finger. "Look, if Whistler pulls a sword, you can go all grrrr on his ass, but if he's just going to try and talk you around a corner, you're so out of your depth. That's why I'll be there to verbally poke him back if he starts in with the stupid."

"Blair," Angel said, turning hopeful eyes toward him.

"Hey, leave me out of it. But if you're going to pull me in, I am so on Xander's side with this one."

"Ha!" Xander poked Angel's chest again, and the vampire got that stone-faced look he sometimes got right before he'd slam Spike into the nearest immovable surface, but no way was Xander backing off on this one. It'd taken him long enough to talk Angel out of the last bit of stupid he'd fallen for.

"You stay at my side, and you do not touch him," Angel finally relented as he let go of Xander's shoulder.

"Bully," Xander whispered as he pushed the truck door open and awkwardly scrambled out. Angel just landed next to him in one leap and immediately put a hand on Xander's shoulder, fisting the fabric and pulling Xander close. Xander might have repeated the whole bully comment, but he spotted Whistler for himself. The man looked like a used car salesman, although Xander really liked his shirt. Angel walked over, half escorting and half dragging Xander who couldn't quite keep pace.

"Angel," the man said as they neared him, and he really was going for the used car salesman vibe with that accent.


"You've made a few changes since I saw you last. Gave up the rats then, have you?" Whistler's words made Angel go stiff, and Xander could feel his own temper rise. Yeah, Angel had been pretty stupid thinking that doing nothing made up for doing bad, but it wasn't like he had a whole lot of help in the figure it out department back then.

"Is there a problem with Acathla?" Angel asked, his voice calm even if his body was stiff.

"Not now, no," Whistler shrugged. "Denver? Are you sure you want to bury that thing on cursed ground?"

Xander frowned. "Wait, Denver's cursed? They built a city on cursed land? Okay, that's stupid like building a town on a hellmouth level of stupid,"

"Not Denver, just the place we're going," Angel said, and the fist holding Xander's shirt moved so that Angel had an arm flung over Xander's shoulders. "The Northglenn Mall in Denver is on land that is cursed so that people can't find what they're looking for. The Native People have a powerful artifact buried there, but no one knows what because they can't find it."

"Um, can I say that's a pretty dumb place to build a mall?"

"That's humanity for you," Whistler shrugged. "I sometimes wonder what cousin Malachi sees in them," he said as he looked toward the truck. Blair was finally pulling up for his turn at the pumps.

"Um, human here," Xander objected.

"You don't have to be you know," Whistler said, and Xander hadn't even totally deciphered those words before he was thrust behind a growling and vamped Angel who had both hands around Whistler's throat.

"Hey, whoa there. I wasn't doing anything to your little friend!" he argued as Angel slammed him into the side of the gas station. A couple of truckers glanced over before walking quickly in the other direction. There were way too many lights around here for Angel to do his dark crusader act, but obviously he was not big with the thinking right now.

"You try to hurt Xander, and I will rip your guts out," Angel snarled, his fangs making the words hiss like a demented something not really in full control of the dement. Xander made a mental note to look that word up when he got home.

"Hey, I wouldn't dream of touching him. But you need a seer."

Angel pulled Whistler away from the wall and slammed him back against the brick. "Leave. Him. Alone." Each word came with another slam into the wall. Whistler's hands scuttled over Angel's arms.

"Angel," Xander said as he grabbed one arm. "You're big with the freakiness here. Let's not kill Blair's cousin, please. People are watching." Angel slammed Whistler into the wall one more time before he dropped the D'fatum demon and backed off several steps, shoving Xander back with him.

"I'm just making the offer. If he wants to be a seer, it's his choice," Whistler said as he rubbed his throat. "No need for violence."

"Hey, if it's a choice between demony or non-demony, I’m choosing non-demony, no offense to the demons in the audience." Xander tried to stand at Angel's side, only to have Angel grab him by the neck and pull him close. Okay, a few demon genes might not be bad if it meant a little less man-handling.

"Leave him alone."

"It's his choice, and I respect that," Whistler said, but it was a little hard for Xander to really judge the honesty of that since he had a nice view of Angel's armpit as the stupid vampire held him embarrassingly close. "But that's not the only issue here."

"What do you want?"

"To tell you the truth," Whistler said in a smug voice.

Xander punched Angel as hard as he could. The idiot vampire didn't even react, but a second later, he did loosen his grip so that he held Xander close without forcing Xander's face into Angel's body. Xander rolled his eyes as Angel's arm caught him around the chest and held him. Big, over-protective boob. Only not so much with the boob because there were no boobies. Now that Xander was turned around, he could see the amused way Whistler was looking at him. Humiliating much?

"As I was saying," Whistler started again, "there's something you need to know about that soul of yours. The curse... it has a little catch on it."

"What?!" Angel demanded, his eyes still yellow even if the bumps had retreated. The silence was deafening as Whistler looked thoughtfully around the parking lot, and if he didn't stop with the over-acting, Xander was so going to kick the demon in the shin.

"It has a little happiness clause attached," Whistler shrugged, and Xander narrowed his eyes at the manipulation. Oh yeah, this guy was dribbling and drabbling information out to get Angel worked up, and from the way Angel's arm tightened, pulling Xander tight against his chest, he was guessing that it was working.

"What clause?" Angel demanded when the silence continued too long.

"If you have a moment of perfect happiness, that soul is going to come popping off and 'poof,' the old Angel is back in business. Only now, you'll have a hundred years of repression and self-denial to make up for."

Xander stopped breathing, panic racing through him on cold little feet as he thought about that. He knew all about Angelus. Back in the early days when Xander was trying to keep Angel away from Buffy and Angel was trying to just keep Xander away, he'd heard all sorts of Angelus stories from Angel himself, and that wasn't even counting the stories Giles managed to slip in at every possible opportunity. Part of Xander voted for disbelief and repression, but even Blair said that Whistler couldn't out and out lie. Oh, he could obfuscate and garble and manipulate, but not lie.

Angel was freakily still, not even bothering to breathe as his hands clutched Xander for long, long minutes. People walked past them having perfectly normal lives, and Xander couldn't even wrap his brain around just how bad this was. This was hugely bad. This was... this was worse than Xander could even imagine, and he couldn't even figure out what must be going through Angel's brain because the vamp was not all with the emotionally healthy when it came to his vampy past.

Angel had gone emotionless, which wasn't a good sign. "Is there a spell, something to stop that from happening?"

Whistler was already shaking his head. "Nothing can stop the clause from kicking in the minute you have perfect happiness. The curse will end and you will be left without a soul."

Something in Whistler's words made Xander stop and pay attention.

"I can't stay, then. I'm dangerous," Angel whispered.

"You are more dangerous than you know," Whistler agreed, and Xander could feel Angel's grip loosen. If Xander had to guess, he would say that Angel was about two seconds away from doing a runner. He grabbed Angel's arm to keep that from happening.

"Wait," Xander said. "So, the whole happiness clause... it's not for kinda happy or having a really good day and coming home and finding out the friend vacuumed the Cheetos dust off the couch... it's just for perfect happiness?"

"Yep, that's the deal. And then his soul goes 'poof' and you're front and center for the grand reappearance of the old Angel, the scourge of Europe, the vampire who wiped out entire villages, and the bane of nuns everywhere. You could be ground zero for a spectacular disaster, kid."

"Xander, you should—" Angel started to say. Xander interrupted him by laughing. Not just chuckling or chortling but out and out laughing. And then Whistler got this pained expression, and Xander laughed even harder. God, Angel was a goober to fall for this guy's line, and clearly, he was so ready to fall for it again.

"Fuck, you're good," Xander said as he finally got himself under control. "You overact a bit, and the whole winding Angel up... that could use a little work with the lack of subtlety, but the gloom and doom and nuns thing... you're good."

"Xander?" Angel asked in a voice that made it pretty clear that he thought Xander had just pretty much lost his mind.

"Listen to what he's saying," Xander said.

"He hears me. He's risking destroying everything he loves... again," Whistler said with confidence.

"And the chance of that risk is what? Point-zero-zero-zero-one percent?" Xander demanded. "Angel, he said you have to have perfect happiness. Perfect as in not a bit of worry in there with the happy, and that is just not in you."

"It might be," Angel said, but Xander could hear the uncertainly.

"Trust me, it is not in you. Unless you lost your freaking mind and went all delusional, there's no way for you to be perfectly happy. Let's say I lost all my powers of annoyingness, and Spike and Drusilla came back and they were suddenly soul-having and Buffy forgave them and thanked you for being the back-up she'd always needed and my parents dropped dead of heart attacks and Giles got called back to England and the new watcher didn't have that English stick up his ass. I mean, that's pretty much perfect, but I know you. You'd still be worried about the next slimy thing trying to kill Buffy or Spike being Spike, soul or not, or me blaming you for my parents' deaths or the return of my annoyingness. You worry about whether the sun will come up tomorrow. You worry about your hair, and as a vampire, can I just say that's a little freaky. But the point is, you worry. It's your defining trait, so you being perfectly happy would only happen if you went perfectly, temporarily, blindingly delusional with the lying to yourself."

Xander could tell he was making some progress when Angel pulled him close and turned to glare at Whistler. "Is he right? Is the chance that small?"

"There's no calculating the future. I just know that it's a very real possibility."

"So is me getting hit by lightening. But trust me, we are all in way more danger if you drive Angel away, so what is up with that?" Xander asked.

Whistler sighed and crossed his arms. "Kid, you are just screwing everything up here, aren't you?"

"It's my extra-special talent," he agreed without taking too much offense.

"He's right, then? My soul isn't in immediate danger?" Angel asked.

Whistler sighed again. "You had a nice clear destiny ahead of you... not a pretty one, but a clear one. Now, now I can't see that much," he shrugged. "You're tying yourself to a human, and humans... well, they don't have any sort of clear future. They just bang around from one point to another. But separate yourself from him, and you'll be in on the big, final battles."

"On the side of good or evil?" Blair asked as he wandered up to them. "Cuz," he greeted Whistler.

"Blair," Whistler said as his mouth got a nasty twist.

"Demons shouldn't give up their destinies for humans. They shouldn't tie themselves to humans," Whistler said, completely ignoring Blair's question, and Xander didn't think that Angel missed that.

"Oh yeah, because that would be way too human of them, except Angel was human once, and he didn't exactly sign up for the demon upgrade plan," Xander pointed out.

"Keep telling yourself that, kid. If you say it often enough, you just might believe it, but Angel is exactly where he put himself."

Blair shook his head. "Maybe. Only now he's putting himself out of your game, man. He has that right, too."

"The Powers that Be aren't going to be amused. And you," Whistler poked a finger in Blair's direction, "are on their shit list."

"Yeah, yeah, what's new? So, how's Aunt Petunia? Is her garden doing any better? Did she try the coffee grounds?"

For a second, Whistler just stared at Blair. Then he got a crooked grin on his face, but Xander was still not liking any expression on this guy. "You're headed for disaster, Cuz, but she thinks you’re a genius with azalea."

"I told her!" Blair said triumphantly. "She just didn't have the soil acidic enough for them. So, are you through trying to make your little prophesies of gloom and doom or do you have something more to add?"

"The danger's there," Whistler said as he looked over at Angel meaningfully. Xander could feel himself prickle up with a need to say something really biting and sarcastic, only he couldn't think of anything to say.

"Man, danger is everywhere," Blair countered. "You come in with all this destiny crap and you completely ignore the fact that we all have choices."

"And you ignore that some of us have destinies," Whistler countered. "And hiding from it does not make it go away." He looked at Angel with more than a little disgust.

"Jackass," Xander whispered, and Angel's arm tightened in warning.

"If it's really his destiny, he'll find it on his own with Xander at his side. He so totally does not need you with your gloom and doom act," Blair said as he crossed his arms. Whistler looked from Angel to Blair several times before he shook his head and just walked away.

"Xander," Angel said softly.

"Don't even think it," Xander warned. "If you're about to get all happy, I'll do something to torture you, like ask you to explain dominant and recessive traits in corn or something."

"If I have a destiny out there that isn't pretty, I shouldn't drag you into it." Angel said the words, but his arms just tightened around Xander, so it was pretty much clear what Angel really wanted. It was weird. Xander knew that Buffy and Willow loved him, but he never felt like they needed him. And now, here was Angel with his buff shoulders and his scary fighting skills and his way out of control bossiness, and Xander still felt like Angel needed him more than everyone else in his life put together.

"Man, don't go trying to make his choices for him," Blair warned as he reached over and shoved at Angel's arm. "It's bad karma. Besides, as a human, he has the right to choose."

"And if I don't like the choice?" Angel asked.

Xander answered for himself. "Suck it up and live with it. You bought me, and all purchases are final." This time, Xander actually managed to make that sound teasing without the sharp edge of earlier. "And don't worry about the happy because after that stunt, I will make sure you are never happy again," he said, smiling as he caught Blair's expression. He was trying hard not to laugh, and the expression on Blair's face nearly pushed him over into laughing himself.

Angel gave a pained sigh. "I don't suppose there really is much chance of you ever letting me have any peace and quiet, much less happiness."

"Oh man, happiness is not even necessarily happy," Blair said, which was not really making sense to Xander, but Blair kept right on going anyway. "This one human actually wrote about how humans invented happiness as an excuse to give up on striving to become something better or more real. He says happiness only exists as some pathetic attempt to justify mediocrity."

"Okay, that's sounding a little slightly totally depressing," Xander pointed out as Blair started walking toward the café, and Angel urged him to follow.

"That's Nietzsche for you," Blair shrugged.

"Hey, Willow talks about him. He wrote books, right?"

"Yep, and he was crazy as a bedbug, probably with a meningioma in a right side of his brain, but who knows. Personally, I say that it's all about the choices you make," Blair said as he pulled the door to the café open.

"You do know I have no idea what that word means, right?" Xander checked. Angel actually managed to let him go long enough for Xander to walk in the café on his own before Angel's hand landed on his shoulder again.

"Brain tumor," Blair clarified. "So, do you two have any plans while I catch a couple of hours sleep out back?" Blair winked at the waitress as he took the photocopied menu and slipped into a booth. Xander followed, not at all surprised when Angel slid in next to him. The big vamp might never admit it, but Xander was guessing that he was quietly freaking out. Xander let his hand rest on Angel's knee and really, really wished that Spike was still around. A good round of Spike-beating always put both vampires into a much, much better mood.

"I'm clueless. I don't even know what state we're in," Xander admitted.

"Colorado," Angel offered. "And I don't think there's much to do around here, but we could find a private spot and do a little sparring."

"Otherwise known as kicking my ass over and over while offering not encouraging words of untruthful encouragement like 'you can do it' when I clearly can't," Xander said ruefully to Blair. Blair laughed.

"Or you could work on your homework," Angel added darkly.

"Hey, sparring sounds good, we should so spar," Xander said brightly. Angel reached over and popped him on the shoulder hard enough to make Xander glare at him. "Nice, beat up on the guy who's dedicated his life to keeping you from the happy." Angel didn't answer as he studied his menu looking for something with enough crunch to be satisfying for a vampire who didn't actually need to eat. This was as close to happiness as either of them needed to get. And seriously, how crazy was Whistler to expect anyone to find perfect happiness? But Xander was relieved that the odds of perfect happiness were so crazy-stupid impossible because he kinda liked Angel with the soul still attached.


Full Circle on the Lesson

"I'm telling you, Angel, she is scary hot. It must be a slayer thing," Xander said as he stirred the pot. "And this is looking... okay, this is looking a lot like demon snot."

"It's potato," Angel sighed.

"With green stuff. Potato should not have green in it. It's a rule." That line worked when Xander told Angel he had to wave the ATM card in front of the machine in three counter-clockwise figure eights before putting it in... at least it had once, but now it was obviously not with the working.

"Colcannon has green stuff," Angel said dryly, and from the tone he used, Xander was so not getting out of at least trying it. "It's called cabbage."

"Seriously. You need to learn to cook something that isn't scary. Hey, how about eggs? You make a mean scrambled egg," Xander suggested hopefully. He had no idea who had turned Angel onto the concept of vegetables, but when he found out, there was going to be serious complaining and whining and potential arm punching in the future. Unless it was Cordelia, he was already in enough hot water with her.

"Try it. You'll probably like it. It has enough butter and cream that you probably won't even taste the vegetables. My mother used to make this."

Xander stopped, his mouth open to complain more. But it wasn't often Angel talked about his past, and rarer still that he talked about it without the stink of self-hatred that really and truly got old sometimes. Yeah, he loved Angel, but the guy could take annoying to whole new levels when he got the old Angelus stories out.

"I bet you complained," Xander teased instead.

"If I had, my father would have tanned my backside. No, I actually liked it. She often fixed it with rabbit."

That made Xander want to gag and check the hamburger package to make sure he was getting good old fashioned cow. Rabbit... yuck.

"And no, the hamburger is not made from rabbit," Angel said with a much put-upon sigh.

"Just wondering. I mean, you're trying to sneak green into my mashed potatoes, so I just wanted to make sure you know that hamburger is sacred to the American teen. There will be no desecration of the mighty cow burger."

Angel put the spatula down and faced Xander. "Do you want to know what I can smell in this?" he demanded as he poked a finger in the direction of the pan. "And I do not mean cow." Xander glanced over at the browning hamburger with the nice slice of perfectly processed yellow cheese on top as he considered that question.

"Okay, no, no I really don't. Hungry boy here, so can we please do the avoidy with the yucks?"

Angel sighed and rolled his eyes as he picked up the spatula again. "That's done," he said with a nod toward the pan Xander was stirring, and Xander scooped the hot colcannon into a bowl.

"So," Xander asked casually, "your mom fix this a lot?"

"Yes." Angel didn't elaborate, and Xander thought he might have missed his chance for a little poking around into the Angel-past. If he couldn't follow Buffy and Faith on patrol, poking Angel was the next best thing. Angel sighed. "She often fixed it. Others would have nothing else for dinner, or perhaps a nettle soup, but for us, it was a dish she served with rabbit or mutton. We ate meat four or five times a week, which was a luxury back then."

"Come on. You never once asked her to make it without the green?" Xander asked as he carried the bowl to a small table Angel had installed. Honestly, it looked like demon snot. If it didn't taste better than it looked, Angel was running a serious risk feeding him this stuff because an up close and personal relationship with human vomit was entirely possible.

Angel followed with one plate and his cup of blood. He handed over the plate with the hamburger and sat across from Xander, but from that embarrassed look, Xander already had his answer. "You big veggie faker, you so did," Xander accused him as he took a small pile of the stuff.

"I might have." Angel grinned. "She never would while father was around. He said she should not indulge me so much, and that he would simply have to correct any foolish ideas that she put in my head with such coddling." Angel's expression twisted. "And his idea of correcting my foolishness was rarely pleasant."

"She coddled anyway," Xander said confidently.

"Once or twice."

Xander considered his plate. If he took a quick bite of the colcannon first, he could maximize the amount of time the hamburger had to erase taste. Poking his fork into the mound, he got a small lump and shoved it in his mouth before he could change his mind. Creamy, salty, peppery, and buttery enough to block an artery. "Hey, this isn't bad," Xander said as he looked up in surprise. Okay, so he got a bit of the veggie in there, and it wasn't his favorite part, but overall, this was way better than his mom's mashed potatoes out of a box.

When Angel got that 'I told you' grin, Xander rolled his eyes. "I thought you might like it. The cabbage in it isn't bad," Angel said in that oh-so-annoying superior voice of his.

"Fairly edible, and the green bits are very ignore-worthy with all these potatoes which are great," Xander agreed. "And next time you are so fixing it without the cabbage."

"If you eat another vegetable," Angel agreed with a smile, and Xander's glare darkened. "The first time my mother fixed it without the cabbage, I must have been fifteen. My father was gone, invited by a business associate to Dublin to hear a concert..." Angel's eyes lost focus for a second. "George Frideric Handel 's Messiah. One of father's suppliers had received invitations, and they attended the premier in some hall on Fishamble Street."

"Way to go with the Young Indiana Jones-type reference there. I mean, you do mean Handle's Messiah, the one you made me listen to, right?" Xander asked before taking a huge bite of the burger.

"Yes, and the one you liked," Angel reminded him.

"It was pretty good. It still doesn't measure up to 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,' though," Xander mumbled around his food. He shoved in more colcannon before he totally swallowed, and nearly snorted a big mouth full of it right out his nose when he caught sight of Angel's expression. Oh yes, he was still the master of Angel baiting.

"So, what else do you think about this new slayer, other than she's attractive? You do know Cordelia will emasculate you if she hears you say that, don't you?" Angel added the second part after a brief hesitation.

"I already had an up close and personal discussion of me not taking an interest in naked Faith stories," Xander nodded, and he winced at the very thought of where Cordelia's fingernails had been pointed at the time. "But you'll protect me."

"Against Cordelia?" Angel asked with a snort. "You're on your own."


"Practical," Angel countered. "And what else do you think of this Faith?"

"Buffy told Willow who called me to tell me that it turns out her Watcher is dead and she actually did a runner from the Council." Xander took a big bite of hamburger.

"What? Where's she staying?"

Xander muttered and got the hairy eyeball from Angel. He managed to swallow before he tried again. "Some motel down on Elm."

"By herself?" Angel was half way up out of his chair.

"Chill," Xander said, "she's a big girl."

Angel got an extra special pinched look on his face, the kind of look that Spike sometimes got right before he said something totally offensive that led to Angel punching him. "Xander..." Angel said slowly and carefully. "How old are you?"

"Seventeen," Xander said suspiciously. This was Angel's 'there's a trap somewhere voice.'

"How old is Buffy?"

"Almost seventeen..." he said even slower.

"How long has she been a slayer?"

"Um, two years? I mean, I wasn't exactly around for the calling part, so it might be more like a year and a half or two and a half, but I'm slightly totally unclear on the details."

"So, how old are slayers when they're called?" Angel asked as he leaned forward against the table.

Xander blinked for a second as his brain tried to reset. No way. Absolutely no way. She was hot. And way big with the sexy. And she smelled like cigarette, so she couldn't be...

"Shit," Xander said as the truth hit him like a wet fish. Suddenly his dinner wasn't sitting too well on his stomach. Angel had already turned and headed for the door, his coat in hand before Xander could get up from the table.

"Do you want me to...?"

"Unless you want her to think I'm a local vamp trying to eat her, an introduction would be nice," Angel said, and Xander swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded as he headed for the door, his hand touching the hilt of his cinquedea tucked into the leg of his jeans as he hurried to follow Angel out into the night. Giles had said there was a big bad on the loose, and with Xander's luck, they'd run right into him. "She won't even have to invite vampires in at that place. What the hell is Giles thinking?" Angel sighed as they hurried out of the apartment, both their dinners abandoned.

"That she can take care of herself?" Xander guessed. Okay, when he thought about the fact that Faith was a fifteen year old kid, that sounded pretty stupid. From the look Angel gave him, Angel was thinking that too. "You know I'm not big with the Giles love, but to be fair, I so totally thought of her as an adult about two seconds after meeting her. She has a whole adult-vibe going for her, so you can't go getting all cranky."

"Xander, you're the one who pointed out that Buffy was a girl who needed to grow up without me hovering over her. How could you make this kind of assumption about another slayer?" Angel asked in a very unamused sort of voice. Xander felt his stomach twist with anxiety at that tone of voice.

"Hey, you're like two hundred and something. You're supposed to be smarter than me," Xander protested loudly, and that got either a twitch of a lip or a snarl. Sometimes it was hard to tell amused Angel from his pissed off alter-ego. Angel got into his convertible without another comment, and Xander slid into the passenger seat feeling about two inches tall.

"Tell me she's not at that place next to the warehouses."

"Um..." Xander shrank to one inch.

That time, it was definitely a growl, and Xander didn't bother to even answer, especially since Angel was not going to like the answer. God, how could they be so dumb, because with Angel glaring at him, he so thought leaving Faith alone was hugely stupid. Shit, she was younger than him, and he was so not even close to being an adult. He just assumed she was because she acted about thirty... a slutty thirty even. He grabbed the door and hung on as Angel took a corner way faster than he should.

The silence gnawed at Xander, freaking him out way more than any yelling. He'd rather have the yelling over with but Angel was doing the silently furious thing that set Xander's stomach churning. When Angel slammed into a parking space in front of the Elm street motel, Xander didn't even bother asking how Angel knew which room Faith was in. He just scrambled out of the car as Angel sort of swooped in on the hotel door.

Xander stopped when Angel's hand landed on his shoulder. "I can smell someone dead," Angel whispered. "Here. If something happens, get back to the apartment and call Buffy." Angel pressed the keys to the convertible into Xander's left hand. Whoa. Angel never let him drive the convertible. With fear rolling through him, Xander pulled out his cinquedea awkwardly, the hilt catching on the edge of his pant pocket for a second, and Xander almost hyperventilated.

"I'm backing you up."

Angel frowned for a second and then sighed deeply. "I smell an old vampire... an ancient one. If something happens, you get back to the car because I won't retreat until you're out of the line of fire."

That made Xander swallow and nod, his eyes wide as he looked around the dim parking lot. Anything that freaked Angel out pretty much turned Xander into a pile of nervous goo. With that, Angel turned to the hotel door, his hand slowly turning the knob as the metal strained and groaned under the supernatural force. The pop of the lock breaking was the only warning before Angel put his shoulder to the door and slammed it open.

"Holy fuck!" Faith shouted.

"Where's the vampire?" Angel demanded, and even from behind, Xander could tell he'd vamped out.

"Faith, this is Angel, good guy, on the no-stake list with Oz!" Xander shouted from behind.

"Chill, X, I'm not going to stake your vamp. And the only vampire here is you, cutie. Who the hell do you think you are breaking into my fucking room?"

"Like I said: Angel, good guy and occasional overreactor," Xander repeated as he followed Angel into the room. Faith stood with her arms crossed over her chest. Her naked chest. Her naked chest with naked boobies. Nice boobies. Xander's brain went on total shutdown until suddenly Angel's back interrupted the view of very nice Faith boobies.

"So you're Xander's pet vamp? Nice. I didn't think they came so cute," Faith said in that flirty, no-way-can-she-be-fifteen voice.

"I can smell an old one," Angel said, and now he just sounded confused. Xander poked at his back to try and make Angel move, but it didn't work.

"Kakistos... yeah, he was just here. B and me, we kicked his ass right on back to hell."

"Kakistos?" Angel echoed, and from the tone, Xander was guessing he knew the name.

"Yep. Only now he's known as dust," Faith said. Xander almost groaned in disappointment when he spotted a hand grabbing a shirt up off the bed. He was losing prime boobie time here. He poked Angel again, and again the big lunk was playing statue.

"I thought you might be in trouble."

"Not until some vamp broke down my door," Faith quipped back, and now Angel moved. Now that Faith was totally, if indecently, dressed.

"If I can break down your door, so can any other vamp who comes here. This isn't a safe place."

Faith laughed as she grabbed some clothes out of a bag and started tossing them at the cheap dresser. "Don't need a babysitter, babe. And don't worry about the door. Slayer strength here, so I'll just shove the dresser in front of it easy enough."

"I don't care what you shove in front of the door, this isn't a safe place for you to stay." Angel took a step forward and Xander eased toward the door. Oh, this was going to be so very, very ugly. And he seriously hoped he wasn't talking dust and blood ugly, but both of them had on their stubborn faces now.

"And you're going to take care of me?" Faith demanded sarcastically, a sneer on her face.

"I am or I'll call social services and report a runaway minor," Angel said, and that would be Faith's really, really pissed expression. Xander was discovering whole new levels of terror tonight. She cracked her neck and let her arms hang at her sides, and even Xander could read the warning in that body language, and he wasn't exactly a fast learner in the fighting department.

"Stay the fuck out of my business, mister. You don't, and you'll be sorry."

"There are many things for which I am eternally sorry, but I will never regret trying to do the right thing by someone who deserves it," Angel said, and Xander could see the surprise and confusion flit across Faith's face.

"What? When they gave you a soul, did they give you some saint's soul by accident or something?" she demanded with a frown.

"They gave me a soul, period. What I choose to do with it is up to me. And right now, I'm telling you that one slayer has already died on the Hellmouth. You aren't safe staying in a hotel."

"Kendra," Faith nodded and pursed her lips together. "That would be your kid who did the killing, right?"

Okay, that was so totally below the belt. Xander could see Angel flinch from the vicious words.

"Hey, Angel is not responsible for what Spike did, no more than I'm responsible for the fact my father has the parenting skills of... um... something really unparenty. Obviously, I'm not big with the biology metaphors, but the point is that you don't get to take cheap shots at people I care about," Xander finished firmly.

"Homeboy's got himself a crush," Faith smirked, and she suddenly reminded him way too much of Spike.

"On you?" Xander asked her, "totally. But then I have a long history of lusting after scary women, as evidenced by the fact that I date Cordelia who is as close to an eviscerating, man-eating demon as you can come without leaving the human species. And I don't want to see you dead, either."

The smirk vanished as Faith just stared at him for a second. "Babe, I can take care of myself," she said more softly.

It was Angel who replied as he laid a hand on Xander's shoulder to quiet him. "You're a slayer. You have powers that will only grow over time; however, that does not mean you should be alone. Buffy has her mother and Giles. You shouldn't be here."

"So, are you offering to be my watcher?" Faith asked with a laugh and a body twitch that woke up parts of Xander that really wanted some immediate attention. He shifted his cinquedea in front of his body and hoped that hid the lump that was forming.

"No," Angel quickly answered with a disgusted expression. "The watchers are..." Angel paused.

"Hey, no making of more weirdness on the Giles issue," Xander ordered him with a poke.

Angel sighed. "The watchers make choices I do not approve of, and they have no love for me. Most of them would be just as happy to stake me, soul or no soul."

"Then why don't they?" Faith asked as she sat on the edge of the bed, her legs sprawled so that Xander had a whole different set of dirty thoughts. Oh, Cordelia would so murder him if she ever developed any mind-reading ability.

"They're not that powerful. They control a slayer... perhaps two slayers now... a handful of human hunters, and a thousand researchers. They couldn't take me out without a slayer and every human hunter they employ."

"And you make sure the slayers won't go up against you or your family," Faith guessed.

Angel's body stiffened at the accusation. "I didn't help or encourage Spike to fight Kendra. She did that because she believed what the watchers told her about going after every demon she found. She would have come after me if she wasn't so enamored of Xander," Angel said softly. Xander looked up at him.

Xander laughed. "Okay, revisionist memory much? Kendra did not want to go after you and she was not enamored of anyone except maybe Giles who she was enamoring of just because he had the watcher thing going for him."

Angel moved to drape an arm over his shoulders. "Xander, you are insightful when it comes to almost everything except love... and vegetables. She was completely enamored of you and did not want to stake your friend. It's the main reason I stayed away from her."

"And you're not giving me the same pass because I'm not trying to get in home boy's pants?" Faith asked with a snort, which ruined a perfectly good moment of shock and mental rearranging on Xander's part.

"I don't think you're a tool of the Watchers' Council. If they told you to kill a harmless Brakken child or stake me, I think you'd make up your own mind about right and wrong. I don't think my soul confuses you the way it confused Kendra," Angel answered.

For a long minute, Faith just stared at him while Angel stared back. Slowly she shook her head. "Buddy, you have some damn strange ideas."

"Yes," Angel agreed, "I do. And right now, I think a fifteen year old should have a home that is paid for, food she doesn't have to buy... or steal," Angel amended after a moment, "and someone who will watch her back when she goes patrolling."

"And you're offering that?" Faith asked. "In return for what?"

"In return for knowing I did the right thing," Angel answered with hesitation. He walked over to the nightstand and picked up a pad of paper and a cheap pen. "This is my address. I own the apartments on the basement level, so I can set you up in the apartment next to mine. If you'd rather stay with Buffy or Giles, that's fine." Angel held out the paper with his phone number and address to her, but she didn't move from her spot at the end of the bed. "However, if you're still living by yourself at the end of the day tomorrow, I will call social services, and hold you down until the social worker comes to get you." Angel dropped the paper and it fluttered to the bed.

"Um, he's a little bullying on the whole what's good for you front," Xander warned Faith. "He made me eat vegetables tonight. But hey, if you stay with Angel, we'll get to see each other because I stay in the apartment next to his four or five nights a week." Xander wisely didn't mention that with vamp hearing, staying in the next apartment was pretty much the same as staying in the same room. He could have cartoons on so softly that he could barely hear them, and Angel would yell about how he had to get up for school in the morning.

"Three years isn't that long... I'm just asking you to let someone help you for three years," Angel said softly.

Faith looked from one to the other, and Xander could see a vulnerability there he'd never seen in Faith before. "Three years? I'll be dead before I hit eighteen," she said grimly.

"If you rely on watchers, probably," Angel nodded. "But Buffy's nearly seventeen now. Plenty of demons and half demons live full lives with powers no different from yours."

Xander opened his mouth to ask which ones exactly, but Angel turned and stalked from the room, and Xander got pulled along for the ride. He realized he still had his cinquedea in hand and shoved it through his pocket and into the scabbard hidden under his pants as Angel manhandled him out to the car.

Angel left him on the passenger side, and Xander hurried to get in. With Angel's mood tonight, he did not want to aggravate the vamp any more. Angel got in and held out his hand, and it took Xander a second to remember that he still had Angel's keys. Handing them over, he buckled in and waited to see just how angry Angel was going to be. Going back tonight, Xander could see how scared Faith was... and the bit about her having to steal food—that sounded unfun. Unfun and outright abusive. If Buffy didn't have Joyce, how much would Giles give her? Buffy had given Kendra some of her old clothes just so the girl would have something to wear, so he was thinking that the watchers were not big on union pay scales.

"Angel, okay, I'm officially stupid, and I'm really sorry for not even considering how hard this all was for Faith," Xander said softly. He really, really just wanted the yelling over with.

"I had trouble seeing her as fifteen, too," Angel admitted softly. "She seems a lot older than Buffy."

"Way older," Xander agreed, hoping that meant that there might not be yelling.

"It's strange to think that she should be in tenth grade. She'd eat a tenth grader for lunch and spit out the bones," Angel said with a little bit of his dark humor.

"I hope you mean that in the not-literal way because I'm saying no to homicidal slayers."

"I don't know. You know what tenth grade boys are like. Would she kill one?" Angel's lips twisted into a wry grin.

Xander thought about Larry and Andrew and Percy West and even the very geeky and occasionally inappropriate Tucker Wells. Okay, the often inappropriate Tucker Wells. Oh yeah, Faith would pretty much kill all of them. "She won't be enrolling in school... right? Please? I mean, doing good has to include minimizing the odds of full-scale massacre, right?"

"Even at fifteen, she's probably a little old for high school," Angel agreed. "She's certainly not Buffy."

"Oh that's a big no on the Buffy front," Xander agreed with a nod. "Huge no. Enormous no. Worlds of no. I don't even think Buffy knows the word 'fuck'."

"Your dinner is going to be cold and disgusting," Angel said as he turned into a drive through.

"Um, before we eat, is there going to be any yelling?" Xander asked uncertainly. It seemed like the potential for yelling had diminished, but you could never tell, and he always had trouble keeping food down during a full-on screaming match.

"What? Why?" Angel looked at him in confusion.

"Oh, the whole part where I screwed up and left Faith out there by herself," Xander said, flinching away from having to even say the words. Oh yeah, sometimes he took dumb to whole new levels.

"Xander," Angel sighed. He shook his head and pulled in behind a green van. "I was so angry at my father that I turned my back on my whole family including a mother and sister who loved me. I wanted to see the world, but I spent every cent getting some barmaid to spread her legs. I followed Darla into an alley even though I knew she was up to no good. I didn't know she was a vampire, but I knew following her would lead to trouble. You have a long ways to go if you hope to match me bad decision for bad decision."

"Really?" Xander could feel the band of anxiety around his stomach loosen, which really reminded him that he was hungry.

Angel shook his head. "Really, and you don't have to sound so happy about that."

"Sorry," Xander offered. "Hey, get me a double cheese burger and large fries," he said as they moved forward to the speaker. "Potatoes are vegetable-like, you know, what with growing in the ground." Xander gave Angel his sweetest smile. While Angel might sigh and roll his eyes, he did at least order what Xander wanted and let him eat in the convertible as they headed back to the apartment. And maybe, if Faith had any sense, the apartment on the other side of Angel would be occupied soon enough.


The Care and Feeding of Humans

Angel ran the sharpening stone along the edge of his knife again. It was already sharp, but Angel didn't know what else to do. He'd even gotten desperate enough to turn the television on for a few minutes, but some show with a guy in cowboy boots doing karate moves was beyond his understanding of modern culture. And he definitely was not asking Xander about it because Xander's explanations were sometimes impossibly complicated. At least now he could understand a good fifty percent of them, which was an improvement over when the boy had first started showing up. Back then, Angel had understood very little.

With a growl, he slammed the knife down on the table and picked up his phone, punching numbers in slightly harder than he should, but at least he didn't break it this time.

"Speak to me," the voice on the other end offered cheerfully.

"Remind me again why I don't just lock him in a room," Angel almost growled. The man on the other end laughed.

"Oh man, I hear that! Xander giving you grief again? What, did another demon decide to spawn with him?" Blair chuckled.

"He's at some dance," Angel admitted. Saying it out loud, it sounded rather trivial, especially since he was at a dance with two slayers, one of whom he had personally threatened if she didn't bring Xander home in one piece. Of course, Faith tended to take his threats as some sort of amusing suggestion, so he wasn't as confident in his ability to inspire loyalty as he once might have been.

"It's not like you to be this freaked. What's up?"

"I have no idea. There's something to do with royalty at this party and Xander is caught between Buffy and Cordelia who both want to be royalty, but only one of them can be. It's very confusing, and Xander is not always clear in his explanations."

"Prom queen?" Blair nearly choked. "They both want to be prom queen? Oh shit. Teenage girls are scarier than most demons I know when it comes to being prom queen."

Angel closed his eyes and stretched his neck as he tried to work his tight muscles. "Xander is concerned and stressed. His friend Willow expects him to play boyfriend when her werewolf is busy, and she continues to lust after him. Buffy and Cordelia are fighting, and he is trying to make them both happy, and the watcher continues to annoy the unlife out of me."

"Man, it was easier when you just ate humans, wasn't it?"

Angel blinked, his brain not even able to process that comment. "You're joking," he finally whispered.

"Totally not. I mean, yeah, I get that you were a total badass, and as one of the potential food sources, I am all in favor of you valuing your soul. But seriously... this must have been easier pre-soul. I mean, eating a human is easy, but the care and feeding of one is like... whoa... seriously complicated."

Angel's guts tightened at the blithe way Blair was just commenting on something so horrific as his years before the soul. He'd been a monster. Nothing was easier. Except it had been easier, and Angel was not comfortable admitting or even thinking about that. "You're an annoying individual," Angel finally declared.

"Well, yeah. But man, you have taken on Xander Harris as a project, so I happen to know that you're into adorable and cute."

"I have no idea how to help him with all these women in his life," Angel said as he stood and paced the floor. The apartment was too small. He should get something large enough that he could really move and maybe get a workout. A room for weapons training would give him more time to teach Xander how to use the crossbow. Right now, they had to wait until the townspeople finally abandoned the streets before practicing late at night, but if he had a larger place, he could have the boy practice longer without interfering with school.

"Earth to Angel," Blair shouted.

"What?" he snapped into the phone.

"Chill out. Seriously. I mean, we all survive high school, and the social trauma is a total rite of passage. Xander will come through without too many emotional scars."

"So, I should just let him struggle with this?" Angel asked. He didn't know what answer he wanted from Blair. If Blair told him to let this go, that meant that he was doing the right thing, but it also meant that he had to keep sitting back and doing nothing. He was remarkably uncomfortable doing nothing.

"You have to wait for him to ask for help, and Angel, he might not."

"It would be easier if they were not all so incredibly damaged," Angel sighed. "Buffy is now dating a boy who is clearly homosexual, and none of them seem to realize it. The boy is sexually interested in Xander, the captain of the football team, and some random man who passed us on the street when we patrolled together, but he has no sexual interest in Buffy. And she continues to feel lust for him. This Scott even gave her a claddagh ring and explained how it represented friendship, and she failed to understand that he doesn't want to have sex with her."

Blair laughed. "That is every parent's fantasy... dating teens with incompatible sexual orientations. No sex is safe sex, my man."

"I don't care about Buffy's safe sex, I care about Xander once again turning himself inside out emotionally once they discover this deception."

Angel slammed his hand down on the table. He was nearing the end of his own emotional reserves, and still Xander continued to cater to everyone's needs but his own. When Giles had verbally ripped into Xander for falling asleep when guarding the werewolf, Angel had wanted to come out from behind the stacks and rip the watcher's head off. A child should not be asked to perform such a dangerous task. Certainly, Giles had never given him the proper training or education to deal with a werewolf if Oz had managed to escape, and there was no television, no radio... nothing in there to keep Xander from falling asleep. What did Giles expect? After the many times Angel had checked to find Willow or Buffy asleep at the same task, no one could claim to be surprised that one of the teens had fallen asleep on duty. Then again, he wondered if the arrogant little caffler even bothered to yell at the girls at all or if he saved his ire for Xander. Maybe it was time for another visit to the watcher because the lesson from the last visit was clearly wearing off.

"That's the risk of caring about someone who just cares. That's what makes Xander, Xander," Blair said, but Angel could hear the sympathy in the other man's voice. "Really sucks, huh?"

"He asks me things I don't know the answer to," Angel admitted with a great deal of frustration. "When Cordelia and Buffy were both trying to be royalty—"

"Prom queen," Blair corrected him.

"Prom queen," Angel growled back. "When they were both pressuring Xander to help, he asked me what he should do. I don't even understand why they want to be prom queen. Apparently there are no real jewels or any power or money attached to the position. I had no advice for him."

"Man, it's all about status. Whoever is prom queen is the high status female. Sure, there will be lots of smaller groups who will make fun of her behind her back. Totally. I was in those subgroups. But my point is that most of the people in the school will recognize her status. There are so few human rituals where they can actually compete for power that the rituals that do exist get totally out of hand. Now the concept of hazing at fraternities and sororities... oh man, that gets so nasty with the in-group/out-group and the assigning of status that you would think vampires set up the damn ceremonies."

"So, this is like a clan gathering," Angel tried to understand how royalty could be like vampires.

"Kinda," Blair agreed. "Only it's like all the vampires are the same age, so you need some consensus on who is the master. The crowning of the king and queen is like picking the master."

"And there will be some individuals or even groups sired by a particular vampire who refuse to recognize the master's power or who publicly acknowledge him while undermining him," Angel checked.

"Totally! Those are called cliques, only instead of being gathered according to who sired whom, they gather according to interest. All the kids who like chess will form one clique and choose their own leader within the subgroup."

"Like choosing a sire?"

"You got it."

"Then what happens when Xander has both Cordelia and Buffy demanding his loyalty?" Angel demanded, more upset than ever. Vampires caught between clans or between feuding elders within a clan rarely survived. And while he trusted both Cordelia and Buffy to physically protect Xander, they were both so very capable of emotionally crippling him.

"That is the stuff of teen angst," Blair said, and Angel did not like the tone of voice. "Chill, Angel. This is like the watered down, human version of status. No humans were harmed in the making of high school. Okay, a few were harmed, but people recover. Xander knows he always has you there making him eat his vegetables and go to bed on time, and he'll survive the rest."

"That doesn't seem like enough," Angel admitted with a frown. He wanted to do more... like lock Xander in a very small room just until all his friends finally grew up. Then again, considering his friends, he might be in that small room for a very long time.

"Trust me, it's enough."

"Is that Blair talking or a D'fatum demon?"

"It's Blair Sandburg, mostly human. Naomi did a great job with me as a mom, and most of the time, she just loved me and stood back and let me make my own choices and live with the consequences of those choices. Well, that and she made me eat vegetables."

"And Xander's going to turn out okay?"

"Man, you're doing all the right things to make sure Xander turns out great. He's going to be his own person though, Angel. He's not even your son or your consort, so you have to let him figure some of this out on his own."

"To borrow one of your phrases, that really sucks," Angel sighed. "And I have to go. I can hear Xander and Faith in the hall."

"Stay good."

"Good night, Blair," Angel answered as he stared at the phone looking for the 'end' button. Why couldn't they have one of those phones that you just hung up? Actually, his favorite phone was the one where you picked it up and someone was on the other end asking who you wanted to talk to. Those had been useful. Finally finding the right button, Angel disconnected the call and put the phone down on the counter before going back to the knife and sharpening stone at the table.

Faith was laughing as they came down the hall, so hopefully no one had been killed. Then again, with Faith, laughter might indicate mayhem and demonic attack. Angel hurried to the door and pulled it open to check on his humans. Xander looked stressed.

"They deserved that shit," Faith insisted.

"I'm never hearing the end of this. From either of them. I might as well just not go back to school because I will never be able to concentrate with the mucho gripe-o fest they're going to have going."

"What happened?" Angel demanded.

Faith laughed and headed for his door, ducking under his arm. When Xander came over and rested his forehead on Angel's chest as though upset, Angel growled at the lack of any answer.

"They both lost," Faith said cheerfully as she headed for the refrigerator.

"I'm never hearing the end of this," Xander said, his words muffled by Angel's chest. Xander pushed himself back and poked his finger at Angel's chest. "And it's all your fault."

"My fault?" Angel asked in confusion as Xander followed Faith to the kitchen. Had neither of Xander's girls been chosen for the queen? Faith wrapped her arms around the plate of left over fried chicken and bared her teeth when Xander tried to grab a piece. "And share before I make you wish you'd played nice in the first place," Angel threatened. Faith rolled her eyes but at least she let Xander grab a chicken leg before she started devouring the rest. "Is someone going to explain exactly how this is my fault?"

"I don't know," Xander shrugged, his mouth full of food. "It just is. I have to blame someone to avoid accepting any blame for myself."

Faith snorted. "Boy here has gone and got himself put in the dog house."

"The dog house?" Angel asked as he shut the door and put himself in front of it. No one was leaving this apartment until he understood what had happened.

"I was slow dancing," Xander admitted with a twist of his mouth.

"With Cordelia," Angel said. They had discussed this. Angel had even taught Xander a few steps, and that had not been easy since Angel was awkward when trying to take the girl's part, especially since he suspected that Cordelia would also prefer to lead.

"He wishes. Turns out Cordelia and Buffy went and got themselves kidnapped," Faith offered as she headed for the table, still guarding the plate of food. Xander grabbed for another piece, and Faith twisted out of his way, throwing out a hip to block him.

"Faith!" Angel warned with a growl.

"Yeah, sugar?" she flirted. Angel could feel his frustration eroding his control, and he knew the second his eyes turned yellow.

"Fine." She thrust the plate toward Xander with more force than needed, but he just smiled as he took a second piece.

Angel sighed as he realized that she was truly upset. "We can get more chicken if you're still hungry," he offered. Faith considered him through narrowed eyes for a second, and Angel couldn't avoid thinking that the girl was constantly judging him. He just wished he had some insight on what she was judging him about.

"Five by five with me. Actually, I think there's enough here. It's not like I was out killing any vamps and getting myself worked up," she shrugged as she gave Angel a wink. It was like getting hit on by your baby sister. Angel shoved that thought away as too disturbing to even contemplate. She turned a chair around backwards and straddled it.

"Are Buffy and Cordelia alright?" Angel asked, a bit of growl still in his voice. If Giles had to deal with multiple teenagers all day, perhaps Angel was being too hard on the man. This could drive anyone to insanity.

"Five by five," Faith repeated. Xander nodded, his mouth still full of chicken. "It's boy-toy you have to look out for. He went and slow danced with Red, and there were parts of him a little too interested, if you know what I mean. Cordelia shows up when they're on the dance floor, and I thought she was going to castrate him right there."

"I wasn't doing anything," Xander protested.

"Babe, that was doing something. It's called a hard-on," Faith smiled sweetly, and Angel flinched at the crudeness. No wonder everyone had trouble remembering she was fifteen.

"I'm a teenager. That happens when I dance, when I get dressed, when someone pokes me with a stick!"

"Kinky," Faith said with a wink.

"Okay, disturbing much?" Xander demanded as he finally dropped into one of the other chairs.

"I calls 'em as I sees 'em," she joked.

"Xander," Angel interrupted before Faith could make any other inappropriate comments, "why were you slow dancing with Willow?"

"I wasn't... or I was, but it was by accident. She was bored, and Giles was making really stupid finger sandwich jokes, and Oz was playing a fast song, so I invited her to fast dance."

"Only one flail into the fast dance, the band started a slow song," Faith finished. "At least I didn't have to rescue anyone from your flailing arms when you were slow dancing."

Angel frowned as Xander blushed deep red. While Xander might hate it when people tried to fight his battles for him, Angel was going to talk to Faith, just as soon as he had her alone. She should not go making Xander feel bad about himself, even if his attempts at fast dancing were sometimes dangerous. Angel would offer to coach the boy, as he had with slow dancing and fighting, both of which Xander was learning well-enough; however, Angel's own attempts at modern dance were lacking. Quite frankly, Faith would be the better teacher, but Angel did not trust the girl to not cause irreparable harm to Xander's ego.

"Anyway," Xander said loudly as he changed the topic, "Cordelia walked in during the slow dance, and she had the whole arch-villainess eyebrow of death going."

"That is one broad who would make me think twice before taking her on," Faith agreed as she started in on piece of chicken number three. Humans were expensive to feed.

"Is Cordelia angry? And who kidnapped them?" Angel demanded.

"Yes Cordelia is angry," Xander snorted. "Only it's not so much angry as furious and spiteful. And I didn't do anything but dance... but that is not going to matter so much as her making me publicly pay. And some weird guys on some slayerfest quest kidnapped them."

"They were after me," Faith offered. "It makes a girl feel special to know that men with automatic weapons are out there gunning for her. I'm just sorry that the idiots picked up Miss Priss instead. I would have given them a good tumble."

"But Buffy killed them?" Angel still didn't understand what had happened.

"Seems like. There was much drywall damage and spilling of blood, so I think that's a yes on the killing," Xander finished as he picked the last bits of meat off the chicken. "But I'm a little more concerned about the fact that Buffy and Cordelia both lost prom queen. If Buffy lost, I just would have avoided the library. If Cordelia lost, I would have claimed that I needed to do some extra credit project to keep you from going all parental, and I would have totally laired up in the library. Now, there is nowhere in that school that is safe," Xander said sadly.

"They're upset," Angel guessed.

"Upset? They're way past upset. They're nearly homicidal in their upsetness," Xander said sadly.

"They'll deal," Faith said without much sympathy. "I'm a little more interested in who set up a slayerfest. Most demons don't have balls that big, present company excluded," she finished with a wink in Angel's direction.

"Perhaps it's the same person who is contributing to the out of control minion problems in town," Angel mused.

"We killed the Master. Okay, Buffy killed the Master, and we were kill adjacent, but the Master is dead, so who are we talking about?" Xander asked.

"The Master is dead, long live the Master," Faith said with a grimace. "New big bad in town, maybe?"

Xander frowned. "The Master's been gone for over a year, why now? And I'm stupid because I know the answer to that. It's because Spike's gone, isn't it?" Xander looked over with so much distress, that Angel abandoned his post at the door and walked over to rest a hand on his shoulder.

"Whoever is doing this, they're going to be as dead as the Master," Angel promised.

Faith's snort made it clear what she thought of that. "Yeah? How are we going to find the big bad? Hey, maybe we should put out an ad in the paper. Would the real demon terrorizing Sunnydale please step forward?"

"Faith, enough," Angel said firmly.

She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm heading to bed. Anyone want to join me?" She stood and twitched her body.

"I think I've had enough of scary ladies tonight," Xander said with a shrug.

"Awww. I'll steer you 'round the curves," she said as she have him a coy look. Angel could smell the growing lust from Xander. Well, he himself had chased pretty much any girl in a skirt shabby enough to suggest she would take his coin in return for spreading her legs. At least Xander was lusting after women who did not take coin. Looking at Faith again, he could only hope they had never taken coin.

"And the rule is no sex in the apartment," Angel growled peevishly.

"You're welcome to supervise," Faith offered him as she stalked closer, her smile now focused on him, but at least she was leaving Xander alone. "Maybe even some hands on supervision. But if you two are busy, I can find someone on the street who's willing to give me a good, hard fuck."

"Faith," Angel said slowly. "I'm trying hard to pretend that you don't know what sex is. And if I catch one sniff of sex on you, I'll lock you in your room for a month and potentially eviscerate whatever guy you slept with."

Faith laughed. The girl truly did seem to find his threats amusing. "Five by five with me as long as you're locked in there with me," she offered, her hand sliding down over his arm. When Angel glanced down out of shock, he could see Xander's smug amusement. The little chancer was far too amused at Angel's discomfort.

Angel crossed his arms over his chest and did his best to look stern, and again she laughed. "I need more soda, pick me up some, kay?"

"When you've eaten the cauliflower I got you, I will," Angel said firmly.

"When I what?" Faith asked, her eyebrows drawing down as she finally dropped her lascivious affect.

"When you eat your cauliflower. You said that you would prefer cauliflower over other vegetables." Now Xander went from a small smug smile to a huge smirk as he looked from Angel to Faith and back again.

"Seriously?" Faith asked, and for one second she actually looked fifteen.

"Seriously," Angel insisted. "So, since you haven't eaten any of it yet, you have a lot of eating to do tonight and tomorrow if you expect me to get more soda."

"Fucking mother hen," Faith cursed as she headed for the door, and that momentary glimpse of a young Faith vanished under the slayer with the attitude of a pissed off gangster and a vocabulary that put a foot soldier to shame.

"And I will know if you throw it away," Angel added. Faith flipped him off before slamming his door shut behind her. He listened to her go into her apartment. Really, they were all in Xander's name, and Angel again considered putting the one in Faith's name instead. The first week here, she had not even offered a consistent answer regarding her last name, but she seemed to be settling down now. Cacophonous music suddenly blasted, and Angel flinched back from the sound, smiling only when he heard the refrigerator open and the crunch of her biting into the raw cauliflower.

"Can I just say woo-hoo that you have the apartment next to her and not me?" Xander said as he looked at the kitchen wall. It was vibrating slightly from the bass. "She scares me sometimes."

"She scares me often," Angel said as he headed for his kitchen. Pushing aside a bottle of pickles, ketchup, mustard, a brick of cream cheese and a plastic tub of Cool Whip, Angel grabbed his blood, which always seemed to get pushed to the back no matter how many times he growled at the humans. Xander dumped his chicken bones on the plate of leftovers Faith had decimated and scraped them into the trash while Angel was microwaving his blood, carefully watching as it turned. It still seemed odd to put food into a box and have it heat by itself, but he was not foolish enough to ask for that explanation again. Willow's attempts to describe energy were even less helpful than Xander's. But really, it was no more strange than the music coming out of the box in Faith's room... at decibels that would damage the human ear.

Angel walked over to the phone and dialed Faith's number. It rang, but Faith didn't even bother to pick it up, she just turned the music down to where it was only potentially damaging to human hearing.

"How upset was Cordelia?" Angel asked now that it was just the two of them.

"She probably wouldn't have done more than call me some name I didn't know without looking up, but then Faith made a crude comment about how parts of me were into Willow, and now Willow and Cordelia are both with the cranky," Xander shrugged.

Angel sighed and reconsidered the idea of putting the apartment in Faith's name. Perhaps Blair would be a better guardian. Angel could financially support them both. "I'm sorry," Angel offered, knowing that the words were as worthless as ever. He had brought Faith into their lives, so every time she did something to harm Xander, he could feel the worry gnaw at him. He wanted to do the right thing, but he so rarely understood what the right thing was anymore. Jessica Harris had grown much more attentive of Xander since he was home far less often. Perhaps Angel should make it clear that Xander could move back home, and Angel would not renege on his deal. To be honest, he was selfish enough to not want Xander to leave, even if it would be better for him.

"Hey, no reason for you to be sorry," Xander said as he headed out to the couch and clicked on the television. It was so late that some stations had gone to static, and the others had reruns of shows so old they were in black and white. "I mean, I know I don't like Willow, so I meant it when I said that a stick poke could make me get hard. Sometimes I think I don't have any control at all. I mean, the other day, when you rested your hand on my shoulder, I got hard. I have a stupid cock."

"At this age, it's supposed to be stupid," Angel agreed. He took his blood out and headed for the living room.

"Was yours?" Xander asked.

"I got hard for any woman who looked poor enough for me to afford," he admitted as he sat next to Xander on the sofa.

"Okay, that's pretty high on the patheticness scale."

"I think we've had this discussion before," Angel pointed out.

"Probably," Xander shrugged. For a few seconds he focused on flipping idly through the channels. "I like Willow, but I don't like Willow, not the way Oz likes Willow or the way I like Cordelia."

"I know." Angel focused on the television and waited as Xander struggled to sort his thoughts.

"It's just that sometimes I forget she's Willow and she feels like a girl. Not that she's not a girl, because curves there. Willow as a boy would be hugely with the weird. But she's not a *girl*."

"You're just libidinous," Angel guessed. Xander turned a confused look his way. "Horny," Angel edited himself.

"Oh, yeah," Xander agreed enthusiastically. "Only Willow is supposed to be the one with more sense than me, so she's supposed to be the brakes here. Only, she's not so brake-like. She was putting hands places that Willow hands should not go, which is where the stick-poking metaphor comes in. Should someone stoking the inside of my elbow or the small of my back really be so..." Xander trailed off into silence.

"Erotic?" Angel guessed. Xander nodded unhappily. "Everyone has erogenous zones, Xander, that's normal."

"And I'm just a mindless puddle of libnous goo when someone touches one of mine."

It took Angel a second to realize that Xander meant libidinous. He fought back a smile as he tried to figure out the socially correct answer. "Do you want to go hunt something?" he finally asked.

Xander gave him an odd look. "I'm exhausted. I think I'm going to head to bed and think stern thoughts about how my body should not be vetoing reasonable decisions made by my brain," he said as he clicked the television off and got up.

"Xander," Angel said as the boy got up.


"You'll survive high school," he said firmly. "The social trauma is a rite of passage, and emotional wounds heal."

Xander looked at him really oddly. "Um, good? I think. Angel, seriously, check the expiration date on your blood supply," he said as he headed for the door. "Good night."

"Good night, Xander," Angel answered right before his door closed. Sipping his blood, he listened as Xander got ready for bed, his shower running for a long time as he masturbated. Faith was kicking her wall in time with her music and crunching on cauliflower. Blair was right: the care and feeding of humans was never simple.


A Little Brutal Honesty with Tea

"Oh, this is intolerable," Giles snapped as he slammed his book shut. "There's not a word here about Lagos or the glove." He stood up. "We don't have time for this... near missing." The book dropped heavily onto the table and Xander exchanged a quick worried glance with Willow about a millisecond before he remembered he was not supposed to be exchanging glances with Willow. Faith was so supposed to be playing chaperone, or Cordelia, and they were both on the MIA list. Or Cordelia was MIA and Faith had gotten sent out to demonstrate more moves for her new watcher. Xander was not on this new watcher's fan list. Nope. Not at all. Giles turned and pinned both him and Willow with a glare. Okay, so Xander wasn't on the old watcher's fan list either. "Just find out all you can about the demon, its strengths, its-its weaknesses." Giles snapped. He was riding the potential heart attack train of stress, that's for sure. He started pacing. "Its places of origin, and most importantly, what it plans to do with this blasted glove." Giles poked his glasses in Xander's direction.

"Hey, you're not the watcher of me," he tried joking.

Giles scowled at him. "Then go home. But if you choose to stay, then work." Giles turned and headed for his office, and Xander was temporarily frozen in shock. Willow made a little concerned noise, and Xander took a step away from her toward the stacks. Only why should he read more worthless books? His suggestion was to call Angel, but no, that was just a stupid idea. All his ideas were stupid ideas. Only they weren't. He got Angel to go with him into the Master's lair. He's the one who took escort duty with the cheerleaders. They hadn't lost a cheerleader in over a year, and normally those girls were prime vampire pickings. And even Giles' comments about Spike were obviously more stupid than anything Xander ever said. Without Spike, the vampires were getting way more with the pushy.

"Xander, where are you going?" Willow asked as Xander reversed direction and headed to the phone.

"To call a qualified surgeon to remove the British flag from Giles' ass," Xander answered sarcastically. Willow gasped as Xander picked up the phone.

"We're all tired, it's late. Maybe we should just all stop and go home for the night. My eyes are all blurry," she said placatingly, only Xander was not with the wanting to be placated. He punched the numbers on the phone a little harder than he should and just hoped that Angel actually picked the phone up. Sometimes it was like the big lug just got tired of the twentieth century and decided to ignore anything that rang, buzzed, vibrated or lit up... well except his car. Angel was in love with that car.

"Hello?" Angel finally answered after seven rings.

"Lagos and the Glove of Ming-thingy," Xander blurted.

"What?" Angel asked, sounding both alarmed and confused.

"Who are you calling?" Giles demanded as he came out of his office, his precious tea in hand.

"Angel—who we should have been calling from the first," Xander said, bracing himself for the explosion.

"Angel? The *vampire* Angel? I thought we had an agreement that if you were to come into my library, you would not compromise our work by running to that demon with information." Giles slammed his tea down on the table hard enough to make it slop over the side.

"What information?" Xander demanded. "We have a big nada, zero, zip and zitch on the information front."

"We have a picture of Lagos," Willow offered as she chewed her bottom lip.

"He doesn't have the glove yet," Xander pointed out. "Now a picture of the crypt with the glove in it might be information, but a picture of Lagos is non-information or at least in the non-helpful column of information."

"And you think telling a *vampire* where to find an all powerful weapon is a better idea than doing a little work for yourself?" Giles asked in a tone that made Xander want to slink away. "American teenagers have the work ethics of..."

"STOP!" Willow yelled, and then she nearly shrank in on herself when they both looked at her. "We're supposed to be helping each other... and helping Buffy."

"And Faith," Xander added.

"And Faith," Willow agreed with a nod and a slight blush. Right now, Xander thought Faith was way more with the needing help considering that Mrs. Gwendolyn Post seemed a little on the seriously anal retentive side. Just as soon as Faith lost her cool and told the woman about Angel and Clem and the concept of good demons, he figured she would either stroke out or call the Council and try to whisk Faith away for a bit of brainwashing, not that Angel was going to be letting that happen.

"The best way to help the slayers is not to bring a homicidal demon into our midst," Giles said slowly and carefully, obviously choosing his words to avoid the profanity that probably wanted to come out. Seriously, though, that façade of librarian didn't work quite so well after Xander had seen Giles stoned on band candy. Between the smoking and the cursing and the sex and the demon summoning, Giles had the moral purity of tar. And then he sobered up and didn't even admit to Buffy that he'd been boffing her mom. Angel and his nose was the only reason Xander knew.

Xander spoke slowly himself and tried to actually choose words instead of letting them just fall out of his mouth. "Angel is the one who helped Faith when you left her in a hotel with not even enough money for food or rent, so I'm thinking he's proved his usefulness. But now some people... some people are not that much with the useful," Xander said cruelly. Okay, it was a low blow, especially with Post poking at Giles' ego, but he was finished and finito with the blame game they always seemed to play.

"I-I-well really, she only had to ask," Giles said, and off came the glasses. Yep, that scored a direct hit. Time to sink Giles' battleship.

"Yeah, because she is all with the mentally healthy and able to articulate her needs," Xander said, loading the words with sarcasm. "And fifteen is definitely old enough to be alone, in a neighborhood filled with drug dealers and demons and hookers. Hey, there's an idea. Maybe you expected her to hook for her money."

"Xander Harris, you stop being mean!" Willow said, crossing her arms and giving him a stern look.

"Xander's being mean?" Cordelia asked as she walked in, the library doors clacking shut behind her. "Where's Faith?" she asked suspiciously. Yep, Xander was still on the short leash of love.

"She's with her watcher," Giles said archly. "And Xander was just leaving."

"Really? It sounded like he was just ripping into you," she offered with a sweet smile... the kind a praying mantis used right before eating her mate... only that was a really bad metaphor because Xander was the mate... or the hopefully one-day-soon mate. Xander shook his head as he tried to clear that image.

"Perhaps you should escort him home," Giles said, his voice tight with disapproval.

"I thought I'd listen in on him handing out the cold, hard truth."

"Cordelia, you're not helping," Willow hissed.

"I wasn't trying to," she said with a shrug.

Giles took a step forward toward Xander, and Cordelia linked her arm with his. Okay, Xander could admit that he was seconds away from folding and running away—like usual when Willow or Buffy backed up Giles—but now he faced both of them.

"Xander," Willow said in a scandalized voice.

"Oh please, enough with the trying to turn Xander into your little lapdog," Cordelia rolled her eyes.

"Me? Me? I'm not the one who's ordering him around and don't think I don't know that you told Faith to keep me away from him."

"Faith was to keep you from Xander?" Giles asked in confusion. Of course he'd left before the dance drama.

"It's a long story," Willow said softly, her hands picking at the edge of her shirt nervously.

"Miss Do-Good tried to get in Xander's pants," Cordelia summarized it. Xander flinched, but no one tried to contradict her version.

"Oh," Giles said in confusion as he looked from one of them to the other.

"I asked Faith to keep you away from his penis," Cordelia finished. Xander and Willow both blushed dark red at that.

"I hardly think this is the appropriate time for this adolescent drama," Giles said as he turned to go back in his office.

Xander pulled his arm away from Cordelia and stepped toward Giles. "Newsflash. We are adolescents. Willow is exhausted, I'm frustrated because you won't even listen to me, and Buffy is a kid, but you don't want to see any of that."

"If you're frustrated, feel free to leave," Giles said with a smile sweet enough to match Cordelia. Every once in a while that nasty side of Giles slipped out.

"Like you did?" Xander asked. He had his own nasty side if that's how Giles wanted to play. "Don't forget, I met the young you. You were good at walking away from responsibility. I bet your dad didn't listen to any of your ideas, so you just walked away and hung out with Ethan and summoned demons and smoked and slept with slayer's mothers. Oh, I'm sorry, that last part came later, didn't it?" Xander crossed his arms over his chest and watched as Giles turned paler.

"He slept with Joyce?" Cordelia asked with more than a little amusement. "You have good gossip like that and you don't tell me?"

"He couldn't have," Willow whispered in horror.

"You don't know anything," Giles said as he stepped forward.

"I know that you're the adult and you're a pretty shitty one. Why don't you care about Willow getting enough time to do her homework?"

Giles drew himself up to his full height. "She can leave whenever she wants, as can you."

"The way Faith could ask you for money for food?" Xander noticed that Giles turned just a wee bit paler at that. Yeah, Giles knew he'd been a complete an utter asshole to Faith.

"He has a point there," Cordelia offered. "Seriously, my parents are models of neglect or I would never be out this late, but they are still the Cleavers compared to you."

"I am not your parent. I did not father any of you."

Xander glanced over and he could see the tears gathering in the corners of Willow's eyes. He looked back, and Giles was watching her. The sneer on his face had softened into confusion.

"We should go," Willow said softly.

"Willow, I-I don't mean that I don't enjoy your company," Giles stammered. "I quite enjoy our magic lessons, and you are coming along splendidly. Jenny speaks very highly of your talent."

"Way to go, Giles," Cordelia said as she reached over and picked up the phone. "So, who are we giving the performance for?"

Xander froze as he realized who had just heard that. "Oh shit... Angel." Cordelia raised an eyebrow in amusement as Xander grabbed the phone and practically yelled into the mouthpiece. "Angel? Angel?!"

"Give it up. If he heard any part of that, he's on his way here," Cordelia said as she reached out for his arm again. Xander looked around the room, and suddenly he realized how much damage he'd done. Willow was near to crying, Giles was pale and looking more angry than ever, and Cordelia had that satisfied expression that always worried him. And the truce between Cordelia and Buffy was new enough that the whole Joyce bombshell really should not have been put in her hands. It was like giving Iran a big old nuclear weapon and saying, 'now you be nice and don't use that.' Yep, he was stupid. He was huge old piles of stupid.

"Giles," Xander said uncertainly.

"Perhaps I am not perfect, but that does not make your decisions any less questionable," Giles said stiffly. He continued to stand at the end of the table, and Willow slid back, her fingers picking at the neck of her blue blouse.

"It looks like someone dropped emotional napalm on you two. Seriously, consider looking at reality every once in a while," Cordelia said without much sympathy. It was funny, alone Cordy had all kinds of sympathy for people, but in front of the others, she really was at her bitchy best. Only right now, Xander seriously wished she would show just a little bit of that softer underside.

"Willow, hey, you know me... engage mouth before brain," Xander tried.

"I know," she said softly, still edging toward the exit.

"You people are pathetic if a little truth is this damaging on your egos," Cordelia sniffed, and then she was pulling Xander away. Xander followed for two steps before he stopped and pulled his arm free. Cordelia considered him with raised eyebrows.

"Giles, I meant what I said about you not thinking about us, but I said it because I was angry, and that was... okay that was shitty of me," Xander blurted before he could change his mind. "I guess I just get angry that you always seem to come down hard on me and the whole Angel thing is driving me way past the point of common sense. If he were evil, he's had plenty of time to make with the evil plan and conquer the world, not that I think he would. He has trouble keeping up with me and Faith, so I don't see him playing conqueror and trying to rule the world. But my point is that either he's not evil or he's really, really pathetic and incompetent evil. And incompetent is not the first word I think when I think of Angel. Unless you're talking electronics. If you think 'electronics' and then 'Angel', then incompetent is going to pop up pretty quick."

Giles just stared at Xander, and he could decide if he was digging out of a hole or just digging himself in deeper. It wasn't easy figuring out how to deal with pissy English people.

"Um, I should go. People to see, homework to stare at blankly," Xander said with a crooked smile. This time, he let Cordelia pull him out of the room. They walked silently down the abandoned hallways where he'd walked Ampata to her classes while Buffy made unsubtle kissing noises behind his back. This was where he rolled his eyes at Willow and Buffy when they'd all gotten volunteered to escort kids on Halloween. This was where he'd asked Amy out on a date and then been shocked when she said yes. Buffy and Willow had promptly accused him of having low self-esteem, which... no duh. So, why did he keep going out of his way to inflict emotional damage on the people he really and truly did love? Yeah, poking Giles felt good at the time, but hurting Giles meant hurting Willow and Buffy. And he couldn't forget Willow's tragic eyes. She was big with the hurty.

"I'm officially slime," Xander said softly to Cordelia.

"No you're not. Slime is disgusting, and I don't date disgusting; ergo, you are not slime," she said confidently.

"Um, present company disproves that theory."

They walked out into the night, and Xander sat on the steps. Angel was probably going to show up sooner rather than later, so no need to freak the gelled one out by taking off. Nope, he'd sit here like a good little backstabber so that Angel could find him and then look at him strangely as he tried to figure out what was going on. Xander had even tried making Angel watch Passions so he would understand the psychological damage that was friendship, but he was pretty sure he'd just confused Angel even more.

Cordelia sat next to him. "They already knew, deep down."

"And I went and pulled it all up to the surface. Yep, that's me, dredging up the ugly for fun and kicks."

"You are good at it," Cordelia offered, and Xander turned to look at her incredulously. Okay, he knew why he was dating Cordelia because... hello... Cordelia, but sometimes he didn't know why he dated her. She had a habit of complimenting him on the very things he was trying to stop doing, like poking Giles with the verbal stick. Which, true, Giles deserved the poke, but Willow didn't, and now Willow and Buffy were going to get the poke fallout. Yep, it was about to be the nuclear winter of poke, and it was all his fault. That—and Faith's new watcher—were the makings of a truly horrific senior year. Maybe he could join Faith in the land of dropouts. Her GED book didn't look too hard. If he studied, he could pass it.

"Are you going to be depressed all night?" Cordelia asked with a disgusted sigh.


Cordelia sighed again, but this time it was a softer sound. Reaching over, she rested her hand on his arm, her fingers curling into the inside of his elbow, and parts of his body not above his shoulders started doing his thinking for him. "What exactly did you say to them? You pointed out that Giles is oblivious to everything not slaying, right?"

Xander nodded, but only part of his attention was on her words, the other part was on the heat of her hand soaking through his skin, and the way her knee brushed against his. He glanced over and watched her mouth form words, the lips drawing together.

"And you pointed out that Giles acts like a jerk around you?"

"Um, yeah," Xander agreed.

"Truth and truth. And if Willow goes and gets all weepy over Giles pointing out that he did not father her, then she has more problems than I thought. She should get herself a good therapist. Maybe two." Cordelia shrugged and looked out at the parking lot. Her convertible and Giles' sad little car were the only ones in the lot. "And if you keep playing martyr, I'm going to have daddy get you therapy," she warned. But her hand patted him, and Xander took the threat as a sign of love.

They sat in silence for long minutes, cars sailed past and one pedestrian strolled down the side of the road.

"Vampire," Xander guessed.

"Probably," Cordy agreed without moving. These days there were so many vamps, and the vamps were so pathetically weak and out of control that he figured there couldn't be a master vampire anywhere around. Spike had always said that a master is judged by the quality of his minions, and these minions were not exactly Grade A, Prime Choice. Nope, whoever was trying to play conqueror of the hellmouth this time around wasn't Angel and wasn't any vamp who followed Spike-logic.

"I shouldn't have suggested that Giles turned Faith out to be a hooker," Xander said as he got a look of disgust on his face.

"You said that?" Cordelia asked, sounding more surprised than actually disgusted. She should be disgusted. He was a horrible person.

"I said that he abandoned Faith and that he probably just expected her to sleep with men for money," Xander admitted. His stomach was starting to tighten into one giant knot.

"Well, it's true. Again, truth is an absolute defense against slander... or would that be liable?" she mused as she shifted on the stairs.

"It would be mean," Xander answered.

"True enough, but hey, if they can't take the truth, that's their problem."

"Xander," Willow said softly, and Xander leaned all the way back on the steps and tilted his head back to see upside Willow standing on the steps above him. He flipped over so she was right side up and scrambled to his feet.

"What are you... I mean.... Hey," Xander finished lamely. Cordelia got up with way more grace than he had and managed to roll her eyes at the same time.

"Giles is giving me a ride home," Willow said as she pulled her bookbag to her chest. She looked absolutely lost, but Cordelia still shifted in front of Xander, so he was guessing that Cordy wasn't willing to withdraw the claws yet. He was just lucky that the Harmony and the others described the dance as Willow getting grabby and him getting big with the awkward and uncomfortable. He so did not want to think how shitty his life would be if those claws of Cordelia's were in him.

"Yes, I had rather hoped to catch you before you left," Giles said as he turned around after locking the front doors of the school.

"Really? Um, should I be running now?" Xander asked with a weak grin.

Giles just looked at him for a second, and then shook his head sadly. "Clearly we disagree regarding Angel, and I have my own reasons for believing him to be a danger to the community. I don't feel a need to share those reasons because, as you say, you are not the adults here."

If this was Giles' way of making up, Xander was not feeling it. He reached up and rested his hand on Cordy's waist, needing that support. Giles sighed again.

"But as you say, I have been rather harsh on you in hopes of encouraging you to do better. A number of people have suggested that I might have gone too far," he said with a grimace. "While I might not trust everyone's judgment, Ms. Calendar has a good insight on people, and she has suggested that I am more difficult with you than with other people. I had thought her an alarmist, but she may be correct."

Xander just stared, not quite sure how to take this. It might be an apology, but it might not be. And how weird was it that Giles' girlfriend was sticking up for him? Since she was Willow's techno-mage, wicca mentor person, he kinda figured she'd be on Willow's side. And the awkward silence just went on.

"I had hoped we could discuss this like adults," Giles said, disapproval leeching into his voice again. Willow hugged her bookbag tighter and Cordelia crossed her arms over her chest.

Angel saved them all from awkwardness when he squealed into the parking lot with his big old car. Xander flinched as the vamp took one of the student lot speed bumps hard enough to send the front wheels airborne. Angel hit the brakes and slowed down quite a bit before he pulled up in front of the school. When Giles reached out and pulled Willow close to his side, Xander knew that things hadn't really changed. Giles was still with the lack of trust and he was still with the much frustration.

"Xander, Cordelia, Willow," Angel said as he got out, slamming the car door behind him. "Rupert," he added after a pause.

"Hey, Angel," Willow offered from behind Giles where she'd been pushed.

"Xander, I assume you meant the Glove of Myhnegon when you called with that alarming message."

Giles took a step forward. "Yes, well, as this truly is none of your concern, you need not worry about which glove Xander meant," he said firmly at the exact same time that Xander offered a "Yep." Giles gave Xander a dirty look.

"Oh nice," Cordelia said with disgust. "You almost apologize for treating Xander like dirt and then you turn around and treat him like dirt again. And people call me thoughtless."

Giles cleared his through and got a constipated expression on his face. "I have never wavered in my belief that Angel is not the... person... to entrust with such information."

"I've always been on the side of the slayers," Angel said, and Xander could hear the frustration there. Yep, Angel and Giles were not going to sit down and sing Kum Ba Yah together any time soon... or any time far, either, for that matter.

"But people can change," Giles said with a strange tone in his voice. Xander looked from Giles to Angel in confusion, but Angel looked as confused as him, and Giles had on his 'not sharing' face.

"Yes, they can," Angel finally answered when the awkward silence had gotten more with the awkward. Walking up a few steps, he stood beside Xander and Cordelia. "Mrs. Post certainly has."

"What?" That caught Giles so off guard that he actually forgot to looked pissed about Angel being there.

"How could you entrust Faith to someone you had not even checked out? Weren't you suspicious at all? Or are you truly so convinced of the infallibility of your precious watchers that you would sacrifice Faith to your idiocy?" And Angel was definitely sounding cranky.

"I... there is no reason to suspect she is anything other than what she seems to be."

Angel stiffened and for one second, Xander thought Giles was about to get a demonstration of how vampires dealt with frustration, but then Angel gave a slow smile. "Other than the fact that she is actually a man? Other than the fact that she has no paperwork or proof? Other than the fact that Mrs. Gwendolyn Post was kicked out of your watchers' club for doing black magic? No, no reason for suspicion. She must have done a lot of black magic because the Council seems fine with their watchers dabbling in the dark arts," Angel said in a bitterly insulting tone. Normally Angel saved lectures that long for things like eating vegetables... a topic he was slightly obsessive about, but Giles had definitely found a new hot-button for Angel-obsessing.

Willow gasped. "Black magic? Jenny says that black magic corrupts your aura."

"Rather," Giles agreed. "However, at this point we only have the word of a vampire."

"Then call England and find out for yourself. And the next time someone tries to convince Faith that her only worth is in how well she kills, they may get more than a broken arm."

Xander's eyes went wide. Okay, that was unexpected. Angel broke someone's arm? Xander looked around, and everyone looked shocked except Giles.

Giles' expression just sort of closed down. "Did she survive?" he asked blandly.

"Yes," Angel said, his mouth now a tight line. "But if she's after what I think she is, she won't live for long if she gets in Lagos' way or if she gets anywhere near the Glove of Myhnegon. She's a practitioner of black magic, and they very rarely want anything other than power, money, or the ability to conquer the world."

"Then we shall find where the glove has been secreted," Giles said firmly. "Willow, perhaps we can put in another hour of research."

"The Von Hauptman family crypt at the Restfield Cemetery," Angel said calmly. "I could have told you that hours ago."

"Oh," Giles said as he took his glasses off and began polishing. "I shall call Buffy and..."

"It's not there now."

"Did Lagos..."

"I've moved it. If you find a way to destroy it, I'll bring it here for the ceremony. If not, I will hide it somewhere else."

"You will..." Giles sputtered to a stop. "Do you truly think I would allow you to have such a powerful weapon? What will happen if that soul of yours should happen naff off?!"

"If his soul does what?" Cordelia asked.

"You know. You know about the happiness clause which is why you're always big on the Angel-hating," Xander accused Giles. "And way to not show the supportiveness. You knew there was a way for Angel to go all soul-free, and you still let me live next door to him. Thanks, Giles. I'm feeling the love now!"

"I had... I never... I did tell you to not get so blasted close to the monster," Giles snapped.

Cordelia jumped right into the fight. "Right, because telling someone that without giving a reason is very helpful. Angel, I respect both you and the calming effect your presence has had on Xander's taste in clothes..." Xander glanced down at his blue striped shirt and frowned at that comment. "... however, if you're about to turn into a murdering, raping, spawn of hell, could you give me some advance warning?"

"I'm not going to lose my soul," Angel said, and Xander noticed that Cordelia didn't try to move away, not even an inch. Willow, on the other hand, looked like she was ready to press herself right into the side of the building. Her wide eyes watched Angel with horror and she held her book bag so high that her hair brushed the top.

"Really? As I understand it, the gypsies who cursed you included a clause for ending that curse." Giles looked way too smug about that little fact.

"Which, may I say, is definitely hugely stupid. I mean, you want him to have a conscience, so you curse him, but you put on a clause that will turn the badass version loose on some other group of unsuspecting people? I question the morality and/or intelligence of these particular gypsies," Xander pointed out.

"It's a moot point anyway," Angel sighed. "The condition for my soul to be lost is perfect happiness. I assure you that I often feel frustrated, aggravated, annoyed and occasionally borderline homicidal, but I do not feel perfectly happy," Angel pointed out.

"Oh, and when the day comes that you claim your consort, won't that be a perfect moment?" Giles demanded. Xander narrowed his eyes at the look Giles shot him. Okay, something was weird in the state of Sunnydale. He made a mental note to look up consort.

"First, I have no plans for Xander," Angel said and now he stepped forward so he was in front of Cordy and Xander. "Second, even if I did, I would still have to worry about an amadán like you damaging him. And if I were to convince him to leave you and this town behind, I have vampires I have made out there... I have the memories of my own bad choices. There is no perfect happiness for me."

"So you claim," Giles insisted.

"So I claim," Angel said in that sweet voice with just a hint of Irish in it, the one that Xander didn't trust. "And since I have the Glove of Myhnegon, you'll just have ta keep on trusting me, won't you? Oh, and keep that Post woman and her idiotic ideas away from Faith or she'll be getting more than a broken arm," he said as he turned his back on Giles. If Xander thought Giles had been pale before, he was practically a ghost now. When Angel turned, Xander could see the yellow eyes shining at him. "Xander, you need ta be goin' down and getting two of those cell phones contraptions. I'll not be stuck trying to decide whether to listen for you or get the job done... not again. Understand?"

"Oh yeah, got it," Xander quickly agreed. No way was he going to argue with Irish-voice, cranky Angel, and he wasn't exactly upset at the idea of cool new tech stuff anyway.

"I'll help him pick out colors that don't clash," Cordelia offered. Angel looked at her for a second, a frown flashing across his face before the yellow vanished and his face was again that sort of expressionless neutral Angel had on most of the time.

"Xander do you want a ride or are you staying with Cordelia?" Angel asked, his voice absolutely flat.

"I was going to see if Cordy wanted to go out for a soda."

Angel nodded and went back to his car, getting in without a backwards glance and taking off out of the parking lot way too fast. They all held their breath, the silence heavy between them even as Willow eased away from the wall.

Eventually Giles sighed. "Xander, you must see why I worry about him being involved in our business."

"You mean because he has a temper?" Xander asked. "Nope. Everyone in this group has a temper, and lots of us have a past full of stupids. I tried to rape Buffy, Willow tried to become queen to a cyber demon, Buffy turned vamp in that weird dream world, and you summoned demons. I'm not cutting Angel off for his lack of perfectness."

"Of course, I never did anything like that," Cordelia sniffed as she started down the stairs.

"You don't have to go evil to be scary," Xander pointed out as he quickly followed, leaving Giles and Willow behind.

"True," she said, and she flashed a brilliant smile over her shoulder at him. Oh yeah, Xander still had a shot at second base if that smile were any indication. He hurried ahead of her and opened her car door for her. Her fingers trailed over his cheek before she got in, and he rushed to the other side. Willow and Giles were still on the steps, and Xander offered them a little wave before he got in. Second base, here he came.


A Slippery Leash

"Maybe I shouldn't go," Angel said as he stood uncomfortably pulling at his sweater. Christmas had never been his favorite holiday as they had gone to church and then sat in hard chairs while his father read bible lessons. Most of them seemed to center around how sinful Liam had been during the year and how disappointed his father was. Santa Clause and Christmas cards and parties were certainly not how he remembered the day. Angel much preferred Nollaig na mBan, Women's Christmas, which came twelve days later. His mother would have her friends over, and he would listen at the door and bring them treats and sometimes get a peek of some neighbor girl's leg. Epiphany they called it now, only Xander said that no one truly celebrated that day anymore. In fact, Xander would be at school. Angel pulled at his sweater again, truly disliking the red and green colors.

"We're already here, so no 'going' required," Xander said as he caught Angel by the arm.

"Maybe I should check on Faith."

"Okay, Faith is fine. How much trouble can a slayer get into hanging out with the GED folks, and wow that was a stupid thing to say." Xander flinched as he realized how he'd just hexed himself. Angel did not truly understand why the others believed in that sort of hexing, but they did. Xander shrugged, obviously realizing he couldn't take the words back. "You really do not blend into the woodwork there, so give her some space. I have specific orders from her to not let you come act all weirdly parental."

Xander started pulling Angel toward Joyce's house. "Look, Cordy has to do some party thing with her folks, and I'm stuck Christmas Day with the parentals, so we are spending Christmas Eve together at Buffy's party. Period. The end." Xander got that stubborn expression on his face, and Angel struggled to come up with a reason... any reason... for leaving. He came up blank. He never thought he would be wishing for an apocalypse. Before he could argue more, Xander was tugging him toward the front door.

With a sigh, Angel allowed himself to be pulled up the steps. "I'm not planning on being nice to Giles or that Scott boy," he growled as Xander rang the bell.

"Buffy is trying to avoid the freaky, so teachers will not be coming to her Christmas party, and she is so over Scott Hope. She's back to Devon," Xander said, and then the door flew open and Buffy was there.

"She—" Angel was cut off by a slayer-volume squeal.

"Xander! And Angel. Wow. I so did not think he would get you to come to any gathering that didn't have a potential for bloodshed, and please let there be no potential bloodshed here," Buffy's smile slipped and she gave a bit of a grimace at that thought.

"Hey, it's Christmas Eve, no bloodshed allowed. I will stand up and order any potential mayhem to come back the day after tomorrow," Xander said firmly.

"My hero," Buffy smiled as she took Xander's other arm and pulled him in. Xander jerked to a stop when Angel hit the barrier, but he didn't let go of Angel's arm.

"Oh, Angel, I’m sorry," Buffy flinched as she looked around quickly.

"You're clear; Joyce didn't see, and if she had seen I was fully prepared to introduce Angel as my mime friend."

"Your what?" Angel asked, his eyebrows going up.

"Hey, no bloodshed, remember?" Buffy laughed. "Angel, you are officially invited into my home."

The barrier evaporated, and Angel stepped through into the slayer's home. Buffy clearly had advantages that Faith and Kendra had not. He wondered how much of her remarkable survival was due to Giles' training, and how much came from the fact she had a stable home with a clearly loving parent. Speaking of Buffy's mother, Joyce walked across the room, leaving a huge bowl of chips on the coffee table as she stepped around Oz and Willow. Angel had seen her from a distance, both in Sunnydale and back in LA where he'd watched her and her husband fight over Buffy's expulsion from school, but he'd never seen her up close. She was a handsome woman.

"Hello. You must be Xander's friend, the one who's tutoring him," Joyce held out her hand, but Angel could see the suspicion in her eyes. Did every person they meet insist on assuming he had designs on Xander?

"Angel O'Connelly," he introduced himself as he shook her hand quickly and then pulled back before she could notice the lack of body heat. "I'm more than just a friend," he said and Joyce's back stiffened. "I was very good friends with Xander's uncle, Destry LaVelle. He was a bit of a mentor to me when I went to law school, and before he went to South America, he made me promise that I would keep an eye on his favorite nephew," Angel said, putting all his charm forward. He didn't like charming humans, it felt too much like stalking them, but he could if necessary. And Joyce was just too strong and too ethical of a woman to have suspicions and not act on them. So, he definitely needed to allay her fears before he had to deal with Social Services on top of what Blair assured him was normal teen angst.

"Oh, and when do you expect your uncle back?" Joyce asked Xander.

"He's dead," Xander shrugged, a dozen pretzels already in his mouth. Angel could have groaned. Xander had many skills, but lying or even obfuscating would never be one. When Joyce looked at him with horror and sadness and just a little confusion, Xander finally caught on. He swallowed, choked on pretzel crumbs, and then finally offered Joyce a sad smile. "He died a while back, and I didn't know him all that well. My dad really hated Uncle Destry, which is probably the best character reference you can get because my dad is..." Xander looked at Angel in panic as he realized that he was in over his head, but Joyce was already melting with maternal pity.

"I'm so sorry. Your uncle sounds like a wonderful man, and I'm sure he's very proud to see how you're growing up." Joyce took Xander by the arm and herded him over to the snack table, pointing out all the treats with chocolate in them with a motherly tone.

"He mentored you in law school?" Buffy asked with a conspiratorial smile.

"You spend your evenings in your room?" Angel asked right back. He wasn't the only one lying to Joyce.

"Ouch. That was point-like," she said as she slipped a hand through his arm and stepped into the living room with him. "Angel, you know Oz and Willow," she said as she waved her hand in their direction. Willow was totally focused on Oz, her hand hovering near his arm. Oz looked a little less invested in her as he looked up and gave Angel a smile. He suspected the werewolf had been bothered by Willow's wandering interests; after all, vampires weren't the only ones with superior senses.

"Hey," Oz offered. Willow gave him a quick glance and then focused right back in on Oz. She was biting her lip and he was carefully not looking at her. Angel wondered how soon he could talk Xander into leaving.

"Larry's over there. For an ex, he's really cool about it," Buffy said. "Actually, I like him more as an ex than as a boyfriend because he was a little creepy in the boyfriend department."

Angel made absolutely no comment on that. Considering the stories he'd heard from Xander and the various things he'd sniffed on her boyfriends, Angel would categorize most of her boyfriends as creepy.

"And Freddy Iverson is the editor of the newspaper." Buffy waved at a boy on the opposite end of the food table, and he waved back. Angel made an awkward wave of his own and mentally vowed revenge on Xander. Broccoli was in the boy's future. Buffy whispered to him while still smiling at a clearly uncomfortable Freddy. "I was trying to get him to write an article about the real Cordelia Chase, the one that has the morality of a really slimy demon, but strangely he has ethics. Clearly, he is not going into journalism for a career. Anyway, Willow said that his parents do the whole Jewish ignoring Christmas thing, so we invited him."

Angel tried to smile at the boy with glasses and long hair who was staking out the food table even though he was so thin Angel doubted he actually ate. "Um, okay," he said. Yes, this was clearly hell. He might actually become nostalgic about his own family's Christmases at this rate.

"And of course Devon," Buffy said, her tone of voice shifting and lust drifting from her as the singer strolled over to them. Buffy's scent made Angel's nose itch. Angel really disliked the boy with his leather coat and floppy hair and the strangle dimple in the middle of his forehead. He reminded Angel of the man in that movie with the music where a perfectly nice girl started dressing like Faith in order to sing to the male as she danced around a carnival. It was a disturbing movie.

"Hey," Devon said, his head bobbing to some music only he could hear. Buffy smiled at him. "Hey," he repeated, "don't I know you?" He frowned at Angel.

"Yes," Angel answered. Devon just looked at him for a second, his head-bopping pausing.

"Cool," he finally answered as he went back to bopping. He leaned over and nearly swallowed Buffy's tongue as his hands went to places where Angel generally didn't grab girls until after he'd paid, but she broke away with a desperate look toward her mother. Joyce was standing with her arms crossed and a frown on her face. It had been a long time since Angel had been human, but he still remembered that look. After grabbing something green from the food table, Joyce made a beeline for them.

"So, Mr. O'Connelly," she said, her eyes never leaving Devon, "you're a lawyer."

Angel looked at Buffy, and she looked as uncomfortable as he felt. In fact, Devon seemed like the only one who wasn't feeling the heat of Joyce's glare.

"What sort of law do you practice?" she asked him as she thrust the bowl of green blob in his hand. Angel took it automatically and looked over at Xander for a rescue. Xander, however, was deep in conversation with Larry... or possibly ignoring him. While he might care for the little ingrate, Angel had no doubt he would abandon Angel in the middle of hell if it amused him.

"Ah, contracts and—"

"How nice," Joyce cut him off. Angel followed the line of her glare and found Devon's hand still dangerously low on Buffy's backside. Buffy stepped forward and broke contact.

"Mom, you should listen to Freddy describe this really cool new thing he's doing with the paper. It has something to do with... paper," she finished lamely as she hurried her mother away from Devon.

"Well... damn," Devon said with a shrug before he headed over to the couch and dropped down beside Oz.

Willow was talking to both of them, but Angel ignored her.

"It's Jello. You eat it," Xander said with amusement as he came over, his own plate full of chocolate.

"You eat it," Angel said as he held the bowl and spoon out for him.

"Oh no. No, tonight I am chocolate-loyal. I am chocolate-faithful. I am planning to eat enough chocolate to make myself sick, and seeing how much food is here, I am so glad we forgot to bring anything for the pot luck."

Angel froze. "You said we were not supposed to bring anything," Angel whispered. He had wanted to bring a gift, and Xander had absolutely vetoed his suggestion.

"Okay, you do not bring wine to an underage girl's party," Xander said as he rolled his eyes. "Um, but we were supposed to bring something sugary or in any other way potentially damaging to good oral hygiene. Look, no big. Eat your Jello," Xander said and then he was smiling at Freddie and hurrying over to talk about seven out of nine somethings.

Backing away from the room full of adolescent children, Angel stood pressed to the banister, wondering if he could hide upstairs without getting caught.

"It's hard being the adult at one of these, huh?" Joyce said as she came up to stand next to him. "But I respect you for coming. So many of these parents say they will provide adequate supervision and then they don't." She nodded knowingly, and Angel shoved a spoonful of Jello in his mouth to avoid having to answer.

He disliked eating human food. The feeling of something in his stomach always triggered his hunger. The pig blood never totally satisfied him, and the additional hunger made it difficult for him to control his urges, but right now, he could handle that more than a conversation with a woman who he had been warned about not upsetting. Both Xander and Buffy had been very adamant about him not upsetting her.

"The Wells family, they have a girl two years older than Andrew--who's just a year behind Xander and Buffy--I heard from the Rosenburgs that they hosted a party and three kids were killed driving home drunk afterwards. The parents actually bought alcohol for them. It's a tragedy that the Wells girl had to die, but apparently they are much more careful now with Andrew. Sometimes, though, I do worry about the influences in this town."

She glanced over, and Angel shoved more Jello in his mouth. This... foodstuff... was like eating water.

"You really like that, don't you? I can't stand the lime," she said. "I'll get you more."

Angel opened his mouth to protest, but she had already grabbed the bowl and spoon from him and headed back to the table. Taking the opportunity, he aimed for the kitchen where he'd seen Xander disappear.

"Angel, my man, good Jello, yes?" Devon asked, cutting him off before he could get more than a single step.

"The best Jello I've ever tasted," Angel agreed truthfully. Of course, he'd also tasted horse manure that was not too far behind it in terms of things he wanted in his mouth. The texture was clearly intended to torture the eater, and it tasted more of chemicals than food. The only redeeming quality was the way it made him nauseous enough to not care about his constant hunger.

Devon gave a knowing laugh and winked at him. And then Joyce was back, that mother-glare on her face again. With one more wink, Devon retreated back to Buffy's side, but at least this time he kept his hands off her posterior. "I don't know what she sees in him," she sighed as she gave Angel the Jello. Again, eating was much preferable to talking.

"I liked that Scott boy. I don't know why Buffy dumped him."

"He was homosexual," Angel said, happy to finally have something to contribute to the conversation. Joyce looked at him oddly. "Xander told me," Angel added awkwardly. He knew about the homosexuality from smelling the boy, and Joyce was not supposed to know about the smelling of humans.

"Oh," she said weakly. "I suppose that is a reason to stop dating him."

Angel nodded and ate more Jello. He missed Christmas in Ireland where it wasn't so hot.

"But there's Larry. He seems like a very pleasant young man. Buffy, however, seems intent on dating the most inappropriate boys possible."

Angel snorted. "Oh, yeah," he agreed. And she did. She had liked him. He was a vampire, so that was completely inappropriate. Him dating anyone was inappropriate. Although he had sometimes thought about the vampires down at the suck house. He missed sex.

Heading for the table, Angel took more of that green Jello and then grabbed a pretzel. He'd seen Xander eat them all the time. Sometimes he stuck the whole thing in his mouth, and it made his cheeks bulge. It reminded him of how William's cheeks would bulge out when he was sucking Angel's cock. Angel chuckled at the thought. He liked how Xander never really let himself not have fun just because someone else might think he was strange. Angel and Liam had both spent too much time worrying about what other people might think. Angel stuck the whole pretzel in his mouth and nearly choked as a bit broke off and caught him in the back of the throat.

He swallowed and coughed and then turned to assure the room that he was fine. "Good thing I don't have to breathe, yes?" he asked. Buffy's eyes looked all weird.

Xander appeared like magic in front of him, and Angel stuck his spoon into the Jello bowl on the table and offered it to Xander. "Thanks, but again with the no. Angel, are you okay?" Xander asked.

"I feel good," Angel agreed. "But I'm hot." He frowned and picked up the large bowl of Jello as he headed for the front door. "I should go hunting." Angel stopped and turned around. "Xander, I like that you don't let other people try to tell you to not be yourself. You're a good yourself, and you should not change. Nary a bit, ye hear me, boy?" Angel headed back for the door, and suddenly Joyce was there in his way.

"Man, that is one seriously wacked out trip he's on," Devon's voice offered. Maybe it was Devon. Maybe it was Penn. It sounded a little like Penn.

"He... what? Buffy, your boyfriend got Angel stoned?!!" That was Xander. Angel knew Xander's voice.

"Buffy Anne Summers!"

"I didn't know, Mom! Devon, this is..."

"Uncool does not even cover it." At that voice, Angel turned and growled. There was a werewolf in his territory.

"Angel, okay, we need to be leaving."

"Xander, I think we should call 911."

"Whoa, hey, the cops are totally unnecessary," the Penn voice answered Joyce.

"I am so over you. I never want to see you again. I can't believe you did this at my party, only yes, I'm with the believing because seeing is believing and seeing a stoned Angel is just big with the weird and the believing that you are a big, giant, humongo jerk!"

"And time for us to go." Angel frowned as hands pushed on his back. Without moving his feet, he turned to look over his shoulder, and he could see Xander pushing for all his worth. If Xander wanted him to move, perhaps there was a reason. Angel started walking forward. He stopped when his face ran into the door.

"That's it, I'm calling 911. Poor Mr. O'Connelly. Did you see how much he ate? Devon MacLeish, you stay right there until you tell me what you put in there and exactly how much."

"Buff, help please."

"Mom, I'm sure Angel's going to be fine as soon as he sleeps this off, right Xander?"

"I actually meant help getting the door open."

"Oh. Right."

"I think you need to wait for an ambulance."

"Angel hates hospitals; he's into holistical medicine with the herbs and the... herbs. And a lawyer getting stoned is not with the good, mom." A hand reached in front of Angel and yanked the door open and he vamped out. Slayer. He wasn't going to turn to dust for some slip of a girl not as old as his record collection.


"Got him!"

Angel frowned as Xander was in front of him, and the slayer was gone. And then they were outside. The smells made Angel flinch away. "Oh, we are so going home, and tomorrow, you can kill Devon for fun," Xander said to him cheerfully. Kill Devon. Yes, that might be fun. Angel smiled as he turned to go back in, but Xander was pulling him. Maybe they needed to kill someone else first. He followed.

"I am so sick of this," Angel said as Xander helped him into the passenger side of his own car. He frowned. This was wrong; he was supposed to drive.

"Sick of what?" Xander asked as he got in and started the car. There were humans gathered at the front of the house. Enough humans to slake the hunger he carried all the time. He was so tired of being hungry. "Earth to Angel, sick of what?" Xander asked again. Angel turned his gaze from the human to Xander. He would make a good vampire one day. He and William would be a good pair. Light and dark, lithe and muscled, the artist with words and the artist with his hands. Angel had a stake with a dragon Xander had carved for good luck, and the boy was good with his hands. His work was a little crude, but he would have a few hundred years to improve. He would be better than William was with his ridiculous words of love. William with all his sharp angles had always reminded him a wee bit much of Darla—a sire he adored and hated in equal amounts.

"Okay, Angel, I’m officially freaking out here, and I have no idea what the demonic equivalent of 911 is, so you need to start talking to me."

"I'm sick of being hungry." Angel stretched, feeling the bones in his back pop.

"You're hungry? Okay, vampire munchies. I can deal with vampire munchies. We'll just go home and..."


"No you're not hungry? Come on, Angel, make some sense here."

"I'm not drinking pig's blood. Did he think he could starve the demon out of him? Fool."

"Okay, random referring to self in third person... I am going to kill Devon."

Angel laughed. "Oh yes. Devon would be a fine one to start with. Thick, rich human blood finally filling the empty hole in me. I'm na fond of starvation."

"And the freaky keeps coming," Xander breathed, his hands clutching the wheel. Angel reached over and rubbed his hand over the boy's shoulder, feeling the muscles tense under his ministration.

"Too bad you don't have another six or seven years on ya," Angel said as he let his hand drift down to Xander's arm. The training had firmed the boy up. Hopefully he'd turn well and keep those skills. Some vampires turned better than others. It had taken him years to finally get William set right. Of course, he hadn't known the lad before he'd been turned so who knew what had attracted Drusilla's eye.

"Um... Angel... that would be manhandling. Manhandling bad. Not as bad as some other things I can think of, but I'm not thinking about those things. Nope. No, those are mentally off limits." Xander was starting to smell of fear now, the lovely scent drifting from him in soft threads.

"Pull over," Angel said as he leaned in and smelled the side of Xander's neck.

"Hey, I have an idea... let's go visit Clem," Xander said. Angel's hand darted out and grabbed the boy by the neck and squeezed just hard enough to cut off the air. The car jerked to the side and took out a blue mail dropbox before Xander could hit the brakes.

"I have an idea. You stop the car and let me drive," Angel suggested with a smile. He breathed deeply, relishing the fear that flowed from the boy now. Xander threw the car into park even though he still couldn't breathe. Most humans would have panicked by now and started helplessly flailing. But then he had been training this human. This human knew how impossible it was to fight him. Slowly, Angel let Xander's neck go, watching to see if the prey instinct would make him flee. The lad wouldn't get far, but it might be amusing.

Instead, Xander just rubbed his neck and stared straight ahead for a long time. Angel leaned back, smiled, and just waited. Eventually, Xander flicked a quick glance at him, and then another, and then finally he worked up the nerve to look right at Angel. Raising an eyebrow, Angel just waited to see what the boy would have to say.

"So, um, I'm guessing whatever Devon gave you made you really, really happy," Xander said as he swallowed, his fingers still rubbing his neck.

Without answer, Angel got out of the car and walked around to the driver's side. Xander scrambled to the passenger's seat without even needing to be ordered. Maybe he should make this one the way he made Penn—with encouragement and praise. Penn had certainly grown up well... at least until he annoyed Angel. However, Xander was a little smarter, and a little more creative than Penn.

Dropping into the driver's seat, Angel ran his hands over the controls. "The soul is just so pathetic. The self-hating and do gooding is enough to make me want to strangle him."

"What with soul-you and not-soul-you sharing the same body, that would kinda hurt, wouldn't it?" Xander asked, but Angel could smell the fear. He gave the boy credit for having bollocks like an Angus bull.

"Sometimes pain is to be sought after," Angel said, and the fear took a sharp spike. He smiled as he started the car. First order of business was dinner. "Not that the soul is willing to admit that. He is such a stick-up-his-ass humanitarian I'm surprised he's not sipping tea with the watcher. They're both first class prats. But you... I'm surprised that he keeps you around."

"Me? Doesn't Angel like me... the soul-having Angel, I mean, because if you're not liking me, the soul-free you, I'm not really taking offense. Unless not liking would lead to torture and dismemberment... in that case I'd prefer you like me. Only, not too much." Xander swallowed, and Angel felt nearly intoxicated with the beautiful scent of fear.

"Oh, he likes you. He just buries that so down deep that he doesn't even think about it too much." Angel reached over and rested his hand on Xander's knee. Obviously, that was the limit of Xander's ability to control his prey-instincts because he tried to scramble away. Angel tightened his hand until his fingers dug deep into the flesh. The boy would be delightfully colorful tomorrow. Again, Xander surprised him by settling down and not fighting back.

"Soul-Angel is not like that," Xander said slowly and carefully, and now the fear was spiced with the aroma of salt.

"Soul-Angel, soul-free Angel. That is really annoying." He considered the problem for a moment. "Call me Angelus. I really always did prefer Angelus over Angel. It's a grander name, one that warns people that I am not someone to take lightly. Angelus conjures images of mighty warrior angels, beautiful and deadly. Angels... angels are overgrown pixies in pink," Angelus snorted. "And Angel does think of you. He thinks of watching you grow old or turning you. He thinks of you throwing yourself on some demon like the idiotic white knight you try to be, and he thinks of having to watch you bleed out." Angelus let his hand trail up Xander's leg until he could seize his upper thigh. "He has nightmares of smelling your blood and draining you. But then the moron starves himself so much that I'm surprised he hasn't."

"Mucho with the disturbo," Xander muttered.

"Use that phone to call William," Angelus ordered as he cruised the street. He had his potential childe here, but now he wanted his two favorite childer. Unlike so many of the others he'd turned, he'd never tired of William's desperate struggle to be accepted or Drusilla's slavish attentions.

"What? Nevermind, doing," Xander quickly added. Angelus smiled at the evidence that a single frown could correct the boy. A whip would do wonders with him. "And what am I saying when I call him?"

"Whatever you like," Angelus suggested. He only had to let William know that he was back and they would both come running home and take their proper place at his feet.

"Whatever I like. Yeah, I'd like to say that we went to this really boring party with Faith's GED friend with the eye that goes all over the place and no one got stoned. Can't say that," he mumbled as the phone rang.

Angelus tightened his hold on Xander's thigh, and the boy stopped muttering with a pained hiss.

"Wot?" William finally snapped from the other end. He sounded drunk. How far he had come from that foppish poet Drusilla had dragged home.

"Spike, hey, you sound... really shitty," Xander said, his voice high and in danger of cracking.

"Xand? What's wrong, pet?"

"Sounds like I'm not the only one with the wrong. Are you okay?"

Angelus rolled his eyes. As long as William wasn't dust, he would survive.

"Not really, luv. Drusilla up and left. She's healthy, so she can tend herself, but I didn't see it coming, and she didn't even bother tryin' ta shove me out into the sun."

Smirking at that bit of information, Angelus imagined all the ways to torture his sweet William over that failure. His own sire had abandoned him. Oh yes, very amusing.

"But somethin's not right on the Hellmouth, that's for bloody sure. What's wrong, pet, and don't give me any of that 'nothing' bollocks."

"Nope, not even going to try and say 'nothing.' But guess who's back in town," Xander tried for humorous, and his voice broke, making him sound like a child. Out of patience, Angelus reached over and pulled the phone away from him.

"William, my boy, it's time for you to come home."

"Angel?" Spike sounded confused.

"To avoid confusing discussions of souls, let's just call me Angelus," he suggested. "And I had expected you to keep my beautiful girl safe. You do know how she gets, William. You will be punished for your failure."

"Bloody hell," Spike breathed on the other end, and Angelus laughed.

"You have twenty-four hours to get here, and for every hour late, I'm going to cut a pound of flesh off your body, understand?" Angelus demanded.

"Yes, sire," William quickly agreed. Angelus smiled as he tossed the phone back to Xander.

"Spike?" Xander said into the phone, and now the fear smell was nearly overpowering.

"Pet, are you alright?"

"Depending on your definition of alright, of course I'm not! But I still have all my blood inside my body, so I'm hoping for something alright-shaped if not actually alright," Xander babbled. The words made no sense to Angelus, but Spike made a little soothing noise. Making a mental note to invest some time turning the two boys against each other so they would remain devoted to their sire, Angelus turned down the main street.

"Don't argue with him, luv. Just do what he says."

"I figured that one out on my own," Xander gave a weak laugh and Angelus stopped the car at the edge of a park before grabbing the phone.

"Tick-tock, Willy. Tick-tock," he sing-songed mockingly before hitting the end button. Xander was staring at him with eyes so wide the white of them made a full circle. There were annoyingly few prey wandering around, but a young couple holding hands and staring up at the stars caught his attention. If he was lucky, he could grab and disable the girl before her mate had a chance to discover that he was outmatched. "A lesson, boy," Angelus said as he literally sprang over Xander to land beside the passenger side of the car. Xander's eyes flickered to the keys still in the ignition, and Angelus rested his hand on Xander's shoulder, digging his fingers in just enough to warn him to be good. Xander settled.

"When hunting a young pair, always go for the female first. Males are predictably arrogant and will assume they can take you out. When hunting older pairs, go for the male or a child. Women are stupidly loyal to their mates once they have made a commitment, far more so than men. I've seen men offer up their wives to try and save their own worthless hides. You should have seen the look of abject pain in the women's eyes when they realized their husband's love did not actually extend to 'death do us part'."

Xander swallowed, his gaze now falling on the couple Angelus had targeted. Xander's fingers twitched as Angelus opened the door for him. He would not leave his pet behind to get in trouble. With no warning, Xander was suddenly screaming.

"RUN... FIRE! RAPE!! POLICE RAID! RUN! No, seriously RUN!"

The couple looked over in shock, and Angelus vamped out in frustration. Unfortunately, that did make them run. Oh, Angelus could catch them, but not without losing his pet. Growling, he grabbed Xander by the shirt and slammed him onto the hood of the car. Tears leaked from the sides of Xander's eyes, but he didn't say anything as he clutched Angelus' arms and stared up.

"Do that again, and I will kill you," he growled.

"Um, you killing other people while I just stand to the side? No offense, but seriously... do you really think I'll ever do that?"

"You will if you want to live."

"Okay, I'm really liking the being alive part of living, but I won't live at the cost of someone else's life."

Angelus bared his teeth, and the stubborn little git just set his jaw. As much as he had planned to keep the boy around, Angelus had no intention of trying to break such pertinacious behavior... not just for the pleasure of a hunting companion. He bent down to take his first real meal in decades, and his teeth sank easily into the soft flesh. Unlike most victims, Xander did not even make a sound as he fisted Angelus' shirt. Three mouthfuls of blood later, Angelus was ripped away from his meal by a wave of vertigo that made him stumble and then fall to one knee. No. No. He struggled, slamming his head into the door of the car before that damnable soul rose up into his throat.

"Xander, I can't hold him. Run," Angel's pained whisper warned the boy. Angelus expected to hear footsteps fleeing, but instead a warm hand rested on his back. Despair washed over Angel, and Angelus took firm control over the body again.

Chuckling, he stood slowly and turned to consider his bleeding victim. "You're an idiot, boy," he said as he stepped forward and caught Xander by the back of his neck. Angelus' fingers smeared the blood that still leaked from the open wound. The smell of blood and of Angelus' own scent marks all over the boy made him hungry for more than the taste he'd managed to get.

"Um, yep, I'm big with the stupid," Xander nodded. "But Angel's still in there. That means that sooner or later, you're going to get stuck under him, right?"

"Not if I can find Devon. I imagine he would give me many more pills in order to save his life," Angelus pointed out.

"But then you'll have Angel always in there with the poking and the distracting, and you told me there's some big bad coming, so you probably won't live long before you're dust, and dust has to be worse than being stuck under Angel and all that hair gel."

"Do you have a point, boy?" Angelus asked, not liking the direction this conversation was going. Moronic gypsies couldn't even get a curse right. Happiness was supposed to give him his freedom, not give him some temporary reprieve marred by the presence of the damned soul. And as much as he hated to admit it, being trapped under the soul was still better than being dust. He'd gotten to threaten that watcher, he'd emotionally destroyed the man without touching him. And hunting with his William had allowed him to sometimes forget the misery the soul dragged along with him.

"I have a deal. You let me live, and I'll gang up with you against Angel," Xander blurted. The boy seemed to be regretting his decision to not run.

Angelus narrowed his eyes and considered Xander. "Why would you do that? You are so fond of your Angel, your great protector. Do you hope that one day he'll turn you? That he'll make you immortal?" Angelus moved closer, his voice soft and tempting for the prey as he brought his other hand up and ran a finger over the wound. He licked Xander's blood, and then watched as the boy's Adam's apple bobbed madly.

"No way. Seriously, I don't want to get that pathetically out of touch with reality. But you know I love Angel, and you said he's starving himself by not having human blood..."

Angelus interrupted by laughing as he stepped back. "You are willing to die to keep me from culling the human herd, and now you expect me to believe you will force Angel to take human life? You are more stupid than I had thought."

"Hey, I am stupid, but I'm not that stupid. There is a little thing called a human blood bank or a hospital, although those would be stealing, but for you, I'll do a little larceny. Or the suck houses. Spike said there are two in town, and you would be a big deal in the suck house."

"You want me to lay down in filth and drink the spoiled blood of vampire whores?" Angelus asked incredulously.

"I could clean a room, or we could go with the blood bank idea... but it's either you eat me and some random people now and then go back to pig blood, or you work with me. Or actually, you may not even get pig blood. You know, if you kill me, I'm almost sure that Angel is going to do the big old spiral of despair, and then you may be back to rat blood."

Angelus shivered at that memory. Being forced to crawl in sewers like an animal had made the torments of hell seem like a pleasant dream. But even now, he could feel the truth of Xander's words. The soul was already writhing in pain and howling. Angelus stretched as he reveled in Angel's agony.

"I could fuck one of the vamp whores," Angelus mused, his lips twisting in disgust. He wanted fresh blood, flesh never before bruised by vampire hands. But if he took what he wanted, the damnable soul would make him pay for far longer than his crimes merited. The abject humiliations he'd been subjected to because of one dead gypsy... they proved that justice was a ridiculous human notion. It didn't exist. And the universe was intent on making him suffer far more than he deserved.

"You could... wha?" Xander choked. "Okay, you and sex is a little like my parents and sex. Not good on the brain."

"I miss sex. The soul is so busy trying to prove he is human that he tries to be inhumanly perfect. It is torture. It's annoying torture," Angelus said as he grabbed Xander by the arm and shoved him back into the car.

"Angel's anal retentiveness is a little annoying," Xander admitted, and Angelus looked over in surprise.

"I thought you loved him." Angelus started the car and did a U-turn in the middle of the street.

"I do. But I'm not with the blind here. He has this whole dark knight, avenger, perfectionist thing going on. It's hard to be a good old-fashioned nice guy around Mr. Perfect... hard on the ego. And please tell me we're going to a suck house because I'm really hoping to not die tonight. I have parental weirdness with an overcompensating mother and a drunk father to deal with tomorrow."

"I should drain them," Angelus pointed out. The boy was clearly worth keeping alive to turn later, but even the soul had entertained thoughts of killing his parents.

"Oh no. No, there will be no killing of the parent units," Xander said firmly. Angelus looked over, and Xander flushed. "Please. I mean, not that I'm telling you what to do, but you don't need to go out of your way for me because you had fucking on the agenda," he quickly backtracked.

Angelus turned his attention back to the road. Xander needed some work, but Angelus did appreciate a submissive streak in his childer, and this one would train up nicely once he got a little older. So, tonight he got to feed and fuck, and at some point in the future, he would slip out long enough to turn his boy. He could already imagine it, his legs spread as William and Xander both knelt in front of him, their yellow eyes gazing up in worship as they fought for the right to suck his cock. He'd torture Drusilla into returning home and fuck her raw after his boys had worked him with their mouths. Angelus reached down and stroked his trapped erection. The day would come. The day would definitely come.




Flesh and Blood and Heart

It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons. ~Johann Schiller

"Would the Master like anything else?" the skanky vamp with greasy, shoulder-length hair asked as he looked over Xander's shoulder at a now sated and sleeping Angelus. The only other vamp to survive Angelus' little visit had been a woman with long, dark hair that was tangled with bits of straw and grass, and she was out dumping the one human who had not survived her visit to the suck house tonight.

"No, no, Master is just fine. Huge with the fine. Needing some quiet," Xander assured the vamp. He bit his lip to try and just hold it together a little longer. Angelus was... Angelus was terrifying. And he felt exactly nothing for the poor woman who he had drained. Her fists had clawed at him, pulling him closer, and Xander had watched the lust on her face with disgust. Then her eyes just sort of sagged. Of course, Angelus' only concerned was that the woman's death not count as breaking the deal. And since the alternative had been dying just before Angelus went gone out on a killing spree, Xander had agreed to let just the one dead woman not count. Just one. Hey, it wasn't like one life was all that important in the face of stopping Angelus. Xander thought he might puke. He definitely wished the one lost life had been his own.

The skanky vamp looked at him strangely. "You call for me, Leander, if you need anything," he whispered as he backed out of the room.

Xander walked over to the pile of "their cleanest blankets" and sat down heavily. It would be morning soon, and he would have to go over to his parents and make nice noises, and he just didn't know how he was supposed to do it. He'd watched a woman die. He'd watched biting and sex and variations on sex and he'd watched a woman die. He might freak out more about the sex if he hadn't watched a woman die. And he was fairly sure his brain was broken.

He leaned back against the molding wall of the old house and looked around at the boarded windows, the piles of dirty blankets and quilts and the three remaining humans who'd been fucked and relieved of a few pints of blood. He watched Angelus sleep, praying that Angel would be able to take control once the drugs were out of his system. Actually, he decided, he didn't wish he had died instead of that woman, he wished it had been Devon. What a loser. What a moronic loser. He just wished he had more words for stupid because he'd use them all on that arrogant, vain, stupid pill-popper. Xander felt a cold trickle down his face, but he was too tired to even reach up and wipe the tear away.

Part of him wanted to blame Angel for this. It would be so easy seeing as how Angelus had used Angel's body. Besides, Angel took control away from Angelus long enough to tell Xander to run... not that he had. Why couldn't he pull control away long enough to save that woman? Xander's life wasn't worth more than that woman. She might have kids or a husband or parents out there looking for her. They'd never know that she died because she wanted some vampire to bite her. And Xander knew that Angelus, not Angel, had been doing the biting, but her death just hit a little too close to home.

Jesse's parents never found out. They never knew that Jesse had died and gotten vamped and then died again on Xander's stake. Every once in a while, Xander still logged on to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and looked at Jesse's face on the computer screen. For a long time, Xander hated Angel for being alive... or sort of alive, when Jesse was dead. A good deal of that hate came from guilt that his best friend had turned to dust on his stake. But then he started hanging out with Angel just to prevent the Buffster from doing the hanging, and everything changed. But now, now it was changing back. Angelus had just killed some woman, and like Jesse, that woman's family would never know why they lost her.

Two, three years ago, he would have blamed Angel and kept right on walking. Growing up sucked, though, because now Xander had to think about the fact he had played his part in both tragedies. His gut wanted to hate Angel. Hate was second only to fear in his gut. But his head was not going with the plan, and that just left him sort of stuck.

Taking a sobbing breath, Xander wondered if the sun was up. He bet Buffy had called about a million times. Faith might have even gone over to ask why the hell they weren't home. Maybe not. Faith still had a habit of sneaking the booze when she knew Angel would be out, so maybe she got drunk and then came home and passed out. God, how was he supposed to tell them? What was he supposed to tell them?

'Hey, I made a deal with the soulless version of Angel, and guess what, only one woman died.' Yep, he was a real hero. The room smelled sour and musky, and one of the humans who had stayed the night on his own pile of dirty blankets stirred in the corner. His pants had been shredded, and Xander had no idea how the guy planned to get home half-naked and walking bow-legged. Oddly, he seemed to have enjoyed the sex even if Xander thought it looked like the most painful process in the history of really painful processes.

Xander scratched his leg and studied the two women on a separate pile of blankets. It was better than looking at Angel's very naked backside as he lay sprawled, face-down on the bed. What made a person come to a suck house and let a vampire bite them and then... do what Angelus had done? He'd never felt the need to use 'ravish' outside of those stupid book Buffy read, but that did seem to be the best word for it. What had happened was way outside of how Xander traditionally defined sex. He thought he had made second base with Cordy, but now he was fairly sure he wasn't even to first yet. After last night, he needed a new definition for the bases, a whole lot of therapy, and possibly a lobotomy.

The man groaned and then went still. Yep, he was waking up and realizing what he had done. Say hello to regrets and recriminations, Xander thought as he watched the guy press his hand on the floor and slowly look around. The guy frowned, glanced at Angelus dominating the entire bed, and then looked over to Xander.

"When will he be back?" the man whispered, and instead of horror and guilt, Xander could only see hope in the man's face. Yep, Xander was giving up his spot in line at the nuthouse to this guy.

"I have no idea," Xander shrugged.

Disappointment flashed across the man's face before he pushed himself to his knees, groaning again before he bit his lip to silence himself. Pulling one old blanket free from the pile he'd slept on, he stood and wrapped it around his waist, but not before Xander saw the thin streaks of blood on the man's thighs.

"Are you okay?" Xander asked. Yep, this guy was a fruitcake. He was a fig short of a fruitcake even, but if he was hurt, Xander could call an ambulance from his cell phone. Not that he had for the woman who had died.

"Buddy, I'm fantastic. Seriously, I'll pay double for that," he said eagerly. And Xander found whole new levels of squick.

"I'll tell him," Xander smiled weakly. Okay, if Angelus was still in control, he'd probably be pissed at having humans pay as though Angelus were for sale. If Angel was in charge... hell, if Angel were in charge, that was going to be a drop in the big old guilt bucket he was going to be trying to drown himself in.

The man nodded and stumbled awkwardly to the door. A scrap of his pant leg was still caught around his ankle and long threads trailed after him. Xander watched them make a wormy trail in the dust of the floor.

One of the women opened her eyes, glanced around, and then promptly went back to sleep, leaving Xander alone with his thoughts. He just stared at the wall and tried to think about nothing... except maybe about how that wall paper was really, really ugly. He didn't even know they made wallpaper that shade of yellow. Water stains sort of blended with the design of leaves. He was exhausted, but he couldn't bring himself to close his eyes.

"Pet, you alright?" a voice interrupted his little trance. Xander jerked, gasped, and looked over to find Spike crouched next to him, all vamped out and twitching his nose like a rabbit... although he probably shouldn't point out the rabbit part since he didn't have a love of pain and bloodletting.

"Hey, me? I'm fine. Look all my fingers and toes are still attached," Xander said as he held his hand out and wiggled his fingers. Spike looked at him oddly. "And you're here."

"Right then, need to deal with the big bugger first, alright?"

"Deal away," Xander nodded. He should probably feel something about Spike showing up, but the part of him that felt things had gone on vacation and not left a contact number. Maybe it had even moved and failed to file a change of address form. Maybe... maybe his brain was really and truly broken.

"Sire?" Spike said softly as he edged closer to the bed.

That broad back stiffened, muscles rippling under the skin and then in the blink of an eye, Angel was up, his hand around Spike's throat. He snarled, showing his vampire teeth, and then dropped back into his human face. "Spike?"

"Angel?" Spike asked, his voice still sounding way more respectful than Xander had ever heard him.

"What are you—" Angel looked around with a slowly gathering expression of horror. He let go of Spike's neck and dropped back down onto the bed as though someone had cut all his leg muscles. That same woman in the corner opened her eyes and blinked owlishly at Spike.

"Get out," Spike ordered when Angel just continued to stare blankly. Xander knew exactly how Angel felt. Yep, the brain was not engaging with the world right now.

"What?" the woman asked as she frowned. She pushed herself up and woke the second woman. Spike threw Angel's pants at him, and Angel started putting them on mechanically.

"Master, do you need anything?" Leander asked from the doorway.

"Yeah, get the birds out of here," Spike said before he turned his back on them. With a respectful nod, Leander reached down and practically picked one woman up under each arm as he hauled them out of the room.

"So, wot possessed you to go after a suckhouse, Peaches?" Spike asked, his usual insolent tone back. He leaned against the wall and pulled out a cigarette.

"I... Spike, just get out of town before the slayer sees you," Angel said wearily. His pants were on and he sat back down on the bed. "I need to get Xander home.

"During the day when you own a bloody convertible? Good luck with that, luv. Soddin' idiotic, owning a convertible unless you plan a little self-immolation."

"What? No," Angel said peevishly, and if Xander knew what immolation was, he might even understand why Angel was peeved.

"At least you don't smell like you're starvin', and I know I didn't see a pile of bodies outside, so did ya decide to take up with a stable?"

"No!" Angel protested about the same time Xander pointed out, "There was a pile of one."

Spike turned and gave Xander one of those patented raised eyebrows. "Don't generally call one body a pile, pet."

"Oh god," Angel breathed. "Xander, I'm so sorry. You never should have seen that. Oh god, I'm sorry." Angel had a whole tragic face going.

"Um, I’m feeling more sorry for the woman," he said. Yeah, Xander knew he should probably be doing the supportive thing, but he didn't want to be supportive. He wanted to whine and throw a fit and have someone just undo the last twelve hours. He felt like he was four years old and his drunk father in a Santa suit was yelling about how Xander was too fucking old to believe in dumb shit like Santa anyway.

"I'm well and truly out of my depth here. Bloody hell, I ate three baggage handlers just to make it here this fast. So, I don't really know why you have your knickers in a twist over one Happy Meal."

"They aren't Happy Meals!" Xander shouted as he exploded up from the floor.

"No, they aren't," Angel said quickly. "She was a human being with a soul, and I chose to kill her," Angel said firmly as he got up to follow Xander across the room. When Xander flinched back, Angel just froze. Guilt clawed at Xander because he knew that Angel wasn't technically to blame, and hurting him wasn't going to fix any of the things that had gone wrong. Xander crossed his arms over his stomach and didn't know what to say about any of this. His brain was all twisty and fuddled, and for him to be fuddled took a lot of fuddling because he was used to a brain that was a little fuzzy on the logic bits.

"She was a human being who chose to be here," Spike pointed out as he waved at the room, his cigarette making a bright arc. "If cancer killed her, ya wouldn't be blaming cancer cells."

"I might be. I can be irrational and blaming. I'm actually really good at irrational and blaming," Xander said softly. It was easier than saying what he really thought.

"Spike," Angel sighed as he backed up a step. "It is not irrational for Xander to blame me. Xander, I understand that it's difficult for you to be around me right now, especially given what I did... and implied. I hope you will accept living money. I'm sure Blair can take you in until you get your feet under you."

"What?" Spike nearly yelped. "If you're tossin' him out with the garbage, I'm bloody well taking him with me."

"You will leave him alone," Angel snarled as he turned to face off against Spike.

"Ya think it's better to just turn 'im out? You fucking ponce. Soul, no soul, you never bloody change."

"I'm doing what's best for Xander," Angel hissed Xander's name past his fangs, and now Spike vamped out.

"Like you did for Dru? Like you did for me or Penn or anyone else you just got bloody tired of?"

"Dru? Is that was this is? One more temper tantrum over Dru? Xander is a human being, and I won't even ask him to look at me. I killed a woman in front of him. You have no idea what kind of comments I made about how I was going to turn him, about how he should plan his hunt to kill the most people, how I threatened to hold him down and... and...." Angel stumbled over his words, but Xander remembered exactly what Angelus had threatened to do while holding him down. Angelus left very little to imagination, which was probably good in the being useful way because Xander could not have imagined most of what Angelus said without very specific words and graphic demonstrations with a human volunteer. The only thing that had saved him from a more immediate demonstration was Angelus' determination to not accidentally kill Xander and apparently human bodies, virginity, and a vampire who'd been denied sex for a century were not a safe mix.

"Fucking hell." Spike dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his boot. "I've said that shite to him a thousand times, or did you have your head up so far up your underfed arse that you never heard it? And it's not like I don't kill! If the boy was as fragile as Dru was before ya turned her, he'd be a gibbering idiot already."

"You have no idea what I've done."

"I have a nose, and I can pretty much guess from there. But I don't see you out massacring nuns and laying their bodies in the street and I don't smell anything more than your bloodmark on the boy, so I'm not sure what you think you're fucking apologizing for," Spike said with a dismissive snort.

Angel's fist struck out and caught Spike just under the jawbone. Spike's arms flew wide as he crashed into the wall and a stud gave way with a thundering crack. He came back with a low flying tackle that caught Angel just above the knees and Xander slipped out of the room. They were both worked up, they probably need to try and kill each other for a while, and Xander definitely needed some space.

Scurrying out of the room, he picked through the trash and the odd bits of broken furniture that lined the halls and the staircase as he headed downstairs. It was time for him to just be somewhere else for a while.

"Can I help you?" Leander asked when Xander reached the front room, and Xander screamed and nearly jumped out of his own skin. The vamp backed away and held his palms up. "I would never poach on a true Master's territory, you are safe, young one."

"I was just... uh... practicing my yell," Xander said. Leander didn't look convinced, but the mighty crash from upstairs distracted him. Angel came thundering down the stairs first, stake in hand. Leander backed away, his hands still up and his expression panicked for that one second it took for Angel to drive a stake into his heart. The look of horror and shock was etched in dust for one second before Leander exploded.

"Geez, Angel. What part of not poaching did you not hear?" Xander demanded. Part of his brain was pointing out that Leander had been a vamp, but the other part kept wanting to think about how he'd been a nice vamp. Yep, Xander decided, he was stupid. He was huge with the stupidness and despite Spike's claim, clearly insane.

Angel just stood, Leander's dust in his hair as he looked at Xander in confusion.

"Oi, what did you do that for?" Spike asked, and he sounded as confused as Angel looked.

"He was a vampire," Angel said sharply. Spike's eyebrows rose. Yep, even Xander could spot the hypocrisy in that statement.

"He was a bloody suckhouse vamp... about as dangerous as your common field mouse."

Angel's face hardened into a frown and Xander started edging for the front door again. Human bones in the middle of vampire fighting led to breakage and pain and calls to 911, and Xander was just so not in the mood. He was almost to the door when Angel shot forward and grabbed Xander's arm. With a cry, Xander reversed direction, and Angel let go way too fast, a look of almost comical horror on his face. Stumbling back, Xander found himself caught in Spike's arms. He twisted to move away, but Spike just tightened his hold.

"Hey, thanks for the save because I really didn't need to fall on my ass today, but you can let go now. I'm fine," Xander said as he squirmed.

"Try that on someone who can't smell the blind panic on ya," Spike snorted. "Now, Peaches, you mind telling me what the bloody fuck happened?"

But it was Xander who spoke up. From the way Angel was blankly staring at the floor, they were all going to stand there for way too long if they waited for Angel to talk. "Buffy's boyfriend put drugs in the Jello and when Angel ate them, it made his soul distinctly unsoullike or untherelike or something unhelpful because Angelus came out. But now that he's sober, the soul is soullike and therelike," Xander summarized.

"You mean all it takes is—" Spike just stopped as he stared at Angel.

When the silence continued, Angel looked up, and despair turned to a narrow-eyed anger. "Don't ye think about it boy unless you want me to rip the skin from your backside," Angel warned. Xander had heard that voice before... that was the voice of angry-Angel. The Irish 'don't fuck with me' accent that meant he was close to losing it. Only now, Xander realized that voice was also Angelus.

"Okay, if I have a vote here—and, yes, I realize I so don't—I'm voting for the never bringing Angelus out again plan." Xander twisted to look at Spike earnestly, and Spike shifted his hold so he could smoke his cigarette with one hand and hold Xander with the other.

"Angel is less of a dominating bastard, anyway," Spike shrugged. "Still, I don't know how we're going to solve whatever mess you lot see. As far as I'm concerned, things are good, but you two look like someone vivisected your bloody puppies." With that, Spike leaned against the banister, still holding Xander firmly in one hand.

"You can't understand, you don't have a soul," Angel said firmly. "Now let Xander go. Xander, you can take the convertible." Angel pulled out keys, but Spike had already yanked Xander back so that Xander was now standing between Spike and the banister, very firmly pinned. In aggravation, he punched Spike's side and was promptly ignored.

"The boy is in a right funk, and you're going to give him a few thousand pounds of metal to go play with after tellin' him you're foisting him off on some git named Blair? Peaches, you're a fucking idiot."

"Watch your mouth," Angel warned as he stepped forward. Xander couldn't see Spike's face, but from the long plume of smoke that headed for Angel's face, he was guessing Spike was going for insolent and disrespectful. Oh yeah, they were going to fight, and Xander was going to get broken. Then again, broken would save him from having to explain to anyone else how much of an idiot he'd been.

"I'm a fucking monster, Spike. You are too! We're abominations that shouldna even exist, and yet we do. We walk and talk like humans but we're fucking dead things gorging off the lives of those who should be here," Angel snapped, and then he turned his back. Xander didn't know what Angel was going to do until the door was open. For one second, Angel stood in the sun, smoke rising from him, and then Spike tackled him from the side. The front door splintered under the impact and the two vampires tumbled into what used to be the dining room.

Xander was frozen for one second before he leapt after them, scrambling over the fallen door. Angel was on top now, his fangs already deep in Spike's neck, his hands on Spike's shoulder as Spike's fingers clawed at him. After a minute, Angel jumped up with his mouth stained red, and turned toward the door, but Xander was already blocking the dining room door, his arms stretched to cover the whole area.

"Xander, move," Angel said slowly. The blood on his face and the yellow eyes made Xander's stomach curl in fear.

"No," Xander said firmly.

Angel narrowed his eyes. "You know I can't risk him getting out again. He wasn't kidding--he'll rape you, Xander. He'll turn you."

"Which is a great reason to kill Devon, but not you," Xander pointed out. That surprised Angel into backing up a step and dropped back into fully human features.

"Xander, the apartments are in your name. I've left enough money in the bank that you won't be trapped into going back with your parents. It's okay to hate me for what I have inside, don't blame yourself for that." Angel said sadly as Spike slowly dragged himself to the side of the room and glared at Angel.

"Spike's right. You're an idiot," Xander said as he crossed his own arms over his chest. "I don't hate you... okay, I kinda do," Xander admitted with a grimace. "But I hate that you were this giant twit who paid for sex and had huge father issues. I hate that you had insecurities on top of your insecurities, Angel. I hate that Angelus is never going to get past that. Angelus is everything Liam secretly wanted to be and I really, really hate that this superpowered, twisted, teenage version of you is always going to be under the surface. But I don't hate you... the souled you... because you've grown up since being Liam."

Angel looked at him with a frown and then shook his head. "Xander," he said softly, "you don't understand; Angelus is a demon. He's a monster who is focused on you."

"I'm hitting the bullshit button on that one," Xander said with a snort. "Spike's a demon, only he still likes music and food and poetry." Spike gave an outraged 'Oi' at the idea of him liking poetry, but then again, Xander might be in-denial boy too if he read the old fashioned stuff Spike liked.

"Xander," Angel said with some frustration.

"Angel, look where Angelus came. Lots of sex, money changing hands, way too much drinking going on... ring any bells? Hey, if you went and got all weird about proving yourself to be just as good as your father, I'd start calling you Liam."

"Oi, boy's got your number." Spike smirked as he got slowly to his feet, one hand on the bloody bite on his neck.

"I didn't—" Angel looked around.

"And I hate you for lots of stuff... for being a normal screwed up teenager as Liam, for one," Xander nearly shouted. "I mean, if you're supposed to be some perfect superhero, dark knight type, your human roots are showing. And then I hate that you're lying to me and being big, old hypocrite boy."

"What? I'm not lying. Xander, I didn't know that drugs would affect me like that," Angel said as he took a step forward.

"Yeah, yeah, I got that. But you're starving yourself? You're playing big old martyr and making yourself all crazy hungry for human blood when I'm the closest human blood most of the time? Okay, that's officially sounding both stupid and dangerous."

"I can control the hunger," Angel said stiffly.

"And I can control my need to breathe... for about sixty seconds. But you're practicing holding your breath during deep sea diving... and I think that metaphor fell apart in the middle what with you not needing to breathe. The point is, though, that your control is going to snap and I'm at ground zero. Not feeling safe here."

"Which is why I need to do this," Angel said, his eyes going to the gaping hole where the front door had been torn down.

"You fucking ponce," Spike said from his spot still leaning on the wall. "You do that, and I'll fucking turn him myself."

"Say that again, and I'll dust you," Angel snarled as he turned on Spike.

Xander threw himself forward and grabbed Angel's arm. "There will be no dusting of Spike. And even if you did dust him, what would keep Drusilla from coming after me? Hello! She's the one who thinks I'm the puppy that peed on her daddy or something. And what about the big bad that's coming? So, you take off, and you just leave me to deal with all that? Maybe I'd be safer if Spike did turn me."

Spike smirked, and Xander had to hold on tightly to keep Angel from ripping his arm out of Xander's grip. "Not volunteering. Nope, I like myself with a heartbeat, and after seeing just how freakily terrifying Angelus is, may I say that I truly don't want my teenage issues getting immortalized into some demon. My issues have issues in here. It would not be pretty, people." Xander shuddered at the thought of what he might be like as a vampire. He had his fantasies of shooting bullies and finding his parents dead so he had to go off and live with a rich uncle and beating up Buffy in a fight because he was super-strong and no longer in need of her emasculating offers to beat up boys for him. Yep, his issues would make for a grade-A typical, homicidal vampire.

"Xander, you can't be okay with what I did," Angel said, and the anger slipped aside so that Xander could see the raw pain. While Xander had seen lots of moods on Angel, he hadn't ever seen this much pain.

"Oh, I’m so not. I'm totally not. I'm furious with you. I mean, if you weren't starving yourself, maybe Angelus wouldn't have been so..."

"Obnoxious?" Spike offered helpfully. Angel must have been upset because he ignored the jab.

"Over the top," Xander said instead. "And I'm all issues boy about that. And I'm issues boy with Devon because drugging people for fun and games is neither funlike nor gamelike. And I'm all about the issues with what I saw last night. I mean, it's one thing to have a general concept of sex, but some of those things last night... they were not in my general concept. Not in my general concept or specific concept or even the porn I look up when you think I'm doing my homework on the internet. I'm thinking either much therapy or much denial is going to be needed to deal with last night. And I'm issues boy about the fact that I talked you into going to that party and I talked you into coming here and I didn't exactly call 911 when you drained that woman, and maybe they could have helped her if they got here fast enough, but I just sat there and watched you kill her." Xander stopped, his heart pounding way to fast and his head starting to feel like it might just pop under the pressure.

Before Xander could blink, Angel's arms were around him, and for a half second, he panicked, his brain sending up images of Angelus' arms around a woman who was dying. But this was too familiar. Awkward, but familiar and familial and safe. Xander slipped one arm around Angel's bare waist. "It wouldn't have made any difference if you'd called. I killed her, you didn't," Angel reassured him.

"Angelus killed her," Xander corrected him, "so, we can blame Liam for creating Angelus, but not you."

Angel sighed, but he was obviously not willing to keep fighting over that point. "And Angelus' first plan was to drag you around town on a killing spree. He knew he didn't have much time, and he wanted to leave a trail of bodies that would make everyone notice him. You talked him out of that," Angel pointed out

"Bloody hell, the boy talked Angelus out of something? The way I remember it, the stubborn bastard did exactly what he wanted," Spike said with a snort. Xander looked over and Spike was trying to light a cigarette with a hand that shook. His neck had stopped bleeding, but it was still smeared with blood.

Angel's arms tightened around Xander for a moment, and then he let go and backed away. "Xander promised to make me drink human blood."

"And no way are you making a liar-man out of me because if Devon or anyone else does the stupid again, I am not going to face Angelus after breaking my word," Xander said as he pointed a finger in Angel's direction. "There is such a thing as bagged human blood. I saw on the news where they throw lots out when they screen it for disease, so you will not be starving yourself," he said firmly. "Because Angelus scares the shit out of me and breaking my word to the psychopathic killer is just not going to happen."

"Xander," Angel sighed again, but at least he was looking at Xander and not the sunny doorway. "I don't want you blaming yourself for any of this. You kept something truly horrible from happening last night."

"And yet, the horrible happened to one person," Xander pointed out. "But I feel like my head is going snap like a rubber band because I'm also thinking that Spike kills and I knew that, and I never got on the kill-Spike train with Buffy. I'm a worse hypocrite than anyone, and I don't know how I'm supposed to be okay with myself knowing that." The energy drained from Xander and he took a step back and leaned against the edge of the doorway. Maybe Giles was right. Maybe Xander was just being stupid. But looking at Angel and Spike, Xander couldn't see things all black and white like back when he'd first met Buffy. Clem wasn't evil at all, and Angel wasn't generally evil. Which left Spike who was definitely evil, but Xander still didn't want to kill him, which definitely put Xander on the shady side of morality.

"I don't go making a show out of killin'," Spike objected as though that make killing okay. But then as a demon, Xander really didn't expect Spike to get it. Angel looked over at Spike with an unreadable expression. Spike just leaned against the wall with his cigarette hanging from his mouth.

"He's family," Angel said, and Xander remembered those conversations from so long ago. "We don't have to like what he does, but he's still family. But you haven't done anything wrong. If you blame yourself for any part of this, therapy is probably a better choice than denial." Angel stepped forward and laid his hand on Xander's shoulder. Looking up, Xander focused on the vampire's expression, which was all Angel without even a trace of Angelus.

"Yeah, yeah, we're all more screwy in the head today than yesterday," Xander agreed sadly.

"Speak for yourself, mate. I'm willing to admit that you two are downright touched in the head, but I'm just fine," Spike said as he blew out a cloud of smoke. The cocky would have worked better if he didn't look ready to fall over.

"You need blood," Xander pointed out as he looked at just how pale Spike was.

"You offerin'?" Spike asked with a grin.

"Me? Big with the no," Xander said as he reached up and touched the sore bite mark on his neck. He was so never going to be able to hide it. Maybe he could grow his hair really, really long... within the next hour.

"I am," Angel said. It took Xander a second to catch what Angel meant. Stepping away from Xander, Angel held one arm out to the side, and Spike yanked his cigarette out of his mouth and let it hang his hand hang limply at his side as he stared in shock. One Spike eyebrow went up. "Quickly, before I change my mind," Angel said in aggravation. Spike dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his heel before quickly moving right in front of Angel. Angel bent slightly, and Xander watched as Spike eyed Angel's neck with a look that came close to how he looked at Drusilla... all devotion and focus. Vamping out, Spike slowly bit down on Angel's neck. Angel's arms came around Spike's body as Spike's eyes fell closed.

Yep, they were all family, Xander thought. Screwed up and morally ambiguous family, but family all the same. And truthfully, Xander thought he was probably about as morally questionable as the less human members of his family.



A Slender Thread of Sanity

"Willow, Ms. Calendar, Oz, fancy meeting you here," Xander said with a plastered on smile as he walked up to them in the small park where they'd set up shop. Faith was two steps behind him, and without her, he so would have turned and run for the hills, or in his case, the apartment. Trees waved in the wind, gray against the black sky and they had pentagram and crystals set out on the picnic table in the dull yellow light of a lamp that barely lit the moonless night. Add a guy with a chainsaw and they had the makings of a good horror movie started. Well, except for the freaky suitcase computer sitting on the edge of the table which seemed a little weirdly out of place to him, but with Ms. Calendar, magic and computers were sort of one and the same.

"Xander!" Willow said happily, and then her tone changed as soon as Oz looked at her. "Xander," she repeated, suddenly saying his name the way Mrs. Smythe in fourth grade said his name when he couldn't figure out how to use the dictionary. Oh yeah, unpleasantness ahead. Just great. "What are you doing here?" she asked sternly as she scooted an inch closer to Oz. For his part, Oz was looking distinctly unamused. A couple of weeks ago this would have really bugged Xander, but now he was more with the 'bigger problems' outlook. Although some days Xander officially wished everything would just explode out in the open with Willow and Oz and him. Some days, he thought about walking across and just giving Willow a big kiss on the mouth and making all the ugly just come to a head.

And then he thought of Cordy. He was so not stupid enough to do that to someone as scary as her.

"Where's Cordelia?" Oz asked with a bit of a frown. Faith gave Xander a meaningful look, so he knew he had to get to the point or she would be all point girl, and Faith and diplomacy... not really friends.

"Cheerleading practice, hence the slayerly escort," Xander shrugged.

"Xander," Ms. Calendar said as she put down a jar of something pink. "I'm really sorry, but Willow and I have some very important work to do here."

"Oh," Xander said as he saw his perfect chance to run away like the coward he truly was. He turned and Faith gave him the hairiest eyeball in the history of hairy eyeballs. She had definitely been taking Angel lessons... not that Angel had giving him the hairy eyeball in... oh... a couple of weeks. He turned back to them, and Ms. Calendar was now frowning at him with that little crease between her eyes.

"So, what ya doin'?" he asked.

Faith sighed and walked over to lean on the van where she pulled out a cigarette.

"Didn't Buffy tell you? Or actually, you already know most of it," Willow said, all of her resolve to be all cold to him obviously vanishing in the excitement because she was almost bouncing. "You know those two kids who were killed? They aren't kids. They aren't even dead. They are, however, this really old evil power that Jenny recognized right away."

"What, hunting time?" Faith asked with a sudden interest in the whole conversation.

"It can't be killed until we reveal its true form," Ms. Calendar said with a frustrated sigh. "Xander, why don't you tell us why you're here so Willow and I can get back to this spell," she suggested in that teacher tone of voice that made it clear she was more with the ordering than the suggesting.

"Oh," Xander said. "I was just going to talk to Oz. Maybe Oz and I can..."

"I'm lookout," Oz said, making it pretty clear in two words that he didn't plan on going off with Xander. Right, so Xander was going to have an audience for this. He could do this. He'd done way harder, like look at Cordelia and not think about the way a woman's... nope not thinking that.

Faith glanced over. "So, if a vampire comes up, you ask him to wait a couple of weeks until you come into your wolfy powers?" she asked with just a bit of snide in her voice. For some reason, Faith had decided to take it personally that Oz and Willow were being a bit weird with him, and there was exactly nothing he could do to stop her from being bitchy about it.

"I drive fast," Oz said as he pulled out his van's keys.

"Yep, driving fast and running fast... two survival skills that cannot be overestimated," Xander quickly agreed, and then just stood there as everyone stared at him waiting for him to say something important. He shifted nervously from foot to foot.

"Xander?" Willow asked as she got up from the table. "What's that on your neck?"

"Oh, this?" Xander asked weakly, fingering the neck of his black t-shirt and cursing Angel's name for hiding all his turtle necks. Yeah, he had to deal with this eventually, but he didn't want to be greedy and gobble up all the dealing at once. He had enough to deal with besides the biting, and he preferred to save some deal for later, like when hell froze over.

"Oh my god. That's a vampire bite. Xander, a vampire bit you!" Willow said as she pointed at his scar with one hand and covered her mouth with the other. Ms. Calendar came over and quickly put her hand on his shoulder to get a better look in the dim light and Xander took a fast step back.

"Whoa, hey, it's an old vampire bite; therefore, old news," he argued, only just totally creeped out at teacher touching.

"Not old to me, Mister. Buffy and I thought you were hiding disgusting Cordelia marks under there, not vampire bites! What happened?" Willow demanded, her hands on her hips, and Xander glanced over to see Oz looking more wolfy than he usually looked in the absence of a full moon.

"That'd be a no on the Cordy marks," Xander said clearing his throat. If anything, he was getting way less Cordy marking since her touching him tended to cause inappropriate thinkage that led to either embarrassing stains on his pants or his balls trying to climb back up into his body. And even worse, he couldn't really bring himself to explain why heavy petting was sometimes on the ick list, now. "Hey, it's really kinda a funny story," he said with a grimace.

"Hey, Oz, I hear Devon is back in town after a brief tour of hiding from the Buffster," Xander shifted his focus to Oz. Oz was much less intimidating than Willow, even with the werewolf thing. Oz stood by the open door to his van looking pretty much just confused by the whole conversation which was miles better that Willow eyes or the look of disgust Faith was giving him as she leaned on the front of the van, one boot braced on the bumper as she smoked.

"Yeah, he got in yesterday morning," Oz agreed with a confused frown.

"Um, he might want to, you know, keep touring," Xander suggested. "I hear outer Mongolia is really cool this time of year. He could take up... Mongoli-ing."

Willow crossed her arms. "Xander LaVelle Harris, you are being avoidy about the vampire bite."

Xander backed up another step and took a deep breath. "Not really, Will, it's kinda all the same story. You guys remember Buffy's Christmas party, yes? The food, the chit-chat, the drugging of the Jello?"

Willow scrunched her face up as she turned to Ms. Calendar. "Devon put something in the Jello, and we're all lucky that we didn't get drugged and do something really bad like... well, like anything really bad. But Angel decided to eat a lot of Jello, so he got really stoned and started saying things in front of Mrs. Summers like how it was a good thing he didn't need to breathe. Apparently, he also told her that Scott was gay, which is not really very truthlike, but he was stoned, so I don't think that actually counts as lying. And then Mrs. Summers called the ambulance, but Xander and Angel had already left, and the police showed up and Devon kinda broke through Buffy's window jumping out the second story and a good time was definitely not had by all."

Faith laughed. "Only you losers could make a group of dropouts look like the cool party." She rolled her eyes and took a deep drag on her cigarette so that the end glowed in the dark.

"Hey!" Willow objected. "We were not even trying to be cool, and Jenny and I are supposed to be casting spells on the Bérgan before the little murder victims turn into big old murderers and go after those of us who are practicing our constitutionally protected Wiccan religion."

"Before the... what?"

Ms. Calendar sighed and headed back to the picnic table. "The two children are really projections from a demon called the Bérgan, an ancient enemy of white witches. It mimics a ritualistic murder victim and then uses fear and anger to control a mob of people who kill anyone with magical powers so that the Bérgan can feast on those powers. Now, Xander, can you please quickly answer two questions? First, where did you get the bite, and second, why does Devon need to leave town?" She sat on the bench facing Xander, her back to the spell and her arms crossed in a way that made it clear she was not really with the joking.

"Fuck, just let me tell it," Faith said in an aggravated voice as she dropped her cigarette to the ground and crushed it under her boot.

"No!" Xander yelled. "No, I'm telling!" He took a deep breath and then just turned his brain off so he could say what he needed to say. If he thought about it too much, he would move to Timbuktu or something. "Angel was stoned when we left, and he just kept getting more stoned, and apparently stoned is a whole lot like happy because Angel was not so much soulish any more."

Xander had squinched his eyes together, and now he opened them. Willow was looking at him with horror, and Ms. Calendar was back up on her feet. "Xander," she said as she moved toward him, her face caught somewhere between disbelief and abject horror. "If his soul has been lost, we need to act now, before he can further his evil plans," she said in that same 'I am teacher, thou shalt not argue with me' voice.

Faith snorted. "If someone has to put the man down, it's going to be me. You sure wouldn't get that stick up your ass anywhere near Angel... or Angelus," Faith warned as she crossed her arms. "But that is just not happening, babe. The soul is right back where is supposed to be." It was funny... Ms. Calendar's voice was big with the authority until sixteen year old Faith came in with her slayer 'thou shalt not argue with me' version, and Ms. Calendar suddenly didn't seem so very confident.

"He... he bit you," Willow said, all horror and fear and wide eyes.

"Yes, he did," Xander agreed. "Which hurt, but no one will be doing any staking because the demon's get out of jail card had a timestamp," Xander hurried to say. This was pretty much exactly where he didn't want this conversation to go. He was doing enough freaking out all by himself, so he did not need the Willow freak on top, especially since Willow-freak was so closely followed by Buffy-freak and the closely associated Giles-judgment.

"Excuse me?" Ms. Calendar asked. "The spell doesn't work that way. If he had a moment of perfect happiness, even one, then the soul would separate from the body and return to its eternal destination since it was clearly no longer torturing the demon for his crimes."

Xander looked at her suspiciously, because she was sounding strangely expert on the subject of soul spells, way more than even Giles.

"Drugs... not so perfect with happiness," Oz offered with a shrug. "Happy, but not perfect."

"Not unless you have some seriously good shit," Faith seconded him as she stretched and scratched her bare stomach. "But Xander is off track here. Get to the point, babe."

"Right point," Xander said taking a deep breath. If he were smart, he'd figure out a good way to lie about this next part. "Okay, so Angel's soulless twin Angelus came out, and there wasn't actually as much blood as sex, which is disturbing, but way better than bodies stacked up like firewood," Xander said as he remembered one of Spike's more vivid stories of Angelus and nuns. Spike's way of making him feel better was not actually big with the feeling better.

"Angel had sex? With a girl?" Willow asked, obviously remembering last year's very awkward conversation about Angel and gayness.

"A girl, a boy, another girl, a vampire, two girls, two girls and a vampire," Xander admitted with a shudder, and Willow's horror face turned into her squick face, her arms crossed over her stomach. He totally understood the feeling, especially having had a front seat for things that he really honestly could have lived without ever knowing, although parts were... and that's one more part of the brain he was not going to be exploring tonight or ever.

"But he didn't kill anyone?" Ms. Calendar asked, still confused.

Luckily Faith jumped in before Xander could say something really stupid about a pile of one. "Sounds like Angelus was way more interested in the sex, and who can blame him after a hundred years. All that pent up sexual frustration?" She shimmied, stretching deliberately to make it oh so clear that she would not be trying out the century of celibacy plan. "I'm just seriously sorry I missed that ride," she said with a twitch of her body. Oz's eyebrow went up.

Obviously Faith's boyfriend poaching ranked higher than potential soullessness because Willow quickly hurried to Oz's side. She slipped her arm around his waist so that he draped his arm over her shoulders and looked at her. Faith had a view of the back of his head.

"Five by five, little girl," she said so softly that Xander might have thought Willow didn't hear except for the little frown on her face.

"Still not hearing about the biting," Willow said now that she was safely next to Oz.

"Obviously Angelus bit him," Faith said in a voice that made it pretty clear that she thought Willow was all kinds of stupid. Willow's face hardened into fury.

"Okay, time out!" Xander shouted. "Look, Angelus bit me, we went to a suckhouse, he had lots and lots and lotsandlots of sex while I freaked out in the corner. He called Spike and threatened him if he didn't get back here, and Spike came running because he thought Angel had slipped 'round the twist'—his words not mine—and now Spike is thinking that Devon is too stupid to live. So Oz, it would be a really, really good idea if Devon took a long tour of Siberia because Buffy may be over her mad but Spike definitely isn't. And honestly? I wouldn't mind punching Devon really, really hard myself. Really hard. Really." Xander sort of ran out of steam on the last 'really'.

Faith was smirking, offering him a thumbs up not so subtly while Willow and Oz just looked shell-shocked, and it took a whole lot to shock Oz. Looking over toward the table, Ms. Calendar had the oddest expression Xander had ever seen. He wasn't even going to try and guess on that one, but it definitely wasn't of the good.

"Angelus and William the Bloody?" she asked, sounding way Gilesy.

"Angel. Say it with me people, AAN-GEL," Xander said sarcastically as his last nerve finally snapped. "Angel with soul still attached. And *Spike* who right now is way less with the rampaging and way more with the confused about why Angel and I keep telling him he can't eat Devon. And honestly? I'm only 95% on the 'don't kill Devon bus' myself. But other than that... yeah... kinda," Xander admitted as his anger failed him when he needed it most. It was a really good thing that Ms. Calendar was standing near the picnic table because she just sort of fell backwards onto the bench. For a minute the crickets took center stage as silence fell.

"Well, this was unexpected," Oz finally commented. "So, Spike wants to kill Devon?"

Faith snorted. "Please, Spike is one name on a very long list of people who want to kill Devon, including me," she said, and then she took out a knife and started cleaning her nails, which was either a warning or just really bad timing. She shrugged as she flicked something out from under a nail. "However, Spike is the one most likely to go through with the killing."

"Oh yeah," Xander admitted. He wished he had something to lean on or sit on, but he was not sitting or leaning near either Willow or Ms. Calendar and he would probably look pretty stupid sitting on the swings and yelling across the park.

"William the Bloody?" Ms. Calendar asked weakly. "We should probably call Giles. We should definitely call Giles. We'll need patrols."

Oh great. Yeah, that's all Xander needed to make the night truly perfect. Hey, let the witch killing demon show up, and things would be pretty much perfectly sucky. He was so moving to Siberia. Unless Devon was moving there, in which case he was heading for Timbuktu, because he really was on that list of people wanting to kill the creep.

"Oi, you lot are bloody worthless," an entirely too familiar voice called out. Spike dropped from the top of the van down into the middle of the group. Willow screamed and jumped into open side door of the van while Oz just sort of blinked at him. Ms. Calendar grabbed for the stake tucked into her jeans, and ripped a big chunk of her shirt in the process. She stood there with her stake thrust out in front and a big flap of blue shirt hanging down.

Looking around, Spike was laughing like a loon, his yellow eyes shining in the dark. "Boo!" he yelled in Ms. Calendar's direction, and she jumped back, her knees hitting the bench so that she stumbled and nearly fell. It just made Spike laugh harder. He was still laughing when he passed Oz with a slap on the arm that sent Oz crashing into the side of his van before he walked to the front and leaned next to Faith. "Hand over my fags you soddin' grifter. Pinch 'em at the store like everyone else."

"You're such a sweet talker, Spike. Geez, it's not like you paid for them," Faith complained as she pulled the pack out and threw it at Spike's head. He snagged it out of the air and gave her a nasty smirk. Watching them, Xander just got the really creepy vibe going, but telling Faith to not do something, like sleep with the evil undead, was pretty much a guarantee she'd try it, so he was avoiding stupidity for once in his life and just keeping his mouth shut.

"Oz, get the computer," Ms. Calendar said as she inched forward, her stake in her hand. Spike glanced over toward Oz, but he was pretty much frozen to the spot as he just stared at them all.

Spike turned his attention to Ms. Calendar. "Bloody hell, pet, you're holding that so tight you're losing circulation in the fingers."

"Oz! Get. The. Computer," Ms. Calendar ordered, her voice shrill.

Okay, time for Xander to step in and fix this mess, even if he had been the one voice of reason arguing for just denying and ignoring the whole stupid mess. In hindsight, his plan was so much better than Angel's. Seriously, they should have just mailed Devon a horse head or something. "Ms. Calendar," Xander said, really trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about. "Spike is really annoying... and evil, I'm not saying he's not evil," Xander hurried to amend himself when Spike growled at him. "Totally evil. But, he's not really likely to eat anyone here."

She stared at him like he'd lost his mind, so Xander was calling this whole idea a brilliant failure. "Oz," she said, her voice low and desperate, and Oz was still standing by the open van as he looked from Ms. Calendar to Spike and back. Xander didn't even see Spike move, but suddenly Ms. Calendar was sitting on the grass, her legs sprawled out in front. Looking down at her with amusement, Spike had her stake in hand.

"Bloody well tried ta warn you. If you go holding onto a weapon that tight, you make the fingers go numb," he pointed out. Then he tossed the stake behind him. Faith caught it and tucked it away as Spike held his hand out for Ms. Calendar. "If I was going to eat ya, I wouldn't be offering you advice. Bloody hell, pet, are all your little friends this thick?" Spike asked as he looked over at Xander with a frown.


"Hey, not thick. Ms. Calendar is not even close to thick," Willow objected from the dark van behind Oz. Spike cast a disgusted look over his shoulder but then he must have seen Willow in the dark interior of the van and he turned totally around.

"Got some darkness and power in that one. All insecurity and need, you'd make a lovely vampire, pet."

Willow gave a little squeak as Ms. Calendar finally scrambled to her feet without Spike's help. "I don't know what you want..."

"To get the soddin' hell out of here," Spike cut Ms. Calendar off. "The fucking minions have just about taken over the hellmouth, and I'm going to bloody well teach 'em to go disrespecting me," Spike snarled, and all of the teasing playfulness was gone. Ms. Calendar stumbled back a step and Spike smirked. "Don't go getting your knickers in a twist, luv. The boy was just trying to make a point, and I got tired of him using words. Now, me, I'm more about actions. For example, Faith doesn't try and kill me, and I don't try and kill her," he pointed out. "Although I may reconsider that if she keeps nicking my fags." He turned to glare at her.

"You and what army, babe?" Faith asked as she gave a smirk of her own and stepped forward, her hips rolling as she stalked gracefully toward him.

"That's disturbing," Oz said quietly.

Spike snorted. "The point is," he said as he turned his gaze back to Ms. Calendar, "that you and the watcher keep acting like there's some sort of war between us." Spike cracked his neck to the side and glided closer to her. "Is there?" he asked, his voice low and sultry. Ms. Calendar swallowed. "I don't remember mucking about in your business, but maybe I did and forgot and that's why you keep mucking about in mine," he suggested helpfully.

"I don't know—"

"You don't know much if ya think you can annoy me for long, especially since ya really don't have cause. I'm not out thinning the human herd around here... much," Spike shrugged. "But ya got hundreds of minions that practically crawl out of the woodwork, and the slayers can't so much as find 'em. Ya have a fucking Bérgan wandering around, some zombies, and the caves around the Hellmouth are just about empty, which usually means something really big and nasty is coming. Personally, I don't much care. World goes to hell, I'll turn Faith and Xander and we'll go on our bloody way. But Peaches is fond of humanity and his humans, and seein' as how he's likely to get more depressed than ever if the whole fucking lot of you gets sucked into a hell dimension, I figure, why not help the sod." Spike pulled out a cigarette and made a big production out of slowly lighting it and drawing in a deep drag before he blew out a cloud of smoke. Ms. Calendar looked about ready to collapse in fear. "I'm not the one you're at war with, and you and the watcher better pull your heads out your arses before you lose the show."

Spike deliberately turned his back on her, standing there for a second in a display that Xander knew another vampire would take as one seriously nasty insult. Spike had turned his back on Angel once, and broken bones had been involved. Apparently, Spike had expected and wanted the broken bones because vampire displays of affection were more than a little seriously disturbing. Of course, guilt was also involved, which Spike didn't understand as well as the broken bones part. Xander'd tried explaining the concept of guilt, but apparently guilt was one of those things that just didn't translate well without a soul.

"Wolf," Spike offered pleasantly, giving a nod to Oz. Oz nodded right back. "Oh, and the boy's right about your mate. He's a fucking waste of human flesh, and I'll break his neck if I see him or catch so much as a whiff of him around me or mine, got it?"

"Very much with the getting it," Oz agreed as he kept right on nodding.

Spike leapt up onto the top of Oz's van, the whole thing banging and shaking under the weight and then he was gone.

"Showoff," Faith proclaimed in a bored voice.

"He impressed me," Oz answered. He sat in the open door of the van. Xander watched as Willow's pale face appeared behind Oz. She scooted forward, her hands catching at him and fisting his jacket as she sat just behind him.

"It was... different," Ms. Calendar said weakly. She looked around as if expecting him to jump out again.

"Nah, that's pretty much same old, same old for Spike," Faith dismissed the whole thing. "And if I don't get going, he's going to refuse to let me play with any of the minions he finds," she said as she pulled out her stake. "Xander, you good here?"

"Um, yeah, big with the good," he agreed. He wasn't, but at least with Faith gone, the potential for bloodshed dropped significantly.

"Five by five. Wish me luck," she said with an eyebrow wiggle, and then she was off running into the darkness. Xander was so not wishing her luck because he still wasn't entirely sure she was planning on actually staking the vampires she found. Spike was not exactly what you would call a good influence.

"I guess I should leave you witchy types to the spell making, huh?" Xander asked as he backed away a step. "And really... don't go getting Giles all worked up because that soul is tacked on good and tight. They just don't make escape clauses on curses like they used to... although, technically the curse is a 'used to' since they made it so long ago." Xander cleared his throat and really wished they would all find someone else to stare at. "And this is me going."

"Xander, wait!" Willow called as she jumped out of the van. "Oz, don't let him go off into the dark," she said as she turned to him.

Oz blinked for a second. "She's right. I'll give you a ride home," he offered.

"Nah, I'm good," Xander said. He patted his leg with the blade strapped to it.

"Xander," Ms. Calendar said as she stepped forward. Her hair was going every which way, and with the ripped shirt she was looking very much unteacherish. "You can't just wander off on a hellmouth."

Xander laughed. How many times had he gone wandering off on his own that first year when he didn't even have any training? Here, here's a stake, try and hit the heart. Yep, he was officially surprised he survived. Now, not so much with the being alone... or the being defenseless. Between Angel and Spike, he could swing a mean sword, and he wasn't half bad with a Smith & Wesson double-action. "Hey, the only things on the hellmouth right now are vampires and a couple of zombies. Even Clem's family moved, which really... is big with the calm before the storm creepiness."

"But Xander, vampires," Willow said with a frown.

"Minions. I think I can take a minion or two," Xander pointed out. Why did she assume he was incompetent? "And second, I smell like a three hundred year old vamp bite. I figure the minions are going to smell me and figure..."

"That you're a consort," Jenny finished. "They'd starve themselves to insanity before touching a master vampire's consort.

Xander stared at her blankly for a second. "And again with the consort stuff. I was going to say that if I could survive a bite from a three hundred year old vampire, I must be one seriously bad badass. But yeah, they would probably run away from the Angel smell because of Angel, too. I think I should get going. You know, people to see, homework to not do," Xander said as he turned and started power walking for the far side of the park. Well, that went absolutely horribly. When he hit the swings, he started jogging, his sneakers sinking into the sand of the playground, but he ignored that to hurry toward the darkness of the trees on the far side. Even now, he could feel their eyes on him.

When had they all grown so far apart? When had Willow started being more worried about her boyfriend than a discussion of soul-stealing spells? Part of him still loved her, but part was seriously starting to consider that he was not the only one needing a little therapy. Of course, Willow's parents were big with the psycho-babble which meant they would never believe that they were therapy-inducing parents. Seriously, though, Xander was starting to think that with the exception of Buffy, he had the best parents in the group.

Even as kids, Willow's parents would only give her attention if she did something perfectly, and only if it was something that they wanted her do to. He remembered when she gave up flute after her one and only recital. Yeah, he'd been a kid, too, so his memory was probably a bit wonky, but he remembered her doing a great job. Her parents had made excuses to all their friends who had come over about how she hadn't practiced enough and how she certainly couldn't live up to some other kid that Xander didn't even know. That left way bigger scars than biting. He ducked under a tree branch and came out on Oak Avenue.

The street was quiet, a few barking dogs in the distance and faint music coming from one of the houses. It sounded like someone was mowing their lawn in the middle of the night, and that just had to make the neighbors happy. He started walking toward home, listening to the slightest rustle in the trees beside him. It could be the wind. It probably wasn't, but it could be.

And Angel... no wonder Angelus was so loose with the screws. Angel's dad may have converted to marry a good protestant woman with the right bloodline to get him a little power, but Xander had heard enough stories to know that Liam's friends had all been Catholics, and he'd been pretty well convinced he was going to hell way before he went and got demonized. Of course, it didn't help that his father had gone all Calvin on him. Xander's Catholic friends laughed about guilt being the cornerstone of their religion, and Angel had that, but at least the Catholics believed that you got forgiven. Liam inherited his father's old Catholic guilt and his newly adopted Calvin belief that he was never getting forgiven for it. No wonder Liam finally broke and decided that if he was going to hell, he might as well have fun getting there. All that damage, even without the beatings... not that Angel's dad had skipped on the beatings.

Yep, his folks were saints by comparison. Get a little drunk, scream, make random accusations about how everyone else ruined your life, and fall asleep. It wasn't exactly prime evil. Xander stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Ambush me or come out. You're going to scare some old lady to death creeping through people's yards," he told the bushes. They rustled for a second, and then Angel stood up. Angel might be way better with the one-on-one fighting, but Spike had it all over him when it came to ambushing. After many a near heart attack from Spike's version of "helping" him train, Xander had gotten pretty good at noticing stalkers.

"Xander, you shouldn't be out here alone," Angel said, his face still that weird emotionless mask he seemed to wear all the time anymore. Yep, when they went to LA this weekend, Xander was not the only one getting therapy, Angel just didn't know it yet.

"You being here makes the alone less aloney," he pointed out as he started down the street again.

He could hear when Angel started following a few seconds later. Rather than walking next to Xander, he kept his distance. Part of Xander wanted them to go back the way they had been; he missed the touches and the shoulder bumps and the slaps upside the head. But he had to admit that another part was just as happy that Angel was leaving a little distance.

"So, what's a consort?" Xander asked.

"You thought you were alone, so going off on your own was a poor decision," Angel answered, which Xander was pretty sure didn't answer the question.

He stopped and turned around to face Angel. Right away, Angel stopped, one hand coming up to hold the wrought iron fence in front of a rundown old house. "Faith let me go off alone," Xander started, and right away he could see an emotion on Angel... not a good one, but at least it was an emotion. "Which means," he said loudly, interrupting Angel's little silent pissy fit, "I wasn't alone. No way would she have gone off unless she knew you were right there. For that matter, no way would Spike have taken off and made her pick between hunting with him or babysitting me, not unless you were in the shadows doing your imitation of a stalker."

"With some demon trying to take over the hellmouth, having an escort is not the same as babysitting," Angel said with a frown.

"Yep, getting that since you won't let Faith hunt alone, although I don't know which is scarier, her hunting with Spike and picking up all kinds of bad habits or her hunting with Buffy and potentially saying things that I so do not need for Buffy to be hearing."

"Both options are equally dire," Angel agreed with a sigh.

"Yep. So, what's a consort?"

"A consort?"

"Yep, that was the word," Xander agreed. In the old days, he would have kept walking while needling Angel, but it was hard to talk to someone when they walked six feet behind you... even harder to nag them that way.

Angel frowned. "The husband or wife of a ruler. Queen Victoria's husband was Albert, Prince Consort of England. I don't think people use the word much anymore. They just call Philip, Prince Philip."


"The Queen of England's husband," Angel said.

"Oh." Angel had been watching the history channel again. Xander frowned. "Okay, why would Giles and Ms. Calendar both talk about me becoming a consort? I mean, I know we call her Queen C, but Cordelia is not really much with the actual queenliness." Xander didn't add that the odds of marrying her were growing dimmer what with the avoiding touching her... and the him annoying her with his current freakiness.

"Because they're idiots who believe anything that some watcher once wrote down," Angel sighed. He turned and leaned his back into the fence. "Xander, they're making some huge assumptions that are absolutely wrong. I just think maybe this conversation should wait for another time." Angel sounded so stressed and tense that part of Xander wanted to agree. It was hard to nag Angel when he was already so depressed that all he did was stare at the floor, or in this case, the street.

"If you don't tell me, I’m so going to use my Spike-taught skills of lock picking and look it up in Giles' books and get misinformed for myself," Xander warned.

Angel didn't answer right away, but from the deep sigh, Xander knew he had won. Now he only had to wait. He walked over to the brick pillar built around the mailbox and leaned back. He could wait. He shifted to his other foot. He really hated waiting.

Luckily, Angel cracked first. "It's from a twelfth century vampire named Erlend. He was courting a witch, and he invented this whole mythology about how a vampire could take a human as a mate, a consort. He promised her long life and said they would have a mystical bond that would reach beyond the grave." Angel looked up. "It was a lie. Darla knew the man, met him years later, and he laughed about how the witch had told others the story, about how the watchers were forever looking for his blood-magicked ceremony, the one that would turn a human into a consort."

Suddenly the idea of trusting watchers to be the almighty keepers of mystical knowledge didn't seem so bright. "Wait," Xander said as a thought came to him. "They think we're married?" he yelped. Memories of Angelus and that man flooded back.

"Ye will like it well enough after I break ye in lad. I'll take my time with ya," he'd vowed, his yellow eyes on Xander as he had thrust into the man below him, holding the man's arms to the bed as the man's back arched and he screamed.

"Xander, it doesn't matter what they think. I wouldn't touch you," Angel was saying loudly. He'd taken a step closer to Xander, and Xander blinked, struggling to focus on the here and now.

"They think we're married," he meant to sound indignant, but it came out kinda squeaky.

"Calendar thinks we're married... Giles thinks we're going to be married," Angel admitted with a wince. "They also happen to think that consorts get some magical powers from a vampire. Think about it. My immortality comes from being dead. How can I share that with you without killing you?" Angel asked. He shook his head fiercely. "No. No, I will never do that do you, Xander. You have to know that."

Angel looked so pained that Xander braced himself and closed the gap between them, resting his hand on Angel's arm. "I know that. See me? This is my not worried face," Xander promised. "Okay, it's my slightly worried face, but my worry has to do with a whole bunch of things, none of which are being afraid of you turning me."

Angel looked at Xander, his eyes almost black in the dim light of the street. "I wouldna do that do you," he said seriously.

"Yep, got that," Xander agreed, and he was so not even going to deal with the Irish accent right now. Yeah, he might need therapy, but he seriously hoped this guy Clem recommended was good with multiple personality disorder because Xander wasn't even the really, really screwed up one here. He slid his arm around Angel's and pulled on him. "Come on, let's go home," he said.

For a second, Angel didn't move, his face dark and full of pain as he looked down at Xander. Then that emotionless mask slipped back in place and Angel allowed Xander to turn him toward home, their arms still entwined as they headed down the shadowed road.




The Enemy of my Enemy

Xander checked out the library through a partially cracked door before he inched into the room. He was still having trouble getting his head around Giles doing the whammy on Buffy for her eighteenth birthday, and he really had no idea what to say to the man. If Giles had gone and tried to screw over Angel, that Xander would have understood. He would have called it stupid, but he would have understood. But Giles doing the big whammy on Buff surprised him.

He could see the back of Buffy's head bent over the table as she sat on Oz watch, only without much watching of Oz. He must have fallen asleep in his cage. "Hey, Buff," he said as he got close.

"Xand! Hey, you missed a whole week of English type fun with research, only not so much with fun," she said as she turned and gave him a smile.

"It's funny, but I do better with school when I'm not in school, which makes my teachers happy on two counts because classrooms and me lead to sleeping, no matter how hard I try to not be bored," he admitted. "And I'm really sorry I missed your birthday. I mean, I know you told me it wasn't a big deal, but I'm still feeling the guilt here. I got back this morning and Willow gave me the full rundown," he said before he went to another chair and dropped into it. Angel had been livid... nearly Angelus levels of livid even, and after hours and hours and hours of therapy, Xander was only just now starting to be okay with the fact that Angel had a right to get angry.

"Hey, I wasn't kidding when I said I had a big zero planned. I didn't even do the ice show like I said," she shrugged. Xander grimaced at that admission. She had really been looking forward to some father time, but since she had the functional mother, he guessed she had to have some sort of dysfunction somewhere in the family tree if she wanted to fit in with the rest of them.

Xander gave her a crooked smile. "And here I thought you had scheduled a miss on celebratory weirdness."

"Yeah, so did I," she said defiantly. Then she gave him a wry grin. "Not so much, though."

The library was quiet as Buffy played with a page in her book. The corner finally ripped off in her fingers, and Buffy looked up toward Giles' office with panic, but there wasn't any Giles there. Xander took a deep breath and actually tried to say something real. His therapist told him that he needed to express himself without the jokes when he truly wanted other people to understand his emotions. Xander felt a need to make a therapy joke, but he had promised he was going to give this a try. "Buffy, I'm really sorry I wasn't here. Not that I could have done much, but still, I'm sorry because I guess I figure as a friend, I should have been here to be miserable with you... or cheer you up... or something." Xander just waited, watching as Buffy looked at him in surprise for a second.

"I know you had to do your thing," Buffy said quietly, and Xander squirmed at the strange emotions in the room. He was fairly sure it was sincerity, an emotion he only had a passing acquaintance with.

"I kinda did. Devon with his trick and Angelus with his creepy really did a number on me," he admitted.

Buffy flinched.

"And that came out sounding way too 'I told you so,' because that was not the emotion I was going for," Xander sighed.

"No, you have every right to 'I told you' away," Buffy said as she straightened her shoulders. "Although you were more with the making druggie jokes than actually telling, but I did get the point. I guess I just really wanted to be with someone who knew about me." Buffy leaned back and pushed her hair back from her face with a frustrated sigh. "You know, that whole thing with Owen wanting a good spanking never would have happened if he hadn't caught me with that big old knife. I really need to come up with a better excuse for carrying heavy weaponry." Buffy made a squinch face worthy of Willow.

"But on the bright side, now your mom knows," Xander pointed out. Okay, so Joyce getting kidnapped by some vamp that the Watcher's Council had set up to kill Buffy as a twisted birthday prezzie... kinda not cool, but he figured she had a right to know what happened if Buffy never came home one night the way Jesse had.

Buffy made and even squinchier squinch face. "She was not really with the happy, and I can't decide if it's the slaying or the three years of less than honesty about the slaying," she admitted.

"Ah, an unhappy parental. I'm sorry," Xander offered. Silence fell again as they both just sort of ran out of words. Buffy picked at the edge of the table. Xander tried to come up with an excuse that didn't sound excusy.

"How's Cordelia?" Buffy asked suddenly.

"Cheery," Xander said. "In that she's cheerleading a lot, so I’m not that much with the seeing her. She cornered me in the mall and yelled at me for not bringing her back a bigger present from L.A., so I guess she's good."

Buffy gave him an odd look. Finally she sighed. "Was this always so awkward?"

Xander laughed. "Not so much. I think all the avoiding is making this... really weird," he admitted.

"Oh yeah. So... no more avoidy? I mean, I can handle the big pink elephant if you can."

Xander looked at her and internally groaned at the idea of talking Giles with her. Giles was like her dad, only much more dadlike, so he wasn't sure he wanted to know just how much his betrayal had to hurt. It was weird, but on the phone Willow was way more upset with the Giles getting fired part than the Giles stabbing Buffy in the back. But he could handle this. "Hey, I'm all about dealing with the big ugly," he offered with a smile.

"Thank god," Buffy said with a sigh. "I was about to break my brain trying to avoid you and therapy and Angel."

"What?" Xander yelped. "Me and Angel is an open book in the openness if not the bookness. I was avoiding Giles and his backstabbingly tacky birthday present." Xander crossed his arms and watched as Buffy's eyes went all big.

"Oh..." she said slowly. And then she was just kind of quiet.

"Seriously? You're more with the avoid about my therapy than Giles and his Benedict Arnold impression?" Xander asked softly.

Buffy's lips pulled down into a frown. "I didn't really consider it Benedict Arnoldy until this point," she said. She closed her eyes for a second and then shook her head. "Only you could make it seem like Giles is the bad guy when it was the Council guys who made all these stupid rules."

"And yet Giles is the one who followed their stupid rules," Xander pointed out. He was so not ready to let the guy off the hook. And the fact that he had told Buffy after drugging her didn't erase the whole drugging of Buffy in the first place. And Xander was big enough to admit that maybe he was a little touchy on the subject of drugs these days, but it was still seriously creepy.

"I guess I never thought of it like that," Buffy admitted. "But he told me, and if it wasn't for that Council goon getting himself killed and letting insano-vamp loose, that would have been the end of it. So, I guess me and Giles are still okay."

Xander didn't answer since he wasn't really sure what to say. He knew that Giles had to have something really special and worthy under the tweed and stuffy or else Buffy wouldn't like him so much, but Xander sure didn't see what that something was.

"So, you and Angel? Therapy?" she asked.

Xander nodded. "Yep. The therapist is a little strange, and she has even stranger and occasionally green friends, but I don't know, I think it might help some."

"So, is that why you and Cordelia are kinda...." Buffy brought her two forefingers together and let them slowly drift apart.

"What?" he frowned.

"Drifting. You know, are you and Angel really up for tying the knot?"

Xander stared at her blankly. No. Just no. No way would Giles have said that to Buffy or Willow. No and more no because if he did, Xander was going to have to kill him.

"Xander. Are you okay?" Buffy asked as she leaned forward, waving her hand in front of his face.

He tried... he really tried to do the counting to ten in three different demon languages thing that the therapist had recommended. He tried and failed utterly. "No. Just a big old 'no'!" he snapped. Buffy sat up straight and looked at him with even more concern. "There is no marriage, no consort, no with the gay sex. Oh, sure, there were threats when Angel went all Angelusy, but even Angelus didn't have the gay sex with me. Why does everyone think I'm gay?" he demanded.

The library door came open. "Hey, everything five by five?" Faith asked from the edge of the library.

"I think I broke Xander," Buffy said with a face.

"Hey, if you broke him, you're the one telling the Big A," Faith snorted as she walked in the room.

"I am not gay," Xander insisted as he turned to Faith.

For a half second, she paused, obviously caught off guard by that little outburst, but then she gave a slow, sultry smile and swung her hips as she stalked closer. "You volunteering to prove that?" she asked as she caught her tongue between her teeth and gave him a look Xander had only seen when he had walked in on Spike and some very disturbing porn.

"Okay, ick," Buffy complained.

"Oh, I don't know. Xand's kinda cute. I'd give him a tumble. You wanta watch? Maybe join in?" Faith asked as she gave Buffy an eyebrow wiggle.

"I am officially creeped out by this conversation," Buffy sighed. "Maybe we should go back to the avoidy."

Faith shrugged, all her sexuality falling away in a second as she turned and hopped up onto the circulation counter, her boots kicking the side as she swung her legs. "What are we avoiding?"

"Giles," Xander answered at the same time Buffy said, "Angel."

Faith raised her eyebrows at both of them.

Xander held up his hand. "Okay, Angel going Angelus is definitely freak-worthy, and let me tell you, I did my share of freaking, but at least he had to be drugged into threatening me and even then, his big threats were about the teaching of gay sex," Xander said, leaving out the whole offering to turn part. He really wasn't going there... not until he had a whole lot more therapy. "But Giles went and tried to get you killed when he was sober."

"He's got a point," Faith said with a shrug before she leaned back, bracing her hands behind her on the counter with an expression Xander knew all too well. That was how she looked when she watched Spike and Angel try to kill each other.

"Giles thought he was serving the greater good... following centuries of tradition that is really seriously sucky, but I can at least see the point about not having a stupid slayer," Buffy argued.

"Okay," Xander insisted, "if a stupid slayer is such a bad thing, why test her when she's eighteen? By that time, she's already had three years to both get used to being super-strong and prove she can't be all that stupid." He stood up and glared down at her.

"Score," Faith offered from the side.

Buffy stood up, crossing her arms over her chest. "And if Angelus is no big deal, why are you always touching that scar he left on your neck?" she demanded. "A week, Xander. You were gone to your therapist for a week, and as a graduate of the 'you can't get back into a public school without therapy' plan, even I know that when a therapist wants to work with you for a week straight, you are not exactly issues-free."

"Buffy one, Xander still at two," Faith said with a flinch.

"Hey, I never said I wasn't issues boy," Xander argued. "I'm all about issues. My parents sold me, which is enough of an issue to drive anyone to therapy, and add in all the demon stuff both with the actual demons in my life and with the assumptions you guys make about the demons in my life, and my issues have issues," Xander admitted. "And yet, we're back to the fact that my issues had to be drugged into even talking about sex with me, and your issues tried to get you killed—no chemical intervention required."

"Point, set, match," Faith offered. "No offense, B, but the G-man was way off base."

Buffy sighed. "Yeah, I know. I'm just trying really hard to not think about it too much."

"You want the name of a good therapist?" Xander offered, only half joking. "She definitely would not freak out about the demon stuff."

"Demonic therapy... now that's an occupation that never came up on career day," she laughed grimly. "She isn't actually a demon, is she?" Buffy gave Xander a suddenly uncertain look.

"I don't know. But her secretary... oh yeah," Xander said with a laugh. "She had a cold, and every time she sneezed, all these little spines came out. She almost perforated Angel, and then spent two days apologizing. And Dr. Harrigan went with us for a reading, and all three of us ended up at this nightclub/ karaoke bar with this green demon who makes the best milkshake ever. Oh, and never, ever ask Angel to sing. It's not pretty," Xander said with an exaggerated shudder. If they had to go back to Lorne, Xander was going to develop a case of diarrhea or something until Angel was done.

Buffy stared at him blankly and silence reigned until the library door banged open, waking Oz and just scaring the rest of them.

"Buffy!!" Willow yelled as she came careening through the door of the library. Xander was the only one who didn't have a weapon drawn in less than a second. It took him a good two seconds to draw his sword as Willow just about crashed into the circulation counter.

Buffy stood with the tranq gun in hand and already up. She swung it from Willow to the cage where Oz was suddenly on his feet and throwing himself against the cage. "What?"

"Jenny called. Giles is coming. There are demons coming to open the hellmouth! She said the Sisterhood of Jhe is coming right now," she blurted out as she clung to the circulation desk.

"Well, fuck. Now?" Faith demanded. Xander was already digging his cellphone out. He had a strict rule to call Angel for any watchers, world-endage, or tentacled demons.

"Xander, maybe you should get home," Buffy said as Xander listened to the phone ring. He looked at her incredulously, but he didn't have time to answer as Angel picked up the phone. In the background, Xander could hear Spike complaining about something.

"Angel!" Xander shouted to get his attention.

"Xander?" Angel asked into the phone.

"We have potential world ending here. Willow said that Jenny said that Giles said that the Sister of Gee is on its way," Xander said, and suddenly that didn't sound nearly as dramatic or dangerous as it did like they'd been playing some weird version of telephone. He said that she said that he said. However, from Angel's voice, he was taking it seriously.

"The Sisterhood of Jhe?" Angel asked, putting a different accent on that last word.

The next thing Xander knew, he was hearing Spike. "Bloody hell, what the fuck are you lot mucking around with now?!"

"Get the car," Angel was ordering him. "Xander, get back from the hellmouth and find a defensible position. Spike and I are coming."

Xander thumbed the phone off, and Faith was looking at him. "Well?"

"Well, we find really big weapons until Spike and Angel show up. I don't suppose you have a sword I can borrow, Buff," he asked as she turned to look at her.

"In the cage," she said as she looked pointedly over where Oz was busily tearing away the sheets that gave him some privacy, his growls filling the air.

"Okay, I think I'll pass on the sword," Xander said as he looked at one very seriously cranky werewolf. A twang startled him, and Oz roared as the dart hit him.

"Oz!" Willow called out.

"Sorry, but if there's going to be demons coming through here, we really can't have Oz getting out and attacking us," Buffy apologized. "Willow, Xander, you should get Oz and secure him in one of the basement rooms and then get out of here," she suggested.

"I can help with the magic... that mist spell I've been working on or the line of fire," Willow objected as she turned to look at Buffy hopefully. As the other would-be exile, Xander understood the pain of getting rejected by your friend, and Willow didn't even have an Angel to fall back on.

"Do you have any of those prepared?" Buffy asked.

"Um... no, but I could get something together really fast," she argued. Buffy looked unsure.

"Hey, Will," Xander interrupted, "let's get Oz somewhere safe and then you and I can get back here and do our thing. And Buffy, I want that really big sword... the one with the red hilt," Xander said firmly. He took Willow by the arm and sort of shoved her toward the cage since she had the key in hand.

"You two hurry up," Faith said, shifting her stance nervously as she headed for the cage herself. "So, Sisterhood of Jhe, any suggestions on weapons, B?"

"I'm going with sword. There's not much a good decapitating won't stop," Buffy said firmly.

Xander exchanged a worried look with Faith. Random attacks with unknown weapons was not really the best way to handle the apocalypse, but then this one had sort of snuck up on all of them. Willow had the cage open now and was checking on Oz, her face wrinkled with worry.

"Okay, let's get this show on the road," Xander said with way more cheerfulness than he felt as he grabbed Oz by one arm and hauled him up. Willow got under his other arm and the two of them started dragging Oz toward the library exit.

"Don't lose any world-ending battles before we get back," Xander called out. Only when Willow gave him a shocked expression did it occur to Xander that not everyone shared Faith and Spike's sense of humor. He was definitely hanging out with the scary crowd too much lately.


The battle was definitely not what Xander had expected. He was used to nice orderly vampires or demons that had body parts you could cut off. The giant multi-headed snake demon... not nearly as fun. Spike had given up on weapons, darting in with claws and fangs, making the beast rear up to try and buck him off. Buffy and Faith were making a concerted effort to hit its heart and Angel and Xander and Giles had been recruited for Jhe duty, killing the members of the Sisterhood that kept appearing in clusters that would charge through the doors and immediately attack anyone in their path.

A mist was slowly filling the room as Jenny and Willow chanted together, and Xander dove for the ground as a demoness grabbed for him. Rolling back to his feet, he brought his sword up just in time to see Angel sink his sword deep into her guts as she caught him across the face with her claws. Giles flew back from another demoness' punch, and Xander could hear Buffy cry out.

He tried to cross over to Giles, and a snakehead caught him in the back, sending him slamming into the wall so hard that he committed the cardinal sin, the sin so great that when he did it in training, Spike took it as permission to draw blood. He dropped his weapon. Xander sprawled on the ground, dazed and not quite able to blink fast enough to understand that a demoness was rushing at him.

Angel roared, and then Giles was there, throwing himself into her side so they both crashed to the ground. She snarled and grabbed Giles by the throat, but Xander scrambled after his sword, shoving it deep into the demoness' back. Before Giles could roll clear, Spike was there, twisting her neck until it snapped.

In all his vampy glory, Spike was a thing of nightmare, all yellow eyes and fangs and a supernatural grace and speed that even Angel couldn't match, and Xander actually felt a little sorry for Giles when Spike seemed to lose track of which side he was on for a second and snarled at Giles. The man went pale.

"Spike!" Angel called, and Spike shook his head, his browridges vanishing although his eyes stayed yellow.

"Smell that?" Spike asked. Angel decapitated another of the Sisters of Jhe and stopped.


Xander couldn't smell anything but blood and demon guts, and he was just really hoping that they all got out of this alive.

"Zombies," Spike said as he looked toward the library doors.

Without Spike harassing it, the snake demon took the opportunity to slam down against the floor, nearly squashing Faith and making the whole building shudder as glass tinkled down.

"Bloody fuck, no," Spike snarled before he leapt into the fight again, dodging around a head before grabbing the thing by one of its necks. Another head tried to take a bite out of him, and Spike dropped down and grabbed the main body of the demon just in time to make the demon bite itself.

"I have the zombies," Xander called. He got a firm grip on his sword and headed for the door.

"Xander, no," Angel yelled, right before two more demonesses came charging through the door.

Giles snatched a crossbow off the floor and wiped the blood from his eyes before firing.

"Hey, you handle the world ending. I can handle a couple of zombies. You trained me," Xander yelled as Angel went down under a demoness and then tossed her off long enough to get a hand around her throat. Xander didn't wait for an answer before darting out into the hallway. Zombies... zombies... if he were a zombie, where would he go?

A snake head crashed through the wall of the library, spraying Xander with drywall dust and debris. "Right, zombies then demons." He blew his breath out nervously and then hurried off to find whatever zombies Spike had smelled.


"That was too close," Jenny said as she sat on the floor of the definitely disasterized library.

"Quite. Had we been able to deal with either the Sisterhood or the opening Hellmouth separately rather than at the same time, I would have been more comfortable." Giles paused and wiped the blood off his face again. One spot on his eyebrow kept bleeding.

"Bloody good fight," Spike declared as he bounced on his toes right in the middle of the library where the hellmouth had closed again. He was looking down as though waiting for something else to come out and play. Giles looked at him like Spike was some sort of strange alien lifeform that had just beamed in. Xander smiled and then winced as the bruise on his face reminded him that facial expressions bad.

"Seriously though, warning would have been good," Buffy said as Angel felt around her injury for broken or pulled bits.

"I'm afraid that since my employment with the Council was terminated, my sources of information have largely dried up," Giles admitted.

Xander looked at the man. Before tonight, his image of Giles was as the guy who dispensed information, not the one who threw himself into a fight against demons only about a thousand times stronger than him. But for Buffy, for all of them, Giles had done that. Giles had tackled a demon of the Sisterhood of Jhe to save him. Yep, time for the brain to do that freaky rearranging thing again, although Xander was still firmly holding to the belief that Giles had acted like a complete shit with the whole Cruciamentum thing. But then Angel had acted like just as big of a shit when Angelus showed up, and Xander knew full well that his whole hyena infestation had pretty much been him doing what he wanted to do but had the good sense to not do.

"We should have heard something," Angel said. "I don't think you've broken anything, but you have some badly torn muscle. You should wear a sling for a while," Angel suggested. Of course, Angel looked way worse than Buffy. The right side of his shirt was soaked in blood and he looked paler than usual.

"I find it strange that you didn't," Giles said. Xander frowned and turned to glare. "I am not suggesting that Angel or Spike withheld information, only that someone is intentionally hiding information," Giles said, but he actually managed to not sound condescending... much.

"Yeah, well I say we find the source of all this shit lately and shove some of it right down his throat," Faith said. She was back on the circulation desk, but she was too tired to even swing her legs and drive Giles crazy by kicking it.

Buffy nodded her head. "Yep, I’m all for finding and making pay... just as soon as I've had about a week to sleep and get over the ow."

"Oh..." Xander stretched his legs out in front of him. "There's a bomb in the basement. We should probably do something before Murphy's Law catches up with us again."

"A bomb?" Willow asked, her voice small. Her hair was white with dust from the ceiling tiles... Jenny's too. They were just lucky that the bits of ceiling that had collapsed on them were cheap and light.

"Did anyone else know that Jack O'Toole was dead?" Xander asked the room.

"Mr. 'I have an attitude' O'Toole?" Buffy asked as she cradled her hurt arm with her good one. Angel was in Giles' office, probably getting a sling. Giles kept an amazingly well stocked first aid kit.

"He's the one," Xander agreed. "He and his zombie buddies were trying to blow up the school."

"And ya killed them?" Spike asked. "Good on you, pet. Can't stand those soddin' walking corpses." Not even twitching at the irony of that statement, Spike walked over to the circulation desk and felt Faith up in very inappropriate places, and places she really wasn't very likely to be injured and in need of feeling up.

"Dear lord," Giles sighed.

"Spike, not tonight," Angel sighed as he came out of the office with a sling for Buffy.

"Awww, please can I stay out late tonight, Daddy?" Faith teased, but honestly she looked more exhausted than anything else.

Angel sighed.

"What about the bomb? Is it safe?" Willow asked.

Spike left Faith and walked over to sit next to Xander on the table, which had amazingly enough survived.

"I think. Jack disarmed it," Xander shrugged. Hey, if he shrugged his left arm instead of his right he could actually do it without excruciating pain.

"Why'd he do that?" Spike asked.

"I pointed out that if he didn't, he'd be the kind of dead that janitors swept up instead of the drinking with your buddies dead," Xander said with a vague shrug. Looking around the room, he was really proud of this group. Yeah, they probably weren't ready for a sleepover, but they were all accepting each other. Okay, accept might be pushing it a little far, but everyone was in the same room, and there were no threats of violence or dismemberment. He could get used to this.

"Wait," Angel said. He had finished adjusting Buffy's sling, so he turned to pin Xander with a shocked gaze. "If you told him this, that means you were in the room when the bomb was ticking down."

"Yep. I actually played chicken with Jack O'Toole and won," Xander said proudly. He was so proud, he didn't catch the look of horror on Angel's face until Angel was right there in front of him all vamped out.

"Ye stood there in the room with a bomb?" Angel demanded.

Xander opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

"Good thing he did seein' as how we'd all be blown ta hell if he hadn't," Spike pointed out. Angel glared at Spike so fiercely that the other vampire slid off the table and went back over toward Faith. Xander looked to Faith for help, but she was just smirking.

"Xander?" Angel demanded, his voice a growl.

"We're still here," Xander pointed out very reasonably. Angel's low growl didn't sound very happy about that though. "Hey, I was a good eighty... seventy... maybe sixty percent sure that he would not want to blow up, so since I was between him and the exit, I knew he'd stop the timer," Xander defended himself.

"And had he not? What wouldya have done then?"

"Not had to tell you about it," Xander said. "And like I told Jack, I like the quiet. If all of you guys are going up, I'm not going to be the one person walking out alive." Xander just looked at Angel who seemed to have lost all ability to form words. For long seconds, Angel just hovered an inch from him, his face right in Xander's before he started slowly backing away.

Angel closed his eyes, and Xander could tell he was doing the whole counting in at least three demon languages thing.

"And they wonder why we keep accusing them of being affianced," Giles said dryly.

Buffy started humming "I Just Can't Wait to be King," from the Lion King and he smiled over at her.

"Betrothed. Intended. Affianced," Willow added softly.

"Meaning...?" Buffy prompted her with a huge smile.

Willow looked first at Buffy and then at him with an expression that Xander still couldn't read, but she kept the joke going. "One day, you two are going to be married!"

"Yuck!" Xander offered with the required expression of disgust for Angel.

"Ewww," the two girls finished.

Giles and Angel were both looking at the three of them as though they'd caught some weird demon plague.

"Bloody hell, it's from the Lion King," Spike snapped. "You two wankers need to get out more often."

Jenny was smiling as she picked herself up off the ground and offered Willow her hand. "I plan to get out of here before Principal Snyder shows up and threatens to take this out of my salary," she said as she pulled Willow up.

"This kind of vandalism would look really bad on my permanent record," Willow agreed.

Buffy gave a huff of laughter as she started slowly for the door. "Speak for yourself. After burning down a building, this would be a minor incident on my disciplinary file." She looked around. "And guys, thanks," she offered to everyone.

Spike leaned back against the circulation desk and gave her his best calculating look. "Just didn't want all the happy meals getting eaten up by someone else," he said with a smirk. Buffy stopped and looked at him.

"Are you trying to pick a fight because I'm all fighted out tonight."

"I thought slayers were always up for a fight or a fuck," Spike offered, and Xander knew that expression too.

Faith jumped right on in. "You should join us, B. Work off some of that extra energy." She was still sitting on the counter, so she reached out and hooked Spike with a leg, scooting over so she could wrap her legs around him. Spike wiggled his eyebrows at Buffy.

"Giles! The vampires are creeping me out," she complained.

"They do that," he agreed. "And do not expect my truce with you to last beyond this blasted headache of mine," Giles warned Spike with a quick finger poke. Spike didn't look particularly impressed.

Angel reached over and caught Xander by the back of his arm. "Buffy, he's trying to get a rise out of you. If you ignore him..." Angel paused and glanced over at Spike. "If you ignore him he'll do something even more outrageous until you finally pay attention to him," he admitted. Angel helped Xander off the table, his hand under Xander's elbow until he made sure both Xander's legs actually worked.

"Oz," Willow breathed in horror. "Oz was down where the zombies were." She looked ready to go running out after him.

"Wolf went running out a while back," Spike shrugged. "He'll be back after he runs off some of his energy."

Giles waited until Jenny reached him, slipping his arm around her waist even as Jenny kept a hold on Willow. "We'll find him tomorrow," he promised. "Right now, it's time for all good little heroes to go home and get some sleep." Giles smiled at Willow before looking over at the rest of them, but his gaze lingered longest on Buffy.

Xander stood and watched as Buffy headed over to them, the four of them slowly limping their way out of the ruined library leaning on each other. Okay, so Giles wasn't the giant jerk that Xander had been calling him. He was a minor jerk... who really did care about Willow and Buffy.

"Right then, time ta get you fixed up before you bleed out, Peaches," Spike told Angel as he held out his hand for Faith, for just a second looking like the gentleman he used to be.

"I'm not going to bleed out," Angel sighed in his best put-upon voice.

"No pig for you tonight," Xander said firmly.

"No bottled for him tonight. Gut wound like that needs fresh," Spike said as he looked right at Xander. Yep, Xander had become the official keeper of Angel's diet.

"Sounds like a visit to the suckhouse," Xander said firmly.

"I don't need—"

"Hey!" Xander interrupted him. "If Angelus comes out again, I am going to be able to honestly say I held up my end of the bargain and no eating or raping is needed. Go feed, have some sex that I am going to try really, really hard to not think about, come back tomorrow night in one piece, please."

"I don't need to—"

"You always were a randy sod," Spike jumped in. "I'm surprised you didn't bugger the boy when ya had the chance, but if ya want to get all that frustration built up again, you always have that warm body right next door if ya lose control." Spike looked over at Xander with an expression that made it perfectly clear that Spike considered him downright shaggable.

Angel vamped out and might have slammed Spike into the wall if Xander hadn't caught him by the arm. Oh yeah, there would be Spike slamming and human blood and sex that he was not thinking about later, but right now he just wanted to get home. "Home? Please?" he asked with his best hopeful smile. Angel looked down at him for a second before he sighed and slipped an arm around Xander, settling for glaring at Spike.

"Manipulative little shit, isn't he?" Spike asked with a smirk.

"Yes," Angel immediately agreed. He gave Xander a pointed look, but Xander didn't care because the world was still in one piece and they were all going home.


The Best Laid Plans

Xander opened the door and flinched as he caught sight of the very not ready-for-company apartment. And why Cordelia insisted on coming here was really beyond him, but she wanted to hang out and watch television instead of going to the mall, so television and hanging was what they were doing. The door stopped when it hit the pile of clothes ready to go to the laundry, and Xander shoved harder.

When Cordelia stopped in the doorway, Xander hurried to grab clothes and books, a stray towel and a dozen pairs of shoes, a slimy knife and his skateboard and fling it all toward his room. Everything but the skateboard made it. That bounced off the doorjam and clattered to the floor.

"I suppose you're just starting early on that whole frat house phase," she said with a sigh as she picked her way around the kitchen table which was currently buried under maps of the sewers. Since those were Spike and Angel's things Xander elected to not touch them, not after how cranky Angel got over one little soda can stain on a blueprint a week back.

"This is not all my fault," Xander defended himself as he grabbed the skateboard and threw it at his bedroom again.

"Someone broke in and messed your apartment up?" Cordy asked as she carefully moved soda cans over to the far side of the coffee table.

"It's a new kind of demon. I'll tell Giles we need to research," Xander offered with a goofy grin. The look of dismay and disgust on Cordelia's face slowly faded into something Angel called 'indulgent,' which pretty much meant he was forgiven for his many shortcomings.

Xander came over and carefully sat next to Cordy. He kept just enough space between them to not touch and then promptly started praying for a little scooch action on her part because he was so ready for a little naughty touching. Buffy had gotten some, and while it had not done great things for her reputation at school, at least she didn't have to sneak into Spike's porn to try and imagine just how tab A fit into slot B. Of course, with Spike, tab A and tab A did as much fitting as slot B. And for someone who got that much girl sex to still be half gay was so totally not fair. The gay guys should go off and be gay and give the rest of them an even shot at getting some girls.

Xander held his breath as Cordelia shifted just enough for their thighs to press together. All he had to do was ignore it until she chose to let him reach a base. Ignore. He could ignore. Xander clenched his fists.

"Are you going to stick around this weekend?" Cordelia asked as she took the remote and started flipping through channels. He didn't have cable, so there weren't all that many stations. Cordy, though, just cycled the same six shows.

"I think so."

"You're spending a lot of time on therapy."

"Lots of screw loosage up here, you know," Xander joked. "And my therapist says that my humor and powers of verbal distraction might not be actually appropriate in all situations, so that might not have been the right thing to say. But then my therapist also believes in chakras and energy, and not the kind from a light switch, so I'm not really sure I'm believing her."

Cordy reached over and patted him on the leg. "Believe her," she advised him. "So, are you and Angel still struggling with the weird?"

"Um... we're better," Xander said. He wasn't sure what there was to say. Yeah, he totally understood that Angel was not Angelus, and after spending a night with Angelus, there would be no mistaking the two. However, the little prey part of Xander's brain still sometimes got startled when Angel put a hand on Xander's shoulder too quickly or when he reached out to grab him and yank him back from potential snackage on the fangs of some random vamp. His therapist said he had to give himself permission for the weird, but Xander would rather give himself permission to get over it.

Spike was the real deal vampire-wise. He was the one who snacked on Happy Meals as he so diplomatically called people. And yeah, he had gone to bagged some days and the suck houses others, but Xander pretty much knew that Spike was still doing some eating of the population. Yet, even with the eating of people, Spike weirded him out less than Angel. That even made the therapist do the eyebrow wiggle at him... like he needed another adult telling him he had screw loosage.

Lorne was about the only one who didn't make Xander feel like some part of his brain might come rattling loose and randomly fall out onto the floor. When your best friends in the world and your girlfriend and the guy who bought you couldn't make you feel better, but a green guy who worshipped at the altar of Barry Manilow did... yeah, that wasn't good.

Xander blinked as he realized he had sort of lost track there for a second and Cordelia was giving him one of her half-frowns. "What?" he asked as he instinctively checked his face for random bits of food or goo. Nothing.

"So, is the therapist still strange?" Cordelia asked after several long seconds of just staring at him.

"Is turning blue at random moments strange?"

"Usually, yes."

"Then you can put a ticky mark in the strange column for her. So, what gave you the sudden urge to check out Chez Harris tonight?" Xander asked. He swallowed as Cordelia's hand moved slowly from his knee up his thigh. Okay, so he was totally shallow, but Cordelia plus apartment did seem to imply promises of bases hereto unreached by him. Although with the mess in his bedroom, he wasn't even going to hope for a home run.

"We always do the mall," she shrugged.

"Because you always like shopping."

"I am so bored with that phase. There is more to life than shopping."

For a half second, Xander actually panicked. This woman in his house looked like Cordelia and sounded like Cordelia, but that was so not a Cordelia thing to say. Not even close.

"Besides, Harmony is trolling the mall for a prom dress, and I am not going to be seen anywhere she is. You know, if she wouldn't always be trying to suck up to all the cheerleaders, we would be a much better squad, and she just does not want to hear my honesty."

Ah, that explained it. Harmony had been playing the nice co-captain lately leaving Cordy to play the evil, practice-setting, screaming, bitchy co-captain. All was not well in the land of pom-poms. Actually, Xander had seen National Geographic specials with gazelles and cheetahs that had more love for each other than the cheer squad felt these days. If the cheer squad ever got vamped, no one was making it out alive, that's for sure. "No mall, got it," Xander agreed.

Cordelia nodded, but what Xander was really noticing was the hand slowly sliding north. Oh god. Yes, yes, he had potential baseage. There was definitely potential baseage. When Cordy tossed the remote onto the coffee table, Xander could barely hold back a shout of triumph. Blood rushed through Xander's head so fast that he imagined he could hear the beat of his own heart pounding against the inside of his skull as her fingers teased their way closer and closer to his aching cock.

With a knowing smile, Cordelia leaned in and Xander tilted his head so he could kiss her. Her lips were soft and warm and slick and his cock hurt so bad that Xander was pretty sure he was running the risk of breaking it.

"Right then, you got any good nibbles?" Spike demanded as he flung the door open so that it hit the wall behind, and Xander suddenly remembered why he kept his dirty laundry behind the door. From the crunching sound, Xander was guessing he was going to be practicing his newly-found skills of drywall repair.

Xander groaned and let his head fall back onto the sofa as he turned his head just enough to glare at the vamp. "Hi, Spike.... Yes, good to see you, too.... No, this really isn't a good time right now.... That's okay--you have a good day as you don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out."

Spike was digging through the kitchen cupboards already, but he took a second to peer at Xander through the kitchen pass-through, and that expression clearly implied that Spike thought Xander had just totally lost his mind.

"Are you supposed to be able to get in here?" Cordelia demanded.

"Wot? Am I scaring you too much?" Spike asked with a smirk before he slammed another cupboard door. Xander and his handy book on home repairs were going to be looking up hinge repair if Spike wasn't careful... and Spike was pretty much never careful.

"As if," Cordelia sniffed, her fingers shifting a half millimeter closer to Xander's crotch. Xander froze. This was starting to feel like one of his really naughty dreams... one that made him wash his sheets before Angel could come over and do the tragic look while sniffing the air. Only in his dreams, it was usually Seven of Nine who walked in on Cordelia making with the naughty touching. And then she would raise the non-Borgy eyebrow and offer to join in. Spike was definitely not on his list of naughty dream approved participants because he had made it entirely too clear which end of the penis Xander would be playing if they were ever in bed together.

"Faith keeps giving him invites, and I so do not even want to know why Spike and Faith feel the need to be in *my* apartment," Xander said with a sigh as he glared at Spike. Spike looked up and waggled his eyebrows provocatively. Provocative... a word Xander definitely didn't know until he had lived next to Spike and Faith. Or Faith anyway. Spike just sort of slept wherever he landed. It was kinda freaky to wake up and find a hung-over vampire asleep on the other half of your bed, and Spike's whole explanation about Faith kicking him out because of his snoring had just been odd. Of course, with Xander's life, odd was normal. His therapist turned blue, her secretary had spikes, his best friend was not talking to him and had apparently started sleeping with her werewolf, and his neighbors were a vampire and a slayer. Yep, he had left weird about eight exits and two states back.

"So, Ducks," Spike said as he stole a bag of chips and then came over to drop on the couch beside Cordelia, "what are you doing here?"

"My parents are being..." Cordelia waved a hand as if parental weirdness was beneath her. Unfortunately it was the hand that had been on Xander's leg. Xander's leg was now handless... and unhappy. Xander glared at Spike for ruining a perfectly good shot at making third base.

"How's the new Watcher?" Spike asked as he casually stretched and then gave Cordelia a leer as he managed to 'accidentally' run his hand over her thigh. The first time Xander had tried that, he had gotten a whole speech on power and empowerment and permission. Yep, his hands stayed off the body without a specific invitation, but rather than lecture Spike, Cordelia just gave him one of her patented ice glares.

"Hey, sitting here," Xander protested. "And even if I weren't, that is touching without permission, pal." Xander gave Spike his best stern look, which wasn't actually all that stern if the swim team was to be believed.

Spike looked at him with amusement for a second. "Maybe I should come over and feel you up instead," he finally offered as he pulled a chip out and somehow managed to make crunching a chip look sexy.

Cordelia crossed her arms over her chest, and the sight of her chest all pushed up short-circuited his desire to complain about Spike's weirdness. So instead, Cordelia took up defending him. "Give it up. Do you see how he's watching me? That's called straight just in case you can't recognize it anymore."

"I don't mind looking myself," Spike pointed out as he made a production out of checking out her breasts. Cordelia didn't even flinch, and the bit where she pushed them up a bit more might have been an accident. "Of course, I could still give the boy a better tumble in bed than you could, but I'm flexible enough to handle two virgins at once," Spike offered.

Xander could feel his face heat up so much that setting the couch on fire was a very real possibility, but Cordelia had on her full ice-queen persona.

"Oh please. Trust me, Xander has no interest in you tumbling him anywhere. His interest is all here." And that was definitely intentional pushing up of the oh-so-lovely Cordelia cleavage. Xander could see whole new continents of cleavage right now, and Spike was definitely between him and the promised land. "In fact," Cordelia went on, "he's going to buy my prom dress for me this year, aren't you?" she asked as turned to Xander.

For a second, Xander couldn't get his eyes or his brain off the cleavage. Cleavage of Cordelia. Round, firm curving breasts vanishing beneath a red top. Cordelia sighed, and Spike laughed loudly. "Aren't I what?" Xander asked as he suddenly broke out of the trance and realized Cordy had actually been talking to him.

"Just agree, mate," Spike suggested with a belly laugh, "whenever birds get that look in their eye, it's just a whole lot faster if you bloody cave in all at once." Spike paused as a thoughtful expression interrupted the leer he'd worn pretty much since walking in to find Xander and Cordy on the couch. "Then again, you aren't getting any, so if ya refuse to buy her dress, there isn't much she can actually do."

"Oh... yes there is," Cordelia said in a tone of voice that made Xander flinch.

"And I'm agreeing with whatever you just said, hon," Xander hurried to say, "only can you say it again now that I'm actually listening?"

Cordelia sighed and looked at him like he was one of those lost puppies you see on the street that's all cuteness and lice and you aren't really sure if you're supposed to pick it up and love it or take it for a good dip in toxic chemicals. And really, that was so not fair because in the face of girlfriend boobage, his brain was pretty much guaranteed to never work. His membership in adolescence allowed for short circuiting of brain through boobage.

"Bloody hell, just turn gay now and save yourself the trouble, pet," Spike said as he propped a boot up on Xander's coffee table. A half dozen empty cans of soda fell off with a great rattle and Cordelia gave an even more aggrieved sigh.

Again with the not his fault. Cordelia never wanted to come here, so he was not on notice about having to keep the place clean. Truthfully, he only cleaned often enough to avoid major Angel weirdness. Angel's attempts to help him clean with the apartment led to some pretty embarrassing discussions of things that he had truly never meant for anyone to find. A teenage boy had a right to a little therapist-approved experimentation. And if that made Angel blush, that was Angel's issue and Xander did not have to deal with Angel's issues. He just had to deal with his own.

"If I'm keepin' score right, I think you're down for buyin' some bloody expensive dress and cleaning up the pig sty," Spike offered oh-so-helpfully with a smirk.

"I'm buying a dress?" Xander asked, somehow having missed that part of the conversation.

"For me, you idiot," Cordelia said as she leaned back and focused intensely on the television. Okay, he had majorly just missed something or screwed something up or something.

"Oh," Xander managed to say.

For long minutes, they watched the silly, silly antics of people who were way too old to all be living together and acting like they were still in high school. Spike crunched his chips, Cordelia crossed her legs and started her one foot to bobbing faster and faster, and Xander wondered why he was buying a dress.

Cordelia's foot stilled. "Are you planning on staying all night?" she demanded as she glared at Spike.

"Yep," Spike agreed cheerfully.

"You could go get a life of your own."

"Oh, I have one, pet. Right now, it involves the telly and my crisps." Spike held up a chip and popped it in his mouth before sucking the salt from his fingers in a porn-worth performance. Cordelia narrowed her eyes.

Girding his figurative loins, Xander waded in. "Is this more Angel weirdness, like with the vegetables? Because if he thinks we need a chaperone, you are so not qualified. I've seen what you and Faith do, and in some cases I've seen stuff that has made my therapist's eyebrow do the twitchy, so you are so totally unqualified for any supervisory pseudo-adult role," Xander pointed out quickly.

"Bloody hell, Faith's a slayer. She's got a shelf-life and the clock's tickin', so she doesn't exactly have time to play at being a nun, not if she wants to get her living in," Spike said, and that actually sounded like his annoyed voice. "And if you think I'd ever agree to chaperone, I've shoved your head into tombstones too often in training. Now, if you're looking for an audience, I'd be happy to indulge any exhibitionist kink you two might want to explore." Spike popped another chip in his mouth and did the sexy crunching thing.

"Just when you think the littlest vamp can't get any more creepy," Cordelia sighed as she reached over to steal a chip from Spike's bag.


"The truth hurts nearly as much as that overdone bleach job of yours must," she pointed out without a bit of sympathy. Spike growled.

"It's a bloody statement."

"About your lack of money for a good hairdresser." Cordelia shrugged. "Angel may be depressed and annoying and cursed, but at least he knows how to dress. And I suppose he does always have you around to annoy him out of perfect happiness. I know I find you very annoying," she said as she smiled sweetly at Spike. He was making a low growl deep in his throat, and Xander's balls were thinking about applying for positions as internal organs.

"Curses… now that's a good topic. Anyone hear any good curses lately?" Xander asked with a nervous giggle.

"Amy ratted herself again," Cordelia offered. "Or she tried to rat some member of that coven in England and they reflected it back at her or something, I wasn't exactly listening since it was Willow telling the story."

"Turnin' some bint into a rat, now that's a curse I could get behind," Spike said as he pursed his lips and gave Cordelia a withering looking.

"It does seem more curselike than a soul," Xander hurried to agree. At this point he'd pretty much agree with anything if it kept these two from killing each other, and why did he keep hanging out with people who could figuratively or literally eviscerate him? His therapist was right… he needed therapy.

Spike smiled nastily. "Who the fuck gives a soul as a curse... boils or bad hair or leprosy I understand, but a soul? It's bloody unnatural... like giving Cordelia here a soul or somethin'."

Cordelia stared at Spike blankly for a second. "You actually think that was funny don't you?"

"Yeah, ducks, I really do," Spike answered with a smug expression.

"So, hey, kill any good monsters lately?" Xander quickly changed the subject, even if he was a good seventy percent sure that Spike wouldn't eat her. Spike raised an eyebrow at him just long enough to let Xander know that he was allowing the subject change and was not even a little bit fooled by Xander's pathetic attempts at manipulation.

"A few vamps." Spike cracked his neck first one direction and then the other, and the casual ease that allowed Xander to forget Spike was a monster fell away leaving a dangerous and lithe and obviously annoyed creature from hell sitting on the end of his couch. "Bloody things are dusting before they'll admit to whatever is creepin' around the sewers," Spike snarled, and Xander mentally kicked himself good and hard. The only thing guaranteed to put Spike in a bad mood lately was discussion of the latest big and bad who wasn't big and bad as much as annoying and invisible. Spike stared at both of them. "And I'm still wonderin' what you think of the new watcher."

"Wesley?" Cordelia asked with a frown.

"I don't bloody care if his name is Felicity Fuck. What's he like?" Spike went into gameface, and Xander noticed that he wasn't the only one who did a deer in the headlights impression… and it wasn't that easy to deerify Cordelia. For a horrible minute, time was frozen, and then Spike burst up from the couch and threw the bag of chips at the coffee table, which created way more mess than Xander had started with.

"Angel won't even let me fucking back her up with that git around, too fucking worried about me causing a problem, so I want to know if he's as bad as what she says." Spike pulled out a cigarette and lit it, totally ignoring the no smoking around human lungs rule.

"Um, he's…" Xander struggled for a word to finish that.

"British," Cordelia offered. She inched closer to him, but Xander somehow didn't think she had bases on her mind.

"I'm fucking British," Spike pointed out as he started pacing. Xander could almost see the urge to kick something or someone coiling in Spike's body.

"He's not your kind of British. He's more tea and crumpets than Monty Python and evisceration humor," Xander struggled to explain, and Cordelia's hand found his thigh again, only this time she clutched him hard enough to let him know that she was freaked and expecting him to do something about the crazy, cranky vampire in the middle of the living room.

"Is he a total nob?" Spike demanded. He stopped near the kitchen pass through and leaned against the wall, but the tension was still there.

"Um, a bit," Xander admitted. "He's the kind of guy who worries about wrinkles in his suit and brags about being head boy, so he's not really much for… well, for being normal."

"He's not that bad… he's just a little prim, which a little primness in a man is not a bad thing," Cordelia said as she cast a look around at Xander's apartment before pinning him with a rather disgusted expression.

"You two are not being helpful," Spike snarled, and Xander suddenly found whole new depths in his desire to be helpful. They had just crossed over into the land of Spike's demony self. "Is he just a nancy boy or is he an incompetent prat of a nancy boy?" Spike demanded.

Cordelia frowned and then shifted around so she could face Spike without having to peer around Xander. "You're worried about Faith," she accused him. And really, that shouldn't be an accusation, but her tone of voice was way with the accusy.

It was funny, but Angel said that Faith and Spike weren't dangerous like him and Buffy because Faith would never tear herself up over Spike. Spike was a fuck, someone to have fun with, not someone to build her life around and use as the centerpiece for major moral dilemmas. Yep, when Spike and Faith had first gone from fighting to that weird 'we're fighting but we're getting really hot from it' fighting, Xander had been completely weirded out and worried about Faith. Now, looking at the frown on Spike's face and way he was practically vibrating with emotion, Xander realized that maybe he should have been worried about Spike. Spike took a second to smoke before he answered, and now his voice was much calmer.

"I just don't like the idea that the watchers may have sent the most inept git on the fucking payroll just to get rid of these two and start over with a nice biddable girl like Kendra. I should fucking point out to them that their nice biddable girls end up snack food."

Kendra's name caught Xander like a slap across the face. He flinched from that truth, his guilt seeping around the edges of the newly installed self-esteem he and his therapist had been working on.

"You think they're trying to pull another Buffy, only this time get them both killed?" Cordelia demanded as she sat up straight.

"Not like they haven't tried once with Slutty."

"Spike, seriously, stop," Xander growled, happy to have any excuse to push unhappy thoughts out of his mind and focus on Spike's more annoying habits. Processing and accepting could come later; right now, he was going for the good old familiar repression and redirection and complaining. Spike's name-calling was a good place to start. If Buffy slept with Percy West, he so did not need to know that. Of course, at this point pretty much everyone at school knew that, but he would be happy with much less knowing. He would be really, really happy with Spike not poking the Buffy pain around him.

"So, what are you saying? They send someone stupid and just hope Buffy and Faith simultaneously drop dead from demon attacks? Those two aren't going to just stand still and let someone kill them, even if Wesley is an idiot." Cordelia-logic actually went a long way toward making Xander feel better.

"If he gives them bad intel, they could go walking into some fucking trap," Spike snarled, the anger immediately revved back up to nearly full volume. Yep, Spike was in full-out demon mode.

"As plans go, that sucks." Cordelia said with a frown.

"Never claimed the watchers were bright. They're right up there with the bloody gypsies and their curses in my book," Spike snorted. "But if this moron thinks he's going to get my girl killed, I'm going to rip his bollocks off and shove 'em down his throat." Spike reached through the kitchen pass through and ground his cigarette on the edge of the sink before just dropping into the mess of dishes precariously stacked up.

"And again with the crazy vampire exaggerations," Xander tried joking with a weak laugh and Spike gave him a look that made it really pretty clear that he was not exaggerating or metaphoring or anything else that didn't mean absolutely serious.

"Bloody bog-trotting mick tells me I have to back off and not start a confrontation." Spike stretched his hands and it was really pretty clear that he desperately wanted to put a fist through a wall, but Angel had been hugely cranky last time Spike did that. "If that git doesn't give my girl back up, if Slutty doesn't watch her back…"

"You know…" Xander started, pointing out that Buffy's sex life was nowhere near the levels of slutitude that Faith had achieved, but the yellow-eyed glare that focused on him pretty much made his words dry up. He started again. "You know, Buffy is not going to just let Faith get killed."

"Unless that great nit of a watcher sends her off somewhere. The girl doesn't think for herself, not like my Faith does."

"You mean she doesn't tell everyone else to screw themselves while she looks out for herself?" Cordelia asked with a sweetness that hid mighty powers of emasculation.

"Exactly," Spike agreed, not even seeming to notice that Cordelia was being uncomplimenty.

Cordy just stared at Spike blankly for a second. "As much fun as it is watching you flail in impotency, I'm going home."

Xander jumped at the volume of the growl from Spike, but Cordelia just got up and headed for the door. "Hey, I'll just play escort," he offered as he jumped up to follow.

"No, you won't," she told him in a voice that sounded pretty pre-dating Cordelia in its sheer volume of coldness. Xander froze. Okay, he was officially clueless about what he'd done to piss her off, but he had obviously done something, and a big something. Before he could rally with some sort of witty response that would inspire forgiveness, she was out the door.

"Bloody hell, she's got some bloody fucking nerve," Spike snapped as he picked up a dirty glass and flung it at the door that Cordelia had just closed. The glass shattered and tinkled onto the tile in the little entry. Well, there went his night.

The door came open. "Is everything alright?" Angel asked. He frowned and looked down when his boots crunched the glass.

"Peachy," Xander said, still not entirely sure what had just happened.

"I'm goin' out," Spike said as he stormed toward the door.

"Spike, you need to back off. Don't make Faith pick between her duty and you," Angel warned. Spike crossed his arms.

"Fucking hell, Peaches, I'm going to make sure Xander's bint gets home, so get the fuck out of my way," Spike snarled, and Xander started edging backwards toward his bedroom. Yep, he really, really needed to stop hanging out with so many scary people. For a second, Angel held his ground, and Xander really thought they were going to have a big smack-down right there. Then Angel shook his head and stepped to the side.

"Be careful," he offered as Spike stormed past. Spike didn't even bother answering that before he was just gone.

Xander leaned back against the wall and considered the mess left in the wake of one seriously screwed up night. His bed was buried under all the shit that was normally covering his living room floor, his living room floor was sprinkled with chips and broken glass, and his television was still laughing stupidly as Joey Tribbiani did something idiotic. His night had totally not gone according to plan.

"Xander, are you alright?" Angel asked as he looked around at the disaster.

"Don't say it," Xander warned.

"I didn't say anything." Angel got his offended look going.

"You're going to comment about my housekeeping and how hard it is to tell if Spike has been rampaging or not what with all the mess. Seriously... do not go there." Xander pointed his finger at Angel before he headed for the kitchen and the dust buster.

"I wasn't," Angel protested in that tone of voice that suggested that he had totally been on the verge of parental type lecturing. Hell, with his own father now firmly living inside a bottle, Angel seemed to be trying to make Father of the Year, which was vaguely creepy because Angel was so not his father.

"Just see that you don't." Xander grabbed the dust buster off the charger and headed for the broken glass. "And I totally do not understand what just happened with Cordelia. There was a definite lack of me doing anything stupid, and yet, I seem to be in the doghouse of stupid," Xander complained. Angel carefully brushed off the bottoms of his boot with the cuff of his shirt before stepping clear of the broken glass.

"Women are like that," Angel agreed.

"I'm starting to think that gay is not so stupid." Xander poked his dust buster toward the mess, listening as the glass tinkled against the plastic. "Stupid women with stupid rules about what does and doesn't make them mad, and if they would just say what they were thinking, life would be way with the easier." Getting carefully on his knees, Xander shoved the little machine at a trail of glass hard enough to break a larger shard before the suction sucked it right up.

"It would," Angel agreed. "Cordelia hasn't given you any hints?"

"Oh, I'm sure she's given me lots of hints, but none that I actually understand." Xander turned the dust buster off and looked over at Angel. "Do women ever get any easier?"


Xander sat back on his heels and looked up at Angel in dismay. "Okay, you were supposed to do the reassuring thing there."

"Me lying willna change much when it comes to women," Angel said softly, and from the baroque, he was lost in his own long past of unhappy women. Angel shook his head quickly. "I think that's why Spike likes Faith... no strings or confusing rules. She says whatever she's thinking, whether you want her to or not."

"Which is normally exactly what Cordelia does," Xander pointed out as he headed for the kitchen to empty the canister only to find his garbage can full to overflowing. "Fuck."


He looked up and Angel was standing in the kitchen doorway looking around.

"Do not say it," Xander warned. Okay, he was man enough to admit that the pig sty look was starting to get old. Aggravated at Spike, at Cordelia, at himself and generally the whole world, Xander grabbed his garbage can and headed for the dumpster with Angel trailing behind. Crossing the tile, Xander could still hear the quiet screech of glass against tile so obviously he was not done with the cleaning tonight if he wanted to avoid cut up feet in the morning. He was actually proud of Angel for following him through the hall and up the stairs without saying anything.

The dumpster smelled particularly disgusting and Angel held the lid open while he dumped the bin. "Relationships are just always complicated aren't they?" Xander asked as he stared at the alley behind their apartment building. Percy West had screwed with Buffy's head, Spike was obviously all screwed around backwards because of Faith, and Xander was starting to wonder if he had any blame that was the weirdness of Cordelia and Willow. Oh, who was he kidding? It was probably all his fault that Cordelia and Willow both had the unhappy going with him, but his boy-brain was not capable of wrapping itself around girl-logic.

"They are," Angel agreed softly. "And if they aren't complicated, I don't think they're real."

"Then we know a lot of people with very real relationships," Xander said unhappily. Angel rested his hand on Xander's shoulder.

"I know."

"I look around, and I’m wondering how the relationship thing is supposed to work. I mean, seriously, the only long-term relationship I see working is my parents, and Angel, divorce would be so much kinder than what they're doing to each other." Xander clutched his garbage can in the back alley of his apartment and suddenly, he felt himself pulled close and folded into an awkward hug with the plastic bin crushed between him and Angel.

"You'll make it work. You're not to blame for any of this," Angel whispered, and Xander could feel his eyes get hot. He was just so tired of trying to patch everyone back together. Play nice with Willow, don't make eye contact with Oz, figure out why he'd hacked off Cordelia, don't step on any of Spike's buttons, try to make nice faces at the parentals. Xander shoved the bin out of the way and let himself collapse into complete and utter wussiness as he clung to Angel.

"Oh, I probably am to blame for some, but I sure don't know which part," Xander said with a humorless laugh.

"Everyone has their own issues, isn't that what Dr. Hahn said?" Angel asked as large fingers stroked Xander's hair. He was losing man-points like mad here.

"Yep, and we can only deal with our own issues," Xander said firmly as he pushed against Angel's chest. Angel let him go, and Xander quickly wiped his face and grabbed his garbage bin. "So, if Spike is doing the freaky over Faith or Wesley or the phases of the moon, that's not in my control," Xander said firmly. "And if Cordelia is being big with the bitchy, that's not in my control either." That part didn't feel quite as firm or as honest. He knew Cordelia well enough to know that she wasn't the ice queen the others thought she was which did imply he'd fucked up good to inspire the return of the cold front.

"You can only deal with your issues... like your lack of hygiene," Angel offered, and Xander opened his mouth to really rip into Angel about not kicking a man when he was already down, but then he caught the look on Angel's face.

"Was that a joke?"

"Yes," Angel said with a slight widening of an expression that might actually be a smile. "Although you do have hygiene issues," he added, and the smile totally went away.

"That's just sad," Xander said, shaking his head as they headed back into the apartment building. "We need to rent Revenge of the Nerds and have another lesson in humor, don't we?"

"Only if you want to be washing Rojel goo out of every orifice in your body," Angel threatened him right back, his hand resting on Xander's back as they headed for the apartment. Yeah, Xander might have fucked up something with Cordelia tonight, but at least he had one relationship that he understood.

"You let me take a faceful of Rojel again, and I am so putting hair remover in your shampoo."

"That would require you to recognize a shampoo bottle, and you are not generally acquainted with cleaning products."

"Funny, very funny. Keep it up and we're going to be in for a whole marathon of nerddom." Xander smiled when Angel grabbed him and gave him a nuggie. One of these days Angel would figure out that a nuggie was supposed to do more than just mess up the hair, but not today. Xander retaliated with a punch to Angel's side, and suddenly he was upside down as Angel caught him around the waist and flipped him. He screamed. Angel just laughed and grabbed the bin Xander had dropped. The only thing worse than being upside down with your legs helplessly flailing was having the other person hold you that way with one arm.

"We need to have a little conversation about movie rentals," Angel said seriously, but even upside down, Xander could see Angel's smile. Giving Xander an extra bounce-shake, Angel headed for Xander's apartment.



The World Turns

Angel's reading was interrupted by Xander throwing open the door and heading straight for the kitchen. One day, he would teach the boy to shop for his own groceries, but it obviously would not be any day soon. Slipping a bookmark between the pages, Angel closed his book and set it on the floor next to his chair. He needed a new end table and a new rule about play-fighting in the house.

Xander came back out of the kitchen without any food.

"How was patrol?" Angel asked. He'd wanted to follow; however, the demons wandering the Hellmouth were weak but numerous. They'd needed to split up, and Xander had asked to go with Faith while Angel had taken the Westview cemetery and Spike had gone ripping through Willy's bar. Angel had cleaned out a number of scavengers who had taken up in the crypts. Normally they stayed in the sewers, but on top of the mayor and his little schemes, something seemed to be moving around under the university campus. Considering that the town had been largely quiet for two years now, they seemed to be making up for it now.

He was just glad he had the Gem of Amara safely tucked away. The fear of having it stolen had concerned him so much that after he had conned Xander's parents out of custody, he had toyed with the idea of destroying it. In the end, he just couldn't destroy such a powerful weapon, especially when it was still safely hidden and most demons considered it a myth. No one could steal it. No one except Spike, of course, but after stealing the ring, his big outing in the sun had included a road trip to hear a band that had named itself after lard. There weren't even any unusual reports of demonic activity at the event, not that people would notice demons at the sort of concerts Spike liked to attend.

"Great," Xander answered without emotion. He dropped onto the far end of the couch.

When Angel opened his mouth to ask for a little more information, the scent struck him. Sex. Semen and a woman's musk. Fear and shame. Lust and fatigue. And that wasn't Cordelia-smell that swirled around Xander. Angel opened his eyes wide and he tried to sort out Xander's reaction. Clearly, Xander had finally engaged in sex, but there was no bragging or excessive cockiness. Angel remembered having been quite insufferable when he'd finally had sex, insisting that it made him a man. Xander just sat staring at the blank television.

Angel finally thought to close his mouth. "Xander, what happened?" he asked softly. He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees.

Glancing over toward him, Xander blushed. "Oh, hey, nothing. Big nothing of nothing."

"It doesn't smell like nothing." Angel could see Xander shrink into himself, and he wondered if he should have just ignored the sex and Xander's strange reaction to it.

"The sniffing thing? Officially creepy. You know, you could try to be a little less monsterish," Xander complained, but then verbal attack wasn't exactly new for Xander... especially when he was feeling defensive and off-balance.

"Xander, talk to me," Angel said calmly, refusing to let Xander distract him.

"No need for talking. Talking bad. Actually, right now, I really think I should just go and get some sleep because I'm a growing boy and I need my rest. Especially now." Xander started to stand up.

"No!" Angel insisted firmly. Xander froze his place, his butt just starting to leave the couch cushion. "You can go rest in a second. I need you to tell me what happened," Angel said firmly. For a second, Xander frowned at him, and Angel could feel the boy's urge to joke or insult or distract or do anything to divert others' attention from his own problems. However, Xander had come a long way in therapy. For that matter, so had Angel. They both stared at each other silently until Xander finally sagged back down onto the couch.

"Xander, please?" Angel asked.

Xander made an odd sound that might have been a sob or a gasp or even an aborted laugh—Angel wasn't sure. "Virgin Xander is no longer virginish, which, as you already pointed out, you can smell," Xander said humorously.

"Faith." Angel said the name softly. The slayer's smell was all over Xander.

He nodded. "That would be the one. Technically, it would be the one and the two, but the first time I went off a little quick, so I'm not sure it counts. I think it does because even the first one was the definition of a home run. The second one... I don't think the baseball metaphor actually covers the second one." Xander was back to staring at the silent television.

"I thought you were interested in Cordelia?" Actually, Angel knew Xander was interested in Cordelia because the walls between the apartments were too thin for vampire hearing, and the boy talked in his sleep. He talked while having exceptionally happy dreams that made the laundry smell like a whore house.

Xander gave a dark laugh. "Yeah, me too. Apparently Little Xander is stupid enough to go for any female who's willing to throw me down on the ground and straddle me."

"Throw you down?" Angel half pushed himself out of his chair, a growl already forming in his throat, but Xander was just laughing.

"I'm never going to be able to look at grass again. Seriously. I mean, I've joked about linoleum getting me hot, but I wasn't actually being seriously. And now, grass and graveyards are going to be some sort of freaky turn-on. Grass, graveyards, and patrolling. After years of associating patrolling with getting my ass kicked, I'm now going to associate it with my ass..." He stopped and blushed bright red. "You know, I think I’m not going to mention that. That girl has spent way too much time with Spike."

With a frown of confusion, Angel settled back into his chair and cocked his head at Xander. None of this made sense.

"Probably she has," Angel agreed slowly. He suddenly regretted not stopping that relationship the moment it started. Unlike Buffy, Faith didn't seem to be overly distracted or emotionally attached, and he hadn't wanted to come in and seem like he was trying to assert inappropriate parental control. Technically, Blair hadn't wanted him to go in and exert inappropriate parental control, but he had gone along with the fatum demon's idiotic plan.

Xander's smile had nothing to do with happiness. "It's funny because parts are totally fuzzy... like I wasn't there. Other parts..." Xander's eyes glazed over. "Other parts are burned on my memory like I'm one of those weird people with the perfect memory, only not so much with remembering math formulas and way more with remembering the way her hands..." Xander stopped again, and Angel could smell the lust starting to build under the waves of shame. Xander has his arms crossed over his stomach, and his fingers pulled at the arms of his sweater nervously. The silence crawled into the room and settled over them.

"Xander, start from the beginning," Angel eventually suggested.

"Once upon a time, the universe was one big unshaped mass. Or maybe it was a pinpoint with all the mass of the universe in it. I'm really fuzzy on the big bang stuff."

"Start from when you left here to go patrolling with Faith." Angel struggled to keep his voice calm. A part of him... a big part... wanted to grab Xander and shake him until the right words started falling out. He needed to know what had happened.

"I'm big with having no idea," Xander sighed. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Usually Angel could control his demonic thoughts because they were so different from his own. He wanted world peace; Angelus wanted to watch the world burn and know he had set the fire. Right now, though, he could feel fury growing as both Angelus' instincts and his own reacted to the idea that she had hurt Xander.

"Okay," Xander finally started again, "I just wanted to spend some quality Faith time."

"Since she's been acting so distant lately," Angel added in an attempt to hurry Xander. His temper would not take a long drawn-out conversation that never came to any point.

"Well, yeah. Only the talking didn't really work so well. Mostly she killed lots and lots of demons and I sort of trailed behind yelling 'watch out!' at random intervals."

"And?" Even without Xander's odd look, Angel knew his voice was approaching a growl.

"You know, I'm supposed to be 'woo hoo' about leaving virginity behind. I'm really losing man-points here. They're going to take my man-membership card away for excessive wussiness."

Realizing that Xander was more hurt than he'd realized, Angel took a deep breath and sorted through the various pieces of advice he'd gotten from therapists and Lorne and Blair. With a smile that he hoped was supportive, Angel got up from the chair and moved to sit next to Xander on the couch. He rested his hand on Xander's knee. "You are doing just fine. You can kill things and belch, so you are clearly a man," Angel reassured him. The words made no sense to him, but Xander finally looked up from the television and gave him a weak and watery smile.

"You really suck at the comfort thing, but thanks for trying." Then he leaned back and covered his eyes with the heels of his hands. "It's weird. I mean, I was totally into doing it when I was doing it, but now, I’m just wondering what I was doing. The big brain clearly wasn't working."

"How did it happen?" Angel ordered himself to remain calm until he got enough of the story to decide on some sort of proper response.

It took Xander several minutes to answer. "She asked me something about you, and I kinda didn't hear, and then she was right in my face looking all angry... like usual lately. And before I knew it, she was kissing me. Then she grabbed my jacket and pulled me to the ground and there was rubbing and promises about guiding me around the curves, and with Faith, there are more curves than usual. I so did not know all those curves. There were curves I did not know existed at all."

"Did she hurt you?" Angel slid and inch closer and scented the air as he tried to figure out how bad the damage might be. Usually when Darla got overly enthusiastic, a sore cock or whipped back was the worst he could expect, but Angel wasn't sure what exactly had happened.

Xander laughed manically and flung himself off the couch before started pacing. "First, as a member of the male species, I am supposed to enjoy sex. Actually, I did enjoy sex. I enjoyed it a whole lot. I mean, I thought I had a case of lust for the old sock puppet of love, but after Faith, my hand is having real performance anxiety. She's scary good." Xander scrubbed his hands through his hair, and Angel just sat on the couch, mute. Xander had enjoyed himself, and yet he still reeked of shame.

While his own first experience had been with a whore in a back alley, Angel actually seemed to have enjoyed it more. He remembered the sense of accomplishment and pride that he was truly a man. He'd gone home, and when his father tried to whip him for not being home at a reasonable hour, he had grabbed his father's arm and threatened to strike back. Sex had made him feel virile and powerful and alive. Of course, it also led to a string of whores, a worsening relationship with his family, and his eventual death at the hands of a demon. Perhaps Xander's panic and shame was a healthier reaction. Somehow Angel doubted that the therapists or Blair would agree.

"Why are you upset?" Angel just came right out and asked.

"Oh, maybe because I'm an idiot," Xander snapped before a burst of hysterical laughter slipped out.

"I'm not sure..." Angel started, but Xander cut him off.

"Oh, I am. I'm totally sure. I'm the idiot of all idiots. I'm king of Idiotsville. I'm a lifetime member in idiot-Mensa." Xander walked over and just about threw himself down on the couch next to Angel. The smell of sex and shame and lust and fear nearly overwhelmed Angel's control. Wrestling with his own darker nature, Angel limited himself to resting his palm against Xander's shoulder.

"You aren't," he said seriously.

"Says the man who is looking at me with tragic eyes," Xander said with a self deprecating grin. "You know I'm an idiot. I can tell from the look on your face. Either you're starting to develop actual facial expressions, or I'm getting scary good at reading your face." Xander put an elbow in Angel's stomach, and Angel caught the attacking arm before it could withdraw.

Tightening his grip just hard enough to be playful, he shook his head at Xander. "You're insulting me? You're at my mercy and you're insulting me?"

"It's better than thinking about how bad I just screwed up. I have always found that snarking about others is a very nice distraction from the self-hatred, especially when facing death and dismemberment." Xander let his head fall back against the couch, not even trying to squirm free, which had been Angel's intention. Xander was supposed to squirm, and they would wrestle before Angel would pin him and make him admit Angel's superiority. Then they would watch a stupid movie and Xander would be happy again.

This time, however, he seemed resigned to misery. Angel hated it. He was distracted by his own concern so his brain didn't fully register Xander's comment right away. "Wait. Why would someone dismember you?" Angel stiffened at the thought that some demon might have followed Xander and Faith home, and Xander was only now getting around to telling him. With the mayor being invulnerable and the ascension approaching, they all needed to be more careful than that. The lesson about threat assessment obviously required another lecture.

Xander's laugh just confused him more. "Someone? No, not someone. Spike," Xander said firmly. "I slept with Spike's girlfriend, hence the king of Idiotsville title. King? Hell, I'm the patron god and king of Idiotsville. Just make sure you visit my grave."

For a second, Angel was absolutely speechless. "He's not going to hurt you."

"Right," Xander said with heavy sarcasm. "The soulless vampire who has been on the thin edge of eating Wesley for the last three weeks... he's just going to pat me on the back and forgive me. Yep, sure he is. I want yellow roses for my funeral."

"He's not—"

"He's not going to be amused. Yep, got that," Xander cut him off again, and Angel truly wondered when exactly he had lost total control over this situation. But Xander just kept right on going. "And funny enough, I'm looking forward to Spike's reaction. A quick draining is going to be pleasant compared to what Cordelia is going to do to me." Because Angel was still holding Xander's arm, he could feel the involuntary shudder that shook Xander, and that he could understand. Even Angel flinched at that thought.

"Yeah! Exactly." Xander rolled his head to one side so he could look at Angel. "You see the complete stupidity of my stupid... yes?"

Angel grimaced. As much as he didn't want to add to Xander's misery, he had to admit that he could not see a good way out of this situation. "Maybe you could just not tell her," he offered.

"Right. I'll just count on Faith being all discretion girl. Yep, that'll work. That way, Cordelia will find out from Buffy after Faith goes off with the spilling of beans. I can look forward to not only death, but impalement and immolation."

Angel nodded as he had to admit the logic on that. They sat in silence on the couch, the heat from Xander's arm calming Angel while the mix of scents made him want to do a little impaling and immolating of his own. While he had no problem with Xander and Faith having sex, he hated seeing this weary pain etched into Xander's face. "Xander, I'm not sure what to say," Angel finally admitted helplessly.

He laughed. "Hey, that makes two of us. I think I’m going to go to my apartment and ponder my own patheticness." Xander pushed against Angel's stomach and got up.

"I could—" Angel started.

"You could go kill something," Xander cut him off. "Your demon is showing." Xander reached over and traced the ridge above Angel's eyes. Between the smell of sex and the gentle fingers tracing the sensitive skin, Angel had an immediate problem. He truly needed to find a way to tell Xander that the vampiric ridges were erogenous zones. Instead he caught Xander's hand and stood up as he studied his friend's face.

Xander was in pain, but it wasn't the sort of pain Angel knew how to help with. It had to do with guilt and shame and fear of how would react. Where Liam had reveled in shocking others, Xander tried so hard to live up to everyone's expectations, even when those expectations weren't reasonable. As far as Angel was concerned, resisting the amorous advances of a horny slayer was an unreasonable expectation for any teenager.

"You are not a bad person," Angel offered.

Xander looked at him and chewed on his lip. "I seriously just need some time with the music of pain... right before the real pain starts," he said firmly. Clearly he needed some processing time before he was ready to hear that message. Angel just nodded.

"Have fun killing the baddies," Xander said as he turned to head out of the apartment. Angel followed as far as the hall, and then he stood watching as Xander disappeared through his own door, his shoulders slumped.

Angel shook his head, forcing the demonic face away before he turned to Faith's apartment and knocked on the door. Spike answered, and the minute the door came open, Angel could hear the lack of any heartbeat in the apartment.

"Yeah?" Spike demanded as he leaned against the doorjamb.

"I need you to keep an eye on Xander," Angel said. While he hadn't intended to make Xander face Spike so soon, the boy was clearly afraid, and he needed some of those fears banished before he had a heart attack. Angel could do nothing to control Cordelia's reaction, but he had good reason to believe Xander had misjudged Spike.

"Why?" Spike stood up straight and scented the air. Immediately his eyes turned yellow, so Angel was guessing he could smell the distress and fear that still hung in the air.

"Because I asked you to," Angel started, not sure how to explain Xander's distress.

"He doesn't need a fucking babysitter, Peaches. He isn't a child. Fuck, by the time you and I were his age, we were men," Spike said with a dismissive eyeroll, but he also shoved past Angel out into the hallway, a frown on his face as he sniffed.

"After today, he's a man, too," Angel said dryly.


Angel struggled to put the right words together. Times like this, he could feel the abyss that separated him from Spike. There were times when he could almost believe they were again clan brothers—other times, he found himself struggling to describe the simplest ideas to Spike. He didn't have the vocabulary for explaining this to someone who didn't have a soul. "I need to go talk to Faith," he settled for saying.

Now Spike flashed into his full gameface. "Faith? Why? What the fuck are you up to?"

Angel held up a placating hand. "I just need to talk to her about the way she's treating people."

Instead of calming Spike down, that just seemed to make him explode in anger. "Bloody fucking hell. Talk to me before I start torturing information out of someone." Spike stepped forward, his body coiled for violence.

"Faith slept with Xander," Angel blurted out before this could get totally out of control.

Spike fell back with a confused look on his face. "Yeah? Good on him. What the fuck is the problem?"

With a sigh, Angel wondered again why Spike bothered sticking around when his own instincts were such a poor match for the humans who had become an extended clan for both of them. "Xander didn't exactly want to sleep with her, and he thinks you're going to kill him for it," Angel explained. "He knows Cordelia is going to kill him."

Cocking his head to one side, Spike studied him warily... as if there were some trap or trick that he didn't fully understand somewhere in Angel's words. "Why would I care if she got her rocks off with the boy?" Spike asked. "It's about bloody time he moved on from wanking. Bloody unhealthy how often the boy and his shower share intimacies."

"He thinks you're going to be jealous."

"Of Xander? No offense mate, but I've walked in on him naked. He's not half bad, but I don't have anything to be jealous about myself." Spike smirked and reached down to grab his own crotch. Spike truly didn't have any reason to feel insecure, but that wasn't really the point.

"He's human," Angel started, not sure how to explain human jealousies to a vampire.

"I think I noticed," Spike said sarcastically, but then he slowly straightened and stared at Angel. "Wait, this is more of that soul rot, innit?"

"Yes, it is," Angel agreed. "He thinks you're going to be jealous. He doesn't understand that you and I consider Faith part of the family."

"Yeah, and a family that fucks together stays together... unless some wanker is such an insecure git that he won't share and has to make everyone else fucking miserable about it." Spike gave him an entirely too-sweet smile, and Angel flinched away from that censure. Now that he could look back on his Angelus days, he did have to admit that a few of his excesses might have been motivated by a certain lack of confidence. Watching Spike throw himself into his love for Drusilla, Angelus had been jealous. His own relationships with both Dru and Darla were more about mutual advantage and convenience than any passion, much like all his physical relationships as a human had been.

"Spike..." Angel stopped just short of apologizing.

"Is that why your knickers are in a twist with Faith? Are you plannin' on keeping Xander to yourself and not sharing? Upset that she got there first?" Spike taunted.

Gritting his teeth, Angel reminded himself that he didn't have time to get in a fight with Spike. "He's a human."

"Yeah, so's Faith." Spike shrugged.

"No, Spike, she really isn't. Xander and Cordelia will never understand that we don't have the same definition of faithful. They're human. Any sex is cheating. I'm not sure, but I think Xander's right that he's going to lose Cordy over this."

The smirk vanished from Spike's face. "Fuck? Really?" he asked.

Angel nodded.

"Those souls of yours really do muck up the brain, don't they?"

"Don't start."

"I'm not bloody starting anything. I'm stating fact," Spike rolled his eyes. "Look, you go deal with Faith, and I'll talk to the boy. I won't have him thinking I'm going to gut him over a little slap and tickle with Faith. Bloody hell, I'm more brassed off about not getting an invite than him getting a little."

"Just... just remember he's human, Spike."

"No worries, mate. So, should I not mention that you and I..." Spike wiggled a finger back and forth between them and got a wide smirk on his face.

"NO!" Angel practically yelped.

Spike laughed and danced backwards as if he expected to get punched. Another day, Angel might have followed just to make his point, but today he had an out-of-control slayer to worry about. Faith was brash and unapologetic and lost, but he'd never seen her willfully hurt someone the way she had hurt Xander. He might not be admitting it yet, but Angel could smell the pain clinging to Xander's skin. "Just take care of him," Angel asked seriously. Spike stopped his dance and weave maneuvers. The playful violence fell away, and for one second, Angel could see the man Spike had been before Angelus had twisted and warped him.

"I'll look after him, luv," Spike promised seriously. Trusting Spike to do just that, Angel turned and headed out into the night. Something was wrong in his territory and his clan. He just had to hope that whatever had gone wrong, he could fix it. Maybe it was just a nice, simple case of demonic possession, he thought as he followed the scent of cigarettes and perfume to the roof of the building.



Faulty Logic

"Olly, olly all in free," Spike called as he pushed the door to Xander's apartment open and walked right in. He nearly stumbled right back out as the wailing music ran down his nerves like fingernails down a chalkboard. "Oi, what is that shite?" he demanded as he walked over and hit the volume button. "Bloody hell, you are not allowed to buy your own music," he complained as he took the tape out and flung it at the wall where it made a satisfying crunch. "Should be getting CD's anyway. Sound quality is better."

Spike dropped down onto the chair and flung one leg over the arm as he stared at Xander. The boy did look about ready to fall over with heart failure.

"So, I hear you got your end off with Faith. Good on you, boy. Not many your age can brag about bagging a slayer... well, except for that wanker at your school. Seems like Slutty did a right good job of shutting him up, though. Try not ta brass Faith off enough to get shoved in a toilet. It's hell on the plumbing, pet."

Spike pulled out a cigarette and twirled it in his fingers as he listened to Xander's racing heart slowly calm down. Angel might have his head up his arse a good chunk of the time, but he'd been right about Xander. The little twit had really thought Spike would hurt him. Sometimes Spike figured the whole world would be a good sight saner if someone just ripped all the souls out of everyone.

"I... uh... " Xander turned an alarming shade of red.

"Right then. You ready to get shit-faced drunk and get your first tattoo?" Spike asked with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "You a man now?"

"I... um..."

"Articulate as ever." Spike smirked, and elements of anger flavored the scent of humiliation.

"Yes, that's me, articulate boy, only less with the articulate. Thank you for the ever-so-odd congratulations, but I think I need to go to bed," Xander said without moving off the couch.

Spike raised his eyebrow. "Is there something wrong with Faith that ya need to be ashamed of having bedded her?"

"Bedded?" Xander choked on the word. "There were no beds involved."

"With Faith, there usually aren't," Spike agreed, smiling and running his tongue just inside his lower lip as he lost himself in memory. They'd had sex on tombstones, graveyard hills, school halls, floors, a bathroom at the courthouse while spying on the mayor, and in Angel's apartment. That last one had inspired Angel to near-Angelus levels of retribution. He would definitely be encouraging that sort of delinquency in Faith again in the very near future.
"Okay, that is just a majorly disturbing look," Xander complained.

"I thought it was sexy," Spike offered with an eyebrow wiggle, but Xander didn't rise to the bait at all. He just sighed and smelled even more miserable.

"I can't believe you're congratulating me on getting thrown down and devirginized by someone other than my girlfriend. Okay, actually, this would still be creepy if it had been Cordelia out there in the cemetery, not that Cordy would ever have sex in a cemetery."

Spike cocked his head at Xander and sat up in the chair. "Bagging your first girl is a rite of passage, mate."

"A disturbing one. I never should have slept with Faith," Xander said softly as he slumped down. "You're a soulless vampire, and I bet you wouldn't have gone cheating on your girlfriend. And being less ethical than the soulless crowd... not really something to brag about." Xander dropped his head down and hid it in his hands. Spike was left with a view of the top of Xander's head and dark curls.

"Trust me, pet, you have a lot more ethics than I do," Spike laughed as he moved over to the other end of the couch so that he was sitting close enough to slap Xander on the back. "Ya got more than me and Peaches put together."

"And yet, this is me not believing that." His voice was weary, but at least he looked up. "I mean, I think I probably still have more morals than Liam did because I'm not out there sleeping with all the girls, but that might not be exactly accurate because Liam's days of whoring did not include whoring when he had a girl at home who thought he was off being loyal while he was really having sex with a slayer on a hill in the middle of a cemetery."

Spike narrowed his eyes as he tried to figure the logic of that one.

"Seriously, Spike, the man you were before you got turned, you never would have gone and cheated on a girl you really liked, would you?" Xander asked as he turned to face Spike.

Normally Spike vetoed discussion that touched on William. It hardly seemed fair to let the boy suffer, though.

"I was in an arranged betrothal for about six months. Family found out that melancholy ran in my da's family, and they cut it off. But I went to the whore house during those months," Spike said as he thought back on those very distant memories.

"Whoa. Really? She didn't want to, I don't know, put arsenic in your pudding or something?" Xander leaned back and really focused on Spike, which was better than having him focus on his own misery.

"Not like anyone told her, luv," he pointed out. "Besides, she probably assumed I'd been going to 'em. You couldn't spit in London without hitting a half-dozen of 'em."

"And you weren't with the guilt at all?" Xander asked with a deep frown.

"Not really, pet. I lost my virginity at fourteen because my mum was worried I might be an urning." Spike chuckled at that old word. He hadn't even thought about that one for almost a century. "Now there was word polite people only whispered in dark corners. My mum, grand lady my mum, she had one of my uncles take me to a boarding house down in Blackfriars. A woman who smelled of apples and who must've been older than my mum lay down and gave me point by point directions on exactly how to engage in a little slap and tickle." Spike grabbed his crotch as a visual aide.

That almost got a smile out of Xander. "You make it sound like school with the directions and the old lady teacher."

"Not far off, pet. I visited the house a few times a year, even during my ill-conceived betrothal." Spike shuddered. "She looked like a horse, pet. Trust me, a well-used whore who treated sex the way a school marm treats figures... that was an improvement over the long-faced shrew my da tried to fix me up with."

"Creepy, but okay. And really, I am not one to be talking because Faith was more than a little teacherish and directionish herself. Except she was definitely the one on top."

"Yeah, she does like to ride a man raw," Spike agreed with a smile. In a lot of ways, Faith reminded him of the pre-Prague years with Dru. Faith knew what she wanted and she wasn't afraid to just bloody lay it on the line and demand it.

"We are approaching new levels of freak," Xander sighed. "And what's an urnsing?"

"An urning, luv. People believed men's sexuality was more evolved. Sometimes a man might be born who had the body of a male, but the embryo just didn't quite evolve far enough so he had the sexual appetites of a woman."

"Whoa. Your mom thought you were gay?" Xander sat up straight.

Spike thought about that for a second before shrugging. "Might have. I enjoyed the whores well enough, though. Don't rightly know if my mum and uncle ever talked about it after the one time I overheard 'em. I figure he did something to let her know I could play my part well enough because she stopped making unhappy noises about me needing to find a wife." Spike thought back to the way his mum had been so happy when he had started seriously courting Cecily. He had no intention of ever sharing that bit of humiliation, though. "She might have just assumed I was a virilized urning," Spike said as he really thought about it.

"Virilized? Like virus?"

"Like virile, pet. What the bloody fuck to you learn all day at school?" Spike asked with disgust. He had no idea why Angel insisted the boy keep attending other than it allowed him access to the other slayer and the watchers. Boy wasn't exactly good spy material, though. He almost never brought home any juicy details.

"Trust me, we learn nothing that would relate to this whole situation."

"Real life never happens in school, pet. Once you're through with this rot, Peaches and I will start teaching you the way the world really works."

"And somehow I think I've been taught enough to last a lifetime. Nope, my brain is full."

Spike frowned at the sudden scent of humiliation. He considered lighting the cigarette just for the familiar scent of nicotine and tar to buffer the bitterness. Rather than risk another lecture from Angel on the joys of lung cancer, he shoved it into a pocket unlit. "Right then, what did she teach you that has your knickers in such a twist?"

"My knickers do not twist. I have straight knickers. The straightest." Xander set his mouth in a stubborn line.

Spike didn't even need vampire senses to spot that bit of deceit. "You lie about as well as you use the English language."

"That's sounding insulty."

Spike snorted. "Look pet, anything she taught you past the standard thrust and groan, she picked it up off me. She may have been used a whole lot, but there weren't many who stuck around to teach her the finer points of enjoying the human body."

"Used?" Xander looked over.

Spike shrugged. "Yeah, seems like just about everyone from her Da on used her. That might be why she's so fond of being on top."

Xander sighed and hid his face in his hands again. "I slept with a rape victim. I'm so going to hell."

"Oi, sounds more like she slept with you," Spike pointed out. He was truly getting frustrated with the whole conversation. At this point, chatting up Dru about her dolls and soddin' stars made more sense than this rot. "And I thought we were talking about whatever she had taught you that had your knickers all in a twist."

"Nothing, absolutely nothing. Nope. Nada." Xander sounded near hysterical.

"Pet, you can tell me, or I can sit on you until you tell me," Spike warned, wishing that he could just torture the boy a bit. It's not like he would break the boy, but sometimes a little fear and pain was a nice motivation. However, like usual, Angel just had to overreact all the bloody time. He'd gone from wanting to torture every poor sod that crossed his path to being obsessively opposed to any torture at all. Wanker.

Xander turned dark read. "It was..." he squeaked and fell silent when Spike stood up. "She did things with her hands," he blurted before Spike could do something. Spike frowned down at him, still confused.


"Naughty things." Xander whispered the words, and while Spike could smell the shame, he still felt as though he were talking to a male version of Dru and he just didn't have the right words to translate the nonsense into anything that approached logic.

"Pet, if she was doing it right, she should have been doing all sorts of naughty things with her hands."

"Not with my ass!" Xander blurted out in protest, and then he really did turn an alarming shade of red.

"Oi, you mean where she reaches in and strokes the prostate while sucking you off?" Spike asked. "Bloody hell, that woman has a mouth that kings would declare war over. Fuck Helen of Troy. One of Faith's blowjobs would make any man toss the hag out with the trash." Spike dropped down on the couch next to Xander again, but Xander was just staring at him blankly. "Wot?" Spike demanded.

"You like it when she..."

"Bloody love it, mate. Fuck, it doesn't get better than that."

"Oh shit. I really am gay." Xander closed his eyes and just sort of shank into the couch.

"Wot? Pet, Faith is a girl. Havin' sex with girls doesn't generally make you gay... unless you are a girl. Want me to check out your parts for ya to be sure?" Spike teased. Normally Xander reacted with an almost violent panic at any offer of touching, but now he didn't seem to have the energy for it. If Angel didn't set Faith straight, Spike was going to be having a very long and brutal discussion with her about not breaking the boy again. Next time, he was bloody supervising because Faith was not to be trusted with the human members of the clan.

Xander's voice was so soft that Spike had to concentrate to catch every word. "I enjoyed something going up the down chute. That is gay. As proof, I cite you who is clearly gay and who clearly enjoys things going up the down chute."

Spike cocked his head in confusion. "But Angel likes it, too. He bloody goes off like a cannon when..." Spike just stopped because Xander was staring at him with a look of horror so intense that Spike actually turned around to check for open sucking vortexes or slime monsters.

"Wot?" Spike demanded when he looked back.

"You? You and Angel? But you're dating Faith... oh god. Faith was being all vengefully by sleeping with me after you slept with Angel, wasn't she? See, that actually makes sense, way more than the idea that she just woke up and decided, 'hey, I'm going to sleep with Xander today.' No one ever just decides that."

"Pet, breathe," Spike ordered firmly. "And there's no vengeance going on. If she slept with ya, it's because she wanted to, luv."

"But you and Angel," Xander objected.

"Yeah? What about it? You knew that he loved it when I gave him a blow job. Actually, you threw a wobbly over it back before I even had an invite into your place."

"I knew... past tense. Actually, I knew that the blow jobs were past tense, not the me knowing being past tense because the knowing is present tense and the blow jobs were past tense." Xander considered that for a second. "I thought," he added.

It did frighten Spike that he could actually follow that odd bit of not-logic. "Vampires are just different pet. I suck off Angel, I fuck Faith, you fuck Faith—as long as it stays in the clan, it's not like any of us are cheating."

"So if Faith decided to have sex with Angel, you'd be okay with that?" Xander asked disbelievingly.

"Sure, just as long as the git didn't try and keep her away from me. Course, if those two were in a bed and I didn't get an invite to join in, I'd be even more brassed off than I am now. I can't believe Faith didn't even invite me along for your grand deflowering," Spike smirked and looked the boy up and down salaciously. Rather than leap away or start stuttering, Xander just sighed.

"Why would she have..." Xander just stopped, and for the life of him, Spike was not tracking Xander's current lack of logic.

"Picked you?" Spike took a shot in the dark.

"Exactly. Why would she have picked me? I mean, I'm all Cordelia picked. I still sometimes have trouble believing how Cordelia picked I am, but I am definitely Cordelia picked." Xander got up and started pacing the room. Luckily, he'd actually cleaned it up recently, so he didn't have to go tripping over soda cans.

Spike watched the boy pace. The great pouf had actually been right this time around. "Ya really think your bird is going to leave you over this?"

"Oh yeah. Leave me in little, tiny, bloody, emotionally-crippled pieces," Xander laughed. Then he glanced over. "Which I mean metaphorically because there is absolutely no reason to go off all weird and do something out of a very strange desire to protect your sire's property."

Spike laughed at the sudden worry in Xander's face. The boy was just so adorable confused most of the soddin' time. "Bloody hell, I never get between a bird and whatever the hell she wants to do, especially when she's family, too. So Cordelia can metaphorically eviscerate you all she wants. I don't rightly understand why, but you lot with souls do seem to enjoy complicating something as simple as sex."

"Sex is not so simple. Seriously, why would she pick me?" Xander demanded as he turned large brown eyes on Spike.

"She probably likes the way you look, pet," Spike offered, and he seriously wished some monster of the week would come crashing in the door because he truly had no idea what he was supposed to say. However, sure as little green apples, if he broke Xander more, Angel was going to strip the skin from his back.

Xander was shaking his head. "She has you."

"Yeah, she does," Spike agreed. "Might be she wanted a little variety."

"For which she could go to Angel or pick up some guy in a bar."

Spike growled at that, his teeth elongating at the thought. "She picks up some random wanker, and she might as well put an 'eat me' sign on the git's back," Spike warned darkly. There was sharing with clan and then there was defending your honor and territory.

Xander frowned at him. "Okay, weirdly jealousy for a non-jealousy guy."

"It's about defending your territory, pet. I won't have her or you doing out and bringing home some wanker."

"But wanking within the family is okay?" Xander asked, still sounding more than a little confused.

"Well, yeah," Spike said, ignoring the flagrant misuse of the word wanking. He leaned back and sprawled out on the couch.

"Why me?" Xander returned to. Spike had no idea how to answer that because he was fairly sure he already had. Give him a chaos demon to kill any day of the week, but this dealing with souled beings was more than a vampire could take.

"Why didn't she ask me or stop and talk or even talk to me after?" Xander sank down against the wall until he was sitting on the floor. Spike leaned forward.

"She didn't ask?"

"That would be a big 'no' because I would have pointed out that I was Cordelia picked, not that I probably am anymore. When I tell her this, I will definitely be unpicked."

Spike thought about that for a second. If one vampire pushed another down and had sex, it was a definite status play, but Spike just wasn't sure how accurate that would be for humans. Then again, like Angel pointed out, Faith was a little closer to her demonic roots. "Maybe she was trying to prove her status. She gets right tetchy about not feeling like she belongs," Spike offered.

"She... what?" Xander looked up from his spot on the floor.

"Girl's gotten kicked out of more places than I have." Spike laughed. "And I've been annoyin' people for a good century longer than she has. Sometimes she's about green with envy that you have the pouf so soft on you that ya could do just about anything and he still wouldn't toss ya out."

For long seconds, Xander just stared at him, like he couldn't quite get his brain in first gear. "She's jealous of me?" he finally asked.

For the first time, Spike could see a small crack in the pain and confusion that had surrounded Xander like a fucking cloud.

"Bloody hell yes. Just yesterday, she was asking what I would do if we all split up and went our own ways. Would I follow her or Angel or you?"

"You'd follow Angel," Xander said immediately.

"Fuck, yeah. The rest of you lot are fun and all, but it's not like you're sane. Well, actually Peaches isn't sane either, but he's family. Dru wasn't a paragon of sanity herself, so I'm just more used to it than most. But like I said before, Peaches would follow you wherever you went, so there wouldn't be much actual splitting up. We'd just be a bloody parade with Peaches trailing after you and me tailing Peaches."

"Where would that leave Faith?" Xander asked with a frown.

Spike shrugged. "Wherever the fuck she wanted. She could come with me or go shopping for some swank or bloody go on a crime spree."

"But," Xander looked at him strangely before pushing himself up off the floor. "You were all ready-to-eat-Wesley vamp over him being stupid with the patrols."

"Still bloody am," Spike snorted. That was another one of Peaches' brilliant plans. Yeah, give the git time to make his own mistakes. Like as not, one or both of the slayers were going to end up dead before that git bulled his giant head out of his arse.

"But wouldn't you want Faith with you?" Xander asked, and now confusion had almost drowned out the shame of earlier.

Spike scratched his stomach. "Course I would, pet. She's a bloody good fighter and a good shag, as you found out. But if she wanted to go her own way, that's her choice."

Xander looked lost. Standing in the middle of the living room looking around at his own stuff, he looked suddenly lost.


"I want to hate her," Xander whispered.

Spike leaned forward again, bracing himself for another detour into complete illogic. "Pet, I know you aren't intentionally annoying the piss out of me, but ya have to explain this in words that do not include the concepts 'guilt' or 'soul'."

"Or love?" Xander asked as he looked at Spike intensely.

"I loved Dru. Nearly walked in the sun when she gave me the boot. I love Angel, too, but if you bloody tell him, I'll eat one of your internal organs."

Rather than even pretending to be intimidated, Xander walked over and sat on the arm of the couch nearest Spike and tucked his feet up onto the cushion. Spike looked up at the boy curiously.

"I'm not totally sure because girl-logic is worse than math-logic," Xander said slowly, "but I'm really mad because I think Faith just made it impossible for me to have love with Cordelia because the whole vampire theory of sleeping with family members is not a theory cheerleaders believe. It's definitely not what Cordelia believes."

"So, she's going to react the way I would if ya slept with someone other than Faith, Cordelia, me or Peaches?" Spike guessed. Xander frowned at him.

"Disturbo, but yes."

"Right then, let her and Faith have at it, and then you can make it up to her." Spike smiled. He was actually good at this human rot once someone explained it in terms that made any sense.

Xander gave a laugh that very nearly turned into a sob. "But I should have stopped Faith because I knew ahead of time that I had to pick between Cordelia love and Faith sex, and the little head picked Faith sex."

"What did the big head pick?"

"The big head was not picking much of anything." Xander cleared his throat. "The big head was busy being hijacked by the little head which really did not have much experience with anything other than the right hand." Xander lifted his right hand and waved the fingers at Spike.

"I bloody well know that. These walls are too fucking thin for vampire hearing," Spike pointed out. "So, if your brain wasn't actually functional, the bitchy cheerleader can't blame you if you got all your common sense hijacked."

"Oh, she so can," Xander said, his eyes going unfocused for a second. "I'm a dead man walking."

"Because of Faith," Spike said with a frown. He wondered whether Faith had understood what a mess she had made for Xander, and if she did, she had more of a sadistic streak than Spike had ever guessed.

Xander nodded. "And I want to hate her for it."

"Nothing wrong with that." Spike still hated the chaos demon who had bloody stolen Dru's love, so he could understand it if the boy never wanted to see Faith again. Spike had the perfect apartment in mind for Faith on the other side of town. He could claim her apartment here and split his time between the two places.

"But what she did was because of her own issues, wasn't it?" Xander asked, his voice suddenly firm. Spike looked at him in confusion. He wasn't even bothering to try and keep up with the conversation at this point. "You said she was jealous because Angel and I are like family." Xander looked at him, clearing looking for some sort of confirmation.

"Yeah," Spike agreed.

"And she's feeling all insecure about whether you want her..."

"I never said that," Spike protested as he sat up straight.

"Oh trust me, Spike, she is. If she asked you if you would follow her, she was so looking for reassurance. She is all issues-woman. It's like my father."

"It's what?" Spike was fairly sure Xander had lost his mind somewhere during this conversation. That wanker of a father had nothing to do with this. Hell, Spike didn't even like thinking about Harris, senior, especially since Angel had paid him off in exchange for partial custody of Xander. The payments had stopped when Xander turned eighteen, but it still rankled that the man had his hands on any part of their hard-stolen treasure. All that demon gold had been soddin' hard to drag out of that hole in the ground where they found it. Tony Harris never should have seen one penny of it.

Xander was off and running with his newly discovered insight, though. "I want to hate my father because he was never fatherish and now he's way too far inside a bottle to be anything other than an asshole," Xander explained—as if that made sense, which it didn't. "I want to hate him, but he has his own issues, and his issues are not my issues, so I should just let him and his issues go their own way until he decides to change or he drops dead, whichever comes first."

Spike raised an eyebrow.

"My therapist said that, well, most of that. I added the drops dead part because I'm fairly sure my father is never going to decide to change."

"I figured. Don't rightly know what your da has to do with any of this, though."

Xander threw his arms wide, and for the first time, he didn't smell of despair. Or at least, he smelled significantly less of despair at least. "This is so not about me. Whatever Faith did, she was being issues-girl, and I should just let her go her own way until she decides to pull her head out of her ass."

"There you go then," Spike said as he stood up. Whatever the solution was, he was just happy to be escaping from the conversation.

"Which will still not be helping on the Cordelia front," Xander added sadly as the energy drained from him.

"You could lie," Spike suggested, but Xander shook his head.

"As you pointed out, me and lying are not best with the buds. If Faith didn't go ratting me out, I would rat myself."

"Well then," Spike said as he tried to wrap his brain around warped human logic. "You could try the truth, pet."

Xander looked at him incredulously. Yeah, that's pretty much what Spike thought, too. He shrugged his shoulders and headed for the door. The boy wasn't happy, but he was dealing about as well as he dealt with any of the shite life threw at him. He'd be fine.

"Spike," Xander said when Spike reached the door.

"Yeah, pet?"

"Thanks for not eviscerating me," Xander said seriously.

Spike shook his head. "You are 'round the twist. The whole lot of you are 'round the twist."

"I know," Xander agreed with a crooked grin. "And I'm trying to be not-issues boy, which seems pretty hard when I keep having all these issues. Spike, whatever is going on with Faith, I can't help her with it. I can't really be in the same room with her right now without my issues breeding and birthing new issues. But maybe you and Angel can?"

Spike cocked his head at the request. Obviously, whatever harm Faith had done, it wasn't enough to break the clan bonds. Things got fucking messy when clan bonds broke between some clan members and not others. He'd been caught in the middle of that once when Darla had pushed him away but not Dru. It'd been a right mess until Darla finally just up and disappeared. Spike really hadn't wanted to be in the middle of another clan feud, so he was grateful that the boy had more forgiveness in him than a demon. "I'll look after her, pet," Spike promised.

Xander smiled at him. The boy had terrifying levels of forgiveness. Considering that Spike had killed the boy's friend, Kendra, he supposed he was grateful for that. Xander grabbed the remote, and Spike closed the door behind him.

Spike headed for Faith's apartment, listening carefully before he opened the door. No Faith, and no Angel. Now that was one conversation that Spike wouldn't mind eavesdropping on. Considering how worked up the boy had been, Peaches was going to be in a right state. And if Xander was right, Faith had her own reasons for being less than reasonable. Yeah, that conversation was going to be all sorts of fun. Spike headed for the stereo and switched it on before pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. Humans. They made a lot more sense when you ate them.



The Eyes of a Wounded Child

"Love and pain become one in the same in the eyes of a wounded child." --Pat Benatar

Angel pushed open the heavy rooftop door and looked around at the flat roof. Wind caps on the pipes spun lazily, and a trail of smoke rose from behind one of the low structures that hid the air conditioning mechanics. Angel headed for the smoke. His nerves buzzed with the awareness of a slayer. It was ironic. He had once thought that the feeling was some sort of mystical connection he shared with Buffy. He could only attribute that bit of stupidity to the lack of human blood in his diet and a lack of experience with slayers. He'd gone from haunting back alleys to believing in true love and tooth fairies. Neither extreme was particularly healthy.

And right now, right now when he wanted to break several bones in Faith's body for essentially raping Xander, he needed to remember that extremes were not healthy.

He turned the corner and saw Faith sitting on the low wall that marked the edge of the building. One foot dangled over, and she kicked the heel into the brick wall with a thump as regular as her heartbeat.

"Faith," Angel said, not even sure how to start this conversation.

He had no doubt that Faith never intended to hurt Xander... and he had no doubt that Xander would both forgive and heal... however, he could still feel his own anger rise like a monster in his chest. Part of that was guilt. He had hurt Xander equally as bad, and then he had brought Faith into Xander's life. Part of it was a cold fury that Faith could act so irresponsibly and callously toward someone whom Angel had marked. After years of bloodmarking, Angel's own scent was irrevocably etched into Xander, a clear sign that anyone who bothered the boy would have to answer to Angel himself. Buffy and Faith had both been accosted by the mayor's minions on patrol, but not even the most foolhardy demon had ever dared to touch Xander.

"Big A," Faith answered. She didn't bother turning to look at him. One hit. One hit and she would go flying out into the dark, her body landing on the concrete below--twisted and broken. Would a slayer heal from an injury like that? It was only six stories. It wasn't like tossing her off the top of the Empire state building. Angel crossed his arms in an attempt to keep his hands to himself.

"So, anything happen on patrol tonight?" Angel asked with a dangerous calm.

She shrugged. "Walked, met vampires, dusted vampires. Same old." She flicked her cigarette off into the night. "Still not hearing shit about whatever the mayor has planned for his big coming out party."

Angel stared out over the lights of Sunnydale. "Xander patrolled with you?"

"Yep. He's not bad for a human. In more ways than one." Faith gave him a salacious look complete with a wink, and Angel nearly punched her right off the building. Instead he stood statue-still and struggled with the rage that crashed through him.

Angel took a deep breath and reminded himself not to shout. No matter how she acted, she wasn't Spike, and he couldn't treat her like Spike. He'd like to. He'd like to put a fist into that grinning mouth and make her stop turning what she had done into a joke. Walking over, he sat on the edge of the building awkwardly and gathered his thoughts. "Given Xander's relationship with Cordelia, I'm surprised he chose to have sex with you," Angel said slowly. If he let even an ounce of his anger out, it was going to overwhelm both of them.

She shrugged again. "The family that fucks together, stays together," she said dismissively, parroting one of Spike's favorite sayings, one that never failed to bring the color to Xander's cheeks.

"That's true of vampires, but you and Xander aren't vampires," Angel pointed out.

"As good as, right?" she asked as flexed her arms nervously, stretching so that her shirt rose up to show off her stomach. "I mean, face it, slayers have more than a little demon to them, and Xander... he fights like a demon and thinks like one more often than not."

"He... what?" Angel stared at her, completely flummoxed as the already strange conversation took a detour for the stranger.

Faith laughed. "Chill, babe. You do not need to get the glare of death out just for me. It's five by five. Giles and Calendar didn't actually find any demonic traits in Xander with their little hand-waving routine. He's just a little more flexible in his thinking than most. I mean, he goes and forgives both you and Spike for doing your Charlie Manson impressions, he has one therapist with a demonic secretary, a second therapist who is a demon, and his favorite place in LA is run by a guy who looks like an extra from some lame horror movie. I've seen the pics, babe, and that Lorne looks like a seriously bad bad-ass."

"Lorne?" Angel echoed the name and tried to figure out how she had jumped from point A to point M so quickly. He didn't want to talk about Lorne. While the demon was certainly a very nice man, Angel had other concerns right now.

"It's hard to believe someone who looks like that could be a pacifist. I don't mind telling you, I would slay on sight if I caught those red eyes of his peering at me."

"I don't--"

"It really hacks Wesley off that Xander is always asking whether this demon or that demon should be slayed. Wesley comes up with the name of some demon, and sure as Spike fucks like a wild man, Xander is asking if the demon is actually a bad guy." Faith laughed and stretched her legs out in front of her. "Drives Wesley up the fucking wall."

"It does?"

"Yeah. So, I'm thinking the boy lost his totally human status about the same time that he understood Spike better than Willow. Not that Willow's all that hard to understand. One possessive, arrogant little bitch is pretty much like any other." Faith crossed her legs at the ankle and looked over at Angel.

"I... I came up here to talk about you and Xander," Angel said as he struggled to get the conversation back on track. The fury of earlier had largely dissipated under the weight of his confusion, but now he could feel it return.

"Boy's not bad for a human," Faith said with a smug expression. "A little guiding around the curves and he found the gas pedal just fine."

"He is a human, and humans have rules about that sort of thing," Angel said quickly before she could again get him off-topic.

"What? You want me to get him a wedding ring?" Faith asked with a snort of laughter.

"I want you to respect him and his decisions."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Faith demanded. She sat up, her body coiled for action, and Angel truly wished--not for the first time--that she was a vampire. He knew how to handle it when a fledge got this mouthy.

Instead, Angel leaned forward toward Faith. "You need to think before you use your strength against people who can't physically match you," he started, his voice soft.

"What the fuck are you saying?"

"I'm saying that you can be careless with your strength. It certainly hasn't improved your control to spend so much time with Spike who has his own difficulties in that area."

Faith slowly stood, her hands curled into fists. "You have a problem with me or the way I handle my shit, you say it to my face." Her elbows were bent, her back arched. She reminded Angel of a very angry alley cat about to go sailing into a nasty fight.

"I'm saying you pushed too hard with Xander," Angel said as he stood up, his hands and body loose and non-threatening even though he was ready for any attack. Faith was good, but she wasn't near the fighter of either Buffy or Spike, and Angel knew he could best those two.

"He was happy enough when I left him with that big, stupid grin on his face." She smiled wickedly, but her words were ice.

"He's down there trying to figure out how to put the pieces of his life back together after what you two did out in that cemetery."

"He is? *He* is? He's worried about his fucking life?" She just about screeched the words. "What the fuck does he have to worry about? Huh? Is he worried that his sugar daddy won't approve of his slutty choices?" Faith's inexplicable anger turned to a hip-rolling sexual advance as she moved toward Angel. He instinctively flinched back from the touch.

Yes, she and Spike were intimately involved, but Angel had never been particularly successful with intimacies, and intimacy with Faith truly did seem like pedophilia, even if Blair insisted it was not. On the surface, she was tougher and acted older than Buffy, but inside, she was so much more damaged in ways that terrified Angel. When he screwed up with Xander or Buffy or Spike, they were all resilient enough to survive his stupidity. Faith had a fragility to her that made Angel doubt her ability to do the same. With Spike, she shared sex and lust and a lot of rug burns, rope burns, and grass stains, but Angel financially supported her. He made her eat vegetables. That was not the sort of relationship that Angel wanted to turn sexual.

"What's the matter, babe? Spike tells me that you like to be top man, so for you, I might even go on my back."

"Faith, stop."

"What? You think you're going to get your dick dirty sticking it in me? Is that it? You think your precious Xander is too good to take a tumble with me? Maybe you think Spike is too good for me, too." Faith had continued to advance, but her lascivious attitude had vanished, and she had again turned to a cold anger. Angel was starting to get whiplash trying to keep up with her emotions.

"I don't think any of us are too good for you. I just don't plan on sleeping with someone two hundred years younger than I am," Angel insisted. Faith had reached up to rub his arm aggressively, and Angel grabbed her wrist and wrenched it away as he backed up toward the door.

"Spike says you fuck the vampires and humans at the suck house. I wonder if Xander knows that. I wonder if Xander knows how his sugar daddy likes to catch Spike by the small of his neck and push him down before driving into him." Faith pursed her lips. "Not that I blame you. Spike looks good with a few bruises and a lot of rope."

Angel didn't realize he had gone into gameface until he felt the growl escape his chest. Faith's calculating expression instantly vanished under a blank mask. Despite the fact that he had been seconds away from backhanding her, Angel stopped. This was not normal behavior, not even for Faith.

"I fuck the vampires at the suck house. That doesn't mean I have any feelings for them or that I would hesitate to stake them if I saw them on patrol. What I do with them is about release, not about making any sort of bond between clan members," Angel said slowly. When all else failed, honesty often shocked others into revealing something about their own twisted emotions. It often worked in therapy when Xander would start poking at him to avoid dealing with his own issues.

"What I do with Spike is about the bond we share. We spent a lot of years apart, and sometimes I do feel a need to push him down and take him just so that I know he really is still here and still mine." Angel clenched his teeth. Revealing this much made him feel raw and exposed, and if this backfired, he was backhanding Faith into submission and then going to LA to eat both of Xander's therapists and Lorne. Dealing with emotions truly was far more work than just hiding in alleys eating rats.

"You don't feel that with me?" Faith asked. Maybe she meant to sound aggressive, but the words came out tentative... almost wistful.

"You are human, no matter what Spike says about your demonic blood. You were born and raised in a world where the person who takes care of you does not climb in your bed. It's not the same as with Spike."

"Fuck that. My stepfather... the first one who showed me around the curves... he started when I couldn't have been more than seven or eight. If you think you have to protect my honor, you're way too late, Big A. After all, like Wesley's always telling me, I can't expect anything else when I go cavorting with demons."

For a second, Angel didn't answer. The signs had been there, and Blair had talked him through how to handle the possibility that Faith had been abused, but the reality still struck him mute. "I think," he said slowly, "that if that man were here right now, I'd rip his head off and refuse to even drink the blood of filth like that." The whole time, he had been holding Faith's wrist, and now he let it go and studied her. Whatever she had been expecting, it wasn't what Angel was saying to her now. "I think you deserve more than that."

She narrowed her eyes. "Fuck your pity. I take care of myself. And look, if you're out fucking half the town, I don't care. But Spike has this weird shit where I'm supposed to keep it in the family, so that leaves Spike, Xander or you. Unless you're volunteering, a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do."

"Spike isn't enough for you?" Angel asked.

"Fuck you. A girl just likes a little variety. God knows you get some, but apparently, the rest of us play by different rules. Life's like that though, isn't it?"

Angel frowned at the fragments of vampire lore Faith had absorbed from Spike. "As the oldest, I do get to take it outside the family," Angel agreed. "I don't often, but I can."

"And Spike can, too. It's just me who's supposed to sit home like a saint with her knees crossed. I'm not a fucking saint."

"I don't expect you to be, and Spike can't take partners without my permission. We're vampires, and in a clan, the oldest and strongest controls the others."

"So you think you control me?" Faith asked as she slowly circled around him. Angel could feel the gathering storm in her every movement. He had thought he had left Spike with the more difficult task of dealing with Xander. Normally Faith's reactions were demonic enough to be familiar; however, she was not in a normal mood.

"I think I control Spike. I've never assumed you or Xander were vampires."

"Then you don't mind if I go fuck some random guy on the street."

Angel clenched his teeth. Blair had warned him that abused children often reclaimed authority over their sexuality by proving they had the authority to give it away, but Angel could admit that this made his teeth ache. "I would tie you up and drag you to Xander's therapist," Angel finally said, his teeth clenched.

She frowned at him, but the look was more confused than unhappy. "No fucking way."

"Try me."

"It was just sex," Faith sighed dramatically, and the tension fell from her body as she leaned against the side of the door that led back down to the apartments. "What the fuck are you getting so worked up about? I had an itch, Xander had a lack of first-hand experience, and we kept it in the clan."

"Which would be perfect logic if either you or Xander were vampires," Angel pointed out. He studied Faith. If she and Xander were vampires, he would assume that she was struggling to prove her status over Xander or accepting Xander into the clan and reinforcing a bond with him. That didn't make much sense, especially since Xander wasn't bound to the clan by any bonds of blood or sex... nothing more significant that a bloodmark linked him to any of them.

"Did Spike say something to make you think Xander wasn't firmly entrenched in the clan?" Angel demanded. It would make sense if he assumed Xander and Faith were vampires.

Faith snorted bitterly before she headed toward the door down to the apartments. Angel caught her by the arm and yanked her around before letting go.

"What the fuck do you want from me?" Faith shouted. "You want to fuck me? Do you? You think I went too far with Xander and now you want to come in and put me over your knee? Is that the game we're fucking playing? Hey, let's have at it," she shouted while she shrugged out of her shirt, dropping it on the pebbled roof of the building while she twisted around to grab at her bra catch.

Grabbing her wrist, Angel yanked her forward before she could free her bra. "I want you to talk to me. Did you think Xander wasn't in the clan? Did you think you had to form a bond between you?"

"You really are fucking stupid," Faith laughed dismissively. Before Angel could control himself, he backhanded her, slamming her into the building that housed the air conditioner so hard that the metal roof shivered and rattled.

"Do na push too far, girl," Angel warned.

"Or what? You going to throw me out if I don't play good little girl?" Faith sneered as she reached up and touched her lip with her finger.

"I'll put ya in your place the way I do William." Angel took two steps forward, but instead of retreating, Faith dropped her hands and stood up straight to face him.

"Five by five. You think I can't take it? I'm tougher than I look big man."

Angel stopped, his hands already reaching for her. "You want me to inflict a little vampire discipline?" Angel asked in disbelief.

"That's what you are, isn't it?" Faith again sneered at him. Angel took a step back as the pieces slid into place. She was concerned about clan sex and clan bonds. She slept with Xander. She was offering herself to him.

"I don't think Spike would appreciate me bruising his favorite slayer," Angel said in a calculated move to test his newly minted theory.

She gave a huff of derisive laughter. Oh yes, Faith was worried about her own place in the clan. She'd slept with Xander to secure her position. Angel could understand that motivation from a vampire's perspective. Whenever Darla had grown frustrated about Angel's childer and the attention they demanded from him, he had taken her to bed, reinforcing their own bond with violent sex. She had taken him violently whenever her own sire had left her feeling worthless. Angel had used Spike's need for a bond against him by reinforcing his own control over Drusilla over and over. Sometimes Angel wondered if Slayers were not more demon than human because this behavior was entirely too familiar from his days in a court.

"Spike would care," Angel said as he reached up toward Faith. She didn't move as he brought his thumb up to her split lip and ran the pad of it across the injury. Bringing his thumb to his mouth, he sucked Faith's blood. She watched with wary eyes. "Spike would care a lot, but you're right that he wouldn't challenge me over it. However, you are mine, and I will not discipline the human members of my clan violently. Since you are not capable of controlling yourself right now, you will not be allowed outside your apartment without me. You patrol with me. You go to the library only if I am present. You will not meet with that sorry excuse for a watcher without me watching over your shoulder. You are officially grounded. Do you understand?" Angel crowded close to her, pressing against her so that she would understand that he wasn't turning her loose—he wouldn't cut her off from the clan.

She stared at him. For the first time tonight, the Faith-mask slipped. Normally, under her façade she carried a wariness and anger that made Angel ache for her, but right now, there was a strange sort of hopefulness in her eyes.

"You are my responsibility. I don't like what you did with Xander, and we will be having that discussion later, but that doesn't change the fact that you are still mine," Angel said firmly.

She looked away, and Angel waited, his body still pinning her to the side of the small mechanical room, but she wasn't fighting for space. In fact, if Angel was guessing right, she was fighting for the right to have less space.

When she spoke, something in her voice was empty. "Sometimes, people fuck up too bad. Is Xander okay?"

"He'll forgive you. Cordelia won't, but Xander will," Angel answered truthfully enough. "And I don't believe people are capable of fucking up too badly for redemption. Your sin pales compared to mine. I've killed and raped and maimed thousands of people, and the only way I can live with that is by believing that anyone can be redeemed."

Faith stood in silence, her eyes shining suspiciously bright as she stared off into the night sky. "Wesley's not going to like me being grounded."

"Fuck Wesley." Angel flinched the moment his poor choice of words slipped out. He was trying to make a connection to Faith, but his skill with profanity obviously had rusted since his days as Liam.

Faith caught the joke too because she gave a dark chuckle. "I think his ass is way too tight for you, Big A. Maybe Giles could get up there. I bet he's a real pencil dick."

"That's a mental image I could live without," Angel said with a grimace as he considered the two watchers. He was not a fan of either man.

Faith shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Get Wesley out of his glasses and he might not be totally awful. He's just a little too fond of rules. And I know he would bend over and take it in the ass from the whole fucking Council. He'd probably thank them with every thrust," she said with more laughter, but now it had an almost hysterical undertone. Angel reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Has Wesley done something to make you uncomfortable?" Angel asked, feeling weirdly like he had just become one of those dreadful after school specials Xander had used to torture him. From the look Faith gave him, she was thinking pretty much the same thing.

"He called the Council."


Faith took a deep breath. "The Council might have gotten the impression that Buffy killed a human on patrol two nights ago."

"She..." Angel stopped and replayed the wording of that over in his head. "How did they come to that conclusion?"

"Probably because I told them she did," Faith said with a wry grimace and a shrug. She pushed on Angel's chest, and he refused to move for a second, just long enough to let her know that she didn't have the power to make him move; she only had the power to express her desire and he made the choice to let her go free. Once he had backed off, she paced the length from Angel to the edge of the building and back again before she continued.

"It was crazy. B and I were staking vampires, and then this guy just comes out from nowhere and I was already in slay-mode. He jumped out at me and before B could yell out a warning... I...." She waved vaguely with her hand, but Angel didn't need any more explanation. That explained why she needed to feel more connected to the clan. She was like a fledge who had brought a gaggle of hunters back to the lair, and she wanted some sort of reassurance that she wasn't getting thrown to the wolves while the rest of the clan ran for it... or while the rest of the clan stole the last horse and left her to deal with the angry mob alone. Angel could understand that particular fear.

"Are they coming here?" Angel asked as he started running through options.

She shrugged.

"Have you told anyone that you stabbed him and not Buffy?"

She shook her head. Angel had never seen Faith so quiet or subdued.

"Giles isn't going to let them take Buffy, especially after she tells him that she didn't kill the man," Angel pointed out as he started considering the other players on the field. Willow, Giles, and Calendar would back Buffy's play, even had Buffy done it, they would back her. Considering that Buffy was innocent, they would do anything to protect her from any possible punishment or retaliation. Faith's arms were crossed over her stomach as she silently stared out over the night sky, but Angel was talking to himself as much as to her.

"Spike will rip the throats out of the first man to put his hand on you. I'll probably get the second. Xander will definitely try and back you up, but you've put him in a difficult spot to do that emotionally," Angel said honestly.

She nodded.

"Cordelia and Oz will likely stay out of any conflicts, but the mayor is smart enough to turn this to his advantage. With our best fighters broken into two camps, this will be an ideal time to try to get our group to fight Buffy's group rather than focusing on him."

"I'm sorry," Faith said softly.

"For what?" Angel waited curiously for the answer. Faith certainly had apologies to make, but none were to him.

"For making this whole mess," she said softly.

"Which mess?"

Her laugh was dark and pained. "I killed that man."

Angel knew the guilt she was feeling. He felt it every single morning when he woke up. Sometimes the weight of it left him struggling to even get out of bed once the sun went down. "I know you didn't mean to. Men die in the heat of battle, and not always the right ones," Angel reassured her, but the words didn't seem to have much effect. "Do you want me to lie and say the feeling gets easier?" Angel asked.

Faith tilted her head toward him. "I'm a little old for fairy tales."

"The pain is always there, but when you do something good, it gets easier to believe that you aren't evil," Angel said softly. Most days he doubted there were enough good deeds in the whole universe for him to believe that about himself. Occasionally, he could bring himself to the brink of believing that he had a chance at becoming a good man.

"I feel evil." Faith's breath was coming in ragged gasps now.

"I know."

"And then I went and fucked over Xander. I'm just...." She paused. "I'm evil."

"No, you aren't," Angel quickly corrected her. He stepped to her side, his shoulder brushing hers as he struggled to find a way to reach her. "You feel that way, and I do understand that. However, you made a mistake. That does not make you evil. Giles summoned a demon when he was young. Calendar knew my soul was in danger, and she allowed Xander to move in with me without any warning. They are not evil people."

"Just stupid ones?" Faith asked with a sarcastic smile as she looked over at him.


Faith turned back toward Sunnydale, watching as the lights of the town slowly started winking out one by one. The sun would be up in a few hours and even the demons were starting to head for their beds. "Tell me I'll stop feeling evil," she whispered.

"You will stop feeling evil... eventually."

"You're really not good at this whole reassuring shit, are you?"

"Not really," Angel agreed.

She glanced over at him. "Tell me I haven't fucked things up for you and Spike and Xander."

"You just complicated things a little," Angel said as he reached up to rest his hand on Faith's bare shoulder. Her shirt lay on the roof, and her skin was starting to pimple in the chill, but she didn't seem to notice.

"They're going to want to take me. I know they are," Faith breathed the words almost silently, her fear flavoring the night air.

"They can't have you."

"But if I stay here, you're right... the mayor is going to use this to turn our two groups against each other."

Angel sighed. The mayor would, and the man was uncannily good at manipulation. Faith leaned into Angel, seeking reassurance, but he had only the truth to offer her. "Yes, he is."

She nodded sharply. "I should leave."

It was the logical solution, but Angel could feel a shiver go through Faith--one that had nothing to do with the cold.

"You're a member of this clan. You will na go leaving without permission," Angel said firmly. She looked up at him, disbelief written over her expression. "But you probably need to get out of town." Angel admitted as he considered the logistics. "I can send Spike with..."

"No," Faith interrupted. Angel raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything, she was already talking again. "No, with the mayor ascending, you need your fighters here. I fucked up, and I'm a big enough girl to take my medicine. I'll pack my bags and get out of here by nightfall." She turned away from him, and Angel caught her by the arm again.

"I just told you that ya will not leave without permission, and you do not have permission. I will find someone I trust to take you in for a while, but you are a member of this family. Once the council has backed off and the mayor is dealt with, I will either bring you back or someone will join you, but I will not have you out in the world alone."

"Angel?" Faith sounded so confused and lost and hopeful that he had an overwhelming urge to find her stepfather and torture him for causing such deep injuries on her soul. Since the curse, Angel had firmly denounced torture, but he could make an exception.

"You'll always be family," Angel told her firmly as he reached out and caught her in a one-armed hug. Faith clung to his shirt, her back heaving with sobs. "Even if you have to go away for a while to be safe, you'll always be my family." Angel didn't have any other reassurances to offer her, so he just stood on the roof holding her as she cried, her tears staining his shirt as that mask of hers crumbled to reveal a wounded child who just needed to be held.



The Window Through Which You See the World

Xander followed Angel and Spike into the library, his eyes wide open. He really did not want to miss the historic meeting of Wesley and the fang gang. And he was probably avoiding the big issues here in favor of a cheap thrill when Wesley pissed his pants, but Xander had never pretended to be anything other than petty and in denial. Wesley piss first, dealing with Cordelia later.

And speaking of... the suit boy himself was bending over a big book that was lying open on the table. Buffy leaned against the circulation desk with an expression on her face that was looking way too much like Faith's, complete with the homicidal glare in Wesley's general direction. Actually, when they'd put Faith on the plane for Cascade, she'd looked way less homicidal than Buffy did right now. Then again, Willy had just called with the story of a Council team in town, so that might explain the whole homicidal look.

Spike slid to the side of the door while Angel headed right for Wesley, clearing his throat as he went. Wesley turned, and half way through the movement, he caught sight of exactly who had come into the library. His attempt to turn turned into a wide-eyed, arm-flailing retreat to the far side of the table where he grabbed at a half-carved stake.

"You... you're... good lord, you're Angelus!" Wesley clutched his stake to his chest like a teddy bear, and Xander snickered at the sight. Yep, one growl, and pissing would definitely be on the agenda. Across the room, Spike growled, a low, dangerous rumble that echoed in the room, and Wesley jumped and clutched his stake tighter.

Angel sighed and turned to give Spike a dirty look. Xander only smirked wider... at least until Angel turned the glare in his direction.

"I know who you are. I will not be deceived," Wesley grandly announced. He reached into his pocket and brought out a cross, holding it in front of him like a shield.

This time, Buffy snickered.

"I'm Angel, not Angelus," Angel said wearily. Xander managed to bite his tongue and not point out that Wesley would last about thirty seconds with Angelus. He reconsidered Wesley's tight grip on his stake and really, really bad form. Maybe ten seconds. Five if Angelus really focused instead of going all megalomaniacal with the descriptions of future evil. Angelus kinda liked to hear himself brag, which was a good way to tell him from Angel.

Wesley stiffened. "You cannot believe that I believe there is any difference."

With a huge smile, Buffy moved toward the table, twirling her own stake in a move definitely intended to show off. "Hi guys," she said with a smile toward Angel and a stake poke in Spike's general direction. "Wesley, I have heard the many and disturbing stories. There's difference, there's a huge difference. There is a whole world of soullike difference."

"Ms. Summers, I am versed in the curse with which Angelus is supposedly—"

Xander practically had a little countdown going in his head. Sure enough, Spike totally ran out of patience. "Bloody hell, I vote that we eat the berk and then just hunt down the fucking Council wankers." Spike glanced over at Buffy. "Wait... actually, they can have that one."

Buffy twirled her stake a little more aggressively. "Have I shown you my favorite stake, Spike?" The jokes were a little strained, and Xander knew full well that Spike was way not really joking with the letting Buffy get dead or captured offer, but at least they were all being civil... or what passed for civil with them. Standing on the far side of the table with his cross and stake, Wesley clearly hadn't received the memo that this was Spike and Buffy's version of playing nice.

"Stake him," Wesley demanded, his voice ending in a bit of a squeak.

"Hey, this is a new outfit. I do not want Spike dust cooties on me!" Buffy objected.

Just about the same time, Spike turned to her and spread his arms wide, inviting her to start a fight. "You're welcome to try, ducks."

Angel sighed, but before he could start yelling at anyone, Wesley found his voice. "Get out of this library or I will send both of you back to the bowels of hell from which you came."

The whole library pretty much went silent at that. Xander's brain was coming up with so many intestinal jokes that he had some sort of comic traffic jam where he couldn't actually manage to pick just one, and Spike literally turned his back on Buffy to stare at Wesley. "Fucking hell," he cursed. "Is he serious? I've heard better dialogue out of Lon Chaney."

Buffy shook her head and pulled out a chair from the table just as Giles walked into the library. "Sadly, yes. It's all 'bowels' this and 'good lord' that. Well, to be fair, Giles is very much with the 'good lord', but not so much with the bowels."

For a second, Giles stopped at the entrance to the door and just stared in obvious surprise at the group. Xander remembered the day when this little gathering would have inspired glasses cleaning and threats, but they had become much more trucelike since then. Now he just sighed and focused on Buffy. "Yes, thank you so much for that vote of support. I am underwhelmed with your expression of respect," he told her. Buffy ducked her head and shrugged at him.

"Wesley, I just received some news about a group of men who've come into town. Perhaps we can discuss a few things in private." Giles sounded all calm, but there was something in his voice that gave Xander the impression that Wesley really and truly did not want to be alone with the G-man right now. Obviously Giles was not in on the 'turning Buffy over to the English dudes' plan.

"What? Now? There are vampires in the room, Mr. Giles," Wesley protested.

"Yes, of course. Where are my manners?" Giles asked, and again there were very unGilesy tones in that voice of his. He turned to Angel and smiled, and that was truly not an expression Giles used with Angel. "What can I do for you Angel?"

That really didn't go over well with the tweed crowd. "What can you do for him?" Wesley demanded, his voice nearly a squeak. "Mr. Giles, do you have any idea to whom you are speaking?" Wesley went so far as to point his tightly-clutched stake at Angel. "Whether you call yourself Angel or Angelus, you will get out. Get out of this library right now."

"I'm trying—" Angel started, but Giles pretty much ignored him.

"I am well aware of their identities." They are one half of the Scourge of Europe and the current pains in my English arse. They are also uninterested in opening any Hellmouths, at least at the present time. However, if they are here to create mayhem with you, I might not object considering that you have tried to turn my slayer over to a group of thugs because she wouldn't fit into your narrow-minded, ham-fisted plans. So, bugger off." Giles turned to head for his office, clearly not interested in any long drawn-out conversations, slamming the door shut behind him.

Buffy stared after him with an expression that looked a little bit like someone had just hit her with a dead fish. "Wesley broke Giles. That was broken Giles. Unbroken Giles is way stuffier than that," she whispered, her eyes still focused on the closed door. Xander kinda agreed with her.

Standing near the door, Xander watched the shifting patterns in the room. Spike had taught him to watch a fight like the way you watch a weather front or weird looking birds with bizarre mating rituals. It was all about power and positioning. Spike moved slowly from one side of the room to the other, his normal nervous energy contained like a hurricane that all its wind shoved down into one very dangerous tiny package. But no matter where Spike moved, he always stayed close enough to Angel that he didn't allow major furniture between them. Giles had retreated to either get a drink or avoid killing Wesley, no telling which, and Buffy just sat in the middle, the original immoveable object. Neither tweedy interlopers or pissy Giles or vampires would make her give up her chair at the table where she looked leaned on one elbow and just sort of scanned the room.

Wesley finally gathered his wits enough to talk without sounding like he was going through puberty. "Buffy, we will go out the back."

"Oh yeah, like going out back would save you if they were evil, which they aren't," Xander pointed out as he started detouring around Angel to sit at the table with Buffy. Angel reached out and caught him by the back of the shirt and pulled him back.

"Oi, I'm plenty evil," Spike objected.

"Shut up," Angel said without letting go of Xander's shirt. "Wesley, we came to talk about the man killed on patrol the other night.

Giles' office door came open and hit the wall hard enough to rattle. Standing in the open doorway, Giles looked a little red-faced. Yep, he'd gone for the good booze. Xander remembered that glossy-eyed look from his days of living with Tony Harris. Of course, now Tony Harris was more into the living on the streets and looking stoned, but that was his choice. Giles, though, just had the look of a man who had thrown back way too much booze way too fast. "Yes, Wesley, perhaps we should talk about this rumor I recently heard."

Wesley looked from Giles to Angel and back again. If Xander had to bet, he was guessing that Giles was way more with the dangerous right now. That was not a warm and friendly expression on his face. That was the expression of a man who had and might again summon a demon.

"Buffy killed a man on patrol. My duty to the Council—"

"Your duty was to your slayer!" Giles exploded as he strode forward until he stood next to Buffy, his hand slapping down on the table hard enough to startle Xander. Angel pulled him even closer, and Spike shifted into a new position closer to them both.

Wesley stiffened and blinked so fast that Xander thought the man was either about to cry or trying to fly using the power of his eyelashes. Oh yeah, seeing the power of Giles turned on someone else was almost amusing enough to make him forget how shitty it felt when Giles had ripped into him. Maybe Angel was thinking the same thing because Xander found himself pulled so close that his back was pressed to Angel's chest, and really... that was not good positioning for a fight.

"There is a bigger picture—" Wesley started, but he was not really having a good day for getting to finish his sentences.

"Buffy didn't do it," Angel said loudly.

"See?!" Buffy demanded. "Wait, how do you know I didn't do it?" she asked Angel, but Wesley just ignored her as he turned his attention to Angel again.

"I hardly think your word is good for anything."

"And what about Buffy's word?" Giles asked in a voice that was way too calm for his homicidal expression. Xander wondered if somebody shouldn't call Jenny and see if maybe she couldn't come and play referee... or maybe just turn someone into a rat. Xander normally disapproved of ratting, but right now, Wesley was kinda asking for it.

"Yeah, what about Buffy's word," Buffy demanded.

"And why did you not come to me?" Giles asked as he turned on her. The righteous indignation drained from Buffy and she started looking a whole lot more sheepish.

"I was going to," she started weakly.

"Mr. Giles, there are vampires in the room. While you may not be fond of your life, I assure you that I do not intend on shuffling off this mortal coil any time soon. I shall be in my quarters if you are interesting in discussing the rules and regulations of my position," Wesley grandly announced as he started backing toward the rear exit. Spike glanced over, and whatever he saw in Angel's expression, made him grin madly.

Before Xander could figure out what Spike's expression meant, the vamp darted forward and bitch slapped Wesley. Wesley stumbled away from the table, and his stake clattered to the ground. Before Buffy could get up from the table, Giles' hand landed on her shoulder and kept her from flying into the fight. Not that there was a fight. There was just Spike with Wesley in a headlock as Wesley did a lot of really embarrassing flailing. And squeaking. He was definitely squeaking.

"For heaven's sake, he is not hurting you, so kindly shut your gob," Giles said in a very cranky voice.

"I knew I liked you for a reason, Rupes," Spike said with an eyebrow wiggle. Spike hauled Wesley back to the table and shoved him down into the chair across from Buffy before leaning both of his hands on Wesley's shoulder.

Giles was clearly not impressed if the eyerolling meant anything. "Your approval makes my life complete. Angel, what exactly is your purpose here? If you are concerned about the Council taking Buffy, I can assure you that I had a long talk with them about the inadvisability of such action."

"I'm more interested in Faith's future," Angel said. He finally let go of Xander and stepped forward. "Buffy didn't kill that man, Faith did."

"Which is the other thing I've said over and over, not that Wesley was doing much with the listening," Buffy complained quietly.

"Faith told me the real story." Wesley looked indignant until Spike dug his fingers into his shoulders, and then he hunched his back and made little distressed noises.

"Spike," Angel warned. Spike didn't look happy, but he did loosen his hold enough that Wesley stopped turning red in the face. Angel stepped up to the end of the table. "Faith told me the real story. She and Buffy were patrolling, and she thought the man in the alley was a vampire."

Wesley glared up at Spike for a second before turning his attention to Angel, and Xander had to give the man credit for having balls. He didn't have much brains, but he had balls.

"Faith is far more controlled in her attacks, so while I understand her attempt to cover for someone she sees as a friend, I still believe that Miss Summers with her inept attack style and refusal to properly trained caused the death."

"Hey, geek boy, Buffy is anything but inept... well, except for biology, she's got the inept going in biology."

Buffy turned to look at him. "Thanks so much, Xander," she said sarcastically. "But as I have said at least a dozen times, it was an accident, but it was an accident with Faith's hand on the stake." Buffy held up her hand, mimicking the motion of staking, and Xander nearly swallowed his tongue, because staking was not what it looked like she was mimicking. From the smirk on Spike's face, he had caught it as well.

The humor vanished when Xander thought about the other accident Faith had with her hand on a stake. His cock still itched, but that might be from the shower. The water had gotten a little hot when he'd been trying to get the feeling of Faith off his skin. The guys in the locker room were all about how good sex felt, and it did. It totally felt good. But then the good ended and you were left thinking about what a big, giant jerk you were for having the sex, and then you started wondering things that it definitely weren't healthy to wonder. His brain was dancing between topics like a monkey on crack. What if he'd gotten a venereal disease from her? She wasn't exactly the poster child for safe sex. She wasn't even the poster child for semi-safe sex. If they had poster children for sex that could get you killed, Faith would so be on it. And then his brain turned to thoughts of what it felt like to be held down. When her hands had caught his belt, he'd known it was wrong. He'd fisted the grass, but she was on him, her mouth on his, and that flash of wrongwrongwrong had vanished under 'oh fucking hell' and he'd given in. Knowing that the truth was going to shred Cordelia, he'd gone and had sex with Faith. God he was slime.

Xander pushed the slime thoughts aside because he needed to focus on here and now. He could freak about his own life the next time Angel dragged him to LA for therapy, and after the Faith and Xander show, he expected that to happen really soon.

"Perhaps you could tell us what happened," Giles suggested softly, his gaze on Buffy.

"So you shall just believe her? I questioned both girls extensively," Wesley argued, and again, Xander had to admire the balls and the ability to talk with no brains because no one with a brain would continue to get so pissy with Spike holding them prisoner.

"Newsflash," Xander said as he stepped forward; he was really sick of rehashing the Faith issue. "Faith told Angel and then told me and then told Spike and then a guy on the phone and then Jenny who she left a message for on her machine saying that she killed that guy. And yeah, she's feeling pretty torn up about it, and Faith and torn up is not really much like anyone else's torn up, but everyone gets to do their own version of crazy. So, she admitted that she did it and now she's left town to try and deal with it. Issue over. At least if Giles really sent the English guys away, the issue is over because if the English guys are still here, there be issues that not be over." Xander smiled goofily at the group, but instead of getting that exasperated-amused expression of his, Angel got his exasperated-worried expression on. He stepped to Xander's side and rested a hand on his shoulder before turning to Giles.

"Xander's right. Faith admitted that she killed the man by accident, and she is having a lot of trouble dealing with it. She does not trust easily." Angel's glare focused on Wesley. "Given the authority figures in her life, I don't blame her." Wesley paled, but this time he was smart enough to keep his big mouth shut.

"You sent her to LA?" Giles asked before the glasses finally came off.

"I sent her to get some help. She's scared, and her reaction to fear is not..." Angel paused, "rational."

Giles didn't answer, but he nodded.

"Where is she?" Wesley demanded. "She is my responsibility, and even if Mr. Giles has been derelict in his duties, I will not—" he squealed as Spike tightened his grip.

"Spike!" Angel yelled.

"Wot? The berk is a soddin' pain in the arse. Faith is ours, and we'll bloody well take care of her without him sayin' or doin' anything to muck it up worse."

"I would never—" Wesley made another pained noise.

"Right then, let's get this clear," Spike said cheerfully. Xander looked over at Angel, but he didn't seem interested in stepping in. "You're a fucking idiot. Your plans are idiotic, your strategies are idiotic and your research... you bloody believe anything ever written in a book, which means you can't tell shite from a shiny rock," Spike said. He let go of one of Wesley's shoulders and slapped him on the back in a gesture that would have looked friendly if it hadn't sent Wesley rocking forward so that he had to slap his hands on the table to keep his nose from hitting it. "The Council sent ya to get these two killed so they'd have a nice controllable bird on their leash. Now, I'd just as soon eat ya as look at you, but Angel there says that I don't get to kill you unless you make one move toward hurting either Buffy or Faith directly."

Wesley's mouth fell open in shock, and even Giles paused mid-polish with his glasses still in hand.

"Since the Council was using a mistake as an excuse ta pick up one of the slayers, I'm going to assume that they're willing to take a more active role in getting rid of these two and calling up a new one. So, if you do anything to help the Council—if you call them or send them one bloody report or ask for one bloody book for your collection—I'm going to take that as you acting directly against the slayers. Got it? One phone call, and you'll be my dinner so fast that ya won't have time to get dizzy from blood loss."

"I hardly think—" Giles started.

"He's right." Angel spoke quietly, but Giles stopped talking and slipped his glasses back on. "When Kendra was here, the Council sent anything you asked for... research, books, information. Since Faith arrived, they have been uncooperative."

"That might be due to my own... difficulties... with the group," Giles said carefully. His hand was resting on Buffy's shoulder. Xander was grateful for that support because she looked like someone had just punched her in the stomach.

"Not bloody likely." Spike jerked Wesley to his feet, and the chair he had been sitting in flew across the room as he accidentally kicked it. "Ya like to tell how you were headboy. So, tell me, how well did you do on the practical portions of watcher training?" Spike asked him. Spike had that pseudo-concerned look on his face, the one that made Xander wonder whether he was going to eviscerate someone. It was like watching a snake consider a rat. Spike let go of Wesley altogether and backed off a step, his head cocking as he considered him. "When you faced your first vampire, did you pass with flying colors or piss yourself?" Spike vamped out, and Wesley jumped. His butt was already braced up against the table, so he couldn't retreat, but he might die of a heart attack if Spike kept this up too long.

"I... I was successful."

"He is incompetent," Angel said. "And he is part of a plan to get rid of Buffy and Faith."

"As far as I'm concerned, they can have Buffy, but I'll rip the guts out of the first plonker to make a move toward Faith," Spike said with a snarl that showed all of his fangs. Wesley's hands clutched the edge of the table.

"That might be possible," Giles said slowly.

"It most certainly is not," Wesley snapped. Spike snarled again, and he fell silent and swallowed so rapidly that his Adam's apple did calisthenics.

"It's the only thing that makes sense." Angel stepped forward. "When Kendra was here, you had funding, access to research and all the assistance they could offer."

"And it still didn't save her," Wesley said snidely.

"She attacked me, mate. I never promised I wouldn't defend myself; I only promised to not start anything."

Angel ignored the distraction. "But now there are problems with your funding, they don't answer calls, they send an incompetent watcher, they won't share magical objects, and you can't get any research on this Ascension of the mayor's. This is an emergency, but they're still busy playing politics. I know that Buffy's not mine to defend." Angel looked at Buffy, and for one second, Xander could see the longing in his eyes. Angel still wanted her. He wanted her or he wanted to share her destiny or maybe he just wanted to be the perfect man she had always talked about that first year after Jesse died. Sometimes Xander didn't understand Angel, but he knew the vampire well enough to know that Angel's feelings for Buffy still ran deep. The emotion passed and, once again, Angel's eyes were cold. "You protect Buffy however you need to, but I will do what I have to in order to protect Faith."

"Even if that means killing?" Giles asked, his back a little straighter as he looked from Angel to Spike and back again.

"Yes," Angel said. No excuses or denials or explanations, just yes.

Wesley did a fish impersonation with his mouth going open and closed.

"They want me dead?" Buffy finally asked. Xander had rarely seen her look so utterly lost.

Giles didn't answer, but he stepped closer and put his second hand on her other shoulder.

"Right then," Spike interrupted the solemn silence, "if ya want to be the Council's boy, you run home to England where you're safe from the monsters. If you stay here, you either cut ties or I'll kill you. Got it?" Spike reached out and ran a finger down Wesley's tie in a gesture that mocked affection. Wesley was totally frozen. Spike looked up at the man and raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, I understand perfectly well," Wesley hurried to say.

"Good boy." Spike patted him on the cheek and backed up.

"They want me dead?" Buffy asked again, and Xander felt a stab of guilt at having rearranged her world view again. But better to rip out her idealism than let the Council rip out her guts.

"The entire Council, no," Giles assured her. "But Quentin Travers has a rather narrow and slanted view of Slayers and their role. He might be capable of this sort of manipulation."

"Great, so only the head guy is trying to kill me. Kudos to me," Buffy said quietly. Giles patted her shoulder. "Buffy, you are safe. The Council team has left with some convincing."

"Just how convincing were you?" Angel asked.

Giles stared at him for several seconds. "Jenny and I can be quite convincing," Giles said firmly. Angel took that as some sort of reassurance because he nodded.

"Spike," Angel said. Immediately Spike sort of danced backwards before he turned and headed for the door. Angel caught Xander by the arm and then they were quickly following.

They were out in the hall before Spike spoke. "Bloody hell, didn't mind that a bit. Mind you, it would have been a lot more fun to rip the wanker's bollocks off and make him eat 'em." Spike bounced and cracked his neck first one way and then the other, just like how he did before a fight.

"If he continues to conspire with the Council, you can do it then," Angel said. Xander looked up at him in surprise, but Angel didn't flinch away from the shock on Xander's face.

"Right, that's not disturbing, not at all," Xander complained softly.

"Wot? You'd rather let those pillocks go after the girls?" Spike demanded.

"Hey, no. I'm big with the condemning pillocks, even without knowing what a pillock is. I'm just a little iffy on the ripping off of body parts." Xander held his hands up in surrender. Looking down the hall, he caught sight of a woman leaning against a locker watching their group. Xander stopped walking. "Um guys, I think I need to go face some music."

Angel looked down the hall and then at Xander. "Are you sure?" he asked. Xander nodded. For a second, Angel's hand remained on his shoulder, the grip just firm enough that Xander knew he couldn't pull away. Then Angel gave a nod and let go.

"Hey, I'll see you guys at home, okay?" he asked, backing away from them and towards Cordelia. If she was going to kill him, he really wanted her to have a head start on the running for Canada, and if she left him alive, he didn't want witnesses for his humiliation. For a second, he didn't think Angel was going to take the hint. Thankfully, Angel turned toward the closest exit, catching Spike's arm and dragging him out with him. Right. Now Xander just had to survive his confession to Cordelia.



Man is a Knot

Man is a knot into which relationships are tied. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Bloody hell, you're leaving him?" Spike demanded the moment they walked out the door into the hot night. Angel gave him an incredulous look and he had the intelligence to shut up. Strangely, Angel had thought it would be hard to allow Spike to threaten a human life. He had expected to stand there on the verge of panic as he tried to give Spike enough room to threaten Wesley into submission. Instead, he found himself almost hoping Wesley would try something.

"Come on," Angel said as he used the decorative brick on the front of the school to climb up to the roof. Xander was in pain and planning on offering himself up on the altar of truth. While Angel could admire the boy's honesty, he wasn't about to leave him alone with Cordelia.

"About bloody time," Spike muttered as he followed him up to the roof.

Xander and Cordelia always seemed to gravitate to one particular classroom and that's where Angel headed. A tree outside the window would allow him to watch, and the night would keep Xander from noticing him, not that Xander would notice anything right now. He certainly wasn't about to let Xander walk home alone after this little encounter. If Xander died, that would be one more sin on Angel's conscience, and his conscience was already listing heavily in this current storm. He'd made bad choices; he'd picked himself and his redemption over his family. Watching Xander forgive Faith—not because he wasn't hurting, not because it benefited him, but simply because Faith was family—that had reminded Angel of a little truth or two. So, if Angel was going to give up on redemption in favor of protecting his family, then he would do whatever he had to do.

"So, is the boy right about Cordelia? Seems barmy to throw the boy over just because he got his end off with Faith," Spike commented as he kept pace right behind Angel.

"He betrayed her," Angel said shortly. He hated that Faith had wrecked Xander's life this way, but lying about it wouldn't help anything, and he wouldn't even advise Xander to try. Xander's ability to lie ranked up there with Spike's ability to give a shit about random strangers.

"Bloody humans," Spike snorted.

Angel paused on the roof, right next to the tree he planned to use for eavesdropping. Spike was right; human rules were awkward and ridiculous and painful. They were nearly as awkward and ridiculous and painful as vampire rules. "Why do you stay?" Angel asked Spike. The question shocked Spike so badly that he dropped his cigarette and then had to dance around as he tried to keep the cuff of his jeans from catching on fire.

"Bloody hell. Has the hair gel finally sunk into your brain then?" he demanded once he'd finally fished the thing out and crushed it.

"You have to be frustrated," Angel pointed out. "Faith and Xander insist on having relationships outside of the family, Cordelia is caught in a strange half-way land between being in our clan and not, I'm not... I'm not giving you what a sire should. Why do you stay?"

Spike's eyebrows went all the way up. "Mate, you feelin' alright? You peckish? Hallucinating maybe?"

"I asked you a question," Angel said with a growl.

Spike blinked a couple of times and cocked his head to the side. "You're family. Xander and Faith and Cordelia are alright. Can be a right treat fucking with 'em, or in Faith's case, just fucking her. Cordelia... bloody hell, she's just about a vampire already. Those cheerleaders are closer to vampires or wild animals than humans. And Xander..." Spike shrugged. "Boy reminds me of the plonker I used to be, always running around trying to please everyone else, doesn't he? 'Course he's not as handsome as a bloke as I am, but nobody's perfect."

"You want me to turn them," Angel said quietly. From a vampire perspective, that would make the most sense.

"Sometimes," Spike shrugged again. "If ya turned 'em, no guarantee they'd stay the same, though, is there? Oh, they'd be themselves, but they'd be a darker version. I lived through that once, watching you try to mold a vampire into who you thought he should be. Don't really feel like being around for another round of that." Spike crossed his arms and glared at Angel, practically daring him to deny that he'd tortured and molded and controlled all his childer.

"I don't plan to ever turn them, which means they'll grow old and die," Angel said quietly. This was where his new life's plan didn't make sense to him. Listening to Faith's confession on the roof and then Xander's simple declaration that Faith got a 'get out of fucking up free' card because she was family... that made Angel realize that he would sacrifice redemption for his family, but if he wanted to save his family, how could he let them die? Angel understood how to protect Faith from the Council. Blair had considerable magic, and with the charms Angel had given Faith, the Council would never be able to track her. But how could he protect her from growing up, from growing old, from dying the way all slayers eventually died? How could he protect Cordelia or Faith or even Xander from their humanity?

Spike walked over and sat on the ledge that ran around the edge of the roof. "I can't say I've thought much on it."

Angel didn't answer. Sometimes he missed that... the ability to live in the moment and just not worry about a future that hadn't arrived. For long minutes, the silence filled the air, and then Angel turned to leap off the roof only to land in the tree. The leaves and branches shook with his impact and then shook again two seconds later when Spike landed in the tree just above him.

"Bloody stupid leaping into a tree. You do know these things are made of wood, don't you?" Spike muttered, but Angel ignored him as he maneuvered down to a place where he'd be able to see into the classroom.

They were in there. Cordelia was sitting on the edge of the teacher's desk, her legs crossed and her foot bouncing in that way that suggested she was losing patience. Xander was hovering near the door looking ready to be sick.

"She won't hurt him, will she?" Spike suddenly asked.

"She might slap him," Angel admitted. It was better to tell Spike up front than risk having Spike lose his temper later. "She won't actually hurt him, though."

"Boy would feel better if she did. If she just went and whipped the flesh from his bones, he might stop stinking of guilt." Spike settled on a limb just above Angel.

"That works for vampires, not humans," Angel pointed out. Xander had finally stopped pacing and faced Cordelia. Vampire hearing meant that Angel could easily hear from his spot outside the window, but so far, Xander wasn't actually saying anything.

"Well?" Cordelia finally demanded.

"This is harder than I thought," Xander confessed. He crossed his arms over his stomach, and Angel just wished he could crash through the window and save Xander from this whole mess.

If he'd known what was going on in Faith's life, maybe he could have stopped this mess, but no, he'd been off playing crusader, staking vampires and trying to track down elusive rumors about the coming Ascension. He was no better than Guleesh, staring at the moon and wishing he was somewhere else, but there were no fairies to come and take him to the princess. There were only his choices, and the way his need to prove something had led to Xander, once again, getting hurt. The guilt of that failure gnawed at him. Now Xander was veering wildly between pretending everything was okay and despair and Faith was exiled to Cascade until she could deal with some of her issues.

"Whatever is going on, just say it," Cordelia sighed, her foot jiggling even faster.

"You won't like it."

"Has that ever stopped you before?"

"Hey, I was big with the not saying anything when we were ten and you had that funny haircut," Xander said, but the grin was forced. Even Cordelia must have spotted that because her foot stopped and she uncrossed her legs as she studied him.

"You're getting stranger by the day," she sniffed. However, she also hopped down from the desk and took a step toward him. If Cordelia didn't care for Xander, this would be much easier, but Angel knew that was not the case. With his supernatural hearing, he had caught her defending him and her relationship with him from some pretty vicious attacks from other cheerleaders. Apparently Xander's new clothes and cool older friend had raised him some on the social ladder, but the other cheerleaders still felt that he was below Cordelia. And by dating him, they felt that Cordelia lowered herself. Oddly, Spike was right; cheerleaders seemed to follow a code not so different from vampires, and showing weakness was not healthy in either. Yet Cordelia had risked censure to date Xander.

"Strangier and strangier," Xander agreed sadly.

"Bloody hell, we're going to be in this tree all fucking night at this rate."

"Shut up," Angel hissed. He did not need for Xander to catch them spying, but he did need to know what happened so he would know how to help Xander recover. Spike subsided with a snort. "Light that cigarette and I'll shove it down your throat," Angel warned after seeing what Spike was doing with his hands. He got a glare, but at least Spike shoved the thing back in a pocket.

"I do not have all day... or in this case, night. Whatever you have to say, just say it," Cordelia said, her tone clearly worried.

"Hey, if you're busy maybe we could do this later." Xander actually looked hopeful at that.

"Do what later? You still haven't told me what we're doing."

"We're talking... which is not so much with the doing and more with the just making with the... um... talking." Xander closed his eyes tightly, an expression of embarrassment that Angel had learned to recognize. Sure enough, the pink started coming into his cheeks.

"What did you do?" Cordelia demanded, her arms crossing over her chest.

"Um... uh... I...." Xander stammered to a halt.

"You didn't actually let the bleached one eat Wesley, did you?" she asked, and that was a tone of voice that even made Angel cringe.

"What? No. No, there was absolutely no eating." Xander blushed darker. "Of the sort that involves actual eating."

Spike snorted, and Angel had to agree that Xander was not at his best in this situation. Cordelia had her head tilted to the side as she considered him.

"What did you screw up?"

"Screw up?" Xander echoed weakly. "Why would you think I was the one with the screwing uppage?"

"You're a man. Men are stupid; hence, you scre—" Cordelia stopped mid-word. "Oh my god. Alexander LaVelle Harris, who was it?"

Xander physically jerked away, his back hitting the door as he stared at her with wide eyes.

Spike snorted again. "If he was planning on tryin' something clever, he's buggered that up, hasn't he?" Angel didn't bother answering because the answer was obvious.

"Who was what?"

Cordelia raised her hand, a sharp fingernail pointed right at Xander. "If you cheated on me with Harmony, you will both die slow and painful deaths."

"Harmony? Why would you think I would ever have anything to do with Harmony? And why would you think Harmony would have anything to do with me? Newsflash, she thinks I'm about three steps above total loser, which is way better than my freshman year when she put me below the lunch lady on the social scale, but still... me and Harmony?"

"Then who?" Cordelia was two inches from his face, and Angel had to admit that her expression was enough to frighten most humans or demon into fleeing for their lives. Xander just crossed his arms over his stomach and looked at her as though she were the firing squad preparing to execute him.

"I'm still trying to figure out how we came to the conclusion that I'm cheating at all."

Cordelia huffed. "Oh please, you're a man. There's only one thing a man ever does that makes him feel that guilty."

"Wait, so having sex with the non-girlfriend is the only bad that I could ever do? Because I'm telling you, I'm way better at screwing up than you seem to think. I can screw up and feel guilty about lots and lots of stuff."

Cordelia stumbled back away from him. "You had sex? You all the way had sex with someone who is not me?" Rather than angry, she sounded incredibly hurt. Angel almost wished she were angry because Xander would never survive the guilt of actually hurting Cordelia.

"Um... maybe?" Xander pressed his eyes closed.

"Bloody hell, he should not be closing his eyes around that one. That's about as dumb as turnin' your back on a Fyarl demon." Spike sounded caught between frustration and amusement, but Angel just ignored him. Xander had turned a ghastly shade of white

"Who?" Cordelia demanded. "Who is this that is so irresistible that you'd just shove a knife in my back?" Xander pressed his back to the door, and Angel could feel the growl building in his chest. "What, did you finally get in Queen Bitchy's pants? Not that you'd be the first to go there, would you?"

"Hey," Xander protested, but his righteous indignation faded almost immediately. "I didn't mean for this to happen."

"Oh, did you penis go wandering off without you? Did it stick itself in some skank while you were playing video games or watching some pathetic television?"

"Cordelia." Xander breathed the word like a prayer.

"Who?" Cordelia's voice was hard and brittle, a sound on the verge of shattering.

"Faith," Xander whispered, his arms clutching himself in search of comfort and Angel felt a flare of guilt heavy enough to make him feel as though he were suffocating.

"Faith? Faith who you think of as a sister Faith?" That had obviously shocked Cordelia.

"Way to make an already disturbing night way more with the disturb," Xander answered quietly. For many seconds, Cordelia just stared at him, her back stiff with rage and her hands clutched at her sides.

"Wait," she said slowly, "exactly how is this disturbing?"

Xander looked up incredulously, his arms loosening just a bit. "I can draw you a map of the disturbing we have going right here," he offered with a weak grin. Cordelia glared.

"Oh no. When I mentioned Faith being like a sister, you said that night was already disturbing. Why would that be disturbing."

"Oh, guilt, shame, potential lack of breathing in the near future when my beautiful girlfriend finds out."

"Which is why right now is disturbing," Cordelia said, her teeth already into this. "But you said that night was already disturbing and reminding you that Faith was like a sister made it more disturbing. Xander, what happened?" Cordelia took a step closer to him, but Xander shied away like a skittish horse.

"You know, Faith left town, so whatever you want to tell everyone, I will so go along with it... only can we not tell them I have some fatal illness or venereal disease? Although, if you really have your heart set on it..." Xander looked up at Cordelia, his fear and guilt and uncertainty painted over his face in bold colors.

"Xander," Cordelia said softly, but he just shied further away. With a heavy sigh, she turned her back on him and returned to the teacher desk where she had started the whole conversation. "Have you told Angel?"

"He kinda did the sniffing thing, which is way with the disturbing." Xander had backed himself into a corner between the wall and fire extinguisher. "I keep telling him that polite people do not go with the sniffing, but he insists on getting way too TMI about things like who is dating Buffy and lusting after other boys and Gwendolyn Post's sex change-a-roo. Way TMI."

Xander had complained about him discovering things through his sense of smell, and at one point, Angel had attempted to repress the parts of himself connected to the demon. At one point, he made an effort to walk through the world and experience it as much like a human as possible. That point was gone along with his silly infatuation with Buffy. After all, if he hadn't used his sense of smell and the Gem of Amara, he never would have found the military's latest toy buried under the UC Sunnydale campus.

"You would have told him anyway," Cordelia said with a small shake of her head.

"Um, did I lose track of the conversation somewhere?" Xander looked up at her for a second before dropping his gaze back down to the floor.

"Xander, who did you tell first about your mom kicking your dad's drunk ass out of the house?"

Xander didn't answer right away. He looked up at her in confusion, and Angel could practically taste the boy's need to figure out the right answer... to try and fix what he'd messed up or try and make her happy. "Angel was home when I got back from Mom's apartment." Xander shrugged, clearly not understanding the question, but Angel was starting to suspect that he knew where she was going.

Cordelia was already nodding. "And who did you go to after Kendra died?"

Xander just stared at her blankly. Angel remembered that night, though. He remembered holding Xander in that narrow bed in his old house. He remembered Xander crying with grief and anger until he had finally laid still in Angel's arms.

Now Cordelia was shaking her head. "Who did you go to when Buffy and Willow blamed you for Spike being Spike?"

Xander stared at her mutely for a second before he gathered his words. "I don't understand—"

"I've been playing emotional hide and seek with you. You didn't just cheat on me with Faith, you've been cheating on me with Angel for months... years... since the beginning. I guess I just thought you needed a father figure or something, but he's not being fatherly, and you just keep turning to him over and over. I can't...." Cordelia stopped and waved her hand randomly in the air in some gesture that meant nothing to Angel. From the confused expression on Xander's face, he wasn't getting any of this.

"You can't think that Angel and I..."

"God you're an idiot," Cordelia snapped, and now Angel could hear the emotional precipice she stood on reflected in her voice. One wrong word and she would cry and Xander would choke on his own guilt. "No, I don't think you and Angel are doing what you and Faith did. I'm saying that you aren't committed to a relationship with me, not emotionally or physically, and I can't trust you. You don't act like my best friend or my boyfriend or someone who wants to trust me with any part of his life, so maybe Harmony's right, maybe you are just trying to get me in bed."

"Hey, I would never—" Xander started, but when Cordelia held up a hand, he stopped.

"No, you won't ever," she told him firmly. "Talk to your therapist, figure this out on your own, tell Angel all your secrets... I don't care anymore, but as far as anyone in this school is concerned, I’m dropping your ass because your attempt at asking me to prom was both lame and cheap. And I do not date lame, cheap men," Cordelia finished. She headed for the door, her head held high and her back stiff. It didn't fool Angel for a second.

"Keep an eye on her," Angel said softly. He continued to watch Xander while Spike dropped out of the tree and wandered around to the far side of the school where Cordelia would have parked her car. Cordelia would feel better for sharpening her claws on Spike for a while, and he could keep an eye on Xander without having to worry about her getting home safe. He wondered exactly when he started thinking of Spike as a person trustworthy in the defense of human life, but he did. It went against every vampiric instinct Spike had, but Angel was willing to bet that he'd fight to the end for Cordelia, Xander or Faith. He'd never given his heart by halves, not like Angel. Spike wouldn't be caught between trying to serve his own redemption and his family until he failed both.

Nearly an hour passed before Xander finally stirred himself and pushed unsteadily away from the wall. Angel waited until Xander turned toward the front entrance before he dropped out of the tree. Xander needed privacy; he could respect that. He hated that because he wanted to be walking beside Xander, he wanted to reassure Xander, but instead he walked the shadows. With his head down and his feet dragging across the pavement, Xander walked slowly home, the picture of perfect misery.



Do Unto Others

Angel waited until Xander reached the main hallway before he forced a window open and hurried after him. The boy smelled of despair and Angel's bloodmark and he dragged his feet down the hall. Angel hadn't exactly been expecting celebrations, but the confrontation had gone far better than he'd expected. That had led him to hope for some relief from Xander. Instead, he was so lost in misery that he didn't notice anyone behind him until Angel reached out and rested his hand on Xander's shoulder. With a shriek, Xander jumped and spun around, his hand already going to his cinquedea hidden within his clothing.

"Way to give a guy a heart attack," Xander complained weakly once he saw who had touched him. Angel didn't answer, but he also didn't move his hand away as he stepped to Xander's side, studying the boy's expression for some hint of how he felt. Xander frowned. "And what are you doing here?"

"I thought I would walk you home."

Xander shrugged. "I thought I would get Giles to give me a ride." He started walking again, toward the library. The thought of Xander near Wesley made his fangs itch and Angelus stir restlessly under his soul.

"You want Giles instead of me?" Angel asked, not sure if he understood. Maybe Xander did blame him for not protecting him from Faith. Maybe Xander saw him as being no better than Jessica Harris who had never defended him from his father's verbal and emotional abuse, but then again Xander had forgiven his mother just as he forgave Faith. Xander had stopped in the middle of the dim hallway to stare at Angel strangely.

"Okay, this is a little freaky because that actually looks like a hurt face. You know, if you aren't careful someone is going to accuse you of having actual facial expressions the way you've been going lately." Xander crossed his arms and just stared.

"I'm just asking if you'd rather have Giles drive you home. Do you not want to walk?" Angel asked as he kept his face carefully neutral.

Again, Xander shrugged as if it didn't matter to him. "I just don't want to hang you up. You are way behind tonight in the killing of vampires and demons and baddies, oh my. That redemption of yours will not earn itself, buddy." He gave a huff of laughter and started walking again, taking the turn toward the library, and for a half second, Angel didn't react. He was too shocked at the idea that Xander expected to take a backseat to Angel's demon fighting. After that frozen second, Angel reached out and caught Xander's arm, pulling him toward the exit.

With a startled gasp, Xander grabbed at Angel to keep from being pulled off-balance, and then he started walking where Angel pulled. "Okay, what is that face for because that's looking like a cross between you found Spike wanking in your living room and I trekked Argo slime through the house. What is wrong with you today?"

The night air had just a little chill to it as he hurried Xander down the stairs, his hand still on the boy's shoulder to keep him close. Outside, he could smell the faint trace of Spike's cigarette and Cordelia's perfume, so he trusted she would get home safely, although he wouldn't trust either of them to pass up a chance to verbally torture each other. For a second, Angel couldn't even come up with enough words to describe what was wrong with him. He could speak for a decade and not cover it all. Instead of that, he focused on his worst sin lately. "I shouldn't have been out killing demons when you and Faith needed me."

Xander sighed and gave Angel that look that suggested that Angel was doing something odd again. "No needing to be had here. I managed to get my end off quite effectively, thank you. Twice. One and a half maybe," he corrected himself with a twisted smile on his face, "but that first time, that was just shock, so I cannot be blamed for the sudden, explosive loss of all control."

Pulling Xander a little closer, Angel said softly, "You don't have to joke about it."

"Yes, yes I do. Laughter and repression are the words of the day, and as my therapists point out, repression is not with the healthy..." Xander paused for a second and then gave a little huff of laughter. "Not that we're going to live long enough for me to have high blood pressure if we can't stop the mayor."

"We'll stop him," Angel said grimly. If he had to eat every one of the mayor's lieutenants in order to get information on the Ascension, he would, but they would beat the mayor. "And if your therapists say you should worry about your blood pressure, you should," he finished firmly. He had no idea what blood pressure meant, but he knew there were medicines for those who had bad blood pressure, and Angel made a mental note to ask someone next time they were in LA to see if Xander needed some.

Xander poked an elbow in his stomach. "You know, I'm probably the mentally healthiest teenager in three states. I could stop with the therapy now."


"Overprotective much?"

Angel didn't even have to think about his answer to that one. "Yes."

"That was supposed to be a not-so-thinly-veiled insult on your weirdness."

Angel considered the irony of Xander's comment. Walking down the street, he could smell the dirt of newly risen vampires and the cold iron of a Pewar demon and the sheer power of the Hellmouth leaking from the ground like pus from an infected wound. The air itself was oppressive and deadly, pressing in on them with the stink of corruption and malice, and Xander couldn't sense any of it. Like most humans, he was blind to the irresistible power lurking under every inch of Sunnydale. Unlike most humans, Xander seemed immune. Angel tightened his hold on Xander's shoulder. "I should be protecting you more."

"Okay, who put spoiled blood on your Wheaties this morning, and that is rhetorical because blood on Wheaties is too gross even for Spike, but you get my point."

A year or two ago, Angel wouldn't have understood his point, but he did. Taking a deep breath, he tried to decide how much to share with Xander. A part of him still wanted to shield Xander, to protect him from the darker side of Sunnydale and himself. That's the part of him that made the decision to not tell Xander about the Army base now running under the university. Xander shouldn't have to fight humans or deal with manipulating and terrorizing them. But from the expression on Xander's face, Angel knew he wasn't going to get away with saying nothing. "I should have been around to see that Faith was in trouble. I should have stopped her before she had a chance to hurt you," he finally admitted.

"She didn't hurt me as much as she just... kinda..." Xander waved a hand incoherently while falling silent.

"Hurt you?" Angel guessed. Xander sent him a dirty look.

"Only less with the hurt and more with the intense pleasure followed by intense discomfort. However, that is not your fault." Xander emphasized his point with a vicious finger poke to Angel's stomach. "Remember the whole discussion I had with my therapist about how I wasn't to blame for my parents and their divorce and the general weirdness that followed? Remember that?"

Angel frowned, wondering how they had turned to this subject. "You aren't to blame for Tony Harris' idiocy."

"Exactly," Xander said triumphantly. "And you aren't to blame for Faith. Faith isn't even totally to blame for Faith, although she gets more blame than you do. And for that matter, I wasn't exactly screaming 'no' at the top of my lungs. I was more with the making inappropriate moaning noises and one manly scream when she did this thing with her finger that I will never again admit to." Xander wiggled a finger and then blushed brightly enough that Angel could smell the blood just under his skin. What in the world could Faith do with one finger that had created such turmoil, he wondered.

Xander shook his head as though reading Angel's mind. "Seriously, don't ask. I am a big old not-telling boy on that front."

Angel sighed. First Faith could not trust him with her pain and fear and now Xander did not trust him with his shame. If Angel planned to make his family his new goal, he had made a poor start of it. "I should have been around more."

"Hey, you were off trying to save the world, and world-saving is just slightly more important than babysitting... not that I need a babysitter because adult here."

Temptation pulled at Angel, urged him to allow that tacit lie to remain. If Xander saw him as the champion, then he could continue to play hero, but Spike was right—he was ridiculous. And even worse, his self-deluded behavior was hurting everyone around him, everyone he cared about. "That's just it," Angel admitted slowly, the words about as painful as the truth he carried in his gut. "It's not the world I'm worried about. This whole time, every time I go out to hunt vampires and try and track down one more rumor, I always have that promise of redemption lurking in the back of my mind."

"Which is good. Redemption is very good," Xander offered, obviously missing the point.

"No, it's not." Angel kept his eyes focused on the distant street lamps, their light creating yellow pools like pus or old paper laying in circles on the street. He needed Xander to understand this and not idolize him. In so many ways, Xander was his link to reality, and if Xander couldn't grasp this reality, then he couldn't keep Angel on the straight and narrow when Angel's own pathetic needs outweighed his common sense.

"Okay, you officially lost me, and usually I get lost because I stop listening to you somewhere along the way, but this time, you just aren't making sense."

For minutes, they walked in silence, in and out of yellow pools of light as Angel struggled with the words to explain this new truth he had searched out in himself. He finally ended up returning to old words—words of his childhood that had nearly vanished under the weight of his years. "'Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins.'" Angel kept his steps even and his eyes forward even though he wanted to find a nice alley. His demon scurried through his soul with little rat claws digging into him. "I've ignored that. I've spent my life ignoring that."

Xander frowned at him. "Which should be easy considering that it doesn't make any sense, but that's just me. I'm really good at ignoring things that require more than three syllables."

"You aren't stupid."

"Nope," Xander agreed cheerfully enough, "but I’m good at playing stupid. You should try it sometime. And usually my stupid impression makes you roll your eyes way faster than this. Seriously, Angel, what is up with you?"

Angel tightened his jaw. "I'm damned."

"In a 'the world is going to end and go to hell and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it' kind of way, because if that's the case, we so need to go talk to Giles and Buffy." Xander stopped in the middle of the street, and the arm Angel had flung over the boy's shoulders meant that he had to stop with him.

"I'm a fool for believing I can redeem myself. Even when I try to do good, I put you at risk. I put Faith and Buffy at risk. If the Council had realized—"

"And that's one Whoo-Hoo for us, "Xander interrupted firmly, "because they didn't realize."

"It shouldn't have come down to Giles and Calendar scaring them out of town."

Xander crossed his arm and frowned up at Angel much like the time Spike had won a bet and used his make-up on Angel, only this time, there was no amusement mixed in with the shock and dismay. "Okay, this is still me officially lost."

Angel growled, frustrated at how many words Xander was requiring to understand a fairly simple concept. "I'm trying to trick God into forgiving me for my sins. God isn't going to be persuaded by a few good deeds on my part. 'Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God.'" Angel shook his head, his anger and fear making his demon howl in through his mind. "I haven't thought of those words in quite a while, but they're true," he finished softly. Xander needed to accept this as Angel had, and then they could focus on building something that wasn't founded on lies and false hope.

"I can see why you were not with the thinking about them because that is just slightly totally depressing," Xander said slowly, his hand coming up to rest on Angel's arm. "Tell me that's not how you see the world, because if it is, you so need therapy way more than I do."

"No, I don't. I try to save the world only to save myself; that does not make me a good person. I ignore my family and let them get hurt because of my selfish need to prove something or earn something. I protect Spike because I want him in my life despite the evil he does."

"Which is sounding faintly human," Xander pointed out.

"Everything I do is tainted with my own selfishness. I was damned from the moment I was born and I keep trying to find repentance and redemption, but really I'm just playing one more game. And this time, you're the one who got hurt. You and Faith." Angel took a step back, breaking contact between himself and Xander just as his demon's need to grab and hold and possess nearly overwhelmed him. Not waiting for Xander, he started down the street again, moving fast enough that Xander almost had to run to keep up. Xander grabbed at the arm of his coat, clinging to him, and Angel slowed rather than force Xander to let go of him. "Faith couldn't come to me because she saw that I was too busy with this quest of mine. I have failed," Angel insisted firmly, his eyes still straight ahead as he walked.

"Angel, you seriously need to suck down some Prozac."

"I need to face reality. This quest for redemption, it was Whistler's game from the start. If I was predestined for heaven, I wouldn't have gone so wrong in the first place. I wouldn't have followed Darla out into that alley at all."

"Wait... so fucking up means God hates you?" Xander demanded loudly enough that a human hurrying to his car stopped to look at them strangely. However, Xander ignored that as he just went on. "You need massive amounts of Prozac, only maybe not too much because you and drugs are not good. But under your theory, I'm damned because I screwed up with Faith, and Faith is damned because if she wasn't, then bad things wouldn't have happened to her, and all my mom's work with trying to put together a life that's not fully of Tony Harris' crap... that's all pretty much worthless." Xander's voice rose to a near shout, and Angel opened his mouth to reassure him. Xander hadn't done anything wrong... ever. And Faith didn't deserve the abuse she had suffered, and as much as Angel still disliked Jessica Harris, she had changed her life and started to repair the damage she had done to her relationship with Xander. However, he couldn't say any of this because Xander was still shouting. "You've said plenty of stupid shit in your time, but that's right up there."

"I'm not talking about other people's sins. I'm talking about me. My quest kept me from doing what a good man would have done." Angel willed Xander to understand.

"So, you just want to give up on being a good person?" Xander demanded. "What? Do you want to go back to killing nuns? Because if that's the case, I'm so kicking your ass, or at least doing my best on the ass-kicking front before I get turned into the ass-kickee because I don't have a lot of illusions about what would happen in a knock-down drag out fight with you. The point here is that giving up is never of the good."

"I'm not giving up on trying to do the right thing," Angel reassured him. He should have considered how Xander might misinterpret this situation. Angel couldn't even do this right.

Xander held up his two hands to make a "T" out of them. "Time out. Are you trying to get me to forget all my trouble by confusing the shit out of me? I have to say, it's working."

Angel stopped and looked at Xander. Despite fear and danger and hormones, Xander always tried to do the right thing; Angel couldn’t say that about himself. Even now, he couldn't say that. He just wanted to avoid hell, but since he couldn't do that through redeeming the evil in his heart, he was just going to have to try to not die. Carefully selecting his words, Angel tried again to explain reality to an obdurate teenager who seemed to willfully misunderstand him at every turn. "I'm going to try and be a moral person, but I'm giving up any illusion I have about redeeming my past."

"So, you're just assuming you're hell-bound," Xander summarized. Angel had to struggle to not flinch away from the cold truth Xander offered him.

"I'd like to avoid hell as long as I can."

"But you're assuming you're hell-bound," he repeated.

"Vampires have been known to live for thousands of years, Xander."

"After which, you assume you're hell-bound."

Xander was glaring at him angrily, his arms crossed over his chest. With a sigh, Angel looked around the dark street and wondered why this had seemed such an easy concept to accept when he talked with Spike and so difficult now. Maybe he simply didn't want to accept the truth as Xander presented it, but his acceptance didn't matter. He was hell-bound.

Xander just looked even more angry as Angel allowed the silence to continue. "We need to have Giles check for ghostly possessions because you're sounding weirdly like your father what with the thinking of yourself as evil and worthless."

That roused Angel's own anger. "I don't think I'm worthless. I will stop the mayor."

"And yet, you're calling yourself hell-bound."

"You seem to be the one saying that," Angel pointed out.

"Because you're the one thinking it. Angel, your daddy issues are showing."

The darkness brightened and sharpened as his vampiric vision took over, but Xander didn't back away from his yellow-eyed anger. "I do not have issues with my father," Angel growled, his voice dangerously low.

"Your issues have issues. My issues don't have as many issues as your issues. My issues dream of growing up and being as issuey as your issues," Xander insisted with a dramatic wave of his arms.

Without a word, Angel started walking again. Why did he ever believe this would be easy? Xander never made anything easy.

Xander came running after him again. "Angel, you have to talk to someone."

"There's nothing to talk about," Angel said, his jaw tight with emotions he couldn't even identify.

"Okay, you went from believing that Whistler had giving you the keys to heaven and you just had to do a bit of polishing to thinking that you're hell-bound. Trust me, there is much talking to be had. Next month's therapy is all about you. You'd better beat the mayor because you're going to be busy singing karaoke for Lorne and spilling your guts to the good doctor for at least a week." Xander almost sounded amused about that, and Angel glared at the boy trotting beside him.

"This isn't about me not seeing things clearly, Xander. This is about good and evil. You've seen evil; you know hell exists, so you have to know heaven exists, too. This is about the fact that I have to face reality." Angel took a breath and tried once more to get Xander to see reality. "If I keep believing Whistler's lie, I'm going to get myself and the rest of you killed on this Quixote's mission."

"Ah, but Whistler can't lie, oh great self-flagellating one. He can obfuscate and confuse and omit, but D'fatum demons are not with the lying."

"I'm not going to therapy."

"If I was strong enough, I'd just drag you the way you dragged me," Xander threatened.

"You aren't."

"I could call Lorne."

"Buffy would slay him," Angel countered, and as he expected, that made Xander pause.

"Okay, that would be majorly bad," Xander admitted after a second. They walked down the street side by side, and not even Angel's anger could prevent him from resting his hand at the back of Xander's back. The boy meant well. He was wrong in trying to convince Angel to continue on his quest for redemption, and after seeing the consequences of the foolishness, nothing he said would change Angel's mind, but any wrong he did, he did out of the goodness of his heart. Angel understood that.

"So, you're off on good and evil and metaphysical crap, right?" Xander asked, but then he didn't wait for an answer. "Do you believe in signs? I mean, not the street sign kind of signs because of course you would believe in that, but the kind of signs where God shoves something in your face when you're being an idiot?"

Angel laughed grimly. "I don't think God cares much about me."

"Yeah... right," Xander said without even trying to pretend that he believed. "Only, look there before you go assuming." Xander pointed and Angel looked over to see a Catholic cathedral dimly lit and surrounded by a wrought iron fence. They rarely patrolled the attached cemetery because the prevalence of crosses and blessed and consecrated ground made it particularly unfriendly to newly risen vampires who often dusted before they could claw their way to the street. The tall stained-glass windows were normally dark, but tonight a faint light made the saints' faces glow, and a lamp up front shone brightly down on a young priest balanced on a ladder. His arms were stretched up as he reached behind a cross hanging over the door.

"It's just a church," Angel said. His father would have condemned the church as a center of papacy and papal abuse of religion, and he would have condemned the young priest as a poppet of a foreign ruler and a corrupt minister.

"Uh, huh. And priests are always out in the middle of the night fixing the cross," Xander said sarcastically. Then he was trotting across the street toward the open gate and the church before Angel could grab him. A vampire appeared around the corner a block down, and with a growl, Angel went after Xander, cringing away from the holy images, but refusing to leave Xander. Of course, he doubted that any of the fledges or minions in the area would risk coming even this close to a church, but if he doubted wrong and Xander died, he would not forgive himself. So Angel found himself standing just inside the fence looking up at the gold cross and the face of a wide-eyed priest who looked younger than some of Angel's shoes.

Xander waved and called up. "Hey, I have a life and death and heaven and hell kinda dilemma down here. If I fix your cross, could you answer a question?"

The priest looked at Xander for a second before he wiped his hands on a rag and started down the ladder. "Answers from God don't require payment," he said. He reached the bottom and smiled at both of them, but Angel simply stood behind Xander and considered the priest with emotional detachment.

"Good because I'm broke. But anyway, I'll fix your cross, and do it way better than you are because that eyebolt is not going to hold," Xander said as he craned his neck up at the priest's work. "Trust me, I have lots of experience with broken stuff. But I was hoping you'd talk to my friend about why he is not doomed to hell just because he fu— shit—I mean, um, because he messed up." Even from behind, Angel could see Xander's ears turn bright red.

"Xander," Angel said softly, hoping the boy would give this up now that he had embarrassed himself and amused the priest.

"Nope," Xander insisted. "The man is going to show me to his tools, and then you and he are going to talk the nature of souls and hell and forgiveness while I keep his cross from falling off and hitting someone in the head."

The priest wasn't even trying to hide his grin now. His face was round with the first hint of baldness starting to thin his dark hair even though he couldn’t be more than twenty-five. "Your friend is rather determined."

"You have no idea," Angel said dryly. He was still trying to decide how the evening had gone from him comforting Xander to Xander forcing him into a church. His own father had given up trying to force Liam to attend services when Liam turned seventeen, about the same time Liam threatened to hit his father back if the man continued using the switch.

"Good friends are a blessing. I'm Father Carnelias although most people call me Peter around here. I'm new, so if I don't recognize you from mass, I'm sorry."

"There's enough sorry going on around here already," Xander said softly. "And we haven't really made it to church very often lately... or ever... which is not to suggest we're anti-god or pro-devil or anything like that because we are firmly on the anti-Satan bus," Xander said. "Xander Harris, and this is Angel." Xander stuck his hand out, and Father Carnelias shook it, his smile even wider.

"So many people do miss church. Are you Catholic?" Father Carnelias focused on Angel, and for one second, Angel considered just making a run for it and waiting until Xander left before following him home. The glare Xander gave him stopped him.

"My grandmother was... my father's mother," Angel admitted.

"Your father converted."

Angel wasn't sure if convert was the right word, but his father had certainly made a political decision to abandon and publicly vilify a church that had grown unpopular. "It made it easier for him to... impress certain people," Angel admitted.

"Ah. So, perhaps you would like to come in while I show Xander where I keep the tools." He stepped aside and gestured toward the door to the main church.

"You don't have to... Xander just worries too much," Angel said, hoping the priest could come up with an excuse that would mollify Xander.

"No, I don't have to," the father mused, "but that is why I became a priest, because I enjoy talking to people. It's late and remarkably few people come in here after dark."

Angel glared at Xander even as he took one step toward the priest and the church. The boy had not annoyed him this much in years.

Xander just smiled back at him. "You can thank me later, after you get over being mad. That's what family does, they piss each other off in the name of helping, so consider this my familyish deed for the week." Xander patted him on the arm as he followed. For the first time in over two hundred and fifty years, Angel walked into a church without the intention to murder everyone within. He might, however, murder Xander. Xander's hand rested against his back as they followed Father Carnelias into the lavish chapel.


Twists and Turns of Fate

"Bloody hell, the pouf's goin' to whip the skin off me if he finds out I showed you this place," Spike growled, ducking under a tree branch.

"Okay, not to get weirdly personal or anything, but don't you like it when he does that? And that is way disturbing," Xander complained as he followed Spike through the woods.

"You should try a little pain with your pleasure, pet. I'd be happy ta give you a guided tour." Spike stopped and considered Xander with a lewd expression that was clear even by moonlight. Actually, the moonlight gave Spike even more lewd than he normally had in his expression, and that was saying something.

Funny enough, before Faith, Xander knew he would have blushed brilliant red at the offer. Now... now sex wasn't as blush-worthy. Yeah, it'd been great. Compared to his sock puppet of love, it was fabulous and way less likely to cause wrist strain. But the aftermath kinda took the shine off. He'd liked having Cordelia to walk to class and walking the cheerleaders home from practice and bouncing between Buffy's table and Cordelia's table at lunch. Yep, it was stressful keeping all his girls happy, but he'd enjoyed the stress.

Now he had front row tickets for John Lee's droolfest as he chased after Cordy. Xander's only consolation was that he was never getting in her pants. Besides, Cordelia had made it pretty clear that she considered herself close enough to graduation that only college men were appropriate for her level of perfection. And yet, despite Cordelia's brutal comments about 'immature high school boys,' John Lee kept right on shoveling the gifts at her. Trust Cordy to land on her feet. And weirdly enough, he was feeling feetish himself. He was almost weirded out about how on his feet he felt because he'd lost Cordelia. He should be devastated. Instead he was just a little sad but definitely on his feet. If he were still being depressed, he would definitely say they were fated to break up.

Xander stopped creeping through the bushes for a second to really look at Spike. "You know, the whole hitting on me thing is actually a relief. Angel is acting weird enough for all of us, so you being inappropriate is strangely comforting."

"Relief and comfort isn't what I was going for, is it?" Spike complained.

"This is me with the not wanting to know what you were going for. You and the vampy crowd are not even logical on your good days," Xander answered. He shouldn't been this cheerful and bantery... and yet, he was.

"Me? You lot with souls are soddin' barmy."

"So, we both agree that Angel is way out there in la-la land?" Xander asked. Spike stopped and leaned against a tree before looking Xander up and down.

"He's fucking 'round the twist, pet. He went to a bloody church the other night. I followed him out expecting a fight, and he stopped and had fucking tea with a priest. I thought he was nutters before, but the last week he's been even worse."

Xander blinked in surprise. Angel hadn't been going out as much lately, but he had no idea that he'd gone back to Father Carnelias.

"Bloody hell, that's your happy face. You knew he was going to see this bloke, didn't you?" Spike demanded. "I'm surrounded by nutters. I must have sodding well pissed on the universe's cornflakes in a previous life to deserve this hell." Spike looked like angry, but it was the kind of angry he got when Xander or Faith did something he considered particularly stupid and endearing.

"You like nutters," Xander pointed out with ruthless honesty.

"Ponce." After insulting him with a weird Britishism, Spike turned back toward the woods.

"So," Xander asked casually, "how often has Angel gone to see Father Carnelias?"

"Father Carnelias, is it?" Spike glanced over his shoulder.

"Yes, and there will be no eating of nice priests."

"Bloody hell, I'm on a fucking leash," Spike sighed dramatically. "Right then, here's the sod's secret hideaway." Spike stopped in front of a low concrete building without any windows. The metal door had a warning sign for high-voltage, but there weren't any wires going into or out of the building.

"This is where he's been hanging out?" Xander asked as he walked closer. Spike snatched him by the shoulder and pulled him back so fast that Xander stumbled into Spike's chest, and Spike's arms caught him around the waist.

"Don't know what Angel has in there, but he's got traps set up around here. Best watch your step, pet."

Xander looked around at the empty woods and weeds and a stray beer can tossed under a bush. "Okay, I’m watching the stepping, and I'm seeing a big nothing."

"Blind as a bat," Spike complained softly, and then his hands were on Xander's arms, guiding him in a winding path through the grass and weeds in front of the concrete shed. "If I get you killed in one of Angel's traps, the bastard will brood for the next century.

"I can't say I'd be too happy about the being dead, either."

"Complain, complain."

"If I'm dead, yeah!"

"If you're dead, you won't be complainin' about anything."

"Dead hasn't stopped you from being a whiny pants," Xander pointed out as they reached the door to the strange, squat structure. Spike yanked him around by the arm and growled in his face.

"A whiny pants? You soddin' take that back you little wanker."

"Hey, with Faith gone, you wank as much as I do!"

Spike laughed as he pulled a lock pick out of his duster. "Don't count on it. I still get my end off with Angel, pet." Spike gave him an eyebrow wiggle before he went to one knee in front of the locked door.

"Whatever," Xander said with a dramatic eyeroll of his own.

"I bloody love it when he pins me down and stuffs that big cock of his up my arse. If ya think Faith's finger could set off fireworks, just imagine how it feels to have a great cock shoved up there. Then he bites, and it's bloody brilliant.... well fuck." Spike pushed the door all the way open. Xander leaned over Spike's back to look inside.

"Hello? Quick, you have to help me." A brown-haired man with envy-worthy shoulders and a ridiculously handsome face stood behind the bars in a cage that took up half the room in the windowless building. "You need to call the police. I've been kidnapped by a man who might come back any time."

"I was expecting some lunacy like the Vampire Church of Jesus Christ, not a boxed meal," Spike said. He flashed into gameface as he stood up and took a step forward. The man in the cage quickly backed up to the back of his cell and dropped into a fighting stance.

"Hey, no eating the... um... okay, I really don't quite know what to make of this," Xander finished weakly as he made a grab for Spike's arm. He knew full well that Spike chose to stop because Spike was only about a hundred times stronger than he was, but at least there was no eating of the guy in the cage... yet.

"You're a hostile," the man said, disgust in his voice.

"Not feeling particularly hostile, but I am a bit peckish, how about you, pet?" Spike reached around and slipped an arm around Xander's waist.

"I'm actually more confused than anything else. Spike, is he human?"

"Of course I'm human!" the man objected loudly as Spike sniffed the air.

"Smells like. If you want, I can taste him and find out." Spike smiled viciously, and the guy in the cage turned the color white that you normally find in a bottle of that cheap paste you use in grade school.

"Okay, no eating or scaring of guy until he has a heart attack," Xander amended himself. "And why is Angel hanging out with a guy in a cage?"

"Don't know. If he wanted to get kinky, I would have been more than happy ta play the part of the mouthy prisoner." Spike backed up and leaned against the wall next to the door as he watched the new guy. "Stay back from the bars, pet, we don't actually know if he has any weapons."

At that, Xander stumbled back and pressed as close to Spike as he could without looking like a complete and total wuss. For his part, the guy in the cage just looked totally confused as he looked from Xander to Spike and back again.

"What do you want?" he finally asked, his fists still held ready, which seemed a little pointless because he was on the other side of bars.

"Not to sound cliché, but world peace would be nice." Xander shrugged and the other guy looked extra special confused.

"Who are you?"

Xander might have answered except Spike put a hand over his mouth. "Seems like you're the one who needs to be answering some questions. So, who the fuck are you?"

"I won't break. You won't get anything out of me."

Xander looked over at Spike, and that was definitely an amused grin on the vamps face. "Mate, if I want to break ya, I will. You don't seem worth the effort, but if ya make me open that cage to get answers, I'm not leaving without doing some damage."

"Hey, no eating of humans," Xander pointed out.

"He bloody started it, so that puts him on the short list of blood donors," Spike pointed out. "Bloody hell, I'm justifying my eating habits. I hope your soddin' happy," Spike snarled.

"If it means you aren't going to eat random guy—deliriously happy," Xander quickly answered. Yeah, he knew that Spike fed from donors at the suck houses and got in bar fights on the dock just to have an excuse to eat some ship worker guy; however, he didn't want to be anywhere suck-adjacent for any of it. "Look, I'm—" Xander stopped when Spike's hand again clapped over his mouth.

"No giving the prisoner information, pet. Consider that rule one of capture and terrorize."

Xander pushed Spike's hand away. "I really don't want to know the rules for terrorizing. I’m a big old 'no' on all forms of terror, including terrorizing some guy in a cage. So tell him we aren't going to kill him and make nice," Xander said as he gestured toward the cage. Now the guy in there had an expression Spike liked to call gobsmacked. His jaw was literally hanging a bit, just enough to show perfect teeth. This guy should seriously consider a job in modeling.

"Can't do that, pet," Spike shrugged. "I'm not the one who put him in there."

"Oh shit." Xander looked away from Spike and at the cage. "Oh no. No no no. Please tell me that this isn't like loss-of-soul bad. Because I sent Angel to the priest to talk about soul-saving, not soul losing. Oh god, you don't think that the priest actually saved Angel's soul and sent it on to heaven or purgatory or something and just left the vampire parts behind, do you? Because I like vampire you, but vampire him is a little scary in a peeing your pants when he glares at you kind of way."

"And I'm not?" Spike demanded, and he actually managed to look hurt.

"You're way more sane than he is."

"True, but I'm so much better at corrupting young no-longer-virgins," Spike smirked.

"Who the hell are you people?" the guy in the cage demanded loudly.

"They're two meddlers," Angel said from the door, and that was definitely not a happy face. "Spike, get him out of here," Angel said stiffly. Before Xander could object, Spike had grabbed him by the arm and was shoving him toward the exit. No way was he going that easily, though. On his way past Angel, he caught the vamp's arm in both hands.

"No way am I leaving," Xander objected as he held on for all he was worth.

"Bloody fuck," Spike snarled, and then he yanked Xander so hard that Xander's feet came off the ground, but he held on. Angel ended up stumbling to the side and when he lost his balance, Angel slammed both of them into the wall with Xander smushed between Spike and Angel.

With a snarl, Angel jerked back, but Xander stubbornly clung, and this time the force of Angel's pull brought Spike stumbling after because he wouldn't let go of Xander's waist. His hands slipped, and fingers scrambled at his legs before Spike caught him by the knees and started pulling back, trying to wrestle him away from Angel. If not for the two snarling vampires using him like a rope in tug of war, Xander really would have laughed. As it was, his fingers were starting to ache from trying to hold onto Angel.

"Get him out," Angel snapped.

"I'm fucking trying. You get him to let go of your fucking arm."

Angel did just that, pulling at Xander's fingers, but Xander just made a grab for Angel's belt. "How about just telling me what the hell is going on because I am not okay with getting shoved around here. My testosterone levels are hitting new lows and damaging my fragile male ego," Xander loudly complained as he used a foot to try and push Spike away. "And if you've gone evil, I want an update on how, when and where, and I may let Spike eat Father Peter if he went and damaged your soul instead of reassuring it."

That stopped Angel. His hands paused in their task of pulling Xander's grip loose. "If I've gone evil?" Angel asked, clearly confused, but then this whole room was just a nexus of confusion. The guy in the cage was looking ready to collapse with confusion. "Why would you think I've gone evil?" Angel asked quietly. Either Spike sensed a change or Angel did something to make him back off, because Spike lowered Xander so that his feet touched ground.

"I don't know... the guy in the cage maybe?" Xander guessed, still not letting go of Angel's belt as he got his feet under him. He'd learned over the years that vampires cheated when they wrestled. Actually, they cheated at pretty much everything. "When you have a soul and the whole good-guy image going, you don't normally put guys in cages... at least not without trials and lawyers and due process."

"Or leather and whips and kinky toys," Spike added. Xander just ignored him.

"You thought I'd turned evil?" Angel asked again, his expression caught somewhere between hurt and shocked.

"I didn't, Peaches," Spike quickly added. Xander glared at him, but Spike just shrugged. "Without the soul, you sure wouldn't have put him someplace with a toilet and a sink, and he's not exactly suffering any abuse... at least not yet. If you had lost that shiny soul of yours, I'd expect a pretty boy like that to have a lot more marks on him. I'd expect him to be chained up against a wall with his back striped from a cane or whip and his shirt hanging in tatters."

"Okay, TMI," Xander said, feeling faintly nauseous. He really wanted to pretend that pre-soul Angel would never have done anything quite that bad, which was funny because he knew Angelus had done way worse. Hell, Angelus offered to do worse to him and make him enjoy it.

"I'm not evil, and I'm not going to kill or main Riley," Angel said softly, "but you need to leave."

"If you're human, you have to help me. They're monsters," the guy—Riley—said from his cage.

"We're not human, but we're more natural than that abomination you have built under the campus." Angel put a hand on Xander's chest and pushed him back a step before he walked up to the front of the cage. "And you are too stupid to see what is under your nose. Step back from the door," he ordered as he pulled out a key. "Spike, take the boy home."

"The boy isn't going anywhere unless you want to make the boy unhappy for a very long time, and an unhappy *boy* is going to lead to problems that you can't even imagine," Xander said as he danced away from Spike. With human reflexes, that just meant that Spike had to work a little harder before catching him around the waist and pulling him close.

"This isn't safe, what I'm doing," Angel said as he turned to face Xander. Riley took the opportunity to strike out through the bars of his cage, landing a vicious blow low on Angel's back. Angel grunted and then turned long enough to punch Riley in the face hard enough to send him reeling back until he crashed into the far wall. Without even acknowledging the mini-fight, Angel turned back. "I just want you safe."

Xander snorted and shoved ineffectually at Spike's arm that imprisoned him. "Newsflash—we're on a hellmouth. We're never safe. And if you're going somewhere unsafe, I want to be that unsafe place with you as opposed to all the other unsafe place in this town, and face it, this whole town is unsafe."

"Please," Angel said, his jaw tightening.

"No way. So, Riley, are you okay in there?" Xander asked as the guy picked himself back up from the floor. "Xander Harr—" the rest was muffled as Spike slapped a hand over his mouth.

"William," Angel growled.

"He's a fast bugger. Didn't see it coming, did I?"

For a second, Angel just continued to growl, a low constant vibration that Xander could feel in his bones. "If this goes wrong, you will do exactly what I tell you to do," Angel finally snapped. "Spike, you remember Budapest?"

Spike nodded, and Xander could feel the tension between them like when they prepared to hunt together, only this time, Riley was looking like the prey and Xander was really hoping that things were not as fucked up as they seemed to be. Angel stepped forward and slapped Spike on the arm before slipping him one seriously ugly gold and green ring. Spike frowned, but Angel had already turned his back.

"Stay at my side," Angel said to Xander before he turned back to the cage and unlocked the door.

"I won't tell you anything no matter what you do to me," Riley said, his back straight and sweat gathering at the edge of his hairline.

"You already told me everything I needed," Angel said. "Come out."

Riley looked from Angel to Xander, his hands curling into fists and relaxing and curling again nervously.

"Now." Angel ordered sharply. Riley clenched his teeth hard enough to make his jaw bulge, but he walked slowly toward Angel and the open door. Spike had vanished back out into the night, and Xander stepped to the far side of Angel and rested his hand on Angel's back. If Riley was going to keep pissing Angel off, Xander was definitely going to have to calm him down.

"Riley, small piece of advice, don't piss off vampires when they're already pissed because they are way stronger than they look," Xander offered softly. Riley cast him a hateful glare, but he did move a little faster. As soon as came out, Angel grabbed him by the arm and started pushing him toward the door.

"Xander, stay right behind me. With your luck, you'll set off every trap and get yourself killed."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence," Xander muttered, but he also walked as close to Angel as he dare without making himself a target if Riley decided to make a move. "Any chance you could tell us where we're going that's so dangerous? Because I've seen danger, and you usually aren't this twitchy about storming the castle."

Angel didn't answer immediately as he guided all three of them on a winding path through the clearing. "We're going to see a man about a military installation under the university."

"A man as in a man-man or a demon man or a something in-between man?"

"A general."

"What?" Riley actually stumbled for a step before he caught his footing again.

"I needed your rank and serial number so I could trace your chain of command."

"And my blood? Why did you take a vial of blood from me?"

"Wait," Xander interrupted their little argument. "He took a vial? That's new and weirdly disturbing."

Angel didn't even slow down. "I needed to prove a point."

"Did you like the taste? At this point, if you're planning on draining me, I don't see the reason for the deception." Riley had that sort of stoic tone that Giles sometimes got when the group forced him to endure modern music. Resignation, Willow had called it.

"If I were going to drain you, I wouldn't bother deceiving you. I took the blood to give to your general." They were approaching the edge of the wooded area, and as near as Xander could tell, they were about to come out into the playground area of the old grade school. Up ahead, he could hear the sounds of quiet shuffling and metal clicking against metal ominously. "Xander, stay close," Angel whispered. Then he stopped.

"I've brought the captain and a friend who is also human. Open fire, and you will injure them and just piss me off," Angel said loudly.

A branch snapped to their right, and suddenly Xander had the feeling that this was an incredibly horrible idea for him to come along. Angel was supposed to stop him from doing anything this stupid, only not so much with the stopping this time around. Riley shifted, and Angel must have tightened his hold because the man hissed in pain.

"Angel?" a voice asked. A broad man with a middle just starting to go soft and very little hair stepped out from behind a tree.

"General?" Riley asked. Then he hissed in pain again.

"Captain, stand down," the general ordered. "I wasn't sure you would bring him."

"I said I would," Angel said with the sort of false calm Xander recognized from battle. His hand inched toward his cinquedea. "Xander, stop," Angel said softly.

"I hadn't expected you to bring anyone." The general stepped back, his hand gesturing toward the grade school. Normally Xander would have said that it was stupid to go anywhere that the enemy wanted you to go, but from the sounds of rustling in the woods, they were already surrounded. "Is this your consort whose blood allows you to walk in the sun?"

"Hey, someone's been reading stupid Watcher propaganda," Xander blurted out before he could rein in his tongue. "And please feel free to ignore me."

Angel was already looking back at him with obvious regret at having brought him, and Xander bit his tongue and silently vowed to say nothing else, not even when his brain was about to explode at the sudden realization that the general had claimed Angel could walk in the sun and Angel had not been with the mocking and denying.

"That was a spell, an expensive spell. I knew something was going on, and I needed to find out what," Angel said as he escorted Riley into the clearing. There weren't obvious signs of solders, but the slide and kiddie fort had grown a few new bumps that looked suspiciously like helmets. "Did you find what I said you'd find in the blood?"

"Yes," the general said slowly. He gestured, and a man in green camouflage came out from behind the play fort. "Some suspect that it could have been added to the sample, so we would like a fresh vial collected by my personnel."

Angel nodded. It was Riley who protested that. "A fresh vial to test for what, sir?" he asked as the camouflage guy pulled out a needle.

"You may have been compromised, Captain. Angel here has a file going back to the last world war, so when he brought certain accusations to the joint chiefs, they were a little more willing to listen to him than I expected."

"Joint chiefs?" Xander breathed. They were guys you read about in government class. No one ever talked to people you read about in government class. People like the joint chiefs and the president were like unicorns... people talked about them but no one actually talked to them.

"Captain, if you would give me your arm," the guy with the needle said as he pushed up Riley's sleeve on his right arm, not even asking Angel to let go of Riley's left.

"You'll find I didn't change the sample," Angel said calmly.

The general stood staring up at the sky for a second before nodding. "Your willingness to allow the test does suggest that. So Dr. Walsh really has gone rogue."

"Sir, Dr. Walsh's work has allowed us to capture six different hostiles and conduct testing on..." Riley stopped when the general held up his hand.

Xander couldn't help giving a snort of derision, and the general's eyes focused on him. For half a second, Xander tired to stick with his not talking plan, but he was just not very good with the not talking. "Six demons is like one night's work. I can take out six demons in a night, and I'm not much with the demon-fighting talent."

"Xander," Angel hissed.

"Six minions anyway. I mean, if you thrown a hellhound in there, I’m not going to be good for more than one in a night, and I'm so not even giving myself odds against a moira, but six vampires I could take."

"Dr. Walsh's work will ensure that there won't be any demons left," Riley quickly retorted.

"Captain," the general said, and Riley fell silent, but his back was still stiff as the guy with the needle finished his work and pulled Riley's sleeve back down. "She may have compromised our men psychologically as well as physiologically," the general admitted, "but I still cannot condone allowing civilians to defend a potential battlefront."

"If you have a division of soldiers in here, you'll drive away the harmless and low-level demons that normally keep the hellmouth under control by draining off some of the energy and preventing lunatics from opening it."

"Let the foxes guard the henhouse." The general gave a small laugh. "Not an option the joint chiefs are willing to accept."

"You left me to recover that submarine you wanted so badly," Angel pointed out, and Xander had officially lost track of this conversation three exits back.

"You acted under duress according to the files."

"Only because your men broke into my room and threatened me with a stake before even explaining the mission."

"My men?" The general really laughed this time. "I was three years old at the time you recovered that Nazi submarine. And according to your own words, you aren't alone in guarding this hellmouth. Given your current companion, I have to wonder at the quality of the defensive lines here."

"Xander," Angel said, and it startled Xander so badly that he actually jumped. "Tell the general about what you've helped defeat on this hellmouth."

"Me? Hey, I’m just here for moral support," Xander offered weakly. Angel just stared at him with those cold eyes that made it clear he really wasn't joking. "But offhand, I can remember the Master and the crazy praying mantis lady and Moloch and Machida and Eyghon and the brotherhood of organ stealing demons and we had zombies lots of times and hellhounds and lots and lots of vampires and more vampires and weirdly entrepreneurial vampires and chaos mages. Did I miss anything?"

"Demonic possession by hyenas and reanimated mummies," Angel pointed out. Xander flinched.

"I'm trying to forget them."

Sometime during Xander's little speech, Riley had twisted around to stare at him, and even the general had a shocked expression. Mentally reviewing the list, Xander did have to admit that was a lot of demonic action for anyone.

"And your Dr. Walsh brags about six demons, three of which are harmless species. It's a cover for her work with the soldiers, and we're the ones doing the real work of defending the hellmouth," Angel said in a smug voice.

Riley was already shaking his head. "She wouldn't do that."

The general stepped forward, so close that Xander could see the deep wrinkles on either side of his mouth. "She has, soldier. You've been compromised, and the work we found in her lab during a surprise inspection was enough to justify a court martial even without confirmation that others have been affected." He turned toward Angel. "But we are not willing to allow the area to go undefended. Those in charge of the current direction the Initiative has taken will be disciplined, but the need for local control still exists."

"You can't control this," Angel said with some amusement. He let go of Riley's arm, and for a second, Riley just looked at him in shock before he quickly took his place at the general's side. Xander stepped up next to Angel and tried really hard to not look like a terrified high-school student. "You can be part of it."

"Under your command," the general guessed. It didn't take a mind reader to know how much Riley hated that idea.

"No," Angel said, already shaking his head, "I'm not the one destined to save the world from this hellmouth. I just try to back up the woman who has been keeping the darkness at bay since the Master escaped and loosed the door to hell."

"Someone else is in charge?" The general's back stiffened, and already Xander could tell that he was wondering why he was dealing with Angel. "Another vampire?"

Angel laughed. "No. A few vampires are willing to live and let live, but we carry all the faults of the human who lived in the body before us, only all those faults are amplified. It takes a remarkably good person to create a vampire who is only mildly evil. Most people aren't that good, and most vampires are vicious and ruthless killers. A few are masters of psychological terror and slaughter."

"As you were before you changed," the general said quietly, and Xander froze at the idea of the government having this much information on Angel. However, Angel didn't see that surprised.

"In life I was brutal and cold. My vampire learned to be even worse," Angel agreed mildly. "However, you know I have a soul now, and there are other vampires in town who, even without the soul, are unlikely to cause problems. You'll never find them hunting. You probably won't find them at all. However, the person who I try to support is actually a human. I'll tell her about you and any offer to help, but I won't speak for her. She might be more willing to discuss having a military team reporting to her if she knew you had something to bring to the table."

Angel reached over and rested his hand on Xander's shoulder as the night fell silent. The general frowned as he studied Angel. For long minutes, the silence continued as a jet crawled through the sky overhead, leaving behind a white trail that glowed in the moonlight.

"What sort of support is she looking for us to bring?" he finally asked.

Angel didn't answer immediately, and Xander firmly squashed his desire to fidget. "We have a major situation coming up with the mayor."

The general held up his hand to stop Angel. "We do not get involved in politics."

"He's a demon about to evolve into one of the old ones—demons of incredible power who were forced off the planet thousands of years ago. The last time someone ascended, it took a volcano exploding to stop them."

Xander noticed that both Riley and the general seemed to get a little paler... either that or the moon was casting light that was a little whiter. "We don't have a volcano handy," the general said.

"Explosives," Xander said as he realized where Angel was going. "If we had enough explosives, we could blast him the second he starts turning into the big, creepy, whatever he's going to turn into. We know he's going to be at the school for our graduation, so we could rig something. Oh... wait... the school uses gas for all the chemistry labs. We could turn the gas on and then rig the building with explosives. We'd just need to get the major to run into the school and kaboom, no more mayor."

The general looked at him like he was the one turning into a demon. "You want us to blow up your school? And did you just say that you still attend school?"

"I just lost cool points, didn't I?" Xander asked. Yeah, the general was probably not going to take a high-school kid seriously.

Angel patted him on the back. "General, high school students have been defending against demons that you soldiers couldn't touch. Perhaps I could offer you a small demonstration that these young people have earned the right to command."

"I would like to see any demonstration that could convince me of that," he agreed.

Angel tightened his hand briefly on Xander's shoulders. "Of the eight or nine of us who work together, where would you rank yourself?"

"Like fighting wise?" Xander asked.

"Like fighting wise," Angel agreed.

Xander considered that for a second. Okay, Oz and Willow, Ms. Calendar and Giles, Buffy, Faith, Spike and Angel. Really he knew way too many terrifyingly terrifying people. "Um, if you stripped magic away, I might be able to take two of the group, but the rest of you would kick my ass with one leg tied behind your back. And the two I might beat in a magicless fight... they would both turn me into a grease spot way before I could even draw my blade if they had magic. So, don't give me any lectures about self-esteem here, but I have to say that realistically I'm on the very bottom. I'm way more the ass kickee than the ass kicker, which is okay because I have a sharp tongue and I know how to use it. There is definitely more than one way to skin the person who isn't giving you what you want."

"You could beat Wesley," Angel offered softly as he pulled a stake out of his waistband and offered it to him.

"That is not with the making me feel better. My dead grandmother could beat Wesley, and she's not even the up and kicking kind of dead."

"Do you have a point with this?" the general demanded.

"Your soldiers have been here for almost a year and they have captured six demons, three of which are harmless. Xander is... Xander is more important that you could ever understand, but he's not a front line fighter. I'm still willing to bet that he can do better in one night than your entire secret base full of soldiers did in a year. If he can kill or capture six demons tonight, you take back a recommendation that a small unit be left here under the express orders to follow our leader as though she were their commanding officer."

"That's asking a lot."

"It's just a recommendation."

"And I'm supposed to believe that you're putting up your least competent fighter."

"Oh, he is," Xander snorted. "I can hold my own, mostly because I train with vampires, but I'm second or third or possibly fourth string around here. I'm the guy who carries the water bottle, but then without me, none of them could get a stopped up toilet running again, and toilet fixing is an important skill if you want happy fighters."

Riley found his voice. "Sir, Angel did not want to bring the civilian. The civilian threatened him with unnamed retaliation if he did not."

"The human threatened the vampire?" The general looked at Xander again.

"Hey, last time he annoyed me, I played Mario brothers until he was hearing the beeping and the music in his sleep. I may not be a fighter, but I have powers," Xander pointed out.

The general looked around for as second before he gestured with his arm up in the air. "Units stand down, we're going to have a little hunt here, and Xander will be taking lead."

"If I can't kill six vampires, I’m going to be having guilt for the rest of my life." Xander whispered his complaint to Angel.

"You're the one who invited yourself along, so don't fail," Angel answered without much mercy. "You can do this. I've seen you stake seven or eight in a night."

"Yeah, but only..." Xander stopped and looked at Angel. But only when Spike had been trying to cheer him up. Spike's version of cheeriness had been to flush out a dozen demons and point them at Xander so that he could play. After one of the most tiring and stressful nights of his life, he and Angel had found out exactly how Spike was 'helping' to cheer Xander up. They'd all sat down and had a very long talk with Spike about how mayhem and potential death was not actually good for curing human depression. Oh yeah, vampires cheated. It was just a rule.

"So, let's go kill some demons and hope they don't kill me first," Xander said as he held up his stake.

"I won't let them kill you," Angel said, walking behind as Xander headed for the closest cemetery. The general and Riley and three or four soldiers trailed behind them at quite a distance.

"Next time I try to stick my nose in where you think it doesn't go, feel free to kick me to the curb before I get myself in this deep."

"I tried that."

"Try harder."

"If I'd tried harder, I would have broken your fingers." Angel's hand found its place on Xander's back.

"You should considered bribery. I would have given up for a Nintendo 64DD."

"Double D? Like Faith's undergarments?"

"Okay, I do not even want to know how you know that," Xander complained. "I was talking about new and better Mario Brother's games."

"I would rather break your fingers. The noises that come from those games are torturous."

"Complain, complain," Xander sighed dramatically.

"You two will frighten away the vampires," Riley offered in a stage whisper from the rear.

Xander glanced over his shoulder. "Bub, if you think vampires are frightened off by geek talk or humans, you are so not even in the ballpark. No wonder you can't find your ass with both hands and a map. Six vampires in a year—color me unimpressed."

Xander might have had more to say about the soldiers and their track record, only the first vampire appeared around the corner of the cemetery. From the way the fledge was looking over his shoulder with undisguised fear, Spike hadn't even bothered to wait until they all got in the cemetery before flushing the prey.

"Have fun," Angel offered with one last pat on the back.

"Asshole," Xander offered, and then he went darting forward, his stake held down by his leg. "Hey, I got turned around somewhere. Do you know where the Sunnydale Inn is?" he asked cheerfully. God bless vampires and short memories because the fledge forgot all about Spike and focused all his attention on Xander.

"The Inn?" he asked, his forehead bubbling a bit as he struggled to keep his gameface hidden. "Yeah, you have to go down this street here to where you see that streetlight that's a bit more orange." He pointed back north, and Xander had to give the fledge creativity points for trying to get the prey to turn its back. Xander half turned as though he was about to look.

"Yeah, where?"

The vampire didn't answer as he lunged forward with a growl. Xander didn't even try to duck; he just aimed his stake and turned his head as his attacker turned into a cloud of dust that threatened to choke him to death. One down, five more to go, and Xander seriously hoped that Angel knew what he was doing because this was the craziest plan yet.


Powerful Beyond Measure

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. --Nelson Mandela

Xander stopped outside the school and chewed his lip. He felt like he was bringing a date home to meet the parents, not that he took people home to meet the parentals or that his dad had a home other than the street corner and a bottle of gin. But Angel had set this little meet up, and it was like if Riley fucked this up, Angel was going to look bad, and Xander wanted no part of making Angel look bad.

He had this dreamworld where both halves of his life got along—the half with Buffy and Willow that was quickly looking like his past *and* the half with Angel and Spike that was looking like his future. It was a wild and implausible dream, but he had a right to hope. And if this blew up in their faces, Giles and Buffy were so blaming Angel for going and doing the big government thing without even discussing it. Xander was the first to admit that sometimes Angel needed a swift kick in the ass for going off on his own, but sometimes Angel's crazy plans worked. He just really didn't want this to be one of Angel's spectacular failures because pulling the government in was more than a little crazy.

Xander turned to the soldier standing next to him. "When you meet Buffy, just do not go saying anything that might imply that she's short... or little in any way. And you might avoid words like girly. There's something really wrong about a big bad demon hunter looking like a blonde ditz, but if the words blonde or ditz cross your lips, you will be trying to find your body parts," Xander warned Riley. But then Riley looked a little too worried. "And I meant that totally metaphorically. She isn't into breaking people... much. There was this guy, but he was saying stuff... and I think I'm just stopping now. I'm stopping right after I point out that Percy West is whole and unbroken and only forever humiliated by a public slapdown where a girl shoved him in a toilet, and he deserved everything he got."

"A toilet?" Riley was looking even more with the worried. The fact was that Riley made him nervous, and nervous him babbled. Riley was representing the whole federal government here. The general was all onboard with the Buffy-plan, but if Buffy wasn't on board with the Buffy-plan, there would definitely be less plan-iness and more weirdness.

Xander stopped on the steps of the school and wondered again exactly how he had ended up volunteering to make the introductions. Actually, he was pretty sure he hadn't volunteered, but somehow he'd ended up looking all volunteery. But now Riley was looking all worried, which was not exactly going to make a good impression, and Giles was pretty much already unimpressed. Any more unimpressing and he was so going to veto this whole idea. Xander sighed and sent up a silent prayer that he wouldn't screw this all up because without the Council, Buffy needed backup. Actually, she probably needed it even with the Council because those guys were about as useful as a parent on prom night.

"Look, Percy did the whole more-than-just-kiss and tell on Buffy, and he was her first, and badness followed, and I so should not have told you that story, so just forget it. The point I was trying to make was that Buffy doesn't need someone looking at her and doing the judging thing. I know you were weirdly impressed with the seven vamps the other night..."

"Because it was impressive. When the trio attacked, I really thought you were going to get hurt," Riley hurried to assure him.

"And I would have. There was hurting on the horizon, which is why Angel had to go sailing in and take one of them out," Xander pointed out. "Although really he should get credit for two because he was holding that one when I staked him." Xander had gotten five vamps without too much trouble, even though it'd taken him three stabs before he hit the heart on number four, but the last one of the night, which had turned out to be the last three, had just been too much.

"Anyone would have needed backup. But you fought well," Riley disagreed.

"You know, my self-image is centered on being comic relief and moral center and backup guy, and you're screwing with my head with the whole calling me a fighter thing. Keep it up and I'm siccing my therapist on you for giving me identity issues," Xander complained as he pushed open the double doors into the main hall. You'd think someone would lock the school after hours, but maybe they'd just gotten tired of replacing locks and had just given up.

"You go to therapy?" Riley looked at him strangely.

"Hey, there is nothing wrong with therapy, Bub!" Xander insisted as he poked a finger in Riley's direction. He'd forgotten that most people didn't see therapy as big with the healthy. Wesley had looked at him with pity and anxiety the first time one of the girls said something.

"Of course not," Riley quickly agreed. "I have a degree in psychology and I'm working on my masters, and therapy is required for the unit. A human being can't fight demons straight out of nightmares without dealing with the psychological impact. I'm just surprised. Most people avoid therapy."

"Oh, I totally would have avoided if I could. I would have been avoidy until my dying day, only Angel grabbed me by the back of the neck and dragged me into the office. And then my first therapist moved, and I was all for quitting, but Angel made me go to the new therapist. Angel’s just a giant mother hen with poofy hair. Oh, and my therapist turns blue when you tell her things that make her all shocky, by the way."

Riley got another of those weird faces, like he couldn't quite decide how he was supposed to react to that, but then they had kinda rearranged Riley's world lately. Xander remembered how that felt. "You know. Angel's not the only non-vampy vamp. I mean, there are suckhouse vamps, and they're more about just staying out of the way and then there are the minions that are rising around here, and they're all stupid and grrrrr and running straight at your stake like one of those stupid movie-mummies from the fifties and then there are master vampires who are all strategy and doom and destruction. We even had a vamp who kept trying to raise money. He set up a Slayerfest that sold tickets for bounty hunters who wanted intel on the slayers so they could hunt them. Vamps come in all sorts of flavors. One even helped us close the hellmouth, no soul attached, because he likes the world the way it is. So, stereotyping vamps is not really with the open-mindedness."

Riley still didn't look convinced, but Xander figured he'd give the guy time to adjust. Besides, Riley was about to meet the slayer gang, and that was going to redefine a whole bunch more of those rules in his head.

"If I don't have a chance to see your vampire again, thank him for requesting me for this post," Riley said stiffly as they turned the corner and the library door came into sight. Riley got all weirdly stiff when people started talking about goodish demons, but hopefully he'd get over it. If not, Xander could always invite him for an LA trip to meet the blue therapist and spiny secretary and green lounge singer. That would shake his world up good.

"No thanks needed," Xander shrugged. "If Angel says you're all cool-under-fire guy and the right one to backup Buffy, he meant it. He isn't big for saying things he doesn't mean. And when he does lie, he gets this scrunchy look like his whole face is trying to move into the middle all at once. It's not pretty," Xander said with a shudder. "So, are you ready to meet the gang?"

Xander pushed the doors to the library open and started to greet everyone with his usual flair. The words caught in his throat at the chaos he found inside.

"Listen, there's a killer in the cafeteria," Buffy was saying as she sat on the edge of the table and everyone sort of gathered around her.

"Okay, this is different," Xander said as he edged into the room. Riley stepped up to his side and considered the gathered group. Willow looked downright panicked, and even Oz looked like he was working on a facial expression. Wesley was clutching a book and Ms. Calendar and Giles were presenting that united front of calmness they did when things got really bad.

"Someone was thinking about it!" Buffy insisted when no one answered her. They were all too busy trading concerned looks with each other. "They thought, 'This time tomorrow, I'll kill you all.' They were right in the cafeteria. We have to find them." She started getting off the table and Giles caught her arm to keep her from falling down.

"Did you, uh, recognize a voice?" Giles asked.


"Boy or girl?" Willow was going right into research mode, Xander knew that face. Okay, so something big had been with the happening.

"Hey guys, what's up?" Xander asked the crowd. He stepped in and Riley walked silently at his side. This was actually kinda weird because Xander was supposed to be providing the introductions, but he was definitely feeling like an outsider.

"Buffy can read minds," Willow answered.

"And it's not as much fun as it sounds," Buffy agreed. "There's someone in the cafeteria thinking about how everyone is going to be dead tomorrow."

"See, I've been saying for years that the lunch lady's gonna do us all in with that Mulligan Stew," Xander tried joking. He got a few glares. "And that was probably inappropriate humor given the circumstances," he quickly added. "Buff, are you sure that the person with the homicidal thoughts meant it? I mean, who hasn't had a thought or two that strayed to the land of inappropriate violence? Back before he came out of the closet, Larry inspired me to have all sorts of fantasies about murdering the football team, although now I'm old enough to admit that my anger may have been fueled by a self-esteem in total freefall."

"I know the difference. He... she... whoever, they meant it. They're gonna do it." Buffy crossed her arms in a move that just dared Xander to disagree with her, and he was not idiot enough to go there. "And I am not daring you to do anything," Buffy insisted crossly.

"Okay, that's just slightly freaky," Xander said with a frown. How was he supposed to keep from thinking things? And oh shit, he'd told Riley about Percy and that was so not a smart thing for him—

"You what!?" Buffy yelped.

"What? What?" Willow asked as she looked around wildly.

"He told new guy about West." Buffy pointed an angry finger at Riley, and Riley looked ready to run for the hills. That might actually be a smart thing to do.

"I didn't mean to. I just babbled," Xander defended himself.

"As interesting as this is, we do have a problem to focus on. Buffy, perhaps you should go home? I can take you," Giles offered.

Ms. Calendar nodded in agreement, which was weird because they were usually much more for disagreeing and then getting that funny look that meant they were having sex after disagreeing.

"Ick!" Buffy complained. "There will be no thoughts of Giles sex!"

Giles gave Ms. Calendar a withering glare. "I'm not!" she argued, her hands held up. "I was thinking about doing a shielding spell to try and block some of the thoughts invading Buffy."

"Thanks for the support there, Giles. I appreciate knowing that I might go crazy if you don't." Buffy crossed her arms and glared at Giles.

"Is anyone still kinda creeped out by how she answers people who haven't talked?" Willow asked quietly.

"Me," Oz answered with a thoughtful nod.

"Actually, I was going to suggest that a better use of your magics might include tracking the second demon so we could retrieve the heart for Buffy to consume." Giles looked over at Xander and Riley... finally. "I'm afraid that this is a particularly bad time. Buffy has been infected by a demonic power, and we need to focus on this. Jenny, if you would track the demon, perhaps Wesley and I can try and track it to its lair."

"I could come. I have the fire spell down," Willow offered.

"Yes, I appreciate the offer, but we need to retrieve the heart, not incinerate it. Perhaps next time?" Giles suggested. Xander watched as Willow shrank back just a little bit. Geez, was she so insecure that she needed to be in on every mission? Xander wondered why he hadn't ever noticed that before, but ever since the whole dirty dancing incident at homecoming, he'd tried to avoid Willow. Between her stammering and Oz's growling, it wasn't really all that comfortable. In fact, in the last five months, he could count on one hand the number of times he'd been in a room with Willow. Buffy looked over at him strangely.

"Willow," she said, "we have until lunch tomorrow to figure out who the killer is, and I just can't be around people. I mean, I love you guys, but you're giving me a headache just being near. Could you track down any suspects? And yeah, I know old optimist over there thinks that everyone wants to blow up his school, but seriously, maybe we could narrow that down to a list of people I could actually investigate?"

"I can do that. I could check the FBI for mass-murderer profiles. See if maybe we can rule some people out. I'll get on that."

"Someone is going to commit mass murder?" Riley asked, speaking for the first time. He might not be Oz level of laconic, but he wasn't exactly a chatty Kathy, either.

"Right now, I am rather more concerned about the second demon and stopping this power before Buffy falls into a coma. Jenny, could you please track that second demon while I take Buffy home? Wesley, you're in charge of weapons."

"Angel could do it if you could wait until after nightfall, not to suggest that you and Wesley can't handle one little demon," Xander quickly added. He glanced over at Wesley again. "But Angel would be more than happy to do it after dark. Just give him the name of the demon and the body part you'd like ripped out."

Giles looked over at Wesley, and that was not a complimentary expression. Buffy actually flinched and looked a little pale as she grabbed for the edge of the table. "As much as I would love to leave this for Angel, I don't think we can wait. Wesley and I will simply have to handle it," Giles said harshly. Wesley didn't even answer, but his back was stiff and Xander could almost feel the misery leaking out of him, which might explain the pained expression on Buffy's face.

"Perhaps Xander should..." Riley started saying. Buffy looked at him in shock, but then, who knew what kind of weird military stuff she was getting from him.

"I hardly think Xander needs to be in the middle of this," Giles quickly cut him off. Then Giles looked at Wesley again. "Then again, perhaps Xander might come along as backup."

"I was going to suggest that Xander and I could hunt this demon. I have two men I utterly trust still in town who could back us up. If this is a demon you feel confident taking on with..." Riley glanced over at Wesley... "minimal backup, then four of us should be able to handle it."

Xander almost felt bad for Wesley. Yep, he was a schmuck and an idiot, but the new guy who'd been here for all of five minutes had already sized him up and relegated him to minimal-land. As a long time resident and only recent emigrant from the land of being minimal, Xander had to feel a little Wesley-sympathy. God he was sick in the head because he used to be way better at holding a grudge. His grudge reflex was way way rusty these days. Too much therapy.

"While I appreciate the offer—" Giles started.

"Let him," Buffy interrupted. Giles looked over at her in surprise.

Buffy looked about ready to cry with pain, but she looked firm at the same time, and Xander couldn't quite figure out how she managed that set of facial expressions. "I can't shut it out Giles. It's like this invasion of my head. It's like there're these strangers walking around in there. It's just a... Look at this, I can't even be around people anymore. Not that they're really clamoring to be near me anyway. Even you. I really need to go home."

"I'll take you," Giles immediately offered as he stepped to her side. "I'll be back as soon as I can," Giles told the rest of them as he slipped an arm around Buffy's waist.

"Xander and Riley will handle the demon hunt, okay?" Buffy asked. Giles didn't answer, but Buffy nodded as if he had. Xander and Riley stepped aside to let them pass when Buffy stopped and looked right at the soldier. "Riley, I'm Buffy, and I'm really sorry that we're getting to a really weird start here, but that's the Hellmouth for you. Before you start assuming that we're as disorganized as..." she stopped and looked around the room. "Okay, with the exception of Willow, we really are as disorganized as we look, but it works, and we always get the job done. Three years, apocalypse-free and counting. And just as soon as I can block out the military code of conduct from running through my head like a freight train because someone is worried about letting slip secret details which are still slipping, by the way, we might be able to work something out."

Buffy smiled at him, but Riley just looked shocked.

"Thank you," Buffy said with a smile at him before she headed for the door. Riley watched her leave, leaning heavily on Giles as she walked.

"That wasn't what I was expecting," he offered softly.

"Nope, the Buffster is... she's just the Buffster." Xander shrugged as he considered the impossibility of describing Buffy. "So, Ms. Calendar, it looks like Riley and I are on demon hunting duty. Just tell us where, and as soon as I call my overprotective roommate, we can go kick demon ass." Xander pulled out his cell phone and started dialing Angel's apartment.

"I'll call my team," Riley said as he pulled out his own cell phone.

"I guess we have a new member," Oz commented. Xander smiled at that. With things getting more and more awkward between him and his girls... and the Council and his girls... and pretty much the world and his girls, he wanted to think they had some good backup on their side, and Angel seemed to think that Riley wasn't bad for a human.

By the time Ms. Calendar had a location on the demon, Xander had hung up on Angel rather than listen to a parent-type lecture and two more soldiers had shown up. Graham Miller was quiet and kept to himself, nodding at the introductions. Forrest Gates was a little more interested in watching the group as though he was expecting someone to spontaneously grow fangs and spring at him. Although, that might just be possible with Oz who wasn't looking all that friendly.

"I have it. It's near Kingman's Bluff."

"There are caves out there," Willow said as she looked up from her computer where she was compiling a list of potential serial killers, and the list was turning out disturbingly long. "I bet it's in one of those deep caves."

"Shit," Gates said softly. Riley spared him a dirty look before going all military efficient.

"We'll stop by the house and pick up spelunking equipment. We'll need a fourth, unless you have experience with rappelling?" Riley asked as he looked at Xander hopefully.

"Hey, I was planning on going out there and just poking my head in caves until something tries to snap it off. Buffy's sick. We don't have time for fancy military stuff," Xander said.

"We need—"

"I'm going to Kingman's Bluff," Xander said firmly. "You can come or you can go play with your military toys. Ms. Calendar, may I borrow your car?"

She looked from Xander to the military trio and back again.

"Xander," Willow said softly in that worried voice that reminded him how often other people did worry about him because he did stuff to warrant worrying. She definitely did not want him going.

"Good luck," Oz said firmly.

Xander smiled at the other boy. "I'm all about the luck."

"Just don't wreck it. I've wrecked enough of my own cars, I don't need your help to wreck my insurance score," Ms. Calendar sighed as she tossed him the keys to her car.

"No wrecking, no getting killed and lots of luck. Got it," Xander said as he headed for the door. For one second, he thought he really was going to go it alone, and then footsteps came after him as the three soldiers followed.

"Any advice?" Riley asked as they stepped out into the afternoon sun.

"Don't get killed is a good one," Xander said as they headed for the faculty parking lot.

"This is fucking insane. Riley, we should get some backup," Gates insisted. Yep, Xander liked Riley, and he could even imagine calling the quiet guy, Graham Miller, by his first name and having a beer, but Forrest Gates seemed like a last name kinda guy to Xander.

"Funny, I thought you were the backup," Xander pointed out as he reached the car and unlocked it.

"And I thought you were a civilian kid," Gates snapped before he turned to Riley. "This is stupid. We're going into a situation with almost no intel and fucking swords?" Gates gestured toward his jacket where he had one of Giles' good swords tucked away.

"We're following local guides and local intel. Follow orders, soldier," Riley said, and that was not a friendly tone of voice. For a second the two soldiers stared each other down, but then Gates looked away with disgust. The funny thing was that Graham didn't even react. It was like he was used to these two. Xander just knew he'd be sucking Tums down like candy if he had to be around this much bitching all the time.

"Xander, I am worried about the swords. We're trained for knife fights, but not swords," Riley said as he claimed shotgun in Ms. Calendar's Honda. Xander slipped in behind the wheel and adjusted the seat as far back as he could while still reaching the pedals. Yep, it was petty, but Gates was right behind him, and Xander was not liking him at all.

"You'd better start training," Xander offered without much sympathy. "Bullets just piss most demons off. They bounce off a few demons, and bouncing bullets are kinda dangerous."

"Ricocheting," Gates muttered almost silently.

Graham finally spoke up. "What about our taser weapons? We can load the charge to run dangerously high."

"Yes, but then electricity is power." Xander started the car and headed for the highway. He was going to have to call Angel before he went into the fight, but he figured he'd hold off as long as he could so that the vamp didn't have quite as long to worry. It was a good twenty minutes out to Kingman's Bluff, and that was twenty minutes where Angel would be happier believing Xander was still at the library.

"So, don't the tasers work?" Graham asked.

"On some stuff, probably," Xander admitted. "They're probably going to work on more stuff than the guns with bullets, but some demons are really good at converting energy. So, some of those demons are going to suck up the taser's charge and get even stronger. Most things die when you cut their heads off, though. Not all, but most."

"And how do we know which demons can't be killed by decapitation?" Riley asked. It was kinda weird, them treating him like the demon expert when usually that was Giles.

"Hopefully you'll recognize the type of demon. Vampires, borg'dar, senih'D, lei-ach... they all go down for a good beheading. Things with brains are just a little easier to kill. The hard demons are the ones that are all ghostly or squishy or blobby. If the beheading doesn't work, you need to tell Giles or Willow or Ms. Calendar so they can look it up and tell you whether you need to cut the heart out or stab it in the eyes or something. Actually," Xander said after a second, "if beheading doesn't work right away, stabbing in the eyes is a close second and setting it on fire comes in third. I would say that setting a demon on fire was actually number one on the list, but then you have potential for accidentally burning the whole town down, which would be bad. I mean, Buffy burned down one little school gym trying to deal with a whole nest of vampires, like forty or fifty, and they still hold that against her.

"She took on fifty vampires? And lived?" Gates sounded like a doubting-Thomas.

"That would be why she burned down the gym. I don't think she could actually stake fifty of them without her arm falling off or something, but Buffy's big with the scary. She can do things that make you wonder if you shouldn't take up yoga, too. Well, until you try yoga. Then your back hurts for a week and you find you’ve sprained your wrist," Xander admitted.

"Captain," Gates said in that voice that made it so very clear that he was not happy.

"Stand down, soldier," Riley said just as unhappily. "Xander, what can you tell us about the group?"

The car jerked toward the curb as he looked over at Riley in surprise. Okay, he so did not want to be the one telling tales on the others.

"Xander, I understand that you have all been doing a difficult job. I am simply trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses and determine what personnel I need here. I'm not asking for anyone's secrets," Riley said quietly. Wow, maybe Buffy's mind reading had rubbed off on him. Then again, Xander's therapist had a bad habit of doing that same thing—of guessing exactly what Xander had in his head. And Riley was a psych major, so maybe he came by the creepy mind reading thing the old fashioned way.

He shrugged as he considered his answer for a minute. "Willow is the apprentice magic user under Ms. Calendar and total tech girl. You give her a computer and she can figure out more than you might expect. She's the one who does the nightly patrol schedule based off this program she wrote to identify who's most likely to rise as a vampire."

"You know where they're going to rise?" Graham asked, and he was sounding shocked, but not disbelieving.

Xander nodded. "Willow is genius-level smart."

"We have more than a few geniuses, and they never seemed to get shit done," Graham said with disgust.

"They had bad intel. That's why we're going local," Riley pointed out, and some of the tension in his body eased. Xander realized that the captain was worried about whether his men would follow him. Well, if that's what Riley wanted to know, Xander could throw the big wild card out right away.

"Oz is the tracker in the group since he's a werewolf."

"A werewolf?" Riley asked loudly at the same time Gates offered a "Fuck, no way."

"Hey, werewolf are human, too," Xander pointed out as he mentally wondered whether that had been totally and completely stupid. Yeah, Angel said that Riley would be good backup, but he didn't say Riley was smart or open-minded about people who were a little humanity-impaired. "He's not the only not-quite totally human on our side, either. Well, actually Clem is totally not human, but he's great for knowing who's moving where and who's looking to grab a little power. And a couple of the suckhouse vamps keep track of the local community. Master vampires looking to make a name usually cruise a few suckhouses and kill a few older vamps to make a name for themselves."

"Suckhouse vamps?" Graham asked when the car went deathly silent.

Xander hadn't ever stopped to consider how strange his life would look from the outside. It was just his life. He lived with demons and vampires and slayers and world-ending and werewolves and things that went bump in the night. But trying to explain these things… he realized he was sounding either insane or... nope, just insane.

"Xander, what's a suckhouse?" Riley asked in that calm tone of voice that Xander's therapist used.

Xander glared at the guy just to let him know that he was not falling for it. He was telling them because he wanted to, not because Riley had used his psychy powers. "Vampires have whatever flaws the humans had before leaving the body. So, if someone was a couch potato before dying, their vampire self isn't going to be out there running vampire marathons... not that there are... nevermind. The point is that some vampires just aren't into hunting. They live in these whorehouses and humans go there and pay to get bitten."

"Why?" Graham asked.

"Because they're freaks," was Gates' announcement. Xander tried really hard to not like people without reason, but he didn't like Gates and the guy just kept providing more and more reasons for the not liking.

"Because the bite is addictive," Xander said as he bit his tongue to keep from going into more detail than he should. He'd tried forgetting what he'd seen on that night with Angelus, but sometimes he couldn't forget the look on the humans' faces. When Angelus' fangs had gone in, they'd stiffened in orgasm and cried out. They'd thrashed and moaned and clutched at the monster that was taking their blood. Even the woman who'd died had gone with a smile.

"We didn't know that," Riley said softly.

"Well, usually the vamps just try to get as much blood as they can as fast as they can, so the bite is more about ripping through flesh, which is not really big with the pleasure, but when the vamps go slow... it's just... different."

"Is that why you're living with a vampire?" Gates asked.

"Gates, you are one second from going on report," Riley snapped. "When we get back, you will look up the nearest base with a cultural competence course."

"Yes, sir," Gates said formally.

No way was Xander letting that one slide, though. "Hey, I am a biting virgin here. My blood is for me and no one but me... well, except for when the hospital has a blood drive, but I do not let vampires bite me."

After seeing what biting led to, Xander really wasn't going to let vampires bite him. Sometimes during his intimate time with his hand, he thought about what it would have been like if one of his vamps had pushed him down on that hill instead of Faith. He remembered the look of absolute bliss on the faces of those humans in the suckhouse. He remembered when they woke up... how they still looked at Angel with this hunger like they wanted more. It was like watching a really cool kid smoke cigarettes and wondering whether he'd look that cool… if he'd like it. And having that image in his head, sometimes his imagination turned Faith's hands on him into Spike's hands or Angel's hands. He'd imagine them slipping fangs into him, and that was the very best reason why it was not going to happen. Nope, an addiction to chocolate was as adventurous as Xander was feeling.

"So, are you having sex with him?" Graham asked.

"Miller!" Riley snapped. He was actually way snappier than Xander had expected, especially since Graham didn't sound pissy about the question.

"Nope," Xander answered. "I was dating a cheerleader, but then one bad thing led to another and she decided that I was too young for her even though I’m six months older than she is, so I have been benched for the foreseeable future. And that probably won't change until I leave high school and meet people who don't think I'm the big goober who hangs on the edges of all the cool groups."

"A goober?" Riley nearly choked.

"Yep. The general consensus at school is that I am cool-adjacent without ever being cool, but then when girls emasculate you on a regular basis, you just get used to that rep." Xander knew that others saw him as the sidekick, and at one point that had really bugged him. Now, it just didn't seem like such a big deal. Being the sidekick meant that you were helping people do the right thing, and he knew that he made a difference, even if his power was more about dragging Angel into a church or keeping Spike from eating Riley. Those were important differences. Riley was probably being so nice to him because he'd kept Spike from eating the 'boxed lunch' in the cage.

But people at school didn't see the important stuff he did. Mostly they saw him trip or get saved by Buffy or emasculated by Cordelia.

"I mean, I'm not exactly good with the fighting, not when compared to the others, and I really suck at the schoolwork. At least, I usually do. When I get really stuck, this guy I know is good at getting me to understand pretty much anything, even over the phone. But that's because he explains it in terms of demons and demon fighting and all that. He actually taught me solubility by having me try to get different kinds of demon snot out of my clothes. So, I'm teachable, but not smart and decent in a fight, but not good, and in high school, that kind of averageness is not high on the social scale."

"You're an average fighter?" Graham asked with something that sounded like disbelief in his voice. "Man, I think my ego just took a serious hit."

Riley smiled. "You and me both. If we're going to work out of Sunnydale, we're going to have to train a little harder if we don't want to end up being average."

"We're going to have to train *a lot* harder," Graham said. "If I'd had three vamps target me, my first, second and third plans would have included retreat."

"Oh shit," Xander cursed. "I need to call Angel. He has this rule about me not fighting demons without telling him where I'm going. He's a mother hen. I sometimes think he clucks in his sleep," Xander said dramatically. Riley and Graham actually laughed. Xander checked in the mirror, and Gates still looked like he was hating every second of this, but hopefully he wouldn't be one of the people Riley kept around. He certainly didn't seem to be on Riley's good-list right now.

Xander fumbled at his phone and hit redial.

"Boyo, you had better tell me you're na at the cliffs yet," the voice on the other end answered before the first ring.

"Geez, lighten up. I'm on the highway. Um... sorta," Xander said as he pulled off at their exit. The caves were technically in Sunnydale, but so far from the town center that Buffy never actually patrolled here, so Xander wasn't exactly sure of the best place to start.

"Which exit?" Angel demanded.

"114," Xander said as he slowed the car around the curve.

"Pull off and wait for me."

"Um, newsflash, the sun won't be going down for another three or four hours, and we're on a clock here."

"Xander," Angel said slowly, "I will be there in less than five minutes, and you will wait for me, or I will give in to my almost overwhelming need to put you over my knee and spank you," Angel growled. Then the phone just went dead.

"Um," Xander cleared his throat, "I think we're going to just pull off here and wait for a minute." Riley looked at him funny, but no one commented as Xander pulled the car to the side and switched the engine off. Oh yeah, Angel was furious. The Irish accent usually came right before the beating of Spike, but this time, Xander was getting to deal with Angel all by himself. And if Angel had to buy another one of those expensive sun-proofing spells, his mood was so not going to be any good. Angel got cranky about Xander turning lights off and the cost of soda, so sun-proofing spells were definitely going to make him irritable.

It didn't take long at all before Angel's convertible was crunching over the gravel at the side of the road and parking behind Ms. Calendar's car. Xander got out, and met Angel who had on his stone-faced expressionless face, which pretty much meant that he was trying to not look furious.

"I was going to call you before going into the caves," Xander said before Angel had even closed the distance between them. Angel stopped a half step away from him, and Xander could see him clench his fists.

Riley had gotten out of his car and was watching Angel with a guarded expression. "Mr. Giles had planned to kill the demon himself, so I assume we can handle it."

"So, you take Xander into a situation where you're making assumptions?" Angel asked in a dangerously calm tone of voice. He reached out and caught Xander by the arm, holding on tight enough that Xander knew he was going to have bruises tomorrow.

Riley seemed to have figured out Angel's moods a lot faster than Xander had, though. For the longest time, Xander thought Angel didn't have emotions, but from the alarmed look on Riley's face, he knew Angel was furious with him.

"No, I planned to go back to the house, collect rock climbing equipment, additional weapons, supplies and personnel."

Angel raised his eyebrows.

"I changed my plans when Xander started leaving the library in order to come after the demon by himself."

Xander flinched and made a mental note to put hair remover in Riley's shampoo. He'd have to fight his way past Army guys and guards, but it'd be worth it. Reluctantly, Xander looked up, and Angel was staring down at him with yellow eyes. "Buffy really needs that heart," Xander defended himself. Angel closed his eyes, and Xander could almost see him mouth the words as he counted in some demon language in order to try and get his temper back under control. Slowly, Angel eased up his grip on Xander's arm and took several deep breaths.

"Finn," Angel said, his voice still dangerously quiet. "This is not a particularly dangerous demon, although you will no doubt have trouble since it will require a sword to kill it. But if you're going to backup Buffy, you need to adjust to the situation. Xander and I will accompany you, but we will only pull you out of the way if one of you is injured, and we will only kill the demon if you fail." Angel turned and started pulling Xander back toward his convertible so fast that Xander scrambled to keep his feet under him.

"Sir!" Riley called out. Angel stopped and looked back. "Xander still has the keys and I'm not sure where we're going."

For a second, Angel stared at the soldier, and if Buffy's life weren't in danger, Xander thought he would probably tell Riley to figure it out for himself. Instead, Angel held out his hand imperiously, and Xander quickly fished the keys out of his pocket and handed them over. Angel threw them at Riley. "Follow us," Angel said as he turned back toward the car.

Xander didn't argue, not even when Angel refused to let him go long enough to let him walk around to the passenger side. Instead, Angel opened the driver's door and sort of shoved Xander across the seat before he got in himself.

"I can't believe you would do this," Angel said angrily as he pulled away from the curb fast enough to send gravel flying behind him. Xander flinched at the sound of tinny little pings as the pebbles bounced off Ms. Calendar's car as they passed the soldiers. Riley was driving now with Graham up front.

"We hunt demons all the time," Xander tried pointing out very reasonably.

"With me, with Spike, with Faith or Buffy," Angel snapped.

"And now Riley is part of the merry band."

"No, he's not. He's trying to prove himself, but right now, he's just one more human who could end up getting eaten by something bigger than he is tomorrow. Do you have any idea how easily I captured him?" Angel demanded. He glanced over, and Xander saw the yellow of his eyes reflecting his anger.

"He wasn't expecting a vampire to be out during the day. It's a little surprising to me, too," Xander pointed out. Angel really did look different in the sun. His pale skin looked a little unhealthy, but he also looked larger, more intimidating, maybe because that was a seriously intimidating look on his face and there were no shadows to hide any corner of the unhappy. Nope, every unhappy wrinkle and twitch was clearly highlighted as the sun bathed him with light.

"A dozen different demons can disguise themselves as humans; a half-dozen can go out in the sun. And when all else fails, demons can just hire humans to do their work for them."

"If he's such a bad backup, why did you tell the general he'd be good backup for Buffy?" Xander demanded. If this guy was incompetent, Xander didn't want him near the girls. Riley and Wesley could go off and do the demon thing together if they both sucked.

Angel sighed. "It's not that he's that bad."

"That's not what you said two seconds ago."

"They'll learn. With Buffy and Giles to watch out for them, they'll adapt. They aren't ready to back you up in a fight."

"Because I'm not good enough to take care of myself," Xander finished for him. The words didn't even hurt anymore. Xander had long ago embraced that his powers lay in distraction and helping.

"Because you would have to take care of them. Xander, you're a better fighter than any of those three."

"Okay, the sun is obviously baking your brain," Xander laughed.

Angel sighed and reached over to rest a palm on Xander's leg. It felt oddly warm, as if Angel's skin carried the warmth of the sun in it.

"Xander, you are as good a fighter as any full human will ever learn to be. They aren't at your level, and if you fight with them, you're going to expect them to hit as hard as a vampire or slayer. You're going to see them go down, and then assume they'll be back up in time to cover you as you go in for an attack. Xander, every person you fight with has supernatural powers. You can't judge humans by that standard."

Xander stared at the road as he thought about that. Riley and Graham had joked, sure, but they couldn't be that bad, could they? Soldiers were fighters. Covert soldiers who got undercover missions were awesome soldiers. And officers who commanded covert soldiers on missions—officers like Riley—were scary great fighters. "I couldn't... I mean, they're all best of the best and be all you can be."

Angel sighed again, and his eyes finally faded to brown. "They are the best of humans. Xander, you compare yourself with demons and slayers. You're our weakest fighter only because your body can't physically do more than you've already pushed it to do. Once they start patrolling with Buffy and me, they'll have to learn to push themselves as hard as you do, but until then, you aren't to go out with them."


"No," Angel growled, the yellow back in his eyes. "Xander, you have to understand how dangerous this is."

"They're not going to get me killed."

"No, you're going to get them killed," Angel snapped. He held up his hand with that same ugly ring from the night when Xander had found Riley in the cage. "This is why I can walk in the sun. It's a ring that most of the demonic world thinks is a myth. When I got the call from Oz that you were heading out here, Spike and I fought over this ring. Most of the time, Spike isn't all that interested in winning—today he was, and in close quarters in that apartment, he nearly did. I can't use my extra weight and reach if I don't have room to maneuver."

"Shit," Xander breathed. He didn't even want to think what the apartment looked like.

"If Spike had won, those three would be dead right now," Angel said, and Xander felt cold rush through him.

"He wouldn't—"

"He would," Angel cut him off. "He wanted to kill Wesley, but he didn't because Faith took the dominant role in their relationship, so when she told him to back off, he did. Spike sees himself as dominant over you, which means he has rights and responsibilities. If I'm there, I can control his demon, but if he'd gotten this ring, he would have been out here killing those three for putting you in harm's way, and they wouldn't have had time to explain that you were the one putting yourself at risk."

"I didn't—" Xander just stopped. Today was supposed to be about Riley getting his world redefined. Maybe Buffy would get a little redefining because suddenly she wouldn't be alone anymore. She'd have support. Maybe she'd even have money to fix the radios or buy new swords because she was tough on the equipment. Xander had definitely not scheduled himself for any new insights and revelations. "I know he'd kill someone who threatened me, but he'd kill Riley?" Xander asked quietly.

"I'm hoping we get home before dark so I can talk to him and he can see you're safe before he can get out of the apartment building or he still may try," Angel said with a grimace. "Xander, years ago I spent a lot of time trying to break William because I hated that his need to love people survived in his demon. In some ways, I tortured him as badly as I ever tortured Dru, but he was stronger than she had been. He never changed; he just learned to hide it from me. And now, he loves you. In Spike's case, loving someone means obsessing over them, killing for them, changing for them. That's what he's doing for you... it's what he's doing for me. It's what he's always done. If he had understood Faith— if I had understood her well enough to explain it to him— he would have done anything to help her feel safe and wanted."

Angel pulled off the road and onto a dirt path that led to the top of the cliffs. "Xander, if you put yourself in danger, you'll put Spike in a position where he feels like he has to kill to protect you. You need to understand that. And you need to understand one other thing: if he had a choice between saving the two of us or saving the rest of the world, he would let the whole world burn to save us. He'd set fire to it himself if he needed to. William the poet felt love so deeply that William the vampire doesn't know how to survive without it." Angel stopped the car and looked over at Xander.

For a second, Xander didn't even breathe. It was like knowing you were sitting on a bomb and that if you did something stupid, the bomb was going to go off. Yeah, he'd known that Spike loved Angel, that wasn't exactly a secret, but Xander had always thought that Spike's feelings for him were filtered through Angel, like Xander was Angel's favorite toy or something.

"Just... be careful?" Angel asked. Xander nodded. "Okay, so let's go watch the soldiers get knocked around a little before we rescue them," he said wearily as he got out of the car. "You know, if Giles had just called me earlier, I could have taken care of this on my own with a lot less fuss."

Riley pulled up behind Angel, and the three soldiers got out of the car. Angel started walking toward the cliff, and Xander could see him sniff the air for a second. He turned to look over his shoulder. "Unless you are knocked out or start bleeding from an artery, you'd better be willing to pick yourself up and get back into the fight," Angel warned them as he pulled his sword. Xander pulled out his own cinquedea.

"We can handle ourselves," Riley said confidently. Xander wondered if he had sounded that confident when he'd gone into his first major battle with the forces of darkness. He doubted it. It was hard to think that everyone here thought he was a better fighter than these three.

"Just make sure you keep your fangs to yourself," Gates said darkly.

Angel flashed into gameface, and Gates clutched his sword tighter.

"You know," Xander said, remembering a lesson Spike had taught him long ago, "if you hold your sword too tight, you cut off circulation to your fingers and then you're pretty much a sitting target."

"Good to know. I'll pass that advice on to whichever soldiers get posted here," Riley sounded honestly grateful for the advice even as he gave Gates a cold look. Angel ignored them all as he started toward the cliff, a hand on Xander's back guiding him. All Xander could think was that it was funny the way life handed you brain-changing moments when you least expected it.


Keep Walking

"If you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you are pleased with yourself there you have remained. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing." ~Saint Augustine


Angel watched as Xander went over the plans one more time, a giant map of graduation projected onto the wall. Riley and his five men were standing to the side. They'd argued vociferously against including the graduates, but Xander had vetoed them all by going straight to the seniors and just telling them about ascension. Riley might have convinced Xander and Buffy to put the safety of the students first, but he couldn't convince the students themselves. The young man who had tormented Xander throughout his sophomore and part of junior year, Larry, stood with a flame thrower, a girl helping him figure out how to hide it under his graduations robes.

Riley stood back and watched as Xander took command of this group, reminding students where he had them assigned, and what each needed to do. Xander pointed at the map where the first line of guests would sit. Three of the soldiers including Riley would be there, waiting until the mayor ascended. Two more would be off to the side with a rocket launcher. Angel couldn't hear Xander from the far corner of the gym, but the light pointer he was using strayed over to that corner before it darted into the crowd and shone on a couple of cheerleaders. The crowd laughed. The cheerleaders didn't. Angel remembered a day when Xander would have cringed away from putting himself in the center for anything other than a quick joke and a retreat, but now Xander's voice grew louder and the laser pointer focused on the school itself.

"... to blow him back to hell," Xander's voice rose above the general din. The seniors screamed their approval.

Sometimes time amazed Angel. Not so long ago, Xander had been this child who had poked and pricked at him, and now he stood in front of these young warriors, giving them the plan that he and Oz had developed. The two boys... the two young men... had claimed to know the strengths and weakness of their classmates better than Captain Finn, and so Riley had stood back and watched as they devised their battle strategy.

Xander's voice had dropped back down again, but the laser pointer went to the side entrance to the school. The sixth soldier would be with Giles ready to set the munitions off once Buffy tempted the mayor into chasing her through the main doors. As plans went, it was insane, but it was actually more feasible than the plan to stop the Master had been. That, too, had been Xander's. Angel smiled at the memory of Xander showing up at the apartment armed with a cross and a whole lot of indignation. Angel hadn't even really understood what Xander meant by storming the castle, but even by then he'd figured out that it was easier to follow Xander than to try to talk him out of helping.

Riley was learning that lesson now. Angel could see from the way the soldier reacted that he instinctively wanted to put the students into a position of safety. Buffy had quashed that urge by slamming him into a wall. While Xander could probably beat Riley one-on-one, he had avoided that kind of fight in favor of beating Riley down the same way he had beaten Angel down: sheer determination and a stubborn belief in his own correctness. It helped that Xander could face down Spike when Spike would have cheerfully eaten Riley and his two lieutenants. Humans were not so different from vampires. Angel supposed he shouldn't be surprised given that vampires came into this world with the memories of humans. Spike frightened Riley. Xander with his threats of country music marathons frightened Spike; therefore, Riley did tend to look at Xander as someone worthy of fear.

"Boy toy's all grown up," Faith said softly as she stood behind him in the shadows.

"He's still Xander," Angel said. Three years ago, Xander had walked up to him and called him a pedophile. He'd put his life on the line in order to do the right thing and protect his friends. Xander might have grown, but he wasn't all that different. However, Angel couldn't help but think about how different his own life was. It was chaotic and confusing and if Spike made one more comment about his habit of going to church, he was going to strip the skin from the younger vampire's back, but it was a life Angel wanted to live. In his entire existence, he had never wanted to live. He wondered if he could have found that without Xander and his endless love for life.

"Is he okay?" Faith asked. She'd been more subdued since she flew in from Cascade, but for the first time, Angel had the feeling she understood what she'd done to Xander. It made it easier to control his own burning anger over the event. Father Peter did say that forgiveness of others was a prerequisite for being forgiven, and Angel was working on it. Forgiveness had just never been one of his strengths.

"He's good." Angel considered that for a second. "He's annoying."

She laughed. "Yeah, that's Xan. Look, Big-A—"

"You don't have to say it," Angel said as he turned his back on Xander and looked at her. She was wearing an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt that actually covered her breasts, but she smelled of Spike and sex and still had that danger painted on her every move, even if Blair had managed to peel off a few layers.

"Yeah, I do. I'm just not ready to say it to him. I fucked up, you know?"

"Not nearly as bad as others have," Angel said seriously. "In fact, if you ask Xander, he'll say he made the mistake."

She snorted her disbelief at that. "He didn't do anything wrong. Fuck. I really have made some mistakes, A."

"He'll forgive you. Giles and Buffy will, too."

"Yeah, but like the Sandman says, I have to forgive myself first. I'm not ready to deal with any of them forgiving me, not yet. It's easier to have the jagged edges here, to keep people away. When I start caring about people... fuck, it just hurts when I screw them over, which is why it's easier to just not let anyone close."

"You're still my clan. You have to heal these edges eventually," Angel said as he reached out and let his hand rest on her shoulder. She had come immediately when he'd called, but he did worry about this new and quieter version of Faith. Last night she'd still slayed with reckless abandon, but this afternoon she wasn't the girl he'd met in that hotel room a year ago. He would like to hope that she was healing as Blair promised him, but she seemed so much sadder.

"It helps... knowing that." She shrugged. "I'm just not ready yet. I mean, if you call, I guess I have to come seeing as how you're the man and all, but I just need some space."

"Should I have left you in Cascade for this?" Angel asked, worried that she wasn't ready to be back here.

She laughed, and for a second, she was the old Faith. "And let you idiots get killed and open a new door to hell? No fucking way. If there's world ending to be had, I am the girl to stop it." The joviality passed and she inched a little closer as she looked down at the gathered group. Xander was talking to Riley and Father Peter was walking through the graduates, blessing swords and flame-throwers and bottles of water. The man had handled Angel's secret far better than he expected, but then as Father Peter explained, the Catholic church was not nearly as quick to give up old suspicions and superstitions as the rest of the world.

Angel let his arm drape over Faith's shoulders. "Are you okay up in Cascade?"

She considered that for a moment before making a wry face. "Horny as hell. Blair might look like a pushover, but the Sandman is made of iron. It's enough to make a girl think she isn't irresistible." She twitched her body invitingly, but he resisted temptation. He could almost see the child inside her today, and he had no intention of ever bedding a child. She needed him in other ways far too much for him to let his vampire instincts rule him on this point. Besides, he was getting good at denial with Xander around. The closer the young man got, and the more he stood up and started showing himself to be a man, the more the old instincts rose in Angel... to claim, to mark, to put the boy under him and make his strength part of Angel's own. He shoved his attraction to Faith into the same corner where he hid his lust for Xander. He'd later fill his needs with Spike, and use that renewed connection to sate his demon.

"As long as you're okay," Angel finally said.

Faith didn't answer and Angel studied her. She caught his expression and planted an elbow in his stomach just hard enough to ache a bit. "Don't get your pity going because I can kick your ass."

"You can try," Angel said calmly.

She grinned at him for a second before the expression faded. "I'm getting to be okay with not being okay, does that count?"

"That's a good place to start." Angel tightened his hold on her, and her eyes got bright before she shoved him away.

"Fuck, I'm not good at this shit. Look, are we ready to move out yet? I'm ready to kill something. If the eclipse and fight doesn't start soon, Spike's going to start ripping the bricks out of the walls down there," she said with a laugh.

Angel scanned the gathered crowd on the gym floor below. Father Peter had vanished, but Xander was huddled closely with Riley and Larry. Larry kept looking to Xander as if for reassurance, and Angel couldn't help but notice Giles watching with an almost confused expression. No doubt the watcher wondered when he'd missed seeing the boy grow up. Then again, Buffy seemed to be spending more and more time taking command of her own missions, probably due to Wesley's short tenure as her watcher. The children were growing into adults.

"It's on schedule," he told her. Buffy and Ms. Calendar and Willow stood near one of the doors, and Riley walked over to them, his body tense and his eyes alert. Two weeks of Spike "assisting" in the training of Riley's team, and the man had learned to twitch at every leaf rustle. Angel was man enough to admit that he found that amusing. Xander had laughed his ass off the first time Spike disabled Riley's entire team. But despite being knocked down more often than Angel could count, Riley did keep getting up again. It was a good group gathered here.

Faith leaned forward and studied the room for herself. "We're going to win this, right? I mean, Xander and Buffy, they have this weird idea that the good guys always win, so I don't trust their judgment for shit. You tell me this is going to work," Faith's voice didn't carry any emotion, but Angel knew enough about her past now to know that she had reason to doubt the good guys. They'd rarely won in her life.

"We're going to win," Angel said confidently. "The old ones were not invincible, and with this group, the mayor is going to discover that much quicker than he expected," Angel said firmly. "And if the mayor doesn't fall for the explosives in the library trap, the army has two divisions on the edge of town waiting to come in and end this."

She nodded. "So, plan one is to take this fucker out, and plan two is to survive long enough to let the soldier boys take him out."

"That's about it," Angel agreed. "But if we can't deal with this, the army is going to move in here full time."

"We could just let them have the fucking hellmouth. It's not like B or I want to babysit a hole in the ground," Faith suggested.

Angel thought about that for a second, only because he needed to explain this in a way that Faith could understand. For Buffy, guarding the hellmouth was a sacred duty. Faith had been surrounded by people who had no concept of sacred and who had stripped her of her illusions. "Do you trust human beings to resist temptation?" Angel asked her.

She looked at him incredulously.

"That's why we can't let the army take control," Angel pointed out. "People give in to temptations. I did," he said softly.

Faith snorted. "Subtle, A... real subtle. I get it. I'm not alone in the fucking up. So, we keep the hellmouth. Now, can we please go kick some ass? Spike and I'll handle the incoming vampires and random baddies, you watch your boy, Buffy can kill the big boss. It's a plan."

"Go get in position. When the eclipse starts, Spike will find you," Angel said, giving her a pat on the arm. She had a strange look on her face, but she backed away for a few steps before turning and trotting toward an exit. Blair had told him that for her, touching had always led to abuse, and so she wanted and feared touches in equal parts. He was working with her on how to accept normal affection and supportive touches without trying to turn them sexual, and so Angel was trying to reinforce that same lesson. It wasn't easy when the smell of his childe's semen on her body made his beast want to go farther. As Angelus, he would have reveled in all that wounded power and raw sexuality. He would have taken her from Spike and taunted Spike about it. He still felt that temptation even now.

"I thought I saw you up here," a voice said softly. Angel nodded at the father as he watched the students line up and start heading out the building.

"Thank you for coming."

"It seems a small enough gesture, blessing their weapons before they fight to save me and my congregation," Father Peter said. "It makes me wonder if I shouldn't pick up a sword myself."

"One more untrained sword won't matter in this fight," Angel pointed out as he headed toward the stairs. Father Peter followed. He didn't answer until they had reached the main floor of the gym.

"I imagine not. Sadly, I'm afraid I would be more of a danger to our side than the other. However, I plan to stay and help the injured and give a last blessing to those who die. Suffering and dying in the fight against evil is a noble end, but I never thought I would see children doing the dying."

"It's always been children," Angel said as he stood just inside the doors, watching as the graduates walked to the slow music that played over the loudspeaker. "Every war, every crusade... they were commanded by men but fought by children." Angel thought about Lawson on that submarine he had recovered for the army. The man had been little more than a child and still so eager to prove himself and so willing to die. Angel had turned him because Lawson had asked to be turned, because the human Lawson would rather be survived by a vampire than die knowing that the submarine would sink without his engineering skills. He'd been so very much like Xander.

"You're a little depressed today. Aren't you supposed to be psyched up for the fight?"

Angel turned to look at Father Peter. "We'll win," Angel said firmly.

"If God wishes us to, yes, but for someone who claims confidence, you seem more tense than usual."

Angel stepped out into the sunlight and checked the position of the rocket launcher team before he turned his attention to the small man who now stepped in front of the graduating class.

"Should I be looking forward to seeing death and destruction?" Angel asked. He hated the fact that part of him was looking forward to the smell of human blood and the cries of the dying. His demon could only revel in life when he watched another die, and Angel did not like what that said about his own soul when he'd been alive.

"You might be looking forward to finally ending this long battle. I've presided over too many funerals in the last months, many more than I would have ever expected." Father Peter stood in the shadow of the bushes and watched Angel curiously.

Angel didn't answer right away, but his eyes found Xander sitting near the front. Xander had put himself in charge of the main assault, which meant making himself the rallying point for those who would be going forward against the mayor. When Spike had caught wind of the plan, they had fought until both Spike and Angel had suffered broken bones. Spike wanted to pull Xander off to safety, and a big part of Angel wanted to do the same, but it was in Xander's nature to be up front.

"What if he dies?" Angel asked softly. Xander's head was nodded in that peculiar rhythm it would get when he was pretending to pay attention.

"He will eventually," Father Peter said.

"I know." Angel ended the conversation by simply stepping away and starting to walk along the back of the gathered chairs. The mayor was up front now, and several members of the back row were starting to get restless. The heavier and weaker students who could not be convinced to stay home were in back, tasked with the job of chasing parents away by yelling about a gas leak and hallucinations. Riley and his two men along with a unit of students including most of the cheerleaders, Oz, Wesley, and the swim team would be fighting off any attack from the rear to open up a retreat. Riley had hated the position Xander had given him and had argued against it, but in the end, Xander had won. They needed the retreat open, and they needed to have some of their top fighters at the rear.

Angel was more reassured by the fact that Spike and Faith would be coming up behind any reinforcements. But none of that mattered right now. Xander would be in the middle; he would not try to retreat. If the Gem of Amarra worked for humans, Angel would have forced the boy to wear it. It did not, and Angel had no idea how to protect him when he insisted on throwing himself in the middle of the fight.

The sky went dark and now the mayor started changing, his head peeling away, and Angel started running. A student screamed, and then Buffy was up yelling, "Now!" at the top of her lungs. Angel cursed in Gaelic as he threw himself over the last few rows of students to reach Xander just in time for him to climb onto a chair and make an even bigger target of himself.

"Flamethrowers!" Xander screamed and a half dozen students threw off their robes and targeted the mayor who seemed to be transforming into a giant snake. The snake hissed and rose up from the ground, but the fire didn't slow him down.

"First wave!" Xander yelled, obviously forgetting the small microphone Riley had carefully fitted on his shirt. "Fire!" Crossbows came out and a dozen blessed arrows sailed across the sky, tiny puffs of smoke going up where the touched the demon. Behind them, people were screaming, and Riley was barking out commands in his military shorthand. Xander glanced back for a second, but then he clenched his jaw and turned back toward the mayor. "Fire!" he called again and a dozen more arrows flew out.

A young minion came barreling through the crowd, targeting Xander as the one shouting directions, and he bared his fangs. Angel waited until the vampire got close enough and then reached in and ripped the vamps heart out. The demon had a second to look shocked before he exploded into dust.

Rather than retreat from the attack, the mayor, now a giant snake, struck at the first line of students. "Second wave! Fire!" Xander screamed. These were the big guns. From the side, Riley's rocket launch team fired their weapon which screamed toward the demon just as Ms. Calendar launched a giant green fireball. The two hit the snake on either side, and it reared up, shaking its head.

The little man from earlier was now out front shouting, "This is simply unacceptable! Unacceptable!" Before anyone could move, the snake darted down and snatched the little man up and swallowed him. Angel flashed into gameface and snarled at the evidence of the beast's speed. He should get Xander away.

"We're having to fall back!" Riley's voice shouted over the general screaming, and Angel could see the nice straight lines waver as students who had been organized just moments ago began to panic.

"Arm bow men," Xander shouted before he reached up and finally remembered to switch on the microphone. Many of the students turned their backs to the mayor, but others stood frozen in harm's way. Angel glanced toward Xander before making a run for the closest of the fools in trouble. "Fire!" Xander shouted, and Xander's voice now boomed out over the entire crowd. Yanking two students back into the rough circle of defenders, Angel flinched as three more students ran for it, running right into the arms of a group of vampires. "Fire!" Xander called again.

With a whoop, Spike literally flew into the fray, leaping from the back of one vampire to land on a group of them and began dusting with undisguised glee.

Several vampires broke through the defensive line, and Angel raced back toward Xander who now seemed to be the target for a good number of them. Larry took out one, shoving the end of his bow into the creature's chest before tackling a second one to the ground. Xander's eyes went comically large before the third vampire tackled him off the chair.

"Aw, shit, no," Xander's voice rang out, the microphone still on. The sound of a vampire exploding into dust went out over the crowd. "That's what you get for crashing our party, fangface," Xander said with glee. Angel reached the fight, and staked the vampire who had pinned Larry to the ground, checking the boy who was weak and punch-drunk, but still alive.

"Hand to hand!" Xander shouted. "Stakes and holy water!" He was standing his ground with his own stake in hand as he stepped in front of Larry and two other fallen students. Father Peter had appeared from nowhere and was kneeling with them, holding a bandage to a girl's throat. "Show 'em who owns this town," Xander yelled, and then he threw himself into the fight, a stake in one hand and his cinquedea in the other.

Angel pulled his own sword and beheaded three vampires who pulled up short at the sight of a human attacking them. All around, dust swirled up into the air and the smell of blood clogged his nostrils. Keeping close to Xander, Angel attacked any vampires in sight, watching with determined joy as one after another turned to dust under his sword. The whole time, Spike moved closer, the feeling of kin growing closer as Spike drew near.

A huge vampire appeared now, and Angel could tell he had more years on him that most. Rather than sailing right into the fight, he worked along the edge, his eyes never leaving Angel. Where the hell was Buffy and the explosion? Angel gritted his teeth as Xander slowed, human muscle not able to keep up with demonic strength.

"Spike!" Angel called out desperately hoping that his childe could defend Xander before he turned to face the newest threat. The vampire smiled with glee and brought his own sword up. But the stance wasn't right. He didn't look ready to counter a blow. Angel didn't catch that something was wrong until he felt the pressure of the stake go through his heart. He froze, his body locked in place by fear as he saw the tip of the wooden stake just peeking out from his chest where someone had driven it in from the back. Angel turned to find a much smaller vampire standing there with a smug expression.

"NOO!" Xander shouted, and his sword decapitated the vampire before it could react to the charging human. Without Angel saying anything, Spike sailed past him, his hands held out like claws as he grabbed the large vampire and physically ripped his head off.

"I'm okay!" Angel gasped out, and then an explosion ripped the sky open, throwing him forward onto Xander. A second explosion followed, and then garbage was raining down onto them: ashes and papers and bit of wood and drywall and tiny pieces of twisted metal.

"Cover the fucking wounded!" Spike called out. It wasn't exactly the phrase Xander had written into his plan, but the students who hadn't panicked or bolted started grabbing military issue plastic covers from under bushes and tables to fling them over the fallen.

"You're..." Xander reached down and touched the tip of the stake where it protruded from Angel's chest. He looked up at Angel with eyes ringed white with fear.

"Fuckin' hell, you always did know how to grab the center of attention," Spike said as he appeared over them and ripped the stake out of Angel's back.

Angel roared in pain and arched his back.

"Big baby," Spike declared. "Sun'll be up in a minute, you lot alright?" he asked. For all his brash attitude, Angel could see the uncertainty and worry there.

Angel nodded. "Yeah, we're fine, get to cover." He waved his hand at Spike. For a second, Spike reached out and touched his shoulder. Angel caught his wrist in a hand and for a half second, they just touched. Even without saying anything, Spike's love and need and fear of loving and needing shone through. Sometimes Angel regretted that he had beaten the boy into hiding those all-too-human emotions. "Be safe," Angel said, knowing that Spike would be suspicious of anything more. The words were enough because Spike smiled brightly.

"Always, luv. You know me, land on my feet and all." Spike wiggled his eyebrow at Xander, and then he was gone, racing across the lawn still sprinkled with the debris of the school and crying students.

"Tell me we got the bastard," Xander said, and the military issue microphone was still working. The students fell silent, crying muffled as everyone waited for the answer to that. Reaching up, Xander pulled off the microphone and tossed it aside.

"This is officially a demon free graduation ceremony, congratulations graduates of 1999," Buffy called from the far side of the lawn. The cheer started going up as students struggled to their feet.

Xander broke into a wide grin. "We did it," he said, clutching Angel's arms. "We did it. I don't know how we did it, but we did it." He reached up and touched the bloody spot where the stake had pierced Angel's heart.

"The ring," Angel said softly as he let his own hand rest on the back of Xander's so that Xander's palm was pressed to his chest.

"You're never taking that off again," Xander said firmly. Then he caught Angel in a desperate hug. Angel returned it, clinging to a young man who he had come so close to losing. The smell of death pounded against him, reminding him of Xander's mortality. Slowly, the sun began to return, a wind stirring the dust that scattered the ground. Angel looked up to see Faith standing in the distance watching. He smiled at her. For a second, he thought she was going to come over. Instead, she held up a hand before turning around and walking down the street, her walk steady. She was okay physically, and Angel had to let her go long enough for her to find a way to be okay emotionally.

"You okay?" someone asked. Xander finally let go of him, and Angel reluctantly released the young man.

"We're good, Percy." Xander struggled up to his feet wearily as Angel studied the boy foolish enough to sleep with a slayer and then anger her. He was more stupid than he looked, but he had fought with them, and that earned him some forgiveness, at least from Angel.

"I need someone over here!" a voice called. Xander turned, and Angel had to physically catch him to keep him from falling. Adrenaline was failing the boy, leaving shock behind. Angel had seen the human body reach the same way time and again, even if he was usually the one inducing the adrenaline and shock through torture.

"Jonathon?" Xander asked. It was hard to recognize anyone under the blood and ash.

"She's hurt!"

"We need medical help here!" Xander called out, still leaning against Angel. When Xander's legs started to shake, Angel put his arm around Xander's waist to hold him up.

A young woman came running over, her cell phone already open. "They're sending ambulances. They need to know who's worst."

"She's bad," Angel said quietly. Xander flinched and looked away from the girl on the ground.

The next few moments repeated on an endless loop as Angel watched Xander flinch away from the evidence of the injured and the dead. He'd knelt next to one body and brushed long blonde hair back to reveal a brutally torn neck.

"Harmony," he had breathed. After that, Xander hadn't even had the strength to stand back up, and Angel had to all but lift him and guide him back to the place where they had all agreed to meet after the demon was defeated.

Flashing lights filled the air, and Angel could hear Wesley off somewhere at a distance complaining. "It's rather a lot of pain, actually. Aspirin? If you would…"

"Xander, are you okay?" Buffy asked as she got up from the ground.

"Willow." Xander had frozen, his fingers digging into Angel's arm as he looked at the girl's pale face.

"Hey, mister, no tragic faces. I'm just fine," she said stiffly. Oz was behind her, bracing her arm which was clearly broken. "This... this is just a way to get my parents to feel guilty enough to buy me that new car," she joked weakly.

Xander reached out mutely as though afraid to touch her. Slowly, he moved forward and sank to his knees next to her.

"My fireball needs work." Willow grinned crookedly.

"Bad aim," Oz commented, and she looked up and gave him a sheepish smile.

Riley appeared, nodding at Buffy, and for one moment, Angel thought the man was going to offer her a salute. Then his eyes slid down to the ground where Xander knelt next to Willow.

"Willow, do you need something for the pain until the medic can get here?" Riley asked, his hand going towards a pocket.

"Nope. I may only be an apprentice witch, but I can do a pain spell. I'm good," she answered. Riley looked doubtful, but he dropped his hand back down to his side. "I have one casualty: Forrest. Smythe was injured, but he'll be fine."

For a second, Buffy looked confused as she gazed around the scene. Angel wondered if it had even occurred to her that while she was doing the most dangerous job, others were more likely to die than she was. Ambulance workers had scattered across the grounds to tend to groups of students and identify the most injured. Luckily, their first wave had managed to evacuate before the mayor's army had come in or else Angel could just imagine the carnage that would have been laid out on the lawn. Neither Buffy nor Xander would have ever forgiven themselves if they had led their classmates into a massacre. He traded looks with Giles, and he could see the same worry in the other man. This would take an emotional toll on all the young people. Well, Buffy was Giles' concern... Angel just had to worry about Xander. Right now, Xander still knelt at Willow's side, his fingers barely touching her ankle.

"Harmony Kendell, Ursula Nadler, and Katrina—I'm not sure about her last name. I don't know how many injured." Xander spoke the names softly, but the group reacted by going silent. Angel only knew Harmony, but just the reminder of humanity's fragile hold on life left him struggling against his own instincts. He could preserve Xander, make him strong enough to hold a sword against an army of enemies, but if he did, he would lose Xander and have only the body left and not the soul that Angel had grown so fond of—even if it did annoy him.

Xander looked up at Riley and then Buffy. "We got off pretty cheap… considering." Xander looked around, and from the tight lines of his body, Angel was guessing that the young man considered the price anything but cheap. His eyes stopped scanning the crowd and he sat up a little straighter. Angel looked over, and Cordelia was standing in the distance, watching them. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and gray ash had drifted across her shirt in an abstract pattern, but other than that, the woman looked remarkable unmarked.

"Seems like we did," Buffy agreed weakly, not even noticing where Xander was looking. Cordelia nodded and then turned her back. For a second, Xander closed his eyes, and Angel could see the guilt and the pain still there under the surface. It was probably best that Faith wasn't around to see the results of her thoughtlessness. Riley was watching Xander curiously, and Angel found himself caught between wanting to backhand the soldier and order him away from Xander and feeling grateful that the man was observant enough to know when he didn't understand a situation. Xander looked up at Riley and shrugged.

Riley coughed and focused on Buffy again. "We got our asses kicked less than I thought we were going to when I saw the full-sized demon." His voice sounded almost joking and everyone looked at him.

"You're going to fit in just fine," Xander said with a smile as he tried to stand up. He didn't quite make it, and Angel reached down to help him up.

"There was a definitely lack of ass kicking on our side," Buffy agreed, "but I'm ready to sleep for about a year."

"I should imagine so. It's been..." Giles looked over at Angel... "it's been a difficult year, one in which we have to count ourselves lucky for having allies to see us through some remarkably difficult times."

Before Angel could say anything, Buffy was answering. "I am not up for counting anything. My brain is so fried I'm down to 'fire bad; tree pretty'."

"Fire pretty, demon go boom," Xander countered. Buffy smiled at him.

"Understandable," Giles offered.

"It was a hard battle, the hardest I've fought, and I've fought in a few classified areas with some pretty dangerous conflicts," Riley agreed. "I still have trouble believing that high school students are better trained than some of those units I've led."

Giles adjusted his glasses. "When everyone has recovered enough brain function to remember what is being said, I will make a point of congratulating you all on a job well done. There is a certain dramatic irony that's attached to all this. A Synchronicity that borders on… on predestination, one might say." Giles got a distant look on his face, and Angel braced himself for the man to ruin any goodwill by lecturing them on some petty watcher philosophy. Xander's hand clutched tightly at Angel's shirt.

Buffy said firmly, "Fire bad; tree pretty."

"Yes, sorry," Giles stammered, clearing his throat. "I'm going to see to Wesley, see if he's… is still… whimpering."

Buffy smiled at him. "Thank you. And tell Wesley he did good...even if he did whine a bit while doing the good," she amended herself.

"Yes, I will pass on your gratitude," Giles said before he hurried away.

Angel wondered if Giles felt the passing of that torch. Buffy wasn't his charge anymore. She was the commander subtly dismissing him and considering the field. Riley was certainly watching her with the same respect he'd shown the general. If Angel had to guess, he would say that Captain Finn's report would be complimentary enough to convince the army to leave Buffy in charge from now on. She would certainly have any support she needed, but hopefully they would see that she had the ability to defend her own territory. And if the army gave her any trouble, Angel had no doubt that his clan could enforce any rule she set with very little difficulty.

"So, once you've defeated the enemy, what do you do?" Riley asked. "Should we quarantine the dead? Do we need to do anything to control press coverage or minimize collateral damage from any splinter groups?"

Angel managed to not smile at the soldier's ignorance. Riley was simply lucky that Spike wasn't around to make fun of him and offer another "lesson" in hellmouth life. The last lesson with the field trip to Willy's place had left the unit traumatized. Angel figured if Spike didn't drive them away, they might make pretty good demon hunters eventually.

"Hellmouth blindness takes care of most of that," Buffy offered.

"Demons scatter. Their loyalty doesn't survive the death of the leader, so I wouldn't worry much about splinter groups," Xander added. "Most demons are a fickle lot."

Riley looked around at them. "So what is the post-op protocol?"

"We enjoy the moment." Oz nodded knowingly. Right now, Angel agreed with the werewolf because just feeling Xander's weight as he leaned into him was all he wanted to do. He wanted to hear Xander's heart beat and feel his warmth.

A paramedic hurried up to them, bag in hand. "Any wounded?"

"...and we're done," Oz finished.

"Oh! Me!" Willow said, raising her good arm.

The paramedic knelt down next to her, and Angel gently pulled Xander away. His Xander might have grown into a man, but he was still a man who was going to drive himself until he fell on his face and broke his nose if Angel didn't take him home and get him into bed.

"I guess... I'll see you tomorrow?" Xander asked as Angel pulled him toward the car.

"Go home, get some sleep. I'll call with Willow's room number at the hospital," Buffy promised. Xander had been offering a token resistance to Angel's pull, but with that, he yielded and followed Angel back to the car. The battle was over, and now it was time for each clan to withdraw to their own territories to heal.

"Home team two, apocalypses zero," Xander said quietly. He leaned nearly all of his weight on Angel, his head resting against Angel's shoulder. "We done good."

"Yes, we did," Angel agreed as he guided Xander's footsteps. They'd done well, and now it was time to go home to family.



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